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Netanyahu to hold key White House talks

In Uncategorized on July 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama hosts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for a White House summit that could see a strong push for direct peace talks with the Palestinians.


A warm red-carpet welcome is expected, in stark contrast to Netanyahu’s previous visit in March when he was given the cold shoulder by Obama because of a row over the expansion of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem.

US President Barack Obama walks towards the Oval Office at the White House. AFP

A diplomatic flurry in the run-up to this visit, including talks on Monday between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, suggested movement in the stagnant peace process.


The political calculus has also changed with Obama more jumpy about the important US-Israel axis in the run-up to mid-term elections and Netanyahu appearing keener for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.


“I believe that a main part of my conversations with President Obama in Washington next week will be focused on how to start direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians right away,” Netanyahu said last week.


Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will hold a working lunch with the Israeli leader from 12:35 (1635 GMT), according to the White House.


While no major announcements are expected, US officials talked optimistically about the chances of progress after weeks of shuttle diplomacy by Obama’s Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell.


“Certainly a major focus of the discussion will be around the progress that’s been made so far in the proximity talks and the opportunity to make the transition into direct talks,” said White House adviser Dan Shapiro.


“We feel that already in the little over a month that these talks have been going on, the gaps have narrowed. And we believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps to allow the sides to take that next step to the direct talks.”


The Palestinians froze direct negotiations in December 2008 when Israel launched a deadly 22-day offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to halt rocket attacks.


Also on the agenda will be Iran’s nuclear programme and Gaza, where Israel has eased a four-year blockade following pressure after its deadly raid on an aid flotilla that killed nine Turks, one of them with US nationality.


The May 31 raid badly damaged relations between Israel and Turkey, two key US allies. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned on the eve of the visit that ties with Israel would be cut unless an apology was forthcoming.


State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said he expected Netanyahu to give Obama “a report on the early stages of the Israeli investigation into the flotilla tragedy” and that the two would discuss “recent progress” on Gaza.


When Netanyahu and Obama last met in March, the Israeli leader was reportedly chastised by his host and denied privileges customarily granted to foreign dignitaries, even the ritual handshake photo.


It was an expression of Washington’s ire at Israeli plans to build 1,600 Jewish homes in annexed east Jerusalem, announced during a trip to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden in a move that Washington called “insulting.”


This time, the temperature in the White House is likely to be warmer, with the usual niceties observed.


Obama’s Democratic Party is expected to face a tough battle in November’s mid-term elections and could lose its congressional majority, while Netanyahu is negotiating his own political minefield.


Obama wants Israel to extend a West Bank settlement freeze due to expire in September, but right wingers in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, fiercely oppose a further moratorium.

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Source: SGGP

Rare white elephant caught in Myanmar

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2010 at 8:47 am

YANGON, June 29 (AFP) – A rare white elephant, historically considered an omen of political change, has been captured in the west of Myanmar, state media reported Tuesday.


The female pachyderm was captured by officials on Saturday in the coastal town of Maungtaw in Rakhine state, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.

A photo illustration of a boy making offerings to an elephant at a Buddhist shrine. (AFP files)

She is aged about 38 and seven feet four inches (more than two metres) tall, the English-language paper said, although it did not mention where she would be kept.


Kings and leaders in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, have traditionally treasured white elephants, whose rare appearances in the country are believed to herald political change.

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Source: SGGP

White male suspect linked to Times Square car bomb

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 12:28 pm

NEW YORK (AFP) – New York police on Monday hunted a middle aged white male seen near a car bomb in Times Square that sparked a new terrorist alert and authorities discounted an Al-Qaeda link.


The man in his 40s was caught on a security camera taking his shirt off near the car just before the alert was raised and police cleared thousands of tourists away from the packed theatre district, officials said.

A New York traffic cop mans his post in a quiet Times Square near where a crude car bomb was discovered. AFP photo

President Barack Obama vowed to track down the attackers and investigators said there were several strong leads as to who abandoned the Nissan Pathfinder utility vehicle with a large, spluttering homemade bomb inside late Saturday.


Police studied footage from 82 security cameras around Times Square and evidence from the car and bomb, which were hauled to New York police laboratories.


One film sequence showed the man that city police chief Raymond Kelly said was acting in a “furtive” manner as he hurried away from the area.


He was “a white male in his 40s” and “seen shedding a dark colored shirt revealing a red one underneath,” Kelly said.


He added that a tourist had contacted police to say he “may have got a picture of the individual” while he was filming a nearby mounted policeman.


While New York has been on a terrorist alert ever since the September 11, 2001 attacks, authorities have ruled out a major Islamist militant link to the bomb.


Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “There is no evidence that this is tied in with Al-Qaeda or any other big terrorist organization.”


Kelly also dismissed a claim of responsibility made over the Internet by the Pakistani group Tehreek-e-Taliban.


