July, 2015

 

THIS WEEK IN THE BAHAMAS (26 – 31 JULY 2015)

COMMENTARY BY ELCOTT COLEBY

PM Christie opens CANTO Conference

Urging industry professionals to move quickly on increasing broadband network capacity, Bahamas Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie addressed delegates at the 31st Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Operators (CANTO) Conference and Trade Show in Miami, Florida on Sunday.

Outlining the inherent benefits of broadband technology, Prime Minister Christie pointed out that broadband networks connect individuals and businesses to the marketplace, improves public service and opens new doors of opportunity by equalizing the economic playing field and democratizing invention. He therefore urged ICT Ministers and Regulators to pursue policies that would support broadband innovation.

 “I accept that and I have heard it here tonight that broadband provides an equalizer to the economic playing field. I accept that it results in the democratization of invention and so for me I have to challenge Ministers of ICT and our regulators just as I did the last time I was here to proactively pursue policies and legislation that will support the initiatives of organizations like CANTO and improve the lives of our citizens through the innovation of broadband. Let’s just do it and let’s just put behind us the talking and recognize that the talking is over.  

 Bahamas Government welcomes TIP tier 1 ranking.

The U.S. Chargé d’Affaires H.E. Lisa Johnson – U.S. Embassy in Nassau congratulated The Bahamas Government on Monday on its Tier 1 ranking in the US State Department’s 2015 TIP Report. 

The Charge commended the government for its efforts “to strengthen anti-trafficking law enforcement, protect trafficking victims, and inform the public and potential victims about trafficking.” 

 Her Excellency outlined the policy initiatives of the Bahamas government that led to this Tier 1 designation.

“This Tier 1 ranking means that the Government of The Bahamas fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

“The government successfully convicted one trafficker and sentenced two traffickers from previous convictions in 2014, initiated three new prosecutions, adopted a four-year national anti-trafficking strategy and action plan, provided anti-trafficking training to officials, and continued to implement a victim-centered assistance protocol for identified trafficking victims.”

In its response, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the Bahamas government “welcomes the country’s designation by the United States government to tier one status in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.”

Further, “with today’s announcement, the commitment of The Bahamas in fighting modern day slavery should not be in doubt. 

“We thank all responsible for this recognition” said the Ministry in a short press release.

The Bahamas Cabinet meets in Grand Bahama

For only the second time in history, the cabinet of The Bahamas met outside of Nassau. The only other time was in October 2012 when that body met in Marsh Harbour, Abaco.

Below is a quick summary of what was accomplished:

The Prime Minister officially commissioned the newly refurbished fire substation in Eight Rock, complete with a brand new $250,000 fire engine.

The Prime Minister led a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new fire station for Freeport. The location is Settlers Way. 

The Cabinet met with principals of the Grand Bahama Port Authority, Hutchison Port Holdings Ltd.; the Grand Bahama Development Company; Graham Thompson and Co.; the Grand Bahama Shipyard; and the Hawksbill Creek Agreement Review Committee to discuss specific tax exemptions under the Freeport, Grand Bahama Act 1993. These tax exemptions will expire on the 4th August 2015.

 The following four contracts were signed:

  • A storage facility at the C.A. Smith Complex on East Mall Drive;
  • Renovations to the Farmer’s Market;
  • The construction of thirty-six (36) homes;
  • An administrative complex on the island of Bimini

    Additionally, below are four projects to come on stream by the end of this fiscal year:

  • A new high school for West Grand Bahama;
  • A new and elevated causeway to replace the Fishing Hole Road;
  • A sea wall at Smith’s Point to prevent further coastal erosion; and
  • The expansion of a critical care section and new kitchen facilities at the Rand Memorial Hospital, prior to the launch of National Health Insurance in January, 2016.

    This Week in Parliament

    The Bahamas Parliament met on Wednesday, 29th July at 10am and following is a cursory summary of House Proceedings.

    Statements by Ministers:

    National Security Minister the Hon. Dr. Bernard Nottage delivered a comprehensive communication on the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report released by the US State Department on the 27th July 2015. He advised the House that The Bahamas achieved a ranking of Tier 1 in this report. The Minister also reported that this was the first time The Bahamas achieved a Tier 1 ranking and was the only country in the region to achieve such a ranking.

