Friday, May 18, 2012

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US slams Cuba for jailed American contractor

The United States criticized Cuba on Friday for denying imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross permission to visit his ailing mother as a humanitarian gesture.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland noted that the United States had allowed a convicted Cuban spy to return to Cuba to visit a sick relative.
"The Cuban government can't even grant that kind of humanity in a totally unequivocal situation to begin with," she said.
Gross, 63, was arrested in December 2009 for distributing laptops and communications equipment to members of Cuba's small Jewish community under a State Department contract.
Cuban foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal told CNN on Thursday that Gross could not leave the country because he began serving 2.5 years ago a 15-year sentence for "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of Cuba.
The contractor has requested permission on repeated occasions to visit his sick 90-year-old mother.
"The continuing imprisonment of Alan Gross is deplorable. It is wrong. And it's an affront to human decency," Nuland said. "The Cuban government needs to do the right thing."
Nuland said Washington would not consider a prisoner exchange of Gross, who is reported to be in poor health, for five Cuban agents who were tried and imprisoned for espionage by the United States.
One of the so-called "Cuban Five," Rene Gonzalez, who was released on parole in October after serving 13 years in prison, was allowed to make a two week visit to Cuba in March to visit his cancer-stricken brother.
Vidal said the Cuban government was willing to negotiate to find a "humanitarian solution... on a basis of reciprocity," but offered no specifics.
"There's no equivalency in these situations, and the Cuban government knows that," said Nuland.
"On the one hand, you have convicted spies in the United States, and on the other hand, you have an assistance worker who should never have been locked up in the first place.
"So we are not contemplating any release of the Cuban Five and we are not contemplating any trade," she said.

Largest protests yet in Syria's biggest city

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces on Friday fired on protesters holding the largest opposition marches yet in Aleppo, a sign of rising anti-regime sentiment in the country's biggest city, which has largely remained supportive of President Bashar Assad throughout the 15-month uprising.
The head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria warned that neither his team nor armed action could solve the country's crisis, and called on all sides to discuss a solution. But the regime kept up its assaults on opposition areas and protests, while the head of Syria's largest exile opposition group dismissed the U.N.'s plan as unrealistic.
Anti-regime protests in Aleppo have been growing since a raid on dormitories at Aleppo University killed four students and forced the temporary closure of the state-run school earlier this month.
The May 3 raid was an unusually violent incident for the northern city, a major economic hub, where business ties and large minority populations have kept most residents on the side of the regime — or at least unwilling to join the opposition.
On Thursday, some 15,000 students demonstrated outside the gates of Aleppo University in the presence of U.N. observers, before security forces broke up the protest.
Even bigger numbers took to the streets Friday. Aleppo activist Mohammad Saeed said it was city's largest demonstration yet, with more than 10,000 people marching in the Salaheddine and al-Shaar districts and nearly as many more elsewhere in the city.
"The number of protesters is increasing every day," Saeed said. He added that several people were wounded when government forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the rallies.
"It's a real uprising happening in Aleppo these days," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Thousands of people elsewhere in the country also staged anti-government rallies in solidarity with Aleppo. Friday is the main day of protests across Syria and this week's demonstrations were dedicated to "The Heroes of Aleppo University."
Opposition activists said security forces opened fire on protests in several locations, including the Damascus suburbs and the central city of Hama. They also said the regime shelled the central town of Rastan, which rebels have controlled since January.
Amateur videos posted online Friday showed shells whizzing through the air and slamming into residential areas in Rastan, sending up clouds of smoke.
The Observatory also reported three people shot dead by security forces in the al-Tadamon neighborhood in southeast Damascus.
More than 200 U.N. observers are in Syria as part of a peace plan to end the crisis. The head of the observer mission cautioned Friday that neither his mission nor armed force can stop the bloodshed without genuine talks between the two sides.
No number of observers can achieve "a permanent end to the violence if the commitment to give dialogue a chance is not genuine from all internal and external actors," Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in Damascus.
International powers have pinned their hopes on the peace plan for Syria that special envoy Kofi Annan brokered in April. The plan paved the way for the U.N. observers, and it calls for a cease-fire and dialogue to end the conflict.
The U.N. estimated in March that the violence in Syria has killed more than 9,000 people. Hundreds more have been killed since then as a revolt that began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful calls for reform has transformed into an armed insurgency.
Both sides have flouted the cease-fire, raising concerns that the peace plan is ineffective and the violence is spinning out of control.
Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said in Geneva that the envoy would be visiting Syria soon, but did not give a date. A high-ranking military adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Babacar Gaye, arrived in Damascus on Friday.
But dialogue seems a distant hope. The opposition says it will accept nothing less than the regime's ouster, and the government brands its opponents as terrorists.
On Friday, the head of Syria's largest exile opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said he had little hope for Annan's plan.
"We have no illusions on this mission," Burhan Ghalioun told The Associated Press in Paris, where he is based. "In reality, it's a mission which was done in order to hide the lack of international consensus. That's all."
Assad says the popular will is not behind the country's uprising, and claims that foreign extremists are driving the unrest to destroy the country. He has pointed to a rise in rebel attacks on military targets as well as suicide bombings in major cities to bolster his case.
The most recent bombing, which targeted an intelligence building in Damascus on May 10, killed some 55 people and has raised fears that extremist groups are exploiting the chaos in Syria for their own purposes.
At the United Nations, Ban said he had such fears.
"The recent terrorist attacks in Damascus suggest that these attacks were carefully orchestrated," he said. "Having seen the scale and sophistication of these terrorist attacks, one might think that this terrorist attack was done by a certain group with organization and clear intent. I have strongly condemned these terrorist attacks."
In Damascus, Mood spoke out against the rising violence.
"I am more convinced than ever that no amount of violence can resolve this crisis," he said. "I am concerned about the incidents where explosives, improvised devices are targeting innocent civilians, innocent people because it is not going to help the situation."
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Karam reported from Beirut. AP writers John Heilprin in Geneva, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Ron DePasquale in New York and Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed reporting.

