Monthly Archives: May 2010

B.C. Activist Among Those on Flotilla Seized by Israeli Commandos

Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza on Monday and at least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed, triggering a diplomatic crisis and an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. European nations, as well as the United Nations and Turkey, voiced shock and outrage at the bloody end to the international campaigners’ bid to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Boarding from dinghies and rappelling from helicopters, naval commandos stopped six ships, 700 people and 10,000 tons of supplies from reaching the Islamist-run Palestinian enclave – but bloody miscalculation left Israel isolated and condemned.

Even after the vessels were escorted into Israel’s Ashdod port, accounts of the pre-dawn operation some 120 km (75 miles) out in the Mediterranean were sketchy and limited to those from the Israeli side. Activists were held incommunicado, though Israeli officials said most would be free to go in due course.

Military night-vision video shoed commandos being winched down, only to be surrounded. Some Israeli commentators asked why commanders put troops into a position where they were cornered. An Israeli minister admitted plans to maintain the blockade on Hamas while avoiding an international incident had backfired in spectacular fashion. “It’s going to be a big scandal, no doubt about it,” Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said. (Reuters) One marine told reporters his squad went in with anti-riot paintball guns but, fearing for their lives, resorted to using normal pistols or leapt overboard. “We were prepared to face human rights activists and we found people who came for war,” the marine told reporters. (Reuters) In military footage, a commando fired a paintball at a man who seemed to be clubbing an Israeli. Other video showed a commando fire a pistol, two-handed.

After the clash at sea, Israel closed one of the main border crossings into Gaza and turned back roughly 60 trucks of goods destined for the strip.

Israeli military officials said nine activists died on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish cruise ship carrying nearly 600 people. Most of the dead were Turks, one senior Israeli officer said. Military officials said some activists had snatched pistols from the boarding party, which responded to gunfire. Seven troops and 20 protesters were injured, the military said. Some officials had earlier put the death toll at 10 or even higher.

Once-close Muslim ally Turkey accused it of “terrorism” in international waters. The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session. The European Union, a key aid donor to Palestinians, demanded an independent inquiry and an end to the Gaza embargo.

The bloodshed sparked street protests and government ire in Turkey, long Israel’s lone Muslim ally in the region. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist views and outreach to Iran and other Israeli enemies are blamed by many in Israel for souring relations, said before cutting a short trip to Chile: “This action, totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism.” (Reuters) Murat Mercan, the head of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s foreign affairs commission, said on television, “Israel launched this operation in international waters and to a ship flagged white, which is unacceptable under any clause of the international law.” He added, “We are going to see in the following days whether Israel has done it as a display of decisiveness or to commit political suicide.” (New York Times)

Thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, chanting anti-Israeli slogans and repeating Islamic verses while government officials called for calm and urged demonstrators to avoid retaliation against Israeli nationals. Protesters met in front of the Israeli Consulate earlier and marched toward the square carrying a banner that read, “Zionist Embassy should close down,” and chanting slogans including “Damn Israel” and “Long live global intifada.” (New York Times)

Israel told tourists in Turkey to stay indoors and dismissed any accusations that it had broken international law by boarding foreign ships far beyond its territorial waters. Israeli forces were on high alert but aside from scattered scuffles, there was little trouble with Palestinian borders.

Demonstrations in European cities included Stockholm, Rome and Athens, where police used tear gas against protesters who threw stones and bottles near Israel’s embassy to Greece. Riot police used tear gas to drive back hundreds of protesters demonstrating outside the Israeli Embassy in Paris. The Arab League condemned what it called a “terrorist act.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it “inhuman.” (Reuters) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “What Israel has committed on board the Freedom Flotilla was a massacre.” (Reuters) In Tehran, dozens of angry students pelted the U.N. offices with stones and eggs in protest, burning Israeli flags and chanting, “death to Israel” and “down with U.S.” Police blocked them from reaching the building. In Baghdad, an estimated 3,000 Shiite followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr shouted Death, death to Israel!” and “Death, death to America!” (Associated Press) The African Union issued a statement to “strongly condemn” the raid and said it “complicates the existing situation and the effort to bring just, lasting and comprehensive peace to the area.” (Associated Press) Abdel-Rahman al-Attiya, the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional group, said “Israel is a renegade entity that violates international law” and said the attack should be considered “a war crime.” (Associated Press) In Saudi Arabia, which has promoted a wider Arab-Israeli peace proposal calling for a land-for-peace swap, the Cabinet headed by King Abdullah called on the international community to hold Israel responsible for its “barbaric” polices. (Associated Press) In Beirut, about 500 Palestinians and Lebanese activists protested in front of the U.N. headquarters, setting Israeli flags on fire. In neighbouring Syria, more than 200 Syrian and Palestinian protesters staged a sit-in before the offices of the United Nations. Greta Berlin, a leader of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement, speaking by telephone from Cyprus, rejected the military’s version that the activists attacked the soldiers. “That is a lie,” she said, adding that it was inconceivable that the civilian passengers on board would have been “waiting up to fire on the Israeli military, with all its might. We never thought there would be any violence.” (New York Times)

Hundreds of protesters gathered near Downing Street in London, England to condemn the violence, and later moved on to the Israeli embassy in Kensington. Activists blocked Whitehall shouting “Free Palestine” and carrying flags and banners with slogans including “Stop Israel’s War Crimes in Gaza” and “End the Criminal Siege of Gaza.” (BBC) The BBC’s Louise Hubball said around 1,500 people were gathered at the embassy and that there had been “angry” scenes. She said the protesters – who included families with small children and some Jewish demonstrators – were calling for the Israeli ambassador to be ejected from the UK and for the British ambassador in Tel Aviv to be recalled. Kate Hudson, chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), told the gathering it was “devastating and deplorable that the Israeli forces have attacked civilians.” (BBC) Other protests took place in Manchester and Bristol.

