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The Star Online: World Updates

Colombia election shrinks government majority in Congress

Posted: 09 Mar 2014 09:20 PM PDT

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's governing coalition emerged from elections on Sunday with its congressional majority intact but shrunken by the arrival of ex-president Alvaro Uribe's new party which opposes peace talks aimed at ending five decades of civil conflict.

The result consolidated President Juan Manuel Santos as front-runner in a presidential vote on May 25 but thins the majority he will rely on if re-elected, for legislative support to implement a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC rebels, if talks succeed.

Santos is seeking a second term to allow him time to complete negotiations with the FARC that could end a war that has killed around 220,000 and transform Colombia's political makeup if the rebels' gain the political participation they seek.

Uribe is a fierce critic of the government who believes the FARC should instead be beaten militarily. His party will likely seek to obstruct legislation if a peace deal is reached that would enable FARC rebels to enter the political system without serving considerable jail time.

With 95 percent of votes counted, 62-year-old Santos' center-right U Party emerged the single biggest party in both Congressional houses with 15 percent of the vote for each.

Including votes for coalition parties including the Conservative, Liberal, Green, Radical Change and U parties, the alliance held on to a majority of the 166 seats in the lower house and 102 in the Senate.

Uribe's Centro Democratico garnered almost 15 percent of votes in the Senate where the ex-president will take up a seat marking his return to political office after his mandate ended in 2010. The party won just under 10 percent of votes for the lower house.

The secretive peace talks reached a partial accord late last year on the FARC's participation in politics, a highly controversial item on the five-point agenda. Any deal with the rebels would be put to the nation in a referendum, and then to congress to devise laws for its implementation.

Despite slow but encouraging progress at the negotiations in Cuba's capital Havana that began in late 2012, the decision to engage in peace talks with the guerrillas remains divisive and will be pivotal in voters' choice of president in May.


Some 32 million Colombians are eligible to vote, though congressional elections have a particularly high abstention rate and less than half that number turned up at polling stations in a vote that passed off in generally peaceful conditions.

Ex-president Uribe became the de facto opposition and Santos' fiercest critic shortly after backing him for office in 2010.

The two fell out when Santos mended ties with Venezuela's then-President Hugo Chavez, who had engaged in a diplomatic tussle with Uribe for years. The acrimony worsened when Santos announced peace talks with the FARC, seen as a terrorist group by the United Sates and the European Union.

"I'm afraid of what will happen if an impunity pact is signed with terrorist leaders," Uribe said at the close of his campaign. "When crime is a champion, there's no condition in the heart to forgive the criminal. The lack of justice may lead to peace accords in Havana but more violence in Colombia."

Colombia, a recipient of hundreds of million of dollars in annual U.S. anti-narcotics aid, has fought the FARC, right-wing paramilitaries and a smaller rebel group, the ELN, since 1964. More than 200,000 people have died and millions have been displaced.

Santos is expected to reveal soon that the ELN will also start peace talks with his government, which is likely to give a further boost to his chances of securing another term.

Polls show Santos is likely to reach a second round of voting on June 15 with Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the candidate for Uribe's party. The top two contenders go to a runoff if neither garners more than 50 percent of ballots cast in the first round.

Santos will also need backing in congress to pass reforms that would help bolster Colombia's $350 billion economy, create new jobs and cut the poverty rate, which affects about half the nation's population of 47 million.

(Additional reporting by Andres Rojas, Camilo Cohecha and Peter Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Rosalind Russell and Eric Walsh)

Merkel raps Putin as Russian forces tighten grip on Crimea

Posted: 09 Mar 2014 09:20 PM PDT

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) - Germany's Angela Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, telling him that a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia was illegal and violated Ukraine's constitution.

Putin defended breakaway moves by pro-Russian leaders in Crimea, where Russian forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by seizing another border post and a military airfield.

As thousands staged rival rallies in Crimea, street violence flared in Sevastopol, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a group of Ukrainians.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all parties to remain calm and urged a political solution to the crisis, during telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and Merkel.

"The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions," China's foreign ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama. "Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis," Xi added.

Russian forces' seizure of the region has been bloodless but tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian groups there to make Crimea part of Russia.

In the latest armed action, pro-Russian forces wearing military uniforms bearing no designated markings sealed off a military airport in Crimea near the village of Saki, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman on the peninsula said.

The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich's flight from the country last month. Yanukovich was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will hold talks with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday on how to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the White House said.

One of Obama's top national security officials said the United States would not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia if residents vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next week.

"We won't recognise it, nor will most of the world," deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said.


Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory inhabited by Russian speakers.

