Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Economist Paul Krugman applauds decision to hold referendum on bailout deal

Athens - Paul Krugman, the American liberal economist, has been consistently critical of the austerity program demanded by the Troika as a condition of releasing the final funds of the Greek bailout that expires on June 30.
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Krugman in his New York Times blog notes that until now every Greek government has given in to the demands of the Troika no matter what they had said during the election. Krugman refuses to use the term "institutions" to refer to the European Commission, European Central Bank(ECB) and the International Monetary Fund(IMF) or Troika. After the Greek government refused to meet with the Troika after being elected, they were rebranded as "institutions" presenting the radical Syriza government with at least a linguistic victory. Krugman's refusal to go along with this game is refreshing.
The continuous caving in to Troika demands has damaged the credibility of centre-left parties and no doubt is a factor in the success of Syriza, a more radical leftist umbrella group. Krugman suggests the Troika thought that the Syriza government would abandon most of its anti-austerity program or the government might fall. The Greek government did abandon most of its austerity program and almost all of its red lines. They have followed the usual pattern. However, the Troika has pressed for more and abandonment of any red lines. It is as if they needed to humiliate the party to show that a radical leftist party is helpless. They must be taught to respect their superiors.
The call for the referendum should have been a wakeup call for the Troika. It was not but an occasion for the usual moralistic blather about Tsipras being irresponsible. Krugman thinks that Tsipras did the right thing. Krugman has been arguing that the Troika has been doing the wrong things all along. In fact, he claimsthat if Grexit happens, it will be because the creditors, especially the IMF wanted it to happen. This may be correct but there are certainly risks for the eurozone and Troika if there is a Greek exit (Grexit) from the zone. If Greece defaults on debt payment the ECB and IMF will suffer huge loan losses. There is also the possibility of contagion. If over the longer term Greece recovers and grows, this would encourage resistance to austerity and the rule of the Troika in other countries. The Troika must hope that somehow they will persevere without yielding much if anything even at this late stage.
Krugman approves the referendum for two main reasons. First, a referendum will give the Greek government democratic legitimacy in any future negotiations. Most Greeks are still very much for staying in the zone it seems even if their anti-austerity demands are not meant. However, given the recent increased demands and the fact that Syriza, and no doubt other parties such as the Communists, will campaign for a rejection of the Troika proposals there is no guarantee it will pass. Even if it does pass and a deal is then negotiated it would not be a long term solution to the Greek problem but kicking the can down the road again until another bailout is needed. Meanwhile social discontent might rise to the boiling point. Krugman claims that democracy still matters in Europe. Of course it does not when it comes to the power of the Troika over individual countries. The referendum is the exception not the rule. Krugman's second reason for approving the referendum is that it will solve the dilemma that the governing party Syriza faces. Syriza faces citizens who voted for anti-austerity measures but are not willing to leave the euro zone. Syriza has achieved very little if anything in the way of relief from austerity policies and so it is now quite fitting that they should ask Greeks whether they want to bow to the Troika demands and accept their offer or to turn it down. This will provide Tsipras a mandate to cave as others have done or to develop a plan B for default and possible exit from the euro zone.
Many critics have argued that a plan B should have been planned long ago when it became obvious the Troika was giving little or nothing to satisfy demands for relief from austerity. The negotiations were filled with bluster, useless rhetoric, and false optimism that a deal was close. Having the referendum at this late date creates huge problems for Greeks that would not have been as severe were it held much earlier, say on the earlier proposals of the Troika. If held then there would not have been a huge payment coming due as that to the IMF the end of June, days before the referendum. The move to hold a referendum and the lack of a plan B show that Syriza is guilty of poor planning or perhaps no planning at all. Now Greeks face a bank holiday on Monday and capital controls. In the appended video from January of this year, Krugman was even then predicting a Greek default on its debt well before the election of Syriza.