Repsol: Exploratory oil well off Cuba comes up dry

HAVANA (AP) — An exploratory oil well off the northern coast of Cuba has proved a failure and will be capped and abandoned, Spanish company Repsol said Friday, a disappointment for a cash-strapped nation hoping for an economic lifeline.
Trial and error is par for the course in oil exploration, however, and analysts said the news is far from a death blow to Cuba's petroleum dreams.
Repsol SA is evaluating the data it collected since the Scarabeo-9 rig arrived off the coast of Havana in January after a months-long, round-the-world trek from construction sites in China and Singapore. The company has not yet decided whether to sink further wells in the area, spokesman Kristian Rix said.
Rix said four of every five offshore wells come up dry, and it's too soon to determine whether other parts of Repsol's exploration block are commercially viable.
"Mapping an (offshore) oil field is like trying to draw a map of a city when all you have is one in 10 lampposts working and a bit of a fog," Rix said by phone from Madrid. "It's very hard to do, so I can't draw any conclusions from one well about the whole rest of it. These are questions that geologists will have to answer."
Nor does the failed well mean that the rest of Cuba's offshore exploratory area, which has been estimated to hold 5 billion to 9 billion barrels, is barren.
"I think it's disappointing news, but in my opinion it doesn't mean that the whole of the Cuban north belt is not a geological zone that in the future could produce a substantial amount of hydrocarbons," said Jorge Pinon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America and now an energy expert at the University of Texas.
"It's disappointing, but it's not surprising," he added.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The project has generated controversy in the United States, with concerns of a possible environmental disaster like the 2010 Macondo-Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill on the other side of the Gulf.
Many feared it would be impossible for longtime foes in Washington and Havana to coordinate response and containment, threatening large stretches of coastline in Cuba, Florida and beyond. Repsol has sought to allay those fears by opening up the drill rig to U.S. inspectors, and by openly sharing data with both governments.
Meanwhile Cuban-American politicians have criticized the Obama administration for not stopping the drilling altogether. The 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo already essentially bars American companies from doing oil business with Cuba and threatens sanctions against foreign companies if they don't follow its restrictions, but hard-liners say even tougher measures are needed to discourage firms like Repsol from teaming up with the Cubans.
"The Obama Administration looked the other way as Repsol aided the Cuban tyranny's dangerous scheme to become the oil barons of the Caribbean," Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Friday.
The sanctions have greatly complicated the drilling project, making it far more difficult to line up equipment and resources. The massive Scarabeo-9 platform had to be constructed in Asia with less than 10 percent U.S.-made parts to avoid violating the embargo.
Cuba has been struggling to lift its weak economy out of the doldrums for years, and the prospect of oil riches is a major part of the country's master plan. A big find would also lessen Cuba's reliance on Venezuela, which gives Cuba $3 billion a year in oil subsidies, but whose leader is ailing with cancer.
The failure of the well is also surely a letdown for Repsol, which has now come up empty in two Cuban wells drilled over the last decade. Repsol and its partners were leasing the rig for about a half-million dollars a day.
Rix declined to say how much has been spent to carry out the exploration.
Pinon said the typical cost of sinking a deep-water well in the Gulf of Mexico runs around $100 million to $150 million.
Also weighing on the company's Cuba plans is its dispute with Argentina over that nation's takeover of Repsol's majority stake in oil and gas producer YPF, Pinon said.
"You have to add the challenges that Repsol is having vis-a-vis YPF Argentina," he said. "Will the challenges that Repsol is going to have force them to focus more of their worldwide exploration into areas in which they know that there is a lower risk, for example the U.S. Gulf of Mexico?"
Diplomats and industry sources say the Scarabeo-9 rig will be rented out next by Malaysian oil company Petronas for exploration north of Cuba's Pinar del Rio province, to the west of Havana.
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Follow Peter Orsi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi .