- Bolivia says re-admitted to U.N. drug convention on its own terms
- Malian army drives back Islamist rebels with French help
- Canadian PM agrees to pay more heed to native demands
Posted: 11 Jan 2013 07:31 PM PST
LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia on Friday said it had been re-admitted to the U.N. anti-narcotics convention after persuading member states to recognize the right of its indigenous people to chew raw coca leaf, which is used in making cocaine.
President Evo Morales had faced opposition from Washington in his campaign against the classification of coca as an illicit drug.
"The coca leaf has accompanied indigenous peoples for 6,000 years," said Dionisio Nunez, Bolivia's deputy minister of coca and integrated development. "Coca leaf was never used to hurt people. It was used as medicine."
The leaf was declared an illegal narcotic in the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, along with cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine and a host of chemical drugs.
Bolivia withdrew from the convention a year ago and said it would not rejoin unless coca chewing was decriminalized.
Opposition came from the United States as well as France and Russia. Bolivia said it automatically rejoined the convention when a deadline ran out for opposing countries to block its petition for readmission with coca chewing permitted.
The country is the biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia. But Morales, himself a former coca leaf farmer, says the plant offers health benefits.
Bolivians have chewed raw coca leaves for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.
(Reporting By Daniel Ramos; Writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Xavier Briand)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 11 Jan 2013 06:16 PM PST
PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian government troops drove back Islamist rebels from a strategic central town after France intervened on Friday with air strikes to halt advances by the militants controlling the country's desert north.
Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, had voiced alarm after the al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako, 600 km (375 miles) south.
President Francois Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamists' seizure of the country's north in April gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe.
"We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande, who recently pledged Paris would not meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
The president said resolutions by the U.N. Security Council, which in December sanctioned an African-led military intervention in Mali, meant France was acting in accordance with international law.
French military operations in support of the Malian army against Islamist rebels "will last as long as necessary," France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, wrote in a letter to the Security Council obtained by Reuters.
In Washington, a U.S. official told Reuters the Pentagon was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed France had carried out air strikes against the rebels to prevent them conquering the whole of Mali. He refused to reveal further details, such as whether French troops were on the ground.
France's intervention immediately tipped the military balance of power, with Malian government forces quickly sweeping back into Konna, according to local residents.
"The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now," Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told Reuters, adding that the army was mopping up Islamist fighters in the surrounding area.
EU SPEEDS UP DEPLOYMENT
A military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying during the midyear rainy season. But Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters took Konna.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Friday for "accelerated international engagement" and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200 troops to train Malian forces, initially expected in late February.
Blaise Compaore, president of neighbouring Burkina Faso, which is acting as a mediator in the Malian crisis, said his country would contribute a contingent of ground troops toward the African Union mission to retake Mali's north.
Burkina Faso had been due to host peace talks between the Malian government and some of the rebel factions on Thursday, but those have been postponed until January 21 due to the outbreak of hostilities.
The capture of Konna by the rebels - who have imposed strict Sharia Islamic law in northern Mali - had caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60 km (40 miles) to the south. Calm returned, however, after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving late on Thursday at Sevare's airport - the main one in the region.
Military analysts said the Western soldiers may have been the first deployment of French special forces.
They voiced doubt, however, whether Friday's action heralded the start of the final operation to retake northern Mali - a harsh, sparsely populated terrain the size of France - as neither the equipment nor ground troops were ready.
"We're not yet at the big intervention," said Mark Schroeder, director for Sub-Saharan Africa analysis for the global risk and security consultancy Stratfor. He said France had been forced to act when the Islamists bore down on Sevare, a vital launching point for future military operations.
"The French realised this was a red line that they could not permit to be crossed," he said.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
More than two decades of peaceful elections had earned Mali a reputation as a bulwark of democracy in a part of Africa better known for turmoil - an image that unravelled in a matter of weeks after a military coup last March that paved the way for the Islamist rebellion.
Mali is Africa's third largest gold producer and a major cotton grower, and home to the fabled northern desert city of Timbuktu - an ancient trading hub and UNESCO World Heritage site that hosted annual music festivals before the rebellion.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore, under pressure for bolder action from Mali's military, declared a state of emergency on Friday. Traore will fly to Paris for talks with Hollande on Wednesday.
"Every Malian must henceforth consider themselves a soldier," Traore said on state TV, calling on mining and telecoms companies to contribute to the war effort. He said he requested French air support with the blessing of West African allies.
The chief of operations for Mali's Defence Ministry said Nigeria and Senegal were among the other countries providing military support on the ground. Fabius said those countries had not taken part in the French operation.
A spokesman for the Nigerian air force said planes had been deployed to Mali for a reconnaissance mission, not for combat.
The French Foreign Ministry stepped up its security alert on Mali and parts of neighbouring Mauritania and Niger on Friday, extending its red alert - the highest level - to include Bamako. France has eight nationals in Islamist hands in the Sahara after a string of kidnappings.
