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 on: Today at 07:25 AM 
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Dozens Killed in Ukraine as Army Fights to Shatter Rebels

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 August 2014, 14:19

Fierce fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels left dozens of civilians dead on Wednesday as Ukrainian troops pushed on with a bloody offensive to break the insurgency in the east of the country.

Deadly battles to crush the ailing rebellion appeared to intensify ahead of a fresh round of diplomatic haggling that will see the presidents of Russia and Ukraine sit down next week for their first meeting in months.

Clashes in Donetsk region, one of the two separatist areas, have killed 34 civilians since Tuesday, regional authorities said, as troops reclaimed another town from the rebels.

In the city of Makiyivka, adjoining the main rebel bastion Donetsk, residents were woken up by shelling in the early hours of Wednesday.

"What bastards," said local 81-year-old Maria Semyonovna, who said she was planning to go out in the morning but was stopped by sounds of explosions.

"We are at home here and they are bombing us," she told Agence France Presse. "When is it going to stop? Where can one go?"

The clashes also killed nine servicemen overnight, said security spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

The renewed offensive comes as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gears up for talks with Russia's shitstain, malignant tumor Pig Putink next week over how to end the conflict, which has killed about 2,200 people over the past four months.

Poroshenko this week said the army was regrouping to continue its push on the separatist hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and to fragment the rebel-held territory to stop the flow of weapons from Russia.

"Both (Kiev and Moscow) are trying to improve their starting positions," said political analyst Oleksiy Golubutskyi. "If Ukraine manages to gain control over Lugansk or even Donetsk before these talks, then the issue of demilitarizing them disappears."

Ukraine's National Guard said it had wrested back control over on the town of Ilovaysk, a key railway hub some 45 kilometers (30 miles) east of Donetsk.

In besieged Donetsk, authorities said water supplies had been restored after fighting cut power to a filtering station over the weekend.

Kiev claims Moscow is ratcheting up arms flows to help the separatists as Ukrainian forces have pushed deeper into dwindling rebel territory.

Western powers also fear malignant tumor Pig Putin could be preparing to send in the 20,000 troops NATO says he has massed on the border as a last role of the dice.

A Ukrainian military spokesman could not confirm claims from a commander in the field Tuesday that a massive convoy of Russian armor entered the second-largest insurgent city of Lugansk.

Ukrainian forces have said they have pushed deep into Lugansk over the past few days in what could be a major breakthrough if confirmed.

The head of Kiev's military operations around the city told local television that tanks, Grad rocket launchers, artillery and armored vehicles were seen entering the city after crossing over from Russia.

"It had about 1,200 people, wearing Russian uniforms," commander Igor Voronchenko told channel.

Security officials in Kiev, however, said they had no information about the convoy in Lugansk, a city where residents have endured over two weeks without water and food and authorities have warned of possible infectious epidemics.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko at the weekend boasted his troops had received 1,200 fighters trained in Russia along with heavy equipment, but Moscow has flatly denied it has sent any support across the frontier.

The West has accused Moscow of helping out the rebels and NATO leadership on Monday said Russia was "resorting to a hybrid war," which included "secret commandos and smuggled missiles".

Nearly 300 Russian lorries with humanitarian aid have remained parked up for almost a week not far from the border with Ukraine's war-torn Lugansk region as haggling continues over letting them cross.

Kiev fears that the convoy may be attacked on rebel territory and further destabilize the situation giving Moscow a pretext for invasion.

The Russian foreign ministry said Wednesday that Moscow agreed with the Red Cross that the sides were ready for the convoy to "begin movement" and that a group of Red Cross officials had already departed "to move along its supposed route."

A Red Cross representative at the border crossing Galina Balzamova however told AFP that she has "no information on the advance team going to Ukraine."

 on: Today at 07:17 AM 
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In the USA...United Swat Teams of America

Ferguson racial violence reminiscent of apartheid, says UN human rights chief

Wednesday, 20 August 2014 -

Clashes between police and protesters in the US town of Ferguson are reminiscent of the racial violence spawned by apartheid in her native South Africa, the top UN human rights official said on Tuesday.

Navi Pillay, who is due to step down at the end of the month after six years in the UN hotseat, urged US authorities to investigate allegations of brutality and examine the "root causes" of racial discrimination in America.

US lawmakers on Tuesday called for calm and a change in police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by racially charged clashes and riots after a white officer killed an unarmed black teenager 10 days ago.

"I condemn the excessive use of force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected. The United States is a freedom-loving country and one thing they should cherish is people's right to protest," Pillay said in a wide-ranging interview in her office along Lake Geneva.

"Apart from that, let me say that coming from apartheid South Africa I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence," she said. "These scenes are familiar to me and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing."

Noting that African-Americans are often among the poorest and most vulnerable US citizens, and accounted for many of the inmates in the country's teeming prisons, she added: "Apartheid is also where law turns a blind eye to racism."

Scenes of heavily armed American police and now National Guard troops confronting demonstrators have become daily fixtures on television around the world, not least in countries branded abusers of human rights by the United States.

From Egypt urging "restraint" on US police to Iran calling Washington the "biggest violator of human rights" and Chinese state media suggesting it clean up its own act before "pointing fingers at others", Ferguson has been seized on by governments weary of criticism from the United States and the UN watchdog.

"There isn't a country in the world which has a perfect human rights record and doesn't have these kind of issues that emerge," Pillay said. "In other countries, this is what I urge, that it should be properly addressed, whether in Egypt, China or any other country, you have to have fair trials and afford proper defence and they should not be spurious charges."

"Justice and Accountability"

Pillay, an ethnic Tamil, was raised in Durban and worked for more than 30 years as a defence attorney including for anti-apartheid activists, exposing torture and helping to win rights on Robben Island, where prisoners included Nelson Mandela.

President Mandela appointed her in 1995 to be the first black woman judge on the South African High Court and then asked her to serve as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She was later elected judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"My life experience has influenced my approach to these matters. I saw these things from the perspective of those who suffer and how important justice and accountability was for us," she said.

Now 72, her international legacy includes landmark UN commissions of inquiry set up on war crimes in Syria, Sri Lanka and Gaza and on crimes against humanity in North Korea.

Pillay said the inquiries resulted in reports from "one good source of verified information", but bemoaned the fact that not everyone was willing to work with the UN-appointed teams.

"I think it is very unfortunate that these countries do not cooperate with UN-mandated investigations or fact-finding missions, I am referring here to places like Syria, Sri Lanka and Israel who have denied access," she said.

Pillay said last December that evidence collected by independent UN human rights investigators implicated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in war crimes, but later denied she had direct knowledge of their secret lists stored in her office.

"I think that in the name of justice, those parties who are most responsible should face trial. And in this case I expect that President Assad will one day face international justice."

"All the facts found by my office and the commission of inquiry point to responsibility at the highest level in terms of who gave the orders or who failed to prevent their own forces from carrying out these crimes," she added.

The rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has prompted some analysts to suggest that Western powers might re-engage with Assad to fight Islamist extremism at the price of dropping future criminal prosecutions against him and his inner circle.

Pillay said this would be a mistake. "It is always a concern of mine when justice is forsaken for political expediency or for peace negotiations."

Her office is finalising its latest figures for the death toll in the Syrian conflict that began in March 2011, the majority civilians, to be released later this week, she said.

"What are we saying to the families of these people? Huge crimes, atrocious crimes has been committed by both sides and there has to be accountability for this," she said, referring to both Syrian government forces and rebels.

Activists and civil society should be consulted on any rapprochement with Assad, she said, adding: "They are bound to ask what kind of peace will then be achieved."

The UN General Assembly has approved Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, as her successor making him the first Muslim and Arab to hold the post set up 20 years ago.


Egypt tells US ‘to exercise maximum restraint’ in dealing with Ferguson protests

By Reuters
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 11:16 EDT

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt on Tuesday urged U.S. authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri – echoing language Washington used to caution Egypt as it cracked down on Islamist protesters last year.

It is unusual for Egypt to criticize such a major donor, and it was not immediately clear why the government would have taken such a step.

Ties between Washington and Cairo were strained after Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters following the army’s ousting of freely elected President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013.

Western allies have voiced concern about the democratic credentials of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who toppled Mursi and went on to win elections. The United States has, however, continued to provide military and other support to Cairo.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s statement on the unrest in Ferguson read similarly to one issued by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration in July 2013, when the White House “urged security forces to exercise maximum restraint and caution” in dealing with demonstrations by Mursi supporters.

The ministry added it was “closely following the escalation of protests” in Ferguson, unleashed by the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman on Aug. 9.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last week Egyptian security forces systematically used excessive force against Islamist protesters after Mursi was ousted. Egypt said the report was “characterized by negativity and bias”.

(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alison Williams)


Police arrest dozens overnight in Ferguson as prosecutors prepare case for grand jury

By Reuters
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 6:49 EDT

Police in riot gear ordered demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, to disperse late on Tuesday, then charged into the crowd to make arrests as relative calm dissolved during an 11th night of protests over the fatal shooting of a black teenager.

Protests in the town of 21,000, a predominantly African-American suburb of St. Louis, have been punctuated by looting, vandalism, and clashes between demonstrators and police every night since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9.

Community leaders, politicians and city officials had redoubled their appeals for order on Tuesday, calling for citizens to stay off the streets after sunset, even though a mandatory curfew had been lifted.

In the hours after darkness fell, protesters were notably fewer in number and more subdued than on previous nights. Onlookers milled about as civic activists, members of the clergy and even Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster mingled with demonstrators.

But as the rally was winding down and most of the protesters were leaving the area, someone among the dozens still in the streets hurled a plastic water bottle at police.

Helmeted officers, some with heavy weapons and dogs, suddenly emerged in force. They ordered the remaining protesters to leave and chased down those who resisted as more bottles were thrown. Police later said they arrested 47 people and seized several loaded firearms, but no gunshots were fired.

The confrontation capped an otherwise mostly peaceful night of demonstrations, the most tranquil in Ferguson since last Thursday, when state Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson was placed temporarily in command of a local police force widely criticized for heavy-handed tactics.

The Brown case was due to take a new turn on Wednesday, when the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office was expected to begin presenting evidence to a grand jury investigating the shooting.

Gov. Jay Nixon promised a “vigorous prosecution” of the case and “justice for the family of Michael Brown” while making an appeal for public conciliation and calm on Tuesday.

The officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, has been placed on leave and went into hiding as Brown’s family and supporters called for his arrest.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was slated to visit Ferguson on Wednesday to be briefed on a separate civil rights investigation he ordered into the slaying.

