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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 by Iran.

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 war.

(Washington Post)


Ukrainian Presidential Elections signals new Russian influence

By Thanapathi
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 borders.

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 the Baltic.


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 accelerator problem.
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 faulty pedals.
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 February 2005.
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 retaliate.
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 jet

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 do.”
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. – (CNN)

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 links.
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 rail links.
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 migrant boat

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 last week.
An estimated 1.5m Haitians are homeless following the 12 January earthquake.
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 territory.
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 proposed move.
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)