Syria Widens Crackdown on Dissenters

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 2:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian forces are widening a crackdown on dissenters in a region near the Turkish border, while the number of Syrians crossing into Turkey to flee the unrest continues to swell.

Activists Tuesday said Syrian troops are pushing into the town of Maaret al-Numan.

Over the past few days, security forces have swept through Jisr al-Shughour and nearby towns, after the government accused “armed groups” in Jisr al-Shughour of killing 120 security personnel.

Turkish officials say the number of Syrian refugees who have crossed into the country has topped 8,500. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek Tuesday said nearly half of the refugees are children.

Also, Turkish news reports say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday and urged him to avoid violence and enact reforms.

On Monday, refugees reaching Turkey said Syrian forces were combing villages back home and arresting men between the ages of 18 and 40. Others told of a scorched-earth campaign with men in black uniforms pouring gasoline on farmlands.

The wave of arrests followed the assault on Jisr al-Shughour by troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships. Residents say loyalist units led by President Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, led Sunday's crackdown, which they say was sparked by a mutiny last week when some soldiers refused to shoot protesters and joined the anti-government side.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday it was clear that “Syria has taken a page out of Iran's playbook” by employing brutal tactics that Iran used after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He said the U.S. believes there is clear evidence that Iran is actively helping Syria as it clamps down on protesters.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

Rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been killed since President Assad launched a crackdown on anti-government dissent in March.

UN: 8 Million Urgently Need Food in Horn of Africa

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 2:20 pm (UTC-5)
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The United Nations food agency says more than eight million people in the Horn of Africa need emergency food aid due to the ongoing drought in the region.

The Food and Agriculture Organization warned Tuesday that food is urgently needed in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

The agency said the region has had below-average rainfall for two straight seasons, resulting in failed crops and the loss of livestock and grazing resources.

As a result of food shortages, U.N. officials say acute malnutrition has become widespread in the region. They said the problem is likely to grow worse because droughts are occurring more frequently.

The agency says crop and cattle farmers must adjust to realities of more extreme weather.

FAO economic Shukri Ahmed told VOA that countries are implementing their own short-term solutions to the drought. But he added long-range plans are needed to deal with the uncertainties brought on by climate change.

Football Star Ruud Gullit Dumped by Chechen Club

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 2:15 pm (UTC-5)
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Two-time former world football player of the year Ruud Gullit has been fired by the club he coached in Chechnya, after another embarrassing loss dropped Terek Grozny's record to three wins against 13 losses in the Russian Premier League.

Club president Ramzan Kadyrov, who is also Chechnya's controversial political leader, had set an ultimatum for Gullit: win Tuesday's match against Amkar Perm, one of the league's weakest teams, or face dismissal.

Terek Grozny fell to Amkar Perm, 1-0, after a Terek player kicked the ball into his own goal in the dying seconds of the match.

Terek now sits in 14th place in the 16-team league. Gullit said afterwards he expected to lose the job whether he won or lost.

President Kadyrov, a former rebel whose father was assassinated seven years ago, had previously denounced Gullit on his government website, declaring the coach failed to accord the proper respect to Chechen Muslims. He also accused the 48-year-old Dutch superstar of leading a playboy's lifestyle, supposedly “hiding in nightclubs and discos” instead of working with his players.

Mr. Kadyrov has faced repeated denunciations himself during his four years in power for alleged corruption and brutality. His extraordinary Internet statement about Gullit attracted wide attention, but some football fans recalled that Gullit was known for his flamboyant lifestyle during earlier coaching jobs, with Chelsea and other clubs.

Gullit captained the Netherlands national team that won the European championship in 1988, and played in the 1990 World Cup. He was Europe's Footballer of the Year in 1987 and the World Soccer Player of the Year in 1987 and 1989.

Iran to Resume US Hikers’ Trial During Summer

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 2:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Iran's chief prosecutor says the trial for three Americans accused of spying will resume during the court's summer session, which runs from late June to late August, and that he hopes a final decision will be made then as to their future.

Iranian state-run media quote Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi as making the comments during a Tuesday news conference on a wide range of issues. He also rejected claims that the two hikers who remain in Iranian custody are being abused.

