News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

July 15, 2009

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israel soldiers speak out on Gaza

Israeli soldiers deployed on the Israel-Gaza border 28 Decmeber 2008

Soldier testimonies appear to contradict official Israeli statements

A group of soldiers who took part in Israel’s assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under “permissive” rules of engagement.

The troops said they had been urged to fire on any building or person that seemed suspicious and said Palestinians were sometimes used as human shields.

Breaking the Silence, a campaign group made up of Israeli soldiers, gathered anonymous accounts from 26 soldiers.

Israel denies breaking the laws of war and dismissed the report as hearsay.

The report says testimonies show “the massive and unprecedented blow to the infrastructure and civilians” was a result of Israeli military policy, articulated by the rules of engagement, and encouraged by a belief “the reality of war requires them to shoot and not to ask questions”.

One soldier is quoted saying: “The soldiers were made to understand that their lives were the most important, and that there was no way our soldiers would get killed for the sake of leaving civilians the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul Wood
From Paul Wood,Courtesy
BBC Middle East correspondent:

Until now, Israel always had a ready answer to allegations of war crimes in Gaza. Claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda. Now the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

The common thread in the testimonies is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

The Israeli military says past allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza were the result of soldiers recycling rumours.

But Breaking the Silence has a long – and to many, credible – record in getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the army.

Another says: “People were not instructed to shoot at everyone they see, but they were told that from a certain distance when they approach a house, no matter who it is – even an old woman – take them down.”

Many of the testimonies are in line with claims made by human rights organisations that Israeli military action in Gaza was indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Amnesty International has accused both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in charge in Gaza, of committing war crimes during the 22-day conflict which ended on 18 January.

Israeli officials insist troops went to great lengths to protect civilians, that Hamas endangered non-combatants by firing from civilian areas and that homes and buildings were destroyed only when there was a specific military need to do so.

‘Ill discipline’

Other allegations in the testimonies of the 14 conscripts and 12 reserve soldiers include:

• Civilians were used as human shields, entering buildings ahead of soldiers

You can’t identify too much at night and anything that moves you engage in order not to take risks. It was not defined this way officially, but it was obvious
Anonymous Israeli soldier

• Large swathes of homes and buildings were demolished as a precaution or to secure clear lines of fire for the future.

• Some of the troops had a generally aggressive, ill-disciplined attitude

• There was incidents of vandalism of property of Palestinians

• Soldiers fired at water tanks because they were bored, at a time of severe water shortages for Gazans

• White phosphorus was used in civilian areas in a way some soldiers saw as gratuitous and reckless

• Many of the soldiers said there had been very little direct engagement with Palestinian militants.

The report says Israeli troops and the people who justify their actions are “slid[ing] together down the moral slippery slope”.

“This is an urgent call to Israeli society and its leaders to sober up and investigate anew the results of our actions,” Breaking the Silence says.

Israel said the purpose of Operation Cast Lead had been to end rocket fire from Gaza aimed at its southern towns.

Palestinian rights groups say about 1,400 Palestinians died during the operation. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict, including 10 soldiers serving in Gaza.

According to the UN, the campaign damaged or destroyed more than 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, 39 mosques and two churches.

Investigations

Reacting to the report, Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich said:

“The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] regrets the fact that another human rights organisation has come out with a report based on anonymous and general testimony – without investigating their credibility.”

She dismissed the document as “hearsay and word of mouth”.

“The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,” Lt Col Leibovich added. “This is even more important where the harm is to non-combatants. The IDF has uncompromising ethical values which continue to guide us in every mission.”

There have been several investigations into the conduct of Israel’s operation in Gaza, and both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the territory, have faced accusations of war crimes.

An internal investigations by the Israeli military said troops fought lawfully, although errors did take place, such as the deaths of 21 people in a house that had been wrongly targeted.

A fact-finding team commissioned by the Arab League concluded there was enough evidence to prosecute the Israeli military for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that “the Israeli political leadership was also responsible for such crimes”.

