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July 22, 2014

Thai king endorses military’s interim constitution

Wed Jul 23 2014, 05:10. AAP

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Thailand’s junta has won approval from the king for an interim constitution mapping out year-long political reforms expected to curb the influence of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

It was the first time the revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, had granted an audience to coup leader General Prayut Chan-O-Cha since the military seized power two months ago.

The document, published on the Royal Gazette website, late on Tuesday, offers an amnesty from prosecution to the generals who seized power in the May coup.

It also hands the junta sweeping “national security” powers and allows them to rule in parallel with a national assembly appointed by the king on military advice.

Membership will be strictly controlled, with many of the main players in Thailand’s turbulent politics seemingly barred by a clause prohibiting anyone who held “a position in any political party in the past three years”.

The military will further deepen its grip with a 250-strong council, which it will hand-pick and charge with recommending sweeping reforms.

Prayut has said the overhaul of the political system will be complete once a new, permanent charter is endorsed, opening the way for fresh elections.

But he has ruled out holding elections until around October 2015, despite appeals from the US and the European Union for a return to democracy.

The May coup was the latest chapter in a long-running political crisis broadly pitting Thaksin’s billionaire family and its supporters against a royalist establishment backed by parts of the military and judiciary.


Thai king endorses military’s interim constitution

BANGKOK Tue Jul 22, 2014 11:57am EDT

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Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has endorsed an interim constitution (Credit: AFP)

(Reuters) – Thailand’s king endorsed an interim constitution on Tuesday that grants power to the military to intervene in politics for security reasons without approval of a civilian government, due to be elected next year. The constitution, posted online late on Tuesday, preserves the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), or the junta that has ruled Thailand since a coup on May 22, and grants immunity from prosecution to those who led the putsch.

The draft gave no timeframe for when a general election would take place, although junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has said it would likely come at the end of next year.

The charter was whittled down from 309 articles to just 48 and allows the NCPO to intervene in matters it deems “destructive to the peace and safety of the country” even if the that meant disrupting the interim government’s work.

The military’s continued role in Thai politics has long been anticipated, although it was unclear whether it would remain involved in economic matters. The NCPO has been scrutinizing state-owned firms and major infrastructure deals, leading to delays in auctions and projects approved by the ousted government, and prompting concerns among investors already jittery about its policymaking clout.

The palace confirmed the endorsement of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, during a routine royal news bulletin late on Tuesday. He met Prayuth at his palace in the seaside town of Hua Hin, to which he returned in August 2013 after a four-year stint in a Bangkok hospital.


The military said its coup was to restore order after months of at times violent unrest as protesters tried to topple former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, an ex-premier whose parties have won every election since 2001 on a groundswell of working-class support. Yingluck was forced by a court to step down on May 7 for abuse of power and the remainder of her caretaker cabinet was ousted by the army two weeks later.

The turmoil was the latest chapter in almost a decade of conflict pitting the military-allied royalist establishment and Bangkok’s middle classes against the Shinawatra family, its business allies and its mostly working-class supporters.

The country has been hamstrung by an unrelenting cycle of elections, protests and judicial and military intervention, each backed by feuding families of upstart businessmen allied with Thaksin or influential scions bitterly opposed to him.

Thaksin was also ousted in a 2006 coup, and now chooses to live in exile rather than return home to serve prison time for an abuse of power conviction.

The military re-wrote the constitution back then, but Thaksin’s supporters say it failed to neuter his power and fear a new one would be more drastic in trying to stifle his populist political machine. Yingluck has kept a low profile since being removed from power. Last week the junta gave her permission to travel abroad and she is thought to be heading to France, where Thaksin will celebrate his 65th birthday on Saturday.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)


July 22, 2014

France To Deliver First Warship To Russia Despite MH17 Downing And Angry Allies

France To Deliver First Warship To Russia Despite MH17 Downing And Angry Allies

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france warship

The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok is seen at the STX Les Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, western France, April 24, 2014.

French officials defended President Francois Hollande’s decision to push ahead with delivery of a helicopter carrier to Russia in defiance of calls by key allies Britain and the U.S.

Speaking on the eve of an E.U. meeting to discuss sanctions on Moscow over the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, Hollande said late on Monday the first Mistral warship would be delivered as planned in October but a decision on a second would depend on Russia’s attitude.

