Malaysian police fire tear gas at more than 25,000 protesters, Bersih 3.0 rally

Riot police use force to disperse crowd of 25,000 protesters seeking electoral reform in capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar tells Al Jazeera the demonstrators should have been allowed to protest peacefully

Malaysian riot police have fired tear gas and used water cannon on a crowd of demonstrators demanding an overhaul in electoral policies in the centre of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

At least 25,000 demonstrators have swamped Malaysia’s largest city on Saturday in one of the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest street rallies in the past decade.

They massed near the city’s historic Merdeka (Independence) Square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.

Authorities say Bersih, or Coalition for Free and Fair Elections – the opposition-backed pressure group that organised the rally – has no right to use the square.

Some of the demonstrators apparently breached the barriers and police began firing tear gas at them.

Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Kuala Lumpur, said: “The protest organisers said that they would simply sit down at the barrier’s edge. But an hour after the main part of the protest, they broke through and this confrontation happened.”

The rally reflects concerns that Prime Minister Najib Razak‘s long-ruling coalition will have an unfair upper hand in elections that could be called as early as June.

Activists have alleged the Election Commission is biased and claimed that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent voters.

March to the barricades

“We will march to the barrier,” Ambiga Sreenivasan, Bersih’s chairwoman, said.

Our correspondent added: “As far as the protesters are concerned, the government haven’t met their demands. They want a series of improvements to the electoral system. They are calling for better electoral role. They also want the electoral commission, which runs elections this country, to be entirely reformed.

 Saturday’s demonstration was organised by an opposition-backed reform group, Bersih [AFP]

“The protest was not what both sides [government and protesters] were talking about. They were talking about peaceful protests. Ideally, the protesters wanted to protest inside Independence Square.”

Saturday’s gathering follows one crushed by police last July, when 1,600 people were arrested.

That rally for clean elections prompted a police crackdown with tear gas and water cannon.

A resulting backlash prompted Najib, Malaysia’s prime minister, to set up a parliamentary panel whose eventual report suggested a range of changes to the electoral system.

But Bersih and the opposition are demanding a complete overhaul of a voter roll considered fraudulent and reform of an Election Commission they say is biased in favour of the governing coalition.

Najib has launched a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to create what he called “the greatest democracy”.

His ruling coalition has governed Malaysia for more than five decades but made a dismal showing against the opposition in 2008, and Najib is under pressure to improve on that.


French head to polls in presidential election

First round voting begins in overseas territories as incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy appears set to face a stern test.

More than 44 million French voters are to go to the polls for the first round of a presidential election that represents a serious threat to incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy‘s tenure in the post.

While predictions of a high abstention rate and a strong protest vote have left the outcome uncertain, opinion polls point towards Francois Hollande, Sarkozy’s main Socialist challenger, replacing his conservative rival.

The two 57-year-old political leaders are on course to finish in the top two in Sunday’s polling, thus setting them up to square off in a second round vote on May 6.

The result of that vote will decide who is France’s president for the next five years.

Voting began on Saturday in France’s overseas territories, which are mainly islands dotted around the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

On Sunday, voting will continue in 85,000 polling stations across the country’s European mainland. Voting will begin at 8am local time (06:00 GMT) and continue until 8pm (18:00 GMT).

Voting estimates will then be immediately published, giving what has been a traditionally accurate assessment of how the polls will stand once results are finalised.

In all, 10 candidates are in the race, with Hollande and Sarkozy trailed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and veteran centrist Francois Bayrou. A handful of outsiders round out the field.

Once the first round is over, the top two candidates will face each other in the final poll, with the run-up to that including a televised debate.

Spotlight coverage of April 22 presidential election

Hollande says that Sarkozy has trapped France in a spiral of austerity and job losses, and has called for the European response to the debt crisis to be more pro-growth.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, says that his rival is weak-willed and would spark panic in financial markets by adopting an approach that involves increased government spending.

Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from Paris, said that Sarkozy faces a stiff challenge due to his “extraordinary” unpopularity.

