Posts Tagged ‘Turkmenistan’

Pakistan rejects ‘politically motivated’ listing as violator of religious freedoms by US

December 12, 2018
Foreign Office Spokesman Muhammad Faisal. ─ File photo
Foreign Office Spokesman Muhammad Faisal. ─ File photo

The Foreign Office (FO) today issued Islamabad’s reaction to the listing, saying: “Pakistan rejects the US State Department’s unilateral and politically motivated pronouncement … Besides the clear biases reflected from these designations, there are serious questions over the credentials and impartiality of the self-proclaimed jury involved in this unwarranted exercise.”

The FO explained measures that the government had taken to safeguard the rights of its citizens, including the use of legal and administrative mechanisms, adding that Islamabad submits compliance reports on its obligations with respect to fundamental freedoms as a party to seven of nine core human rights treaties.

How Pakistan safeguards its minorities, according to FO:

  • Equal treatment of minorities enshrined in Constitution
  • Special seats reserved for minorities in Parliament
  • National Commission on Human Rights addresses concerns over violations of minorities’ rights
  • Successive governments make protection of minorities a priority
  • Judiciary has made several landmark decisions to protect the properties and places of worship of minority communities

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country how to protect the rights of its minorities,” the statement asserted.

The FO suggested that honest introspection on Washington’s part would have been a timely move in order to ascertain the causes behind the exponential rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the US.

“Sadly, the proponents of human rights worldwide close their eyes to the systematic persecution of minorities subjected to alien domination and foreign occupation such as in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir,” the statement added.

The FO described Pakistan as a “multi-religious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together.”

Last year, Pompeo had placed Pakistan on a special watch list — a step short of the designation — which is used to persuade the targeted nation into introducing reforms suggested in annual US reports for religious freedom.

The designation is based on these annual reports and opens the door for further actions, including US economic sanctions. The US has already imposed strict economic sanctions on Pakistan for its alleged refusal to follow the Trump administration’s Afghan strategy.

The designation also includes al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Isis, Isis-Khorasan, and the Taliban as entities of particular concern.

Blacklisting Pakistan a ‘brazen political tactic’: Mazari

Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari expressed surprise at the US administration’s decision to designate Pakistan among “countries of particular concern”, terming it a “brazen political tactic to pressure Pakistan to mitigate US failures in Afghanistan”.

The PTI minister, in her official statement on the development, acknowledged that “there is no doubt that Pakistan’s record on religions freedom is not ideal” but questioned if “the EU’s record” is any better “given the restrictions on churches, the banning of certain dress codes of Mulsims, refusal of entry of certain preachers — the list continues.”

Mazari reminded the US that “in our own neighbourhood we have India where Muslims are being targeted and where the BJP is supporting violence against Muslims ostensibly over beef.”

“The timing of the US move smacks of pure political blackmailing because it comes in the wake of Pakistan opening the Katarpur corridor to ease access for the Sikhs of India,” the statement reads.

The human rights minister said that she would “like to educate the Trump administration” that a “diverse denominations of Christian churches are present in Pakistan”, including Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian and others.

Mazari made it clear that the US attempt to pressurise “Pakistan to do its bidding” will not work, directing their attention to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent remarks that he would net allow the country to be anyone’s “hired gun” anymore.

“It is time for the US to take responsibility for its failures in Afghanistan … and if it is serious about religious freedoms then it needs to examine the record of Modi’s India and and some of its EU allies,” she added.

Pompeo waives CPC sanctions for Pakistan

A US Embassy spokesperson today told DawnNewsTV that Pompeo, along with placing Pakistan on the list, had concurrently issued a waiver of ‘country of particular concern’ (CPC) sanctions against Pakistan “as required by ‘the important national interest of the United States’.”

The spokesperson explained that each country given the CPC designation “presents unique challenges, as well as a different potential for change”.

“The measures the United States carries out or waives with respect to a CPC are part of a broader strategy that aims to improve respect for religious freedom in that country,” the spokesperson added.

“In certain instances, the Secretary (Pompeo) has determined that a waiver of the Presidential Action was required in the important national interest of the United States.”


Pakistan rejects US blacklist for religious freedom violations

December 12, 2018

Pakistan on Wednesday rejected Washington’s decision to place it on a blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom, branding the move “politically motivated” and defending its treatment of minorities.

The US move to designate Pakistan “among countries of particular concern” comes at a difficult time for relations between the nations, with the Trump administration accusing Islamabad of failing to act against Islamist militants on its soil.

