News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

US President George W Bush has warned Texas will take a long time to recover from Hurricane Ike, as a huge search and relief operation gathers pace.

Mr Bush will travel to the state on Tuesday to inspect the relief effort.

Rescuers are trying to get to thousands of people who ignored orders to flee the storm, which cut power to millions and mauled America’s oil hub.

“This is a tough storm and it’s one that is going to require time for people to recover,” Mr Bush said.

Ike has been blamed for four deaths so far, two in Texas and two in Louisiana.

What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to them
Tommie Mafrei
Galveston police chief

Rescuers are using boats, lorries and helicopters to tackle roads waist-deep in water and blocked by felled trees.The storm made landfall in Galveston early on Saturday with 110mph (175km/h) winds.

It cut a 500-mile (800-km) swathe of destruction across a span of the Gulf of Mexico coast before weakening to a tropical depression on Sunday morning over Arkansas.

Ike severely hit oil and gas production in the region and wreaked at least $8bn (£4.5bn) in onshore damage.

Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that oil refineries disabled by the hurricane could remain idled for a further eight or nine days – and that Americans should brace for possible fuel shortages.

Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety on Saturday, but thousands of others ignored evacuation orders.

Mr Bush said the federal government would be delivering 1.5m liters of water and 1m meals daily for the displaced.

Distress calls

Police, paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out at daybreak on Sunday across the coastal city of Galveston, which took the brunt of the storm, hampered by floodwater’s and widespread wreckage.

Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said: “What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to [the stranded]… They are naive about it, thinking it’s not going to be that bad.”

State Governor Rick Perry’s office said 940 people had been rescued by nightfall on Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before.

Hurricane Ike caused widespread destruction in Galveston, Texas

Officials said another 600 people were rescued in neighboring Louisiana, where flooding ruined tens of thousands of homes and left nearly 200,000 householders without electricity.

More than three million people had no power in Texas at the height of the storm, and the authorities said it could be weeks before supplies were fully restored.

Ike sent fuel prices higher at the pumps and, analysts say, has triggered the biggest disruption to US energy supplies in at least three years.

Production was shut down at 14 oil refineries and 28 natural gas processing plants in the storm’s path.

The hurricane also battered Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US and the nation’s oil hub. Police there had used bullhorns to order people back into their homes.

The BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani weathered the storm in Houston and described how ferocious winds ripped the glass from many of the city’s skyscrapers.

But officials were encouraged by the fact flooding brought by the storm surge turned out to be much less serious than forecast.

Among those killed by Ike were a woman in Pinehurst, Texas, and a teenage boy in Louisiana’s Bayou Dularge, AP news agency reported.

Last week, Ike caused devastation in Cuba and Haiti, where hundreds of people have died in several tropical storms over the last month.


Are you in the areas affected? Are preparing to evacuate or are you staying in your home? Send us your comments and experiences
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September 12, 2008

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Masked militants close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan (file image)

The US says militants are hiding out in north-west Pakistan

President George W Bush has authorised US military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.

An unnamed senior Pentagon official told the classified order had been made within the past two months.

On Wednesday, the US’s top military commander said strategy in Afghanistan was shifting to include raids across the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan has said it will not allow foreign forces onto its territory.

The Pakistani ambassador to the US has disputed the claim, first reported in the New York Times.

“In our bilateral discussions, no such idea has been mooted and will certainly not be accepted by Pakistan,” Husain Haqqani told Reuters.

“Pakistan would not accept foreign troops. This is not the best way to pursue the war against terror,” he said.

Meanwhile, security officials in Pakistan say they have killed up to 100 mostly foreign militants on the Afghan border. There has been no independent confirmation.

Growing frustration

The US say that Pakistan’s north-west tribal areas are being used as “safe havens” by militants preparing attacks on Afghanistan.

But Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said there was “no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border”.

map Fata

He said the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan would be defended at all cost.

