Hungary Seeks EU Alliance to Push Closer Ties with Russia
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 August 2014, 19:17
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday said he would seek to form a political alliance to stop the European Union pulling away from Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
"The EU gets further away from Russia every day. That's not only bad for Hungary, but for the entire EU," Orban told Hungarian ambassadors in Budapest.
"We will have to seek the company of those EU member states who are interested in slowing and stopping this separation process," he added, without naming any specific countries.
Ties between the West and Russia have hit a post-Cold War low over the crisis in Ukraine, with the European Union and Washington slapping massive sanctions on Moscow over its perceived support for separatists.
Russia hit back with sanctions of its own, banning nearly all food imports from the EU and United States.
Orban, who has been criticized for steering Hungary away from Europe and towards Russia, insisted Monday that the country's Western alliances were "not in doubt".
But he again warned that isolating Russia could hurt Europe's competitiveness.
Germany, the eurozone's largest economy and the most reliant on ties with energy-rich Russia, "will be a big loser" if Brussels continues its economic ostracism of Moscow, Orban said.
Russia is former Communist Hungary's largest trading partner outside the EU. Earlier this month, Orban said the EU had "shot itself in the foot" with the sanctions.
Slovenia's New PM Cerar Vows to Restore Shattered Confidence
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 August 2014, 20:35
Law professor Miro Cerar vowed bolster to Slovenia's shaky economy Monday as he was voted in as prime minister of the tiny Alpine country.
The political newcomer, 51, who won snap elections on July 13 despite having set up his center-left party just a month before, said he would push for jobs and growth.
He faces a tough task of putting the eurozone country's finances back in order after the past two governments fell after little more a year after being hit by corruption trials and political infighting.
But the leader of the main opposition Slovenian Democratic Party, former prime minister Janez Jansa, slammed Cerar's lack of clear policies.
"No candidate to head a government has ever presented a program without any figures or deadlines," said Jansa, who was allowed to attend Monday's session despite serving a two-year jail prison term for corruption.
A commission is currently probing whether he should remain an MP.
Cerar said the main priorities of his new government will be "economic growth, preserving existing jobs and creating new ones and increasing international competitiveness", along with the stabilizing the health system, he said Monday.
His SMC party has already agreed to a three-party center-left coalition with the pensioners' DESUS party and the Social Democrats (SD), which will give them 52 seats in the 90-seat parliament.
His coalition is set to continue with the former government's efforts to reduce the deficit and with the privatization of state-owned companies.
Under outgoing premier Alenka Bratusek, who resigned in May after losing the leadership of her center-left Positive Slovenia party, the country avoided a much-dreaded bailout and recapitalized its state-owned banks.
But it also saw a sharp increase in public debt and failed to stabilize public finances.
Cerar is expected to present his government line-up for parliamentary approval in 15 days.
France Awaits New Government after Shock Resignation
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 August 2014, 09:59
France's prime minister was set to appoint a new cabinet Tuesday, after his government's shock resignation in a row over economic policy plunged the country into a fresh political crisis.
As desperately unpopular President Francois Hollande battles to overcome splits in his ruling Socialists and revive the stagnant French economy, Manuel Valls was expected to announce the make-up of his new team in the afternoon.
The surprise resignation on Monday was seen as a bid to restore order after a weekend of sniping from economy minister Arnaud Montebourg who attacked France's economic direction and the country's main European ally Germany.
Montebourg, a left-wing firebrand who is no stranger to controversy, made it clear he would not be part of the new team and launched a hefty broadside at the policies of austerity he said had catapulted France and Europe into the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Depression.
Education minister Benoit Hamon and culture minister Aurelie Filippetti later said they would join him in self-imposed exile from the next government.
Top French daily Le Monde described the reshuffle as "the last chance for the president to save his five-year term" as Hollande faces record-low unpopularity at 17 percent and record-high unemployment.
The reshuffle was also a desperate bid to quell unseemly infighting in his ruling Socialists between left-leaning members like Montebourg and those, like Valls, who tend more to the centre.
