Chile Fire Toll: 12 Dead; 2,000 Homes Destroyed (...and the fire is not yet controlled ... )
VALPARAISO, Chile April 13, 2014 (AP)
By GRACIELA IBANEZ and MARIANELA JARROUD Associated Press
A raging fire leaped from hilltop to hilltop in this colorful Chilean port city and stubbornly burned out of control in places more than 24 hours later, killing 12 people and destroying at least 2,000 homes. More than 10,000 people were evacuated, including more than 200 female inmates at a prison.
With hot dry winds stoking the embers, some of the fires that authorities had declared contained broke out again as a second night fell.
The blaze began Saturday afternoon in a forested ravine next to ramshackle housing on one of Valparaiso's 42 hilltops, and spread quickly as hot ash rained down over wooden houses and narrow streets that lack municipal water systems. Electricity failed as the fire grew, with towering flames turning the night sky orange over a darkening, destroyed horizon.
Eventually, neighborhoods on six hilltops were reduced to ashes, including one hill several blocks from Chile's parliament building. Flames later broke out again on at least two of those hills, burning out of control and threatening to consume other neighborhoods.
"It's a tremendous tragedy. This could be the worst fire in the city's history," President Michelle Bachelet said as 20 helicopters and planes dropped water on hotspots.
The fire destroyed at least 2,000 houses by Sunday evening, and the death toll rose to 12, Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said. Authorities warned that the toll could rise once the fires cool enough for them to search for bodies. Patricio Bustos, who directs the national forensics service, said DNA tests would be needed to identify some of the remains. More than 500 people were treated at hospitals, mostly for smoke inhalation.
It was already the worst fire to hit the picturesque seaside city of 250,000 people since 1953, when 50 people were killed and every structure was destroyed on several of the city's hills.
The fires were contained to the hills, but Bachelet declared the entire city a catastrophe zone, putting Chile's military in charge of maintaining order. While 1,250 firefighters, police and forest rangers battled the blaze, 2,000 Chilean sailors in combat gear patrolled streets to maintain order and prevent looting.
"The people of Valparaiso have courage, have strength and they aren't alone," said Bachelet, who cancelled a planned trip to Argentina and Uruguay this week.
Valparaiso has a vibrant port and is home to Chile's national legislature, but it owes its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to its colorful architecture, with neighborhoods hugging hills so steep that people use staircases and cable cars to reach their homes.
Unfortunately, many homes in densely populated poorer areas above the city center have been built without proper water or natural gas supplies, and many streets are too narrow for fire trucks to enter.
"We are too vulnerable as a city. We have been the builders and architects of our own danger," Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Castro said Sunday in an interview with Chile's 24H channel.
Chile's emergency response system generated automatic phone calls to each house in danger as the mandatory evacuations expanded. Many people stuffed their cars with possessions after getting these calls, and streets quickly became impassible. Water trucks and firefighters were stuck downhill as people abandoned their vehicles and ran. Some carried television sets and others took canisters of natural gas, fearing an explosion if flames reached their homes.
With so many hills aflame, water was in short supply even in established neighborhoods downhill. A water emergency was declared, cutting off non-essential supplies.
Shelters were overflowing. Bachelet toured some and announced that on Monday she would meet with each of her ministers to hear what each one is doing in response. "The situation is dramatic, but help is already arriving," she said.
Maria Elizabeth Diaz, eight months pregnant and trying to rest with her two sons in a shelter set up in Valparaiso's Greek School, said she had been hesitant to flee her home in Cerro Las Canas when she first learned that the hilltop above her was on fire.
"I didn't want to move because I was afraid they'd rob me, but I had to flee when I saw the fire was coming down the hill," she said. "I lost everything. Now I've been ordered to rest because I was having contractions. My little one knows that he can't arrive quite yet."
Another evacuee, Erica Gonzalez, 74, said her daughter and some neighbors had to carry her to safety because the fire burned her wheelchair.
"I was left in the street. My house was completely burned, and that of my daughter a block away," she said, visibly upset as she hugged a grandchild.
Some people returned home Sunday to discover total destruction.
"It's frightening, everything is burned," said Francisca Granados, who had spent the night with friends in the neighboring city of Vina del Mar.
Thick clouds of smoke surrounded the city prison, where nine pregnant inmates were transferred to a detention facility in the nearby city of Quillota. Another 204 female inmates were being evacuated to a sports arena. More than 2,700 male inmates will remain at the prison for now, prison guard commander Tulio Arce said.
Pro-Kremlin Gunmen Gain Ground in Crisis-Hit Ukraine, Kiev Urges U.N. over unrest
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 15:13
Pro-Russian insurgents gained more ground on Monday in Ukraine's separatist east while Kiev's Western-backed leader sought a way out of the crisis by proposing a referendum and seeking U.N. help.
The Kremlin added an ominous tone to the rapid escalation by saying that President Pig Putin had received "a lot" of requests from Ukraine's Russified rust belt "to help, to intervene in some form".
The crystallizing possibility of an invasion by some 40,000 Russian troops massed along Ukraine's eastern border drew European calls for further sanctions against Russia and the approval of more than $2 billion in U.S. and EU aid for Kiev's embattled interim administration.
But the pro-Kremlin militias who have seized state buildings in coordinated raids across economically depressed eastern Ukraine appeared only to be gaining confidence while paying little heed to the "full-scale anti-terrorist operation" announced with much fanfare in Kiev.
Protesters armed with rocks and clubs smashed their way inside a police station in Gorlivka -- a coal mining town straddling a highway between the regional capital Donetsk and the city of Slavyansk to the north that is now under effective militants' control.
The unrestrained crowd whistled and cheered as they ripped away metal shields from the visibly frightened local force before raising the tricolor flag of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk".
And Kalashnikov-wielding militants in the 300,000 strong city of Slavyansk -- who are already in control of the local police station and security service office -- also took command of its administration building before asking Putin to send in his troops.
"We call on Russia to protect us and not to allow the genocide of the people of Donbass (Donetsk region)," rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told a group of reporters.
"We ask THE PIG to help us."
The spreading unrest is rooted in the deep mistrust in the big industrial cities that form a corridor along Ukraine's Russian border of the new, nationalist government that enlisted Western support in toppling the Kremlin-backed authorities in February.
Pro-Kremlin protesters in rundown regions such as Donetsk and Kharkiv are now seeking local referendums on either broader rights or an option to join the Russian Federation.
Ukraine's interim president on Monday made a dramatic about-face aimed at defusing the tensions by backing a national poll on turning the centralized nation into a loose federation in which regions enjoyed broader rights.
Washington has previously advised Kiev to devolve powers in order to remove any argument Pig Putin might make about discrimination against Russian speakers -- a charge that has fed fears that Moscow's annexation of Crimea last month was only the start of long-term Kremlin plan to dismember Ukraine.
Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov furiously resisted the Russian-backed federalization proposal. But he said on Monday that he was ready to put it up for a national vote to prove that most shared his view.
"We are not against holding a national referendum," Oleksandr Turchynov told lawmakers. "I am certain that a majority of Ukrainians will support an indivisible, independent, democratic and united Ukraine."
Turchynov's announcement stops well short of meeting protesters' calls for each Russian-speaking region to stage its own referendum and it remains unclear how the militias -- or Moscow -- intend to respond.
The outcome of a national vote is uncertain because polls show most in Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking west supporting a strongly unified state.
The Ukrainian leader's office said Turchynov on Monday also asked U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for help "in conducting a joint anti-terrorist operation in the east" -- a comment that hinted of hope in Kiev that the global body might send a peacekeeping mission into the flashpoint east.
There was no initial response to Kiev's statement from the United Nations and Turchynov's office failed to explain what precise help Ukraine was requesting from Ban.
The pro-Kremlin gunmen's latest raids were especially unsettling for Kiev and Western leaders because of their remarkable similarity to events leading up to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The balaclava-clad gunmen were armed with special-issue assault rifles and scopes most often used by nations' crack security troops. They also moved with military precision and cohesion.
