Monthly Archives: June 2010

Review: G8/G20 Summit – What Did It Accomplish?

When the world looks at Canadians, what is the first word that comes to their mind? Maybe it is that we are friendly, or peaceful, or tolerant. If that is the image that we have been portraying, what do people think of us now, after the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history? As the world leaders met at the G8 summit in Huntsville this past Saturday, and then at the G20 in Toronto, Canadians challenged this image by showing acts of violent protests and complaints about a government spending too much on security. If you ask me, I’d say their point was made very clear.

The protests exceeded to a new level on Saturday as black-clad and hooded protesters marched through the city, smashing shop windows and setting ablaze at least two police cars. The CBC reported that police fired rubber bullets at one point to disperse a crowd of about 150 protesters. There were scattered protests throughout Sunday, but they were neither as large nor as violent as Saturday’s. Outside the summit venue in downtown Toronto, police and protesters continued to clash through the end of the meetings. By Sunday night, a few stores on Queen Street, which was hit by heavy rioting on Saturday, were still covered in plywood.

Over 900 were arrested over the past 10 days in Toronto due to the protests. Early on Saturday morning, police said they had arrested a total of 32 people, meaning that most of the arrests were done during the weekend alone. Amnesty International Canada said human rights suffered greatly during the protests and is calling for an independent review of the security measures that were put in place for the summits.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said that several people were engaged in a “criminal conspiracy to attack the city… I’m quite confident that close to 400 of the people that were involved in those criminal acts in our city will be held accountable and we’re continuing in that investigation,” Blair said. (CBC) Blair said police had asked people to leave the area three times. Others have disputed claims that they were given the opportunity to leave.

Keith MacDonald, who said he had been detained for about 18 hours, said he had just stopped by to check things out when he was arrested on Queen Street West and Noble Street in Parkdale on Sunday. Wearing dark jeans, a dark t-shirt and no shoes, Mr. MacDonald said he was arrested for obstruction of police, but that he was released without charge. He says he suspects he was arrested for wearing a bandana, but said it was on his head, not his face. He described the inside of the make-shift detention centre as “cages” resembling animal kennels, fitting as many as 20 people into the larger ones. (The Globe & Mail)

A fifteen-year-old boy, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and cargo pants, said he was arrested Saturday night on the Esplanade and held for 33 hours. The teen, who would only identify himself as Liam, said that he was only there to watch the protest. “They surrounded us and told us to leave,” he said, “but how was I supposed to read the situation?” He said police never once told them how to leave or when the last warning would be without being charged. (The Globe & Mail)

There were several criticisms of the police tactics as reporters emerged that journalists, non-violent protesters and others who say they had no involvement in protest activity were being taken into custody. Freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeild said that he was beaten by police Saturday night as he was at a non-violent protest on The Esplanade. Toronto police have said Rosenfeild, who has hired a lawyer, is welcome to file a complaint.

“Quite frankly, because of the volume of the people that we were dealing with, because of the continuing issue of the several thousand who were there lawfully to peacefully protest, we had no way of determining what all of their intentions were,” Chief Blair said. (CBC)

Toronto Mayor David Miller acknowledged watchers of the summit had not seen the best of Toronto over the weekend. “If you step outside of Canada for a moment, these kinds of summits attract violent protests, they have everywhere,” he told CBC News. “By those standards, Toronto’s police acquitted themselves very well and I think most people around the world are not going to associate Toronto with these violent acts, they will associate the G20 with those acts.” He also criticized the organizers of the summit for holding the meeting at the Metro Toronto Convention Center in the city. “The event was downtown. The city had argued very strongly that it should be at a self-contained place. Our choice was Exhibition Place.” (CBC) Mr. Miller said the city will ask the federal government to compensate businesses that suffered damages or had to close in addition to employees who lost wages because of the summit. “It’s only fair and reasonable,” he said. (The Globe & Mail)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association denounced the mass arrests, saying they were illegal and unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable grounds to believe that everyone they detained had committed a crime or was about to do so. “To us, it’s abhorrent that we would be arresting more than 900 people to find maybe 50 or 100… vandals. This makes no sense. It’s a fundamental breech of Canadian law to have done that,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, the organization’s general counsel. (The Globe & Mail)

A group of about ten people sat outside the temporary detention centre on Monday morning, waiting for people to be released. One woman said she’d been waiting since 1 a.m., and had seen about 20 people released since then, most in groups of two or three. By about 9:30 a.m., about five others had been released, each to a round of cheers.

Sergeant Gary Phillips said about 100 people continue to be detained inside the temporary detention centre on Eastern Avenue. Almost 850 people have been processed through the facility by early Monday afternoon, he said. By contrast, 58 people had been processed by Saturday afternoon. Constable Michelle Murphy, an ISU spokeswoman, said each person’s situation is being considered on a case-by-case basis to decide whether charges will be laid and whether they can be released. “All this takes time,” she said. (The Globe & Mail)

The weekend’s arrests totaled to become the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. The following is a list of the five largest mass shootings in Canada since 1970:

So what did the G8 and G20 summits actually accomplish? The discussions focused around the economic crisis, budget cuts, Iran and South Korea.

The group agreed to cut national budget deficits while promoting economic growth. Every G20 country has committed to cut deficits by half within three years. Proposals for a global levy have also been dropped. The summit pressed for banks to have a greater financial cushion to protect against future crises. Banks must build up higher levels of capital and liquidity within a longer timeframe, saying that 2012 should mark the start of the process, not the end.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Head of the International Monetary Fund, said that focusing on budget deficits was oversimplifying the problem because the situation was different from one country to another. He added that a more robust growth plan was needed to reduce unemployment and lessen the burden of large public debts.

