|Blair remains defiant
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday unequivocally
defended the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, telling a panel
investigating Britain’s role in the war that the world was
made “a safer place” by the removal of Saddam Hussein.
“I think he was a monster. I believe he threatened not
just the region, but the world,” Blair said. “If I’m asked
if I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better,
that our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons
out of power . . . then I believe indeed we are.”
At the end of six hours of intense questioning in the
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre next to the Houses of
Parliament, Blair was asked twice whether he had regrets
about his actions. When he did not express remorse, James
Sandry, one of the 80 members of the public who won a public
ballot to sit a few feet from Blair during his testimony
Friday, shouted, “Ah, come on!”
Blair’s testimony has been widely billed as the highlight
of the government-commissioned inquiry launched in July to
investigate Britain’s role before, during and after the
invasion of Iraq. The five-member panel, which is not a
court, is expected to issue a report at the end of the year.
Confident and articulate, the man once known as Teflon
Tony told the panel that September 11, 2001, changed the
“calculus of risk” with respect to Iraq and other countries
including Libya, North Korea and Iran. It also changed
estimates of what could happen if rogue states possessed
weapons of mass destruction, he said.
“If those people, inspired by this religious fanaticism,
could have killed 30,000, they would have,” he said. “The
decision I took, and frankly would take again, was if there
was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass
destruction, we should stop him.” Blair said repeatedly
there are similar fears today over the nuclear threat posed
He acknowledged indirectly that mistakes were made in
postwar planning. “If we knew then what we know now, we
would have done things differently,” he said. Sitting behind
Blair as he was being questioned was Reg Keys, whose son Tom
was one of the 179 British troops who died in Iraq. “He’s
very polished, as is to be expected. A consummate
professional,” Keys said. “None of this is new.”
Some thought the grilling was a chance for Blair to put his
reputation on firmer ground. Since leaving office in 2007,
he has drawn criticism here for his well-paid speeches and
lucrative role as adviser to companies such as J.P. Morgan
and Louis Vuitton. By contrast, he has received little
praise for his charitable and humanitarian work.
Blair’s decision to go to war - which he said he thinks
about every day - was deeply unpopular. “He’s seen like
Nixon was over Watergate. He’s seen to be avoiding the truth
over Iraq. And his lavish lifestyle grates with the British
public,” said Anthony Seldon, a biographer of Blair’s.
Looking tan but grayer than when he left office, Blair
appeared well-prepared, frequently leafing through a black
binder of papers.
The panel, chaired by former civil servant John Chilcot,
has been criticised at times for not pressing hard enough
with questions. At one point Friday, panelist Roderic Lyne,
a former ambassador to Moscow, asked Blair to confirm that
he had correctly summarised testimony on the legal case for
Elections signals new Russian influence
Ukrainians go to the polls on February 7, to
elect a new president. Many believe that the outcome of the
election will determine the course of relations between the
country and its giant neighbour, Russia. The relations
between the former Soviet States has been frosty at best.
Sandwiched between an expanding wealthy Europe and an ever
more assertive Russia, Ukraine has had to make many
difficult choices in balancing the great power game that is
occurring in either side of its borders. Though Ukraine
would like to embrace Europe with open arms, it is
constantly reminded by Russia that such overt relations with
the West would be seen as a hostile action in its domain of
influence. Invariably politics in Ukraine has a tendency of
polarising Pro-Western and Pro- Russian politicians with all
sides meddling in the internal affairs of this nation to get
a foothold in the geographically strategic country. Many
Russians including its leaders see Ukraine as not just a
neighbour but more as an extension of Russia.
In the upcoming election, former Ukrainian Prime Minister
Viktor Yanukovich faces current Prime Minister Yulia
Tymoshenko in a runoff scheduled for February 7. Yanukovich,
who lost the last presidential elections in 2004, is now
seen as the front-runner. He is the leader of the powerful
“Party of Regions” in the Ukrainian Parliament.
Bid to weaken Russia
Current President Victor Yushchenko lost his bid for a
second term in office in the first round of voting on
January 17. During his five-year presidency, Victor
Yushchenko had steered a distinctly pro-Western course,
seeking membership in the European Union and in the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation - or NATO. Russia has
consistently criticised Yushchenko’s pro-European policies
and strongly opposed Ukraine’s NATO membership bid. Any
movement by NATO into Ukraine is seen, at least emotionally,
as a direct encroachment on Russia itself. Behind NATO the
Russians see the United States and U.S. power - and they
remain as convinced as in the past that it is in the U.S.