Closer to home, friends of a British Columbia man say he was aboard one of the six vessels stormed. Victoria environmentalist Zoe Blunt says her friend, Kevin Neish, was on one of the vessels. Blunt said she has been keeping in touch with Neish, 53, a Victoria resident, and last heard from him on Thursday. “These were all peace activists. I don’t believe that they were armed,” she said. “I certainly don’t believe that they would be provoking commandos with automatic weapons. What they were doing was, they were trained in non-violence. Kevin’s job specifically was to defend the journalists on the ship.” (CBC) Mr. Neish joined the convoy as a human shield. Friends said he drew on his experience as a rugby player, blocking the hallway and taking a beating by soldiers so as to buy journalists on board his ship time to file stories in the event of being boarded. “His role would be to stand in narrow hallways and passively block the hallway if the soldiers were to come on the ship,” Blunt explained. (The Globe & Mail) He has previously undertaken similar missions in hostile environments such as Columbia and Cuba, one friend says. Blunt said organizers believe Neish’s boat is safe. “I have just spoken to the organizer for Free Gaza in Washington D.C.,” she told CBC News on Monday morning. “He’s telling me that the Challenger 2 has been brought in to port in … Israel and we don’t have any access to the people on the ship but he believes there were no casualties on board the ship Kevin is on.” (CBC) Blunt said organizers say no one will be able to talk with Neish until at least Tuesday. She believes Neish was the only Canadian among the 600 people aboard the flotilla. “It’s what Kevin does, it’s what he believes in,” friend Anne Hansen said from Victoria Monday. “Basically, being an international citizen accompanying people in war-torn places, it gives protection to people who are under threat.” (The Globe & Mail)

More worryingly for Israel, its friends showed little sympathy. The outrage sounded at times more uniformly hostile to the Jewish state than during its offensive in Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians in December 2008 and January 2009. Israel said it launched that war to curb Hamas rocket fire on its towns. But it has found it harder to win understanding for an embargo limiting supplies to 1.5 million people in Gaza, including cement the U.N. says it needs to repair bomb damage.

The Cairo-based Arab League called an emergency session for Tuesday to address the attack, as the two only Arab states with peace deals with Israel – Jordan and Egypt – sharply condemned the violence. The incident also put Egypt into a tight position. The only Arab country bordering the Gaza Strip, it has helped enforce the blockade by cracking down on smuggling tunnels that are a key source of goods to Gaza’s 1.5 million people and by rejecting pressure that it open its border crossing.

A group founded by Nelson Mandela that includes Nobel Peace Price winner Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter said “the treatment of people of Gaza is one of the world’s greatest human rights violations and that the blockade is not only illegal, it is counterproductive.” (Associated Press)

Israel’s most powerful friend, the United States, was more cautious. But President Barack Obama said he wanted the full facts soon and regretted the loss of life. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced regrets as he cut short a visit to Canada and rang Obama to call off a White House meeting that had been planned for Tuesday. He said his forces had been attacked: “They were mobbed, they were clubbed, they were beaten, stabbed, there was even a report of gunfire. And our soldiers had to defend themselves.” (Reuters) Israel insisted Monday that its soldiers were defending themselves when they fatally shot the activists aboard the ship. Israel’s assertion was denied by one of the groups that sponsored the boat. The competing claims could not be independently verified. “They deliberately attacked soldiers,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters at a photo op in Ottawa, Canada, with his Canadian counterpart. “What we want to prevent coming into Gaza are rockets, missiles, explosives and war material that could be used to attack our civilians,” he said. “This is an ongoing policy, and it was the one that guided our action” against the six ships that made up the flotilla. (CNN) People board five of the six ships agreed to let Israeli soldiers search through their goods for possible weapons, Netanyahu said. For all his regret, he vowed to maintain a three-year-old embargo to stop Iranian-backed Hamas from bringing arms to Gaza.

“It should be emphasized that both the State of Israel and the IDF made repeated calls to the flotilla, telling them that all goods and humanitarian aid could be transferred according to the secure and approved methods in place today, as is done on a near daily basis,” the Israel Defence Forces said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, this was not the case. IDF naval forces were met with premeditated violence, evident by the activists’ use of clubs, metal rods, and knives, as well as the firing of two weapons stolen from the soldiers, causing for defensive action on behalf of the forces who felt their lives were endangered.” (CNN)

IDF spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibowitz said light weapons and handguns were confiscated. “We basically encountered a lynch,” she said. “We had to control this violence.” (CNN) The IDF released a video shot from above that it said showed soldiers being attacked, though the distance from which it was shot precluded immediate confirmation.

In the United States, questions were asked about how an operation that aimed to avoid bloodshed had gone so badly and publicly wrong. The White House meeting had seemed intended to soothe ties with Obama, which have been strained by differences over Jewish settlement construction that delayed the recent revival of peace talks with the Palestinians. But Obama must also balance support for Israel, which is popular with American voters, with understanding for an angry Turkey and other Muslim U.S. allies.

A senior U.N. official responsible for the aid on which Gaza depends said: “Such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza.” (Reuters) U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the European Union have called for an inquiry to establish what happened.


Maoist Rebels Responsible for Deadly India Train Blast

Rescuers scoured the wreckage of a passenger express train Friday that derailed and collided with a cargo train in eastern India, killing at least 100 people and at least 145 were injured, many critically. The government accused Maoist rebels of sabotaging the tracks.

As night fell, railway workers and paramilitary soldiers were using two cranes to lift and pry apart train cars in search of survivors from the Jnaneswari Express, which was heading from Calcutta to suburban Mumbai when it derailed about 1:30 a.m. Friday. A railway spokesman said 78 bodies had been recovered, but that more than 30 remained trapped in the three carriages that were crushed by the freight train. Railway officials said they expected the death toll to rise because bodies were still trapped between the engines of the two trains, which collided along a rural stretch of track near the small town of Sardiha, about 90 miles (150 kilometres) west of Calcutta in West Bengal state. Railway spokesman Soumitra Majumdar said five coaches of the passenger train, the Gyaneshwar Express, had been derailed due to missing “fish plates” – which join the rails together. (BBC) These coaches then fell on the neighbouring track where they were rammed by the goods train, he said. There were 13 carriages – including 10 sleeper coaches and a coach with unreserved seating – on the passenger train, the Times of India reported.

