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 on: Jan 25, 2015, 08:20 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Defense Minister Edgar Lungu Wins Zambia Vote

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 22:43

Defense Minister Edgar Lungu of Zambia's ruling Patriotic Front has won the country's presidential election in a tightly fought race marred by delays, the electoral commission announced Saturday.

Lungu won with a slim 48.33 percent majority, closely followed by his rival Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) with 46.67 percent of the vote.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 08:18 AM 
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Child Kidnappings in Ivory Coast 'a Very Worrying Phenomenon'

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 18:53

The disappearance of 20 children in recent weeks in Ivory Coast -- raising fears of a wave of ritual sacrifices -- is a "very worrying phenomenon", a government minister said on Saturday.

Ivory Coast needs to face up to this "new type of crime" Anne Desiree Ouloto, the families and children minister, said.

According to police, 21 children had been reported missing in less than two months, with only one of them found alive.

Most of the children, seized in various parts of the country, "were found dead, mutilated, decapitated or without their genitals," police chief Brindou M'Bia told a press conference on Friday

Ouloto said that new measures, such as securing playgrounds, would now be implemented.

Parents will also be urged to keep better watch on their children.

The impoverished west African nation, which has suffered a decade of political and military crisis, is set to hold a presidential election in October.

Rumors circulate widely during election years of kidnappings, notably of albinos, for ritual sacrifices.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 08:16 AM 
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Nigerian city under attack from suspected Boko Haram militants

Shelling heard and military helicopters circling north-eastern city of Maiduguri after assault shortly after midnight

Monica Mark and agencies in Maiduguri
The Guardian, Sunday 25 January 2015 10.21 GMT   

Suspected Boko Haram militants have begun an assault on Nigeria’s north-eastern city of Maiduguri, according to military, government and local sources.

At about 9am (0800 GMT) on Sunday, a Reuters witness said shelling could be heard and that military helicopters were circling the city. All roads have been closed, a security source said, and commercial activity has been shut down.

The city is the capital of Borno state and would be a major prize for the insurgents who are trying to carve out an Islamic state.

The militants began the attack at the edge of the city in the Njimtilo area shortly after midnight on Saturday.

“We are all just staying in our houses,” said Umar Mohammed, a resident living near the main military barracks. He said attacks were taking place on four sides, including the main road leading to the city. “At 5am we heard a bomb blast and that was when the shooting started. Since then, the streets have been totally empty,” he said.

A security source told the Guardian that on Saturday four teenagers had turned themselves over to civilian vigilantes who work alongside the military.

“The boys said they had been sent to plant bombs. There were 10 of them but these four escaped because they were tired of living in the bush [where Boko Haram runs its camps],” the official added.

Sporadic fighting has flared around Maiduguri in recent days, with at least 15 killed in attacks in nearby Kambari on Saturday.

Fighter jets were also seen leaving from Yola, the capital of neighbouring Adamawa state, 250 miles (400km) south of Maiduguri.

Boko Haram has waged a five-year insurgency in the north-east of Africa’s biggest economy. The militants control vast swaths of Borno state and some areas of neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe states. They recently took control of the town and army base at Baga by Lake Chad.

The Nigerian army’s inability to squash the group has become a major headache for the president, Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election in February. Jonathan visited the state capital on Saturday as part of his campaign and opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari was due to arrive on Monday.

The insurgents last attempted to take Maiduguri in December 2013 and attacked a nearby army and air force base.

Resident Rachel Adamu, who lives near Njimtilo, said: “Please pray for us, we are in danger, under serious attack now.


Rifts Between U.S. and Nigeria Impeding Fight Against Boko Haram

JAN. 24, 2015

WASHINGTON — Relations between American military trainers and specialists advising the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram are so strained that the Pentagon often bypasses the Nigerians altogether, choosing to work instead with security officials in the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger, according to defense officials and diplomats.

Major rifts like these between the Nigerian and American militaries have been hampering the fight against Boko Haram militants as they charge through northern Nigeria, razing villages, abducting children and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee.

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Nigeria on Sunday to meet with the candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections, and the Pentagon says that the Nigerian Army is still an important ally in the region — vital to checking Boko Haram before it transforms into a larger, and possibly more transnational, threat.

“In some respects, they look like ISIL two years ago,” Michael G. Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told the Atlantic Council last week, using another name for the militant group known as the Islamic State. “How fast their trajectory can go up is something we’re paying a lot of attention to. But certainly in their area, they’re wreaking a lot of destruction.”

But American officials are wary of the Nigerian military as well, citing corruption and sweeping human rights abuses by its soldiers. American officials are hesitant to share intelligence with the Nigerian military because they contend it has been infiltrated by Boko Haram, an accusation that has prompted indignation from Nigeria.

“We don’t have a foundation for what I would call a good partnership right now,” said a senior military official with the United States Africa Command, or Africom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “We want a relationship based on trust, but you have to be able to see yourself. And they’re in denial.”

The United States was so concerned about Boko Haram infiltration that American officials have not included raw data in intelligence they have provided Nigeria, worried that their sources would be compromised.

In retaliation, Nigeria in December canceled the last stage of American training of a newly created Nigerian Army battalion. There has been no resumption of the training since then.

Some Nigerian officials expressed dismay that relations between the two militaries have frayed to this point.

“For a small country like Chad, or Cameroon, to come to assist” the Americans, “that is disappointing,” said Ahmed Zanna, a senator from Nigeria’s north. “You have a very good and reliable ally, and you are running away from them,” he said, faulting the Nigerian government. “It is terrible. I pray for a change of government.”

The tensions have been mounting for years. In their battle against Boko Haram, Nigerian troops have rounded up and killed young men in northern cities indiscriminately, rampaged through neighborhoods and, according to witnesses and local officials, killed scores of civilians in a retaliatory massacre in a village in 2013.

Refugees said the soldiers set fire to homes, shot residents and caused panicked people to flee into the waters of Lake Chad, where some drowned.

Last summer, the United States blocked the sale of American-made Cobra attack helicopters to Nigeria from Israel, amid concerns about Nigeria’s protection of civilians when conducting military operations. That further angered the Nigerian government, and Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States responded sharply, accusing Washington of hampering the effort.

“The kind of question that we have to ask is, let’s say we give certain kinds of equipment to the Nigerian military that is then used in a way that affects the human situation,” James F. Entwistle, the American ambassador to Nigeria, told reporters in October, explaining the decision to block the helicopter sale. “If I approve that, I’m responsible for that. We take that responsibility very seriously.”

All the while, Boko Haram has continued its ruthless push through Nigeria, bombing schools and markets, torching thousands of buildings and homes, and kidnapping hundreds of people.

Now stretching into its sixth year, the militant group’s insurgency has left thousands of people dead, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. It killed an estimated 2,000 civilians in the first six months of 2014 alone, Human Rights Watch said, and many of Nigeria’s major cities — Abuja, Kano, Kaduna — have been bombed.

American officials say that while it is unclear exactly how much territory Boko Haram effectively controls in Nigeria, the group is, at the very least, conducting attacks across almost 20 percent of the country.

“They reportedly control a majority of the territory of Borno State,” in northeastern Nigeria, “and a significant portion of the border areas with Cameroon and Chad,” said Lauren Ploch Blanchard, a specialist in African Affairs with the Congressional Research Service.

Even before the Nigerians canceled the training program in December, American military officials were stewing when soldiers showed up without proper equipment. Given the nation’s oil wealth, the Americans attributed the deficits to chronic corruption on the part of Nigerian commanders, saying that they had pocketed the money meant for their soldiers.

“It’s not like they don’t have the money,” the senior Africom official said. “There are some things that we require to be good partners. The first of which is a commitment on the part of the Nigerian government to support its own army. They have a responsibility to provide adequate pay, to take care of their people, and to equip them.”