Eyes of the world

The turmoil in Ferguson, while generating international headlines, has exposed simmering racial tensions in a mostly black town whose police force, political leadership and public education administration are dominated by whites.

It also has re-ignited a national debate over racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, even drawing sharp words on Tuesday from the United Nations’ top human rights envoy, Navi Pillay, a native South African.

“I condemn the excessive force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected,” she said in Geneva.

Police Captain Johnson and Governor Jay Nixon have insisted that the most of the trouble has been generated by thugs or outside agitators bent on goading police into action.

Accounts of Brown’s slaying differ sharply. According to police, Wilson reported that Brown reached into the policeman’s cruiser when Wilson approached him on the street, then grabbed for the officer’s gun.

A companion of Brown said the teenager was first shot after the officer tried to grab him through the car window and shot again after Brown staggered back with his hands in the air. An independent autopsy arranged by Brown’s family found he had been shot six times, including twice in the head.

Public rage generated by the killing recalled the angry but peaceful protests across the United States in July 2013 after George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, was acquitted in his slaying of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teenager, during a scuffle in Florida.

On Monday night and early Tuesday, at least 57 people were arrested in Ferguson, most accused of disobeying police orders to disperse. Clashes that night were marked by volleys of tear gas fired at demonstrators and rocks and bottles and gasoline bombs hurled at police. Johnson said officers also had come under “heavy gunfire” on Monday night but did not return it.

He spoke of a “different dynamic” on Tuesday night and early Wednesday, in which community leaders took to the streets to help maintain order and many protesters went home early.

There was no shooting from either side, no tear gas or smoke bombs fired by police, and no Molotov cocktails, he said.

He said a relatively small group of “violent instigators” who tried to hide among members of the media prompted police to start making arrests when water bottles and urine were thrown at officers at the end of the night.

As tensions mounted and it appeared violence might escalate, numerous community activists rushed between lines of police and the demonstrators, linking hands to form a human chain separating the opposing sides.

Emotions could run high again next Monday, when a funeral service for Brown is scheduled.

Wilson has yet to make a public statement, but investigators said he had been cooperative in interviews with detectives.


Cloud over Michael Brown inquiry as attorney general arrives in Ferguson
Chris Campbell in St Louis and Rory Carroll in Ferguson, Wednesday
20 August 2014 12.27 BST   

The investigation into the killing by a police officer of an unarmed Missouri teenager has been thrown into uncertainty with a tussle between the state governor and the local prosector, hours before a grand jury was due to begin hearing evidence and on the eve of a visit on Wednesday by the attorney general.

As Ferguson experienced a night of relative calm – at least compared to the violent clashes of recent nights – governor Jay Nixon and St Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch issued duelling statements over the investigation into the death of Michael Brown, shot dead by a Ferguson police officer on 9 August.

McCulloch, whose impartiality has been repeatedly called into question, threw down what amounted to a challenge to Nixon, saying that he would recuse himself from the inquiry into the death of Brown if the governor demanded he do.

Nixon responded by saying that he would not make such a demand. But in a late-night statement that stopped well short of a ringing endorsement, the governor reiterated that McCulloch could step down if he wished.

“There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse themselves from a pending investigation and a special prosecutor be appointed,” Nixon said. “Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”

The uncertainty hours before the arrival of Holder, and as the city experienced a relatively peaceful night despite anger over an earlier shooting by police in St Louis.

He praised religious and community leaders with calming tension and thanked volunteers who cleaned debris from previous nights’ disturbances. “That is the true spirit of Ferguson,” Johnson said.

For most of the night a crowd several-hundred strong marched without incident under the gaze of police, who stayed further back than previous nights.

By 11pm Antonio French, a local alderman, was upbeat. “We just want to get a few peaceful nights in a row to restore faith that people are getting back to normal,” he said.

French, who has joined the nightly marches, said police appeared to have caught agitator ringleaders the previous 24 hours. He himself had tackled one on Monday night. “I didn’t see him tonight,” smiled the alderman.

Some trouble broke out: plastic and glass bottles were thrown, including some with urine, according to police. Officers faced off against dozens of chanting youths and occasionally lunged into the crowd to seize individuals, spraying some with pepper gas.

They herded the rest of the crowd down Florissant avenue, which has been the protest epicentre. There was jostling, pushing and several more arrests until 1am when the crowd gradually dispersed. There were no gunshots, Molotov cocktails or tear-gas - a peaceful night by Ferguson standards.

Community leaders appeased some restive elements in the crowd by announcing a rally on Wednesday outside the courthouse in St Louis where a grand jury is expected to hear evidence about the shooting of Michael Brown.

The grand jury, which will decide whether charges should be laid against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown on 9 August, was due to begin hearing evidence at 9am local time on Wednesday. Holder is due to visit Ferguson to check up on a parallel civil rights investigation, being conducted by the FBI.

But the St Louis investigation has been clouded by the pressure on McCulloch, who has deep ties to law enforcement agencies. His impartiality was called into question when he criticised the decision by Nixon last week to remove the responsibility for policing the protests against the killing of Brown from the St Louis County police force.

“It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch said of the decision. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.”

McCulloch has also been challenged by the St Louis County executive, Charlie Dooley, and has been the target of a citizen’s petition demanding his removal, led by state senator Jamilah Nasheed.

Nasheed has cited McCulloch’s handling of an investigation into an undercover drug sting that left a drug suspect and his passenger dead at the hands of police. McCulloch has been criticized for misrepresenting secret grand jury testimony in his public statements about the 2001 case.

An investigation by the St Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered audio tapes of the grand jury proceedings, which showed several witnesses testified that the men did not move toward police before being gunned down. McCulloch had previously maintained such testimony never occurred.

McCulloch, whose career as the St Louis County prosecutor stretches back more than two decades, caused further controversy by calling the dead men “bums”.

The prosecutor’s family history has also been cited by opponents. McCulloch’s father, a police officer, was killed on duty by a black assailant – a fact his opponents have raised when accusing him of bias. Additionally McCulloch’s mother and brother had careers in law enforcement.


CNN host: Nat. Guard said ‘you never know’ what Ferguson ‘n*ggers’ are going to do

By David Edwards
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 9:04 EDT

CNN host Don Lemon, who has spent recent days reporting from Ferguson, recalled on Tuesday that a member of the National Guard had called protesters the n-word.

During a CNN town hall event about the racial divide in the U.S., an African-American member of the audience asked what safeguards could be put in place to prevent officers from overreacting when dealing with black men.

The Black Sphere’s Kevin Jackson noted that putting body cameras on officers changed the dynamic in police stops.

“If there’s a camera, he knows he’s got to check himself,” Jackson explained. “And if you know an officer has a camera, you also have to check yourself.”

Lemon pointed out that body cameras could also make a certain “type of person” think twice before going into law enforcement in the first place.

“I’m just going to be honest with you,” Lemon recalled. “Last night, one of my producers said that they — I won’t say if it’s a he or a she because I don’t want to give anyone a way — said that they came in contact with one of the members of the National Guard. And that they said, ‘You want to get out of here because you’re white. Because these n-words, you know, you never know what they’re going to do.’”

“True story. I kid you not,” the CNN host lamented. “2014, a member of the National Guard, and my producer doesn’t lie.”


Missouri lt. gov.: We need ‘Anglo-American’ justice in Ferguson, not racial protests

By David Edwards
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 15:03 EDT

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) on Tuesday called for Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to reinstate the curfew in Ferguson to allow the justice system — which he said was a product of “Anglo-American civilization” — to do its job.

Following Monday night’s clashes with police in the wake of the death of slain teen Michael Brown, Kindler told MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow that Nixon had been wrong to end the curfew in Ferguson.

“I don’t understand an argument for not reinstating it,” he insisted. “I don’t understand that. I’m not trying to be overtly political. I am saying, the people of Ferguson, the people of the state of Missouri are crying out for leadership.”

Before Farrow ended the interview, he asked the lieutenant governor if he agreed with Ferguson Mayor James Knowles that “the perspective of all residents” was that there was no “racial divide” in the city.

Kinder said there was “no question” that race was playing a role in what was happening in Ferguson.

“We do not do justice in America in the streets though,” he argued. “We have legal processes that are set in motion, that are designed after centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence tradition, they’re designed to protect the rights and liberties of everyone involved.”

“That includes the Brown family, for justice for them and for the community. It also includes the officer who has not yet been charged,” he added. “Our constitutional and our Bill of Rights protections have to be followed here, and we do not do justice in the streets.”

“That’s one of the great advances of Anglo-American civilization, is that that we do not have politicized trials. We let the justice system work it out.”


Missouri GOP chief: Voter registration booths in Ferguson are ‘disgusting’

By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 11:56 EDT

The head of the Missouri Republican Party said Tuesday that efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, were “disgusting” and unhelpful.

“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills told Breitbart News. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”

Wills was responding to reports that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other civil rights activists had set up voter registration booths following the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black teenager who was killed by a Ferguson police officer.

“Five thousand new voters will transform the city from top to bottom,” Jackson said, according to the Daily Caller.

Former Ferguson resident Tommie Dale told the Boston Globe that going to the polls was “the only way we can make a change.”

Dale lived in Ferguson for 15 years, but left due to crime and police misconduct. She is now back in the city, and encouraging people to register to vote.

“People don’t understand. Looting and rioting aren’t going to get it,” she remarked.

But Wills accused civil rights activists of wrongly making the issue about race.

“This is not just a tragedy for the African American community this is a tragedy for the Missouri community as well as the community of what we call America,” he said. “Injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn’t help a continued conversation of justice and peace.”


Indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry to turn himself in to authorities

By Reuters
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 15:10 EDT

AUSTIN Texas (Reuters) – Texas Governor Rick Perry plans to turn himself in to authorities for fingerprinting and a mug shot on Tuesday after he was indicted by a jury in the state last week on two felony charges of abusing power, local news reports said.

Neither the offices for Perry or his attorneys were immediately available for comment. Perry is due to be arraigned on Friday.

The indictment has cast a shadow over Perry’s possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination, with experts predicting that legal wrangling in the case is likely to stretch into the 2016 election cycle.

Perry was indicted on Friday by a grand jury in Travis County, a Democratic stronghold in the heavily Republican state, over his veto of funding for a state ethics watchdog that has investigated prominent Texas Republicans.

He has called the indictment politically motivated and pledged to fight the charges.

Perry became the target of an ethics probe last year after he vetoed $7.5 million in funding for the state public integrity unit run from the Travis County district attorney’s office.