A senior Pentagon official told that Mr Bush gave his approval this summer for cross-border raids into Pakistan.

The order includes the use of conventional ground troops crossing the border into Pakistan to pursue militants there.

An unnamed former intelligence official told the New York Times that the Pakistani government is not told about intended targets because of concerns that its intelligence services are infiltrated by al-Qaeda supporters.

It is a sign of growing US frustration with Islamabad’s lack of assertive action against the militants.

There is also an increasing concern about the threat such militants pose to Nato troops in neighbouring Afghanistan, and potentially to the US, says our correspondent.

The US has been carrying out regular military air strikes on Pakistan from Afghanistan, but ten days ago US troops carried out a ground assault for the first time.

Pakistan said the raid in South Waziristan was a violation of its sovereignty and summoned the US ambassador to hear a “very strong protest”.

Islamabad fears that attacks by US troops could encourage support for the Taleban militants among tribal groups in the border area.

The latest revelation appears to be part of a slow change in US strategy towards Pakistan and will only add to the tensions between the two countries, our correspondent adds.

‘Common insurgency’

Officially, the US has stressed the need for co-operation with Islamabad.

Adm Mike Mullen testifying at the US House of Representatives

US ‘must target Pakistan havens’

On Thursday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Congress that the US must continue to work closely with Pakistan.

“In my view, these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” he said.

“We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan… but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

The US move to focus efforts on the Afghan-Pakistan border was welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“Change of strategy is essential,” said Mr Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul on Thursday.

“It means that we go to those areas which are the training bases and havens – we jointly go there and remove and destroy them.”

September 11, 2008

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

New York has paused to remember the times two planes struck the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 – an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Four moments of silence are being held to mark the times when four hijacked passenger planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are attending a ceremony at Ground Zero in New York.

President Bush dedicated a new memorial at the Pentagon, where 184 died.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened Thursday’s memorial event at Ground Zero, where families of the victims read out a roll call of those who died.

The attacks, which triggered the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration’s war on terror, are regarded as the defining moment of President George W Bush’s time in office.

At the Pentagon, he paid tribute to the acts of courage shown by Americans seven years ago, saying: “The worst day in America’s history saw some of the bravest acts in America’s history.”

A flag was raised over the Washington memorial, which was built at a cost of $22m (£12.6m) on a 1.9-acre (0.77-hectare) parcel of land within view of the crash site.

The president was joined in the US capital by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr Bush had stood earlier for a moment of silence with First Lady Laura Bush on the White House lawn at the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

It is the last time Mr Bush marks the anniversary as president.

“The president thinks about 9/11 every single day when he wakes up and before he goes to bed,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said on the eve of the anniversary.

‘Put aside politics’

Senators Obama and McCain, the Democratic and Republican nominees in November’s election, will appear together at Ground Zero in the afternoon to lay wreathes in honour of the victims.

Passenger plane hits second tower of World Trade Center on 11 September 2001
11 September 2001 is a day many around the world will never forget

In a joint statement from the campaigns announcing their decision to visit Ground Zero together, the two men vowed to come together “as Americans” and suspend their political campaigns for 24 hours.

“We will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honour the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones,” the statement said.

Their appearance is to be followed by another in the evening at a Columbia University forum to discuss their views on public service.

The ceremony in downtown Manhattan is marking the times when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and when each tower fell – pausing for silence at 0846, 0903, 0959 and 1029.

Family members and students representing the 90 countries that lost people in the attacks also read out the names of all the 2,973 dead.

Seven years after the attacks which shocked the world, Ground Zero is a construction site.

9/11 MEMORAIL TIMETABLE
1340BST: New York World Trade Center ceremony begins
1346: Moment of silence (time first plane hit North Tower)
1346: President Bush has moment of silence at White House
1403: Moment of silence (time second plane struck South Tower)
1430: Mr Bush in Washington for 9/11 Pentagon Memorial dedication
1459: Moment of silence (time South Tower fell)
1529: Moment of silence (time North Tower fell)
1545: Members of Congress gather on the West Steps to honor those killed and injured on 9/11

After years of delays and disagreements over how to commemorate the dead, work has finally begun on a memorial and a new skyscraper – the Freedom Tower – which is due to be completed by 2012.