UN envoy to Yemen trying to broker a peace deal with Houthi rebels

Aden - Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy to Yemen, will travel to Kuwait on June 27 and then travel to Ryadh Saudi Arabia for a week's stay. Finally, he will move on to Sanaa, Yemen for another week to try and reach a preliminary peace deal to end the conflict.
For three months, the Saudis have led an extensive bombing campaign and blockade designed to restore president-in-exile Mansour Hadi to power. Although at one time Hadi resigned he later rescinded his resignation when he fled to Aden. He tried to set up a government there but was driven out and fled to Ryadh, Saudi Arabia. He has the support of the Saudis, and the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC),as well as the U.S. Over the three months of bombing and land campaign by loyalists, more than 2,8000 people have been killed and huge numbers displaced. The campaign has created a humanitarian disaster. More than 80 percent of Yemenis or more than 21 million people are estimated by the UN to need humanitarian assistance. The Saudi blockade makes it difficult for aid agencies to deliver aid, especially to Houthi controlled areas. The chaos has helped Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula(AQAP) to extend its territory and consolidate its power often in alliance with local Sunni tribes. Added to the chaos the Islamic State has launched several attacks.
Although talks sponsored by the UN in Geneva broke up with no agreement a week ago, there was a general desire for a cease fire, hence Ahmed's travels to where he can work out issues with representatives of the two sides. UN spokesperson, Ahmad Fawzi, said of Ahmed:“He intends to spend more time in the two capitals [Riyadh and Sana’a] to discuss the draft principles paper which was developed here in Geneva — as he said, ‘until we reach a preliminary agreement."
There are already talks in Oman between the Houthis and opponents from the Southern Movement who are defending Aden and other parts of the south. Some units allied with the Houthis did withdraw from parts of Aden and journeyed north to provide reinforcements in the capital and other areas. This perhaps might have been part of an agreement. However, a storage tank in Aden was hit and set on fire by Houthi artillery fire, indicating that the battle is still ongoing in the port. The Saudis bombed numerous sites across Yemen on Friday. At least 10 people were killed in an air raid in Jawf a northern province bordering Saudi Arabia. The capital Sanaa was also bombed. Hadi's foreign minister said that his government had no interest in organizing a new meeting in Geneva. He simply wants to implement the UN resolution that demands the Houthis withdraw from all the areas that they have occupied and lay down their arms. Many other parties who support Hadi may hope for at least a ceasefire and then further negotiations.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Rival Libyan governments meet to discuss unity government UN draft plan

Talks to form a unity government in Libya resumed in Skhirat Morocco resumed on Friday June 26. The UN special envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon, provided the two rival governments with the 4th draft of a unity government plan prior to the meeting.
The meeting is taking place nearly three weeks after Leon had provided the two sides with the draft. The Tripoli government was positive from the beginning but suggested an amendment that would give some recognition to the Supreme Court decision back in November that ruled the elections for the rival House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk were unconstitutional and the Tobruk-based parliament should be dissolved. The internationally-recognized government in Tobruk has always rejected the ruling and the international community has paid no attention either. The UN said it was studying the matter after the decision. It has said nothing about it since. The Tripoli amendment will not be acceptable to the HoR representatives. I expect the amendment might be used as a negotiating tool to extract concessions from Tobruk. Samir Ghattas, spokesperson for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said that he hoped that this would be the final session of the unity talks. That same hope was expressed at the last meetings.
The Tobruk government at first simply rejected the fourth draft entirely. No doubt it was pressured by western powers to approve the draft and continue with the talks. The government at first was split upon whether it would continue with the talks but eventually agreed to attend after proposing amendments that would in effect take away any significant political power from the Tripoli government. There is no way the Tripoli government can accept the Tobruk amendments. More details of the amendments and their significance can be found in this article.The HoR would be the sole legislative body and the State Council would be reduced to an advisory role with no power to block legislation if the Tobruk amendments were accepted. The Tripoli representatives would have far less than a majority in the Council even at that. Nevertheless Leon said:"We are getting closer to a solution. Obviously, the fact that all the participants in the dialogue have accepted the fourth draft as a basis for a final solution is extremely encouraging."Amendments proposed by Tobruk cannot possibly be accepted by Tripoli since they would render the Tripoli government completely impotent. The Tripoli amendment can never be accepted by Tobruk either since Tobruk does not even recognize the legitimacy of the decision. The acceptance of both of the fourth draft as a basis for negotiation does nothing to solve a continuing conflict about the nature of the unity government.
Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations had a more realistic assessment:"It is as complicated as it has ever been, but now there is a solution that takes into account the complications. Local ceasefires cannot hold for long absent of a national agreement."It remains to be seen whether there actually is a solution. The ceasefires Toaldo refers to were negotiated between the Tripoli government and various militia in the west with which they have fought. The UN was not involved.
Leon realizes that any political solution is possible only if there is a parallel military solution. He intends to meet with the military forces of each side. However, he met with the Misrata militia without ever clearing the issue with the official military of the Tripoli government. This resulted in a complaint to the UN by the Tripoli government. Leon has yet to meet with the military of the Tobruk government. The head of that military, Khalifa Haftar, has said many times he would never agree to a ceasefire with the Tripoli militias. Leon cannot even go to Tobruk. Last time he went his plane could not land because of protesters. He is to meet representatives of the Libyan military in Cairo. Khalifa Haftar's name is not even mentioned even though he is the most important person in the armed forces of Tobruk. Haftar thinks that there is a military solution to the problem of a divided government and that is his Operation Dignity that began in May 2014 and continues to this day with the support of the Tobruk government. The UN manages to somehow ignore all these relevant facts. How do you negotiate a ceasefire with someone who refuses to negotiate with the other forces, that is Libya Dawn. He calls them terrorists to be defeated. Leon so far has reported only that he met with the Misrata militia as part of the parallel military meetings.

