US mulls sending 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan    

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States is considering sending an extra 7,000 troops to Afghanistan next year to make up for a shortfall in contributions from NATO allies, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the newspaper said if the plan was to be approved, the number of US troops in the country would rise to about 40,000, and entail at least a modest reduction in troops from Iraq.

President George W. Bush told allies at a NATO summit in Bucharest last month that the United States would significantly increase its force levels in Afghanistan next year.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also has pushed other European allies to provide combat troops and equipment to fill shortfalls in the volatile south, but the response so far has been tepid.

But The Times said the Pentagon now appears resigned to the fact that NATO is unable or unwilling to contribute more troops despite its public pledges.

The increasing proportion of US troops in Afghanistan, from about half to about two-thirds of all foreign troops in the country, will likely result in what one senior administration official described as “the re-Americanization” of the war, the report said.
“There are simply going to be more American forces than we’ve ever had there,” the paper quoted the official as saying.

So far a dozen NATO countries have pledged a total of about 2,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, while alliance commanders have asked for 10,000, according to the paper.

The United States currently has about 34,000 troops in Afghanistan, 16,000 of them under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in eastern Afghanistan.

The other 18,000 are involved in counter-terrorism operations and training of Afghan security forces.
But a contingent of some 2,500 US Marines was deployed to Afghanistan last month to reinforce NATO forces in the south for seven months.


Dalai Lama envoys expected in China

BEIJING (AFP) - China kept up a barrage of criticism against the Dalai Lama Saturday even as two of his envoys were set to arrive for talks on unrest in Tibet that has marred the runup to the Olympics.

Chinese state media carried no reference to the much-anticipated meetings, instead accusing Tibet’s spiritual leader of seeking to sabotage the Beijing Games in August.

The Tibet Daily warned against the “Dalai clique,” a loosely defined term referring to people close to the Tibetan leader-in-exile.
“As long as the Dalai clique still exists, our struggle with the Dalai clique will not stop. We must raise our vigilance and absolutely cannot relax,” the newspaper said Saturday.

Beijing last month offered to reopen dialogue, a move widely seen as a response to global pressure over China’s crackdown on unrest in Tibet.

Protests against the March crackdown have targeted the Olympic torch relay on its worldwide journey, particularly in London and Paris, angering Beijing and provoking anti-Western sentiment among Chinese.

The envoys, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, have arrived in Hong Kong en route to mainland China for the talks, a spokesman for the Tibetan government-in-exile in the Indian town of Dharamshala said Friday.

“During this brief visit, the envoys will take up the urgent issue of the current crisis in the Tibetan areas,” Thubten Samphel told AFP.

“The envoys will raise the issue of moving forward on the process for a mutually satisfactory solution to the Tibetan issue,” he added.

Amid intense interest, exiled Tibetan leaders have sought to play down expectations, saying the talks were not even on a par with six earlier rounds of dialogue that started in late 2002 and broke off in 2007.
“It is not the seventh round of talks,” Tibetan prime minister-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche has said. “It is only an informal consultation.”

Details of the talks, including their time and location, have not been released by either side.
A spokesman for the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharamshala said the talks were unlikely to be held in Beijing but refused to say more. Chinese officials were not available Saturday for comment.

However, state media continued their attacks on the Dalai Lama, quoting a member of a government advisory board on Tibet saying he was targeting the Olympics for sabotage.

“The Dalai clique’s fond dream of ‘Tibet independence’ and its dangerous plan of sabotaging Tibet’s economy and the Beijing Olympics will be shattered,” Tibet Daily quoted the member saying.

The Tibetan government-in-exile says 203 people were killed and some 1,000 hurt in the unrest and crackdown.
At least 5,715 people have been arrested since the protests began, according to figures, which the government says have been extensively cross-checked.

China said 20 people had been killed by Tibetan rioters until Monday, when state media for the first time said police shot dead a Tibetan pro-independence “insurgent”.

Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950 and officially annexed the region a year later. The Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland following the 1959 uprising, has repeatedly accused China of widespread rights violations there.


Tiny Guam has its say on US presidential outcome

HAGATNA, (AFP) - On the distant Pacific island of Guam, nearly a day’s plane ride from Washington, a few thousand voters seized centre stage Saturday in the race for the US Democratic presidential nomination.
Early turnout for the Democratic caucus was low as temperatures hovered around 90 degrees (32 Celsius), but picked up as the afternoon wore on.

