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26 May 2012
Syria – The BBC Middle East Corps reported: Western nations are pressing for a response to the massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, with the US calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s “rule by murder”. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council this week. The UN has confirmed the deaths of at least 90 people in Houla, including 32 children under the age of 10. Syria’s foreign ministry denied army involvement, blaming “terrorists”. Spokesman Jihad Makdissi said there was a clash in the area on Friday afternoon between security forces and armed terrorists. He said hundreds of armed men then gathered, armed with heavy weapons including mortars and anti-tank weapons, and attacked Houla.
Egypt – The LA Times reported: Egypt’s presidential candidates were busy Saturday polishing sound bites and stretching the facts a bit as they re-marketed themselves as guardians of the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and led to the nation’s first free election for a leader in history. The campaigns of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik sought to broaden their appeal before their runoff election next month. Neither man is regarded as epitomizing the spirit of the revolution — Shafik was prime minister during the deadly crackdowns on protesters days before Mubarak fell last year — but politics is often about image readjustment. The battle to enlist new voters came a day after independent ballot counts showed that Morsi had finished first in last week’s first-round presidential race with 26% of the vote, followed by Shafik with 23%. Leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh finished third and fourth, respectively.
Vatican City – The Washington Post reported: The Vatican’s investigation into the source of leaked documents has yielded its first target with the arrest of the pope’s butler, but the investigation is continuing into a scandal that has embarrassed the Holy See by revealing evidence of internal power struggles, intrigue and corruption in the highest levels of the Catholic Church governance. The detention of butler Paolo Gabriele, one of the few members of the papal household, capped one of the most convulsive weeks in recent Vatican history and threw the Holy See into chaos as it enters a critical phase in its efforts to show the world it’s serious about complying with international norms on financial transparency. The tumult began with the publication last weekend of a book of leaked Vatican documents including correspondence, notes and memos to the pope and his private secretary. It peaked with the inglorious ouster on Thursday of the president of the Vatican bank. And it concluded with confirmation Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI’s own butler was the alleged mole feeding documents to Italian journalists in an apparent bid to discredit the pontiff’s No. 2.
Iran – The Guardian UK reported: Iran has significantly increased its output of low-enriched uranium and if it was further refined could make at at least five nuclear weapons, according to a US thinktank. The Institute for Science and International Security, which tracks Iran’s nuclear programme, made the analysis on the basis of data in the latest quarterly report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN watchdog’s report, published on Friday, showed Iran pressing ahead with its uranium enrichment work in defiance of UN resolutions calling on it to suspend the activity. It said Iran had produced almost 6.2 tonnes of uranium enriched to a level of 3.5% since it began the work in 2007 – some of which has subsequently been further processed into higher-grade material. This equates to nearly 750 kg more than in the previous IAEA report issued in February, and the thinktank said Iran’s monthly production had risen by roughly a third.
Russia – The Voice of America reported: Relations between the United States and Russia are in a holding pattern until after the U.S. presidential elections in November, according to experts on diplomacy between the two nations. According to this analysis, once the new American president is chosen and Vladimir Putin settles in as the new Russian president, U.S./Russia relations should resume a level of cooperation established in recent years. Putin was sworn in as president this month, succeeding Dmitri Medvedev, who is now the new prime minister. In the United States, President Barack Obama is running for a second term against the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Given the political situation in both countries, the diplomatic experts predict few, if any, major developments in their relations until after November.
Pakistan – The Tampa Bay Times reported: An American drone fired two missiles at a bakery in northwest Pakistan Saturday, killing four suspected militants, officials said, as the U.S. pushed ahead with its drone campaign despite Pakistani demands to stop. This was the third such strike in the country in less than a week. The Associated Press said it was told by two Pakistani intelligence officials that the latest attack took place in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region.
Pakistan – The Guardian UK reported: A US senate committee has voted to cut Pakistan’s aid by $1m for each of the 33 years of a prison sentence given to a doctor for helping the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden. The appropriations committee unanimously approved the $33m reduction as outrage grows in Washington over the conviction of Shakil Afridi for treason . The physician ran a fake vaccination programme in an attempt to collect Bin Laden’s DNA in order to verify he was living in the Abbottabad compound where he was eventually killed a year ago. The aid cut will not be immediately implemented as it comes out of next year’s budget, but it will increase the pressure on the Pakistan government as Washington seeks to have Afridi’s conviction quashed or his sentence substantially reduced. The appropriations committee debate reflected the frustration at what many in Washington see as Pakistan’s duplicity that has bubbled away for many years over the links between its intelligence service and the Taliban, and was accentuated when it was revealed that Bin Laden was living untouched in a garrison town.
