News & Current Affairs

June 23, 2009

Sarkozy stirs French burka debate

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:25 am

Sarkozy stirs French burka debate

Montage of women wearing the Islamic veil

The use of the head-to-toe veil is dividing opinion in France

Since this was the first time in almost one and a half centuries that a French president had been allowed to address parliament, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech was already on course to ruffle a few feathers.

The Greens and Communists refused to attend and the Socialists left early, claiming the venue for the address – the Chateau of Versailles, which was home to King Louis XIV – smacked of monarchy and a thirst for power.

But it was the French leader’s attack on the burka that really caused a stir.

He expressed his strong distaste for the head-to-toe Islamic veil, calling it not a sign of religion but a sign of subservience.

“It will not be welcome on French soil,” he said.” We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

President Sarkozy’s comments have not come out of the blue.

They are in response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France.

They want to see whether such a spread is indicative of a radicalisation of Islam, whether women are being forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily, and whether wearing the burka undermines French secularism.

Mr Gerin believes the burka “amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory”.

Because, if the mention of monarchy triggers warning bells in France, the mention of religion triggers much louder ones.

Ban in schools

The concept of secularism or “laicite” is sacred in France.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions
Nicolas Sarkozy,
French President

The separation of church and state is jealously guarded by everyone from school teachers to government ministers – and the constitution states the republic “does not recognise, subsidise or remunerate any religious body”.

It underpinned the French Revolution, and has been a basic tenet of the country’s progressive thought since the 18th century when French Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant.

It was this same concept that was invoked five years ago to ban conspicuous signs of religion – including Islamic headscarves – from schools.

That decision sparked controversy and debate across Europe, with critics claiming it stigmatised Muslims at a time when France needed to be stepping up its fight against rife discrimination in the job market, which had caused so many youths of Muslim origin to feel forgotten by French society.

This latest call for a potential ban of the burka has prompted the head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion to warn MPs they risk stigmatising Muslims again.

But the special inquiry does have the backing of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and a former head of the Muslim council, who insists that Islam in France should be an “open and convivial Islam that allows people to live side by side”.

He fears that anecdotal evidence that more women are wearing the burka in France is linked to an “excess, a radicalisation” among some Muslims.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

With five million Muslims living here, France is home to Western Europe’s largest Islamic community and the government will be anxious not to isolate the Muslim population by being seen to be trying to dictate to women what they should wear.

The issue has even split the French cabinet.

Rama Yade, the Muslim human rights minister, said she would be open to a ban if it was aimed at protecting women who wore a burka against their will. The immigration minister, Eric Besson, believes a ban will only create tensions.

President Sarkozy may have given his backing to an open debate on the burka, but he also insisted France needed to make sure it knew exactly what it was debating.

“We must not fight the wrong battle,” he said. “In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions.”

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November 18, 2008

UK minister in Damascus meeting

UK minister in Damascus meeting

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband talks to reporters on arrival in Damascus

Mr Miliband wants Syria to play a role in Middle East peace-building

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is holding talks with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The visit, the first to Damascus by a top-level British official since 2001, is part of a tour that includes Israel, the West Bank and Lebanon.

Mr Miliband told that Syria had a role to play as a force for stability in the Middle East.

The visit is the latest in a run of exchanges between Syria and European nations aimed at easing tense ties.

It comes a month after Mr Miliband met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in London for talks.

‘Understanding’

Building mutual understanding between the UK and Syria was important, Mr Miliband told .

“Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East – it can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability,” he said.

“Over the last 18 months I’ve been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about her (Syria’s) responsibilities in the region, in respect of terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process, and we’ve got the chance now to take those discussions further forward.”

Mr Miliband will meet the Syrian president and other top officials on Tuesday morning, before flying on to Lebanon.

Syria has faced diplomatic isolation since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, even though it denies any role in the killing.

It has also been shunned by the US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But European nations, led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now initiating steps to bring Syria back into the international fold, arguing that engagement is the way forward.

On Monday David Milliband visited Israel and the West Bank for talks with top leaders.

He called on both Israelis and Palestinians to maintain the five-month-old ceasefire in Gaza, following recent outbreaks of violence that have triggered an Israeli blockade of the territory.

October 2, 2008

US markets wary over rescue deal

US markets wary over rescue deal

Wall Street trader

The markets remain nervous

US shares have fallen sharply with investors cautious over whether the House of Representatives will back the revised bank rescue plan.

The House is due to discuss the scheme later, with a vote expected on Friday. The bill successfully passed through the US Senate on Wednesday.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones index was down 263 points or 2.4% at 10,571, a slide dragging European shares lower.

The falls came as France said it would host a summit on the financial crisis.

