News & Current Affairs

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.

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Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

In a strongly-worded speech, Ms Rice said Moscow was on a “one-way path to isolation and irrelevance”.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia have been strained by the recent conflict in Georgia.

Earlier, Russia’s president said the two nations should not risk established ties over “trivial matters.”

Dmitry Medvedev said it would be “politically short-sighted” if Washington and Moscow were to endanger their political and economic ties.

However, Ms Rice suggested in her speech that following the conflict in Georgia, Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization had been put in doubt.

Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion
Condoleezza Rice

The US has already shelved a civilian nuclear deal with Russia, but despite tensions the two countries are maintaining diplomatic links.

Ms Rice held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just hours before delivering her speech, and Russia is also due to join an international meeting on Iran’s nuclear program on Friday.

Our correspondent says Moscow is also telling the US that its co-operation is needed over issues like Iran and North Korea, with many in Washington feeling the Russians have a point.

Several hours after Ms Rice spoke, it emerged that a Russian submarine test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

An official from Russia’s defence ministry is quoted as saying that the test – carried out in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula – went according to plan.

‘Deeply disconcerting’

Speaking at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund in Washington, Ms Rice acknowledged that Georgia had fired the first shots in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russian troops in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali

Ms Rice said Russia had tried to dismember Georgia

“The Georgian government launched a major military operation into Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia] and other areas of that separatist region,” she said.

“Regrettably, several Russian peacekeepers were killed in the fighting,” she added.

But Ms Rice said that Russia had escalated the conflict.

“Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion across an internationally recognized border,” she said, adding that Russia had also violated the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms Rice said it had been “deeply disconcerting” that Russia had tried to “dismember” Georgia by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and argued that Russia’s actions were part of what she described as a “worsening pattern of behavior”.

“I refer… to Russia’s intimidation of its sovereign neighbours, its use of oil and gas as a political weapon… its threat to target peaceful neighbours with nuclear weapons… and its persecution – or worse – of Russian journalists and dissidents,” she added.

Pledging help to rebuild Georgia, Ms Rice said the US and Europe would not let Russia benefit from aggression.

‘Taking the bait’

Ms Rice admitted that Georgia could have responded better to the events last month in South Ossetia.

We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community
Condoleezza Rice

“We warned our Georgian friends that Russia was baiting them, and that taking this bait would only play into Moscow’s hands,” she said.

However Ms Rice, an expert on the Soviet Union, also said that Russia could not blame its behavior on the enlargement of Nato.

“Since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies have worked to transform Nato… into a means for nurturing the growth of a Europe whole, free and at peace.”

The promise of Nato membership had been a positive incentive for states to build democratic institutions and reform their economies, she added.

And she insisted that Russia would not be allowed to dictate who joined the Nato alliance.

“We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community – neither what states we offer membership, nor the choice of those states to accept it,” she said

“We have made this particularly clear to our friends in Ukraine.”

The secretary of state was also critical of the domestic situation inside Russia.

“What has become clear is that the legitimate goal of rebuilding Russia has taken a dark turn – with the rollback of personal freedoms, the arbitrary enforcement of the law [and] the pervasive corruption at various levels of Russian society,” she said.

Russia’s leaders were risking the future progress of the Russian people, she said, declaring that Russia’s leaders “are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance”.

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 5, 2008

Rice making historic Libya visit

Rice making historic Libya visit

Condoleezza Rice in Lisbon before going to Libya - 5/9/2008

The US state department described the visit as a “new chapter” in relations

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed as “historic” her visit to Libya to meet its leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But she pointed out the “suffering” caused by the North African country’s long stand-off with the West.

Libya was on the US state department list of sponsors of terrorism until 2003, when it abandoned weapons of mass destruction and renounced terrorism.

Ms Rice will be the first US secretary of state to visit Libya since 1953.

“It is a historic moment and it is one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged,” Ms Rice told a news conference in Lisbon, Portugal, before leaving for Libya.

Her trip will also include visits to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

But the visit could be overshadowed by Libya’s failure so far to honour a deal offering compensation to families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Six years ago, such a visit would have seemed far-fetched, but diplomacy and political will have overcome the obstacles.

The US State Department have described it as a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries, following on from the restoration of diplomatic ties in 2006.

‘Way forward’

Earlier this month, Libya agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims of the Lockerbie aircraft bombing, for which it formally accepted responsibility in 2003.