Singapore – The BBC Asia Corps reported: Singapore’s opposition Workers’ Party has won a closely fought by-election, retaining a seat vacated after an MP was expelled by the party in February. Candidate Png Eng Huat polled 62.09% of votes in the district of Hougang. Desmond Choo, of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP), polled 37.91%. Workers’ Party Secretary General Low Thia Khiang described the win as a “very good result”. PM Lee Hsien Loong said he was pleased that PAP’s share of the vote increased.
Afghanistan – The NEWS of OK reported: French President Francois Hollande for the first time provided details of his plan to pull France’s combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, saying Friday he would leave around 1,400 soldiers behind to help with training and logistics. The new French leader, making good on one of the major foreign-policy promises of his campaign, confirmed in a one-day visit to Afghanistan that all of France’s 2,000 combat troops would be brought home by the end of this year — putting France on a fast-track exit timetable that sparked consternation among some allies at a NATO summit in Chicago early this week. Hollande’s comments marked the first time that he had put an exact figure on the French deployment after the combat troops leave, suggesting that logistical necessities for France as well as its support for Afghanistan’s hoped-for transition to peace will go well beyond the year-end target.
Afghanistan – The New York Times reported: Both President Hamid Karzai and NATO commanders ordered an investigation on Sunday into reports that a family of eight had been killed in a coalition airstrike in eastern Afghanistan. NATO and Afghan provincial government officials gave somewhat divergent accounts of the episodes. The casualties took place in eastern Paktia Province on Saturday night when the family’s home was hit by a bomb, said Rohullah Samoon, a spokesman for the governor of Paktia. Six children were killed, four boys and two girls, as well as their mother and father, whose name was Safiullah. They lived in Sar Khilo village in the remote Gerdi Seri District, he said, adding that the circumstances of the bombing were not clear, but that the operation was carried out without coordination with Afghan security forces.
United Nations – Reuters reported: The size and sophistication of some recent bomb attacks in Syria suggest that “established terrorist groups” may have been behind them, the U.N. chief said on Friday, in a letter in which he urged states not to supply arms to government or rebel forces. “The overall situation in Syria remains extremely serious and there has been only small progress on some issues,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council in the letter on the 14-month-old conflict between government forces and increasingly militarized opposition. “There is a continuing crisis on the ground, characterized by regular violence, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, human rights violations and continued political confrontation,” he said in the letter, which was obtained by Reuters.
Yemen – The Agence France Presse reported: A Saudi diplomat kidnapped nearly a month ago in Yemen’s south has appealed to King Abdullah to meet Al-Qaeda demands to secure his release, according to a video posted on jihadist Internet forums. “I appeal to King Abdullah… and the Saudi government to save me and release me from Al-Qaeda organisation in return for releasing the sisters detained in (Saudi) general investigation prisons and fulfilling the remaining demands of the organisation,” Abdullah al-Khalidi said in the video, posted late on Friday and published by SITE Intelligence Group. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula abducted Khalidi, Saudi Arabia’s deputy consul in Yemen’s main southern city of Aden, on March 28 in a bid to secure the release of prisoners and collect a ransom. “I also appeal to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (King Abdullah) to return me to my family, my children and my wife,” said Khalidi who appeared calm in the nearly four-minute video. A Saudi interior ministry spokesman, cited by the official SPA news agency, warned that the abductors were “responsible for the security of Abdullah al-Khalidi.”
Serbia – Reuters reported: Serbia is on a “long and uncertain” road to joining the European Union but will not give up its claim to Kosovo for the sake of membership, President-elect Tomislav Nikolic told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. It was Nikolic’s first foreign trip since he was elected president on May 20. The election of the former leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party triggered speculation the country might abandon its pro-Western path steered since the overthrow of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. But aides to Nikolic said the visit to Russia had been planned before his shock election victory and Nikolic said his first official foreign visit after he is inaugurated president would be to Brussels on June 12. The meeting with Nikolic was also Putin’s first encounter with a foreign leader from outside the former Soviet Union since he returned to Russia’s presidency for a six-year term on May 7.