On Wednesday, Mr Bloomberg called for the abolition of the WTC planning agency, saying the reconstruction was “frustratingly slow”.

“Most important, the memorial must be completed by the 10th anniversary. No more excuses, no more delays,” he added.

On the eve of the anniversary, a top US military commander warned new tactics were needed to win the conflict in Afghanistan, which the US and its allies invaded three months after 9/11.

They aimed to topple the Taleban and hunt down Osama Bin Laden, who the US believes masterminded the attacks.

Admiral Mike Mullen believes insurgents are launching attacks from neighboring Pakistan, and US-led forces must target their “safe havens” in that country.


What are your thoughts on this anniversary? Are you attending any 9/11 memorial ceremonies? Send us your comments and reflections

September 9, 2008

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

US soldier in Falluja

The bulk of the 146,000 US troops deployed in Iraq will remain behind

US President George W Bush is set to announce plans to withdraw about 8,000 troops from Iraq by February and to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Mr Bush will say in a speech on Tuesday that the improving security situation in Iraq will allow a “quiet surge” of troops in Afghanistan in coming months.

A Marine battalion due to go to Iraq in November will be sent to Afghanistan, followed by an Army combat brigade.

There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan.

Any long-term decision about their future deployment will be left to Mr Bush’s successor, who will take office in January.

‘Degree of durability’

The continued decline in violence in Iraq since last year’s US troop “surge” has given President Bush a chance to ease the growing strain on his country’s military.

If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009
President George W Bush

Acting on the advice of his generals, Mr Bush will announce on Tuesday that a Marine battalion, comprising about 1,000 troops, scheduled to leave Anbar province in November will return home as planned without being replaced.

An army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will also leave in February, accompanied by about 3,400 support forces, he will say.

“While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, Gen [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker report that there now appears to be a ‘degree of durability’ to the gains we have made,” Mr Bush will say in a speech at the National Defense University, according to the White House.

“And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”

Our correspondent says the withdrawals announced on Tuesday will mark the start of a slow and limited draw-down based on what Mr Bush calls “return on success”. However, it will still leave the bulk of US forces behind in Iraq.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said that although a timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining troops did not exist, he had tentatively agreed with the US military to end the presence of foreign combat troops by 2011.

The Iraqi government is currently negotiating a security agreement on the future of US forces in Iraq before a UN mandate expires.

Afghanistan ‘fragile’

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Bush will also signal that the US will make modest increases in the strength of its forces in Afghanistan to combat the growing threat posed by the Taleban.

Taleban in opium field in south-west Afghanistan, April 2008

Aid agencies point to a 50% increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan

“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” he will say.

“Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile.”

“And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taleban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people.”

In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead go to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an army combat brigade.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said last month that violence in Afghanistan had reached its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taleban, with more than 260 civilians killed in July.

Afghanistan’s government said the bloodshed was connected to peace deals Pakistan’s government had sought with Islamist militants in the north-western tribal areas along the border.

September 3, 2008

Bush backs McCain for president

Bush backs McCain for president

President George W Bush has praised John McCain’s service and leadership in a speech to the Republican convention.

Speaking via video-link from the White House, he told delegates in St Paul, Minnesota, that Mr McCain was “a great American and the next president”.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated on Thursday as the party’s presidential candidate for November’s election.

The main talking point so far has been the news that the teenage daughter of Mr McCain’s running mate is pregnant.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, chosen as the vice-presidential nominee last week, announced on Monday that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, would have the baby and marry her boyfriend.

In his eight-minute address, Mr Bush described Mr McCain as a president ready to make the tough decisions needed “in a dangerous world”.

