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15 Sep

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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Exclusive: Senior negotiator describes rejection of alleged proposal, since when tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Douma after what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Assad earlier this year.

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Douma after what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Assad earlier this year. Photograph: Mohammed Badra/Reuters

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.

“It was an opportunity lost in 2012,” Ahtisaari said in an interview.

Officially, Russia has staunchly backed Assad through the four-and-half-year Syrian war, insisting that his removal cannot be part of any peace settlement. Assad has said that Russia will never abandon him. Moscow has recently begun sending troops, tanks and aircraft in an effort to stabilise the Assad regime and fight Islamic State extremists.

Ahtisaari won the Nobel prize in 2008 “for his efforts on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”, including in Namibia, Aceh in Indonesia, Kosovo and Iraq.

On 22 February 2012 he was sent to meet the missions of the permanent five nations (the US, Russia, UK, France and China) at UN headquarters in New York by The Elders, a group of former world leaders advocating peace and human rights that has included Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan……………………

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State of emergency declared in southern counties and main land route into western Europe closed down, stranding hundreds at border

in Horgos and in Brussels

Hungary closes down a key border crossing from Serbia overnight on Monday, leaving thousands of migrants stranded. Many spent the night in the open at the border crossing in Horgos after officials finished fortifying a 108-mile border fence preventing migrants from getting through to the European Union. Police patrolled on horseback, while officials warn of a new era of swift deportations

Live updates on the refugee crisis

One of the main routes used by refugees to reach the safety of the European Union clanged shut early on Tuesday morning, when Hungary formally closed its border, finished fortifying a long-promised border fence, and blocked off a pathway that has brought over 160,000 people into northern Europe since the start of the year.

The government also declared a state of emergency in two of its southern counties bordering Serbia, a measure that paves the way for the deployment of the army to assist police with border patrol and migrant-related duties, a spokesman said.

Shortly after midnight, about 100 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, were turned back from the legal land crossing in Horgos, on the border between Serbia and Hungary. Earlier in the day, police had wheeled a train carriage across a set of nearby disused railway tracks, which for weeks had been left open to allow refugees to walk unhindered into the EU.

Hungarian police said they detained 16 people claiming to be Syrian and Afghan migrants early on Tuesday for illegally crossing the Serbian border fence. A spokeswoman said the migrants were suspected of lifting the razor wire fence to get into Hungary……………….

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In a radio interview the pope says his fame means he has never had as many ‘friends’ as he does now – although he has met many of them only once

Pope Francis at a papal audience in August. He says he has felt used by people claiming to be his friend.

Pope Francis at a papal audience in August. He says he has felt used by people claiming to be his friend. Photograph: AGF s.r.l./Rex Shutterstock

Pope Francis says he has felt “used” by people claiming to be his friend since he became pontiff in a radio interview touching on the personal side of his papacy.

“I never had so many quote-unquote ‘friends’ as now. Everyone is the pope’s friend,” Francis said in a telephone interview with radio station Milenium in his native Argentina.

“I have felt used by people who presented themselves as my friends and whom I hadn’t seen more than once or twice in my life. They have used that to their own benefit. But it’s an experience we all go through,” he told Argentine journalist Marcelo Gallardo, a real-life friend since the days when the pope was bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

“Friendship in the utilitarian sense – let’s see what advantage I can gain by getting close to this person and becoming friends – that pains me,” he told Gallardo in the interview which was broadcast on Sunday.

“Friendship is something sacred. The Bible says to have one or two friends.”

Francis, whose papacy began in March 2013, also touched on environmental destruction and religious fundamentalism in the wide-ranging conversation, a rare interview with a non-religious broadcaster.

Echoing the bold appeal to care for the planet he issued in a sweeping encyclical in June, the pope condemned humankind’s “abuse of creation”.

“We’re not friends of creation. Sometimes we treat it like our worst enemy. Think of deforestation, misuse of water, methods of extracting minerals with elements like arsenic and cyanide that end up making people sick,” he said……………….

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The Democratic candidate tried to find moral common ground with Liberty University’s young evangelicals on income inequality and student loan debt

On Monday, Bernie Sanders sought to reach across the political chasm that divides liberal America from evangelical conservatives. At Liberty University in southern Virginia, the Vermont senator spoke to Christian students, urging them to find common ground with him on issues of poverty and social injustice.