It also said Palestinian militants were guilty of war crimes in their use of indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians.

July 9, 2009

Ban criticises G8 climate efforts

Ban criticises G8 climate efforts

(L-R) Manmohan Singh; Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; Felipe Calderon; Jacob Zuma; Dai Bingguo

The summit has opened up to take in the so-called G5 nations

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has criticised leaders of the G8 industrial nations for failing to make deeper commitments to combat climate change.

On Wednesday, the leaders, meeting in Italy, agreed to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, but Mr Ban said big cuts were needed sooner rather than later.

The leaders are set to meet their counterparts from emerging economies to discuss a new deal on global warming.

US President Barack Obama will chair the session, in the city of L’Aquila.

The second day of the summit has begun, opening up its discussions to take in the so-called G5 nations – Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Egypt is a special invitee.

The G8 leaders said on Wednesday they had agreed to try to limit global warming to just 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels.

That is the level above which, the United Nations says, the Earth’s climate system would become dangerously unstable.

The G8 leaders also said rich nations should cut emissions by 80% by 2050 while the world overall should reduce them 50% by 2050.

But correspondents say emerging nations appear reluctant to sign up and tough negotiations lie ahead.

‘Moral imperative’

Mr Ban said Wednesday’s agreement was welcome, but the leaders needed to establish a strong and ambitious mid-term target for emissions cuts by 2020.

“This is politically and morally imperative and a historic responsibility for the leaders… for the future of humanity, even for the future of Planet Earth,” he told the news.

Mr Ban said the leaders also had to come up with financial incentives for poorer countries to reduce pollution and aid to help them mitigate the effects of climate change.

President Obama will chair the Major Economies Forum meeting on Thursday afternoon.

The countries represented there account for some 80% of the emissions of gases that are blamed for global warming.

‘Still time’

Our diplomatic correspondent says, in L’Aquila, says the talks with India and China will be difficult.

China’s president has headed home to deal with the ethnic violence in Xinjiang, so there are now questions whether his delegation will be more cautious.

G8 KEY ISSUES/TIMETABLE
THURSDAY: Climate Change
Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Egypt join talks
1230 GMT – Junior G8
1300 GMT – Major Economies Forum meeting
FRIDAY: Development
0630 GMT – crisis’ impact on Africa with African leaders attending
0830 GMT – food security
1100 GMT – final news conference
G8 members: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, US

Our correspondent adds that India is already complaining that the G8’s long-term targets for 2050 are too long-term and that G8 countries are ducking interim targets for 2020 which would make their 40-year ambitions more credible.

But in a meeting with Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, Mr Obama said there was still time to close the gap between developed and developing nations before UN talks on a new climate change treaty in Copenhagen in December.

The summit host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has said a deal should be all-inclusive.

“It would not be productive if European countries, Japan, the United States and Canada accepted cuts that are economically damaging while more than five billion people in other countries carried on as before,” he said.

The G8 summit began in L’Aquila on Wednesday, with the first day largely taken up with discussion of the fragile state of the global economy.

The leaders also issued a statement reaffirming that they were “deeply concerned” by Iran’s nuclear programme and condemning North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launches.

African leaders will join the summit on Friday to push for a new initiative to fund farming in the developing world and tackle global hunger.

Graph shows rising global temperatures

July 4, 2009

North Korea missile tests defy UN

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:27 pm

North Korea missile tests defy UN

A student passes a diagram of North Korean missile types at a South Korean observation post in Paju, 19 June

North Korea is thought to have thousands of missiles

North Korea has test-fired a series of missiles in an apparent act of defiance on 4 July, American Independence Day.

Reports say at least seven Scud-type ballistic missiles were fired, with a range of about 500km (312 miles).

South Korea and Japan called the latest tests, which follow several others in recent weeks, an “act of provocation”.

North Korea is banned from all ballistic missile-related activities under UN sanctions imposed after a second underground nuclear test in May.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the missiles were fired from one of the North’s east coast launch sites on Saturday morning.

All landed in the Sea of Japan, known in South Korea as the East Sea.