Russia has vehemently denied increasingly insistent U.S. and European charges of it being behind the unrest.
But the Kremlin on Monday did little to dispel concern in either Kiev or the West that it was planning to take a strategic hold of eastern Ukraine.
"Unfortunately, we are receiving a lot of... requests from the regions of east Ukraine, addressed personally to Pig, with a request to help, to intervene in some form," Russian news agencies quoted Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
"The Russian president is watching the development of the situation in these regions with great concern."
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday responded by announcing that was prepared to call a Ukraine crisis summit next week to toughen sanctions against Russia.
"It appears obvious that Russia bears some responsibility for this violence. We must act," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
"Should it be necessary, there can be a meeting next week of Europe's heads of state and government to agree new sanctions."
White House Confirms CIA Chief Visited Kiev
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 20:49
Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan visited Kiev at the weekend, the White House said Monday, amid U.S. ire over the storming of official buildings in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian gunmen.
"We can confirm that the director was in Kiev this weekend," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. Brennan's visit was part of a routine trip to Europe, and any claims that it was anything other than that by Russia were "absurd," he added.
Hollande, Obama Share 'Concern' over Ukraine Violence, Canada Vows More Sanction against Russia
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 19:52
President Francois Hollande of France and Barack Obama of the U.S. share the same "concern" over the violence witnessed in east Ukraine over the past few days, the French presidency said in a statement Monday.
The two leaders voiced their worry in a telephone conversation in which Hollande expressed hope that a Geneva meeting on Thursday between representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Europe "will start a dialogue" to defuse the situation.
Meanwhile, Canada vowed to impose fresh sanctions on Russia in concert with its NATO allies and blamed Moscow "thugs" for fomenting trouble in eastern Ukraine.
"Peace and stability is being threatened here in a way that has not been threatened since the end of the Cold War," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
Harper said the seizure of official buildings in eastern Ukraine by pro-Kremlin militants in orchestrated attacks over the past 48 hours was "patently, without any doubt whatsoever, strictly the work of Russian provocateurs sent by the Pig regime."
And he vowed "Canada will take additional measures" to further politically and economically isolate Russia.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird went further, calling the militants "thugs" who "have been crossing the border" into Ukraine from neighboring Russia.
He said there are "very clear and disconcerting parallels between what is happening in eastern Ukraine and leading up to the annexation of Crimea."
He noted that the militants are armed with weapons that "you can't buy at army surplus stores." "I don't know who the Russian federation thinks it's kidding when it tries to pretend it has nothing to do with them," he said.
Baird will travel next week to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia and Estonia to meet officials to discuss the escalating situation in Ukraine.
Canada, with the world's third-largest population of ethnic Ukrainians, was the first Western power to recognize the ex-Soviet state's independence in 1991.
In response to Russia's annexation of Crimea last month, Ottawa announced targeted sanctions against Russian officials it said bore responsibility for the crisis.
Romania President Tours U.S. Warship, Hails 'Solidarity' on Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 19:18
Romanian President Traian Basescu toured a U.S. warship stationed at the Black Sea port of Constanta on Monday, thanking the country's NATO allies for their "solidarity" in the face of Russia's actions in neighboring Ukraine.
Basescu visited the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, stationed in Constanta along with French reconnaissance ship Dupuy de Lome after the eruption of the Ukrainian crisis.
The standoff has seen Russia annex the strategic Crimean peninsula halfway across the Black Sea from Constanta, putting neighboring countries on edge.
Romania has urged NATO to redeploy its forces in eastern Europe, voicing concern over a potential spread of the crisis.
"The presence of U.S. and French ships is intended as a message of stability for the region and shows NATO's solidarity when security is threatened," Basescu said.
The U.S. had previously sent another destroyer, the USS Truxtun, to the Black Sea in March, when the crisis between Russia and Ukraine erupted.
Basescu hailed NATO's "continuous presence here aimed at reinforcing interoperability with the Romanian navy".
EU Ready to Call Summit Next Week to Toughen Russia Sanctions
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 18:56
The European Union is prepared if needed to call a Ukraine crisis summit next week to toughen sanctions against Russia, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday.
Fabius said after speaking with his U.S., Russian and German counterparts that "there are actions of great organised violence" in eastern Ukraine.
"It appears obvious that Russia bears some responsibility for this violence," he said. "We must act."
"Should it be necessary, there can be a meeting next week of Europe's heads of state and government to agree new sanctions," he added after an EU foreign ministers meeting.
Germany Sees 'Signs' Russia Backing Militias in Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 16:10
Germany said Monday there are many signs Russia is backing pro-Kremlin militias who have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine, including the arms, uniforms and appearance of their members.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman said Berlin "is worried about the further aggravation of the situation in the east of Ukraine", and that Merkel had discussed the issue with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron.
"There are many signs that the armed groups active in eastern Ukraine are receiving support from Russia," Christiane Wirtz told reporters.
"A look at the appearance, uniforms and weaponry of some of these groups hardly suggests that they are defense forces spontaneously formed by civilians."
Germany sees Russia as having "a particular responsibility to prevent a further escalation, and to contribute to stabilizing the situation in Ukraine," the spokeswoman said.
"This includes withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border, lowering gas prices and using moderate language. It must be clear that violence is not an option for resolving disputes, and this also goes for Russia."
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel -- at an event commemorating World War I with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls -- warned of resurgent nationalist forces both within Europe and "in its neighborhood".
Gabriel said that good news several months ago from Ukraine -- including an end to bloody violence against protesters -- had since given way to "an ongoing military confrontation" and the realization that "Russia is apparently willing to let tanks cross European borders".
"Suddenly, we are being dragged from the observer's position into a long smoldering and incendiary conflict, which is also demanding a price from Europe in the form of sanctions against Russia," he said.
Valls called for "dialogue" and "respect for international rules" in the Ukraine crisis, which he called "one of the most tense situations, the most difficult since the fall of the Berlin Wall".
Ukraine President Says Russia has 'Brutal Plans' for his Country
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 11:37
Ukraine's acting president accused Russia on Tuesday of harboring "brutal plans" to destabilize the southeast of his ex-Soviet country by backing separatist militants.
"Russia had and continues to have brutal plans," Oleksandr Turchynov told a session of parliament. "They want to set fire not only to the Donetsk region but to the entire south and east -- from Kharkiv to the Odessa region."
U.S. hints at more sanctions against Russia after tense phone call between Obama and Pig
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 14, 2014 17:52 EDT
Presidents Barack Obama and Pig Putin confronted one another in telephone talks Monday as a standoff over Ukraine escalated after the CIA chief visited Kiev and a Russian war plane “buzzed” a U.S. destroyer.
Washington said it was consulting European allies and hinted that more sanctions on Russia’s economy could be coming, to punish what it sees as Moscow’s sponsorship of pro-Russia violence in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin said that Putin used the latest in a string of tense phone calls with Obama to brand U.S. charges of meddling in eastern Ukraine as “unfounded.”
There were no immediate readouts of the call from the White House, which earlier was the first to say it would take place.
Unusually though, the White House did offer some details of CIA chief John Brennan’s travel, confirming Russian media reports that the top U.S. spy had flown into Kiev over the weekend.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had demanded an explanation over Brennan’s visit.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source as saying Brennan recommended Kiev use force against pro-Russian militants in eastern districts.
But Carney blasted claims that Brennan’s travel was anything but routine — and said he was revealing Brennan’s travel to rebut “false claims” laid by Russia.
“Senior-level visits of intelligence officials are a standard means of fostering mutually beneficial security cooperation, including US-Russian intelligence collaboration going back to the beginnings of the post-Cold War era,” he said.
“To imply that U.S. officials meeting with their counterparts (in Kiev) is anything other than in the same spirit is absurd.”
- ‘Provocative’ -
Carney also denied that a new Cold War was brewing between Russia and the United States, but an incident involving a Russian jet over the Black Sea and a U.S. cruise missile destroyer did hark back to the tensions of that earlier era.
