Ahad, 9 Februari 2014

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The Star Online: World Updates

Syrian chemical weapons stalling tests limits of U.S.-Russian deal

Posted: 09 Feb 2014 09:20 PM PST

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - At a closed door meeting, Western governments led by the United States took Syria to task for failing to surrender its chemical weapons under ambitious deadlines agreed with Russia after a poison gas attack in August.

Speaker after speaker stood up to berate Damascus at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), until it came to Russia's turn and Moscow took a much more lenient view - the international split over Syria writ large.

Russia defended President Bashar al-Assad and said his government needed more time to ship the chemicals safely through territory where it is fighting rebels.

Syria missed a first deadline to give up the most dangerous toxins on December 31 and another cut-off date passed on Wednesday, when it was due to hand over all the remaining critical chemical materials.

The success of the destruction programme, now also at risk of missing the final June 30 deadline, is in the interests of both powers, but the confrontation in The Hague on January 30 exposed a deep division between Moscow and Washington over how to respond to Syria's lack of progress.

The U.S.-Russian clash also bodes poorly for a broader Moscow-Washington partnership that is seen as critical to resolving other major foreign policy challenges, from Iran's nuclear programme to the Geneva peace talks for Syria, which are set to resume on Monday. Further bad feeling was aroused by a leaked phone conversation about Ukraine between U.S. officials.

Even with the latest setback, the agreement to destroy Syria's chemical stockpile that averted a U.S.-led military strike and led to a Nobel Peace Prize for the OPCW, can still be pulled off, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said.


The next major deadline is March 31, by when the most toxic substances are supposed to be destroyed outside Syria on a special U.S. cargo vessel, the Cape Ray, which is on the way from Virginia.

"The odds of Syrian compliance increase if Washington and Moscow speak with one voice, but that isn't happening at present," Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the U.S. Monterey Institute, a leading think tank, told Reuters.

"These two countries are both key to the potential success of chemical disarmament in Syria, not to mention a settlement to the overall conflict, so hopefully they will rapidly find a way to resolve this impasse," she said.

With Russia opposed to automatic U.N. Security Council action against Syria if it is deemed non-compliant - a stage diplomats say has not been reached - Washington finds itself in a similar situation to last September, when it had threatened military action, diplomats said.

Western powers fear the programme is being stalled intentionally to give Moscow more time to provide military hardware to Damascus and to enable Syria to retain its weapons of mass destruction as a negotiation tool in the Geneva peace talks.

It is a process that has faced difficulties from the beginning, with OPCW inspectors held up in Cyprus for weeks before they could get into Syria to check its chemical arsenal. The August 21 gas attack happened within days of their arrival and inspectors were earlier shot at by snipers while trying to check allegations of chemical weapons use.


Even as Moscow supports Assad in public, it is being urged to put pressure on him to meet the targets. On Tuesday Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Syria was planning a large shipment of chemical substances this month and was ready to complete the process by March 1.

Still Western diplomats complained that the Russians were not doing enough to encourage Assad to play ball, while other powers may be reluctant to threaten action for fear of undermining the Geneva talks.

"There are signs that the Russians are putting pressure on them (Syria) to do it," a Western diplomat said. If the Syrians complete the shipments of toxic chemicals by March 1, as the Russians said then "that would be good."

Washington and other Western governments have rejected Syria's claim that it needs more equipment to transport chemicals securely after it received a long list of hardware to carry out the job.

The delay is already having a knock-on effect on the complex logistical task, involving nearly a dozen countries, commercial chemical destruction contracts and multi-million dollar funding by the international community.

The international community has invested heavily in the operation, providing ships, vehicles, personnel and tens of millions of dollars in donations to OPCW and U.N. funds.

Washington sent shipping containers, GPS trackers, armoured vehicles for inspectors, decontamination equipment and a cargo ship outfitted with $10m in chemical weapons treatment systems.

China chipped in ambulances and surveillance cameras, Belarus gave 13 field kitchens, Russia sent 75 transport vehicles, 25 of them armoured. Denmark and Norway donated cargo ships and military patrol boats. Italy offered use of a port. Germany and Britain will make available toxic waste destruction facilities.

"While remaining aware of the challenging security situation inside the Syrian Arab Republic, it is the assessment of the Joint Mission that (Syria) has sufficient material and equipment to carry out multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of chemical weapons material," Ban said last week.

A senior Western diplomat said the Syrian government is "teasing us" by dragging its heels while doing enough to avoid being declared in non-compliance with its obligation to destroy its chemical weapons program.

"Our impression is that they (Assad's government) are managing this issue in parallel with the Geneva discussion," he said. "Everything is blocked so they are blocking on the chemical weapons to remind us" of their power on this issue.