The veto was widely viewed as intended to force the resignation of county District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, after she had pleaded guilty to drunken driving but remained in office.

Democrats have said Perry may have been looking to put an ally in charge of the unit, extending what they say is cronyism in his administration.

The more serious of the two felony charges carries a prison sentence of five to 99 years.


New Study Reveals That Republican Policies Have Pushed Millions Of Americans Into Hunger

By: Rmuse
Tuesday, August, 19th, 2014, 12:01 pm      

A travesty is 
a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something, and although not synonymous with a tragedy that means an unfortunate or disastrous occurrence, both words are apropos to the economic situation millions of Americans find themselves in. The travesty is that as the richest nation in the world, most of the nation’s wealth is held by a tiny percentage of wealthy elitists, and tragically, an inordinate percentage of the population is hungry for lack of income. Republicans claim people struggling in poverty are lazy and lack family values, or that cutting wages, eliminating overtime pay, and eliminating social programs coupled with more tax cuts for the rich and corporations will lift the poor out of poverty.

It has been over five years since Republicans crashed the economy and put millions upon millions of Americans out of work and into poverty, and throughout the recovery Republicans drastically cut domestic programs, purposely kept wages stagnant, and maintained tax cuts and special privileges for the people they serve; the rich and corporations. According to their economic ideology, then, with the stock market at record highs, corporate profits through the roof, and unemployment continuing to fall, there should be very few Americans suffering from food insecurity and outright hunger. However, according to a shocking study released by the relief charity Feeding America on Monday, the number of Americans struggling to feed their families is the same as during the height of the Great Recession.

Feeding America’s study, Hunger in America 2014, was a four year endeavor and the “most comprehensive study of hunger in the U.S. ever conducted.” The study focused on families served by Feeding America and did not include poor people who use food programs apart from its network. The study covered 60,000 people with a median income of $9,175 annually, which is less than half the federal poverty level for a family of three according to Census Bureau data for 2013. The charity serves over 15.5 million households of which about half receive minimal amounts of food stamps that last on average less than two weeks. Republicans just cut food stamps by about $800 million a year that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said reduced benefits for 850,000 poor households nationwide. Republicans complained the food stamp cuts were not harsh enough because their predilection is keeping the poor hungry to make room for tax cuts for the rich, purportedly to lift more Americans out of poverty.

When the Great Recession struck, the percentage of Americans suffering food insecurity (hunger) spiked to 14.6% from 11% as the recession started shedding jobs, and although the economy is recovering, the number has stayed the same regardless more Americans are back to work. In fact, in a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, wages fell during the recession and the recovery for workers struggling in the bottom 70% of the wage distribution, despite increases in productivity.

According to the general consensus, when unemployment falls food insecurity typically falls with it, but according to the USDA, rising food costs and general inflation coupled with stagnant poverty wages are offsetting any benefits of lower unemployment. The USDA also reported that in 2013 at least 49 million Americans lack consistent access to sufficient food, and suggest that millions more Americans experience hunger who do not use food assistance services.

Some of the statistics the study revealed are that Feeding America provides supplemental food for 46.5 million people, over 12 million households eat unhealthy food because they cannot afford better-quality groceries, 66% of households are forced to choose between buying food and paying for medicine, and that 69% of families are forced to pay for utilities or pay for food; but not both. Now, before Republicans claim people going hungry are lazy moochers, lack religion, or the will to work, the majority of recipients work, are senior citizens, or children. They are also predominately white 43%. African Americans make up 26% and Latinos 20%; 10% of food recipient adults are students.

Now, if the recession were still in full swing, it would make sense that the number of Americans going hungry is staying the same, but that is not the case. Although the recovery is not nearly as robust as it could be, unemployment is falling and yet while working Americans can hardly feed their families, the stock market, corporations, and the wealthy elite have taken the lion’s share of the recovery due in great part to Republicans protecting their donors’ ability to spirit away their obscene profits. Add to that, Republicans spending no small amount of time obstructing a minimum wage increase, passing legislation to kill overtime pay, blocked unemployment benefit extensions, and doing the Koch brothers’ bidding by cutting pensions; all in an effort to keep millions of Americans struggling to choose to provide food or shelter for their families.

Feeding America spokesman, Ross Fraser, said “This report clearly makes a case for the importance of federal nutrition programs. They are the first line of defense for someone who lives at risk of hunger.” It is a line of defense Republicans cannot cut enough as they obstruct President Obama and Democrats attempt to alleviate the hunger crisis because their primary focus has been phony scandals, investigations, lawsuits, and lengthy vacations at taxpayers’ expense.

It is a travesty, a farce, that America is the richest nation on Earth, because in the richest nation on Earth nearly 50 million citizens would not be hungry. It is true there is bountiful wealth in America, but it is concentrated in the top 1% of income earners and Republicans are Hell-bent and duty-bound to keep it that way. Reports like Feeding America’s, or the U.N.s putting America’s children living in dire poverty in the second spot among developed nations, will never faze Republicans to abandon their devotion to increasing corporate or the wealthy elites riches and help hungry Americans.

Republicans cannot claim there is a lack of resources to help feed 50 million hungry citizens because they consistently block efforts to stop handing billions of dollars to corporations, the oil industry, or religious organizations through subsidies and tax breaks. What is stunning is that the people suffering from poor wages, lack of food, inadequate housing, and healthcare are predominately in Republican-controlled states who consistently send Republicans to Congress and statehouses to keep them poor, unhealthy, and hungry That is not a travesty or a tragedy; it is stupidity borne of racism toward President Obama.

Most Americans are shocked and angered when human beings deliberately abuse animals by withholding food, and yet the idea that 50 million of their fellow citizens, including working Americans, Veterans, senior citizens, the disabled, and children going hungry is acceptable. Why? Because Republicans have convinced them that only lazy people, minorities, and godless people lacking family values are going hungry and it obviously warms their hearts to see their children, parents, and neighbors going hungry. Why else would they continue voting for Republicans who openly campaign on keeping wages at poverty level, cutting food assistance, and cutting pensions to enrich corporations and the rich just to keep tens-of-millions of Americans struggling to eat.

The real tragedy of America, and there are far too many, is that a large segment of the population are just as heartless, cold-blooded, and celebrate human beings going hungry as Republicans just so the rich can get richer.


New wave of ultra-conservatives could spell more trouble for House Speaker Boehner

By Reuters
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 6:40 EDT

Glenn Grothman is a fiery conservative who wants to slash welfare programs and crack down on illegal immigrants who he says will “destroy” America.

And if U.S. House Speaker John Boehner wants to keep his job next year, he had better be sure Grothman and his fellow House of Representatives newcomers are happy.

Grothman, the expected winner in a tight Republican primary for the right to succeed 73-year-old Rep. Thomas Petri in Wisconsin, is one of more than a dozen vocal conservatives gunning to replace more moderate or pragmatic retiring House Republicans in November’s midterm elections.

Their arrival could mean even more headaches for Boehner, who has struggled in recent years to keep his fractious caucus together on critical battles over tax and spending bills, and most recently on legislation to secure border funding.

A further shift to the right in the House, continuing a trend that began with the Tea Party’s surge in 2010, could signal another round of high-stakes political showdowns early in the new year and ultimately threaten Boehner’s leadership.

One of the first votes the new House conservatives will face in March will be on raising the federal debt limit — a topic that already has produced two grinding partisan battles that rattled financial markets and threatened U.S. credit ratings.

With Republicans now holding 234 House seats, it takes only 17 Republican “no” votes to sink legislation without Democratic support, giving the growing conservative bloc immense clout in legislative negotiations.

“It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for the next speaker to get to 218 without Democratic votes,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University, referring to the majority needed to pass legislation in the House.

But turning to Democrats more often to pass critical budget, transportation or immigration bills next year is a path toward potential mutiny by conservatives, Thurber said.

“There’s just nobody in the middle anymore and nobody that’s willing to cross parties to vote because of this polarization,” Thurber said.

Boehner could face a challenge to his speaker position when House members choose their leadership after the November elections. Boehner said this summer that he was “all in” to seek another term as speaker, apparently quashing speculation that he has grown weary of the job.

It’s been a rocky four years since Boehner took up his gavel in 2011. To remain speaker, Boehner has had to give in to caucus demands and find ways to pass more conservative legislation, even if it had little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.

After passing a tax increase on the wealthy and $50.7 billion in aid for Superstorm Sandy largely with Democratic votes last year, he won back support by agreeing to the Tea Party’s effort to withhold funding from Obama’s healthcare law.

The move led to a 16-day federal government shutdown — but Boehner won points for listening to the conservative sentiment of his caucus.

Shaking up Washington

“I’m more conservative than John Boehner,” Grothman told Reuters while greeting voters at a pancake house in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a wealthy Milwaukee suburb.

Grothman’s narrow primary victory, which is expected to be confirmed this week, puts him on a path to take over for Petri in the heavily Republican eastern Wisconsin district he has represented since 1979.

Some district conservatives expressed frustration with Petri’s willingness to compromise with Democrats. He chairs a House subcommittee on highway construction, normally one of the few areas of bipartisan cooperation in Congress, and recently advocated higher fuel taxes to replenish the Highway Trust Fund — a move that most Republicans have ruled out.

“We’ve got to take the country back,” said Gene Weyer, a retired corporate executive from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “The country is going wrong in so many different ways. We need people like Glenn to get us back between the bumpers of the bowling alley, and stay out of the gutters.”

The election of the conservative Grothman would mirror recent trends in Congress, where the middle ground has been shrinking for decades. Voting patterns analyzed by academics and posted on show the number of moderates in the House — those who have crossed party lines in their voting – has shrunk from nearly half of House members in the 1970s to less than 10 percent in 2013.

That shift has been aided by the drawing of legislative boundaries that make Republican districts more “safe” by concentrating conservative voters and shifting more liberal areas to neighboring Democratic districts.

And it has accelerated in recent years with the rise of the conservative Tea Party, which has made opposition to President Barack Obama and support for its agenda of smaller government, reduced federal spending and lower taxes a litmus test for Republican lawmakers.

While the Republican establishment has turned back several Tea Party challengers in Senate primaries this year, the movement has had more success in House contests. Its highest-profile victory was by political newcomer Dave Brat, an economics professor who toppled Boehner’s No. 2, Eric Cantor, in Virginia.

Other Tea Party candidates who appear headed to Washington include Baptist preacher Mark Walker, who won a Republican primary in North Carolina to replace retiring Howard Coble, and Gary Palmer, a conservative think-tank activist backed by the influential anti-tax group Club for Growth. He is likely to replace Spencer Bachus of Alabama.