The Pentagon said the Su-24 fighter made several low-altitude, high-speed passes near the USS Donald Cook, cruising in international waters off Romania over the weekend.
“The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook,” said Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
“This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on a professional interaction between our militaries.”
The vessel was sent to the Black Sea in a show of Washington’s solidarity with its Eastern European NATO allies concerned about Russia’s incursion into Crimea.
The plane was about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) from the American ship but did not directly traverse its decks, a military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The White House and the State Department signaled fresh sanctions could be coming for Russia over what Washington says are provocations in eastern Ukraine, including the seizure of administrative and police buildings by Moscow-backed armed groups.
“We feel very strongly that the pattern of activities bear striking similarities to the situation in Crimea ahead of the illegal Russian occupation and purported annexation of that part of Ukraine,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“All evidence points to the likelihood that these are individuals with strong ties to the Russian government who are causing these conflicts in eastern Ukraine.”
In a new sign of US pressure on European allies, Obama spoke to French President Francois Hollande by telephone.
Hollande spoke of France’s “determination to put in place, with its European partners, a policy of firm, progressive sanctions,” his office said.
In a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, Obama had warned that the EU and the United States should be prepared to meet further Russian escalations with tougher sanctions.
Washington and the EU have already imposed sanctions on key individuals in Crimea and officials around Putin and several Kremlin-linked firms.
Western nations have warned they could go after the Russian economy, including in the mining, finance and energy sectors, if Moscow does not change course.
But since such a move could also harm fragile European economies, they remain a political heavy lift for many of the continent’s leaders.
The EU agreed to extend a list of asset freezes and visa bans on top Russian officials, but held off on tougher measures until after a meeting of key officials from the EU, United States, Ukraine and Russia in Geneva on Thursday.
Psaki defended the meeting, amid complaints in Washington that it was irrelevant to fast-escalating events.
“We feel there should always be an opportunity and an opening for diplomacy,” she said.
As part of its steps to support Ukraine’s tottering economy, Washington also formally signed a $1 billion loan guarantee for Kiev, passed by Congress earlier this month.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew signed the deal with Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak in Washington.
Russia faces being 'frozen out' by west over Ukraine crisis
William Hague urges country to choose between diplomacy or long-term deterioration in relations and further sanctions
Rowena Mason, political correspondent, Paul Lewis in Washington and Alec Luhn in Donetsk
theguardian.com, Tuesday 15 April 2014 11.13 BST
The US and UK have urged Russia to bring the Ukraine crisis under control or face further sanctions as pro-Russia separatists remained in control of government buildings in the east of the country.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, warned Russia it faced being frozen out by the west for years if it did not stop destabilising Ukraine and declared London was prepared to take a financial hit from sanctions affecting business relations.
It followed a tense telephone call between Barack Obama and Pig Putin, on Monday night in which the US president told his Russian counterpart that Moscow would face costs for its actions in Ukraine and should use its influence to get separatists in the country to stand down.
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, added to the calls when he said on Tuesday Russia should distance itself "from the violent and unlawful actions of pro-Russian demonstrators."
Pro-Russian protesters cemented their control of administrative buildings in at least nine cities in the east of Ukraine on Monday, refusing to abide by an order from the central government in Kiev to leave or face being forced out by an "anti-terrorist operation".
The protesters were still in control of the buildings on Tuesday, despite another central government announcement that it was acting to restore order in the restive region.
Hague said it defied common sense for Pig to deny that the storming of government buildings in eastern Ukraine had been carried out by Russians.
After the "frank" phone call between Pig and Obama, Hague said Russia has to "decide whether it wants diplomacy and de-escalation or a long-term deterioration in relations with much of the rest of the world, which will have a serious effect on the Russian economy".
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme there was no defined red line that would force the Ukrainian government to fight back but the west would "know it when we see it".
"Because Russian activities and Russia's destabilisation of Ukraine has taken so many different forms I don't think we can set a fixed red line ... but they should take note of this: that yesterday we pressed – and indeed the European commission assured us – that these measures are ready, that they are in the final stages of preparation."
Hague said sanctions against senior Russian officials would require "sacrifices", including by London's financial sector, but defended the decision not to put sanctions on the Pig himself, saying it was "important to keep diplomacy as a possibility"
Obama told Pig on Monday that the US preferred a diplomatic solution to the crisis but criticised Russia for taking actions that were not "conducive" to such a path.
Obama told Pig that Kiev had made "real offers" to address concerns about the decentralisation of powers to local governments in the country, a senior US government official said. The "frank and direct" call came at the request of the Russians, he said.
But in a sign of rising tensions, the Pentagon said on Monday that a Russian military fighter repeatedly flew past a navy destroyer in the Black Sea 12 times over the weekend in a "provocative and unprofessional" move.
The unarmed fighter Su-24 aircraft, or Fencer, made 12 low-altitude passes of the USS Donald Cook on Saturday, coming within 1,000 yards of the vessel, according to the Pentagon. The incident lasted around 90 minutes and a Pentagon source said the USS Donald Cook "was never under threat" and "more than capable of defending herself".
Pentagon Says Russia Fighter Jet Buzzed U.S. Destroyer
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 21:14
A Russian fighter jet made several passes at low altitude near a U.S. destroyer cruising in international waters in the Black Sea at the weekend, the Pentagon said Monday, branding it "provocative and unprofessional."
The incident close to the Romanian coast further heightens tensions already inflamed by Russia's actions in Ukraine, where Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and stands accused of stoking unrest.
The U.S. vessel was sent to the Black Sea on April 10 in a show of Washington's solidarity with its Eastern European NATO allies concerned about Russia's actions.
Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "On April 12, a Russian Su-24 made numerous close-range, low-altitude passes in the vicinity of the USS Donald Cook, while the Cook was conducting operations in international waters in the western Black Sea.
"The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook. The event ended without incident after approximately 90 minutes."
He added: "This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on a professional interaction between our militaries."
During some passes, the Russian plane came close to less than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) from the American ship, a military official told Agence France Presse on condition of anonymity.
The plane "appeared to be unarmed," Warren said, adding that it fluctuated between flying up to several thousand feet in the air and almost skimming the water.
"It did not overfly the deck of the Donald Cook."
A second Su-24 was nearby, but was not involved, Warren said, warning: "The Donald Cook is more than capable to defend herself against two Su-24s."
The U.S. vessel was on a routine patrol, he said, and "was never under threat. This was simply a provocative act."
Warren added: "I have difficulty believing that two Russian pilots on their own would choose to take such an action. We've seen the Russians conduct themselves unprofessionally and in violation of international norms in Ukraine now for several months."
The USS Donald Cook has no aircraft but carries an array of armaments including torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Ukraine Falters in Drive to Curb Unrest in East
By ANDREW HIGGINS
APRIL 14, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s failure to enforce its own ultimatums and its appeal on Monday to the United Nations to send peacekeepers laid bare a grim reality for the shaky government in Kiev, where political leaders and security forces have few reliable ways to confront Russian-backed separatists in the restive east.
A deadline set by Ukraine’s acting president for the start of a “large-scale antiterrorist operation” in the east passed without any clear police or military intervention. Meanwhile, pro-Russian militants seized yet another government building in the Donetsk region, bringing to at least nine the number of eastern towns now swept up in an insurgency.
The country’s acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, asked the United Nations to send peacekeepers. But the move was widely viewed as an act of desperation, given that Russia holds a veto at the United Nations Security Council and is unlikely to assent to a such a request.
The confused and passive response underscored Kiev’s limited options in challenging pro-Russian militants and their backers in Moscow. Too assertive a response could cause heavy civilian casualties and play into Moscow’s narrative that Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are threatened and need protection. Too timid a response risks inviting more meddling from Moscow or giving free rein to local armed militants.
