Sunday, May 30, 2010

China's Wen meets Japan PM as naval incidents make waves

The premiers of China and Japan met Monday for talks expected to focus on North Korea and to soothe strains in their own relations brought about by naval incidents on the high seas in recent weeks.

"We would like to further develop this strategic, mutually beneficial relationship," Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in Tokyo before their annual summit talks were closed to the media.

They were due to sign agreements on food safety, energy conservation, environmental protection and e-commerce.

Both leaders attended a three-way weekend summit with South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak, where Wen resisted pressure to publicly castigate North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

Hatoyama was expected to keep pushing efforts by his government, Seoul and Washington to persuade Beijing to punish its communist neighbour, which has been blamed for torpedoing a corvette, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

Japan and China, Asia's biggest economies and fierce rivals for resources, have their own naval incidents to discuss after Chinese helicopters have twice buzzed Japanese naval vessels in recent weeks and a Chinese marine survey ship pursued a Japanese coastguard vessel, prompting protests from Tokyo.

Japan was also expected to push China to set up a military hotline to prevent such maritime incidents from escalating, foreign ministry press secretary Kazuo Kodama said at a pre-summit briefing.

The host nation was also expected to urge progress on a two-year-old agreement to jointly explore oil and gas resources in the East China Sea, in the Shirakaba oil and gas field, known as Chunxiao in Chinese.

Since the June 2008 agreement, the talks have stalled and Japan says China has started unilateral operations on the Chinese side of the median line, with ships reportedly observed taking equipment to the area.

Despite their flare-ups and differences, both Asian economic giants have been at pains to highlight their strengthening ties.

Hatoyama has urged turning the East China Sea into a "Sea of Fraternity", and Wen, after his arrival Sunday, read a haiku-style poem describing his feelings about changes in China's relations with Japan.

"The ice melts into water in the spring. The rain is gone and the green mountain is extremely green and the earth is thick with grasses," he said.

Wen started Monday early, practising Tai Chi and jogging in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, where the premier, dressed in black sportswear and shadowed by bodyguards, shook hands with other early risers.

In a bout of "baseball diplomacy," he played catch with university students and practised batting. One of the students later said on television: "I didn't get nervous because he was very friendly."

China is Japan's top trade partner, with total two-way business of around 230 billion dollars last year, exceeding Japan-US trade for the third year in a row.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Chinese premier arrives in Seoul on official visit

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived here on Friday, kicking off his three-day official visit to South Korea.

This is Wen's second visit to South Korea since 2007 and his first visit to the country since China and South Korea established strategic cooperative partnership in 2008.

Wen is also scheduled to attend the third trilateral summit of China, Japan and South Korea in the southern resort island of Jeju.

The Chinese premier will hold talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak later Friday, and will also meet with Speaker of the National Assembly Kim Hyong-o and Prime Minister Chung Un-chan during the visit.

South Korea is the first leg of Premier Wen's four-nation Asia tour, which will also take him to Japan, Mongolia and Myanmar.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said at a news briefing ahead of Wen's visit that China hoped to speed up the establishment of the free trade area (FTA) with South Korea and increase cooperation in education, science, culture and tourism.

China also hoped to enhance communication and coordination with South Korea in international and regional affairs, Zhang said, adding that trade cooperation agreements would also be signed during Wen's visit.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xinsen said as good neighbors, China and South Korea had made joint efforts to achieve rapid and all-round development of the bilateral ties since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992.

Two-way cooperation had been broadened and enhanced, he said. China is the largest trade partner, export destination country and import market for South Korea, while South Korea is the third biggest trade partner for China.

The two countries also worked closely when the world was hit by the global financial crisis, Zhang said, citing the bilateral currency swap accord involving some 28 billion U.S. dollars, in an effort to safeguard regional and global financial stability. Enditem


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Amnesty: 4 of 5 Gazans dependent on aid due to blockade

Despite Israel's claim that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is "stable" and that it is transferring an adequate supply of food, medicines and equipment into the Strip, Amnesty International claims in its 2010 report that the blockade, imposed in June 2007, "continued to cut off almost 1.5million Palestinians from the rest of the world, isolating them in Gaza’s cramped confines, and greatly limiting the import of essential goods and supplies.

"This gratuitous exacerbation of the privations already suffered by the inhabitants of Gaza seriously hampered their access to health care and education and destroyed industries and livelihoods. Imposed ostensibly to deter rocket-firing into Israel by Palestinian armed groups, the blockade was nothing less than an outrage – the imposition of collective punishment on the entire population of Gaza," said the report.

"All too predictably, it hit hardest on the most vulnerable – children, the elderly, the homeless and the sick, including those in need of medical treatment outside Gaza – not the armed militants responsible for rocket firing," Amnesty claimed.

