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AFP

Kiev authorities violating Geneva accord: Lavrov

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 00:00 Published in Headlines

MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday accused the government in Kiev of breaching an international accord reached last week toward defusing the crisis in Ukraine.
“The Geneva accord is not only not being fulfilled, but steps are being taken, primarily by those who seized power in Kiev, that are grossly breaching the agreements reached in Geneva,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow.
In Slavyansk, pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine yesterday appealed for help from Russian “peacekeepers” after a deadly gunfight killed at least two of their militants, shattering an Easter truce and sparking “outrage” in Moscow.
But the Western-backed authorities in Kiev claimed the violence was a set-up by Russia to create a pretext for it to send in troops. The attack, near the flashpoint town of Slavyansk, undermined an accord worked out in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine and Western powers on Thursday under which “illegal armed groups” were to surrender their weapons.
The deal, aimed at easing what has become the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War, now appears to have stalled.
Russia has an estimated 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s border in what Nato says is a state of readiness to invade, while the United States, according to The Washington Post, is preparing to send ground troops to neighboring Poland.
Vladimir, a masked 20-year-old pro-Russian rebel, said Sunday’s shootout erupted when four cars pulled up to a roadblock manned by the separatists in the early morning hours.
“We wanted to conduct a check, and then they opened fire on us with automatic weapons,” he said.
Three of the separatists were killed, he said.
An AFP photographer saw two bodies laid out in a truck near the scene.
The identity of the assailants, who escaped before the pro-Russian rebels could bring in reinforcements, was not known.
The leader of the separatists in Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said he believed two attackers were also killed.
He declared a midnight-to-6 am curfew in Slavyansk, and appealed for Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in troops as “peacekeepers to defend the population against the fascists” — the separatists’ label for Ukraine’s new government and its supporters.
Later, Ponomaryov said: “If you can’t send peacekeeping forces, send us weapons.”
Putin has said he “very much hopes” he will not have to send his forces into Ukraine, but asserts he has a “right” to do so.
On Sunday, Russia’s foreign ministry declared its “outrage” at the deadly attack.
It blamed the deaths of the “innocent civilians” on ultra-nationalists who were at the vanguard of the street protests that forced the February ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
The ministry said locals had found the attackers’ cars containing weapons, satellite maps and business cards belonging to the ultra-nationalist group Pravy Sektor (“Right Sector”). It demanded the Ukrainian government abide by the Geneva accord.
But a Right Sector spokesman told AFP that Russia’s claims were “lies” and “propaganda” designed to portray the east as ungovernable for Kiev.
Ukraine’s government, confirming three people were killed, described the latest violence as a “cynical provocation” by Russian-armed separatists.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who travelled to the east on Sunday to inspect troops in the region, said investigations were ongoing into the shootout.
The gunfight ended days of relative calm underpinned by a promise by the Western-backed authorities in Kiev to suspend military operations to oust the rebels over Easter.
The last deadly clash was on Thursday, when three pro-Russian militants were killed by Ukrainian soldiers when they tried to attack a military base in the southeast port city of Mariupol.
But with the pro-Kremlin rebels refusing to comply with the Geneva accord, Washington has been ratcheting up pressure on Moscow, which it sees as pulling the strings in the Ukrainian insurgency.
US President Barack Obama has threatened to impose more sanctions on Moscow if no progress is made on the ground.
A Kremlin spokesman shrugged off as “absurd” claims that Washington could sanction Putin directly, after an article in Britain’s The Times newspaper cited anonymous sources saying the United States could target Swiss bank accounts belonging to the leader that allegedly hold some $40 billion.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, told Fox News that sanctions represented a return to the “Cold War mentality” but said Moscow could “withstand pressures”.
In Moscow, the patriarch of the Russian Church, Kirill, led a prayer calling on God to put “an end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia” and pleading for Ukraine to soon have “legitimately elected” leaders.
In comments broadcast on US television on Sunday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk lashed out at Putin for having a “dream to restore the Soviet Union”.
“The world has a reason to be concerned about Putin’s intention because what (the) Russia Federation did, they undermined the global stability,” Yatsenyuk told NBC’s “Meet the Press”.
Washington has warned Moscow that Ukraine is in a “pivotal period” and said progress was needed on the Geneva accord “within days”.  

