Archive | November 2011

Yemen’s Saleh vows to step down as president

Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh will leave office “within 90 days” of an agreement with the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, he said in an interview.

“When we agree on the GCC initiative, and when it is signed, and when we agree on structure of a power transfer — and elections happen, the president will leave,” Saleh said in the interview with France 24 television.

Saleh’s country has been the scene of violent protests for months as his opponents demand he leave power after 33 years in office.

He was wounded in an attack on his compound earlier this year and spent weeks in Saudi Arabia being treated for burns. He looked healthy in the France 24 interview, which took place in Arabic and was posted online late Monday.

Saleh has appeared several times to be on the verge of agreeing to hand over power, only to change course.

But he insisted in the interview he had no desire to “hang onto power.”

“I know the difficulties, the negatives, the positives, I will not hang onto power. Whoever hangs onto power I think is crazy,” he said.

International powers including the United States have urged him to step down.

Government troops have responded with live fire to protests, killing many, according to medics and opposition sources.

 

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Thailand: Super-canal may prevent floods

Thai authorities are considering the construction of a super-express waterway through Bangkok to prevent future floods similar to the one that has crippled the Thai capital and brought manufacturing in other parts of the country to a standstill.

A team of disaster experts from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok is now investigating permanent solutions to the disaster that has left hundreds dead.

“One of the urgent solutions is a super-express floodway,” Thanawat Jarupongsakul, from the university’s Unit for Disaster and Land Information Studies, told the Bangkok Post.

Under the plan, existing natural canals — some of them more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) long — would be linked in a 200-km “super-highway” that would divert the course of floodwaters from the north.

The super-canal would hold 1.6 billion cubic meters of water and drain run-off at a rate of 6,000 cubic meters per second — the equivalent of two and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools a second.

“This idea is much cheaper than digging a new river as a floodway,” Thanawat said.

He said the proposed scheme would involve the construction of a kilometer-wide exclusion zone next to the floodway to prevent properties from being inundated, and a raised highway on both side of the canal.

The super-express floodway would then drain upstream run-off directly into the sea.

The university team is also looking at other flood-prevention measures such as a better early-warning system, improved water resource management, a flood tax, the use of a flood-risk map for urban development and groundwater-use controls.

“Now, the government must stop [trying to] solve flood problems with political methods,” Thanawat told the Bangkok Post. He said poor water management rather than excess rain had caused this year’s severe flooding, adding that natural swamps in the west of Thailand’s Central Plains, which once absorbed water flow, had been developed into industrial and residential areas, blocking the natural floodway.

While giant flood tunnels in the Bangkok metropolitan area could drain floodwater from the city, they could not cope with a massive inundation from the north.

“If there is no step forward, foreign investors will eventually disappear from the country and the next generation will be still worried whether flooding will happen or not,” he said.

Karzai aims to set limits on American troops

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought to set limits on what American and NATO troops could — and could not — do in his country Wednesday in a lengthy speech to tribal elders.

“America is powerful, has more money, but we are lions here. Lions have the habit of not liking strangers getting into their house,” Karzai said.

“We want our sovereignty from today. Our relations should be between two independent countries,” he said in a speech that appears to have been designed to boost his nationalist credentials with a domestic audience.

He was also broadly critical of NATO, saying the intended departure of NATO troops in 2014 was “good for Afghans.”

NATO plans to withdraw most combat troops by that date, but is currently negotiating what sort of long-term presence they might have here.

Karzai called the national assembly, or loya jirga, to sound out tribal elders on a long-term pact with the US military and harness their consent.

The conditions Karzai spelled out on a long-term foreign military presence were mostly formalizations of long-held Afghan complaints about the international presence here.

“I’d like to tell them they can’t arrest any Afghan on our soil and they can’t have prisons. We have a justice and security system and that is up to us,” he said.

He said he thought a deal that enabled US forces to have bases in Afghanistan was beneficial but added they would not be able to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors from inside the country, conduct night raids, search houses, or arrest Afghans.

He also said that night raids by foreign troops must stop completely and that NATO troops should not be allowed to search people’s houses – complaints that have already prompted NATO to adjust its operations and incorporate greater Afghan assistance.