All were influential supporters of Boehner. But the Tea Party candidates headed to Washington in their place often put a higher priority on spending cuts and debt reduction than on party loyalty.

Fighting Obama

“Republican voters want to vote for conservative candidates who want to stand up to Republican leadership. And that’s me,” said Grothman, a Wisconsin state senator who introduced a bill that would officially list single parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and once derided Kwanzaa as a “supposed” holiday that African-Americans don’t care about.

The seasoned lawmaker with 20 years in Madison has been instrumental in implementing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s conservative agenda, including the roll-back of collective bargaining for public workers, along with state tax cuts for manufacturers and farmers.

In Washington, he said his focus would be cutting and reforming welfare programs that he says are helping to break down the traditional family structure by creating financial penalties for marriage. He added that welfare programs are also attracting illegal immigrants, who should be immediately sent back to their home countries — including the thousands of detained Central American children.

“Immigration is a huge problem,” he said. “It’s going to destroy the country,” he said. “We are attracting people here to use the benefits, which will both break the country and change its culture.”

 on: Today at 06:50 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Ecuador President: Britain Could End Assange Row 'Tomorrow'

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 August 2014, 07:15

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said Tuesday that Britain had the power to resolve the Julian Assange standoff "tomorrow," after the WikiLeaks founder voiced hope he would soon leave Ecuador's embassy in London.

"This could be resolved tomorrow if the United Kingdom gave him the safe-conduct," said Correa, referring to the pass Assange would need to leave the embassy without being arrested to face extradition.

Assange sought asylum at the embassy in June 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he faces allegations of rape and sexual molestation which he strongly denies.

Correa said Sweden could also help resolve Assange's fate by agreeing to take his testimony at the embassy or by videoconference.

"His statement can be taken under Swedish law, by Swedish prosecutors, in the Ecuadoran embassy, including by video. If they do that, this is cleared up tomorrow," the leftist president told journalists in Guatemala City, where he is on a two-day visit.

"Mr. Assange was granted asylum because there was no guarantee of due process, and because certain sectors in the United States were even calling for the death penalty," Correa said.

Assange told a press conference Monday that he would leave the Ecuadoran embassy "soon," after British media reported he was suffering from a potentially life-threatening heart condition, a chronic lung problem and high blood pressure.

But his lawyer later said Assange would not leave until there were guarantees in place that he would not be extradited to the United States.

Assange, 43, says going to Sweden to face the charges against him would put him at risk of being transferred to the United States to face trial for his anti-secrecy website's publication of classified US military and diplomatic documents.

 on: Today at 06:47 AM 
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Passenger pigeon extinction: it's complicated

A newly published study reveals that the extinction of the passenger pigeon likely was due to the combined effects of their natural dramatic population fluctuations and human over-exploitation.

Monday 08/20/2014     

Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, juvenile (left), male (center), female (right). Offset reproduction of watercolor by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927).

    The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

    ~ William Beebe (1877-1962)

Once the most abundant bird in the world with a population size estimated to be somewhere between 3 and 5 billion in the early and mid-1800s; the sudden extinction of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, in 1914, raises the question of how such an abundant bird could have become extinct in less than 50 years. A newly published study combines high throughput DNA technologies, ecological niche modeling and reconstructions of annual production of acorns upon which the birds fed to show that the passenger pigeon was not always super-abundant. Instead, it was an "outbreak" species that experienced dramatic population fluctuations in response to variations in annual acorn production. Thus, the extinction of the passenger pigeon likely was due to the combined effects of natural population fluctuations and human over-exploitation.

It was one of those career-altering dinner table discussions that seemed to carry on long into the night.

"We were talking about how evil humans can be to wildlife", writes Hung Chih-Ming in email. As he recalled, most of his co-authors -- Shou-Hsien Li, Bob Zink and others -- were at that table when one of them mentioned the tragic story of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. These legendary North American birds' flocks were so numerous that they blocked the sun from view for days when they flew over in the early and mid-1800s; yet less than 50 years later, they were gone.

"The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in the world, and suddenly it disappeared totally from the Earth."


But how could this be possible? Why did these birds disappear? Was this event due solely the murderous efficiency of gun-toting humans, or were there underlying factors that contributed to the demise of this species?

These are more interesting questions than they may appear to be at first glance. On one hand, it's obvious that rare species with small geographic distributions are more likely to go extinct than are abundant, widespread species. But on the other hand, passenger pigeons had clearly defied all logic. Perhaps there was something special happening to the super-abundant and widespread birds that made them especially vulnerable to extinction? Would it be possible for the researchers identify what that could have been?

The questions fluttered through the gathering gloom like moths around a bright light. Before long, idle curiosity coalesced into a firm resolve, and the researchers, some still students, others seasoned investigators, realised they'd established a team with one objective: to shed light on this mystery.

"[W]e realized 2014 would be the 100th anniversary of its extinction, so we started to plan this project."

This project was initiated when Hung Chih-Ming was writing up his doctoral research under the supervision of Robert Zink, a professor of avian evolution at the University of Minnesota. Dr Hung is now a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Shou-Hsien Li, a professor of Life Sciences at the National Taiwan Normal University.

The team concentrated on a few basic questions that they'd agreed would clarify some important details about the passenger pigeon's murky life history, details that could help explain how humans could drive them to extinction.

Was the passenger pigeon always super-abundant?

To gain a clearer understanding of the ecology and evolution of the passenger pigeon, Dr Hung and his colleagues extracted DNA from nine tissue samples scraped from the toepads of specimens held in two museums, the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Because this DNA was quite old (known as ancient DNA or "aDNA"), the extraction process was challenging and required the researchers to develop some special techniques (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056301). Even still, only three specimens provided useful aDNA.

The researchers sequenced the aDNA using high-throughput technologies and managed to piece together high-quality genomic sequences for the passenger pigeon -- the longest genome sequence with the highest quality ever obtained for an extinct bird.

Co-author Pen-Jen Shaner, an assistant professor in the the department of Life Sciences at the National Taiwan Normal University, and her colleagues, Wei-Chung Liu and Te-Chin Chu, used two different mathematical approaches to estimate the passenger pigeon's genetically effective population size (Ne). The genetically effective population size is an estimate of the total genetic variation found within a given population (doi:10.1017/S0016672300034455). Increased genetic variation is associated with a greater capacity to survive challenging circumstances. Genetic variation arises through mutation and recombination, whilst natural selection removes variation from a population.

Since the passenger pigeon's census numbers were between 3 and 5 billion individuals in the mid-1800s, the researchers were surprised when they discovered that the passenger pigeon's genetically effective population size (Ne) was remarkably small. The genetically effective population size Ne was just 3.3 × 105 (95% credible interval = 3.25–3.32 × 105), which is approximately 1/10,000 of the estimated number of individuals from the mid-1800s.

This small genetically effective population size suggests that passenger pigeons were not always super-abundant. Instead, their population changed by a thousand-fold over time, a situation seen under two circumstances. First, a low genetically effective population size is characteristic for species that experience wide population fluctuations that only occasionally number into the billions during an "outbreak" phase (doi:10.1017/S0016672300034455). For example, most people are familiar with several outbreak species, particularly lemmings, Lemmus lemmus, and snowshoe hares, Lepus americanus, in the Arctic, and Australian plague locusts, Chortoicetes terminifera.

But an alternative explanation for a low Ne is seen for species that historically had small numbers and only recently experienced a population explosion -- a situation occurring in humans today.

To distinguish between the outbreak species and the population explosion hypotheses, the researchers tested the data using several models; genome-coalescent analysis, ecological niche models (models of climate) and models of carrying capacity. Genome-coalescent analysis calculates the time elapsed since individual passenger pigeon lineages diverged.

This model indicated that passenger pigeons experienced repeated rises and falls in population size, consistent with the "outbreak" species hypothesis.

Why did passenger pigeon populations fluctuate so dramatically?

Although passenger pigeons would eat a variety of foods, especially when breeding, they primarily were seed predators that specialised on acorns. Annual productions of acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts -- "mast" -- varies tremendously on an annual basis and across different the tree species in North America. (For example, acorn production by red oaks, Quercus rubra, can vary as much as 12-fold between years, and for white oaks, Q. alba, as much as 136-fold.) Mast production is affected over large areas by inclement weather or by a changes in population sizes of the seed predators that consume mast.

To estimate historic acorn production, Professor Shaner and her colleagues developed an ecological climate niche model. It was based upon fossil pollen records for northern and eastern North America and it inferred the oak coverage per square kilometer from 21,000 years before present up to the present day (Figure 4a; larger view). After calculating the historic oak cover, Professor Shaner and her colleagues calculated the passenger pigeon carrying capacity over this time period based on the average acorn production of red oaks (solid black dot; Figure 4b; larger view), and white oaks (open white dot; Figure 4b; larger view), collected from multiple sites and years, and their estimation that each pigeon consumed 30 acorns daily (Figure 4b; larger view):

According to this estimate, the projected acorn production could have supported between 0.6 - 1.7 x 108 and 6.7 - 8.0 x 109 individual passenger pigeons from 6000 years ago up until the present time.
What lessons can passenger pigeons teach us?

Taken together, the data from this study show that the passenger pigeon experienced large, natural population fluctuations -- a surprise to the authors and to the reviewers of this paper according to Dr Hung, since outbreak species are either insects or rodents.

But other factors may have contributed significantly to the passenger pigeon's population fluctuations -- and ultimate demise. For example, the pigeons formed enormous roosting and breeding colonies that caused physical damage to trees (including mast trees) and to the surrounding areas. Of course, the large, highly social flocks and the close proximity of individual birds likely sped up transmission of infectious diseases, too. The birds' natural behaviours may also have made them vulnerable to extinction for other reasons. For example, their conspicuous roosting and breeding behaviors could have made them an obvious target to predators (especially humans), thereby preventing their recovery.

And speaking of humans, let us not forget that, in addition to uncontrolled hunting and ferocious habitat destruction, European immigrants may also have enhanced to this bird's last, final outbreak by unintentionally providing a supplemental food supply in the form of agricultural crops and by relieving hunting pressures from Native Americans.

Dr Hung, Professor Shaner and their colleagues were not looking to discount or disregard the pivotal role that people played in the extinction of this bird. Instead, they were seeking to understand how humans could have reduced this seemingly endless population from billions to none in such a short time period. Based on their research findings, Dr Hung, Professor Shaner and their colleagues propose that the passenger pigeon's population was already in a natural nosedive phase simultaneously with human over-exploitation in the late 1800s, and it was the combination of these two pressures led to its sudden extinction.

