Israel has reportedly pulled most of its ground troops out of Gaza following a five-day attack that left at least 112 Palestinians dead. But Israeli aircraft continue to carry out bombing raids, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned that Israel’s military operation in Gaza is not over. On Saturday, sixty Palestinians died in what officials said was the deadliest day in Gaza since the first intifada of the 1980s. Al Jazeera reports at least a third of the Palestinians killed over the past five days have been children. Since last week, three Israelis have died — one civilian and two soldiers. Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas accused Israel of carrying out a war of elimination.
Sami Abu Zuhri: “What happens in Gaza is not an aggression of bombardments by planes, but it is a war of elimination by its full meaning. Babies are being killed, civilians are being killed, and buildings are being destroyed.”
On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally suspended contacts with Israel to protest what he called Israel’s criminal war on the Palestinian people. The international community widely condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Palestinians to stop launching rocket attacks, while criticizing Israel’s actions.
Ban Ki-moon: “While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children. I call on Israel to cease such attacks. Israel must fully comply with international humanitarian law and exercise the utmost restraint.”
On Sunday, hundreds of Israeli peace activists protested outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
Omri Evron: “I am demonstrating here against the war that Israel started in Gaza, against the ongoing siege of Gaza and the continuing occupation, and we are here to say that this war does not serve the interest of either the Israeli or the Palestinian people. It’s a criminal war that hurts innocent people, and we want to end it. We want to have negotiations and peace and a two-state solution immediately.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini called on the international community to support Israel’s actions.
Tzipi Livni: “The world should respect any action taken by Israel in order to defend its citizens. I would like to say that I cannot accept condolences saying that there are victims, both sides. Well, yes, there are victims both sides, but there is no moral equation between these terrorists who are looking for civilians to kill and between the Israeli soldiers who are looking for the terrorists.”
Tensions are rising in South America after Colombian troops killed a leading FARC commander during a pre-dawn raid on Saturday across the border in Ecuador. At least sixteen other FARC guerrillas were killed in the attack. President Alvaro Uribe described the killing of Raul Reyes as a big blow to the rebel movement. Raul Reyes had been viewed as a possible successor to FARC’s seventy-seven-year-old leader, Manuel Marulanda.
Both Ecuador and Venezuela shut down their embassies in Bogota to protest Colombia’s violations of Ecuador’s territorial sovereignty. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa ordered troops to Colombia’s border. Chavez warned Colombia never to carry out such a raid in Venezuela.
Hugo Chavez: “This could be the start of a war in South America, because, for example, if they ever think of doing something like that in Venezuela, President Uribe, I will send my jet fighters. We are not going to accept that Colombia become the next Israel in our land.”
Violence appears to be on the rise again in Iraq. In February, 721 Iraqis were killed, a 33 percent increase since January. Most of the dead were civilians. The rising death toll reverses a six-month trend of reduced violence in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Turkish troops have returned to their bases in Turkey after an eight-day ground offensive against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Turkey’s military says it killed 237 rebels and suffered the loss of twenty-four soldiers. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, claims to have killed more than 100 Turkish troops. It is not known how many civilians were killed in the attacks.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Iraq Sunday for a historic meeting with Iraqi leaders. It was the first visit to Iraq by an Iranian president since the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980s. Reuters reports Ahmadinejad held hands with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as they walked down a red carpet to the tune of their countries’ national anthems. Ahmadinejad was also hugged and kissed by Iraqi officials and presented with flowers by children. During a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Ahmadinejad accused President Bush of “exporting terror.” Ahmadinejad said, “Six years ago, there was no terrorism in our region. As soon as strangers put their foot in the region, the terrorists came here.”
In campaign news, Barack Obama is accusing Hillary Clinton of using the politics of fear following the release of this new Clinton campaign ad that suggests Obama lacks the security experience to keep America safe.
Text of Clinton ad: “It’s 3:00 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It’s 3:00 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone? I’m Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.”
The Obama campaign responded by releasing a similar television ad.
Text of Obama ad: “It’s 3:00 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone ringing in the White House. Something’s happening in the world. When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the one, the only one, who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start, who understood the real threat to America was al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, not Iraq, who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe? In a dangerous world, it’s judgment that matters. I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.”
The jabs over national security come as the candidates race toward Tuesday’s crucial votes in Ohio and Texas that could likely determine the Democratic nominee.
In other campaign news, Senator Clinton has announced she will co-sponsor a bill to ban Blackwater and other private mercenary firms in Iraq. In a statement, Clinton said, “The time to show these contractors the door is long past due.” Clinton made the announcement a day after investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill revealed that, if elected, Barack Obama will not rule out using private companies like Blackwater in Iraq.
In other election news, one of the country’s largest military contractors, United Technologies Corporation, is attempting to buy the electronic voting machine company Diebold. United Technologies has made an unsolicited $2.6 billion bid to buy Diebold.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has won in a landslide victory to be Russia’s next president. But independent election observers said the vote was flawed. Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe questioned the overall fairness of the election. The Communist Party, which placed second in the vote, plans to go to court over alleged fraud. Putin is widely expected to become prime minister once Medvedev becomes president.
The Guardian newspaper reports a former British SAS soldier has been served with a gag order preventing him from discussing the role of British forces in the US extraordinary rendition program. Last week, Ben Griffin told a news conference that individuals detained by British forces have ended up at Guantanamo, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and other secretive US-run prisons.
Ben Griffin: “The use of British territory and airspace pales into insignificance in light of the fact that it has been often British soldiers detaining the victims of extraordinary rendition in the first place. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, United Kingdom Special Forces have operated within a joint US-UK task force. This task force has been responsible for the detention of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Griffin said he had no doubt that noncombatants he had personally detained in Iraq had been handed over to the United States to be tortured.
The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting a supervisor at a motivational coaching business in Utah has been accused of waterboarding an employee in front of his sales team. According to a lawsuit, the supervisor poured water from a gallon jug over the mouth and nostrils of one of his workers. At the conclusion of the waterboarding, the supervisor allegedly told the sales team that he wanted them to work as hard on making sales as their coworker had worked to breathe while he was being waterboarded. David Ellis, the president of the company Prosper, defended his staff. Ellis said, “It was meant to be a team-building exercise. Everybody was … involved and enthusiastic.”
In news from Africa, six people have died in the Somali town of Dhoble after an airstrike reportedly carried out by a US warplane. The bombing came one week after Islamists seized the town. The US also bombed the area last year following the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
And in Portland. Oregon, a state judge has reduced the prison sentence for environmental activist Jeffrey Luers by more than half. Luers had been serving a twenty-three-year sentence for setting three SUVs on fire at a car dealership. No one was hurt in the fire. On Thursday, a state judge reduced the sentence to ten years, meaning Luers could be released from prison in December 2009.