News & Current Affairs

March 28, 2009

G20 protesters marching in London

G20 protesters marching in London

Young World Vision supporters from Luton and Milton Keynes gather with Yes You Can placards and t-shirts by Westminster Bridge

Children are also joining the heavily-policed march

Thousands of people are marching through London demanding action on poverty, climate change and jobs ahead of next week’s G20 summit.

The Put People First alliance of 150 charities and unions are marching from Embankment to Hyde Park for a rally.

Speakers will call on G20 leaders to pursue a new kind of global justice.

Police say protests over the coming week are creating an “unprecedented challenge”. Campaigners have rejected claims the march could turn violent.

Marchers gathered near Embankment spoke of “a carnival atmosphere”.

“The sun is shining – there are lots of banners and flags and everyone is in good spirits,” said Chris Jordan, an Action Aid campaigner.

A huge security operation is being launched before and during the G20, at which world leaders will discuss the global financial crisis among other issues.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he is optimistic that a consensus can be reached on how to tackle the problem but other leaders are less convinced.

In an interview with Saturday’s Financial Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dampened expectations of a significant breakthrough.

She said one meeting would not be enough to solve the economic crisis and finish building a new structure for global markets.

Ahead of the summit, there are fears that banks and other financial institutions could be the focus for violent protests.

Organisers of Saturday’s Put People First march say police have no evidence anyone intends to take part in violence or disrupt the march, which has been organised in full co-operation with the authorities.

Commander Simon O’Brien, one of the senior command team in charge of policing security, said: “It’s fair to say that this is one of the largest, one of the most challenging and one of the most complicated operations we have delivered.

“G20 is attracting a significant amount of interest from protest groups. There is an almost unprecedented level of activity going on.

“The unprecedented nature is about the complexity and scale of the operations over a number of days.”

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, who is due to address the rally, said there was no room for violence at the march.

“If there are other groups who want to cause trouble, I don’t want to see them anywhere near our event,” he told the Today programme.

He said he wanted to see G20 leaders agree a plan of action to deal with the financial downturn.

“Where I hope we will see a consensus emerge is in the recognition that unless they act together, then the problems are only going to get worse.

“This, unlike any other recession, is a recession right across the world.”

The Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, who has met some of the groups taking part, said he expected “the vast majority” to stage a peaceful protest.

He said he agreed it was important for the G20 to make commitments on helping the environment as well as the economy.

“There are some people who will say you can either tackle the economic crisis or the climate crisis.

“But the truth is that both come together with this idea of a Green New Deal, of investing in the jobs of the future, which are going to be in the green industries of the future.”

‘Better world’

Actor Tony Robinson suggested the talk of violence was distracting from protesters’ demands for greater government commitment on the environment and local communities.

Jake Corn, from Cambridge, said he was joining the march to show his support for a more sustainable future.

“We feel this is an important moment with the G20 coming here. We want to get our message across to as many people as possible,” he said.

Italian trade unionist Nicoli Nicolosi, who had travelled from Rome, said: “We are here to try and make a better world and protest against the G20.”

Saturday’s march will be followed by a series of protests on Wednesday and Thursday by a variety of coalitions and groups campaigning on a range of subjects, from poverty, inequality and jobs to war, climate change and capitalism.

In the run-up to the summit, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been visiting a number of countries seeking support.

On Friday, during a visit to Chile, he said people should not be “cynical” about what could be achieved at next week’s summit, saying he was optimistic about the likely outcome.

Map of the march


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September 19, 2008

Japan minister quits in rice row

Japan minister quits in rice row

Seiichi Ota. File photo.

Mr Ota only took over his portfolio in August this year

Japan’s farm minister, Seiichi Ota, has tendered his resignation because of a food scandal involving tainted rice.

Mr Ota’s ministry has admitted it was told in January 2007 that a food company was distributing rice tainted with pesticide.

Mr Ota had earlier said he saw no need to make “too much of a fuss over it”.

It has since emerged that the rice, destined for industrial uses, was resold as a food product and served to the elderly.

The rice has been found to be tainted with pesticides and mould, and was known to be unfit for human consumption.

No-one has been reported as ill as a result of eating the rice; a government official said this was because the density of contaminants was low.

“I met Prime Minister [Yasuo] Fukuda and told him my decision to resign, considering the seriousness of the tainted rice problem for the society,” Mr Ota said.

Japanese broadcaster NHK said his resignation had been accepted.

