News & Current Affairs

August 17, 2008

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian troops ‘start withdrawal’

Russian tank in Georgia (16 August 2008)

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

The Russian commander of front line forces in Georgia has told that a gradual withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia is under way.

Maj Gen Vyacheslav Borisov said he had given the order for Russian soldiers to be replaced by peacekeepers.

Russian forces in position 35km (22 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on the road to Gori, close to South Ossetia.

Russia said it did not have a timetable for a full withdrawal from Gori.

Russia still controls almost all of the main arterial highway running east-west through Georgia, and the main towns along the route.

Russia’s claimed redeployment comes a day after Moscow signed a French-brokered peace plan to end the crisis.

Conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to retake its Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia.

It led to a massive counter-offensive by Russia, with Russia moving deeper into Georgian territory.

The US has demanded Russian troops pull out, but Moscow says it will only withdraw from Georgian territory once extra security measures are in place.

International attention

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who mediated the peace deal on behalf of the European Union, has warned Moscow that the ceasefire bars its forces from any “major urban area” in Georgia.

However, in a letter addressed to his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, Mr Sarkozy said Russian troops did have the right to patrol “a few kilometres” beyond the conflict zone in South Ossetia.

But he underlined that clauses in the agreement permitting Russia to implement additional security measures “in no way limit or put in danger the freedom of movement and travel along the road and rail axes of Georgia” and could not be applied in any towns or cities.

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

“I am particularly thinking of the city of Gori,” he said, which is the largest town close to the South Ossetia border.

There is a much reduced Russian military presence in the town compared with Saturday – though Russian soldiers still control the town’s key entry and exit points.

He says that even if Russian peacekeepers replace soldiers, local residents say it will not make much difference.

Meanwhile, US President George W Bush has reiterated his staunch support for ally Georgia.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is due to hold talks with Mr Saakashvili in Tbilisi later on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the Russian authorities to immediately take steps to end attacks by South Ossetian militias on ethnic Georgians in Gori and to allow vital humanitarian aid to reach vulnerable civilians.

“The Russian military has effective control of the Gori region, making it responsible for the security and well-being of all people living there,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe deputy director.

Russian control

The BBC’s Richard Galpin, who has spent the past two days traveling from the Black Sea port of Poti to Tbilisi, says Georgian forces seem to be surrendering control of the highway to the Russians.

Georgian refugee in Tbilisi (16 August 2008)

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

In the western town of Senaki, our correspondent saw large numbers of Russian troops moving around on Saturday.

Further east in Zestafoni, he witnessed the panic of local residents as the word spread that the Russian army was approaching.

Cars sped away from roadblocks set up by the Georgian police, the drivers realizing their hopes of reaching Tbilisi had been dashed.

When the Russians arrived, they stayed only a few minutes after apparently being told there was no military base to take over.

Our correspondent says he then followed the Russian troops as they entered the central town of Khashuri, where they were given an escort by the local police.

He spoke to one Russian soldier who said he believed their final destination would be the Georgian capital, although the Kremlin flatly denied this. Another soldier said he expected to be in Georgia for a year.

Georgia has meanwhile accused pro-Russian Abkhaz separatist fighters of taking over 13 villages and a hydroelectric power plant. There has so far been no independent confirmation.

Security steps

Among the six points in the ceasefire deal, both sides agreed to pull back their forces to their positions before hostilities began on 7 August.

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

President Bush has said Mr Medvedev’s signing of the truce is “hopeful”, but that there can be no question that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will remain within Georgian borders, which are internationally recognised.

Reports suggest Mr Saakashvili only reluctantly agreed to another of the plan’s clauses – international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Map of region


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August 15, 2008

Nigeria cedes Bakassi to Cameroon

Nigeria cedes Bakassi to Cameroon

Bakassi villagers

Thousands of people have moved from their homes in Bakassi

Nigeria has handed over the potentially oil-rich Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon, bringing an end to a long-standing dispute over the territory.

The handover ceremony was moved from the peninsula’s main town to Calabar in Nigeria amid security concerns.

Over the past year about 50 people have been killed in clashes.

The majority of the local population considers itself Nigerian, but an international court ruled in favor of Cameroon in 2002.

There are unconfirmed reports that militants have attacked a boat traveling to Abana, the main town on the Bakassi peninsula.

