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The Star Online: World Updates

U.S. faults both sides for collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:15 PM PDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian leaders were unwilling to make the "gut-wrenching" compromises needed for peace, a top U.S. official said on Thursday, faulting both sides for the collapse of talks last month.

Offering his first public account of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's failed, nine-month effort to strike a peace deal by April 29, U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk made clear there was blame on both sides, citing Israeli settlement-building as well as the Palestinians' signing of 15 international conventions.

However, Indyk suggested talks may resume eventually, citing the start-and-stop example of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's ultimately successful 1975 effort to disengage Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai.

"What was true then is also possibly true today," Indyk told a conference hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. "In the Middle East, it's never over."

The central issues to be resolved in the more than six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict include borders, security, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

"One problem that revealed itself in these past nine months is that the parties, although showing some flexibility in the negotiations, do not feel the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace," Indyk said.

"It is easier for the Palestinians to sign conventions and appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of justice and their rights, a process which by definition requires no compromise," he said. "It is easier for Israeli politicians to avoid tension in the governing coalition and for the Israeli people to maintain the current, comfortable status quo."

"The fact is, both the Israelis and Palestinians missed opportunities and took steps that undermined the process," Indyk said.

On April 24, Israel suspended the talks after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's unexpected unity pact with the rival Islamist Hamas group, a step that appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-sponsored negotiations.

Indyk also described the Palestinian decision to sign the 15 international treaties - in what seemed a gesture of defiance toward Israel, which believes such moves may confer legitimacy on the Palestinians - as "particularly counterproductive."

He also detailed Israeli moves to build additional homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and cited these as among the central factors that undermined the negotiations.

During the past nine months, Indyk said Israel had tendered to build 4,800 housing units in areas that Palestinian maps have acknowledged would go to Israel. However, it also advanced planning for another 8,000 units in other parts of the West Bank where the Palestinians hope to establish a state of their own.

This, he suggested, undercut the talks by helping to convince Abbas that he did not have a serious negotiating partner in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two sides met face-to-face, with the United States sitting in as a largely silent observer, for the first six months after the talks resumed on July 29, Indyk said.

In the next phase of about two months, the United States negotiated first with Israel and then with the Palestinians on "bridging proposals" to try to bring them closer together.

"During that time ... Abu Mazen (Abbas) shut down," Indyk said, saying Israeli settlement activity as well as uncertainty about who might eventually succeed him were factors.

"He came to the conclusion that he didn't have a reliable partner for the kind of two-state solution that he was looking for and he ... shifted to his legacy and the succession," he said. "He is 79 now. He is weary. He wants to leave office and he is more focused on succession now than on making peace."

(Editing by Paul Tait)

Afghanistan's 'forgotten' poor wince as billions in aid go to badlands

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:10 PM PDT

AAB BAREEK/KABUL Afghanistan (Reuters) - For all the billions of dollars in foreign aid that have poured into Afghanistan over the past 12 years, Sajeda, her head-to-toe burqa covered in dust, sobs that the world has forgotten the poorest of the poor in the largely untroubled north of the country.

A deadly landslide last week exposed the extreme poverty in the remote mountainous area and also highlighted one of the paradoxes of Western aid: the northern region which supported the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 has got significantly less help than the south and east, home of the Taliban militants.

Over the past decade, much of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding has been spent in the strongholds of the insurgents as part of Washington's strategy to win the "hearts and minds" of the local population.

"We are the poorest and most unfortunate people of this country and no one pays attention to us. We are forgotten," said Sajeda, who lost 12 members of her family in the landslide that killed hundreds in northern Badakhshan province.

Pointing to simple mud-brick homes that escaped the landslide in the village of Aab Bareek, the 33-year-old screams: "Look at those houses. Are those for the living?"

Time is running out for the mostly Tajik and Uzbek people of Badakhshan, home to the Northern Alliance which helped U.S. forces drive the Taliban from power, to tap international aid. As Western forces wind down operations in Afghanistan, foreign donors are also pulling back.

At the start of the year, U.S. lawmakers halved civilian aid for Afghanistan, reflecting growing reluctance in Congress to continue generous aid levels there, concerns about waste and fraud, and frustration with the Afghan government itself. Other foreign donors are expected to make similar cuts.

Over the past decade, a disproportionate share of U.S. aid, which makes about two-thirds of all development assistance in Afghanistan, has ended up in the southern provinces where it has been used to achieve political and military objectives.

A U.S. official said that between 2009-14 more than 70 percent of USAID spending, amounting to about $4.7 billion, went to the south and east. USAID, the lead agency for development assistance, declined immediate comment.

"For much of the intervention, we know that aid was distorted by military priorities, that is pretty clear," says Matt Waldman, an associate fellow at London think-tank Chatham House. "The trouble is that very often undermines its effectiveness."


Despite the most expensive reconstruction effort ever undertaken in a single country, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest states.

The poverty headcount varies significantly between the provinces, from as low as 10 per cent to more than 70 per cent. It is most severe in the northeast, central highlands and parts of the southeast.

