- Idea that American held by Venezuela is a spy 'ridiculous' - Obama
- Explosions shake Damascus, Syria blames Israel
- Iraq PM's coalition emerges as strongest force in local vote
Posted: 04 May 2013 07:37 PM PDT
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government's suggestion that an American citizen it has detained is a spy is "ridiculous," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a television interview recorded on Saturday during a visit to Costa Rica.
Venezuela said late last month it had detained an American called Timothy Hallet Tracy, accusing him of financing opposition student demonstrations after April's disputed presidential election and saying he had clearly been trained as an intelligence agent.
Venezuela said Tracy, 35, from Michigan, had received money from a foreign non-profit organisation and had redirected those funds toward student organizations, seeking to provoke "civil war".
Relatives and friends of Tracy have described him to U.S. media as a documentary maker who was in Venezuela to make a film about the presidential election.
"This U.S. citizen who apparently has been detained, we will handle (it) like ... every situation where we get a U.S. citizen who gets into some sort of legal tangle in a foreign country," Obama told Noticias Telemundo in an interview set to be aired on Sunday.
"The notion that this individual is some spy is ridiculous," Obama added as he wrapped up a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica. "We've seen some of this rhetoric occasionally come out of Venezuela."
U.S. officials say the matter is being handled privately, rather than government-to-government, and they are unaware of details of the case. They are, however, seeking consular access to Tracy.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, elected in April by a narrow margin, has accused former U.S. officials of fomenting plans to assassinate him and also said Washington is supporting efforts to destabilize Venezuela.
FLOOD OF ACCUSATIONS
The U.S. government has denied that, and Venezuela's opposition has derided the torrent of accusations as a smokescreen to distract people from difficult domestic issues.
Obama said in a separate interview with Univision News, aired on Friday, that the United States was watching "crackdowns on the opposition" in Venezuela, when asked if he considered newly elected Maduro to be the country's legitimate president.
The United States angered Maduro when it last month held back recognition of his narrow victory over Capriles.
"What we want for Venezuela is ... Venezuelans ... able to choose their own leadership in fair and free elections a democratic process that is credible," Obama told Noticias Telemundo. "We have not tried to interfere in any way with what happens there."
"What we've said is, you know, let's make sure that the rules are being followed, that people are not being thrown into jail or intimidated, that the press is allowed to report fairly on what happens, that the ruling party doesn't resort to intimidation in terms of skewing results."
Maduro responded to Obama's criticism of Venezuela's democratic credentials with an angry denunciation of the U.S. leader's "insolence" on Saturday during a government "cadena" broadcast that all local television channels are obliged to show live.
"There's now no doubt that Obama himself, as the puppet of that imperial power, is behind the financing in dollars of this right wing that wants to mess with and destroy Venezuela's democracy," he said.
Maduro said he would not let up in his defence of Venezuela's sovereignty and constitution, and was prepared to talk with Washington despite its antagonism towards him.
"We can sit down even with the devils' major-general, Obama," he said in a speech to red-shirted workers who chanted "Obama, fascist" as he wound up.
A later statement by the Venezuelan government accused Obama of turning a blind eye to deaths that occurred in opposition-led protests the day after Maduro's election, and showing hypocrisy on human rights given his failure to close a prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
(With reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Eric Walsh)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 04 May 2013 07:06 PM PDT
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Powerful explosions struck the outskirts of Damascus early on Sunday, sending columns of fire into the night sky, and Syrian state television said Israeli rockets had struck a military facility just north of the capital.
Israel declined to comment on the attack, but the blasts occurred a day after an Israeli official said his country had carried out an air strike targeting a consignment of missiles in Syria intended for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
One of the sites hit on Sunday, the Jamraya military research centre, was also targeted by Israel in January.
"The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army," Syrian television said, referring to recent offensives by President Bashar al-Assad's forces against rebels.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted eyewitnesses in the area as saying they saw jets in the sky at the time of the explosions.
It said the blasts hit Jamraya as well as a nearby ammunition depot. Other activists said a missile brigade and two Republican Guard battalions may also have been targeted in the heavily militarised area just north of Damascus.
Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by activists showed a series of explosions. One lit up the skyline over the city, while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.
There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials on Sunday's explosions. "We don't respond to this kind of report," an Israeli military spokeswoman told Reuters.
The Jewish state has repeatedly made clear it is prepared to use force to prevent advanced weapons from Syria reaching Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas, who fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006. Assad and Hezbollah are allied to Iran, Israel's arch-enemy.
With Assad battling a more than 2-year-old insurgency, the Israelis also worry that the Sunni Islamist rebels could loot his arsenals and eventually hit the Jewish state, ending four decades of relative cross-border calm.
The U.S. State Department and Pentagon had no immediate comment and the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined comment.
The uprising against Assad began with mainly peaceful protests that were met with force and grew into a bloody civil war in which the United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed.
Assad has lost control of large areas of north and eastern Syria, and is battling rebels on the fringes of Damascus.
But his forces have launched counter-offensives in recent weeks against the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels around the capital and near the city of Homs, which links Damascus with the Mediterranean heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 04 May 2013 03:11 PM PDT
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition came top in provincial elections two weeks ago, results released on Saturday showed, but failed to win a majority in any district, meaning it will need alliances to hold onto senior provincial posts.
Maliki's State of Law won the most seats in seven out of 12 provinces, in a vote that was the biggest test of Iraqi democracy since U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011.
Iraqi politics are deeply split along sectarian lines, with Maliki's power-sharing government mired in crisis over how to share power among Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds who run their own autonomous region in the north.
"Ahead of the 2014 elections, the results signal to the blocs that pursuing a majoritarian government approach is difficult to bear fruit," said Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
"Coalition building remains a main characteristic of forming governments in Iraq."
Iraqiya, a secular but Sunni-dominated bloc that posed a serious challenge to the Shi'ite Maliki in 2010 parliamentary elections, won no more than three seats in any province, according to figures released by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.
Months of Sunni unrest have come to a head since security forces raided a protest camp on April 23, three days after the provincial elections. Clashes swiftly spread to other Sunni areas, pushing the monthly civilian death count to 712, the highest since 2009, according to the United Nations.
Civil war in Syria is fanning Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry across the Middle East, exacerbating tensions in Iraq. Under late dictator Saddam Hussein, the minority Sunnis were politically dominant, but now they complain of being marginalised.
Maliki's State of Law received the most votes in the capital Baghdad, where it took 20 of the 58 available seats.
Voting in two Sunni-majority provinces was put off until July due to concerns about security, a delay criticised by the United States. The cabinet said the date could be postponed again unless the situation improved.
The Kurdistan region has its own timetable for provincial elections in its three governorates.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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