Saturday, February 14, 2009

Venezuelans set for key referendum

The Venezuelans will cast their votes on Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to grant President Hugo Chavez the right to stand again in office, or to maintain the current presidential term limits.Polling stations are due to open at 6 am (1030 GMT) for more than 16 million Venezuelans who are eligible to vote "Si" or "No" in the fifth referendum since Chavez was first elected in 1999.Chavez said victory in the referendum is a key to his transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state, and shrugged off opposition claims that it would send the country on a dangerous path toward dictatorship."On Monday I'll wake up looking beyond 2013, and that will give me more confidence in what we're doing ... and greatly diminish political uncertainties," Chavez said on Saturday.Chavez lost a vote on constitutional reform including the extension of presidential terms in December 2007, his only electoral defeat in 10 years in office. His current term expires in 2013.
In depth
Opponents say a Chavez victory would remove the last remaining check on his power.
Around 100 international observers have been accredited to observe the referendum, but neither the Organization of American States (OAS) nor the European Union have official observers in Venezuela.Chavez holds a slim lead in opinion polls but many Venezuelans remain undecided how to vote.Two pollsters on Saturday -- Datanalisis, which works for the public and private sector, and Consultores 30.11, which works for the government -- gave the 'Yes' vote a lead of between 5 points and 7 points. Chavez has been widening his lead slightly since January, the pollsters said.Both surveys conducted during the final week of the campaign also said more than 10 per cent of Venezuelans who planned to vote still had not made up their minds, making the outcome hard to predict.

Abductee Chinese engineer released in Swat

MINGORA: The Chinese engineer, kidnapped by insurgents six months ago from Dir district, has reportedly been released in Swat here on late Saturday while sources said, curfew has been imposed across Dir since 6pm Saturday, Geo News reported.
According to sources, militants kidnapped two Chinese engineers on August 2008 as they (engineers) were fixing a tower of a private mobile phone company in Dir district but one of the kidnapped engineers succeeded to flee from militants’ custody three months ago during security forces’ bombardments on militants hideouts in Matta tehsil while other engineer could not escape.Sources added, the released engineer has been shifted to Peshawar but said nothing about the conditions over which militants released him.

US envoy meets Afghan president

KABUL — President Barack Obama's new envoy to Afghanistan met with President Hamid Karzai on Saturday amid a downturn in U.S.-Afghan relations.
Karzai says he still has not spoken with Obama almost a month after his inauguration, a sign the Afghan president no longer enjoys the favored status he had under former President George W. Bush.
"There is tension between us and the U.S. government on issues of civilian casualties, arrests of Afghans, nightly raids on homes and the casualties they cause," Karzai told al-Jazeera television in an interview Friday.
Obama has said the U.S. will increase its attention on Afghanistan under his tenure as the U.S. transitions out of Iraq. But the administration is still debating how to stem the Taliban tide and tackle the endemic corruption in Karzai's government more than seven years after the 2001 invasion.
Taliban militants have increased attacks and swept up wide areas of countryside over the last three years. The U.S. is contemplating sending up to 30,000 more American forces to back up the 33,000 already in Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke, Obama's new envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with Karzai at the heavily guarded presidential palace in central Kabul on Saturday. Neither Holbrooke nor Karzai made any public statements.
Holbrooke earlier met with Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, whose spokesman said Holbrooke reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the anti-terrorism fight, reconstruction projects and the training of Afghan forces. Holbrooke has met with Afghan officials, international military leaders and U.N. diplomats during a fact-finding trip that began Thursday.
Holbrooke has made no public comments during the Afghan leg of his trip. He previously visited Pakistan and also is to stop in India.
Karzai in recent weeks has publicly pressed the U.S. to use Afghan troops on nighttime raids in order to prevent civilian casualties. Karzai's public criticism of the raids and the civilian deaths caused by U.S. troops has added to recent tensions in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
The U.S. military and Afghan Defense Ministry announced Thursday that Afghan officials and troops would take greater part in U.S. missions, particularly night raids.
"There will be better coordination to minimize risk of civilian casualties and ensure Afghans search Afghan homes and conduct arrest operations," a joint U.S.-Afghan statement said. It wasn't yet clear how soon Afghans would be placed on those missions.
U.S. Special Operations Forces conduct targeted night raids against known militant leaders, but the operations have resulted in many Afghan civilian deaths, an issue that has increasingly angered Karzai.
The specially trained U.S. forces typically enter Afghan villages at night and call out for their target to surrender. But innocent villagers often try to defend their neighbors' homes from what they fear are Taliban attackers or hostile tribesmen, and the U.S. forces end up killing innocent Afghans.
In the latest civilian deaths case, Australia's ambassador to Afghanistan sent a letter of apology on Saturday to Karzai for the deaths of five Afghan children in an Australian military mission Thursday.
In the latest violence, three separate roadside bombs killed seven police and a government official in a spate of attacks around Afghanistan, officials said.
A bomb in Khost province on Saturday killed the chief government official in Nadir Shah Kot district. A day earlier, a bomb elsewhere in Khost killed three border police while four policeman were killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province to the south.
Taliban militants frequently target Afghan police in their attacks. Police have less training and carry fewer weapons than the Afghan army or U.S. or NATO troops. Close to 900 police have died in militant attacks in each of the last two years.