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« Reply #10425 on: Dec 04, 2013, 07:46 AM »


Bangkok truce as police swap teargas for red roses

Yingluck Shinawatra's government opens doors to protesters in bid to defuse tension ahead of Thailand king's birthday

Kate Hodal in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 December 2013 18.27 GMT      

In a surreal turn of events, after days of fighting that left at least five dead and hundreds more injured, Thai police swapped teargas and water cannons for hugs and red roses in Bangkok on Tuesday as the embattled government opened its doors to protesters in a possible truce.

The largely tactical move was seen as an attempt to defuse political tensions ahead of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 86th birthday on Thursday. But protest leaders said the peace was only temporary, and that fighting would carry on "as long as it takes" until the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her government are ousted from power.

After a night of fighting between demonstrators and police in which rubbish trucks and bulldozers were rammed into barriers and fireworks and rockets were fired at officers, the mood in the capital on Tuesday had turned to jubilant.

Police stood down and dismantled barriers and razor wire, allowing protesters to wander freely among previously secured buildings and to snack on the lawn of the prime minister's offices. Policemen handed out red roses, posed for photos and sang love songs on ukuleles, while others snoozed in the shade. "We're done here," one policeman said with a smile. "We're going home."

But Suthep Thaugsuban, the organiser behind the protests that have rocked Bangkok for more than a week, said this was only a "partial victory".

"You cannot go back home yet," he told protesters at a rally. "We must continue our struggle."

Suthep, along with his Civil Movement for Democracy, aims to remove Yingluck's democratically elected government and install a "people's council" of unelected representatives, with the king – seen as the single unifying force in the country – serving as head of state.

Protesters view Yingluck as a puppet of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former PM who was ousted in 2006 in a military coup. He now lives in Dubai in self-imposed exile to avoid a corruption conviction that he claims is politically motivated.

Angered by an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return and quashed his corruption conviction, protesters rallied in their thousands to call for an end to the "Thaksin regime", although their numbers have dwindled as the days have worn on.

Suthep, a former lawmaker in the opposition Democrat party who served as deputy premier in the last government, has plans for further rallies on Wednesday and said full demonstrations would resume after the king's birthday, only ending "when we reach our goals".

"This isn't about political parties, it's about the people," he said. "The ultimate goal is to rid the Thaksin regime completely from Thailand."

Yingluck has offered to negotiate several times. On Tuesday she said she hoped all sides would come together for talks.

However, Suthep has said his movement will not stand for any negotiation. Nor will it abide by a dissolution of parliament, any form of coalition, or a new appointment for prime minister vetted by Yingluck and approved by the protesters.

He said he had clear reasons for an unelected people's council formed of "good people". "From a western point of view, 'democracy' is an elected government serving as the people's representative. Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people's [real] choices because their votes are bought."

It is unclear just what will happen next, with rumours circling of army involvement in the crisis, and many looking to a speech by the king on Wednesday for any insinuation of political unity or strategy.

Analysts warn Suthep's refusal to negotiate could spell disaster for Thailand's fragile democracy, putting it at potential risk of total upheaval.

"If he succeeds in his plans [to oust Yingluck], we will see huge turmoil in Thailand," said political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Thai Institute of Security and International Studies.

"When he refers to 'the people', he is not talking about the 67 million people in Thailand or the eligible voters among them.

"He's talking about a lot of people in Bangkok, and some in the south; so this is a big problem. If he somehow succeeds with this people's council, we will see a backlash."


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« Reply #10426 on: Dec 04, 2013, 07:51 AM »


Joe Biden arrives in China amid air zone tensions

US vice-president lands in middle of dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over skies above disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 December 2013 07.23 GMT      

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, has arrived in Beijing to meet senior leaders and attempt to reduce regional frictions sparked by China's new air defence zone.

Following an official welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, he will meet vice-president Li Yuanchao and then the president, Xi Jinping. He will meet the premier, Li Keqiang, on Thursday, in what was originally supposed to be a trip focusing on economic issues before flying on to Seoul.

Speaking on Tuesday from Tokyo, the first stop on his six-day north-east Asia tour, Biden said the US and Japan would work together to prevent any attempt by China to change the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region.

A state-run Chinese newspaper warned on Wednesday that Biden should not expect to make progress in defusing tensions if he repeats "erroneous and one-sided remarks".

The English language China Daily – often used to communicate messages to the outside world – added in its editorial: "If the US is truly committed to lowering tensions in the region it must first stop acquiescing to Tokyo's dangerous brinkmanship. It must stop emboldening belligerent Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to constantly push the envelope of Japan's encroachments and provocations."
 
On Tuesday defence ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng issued a lengthy statement attacking misunderstandings and distortions" about the zone.

He added that China's military was "fully capable of exercising effective control" over the area.

The statement reiterated that the zone was not aimed at any specific country, but added: "A very few countries must earnestly reflect on their actions and correct their wrong remarks and wrongdoings. Other parties concerned should also mind their words and actions … Other parties should not be incited, or send wrong signals to make a very few countries go further on the wrong track."

The long-running dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over islands in the East China Sea that are known as the Senkaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to China intensified in late November when Beijing announced it had created the air defence zone, which takes in skies over the islands.
 
The US does not want the row to escalate but is concerned about China's rising power and assertiveness in the region.

Washington has been downplaying reports of disagreements between the US and Japan over the issue; a senior administration official travelling with Biden insisted there was "no daylight" between the two countries.

Earlier in the day Biden told reporters in Tokyo that the US-Japanese security arrangement was "the cornerstone of security not merely in the Pacific basic but the cornerstone upon which our security is built for the next 20 years or more".

A second senior official said the US intended to call on China to "exercise restraint" and "avoid any other destabilising actions", including new declarations of air defence zones.

However Biden and officials travelling with him have stopped short of calling on Beijing to "rescind" its declaration – a demand made by the state department on Monday.

Speaking in Tokyo, Biden said he was "deeply concerned" about China's abrupt imposition of the zone, saying it would raise regional tensions and increase the risk of accidents and miscalculation.

Biden said he would raise US concerns with "great specificity" when he met the Chinese president.
China has rebuffed US calls to rescind the procedures governing the air defence zone.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, described the Chinese announcement of the zone as "a provocative attempt to unilaterally change the status quo" that increased the risk of inadvertent confrontation.

But on Tuesday the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told reporters: "It is not China that has escalated the regional tensions. It is that some countries keep playing on the issue for their selfish gains, and China is firmly opposed to them doing that."
 
Hong urged other countries to respect China's actions, which he described as "justifiable and lawful". He added: "China established it [the zone] to safeguard sovereignty and the freedom and order of flight in the related airspace."

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he and Biden had "confirmed we should not tolerate any attempt by China to change the status quo unilaterally by force".