It was the clearest signal yet from Paris that it intended to go through with the controversial deal despite the Ukraine crisis and came only hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron said it would be “unthinkable” for his country to fulfill such an order.

The $1.62 billion contract for the two warships, signed by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government in 2011, was the first by a NATO member country to supply Russia with military equipment.

The New York Times has noted that the deal would “augment the Russian military’s capabilities against the very nations that now appear to be most vulnerable to the Kremlin’s pressure.”

Some 400 Russian sailors arrived in France on June 30 to begin training on the first Mistral. They are being housed aboard a Russian ship docked in the port of Saint-Nazaire.

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed concerns about the Mistral contract in June because of Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. A senior U.S. administration official said on Monday that Washington continued to oppose the deliveries.

“Just because the Americans say ‘jump’ we shouldn’t jump,” Xavier Bertrand, a former minister under Sarkozy and senior member of his conservative opposition UMP party, told France Inter radio. “France’s word, its signature, must be respected.”

The wrangling over the warships also highlights the difficulties the 28-member E.U. has had in agreeing on a joint line for dealing with Russia, a major gas supplier to countries such as Germany and Italy, as well as to central Europe.

“Hollande is not backing down. He is delivering the first (ship) despite the fact he is being asked not to,” Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, head of Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party, told Tele television on Tuesday. “This is a false debate led by hypocrites … When you see how many (Russian) oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard.”

The E.U. can’t agree on imposing tough sanctions on Russia over its destabilizing actions in Ukraine as Russian natural gas powers E.U. homes and business while Russian oligarchs park their money in U.K. banks.

Nick Witney, a defense analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Wall Street Journal in June that the dispute over the sale illustrated “how Europe’s reliance on Russian resources risks unraveling strategic alliances that helped the West win the Cold War.”

While pressure for tougher action has mounted following the shooting down last week of a Malaysia Airlines plane in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by the separatists, E.U. foreign ministers were not expected to deepen sanctions significantly on Tuesday.

Diplomats said it was more likely they would agree to hasten implementation of measures already agreed against Russian individuals at their meeting in Brussels.

(Reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Paul Taylor)

July 22, 2014

American anger grows over France arms deal with the Kremlin

American anger grows over France arms deal with the Kremlin

As EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss imposing tougher sanctions against Russia, the US and Britain are ratcheting up pressure on France to suspend a lucrative arms deal with Moscow.

A member of the Australian Ukrainian community raises a placard carrying picture of the Russian President Vladimir Putin during a protest rally in Sydney on July 19, 2014.  Demonstrators demanded not to let Putin come to Australia for G20 leaders summit in November 2014. Flags flew at half-mast to honour the Australians killed in the Malaysia Airlines crash over Ukraine as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said it was


The United States is continuing to pile pressure on France to suspend a $1.6bn (£1bn) defence contract with the Russian government amid calls for Europe to adopt meaningful sanctions against Moscow following the downing of Flight MH17.

As EU foreign ministers, including Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, meet in Brussels later today to discuss toughening sanctions, the French refusal to halt the contract to supply two helicopter carriers to the Russian navy has come under particular fire.

The fact that France is still providing training to Russian service personnel was the subject of heated contacts between US and European officials last the weekend, officials said, as months of tension over the project came to a head.

“The Americans are absolutely furious about the French still training the Russians,” a Western diplomatic source told The Telegraph in Washington. “The question everyone is asking is, ‘at what point does Europe draw the line?’”

The UK, which along with Germany has already halted all defence exports to Russia, has lined up squarely behind the Obama administration which has led misgivings among some Nato countries about the French-Russian deal even before the crisis in Ukraine.

David Cameron joined the Anglo-US diplomatic offensive against the French yesterday when he said it was “unthinkable” that a British company would act like the French given the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight.

“Frankly in this country it would be unthinkable to fulfil an order like the one outstanding that the French have,” Mr Cameron told the House of Commons.

“But we need to put the pressure on with all our partners to say that we cannot go on doing business as usual with a country when it is behaving in this way.” Britain has said it stands willing to take “a hit” to its financial services sector on the grounds the doing nothing to rein in Mr Putin’s excesses would ultimately prove more costly than standing up to Russian adventurism.

“Sanctions will have an economic impact, and we are prepared to undertake further sanctions,” said George Osborne, the chancellor, yesterday adding that the effect of “allowing international borders to be ignored, of allowing airlines to be shot down – that’s a much greater economic hit for Britain, and we’re not prepared to allow that to happen.”