That sentiment was echoed by the U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW, Robert Mikulak, who called on Damascus at the closed OPCW meeting to "take immediate action" to resolve the impasse.

"Syria has said that its delay in transporting these chemicals has been caused by 'security concerns' and insisted on additional equipment - armoured jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices. These demands are without merit, and display a 'bargaining mentality' rather than a security mentality," he said.


On February 6, a day after the deadline to hand over all critical chemicals expired, OPCW/U.N. mission head Sigrid Kaag addressed the U.N. Security Council on the matter.

Although she did not believe the Syrians were deliberately stalling, she said cooperation must be speeded up if the June 30 deadline is to be met.

A second senior Western diplomat said it was possible that Western powers were overestimating Russia's leverage with Assad's government.

Still, Western nations are encouraging Moscow to use all its influence on Damascus to resume complying with the timetable agreed in September and October.

It is in Moscow's interests to ensure that the chemical weapons deal doesn't fall apart. Russia doesn't want its reputation as a diplomatic power tarnished, or Assad's government to face renewed threats of U.S. air strikes at a time when the Syrian army appears to have an edge over the opposition militarily.

"Of course it is in Russia's interest to see it go ahead. President (Vladimir) Putin threw a safety belt to President Obama at a very delicate moment," said Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

The U.S. and Russia have invested political capital in the operation to eliminate Syria's 1,300 tonne stockpile, of which just 4.1 percent had been handed over for destruction.

"If it appears now that it was all in vain - that chemical weapons will remain in Syria and that Bashar al-Assad is pulling a fast one - it will be President Putin who will be in a very bad situation indeed," Mirsky said.

(Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols in New York, Alistair Bell, Jim Loney, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Gabriela Baczynska and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Pakistani separatist militants blow up three gas pipelines

Posted: 09 Feb 2014 09:15 PM PST

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Separatist rebels from Pakistan's resource-rich Baluchistan province have blown up three gas pipelines, cutting supplies to the country's most economically important province, an official from a state-owned gas company said Monday.

The rebels blew up the pipelines to Punjab province overnight, said Ayub Bajwa, the emergency manager on duty for Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited in the capital of Islamabad.

Punjab is Pakistan's most populous and wealthy province and the power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Most of the province is now without gas.

"This the first time they have blown all three simultaneously," Bajwa said. "They used to just blow up one here or there."

The pipelines are large - 24, 18 and 16 inches in diameter. It will take at least two days to repair them, Bajwa said.

During that time millions of Pakistanis will be unable to heat their homes or run their factories.

Sarbaz Baloch, a spokesman for the banned Baluch Republican Army, said his group had blown up the pipelines near the Punjabi town of Rahim Yar Khan, about 600 km (370 miles) south of Islamabad.

The BRA is fighting for the independence of Baluchistan, Pakistan's poorest and biggest province. They accuse the federal government of looting the province's rich mineral resources and leaving its people to live in poverty.

Human rights groups have accused both the Baluch rebels and government security forces of serious human rights abuses, including kidnapping, torturing and killing civilians.

(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Multan and Gul Yousafzai in Quetta; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Asylum seekers accuse Australia navy of abuse as boat towed to Indonesia

Posted: 09 Feb 2014 08:55 PM PST

KUPANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - On New Year's day, 45 asylum seekers in a ramshackle wooden boat slid ashore on a small island off the Australian city of Darwin. Four others had been swept overboard that morning in rough seas and were believed dead.

The survivors, from Africa and the Middle East, stumbled onto the beach, thankful to find refuge on Australian soil. Or so they thought.

Within an hour, an Australian warship and other vessels arrived. Military personnel forced the asylum seekers back onto their wooden boat and towed it out to sea. Their destination: Indonesia.

Determining precisely what happened is difficult. But interviews with five of the passengers reconstructs a journey they say was marked by physical and verbal abuse.

Their accounts highlight just how far the newly elected conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott is going to meet his election promise to "stop the boats" - a policy which involves towing vessels back to Indonesia, the main departure point for people-smuggling boats.

In a statement in response to questions on the accusations from the five asylum seekers, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison said he did not give "credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs".

"I know and trust that our Navy and Customs and Border Protection Service act in accordance with their training and lawful orders and would only use force where necessary," he said. The navy refers all questions about the operations to Morrison's office.

About 16,000 asylum seekers came on 220 boats to Australia in the first seven months of last year. The government has said that since mid-December, not a single boat has arrived.

In separate interviews, the five asylum seekers all said their vessel landed on the island - raising questions about what Canberra means when it says no boats have arrived. One of the men said he had carried a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that showed Darwin was roughly 35 km (22 miles) away.