“Pakistan does not need counsel by any individual country (on) how to protect the rights of its minorities,” a statement from the foreign ministry said, adding that Islamabad “rejects” the designation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the move to blacklist Pakistan in a congressionally mandated annual report released Tuesday.

In October, a Pakistani court exonerated Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent eight years on death row for blasphemy

In October, a Pakistani court exonerated Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent eight years on death row for blasphemy In October, a Pakistani court exonerated Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent eight years on death row for blasphemy AFP/File

The measure means the US government is obliged to exert pressure, including imposing sanctions if necessary, to end freedom violations.

However, a spokesman with the US embassy in Islamabad clarified on Wednesday that Pompeo had issued a waiver over potential sanctions against Pakistan as required by “the important national interest of the United States”.

Blasphemy is an inflammatory charge in Pakistan, and high-profile vigilante murders and mob lynchings have been carried out in the past.

In October, a Pakistani court exonerated Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent eight years on death row for blasphemy.

She remains in protective custody in an unknown location after violent protests against her acquittal, and a hardline cleric has been charged with terrorism and sedition over the demonstrations.

Bibi is currently seeking asylum abroad. Her family claims her life will be in danger if she remains in Pakistan.

The foreign ministry statement did not mention Bibi, or the issue of blasphemy.

“Pakistan is a multi-religious and pluralistic society where people of diverse faiths and denominations live together,” it said.

It also warned that honesty would have required Washington to examine the “exponential rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the US”.

– ‘Particular concern’ –

Pakistan says around four percent of its total population comprises citizens belonging to Christian, Hindu, Buddhists and Sikh faiths.

Human rights advocates have long voiced alarm about the treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan including Shiites and the Ahmadis, whom Islamabad forbids from identifying as Muslim.

The State Department had earlier held off on condemning Pakistan, a vital gateway for US forces in Afghanistan.

But it last year placed Pakistan on a special watch list — a step short of the designation — and Washington has separately curbed military assistance.

Relations between Washington and Islamabad have soured in recent years, with US officials repeatedly accusing Islamabad of ignoring or even collaborating with groups like the Afghan Taliban, which attack Afghanistan from alleged safe havens along the border between the two countries.

The troubled relationship hit another snag last month after Trump declared he had cancelled assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars because Islamabad does not do “a damn thing” for the US.

Nine countries remained for another year on the US list of “countries of particular concern” — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The United States removed one country from the blacklist — Uzbekistan — but kept it on the watch list.



Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline could create 10,000 jobs

December 7, 2018
Construction of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline to start in first quarter of next year. — File photo
Construction of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline to start in first quarter of next year. — File photo

The chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Tapi Pipeline Company Ltd, Turkmenistan, Muhammetmyrat Amanov, said that the survey for the project, through which total 33 billion cubic metre gas per annum would be provided by the 1,814-kilometre-long pipeline, had been completed.

He said construction work would start in the first quarter of next year. Pipeline would be laid till Pakistan in two years and it would take between six and eight months to lay the pipeline from Pakistan to India, he said, adding that the project would create as many as 10,000 jobs.

He said the price of gas provided through this pipeline would significantly be lower as compared to the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

He said that the project, for which the Asian Development Bank and Islamic Corporation for the Insurance of Investment and the Export Credit (ICIEC) had confirmed $500 million and $300m, respectively, would boost industrialisation in the region.

Replying to questions, Mr Amanov said that his company had experience of working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so hopefully there would not be any security issue. Moreover, there was commitment from Afghanistan that it would provide foolproof security to the project.

“From political point of view I believe that all countries, including the United States and China, are supportive of this project. Moreover, Russian, Japanese and American machinery and support is being used in the project,” he said.

The Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, asked two questions, one was about the price of gas and other was that who would bear the loss in case the pipeline was damaged by blasts and attacks.

Mr Amanov said that it was not possible for him to tell the price of gas.

Replying to other question, he said there would not be any security issue in Pakistan, adding that Afghanistan had also given assurance to provide security to the pipeline.

ISSI Director General and Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry said that both the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan had given sovereign guarantees regarding the security of the pipeline.

Earlier, Mr Chaudhry said that though the world had been moving towards renewable energy resources, the efficacy of fossil fuel could not be ignored.

“All stakeholders are on board regarding the project. In the survey, which was completed in one year, as many as 1,600 people participated and not a single human casualty was reported,” he said.

ISSI Chairman Khalid Mehmood said that a number of financial institutions were involved and resources were being mobilised for timely completion of the project.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2018

N.Korea FM in Vietnam for lessons on economic reform

November 30, 2018

North Korea’s foreign minister kicked off an official visit to Vietnam Friday as the hermit nation seeks to learn lessons from the one-party state’s post-war economic reform that has transformed the communist nation into one of Asia’s fastest growing economies.

Ri Yong Ho is expected to meet with leaders in Hanoi and visit a hi-tech zone and speak to agricultural experts, according to state media and diplomatic sources.

North Korea, with an economy long crippled by wide-ranging sanctions and years of self-imposed isolation, is seeking to learn from Vietnam’s “doi moi” economic reforms introduced in the 1980s, according to Seoul’s official Yonhap News Agency.

© AFP/File | North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho has visited countries including Vietnam, Iran and Russia in a series of diplomatic meetings

Vietnam’s economy has flourished as it has embraced market reforms, opened its doors to foreign investment and embraced free trade deals, with GDP growth hitting five percent or higher for the past decade.

It has done so while maintaining a single-party state with a tight grip on power and little tolerance for dissent, a model that experts say could appeal to Pyongyang.

It may be using the current diplomatic thaw following a series of meetings with Seoul and Washington — including a landmark summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump in June — to disarm its nuclear programme, Vietnam expert Carl Thayer told AFP.

“North Korea is using this period of not testing (its nuclear weapons) to recover its external relations to appear as a respectable member of the international community,” said Thayer, emeritus politics professor at the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

Ri has visited Iran, Russia, China, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan this year.

It is an approach encouraged by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who on a trip to Vietnam in July remarked on the “once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership” between former war foes Hanoi and Washington.

“Your country can replicate this path. It’s yours if you’ll seize the moment. The miracle could be yours; it can be your miracle in North Korea as well,” he said in comments aimed at Kim Jong-Un.

A diplomatic source in Hanoi told AFP that Ri is scheduled to visit a technology park near the city and meet with experts from the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Science.

He will also meet with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, according to his official schedule.

The visit could be a sign that Pyongyang is looking to expand from its reliance on China — its largest trading partner and one of its closest allies.

“They want to expand their economic relations with other countries and not be completely depend on China,” Kevin Gray, professor of international relations at University of Sussex told AFP.

Vietnam and North Korea established diplomatic relations in 1950, though there has been little in the way of trade following UN sanctions passed last year aimed at cutting off Pyongyang’s revenue streams.

Hanoi’s exports to Pyongyang reached $7.3 million, mainly of food products, according to official data.


How Putin Is Perfecting His Border Plan

November 29, 2018

From the Kremlin’s pro-Trump meddling in 2016 to its threats to Ukraine, Georgia and other border states, nearly everything has gone its way.

Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

While the Western media were focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent escalation of his conflict with Ukraine, another nation on Russia’s border, Georgia, voted in a run-off presidential election on Wednesday that will help determine its own geopolitical direction:  Moscow, or the West.

Though the Georgian election got far less attention, both events were critical tests of the Russian leader’s relentless efforts to resurrect, as best he can, a sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics—and with a dazzling array of methods such as creeping annexation, stealthy assassination, and digitally undermining democracy everywhere.

In the case of Georgia, which is already doing Putin’s bidding by and large, those methods have included outright coercion, bribery and vote-buying, hate-speech, and voter fraud, according to Transparency International and other nongovernmental organizations. These efforts are intended to wrangle support for the Russia-favored candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, and weaken her opponent, Grigol Vashadze, the heir to the exiled pro-Western former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

In effect, Putin is trying to do more successfully in Georgia what he ultimately failed to do in Ukraine: rigging the electoral system to install a Moscow-friendly government. He appears perfectly willing to use violence when necessary, as he did by invading parts of Georgia in 2008 and in annexing Crimea after his Ukrainian stooge, President Viktor Yanukovych, fled in the face an anti-government uprising in 2014.

But Putin appears to be getting better at this game of co-opting his neighbors with a combination of threats, subterfuge, and force, analysts say. Georgia, unlike Ukraine, has been fairly docile since 2012. And these days Putin is fortunate in his adversaries, especially U.S. President Donald Trump (though for the Kremlin, Trump’s election may have involved more than luck).

From Trump’s first moments in office to his obeisant performance in Helsinki to what is expected to be a buddy-talk at the G-20 in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, the U.S. president has given the Kremlin nearly every encouragement it seeks. Just as he failed to directly criticize Putin’s violent intervention in Ukraine this week, Trump last week shrugged off the murder of political opponents by autocratic regimes, saying, “The world is a very dangerous place!”

