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 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:47 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Solar thermal power plant vaporizes birds

February 23, 2015

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project utilizes thousands of mirrors to reflect solar energy onto a tower containing millions of pounds of salt. The intense energy melts the salt, and this heats water into steam that turns turbines, generating clean energy. Sounds cool, right?

Not if you’re a bird.

During a testing of the solar thermal power plant on January 14, the intense heat from the mirrors reportedly vaporized more than 100 birds.

When workers focused about a third of the project’s mirrors on a point in the air about 1,200 feet off the ground in a test (twice the height of the tower at the project’s center), biologists on site began to notice trails of smoke and water vapor appearing in the air. They concluded that these were caused by birds entering the zone of concentrated solar energy and being vaporized almost instantly, counting about 130 instances of instant avian death.

After this incident, tests were halted until the plant could figure out how to continue testing without posing a risk to birds. Reducing the number of mirrors used in any given test, as well as changing their position to decrease the energy in the solar flux field, all but ended bird combustion, with only one avian fatality occurring since the initial test.

Of course, while instant vaporization isn’t the preferred treatment of avian species, solar thermal plants may still be less dangerous for birds than other power sources. In particular, coal takes the cake for bird deaths, with wind power being about as dangerous for birds as solar power.

While many of these clean energy sources are safer than traditional energy sources for birds, as well as other wildlife and surrounding ecosystems as a whole, there’s plenty of work left to do to ensure that increasing electricity demands harm wildlife as little as possible.

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:44 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Dark matter-rich Coma Cluster may house failed galaxies

February 23, 2015

The Coma Cluster, a massive grouping of galaxies located 300 million light-years from Earth, is home to a group of 47 galaxies that are rich in dark matter and may be so-called ‘failed’ galaxies, researchers from Yale University report in a new study.

Pieter van Dokkum, a professor in the university’s astronomy and physics departments, and his colleagues used the Dragonfly Telephoto Array in New Mexico to analyze the unusual formation and found  “faint little smudges” in the images that were likely the result of dark matter.

According to, the unusual glow let van Dokkum to research the object further. He reviewed images that had recently been captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and found that these fuzzy blobs resembled “dwarf spheroidal galaxies around our own Milky Way…except that if they are at the distance of the Coma Cluster, they must be really huge.”

In light of the fact that the galaxies have very few stars but a tremendous amount of mass, the researchers hypothesized that they contained a tremendous amount of dark matter. In fact, just to remain intact, they believed that the nearly four-dozen galaxies had to be made up of 98 percent dark matter and just two percent regular, visible matter.

Is it really the Coma Cluster, though?

First, however, van Dokkum’s team had to verify that the blobs were actually as distant as the Coma Cluster itself, the website explained. Even in the much higher-resolution Hubble images, however, the stars could not be resolved, indicating that they must have been extremely far away.

Next, they used the Keck Telescope in Hawaii to analyze one of the objects for more than two hours in order to determine its exact distance. Their research allowed them to produce a hazy spectrum, which they then used to determine how quickly the object was moving away from the Earth (in other words, its recessional velocity) – 15.7 million miles per hour.

That recessional velocity places the object some 300 million light-years from Earth, equal to the distance of the Coma Cluster and proving that the galaxies are associated with the massive group of galaxies. However, van Dokkum and his fellow scientists still are not certain why they contain so much dark matter and so few stars.

Epic fails

The most likely scenario is that the cluster is full of “failed” galaxies. As explains, when a galaxy undergoes its first supernova explosions, massive amounts of gas are ejected. Typically, the galaxy’s gravitational pull is strong enough to pull most of that has back onto the galaxy so that the next generation of stars can form.

However, van Dokkum said that it is possible that the strong gravitational forces of the other galaxies in the Coma Cluster interfered with the process, pulling the gases away. “If that happened,” the professor said, “they had no more fuel for star formation and they were sort of stillborn galaxies where they started to get going but then failed to really build up a lot of stars.”

Another possibility is that the galaxies are currently being torn apart. However, astronomers believed that if this were the case, their appearance would be distorted and a steady stream of stars would be flowing outwards from them. Since neither of these phenomena have been observed, it is extremely unlikely that this is the case, the researchers explained.

Van Dokkum and his colleagues will now attempt to measure the speeds of individual stars inside the galaxies so that they can use that information to determine their exact masses and the amount of dark matter they contain. If the stars move faster, the galaxy is more massive, and the opposite is true if they move more slower. To do so, however, they will first have to obtain a better spectrum than they currently have access to, noted.

