Thursday, 26 June 2008

Wednesday, 25th June 2008

Pakistan agency accused of plotting attack on Karzai
KABUL: The Afghanistan government publicly accused the Pakistani intelligence service Wednesday of organizing the plot to assassinate President Hamid Karzai at a parade in Kabul in April.
At a time of rising tension between the two neighbors, the accusation is by far the most serious leveled by Afghanistan against Pakistan and it is the first time the Afghan authorities have described specific and public allegations that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, had been involved in the attack on Karzai.
During a news conference in Kabul, Sayeed Ansari, the spokesman for the Afghan intelligence service, said the accusation had been based on documents uncovered during the investigation into the assassination attempt, confessions from 16 suspects detained after the attack and cellphone contacts.
He gave no further details or names of officials within the Pakistani agency who may have been involved.
"Based on the investigation of the case and documents we found, as well as confessions by suspects we arrested, they show that the real schemers and organizers of the terrorist attack" on the celebratory parade on April 27 "is the intelligence organization of Pakistan, ISI, and its associates, which committed unforgivable crimes."
There was no immediate public response from Pakistan, and spokesmen for the ISI and the Foreign Ministry did not return telephone calls for comment.
Tension has been increasing between the two countries and Karzai threatened last week to send soldiers into Pakistan to fight Islamic militant groups operating in the border areas to attack Afghanistan.
Karzai has said that he regards the Pakistani government as a friendly government, but in an escalating war of words he has urged it to join Afghanistan and allied nations to fight those who wanted to destabilize both countries and to "cut the hand" that is feeding the militants.
The Afghan intelligence service had already said that three of the people involved in the attack were in contact with people outside Afghanistan, including people in Miram Shah, a town in Pakistan's tribal region of North Waziristan, the main base for Taliban and Al Qaeda in the region.
The three, who were killed in a house raid in Kabul in the days after the assassination attempt, included an Afghan named Homayoun, suspected of directing an attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul in January, and a second Afghan man and a foreign woman who had been planning suicide bombings in the city. In the past, Afghan intelligence officials had linked Homayoun through an intermediary to Jalaladdin Haqqani, a mujahedeen commander who is based in Pakistan's tribal areas and has long had ties to Al Qaeda.
During the news conference on Wednesday, Ansari said cellphones belonging to the three recovered after their deaths had yielded telephone numbers with Pakistani codes. The numbers showed "a direct link" between Homayoun and the Pakistani intelligence organization, he said.
"We don't guess about the involvement of ISI, we are saying it precisely," he said.
The assassination attempt against Karzai took place at the Afghan national day military parade in central Kabul. Karzai escaped unhurt, but three people were killed in the assault, including a tribal chief and a member of Parliament who were in the reviewing stands near Karzai, and a 10-year-old boy.
Shortly after the attack, Afghan officials suggested that the attempt to kill Karzai had been the work of militants who had infiltrated Afghanistan's security forces and had ties to groups linked to Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The officials said militants linked to Al Qaeda and based in Pakistan were working closely with the Taliban to threaten the Karzai government, bringing a new level of sophistication to attacks in and around the capital.
The assassination attempt sent government officials, diplomats and legislators scrambling for cover and caused a stampede of soldiers from the parade ground. It turned what was supposed to have been a proud moment for Afghan security forces and the government into a moment of embarrassment and humiliation, coming just as the government had been pressing to take over responsibility for Kabul's security from NATO-led foreign forces.
Afghan forces caught a mortar team on the morning of the parade and found a number of suicide vests in the days before the attack, evidence that the plan was for multiple coordinated attacks that could have been far more deadly.

New Zealand gives Maori tribes forest in largest-ever settlement

WELLINGTON: Seven indigenous Maori tribes on Wednesday signed New Zealand's largest-ever settlement over grievances arising from the 19th-century seizure of land, forests and fisheries during European settlement of the country.
The 420 million New Zealand dollar, or $317 million, Treelords agreement will transfer ownership of 435,000 acres, or 176,000 hectares, of plantation forest and forest rents from the central government to the central North Island tribes.
Hundreds of Maori, some wearing traditional feather cloaks, thronged the nation's Parliament in Wellington to witness the signing of the agreement. Chants, challenges and conch shell notes rang out during the ceremony; some wiped tears from their eyes during the speeches and signing.
The seven tribes include more than 100,000 people.
"It's a historic journey we are on," Prime Minister Helen Clark told the crowd. "We came into politics to address injustice and seek reconciliation. Thank you for walking that road with us on this historic day."
Michael Cullen, the treaty negotiations minister, said the transfer of the majority of forests held by the government in the region to the seven tribes meant the asset "will finally be utilized in the interests of local Maori."
"New Zealand is a lesser nation today as a result of the failure to uphold its obligations to so many generations of Maori," Cullen said. "But all has not been lost."
He told Parliament that the deal settled the tribes' forest claims but that other grievances would be settled separately, and that it would probably involve further redress payments by the government.
Maori lands and forests were protected by the founding Treaty of Waitangi, signed with European settlers in 1840, but huge tracts of land were taken for settlement. Maori have been engaged in grievance claims since the early 1840s.
The Maori paramount chief, Dr. Tumu te Heu Heu, chairman of the tribal collective, said their objective was to provide tribes with "a strong, durable and sustainable economic future," particularly the youth and the coming generations.
"This is our legacy to them," he said.
The tribes plan to set up joint asset holding and management structures to maximize the benefits from the future use of the lands and the plantation forests - mainly as lumber.
Parekura Horomi, the Maori affairs minister, said that when the current settlement is completed the central North Island tribal collective would be New Zealand's largest single land owner in the forestry sector and one of the largest investors in the industry.
The previous largest settlement was the 1992 Sealord deal, which transferred nearly half of the nation's fish stocks to the Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi gave Maori ownership of the fisheries, but that was lost when the government introduced a strict fishing quota system in the 1980s.
Maori are among the nation's poorest citizens, with low education and income levels, poor health and housing standards and higher unemployment.