Gazans line up to receive humanitarian aid from UN (Photo: AP)

"Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law," according to the human rights group.

As for the IDF's 22-day military offensive in Gaza, which ended on January 18, Amnesty said Israeli forces "carried out carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians, targeted and killed medical staff, used Palestinian civilians as 'human shields', and indiscriminately fired white phosphorus over densely populated residential areas.

"Israeli forces attacked hospitals, medical staff and ambulances as well as humanitarian facilities, including UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) buildings. At least 15 of the 27 hospitals in Gaza were damaged, some extensively; around 30 ambulances were hit and 16 health workers were killed. Amnesty International found no evidence that Hamas or armed militants used hospitals as hiding places or to carry out attacks, and the Israeli authorities did not provide evidence to substantiate such allegations," the report said.

"Hundreds of civilians were killed by Israeli attacks using long-range high-precision munitions fired from combat aircraft, helicopters and drones, or from tanks stationed several kilometers from their target. Victims were not caught in the crossfire or when shielding militants, but killed in their homes while sleeping, carrying out daily tasks or playing. Some civilians, including children, were shot at close range when posing no threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers. Paramedics and ambulances were repeatedly attacked while rescuing the wounded, leading to several deaths," according to Amnesty.

Destruction in Beit Lahiya during IDF op (Archive photo: AP)

The human rights group said Operation Cast Lead pushed the humanitarian crisis to "catastrophic levels." The group said that after the offensive concluded, the blockade "hampered or prevented reconstruction efforts. As a result, there was a further deterioration of water and sanitation services; more power cuts, causing severe problems in the summer heat and for public and health institutions; greater overcrowding in schools; more challenges for an already overstretched health system struggling with damaged facilities and higher demand; and little or no chance of economic recovery."

Amnesty also leveled harsh criticism at Israel's policy in the West Bank, saying "the security barrier which separates many Palestinians from their land, jobs and relatives, combined with long curfews, around 600 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks and other closure obstacles, continued to disrupt the ability of Palestinians to access basic services, including educational and health facilities."

West Bank security barrier (Photo: AP)

The report claimed that Israel continued to deny Palestinians in the West Bank "fair access to adequate, safe water supplies, hindering social and economic development and posing threats to health, in violation of its responsibilities as the occupying power.

Amnesty's report also said Israeli forces continued to "forcibly evict Palestinians, demolish their homes and expropriate their land in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, while allowing Israeli settlements to expand on illegally confiscated Palestinian land."

"Throughout the year, Israeli forces used excessive and, at times, lethal force against Palestinian

civilians. Allegations of ill-treatment against Palestinian detainees continued and were rarely investigated. Hundreds were administratively detained without charge; others were serving sentences imposed after unfair military trials. Israeli soldiers and settlers who committed serious human rights abuses against Palestinians enjoyed virtual impunity," the report said.

The report also criticized Hamas, saying that during Operation Cast Lead its forces and militias in the Gaza Strip "continued to fire indiscriminate rockets and mortars into Israel, and within Gaza they abducted political opponents and former detainees alleged to have 'collaborated' with the Israeli intelligence services; some were summarily killed, others were beaten or shot in the legs.

"Throughout the year, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces in the West Bank and Hamas security forces and militias in Gaza arbitrarily detained hundreds of members or sympathizers of rival factions without charge or trial and often tortured and otherwise ill-treated them. Security agencies under the PA in the West Bank and the de facto administration in Gaza used excessive force when confronting armed rivals, causing a number of civilian deaths. The PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza continued to clamp down on freedom of expression. Military courts in the West Bank and Gaza sentenced 17 people to death; no executions were carried out," the report said.

The report mentioned Gilad Shalit in one brief paragraph, which said Hamas "continued to deny the captured Israeli soldier access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or visits from his family.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Clinton in Seoul for crisis talks on NKorea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has arrived in Seoul for crisis talks with South Korean leaders as tensions between North and South Korea have soared to their highest point in a decade.

Amid fears of conflict, Clinton touched down in the South Korean capital on Wednesday local time after intense discussions on the deteriorating situation with Chinese officials in Beijing.

Clinton will spend just a few hours in Seoul discussing possible international responses to the crisis that started last week when investigators blamed North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean warship. The North denies it was responsible and has threatened to retaliate if action is taken against it.

Clinton: Iran nuclear fuel swap offer is 'ploy'

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says an Iranian plan to swap some of its enriched uranium for reactor fuel is a "transparent ploy" to try to avoid new U.N. Security Council sanctions over its suspect nuclear program.

Speaking in the Chinese capital of Beijing, Clinton said Tuesday the swap offer submitted to the U.N. nuclear watchdog has a number of deficiencies and does not address international concerns about Iran's atomic ambitions.

She said the U.S.-led push for fresh Security Council penalties on Iran would continue.