On trade liberalization, the G20 arguably moved backwards, dropping 2010 as the target date for concluding the long-stalled Doha round of the World Trade Organization negotiations. Opposition from Canada, Japan, Brazil and Australia, whose banks did not need state bailouts during the crisis, thwarted European calls for a common tax on banks to shield taxpayers from the costs of rescuing the financial sector.

European members including the UK, France, and Germany have led moves to slash record public deficits, despite opposition from the States, which is expected to run a $1.3 trillion deficit in 2010. Emerging economies like Argentina and Brazil had worried that budget cuts in rich countries would hurt their export-dependent economies. Brazilian Finance Minister, Guido Mantega said, “If the cuts take place in advanced countries it is worse because instead of stimulating growth they pay more attention to fiscal adjustments, and if they are exporters they will be reforming at our cost.” (Reuters)

“We welcome the fact that the G20 has stepped away from imposing an arbitrary timeline for the implementation of new measures and has instead agreed to phase-in requirements agreements as and when national economic conditions allow,” the International Banking Federation said in a statement. (Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama warned against fast and deep budget cuts, fearing damage to global growth. He said that tighter regulations, including bigger capital requirements for banks, would be addressed at the next G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea, in November. “We must do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of the recent financial crisis,” he warned. (BBC) President Obama said the agreements show that nations can “bridge our differences” and “coordinate our approaches.” (CNN) He noted progress made in three areas: ensuring that the global economic recovery is strong and durable, continuing to reform the global financial system and addressing a range of issues that affect countries’ prosperity and security. “Every economy is unique, and every country will chart its own unique course, but make no mistake – we’re moving in the same direction.” (CNN) He gave specific examples of the United States’ efforts to rebound from the global recession – setting a goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years, strengthening U.S. economic cooperation with Russia and pushing to complete the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, a move he said “will create new jobs and opportunity for people in both our countries, and enhance America’s competitiveness in the 21st century.” (CNN)  President Obama stressed the importance of promoting economic growth as a means to set up future fiscal soundness. “We must recognize that our fiscal health tomorrow will rest in no small measure on our ability to create jobs and growth today,” he said, adding that “in short, we have to do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of the recent financial crisis.” (CNN)

European leaders got what they saw as a green light to pursue austerity measures they consider essential to restore market confidence in the euro dented by the Greek fiscal crisis and wider concerns about high European sovereign debt. “To be honest, it was more than I expected,” German Chancellor Angela Markel said of the G20’s non-binding pledge to halve budget deficits by 2013 and balance budgets from 2016. The United States had pressed Europeans before the meeting to avoid withdrawing economic stimulus measures prematurely and urged countries with current account surpluses such as Germany to boost domestic demand. “The positive outcome is that the European consolidation programs, which are moderate and appropriate given the confidence crisis in Europe, have been endorsed and accepted by others at the G20 level,” Michael Heise, chief economist of Europe’s biggest insurer Allianz, told Reuters. “High and rising levels of public debt imply significant risks for the global economy,” the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements said in a report. (Reuters)

EU finance ministers are due to decide next week how many banks will be tested for their risk resilience, and on what criteria. EU leaders have agreed the results will be made public in an effort to restore market confidence. In a sign markets are still nervous about euro zone debt, the premium investors charge to hold French, Belgian, Spanish and Italian bonds rather than benchmark German bonds rose to the highest levels since early June. The interest rates at which banks lend to each other in euros also rose.

President Obama expected China’s currency to rise because of its recent commitment to let the renminbi float more freely against the dollar. He said that “a strong and durable recovery also requires countries not having an undue advantage. So we also discussed the need for currencies that are market-driven. As I told President Hu yesterday, the United States welcomes China’s decision to allow its currency to appreciate in response to market forces.” (BBC) China resisted including a line in the summit’s final statement on its currency commitment, saying it was a sovereign matter.

France is likely to be the next European state to announce deficit-cutting steps this week, with the cabinet due to approve measures on Wednesday to curb public spending, and further cuts to be spelled out in September in a tough 2011 budget. “We have an untouchable goal to reduce the deficit level by two points from 8 percent to 6 percent next year. That’s never been done before,” Budget Minister Francois Baroin told France 2 television, adding the 2011 budget would be “the most difficult in more than 30 years.” (Reuters)

Following the summit’s close on Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper deplored the violence by “certain thuggish criminal element.” (The Globe & Mail) Toronto is slowly returning to normal.Shopkeepers on Monday were cleaning up the mess left by Black Bloc protesters and police officers were standing down. However, police continued to maintain a visible presence at downtown street corners. The security fence that surrounded the site where the G20 leaders met was starting to be dismantled. Reporters arrived for early-morning shifts at the CBC and said that for the first time in three days, they did not have to show special identification to police officers guarding the security fence. The CBC building in Toronto is within the security zone. Transportation systems, closed or operating on special schedules or routes because of the meetings and violent demonstrations, returned to their regular schedules.

Police said the 77 CCTV cameras set up for the G20 will be taken down – it’s just not clear when. Police still have information about upcoming protests, said ISU spokesman Constable Rodney Petroski. “When they’re confident the security risk is over, the cameras will come down.” (The Globe & Mail)

Along King Street in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, there were few signs of the tumultuous weekend. Some windows were still bordered up. A few traffic disruptions remained early Monday around the security fence area, likely due to fence removal. Police allowed motorists to drive through the area.