But passenger pigeons can teach us other lessons too. For example, they are a tragic example that large, widespread populations may not protect species from extinction -- especially after people have focused their sights on their habitat or upon the animals themselves. Further, these iconic birds should remind us that we cannot accurately assess vulnerability to extinction without understanding each species' special natural history.


Hung C.M., Shaner P.J.L., Zink R.M., Liu W.C., Chu T.C., Huang W.S. & Li S.H. (2014). Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1401526111 [$]

Hung Chih-Ming [emails; 11, 12 & 16 June 2014]

Also cited:

Hung C.M., Lin R.C., Chu J.H., Yeh C.F., Yao C.J. & Li S.H. (2013). The De Novo Assembly of Mitochondrial Genomes of the Extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) with Next Generation Sequencing, PLoS ONE, 8 (2) e56301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056301 [OA]

Groenen M.A.M., Archibald A.L., Uenishi H., Tuggle C.K., Takeuchi Y., Rothschild M.F., Rogel-Gaillard C., Park C., Milan D., Megens H.J. & et al. (2012). Analyses of pig genomes provide insight into porcine demography and evolution, Nature, 491 (7424) 393-398. doi:10.1038/nature11622 [OA]

Frankham R. (1995). Effective population size/adult population size ratios in wildlife: A Review, Genetical Research, 66 (02) 95-107. doi:10.1017/S0016672300034455 [$]

 on: Today at 06:38 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Pigeon fanciers in Egypt take their hobby to lofty heights

With lofts atop Cairo tenements pigeon keepers let a passion for birds take flight, investing hard-won cash and vying for prizes

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Guardian, Tuesday 19 August 2014 19.07 BST   
Wagdy Ishak keeps his children on his roof – all 380 of them. They prefer it that way, since these are not his offspring by blood. They are pigeons.

"Without the pigeons, I would have married years ago," muses Ishak, 28, who is known by all as Kouka. "The pigeons are my wife. The pigeons are my children."

Kouka's hobby is not unusual in Egypt. From his pigeon loft – a spindly wooden column that looks like a medieval siege tower – he can see a dozen similar structures that teeter above nearby tenements in east Cairo. There are thousands more across the country, many of which add 10 or 15 metres to the buildings they stand on, and house upwards of 100 pigeons each.

Kouka has rather more, and once had rather fewer. Other breeders inherit their flocks, but he started his as an eight-year-old when an uncle gave him two chicks to care for. He liked them for their loyalty, a characteristic that pigeon fanciers often cite, and began to buy more and more birds at pigeon markets across the capital.

"I had the feeling that pigeons can't betray you," Kouka says. He points at a pair of 15-year-old pigeons that fly back to his loft every time he tries to sell them. "They don't want to leave me. I sold them more than 10 times and they came back again and again."

When fears about bird flu led the government to order the culling of Egypt's pigeons, Kouka refused to let the police take his animals. "I went crazy and I said whoever comes up here I'll shoot with a gun. So eventually they just said, OK, you can keep them but take them from the tower and hide them somewhere else." Not one was killed.

Other animals in Kouka's neighbourhood are kept for their milk and meat – goats and sheep squashed into upstairs rooms, caked in mud. Stray dogs and cats get even less love. But Kouka's pigeons are treated with considerably more reverence. In their orderly loft, each has its own booth in what looks like a oversized blue chest of drawers. Kouka feeds, cleans and medicates them at regular times each day.

He also trains them meticulously. Each young pigeon is first taught to live apart from its parents. Then it learns the layout of the loft. Finally, it is allowed to fly with some of the older pigeons which soar across the rooftops in the early evening for two or three hours.

Kouka teaches them to follow his whistles and signals – and those of his king pigeon, which leads the pack. It's no idle pursuit: Kouka wants his birds to be fit and disciplined so they can compete against other flocks in a local competition known as a nash.

In one version of this competition, a pair of rival breeders release some of their birds from their opponent's loft. With their remaining pigeons, each breeder then tries to entrap members of their opponent's flock. The flock that returns home with the most pigeons wins the nash – and often some prize money.

But for Kouka, it is the kudos, not the cash, that spurs him to compete. "The most important thing about the competitions is not to profit financially but to prove yourself. I compete with people in their 50s and above. For them, I'm very small in the pigeon world."

The centre of that world can be found on a Friday at the weekly pigeon market in Cairo's City of the Dead. Cages of birds line a kilometre-long street that stretches deep into the capital's ancient cemeteries. Some of the pigeons are grey, some brown, others white. There are long necks and short necks, plumed tails and flat tails, drooping beaks and bulging ones.

The humans here are a mixed bag too. Some are just breeders, with no interest in competing. Some are like Kouka: nash competitors who want a flock that can catch rival birds. Others want their pigeons to race in regulated contests over hundreds of miles – and they tend to sniff at young upstarts like Kouka, whose informal nashes are seen as glorified theft.

"The races are organised, but the nashes are all about stealing," winces Sameh Kamel, a keen racer, and one of 300 members of the Cairo Association for Pigeon Races and Development, a new group for pigeon breeders.

There are other hierarchies on display, too. The cheaper pigeons are for sale at the start of the street, for as little as £3. The pricier ones are further along, and the most costly belong to 69-year-old Sayed al-Gazawa, who has bred pigeons for 55 years. The birds he bought in the 1960s cost the equivalent of 50 pence. Now Gazawa sells some animals for more than £300.

There is money to be made if you know how, something Gazawa, the market's elder statesman, thinks has attracted the wrong sort of people to the pigeon world. "The old people with the passion for pigeons have died," he says. "The new young breeders don't treat their pigeons properly."

His son, Hisham Abdel Aal, a vet, agrees. He says cases of Newcastle's disease, which attacks a bird's respiratory and nervous systems, are on the rise. "A lot of people these days don't get them vaccinated," says Abdel Aal, plunging a syringe into a friend's pigeon. "Or they don't clean them properly and they die from bugs and bacteria."

But not Kouka's pigeons, which he treats as family. He makes his money from the recycling trade, most of which he ploughs into his pigeons. They cost him £70 a fortnight, as much as Egypt's average monthly wage, and with food and fuel prices rising in the country, that figure is likely to creep further upwards.

But Kouka says he won't stop spending. "What can I do? I love pigeons," he says from his pigeon loft. "A pigeon doesn't know how to betray, doesn't know how to betray his friend."


Fancier pigeons – in pictures

Photographer Richard Bailey has created an unusual set of portraits of 50 pigeons in honour of Charles Darwin's regard for Columbia livia, Friday 31 January 2014 08.01 GMT   

Click to view:

 on: Today at 06:33 AM 
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World leaders 'failing to help' over Ebola outbreak in Africa

Médecins Sans Frontières chief claims response to catastrophe is 'almost zero', with nations most concerned with self protection

Lisa O'Carroll   
The Guardian, Tuesday 19 August 2014 20.36 BST   
The international community has made "almost zero" response to the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, with western leaders more interested in protecting their own countries than helping contain the crisis that has now claimed more than 1,200 lives, a senior international aid worker said on Tuesday.

Brice de la Vigne, the operations director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said politicians in industrialised countries urgently needed to take action, or risk the outbreak spreading much further. "Globally, the response of the international community is almost zero," he told the Guardian. "Leaders in the west are talking about their own safety and doing things like closing airlines – and not helping anyone else."

His comments came as the World Health Organisation announced that the death toll in the world's worst Ebola outbreak has now exceeded 1,200. The haemorrhagic disease, which kills up to 90% of those infected, is ravaging Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and also has a toehold in Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy.

De la Vigne, who has just returned from a tour of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, said the scale of the outbreak was comparable to a catastrophe such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which killed 300,000 people.

"The solution is not that complicated but we need to have political will to do so. Time is running against us. But you need very senior people with high profiles, the kind of people who can co-ordinate a response to a million people affected by an earthquake," he said.

His words were echoed by Dr Gabriel Fitzpatrick, who is working at the MSF field hospital in Kailahun, the epicentre of the crisis in Sierra Leone.

"If this Ebola outbreak happened in a western community, in London, you'd get a few cases and that would be it," he said. "The main objective here is not to dramatically increase the person's chance of survival, it's to contain the spread"

At least 810 cases of Ebola have been reported in Sierra Leone, and 348 people have died from the virus in the country, according to World Health Organisation figures. Since June Fitzpatrick has been working in the MSF field hospital, processing patients through three stages with a "suspect tent", a "probably tent" and a "confirmed tent". Once in the final tent, their chances of coming out alive are slim.

He described one family of nine wiped out after a grandmother contracted the disease on August 4. Death is swift – usually within four or five days.

Fear, rumours and conspiracy theories have conspired with poverty and high illiteracy to allow the disease to flourish in two countries whose infrastructure is already weak. "Both Sierra Leone and Liberia were at war 10 years ago and all the infrastructure was destroyed. It's the worst place on earth to have these epidemics," De la Vigne said.

Sierra Leone and Liberia have already declared a state of emergency, but health provision is reaching breaking point.

Sinead Walsh, who is working on the Sierra Leonean presidential Ebola task force, said the crisis was already causing deeper problems. She said more than 1 million people are in quarantine in Kailahun and neighbouring Kenema alone, businesses are closing, farmers are unable to trade and fears are rising about food shortages.

The disease is having a knock-on effect, with sick people afraid to go to hospital for fear of catching Ebola. Health workers fear deaths from malaria and in childbirth could now also escalate.

"We are gone beyond the stage of a health crisis. This is a humanitarian emergency now." said Walsh, Ireland's ambassador to the country and head of Irish Aid in Freetown. "We need to start working on the secondary crisis."

Fitzpatrick said the priority was to contain the disease, using local volunteers to find suspected cases and bring patients to hospitals where they can be isolated: "The second thing is to trace those who we know have been in contact and keep them under observation. We are not doing any contact tracing at the moment," he said. "It's not rocket science to do on a large scale across west Africa. But it needs an organisational structure and good leadership." David Heymann, professor of infections disease epidemiology at the London school of hygiene and tropical medicine, who headed the global response to SARS while working for WHO said that oubtreak took three months to contain.

He also said containing ebola was "not rocket science" identifying "contact tracing" and public communications as the key factors.

One of the differences with SARS is the outbreak happened in industrialised countries where systems for "infection control" were in place, he said.


Ebola Death Toll in West Africa Tops 1,200

AUG. 19, 2014

LONDON — As West African nations grappled with the worst-ever outbreak of the Ebola virus, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that the death toll had exceeded 1,200 and announced increased efforts to forestall severe food shortages in areas isolated by quarantines.

