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Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender | The Thaiger

PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was faltering on Monday, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.

U.S. and European officials say they will hold Moscow responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the separatists do not clear out of government buildings they have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks.

Washington, which signed last week’s accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide “in days” on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Monday to help carry out the deal, including by “publicly calling on separatists to vacate illegal buildings and checkpoints”, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“If they don’t take steps in the coming days, there’ll be consequences,” she told a news briefing on Monday. “Obviously, we would have to make a decision in the matter of – in a matter of days – if there are going to be consequences for inaction.”

The United States and the European Union have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on some Russians over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month. Those limited measures, designed not to have wider economic impact and to avoid deepening the crisis, have been mocked as pointless by Moscow.

Building a consensus on tougher measures is tricky in Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.

In its account of their telephone conversation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had called on Kerry to “influence Kiev, not let hotheads there provoke a bloody conflict” and to encourage it “to fulfil its obligations unflaggingly.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev, where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance. The visit is likely to be more important as a symbol of support than for any specific promises Biden makes in public.

MUTUAL ACCUSATIONS

The Geneva accord aimed to lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War. It calls for occupied buildings to be vacated under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels disavowed the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings.

An OSCE mediator, Mark Etherington, held his first meeting with the leader of separatists in Slaviansk, a town that rebels have turned into a heavily fortified redoubt.

He said he had asked the pro-Russian self-proclaimed “people’s mayor” of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, whether he would comply with the Geneva agreement, but gave no hint about the response.

Ponomaryov later told a news conference: “We did not negotiate, we talked. We told them our position, what happened here, and they told us about their plans.”

In other signs the Geneva accord was far from being implemented, activists in Slaviansk brought up trucks laden with sand and were filling sandbags to reinforce their barricades.

In nearby Kramatorsk, local media showed masked gunmen taking over the office of the SBU security service and leading away a civilian identified as the local police chief.

Separatists said they would not disarm until Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group in western Ukraine, did so first.

“Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector disarm first. Let them make the first step and we will follow,” Yevgeny Gordik, a member of a separatist militia, told Reuters. “We need dialogue. This is not dialogue. It is monologue.”

Russia says Right Sector members have threatened Russian speakers. Kiev and Western countries say the threat is largely invented by Russian state-run media to justify Moscow’s intervention and cause alarm in Russian speaking areas.

Moscow blames Right Sector for a shooting on Easter Sunday morning, when at least three people were killed at a checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Right Sector denies involvement, while Kiev said Russia provoked the violence.

One European diplomat said the Geneva deal was a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy time and undermine momentum towards tougher sanctions: “Talks and compromises are just part of his tactics,” said the diplomat. “He wants to have Ukraine.”

PROTECTING RUSSIAN SPEAKERS

Putin announced last month that Moscow had the right to intervene in its neighbours to protect Russian speakers. He then annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Moscow has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Kiev and its Western allies say Russian agents are directing the uprising in the east, including the “green men” – heavily armed, masked gunmen in unmarked uniforms.

In his latest move, likely to be seen by the West as a further threat to the post-Cold War order, Putin signed a law on Monday making it easier for Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.

Eastern Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and many residents are suspicious of the pro-European government that took power in Kiev in February, when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country after mass protests.

Separatists have declared an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the east’s biggest province and have named themselves to official posts in towns and cities, setting up checkpoints and flying Russian flags over government buildings.

There is also some support for Ukrainian unity in the region, but pro-Kiev activists have had a lower profile since the separatists took up arms.

One activist who helped organise a unity rally in Rubizhne, a town in the eastern Luhansk region, told Ukraine’s Channel 5 television that separatists attacked it, forcing the rally to disperse. Local police said a policeman was hurt when unidentified people tried to disrupt the rally.

In the regional capital, Luhansk, Interfax-Ukraine news agency said a meeting of about 3,000 people in the local SBU headquarters had elected a “people’s governor” and voted to hold a two-stage referendum next month on union with Russia.

Ukraine announced an operation to retake rebel-held territory earlier this month, but that modest effort largely collapsed in disarray.

Kiev has declared an “Easter truce”, although it is far from clear it could muster any real force if it tried. The army is ill-equipped, untested and untrained for domestic operations, while the government in Kiev doubts the loyalty of the police.

The OSCE, a European security body that includes both NATO members and Russia, has so far deployed around 100 monitors and mediators in Ukraine and expects their number to rise.

An OSCE spokesman said the mediators were visiting separatist-occupied buildings with copies of last week’s Geneva accord to explain it to the people inside.

“It’s a mixed experience dealing with checkpoints and so forth and there is a varying reaction to teams. There is a hardened attitude in Donetsk or Slaviansk but some other areas are more accommodating,” spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said. “When teams go to smaller centres people are more willing to talk.”

