India defies sanctions, won't cut Iran oil imports

Written By Ivan Kolev on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 | 9:42 PM

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

MUMBAI, India – India has joined China in saying it will not cut back on oil imports from Iran, despite stiff new U.S. and European sanctions designed to pressure Tehran over its nuclear program.

"It is not possible for India to take any decision to reduce the import from Iran drastically because, after all, the countries which can provide the requirement of the emerging economy, Iran is an important country amongst them," India's finance minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters Sunday in Chicago.

India and China together accounted for 34 percent of Iran's oil exports from January to September of 2011 -- slightly more than Europe, according to International Energy Agency data.

The move is likely to be seen as a political victory in Iran, but it's unclear how Chinese and Indian companies will actually be able to pay for Iranian oil without running afoul of the sanctions, analysts said.

"It's a blow," said David Hartwell, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's, adding that Iran may have discounted prices to keep the Chinese and Indians on their side. "If you have two major countries like India and China saying they will not abide by the sanctions, that's going to keep a vital line open for the Iranians to continue to sidestep the sanctions and get foreign capital."

He said India and China could just be trying to buy time to diversify their oil supplies and may steer away from Iran, especially if Saudi Arabia -- India's largest source of oil imports -- were to ramp up production and offer an attractively priced alternative.

The European Union last week imposed an oil embargo against Iran and froze the assets of its central bank. In December, the U.S. said it would bar financial institutions from the U.S. market if they do business with Iran's central bank.

India and China are ravenous energy consumers and rely heavily on imported oil. Iranian oil accounts for 9 percent of India's oil consumption and 6 percent of China's, according to the latest data from the IEA.

Iran exports 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, about 3 percent of world supplies. About 500,000 barrels go to Europe and most of the rest goes to China, India, Japan and South Korea.

China has called for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. South Korea has been non-committal about the sanctions, and Japan is seeking an exemption, saying its Iranian oil imports have steadily declined and probably will continue to do so.

Kyodo News agency reported that senior Japanese and U.S. officials on Thursday will hold their second meeting on the sanctions this month.

"I believe it may not be easy to come to a conclusion on this matter in the upcoming discussions," Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said.

Western sanctions could make it harder for India to pay for the oil it gets from Iran. Past sanctions have already delayed payments by Indian oil importers, who have had to scramble to find banks willing to handle transactions with Iran.

India's central bank governor D. Subbarao said last week that the current payment mechanism was "working fine," though India was also "exploring other options," which he declined to discuss.

Indian companies now reportedly route payments through Turkey's Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, after EU pressure forced German-based Europaisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG to stop handling the payments last year.

IHS Jane's energy analyst said Turkey is unlikely to shut down that route immediately, noting that Turkish oil refiner Tupras also uses this payment mechanism.

"But this route remains susceptible to external pressure," she added by email. "India is now discussing rupee based payments and direct trade -- however that has a number of drawbacks for Iran given the trade imbalance and restrictions on use. China isn't publicly discussing options but I imagine other currency payments are also on the cards there."

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Tribal sources: Possible US air raids on Al Qaeda bases in Yemen kill up to 12

ZINJIBAR, Yemen – Air raids struck an Al Qaeda meeting and control post in southern Yemen, killing up to 12 people including a long-hunted regional militant leader, tribal officials said Tuesday.

The four raids overnight appeared to have been carried out by US planes, one tribal official said.

Al Qaeda extremists have taken advantage of months of political turmoil in Yemen to overrun swathes of the country's south.

The air strikes took place in the Loder and Al-Wadih areas of Abyan province, southeast of the capital Sanaa, one official said.

"We think they were carried out by American planes," another tribal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Three of the raids targeted a school in which Al Qaeda fighters and chiefs of a local militant network were meeting around midnight, the sources said.

Among the people killed was regional Al Qaeda leader Abdul Monem al Fahtani, who has long been sought by the Yemeni authorities, and other local chiefs.

The fourth strike hit an Al Qaeda control post, killing three more people.

"Two planes carried out these raids and continued to fly over the region through the night," a tribal chief said.

The New York Times reported several months ago that the United States had stepped up its raids against suspected militants in Yemen with the aid of drones and other aircraft.

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Armed US drone strike kills 4 suspected Al Qaeda militants in Yemen

SANAA, Yemen – U.S. airstrikes targeting leaders from Yemen's active Al Qaeda branch killed four suspected militants, including a man suspected of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, officials said Tuesday.

The missile strike was carried out by an armed drone, Pentagon sources tell Fox News.

Yemeni security and military officials said missiles struck a school and a car late Monday in the southern Abyan province, which has seen large swaths fall under the influence of Al Qaeda as the militants seek to exploit the security vacuum since an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh began last year.

Tribal officials in the area said the strike hit the militants late Monday as they were holding a meeting at the school. Yemeni security officials had originally put the death toll at 15 people but later lowered that figure. They also said 12 militants were wounded in the strikes.

They said one of the suspected militants killed was named Abdel-Monem al-Fathani, who was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 others.

The attack on the U.S. destroyer occurred while it was in the Yemeni port of Aden for refueling.

A Western official in Washington confirmed the U.S. carried out a strike against suspected leaders from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, saying initial indications were that five people were killed.