Ukraine may default on debt payment in July

Ukraine has found it necessary to obtain a further bailout from the IMF even though it had agreed to a $17 billion aid package last year, of which it has so far received $4.6 billion. It needed more in early 2015.
In February of this year, in spite of the fact that the Ukrainian economy was in a tailspin and the IMF may never get its money back, a new bailout program was extended:The International Monetary Fund has agreed to give Ukraine a new bailout deal worth 15.5 billion euro ($17.5 billion) that could climb to around $40 billion over four years with help from other lenders like Europe and the U.S.. ..Facing bankruptcy, Ukraine last month asked the IMF to replace its program with a new one to restore confidence in its finances and help it meet its debt obligations.
As of March 5, the Ukrainian economy was getting worse: Its central bank raised benchmark interest rates from 19.5% to 30% effective Wednesday. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost nearly 70% of its value against the dollar in just a year. GDP shrank by 7% in 2014. And while the war-torn country secured a $40 billion international bailout package in February, the chances of recovery any time soon are small.
Now Ukraine is facing a default as it will miss a $120 million bond coupon payment in July, setting off a default of approximately $19 billion in debt. There is no sign of a standoff between the government and creditors being resolved, according to Goldman Sachs. Ukraine is giving creditors just a few weeks to accept a proposal that includes a 40 percent write-down of the principal, or it will issue a debt moratorium. Imagine the international outrage and horror if the Greek government had set conditions such as that! The Greek government on the other hand has so far agreed to meet its debt obligations in full. Research analyst Andrew Matheny in a research note said:“Ukraine will not make the July 24 coupon payment and, as a result, will enter into default at that point. We do not expect the ad hoc committee to accept Ukraine’s latest restructuring proposal.”The committee, the Ukraine government, and the IMF officials will meet in Washington next week to decide whether the next slice of the $17 billion loan should be released to Ukraine. The IMF said earlier this month that it can keep supporting Ukraine even if it refuses to pay private holders of Ukrainian bonds.
Private bondholders have objected to a debt writedown. Franklin Templeton holds about $9 billion in Ukrainian debt. The company suggested extending bond maturity and reduction in coupon amounts as a means to saving about $16 billion for the Ukraine over four years. This is a variation on the type of scheme that Greek finance minister Varoufakis was suggesting as a means by which Greece could manage its debt. However, analyst Matheny of Goldman Sachs thought a debt writedown would be necessary.There are also proposals that bond repayment be linked to economic performance, a suggestion also made by the Greek government.
The Washington negotiations over the restructuring of Ukrainian debt are set to resume this next week. The IMF is demanding a lower Ukraine debt load before releasing more of the bailout money. This could mean "haircuts" for bondholders: Ukraine must restructure about $19 billion of debt held by international investors in order to secure another tranche of IMF funds. As a condition of the bailout, the IMF wants private debt restructured to save $15.3 billion over four years, and has urged Ukraine and its private creditors to find a compromise by June. As with Greek negotiations, the atmosphere is rather sour. A government minister claimed: “[The committee] has so far refused to contribute to Ukraine’s recovery. For three months, despite the urgency of our situation, they have refused to engage in substantive negotiations on the terms of a debt operation meeting the three targets established in the IMF program.” A spokesperson for the committee said this was an inaccurate description and that negotiations should start as soon as possible without preconditions and should emphasize solutions. The IMF will be urging the two sides towards finding a solution. As with Greece, the government may simply decide to walk away and default. However, if it does so, the west will surely find a way to save Ukraine.
Ukraine has not been spared the usual austerity conditions and reforms demanded for a bailout. Ukraine now has an American, Natalie Jaresko, as finance minister who was conveniently awarded citizenship on the day she was appointed to the job. She will help ensure the provisions of the bailout are met. Jaresko saysUkraine could default in July. There have already been violent demonstrations against austerity and economic conditions as shown on the appended video. The Ukrainian government could lose support very quickly if economic conditions do not improve.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Houthi rebels in talks with opponents in Oman

