- Myanmar aims to improve lives, modernise with new reforms
- Foreigners still trapped in Sahara hostage crisis
- Insight - Algerians suspect inside help in hostage raid
Posted: 18 Jan 2013 07:00 PM PST
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar's government will unveil a slew of new reforms to donor countries and international organisations this weekend, aiming to consolidate achievements since the end of military rule in 2011 but also quickly improve the lives of its citizens.
A wide-ranging "Framework for Economic and Social Reforms" to be presented in the capital, Naypyitaw, sets out priorities until 2015 and broader initiatives "that will allow Myanmar to become a modern, developed and democratic nation by 2030".
The document seen by Reuters, which addresses such issues as liberalisation of trade and investment, health and education, transparency and infrastructure, admits Myanmar "is way behind neighbouring countries".
President Thein Sein, himself a former junta general, has transformed the country since taking office in March 2011 at the head of a quasi-civilian government.
He has introduced sweeping economic reforms, including a more market-oriented exchange rate, released hundreds of political prisoners, and agreed ceasefires with most of the ethnic rebel groups that have fought for decades for autonomy.
Late on Friday he issued a ceasefire order in Kachin state, where tens of thousands of people have been displaced in 20 months of fighting, although rebel leaders would not immediately commit to the truce, suspicious of the government's motives.
The army's continued attacks in the state had raised doubts about his control over the military and even led some to question his sincerity about the reform process in general.
Western governments have dropped or eased sanctions imposed on the former junta in recognition of Thein Sein's reforms, and international firms are keen to move into a country with vast resources, located between China and India and part of a vibrant Southeast Asia heading for closer economic union in 2015.
Improving the environment for foreign investment is a central aim of the latest proposals.
The unification of exchange rates, already undertaken by the government, will be bolstered by further liberalisation efforts, such as removing all exchange and non-tariff restrictions on imports "as a matter of urgency".
The government says it will give priority to a new central bank law that will grant it operational autonomy.
A new foreign investment law was passed at the end of 2012 but left many questions open about how it would work.
"Feedback from the business community suggests that it is particularly important that the law and procedures are specific as to which sectors are restricted with respect to foreign investment and does not allow for discretion with respect to implementation," the reform document said.
Further efforts at transparency will be made in the natural resources sector. The government will disclose the revenue it gets from oil, gas and mining assets and companies must publish what they pay to the state.
In the past the sector has been opaque and companies paid little attention to how they affected local communities.
The most recent controversy involved a Chinese-backed copper mine at Monywa in the northwest.
Dozens of people protesting at the mine's eviction of villagers were injured in a police raid on their camp in November last year. Thein Sein has set up a commission to investigate the problem, headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the telecoms sector, the government will aim for an 80 percent penetration rate for mobile phones by 2015. The rate in 2011 was less than 3 percent.
The tourism industry, which requires "immediate adjustments", will receive a boost from looser visa rules, modelled on those of successful holiday destinations such as Thailand.
Fiscal proposals include raising the threshold for income tax and introducing a value-added tax, and the government will look at how it can make the national budget more transparent.
As one of the "quick wins" to help ordinary people, the document says it will improve public transport in the commercial capital, Yangon, perhaps by lifting restrictions on motorcycles, and banks will be able to start offering mortgage financing.
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alan Raybould and Daniel Magnowski)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 18 Jan 2013 04:56 PM PST
ALGIERS/IN AMENAS, Algeria (Reuters) - More than 20 foreigners were captive or missing inside a desert gas plant on Saturday, nearly two days after the Algerian army launched an assault to free them that saw many hostages killed.
The standoff between the Algerian army and al Qaeda-linked gunmen - one of the biggest international hostage crises in decades - entered its fourth day, having thrust Saharan militancy to the top of the global agenda.
The number and fate of victims has yet to be confirmed, with the Algerian government keeping officials from Western countries far from the site where their countrymen were in peril.