Trump was speaking of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, but the message to the killers of many Putin opponents over the years—including Sergei Magnitsky, liberal leader Boris Nemtsov, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya—was clear.

“It’s an absolute godsend to Putin,” said former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg. “Trump has disarmed us in this battle. If everybody’s the same, and we allow our friends to murder their opponents, then we’re no different than Putin.”

Regarding Ukraine, while Trump’s outgoing U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, condemned the actions of the Russian military on Sunday in firing on and seizing Ukrainian ships as “yet another reckless Russian escalation,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used similar language, Trump evinced his familiar moral equivalence. “Either way, we don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully, it will get straightened out,” the president said.

After being criticized for a weak response, Trump later hinted that he might not meet Putin in Buenos Aires after all, telling the Washington Post, “I don’t like that aggression.” But his national security advisor, John Bolton, said the sit-down was planned.

The motives for Trump’s tacit cooperation with Putin are unclear. In his remarks, the U.S. president has sometimes suggested he is correcting Washington’s past mistake of fecklessly provoking Russia after the Cold War; Trump has echoed critics who say the West is partly to blame for Putin’s anti-Western campaign by pushing eastward too aggressively with NATO, an alliance Trump mistrusts. On the other hand, some critics and investigators suspect that the Kremlin may have compromising information about Trump and his businesses. This week Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of violating a plea deal over conspiracy charges related to when he was working for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.

All in all, what Putin has created and Trump appears to be facilitating is a well-oiled Machiavellian influence machine in Eurasia, one that is executing a strategy against the West that two Kremlin thinkers once called Moscow’s “Velvet Revenge,” according to Peter Eltsov, a professor of international security affairs at National Defense University in Washington.

In 1999, when Moscow was still reeling from its Cold War defeat under Boris Yeltsin (and Putin was waiting in the wings as his deputy and successor), the two strategists, Efim Ostrovsky and Piotr Shchedrovitsky, wrote that Russia’s great-power resurrection would come by re-creating “the Russian World” through a “new global meta-project.” This would be realized largely through soft-power, which has come to mean propaganda, bribery, fake news, and interference in foreign elections, Eltsov told Foreign Policy.

Today, “the Kremlin’s particular focus is what it considers its ‘buffer zone’—countries of the former Soviet Union or, using Moscow’s jargon, ‘the near abroad.’ Military scenarios are likely to be implemented here regularly. The current standoff between Russian and Ukrainian warships in the Strait of Kerch is just an example. Things will get worse,” Eltsov said.

That buffer zone includes Georgia, which is why Putin has aggressively sought to control its politics since he invaded in 2008 and occupied the border regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Only last summer, Putin warned NATO against cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia. “We will respond appropriately to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia,” he said.

With his latest naval response, Putin appears to be trying to consolidate his control of the Azov Sea between Ukraine and Russia, while the West wrings its hands.

The Kremlin is already deeply involved in Wednesday’s Georgian election, which will decide the presidency. Though a largely ceremonial post in Georgia’s parliamentary system, it is considered a key bellwether ahead of the bigger 2020 elections.

By several accounts, Wednesday’s vote was heavily rigged by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the mysterious billionaire chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is considered an under-the-table ally of Putin. Under Ivanishvili, the party has ruled parliament since 2012.

Though neither candidate can afford to be overtly too pro-Russian—indeed both sides routinely accuse the other of being Putin stooges—Ivanishvili’s choice, Zurabishvili, the French-born daughter of Georgian immigrants, has been careful not to offend Moscow.

To some observers the anointing of Zurabishvili, who is nominally independent, is just more evidence of Putin’s growing subtlety.  “What better way to suggest that Russia is not involved than to put up someone who was raised in the West?” said Eltsov.

But Zurabishvili has high unpopularity ratings in Georgia for appearing to cozy up to Russia. She has suggested that the 2008 war was Saakashvili’s fault, not Putin’s, and organizers of Zurabishvili’s rallies have “openly talked about cooperation with the Russian special agencies, the secret services,” said Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International—a political monitoring group—in Tbilisi.

Under Georgian Dream, Gigauri added, the attitude is, “‘Let’s not irritate Russia.’” Also, she said, with the rise of another party aligned with Zurabishvili, the Patriots’ Alliance, “it’s the first time there has been a pro-Russian party in the parliament, with leading politicians saying things like, ‘We’ve never seen a country that benefited from NATO.’”