    Grand Minister Minister Dr. Michael Darville reported to the House on the meeting of the Cabinet in Freeport on Tuesday, 28th July.

    Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture the Hon. Dr. Daniel Johnson paid tribute to the late entertainer Franklin “Count Bernadino” Ellis, businessman Alfred Bismark Coakley, PLP Stalwart Councilor Doris Burrows (mother of Sen. Greg Burrows), and Junkanooer Brian Gibson. He noted that five Bahamians entered the Major League in 2015 and congratulated our Pan Am games athletic team for wining 6 medals at the Pan Am games in Toronto, Canada. Swim sensation Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace was singled out for high praise as the fastest female swimmer in the region. He thanked the Tourism Ministry for hosting successful Junkanoo and Goombay summer festivals. He concluded with the mention of the road naming ceremony at the entrance of the Queen Elizabeth Sports Center in honour of Mychal “Sweet Bells” Thompson and the establishment of the Legend Walk of Fame at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.

    The Debate:

    Debate continued with the second and third readings, committal and eventual passage of the amended Hawksbill Creek (Grand Bahama Deep Water Harbour and Industrial Area) Bill 2015 with State Finance Minister, Hon. Michael Halkitis as the lead speaker. The purpose of the bill is to extend for a period of six months specific tax exemptions of the agreement that expire on 4th August 2015. Under the 1993 Freeport Act, income, capital gains, real property, and earnings by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and its licensees among others are exempt from taxation.

    Under the original 1955 Hawksbill Creek Agreement, the above tax exemptions were offered for 30 years, expiring in 1985. The provisions were extended for a further five years to 1990, where the government extended the tax concessions for a further three years. Under the Freeport Act 1993, the tax concessions were extended for another twenty-two years, bringing us to the current debate on a six month extension ahead of the 4th August expiration date.

    The House will meet again on Wednesday, 5th August to debate the Minimum Wage Act 2015.

    Just under 1,000 Grand Bahamians benefit from safety net program

    Taking the launch of the Pre-Paid Debit Card to Grand Bahama, Nine hundred and seventy-eight residents received their Pre-Paid Debit Card issued by the Department of Social Services on Monday, July 27.

    Minister Griffin told those gathered that the electronic delivery of social assistance exists in many countries and reiterated that while the program will assist residents in rising out of poverty, it will also allow them to maintain their dignity until such time.

    Launched in Nassau during November of 2014, the program has impacted the lives of well over 1,000 residents in Nassau. The program kicked off at the Wulff Road Centre, on Monday, January 26, 2015; it was launched at the Fox Hill Centre, on Monday, March 23, 2015; the Robinson Road Centre joined; and on May 18, 2015 the Horseshoe Drive Centre was added.

    Minister Griffin described a few advantages of having the debit card:

    “The first and immediate advantage is that persons no longer have to come to the office in Eight Mile Rock and Freeport at the end of each month, sometimes as early as 6:00 a.m. and stand on long lines, sometimes for hours, to collect a paper coupon. Secondly, while the paper coupon specifies the food store where it has to be redeemed, the card allows you to shop around as it can be used in any food store that accepts prepaid cards. Thirdly, the full value does not have to be utilized at one time – it allows for purchases to be spread out over the month. Then there is privacy with the card so that beneficiaries are not readily identified and stigmatized.”

Baha Mar negotiations continue amid “significant progress”

The government delegation under the leadership of Attorney General Senator Allyson Maynard-Gibson observed the four party talks in Beijing from 26th -28thJuly and reported “considerable progress on the commercial terms of an agreement between Baha Mar and China Construction.”  The remaining major point of difference between the parties said the statement was “Baha Mar’s refusal to provide their part of a guarantee required by EXIM to secure a commitment of additional lending to enable completion of the Project.” Baha Mar went further, demanding a “sovereign guarantee” of up to $175 million.”

During the negotiations, the China EXIM Bank principals pointed out that in the event of cost overruns, the developer was contractually obligated to finance the project’s completion while the contractor was obliged to finish the work before seeking legal redress for the cost overruns.

