Archive for March 31, 2015


March 29, 2015

MOSCOW (AP) — Uzbekistan’s election commission said 91 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Sunday’s presidential election, where victory by longtime authoritarian leader Islam Karimov is a foregone conclusion.

The 77-year-old Karimov has led the former Soviet republic in Central Asia since the late 1980s and ruthlessly quashed all opposition to his rule. While Uzbekistan is untroubled by any immediate signs of unrest, the future of the country of 30 million people is colored with uncertainty amid a troubled security situation in neighboring Afghanistan and the lack of a clear succession plan should Karimov suddenly leave office.

Economic woes could also be in store as a knock-on effect of the looming recession in Russia, where around 3 million Uzbeks live and work. Russian news agencies, citing the Uzbek Central Election Commission, said turnout was 91 percent. Results will be released Monday.

Karimov faced three purely nominal rivals. In the previous election in 2007, he won 91 percent of the vote. A Russian parliament member who served as an election observer, Ilyas Umakhanov, said the citizens of Uzbekistan were voting for “further guarantees of stability and the social-economic development of the country,” the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has pursued a policy of economic self-reliance and sought to balance its diplomatic relations with the West and Russia, playing them against each other. The United States installed a military base in the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was forced to abandon that facility in 2005 as relations between the countries soured following a violent government crackdown on rioters in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan that is believed to have left hundreds dead.

Almost all Western media have been barred from reporting inside the country since that time. Independent journalists and activists face sustained harassment.

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Mar. 30, 2015

It’s the only television channel that broadcasts in the Crimean Tatar language, and soon it might be off the air forever. ATR, which broadcasts from Simferopol, could be shut down by the Russian authorities controlling the Crimean Peninsula. Its temporary license expires on April 1, and there is no sign that Russia’s broadcast regulator will renew it. The Crimean Tatar channel is one of the last independent voices on the peninsula following Russia’s annexation last year.

Ibraim Umerov, a spokesman for Crimean Tatars in Kyiv, worked for several years for Crimean media outlets, including ATR. He stopped by the Ukraine Today newsroom to explain why the channel is so important for the Crimean Tatar community and for the right to independent media.

Ibraim Umerov, Spokesman for Kyiv Crimean Tatar community: “ATR is not an oppositional channel…”

Umerov said the Russian authorities who seized the peninsula have cracked down of freedom of speech. Umerov said ATR is more than a news channel. It’s an important part of Crimean Tatar culture, showing documentaries and Crimean Tatar films as well as other specialty programs.

ATR has applied for a broadcast license under Russian law, but authorities have rejected their attempts citing murky administrative rules. Umerov and ATR journalists see it another way.

The Crimean Tatars, who make up about 10 percent of the peninsula’s population, have faced harassment under Russian occupation. Properties have been seized and activists have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former Soviet dissident and longtime leader of the Crimean Tatar community, was banned from re-entering Crimea after travelling to mainland Ukraine last year. Human rights groups, including Freedom House, have called the situation alarming.

Source: Ukraine Today.

Link: http://uatoday.tv/geopolitics/crimean-tatar-channel-faces-shutdown-by-russian-authorities-418577.html.

March 29, 2015

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Boko Haram extremists killed 41 people, including a legislator, and scared hundreds of people from polling stations in the northeast, but millions voted across Nigeria Saturday in the most closely contested presidential race in the nation’s history.

In electoral violence elsewhere, three people including a soldier were shot and killed in political thuggery in southern Rivers state, and two car bombs exploded at polling stations in the southeast but no one was injured, according to police.

All the Boko Haram attacks took place in northeastern Nigeria, where the military Friday announced it had cleared the Islamic extremists from all major centers, including the headquarters of their so-called Islamic caliphate.

Nearly 60 million people have cards to vote, and for the first time there is a possibility that a challenger can defeat a sitting president in the high-stakes contest to govern Africa’s richest and most populous nation.

The front-runners among 14 candidates are President Goodluck Jonathan, a 57-year-old Christian from the south, and former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, 72, from the predominantly Muslim north. Voters also are electing 360 legislators to the House of Assembly, where the opposition currently has a slight edge over Jonathan’s party. Voting for 13 constituencies was postponed until April because of shortages of ballot papers, electoral officials said.

Nigeria’s political landscape was transformed two years ago when the main opposition parties formed a coalition and for the first time united behind one candidate, Buhari. Dozens of legislators defected from Jonathan’s party.

Polling will continue Sunday in some areas where new machines largely failed to read voters’ biometric cards, said Kayode Idowu, spokesman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. That includes some areas of Lagos, a megacity of 20 million and Nigeria’s commercial capital on the Atlantic coast.