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:42 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
As Cuba Shifts Toward Capitalism, Inequality Grows More Visible

FEB. 24, 2015

HAVANA — The river where Jonas Echevarria fishes cuts through neighborhoods brimming with new fine restaurants, spas and boutiques, springing up in Cuba’s accelerating push toward private enterprise.

Tattered mansions and luxury apartment blocks speak of old wealth and new. A bounty of private restaurants known as paladares serve pork tenderloin, filet mignon and orange duck to tourists, Cuban-Americans visiting relatives and a growing pool of Cuban entrepreneurs with cash to spend.

These were things Mr. Echevarria, with only a few eggs, some plantains and a handful of rolls in his pantry, would not be having for dinner.

In his neighborhood, a shantytown called Little Swamp on the fringe of the Rio Almendares and the margins of society, few people have relatives sending money from abroad, food rations barely last the month, and homes made of corrugated tin, wood scraps and crumbling concrete fail to keep out floodwaters.

Nobody goes to paladares, much less has the money to start one.

“Never,” said Mr. Echevarria, whose livelihood depends on the catch of the day. “I guess I could not even afford the water.”

As Cuba opens the door wider to private enterprise, the gap between the haves and have-nots — and between whites and blacks — that the revolution sought to diminish is growing more evident.

That divide is expected to increase now that the United States is raising the amount of money that Cuban-Americans can send to the island to $8,000 a year, up from $2,000, as part of President Obama’s historic thaw with Cuba.

Remittances, estimated at $1 billion to nearly $3 billion a year, are already a big source of the capital behind the new small businesses. The cash infusion has been one of the top drivers of the Cuban economy in recent years, rivaling tourism revenues and mineral, pharmaceutical and sugar exports.

Raising the remittance cap, along with allowing more Americans to visit Cuba and other steps toward normal diplomatic relations, will help “support the Cuban people,” the Obama administration contends.

But some will enjoy that support more than others. Cuban economists say that whites are 2.5 times more likely than blacks to receive remittances, leaving many in crumbling neighborhoods like Little Swamp nearly invisible in the rise of commerce, especially the restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that tourists tend to favor.

“Remittances have produced new forms of inequality, particularly racial inequality,” said Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University. “Now the remittances are being used to fund or establish private companies, that is, not just to fund consumption, as in the past.”

The Cuban government argues that the shift to more private enterprise, a pillar of its strategy to bolster the flaccid economy, will allow it to focus its social programs on the neediest. As a billboard on a busy road in Havana proclaims, “The changes in Cuba are for more socialism.”

But many poorer Cubans are frustrated by what they see as the deteriorating welfare state and the advantage that Cubans with access to cash from outside the country have in the new economy.

“As Cuba is becoming more capitalist in the last 20 years, it has also become more unequal,” said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who studies the Cuban economy. “These shantytowns are all over Latin America, and Cuba’s attempt with revolution to solve that inequality succeeded to a certain degree for a time. But as capitalism increases, you have some people more well positioned to take advantage and others who are not.”

At Starbien restaurant, one of the most popular in Havana, the owner, José Raúl Colomé, said it was not unusual for a majority of the clientele to be Cubans who live on the island, rather than tourists or expatriates.

“Some are artists who are doing well or entrepreneurs who have had luck,” Mr. Colomé said. “A lot are tourists, naturally, but we are getting more Cubans who might be called middle class.”

In poorer neighborhoods like Little Swamp, many describe feeling like foreigners in their own city, watching the emerging economy but lacking the means to participate in it.

They note the predominance of white Cubans in the new ventures but broach the subject carefully, noting the gains that the revolution brought to Afro-Cubans in education and health but also the hard economic times that darker-skinned Cubans continue to endure.

“I look in those new places and don’t see anybody like me,” said Marylyn Ramirez, who works at a tourist hotel in the Vedado neighborhood and passes new restaurants on the way to work.

Asked if she receives financial help from relatives abroad, she smirked and swept her hand around her small living room, which floods repeatedly in heavy rains.

“If I had that,” she said, “do you think I would be living here?”

After the so-called special period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged Cuba into an economic crisis, thousands of desperate people moved from the countryside to Havana without permission, hoping to find work.

