The week at a glance ... International
Uglegorsk, RussiaNew cosmodrome: Russia is building a new, $800 million space-launch site on its own territory, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced this week. Russia’s current launch facility, Baikonur, is in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan; Russia has been leasing Baikonur at a cost of $115 million a year since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The new site, Vostochny, will be located near Uglegorsk, in the Russian Far East. “I hope that Vostochny will become the first Russian national cosmodrome of civilian use, that it will guarantee us full independence in our space activities,” Putin said.
SeoulShow of strength: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on an unprecedented joint visit to South Korea, announced stronger economic sanctions against North Korea. The high-level visit came on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War and was intended to demonstrate solidarity with Seoul and firmness against Pyongyang in the wake of North Korea’s torpedoing of a South Korean boat four months ago. To underscore the U.S. commitment, Clinton and Gates took a rare tour of the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, where they stood just 30 feet from startled North Korean soldiers. U.S. and South Korean troops are scheduled to begin massive joint military exercises next week; since the North refused to accept official notification of the exercises, U.S. personnel informed it verbally, by shouting through a bullhorn across the DMZ.
KabulPullout deadline muddle: Backing away from previously indicated troop-withdrawal targets, Western diplomats at an international conference in Kabul have endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan to delay Afghanistan’s full takeover of its own security until 2014. That would mean a much slower pullout of U.S. and other foreign troops than had been previously acknowledged. European leaders had wanted a province-by-province pullout, starting immediately, in areas where their countries have troops. But U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who took over as Afghan commander last month, nixed that plan, and Vice President Joe Biden said this week that while the U.S. pullout is still scheduled to begin next summer, as President Obama has pledged, it could be “as few as a couple thousand troops” at first. The transition to Afghan military control, said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, would be determined by “conditions, not calendars.”
Zahedan, IranU.S. blamed for bombs: Iran has accused the U.S. of sponsoring a double suicide bombing outside a mosque that killed 27 people and wounded 300, in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Iran in years. The Sunni militant group Jundallah claimed responsibility for sending two bombers to attack a meeting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The suicide bombers were relatives of Abdolmalek Rigi, a Jundallah leader who was captured and executed by Iranian authorities last month. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the U.S. “supports the terrorists through financing and equipment,” and he rejected President Obama’s message of condolence to the victims. The U.S has long denied supporting Jundallah. The group, however, is not on the State Department’s list of designated terrorist groups.
TehranBin Ladens want out: One of Osama bin Laden’s sons says that about 20 members of his family have been stuck in Iran since 9/11 and now want to go to the U.S., Al Arabiya television reported this week. Members of bin Laden’s family living in Afghanistan fled for Iran when the U.S. onslaught began in December 2001. Since then, they’ve been under house arrest, and the Iranian regime won’t let them travel to their native Saudi Arabia. Omar bin Laden, Osama’s fourth son, who lives in Qatar, told Al Arabiya that U.S. authorities were going to help the family leave. “The Americans offered to help them out of Iran and even hinted at the possibility of receiving them in the U.S.,” he said. None of the family members in Iran have been accused of terrorist ties. There was no immediate comment from the U.S. government.
Damascus, SyriaNo veils in school: Syria has become the first Arab country to ban the niqab—a veil that covers the entire face with just a slit for the eyes—from universities. The ban is seen as a move by the secular government to counteract a growing Islamist movement. Higher Education Minister Ghaith Barakat said he made the decision “at the request of a number of parents” who do not want their children to be educated in an “environment of extremism.” The ban does not include the hijab, a head scarf that does not cover the face, which is worn by many Syrian women. Belgium has banned the niqab in all public places, citing security concerns, and other European countries are considering similar legislation.