Yemeni security officials in Abyan province said a second car carrying important leaders to the meeting at the school, which was in an area between the towns of Lauder and Moudia.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Security across Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, has largely collapsed during the nearly year-old popular uprising against Saleh. The militants have taken advantage of the political instability to step up operations across weakly governed remote provinces while authorities focused their resources on putting down the protests that were inspired by other Arab Spring revolts.

Also Tuesday, armed tribesmen from the al-Mahweet province kidnapped six United Nations workers -- an Iraqi woman, a Palestinian woman, a Colombian man, a German man and two Yemeni men. The assailants demanded that the government release fellow tribesmen from prison.

Tribes in Yemen have historically used kidnapping as a way of getting concessions from the government and hostages are ordinarily well treated before being released.

Yemeni Interior Minister Ali al-Omrani, meanwhile, escaped an assassination attempt when his car came under fire Tuesday outside the cabinet building in the capital Sanaa, according to his spokesman Abdul-Basit al-Qaidi.

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Iraq's Sunni-backed lawmakers return to parliament


BAGHDAD – Iraq's parliament reconvened Tuesday after Sunni-backed lawmakers ended their boycott to protest alleged persecution of Sunni officials, a development that could restore some stability in the war-ravaged country.

Last month the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc banned lawmakers and government ministers from parliament and Cabinet sessions after the Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.

The boycott brought government work to a standstill and plunged the country into a political crisis just days after the U.S. completed its military withdrawal in mid-December. The sectarian political fight has been accompanied by a surge in violence, killing more than 200 people this month and raising fears of a civil war.

Iraqiya leaders lifted the parliament ban on Sunday, and most of the bloc's 76 lawmakers attended Tuesday's session. It was devoted to discussing the nation's nearly $100 billion budget, according to Nahida al-Dayini, an Iraqiya lawmaker.

"We hope that this will be a good start to solve the problems in Iraq," said Iraqiya lawmaker Zuhair al-Araji before the parliament session began.

The alliance's nine ministers in the government led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not attend the weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

Iraqiya leaders accuse al-Maliki of trying to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his grip on power.

Al-Maliki's security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunnis, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, denied the charges of running death squads and fled to the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad. He is refusing to return for trial in Baghdad.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said 16 of al-Hashemi's guards detained last month admitted during questioning that they had participated in assassination plots that targeted police officers and judges.

The testimony will be added to the al-Hashemi case, the ministry said in a statement posted on its website late Monday.

The twin crises have raised fears of a reprise of a conflict five years ago, when heavily armed Shiite and Sunni militias battled each other and brought the nation to the brink of civil war.

On Monday evening, three Iraqi soldiers were killed when a parked car bomb exploded near a military patrol in Baqouba, a former al-Qaida stronghold, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Three people, including a soldier, were wounded in the bombing, said Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi, a police spokesman in Diyala province.

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Former Royal Bank of Scotland boss stripped of knighthood


LONDON – One of Britain's most high-profile former bank bosses is being stripped of his knighthood for presiding over the near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sky News reported Tuesday.

Sir Fred Goodwin -- now plain old Fred Goodwin -- was bestowed with the honor in 2004 for services to the British banking industry.

But he went on to preside over the near-collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008 with the British government having to inject $71 billion of taxpayers' cash to keep it afloat.

His knighthood is being canceled and annulled, the broadcaster said.

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Police catch suspect in 75 killings in northern Mexico for Zetas drug cartel


MONTERREY, Mexico – Police in northern Mexico have captured an alleged member of the Zetas drug gang who confessed to killing at least 75 people, including many who were pulled off of buses, authorities said Monday.

Enrique Elizondo Flores told investigators 36 of his victims were bus passengers traveling through the town of Cerralvo, near the border with Texas, said Nuevo Leon state security spokesman Jorge Domene.

Elizondo was detained Jan. 20 in the town of Salinas Victoria, but authorities delayed announcing his arrest so they could verify details of his confession, said Nuevo Leon state Attorney General Adrian de la Garza.

Domene said the 35-year-old suspect told investigators he had been working in the area at least three years and that he was in charge of killing members of the rival Gulf drug cartel heading to the towns of Cerralvo and General Trevino. He and other gunmen last January began pulling passengers off of buses as they arrived at Cerralvo's bus station, Domene said.

They are among at least 92 bus passengers that the Zetas are accused of killing in three attacks in January and March 2011. Many the victims were originally from the central state of Guanajuato and had arrived in Cerralvo from the border city of Reynosa, Domene said.

Elizondo distinguished himself "for torturing, maiming and then killing his victims," Domene said.

Last year, authorities in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas unearthed 193 bodies from clandestine graves in the town of San Fernando. Security forces said they were led to the site by members of the Zetas who confessed to kidnapping and killing bus passengers traveling through the area.

The motive for the bus abductions remains unclear. Prosecutors have suggested the gang may be forcefully recruiting people to work for it or trying to kill rivals they suspected were aboard the buses.

Northeast Mexico has been engulfed by a turf battle between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas since they split in 2010.

More than 47,000 people have been killed nationwide since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown against drug traffickers in December 2006.

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