“None of those empty allegations have ever been proved,” said Chris Olukolade, a spokesman for the Nigerian military. “The Nigerian military has always been receptive of honest support or assistance from well-meaning friends or partners. No one should however seek to use this security situation to usurp our sovereignty as a nation.”After Boko Haram made international headlines last April by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls, the United States flew several hundred surveillance drone flights over the northeast to search for the girls, but those missions were unsuccessful. When the Pentagon did come up with leads, American military officials said, and turned that information over to Nigerian commanders to pursue, they did nothing with it.

The frustrations between the two sides has broad implications for the fight against Boko Haram, officials said, including making it harder for other international partners who have joined the effort. “We are trying to work closely with the French and the Americans in support of the Nigerian military and government against Boko Haram,” a senior British diplomat said. “A rift between one of our two partners and the Nigerians is not a good thing.”

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 08:09 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Hard times return as China bids to bring its economic miracle to an end

Beijing insists slow growth is part of a plan to bring years of explosive expansion under control. But the global slowdown may make it hard to soft-land an economy still hooked on exports

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing and Heather Stewart in London
The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2015   

China’s president, Xi Jinping, calls it the “new normal” – but strikes are increasing, wages going unpaid and businesses are struggling to survive as the vast economy adjusts to a more sedate pace of growth after more than a decade of explosive expansion.

Official figures published last week showed that China’s GDP expanded by 7.4% in 2014. That was a significant drop from the 7.7% seen in 2013, and the weakest rate of growth since 1990, when the country was grappling with international sanctions in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

And while the government has spun the downturn as a good thing, as it deliberately shifts from an unsustainable, export-led boom to relying on demand at home to fuel economic growth, people across the country are feeling the heat.

Coal and copper prices are down owing to lack of demand; strikes and protests are becoming increasingly common. The prospect of weaker demand from China has also been a key factor behind plunging global oil prices.

“From an industry point of view, obviously the hardest hit are the miners and the upstream players – the iron ore industry, steel, refineries, they’re all being really squeezed,” said Andrew Polk, a senior economist at research group The Conference Board’s China centre for economics and business in Beijing. “China’s consumption has held up relatively well so far, but [the slowdown] looks to be finally feeding through to the consumption side as well.”

And while the downturn is, on one level, intentional, policymakers face a tough challenge in engineering a slowdown while maintaining enough control over the financial system to prevent a crash.

Growth is expected to slow further over the next three years, as officials act to control the sliding property market and rein in excessive borrowing by local government — the International Monetary Fund has projected a 2015 growth rate of 6.8%.

“The financial crisis dealt a mortal blow to the export-led growth model, for two reasons,” said Diana Choyleva, an expert on China at consultancy Lombard Street Research.

“One was the slowdown in global demand, and the other was the adjustment of the yuan against the dollar. Not only has the size of the pie reduced, but their ability to carve out ever-larger parts of it has diminished.” Her analysis of Chinese data suggests growth is actually considerably slower than official figures suggest.

Even China’s middle class, a group that has expanded at breakneck speed and become accustomed to constantly rising living standards over recent years, is starting to feeling the pinch.

On Thursday morning, many shoppers at the Huapu Hypermarket in central Beijing were complaining of tough economic times.

“I’m a businessman, so of course this is affecting me,” said a 36-year-old tobacco and wine wholesaler who gave his name as Mr Ji. His income had dropped as much as 30% over the past year, he said, as he dropped spring onions into his trolley. “I’m starting to think about changing careers.”

A young woman surnamed Chen said that wages at her public sector company were shrinking. “We’re also getting less of a bonus this year – though I’m single, so it’s not so bad,” she said.

Polk at The Conference Board said: “From an industry point of view, one of the ways [the downturn] is going to play out is that wage growth will have to slow. We’re starting to see a convergence between labour productivity and wage growth. When wage growth rises above productivity, companies start to be unprofitable.”

Related: In race for best economy, China handily beats Houston, London and other Western cities

Xi first urged the Chinese public to accept the “new normal” of economic growth while on an inspection tour in Henan province last May. Since then, state media has embraced the term as an assurance that authorities are firmly in control, carefully shedding their growth-at-all-costs mantra for a more equitable approach to development.

Under the new normal, officials say, China’s economy will be fairer and more sustainable, and the country can finally begin making progress towards restoring its environment after decades of wanton pollution.

“The market, crazy about speed and figures, seems to have missed the reality that the Chinese economy is healthier under the ‘new normal’ featuring positive trends of stable growth, an optimised structure, enhanced quality and improved social welfare,” Xinhua, the state news service, said on Wednesday.

At the Davos World Economic Forum on Thursday, China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, insisted: “China will avoid a hard landing, continue its ongoing reform and restructuring and ensure a prolonged period of sustainable future medium-to-fast growth.”

Yet Chen Xiushan, an economics professor at the Renmin University of China, believes that this “new normal” will mean something very different for, say, an oil worker in far-northern Heilongjiang province than it will to an upwardly mobile tech entrepreneur in Beijing.

The downturn could be devastating for people working in basic commodities such as steel and cement, as the property market continues to sink and the government implements new measures to chip away at overcapacity. Yet other sectors could benefit, as Beijing pumps subsidies into healthcare, tech, and culture industries such as film and music.

Some regions are likely to adjust better to the new growth model, too. Coastal south-east China, an economically diverse region, may blow through the downturn unscathed, Chen Xiushan said, while inland and industrial provinces would almost inevitably struggle. North-east China “does not stand much chance for economic transition,” as its economy leaned heavily on clunky, anachronistic state-owned enterprises and its population was increasingly migrating south in search of work.

Karen Ward, senior global economist at HSBC, said that, for the time being, the authorities were continuing to underpin economic growth with public building projects. “Consumption is still stable and strong, it’s just not big enough: and while exports are a drag, it’s just not filling the void. That’s why they’re still filling the gap with infrastructure spending.”

Experts are divided about this infrastructural spending spree. Some fear the authorities have squandered money on unnecessary projects, reminiscent of the “bridges to nowhere” that came to characterise the Japanese investment bubble of the 1980s. Investment now accounts for more than half of GDP.

But Ward, who is optimistic about the outlook for China, insisted that the country was still in desperate need of infrastructure. “If you look at what they’ve got – sewerage systems for example – they’re still a very poor country. They’re building things that they need. In terms of infrastructure, it looks like Japan in the 1950s, not the 1980s.

“There are sectors that are massively over capacity – steel is definitely one of them. But in the broad scheme of things, are they wasting money to generate growth? That just doesn’t worry me.”

China’s policymakers certainly claim they can avoid a crash. As prime minister Li put it in Davos: “If I could compare the Chinese economy to a running train, what I want you to know is that this train will not lose speed or momentum. It will only be powered by stronger dynamo and run with greater steadiness, bringing along new opportunities and new momentum of growth.”

Choyleva, of Lombard Street Research, pointed out that the gear-change would not be easy. “The new leadership is intent on reform; but their resolve will be tested big-time.”

City economist and China-watcher George Magnus warned last week that the authorities’ resolve to let the slowdown run its course might be severely tested as it started to cause more financial pain for some.

“There is almost certainly a lower limit to growth, at or not too far away from 7%, where official concerns about unemployment and stability will increase — mainly because of the risk this could pose to social stability against a backdrop of a rising level of strikes and other labour unrest.”

Additional research by Luna Lin

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 08:06 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Modi, Obama Announce Nuclear Breakthrough after Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk 25 January 2015, 07:29

Indian Prime Minister Narendra and U.S. President Barack Obama announced they had reached an agreement Sunday to break the deadlock that has been stalling a civilian nuclear power agreement.

"I am pleased that six years after we signed our bilateral agreement, we are moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with our laws (and) international legal obligations," Modi said at a joint press conference with Obama in the Indian capital New Delhi.

The two countries in 2008 signed a landmark deal giving India access to civilian nuclear technology, but it has been held up by U.S. concerns over India's strict laws on liability in the event of a nuclear accident.