“As of noon, nearly every village has exceeded the expected number of voters. By 2:00pm the party had to send additional ballots for these villages,” said Joshua Tenorio, who heads Barack Obama’s local campaign office.
Local party officials said they expected around 4,000 people to have cast their ballots by the time polls closed at 8:00pm (1000 GMT).

With only four party votes at stake, each is now crucial to the clash in which Obama leads Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin estimated at 1,738 to 1,599.
Results are expected around 1600 GMT Saturday.
Although there was no obvious pre-election favourite, political analyst Dr Ron McNinch forecast Obama to take 65 percent of the vote.

McNinch, a professor at the University of Guam, said voter sampling showed Obama had a “cross-cutting demographic appeal in Guam and in a number of ways he has a better sort of connection to our public”.

The caucus is the only opportunity Guam residents will get to influence the presidential outcome. The island’s people, while US citizens, cannot vote in November’s presidential election.

“We’re a little island that doesn’t matter most of the time because we’re thousands of miles away from (Washington) DC,” said local resident Tes Venzon.

“This political event gives us our chance to push for our own local issues, which are largely ignored by Washington.”
Guam, a US territory since 1898, rarely steps into the limelight of US politics as it lies on the other side of the international dateline.

Its sudden high profile has prompted jokes from some commentators as the island is better known as a US military base and scene of some of the bloodiest battles against the Japanese in World War II.

The Western Pacific island of just 540 square kilometres (209 square miles) has about 48,000 registered voters, and residents wanted Obama and Clinton to address its political status and self-determination.

“In this situation in which every single delegate vote counts to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Guam suddenly feels its own political significance,” said Guam Democratic Party chairman Tony Charfauros.
“We used to not get this kind of national attention, but when the caucus started coming up, all the issues affecting Guam suddenly received attention in the nation’s capital.”

Neither Obama nor Clinton visited Guam ahead of the vote but both vowed to address local issues, such as the relocation of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa in Japan and war reparation claims.

The troop transfer plan has been a major campaign concern. The US military owns nearly one-third of Guam, base of the largest US naval bases in the region. The island hopes the buildup will solve its economic woes.

Obama has pledged that local contractors would get the lion’s share of the upcoming construction work to build homes and offices for the arriving forces.

His campaign has insisted that the Illinois senator, born in Hawaii, has an instinctive understanding of the problems facing the tiny territory.

Apart from the island’s four delegates to the party’s nominating convention in August, it also has five so-called superdelegates who can vote for whomever they like.

One of them is Madeleine Bordallo, the island’s only representative to the US Congress, who has yet to take sides.
The local Pacific Daily News estimates Clinton and Obama will get at least one each of the superdelegates.


Ahmadinejad takes Sri Lanka by storm

The Iranian President arrived on the evening of April 28 and left on the afternoon of April 29. He was in the island for less than 24 hours.

In that time space he addressed religious leaders of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim clergy at the banquet hall of the Galadari Hotel in Colombo, which was filled to capacity with other invitees too and later in the morning laid the foundation stone and unveiled a plaque at the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery.

He was not able to lay the foundation stone at Uma-Oya due to bad weather conditions that were not conducive for a helicopter flight. On his arrival, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave him a royal welcome and the Sri Lankan Navy accorded him a smart guard of honour.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the hearts of all Sri Lankans during this very short visit. What took Sri Lankans by surprise is that they had never seen a head of state like him before in all their lives. They surmised that he was very modest and humble, that simplicity was a hallmark of his character.

Just like the masses of Iranian people, Sri Lankans took a natural liking to him. His quiet charisma was irresistible. They knew that he was a genuine fruit of Imam Khomeini’s Islamic revolution with impeccable revolutionary credentials. They also observed that what distinguished Ahmadinejad were his lifestyle, his down-to-earth demeanour, and his record of selflessness in the service he has rendered to the people of Iran.

It was magic to meet the man; anyone would take an instant liking to him! One can attribute this feeling in oneself because of the purity of his heart. He would certainly have practiced the Islamic sciences and disciplines associated with the purification of the heart called ‘Irfan.’

The speech he delivered addressing the clergy of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic faiths was both amazing and astounding. The capacity-filled hall contained, other than the clergy, laymen of all four faiths.

“Iran always desired and wished Sri Lanka progress and honour… I am sure that people and religious leaders of this beautiful country will render a great service to humanity by working together in peace and brotherhood and I thank God for it,” he said.