The French press reveled in the crisis, the latest in a long line for Hollande, with Le Parisien daily carrying the headline "what a spectacle" and several papers splashing the image of a bedraggled and drenched president as he gave a speech in torrential rain on Monday.
The departing Montebourg lashed out at the austerity policies implemented by the Valls government, saying they were only prolonging and worsening a "serious, destructive and long" crisis in Europe.
"For two years, I fought tirelessly to convince, I wrote notes and letters to the head of the executive and made private and public declarations to attempt to convince and implore the president to refuse excessive measures for our country that risked damaging and sinking our economy," he said.
Acknowledging that he had failed to convince Hollande or the prime minister, he said: "I believed it necessary to take back my freedom in the same way he (Valls) accepted to give it to me."
Montebourg, 51, is well known for loose cannon comments, having made headlines in the past for his outspoken criticism of Germany, which he has blamed for factory closures in France.
He was promoted to his current position in April in a government shake-up after the Socialist party suffered a drubbing at local elections, and has had to cosy up to Finance Minister Michel Sapin who supports the very austerity measures that he disagrees with.
As industrial renewal minister before his promotion, he had also raised eyebrows by dubbing the head of tire giant Titan an "extremist" after the CEO criticized the French workforce as lazy.
He also became embroiled in a very public fight with steelmaker ArcelorMittal over the closure of a plant.
But he maintained he was leaving "on amicable terms" with the government.
Opposition figures reacted with shock to the unfolding events, pointing to a major crisis of confidence at the heart of the executive, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen even calling for the lower house National Assembly to be dissolved.
The crisis comes at a time when France is mired in stubbornly slow economic recovery, with high unemployment.
The French economy has been stagnant for the past six months and the government has been forced to halve its growth forecast to 0.5 percent for this year.
Both Hollande and Valls say the answer to the economic crisis is their so-called Responsibility Pact that offers businesses tax breaks of some 40 billion euros ($55 billion) in exchange for a pledge by companies to create 500,000 jobs over three years.
Hollande plans to finance this with 50 billion euros in spending cuts, and the plan has angered those on the left of the party -- including Montebourg.
The prime minister himself is also deeply unpopular with some Socialists.
Two Green ministers left the government when Valls was appointed in March after the Socialists' humiliation at the polls.
But Frederic Dabi, deputy head of polling firm IFOP, warned against overestimating the impact of the latest crisis on public opinion.
"We have a government and president that are historically unpopular, and what will make them popular or more unpopular isn't what happens in the government in terms of people but policies being implemented and a lack of results."
An austerity revolt has broken the French government. Will the EU follow?
While the chaos in France will be swiftly resolved, time is running out to save the eurozone and EU from their economic fault lines
theguardian.com, Monday 25 August 2014 16.42 BST
If there were any lingering doubts about the seriousness of the crisis hanging over the future of the euro – and potentially of the European Union itself – the shock announcement of the dissolution of the French government should remove them.
The tensions within the French socialist government have been building up for months as the economy has threatened to “double dip”. But it has been public criticism by the French economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, of Paris’s compliance with eurozone austerity which has led President Hollande to call for the formation of a new government.
The irony is that some of the fears expressed by Montebourg about the French economy drifting into deflation have also been expressed by the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, in an important but little-noticed speech in the United States on Friday evening. Draghi did not disguise his growing concern at the stagnation of the eurozone economy and the failure to stimulate demand by countries in a position to do so. This is fairly obvious code for Germany.
It must be assumed that – under President Hollande’s instructions – the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, will duly produce a new administration without any troubling dissenters. But it would be very surprising if the same debate triggered by Montebourg does not return to haunt French policymakers before too long. What is new and potentially very alarming, however, is the prospect of time rapidly running out for the French government – and, indeed, the eurozone as a whole – to avert disaster.
Draghi and the ECB clearly want to take rapid action to further ease monetary policy, possibly including large-scale purchases of public and private debt. But the timetable for delivering this is not entirely in the ECB’s hands, and it is still possible that the Berlin government – under pressure from the Bundesbank – will drag its feet. Nor is there much enthusiasm in Berlin to take fiscal measures to stimulate demand across the eurozone.