“I’m confident we’ll find out who did it,” Bloomberg said alongside the police officer who was first on the scene and whom the mayor treated to dinner in Times Square as a reward.


“This is the crossroads of the world. People feel safe in New York and they will continue to come here,” Bloomberg said.


On a visit to the oil spill on Louisiana’s coast, Obama said US security services had taken “every step necessary” in the hunt.


It remained unclear why the device — comprised of fireworks, propane, gasoline and possibly fertilizer — failed to detonate, despite smoldering after partly catching fire in the back of the Nissan.


Kelly said the bomb would have created a “significant fireball” in the teeming district. The car “would have at least have been cut in half.”


The engine was still running and the emergency lights were blinking when the smoking car attracted a nearby street vendor.


The vendor, a Vietnam War veteran, told police who quickly brought in the bomb squad.


“I did a lap around the vehicle. The inside was smoking,” the first officer on the scene, Wayne Rhatigan, told the New York Daily News. “I smelled gunpowder and knew it might blow. I thought it might blow any second.”


Kelly said the license plate on the utility vehicle belonged to a vehicle traced back to a Connecticut junkyard.


Officials said the attempted bombing was terrorism, but they were cautious about suggesting who might have been behind the attack, raising speculation that domestic militants were responsible.


Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the FBI, the New York police and the government’s Terrorism Task Force were probing a “potential terrorist attack.”


There was no evidence of a broader plot, but law enforcement authorities had been alerted to “stay on their toes,” she said.


The bomb, while threatening “mayhem,” according to Kelly, was comprised of the kind of materials available from regular stores. Bloomberg called it “amateurish.”


Kelly described a multi-layered device consisting of two alarm clocks as timers, a pot of fireworks as detonator, two canisters of gasoline, three propane gas tanks and a large box containing what was believed to be fertilizer.


The scare raised tensions across the United States where security forces have been on edge since a young Nigerian allegedly attempted to set off a bomb on a US airliner as it came in to land in Detroit, Michigan.


New York City police are on constant alert after a string of plots since the September 11, 2001 attacks.


In February, Afghan migrant and self-confessed Al-Qaeda agent Najibullah Zazi, 25, pleaded guilty to a plot to set off bombs in New York’s subway system. He could be sentenced to life in prison.

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Source: SGGP

White House cranks up pressure on finance reform

In Uncategorized on April 20, 2010 at 9:45 am

(AFP file) The White House has sought to tar Republicans with Wall Street excess, as President Barack Obama cranked up his campaign to quickly pass the most sweeping regulatory reform law in decades.

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The White House on Monday sought to tar Republicans with Wall Street excess, as President Barack Obama cranked up his campaign to quickly pass the most sweeping regulatory reform law in decades.


Aides said Obama will venture into the heart of the US financial capital in New York to make a major speech on Thursday on measures designed to purge high-risk and bloated corporate practices blamed for unleashing a meltdown.


Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was meeting two key Republican senators as the administration searched for one or more extra votes needed to pass a Senate bill, over the complaints of the opposition party’s leaders.


Fraud charges leveled against Goldman Sachs meanwhile underscored the alleged finance industry excess the White House is targeting, though officials said they had no prior notice the Wall Street titan was under investigation.


Obama will Thursday make a speech at Cooper Union, a college a few miles from the epicenter of the US finance industry, stepping up a campaign to enact what is billed as the most important regulatory reform law since the 1930s.


“Almost two years after the crisis hit and almost one year after the administration first laid out a detailed plan for holding Wall Street accountable and protecting consumers, (Obama) will call for swift Senate action,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.


“The crisis has already wiped out trillions of dollars in family wealth and cost over eight million jobs.


“The president will also remind Americans what is at stake if we do not move forward with changing the rules of the road as a part of a strong Wall Street reform package.”


Political debate over Obama’s financial reform drive is being colored by looming mid-term congressional elections in November.


Republicans face the tricky political task of opposing this next chunk of Obama’s domestic reform drive while avoiding being portrayed by Democrats as in the pocket of Wall Street finance barons blamed for sparking the crisis.


Democrats last week accused Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of grossly misrepresenting the bill, but he took to the Senate floor Monday to accuse his foes of scuppering efforts for a bipartisan compromise.


“It seems to me that a far more efficient way of proceeding is to just skip the character attacks on anyone who dares to point out flaws with the bill,” McConnell said.


“Forget the theatrics, and get to work.”


But Gibbs sought to frame McConnell as a friend of Wall Street bankers, rather than American voters struggling after the worst recession in decades.


“I don’t know whether Senator McConnell is interested in putting Wall Street in charge or putting the American people back in charge, but… he’ll have a chance to register whose side he’s on later on this month.”


In a bid to attract some Republican support, the administration has offered to jettison the idea of a liquidation fund, that would be paid for by top banks themselves to actually protect taxpayers.