“The previous [Saakashivili] administration was very clear with their messages that Russia was enemy, and the only way forward was to integrate into NATO, get closer to the EU, and implement democratic reforms,” she said.  “With this administration for the first time we saw demonstrations with Georgians saying Russian soldiers are heroes.”

Thus, under Ivanishvili’s shadowy power, Georgia’s once-promising democracy has increasingly become a component of the Russian power vertical dictated by Putin. And after Zurabishvili turned out to be a weaker candidate than thought, leading to the runoff on Wednesday, the billionaire’s rigging apparatus sprang into motion.

One example: On November 19, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze announced that the debts of 600,000 potential voters would be paid off by a foundation owned by Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank. (Like many Putin allies, Ivanishvili made his fortune in banking and metals, oligarch-style in Russia.)

Wednesday’s vote will be an important indicator of whether Putin is getting better at the game of “managed democracy,” as it’s often called. But he’s not likely to stop trying. Putin’s overall vision is, first, to “create strategic depth for himself to make sure there’s nobody on his borders that can threaten him,” said Steinberg.

“Second, it is to weaken and demoralize the West and keep folks preoccupied having to put out fires,” Steinberg said. ‘Putin’s able to kind of pick and choose his spots and get away with what he can. And what he’s discovered is he can get away with a lot. There isn’t enough will to stand up to him.”

According to Eltsov, “the ultimate goal of the Kremlin’s foreign policy and military campaigns is to destroy or at least significantly diminish U.S. and NATO influence wherever it exists, but the control over the buffer zone is the number one imperative. With Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, Putin’s hands are pretty much open anywhere in this part of the world.”

The Kremlin distinguishes four tiers of significance within its strategic buffer zone

The Kremlin distinguishes four tiers of significance within its strategic buffer zone

, he said. The first tier includes Ukraine, Belarus, and most of Kazakhstan—countries included in the fundamental definition of Russia by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning writer who was once an anti-Soviet hero in the West but in his later years came out as a fervent Russian nationalist and Putin admirer. The second tier is the Caucasus, a region comprising southeastern Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The third tier is Central Asia—or what Solzhenitsyn once called “the underbelly of Russia”: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Putin has already extended his influence to most of these countries, as well as (more indirectly) to former Soviet bloc nations such as Hungary and Poland. Eltsov believes a critical test for the West will come when Putin seeks to exert his influence in the fourth tier of Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—three countries that have significant Russian populations but are also NATO members.

“The big question is what violates Article 5 of NATO,” said Eltsov, referring to the provision of the NATO treaty that says if a member is directly attacked, NATO promises to take “such action as it deems necessary” to restore security.

“Does it have to be a land invasion? And will the U.S. respond if, say, Narva, an Estonian town conquered by Peter the Great and located near St. Petersburg—which is populated predominantly by Russians—witnesses an unexpected uprising by its Russian-speaking population?”

Foreign Policy:

Italian Bonds Slump as Shock Waves From Turkish Turmoil Spread

August 13, 2018

Italy’s bonds led losses among euro-area sovereign debt markets as the Turkish currency turmoil fueled fears of a contagion effect across riskier assets.


Yields on two-year securities climbed to the highest levels in more than a week as stocks worldwide declined following a tumble of more than 28 percent in Turkey’s lira this month. The Italian 10-year spread over German bunds hit the highest since May. Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio was reported as saying in an interview Monday that his country won’t be subject to an attack by speculators.

“It’s just a flight to safety move, with peripherals and in particular short-term BTPs hit relatively hard,” said Martin van Vliet, senior interest-rate strategist at ING Groep NV. “Di Maio’s comment on speculative attacks is also not taken positively, as this sort of echoes the economic warfare rhetoric from the Turkey leadership.”

Italian bonds also dropped amid investors concerns about the new government’s spending plans ahead of next month’s budget.

Two-year yields climbed as much as 18 basis points to 1.34 percent, while those on their 10-year debt rose eight basis points to 3.07 percent. The spread over German 10-year yields increased eight basis points to 276 basis points, the highest level since May.


 Turkey and Russia are bracing for financial chaos this week.

Increased tariffs on Turkey’s steel and aluminum exports to the U.S. have accelerated the lira’s tumble, setting in motion economic confusion that could spill over into other countries in the region. At the center of the dispute between the two NATO allies is a detained American pastor, but it doesn’t help that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, above, and President Trump are both strong-headed leaders.