John McCain’s life is a story of service above self
President George W Bush

“John McCain’s life has prepared him to make those choices. He is ready to lead this nation,” Mr Bush said.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s life as “a story of service above self” and emphasized the “independence and character” he showed in backing the administration’s “surge” strategy of pouring more forces into Iraq.

Former Senator Fred Thompson, who ran against Mr McCain in the party’s primaries, opened a lively speech with criticism of the Democrats and the media for their scrutiny of Mrs Palin and her family.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s military service, his courage while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his commitment to reform in Washington.

Mr Thompson went on to attack the Democrats and their record since taking control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, spoke of Mr McCain as “the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward”.

Gustav appeal

Most of the first day’s political events were suspended out of respect for communities affected by Hurricane Gustav.

Instead, Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy, and First Lady Laura Bush made calls to support those under threat.

Mrs Bush told delegates that such events transcended party politics and reminded people that they were Americans first.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall on Monday west of New Orleans, where hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated.

The storm came three years after Hurricane Katrina struck, killing more than 1,800 people and resulting in huge damage to the city and its surrounding area. President Bush was strongly criticised over his handling of the crisis.

Palin talking point

The Republican Party convention is now getting down to work after the uncertainty brought on by Hurricane Gustav.

Tuesday’s events are focusing on Mr McCain, a concentrated piece of political image building with a keynote speech from Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent senator, who has decided to support the party’s candidate, our correspondent says.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (31 August 2008)
Sarah Palin’s announcement has so far overshadowed the convention

President Bush cancelled his planned opening night speech amid concerns that overt political campaigning would play badly with voters at a time of potential crisis.

But many Republicans will be glad he is not here in St Paul in person, our correspondent says, and much of this week will be about defining Mr McCain as very different to his unpopular predecessor.

Meanwhile, media attention has continued to focus on Mrs Palin, who is facing an ethics investigation in her home state and whose daughter’s pregnancy made headlines on Monday.

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Bristol’s boyfriend, named as 18-year-old Levi Johnston, would be joining the Palin family at the convention in Minnesota.

The AP quotes Mr Johnston’s mother, Sherry, as saying he had been put under no pressure to marry and that the pair had been planning to wed before they knew she was pregnant.

Our correspondent says Mrs Palin’s selection as vice-presidential candidate has caused great excitement among social conservatives and evangelical Christians here.

But across the broader Republican Party there seems to be some unease – she is an unknown quantity, and when she is finally brought out on to the convention stage on Wednesday, many McCain supporters will be crossing their fingers and hoping she performs, he adds.

The 72-year-old Arizona senator is expected to formally accept his candidacy in a prime-time speech on Thursday evening.


What is your reaction to the Republican convention? Tell us your thoughts on the event so far

August 7, 2008

Bush chides Beijing over rights

Bush chides Beijing over rights

US President George W Bush has expressed “deep concerns” over China’s human rights record in a speech on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

“The US believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” he said in the Thai capital Bangkok.

He praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realise its full potential.

Mr Bush has been criticised by some campaigners for going to the Games.

He was due to fly to Beijing following the speech in Bangkok, a stop on his final trip to Asia before he leaves office in January.

The wide-ranging address, which included criticism of the regime in Burma, was more nuanced than Mr Bush’s past speeches on China.

It is unlikely to cause much offence in China, our correspondent says, and many people will see it more as a valedictory speech for Mr Bush’s record in Asia rather than an outline of future US policy.

‘Firm opposition’

President Bush said he was optimistic about China’s future and said change in China would arrive “on its own terms”.

Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas…
George W Bush
US president

But his criticisms of China’s human rights record were clear.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

When it was controversially awarded the games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee, Beijing promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.

But campaigners, such as Amnesty International, say Chinese activists have been jailed, people made homeless, journalists detained and websites blocked, while there has been increased use of labour camps and prison beatings.