Badakhshan stands as one of the poorest: more than 60 percent of the population there lives below the poverty line, according U.N.'s Office Coordination for Humanitarians Affairs, using an index showing it costs $25 a month to buy enough food to survive.

"Nobody has given money to spend on developmental projects. We do not have resources to spend in our district, our province is a remote one and attracts less attention," says Haji Abdul Wadod, governor of the Argo district that includes Aab Bareek.

"The government has done a lot, but the international community has paid less attention."

Badakhshan, once a stopover point on the famed Silk Route, is one of the poorest places on earth. There is just one paved road, dotted with pot-holes, from the provincial capital Faizabad to Kunduz, a city three hours to the west that is connected to Kabul and other parts of the country. Most travel in the province is by horse or donkey.

Reconstruction and relief in Badakhshan has mostly fallen on Germany, along with a handful of small non-governmental organisations, which have built among other things small mini-hydro plants on the slopes of the towering Hindu Kush mountains.

"Not only our villagers but most villagers around Badakhshan are forgotten by the government," says the village leader of Aab Bareek, Haji Azizullah. "We haven't received enough to even buy a box of matches."

Yet, this year the U.S. contribution to the international relief and reconstruction, starting from 2002, will top $100 billion, according to U.S. auditors, known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

That figure is a fraction of the amount the United States has spent on its military campaign.

Most of the U.S. money earmarked for relief and reconstruction since 2002 has actually gone to security, leaving just over $26 billion to governance and development, and nearly $3 billion for humanitarian aid, SIGAR says.

A report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2011 said the United States was focused on short-term stabilisation projects in the south and east in a bid to win "hearts and minds" instead tackling longer term development projects.

Once the most violent city in Afghanistan, the security of Kandahar city in the south has improved significantly, and there have been noticeable improvements to roads, as well as new municipal buildings, schools and health clinics. However, millions of dollars have been skimmed by corrupt contractors and officials.

Multi-million power projects in Kandahar and Helmand, both funded by USAID and both strongholds of the Taliban, have been delayed for years due to issues with contractors.

The irony that most of Washington's aid has ended up in the 'badlands' of the south and east is not lost on the village leader of the landslide-stricken Aab Bareek village.

"They only invest in places where there are insurgents," complains Azizullah, the village leader. "After something is built the militants then come back in a day, or month, and destroy it."

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Thai protesters rally to 'sweep' away Thaksin regime

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:00 PM PDT

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of royalist protesters fanned out across Thailand's capital on Friday to try to bring down a caretaker government after a court threw Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office and an anti-graft agency indicted her for negligence.

The interim government is hoping to organise a July 20 election that it would probably win, but the protesters want the government out, the election postponed and reforms to end the influence of Yingluck's brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking to supporters in a city park, urged them to rally outside parliament, the prime minister's offices and five television stations to prevent them being used by the government.

"We will sweep the debris of the Thaksin regime out of the country," said Suthep, a former deputy premier in a government run by the pro-establishment Democrat party.

Thaksin is vilified by his enemies as a corrupt crony capitalist. But he won the unswerving loyalty of legions of rural and urban poor with populist polices when he was prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a 2006 coup.

He lives in exile to avoid a 2008 jail sentence for abuse of power but has been the guiding hand behind his sister's government.

Tens of thousands of his "red shirt" supporters, angered by Yingluck's ousting, are also on their way to Bangkok for a rally on Saturday. They are clinging to the hope that the interim government will win the July election and bring the Shinawatras' party back to power.

The prospect of rival protesters in the capital over the weekend has raised fears of trouble. Both sides have armed activists in their ranks.

Twenty-five people have been killed since the anti-government protests began in November and more turmoil could further unsettle Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.


Thailand is already teetering on the brink of recession amid weak exports, a year-long slump in industrial output and a drop in tourism, presided over by a caretaker government with curtailed powers. Consumer confidence fell to its lowest level in more than 12 years in April as the crisis took its toll. [ID:nL3N0NO1KN]

The anti-graft agency indicted Yingluck for negligence on Thursday - a day after the Constitutional Court threw her out of office - in connection with a rice-subsidy scheme under which the state paid farmers way above market prices for their crops.

The scheme, a flagship policy of Yingluck's administration, was aimed at helping her rural supporters. But the government could not sell much of the rice it quickly stockpiled and was unable to pay many farmers.

"Thaksin's lackeys have exploited populist policies to win over voters before betraying them," Suthep told his supporters late on Thursday. "The rice scheme is a clear example of this."

If Yingluck is found guilty of negligence by the Senate, she could be banned from politics for five years. Several other members of the family and about 150 of Thaksin's other political allies have been banned for five-year terms since 2007.

Yingluck dissolved parliament in December and called a snap election but the main opposition party boycotted it and anti-government activists disrupted it so much it was declared void.

Yingluck and the Election Commission agreed last week a new ballot should be held on July 20, but the date has not been formally approved.

Thaksin or his loyalists have won every election since 2001.

The anti-government protesters say Thaksin buys elections. They want to change the electoral rules before new polls to try to stop his party winning again.

(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alan Raybould and Raju Gopalakrishnan)


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