Ukraine’s armed forces, demoralized and underequipped, are so short of funds that when the government ordered them on high alert last month as Russian forces seized Crimea, a Ukrainian billionaire had to buy the military fuel. The businessman, Ihor Kolomoysky, now the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region next to Donetsk, said he put up around $5 million of his own money to pay for gasoline and batteries so that Ukrainian military vehicles could leave their garages and helicopters could get off the ground.
Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the State Security Service, known as the SBU, is so riddled with Russian informers that when John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, visited Kiev over the weekend on a supposedly secret trip, Russian state news media swiftly revealed his visit and declared it evidence that Washington was calling the shots in Ukraine and pushing for a crackdown in the east.
Even Alfa, an elite Ukrainian special forces unit that takes pride in taking on perilous missions, has appeared feckless in its response to the unrest in the east.
It lost an officer on Sunday to gunfire, apparently from the pro-Russian side in Slovyansk. The force has made no headway since in entering the city, never mind freeing government buildings there from unidentified gunmen.
As with other arms of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services, some members have divided loyalties and seem disinclined to engage in a fight against pro-Moscow militants that would put older women and other residents who support the gunmen in the line of fire.
Alfa, under investigation for its role in cracking down on protesters in the capital during the uprising against the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, did not deploy, as expected, to remove pro-Russian militants from Slovyansk on Monday.
The government’s failure to take back control of Slovyansk and other eastern towns has humiliated and infuriated Ukrainians who had hoped that the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych would allow their country to move out of Moscow’s shadow toward Europe.
“We have been left defenseless,” shouted a uniformed Cossack from a stage in Kiev’s Independence Square, the focal point of three months of protests against Mr. Yanukovych and now a magnet for those unhappy with what has happened since he fled to Russia in February. “I ask the government to give us arms — what we need is this,” he said, waving a Kalashnikov rifle to cheers from the crowd.
Photographs posted on social media websites on Monday showed Ukrainian tanks purportedly on the main road north of Slovyansk, suggesting that the Kiev government was gearing up for a counterattack or at least a show of force to appease critics who say that it has not done enough to protect eastern Ukraine from the fate of Crimea, which Russia annexed last month.
The rebellion in Donetsk and other eastern provinces presents Kiev with a choice of using extensive force that might only expand so far modest public support in the east for the militants or of simply pleading for calm, a course that has so far only emboldened the pro-Russian rebels. It is a dilemma that would not be easy even if Ukraine had a loyal security and military machine, but not having one makes the choice far more difficult.
The plea for help to the United Nations was highly unlikely to be met as Russia, a permanent member of the security council, would almost certainly veto any move backed by the West to send peacekeepers. Russia agreed last month to let the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe send monitors to eastern Ukraine, but they confine themselves to writing reports.
All this leaves Ukraine largely on its own to fight off a well-coordinated campaign of attacks on government buildings that it denounces as Russian aggression but that it has so far been unable to prove incontrovertibly involves Russian soldiers, agents or money. Having already lost Crimea, Mr. Turchynov, the acting president, vowed on Sunday that “we will not let Russia repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern region of Ukraine.”
But if Russia is indeed now seeking to repeat its Crimea seizure, something that Moscow has repeatedly denied, Ukraine’s defenses are fragile.
So, too, is the government amid rising public anger at its inability to keep the country together. After another day of bleak news from the east, protesters set tires on fire late Monday outside the Parliament in Kiev. They demanded that the acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, resign and that Mr. Turchynov explain why things have gone so wrong.
The SBU, under new leadership since Ukraine’s February revolution, has repeatedly boasted of catching people suspected of being Russian operatives in the east, but it has not yet made public any solid evidence to support Kiev’s assertions that the mayhem in Donetsk and neighboring provinces has been orchestrated and financed by Moscow. This has left the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, free to taunt Kiev and the West for making accusations they have not yet substantiated. It has also compromised Ukraine’s efforts to compete, at least in eastern Ukraine and in Russia itself, with Moscow’s own narrative of Western meddling.
Alfa, by contrast, does appear to be more or less functioning, but its officers, bitter at being challenged over their role under Mr. Yanukovych, do not understand when “you tell them one day that they are murderers and then send them the next day to free a building” in Donetsk, said Serhiy Skorokhvatov, a former officer in the force and president of its veterans association.
Like other police and special forces units, Alfa took part in what Mr. Yanukovych called an “antiterrorist operation” and worked to crush the pro-European protests that brought the current government to office. Oleh Prysizhniy, who headed Alfa until Mr. Yanukovych fled, is under investigation by both Parliament and the prosecutor general for the unit’s possible role in killing protesters.
Ordered on Sunday to retake the town of Slovyansk, Alfa quickly backed off the mission after one of its officers was shot and killed as he walked away from negotiations with the rebels. A full-scale assault by Alfa, Mr. Skorokhvatov cautioned, might free the occupied Slovyansk police station but would not end the crisis. “Alfa is a scalpel, but it is impossible to use it cut down a tree,” he said.
Many of the senior security officials who served Mr. Yanukovych have been dismissed and, in some cases, have fled to Russia, but the legacy of more than two decades of close cooperation between Kiev and Moscow on security issues remains embedded in a security apparatus established and controlled by Moscow under the Soviet Union. Such links raise questions about loyalties.
Among those who took refuge in Russia is Alexander Yakimenko, the former head of Ukraine’s State Security Service, the post-independence successor organization to the Ukrainian branch of the K.G.B. While Mr. Yakimenko is gone, the agency he left behind is infested with informers and agents whose loyalties lie more with Moscow than Kiev.
“We can’t change this overnight,” said the deputy defense minister, Leonid Polyakov. “The system was so deeply penetrated by the Russians. We have to operate in this environment.”
This helps explain why Ukraine’s government has been caught flat-footed repeatedly by events in the east, where buildings that were obvious targets for attacks by pro-Russian militants were left guarded by just a handful of local police officers, who, outnumbered and outgunned, often ran away.
Independence Square in Kiev has echoed in recent days with angry denunciations of the authorities for their failure to crush separatists in the east and calls for citizens to take up arms to defend the country.
A recent opinion poll in Donetsk suggested that less than a third of the population wants to join Russia, far less than the proportion that wants Ukraine to remain intact. Donetsk residents who support Kiev increasingly wonder why a pro-Russian minority has been able to run amok.
“The ball is now on the side of Kiev,” wrote Oleksandr Honcharov, a lawyer from Donetsk, on his blog. “If the government cannot stabilize the situation, does it deserve to be called the government at all?”
'Criminal' Use of Force by Ukraine Would Imperil Talks, Says Lavrov
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 12:25
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday warned Kiev against using force to quell pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying the "criminal" act would undermine talks planned in Geneva.
The four-way meeting set for Thursday involving top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union is the latest step in a flurry of diplomacy aimed at easing the worst European security crisis in decades.
"One cannot issue invitations to talks while at the same time issuing criminal orders for the use of armed force against the people there," Lavrov said during a visit to Beijing.
"You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks, and the use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva," he said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland earlier played down US expectations for the summit, although she maintained that "it is very important to keep that diplomatic door open and will see what they bring".
In unusually strong language at a joint news conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Lavrov denounced Kiev for "spreading lies" about Russia's position and actions in Ukraine.
Moscow "in principle" supports the idea of four-way talks, although they must be "genuine and not merely for show," Lavrov said.
"So, if the Ukrainian foreign ministry says Russia is afraid to hold these talks in Geneva, don’t believe it," he said. "It's a lie."
Lavrov also denied international claims that Russia is dispatching pro-Kremlin forces to Ukraine's southeast, where balaclava-clad gunmen have stormed government buildings.
"This is a total lie that supposes that those residents there are completely incapable of protesting of their own will," he said.
Lavrov's visit, which includes a meeting later Tuesday with President Xi Jinping, comes amid preparations for Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to China next month, as the two powers forge increasingly close ties.
In a sign of warming relations, Xi made Russia his first destination after taking office last year and attended the Sochi Olympics in March, becoming China's first leader to attend a major overseas sports event.