Violence Rocks Kyrgyzstan

About 100,000 minority Uzbeks fleeing mobs of Kyrgyz massed at the border Monday as the deadliest ethnic violence to hit this Central Asian nation in 20 years left a major city smoldering. Fires raged for a fourth day in the southern city of Osh, three miles (five kilometres) from the border with Uzbekistan. The official count was 138 dead and nearly 1,800 injured since the violence began last week, but an Uzbek community leader said at least 200 Uzbeks had already been buried, and the Red Cross said its delegates saw about 100 bodies being buried in just one cemetery.

The United States and Russia, which both have military bases in Kyrgyzstan away from the violence, worked on humanitarian aid airlifts, as did the United Nations. Neighbouring Uzbekistan hastily set up camps to handle the flood of hungry, frightened refugees. Most were women, children and the elderly, many of whom Uzbekistan said had gunshot wounds.

The interim government, which took over when former President Kumanbek Bakiyev was ousted in an April uprising, has been unable to stop the violence and accused Bakiyev’s family of instigating it to halt a June 27 referendum on a new constitution. Uzbeks, who are a minority in Kyrgyzstan as a whole but whose numbers rival the Kyrgyz in the south have supported Bakiyev.

Kyrgyz security chief Kenishbek Duishebayev said Monday evening on television that Bakiyev’s younger son, Maxim, was arrested earlier in the day in Britain when he flew into a Hampshire airport on a leased private plane. Prosecutors, who placed him on an international wanted list in May, alleged that companies he owned avoided almost $80 million in taxes on aviation fuel sold to suppliers of the U.S. air base.

The violent protests that led to President Bakiyvev’s ouster were fed by anger over corruption permeating his extended family, which grew wealthy and powerful under his rule. The new government has been under pressure to bring them to justice.

The government said earlier Monday it had arrested a “well-known person” suspected of stoking the violence, but gave no other details. Suspects from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan were also detained and claimed to have been hired by supporters of Bakiyev, government spokesman Farid Niyazov said. (The Associated Press)

It now appears unlikely this month’s referendum will take place. New parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, but the violence appears aimed at undermining the interim government before then.

From his self-imposed exile in Belarus, Bakiyev has denied any role in the violence. Speaking to reporters Monday, he again blamed the interim government for not preventing the rioting and called on the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization to send in troops. The new Kyrgyz government asked Russia to send troops, but the Kremlin turned down the request.

Jallahitidin Jalilatdinov, who heads the Uzbek National Center, told The Associated Press on Monday that at least 100,000 Uzbeks were awaiting entry into Uzbekistan, while another 80,000 had crossed the border. The Uzbek government said 45,000 had already been registered.

Thousands more Uzbeks were massed at the border, some in desperate need of medical care. Dilmuruad Failakov, a doctor from a local hospital who was scrambling to care for victims in the village of Naariman, said that he had seen four newborns die on Monday morning and that dysentery was spreading among the children. “We’ve been here for four days,” said Khalimova Aidarova, a refugee, who wore a dark head scarf and traditional robes. “There are so many wounded. Women are giving birth, and the babies are dying immediately.” (New York Times)

An AP reporter saw hundreds of Uzbek refugees stuck in a no-man’s-land at a border crossing near Jalal-Abad. An AP photographer saw hundreds of refugees in a camp on the Uzbek side. Shaken refugees claimed that many Uzbek girls had been raped and that Kyrgyz snipers had shot at them from the hills as they rushed toward the border.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed alarm at the violence and urged the authorities to protect all citizens irrespective of their ethnicity. “It seems indiscriminate killings, including of children, and rapes have been taking place on the basis of ethnicity,” Pillay said in a statement. “This is a very dangerous situation, given the ethnic patchwork in this part of Kyrgyzstan, as well as in neighbouring areas of Uzbekistan,” she said. “It has been known for many years that this region is a potential tinder box, and for that reason it is essential that the authorities act firmly to halt the fighting – which appears to be orchestrated, targeted and well-planned – before it spreads further inside Kyrgyzstan or even across the border into neighbouring countries.” (The AP)

The fertile Ferghana Valley, where Osh and Jalal-Abad are located, once belonged to a single feudal lord, but was split by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, rekindling old rivalries. In 1990, hundreds were killed in a land dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, and only the quick development of Soviet troops quelled the fighting. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed,  and new tensions rose between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over distribution of irrigation water, natural gas and electricity.

Uzbeks make up 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5 million people and are generally better off economically, but they have few representatives in power and have pushed for broader political and cultural rights. Both ethnic groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Few police or troops were seen on the streets of Osh, a city of 250,000. Food and water were scarce after armed looters smashed stores, stealing everything from TVs to food. Cars stolen from ethnic Uzbeks raced around the city, most crowded with young Kyrgyz wielding sharpened sticks, axes and metal rods.

In the mainly Uzbek district of Aravanskoe, an area formerly brimming with shops and restaurants, whole streets were burned to the ground. In one still-smoldering building, an AP photographer saw three charred bodies.

