Friday, February 21, 2014

Thai Prime Minister denies corruption allegations over rice program

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has denied allegations that she failed to heed warnings of possible corruption in a rice subsidy program whose recent problems have stoked anger among farmers in the country's rural heartland.

The controversy over the rice program has deepened the political crisis in which Thailand has been mired for months.

Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) said Tuesday that it was bringing charges against Yingluck over the program, which pledged to pay farmers well above the market rate for their rice but has run into financial problems.

The commission has summoned Yingluck, whose government is already under pressure from months-long protests in Bangkok, to appear February 27 to be notified of the charges.

Farmers ride tractors to Bangkok protests

On the scene of protests in Bangkok

"I wish to assure you that as I have served my duty with righteousness and contrary to the charges brought against me by the NACC, I have done nothing wrong," Yingluck said in a statement Thursday.

The anti-corruption commission's charges, which accuse Yingluck of ignoring warnings of corruption in the program, could eventually lead to the suspension of the Prime Minister from all political positions.

"Though I may be charged in this criminal case and may have to give up my position in accordance to the wishes of those who want to topple my government, I will still lend my full cooperation and give necessary information to the NACC," she said.

Yingluck insists that the rice subsidy program, introduced in 2011, has been successful and benefited farmers.

But critics says it has wasted large amounts of public funds trying to please rural voters, hurting exports and leaving the government with large stockpiles of rice it can't sell without losing money.

The program has encountered intensified difficulties after an election earlier this month was disrupted by anti-government demonstrators and failed to deliver a conclusive result.

The situation has left Yingluck's weakened caretaker government struggling to operate effectively and ensure payments are made to rice farmers.

Angry farmers

Problems with the subsidy program have angered many farmers, normally an important component of Yingluck's support base.

Groups of farmers have held protests in recent weeks after not being paid for their rice.

About 3,000 farmers from central Thailand spent Thursday night camped out on the outskirts Bangkok after traveling on tractors, trailers and quad bikes.

They had threatened to take their protest to the city's main airport, Suvarnabhumi, if they didn't get paid what they're owed.

But the leader of the group of farmers, Chada Thaiseth, said Friday that they would be heading home later in the day after the government informed them they would be paid early next week.

The farmers said their planned protest wasn't political -- unlike the anti-government demonstrators in central Bangkok, they say they don't want to see the ouster of Yingluck.

But they do want their money.

Long-running protests

The tensions over the rice program come against the backdrop of the protests by groups affiliated with Yingluck's political opponents.

Those demonstrations, calling for Yingluck to step down, have been taking place in central Bangkok since November and have been plagued by outbreaks of deadly violence.

Earlier this week, police tried to clear demonstrators out some protest sites. But the efforts resulted in violent clashes that left five people dead, including one police officer, and dozens wounded.

Police have since suspended their attempts to seize the protest sites for the time being.

And a court ruled Wednesday that the government can't use force and weapons against peaceful unarmed protesters.

The protest leaders say they want to rid the country of Yingluck and her wealthy brother, the deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, who lives in exile, faces a corruption conviction, which he says was politically motivated, if he returns to Thailand. Political opponents say Yingluck, who convincingly won elections in 2011, is simply Thaksin's puppet, an allegation she has repeatedly denied.

The protests were sparked in November by Yingluck's government's botched attempt to pass an amnesty bill that would have paved the way for her brother's return to the political fray in earnest.

The protesters say they want Yingluck's government replaced by an unelected "people's council," which would oversee electoral and political changes.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Truce crumbles amid gunfire in Ukraine that kills at least 21

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) -- A shaky truce crumbled in Kiev on Thursday morning, when gunfire erupted at Maidan, or Independence Square, which has been ground zero for anti-government protesters.

At least 20 people dead, said Oleg Musiy, head of the protesters' medical service. A policeman was also killed, the interior ministry said.

It's unclear what prompted the gunfire. But CNN crews at the scene reported that as security forces were moving away from the area, a group of protesters pursued them, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

"Protesters broke the truce," said a statement from President Viktor Yanukovych's office.

"The opposition used the negotiation period to buy time, to mobilize and get weapons to protesters."

When the bullets flew, several demonstrators fell to the ground.

Will the Ukraine truce last?

New round of violence erupts in Kiev

"I am a Ukrainian"

Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, clash with police in Independence Square on Wednesday, February 19. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have packed the square since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision on a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, clash with police in Independence Square on Wednesday, February 19. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have packed the square since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision on a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.
Ukraine protests turn deadly
Photos: Ukraine protests turn deadly Photos: Ukraine protests turn deadly

Protesters grabbed the wounded by their clothes or limbs, and carried many of them to a hotel lobby at one end of the square that had been converted into a triage center.

Bodies, covered in bloodied sheets, lay on the floor. Orthodox priests prayed over them.

As police hastened their withdrawal, demonstrators rushed to fortify their barricades, which they then reignited.

The tent city was once again in their hands.

Death toll unclear

It's unclear exactly how many people died Thursday. Speculation ran rampant. Various figures were thrown around.

No one wanted a repeat of Tuesday, when 28 people died, police and protesters alike.

It was the deadliest day of protests, which began in November when Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.

That dissatisfaction has since morphed into resentment of Yanukovych, his closeness to Russia, and the power he wields.

Talks and truce

Thursday's violent developments came just hours after an embattled Yanukovych announced a truce -- and opposition leaders had agreed to abide by.

Later Thursday, European foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels. At noon, foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland were meeting with Yanukovych.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world-class boxer, is expected to sit down with Yanukovych also. Their meeting Wednesday led to the truce.

Protests are ongoing despite truce

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Bracing for crackdown

On Wednesday, senior officials in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration told CNN they were bracing for Ukraine to intensify its crackdown under pressure from Russia.

"Things have gotten very bad," one official said. "The government is speaking in very nasty, aggressive and confrontational terms. It signals they are prepared to do something."

France has threatened sanctions against Ukraine over the government's crackdown, with President Francois Hollande calling the protest violence "unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts."

But analysts warned there was little that outside pressure could do, especially if the Ukrainian military gets involved on the side of the government cracking down on protesters.

"My own hunch," said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, "is this is going to continue to escalate."