“EXIM pointed out that the contract documents between the parties stipulate that cost overruns should be borne by the Developer and that the Contractor should finish the Project” said the statement.

The statement continued the “the contract documents were drafted in this manner so that the Project would be completed and the parties would then be free to pursue remedies against each other in the courts. As EXIM indicated, Baha Mar has decided not to complete the Project in accordance with the contract documents.”

Negotiations continue as parties submitted legal arguments on Friday in the Bahamas Supreme Court for and against a court appointed provisional liquidator. The matter was adjourned until 19th August. 

2015 Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival Report revealed.

Carnival Commission Chairman Paul Major revealed the financial report on the country’s inaugural Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival on Tuesday at the Office of the Prime Minister. According to the report, the government subsidy was $11.3 million, carnival revenue was $1.6 million while total expenditure was $12.9 million.

The events attracted a total of 115,000 spectators, created 7,208 temporary jobs, engaged 1,169 Bahamian entertainers and paid over $100,000 in prize money.

What was not quantified was the GDP impact of the entire event on the national economy, one of the principal qualifications of its success.

Clearly the event enjoyed widespread support and presented a new platform on which Bahamian culture can be expanded, expressed and embellished in addition to the creation of a new tourism product.

The figures presented by the Chairman amounted to a profit and loss financial statement, but the impact of Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival on the cultural, tourism and economic development of The Bahamas cannot be quantified by a P/L Statement. ZNS, Bahamasair, COB, the W&SC and BEC have all suffered financial losses on their respective P/L statements, but their success in and contribution to the overall national development of The Bahamas remain unqualified and unquestioned to this day.

Minister Wilchcombe said felt good about the numbers. Good luck to the Commission as they prepare for 2016.

Mitchell addresses UN Security Council on SIDS threats

Speaking at a special session of the UN Security Council on “Peace and Security challenges of Small Island Developing States” on Thursday, 30 July, Bahamas Foreign Minister reiterated that “Climate Change represents the most serious global environmental and development challenge, with far reaching security implications.”

Mitchell suggested to member states that this existential threat must be “addressed at the multilateral level by bodies which are inclusive, representative and transparent.”

Prime Minister Christie has campaigned aggressively as the Chair of CARICOM that a comprehensive and inclusive solution must be found for this threat as The Bahamas, a country with a low lying geography, could lose a significant percentage of its land mass with a slight increase in the atmospheric temperature. The recent financing meeting held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the COP1 conference scheduled for December in Paris, France are critical executing mechanisms in advancing the post 2015 developmental agenda; arresting global warming figures prominently in that global agenda. 

Mitchell again called on the industrial world to discontinue the practice of using the GDP of a country as the sole qualifying criteria for accessing capital at concessionary rates, especially to fund energy related capital development.

Other “priority” areas of potential threats to the peace and security of The Bahamas identified by Mr. Mitchell were the environment, crime, illegal immigration, unemployment and the economy. 

“The Bahamas has reiterated in many fora that for our country there are no higher priorities than the environment, fighting crime, and containing illegal immigration. These matters for The Bahamas go to the very root of our existence.

“I wish to add to that list unemployment and the economy” said Mr. Mitchell.

China’s Ocean University and BAMSI sign cooperation agreement

With the signing of a reciprocal cooperation agreement affecting both faculty and students of both Ocean University and BAMSI, Prime Minister Christie expressed excitement over this partnership and believes it will further strengthen BAMSI.

“I am very excited about what has transpired. I am really looking forward to a strategic partnership between BAMSI and Ocean University. I believe that the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding will further strengthen BAMSI and in so doing have a rippling effect on the work and program of the institute and what it would mean for food production and the sustainability of our marine products both of which are so important as The Bahamas seeks to become food sufficient through the exploitation of its resources which we have in abundance” said the Prime Minister.  

Davis on Baha Mar: “Our interest of course is that of the Bahamian people”

While visiting the summer camp for the children of Straw Vendors hosted by the Straw Market Authority on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis commented on the Baha Mar saga in light of a payroll letter written to Baha Mar employees about non-payment to foreign workers and commentary by Mr. Izmirlian during an interview with Jeff Lloyd.