NORTH KOREA 2009 TESTS
map
4 July – Seven suspected ballistic missiles fired
2 July – four short-range cruise missiles launched
25 May – second underground nuclear test brings new UN sanctions
25/26 May – series of short-range rockets fired
5 April – N Korea says long-range rocket was satellite launch

“Our military is fully ready to counter any North Korean threats and provocations,” the JCS said in a statement.

A South Korean defence official said Saturday’s tests were of greater concern than four short-range ones on Thursday, as the missiles had longer ranges.

“Thursday’s missile tests were apparently made as part of a military drill but today’s launches, which came on the eve of the US Independence Day, are believed to be aimed at political purposes,” the official told Yonhap news agency.

The South Korean government condemned the launches for being in breach of the recent UN security council resolution.

A spokesman for the US state department, meanwhile, described North Korea’s behaviour as “not helpful” and urged it not to aggravate tensions, AFP news agency reported.

Nuclear warhead fears

The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says the launches are seen there as part of North Korean efforts to ratchet up the tension.

The missiles’ estimated 500km reach – although still technically short-range – brings most of South Korea withing striking distance, our correspondent says.

Japanese and South Korean media have reported that North Korea may be preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Our correspondent says there are no signs that such a test could be imminent.

Pyongyang is banned from testing ballistic missiles under UN resolutions but launched a long-range rocket in April, which many governments saw as a thinly disguised test of Taepodong-2 missile technology.

There are fears that North Korea is trying to produce nuclear warheads small enough to put on missiles – but experts say this appears to be several years away.

After six-nation talks aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions broke down earlier this year, Pyongyang said it would “weaponise” its plutonium stocks and start enriching uranium.

On 12 June the UN Security Council approved a resolution allowing inspection of air, sea and land shipments in and out of North Korea suspected of carrying banned arms and weapons-related material.

The North has said it will treat any interception of its ships as a declaration of war.

Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter told the BBC that the international community will have to wait and see what North Korea wants, while reprimanding it and taking what action it can.

He believes that the political situation inside North Korea could be behind its recent behaviour.

There are questions over the health of leader Kim Jong-il, after his apparent stroke last year.

Reports suggest he has named his youngest son as his successor – and some analysts believe the recent bellicosity could be a show of strength aimed at securing domestic support for his plans.

July 2, 2009

UN blames Israel for Gaza attacks

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:42 am
UN blames Israel for Gaza attacks

More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in
Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza [EPA]

A United Nations inquiry into the war in Gaza has found that Israel was to blame for at least seven direct attacks on UN operations – including schools and medical centres.

The UN report, commissioned by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said the Israeli military intentionally fired at UN facilities and civilians hiding in them during the war and used disproportionate force.

Missiles, bombs and small arms were all used by Israel against the UN – leading to dozens of deaths.

The UN’s own fuel and aid depot in Gaza was hit with Israeli artillery shells causing widespread damage.

The attack continued for two hours after the UN asked the Israeli military for it to stop.

‘Negligence and recklessness’

The report’s summary accused the Israeli army of “varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of UN staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries and extensive physical damage and loss of property.” Ban said at a news conference on Tuesday that the aim of the report, which is not legally binding, was to establish “a clear record of the facts” surrounding incidents involving UN premises and personnel.

A total of 53 installations used by the United Nations Relief and Works agency (UNRWA) were damaged or destroyed during Israel’s Gaza campaign, including 37 schools – six of which were being used as emergency shelters – six health centres, and two warehouses, the UN agency said.

Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey in New York said the UN secretary-general was still determining the UN’s course of action over the report’s 11 recommendations.The report said the UN would seek reparations for damages from Israel and meet the Israeli government.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, told Al Jazeera that the report was “one-sided” and that he hoped Ban would take into account Israel’s response to it.

Israel’s army concluded its own report into the three-week war on Gaza in late April, finding that Israel followed international law and that while errors occurred they were “unavoidable”.