Iranian authorities arrested Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer in 2009 on charges of illegally crossing into the country from Iraq. Shourd was released on bail last year but the other two remain in prison. Since being freed, Shourd has claimed that prison guards abused and assaulted Fattal and Bauer.

The hikers' families released a statement on Tuesday saying they hope the newly announced court session takes place “sooner rather than later.” They also said Bauer and Fattal were being held without “any due process” and should be allowed to return home immediately.

Iranian authorities have provided only limited access to Fattal and Bauer. In May, authorities allowed the two men to call their families — for just the third time since their 2009 arrest. The mothers of the two men said they sounded well during the calls, which lasted less than five minutes.

Palestinians to Meet Next Week to Form Governing Body

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas met Tuesday in Cairo and appeared headed toward resolving differences hindering the formation of a unity government.

Western news agencies say a meeting is scheduled for next week between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal where the two sides will unite on a candidate for prime minister and a new Cabinet.

The Palestinian unity agreement signed with much fanfare last month has run into trouble in recent days.

The Islamic militant group Hamas rejected the Fatah faction's nominee for prime minister, threatening the reconciliation agreement reached six weeks ago in Cairo.

The unity deal is aimed at reconciling rival Palestinian governments: Hamas rules the Gaza Strip while Fatah heads the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Fatah has wanted the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad to serve as prime minister.

Hamas officials say Fayyad cannot head a unity government because he cooperated with Israel's blockade on Gaza and shared responsibility for the arrest of Hamas leaders in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority intends to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in September, but without a unified front, that plan could be in jeopardy.

Obama Makes Rare Presidential Visit to Puerto Rico

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:45 pm (UTC-5)
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President Barack Obama is in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where he has expressed his commitment to helping residents of the Caribbean island.

After landing in San Juan Tuesday, President Obama told an enthusiastic crowd that the aspirations and struggles of Puerto Ricans mirror those across the United States. He highlighted efforts to address the challenges the island is facing, including with education, health care and the economy.

Puerto Rico received $7 billion in economic stimulus money, but is struggling with a 16 percent unemployment rate, far above the national level. The island's governor, Luis Fortuno, says the stimulus has led to net gains in employment, although it has taken a long time for the spending to have an effect.

Mr. Obama also discussed progress on the question of Puerto Rico's political status, which has long been a hot issue in the territory. The president supports a referendum to be held before the end of next year that would allow the island's residents to choose among statehood, independence or the current semi-autonomous Commonwealth status. He said when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, his administration will stand by them.

Mr. Obama's brief trip to Puerto Rico is the first official presidential visit to the island in 50 years.

It also has significance for Mr. Obama's 2012 campaign as he continues to reach out to an increasingly powerful Hispanic voting bloc.

He is meeting with Governor Fortuno at the governor's mansion, and will later attend a Democratic National Committee event in the territory.

Tuesday's stop will last only five hours, but it fulfills a promise Mr. Obama made when he was running for office in 2008. Visiting Puerto Rico during the campaign, he vowed to return if elected president.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the island does not vote in U.S. general elections. Puerto Ricans, however, are still an important part of the voting public, as those living within the 50 states make up the second-largest group of Hispanics in the U.S. after Mexicans.

Mr. Obama is the fifth U.S. president to travel to the island and the first since then-president John F. Kennedy went there in 1961.

Governor Fortuno says Mr. Obama's visit will allow the president to understand the issues that concern Puerto Ricans, particularly the need for job creation, and the impact of a worsening drug-trafficking problem in the Caribbean.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. The island elects its own governor and sends delegates to major U.S. party nominating conventions. It also has a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress.

US Senators: China Blocking Inquiry into Counterfeit Parts

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:21 pm (UTC-5)
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Some leading U.S. lawmakers are accusing China of hampering an investigation into counterfeit electronics that ended up in U.S. weapons systems.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Senator John McCain spoke to reporters at a news conference in Washington Tuesday.

They said China has so far declined allow the committee's staff members to enter mainland China. Levin said Chinese officials informed the committee that even if visas were to be granted, a representative from the Chinese government would have to monitor the staff members' work.

Levin called that condition a “non-starter” .