“I think that the Prime Minister Christie is doing…he is working in the best interest of the Bahamian people…what we have to recognize is that the Bahamian people have a particular interest; the Izmirlians have a particular interest; China’s Construction company, they have an interest and of course the (China) EXIM Bank, they all have interest in this project. Our interest of course is that of the Bahamian people. Our overarching principle for the benefit of the Bahamian people is to ensure that this project is completed and completed expeditiously and opened and that is what the Prime Minister is working towards. Now any other view that Mr. Christie may not working in the interest of the Bahamian people I think is erroneous, it is not informed and nothing more than just a casting of aspersions where the aspersions ought not to lie.”   

In passing…

A thanksgiving service was held on Sunday, 26th July at the Saint John’s Native Baptist Church on Meeting Street for the thousands of law enforcement officers who risk their lives daily in the interest of public safety and border protection. Speakers included the Acting Commodore of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, Tellis Bethel; Comptroller of Customs, Charles Turner; Director of Immigration, Dr. Wiliam Pratt; Opposition Leader, the Hon. Dr. Hubert Minnis and Minister of National Security the Hon. Dr. Bernard Nottage. The spiritual message was delivered by Pastor Heuter Rolle.

Founding member of the Sunshine Holdings Limited (SHL) and its deputy chairman, Alfred Bismark Coakley, died on Monday at Doctor’s Hospital after a brief illness. Mr. Coakley served as SHL’s first president from its incorporation before Independence. He served in that role until his retirement in 2009, at which time he assumed the role of deputy chairman of the board.

The Government of The Bahamas welcomed the 14th July agreement on the use of nuclear energy between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union.

1975 graduate of Saint John’s University-Minnesota, Philip Galanis was recently appointed to that university’s Board of Trustees; Mr. Galanis is only the second Bahamian to serve in that capacity. A 1971 graduate of St. Augustine College in Nassau, Mr. Galanis manages HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic and Litigation Support Services, a company he formed in 1998.

On Monday of this week the College of The Bahamas (COB) announced a $500,000 endowment in the name of Commonwealth Brewery Ltd. (CBL) to fund two full scholarships annually at a cost of $7,500.00 each. On hand for the signing ceremony was COB president Dr. Rodney Smith and CBL Managing Director Hans Neven.

The College of The Bahamas received more good news this week when the Grand Bahama Port Authority presented the institution with a $3 million gift to construct fourteen dormitories, a cafeteria, a health clinic and additional office space on its East Grand Bahama campus. The contractor is ALMACO and completion is projected for the summer of 2016.

The $16 million IDB funded Customs Department modernization project that started two years ago is seventy-five percent finished – this according to Customs Assistant Comptroller, Ellsworth Rolle. This upgrade was necessary under the new Customs Management Act that came into effect in 2013 and prepares The Bahamas for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

With less than 2 years to go before the 2017 general election, the Parliamentary Commission has begun the process of training presiding and returning officers in addition preparing a new voting register. At 176,000 eligible voters, the register has grown by some 4,000 persons since 2012. A review is required every five years by law.

The Appeals Court upheld the Supreme Court ruling that murder accused Donna Vasyli should be granted $200,000 bail. Mrs. Vasyli is accused of the murder of her husband, Australian Podiatrist, Philip Vasyli.


Postponement of the July 31 Hearing for the Appointment of a Provisional Liquidator

July 31, 2015 – Nassau, Bahamas (Attorney General of the Bahamas)

(via the Bahamas Information Services)

From the beginning of this project, the Government of The Bahamas has sought to facilitate an impartial process that results in the opening of Baha Mar, under private ownership and operation as soon as possible. It is without question in our national interest to do so.

 Baha Mar’s statement today is entirely misleading. As a matter of policy, our Government has sought to create a fair playing field for the development. We have pursued this objective in three ways: 

  • First, by encouraging and facilitating ongoing talks between all parties to seek an agreement out of court and, when appropriate, joining those talks, both in Nassau and in Beijing;
  • Second, by paying the wages and salaries of Bahamian employees that Baha Mar failed to pay;
  • Third, as a precaution and in order to protect our national interest, we have taken steps to assure that if the fate of the Baha Mar project has to be determined through court proceedings, those proceedings occur in The Bahamas, not in the United States.

Notwithstanding this precautionary stance, we also acknowledged today that agents for Baha Mar, the China Export and Import Bank and China State Construction reported that as recently as 6:00 pm last night, progress was being made on an out of court settlement.

 A postponement of today’s hearing was advisable if only to encourage the agreement towards which the parties appear to be progressing.

 Should Baha Mar Ltd., the Export-Import Bank of China, and China Construction America be unable to resolve their dispute, however, appointing a provisional liquidator would allow all parties a mechanism for fair, independent, third-party restructuring, completion and opening of the resort.

 As such, it has always been understood that a liquidator must be entirely free of conflicts of interest in order to be appointed. Under a liquidation scenario, this is the only way to ensure the fairness and balance we seek.

The Government makes no apologies for ensuring that the third-party liquidator under consideration by the court is free of any real or perceived conflict of interest.

In the interest of ensuring a fair outcome for all parties, the Government asked the Supreme Court to postpone until a new independent, third-party liquidator who is free of conflict, can be nominated.


Facebook CEO Zuckerberg and wife expecting a baby girl

SAN FRANCISCO, July 31 (Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are expecting a baby girl, he said on his Facebook page on Friday.

The couple, who married in 2012, have been trying to have a child and had three miscarriages, he wrote. Zuckerberg, 31, did not say when their daughter is due but said the pregnancy was far enough along that the risk of miscarriage was low.

“We hope that sharing our experience will give more people the same hope we felt and will help more people feel comfortable sharing their stories,” wrote the founder of the world’s largest social media network.

Zuckerberg, who often uses his Facebook page to make both corporate and personal announcements, opened up about the emotions he and Chan, who is a doctor, have felt while trying to have children. He wrote about the hope they felt upon learning about each pregnancy.

“You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience,” he posted. “Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you. So you struggle on your own.”

Zuckerberg noted that Chan, 30, and their child are both healthy and that he would share more as her due date approached.

“In our ultrasound, she even gave a thumbs up ‘like’ with her hand,” he wrote, “so I’m already convinced she takes after me.”

The couple met at Harvard University as classmates and dated for more than a decade before tying the knot. (Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Stephen R. Trousdale and Richard Chang)


Chile’s Pinochet covered up report on death of U.S. student, documents say

SANTIAGO, July 31 (Reuters) – Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet stifled a police report that accused military officers of burning and killing a U.S. student in 1986, according to declassified U.S. government documents published by a research group on Friday.

The documents, revealed by the Washington-based National Security Archive, could shed light on the incident, which became a symbol of government brutality during Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The nearly 30-year-old case has come back into the public eye in the last two weeks as 12 ex-military officers were arrested in connection with the event, after former military conscript Fernando Guzman changed his previous testimony. Judge Mario Carroza reopened the case in 2013.

Human rights groups and prosecutors allege the officers used gasoline and a lighter to burn and kill 19-year-old U.S. student Rodrigo Rojas and seriously injure Carmen Gloria Quintana, a Chilean then aged 18, at a Santiago labor strike.

Official accounts had long held that the two victims accidentally set themselves ablaze, but Guzman said the officers deliberately set the two on fire and then abandoned them in a ditch in the outskirts of the capital.

According to the documents published Friday, an investigation by Chilean police at the time found that an army patrol was involved in the burning of the two youths, but Pinochet buried the findings.

“According to (name redacted), an investigation by the Chilean intelligence service has fingered Army personnel as clearly involved,” a 1986 secret briefing for U.S. President Ronald Reagan said.

“Nevertheless, the Chilean government, following Pinochet’s lead, is trying to publicly brand Rojas and Carmen Quintana… as terrorists, supposedly victims of their own Molotov cocktails.”

The National Security Archive, a non-profit organization which trawls through vast troves of declassified information in an attempt to tackle government secrecy, published the reports to aid in prosecutions, said its Chile project director Peter Kornbluh.

“With the opening of the case, I thought it would be important for the judges, lawyers, and families to have these documents if they could be useful to advancing the cause of justice,” he told Reuters on Friday.

