United States, Israel work to repair damaged ties
WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel engaged in overtime talks Wednesday trying to win agreement on gestures Israel can take to restore confidence among Palestinians and the Obama administration and salvaging a diplomatic visit marred by the worst U.S.-Israeli breach in years.
U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the closed-door talks were aimed at getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential session, said the administration’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met late Wednesday afternoon with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who extended his stay by hours to work on a deal.
They hoped to come up with mutually acceptable ideas to improve an atmosphere poisoned by announcements of new Jewish housing projects on land claimed by Palestinians in east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu twice pushed back his departure from Washington after talks with President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to reach consensus on what Israel could do to repair damage caused by the housing announcements.
Another meeting with Obama was not expected and it appeared unlikely that the two sides would reach an agreement before Netanyahu flew back to Israel.
American officials said Netanyahu, who had been due to leave after seeing Obama on Tuesday and then postponed his departure until Wednesday morning and then again until late Wednesday night in order to see Mitchell, had stayed on to see if a compromise could be reached.
During Netanyahu’s frosty visit, “the U.S. made clear it is looking for steps to increase confidence and show commitment to the process,” said Mark Toner, the deputy State Department spokesman.
Texas man wins execution reprieve for DNA test
HUNTSVILLE, Texas — The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday stopped the execution of condemned prisoner Hank Skinner about an hour before he could have been taken to the Texas death chamber.
Skinner asked the court and the governor of Texas for the delay for DNA testing that he insisted could clear him in a triple slaying.
The brief order grants him the delay but does not ensure he will get such testing. Gov. Rick Perry had not decided on the delay.
Skinner, 47, faced lethal injection for the bludgeoning and strangling of his girlfriend, 40-year-old Twila Jean Busby, and the stabbings of her two adult sons. The slayings occurred at their home in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa on New Year’s Eve in 1993.
The court order came as relatives of Busby were climbing the steps of the Huntsville prison to prepare to witness his punishment.
In the order, the justices said they would put off the execution until they decide whether to review his case. If the court refuses the review, the reprieve is lifted, according to the order, and Skinner would become eligible for another execution date.
Skinner, in a small holding cell a few feet (meters) from the death chamber, was informed of the reprieve in a phone call from his lawyer.
“I had made up my mind I was going to die,” he said. “I’m eager to get the DNA testing so I can prove my innocence and get the hell out of here.
“I’m greatly relieved. I feel like I really won today.”
Chinese Muslim transferred to Switzerland from Gitmo
WASHINGTON — The United States has sent two Chinese Muslims to Switzerland, ending their eight years of detention at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Justice Department announced the transfer Wednesday. It did not identify the detainees, but the Obama administration previously has said the Swiss had agreed to resettle two brothers, Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut.
There are now 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including five Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs. They have been regarded as symbols of the unfairness of the U.S. detention policy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Switzerland’s decision to accept the brothers led the Supreme Court to scuttle a case on detainee rights.
China agrees to discuss sanctions against Iran
China agreed to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran for the first time during talks with key nations trying to get the Iranians to return to negotiations on the country’s nuclear program, Britain’s U.N. ambassador said Wednesday.
Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said senior diplomats from the six nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — held a conference call Wednesday on a proposal for a fourth round of sanctions, which the United States circulated in January.
China has not responded to the proposal. But Lyall Grant said that during Wednesday’s call, “my understanding is that they have agreed to engage substantively.”
He said the six political directors “have agreed that they will have a further discussion of possible measures early next week.”
China, which relies on Iran for much of its energy, traditionally opposes sanctions, but it went along with the first three sanctions resolutions.
It has been skeptical of the need for a fourth round of sanctions, which Western powers are seeking to pressure Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported recently that said Tehran may be making nuclear bombs.
According to well-informed U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions are taking place among capitals, the proposed new sanctions would target Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and toughen existing measures against its shipping, banking and insurance sectors.
When China’s new U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong was asked about the conference call and whether China is ready to engage in talks on possible new sanctions, he replied “very good question.” But he sidestepped a direct answer.
He reiterated China’s “firm commitment” to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, adding that this is “very important to maintain stability and peace in the Middle East.”