Jan 15, 2011

BP and Rosneft signs a deal on exploration in Arctic area

BP Plc and Russia's state-controlled Rosneft agreed to a share swap under which they plan to jointly explore for offshore oil and gas in a deal that gives the UK company access to areas of the Arctic previously reserved for Russian oil companies.

BP, recovering from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, will swap 5 percent of its shares, valued at $7.8 billion, for 9.5 percent of Rosneft in an agreement that immediately raised concerns about U.S. economic security from at least two American lawmakers and criticism from environmentalists.

The deal covers huge areas of the South Kara Sea in the Arctic that BP said could contain billions of barrels of oil and gas and had been previously off limits to foreign companies.

The pact, which is expected to be completed in a few weeks, highlights a rebound in relations with Moscow both for BP and its Chief Executive Bob Dudley, who was forced to flee Russia in 2008 after heading BP's Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, which is half-owned by BP.

Dudley said the deal was the first significant cross-shareholding between a nationally owned oil company and an international oil company and called it "a new template for how business can be done in our industry."

Dudley had been the boss for TNK-BP's formation in 2003 and was forced to leave due to what he described as a campaign of harassment by BP-TNK's billionaire oligarch co-owners.

The issue has since been resolved and Dudley returned to Moscow for the first time this summer, following his appointment as CEO of BP, to be warmly welcomed by officials.

"It has turned from a fistfight into a lovefest," said Cliff Kupchan, a director at Eurasia Group in Washington.

Russia is a key part of BP's global operation, providing the company with a quarter of its reserves before the U.S. oil spill, so it is vital for Dudley to establish a good working relationship with the world's largest oil exporting nation.

U.S. Congressman Edward Markey, who is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, immediately called for a review of the deal by U.S. regulators to see whether it affects the national and economic security of the United States. He noted that in 2009 BP was the top petroleum supplier to the U.S. military.

And Republican Congressman Michael Burgess, who is on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also said the deal "deserves some analysis and scrutiny" by the government's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States given BP's ownership of critical oil assets in the U.S.

The U.S. Treasury said it is forbidden by law to comment on investigations, planned or under way, by the committee.

Environmental group Greenpeace, noting the fragility of the Arctic, also lashed out.

"Now BP has bought its way into the Arctic by the back door. It seems the company learned nothing last year in the Gulf of Mexico," Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace said in a statement.

BP has a market capitalization of $150 billion U.S. dollars, while Rosneft is valued at about $83 billion.

Tunisian President Ben Ali fled away to S. Arabia

Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has stepped down and fled away to Saudi Arabia amid widespread protests on the streets of the capital Tunis of the country on Friday January 14, 2011. 

Thousands of people had been staging demonstrations against the President of the North-African country protesting economic crises, higher unemployment rate, and  food and fuel prices upsurge, sources said.

However, Mr. Ben Ali had to leave the power after 23 years in power in a state of emergency in the country in the face month-long protest. He took shelter in Saudi Arabia with his whole family after France defied to give shelter for Mr. Ali. 

Mr. Ali took all out ways to keep hold of power. He also smashed his cabinet earlier to restore law and order situation in the country and tried to reconcile with the protesters.   

In a televised address, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he would be taking over.

A state of emergency was declared earlier, as rumbling nationwide protests over economic woes snowballed into anti-government demonstrations.

Earlier, police fired tear gas as thousands of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry.

Doctors say that 13 people were killed in overnight clashes in Tunis, and there are unconfirmed reports that five people have been killed in protests on Thursday (January 13, 2011) outside the capital.

Troops have surrounded the country's main international airport, Tunis Carthage, and the country's air space has been closed.

Ghannouchi, 69, a former finance minister who has been prime minister since 1999, will serve as interim president.

In an address on state television, he promised to "respect the law and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms that have been announced".

The BBC's Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says Ben Ali's demise will go down in history as the day that an Arab population rose and brought down a head of state they regarded as a dictator.

He says it may rattle the entire post-colonial order in North Africa and the wider Arab world.

Earlier, Ben Ali--who had said in a TV address on Thursday night that he would relinquish power in 2014--said he was dismissing the government and dissolving parliament, and that new elections would be held within six months.

The state of emergency decree bans more than three people from gathering together in the open, and imposes a night-time curfew. Security forces have been authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders.

Human rights groups say dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on the protests.

The protests started after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.

India changes policy on Kashmir as to cut 25 percent force

India plans to reduce its security forces by a quarter in the Himalayan region of Kashmir to ease conditions for people in one of the world's most militarised areas, a top official said on Friday, 14th January 2011.

The unexpected announcement on Kashmir by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai is intended to rebuild fractured public goodwill after a violent uprising by young people in the Muslim-majority region last year.

