http://www.france24.com/A French foreign minister visited Cuba for the first time in 31 years on Saturday, amid efforts by the communist-run nation to improve trade relations with the European Union. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with Cuban President Raul Castro to discuss politics, human rights, market-oriented reforms and bilateral relations between the two countries. “We want to push forward our relations in the areas of culture, education, economics and politics,” Fabius, told reporters at the end of a one-day visit to the communist-run Caribbean country. He arrived in Havana from Mexico, where he took part in an official visit by President François Hollande. Cuban lawmakers recently approved a law aimed at making the country more attractive to foreign investors, a measure authorities hope can help turn around the island’s struggling economy. Since Fabius took office in 2012, he has tried to shift more of France’s diplomatic focus towards commerce, namely, claiming contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, like Latin America. Construction and telecom firm Bouygues, beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor tourism corporation and energy company Total all have investments in Cuba, and are among 60 French firms operating in the country. The EU agreed in February to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on the country in 2008. The talks are scheduled to begin on April 29 in Havana, according to European diplomats, who said the French foreign minister’s visit would test the waters. Cuba has been subject to a US embargo for five decades. It is eager to eliminate the EU’s “common position,” enacted in December 1996, which links human rights and democratic conditions to improved economic relations.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the sharp escalation of the conflict in Ukraine puts the country on the brink of civil war, states the press service of the Kremlin. The leaders of the two countries accentuated the importance of talks in a quadripartite format (Russia, the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine), planned for April 17. "Hope has been expressed that the sides at the meeting in Geneva will manage to convey a clear message contributing to directing the situation into a peaceful channel," a Kremlin press service official added. Russian President also recalled the importance of stabilizing the economy of Ukraine and of ensuring deliveries and transit of Russian natural gas to Europe. This had been reiterated in his message, dated April 10, 2014, to the leaders of a number of European countries. The telephone conversation was held on the initiative of the German side, Itar-Tass reports. Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_16/Escalation-of-conflict-in-Ukraine-puts-country-on-brink-of-war-Putin-2796/
Between four and eleven people have been killed in a battle at the airport in Kramatorsk, a correspondent of the Rossiya 24 television channel said. "Indeed, there are fatalities. Efforts are under way to clarify their number, which is between four and eleven people," the correspondent reported live on Tuesday. As a result of clashes the Ukrainian troops opened fire against self-defense fighters who tried to stop paratroopers from landing at the airfield in Kramatorsk, he said. Talks are now under way outside the airport building, a representative from the Ukrainian Army has met with the people who came up to the airfield, he said. Asked why the troops were shooting, he said: "I do not know." "The situation here is fairly tense, but at this moment there are no clashes," he said. "The town residents demand an explanation from the military. Moreover, a rally is about to begin: people arrive by taxi and in their own cars, there is now a traffic jam near the airport building," the correspondent said, according to Interfax. Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/2014_04_15/Up-to-11-people-killed-in-Kramatorsk-airfield-battle-media-4043/
Australians catch a celestial show during a lunar eclipse. Katie Sargent reports.
By Ulson GunnarElections held last week in Afghanistan, while highly publicized as a showpiece in NATO’s lengthy intervention, will most likely achieve very little. They may also be the first in a series of steps the nation undergoes as it slips back into regression and darkness. NATO’s inability to establish security even in Afghanistan’s urban centers bodes ill for whatever government takes over in Kabul, particularly as Western troops prepare to permanently withdraw. Promises of a ‘democratic tomorrow’ are more likely to be replaced at best with an uncomfortable, and perhaps only temporary, accommodation between rural tribesmen (including the Taliban) and the new government in Kabul. In time, as rural tribesmen redirect resources from their fight with NATO’s departing troops, and against whichever government presides in Kabul, that accommodation may inevitably lead to a ‘Taliban’ government once again ruling Afghanistan. When superficiality becomes ‘progress’ The elections were praised by the UN and United States. The Washington Post in particular claimed it was a “milestone”, particularly for Afghan women who were able to both vote and appear on the ballot. However, the Post’s piece, ‘Afghan women make election strides’, is suspiciously short for such a supposedly historical breakthrough. Its brevity is due to the fact that any historical examination of women’s social progress in Afghanistan, or any social progress for that matter, would reveal Afghanistan not as a nation finally emerging for the first time into the light of modernization, but instead a nation mired in decades of darkness as the direct result of Western interference during the 1980s. One need not dig deep to discover the truth of Afghanistan’s once promising past, the US-backed armed conflict that destroyed it, and the resulting Dark Age it suffered through as a direct result. PBS provides a timeline of women’s rights in Afghanistan that begins in 1907 and ends in 2011. The highpoint was in the 1960s and ’70s when Afghanistan was the benefactor of Soviet influence. The rollback of these achievements occurred with the rise of the Taliban, an alliance that was bolstered militarily by the United States in its bid to challenge the Soviet Union via a costly proxy war. According to ‘Citizenship: Reflections on the Middle East and North Africa’ under a chapter titled, ‘The Saur Revolution and Women’s Rights in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’, the shift from women as property, to women as human beings is described, with a particular focus being placed on improving women’s literacy, education, and their inclusion into the national workforce. It states, “The DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] was attempting to implement what reformers and revolutionaries had done in Turkey, Soviet Central Asia (see Massell, 1974), and South Yemen, as well as to carry out what earlier