Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I deserve a second term: Obama

US President Barack Obama has said he believes he deserves a second term in the White House.

His declaration, in an interview with NBC, came as a new poll showed his approval ratings moving past 50% for the first time since May 2011.

The ABC News/Washington Post survey also suggests Obama would beat Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.

Romney and his rivals are now campaigning in Colorado and Minnesota after his weekend caucus win in Nevada.

States across the US are currently holding nominating contests to pick a Republican nominee to challenge Obama in November's general election.

Obama's NBC interview was broadcast ahead of the Super Bowl, the most-watched TV event of the year.

It came two days after improved employment figures prompted analysts to suggest his prospects for securing four more years in the White House were improving.

"I deserve a second term, but I am not done," Obama said. "We've created 3.7 million jobs in the last 23 months.

"We've created the most jobs since 2005, the most manufacturing jobs since 1990, but we're not finished.
"What I'm going to just keep on doing is plodding away, very persistent. And you know what? One of the things about being president is you get better as time goes on."
Split decision

The ABC News/Washington Post poll - carried out over the end of last week and into the weekend - indicated that some of the positive economic data of the past few months could be filtering through to the electorate.

Asked directly to choose a president if an election were being held now, 51% of the 1,000 respondents chose Obama, with Mr Romney on 45%.

Matched against former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is running second in the Republican race, Obama came out ahead by a wider margin, 54% to 43%.

Gingrich, as well as Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, has vowed to stay in the nomination fight, despite seeing Romney win 50% of the votes in the Nevada Republican caucuses at the weekend.

Although his approval ratings are up, Obama remains a polarising figure. Asked whether or not he should have a second term in office - but without being asked to choose between him and an alternative president - the respondents were split 49%-49%.

Despite his winning record in primary season, Romney has endured a barrage of hostile advertisements from rivals, and a lengthy focus on his wealth and business interests.

Some 52% of those polled said the more they learn about the former Massachusetts governor, the less they like him.

However, Romney is still considered the favoured Republican candidate on economic issues, the poll suggests.

Although he is the front-runner, Romney faces a long path to the Republican nomination.

He needs 1,144 delegates from across the 50 states to secure the mantle, and currently has 101 to his name. Gingrich is his nearest challenger, with 32, while Paul has 17 and Santorum is on nine.

On Monday, the Romney campaign turned its attacks on Santorum, after recent polling showed the former Pennsylvania senator ahead of Romney in Minnesota and second in Colorado.

Tim Pawlenty, a former Republican presidential candidate and Romney supporter, told reporters that Santorum has "held himself out as the perfect or near perfect conservative when in fact, that's not his record".

"As a US senator, he was a leading earmarker and pork-barrel spender," Pawlenty said, referring to ways lawmakers steer federal dollars towards their home districts.

The Colorado and Minnesota caucuses will be held 7 February 2012.

Iran 'detains alleged BBC Persian journalists'

Reports from Iran say several people have been detained for alleged links to the BBC's Persian service, which is banned in the country.

Mehr news agency said they were involved in newsgathering, recruiting and training for Iranian journalists and had arranged trips abroad for them.

A BBC statement said no BBC Persian staff members were working inside Iran.

It said the reports "should be of deep concern to all those who believe in a free and independent media".

Last week, the BBC accused the Iranian authorities of a campaign of bullying and harassment against those working for its Persian service.

'Anti-security crimes'
On Monday evening, a report by the semi-official Mehr agency cited an unnamed "knowledgeable source" as saying that "a number of people deceived by the lie-spreading BBC Persian network" had been arrested.
The source said they had "the mission of gathering news and information, producing content in various formats, recruiting, training and preparing for the departure of Iran's elite media workers from the country".

They had committed "many anti-security crimes as part of their co-operation with this network" since 2009, when mass protests erupted after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the source added.

"The case of the detained people will be handed over to the judiciary department for the issuance of a verdict after the final compilation and preparation of the charges," the source stated, without naming them.

"As has been previously said, any kind of co-operation with the BBC Persian channel is illegal and will be prosecuted."

In a statement, the corporation reiterated that there were "no BBC Persian staff members or stringers working inside Iran".

"These latest reports appear to confirm our recent statements and should be of deep concern to all those who believe in a free and independent media," a spokesperson said.