The US raised hackles in Tokyo when it emerged that three US civilian airlines, acting on government advice, were complying with Chinese regulations and identifying their aircraft before flying through the zone. Japan, by contrast, has urged Japanese airlines to ignore China's demands to submit flight plans in advance.

US officials have insisted the move does not indicate "US government acceptance of China's requirements". To underline Washington's opposition two B-52 bombers flew into the area last week without notifying Chinese authorities. Japanese and South Korean military jets also flew through the zone in defiance of Chinese regulations.

"China's declaration of an air defence identification zone is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo, which can invite unexpected situations and is an extremely dangerous act," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters before Biden's meeting with Abe.

Washington does not take a position on the sovereignty of the strategically important islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially large gas and mineral deposits, but recognises Japan's administrative control over the territories and has said their bilateral security pact covers the islands.

*******************

Joe Biden praises Xi Jinping's ability to manage disputes

US vice-president's visit intended to focus on economic issues but is overtaken by row over China's new air defence zone

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 December 2013 11.22 GMT   

Joe Biden praised the Chinese president's commitment to managing differences candidly as he arrived in Beijing on Wednesday on a trip defined by regional disputes. The US vice-president's week-long visit to Japan, China and South Korea was originally intended to focus on economic issues but has been overtaken by the row over China's new air defence zone.

Biden said the US and China needed to expand practical cooperation and deliver results – and made his remarks about Xi Jinping's handling of disagreements – as he met vice-president Li Yuanchao in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, before dinner with Xi himself. He is expected to press Chinese leaders to avoid "destabilising actions".

He will meet premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, before flying to Seoul.

Earlier, Biden encouraged young Chinese citizens to challenge authority. Visiting the visa section of the US embassy with ambassador Gary Locke, he thanked those waiting for wanting to visit the US and added pointedly that he hoped they would see "innovation can only occur where you can breathe free".

He added: "Children in America are rewarded not punished for challenging the status quo ... The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old."

Speaking one day after global education rankings by the OECD showed Shanghai taking the top position in maths, reading and science, with Americans lagging behind many of their Asian and European peers, he added: "Even though some countries' educational systems are better than America's, particularly in grade school, there is one thing that's stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalised citizens or natural-born.

"It's an inherent rejection of orthodoxy."

***************

US vows to help Japan defend status quo as China air defence row escalates

Joe Biden stops short of calling on Beijing to rescind zone it imposed in dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands

Justin McCurry in Tokyo, Tania Branigan in Beijing, and Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 December 2013 14.54 GMT   
   
The US and Japan will work together to prevent any attempt by China to change the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, has said, on a visit to north-east Asia.

His comments came at the start of a week-long trip that will be dominated by rising tensions between China and Japan over a territorial dispute.

Biden, who will visit Japan, China and South Korea, is seeking to avoid escalation in the dispute, which intensified late last month when Beijing imposed an air defence identification zone (Adiz)] in an area of the East China Sea that includes the Senkaku islands – known as the Diaoyu islands in China – which Japan and China both lay claim to.

Washington has been downplaying reports of disagreements between the US and Japan over the issue; a senior administration official travelling with Biden insisted there was "no daylight" between the two countries.

Earlier in the day, Biden told reporters in Tokyo that the US-Japanese security arrangement was "the cornerstone of security not merely in the Pacific basic but the cornerstone upon which our security is built for the next 20 years or more".

Biden is accompanied on the Japanese-leg of the trip by Caroline Kennedy, the newly appointed US ambassador. A second senior official said the US intended to call on China to "exercise restraint" and "avoid any other destabilising actions", including a new declarations of air defence zones.

However, Biden and officials travelling with him have stopped short of calling on Beijing to "rescind" its declaration – a demand made by the state department on Monday.

Speaking in Tokyo at the start of a visit that was supposed to have focused on strengthening economic ties between the US and the region, Biden said he was "deeply concerned" about China's abrupt imposition of the zone, saying it would raise regional tensions and increase the risk of accidents and miscalculation.

Biden said he would raise US concerns with "great specificity" when he met the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Beijing later this week.

He stopped short of calling on Beijing to scrap the zone, calling for better communication between Japan and China, whose leaders have not held official talks since taking office. But he said China's move had "raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation".

China insisted it would not rescind the procedures governing the air defence zone, despite US calls for it to do so.

"The fact that China's announcement has caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents only further underscores the validity of concerns and the need for China to rescind the procedures," Jen Psaki, the chief spokeswoman for the state department, said on Monday.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, described the Chinese announcement of the zone nine days ago as "a provocative attempt to unilaterally change the status quo" that increased the risk of inadvertent confrontation.

While many countries – including the US and Japan – have similar zones, China's is controversial because it includes airspace over the disputed islands.

But on Tuesday the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told reporters: "It is not China that has escalated the regional tensions. It is that some countries keep playing on the issue for their selfish gains, and China is firmly opposed to them doing that."

Hong urged other countries to respect China's actions, which he described as "justifiable and lawful". He added: "China established it [the zone] to safeguard sovereignty and the freedom and order of flight in the related airspace."

Concerns have grown of an accidental confrontation that could escalate. China said last week it had scrambled jets to monitor flights in the airspace by the US and Japan.

But Shen Dingli, an expert at Fudan University in Shanghai on US-China relations, said: "The US has not sent armed aircraft … China in turn does not send its fighters to fly towards B-52s."

He added: "There is no need to resolve the dispute: the dispute does not exist. The US is messing around by not observing China's unilateral action. But in a similar way, China will soon be in a position to reciprocate by not observing [the US] Adiz."

China's defence ministry said in a statement posted on its website on Tuesday that countries whose aircraft were not reporting their flight plans to China were "irresponsible". But it added that China considered the zone to be one of co-operation rather than confrontation.

The zone covers more than 600 miles from north to south, above international waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China says all aircraft entering the zone must notify the Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified "emergency defensive measures". The rules apply to all aircraft passing through the zone, not just those heading towards Chinese airspace.

Japan and the US believe the zone is an attempt by China to assert control over the islands.

Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he and Biden had "confirmed we should not tolerate any attempt by China to change the status quo unilaterally by force".

Biden flew into Tokyo late on Monday faced with the delicate task of avoiding provoking China while demonstrating support for Japan, its main ally in a region already nervous about Chinese naval aggression and North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Behind US pleas for Japan and China to reduce tensions lie fears that an accident or miscalculation could quickly escalate into armed conflict.

The US raised hackles in Tokyo when it emerged that three US civilian airlines, acting on government advice, were complying with Chinese regulations and identifying their aircraft before flying through the zone.