While there were no immediate details on how the impasse had been broken, India has reportedly offered to set up an insurance pool to indemnify companies that build reactors in the country against liability in case of a nuclear accident.

"Today we achieved a breakthrough understanding on two issues that were holding up our ability to advance our civil nuclear cooperation and we are committed to moving towards full implementation," said Obama.

"This is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship."

Source: Agence France Presse


Obama gets warm welcome from Narendra Modi in India

President arrives in New Delhi on three-day visit aiming for progress on climate change, defence and economic issues

Associated Press in New Delhi
The Guardian, Sunday 25 January 2015 10.45 GMT   

US president Barack Obama has been welcomed like royalty in India as he started a three-day visit aimed at turning his burgeoning rapport with the prime minister, Narendra Modi, into progress on climate change, defence and economic issues.

Obama’s arrival in the bustling capital of New Delhi on Sunday morning marked the first time an American leader has visited India twice during his presidency. Obama is also the first to be invited to attend India’s Republic Day festivities, which begin on Monday and mark the anniversary of the enactment of the country’s democratic constitution.

Modi, wearing a gold kurta, was at the airport to greet Obama at the foot of Air Force One with a huge embrace. Obama returned the gesture, patting the prime minister on the back several times.

Obama’s limousine was later escorted through a metal gate and into the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, India’s presidential palace, by a cavalry regiment of the Indian army. He was welcomed with a booming 21-gun salute and inspected an honour guard.

“It’s a great honour,” Obama said when reporters asked for his thoughts on attending Republic Day. “We are so grateful for the extraordinary hospitality.”

The mere fact that the talks were happening was being viewed as a sign of progress given the recent tensions that have marred relations between the US and India.

High on Obama’s agenda with Modi is progress on getting the heavily polluted country to agree to curb carbon emissions. White House officials hope the surprise climate agreement the US struck with China in November might spur India to take similar steps.

Obama is also expected to push Modi to make changes to liability legislation in India that has prevented US companies from capitalising on a landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two countries in 2008.

Ahead of the big day of celebration, Obama walked in his socks into a walled courtyard to lay a large white wreath at the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. He then shovelled earth and poured a pitcher of water around a young tree planted in his honour at the memorial.

But in a move likely to take some of the symbolic shine off of Obama’s trip, the White House announced shortly before he departed from Washington that the president had cancelled plans to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. The president and first lady had planned to tour the famed white marble monument of love on Tuesday, but instead will go to Saudi Arabia to pay respects to the royal family following the death of King Abdullah.

India’s relationship with the US plummeted in 2013 when the Indian deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched in New York over allegations that she lied on visa forms to bring her maid to the US while paying her a pittance. Her treatment caused outrage in New Delhi and India retaliated against US diplomats.

Ties between the US and India have been steadily improving since Modi took office last May. He and Obama met for the first time late last year in Washington, and officials from both countries say they quickly developed an easy chemistry.

That came as something of a surprise to regional analysts given Modi’s difficult history with the US. He was denied a visa to the US in 2005, three years after religious riots killed more than 1,000 Muslims in the Indian state where he was the top elected official.

“I think Modi surprised everyone by, with very little hesitation, embracing the United States,” said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “To give credit where credit is due, the Obama administration stepped in very quickly after his election to signal that he was willing to do business.”

Obama also had a good rapport with the former Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh. However, US officials expressed some frustration that their personal warmth never translated into policy breakthroughs.


Red tape and skills gap threaten hope of record growth for India

With its growing, working, consuming population, India could overtake China as the world’s fastest-expanding economy, but only with much reform and rapid industrialisation

Jason Burke   
The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2015   

This weekend, with President Barack Obama making his second visit to the Indian capital, many international eyes are on the Indian economy which, after having flagged for several years, is showing significant signs of renewed vitality.

A decade ago, India was frequently bracketed with China as one of the Bric economies – rising global powers whose young population and sheer size gave them huge potential. But while China has romped ahead, growing at double-digit rates, India, the world’s largest democracy, has sometimes struggled to live up to those hopes.

But last week the IMF predicted that India could overtake China to become the world’s fastest-growing major economy by 2016, with a growth rate of 6.5%, topping China’s 6.3%.

In 2014, India’s economy grew by only 5.8%, against China’s 7.4%, according to forecasts published by the IMF, and by 5% compared with 7.8% for China in 2013.

“That’s a reasonable assessment. China has hit a demographic trap. But India’s working population is increasing all the time, producing, saving and consuming,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a Delhi-based economist and analyst.

Some observers are more conservative in their assessment, but few doubt the dramatic change in atmosphere attributable to the landslide victory of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party in last year’s election, and the appointment of respected economist Raghuram Rajan as governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Rajan surprised financial markets by cutting interest rates earlier this month, as the falling cost of oil dampened the risks of inflation. Modi, who was elected on a pro-development platform, has promised to push through some of the major reforms long called for by financial institutions and foreign investors, cutting red tape, slashing subsidies and easing the path for overseas firms. Though some are growing impatient at the delay in big-ticket measures, the difference to the sense of drift of the later years of the last administration – led by the centre-left Congress party – is marked. Low oil prices have also given India’s public finances a big boost.

However, the IMF warned that the prospects for a pick-up in growth could be threatened by “any slackening in the reform momentum”.

“I think the reform plans of the new prime minister are promising. We are going to have to see the speed of the implementation,” said Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, deputy director of the IMF’s research department.

“The main challenge for India is creating jobs,” added Guruswamy. “There needs to be rapid industrialisation in India, and that needs reforms of labour laws and land acquisition procedures, among many other things.”

Few doubt, however, the scale of the obstacles that remain. Bureaucracy and red tape, as well as a huge deficit in infrastructure and a severe lack of skilled workers, could all combine to put the brakes on growth. Bad loans are a major issue for India’s banks, and much of the country remains mired in poverty. Ministers admit privately that skill levels are very low.

The government also currently lacks a majority in the upper house of the national assembly, a problem which, thanks to India’s voting system, is unlikely to be resolved until 2017 or later. This makes passing major reforms significantly more difficult.

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 07:58 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

The secret world of Isis training camps – ruled by sacred texts and the sword

We reveal how the terror group recruits and retains its members through zealotry, rhetoric and obscure theology

Hassan Hassan   
The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2015   

Hamid Ghannam’s first day at an Islamic State (Isis) training camp was intense. Very early on the morning of 13 August, he picked up his packed clothes and walked quickly to the main street in his village to meet three of his cousins. As with many of Isis’s young members, he did so without informing his parents.

The cousins drove in a white minibus to an Isis camp at the Omar oilfield in the desert of Mayadeen, Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. The recruiter, a distant relative who had enlisted around eight others from his village since he was put in charge of its security, accompanied the three to their new lodging, where they would spend the next few weeks.

At the oilfield the recruiter spoke to an Isis member for a few minutes before he excused himself. “Keep our heads high,” he told his relatives as he drove away. Another Isis member welcomed the three recruits and asked them to prepare themselves for sharia lessons. “It is not easy, you have to be patient,” Ghannam said. “They test you first. They speak with you for a while. They check your knowledge of religion. They discuss with you everything. They talk to you about the Nusayri [pejorative reference to Alawites] regime and then about the Free Syrian Army and all the misguided groups. It is exhausting at first.”

Little is known about what goes on inside training camps run by Isis in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria – particularly its religious component. The Isis ideology is generally viewed as identical to al-Qaida’s or the Saudi version of Salafism – adherence to fundamental Islamic tenets – and so there does not seem to be a serious effort to study it more closely. There is also a tendency to play down the role of religious ideology as a recruitment tool, since the motives of many Isis members have little to do with religion.

Another problem that muddles understanding of Isis’s appeal is that politicians tend to deliberately misrepresent the role of ideology to undermine the group’s propaganda, while objective observers often have no access to Isis associates beyond social media. As a result, a flawed understanding of the ideological appeal of Isis is common, despite its central role in the fight against it. Both the commander of the American special operations forces in the Middle East, Major General Michael Nagata, and the general in charge of leading the international coalition against Isis, John Allen, have emphasised that the ideology of Isis is insufficiently understood and that ideological delegitimisation is crucial in the effort to defeat it.