French leaders have remained silent about whether they would cancel or suspend the sale of two carriers the first of which, the Vladivostok, is to arrive in St. Petersburg from Saint-Nazaire, in December.

Russia continued to sound confident yesterday that France would not bow to American, British and German pressure and would honour the sale.

“We’re talking about billions of euros,” Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister, told Reuters in Moscow, “The French are very pragmatic.

Cancelling this contract would be less damaging to Russia than to France.”

Before flight MH17 was shot down, France had said it would press ahead with the sale of the Mistral warships despite American objections, arguing that up to 1,000 French jobs would be lost if the project was cancelled.

By comparison UK arms exports to Russia, which totalled £80m last year, and German exports which were just £4m are negligible compared to the French contracts for the Mistral.

The controversial sale, the first major arms deal between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War, was negotiated as President François Hollande’s approval ratings were slumped amid public anger over his failure to honour his election pledge to stem rising unemployment.

About 400 Russian sailors are on a three-month training course in Saint Nazaire, learning to manoeuvre the ships. When they arrived last month, they were welcomed by local residents who hoped they would patronise local businesses in a much-needed boost to the struggling economy.

Britain is now pushing for sector-level sanctions against Moscow, and is hoping that the Dutch – a politically neutral nation that speaks with moral authority having lost the greatest number of lives in the MH17 tragedy – will lead calls for action in Brussels on Tuesday. However, both France, with its defence contracts, and Italy which has a weak and diversified economy that Rome feels would be less resilient to blowback from Moscow, continue to be reluctant to impose meaningful economic pain on Russia.

Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, who had not originally intended to attend the Brussels meeting, will now be present in a show of intent by Britain who will urge Europe to impose further sanctions on Mr Putin’s cronies as well as naming at least one major bank.

July 22, 2014

Amid Sanctions, France in Warship Sale to Russia

Amid Sanctions, France in Warship Sale to Russia

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France says it will go ahead with the sale of a warship to Russia despite calls for an arms embargo against the country, highlighting how Europe’s strong business ties are hindering its ability to punish Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.

Western powers say Russia is supporting the insurgents in eastern Ukraine who allegedly shot down a Malaysian Airliner last week, killing all 298 people on board.

European Union foreign ministers met Tuesday to consider more sanctions against Russia but agreed only to impose more asset freezes on individuals, leaving economic relations untouched.

Some countries, like Britain, argue the plane crash has raised the stakes and Europe should not go soft on Russia.

But other countries are more cautious, mindful of the potential costs of harming business relations. Among other things, Germany imports a third of its oil and natural gas from Russia. France’s commercial deals include the delivery of two warships, the biggest ever sale by a NATO country of military equipment to Moscow.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said an arms embargo on Russia was discussed Tuesday, pushed for by the UK and others, but that EU members only agreed to restrictions on “future contracts” — meaning France would get to go ahead with its sales of warships.

French President Francois Hollande on Monday night warned about the costs of cancelling the deal. The first warship, the Vladivostok, is nearly finished and due to be delivered in October.

“The Russians have paid. We would have to reimburse 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion),” he said.

Hollande said the warship deal wouldn’t fall under new sanctions because it was finalized in 2011. French officials have also argued that the ship would be delivered without any weapons.

He said delivery of the second warship included in the deal could “depend on Russia’s attitude.”

Paul Ivan, a policy analyst and sanctions specialist at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank, pointed out that France risks losing future arms deals with NATO members in central and eastern Europe, some of whom are particularly fearful of Russia.

Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin criticized the sale as violating the EU’s own code of conduct, which forbids EU nations from exporting arms if they “would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions.”

U.S. sanctions against Russia have been stronger than Europe’s. Last week, it blocked high-profile oil companies and banks from accessing U.S. markets for financing. Action from the EU has mainly targeted individuals instead.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf criticized the French warship deal.

“Clearly we think it’s completely inappropriate and we’ve told them they should not do it,” Harf told reporters in Washington.

France’s contract for the warships covers the construction of two ships from the French town of Saint-Nazaire by the French state-owned military contractor DCNS and the French shipbuilding company STX.

The Vladivostok’s sister ship, the Sebastopol, is currently under construction. It is scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2015.

