News & Current Affairs

January 9, 2009

Bombs hit Gaza as UN urges truce

Bombs hit Gaza as UN urges truce

The ruins of the Al-Noor Mosque in Gaza City, hit by an Israeli air strike on 8 January 2009

Israeli forces have been striking targets in Gaza for almost two weeks

Israeli warplanes continued to bomb Gaza on the night when the UN called for an immediate end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants.

The UN Security Council called for a ceasefire, access for aid workers and a lasting solution to the conflict, as Israel made at least 30 air strikes.

Six Palestinians were reportedly killed in one attack.

Almost two weeks after the conflict erupted, an estimated 770 Palestinians and 14 Israelis are dead.

Reports from the Israel-Gaza border that explosions can still be heard on Friday morning and smoke can be seen drifting over the Strip.

A prominent Egyptian cleric has called on Muslims across the world to stage rallies on Friday to demonstrate anger at the violence.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who heads the Union of Islamic Scholars, said Friday prayers should be dedicated to expressing solidarity with the Palestinians.

‘Durable ceasefire’

Early on Friday, Israeli planes launched fresh strikes on targets in Gaza. Six members of one family were killed in one attack, witnesses said.

In a report which could not be verified independently, Hamas said a bomb had flattened a five-storey apartment block in northern Gaza.

Map

Reports of new attacks came as 14 out of 15 Security Council members backed a resolution on the crisis.

The resolution called for an “immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire” leading to the “full withdrawal” of Israeli forces from Gaza.

It also called for “the unimpeded provision and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance”, measures to prevent arms smuggling to Palestinian militants and the opening of border crossings into Gaza.

It is the first time the Security Council has acted since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began on 27 December.

But, in a surprise move, the US chose to abstain.

America “thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation efforts, in order to see what this resolution might have been supporting”, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained.

Israeli officials visited Cairo on Thursday to hear details of a plan put forward by Egypt and France.

A Hamas delegation is also expected in the Egyptian capital at some stage for parallel “technical” talks, Egyptian diplomats said.

Israel wants to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel and to stop Hamas smuggling weapons into Gaza via Egypt, while Hamas says any ceasefire deal must include an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The Security Council’s near-unanimous vote represents an important diplomatic punctuation mark in this crisis, correspondents say.

But the US abstention weakened the impact of the vote because Washington’s support would have placed more pressure on Israel to halt its offensive, they add.

Are you or your friends or family in the region affected by the violence? Tell us your experiences

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November 1, 2008

Libya compensates terror victims

People visit the Lockerbie Garden of Remembrance (image from May 2000)

Most of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing were Americans

Libya has paid $1.5bn into a US compensation fund for relatives of victims of terror attacks blamed on Tripoli, the US state department says.

The fund was agreed in August to settle remaining lawsuits in the US.

The attacks include the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people and the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco which killed three and wounded more than 200.

Under the deal, Libya did not accept responsibility for the attacks, but agreed to compensate victims.

It is the final step in a long diplomatic process, which has seen Libya come back into the international fold.

US contribution

The first $300m Libyan payment into the fund was made on 9 October, shortly after an historic visit to Tripoli by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Its second payment of $600m was received on Thursday and a final installment of $600m was made on Friday, said David Welch, the US diplomat who negotiated the settlement.

In exchange, President Bush has signed an executive order restoring the Libyan government’s immunity from terror-related lawsuits and dismissing pending compensation cases in the US, the White House said.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs David Welch (l), and Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Fitouri (14.8.2008)

The US and Libya agreed to the compensation deal in August

Our correspondent says it is unclear why it took so long for the money to be paid into the fund.

She adds that there may have been contributions by American companies lured by business opportunities in Tripoli and keen to expedite the process of normalising ties.

The US State Department, however, has insisted that no money from the American taxpayer will be used for the US portion of the fund.

Libya has already paid the families of Lockerbie victims $8m (£4m) each, but it owes them $2m more.

The fund will also be used to compensate relatives of seven Americans who died in the bombing of a French UTA airliner over Chad in 1989.

In 2004, Libya agreed to pay $35m in compensation to non-US victims of the 1986 Berlin bombing.

In the same year, relatives of non-US victims of the UTA bombing accepted a payment of $1m each from the Gaddafi International Foundation for Charity Associations.

Relations between Libya and the US improved in 2003 when Tripoli stopped working on weapons of mass destruction.

The decision led to the restoration of US diplomatic ties with Libya in 2006.

In turn, it was removed from America’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

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 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

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.

August 26, 2008

Russia recognises Georgian rebels

Russia recognises Georgian rebels

South Ossetian residents celebrate the Russian parliament's decision (25 Aug 08)

Many South Ossetians feel closer to Russia than Georgia

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared that Russia formally recognizes the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The move follows a vote in both houses of parliament on Monday, which called on Moscow to recognize the regions.