Ismail Ahmed, the UN special envoy for Yemen has warned that Yemen is on the verge of famine with 31 million now in need of assistance versus 7 million just two years ago.
The continued struggle between forces of the Houthi rebels, together with forces loyal to former president Saleh, and groups loyal to the government in exile of President Mansour Hadi has exacerbated the situation. Hadi and his government have all fled to Saudi Arabia. There are also places in Yemen where Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula(AQAP), allied with local Sunni groups, is also fighting the Shia Houthis. Ahmed blamed all the parties in the conflict for the drastic humanitarian situation for failing to agree to a ceasefire. On Wednesday, ground fighting together with Saudi-led airstrikes killed almost 100 people.
The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September last year after UN-sponsored talks between the Hadi government and opposition members failed to create a government approved by the Houthis. Hadi resigned as president. He was under virtual house arrest in Sanaa but was able to flee to Aden, where his attempt to set up a government there failed and he was driven out. In March, a Saudi-led coalition began a bombing campaign and blockade to restore the Hadi government to power. So far it has only resulted in more carnage, with the Houthis losing little ground. Conditions in the south have led to a severe outbreak of dengue fever, adding one more misery to the conditions faced by Yemenis. The World Health Organization says that there have been more than 3,000 suspected cases of the disease since March 20, but some non-governmental organizations put the number at twice that.
A rare piece of good news was that a ship from Oman carrying 1,000 tons of food and three large generators had been allowed to dock in Hodeida a port held by the Houthi rebels. There have been problems delivering aid. When an Iranian aid plane attempted to land in Sanaa some time ago, the Saudis bombed the runway, making it impossible for aid planes from any source to land.
Ahmed showed some optimism about the future, even after recent failed peace talks in Geneva. He said that "both sides showed signs of constructive engagement and there is an emerging common ground upon which we can build to achieve an eventual cease-fire coupled with withdrawal of combatants." There are talksongoing between Houthi rebels and the southern separatist movement, one of the main opponents of the rebels in the south and the port of Aden. The southern separatists for now claim loyalty to the Hadi government according to news reports. However, they want a separate southern state in Yemen, or at the very least more autonomy. They were opponents of Hadi and particularly of his plan to divide Yemen into six regions. They believe there should be two main regions. On this issue they agree with the Houthis who also rejected Hadi's plan. The separatists may very well seek a cease fire and ultimately a political deal with the Houthis but this might not help Hadi's cause at all.
Oman has played a constructive mediator role throughout this conflict. It is the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council not to join the Saudi-led military campaign. This has left Oman in a unique position of being able to mediate between the two sides. It has already had talks with the Americans that may have helped free an American held by the Houthis. It also was able to arrange for passage of a UN plane carrying the Houthi delegation to Geneva. The plane had been stuck in Djibouti for almost 24 hours. Oman shares a border with Yemen. No doubt it is anxious not to have conflict on its border.
Another diplomatic initiative is taking place through Moscow as a delegation from the party of ex-president Saleh ,an ally of the Houthis, has gone to Moscow where they will meet with Russian officials. The Russians may be able to influence Iran, and through Iran the Houthis, to agree to a ceasefire. The UN is in a difficult position since it has passed a resolution that the Houthis withdraw from all their positions and lay down their arms. They have also banned arms shipments to the Houthis and imposed sanctions on two important Houthi leaders as well as on ex-president Saleh and his son. They are hardly able to pose as neutral negotiators. At the recent peace talks the Hadi government insisted that the talks were only about how to implement the UN resolutions which are in effect a surrender demand. It is not surprising the talks failed. Yet, many of the major powers involved want at least a ceasefire and may even want a political solution. Iran supports the Houthis. However, even they and the Houthis themselves do not think that the Houthis can rule alone. The aim had always been to have the Houthis not as the government but as having the power to agree to whatever government opponents, and their allies should propose. This could still happen eventually. In the meanwhile a cease fire is also quite possible. The southern separatists could very well see eye to eye about what a future government should look like.
An Iranian official told Al-Monitor: “Oman right now is leading a new initiative for a solution in Yemen,They are trying to come out with a solution that can make all sides content. It’s difficult, but any other options might lead to worse scenarios. The Saudis are trapped in the mud in Yemen. They have been bombing for three months without any serious change on the ground, and they’ll strike for another nine months without any results, while today Ansar Allah is on the borders with a minimum strength. What if it decided to go to the next step?”
Ansar Allah is the name of the Houthi rebel movement. If the Saudis are willing to accept a more independent Yemen that is less under control of the Saudis a peace deal might be possible. Another scenario could be two separate states as was the case before the north and south united. Hadi may ultimately be sacrificed by the very powers that support him. He does not seem to have much support in Yemen. The Houthis understood this when during the Geneva peace talks they said they had no interest in talking to Hadi or his delegation, only to Saudi Arabia.

US paying Syrian rebel recruits up to $400 per month

The US is now paying the rebels it is training to fight Islamic State militants in Syria. Training of the first 90 fighters began in May.
Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the trainees would receive $250 to $400 per month. Training of the first group of about 90 fighters began last month. They will be paid stipends of $250 to $400 per month. The amount paid will depend on the skills, leadership, and performance displayed. Training is expected to take several months before they are sent to Syria. Smith did not say how many were being trained at present. She also said that there would be no announcement when the rebels enter Syria.
Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, said in May that the recruits would receive some compensation but did not give any amounts. Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesperson, said that up to 200 Syrian fighters were undergoing training and that a further 1,500 had been screened for training. Smith said that the Pentagon's target was to have 3,000 recruits trained by the end of this year and 5,400 for a 12 month period. The training is taking place in countries bordering Syria including Jordan. There are about 6,000 Syrians who volunteered to take part in the program with more than 4,000 waiting to be vetted.
Carter said that the Pentagon was having difficulty in finding good recruits as well in Iraq to train to fight the Islamic State there. While Iraqi and Kurdish forces have regained some ground with the Iraqi government retaking Tikrit, another city Ramadi has been taken by the Islamic State.
In Syria, there seems to be a division of financing with the US financing moderate rebels while Turkey and Saudi Arabia are funding radical Islamists including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. While the US claims to be troubled by funding of the militants against Assad, they themselves are considering extending the concept of moderate rebels, and now any group not associated with the Islamic State may become the new moderates as James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence suggested recently. While countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia appear to make defeating Assad a first priority, the US is concentrating on defeating the Islamic State first.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tripoli and Tobruk Libyan governments both object to EU plans to combat trafficking of migrants