Each ship can carry 700 troops, 16 helicopter gunships, and as many as 50 armored vehicles.

People in the Netherlands are shocked to know that 400 Russian sailors are currently in Saint-Nazaire training aboard the Vladivostok “when we are waiting for 300 bodies to come back,” Dutch lawmaker Esther de Lange said at a European Parliament hearing.


John-Thor Dahlburg and Juergen Baetz in Brussels, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.


Sylvie Corbet can be followed at

July 20, 2014

Vladimir Putin is given ‘one last chance’ as world fury mounts over flight MH17

Vladimir Putin is given ‘one last chance’ as world fury mounts over flight MH17

Dutch PM describes armed rebels’ behaviour in blocking access to crash site as ‘revolting’

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Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash

The MH17 crash site is controlled by armed pro-Russia militia, who are carefully supervising access to journalists and investigators. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

Global leaders rounded on Vladimir Putin on Saturday night as armed separatists continued to block international inspectors attempting to identify and repatriate bodies at the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine.

Amid reports that pro-Russia rebels accused of shooting down the plane had removed corpses themselves and were looting credit cards and other possessions belonging to some of the 298 victims, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said that Putin had “one last chance to show he means to help [rescuers recover the bodies]“.

Rutte vented his anger following what he called a “very intense” conversation with the Russian president. Referring to allegations that bodies of the passengers, including 193 Dutch nationals, were being treated with contempt and allowed to rot at the scene, he said: “I was shocked at the pictures of utterly disrespectful behaviour at this tragic spot. It’s revolting.”

David Cameron called for the EU and the west to change its approach to Russia if Putin does not alter course on Ukraine following the tragedy. The prime minister said: “This is a direct result of Russia destabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias, and training and arming them. We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action.”

The Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, and a small team of monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were prevented from identifying and repatriating bodies on Saturday, having been allowed only limited access to the disaster site under the supervision of the armed separatists.

Following reports about attempts to use victims’ credit cards, Dutch banks said that they were taking “preventive measures” and that any losses suffered by relatives of the dead would be paid back. The DeTelegraaf newspaper said: “The government must make clear to the world that we are beside ourselves with rage.”

Speaking about the British government’s priorities Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said: “Our focus now is on securing the site so there is a proper international investigation to identify the cause and the perpetrators and bring them to justice, and making sure the victims are dealt with with proper dignity and respect.”

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, also stressed in a phone call with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that investigators must get full access to the crash site.

The situation there descended into chaos on Saturday as “experts” of unknown provenance moved bodies decomposing in the baking heat from fields to the roadside, and used bags to collect body parts. A spokesman for the OSCE, Michael Bociurkiw, said: “Some of the body bags are open and the damage to the corpses is very, very bad – it is very difficult to look at.”

It was a horrific scene and came despite huge pressure on Moscow to force the rebels to allow proper access to the site. The Ukrainian government accused the separatists of removing 38 bodies from the site to a morgue in rebel-held Donetsk. But as politicians and newspapers across the world lay blame for Thursday’s tragedy at the door of pro-Russia separatists and Vladimir Putin personally, the Kremlin has remained defiant. Putin has said Ukraine is to blame, and Russia’s defence ministry issued a list of 10 questions for Kiev on Saturday, insinuating that it was a Ukrainian missile that downed the plane, while the self-declared prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, told Russian television that the entire event had been a setup by Ukrainian authorities.

“[Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko promised a ‘surprise’ for the rebels. I think this is the surprise he was talking about – a plane full of civilians shot down,” said Borodai. However, a senior Ukrainian security official claimed on Saturday that Kiev had evidence the missile was fired from separatist territory by Russian specialists who had crossed the border with the equipment.

The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told a German newspaper that the missile required “very professional staff” and “could not be operated by drunken gorillas”, suggesting that the separatists had outside help from Russia. When asked about the growing circumstantial evidence that the separatists shot down the jet in error, thinking it to be a Ukrainian air force plane, Borodai said: “It’s a lie and I hope it will be proved as a lie by experts, including international experts who have already arrived on our territory.”

However, there were no recognisable international or even Ukrainian experts at the crash site, which was completely controlled by rebel gunmen. Ukraine’s government on Saturday accused the rebels of destroying evidence and making life difficult for OSCE observers. “We have to be very careful with our movements because of all the security. We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms,” said Bociurkiw.

Of the 10 dead Britons, the four yet to be identified were named on Saturday as John Allen, a Netherlands-based lawyer who died with his wife Sandra and their sons Christopher, Julian and Ian; Robert Ayley, 28, a dog breeder and father of two from Guildford in Surrey, who lived in New Zealand; Stephen Anderson, 44, who lived in Penang, Malaysia; and Andrew Hoare, 59, a banker who died alongside his Dutch wife Estella and their two children, Friso and Jasper, who were aged 12 and 14 and of Dutch nationality.

Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, has been summoned to the Foreign Office to be told that Putin must use his influence on the separatists to ensure access to the crash site, No 10 said. In Germany, Andreas Schockenhoff, a senior ally of chancellor Angela Merkel, told the Observer: “The disaster in the Ukraine has made it clear beyond all doubt that we are not dealing with a bilateral conflict, but a serious threat to the peace all across Europe.”

Schockenhoff said Russia was “not a neutral actor in the conflict” since it had armed and trained the separatists. He called on Europe to show “a united front and make any failure to cooperate very painful for Putin”.

Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry published a list of 12 US citizens who are now banned from entry to Russia in response to the latest US sanctions. They include officials involved in the running of the Guantánamo detention facility and military personnel involved with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

Fighting has continued between the Ukrainian army and separatists in east Ukraine since the crash on Thursday, with more than 20 civilians reported to have died in Luhansk on Friday. Ukrainian authorities claimed they had evidence of military equipment transferred to the area from Russia in the early hours of Saturday morning.


MH17: Russian media pins blame on Ukraine government

Rebel leaders go on Russian TV to deny role in disaster as state-run channels cover conspiracy theories and counterclaims
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An armed pro-Russia militant attempts to stop journalists from accessing the site of the crash.

An armed pro-Russia militant attempts to stop journalists from accessing the site of the crash. Photograph:Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

While western suspicions about the culprits behind the MH17 disaster grew, in Russia on Saturday the local media were striking a different note.

State-run news channels in Russia replayed statements from defence officials arguing that Ukraine‘s planes and air defence units were operating in the area. Several pro-Russia rebel leaders have argued on air that they don’t have weaponry capable of shooting down the plane, although Russian news agencies previously said they did.

An anchorwoman on Rossiya 24 said Russia was challenging “American accusations” and, “in a continuation of the information war, asking Kiev uncomfortable questions”.

Both Rossiya 24 and NTV aired footage of deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov posing “10 questions” to the Ukrainian government, asking if Kiev could “explain the deployment of Buk missiles in the area of the Boeing,” and suggesting that Ukrainian dispatchers had “allowed the plane to change course for a war zone”. Malaysia Airlines has said the plane’s route had been approved by the European flight supervisory body.

Russian newspapers’ front pages splashed a photograph of a rebel fighter pointing at burning debris, and the Moskovsky Komsomolets printed a map of air defence positions, hinting that Kiev’s forces were to blame. “The Ukrainian authorities bear full responsibility!” screamed the tabloid Tvoi Den, referring to Vladimir Putin‘s remarks that the disaster would not have happened had Kiev not resumed its military campaign in east Ukraine.

A variety of media, including the official newspaper of the Russian government, quoted the Twitter account of a “Spanish dispatcher” supposedly working for Ukrainian air traffic control, suggesting that two Ukrainian fighter jets shot down MH17. The Spanish embassy later said the account was fraudulent and denied that any Spanish person had worked as an air traffic controller in Kiev.

Others, including the website of Rossiya 24, reported allegations from a rebel social network page that the flight had been full of dead bodies when it was shot down.

Valery Grinblat, a professor browsing newspapers at a Moscow stand, said he didn’t trust accusations against the rebels because “Ukraine always lies”. He said Kiev’s forces probably shot the Boeing down, bringing up a 2001 incident in which Ukraine admitted its fighter jets had accidentally shot down a Siberian Airlines flight.

“Never trust Ukraine,” he said. “There needs to be an investigation by an international independent commission to believe any explanationAlexander Nikolayev, a pensioner and former soldier, said it was unlikely the rebels had shot down the plane. “Ukraine says Russia is to blame, Russia says Ukraine is, America blames Russia. You’ll never figure it out without a half-litre” of vodka, he said, using an old Russian expression..”



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