The danger is that if the eurozone slides further into outright deflation it will become even more difficult to reverse the economic tide. Beneath the surface, however, realisation may be dawning about the scale of action which must now be taken, lest the choice become one of saving the euro or saving the EU itself. Within the Merkel coalition, pressure is building up for a change of economic direction to avert not just an economic but a political catastrophe for European integration.
This putative “new direction” should not only include emergency monetary easing by the ECB but also demand stimulus by governments, if necessary accompanied by the temporary part-suspension of some of the eurozone rules on inflation and government deficits. But the maximum deployment of the collective EU capacity to fund a kind of New Deal, spearheaded by a massive increase in investment in economic, energy, transport, environment and social infrastructure, is also essential.
It is a direction which President Hollande himself would be happy to support providing he can maintain a facade of unchallenged government authority and continuity of strategy in Paris. It will be a difficult trick for him to carry off. The Italian government led by Matteo Renzi is also aware that its own political honeymoon is drawing to a close, and it is conducting a barely disguised campaign for a change of eurozone strategy.
When push comes to shove inside the conclaves of eurozone ministerial meetings, there may well be a clear majority for new policies and urgent delivery of them. Even in Finland, traditionally a hardline austerity ally of Germany, new voices are being heard warning of the economic rocks looming ahead.
Will Merkel bow to this pressure for a new eurozone initiative? It would be surprising if she does not. More than any other EU government, Germany has an all-too-vivid sense of what could follow the disintegration of the euro. The very survival of European integration could be at stake. Events in Ukraine and elsewhere provide a sobering reminder of the price which a weakened and disunited Europe could pay for an economic miscalculation now.
Europe’s Farmers Feel the Weight of Russian Ban
By CELESTINE BOHLEN
AUG. 25, 2014
ANNECY, France — On Aug. 7, trucks carrying French cheese were turned away at the Russian border and forced to make a 1,240-mile return trip with fast-ripening cargoes of Brie, Camembert, Roquefort and other delicacies.
“The peculiarity of this decision was that it was put in place right away, from one day to the next,” lamented Johann Hugon, export manager for Fromi Rungis, a French cheese exporter that had to scramble to unload 10 tons of cheese. “We feel powerless.”
The French cheese business is just one sliver of the European agricultural market feeling the pain of a Russian ban on selected food products from the European Union, as well as the United States, Australia, Norway and Canada. The penalties were imposed as part of the struggle over the future of Ukraine.
In 2013, France exported 109 million euros, or $144 million, worth of dairy products — mostly cheese — to Russia, about 5 percent of all dairy exports. For Fromi Rungis, Russia accounted for 10 percent of its foreign sales.
Jean-Charles Arnaud, proprietor of Fromagerie Arnaud in Poligny, northeast of Lyon, is counting his losses. They include not only a truckload of 18 tons of cheese turned back at the Russian border but also years of work educating Russian consumers to appreciate Comté, Morbier, Mont d’Or and other specialties from the Jura Mountains.
“We must have spent thousands of days doing presentations in Russian stores explaining how we make our cheese,” Mr. Arnaud said. “Our cheese is not just protein and fat. It is a culture, a tradition, produced under strict conditions.”
“For instance, we require 10 square meters of pasture per cow,” he continued. “That way, we can be sure that our cows are happy, that they have enough feed, enough diversity. The particular taste of each cheese comes from the flowers on our mountains.”
Over the past 20 years, this kind of sales talk has persuaded Russian consumers to reach for more sophisticated, more expensive varieties. That effort has now come to halt. Getting into the Russian market in the first place is not easy, several exporters said.
“You need energy, patience and persistence,” Mr. Hugon said.
Russian sanitary inspectors — who test for radioactivity, for instance — are meticulous, capricious and at times, outright political (four Moscow branches of McDonald’s, widely seen as a symbol of the West, have been temporarily shut down for violations of the “sanitary code”).