Northern Mali – The New York Times reported: The two rebel groups that seized control of the northern half of Mali announced Saturday that they had agreed to formally merge their movements, a leader who signed the agreement said. The leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla of the Ansar Dine group, which wants the newly declared nation to be an Islamic state, confirmed that his movement was joining with the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, a secular rebel group led by Tuareg separatists. They signed the agreement in the town of Gao, in the north, on Saturday following celebratory gunfire. “I have just signed an accord that will see an independent and Islamic state where we have Islamic law,” Mr. Ag Intalla said. As a result of the coup on March 22 in Bamako, Malian army resistance in the north collapsed and rebel groups took over in the north, an area the size of France, forcing Malian government troops to flee south. Until now, the two had been in disagreement because Ansar Dine wanted to impose Shariah law, something the secular N.M.L.A. had been resisting. During the rebel advance, residents said there were turf wars, with the fighters occupying different areas of the cities.
27 May 2012
Nepal – The New York Times reported: “Nepal descended into a new crisis on Sunday after rival political parties in the Himalayan nation failed to reach an agreement on a new constitution before the national legislature’s term expired at midnight,” Kiran Chapagain and Jim Yardley write for The New York Times. “The development on Sunday is yet another setback in Nepal’s long and often torturous transition from monarchy to democratic republic,” they write. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, speaking on national television, announced that the legislature, known as the Constituent Assembly, would be dissolved. He said he would remain in power and that his government would hold November elections for a new assembly. Rival political leaders quickly denounced the plan as a power grab. “Political consensus is still needed to move ahead,” Mr. Bhattarai said in his address, just before midnight. Describing himself as “saddened” and “dejected,” the prime minister added: “Let us learn from mistakes and move ahead.”
Iran – The New York Times reported: Iran’s nuclear chief, reversing the country’s previous statements, said on state television on Sunday that the country would not halt its production of higher-grade uranium, suggesting that the Iranian government was veering back to a much harder line after talks in Baghdad with the West last week ended badly. The official, Fereydoon Abbasi, said there would be no suspension of enrichment by Iran, the central requirement of several United Nations Security Council resolutions. He specifically said that applied to uranium being enriched to 20 percent purity — a steppingstone that puts it in fairly easy reach of producing highly enriched uranium that can be used for nuclear weapons. “We have no reason to retreat from producing the 20 percent, because we need 20 percent uranium just as much to meet our needs,” Mr. Abbasi said, according to Iranian state television.
Tibet – The (AP) reported: Two men engulfed themselves in a burst of flames outside a Buddhist temple popular with tourists and pilgrims in Lhasa, marking the first time a recent wave of self-immolations to protest Chinese rule has reached the tightly guarded Tibetan capital. One man died and the other was hospitalized after they set themselves on fire Sunday outside the Jokhang Temple, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The report quoted a local Communist Party official as blaming separatist forces, an accusation it often makes against Tibetan exiles who support the Dalai Lama. Xinhua said the two men were taken away by authorities within two minutes of setting themselves on fire. Protests have become rare in remote Tibet and Lhasa in particular because of tight police security that has blanketed the area since anti-government riots erupted in Lhasa in 2008. There have been at least 34 immolations since March of last year to draw attention to China’s restrictions on Buddhism and to call for the return from exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Most have taken place in heavily Tibetan areas of China, but only one had occurred in Tibet itself and none in the capital. Chinese authorities have confirmed some of the self-immolations over the past year but not all.
Vatican City – The (AP) reported: The Vatican’s investigation into the source of leaked documents has yielded its first target with the arrest of the pope’s butler, but the investigation is continuing into a scandal that has embarrassed the Holy See by revealing evidence of internal power struggles, intrigue and corruption in the highest levels of the Catholic Church governance. The detention of butler Paolo Gabriele, one of the few members of the papal household, capped one of the most convulsive weeks in recent Vatican history and threw the Holy See into chaos as it enters a critical phase in its efforts to show the world it’s serious about complying with international norms on financial transparency. The tumult began with the publication last weekend of a book of leaked Vatican documents including correspondence, notes and memos to the pope and his private secretary. It peaked with the inglorious ouster on Thursday of the president of the Vatican bank. And it concluded with confirmation Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI’s own butler was the alleged mole feeding documents to Italian journalists in an apparent bid to discredit the pontiff’s No. 2. “If you wrote this in fiction you wouldn’t believe it,” said Carl Anderson, a member of the board of the Vatican bank which contributed to the whirlwind with its no-confidence vote in its president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi. “No editor would let you put it in a novel.”