Even the president was affected. Three newly imported card readers failed to recognize the fingerprints of Jonathan and his wife. Biometric cards and readers are being used for the first time to discourage the kind of fraud that has marred previous votes.

Afterward, Jonathan wiped sweat from his brow and urged people to be patient as he had been, telling Channels TV: “I appeal to all Nigerians to be patient no matter the pains it takes as long as if, as a nation, we can conduct free and fair elections that the whole world will accept.”

Nigerians exercised extraordinary restraint, waiting hours in heat that rose to 100 degrees (37 degrees Celsius) in some places. Many remained for more hours after voting ended to witness the ballot count, determined to do their part to try to keep the elections honest.

“The high voter turnout and the dedication and patience of Nigerian voters is, in itself, a triumph of Nigerian democracy,” said the national counter-insurgency spokesman, Mike Omeri. He praised the bravery and commitment of military and security agencies that he said made the elections possible.

Struggling with blackouts that are routine, some officials counted ballots by the light of vehicles and cellphones. Earlier, before dawn, Boko Haram extremists invaded the town of Miringa in Borno state, torching people’s homes and then shooting them as they tried to escape the smoke. Twenty-five people died in the attack, Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima told a news conference in the city of Maiduguri.

“They had sent messages earlier warning us not to encourage democracy by participating in today’s election,” said Mallam Garba Buratai, a Miringa resident who witnessed the attack. Nigeria’s home-grown Islamic extremists say democracy is a corrupt Western concept and point to the endemic corruption as a reason to do away with it in favor of an Islamic caliphate.

Another 14 people were killed in extremist attacks on the town of Biri and Dukku, in Gombe state, according to police and local chief Garkuwan Dukku. Among the dead was a Gombe state legislator, Umaru Ali, said Sani Dugge, the local campaign director for the opposition coalition.

Two voters were killed in Boko Haram attacks on polling stations in the twin Gombe towns of Birin Bolawa and Birin Fulani, according to police. Witnesses said the gunmen yelled that they had warned people to stay away from polling.

In four other northeast towns in Yobe state, gunmen drove in and fired into the air, frightening people to flee into the bush and disrupting any voting, police said. Thousands of people, among more than 1.5 million forced from their homes by the Islamic uprising, lined up to vote at a refugee camp in Yola, capital of northeast Adamawa state and home to as many refugees as its 300,000 residents.

Refugee Elzubairu Ali does not know when she will be able to return to her home. “We have to wait for the time when the Nigerian army will totally wipe them (Boko Haram) out before we can go back,” she said after voting.

Yola resident and university lecturer Abdullahi Sani said, “I’m longing for a change, a positive change to affect the life of humanity, to protect their reputation, their lives and property . and to eradicate corruption finally.”

The failure of Jonathan’s administration to curb the insurgency, which killed about 10,000 people last year, has angered Nigerians in the north. International outrage has grown over another failure — the inability to rescue 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram nearly a year ago. The extremists have abducted hundreds more people since then, using them as sex slaves and fighters.

Nervous foreign investors are watching as Nigeria is Africa’s largest destination for direct foreign investment though its oil-dependent economy is hurting from slashed petroleum prices. The Islamic uprising has exacerbated relations between Christians like Jonathan, who dominate the oil-rich south, and Muslims like Buhari, who are the majority in the agricultural and cattle-herding lands of the north. The population of 170 million is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.

Some 1,000 people were killed in rioting after Buhari lost to Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Thousands of Nigerians and foreign workers have left the country amid fears of post-election violence. In 2011, there was no doubt that Jonathan had swept the polls by millions of votes.

Now the race is much closer. Results are expected 48 hours after voting ends. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held.

Umar reported from Maiduguri. Associated Press writers Jerome Delay in Kaduna, Shehu Saulawa in Bauchi, Adamu Adamu in Potiskum, Lekan Oyekanmi in Yola, Hilary Uguru in Port Harcourt, and Ben Curtis in Daura, also contributed to this report.

March 30, 2015

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — A two-day Arab summit ended Sunday with a vow to defeat Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen and the formal unveiling of plans to form a joint Arab intervention force, setting the stage for a potentially dangerous clash between U.S.-allied Arab states and Tehran over influence in the region.

Arab leaders taking turns to address the gathering spoke repeatedly of the threat posed to the region’s Arab identity by what they called moves by “foreign” or “outside parties” to stoke sectarian, ethnic or religious rivalries in Arab states — all thinly-veiled references to Iran, which has in recent years consolidated its hold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and now Yemen.

The summit’s final communique made similarly vague references, but the Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, was unequivocal during a news conference later, singling out Iran for what he said was its intervention “in many nations.”

A summit resolution said the newly unveiled joint Arab defense force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a national security threat and that it would also be used to combat terrorist groups.