US officials insisted, however, that the move did "not indicate US government acceptance of China's requirements". To underline Washington's opposition, two B-52 bombers flew into the area last week without notifying Chinese authorities. Japanese and South Korean military jets also flew through the zone in defiance of Chinese regulations.

But the decision to advise US civilian airlines to comply was less than the unequivocal show of support that Japan had hoped for. Japan, by contrast, has urged Japanese airlines to ignore China's demands to submit flight plans in advance.

"China's declaration of an air defence identification zone is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo, which can invite unexpected situations and is an extremely dangerous act," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters before Biden's meeting with Abe.

"Japan and the United States share the position that China's Adiz is unacceptable … I think [Biden] will head to China to discuss various issues, including this, with his understanding of Japan's position."

On Monday, Chinese officials attempted to exploit divergences in the approaches of Washington and Tokyo. Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in Beijing the US had showed a "constructive attitude" but dismissed Japan's "erroneous actions".

In an editorial, the Global Times, a tabloid published by the Chinese Communist party's official People's Daily, cautioned Biden against offering unrestrained support for Japan's position on the air defence zone.

"The only choice he has if he wants a successful trip [to China] is not to go too far in his words over there," it said. "If he openly supports Tokyo and wants to 'send an expedition to punish' Beijing, the Chinese people won't accept it."

Washington has refused to take sides in the simmering dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a strategically important archipelago surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially large gas and mineral deposits.

But the US recognises Japan's administrative control over the territories – reinforced just over a year ago, when Japan's government effectively nationalised the islands – and is obliged by its bilateral security treaty with Japan to defend its ally, should the diplomatic row escalate.


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« Reply #10427 on: Dec 04, 2013, 07:54 AM »


Australia's secret service raids homes of lawyer and ex-spy set to testify at The Hague

Australia bugged East Timorese cabinet before oil and gas revenue-sharing negotiations, pair prepare to claim

Associated Press
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 December 2013 08.59 GMT   

Australia's secret service has raided the Canberra homes of a lawyer and a former spy who intend to testify at The Hague that Australia bugged the East Timorese cabinet before sensitive oil and gas revenue-sharing negotiations.

The spying allegations come a month after revelations from Edward Snowden that Australia attempted to tap the phones of senior Indonesian officials in 2009 brought Australian-Indonesian relations to their lowest point in more than a decade.

East Timor will go before the permanent court of arbitration on Thursday and use the alleged espionage to challenge the validity of a bilateral agreement struck with Australia in 2006 over sharing seabed oil and gas reserves worth billions of dollars.

The Australian attorney general, George Brandis, confirmed that he had authorised search warrants that were executed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in Canberra on Tuesday. Documents were seized.

Brandis told the senate on Wednesday that the warrants targeted lawyer Bernard Collaery, who will represent East Timor in The Hague, and a former Australian secret intelligence service officer.

ASIO spies operate out of Australian embassies around the world. It is illegal to name serving or former spies.

Brandis's office would not confirm media reports that the former spy's passport had been confiscated, preventing him from giving evidence in The Hague.

Brandis told the senate that serving and former ASIO spies faced criminal charges if they revealed their organisation's functions. He said the raids were not conducted to help Australia fight the court case.

"The warrants were issued by me on the grounds that the documents [seized] contained intelligence related to security matters," Brandis said in a statement. "I have instructed ASIO that the material taken into possession is not under any circumstances to be communicated to those conducting those proceedings on behalf of Australia."

Collaery said the case would proceed without the spy witness.

"This is an attempt to intimidate our witness and to prevent the evidence going forward at The Hague," Collaery told Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Amsterdam. "I can't think of anything more crass than what has occurred," he added.

Collaery said the former spy alleged a team of ASIO technicians inserted listening devices into walls of cabinet offices that were constructed and renovated in the East Timorese capital, Dili, under an Australian aid programme in 2004.

East Timor's ambassador to Australia, Abel Guterres, said he was awaiting a statement from the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, before commenting.

Gusmao was in Sudan on Wednesday on an official visit. The East Timorese vice prime minister, Fernando Lasama, and the vice foreign minister, Constancio Pinto, both declined to comment.


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« Reply #10428 on: Dec 04, 2013, 07:56 AM »


Yasser Arafat died of natural causes, French investigators say

Scientific and medical experts rule out possibility that Palestinian leader was poisoned amid reports of high levels of polonium-210

Kim Willsher in Paris and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 December 2013 18.33 GMT   

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died of natural causes, French investigators have concluded. The team of scientific and medical experts found his death in 2004 was due to "old age following a generalised infection", ruling out allegations he was poisoned, it was reported on Tuesday.

Swiss scientists had previously reported "unexpectedly high activity" of radioactive polonium-210 in Arafat's body and personal effects, including his clothing, leading to accusations that he was assassinated.

On Tuesday, it was reported that the French investigators had ruled out poisoning in their report but that traces of polonium had been found.

A source told Reuters: "The results of the analyses allow us to conclude that the death was not the result of poisoning."

The information contradicts reports last month that the Swiss team thought it was likely Arafat had been poisoned after finding polonium levels up to 18 times higher than expected. However, the Swiss stopped short of categorically stating the radioactive substance had killed him.

Arafat's widow, Suha, said on Tuesday night that she was shocked by the contradictory conclusions of the Swiss and French teams who had examined the same samples from the body.

However, she insisted that both teams had reported higher than normal levels of polonium-210 and lead-210 in the samples.

"There is a doubt and that doubt is, did the poison in the body contaminate the outside environment, which is the conclusion of the French team? Or did something in the outside environment contaminate the body?" she told a press conference in Paris.

"Now I have to trust in justice and science and hope the experts manage to reach some conclusion."

She added: "I am shocked by the contradictions from the most celebrated experts in Europe."

Her lawyer, Pierre Oliver Sur, told journalists he and his team had examined both Swiss and French reports and compared the figures they contained. In some samples, the Swiss found more radioactive contamination than the French and in others the French found more contamination.

"Faced with experts with divergent conclusions ... we will continue the debate. It's like two sides of the same coin," he said.

"What we are looking for is a scientific certainty and that is what we will keep looking for."

He said he had not seen any report from the Russian experts, the third team to have examined the samples.

"We are starting from the same point. The figures are different, but they have arrived at the same conclusion: there is radioactive polonium and radioactive lead. This is a constant."

After Arafat's death in November 2004 at the age of 75 in a French hospital, doctors said he had succumbed to a stroke caused by a blood disorder. However, doctors in Paris said they could not establish the cause of the disorder.

In July last year, Suha Arafat filed a civil suit in a court in Nanterre against person or persons unknown for murder. An investigating judge ordered a murder inquiry the following month.

Arafat's body, buried in Ramallah, was exhumed last year so that separate teams of French, Swiss and Russian investigators could collect samples from his body and investigate them independently.