Many still live as virtual refugees in their own country, in neighborhoods like Little Swamp, unable to register for government services like ration books because it is almost impossible to change addresses without prior authorization.

“Erosion of poverty has always been a concern, but they have not managed to eliminate these kinds of neighborhoods in the best years of the Cuban welfare state,” Mr. de la Fuente said, “and it is much less likely they can do it now.”

Many residents mention the free education and health care the government has provided, but lament that both seemed better in years past, with shorter lines for care and better teachers. The few poor residents who do receive remittances are known to pay private tutors to ensure that their children advance to upper grades, several people in the neighborhood said.

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:40 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Isis kidnaps 90 Christians in Syria, say activists

Militants retreating from Kurdish attack seized 90 Assyrian Christians near Tal Tamr, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut
Tuesday 24 February 2015 09.49 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 24 February 2015 13.03 GMT
Islamic State militants have kidnapped 90 Christians in north-east Syria as the jihadis retreated in the face of a Kurdish counter-offensive, a monitoring group has said.

The reported kidnappings are the latest blow to the Christian presence in the region, heightening insecurity after a video was released by militants claiming allegiance to Isis that purported to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said 90 Assyrian Christians were kidnapped by Isis near Tal Tamr. There was heavy fighting in the area between Isis and the YPG, the US-led coalition-backed Kurdish militia that beat back an advance on the border town of Kobani last month.

The YPG has launched a counter-offensive to retake Isis-held villages in the north-eastern Syrian countryside.

The rights monitoring group said its sources on the ground had overheard Isis militants on wireless radios refer to the captives as “crusaders”, the same term used by militants to describe the Egyptian Copts apparently killed in Libya.

Isis militants have often singled out Christians and minorities for persecution. Thousands of Christians fled Iraq’s Mosul and Nineveh after Isis’s lightning advance last summer, fleeing their ancestral homelands amid reports of forced conversions. Many took refuge in Kurdish-held territories or in Lebanon. The Isis rampage through Iraq’s Nineveh plains cleared Chaldean Christians and other minorities from areas in which they had co-existed for more than 2,000 years

The jihadi group was especially brutal towards the ancient Yazidi minority in Iraq, attempting to starve thousands who were stranded on Mount Sinjar, north-west of Mosul. It also sold many hundreds of Yazidi women into slavery and forced others to marry.

Coalition air strikes had earlier targeted Isis fighters near the Syrian Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli on the Turkish border.

More than 1,600 people, the vast majority of them from Isis, have been killed by the US-led coalition air strikes in Syria, according to SOHR. Many of the jihadi casualties took place in the Kurdish town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, where Isis estimates its losses to be at least 1,400.

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:38 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad

Gulf between Israeli secret service and PM revealed in documents shared with the Guardian along with other secrets including CIA bids to contact Hamas

Seumas Milne, Ewen MacAskill and Clayton Swisher
Monday 23 February 2015 18.06 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 24 February 2015 06.47 GMT

Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iran was about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document.

It is part of a cache of hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s major intelligence services – one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times.

Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process.

But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment.
An extract from the document An extract from the document Photograph: The Guardian

The disclosure comes as tensions between Israel and its staunchest ally, the US, have dramatically increased ahead of Netanyahu’s planned address to the US Congress on 3 March.

The White House fears the Israeli leader’s anticipated inflammatory rhetoric could damage sensitive negotiations between Tehran and the world’s six big powers over Iran’s nuclear programme. The deadline to agree on a framework is in late March, with the final settlement to come on 30 June. Netanyahu has vowed to block an agreement he claims would give Iran access to a nuclear weapons capability.

The US president, Barack Obama, will not meet Netanyahu during his visit, saying protocol precludes a meeting so close to next month’s general election in Israel.

The documents, almost all marked as confidential or top secret, span almost a decade of global intelligence traffic, from 2006 to December last year. It has been leaked to the al-Jazeera investigative unit and shared with the Guardian.

The papers include details of operations against al-Qaida, Islamic State and other terrorist organisations, but also the targeting of environmental activists.

The files reveal that:

• The CIA attempted to establish contact with Hamas in spite of a US ban.

• South Korean intelligence targeted the leader of Greenpeace.

• Barack Obama “threatened” the Palestinian president to withdraw a bid for recognition of Palestine at the UN.

• South African intelligence spied on Russia over a controversial $100m joint satellite deal.