The Ukraine crisis has thrown up an unanticipated hurdle, however. Beijing has struggled to support its ally while maintaining its stance of "non-interference" in other countries' domestic affairs.
Beijing has refrained from publicly criticizing Russia on the issue. And when the U.N. General Assembly last month adopted a Ukraine-backed resolution condemning Crimea's referendum and refusing to recognize Russia's annexation of the peninsula, China abstained from voting.
Lavrov told reporters at the news conference with Wang that Russia "appreciates China's objective, balanced and responsible stance" on the Ukraine issue.
Echoing comments he made on Monday at a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Wang said China welcomes this week's four-way talks in Geneva.
"We’re optimistic this will advance the cause of peace that we advocate," Wang said.
Ukraine crisis: this does not feel like a doomsday scenario – or not yet
Financial markets are likely to remain choppy but neither Ukraine nor Russia seem keen at present to up the ante
The Guardian, Monday 14 April 2014 19.50 BST
Events that took place a century ago offer a salutary lesson for those who think the tension between Ukraine and Russia will remain a purely local affair. That's what people assumed when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in June 1914. Seemingly small events can have dramatic consequences.
Financial markets have yet fully to price in the risk of matters spiralling out of control. To be sure, shares in Europe had a bit of a wobble on Monday and the price of oil rose slightly, but Wall Street opened higher on the back of a bounce back in retail sales following the harsh winter in the US. Donald Tusk, Poland's prime minister, may think the world stands on the brink of conflict, but the markets are not really listening.
For now, that seems a defensible approach. For the situation in Ukraine to turn really nasty, Kiev would need to get tough with the separatist protestors occupying buildings and Moscow would then have to retaliate with a show of force. This may happen, although neither Ukraine nor Russia seem keen at present to up the ante.
Were a conflict to break out, there are two main channels through which the rest of the global economy would be affected.
The first is through the blow that it would cause to consumer and business confidence, still relatively fragile after the Great Recession of 2008-09.
It is worth noting, though, that the build up to war in Iraq in 2002-03 had only a brief and limited view on sentiment, perhaps because, as now, money was cheap and readily available to borrow.
The second channel would be through energy shortages in Europe if Russia decided to turn off supplies in response to tougher Western sanctions.
But, as Capital Economics points out, even a country such as Germany, seen as the most vulnerable Western European country, gets only 8% of its total energy supply from Russia. And, with demand for energy falling as summer approaches, this is a poor time to play the energy card.
Financial markets are likely to remain choppy. Concern that Pig Putin will put Russian nationalism above economic self-interest means the price of Brent crude may rise and demand for gold is likely to remain strong. This may prove to be a doomsday scenario that plunges the global economy back into recession, but it doesn't feel like it. At least not yet.
Austria Launches Inquiry into Yanukovych's Former Allies
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 April 2014, 21:36
Austrian prosecutors have launched an investigation into members of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's government on charges including money-laundering, officials said Monday.
Although the names and positions of those under investigation have not been released, the investigation will look at those who were close to Yanukovych, who fled into exile in Russia after a four-month uprising in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
The announcement was made in response to a parliamentary request by the members of the New Austria party, or NEOS, which specifically named ex-Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov -- whose assets have already been frozen by the European Union.
Austria is widely seen in Ukraine as a financial haven for oligarchs and those in Yanukovych's entourage who allegedly got rich during his administration.
The Vienna prosecutor's office will investigate "a number of people suspected of money laundering and other crimes", said Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter.
The inquiry started at the beginning of this year, and is being led by the criminal intelligence service, he said.
He added that he had also asked Ukraine's public prosecutor for support.
According to the Austrian press, a number of people close to the former Ukrainian president have close links to the Austrian capital, including Azarov -- who came to the city briefly after he resigned in January -- and Yanukovych's once-powerful administration chief Andrei Klyuev.
One investigation into Klyuev was opened in 2012, but was later abandoned, the Vienna prosecutor's office said.
The Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash -- one of Yanukovych's former confidants -- is facing extradition to the United States, and is currently banned from leaving Austria while a judge considers the request.
He was released on bail after paying a record 125 million euros ($172 million) and promising to stay in the country while he fights the extradition.
Austria introduced sanctions over the Ukraine crisis even before the EU, freezing the assets of 18 members of Yanukovych's entourage at the end of February.
04/14/2014 06:18 PM
'A Partner for Russia': Europe's Far Right Flirts with Moscow
By Charles Hawley in Brussels
Right-wing populists stand to gain seats in the approaching European Parliament elections -- which is good news for Moscow. Russia and the European right have been courting each other recently as mainstream Brussels has kept Moscow at arm's length.
During the Cold War, left-wing parties were often viewed with no small amount of suspicion in the West. Fear was rampant, if perhaps overwrought, that they could act as a political beachhead for the Soviet Union and the communist East Bloc in their presumed quest for global domination.
Times have changed. While relations between Moscow and the West are once again tense due to the ongoing tug-o'-war over Ukraine and the Crimea, it is Europe's right-wing parties that are showing an affinity for Russia. And with European Parliament elections quickly approaching in late May, right-wing populists -- with parties in several countries well positioned to make gains in the coming vote -- are being increasingly open about their desire to act as an advocate for Moscow in Brussels.
"I think we can be a good partner for Russia in the European Parliament," says Filip Dewinter, a senior member of the right-wing Flemish party Vlaams Belang in Belgium. "And Russia sees us as a potential partner."
Russian voices have been no less supportive. "We hope that the results of the coming elections will give these people more power," says Sergey Markov, a conservative political scientist with close ties to the Kremlin. "We need to move forward to further develop this cooperation" with the European right.
The comments from Dewinter and Markov came on the sidelines of a conference held in the European Parliament recently that marks the most serious attempt yet by European right-wing parties to court Russia. Called somewhat awkwardly "EU-Russia: De-Escalating the Crisis - Roadmap for Peace in Europe," the conference was organized by Fiorello Provera, a senior member of the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord and deputy head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament, together with David Lasar from Austria's Islamophobic Freedom Party (FPÖ).
The parallels between the political stances of President Pig Putin's Russia and European right-wingers are as numerous as they are varied. Skepticism of immigration and a keen worry about the threat posed by Islamist extremism make Putin a natural ally for a xenophobic right whose political bread and butter is their vociferous attacks on European immigration policy. His heavy-handed leadership style and homophobic stance likewise don't hurt.
Fueled by Anti-Americanism
But it is European right-wing populists' skepticism of the EU and the 28-member bloc's close ties with the US which provides perhaps the broadest foundation for cooperation with Russia. Vassily Likhachev, a Russian parliamentarian who is deputy chair of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, blasted the EU at the conference last Wednesday, calling EU resolutions relating to the Ukraine crisis "shameful" and said it was "clear" that the protests in Kiev were "a project developed by NGOs in the United States."
Other anti-US sentiment was echoed by several at the conference, and included comments delivered on behalf of Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the FPÖ, who was unable to attend. "Instead of playing the stooge of the US in the encirclement of Russia, Brussels must finally be able to build positive relations with Moscow and show understanding of Russian interests," Strache's statement said.
On Friday, Strache traveled to Geneva with Lasar for a meeting with Russia's UN ambassador, Alexei Borodavkin, during which Strache once again condemned Western sanctions against Moscow.
For right-wing parties, shining a spotlight on their preference for closer ties to Russia -- even as Brussels has rushed to support the new government in Kiev -- has clear advantages. Recent surveys have shown that, while concern about Russian aggression on the Crimea is widespread, the appetite for challenging Moscow and supporting Kiev is also limited. A YouGov poll from the end of March found that only 42 percent of British and German people, and just 35 percent of the French, are in favor of sanctions that might hurt their own economies. Support for providing financial aid to Kiev is even lower.
Indeed, there has even been some talk among right-wing parties of following the Gerhard Schröder model, whose come-from-behind re-election to the German Chancellery in 2002 came largely as a result of his promise late in the campaign to refuse to participate in the US invasion of Iraq. While surveys show that far-right parties in European Parliament are likely to gain seats in this year's election, a clear rejection of Western measures against Moscow, so the theory goes, could result in even more votes.