Notorious incident

The report found that in seven out of the nine incidents involving UN premises or operations that it investigated, “the death, injuries and damage involved were caused by military actions … by the IDF [Israeli army]”.

The UN has called for an impartial inquiry into alleged crimes during the war [AFP]

It also said one of the incidents, when a World Food Programme warehouse in the Karni industrial zone in Gaza was damaged, was largely caused by a rocket “most likely” fired by Hamas or another Palestinian faction and condemned those responsible for using such “indiscriminate weapons” to cause deaths and injuries.The investigation included one of the most notorious incidents in the war, when up to 40 people are believed to have died at a UN school in Jabaliya after Israeli mortar shells struck the area.

The UN initially said the shells had hit the school but later retracted the claim, while Israel initially said its forces were responding to firing from within the school, but also later reportedly withdrew the statement, although the UN report noted the claim still appeared on the Israeli foreign ministry’s website as of Tuesday.

The report also recommended that because there had been “many incidents” during the war involving civilian victims, an impartial inquiry should be mandated “to investigate allegations of violations of international law in Gaza and southern Israel by the IDF [Israeli army] and by Hamas and other Palestinian militants”.

Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, including around 400 children, Gaza health officials said, along with 13 Israelis.

Much of the coastal territory was also left in ruins.

Report ‘flawed’

Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the report was “fundamentally flawed” and contained “methodological problems are so deep that everyone has to ask on what basis they make these criticisms”.”Evidence shows one thing and the UN report clearly shows that they are not looking at reality.”

Israel has said the aim of its operations in Gaza was to cripple the Palestinian group Hamas’s ability to launch rockets into the south of Israel.

Earlier this month an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed to Al Jazeera that it would not co-operate with a separate UN Human Rights Council investigation into alleged war crimes during the assault on the Gaza Strip.

International rights groups have accused both the Israeli military and Palestinian groups such as Hamas of violations throughout the conflict.

The UN secretary-general commissioned the report, written by a special committee led by Ian Martin, former head of Amnesty International, in January, shortly after fighting ended.

June 21, 2009

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greek President Karolos Papoulias has renewed his country’s call for Britain to return sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens 200 years ago.

At the opening of the Acropolis Museum, Mr Papoulias said it was “time to heal the wounds” of the ancient temple.

The new museum, opened five years behind schedule, houses sculptures from the golden age of Athens.

Britain has repeatedly refused to return dozens of 2,500-year-old marble friezes housed in the British Museum.

“Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing,” said Mr Papoulias.

“It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”

‘International context’

The sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, originally decorated the Parthenon temple and have been in London since they were sold to the museum in 1817 by Lord Elgin.

He had them removed from the temple when he was visiting Greece, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

After several adventures, obstructions and criticism, the new Acropolis Museum is ready
Antonis Samaras

The British Museum long argued that Greece had no proper place to put them – an argument the Greek government hopes the Acropolis Museum addresses.

The opening ceremony was attended by heads of state and government and cultural envoys from about 30 countries, the UN and the EU.

There were no government officials from Britain, but the most senior British guest, Bonnie Greer, the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, said she believed more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London.

She argued that in London they are displayed in an international cultural context.

She said a loan was possible, but that would require Greece to acknowledge British ownership, something Greece refuses.

The British Museum holds 75m of the original 160m of the frieze that ran round the inner core of the building.

‘Act of barbarism’

Their reconstruction in the Acropolis Museum is based on several elements that remain in Athens, as well as copies of the marbles in London.

The modern glass and concrete building, at the foot of the Acropolis, holds about 350 artefacts and sculptures from the golden age of Athens that were previously held in a small museum on top of the Acropolis.

The structure is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there is nowhere in their country to house the Elgin marbles
Razia Iqbal, BBC arts correspondent

The £110m ($182m; 130m euros) structure, set out over three levels, also offers panoramic views of the stone citadel where they came from.

The third floor features the reconstruction of the Parthenon Marbles.

The copies are differentiated by their white colour – because they are plaster casts, contrasting with the weathered marble of the originals.