Hundreds gathered at Osh’s central square to get on buses for the airport. Gunmen have made the road from the city to the airport too dangerous to tackle alone. Osh Police Chief Kursan Asanov told AP that 950 foreigners – mostly Russians, Pakistanis, Indians and Africans – have been evacuated since disturbances began, as well as Uzbek and Kyrgyz residents. “The entire city is in a state of panic – you see for yourselves – because all people have children,” said resident Galina Nikolayevna. (The AP) Mukaddas Jamolova, 54, from Kara-Su, near Osh, said she saw looters burn down many Uzbek homes. She said her house was not burned down but the family can’t flee to Uzbekistan as they fear armed attackers. “We can’t go anywhere, we have a curfew, nobody’s letting us out,” Jamolova told the Associated Press by phone.

In another city beset by violence, Jalal-Abad, 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Osh, armed Kyrgyz massed at the central square to hunt down an Uzbek community leader who they blame for starting the trouble. The International Committee of the Red Cross was appealing to donors to raise money for the care of 100,000 people in the coming month. “The situation in Jalal-Abad has worsened considerably over the past 24 hours. It is very dangerous,” said ICRC spokesman Pierre-Emmanuel Ducruet, who was able to reach the outskirts of the city Monday morning. (CBC) Mr. Ducruet estimated the number of fleeing Uzbeks to about 80,000, and he said Uzbekistan had few resources to accommodate the influx and there was no way to be sure their needs would be met. “They are, of course, ethnic Uzbeks, but they are not citizens of Uzbekistan,” he said. “People might cross the border, but then their fate is unknown.” (New York Times)

In the village of Sura-Tash, ethnic Uzbeks converted a mosque into a makeshift hospital. Using rudimentary supplies, health workers treated anyone who came in with wounds from beatings or ordinary conditions such as heat exhaustion and diabetes. Some sought shade in the mosque, but hundreds were forced to wait outside in the sun. Vodka was used to sterilize medical equipment and powdered plaster was melted down to turn into casts for broken limbs. One doctor said those who attacked the Uzbeks seemed to have the support of the Kyrgyz military. “Many people have died, snipers fired from more than one kilometre away, and organized gangs followed the military as they drove in with armored personnel carriers,” said Dr. Lutsalla Khakimov, who was working at the mosque. “This was organized, they wanted to start a war.” (The AP) Some victims said they had been raped.

As the clashes continued, desperately needed aid began trickling into the south. Several planes arrived at Osh’s airport with tons of medical supplies from the World Health Organization. Trucks carried supplies into the city with an armed escort.

The U.S. had a shipment of tents, cots and medical supplies ready to fly to Osh from its Manas air base in Bishkek, the U.S. Embassy said. The U.S. and Russia military bases are in northern Kyrgyzstan, away from the rioting. Russia sent in an extra battalion to protect its air base. The U.S. Manas air base is a crucial hub for the coalition fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The United States is monitoring developments and is calling for a “rapid restoration of peace and order in the city of Osh and elsewhere it appears ethnic violence is occurring,” according to a statement released Saturday by the State Department. (CNN) A small group of expatriates from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan demonstrated outside the White House on Sunday, calling for President Barack Obama’s help in ending the crisis. About 50 people from the Uzbek Initiative Group carried signs reading “Stop the killing” and chanted “Bring peace to Kyrgyzstan.” The group had sent a letter to Obama “urging the United States and the United Nations to assist in bringing a halt to the current ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan,” describing clashes as “the worst ethnic violence in the region since 1990 when hundreds were killed before the quick intervention of the Soviet troops.” (CNN)

10 NATO Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan

Two more American troops were killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the military said, just a day after 10 NATO troops were killed in a string of attacks.

The latest deaths came as insurgents step up bombings and other attacks ahead of a major NATO operation in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar that Washington hopes will turn the tide of the war.

Ten NATO troops were killed Monday in bombings and shootings in eastern and southern Afghanistan, military officials said, in the deadliest day for the U.S.-led international forces this year.

Seven American troops, two Australians and a French Legionnaire were killed in five separate insurgent attacks in the south and east end of the country.

Also on Monday, two people, including an American civilian contractor, were killed when three suicide bombers launched a coordinated attack at a police training center in Kandahar city, officials said. The attacks underscored the dangers U.S. forces face as 30,000 additional troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban movement.

The days deadliest attack occurred in eastern Afghanistan, where an improvised explosive device killed five troops, NATO military authorities said. A sixth service member was fatally shot in eastern Afghanistan, NATO authorities said. The military command in eastern Afghanistan is predominantly American. Military officials say there has been a spike this year in roadside bombs in that region.

Meanwhile, two service members were killed in separate bombings, and one was fatally shot in southern Afghanistan, the most dangerous part of the country for foreign troops in recent months.

President Obama ordered the troop surge in an effort to secure Taliban strongholds, primarily in the south. Training police in Kandahar province has emerged as a top priority for U.S. officials.

Afghan officials said a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into the outer wall of the police center, paving the way for two other suicide bombers on foot to run inside, according to the AP.

Monday was the deadliest day for NATO since Oct. 26, when 11 American troops were killed, including seven who died in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan. The crash was not believed to be a result of hostile fire.

Afghans were also caught up in Monday’s wave of violence. Five Afghan private security guards were killed and four others wounded in a roadside bomb blast in eastern Ghazni province, the Interior Ministry said. Two Afghan security guards were killed and two wounded in a gunfight with insurgents in another part of the province, it said in a statement.

A Canadian soldier, Sgt. Martin Goudreault, was killed Sunday by an improvised explosive device, becoming the 147th Canadian Forces member to die in Afghanistan since the military began its combat mission in 2002.