In March, China suppressed violent anti-government protests in Tibet. Beijing said rioters killed at least 19 people, but Tibetan exiles said security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest in Tibet for 20 years.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, rejected Beijing’s claims he was behind the riots and said he expressed good wishes for the success of Games.

On Thursday, at least 1,500 Buddhists were holding a protest in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu against what they called China’s violation of religious freedom in Tibet. Correspondents say there have been scuffles with police.

In Beijing, police dragged away three US Christians who tried to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square in support of religious freedom.

Four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US were arrested and held briefly in the city on Wednesday after a protest close to the Olympic stadium.

Burma refugees

In his address, Mr Bush said the US recognised that the growth sparked by China’s free market reforms was “good for the Chinese people” and the country’s’ purchasing power was “good for the world”.

On foreign policy, he commended China’s “critical leadership role” in the negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the “constructive relationship” between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

He also called for an end to what he described as tyranny in Thailand’s neighbour, Burma.

Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony coincides with the 20th anniversary of a democracy uprising in Burma, which was crushed by the military.

First lady Laura Bush flew to the Thai-Burmese border to spend the day at the Mae La refugee camp where about 35,000 refugees live, having fled their homes.

August 5, 2008

Obama urges opening oil reserves

Obama urges opening oil reserves

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has outlined his plans to tackle the growing cost of energy and its impact on the American economy.

It is an issue that is expected to play a critical role in the presidential election in November.

In a reversal of policy, Mr Obama said the US should release 70m barrels of oil from its strategic reserves to lower petrol prices in the short-term.

He also suggested releasing more of the national petroleum reserve in Alaska.

Mr Obama reiterated a statement made at the weekend that he could support limited US offshore oil drilling if it were needed to enact a compromise energy policy.

In a similar reversal, his Republican rival, John McCain, has expressed his support for new offshore drilling, as part of an energy plan that includes nuclear energy and tax relief on gas production.

Mr Obama said US politicians have failed for three decades to deal with the energy crisis, and that Mr McCain has been “part of that failure.” In a new TV advert he accuses Mr McCain of being under the sway of big oil firms.

The ad shows Mr McCain with President George W Bush, as a narrator says: “After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can’t afford another.”

A spokesman for Republican Senator McCain said the advert was misleading.

The advert’s narrator says that “big oil’s filling John McCain’s campaign with $2m in contributions”.

The ad also promotes Mr Obama’s plan to use a windfall profits tax on big oil companies to give American families a $1,000 (£508) tax rebate, at a time when many are struggling with high energy prices.

‘Suffering’

In a statement, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said the advert failed to mention that Mr Obama had voted in favour of a 2005 bill giving tax breaks to energy producers.

Mr McCain voted against the bill, which was supported by Mr Bush.

“Barack Obama’s latest negative attack ad shows his celebrity is matched only by his hypocrisy,” Mr Bounds said.

“Also not mentioned is the $400,000 from big oil contributors that Barack Obama has already pocketed in this election.”

Mr Obama said his proposal to sell 70 million barrels from the reserve could help in the short-term to drive down the price of petrol at the pump.

His call to release oil from the US strategic reserves represents a change from the energy policy he proposed in June, in which he advocated keeping the reserve intact in case of emergency.

Campaign spokeswoman Heather Zichal said Mr Obama had reconsidered.

“He recognises that Americans are suffering,” she said.

During a speech in Lansing, Michigan, Mr Obama said: “Breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face.

“It will take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy.”

Mr Obama proposed releasing light crude oil from the stockpile, to be replaced at a later date with heavy crude oil.

Light crude oil is easier to turn into fuel for vehicles and other petroleum products.

The Bush administration has opposed tapping the reserve, saying it should be kept for dire emergencies. In 2005, some 10 million barrels were released in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after supplies to refineries were disrupted.

Mr Obama’s comments came two days after he confirmed he was broadly supportive of a plan for energy independence, which includes limited offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

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