Alarm over the disease spread to Germany when a 30-year-old woman at a state employment office was found to have a high fever, a possible symptom of Ebola, and emergency medical personnel ordered her isolated for tests.

Within hours, a statement from the Charité hospital said physicians were inclined to believe that the woman had not been infected with the Ebola virus. While she had returned from Africa 8 days ago, health authorities said, she was more likely suffering from an infectious illness of the stomach or intestine. But a blood test was being carried out to check for Ebola.
A week ago, Europe’s first known death from Ebola was recorded in Madrid when a 75-year-old Spanish priest, the Rev. Miguel Pajares, died after being evacuated from Liberia where he had been treating Ebola patients.

The latest figures from the W.H.O. offered a familiar, grim picture of the spread of Ebola, which international health specialists say has been outpacing containment efforts since its identification in West Africa in March.

The only glimmer of relief, albeit faint, came when Reuters quoted Liberia’s information minister, Lewis Brown, as saying that three African doctors treated in his country with a scarce experimental drug, ZMapp, were showing “remarkable signs of improvement.” There is no licensed cure or vaccine for Ebola, which kills at least half of those infected.

The manufacturer of the experimental medication, Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego, has already said that its limited stock of the drug, enough to treat a half-dozen people, is exhausted. The drug, which consists of antibodies that neutralize the Ebola virus, appears to have helped two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia.

Mr. Brown was also quoted in news reports as saying that 17 people being tested for Ebola who were missing from a quarantine center in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, over the weekend had been located. Some reports said they had been transferred to a specialist Ebola treatment center at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, but other accounts said they had checked in there themselves.

The 17 patients fled a temporary holding center when it was ransacked by looters, who took bloodstained sheets and mattresses that may carry the Ebola virus. The whereabouts of those items was not immediately clear on Tuesday.

The disappearance of the patients raised fears that the disease might spread further in the densely packed and poverty-stricken warren of narrow, muddy alleyways in Monrovia known as West Point. Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids.

Mr. Brown, the information minister, told Reuters that health specialists planned to go door-to-door through the West Point neighborhood to explain the perils of the outbreak and the need to isolate people showing symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

He also said Liberia was contemplating ways to restrict the movement of people. “We realize that we can’t police our way out of this,” he said. “We would prefer community awareness, but we need security backup.”

At its headquarters in Geneva, the W.H.O. said the number of people who had died in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria had reached 1,229, with 84 new fatalities reported from Aug. 14 to 16, the latest available figures.

The total number of cases was reported as 2,240, an increase of 113 in the same period. Liberia recorded the most abrupt increase in deaths, accounting for 54 of the latest fatalities, compared with 17 in Sierra Leone and 14 in Guinea.

International health experts say the epidemic is probably much worse than the official figures suggest. Local health officials in some countries say they are expecting a sharp increase in the number of cases as they identify patients who have stayed in hiding instead of reporting to public health facilities.

The W.H.O. also said it was working with the United Nations’ World Food Program to reach one million people in need of food in the worst-hit areas.

“Food has been delivered to hospitalized patients and people under quarantine who are not able to leave their homes to purchase food,” a W.H.O. statement said. “Providing regular food supplies is a potent means of limiting unnecessary movement.”

The statement identified several severely affected areas in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as places where the emergency food effort was accelerating. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, said it had contained a smaller Ebola outbreak.


In Liberia, a Child Thought to Have Ebola

AUG. 20, 2014

People in Monrovia, Liberia, on Tuesday gathered around, clothed, and later left a 10-year-old boy thought to have Ebola. Health officials later transported the boy to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Monrovia. He was one of the patients pulled out of a holding center for those suspected of having Ebola when a mob overran it on Saturday.

 on: Today at 06:22 AM 
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Israel and Hamas blame each other as rockets and air strikes end Gaza truce

Israel says air strikes are in response to rocket attacks but Hamas claims raids are bid to sabotage Cairo negotiations

Harriet Sherwood in Gaza City and Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Guardian, Wednesday 20 August 2014   

Israeli negotiators withdrew from peace talks in Cairo aimed at forging a durable ceasefire in the six-week war in Gaza on Tuesday night as rocket fire and air strikes resumed hours before the latest truce was due to expire.

Israel accused Hamas of violating the latest of a series of temporary ceasefires after rockets were launched from Gaza, triggering a swift military and political response. More than 25 airstrikes hit Gaza in response to rocket fire, killing a woman and a two-year-old girl, and wounding at least 15 others in Gaza City. Two children were injured in Rafah, hospital officials said, and there were reports of hundreds of civilians fleeing their homes for UN shelters.

Israeli officials said 10 rockets were fired from Gaza, the first of which were launched about eight hours before the truce was due to end at midnight. Two were intercepted by Iron Dome, Israel's vaunted anti-missile defence system. Sirens sounded in the centre and south of the country, and bomb shelters within 50 miles of the Gaza border were reopened.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ordered his negotiating team to leave talks in Cairo. An Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said. "The Cairo talks were based on an agreed premise of a total cessation of hostilities. When Hamas breaks the ceasefire, they also break the premise for the Cairo talks. Accordingly, the Israeli team has been called back as a result of today's rocket fire." It was not clear whether the team would return.

Palestinian negotiators blamed the collapse of the Gaza ceasefire on Israel's failure to take Cairo-based negotiations seriously. Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of the Palestinian delegation, claimed that Israel had always intended to break the truce, and had used the firing of three rockets from Gaza on Tuesday afternoon as an excuse for an already-made decision to sabotage the talks. "There was a decision to undermine the negotiations," said al-Ahmad. "Israel were not serious about reaching an agreement."

Questioning the need for Israel to respond to the three rocket attacks, al-Ahmad said: "No one died, there were no casualties, no room was demolished – do you think that demands a response of more than 60 attacks?"

The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, denied knowledge of the rocket fire which Israel said had breached the truce. "We don't have any information about firing rockets from Gaza. The Israeli raids are intended to sabotage the negotiations in Cairo," he told reporters.

Palestinians say they made a significant concession to Israel by agreeing to postpone discussions concerning the construction of an airport in Gaza, and the release of certain Palestinian prisoners, until a later date. But al-Ahmad said Israel had not responded to their offer.

"For nine hours they didn't respond – even though the core of the deal we've been discussing for two weeks." The Palestinian delegation will leave Cairo on Wednesday morning, but say they are willing to return as soon as Israel agrees to rejoin peace talks.

"There is an important Palestinian concession," said Qais Abdel Karim, a negotiator from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "We accept for the first time a two-stage solution. There are the immediate measures – the opening of the crossings, and reconstruction measures. The airport and the seaport and the prisoners in the West Bank and also the so-called corpses will be dealt with in negotiations that will take place in a month."

Abdel Karim said a temporary extension of the ceasefire was still a possibility, but warned that a resumption of low-level armed conflict was also possible if the Israelis did not agree to their final concessions. "Tonight we're working on the possibility of a ceasefire. If there is a ceasefire there will be a resumption of the negotiations within the next few days. The Israelis have not informed the Egyptians formally that they have withdrawn from the process."

But he added: "We don't expect a fully-fledged war but maybe there will be a return to military action at a lower level but that depends completely on the Israelis."

Ezzat Rishq, a Hamas member of the negotiating team, claimed the Israeli delegation had flown home to present Palestinian demands to Israeli leaders. "The situation is still difficult and there is no agreement up until this moment between the two parties. The Israeli delegation has received the answer from the Palestinian delegation and is flying it over to the Israeli cabinet," he said.

"The probabilities are very weak and the situation is tough," he added, "and, practically, there are no more [talks] today."

Gaza had been relatively quiet for the previous eight days as two successive ceasefires allowed negotiations to go ahead. A third, 24-hour ceasefire was agreed in Cairo late on Monday night.

Amid fears in Gaza of further violence, it was unclear whether Tuesday's military action heralded a return to war or if the renewed exchanges would prove short-lived.

The Cairo talks have struggled to secure a durable, long-term deal to end the six-week conflict as both sides sought a formula that would allow them to declare positive results from the war.

According to leaks, an outline agreement proposed by Egytpian mediators included opening crossings between Israel and Gaza, importing construction materials under international supervision, and expanding the permitted fishing zone to 12 miles over a period of six months.

The Palestinian demands for an airport and seaport, and the release of prisoners, were to be deferred to further talks next month.

Israel wants Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza disarmed, as well as the return of the remains of two soldiers killed in fighting, which Hamas is believed to hold.

All Palestinian factions say the demilitarisation of Gaza is not up for negotiation. But Hamas publicly claims it is ready to share power in Gaza with the Palestinian Authority, which currently runs the West Bank.

More than 2,000 people – including 541 children – have been killed in fighting since 8 July, and about 10,000 have been injured, according to the Gaza health ministry. About 17,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, along with scores of mosques, schools and hospitals.

A poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute found 92% of Jewish Israelis believed the war was justified and 48% of those questioned thought appropriate amount of force had been used by the Israeli military. Only 6% thought too much had been used, while 45% said too little force was used.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers in fighting, including five killed by friendly fire. Three civilians – two Israelis and a Thai agricultural worker – were killed by rockets launched from Gaza.


Hamas leader's wife and child reported killed as Gaza war resumes

Israel targets Hamas-affiliated TV station as Hamas claims air strike was attempted assassination of Mohammed Deif

Harriet Sherwood in Gaza City and Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Wednesday 20 August 2014 10.18 BST   

The conflict in Gaza has flared up with renewed rocket fire and air strikes as talks in Cairo aimed at forging a durable ceasefire in the six-week war broke down.

A woman and a two-year-old boy – reported to be the wife and child of Mohammed Deif, Hamas’s military chief, whom Israel has wanted to eliminate for years – died in an air strike on a house in Gaza City on Tuesday evening. A third unidentified person was also killed and at least 15 people injured.

Hamas said the strike was an attempt to assassinate Deif and said Israel had opened a “gateway to hell”.

Israel accused Hamas of violating the latest of a series of temporary ceasefires after rockets were launched from Gaza on Tuesday hours before the end of the latest truce, triggering a swift military and political response.

Seven members of one family, including a woman and three children, were killed when a house in central Gaza was hit early on Wednesday. The offices of the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa TV were also hit in at least 60 air strikes following the breakdown of the ceasefire. Hundreds of civilians fled their homes for UN shelters.

Israeli officials said 70 rockets were fired from Gaza, the first of which were launched around eight hours before the truce was due to end at midnight. Hamas denied firing the first rockets but, following the deadly attack on the Gaza City house, it said it had fired at least 40 rockets, targeting Tel Aviv and Israel’s main international airport, Ben Gurion.