The cooperation between the European far right and Russia has been developing for some time. A report published by the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute in March, called "The Russian Connection: The Spread of Pro-Russian Policies on the European Far Right," notes that Moscow has shown an interest in Eastern European right-wing parties for several years now. The paper notes that, while admiration for Russia is not universal in Europe's ultra-conservative scene, there is a widespread "ideological and political affinity" between the far right and Russia.
Finding Weaker Allies
"Russia would like to destabilize and weaken the European political scene, and these parties are all anti-EU. They want to burn down the house," says Peter Kreko, one of the authors of the study. "I think that's the obvious goal. That and weakening the European-American alliance."
And Ukraine? The fate of the country would not seem to be high on the right-wing's priority list. There was not a single Ukrainian on Provera's panel in the European Parliament last week and the Kiev government was only mentioned to highlight the problematic participation of the virulently anti-Semitic party Svoboda. But even that brief mention is a self-serving one: Right-wing populists are eager to jump at every opportunity available to distance themselves from the extremist rhetoric further to the fringe (and, for some, in their own pasts).
It remains to be seen if the pre-election efforts will bear fruit at the ballot box or if the developing ties to Russia will have staying power. Duma representative Likhachev, for his part, seemed optimistic. "This crisis has led to an increase of Russophobia in Europe and to tensions," he said at the gathering in European Parliament last week. "This event demonstrates that there is interest among some politicians to hear both viewpoints."
But can Moscow's new friends do much to help? Peter Kreko of Political Capital isn't so sure. "If you feel that you don't have strong allies, you try to find weaker allies," he says. "And that is what we can see here."
Pork is the latest front in Europe's culture wars
The far right is fixated on pork and is using it as an excuse to target yet another aspect of Muslim life
The Guardian, Tuesday 15 April 2014
Following its significant gains in last month's local elections, the French Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, swiftly announced that school cafeterias would no longer serve non-pork substitution meals to children living in towns won by FN candidates. Targeting Muslims for another ritual round of public humiliation, while also excluding Jewish children, Le Pen declared: "There is no reason for religion to enter the public sphere."
While Le Pen framed this fixation on the dietary requirements of her fellow citizens as a defence of state secularism, the FN mayor of the south-western town of Arveyres, Benoit Gheysens, suggested the move was simply to cut costs and to prevent "staff being distressed" by excessive food waste. This mix of environmental concern and secular commitment illustrates just how eclectic the far right can be in its defence of order, and Le Pen's conversion to republican values is shaped by this strategic elasticity.
As recently as 2011, Le Pen was threatened with prosecution for describing Muslims praying in the streets as comparable to the Nazi occupation of France, rather than opting to oppose it as an assault on the neutrality of public space. Her subsequent cultivation of a rightwing defence of secularism is based on the realisation that the supposedly universal values of the republic can be appropriated as a productive front in the struggle for national identity.
The prime reason for this conversion, of course, is that it provides a fertile opportunity for consistently reproducing public controversies regarding the "Muslim problem" and its threat to national identity.
As Arun Kundnani says in his newbook, The Muslims are Coming, the social and political construction of racism in the post-9/11 period has relied in part on translating "cultural markers associated with Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, languages) … into racial signifiers".
This constant manufacture of controversy is a ritual whereby yet another dimension of Muslim life can be stereotyped, held up for public scrutiny and marked out as a problem that requires resolute political intervention. Symbols can be endlessly generated, leaving every cultural marker to be labelled as yet more evidence of the excessive demands of eternal foreigners on an overly tolerant "host".
Much of this pig-whistle politics, which is becoming more prevalent across western Europe, is opportunistic. Heinz-Christian Strache of the Austrian Freedom party, for instance, who in 2012 posted an antisemitic caricature on his Facebook page, also circulated a picture of himself with a roast suckling pig and the caption "Isst du Schwein, darfst du rein" (If you eat pork you can come in).
The Danish People's party, fully invested in a culture war over Danish values, was an early adopter of animal welfare in order to campaign against halal meat and has long sought to politicise the provision of halal options in nurseries as the "forced adoption" of Muslim tradition.
When it was reported last summer that some Copenhagen kindergartens, in consultation with parents, had stopped serving pork products, the DPP complained of discrimination against Danish food culture. The intensity of the resulting debate – and of the charge that only the DPP spoke for the silent majority victimised by overly indulged minorities – prompted the Social Democrat prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, into the absurd public affirmation of the importance of meatballs to Danish culture and identity.
That a centre-left politician competitively declares her fidelity to a meat product is a predictable effect of the European politics of integration of the last decade. Integration, for all its suggestion of a weighty national project, is in practice a series of public demands: they must do this, they shouldn't do that. Integration politics responds to the social anxieties of the neoliberal era by producing symbolic problems that can be politically addressed through cost-free symbolic action.
Yet, they are never cost-free for those racialised as the problem. It is, for instance, in this context that a sinister genre of direct action has developed around symbolically and physically imposing pork products on Muslims. The French "anti-white racism" group Bloc Identitaire has occupied mosques and tried to organise a march to kick back against the "racist refusal" of Muslims to eat pork.
In what it later, predictably, described as a joke, the Flemish Vlaams Belang stormed a food festival at a school in Schoten and reportedly forced pork sausages into the mouths of some children. When some enterprising young people in Helsinki wanted to humiliate an Afghan asylum seeker on hunger strike for 30 days in front of the Finnish parliament, they made a video of themselves inviting him to warm his hands on a fire before cooking sausages on it.
Pork has become a racist meme, endlessly adapted through practices of harassment: mosques in Europe have had pig's heads nailed to their doors, pork-filled envelopes sent in the mail,slices of ham rubbed on door handles, bacon slices slipped in the shoes of worshippers as they prayed.
This is the political context in which Le Pen's pig-whistle politics seeks a register, for all its lofty appeals to the conceits of the republic. And when the pork has been exhausted, a new affront, or burning source of resentment, will be produced.
Pain in Spain as bank warns of 10-year jobs blight and public debt leaps €8.1bn
Spanish bank BBVA says unemployment may take a decade to recover from financial crisis and public debt hits 95% of GDP
Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
theguardian.com, Monday 14 April 2014 19.19 BST
Spanish unemployment could take 10 more years to return to the levels seen before the financial crisis, according to a report that paints a picture of an economy hampered by low wages, low skills and lack of investment in research.
Spanish workers earn 20%-40% less than those in other leading European countries, according to the study by Spain's second-biggest bank, BBVA. The earnings gap is partly explained by very high unemployment, which BBVA said "derives from a labour market that functions substantially worse than in other countries".
The bank found Spanish spending on research and development is 70% below the US or EU average, and said the economy suffered from low skills and a lack of technology in the workplace.
"All of these differences derive from an inadequate legal and institutional system of incentives," the report said. The researchers forecast that even if employment increased at a rate of 2% it would take 10 years to reach 2007 levels.
Calling for long-term "balanced, solid and inclusive" growth to bring per capita income in line with the US and eurozone competitors, the report urged Spain's traditionally small- and medium-sized firms to enlarge and seek international markets. "Large companies are more productive, have more human capital, survive longer, invest more in R&D and export more," it said, adding that this enlargement would only occur if legal, financial and fiscal obstacles were removed.
It noted that for each percentage point fall in unemployment there was a 0.6% rise in GDP, so reducing unemployment also cuts public debt, which is now at record levels.
Figures released on Monday by the Bank of Spain show public debt rose by €8.1bn (£6.7bn) in February, taking the total owed by central and regional government to a record €988bn, equivalent to 95% of the nation's annual GDP.
Meanwhile, protesters from the Mortgage Victims' Platform (PAH) have staged protests against home repossessions. However, in spite of the huge over-capacity in the Spanish housing market, foreign investors continue to find it attractive. Foreign investment in property has increased for the fourth year running, with €6.5bn invested in 2013 – 16% up on the preceding year.