Quoting from the Bible in front of a crowd of 12,000, the closest challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination claimed soaring income inequality was a moral issue that should transcend traditional political divides.

“When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little,” he said. “I want you to go into your hearts: how can we talk about justice when we turn our backs on the children of our country?”

The speech was received politely, but other than among a small group of vocal supporters from other local colleges, it was met with almost total silence by the majority of students who had packed into the campus arena for their weekly “convocation”……………

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Announcement on state media says country is ready at ‘any time’ to use nuclear weapons against the US and others

North Korean nuclear plant in Yongbyon in 2008.

North Korean nuclear plant in Yongbyon in 2008. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

North Korea says it has revamped and restarted all its atomic bomb fuel production plants, and warned that it is ready “at any time” to use nuclear weapons against the US and other “hostile” countries.

While Tuesday’s announcement will further worsen relations between Pyongyang and the rest of the world, the move is being seen as an attempt to pressure Washington into restarting talks that could lead to concessions and the easing of sanctions against the regime.

n the announcement, made via state media, the North claimed that its plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at the main Yongbyon nuclear complex had been “rearranged, changed or readjusted and they started normal operation”.

The claim came a day after the North threatened to launch “satellites” that many believe are covers for long-range missile tests.

The expected missile launches will coincide with celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ party on 10 October.

North Korea insists its rocket launches are intended to put peaceful satellites into orbit, but the US, Japan and other countries regard them as covers for ballistic missile tests, which are banned under UN security council resolutions.

The fear is that North Korea is moving closer to being able to combine nuclear weapons with missile delivery systems. This would make it a credible threat to targets as far away as the US mainland.

Last year, a senior US general claimed that North Korea already possessed the expertise to build a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a ballistic missile.

The director of the North’s atomic energy institute told the official KCNA news agency that the country was fully ready to cope with US hostility with “nuclear weapons any time”………………….

 

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Israeli police storm Al-Aqsa Mosque for a third day

Clashes erupt after Israeli police raid mosque’s courtyards to support tours for Jewish activists.

Palestinians and Israeli forces have clashed at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque for a third straight day, as Israeli forces were seen on the roof of the holy site.

Suleiman Ahmad, the president of Jerusalem’s Affairs Department, who was at the scene, told Al Jazeera that at least 36 Palestinians were injured in the clashes early on Tuesday.

“They have placed snipers on the rooftops and are using rubber bullets,” Ahmad said.

The site of the mosque is revered as holy by Jews and Muslims and is a frequent flashpoint of violence. ……………

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A nuke-free Israel will create a more stable Middle East

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It’s September in New York: the start of a diplomatic marathon that will no doubt bring renewed attention to Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

Since 1974, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a laudable Egyptian-sponsored resolution calling for the Middle East to become a nuclear weapons free zone each year. Starting five years later, the UN began repeatedly passing an Egyptian-authored resolution calling on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which it would disarm and place its nuclear materials under international inspection. But these resolutions are nonbinding, and the leading Arab state’s calls to focus on Israel’s arsenal of at least 80 nuclear warheads are usually ignored by Western powers.

That reality is unlikely to change this year. But it should.

The July signing of the Iran nuclear accord is certain to produce political clashes at the UN. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be able to resist railing against the deal in front of the world. But the expected focus on the Iranian nuclear program makes the UN General Assembly, which opens its 70th session on Tuesday, the perfect opportunity to probe another nuclear program in the Middle East — one that has actually produced a weapon, unlike Iran’s.

The Iran accord, which curbs the country’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief, was a victory for advocates of nuclear disarmament. It blocks the Islamic Republic’s ability to build a nuclear weapon, making the world, especially the Middle East, a safer place.

A probe of Israeli warheads, on the other hand, has been delayed by the United States for too long. But it’s an issue that needs to be taken up to avoid dangerous tensions, setbacks to nuclear disarmament and other states in the region pursuing their own nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

It is now Israel’s turn to renounce nuclear arms, as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif argued in a July column for The Guardian. Of course, Zarif wants to score points against a state that has long railed against virtually any move Iran makes, be it political or military. But his main point — that the Middle East would be safer without nuclear weapons — is sound.

The American policy of shielding Israel’s nuclear weapons continues to be the main obstacle to nuclear disarmament in the region…………………

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