Republicans have argued that the fund would effectively encourage more taxpayer bailouts — a claim denounced by Democrats as deliberate misinformation.


Geithner met Maine senator Susan Collins, a centrist Republican who could represent a swing vote. Collins called for more negotiations on a bipartisan compromise bill.


“I expressed to the secretary my opposition to the partisan (Democratic) bill,” Collins told reporters.


“But I also told him of my belief that we can work work out a truly bipartisan bill that will strengthen our financial system.”


All 41 Senate Republicans signed a letter last week pledging to oppose the bill in its current form.


The first formal public clash on the bill is likely come later this week with a Senate test vote on financial reform.


Powerful Democratic Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd suggested fraud charges leveled against Goldman showed the need for new industry rules.


Without naming Goldman, Dodd cited “a legal matter” affecting “a major investment firm in New York” and stressed: “Our bill would have prevented that kind of event from happening, in my view.”


Gibbs meanwhile said that the White House had no idea last week that the Securities and Exchange Commission, an independent agency, was preparing the charges.


Obama first laid out a version of Wall Street reform at Cooper Union during his presidential election campaign in 2008.


Last September, Obama traveled to within a few blocks of the US Stock Exchange to warn Wall Street bosses were ignoring lessons of the financial crisis, and demanded a new age of prudence after years of unchecked excess.


Obama gave a preview of the tone of this week’s remarks on Saturday, in his weekly radio and online address.


“We will hold Wall Street accountable. We will protect and empower consumers in our financial system. That’s what reform is all about,” he said.


“If we don’t change what led to the crisis, we’ll doom ourselves to repeat it. That’s the truth,” the president warned. “Opposing reform will leave taxpayers on the hook if a crisis like this ever happens again.”

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Source: SGGP

Gates warns White House over ‘Iran nukes’ policy: report

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2010 (AFP) – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned the White House it does not have an effective policy for dealing with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons push, The New York Times reported late Saturday.


Citing unnamed government officials, the newspaper said one senior official described the secret memorandum, which was written in January, as “a wake-up call.”

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates(AFP photo)

According to the report, the document sparked efforts in the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for President Barack Obama.


They included secret military operation against Iran if international sanctions failed to force the country to change its approach, the paper said.


Gates wrote in the memorandum about several of his concerns, including a scenario that many experts consider the most likely, The Times said.


Under this scenario, Iran would assemble all the major parts required but stop short of actually making a fully operational weapon.


In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what experts call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state, the report said.


The memorandum also urged the White House to think about how the United States might contain Iran if it decided to produce a weapon; and how to deal with the possibility that nuclear fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the militant groups Iran supports, the paper said.


Asked if the story was accurate, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell told AFP that Secretary Gates believed “the president and his national security team have spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort considering and preparing for the full range of contingencies with respect to Iran.”

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Source: SGGP

Netanyahu, Obama meet in night of White House diplomacy

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 at 3:53 pm

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama met twice during a dramatic evening in the White House, but no signs emerged of a breakthrough in a row over Jewish settlements.


Obama hosted Netanyahu in the Oval Office late Tuesday for 90 minutes, but with the two sides embroiled in their most testy disagreement in years, unusually did not appear before the cameras with his visitor.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) walks into the West Wing of the White House in Washington. AFP photo

As an evening of intense diplomacy developed, Netanyahu then asked to consult privately with his staff, a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.


After just over an hour ensconced in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing, the Israeli leader asked to see Obama again, and the president returned from his family quarters for a second Oval Office encounter of 35 minutes.


Shortly afterwards, Netanyahu swept away from the White House in his limousine, without glancing at reporters.


White House officials declined to describe the tone or the substance of the talks or to say if any agreements had been proposed or reached.Chronology: US-Israeli relations since 1991


Earlier, Netanyahu, joined at the talks by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, took a hard line on US demands for a freeze in settlement construction, saying Washington’s stance could delay peace talks with the Palestinians for a year.


“If the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year,” Netanyahu said.


“Relations between Israel and the United States should not be hostage to differences between the two countries over the peace process with the Palestinians,” he was quoted as saying by Israeli media.


The talks, which likely also focused on Iran’s nuclear challenge, as Washington tries to focus the world on framing tough sanctions towards Tehran, took place amid one of the most corrosive US-Israeli rows in decades.


Netanyahu declared late Monday in a passionate speech to the powerful US-Israel lobby AIPAC that “Jerusalem is not a settlement,” spelling out an apparent message of no compromise towards Obama.


The United States has warned that building more Jewish settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem directly undermines US credibility as a mediator and efforts to get “proximity” talks started between Israel and the Palestinians.


Washington reacted angrily when Israel’s government announced the construction of 1,600 settler homes in the eastern part of the city while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the country.