"They admit that the Iranian authorities are engaged in a persistent campaign, intimidating and arresting people who they claim have connections with the BBC Persian service."

'New tactics'
In a blog published on Friday, the BBC's Director General Mark Thompson wrote that he had seen "disturbing new tactics", including the targeting of family members of Persian service staff working outside Iran.
Mr Thompson revealed that the sister of one man had been arrested the previous week and held in solitary confinement on unspecified charges at Evin Prison in the capital, Tehran.

"Although she has now been released on bail, her treatment was utterly deplorable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms."

Mr Thompson also said some staff had had their Facebook and email accounts hacked, and been subjected to a "consistent stream of false and slanderous accusations... ranging from allegations of serious sexual assault, drug trafficking, and criminal financial behaviour".

In September, Iran arrested six film-makers, accusing them of working for BBC Persian. The corporation said they were independent, and that it had merely bought the rights to broadcast their documentaries.

Human Rights Watch said the harassment of BBC Persian staff was part of a wider campaign to stifle freedom of information in Iran ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.
It also comes amid mounting tensions over Iran's nuclear programme.

On Tuesday, Iranian media said MPs were considering a bill to prohibit the export of oil to the European Union, which approved a ban on Iranian oil imports last month in reaction to Tehran's continued refusal to halt uranium enrichment. The EU buys about 20% of Iran's oil exports.

Suu Kyi campaigns for Burma polls as US eases sanctions

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is travelling outside her home town for the first time as a registered candidate for elections.

Ms Suu Kyi is visiting the Irrawaddy Delta, an area she last visited two decades ago.
On Monday, her candidacy for 1 April by-elections was formally accepted. 

Meanwhile, the US has eased one of the sanctions it levels against Burma, in what it said was a response to ongoing reforms. 

The partial waiver, signed on Monday, will allow Burma to receive limited technical assistance from international financial institutions.

April polls
On Tuesday, crowds of cheering supporters greeted Ms Suu Kyi as she campaigned in the region devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. 

In a speech punctuated by jokes, Ms Suu Kyi told a huge crowd gathered on a football pitch in the main town that she was confident Burma would move forward. 

Her party's election campaign, she said, would be focused on the rule of law, development and national reconciliation. 

The Nobel Peace laureate, who spent years under house arrest, is standing for parliament in the rural township of Kawhmu, southwest of Rangoon. 

According to UN Human Rights Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana, the polls will be a key test of the military-backed government's commitment to reform. Mr Quintana was in Burma for a six-day mission last week.

Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the elections in November 2010 that saw a military junta replaced with a nominally civilian government backed by the armed forces. 

Since then, the new administration has embarked down a road of reform, leading the NLD to rejoin the political process. Western nations have said that they will match progress on reform with movement on sanctions. 

According to the US State Department, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on Monday signed a partial waiver of restrictions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act "in response to encouraging reforms under way" in Burma. 

This would allow institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to conduct assessment missions in the country.

Other US sanctions against Burma, however, remain in place.

Russian envoy in crisis-hit Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad amid a renewed government assault on rebel forces.

Mr Lavrov was greeted by pro-Assad crowds as he arrived in Damascus. The visit comes after Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed UN resolution criticising the crackdown in Syria.

Turkey has said it will start a new international initiative on Syria.

The Syrian army has been pounding the rebel stronghold of Homs for days. 

The BBC's Paul Wood - one of the only foreign reporters in Homs - says the Syrian army started firing artillery at about 06:00 local time (04:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

He says residents fear troops are planning to launch a ground assault.

Hundreds are reported to have died since the heavy shelling began on Friday. At least 95 people were killed on Monday alone, activists say.

Cut off
Thousands of President Assad's supporters lined the streets of Damascus and waved flags as Mr Lavrov's motorcade drove through the city.

On Monday, Mr Lavrov said Western reaction condemning Russia's veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Saturday bordered on "hysteria".

Moscow has said the draft - which backed an Arab League peace plan calling for President Assad to hand over power - would have forced regime change on Syria.

Mr Lavrov's office said he was heading to Damascus because Moscow sought "the swiftest stabilisation of the situation in Syria".

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged Mr Lavrov to "use this opportunity to make absolutely clear to the Assad regime how isolated it is and to encourage Assad and his people to make use of the Arab League plan and provide for a transition".