According to the Bank of Spain, this is the first time foreign property investment has risen above €6bn since 2004.
In contrast, Spanish property investment abroad fell to €355m, the lowest level in 12 years and 89% less than in 2007. New mortgages, meanwhile, fell by 27.8% in 2013, the lowest number in the past five years, while average house prices fell by 7.8%, a slower fall than in the preceding two years. Housing sales fell by 2.2%. The average Spanish family spends 34% of their income on their mortgage.
According to the society of property registrars, the biggest number of foreign investors in property are Britons (15.1%), followed by the French (9.8%), Russians (8.6%) and Belgians (7.3%).
Abdullah and Ghani on course for runoff vote in Afghanistan polls
First snapshot of Afghan elections puts pair of ex-ministers in lead but two minority candidates could decide final result
theguardian.com, Sunday 13 April 2014 18.40 BST
The first results from Afghanistan's presidential election show the country is headed for a runoff next month between former ministers, with two other candidates securing enough of the vote to potentially act as kingmakers.
After a week of waiting, the election commission finally unveiled on Sunday a snapshot of the overall vote: 10% of the results from about three-quarters of Afghanistan's provinces.
Following a spate of rumours, wild claims and fierce accusations, the first solid evidence came with a strict warning that fluctuations were not only possible but likely as more results are tallied.
"I must tell you, there will be changes in the days ahead as we announce further results," said Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission. "We are checking the partial results to ensure the final result is clear, and we will share it with the nation."
The tally gave Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and mujahideen fighter, a slim lead at about 42%, followed by the former finance minister and World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani on 38%. If no candidate gets more than half the vote, there is a runoff between the top two .
Lagging far behind in third place with less than 10% was Zalmai Rassoul, a moderate former minister widely believed to be the incumbent Hamid Karzai's preferred successor. Winning barely 5% – but still enough to potentially influence a runoff – was a hardline Islamist, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the man who first invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan.
The candidates are competing to take over from Karzai, who has ruled for more than a decade but was barred by the constitution from standing again. If the drawn-out election process continues as successfully as it began, it will herald the country's first ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Just over a week ago Afghans flocked to the polls in unexpectedly high numbers, and although dozens of polling stations in rural and insecure areas came under Taliban attack, the voting overall was not seriously disrupted by violence.
Because the votes have to be brought to Kabul from around the country, including areas so remote that ballot boxes must be transported there and back on donkeys, the vote-counting process is painfully slow. Full preliminary results are not expected until 24 April, and there are then several weeks for election organisers to shift through hundreds of fraud allegations and any other complaints.
Both of the frontrunners still have their hopes set on a first-round win and called on election organisers to root out fraud.
Ghani, lagging marginally behind Abdullah, compared the preliminary results to the first 10 minutes of a football game, while Abdullah said he expected to build from a position of strength.
"To be honest, this result is not news for me," Abdullah told the Guardian when asked about his lead. "We didn't expect every partial count will come out the same way, and there is another caveat: that in the eight provinces that have not been counted, we have the majority vote in all except one or two."
Overall, observers and election organisers say they think there was less cheating in this election than the 2009 vote that returned Karzai to power, when more than 1m votes were eventually thrown out as fakes. However, there have still been many serious accusations, and videos and photos of alleged violations have been circulating on social media.
The vote watchdog said there had been nearly 1,900 complaints, almost half of them serious enough to affect poll results. However, a significant proportion of those were about candidates from provincial-level elections held at the same time as the presidential vote. The watchdog promised to tackle all of them.
"We are very serious about separating fraudulent votes from valid ones," said Nader Mohseni, of the Independent Election Complaints Commission, vowing full transparency in its work. "The doors of [the commission's] offices in all provinces are open to observers.
Poll: Indian Opposition Alliance to Win Majority
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 08:21
India's Hindu nationalist opposition party and its allies are on course to win an overall parliamentary majority in the world's biggest election currently underway, according to a new poll.
The survey by the NDTV network forecast that the opposition alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win 275 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, 16 more than predicted in the last survey a month ago.
The BJP, led by the hardliner Narendra Modi, would win 226 seats but it would avoid the need to find new coalition partners after results are announced on May 16. Its existing allies would push it over the 50 percent threshold, according to the survey released late Monday.
The centre-left Congress party, which leads the current coalition government, would see its tally of seats drop to an all-time low of 92, the same poll projected.
All previous polls have forecast that the BJP-led alliance known as the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) would fall short of an overall majority -- thus forcing the BJP to seek additional partners among a plethora of regional parties after the six-week voting marathon concludes.
If the BJP-led alliance does fall short of a majority, it is widely expected to try and strike a deal with the West Bengal-based Trinamool party which is forecast to win 30 seats.
Another potential partner, a Tamil Nadu-based party led by former actress Jayalalithaa Jayaram, is slated to get 22 seats.
The contest, which is the world's biggest exercise in democracy, began on April 7 and will wrap up on May 12. The results are expected four days later.
Owner of Collapsed Bangladesh Factory Faces Murder Charges
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 13:21
Bangladesh police said Tuesday they will press murder charges against the owner of a nine-storey building that collapsed and killed 1,135 garment workers last April, the worst industrial disaster in the country's history.
Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza factory complex on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, was one of around 40 people who would be charged in connection with the disaster, said lead investigator Bijoy Krishna Kar.
"We are planning to press murder charges against Sohel Rana and some other accused," Kar of the police's Criminal Investigation Department told AFP, adding that if convicted Rana could be sentenced to death.
It was the first time police have said they would file murder charges against Rana, who was arrested on the western border with India as he tried to flee the country days after the April 24 disaster.
Rana, a junior official in the ruling Awami League party, became the country's public enemy number one after survivors recounted how thousands of them were forced to enter the compound at the start of the working day despite complaints about cracks appearing in the walls.
Among the others expected to be charged are Rana's father, who is a co-owner of the building, and five bosses of the garment factories operating within the complex who also allegedly ignored the cracks.
The five include David Mayor, a Spanish citizen who was out of the country at the time of the collapse, said Habibur Rahman, another CID investigator.
Most of the accused are out on bail while Mayor never returned to the country to avoid arrest.
A host of Western retailers had clothing made at Rana Plaza, including Italy's Benetton, Spain's Mango and the British low-cost chain Primark.
"Our investigation is almost over. We wanted to wrap up our work before the first anniversary of the tragedy on April 24 but even writing up the case notes has proved to be a huge task," Rahman told AFP.
"We hope we can press the charges by next month."
The collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history.
It prompted sweeping reforms including tough new factory construction guidelines to stave off another disaster in the $22 billion industry, the world's second largest after China.
CID officials said Bangladeshi engineers, regulators who approved the building without inspecting the site and some mid-level factory managers would also be charged for their roles in the disaster.
Kar said police investigators have questioned 900-1,000 people including the survivors, witnesses and found "irrefutable evidences" against the "greedy and irresponsible" building and factory owners.
Bangladesh is home to around 4,500 garment factories which employ around four million workers -- some 80 percent of them are women -- who are paid some of the lowest wages on earth.
But the sector has a woeful safety track record, highlighted by the collapse of the Rana Plaza compound and a fire at Tazreen Fashion factory that killed 111 people six months earlier.
Western retailers, the main buyers of Bangladeshi apparel, formed two umbrella groups late last year to push through crucial safety reforms in the industry.
Engineers hired by the retailers have since shut down at least 11 factories temporarily and ordered scores of other factories to improve fire and building safety in an effort to avoid a repeat of the disaster.
S. Korea Spy Chief Apologizes over Forgery Scandal
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 07:13
South Korea's intelligence chief vowed a "bone-crushing" overhaul of his embattled agency as he apologized Tuesday for a scandal that saw senior agents charged with fabricating evidence in an espionage case.
"I feel deeply pained for letting this happen... and feel tremendous responsibility," Nam Jae-Joon told reporters in a rare press appearance.