The head of the internationally-recognized Libyan government's air force warned European countries that any ships entering the Tobruk government's territorial waters without permission will be targeted by air strikes.
The warning by Saqr Al-Jaroushi came as European Foreign Ministers agreed yesterday that they will launch a naval operation to combat people bringing thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe usually Italy or Malta. The European Union has yet to gain consent for operations within Libyan coastal waters from the internationally recognized government. Much of the coast is in areas in the west of Libya controlled by the Tripoli or GNC government. The EU does not have their permission either. Al-Jaroushi said: "Any vessel found in Libyan waters without previous cooperation or permission will be targeted by the air force." The Tripoli or National Salvation Government(SG), as it calls itself, also expressed concern about the plan. Given that the EU expressed concern about obtaining consent for the operation from the two governments, it is surprising that it would go ahead even on a limited basis.
The Salvation Government Ministry of the Interior issued a press release on the issue:The Ministry indicated that the EU’s operation could be of bad effects since there was no previous coordination with the SG and because of Libya’s status quo, pointing out that Libya will not shoulder responsibility for financial commitments to the operation or for the hazards facing the immigrants’ lives neither in the sea nor in shelter centers on Libya’s land.
The press release called for explaining the kind of measures that the operation will follow regarding the interception of the immigrants..There should be some effective measures that guarantee the eradication of this phenomenon taking into account that Libya is currently suffering from a number of crises, let alone that any operation must adhere to Libya’s sovereignty by asking for approval from the specialized authorities.” The Ministry concluded.
Unlike the Tobruk government, the Tripoli government did not threaten air attacks against any ship that entered their coastal waters.
The EU initiative will apparently be limited to intelligence-gathering by submarines, warships, drones, and helicopters since it wants UN support for wider operations and also permission from Libyan authorities. The wider plan is to disrupt the trafficking business, and to capture and destroy their ships, perhaps even in Libyan territorial waters.
The UN is attempting to have the two rival Libyan governments agree to a unity government and a ceasefire. There is no news emanating from the UN on what is happening. The UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, hoped to have an agreement by the beginning of Ramadan that started last Thursday. The Tripoli government complained that Leon had gone to Misrata to talk with militia commanders there without getting permission from the government. It appears that there may be a split within Libya Dawn with a new force being assigned to provide security to Tripoli and the surrounding area. It is quite foolish and unethical for Leon to apparently try to deal with the military without the permission of the government. The head of the Tobruk armed forces, Khalifa Haftar has said many times that he will never sign a cease fire with Tripoli militia or negotiate with them. There is no word of Leon talking to Haftar. In May 2014, Haftar launched Operation Dignity to defeat Islamist militias in Libya, including those defending the rival government. The operation continues to this day. It is supported by the Tobruk government.

Taliban mounting strong attacks in Afghanistan but Islamic State recruiting

The Afghan Taliban are able to mount serious attacks in Afghanistan. Most recently they carried out deadly attacks on the Afghan parliament and in the northern city of Kunduz.
As the appended video shows, the attack on parliament shattered windows and filled the parliamentary chamber with smoke disrupting the confirmation of the new defense minister Masoom Stanikzai.
The parliament is supposed to be the most secure building in the country. The Taliban want to show both the Kabul government and their competitors the Islamic State just how powerful they are. They also have captured areas in the northern province of Kunduz and attacked Kunduz city. The Taliban has warned the Islamic State to stay out of Afghanistan. .
The Kunduz Police Chief Gen. Nasrati said Char Darah was just one of many districts lost in the last few days. Although reinforcements had arrived Kabul was unable to stop the violence he said. General Wahid Taqat, a former member of Afghan intelligence said that the government had simply lost control of many areas and hasnt the power to strike back. Afghan military expert, Jawed Kohistani, said:"The lack of coordination within the military, the central government's failure in the provinces and the cooperation with terrorist networks are the main reasons for the current volatile security situation."He also criticized the government for trying to make deals with Pakistani intelligence. To add to this unstable situation the Islamic State appears to be actively recruiting in Afghanistan and attempting to gain a foothold in the country.
Some time ago, General John F. Campbell the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan said that IS was using a sophisticated social media campaign to attract Taliban fighters not only in Afghanistan but Pakistan as well. The group points to the lack of success so far of the Taliban to overthrow the Kabul government after many years of battle. They point to their own success in seizing huge swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
The situation has progressed to the point where there are even reports of some militants fighting each other in the east of Afghanistan. One report from two anonymous commanders of the Taliban claims that the group is splintering into three parts. One group remains loyal to the original Taliban such as those who attacked the parliament and Kunduz recently. There are also a group who want to make peace with the Kabul government and lay down their arms. A third group has joined the Islamic State and is aiming at upping the pace of fighting against Kabul. While these splits might seem to give the advantage to Kabul over a divided opposition, it seems to have made the situation worse as two of the groups compete with each other to see who can fight best against Kabul. There are other divisions with those opposed to Kabul including separate Taliban groups based in Pakistan.
A senior Afghan intelligence officer told reporters:"The cracks in the ranks of Taliban began late last year with the emergence of Daesh in the region. The first big defection [from Taliban] to Daesh was senior Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Khadin ... who was killed in a joint operation with U.S. forces a few months ago."Even back in January the group announced the creation of a council for Khorasan a historic name for territory that includes present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Kabul has stepped up the pace of peace talks with one group of Taliban, the talks seem doomed given that other groups not only refuse to join the process but step up their attacks and take over more territory.
American analysts say that Islamic State in Afghanistan is just starting to get organized in Afghanistan. However, there is one area in the north where their presence is already being felt. As in other countries such as Libya, Islamic State is introducing foreign fighters into local areas. In a northern area in Afghanistan, local villagers and officials say that the militants are much more brutal and vicious than the Taliban. The fighters come from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikstan. Mullah Abdul Rasheed said that a village elder was shot dead by militants while he was praying in a mosque and two of his cousins were killed in a gun battle with the militants. He said that he fled his village with others leaving everything behind. He said that the fighters had killed a person in a neighbouring village and dragged the body behind a motorcycle. In some villages they have already raised the black flag of Daesh (Islamic State) he said.