Japan faces general elections soon, possibly as early as next month.

Contamination spreads

As information trickled out, it became clear that the bad rice was sold to more than 300 firms, including brewers, food ingredient wholesalers and sweet makers.

A government report released this week showed that the rice was imported from China, Vietnam and elsewhere, and intended for use in the making of glue and other industrial products.

Instead, the Osaka-based Mikasa Foods company sold the rice on to firms which used it for making foods that have been distributed to hospitals and care homes.

Young people have also been affected as the bad rice was used in making some snacks sold in convenience stores, and in school lunches.

Japanese media reported that police said on Wednesday that the president of one of the small companies that had bought the rice from Mikasa Foods, had committed suicide by hanging himself.

When Mr Ota’s ministry first heard of the tainted rice entering the food chain, he said it was unable to uncover any wrongdoing.

Mr Ota only took over the portfolio in August this year.

The minister has come under fire after admitting his ministry “overlooked” the illegal distribution of rice unfit for human consumption.

Our correspondent says Mr Ota is known for his slips of the tongue, such as his expressed confidence that no-one would die from eating tainted rice and that no fuss was necessary.

The senior bureaucrat at the agriculture ministry had already resigned.

September 18, 2008

Livni wins Israel party primary

Livni wins Israel party primary

Tzipi Livni after casting her vote on Wednesday

Critics have accused Tzipi Livni of lacking political experience

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has won the leadership of the governing Kadima party, putting her on track to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

Ms Livni beat Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz by just 431 votes, or 1.1%, the central electoral commission said.

In a victory speech, Ms Livni announced that she wanted to form a new cabinet “as quickly as possible in the face of the serious threats” facing Israel.

She has 42 days to do so, during which time Mr Olmert remains prime minister.

He announced he would step down in July after facing growing pressure over multiple corruption investigations.

The senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he hoped the result would lead to a return to stability.

‘Great reverence’

Correspondent in Jerusalem says that for much of Wednesday night, Ms Livni’s supporters in the Kadima party cheered at what they believed had been an emphatic victory, predicted by a series of exit polls on Israeli TV.

KADIMA PRIMARY RESULTS
Tzipi Livni: 43.1% (16,936 votes)
Shaul Mofaz: 42% (16,505)
Meir Sheetrit: 8.4% (3,327)
Avi Dichter: 6.5% (2,563)

Mr Olmert phoned his foreign minister to congratulate her and promise his full co-operation after she appeared on track to win with about 48% of the vote. Then the balloon slowly deflated as the results rolled in, our correspondent says.

According to the final results released by Kadima, Ms Livni won the election with 43.1%, or 16,936 votes. Mr Mofaz, a former defence minister and chief of staff of the Israeli military, came in a close second with 42%, or 16,505 votes.

The two other candidates, cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, lagged far behind with 8.4% and 6.5% respectively.

Mr Mofaz’s supporters have warned that they may lodge an appeal against the result. His campaign headquarters has reportedly already demanded the ballot in the southern town of Ashkelon be disqualified.

Supporter of Shaul Mofaz (17 September 2008)

Supporters of Shaul Mofaz said they might appeal against the result

In a victory speech early on Thursday morning, Ms Livni said that she would seek to form a new coalition government “as quickly as possible” and called for party unity.

“All the people who came to vote today expressed what they wish to happen in this country,” she said. “The national responsibility [bestowed] by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence.”

If she can form a fresh governing coalition within the next six weeks, Ms Livni will become Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir stepped down in 1974.

Our correspondent says that will be no easy task, and if it were to end in failure, general elections will follow in a further three months.

‘Mrs Clean’

Ms Livni is seen as less hawkish than Mr Mofaz when it comes to the Palestinians and to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Ehud Olmert formally resigns as prime minister and his cabinet resigns with him
President consults parties to pick a Knesset member to form a new cabinet – expected to be the Kadima leader
The MK has 42 days to form a coalition acceptable to parliament
If no coalition is formed, another MK may be asked to try to form a government, or a general election may be called
If a general election is called, it must be held within 90 days
Mr Olmert remains caretaker prime minister until the Knesset approves a new government

Critics say Ms Livni, a former lawyer and Mossad agent, also lacks political experience.

Her supporters say she represents a break with the past. Ms Livni is untainted by the kind of allegations of corruption and bribery that led to Mr Olmert’s resignation and have damaged the reputation of Israeli politics.

