News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Protesters in Tehran, Iran, on 17 July 2009

The election sparked weeks of protests by critics of President Ahmadinejad

Iran has released on bail the last of the British embassy employees arrested in Tehran in connection with last month’s election protests.

Hossein Rassam – the embassy’s chief political analyst – was one of nine local embassy staff originally held.

He was charged with inciting the unrest over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election and is due to stand trial.

Britain has denied Tehran’s accusations that embassy staff had been involved in instigating mass demonstrations.

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, a lawyer for the released employee, said he had left Tehran’s Evin prison, and that bail had been set at about $100,000 (£61,000).

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Mr Rassam’s release, adding: “The detention of Embassy staff was completely unjustified.”

Protest ban

Violent street protests broke out after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in the 12 June vote.

At least 20 people are thought to have died during weeks of clashes.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

All gatherings were banned and the protests have died down in recent weeks.

Iran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking the demonstrations.

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says the vote was rigged in favour of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The president and Iran’s main election body, the Council of Guardians, have rejected the charge.

On Friday former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani called for the release of jailed protesters.

Speaking at Tehran University, he also said many Iranians still doubted the election results, and that the media should be allowed to discuss the dispute openly.

“It is not necessary to pressure media. We should allow them to work freely within the law,” he said.

As Mr Rafsanjani spoke, thousands of opposition supporters rallied near the university – the first opposition demonstration for more than a week.

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November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

August 31, 2008

Sign of the times

Sign of the times

Courtesy BBC

As Russia and the West warn of a new Cold War after the Georgian conflict, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley in Moscow tries to imagine what it would look like.

Corridor inside the bunker
A complex network of narrow tunnels broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship

Evgenia Evlenteva strode past a row of old radiation suits hanging on pegs like raincoats.

With a bounce in her step and a torch stuck into her jeans back pocket, she asked: “Right, it’s more than 60 metres (200ft) deep so do you want to take the stairs or the lift?

“Oh and by the way, the door weighs three tonnes. It’s made of lead and metal, and it still works.”

She jabbed a button and, with a groan and a creak, a huge slab slid back and let us into one of Moscow’s key Cold War nuclear bunkers.

It was decked out with its own air, water and food supplies for 2,500 people, should the city have come under nuclear attack.

With Russia and the West now exchanging accusations about starting a new Cold War, it seemed a good place to go, once hidden in a leafy street near the Moscow River and just off Taganskaya Square, where it linked up to the Metro station so the top brass and supplies could get in there.

International crisis

I found out later that, at the same time as our small tour group was taking the stairs down, Russia was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile from its recently modernized Topol system, more than capable of reaching Washington.

Russian Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles

Topol missiles during rehearsals for Russia’s annual Victory Day parade

Over the past couple of weeks, each day it has seemed either Russia or the West was ratcheting up the stakes, as if both sides were relieved to get away from the insoluble nihilism of Islamist terror and work on something that they could get their teeth into.

Russia spoke of tensions resembling the eve of World War I. Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that this international crisis marked a clear end to the relative calm enjoyed by Europe since the Cold War finished.

But it has been difficult to reconcile this exchange of apprehensions with snapshots here, where the bus stops are decorated with posters for the new Batman movie, hoardings advertise global brand-name products and you sweep out of a ring-road tunnel towards a skyline of cranes putting up new high-rise office blocks to keep up with Russia’s high economic growth.

No longer isolated

From the mobile phones, to the makes of cars, to the news-stand Russian editions of the celebrity magazine Hello!, it is pretty impossible to envisage how a new Cold War would actually work.

Room inside the bunker
It’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack… The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough
Evgenia Evlenteva, Moscow bunker guide

Boeing, for example, has a huge factory outside Moscow. Russia’s Gazprom, the conglomerate much feared for its ability to turn on and off Europe’s gas supplies, is one of the biggest companies listed on international stock exchanges.

And would some Western package of punitive sanctions mean that the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich would have to sell Chelsea Football Club?

In the last Cold War, Russians were seen as isolated behind their Iron Curtain, with their own ropey technology and a grim-faced population oppressed by secretive monosyllabic leaders.

Now you can barely stop them talking, as they ferry between 24-hour news channel chat shows.

As we finished our climb down the stairs, Evgenia snapped on the lights to the bunker.

It was a complex network of narrow tunnels that broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship, made of reinforced lead and concrete.

The museum had put in telex machines, old telephones, maps and wooden desks to show what it had looked like.

Present-day thinking

Evgenia ushered us into a lecture hall for a video briefing, where I got perhaps a glimpse of Russia’s present-day thinking.

Black and white film drawn from once-classified Soviet archives began by naming America as the only nation that had ever used a nuclear weapon in conflict, and telling how the Soviet Union was forced to catch up to protect what it called its “sphere of influence”.

The 1962 Cuban missile conflict was a brilliant piece of brinkmanship that re-defined Russia’s global power.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. The motif of the film was nuclear tests, exploding into bigger and bigger mushroom clouds, both Russian and American.

New bunkers

“So,” I asked Evgenia, when it is finished, “will you be re-opening this bunker for the new Cold War?”

She pushed back her dark hair and creased her brow in confusion. She would have only been a child when the last one ended.

“No, why?” she said. “Who wants that? What family wants that – that you could be blown up at any moment? Why would anyone want to go there again?”

Then, as we set off towards the next tunnel, Evgenia came up to me and said:

“But it’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack, you know. The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough.

“We have new bunkers in Moscow, though. Maybe 100 metres deep, I don’t know.

They’re still secret and I’m not allowed to go there.”