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement that “it appears to be a case of sabotage where a portion of the railway track was removed. Whether explosives were used is not yet clear.” (CNN)

In Sardiha, officials said the train tracks had been sabotaged but disagreed about what exactly happened, with some saying it was caused by an explosion but others blaming cut rail lines. Bhupinder Singh, the top police official in West Bengal, said posters from the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, a group local officials believe is closely tied to the Maoists, had been found at the scene taking responsibility for the attack. Signh said a 46 cm (1.5 ft) portion of the train track was missing.

At first, a spokesman for the group, Asit Mahato, denied any role, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. Another spokesman for the rebels called the BBC to deny any involvement. He said the government “put the blame on us and put us on the defensive.” (BBC) As time progressed, however, the Maoists did claim responsibility for the attack. (Reuters)

Survivors described a night of screaming and chaos after the derailment, and said it took rescuers more than three hours to reach the scene, where the blue passenger train and red cargo train were knotted together in mangled metal.

Sher Ali, a 25-year-old Mumbai factory worker, was traveling with his wife, two children and his brother’s family when they were jerked awake by a loud thud. A moment later, their car was tossed from the track, he said. “My sister-in-law was crushed when the coach overturned. We saw her dying, but we couldn’t do anything to help her,” said Ali, who had cuts on his head and arms. (Associated Press) The rest of the family survived, though a 10-year-old nephew was badly injured and hospitalized. Ali was unable to go to the hospital, though, because all his money was in his luggage inside the wreckage and he was afraid it would be stolen unless he kept watch.

The area is a stronghold of India’s Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, who had called for a four-day general strike in the area starting Friday. The Nexalites have launched repeated and often-audacious attacks in recent months – despite government claims that it was launching its own crackdown.

Railway Minister Marnata Banerjee said the Saridha area had been the scene of earlier Naxalite attacks, and that trains were under orders to travel slowly through the region – in part so drivers can keep watch for sabotaged tracks or bombs, and in part os the effects of a crash are lessened if a train does derail. Banerjee noted the train network had become a “soft target” for attackers. (CBC)

Maoist rebels have in recent months stepped up attacks in response to a government security push to flush them out of their jungle bases. Just 11 days ago, the rebels ambushed a bus in central India, killing 31 police officers and civilians. A few weeks before that, 76 soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush – the deadliest attack by the rebels against government forces in the 43-year insurgency. There have also been dozens of smaller attacks. In February, more than 900 people, including almost 600 civilians, were killed in Maoist-related incidents in 2009. About 200 suspected rebels were also slain as forces moved into areas under insurgent control.

“I am confident that the state governments concerned will gradually gain the upper hand and re-establish the authority of the civil administration,” Chidambaram told an internal security conference on February 7. (CNN) Last fall, Mr. Chidambaram rolled out a multi-state police and parliamentary campaign known as Operation Green Hunt, which was intended to reverse the spread of Maoists and restore government services. Maoists have been in India for decades but have spread extensively in recent years, claiming large tracts of isolated terrain where they operate shadow courts and governments, and draw members from local villages. The strategy behind the operation was for police and parliamentary officers to push the Maoists out of their newer territories and confine them into their historic strongholds, such as the Dantewada region in the state of Chhattisgarh. But doing this has stirred a violent, if predictable, response from the Maoists, who stage brazen attacks on security officers almost every week. “Whoever said that in six months the problems would be solved?” said Mr. Chidambaram, in an interview in his office this week. “The problem has been festering for 10 years or more. There will be setbacks and casualties, but we must have the nerve and the staying power.” (New York Times)

On Friday, the government vowed once again to crush the Naxalites. “The Maoists have done this work,” West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters in Calcutta. “All-out efforts will be made to free the state and the country from this danger.” (Associated Press) But analysts say the government is hobbled by vacillating policies, poorly trained and ill-armed security forces and vast tracts of India where the government has little influence and where poverty has brought considerable support to the Naxalites, who claim to be fighting on behalf of the rural poor.

The rebels, who have tapped into the poor’s anger at being left out of the country’s economic gains, are now present in 20 of the country’s 28 states and have an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, according to the Home Ministry. The rebels had called for observance of a “black week” of protests from Friday to Wednesday in five states – including West Bengal – where they wield considerable influence.

“There is an absence of government, there is an absence of competence in government, there is an absence of coherence in response,” said Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based analyst with close ties to India’s security establishment. “The purpose of the Maoists is not to resolve grievances but to harvest them, and there are numerous grievances in the country to harvest.” (Associated Press)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the insurgency as India’s biggest internal security challenge. Mr. Singh conceded last year that the nation’s fight with the Maoists had fallen short of objectives.

The setbacks have focused attention on issues of competence and whether the government is failing to adequately execute what amounts to a sweeping counterinsurgency effort. “The country has witnessed a huge increase in the extent of the Maoist insurgency,” the opposition leader Arun Jaitley said in a statement this week, criticizing the government for losing the willingness to fight. “It is essential to contain violence and anarchy.” (New York Times)

One fundamental question has been about coordination. Under India’s Constitution, individual states are given priority on law enforcement, which means federal parliamentary operations are expected to play a supporting role. But the quality of policing varies from state to state, which Maoists have exploited. West Bengal, the site of Friday’s train attack, is considered to have one of the least effective police forces in the country. “Wherever state policing is weak, Maoists are strong,” said Kunwar Pal Singh Gill, the former police chief who crushed a rebellion in the state of Punjab in the early 1990s. “They find the weakness and strike in those places.” (New York Times)

Analysts note that casualties are inevitable as police slowly penetrate regions controlled for years by Maoists and that it is no surprise the movement thrives in states with weak, inefficient governments. Political calculations also play a role, given that the “political economy” differs in every state.

In Jharkhand, rich in mining wealth and plagued by deeply corrupt politics, Maoists are thought to extort huge sums as protection money. In West Bengal, the Maoists are exploiting a power struggle between the two leftist political parties. Even so, Mr. Gill believes the Home Ministry is making too many decisions and that state police leaders, who better understand the local terrain, should take the lead. He said far more officers were needed and that strategic changes were needed on the ground. He noted that Maoists are frequently using roadside bombs, which has forced police patrols to abandon vehicles and walk through isolated forests – an ineffective response.