The cache, which has been independently authenticated by the Guardian, mainly involves exchanges between South Africa’s intelligence agency and its counterparts around the world. It is not the entire volume of traffic but a selective leak.

One of the biggest hauls is from Mossad. But there are also documents from Russia’s FSB, which is responsible for counter-terrorism. Such leaks of Russian material are extremely rare.

Other spy agencies caught up in the trawl include those of the US, Britain, France, Jordan, the UAE, Oman and several African nations.

The scale of the leak, coming 20 months after US whistleblower Edward Snowden handed over tens of thousands of NSA and GCHQ documents to the Guardian, highlights the increasing inability of intelligence agencies to keep their secrets secure.

While the Snowden trove revealed the scale of technological surveillance, the latest spy cables deal with espionage at street level – known to the intelligence agencies as human intelligence, or “humint”. They include surveillance reports, inter-agency information trading, disinformation and backbiting, as well as evidence of infiltration, theft and blackmail.

The leaks show how Africa is becoming increasingly important for global espionage, with the US and other western states building up their presence on the continent and China expanding its economic influence. One serving intelligence officer told the Guardian: “South Africa is the El Dorado of espionage.”

Africa has also become caught up in the US, Israeli and British covert global campaigns to stem the spread of Iranian influence, tighten sanctions and block its nuclear programme.

The Mossad briefing about Iran’s nuclear programme in 2012 was in stark contrast to the alarmist tone set by Netanyahu, who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security. The Israeli prime minister told the UN: “By next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move[d] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

He said his information was not based on secret information or military intelligence but International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports.

Behind the scenes, Mossad took a different view. In a report shared with South African spies on 22 October 2012 – but likely written earlier – it conceded that Iran was “working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate, such as enrichment reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given”.

But the report also states that Iran “does not appear to be ready” to enrich uranium to the higher levels necessary for nuclear weapons. To build a bomb requires enrichment to 90%. Mossad estimated that Iran then had “about 100kg of material enriched to 20%” (which was later diluted or converted under the terms of the 2013 Geneva agreement). Iran has always said it is developing a nuclear programme for civilian energy purposes.

Last week, Netanyahu’s office repeated the claim that “Iran is closer than ever today to obtaining enriched material for a nuclear bomb” in a statement in response to an IAEA report.

A senior Israeli government official said there was no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements on the Iranian nuclear threat and “the quotes in your story – allegedly from Israeli intelligence”. Both the prime minister and Mossad said Iran was enriching uranium in order to produce weapons, he added.

“Israel believes the proposed nuclear deal with Iran is a bad deal, for it enables the world’s foremost terror state to create capabilities to produce the elements necessary for a nuclear bomb,” he said.

However, Mossad had been at odds with Netanyahu on Iran before. The former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who left office in December 2010, let it be known that he had opposed an order from Netanyahu to prepare a military attack on Iran.

Other members of Israel’s security establishment were riled by Netanyahu’s rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear threat and his advocacy of military confrontation. In April 2012, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, accused Netanyahu of “messianic” political leadership for pressing for military action, saying he and the then defence minister, Ehud Barak, were misleading the public on the Iran issue. Benny Gantz, the Israeli military chief of staff, said decisions on tackling Iran “must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria”.

There were also suspicions in Washington that Netanyahu was seeking to bounce Obama into taking a more hawkish line on Iran.

A few days before Netanyahu’s speech to the UN, the then US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, accused the Israeli prime minister of trying to force the US into a corner. “The fact is … presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country … don’t have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” he said.

“What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that’s the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:34 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
02/23/2015 06:11 PM

A Threat to Europe: The Islamic State's Dangerous Gains in Libya

By Mirco Keilberth and Christoph Reuter

Rival militias in Libya have thrown the country into civil war and made it easy prey for the Islamic State. The recent execution of 21 Egyptian Christians is only one sign of the terrorist group's growing footprint in North Africa.

The men sitting in Café L'Aurora in Tripoli stare silently into the smartphone Najib Ali is holding in his hand. They're watching a horrific video depicting the decapitation of 21 Egyptian Christians, probably on the beach at Sirte. The victims are wearing orange overalls while their Islamic State (IS) killers are clad in black. The men in the café have already seen the video numerous times and yet they continue to watch it, looking for any details that might indicate the horrific acts didn't really happen.