Afghan reformers and modernizers had tried to do in the early 20th century but had failed (see Gregorian, 1969).” These reforms included changes to marriage laws, the expansion of literacy, and the education of rural girls and were resisted by rural tribesmen, the very tribesmen the United States and its allies would use to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan through a destructive, protracted armed conflict. When Western news articles today occasionally hint to Afghanistan’s promising past, with comments such as “…the first time women have voted in decades,” it is this period of Soviet influence they are referring to. US-armed tribesmen: Custodians of Afghanistan’s dark past, present & future Ironically, NATO troops, led by the United States, have been fighting the very tribesmen they had funded, armed, and trained for a decade in a proxy war with the Soviet Union. The common saying, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, is often the crutch proponents of US aid to these tribesmen cite, but in reality, the Soviets were attempting then to implement many national reforms generally considered ‘Western’ and ‘progressive’ in nature. The decision by the West to intervene by association with tribesmen who diametrically opposed these reforms was based not on principles, but on a desire solely for geopolitical power. And after their ‘enemy’ was defeated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the West’s ‘friend’ rolled back hard-fought reforms, plunging Afghanistan into a dark age it is still struggling to reemerge from. Just as the Soviets struggled against rural resistance to reforms including the advancement of human rights, urban Afghans seeking to revisit these reforms today face a similar struggle, but with international partners far less dedicated to their cause. They are burdened with a corrupt, ineffectual government mired in scandal and tangled with foreign interests genuinely disinterested in principles and progress, and instead, only Afghanistan’s role among their greater geopolitical ambitions. With the West withdrawing from Afghanistan, and the tribesmen they were fighting poised to quickly fill in the vacuum they leave, it appears that Afghanistan’s future is its past, with the superficiality of elections, women voting, and what US President Barack Obama calls the “democratic transfer of power,” all a temporary, fleeting present. What might Afghanistan have looked like without billions of dollars in funds and weapons poured into rural tribesmen, eager to overturn reforms implemented by a Soviet-backed government in Kabul? Decades later would Afghanistan still be teetering between progress and regression, on the razor’s edge between a dark age and a renaissance? For those around the world, particularly those who have followed the conflict in Afghanistan or have in fact, participated in it, suffered and sacrificed for it, eyes must begin to open and see that power, not principles, drive the West’s ambitions globally. They traded promising reforms being made in Afghanistan during the mid-20th century for regressive custodians who would oversee decades of darkness. They did so simply because they disliked under whom these reforms were being made, for economical and geopolitical reasons, and determined no reforms at all would be far more preferable. The spite of Western foreign policy has and will continue to take its toll in Afghanistan and elsewhere their influence cannot be successfully thwarted. For the Afghan people, it may be decades more before they see even the level of freedom and progress they enjoyed briefly before the 1979-1989 war. For their Western occupiers, when true progress is not being sought, it will not be truly made. Afghanistan is a showcase of just this, not the success or failure of ‘Western democratization’, but the truth that ultimately lies behind disingenuous ‘democratization’ in the first place.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has led his country for more than 12 years, will step down from office after this week's polls to select a new leader, in a vote seen by many as a testament to his enduring legacy. Afghanistan's April 5 election will be a historic moment in the country's history. It will mark the first democratic transition of power since the fall of the Taliban. "This will be the first time in history of Afghanistan that a president will be replaced democratically and through the will of the people, and he will be the one who will allow that to happen, and I think that's a great honor by itself," said Afghan presidential candidate Hedayat Arsala, who served as a senior minister under Karzai. The election was made possible by a constitution that Karzai helped draft, and which prohibits him from running for a third five-year term. "Hamid Karzai will leave behind a very positive legacy in the sense that he will be the father of a democratic, well, relatively democratic nation," said Graeme Smith, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "He will also be the first leader to hand over power to a successor in a peaceful way, and that will be the first peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan since 1901." Over the years, Karzai has been criticized for his failure to fight corruption and stem the Taliban insurgency, but he also is seen as a leader who could bring unity to the country's many ethnic groups and factions. "He has not put people in jail because they disagreed with him," said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. "Freedom of expression has been respected." "In my judgment, he inherited a very difficult situation," said Khalilzad, "and Afghanistan has come a long way during his period." "But there have been weaknesses," he said. "Rule of law remains relatively weak, and security institutions are not as strong as they should be, although they have made enormous progress every day in the way they respond." In parts of Afghanistan, schools are reopening, there have been more opportunities for women, and government institutions are strongly functioning. But in other areas, corruption remains rampant, and ineffective governance and widespread poverty foster support for the Taliban. In his final year in office, Karzai has increasingly distanced himself from the U.S. administration that helped bring him to power, refusing to sign a bilateral service agreement he negotiated that would establish the remaining U.S. force after 2014. Karzai has said he will leave the decision up to his successor.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah says he will not exclude anyone, including his fiercest rivals, from government if he wins Afghanistan's presidential election. Abdullah is among the front-runners to win the April 5 presidential election. Preliminary results are not expected until April 24, but partial results released on April 13 give him the lead. He spoke to RFE/RL's Frud Bezhan about contesting the possible second round and his plans should he win.