Mr. Chidambaram said that state agencies are taking the lead role in the campaign and that several areas have seen successes, particularly in a part of Maharashtra State where officers have driven out Maoists and reopened government schools and police stations. He said it is critical to restore services and create conditions for development in order to win the hearts and minds of the impoverished rural populations often sympathetic with the Maoists. He said the cabinet would soon review the past six months and determine whether strategic changes should be made. Some officials have called for using the Indian air force to do surveillance, but military leaders are reluctant to get involved in a fight against people in their own country. “We said the problem has grown over the last 10 years,” Mr. Chidambaram said. “From Day 1, I said it would take us two to three years to contain the spread of Naxalism.” (New York Times)

North Korea Severs All Ties with Rival South Korea, Threatens War

North Korea announced Tuesday that it is severing all relations with South Korea as tensions soared on the Korean Peninsula. The announcement was a tit-for-tat response to Seoul’s imposition of sanctions on the North for sinking one of its warships.

North Korea said it will cut all communications with South Korea and would not resume any contact during the tenure of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Lee announced tough trade measures against Pyongyang on Monday, including a ban on all imports and exports with the North and the closure of the South Korean waters to ships from the North.

Last week, his government released the findings of an international investigation that blamed North Korea for firing a torpedo that sank Seoul’s warship March 26, killing 46 sailors. The North flatly denies involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, one of the South’s worst military disasters since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, and has warned that retaliation would mean war. It has threatened to destroy any propaganda facilities installed at the heavily militarized border. North Korea said that it puts “all the responsibility” for the sinking of the Cheonan on the Seoul government.

A team of international investigators, however, concluded last week that a torpedo from the North Korean submarine tore apart the Cheonan. North Korea is already subject to various UN-backed sanctions following earlier nuclear and missile tests, and the steps announced by Seoul were seen as among the strongest it could take short of military action.

North Korea said Tuesday that it would forbid South Korean ships and aircraft from passing through its sea and airspace. It also said that South Korean government officials would be expelled from the Kaesong industrial park, a North-South venture near the border between the two Koreas that has been a major source of hard-currency earnings for the impoverished government of Kim Jong Il. It was not immediately clear from the announcement, which was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, what would happen to the South Korean companies, which employ about 40,000 North Koreans in the industrial park.

“The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea… formally declares that from now on it will put into force the resolute measures to totally freeze the inter-Korean relations, totally abrogate the agreement on non-aggression between the north and the south and completely halt the inter-Korean cooperation,” the North’s KCNA news agency reported. (Reuters)

As part of the freeze, the statement said North Korea would close a 39-year-old Red Cross liaison office at the Panmunjom border village and begin “a full-force counter-attack against the puppet regime’s psychological warfare against North Korea.” (Washington Post)

Earlier, the Seoul-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said Tuesday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il ordered its 1.2 million-member military to get ready for combat. The group, citing unidentified sources in North Korea, said the order was read by Gen. O Kuk Ryol, a Kim, confidant, and broadcast on speakers installed in each house and at major public sites throughout the country last Thursday, hours after the multinational report blaming North Korea for the sinking was issued in Seoul. The South Korean military said they had no indication of unusual activity by North Korea’s military. On Tuesday, the presidential Blue House said officials were reviewing whether South Korea should resume calling North Korea its “main enemy” in formal defence documents for the first time in six years. In downtown Seoul, about 30 conservative activists burned North Korean flags and ripped up photos of Kim Jong Il.

Also on Tuesday, North Korea state media cited the power National Defence Commission as saying the North’s soldiers and reservists were bracing to launch a “sacred war” against South Korea. North Korea often issues fiery rhetoric and regularly vows to wage war against South Korea and the U.S. It put its army on high alert following a November sea battle with South Korea near where the Cheonan went down in March. The Koreas also fought bloody maritime skirmishes in the disputed area in 1999 and 2002.

South Korea announced Monday that it would resume psychological warfare broadcasts to the North, including radio broadcasts, the use of loudspeakers along the border and the installation of large electronic billboards that flash messages across the border such as “Come to the South.”

The U.S. has thrown its full support behind South Korea’s moves and they are planning two major military exercises off the Korean peninsula, where the Cheonan sank, in a display of force intended to deter future aggression by North Korea, the White House said. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea.

South Korea also wants to bring North Korea before the UN Security Council over the sinking. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he expects the council to take action against North Korea, but China – North Korea’s main ally and a veto-wielding council member – has so far done little but urge calm on all sides.

In Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she had “very productive and very detailed” discussions with Chinese officials but could not say if any progress has been made in convincing the Chinese to back U.N. action. “No one is more concerned about peace and stability in this region as the Chinese,” she told reporters. “We know this is a shared responsibility, and in the days ahead we will work with the international community and our Chinese colleagues to fashion an effective, appropriate response.” (The Globe & Mail) Clinton said both sides should examine the issue over time, suggesting quick Security Council action was unlikely. “(China) shares with us the goal of a denuclearised Korean Peninsula and a period of careful consideration in order to determine the best way forward in dealing with North Korea.” (Reuters)

China, the North’s only major ally and which effectively bankrolls its economy, has studiously tried to keep out of the fray, urging calm and refusing to voice support for the international report on the Cheonan sinking. It means that South Korea has almost no chance of winning further U.N. sanctions against its neighbour.

Chinese State Counselor Dai Bingguo, speaking at a news conference with Ms. Clinton, called for “relevant parties” to “calmly and properly handle the issue and avoid escalation of tension.” (The G & M)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talked with Mr. Lee on Tuesday and said he “understands well” about South Korea’s moves and will try to give an “appropriate signal” to North Korea over the sinking, according to Mr. Lee’s office. (The G & M) Russia, which like China and the United States holds a veto in the Security Council, urged restraint.