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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World

The stakes are high, the deliberations continue – Parliamentary Brexit vote

The Thaiger

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The stakes are high, the deliberations continue – Parliamentary Brexit vote | The Thaiger

Call it Super Saturday, call it Deal or No Deal, call it the most important day in recent UK history. Today (Saturday) the UK House of Commons will gather on a Saturday, the first time for decades. Golf games have been postponed, polo sticks will have to gather dust and the cleaner’s been told to come back on Sunday.

Earlier this week, British PM Boris Johnson did the near impossible and secured a new Brexit deal from the EU. The EU shocked everyone by throwing out the controversial Irish border backstop and replacing it with an alternative plan, after months of saying that Theresa May’s deal could not be changed. Moreover, the EU leaders seem happy with the deal and have been waxing lyrical about the scruffy British PM they all dreaded negotiating with.

But it’s not going to be easy. Some PMs have already tabled amendments that could make Johnson’s run of success fall short of a finish line. Opposition MPs will put forward proposals to scrap Brexit or schedule a second referendum.

So how is the crucial, and historic vote, going to roll?

It’s far too close to call. PM Johnson doesn’t have a majority in Parliament and his Northern Irish allies, the DUP, who he needed to pass legislation, have already said that they won’t back the new plan. Meanwhile, his opposition MPs are lining up to criticise the deal. And there’s serious concern that the arch-Brexiteers in his own Conservative party will vote against the deal too.

Bottomline, if MPs don’t vote for this deal then they can’t be certain that Brexit will be delayed, despite the fact that Johnson is legally obliged to request a Brexit extension if no deal has been agreed by 11 pm on Saturday night. Last month, opposition MPs passed legislation that binds the British to this commitment. Mr. Johnson says he will comply with the law but reminds his opponents that this decision relies on the EU still having to unanimously agree to it.

But, if the deal passes, the UK finally leaves the EU. Johnson would probably hope to capitalise on his success and call for a general election soon after. His poll ratings are good at the moment, and you’d think they would improve after delivering Brexit.

If the deal goes down, Johnson requests the extension and it’s approved, then we get into the nasty election where both sides will tear each other apart, adding more to a polarised community that may take decades to recover from this folly.

And if the EU refuses an extension, then all hell breaks loose.

Has it all been worth it?

Anyway, bring on Super Saturday as the deliberations continue.

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World

Johnson tells MPs that there is ‘no better outcome’ than his Brexit plan

The Thaiger

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Johnson tells MPs that there is ‘no better outcome’ than his Brexit plan | The Thaiger

British PM Boris Johnson is warning British MPs there was “no better outcome” to the tortuous Brexit process than his divorce deal, as he scrambles to get MPs behind the agreement ahead of today’s knife-edge vote in parliament (Saturday UK time).

Johnson is urging lawmakers to back the “fantastic” terms he struck with EU leaders and let Britain leave the bloc on October 31.

“There’s no better outcome than the one I’m advocating tomorrow.”

“I want colleagues on all sides of the House to think about a world tomorrow night in which we’ve got this thing done,” he added in a separate interview with ITV.

“I think the nation will heave a great sigh of relief.”

Johnson pulled off a major coup in agreeing a new divorce deal at a Brussels summit on Thursday, only a fortnight before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU. But the deal’s fortunes, and Britain’s immediate fate, rest in the hands of a few undecided MPs, who will vote in the first Saturday session of the Commons since the 1982 Falklands War.

Political pundits suggest the vote could be exceptionally tight. Johnson has no majority among MPs, every opposition party has come out against the deal and even his parliamentary ally, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), says it cannot support the terms.

Johnson requires the support of 319 other MPs to guarantee victory – and claims he is confident of getting the numbers, as he spent the day meeting and calling MPs.

He must convince diehard eurosceptics in his own Conservative ranks, former colleagues he expelled from the party for seeking to block a “no deal” departure, and main opposition Labour MPs from Brexit-backing constituencies to have any chance.

Labour is ordering its MPs to vote against the deal but threatening no punishment if they vote in favour. Several MPs spent yesterday wrestling with their consciences as the more than three years of turmoil since the June 2016 EU membership referendum came to a head.

Johnson is expected to deliver a speech to parliament from 0830 GMT on Saturday, kicking off a day of debate that could last well into the evening.

The turning of the screws

If the Commons rejects the deal, Johnson will be forced by law to ask the EU to delay Brexit, for what would be the third time. He has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch”.

French President Emmanuel Macron piled the pressure on MPs, saying he did not want a new delay now a deal was struck.

“The October 31 date should be respected. I don’t think that new deadlines should be given,” he said at the EU summit in Brussels.

“We need to end these negotiations and get on negotiating the future relationship.”

Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel added: “There is no choice between Brexit or no Brexit: it’s a choice between deal or no deal.”