“[She] is a good choice as far as Israel’s foreign relations are concerned, but there is still the tension with Iran. I am not so sure how much experience she has for such matters and if she will be able to take the right decisions,” said Shmuel Sandler, professor at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

“She looks like ‘Mrs Clean’… but she will still have to form a coalition,” he told the Reuters news agency. “It is very difficult to predict whether she will be a strong prime minister.”

Kadima was formed three years ago when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split from the centre-right opposition party, Likud, to draw together support from left and right for his policy of unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

But its poll ratings fell after a stroke left Mr Sharon in a coma.

His successor, Mr Olmert, faced strong criticism of his handling of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and he was investigated in several corruption scandals.

Polls now suggest Likud could win a potential general election, which would take place if a coalition government cannot be formed in the wake of the Kadima leadership vote.

The Kadima election comes as the US government is continuing its push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President George W Bush leaves office in January.

Mr Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Tuesday. An Israeli spokesman said the two would continue to meet until a new government was sworn in.


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September 10, 2008

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai deputy PM and finance minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) during a meeting in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

The mood in Thailand was reportedly tense as the coalition met

Thailand’s political parties are meeting to discuss who should replace Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a day after he was stripped of office.

Mr Samak has not been seen since the Constitutional Court ruled he broke the law by appearing on a TV cookery show.

Parliament is due to elect 73-year-old Mr Samak’s successor on Friday.

His People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, appeared to back away from an earlier pledge to re-nominate him as PM.

“What the party spokesman said yesterday was not the party’s resolution. Our resolution is the next prime minister must come from the People Power Party,” Reuters news agency quoted finance minister and PPP secretary general Surapong Suebwonglee as saying.

‘Fuel the fire’

Now that the dust has settled after the Constitutional Court’s astonishing decision on Tuesday, the bargaining has begun, according to the correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

Party factions have been holding meetings throughout the day; some have been in contact with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still influential because of his continued financial support.

POLITICAL CRISIS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, after meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sept: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum
9 Sept: Court orders Samak to resign for violating constitution

The PPP insists any replacement for Mr Samak must come from within its ranks, but its coalition partners are angling to get one of their own into the seat.

The second-largest of the partners, the Chart Thai Party, said the PPP should not re-nominate Mr Samak.

But Chart Thai’s leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa – who as prime minister a decade ago presided over a currency collapse that triggered an Asian economic crisis – told Reuters he had ruled himself out.

The opposition Democrats are proposing a new government of national unity as the best way out of the crisis – with the clear hint that their party leader should get the job.

Bangkok dangerous?

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its headquarters, demanding Mr Samak quit.

Anti-government protesters at Government House in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

Protesters are still laying siege to Government House

They accuse him of being a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators said they would continue to besiege Government House while waiting to see who parliament selects as the new prime minister.

They have already warned that they will continue their protests if Mr Samak or anyone else closely associated with Mr Thaksin is chosen.

The caretaker administration has anticipated the continued protests by proposing that ministers move their offices to the old international airport.

Deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

Correspondents say his new role could fan Thailand’s political flames as he is the brother-in-law of Mr Thaksin.

September 8, 2008

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Ike has been battering eastern Cuba with giant waves and torrential rain but it weakened slightly as it made landfall.

The Category Two storm’s maximum sustained winds are still more than 165km/h (105mph).

Some homes along the coast, where some 800,000 people have been evacuated, have been damaged beyond repair.

Earlier, Ike killed 61 people in Haiti and reportedly damaged 80% of homes on the main Turks and Caicos islands.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said the eye of the hurricane came ashore near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin about 510 miles (823km) south-east of the capital Havana.

Hurricane Ike’s predicted path

With Hurricane Gustav striking just a week ago, Cuba’s internationally acclaimed emergency services are being stretched to the limit.

Gustav caused serious damage to the western side of the island, damaging almost 100,000 homes.

“In all of Cuba’s history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together,” Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba’s meteorological service, told state TV.

Windows shatter

Ike is forecast to reach Havana early on Tuesday morning.

Rubble blocks a street in Camaguey, Cuba, after the hurricane on 8 September

The storm left rubble strewn in the streets of Camaguey

A direct hit on the densely populated city of two million people with its precarious colonial buildings could be devastating, our correspondent says.

In the city of Holguin, a hotel worker named Carmela told Reuters news agency: “There is lot of worry, windows are beginning to break. There’s a lot of water, it’s raining very heavily.”