The agreement came as U.S. and other Western diplomats were pushing to meet a Tuesday deadline to reach a deal with Iran that would restrict its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf fear that a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran will free Iran’s hands to bolster its influence in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority. They believe the air campaign in Yemen and a joint Arab force would empower them to stand up to what they see as Iran’s bullying. The United States has sought to offer reassurances that a nuclear deal does not mean that Washington will abandon them, but they remain skeptical.

The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds last year and captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September. Embattled Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally against a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate, first fled to the southern city of Aden before fleeing the country last week as the rebels closed in.

Speaking at the summit on Saturday, Hadi accused Iran of being behind the Houthi offensive, raising the specter of a regional conflict. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel movement, though both acknowledge the Islamic Republic is providing humanitarian and other aid.

On Sunday, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, said the Lebanese Hezbollah militia was also supporting the Houthis. The Saudi-led campaign, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” is to protect Yemen’s “legitimate government from a group that is allied and supported by Iran and Hezbollah.”

A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen on Thursday, saying it was targeting the Houthis and their allies, which include forces loyal to Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni military officials have said the campaign could pave the way for a possible ground invasion, a development that Egyptian military officials say would likely commence after the airstrikes significantly diminish the military capabilities of the Houthis and their allies.

Yemen’s foreign minister, Riad Yassin, said the air campaign, code-named Operation Decisive Storm, had prevented the rebels from using the weaponry they seized to attack Yemeni cities or to target neighboring Saudi Arabia with missiles. It also stopped Iran’s supply line to the rebels, he told a news conference Sunday.

Military experts will decide when and if a ground operation is needed, Yassin said. “This is a comprehensive operation and (any ground offensive) will depend on the calculations of the military,” he said.

Iran has condemned the airstrikes against its Yemeni allies but so far has not responded with military action, though diplomatic and military officials said Iranian retaliation could not be ruled out.

“Iran for the first time in a very long time is basically seeing a counterattack. The Iranians were not expecting that Gulf monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, would be so bold as to confront this head on,” one Gulf official said.

The Saudi-led airstrikes “tore to pieces their game plan with regard to the Houthis, and they are not going to accept that,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

At the summit’s closing session, Elaraby said the Saudi-led air campaign would continue until all Houthi militias “withdraw and surrender their weapons,” and a strong unified Yemen returns. “Yemen was on the brink of the abyss, requiring effective Arab and international moves after all means of reaching a peaceful resolution had been exhausted to end the Houthi coup and restore legitimacy,” Elaraby said, reading from the final communique.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said the leaders from 22 nations also agreed to create a joint Arab military force whose structure and operational mechanism will be worked out by a high-level panel under the supervision of Arab chiefs of staff.

Elaraby said the chiefs of staff would meet within a month and would have an additional three months to work out the details before presenting their proposal to a meeting of the Arab League’s Joint Defense Council. Preparations for the force will be under the auspices of Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco — the former, present and next chairs of the Arab League.

“It is an important resolution given all the unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world,” Elaraby said. “There is a political will to create this force and not to leave its creation without a firm time frame,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told a news conference.

The Egyptian military and security officials have said the proposed force would consist of up to 40,000 elite troops backed by jet fighters, warships and light armor and would be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

However, it is unlikely that all 22 member nations of the often-fractious Arab League will join the proposed force. Creation of such a force has been a longtime goal that has eluded Arab nations in the 65 years since they signed a rarely used joint defense agreement.

Iraq, whose Shiite government is closely allied with non-Arab and Shiite Iran, has said more time is needed to discuss the proposed force. Now in its fourth day, the Saudi-led air campaign has pushed Houthi rebels out of contested air bases, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri told reporters. Airstrikes hit Houthi targets throughout Sunday, including air defenses, ammunition depots, and heavy weapons and vehicles the rebels had taken from government forces.

“The coalition operations in the coming days will increase pressure on the Houthi militias by targeting them. Whether it’s individual or group movement, there will no longer be any safe place in Yemen for the Houthi militias,” he told a news conference in Riyadh.

On Saturday, he said the strikes had targeted Scud missiles in Yemen, leaving most of their launching pads “devastated,” though he warned that the rebels could have more missiles. Meanwhile, Pakistan dispatched a plane Sunday to the Yemeni city of Hodeida, to try to evacuate some 500 citizens gathered there, said Shujaat Azim, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister. Azim told state-run Pakistan Television more flights would follow as those controlling Yemen’s airports allowed them. Pakistan says some 3,000 of its citizens live in Yemen.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also tweeted Sunday: “We are doing everything to evacuate our people from Yemen at the earliest by all routes — land, sea and air.”

Associated Press writers Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.