A spokesman for al Qaeda's north African arm, AQIM, urged France, in a video posted on the Internet, to reconsider its intervention. "Stop your assault against us or you are digging your own sons' graves," said Abdallah Al-Chinguetti.
(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexandria Sage, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, and Lou Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Cooney)Pentagon weighs Mali options, including intelligence-sharing
Malian army retakes central town from Islamists
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 11 Jan 2013 05:24 PM PST
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed in a meeting with native leaders on Friday to pay more attention to their demands, trying to mollify an aboriginal protest movement that has threatened to blockade roads and railways across the country.
Faced with a seemingly intractable situation that has confronted successive governments, Harper agreed to a high-level dialogue with the natives and to have his office take increased responsibility for their issues, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said.
"Working together remains the best way to achieve our shared objective of healthier, more prosperous and self-sufficient First Nations," he told a news conference, using the formal name for most of Canada's aboriginal groups.
Hundreds of aboriginal protesters had blocked the main entrance to a downtown building where Harper was preparing to meet about 20 native leaders on Friday, demonstrating their frustration, but also highlighting a deep divide within the country's First Nations on how to push Ottawa to heed their demands.
The noisy blockade, which lasted about an hour, ended just before the meeting, even as other leaders chose to boycott the session with Harper.
Chiefs have warned that the "Idle No More" aboriginal protest movement is prepared to damage the economy unless Ottawa addresses the poor living conditions and high jobless rates facing many of Canada's 1.2 million natives.
Native groups complain that Canada has ignored treaties signed with British settlers and explorers that they say granted them significant rights over their territory.
Ottawa spends about C$11 billion ($11.1 billion) a year on its aboriginal population, but living conditions for many are poor and some reserves have high rates of poverty, addiction, joblessness and suicide.
'THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS'
The meeting was hastily arranged under pressure from an Ontario chief who says she has been subsiding only on fish broth for a month. It took place in a building across from Parliament where Harper and his staff work.
Outside in the freezing rain, demonstrators in traditional feathered headgear shouted, waved burning tapers, banged drums and brandished banners with slogans such as "Treaty rights not greedy whites" and "The natives are restless."
Until midday on Friday, it was uncertain if the meeting would go ahead, with many native leaders urging a boycott and others saying it was important to talk to the government.
"Harper, if you want our lands, our native land, meaning everyone of us, over my dead body, Harper, you're going to do this," said Raymond Robinson, a Cree from Manitoba.
"You'll have to come through me first. You'll have to bury me first before you get them," he shouted toward the prime minister's office from the steps outside Parliament.
The aboriginal movement is deeply split over tactics and not all the chiefs invited to the meeting turned up. Some leaders wanted Governor-General David Johnston, the official representative of Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state, to participate.
Johnston had declined the invitation, saying it was not his place to get involved in policy discussions. He instead later hosted a ceremonial meeting at his residence.
The elected leader of the natives, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who led the delegation that met with Harper, said in a statement his people wanted a fundamental transformation in their relationship with Ottawa. He said they would press for a fair share of revenues from resource development as well as action on schools and drinking water.
The meeting did not resolve those issues, but Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Crees, praised Harper's pledge to consult. "The (commitment to) high-level dialogue for me was the highlight," Coon Come told CBC television.
BANGED ON THE DOOR
Gordon Peters, grand chief of the association of Iroquois and Allied Nations in Ontario, threatened before the meeting to "block all the corridors of this province" next Wednesday unless natives' demands were met. Ontario is Canada's most populous province and is rich in natural resources.
Peters told reporters that investors in Canada should know their money was not safe.
"Canada cannot give certainty to their investors any longer. That certainty for investors can only come from us," he said.
Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who said on Thursday that aboriginal activists had the power to bring the Canadian economy to its knees, was one of the leaders of the protest at the building where the meeting occurred.
"We're asking him (Harper) to come out here and explain why he won't speak to the people," said Nepinak, who banged on the door at the main entrance to the building after choosing to boycott the meeting.
Nepinak and other Manitoba chiefs are also demanding that Ottawa rescind parts of recent budget acts they say reduce environmental protection for lakes and rivers. The most recent budget act also makes it easier to lease lands on the reserves where many natives live, a change some natives had requested to spur development but which others regard with suspicion.
Duncan said the government was convinced it acted appropriately and constitutionally with the legislation.
In Nova Scotia, about 10 protesters blockaded a Canadian National Railway Co line near Truro on Friday afternoon, CN spokesman Jim Feeny said.
A truck had been partially moved on the tracks and was cutting off the movement of container traffic on CN's main line between the Port of Halifax and Eastern Canada, he said. Passenger services by Via Rail had also been disrupted.
The incident was the latest in a series of rail blockades staged by protesters in recent weeks to press their demands.
(Additional reporting by Louise Egan in Ottawa and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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