Polls open in historic Scotland vote

Both excitement and anxiety are mounting as Scotland starts voting in knife-edge referendum to determine whether to break away from the UK and become independent.

As polls open in Scotland, most opinion polls and experts say it is a vote too tight to predict. The voting is going to continue until 21 GMT on Thursday.

In its final hours, the battle for Scotland had all the trappings of a normal election campaign: “Yes Scotland” and  ”No, Thanks” posters in windows, buttons on jackets, leaflets on street corners and megaphone-topped campaign cars cruising the streets blasting out Scottish songs and “Children of the Revolution.”

The gravity of the imminent decision was hitting home for many voters as political leaders made passionate, final pleas for their sides.

More than 4.2 million people are registered to vote in the country of 5.3 million people. including, for the first time, 16 and 17-year-olds – with neither side assured of a victory.

The latest polls released by Ipsos MORI, on Wednesday, put opposition to independence at 51 percent and support at 49 percent, with five percent of voters undecided. The company had conducted a telephonic poll of 1,373 people.

Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, who is himself a Scot, told a “No” campaign rally that the quiet majority of pro-Union Scots “will be silent no more”, while Alex Salmond, pro-independence leader and Scottish mirst minister, urged voters to seize a democratic opportunity 307 years in the making.

Cathy Chance, who works for Britain’s National Health Service in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, said she would leave Scotland if it became independent.

“I don’t want to live under a nation that’s nationalistic,” she said. “I don’t think the world needs another political barrier.”

‘Independence within reach’

On the other side, “Yes” campaigner Roisin McLaren said she was finally letting herself believe independence might be possible. 

“My family has campaigned for independence for a long, long time, and it’s always been a pipe dream,” the Edinburgh University student said as she knocked on doors in a last-minute effort to convert wavering electors.

“Just in the last few days it’s seemed possible, within reach. I can almost taste it.”

Politicians on both sides expressed confidence in the Scottish public, but uncertainty rippled below the surface.
Brown told supporters that the patriotic choice was to remain within the UK.

“The vote tomorrow [Thursday] is not about whether Scotland is a nation – we are, yesterday, today and tomorrow,” he said. “The vote tomorrow is whether you want to break and sever every link [with the rest of the country]“.
Salmond said Scots would seize “a 
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the future of this country into our hands.”

Despite gains in support for independence in recent weeks, Salmond said his side remained the underdog.

“However, as we know in life, in politics and certainly in this festival of democracy, underdogs have a habit of winning sometimes,” he said.

A “Yes” vote would trigger months of negotiations between Scotland and the British government over the messy details of independence, which Scottish authorities say will take effect on March 24, 2016, the anniversary of the date in 1707 that Scotland decided to unite with Britain.



Islamic Militants In Iraq Destroy Another Historic Mosque

Islamic State (IS) militants have destroyed a nearly 600-year-old mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the latest of several religious sites demolished by the group recently.

Mosul residents said the Prophet Jirjis Mosque and Shrine was blown up on July 27 by the radical Sunni group because it is a Shi’ite worship site.

Another site destroyed in Mosul last week was the mosque of the Prophet Shiyt (Seth) — who is revered in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Also demolished was the Mosque of the Prophet Yunis (Jonah), whose story is in the Bible and the Koran.

Muqtada Sadr, a leading Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, said Yunis “was a prophet for all religions” and that those behind the destruction “don’t deserve to live.”

The IS captured large parts of western and northern Iraq in June, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Based on reporting by AFP, AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kabul Voters Queue To Participate In ‘Historic’ Election

Published 14 June 2014

Amid heightened security, Afghan voters queued to cast their ballots in the runoff presidential election on June 14. At a polling station in Kabul, voters told RFE/RL they came to the polls with a sense of national pride and called on their fellow citizens to take part in what they described as an “act of national unity.” (RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan)

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

India’s Modi leads BJP to historic poll win

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister-elect, has promised to work to “fulfil the dreams of 1.2 billion people” as he addressed his supporters for the first time after he led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to a landslide election victory.

Thousands of his supporters from across his constituency of Vadodara in western Gujarat state turned out to hear the 63-year-old former tea boy who is poised to become prime minister of the world’s second-most populous nation.

Speaking to supporters, Modi thanked the nation, and immediately addressed concerns his pro-Hindu leanings would sideline minorities.

“The age of divisive politics has ended, from today onwards the politics of uniting people will begin,” Modi said. “We want more strength for the wellbeing of the country … I see a glorious and prosperous India.”

“I want to take all of you with me to take this country forward… it is my responsibility to take all of you with me to run this country,” he added.

By 10pm local time (1630 GMT), the BJP had won or was winning in 282 seats in parliament, counting trends showed, comfortably across the halfway mark of 272 required to rule. An alliance led by the party was ahead in 340 seats, TV channel NDTV said.

Full results were expected later in the evening or by Saturday morning, but Modi’s win was all but assured.

The desire for change has been so strong that voters put aside concerns about Modi’s Hindu-centric politics.

“India’s economy was in the doldrums. We have hope that he’ll lift up the economy, that he’ll create jobs,” said Shailesh Jha, 29, at the BJP’s Delhi headquarters.

For the young Indian voters, the priorities are jobs and development, which Modi put at the forefront of his campaign.

The stunning results exceeded all forecasts. Firecrackers exploded at BJP offices around the country and sweets were handed out in celebrations that began only a few hours after the first figures filtered out.

Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose party looked set to win less than 50 of the 543 parliamentary seats at stake, congratulated Modi with a telephone call.

Congress concedes defeat

The outcome was a crushing defeat for the Congress party, which is deeply entwined with the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has been at the centre of Indian politics for most of the country’s post-independence history.

The leaders of Congress party, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, admitted personal responsibility for the disastrous election results.

“We understand that victory and loss is part of democracy,” party president Sonia told reporters in New Delhi.

Getting to know India’s prime minister-elect

“We respect this decision. I take responsibility for this defeat,” she said.

Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, reporting from New Delhi, said: “Modi has taken the pains to tell the community-at-large that everyone will prosper under his government.”

“It is inevitable that countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan will be eyeing this very carefully,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reporting from Islamabad, said there is are some fears from the Pakistani side, but the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he is looking forward to a positive relationship.

“Even though there is optimism things will move forward, there are apprehnsions,” Hyder said.

There was a record turnout in the elections, with 66.38 percent of the 814 million eligible voters casting ballots during several stages of the six-week ballot. Turnout in the 2009 elections was 58.13 percent.

“In the history of independent India, no political party has defeated the Congress party with such a wide margin,” BJP President Rajnath Singh told a news conference in New Delhi.

Modi has promised that, if elected, he would take decisive action to unblock stalled investments in power, road and rail projects to revive economic growth.

But with India’s economy suffering its worst slowdown since the 1980s and battling high inflation, it will not be an easy task to meet the hopes of millions of Indians.

At one point on Friday, the benchmark Sensex stock index rose as much as 6.1 percent on news of the BJP’s strong showing before closing 0.9 percent higher than Thursday.

For real-time updates follow our Live Blog  and visit our spotlight page 



Syria Fighting Leaves Maaloula, a Historic Christian Town, in Ruins

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos

Fighters scan the streets below for any sign of rebels in Maaloula, Syria, where units of the Syrian army, pro-government militiamen and a loyalist Shiite militia have taken over (Nabih Bulos/For The Times/April 15, 2014).MAALOULA, Syria — From the debris-strewn front garden of the Safir Hotel, Syrian military commanders barked orders to troops taking cover in the smoke-shrouded maze of streets below.

“If you hear any movement, throw hand grenades immediately!” a general advised on his two-way radio as he peered at the battle unfolding like a distant video game at the bottom of the hill.

On Tuesday, Syrian forces were targeting the remnants of a rebel force in this historic town, long a center of Christian worship and pilgrimage.

Though most insurgents had long fled, a determined few remained well concealed in buildings and within the rubble, moving through tunnels and blasted-out passages. But they faced overwhelming force. Russian-made tanks pounded their positions while automatic-weapons fire rained down on them. Snipers posted on the bare hillsides trained their rifles on remaining rebel redoubts.

Maaloula, situated at the foot of a mountain gorge 40 miles northeast of Damascus, represents the latest in a string of government triumphs north of the capital in the strategic Qalamoun area, a swath of mountainous terrain along the Lebanese border. The offensive is meant in large part to shut off the infiltration of weapons and fighters from Lebanon, closing a back-door route to the capital and securing the nation’s key north-south highway.

Opposition forces, who held sway in much of the rugged zone for 18 months or more, are reeling. Many rebel survivors have retreated to Lebanon or to pro-opposition terrain in the suburbs of Damascus, officials say. The relentless course of the battle here is another indication that President Bashar Assad is winning the war.

Maaloula never had the strategic value of other nearby areas, such as the city of Yabroud to the north, which was recaptured by the military in March. But it possesses vivid symbolic importance. The Christian enclave has long been a signature site for Syria’s diverse assemblage of faiths and ethnicities.

Assad’s government has presented itself as a staunch defender of religious tolerance and minorities in the face of Islamic militants who make up some of the strongest rebel forces. Recapturing Maaloula helps reinforce that message.

The town is acclaimed as one of the few places where a version of Aramaic, said to be the language of Jesus, is still spoken and taught. Its ancient churches and monasteries are iconic.

Most of the 2,000 or so residents fled long ago. A group of 13 nuns abducted by Islamic rebels who overran the town last year has since been freed in a prisoner exchange.

One of the first tasks facing officials will be to determine the damage inflicted on Maaloula’s historic churches and other Christian sites. Statues of Jesus and Mary that once looked down from twin ridges have been destroyed — whether by the rebels or government shelling is not clear.

St. Thecla monastery, from where the nuns were kidnapped last year, remains in a perilous zone. It was impossible on Tuesday to assess the damage. But crosses had been removed from the tops of St. Thecla and other churches, apparently by Islamic rebels. It seemed likely that the crosses and hillside statues will be easier to replace than other, more profound losses yet to be cataloged.

Up the hill from St. Thecla, the ancient Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus lay in ruins. The sturdy brick structure still stands, but shells have crashed through the dome, and much of the interior has been reduced to wreckage.

A piece of what appears to have been part of a painting of the two saints was found Tuesday amid the rubble; the image of one of them on horseback was crudely defaced, clearly a deliberate act.

Postcards, rosary beads, prayer books and other items from the gift shop were littered about the grounds. Jars of apricot preserves and bottles of wine made on the site were shattered in a storeroom. The wooden pews were smashed and covered with dust and debris. The altar appeared to have been demolished.

Syrian officials blame the rebels, but government shelling could also have caused much of the damage.

Christian clerics and historians fear that priceless medieval icons and other works of art may have been destroyed or looted and will never be recovered.

The Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, named for former Roman soldiers who were popular saints in medieval times, appears to have been a victim of its setting. It is just down the hill from the Safir Hotel, once a four-star hostelry for tourists and pilgrims, but more recently the base for Syrian rebels. The insurgents commandeered the hotel last year and stayed for months.

Syrian military shelling and fire in the battle to retake the hotel has transformed it into a ghostly ruin. Rebar juts from the concrete frames of what were once well-appointed rooms, and an interior staircase is now exposed to the elements. Exterior walls are pocked with holes. Government forces lounge in a lobby, littered with glass, concrete and other debris.

The hotel is now a base for units of the Syrian army, pro-government militiamen and a loyalist Shiite militia known as Liwa Abu Fadl al Abbas, whose ranks include many volunteers from Iraq. The army tries to coordinate their actions, but the process is not always smooth.