national interest to weaken Russia as an authentically
independent countervailing pole in the international system,
Irrespective of the presidential run-off’s outcome on
February 7, Moscow has already achieved, largely by default,
certain basic objectives regarding Ukraine. Unlike in the
past when Ukraine was openly flirting with the West and
aspiring for integration with Europe, ignoring the concerns
of Russia, today its leaders have come to a realisation that
it cannot any longer be oblivious to the interests of its
neighbour. Russia has considered an expansion of NATO, the
military alliance of the west that was formulated during the
cold war, as a direct threat to its security. Most of the
former Eastern Europe which was firmly entrenched in the
Soviet block during the Cold War is now part of NATO. More
worrying to Russia several former Soviet States, including
Ukraine and Georgia have also shown keen interest to join
the alliance which would bring US and European troops to its
At this election Russia has managed to remove discussion
of Ukraine’s hypothetical NATO membership from the political
agenda. All serious parties and candidates now avoid this
subject as a political liability in Ukraine and as an
irritant to Russia. Moscow has been content to watch the
defeated President Viktor Yushchenko’s “anti-Russian”
politics be rejected by the electorate.
Russian political influence
Ultimately, Moscow would hope to reach a point at which it
could, together with Ukraine, define what Ukrainian
interests are in the Russia-Ukraine relationship. According
to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov,
Russian policy must ensure that Ukraine’s new president
“understands not to make our relationship hostage to
somebody’s ambitions…that have nothing in common with the
Ukrainian people’s interests, or those of the Russian
people”. Russia is still very far from achieving that kind
of influence over Ukraine’s political system and decisions.
However, Moscow’s intermediate objectives as displayed
during Ukraine’s presidential election campaign could, if
attained, increase Russian political influence gradually to
a significant level in Ukraine. Yanukovich’s the most
favoured candidate to win the election next week started his
political career in the mid 1990s as a member of the Donetzk
regional administration, where he ultimately took over as
chairman and was elected a deputy in the Donetzk regional
council. In 2002, President Leonid Kuchma appointed him
prime minister and he held that position through the first
two rounds of the 2004 presidential election, in which he
was a candidate. In the last presidential election in 2004,
Russia openly supported Viktor Yanukovich, who was declared
the winner in a run-off with Viktor Yuschenko. But hundreds
of thousands of Yushchenko supporters took to the streets,
protesting the results, which were subsequently declared
fraudulent by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and international
monitors. In a second election, Yushchenko defeated
Yanukovich. The protests which were dubbed as the “Orange
Revolution” by the western media, owing to the colour of the
party of the victor, was seen in Moscow as a direct
interference of western interests in its own back yard. Many
believe that the friction between Kiyv and Moscow will
remain whoever is elected president of Ukraine, such as the
long-term, unresolved question of the Russian Black Sea
fleet. But analysts say the strong anti-Russian views as
espoused by President Yushchenko will no longer be part of
the Ukrainian political landscape.
Emerging Russian influence
Russia’s new assertiveness is not limited to Ukraine. It has
increasingly shown greater concern in the central Asian and
Eastern European regions where traditionally the Soviet
Union expressed unchallenged authority in its heyday.
Recently a meeting was held between Russia, Belarus and
Kazakhstan to discuss closer cooperation. A broad
realignment in the region is underway. Each country in the
former Soviet Union is now recalibrating its position in
relation to Russia. Since the Europeans are themselves
dependent on Russian energy and have no significant force,
they cannot block the Russians. The Americans can’t block
the Russians either, given the wars they are fighting in
Iraq and Afghanistan. What is clear is that a new Russian
sphere of influence is emerging. Coming out of two decades
of economic turmoil since the fall of the Soviet Union, the
Russians are finally making their presence felt in its
immediate neighbourhood be it the Caucasus, Central Asia or
|Toyota recalls ‘up to 1.8m’ cars
Toyota says it is recalling up to 1.8 million cars across
Europe, including about 220,000 in the UK, following an
The carmaker says it will recall eight models including the
Yaris, the Corolla and the RAV4 sports utility vehicle.
On Thursday, Toyota announced it was recalling 1.1 million
more cars in the US, a day after suspending sales of eight
popular US models. Toyota then widened the recall to Europe
and China. Last week it recalled 2.3 million US cars with
In a statement, the company said the precise number of
European vehicles involved was still under investigation,
“but may reach up to 1.8 million vehicles.” The eight models
recalled are the AYGO, iQ, Yaris, Auris, Corolla, Verso,
Avensis and RAV4 and cover manufacturing dates going back to
The recall does not affect Lexus models, Toyota said.
“We understand that the current situation is creating
concerns and we deeply regret it,” said Tadashi Arashima,
the chief executive of Toyota Motor Europe.
Toyota said it was not aware of any accidents resulting from
the issue and that only a limited number of incidents
involving accelerator pedals had been reported in Europe.
On Thursday, Toyota said it was recalling 75,552 RAV4
vehicles in China from February 28.
