United Nations (United States) (AFP) - UN investigators say talk of genocide or ethnic cleaning in the Central African Republic is premature, but that evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity exists on both sides. An international commission of inquiry appointed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon in January has submitted an interim report to Security Council members, a copy of which was seen by AFP on Thursday. "Ample evidence exists to prove that individuals from both sides of the conflict perpetuated serious breaches of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity as well as war crimes," it says. "But talk of an international armed conflict, genocide or ethnic cleansing "at this point in time is premature" the report said, warning that without stronger international intervention that could change.
As controversy swirls in the United States over the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, several politicians have backtracked on their support of the soldier -- at least if you check their Twitter feeds. By Thursday, at least seven US politicians had deleted tweets praising Bergdahl amid a mounting backlash over the deal for his freedom that resulted in the release of five high-level Taliban operatives from Guantanamo Bay. The online scrubbing highlights the growing concern over the possibility that the Taliban commanders could rejoin the fight, and anger over how the government of US President Barack Obama brokered the deal. Bergdahl has also been accused by some in his own unit of being a deserter, sparking contempt.
A senior State Department official will represent the United States at Sunday's inauguration of the new Egyptian president, but in a sign of US unease, no cabinet-level ministers will attend. The US delegation to the swearing-in of president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be led by State Department counselor Thomas Shannon, a senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry, a US official said Thursday. "The United States looks forward to working with president-elect al-Sisi in Egypt and his government to advance our strategic partnership and many shared interests," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Policymakers in most Asian countries support a robust US role in the region even though many expect China to become the most dominant power, a survey said Thursday. An 11-nation survey of experts, who are not in government but are seen as influential, found strong backing in almost every country except China for President Barack Obama's stated policy of "pivoting" US resources toward Asia. The study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies found that elites largely expected China's clout to keep growing. But asked what would be best for their countries, wide majorities in the United States as well as its regional partners Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan chose continued US leadership, even if Washington's power declines in relative terms.
President Francois Hollande hosted his US counterpart Barack Obama for dinner Thursday, seeking to defend BNP Paribas bank from what France sees as disproportionate penalties that US authorities are set to impose. "The rule of law is not determined by political expediency," Obama said in the Belgian capital. "Francois Hollande brought up the BNP issue at dinner, of course with respect to the US institutions, and in detail," a French presidential source said after the dinner.
By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan deal on Thursday to ease healthcare delays at the Department of Veterans Affairs as the agency's acting boss revealed that 18 veterans on a secret waiting list had died while waiting for VA care in Phoenix. If passed, it would allow veterans more access to private doctors and give the VA new authority to open 26 clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and fire poor-performing staff. It was reached after rare bipartisan negotiations led by Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. The scandal over widespread schemes to mask the long delays prompted allegations from VA doctors in Phoenix that 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments at VA facilities there.
German deputies probing US spying said Thursday they would seek to question fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden in Moscow within the next four weeks. The parliamentary committee aims to assess the extent of surveillance by the US National Security Agency and its partners on German citizens and politicians, and whether German intelligence aided its activities. Deputies from the panel voted to try to speak with Snowden before their next session on July 2, with a preliminary "informal" meeting in Moscow aimed at assessing how to proceed. They said they would speak with Snowden's lawyer in the coming days to determine whether the American is willing to talk to them.
By Patricia Zengerle WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration expects more inmates will be transferred from the Guantanamo Bay military prison this year, a U.S. official said on Thursday, despite the political firestorm over the exchange of five Taliban detainees for the last American soldier held in Afghanistan. "There are a significant number of transfers in the pipeline at various stages, and I think you are going to be seeing substantial progress this year," a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told a briefing for reporters on moves toward closing the base. The detention camp, much-criticized by human rights groups and others, has been back in the spotlight since Saturday when Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was released after being held for five years by the Taliban, in exchange for five Taliban officials held at Guantanamo for 12 years. News of the swap, which was arranged without consulting Congress, infuriated many lawmakers, particularly Republicans already skeptical about the avowed intention of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to close the prison.