August 27, 2008

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

Miliband seeks backing on Russia

 

 

David Miliband

Mr Miliband said Russia’s declaration inflamed an already tense situation

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband will visit Ukraine later in an attempt to build the “widest possible coalition against Russian aggression”.

The trip comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared he formally recognised Georgia’s breakaway regions.

Mr Miliband has branded the move “unjustifiable and unacceptable”.

Ukraine’s president Victor Yushchenko has described his country as a hostage in a war being waged by Russia against states in the former Soviet bloc.

And he said the brief war between Georgia and Russia had exposed serious weaknesses in the powers of the UN and other international bodies.

‘Territorial integrity’

Fighting between Russia and Georgia began on 7 August after the Georgian military tried to retake South Ossetia by force.

Russian forces subsequently launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which already had de facto independence – and an EU-brokered ceasefire.

Mr Miliband’s visit comes after he urged Russia to “abide by international law” and to withdraw its troops to positions they held before the confrontation.

Our aim is to suffocate aggression
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

He said Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions “further inflames an already tense situation”.

“It takes no account of the views of the hundreds of thousands of Georgians and others who have been forced to abandon their homes in the two territories,” he said.

“We fully support Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity, which cannot be changed by decree from Moscow.”

Moscow’s move has been criticised by other world leaders.

France, the current holder of the presidency of the European Union, called for a political solution.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “We think it is against the territorial integrity of Georgia and we cannot accept it.”

Nato said it was a “direct violation” of UN resolutions, and US President George Bush warned his Russian counterpart that his “irresponsible decision” was exacerbating tensions in the region.

Mr Bush called on Russia to reconsider and “live up to its international commitments”.

Cold War

But Mr Medvedev said the West would have to “understand the reason behind” the decision if it wanted to preserve good relations with Russia.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

He said Russia had been obliged to act following the “genocide” started by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in South Ossetia in August.

“The most important thing was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe to save the lives of people for whom we are responsible, because most of them they are Russian citizens,” he told the BBC’s Bridget Kendall in an exclusive interview in the Russian town of Sochi.

“So we had to take a decision recognising the two states as independent.”

He said a new Cold War could not be ruled out, but that his country did not want one.

“There are no winners in a Cold War,” he said.

Georgia said Russia was seeking to “change Europe’s borders by force”.

Most of Russia’s forces pulled out of the rest of Georgia last Friday but it maintains a presence both within the two rebel regions and in buffer zones imposed round their boundaries.

Mr Medvedev has blamed Georgia for failing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the crisis.

August 20, 2008

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Captive Georgians atop of a Russian tank in Poti, Georgia, on 19 August 2008

Russia paraded captive Georgians on armoured vehicles

Russia has rejected a draft UN Security Council resolution on Georgia, saying it contradicted the terms of last week’s ceasefire deal.

The draft text called on Russia to pull back its forces to the positions held before the current conflict.

But Russia says the truce allows its troops to stay in a buffer zone on the Georgia side of South Ossetia’s border.

Moscow earlier dismissed a NATO warning that normal relations were impossible while its troops remained in Georgia.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

Georgia says its action was in response to continuous provocation.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is visiting the region, is to visit a camp for displaced people in Georgia on Wednesday. Tens of thousand of people have been made homeless by the recent conflict.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

On Tuesday, Mr Miliband held talks with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to update him on Nato’s reaction at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels which demanded that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia.

The foreign secretary criticised Russia’s failure to keep to a promise to withdraw troops from Georgia.

Meanwhile, a Russia’s main security service, the FSB, says a Russian officer has been detained accused of spying for Georgia.

An ethnic Georgian, Mikhail Khachidze was arrested in the southern Russian region of Stavropol near Georgia, an FSB spokesman said.

“[He] was involved in collecting secret information on Russian armed forces, its combat readiness as well as data on other servicemen,” he said.

Russian veto

At the UN, Russia’s ambassador said the French-drafted UN resolution went against the terms of the ceasefire brokered by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Vitaly Churkin said the resolution should incorporate all elements of the six-point peace plan agreed last week.

He also objected to language in the draft reaffirming Georgia’s territorial integrity, saying South Ossetia and Abkhazia did not want to be part of Georgia.

Russia can veto UN resolutions and the ambassador told the BBC that putting the text to a vote would be pointless.

He said: “It’s a waste of time because the process of the withdrawal of Russian forces will continue.”

HAVE YOUR SAY
As an American, I find Bush’s and Rice’s comments regarding the attacks on a sovereign nation in the 21st Century just too embarrassing to bear

B Coyle, Maryland

Following a rebuke from Nato’s 26 foreign ministers in Brussels, Moscow accused NATO of bias in favor of the “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia risked becoming the “outlaw” of the conflict, in an interview with CBS news on the sidelines of the NATO emergency meeting.

Russia says President Dmitry Medvedev told President Sarkozy that by Friday, Russian troops would either be sent home, be pulled back to South Ossetia or to a buffer zone along the border.

Russia said it had begun a pullback on Tuesday as it withdrew 11 military vehicles from the Georgian town of Gori.

A Russian officer told reporters invited to watch that the column was heading for South Ossetia and then home to Russia, but Georgia dismissed it all as a show.

Correspondents there say there are still several artillery positions and checkpoints in Gori.

And the operators of the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti told the BBC that Russian forces had seized the commercial harbour.

In an apparent goodwill gesture on Tuesday, the two sides exchanged prisoners at a checkpoint near Tbilisi, but on the same day Russia paraded captive Georgians on armored vehicles.

Map of region

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