Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sri Lanka Military Says It Pushes Back Rebels

Sri Lanka's military said Thursday it had brushed off a Tamil Tiger counterattack by killing 30 guerrillas, pinning the rebels in a rapidly shrinking area and moving closer to ending the quarter-century-long civil war.

Ethnic Tamil lawmakers, meanwhile, rejected the president's invitation for talks, urging the government to first ensure the safety of civilians trapped in the war zone.

The latest fighting took place on the edge of an enclave controlled by the rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north. The rebels tried to attack government lines at the village of Iranaippalai, the military said.

"We successfully repulsed the attack and over 30 LTTE cadres were reported killed," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Nanayakkara said a number of soldiers were wounded in the battle, but did not give details.

Access to the war zone is restricted and it was not possible to confirm the report.

The rebels have been battling since 1983 for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka where it once controlled a large swath of territory, but a series of major victories by government forces in recent weeks has pushed them into a small pocket on the coast.

The rebel holdouts — along with tens of thousands of terrified civilians — are confined to just 8.4 square miles (21 square kilometers) of jungle and beach on the northeastern coast.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited the Tamil politicians for talks Thursday evening to discuss the situation in the north. The Tamil National Alliance, the largest political party for ethnic Tamils, said it told Rajapaksa it would not participate until the government halts its military campaign and gives more food and medicine to people trapped in the war zone.

"Any political dialogue can be meaningful only when the humanitarian crisis comes to an end," TNA lawmaker Rajavarothayam Sambanthan told a news conference, adding that about 50 civilians are killed in the fighting daily.

The United Nations and European Union have recently voiced concern over the fate of civilians in Sri Lanka's conflict.

The government has rejected criticism it has not done enough to help them, and Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe said Thursday that "sufficient food and medical supplies" had been sent to help the people. The government last week sent 10 tons of medicine — enough for two weeks, he said.

"We will ensure that there will be no shortage," he told a news conference.

John Holmes, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, said Thursday that the international organization estimates between 150,000 and 190,000 civilians are trapped by the fighting and cannot escape, resulting in dozens of deaths each day.

The government says the number is 50,000 to 60,000, and accuses the rebels of using them as human shields in a bid to avoid defeat.

U.S. diplomat Rosemary DiCarlo said the U.S. has urged Sri Lanka's government to cease shelling in areas where there are large numbers of civilians, including hospitals.

"We've had promises, but we need to see results," she said. "The government of Sri Lanka must pay more attention to protecting the civilians in this conflict."

Sri Lanka's U.N. ambassador Hewa M.G.S. Palihakkara told reporters he would recommend his government consider a pause in fighting if the rebels are cooperative.

"If the LTTE's ready to let these people go, I will posit it to my government to let these people go," Palihakkara said.

The military says more than 55,000 civilians have escaped since the beginning of January.

All are being put into temporary camps, and Samarasinghe said the government decided to transfer the management of camps from the military to a civilian agency, upon the recommendation of Holmes.

Red Cross and ICRC and UNHCR officials will be present when people are screened to make sure they are not rebels, he said.

The rebels could not be reached for comment, because communication with their stronghold has been severed.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Varun’s Tongue Compounds: BJP

Struggling to resolve a rift between party president Rajnath Singh and general secretary Arun Jaitley, the BJP has been caught unawares by Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory remarks in Pilibhit.

Addressing an election rally, Varun, who is the BJP candidate from Pilibhit said, “If somebody lifts a hand against Hindus or thinks they are weak, (and that) there is nobody behind them, then I swear on the (Bhagvad) Gita that I will cut off that hand.” The two Muslim leaders of the BJP — Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain — have demanded an unconditional apology from Varun.

Former party president M Venkaiah Naidu, however, ruled out any action against Varun. “There is no question of taking any action against him. He is our party candidate.

Whatever he said, good or bad, the party is with him.” He added that the authenticity of the tapes would be verified.

BJP spokesperson Siddarthnath Singh advised candidates to exercise caution while delivering speeches. He said the BJP would decide on its future course after the EC had verified the tapes.

BJP spokesperson in Parliament, Shahnawaz Hussain, said, “We are of the strong belief that Varun Gandhi should apologise.

The BJP dissociates itself from his remarks. This is not what the party stands for.” Sources said that Hussain, who is the convenor of the Minority Cell in the BJP, objected to Gandhi’s speech at the Central Election Committee meet.

Party vice-president Naqvi condemned Varun’s statement, saying that such kind of language did not have any place in the BJP. He said Varun’s speech was a manifestation of his family and the Congress culture.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Korea Plans To Launch A Satellite

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) North Korea told two U.N. agencies it plans to launch a communications satellite between April 4-8 - an unprecedented disclosure seen as trying to fend off international worries that it is really a test of long-range missile technology.

The notification to the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization underscores the communist regime is intent on pushing ahead the launch in an attempt to gain greater leverage in negotiations with the United States, analysts say.