Russia is the main supplier of arms to Damascus. The Syrian port of Tartus is home to Russia's only Mediterranean naval base.

Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would start a new diplomatic initiative with countries opposed to Syria, following the "UN fiasco".

The Syrian government, which has been fighting an uprising against President Assad's rule since March, says it is fighting foreign-backed armed gangs.

Thousands of former army soldiers have defected to the rebel side, forming the Free Syrian Army.
Syria's interior ministry said operations against "terrorist groups" would continue until "security and order are restored" in Homs.

Homs activist Mohammed al-Hassan told Reuters news agency that Tuesday's bombardment was mostly concentrated on the restive Baba Amr district. 

"There is no electricity and all communications with the neighbourhood has been cut," he added.

'Licence to kill'

Meanwhile, the president's UK-born wife, Asma Assad, has expressed her support for her husband.

An email sent to Britain's Times newspaper from her office said: "The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the escalating violence in Syria "totally unacceptable before humanity", his spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

He urged "all concerned in Syria" and the international community to redouble efforts to try to stop the violence.

German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig said supporters of the Arab League plan needed to explore ways forward.

He said Berlin was proposing an international contact group that he described as "a broad-based coalition of friends of the Arab League and friends of Syria above all".

"Our fears have come true," he said. "Assad used the situation once again as a licence to kill - that's the sad aftermath of the veto."

Human rights groups and activists say more than 7,000 people have been killed by Syrian security forces since the uprising began last March.

The UN stopped estimating the death toll in Syria after it passed 5,400 in January, saying it was too difficult to confirm.

President Assad's government says at least 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed resigns amid unrest

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed has resigned after weeks of demonstrations and a mutiny by some police officers. 

In an address on state TV, he said it would be "better for the country in the current situation" if he stood down. 

Earlier, a group of mutinying police officers took control of the state broadcaster in the capital, Male.

Tensions escalated after the Maldives army arrested a senior judge last month, prompting bitter street protests in the Indian Ocean island chain.

A source close to the president described Tuesday's developments as a "coup by the former regime".

'Iron fist'
Mr Nasheed announced his resignation during a televised news conference.

"It will be better for the country in the current situation if I resign. I don't want to run the country with an iron fist. I am resigning," Mr Nasheed said.

He is expected to hand over power to Vice-President Muhammad Waheed Hassan.

Earlier, sources in the office of President Nasheed told the BBC a group of policemen had taken over the state broadcaster and began playing out messages in support of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Several journalists were said to be detained in the facility. 

Sources in the office of Mr Nasheed told the BBC Tuesday's protest took place in front of military headquarters, a high-security zone. 

Soldiers used tear gas to break up a demonstration by supporters of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. 

On Monday, around 50 policemen stood down in favour of the protesters and refused to obey orders.
The president's office denied reports that the army fired rubber bullets at the protesting police officers. 

Judge's arrest
Last month the army arrested a senior criminal court judge, Judge Abdulla Mohamed.
The government alleged that the judge's rulings - such as the release of an opposition activist detained without a warrant - were politically motivated.

It claimed the dispute with the judge was not an isolated incident, but indicative of a more deep-rooted problem with the Maldives judicial system and the checks and balances it has to ensure it stays independent. 

Human rights groups added their voices to calls for the judge to be released - and, as things grew increasingly heated, there were demands for the United Nations to be brought in to resolve the dispute.

Correspondents say since 2008 elections brought former human rights campaigner Mohammed Nasheed to the presidency, the Maldives has been gripped by constitutional gridlock - especially because parties opposed to him now dominate parliament.

Mr Nasheed beat long-time ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been in power for 30 years and was widely seen as autocratic, in the country's first multiparty election. 

Mr Nasheed was a well-known human rights campaigner and a former political prisoner. In office, he became a vocal figure on issues relating to the environment and climate change. 

But he has faced constant opposition - from those loyal to former President Gayoom and from religious conservatives who accuse him of being anti-Islamic, says the BBC's South Asia analyst Jill McGivering. 

That pressure has intensified with the prospect of fresh elections, scheduled for next year. Opposition parties are jockeying for power as they try to extend their influence. 

The wider question is how this crisis will affect the forthcoming elections - and what it says about the transition in the Maldives to mature democracy, our correspondent says.