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday – an increase of one percentage point from a poll conducted in April. Forty percent say the war is worth fighting. Meanwhile, 42 percent of respondents said the United States is winning the war, while 39 percent said America is losing.

U.S. commanders have warned of more casualties as the alliance gears up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, a city with a half million people.

Through June 6, a total of 1,812 NATO soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the American-led invasion that ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, 1,020 of them Americans. This year, 245 NATO soldiers have died in Afghanistan, 153 of them Americans, as of June 6. In Iraq, 150 American soldiers died in 2009, and 32 so far this year.

Israeli Navy Kills 4 off Gaza Strip

The Israeli navy says it thwarted a marine attack on Monday when it opened fire on a boat off the Gaza Strip, killing four Palestinians in wetsuits. Israel’s army said the boat was discovered carrying a squad of armed men wearing wetsuits early Monday morning. The army said it believed the men were setting out to carry out an attack.

In a message sent to media in the Gaza Strip, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said the four dead were part of its marine unit. The militant group, which has ties to the Fatah party headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the marine unit was conducting training in Gaza’s waters.

Moawiya Hassanaian, a Palestinian health official, said the four bodies were taken to a hospital in central Gaza. The Palestinian naval police said two people were missing.

The Israeli unit responsible for intercepting the boat is the same naval group involved in a May 31 raid on a flotilla of aid that attempted to break the Israeli blockade against the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Army officials said Monday’s interception is a shot in the arm for a unit that has been under security since the storming of the flotilla left nine dead and several injured. The dead included eight Turks and one Turkish-American. The flotilla raid renewed international attention on the three-year-old blockade against Gaza, which Israel says is necessary to isolate the Hamas militants and keep them from expanding their arsenals. The incident also prompted calls for an international investigation, but Israel has rejected the idea. Israel has said it has the right to conduct its own investigation, perhaps with limited foreign observation.

Israel has sought to portray the nine activists killed on the flotilla as militants, said they prepared for the fight before boarding. The military Monday released the names of five of the activists it said have long-standing ties to terror organizations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Sunday released a statement saying he discussed the international criticism with world leaders, including the premier of Canada. Mr. Netanyahu told them any country would act in self defence if it were targeted by thousands of rockets as Israel had been by Gaza militants. Mr. Netanyahu told his Cabinet earlier Sunday that “dozens of thugs” from “an extremist, terrorism-supporting” organization had readied themselves for the arrival of the naval commandos. He said they organized and boarded the ship separately from the other activists with a clear hostile intent. Video released by the military have shown a crowd of men attacking several naval commandos as they landed on a ship from a helicopter, beating the soldiers with clubs and other objects and hurling one soldier overboard. On Saturday, Israel commandeered another aid ship without incident. All 19 activists, including a Nobel Peace laureate, and crew were deported Sunday.

“The bloody escalation today is a desperate attempt by the occupation government to divert the world attention away from the massacre committed against the flotilla,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters on Monday in Gaza. (The Associated Press)

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yigal Palmour said the latest incident reinforced the need for Israel to maintain a tight cordon around Gaza. “This is the explanation why the border, both land and sea border with Gaza need to be strictly and tightly controlled. We can’t allow Hamas to carry out attacks at will on Israelis, on Israeli territory, he told Reuters TV.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Israel should agree to the probe proposed by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Davutoglu said: “Otherwise, it means that they have something to hide… The international community is facing a serious test. Does a country have the right to intercept a ship in international waters or not?” (CBC)

The flotilla raid has strained relations between Israel and Turkey. The Turks have said they will reduce military and trade ties with Israel, and they’ve threatened to break relations unless Israel apologizes for the actions.

An Egyptian security official declared the blockade of Gaza a failure Monday and said his country will keep its border with the Palestinian territory open indefinitely. Keeping that crossing point open long term would ease the blockade. It also restores a link to the outside world for some Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians. Egypt opened its border with Gaza soon after the flotilla raid. Israel has not publicly protested the Egyptian move, but officials declined to comment Monday.

Vice President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. is closely consulting with Egypt and other allies to find new ways to “address the humanitarian, economic, security, and political aspects of the situation in Gaza.” (The Associated Press) They had a 90-minute meeting “about a full range of bilateral issues,” a spokesman for the US Embassy said, but there were no further details of the discussions released. (BBC) Biden said that the Israelis and Palestinians needed to “move to direct negotiations as soon as possible that will result in an end to the occupation that began in 1967 and to a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel and a Palestinian state living in peace and security.” (CNN) He issued the statement after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

Egypt’s measures up to now constitute an incremental change rather than a radically different approach to the border closure. It appeared aimed, in part, at defusing some of the anger in the Arab and Muslim world over Egypt’s role in maintaining the blockade. For the time being, Egypt is only allowing a very restricted group of Gazans to leave the territory, including medical patients, students attending foreign universities and those with residency abroad. In keeping the passenger terminal in the border town of Rafah open continually, rather than sporadically as before, Egypt is helping reduce the backlog of Gazans with the required permits waiting to get out.

Egypt and Israel have maintained the blockade since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, with Israel describing it as an essential measure to stop weapons from reaching Hamas militants, who have hit southern Israel with rockets and in the past years killed hundreds in suicide bombings. The Egyptian security official said, however, that the closure has failed to achieve its goals, including the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006. Israeli airstrikes and Egyptian security efforts have also yet to choke off a bustling smuggling trade that uses hundreds of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, though the official said Egypt is determined to shut them down.