His apology came a day after the agency's deputy chief stepped down.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) was accused of forging documents -- including Chinese border control records -- to build a false spying case against a former Seoul city official who had escaped to South Korea from the North in 2004.
State prosecutors launched a probe in February when China confirmed that the documents were not authentic, and Nam came under intense pressure from politicians and rights activists to step down.
But Seoul prosecutors on the case concluded Monday that they did not believe the forgery was part of a larger operation orchestrated by the NIS leadership.
President Park Geun-Hye said she regretted the concern caused to the public by the lack of internal oversight at the NIS, and said the agency needed to "reinvent" itself.
"If such an event that deepens public distrust happens again, then it will be strictly held accountable," Park said.
So far charges of fabricating evidence have been brought against three NIS agents.
Another agent attempted suicide last month during the prosecutors' probe and he will be charged when released from hospital, prosecutors said Monday.
Nam vowed to overhaul the agency's investigative methods in line with "changing times" and to win back public trust.
"We will take this opportunity to re-evaluate our investigative methods, root out wrong customs and conduct a bone-crushing overhaul of our system, so that things like this will never happen again," he said.
But he also warned of the dangers of undermining the NIS at a time of heightened military tensions with North Korea.
Since February, the North has test-fired dozens of short-range missiles and two mid-range missiles, and also threatened to conduct another nuclear test.
"I feel tremendous grief that the NIS -- the bulwark of our national security -- is being shaken like this in such a grave time," Nam said, pleading for public support.
The spy agency -- which has changed titles over the years -- had a particularly notorious reputation in the decades of authoritarian rule before South Korea embraced democracy in the 1980s.
The modern-day NIS has also been tainted by a series of scandals, most recently the admission by some agents that they meddled in the 2012 presidential election.
Nam's predecessor as NIS chief, Won Sei-Hoon, was convicted last month of taking bribes and jailed for two years.
N. Korea Marks Kim Il-Sung Birthday with Loyalty Pledge
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 07:10
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un paid respects to his grandfather Kim Il-Sung as the country marked the birthday Tuesday of its late founder with renewed calls for loyalty to the ruling Kim dynasty.
At the stroke of midnight, Kim Jong-Un, accompanied by top military leaders, visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang -- the mausoleum holding the embalmed body of his grandfather, the North's official KCNA news agency said.
The similarly preserved body of Kim's father, Kim Jong-Il, whom he succeeded as leader in December 2011, is housed in the same building.
"Kim Jong-Un, together with other visitors, paid homage to Kim Il-Sung in the humblest reverence for him," KCNA reported.
Kim Il-Sung died of a heart attack in 1994. His birthday is known as the Day of Sun in North Korea and is a major national holiday.
The centenary of his birth in 2012 was marked by a major military parade and Kim Jong-Un's first public speech.
There were no indications of a similar parade being prepared Tuesday, but the South's Yonhap news agency cited officials as saying Pyongyang might be readying a symbolic show of military force.
"Artillery pieces including multiple rocket launches and self-propelled guns are being assembled near Pyongyang," it quoted an unidentified government official as saying.
The official said it was "highly likely" the North may carry out a large scale drill on Friday, to coincide with the end of South Korea's annual joint military exercises with the United States.
In an address to top military, party and government leaders to mark Tuesday's holiday, the North's nominal head of state, Kim Yong-Nam, urged all military personnel to pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong-Un.
"Being loyal to Comrade Kim Jong-Un's leadership is the decisive guarantee to carry forward with the Great Comrade Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il's thoughts and accomplishments," he was quoted as saying by the ruling party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.
Philippine Rebels Slam Military Killings despite Peace Deal
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 12:11
The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group on Tuesday denounced the killing of four of its members in clashes with soldiers, just two weeks after a peace deal was signed to end their decades-old conflict.
The military has acknowledged that gunmen from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were among 20 people killed in a shootout on a remote southern island Friday as security forces pursued Islamic militants blamed for beheadings and kidnappings.
"Four of our members were martyred," MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told reporters.
Officials have said the clashes on Basilan island broke out while local MILF members were helping the military to arrest fighters from the Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
The MILF has asked an international committee monitoring the ceasefire between the Philippines and the rebel group to investigate who was to blame for Friday's violence, Jaafar said.
The fighting broke out two weeks after the MILF signed a political settlement to end more than four decades of an armed conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the mainly Catholic nation's Muslim south.
The peace deal aims to create an autonomous Muslim area in the south by early next year, with the MILF expected to disarm and put up candidates for a regional parliament in May 2016.
Jaafar said the government and the MILF were currently enjoying a "honeymoon" period.
"We do not want this agreement to be disturbed by such unwanted incidents initiated by the military," he added.
Military spokesmen said 18 gunmen from the MILF and Abu Sayyaf were killed. Two soldiers died and 28 others were wounded.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said the operation had been coordinated with MILF officials, and that it targeted Abu Sayyaf members who are not covered by any ceasefire.
But he said that at one point, the soldiers noticed that the Abu Sayyaf gunmen were being reinforced by unidentified fighters.
"If there were MILF forces, they were never meant as a target... It is possible they joined (the Abu Sayyaf) as individuals and not as MILF (members)," he told AFP.
Military chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista also alleged on Tuesday that a small number of MILF guerrillas had helped relatives in the Abu Sayyaf ranks.
"The MILF should deal with them," Bautista told reporters.
Jaafar said the allegations had yet to be proven.
Sudan's President Bans Political Party Meetings
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 April 2014, 12:41
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has issued a decree banning political parties from holding meetings without permission from the authorities, the official SUNA news agency reported.
The decree comes just a week after Bashir assured a meeting of party leaders they had freedom to operate in the run-up to a "national dialogue" he has promised to hold to address urgent demands for change in his 25-year regime.
"No political party has the right to hold meetings and conferences inside their areas without first obtaining permission from the relevant authorities," SUNA late on Monday reported the decree as reading.
At the April 6 meeting in Khartoum, Bashir assured party leaders they were free to conduct activities inside or outside their offices, "according to law".
A day later, however, the Reform Now party said security agents had prevented it from holding a discussion forum and had detained the leader of its student wing, Emad Al-Dien Hashim.
Reform Now was formed in December by Bashir's ex-adviser Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani after the ruling National Congress Party ousted him.
Critics have said Bashir's political dialogue is just a way for the elite to hang on to power without properly addressing the country's problems.
An alliance of small opposition parties has refused to join the dialogue, which Bashir announced in January, unless the government meets several conditions.
These include declaring a ceasefire with the country's armed rebels, and abolishing all laws that restrict freedoms.
The Revolutionary Front, which comprises insurgent groups from Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, on Sunday rejected participation in the dialogue, describing it as a "farce".
Jordanian ambassador to Tripoli abducted by gunmen
Libyan authorities confirm Fawaz Aitan has been kidnapped in attack that left his driver wounded
Agence France-Presse in Tripoli
theguardian.com, Tuesday 15 April 2014 10.25 BST
Gunmen travelling in two cars on Tuesday abducted the Jordanian ambassador to Tripoli, Fawaz Aitan, in an attack that left his driver wounded, Libyan authorities have said.
It is the latest incident in which Libyan leaders and foreign diplomats have been targeted in the north African country, three years after Nato-backed rebels ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
"The Jordanian ambassador was kidnapped this morning. His convoy was attacked by a group of hooded men on board two civilian cars," ministry spokesman Said Lassoued said.
A security official said the ambassador's driver suffered gunshot wounds during the kidnapping.
The government in Amman confirmed the kidnapping. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Sabah Rafie said investigations were under way.
The abduction comes two days after Libya's prime minister Abdullah al-Thani stepped down, saying he and his family had been the victims of a "traitorous" armed attack the previous day.
In January, gunmen kidnapped five Egyptian diplomats in Tripoli and held them for several hours.
The US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other US citizens were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, three months after a convoy carrying the British ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Benghazi, wounding two guards.