Commanders stood Tuesday in the garden of the hotel, directing forces in the streets about 150 yards below. Much of the fire seemed to be directed at a pair of homes close to a mosque, where remaining rebels appeared to be holed up.

“They’re in that building,” one commander told forces on the ground.

“Where did they disappear to?” asked another.

The shooting below was so intense that commanders worried about friendly fire casualties.

On Monday, three journalists for Al Manar, the media arm of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, which is allied with the Syrian government, were shot and killed entering Maaloula, adding to the death toll that has made Syria the most dangerous country for journalists. Authorities blamed rebels for the attack.

The Syrian military has suffered devastating losses in the three-year war, but the government does not release casualty figures. One army fighter, Abdul Qader Ahmad, 23, said two of his friends had been killed five days earlier outside the nearby town of Sarkha when a shell hit the tank they were riding in; he had only a minor wound above his left eye, requiring four stitches.

“I think the war will end soon, maybe in a year or so,” said Ahmad, who said he hoped to return to his civilian life as a nurse-anesthesiologist in the northern city of Aleppo. “All the destroyed buildings can be rebuilt, though it will take time. But I think things will eventually be better than they were before.”

A commander of the Shiite brigade, who goes by the nickname Abu Ajeeb, is called “uncle” by his young fighters. He opted to hold off on dispatching more combatants from the hotel grounds to the town below, judging that there was no need. His enthusiastic charges were devastated.

“Uncle, please let us go down!” implored one of his men, AK-47 at the ready.

Later, Abu Ajeeb said his fighters sometimes became frustrated because the army tended to allow escape routes for many rebels, apparently to avoid clashes and reduce army casualties.

“We don’t want them to get away,” he said. “We’re here to kill them.”

Assyrian International News Agency

NATO Chief Warns Russia Against ‘Historic Mistake’

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned Russia that any incursion into eastern Ukraine would be a “historic mistake” and has demanded that Moscow pull back its forces from the Ukrainian border.

Speaking April 8 in Paris, Rasmussen said further intervention by Russia in Ukraine would have “grave consequences” for Moscow’s relationship with NATO and “would further isolate Russia internationally.”

In comments reported earlier, Rasmussen called on Russia pull back what he described as “tens of thousands” of troops massed near the Ukrainian border.

The NATO chief’s comments came as Ukrainian authorities were moving to counter pro-Russian protesters who seized government buildings in three cities in eastern Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 8 rejected U.S. accusations that Moscow has been working to destabilize eastern Ukraine, and he said Russia is ready to participate in proposed talks involving the Ukrainian authorities, the United States, and the European Union.

But he said representatives of Russian-speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine should also take part in any meeting.

Lavrov added that the situation in Ukraine will improve only if the concerns of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers are addressed, and he reiterated Moscow’s call for constitutional reforms in Ukraine to guarantee the rights of Russian-speakers.

Russia has warned Ukraine’s government that any use of force against pro-Russian protesters in the east could drag Ukraine into civil war.

“We call for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which are fraught with the risk of unleashing civil war,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 8.

Moscow has roundly rejected all international criticism of its actions in the Ukrainian crisis, accusing Western states of hypocrisy.

Pro-Russian protesters seized government buildings in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk on April 6, demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said a counterterrorist operation in Kharkiv had driven out the pro-Russian protesters from the regional administration building, and about 70 “separatists” were arrested.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov has blamed Moscow for the unrest in the east and vowed that authorities will prosecute “separatists” who break the law as “terrorists and criminals.”

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia and begun to increase its forces in eastern members of the alliance. The United States and European Union have also imposed sanctions on Russian individuals.

Russia has imposed its own sanctions on U.S. individuals and recalled its top military envoy to NATO.

Based on reporting from Reuters, dpa, and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Afghanistan praised for historic elections

Afghans have been praised for defying Taliban threats and turning out in their millions to vote crucial elections, which the US called a “great achievement” while pledging “continued international support”.

More than 50 percent of the registered voters – about seven million people – were estimated to have turned out on Saturday for local and presidential elections, which will usher the country’s first democratic transfer of power.

“It is a proud day for this proud nation. We have proven that we are people of the ballot, not of the bullets,” said Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a presidential candidate. “This is a day of celebration.”

The outgoing Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, said: “Today’s election and massive participation of the people have taken Afghanistan a few steps forward to peace, stability and development.”

Barack Obama, the US president, congratulated the Afghan people and said the event was a milestone in Afghanistan’s drive to take full responsibility for their country. 

Unprecedented elections

Whoever succeeds Karzai must lead the fight against the Taliban without the help of US-led troops, and also strengthen an economy that currently relies on declining aid money.

Preliminary results for the presidential poll are not due until April 24 and a run-off election is scheduled for May if there is no outright winner.

While there is no clear favouriate, the former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah, who was runner-up in the 2009 election, and former World Bank academic Ashraf Ghani are expected to do well.

Taliban threat

The Taliban had urged their fighters to target polling staff, voters and security forces, but there were no major attacks reported during the day.

In Kabul, hit by a series of deadly attacks during the election campaign, hundreds of people lined up outside polling centres to vote despite heavy rain and the insurgents’ promise of violence.

“I’m not afraid of Taliban threats, we will die one day anyway. I want my vote to be a slap in the face of the Taliban,” housewife Laila Neyazi, 48, told the AFP news agency.

One blast in Logar province, south of Kabul, killed one person and wounded two, according to Mohammad Agha district chief Abdul Hameed Hamid.

Omar Daudzai, the interior minister, said said four civilians, nine police and seven soldiers had been killed in violence on election day, and added that many attacks had been foiled, without giving further details.

Attacks or fear of violence had forced more than 200 of a total 6,423 voting centres to remain closed.



Afghan Voters Go To Polls In Historic Presidential Election

Afghans are voting in a presidential election that is intended to mark the country’s first democratic transfer of power in history.

In Kabul and elsewhere, reports say voters lined up at polling centers from early morning to vote amid tight security.

After voting at a polling station near the presidential palace, President Hamid Karzai urged his countrymen to go to the polling stations “despite the rain, cold weather, and enemy threats.”

“Today is an important day for our future, the future of our country,” he added.

LIVE BLOG: Afghanistan Goes To The Polls

Independent Election Commission Chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani called on the Afghan people to “prove to the enemies of Afghanistan that nothing can stop them.”

Three contenders are expected to dominate the eight-man race to succeed Karzai, who has ruled for 12 years and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. Widespread violence, massive fraud and vote-rigging marred Karzai’s reelection in 2009.

The front-runners are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and two former foreign ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul.

Authorities said more than 350,000 troops were being deployed to thwart the Taliban which has vowed to disrupt the election. The militants regard the vote as a farce orchestrated by Western countries.

On the eve of the vote, award-winning German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and Canadian reporter Kathy Gannon was injured when a police officer opened fire on their car in the eastern town of Khost.

The police officer has been arrested. No organization has claimed responsibility.

Niedringhaus is the third journalist working for international media to be killed in Afghanistan during the election campaign.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (0230 GMT/UTC) and close at 4.p.m., though voting is likely to be extended in some places.

As well as the first round of the presidential election, voters are casting ballots for provincial councils.

Afghanistan has 12 million eligible voters.

Some 200,000 Afghan observers are expected to monitor the vote.

Some international observers pulled out after the Taliban last month attacked a high-security Kabul hotel, where many foreigners, including election monitors, were staying. Nine Afghan and foreign civilians were killed in the attack.

At least 10 percent of nearly 28,500 polling centers and smaller polling stations are expected to be closed due to security threats.

Preliminary results from the first round are expected on April 24 and a final result on May 14, around six weeks after voting day.

With no clear front-runner, it’s unlikely that any of the candidates will secure more than the 50 percent of the vote required to win outright. In that case, there will be a runoff between the two leading candidates on May 28.

The transfer of power to a new president is occurring as most Western combat forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, and RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Afghans to choose new leader in historic poll

Kabul, Afghanistan - Millions of Afghans head to the polls on Saturday to choose a new leader in an election that could lead to the first democratic transfer of power in the nation’s 5,000 year history.

After months of manoeuvring, jockeying, tribal meetings and campaigning, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul have emerged as the frontrunners from a field that includes everyone from former mujahedeen commanders to Western-educated technocrats.

All three men command a similar number of supporters and the race is seen as wide open with voters, analysts and longtime observers uncertain of the outcome – a rarity in a country where much in politics has traditionally been decided by backroom deals or through convoluted patronage networks.

Afghanistan has never had an election so well prepared so well in advance.

Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan

Adding to the uncertainty is a vow from the Taliban, intent on toppling the government, to disrupt the poll.

The group has followed through on that threat, carrying out several attacks in the capital Kabul and across the country that have left many dead and created an atmosphere of insecurity – even with 352,000 troops on duty to provide security for about 12 million voters and 28,500 polling stations

On the eve of the vote, two Associated Press news agency journalists were shot as they reported on the preparations. Anja Niedringhaus, a 48-year-old German photographer, was killed and journalist Kathy Gannon was injured. 

In a move that underlined the complexities of the race, a last minute drama unfolded on Friday when a rumour swept Kabul that Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, had switched his support from Rassoul – who as former foreign minister is seen as Karzai’s chosen successor – to Ghani.

“That is absolute nonsense. This is very dirty politics, and very false rumours,” a top official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera.

“They are trying to capture power in this way, but it is absolutely unacceptable to the Afghan nation,” he said, adding that he was certain of Rassoul’s victory.

But he added: “I am not prophesising anything in advance. That is the decision of the Afghan nation.”

Run-off likely

Though the rumour may have been a failed attempt to influence the poll, it was indicative of a fear expressed by some Western diplomats that eleventh hour power politics could influence the poll.

Massive fraud during the 2009 campaign undercut Karzai’s legitimacy and allegations are already being made that deals have been cut to stuff ballot boxes. Some observers, though, expect this election to be fairer and better-run.

“Afghanistan has never had an election so well prepared so well in advance,” Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera.

“Really everything has been delivered according to timeline both in regard to broad legislative and other provisions but also the delivery of ballot papers, sensitive and non-sensitive materials to the seven thousand-odd voting centres.”

With analysts predicting that a vote of over 50 percent, required for an outright win, is unlikely to be achieved by any of the leading candidates, a May 28th second round between the two who poll the highest is a real prospect.

The US and other nations are watching closely and hoping the $ 126 mln foreign-funded poll goes smoothly. A free and fair election would give them a small success to point to after 13 years of bloodshed since US-led forces toppled the Taliban, and make the scheduled pull-out of most foreign troops this year easier.  

Follow John Wendle on Twitter @JohnWendle



On Eve Of Historic Crimea Vote, A Final Noisy Day Of Protests

On the eve of a referendum in which Crimean voters are all but certain to choose to separate the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine and bring it back under Russian control, a number of protests were held in both Moscow and Ukraine.

On the eve of a controversial referendum on Crimea severing ties with Ukraine, authorities in the Black Sea peninsula tried to project an air of calm. Nearly everywhere else, however, the mood was angry, defiant, and loud.

In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, mourners marched in memory of the “heavenly hundred,” the more than 80 people killed as the Euromaidan pro-democracy protests reached their deadly peak last month.

Further east, in the pro-Russia stronghold of Donetsk, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside local security headquarters, smashing windows and attempting to storm the building to protest the replacement of local officials with new authorities hand-picked by Kyiv’s new pro-Western government.