Palestinians have accused Israel of involvement in Arafat's death, but the Israeli authorities have denied the accusation, describing it as "unreasonable and unsupported by facts".

On Tuesday, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive body, said she could not comment on a report she had not seen, but she was still convinced Arafat had died as a result of foul play. "I am certain that it was not death by natural causes," she said.

Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, said the French results "come as no surprise, and their conclusion is only logical". The French scientists were the only credible and independent team to examine samples taken from Arafat's exhumed corpse, he added, pointing out that the Swiss scientists were commissioned by Arafat's widow, and the Russians by the Palestinian Authority.

"Nevertheless, some people will not look at the evidence and will keep on stirring this. Like all successful soap operas, it will not end as long as there is public demand for more," he said.


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« Reply #10429 on: Dec 04, 2013, 07:57 AM »


Hezbollah accuses 'Israeli enemy' of killing commander in Beirut

Lebanese Shia militants indicate reprisals likely for 'ugly crime'

Associated Press in Beirut
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 December 2013 08.05 GMT   

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Wednesday accused Israel of "assassinating" one of its commanders outside his home in southern Beirut.

A statement issued by the group said Hussein al-Laqis was killed as he returned home from work around midnight. It did not say how he died.

Lebanese security officials said assailants opened fire on Laqis with an assault rifle while he was in his car. He was in the car park of the residential building where he lived in the Hadath neighbourhood, some two miles south-west of Beirut, they said.

He was taken to a nearby hospital but died early on Wednesday from his wounds, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The statement accused Israel of responsibility for the killing. It said Israel tried to kill him several times, but had failed.

"The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame," the statement said. "This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this ugly crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance."

Hezbollah, which has fought several wars against Israel, has also been fighting alongside Syrian president Bashar Assad's forces in that country's civil war, sparking attacks across neighbouring Lebanon.

Laqis spent his entire life in the Shia group from the time of its inception until the last hours of his death, according to the statement. His son died fighting Israel in the month-long 2006 war.


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« Reply #10430 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:00 AM »


Boko Haram cannot be beaten by guns alone – analysis

Latest attack shows that major military crackdown has not been enough to silence Islamist militants in north of Nigeria

Simon Allison for Daily Maverick, part of the Guardian Africa Network   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 December 2013 17.36 GMT   

When Nigeria announced plans for a "major offensive" against Boko Haram earlier this year, it wasn't meant to take this long. Officials spoke in terms of weeks, a few months at most; and seemed confident that an overwhelming display of force would cow the Islamist militant group into submission.

The progress is quite encouraging and we believe that if things go on like this, we should be singing hallelujah shortly," said Doyin Okupe, a presidential advisor, just a week after the operation was launched in May.

And progress has been punctuated by consistent reports of military victories. Fifty Boko Haram members killed in an attack in September; 150 in a separate incident in the same month; 75 in a raid in October; 20 in an ambush in November; these are just a few examples from many. And the deaths have been accompanied by a steady stream of arrests and detentions of alleged Boko Haram members.

So far, so good – at least as far as Nigeria's political-military elite are concerned.

But while Boko Haram might be down, they're certainly not out, and this week they served up a bloody reminder that they remain a potent fighting force. On Monday, in the northern city of Maiduguri – a major stronghold for the group, and also one of the main targets of the Joint Task Force (JTF) crackdown – hundreds of Boko Haram fighters swooped on an air force base and a military barracks in a coordinated pre-dawn raid. Officially, 24 militants were killed and two soldiers injured, but the real death toll is likely to be far higher.

Once again there is a startling discrepancy between the official version and eyewitness accounts of these pre-dawn attacks on Maiduguri, said the BBC's Will Ross, reporting from Lagos. The lack of clarity is not helped by the fact that the mobile phone networks have been switched off for months. We are told only two military personnel were injured - an extremely surprising statement given that these co-ordinated attacks on the city's air base and other military barracks lasted for hours and left buildings as well as aircraft destroyed.

In recent months most of the violence has been in rural areas and Maiduguri had seemed far safer than it used to be. But this attack right at the heart of the military is an embarrassing setback and ought to lead to tough questions over security lapses."

The attack also raises questions over the Nigerian response – and whether a major military offensive is really the most effective way to deal with Boko Haram.

Admittedly, there are no easy solutions to the Boko Haram problem, and the government must do something. The militant group remain one of the most deadly organisations in Africa, responsible for more than 1,600 civilian deaths in the last four years. Most recently, they were thought to be responsible for the unlawful killing of 115 people in late October and early November; a killing spree that Amnesty International said may constitute a crime against humanity.

However, the Nigerian crackdown has been implicated in similarly disturbing crimes.

Human Rights Watch has documented allegations of violations against Nigerian security forces including: indiscriminate and arbitrary arrests; detention without trial; torture and mistreatment of detainees; forced disappearance of scores of suspects; and extra-judicial killings," said Human Rights Watch's Nigeria researcher, Mausi Segun, speaking to the Daily Maverick from Abuja. "Our research shows that most of these abuses peaked in the weeks following the imposition of a state of emergency in May until late June. Hundreds of young men arrested during raids and military screening exercises have neither been seen by family members or lawyers nor charged to court for any offence. The Borno state Specialist Hospital and morgue records from mid-May to early July show a marked increase in the number of corpses deposited in the morgue by soldiers from the military detention center (Giwa barracks) in Maiduguri."

Nigeria, in other words, is fighting fire with fire – and, if the Maiduguri attack is anything to go by, it doesn't appear to be diminishing the Boko Haram threat, just forcing the group to change tactics.

As Segun explains: "While until [Monday], Boko Haram's attacks in major metropolises like Maiduguri had reduced from about early July, the group at about the same time stepped up attacks in rural towns and villages particularly in Borno and Yobe States. From our media monitoring records, we can estimate that more than 700 people have died in over 40 attacks since May 2013. Boko Haram is also abducting young women and using young boys as fighters and for intelligence gathering."

However, Institute for Security Studies senior researcher David Zounmenou argues that the military offensive should not be written off. "It's difficult to say if it is a success or failure," he said. "One thing that is clear is that it shows the determination of the government to step up the game and take on Boko Haram militarily. This changes the parameters of the conflict…many insurgents have been found, many arrested, but they are dealing with a threat that is very diffuse, that doesn't have much leadership structure or wear a uniform."

Having said that, Zounmenou emphasises that the military approach can only work if part of a three-pronged approach that addresses some of the root causes of the problems: in addition to the soldiers, the Nigerian state must address the socio-economic conditions that produce an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish; and address the corruption and lack of transparency within the political elite which has produced a generation that feel disenfranchised, particularly in the north.