Iron Dome, Israel’s vaunted anti-missile defence system, was reactivated, sirens sounded in the centre and south of the country, and bomb shelters within 50 miles (80km) of the Gaza border were reopened.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ordered his negotiating team to leave talks in Cairo. “The Cairo talks were based on an agreed premise of a total cessation of hostilities,” said the Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “When Hamas breaks the ceasefire they also break the premise for the Cairo talks. Accordingly the Israeli team has been called back as a result of today’s rocket fire.” It was not clear whether the team would return.

Palestinian negotiators also left Cairo, blaming Israel for their failure. “Israel thwarted the contacts that could have brought peace,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed. The Palestinians had presented a final set of demands, but Israel was “trying to impose what they want. This is impossible for us as Palestinians to accept that … the process of procrastination and stalling continues.”

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement condemning the breakdown of the ceasefire, adding he was “gravely disappointed by the return to hostilities” and urging the sides not to allow matters to escalate.

Gaza had been relatively quiet for the previous eight days under two successive ceasefires that allowed negotiations to proceed. A third 24-hour-long ceasefire – due to expire at midnight on Tuesday – was agreed in Cairo late on Monday night. It was unclear whether the renewed military action heralded a return to full-scale war or if the latest exchanges would be contained.

The negotiations in Cairo have struggled to secure a long-term deal to end the six-week conflict as both sides have sought a formula that would allow them to declare positive results from the war.

According to leaks, an outline agreement proposed by Egyptian mediators included the opening of crossings between Israel and Gaza, the import of construction materials under international supervision and the expansion of the permitted fishing zone to 12 miles over a period of six months.

The Palestinian demands for an airport and seaport, and the release of prisoners, would be deferred to further talks in about a month under the plan.

Israel wants the disarmament of Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, as well as the return by Hamas of the remains of two soldiers killed in fighting.

All Palestinian factions say the demilitarisation of Gaza is not up for negotiation. But Hamas publicly claims it is ready to share power in Gaza with the Palestinian Authority, which currently runs the West Bank.

More than 2,000 people – including almost 550 children – have been killed in fighting since 8 July and at least 10,000 have been injured, according to the Gaza ministry of health. Around 17,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, along with scores of mosques, schools and hospitals.

A poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 92% of Jewish Israelis believed the war was justified. Forty-eight per cent of those questioned thought an appropriate amount of force had been used by the Israeli military; 45% said too little force had been deployed; and 6% thought too much had been used.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers in fighting, including five killed by friendly fire. Three civilians – two Israelis and a Thai agriculture worker – were killed by rockets launched from Gaza.


Gaza's ruined airport and unbuilt seaport fuel dreams of independence

Routes to connect Gaza with the world would transform the territory's economy – and are a sticking point in peace talks

Harriet Sherwood in Rafah
The Guardian,
Monday 18 August 2014 18.31 BST   

It was a powerful symbol of the Palestinian state that never was: Gaza international airport, opened in December 1998 with fanfare and red carpet by then US president Bill Clinton, and seen as a gateway to both the world and a better future.

Within a few years, as the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, took hold, Israel bombed first the control tower, then the runway, and finally the elegant Moroccan-designed terminal. Gaza's airport is now a ruin in the desert, with a few squawking chickens pecking in the sand. The only sign of air traffic is the constant hum of overhead drones and the occasional roar of F16 fighter planes.

But in recent days, the airport – along with a seaport, never built despite 20 years of planning – has become a crucial sticking point in fraught negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to agree terms on which to end this summer's brutal war. Hamas demands both ports as entry and exit points for people and goods; Israel's refusal is based on fears that traffic will include smuggled arms.

The airport – assigned the international code GZA, and later renamed Yassar Arafat International in honour of the Palestinian leader – opened at a cost of $86m of international funding. It was the base of Palestinian Airways, whose three planes flew daily to Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Morocco.

Fathi Sabbagh, a Gaza journalist for the Arab newspaper Al Hayat, was on the inaugural flight to Larnaca. "It was a small plane, a Fokker, and a bit shaky," he recalled. "It was like an old van with wings. And we were a bit worried about the pilot, whether he was properly qualified."

The 45-minute flight was uneventful, with three cabin crew serving refreshments in the brief moments between ascent and descent. "I was 39, and this was the first time I had flown on a Palestinian plane out of Gaza," said Sabbagh. "That moment felt like an honour. When Israel destroyed the airport, a dream vanished."

Since then, as Israel's blockade of Gaza tightened, local scavengers chipped away at what remained of the runway's tarmac and hardcore to recycle as construction materials. Just over two weeks ago, Israeli tanks tore over the ruins during a battle centred on the nearby town of Rafah.

The opening of Gaza's airport was permitted under the 1993 Oslo accords. But Israel did not relinquish control. Passengers had to be ferried to the nearby crossing between Gaza and Egypt, then under Israeli control, to have their passports stamped by Israeli officials. Nevertheless, said Sabbagh, the airport represented "a step towards having an independent Palestinian state".

The Oslo accords also permitted the construction of a seaport in Gaza. In the late 1990s, a $73m contract was signed with European partners. The second intifada put paid to that too, as Israeli tanks and bulldozers razed early work on the site, just south of Gaza City.

But Ziad Obaid, a civil engineer who has devoted the past 17 years of his career to the project, is once again hopeful that his dream of a bustling trade port could become a reality. "Gaza has been under tight siege for seven years – our only window is to the sea," said the director general of the seaports authority.

However, Israel maintains a sea blockade on Gaza too, with naval warships patrolling the horizon, forbidding any boats from travelling beyond a highly restricted fishing zone.

According to Obaid, who has a full-time staff of 20 working on the project, a seaport and docks would allow Palestinian traders to import and export goods and materials, thus boosting Gaza's devastated economy.

"It would create thousands of jobs, and save millions of dollars," he said. The cost to Gaza's businesses of importing via Israel was estimated at $200m annually in 2000. Since then, he said, the scale of import requirements had increased at least five-fold.

A sea crossing to Cyprus would take about six hours. Other destinations could include Port Said and Alexandria in Egypt. A seaport in Gaza could also serve the land-locked West Bank, and even Jordan, said Obaid.

"We have a design for safe passage [across Israeli territory], and we have accepted the need for external monitoring – technology can solve all the security concerns. But everything is stuck on the need for Israeli agreement."

There is little sign of that. The Egyptian brokers of the talks between Israel and the Palestinian factions to end the war in Gaza have suggested that the airport and seaport demands be deferred for a second round of negotiations in about a month, assuming that the current round produces a definitive and agreed end to the current conflict.

Israel says that any deal for a seaport and airport must be linked to the disarmament of Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.

Palestinian negotiators say a seaport and airport would transform Gaza's economy and give its people urgently needed routes to the outside world. "It's a dream not just for me, but for all Palestinians," said Obaid.

 on: Today at 06:15 AM 
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Thai Junta Chief Tipped to Become PM

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 August 2014, 09:59

Thailand's coup leader is expected to be picked as prime minister by the kingdom's new army-dominated national assembly, junta sources said Wednesday, cementing the military's hold on power in the politically turbulent nation.

Army Chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha is likely to be the sole candidate for the premiership when the 197-strong appointed assembly convenes on Thursday to select a new leader for the Southeast Asian country, the sources told AFP.

"It was difficult to find people to become prime minister other than General Prayut. If it's not him, who else should it be?" one junta official said on condition of anonymity.

"He staged a coup. He has to be responsible for solving all the problems by himself. By becoming prime minister, he will have full power," the official added.

Another member of the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said Prayut was set to be chosen because he is "suitable for the job".

"According to polls, he enjoys public popularity and people also admire the NCPO's work," said the source, who also asked not to be named.

Prayut seized power from an elected government in a bloodless coup on May 22, shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra was dismissed as prime minister in a controversial court ruling.

Thailand has been riven by political divisions since Yingluck's elder brother, the former billionaire telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled as prime minister in a coup in 2006.

Thailand's army rulers say they want to introduce political reforms before holding a general election late next year.

They say their power grab was necessary to end a months-long political crisis and related street violence that left nearly 30 people dead and paralyzed the former civilian government.

Critics see the move as an attempt to purge Thailand of Thaksin's political influence, which has already been undermined by a purge of his allies in government, state industries and the police.

The junta has vowed to remain in place in parallel to the future government, which will be nominated by the new prime minister.

Prayut, who is due to retire as army chief in September, is seen as a staunch opponent of Thaksin and a fervent royalist known for bluntly stating his opinions.

He gave a hint of his apparent political ambitions when he swapped his uniform for a suit and tie to appear in parliament on Monday to oversee the approval of the national budget, which was waved through with no opposition.

Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he insists was politically motivated.

Yingluck, who was indicted for dereliction of duty a day after she was removed from office, could also face criminal charges linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme.

Thaksin, who clashed with the royalist establishment before his overthrow, lives in Dubai but remains a hugely divisive figure in his homeland.

Prayut is often described as the architect of an army crackdown on a pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" rally in Bangkok in 2010 that left dozens dead.

The army chief is not expected to attend Thursday's vote in the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) because he will be at a military anniversary event outside Bangkok, the junta sources said.

Nomination as a candidate for the premiership requires the backing of about 40 people in the assembly, NLA member Somchai Sawaengkarn said.

To be selected for the post, Prayut would need the support of more than half of the NLA, he added.

 on: Today at 06:13 AM 
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Lawyer for Malaysian Opposition Leader Is Charged With Sedition

AUG. 19, 2014

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A lawyer for the Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged with sedition on Tuesday, a move that Mr. Anwar denounced as part of a conspiracy to weaken his appeal of a sodomy conviction and orchestrate his return to prison.

The lawyer, N. Surendran, who is also a member of Parliament and a vice president of Mr. Anwar’s party, was released on bail. Mr. Surendran, who faces up to three years in prison if convicted, was charged under Malaysia’s Sedition Act in connection with a written statement he issued in April as Mr. Anwar’s legal counsel, shortly after Mr. Anwar’s 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges was unexpectedly overturned by an appellate court.

In the statement, Mr. Surendran said that the appellate court had given insufficient consideration to defense claims that the sodomy charges stemmed from a plot by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing coalition to sideline Mr. Anwar, the 67-year-old opposition leader. Mr. Anwar had been charged with having anal sex with a male aide; homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia.