The U.S. and other Western countries accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Iran denies the charge but has repeatedly refused to prove that its program is peaceful.

Thaksin may face Thai terrorism charges

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called on the  government to pull back troops and restart negotiations.
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called on the government to pull back troops and restart negotiations.

A Thai court is expected to decide Tuesday whether to issue a warrant against the country's ousted prime minister on terrorism charges connected with the violent clashes that crippled Bangkok for weeks.

Thai government officials are also expected to propose a seven-day extension of a curfew in the capital, state media reported.

Officials will propose extending the curfew in Bangkok and nearly a third of the country's provinces until May 31 in a cabinet meeting Tuesday, Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said, according to Thailand's state news agency. Intelligence reports show anti-government groups are still trying to cause chaos, he said, according to the agency.

Officials imposed the curfew Wednesday night after government troops surged into Lumpini Park, where anti-government Red Shirt demonstrators supporting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had amassed. In months of protests, the demonstrators demanded that the current prime minister dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Monday, May 24, 2010

U.S. Backs South Korea in Cutting Trade With the North

Tensions escalated sharply Monday on the Korean peninsula, as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that his nation would cut nearly all trade with North Korea, deny North Korean merchant ships use of South Korean sea lanes and ask the United Nations Security Council to punish the North for what he called the deliberate sinking of a South Korean warship two months ago.

In Washington, the Obama administration said the South Korean measures were “entirely appropriate.”

“U.S. support for South Korea’s defense is unequivocal,” a White House statement said, “and the president has directed his military commanders to coordinate closely with their Republic of Korea counterparts to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression.”

The steps outlined by Mr. Lee in a nationally televised speech — coupled with new moves by South Korea’s military to resume “psychological warfare” propaganda broadcasts at the border after a six-year suspension — amounted to the most serious action the South could take short of an armed retaliation for the sinking of the ship, the South’s worst military loss since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953.

“We have always tolerated North Korea’s brutality, time and again,” Mr. Lee said. “But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts. Trade and exchanges between South and North Korea will be suspended.”

North Korea’s military immediately warned that if South Korea put up propaganda loudspeakers and slogans at the border, it would destroy them with artillery shells, the North’s official K.C.N.A. news agency reported.

Mr. Lee’s speech came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was visiting Beijing and pressing China to take a much tougher position toward North Korea, China’s historical ally.

The speech was bound to intensify pressure on the Chinese, who have called for restraint.

North Korea has denied responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, on March 26, which left 46 sailors dead. A growing body of evidence assembled by the South has suggested a North Korean torpedo sank the ship.

Cutting off trade with North Korea is the most punishing unilateral action the South could take against the impoverished North. South Korea imports $230 million worth of seafood and other products from the North a year. North Korea earns $50 million a year making clothes and carrying out other business deals with South Korean companies.

Mr. Lee also said that South Korea would block North Korean merchant ships from using South Korean waters, which would force the ships to detour and use more fuel.

Besides these unilateral measures, South Korea will “refer this matter to the U.N. Security Council, so that the international community can join us in holding the North accountable,” Mr. Lee said. “Many countries around the world have expressed their full support for our position.”

In a separate announcement, the Defense Ministry announced the resumption of propaganda blitzes aimed at the North, a cold war tactic with loudspeaker broadcasts along the border, propaganda radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped by balloon. The resumption was bound to irritate the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-il, whose grip on power rests partly on denying outside information to citizens.

North Korea has already warned that such a move would prompt it to shut down the border with the South completely, raising the possibility of stranding 1,000 South Korean workers at a joint industrial park in the North Korean town of Kaesong.

President Lee cited evidence that a multinational team of investigators released last week on the sinking of the ship, saying “no responsible country in the international community will be able to deny the fact that the Cheonan was sunk by North Korea.”

But he did not mention China by name.

Mr. Lee also stopped short of terminating the Kaesong industrial complex.

Delivering his speech from the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, Mr. Lee drew an analogy between the North’s surprise invasion that started the three-year Korean War on June 25, 1950, and the blast that sank the Cheonan.

“Again, the perpetrator was North Korea. Their attack came at a time when the people of the Republic of Korea were enjoying their well-earned rest after a hard day’s work,” he said. “Once again, North Korea violently shattered our peace.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

10 bodies reported found in Bangkok shopping centre ruins

Anti-government protesters are escorted by Thai  police officers after they surrendered to authorities at a Buddhist  temple in an area formerly held by anti-government protestors on  Thursday. Photo: AP.
Anti-government protesters are escorted by Thai police officers after they surrendered to authorities at a Buddhist temple in an area formerly held by anti-government protestors on Thursday.

Firefighters sifting through the ruins of the Central World shopping centre in Bangkok found nine bodies in the basement on Friday and police discovered one other, Thai news reports said.