So what specific ideas, stories and narratives do new members learn at these camps? What does Isis tell its new recruits to make them so zealously committed to its ideology? More important, does the Isis ideology serve to attract or merely retain new recruits?

As part of research involving in-depth interviews with Isis members for a book about the organisation, American analyst Michael Weiss and I have identified half a dozen categories of Isis members according to the factors that drew them to the group. In at least two of those categories, religion more than anything else has been the driving force. But these two demographic components – long-standing takfiris (radicals who adhere to teachings that declare fellow Muslims as infidels) and young zealots – are more central for Isis than other members because they formulate the group’s identity and ensure its resilience. In addition, the appeal of Isis outside its conflict zones tends to be primarily ideologically driven.

Sharia training varies from one member to another, depending on the group’s assessment of his value or loyalty. New recruits join training that ranges from two weeks, one month, 45 days, six months up to one year. Inside the camps, students receive a mix of military, political and sharia orientation, usually given by around five instructors. During training, recruits can be dispatched to checkpoints but not to the frontlines. After they graduate, they will remain under supervision and can be expelled or punished in case of noncompliance – including being lashed if they express reservations. In some cases, new members who struggle with the brutality of the group’s acts will be sent back to receive more training to “strengthen” their faith.

“You first get the basics about religion,” said Abu Moussa, an Isis-affiliated religious cleric in eastern Syria but originally from Aleppo. “They cleanse you from religious innovations and Ba’athist ideas. Issuing fatwas is restricted to clerics and nobody can kill without a fatwa unless in the battlefield. You also study Arabic and learn how to speak in standard Arabic if you don’t know.”

Clerics in charge of religious training at Isis, known as sharii, are mostly academically qualified and have longstanding experience within the organisation’s ranks. Isis also relies on young clerics who have recently joined its ranks to compensate for the shortage of imams to cover the approximately 20 mosques in every town that falls under its control. It often uses imams with limited religious training to speak at pulpits across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where mosques had typically been controlled by Sufis from the Naqshbandi order or its Khaznawi branch before Isis arrived. (Isis also uses local imams to pit local residents against each other as part of its divide and rule strategy.) These imams are generally asked to preach about three key concepts that are shared by all Salafi and jihadist groups, but Isis has its own take on their functionalities, namely tawhid (strict monotheism), bida’a (deviation in religious matters) and wala wal baraa (loyalty to Islam and disloyalty to anything un-Islamic).

“People say al-dawla excommunicates Muslims,” said Abu Moussa, using the term “al-dawla”, or State, in reference to Isis. “We don’t do that. Yes, we have no tolerance for anybody who opposes our message. Why do we fight the Free Syrian Army? We spread our message by proselytisation and sword. Ibn Taymiyyah said ‘the foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that brings victory’. We guide and the sword brings victory. If someone opposes the message of the prophet, he faces nothing but the sword. As the prophet spread the message across the Earth, we are doing the same. When al-dawla first fought the Free Syrian Army, it was a problem for many. They did not believe the accusations. But later, one thing after another began to unfold and people started to accept them.”

Another member echoed Abu Moussa’s reasoning. “The prophet said: ‘I have been given victory by means of terror.’ As for slaughter, beheading and crucifixion, this is in the Qu’ran and Sunna [oral sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad]. In the videos we produce, you see the sentence ‘deal with them in a way that strikes fear in those behind them’, and that verse speaks for itself. One more thing: the prophet told the people of Quraish, ‘with slaughter I came to you’.”

In terms of indoctrination, Isis generally steers clear of exposing new members to teachings that are not derived from sharia texts. New members are almost exclusively exposed to religious books, while established members or commanders can study manuals such as Management of Savagery, a jihad book written by an Abu Bakr Naji, who said that you should distinguish between jihad and other religious tenets in that jihad is not about mercy but about extreme retaliatory violence to deter enemies. The restriction of religious training to religious texts is in line with the group’s rhetoric that it is an extension of authentic Islam rather than a new group with its own set of teachings.

Indeed, one of the fascinating insights we found is that Isis presents the “mainstream” Islam practised by Muslims today as one that was “invented” over the past few decades. To unravel this so-called invented Islam, Isis deliberately digs deep into Islamic sharia and history to find arcane teaching and then magnify it. It does so to shock its potential recruits and demonstrate it is preaching a pure and true Islam obscured by the mainstream. Take, for example, the group’s punishment for individuals accused of homosexuality. In a series of incidents in recent weeks, Isis has thrown individuals accused of being gay from the highest buildings. This method as a sharia punishment is unheard of, even in countries where sharia brute justice is openly practised, such as Saudi Arabia.

Unlike previous incidents of stoning adulterers and crucifixion, throwing people from high buildings did not even inspire criticism of sharia in the Middle East because many did not realise it was a sharia penalty in the first place. But it is the obscurity of the punishment that makes it particularly valuable for Isis. The purpose is not to increase the volume of violence but also to raise eyebrows and trigger questions about such practices, which Isis is more capable of answering than mainstream clerics, who prefer to conceal teachings that propound such punishments. Many Isis members were eager to emphasise they were impressed by such obscure teachings, and were drawn to the group by the way Isis presents Islam with absolute lucidity. Mothanna Abdulsattar, for example, spoke about the group’s “intellectualism and the way it spreads religion and fights injustice”.

The process of indoctrination does not always happen after members join. In many cases, people are drawn to Isis during conversations with members or sermons conducted by clerics weeks or even months before they start considering enrolment. By the time an individual is formally recruited, he will have at least bought into Isis ideology. Inside the camp, Isis benefits from relating these hidden, obscure stories to formulate its own narrative.

Isis depends heavily on what Muslim clerics consider isolated incidents described in sacred texts that it believes should not be followed as rules. The function of such incidents is not necessarily to argue a doctrinal idea. Isis sometimes uses them to help members who struggle with beheading, for example, to justify what they have done. When these stories are weaved into the overall ideology of Isis, new members find it easier to accept them.

The argument that these acts are not Islamic often ignores how such stories are told. For instance, Isis tells the story of Muhammad’s commander-in-chief, Khaled bin al-Walid, who killed hundreds of captives after the 7th-century battle of Ullais in Iraq, seemingly contrary to Islamic teachings, because he had made a pledge to God that he would make a river of blood from the Persian army if he overran it. When he could not find enough people to make a river out of their blood after he defeated them, he killed the captives and opened a dam into their bleeding bodies. Isis uses the story to say this is the man described by the prophet as the Unleashed Sword of God and who was praised for his victory in that battle by the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. When Isis kills its captives, a Muslim cleric can dismiss the act as un-Islamic, but Isis can simply cite the example of al-Walid.

Because Isis bases its teachings on religious texts that mainstream Muslim clerics do not want to deal with head on, new recruits leave the camp feeling that they have stumbled on the true message of Islam. New recruits such as Ghannam and his cousins graduate armed with theological arguments, military training and a conviction that fellow Muslims are at least partly complicit in the suppression of true Islam.

Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi. He is the co-author, along with Michael Weiss, of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, which will be published in February in New York by Regan Arts.


1989 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Jordanian founding father of Islamic State, arrives in Pakistan to join the mujahideen, just as the Soviet army quits Afghanistan.

1992 Zarqawi returns to Jordan and is placed immediately under surveillance.

1999 Zarqawi leaves Jordan for Pakistan to pick up where he left off several years before.


Zarqawi is in charge of a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, on the border with Iran, a camp that carried a sign that read “al-tawhid wal-Jihad” (Monotheism and Jihad) which would later become the name of his group in Iraq.

7 August 2003 Operatives from tawhid wal-Jihad bomb the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.


The Zarqawists are still a minority in Iraq’s insurgency landscape.

