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William Hague to urge reform on visit to Burma

William Hague is visiting Burma, the first British foreign secretary to do so for more than 50 years.

He is expected to use meetings with the country’s leaders to press for the release of more political prisoners.
His visit is the latest in a series by top diplomats from around the world, amid steps towards reform by the new government in Burma.
Burma held its first elections in 20 years in 2010, replacing military rule with a nominally civilian government.
Since then the new administration has freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and begun a process of dialogue.
Last month she formally registered her National League for Democracy as a political party, after boycotting the 2010 polls because of electoral laws that prevented her taking part.

In December US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma, in what was seen as an endorsement of the reform process – although Western observers say much more is needed.
‘Political freedom’

Speaking ahead of his arrival in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, William Hague welcomed the “encouraging” steps taken by the government.

“I am visiting the country to encourage the Burmese government to continue on its path of reform, and to gauge what more Britain can do to support this process,” he said.

Mr Hague is the first British foreign secretary to visit Burma since 1955.

In Nay Pyi Taw he will hold talks with President Thein Sein, a former top general who stepped down to contest the polls as a civilian.

He will then travel to Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital, to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, representatives of some of Burma’s ethnic minority groups and dissidents.

Ms Suu Kyi’s party plans to contest by-elections in April that could see her elected to parliament. Her party secured a landslide victory in polls in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.

The new government has released some political prisoners in recent months but between 600 and 1,000 journalists, dissidents and monks who led anti-government protests in 2007 are thought to remain behind bars.

Mr Hague said he wanted to see more progress on reform.

“Further steps are needed that will have a lasting impact on human rights and political freedom in Burma,” he said.

“In particular, we hope to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, free and fair by-elections, humanitarian access to people in conflict areas, and credible steps towards national reconciliation.”

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Iowa caucuses: Romney pips Santorum

 He finished just eight votes ahead of former senator Rick Santorum in the Midwest state of Iowa.
Ron Paul came third, while Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann settled into a second tier of candidates.
Rick Perry indicated he was suspending his campaign after finishing fifth.
The caucus meetings were the first time voters had a say in the race to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November’s presidential election.

Tuesday’s contest launched months of caucuses and primary elections in 50 states, Washington DC and other territories, culminating in the Republican National Convention in August where the party nominee will be formally anointed.
Iowa was not expected to settle the contest – John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee in 2008, came fourth in the state’s caucuses that year – but it will help shape the race for the White House.

The BBC’s Mark Mardell says that in the end, this result has to be good for Mitt Romney, achieving it in a state he hadn’t bothered to fight until the last few weeks.
‘Game on!’
Hours after caucuses closed, Iowa party chairman Matt Strawn announced that Mr Romney had won by just eight of the 122,255 votes cast.
“Governor Mitt Romney received 30,015 votes and senator Rick Santorum received 30,007 votes. Congratulations to governor Mitt Romney, winner of the 2012 caucuses. Congratulations to senator Rick Santorum for a very close second-place finish,” Mr Strawn said.
Earlier in the evening, Mr Romney kept his sights firmly trained on Mr Obama rather than engaging his Republican rivals or claiming victory.
“The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, before crying: “On to New Hampshire!”
As early results came out pointing to a close race, Mr Santorum declared “Game on!” He praised his faith and his family in a speech which marked his own entry to the national spotlight.

Mr Paul, a Texas congressman, finished third and vowed to continue onto New Hampshire, which holds a primary election next week.
“This momentum is going to continue,” he told a jubilant crowd of supporters. “We will go on, we will raise the money.”

Negative advertising
Finishing fifth, Texas Governor Rick Perry said he was returning to his home state in order to “determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race”.Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who saw a brief lead evaporate under a barrage of negative advertising last month, pledged to remain in the race and challenge Mr Romney, “a Massachusetts moderate”.
“We are not going to go out and run nasty ads,” said Mr Gingrich, who finished fourth.
“But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative that may be more of a comment on his record than it is about politics.”
Mrs Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who won the Iowa straw poll last summer, finished sixth, and urged voters not to let the media anoint a Republican nominee based solely on the Iowa results.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman was on the ballot, but did not campaign in Iowa.

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Israel, Palestinians hold ‘positive’ talks

AMMAN: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held a “positive” first face-to-face meeting in more than 15 months on Tuesday, saying they remain committed to a two-state solution but that full-blown talks are still some way off.

“The talks and atmosphere were positive,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters after the talks in Amman between Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh.

Washington too welcomed what it described as a “positive development” after months of deadlock in peace talks over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal in 2010 to renew a freeze on most settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Judeh, who hosted the meeting in the Jordanian capital, voiced cautious optimism. “The two sides expressed their commitment to a two-state solution. We do not want to raise the level of expectations, but at the same time we do not want to minimise the importance of this meeting,” he said.

“The Palestinians submitted a paper on borders and security. The Israeli side received it, promising to study it and respond,” he said.

The minister said Jordan, which has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, will host further talks between the two sides.

“Any announcement about the meetings will be made by Jordan. You might hear about the meetings and you might not,” he said, expecting “progress and things to be positive by the end of this month.”
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Tuesday the outcome of the meeting would soon be clear.

“We will know today or in the coming two days,” he said, indicating that they were looking to find “the right foundation” to resume talks with Israel.
“This is a good thing and we hope Jordanian efforts work,” he was quoted as saying by Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency.
Earlier this week, Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor said the fact that a meeting was taking place was “a positive development” but that it did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks.Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio.
“This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations,” he said on Monday.

Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank settlement construction expired and Netanyahu declined to renew it.

“We will see what the quartet’s position will be in this meeting and if it is willing to seriously address the obstacles to the peace process and negotiations put by Israel,” PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine.

Abbas met with US envoy David Hale in Ramallah late on Monday and told him there would be no resumption of talks unless Israel froze settlement construction and accepted the 1967 borders as the basis for peace talks, a Palestinian official told AFP.

The Quartet, which comprises the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, has been trying to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table, asking them for comprehensive proposals on territory and security.

White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the difficulties President Barack Obama faced in getting a resumption of talks.

“He is doing everything he can to bring them together at the table,” Carney said.

“And this is obviously a challenging issue — it has been so for a long time. But the president’s very focused on doing what he can to make it happen.”

Abed Rabbo said Washington wanted the talks to restart “without any preconditions or promises on settlement expansion.
“This does not fulfil the conditions for a resumption of negotiations nor does it enable any negotiations to succeed,” he said.
The meeting sparked an angry reaction from the Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas’s forces in 2007.
“Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP on Monday.
The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also criticised the meeting, calling it a “fatal error” which would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game. (AFP)

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