But the noisiest protests, surprisingly, came even further east — in Moscow, where a massive crowd of as many as 50,000 demonstrators gathered to voice their solidarity with Ukraine over Vladimir Putin’s calculated takeover of the Crimean peninsula.

In size and passion, the Moscow protest harkened back to the 2012 demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidential post. Speaking angrily into a microphone at the front of the boisterous crowds, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov called on Russians to “rally against Putin’s madness.” 

“We should say no to war!” he said. “We should say enough of idiocy! We should say Russia and Ukraine without Putin! Russia and Ukraine without Putin!”

The rally dramatically outsized a simultaneous pro-Kremlin Moscow protest, which drew an estimated 15,000 demonstrators supporting Russia’s moves to bring Crimea back under Moscow’s control.

WATCH: Muscovites March In Support Of Peace In Ukraine

The Moscow “peace march,” as it was billed, appeared to allow many Russians, however briefly, to tap into the revolutionary heat that has gripped their western neighbor for months. Anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, currently under house arrest, communicated on Twitter that he was moved “to tears” by the rally.

Many Ukrainians were similarly moved, expressing surprise and appreciation for the Russian street’s show of support at a time when Kremlin strategists have sought to pit one side against the other.

Small-scale protests were held throughout Crimea, both in favor and against the referendum on March 16, which gives voters a choice between eventual reintegration with Moscow or a return to its independent status under Ukraine’s short-lived 1992 constitution.

The referendum is widely expected to approve Crimea’s withdrawal from Ukraine and unification with the Russian Federation, in what would be the most dramatic territorial annexation since the end of the Cold War — and has drawn eerie comparisons to the German Anschluss 76 years ago.

Kyiv Dissolves Crimean Assembly

Ukraine’s interim government has already rejected the referendum as illegal. On March 15, lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s parliament, voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the Crimean Supreme Council, which recently installed pro-Russian Sergei Aksyonov, as prime minister.

The Kyiv vote is bound to have little impact in Crimea, which remains under Russia-backed, if not entirely Russian, military protection by some 20,000 “self-defense” forces.

Ukrainian officials maintain that Russian soldiers have already entered Crimea and are using the pretext of military exercises to build up a sizable troop presence along Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern flank, a claim Russia denies.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said on March 15 that its forces had repelled an attempt by Russian troops to enter a strip of Ukrainian land adjacent to Crimea, fuelling the likelihood of clashes if the referendum is successful. Later reports suggested that Russian forces had, in fact, taken the strip of land.

Aksyonov has said he expects 80 percent of the peninsula’s voters, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, to support Russian reintegration.

Keen to conduct a calm and orderly vote, he has imposed restrictions on journalists covering the poll, and has even acknowledged that a number of activists and reporters, who had earlier been reported as abducted, had been placed in preemptive detention to avoid “subversive activities” on March 16. 

Organizers of the referendum say a return to the Russian fold will herald a better standard of living and protection from “fascist” forces looking to oppress Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.

But opposition remains strong among Crimea’s Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar populations, who fear an antiminority backlash should the change take place.

Small anti-Russia demonstrations have been held in Crimea almost daily in the run-up to the referendum. One woman, part of a human chain of protesters lining the main road into Simferopol, spoke in bleak but defiant terms about Crimea’s choices.

“At the end of the day, we should have some dignity,” she said. “Yes, Ukraine is a weak country. Yes, we’re pretty poor. It’s a corrupt country. But we should have a sense of dignity. When all is said and done, this is our country. If it’s bad, we’re bad too. Even if things are bad for us at home, we’re not going to go to our rich neighbor and live there, right?”

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Turkey Returns Historic Monastery to Syriac Community

Turkey Returns Historic Monastery to Syriac Community

Posted 2014-02-26 23:37 GMT

St. Gabriel Monastery, founded in 397 A.D.Turkey has returned the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery in the south-eastern city of Mardin back to the Syriac community after the General Management of Foundations granted its consent on Tuesday.

The return of the monastery to the minority community was first brought up following the declaration of Turkey’s democratization packet in October 2013.

Speaking to Al Jazeera Turk, the monastery’s foundation chairman Kuryakos Ergun thanked Turkey for returning the monastry to the Syriac people after a long struggle.

Assyrian International News Agency

Kadyrov Launches New Assault On Chechens’ Collective Historic Memory

One of the hallmarks of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal ideology is the selective rewriting of Chechen history to bolster the personality cult surrounding his late father, Akhmet-hadji Kadyrov, and downplay the significance and achievements of other prominent political figures.

The most recent manifestation of that revisionist approach is the dismantling of a monument in Grozny to the victims of the mass deportation of the Chechens and Ingush in 1944 on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s orders. Historians estimate that of the 485,000 Chechens and Ingush forced at gunpoint into railcars and transported to Central Asia and Kazakhstan, between 30 percent and 50 percent died. In 1956, then CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev exonerated the Chechen people of the charge of collaboration with advancing Nazi German forces that served as the pretext for their deportation, and they were permitted to return home.
The monument to those who died during the deportation and 13 year exile was erected in 1992 at the behest of then Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Djokhar Dudayev following a campaign by various public organizations and movements.  It is largely composed of churts — the traditional grave headstones that were removed en masse from cemeteries in the wake of the deportation and used for construction purposes. Former local Communist Party functionary Ruslan Tulikov describes in a recent interview how he personally found such gravestones in the foundations of a public building in the town of Urus-Martan, south-west of Grozny. 
Churts had also been used in laying the foundations of bridges, and for curbstones. Hundreds  were subsequently retrieved and brought to Grozny to surround the centerpiece of the monument, a stylized fist holding a drawn sword in front of a stone carving of an open Koran. A plaque bears the inscription, attributed to Dudayev:  “Dukhur dats! Doelkhur dats! Dits diir dats!” (“We shan‘t be broken! We shan’t give way to weeping! We shan’t forget!”)
The news that the monument was being dismantled surfaced only last week. The process is now reportedly almost complete, although verification is virtually impossible given that the site has been surrounded for several years by a 3-meter high fence. 
The monument is to be reassembled on a site closer to the center of Grozny, in front of the grandiose Heart of Chechnya mosque, and in the immediate vicinity of another, more imposing memorial to law enforcement personnel killed in the ongoing fighting to contain the North Caucasus insurgency. Visiting that monument earlier this week, Kadyrov explained that the churts were being moved because there was no room to stage large-scale commemorations in the old location, and only limited parking space. Kadyrov apparently did not offer any explanation for the recent disappearance of a second relic of the deportation, one of the railcars in which the Chechens were transported to Central Asia.
Many residents of Grozny are skeptical, however. None of the respondents so far to a poll conducted by RFE/RL’s Radio Marsho believed the Chechen authorities simply wanted to move the monument to a more convenient location. On the contrary, almost half (43.8 percent) thought the republic’s leadership feared the monument could offend visiting Russian officials, while the remaining 56.2 percent thought that as the memory of the deportation is fading (or eclipsed by the cataclysms of the past two decades), Kadyrov and his henchmen assumed they could move it with impunity.
One Grozny resident told the website Caucasus Knot that while many people are outraged by the decision to move the monument, no one dares protest publicly for fear of reprisals. By contrast, a similar proposal in 2008 by then Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev to relocate the monument to a site of the city outskirts next to a garbage dump triggered a storm of protest. Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov met twice with human rights activists and assured them that the monument would not be moved from the city center.
Caucasus Knot also quoted an NGO staffer who denounced the move as “spitting on the soul of our people.” He said the only explanation that springs to mind is that the monument was originally erected under Dudayev, who has been expunged from the official version of modern Chechen history.
Regardless of Kadyrov’s motivation, the transfer of the monument to a new location could result in further damage to the already battered gravestones which are a unique and irreplaceable part of Chechens’ cultural heritage. Tulikov noted that of the thousands that were recovered, only a handful were intact. He also explained what the carving on them tells about the person whose grave they marked: a figure of a woman wearing national costume without a belt signified a married woman with children; in the case of an unmarried girl, the dress is belted. Men’s graves are adorned with an engraved image of the tools of their individual trade.

Kadyrov’s apparent disregard for the monument to the deportation victims is paralleled by his ongoing efforts to downplay the enormity of that crime and its impact on generations of Chechens. Kadyrov has already abolished the formal commemoration of February 23 as the deportation anniversary. Instead, he decreed two years ago that the Day of Memory and Grief should in future be observed on May 10, in conjunction with the commemoration of the anniversary of the death of his father Akhmet-hadji, who was killed by a bomb attack in Grozny on May 9, 2004. February 23 is still observed throughout the Russian Federation as Defenders of the Fatherland Day.

Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus President Ruslan Kutayev was summoned for questioning by police on February 20, two days after convening a conference devoted to the 70th anniversary of the deportation.
Whether any Chechens will attempt to gather at the site of the old monument to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation remains to be seen.

– Liz Fuller

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

China and Taiwan hold historic talks

China and Taiwan held their first government-to-government talks since they split 65 years ago after a brutal civil war – a symbolic yet historic move between the former bitter rivals, AFP news agency reported.

Wang Yu-chi, who oversees Taiwan’s China policy, arrived in Nanjing on Tuesday for a meeting with his Beijing counterpart Zhang Zhijun on the first day of a four-day trip, a Taiwanese official said.

“That we can sit here today, formally getting together, formally holding meetings, together exploring issues that people on both sides of the strait care about – this represents a new chapter for cross-strait relations, and is a day worth recording,” Wang said in initial remarks, AFP reported based on a statement.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride reports from Beijing

Wang said he hoped Zhang could visit Taiwan “in the foreseeable future”.

Taiwan is likely to focus on reaping practical outcomes from the discussions, such as securing economic benefits or security assurances, while China has one eye on long-term integration of the island, analysts say.

Tuesday’s meeting is the fruit of years of efforts to improve relations.

But Beijing’s communist authorities still aim to reunite all of China under their rule, and view Taiwan as a rebel region awaiting reunification with the mainland.

“For us to simply sit at the same table, sit down to discuss issues, is already not an easy thing,” Wang said.

Shared history

Nanjing was China’s capital when it was ruled by Wang’s Kuomintang, or Nationalist, party in the first half of the 20th century.

When they lost China’s civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, two million supporters of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.

The island and the mainland have been governed separately ever since, both claiming to be the true government of China and only re-establishing contact in the 1990s.

Over the decades Taiwan has become increasingly isolated diplomatically, losing the Chinese seat at the UN in 1971 and seeing the number of countries recognising it steadily decrease.

However, its military is supplied by the United States and has enjoyed a long economic boom.

Closer ties

Speaking to Al Jazeera, China analyst Andrew Leung said the talks were “by no means” aimed at unification.

“Most of the Taiwanese people want status quo and China knows that time is on her side. So China’s in no hurry.”

Al Jazeera speaks with China analyst Andrew Leung

“Most Taiwanese do not want to provoke China and all they want is for Taiwan businesses to grow. 

There’s this very strong demand for closer ties with the mainland. Not for immediate unification, but for much closer ties.

“The closer the two sides are tied together, the better it is for Beijing…the better it is also for Taiwan economically.”



Lebanon Has Historic Chance to Regain Neutrality

Firefighters extinguish a fire from burning cars at the site of an explosion in the Haret Hreik area, in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Jan. 21, 2014 (photo by REUTERS).The government formation process in Lebanon has been suddenly stalled, just as a few weeks after suddenly being facilitated by both opposing parties, the Future Movement and Hezbollah. Despite all the surprises, the new government may see the light in the coming days.

Regarding the Christian knot tying up government formation, which consists of keeping its share of cabinet seats and specified ministries, it isn’t clear whether this is impeding the government’s formation or just a cover used by influential actors to block the process for regional objectives. Hezbollah had made concessions, including giving in on the blocking third that raised hopes that a new government would be formed.

No one doubts the internal dimension of the government formation problem. The delicate balances on which Lebanon depended to maintain its political stability have collapsed after the country became embroiled in the larger Middle East conflicts and after regional players started interfering in and exploiting the unique Lebanese sectarian system, which divides the positions of president, prime minister and president of the National Assembly among Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims respectively.

No one doubts that since the signing of the Taif Accord, Christians have felt marginalized. They felt deceived, realizing that when they waived their pre-Taif constitutional privileges, the results were not as desired regarding Lebanon’s sovereignty or protecting it from the region’s conflicts. On the contrary, Taif’s first years were marked by Syrian tutelage and the erosion of national sovereignty.

Since independence, Christian demands centered on keeping Lebanon neutral in regional conflicts. The wariness of Lebanon’s national — especially Christian — leaders kept Lebanon out of the Arab-Israeli wars and maintained the 1949 armistice agreement. For the same reasons, the Christian leadership confronted the Nasserite expansion into Lebanon, which would have erupted into civil war were it not for the wisdom of then-Ebyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, when he said, “Keep your hands off Lebanon” before meeting on the Lebanon-Syria borders with Lebanese President Fouad Chehab, who realized the importance of neutrality for a country based on diversity.

Nasser signed an agreement in 1958 with Chehab to keep Lebanon neutral. Also in the name of such neutrality, the Christian parties collided with the Palestinian resistance. The former believed that the acts of the Palestinian nationalist fedayeen guerilla forces from Lebanese territory put the country’s sovereignty, even its very existence, in danger.

Eventually, the rest of the Lebanese leaders realized the danger of exposing Lebanon to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in 1982, they unanimously repealed the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which legitimized the Palestinian resistance’s presence and activity in Lebanon.

The irony that we’ve been witnessing in the government formation process and in the accompanying positions and principles by internal parties is that the largest Christian parliamentary bloc has departed from the historic Christian principles, which called for neutralizing Lebanon toward regional conflicts. That bloc is limiting itself to insisting on retaining some ministries, especially the Energy Ministry, for “strategic” considerations.

It is true that the practice of rotating ministries among the various sects was not applied in the past, and raising that principle today — just before the president’s term ends — raises several questions. But it is also true that putting “Christian rights” in a single ministry after ignoring the principal demand of keeping Lebanon neutral toward the war in Syria, including requiring Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the battles raging there, is a disturbing departure from the historical principles and a missed opportunity to serve Lebanon and reassure Christians.

Indeed, the shrinking Christian weight inside Lebanon did not only result from a change in the strategic and demographic balance of power, but also from some Christian representatives choosing to follow certain narrow-minded policies and adopt slogans that shrink the Christian role.

Those observing the performance and principles of Lebanese groups notice the following scene: The Future Movement — the main representative of Sunnis in Lebanon — is adhering to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the Taif Agreement, and is raising the “Lebanon First” slogan to confront the “resistance” project brought forward by Hezbollah and supported by Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, the main representative of Shiites in Lebanon, wishes to keep its role in the resistance project and is holding on to its arms, which give the party a major role in the national and even regional equations.

But the biggest Christian parliamentary bloc seems to be interested only in its ministerial share and is silent on the bigger issue of the future of Lebanon and the foundations of the state.

The Christian side has an opportunity to return to the Christian guiding principles that are a guarantee for the Lebanese formula, as stated in the Bkerke Document issued yesterday, Feb. 6, supporting Lebanon’s neutrality toward the conflicts of the major powers around it.

Yes, there is now a historic opportunity to return to the Baabda Declaration, which was approved in June 2012 with the consent of all parties, including Hezbollah. The declaration called for Lebanon’s neutrality toward the conflict in Syria. Commitment to neutrality and inviting everyone to abide by it would restore the Christian role. Such a call for neutrality also falls in line with international efforts to save and support Lebanon, and is a principal guarantee of stability for Christians and Muslims.

Because the Sunnis and Shiites are at loggerheads, the Christians should play a unifying role for the house’s inhabitants in order to save the house from collapse, instead of competing over its contents.

Translated by Rani Geha.

Assyrian International News Agency

In Historic First, Yellen Confirmed As Next U.S. Fed Chair

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Janet Yellen as the next head of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The 67-year-old will begin her four-year term as chairwoman on February 1.

She replaces Ben Bernanke, who has held the job for eight years.

Yellen, who has served as vice chairman of the Fed since 2010, will be the first woman to lead the U.S. central bank in its 100-year history.

Yellen was a strong supporter of the Fed’s current stimulus efforts — a $ 75 billion-a-month bond-buying program aimed at keeping interest rates low.

Her main task is perceived as overseeing an exit from a period of relaxed monetary policy while making sure the current economic recovery is not put at risk.

Based on reporting by dpa and AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Ukraine PM hails ‘historic’ deal with Russia

Mykola Azarov, the Ukrainian prime minister, hailed a “historic” economic agreement between his country and Russia and said that Kiev has avoided “bankruptcy and social collapse” thanks to the deal.

Azarov defined the deal, which involves Moscow to buy $ 15bn of Ukrainian bonds and slash natural gas prices by about one-third, as the only option for the country at a time of economic crisis.

[Moscow is] surprised by attempts to put overt pressure on the Ukrainian government, which continue despite the decisions made in Moscow.

Sergey Lavrov,  Russian FM

The settlement, reached at talks in Moscow between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents on Tuesday, came amid anti-government protests going on for over three weeks in reaction to Kiev’s decision to slash a free trade deal with the European Union.

“What would have awaited Ukraine [without the deal]? The answer is clear – bankruptcy and social collapse,” Azarov told the parliament. “This would have been the New Year’s present for the people of Ukraine,” he added ironically.

Azarov said there was no way Ukraine could have signed the proposed Association Agreement with the EU as Kiev would have had to have accepted unfeasibly stringent International Money Fund conditions for economic reform.

Meanwhile, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that Western countries continued to put “overt pressure” on the Ukraine to choose closer ties with Europe even though Kiev accepted the offer of financial assistance from Moscow.

Russia is “surprised by attempts to put overt pressure on the Ukrainian government, which continue despite the decisions made in Moscow yesterday,” Lavrov said in remarks to Russia’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday.

Russia-Ukraine deal is intended to help Ukraine stave off economic crisis as Moscow hopes to keep Kiev in its political and economic orbit.

Ukraine’s Naftogaz energy company will pay Russia’s state-owned Gazprom $ 268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres of natural gas, on which it is heavily dependent, instead of around $ 400.

Opposition on streets

The agreement could fuel protests in Kiev against Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, who faces accusations of “selling” Ukraine to the highest bidder after spurning a trade deal with the EU and turning to Moscow for help.

Announcing the deal after talks with Yanukovich on Tuesday, Valdimir Putin, the Russian president, said Moscow was to help Ukraine through its problems as big debt repayments loom and that there had been no discussion on Kiev joining a Russia-led customs union.

Martin McCauley, an expert on Russia at the University of London, speaks to Al Jazeera on the Moscow-Kiev deal.

“I want to calm you down – we have not discussed the issue of Ukraine’s accession to the customs union at all today,” Putin said.

Moscow has been calling for Ukraine to join the initiative among some of the ex-Soviet countries. Belarus and Kazakhstan have declared that they would take part in the initiative.

Thousands of Ukrainians continue to brave snow and freezing temperatures in Kiev, calling for the government’s removal. Opponents are demanding greater EU integration and are angry about the country’s propinquity to the Kremlin.



A ‘Historic’ Iran Deal That Was First Announced On Twitter

The potentially landmark agreement struck between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program, after five days of talks in Geneva, was first officially announced on Twitter.

It was Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who broke news of the deal on Twitter while quoting his boss:

Mann had updated the public throughout the talks with his tweets. He also tweeted several times in Persian.

ALSO SEE: The Road To Permanent Iran Deal Is Long, Time Is Short

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also used Twitter to announce the agreement to his followers:

Zarif later also updated his popular Facebook page, where he wrote that the negotiations had concluded successfully.

“Uranium enrichment was officially recognized, activities will continue and sanctions are going downhill,” he wrote, adding that national unity was more necessary than ever.

Social media appear to have been among the primary sources of information for tech-savvy young Iranians who had stayed up all night to follow the news about the talks.

You can read the White House’s “fact box” with details of the deal here.

– Golnaz Esfandiari

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iranian Leaders Welcome ‘Historic’ Nuclear Deal

Iranian leaders have welcomed the nuclear agreement reached with world powers, saying it recognizes Iran’s “rights” to maintain an atomic program.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on November 24 that the deal reached in Geneva was “the basis” for further progress.

President Hassan Rohani said “constructive engagement [in addition to] tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons.”

The remarks came hours after Iran and world powers reached a first-step accord over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

The so-called P5+1 group — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany — have been offering Iran limited relief from international sanctions in exchange for suspending aspects of its nuclear program.

The talks, which entered their fifth day on November 24, had been stalled over Iran’s insistence that any agreement acknowledge its “right” to enrich uranium.

“After intense negotiations, we have reached agreement today on a joint plan of action which sets out an approach toward reaching a long-term, comprehensive solution,” Euopean Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced in a joint statement. “We agreed that the process leading to this comprehensive solution will include a first step of intial, reciprical measures to be taken by both sides for a duration of six months.”

WATCH: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced the deal at a press conference in Geneva early on November 24:

Speaking from the White House in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said the deal offers a “dignified path” for Iran to “rejoin the international community.”

“Today we  have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement and I believe we must test it,” Obama said. “The first step that we have taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress that we have made with Iran since I took office. And now we must use the months ahead to pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that would resolve an issue that has threatened the our security and the security of our allies for decades.”

Obama emphasized that United States is committed to the security of Israel, whose leadership has repeatedly cast doubt on the nuclear negotiations and their ability to brake Tehran’s perceived nuclear intentions.

WATCH: U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the deal as the first time in nearly a decade that “we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program,” and warned of a “ratcheting up” if Tehran failed to meet its commitments in the next six months:

A U.S. government press release said Iran had agreed to halt all uranium enrichment above 5 percent and to neutralize its existing stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium below 5 percent within six months. Iran also agreed not install any new centrifuges for enrichment and not to commission the disputed Arak heavy-water reactor, the statement said.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran, World Powers Reach ‘Historic’ Nuclear Agreement

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced an historic agreement has been reached in the Geneva talks between leading world powers and Iran over that country’s disputed nuclear program.

“After intense negotiations, we have reached agreement today on a joint plan of action which sets out an approach toward reaching a long-term, comprehensive solution,” Ashton said, reading a joint statement. “We agreed that the process leading to this comprehensive solution will include a first step of intial, reciprical measures to be taken by both sides for a duration of six months.”

Ashton added in her statement on November 24 that the initial “joint plan of action” will “create the environment for a comprehensive solution.”

Speaking from the White House in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said the agreement provides Iran with a “dignified path” to rejoin the international community.”

“Today we  have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement and I believe we must test it,” Obama said. “The first step that we have taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress that we have made with Iran since I took office. And now we must use the months ahead to pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that would resolve an issue that has threatened the our security and the security of our allies for decades.”