Biofuels pushing up food prices and poverty, Oxfam says

BRUSSELS: Biofuels are responsible for 30 percent of the increase in global food prices, pushing 30 million people worldwide into poverty, the aid agency Oxfam said in a report Wednesday.
The use of biofuels is soaring as developed countries try to reduce their dependence on imported oil and cut emissions of carbon dioxide, but critics say they have led to a shortage of grain, pushing up commodity prices.
"Rich countries' demands for more biofuels in their transport fuels are causing spiraling production and food inflation," said Rob Bailey, an Oxfam biofuel policy adviser, who wrote the report. "Grain reserves are now at an all-time low."
Oxfam called on rich countries to dismantle subsidies for biofuels and reduce tariffs on imports.
"Rich countries spent up to $15 billion last year supporting biofuels while blocking cheaper Brazilian ethanol, which is far less damaging for global food security," the report said.
Oxfam also urged rich countries to scrap biofuel targets, including European Union plans to get 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020.
Oxfam estimates that by 2020, CO2 emissions from changes in land use in the palm oil sector may have reached more that 3.1 billion tons, largely as a result of the EU target, and that it would take more than 46 years of biofuel use at 2020 levels to repay this "carbon debt."
"Biofuels are taking over agricultural land and forcing farming to expand into lands that are important carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands," the report said. "This triggers the release of carbon from soil and vegetation that will take decades to repay."
BRUSSELS: Biofuels are responsible for 30 percent of the increase in global food prices, pushing 30 million people worldwide into poverty, the aid agency Oxfam said in a report Wednesday.
The use of biofuels is soaring as developed countries try to reduce their dependence on imported oil and cut emissions of carbon dioxide, but critics say they have led to a shortage of grain, pushing up commodity prices.
"Rich countries' demands for more biofuels in their transport fuels are causing spiraling production and food inflation," said Rob Bailey, an Oxfam biofuel policy adviser, who wrote the report. "Grain reserves are now at an all-time low."
Oxfam called on rich countries to dismantle subsidies for biofuels and reduce tariffs on imports.
"Rich countries spent up to $15 billion last year supporting biofuels while blocking cheaper Brazilian ethanol, which is far less damaging for global food security," the report said.
Oxfam also urged rich countries to scrap biofuel targets, including European Union plans to get 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020.
Oxfam estimates that by 2020, CO2 emissions from changes in land use in the palm oil sector may have reached more that 3.1 billion tons, largely as a result of the EU target, and that it would take more than 46 years of biofuel use at 2020 levels to repay this "carbon debt."
"Biofuels are taking over agricultural land and forcing farming to expand into lands that are important carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands," the report said. "This triggers the release of carbon from soil and vegetation that will take decades to repay."

U.S. Sugar to sell land to Florida for Everglades renewal

LOXAHATCHEE, Florida: The dream of a restored Everglades, with water flowing from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, has moved a giant step closer to reality after the largest sugar cane producer in the United States agreed to sell all of its assets to Florida and go out of business.
Under the proposed deal, Florida will pay $1.75 billion for U.S. Sugar, which would have six years to continue farming before turning over 187,000 acres, or about 75,500 hectares, north of Everglades National Park, along with two sugar refineries and other assets.
It would be Florida's biggest land acquisition ever, and the magnitude and location of the purchase left environmentalists and state officials giddy.
Even before Governor Charlie Crist arrived to make the announcement against a backdrop of water, grass and birds, dozens of advocates had gathered. After years of battling with U.S. Sugar over water and pollution, many of them said that the prospect of a partnership came as a shock.
The details of the deal, which is scheduled to be completed over the next few months, may define how long the honeymoon lasts. Previous acquisitions took longer to integrate than had been expected initially, and because U.S. Sugar's fields are not all contiguous, complicated land swaps with other businesses may be required.