“Nowhere is simple,” Mr. Arnaud said, “but Russia has particular demands.”
Tell that to European pig farmers, whose exports to Russia were halted last February, after wild boars infected with an African swine disease were spotted in Poland and the Baltic states. All 28 countries of the European Union — many of them far away from the infected boars — were affected.
The French hog industry anticipates losses of €400 million this year because of the Russian embargoes, plus €200 million in losses for slaughterhouses and related businesses.
Now, hopes for lifting the pork embargo have collapsed under the new yearlong sanctions, threatening further losses for farmers and slaughterhouses.
“We’re not happy, not happy at all,” said Paul Auffray, president of the national pig farmers’ association and a Brittany pig farmer. “We are hostages of a situation that is out of our control.”
Not all French farmers are suffering. Cheese makers near the southeastern French town of Annecy are less affected because their main product, Reblochon, is too fragile for export to Russia. Wines and spirits were exempted from the sanctions, good news for French vintners, who in 2013 claimed 21.7 percent of the Russian market.
The European Union has pledged €125 million to buy fruit and vegetable surpluses created by the Russian sanctions. But the fear is that a once-promising market will soon fill up with competing produce from countries — like Switzerland — not on the banned list. “A year is a long time,” Mr. Arnaud said.
French farmers are famous for grumbling, but this time, they are bitter.
“Notice that this is not hurting oil or gas, weapons, finance, wine or luxury goods,” Mr. Auffray said. “It’s just us, country people, who are caught up in the middle of this imbroglio.”
Isis accused of ethnic cleansing as story of Shia prison massacre emerges
As many as 670 prisoners thought killed in Mosul with other abuses reported in Iraq amounting to 'crimes against humanity'
Luke Harding and Fazel Hawramy in Irbil
The Guardian, Monday 25 August 2014 19.24 BST
The United Nations said on Sunday it had evidence that fighters from Islamic State (Isis) had killed as many as 670 prisoners in Mosul and had carried out further abuses in Iraq that amounted to crimes against humanity.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said Islamic State and allied fighters were committing "grave, horrific human rights violations" on a daily basis. These included targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking, slavery and sexual abuse, Pillay said.
The jihadists, who are consolidating their control of northern and eastern Iraq, have also destroyed religious and cultural monuments and have laid siege to whole communities, Pillay said. "They are systematically targeting men, women and children based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation and ruthlessly carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control."
Pillay gave fresh details of an alleged massacre carried out on 10 June by Islamic State extremists. The fighters had just taken control of Mosul, Iraq's second biggest city, after the Iraqi army fled. About 3,000 inmates were being kept in Mosul's Badoush prison. During the power vacuum some managed to escape from minimum security areas, but between 1,000 and 1,500 remained after many had escaped during the chaos.
Citing testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors, the UN said Islamic State gunmen arrived at the front gate in a group of pick-up trucks. Several carried machine guns. They took out the prisoners and sorted them into two groups, Sunni and 670 Shias. The fighters grilled the Sunni group, asked them to recite prayers, and interrogated them about family backgrounds. Some Shia prisoners tried to pass themselves off as Sunni. They were discovered and returned to the Shia line-up.
The Islamic State militants told their Shia captives they would be "released" once their identities were verified. The prisoners had to give a number in turn – beginning with one, with the last prisoner saying: "I'm 679". The fighters then loaded the them into trucks and drove three to four kilometres south-east to an uninhabited "desert-like location", somewhere between Mosul's main road and its railway line.
According to the UN, the prisoners were lined up in four rows. They were told to kneel, and then shot. The UN said a handful survived by playing dead. It said it conducted extensive interviews with 20 survivors of the massacre and 16 further witnesses, with evidence taken in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Basra.
"Such cold-blooded, systematic and intentional killings of civilians, after singling them out for their religious affiliation may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity," Pillay said on Monday.
The mass execution in June was merely the latest to have taken place in Mosul. According to Amnesty International, Iraqi government forces also massacred Sunni prisoners in several cities, including Mosul, before retreating in the face of the rapid Isis advance.