The issue is certain to dominate talks in Seoul on Wednesday with Clinton, who was arriving after talks in Beijing. Most analysts doubt either side would risk a war, which would be suicidal for the North and economy-ruining for the South. Seoul’s key economic and financial authorities will meet early on Wednesday to discuss ways to stabilize local financial markets. Some in the market saw the selling – which took stocks on the main index to their lowest close in 15 weeks – as overdone and triggered mostly by foreign selling. “North Korea and related risks have always ben there. It is like telling investors to quit the Japanese market because it has earthquakes. War is wanted neither by the North nor the South,” one fund manager at a foreign investment management house said. (Reuters)

Both sides have stepped up their rhetoric over the Cheonan incident. The North accused South Korea’s government of fabricating the issue, partly to help the ruling in next week’s local elections – important to cement President Lee’s power in the second half of his single five-year term. The incident appears to have done nothing to dent Lee’s popularity, which one recent opinion poll shows running at well over 40 percent, unusually high for recent South Korean presidents halfway through their term. A strong showing for Lee’s party in the June 2 local election, which many expect, will give him greater authority to push aside a fragmented opposition in parliament and continue with sweeping pro-business reforms. His rule has also seen relations with the North turn increasingly chilly as he turned his back on a decade of generous aid to the North by his predecessors, which had failed to end its attempts to build nuclear weapons.

“In the past 10 years, we have failed to establish the concept of principal enemy,” Mr. Lee told a meeting of senior advisors for his government on Tuesday, referring to the Sunshine Policy of cultivating reconciliation with the North by his two liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. “We have ignored the very danger under our feet.” (New York Times)

Some worry pushing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il too far may leave him little choice but to fight back to try to save his family’s more than 60-year hold over the destitute country as he tries to secure the succession for his youngest son.

Analysts say the main risk is that small skirmishes along the heavily armed border could turn into boarder conflict.

State of Emergency as Unrest Increases in Jamaica

Two police officers have been killed and six others wounded in unrest in Jamaica’s capital Kingston, police said. They had been responding to a call for help from a female motorist on Sunday night when they were shot.

Police said two of their colleagues were targeted by a gunmen as as they responded to a call at 2330 from a female motorist who said she had been shot at in eastern Kingston. All were taken to hospital, where two later died and four remain in a stable condition. There were unconfirmed reports that a civilian had also been killed.

Tensions remained high on Monday, with both heavily-armed police and armed supporters patrolling the area. The BBC’s Matthew Price says the streets are currently very quiet, but burnt out cars can be seen – and sounds of gunfire can be heard intermittently. Although much of the city and the country is still safe, in those pockets where it is not there is a big fear of unrest spreading, he adds.

A state of emergency has been declared in parts of Kingston. Two police stations were evacuated after being hit with Molotov cocktails, while the status of a third was unclear. Gang members blocked off a miles-long area of Jamaica’s capital city – mostly in West Kingston – using vehicles, sandbags, barbed wire and anything else they could find.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding has denounced the unrest as a “calculated assault on the authority of the state that cannot be tolerated.” He said security forces would be “moving swiftly to bring the current situation under control… Criminal elements bent on violence and mayhem will be detained,” he said in a televised address. (BBC) Mr. Golding also said that “we must confront this criminal element with determination and unqualified resolve.” (Reuters)

The unrest has centered on the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston – represented by Mr. Golding in parliament – and St. Andrew districts. Supporters of alleged local drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke have taken to the streets in protest at attempts to extradite him to the U.S. Mr. Coke, 41, says he is a community leader. Mr. Coke’s supporters see him as a man who is fulfilling a role that the government does not, such as giving them money to support their children. Because of that he has a huge amount of support in the area.

But the U.S. Justice Department says Mr. Coke is one of the world’s most dangerous drug barons. He is accused of leading a gang called the Shower Posse – owing to the volume of bullets used in shootings – and operating an international smuggling network.

“At Coke’s direction and under his protection, members of his criminal organization sell marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere, and send the narcotics proceeds back to Coke and his co-conspirators,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency said in a release accompanying the charges. “Coke and his co-conspirators also arm their organization with illegally trafficked firearms,” the DEA added. (CNN)

Coke is on the Justice Department’s list of Consolidated Priority Organization Targets, which the department says “includes the world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins.” (CNN) He faces a life sentence if convicted on charges filed against him in New York. The gang has also been blamed for numerous murders in Jamaica and the U.S.

The trouble started last week when Prime Minister Golding said that he was prepared to send Mr. Coke to the U.S. on drugs and weapons trafficking charges. The decision reversed nine months of opposition to his extradition. Mr. Golding has argued that the evidence against Mr. Coke was obtained illegally by intercepting mobile telephone calls. But he changed his mind in the face of growing public discontent, and questions about his possible ties to Mr. Coke. On Friday, Mr. Golding said citizens should “allow the courts to deal with the extradition matter,” the state-run Jamaica Information Service said.

The State Department issued a travel alert for Jamaica on Friday, saying that the “possibility exists for violence and/or civil unrest in the greater Kingston metropolitan area. If the situation ignites, there is a possibility of severe disruptions of movement within Kingston, including blocking of access roads to the Norman Manley International Airport.” (CNN)

In Mr. Golding’s nationwide address Sunday, he said the state of emergency would remain in effect for a month and would demonstrate that Jamaica is “a land of peace, order and security” where gang-related violence will not be tolerated. “This will be a turning point for us as a nation to confront the powers of evil that has penalized the society and earned us the unenviable label as one of the murder capitals of the world,” Golding said. (Reuters)

5 Masterpieces Stolen From Museum in Paris (Estimated Value = More than $100 Million)

A thief stole five paintings valued at more than $100 million, including major works by Picasso and Matisse, in an overnight heist Thursday at a Paris modern art museum with a broken alarm system, officials said. The paintings disappeared early Thursday from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower in one of the French capital’s most chic and tourist-frequented neighbourhoods.

The museum’s alarm system had been broken since March 30 in some rooms, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement. The security system operator ordered spare parts to fix it but had not yet received the equipment from the supplier, the statement said.

The museum reopened in 2006 after spending eruo15 million and three years upgrading its security system.

Christophe Girard, deputy culture secretary at Paris City Hall, said a single masked intruder was caught on a video surveillance camera climbing through a window during the night. Investigators are trying to determine whether the intruder was operating alone, Girard told reporters, who suggested the heist was carried out by a very “sophisticated” team or individual. (The Associated Press) “This is a serious crime to the heritage of humanity,” he added at a news conference. (BBC) Girard said security systems at the museum had been disabled. “There are three people in the museum at all times,” he said, but they saw nothing, which he said was evidence of tampering with the security systems. “We must absolutely leave the police to find out how the security system was disabled and now these important paintings were stolen,” he said on BFM TV, a CNN affiliate.