Reports put the number of hostages killed at between 12 to 30, with possibly dozens of foreigners still unaccounted for - among them Norwegians, Japanese, Britons, Americans and others.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed on Friday the death of one American, Frederick Buttaccio, in the hostage situation, but gave no further details.
Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among the seven foreigners confirmed dead in the army's storming, the Algerian security source told Reuters. One British citizen was killed when the gunmen seized the hostages on Wednesday.
A U.S. official said on Friday that a U.S. Medevac flight carrying wounded of multiple nationalities had left Algeria.
By nightfall on Friday, the Algerian military was holding the vast residential barracks at the In Amenas gas processing plant, while gunmen were holed up in the industrial plant itself with an undisclosed number of hostages.
Scores of Westerners and hundreds of Algerian workers were inside the heavily fortified compound when it was seized before dawn on Wednesday by Islamist fighters who said they wanted a halt to a French military operation in neighbouring Mali.
Hundreds escaped on Thursday when the army launched an operation, but many hostages were killed in the assault. Algerian forces destroyed four trucks holding hostages, according to the family of a Northern Irish engineer who escaped from a fifth truck and survived.
Leaders of Britain, Japan and other countries have expressed frustration that the assault was ordered without consultation and officials have grumbled at the lack of information. Many countries also withheld details about their missing citizens to avoid releasing information that might aid the captors.
An Algerian security source said 30 hostages, including at least seven Westerners, had been killed during Thursday's assault, along with at least 18 of their captors. Eight of the dead hostages were Algerian, with the nationalities of the rest of the dead still unclear, he said.
Algeria's state news agency APS put the total number of dead hostages at 12, including both foreigners and locals.
The base was home to foreign workers from Britain's BP, Norway's Statoil and Japanese engineering firm JGC Corp and others.
Norway says eight Norwegians are still missing. JGC said it was missing 10 staff. Britain and the United States have said they have citizens unaccounted for but have not said how many.
The Algerian security source said 100 foreigners had been freed but 32 were still unaccounted for.
"We must be prepared for bad news this weekend but we still have hope," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.
The attack has plunged international capitals into crisis mode and is a serious escalation of unrest in north-western Africa, where French forces have been in Mali since last week fighting an Islamist takeover of Timbuktu and other towns.
"We are still dealing with a fluid and dangerous situation where a part of the terrorist threat has been eliminated in one part of the site, but there still remains a threat in another part," British Prime Minister David Cameron told his parliament.
"(The army) is still trying to achieve a â€˜peaceful outcome' before neutralising the terrorist group that is holed up in the (facility) and freeing a group of hostages that is still being held," Algeria's state news agency said on Friday, quoting a security source.
Algerian commanders said they moved in on Thursday about 30 hours after the siege began, because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.
A French hostage employed by a French catering company said he had hidden in his room for 40 hours under the bed before he was rescued by Algerian troops, relying on Algerian employees to smuggle him food with a password.
"I put boards up pretty much all round," Alexandre Berceaux told Europe 1 radio. "I didn't know how long I was going to stay there ... I was afraid. I could see myself already ending up in a pine box."
The captors said their attack was a response to the French military offensive in neighbouring Mali. However, some U.S. and European officials say the elaborate raid probably required too much planning to have been organised from scratch in the single week since France first launched its strikes.
Paris says the incident proves its decision to fight Islamists in neighbouring Mali was necessary.
Security in the half-dozen countries around the Sahara desert has long been a preoccupation of the West. Smugglers and militants have earned millions in ransom from kidnappings.
The most powerful Islamist groups operating in the Sahara were severely weakened by Algeria's secularist military in a civil war in the 1990s. But in the past two years the regional wing of Al Qaeda gained fighters and arms as a result of the civil war in Libya, when arsenals were looted from Muammar Gaddafi's army.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters, many with roots in Algeria and Libya, took control of northern Mali last year, prompting the French intervention in that poor African former colony.