Russia’s currency, the ruble, also took a beating after the Trump administration sanctioned the country for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Italy’s Five Star Movement faces its first national test.

The party campaigned to block a proposed pipeline that would transport gas from the Caspian Sea to southern Italy. That won over southern Italians like Alfredo Fasiello, above, who have long been wary of the pipeline’s environmental risks.

But now that Five Star is in power, it is wavering on that promise as pressure mounts to wean the country off Russian oil and gas by finding alternative sources.

To complicate matters further, Russia and four other countries that border the Caspian Sea — Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan — have agreed to divide the oil and gas-rich seabed among them. The agreement, which comes after three decades of Russian opposition, could have consequences for the construction of the trans-Caspian pipeline to Europe.

See more:

Putin pledges deeper ties with Iran and other Caspian Sea states

August 12, 2018

End to quarrel over world’s biggest lake boosts Russia’s hold over region

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and suit

Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani at the Caspian summit in Aktau, Kazakhstan on Sunday © AFP

By Henry Foy in Aktau

Russia has pledged to deepen co-operation with Iran and its Central Asian neighbours through a landmark deal on carving up the Caspian Sea, potentially paving the way for long-stalled energy projects and confirming Russia’s military supremacy over the world’s biggest lake.

The Caspian’s littoral states of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan have quarrelled for more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union over how to divide the strategically-important landlocked sea. On Sunday they signed a deal to manage a resource that holds large hydrocarbon resources and is a bridge between Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“This is an exceptional summit with milestone significance for the fate of the Caspian Sea,” Russian president Vladimir Putin told his fellow leaders. “This gives an opportunity for us to be on a different level of partnership to develop our co-operation in various new directions.”

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said he welcomed his four partners’ support for the country following the US decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action curtailing Tehran’s nuclear programme and reimpose sanctions on the country.

“It is gratifying that the Caspian countries emphasise multilateralism and oppose unilateral actions that are developing in some countries,” said Mr Rouhani. “The Caspian countries emphasise the protection of the JCPOA as a valuable international arrangement.”

Moscow has long viewed the Caspian within its sphere of influence and has sought to block any attempts to dilute its clout or thwart regional projects such as Turkmenistan’s proposed undersea gas pipeline that would allow it to compete with Russian gas in Europe.

But Mr Putin’s administration agreed to Sunday’s convention as a means to develop warmer ties with Iran, and strengthen co-operation with its Central Asian neighbours amid attempts by China and the US to increase their presence in the region. In exchange Russia gains a ban on any military presence on the Caspian by non-signatories, in effect giving its navy full control over the waves.

“Russia has been the driving force between the recent progress . . . but it remains to be seen whether Moscow has actually given anything away,” said Camilla Hagelund, principal analyst for Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft. “And from a security perspective they have obviously gained here.”

“But there is ambiguity over the other bilateral agreements that are being signed relating to the Caspian, and how they might affect how this new convention will operate in practice,” she added.

Various bilateral agreements behind the scenes have brought the five parties to the negotiating table. Russia has said it could be willing to restart imports of Turkmenistan gas, in a move that would represent an economic lifeline for the small country’s struggling economy, while Azerbaijan is also keen to increase gas imports to make up for a shortfall in its own production.

Sunday’s convention, signed by the five countries’ presidents in the dusty city of Aktau on the Caspian’s Kazakh coast, seeks to end a generation-long disagreement over whether it should be treated as a sea, subject to international maritime law, or as a lake, divided between all the participants.

The Caspian’s surface water will be treated like a sea, with open water for common use. The seabed and subsoil will in effect be divided up like dry land, although the exact details of the demarcations have not yet been decided.

Reaching this consensus on the status of the sea was a difficult process. It required a lot of effort from all the parties

That will allow undersea pipeline construction with the agreement of the affected states, ending years of legal issues for the proposed Turkmen pipeline. It will also allow for stronger cross-water trade, deepening economic ties between the countries.

“Reaching this consensus on the status of the sea was a difficult process,” said Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president. “It required a lot of effort from all the parties . . . but now we have good will.”

The ban on any foreign military presence is a victory for Moscow, and in effect blocks Nato or China from using the Caspian to deepen co-operation with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. Moscow has used its naval fleet in the Caspian to fire cruise missiles into Syria during its military support for President Bashar al-Assad. Mr Putin said on Sunday that Russia planned to build a new deepwater port on the sea by 2025.