Obama added that the United States is committed to Israel’s security.

“As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitments to our friend and allies — particularly, Israel and our Gulf partners who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” the president said.
“Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle described the November 24 agreement as “a turning point.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the agreement as “an important achievement, but it is a first step.” He said it includes “a clear reference that (uranium) enrichment will continue.”

According to a U.S. government press release, Iran has agreed to halt all uranium enrichment above 5 percent and to neutralize its existing stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium below 5 percent within six months.

Iran has also agreed not install any new centrifuges for enrichment and not to commission the disputed Arak heavy-water reactor. Tehran has also agreed to “unprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring” of its nuclear program.

In return, the P5+1 countries have agreed to suspend most sanctoin on gold and precious metals and on Iran’s petrochemical exports. They will also allow safety-related repairs of Iranian civilian airliners.

READ NEXT: Five Things To Know About Iran’s Arak Reactor

In all, the package includes an estimated $ 7.2 billion in relief from sanctions for Iran.

The talks in Geneva, which entered their fifth day on November 24, were stalled over Iran’s insistence that any agreement acknowledge its “right” to enrich uranium.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP)

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

How Historic Revisionism Justifies Islamic Terrorism

How important, really, is history to current affairs? Do events from the 7th century–or, more importantly, how we understand them–have any influence on U.S. foreign policy today?

By way of answer, consider some parallels between academia’s portrayal of the historic Islamic jihads and the U.S. government’s and media’s portrayal of contemporary Islamic jihads.

While any objective appraisal of the 7th century Muslim conquests proves that they were just that–conquests, with all the bloodshed and rapine that that entails–the historical revisionism of modern academia, especially within Arab and Islamic studies departments, has led to some portrayals of the Muslim conquerors as “freedom-fighters” trying to “liberate” the Mideast from tyrants and autocrats. (Beginning to sound familiar?)

Today’s approach to teaching the history of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century is something as follows: Yes, the Mideast was Christian, but local Christians helped Arab Muslims invade and subjugate their countries in preference to Christian Byzantine rule, which was oppressive due to doctrinal disagreements over the nature of Christ. Hence, the Muslim conquerors were actually “liberators.”

This perspective, as with many modern Western perspectives concerning Islam, is a product of modern day epistemic distortions, chief among them: 1) repackaged narratives of the “noble savage” myth–yes, 7th century Muslim invaders were coarse, but had elevated ideals, including a fierce love for freedom and religious tolerance in comparison to Christians of the time (not to mention now); and 2) entrenched political correction that seeks to whitewash the true history of Islam followed by the uncritical acceptance of Islamic apologetics, some of which border on the absurd.

Of course, before the Islamic “liberator” thesis had become mainstream, historians such as Alfred Butler, author of The Arab Conquest of Egypt, had this to say about it:

Even in the most recent historians it will be found that the outline of the story [of the 7th century conquest of Egypt] is something as follows:… that the Copts generally hailed them [Muslims] as deliverers and rendered them every assistance; and that Alexandria after a long siege, full of romantic episodes, was captured by storm. Such is the received account. It may seem presumptuous to say that it is untrue from beginning to end, but to me no other conclusion is possible. (emphasis added; pgs. iv-v).

In fact, one of the major themes throughout Butler’s Arab Conquest of Egypt–which, published in 1902, is heavily based on primary sources, Arabic and Coptic, unlike more modern secondary works that promote the Islamic “liberator” thesis–is that “there is not a word to show that any section of the Egyptian nation viewed the advent of the Muslims with any other feeling than terror” (p. 236).

Butler and other politically incorrect historians were and are aware of the savage and atrocity-laden nature of the Islamic conquests. The Coptic chronicler, John of Nikiu, a contemporary of the Arab conquest of Egypt and possibly an eyewitness, wrote:

Then the Muslims arrived in Nikiu [along the Nile]… seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches–men, women, and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found…. But let us say no more, for it is impossible to describe the horrors the Muslims committed…”

Nonetheless, today’s accepted narratives do not come from antiquated historians or primary historical texts; they come from the Saudi-funded ivy league– Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, etc.–all of which peddle pro-Islamic propaganda (I personally had direct experience at Georgetown), including the “freedom loving jihadis” vs. “oppressive tyrants” thesis.

Percolating out of liberal academia to liberal mass media, the effects of this well-entrenched but false narrative have taken their toll, ultimately helping to create a disastrous U.S. foreign policy.

Put differently, the Islamic terrorists waging jihad against autocratic (but secular, religiously tolerant) governments–most notably in Syria today–are easily portrayed in the West as “freedom fighters” against oppressive tyrants and thus deserving of U.S. support in great part because this motif has permeated the social consciousness of America–as molded by Hollywood and the news rooms–thanks to the academic distortion of events that took place nearly fourteen centuries ago.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Islamic “freedom fighters” are slaughtering, raping, beheading, persecuting and plunderingjust as they have been for nearly fourteen centuries.

That is the only unwavering constant in this sad story.

By Raymond Ibrahim
Frontpage Magazine

Assyrian International News Agency

Netanyahu Unfazed by Historic Diplomacy Between U.S. and Iran


Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicated the lion’s share of his UN General Assembly Speech last week to rebuking the recent diplomatic efforts of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Netanyahu, who last year took to using cartoons at the UNGA to demonstrate the “threat” posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, delivered a speech this year that was less overtly ridiculous—but no less calamitous—in its warnings about Iran.

“It’s not that it’s hard to find evidence that Iran has a nuclear program,” Netanyahu said. “It’s hard to find evidence that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program.”

Such rhetoric should not faze anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention to the Iranian nuclear standoff over the past decade. The only surprise here is how unfaltering Netanyahu has been as the proverbial “boy who cried wolf,” with his ever persistent warnings of a looming Iranian nuclear weapon.

In fact, such dire warnings of an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon are in no way exclusive to the Netanyahu government. Alarmist warnings have routinely emanated from both the U.S. and Israeli governments for at least the past 20 years.

Netanyahu’s speech was not without its contradictions regarding Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon. While Netanyahu spoke in one instance of Iran developing nuclear weapons, in another instance he alluded to the fact that Iran had not even made the choice to build a nuclear weapon.

In deriding the newly elected moderate Iranian president, Netanyahu claimed that Rouhani seeks to “ensure that Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and sufficient nuclear infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time it chooses to do so.”

This gives credence to the idea that for all of his bellicose and hyped-up rhetoric – which for years has been designed to seemingly mislead and frighten people about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program – Netanyahu has simply been trying to disguise the factual consensus that has long since been reached by the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies on Iran’s nuclear program. This is now clearly something which, given the recent developments with Iran, is unsustainable for him continue to do with the same degree.

The fact is that international inspectors and Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have said time and time again that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, is not enriching uranium to levels needed to develop such a weapon, and that if it were to do so, such an act would become immediately apparent to inspectors and Western intelligence.

Iran’s nuclear program has up until now been strictly within the confines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is signatory and Israel, with its arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons, is not.

Netanyahu went on to further reprimand Rouhani, who shared a historic phone call with President Obama as the week ended. “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.

“Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” Netanyahu went on, seemingly frustrated at the prospects of a peaceful détente between Iran and the United States.

While the larger part of Netanyahu’s speech was centered on convincing U.S. decision makers to not even give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt, he did give token reference to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, saying he was willing to make a “historic compromise.” But at the same time he remained intransigent on the key issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

After evoking religious language and Biblical prophecies, Netanyahu made his final point, “The people of Israel have come home never to be uprooted again.”

His rhetoric on Iran is proving to be similarly well entrenched.

Sina Toossi is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Foreign Policy In Focus

Rohani Returns To Mixed Welcome After Historic Chat With Obama

Iran’s President Hassan Rohani has returned to a mixed reception in Tehran after his historic phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Iranian media said hundreds of Rohani supporters turned up at the airport to greet him. But about 100 hard-liners shouting “Death to America” reportedly pelted his car with eggs and stones in protest.

The semi-official Mehr news agency said at least one protester threw his shoes at the car, a deeply insulting gesture in the Muslim world.

Some protesters reportedly chanted, “Dialogue with Satan is not prudence and hope.”

Iran’s official media has long referred to the United States as the “Great Satan,” while “prudence and hope” was Rohani’s campaign slogan ahead of the June election.

During his trip for the UN General Assembly in New York, Rohani had indicated a change of position on Iran’s nuclear program, and on he talked for 15 minutes on the phone with Obama on September 27.

It was the first conversation between American and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

After the call, Obama told reporters he was hopeful a deal can be done with Rohani to ease international concerns over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

“I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution [to the Iranian nuclear issue],” he said. “Iran’s supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons; President Rohani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons; I’ve made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.”

Obama said he and Rohani have directed their teams to work quickly to pursue an agreement.

On a Twitter feed believed to be genuine, Rohani said that in his phone conversation he told Obama “Have a Nice Day!” and Obama responded with the Persian parting phrase “Khodahafez” (“May God be your guardian” or “goodbye”)

U.S. officials said the phone call — which centered on ways to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program — was requested by the Iranian side.

While he was in New York, Rohani said that he hoped talks with the United States and five other major powers “will yield, in a short period of time, tangible results” on a nuclear deal.

Rohani, who took office last month, told reporters that Iran would bring a plan to resolve the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program to an October meeting with the 5+1 group of powers in Geneva.

The group comprises the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain — plus Germany.

Rohani has pledged to reduce nuclear tensions, and UN officials said they have seen encouraging signs from Tehran.

Rohani’s initiative appears to have the crucial support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Several religious figures — including Friday prayer leaders, who are all loyal to Khamenei — have publicly endorsed Rohani’s “heroic flexibility” a term coined by Khamenei to show that Iran was open to dialogue but remained conscious of the Islamic republic’s strategic interests.

Iran has repeatedly denied Western charges that it is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, BBC, and AFP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Afghanistan Celebrates Historic Soccer Triumph

Afghanistan’s national soccer team has united the nation in joy after claiming the country’s first-ever international trophy in the sport.

The Afghan national men’s team beat holders and tournament favorites India 2-0 in the final in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to clinch the South Asian Football Federation championship.

The team’s triumph at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium late on September 11 sparked wild scenes of celebration and an outpouring of patriotic pride back in Afghanistan — something not often seen in a country plagued by deep-seated political, ethnic, and religious divisions.

After the game’s final whistle, thousands of Afghans gathered at the National Olympic Stadium in Kabul, waving national flags and cheering.

Fans in cars and on motorbikes joined others on foot to blow horns and dance throughout the night. Celebratory gunfire also rang out, prompting police intervention.

“I’m so happy. I’m going mad with happiness,” said Habibullah, a Kabul resident. “I’m out on the street barefoot. We’re all very happy.”

National Pride

Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted and congratulated the players at the Kabul airport upon their return September 12, calling it a victory for “all Afghans around the country.”

Afghanistan is ranked 139th in the world, with India in 145th place. It was Afghanistan’s first victory in the SAFF tournament, while India has won the event six times, including the last two in 2009 and 2011.

SEE ALSO: Photo Gallery — Jubilant Afghans Cheer Soccer Win

Hamid, a student from Kabul, said the win was revenge for the Afghan team’s humiliating 4-0 loss to India when the two sides met in the 2011 final in New Delhi.

“I’m very happy that Afghanistan won the tournament,” he said. “I want to send my congratulations to the whole nation.”

Afghanistan goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar, who was chosen “man of the match,” said, “I’m proud of my whole country. I congratulate my dear countrymen.”

