- Taliban attack Afghan presidential palace - Reuters witnesses
- Singapore smog eases as Indonesian planes waterbomb fires
- Brazil's Rousseff calls for constitutional vote to quell protests
Posted: 24 Jun 2013 08:37 PM PDT
KABUL (Reuters) - Taliban gunmen attacked Afghanistan's presidential palace and surrounding buildings, including the CIA's Afghan headquarters, early on Tuesday, with explosions and gunfire shaking the city centre.
A Reuters reporter at the palace said the attack began soon after 6.30 a.m. (0300 BST), when at least one man opened fire with an automatic rifle at a gate to the palace in the central Shash Darak district.
Karzai's whereabouts were not immediately known, though he was due to attend a press event at the palace after 9 a.m. (0530 BST).
Reporters had been gathering at the palace when the attack began and dived for cover as government forces returned fire. Heavy explosions resounded and the gunfire intensified.
Schoolchildren walking to classes nearby were also caught in the exchanges.
The Taliban claimed responsibility the attack in a text message to Kabul reporters from spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
"Today at 6.30 a.m. a number of suicide bombers attacked the presidential palace, defence ministry and the Ariana Hotel," Mujahid said.
The Ariana Hotel is known to house the headquarters of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Afghanistan. A thick plume of smoke was seen rising from the building.
An Afghan official told Reuters the attackers had made their way into a nearby building from which they were firing.
Shash Darak includes the most important buildings in Kabul, including the palace, the headquarters of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan Defence Ministry and the CIA's Afghan station.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Ron Popeski)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 24 Jun 2013 07:50 PM PDT
SINGAPORE/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Air quality in Singapore improved significantly to "moderate" pollution levels on Saturday, as Indonesian planes waterbombed raging forest fires and investigators scrambled to determine the cause of one of Southeast Asia's worst air pollution crises.
Indonesia's environment minister said eight domestic firms were suspected of being responsible for the blazes on Sumatra island that blanketed neighbouring Singapore in record levels of hazardous smog. Parent companies of the Indonesian firms included Malaysia-listed Sime Darby, the government said.
A senior presidential aide on Friday also blamed units of Jakarta-based PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART) and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) for the fires.
"We will take legal action whoever they are," Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya told reporters. "Any companies from Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore, they will be legally processed."
But Indonesia's Forestry Ministry, which is leading the investigation, warned about naming suspects and jumping to conclusions too soon.
"We have to be very careful in any legal action. We have to really find out what happened, why the fire happened, and so on. This could be due to negligence too," said Hadi Daryanto, the ministry's general secretary.
Under Indonesian law, any company or person proven to be involved in an illegal forest fire could face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 5 billion rupiah ($503,800).
Sime Darby and APRIL said there were no fires in any of their operating areas in Indonesia.
SMART said they it had a "zero burning" policy and that most, if not all, the fires raging in and near their concessions were caused by the local community.
Singapore has warned the "haze" - which has fuelled fears about health problems and raised diplomatic tension in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia - could last for weeks, or even longer.
Indonesia has deployed military planes to fight the blazes on Sumatra island from illegal burning that typically takes place in the June to September dry season to clear space for palm oil plantations. The fires are unusually widespread this year and the smog was the heaviest in Singapore's history.
On the sixth day of the thick smoke, Singapore's pollution index eased to the "moderate" zone with readings as low as 77. It hit a record of 401 on Friday afternoon, a level considered potentially life-threatening for the ill and the elderly.
Despite the improving conditions, streets in the clean and green city-state were far less crowded than on a typical Saturday when people go out to shop, meet in outdoor cafes and have fun at the park.
The Ministry of Education advised public schools to cancel all activities planned for the holiday month of June.
StarHub Ltd, a cable television and Internet provider, said it was providing a free preview of more than 170 channels over the weekend "as we stay home to escape the unbearable haze".
The cost of the smog for Singapore, a major financial centre and tourist destination, could end up being hundreds of millions of dollars, brokerage CLSA said in a report.
