Lebanon’s president promised Saturday to hold “free and honest” elections and possibly allow foreign monitors, an announcement apparently aimed at easing international pressure and appeasing the country’s anti-Syrian opposition.
President Emile Lahoud had come under increasing U.S. and European pressure to ensure elections in Lebanon are held before the current legislature’s mandate expires May 31.
U.S. officials have called for “free and fair elections” in the presence of international observers without foreign interference – a reference to Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon since 1976 when its troops entered the country to help end a civil war.
Lebanon’s opposition groups, who want the Syrian troops out and an end to Damascus’ influence, have also demanded international observers to monitor the elections that many believe will break Syria’s hold on Lebanon’s parliament.
On Friday, Lahoud named a prime minister, Najib Mikati, to replace Omar Karami, who quit after weeks of failed efforts to form a government that could pass a bill to hold elections.
Lahoud said the new Cabinet’s priorities will be to steer an electoral bill through parliament and call an election.
Evacuation following deadly gas leak ends
Hundreds of Veracruz state residents returned to their homes Saturday following a three-day evacuation resulting from a deadly leak of ammonia gas Wednesday that killed six people and injured 25.The rupture of the gas line owned by the state oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, was the latest in a string of oil-related accidents that have plagued this area in recent years. Pemex said the leak, in the southern Veracruz town of Nanchital, was caused by a private crew that inadvertently punctured the line while doing regular maintenance. The six people who were killed worked for the contractor.
The leak spread a noxious deadly cloud of gas, prompting the evacuation of 6,000 people from eight neighborhoods of eastern Nanchital, said Alfredo Gonzalez of the Nanchital civil protection department. Ammonia gas can cause death, blindness and severe respiratory injuries.
Although Pemex said the leak had been plugged quickly, the persistent danger posed by the ammonia cloud meant that a rescue team was able to recover the bodies of the six victims from the scene of the accident only on Friday. Saying the residue of the gas still posed a hazard, Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera on Friday extended the evacuation for another 24 hours. But only a few dozen people remained in the main Nanchital shelter Saturday afternoon. “People want to get back to their homes, because they are worried about getting burglarized,” said a Nanchital official who asked not to be named.
Pakistan president on 3-day visit to India
New Delhi, India
Mixing cricket with diplomacy, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrived in India on Saturday for a three-day journey to bring “a message of peace and unity.”
Musharraf’s last visit four years ago for a summit with then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed to reach any agreements. The new trip comes at an ideal time as India-Pakistan peace talks, stumbling along since early 2004, seem to have found their footing.
On landing in New Delhi, Musharraf said the current visit offered a “unique opportunity to address all our bilateral issues,” including the dispute over Kashmir, the Himalayan territory divided between the two nations and the cause of two of their three wars.
“We have prayed that in the times to come, all differences between India and Pakistan are resolved and peace returns,” he told reporters after visiting the shrine of a Muslim saint in the desert city of Ajmer.
Kashmir, claimed by both nations, is expected to be the focus of discussions between Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today.
Attack in Afghanistan possible, military says
America’s senior military commander in Afghanistan warned Saturday that Taliban-linked terrorists might launch a large-scale attack in coming months in a desperate attempt to reverse their waning fortunes.
But Lt. Gen. David Barno said the future was against them and predicted the near-total collapse of the Taliban within a year.
“As these terrorist capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan,” Barno told a news conference.
He did not give details or say whether he had specific intelligence reports.
Chess champ bonked with chessboard
Garry Kasparov, the world’s former No. 1 chess player who quit the professional game last month to focus on politics, said Saturday he had been hit over the head with a chessboard in a politically motivated attack.
Kasparov, 41, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was not injured Friday when he was hit with the chessboard after signing it for a young man at an event in Moscow.
A spokeswoman for Kasparov, Marina Litvinovich, said the assailant told the chess champion: “I admired you as a chess player, but you gave that up for politics.”
She said the unidentified attacker – who did not reveal his political allegiance – tried to hit Kasparov again but was hauled away by security guards.
“It was a fairly nasty incident, it was not very pleasant psychologically,” Kasparov told the private NTV television.