Despite Netanyahu’s apology over the timing of the announcement, the row has rumbled on for two weeks — with neither side showing signs of backing down.


Even as Tuesday’s White House meeting went ahead, it emerged in Israel that local officials had given final approval for the building of 20 apartments for Jewish settlers at the site of a former Palestinian hotel in east Jerusalem.


Netanyahu says he is simply following the policies of all Israeli governments since 1967, when Israel won a war with its Arab neighbors and seized east Jerusalem, which it later annexed in a move not recognized by any major world power.


Israel claims all Jerusalem as its eternal capital. The Palestinians want to make the predominantly Arab eastern sector of the city the future seat of their state.


Deepening the sense of crisis Tuesday, the Palestinians warned Netanyahu’s position threatened to destroy hopes for serious peace negotiations.


“What Netanyahu said does not help American efforts and will not serve the efforts of the American administration to return the two sides to indirect negotiations,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.


Netanyahu met Obama as his government was embroiled in another row, this time with Britain, over the use of fake British passports by an Israeli hit squad blamed for killing Hamas commander Mahmud al-Mabhuh in Dubai.


Britain ordered the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the affair. Israel, which has said there is no evidence its spy agency Mossad is to blame, said it was disappointed at the decision.


Despite criticizing Israel over settlements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told AIPAC on Monday that US support for Israel’s security is “rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”

White House warns foes on terror politics

In World on December 28, 2009 at 7:48 am

The White House warned political foes Sunday not to provoke a partisan tug of war over terrorism, with President Barack Obama yet to publicly address the thwarted attack on a US airliner.








US soldiers in Afghanistan

A political storm erupted over the attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian to bring down a Northwest jet carrying 290 people, as senior Obama aides cranked up a sweeping national and homeland security operation.


But the president, vacationing in Hawaii, conspicuously has not commented on television about the Christmas Day drama, apparently seeking to project calm and avoid the political trauma and panic unleashed by past terror incidents.


“The president believes strongly that this has to be a non-partisan issue,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told NBC in one of a string of television appearances he and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made Sunday.


“This should not be a tug of war between the two political parties. I hope everyone will resolve in the New Year to make protecting our nation non-partisan — rather than what happens in Washington, devolving into politics,” he said.


Obama got a 6 am (1600 GMT) briefing on latest developments in the probe into the airborne terror bid from top national security aides, the White House said in the latest regular bulletin on his response to the crisis.


He later quickly convened a fresh secure teleconference with top advisors, after a second alert aboard another Amsterdam-Detroit flight Sunday, though the incident turned out to be a false alarm triggered by a disruptive passenger.


Gibbs also said that Obama ordered a review of US no-fly watch-lists and demanded information on how a suspected radical could board the Detroit-bound airliner rigged with explosives.


But the president’s Republican foes made the first political thrusts following Thursday’s attack on a Northwest jet heading to Detroit, accusing him of softening the US focus on radical Islamic terror threats.


They also questioned Napolitano’s statement that the air security system “worked,” referring to the fact that alert passengers and crew jumped Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before his device could fully detonate.


New York Congressman Peter King said there was no need for Obama to “rush for a microphone” but noted the president’s media ubiquity over the past year and asked him for a “calm, reassuring” pep talk.


“Tell the American people, ‘this is what we’re doing; we’re on top of this; we’re going to win, but this is a reminder of why we always have to be alert to the evils of Islamic terrorism,'” King told CBS.


“There has been a virtual vacuum for the last day- and-a-half.”


The White House countered that Obama has constantly monitored the situation, ordered probes into airline security and the use of intelligence and hiked airport precautions.


“The president refuses to play politics with these issues as he said at West Point (in December). We must put aside petty politics and recapture the unity that we had after 9/11,” said another Obama spokesman, Bill Burton in Hawaii.


Democrats repeatedly accused ex-president George W. Bush’s administration of exploiting terror scares for political gain.


But Republicans leveraged Thursday’s drama to bolster their theme that Obama’s policies, including reaching out to the Muslim world and closing the Guantanamo Bay terror camp, were making Americans less safe.


“This whole thing should remind us, that the soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo — these things are not going to appease the terrorists,” said South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint on Fox.


“They’re going to keep coming after us.”


Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra added “What do we have here? This is an international movement of radicalization.


“The Obama administration came in and said, ‘We’re not going to use the word terrorism anymore’… trying to, you know, I think, downplay the threat from terrorism.”


Obama aides have been less prone to use the phrase “war on terror” than the previous White House, but insist they have refocused the US anti-terror fight.


“The president certainly has taken steps in his time in office to re-orient our priorities as it comes to fighting that war on terror,” Gibbs said.


“We are drawing down in Iraq and focusing… on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the place where the attacks of 9/11 originated,” and also focusing on Yemen and Somalia.


 


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