Mr Medvedev defied a specific plea from US President George W Bush not to go ahead with the move.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war this month over the provinces, which already had de facto independence.

Analysts say the move is likely to further escalate tensions between Russia and the West.

Rift with Nato

“I have signed decrees on the recognition by the Russian Federation of the independence of South Ossetia and the independence of Abkhazia,” Mr Medvedev said in the announcement.

BBC map

“That was no easy choice to make, but it is the sole chance of saving people’s lives,” Mr Medvedev added.

He blamed Georgia for failing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the problem and called on other states to follow Russia’s example.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking from the West Bank city of Ramallah, said Russia’s decision was “regrettable”.

The US state department had warned that recognition of the two provinces’ independence would be “a violation of Georgian territorial integrity” and “inconsistent with international law”.

In a statement, Mr Bush called on Russia’s leadership to “meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions”.

In the two breakaway regions, however, Moscow’s move was warmly welcomed.

Residents in Abkhazia took to the streets to celebrate the news, firing into the air, Reuters reports, and in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali there were scenes of jubilation.

‘New understanding’

Earlier on Tuesday, Russia cancelled a visit by Nato’s secretary general, one of a series of measures to suspend co-operation with the military alliance.

Russia’s ambassador to Nato said the trip would be delayed until relations between the two were clarified.

Dmitry Rogozin said a “new understanding” needed to be reached between Russia and Nato.

The recognition is bound to dramatically heighten tensions in Russia’s already fragile relationship with the West.

He says this and a series of other announcements indicate that Russia is preparing itself for a showdown.

Although most of Russia’s forces pulled out of the rest of Georgia last Friday, it is maintaining a presence both within the two rebel regions and in buffer zones imposed round their boundaries.

Port control

Some Russian troops also continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, where Russia says it will carry out regular inspections of cargo.

The US said on Tuesday that its warships would deliver aid to Georgia’s port of Poti, which is under Russian control. The move could mean US and Russian forces coming face-to-face.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Russia is right to recognise South Ossetia and guarantee its security

Branco, Bulgaria

Earlier, the head of European security organisation, the OSCE, Alexander Stubb, accused Russia of trying to empty South Ossetia of Georgians.

Speaking to the BBC’s Europe Today program, he said: “They are clearly trying to empty southern Ossetia from Georgians, which I don’t think goes by any of the books that we deal with in international relations”.

A South Ossetian commander said many Georgian civilians had already left of their own accord, because they were scared of the guns.

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 19, 2008

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Russian soldiers near Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008

Moscow insists that its troops have begun pulling back, as promised

Nato foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit to discuss how the alliance should respond to Russia’s military action in Georgia.

On the eve of the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the West must deprive Russia of any strategic victory from its assault on Georgia.

But major differences remain among Nato members as to how far they should go in seeking to punish Russia, analysts say.

Tbilisi says Russia is not pulling out, as pledged, but Moscow denies it.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

A ceasefire was signed at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on Monday, but correspondents say there has so far been little sign of any large-scale force withdrawal.

We hope the decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era
Dmitry Rogozin
Russia’s ambassador to Nato

Officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, but the Russian defence ministry said the redeployment had begun and would be complete within days.

As Nato’s 26 foreign ministers gather in Brussels, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says there is disagreement among the alliance as to how to respond, so the focus will be on where members can agree.

It is thought that in one camp, Britain, Canada, the US and most Eastern European member states will seek a tough stance on Russia, but most of Western Europe, led by France and Germany, is expected to be more cautious of harming ties with Moscow.

Flying to the Nato meeting, Ms Rice told reporters: “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state.”

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 security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Our correspondent says the summit, called at the Americans’ request, looks set to offer strong support to the government in Tbilisi, stressing Nato’s commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty.

A Nato spokeswoman told AFP news agency: “I think you can expect a strong message to Russia.”

The alliance is also expected to reiterate its backing for the agreement it reached in Romania back in April that Georgia will one day be offered membership of Nato, without setting any dates.

Nato is also expected to offer more humanitarian aid and proposals on how to rebuild Georgian infrastructure damaged in the conflict.

Our correspondent says Nato’s immediate diplomatic goals are a full Russian withdrawal, an enhanced observer force and, ultimately, a more neutral peacekeeping arrangement.

He says high-level contacts between Nato and Russia could be suspended if Russians do not pull back to the positions their peacekeepers occupied before the hostilities.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The sight of GWB [US President George Bush] complaining about Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” is hilarious

Max, London

Washington has denied claims from Moscow that it is out to wreck the Nato-Russia Council – a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said on Monday he hoped the “decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era”, reported the Associated Press news agency.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili struck a conciliatory tone on Monday as he called for talks with Russia, saying: “Let’s resolve problems through civilized methods.”

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