Under the restrictions at the Rafah crossing point, Egypt is letting some humanitarian aid but will not transfer large cargo shipments or construction material because the terminal is designed primarily as a crossing for travelers, said the Egyptian official.

Hamas welcomed the Egyptian move but said it hoped all Gazans would soon be able to travel freely without restrictions. “We have said since the first day that the blockade on Gaza will end and we can see that on the ground right now, and we voice our hope that all other restrictions will be removed,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. (The Associated Press) Hamas tightly controls access to Rafah, and only travelers with the proper permits can reach the terminal.

For its part, Israel allows through only basic humanitarian goods, blocking crucial items like cement needed to rebuild war damage because it argues the material could be used by Hamas. The closure has crushed Gaza’s already fragile economy. There has been no formal response from Jerusalem so far.

France and Britain have called for Israel to accept a “credible and transparent” investigation into the deadly Israeli raid on May 31. (BBC) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the EU could play a bigger role to ensure that humanitarian supplies reached Gaza, and that weapons were kept out. Mr. Kouchner also said Europe needed to work harder to convince Israel that its blockade of Gaza was not working, and nor was it in the long-term interests of the region. His comments followed talks with British counterpart William Hague, who said Europe would maintain pressure on Israel. On Sunday, Mr. Kouchner said “We can check the cargo of ships heading toward Gaza – we can do it, we want to do it, we would gladly do it,” Mr. Kouchner said. (New York Times)

Meanwhile, the Iranian Red Crescent has announced it will send two aid ships to Egypt for onward delivery to Gaza through the Rafah crossing later this week, Iranian state media report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the Iranian ships will be part of a new aid flotilla organized by several Islamic countries, though he declined to say which countries are involved. He called it “strictly a humanitarian effort for the people of Gaza. We are preparing two ships to head for Gaza that will provide humanitarian aid. Their departure depends on how soon we coordinate with other countries that are also sending aid ships. The process of organizing the operation is under way.” (CNN)

Separately, a “Jewish boat” is planning to try to reach Gaza, two pro-Palestinian European Jewish groups announced Monday. “Our purpose is to call an end to the siege of Gaza, to this illegal collective punishment of the whole civilian population,” Edith Lutz said on behalf of European Jews for a Just Peace in the Near East and Jews for Justice for Palestinians. The group is not saying when the boat is sailing or where it is leaving from “in order to avoid sabotage,” Lutz said. (CNN)

Taliban Attack Afghanistan Peace Conference

A meeting of Afghan officials hoping to forge a plan to negotiate a truce with the Taliban got off to an ominous start Wednesday, as militants launched a spate of attacks and engaged in a lengthy gun battle with security forces nearby.

The outbreak of violence during the first day of the meeting, known as peace jirga, raised fresh questions about the Afghan government’s ability to reach a truce with the Taliban and other armed groups.

The first blast, from an apparent mortar or rocket, thundered as President Hamid Karzai laid out his vision for reconciliation during opening remarks. In his speech by turns jovial and defiant, Karzai extended an olive branch to the Taliban. “They are not the enemy,” Karzai said. “They are the sons of this land.” (Washington Post) He warned, however, that those who continue attacking civilians would not be forgiven. In his speech, Mr. Karzai said years of violence and infighting had caused widespread suffering that had driven many ordinary Afghans to join the Taliban and another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, out of fear. He appealed to them to renounce extremism. “There are thousands of Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, they are not the enemies of this soil,” Karzai said. (The Globe & Mail) He said continuing fighting would only prevent the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. “Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here. As long as you are not talking to us, not making peace with us, we will not let the foreigners leave,” Karzai said. (The Globe & Mail)

Karzai, seemingly unfazed by the first blast, urged the 1,600 or so in attendance to remain seated in the large white tent where the meeting was taking place. “Don’t worry. We’ve heard this kind of thing before,” he told the delegates present. (The Globe & Mail) Karzai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts, told nervous delegates who were starting to leave, “Sit down, nothing will happen… I have become used to this. Everyone is used to this.” (Reuters) Shrugging off the attack, Karzai said, “Some are trying to fire rockets. Everyone is used to it; even my three-year-old son is used to it.” (New York Times)

As his speech was ending, a gunfight broke out near the tent. Krazai and the foreign dignitaries at the event, including U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, were quickly whisked away in a long convoy of SUVs.

Afghan officials later said three would-be suicide bombers wearing burqas – the enveloping head-to-toe garment worn by some women in Afghanistan – had taken positions in a building near the gathering. A few minutes after Karzai’s speech, a mortar landed a few yards away from the tent.

Two of the burqa-clad suicide bombers were fatally shot and a third was taken into custody, said Whaeed Omar, a spokesman for Karzai. They did not detonate their explosives. “These attempts failed,” Omer told reporters after Karzai’s speech. “The jirga has not been disrupted.” (Washington Post) Abdul Gaffar Saidzada, chief of criminal investigation for Kabul police, said three police were wounded in the fighting. There were no reports of civilian casualties or injuries.