The centre was set ablaze in the wake of an army attack on Wednesday on anti—government protestors camped in the central Ratchaprasong commercial district.

Spring TV News quoted firefighters as saying they discovered nine bodies during an inspection of the remains of the giant shopping complex. The firefighters said they did not know the cause of death of those found and police and soldiers refused to allow reporters into the area.

Earlier on Friday the body of a man was found on the fourth floor of the mall, according to police, after they entered the building in the morning to look for evidence of arson.

The unidentified man was believed to be 25 to 30 years old, police said.

Around 34 other buildings were torched in the aftermath of the army attack at Ratchaprasong, according to government figures.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

South Korea vows caution over ship as North sees war

Main Image

The South announced on Thursday that it had overwhelming evidence a North Korean submarine had entered its waters in March and attacked the Cheonan corvette, killing 46 sailors in what President Lee Myung-bak called a "military provocation".

North Korea denied the accusation and said it was ready to tear up all agreements with the South, with which it has technically been at war for more than half a century.

"It was a military provocation and violation of the U.N. Charter and the truce agreement," Lee, whose 2-½ years in office have seen relations with the North turn increasingly frosty, said in a statement.

"Since this case is very serious and has a grave importance, we cannot afford to have a slightest mistake and will be very prudent in all response measures we take," his office quoted him as telling a rare emergency National Security Council meeting.

Lee is expected to announce his response early next week.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Seoul would work with the international community to come up with non-military sanctions against the reclusive state.

In the past, both sides had put a limit on their hostility.

"North Korea has surpassed these limits. For those acts, the government will definitely make sure North Korea pays," Kim said.

Yonhap news agency reported South Korea and the United States were considering raising the alert status on North Korea as tensions build.


North Korea was typically defiant.

"From this time on, we will regard the situation as a phase of war and will be responding resolutely to all problems in North-South relations," the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said in a statement.

"If the South puppet group comes out with 'response' and 'retaliation', we will respond strongly with ruthless punishment including the total shutdown of North-South ties, abrogation of the North-South agreement on non-aggression and abolition of all North-South cooperation projects."

Seoul has repeatedly said it would not strike back at the North, aware that would frighten away investors already jittery about the escalating tension on the divided peninsula.

Apart from international sanctions, there is little else it can do. Economic relations have come to a near standstill since Lee became president, apart from a joint factory park just inside impoverished North Korea which now has to rely almost entirely on China, its only major ally.

North Korea has frequently threatened to attack Seoul but analysts say that, in the face of a much better equipped South Korean army backed by some 28,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula, any major confrontation would be suicidal for the Pyongyang leadership.

But there are some analysts who warn that the more the North's now frail leader Kim Jong-il is pushed into a corner, the greater the risk of clashes. Kim is also trying to secure the succession for one of his sons.

China has so far maintained its support of the North and said it would make its own assessment of the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan.

North Korea said it would send its own investigators to the South to look into the incident. But Yonhap news agency quoted a South Korean defense ministry source as saying it had no intention of allowing such a delegation.

Mindful of the tension on the Korean peninsula, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and spokesmen for the White House and the U.S. State Department chose their words carefully in their responses to the report.

"Clearly this was a serious provocation by North Korea and there will definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Gates said the United States was consulting with South Korea, which would decide what action to take. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently visiting the region.

Masked thief steals priceless masterpieces from Paris museum

"Le pigeon aux petits pois" picasso

Le pigeon aux petits pois (Dove with Green Peas, 1912, Pablo Picasso)

A lone masked intruder stole five priceless paintings, including a Matisse and a Picasso, from the Paris Museum of Modern Art last night.

Guards discovered the theft as they made their rounds at dawn and police have described the raid as one of the most daring thefts for many years. Security cameras at the museum showed a hooded man cutting open a window, breaking locks and climbing inside, police said.

He apparently cut the art works from their frames, leaving them empty on the wall. It was not clear whether the man could have been working alone or had accomplices inside the museum.

The stolen Picasso is a 1912 oil painting, Le pigeon aux petits pois (Dove with Green Peas). Also taken were Henri Matisse’s La Pastorale (Pastoral, 1906), Georges Braque’s L’Olivier près de l’Estaque (Olive tree near Estaque, 1906), Amédéo Modigliani’s La femme a l’éventail (Lady with Fan), and Fernand Léger’s Nature Morte au Chandelier (Still Life with Chandelier, 1922).

The prosecutor’s office initially estimated the five paintings’ total worth at as much as €500 million. Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris City Hall, later said the total value was “just under €100 million”.

As stolen goods with well-known histories, however, they might be worth more for possible ransom, police speculated.

The museum was closed to visitors this morning as police and investigators cordoned off the area in the Palais de Tokyo, across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

A notice on the door said “Closed today for technical reasons”.

The Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, the elite police unit that fights organised crime and art theft, has taken charge of the investigation.

Picasso is the world’s most stolen artist, according to the London-based Art Loss Register.

In June last year a sketchbook worth more than €8 million was stolen from the Picasso museum in Paris. It has not been recovered.

In 2007, two paintings by the artist vanished from his granddaughter’s home in Paris.

Paris suffered three major art thefts in one day in 1990, forcing the city to step up security at its art collections.

Court to pronounce verdict in Ruchika molestation case today

A court in Chandigarh on Thursday will pronounce its verdict on former Haryana Director General of Police (DGP) SPS Rathore's plea challenging his conviction in Ruchika molestation case.

Rathore has three cases pending against him in the court, all filed by Ruchika's family and friends.

Ruchika's family lawyer Pankaj Bharadwaj had earlier filed two FIRs against Rathore.

The lawyer had claimed that the first FIR was filed for forging documents like the inquest report and the other for illegal detention of Ruchika's brother, Ashu, who was kept in illegal detention and tortured at the behest of Rathore.

The third case is that of abetment to suicide against him. The family has alleged that Ruchika was expelled from Sacred Heart Convent in Chandigarh due to Rathore's influence.

Teenager Ruchika had killed herself three years after the incident by drinking poison.

The CBI is investigating whether Rathore drove Ruchika to suicide after she filed molestation charges. An inquiry by the Chandigarh administration has found that Ruchika was unfairly expelled from her school in 1990.

The report also concluded that the expulsion took place under pressure from "an external influence".

The Special CBI court had earlier held the former cop guilty under Section 354 IPC and sentenced him to six months imprisonment and had imposed a fine of Rs 1,000 on him.

Rathore has been stripped off his meritorious police service medal.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thai Army captures main protest site, but rebellion spreads

Thai soldiers with armoured vehicles smashed through barricades and recaptured Bangkok’s main commercial hub from anti-government protesters on Wednesday, but faced a widening security challenge as bands of arsonists attacked government offices and media targets elsewhere in the city and in several north-eastern provinces.

An 8 pm to 6 am Thursday (1300 to 2300 GMT Wednesday) curfew was imposed in Bangkok and government offices were ordered to remain closed for the rest of the week. The mass transit Skytrain and subway services were also closed until at least Friday.

At least four people, including an Italian journalist, were killed during the army’s assault on demonstrators on Wednesday. Another 40 were wounded.

Leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) — also known as the red shirt rebellion — surrendered to the police after armoured vehicles broke through barricades of rubber tyres and bamboo sticks on the periphery of the main Ratchaprasong protest site.

The site had been occupied since April 3 by protestors demanding the immediate dissolution of parliament and new elections.

“Just because we surrender to the authorities it doesn’t mean we have lost,” protest leader Jatuporn Prompan said just before surrendering at police headquarters. “We will fight again.” The surrender of their leaders failed to put a damper on the demonstrators, who went on a burning and looting rampage at the Central World shopping mall and nearby Siam Square.

The rioters burned the venerable Siam Theatre, the local Jor Sor 100 radio station reported, and then prevented firefighters from reaching the blaze.

Fires also were set at the Stock Exchange of Thailand and at Channel 3 TV on Rama 4 Road, which demonstrators had accused of bias in favour of the government.

As the station burned, employees were evacuated from the roof by helicopter.

The Bangkok Post and The Nation newspapers were also threatened with attacks by the red shirts. Both closed down their offices on Wednesday afternoon.

Power and mobile phone services were disrupted in some parts of the city and many residents were stocking up on food for what threatened to be an extended lockdown.

“The TV says people are panic buying, so I thought I’d better stock up before everything’s gone,” said Narinsuda Panthip, 24, as she filled her basket at a 7—Eleven convenience store in the northern suburb of On Nut.

Outside Bangkok, Thai television reported red—shirted protestors burned the city halls in the north—eastern provinces of Khon Kaen, Mukdahan, Ubon Ratchathani and Udom Thani and in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Two protestors were shot dead in Ubon, TV reports said.

The five provinces were put under emergency law last Thursday, when the government announced an offensive against the UDD, in order to disperse them from their protest site at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok.

A total of 17 provinces, including Bangkok, are now under emergency rule, giving military authorities enhanced powers to crack down on the unrest.

The UDD has been holding protests in the capital since March 12, when it trucked in tens of thousands of followers to Bangkok from northern and north—eastern Thailand, the heartlands of the red shirt movement which is openly supportive of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup in 2006 and fled the country to avoid a two—year prison term for corruption.

He has been widely reported to be funding the protests, motivated at least in part by a desire to recoup more than 1 billion dollars of his assets seized by a Thai court.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thai Army Moves to Confront Protesters

Thai armored vehicles on Wednesday morning rammed through the barricades put up by antigovernment protesters, and infantry troops stormed into the protest zone, as the government moved aggressively against demonstrators who have occupied Bangkok’s central retail district for more than six weeks.