January 2006 Zarqawi announces the creation of the Mujahideen Advisory Council of Iraq.

7 June 2006 Zarqawi is killed in a US air attack, and the advisory council appoints Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian national who used another nom de guerre, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

October 2006

Muhajir declares that his franchise is part of Iraq’s homegrown Islamic resistance movements, which he named the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), to be led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, a native Iraqi.

April 2010 Both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Muhajir are killed.

May 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is appointed leader of Isis. In August 2011, during Ramadan, Baghdadi dispatches half a dozen of his lieutenants to establish a franchise in Syria, which was formed in December under Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham (the Support Front for the People of Syria).

April 2013 Baghdadi unilaterally declares a merger between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISI and calls it the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis).

28 June 2014 On Ramadan’s first day, Baghdadi abrogates Isis and heralds the birth of Islamic State.

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 07:47 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Belgium Confronts the Jihadist Danger Within

JAN. 24, 2015

BRUSSELS — When Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-born son of an immigrant shopkeeper from Morocco, went to Syria a year ago to wage jihad, nobody paid much attention. He was just one of more than two dozen angry young men from the grimy Molenbeek district in Brussels who, lured by the promise of adventure and reward from God, have taken up the fight for Islam.

But people took notice, a few months later, when Mr. Abaaoud recruited his own 13-year-old brother to join him in Syria, soon after the release of a gruesome video that showed him in a pickup truck dragging a pile of mutilated bodies.

“Naturally, this was a big shock,” Yasmina, their older sibling, said, referring to her barely teenage brother’s departure.

In recent days, that feeling has only grown as Abdelhamid Abaaoud (pronounced a-ba-OOD), who is thought to have returned to Europe, has emerged as a prime suspect in what Belgian authorities say was an imminent terrorist operation thwarted by raids on Jan. 15 on an extremist hideaway in the east of Belgium and nine homes in Molenbeek.

Coming on the heels of a three-day rampage by a trio of Islamic extremists in Paris, the foiled plot here sent an alarming message that the radicalization of young Muslims extended far beyond the bleak housing projects that ring Paris and other French cities.

It has also highlighted the dangers posed by a well-developed underground jihadist pipeline that has made Belgium Europe’s biggest per capita contributor of fighters to Syria, and the fears of the potential havoc these extremists could sow upon their return.

Despite the attention focused on France since the attacks in and around Paris that killed 17 people, the proportion of young people who have left for jihad from this relatively small country has confronted the authorities here with an outsize domestic security threat that rivals that of its neighbor.

In a document released in October, a new Belgian government warned against the “danger of violent jihadism that threatens to spread in our society,” reporting that 350 Belgians had gone to Syria and that more than 70 of them had returned home.

Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian researcher who has kept close tabs on Syria-bound jihadists from Belgium, said the real number of Belgian fighters is closer to 450, less than half the number from France but still a very large contingent for a country of only 11 million people. Belgium, like France, has a large Muslim community that accounts for more than 5 percent of the population.

Belgian officials say they have not found any links between the Paris attacks and those they say were being planned in Belgium. But there are many common elements: a clustering of radicals in a small area, the blurred boundary between petty criminality and jihadist violence, and the role of prison as an incubator for extremism.

Since the Belgian police raided a house in the eastern city of Verviers, near the German border, on Jan. 15, the focus of the investigation has moved firmly to Brussels, particularly the Molenbeek district, a heavily immigrant borough with 22 mosques known to the local officials — more than four times the number of churches — and others that operate in secret.

“The network that was dismantled in Verviers is a network that had its origins in Molenbeek,” said Françoise Schepmans, the mayor of Molenbeek. “That is evident. They just rented a hideaway at Verviers.”

The two terrorist suspects killed in that police raid, the mayor added, “were both, unfortunately, from Molenbeek,” Belgium’s second poorest area with a youth unemployment rate of 40 percent.

The Belgian prosecutor’s office on Wednesday partially identified the dead men for the first time, naming them as Sofiane A., a Belgian and Moroccan citizen born in 1988, and Khalid B., a Belgian national born in 1991.

Why exactly certain areas spawn a disproportionate number of violent jihadists is a question that has largely flummoxed investigators and scholars.

Mr. Van Ostaeyen, the Belgian researcher, believes that an important factor for Molenbeek could be the role of Sharia4Belgium, an outfit set up in 2010 to promote Islamic law but which later devoted its energies to recruiting fighters for Syria. It was particularly active in Molenbeek, Mr. Van Ostaeyen said.

The group’s leader, Fouad Belkacem, a 32-year-old Islamic radical with a long arrest record for crimes like theft and assault, went on trial last September in the port city of Antwerp, accused by prosecutors of belonging to a terrorist group and brainwashing young people.

More than 40 others accused of belonging to the group were also put on trial, most of them in absentia, as they were in Syria. A verdict in the case was originally due earlier this month but has now been postponed.

Like Mr. Belkacem and Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four French Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris, Mr. Abaaoud, accused of being the ringleader of the foiled Belgian plot, also got into trouble with the law and spent time in prison, reportedly for theft, before he took up jihad.

“He was radicalized in prison at Saint Gilles,” Mustafa Er, an aide to the Molenbeek mayor, said, referring to a jail in southern Brussels.

In Molenbeek, Ms. Schepmans, the mayor, said the authorities have good relations with the district’s biggest mosque, Al Khalil, but has little or no contact with smaller mosques, some of which “are more or less closed.”

More worrisome, she added, “are the meeting places we don’t know about that operate in the shadows.”

She played down the role of religion in the radicalization of a small but dangerous minority, blaming instead the “social networks” of young men whose ties of friendship and then a shared belief in jihad are forged mostly on the street.

“All these people could just as easily have tumbled into criminality” instead of jihadism, the mayor said.

Yasmina Abaaoud, Mr. Abaaoud’s older sister, a professional woman who does not wear a veil and now lives in a more upscale area of Brussels, said neither of the brothers who went to Syria ever showed a zealous interest in religion before their departure. “They did not even go to the mosque,” she said.

Nor were they from a particularly disadvantaged background. Their father owned a shop and lived with his wife and six children in an apartment on Rue de l’Avenir — Future Street — in one of Molenbeek’s better neighborhoods, near a canal that separates Molenbeek from a trendy Brussels district of bars and restaurants.

According to a report this week in La Capitale newspaper, the older brother spent at least one year at Collège Saint-Pierre, a well-regarded Catholic school in the wealthy district of Uccle. The school declined to comment.

Belgian prosecutors have not publicly identified Mr. Abaaoud as a suspect in a foiled plot, one of whose main targets was the Molenbeek police station. But officials in Molenbeek described him as the “presumed mastermind” behind a thwarted operation involving several jihadists who had returned from Syria. A senior United States intelligence official, speaking in Washington, said analysts there agreed.

The Belgian news media reported Mr. Abaaoud had been tracked to Turkey and Greece and had communicated by telephone with several of those arrested or killed last week, speaking in coded language investigators interpreted as instructions for a terrorist operation.

The whereabouts of Mr. Abaaoud, also known as Abou Omar Soussi, is not known. His sister Yasmina said the family received calls last fall from Syria saying he had become a “martyr,” meaning he had been killed in battle. She said the family has not heard from him or the younger brother, now 14, since.

But investigators now believe the “martyr” report was a ruse to try to throw Western intelligence services off his scent so that he could try to re-enter Europe.

At the time of his reported death he was perhaps Belgium’s most notorious jihadist fighter, having appeared in a video made early last year near Hraytan in northern Syria that showed him at the wheel of a Dodge pickup pulling corpses across a field.

In a later video message filmed in Syria, Mr. Abaaoud, using the name Abou Omar el-Belgiki, meaning “the Belgian,” urged fellow Muslims to follow him to Syria to wage armed jihad, promising delights they could never have at home.

“While living in Europe, I never ate food like I have eaten here,” he said, speaking against the crackle of gunfire as he crouched behind sandbags. I have entered into villas and palaces that, praise be to God, have, through the will of God, been provided for us here.”