Human Rights Watch's Segun concurs: "Human Rights Watch has consistently called on the Nigerian government to take measures to address factors that give rise to militancy not only in the north east but all over the country. These include lack of equal access to education, health and other social services; endemic government corruption; and the failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for religious, ethnic and inter-communal violence and killings."

It's a long, difficult list of problems – none of which can be solved by guns and soldiers alone, no matter how major the offensive.


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« Reply #10431 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:03 AM »

Nigerian man rescued from sunken boat after three days trapped at bottom of Atlantic – video

Simon Allison for Daily Maverick, part of the Guardian Africa Network   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 December 2013 17.36 GMT

Harrison Odjegba Okene, a Nigerian cook, is found by divers after surviving for three days in an air pocket on a sunken tugboat at the bottom of the Atlantic. Divers from the Dutch company DCN Diving are looking for dead bodies when Okene grabs one of the divers' hands. The diver uses hot water to warm him up, attaches an oxygen mask to him and safely returns him to the surface

Click to watch: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/dec/04/nigerian-rescued-sunken-boat-trapped-atlantic-video


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« Reply #10432 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:04 AM »

December 3, 2013

Jihadist Groups Gain in Turmoil Across Middle East

By ROBERT F. WORTH and ERIC SCHMITT
INT

WASHINGTON — Intensifying sectarian and clan violence has presented new opportunities for jihadist groups across the Middle East and raised concerns among American intelligence and counterterrorism officials that militants aligned with Al Qaeda could establish a base in Syria capable of threatening Israel and Europe.

The new signs of an energized but fragmented jihadist threat, stretching from Mali and Libya in the west to Yemen in the east, have complicated the narrative of a weakened Al Qaeda that President Obama offered in May in a landmark speech heralding the end of the war on terrorism. The leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, raised warnings in an interview on CNN on Sunday when they said that Americans were “not safer” from terrorist attacks than in 2011.

The concerns are based in part on messages relayed this year by Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s overall leader, indicating that he views Syria — where the number of jihadist rebels and foreign fighters is steadily rising — as a promising staging ground.

Some analysts and American officials say the chaos there could force the Obama administration to take a more active role to stave off potential threats among the opposition groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But striking at jihadist groups in Syria would pose formidable political, military and legal obstacles, and could come at the cost of some kind of accommodation — even if only temporary or tactical — with Mr. Assad’s brutal but secular government, analysts say.

“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”

It is not clear whether or when the White House would be willing to make such an abrupt shift in approach after years of supporting the Syrian opposition and calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster. It would certainly require delicate negotiations with Middle Eastern allies who were early and eager supporters of Syrian rebel groups, notably Saudi Arabia.

One growing source of concern is the number of Muslims from Western countries who have gone to fight in Syria and might eventually return home and pose a terrorist threat. Analysts say at least 1,200 European Muslims have gone to Syria since the start of the war to join the fight, and dozens of Americans.

Across the region, a rising tide of Islamist militancy — fueled partly by sectarian violence and partly by the collapse of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the face of opposition from the country’s military — has contributed to a recent wave of attacks, including deadly bombings in Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula as well as the daily carnage in Syria and Iraq.

The violence has underscored the continuing disarray across the Middle East in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Above all, it is the chaos of Syria, where foreign jihadis appear to be building to a critical mass and have overwhelmed the Western strategy of support for the moderate opposition, that could drive the Obama administration toward greater involvement, analysts say.

But it is not at all clear what form that involvement might take. American officials are unlikely to open a new front of drone strikes in Syria. Other options carry large risks. In early October, American commandos carried out raids in Libya and Somalia aimed at capturing terrorist suspects. The Libya raid was successful; the one in Somalia was not.

To some extent, infighting among the jihadist groups in Syria has recently mitigated the threat there, but it is not clear how long that will last. Mr. Zawahri sent an envoy, Abu Khalid al-Suri, in an effort to resolve disputes between the two main factions, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“To the extent that I am concerned about Al Qaeda the brand, it’s that it is clearly expanding its affiliates, both in number and in some cases in capability,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview. “We’ve got to watch and determine which ones are local, which ones are regional, and which ones are global, and each requires a different approach.”

Those agendas can easily overlap and change, and one place where that appears to be happening is Yemen, the home to Al Qaeda’s most organized and threatening affiliate. A series of clashes in the past month between Zaydi Muslim militia fighters and hard-line Sunnis in Yemen’s remote northwest has led to calls for a wider religious war, and there are reports of training camps being established for that purpose, Yemeni officials say.

In Yemen, as in Syria, this sectarian dynamic may appear to divert the militants’ attention away from the West. But the accompanying radicalization and militancy creates “the perfect environment for Al Qaeda” in a country where the terrorist group already has a strong foothold, said one Yemeni official.

Even as an American drone campaign continues to kill people suspected as militants in Yemen, the Qaeda affiliate based there gained at least $20 million in ransom payments earlier this year from the governments of Qatar and Oman, which paid to free two groups of European hostages, according to American and Yemeni officials. That is enough to fuel their operations for years, the officials said.

A string of recent deadly attacks on Yemeni military targets has also made clear that Al Qaeda “has infiltrated our security services” to a greater extent, the Yemeni official said. In one of those attacks, a band of six jihadists disguised in army uniforms commandeered a military post with dozens of soldiers inside and held it for three days, repelling repeated efforts to free the men.

In addition to the rising number and deadliness of attacks, there are signs of possible cross-pollination among some of the jihadist groups around the region. American officials say that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has regular contact with jihadist groups in Lebanon and in the Sinai Peninsula, where there have been near-daily attacks since the Egyptian military ousted the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.

Despite extensive Egyptian military efforts to confront them, the Sinai militant groups remain strong and have powerful new weapons — including surface-to-air missiles that could take down airliners — obtained from Libya after its civil war, said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based security analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The disarray in Libya, where the weak transitional government is largely hostile to the nation’s fractious militias, is also a source of increasing concern. Terrorism analysts say southern Libya has become a safe haven for a range of jihadists. “All of our regional partners are very afraid of the instability they see emanating from southern Libya,” said Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahue II, the commander of American Army forces assigned to Africa.

Other extremist groups are redoubling their efforts across Africa. Last month the State Department branded Boko Haram, the homegrown Islamist insurgent movement in Nigeria, as a foreign terrorist group. Its attacks have left thousands dead in a decade.

“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers,” said William McCants, an expert on jihadist movements and a former senior adviser at the State Department. “It seems we are back to counterterrorism as a guiding focus for American policy.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 4, 2013

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect reference to an episode involving four French hostages who were released in October, reportedly after the payment of a ransom exceeding $27 million. They were held by the militant group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, not by Boko Haram.