Gunmen abducted the Afghan deputy public works minister in Kabul on Tuesday, officials said, a grim reminder of the insecurity plaguing Afghanistan as most foreign troops prepare to withdraw from the country at the end of the year. Ahmad Shah Wahid was on his way to work when five gunmen ran his car off the road in northern Kabul, dragged him into their 4-wheel-drive vehicle and sped away, said Gul Agha Hashim, the city's police chief of investigations. The armed men shot and wounded Wahid's driver when he tried to drive away to safety, said public works ministry spokesman Soheil Kakar. It was not immediately clear who was behind the abduction. Kakar said there has so far been no ransom demand. Wahid, who is in his mid-50s, studied engineering and road construction in Italy and has been deputy minister for four years. Before that, he worked in the ministry overseeing road reconstruction, Kakar said. "He is a very professional man and had no disputes with anyone," Kakar added. Kidnappings for ransom and abductions by Taliban insurgents are relatively common in Afghanistan, but Wahid is the highest-ranking government official abducted in years. A Taliban spokesman said by telephone that he was not aware of Tuesday's abduction but would check to see if the insurgents were involved. Criminal gangs also target wealthy Afghans in the capital to collect ransoms, though it's impossible to know how common abductions are because most go unreported to police. "Last year, there were more and more kidnappings in Kabul," said businessman Shoib Nawabi, who was abducted in 2008 and held for nine days before his family paid a ransom. Two months ago, he says, a friend of his was also abducted. NATO troops have trained up a 340,000-strong national police and army force in Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban and secure the country, but day-to-day security remains a struggle.
By Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge & Jordyn PhelpsWhat if the United States has been waging the wrong war against the wrong enemy for the last 13 years in Afghanistan? Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall, who spent more than a decade covering Afghanistan since 2001, concludes just that in her new book, “The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.” Gall told “On the Radar” that Pakistan – not Afghanistan – has been the United States’ real enemy. “Instead of fighting a very grim and tough war which was very high in casualties on Afghans, as well as NATO and American soldiers, the problem wasn't in the Afghan villages,” Gall said. “The source of the problem, the radicalization, the sponsoring of the insurgency, was all happening in Pakistan.” Gall said she first had the realization that Pakistan was fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan “very soon” after the Sept. 11 attacks. “I went to Quetta and found Taliban resting up there and regrouping,” she said. “They had assistance, some of them talked about being forced and threatened and told to go in and fight the Americans … and when you're there, on the ground, seeing every bombing, the suicide bombing had started, the insurgency that grew, and you investigate where it's coming from, it kept leading back to Pakistan.” Gall said that Pakistan’s leaders, and especially former President Pervez Musharraf, were “very clever” and tricked the United States into believing that Pakistan was an ally. “I think the politicians, not all of them, but the diplomats … it took ages for them to understand that actually the persuasion wasn't working; the engagement wasn't bringing them on board; they were actually double dealing,” she said. “And now diplomats will tell you very plainly, ‘Yes, Musharraf was double dealing.’” Perhaps the biggest betrayal of all in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and one that came as no surprise to Gall, was the fact that bin Laden found shelter in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for six years before he was killed in a Navy SEAL raid in 2011. And, according to Gall, Pakistan’s government was orchestrating his protection. “Pakistan did know,” Gall said, speaking about bin Laden’s location. “They were hiding him, they were handling him. Someone on the inside told me this. They had a special desk that knew where bin Laden was. “Not only that, but put him there, protected him, oversaw him, handled him in the terms of the secret intelligence services,” she added. “And it's all deniable, but I’m told the top bosses knew.” Despite the awareness of Pakistan’s “double dealing” today, Gall said that relations with Pakistan are no better now than in the past. “Our relations with Pakistan have gone back to the same thing, and the thing that concerns me is that Zawahiri is still out there, in Pakistan, I believe,” she said. “He is also probably being hidden the same way and protected.”
