- India's Modi faces battle with states to fix power crisis
- Polls open in Syrian presidential election
- For fallen soldiers' families, Bergdahl release stirs resentment
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 10:00 PM PDT
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Swathes of India's most populous state plunged into darkness for 12 hours a day last week as temperatures in Delhi hit their highest in 16 years, with the disruptions underlining the tough challenge a new government faces in keeping the lights on.
Two years after one of the world's biggest blackouts deprived at least 300 million people of power, India still suffers from frequent cuts that undermine efforts to revive the third-largest economy in Asia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)stormed to office last month on promises to boost the economy and improve basic services for the millions of Indians who still lack running water and electricity.
One of his first steps in tackling the energy crunch has been to unite the portfolios of power, coal and renewable energy under a single minister, Piyush Goyal.
But the power sector also shows the limits to what the central government can do, with key decisions devolved to the country's 29 states.
While Modi is expected to fast-track new projects to boost output and press states to stop politicians from giving away electricity to voters, the task of translating extra capacity into reliable supply falls on state governments.
"We have a situation where there is enough idle power generation capacity in the country but states are witnessing power cuts," said Umesh Agrawal, a power expert at PwC.
"The problem today is not a lack of supply but lack of willingness from state utilities to procure power."
The BJP has blamed last week's outages in Uttar Pradesh on the party that rules the northern state, saying it is punishing constituents who voted for other parties in the general election. The local government rejects the charge and says it is not getting enough power from the centre to meet demand.
Temperatures in north India have surged past 40 degrees Celsius, while a dust storm in the capital damaged power lines last Friday, further straining energy infrastructure.
India's power generation has grown - the peak deficit is down to 5.4 percent from 16.6 percent in 2008, government data shows - but getting the supply to end consumers is far trickier.
Regional politicians tell distributors to prioritise supply to favoured constituents, while popular pressure for cheap or free power has kept theft high and prices artificially low, straining utilities' finances and curbing new investment.
Those factors will hamper any reform push by Modi, who campaigned on his record as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, which enjoys a surplus of power.
Reforms in Gujarat a decade ago cut theft, restructured distributors and split tariffs between different users. Goyal has vowed to tour the state to learn about its reforms.
But the power to make decisions about tariffs, subsidies and collection rests with states, limiting New Delhi's influence.
Modi must also tackle shortages of coal and gas that have left new plants operating below capacity - India's second-largest gas-powered plant, Bawana, is producing a fifth of its capacity, because it cannot get hold of gas.
"Our entire power projects are stalled," said Madhu Terdal, group chief financial officer of GMR Group, which has delayed making an investment of $3 billion in its plants because of the shortages and because its costs exceed the price it can get for selling electricity.
"You either subsidise the distributors or you subsidise the generators, but you have to do something," Terdal said.
(Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Additional reporting by Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Clarence Fernandez)
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 09:40 PM PDT
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrians began voting on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory to President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of a civil war that has fractured the country and killed more than 160,000 people.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in parts of Syria under Assad's government control.
"We hope for security and stability," said Hussam al-Din al Aws, an Arabic teacher who was the first person to vote at one polling station at a Damascus secondary school. Asked who would win, he responded: "God willing, President Bashar al-Assad."
Assad is running against two relatively unknown challengers who were approved by parliament to participate in the election, which his international opponents have dismissed as a sham.
The election is taking place more than three years after protests first broke out in Syria, calling for reform after four decades of Assad family rule. Authorities responded with force and the uprising descended into civil war.
Assad's forces, backed by allies including Iran and Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, have consolidated their control in central Syria but the rebels and foreign jihadi fighters hold vast areas of northern and eastern Syria.
(Reporting by Marwan Makdesi; Editing by Matt Driskill and Jeremy Laurence)
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 09:30 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - (Note: Strong language in final paragraph)
Robert Andrews believes his own son might still be alive if U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had not gone missing from his Afghan guard post on June 30, 2009.
As Bergdahl emerges from five years of Taliban captivity, former comrades are accusing him of walking away from his unit and prompting a massive manhunt they say cost the lives of at least six fellow soldiers, including Andrews' 34-year-old son, Darryn, a second lieutenant.