The hooded intruder, dressed in black, entered by cutting a padlock on the gate and breaking a museum window, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. He then used bolt cutters to remove a grid.

The prosecutor’s office initially estimated the five paintings total worth at as much as euro500 million ($613 million) but later downgraded that to euro90 million ($112 million). Girard said the total value was “just under $100 million euros.” (The AP) He said “Le pigeon aux petits-pois” (The Pigeon with the Peas”) an ochre and brown Cubist oil painting by Pablo Picasso, was worth an estimated eruo23million, and “La Pastorale” (“Pastoral”), an oil painting of nudes on a hillside by Henri Matisse about euro15 million. The other paintings stolen were “L’oliver pres de l’Estaque” (Olive Tree near Estaque”) by Georges Braque, “La femme a l’eventail” (“Woman with a Fan”) by Amedeo Modigliani, and “Nature morte aux chandeliers” (“Still Life with Chandeliers”) by Fernand Leger.

Alice Farren-Bradley of the Art Loss Registry in London said the Paris theft “appears to be one of the biggest” art heists ever, considering the estimated value, the prominence of the artists and the high profile of the museum. She added, however, that the value of the paintings would have to be confirmed, as museums and art dealers often value paintings differently. She said it will be “virtually impossible” to sell such prominent paintings on the open market and that typically stolen art fetches lower prices on the black market. “Very often they can be used as collateral to broker other deals” including drugs or weapons, she said. “They are not necessarily going to be bought by some great lover of the arts.” (The AP) While thefts are often carefully planned, that’s not always the case for the next step – selling the stolen paintings – which is why they are often recovered, she said.

Interpol is alerting its national bureaus around the world to the theft. “This is a big theft, that is very clear,” Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigation, told The Associated Press. “These works are of inestimable value.” He expressed doubt that one person could have pulled off the theft alone, even if only one person was caught on camera.

The museum, which is owned by the city, was announced to remain closed while the investigation continues. Red-and-white tape surrounded the museum, and paper signs on the museum doors said it was closed for technical reasons. On a cordoned-off balcony behind the museum, police in blue gloves and face masks examined the broken window and empty frames. The paintings appeared to have been carefully removed from the disassembled frames, not sliced out. Police officers carried out the original frames left behind by the burglar to search for fingerprints, passing them through the broken shards of the museum window.

A security guard at the museum said the paintings were discovered missing by a night watchman just before 7 a.m. (1 a.m. Thursday EDT). The guard was not authorized to be publicly named because of museum policy.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said in a statement that he was “saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable attack on Paris’ universal cultural heritage.” (The AP)

Investigators think that international crime gangs use art works effectively as a form of currency. For criminals dealing in drugs or weapons, a rolled up painting is a way of carrying very large amounts of “currency”, even if it is one tenth of the value at auction, the BBC’s arts correspondent adds.

The director of the neighbouring modern art museum Paris de Tokyo, Pierre Comete de Saint-Cyr, called the thief or thieves “fools.” “You cannot do anything with these paintings. All countries in the world are aware, and no collector is stupid enough to buy a painting that, one, he can’t show to other collectors, and two, risks sending him to prison,” he said on LCI television. “In general, you find these paintings,” he said. “These five paintings are un-sellable, so thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles, now return them.” (The AP)

Ideally, the Paris police will be able to apprehend the thief or thieves quickly and secure the return of the artwork. However, the museum will likely be getting a ransom demand in the next few days, according to Chris Marinello, executive director and general counsel of Art Loss Register, an international organization that maintains a vast database detailing stolen art worldwide.

“A theft of this magnitude had to be done by a very sophisticated group,” he told CBC News Thursday morning. “They managed to disable a major French museum’s security system and leave with five major works of art… There are gangs out there that specialize in this sort of thing.” Once the thieves realize the open market is out of question, “they’re going to go deep down into the black market where art of this calibre is often traded for weapons [or] is used in international terrorism. It obtains a sort of 10 to 20 per cent value of its true value in the black market,” Marinello said. Some type of intermediary will likely demand money from the museum or from its insurance company, he said, adding that the Art Loss Registry discourages paying ransoms because it encourages more theft and shows “that crime does pay.” Time is also of the essence in the investigation and recovery effort, Marinello said. “If we don’t recover these in the next several months, you’re going to find that it may take years before they resurface.” (CBC)

Flemming Friborg, manager of Copenhagen’s Glyptotek museum – known for its Impressionist paintings, among others – called the theft of the high-caliber paintings “like the death of a family member.” (The AP)

There has not been anything comparable since the 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston of a Vermeer, several Rembrandts, Degas and other masterpieces. None of these works has yet been recovered.

Update: Gulf Oil Now in Powerful Loop Current, Headed for the Florida Keys

The first oil from the Gulf of Mexico spill has entered an ocean current that could take it to Florida and up the east coast of the US, scientists say. The European Space Agency said satellite images suggested oil could reach the coral reefs of the Florida Keys within six days.

“We have visible proof that at least oil from the surface… has reached the current,” said Dr. Bertrand Chapron. (BBC)

Yonggang Liu, a researcher at University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, told AP on Wednesday that if the oil is in the loop current, Cuba’s north coast – some 480 miles (755 kilometres southeast of the blown Deepwater Horizon platform – could also be endangered. “The Florida Strait is very narrow,” said Liu. “The local wind effect could bring the oil across the strait to Cuba.” (The Associated Press)

Other USF marine researchers think there’s also a possibility that the oil could flow directly to Cuba’s northern shore before flowing back up to the Florida Keys. The island’s cash-strapped economy relies heavily on tourists, and most come for a chance to bask in the sun at the white-sand beach resorts like Varadero along the northern coast. A loss of any of that income could be devastating, as Cuba is already reeling from the damage done by three 2008 hurricanes, as well as the effects of the global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station have said they could see the oil spill while passing over the Gulf of Mexico. “It looks very scary,” Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov told reporters via a video link. (BBC)

Leaks in a riser pipe coming out of the top of the seabed well have spewed an estimated 800,000 litres of crude daily into surrounding waters daily since April 22, two days after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana. BP said Tuesday that it had spent $625 million US on response efforts to date, including grants to boost tourism in Gulf states such as Florida.