Among those evacuated before the arrival of Ike were 15,000 tourists.

RED CROSS APPEAL
The charity is accepting donations to help people in the Caribbean
Donations can be made on 0845 053 53 53 or via its

In the Camaguey region, in the path of the hurricane, resident Ramon Olivera was preparing to leave by motorcycle as municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants.

“There’s no fear here but one has to be prepared – it could hit us pretty hard,” he told The Associated Press.

Haitian appeal

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, endured the onslaught of four tropical storms in a three week period.

RECENT MAJOR STORMS
Hurricane Ike: September
Tropical Storm Hanna: September
Hurricane Gustav: August, September
Tropical Storm Fay: August

Heavy rains and flooding sparked by the outer bands of the storm killed at least 61 people in Cabaret, to the north of the capital Port-au-Prince.

“The whole village is flooded,” said local civil protection official Moise Jean-Pierre. “The death toll could go higher.”

The destruction in Haiti has been described as catastrophic.

Police said 500 people were confirmed dead from recent Tropical Storm Hanna while others were still missing and the number could rise.

The newly installed Prime Minister, Michele Pierre Louis, has launched a fresh appeal for international aid.

He called in particular for helicopters to bring those left stranded by the floods to safety. Many lived for days on their rooftops to escape the flood waters.

Florida threat

Ike has been moving westwards at 20km/h (13mph) and is expected to make a 30-hour track along the centre of Cuba, although weakening on the way, the US National Hurricane Center says.

It has been downgraded to a Category Two storm, but the NHC said it was still potentially very dangerous.

On its current track the storm could threaten the islands of the Florida Keys by Tuesday. Some residents have received evacuation orders.

Emergency management director Craig Fugate urged them to move soon, or they “may find the escape route blocked by a hurricane”.


Are you in the Caribbean? Have you been affected by the storms? What preparations have you made to deal with the adverse weather? Send us your comments and experiences

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM ‘should be indicted’

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert has been PM since he succeeded Ariel Sharon in March 2006

Israeli police have formally recommended to prosecutors that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert be indicted in a corruption investigation.

The decision about whether to indict Mr Olmert now rests with Attorney General Meni Mazuz.

Mr Olmert has already announced that he will resign later this month because of the multiple corruption investigations he is facing.

He has consistently denied all the accusations against him.

The ruling Kadima party is to hold a leadership vote on 17 September.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

The police said they had evidence showing Mr Olmert allegedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from American businessman Morris Talansky.

Mr Olmert is also accused of filing duplicate claims to government agencies for travel expenses.

The accusations date back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem and minister of trade and industry before he became prime minister in 2006.

Mr Olmert’s lawyers said the police recommendation to indict the prime minister was meaningless.

“The only person authorized by the law to decide whether to indict a prime minister is the attorney general. He has the authority and he bears the responsibility over the issue,” his lawyers said in a statement.

Mr Mazuz is expected to make his decision in the next few weeks.

September 5, 2008

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

US Vice-President Dick Cheney (r) and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Cheney aims to strengthen ties with Russia’s neighbours

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Ukraine has the right to live without fear of invasion, adding that the US stands by its bid for NATO membership.

Mr Cheney met both the prime minister and president in Kiev, the last stop of a tour aimed at underlining support for US allies in the former Soviet Union.

Mr Cheney reassured the president that the US had a “deep and abiding interest” in Ukraine’s security.

Analysts fear Ukraine could be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West.

“We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation,” Mr Cheney said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia.

‘Hostage’

Mr Cheney arrived in Ukraine just days after the country was plunged into political turmoil.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s actions in Georgia, and sided with the opposition to vote for a curb on the president’s powers.

Members of President Viktor Yushchenko’s party walked out of the coalition government in protest, leading the president to warn that he could be forced to call a snap general election.

Mr Cheney urged the politicians to heal their divisions and be “united domestically first and foremost”.

“Ukraine’s best hope to overcome these threats is to be united,” he said following separate meetings with Mr Yushchenko and his former ally turned political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mr Cheney expressed support for Ukraine’s bid to become a member of Nato.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko (image from February 25, 2008)

“Ukrainians have a right to choose whether they wish to join Nato, and Nato has a right to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when we believe they are ready and that the time is right,” he said.

Russia is strongly opposed to any further expansion eastwards of Nato, and is furious that Ukraine and Georgia have been told that, one day, they will be offered membership.