"Have you ever seen a Libyan that tall?" one asks. And what about the professional camera work? "A major power has to be behind it." And how could Sirte, the hometown of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, suddenly come under Islamic State rule? The release of the video on Sunday, Feb. 15, shortly before the fourth anniversary of the insurgency against Gadhafi, has led many Libyans to react reflexively with desperate denials of reality.

The truth is that Libya is well on its way to becoming a failed state -- making it the perfect prey for IS. Furthermore, Libya is close to Italy, has plenty of oil and offers a possible corridor to Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as to Islamists in Mali and in the Sahara. Indeed, if IS succeeds in solidifying its presence here, the terrorists could pose a threat to Southern Europe in addition to destabilizing all of North Africa.

The site of the executions appears to be a beach located near the Mahari Hotel in the center of Sirte. The prisoners were reportedly held in the hotel, where a number of foreign jihadists are thought to reside. Several cameras were used to make the professionally produced video. Indeed, it is highly possible that IS propagandists with technical expertise and training from Syria or Iraq produced the Sirte video.

A Show of Force to Libyans

It's no coincidence that the executions took place in Sirte, either. The city is the Islamic State's new center of power in Libya. A short time ago, the terrorists took over TV and radio stations here, which have since been broadcasting jihadist songs and speeches given by IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. In addition, offices of the authorities have been occupied, oil terminals attacked and foreign workers beheaded. Just recently, government employees were even forced to publicly apologize for having worked for the Libyan state. No one dares criticize the new rulers with one witness reported that many are just happy to still be alive. "The massacre is a warning to Europe, but also a show of force aimed at us Libyans."

Last autumn, the Libyan terror group Islamic Youth Shura Council in Derna joined forces with IS, but that port city is surrounded by government troops, limiting the group's movement. The terrorists in Sirte, on the other hand, are free to move to the west and into the Sahara. They've also gained supporters in Benghazi and Tripoli. Meanwhile, members of Islamist militias are also defecting to IS. Libya has in fact become the caliphate's most important colony in North Africa after Egypt. Fighters from around the world are trained here, with some getting deployed locally and others being sent to Syria or Iraq.

The Christian massacre has the potential give the country a final push into open civil war in which everyone is fighting against each other: enemy militias, their foreign supporters and the jihadists. But the dissolution of Libya started long before. In parliamentary elections last summer, Islamist parties associated with the militias in Misrata, an important trade city, fared miserably and have been unwilling to accept their defeat. Under the leadership of the Libyan Dawn, the militias captured the capital city of Tripoli. They deposed the newly elected and internationally recognized parliament and reinstated some members of the previous parliament, leading the elected members to flee to Tobruk.

'IS Has Been Waiting for this Kind of Chaos'

Since that split took place, the country has effectively become home to two parliaments, but also two governments and two armies. Both sides have been fighting each other since last autumn, attacking airports, oil terminals and cities. On the side of the official Libyan government, General Khalifa Haftar is waging war against the Islamists, with military support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side, the Islamists' Dawn alliance is backed by Turkey and Qatar.

The bloody power struggle is leading to Libya's collapse. Oil production has fallen dramatically, from over 1.6 million barrels a day to under 500,000. Revenues are still sufficient to cover the salaries of government workers and to subsidize gasoline, but there isn't enough left over to maintain hospitals or cover necessary infrastructure repairs.

"IS strategists have been waiting for precisely this kind of chaos for some time now," says Libyan security expert Mohamed Garbi. He says the conflict has weakened the state to such a degree that is easy to capture. IS, for its part, would like see this vulnerability persist. In the video, one of the militants stands with a knife in his hand and says, "We will conquer Rome, by the will of Allah." But the Christian massacre was more likely aimed at Geneva peace talks, where delegates of most of the factions in Libya managed to negotiate a ceasefire in January during discussions facilitated by UN special envoy Bernardino Léon. It appears that the beheadings represent an effort on the part of Islamic State to dismantle that success.

Should intense conflict erupt once again in Libya, the jihadists would benefit from the power struggle by constantly shifting its loyalties. It is a strategy that worked well in Syria, even allowing it to militarily outmaneuver stronger rebel groups such as the Nusra Front. IS, after all, had an advantage that the others did not: unity.