Tripoli government planes bomb Islamic State in Sirte

The Tripoli-based Libyan government has carried out air strikes on the city of Sirte, which is under Islamic State control. The strikes targeted a building where IS fighters had gathered, according to Tripoli officials.
Witnesses to the attack said the bombing was accurate and wounded militants had been taken to the hospital. Officials were not able to give specific details on casualties.The Islamic State has recently expanded its control in Sirte, taking the last suburb held by Tripoli forces and also taking control of the airport. The Tripoli forces need to retake territory on the ground, but so far there is no sign of that happening.
The Islamic State appears to have lost all or almost all of its first stronghold city, Derna, recently. Forces of the Shura Council of Derna Jihadists, were attacking Islamic State fighters in the last area in the east of the city where IS fighters still held positions. The fighting has lasted more than a week and there have been many Islamic State casualties. Apparently some IS fighters have fled into the nearby mountains. The Shura Council fighters are also radical Islamists, some associated with Al Qaeda. Their retaking of Derna will not mean that the internationally-recognized Tobruk government will be able to take control even though it is an area of their jurisdiction. The group opposes the Tobruk government and their military chief, Khalifa Haftar. The Council is allied with the Tripoli government.
Mohamed Abdulkafi, a ministry of defence spokesperson for the self-described National Salvation Government said: "Warplanes of the air force of the National Salvation government conducted air strikes last night on an internal security building in Sirte.The strikes targeted a gathering of militants of Islamic State. No figures of casualties from the strikes have been reported so far."A witness said that the building bombed was the former headquarters of former leader Gadaffi's security forces in Sirte. Tripoli officials claim that many Gadaffi loyalists have joined IS in order to expand their power in spite of the fact that Gadaffi fiercely opposed Islamic militants.
The UN has been attempting to have the two rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli agree to a unity government as a political solution to the crisis. The UN special envoy to Libya had hoped to have an agreement before Ramadan started. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Islamic State being driven out from last area of their former stronghold Derna

The Libyan news agency Lana reports dozens of Islamic State(IS) fighters were killed in battle with Shura Council of Derna Jihadists as they seek to drive IS from an eastern area of the city.
Earlier reports claimed the Islamic State had been driven out of the city and fled to nearby mountainous areas. However, an eastern area of Derna known as Fataeh was still apparently under control of the Islamic State and is only now being cleared of IS militants. Lana, a news agency associated with the Tripoli government, claims this is the last area of Derna under IS control. The battle for Derna has been going on for more than a week now.
Derna was the first city in Libya to come under IS control and the group has been a significant presence in the city since late last year. However, there were other militias as well in the city. Some Islamic State fighters are local, having been converted to IS from other radical groups such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia. This is the group thought responsible for the attack on the U.S. consul in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and several others. Other IS militants in the area are foreigners who are veterans of the Iraq, Syria, and even Yemen conflicts. The Shura council militants have a much longer connection to Derna going back to the days of the Gadaffi regime. The local militants were very active in the battle against Gadaffi forces.
While the Islamic State is being driven out of Derna, it has made advances in the city of Sirte, a second city over which it has gained control. It is ironic that IS is strong in Sirte since the city is known for containing many Gadaffi loyalists. It was one of the last major cities to fall to the rebels and Gadaffi was killed near the city. Gadaffi was known as an opponent of radical Islamists and was notorious for jailing and oppressing them. However, many in Sirte feel that the revolution and the Tripoli government has done nothing for them and hate that government. Officials of the Tripoli government claim that the Gadaffi loyalists have made an opportunistic strategic alliance with IS in order to gain more power in the city. The ousting of IS from Derna will not bring the city under control of the internationally-recognized Tobruk government. Although the city is in an area controlled by Tobruk the Shura Council of Derna is allied with the Tripoli government and will not allow the Tobruk government into the city.
Libya has been split into two rival governments for some time. The UN has been having negotiations to form a unity government since last fall. Bernardino Leon the UN special envoy to Libya had hoped that a deal would be made by the start of Ramadan. There is no news about what is happening and no deal is in sight. Even if there were the head of the Tobruk armed forces, Khalifa Haftar says that he will never negotiate with the Libya Dawn militia the main group associated with the Tripoli government. He hopes for a military solution through his Operation Dignity begun in May 2014.

Julian Assange has spent 3 years in Ecuadorean embassy in London

As of June 19, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks has spent three years now in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. He sought asylum in the embassy to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face questioning on sexual assault accusations.
Assange fears that once he is in Sweden he will be transferred to the U.S. to face charges for Wikileaks revelations. Wikileaks shares documents, often classified, that it obtains from whistle blowers, including a large number of U.S. diplomatic cables that contained information embarrassing to the U.S. and many of its allies. The appended video of a helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two Reuters' journalist is one of its many releases. Most recently the site has released numerous Saudi cables that the kingdom warns are fake and should not be distributed. While Wikileaks did not directly reveal its source, it makes reference to a recent report that the Saudis had suffered a breach of its computer networks by a group called Yemeni Cyber Army. Wikileaks published more than 60,000 cables and plans to release half a million more in the coming weeks. Wikileaks has also released material from whistle blowers on extrajudicial killings in Kenya, dumping of toxic wastes in the Ivory Coast, and Guantanamo Bay detention camp procedures.
In 2011, a European warrant for Assange's arrest was ordered even though the investigation of the assault accusations is still at the preliminary stage. Assange denies the accusations and says the goal of the whole process is to have him extradited to the U.S. when he arrives in Sweden. In March, Swedish director of public prosecutions, Marianne Ny, agreed to question Assange at the embassy. But the appointment for Wednesday was cancelled since the prosecutors did not have permission yet to enter the premises from Ecuador. Assange blamed the cancellation on the prosecutors and called it a "public relations exercise".
A UK government waste website claims that the round the clock surveillance of the Ecuadorian embassy over the three years has cost 11.4 million pounds or almost 16 million euros. These funds are sufficient to fund 9.5 million meals for those in need and a year's schooling for 20,000 children. However, even supporters of Assange question the figures since the salaries of the police would have been paid in any event.
Assange's room in the embassy has an office and living area. He has a treadmill for exercise since he cannot go outside. There is no outdoor area at the embassy. He has a microwave and sun lamp. He also has a shower. Most of his time is spent on the computer. Ecuador asked that the UK allow Assange to go outside for exercise without risking his asylum, but the UK government refused. At present there are no charges against Assange in the United States. Ecuador has said that Assange can remain at the embassy as long as he wishes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Third flotilla setting out to challenge Israeli blockade of Gaza

- At least 3 boats are preparing to set sail for Gaza in an attempt to penetrate the Israeli blockade of the territory. Activist Kalle Ohlsson said although there would be aid on board, the main objective was to open Gaza to trade and free movement.
Members of the Freedom Flotilla Coalition now in Palermo, Sicily, told Al Jazeera that final preparations were already under way and the boats hoped to reach Gaza by the end of this month. One ship, the Sweden-flagged Marianne, was moving between Sicilian ports. It has limited space but it is carrying some aid including medical equipment and solar panels. Details of the other boats and when they will set sail are being kept secret to avoid sabotage. Ohlsson said: "We're very concerned about safety. We have a strict non-violence policy. We're hoping Israel won't use violence against us." The three ships will all be flying Swedish flags. The Freedom Flotilla Coalition is based in Sweden and Norway.
The Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekman, who plans to sail on the Marianne, says:"I'm hoping that the Israelis actually understand that it would create a lot of more goodwill for them if they actually let the boats through, because there's no reason for them not to do that. It's counterproductive in the end. I think they've totally lost common sense here, because really it's not a threat to bring in medical equipment, to bring in medicine, to bring in solar panels."
The list of participants in the flotilla has been kept secret but it is known that a former Tunisian president is included, as well as athletes, academics, parliamentarians, journalists and a Catholic nun. One participant is Dro Feller, 63, a well-known musician and artist from Sweden. He was born in Israel and served in the Israeli armed forces, but emigrated to Sweden 40 years ago. His parents are anti-occupation activists. His mother still lives in Israel but Feller has been unable to visit her, as he is denied entrance to Israel. He cannot even go to get the court verdict explaining why he is banned. His saxophone was confiscated when he went on the first flotilla and he says they will not give it back. Feller said: “We must go because our politicians fail to do their job – they fail to put enough pressure on Israel to lift off the blockade on land and sea.”
The blockade was implemented in 2007 after Hamas took control of the strip. Palestinians may only enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing to Egypt, which is often closed, and the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings under the control of Israel. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report released last March: “These restrictions have reduced access to livelihoods, essential services and housing, disrupted family life, and undermined the people’s hopes for a secure and prosperous future.” A unity government agreed to by Hamas and the Fatah group of Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas is supposed to rule Gaza now, but Hamas appears still to be in control for the most part.