Museum director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis said the opening of the museum provides an opportunity to correct “an act of barbarism” in the sculptures’ removal.

“Tragic fate has forced them apart but their creators meant them to be together,” he said.

Bernard Tschumi, the building’s US-based architect, said: “It is a beautiful space that shows the frieze itself as a narrative – even with the plaster copies of what is in the British Museum – in the context of the Parthenon itself.”

June 19, 2009

Somali MP gunned down in capital

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 9:11 pm

Somali MP gunned down in capital

map

A Somali politician has been killed by gunmen in the capital, Mogadishu, the government has confirmed.

Mohamed Hussein Addow’s killing is the third of a high-profile public figure in as many days.

A suicide attack killed the country’s security minister and 34 others a day earlier in Beledweyne, in the north.

Mogadishu’s police commander was also killed this week. Pro-government forces have been fighting radical Islamist guerrillas in the city since 7 May.

Friday’s fighting happened in the Karen district of northern Mogadishu – the area Mr Addow represented.

Earlier, the funeral of Security Minister Omar Hashi Aden was held.

He was an outspoken critic of al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group which said it carried out Thursday’s suicide attack.

A combined force of radical Islamic militants, including al-Shabab, which is accused of links to al-Qaeda, has been trying to topple the fragile UN-backed government for three years.

A moderate Islamist president took office in Somalia in January but even his introduction of Sharia law to the strongly Muslim country has not appeased the guerrillas.

January 31, 2009

Merkel proposes UN economic body

Merkel proposes UN economic body

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (in red) arriving to speak in Davos, 30 January

Mrs Merkel leads one of the world’s most important economies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed the creation of a United Nations Economic Council modelled on the UN Security Council.

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she called for the adoption of a post-crisis global economic charter.

The charter would be based on sustainable economics and the Economic Council would oversee markets.

It is an idea that Mrs Merkel has advocated previously.

“All of these issues… need to be enshrined in a charter for the global economic order,” she said.

“This may even lead to a UN Economic Council, just as the Security Council was created after World War II.”

The idea of creating a UN Economic Council was proposed by Mrs Merkel when she met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris earlier this month.

January 24, 2009

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

US President Barack Obama has lifted a ban on federal funding for foreign family planning agencies that promote or give information about abortion.

The US is one of the biggest supporters of family planning programmes globally, but former president George W Bush blocked funds for abortion services.

Powerful anti-abortion groups in the US have criticised the lifting of the ban.

But aid agencies welcomed the move, saying it would promote women’s health, especially in developing countries.

A White House spokesman said Mr Obama signed the executive order without asking for coverage by the media late on Friday afternoon.

The issue of abortion services remains controversial in the US, pitting pro-life conservative groups against more liberal, pro-choice Americans who back a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

This may be why President Obama signed the order with so little fanfare.

Highly contentious

Organisations that had pressed Mr Obama to make the abortion-ban change were jubilant.

They called the funding ban the “gag rule” because it cuts funds to groups that advocate or lobby for the lifting of abortion restrictions.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America hailed the president for “lifting the stranglehold on women’s health across the globe with the stroke of a pen.”

“No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women,” the organization said in a statement.

But anti-abortion groups were quick to criticise the reversal of the funding ban.

“President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

A 1973 decision by the US Supreme Court legalised abortion.

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that 54% of Americans think abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances, 28% believe it should be legal under any circumstances, while 17% back a total ban.

See-saw issue

The policy has become a see-saw issue between Republican and Democratic administrations.

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, repealed the policy when he took office in 1993 and George W Bush reinstated it in 2001.

The ruling is also known as the Mexico City Policy, because it was first introduced at a UN conference there in 1984 by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

In a move related to the lifting of the abortion rule, Mr Obama is also expected to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in the next budget, the AP news agency reported.

The Bush administration contended that the fund’s work in China supported a Chinese family planning policy of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation, claims the UNFPA has vehemently denied.

In a separate move earlier on Friday, US regulators cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

While the decision of the US Food and Drug Administration is independent of White House control, Mr Obama is widely expected to adopt a more pragmatic and science-oriented approach to stem cell research.