A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the Taliban attack was handled completely by Afghan authorities. “It was a quick response by our security forces,” added Mr. Omar. (New York Times)

Karzai’s government organized the gathering of national and provincial government officials and other leaders to solicit input about how the government should broach negotiating a truce with the Taliban. The representatives will provide non-binding advice to the government. The timing of the gathering, which was originally scheduled for April, coincides with stepped-up military operations in Kandahar, a southern province that the Taliban views as its spiritual heartland. Karzai hopes the gathering will fortify him politically by endorsing his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in Washington about whether the time is right for an overture to militant leaders. But the attack underscored the weak grip of Karzai’s government in the face of the Taliban insurgency, which has grown in strength despite record numbers of U.S. forces in the country.

Critics, including many members of parliament who boycotted the jirga, have described the process as a political gambit by Karzai to create the appearance of a national consensus for a preconceived plan. The government wants to get the Taliban to renounce violence, agree to abide by the constitution and join the political process. The Taliban, however, sees Karzai’s government as an extension of a foreign occupying force.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks and had previously denounced the three-day session as a ploy by foreign occupiers. The Taliban had earlier threatened to kill anyone who took part, claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to The Associated Press, saying they intended to sabotage the three-day conference. With the insurgency at its most intense since their U.S.-led overthrow in 2001, the Taliban remain confident they can outlast the latest foreign invasion in Afghanistan’s long history of conflict. “Obviously, the jirga will provide yet another pretext for America to continue the war in Afghanistan, rather than bringing about peace in the country,” the Taliban said in a statement on the eve of the gathering. (Reuters)

The audacity of the attack was hardly a surprise as the Taliban are increasingly staging bold raids on high profile targets such as one on the main airbase at Bagram two weeks ago. “This attack could also send a signal for the Kabul conference later this year,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst, referring to a meeting of foreign stakeholders in Afghanistan planned for July 20. “I don’t know how many Western delegates will take the risk to come to Kabul if such attacks can take place” (Reuters)

A prominent civil society activist was skeptical the conference could help bring peace. Delegates include individuals with links to militants but not active members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. “I’m not very hopeful that we will come up with a workable mechanism to go for peace. The reason is we don’t have the opposition with us. It’s obvious from their attacks,” said Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. (The Globe & Mail)

Safia Seddiqi, a member of parliament from Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, said the jirga would likely be a failure. “While we have violence at the national gathering, it’s very difficult to talk about reconciliation,” she said. “It means they are not ready to talk” (Washington Post)

Fauzia Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan, said most members of parliament decided not to attend because they see the gathering as a political stunt. She said the government is engaged in battle with extremists who are unwilling to negotiate. “That war needs to be won,” said Kofi, who was among the parliamentarians who decided not to attend the jirga. (Washington Post)

“This is a mistake, all the warlords were there in the front row,” said Mir Joyenda, an independent member of Parliament from Kabul. “There is no change that will come to Afghanistan,” he said, reflecting widespread disgust with the continued prominent role of former warlords in the government. (New York Times)

“It’s dangerous to raise people’s expectations with this fake and artificial exercise, it’s a workshop, not a jirga,” said a leading member of Parliament, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (New York Times)

But Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said the gathering could be the first step in a long and difficult process to reach an armistice. “There is sufficient will by everyone to understand that this cannot be won militarily by anyone,” de Mistura said. “It’s going to be hard, tense and slow.” The attacks did not come as a surprise, de Mistura said. He called them symbolic of the “hot negotiation” phase of the process, during which both sides will continue to use force to show their strength. “One side and the other are still using the power they have.” The U.N. envoy said the Afghan delegates inside the tent reacted with composure when the blasts began. “Their reaction was one of defiance: ‘we are not going to be intimidated.’” (Washington Post)

U.S. officials have been skeptical about the government’s reconciliation plans, but they backed the decision to convene the jirga. The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file insurgents but has been skeptical of a major political initiative with insurgent leaders, believing that they should wait until accelerated military operations have weakened the Taliban on the battlefield. U.S. officials believe the Taliban leadership feels it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.

The Taliban’s confidence comes despite a surge in U.S. forces that will push the size of the foreign military to around 150,000, with an offensive planned in coming weeks to tackle the Taliban in their southern heartland of Kandahar. Washington is also stressing an accompanying hearts-and-minds operation that it hopes will see better Afghan security and governance put in place.

Delegates on Wednesday suggested they are likely to discuss topics at the jirga that Karzai would rather they didn’t, such as a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and giving the Taliban positions in the government. “One of the reasons why we today have war in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign troops,” said Najibullah Mujahid, 42, an ethnic Tajik from the north and a former army officer. “The way they treat people, the way they arrest people, conduct operations… ignore our culture, traditions and Islamic values… if we cannot address these concerns, talk about these issues and find ways, then this jirga will have no fruit.” (Reuters)

Abdulwahab, a Pashtun from the south and an adviser on religious affairs to governor of Kandahar, said the government should listen to what the Taliban wanted. “If they want roles in the government, then their eligible people must be given positions in the government. If they want the expulsion of the troops, then a way should be sought for that too.” (Reuters)

After Nearly Three Months, Iraq Finally Confirms Election Results

Nearly three months after the March 7 parliamentary elections Iraq’s federal court has ratified the results in a major step toward forming Iraq’s next government. But the appointment of the next cabinet and prime minister is likely weeks, if not months, away as political jockeying over Iraq’s top government jobs continue.