His main recruiting pitch, however, was an appeal to young Muslims’ feelings of exclusion from the mainstream and rage at the treatment of Muslims.

“Are you satisfied with the life you lead, a humiliating life, whether you are in Europe, in Africa, in Arab countries or in America? Are you satisfied with this life, with this life of humiliation?”

Only violent jihad, he continued, could restore their pride and honor. “You will find this only in your religion, only in jihad,” he said. “Is there anything better than jihad or a martyr?”

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 07:43 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Missile attacks kill at least 30 in Mariupol, east Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels announce major new offensive in Ukraine, after attacks on crowded residential district

Chris Johnston and agencies, Saturday 24 January 2015 11.12 GMT   

Shelling killed at least 30 people and wounded over 97 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol

Pro-Russian rebels announced a major new offensive in Ukraine on Saturday after missiles killed at least 30 people in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea.

The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded in the attack, which struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Friday that he had withdrawn from all peace talks with pro-western leaders in Kiev. On Saturday he said his forces had launched “an offensive against Mariupol” but did not accept direct responsibility for the earlier rocket attack.

The European Union condemned the attacks and warned that the escalation in fighting would harm EU-Russia relations.

The offensive “would inevitably lead to a further grave deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia”, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.

Ertuğrul Apakan, chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission, called for an immediate ceasefire. “Ukraine and its people need and deserve peace. The parties must return to the negotiating table without further delay,” he said.

Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin called on Russia to intervene to end the violence.

Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s national defence council, described the incident as “another bloody crime against humanity committed by the Russian military and the bands of terrorists under their complete control”.

A strategic highway that links rebel-held regions to the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March runs through Mariupol, which is home to about 500,000 people.

A massive rebel assault on the city in August was held back by government forces, but took a heavy toll and prompted Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to agree to a truce in September.

However, more clashes followed costing the lives of at least 1,500 people.

Rebel forces have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict. The rebels appeared to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.

One Mariupol resident said: “Everyone in the city is very scared. The rebels have already seized the airport. And now they are starting to destroy Mariupol itself.”

Poroshenko said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there were any, and denied even supplying weapons to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.

The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with the Ukrainian leader saying on Twitter that if the rebels failed to abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.

The UN human rights office said the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days.


Obama Ramps Up Pressure on Russia after Deadly Ukraine Blitz

by Naharnet Newsdesk 25 January 2015, 14:20

U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Sunday to ramp up pressure on Russia after rocket attacks blamed on Kremlin-backed Ukrainian rebels killed 30 and injured 95 more.

Saturday's surprise assault on the strategic eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol threatened to open a new front linking separatist territory near the Russian border with the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Moscow annexed in March.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told an emergency security meeting that Kiev had intercepted calls confirming Saturday's barrage was carried out by separatist "terrorists who receive support in Russia."

And Obama said he would now look at all options -- short of military intervention -- aimed at restraining Russian President Vladimir Putin's alleged proxy war aimed at stripping Ukraine's pro-Western leaders of their vital eastern industrial base.

He pledged to "ratchet up the pressure on Russia" in cooperation with the European Union, which had been thinking of easing existing sanctions on Russia in the coming months.

"If Mr Putin and if Russia are hell-bent on engaging in military conflicts, their military is more powerful than Ukraine's," Obama said during a visit to India.

"The question is going to be whether they continue to pursue a path that not only is bad for the people of Ukraine, but is... bad for the people of Russia."

New European Council President Donald Tusk -- a former Polish prime minister who had long been suspicious of Putin -- also warned that the Mariupol attack showed that "appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence.

"Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions," Tusk tweeted.

- 'No alternative to truce' -

The Kremlin flatly denies arming and funding the rebels, who have renounced all truce talks.

It had remained conspicuously silent about Saturday's offensive and Russian state media played repeated footage of a low-ranking militant claiming that the assault was ordered by the Kiev government.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sunday that the latest upsurge in violence was the result of "constant shelling" by Kiev's troops.

"Lavrov pointed out that an escalation of the situation is a result of Ukrainian troops crudely violating the Minsk agreements by constantly shelling residential settlements," the foreign ministry said after Russia's top diplomat spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone.

Poroshenko told his top generals that he had asked the European Union to ramp up sanctions on Russia at a special session of foreign ministers on Monday.

The Western-backed leader -- looking tired after cutting short his attendance at the burial of the late Saudi king -- also insisted that the attack would not provoke Kiev into ordering a tough military response.

"Ukraine remains a firm proponent of a peaceful solution," he told a televised meeting of his National Security and Defense Council.

Regional police said 95 people were also wounded by dozens of long-distance rockets that smashed into a packed residential district and a market in Mariupol on Saturday.

"It is really dangerous here now," Mariupol resident Yulia Simina told Agence France-Presse.

The 27-year-old said she had moved to the city to avoid the daily bloodshed in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk that lies to the north.

But she lost her car in the shelling and just avoided being hit by shrapnel herself.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's leader Alexander Zakharchenko claimed Saturday that "today we launched an offensive against Mariupol".

He later distanced himself from the rocket fire and denied ordering an actual invasion of the industrial port of half a million people.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the Grad and Uragan rocket fire came from two locations "controlled by the 'Donetsk People's Republic'".

- Link to Crimea -

Mariupol remained calm on Sunday as international monitors patrolled its muddied streets.

The Sea of Azov port of nearly half a million people provides a land bridge between guerrilla-held regions in the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

It is also home to two of Ukraine's largest smelters and most of the southeast's vital coal and steel exports go through its docks.

A rebel assault on the port in early September saw Kiev repel the attack at such heavy cost that it prompted Poroshenko to pursue peace and offer the rebels three years of limited self-rule.

But the ceasefire was followed by further clashes that killed at least 1,500 people, and combat resumed in full in mid-January after a three-week lull.

Western diplomats linked the rebel advance to a new infusion of Russian troops -- denied by the Kremlin -- designed to expand separatist territory before the signing of a final truce and land demarcation agreement.

Ukraine claimed Monday that Moscow had poured nearly 1,000 more Russian soldiers and dozens of tanks into the southeast to secure control over factories and coal mines that could help the rebels build their own state.

"Taking Mariupol is a first step to a broader offensive. It is also an end in itself, anchoring the southern flank in the city," the U.S.-based Stratfor global intelligence company warned in a "red alert" issued to clients.


Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk keep on the attack as war of words intensifies

Vladimir Putin blames ‘criminals’ from Ukrainian government for increased violence in east of the country

Shaun Walker in Donetsk
The Guardian, Friday 23 January 2015 16.24 GMT   

Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk have said they plan to stay on the attack against Kiev’s forces, as the Russian president Vladimir Putin blamed “criminal orders” from the Ukrainian government for increased violence in the east of the country.

“There will be no more ceasefires,” said rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko at a meeting with students, a day after an attack on a trolleybus in Donetsk left up to 13 dead. Zakharchenko said Ukraine was currently mobilising recruits and had been planning a new assault.

“We took the decision not to wait for the Ukrainian army to attack. We will attack them until we have reached the borders of the former Donetsk region,” said Zakharchenko, indicating an area that includes a number of towns currently under Ukrainian control, including the port city of Mariupol.

The UN human rights office says the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days alone.

A ceasefire was agreed at talks in Minsk in September but has never really held. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met on Wednesday evening in Berlin and again affirmed the document, calling on heavy artillery to be withdrawn from the front lines, but the situation on the ground has only got worse.

Already this week the rebels have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict, and appear to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.

In televised comments, Putin blamed the renewed violence on Ukrainian forces: “The Kiev authorities have given an official order to start large-scale military operations practically throughout the whole line of contact. The result is dozens of killed and wounded, not only among the military on both sides but... among civilians,” Putin told senior state officials.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, said: “The west does not treat Russia as an equal partner, and this will make the conflict in Ukraine a bleeding wound for decades.” He blamed the west also for sanctions against Russia, which have combined with falling oil prices to deal a hefty blow to the rouble in recent months. German’s chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the sanctions should not be lifted yet.