A Country Drifts Apart

Such unity has been lacking in a Libyan society that has drifted apart since the victory over Gadhafi. One of the initial failings of the government after the revolution was that it attempted to reintegrate the fighters into civilian life by paying them good wages, but without providing them with prospects of training or jobs. By doing so, it unintentionally provided support for the militias. Just after Gadhafi's fall, Libya's Warriors Affairs Commission counted around 60,000 revolutionaries, a figure that had already grown to 200,000 a year later. There were 500 militias. Given the amount of distrust they had toward the new government, they didn't put down their arms. Instead they took up the hunt for criminals themselves -- or took up illicit activities. For two years, the militias have had the upper hand in the country, extorting parliament and even driving a prime minister out of the country.

Only days after the modest success attained in Geneva, an IS commando stormed the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, where foreign firms and the illegitimate government had hunkered down. The attack, which claimed nine lives, further stoked already considerable distrust between the parties in the conflict. In Tripoli, many believed the government in the east had been behind the attack. And now comes the video, a precisely calculated composition of horror in which even the ocean was colored blood red to augment the effect.

Pulling Egypt into Conflict

After the video's release, the Egyptian air force conducted air strikes on jihadist positions. Six of 12 IS bases in Derna were reportedly been hit. It's the kind of response IS might even have desired in the hope that it could draw Egypt into the civil war and further heat up fighting between the factions.

A military intervention in Libya could have disastrous repercussions for Egypt. Already, the policies of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has denounced virtually all opponents as terrorists, are driving the opposition underground -- possibly even into the hands of Islamic State. Meanwhile, the fact that IS in Sirte released kidnapped foreign workers of the Sunni faith and chose to only murder Christians could further exacerbate conflict between Egyptian religious groups. But there are other factors at play, too, like the 200,000 Egyptian workers still believed to be in Libya and whose return home could spark domestic tensions. Or the fact that other Egyptians are also believed to have been kidnapped.

Islamic State is already expanding its reach to the south. In the city of Sabha, a first meeting took place the week before last between commanders with several Islamist militias to discuss the possible establishment of the Fezzan Province of the Islamic State. If that happened, it would place the smuggling routes for refugees, weapons and drugs in IS hands and create a corridor for the group to other Islamist groups south of Libya.

The group reportedly receives its financing from Abdul Wahhab al-Gayed, a former member of Libya's parliament. As the head of the Border Guard, he received around €250 million from the government in mid-2013. However, the money never went where it was supposed to. It is believed that al-Gayed used it to procure weapons for his militia, which could now be on the verge of joining forces with IS.

Islamists in the coastal regions have also armed themselves. "There are thousands of Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and tons of munitions ready for deployment in Derna and Sirte," says one former anti-Gadhafi activist who is well-connected there. The source says the extremists obtained money for the purchases through kidnappings of business people.

There have been other criminal efforts to raise money as well. In October 2013, members of the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group robbed a central bank money van in Sirte that was reportedly carrying €39 million. Now it appears that Ansa al-Sharia is merging with IS. Last Wednesday night, residents in Sirte observed a long IS motorcade in the city. "Nobody knows where so many fighters and weapons suddenly came from," says one journalist living in Misrata who asked not to be identified. He worries his home city may become the terrorists' next target.

If that happens, IS would make good on the announcement it made in December that it would establish three provinces in Libya -- one in the east, another in the west and a stronghold in the south.

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:32 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Australian PM Feels 'at Height of Powers'

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 February 2015, 07:10

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he felt at the "height of his powers" Tuesday as a new poll showed him gaining on the opposition, despite reports conservative colleagues may still move to dump him.

Abbott survived a leadership challenge earlier this month from within his Liberal Party after poor polling and policy backflips left many questioning his judgement.

But after a Newspoll published in The Australian showed his government at a four-month high and closing the gap on the opposition Labor Party, Abbott said he felt energised.

"You know what it is like to be young and vigorous and at the height of your powers, and that's exactly how I feel," he told the Nine Network.

The poll of 1,212 respondents showed the government gained four points if pitted directly against Labor, but still trails it 47 to 53 percent in a two-party comparison.

It also found that 77 percent considered Abbott arrogant, and only 25 percent were satisfied with his performance.

Abbott survived the vote of confidence among Liberal parliamentarians this month 61 to 39.

Despite the two-party improvement, a report Tuesday said that seven ministers among the 61 who backed Abbott in the vote were unsettled and some of them would not support him in any further leadership challenge.

The Sydney Morning Herald report suggested Abbott would be given until June to turn the tide before any further move on his position.