They also gave multiple accounts of military personnel using plastic zip ties and pepper spray to restrain asylum seekers. Passengers were denied proper access to food, water, medical treatment and toilets, they added.

Reuters was given permission by Indonesian immigration authorities to interview the five men, who were detained when their boat arrived back in Indonesia. Four were interviewed in person in the city of Kupang and the other by telephone.


Tensions flared as soon as the Australian military personnel arrived on the island off Darwin, said Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, an English-speaker from Sudan's Darfur region. He said he told the Australians that four men had been swept overboard.

"We told them: 'that direction, we lost people.' We told them everything. They said: 'No, you go back to the boat'."

"We refused, and then they used force," Fasher said.

Men who resisted were picked up by their arms and legs and dumped in the boat, the asylum seekers said. Fasher said he saw military personnel kick and use zip ties to handcuff one man who tried to flee.

The boat, its engine crippled after men sabotaged the motor on arrival, was tethered to a navy speedboat and towed back to sea.

Morrison said claims of four people falling overboard had been investigated and that he was confident they were not true.

Abbott came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers, an issue that has polarised Australia since the first boats from Vietnam came in the 1970s. The government has offshore detention centres in the impoverished South Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru capable of holding thousands.

He has likened the battle to stop the boats as a war, insisting secrecy is important to prevent "the enemy" receiving information.

The U.N. refugee agency has warned that Australia could be breaking its obligation under the U.N. Refugee Convention by failing to hear asylum seekers' claims.


Standing on the beach that New Year morning, Mansoor Ali, a former sailor in the Eritrean Navy, stared at his GPS device.

His reading suggested the boat had landed on one of several islands north of Darwin in Australian territorial waters, a former Australian Navy officer with experience in intercepting asylum seeker boats told Reuters.

But unbeknown to Ali, the sand beneath his feet was not as Australian as he assumed.

In 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard made it harder for asylum seekers by removing the right of unauthorised boat arrivals to apply for a visa on landing in several territories, such as Christmas Island, that were popular due to their proximity to Indonesia.

Under pressure from then-opposition leader Abbott over a surge in asylum seekers, the previous Labour government last year expanded this to include all of Australia's coastline.

For Ali and the others, the result was immediate: an armed escort back to where they came from.


Once out to sea, the asylum seekers were guarded by 10 personnel from the warship HMAS Parramatta, according to witness recollections of its hull number. Shifts changed every four hours.

Some of the guards called asylum seekers "monkeys" and told them they were not wanted in Australia, Fasher said.

Guards imposed strict discipline on the cramped, roughly 10-metre-long boat. Food and water were insufficient and some requests for medical help went unheeded, the asylum seekers said.

The greatest tension built towards the back of the craft, in a room below deck where Australian engineers struggled to repair the engine. The room was the only route to the toilet.

Fearing someone would break the engine once it had been fixed, the Australians instituted a rule: one visit to the toilet per day for men, and only night visits for women.

"I remember they used to stop us going to the bathroom. Forbidden to stand, forbidden to speak, forbidden to raise your voice," said Bakil Abdul Hamid, a 28-year-old Yemeni, who said his brother Mohammad was one of the four swept to their deaths on January 1.

As the trip wore on, hope dwindled. After several days, unrest broke out. Taking the opportunity with the boat stationary as Australian engineers again tinkered with the engine, the asylum seekers launched a desperate protest.

Ali was the first to hurl himself into the water, three asylum seekers said. At least 10 others jumped in. Guards began tackling, pepper-spraying and zip-tying people in an effort to stop more following. Some of those pulled from the water said they were then pepper-sprayed in the face.

"We were suffering. People did not prefer life to death," said Faisal Salaad, a 33-year-old who said he watched the scuffle as he floated in the sea.


The following day, as the boat continued its journey, violence broke out again.

Around midday four men, angered by the toilet curbs, went into the engine room.

The first through the door, Bobies Ibrahim Nooris, 20, was pepper sprayed in the eyes, he recalled, causing him to stumble into an engine exhaust and seriously burn his hand.

Fasher was the only passenger spoken to by Reuters who claims to have seen what happened next.

Military personnel grabbed the hands of the other three men and forced them onto the exhaust as punishment, he said.

These accusations, already made in the Indonesian and Australian media, have been denied by the Australian government. No other passengers could corroborate Fasher's account.

In the early hours of January 6, the guards changed shifts. As the asylum seekers dozed, the Australians slipped away leaving behind a small supply of food and water, and just enough fuel to reach Indonesia.

Deflated and exhausted, the asylum seekers sailed for about two hours to Rote, Indonesia's southernmost island. Locals called the police, who put them in detention.

(Additional reporting by Matt Siegel in Sydney and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai. Editing by Dean Yates)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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