But Mr Cheney – recognizing Ukraine’s contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo – said that no country beyond NATO would be able to block Ukraine’s membership bid.

President Yushchenko says Ukraine is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against ex-Soviet bloc states.

The strategically-located country is important to Russia, with pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and its Black Sea port, home to a key Russian naval base.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea.

Open aggression

Mr Yushchenko has restricted Russia’s naval operations, and insists Moscow must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Mr Cheney’s visit comes at an awkward time for President Yushchenko, with the country’s largely pro-Western ruling coalition divided in its attitude toward Russia.

The leaders’ faltering relationship has now boiled over into open aggression, with Mr Yushchenko threatening to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

The president has been a staunch supporter of his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Ms Tymoshenko has avoided outright condemnation of Russia, leading analysts to suggest she may be hoping for Moscow’s backing in a possible bid for the presidency in 2010.

September 4, 2008

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan

Tension in Pakistan’s north-west has increased in recent months

Pakistan has summoned the US ambassador to protest at an alleged cross-border raid which officials say killed at least 15 villagers in the north-west.

A number of civilians were reported killed in the raid, which Pakistan says was a violation of its sovereignty.

Correspondents say the raid appears to have been the first ever ground assault by foreign forces based in Afghanistan.

US-led and Nato forces said they had no reports of any such incursion. Border tensions have risen in recent weeks.

US aircraft have carried out air strikes in the region, but a ground assault would be unprecedented.

It is not clear who the target of any attack might have been.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would not allow any foreign power to carry out attacks on its territory.

He was speaking hours after his motorcade was hit by sniper fire near the capital, Islamabad. Senior government officials say he was not in the car at the time.

‘Act of aggression’

Pakistani military and political officials say ground troops brought in by US-led coalition helicopters launched the attack in the South Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border early on Wednesday morning.

Map

Locals say soldiers attacked with gunfire and bombs. Women and children were among those reported killed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said a “very strong protest” had been delivered to the ambassador, Anne Paterson.

“The ambassador said that she would convey it to her government,” he said.

The army called the attack an act of aggression which undermined the fight against militancy.

North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani, who is in administrative charge of the tribal areas, called the attack “cowardly”.

“At least 20 innocent citizens of Pakistan, including women and children, were martyred,” he said in a statement.

There is mounting US pressure on Pakistan – a key ally in the “war on terror” – to crack down on militants, who use the border region to launch raids into Afghanistan.

The Afghan government and Nato say the border region is a haven for al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Pakistan says it is doing all it can to curb militancy.

On Monday, Pakistan’s military suspended its operations against Taleban militants in the neighboring Bajaur tribal area.

The government said this suspension of fighting was to respect the fasting month of Ramadan.

Taleban spokesman Maulvi Omar welcomed the announcement, but he said militants would not lay down their arms.

September 3, 2008

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Shots have been fired at the motorcade of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, although it is not clear if he was in the convoy at the time.

Two bullets from an unidentified gunman hit the PM’s car as he was traveling from Islamabad airport into the city, his press secretary told.

But security officials say the car was on its way to collect Mr Gilani.

Mr Gilani’s government is grappling with a growing threat from militants in the country.

It is not clear who fired the shots but Islamist militants based in Pakistan’s border regions have threatened to kill various government ministers, and have carried out deadly suicide bombings against army and government targets.

The incident represents a major lapse in security. In December former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed at an election rally in Rawalpindi.

Shattered glass

“I can confirm the prime minister’s convoy was fired upon while returning from [Islamabad] airport,” his press secretary Zahid Bashir told.

Bullet marks

Two bullets struck the window of one of the front doors

“The prime minister was coming back from Lahore. The firing took place on the Islamabad highway. At this point, we believe the firing was from a small hill on the roadside.”

A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said: “Of the multiple sniper shots fired on the prime minister’s vehicle, two hit the window on the driver’s side.

“However, because of the robust and comprehensive security measures, the prime minister and all the members of his motorcade remained unharmed.”

Television pictures showed the shattered glass of the driver’s door.

Officials say another car in the convoy was also hit by several bullets. There are no reports of injuries.

However, there was confusion when the interior ministry gave a different account of the incident, saying that Mr Gilani was not in the car at the time of the attack.

The government information minister, Sherry Rehman, supported that account: “The convoy was going to receive the prime minister,” she told state TV. “Those who had designs, have failed.”

Mr Gilani had been in Lahore to canvass support for Asif Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s widower, ahead of presidential elections on Saturday.