In Malaysia, the haze spread north. Air quality in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and in several surrounding areas worsened into the "unhealthy" zone. The air quality was now "unhealthy" in 17 areas of Malaysia and "very unhealthy" in one area.
(The story corrects second paragraph of June 22 story to remove Wilmar as a parent company of firms suspected of being responsible for the fires. Adds sourcing to second sentence of second paragraph.)
(Additional reporting by Randy Fabi, Fergus Jensen and Michael Taylor in JAKARTA, Eveline Danubrata and Kevin Lim in SINGAPORE, and Stuart Grudgings and Siva Sithraputhran in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 24 Jun 2013 07:10 PM PDT
SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sought to overcome a sudden wave of national discontent with a surprising call on Monday for a referendum on what would be the country's most ambitious political reform in decades.
Rouseff proposed a national vote on amending Brazil's constitution in a meeting with governors and mayors the week after the country's largest protests in 20 years jolted politicians of all stripes. It immediately raised questions about whether she could deliver on such an undertaking as she heads to what may be a more difficult re-election in 2014.
Brazil's last sweeping political reform was 25 years ago, when the current Brazilian constitution was ratified in 1988 by the country's last constitutional assembly, three years after the end of its military dictatorship.
"The streets are telling us that the country wants quality public services, more effective measures to combat corruption ... and responsive political representation," Rousseff said, reiterating her support for the democratic spirit of most protesters gathering in Brazil's biggest cities in recent weeks.
It was unclear how Rousseff sought to address political reform, and analysts said her proposal may only add to concerns about whether she can placate protesters whose demands vary but ultimately come down to disillusionment with government.
A constitutional reform could take years as the government must arrange a public vote calling an assembly to debate the overhaul of Brazil's representative democracy.
"The creation of a Constituent Assembly to deliver a deep cutting political reform could add another element of medium-term uncertainty," wrote Alberto Ramos, chief Latin American economist at Goldman Sachs, in a note to clients.
"These transformational events tend to take a long time and the final outcome is extremely hard to predict," he added.
The president also laid out proposals to expand public transport, improve health services and crack down on corruption - concerns raised by the leaderless protest movement that has shaken markets and threatened her popularity.
Still, a sluggish economy has left the president with little room to maneuver the federal budget and protesters are unlikely to see rapid improvements in their daily lives.
Polls taken before the current wave of demonstrations showed public approval for the left-leaning Rousseff had slipped to around 55 percent - enough to win a second term in a single round of voting. She is widely expected to seek re-election next year.
The recent peak of the mostly peaceful demonstrations came on Thursday, when about a million people took to the streets across Brazil with occasional flashes of violence and vandalism.
The days since then have been calmer but social media points to another round of protests surrounding a Wednesday football match between Brazil and Uruguay in the city of Belo Horizonte.
Football has become a focal point for protesters objecting to big funding for stadiums for the 2014 World Cup that they believe would be better spent on transport, education and hospitals.
The demands for better public services have raised concerns about looser government spending, which Rousseff sought to head off by introducing her agenda on Monday with a call for fiscal discipline.
Rousseff then proposed an additional 50 billion reais ($22 billion) of investments to address the complaints about public transport that first set off the protests over two weeks ago.
Fare hikes for buses and subways in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that incited early outrage have since been withdrawn, and the governor of Sao Paulo also announced on Monday plans to roll back higher tolls on the state's highway concessions.
Rousseff also cited demonstrators' demands to lend urgency to parts of her agenda that have faced political resistance, such as setting aside future oil royalties for education and importing doctors from abroad.
She may struggle to find new tax revenue for her proposals, however, as the economy struggles to gain steam, inflation is eating away at purchasing power, and rising interest rates are making consumer credit more costly.
Two years of what many economists decry as fiscal slippage under Rousseff have also made it tougher to increase spending.
Standard & Poor's revised its outlook on long-term ratings for Brazil's sovereign debt this month to negative from stable, citing a deteriorating fiscal outlook and slow economic growth.
($1 = 2.25 Brazilian reais)
(Additional reporting by Caroline Stauffer and Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo and Maria Pia Palermo in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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