“Nearby there are unstable regions: the Middle East and Afghanistan,” Mr Putin said. “It is important for us to build a systematic front against terrorism and security issues.”

Moscow is also keen to use the Caspian to further develop relations with Tehran. The countries are allied over support for Mr al-Assad, and both find themselves increasingly cut off from global markets because of US sanctions.

The two governments have stepped up talks in recent months on allowing Russian oil and gas companies to develop fields in Iran, in place of western companies that have withdrawn under pressure from Washington.

Moscow has also hinted at potential deals for Russian energy groups to trade Iranian oil in exchange for increased purchases of Russian goods and services by their southern neighbour.

“Our region could be a good example of stability, friendship and a good neighbourhood,” said Mr Rouhani. “The Caspian Sea only belongs to the Caspian states. The deployment and placement of military assets is not allowed for other countries.”

Follow Henry on Twitter at @HenryJFoy

Heavy fighting as Taliban attack western Afghan city

May 15, 2018

Afghan aircraft Tuesday bombed Taliban positions in the western city of Farah after the insurgents launched a major attempt to capture the provincial capital, with fearful residents seeking shelter from explosions and gunfire.

© AFP/File / by Aref Karimi | Afghanistan has sent commandos to battle the Taliban in Farah

The attack — the first major assault targeting a city since the Taliban launched their annual spring offensive — began around midnight, with the militants capturing one urban district and parts of another, said local provincial council member Jamila Amini.

“Heavy fighting continues inside the city and aircraft have just started bombarding Taliban positions,” she told AFP Tuesday from inside Farah.

Afghan officials said police special forces from Kandahar and commandos from Herat had also been deployed.

“(The Taliban) will fail,” vowed interior ministry spokesman Najib Danish, who said both Afghan and foreign air forces were taking part in the fighting.

There was no immediate confirmation from NATO’s mission in Kabul.

Defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Radmnish said at least 10 insurgents and two Afghan security force members had been killed so far.

“The situation is under control and will change by the end of the day,” he said.

But inside the city residents reported clashes were continuing. “The situation is very bad,” Satar Hissaini, a tribal elder in Farah, told AFP.

“Heavy fighting is going on and Taliban are in the city but the police headquarters and NDS (the Afghan intelligence agency) have not fallen to them,” he said.

“NDS forces in their HQ are engaged in heavy clashes with the Taliban.”

Another provincial council member, Dadullah Qani, confirmed Hissaini’s comments, the sound of gunfire and explosions audible as he spoke to an AFP reporter by telephone.

The noise has “filled the city”, said one resident who gave his name as Bilal, adding that he could see smoke rising from the direction of a building housing the NDS.

The insurgents released a statement warning residents to stay inside their homes and “stay calm”.

Many radio and television channels in the province have stopped broadcasting, fearing for their employees’ lives, according to media watchdog Nai.

– Fighting in the cities –

The Taliban are stepping up their spring offensive, in an apparent rejection of a peace talks overture from the government.

Farah is a poppy-growing province in an isolated region of Afghanistan. There are plans for a section of the multi-billion-dollar TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) gas pipeline to traverse it.

Despite security concerns, the Taliban have pledged to cooperate with the gas project.

Farah, which borders Iran, has been the scene of intense fighting in recent years. In 2017 insurgents tried three times to overrun the capital, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Afghan troops and police nationwide have struggled to hold back the resurgent Taliban since the withdrawal of NATO combat forces at the end of 2014.

The insurgents have tried several times to take provincial capitals in recent years, including Kunduz and Lashkar Gah.

Kunduz, Afghanistan’s fifth largest city and capital of the northern province of the same name, fell briefly to the Taliban in 2015.

They along with the Islamic State group have also stepped up their attacks in the capital Kabul, which the UN says has in recent years become one of the country’s deadliest places for civilians.

by Aref Karimi

Uzbekistan to join Turkmenistan-India gas pipeline project

April 23, 2018

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

  • Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said Uzbek experts would travel to Turkmenistan to discuss Tashkent’s role in the pipeline
  • “We have agreed that Uzbekistan will also take part in this project,” says Mirziyoyev

TASHKENT: Uzbekistan plans to join an $8 billion project to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said on Monday, although it was unclear whether Tashkent might eventually ship gas through it.

Turkmenistan, which sits on the world’s fourth-biggest gas reserves and borders Afghanistan, started this year laying the Afghan section of the pipeline which will also cross Pakistan, seeing it as key to diversifying exports away from China.