Johnson took office in July vowing to keep to the October 31 Brexit deadline, deal or no deal.

He pledged to renegotiate the most contentious elements of a divorce text agreed by his predecessor Theresa May with Brussels last year, which MPs rejected three times.

The compromise deal that was finally struck on Thursday has a new arrangement for keeping open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

The DUP has said it cannot support the plans, as efforts to avoid checks on the Irish land border would lead to new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

Meanwhile…

Former Conservative prime minister John Major (1990-1997) and his Labour successor Tony Blair (1997-2007) pleaded with MPs to back a second referendum, ahead of a major rally by the “People’s Vote” campaign outside parliament on Saturday (UK time).

“Whatever is the outcome, no deal or bad deal, it should not pass without the final say resting with the people,” said Blair.

Major said Brexit was a “thoroughly bad idea” that risked breaking up the UK.

The Pound steadied around $1.29 yesterday as dealers took a breather at the end of a dizzying week.

ETX Capital analyst Michael Baker said the market was “really gambling” on the vote and had “not priced in fully all scenarios – so expect big moves”.

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse | PHOTO: Associated Press

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Economy

Local investor sentiment dampened by Brexit woes and slump in Chinese economy

The Thaiger

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Local investor sentiment dampened by Brexit woes and slump in Chinese economy | The Thaiger

The British pound fell today as investors fret over PM Boris Johnson’s chances of pushing his Brexit deal through the British parliament, while Asian markets were mostly down after data showed China’s economy expanded at its slowest pace in nearly three decades.

The pound rallied almost to US$1.30 yesterday following news that negotiators had hammered out an agreement that would avoid Britain leaving the EU without a divorce deal – a move many warn would be economically catastrophic. But the brief celebrations were soon tempered by the realisation that the British PM faces an uphill task in getting the deal past lawmakers, with opposition MPs and even some in his own Conservative party saying they won’t pass it.

Most importantly, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up Johnson’s government, said it was “unable to support these proposals”.

Forex traders sold sterling, pushing it back down below $1.29, and it extended losses in Asia. Focus is now on a crucial vote in London on the deal scheduled for tomorrow (Saturday).

“Much will depend on the PM’s ability to get some if not all DUP and (Scottish National Party) MPs onside, in addition to also getting the backing from the 21 ex-Conservative MPs he expelled from the party last month,” said National Australia Bank’s Rodrigo Catril.

“Rejection of the deal might well see more political brinkmanship around a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, but the most likely scenario would be yet another extension of the 31 October Brexit date.”

Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst at OANDA, said whichever way the vote goes, “traders should prepare themselves for some severe volatility on Monday morning, with multiple big-figure moves a strong possibility”.

China growth slows again

Asian equity markets, meanwhile, were mostly lower after China said its economy expanded 6% in the third quarter, the slowest pace in 27 years, as leaders struggle to address weak domestic demand and the long-running US trade war.

The reading was a drop from the previous three months but in line with an AFP forecast and the government’s 6-6.5% target for the year.

While the National Bureau of Statistics said the economy “maintained overall stability”, it added that it “is under mounting downward pressure” from weakness at home and abroad.

Shanghai ended down 1.3% with Stephen Innes at AxiTrader saying traders were concerned the figures were not weak enough to prompt the Chinese central bank to embark on a big stimulus drive.

“With the People’s Bank of China, who arguably have plenty of policy ammunition to right the ship, probably unwilling to turn on the monetary taps, investors are taking risk off the table,” he said in a note.

Hong Kong was off 0.5% amid concern over the possibility of more violent protests over the weekend, while Sydney closed down 0.5 percent and Singapore eased 0.4%.

Seoul shed 0.8% and Wellington lost 0.7%, with Taipei and Manila also lower. But Tokyo closed 0.2 higher at a 10-month high, while Mumbai and Jakarta also edged up.

Hopes for the China-US trade talks were given a lift after Beijing’s commerce ministry said negotiators have “accelerated efforts” to hammer out details of last Friday’s mini-deal and were holding talks on moving on to the next phase of a wider agreement.

Donald Trump said Wednesday he hopes to sign the deal with President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in Chile next month.

And the Turkish lira jumped more than 1% after Ankara said it would pause military operations in northern Syria for five days and US Vice President Mike Pence said Washington would not impose any fresh sanctions.

Key markets today…

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2857 from $1.2891 at 2050 GMT

Euro/pound: UP at 86.48 pence from 86.31 pence

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1122 from $1.1127

Dollar/yen: UP at 108.63 yen from 108.62 yen

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.4% at 7,152.55

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 0.2% at 22,492.68 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: DOWN 0.5% at 26,719.58 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 1.3% at 2,938.14 (close)

West Texas Intermediate: UP four cents at $53.97 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 22 cents at $59.69 per barrel

New York – Dow: UP 0.1% at 27,025.88 (close)

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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