Kurdish officials in Irbil confirmed that Islamic State had separated Sunni and Shia inmates after taking over Badoush and other prisons. They said that some Shia prisoners from Badoush were killed by Islamic State, with Sunnis freed after swearing allegiance to Isis. But they raised doubts that the figure was as high as 670. Fewer may have been executed, they suggested.
Residents inside Mosul, meanwhile, said that local Islamic State fighters were looting houses belonging to Christians and other minorities on a daily basis. They said the militants were also forcing locals to give allegiance to the group, which declared an Islamic caliphate in June. They added that young men were terrified of going out onto the street because the group was desperately looking for new recruits and there was a danger they might be seized.
One resident said the city had ground to a halt. Resentment was growing, and the Islamic State was incapable of administering the city, he said.
Iraq crisis: Islamic State savagery exposes limits to Kurdish authority
Special report: Narrative of peshmerga uniting to fight Isis is splintering as factional feuds and pay rows threaten quest for Kurdish statehood
Martin Chulov and Fazel Hawramy in Irbil
The Guardian, Monday 25 August 2014 19.13 BST
The men on the frontline of Iraqi Kurdistan's fight for existence have been there before; many wearing the same uniforms, carrying the same ageing weapons, and championing the same cause.
"I have fought three enemies in my lifetime: Saddam's Ba'athists, [former prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki, and now Islamic State," said Rashid Tarjani, a veteran member of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, standing under a shelter 30 miles south-west of Irbil and two miles from the village where his latest foe lurked behind homes abandoned several days earlier. "Of all of them, Maliki was the worst."
A portly middle-aged fighter stood next to him, four rust-tinged rocket-propelled grenades protruding like arrows from a quiver on his back. The weight of the munitions had reduced his swagger to a stoop. "I don't know about that," he said, challenging his fellow fighter's claim. "If the Americans hadn't helped us, Da'ash would be in our houses by now," using the colloquial term for the group also known as Isis.
Both men had been members of the peshmerga for more than 30 years, and each had stories of struggle and sacrifice that were true to the Kurdish force's legend. But here and across the fractured series of battle lines of the latest war, the well-worn narrative of vaunted fighters uniting to defeat all-comers was starting to splinter. In its place rose a picture of fragility; there were limits to Kurdish authority that had been badly exposed by an unprecedented foe.
Earlier this month, the Isis militants who had caused carnage in Arab Iraq had turned their guns on the Kurds, a group who had until then kept their distance from the central government's problems, while steadily building a state and a fortune. But rather than turn the insurgents back, as it had in the past, the peshmerga withdrew from areas inside Iraq that it had held since the Iraqi army fled in June.
The retreat of government forces had left tens of thousands exposed to the savagery of Isis, especially those from the country's minorities, including Christians and members of the Yazidi sect. Communities that had coexisted for several thousand years fled their homes and were seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Up to 50,000 desperate Yazidis climbed a nearby range, Mount Sinjar, to escape a genocide.
"The same way the Nazis attacked Leningrad as the birthplace of Lenin, Isis attacked Sinjar as the birthplace of the Yazidis," said Mahmoud Omar Saleh, a member of the peshmerga affairs committee in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament.
Such was the scramble to rescue the Yazidis that a Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG – an affiliate of the Turkish PKK, which is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and Washington – crossed into Iraq to secure an exit north. Female Kurdish fighters were among the group, which operated for many days under US air cover.
Peshmerga units took up positions around where they are now stationed on the baking hot plains not far from Irbil. Isis fighters had been creeping forward until the US air force slowed their momentum one day earlier.
"They're not trying to advance now," said Tarjani, as he stood among a mix of Dad's Army warriors and eager new recruits in American-issue combat kit." Word circled around the men that Isis had withdrawn from three of four villages they had seized, and tension quickly eased.
A visiting dignitary and his entourage pressed their way through the throng to try to find a leader. "He's a Jalali," one fighter whispered – a pointed reference to the man's links to one of two political strongmen, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, who have led the Kurdish cause since the 1970s.