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« Reply #10433 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:10 AM »


Lorry carrying radioactive material stolen in Mexico

UN's atomic watchdog says lorry was taking cobalt-60 from a hospital to a radioactive waste storage centre when it was stolen

Reuters in Vienna
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 December 2013 11.27 GMT   

Thieves have stolen a lorry in Mexico carrying a dangerous radioactive material used in medical treatments, the UN atomic watchdog has said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is based in Vienna, said it had been informed by Mexican authorities that the lorry, which was transporting cobalt-60 from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a radioactive waste storage centre, was stolen in Tepojaco near Mexico City on Monday.

"At the time the truck was stolen, the [radioactive] source was properly shielded. However, the source could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged," the IAEA said on Wednesday.

The IAEA has offered to assist Mexican officials, who are searching for the material and have alerted the public.


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« Reply #10434 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:12 AM »

Police: Activist leader of Brazil’s Guarani tribe stabbed to death

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 18:15 EST

An indigenous leader who for decades fought for his people’s right to live on their ancestral lands, was murdered in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state, police said Tuesday.

Ambrosio Vilhalva, a Guarani tribal elder, was stabbed to death Sunday at the entrance of his community known as Guyra Roka, according to press reports and London-based group Survival International, which champions the rights of indigenous people worldwide.

Brazilian federal police confirmed his death but gave no further details.

Vilhalva was found dead in his hut, with multiple knife wounds, Survival said, adding that the tribal chief had been repeatedly threatened in recent months.

However a news website from the area quoted local civilian police as saying the Guarani leader was killed by his father-in-law as a result of a family dispute.

“The story is full of contradictions and the case is under investigation,” the website Dourados Informa quoted police inspector Benjamin Lax as saying.

Survival meanwhile noted that Vilhalva had starred as the main character in the award-winning film “Birdwatchers”, which portrays the Guarani tribe’s desperate struggle for their land.

Guarani Indians, whose total population in Brazil is estimated at 46,000, have been trying to recover a small portion of their original territories, but face violent resistance from wealthy ranchers as well as soya and sugar cane plantation owners.

In October, Survival International highlighted alarming suicide rates among the Guarani.

“The tribe faces a suicide rate at least 34 times the national average due to the loss of their ancestral lands and constant attacks by gunmen,” the London-based group then said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10435 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:16 AM »

Venezuela investigates near-nationwide power outage

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 16:45 EST

A blackout that plunged much of Venezuela into darkness as President Nicolas Maduro spoke on TV was caused by a ruptured conductor in a transmission line, the government said Tuesday.

“The system is 30 years old and a failure of this kind has never occurred,” Electricity Minister Jesse Chacon, as the government continued to suggest that sabotage was behind the power cut.

Maduro blamed the three hour outage Monday night on what he said were “conspiracies” ahead of the country’s December 8 municipal elections.

“There are attacks on the electricity service to disconnect it for days,” he said. “They aren’t going to make us suspend the elections.”

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles derided the government’s explanations as “pathetic.”

“For once in your life be responsible,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Electrical engineer Jose Manuel Aller told AFP that the government’s explanation was dubious.

“Just before the blackout there was an oscillation in the network, which generally occurs when transmission limits are exceeded, causing a failure that activates the security systems,” he said.

He said transmission lines were long and vulnerable to a “weather event, rain, lightning or a storm.”

He also noted that the government had sent troops to protect the electrical system after a similar outage in the same place in September.

“It would be very difficult for someone to gain access to the system,” he said.

Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver, is struggling to establish the stature and following enjoyed by his political mentor Chavez, who died of cancer in March.

The December 8 municipal elections are considered a test of Maduro’s popularity and performance since taking power.

Chacon said the outage hit the metropolitan Caracas region and states in central and western Venezuela.

He said it started in the same place where a blackout in September left 70 percent of the country without power for at least three hours.

Then, too, the leftist Maduro blamed his political opponents.

State-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela said its facilities were operating normally.

In Caracas, cars drove through darkened streets. Only hotels and other buildings with emergency generators had some light.

In 2010 Chavez imposed severe electricity rationing because of what he called problems with Venezuela’s main hydroelectric dam and wasteful use of energy.

In April, Maduro declared another electricity emergency and extended it in August for another 90 days, even though he said the sector had improved considerably.

Monday’s power outage struck at around 8:10 pm (0040 GMT). Power began being restored less than an hour later.

Despite being one of the world’s largest oil producers, Venezuela is regularly affected by power cuts.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10436 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:20 AM »

Human ancestor was less-chimp-like than thought

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 14:32 EST

The last common ancestor of Man and Ape was not a knuckle-walking, tree-swinging hominid resembling today’s chimpanzee, said a study Tuesday challenging some long-held theories of human evolution.

Rather than a prototype chimp as commonly believed, our common forefather was an ape unlike any that exists today.

From it, humans and modern-day apes evolved into two completely different directions, according to research published in the journal Nature Communications.

“The majority of palaeoanthropologists tend to assume that the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans looked like a chimpanzee,” said anatomical scientist Sergio Almecija of the Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York.

“However, there is growing evidence suggesting that the… great apes are not ‘living time machines’ reflecting our past, but that they have also evolved since their lineage split from that of humans millions of years ago.”

Almecija and a team from the United States and Spain base their conclusions on the study of a femur from an ape dubbed “Millennium Man” that lived in Kenya some six million years ago.

Theirs was the first study to compare Millennium Man’s physiology not only to humans and living apes, but also fossil apes that lived in the Miocene period some 23 to 5.3 million years ago.

Their analysis placed the tree-climbing, upright-walking specimen, scientific name Orrorin tugenensis, into an evolutionary bracket between the unidentified common human-ape ancestor and the line that led to modern homo sapiens.

This, in turn, filled in some evolutionary knowledge gaps, and showed the common ancestor was likely very similar to Orrorin and very different to modern chimps — which diverged with humans about 7-6 million years ago.

“Our… reconstruction reveals that some Miocene apes represent a more appropriate model for the ancestral morphology from which hominins (humans and their ancestors) evolved than do (living) great apes,” said the study.

The last common ancestor, whose identity remains uncertain, most likely walked around on all fours like today’s apes, but leaning on its palms instead of front knuckles, said Almecija.

Like the Miocene apes, it would have had smaller hands and shorter, straighter fingers than modern chimps, and probably did not swing through the trees hanging from branches — instead shuffling about the canopy on all fours, sometimes upright, grabbing onto branches for support.

The Miocene had a far greater diversity of apes than the world today, said Almecija.

But since they did not look or move like today’s chimp, Man’s closest living genetic relative, they were largely overlooked in the study of human evolution.

“Living apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) have long and independent evolutionary histories of their own, and their modern anatomies should not be assumed to represent the ancestral condition for our human lineage,” said Almecija.

“To understand the origins of human bipedalism, scientists should stop assuming a ‘chimpanzee starting point’,” he told AFP.

