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McCain backs rebels, Libya changes tack in Misrata
BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) - NATO carried out fresh air raids on Tripoli Saturday as Moamer Kadhafi’s government planned to withdraw from the besieged third city of Misrata and leave local tribes to fight off insurgents.
Senior US Senator John McCain urged the Western coalition on Friday to launch intensified air strikes against Libyan troops and recognise the rebels’ council as he became the highest-ranking US politician to visit the rebel-held east since the popular uprising began in mid-February.
Rebels bogged down in their bid to oust Kadhafi on Friday hailed a US decision to deploy armed drones over Libya.
“We hope that this can bring some relief to the people in Misrata,” the rebels’ media liaison Mustafa Gheriani told AFP of the rebel-held city in western Libya that has been pounded by Kadhafi’s forces for more than six weeks, leaving hundreds dead.
AFP journalists reported hearing several blasts early Saturday after many warplanes flew over the Libyan capital.
Anti-aircraft fire rang out as ambulance sirens wailed. Al-Libya television said Tripoli was “now the target of raids by the barbaric crusader colonialist aggressor,” a term used for Western forces.
The official JANA news agency reported that two people died in NATO air raids late Friday on the Zenten region southwest of Tripoli where stepped up fighting has taken place with rebels who hold several towns. NATO warplanes had overflown Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi’s stronghold throughout the day.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said armed tribesmen would be dispatched to Misrata, while the army would be phased out, to deal with the rebellion “using force or negotiation.’
Kaim said US President Barack Obama’s administration had decided to send drones to Libya “to assassinate the people,” accusing Washington of “new crimes against humanity” after those he said had been committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A NATO official said the unmanned drones and their precision would give the allies more options, especially in urban warfare.
“The use of drones will make it easier to target Kadhafi forces in crowded urban areas.
A vehicle like the Predator, that can get down lower and can get IDs, will better help us carrying out the mission with precision and care,” the official said.
The US military’s top officer, meanwhile, said allied air strikes had destroyed 30 to 40 percent of Kadhafi’s forces and noted the conflict was progressing into a stalemate.
“I am sure that NATO forces will continue to attrite the military capability of the regime forces,” Admiral Michael Mullen said in Baghdad.
Rebels, who on Thursday overran a post on the Tunisian border in their first advance in weeks against Kadhafi’s forces, have complained that civilians are being killed in places like Misrata, where entire streets have been pulverised by gunfire, shelling and cluster bombs.
“Our houses are being hit by bombs and rockets,” said 45-year-old Ibrahim Issa Abu Hajjar, who fled the city with hundreds of civilians aboard a Turkish ferry to Benghazi.


US drone kills 23 after Taliban attack in Pakistan

MIRANSHAH, Pakistan (AFP) - A US drone strike targeting Taliban in northwest Pakistan killed 23 people including three civilians on Friday, officials said, after 16 security forces died in an insurgent attack.
It was the first missile strike to hit North Waziristan tribal district since a diplomatic furore erupted between Pakistan and the United States over a drone attack on March 17, which killed 39 people including civilians.
The pilotless aircraft targeted two compounds in Spinwam, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan.
“The drones launched two successive attacks. In the first strike they fired two missiles and in the second they released three more,” a military official in the area said.
Military officials in Peshawar said the death toll had risen from 20 to 23, with two women and one boy among the dead, although that could not be independently verified.
Another official said the rest of the dead were insurgents, but there was no report of any high value target and their nationalities were unknown.
“The missiles hit a house and a nearby guest house in Hasan Khel town in Spinwam area,” another official said, adding that the two buildings belong to a tribesman supporter of local Taliban leader Gul Bahadur.
Local security and administration officials in Miranshah gave a higher toll of 25 dead, including three women and four children.
Most drone attacks have been in North Waziristan, the most notorious Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda bastion in Pakistan, where the United States wants the Pakistan military to launch a ground offensive as soon as possible.
Pakistan says its troops are too overstretched to mount such an assault.
In the far north of the troubled region bordering war-torn Afghanistan, 16 security officials were killed on Thursday in Taliban attacks on a checkpost being set up on the frontier, a military official said.
He said 200 armed militants had surrounded the post in the Kharkai area of Lower Dir, a district bordering Afghanistan’s eastern Nuristan province.
The first ambush saw 14 security personnel killed, he said, and a further two died in a subsequent attack on troops sent to reinforce the position.
In the first attack, “14 people were killed including nine Frontier Corps soldiers and five police officials,” the official said, adding that five or six other officials were wounded.
The violence came as US and Pakistani officials wrangle over their counterterrorism efforts on the border and the unpopular US missile campaign.
The strikes inflame anti-US feeling, which is already running high after the January killing of two Pakistani men in a busy Lahore street by a US embassy official later revealed to be working for the CIA.
Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan has announced he will hold a mass protest in Peshawar city on Sunday against the drone campaign.
Last month’s US drone attack led Pakistani civilian and military leaders to publicly protest the civilian casualties, although the drone campaign is believed to operate with the tacit consent of the government.
Missile attacks doubled last year, with more than 100 drone strikes killing over 670 people in 2010, compared with 45 strikes that killed 420 in 2009, according to an AFP tally.