The speech was made before an audience who in part — like many Afghans — are skeptical of both his alliance with NATO and his leadership in general.

He was also keen to court Iran – and perhaps its supporters in the audience of elders – by saying: “We want to say that Iran is our brother. During the years of jihad, Iran has been one of the best countries for hospitality for Afghans. They are our brother.”

He also voiced fears that Afghanistan could see the same instability and collapse witnessed after the Soviet withdrawal in the late 80s.

The loya jirga, or national assembly, is considered by many an important step towards any possible peace deal with elements of the insurgency.

Hundreds of community leaders have been invited from across the country, with the meeting a test of Karzai’s potency as a cohesive leader.

The turnout Wednesday was considerable.

Troops, security officials, and police lined the roads outside the loya jirga tent, near the Intercontinental Hotel on the capital’s outskirts.

The Taliban have long threatened to disrupt the event.

On Monday, security forces killed a suicide bomber near the meeting site. The attacker was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase when he was stopped, said General Ayoub Salangi, chief of Kabul police.

On Sunday, a Taliban-affiliated website published what it claimed was a leaked document containing confidential government security plans for the meeting.

The leaked security plans included a detailed satellite map of the area and purported details of the security arrangements, but the Interior Ministry immediately dismissed them as fake.

New Greek PM wins key Parliament vote

The new Greek prime minister, Lucas Papademos, won a vote of confidence in Parliament on Wednesday, following his appointment to replace George Papandreou.

The motion was passed by 255 in favor to 38 against, as 293 of Parliament’s 300 lawmakers cast a vote.

The vote paves the way for Papademos’s government of national unity to take the reins and seek to restore political and financial stability in Greece.

Papandreou quit last week, forced out by public anger at the budget cuts he was pushing through to get international funds to pay his country’s debts.

Fears that Greece might default caused shock waves through the European and American banking systems and sent stock markets on a wild ride that at times wiped billions of dollars of value out of existence.

Papademos, a former banker and European Central Bank vice president, became his country’s interim prime minister Friday after several days of political wrangling.

Under a motion of confidence, lawmakers signal to the head of state whether the government has the support of Parliament. A loss typically results in the government’s dissolution and the holding of a general election, unless the head of state asks someone with more support to form a government.

Papademos had been expected to survive the vote, since the new national unity government has the approval of Greece’s main parties.

He has a tough job ahead, however, in implementing unpopular reforms before elections due in about three months’ time.

Papademos told Parliament on Monday that staying in the eurozone “is the only choice” as his country seeks to avoid default.

He said his government’s main task will be to implement a bailout package brokered on October 26.

He cited “a crisis of trust” among the country’s European allies about whether Greece has the will and the ability to restore its economy, but he said “big progress” has already been made toward restoring fiscal stability, pointing to the reduction of the deficit from 15% of GDP to 10.6%.

Fiscal support is needed from Greece’s European allies and the International Monetary Fund, he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking Wednesday in Berlin after meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, restated Germany’s commitment to a strong European Union of 27 nations and to the 17-nation eurozone.

Merkel said the pair had talked about the need to make the eurozone — the nations that use the euro as a single currency — stronger in the face of crisis and about treaty changes to make it easier to monitor countries.

“I made clear that Germany sees a necessity here to show the markets and the world that the euro stands together and must be defended, but also that we are willing to give up a part of national sovereignty,” she said.

“Overall we share the assessment that we still have a problem in terms of debt, but also competition, but we also share the opinion that the Europeans are willing to overcome the problems and to show the world that we stand together.”

Her comments come amid speculation that the crisis in Greece and elsewhere could, if unresolved, lead to a breakup of the eurozone.

Papademos previously has stressed Greece’s commitment to the euro, saying its membership in the eurozone is a guarantee of financial stability.

The drama in Greece has shaken international markets because investors were afraid the new bailout deal — which has stringent austerity measures attached — might not be implemented.

Papademos said the October 26 bailout, worth 130 billion euros ($177 billion), calls for austerity measures but “will ensure the financing of Greece over the following years and the completion of the effort of the economic recovery.”

Papademos said work should get under way “immediately, at a very high pace,” with the first priority being to secure disbursement of the next tranche of bailout money from a 2010 bailout package by no later than December 15 to ensure the government can pay its bills.

