Egypt Independent: World-Main news en Palestinians rally for prisoners as peace talks falter <img src="" alt="" title="" class="imagecache imagecache-media_thumbnail" width="152" height="114" /><div>Palestinians gathered across the West Bank and Gaza on Thursday for rallies of solidarity with Israeli-held prisoners, as peace talks near collapse after the Jewish state refused to free long-serving inmates.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>To mark Prisoners Day, thousands were expected to demonstrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has his headquarters, and hundreds took part in early rallies in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip late Wednesday.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>&quot;We won&#39;t forget our prisoners -- prisoners first!&quot; read banners in Gaza City as demonstrators set off from mosques across the besieged territory.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>The prisoners row caused a new deadlock in US-brokered peace talks at the end of March, just a month ahead of their deadline, when Israel reneged on its commitment to release a fourth and final batch of Palestinian inmates.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>The Palestinians retaliated by seeking membership of several international treaties, breaking their own commitment under the talks which US Secretary of State John Kerry launched in July.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>&quot;Prisoners Day has extra importance this year,&quot; said the Palestinian Prisoners Club head, Abdel Al al-Anani.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>&quot;The prisoners issue has become one of global significance, since it is the reason that peace talks have almost collapsed,&quot; he told AFP.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said in a statement: &quot;The plight of the prisoners reflects the plight of the Palestinian people as a whole.&quot;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>A one-day hunger strike was being observed by inmates to mark the annual show of solidarity with the nearly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Palestinian prisoners affairs minister Issa Qaraqe told AFP.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Around 30 of them have been held being bars since before the 1993 Oslo autonomy accords with Israel, said a Palestinian legal rights NGO, Adalah.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Israel has so far released 78 of the 104 prisoners it pledged to free during nine months of peace talks, most of them imprisoned since before the Oslo accords.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>But it refused to free the final batch, using it as a bargaining chip to convince the Palestinians to extend negotiations until the end of the year.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>The Palestinians demand their release before any discussion of an extension.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>But Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, opposes all negotiations with Israel and regards the Palestinian Authority&#39;s meetings with its sworn enemy as &quot;illegitimate.&quot;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>&quot;We are sending a message to the Palestinian negotiators: forget this farce, the futile negotiations, and come back to the resistance which freed prisoners,&quot; a Hamas member said in a speech at Wednesday&#39;s rally.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>In June 2006, a group of Hamas and other militants snuck into Israel through a cross-border tunnel, seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and took their prisoner back to Gaza the same way.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>He was released on October 18, 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>According to Israeli rights group B&#39;Tselem, Israel is holding 4,881 Palestinian prisoners, including 175 in administrative detention where they can be detained without charge for renewable six-month periods.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Of that number, 183 are minors, B&#39;Tselem says.</div> Thu, 17 Apr 2014 13:00:00 +0000 AFP 2435641 at sites/default/files/photo/2013/01/21/156431/beit_iksa.jpg Algerians trickle to polls in presidential vote <img src="" alt="" title="" class="imagecache imagecache-media_thumbnail" width="152" height="114" /><p>Algerians trickled into voting booths Thursday to elect the president of this oil-rich North African nation in an election expected to be dominated by the ailing incumbent running for a fourth term.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p14">Despite suffering from a stroke and being entirely absent from the three-week election campaign, 77-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika is backed by the powerful institutions of the state and represents stability for Algerians.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p15">Many of the 23 million registered voters, especially younger ones, are not expected to turn out to vote, however. High official turnouts in past presidential elections have been greeted with widespread skepticism.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p16">&quot;I can&#39;t say how many of my friends will vote,&quot; said retiree Rachid Bahriz after voting in a stately downtown high school in the capital Algiers. &quot;Most were not very enthusiastic.&quot;</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p17">Those that were voting emphasized the importance of stability and continuity &mdash; key issues for those who survived Algeria&#39;s decade-long civil war against radical Islamists in the 1990s that left 200,000 dead.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p18">&quot;I voted for Bouteflika because he has done good work and many good things,&quot; said Ahcene Oulmane, who works in a local medical clinic. He dismissed concerns about the president&#39;s visible infirmity. &quot;He is capable of continuing.&quot;</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p19">Bouteflika has made limited appearances on television since his stroke and has clear difficulty speaking and standing.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p20">Algerian state television showed him being wheeled into his traditional polling station to vote in the morning. He smiled but did not appear to speak.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p21">While Algeria escaped the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring, frustrated youth stage thousands of small demonstrations every year over the lack of jobs, opportunities and housing.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p22">Most problems have been addressed by spending the country&#39;s impressive oil wealth but resources are dwindling and soon the government may have to pursue a different approach to meet the people&#39;s needs.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p23">Of the five candidates running against Bouteflika, his former prime minister, Ali Benflis, has mounted the most vigorous campaign.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p24">He has warned that he has placed observers in each of the 60,000 polling stations across the country and he and his supporters will not be silent if there is fraud.