"There is a sense in which prime ministers are always on probation," Abbott admitted Tuesday, but stressed that he was getting on with the job at hand.

A key concern behind the leadership challenge, relating to the perceived power of Abbott's chief-of staff Peta Credlin, who is married to the Liberal Party's federal director Brian Loughnane, also arose against Tuesday.

In letters leaked to the media, the Liberal Party's honorary treasurer Philip Higginson warned that the corporate world would never allow two such crucial positions to be occupied by a married couple.

Higginson said the situation meant he was "overwhelmed daily by the sheer vitriol, and pent-up animosities, and enmities that exist".

"How this party ever let a husband-and-wife team into those two key roles, where collegiate competitive tension is mandatory and private consultations between colleagues to see that each side is served well, is a complete mystery," he said.

Abbott dismissed the comments as "internals".

"I stand by my team, I stand by my cabinet colleagues, my parliamentary colleagues, I stand by my staff," Abbott said.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:32 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
S. Korea-U.S. Announce Joint Drills, to Likely North Fury

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 February 2015, 07:11

South Korea and the United States said Tuesday they would kick off their annual joint military exercises on March 2, setting the stage for a likely surge in tensions with North Korea.

Pyongyang had offered a moratorium on nuclear testing if this year's joint drills were cancelled -- a proposal rejected by Washington as an "implicit threat" to carry out a fourth nuclear test.

The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises are a perennial source of volatile tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.

Seoul and Washington insist they are defensive in nature, but they are regularly condemned by Pyongyang as provocative rehearsals for invasion.

"Key Resolve" lasts just over a week and is a largely computer-simulated exercise, while the eight-week "Foal Eagle" drill involves air, ground and naval field training, with around 200,000 Korean and 3,700 U.S. troops.

Both exercises will begin on March 2, with Key Resolve lasting until March 13 and Foal Eagle winding up on April 24, a South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman said.

North Korea has regularly resorted to missile tests and high-decibel bellicose rhetoric in expressing its displeasure with the exercises in the past.

In 2013, the drills fueled an unusually sharp and protracted surge in military tensions, with Pyongyang threatening a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and nuclear capable U.S. stealth bombers making dummy runs over the Korean peninsula.

In a speech to the ruling party's Central Military Commission at the weekend, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un directed the army to ensure its combat readiness in order to react to "any form of war ignited by the enemy."

There are close to 30,000 U.S. troops permanently stationed in South Korea and, under current arrangements, the U.S. would take operational command of the allies' combined forces in the event of a conflict with the North.

"Exercising our multi-national force is an important component of readiness and is fundamental to sustaining and strengthening the alliance," General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the allies' Combined Forces Command, said in a  statement.

"The United Nations Command has informed the Korean People's Army in North Korea ... about Foal Eagle exercise dates and the non-provocative nature of this training," the statement said.

There was no immediate response from Pyongyang to the formal announcement of the drill dates, but South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said nothing would derail the exercises.

"North Korea's position and provocative remarks will have no impact," Kim told a press briefing.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:30 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Dozens Injured as Prison Convoy Attacked in Myanmar

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 February 2015, 09:31

Dozens of female prisoners were injured in a fierce firefight between rebels and soldiers in northeastern Myanmar following an attack on a government convoy, state media said Tuesday.

The Global New Light of Myanmar said the military launched airstrikes after ethnic Kokang fighters attacked vehicles carrying local people, government workers and inmates from a nearby prison, in the latest assault on civilians trying to escape deadly clashes in Shan state.

It said 44 female prisoners as well as a staff member from the correctional department and a soldier were injured in the fighting Monday in the Kokang region bordering China.

Myanmar last week declared a state of emergency in Kokang in response to the conflict, which began on February 9 and has also sparked alarm in Beijing.

The unrest has virtually emptied the main Kokang town of Laukkai, the epicentre of the fighting, with streets in the once-bustling frontier community transformed into a battleground.   

At least 30,000 civilians have fled into southwest China, while tens of thousands more are believed to have been displaced on the Myanmar side of the border.

The Myanmar Red Cross has come under attack twice in recent days while ferrying civilians from the Laukkai area towards the Shan town of Lashio outside the conflict zone. The incidents  have drawn condemnation from the United Nations.

Five people were wounded when a vehicle for the aid group, which is separate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, came under fire Saturday -- just four days after an earlier attack on a humanitarian convoy left two injured.