Chile remains divided by the events of the 1973 coup and the repression that followed. President Michelle Bachelet, who was tortured and exiled during the dictatorship, has called for others who had information on atrocities to step forward.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Rigby)


Japanese firm to mature whisky in space

July 31 (AFP) – Japanese whisky will be sent into space next month to test how time in a zero-gravity environment affects its flavor, one of the country’s biggest drinks makers said Friday.

Samples of whisky produced by Suntory will be stored in the Japanese laboratory facility of the International Space Station for at least a year, with some flasks staying longer.

Researchers for the company believe that storing the beverage in an environment with only slight temperature changes and limited liquid movement could lead to a mellower flavour.

Suntory will send whisky aged for 10, 18 and 21 years as well as a number of other alcoholic substances.

Once they are returned to Earth, blenders will assess their flavours while researchers subject the liquids to scientific analysis, the company said.

“For the moment, we’re not thinking about applying the study results to commercial products,” a Suntory spokeswoman told AFP.

Whisky demand rocketed in Japan last year after national broadcaster NHK aired a period drama called “Massan,” the true story of a Japanese entrepreneur and his Scottish wife who are credited with establishing Japan’s first whisky distillery.

Sales also soared when Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was named the best in the world by the prestigious Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2015.


Recovered plane debris flown to France: Reuters witness

ST DENIS, REUNION, July 31 (Reuters) – Plane debris which washed up on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion and is thought to belong to the vanished Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was flown to France on Friday for checks, a Reuters witness said.

The Air France flight is due to arrive in Paris early on Saturday and the debris then be delivered to a military unit near the southwest city of Toulouse specialized in analyzing aviation wreckage.

(Reporting by Joe Brock; editing by Astrid Wendlandt)


U.N. nuclear watchdog chief to meet U.S. senators next week

VIENNA, July 31 (Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief will meet with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday in Washington to discuss his agency’s monitoring role in Iran following Tehran’s deal with world powers on curbing its atomic activity.

Some members of the U.S. Congress, which is considering whether to approve the deal, have asked that more information be made public relating to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s part in verifying Iran’s implementation of the pact.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement on Friday that Director General Yukiya Amano “will discuss the IAEA’s role in verifying and monitoring nuclear-related measures under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” which was agreed byIran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union in Vienna earlier this month.

Amano has the delicate task of assessing Iran’s past and future nuclear program. He has no political mandate and never tires of stressing the IAEA’s technical role.

He must nonetheless manage and maintain a fine balance between delivering data on Iran’s nuclear activities and the major political consequences such information can have.

If Iran were to break promises it made in the historic July 14 deal reached with six world powers, Amano and his inspectors would be responsible for detecting and telling the world about the breach.

The IAEA said it is normal practice for it not to publish safeguards arrangements with countries and that Iran is no exception, adding that the arrangement it reached with Iran on July 14 meets its requirements to clarify outstanding issues.

The U.S. Congress has until Sept. 17 to accept or reject the agreement. American Republicans have objected to the deal as not tough enough to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long run.

At an emotional Senate hearing this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that rejecting the deal would remove all limits on Iran’s nuclear work, give it a fast track to a weapon and access to billions of dollars from collapsed sanctions.

Under the July 14 pact, world powers agreed to lift sanctions in return for curbs on a nuclear program the West suspects was aimed at developing the means to build an atomic bomb. Tehran says it seeks only peaceful atomic energy.

(Reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mark Heinrich andJonathan Oatis)


U.S. condemns ‘vicious’ attack that killed Palestinian baby

WASHINGTON, July 31 (Reuters) – The White House on Friday condemned in the strongest possible terms the “vicious” arson attack that killed an 18-month-old Palestinian baby.

The baby boy was killed when two homes were set on fire in the West Bank by suspected Jewish extremists.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Sandra Maler)


Greek PM defends controversial ‘Plan B’ for euro zone exit

ATHENS, July 31 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras acknowledged on Friday that his government had made covert contingency plans in case Greece was forced out of the euro, but rejected accusations that he had plotted a return to the drachma.

Tsipras was forced to respond to the issue in parliament after former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis this week revealed efforts to hack into citizens’ tax codes to create a parallel payment system, prompting shock and outrage in Greece.