Speaking by telephone to Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin said steps taken by authorities in Crimea were "based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula's population," the Kremlin said.

A German government statement, however, said the referendum was illegal: "Holding it violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law."

Merkel also regretted the lack of progress on forming an "international contact group" to seek a political solution to the Ukraine crisis and said this should be done urgently.

On Thursday, Merkel said if a contact group was not formed in the coming days and no progress was made in negotiations with Russia, the European Union could hit Russia with sanctions such as travel restrictions and asset freezes.

Merkel, whose country is heavily dependent on Russia oil and gas, has so far been more cautious than some other nations, urging Western partners to give Putin more time before punishing Moscow with tough economic sanctions.

This stance reflects German fears of the geopolitical consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern about its business interests and energy ties.

In a round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday, the German chancellor also spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, agreeing that Ukraine's sovereignty must be preserved.


Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western edge of Crimea at around 6 a.m. (0400) GMT, trapping about 15 personnel inside, a border guard spokesman said.

The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.

At a Ukrainian military base at Yevpatoriya on the coast of western Crimea there were reports that the Russian forces had issued an ultimatum to surrender or be stormed. It passed, as has happened on other occasions at bases across Crimea.

"They are putting psychological pressure on us. It is not the first ultimatum," Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Lomaka told Reuters by telephone, saying the Russian forces would not allow him out of the base.

"We have no fight with them, but we are not going to hand over our weapons to soldiers of the Russian Federation."

Dimtry Bolbanchyov, 50, who works as a cook on commercial boats, bicycles 13 kilometres across town to bring the besieged Ukrainians soldiers food.

"I am doing what I can to boost their morale. Ukraine has become so weak, we can only hope for help from outside," he said.

In Sevastopol, several hundred people held a meeting demanding that Crimea become part of Russia, chanting: "Moscow is our capital."

Across town at a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, violence flared at a meeting to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a small group of Ukrainians guarding the event and the police had to intervene.

Footage from the event showed a group of men violently kicking one of the Ukrainians as he lay on the ground and a Cossack repeatedly hit him with a long black leather whip.

In Simferopol, Crimea's main city, pro- and anti-Russian groups held rival rallies.

Several hundred opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem, twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn.

Vladimir Kirichenko, 58, an engineer, opposed the regional parliament's plans for a vote this month on Crimea joining Russia. "I don't call this a referendum. It asks two practically identical questions: Are you for the secession of Ukraine or are you for the secession of Ukraine? So why would I go and vote?"


Several thousand Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs.

Alexander Liganov, 25 and jobless, said: "We have always been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin."

At a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk, home to many Russian speakers, presidential candidate Vitaly Klitschko, a former boxing champion, said Ukraine should not be allowed to split apart amid bloodshed.

"The main task is to preserve the stability and independence of our country," he said.

The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left the West scrambling for a response, especially since the region's pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia last week and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm it.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to Russia's foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Russia should exercise restraint.

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said military monitors from the pan-Europe watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as many days from entering Crimea.

Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as "Putin's fiction". Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates.

A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armoured vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.

Ukrainian troops are performing training exercises in their bases but there are no plans to send them to Crimea, Interfax news agency quoted acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh as saying. Ukraine's military, with 130,000 troops, would be no match for Russia's. So far Kiev has held back from any action that might provoke a response.

(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Alissa de Carbonnel at Yevpatoriya; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood; Editing by Anna Willard and Michael Perry)

China's Xi urges political solution to Ukraine crisis

Posted: 09 Mar 2014 09:05 PM PDT

BEIJING/BERLIN (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine and for all parties to exercise calm and restraint, during separate telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions," China's foreign ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama.

"Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis," Xi added.

China has an "open attitude" towards any suggestions or proposals which can ameliorate the situation, and is willing to remain in touch with all parties including the United States, he said.

Xi told Merkel that the Ukraine situation is "highly sensitive" and needs to be weighed carefully, according to a separate Chinese statement.

Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, telling him that a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia was illegal and violated Ukraine's constitution.

"The chancellor explained the situation in Ukraine and efforts to come to a political solution of the conflict," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

"The Chinese president was also in favour of finding such a solution through dialogue," the statement said, adding that Xi said the solution needed to be on the basis of international law.

China has so far shown little public interest in participating in any financial aid for Ukraine, or becoming involved diplomatically, in line with its low-key approach to many international crises.

Last week China said that sanctions were not the best way to resolve the crisis, after Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia.

But China has also said it would like to continue to develop "friendly cooperation" with Ukraine and that it respects Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin and Michael Nienaber, additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Michael Perry)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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