Mr. Anwar, once a senior leader of Mr. Najib’s governing United Malays National Organization, was imprisoned from 1999 to 2004 on sodomy and corruption convictions that he also said were politically motivated. He said the charges had been orchestrated by the long-serving prime minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad, who ousted Mr. Anwar, his onetime protégé, in a power struggle in 1998.

“Look at the state of democracy in Malaysia,” Mr. Anwar said Tuesday by telephone from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. “Clearly there are no freedoms, no freedom of speech. Surendran said what he should have said as legal counsel, representing a client.”

Malaysia’s sedition law, which dates from the days of British colonial rule, makes it illegal to bring “into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Malaysia.”

In recent days, police reports have been filed against Mr. Surendran by a number of people, including politicians from the governing coalition, after Mr. Surendran repeated the conspiracy accusations at a news briefing this month.

“This is an act of great injustice, and it’s clearly an attempt to deny Mr. Anwar a fair hearing in his upcoming appeal,” Mr. Surendran said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur. “The action was clearly designed to silence any attempt to raise questions of a political conspiracy involving the prime minister or the government.

“The message is we have no right to question a legal decision,” he said.

Mr. Surendran said that hundreds of the governing party’s members and supporters across the country had filed police reports against him. “It’s a standard tactic,” he said. “First they make political moves, and then law enforcement takes action.”

In Malaysia’s general elections in May 2013, Mr. Anwar’s coalition had the strongest showing of any opposition group since the 1960s, denying Mr. Najib’s coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Mr. Anwar claimed that the voting was rigged and that his coalition should have won.

Mr. Najib, whose government has repeatedly denied targeting Mr. Anwar, pledged both in 2012 and during last year’s hotly contested election campaign to abolish the Sedition Act.

“Anytime there’s a charge of sedition, you can be sure there is a political agenda involved,” Lim Teck Ghee, head of the Center for Policy Initiatives in Kuala Lumpur, said Tuesday.

“Najib has said he wants to do away with this rather draconian act,” he said, “but what seems to be happening is the reverse.”

 on: Today at 06:09 AM 
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Pakistan Hopeful of Stronger India Ties despite Talks Row

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 August 2014, 13:20

Pakistan remains hopeful of strengthening ties with India despite an angry New Delhi last week canceling scheduled talks between the nuclear-armed rival neighbors, Pakistan's high commissioner said Wednesday.

Abdul Basit said Pakistan was confident of "overcoming this setback" after Delhi called off the diplomatic talks in Islamabad in a blow to warmer ties between the new Indian government and Islamabad.

Basit also defended his meetings with Kashmiri separatist leaders earlier this week, a move that prompted Delhi to accuse its arch-rival of interfering in its domestic affairs and cancel the talks.

"We believe Kashmiris are a stakeholder in this (diplomatic) process," Basit told reporters in the capital, explaining that the meetings with the separatists were a "longstanding" practice.

"We will not allow the process (of stronger ties) to be distracted in any way," Basit said, adding, "You will find Pakistan seriously committed to the process."

"There is no reason why we should lose hope of a strong bilateral relationship," he said.

Last month, the two countries scheduled talks between their foreign secretaries for August 25.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surprise move to invite his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony in May spurred hopes that peace talks between the two countries could resume.

The warmer ties were dented last week when Modi accused Islamabad of waging a "proxy war" by sending militants to attack Indian targets.

There have also been several ceasefire violations across the Kashmiri border that have angered India.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence, two of them over the disputed Kashmir region.

Relations between the two neighbors broke down after attacks by Pakistani gunmen on Mumbai in 2008 left 166 people dead.

The United States earlier this week termed the cancellation of the talks disappointing.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. was engaging with the Indian and Pakistan governments to support efforts to improve their relations.

The high commissioner's move to meet with Kashmiri separatists comes at a time of political turmoil in Pakistan where Sharif is facing calls from opposition leader Imran Khan to leader to resign.

Khan has led thousands of supporters to rally in Islamabad and has called for mass civil disobedience to unseat the government.


Pakistan Deploys Army in Anti-Government Protests

by Naharnet Newsdesk
19 August 2014, 15:48

Pakistan on Tuesday sent troops to boost security in Islamabad's government district after opposition politician Imran Khan pledged to lead protesters on parliament in a high-stakes bid to depose the prime minister.

Khan, the former cricket star who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, says last year's general election was rigged and has demanded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign.

Thousands of Khan's followers have rallied in Islamabad over the past five days to demand Sharif quit, piling pressure on the government little more than a year since its landslide victory.

Populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri -- leading his own protest in the capital at the same time, also seeking to topple the government -- on Tuesday said his rally would also move to parliament.

The government has used shipping containers to seal off Islamabad's "red zone", which houses key buildings including parliament, the prime minister's house and numerous Western embassies.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said extra troops were being deployed to stop marchers entering the red zone.

"It has been decided to hand over the security of the red zone to military," the minister told reporters.

The decision was taken at a meeting chaired by Sharif and attended by army chief General Raheel Sharif, Khan said -- suggesting the government has the support of the powerful military in the crisis.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan has experienced three military coups and the protests triggered speculation about possible intervention by the armed forces.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party has accused Khan of trying to derail the nation's perennially fragile democratic system as the government struggles with Taliban militancy and a flagging economy.

Mass support for the protest movement beyond Khan and Qadri's core supporters appears to be lacking and other opposition parties have shunned Khan's call to unseat the government.

Newspapers and business leaders have also criticized Khan's tactics, which on Sunday included a call for "civil disobedience".

With Khan looking isolated, on Monday PTI made a dramatic double roll of the dice to try to re-energize its campaign.

First the party announced it would resign all 34 of its seats in the 342-member parliament and three out of four provincial assemblies.

Then Khan pledged to lead the protesters in a march on the red zone, setting the stage for possible clashes.

At the protest site PTI activists struck a defiant tone.

"We will march and stage the next sit-in in front of the parliament house," said Bilal Arshad, 20.

"We are not ready to listen to anyone except our chairman. We just want the resignation of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is a symbol of corruption and bad governance."

Fellow protester Naeem Kazmi said the crowd was ready to "reply in a fitting way" if violence erupted.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan renewed the government's offer of talks with Khan and Qadri to resolve the protests, and accused the PTI chief of reneging on a promise not to try to enter the red zone.

"I again invite them to negotiations. No problem could be solved through violence, rather violence complicates it," he said.

Planning and development minister Ahsan Iqbal on Tuesday said the protesters had no mandate and urged them to talk.

"The whole political leadership is united for this. All opposition parties are trying to engage them and find out a political solution," Iqbal told reporters.

"You have a few thousand crazy guys but 180 million people who have elected this government are guarantors of this government."

Last week Sharif tried to head off the protests by setting up a judicial commission to investigate rigging allegations, but Khan dismissed the proposal immediately.

The government has also set up a parliamentary committee to look at electoral reform.

At a joint press conference of all opposition parties except PTI, Khurshid Shah, a senior figure in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) urged Khan to come to the negotiating table.

The general election of May 2013 which swept Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party to power -- and brought PTI its best-ever result -- was rated as free and credible by international observers but both Khan and Qadri insist it was fixed.

The European Union issued a statement voicing its support for democracy in Pakistan -- and linking it to a highly-prized trade deal.

Enhanced trade privileges extended to Islamabad are "the ultimate reflection of the EU's strong commitment to the economic prosperity of a democratic Pakistan", the statement said.


Pakistan Anti-Government Protesters Blockade Parliament

by Naharnet Newsdesk
20 August 2014, 07:10

Protesters demanding the fall of the Pakistani government blockaded parliament and key ministries Wednesday in the latest round of a week-long political drama that has shaken the restive nuclear-armed nation.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri had Tuesday led followers in a late-night march on the parliament building, the culmination of a week-long standoff with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Khan and Qadri say last year's general election that swept Sharif to power by a landslide was rigged, and they are demanding his resignation.

Qadri repeated his demand for Sharif to quit and install a "national government", and ordered his followers to stop lawmakers leaving a national assembly sitting called to debate the crisis.

His activists occupied the main entrances to parliament but MPs left the building by a back entrance without incident.

Elsewhere in Islamabad's high-security government "red zone", followers of Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek movement blocked the entrance to an office complex housing numerous ministries.

Under the gaze of riot police, they said they would not allow any ministers or MPs to leave until Sharif quit.

The showdown has added to the sense of instability in a country struggling with a homegrown Taliban insurgency, a crippling power crisis and a sluggish economy.

Neither protest leader has shown any signs of backing down, despite repeated government offers of talks.

But on Wednesday the Supreme Court, which has played an influential role in Pakistani politics in recent years, ordered Khan and Qadri to appear on Thursday to explain themselves, a court official said.

The ruling came after petitions urging the court to restrain Khan and Qadri from "making illegal and unconstitutional demands", Kamran Murtaza, a senior lawyer, told AFP.

There had been fears the protesters' advance on parliament could trigger clashes, but riot police and other security forces looked on without intervening.

The crisis has raised fears that Pakistan's fragile democracy could be under threat of military intervention -- the country of 180 million people has seen three coups since its creation in 1947.

Rumors have abounded that elements within the influential military have been behind Khan and Qadri's moves, though the cleric and the interior minister have adamantly denied this.

On Tuesday Khan had threatened to break into the PM's official residence unless Sharif resigned, though Qadri distanced himself from the call, saying his supporters would maintain a peaceful sit-in until Sharif stepped down.

Early on Wednesday the army's chief spokesman called for dialogue.

"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," General Asim Bajwa said through a recognized Twitter account.

Sharif has a history of testy relations with the military -- his second term as PM ended abruptly in 1999 when then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup.

His government is thought to have angered the military further by pursuing criminal cases against Musharraf dating back to his 1999-2008 rule, including treason charges.

Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqui warned that the situation was very precarious.

"From the military perspective, they have tried and tested Nawaz Sharif a third time and they feel disappointed. Why would they let him be?" she told AFP.

But Hamid Gul, the former head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that despite the military's differences with Sharif, he thought they were unwilling to get involved.

"They (Khan and Qadri) are trying to drag the army into it, to pull the army, but the army is very reluctant," Gul told AFP, adding that the crisis would inevitably weaken Sharif.

"If Nawaz wants to stay in power he nas ho choice" but to listen to the army, Gul said.

The United States, Britain and the European Union have all voiced support for Pakistani democracy and urged the feuding sides to negotiate a way out of the impasse.

Last year's election, rated free and credible by international observers, was an important landmark for Pakistani democracy -- the first time one democratically elected government had completed its term and handed over power to another.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party has accused Khan and Qadri of trying to derail democracy.

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