The U.S. Embassy in Iraq welcomed the certification. American officials have been concerned about the pace of the formation of the government, which coincides with a U.S. military drawdown to no more than 50,000 troops by the end of the summer. Since the election, the nation has plunged into a period of uncertainty and endured a series of bloody attacks that have killed hundreds in the midst of a political vacuum. The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, must now ask parliament to convene its first session within 15 days. The law then stipulates that Parliament will choose a new president, who will name a prime minister. But everyone in Iraq expects a package deal, hence the period needed to negotiate everything from Parliament speaker to minister of youth and sports. “There are still long months ahead,” said Ghassan Attiya, an Iraqi analyst. (New York Times)

The court, led by Judge Midhat al-Mahmoud, the nation’s top jurist, on Tuesday certified all but two of the names, one from Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc and another from INA. But Mahmoud said any decisions on those two candidates would not affect the distribution of seats among the coalitions. “Based on the articles of the constitution we have decided to approve election results,” Mr. al-Mahmoud said. “The ratification is final,” he added. “There is no need for futher ratification from any side.” (Reuters)

The certification follows months of political upsets that many blame on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s desire to keep his job, even though his coalition lost the popular vote to secular Shiite Ayad Allawi. Allawi, a former prime minister who leads a largely Sunni political bloc, says that, with the largest electoral bloc of 91 seats, he has the right to form the next government. The federal court rendered a decision that the largest bloc on the day the 325-member parliament convenes will be the first contender to appoint the prime minister and in turn his cabinet.

A spokesman for Allawi’s Iraqiya said it still plans to form the government. If it is shut out, Haider al-Mullah said it would be the “assassination” of the political process. (Washington Post)

It is unclear whether the ruling is binding, but Maliki’s tentative merger with the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance could mean that Allawi, most popular among Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis, will not be able to form the next government.

Many Sunni and secular Iraqis are already angered by what they worry will be a Shiite-led government with a smattering of Sunni leaders in their midst to please the sizable Sunni Arab community. Ibrahim al-Mutlaq, a Sunni candidate who was purged for his supposed loyalties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, was reinstated by the court. Mutlaq’s brother Saleh al-Mutlaq, a legislator in Iraq’s last parliament and a member of Allawi’s bloc, was not reinstated. The move to reinstate Ibrahim al-Mutlaq may signal an olive branch as Maliki and his potential partners in the Shiite alliance try to woo Sunni leaders from Allawi’s bloc so their government is seen as inclusive. “The main hurdle was overcome and the only thing left is now to start forming the next government,” Ibrahim al-Mutlaq said by phone from Dubai. “Much time has been lost, almost three months, and during this time there has been a rise in violence and explosions, which should compel all sides to speed up the process.” (Washington Post) He added that “the Iraqi judiciary has proved its independence.” (New York Times)

Maliki is emerging as the most likely contender for Iraq’s top job, but he’s generated even more enemies in his quest to get more votes for his own bloc, which won 89 seats. A partial recount did not change the results. One of the candidates who has not been certified by the court is from his potential partner bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, and the other from Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc. The commission vetoed both candidates and considered them viable for their seats, said Saad al-Rawi, an official at the commission. He said the commission did not know why the court had not certified the two men.

But the prime minister’s strength is in the lack of other viable Shiite contenders.

When the parliament convenes, it will have a road ahead filled with obstacles. In the first session, legislators are to appoint the speaker of the parliament and his two deputies. Following the 2005 election, the parliament convened but kept the session open for several weeks to give political blocs more time to agree on top positions in back-room deals, a tactic Iraqi officials said they probably will use again. Once the speaker and his deputies are appointed, legislators will elect a president, who has 15 days to give the nominee of the largest bloc in parliament the first chance to form a government. If that person fails, the president will ask someone else to try.

More than seven years after the invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, Washington plans to end combat operations officially by September 1 and to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. The number of American forces is scheduled to shrink to about 50,000 by the end of August. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad welcomed the long-awaited certification by the Supreme Court. “This is an important step in the right direction as Iraq undertakes what will be a historic and peaceful transition of power from one elected government to another,” the embassy said in a statement. “With the election results officially certified, we call on Iraq’s political leaders to move forward without delay to form an inclusive and representative government to work on behalf of the Iraqi people.” (Reuters) The U.S. Embassy remained aware of the anger over the talks’ glacial pace and appealed to politicians to move forward quickly. “Now is the time for all political leaders to put the interests of the Iraqi people foremost in their negotiations over the makeup of the new government.” (New York Times)

Politicians, seemingly with varying degrees of sincerity, said the same. “It is important now to start serious and real talks between the political blocs to form the government,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker. “If any more delays happen, the responsibility will fall on the political blocs themselves.” (New York Times)

Many of Iraq’s most influential leaders – Mr. Maliki among them – were in Sulaimaniya where Mr. Talabani was presiding over a conference for his Kurdish party on Tuesday. Noticeably absent was Mr. Allawi, who has traveled abroad often during the crisis. He was in Lebanon on Tuesday when the judge announced the ratification.

Before the March election, most politicians had expected the negotiations over a new government to drag on for weeks and probably longer. But no one quite predicted the intensity of the dispute over the results themselves, testing the fragility of Iraq’s institutions.

Mr. Maliki’s list demanded a recount of votes after finishing narrowly behind Mr. Allawi’s list. A partial recount left those results largely unchanged. A committee of dubious legal standing disqualified candidates for ties to the Baath Party. Only after a shadowy deal did an appeals court overrule the decisions. Last month, a candidate in Mosul, Bashar Mohammad Hamid, was assassinated, and as late as last week, even more challenges were filed.

As a way to move forward, the court left the status of the two candidates pending; even if they end up being barred, they will be replaced by their own parties, leaving the overall numbers the same.