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there are any, and denies even supplying military hardware to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.

The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with Poroshenko taking to Twitter on Thursday evening to say that if the rebels did not abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.

Much remains unclear about the bus attack in Donetsk on Thursday. Rather like an attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint this month that also left 13 dead, both sides have blamed the other. In the earlier incident, international monitors said it appeared that the bus had been hit by missiles fired by rebels.

This time, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said the attack had been carried out by “Russian terrorists”, while rebels said a Ukrainian “diversionary group” operating behind rebel lines was responsible for carrying out the attack. However, no further information about the group, which rebels said they had detained, has been forthcoming.


Kerry denounces pro-Russia rebels' missile attacks in Ukraine

Reuters in Zurich, Saturday 24 January 2015 21.05 GMT  

John Kerry, US secretary of state, said on Saturday he joined his European counterparts in condemning an assault by pro-Russia rebels on Mariupol, Ukraine, and called on Russia to end its support for the rebels.

At least 30 people died in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea, on Saturday. The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded when missiles struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.

“It is reprehensible that the separatists are publicly glorifying this and other offensives in blatant violation of the Minsk agreements they signed,” Kerry said in a statement issued while on a visit to Zurich.

Kerry said the separatists’ assault has been aided by Russia’s “irresponsible and dangerous decision to resupply them in recent weeks with hundreds of new pieces of advanced weaponry, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, in addition to continuing operational command and control”.

“We call on Russia to end its support for separatists immediately, close the international border with Ukraine, and withdraw all weapons, fighters and financial backing. Otherwise, US and international pressure on Russia and its proxies will only increase,” Kerry added.


EU Mulls Emergency Meeting over Russia-Ukraine Conflict

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 17:39

The European Union is considering an emergency meeting to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict after rocket attacks killed at least 30 people in Ukraine's strategic Maruipol port on Saturday.

Latvia, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency until July, called for an emergency meeting of the EU foreign affairs council next week.

"I call for extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting next week, fully support action by HR @FedericaMog addressing situation in UA," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics said Saturday via Twitter.

In a separate statement the Latvian Foreign Ministry said it was increasingly evident that Russia "is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict" in Ukraine in light of events in Mariupol.

"Those responsible for the aggression should be aware that the international community will undoubtedly and sharply react to further escalation," the statement said.

Earlier the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini denounced the rocket attacks saying in a statement that the escalation would cause a further deterioration in relations between the EU and Russia.

On Saturday Alexandre Zakhartchenko, leader of the self-declared Donetsk republic, announced the launch of an offensive on Kiev-controled Maruipol.

That assault has already caused at least 30 deaths and injured 90 people, according to provisional counts AFP obtained from Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin.

Mogherini called directly on Russia to intercede and halt the carnage.

"I call ... openly upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders and to stop any form of military, political or financial support," her statement said.

"This would prevent disastrous consequences for all. Those responsible for the escalation must stop their hostile actions and live up to their commitments."

Although the EU may adopt new sanctions against Russia in the event of continued escalation, thus far there has been no official debate on additional action beyond measures already approved and applied against Moscow after.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 07:37 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Greece elections: outcome may put country on collision course with European Union

Opinion polls give leftwing anti-austerity Syriza party a clear lead, but the party may not win enough seats to govern alone

Jon Henley in Athens, Sunday 25 January 2015 11.37 GMT

After five punishing years of austerity and recession, Greeks have begun casting their votes in a high-stakes election that could set their battered country on a collision course with the European Union.

Final opinion polls on Friday showed Syriza, which has pledged to overturn austerity and renegotiate Greece’s debt mountain, with a lead of between four and seven percentage points over its main rival New Democracy, with one poll putting the radical leftist party 10 points clear.

But while it seems clear Alexis Tsipras’s barnstorming alliance of Maoists, Marxists, Trotskyists, Socialists, Eurocommunists and Greens will comfortably see off the conservatives of the prime minister, Antonio Samaras, they are far from certain to win the 151 seats they need to govern alone.

Polling stations opened for Greece’s 9.8 million voters at 7am local time (5am GMT) and are due to close at 7pm. Initial exit polls, considered a broadly reliable indication of the likely final result, are expected soon afterwards, with a more accurate estimate about two hours later.

As many as seven of the 22 parties standing are set to gain the 3% of the vote needed to enter parliament. But although the winner collects an additional 50-seat bonus, recent polling has suggested that may still not quite be enough to give Syriza an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament.

Tsipras’s fierce anti-austerity, anti-bailout message has found an enthusiastic audience across a now visibly strung-out and worn-down country: since 2009, Greece’s GDP has plummeted by a quarter, its household income by more than a third, and joblessness has trebled, to 26%.
The Syriza party's poster reads 'the hope is coming' in an election campaign kiosk in Athens. The Syriza party’s poster reads ‘the hope is coming’ in an election campaign kiosk in Athens. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis /AFP/Getty Images

Swingeing spending cuts and soaring unemployment have seen around 3.1 million people, or 33% of the population, lose their social security and health insurance, leaving the country on the brink of humanitarian crisis. Some 32% of Greece’s population now lives below the poverty line, while 18% are unable to afford basic food needs.

“Light has won over darkness. Victory and a majority are within our grasp,” 40-year-old Tsipras told cheering supporters at his final campaign rally in Crete on Friday, promising to restore the “dignity of the Greek people”.

But the prospect of a Syriza victory has spooked creditors who worry Athens will seek a write-off of at least part of its massive €320bn debt. Some analysts fear a tough Syriza approach to negotiations could push Greece out of the eurozone, although Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, insisted on Friday this was not what she wanted.

Tsipras’s line has softened markedly in recent weeks, but several EU capitals are still alarmed by promises to cancel the most draconian budget cuts imposed as part of the country’s €240bn bailout package: the Syriza manifesto pledges, among other things, to reverse the worst wage and pension cuts, restore health insurance and electricity to the needy, and abolish unpopular extra “emergency” taxes.

If the party does need a coalition partner, its choices are limited. The extreme-right, anti-immigrant, Nazi-inspired Golden Dawn, several of whose 18 MPs are in jail awaiting trial for membership of a criminal organisation, may end up as Greece’s third largest party, but is not an option for them.

The Communist party has refused all cooperation with Syriza. Possible allies could include the new, centrist Potami (River) party, which wants root-and-branch reform of Greece’s dysfunctional state, or the populist Independent Greeks, who agree with Syriza that austerity has to end, but disagree on almost everything else.


Are Greek elections about to call time on five punishing years of austerity?

Historic elections could see disillusioned voters put leftwing party Syriza in power, sending a defiant message across Europe

Helena Smith   
The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2015   

A few days ago, two words in a splash of red appeared beneath the first-floor window of the art deco building at 18 Patriarchou Ioakim Street. Their message was unambiguous. “Everybody Syriza”, read the scrawl.

Anywhere else the graffiti might have gone unnoticed. But Patriarchou Ioakim is the central artery that bisects Kolonaki, perhaps the most gentrified and upscale district in central Athens.

Elina Papadatou, who works at Dolce Vita, the high-end confectioner’s opposite, confesses to being quite shocked when it suddenly appeared, as do the young women selling made-to-order evening dresses and wedding gowns – more than €3,000 apiece – in the showroom of the atelier behind the first-floor window. “After all, you couldn’t call Kolonaki a bastion of the left,” says Papadatou. “If anything, I’d say exactly the opposite.”

But as Greeks vote on Sundayin an election whose ramifications will be felt far beyond the borders of their country, quite a few in Kolonaki will not be supporting the conservative New Democracy party. Throwing traditional preferences to the winds, they will be voting for Syriza, the radical left anti-austerity party on course for victory and taking Europe by storm.