Such assumptions may lead to “strongly misguided hypotheses on the actual pathway of human evolution,” according to the study.


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« Reply #10437 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:21 AM »

Brain imaging study shows ‘stark difference’ in neural wiring of men and women

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 11:06 EST

Women aren’t very good at reading maps, and men are incapable of multi-tasking.

At first glance they might seem like a couple of hoary old stereotypes from the battle of the sexes. But are they?

A new study looking at the neural wiring of the male and female brain has concluded that there may be some truth to commonly held beliefs about what makes men and women tick.

The study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, has found striking differences between the way that men’s and women’s brains are wired to work.

The study, one of the largest ever conducted scrutinizing the “connectomes” that link different parts of the brain, was carried out by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

A total of 949 individuals (521 females, 428 males) aged between eight and 22) underwent diffusion tension imaging (DTI), a sophisticated water-based imaging technique that can highlight and map out the fiber pathways of the brain.

The study found a greater degree of neural connectivity from front to back within one hemisphere in males, suggesting brains were wired to facilitate connectivity between perception and co-ordinated action.

Women’s brains meanwhile were wired between left and right hemispheres, indicating they facilitated communication between the analytical and intuition, the study found.

“These maps show us a stark difference — and complementarity — in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others,” said Ragini Verma, a radiology department professor at Perelman who worked on the study.

The study reported that on average men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task, such as navigating.

Women meanwhile were likelier to have a superior memory and social cognition skills — making them better equipped for multi-tasking and creating solutions which could work for a group.

“It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are,” said one of the study’s authors, Ruben Gur.

“Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related.”

The study noted only a few gender differences in the connectivity in children under 13, but found more pronounced differences in 14 to 17-year-olds and young adults older than 17.


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« Reply #10438 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:22 AM »

ESA’s ‘Rosetta’ spacecraft on track for historic January 2014 comet landing

By Robin McKie, The Observer
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 7:44 EST

Hundreds of millions of miles away and 10 years after launch, a European spaceship could be on the brink of discovering how life appeared on Earth

At precisely 10am GMT on 20 January next year, a tiny electronic chip inside Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft will flicker into life. The robot probe will then be several hundred million miles from Earth, an orbit that will be bringing it closer and closer to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a massive ball of ice, dust and organic materials that orbits the Sun every six and a half years.

Rosetta’s electronic wakeup call will trigger circuits, heaters and instruments and bring the probe, which has been in hibernation for two and a half years, slowly back to life in preparation for its landing on the comet, one of the most spectacular feats of space exploration ever planned.

Comets are made of rubble left over from the solar system’s birth 4.6 billion years ago, and by studying one up close and personal scientists hope they will be able to reconstruct the history of our own neighbourhood in space. For good measure, many astronomers believe that most of the water that makes up our oceans was provided by comets crashing into Earth during its remote past. Others argue that complex organic materials – including amino acids – were also brought to our planet by these spectacular celestial visitors and may have played an important role in the first appearance of life here.

As European Space Agency scientist Detlef Koschny puts it: “Understanding the composition of comets will teach us about how Earth came into being and about the ingredients that allowed the formation of life.”

The problem is that comets are tricky objects for spacecraft to get near. Most swoop into the inner solar system on unpredictable orbits, burn brightly but briefly as they pass near the Sun and then head off again into the darkness of deep space. Past missions have either had to fly past comets at speed or crash into them in the hope that the material spewed out would reveal clues about their interiors.

Rosetta, built and launched by the space agency at a cost of €1bn, is in a different league, however. It has been designed not to intercept but to stalk a comet, in particular one with a known, stable orbit round the Sun – 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Launched on 2 March 2004, the probe has been put through a complex set of manoeuvres by the space agency’s operations team. These have included three close flybys of Earth and one of Mars, which have turned Rosetta’s roughly circular path round the Sun into a long elongated orbit that has taken it in behind the comet so that the probe is now following its quarry as it heads into the inner solar system. “It’s a bit like cosmic billiards,” says Mark McCaughrean, the agency’s senior scientific adviser.

After nine years, Europe’s comet chaser is now closing in and gradually throttling down as it approaches its target. “When we catch up with Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will be moving more or less at walking speed with relation to the comet,” says Matt Taylor, project scientist.

In May, Rosetta, named after the stone that helped archaeologists to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs, will make its last major course correction, allowing it to catch up by August, circle its target, map its surface and in November finally place a lander, called Philae, on it (Philae is an island in the Nile and home of an obelisk that was used in conjunction with the Rosetta stone).

Then, as the comet – which is about 2.5 miles wide – makes its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015, Rosetta will analyse the plumes of water vapour and gas and the geysers of organic material that will erupt into space as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko heats up and sends out a great glowing tail of gas and filaments behind it.

“Rosetta is going to be the first spacecraft to track the life of a comet as it arcs towards the Sun,” says Paolo Ferri, head of solar and planetary operations for the space agency. The resulting data and images promise to be dramatic, to say the least.

But first, that wakeup call on 20 January has to work. “If the alarm fails and Rosetta does not rouse itself, we will be in trouble,” McCaughrean admits. “On the day, we will all be waiting in the control room, anxious to hear a signal from Rosetta. However, it will take several hours for the craft to complete its wakeup procedures before it transmits a message to Earth to let us know it is alive and well. It will be a nerve-wracking day.”

Given that Rosetta travelled through space in a fully operational mode for the first seven years of its flight to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it might seem strange that space engineers switched it off in 2011 just as it was entering the last phase of its journey. Why put it into hibernation? The answer lies with the probe’s complex orbit. For most of its flight, Rosetta orbited relatively close to the Sun so that its solar panels could provide the craft with power. But in 2011, it had to swing out into deep space to make its rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“Rosetta’s enormous distance from the Sun, and the weakness of the sunlight falling on its solar panels, meant that it could not produce enough electricity to run its sub-systems, so we had to shut down all but a few essentials,” says Taylor. All the space agency can do now is hope the probe’s alarm clock works and wakes it from its deep-space slumber next month.

Not that scientists’ headaches will disappear once Rosetta phones home. The makeup of its quarry also presents problems. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was selected to be Rosetta’s target because its path round the Sun is a regular, frequent one. “That means we have a very good idea what its path is, so we can track it and follow it,” says McCaughrean.

But there is a downside to picking a comet that spends much of its orbit within the inner solar system. Its precious volatile constituents are boiled off its surface as it makes repeated close approaches to the Sun. “Ultimately this can change a comet’s icy surface until it looks more like a blob of asphalt,” says McCaughrean. “That’s not ideal.”

Fortunately, observations indicate that 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko only moved into its current orbit relatively recently after a close encounter with Jupiter pulled it in to the inner solar system from further out in the solar system. Its surface should be relatively pristine as a result.