The disclosure heaped new pressure on Tsipras, who is also battling a rebellion within his Syriza party and starting tough talks with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to seal a third bailout program in less than three weeks.

“We didn’t design or have a plan to pull the country out of the euro, but we did have emergency plans,” Tsipras told parliament. “If our partners and lenders had prepared a Grexit plan, shouldn’t we as a government have prepared our defense?”

He compared the plan to a country preparing its defenses ahead of war, saying it was the obligation of a responsible government to have contingency arrangements in place.

He did not directly refer to Varoufakis’ disclosure of plans to hack into his ministry’s software to obtain tax codes. But Tspiras said the idea of a database giving Greeks passwords to make payments to settle arrears was hardly “a covert and satanic plan to take the country out of the euro”.

Tsipras also defended his embattled former finance minister, who has continued to create headaches for the government since being ousted earlier this month.

“Mr. Varoufakis might have made mistakes, as all of us have … You can blame him as much as you want for his political plan, his statements, for his taste in shirts, for vacations in Aegina,” Tsipras said.

“But you cannot accuse him of stealing the money of Greek people or having a covert plan to take Greece to the precipice.”

Dressed in a colorful paisley pattern shirt, Varoufakis sat listening to the question time debate.

BAILOUT TALKS START

Tsipras made his remarks as Greece began talks with the mission chiefs of the quartet of creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank, IMF and the European bailout fund – to nail down a third bailout of up to 86 billion euros.

The session with Greece’s finance and economy ministers took place at a hotel in central Athens rather than at government ministries, part of efforts to keep the visit by EU/IMF officials — widely despised by Greeks — discreet and less intrusive than in the past.

Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos said they discussed recapitalization of the country’s ailing banks and a target for the government to post a primary budget surplus of 3.5 percent in 2018.

“We also discussed the privatization fund and explained our proposals on how revenue from this fund should be used to reduce debt and fund growth,” Tsakalotos said. “There was convergence on some issues and not on others.”

In exchange for the rescue loans, Greece has agreed to sequester 50 billion euros of public assets in a privatization fund to act as collateral on the deal.

Greece wants to wrap up talks on the bailout by mid-August so as to get aid flowing before a debt payment to the ECB falls due on Aug. 20. But delays in starting the talks this week and the complexity of the agreement could mean Athens is forced to rely on bridge financing from European lenders rather than funding from the bailout to make that payment.

Greece aims to reopen its stock market .ATG on Monday after a five-week shutdown due to the country’s debt and economic problems. The bourse is still awaiting a finance ministry decree detailing new trading rules.

(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Helen Popper; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)


Cameroon arrests three Boko Haram suspects carrying explosives: sources

YAOUNDE, July 31 (Reuters) – Cameroon officials have arrested three suspects carrying a bag containing improvised explosive devices in the northern town of Maroua where a spate of suspected Boko Haram suicide attacks killed at least 40 last week, sources said on Friday.

The men were caught on Thursday evening at the entrance of the city following a tip-off, a senior military source with the Central African nation’s special forces in Maroua, told Reuters.

“The suspect who was carrying the bag with the explosives is a Nigerian. The other two are Cameroonians, according to their identity cards,” another senior local government administrator said by telephone from Maroua.

He said the young men, aged about 20, were suspected Boko Haram militants who were planning another attack.

Cameroon has increased troops and tighten security in the northern regional capital following the suicide bombings, the deepest incursion by suspected Boko Haram militants from neighboring Nigeria.

Cameroon security officials also carried out a raid on Thursday in Kousseri, some 220 km (140 miles) north of Maroua, where some 2,000 Nigerians who were living in Cameroon without permits were loaded in trucks and taken across the border.

A local administrator said the raid was part of measures aimed at improving security and controlling movements along the border region.

The leaders of both countries pledged on Thursday, following a summit in Yaounde, to work together to crush the six-year insurgency which has killed thousands, spread to neighboring countries and threatens the stability of the Lake Chad region.

Boko Haram, which calls itself the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) since pledging allegiance to the militant group that controls large areas of Syria and Iraq, is fighting to establish an emirate in northeast Nigeria.

(Reporting by Sylvain Andzongo; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alison Williams)