Iran's rice farmers ask where's the money

CHALUS, Iran: From the lush paddy fields of northern Iran to the dusty grain bazaars of Tehran, the pain and paradoxes of the global crisis spawned by rising food and fuel prices are starkly on show.
Rice prices have more than doubled in Iran since March but farmers working from sunrise to sunset in the rice-growing northern region around Chalus, a city on the Caspian Sea, say little of that money goes into their pockets.
"Traders bought our rice very cheap. They have put it in storage and now capital investors are selling it for a high price ... We did not make a profit but traders did," Baqer Kefayati said at his farm in Dasht-e Nesha.
Capital investors are rich traders who buy rice wholesale from farmers. Dealers buy rice in small amounts from capital investors and sell it to shops. They act as brokers and tend not to make large sums of money.
Some brokers also blame the Islamic Republic's government, saying its tardiness in importing rice this year helped fuel the price rise by creating a vacuum that could be exploited.
Rice is a staple in Iran, a country of 70 million people straddling Asia and the Middle East and the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
Iran is at once a beneficiary of the oil boom, that has seen prices rise to nearly $140 a barrel, and a victim -- high oil prices are one factor behind rising inflation that is punishing the country's poor.
Economists blame profligate spending of windfall oil revenues by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government for stoking inflation, which rose to 25.3 percent year-on-year in May. World food prices -- which have risen on supply fears and export restrictions -- have also contributed.
Iranian newspapers in May said popular smoked rice had jumped to 50,000 rials per kg (about 2.74 pounds) from 19,000 rials. The price of another Iranian variety rose to 45,000 from 18,000 rials. Some other types have tripled in price, say shopkeepers.
The prices remained at almost the same levels in June.
The price pain has political consequences, even in tightly controlled Iran. In southern Tehran and some other cities, lower income Iranians protested against inflation and higher prices, some newspapers reported.
Some people are already blaming Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005 promising to spread Iran's oil wealth to the people. He faces re-election in 2009.
"Ahmadinejad promised to bring the oil money to our tables but instead he is taking away the rice from our table," said Masoumeh Nayyeri, a mother of five and cleaner in Tehran.
"Rice and bread were the only things we could afford. How will I feed my children now? Life becomes harder every day."
Asian rice prices almost trebled to their highest ever this year as export restrictions by leading suppliers fuelled insecurity over food supplies. Prices have since come off highs on signs of larger harvests and export curbs being lifted.
As a rice importer, Iran has been hit hard, especially as very cold winter weather followed by drought affected harvests of domestic rice, further boosting prices for consumers.
Earlier this month, the commerce minister was quoted in the English language Iran News paper as saying Iran needed to import 1.7 million tonnes of rice in the year that ends in March 2009 to supplement forecast domestic production of 1.5 million tonnes.
Consumption is estimated at 3.2 million tonnes. For the past few years, Iran has been trying to become self-sufficient but because of various issues, including this year's drought, the Islamic state has not been able to achieve its goal.
Iran has delayed buying rice on world markets -- for example from traditional supplier Thailand -- because of high prices, but to ease public concern over shortages, Iranian state TV announced in May that at least 100,000 tonnes had been bought from Pakistan. Prices dipped but they still remain high.
Just as speculators on world markets have been blamed for inflating oil's rally and adding to volatility, so the traders known as capital investors in Iran have been charged with manipulating the retail market.
Iranian officials have said some traders tried to capitalize on the drought and the reduced availability of imported rice to make a profit. Local media reports have said several traders in different cities have been arrested for stockpiling rice.
"Traders hid their rice as soon as they heard there was less rain this year and that global prices were rising. There was plenty of rice in the market but traders used the opportunity," said Ali Asghar Tezval, 66, a dealer in a grains bazaar in southern Tehran.
A dealer for more than 50 years, Tezval buys rice from capital investors in the north and sells it to shop owners in other cities.
"For us, high prices make no difference. We buy rice at higher prices from major traders and we sell it to shops at a higher price too," Tezval said, pointing to sacks of rice in storage near his office.
The traders' role angers farmers and their workers in the three northern provinces of Gilan, Golestan and Mazandaran, where most of the rice farming takes place.
"The price of rice has really gone up but who benefits from it? Certainly not us working for more than 12 hours a day," said Banafsheh Yousefi, labouring in a field near the Caspian Sea, her sleeves rolled up and her black plastic boots deep in water.
"We had less rain this year but it is traders who have pushed prices up," the 33-year-old said, looking at her two children playing nearby.
She is one of many farm workers whose salary is not affected by the price rises.
Next to her, workers sang a song asking God to bless the fields with enough rain.
Rice dealer Siavosh Shirinvash, who works near Rasht in the north, says the lack of imported grain pushed up prices by allowing traders to exploit supply fears.
"Some (capital) investors bought the rice a few months ago. They store the rice and wait until there are circumstances like now, including the lack of rain and the rise in global prices, to raise the price," he said. "People are not able to afford such expensive rice."
Tezval agrees the government's delay in importing rice contributed to the price rises.
"The government did what it could but it would have helped if they imported the grain sooner. The government should have the pulse of the market in its hands."
Price rises are also changing people's eating habits -- a situation mirrored elsewhere as rice becomes too expensive for the world's most vulnerable. In West Africa, people are replacing rice with manioc paste, manioc leaves or bread, while in Bangladesh, the government urged people to adopt potatoes as a staple food.
"Rice is becoming a luxury for many of the poor, just like meat and chicken," said Sharifeh, who did not give her last name and who was working in a field near Namakabroud in Mazandaran.
"Let's pray for good rainfall, less inflation and plenty of rice," she said with a smile.
(Additional reporting by Saeed Komeijani, editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)

Fresh & Easy says to hire 750 more employees
NEW YORK: Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, the U.S. store chain operated by Tesco , said on Tuesday it plans to hire 750 additional employees over the next three months.
The retailer also said it will open its 62nd store, in Manhattan Beach, California, on July 2.

Water sector corruption threatens lives

BERLIN: Corruption has made the cost of water more expensive in some developing countries than in cities like New York, London or Rome, threatening billions of lives, watchdog Transparency International said on Wednesday.
The Berlin-based non-governmental organisation found in its latest global corruption report that bribes, graft and other forms of wrongdoing are the main reasons for a "global water crisis" that is speeding the pace of environmental degradation.
The report, released in Berlin and New York on Wednesday, said water sector corruption ranges from petty bribery in water delivery to the looting of irrigation and hydropower funding.
Such corruption -- seen in rich countries as well as poor -- threatens to exacerbate a global food shortage.
"Corruption in the water sector puts the lives and livelihoods of billions of people at risk," the TI report said. "The onset of climate change and the increasing stress on water supply around the world make the fight against corruption in water more urgent than ever."
Huguette Labelle, chair of TI, said it was essential to overcome corruption in the sector.
"Massive new investments in irrigation have been announced worldwide to help counter the food crisis, yet water shortage means food shortage and if corruption in irrigation is not also addressed these efforts will fall short," Labelle said.
Calling its report the first to study the impact of water sector corruption, TI said 1.2 billion people have no guaranteed access to water and 2.6 billion are without proper sanitation.
Irrigated lands help produce 40 percent of the world's food supply but corruption in irrigation is rampant, TI said.
The report said in India corruption adds about 25 percent to irrigation contracts. Elsewhere, graft can increase the cost of connecting households to water networks by up to 30 percent.
"Corruption in drinking water and sanitation emerges at every point along the water delivery chain," it said.
"It drains investment from the sector, increases prices and decreases water supplies. One result is that poor households in Jakarta, Lima, Nairobi or Manila spend more on water than residents of New York, London or Rome."
The report said industrialised nations were not immune to corruption, with bid-rigging and price-fixing seen in water infrastructure projects in Europe and the United States.
"Corruption in the water sector is widespread and makes water undrinkable, inaccessible and unaffordable," TI wrote.
"It is evident in the drilling of rural wells in sub-Saharan Africa, the construction of water treatment facilities in Asia's urban areas, the building of hydroelectric dams in Latin America and the daily misuse of water resources around the world."

U.S. Supreme Court cuts damages award in Exxon Valdez spill

WASHINGTON: The Supreme Court on Wednesday reduced what had once been a $5 billion punitive damages award against Exxon Mobil to about $500 million. The ruling essentially concluded a legal saga that started when the Exxon Valdez, a supertanker, struck a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
The decision may have broad implications for limits on punitive damages generally. Punitive damages, which are meant to punish and deter, are imposed on top of compensatory damages, which aim to make plaintiffs whole.
Justice David Souter, writing for the majority in the 5-to-3 decision, said a ratio between the two sorts of damages of no more than one-to-one was generally appropriate, at least in maritime cases. Since Exxon has paid about $507 million to compensate more than 32,000 Alaska Natives, landowners and commercial fishermen for the damage caused by the spill, it should have to pay no more than that amount in punitive damages, Souter said.
The plaintiffs have received an average of $15,000 each as compensation, and Wednesday's decision means they will receive a similar amount in punitive damages.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissent, said he would have upheld the punitive damages award, which the federal appeals court in California had reduced to $2.5 billion.

"In light of Exxon's decision to permit a lapsed alcoholic to command a supertanker carrying tens of millions of gallons of crude oil though the treacherous waters of Prince William Sound, thereby endangering all of the individuals who depended upon the sound for their livelihoods," Stevens wrote, "the jury could reasonably have given expression to its moral condemnation of Exxon's conduct in the form of this award."