The deal includes compensation for Libyan victims of the United States’ retaliatory bombing raid over Libya in 1986.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi  (file image)

Ms Rice’s visit was partly intended to be a reward for successful completion of the deal, but Libya has not yet transferred the promised hundreds of millions of dollars into a humanitarian account.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, told Reuters that he was optimistic the transfer would happen soon but that Ms Rice would press Libya on this issue.

Col Gaddafi has stopped short of referring to America as a friend, but in a televised speech this week he said improved relations were a way for both countries to leave each other alone.

Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter told a briefing in Washington on Thursday that the visit would show other countries they have “a way forward” if they change their behaviour and co-operate with the US.

Our correspondent says that although the visit is largely symbolic diplomacy, many in Libya hope that US-Libyan relations will only improve in the long-run.


What do you think about Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Libya? Send us your comments

September 1, 2008

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Courtesy BBC

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Purnea


Asha Devi

Asha Devi is among those who fled the floods – she paid $5 for a lift on a tractor

Outside the Bageecha relief camp in Purnea, Bihar, there is confusion.

A line of small trucks and vans carrying relief material have parked on the highway – scores of volunteers, dressed in white, are milling around.

They have just brought several tonnes of aid – but are not quite sure how to distribute it.

There is apparently no camp co-ordinator, no-one from the government.

It is symptomatic of what is happening across Bihar’s flood-affected areas.

God knows if my house is still standing
Janardhan Rishidev

“We have driven several hours to get here,” says Anil Chowdhury, whose cap identifies him as belonging to the Lions’ Club of Khagaria.

“We’ve made up bundles of supplies with rice, sugar, matches and candles.

“Since the government has unable to provide for these people, we’ve decided to step in.”

The lucky ones

Inside camp Bageecha there is more confusion.

Several hundred families have arrived here over the past five days.

The shelter they have been provided is modest – bamboo staves hammered into the ground with a plastic sheet roof to keep out the rain.

Water pump

Conditions in the camp are far from ideal

There is one hand pump for all of them to use to wash themselves.

On one corner, several men are stirring large cauldrons of lentils and rice. It may not seem much, but for many here it is their first cooked meal in days.

So despite the abysmal conditions, everyone here knows they are the lucky ones who got away.

“This is how high the water reached,” says Janardhan Rishidev, holding his hands waist high.

“When it started rising further, I knew it was time to leave. We packed a few things quickly, and placed the rest of our belongings on high shelves in our home.

“Then we fled. God knows if my house is still standing.”

Playing in dirt

Like most people here, Janardhan waded several hours through the flood waters, holding a small bundle of his valued possessions on his head.

Asha Devi and her husband Ram were slightly luckier. Along with their children they climbed on to the back of a tractor and drove out.

map

At a price – they paid the driver 200 rupees ($5) for the ride.

“We hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four days. My children were crying every day. At least here we’ve had some hot food.”

There appears to be a disproportionately high number of children at this camp – most of them unclothed, playing in the dirt.

There are no medical supplies here, or any doctors. But still everyone is grateful to have got out alive.

Sitaram is 85, and managed to come here only because his sons carried him on their back.

He squats outside his tent, smoking.

“Many people were left behind,” he says in a hoarse whisper, leaning forward.

“Old people whose children left them behind. I was lucky, my sons love me.”

Plenty of goodwill

But there is an air of restlessness as well.

Many of the villagers are concerned that eventually somebody will ask them to leave, or the supplies will run out.

“We need to go back,” says Asha Devi.

“We’ve lived off our land and that’s the only way we’ll survive. But how do we go back? When everything is under water, what will we do – swim?”

No-one has the answer to these questions, quite simply because there is no-one from the authorities here.

No government representative has been here to visit. Some international aid workers came by, but they have now left.

Outside camp Bageecha, it is complete gridlock.

Several aid trucks have blocked the road unsure of whether to pull the side or move on ahead.

There are no policemen, so a couple of volunteers decide to sort out the chaos.

“Where’s the government?” asks one volunteer angrily. “They should be here taking charge, instead they’ve left it to us.”

There is plenty of goodwill here and quite a bit of misplaced enthusiasm.

It is just not clear whether they are all aiding the relief effort or hindering it.

August 31, 2008

Italy seals Libya colonial deal

Italy seals Libya colonial deal

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) shakes hands with Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi  in Benghazi on 30 August

Mr Berlusconi (left) and Col Gaddafi shook hands

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has signed an agreement to pay Libya $5bn as part of a deal to resolve colonial-era disputes.

Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi said the settlement signed in the city of Benghazi opened the door to partnership between the two states.

Mr Berlusconi said the deal, which sees the money being released over 25 years, ended “40 years of misunderstanding”.

Libya was occupied by Italy in 1911 before becoming a colony in the 1930s.

The former Ottoman territory became an independent country in 1951.

This is the first African country to be compensated by a former colonial master.

The question is, she adds: will this latest move set precedents for other former African countries to follow suit?

Coastal motorway

Mr Berlusconi explained that $200m would be paid annually over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects, the main one being a coastal motorway between the Egyptian and Tunisian borders.

The Venus of Cyrene statue is displayed at the signing ceremony

The headless statue was displayed when the two leaders met

There will also be a colonial-era mine clearing project.

As a goodwill gesture, Italy also returned an ancient statue of Venus, the headless “Venus of Cyrene”, which had been taken to Rome in colonial times.

The settlement was a “complete and moral acknowledgement of the damage inflicted on Libya by Italy during the colonial era”, the Italian prime minister said.

“In this historic document, Italy apologises for its killing, destruction and repression against Libyans during the colonial rule,” Col Gaddafi said for his part.

The agreement was signed in the Benghazi palace which once housed the Italian colonial administration, Reuters news agency reports.

Rome and Tripoli have spent years arguing over compensation for the colonial period.

Mr Berlusconi’s one-day trip was his second since June when illegal immigration from Africa to Europe was the key issue of talks.

Italy has been swamped by thousands of African migrants trying to reach its shores by boat.

Libya has come in from the diplomatic cold since 2003 when it abandoned efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Next week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to make the first high-ranking American visit to Libya since 1953.

August 30, 2008

Italy to seal Libya colonial deal

Italy to seal Libya colonial deal

Silvio Berlusconi

Mr Berlusconi is making his second trip to Libya since June

Italy is to provide billions of dollars to Libya as part of a deal to resolve colonial-era disputes, Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has announced.

At least $5bn will go to help Libyan infrastructure projects over the next 25 years.

Mr Berlusconi is in the port of Benghazi to meet Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi and seal a bilateral friendship and cooperation accord.

Libya was occupied by Italy in 1911 before becoming a colony in the 1930s.

It became independent in 1951.

Motorway

Mr Berlusconi said: “The accord will provide for $200m a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya.”

The main project will be a coastal motorway between the Egyptian and Tunisian borders.

There will also be a colonial-era mine clearing project.

The Italian leader had earlier said he wanted the agreement to “turn the page on the past”.

Rome and Tripoli have spent years arguing over compensation for the colonial period.

Libya has accused Italy of killing thousands of its citizens and expelling thousands more from their homes in three decades of occupation.

Mr Berlusconi’s trip is his second since June when illegal immigration from Africa to Europe was the key issue of talks.

Italy has been swamped by thousands of African migrants trying to reach its shores by boat.

Libya has come in from the diplomatic cold since 2003 when it abandoned efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Next week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to make the first high-ranking American visit to Libya since 1953.

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Villagers sit on a makeshift raft in India's Poornia district (29/08/2008)

Many people say they have lost everything in the flooding

At least 20 people have been killed after a boat capsized while carrying dozens of refugees from flooding in the Indian state of Bihar, say police.

More than 70 people have now died in the floods and hundreds of thousands are stranded without food or water.

Indian soldiers are using boats and helicopters to reach several hundred remote villages.

The flooding occurred as water flowing from Nepal caused the Kosi river to breach its banks and change course.

More rain is expected in the next two days so authorities are moving as swiftly as they can to evacuate villages before the waters rise again.

The continuing bad weather is hampering efforts to get aid to about 2.5 million people who have been displaced.

‘National calamity’

Our correspondent says many of those stranded in remote villages are sitting on the roofs of their submerged homes.

map

There is an acute shortage of food and some people are eating uncooked rice and drinking stagnant water to stay alive.

Tens of thousands of people have crowded into temporary relief camps.

The boat incident took place on Friday in the worst-affected district, Madhepura, 150km (95 miles) north-east of Bihar’s capital, Patna.

Police said 40 people were saved.

ON Bhaskar, superintendent of police, told the Associated Press news agency: “The boat was overcrowded because people panicked to be rescued and clambered on board.”