“A lot of the people voting will be putting their ballot paper into the ballot box more against Sarkozy than perhaps for the candidate they eventually vote for,” he said.

Since Saturday, there has been no sign of any of the rhetoric that has characterised an increasingly heated contest, as French law prohibits campaigning and opinion polls on the eve of voting.

Voters went about their business without being accosted by pamphleteers, the campaigns’ websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were left without updates and broadcasters had to find other subjects to interview.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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India tests China Killer long-range ballistic nuke missile

The launch makes India part of an elite club with intercontinental nuclear defence capabilites [AFP]

India has test launched its first long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of reaching deep into Chinaand as far as Europe, with a scientist at the launch describing the mission as successful.”It has met all the mission objectives,” S P Dash, director of the test range, told the Reuters news agencyon Thursday. “It hit the target with very good accuracy.”It took the missile about 20 minutes to hit its target somewhere near Indonesia in the Indian Ocean.

The launch of the Agni V, which can carry nuclear warheads and has a range of 5,000km, thrusts the country into an elite club of nations with intercontinental nuclear capabilities.Only the UN Security Council permanent members – China, France, Russia, the USand Britain – along with Israel, have such long-range weapons.

“The successful launch of Agni V missile is a tribute to the sophistications and commitment to national causes on the part of India’s scientific technological community,” Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said.

Singh said he hoped Indian scientists and technologists would in the future contribute a “lot more to promoting self reliance in defence and other walks of national life”.

‘Confidence boost’

Al Jazeera‘s Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said the launch was “significant because Indian scientists have been working for years to get the programme off the ground”.

“It is the most strategic and ambitious programme this country has undertaken in recent years,” she said.

“What’s important is that this missile has been completely indigenously produced and designed. It’s cost the Indian government over $500m to do that.”

Harsh Pant, a defence expert at King’s College, London, described the launch as a “confidence boost”, adding that the mission “signalled India’s arrival on the global stage [and] that it deserves to be sitting at the high table”.

But Richard Bitzinger, a military specialist at Nanyang Technological University in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that India would need to carry out “several more tests” before it could declare Agni V missile operational.

“It’s not gonna happen overnight,” he said.

The launch came as India nears completion of a nuclear submarine that will increase its ability to launch a counter strike if it were attacked. Delhi insists its nuclear weapons programme is for deterrence only.

One of the fast emerging economies known as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – India is keen to play a larger role on the global stage and has been clamouring for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

It has in recent years emerged as the world’s top arms importer as it rushes to upgrade equipment for a large but outdated military.

China’s reaction

There was no immediate criticism from world powers over the launch, which was flagged well in advance, but China noted the launch with disapproval.

“The West chooses to overlook India’s disregard of nuclear and missile control treaties,” China’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial published before the launch, which was delayed by a day because of bad weather.

“India should not overestimate its strength,” said the paper, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party‘s main mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

State-owned China Central Television said the missile “does not pose a threat in reality”, enumerating some of its shortcomings, from a problem with guidance systems to its 50-ton-plus weight.

CCTV said the missile would have to be fired from fixed, not mobile positions, making it more vulnerable to attack.

Delhi has not signed the non-proliferation treaty for nuclear nations, but enjoys a de facto legitimacy for its arsenal, boosted by a landmark 2008 deal with the US.

On Wednesday, NATO said it did not consider India a threat while the US state department urged restraint and said India’s non-proliferation record was “solid”.

India lost a brief Himalayan border war with its larger neighbour, China, in 1962 and has since strived to improve its defences. In recent years, the government has fretted over China’s enhanced military presence near the border.

Experts said the launch could trigger a renewed push from within India’s defence establishment to build a fully fledged  ICBM programme capable of reaching the Americas.

“Policy-wise it becomes more complicated from now on, until Agni V, India really has been able to make a case about its strategic objectives, but as it moves into the ICBM frontier there’ll be more questions asked,” said Pant.

Source:Al Jazeera and agencies
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