January 15, 2009

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Israeli tanks have pushed deep into Gaza City, prompting fierce exchanges of gunfire with fighters of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The UN’s relief agency, Unrwa, says part of its HQ in Gaza caught fire after being hit by Israeli shells.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressed outrage. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert apologised but said troops returned fire after coming under attack from the UN’s compound.

The Hamas interior minister, Said Siyam was reported killed in an air strike.

Both Hamas and Israeli officials said Siyam was killed at his brother’s home in Gaza City.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Israeli negotiators were said to be making progress towards a ceasefire agreement as they held separate meetings with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.

Olmert apology

Speaking to reporters on the Israel-Gaza border, Unrwa spokesman Christopher Gunness said three of the agency’s employees were hurt in the attack on its compound in Gaza City.

About 700 people were still sheltering in the compound, he said, and the fire had been burning close to five full fuel tanks.

Mr Gunness added that Unrwa would not be able to distribute food or medical supplies on Thursday as its trucks were unable to leave the compound.

Mr Olmert met Mr Ban and apologised for the attack, but blamed it on Palestinian fighters firing from the UN site.

“It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologise for it,” he said.

“I don’t think it should have happened and I’m very sorry.”

Escalation

The coastal enclave came under heavy fire from the east in the early morning as soldiers and tanks pushed into Gaza City.

Witnesses said they saw soldiers on foot marching behind bulldozers and tanks.

The advancing troops came under fire from fighters from Hamas and other Palestinian factions positioned on rooftops and balconies.

The building where he lives in the Gaza City suburb of Tel al-Hawa was surrounded by Israeli tanks at one point, he said, and several shells hit the lower floors.

Columns of thick smoke rose into the sky over Gaza from fires touched off by the fighting.

About 70 people have been killed in the fighting on Thursday, Gaza’s Ministry of Health said.

Reports said at least 15 rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel since the early morning, injuring eight people in Beersheba.

Nearly 1,100 Gazans and 13 Israelis have reportedly died so far in the conflict.

Speaking to the press after meeting Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv, Mr Ban repeated previous calls for an immediate ceasefire, and said the suffering in Gaza was a “dire humanitarian crisis” that had reached an “unbearable point”.

In other developments:

  • The UK Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown says the British government “utterly” condemns the attack on the UN headquarters in Gaza. Fierce criticism also came from the French foreign ministry
  • Two hospitals in Gaza City are hit by shellfire: the al-Quds hospital in Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood, scene of heavy fighting, and a Red Crescent hospital, the UK Red Cross says
  • The Shurouq tower block in Gaza City, which houses the offices of the Reuters news agency and several other media organisations, is hit by an explosion, injuring a journalist for the Abu Dhabi television channel
  • Leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are to meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, said the meeting was convened because of what he called Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people
  • A boat carrying medical supplies to Gaza is surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters off Lebanon’s southern coast and forced to return to Cyprus, according to charity Free Gaza
  • Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip reach 1,083 according to Gaza medical sources. Nearly a third of the dead are said to be children

‘Detailed vision’

Israeli and Hamas envoys have been in Cairo, holding separate meetings with Egyptian negotiators.

Egypt has been leading efforts to broker a ceasefire that could include a peacekeeping force being deployed along its border with Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Destroyed building in Gaza City

On Wednesday, Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said his movement had presented Egyptian negotiators with a “detailed vision” of how to bring about a ceasefire.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, has said any ceasefire agreement would have to include a halt to Israeli attacks, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of border crossings to end the blockade of Gaza.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was “momentum” to the talks.

“Ultimately we want to see a long-term sustainable quiet in the south, a quiet that’s going to be based on the total absence of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and an internationally supported mechanism that will prevent Hamas from rearming,” Mr Regev said.

Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip on 27 December and has refused to allow international journalists to enter Gaza without supervision, making it to independently confirm casualty figures.

The offensive has provoked widespread international condemnation at the cost in civilian casualties and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the coastal enclave.

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