Homayoon Kargar, the Afghan coach, said he hoped the victory would bring peace and unity in Afghanistan. “You can’t imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team and me,” he was quoted as saying by Afghan media after the match.

Soccer Bouncing Back

Karzai has promised to reward the national team and the coaching staff for their heroics, with Afghan media reports suggesting each player and staff member will receive an apartment in the capital.

Several Afghan governors have already sent invitations for the national team to visit their provinces. In Herat Province, local politicians and businessmen have already raised some $ 100,000 to donate to the Afghan Football Federation.

Ali Bin al-Hussein, the vice president of FIFA, the soccer’s world governing body, heaped praise on the Afghan team for their achievement. He was quoted by goalnepal.com as saying, “The progress of Afghan football is an inspiration to us all.”

Afghanistan, a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, has a long history with soccer, but the sport had suffered because of decades of war.

During the Taliban’s rule, soccer was not banned, but the sport was neglected and stadiums were routinely used as sites for public executions.

Soccer and other sports have surged in popularity since the end of Taliban rule in 2001.

Afghanistan’s eight-team pro soccer league this year entered a second season. And last month, Kabul hosted its first international soccer match in a decade, with Afghanistan beating archrival Pakistan 3-0.

The FIFA-sanctioned international friendly at Kabul’s Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium on August 20 was the first since Afghanistan hosted Turkmenistan in a friendly in 2003.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Afghanistan, Pakistan To Play Historic Soccer Game

Afghanistan and Pakistan aim to cast aside recent diplomatic tensions when Kabul hosts its regional rival in a soccer friendly for the first time in more than 30 years.

Security is expected to be tight for the FIFA-sanctioned match, set to take place in front of a capacity crowd at Kabul’s Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) Stadium on August 20.

The Afghan squad, currently ranked 139th in the world, is favored over the 167th-ranked Pakistan. But Afghan national coach Homayoon Kargar says winning is not the most important outcome.

“The match is only a friendly game. Even more important than the result is that we can, through soccer, create better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and restore our friendship,” Kargar says. “As you know, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been increasingly troubled.”

Afghanistan’s relations with its eastern neighbor have become severely strained in recent months, with both sides engaging in a war of words and cross-border violence.

Wali, a resident of Kabul, welcomes the match but is pessimistic about its ability to bridge the two countries’ differences.

“I’m not convinced that the soccer game between Afghanistan and Pakistan will have a positive influence on the security situation in Afghanistan or relations between the two governments,” he says. “The Pakistani government has a strategy toward Afghanistan and, until they achieve their goals, they will continue to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs.”

Soccer was not banned under the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the sport suffered during the decades of war and violence.

Others, however, are more optimistic. Jawed, another resident of Kabul, says he and his friends have all bought tickets to attend the game. Tickets cost between 100 and 300 afghanis ($ 2 to $ 5), and the 6,000-seat stadium is reportedly sold out.

Jawed hopes sport can succeed where politics has failed. “I’m very happy about the game. God willing, it will be a success for Afghans and the national team,” he says. “The relationship between the countries should be one of friendship and neighborliness.”

‘Return To Normality’

Organizers in Pakistan say the match will “create history” as the two national teams meet for the first time in 36 years.

Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly held sporting events in the past, but diplomatic ties were cut after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The ensuing civil war and Taliban rule prevented the two sides from meeting on the pitch.

Afghanistan last hosted an international soccer match in 2003, against Turkmenistan. Pakistan has not hosted a top-level international sporting event since Pakistani militants attacked a touring Sri Lankan cricket team near Lahore in 2009, leaving six Sri Lankan players injured and eight Pakistanis dead.

AFF Secretary-General Sayed Aghazada has said the match with Pakistan has the potential to be a milestone in Afghanistan’s sporting history.

“It shows that, after a very difficult period, we are returning to normality. Afghan football has improved in terms of organization and infrastructure, and we now believe that football can play an even bigger role in our country,” he told Fifa.com, the official website of soccer’s world governing body.

Soccer has surged in popularity since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. Soccer was not banned under the Taliban but the sport suffered and stadiums were routinely used as sites for public executions.

The international friendly will provide a good test for both countries, which are competing at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Nepal that will run from August 31 to September 11.

Afghanistan is in Pool B alongside the Maldives, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, while Pakistan is in Pool A with India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Afghanistan finished as runners-up to India in the last SAFF championship in 2011.

RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Religious, Political Leaders Mark Historic Anniversary In Kyiv

Political and religious events are scheduled in Kyiv this weekend to mark the 1,025th anniversary of the conversion to Christianity of Kievan Rus – the medieval Slavic state that laid the Orthodox foundations for modern Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, and Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti were expected to attend Saturday’s events.

Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were to meet for talks before visiting Sevastopol together on Sunday.

Orthodox Christian leaders from around the world also are gathering in Kyiv – including Russia’s Patriarch Kirill, who also plans to attend celebrations in Minsk on Sunday and Monday.

On Friday, a Kyiv court banned all rallies and protests in the Ukrainian capital through July 31.

Kyiv police detained 10 people Friday who attended a meeting against the celebrations.

Reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Croatians cheer country’s historic EU entry

Tens of thousands of Croatians cheered the country’s entry into the European Union, almost two decades after the former Yugoslav republic’s bloody independence war ended.

“Welcome to the European Union,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Croatian on Sunday to 20,000 people gathered in the Zagreb square hosting the main celebration.

Moments later, the EU anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, marked Croatia’s entry into the bloc as its 28th member and fireworks lit up the sky above the capital.

Croation is only the second former Yugoslav republic to join the bloc, after Slovenia.

“July 1… opens up a completely new perspective, a new world for us,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told parliament on Saturday, denying Croatia would be a burden on the EU.

Heads of state from all six ex-Yugoslav republics were among the guests, but the leaders of many EU member states including Britain, France and Germany were not be present.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited a full workload to excuse herself from the event, but both Croatian media and the opposition labelled her decision a “diplomatic slap”.



New Pakistani Parliament Takes Oath In Historic Handover

Pakistan’s new parliament has been sworn in in the capital, Islamabad, in that country’s first-ever democratic transition of power.

The oath ceremony took place amid tight security around the city’s “Red Zone,” where key government buildings are located.

A new speaker should be elected by secret ballot on June 3.

The new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N party won May’s elections, should be formally elected by the lower house and sworn in two days later.

Sharif’s party commands 177 of the 342 seats in the assembly.

That gives it significant leverage if it seeks to oust President Asif Ali Zardari when his term expires in September.

Zardari was credited with steering Pakistan to its democratic milestone by holding together the fractious coalition government led by his Pakistan People’s Party for its full five-year term.

On May 31, Sharif denounced a suspected U.S. drone attack that was said to have killed the Pakistani Taliban’s second-in-command, Wali-ur Rehman Masud.

ALSO READ: Potential Fallout Of Pakistani Militant’s Death

In a statement, Sharif expressed “deep disappointment” over the strike, thought to be the latest such attack in the United States’ ongoing efforts to target senior Islamist militants accused of destabilizing the region and exporting international terrorism.

The statement described the May 29 attack that killed Rehman and allies as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and international law. The statement did not mention Rehman.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

White House To Host Myanmar President In Historic Visit

The White House has confirmed it will host Burma’s president next week in the first such visit by a head of state from the Southeast Asian state in nearly 50 years.

The White House said President Thein Sein’s May 20 visit “underscores President Barack Obama’s commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform.”

Discussions are expected on democratic and economic development and ethnic tensions in Burma, (also known as Myanmar).

Washington has pushed for change in the country after five decades of repressive military rule that ended with Sein’s election in 2011.

It has gradually lifted sanctions against Burma as the country freed political prisoners and changed laws to open the political field for Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement.

With reporting by AP

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Historic Elections Under Way In Pakistan Amid Deadly Attacks

ISLAMABAD — Voting in Pakistan’s historic national elections is under way amid deadly attacks and threats by the Pakistani Taliban.

RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reports that at least 10 people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing in the port city of Karachi. The blast apparently targeted offices of the secular Awami National Party.

Police said that the the target, candidate Amanullah Mehsud, who is seeking election to the Sindh provincial assembly, escaped unhurt.

Radio Mashaal reports that two blasts in the Kyber Paktunkhwa capital city of Peshawar killed at least one person and injured 22. One of the blasts reportedly targeted a school turned into a polling station.

The Pakistani Taliban has condemned the elections as un-Islamic and threatened to disrupt the vote.

LIVE BLOG: All the latest tweets, photographs, and more

More than 86 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for the 342-member National Assembly and assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan provinces.

Sixty seats in the National Assembly are reserved specifically for women and 10 for non-Muslim minorities.

Some 600,000 security personnel were being deployed to guard polling places following an election campaign in which upward of 120 people were killed in militant attacks.

The vote will mark the first time in Pakistan’s 66-year history that a civilian government has completed a full term and handed over to another civilian administration through the ballot box.

Pakistan’s military has ruled for approximately half the period since the country’s independence in 1947, staging coups three times.

Pakistani volunteers gather beside the dead bodies of blast victims outside a hospital following a bomb explosion in Karachi.

Opinion surveys have suggested that the opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Muslim League-N, could win the most seats.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice Party, of cricket legend Imran Khan is also expected to make an impact.

Khan is seen as potentially receiving a fresh burst of sympathy from voters after an accident this week at a political rally in which he fell, fracturing several vertebrae and a rib.

Voters appear largely disenchanted with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which led the outgoing government.

During its five-year term, the government struggled to take effective action over a myriad of problems, ranging from deadly attacks by Islamic militants to sectarianism, natural disasters, and corruption.

It has also had to contend with deteriorating relations with the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 raid by U.S. forces that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was living in a compound not far from a key Pakistani military facility.

The PPP is formally led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of President Asif Ali Zardari and the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.  

There has been no new word about the fate of Ali Haider Gilani, a PPP candidate and son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

Gunmen abducted Gilani on May 9 during a campaign rally in Multan, where he is running for the provincial assembly.

Much of the preelection violence has appeared to target secular-leaning parties in the outgoing coalition, while relatively sparing parties who take a softer line toward militants or question the activities of U.S.-led forces in the Pakistan-Afghan region.

In another development, “The New York Times” says that on the eve of the elections, Pakistani authorities expelled the newspaper’s Islamabad bureau chief, Declan Walsh, due to “undesirable activities.” Authorities have not supplied details of these alleged activities.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Voting begins in historic Pakistan polls

Millions of Pakistanis are expected to brave Taliban threats to vote in elections pitting a former cricket star against a two-time prime minister and an incumbent blamed for power blackouts and inflation.

Saturday’s vote marks the first time in the country’s 65-year history that a civilian government has completed its full term and handed over power in democratic elections. Previous governments have been toppled by military coups or sacked by presidents allied with the powerful army.

Polls opened at 8am (03:00 GMT) and were due to close at 5pm, allowing an electorate of more than 86 million to vote for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.


Coverage of 2013 general election across the politically divided South Asian nation.

The Taliban have branded democracy un-Islamic and have waged a campaign of attacks against the main secular parties, killing more than 130 people in what has been called the country’s deadliest election in history.

Deadly violence struck again on Friday, with a pair of bombings against election offices in northwest Pakistan that killed three people and a shooting that killed a candidate in the southern city of Karachi.

Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from the city of Peshawar, said the borders with Afghanistan closed.

“The city of Peshawar itself, which has over 900 polling stations and over 8,000 security personnel deployed, is preparing to hold one of the most expensive elections in the history of the country.