Unresolved pain at Bakassi handover

Nigerian security sources said between three and seven people were killed when militants ambushed the boat as it made its way from Cameroon.

Correspondents say security had been beefed up ahead of the ceremony.

On the Cameroonian side, there have been celebrations as people moved back into the peninsula.

In recent years, at least 100,000 people have moved from the peninsula to Nigeria, local leaders say.

The International Court of Justice ruling was based on an early 19th century colonial agreement between Britain and Germany.

Nigeria challenged the ruling, but finally agreed to relinquish the territory two years ago.

“The gains made in adhering to the rule of law may outweigh the painful losses of ancestral homes,” said the head of the Nigerian delegation at the ceremony, Attorney General Mike Aondoakaa.

Part of the territory was handed over to Cameroon two years ago.

Revellers

A spokesman for Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua said the process was “painful… for everyone including the president”, but added that Nigeria had made “a commitment to the international community and we have a responsibility to keep it”.

Map

Cameroon said the final handover would mark “the end of a crisis”.

On the beaches of the northern part of the island there were parties and celebrations as Cameroonians prepared to go into the last section to be turned over to them.

“We are going straight to the place, and we’re going to be happy,” one reveller told in Bakassi.

But in Nigeria there is still bitterness about the deal.

“The government has abandoned its duties,” said Kayode Fasitere, the lawyer acting for some displaced from Bakassi who sought to have the handover delayed.

The transfer of Bakassi had been described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as “a model for negotiated settlements of border disputes”.

A group of Bakassi leaders have been seeking compensation from the Nigerian government.

About 90% of the area’s population, estimated at up to 300,000, is made up of Nigerian fishermen.

About 30,000 of the residents have moved out to an area in Cross Rivers State set aside for them, but it has no access to the sea, campaigners say.

Bakassi has a rich fishing culture and people say the handover has destroyed their way of life.

The Bakassi peninsula juts out into the Gulf of Guinea close to the Niger Delta.

Its offshore waters are thought to contain substantial oil fields – untapped because of the border dispute – which Nigeria and Cameroon will now work together to explore.

August 14, 2008

Sterling losses gather momentum

Sterling losses gather momentum

Graph

The pound has fallen further against the dollar, hitting its lowest level in almost two years amid fears the UK will fall into recession.

Sterling touched its lowest level since October 2006 at $1.8617 but later edged up to trade at $1.8691.

Measured against a basket of trade-weighted currencies, the pound is now at its weakest level since 1996.

The pound dropped sharply on Wednesday after the Bank of England issued a gloomy assessment of the UK economy.

The fall in sterling will hurt holidaymakers who have benefitted from a strong pound when traveling overseas- and make it more expensive for people to buy second homes abroad.

However, it could help exporters whose goods will be cheaper overseas.

The Bank’s governor Mervyn King said economic growth would be flat for the next year or so and that inflation would rise to 5% or above before falling.

But with domestic demand weak, a revival of exports could help the economy and limit job losses.

Rate cuts

Economists had thought inflation would prevent the Bank of England from cutting rates, but the Bank’s suggestion that inflation will begin to ease raised expectations of interest rate cuts and this hit the pound.

Notes and coins
We have long argued that sterling has been significantly overvalued in recent years
Jonathan Loynes, Capital Economics

Lower interest rates mean investors get lower returns on sterling deposits, which makes the pound less attractive.

Simon Derrick, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon, described the pound’s fall this week a “dramatic collapse” that recalled the aftermath of sterling’s ejection from European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992.

However, he said the currency’s slide should begin to ease.

“Even within the most ferocious sterling downtrends in the past, significant corrections emerged in the middle of the moves,” he said.

But Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics, thinks the pound could fall as far as $1.65 by the end of 2009.

“We have long argued that sterling has been significantly overvalued in recent years,” he said.

Deteriorating outlooks

Recent official figures have already shown the UK is struggling with high inflation and faltering growth.

Fears about European growth have also helped the dollar bounce back from record lows.

The US economy is still reeling from the credit crisis but analysts say the deteriorating outlook elsewhere in the world has given the dollar a boost.

Falling commodity prices have also supported the US currency. Investors had bought gold and oil to protect against dollar weakness and are now unwinding their positions.

The euro was trading at $1.4816 on Thursday, almost at the six-month low of $1.4815 struck this week. Earlier this year, the euro was trading at $1.60.

The euro has been further undermined by the military conflict in Georgia.

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