Pakistan – The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported: The family of the Pakistani doctor sentenced to 33 years in prison for helping the United States track down Osama bin Laden said Monday the man is innocent and dismissed his trial as a sham. The conviction of Shakil Afridi last week added another pressure point in Pakistan’s already fractured relationship with the U.S. Senior American officials have urged Pakistan to release the doctor, regarding him as a hero who worked to stop the terrorist leader. Islamabad views Afridi as a traitor who colluded with a foreign intelligence agency in an illegal operation on Pakistani soil. Also Monday, two suspected U.S. missile strikes pounded militant hide-outs in a tribal region close to Afghan border, killing nine alleged insurgents, officials said. There have been five such attacks this week. The strikes have also raised tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. Afridi ran a vaccination campaign on behalf of the CIA to collect blood samples of bin Laden’s family at a compound in Abbottabad where U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011. The samples were intended to help the U.S. match the family’s DNA to verify his presence in the garrison city.
Afghanistan – The LA Times reported: Afghan authorities on Sunday said a NATO air strike killed a family of eight at their house in eastern Afghanistan. If confirmed, the attack could anger Afghan leaders at a time when Washington needs Kabul’s cooperation in carrying out a blueprint for engagement after the U.S. wraps up its troop withdrawal in 2014. The air strike occurred about 8 p.m. Saturday in the Gerda Serai district of Paktia province, a volatile region along the Pakistan border. Rohulla Samoon, spokesman for the Paktia governor’s office, said a NATO air strike had killed eight civilians — Mohammed Shafi, his wife and his six children — all of whom were inside their house at the time. Samoon said there is no evidence that Shafi was a Taliban insurgent or linked with Al Qaeda. “Afghan security forces were not informed about the operation,” Samoon said. “Our concern is why [Western coalition] troops don’t share these issues with Afghan security forces. If they had shared this with us, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Bahrain – The (AP) reported: During one of the nightly clashes with Bahrain’s security forces, a new chant broke out among opposition protesters: “The U.S. is the great Satan.” A few days later, pro-government marchers also waved their fists against Washington. In a place with almost no common ground left after more than 15 months of Arab Spring-inspired unrest, both sides in the Bahrain meltdown are finding a shared target in the United States. Their gripes are vastly different — protesters claiming the U.S. has ignored them, government backers expecting full loyalty from their longtime allies — but the across-the-board potshots at Washington’s policies point to the deep complexities of U.S. attempts to navigate the crisis in the tiny Gulf kingdom. Bahrain tugs at just about every critical Gulf issue for Washington. Atop the list: America’s relations with Saudi Arabia as the main patron for the embattled Bahraini monarchy, and the stability of the Bahrain-based headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is one of the Pentagon’s main counterweights to Iranian military influence in the Gulf.
Northern Mali – The BBC Africa Corps reported: Two rebel groups that seized northern Mali two months ago have agreed to merge and turn their territory into an Islamist state, both sides say. The Tuareg MNLA, a secular rebel group, and the Islamist group Ansar Dine signed the deal in the town of Gao, spokespeople said. Ansar Dine, which has ties to al-Qaeda, has already begun to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in towns such as Timbuktu. The groups took advantage of a coup in March to seize the territory.
China – The WSJ Market Watch reported: The standoff between China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island, or Scarborough Shoal, has dragged on for weeks. But, thankfully, both sides have toned down their rhetoric in recent days, suggesting that the worst is over. We’ve stepped back from the brink of hostilities. That tensions have eased is due largely to Beijing’s restraint. The two countries are vastly mismatched. If China had opted to press its advantage with threats and even go to war to defend its sovereignty, the result would almost certainly be victory. But Beijing did not take the tit-for-tat route. Rather, in the face of Philippine warmongering, China’s response has been to reiterate its determination to defend its territorial integrity while engaging in diplomacy to resolve the crisis. Even when repeated Philippine provocations have sparked calls at home for retaliation, the government has not overreacted. Instead, it calmed things down through diplomatic, political and economic means.