Then there is the issue of gravity. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is so small that its minute gravitational field is barely strong enough to hold Philae on its surface. The little lander will have to anchor itself to the comet with a harpoon to stop being flung off into space. Similarly, its mothership Rosetta will have to use its thrusters to circle the comet because the latter’s gravity field is too weak to keep the probe in orbit round it at a distance of more than 30km.

Fully fuelled, Rosetta weighed a total of three tonnes at launch. More than half of that payload – about 1,670 kilos – consisted of propellant for the craft’s thrusters that have guided it to its goal and will be needed to keep it close to the comet as it swings through the inner solar system.

This latter task will become especially difficult as the comet gets nearer to the sun. At perihelion, its closest approach, plumes of vapour and gas pouring off 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface will hit the probe’s 14-metre-long solar panels like winds billowing out a sail. “We are going to have to be very careful how we approach the comet as we move round it,” says Taylor.

Neither is the business of navigating Rosetta helped by the spaceship’s distance from Earth. “The craft will be several hundred million miles from Earth when it starts to approach the comet,” says Taylor. “Signals will take tens of minutes to reach it from Earth so its flight has to be controlled semi-autonomously by onboard computers.”

On the other hand, the probe has already shown that its instruments are in good condition. On its route into deep space, Rosetta passed close to asteroid Steins in 2008 and asteroid Lutetia in 2010. The former was revealed to be a loosely bound, diamond-shaped pile of rubble, while the latter was shown to be a 60-mile diameter space rock pitted with craters. These images have only whetted scientists’ appetites for the data and powerful photographs that Rosetta and Philae will provide when they have reached 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“We simply don’t know what we are going to find,” says professor Ian Wright of the Open University, who is the principal investigator for Ptolemy, one of Philae’s key instrument packages. “This is the first time that a space probe has landed on a comet, after all.”

Philae is fitted with a drill that will carry samples from under the surface into the lander where these tiny pieces of comet will be tested by different devices. Wright’s instrument, a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, will analyse the ratios of the different forms, or isotopes, of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other elements found on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. For example, it will determine the ratio of atoms of hydrogen to atoms of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the comet’s ice. “If that is very similar to the ratio we find in water on Earth, that will be another piece of evidence to suggest comets provide Earth with its oceans,” says Wright.

Other instruments on Philae will include an alpha proton x-ray spectrometer that will study the chemical composition of sub-surface samples by irradiating them with x-rays and alpha particles (helium nuclei) while the Rosetta lander’s magnetometer and plasma monitor will study the comet’s magnetic field.

At the same time instruments on Rosetta will study the plasma, dust and ions being thrown off the comet as it travels close to the Sun. Given that Rosetta’s instruments are scheduled to operate for more than a year as the comet swings past the Sun, the information they will provide will transform our knowledge about comets.

Rosetta was originally approved as a followup probe to Europe’s previous comet mission, Giotto, which flew close to Halley’s comet in 1986. It was finally approved in 1993 and built over the following decade. “That means it has been constructed using late-1990s technology,” says Wright. “Its cameras are probably not as good as the one in your mobile phone today, for example. Nevertheless, it is a very ingenious, sophisticated spacecraft.”

Like the other scientists in charge of instruments on Rosetta, Wright is also aware of the risks involved in attempting to rendezvous with a comet and land on it.

“This is a mission that is pushing space technology to its very limits – which means there are risks involved,” he says. “I have worked on the project for 20 years, yet it could all go wrong at the last minute. That wakeup call in January could go wrong, for example. Thinking about it can affect your nerves. In the end, you have to learn to live with it.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013


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« Reply #10439 on: Dec 04, 2013, 08:25 AM »

Should Roman artifacts be sacrificed to discover secrets of the universe?

By Eric W. Dolan
RawStory
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 15:58 EST

The search for the fundamental particles that make up the universe has raised a question that currently lacks any formal guidelines: Should some cultural artifacts be sacrificed in the name of science?

Elena Perez-Alvaro of the University of Birmingham has questioned the ethics of allowing 120 lead ingots from a 2000-year-old Roman shipwreck be used for cutting-edge physics research.

“The fact that underwater heritage was legally – or not – excavated and recovered by a museum or a company and afterwards sold or transferred for its complete destruction in [a] scientific experiment for ‘the benefit of humankind,’ introduces a whole new legal aspect to the treatment and protection of this heritage,” she wrote in an article recently published in the scientific journal Rosetta.

The Roman lead was discovered 20 years ago in an ancient shipwreck off the Sardinian coast.

The National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari in Sardinia provided the lead to a physics lab in Italy known as the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) in 2010. The following year, the lead was used in the search for a special nuclear process named neutrinoless double beta decay.

The Roman lead was melted into a 3-centimetre-thick lead lining, but the parts of the bricks that contained inscriptions were preserved.

The lab is already buried under the Gran Sasso mountain to shield it from cosmic rays, but needed the lead to block other sources of natural radiation. Lead is often used as shielding material due to its high density and other properties. The cutting-edge experiment, however, required special lead.

Freshly mined lead contains unstable isotopes, which makes it slightly radioactive. These isotopes slowly decay over time into more stable substances. After spending thousands of years at the bottom of the sea, the Roman lead was radiation free, making it the best shielding material researchers found.

“Roman lead is essential for conducting these experiments because it offers purity and such low levels of radioactivity — all the more so the longer it has spent underwater — which current methods for producing this metal cannot reach,” Perez-Alvaro explained to SINC.

“Lead extracted today is naturally contaminated with the isotope Pb-210, which prevents it from being used as shielding for particle detectors”, physicist Fernando González Zalba from the University of Cambridge added.

The issue highlights a murky area of international law and an ethical dilemma.

Sunken artifacts are protected by UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage, Perez-Alvaro wrote. But the convention only addresses the commercial exploitation of cultural heritage — not their use in scientific experiments.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea calls for underwater artifacts to be “be preserved or disposed of for the benefit of mankind as a whole” — which raises the question of whether preserving history or advancing science is more beneficial for humanity.

“The use of underwater archaeological artifacts as a source for scientific purposes may be seen as ‘for the benefit of humankind ’, since it is undertaken with the purpose of increasing mankind’s knowledge of the universe,” she wrote. “However, preservation of these underwater archaeological artifacts and sites for future generations may also be ‘for the benefit of mankind.’”

Perez-Alvaro concluded that archaeologists and physicists needed to work out an agreement on the use of cultural artifacts.

“Compromise does not equal defeat; sometimes, it is the only path to success. Guidelines are necessary ‘for the benefit of humankind.’”

[Roman lead ingots from the Bou Ferrer shipwreck courtesy of Jose A Moya - UA]

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