Angry villagers in Madhepura said they had no idea where to take shelter and complained they had received no food or aid.

“We have lost everything,” said Bimlesh Yadav, escaping with his family to a nearby town.

August 22, 2008

US troops ‘to quit Iraq by 2011’

US troops ‘to quit Iraq by 2011’

US soldier in Baghdad

US troops’ immunity from Iraqi law has been a controversial issue

US combat troops could leave Iraq by 2011 under the terms of a deal awaiting approval by Iraq’s parliament and presidency, an Iraqi official has said.

The draft security agreement also calls for US forces to withdraw from all Iraqi urban areas by June 2009.

The 27-point agreement reportedly includes a compromise allowing US soldiers some immunity under Iraqi law.

The final date when US troops leave will depend largely on security.

The decision will be taken by a joint committee, which could reduce or extend the amount of time US troops spend in the country.

Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud, the top Iraqi official negotiating with the US on the status of US forces in Iraq, said a deal had been agreed that envisaged all US combat troops leaving Iraq by 2011.

Some US troops could remain beyond 2011 “to train Iraqi security forces”, the AFP news agency quoted him as saying.

“The combat troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009,” Mr Hammoud said.

“Both the parties have agreed on this… The negotiators’ job is done. Now it is up to the leaders.”

Handover aim

A deal also appears to have been struck on the controversial issue of granting US troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Mr Hammoud said the deal allowed US troops to remain immune from prosecution on military bases and while on operation.

All other cases would be considered by a joint judicial committee.

The draft deal still needs to be approved by the Iraqi Presidential Council, and critically, by the parliament.

The deal marks the end of 10 months of difficult negotiations.

Speaking on a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the final deal would be in line with Iraqi laws and sovereignty.

Ms Rice said the aim remained to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces.

There are currently around 147,000 US troops in Iraq.

August 16, 2008

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russian troops

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

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia after receiving it in Moscow.

The deal calls for all military activity to stop and for troops from both sides to pull back into pre-conflict positions.

The deal was signed on Friday by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Russian forces remain deep in Georgian territory, and correspondents say many obstacles remain in the way of full implementation of the peace deal.

At stake is the future of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US-backed Georgia has vowed it will not accept any loss of its territory, but Russia insists that following the recent violence, residents are unlikely to want to live in the same state as Georgians.

The crisis, which began nine days ago, saw Georgian forces launch a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, only to be decisively repelled by Russian forces.

Russian ‘advances’

On the ground in Georgia, Russian forces had moved forward overnight.

Russian forces still control Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the border with South Ossetia.

Several tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Kaspi, west of Gori and some 35km north-east of the capital Tbilisi – an advance of some 15km on their previous position. Lorries of soldiers were seen heading towards the town.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were seen patrolling in Zestafoni, some 100km west of Gori along a major highway.

The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries… They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

Georgian officials also said Russian forces remained in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, and a major Russian military contingent is further inland, at Senaki.

The crisis began on 7 August, when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.

The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatist militias. In response to the Georgian assault, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia to intervene.

Obstacles ahead

Scores of people have been killed by the fighting and tens of thousands displaced.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement which both sides have now signed includes a pledge to pull all troops back to their pre-conflict positions.

It also contains a plan to begin international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Tbilisi on Friday, has demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

But Russia argues its forces are there to ensure civilians face no threat from Georgian troops.

Mr Saakashvili has accused the Russians of committing war crimes.

A displaced Georgian woman rests just outside the town of Gori (15/08/08)

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

“The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries,” he said. “They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities.”

He criticized the West for not granting Georgia membership of Nato, saying it could have prevented the fighting.

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

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet the Russian permanent representative in New York, possibly on Saturday, because he has so far been unable to contact the Russian president, officials have said.

‘Watching with alarm’

President Bush is set to hold a video conference with some of his most senior staff, including Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

George Bush (file)
President Bush said Russia had to act to end the crisis in Georgia

On Friday, Mr Bush said Russia’s actions in Georgia were “completely unacceptable”.

“The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people,” he said.

He called upon Russia to end the crisis or risk its credibility on the global stage.

Mr Bush said he would send his secretary of state to Brussels next week to discuss how to deal with Russia with Nato foreign ministers and EU officials.

But the president did not respond to comments from Russia’s deputy chief of staff, who said Moscow would be justified in launching a nuclear attack if Poland went through with its agreement to base US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of Washington’s controversial defence shield.

Map of region


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