The spill has already dumped oil debris ashore, especially in Louisiana but also on the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama, threatening fisheries and wildlife refugees. The Obama administration is grappling with a widening environmental and economic disaster for which it holds BP responsible. Wildlife and environmental groups accused BP of holding back information on the real size and impact of the growing slick, and urged President Barack Obama to order a more direct federal government role in the spill response. To the relief of Florida officials, the Coast Guard said laboratory tests had shown that 50 tar balls found this week on the Lower Keys – a mecca for divers, snorkelers, fishermen and beach goers – were not from the Gulf spill.

Local tourism authorities said damage had already been inflicted by the negative publicity linked to the spill. “Even if we don’t get a gumball-sized tar ball down here in the next month, there has already been significant perception damage to Florida Keys and Florida tourism,” said Andy Newman of the Monroe Tourism Development Council. “We understand we are not out of the woods yet, that there’s more oil out there,” he said. (Reuters) Newman said tar balls were not uncommon in the Florida Keys, as 8,000 commercial vessels pass through the Florida Straits each year and some, defying anti-pollution rules, wash fuel oil from their tanks, which then forms into balls. But he hoped the news there was no link to the oil spill would be good for this month’s Memorial Day weekend.

U.S. and Cuban officials are holding “working level” talks on how to respond to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill that is believed to be dumping some 5,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, two State Department officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The talks add to signs of concern that strong currents could carry the slick far from the site of the spill, possibly threatening the Florida Keys and the pristine white beaches along Cuba’s northern coast. They are also a rare moment of cooperation between two countries locked in conflict for more than half a century.

“I can confirm that they are ongoing and going on at the working level,” State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington. “It is incumbent upon us to inform all of our neighbours, not just the islands, but those countries that could be affected by disasters that happen within our territorial waters.” (The Associated Press) Duguid said that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana also delivered a diplomatic note Wednesday informing the Cuban government about the spill and what is known about its projected movement. Washington maintains the Interest Section in Cuba instead of an embassy. “We provided background related to the cause of the spill, stressed that stopping the oil leak is our top priority and explained the projected movement of the spill,” Duguid said. “We also communicated the U.S. desire to maintain a clear line of communication with the Cuban government on developments.” (The Associated Press)

It was not clear if the U.S. has offered assistance to Havana in the event the oil hits Cuban beaches, or if officials here would accept. In 2005, then-President Fidel Castro offered the U.S. medical assistance after Hurricane Katrina, including sending Cuban doctors to treat storm victims. The State Department declined the offer.

In Washington, far from the oil spill, BP and Transocean officials once again defended their company practices at a U.S. congressional committee examining the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP America CEO Lamar McKay and Steven Newman, the CEO of Transocean Ltd., appeared side by side Wednesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Similar hearings last week before different committees resulted in what President Barack Obama called a “ridiculous spectacle” in which the executives appeared to be “falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else.” (CBC) This time, the executives whose companies are being investigated for the devastating spill showed slightly more contrition. “There is a deep and steadfast resolve to do all we humanly can to stop this leak, contain the spill and minimize the damage,” McKay said. (CBC) “Ours is an industry that must put safety first,” Newman added. (CBC)

Instead, the finger pointing Wednesday was done primarily by Rep. John Mica, a Republican of Florida, who sought to pin blame for the disaster on Obama’s administration. Outlining what he called the “Obama oil spill timeline,” Mica said the administration failed to heed warnings about the need for more regulation. He said it also issued “basically a carte blanche recipe for disaster” in approving drilling by the Deepwater Horizon, leased from Transocean by oil giant BP PLC, and several dozen other wells. “I’m not going to point fingers at the BP, the private industry, when it’s the government’s responsibility to set the standards,” he said. (CBC)

In prepared testimony for a congressional committee, National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger said BP had failed to disclose results from its test of chemical dispersants used on the spill. He also said it had tried to withhold video showing the true magnitude of the leak. “The federal government should immediately take over all environmental monitoring, testing, and public safety protection from BP,” he said. “The Gulf of Mexico is a crime scene and the perpetrator cannot be left in charge of assessing the damage.” (Reuters)

The Washington-based Center for American Progress published comments by its health experts Lesley Russell and Ellen-Marie Whelan saying the huge spill, and the dispersants being used against it, posed “insidious and unknown” human risks. Noting the federal government had allowed BP to test the undersea use of dispersants, they added, “But are we letting the fox guard the hen house by letting the oil companies determine the safety of these cleaning agents?” (Reuters)

There was no immediate comment from Cuban authorities on the oil spill talks.

Also Wednesday, the Bahamian government said it would seek to recover costs from BP PLC – the oil giant that owns a majority interest in the blown well that caused the disaster – if the crude oil spreads to Bahamian waters and a clean-up operation is required. “Any money that is spent in a possible clean-up the government would be looking to be reimbursed, and the entire exercise being paid for by BP,” said Commander Patrick McNeil, head of the Bahama’s National Oil Spill Contingency team. (The Associated Press)

Relations between the United States and Cuba are at a low, despite optimism that President Barack Obama would usher in a new spirit of cooperation. Still, the two countries have pushed to improve cooperation in dealing with natural disasters and fighting drug trafficking, and have resumed twice-yearly conversations on immigration. Coast Guard officials from the two countries maintain regular contact on a variety of maritime issues.

Cuban state media has reported daily on the oil spill – and Fidel Castro decried the ecological disaster in an opinion piece as evidence the world’s capitalist governments are in thrall to large corporations. But authorities have been remarkably quiet about what effect the spill might have on the islands. Orlando Rey, an Environment Ministry scientist, said on May 5 that the spill did not appear to be a threat to Cuba, despite early reports the oil might get caught in the loop. But there has been no update since then, despite the growing alarm coming from U.S. scientific circles. The government has not responded to a request from The Associated Press for more information, and officials at several Cuban maritime and meteorological institutes have said they have no further information.

Oakville Soldier Killed with 18 Others in Suicide Attack in Kabul

A powerful car bomb exploded early Tuesday within a few feet of a passing military convoy on the western edge of Kabul, killing at least a dozen Afghan civilians and six foreign troops, including five Americans and one Canadian, U.S. military and Afghan officials said. The radical Islamist Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the blast, which it said was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a vehicle packed with 1,650 pounds of explosives.