In years gone by, Talabani's PUK faction had battled Barzani's KDP for power and influence; the feud is yet to be reconciled. And on a KDP-run checkpoint, even with a common enemy lingering, the visitor's history drew suspicion.
Less than an hour's drive from the capital of what would be Kurdistan, the fighting men of the north looked and acted more like a community militia than a united military force. The party line split that polarises much of Kurdish society was on clear display in the institution that now matters most.
"The peshmerga force is not a nationalist army," said retired commander Ali Ahmad Saalim. "It is made up of forces belonging to the political parties. The PUK and the KDP have not united their forces. These … units are under the command of their parties."
Saalim said a disparity between salary and conditions for officers and soldiers had weakened a resolve to fight.
"I believe the fact the peshmerga were defeated [in early August] was not so much about weapons, it was about morale and conviction. I was injured in 1981, 83, 84 and 87 because I believed in my struggle.
"We fought previous regimes out of conviction but these days a peshmerga receives around 500,000 dinars (£260) per month. How can you expect a peshmerga with a 500,000-dinar salary to fight Isis while officials get far more benefits?
"There is a difference between Isis and others like Saddam we fought in the past. Saddam was bloodthirsty and carried out the Halabja massacre and Anfal campaign. But even he would have boundaries. Isis massacres even the civilians. It is much more bloodthirsty than Saddam."
Many peshmerga fighters are forced to take second jobs to supplement their income. Amid the pristine roads, soaring new buildings and ostentatious new wealth of Irbil, few who fight for the home front say they can get by on just an official wage.
A peshmerga intelligence official who identified himself as Sarbast said: "I have been married for 13 years and I still live in rented accommodation. I pay 500,000 dinars for rent and if it was not for my taxi I would not have been able to live.
"Is it not embarrassing for the peshmerga ministry that as an officer I am driving a taxi to make a living? Or for other peshmerga to drive taxis or become guards outside companies and supermarkets?"
Another peshmerga fighter said: "We all have a duty now to defend our land, but once this is over, there need to be big changes."
Even as US and French weapons start to flow to the peshmerga, Kurdish officials concede urgent changes are needed – starting with genuine reconciliation between the feuding factions.
"A vacuum existed because there was no real military system for the different groups of fighters," said Saleh. "There is no unified command. But I think they have realised that and started to put aside their differences. Our priority must be to have a competent and coordinated military force in Kurdistan.
"If we don't put this theory into practice now, then we will have lost a hugely important historical time."
Commander Saalim also urged the Kurdish groups to unite, or run the real risk of being similarly subsumed by the chaos ravaging Iraq and Syria, which threatens to topple the borders of both states. "This is a historic moment for the Kurds, given the broad international support from the US and the EU countries," he said.
Reluctant for more than a decade to arm the Kurds, lest it bolstered their ambitions for sovereignty, the speed of the US response to the threat from Isis has convinced many in Irbil that the long quest for a Kurdish nation could still emerge from the rubble of the Middle East.
Split into four geographic locations, in Iraq's north, eastern Syria, south-eastern Turkey and western Iran, the Kurds' quest for statehood has remained elusive ever since the Ottoman empire was carved up almost a century ago. Efforts to unite the disparate groups have until now been lost in a myriad of competing ambitions and decades of political turmoil.
"The 100-year-long struggle of the Kurds in the four parts of Kurdistan, especially the 40-year-long freedom and democracy struggle of the PKK, has heightened the awareness of the Kurds," a spokesman for the PKK, which has fought a separatist campaign against the Turkish government, wrote in an email to the Guardian. "After the fall of Mosul, we [declared to] all the parties in south Kurdistan that our guerrilla forces are ready to defend our people in south Kurdistan. We have declared that all the Kurdish parties and groups should work to form a national defence force.
"The conditions in each part of Kurdistan are different, and the settlement models may differ from each other. But all parts should have common strategies."
"Iraq will never be the same again," said Saleh. "We need competent visionary leaders to make this work and we need them now."
