- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Diplomatic two-step

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell this week diplomatically danced around issues of democracy and human rights during a trip to three Arab countries in North Africa that have become important partners in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

Ignoring a call from human rights activists to play it tough with top officials in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, Mr. Powell chose the safe route of balancing criticism with praise during visits on Tuesday and yesterday, according to our State Department correspondent Nicholas Kralev, who is traveling with the secretary.

He went out of his way to point out the significance of the political reforms the countries have carried out in recent years, but he added that much more is necessary for true openness and democracy to take root.

“We, of course, made it clear during the course of my discussions that, as one moves forward toward political reform, one has to remain committed to the concept of openness and freedom of expression,” Mr. Powell told reporters in Morocco. “When one cracks down on terrorism, it has to be with the full understanding of basic principles of human rights.”

Moroccan courts have sentenced more than 50 people to life in prison and 16 persons to death in a crackdown after terrorist bombings in Casablanca on May 16, which left 33 dead.

Human rights groups in the region and in the West say that Morocco is using the war on terrorism as an excuse for the increased number of disappearances in recent months.

In Tunisia, Mr. Powell said he had an “excellent meeting” with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but added that he also raised human rights issues.

“Our bilateral relationship is very, very strong,” Mr. Powell told reporters. “We are great admirers of Tunisia and the progress that has been achieved under President Ben Ali’s leadership.”

He cited Tunisia’s high literacy rate, the advancement of women, and political and economic reforms.

Mr. Powell also confirmed the invitation for Mr. Ben Ali to visit President Bush in February.

Saudis support Iraq

Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan Abdul Aziz dismissed reports that his government plans to withhold further aid to Iraq until the country is under more secure control.

Prince Bandar said Saudi Arabia stands by the commitments it made at a donors conference in Madrid in October. The kingdom has provided $60 million in aid that includes food, water, medicine and other supplies and maintains a field hospital with more than 150 medical staff in Baghdad, the ambassador said in a statement this week.

“Saudi Arabia is committed to supporting the reconstruction of Iraq and firmly believes that the United States should not go it alone,” Prince Bandar said.

“We stand with the world community in efforts to bring stability and peace to Iraq and relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. …

“There is no change in the commitments that Saudi Arabia made at the donors conference in Madrid and any reports of such changes are not correct.”

Fly Vietnam

The United States and Vietnam today sign a landmark agreement to resume direct flights between the two countries for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Vietnamese Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh will sign the agreement that will allow passenger and cargo flights to begin as early as the spring. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan will witness the ceremony.

Washington will select two U.S. passenger airlines and Hanoi will pick two Vietnamese airlines to provide service for the first two years of the pact, with a third carrier from each side added in the third year of the agreement.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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