In a press conference on Sunday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar admitted that some tensions had arisen in recent days between the government and the army, but these were more in the nature of ‘misunderstandings’ and would soon be resolved. He argued that civil-military coordination and harmony in the 10 months since the present government took office have been better than ever before in our history. The government and the army are on the same page as far as the policy towards terrorism is concerned, he emphasized. If there are differences, they are more differences of opinion, not differences on the policy per se. The talks process is supported by the army, the minister clarified. Referring to the remarks of a couple of federal ministers on the Musharraf case that evoked a statement by the COAS regarding maintaining the dignity and interests of the military, Chaudhry Nisar said this was an ‘irritant’ that too would soon be smoothed over. On the controversy that has arisen of late regarding the freeing of non-combatant Taliban prisoners, Chaudhry Nisar asked the pertinent question that if the prisoners were released from internment centres under the control of the army, how was it possible that they were released without the consent of the army? The release of 19 prisoners so far would be followed by another 13, after the talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) resume. Although the minister did not specify a date for the resumption of the talks, delay in which he ascribed to one of the members of the government’s negotiating committee being unavailable, sources spoke of the talks resuming very soon. There was no deadlock in the talks, Chaudhry Nisar argued.The minister’s remarks were at odds with the Taliban side’s intermediary Professor Ibrahim of the Jamaat-i-Islami. The professor’s view in an interview with foreign media on Sunday was that there are many odds against the talks/peace process, largely because of the trust deficit between the two sides. He also asserted that the government and the army were not on the same page as the military had serious reservations about the government’s approach. He also revealed that the released prisoners list had not been shared by the government. Were the government to share the list, it would assist in the release of the Taliban’s non-combatant hostages, prominent amongst whom are Shahbaz Taseer, Ali Haider Gilani and Professor Ajmal. An interesting aside regarding these three innocent hostages is the statement by Chaudhry Nisar that their release had not yet been taken up with the Taliban but would follow a resumption of the talks. That throws the release of Taliban prisoners in an even worse light: the government conceding the incremental release of prisoners without extracting at the very least the reciprocal release of hostages. Professor Ibrahim’s suggestion in this regard merits attention. The good professor also underlined the role of the infighting between TTP factions in creating a stalemate in the peace process, although the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid stated that the infighting had nothing to do with his organisation. He said it was ‘merely’ a misunderstanding between the two factions and was on the way to being settled. It merits attention that the ‘misunderstanding’ between the Sajna group and followers of the Hakeemullah Mehsud faction has led to several dozen deaths and according to latest reports, is still continuing. Not only is factional fighting producing deaths amongst the militants, the age-old tactic of kidnappings in and around the tribal areas has seen a splurge of late. Along with this development, a militant group reportedly opposed to the peace process has had several members killed in Darra Adam Khel by the security forces.The lay of terror land shows contradictory features that are feeding into further confusion about where the process is headed. The ‘ceasefire’, which the TTP has so far adhered to (or so it claims), has yielded continuing attacks, not the least of which are the two attacks in Islamabad. Some Taliban factions have resorted to settling their rivalries through the barrel of a gun. There may not be a ‘deadlock’ in the talks because it is unclear whether, when and where the talks will resume. Despite numerous statements, clarifications, etc, by the government’s concerned ministers, confusion tends to be deepening and getting worse confounded.