A double cartel holds EU hostage on energy

BERLIN: For weeks now, people across Europe have been trying to cope with the soaring price of oil. What is less talked about but just as painful is the increase in the price of gas.
Governments, while they say it is time to diversify energy sources to reduce dependence on oil, don't speak about the direct link between oil and gas. Here in Europe and in most parts of Asia their prices are inextricably tied together. Consumers and industry have no chance of breaking away from high fossil fuel prices.
The European Union's silence over the coupling of oil and gas prices is strange. One of the EU's strong points has been its consistent support for competition. But when it comes to energy, it is a different matter. Due to pressure from Europe's powerful gas companies, the EU has had a tough time trying to open up the sector to genuine competition, even if such a move would bolster the bloc's competitiveness.
The lack of any debate about the link between oil and gas has much to do with Europe's helplessness. As the North Sea fields become depleted, the EU is becoming increasingly dependent on imported oil and gas. According to estimates by the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, by 2030 over 84 percent of the bloc's total gas supplies will be imported, compared with 54 percent today.
The price Europeans pay for their oil from Saudi Arabia and other countries is dictated not by supply and demand but by a cartel over which the EU has no influence. It has just as little influence over gas that is imported mainly from Russia, Algeria and Norway. While there is no gas cartel as such, an informal one does exist because producers agree to keep gas prices tied to oil.

This was not always so. When natural gas was first brought to European markets after 1945, it was competing with oil-based products for a share in the industrial processing and domestic heating sectors. As more gas arrived in Europe, gas pipelines were expanded. One of the first big pipeline contracts was signed in 1970 between the former Soviet Union and West Germany, which the United States tried but failed to prevent.
To make gas attractive to the consumer, it was priced at a discount to oil products, especially as many users maintained the ability to switch between the two commodities. But because there was no liquid natural gas market equivalent to spot trading in oil, the price of oil became the standard for gas customers.
Kieran McNamara, natural gas analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris, said the linkage has made some sense especially for producers trying to get the gas out of the ground. "For upstream developers, long-term contracts linked to oil prices allowed them to underwrite substantial investment costs while at the same time providing a reasonable level of price and volume certainty to end users," he said.
Some countries, including Britain and the United States, have avoided this linkage. Britain's own reserves once meant it could set its own gas prices and introduce competition. But with stocks now almost depleted, Britain has become a net importer of energy, and prices have increased. By contrast, the United States has managed to keep gas and oil prices separate because of new growth in the gas sector.
Europe has also been trying to find different sources for its gas requirements. Indeed, diversification of energy sources has been the buzz word in Brussels since 2006, when Gazprom, the Russian state-owned company, stopped sending gas to Ukraine, officially because of a dispute over prices.
In reality, Russia, rich from high energy prices, began to turn its energy power into a political weapon against Ukraine's pro-Western government. In response, the EU said it was time to reduce its dependence on Russia, which supplies more than a third of Europe's gas needs.
One ambitious plan is to build the Nabucco gas pipeline that would allow the Europeans to import gas from some Central Asian countries, bypassing Russia. Once Nabucco is completed in six years, Europe's dependence on Russian gas would be reduced, but not by much. Nabucco will eventually have an annual capacity of 30 billion cubic meters - but far less than what the Europeans will require. Natural gas consumption is expected to rise by an annual 152 billion cubic meters by 2030, according to the European Commission.
And even if an exclusive EU pipeline would lead to more diversification of energy sources, it would not automatically create competition. There is no reason to believe that governments in Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan would act any differently from Gazprom or Algeria's state-owned oil and gas company, Sonatrach, by decoupling oil and gas prices.


Oil falls by $4 a barrel after inventory report

NEW YORK: Crude oil fell more than $4 a barrel Wednesday after a U.S. government report showed that inventories rose for the first time in six weeks.
Inventories gained 803,000 barrels to 301.8 million last week, the Energy Department said. A 1.1 million-barrel drop was forecast by analysts in a Bloomberg News survey. Fuel demand averaged 20.2 million barrels a day in the past four weeks, down 2.3 percent from a year earlier, the report showed.
"There's no question that high prices are having an impact on driving patterns and gasoline demand," said Rick Mueller, director of oil practice at Energy Security Analysis in Wakefield, Massachusetts. "We had a nice crude-oil build and the market is responding as it should."
Crude oil for August delivery declined $4.34, or 3.2 percent, to $132.66 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices, which reached a record $139.89 on June 16, have almost doubled from a year ago.
Gasoline for July delivery fell 11.45 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $3.349 a gallon in New York. Futures reached a record $3.5762 a gallon on June 16.


Low Mexican gas prices draw Americans

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico: When George Terrazas was mugged at gunpoint in this Mexican border city several months ago, he vowed never to return.
That, however, was before gasoline hit $4 a gallon in his hometown, El Paso, just across the border.
On Saturday, Terrazas was back in Ciudad Juárez, wooed by its irresistibly low-priced gasoline — around $2.66 a gallon — even if not quite unfazed by the indiscriminate gunfire from dueling drug cartels that has contributed to a 2008 average of three killings a day in the city.
"I don't feel comfortable here," he said, "but I can't even fill the tank on the U.S. side."
Terrazas, a 48-year-old maintenance worker, is among a flow of American "gas tourists" who, Mexican service stations near the border with El Paso estimate, account for a 50 percent surge in gasoline sales here over the last several months. (Similar increases are reported along the border all the way to Tijuana.) Even the Mexico Tourism Board is promoting the journey.