The UK’s FTSE 100 closed was down 1.8% to 4,870.3 points while Germany’s Dax index shed 2.5% and France’s Cac 40 lost 2.3%.

Sentiment was further hit by glum economic data – showing that the number of people filing for new unemployment benefit claims rose to a seven-year high, while factory orders had seen a steeper-than-expected drop in August.

European talks

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the special meeting on Saturday would discuss a co-ordinated response to the financial turmoil amongst European members of the G8 ahead of a meeting of world finance leaders in Washington next week.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due to attend, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet.

Investors are still concerned about the efficiency of this rescue plan and how it can help the global economy
Aric Au, Phillip Securities

But with just two days to go before the talks start, EU members are deeply divided, correspondent said.

France and Holland favor a European response to help banks hit by the credit crisis while Germany and Luxembourg believe a joint rescue plan is not necessary.

European leaders have denied speculation that they wanted to establish a unified 300bn euro ($418.4bn; £236bn) banking rescue deal along the same lines as the US plan.

The rescue idea was said to be being proposed by France, but Mr Sarkozy insisted that there were no such plans.

“I deny both the amount and the principle [of such a plan],” he said.

‘Essential’

In the US, a number of changes had to be made to the $700bn (£380bn) bail-out plan in order to help win approval in the Senate.

These include raising the government’s guarantee on savings from $100,000 to $250,000, tax breaks to help small businesses, expansion of child tax credit, and help for victims of recent hurricanes.

President George W Bush said that the package was “essential to the financial security of every American”.

However, economists said doubts remained about how effective the package would be.

“Investors are still concerned about the efficiency of this rescue plan and how it can help the global economy,” said Aric Au of Phillip Securities in Hong Kong.

McCain and Obama

US presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama, who both returned from the campaign trail for last night’s Senate debate, voted in favor of the rescue plan.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he was happy with the result and praised both presidential candidates for voting.

“I think it shows that when we work together we can accomplish good things,” he said.

Mitch McConnell, leader of Republican senators, was also in jubilant mood.

“This was a measure that was much needed, to unfreeze the credit markets and get America’s economy working again,” he said.

September 29, 2008

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

mccain sarkozy shake hands

Rebels with a cause: McCain and Sarkozy

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy won by successfully breaking from – and even, in a sense, running against – a president of his own party, the disgraced and out-of-touch Jacques Chirac.

In a similar way, John McCain is attempting to mount a Sarkozy-style “second-stage” succession to a Republican Party that has also come to be seen as disgraced and out-of-touch.

He has a lot to run against.

When things start to go wrong for a political party – as they did for John Major and the Tories in the 1990s – everything seems to go wrong at once.

How this has happened to the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is worth revisiting.

The Congressional Republicans could have opted to try to win a permanent majority by devising market-based solutions to healthcare or portable pensions that might have won the lasting allegiance of the American people.

‘Populist backlash’

Instead, the GOP leaders in the House and the Senate were content to tinker at the edges of policy.

They aped their Democratic predecessors by using earmarks and other means to reward special interests, reaping huge advantages in campaign donations as a means of holding onto power.

As a result of this change in mindset, the party of probity became the party of disgrace – with more than one leading member in prison or under investigation for various forms of graft.

That there are ample specimens of venality on the Democratic side provides no cover. Voters expect better from Republicans – especially after a series of Democratic scandals that Republicans promised to clean up.

McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy

So Republicans started with a good start under Newt Gingrich promising to bring reform and business-like efficiency. As a result, when Republicans came to resemble what they opposed, voters came down on them twice as hard when they disappointed.

The result is that Congressional Republicans have neither honour nor a majority.

Republican primary voters, disgusted by the direction their party had taken, selected John McCain in a populist backlash. McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy.

By returning to their ideals, Republicans selected the one candidate who could actually pull off such a hat-trick.

Political baggage

Two weeks ago, the race against Barack Obama was, then, following a familiar course. McCain had successfully identified himself as a reformer – shedding Republican political baggage.

Obama was set for certain loss. The reasons for this are simple to see.

For decades now, it has been virtually impossible for a liberal candidate to win an Electoral College majority.

The most liberal candidate of all, George McGovern, received 17 electoral votes against Richard Nixon’s 520 in 1972. Defeat has befallen other liberals – Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

The exceptions to this rule further prove the point:

  • John F Kennedy with his strident anti-communism and tax cuts, won as a conservative Democrat.
  • Bill Clinton won as the candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and won re-election after ending traditional welfare and presiding over a surplus.
  • Jimmy Carter won as a budget-conscious conservative, only to lose when he governed as a liberal. Lyndon Johnson won as a successor to JFK.

Had Obama moved to the middle – and chosen a conservative, defence-minded Southern conservative like former Senator Sam Nunn, or even an independent Republican like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – he would be in a much stronger position.