Troops took control of key roads as well as a large park in the protest zone. Television footage showed soldiers opening fire at the back of protesters, who were running for cover. A government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said the first phase of the operation had been "successful."

“We are going to focus on setting a perimeter,” Mr. Panitan said on television. “We would like to reassure the citizens, the residents of Bangkok, that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area.”

Several fires raged around the protest zone, including what appeared on television to be a blaze engulfing a large block of buildings. The zone itself is among the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bangkok and includes many corporate headquarters, high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels and high-rise apartment buildings.One of the protest leaders, Weng Tojirakarn, appeared calm even as the operation was under way. “I have no gun,” he said in an interview inside the encampment. “I can’t do anything.”

But some of those who called themselves guards behind the barricades appeared armed, and one had a shotgun. When a reporter pointed this out, Dr. Weng, a medical doctor by training, responded, “How can you compare a handmade shotgun with a tank?”

At least two protesters and an Italian news photographer were shot dead, according to Thai news media, and two foreign and one Thai photographer were wounded.

Earlier, protesters aimed fireworks at army helicopters flying overhead and launched traditional paper lanterns in an effort to try to disrupt the aircraft, a photographer inside the protesters’ encampment said. Military trucks with loudspeakers warned protesters to leave the area.

Senator Lertrat Rattanawanit, a former general who tried to mediate the crisis late Tuesday, said negotiations had broken down because the protesters had “too many demands.”

“The government and military will surely disperse the demonstration in Ratchaprasong, and it will end today,” the senator said, referring to the commercial area of the protest zone. “But I cannot tell you what kind of damages and how many deaths there will be.”

When the demonstrations began in Bangkok in March, the protesters’ central demand was that the government step down and hold new elections, but the movement has splintered and the ultimate aims have become unclear.

Wednesday’s crackdown came after the Thai government rejected an offer for peace talks by demonstrators, calling their pleas for a cease-fire insincere and demanding that they disperse. “The only way to end this situation is to end the rally,” Satit Wongnongtoey, an aide to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said before government forces moved in Tuesday.

Arisman Pongruengrong, a popular singer and one of the more militant leaders, was reported to have fled the protest zone in a disguise. Mr. Arisman made headlines last month when he evaded arrest by climbing from a window as the police raided the hotel where he was staying. His escape was widely seen as emblematic of the ineffectiveness of government security forces in this crisis.

Entering the encampment, where thousands of protesters were behind barricades of sharpened bamboo poles, razor wire and tires, was a potentially treacherous operation. Among the die-hard protesters who remained late Tuesday was Sakhda Thongsa, a security guard who left his job to take part in the protests, and his daughter, Min, 5.

When she was asked whether she was scared, her father answered for her: “You’re not afraid, right? Fight! Fight!”

In a meek voice, though, Min contradicted her father: “I’m scared! I’m scared!” It was not known whether the girl and other children seen Tuesday were still there on Wednesday morning. A photographer inside the camp, Christopher Brown, said Wednesday’s crowd included many women and older people.

As troops massed outside the barricades, a military spokesman appeared on national television and accused protesters of “tarnishing the image of Thailand in the eyes of the world.”

Over the last five days, more than three dozen civilians and 2 soldiers have been killed, including a rogue general allied with the protesters, whose assassination set off mayhem. At least 300 people have been injured.

Iceland volcano ash cloud: airline passengers face further misery

Passengers face another day of delays and cancellations amid the fallout from an abortive British Airways strike and a continuing backlog from the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud.

Delays were still expected at airports throughout the country despite a last minute block being placed on industrial action planned by BA cabin crew strike and an overhaul of aviation “no fly” rules to reduce future airspace closures caused by Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano.

Volcano: Iceland volcano Ash cloud: airline passengers face  further misery

Officials on Tuesday admitted disruptions would likely continue for most of the week.

Airlines were struggling to return schedules to normal after plumes of thick ash drifted over the continent, closing major airports and leaving more than 1,000 flights cancelled.

Airlines, which have lost millions of pounds due to the ash alerts, condemned Monday's closure of airports and criticised the model used to predict the spread of the volcanic ash as "outdated and inappropriate".

Executives reacted with fury to what they argued were unnecessary restrictions introduced by overcautious safety watchdogs.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh led the criticism, labelling restrictions as "a gross overreaction to a very minor risk”.

Experts said the volcano, which last month caused much of Europe's airspace to be shut down for a week, has emitted massive amounts of ash, which can clog jet engines, since it began erupting a month ago and warned there was no end in sight.

Last month’s volcano eruption forced most countries in northern Europe to shut their airspace, grounding more than 100,000 flights and an estimated 10 million travellers worldwide.

