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MIDDLE EAST: U.S. defense secretary encourages peace talks

October 2, 2011 |  6:33 pm


REPORTING FROM A U.S. AIR FORCE JET -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Sunday urged the Palestinian Authority to abandon a push for recognition as a sovereign state at the United Nations and accept an international proposal to resume long-stalled peace talks with Israel.

“If they can engage in negotiations, for their sake I think that’s the most effective way to try to resolve the issues,” Panetta told reporters aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. “You are not going to achieve Middle East peace by trying to slam dunk it in the U.N.”

Panetta was on his way to the Middle East for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials as part of an Obama administration push for the resumption of peace talks.

The U.S is hoping to win their backing for an international plan that calls for reaching a Middle East peace deal in a year and asks both sides to offer proposals on territory and security within three months.

President Obama called last month for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon a quest for the United Nations to recognize a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The move has put the U.S. in a diplomatic bind and could eventually force Washington to veto the Palestinian bid in the U.N. Security Council.

Israel said Sunday in a statement that it “welcomed” the plan, though it mentioned unspecified “concerns." Palestinian officials have refused to back new talks until Israel agrees to freeze building of
new housing in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem that they claim should be part of a Palestinian state.

Panetta said his main message to both sides was “you don’t lose anything by going into negotiations and trying to pursue a peace process that everyone in the world is hopeful can begin.”

He warned that Israel was "increasingly isolated” in the Middle East as protests and upheaval have swept across the region. He urged Israel to reach out to Egypt and Turkey, two longtime allies whose relations with Israel have reached low points.

“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many dramatic changes, it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s what’s
happening,” Panetta said.

Panetta, on his second overseas trip since taking office in July, will also stop in Egypt and Brussels for talks at NATO headquarters on Libya and Afghanistan. It is the second trip to Israel this year by a
U.S. defense secretary. Former Secretary Robert M. Gates visited in March.


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-- David S. Cloud

Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, right, answers questions aboard an Air Force jet heading to the Middle East. Credit: Pool photo.

EGYPT: Military leader unfazed by criticism and growing anger


REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- The head of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said he was not worried by the public's growing frustration over the military's control of the country amid accusations that generals are suppressing democracy and human rights. 

"We won't stop before those who speak and criticize. Nothing stops us and we will carry Egypt to stability," Tantawi said during an inauguration of a chemical factory on Sunday. The military council has been under fire for not lifting the country's 30-year-old emergency law as well as over new election laws and the continuing trials of civilians by military courts.

Tantawi's comments came one day after representatives of 13 political parties met with SCAF's chief of staff, Gen. Sami Anan, amid threats to boycott November's parliamentary elections if the newly introduced electoral law wasn't amended to prevent members of toppled President Hosni Mubarak's outlawed party from winning seats. The military responded by allowing candidates from sanctioned political parties to more widely compete.

In response to demands for a specific time line for transferring power to a civilian authority, SCAF announced that sessions of the elected lower house of parliament would begin in January rather than March, and that lower and upper houses of parliament would assemble in April to choose a committee to draft a new constitution.

But SCAF has still not committed to a date for presidential elections as it is expected to take several months to draft a new constitution.

In his comments Sunday, Tantawi also defended his testimony last week in the trial of Mubarak, who is charged with corruption and complicity to commit murder in the deaths of hundreds of protesters during last winter's uprising. Civil rights lawyers complained that Tantawi's testimony, which was closed to the media, was favorable to Mubarak and that they were not allowed to cross-examine the field marshal.

During a televised speech in April, Tantawi told a graduating class of police officers that SCAF members met shortly after the revolution began on Jan. 25 and decided not to fire live ammunition at protesters. Those comments suggested, according to civil rights lawyers, that the military had opted to ignore orders by Mubarak. Lawyers in the courtroom last week said that Tantawi denied there were orders to use deadly force.  

"It [the testimony] was the testimony of truth from a man who fought for more than 40 years for the sake of God and Egypt," Tantawi, who was Mubarak's confidant and minister of defense for decades, said Sunday. He added: "We were not asked to shoot at people and we'll never fire live gunshots." 


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-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Egyptians protest the Supreme Council of Armed Forces' lack of response to their demands on Friday. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press

PAKISTAN: Spy agency role in Afghan negotiator's slaying denied


REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan’s foreign ministry on Sunday strongly rejected claims from Kabul that Pakistan’s premier spy agency was involved in the assassination of Afghanistan’s chief negotiator with the Taliban.

Afghan and U.S. officials have been ramping up pressure on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to sever its ties with the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban regarded by Washington as the most dangerous security threat to U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

Last month, Adm. Mike Mullen, who has just retired as the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the ISI helped Haqqani militants carry out a 20-hour siege on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sept. 13, as well as a truck bombing in Wardak province that injured more than 70 U.S. soldiers. Mullen called the Haqqani network “a veritable arm of the ISI.”

Afghan officials, meanwhile, have claimed that the ISI played a role in the Sept. 20 assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was tabbed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to lead negotiation efforts with the Afghan Taliban to end the country’s 10-year conflict. Rabbani was killed at his home when a man who said he was a Taliban emissary detonated a bomb hidden in his turban as the two men met.

Rabbani’s murder dealt a severe blow to efforts by the U.S. and Afghanistan to nurture a political solution to the insurgency through reconciliation. This weekend, Afghan Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi told the Afghan parliament that the ISI was involved in Rabbani’s assassination.

On Sunday, Pakistani officials dismissed Mohammadi’s allegations as “baseless.”

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FRANCE: Paris launches 'bubble car' sharing program

Paris blucar 
REPORTING FROM PARIS -- The French capital rolled out the first of its new eco-friendly electric "bubble cars" on Sunday to launch a car-sharing program it hopes will spark a quiet revolution in transport.

Hot on the wheels of Velib', as Paris' self-service bicycle scheme is known, comes Autolib', which city officials claim is the first self-service urban transport program of its kind in the world. 

As with the 20,000 bicycles at hundreds of Velib' stations across the city, anyone wishing to get from Point A to Point B in the French capital will soon be able to pick up an electric Bluecar at one location and drop it off at another.

On an unusually sunny Sunday lunchtime on the Avenue Trudaine in Paris' family-friendly 9th arrondissement, onlookers gathered around a line of Bluecars brought out for a two-month trial in preparation for the official launch at the beginning of December.

By 2013 city officials plan to have 3,000 to 5,000 environmentally friendly Bluecars stationed at more than 1,000 locations across the city with the aim of cutting noise and air pollution as well as reducing traffic by discouraging private car ownership.


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Photo: A driver takes a seat behind the wheel of an electric car as testing of the Autolib' car-sharing program gets underway in Paris. Credit: Horacio Villalobos / European Pressphoto Agency

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