Instead, Obama chose a dependable, North-Eastern liberal in Joe Biden.

Obama has eschewed “third-way” politics, and stuck to defining his brand of change in terms of simple replacement of all things Bush with liberal orthodoxy on almost every issue.

‘October surprise’

If presidents were selected by popular vote, Obama might be able to drum up enough enthusiasm in California, New York and a handful of other populous blue states to win.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls – Russia’s re-emergence as a revanchist power, and the selection of Sarah Palin

The picture is much bleaker for Obama in winning an electoral college majority in which so many states are dominated by rural issues and cultural concerns (like prayer and guns) alien to the sensibilities of an urban liberal.

This was the expected state of play. However, American elections are notorious for turning on an October surprise. This time, we have prematurely had three such surprises in August and September. And they have shaken up this race and made the result suddenly unpredictable.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls.

The first was the violent re-emergence of Russia as a revanchist power, reminding the American people that we live in dangerous times. It seemed better to trust a crusty war-veteran than the untested, sleek, metrosexual Obama.

The second surprise was an artificial one – McCain’s calculated selection of Sarah Palin. McCain’s campaign enjoyed great success in baiting Obama into several days of exchanges with his running mate – a project that diminished Obama and knocked him off message.

VIEWPOINTS
Mark Davis, senior director of the White House Writers Group (image courtesy of White House Writers Group)
Mark W Davis is a long-time Republican adviser, a former speechwriter for George Bush senior, and currently senior director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group. This is one of a series of comment and opinion pieces that the BBC News website will publish before the election.

Now the third surprise has come – the near-collapse of US credit markets and an economic crisis widely termed the most serious since 1929. This crisis upsets all that had happened before and returns Obama to his preferred field of battle – the economy.

McCain took the high-risk approach of suspending his campaign and running to Washington.

Today, McCain looks less like Sarkozy and more like Sisyphus, shouldering the burden of an economic collapse seemingly without end.

Does this game-changer open the way for an explicit liberal to make history and take the White House?

Or will McCain be able to fight and win with the economy front-and-centre? McCain might do so if he – and other Republicans – are more aggressive in pointing out how Democrats coddled and protected the private-gain, public-risk model of the mortgage giants Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac that enabled this crisis.

If he can do this, McCain might still pull a Sarkozy.

Or will some new event re-orient the race with yet another sudden, stupendous domestic or foreign challenge?

After all, it is not yet October. There is still plenty of time for more surprises.

September 19, 2008

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 18, 2008

Mrs Sarkozy meets Metallica on TV

Mrs Sarkozy meets Metallica on TV

Singer Carla Bruni, the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has given a rare performance, appearing alongside rock bands Metallica and Kings of Leon.

The acts were all on UK music TV show Later… with Jools Holland, where Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy told the host her husband was “very kind” about her music.

“I play it at home and I disturb him with it in the middle of the night,” the 40-year-old former model said.

She married Mr Sarkozy in February and released her third album in July.

The TV show, starting its 33rd series, is renowned for its eclectic mix of music.

Metallica, Carla Bruni and Jools Holland (far right)

Metallica provided a contrast to Carla Bruni on Jools Holland’s show

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy tapped her foot and clapped as heavy metal monsters Metallica performed tracks from their number one album Death Magnetic.

But their music could not be further apart, with Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy’s sultry, breathy chanson style evoking Parisian cafes, while Metallica normally soundtrack sweaty stadiums.

As well as the French first lady and Metallica, the program also featured the group at the top of the UK singles chart – Tennessee blues-rockers the Kings of Leon.

One edition of the show went out live on Tuesday, while another extended version was filmed to be broadcast on BBC Two on Friday.

Jools Holland, the former Squeeze musician turned TV host, interviewed Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy for both shows.

Her appearance came just days after she met Pope Benedict XVI, while she has also accompanied Mr Sarkozy meeting dignitaries such as the Queen and the Dalai Lama in recent months.

During the live episode, Holland asked what it was like mixing her roles as a singer-songwriter and president’s wife.

Carla Bruni
It’s not so hard – it’s just like playing in a film
Carla Bruni on being the French first lady

“I don’t really mix them up – I separate them,” she replied. “I play my music and then I go with my husband when he needs me.”

He was involved in her music but did not act like a critic or a fan, she said – and it did not “drive him mad” when she played it in the middle of the night.

“It’s just a very different world for him,” she said. “But he’s very kind and he listens to all my doubts.”

Asked whether she wrote songs about her husband – who was not present for the TV show – she simply replied: “Well, I write songs about my life.”

Wearing an elegant trouser suit, Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy performed one song, Tu Es Ma Came, on the live show.

She translated it variously as: “You’re my junk, you’re my type, you’re my cup of tea.”

