News & Current Affairs

September 27, 2008

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

US presidential rivals Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have attacked each other over foreign policy and the economy, in their first debate.

Mr Obama said a $700bn (£380bn) plan to rescue the US economy was the “final verdict” on years of Republican rule.

He said Mr McCain had been “wrong” on Iraq and tried to link him to President Bush. The Republican senator described his rival as too inexperienced to lead.

Neither landed a knockout blow but polls suggested Mr Obama did better.

An immediate telephone poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp found 51% said Mr Obama had won, to 38% for Mr McCain.

A poll of uncommitted voters by CBS News found that 39% gave Mr Obama victory, 25% thought John McCain had won, and 36% thought it was a draw.

Both campaigns claimed victory, with Mr McCain’s team saying their candidate had shown a “mastery on national security issues” while Mr Obama’s aides said he had passed the commander-in-chief test “with flying colours”.
All things considered, it’s about a draw
Matthew Yglesias, Think Progress

First presidential debate scorecard
Analysis: McCain wins on points
Send us your comments
US voters’ views

Tens of millions of Americans were expected to watch the debate on TV, with only about five weeks to go before the 4 November elections.

Senator McCain said he did not need “any on-the-job training”.

“I’m ready to go at it right now,” he added.

But Senator Obama said Mr McCain had been “wrong” about invading Iraq and that the war had led the US to take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, where it should have been pursuing al-Qaeda.

Mr McCain argued that as a result of the “surge” – which involved sending some 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq – US military strategy was succeeding.

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” he said.

The televised debate in Oxford, Mississippi, focused largely on foreign policy but began with discussion of the economic crisis gripping the US.

Speaking about the financial bail-out plan under discussion by the US Congress, Mr Obama said: “We have to move swiftly and we have to move wisely.”
NEXT DEBATES
2 Oct – vice-presidential rivals. Topic: Domestic and foreign policy
7 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Any issues raised by members of the audience
15 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Domestic and economic policy

Mr McCain said he believed it would be a long time before the situation was resolved.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis,” he said. “This is the end of the beginning if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Mr McCain attacked Mr Obama over his record on finance, saying he had asked for millions of dollars in so-called “earmarks” – money for pet projects – as an Illinois senator.

The Republican also suggested a spending freeze in many areas apart from defence, but Mr Obama likened the proposal to using a hatchet when a scalpel was needed.

Both candidates agreed that the bail-out plan would put massive pressure on the budget of the next president and mean cuts in government spending.

‘Serious threat’

Asked about Iran, Mr McCain stressed that Tehran was a threat to the region and, through its interference in Iraq, to US troops deployed there.

He outlined a proposal for a “league of democracies” to push through painful sanctions against Tehran that were presently being blocked in bodies like the United Nations because of opposition from Russia.

He criticised Mr Obama for his previously stated willingness to hold talks with the leaders of Iran without preconditions.

Mr Obama rejected that criticism, saying he would reserve the right as president “to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe”.

However, he said he agreed with his Republican rival that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran” and the threat that that would pose to Israel, a staunch US ally.

‘Safer today’

Mr McCain accused Mr Obama of “a little bit of naivete” in his initial response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

“Russia has now become a nation fuelled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB [former secret services name] apparatchik-run government. I looked in [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Mr Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters – a K, a G and B,” McCain said.

Speaking about the so-called war on terror, Mr McCain said he believed the nation was safer than it had been the day after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks but there was still a long way to go.

Mr Obama pointed to the spread of al-Qaeda to some 60 countries and said that the US had to do more to combat that, including improving its own image as a “beacon of light” on rights.

“One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world,” Mr Obama said.

Mr McCain sought to distance himself from President George W Bush’s administration, which has very low public approval ratings.

“I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on the way that the Iraq war was conducted,” he said.

“I have a long record and the American people know me very well… a maverick of the Senate.”

Mr McCain had earlier vowed not to attend the forum in Mississippi until Congress approved the economic bail-out plan, but he reversed his decision after some progress was made towards a deal.

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September 26, 2008

Bush scrambles to save $700B bailout plan

Bush scrambles to save $700B bailout plan

President George W Bush has said that legislators will “rise to the occasion” and pass the Wall Street rescue plan.

In a statement he said that are still disagreements because, “the proposal is big and the reason it’s big is because it’s a big problem”.

President Bush is expected to resume talks with Congressional leaders later on Friday to try to reach an agreement.

He wants to pass a $700bn (£380bn)rescue package to buy mortgage-backed assets from US banks.

‘Shouting match’

He added that, “there is no disagreement that something substantial must be done”.

Talks to agree the huge bail-out of the financial industry ended in a “shouting match” on Thursday.

After several hours of discussions with President Bush, a group of Republican members of Congress blocked the government plan.

The proposal would have seen the government buy bad debts from US banks to prevent more of them collapsing.

The leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, told ABC News that she “hoped” a bailout plan could be agreed within 24 hours, because “it has to happen”.

Financial markets are gummed up because banks do not know exactly how much bad debt they hold and are therefore reluctant to lend to businesses, consumers and each other.

The fall-out of this credit crunch continues to have a huge impact:
The United States suffered its largest bank failure yet, when regulators moved in to close down Washington Mutual and then sold it to US rival JP Morgan Chase for $1.9bn
In a co-ordinated move the European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank announced new short-term loans to the banking sector worth tens of billions of dollars
Banks continued to cut costs, with UK banking giant HSBC saying it would axe 1,100 jobs
Shares in UK bank Bradford & Bingley fell another 20% to 17 pence before recovering slightly.

‘Full throated discussion’

On Thursday, Democrat and Republican legislators appeared to have struck a deal.

A group of Democrats and Republicans even made a public statement, with Senator Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, announcing that they had reached “fundamental agreement” on the principles of a bail-out plan.