Venezuela's judiciary is cracking down on students and dissidents while allowing nine out of ten other crimes, including thousands of murders, to go unpunished, an international watchdog said Thursday. Some 1,500 students are facing prosecution over the massive protests that rocked the country for four months, including 160 who are still in prison, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said in a report. At least 42 people were killed when opponents of President Nicolas Maduro took to the streets in February to protest rampant crime, runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves. Judges and prosecutors, under heavy political pressure, have made little progress in investigating the deaths or allegations of the torture of demonstrators, the ICJ said.
Spanish lawmakers will swear in the future King Felipe VI at a ceremony in parliament with no foreign dignitaries invited to see him accede to the throne, the palace said Thursday. Felipe, 46, is to take the crown following his increasingly unpopular father Juan Carlos's announcement on Monday that he is abdicating as king after a historic four-decade reign. "In Spain it is the tradition that abdications and proclamations of a king take place before the people's elected representatives, the members of parliament and senators," a palace spokesman said. "The ceremony will take place in parliament and afterwards when Felipe VI starts his reign there will be a tour of Spain and abroad," the spokesman said.
More than half of Americans think Department of Veterans Affairs health officials deserve the most blame for long, underreported patient wait times that may have led to some veterans' deaths, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday. Only 12 percent of those polled said President Barack Obama deserves the blame, indicating that the revelations so far have not had the broad political fallout some experts anticipated. Fifty-seven percent of participants said they blamed either VA health system administrators or the directors of the facilities where patient delays were hidden. Just 10 percent of the 1,486 participants said former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week, bears the most responsibility for the scandal.
Port-au-Prince (AFP) - Thousands of Haitians took to the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince Thursday to demand that President Michel Martelly step down and new elections be held. "We want elections but we are asking that President Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe first step down. The people do not trust these leaders to organize honest elections," said Turneb Delpe, a former senator. Legislative elections for around 100 members of the Chamber of Deputies, 20 senators and municipal leaders are set to take place on October 26 after multiple delays.
The European Central Bank unveiled a new arsenal of monetary policy weapons on Thursday, this time aimed not at calming panicked markets threatening the eurozone, but the more subtle danger of deflation. "We are not in a moment of acute crisis but something more concealed and potentially more dangerous," said Isabelle Job-Bazille, director of economic research at French bank Credit Agricole. ECB chief Mario Draghi rolled out an unprecedented package of measures, including negative interest rates and targeted measures to kickstart lending to businesses, as well as indicating plans for a limited foray into asset purchases similar to those by US, Japanese and British central banks. At the time, he announced the ECB was ready to step in and buy eurozone bonds on a massive scale if necessary -- a promise which calmed markets and helped ensure that such intervention was not actually necessary.
China underestimated its growing defense budget by nearly 20 percent with its spending likely nearing $145 billion last year, the Pentagon said Thursday. In an annual report required by Congress, the Pentagon said that China's defense budget for 2013 was higher than the officially announced $119.5 billion. "We think that if you start factoring in other considerations, other funding streams that go into the military, other investments that are not included in the defense budget, that it could be up to $145 billion," a Pentagon official said of the report. In its previous annual report on China, the Pentagon said that Beijing's military spending was anywhere between $135-215 billion.
Dolzhansky (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine said Thursday it had abandoned three checkpoints on the Russian border after a series of night-time attacks by separatists, and AFP reporters on the scene said at least one had been taken over by the militants. The three checkpoints, all in the volatile Lugansk region, were targeted in attacks by pro-Russian rebels overnight Wednesday to Thursday, the border guards said in a statement. "After an exchange of fire, the threat to the lives of people crossing the border prompted the evacuation of civilians and border guards at the checkpoints," the statement said. On Thursday afternoon, Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flag no longer flew over the border post at Dolzhansky after it had been taken over by about 10 armed pro-Russian rebels who allowed vehicles to pass in both directions.