"Basically, my son died unnecessarily, hunting for a guy that we shouldn't even have been hunting for," Andrews told Reuters.
The sense of pride expressed by Obama administration officials over Bergdahl's release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners on Saturday is not shared by many of those who served alongside him in Afghanistan or the families of those said to have died trying to bring him back.
The U.S. military has not said how Bergdahl fell into the insurgents' hands, but several of those from his unit say he became disillusioned with the war and abandoned his post during a nighttime guard shift, an act of desertion that would normally incur severe punishment.
"I think he wanted to get away from our side of the war," commented Greg Leatherman, who says he was in charge of Bergdahl's unit the night he disappeared.
By contrast, Bergdahl's home town is treating him like a hero, planning a June 28 rally in support of him. Balloons, symbolic yellow ribbons and celebratory signs sprouted up in Hailey, Idaho, after the news of his release over the weekend.
Bob Bergdahl, fighting back tears as he appeared to address his son directly in a public appearance in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday, said he was proud of "your desire and your action to serve this country in a very difficult, long war."
Colonel Tim Marsano, of the Idaho National Guard, who acts as the Bergdahl family's media liaison, said they would have no comment on the accusations made by former soldiers and relatives of those who may have been killed in the hunt for him.
"The Bergdahls are aware of the current controversy, they have been for years, and they don't have anything to say about it," Marsano told Reuters on Monday.
Military officials have investigated Bergdahl's disappearance but have never publicly offered an explanation, in part, they say, because they have not had a chance to question the man.
"We do not know the circumstances under which he left his base," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said. "What we're focused on now is getting him the care he needs."
Another Defense Department spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, declined to confirm reports from former soldiers that at least six of their comrades were lost in the long hunt for Bergdahl.
Neighbors in rural Idaho said Bergdahl was a bookish loner known as a good athlete with a penchant for long mountain hikes.
When he disappeared in Afghanistan, he did so quietly and left behind his flak jacket and heavy fighting equipment, according to online accounts by soldiers who served with him.
After Bergdahl failed to show up for roll call, U.S. officials picked up radio communication between Taliban insurgents who said "an American soldier with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English," according to U.S. diplomatic cables.
Military officials have indicated that Bergdahl, who was flown to a military hospital in Germany over the weekend to undergo a full physical and mental assessment, is unlikely to face charges, whatever the army finds about his capture, because they believe he has suffered enough.
Others say he should be held accountable.
While Leatherman says he is glad to see Bergdahl home safe, he is blunt about the need for an investigation. "If a military court finds him guilty, then he should be punished accordingly."
The terms of Bergdahl's freedom also irk parents and soldiers, who question whether the release of five senior Taliban commanders accused in deadly attacks on U.S. forces is too high a price to pay.
"How many guys were killed capturing these Taliban, and then we just throw them loose? What are we doing negotiating with terrorists in the first place?" Andrews asked.
Bergdahl's disappearance unleashed a massive air and ground search that lasted for weeks, exposing U.S. forces to Taliban attack and disrupting other operations, his former comrades say.
The attention showered on Bergdahl since his release has compounded their resentment over those who died during the lengthy search.
On September 4, 2009, a little over two months after Bergdahl went missing, Darryn Andrews was part of a patrol searching for him when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and a rocket-propelled grenade in a district of Afghanistan's southeastern Paktika province, near the Pakistan border, according to accounts of soldiers and their families.
Private First Class Matthew Martinek, 20, died in the same attack.
"This opens up the wounds again," said Kenneth Luccioni, Martinek's stepfather. "There were a lot of people who risked their lives for this young man, and we want the truth."
He said he learned that his stepson had died hunting for Bergdahl not from the Pentagon but by word of mouth from fellow soldiers months afterwards.
The army encouraged soldiers in Bergdahl's unit to sign a non-disclosure agreement on the grounds that it could endanger his safety while in captivity, several soldiers said, but now that he is free some have begun to speak out.
"He walked away from his guard post while on duty," said former Private First Class Jose Baggett, who served in Bergdahl's company. "Then we lost men looking for him. I'm not saying he should not be back in America but he has done nothing heroic. The people who died looking for his dumb a** – they are the heroes.'
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Laura Zuckerman, editing by Jason Szep and Peter Henderson)
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