- - Sunday, August 1, 2010

AFGHANISTAN

Dutch troops first to quit Afghanistan

KABUL | The Netherlands became the first NATO country to end its combat mission in Afghanistan, drawing the curtain Sunday on a four-year operation that was deeply unpopular at home and even brought down a Dutch government.

The departure of the small force of nearly 1,900 Dutch troops is not expected to affect conditions on the ground. But it is politically significant because it comes at a time of rising casualties and growing doubts about the war in NATO capitals, even as allied troops are beginning what could be the decisive campaign of the war.

Canada has announced it will withdraw its 2,700 troops in 2011, and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski has promised to pull out his country’s 2,600 soldiers the year after.

That is likely to put pressure on other European governments, such as Germany and Britain, to scale back their forces, adding to the burden shouldered by the United States, which expects to have 100,000 troops here by the end of next month.

President Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing American troops starting in July 2011. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told ABC’s “This Week” broadcast Sunday that only a small number of troops would leave in the initial stage.

IRAQ

July deadliest month for Iraqis since 2008

BAGHDAD | July was Iraq’s deadliest month in more than two years, according to new official figures, suggesting that a resilient insurgency is successfully taking advantage of the months of deadlock in forming a new government.

The figures released late Saturday show that 535 people were killed last month, the highest since May 2008 when 563 died, heightening concerns over Iraq’s precarious security situation even as the U.S. troops are reducing their numbers.

The U.S. military vehemently rejected the casualty numbers Sunday afternoon, however, countering that its own data showed that only 222 Iraqis were killed in July. “We do our very best to be vigilant to ensure the numbers we report are as accurate as can be,” spokesman Lt. Col. Bob Owen said.

The military’s rejection of the Iraqi figures, compiled by the ministries of defense, interior and health, comes at a delicate time. The American military has pronounced Iraq’s security as stabilizing and is going ahead with plans to send home all but 50,000 troops by the end of the month.

The increase in violence has been linked to insurgent attempts to destabilize the country as it struggles to sort out the inconclusive results of national elections nearly five months ago.

The political impasse deepened this weekend, when a Shiite bloc nominally allied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition publicly announced its rejection of his candidacy for a second term in office.

SUDAN

Deadlock in dispute over Abyei oil region

KHARTOUM | Talks have stalled between Sudan’s rival northern and southern halves over the disputed oil-producing Abyei region and could reignite a conflict that claimed millions of lives, the region’s leader said on Sunday.

Abyei has been the most contentious dispute between the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the ruling northern National Congress Party, both before and after a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest running civil war.

The conflict was fought over religion, ethnicity, ideology and oil — most of which lies along the north-south border. It claimed 2 million lives, say aid agencies, mostly from hunger and disease and destabilized much of east Africa.

South Sudan will vote in a referendum on independence in January, and Abyei should hold a simultaneous vote on whether to join the south.

But the partners cannot agree on the make up of the Abyei referendum commission, who will be able to vote or whether to hold long-delayed elections there.

EGYPT

Peres, Mubarak discuss direct peace talks

CAIRO | Israeli President Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discussed on Sunday efforts to relaunch direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the Egyptian president said.

The two men discussed “the peace process in the Middle East and means to move from indirect negotiations to serious direct negotiations,” Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad told reporters after the meeting in Cairo.

Israel and the Palestinians currently are locked in a round of U.S.-brokered proximity negotiations, although the international community is trying to encourage both parties to move to face-to-face talks.

Last week, foreign ministers from the Arab League agreed in principle to the resumption of direct peace talks, but left the timing of when they should start in the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Abbas has so far refused to engage in direct talks without first a freeze of Jewish settlements and guarantees over the borders of a future Palestinian state.

INDIA

Protesters killed in Kashmir

SRINAGAR | Four people were gunned down Sunday by security forces who opened fire on thousands of protesters and another four civilians were killed in a blast at a police station, bringing the death toll from weeks of clashes in increasingly violent Indian Kashmir to 31.

The explosion happened after the police station was set on fire by residents angry at two deaths in Khrew, a town near Srinagar where hundreds had been protesting Indian rule, a top police officer said.

At least four people were killed and dozens of civilians were injured in the blast, the officer said on condition of anonymity as he didn’t want his name to be used.

There were no casualties among the police officers who fled the area as the mob attacked the police station, which also housed a state counterinsurgency police force, the officer said.

CUBA

Economic controls to be reduced

HAVANA | Cuban President Raul Castro said Sunday that his government will scale back controls on small businesses and lay off unnecessary workers — significant steps in a country where the state dominates nearly every facet of the economy.

Mr. Castro said authorities will “update the Cuban economic model,” suggesting reforms could be on the horizon. Cuban officials also plan to allow more Cubans to become self-employed and to build a new tax structure that will compel state employees to contribute more.

Cuba’s president, however, squashed notions of a sweeping overhaul to the country’s communist economic system in response to the financial crisis it faces.

“With experience accumulated in more than 55 years of revolutionary struggle, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing too badly, nor that desperation or frustration have been our companions along the way,” the president said in a speech before parliament.

From wire dispatches and staff reports