The Air Transport Association (IATA), the international airline industry body, estimated that last month's shutdown – Europe's biggest since World War II – cost carriers more than £1.1 billion.

The latest eruption forced London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports to shut for six hours on Monday, leading to hundreds of delays and scores of aircraft in the wrong place.

Nearly 200 flights were cancelled at Heathrow, 88 at Gatwick and 40 at Liverpool airport. Up to 50,000 passengers were affected.

Airport officials warned travellers it would take time for airlines to clear the backlog of delayed flights and advised them to contact their airlines before going to the airport.

After the day of chaos, passengers later received a double dose of good news after the High Court outlawed the back-to-back strikes by BA cabin crew while the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) altered its criteria for permitting aircraft to fly.

The court ruling came too late for BA to reinstate its full flying schedule at Heathrow, which had been disrupted earlier in the day by the ash cloud.

Despite the High Court injunction, British Airways admitted that flights will still be affected for the rest of the week

The airline has been frantically trying to reinstate the 80 short haul and 30 long haul flights from Heathrow which faced cancellation had the strike gone ahead.

A spokesman for the airline said half of short-haul and 40 per cent of long-haul services from London’s would be affected because it is too late to reinstate a full service.

He added that its operation, however, was expected to return to normal by the weekend.

The ruling was a huge relief for the airline which told the court that the planned four five-day strikes would have cost the airline £138 million.

Unite, the union representing BA cabin crew, is preparing to appeal against an injunction which halted strike action planned by thousands of its members in the bitter row over jobs, pay and staffing levels.

The judgment came as the CAA announced that it had created a new “time limited zone” (TMZ) to allow certain aircraft to fly through a greater density of ash than previously permitted.

The change, which came into affect at midday on Tuesday, will only affect Flybe at first, but other airlines are expected to follow.

Once manufacturers and airlines have presented a joint “safety case” which proves they can fly through the ash without damage, they will be allowed to fly.

"As a result of this change, there are no predicted restrictions on UK airspace in the immediate future,” said Richard Deakin, the chief executive of Nats, the Air traffic control company.

The CAA appeared to blame the Met Office for the latest shutdown.

“The Met Office model was predicting ash which was not there when the test flights were done,” a CAA spokesman said.

“We have asked the Met Office why their forecast model showed something which was not subsequently backed up.”

The Met Office defended its computer model, insisting it was supported by satellite imagery, observation, laser checks of the dust in the atmosphere and other evidence from test flights.

It said the ash was present over the South East but not in the levels that ground aircraft

“The amount of ash is fluctuating on an hourly basis. The situation is very fluid,” a spokesman told the Daily Mail.

In Iceland meanwhile, there is no sign of the volcano stopping.

Experts said the Eyjafjoell eruptions, which began on April 14, have peaked three times, with the latest surge of activity coming Friday.

“Since the beginning of the eruption, we estimate that 250 million cubic metres (8.8 billion cubic feet) of tephra (ash and other fragmental material) has been produced," said Icelandic geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson.

The Icelandic civil protection agency said the ash cloud was drifting to the north and was not expected to travel to Europe in the next two days.

Thai protesters agree talks but standoff persists

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The proposal failed to stop sporadic fighting on the outskirts of a commercial district occupied by protesters for six weeks as groups of demonstrators hurled petrol bombs and burned tires at two checkpoints of soldiers armed with assault rifles.

"We have agreed to take a new round of talks proposed by the Senate because if we allow things to go on like this, we don't know how many more lives will be lost," Nattawut Saikua, one of the "red shirt" leaders, told a news conference.

Several thousand protestors, who have adopted red as a protest color and broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, remain in a barricaded encampment in Bangkok's high-end shopping, hotel and diplomatic district, refusing to leave, though looking visibly worn down.

"Sure I want to go home but I want democracy first," said Chamlat Ladlao, a protester in his 50s from central Lopburi province. "I'd rather stay here, be proud and die fighting than die in my village when I'm old."

The violence had subsided considerably on Tuesday after chaotic urban warfare in the streets of Bangkok since Thursday night, following the assassination of a major-general allied with the red-shirted protesters.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has vowed to disperse the mostly rural and urban poor "red shirts" who accuse his government of lacking a popular mandate and colluding with Thailand's royalist elite to subvert democracy.

The government said it had no formal response to a proposal from a group of 64 senators in the 150-member upper house who have offered to mediate peace talks and urged a ceasefire.

"The prime minister has been informed but does not have an immediate position on it," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

Forty other senators with more pro-government leanings called on the red shirts to surrender and face criminal charges, which in some cases include the death penalty for terrorism.

"It's just the beginning and it's the kind of an offer that doesn't carry much weight since the senators are not speaking in one voice," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Authorities warned the red shirts to leave their barricaded encampment by Monday afternoon, but the deadline came and went, raising questions over how long the military operation would continue and whether talks would work.