“The question will be: will the people come out to vote in large numbers?”

He said several bombs had reportedly been defused before polls opened on Saturday.

The umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) stepped up their threats on the eve of the elections, warning voters to boycott polling stations to save their lives.

Around half of the estimated 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack, many of them in insurgency-torn parts of Baluchistan and the northwest. 

The frontrunner is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) but much of the attention has been focused on cricket star Imran Khan with promises of reform and an end to corruption.

The 60-year-old leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) tapped into a last-minute surge of support after fracturing his spine when he fell from a stage at a campaign rally on Tuesday.

If Khan’s party can take enough votes away from Sharif, it might open the way for the outgoing centre-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to once again form the government.

Despite widespread unhappiness with the party’s performance over the past five years, it does have a loyal following in rural areas of southern Sindh province and southern Punjab.

The main issues are the troubled economy, an appalling energy crisis which causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on armed groups, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.




American Company to Modernize Historic Iraq Port

Efforts focused upon revitalizing Basra’s Maqal Port, propelling ancient city’s resurgence as leading, global trade center

WASHINGTON & BASRA, Iraq, Oct 02, 2012 (BUSINESS WIRE) — North America Western Asia Holdings (NAWAH) announced today that it has entered a formal agreement with Iraq’s Ministry of Transportation and the General Company for the Ports of Iraq to modernize Maqal Port, a historic port located in Basra’s urban center on the Shatt al Arab waterway.

As part of the agreement, the American company will invest more than $ 14 million to bring both heavy-lift crane and container handling capabilities to the 93-year-old port. NAWAH will also build a modern container yard adjacent to the port’s berth 14. The company’s agreement with GCPI will extend 10 years.

“The speed at which Iraq can rebuild and become prosperous is greatly dependent upon the capacity of its ports,” said Paul Brinkley, NAWAH’s president and CEO. “The modernization of Maqal Port is an important step in helping Basra regain its status as a key regional trading hub.”

With Umm Qasr Port, Iraq’s only other modern port, some 40 miles away from downtown Basra, this venture will provide a full spectrum of companies representing Basra’s merchant community and industrial base with close, convenient accessibility to a world-class, containerized berth.

“Modernizing Maqal Port is one step in Iraq’s greater vision to improve and expand our country’s shipping and port capabilities,” said Hadi Al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation. “Having an American company like NAWAH commit to our country’s long-term economic growth sends a strong message to other American and international investors that Iraq is truly ripe for investment.”


Dinar Daddy’s Tidbits

* Historic bank merger excites market

HA NOI — Stocks rose yesterday on both exchanges, boosted by the announcement of the merger between Sai Gon-Ha Noi Bank (SHB) and Habubank (HBB). The two banks yesterday held a press conference to officially announce their merger – the first ever merger between two listed banks in the history of Viet Nam’s stock market.

Over 4 million HBB shares will be delisted from the Ha Noi Stock Exchange on August 17, and the two banks will complete their share swaps by August 28. Shares of the new bank will be traded beginning September 20.

Both shares hit their ceiling prices at the end of yesterday’s session, with SHB closing at VND9,500 per share and HBB at VND5,100.

On the Ha Noi Stock Exchange, the HNX-Index closed up 0.44 per cent to 70.79 points. The value of trades decreased, however, falling 29 per cent from Wednesday’s level to VND376.5 billion (US$ 17.9 million) on trades of 39.5 million shares.

The HNX30 Index, tracking the 30 leading shares by market capitalisation and liquidity, rose 0.65 per cent to 135.98 points.

PetroVietnam Construction (PVX) became the most-active share on a volume of 3.9 million, rising 1.16 per cent to VND8,700 per share.

On the HCM City Stock Exchange, the VN-Index also inched up 0.81 per cent to 426.98 points with the value of trades doubled Wednesday’s level, reaching VND728.3 billion ($ 26.7 million).

The VN30 Index gained 0.96 per cent to close at 508.58 points, with Tan Tao Industry Investment (ITA) most active, with 2.2 million shares traded. ITA closed up by 1.45 per cent to VND7,000 per share. Dairy giant Vinamilk (VNM), insurer Bao Viet Holdings (BVH) and food processor Masan Group (MSN) all saw increases of over 2 per cent each.

Despite positive signs in recent sessions, PetroVietnam Securities Co analysts said the gains merely represented random fluctuations, with the market continuing to lack both buyers and sellers. Benchmark indices on both bourses were heavily affected by changes of large-cap stocks, they noted.

“The economic situation in July did not see any significant improvement to support the stock market,” they wrote in a research note. “Recent oil price increases have also exposed this risk factor to investors, with inflation now expected to rise again.”



Dinar Daddy’s Tidbits

Assyrians Make Their Mark in Historic Meet With Turkish President

Posted GMT 7-30-2012 6:25:37

The details regarding a recent meeting in which Turkish President Abdullah Gül hosted the leaders of eight of Turkey’s minority foundations on July 27 in Istanbul have been revealed. Accordingly, the three participant Syriac [Assyrian] foundations made their mark at the meeting, especially regarding the ongoing conflict regarding the Mor Gabriel (Deyrulumur) Monastery case and the relocation of the Syriac Church’s patriarchate from Beirut to Turkey.

During the meeting, which was planned to be 45 minutes but took about 1.5 hours, Gül paid great attention to the problems communicated but didn’t make any remarks about any problem, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned.

The Syriac foundations also demanded the return of their historical patriarchate building in Mardin, which has been turned into a museum.

In previous months, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu held a series of negotiations with Syriacs on the topic and proposed bringing Beirut’s Catholic and Damascus’ Syriac Kadim patriarchates to Turkey. Besides the patriarchate issue, Syriac’s Kadim Church foundation put the historical Mor Gabriel Monastery in Mardin on the agenda, which has been the subject of a conflict between Turkey and the Mor Gabriel Foundation.

Other minority leaders also brought education problems in minority schools and expectations regarding citizenship rights to the table.

Foundations Law

Yedikule Surp Pırgiç Armenian Hospital Foundation President Bedros Şirinoğlu also joined the meeting to represent Armenian foundations.

“We have already been speaking about our problems generally with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. So, instead of repeating our problems to the president, we wanted to express our regards for his support of the Minority Foundations Law,” he said.

Laki Vingas, a council member of the Foundations Directorate General and the organizer of the meeting, told the Daily News the meeting had been held under very good conditions, the leaders of minorities expressed their gratitude for the Foundations Law and return of properties and they spoke about education problems.

In addition to Şirinoğlu and Vingas, Syriac Catholic leader Zeki Başdemir, Armenian Catholic Foundation leader Bernard Sarıbay, Syriac Kadim Foundation representative Sait Susin, Greek Foundation representative Andon Parisyoanos, Jewish Community representative Sami Herman and Bulgarian community representative Vasil Liyaze attended the meeting.

By Vercihan Ziflioğlu

Assyrian International News Agency

Asia’s Top 10 Historic Sites Under Threat

The preservation watchdog Global Heritage Fund recently released a list of Asia’s 10 most significant archaeological and heritage sites that are under threat, including sites in two of RFE/RL’s broadcast countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the report notes, the sites should be preserved not only for their historic significance but also for the roles they can play in helping impoverished nations economically:

Each of the 10 sites documented in Asia’s Heritage in Peril represents a vast, untapped economic opportunity for its host nation and local communities in need. International and domestic tourism to major archaeological and heritage sites has soared over the past 10 years: From $ 8 billion to over $ 25 billion in annual revenues, according to the Vanishing report.

By 2025, GHF estimates that global heritage sites in the worldʼs poorest countries will generate over $ 100 billion annually, while creating millions of new jobs and business opportunities — but only if current trends of loss and destruction are reversed.


The sites (listed below) are under threat, Global Heritage says, due to factors such as development pressures, unsustainable tourism, insufficient management, looting, and war and conflict.

MES AYNAK, Afghanistan

The ancient Buddhist monastery complex — some 4,000 hectares worth — sits atop vast copper reserves outside the capital, Kabul. The China Metallurgical Group Corp. has agreed to give archaeologists three years to excavate the site before it is destroyed to make way for what would be the world’s second-largest copper mine.

As RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan noted in an article about the site in February:

Mes Aynak, meaning “little copper well,” was the center of a Buddhist Kingdom before Islam came to Afghanistan. It is thought that monks settled here for its ample supply of copper, which brought them great wealth and allowed them to build a grand monastery.

But if copper led to the creation of the settlement, it appears now that it will also lead to its destruction.


TAXILA, Pakistan

This complex of ruins, the report notes, includes a Mesolithic cave, four settlement sites, Buddhist monasteries, and medieval Muslim mosques and madrasahs. It is threatened by insufficient management, nearby quarrying and stone-blasting, looting, and militant attacks.

PHOTO GALLERY: Asian heritage sites under threat



Noted for its tall conical towers, Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and was one of the most important economic and trade centers of the region. It was destroyed by the Burmese Army in 1767. It’s threatened by persistent flooding and poor management.


A defensive fortress built into the walls of Santiago, Intramuros was constructed by Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and the 16th century. Severely damaged during World War II, its current threats include modernization, development pressures, and insufficient management.


Global Heritage calls Kashgar — on China’s western border with Afghanistan and Pakistan — one of the world’s best-preserved examples of a traditional Islamic city. It’s home to China’s largest mosque. Kashgar is under threat from aggressive urban development and what Global Heritage calls “destructive modernization.”


The oldest archaeological site ever found in Bangladesh, Mahasthangarh dates back to the 3rd century B.C. Many of the mounds surrounding the great citadel have not yet been excavated but are believed to contain Hindu temples and treasures. It’s threatened by poor management, looting and vandalism, and development pressures.

MYAUK-U, Myanmar

Myauk-U contains some 200 Buddhist monuments –pagodas, temples, monasteries, and stupa — dating to the 15th and 16th centuries and was an important regional trade hub as part of the Arakenese kingdom. It’s threatened by the construction of a new railroad through the area, as well as flooding and insufficient management.


Thousands of massive megalithic stone “jars” — made from sandstone, granite, and limestone — litter the Xieng Khouang Plateau. They are believed to be part of the funerary customs of Iron Age inhabitants. The site is threatened by unexploded ordnance from the Second Indochina War, as well as poor management and development pressures, including use of the jars by farmers for animal troughs and chicken coops.


The 11th-century Khmer temple is located atop a massive cliff — “perhaps the most stunning setting of all Khmer temples.” It was modified by successive kings of the empire and reveals the hallmarks of several architectural styles. It is threatened by military skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand, which also claims ownership of the site, as well as natural disasters, due to its vulnerable location.


Home to the great Indus civilization more than 5,000 years ago, the site includes evidence of paved roads, drainage systems, and advanced metal working. Much of the site, consisting of ancient mounds as high as 15 meters, has not been excavated. The site was abandoned and plowed under in 2004 and is used now for drying and harvesting buffalo dung. Looting is also a problem.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Egyptians vote in historic election

Voting in Egypt’s first democratic presidential election has been unfolding peacefully, with election observers and media sources reporting calm lines and few violations in the country’s polling stations.

Thirteen candidates are running to succeed Hosni Mubarak, whose government was brought down by mass protests in 2011 after 30 years of authoritarian rule.

They range from socialists to secular liberals to conservative Islamists, and opinion polls indicate the race remains a toss-up.

In Cairo, polls opened around 8am and lines could be seen snaking down sidewalks in the city centre.