In addition to the new austerity measures, his government must also implement promises made by the previous administration in relation to the 2010 bailout, including privatizations of state-run firms and cuts to the public sector.

Public anger over the cuts led Papandreou to propose a referendum on the new bailout plan, triggering anger among Greece’s European partners and political turmoil at home.

Monti takes Italy’s top job, aiming to end crisis

Mario Monti, the man tasked with hauling Italy out of the debt crisis that brought down Silvio Berlusconi, took office as prime minister Wednesday.

Monti announced he would also be finance minister, at least temporarily.

He replaces the flamboyant Berlusconi, who led the country on and off for 18 years.

Monti and his new ministers sat down for their first Cabinet meeting Wednesday evening, as they seek to find a way out of a crisis that has shaken the confidence of global investors.

The new prime minister will present his government’s plans to the Italian Senate on Thursday.

Debate on the proposals will be followed by a vote of confidence, a measure to see if the new government has the support of a majority of lawmakers.

Monti took the oath of office Wednesday afternoon in the grand Baroque Ball Room of the Quirinale Palace, the official residence of President Giorgio Napolitano.

The government lineup the new prime minister unveiled will be composed entirely of technocrats, without career politicians.

That will make it easier to govern and will help calm political tensions in the country, Monti said.

It also emphasizes “that we are talking about an extraordinary moment, both because of the economic difficulties and because of the exasperated relations among the political forces,” he said.

Napolitano said he believes the new government “has been born in a positive climate.” Its creation has “been delicate and difficult … but I think we’ve all managed to do it,” he said.

Italy has already seen “many positive signals” from the European Union as a result, he added.

The 68-year-old former European Union commissioner won the backing of Berlusconi’s political party and Italy’s largest left-wing party on Tuesday.

Monti said it is “very interesting and very demanding” to try to form a government.

His government will include three women as ministers, including Anna Maria Cancellieri, the first woman to be Italy’s interior minister, and Paola Severino, who will be the country’s first female justice minister.

The foreign minister will be Giulio Terzi Sant’Agata, while Corrado Passera becomes minister of industry.

Monti said he will serve as finance minister until he nominates someone else for the post.

The new prime minister refused to answer journalists’ questions about pension reform or taxes on wealth, saying he would present his plans to lawmakers Thursday.

Monti faces an arduous task, because Italy has one of the highest national debts in Europe at €1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion) — about 120% of GDP — and has seen low growth in recent years.

He suggested Monday that his government might not last much longer than a year, until scheduled elections in early 2013. And at any time, Parliament could dissolve his government “because of lack of trust,” he said.

It is “obvious” that the task at hand is an emergency and that to achieve economic growth and social equity “should be the priorities,” Monti said.

Berlusconi resigned Saturday night, prompting cheers, flag-waving and singing in celebrations outside his office and ending an era in Italian politics. He was brought down by difficulties in pushing through budget cuts after 18 years in and out of the prime minister’s office.

Berlusconi is expected to give his first speech as a lawmaker in the lower house of Parliament on Friday, according to Italian media reports.

His People of Freedom party remains the strongest force in Parliament, and Berlusconi has said he plans to remain active in it.

Berlusconi is the second prime minister to resign this month over the debt crisis sweeping across Europe, following last week’s replacement of Greece’s George Papandreou. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former European Central Bank official.

FA charge Liverpool’s Suarez over alleged racial slur

Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez has been charged by the English Football Association (FA) with making racist remarks towards a fellow player.

Suarez has been accused of aiming racial taunts at Manchester United’s French defender Patrice Evra during a match in the English Premier League last month.

He denies the charges and has vowed to clear his name.

A statement on the FA’s web site read: “It is alleged that Suarez used abusive and/or insulting words and/or behavior towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra contrary to FA rules,” the association said in a statement.

“It is further alleged that this included a reference to the ethnic origin and/or color and/or race of Patrice Evra.”

The FA has taken over a month to charge Suarez and they are also investigating allegations of racism by Chelsea and England captain John Terry towards a fellow player in a separate incident.

London’s Metropolitan police have also launched a probe after Terry was accused of racially abusing Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. Terry denies the claims.

Liverpool said they had been informed of the charge against Suarez by the FA and planned to review the documentation.