New Delhi faced one of the biggest challenges to its grip on the divided and disputed territory last summer when more than 100 people were shot dead by security forces during violent demonstrations.

Speaking at a university seminar on Kashmir in the Indian capital, Pillai said the aim was "to pull out 25 percent of troops from populated areas in the next 12 months as a confidence-building measure."

The presence of hundreds of thousands of paramilitary and army troops in Kashmir -- India does not disclose official troop figures -- is seen by local politicians and observers as fuelling anger against rule from New Delhi.

Deaths due to the violence are at their lowest level in more than a decade.

Hardline Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani rejected the government's plan and demanded the full withdrawal of Indian forces from the region.

Residents of Kashmir who spoke to AFP in the main city Srinagar had a mixed response to the withdrawal plan.

Farooq Ahmed Butt, a schoolteacher, said: "This is a positive step as it will pave way in building a conducive atmosphere for resolution of the Kashmir issue."

The majority of militant groups active in the Indian-administered part of the region favour its secession from India to neighbouring Pakistan.

In December 2009, the Indian army said it had pulled out 30,000 troops from Kashmir, one of the biggest military drawdowns in a decade.


Taliban now supports Girls Education

The Taliban are ready to drop their ban on schooling girls in Afghanistan, the country's education minister  said on Friday, 14th January 2011.

Farooq Wardak told the UK's Times Educational Supplement a "cultural change" meant the Taliban were "no more opposing girls' education".

The Taliban - who are fighting the Kabul government - have made no public comment on the issue.

Afghan women were not allowed to work or get an education under the Taliban regime overthrown in 2001.

Mr Wardak made his comments during the Education World Forum in London.

He told the TES: "What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls' education.

"I hope, Inshallah (God willing), soon there will be a peaceful negotiation, a meaningful negotiation with our own opposition and that will not compromise at all the basic human rights and basic principles which have been guiding us to provide quality and balanced education to our people," the minister added.

Across the country agreements have been struck at a local level between militants and village elders to allow girls and female teachers to return to schools, the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Kabul reports.

Mr Wardak's words suggest the negotiations have gone beyond issues like the release of prisoners to touch on areas of government policy, correspondents say.

However, the education minister admitted historical opposition to schooling extended beyond the Taliban to the "deepest pockets" of Afghan society.


Deadly prison fire kills 42 people in Tunisia

A fire has swept through a prison in the Tunisian resort town of Monastir, killing at least 42 people amid continuing unrest following the removal of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Looting hit the suburbs of the capital Tunis after he fled the country on Friday. Troops are now patrolling the city centre and a state of emergency is in force.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has said his priority is restoring order. Mr Ghannouchi also said he would hold talks with opposition parties.

A doctor at Monastir hospital told the BBC it had received 42 bodies so far following the prison fire. The identities of the victims and the cause of the fire are still unclear.

An eyewitness in the city, about 160km (100 miles) south of Tunis, told Reuters news agency: "The whole prison is on fire, the furniture, mattresses, everything."

In Tunis the main thoroughfare, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, was blocked by security forces after an overnight curfew was lifted.

Troops and tanks are protecting official buildings and the streets are largely deserted, correspondents say.

Overnight looting continued into Saturday in the city's suburbs, with French-owned supermarkets among the properties targeted. The city's main railway station has been badly damaged by fire.

Tunis Carthage International Airport, which was closed amid Friday's unrest, re-opened on Saturday. Hundreds of tourists and other foreigners have been trapped there.

The BBC's Wyre Davies in Tunis says people are now waiting for some indication that the interim administration is prepared to bring in widespread economic and political changes.

Late on Friday Mr Ghannouchi, the prime minister, assumed the interim presidency, saying his "very first priority" was restoring security.

"We are at the service of the Tunisian people. Our country does not deserve everything that is happening. We must regain the trust of citizens in the government," he said.

But on Saturday, the country's Constitutional Council declared that parliamentary Speaker Foued Mebazaa should be the country's new interim president.

It is unclear who is in charge, our correspondent says.

In the past four weeks, protests have swept the country over unemployment, food price rises and corruption. Security forces used live ammunition against protesters and dozens of people died.

Mr Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, conceded power on Friday after the unrest culminated in a giant rally against him in Tunis.

A Saudi palace statement said: "Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country... the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom."

There has been little official reaction from Tunisia's Arab neighbours to the events. On Saturday the Arab League called on Tunisia's political forces "to stand together and unite" to maintain peace.

The UK, the US and France are among the countries advising against non-essential travel to Tunisia. Mr Ben Ali was only Tunisia's second president since independence from France in 1956. He was last re-elected in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote.