News & Current Affairs

July 26, 2009

US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

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US urges Syria on Mid-East peace

The United States has called for Syria’s “full co-operation” in trying to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.

Speaking after talks in Damascus, Barack Obama’s envoy George Mitchell said discussions with Syria’s president had been “candid and positive”.

Mr Mitchell said restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel was a “near-term goal”.

He later arrived in Israel, to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Mr Mitchell’s visit to Damascus was his second since June, amid a renewed US push for peace since President Obama took office earlier this year.

The envoy’s trip comes ahead of a string of visits to Israel this week by leading Obama administration officials, at a time when US-Israel relations are unusually strained.

‘Historic endeavour’

Mr Mitchell said he had told Syrian President Bashar Assad that Barack Obama was “determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace”.

Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points
Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister

“If we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace. We will welcome the full co-operation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavour,” he said.

Correspondents say the visit was not expected to bring a breakthrough, but Syrian officials have been encouraged by Washington’s new willingness to listen.

Damascus is a major player in the region, because of its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, its backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its close links with Iran.

In the past, this made Syria a pariah in the eyes of the Bush administration, which cut virtually all ties with Syria, the BBC’s Natalia Antelava reports from Beirut.

Washington is a long way away from getting Damascus on its side, but for now at least, the atmosphere of hostility which dominated during the Bush administration seems to be a thing of the past, our correspondent says.

Syria was expected to lobby Mr Mitchell on the issue of the Golan Heights, a strategic mountainous area seized by Israel in 1967 which Syria wants back.

Syria’s official news agency quoted President Assad as stressing to Mr Mitchell “the Arab right to recover occupied lands through achieving a just and comprehensive peace.”

Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the scale of a potential Israeli pull-back on the Golan Heights.

Sticking points

The diplomatic flurry comes at a time of strained relations between the US and Israel.

The BBC’s Middle East correspondent Katya Adler says Mr Obama has been leaning on Israel’s government unusually hard for an American president.

Washington has called on Israel to stop all Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but Israel says it will not curb what it calls “natural growth” there.

Mr Mitchell arrived in Israel later on Sunday and met defence minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv.

In an effort to kick-start stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, the envoy is due to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Shortly before Mr Mitchell’s arrival in Israel, Mr Netanyahu said he hoped to reach an agreement with the US.

“This relationship is important and strong. Naturally, in the context of friendly relations between allies, there isn’t agreement on all points, and on several issues we are trying to reach understanding,” he said.

As well as Mr Mitchell, US defence secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones are also due to hold talks in Israel.

Our correspondent says Iran and its nuclear programme will certainly be discussed.

Israelis say that is their top priority but arguably the focus of the visits will be the possibilities for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and also the wider Arab world, she notes.

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December 27, 2008

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistan has marked a year since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with a two-minute silence, while thousands of mourners visited her mausoleum.

President Asif Ali Zardari, her widower, used the occasion to call for peace and democracy in Pakistan and the resolution of problems through talks.

Analysts say the call was also aimed at India, which blames the recent attack on Mumbai on Pakistani militants.

Mrs Bhutto died in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi after an election rally.

Mourning ceremonies focused on the Bhutto family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, in the southern province of Sindh.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says he expects an independent inquiry into her death to be set up soon.

Tears and flowers

Local police officials in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh told news agencies that about 150,000 people had travelled to the site.
They came from around the country, by train, plane, car and even on foot, chanting Bhutto slogans, some wailing and beating their chests in an outpouring of emotion reports.

Mourners kissed her grave and laid flowers at the mausoleum, where official ceremonies were delayed because the site was shrouded in winter mist and fog for much of Saturday morning.

These were her devoted supporters, but many other Pakistanis were also feeling the loss of the charismatic politician, famous abroad and at home, our correspondent says.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani paid tribute in a televised address, saying Mrs Bhutto had “worked for poor segments, for poor people and she was the only ray of hope for the people of this country, she was a hope for the region”.

Mr Zardari delivered a televised speech from the family home in Naudero, Sindh.

“Dialogue is our biggest arsenal,” he said.

“The solution to the problem of the region… is politics, is dialogue and is democracy in Pakistan.

“I want to tell the oldest democracy and the largest democracies of this world: listen to us, learn from us. We have lost our people, we do not talk about war, we do not talk about vengeance.”

Thousands of police officers have been deployed in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, amid fears that Mr Zardari could also be targeted during his visit to the mausoleum.

Multiple crises

Eulogies to Bhutto gloss over her mixed record when in power and her controversial decision to make a deal with Pakistan’s military leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, in order to return from exile, our correspondent adds.
Benazir Bhutto. File photo
Many Pakistanis say they sorely miss Benazir Bhutto

But her assassination by suspected Islamist militants shook the nation to the core and although Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and her husband swept to power in the wake of her death, there is still a feeling she left a vacuum that has not been filled, she says.

Pakistanis are missing her political experience and international stature, as they face crises ranging from a raging Islamist insurgency to dangerous tensions with India, our correspondent notes.

Pakistan has redeployed some troops from the north-west to strengthen its border defences, while India has advised its citizens against travelling to Pakistan.

On Friday, the UN secretary general expressed hopes that a UN investigation into Mrs Bhutto’s assassination could be set up in the near future and said he was committed to helping Pakistan’s search for “truth and justice”.

Earlier this year, British detectives investigating the fatal attack in Rawalpindi said Mrs Bhutto had died from the effect of a bomb blast, not gunfire.

Their account matched that of the Pakistani authorities.

But Bhutto’s party has insisted she was shot by an assassin and accused the government of a cover-up.

Are you in Pakistan? Have you been attending any of the ceremonies today? Send your comment

December 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

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