Khamis, 14 November 2013

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

Sanctions easing can be reversed if Iran does not deliver - Obama


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to reassure sceptical U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that any easing of sanctions on Iran that emerges from negotiations could easily be reversed and "ramped back up" if Tehran fails to curb its nuclear program.

In his most direct appeal yet for more time to pursue a diplomatic deal with Iran, Obama urged Congress to hold off on imposing any new sanctions despite concerns on Capitol Hill and among U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that he is giving away too much.

Obama spoke a day after Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top U.S. officials warned senators that implementing new sanctions could scuttle the delicate negotiations between Iran and six world powers due to resume in Geneva next Wednesday.

Some lawmakers said after Wednesday's meetings they were not convinced, and there was no immediate sign that Obama - seeking better ties with Iran after more than three decades of estrangement - had won converts on Thursday either.

"If we're serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there's no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective, and that brought them (the Iranians) to the table in the first place," Obama told a White House news conference.

"Now, if it turns out they can't deliver, they can't come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up," he said.

An initial agreement seemed close last week, when Kerry made an unexpected trip to the talks in Switzerland. But the negotiators failed to reach a deal and are returning for another round of talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday that a "bad deal" with Iran could lead to war. His aides challenged U.S. assertions that Iran was being offered only limited relief from sanctions.

Underscoring the many obstacles, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel staunchly defended Obama's approach. "I felt sorry for Secretary Kerry because so many people have jumped into this (saying), 'Well he didn't get anything and he didn't get a deal.' Wait a minute!" Hagel told a defense conference.

"We have political issues. Our partners have political issues," he said. "So this is going to take time if we're going to be able to move to somewhere onto a higher ... plain of possibility."


At the White House, Obama sought to answer critics who accuse him of preparing to ease sanctions prematurely. He said that in return for Iran's agreement in a "phase-one" deal to halt its nuclear advances, "we would provide very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we've set up."

"But importantly, we would leave in place the core sanctions that are most effective and have most impact on the Iranian economy, specifically oil sanctions and sanctions with respect to banks and financing," he added.

Obama said that would give world powers a chance to test how serious Tehran is about negotiating a final deal to dispel Western suspicions that it wants to develop a nuclear weapon, something Tehran denies it is seeking.

"It also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months from now that they're not serious," he said, "we can dial those sanctions right back up."

Speaking later to a Washington think tank, Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said continued enforcement of the bulk of existing sanctions would mean that "the amount of revenue that Iran will lose during the next six months would far exceed any amounts of relief they might obtain as part of a first-step agreement."

Obama reiterated that he was leaving "all options on the table" for dealing with Iran - diplomatic code for possible military action. But he warned of "unintended consequences" from any military conflict.

Obama is facing resistance from lawmakers wary of letting up the pressure in negotiations with Iran.

"Sanctions remain the best way to avoid war and prevent a future of Iranian nuclear weapons," said Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and frequent harsh critic of Obama's foreign policy, expressed scepticism about the Geneva talks and said the Senate Banking Committee should move ahead with consideration of new sanctions.

But he told Reuters: "I'm not so hell-bent on enacting additional sanctions (by the full Senate), although I think they're entirely called for. But I am willing to give them a period of time."

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed its version of a new sanctions bill on July 31, just days before Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office. Rouhani was elected in June on a platform of conciliation, saying he wanted to ease Iran's international isolation.

Senators have been debating behind closed doors their version of the bill, which could slash Iran's oil exports to no more than 500,000 barrels a day. However the banking committee acts, some senators said they might sidestep the panel and insert tough new Iran sanctions into the annual defense authorization bill, which Obama might find hard to veto.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)

Syrian air raid kills rebel commander in Aleppo - activists


AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian rebel commander in a main Islamist brigade was killed and two others were injured in an air strike by President Bashar al-Assad's forces on Aleppo, activists said on Friday, in a setback to rebels defending the city against a loyalist attack.

Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub and most populous city before the uprising against Assad erupted in 2011, has been witnessing heavy fighting since Assad's forces, backed by Shi'ite militia from Iraq and the Lebanese party Hezbollah, launched an offensive two weeks ago to retake rebel-held areas in the city.

The opposition Aleppo News Network said in a statement that the raid on Thursday targeted an army base that rebels had captured, killing commander Youssef al-Abbas of the Qatari-backed al-Tawhid Brigades, one of the biggest armed opposition groups.

Abbas was known by the nom de guerre Abu al-Tayyeb.

Tawhid's leadership was holding a meeting in the base when the raid occurred, the statement said.

It said Tawhid's head, Abdelqader Saleh, was injured and taken to a hospital in Turkey, 45 kms (28 miles) to the north, along with Abdelaziz al-Salameh, another top commander. Both were in good condition, the statement said.

The report could not be independently confirmed.

Video footage taken by activists showed the body of Abu al-Tayyeb after being transported to his hometown of Mareh in the countryside north of Aleppo. His father was shown kissing the body and crying.

Al-Tawhid issued a statement earlier this week, along with other Islamist formations that included al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, declaring a emergency and summoning all fighters to head to the fronts.

Opposition activists said the declaration was an indication of how grave rebels regarded the possibility of Assad, boosted by his Shi'ite militia allies and Iran, wresting back Aleppo.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday his group will keep fighting in Syria alongside Assad's forces as long as necessary.