It was about “being addicted to someone in a toxic way and in a lovely way”, she said.

During the recorded show, she also performed L’Amoureuse, or The Woman in Love, with a chorus that repeats the line: “Je suis l’amoureuse.”

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy with Pope Benedict XVI

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy met Pope Benedict XVI last week

But she has said 95% of her latest album was written before she met Mr Sarkozy.

During the interview for Friday’s show, she gave further insights into her new life.

“I have my husband’s world,” she said. “It’s like I just try to be with him and be cool about it and not change everything I know and my way of living.

“It’s not so hard. It’s just like playing in a film.”

She then accompanied Holland on a version of US blues singer Bessie Smith’s song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.

Security fears

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy’s latest album, Comme Si De Rien N’Etait, went straight to number one in France.

It came six years after her first release, Quelqu’un M’a Dit, which sold two million copies around the world.

She had previously said she would not play any more live shows for security reasons until her husband leaves his job.

Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy was given a warm reception, but the biggest cheer of the night went to Metallica, who closed the recorded show with their 1991 piledriver Enter Sandman.

The other acts on the bill were UK rapper Sway, New Jersey singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins and British pop newcomer VV Brown.

September 16, 2008

France frees sailors from pirates

France frees sailors from pirates

French commandos capture Somali pirates (11 April 2008)

French commandos arrested six alleged pirates in April

French commandos have freed two sailors seized by pirates off the Somali coast, the French presidency has said.

One pirate was killed in the operation and another six captured, it said.

The couple were seized in a sailing boat in the Gulf of Aden earlier this month by pirates who reportedly wanted a ransom of some $1.4m (£0.8m).

President Nicolas Sarkozy said the French operation should serve as a warning, and called for international efforts to counter escalating piracy.

France will not allow crime to pay
President Nicolas Sarkozy

The waters off Somalia, which is wracked by conflict, are among the most dangerous in the world. Attacks by pirates are common and hamper the delivery of food aid.

In the latest reported incident, a Hong Kong-owned tanker was seized late on Monday in the Gulf of Aden.

International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center told the AFP news agency that 22 crew members were taken hostage.

French commandos launched a similar raid against Somali pirates in April.

‘Safe and sound’

President Sarkozy said the 30-man operation had taken just 10 minutes.

He said he had given the go-ahead late on Monday when it was clear that the pirates were heading for the lawless port of Eyl, where many well-armed pirate gangs are based.

He said it would have been too dangerous to free them if they arrived in Eyl, reports Reuters news agency.

map
Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing the French have done
Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade
Puntland spokesman

A minister in the semi-autonomous Puntland region recently told the BBC that when he visited Eyl, he could see at least 10 boats being held by pirates there.

“The two French nationals are safe and sound,” the French statement said.

Tahiti-based sailing enthusiasts Jean-Yves and Bernadette Delanne were on their way from Australia to France, through the Gulf of Aden, when they were captured on 2 September.

“This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity,” Mr Sarkozy said at a press conference on Tuesday. “France will not allow crime to pay.”

“I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice.”

Attacks against fishing boats, cargo ships and yachts have surged over recent months and foreigners, who can be exchanged for large ransoms, are frequent targets.

Warships from France and other nations have been patrolling the Somali coast to protect ships carrying aid to the country, where up to a third of the population needs food aid.

On Monday, European foreign ministers agreed to set up a “co-ordination unit” to improve security patrols.

France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has a military base in neighbouring Djibouti.

Welcomed

In April, French commandos made six arrests in a helicopter raid on Somali pirates after they had been paid a ransom to free the crew of another French yacht.

The six seized alleged pirates were handed over to French justice officials to be tried.

According to Reuters, the pirate group holding the Delanne couple were also demanding the release of their compatriots held in France.

Authorities in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland welcomed the French move.

Puntland’s administration claims it is powerless in the face of the growing power of the pirates, who are well-armed and employ a lot of people.

“The state of Puntland encourages such steps and calls on other governments whose nationals are being held to do the same thing the French have done,” Puntland presidential adviser Bille Mohamoud Qabowsade told AFP.

The IMB says pirates off Somalia use “mother ships” that travel far out to sea and launch smaller boats to attack passing vessels, sometimes using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered from continual civil strife.

Battles between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian-backed government soldiers have forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the last 18 months.

September 14, 2008

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

Pope holds huge Mass in Lourdes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pope Benedict XVI has celebrated his first Mass at Lourdes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Did you attend the mass in Lourdes? You can send us your comments

September 8, 2008

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

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

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

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

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

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

Criticism of US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fruitful’ talks

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

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

Mr Medvedev and Mr Sarkozy in Moscow, 08/09

The two leaders were in talks for more than three hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult goals

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

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

However, European nations do not agree.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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