Public holidays have been declared until Friday.

"I doubt the proposed talks will lead to an end to the political crisis," said Kavee Chukitkasem, head of research at stockbroker Kasikorn Securities in Bangkok.

"The government has told the red shirts to stop the protest first and then they can talk, while the red shirts asked the government to talk before they end the protests."


Troops have thrown a cordon around the protest site, a "tent city" at the Rachaprasong intersection, paralyzing the heart of Bangkok. Hundreds of women and children have taken refuge in a temple inside the protest area.

On the outskirts of their encampment, small groups of protesters continue to challenge the soldiers, hurling petrol bombs and stones at a checkpoint on Rama IV Road leading to the business district, and burning tires in Din Daeng, scene of intense fighting over the weekend, Reuters witnesses said.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said "terrorists" have tried to stir trouble through random killings, targeting innocent people at rallies, rescue workers and journalists, including an incident on Monday in an apartment block under construction.

"A group of snipers dressed as soldiers were hiding on floors 24 to 27 aiming randomly at people, and that is being blamed on soldiers," he told a televised briefing.

Thai media reported a fire was raging in a row of deserted shops in the same area on Tuesday and firefighters were struggling to get into the area because of barricades.

Erawan Emergency Medical Center said on Tuesday that 38 people had died in the flare-up of violence since May 13 and 67 have been killed people since trouble started in April.

The protesters, mostly drawn from the rural and urban poor, and supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, had initially demanded immediate elections.

Sohrab case: CBI heat on top AP cops to turn witnesses

The top cops from the state said to be involved in the Sohrabuddin encounter might very well turn witnesses in the case.

Although the AP Police is maintaining that the involvement of their officials in the alleged fake encounter cannot be held culpable as they had presumed the help sought from the Gujarat police as an official request, the CBI, which is investigating the case, has told them to turn witnesses failing which the heat on them could be even more severe.

An AP cadre IPS officer, a Gujarat cadre officer posted in the CRPF in the state and a city ACP are said to be sought by the CBI to be quizzed in the Sohrabuddin encounter case. "Two of the three are not in city right now. They have been asked to come here and all the three will be questioned in the next few days," said sources.

The CBI team headed by a DIG rank official is expected to land in the city later this week. Already, a team of Mumbai CBI Special Crime Cell headed by a DSP rank official is stationed in the city to investigate the role of AP officials in the encounter.

"They are recording statements from various police officials up to the rank of DSP/ACP who provided logistical support to the Gujarat ATS team headed by SP Rajkumar Pandian way back in 2005," said the sources.

The allegation is that the Gujarat cadre official posted with the CRPF unit in the city provided accommodation to the Gujarat ATS team that came here to ‘kidnap’ Sohrabuddin. The other accused officials arranged vehicles for the team and assisted them in picking up Sohrabuddin along with his wife Kauser Bi and friend Prajapati near Sangli in Maharashtra.

According to the CBI sources, the AP officials can minimise any action against them by turning witnesses in the case. "However, the catch for these officials is that if they agree to become witnesses, the admission will lessen their roles but tighten the noose on the Gujarat cops," said the sources.

Education for Muslim girls important and mandatory: Fatwa

After fatwas by Darul Uloom Deoband that it was un-Islamic for women to work in close proximity of men in offices and for her family to accept her earnings, an Islamic seminary here has said that education for Muslim girls was not only important, but also mandatory.

"Education is mandatory for every Muslim, whether male or female," Maulana Khalid Rasheed Farangi Mahali of Darul Uloom Farangi Mahal said while quoting Hadees and Sharia.

The fatwa has been issued on a query posted by Huma Khawaja seeking clarification on girl's education, Uloom's secretary Naeemurrehman said.

The fatwa stated that the man has come in this world for enlightenment and spreading knowledge in the society.

"Much emphasis is given on education," it said.

"A man who gets his daughters and sisters educated, teaches them etiquette, treats them well and marry them would go to heaven," it added.

The fatwa said that the Islam not only promoted education for one's own children, but even for maid-servants.

"As mother is close to her children, being educated is very important for her," it said.

It said that from the quotes of Hadees it was evident that how much importance had been given on women education in

"It is mandatory for every Muslim to ensure proper education of his daughter at any cost," it said.

The Darul Uloom said that illiteracy was a major reason behind the downfall of Muslims.

"Women education is the first step towards progress and social reform. Any laxity would be considered as a big mistake," it added.

Earlier on May 12, Darul Uloom Deoband has held as un-Islamic women working in offices in proximity with men and decreed that acceptance of her earnings by a family was against the Sharia.

The Darul Uloom had also declared the job of writing and calculating interest based work in banks and insurance companies as unlawful in a recent fatwa.