Boozy Brits abroad part of national character: Poll

 LONDON (AFP) - More than a quarter of Britons think getting drunk abroad is a national characteristic, according to a survey marking England’s national day Saturday.
An Opinium Research poll of 2,012 British adults found that 60 percent thought drinking tea was a national trait, closely followed by talking about the weather.
Forty percent associated a “stiff upper lip” mentality -- stoicism in the face of adversity -- with being British.
Meanwhile 32 percent thought supporting the royal family was a British characteristic, as the country gears up for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton on Friday.
Twenty-eight percent thought that getting drunk abroad was a British attribute, while fewer than one in three thought working hard made people British.
“Our research has revealed that it’s hard to pin down what it means to be British,” said Opinium Research managing director James Endersby.
“With several stereotypical attributes making the list as well as wider personality traits, it goes to show that Britishness is a complex mix of characteristics.”
Fewer than half of those surveyed in England knew April 23 was Saint George’s Day.
Just 48 percent knew the date celebrating England’s patron saint -- yet 57 percent knew that Saint Patrick’s Day, the Irish national day, was March 17.
In Northern Ireland, 100 percent of those surveyed knew when Saint Patrick’s Day was, while eight in 10 in Wales knew when Saint David’s Day fell.
Despite the majority not knowing when Saint George’s Day was, 61 percent of English people described themselves as English rather than British.


UN chief hits out at Syria killings

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - UN leader Ban Ki-moon condemned the Syrian government for the killing of scores of demonstrators on Friday and renewed calls for a “transparent” independent investigation.
“The secretary-general condemns the ongoing violence against peaceful demonstrators in Syria, which again has killed and injured many today, and calls for it to stop immediately,” said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
Ban said President Bashar al-Assad’s government must “respect international human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the freedom of the press.”
He also repeated his demand for an “independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings,” added the spokesman.
Ban noted measures such as the lifting of a decades-old state of emergency in Syria but stressed that “only an inclusive dialogue and the effective implementation of reforms can address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and ensure social peace and order.”
Syrian security forces killed at least 72 people as they dispersed the latest anti-government demonstrations in the country, activists said.
Syrian authorities spoke of 10 dead.


UN, others voice concerns on Haiti vote fraud
PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) - The United Nations and Haiti’s major donor nations, including the United States, have voiced concern over allegations of fraud in final results of the country’s legislative elections.
Reversals in 18 legislative races raised doubts about the legitimacy of the voting process, according to Haiti’s main benefactors.
The concerns coincided with outbreaks of violence in parts of Haiti that left at least one person dead during protests over the final election tally.
A UN statement issued in Port-au-Prince Friday congratulated president-elect Michel Martelly on his victory but noted concerns over the final tally in legislative elections, which overturned 17 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Senate.
“The final results have therefore raised serious concern about the transparency and legitimacy of the process,” said the statement released by the United Nations on behalf of the United States, Brazil, Canada, Spain, France, the European Union and other major donors.
The statement said the United Nations and donor nations “continue to stand with the people of Haiti” and urged all Haitians “to remain calm and work through peaceful means to address this issue.”
Martelly called Thursday for an independent probe into alleged fraud by outgoing President Rene Preval’s ruling party in the legislative vote.
On Friday, he urged the international community “not recognize” the results of the legislative elections.
“These results are unacceptable and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said a statement from Martelly’s office.
The United States voiced concern over alleged fraud in the legislative elections and said authorities must explain how some of the final results came to be reversed.
“We have found no explanation for the reversals of 18 legislative races in the final results, which in all except two cases benefited the incumbent party,” the State Department said in a statement, adding it had reviewed official data from the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), the United Nations and observers.
“The United States calls upon the government of Haiti and the (CEP) to provide a thorough, public explanation for the reversals in these 18 races” following the second-round legislative elections on March 20, it added.
Without a public explanation and a review by outside observers, “the legitimacy of seating these candidates is in question.”
UN peacekeepers were placed on maximum alert in Haiti as violence flared following publication of the fraud-tainted results.
“There have been additional incidents of violence since yesterday in rural areas... Our troops have been redeployed and are using extreme caution,” UN spokeswoman Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg told AFP. “Our forces are on maximum alert.”
While Martelly won the presidency with a resounding 67.5 percent of the vote, the ruling Unity Party expanded its presence in the Chamber of Deputies, taking 46 of the 99 positions, and gained an absolute majority in the upper Senate with 17 of the 30 seats, according to final results announced Thursday.
Martelly’s fledgling Reypons Peysan party won only three parliamentary seats, and to enact the reforms Haiti needs he will have to forge deals with Unity.
According to the US State Department, the discrepancies included a Unity Party candidate who placed third in the preliminary results finishing first according to the final results.
Total votes in that race increased by 55,000 votes, from 90,000 votes in the preliminary results to 145,000 in the final results, the State Department said.
The latest fraud allegations followed similar concerns after the first round of voting that initially saw Martelly excluded from the run-off, placing third.
Only after international pressure and street protests were those results modified, allowing Martelly to qualify in place of ruling party candidate Jude Celestin.
Washington called on a joint electoral observation mission by the Organization of American States and Caribbean Community CARICOM to witness the documentation of the final results in the interest of transparency and fairness.
“The Haitian people, who have participated with great patience in the two rounds of elections, deserve nothing less,” the US statement said.
Martelly faces the daunting task of rebuilding a Caribbean nation still trying to recover from a January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 225,000 people, displaced 1.5 million and left the capital in ruins.