The apparent ease with which the fighters swooped in from the dunes to take control of an important energy facility, which produces some 10 percent of the natural gas on which Algeria depends for its export income, has raised questions over the value of outwardly tough Algerian security measures.
Algerian officials said the attackers may have had inside help from among the hundreds of Algerians employed at the site.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said those responsible would be hunted down: "Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. ... Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide."
(Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti in Cairo, Eamonn Mallie in Belfast, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Mohammed Abbas in London, Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin, Andrew Quinn and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Roche, Tom Pfeiffer and Jackie Frank)
Escaped Algerian hostage witnessed dead French boss
Libya steps up security at oil fields after Algeria attack
Algeria crisis triggers Libya, Egypt oil security review
Frenchman killed in Algerian operation on gas plant - minister
Survivors describe horrors of Algeria desert siege
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 18 Jan 2013 03:15 PM PST
LONDON/ALGIERS (Reuters) - The In Amenas gas plant felt impregnable to many who worked there - walled in, hundreds of miles from anywhere and with the Algerian army constantly patrolling its desert approaches.
That was a mirage. Libya, an ex-police state turned arms bazaar and now open for jihad, lies just 50 empty miles away. And in any case, the enemy was probably already inside the gates.
At least some of up to 70 Islamist guerrillas who stormed in before dawn on Wednesday launched their operation hours earlier, barrelling over smugglers tracks across the Libyan border just after midnight, an Algerian security official told Reuters, citing evidence from mobile phones traced to the militants.
The ease with which they entered the fortified housing compound and nearby natural gas plant also left Algerians in little doubt the gunmen had allies among people at the site.
"They had local cooperation, I'm sure, maybe from drivers or security guards, who helped the terrorists get into the base," said Anis Rahmani, editor of Algeria's Ennahar newspaper and a writer on security issues who said he was briefed by officials.
Officials in this secretive country said they had discovered cases before when Islamist rebels succeeded in having fellow militants employed by international energy companies. One told Reuters it was possible insiders had cooperated at In Amenas.
Locally hired workers who escaped told Reuters of seeing the gunmen moving around the sprawling facility with confidence, apparently familiar with its layout and well prepared.
The militants said they launched the raid to halt French military intervention in neighbouring Mali, which began a week ago, however the link is not yet clear. Several European and U.S. officials said the assault seems too elaborate to have been planned in such a short time.
It is possible the attack would have happened anyway, or that the French military operation provided a trigger to carry out an attack based on preparations done earlier.
Much may never become clear. The raid was carried out in a region closed to outsiders within a country whose government is unused to sharing sensitive information with the public.
First word of trouble came crackling over a walkie-talkie to the communications room at In Amenas, where a 27-year-old radio operator called Azedine logged a contact with a bus driver who, at 5:45 a.m. (0445 GMT), left to take some foreigners to the airstrip at the town of In Amenas, some 50 km (30 miles) away.
"Moments after the bus left, I heard shooting, a lot of shooting, and then nothing," Azedine told Reuters on Friday.
Two people, one British, one Algerian were killed on two buses heading for the airport. It is not clear whether that incident was part of the plan that secured the militants access to the compound. Almost immediately after the bus skirmish, they were inside, in at least three vehicles.
People who have worked at the site, which sits with its back to cliffs in the dunes, say there was normally an overnight curfew on movement in the area, leaving it unclear how the gunmen were able to get so close before being challenged. Their initial approach may have been well off the main roads.
Freed hostages spoke of an alarm being raised, of frightened people staying in their offices or accommodation.
Azedine saw a gunman put on the ID badge of a French supervisor who had been shot dead.
Rapidly the area was surrounded by heavily armed Algerian troops, with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships from a nearby military base. The government in Algiers vowed never to negotiate.
People familiar with the site, operated by Britain's BP and Statoil of Norway along with Algeria's state energy company, said a barracks housing several hundred soldiers lies along the three km (two miles) of road separating the many buildings of the accommodation compound from the industrial plant.