Uzbekistan also exports gas, mainly to China and Russia, although its export volumes are much lower than the Turkmen ones due to higher domestic consumption.

“We have agreed that Uzbekistan will also take part in this project,” Mirziyoyev told reporters after meeting his Turkmen counterpart Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who visited Uzbekistan.

He provided no details, but said Uzbek experts would travel to Turkmenistan to discuss Tashkent’s role in the pipeline.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, both ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, each produce more than 60 billion cubic metres of gas a year. China dominates Turkmen exports while Uzbek gas sales are split roughly equally between China and Russia.


More troops sent to west Afghanistan as Taliban step up attacks

March 14, 2018


© AFP/File | Afghan troops (shown firing artillery during an anti-Taliban operation in Farah in late January) regularly come under attack in the remote province
FARAH (AFGHANISTAN) (AFP) – Afghanistan has deployed more troops to a restive western province where a multi-billion-dollar pipeline is planned after the Taliban launched multiple attacks against security forces, causing heavy casualties, officials said Wednesday.The latest assault in Farah, which borders Iran, happened in the early hours of Wednesday when Taliban militants stormed a checkpoint manned by police and intelligence officers on the outskirts of the provincial capital of the same name, killing seven security forces.

It came as the Taliban face growing pressure to take up Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks to end the 16-year insurgency, but so far the group has given only a muted response

 Image result for Anar Dara district, afghanistan, photos

“When commando forces were deployed they (the militants) retreated,” Jamila Amini, a member of the Farah provincial council, told AFP.

Four members of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s spy agency, and three police were killed, she added.

The incident and death toll were confirmed by fellow provincial council member Gul Ahmad Faqiri.

“We have sent more troops and commando forces to Farah to contain the situation,” defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP, adding the army chief of staff had also visited the province.

“The situation will soon come under control,” he said.

Taliban fighters on Monday briefly took control of the administrative building of Farah’s Anar Dara district, killing eight police, before they were beaten back by security forces, officials said.

That came after an attack on soldiers in Bala Buluk district over the weekend that resulted in multiple casualties.

Image result for Anar Dara district, afghanistan, photos

A February 24 raid on an army base in the same district killed at least 18 soldiers, officials said, in one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent months.

Farah is a poppy-growing province in a hard to reach part of Afghanistan which a section of the multi-billion-dollar TAPI gas pipeline will traverse.

The conduit is named for the four countries involved: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Despite security concerns, the Taliban have pledged to cooperate with the project.

Farah has been the scene of intense fighting in recent years. In 2017 insurgents tried to overrun the capital three times, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

“The security situation has been deteriorating day by day in Farah,” Faqiri confirmed, estimating around a dozen security forces are killed in the province every day.

Former Farah governor Mohammad Aref Shah Jahan resigned in January after days of protests in the provincial capital over rising insecurity.


Farah’s Anar Dara on Verge of Collapse: Officials

Provincial council members calls for reinforcements to the deployed to the district.


Anar Dara district of western Farah province is on the verge of collapse, provincial council officials warned on Monday.

Dadullah Qane, a member of the provincial council said that the Taliban attacked the center of Anar Dara early Monday and took control of the police headquarters.

He warned that “if reinforcements are not deployed to the district, Anar Dara will fall completely to the Taliban.”

Image result for Anar Dara district, afghanistan, photos

Until now, Anar Dara was one of the peaceful districts of the province.

However, local officials have not yet commented over the attack.

This comes after about 15 security force members, including eight Special Forces, were killed on Friday night in Bala Blok district of the province, according to local officials.

Head of Farah provincial council Farid Bakhtawar said the forces had gone to Fararod area in Bala Blok district on Friday night to launch an operation, but were ambushed by Taliban while on their way. Fifteen of them were killed and a number of them were captured by Taliban fighters.

According to the provincial council members, eight of the soldiers killed were Special Forces members.

“In total there are 18 persons of whom three have been captured and the rest including eight Special Forces have been killed,” said Bakhtawar.

“The Special Forces had launched a clearing operation, but they suffered losses in this operation,” said Dadullah Qane, a member of the provincial council.

Afghan defense ministry officials refused to comment on the incident on camera but they did confirm the death of four Special Forces members in the ambush.

Insecurity has increased in Farah province in recent months. Last month, more than 10 national army personnel were also killed in a Taliban attack on a military base.

Farah provincial council chairman said in this incident Taliban also suffered heavy casualties.

The group, however, said in a statement that they had killed dozens of security force members.