Myanmar has blamed the rebels for the assaults on the aid vehicles -- a claim denied by the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the main Kokang insurgent group.

Representatives of the MNDAA could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Despite continuing battles Monday, state media said the army had restored "stability" to Laukkai town itself.

It is unclear how many people remain in the remote Kokang region, which is almost cut off from help by aid groups and under martial law. There are no official figures on the civilian death toll. 

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Feb 24, 2015, 07:29 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Presumed Heir of Indian Party Requests Leave of Absence

FEB. 23, 2015

NEW DELHI — Rahul Gandhi, long expected to be the next leader of India’s beleaguered Congress Party, threw political commentators into fits of baffled speculation on Monday when party officials announced that he had requested a leave of absence because he wants time to think.

Mr. Gandhi, the party’s vice president, asked the president — his mother, Sonia Gandhi — for three to four weeks off to “reflect upon recent events and the future course of the party,” said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a party spokesman.

Mr. Gandhi’s retreat comes at a crucial time for the opposition: Monday was the first day of the budget session and the beginning of a major campaign to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overhaul of land-use laws. Mr. Gandhi was scheduled to lead a party rally on Wednesday.

Congress was obliterated in this month’s state elections in Delhi, not winning any of the 70 assembly seats in a state it had governed for 15 years. It was the latest in a series of bruising electoral losses, and party leaders are preparing for an April meeting where they hope to plot out a strategy for reviving the party’s fortunes. At a news conference, Mr. Singhvi said Mr. Gandhi would use the time to prepare for the meeting.

Beyond that, Congress officials did little to clarify the reasons behind Mr. Gandhi’s “sabbatical,” as some journalists were calling it.

“I have no idea,” M. Veerappa Moily, a senior leader and adviser to Mrs. Gandhi, told reporters. Manish Tewari, a former minister of information and broadcasting, said in a telephone interview that he had “no clue.” Though a reporter for the news channel NDTV reached Mrs. Gandhi, her comments, as reported, were similarly opaque.

“I am not going to say anything more on this,” she said, according to the channel. “We have said what needs to be said.”

The uncertainty left vast space for journalistic conjecture.

“What could Rahul Gandhi be thinking about?” wondered Mihir S. Sharma of The Business Standard in a column headlined, “Rahul Gandhi and the Art of Vacationing.”

“Is it a bit of a break before his coronation, as some think? Is it a preliminary to exiting, as some hope? Is it the consequence of a disagreement with his mother? Is it because after the South Africa win he thinks we actually have a chance on Australian pitches and wants to wake up early for India matches,” Mr. Sharma wrote, referencing the Cricket World Cup now taking place.

Most theories hinged on dynamics within Mr. Gandhi’s family, which has led the Congress Party for four generations.

Mrs. Gandhi reluctantly took charge in the years after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, in 1991, and has recently sought to step aside as the party’s face. Mr. Gandhi, 44, the heir apparent, always appeared reluctant to step into the spotlight, turning down offers of cabinet seats and even the post of prime minister when Congress was in power. During three terms as a member of Parliament, he has spoken publicly no more than a handful of times.

Many of the party’s senior leaders privately suggest that Mr. Gandhi’s charismatic younger sister, Priyanka, 43, would be better suited to the role of party leader, but that Mr. Gandhi’s ascent is nonetheless inevitable.

Among the theories circulating on Monday were that Mr. Gandhi stormed out of Delhi because his mother would not yield control of the party; because she was resisting his plan for a major reorganization in the senior ranks of Congress; that he was running off to get married; and that he was leaving politics altogether.

At times, Mr. Gandhi has made it a point to publicly express frustration with Congress’s old guard, suggesting that, if given control of the party, he would make significant changes. In 2013, he charged into a party news conference and dismissed as “complete nonsense” an initiative backed by his own party, an act that sent Congress mandarins into a flurry of damage control.

Yet the electoral losses of the last year have soured many erstwhile supporters, who seek for more vibrant leadership from regional heavyweights, like Delhi’s new chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. Mohd Asim, a senior news editor for NDTV, wrote on Monday that Mr. Gandhi’s “vanishing act” should be a signal to Congress that it is time to look beyond the Gandhi family.

“The Congress just seems like it’s sleepwalking its way into political oblivion,” Mr. Asim wrote. “The voices of dissent are getting louder, which is as it should be — except for this party, which pledges undying allegiance to a dynasty, even one that delivers terrible results.”

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