The Iranian President remarked that a very friendly atmosphere prevailed during his visit. “God created man to enable him to identify God and be humble before Him. By doing this God has elevated man to a high pedestal… Therefore man should live happily in unity and mutual cooperation with others during his short life span,” he said.

The Iranian President, who emphasised the need to abhor hatred, enmity and jealousy, promote mutual love and respect and shelve injustice and aggressiveness, said that these are basic tenets of all religions.

He said Sri Lankans were compassionate people and they commanded the honour, respect and friendship of the Iranian people. He added that the Iranian people desired close cooperation with the people of Sri Lanka and he wished Sri Lanka a bright future.
Ahmadinejad also added that unity among all religious leaders would enable them to overcome any threat or force and invited them to tour Iran in the near future.

This speech had an electrifying effect on the audience. When the speech was over there was resounding applause. When the meeting concluded the audience together with all the clergy rushed to the stage to congratulate President Ahmadinejad and wish him.

It was indeed very difficult for Ahmadinejad to get back to his room in the hotel as hundreds of well-wishers thronged around him to shake his hand and even embrace and kiss him.

The sincere feelings expressed by President Ahmadinejad for the people of Sri Lanka indeed are like torrents of rain after an oppressive drought. When the US and the European allies have for a long time pressurised Sri Lanka with charges of human rights abuse and covertly threatened to withdraw GSP+ facilities and aid and even give veiled threats of R2P enforcement, the goodwill of Ahmadinejad’s offer of development at Sapugaskanda and Uma-Oya with more help to follow was something that gladdened every Sri Lankan’s heart.

If nothing else, there is hope for a better tomorrow in this strife-torn island, which has, for almost three decades, suffered immensely. President Ahmadinejad was surely a welcome breath of fresh air.
– Saybhan Samat, Rajagiriya


Muslim rebels drive Christians from Philippines rice farms

COTABATO (AFP) - Armed Muslim separatists forced some 1,200 Christian settlers from a rice-farming hamlet in the southern Philippines, authorities said Friday.
Around 300 gunmen confiscated the farmers’ rice harvest and demanded that the residents give them food, said local mayor Rodolfo Garcia.

A police unit dispatched to the village on the island of Mindanao backed off to avoid a potential confrontation with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), he said.
The tense situation has sparked fears of renewed fighting after Malaysia decided last week to pull its peacekeepers from Mindanao within the year.

Garcia told reporters at least 200 families in the village of Sangay, or more than a third of the village population of about 3,500 Christian and Muslim farmers, fled their homes after the MILF guerrillas deployed there on Tuesday.

He said the rebels ordered the farmers to leave Muslim ancestral lands.
“They (MILF) claimed their forefathers owned the land we are farming and at gun point told us to leave,” Garcia quoted one of the evacuees as saying.

Garcia said he has appealed to the military and the police to settle the conflict.
“They (police) were not allowed entry, so they backed off to avoid bloodshed,” he added.
The Christians in the area are mostly settlers who have acquired formal titles to the farmlands, the mayor said.
Eid Kabalu, spokesman for the 12,000-member MILF, told AFP some of its guerrillas are in the area because they are related to some of the Muslim residents.

“It’s a long-standing land dispute,” he said. “But so far there has been no violence. We are trying to resolve their conflict peacefully.”

The MILF warned Tuesday of an “impending crisis” in peace talks, blaming the government for Malaysia’s planned pullout from an international peacekeeping mission here.

Manila and the MILF struck a deal last November on creating a Muslim homeland in the country’s south, which was expected to lead to a peace accord, but further talks have fallen through.
The agreement calls for revenue-sharing with the government on Mindanao land the Muslims consider their ancestral domain.


Brown left reeling by British election ‘massacre’

LONDON (AFP) - The opposition Conservative party seized control of London on Saturday piling pressure on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after the ruling Labour Party’s worst local election results in four decades.

Gaffe-prone lawmaker Boris Johnson beat maverick left winger Ken Livingstone in the battle for London, the key prize in the elections that the British media said became a “May Day Massacre” of Labour.

Amid widespread predictions of the end of a political era for the ruling party, Brown could launch a fight back as early as next week, when a new legislative programme is outlined.

He admitted the results from elections across England and Wales and London were “bad”, but blamed the effects of the global credit crunch for the centre-left party’s defeat.