Obama on mission to quiet Asia skeptics

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

WASHINGTON — Five years after refashioning US foreign policy to emphasize Asia, President Barack Obama will face questions over his strategy’s content and staying power in the region this week.
Obama will counter the impression that events, including carnage in Syria and the East-West showdown over Ukraine have dragged his administration’s attention elsewhere.
He will argue in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines that the “rebalancing” policy — of withdrawing US military, economic and human resources from Middle East wars and deploying them to emerging Asia — remains on track.
Obama will embark on his fifth visit as president to Asia when he lands in Japan on Wednesday.
This journey, the first of two to the region this year, will make up for the embarrassment of skipping regional summits in November because of domestic political battles.
He seeks progress in tough talks with Japan over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, hung up over auto and agricultural market access. The TPP would cement Obama’s legacy in Asia, but talks on the 12-nation pact lost momentum last year.
Obama must also walk a fine line, bolstering alliances with nations which see the United States as a counterweight to powerful China, while avoiding angering Beijing.
He will also press on with efforts to ease the dispute between US allies South Korea and Japan, insist North Korea will get no reward for belligerence and complete a revival of US relations with Malaysia.
US officials now prefer the term “rebalancing” of US-Asia policy rather than the previous buzzword “pivot,” which implies a departure and caused consternation among US allies in Europe.
But some wonder if the policy has been stronger on rhetoric than on delivery since Obama, born in Hawaii and raised for four years in Indonesia, declared himself America’s “first Pacific president” in Japan in 2009.
“Unfortunately, the White House has not been able to make the notion of ‘rebalance’ stick and give it operational coherence,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a Clinton administration Asia policy specialist.
“Countries on this visit will be looking for evidence of President Obama’s security commitments and his related tactical skill, the ability to judge and manage issues in a way that establishes reachable goals and a good strategy to get there,” said Lieberthal, of the Brookings Institution.
The administration insists the strategy has had tangible results and revitalized American alliances.
A small US Marine detachment is already in Darwin, Australia, building up to a permanent rotation of around 2,500 troops.
With an eye on North Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent two more destroyers to Japan. Several Littoral Combat Ships have been based in Singapore and the US Navy eventually envisages a 60-40 split between assets in the Pacific and elsewhere.
Washington was also prominent in luring Myanmar out of isolation, though the country’s reform drive is beset by challenges.
But uncertainty lingers over US intentions.
“The US needs to first and foremost clearly define what ‘pivoting’ or ‘rebalancing’ exactly means, especially in the current high-tension environment in East Asia,” said Oh Ei Sun, an international relations specialist at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
“Is pivoting just a military and security issue, in which case it may be gaining traction regionally due to China’s increasingly strident posture, or is it something more, entailing an economic Obama’s no-show in Brunei and Bali last year led some in Asia to conclude Washington lacks energy for Asia.
Sequester spending cuts and talk of reducing the size of the US aircraft carrier fleet meanwhile posed the question: Can America even afford the pivot?
Some Asian governments doubt Obama has the political leverage to pilot a TPP through Congress, especially in a mid-term election year when protectionist fever runs high.
Obama’s last-minute decision to abort strikes on Syria last year to punish chemical weapons use meanwhile sparked debate on whether US red lines in Asia would also get blurred.
Some critics question whether US strategy is too reliant on military and economic tools and lacks sustained engagement once Air Force One takes off for home.
“The pivot is like a stool that has two legs and is missing one,” said Bridget Welsh, of Singapore Management University.
Welsh also raised the idea, heard often in Washington and in Asia, that Secretary of State John Kerry is less consumed by Asia than his predecessor Hillary Clinton, as he chases a Middle East peace deal and locks horns with Russia.
The White House denies any loss of commitment.
“There should be no question that where we have alliance commitments and treaty obligations in the Asia Pacific region or anywhere else in the world, we will uphold those obligations willingly and definitively,” said National Security advisor Susan Rice.
“I’ve not heard unease expressed.” 

ROME — Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary life is being set to music in Rome, with audiences enjoying a flourish of theater shows about the former playwright and future saint ahead of his canonization on Sunday.
Highlights like his famous meeting with his would-be assassin Ali Agca in 1983 and his famous phrase “Be not afraid!” have become modern dance numbers and jaunty tunes in an unusual cocktail of piety and showbiz.
Nuns and priests were out in force at a performance of “Karol Wojtyla: The True Story” — one of at least three pope-linked productions in the Eternal City.
Backstage, 26-year-old actor Virgilio Brancaccio donned a cardinal costume and rehearsed his lines as he prepared for his star role as the Polish pontiff.
“The hardest thing for me was combining his strong charisma with a great gentleness and purity,” said Brancaccio, who plays Wojtyla as a young man in a plot that ends with his Vatican election in 1978.
“We know his papacy but we don’t really know what he was like as an adolescent and a young man,” said Brancaccio, a television actor and former participant in the Italian version of the talent show X Factor.
In the audience, a smiling Sister Carmela from the Daughters of Saint Anne congregation was thrilled.
“We’re already praying a lot and it’s been a great gift to see this before the canonization!” she said.
“I passed the theatre and saw the poster and I was immediately drawn to it because I knew the pope well. He blessed me when I was a student!”
The musical features songs composed by Israeli singer Noa and premiered in Krakow, where Wojtyla was archbishop for many years, with the pope’s longtime friend Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz in attendance.
Wojtyla was born in 1920 and took up theatre in the 1930s when he was a student of languages at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, performing in various productions and writing plays even during World War II.
In the run-up to the canonization, the French seminary in Rome has staged a production of a play written by Wojtyla entitled Our God’s Brother about the life of Polish painter-turned-monk, Saint Adam Cmielowski.
Wojtyla was ordained in 1946 and went on to become one of the longest-serving popes in history, who was credited with helping to bring down communism in Europe.
Father Giuseppe Spedicato, the author of a second musical in Rome about Wojtyla, said his theatrical background prepared him well for the papacy.
As he oversaw the final rehearsals for “Be Not Afraid!,” Spedicato said he first had the idea for a musical in 1994 when John Paul II came to visit his diocese in Lecce in southern Italy.
“Knowing about his passion for theatre, I told him that I wanted to write this musical and he said ‘Go for it!’ That’s where it all started,” he said.
“As Christians and as priests, we use theatre also as a way of transmitting Bible values and teachings.
The musical, which is sponsored by the Vatican’s culture ministry, opens on Monday near Saint Peter’s and hopes are high that Pope Francis might attend.
Francis is also being honoured in a special evening of song and dance at Piper — one of Rome’s top nightclubs — on the day of the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII.
The overlap between faith and showbusiness is not as jarring in Italy as it might be in more secular societies and it came naturally to Danilo Brugia, the actor playing John Paul II in Be Not Afraid!
“I often turn to John Paul II in my own prayers. I think we need initiatives like this to bring people closer,” said Brugia, before rehearsing his favourite scene — the pope’s meeting in prison with Agca.
But not all the actors are religiously inspired.
“It’s part of our job to transform ourselves!” said Roberto Rossetti, who plays Wojtyla’s brother Edmund in Karol Wojtyla: The True Story.
“Sometimes we have to believe what we do not believe in and make the public believe it. We have studied how to fake it!”      

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