- U.S. watchdog raps Pentagon for buying aircraft for Afghan unit
- Obama heads to South Africa with Mandela on his mind
- Leader of leftist party in Mexico's Oaxaca state found dead
Posted: 27 Jun 2013 09:01 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A government watchdog criticized the Pentagon on Friday for forging ahead with controversial helicopter purchases from a Russian arms dealer despite warnings the Afghan special forces unit due to receive the aircraft could not fly or maintain them.
The watchdog - the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction - urged the Pentagon to suspend the $553 million Russian arms deal as well as a $218 million contract for 18 planes from a U.S. firm until plans were in place to fully recruit and train the Afghan special forces unit.
The Pentagon was already under fire for agreeing this month to buy 30 additional Mi-17 helicopters from the Russian arms dealer, Rosoboronexport. That company is a major supplier of weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling rebels trying to overthrow his government.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded this month that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons, and the White House announced on June 13 that President Barack Obama had decided to provide direct military assistance to the Syrian opposition. The Pentagon announced the helicopter purchase five days later.
John Sopko, the special inspector general, noted in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the Army entered into the new purchase agreement even though the Pentagon had a draft report from SIGAR recommending that aircraft purchases for the Afghan unit be suspended.
"We maintain that moving forward with the acquisition of these aircraft is imprudent," Sopko said in the letter.
The helicopter purchases are a difficult issue for the Pentagon. Defense officials say the Mi-17 is the best choice for Afghanistan because the aircraft handles the terrain and climate well and Afghan pilots, air crews and maintenance workers have dealt with the craft since the 1980s.
While U.S.-made helicopters would be a more sophisticated purchase, they are sensitive to Afghanistan's extreme conditions and require more specialised maintenance and longer training to master, they said.
Shifting the Afghan military to a significantly different aircraft would require completely retraining the fliers and maintenance workers, delaying the effort to build the country's helicopter capacity by about three years, said Lieutenant Colonel Jim Gregory.
The special inspector general, in its investigation of the aircraft sales, found that the Afghan Special Mission Wing, which will support counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations, had only 180 personnel earlier this year, less than a quarter of the 860 people envisioned for the force by July 2015.
Control of the force initially was to be split between the Afghan Interior and Defense ministries, and tensions between the departments was hampering recruitment, the report said. A memorandum of understanding shifting control to the Defense Ministry has been drafted but remains unsigned, it said.
The inspector general recommended aircraft purchases for the unit be suspended until the memorandum is signed transferring command and control of the unit to the Defense Ministry.
His office also recommended a series of other steps, including tying acquisition and delivery of new aircraft to completion of personnel and other milestones and developing plans for transferring maintenance and logistics to the Afghans.
The Pentagon and NATO training mission in Afghanistan rejected the request to suspend the aircraft contracts, saying it would delay efforts to build the unit into a capable force. They agreed to SIGAR's other recommendations.
The Pentagon began buying helicopters for Afghan forces from Rosoboronexport in May 2011, when it agreed to purchase 21. Last year it exercised an option to buy an additional 12, bringing the total to 33.
Including the new contract this month, the Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion on helicopters and related maintenance and service with the Russian firm.
The arms deals with Rosoboronexport have outraged some U.S. lawmakers. Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who sponsored a ban on such purchases, said it was "simply outrageous" for the United States to be buying weapons from Assad's top arms supplier.
Congress barred purchases from Rosoboronexport in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, but officials said the Pentagon used 2012 funding to pay for the 30 helicopters purchased this month.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 27 Jun 2013 07:08 PM PDT
DAKAR (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama heads to South Africa on Friday hoping to see ailing icon Nelson Mandela, after wrapping up a visit to Senegal that focused on improving food security and promoting democratic institutions.
Obama is in the middle of a three-country tour of Africa that the White House hopes will compensate for what some view as years of neglect by the administration of America's first black president.
Before departing Dakar, Obama was scheduled to meet with farmers and local entrepreneurs to discuss new technologies that are helping farmers and their families in West Africa, one of the world's poorest and most drought-prone regions.
But it was Mandela, the 94-year-old former South African president who is clinging to life in a Pretoria hospital, who will dominate the president's day even before he arrives in Johannesburg.
Asked on Thursday whether Obama would be able to pay Mandela a visit, the White House said that was up to the family.
"We are going to completely defer to the wishes of the Mandela family and work with the South African government as relates to our visit," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Senegal.
"Whatever the Mandela family deems appropriate, that's what we're focused on doing in terms of our interaction with them."
Obama sees Mandela, also known as Madiba, as a hero. Whether they are able to meet or not, officials said his trip would serve largely as a tribute to the anti-apartheid leader.
"I've had the privilege of meeting Madiba and speaking to him. And he's a personal hero, but I don't think I'm unique in that regard," Obama said on Thursday. "If and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages."
The president arrives in South Africa Friday evening and has no public events scheduled. He could go to the hospital then.
Obama is scheduled to visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent years in prison, later during his trip.
On Friday morning, Obama will take part in a "Feed the Future" event on food security. That issue, along with anti-corruption measures and trade opportunities for U.S. companies, are topics the White House wants to highlight on Obama's tour.
Obama, who has been in office since 2009, has only visited Africa once in his presidential tenure: a short trip to Ghana at the beginning of his first term.
While acknowledging that Obama has not spent as much time in Africa as people hoped, the administration is eager to highlight what it has done, in part to end unflattering comparisons to accomplishments of predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Food security and public aid are two of the issues the Obama team believes are success stories.
"Africa has seen a steady and consistent increase in our overall resource investment each year that we've been in office," said Raj Shah, head of USAID. "And sustaining that in this political climate has required real trade-offs to be made in other areas, but we've done that."
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Stacey Joyce)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 27 Jun 2013 06:25 PM PDT
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The dead body of a top leader of Mexico's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for southern Oaxaca state was found on Thursday and police are investigating his death as a homicide, the state attorney general's office said.
Nicolas Estrada, president of the PRD's state council in Oaxaca, one of the leftist party's strongholds, likely died several days before his body was found, officials said.
The attorney general's office said that Estrada, 32, was reported missing since June 15, and his body was found in the town of Tuxtepec, Oaxaca, with three gunshot wounds to the head.
Oaxaca state is currently governed by the PRD, and local elections next month pit the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, of President Enrique Pena Nieto against a coalition made up of the PRD and the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
Shortly after taking office in December, Pena Nieto forged the so-called "Pact for Mexico," signed by the government and the country's three major political parties to push through reforms.
Jesus Zambrano, the PRD's national president, offered his condolences to Estrada's family in a post on his Twitter account.
"We demand justice!" he added.
Pena Nieto has vowed to quell the lawlessness and killing that have stained Mexico's image as a tourist destination and rattled investors.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico over the past seven years.
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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