A former senior Algerian government official said guards appeared to have been caught napping: "They have all kinds of equipment, detailed surveillance, cameras," he said. "They were caught maybe at the right time, at five in the morning."
But he also acknowledged the militants may have had help among the local workforce: "Out of 700 Algerians, I am sure they will find a couple who will cooperate. It always happens."
Militant leaders like Taher Ben Cheneb, said by officials to have led the operation and to have been killed on Thursday, have stoked resentment among southerners at the way foreigners and northerners dominate the better paid jobs in the oil fields.
Ben Cheneb, described as a high school maths teacher in his 50s, led the Movement of the Islamic Youth in the South. Security expert Rahmani said he joined forces for this operation with followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of Afghan wars and a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who recently formed a new group named Mulathameen.
The two men had cooperated before, Rahmani said, notably in damaging an airliner in 2007 at Djanet, further to the south.
While Ben Cheneb's group appeared to have moved on In Amenas from a base inside Algeria, Rahmani said, Belmokhtar's men, led by Abu El Bara, appeared to have come in from Libya.
Noting the one-eyed Belmokhtar's reputation as a cigarette smuggler as well as a holy warrior - locals call him the "Mister Marlboro" - he added: "They use the same backroads as the smugglers. You need a perfect knowledge of the Sahara to do it.
"They can use the same wells as the smugglers, the same fuel dumps hidden in the desert."
More than a decade after Algeria's civil war killed some 200,000 people, Islamist fighters roam the sandy wastes of Africa's biggest country, mixing smuggling and kidnapping for ransom with opposition to the political establishment that has ruled in Algiers since French colonists left half a century ago.
These groups have been energised by the return of heavily armed ethnic Tuaregs and others from Libya, where they fought as mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi until his overthrow in 2011. The new Libyan authorities are struggling to control their own deep south and it provides a launch pad for raids across the frontier.
Images from Libya's civil war, of men in desert robes powering across the dunes in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons ranging from machineguns to missile-launchers, have been transferred, along with arms and men, to conflict in the Sahara.
Mali's army melted away last year, ceding control of northern towns like Timbuktu as fighters came back from Libya.
While security forces seek to control their frontiers, the tracts of sand are vast, borders among the half dozen countries around the desert are unmarked, and the big money that can be made from illicit trade or kidnapping tourists and Western engineers can be used to buy favours from ill-paid officials.
Al Qaeda says it is fighting for a Muslim caliphate that transcends artificial borders in the Maghreb set by colonial powers.
Once inside the facility, militants, including bearded, ragged fighters and others in more urban dress, herded groups of Westerners together. Hundreds of Algerians were guarded more loosely. One Algerian worker told Reuters the gunmen said they were only interested in killing "Christians and infidels".
Several former hostages described the attackers, from their accents, as appearing to be Libyan or Egyptian as well as Algerian. Officials said many of 18 dead gunmen were foreign.
Algeria told Western governments, which voiced dismay at the storming of the facility on Thursday, that troops moved in only because guerrillas were trying to leave with hostages, possibly hoping to reach the Malian border.
The captors loaded hostages into a convoy. Special forces backed by helicopters moved in around noon, some 30 hours after the plant was seized.
In what appears to have been the deadliest part of the siege, as described by the family of Irish survivor Stephen McFaul, government forces bombed the convoy, blasting apart four vehicles full of hostages. McFaul was in a fifth truck which crashed. He dashed for his life and escaped, and believes all those in the other vehicles were killed.
During Thursday, most of the hundreds of people at the site were able to flee.
By Friday night, it remained unclear how many of the gunmen and their hostages were still in the facility - though both groups might number in the dozens. Norway's prime minister said the operation at the larger, residential compound seemed to be over and troops were now surrounding the industrial site.
But this left Western governments and intelligence officials, long used to difficult relations with Algeria which is proud of its sovereignty, desperate for hard facts about the fate of their nationals.
(Additional reporting by Alex Lawler and Jessica Donati in London; Editing by Peter Millership and Peter Graff)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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