The blast overturned a heavy military truck and gouged an enormous crater in a street near the ruined Darulaman Palace, once home to Afghanistan’s royal family, witnesses said. Five vehicles in the convoy were heavily damaged, along with more than a dozen civilian cars and a public bus. The bombing occurred during preparations for a “peace jigra” organized by the Karzai government to try and reconcile the country’s warring factions and pave the way for an eventual withdrawal of international troops.

The site of the explosion, a traffic circle on a main road, became a scene of devastating carnage, with body parts scattered everywhere and victims missing limbs or parts of their heads, victims said. The bombing site was also near the parliament building and a training center for Afghan troops.Ali Ahmed Ibrakhimkhel, a 40-year-old shopkeeper, joined others in collecting pieces of flesh and putting them into plastic bags. “It was a really terrible day,” he said. (Washington Post) Witnesses told local television reporters that the bomb was inside a minivan that drove up to the U.S.-led military convoy as it traveled along the road.

Baryalai Sherzai, who owns a bodybuilding gym in Kabul, said he was driving directly behind the suicide bomber when he and his mother, who was in the passenger seat, heard a huge explosion. Everything went dark, he said, the windows of the car shattered, and his mother cut her head. “I don’t know if my mother is dead or alive,” Sherzai, 27, said outside a hospital where she had been taken for treatment. (Washington Post)

“I saw one person laying on the ground with no head,” said Mirza Mohammad, who was on his way to work when the blast happened up the road. (The Globe & Mail)

“The blast knocked me down, although I wasn’t very near the explosion but I saw a van exploded and there was blood and bodies everywhere,” said a teenager named Mustafa, whose head was wrapped in a blood-stained bandage. (Reuters)

Another survivor, government worker Noor Mohammad, was waiting for the bus when the bomber detonated his vehicle. “A van driving very fast approached the convoy of foreigners and a huge blast went off… I didn’t know I was hurt, the explosion deafened my ears and I had a blackout,” Mohammad, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs, said from his hospital bed. (Reuters)

It was the first major bombing in the Afghan capital since February, and one of the deadliest in recent memory for troops of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) The Afghan Interior Military reported that at least 12 Afghan civilians were killed and 47 wounded in the bombing, which occurred around 8 a.m. when people were on their way to work. Many of the dead civilians had been waiting at a nearby bus stop on the busy Kabul road that runs past the former palace and government ministries.

A Canadian Forces colonel was the latest casualty of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, and the highest-ranking soldier to give his life for the mission since it began in 2002. Military officials at Kandahar City said Col. Geoff Parker, 42, a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment who was born and raised in Oakville, Ont., was one of the victims of the bombing. Col. Parker was commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, RCR, based at CFB Gagetown. Col. Parker was in Kabul to interact with international organizations there in an effort to prepare his team for their upcoming mission, Col. Simon Hetherington, deputy commander of Task Force Kandahar, told a news conference. Col. Parker was well known, highly respected and considered a good friend by countless army officers across Canada. “He was a career infantry officer – a proud member of the Royal Canadian Regiment – who excelled in virtually every position he held in the Army,” Col. Hetherington said. “As a battalion commander, he led his soldiers from the front and with distinction. The post he was preparing to fill was important and of such high profile, he was hand picked from across the Army to do so. A rising star, his potential was undeniable.” (The Globe & Mail) Col. Parker was the seventh Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan this year and the 145th Canadian soldier killed as part of the mission in the past eight years.

Col. Parker was born and raised in Oakville, Ont. A 1990 graduate of the University of Western Ontario, Parker was married with a son and a daughter, according to his military biography. “On behalf of everyone in Oakville, I want to express my deep condolences to Col. Parker’s family and to express our town’s sense of loss,” said Oakville Mayor Rob Burton. “He’s the first soldier from Oakville killed in Afghanistan, and all of us grieve for his family, and all of us know that our community has lost one of its best and brightest souls.” (CBC) The city has ordered that all flags on public buildings be flown at half-mast until after Col. Parker’s body is returned to Canada.

The attack was condemned by ISAF officials and by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who only recently returned to Kabul following a visit to Washington. “We are condemning the attack in the strongest terms. I hope Afghanistan will soon get out of this suffering, God willing,” he said at a news conference broadcast on national television. (BBC) “There were casualties among the NATO forces as well as among civilians – women, children and schoolchildren,” Mr. Karzai told the news conference. He also said the West was starting to realize the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily and that the peace process must involve reconciling with the Taliban. “… it took us a lot of time to make them understand our intention… that our intention is to bring peace to Afghanistan and that militarily this war cannot succeed,” Karzai said. (Reuters)

In Washington, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said in a statement, “While our troops are fighting for a better future for the Afghan people, the Taliban offers only destruction, and they have so little respect for humanity that they would murder Afghan civilians waiting for a bus.” (Washington Post)

The U.S. and Afghan governments “remain steadfast in our determination to build security, stability and opportunity for Afghanistan,” Burton said. (Washington Post) “This sort of desperate brutality and aggression reminds us of the pessimism of an enemy who seeks to kill the innocent and to stop the progress of securing a better future for this country,” said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, an ISAF spokesman. (Washington Post) NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the attack would not deter the alliance from its mission to “protect the Afghan people and strengthen Afghanistan’s ability to resist terrorism.” (Washington Post) The American Embassy also condemned the attack, which accused the Taliban of “callous disregard” for the lives of ordinary Afghans. (New York Times)

British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt also condemned the strike and said the British and international commitment “to support the Afghan government and people to work for a political solution through the peace jirga at the end of this month will not be shaken.” (CNN) The jirga is an assembly of tribal elders. President Karzai wants the elders to support a reintegration plan for Taliban members who renounce violence and lay down their arms.

The bombing occurred a week after a Taliban group issued a statement warning of “ambushes, detonations of explosive devices, assassinations of government officials, suicide bombings and detainment of foreign invaders.” (Washington Post) Until Tuesday, the worst Taliban attack in the capital occurred on Feb. 26 when armed assailants stormed a pair of guest houses used by Indian nationals, killing 17 people. More than 200 ISAF soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year.