North Korea specified two "danger" zones - one close to Japan - in its disclosure of the satellite launch plan. Pyongyang gave the U.N. agencies coordinates where parts of its multiple-stage rocket would fall, making it clear the projectile would fly over Japan toward the Pacific.

One of the zones is in waters off Japan's west coast, less than 75 miles (120 kilometers) from its northwestern shore, according to the agencies. The other lies in the middle of the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii.

Though it is an international norm for countries to provide such specifics as a safety warning ahead of a missile or satellite launch, it was the first time the communist North has done so.

The U.S. and other governments have said any rocket launch — whether missile test or satellite - would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from ballistic missile activity.

The U.N. agencies said Thursday that North Korea informed them by letter of the launch details the day before. It is the first time the regime has offered a safety warning ahead of a missile or a satellite launch, according to the South Korean government.

"They want to do the launch openly while minimizing what the international community may find fault with," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "The launch will earn North Korea a key political asset that would enlarge its negotiating leverage."

Countries planning a space launch or missile test normally notify maritime or aviation authorities so aircraft and ships can be warned to stay away from affected regions.

But North Korea did not do so ahead of its purported satellite launch in 1998 over Japan and a failed 2006 test-flight of a long-range missile, drawing international condemnations.

Few buy Pyongyang's claim that it needs a communications satellite when one of the nation's stated top national goals is addressing chronic food shortages.

Use of mobile phones, the Internet and international calls are tightly controlled in the totalitarian North.

"They might put a transistor on the rocket" and claim it was a satellite launch, said Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute, who is skeptical of the North's intentions.

Officials and experts have said even if a satellite is launched, the North's ultimate goal is to test and demonstrate its missile capabilities.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said Tuesday the North may be planning a space launch, but said the technology is no different from that of a long-range missile and its success would mean the country is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

"If a three-stage space launch vehicle works, then that could reach not only Alaska and Hawaii but part of what the Hawaiians call the mainland and what the Alaskans call the lower 48," he told a Senate panel.

South Korea, Japan and the United States have warned the North against any rocket launch.

"It's provocative, it's not helpful and it's destabilizing," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday. "We think the North needs to desist, or not carry out this type of provocative act, and sit down ... and work on the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that a launch "will threaten the peace and stability in the region."

Analysts say a rocket launch would increase the stakes and, more importantly, the benefits the impoverished nation might get from negotiations with the U.S. and other countries trying to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Mortage Woes Break Records

Foreclosures are spreading by epidemic proportions, expanding beyond a handful of problem states and now affecting almost 1 in every 8 American homeowners.

It's an economic role-reversal: The economy, driven down by the collapse of the housing bubble, is causing the housing crisis to spread.

Figures released Thursday show that nearly 12 percent of all Americans with a mortgage — a record 5.4 million homeowners — were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year.

That's up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007. In addition, the numbers now include many once-qualified borrowers who took out fixed-rate loans.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association also showed that a stunning 48 percent of homeowners who have subprime, adjustable-rate mortgages are behind on their payments or in foreclosure.

The reckless lending and borrowing practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the problem are no longer driving up the nation's delinquency rate.

Instead, foreclosures are being fueled by a spike in defaults in places such as Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economy is rapidly deteriorating and unemployment is climbing.

"It's jobs. People are losing their jobs left and right," said Houston real estate agent Michael Weaster.

On Thursday, the Labor Department said new unemployment claims last week totaled 639,000, lower than expected, but still at elevated levels.

That trend highlights one of the biggest challenges confronting the Obama administration's mortgage-relief plan launched this week. While the $75 billion plan could help change the loan terms or refinance up to 9 million homeowners, unemployed borrowers will have a hard time qualifying.

The key to the housing market is what kind of workers are losing their jobs. Unemployment for people with college degrees, some college education or technical training — those most likely to own homes and have prime fixed-rate loans — has nearly doubled over the past six months, according to the bankers association.

To give debt-burdened homeowners a little more muscle to negotiate with their lenders, the House on Thursday passed a bill 234-191 that would to give bankruptcy courts the power to reduce mortgage payments.

The legislation would give bankruptcy judges — who now can modify loans for cars and student loans but not for primary residences — new power to cut the interest rate and principle on a home mortgage.

The Senate is expected to take up the measure in a couple of weeks.

The only bright spot in the foreclosure report was that the devastation wrought by subprime ARMs is waning. Their 30-day delinquency rate continues to fall and is at the lowest point since the first quarter of 2007. Most of those types of loans have made their way through the system as lenders stopped originating them in the first half of 2007.

That offers little comfort to Florida, where 60 percent of homeowners who have a subprime ARM are at least one payment behind and 1 in 5 of all mortgage holders are not current on their loans.

And while the worst is not over for Florida, the problems appear to be just beginning in once-healthy markets like Houston and New York.

The number of unsold homes in Houston skyrocketed to a 17-month supply in February from eight months in January because homeowners fear they will be in financial straits soon or already are, said Weaster, of Century 21.

And in the New York area, where the financial industry is handing out pink slips like ticker tape, homeowners who once had good credit are defaulting at an increasing clip.