No cease-fire in Yemen for Ramadan

The Yemen peace talks in Geneva have broken down with foreign minister Riad Yassin of the government in exile telling Al Jazeera his delegation will leave negotiations and return to Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
Yassin blamed the Houthi rebel representatives for the collapse claiming that they would not meet with their delegation. That could be but the talks were to start with separate meetings of the UN with each group. The Houthis want to talk to Saudi Arabia since they consider the Saudis plus the Gulf Cooperation Council the real power behind the government in exile headed by President Mansour Hadi.
The basic problem from the start is that the Hadi delegation just wants to discuss implementing UN resolutions, and particularly one that demands the Houthis withdraw from the territories they have taken and lay down their arms. Yassin's remarks confirm this stance in that he complains that the Houthis have not complied with UN demands: "Until this time we have not achieved anything. Unfortunately, still the Houthis have not complied with anything." If the Houthis did withdraw and lay down their arms, then the Hadi government says there could be a permanent ceasefire and not a temporary truce as Ban Ki-moon sought during Ramadan. The Houthis would only agree to such a move only if there were an agreement on a government and political solution acceptable to them.The Hadi group says that a temporary truce would be used by Houthis to regroup and perhaps even capture more territory. Given this Hadi position it would seem pointless for the Houthis to meet with the Hadi delegation. What the Houthis wanted was to have agreement on a humanitarian cease fire as the UN and many western countries probably including the US want. The bombing has created a humanitarian disaster and many western allies of the Saudis would like to see a humanitarian pause in the battle at the very least. Even Yassin suggested that though the talks did not result in a ceasefire, discussions would be ongoing and the breakup did not mean the talks were a failure. During a temporary cease fire further talks could take place while Yemenis were spared even more havoc.
Ismail Ahmed, UN special envoy to Yemen said that a ceasefire should come before any new negotiations start. This seems quite sensible. He said he would redouble his efforts to achieve a ceasefire and hoped that an agreement could be reached soon. A UN spokesperson said that although no date had been set for a second round of talks, discussions could still be ongoing without any joint meetings as in Geneva. John Kirby a spokesperson for the US state department said that the talks were "a useful start to what will probably be a lengthy process." These remarks suggest that the talks were actually premature given the positions of the parties in the conflict. The same results could have been achieved by separate negotiations between the two parties. No doubt the UN hoped for a breakthrough before Ramadan.
Even as the talks took place, the Saudis continued bombing and clashes with the rebels also continued. The UN has called for $1.6 billion in aid to help alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. If there is no ceasefire it will be virtually impossible to deliver aid to many rebel-held areas.
At a news conference in Geneva, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O'Brien, warned of a "looming humanitarian catastrophe" in Yemen. It appears the catastrophe is already there. There is a sharp rise in hunger and disease, including an outbreak of dengue fever in the port city of Aden where there is a shortage of potable water. O'Brien said that millions of Yemenis "no longer have access to clean water, proper sanitation, or basic health care." Since March, the bombing and clashes have killed more than 2,500 people and displaced almost a million with many attempting to flee the country and even more internally displaced. The appended video is from Press TV an Iranian TV outlet.

Hezbollah claims to have killed 2 IS commanders near Lebanon Syria border

Al-Manar TV operated by Hezbollah reports that two Islamic State commanders together with at least seven other militants were killed on the outskirts of the northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal in two separate attacks.
The attacks took place on Friday June 19. One commander, Abu Aisha al-Libi along with six other militants were killed when Hezbollah forces targeted a militant meeting. The aim of the meeting was to plan an offensive on the outskirts of the city of Baalbek, the TV station claimed.
The same Hezbollah group destroyed two convoys of IS fighters in the same area. This second attack was said to have killed another IS commander, Abu Akrama al-Zouhouri, as well as another IS fighter. Last week Hezbollah lost eight fighters in repelling an attack on the Lebanon border. The Islamic State is said to have lost around 50 militants in that battle.
Hezbollah is a Shi'a Islamist militant group with its own militia and political party in Lebanon. It is supported by Iran. It has many seats in the Lebanese government and together with its allies has a virtual veto power over legislation. It has its own radio and TV station. Since 2012 Hezbollah has helped the Assad government against rebels in the civil war. Hezbollah has historically been regarded as a strong resistance movement against Israel, but its involvement in the Syrian civil war has been criticized by many in Lebanon, especially Sunnis since Assad's government is dominated by a Shi'a sect.
Al Manar reported that last Tuesday, the "emir" of the Qalamoun region, Abu-Baghdadi was killed in shelling also on the outskirts of Arsal. Hezbollah together with the Syrian army also took fresh territory near the government-held town of Jarajeer killing and wounding many militants. Hezbollah together with the Syrian army have been fighting both the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front for more than a month, slowly driving them out of many areas. The Assad regime with Hezbollah now controls about two thirds of the area. A source claimed to be close to Hezbollah says that at least 39 Hezbollah fighters, and 244 militants have been killed since the offensive was launched last May 4. Rebel militants are now confined to part of the northern Qalamoun hills on the eastern outskirts of the towns of Arsal and Ras Baalbek. Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah chief, vowed he would drive the Islamic State from the area.

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner investigating Twitter over data privacy concern.

Irish privacy regulators are launching an investigation into precisely how much data Twitter collects from t.co, its URL-shortening system....