Ms Bhutto had been favorite to win Pakistan’s general elections and become prime minister for a third time before she was killed on 27 December. The elections were subsequently postponed until February.

Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the winners and formed a coalition with the PML-N party of another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Mr Gilani, himself a senior PPP member, became prime minister

The coalition broke up amid political acrimony late last month.

Confident

One of the biggest challenges facing Mr Gilani’s government comes from Islamist militants who control large areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Gilani

Mr Gilani became prime minister after February’s elections

The army has been engaged in a major operation in recent weeks in the district of Bajaur which is estimated to have displaced up to 300,000 local people.

This week the government said the Bajaur operation would be suspended during the holy month of Ramadan.

Last year militants grew increasingly confident and carried out a series of attacks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the country’s main garrison town.

And last month a double suicide attack at a munitions factory in the town of Wah in Punjab province left nearly 70 people dead.

The loose alliance of militants that calls itself the Pakistan Taleban claimed responsibility for the Wah incident, the heaviest attack on a military installation by a militant group in the country’s history.

Mr Gilani’s PPP and Mr Sharif’s PML-N have spent much of their time since February arguing over issues such as the power of the presidency and the reinstatement of judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf.

During that time the economy has taken a further battering, with the Pakistani rupee falling to an all-time low, while food and fuel prices have risen sharply.

Thai army chief rules out coup

Thai army chief rules out coup

At least four of the dozens wounded were said to be in serious condition [EPA]

Thailand’s army chief has ruled out the possibility of a military coup, hours after Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the capital.

“There is no possibility of a coup. We must turn to the  parliamentary mechanism,” General Anupong Paojinda told reporters on Tuesday.

The army chief also vowed not to use force against protesters following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Samak’s government which they say is a proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Samak declared the emergency after one person was killed and dozens were injured in Bangkok as police and both pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight on Monday.

New crisis

Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government.

The election commission recommended that his People’s Power Party (PPP) be disbanded for alleged electoral fraud committed during the elections in December.

The commission forwarded its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether to submit the case to the constitutional court for a final ruling.

This process could take months.Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Selina Downes, reported many were saying that the unanimous vote by the five-member commission could be the beginning of the end of the PPP.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of the court dissolving of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party last year. The party later regrouped under the PPP flag.

Thai newspapers have reported that the PPP is preparing for the worst and is lining up a new “shell” party to admit all its MPs, who could try to cobble together another coalition government.

Kudeb Saikrachang, the PPP spokesman, told that party MPs already had another party in mind in case the PPP were to be dissolved.

Soldiers deployed

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” the announcement read.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the street battles in the worst violence since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its street campaign against the prime minister in May.

Kudeb told Al Jazeera that the PPP had “no part” in the violence.

“We don’t support violent means whatsoever,” he added.

By sunrise on Tuesday, General Jongrak Jutanond, Bangkok’s police chief, said “the situation is now under control”.

Some schools were shut in Bangkok on Tuesday, but morning rush-hour traffic was flowing as normal and the airport, the main gateway for foreign tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

‘Soft option’

Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm.

In a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, he gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over “moderately quickly”.

The protesters have vowed to force out Samak’s government [EPA]

The prime minister had said last week that he had hoped to avoid declaring an emergency, but said he was left with little choice after violence erupted.”I did it to solve the problems of the country,” he said. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”

Correspondent Downes said the emergency law gave the prime minister absolute control over the situation, as he had made himself defense minister when he was elected in January and was therefore in charge of the military.

Under a state of emergency, Samak has special powers outside of the constitution to deploy police and soldiers on the streets to quell protests.

Our correspondent said there had been mounting pressure on the government to get a handle on the increasingly chaotic situation.

The PAD had been in the driving seat after storming and occupying the Government House compound a week ago.

Many analysts said there appeared no other way out of the situation.

Strike threat

On Monday, the PAD had announced that its supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a “general strike” set for Wednesday.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into”

Chamlong Srimuang, anti-government protest leader

Alliance supporters said they also would delay departures of flights of the national airline.They were already disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation as well.

Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.

Leaders of the anti-government protest movement that has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past week said they would not budge.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the PAD that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound camped in behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

Samak’s announcement blamed unnamed people for “wreaking havoc” and undermining the economy and national unity.

Thais Al Jazeera spoke to were angry and frustrated that they were “back to square one” two years after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup after weeks of street protests against the then prime minister.

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