News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope Benedict XVI has told tens of thousands of pilgrims in the southern French town of Lourdes that love can be stronger than all the world’s evil.

The 81-year-old pontiff gave the homily during an open-air Sunday Mass at the highly-revered Roman Catholic shrine.

Benedict is in Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of what many Roman Catholics believe was a vision of the Virgin Mary by a young local girl.

On Saturday, he also celebrated an outdoor Mass in the capital, Paris.

More than 200,000 pilgrims made the trip to Lourdes for Benedict’s first papal Mass at the shrine.

The pontiff is making a three-day pilgrimage to the sanctuary, which is visited each year by six million believers.

There is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins
Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict looked elated and moved by the rapturous welcome he received from the crowds – some of the faithful had queued through the night to make ensure their place.

Security has been tight, with more than 3,000 police officers drafted in to the area.

After his arrival at the shrine, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Benedict prayed at the Grotto of Massabielle, also known as the Cave of Apparitions.

The riverside site is where 14-year-old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous told local clergy in 1858 the Virgin Mary had appeared to her.

When he arrived on Saturday night, Benedict also drank water from a spring that believers say has miraculous healing powers.

Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his first Mass at Lourdes

Saying Mass from under white canopies shaped like sails, the Pope told his listeners to be true to their faith because “it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weakness and sins”.

He said: “The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us.”

Pope Benedict arrived in Paris on Friday for his first visit to France since becoming Pope in 2005. He was welcomed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he praised for promoting the role of religion in society.

France staunchly upholds a 1905 law that enshrines the separation of Church and state, but Mr Sarkozy has supported efforts to ease the country’s strict secularism law.

France is a Roman Catholic country but Sunday Mass attendance is now below 10%.

Before his visit, a French newspaper poll showed that more than half of those questioned had a positive view of the Pope.


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September 8, 2008

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russia has conditionally agreed to remove its forces from Georgian land – excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia – by the second week of October.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the pull-out would happen once 200 EU monitors deployed to South Ossetia.

Speaking after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Medvedev said the withdrawal was dependent on guarantees that Georgia would not use force again.

But he made no mention of withdrawing troops from South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

And he defended Russia’s controversial decision to recognise the independence of both breakaway regions, saying the move was “irrevocable”.

Criticism of US

Among the measures announced after the Moscow talks, Mr Medvedev said there would be international talks on the conflict, which would take place in Geneva on 15 October.

And Russia agreed to remove a key checkpoint from near the port of Poti within a week.

NEW PEACE MEASURES
Russia to close checkpoints between Poti and Senaki within a week
Some 200 EU monitors in South Ossetia by 1 October
Russian forces to withdraw from undisputed land within 10 days of monitors deploying
International talks on the conflict to be held in Geneva on 15 October

Again Mr Medvedev made the pledge conditional on Georgia signing a pledge not to use force against Abkhazia.

Afterwards he said the EU delegation had handed him a letter, signed by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, pledging not to use force.

The Russian president confirmed that his troops would pull out “from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the line preceding the start of hostilities”.

“This withdrawal will be implemented within 10 days after the deployment in these zones of international mechanisms, including not less than 200 observers from the European Union, which must take place not later than 1 October 2008,” he said.

But he was uncompromising in his tone towards the Georgian government and the US.

“[Georgia] is trying to reinforce its military capability and some of our partners, especially the United States, are helping them in that.”

‘Fruitful’ talks

The two leaders took part in more than three hours of talks, which also involved the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy, who was pressing Russia to meet the terms of a ceasefire agreement he helped broker on 12 August, described the meeting as “fruitful”.

Mr Medvedev and Mr Sarkozy in Moscow, 08/09

The two leaders were in talks for more than three hours

He said the exact details of the Geneva talks were still under discussion, stressing that the issue of refugees returning to their homes would be at the heart of the meeting.

Russia’s call for international talks on the status of the two breakaway regions – part of the 12 August ceasefire deal – proved highly controversial.

President Saakashvili flatly rejected attempts to throw their status into doubt.