TNK-BP Russian partners threaten more legal action

LONDON: The Russian shareholders in TNK-BP have threatened legal action in Russia and internationally in their dispute with BP and said labour union unrest could follow.
The measures were outlined in a presentation to be delivered by Stan Polovets, chief executive of the Alfa-Access-Renova (AAR) consortium representing the Russian billionaire co-owners, in London, and which was distributed in advance by AAR.
BP is locked in dispute with its Russian partners over control of the joint venture, which is Russia's third largest oil producers.
TNK-BP has endured raids on its offices by security forces, the arrest of staff, tax probes and difficulties in securing visa for secondees from BP in recent months. BP has blamed its partners for the problems.

Despite some setbacks, Sarkozy is riding high

PARIS: President Nicolas Sarkozy has had his share of bad luck as he prepares to take over the European Union's presidency on July 1.
First, record fuel prices have prompted huge protests around Europe. Then Irish voters dealt a deadly blow to a document he claimed as his own, a compromise treaty to replace the failed EU constitution.
And one of his prized European initiatives - a Mediterranean Union bringing southern Europe together with northern Africa, and Israel with Lebanon, Syria and Turkey - was whittled away by a suspicious Germany and an EU bureaucracy ever-expert at obfuscation.
Yet Sarkozy also holds some strong cards. His three-day visit to Israel this week was the latest sign that France has regained diplomatic stature not only in Washington and European capitals, but also in Africa and the Middle East.
The president has allowed his diplomats to contact Hamas leaders and has sent his chief of staff to encourage Israel and Syria to hold direct talks, maybe in Paris.
On July 13, he is to act as host at a meeting of the leaders of countries that share the Mediterranean coastline. Even enemies like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have agreed to come.
"We want France and Europe to remain influential and present in North Africa and the Middle East, a region that was neglected a bit in recent years," Alain Le Roy, the senior French diplomat charged with preparing the summit meeting, said in a telephone interview. "If everyone comes, as they say they will, it will show that we have a significant audience in the region."
Western, Arab and Israeli diplomats all offer two reasons for France's comeback, both connected to America.
By taking a more Atlanticist stance on a host of issues, they say, Sarkozy has captured attention in the United States, gaining leverage that was often lacking after his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
At the same time, Sarkozy's push for more influence comes as the United States is overstretched, unpopular and in need of allies.
Under Sarkozy, France has become "much more credible" because it is "now listened to in the U.S.," said a senior British official who insisted on anonymity.
It has not gone unnoticed in Washington that Sarkozy has lobbied for tougher sanctions on Iran, pledged more troops for Afghanistan and announced a new military base in the Gulf, France's first outside its former colonial fiefs.
This month the president unveiled a new national security strategy aimed at putting France at the forefront of European defense and committing his country to rejoin in full NATO's integrated military command, 42 years after Charles de Gaulle pulled out.
Those shifts "are potentially historic transformations welcomed by the U.S.," said Daniel Hamilton, a former assistant secretary of state who now leads the Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Or as Joseph Nye of Harvard put it: "Sarkozy is more popular in the States than at home."
Sarkozy's trip to Israel - the first state visit by a French president since 1996 - showcased the new French diplomacy. The most outspokenly pro-Israeli president of France in decades, Sarkozy called his country a "friend of Israel" and a "friend of the Palestinians."
"He is good news for the region," Daniel Shek, the Israeli ambassador to France, said in a phone interview. "He does not consider this a zero-sum game. He says: I don't have to take sides."
Even in the Arab world, diplomats appreciate the pragmatism. They have noticed his offers to sell nuclear energy to Arab countries. And they see the thaw in French-American relations as offering some hope for solving the protracted conflicts of the Middle East.
"If Nicolas Sarkozy is a friend of Israel but helps create a Palestinian state, why not?" Fathallah Sijilmassi, the Moroccan ambassador to France, said. "Nicolas Sarkozy is someone who has the culture of results. Today we need results."
One year into his five-year term, it is too early to judge whether Sarkozy will deliver such results.
His foreign policy, like his domestic agenda, has been marked by frantic activity. Several initiatives, each announced with much fanfare, have ended up nowhere, such as a push for EU sanctions against Iran outside of the UN Security Council or an offer to mediate between warring factions in Iraq.
Other efforts succeeded: the return home of Bulgarian nurses on death row in Libya and the compromise about the Lisbon Treaty, now in limbo after the Irish voted against it.
One senior European diplomat called it the "Casanova approach." "The more girls you ask to dance, the more you succeed," said the diplomat.
Some observers wonder how much it all means.
"France is back, but how and where?" asked Dominique Moïsi, senior fellow at the French Institute for International relations. Being a friend of America and back in NATO as global power shifts gradually from West to East are no guarantee of great influence in the decades to come, he said.
And if most, possibly all, leaders from countries on the southern rim of the Mediterranean come to Paris for the meeting in July, it may just be in hopes of money.
Sarkozy announced a Mediterranean Union in his victory speech on election night last year, billing it as a way to "end all hatred" in the region.
But Germany, its face turned more to Eastern Europe and Russia, worried that the French initiative was shifting the EU focus south.
Accordingly, the grand project was scaled back to pragmatic goals - clean the Mediterranean, improve transport links - and given the clunky name of the Barcelona Process, the Union for the Mediterranean that incorporated the EU's existing cooperation program with North Africa.
To critics who argue the initiative is now gutted, Le Roy said: "If it was so insubstantial, no one would have got so worked up about it."