“We will discuss the matter fully with him when he returns from international duty, but he will plead not guilty to the charge and we expect him to request a personal hearing,” the club said in a statement.

“Luis remains determined to clear his name of the allegation made against him by Patrice Evra.”

Suarez’s charge comes on the day that FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed there is not a problem with player-on-player racism within football.

Speaking to CNN World Sport, the head of soccer’s world governing body suggested any player who is abused during a game should shake hands with their opponent upon the final whistle and move on.

He later moved to clarify his comments, stating he was “committed to fighting this plague and kicking it out of football.”

Flood-ravaged Thailand prays to water goddess

Each year as the monsoon draws to an end, Thais thank the water goddess for sustaining life. But with deadly floods now plaguing the kingdom, many feel she has been a little too generous of late.

The centuries-old Loi Krathong festival is usually an occasion for celebration with ornately-decorated traditional banana-leaf lanterns set adrift in rivers, canals and lakes under the night sky.

This year it is a reminder of the kingdom’s bitter-sweet relationship with water, which has left more than 500 people dead and wreaked havoc in the worst flooding to befall the nation in half a century.

The festival, which also aims to seek forgiveness for polluting the precious resource, comes as questions mount over successive governments’ management of water development and urban planning.

“I apologised to the goddess of water, thanked her for giving us water to use and wished all the bad luck to go away,” said Usanee Krapukthong, who launched her lantern on a lake in a Bangkok park on Thursday.

“I wished my house and also the whole country would be dry,” said the 37-year-old expectant mother. “Normally I do it at a river, but this year I escaped the floods to come here.”

Her home has been submerged by more than one metre (three feet) of water for the past two weeks, like many others in badly-hit districts in the north and west of the Thai capital.

Unlike Usanee, however, many residents have refused to evacuate despite the risk of disease associated with the polluted floodwater.

The authorities in the capital city of 12 million asked people not to launch their lanterns in canals and streets that have been transformed into rivers, to avoid blocking drains and adding to the rubbish problem.

Many — though not all — heeded their call.

“This year, I’m not floating my krathongs on the rivers or canals because I don’t want to block them up. It’s better to do it on ponds or lakes like here,” said Teerapong Meeiam, 33.

Some Thais chose to write their wish on a virtual lantern on the Internet.

Others opted for lakes in the city’s parks, which stayed open late for the occasion, “to preserve beautiful Thai tradition … and float away our suffering,” according to Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

Despite the brave faces, it was a much more subdued affair this year.

“The atmosphere is kind of downbeat — people seem to be focused on the floods. But we have to understand the victims too,” said Bangkok resident Sittipan Ampan, 19.

Luxury hotels along the city’s swollen main Chao Phraya cancelled their gala dinners and firework displays for the festival, traditionally held under the full moon of the 12th lunar month.

“People are worried about whether their homes will be flooded or when the floods will recede, and what’s next,” said a worker at one of the city’s hotels, which have seen a slump in tourist arrivals.

Vendors of the lanterns, typically made from hard bread, wood or plastic, decorated with candles and flowers, are also having a bad year.

“This year is not very good. They aren’t many people here,” said Lamai Kiewsa-Ard. “I lost my job because of the floods so I’m trying to earn some money.”

According to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, spending on the Loi Krathong festival was expected to fall by about one-sixth this year to 8.1 billion baht ($270 million), the lowest in four years.

“In recent years it has become a hugely commercial festival,” said Olivier Evrard, an anthropologist at the French public research institute IRD in Bangkok.

But Loi Krathong, which fuses animist, Hindu and Buddhist tradition, is about more than just money.

“According to popular belief, the krathong is also a way to wash away all wrongs, to purify oneself,” Evrard added.

Loi Krathong is almost as important to Thai culture as the Songkran water festival which marks the start of the Buddhist new year in April, when people call for the onset of the rains after the dry season.

“This year, Thais find it impossible to celebrate, which risks adding to the trauma they are enduring,” said Evrard.

On the tranquil lake in Lumphini Park, located in the heart of Bangkok, still untouched by the slowly advancing floodwaters, hundreds of Thais looked on with an air of disappointment as many of the lanterns drifted back to shore.

“It’s OK, we still have next year,” said Sittipan.