A lone mosque stands tall, jeering at the sprawl of flattened straw, thatch and steel that once gave shelter to hundreds of families. The slum, which runs the length of the railway track and cuts through Islamabad’s industrial hub in Sector I-10, was bulldozed on Monday afternoon amid hushed claims of residents that stay orders against their eviction were being violated. In the wake of the unscheduled operation, a branch of the Pehli Kiran School — which caters to low-income, migrant communities that inhabit slum areas and otherwise remain outside the scope of affordable education — was also demolished, despite a plea for time to remove the tin roofs that make up the modest structure. “The school was not given enough time to take down the structure,” said a distraught Zainab Qureshi, the academic director for Pehli Kiran Schools’ eight branches. “The mosque remains unharmed though,” she added. According to the Capital Development Authority (CDA), all of the structures in the area are illegal and liable to be removed. No time given According to Qureshi, the schools move with their pupils and the removal of the slum would have resulted in a shift of premises, provided PK-6 was allowed to remove its nut-and-bolt structure. “I was on the roof removing the screws when a bulldozer came,” shared Ghazanfar Ali, who is a head teacher at the school. “Without students, we are not a school. Our plan was to move with the community.” He explained that the average cost of a school — a tin roof propped over poles set in concrete — was Rs200,000, in addition to books, straw mats, audio-visual aids and sporting equipment. The loss will have to be absorbed by the donation-fueled school due to lack of cooperation from the CDA, who demolished the slum this afternoon as part of their mandate to remove all illegal slums in Islamabad. The operation was led by CDA Enforcement Deputy Director Mohammad Iqbal on orders from Chairman Maroof Afzal to recover 1,200 kanals on CDA-owned land in sectors I-10 and H-10. An estimated 1,300 individuals live in the slum, also known as the Afghan Basti due to its large migrant population. While the occupied land belongs to the CDA, the authority’s indifference to the illegal occupants for over three decades has left a stain on its sleeve, with mounting pressure from activists to regularise the slums. Earlier this month, the red-flagged Awami Workers Party and former federal minister for minorities J Salik rallied together to challenge the IHC’s orders, though little was achieved beyond lip service from local politicians. Legality “The case of katchi abadi demolition is sub-judice and the CDA is carrying out this action illegally,” said Tahira Abdullah, social activist and a volunteer trustee of the JAQ Trust, which runs the Pehli Kiran schools. “We deserve to be relocated,” expressed Suhbat Khan, “But our livelihoods are here, at the Sabzi Mandi,” Khan explained that relocation to Rawat and its tributaries would make it economically unfeasible to travel to Islamabad to work in the market, pushing their families further into the cusp of uncertainty. On the other hand, Deputy Director Iqbal said the CDA had “made several announcements in the katchi abadi and resumed an operation that started a month ago so that the community would have time to move willingly”. He said the government does not have enough space to relocate everyone, “But I can assure you that most of them can afford to live in rented spaces. They just choose not to.” He then recounted an interaction with a resident who said he preferred the open skies to closed quarters. According to Iqbal, no stay orders were violated. He added that “the mosque is unscathed”.
Contrary to its claim about increasing literacy rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial government directed the management of Benevolent Fund School, Kohat Road, to avoid new admissions as the school might be shut. The students, their parents and teachers of Benevolent Fund School held a demonstration outside Peshawar Press Club on Monday to protest the decision of the government. Carrying banners and placards, the protesters chanted slogans against the government and asked it to fulfil its promise about promotion of education in the province. They said that new admissions in the school had been stopped since 2010 and its college portion had also been closed while its girls section was shut in 2011. Several employees, they said, were sacked and now new admissions had also been stopped in the boys section of the school. The teachers of the school said that government didn’t award them proper service structure and salaries were also not paid to them timely. During the last few years, they said, teachers and other employees suffered badly owing to usual delay in payment of their salaries. They demanded reinstatement of sacked employees, restoration of transport facility, lifting of ban on the new admissions and payment of the additional salaries to them that had been pending since 2009. The protesters threatened to start attending classes on the main road outside the press club and then set themselves on fire outside provincial assembly building if government did not accept their demands. The principal of the school, Syed Abu Zaffar, when contacted, confirmed that Benevolent Fund secretary directed him to avoid new admissions. The three vans meant for transportation of staff and students were parked in the Benevolent Fund Building and the drivers were terminated. He said that at least 400 students would be deprived of education if the school was closed. The building, Mr Zaffar said, had 50 rooms and local people wanted to admit their children there but some officials were bent upon closing the institution to use the spacious building for some other purposes. Baz Mohammad Khan, a representative of the parents, said that the school was close to a vast population and the enrolment could increase manifold if new admissions were allowed. He demanded of Imran Khan to take notice of the issue. “We will continue protest if our demands are not met,” he said.
Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah on Monday deplored the federal government for not formally taking up the issue of release of Ali Hyder Gilani and Shahbaz Taseer in talks with Taliban. In an informal chat with media, Shah said that Taliban’s statement clearly suggests that government has not yet demanded the release of abducted sons of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and former Punjab governor Salman Taseer. “What kinds of talks are being held with the Taliban? Opposition doesn’t accept such negotiations,” he said. It seems government wants to deceive the PPP, he said. “We had supported the peace process. But the government was giving an impression as if PPP was opposing peace talks,” the opposition leader noted.