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to VOA requests for comment on the matter.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office first identified the problem of counterfeit parts in a report last year. Levin says there are strong indications that the fake components originated in China's southern Guangdong province.

Senator McCain, who ran for U.S. president in 2008, warned Beijing it is in China's best interest to cooperate.

He said the problem of counterfeit parts would also hurt legitimate Chinese companies.

U.S. officials and lawmakers have said the use of Chinese components in defense systems could pose a security risk, in addition to hurting the U.S. economy.

History, Goals of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:10 pm (UTC-5)
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The prominent Asian regional alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization began as an informal grouping of five nations that attempt to resolve border disputes multilaterally to promote neighborly relations.

The “Shanghai Five,” formed in 1996, included China, Russia and three Central Asian states that share their borders: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The regional bloc grew to six members with the admission of Uzbekistan in 2001 and renamed itself the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Uzbekistan does not border China or Russia.

The group's 2001 expansion also entailed a broadening of its focus to include international terrorism, religious extremism and ethnic separatism — problems that affect all six nations. The SCO says one of its main goals is to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in region.

Other major goals of the SCO include promoting cooperation on politics, education and economic issues such as energy, transportation, tourism, science and environmental protection.

SCO nations also seek to establish what they call a “new political and economic international order” that is “democratic, just and rational.” China and Russia, the bloc's two leading powers, agree that such a “new order” should limit the U.S. presence in Central Asia, which they see as their sphere of influence.

The United States has leased military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the past decade to boost the U.S.-led fight against Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. troops in 2005 after the SCO called for a U.S. military withdrawal from the region earlier that year. But, the U.S. Air Force still leases a base at Kygyzstan's Manas airport.

Some analysts say China and Russia continue to compete with each other for dominance in Central Asia despite their cooperation within the SCO.

China has been trying to expand its economic ties to Central Asia because it is a key source of energy for the booming Chinese economy. The analysts say China prefers to reach agreements with Central Asian nations through the SCO rather than individually to create a more level playing field and avoid the appearance of bullying its smaller neighbors.

The analysts say Russia worries about China's growing economic clout in Central Asia. They say Moscow sees the SCO as a way to regain its historical status as a leading power following its domination of the region during the Soviet era.

Indonesian Police Nab Bali Bombing Suspect

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:10 pm (UTC-5)
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Indonesian authorities say they have arrested another suspect in the deadly 2002 Bali bombings who also was linked to a terrorist organization in the Philippines.

A national police spokesman said suspect Heru Kuncoro was captured last week, as part of raids in central Java, Borneo and Sulawesi linked to a plot to kill police with cyanide.

In the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, Kuncoro is suspected of purchasing electronic equipment used by reputed bombing mastermind Dulmatin, who was killed early last year in a police raid near Jakarta. Kuncoro also is suspected of helping to run a jihadist training camp for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern Philippines.

On Monday, a police spokesman said 14 people from across Indonesia were arrested in the suspected cyanide plot, and said the suspects planned to insert cyanide into food and water at police facilities. The spokesman said the group previously killed two policemen who were guarding a bank in Sulawesi.

The spokesman described the cyanide plot as a “new model of terrorist attack.”

These arrests came as international political and business leaders met in Jakarta for a World Economic Forum.

Gunmen in Iraq Storm Provincial Council Building

Posted June 14th, 2011 at 1:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Iraqi police say insurgents stormed a provincial government compound Tuesday, killing eight people and wounding at least 24 others.

Witnesses and officials said the attackers detonated two car bombs near the entrance of the compound where a provincial council was preparing to hold its weekly meeting in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province. Security officials said at least five gunmen entered the compound, opening fire and two of the gunmen set off suicide bombs.

Authorities say U.S.-assisted Iraqi forces regained control of the building after killing all of the gunmen. The U.S. military says its forces provided “observational support” from helicopters during the operation.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack mirrored an assault on a provincial headquarters in Tikrit in March that killed 58 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for that attack.

The attack raises concerns about the strength of Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw in a few months.

In other violence Tuesday, the U.S. reports two U.S. service members were killed Monday while conducting operations in southern Iraq. The Defense Department is investigating but has not released details.