Elsewhere in the capital, observers reported less interest and only a moderate amount of voters, which some explained as a result of the two days available for voting or the fact that workers had not left their offices yet.

Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna said there was also a high turnout at polling stations in Cairo, where many people said they had come to vote early to avoid the blistering heat expected later in the day.

The election is the final phase of a tumultuous transition marred by violence, protests and political deadlock, overseen by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after last year’s revolution.

South of Cairo’s city centre, in working-class neighbourhoods such as Ain Sira and Abu Seoud, monitors from the campaigns of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood activist, were also observing the vote.

Differing opinions

Campaigning outside polling places, which is illegal but was common during parliamentary elections last autumn and winter, seemed to have disappeared.

Outside a primary school polling place in Ain Sira, 29-year-old Ahmed Ali, who works as a driver for a petrol company, said he had voted for Morsi.

“I don’t know him personally, but I know him through the Brotherhood,” he said. “They are very organised people, and his background is moderate.”

Yasser Shehata Mohammed, a 48-year-old electrical engineer who organised Morsi’s campaign in the neighbourhood, said he expected the candidate to receive fewer votes than their parliamentarians did last year.

“There are strong competitors and the media coverage played a big role,” he said.

Mohammed studied under Aboul Fotouh when he led the Brotherhood’s efforts in the area, and he respects him, but Mohammed said Morsi has an organisation behind him, while Aboul Fotouh has personal appeal.

High female-voter turnout

In the northern coastal town of Alexandria, lines of voters began forming under the warm Mediterranean sun more than an hour before polls opened in some places.

Jamal Elshayyal, reporting from a voting station in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, where a few hundred women lined up, said there was a “huge euphoria as people are finally getting to choose who will rule the country.”

“I’m so excited,” said Mounira Fawzi, 21 as she waited outside the Mohamed Korriam School in the upscale Smouha area.
“This is the first time I get to vote for president since the revolution. Hopefully we will get someone who can fix the country. God willing after the elections democracy will come to Egypt.”
Minutes later Fawzi emerged from the polling station, the pinky finger on her right hand dyed in purple ink.
“I feel freedom,” she said, her body shaking with excitement. “For the first time my voice and opinion really counts.”
The mood was present across town in Moharram Bek. People lined the narrow streets as Alexandria’s unique yellow and black taxis flooded the streets.
By midday there were few complaints from voters in Alexandria.
Across town, representatives of the different could be found in most polling stations to make monitor the vote and report any irregularities.
“Everything is going fine,” said Hamdy Abdel Salman, a representative for Morsi’s campaign at a voting station in Moharram Bek.
“At first people were complaining about the long lines, but the organization is getting better as the day goes on.”

Security issues

Another issue which many voters will consider when choosing their candidate is security, Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh said from the Red Sea port city of Suez.

“In the past 15 months after the revolution, security has been a top concern for Egyptians,” she said.

“There has been lawlessness, all sorts of reports of kidnappings, car jackings, home invasions – the kind of violence this country was never used to.”

Our correspondent said questions had been raised “whether the police force, which was discredited during the 18-day revolution, is unable, or simply unwilling, to handle security in the country”.

The SCAF has called on Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any “violation”.

“The participation of citizens in the presidential election is the best guarantee of the transparency and security of the electoral process,” Mohammed al-Assar, a SCAF member, was quoted as saying by state news agency MENA.

The SCAF has pledged to hand power to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its retreat will be just an illusion.

The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.

The election comes less than two weeks before a court is expected to issue a verdict in the trial of Mubarak, 84, tried on charges of complicity in the killing of about 900 protesters during the uprising against his 29-year rule.

He also faced corruption charges, along with his two sons, Gamal and Alaa.


Egypt set for historic presidential race

Egyptians are all set to elect a president for the first time in a wide open democratic contest that pits religious conservative groups against those who served under deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

Wednesday’s contest is a novelty for a nation where elections during the 30-year rule of a man some called “Pharaoh” were thinly attended rigmaroles in which the result was a foregone conclusion.

This time Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters are expected to turn out in force to determine who will lead the country after the generals who have overseen a transition marred by violence, protests and political deadlock, formally hand over power by July 1.

“Of course I will vote. I want change. We can’t stay in this messy situation for the rest of our lives,” said Wael Azmy, an accountant, who has taken the day off work to give him time to join the queues he expects to form outside polling stations.

Voters have been blitzed by three weeks of official campaigning, which ended on Sunday. Egypt held its first US-style televised presidential debate. Newspapers have carried interviews and campaign adverts. Banners and posters festoon the streets.

With none of the 12 candidates expected to secure more than half the votes to win outright in the first round on Wednesday and Thursday, a run-off between the top two is likely in June.

It will be the first time that ordinary Egyptians, ruled down the centuries by pharaohs, sultans, kings and military officers, will have a genuine chance to choose their leader.

But whoever wins faces a huge task to deliver changes that Egyptians expect to relieve a grim economic outlook. The military that was a pillar of Mubarak’s rule is likely to remain a powerful political force for years.

Edgy transition

The army, whose senior ranks also have extensive commercial interests, insists it does not want to hang onto power.

“With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,” General Mohamed el-Assar told a news conference on the eve of voting.

There is little reliable survey data to give any indication of which candidate will emerge as head of state.

The West and Israel, worried about its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, are watching to see if proponents of political Islam add to their gains after sweeping most seats in a parliamentary vote that ended in January.

Many Gulf states are equally concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted. Their conservative monarchies have so far emerged from a wave of Arab uprisings relatively unscathed.

Seeking to allay such worries, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, pledged in a final rally on Sunday that “we will not export our revolution to anyone”.

Mursi was pitched into the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he can rely on the Brotherhood’s vote machine.

His rivals include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, who has drawn support ranging from liberals to religious conservatives; former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who has been a public figure for years with strong name recognition; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who like his former boss, once commanded the air force.

Making a late surge is Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and set up the system that has put military men in the presidency for the past 60 years.


Egypt Holds Historic Presidential Debate

Egyptians have tuned in to watch the first ever presidential debate.

The TV debate pitted the former foreign minister Amr Moussa against Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh. 

The two have emerged as the two leading candidates in a field of 13. 

The election gets under way in two weeks, the climax of an army-led transition to civilian rule after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 15 months ago. 

The first real presidential election in this country of more than 80 million people is being watched across the region as a measure of change brought by last year’s historic uprisings
across the Middle East.

Based on AP and Reuters reporting

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Greece on verge of historic debt swap deal

Greece has moved closer to wrapping up its bond swap with private investors, indicating that it had already cleared a vital threshold needed to pass a deal which will hand bondholders steep cuts in the value of their investments.

With less than three hours to go on a deadline on the biggest sovereign debt restructuring in history, a senior official on Thursday said the government had acceptances covering more than 75 per cent of bonds eligible to take part in the offer.

Investors have until 20:00 GMT to sign on to the deal, which aims to lower Greece’s national debt by having private creditors swap their Greek bonds for new ones with a face value that is 53.5 lower than previously, lower interest rates and longer maturity dates.

The swap is a critical part of the country’s second international bailout.

Unexpected ‘success’

If too few investors agree and the initiative fails, the crisis-hit country will likely default on its debt in less than two weeks when a big bond repayment is due, prompting renewed turmoil in financial markets and knocking confidence in the global economy.

Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos, reporting from Athens, said that a senior official told him on Thursday that participation in the debt deal may have surpassed 80 per cent. 

“If so, that will be a higher than expected success for the Greek government, which still has two hours to go before the deadline,” Psaropoulos said.

He added that there was an “enormous” amount of global interest in the situation in Greece.

“There is interest from as far afield as China, with many countries in live communication now with sources in Greece. If the debt deal fails, it could, according to some economists, drive the whole European economy into recession,” Psaropoulos reported.

Athens has said it needs 90 per cent participation for the deal to be successful. However, it can trigger legislation forcing holdouts to go along if creditors holding between 75 per cent and 90 per cent sign up.

Markets have been optimistic that Greece will muster enough support. The Athens stock exchange closed up 3.1 per cent, while the Stoxx-50 of leading European shares rose 0.9 per cent. The euro was trading 0.8 per cent higher at
$ 1.32.

The bond swap is a radical attempt to finally pull Greece out of its debt spiral and put its shrinking economy back on the path to recovery. The hope is that by slashing the overall debt, the country, which is in a fifth year of recession, can gradually return to growth and eventually repay the remaining money it owes.

Second bailout

The task at hand, even with the debt reduction, is massive. Official figures released on Thursday showed unemployment shot up to a record 21 per cent in December, compared with 14.8 per cent last year. For young people, the figures are even worse, with 51.1 per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 out of work.

“Obviously for the majority of bondholders it does make sense to accept the deal as it is better to get something rather than nothing and if the exchange failed and Greece undertook a disorderly default then the likelihood is that … bondholders would recover [next to nothing],” said Gary Jenkins, managing director of Swordfish Research.

“Thus the most likely outcome remains that Greece will receive enough acceptances to move ahead with the deal and trigger the second bailout package.”

By early Thursday, banks, pension funds and other investors holding well over half the $ 270bn total debt in public hands had pledged to take part.

Italy’s Premier Mario Monti was upbeat. “The resolution of the Greek financial crisis is in sight,” he said earlier on Thursday afternoon.

‘Going well’

Only bonds held by private investors are part of the deal, meaning outstanding amounts held by the European Central Bank and other central banks are exempt. Athens will announce the results early on Friday, after which finance ministers of European countries using the euro are to discuss the outcome in a conference call.

Lucas Papademos, the Greek prime minister, held a Cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon to discuss the plan. Evangelos Venizelos, the country’s finance minister, informed the ministers that the process had been “going well”, an official in the meeting said.

The complex bond swap, known as the Private Sector Involvement, or PSI, is critical for Greece to secure its second bailout, a $ 171bn package of rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

The Institute of International Finance, which has been negotiating on behalf of large private creditors, said 32 firms holding $ 111bn of Greek bonds have signed up, including major German, French, Greek and Cypriot banks.


Air Force assists in historic final transfer of Iraq’s airspace

With the Air Force’s assistance, Iraq now has full air traffic control responsibility for the country’s airspace for the first time since 2003.

The Air Force transferred management of the Baghdad and Balad Airspace sector to the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority (ICAA) on Oct. 1.

With this historic step, Iraq’s air traffic controllers now direct the movement of all aircraft within the busiest and most complex airspace in Iraq.

“This transfer was the culmination of a multi-year effort by the Air Force, U.S. Embassy-Baghdad, and the ICAA to help Iraq develop a self-sufficient, national air traffic control system,” said Maj. Adam Fiedler, an airspace planner with the U.S. Forces-Iraq Air Component Coordination Element-Iraq.

View full post on Headlines | United States Forces – Iraq

Warhorse transfers COS Garry Owen to IA, closes historic chapter

The 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Advise and Assist Brigade, closed out a historic chapter in the 1st Cavalry Division’s proud history when they transferred ownership of Contingency Operating Station Garry Owen to the 10th Iraqi Army Division and the government of Iraq Oct. 15.

By transferring the COS to Iraqi Security Forces, the United States is fulfilling its commitment to have all troops out of Iraq by the Dec. 31, deadline.

The Warhorse Soldiers have called COS Garry Owen home for the entirety of their nine month deployment in support of Operation New Dawn. They have maintained security in Maysan since relieving the 1st Bn, 8th Infantry Regt., 4th Inf. Div. from Fort Carson, Colo. and assuming responsibility on March 5.

View full post on Headlines | United States Forces – Iraq