But after the White House meeting, the top Republican on the committee, Richard Shelby, told reporters: “I don’t believe we have an agreement.”

The intense discussions reportedly saw US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson literally down on one knee, begging Ms Pelosi to help push through the bail-out package.

September 18, 2008

India drug firm turns to Giuliani

India drug firm turns to Giuliani

Rudolph Giuliani

Mr Giuliani’s firm will advise on compliance

Indian drug firm Ranbaxy has hired ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as an adviser, the company says.

The move comes a day after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the import of more than 30 generic drugs made by the drug firm.

The FDA said it imposed the ban after it found manufacturing quality problems at two Ranbaxy factories in India.

Ranbaxy said Mr Giuliani’s consulting and investment firm will advise it and look into compliance issues.

Ranbaxy has said it is “very disappointed” with the decision of US drug authorities.

The import ban affects some popular generic versions of antibiotics and cholesterol medicines.

Key documents

In July, US prosecutors had alleged that Ranbaxy, India’s largest pharmaceutical company, deliberately lied about the quality of its low-cost drugs, including those for HIV.

The US Department of Justice wanted the firm to hand over key documents relating to drug testing procedures.

The firm was paid millions of dollars by the US government to provide low-cost HIV drugs for President Bush’s emergency plan for Aids relief, which was set up to help Aids patients in 120 countries around the globe.

Defending the reliability of its drugs, Ranbaxy had said the US Food and Drugs Administration had tested over 200 random samples of its products and found them “complying with all the specifications”.

In June the Japanese pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo agreed to pay more than $4bn (£2bn) for a controlling stake in the firm.

The US government has been investigating Ranbaxy since February 2006 when the FDA issued a warning letter over what it said were manufacturing violations found at a Ranbaxy factory in India.

Since then Ranbaxy has been trying to resolve the issue with US regulators.

Last year, US officials seized documents from Ranbaxy’s US headquarters in New Jersey.

In July, Justice Department prosecutors alleged that the company had systematically lied about the makeup of its generic drugs, which include a cheaper version of US drug maker Merck’s cholesterol pill Zocor.

Ranbaxy has denied any wrongdoing, saying the allegations were baseless.

The FDA will only approve cheaper generic drugs if they can be shown to be equivalent to the original drug.

US investigators had also alleged that Ranbaxy has used unapproved ingredients in its drugs.

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

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 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 23, 2008

Russia accused of abusing truce

Russia accused of abusing truce

A Russian soldier, his helmet marked "Peacekeeping Forces", watches combat troops pull out of Georgia on 22 August

Shoulder and helmet badges mark out Russia’s peacekeepers

The US and France have accused Russia of failing to comply with the terms of its ceasefire with Georgia by creating buffer zones and checkpoints.

Russia announced the full withdrawal of combat forces from Georgia proper on Friday but insisted hundreds of other troops could stay under the ceasefire.

France brokered the ceasefire to end fighting over Georgia’s pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Its terms are vague about the extent of any buffer zones, analysts say.

A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said the checkpoints and buffer zones set up by Russia were not part of the ceasefire agreement.

A spokesman for the French foreign ministry, Eric Chevalier, said a United Nations Security Council resolution was needed to clarify exactly what the ceasefire agreement covers.

The Russian military say they intend to maintain a peacekeeping presence in Georgia, controlling buffer zones around both South Ossetia and the other breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The zones include sections of the main highway from the capital Tbilisi to the Black Sea as well as Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki.

‘Clearly stated’

US President George W Bush and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy agreed in a telephone conversation on Friday that Russia was “not in compliance [with the ceasefire] and that Russia needs to come into compliance now”, Mr Johndroe said.

“Compliance means compliance with that plan,” he added.

“We haven’t seen that yet. It’s my understanding that they have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that.”

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

“Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement,” US state department spokesman Robert Wood added.

The French spokesman told that the ceasefire had stipulated that Russia’s forces “should go back to the situation before the hostilities started”.

“The idea is that, yes, for a temporary period some Russian peace forces could stay on… next to the [border] line of Ossetia but it’s temporary, it should be for patrolling and it should be until we have an international mechanism,” Mr Chevalier said.

“It was clearly stated that this presence first has to be through patrolling, no fixed presence and, second, should not have an effect on the freedom of movement on roads and trains in this place.”

The UN Security Council split this week over a resolution, with rival drafts submitted by Moscow, and the US and its allies.

Western diplomats fear that Moscow is determined to define the parameters of the interim security arrangements on its own terms.

Part of the problem, he adds, is the extraordinary vagueness of the EU-brokered ceasefire deal, which speaks only of “additional security measures” in “the immediate proximity of South Ossetia” – proximity being defined as a distance of “several kilometers”.

‘Zone of responsibility’

Moscow intends to maintain a peacekeeping presence of nearly 2,600 troops in the buffer zones for the foreseeable future, backed by armoured cars and helicopters.

Of these, 2,142 will be deployed along Abkhazia’s de facto border and 452 on the de facto border of South Ossetia, the Russian military said.

Russia’s so-called “zone of responsibility” also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, some 40km (25 miles) from the boundary with Abkhazia, which sits astride vital road and rail links to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant Russian troop movement out of Georgia.

Correspondents in Igoeti – just 35km (21 miles) from the capital, Tbilisi – says he saw Russian troops leave the town, joining a column of hundreds of armoured vehicles on the road towards South Ossetia.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving in Igoeti to take control after Russian troops removed their roadblocks and pulled out.

But another correspondent in the nearby town of Korvaleti says Georgian police vehicles there are still being blocked at checkpoints.

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia – which broke away in 1992 – in a surprise offensive on 7 August.

Georgia map


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August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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.

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