Société Générale's head of investment banking questioned alongside former trader

PARIS: French judicial officials said Wednesday that judges investigating a massive trading loss at Société Générale have questioned the former trader Jérôme Kerviel alongside a top bank executive.
The officials said that two investigating judges organized the nearly three hour confrontation between Kerviel and Société Générale's head of corporate and investment banking, Jean-Pierre Mustier.
The officials said the closed-door hearing Wednesday focused on bank officials' questioning of Kerviel on Jan. 18 to 20 about alleged false trading positions he had taken.
Those positions led to a loss of almost €5 billion, or $7.84 billion, once the bank unwound them.
The bank announced the alleged fraud Jan. 23. Kerviel is facing preliminary charges for forgery, breach of trust and unauthorized computer use.


Sarkozy lays out plan for Internet tax

PARIS: France will ban prime-time advertising on public television as of Jan. 1 and plans to tax Internet, phone and commercial broadcasting companies to replace the lost funding, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday.
Phone and Internet companies will pay a tax of 0.9 percent of sales to finance public television, Sarkozy said in a speech. Private television companies will pay a tax of 3 percent on advertising revenues to raise €80 million, or $121 million, for the state-owned France Télévisions, he said.
Société Télévision Française 1 and M6-Metropole Télévision, the largest commercial broadcasters in France, may benefit from increased ad spending as a result of the change. TF1 shares rose the most in almost six weeks, while M6 had the biggest gain in three weeks.
"By suppressing advertising, we want to give our public television the means of a greater freedom," Sarkozy said in the speech at Élysée Palace. "For viewers, things will change from Jan. 1, 2009." All advertising will be phased out by Dec. 1, 2011, he said.
The tax rate on Internet and phone companies is higher than the 0.5 percent proposed by a commission appointed by Sarkozy to study an overhaul of France Télévisions. The tax will apply to both fixed-line and mobile operators. The panel, headed by Jean-François Copé, the governing party leader in the National Assembly, had suggested the ban take effect Sept. 1, 2009.

22 peace committee members slain in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: The bodies of 22 members of a government-sponsored peace committee were found dumped near South Waziristan Wednesday after fighting broke out between the Pakistani Taliban and a rival tribe, government officials said.
The peace committee was attacked by supporters of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, in the town of Jandola on Monday, not far from the Afghan border and about 300 kilometers,or 185 miles, west of Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, said Berkatullah Marwat, the district coordinating officer.
Some of the 22 bodies were found with bullet wounds, others had been slashed with knives, Marwat said.
The killings come after the Pakistani army reached a cease-fire with Mehsud's forces earlier this year. It has pulled its soldiers back from Mehsud's territory in South Waziristan. Under the terms of an accord, the military has exchanged prisoners with Mehsud's forces.
The movement of Mehsud's Taliban fighters into Jandola and the killings of the peace committee members from the rival Bhittani tribe are likely to raise questions about the accord between the army and the Taliban.


Pakistanis "won't allow" attacks into Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan said on Wednesday it would not allow militants to attack Afghanistan from its territory and it would never let foreign troops operate on its soil.
The declaration came after threats from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to send troops into Pakistan to fight Taliban militants he says operate from border sanctuaries, and after 11 Pakistani border soldiers were killed in a U.S. air strike.
"Pakistan will not allow its territory to be used against other countries, especially Afghanistan and under no circumstances will foreign troops be allowed to operate inside Pakistan," the government said in a statement after a top-level security meeting.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani presided over the meeting which included federal and provincial government leaders and military and security agency chiefs.
"The meeting unanimously agreed that elimination of terrorism and extremism is the gravest challenge to Pakistan's national security and to fight this menace a multi-pronged strategy will be followed," the government said.


Pakistani court postpones Sharif by-election

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Supreme Court postponed on Wednesday a by-election in a constituency where former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had hoped to stand, pending a ruling on a decision by a lower court to bar him from the poll.
A high court in the city of Lahore this week barred Sharif from standing in Thursday's by-election, mainly on the basis of a criminal conviction that Sharif says was politically motivated.
"The election has been stayed," Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum told Reuters, adding that the next hearing into the case will be on Monday

Watchdog to probe Kosovo organ allegations
STRASBOURG, France: Europe's main human rights watchdog will investigate allegations that politicians in Kosovo were involved in traffic in human organs during the war with Serbia.
The Council of Europe said it had appointed Swiss senator Dick Marty to travel to Kosovo to prepare a report.
The allegations were contained in the book "The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals," by the former chief prosecutor of the Hague war crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte, who said that some 300 Serb prisoners captured by Kosovan Albanian forces may have been victim of forced organ extraction.
A group of 17 parliamentarians signed a motion requesting the investigation.