All over Greece, in middle-class enclaves eviscerated by the effects of austerity, others will be doing the same. “The bourgeoisie is going to play a major role in securing Syriza’s forthcoming victory,” says political scientist Dimitris Keridis, adding that wealthy friends, frustrated by exorbitant property taxes, have joined the band of turncoats. The exodus will be a repeat of the desertion the conservatives suffered when one in 10 voters migrated to the left in last May’s Euro-elections.

After five years of being subjected to the economic brutalities of neoliberal orthodoxy – the price of the greatest bailout in global financial history – Greeks are not the people they once were. Change is everywhere: in politics, financial affairs, the social fabric and states of mind. This election will be the biggest shift of all: a historic turning point in a country that, on the frontline of the euro crisis, has defiantly challenged the prevailing narrative from Brussels and Berlin.
The leader of Greece’s leftwing Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras. The leader of Greece’s leftwing Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Under the charismatic Alexis Tsipras, the radical leftists, who have been leading polls for the best part of a year, are on a mission. A once-derided political force is now determined to rock the foundation of Greek politics and, with it, Europe too. As the chief architect of austerity, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, should be watching with justifiable nervousness.

For Professor Constantine Tsoukalas, Greece’s pre-eminent sociologist, there is no question that, come Monday, Europe will have reached a watershed.

I first met Tsoukalas in January 2009, in his lofty, book-lined apartment in Kolonaki. For several weeks Athens had been shaken by riots triggered by the police shooting of a teenage boy. The violence was tumultuous and prolonged. Looking back, it is clear that this was the start of the crisis – a cry for help by a dislocated youth robbed of hope as a result of surging unemployment and enraged by a system that, corrupt and inefficient, favoured the few.

Tsoukalas knew that this was “the beginning of something” although he could not tell what. But with great prescience he spoke of the degeneration of politics – both inside and outside Greece – the rise of moral indignation, and the emptiness of a globalised market “that was supposed to put an end to ideology but, in crisis, has instead created this moment of great ideological tension”.

Six years later, following the longest recession on record, he is in little doubt that anger has fuelled the rise of Syriza. On the back of rage over austerity, the leftists have seen their popularity soar from 5% before the crisis to as high as 35% – more than the combined total of New Democracy and left-leaning Pasok, the two parties that have alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in 1974.

Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, the group that has been the other beneficiary of despair – but whose support has dropped amid revelations of criminal activity – may yet surprise if it succeeds in coming in third.

“The European policy towards Greece, to a large extent, has been determined by the will to experiment with the feasibility of shock therapies,” says Tsoukalas. “It worked, but the reaction is going to be a leftwing government. Europe cannot survive as it is. The rise of fascism … should be sufficient [evidence] to everyone that it has to change.”

If Greece’s rebellion was to occur in a coherent way, Tsoukalas, who is being fielded by Syriza as an honorary candidate, believes it would be only a matter of time before it was replicated in other parts of the continent. “These elections are important because they are a reminder to the people of Europe that there is another way out,” he insists. “That neoliberal orthodoxy is not an immovable problem.”

The business community, no ally of the left in a nation where communists were hounded for much of the 20th century, is bracing itself for the inevitable. But it has found it hard to conceal its anxiety. With bailout funds guaranteed only until the end of February – and negotiations with creditors at the EU, ECB and IMF still stalled over the need for further austerity – there are fears of a bank run, or worse.

Under the chandeliers in the hotel where the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce held its new year party last week, the financial elite was in an anything but festive mood. Simos Anastosopoulos, the chamber’s president, expressed fears over the country’s liquidity: bank depositors had been withdrawing a rumoured €1bn a day last week.

There was mounting concern that the economy would simply collapse if an agreement was not reached with lenders soon. “The government has liquidity of about €2bn but has obligations [in maturing debt] in the next few months that far exceed that,” he told me. “Syriza says we have enough money until June, but that is not the case. If negotiations are dragged out because of arguments over reforms, the damage to the banking system might have been done.”

But at 28 Veikou Street, not far from the Acropolis, such abstractions are of little concern. Here Syriza runs the Solidarity Club – initially set up as a food bank in March 2013 when stories began to surface of malnourished children fainting in schools. In recent months, its staff have focused on providing medicines.

“That’s the big problem now because so many are uninsured, without any access to the health system,” says volunteer Panaghiota Mourtidou. “People don’t have the money to go to doctors. If they have a toothache, they get terrified, because how the hell are they going to pay for a visit to the dentist?”

With its Che Guevara posters, Italian Euro-communist flags, chaos of boxes and tins, and makeshift furniture, there is something of a field-camp feeling about Veikou Street. But its army of volunteers are tireless. This, they say, is a battle to be won, a huge victory for the left that Greece will set in motion.

“We are conscious that we have managed to unite in a way that the left elsewhere has failed to do,” says Angeliki Kassola, a theatre director, drawing on her freshly rolled cigarette. “I’ve met lots of once-strident New Democracy supporters who say they will be voting for us because they are attracted to Syriza’s vision of democracy, justice, dignity – all the things that have been taken from us in the crisis.”

A steady stream of foreign sympathisers – from Spain, Italy and France – visited last week. Vincent Vetori and his wife Anne, who flew in from Paris to be in Athens for the vote, walk in, leaflets in hand. They have spent their Friday evening plastering the neighbourhood with posters bearing Syriza’s motto: “Hope is Coming.”

“Syriza is our hope in Greece,” says Vincent, 53, an entrepreneur. “In France the word ‘leftist’ has been stolen by a government that calls itself socialist but enacts rightwing policies. We want Syriza to win to help change the dynamic and create hope in Europe.”

 on: Jan 25, 2015, 07:32 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Our First Steps: Polypterus Walking Fish Study Reveals Clues About How Our Ancestors Evolved To Walk On Land

Cynthia Lee, McGill University

About 400 million years ago a group of fish began exploring land and evolved into tetrapods – today’s amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. But just how these ancient fish used their fishy bodies and fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes were at play remain scientific mysteries.

Researchers at McGill University published in the journal Nature, turned to a living fish, called Polypterus, to help show what might have happened when fish first attempted to walk out of the water. Polypterus is an African fish that can breathe air, ‘walk’ on land, and looks much like those ancient fishes that evolved into tetrapods. The team of researchers raised juvenile Polypterus on land for nearly a year, with an aim to revealing how these ‘terrestrialized’ fish looked and moved differently.

“Stressful environmental conditions can often reveal otherwise cryptic anatomical and behavioral variation, a form of developmental plasticity”, says Emily Standen, a former McGill post-doctoral student who led the project, now at the University of Ottawa. “We wanted to use this mechanism to see what new anatomies and behaviors we could trigger in these fish and see if they match what we know of the fossil record.”

Remarkable anatomical changes

The fish showed significant anatomical and behavioral changes. The terrestrialized fish walked more effectively by placing their fins closer to their bodies, lifted their heads higher, and kept their fins from slipping as much as fish that were raised in water. “Anatomically, their pectoral skeleton changed to become more elongate with stronger attachments across their chest, possibly to increase support during walking, and a reduced contact with the skull to potentially allow greater head/neck motion,” says Trina Du, a McGill Ph.D. student and study collaborator.

“Because many of the anatomical changes mirror the fossil record, we can hypothesize that the behavioral changes we see also reflect what may have occurred when fossil fish first walked with their fins on land”, says Hans Larsson, Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution at McGill and an Associate Professor at the Redpath Museum.

Unique experiment

The terrestrialized Polypterus experiment is unique and provides new ideas for how fossil fishes may have used their fins in a terrestrial environment and what evolutionary processes were at play.

Larsson adds, “This is the first example we know of that demonstrates developmental plasticity may have facilitated a large-scale evolutionary transition, by first accessing new anatomies and behaviors that could later be genetically fixed by natural selection”.

The study was conducted by Emily Standen, University of Ottawa, and Hans Larsson, Trina Du at McGill University.

This study was supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Tomlinson Post-doctoral fellowship.

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