The conflict has polarised the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, who support the Sunni rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Assad belongs to Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has controlled the country since the 1960s by dominating the army and security apparatus. Assad's father had forged a now weakened alliance with the Sunni merchant class in Aleppo and Damascus and with Sunni tribes in the east of the country.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Bill Trott)

Philippine typhoon death toll jumps; U.S. helicopters boost aid effort


TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) - The death toll from a powerful typhoon doubled overnight in one Philippine city alone, reaching 4,000, as helicopters from a U.S. aircraft carrier and other naval ships began flying food, water and medical teams to ravaged regions on Friday.

President Benigno Aquino has faced mounting pressure to speed up the distribution of aid and also come under criticism over unclear estimates of casualties, especially in Tacloban, capital of hardest-hit Leyte province.

A notice board in Tacloban City Hall estimated the deaths at 4,000, up from 2,000 a day before. The toll, written in blue marker on a whiteboard easel, is compiled by local officials who started burying bodies in a mass grave on Thursday.

Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez said some people may have been swept out to sea and their bodies lost after a tsunami-like wall of seawater slammed into coastal areas. One neighbourhood had a population of between 10,000 and 12,000, and now was completely deserted, he said.

The City Hall toll is the first public acknowledgement that the number of fatalities would likely far exceed an estimate given this week by Aquino, who said the loss of life from Typhoon Haiyan would be closer to 2,000 or 2,500.

Official confirmed deaths nationwide stood at 2,357 on Friday after the typhoon, one of the strongest ever recorded, roared across the central Philippines a week ago. Adding to the confusion, the United Nations, citing government figures, put the latest overall death toll at 4,460.

On Tuesday, Aquino said estimates of 10,000 dead by local officials were overstated and caused by "emotional trauma". Elmer Soria, a regional police chief who made that estimate to media, was removed from his post on Thursday.

A police spokesman said Soria was due to be transferred to headquarters in Manila. But a senior police official told Reuters he believed Soria was re-assigned because of his unauthorised casualty estimate.


Survivors have grown increasingly desperate and angry over the pace of aid distribution, which has been hindered by paralysed local governments, widespread looting, a lack of fuel for rescue vehicles and debris-choked roads.

The dead are still being buried. Many corpses remain uncovered on roadsides or under splintered homes.

Foreign aid officials have called the disaster unprecedented for the Philippines.

"There is utter devastation. People are desperate for food, water, shelter, supplies and information about their loved ones," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Thursday during a visit to Latvia.

"We are doing everything possible to rush assistance to those who need it. Now is the time for the international community to stand with the people of the Philippines."

The nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier and accompanying ships arrived off eastern Samar province on Thursday evening, carrying 5,000 crew and more than 80 aircraft.

The carrier moved some fixed-wing aircraft ashore to make more room for the helicopters on its flight deck.

"One of the best capabilities the strike group brings is our 21 helicopters," commander Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery said in a statement. "These helicopters represent a good deal of lift to move emergency supplies around."

U.S. sailors have brought food and water ashore in Tacloban and the town of Guiuan.

The carrier is moored near where U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's force of 174,000 men landed on October 20, 1944, in one of the biggest Allied victories of World War Two.

Another U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, led a massive aid operation off Indonesia's Aceh province after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

Aquino has been on the defensive over his handling of the storm, given warnings of its projected strength and the risk of a storm surge, and now the pace of relief efforts.

He has said the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies, but survivors say they had little warning of any seawater surge.

Tacloban city administrator Tecson John Lim, who on Sunday also estimated 10,000 likely died, said Aquino may be deliberately downplaying casualties.

"Of course he doesn't want to create too much panic. Perhaps he is grappling with whether he wants to reduce the panic so that life goes on," he said.

The preliminary number of missing as of Thursday, according to the Red Cross, remained at 22,000. That could include people who have since been located, it has said.


Tacloban's main convention centre, the Astrodome, has become a temporary home for hundreds of people living in squalor. Families cooked meals amid the stench of garbage and urine. Debris was strewn along rows of seats rising from dark pools of stagnant water.

"We went into the Astrodome and asked who is in charge and just got blank stares," said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, which is setting up camps for the displaced.

Survivors formed long lines under searing sunshine, and then torrential rain, to charge mobile phones from the only power source available - a city hall generator. Others started to repair motorbikes and homes. A rescue worker cleared debris near a wall with the spray-painted words: "We need food".

Outside Tacloban, burials began for about 300 bodies in a mass grave on Thursday. A larger grave will be dug for 1,000, Lim said.

The city government remains paralysed, with an average of just 70 workers on duty, compared with 2,500 normally, he added. Many were killed, injured, lost family or were too overcome with grief to work.

More than 920,000 people have been displaced, the United Nations said. But many areas still have not received aid.

"It's true, there are still areas that we have not been able to get to where people are in desperate need," U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters in Manila. "I very much hope that in the next 48 hours, that will change significantly.

"Yes, I do feel that we have let people down because we have not been able to get in more quickly."

(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Eric dela Cruz in Manila, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Phil Stewart in Washington, Greg Torode in Hong Kong and Aija Krūtaine in Latvia. Writing by Jason Szep. Editing by Dean Yates)


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