</p><p class="permalinkable" id="h1373838-p25">Bouteflika won re-election in 2009 with 90 percent of the vote &mdash; a figure believed to be inflated by local and international observers.</p> Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:30:00 +0000 AP 2435638 at sites/default/files/photo/2014/04/17/39/algeria.jpeg South Sudan army battles rebels in key oil-state <img src="" alt="" title="" class="imagecache imagecache-media_thumbnail" width="152" height="114" /><p>Rebels in South Sudan battled government forces Thursday in a renewed offensive targeting the young nation&#39;s key oil fields, the army said, amid famine warnings by the United Nations.<br /><br />Fighters loyal to rebel chief Riek Machar recaptured the town of Bentiu on Tuesday, the state capital of oil-producing Unity, with UN peacekeepers reporting corpses littering the streets.<br /><br />South Sudan&#39;s army said fighting was ongoing Thursday as it tried to counterattack.<br /><br />&quot;Bentiu is still under the hands of the rebels but we are closing in,&quot; army spokesman Philip Auger told AFP. &quot;There is still fighting.&quot;<br /><br />The surge in fighting in the four-month-long conflict comes amid warnings by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that more than one million people are at risk of famine in the war-torn country.<br /><br />Peacekeepers from the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrolling the rebel-held state capital said they had seen between 35 and 40 bodies along the roadside, the majority in military uniform.<br /><br />&quot;UNMISS condemns these renewed hostilities in the strongest possible terms&quot;, the mission said in a statement, saying it was &quot;gravely concerned&quot; at the &quot;serious violations&quot; of a broken ceasefire deal inked in January.<br /><br />&quot;Fighting will only exacerbate an already dire situation,&quot; it added.<br /><br />Bentiu, one of the most bitterly contested regions in the war, is the first major settlement to have been retaken in a fresh offensive by forces of rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice-president.<br /><br />- Children starving -<br /><br />The conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes since fighting broke out on December 15 in the capital Juba before spreading to other states in the oil-rich nation.<br /><br />Over 12,000 civilians are now sheltering inside the UN base in Bentiu, protected by peacekeepers, with one person wounded inside the camp as bullets hit it from a nearby firefight.<br /><br />Rebels overran the town on Tuesday, with the army saying it was preparing a counterattack to take it back.<br /><br />Rebels had previously seized Bentiu in December at the beginning of the conflict, but were chased out a month later.<br /><br />On Monday, UN peacekeepers rescued 10 employees from the Russian Safinat company as rebels attacked the oil refinery they were constructing north of Bentiu, including Russian, Ukranian and Kenyan citizens.<br /><br />Five were wounded in the fighting.<br /><br />The fighting is between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir against mutinous troops who sided with Machar, sacked as vice-president in 2013.<br /><br />The conflict has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir&#39;s Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar&#39;s Nuer people.<br /><br />The UN children&rsquo;s agency UNICEF has warned that the conflict has triggered a serious risk of famine that will kill up to 50,000 children within months if immediate action is not taken.<br /><br />Over 3.7 million people are in dire need of food aid, many of them being forced to eat &quot;famine foods&quot; such as grasses and leaves, UNICEF said, which flew in Thursday its fourth cargo airplane loaded with special therapeutic food for malnourished children.<br /><br />&quot;Worse is yet to come,&quot; UNICEF chief in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch said in a statement Thursday.<br /><br />&quot;If conflict continues, and farmers miss the planting season, we will see child malnutrition on a scale never before experienced here.&quot;</p> Thu, 17 Apr 2014 11:54:00 +0000 AFP 2435639 at sites/default/files/photo/2013/12/18/94/salva_kiir.jpg Putin says Ukraine risks abyss, dialogue only solution <img src="" alt="" title="" class="imagecache imagecache-media_thumbnail" width="152" height="114" /><p>&nbsp;Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused Ukraine&#39;s new authorities of driving the country towards the abyss but said that dialogue was the only way out of the intensifying crisis.<br /><br />&quot;Only through dialogue, through democratic procedures and not with the use of armed forces, tanks and planes can order be imposed in the country,&quot; Putin said at the start of a major nationwide phone-in broadcast on Russian television.<br /><br />&quot;It is very important today to think about how to get out of this situation and offer people a genuine dialogue and not one just for show,&quot; added Putin, saying he believed the talks opening Thursday in Geneva between top diplomats on the crisis were &quot;extremely important&quot;.<br /><br />He accused the Ukrainian authorities who took over after the fall of president Viktor Yanukovych of driving the country to the abyss.<br /><br />&quot;I hope that they manage to understand towards what abyss the Kiev authorities are going, dragging with them the whole country,&quot; said Putin.<br /><br />Putin slammed the Kiev government for launching a military operation against separatist activists who have seized official buildings across southeast Ukraine.<br /><br />&quot;This is one more serious crime by the current Kiev authorities,&quot; he said.<br /><br />He also said it was &quot;nonsense&quot; to claim Russian forces were operating in the east of Ukraine, saying those involved in protest actions were &quot;all local citizens&quot;.<br /><br />&quot;That is all nonsense,&quot; he said.<br /><br />&quot;In the east of Ukraine there are no Russian units. There are no special forces, no instructors. These are are local citizens,&quot; he said, adding this was proved by the fact the activists had &quot;taken off their masks&quot;.<br /><br />&quot;I have told our Western partners that they (the activists) are going nowhere. They are the masters of this land. And they must be spoken to.&quot;<br /><br />But Putin also explicitly acknowledged that Russian troops had operated in Crimea during and before the referendum that led to its annexation by Moscow from Ukraine. Previously he denied the soldiers were Russian, saying anyone could have bought military uniforms in a store.<br /><br />&quot;Our goal was to ensure the conditions for a free vote,&quot; Putin said, explaining who were the soldiers in uniforms without insignia who appeared in Crimea in late February.<br /><br />&quot;Behind the local defence forces were our soldiers. They acted correctly, but decisively and professionally,&quot; he said. &quot;We had to protect people from possible use of weapons&quot; on Ukrainian military bases.</p> Thu, 17 Apr 2014 10:31:00 +0000 AFP 2435633 at sites/default/files/photo/2014/04/17/39/putin.jpg