Mr Sarkozy will now fly to Tbilisi and run through the latest deal with Mr Saakashvili.

Russian troops entered Georgia on 7 August after responding to Georgian attempts to reassert its control in South Ossetia.

The two regions have had de facto independence since a civil war in the early 1990s, and Moscow has strongly backed their breakaway governments.

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008

President Sarkozy (L) brokered a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in Moscow for talks with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the crisis in Georgia.

He is joined by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy is expected to press Russia to fully implement a peace plan he brokered to end the fighting.

Meanwhile, Georgia has gone to the UN’s highest court over what it claims are Russian human rights abuses.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in the Hague are being asked to impose emergency measures to halt what Georgia says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Russia in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and large parts of Georgian territory after it responded heavily to Georgian attempts last month to recapture the separatist region.

Difficult goals

After talks in Moscow, the three senior European figures are due to go on to the Georgian capital, Tblisi, to meet President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it is honoring the terms of a six-point plan agreed to end the conflict.

However, European nations do not agree.

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 but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

President Sarkozy wants Russian troops to pull back from their current positions in Georgia – well beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The European trio is also expected to press the Russians on arrangements for a strengthened international effort to monitor developments on the ground.

Some European leaders have already warned that there can be “no business as usual” with Russia until the peace plan is fully implemented, and the European Union has suspended talks on a new partnership agreement with Moscow.

However, with winter approaching, individual European countries continue to consume Russian oil and gas as usual.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and its continuing failure to implement the agreement to the letter, will have profound consequences for Russian relations with the EU.

It will also make it difficult for President Sarkozy to achieve his goals in Moscow, he says.

September 7, 2008

France shocked by images of war

France shocked by images of war

Staring out from a glossy eight-page spread in the latest edition of the magazine Paris Match, several Taleban fighters show off their trophies of war.

Funeral for French soldiers

The loss of the 10 soldiers in Afghanistan shocked France

Guns, walkie-talkies and even a wrist-watch are photographed – all spoils taken from the 10 French soldiers they killed in an ambush last month.

Accompanying the pictures is a long interview with the Taleban leader who calls himself Commander Farouki.

He claims they were tipped off about the French mission in their area and were able to prepare an ambush with 140 highly trained insurgents.

“If night hadn’t fallen we’d have killed every one of the soldiers,” he boasts.

He denies reports that other French paratroopers were captured and tortured but warns that every single French soldier found on Afghan soil will be killed.

Propaganda

On French radio today, Defense Minister Herve Morin criticized Paris Match for peddling Taleban propaganda.

“Should we really be doing the Taleban’s propaganda for them?” he asked.

“The Taleban have understood perfectly that Western public opinion is probably the Achilles’ heel of the international community present in Afghanistan.”

A diplomat from the foreign ministry said it was the responsibility of the media to decide what they covered and how they did it, but added: “The reactions of the families of the servicemen speak for themselves”.

“We can only imagine the pain that they felt when they saw these pictures, as well as that of the comrades of these men who are still in Afghanistan.”

The French population can’t accept to see any more soldiers killed
Jean Francois, Parisian

The father of one of the dead soldiers said he was shocked and hurt to see images of the “murderers” parading the personal effects of his son and comrades.

Although the freedom of the press is fiercely protected in France, in Paris many people were outraged at what they believed was irresponsibility on the part of Paris Match.

“It makes me sick,” said one woman who was close to tears.

“I think about how the parents must feel, the sisters and the brothers… and really… I would hate to see this if this was my son.”

Jean Francois, a financial adviser, agreed.

“This kind of report is horrible and unfair for the families,” he said.

“The French population can’t accept to see any more soldiers killed. French soldiers have to come back to France as soon as possible.”

War opposed

A survey taken in April this year when President Nicolas Sarkozy announced he was sending another battalion of almost 800 soldiers to north-east Afghanistan showed that two-thirds of people here believe their country has no place in the Afghan conflict.

Despite Mr Sarkozy’s insistence that France is fighting a battle against terror in Afghanistan, many people here feel they have just been sucked into Uncle Sam’s war.