The cars in question were manufactured between March 19,
2009 and 25 January 2010 in Tianjin, according to a notice
on the website of the General Administration of Quality
Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine of the People’s
Republic of China. (BBC news)
|Hamas official murdered in Dubai hotel
The Palestinian militant group Hamas said Friday that one of
its senior officials was murdered in a Dubai hotel room last
week. Hamas accused Israel of the killing and vowed to
The official, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, lived in Syria and was
a founder of Hamas’s military wing, which has carried out
hundreds of deadly attacks against Israel since the 1980s,
Hamas officials said. He had survived several previous
assassination attempts, relatives said, including one three
months ago that left him in a coma for 24 hours.
The Dubai police issued a statement saying that Mabhouh was
killed hours after arriving in the city on January 19 by a
“professional criminal gang” that left Dubai before the body
was discovered. The killers had been tracking him since
before his arrival in Dubai, and most of them travelled on
European passports, the statement said.
Israeli officials declined to comment. - (NYTimes)
|Russia tests its first stealth fighter
Russia tested its fifth-generation Sukhoi
fighter jet in the Russian Far East on Friday.
The plane, provisionally called T-50, is the country’s first
fighter jet based on the stealth technology and is viewed by
military experts as the Russian answer to the American F-35
and F-22 jets.
The flight lasted for 47 minutes and was successful, being
piloted by Sergei Bogdan, one of Russia’s best test pilots,
Sukhoi corporation spokesman Alexei Poveshchenko told CNN.
Speaking to Russian TV from an airfield in
Komsomolsk-on-Amur where the company has its main production
facility, Sukhoi’s General Director Mikhail Pogosian said,
“I think this is a new stage in the development of the
military aircraft industry in our country, and I believe
that this is a very good start of a big work we have yet to
According to the manufacturer, T-50 is an “intellectual” jet
which can fly at any time of the day and in any weather
conditions and is capable of simultaneously attacking
multiple targets in air, on the ground and in the sea. The
plane’s other advertised features include a very high degree
of manoeuverability and its ability to use short airstrips.
|Machu Picchu tourist airlift ends with
1,300 flown out
Police in Peru say they have
airlifted the last of the tourists stranded near the Inca
ruins of Machu Picchu after floods destroyed road and rail
Nearly 1,300 travellers were flown out by helicopters on
Friday, a local policeman told the Associated Press.
A total of nearly 4,000 tourists and local residents have
now left the area following last Sunday’s heavy flooding.
The Machu Picchu site, which attracts more than 400,000
visitors a year, will be closed for several weeks.
Officials say it will take months to repair the railway that
leads to the World Heritage Site high in the mountains.
Tourists were stranded in the town of Aguas Calientes, at
the foot of the ruins, after the heavy rain severed road and
On Friday, seven helicopters - working in rotation - were
ferrying out the travellers to the nearby city of Cuzco.
“Not a single tourist remains in Machu Picchu or in the town
of Aguas Calientes”, said Tourism Minister Martin Perez. The
evacuation, which lasted for nearly a week, was organised by
age, with the elderly and children taken first. Younger
tourists - mostly in their 20s and 30s - were the last ones
to leave the area. - (BBC news)
|Turks and Caicos patrol picks up Haiti
More than 100 Haitians have been
picked up off the Turks and Caicos Islands by marine police
after trying to flee quake-stricken Haiti in a rickety boat.
The authorities in the British overseas territory said the
group was being held in a sports complex rather than being
sent straight back.
Haitians often risk the 90-mile (145km) journey in
overcrowded boats but forced deportations were suspended
An estimated 1.5m Haitians are homeless following the 12
The disaster also left as many as 200,000 people dead.
Some of the Haitians on the boat stopped on Wednesday were
as young as eight, the Turks and Caicos Weekly News reports.
Marine patrols were recently stepped up, the newspaper
reports, because of fears that large numbers of Haitians
might seek to leave their devastated country for the
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa arrived in Haiti’s
capital, Port-au-Prince, on Friday with a shipment of
medical aid. Correa, the temporary head of the Union of
South American Nations (Unasur), is reported by AFP news
agency as saying the regional bloc would lend its support as
Haiti rebuilds. - (BBC news)
|Argentina central bank boss resigns
Argentina’s Central Bank Chief Martin Redrado has resigned
following a bitter public row with President Cristina
Fernandez de Kirchner.
Redrado said he could do no more to protect the independent
institution of the bank from the president’s efforts to
control its dollar reserves.
He had blocked the president’s attempt to use $6.6b (£4b) in
the bank reserves to service Argentina’s debt.
The president says the country will benefit from her
Mrs Fernandez de Kirchner says it will bolster Argentina’s
standing in international markets.
Argentina has $13b of international debt that matures this
year, and a hole in its budget of between $2b and $7b.
Announcing his resignation, Redrado accused of “permanently
trampling institutions” and seeking to use “the savings of
all Argentines”.- (BBC news)