NATO sees Kosovo security force by end 2009

BRUSSELS: NATO is looking to have trained and launched a 2,500-strong Kosovo security force by the end of next year, an alliance spokesman said on Wednesday.
The force will be lightly armed and initially take on tasks such as crisis response, civil protection and ordnance disposal.
"The first phase of the standing-up of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) should be completed towards the end of 2009. Then we'll see a few years later when it becomes fully operational," NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing.
"It is envisioned to be multi-ethnic. There will be slots for all communities," he added of a locally recruited force due to cover overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian Kosovo including its Serb enclaves.
NATO allies agreed earlier this month to take on the training of the new force as part of moves to reshape the international security presence in Kosovo since its Western-backed secession from Serbia in February.

Human Rights Watch condemns Russia for violence in Ingushetia
MOSCOW: A human rights groups said in a report Wednesday that violence in Chechnya had decreased markedly in recent years but that fighting between Muslim insurgents and Russian troops threatened to engulf a neighboring region.
Human Rights Watch said a recent spike in insurgent attacks in the region, Ingushetia, had provoked a series of kidnappings, torture and arbitrary killings of civilians by law enforcement agents that was reminiscent of the rights abuses in Chechnya.
Government officials from the region disputed the report's findings.
Ingushetia, a tiny Muslim republic on Chechnya's western border, has long been considered a relatively peaceful enclave in the North Caucasus, a mountainous region in southern Russia. Recently, however, it has become a haven for rebels fleeing a brutal counter-insurgency in Chechnya.
The aggressive anti-insurgent policies of the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, have brought a modicum of stability to the republic after two wars and nearly half a decade of internecine fighting, though at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties.

A Monet sets a record: $80.4 million

LONDON: The summer auction season here began at Christie's on Tuesday night when a standing-room-only crowd of dealers, collectors and art lovers came from all over the world to watch and bid on one of the largest London sales the auction house has held. Early in the evening a record price for a Monet, $80.4 million, was set for one of the rarest of his waterlilies.
A sea of hands shot in the air when that painting, "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas," which had been expected to sell for $36 million to $47 million, came up on the block. Among at least six would-be buyers, a blond woman in the front row bid tenaciously against several Christie's representatives on the telephone with clients. When the price hit nearly $70 million, Christopher Burge, Christie's honorary chairman in the United States and one of the evening's two auctioneers, leaned over and said to the woman, "Take as long as you like." The woman, identified as Tania Buckrell Pos of Arts & Management International, a London company, ended up winning the painting on behalf of an unknown client, and the salesroom burst into applause. The previous record for a Monet, $41.4 million for "The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil," was set last month at Sotheby's in New York.
"Le Bassin aux Nymphéas," from 1919, a large horizontal work measuring more than 3 feet by 6 feet, is from a series of four that Monet signed and dated and that experts consider to be among the most important paintings from his late period. Unlike most of his late works, which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1926, this series was sold by him. One is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; another was cut in two; and a third is in a private collection, having been sold at Christie's in New York in 1992 for $12.1 million, a stellar price at the time.
The Monet up for auction Tuesday belonged to J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, collectors from Columbus, Indiana Miller, the chairman of the Cummins Engine Company who died in 2004, and Miller, who died in February, helped transform Columbus into a showcase for modern architecture by supporting historic buildings and projects.
In addition to the Monet the Millers also owned a Cubist Picasso, another popular work in the auction. "La Carafe (Bouteille et Verre)," painted in the winter of 1911-12, went to a telephone bidder for $7.3 million, above its high $5.9 million estimate.

Queen Elizabeth II strips Mugabe of knighthood

Queen Elizabeth II has stripped Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's strongman president for nearly 30 years, of his honorary knighthood as a "mark of revulsion" at the human rights abuses and "abject disregard" for democracy over which he has presided, the British Foreign Office announced Wednesday.
The rebuke showed the extent of international frustration over Mugabe's insistence to go ahead with a presidential runoff on Friday, even though his sole opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out of race on Sunday because of the persistent violence and intimidation against him, his party and their supporters.
Mugabe's government has had a long history of human rights abuses, but he was granted an honorary knighthood during an official visit to England in 1994 when, the foreign office contends, "the conditions in Zimbabwe were very different."
But with the widespread attacks against the opposition, the foreign office said the honor could no longer be justified. Stripping a dignitary of an honorary knighthood is exceedingly rare. A foreign office spokesman could think of only one other time it had been done - in 1989 to the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.

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