Earlier this week, the mother of another of the French paratroopers killed in the 18 August attack told the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that she had written a letter to Mr Sarkozy, begging him to get France out of the war.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy lays a medal on the coffin of a soldier killed in Afghanistan

President Sarkozy led mourners at the soldiers’ funeral

“Stop following the example of President Bush,” she wrote. “Let’s stay French. Let’s get our soldiers out of the quagmire.”

Last month’s ambush was France’s worst single military loss in 25 years. As well as those killed, another 21 soldiers were injured.

Until then there had been little news coverage of the French mission, although some 3,000 of the country’s troops are currently serving in Afghanistan.

But being confronted with full-page, glossy photographs of the insurgents who killed their troops is bound to rekindle arguments about what France’s role in Afghanistan really is.

The French parliament has called for an urgent debate on the matter but on Thursday Mr Sarkozy – while acknowledging the difficulties and dangers endured by French troops – insisted they would not abandon their mission.

“If we abandon Afghanistan, we’ll destabilize Pakistan,” he warned.

“And I’d like to remind you that Pakistan has nuclear capabilities.”

August 20, 2008

Sarkozy renews Afghan commitment

Sarkozy renews Afghan commitment

President Sarkozy with President Karzai at the presidential palace in kabul

The French president insisted that France was committed to Afghanistan

President Sarkozy has pledged France’s continued commitment to Afghanistan after visiting French troops and meeting President Hamid Karzai.

He was speaking in Kabul after French troops suffered some of their worst casualties in recent times.

Ten French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in an ambush by Taleban fighters east of the capital, Kabul.

Mr Sarkozy said France was committed to the fight against terrorism, and  the mission in Afghanistan would continue.

‘Indispensable’

“Even though the toll is so high, you should be proud of what you are doing. The work that you’re doing here is indispensable,” Mr Sarkozy told his troops.

“We’re going to make sure that the means are put in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.” France has 2,600 troops serving in Afghanistan.

The 10 deaths brought to 24 the number of French troops killed in Afghanistan since 2002, the AFP news agency reports.

There was more violence on Afghanistan on Wednesday. A bomb went off in a busy market in the south-eastern province of Khost.

Officials say that in addition about 19 Taliban fighters were killed in two separate clashes in Khost and in the province of Paktia.

Tributes paid

The loss of life is thought to be the heaviest suffered by the French military since 58 paratroopers were killed in Beirut in 1983.

The arrival of Mr Sarkozy, who was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin, was marked by a flurry of helicopters across Kabul on Wednesday.

The cause is just, it is the honour of France and its armies to defend it
Nicolas Sarkozy
French president

On a brief visit on Wednesday, he saw the mortuary at the French camp in the capital and spoke to injured soldiers who were involved in the battle. He also held talks with President Hamid Karzai.

His message was one of support not just to the troops, but also to the Nato alliance and Mr Karzai.

The French deployment is not popular at home and the decision was made in April to send extra fighting troops to an even more dangerous part of the country, our correspondent adds.

Ambush

The French troops were caught up in fighting that started on Monday in the area of Sarobi, some 50km (30 miles) from Kabul.

French troops in Afghanistan (archive image from 2006)

Mr Sarkozy said the troops were killed in “an ambush of extreme violence”

French defence officials said about 100 soldiers – from France, the US and Afghanistan – were on a reconnaissance mission when bad road conditions forced them to stop their vehicles.

A group of French soldiers was sent ahead on foot to check the terrain, but they were ambushed by Taleban fighters and nine were killed.

A tenth French soldier was killed when his vehicle overturned on the road.

An Afghan intelligence officer told the BBC the troops were ambushed from several directions by heavily armed Taleban and al-Qaeda forces.

The fighting went on for 24 hours and it is understood that reinforcements had to be called in to airlift the troops to safety.

The deaths came amid warnings that insurgents are closing in on Kabul.

The French recently took over control of the Kabul regional command, which includes Sarobi.

ISAF REGIONAL COMMANDS AND TROOP NUMBERS
Map showing foreign troop deployments in Afghanistan

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

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 future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote later on Sunday on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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