08/25/2014 05:53 PM
Forgotten in Iraq: Besieged City Faces Destruction by the Islamic State
By Christoph Reuter and Jacob Russell
The world took notice when the Yazidis needed help. But since June, a Turkmen city in northern Iraq has been under siege by the Islamic State. The death toll continues to mount but, thus far, the people of Amirli have been left to fight the IS on their own.
"Every day I receive about 100 patients. Every day there is shelling. Some of the injuries are very complicated, legs amputated, head wounds. But I don't have the materials to provide serious treatment. There are cases where I have put patients on the helicopter alive and they die when they get to Baghdad."
Dr. Khaldoun Mahmoud speaks extremely rapidly, and with good reason. There is only a single place remaining in the northern Iraqi town of Amirli where he still has a modicum of mobile phone reception: at the helicopter landing pad above the village. And with every call, he is risking his life. Fighters from the Islamic State (IS) have surrounded the town and are just one kilometer away.
The jihadists are trying to cut off Amirli's last link to the outside world and have set up their artillery within sight of the landing site. An Iraqi army helicopter still lands here twice a week, supplying the town with a minimum of supplies. On the way back, it ferries out the wounded. Without the flights, the people of Amirli would be left completely on their own and would likely quickly succumb to the ongoing siege.
"It's like genocide" says Mahmoud. "Da'esh" -- the Arabic abbreviation of the Islamic State -- "attacks women, children, soldiers, they don't differentiate between them. From one family that tried to escape, only two children came back alive. They were carrying the corpses of the rest of the family with them. People are dying from malnutrition; they are drinking dirty water and we have ulcers, bleeding and diarrhea."
The doctor rapidly rattles off the cases he has seen. Like that of little Hussein: "He was hungry and asking me for food. I started to cry because he was so hungry and I gave him a little food. Two days later he was killed in a mortar attack. The mortar exploded above his father and afterwards we could only find pieces of him."
He then laughs, a manic expression of desperation from a doctor responsible for 13,000 people. "Maybe I'll go crazy if I don't keep my sense of humor. I try to joke with the children I treat. People have to have the sense that someone is helping them. But sometimes I don't have the skills to help people," he laments. "I'm only a dentist."
No One to Protect Them
In recent weeks, the fate of the tens of thousands of Yazidis from Sinjar has dominated global headlines as they sought to escape the IS. The US continues to fly airstrikes and has dropped supplies from the air. Even the German government intends to deliver weapons to the embattled Kurds in northern Iraq. But just 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the south, a similar catastrophe is brewing, and the response has been minimal.
There are no Yazidis in Amirli. Two-thirds of the town's residents are Turkmen whose ancestors mostly came from areas that are part of present-day Turkey. They are Shiites and are thus seen by the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State as being worse than heretics. They are apostates of the true faith -- a death sentence in the eyes of the jihadists. And the Turkmen have no allies in Iraq.
After IS took control of the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Hawijah with little resistance, they launched attacks on villages surrounding Amirli in mid-June. Well-equipped with materiel captured from weapons depots belonging to a number of Iraqi army divisions, they quickly overran several settlements in the area. By the middle of July, only Amirli was still holding out.
Around 400 militiamen, together with a few soldiers and policemen, are defending the city. Amirli native Mustafa al-Bayati, a colonel from the police force, is their commander. "The IS has tanks, dushkas (machine guns), Katyushas (rocket launchers) and they are too strong," he says. "They attack from everywhere around Amirli: south, north, east and west. Day-by-day they come, more and more."
On July 22, the IS cut off power to Amirli and severed water supplies two days later. All mobile phone towers have likewise been blown up or shot to pieces.
"At the beginning, people had something to eat," says Mohammed Isma of the Iraqi Red Cross. Isma is from Amirli and is attempting to mobilize aid for the town from his base in Baghdad. "But two months is a long time and now it's run out. One month ago, we finished everything."
Dying of Starvation
Amirli, he says, was never well-off, but now the poorest families have nothing left. There are also pregnant women in the city -- Dr. Mahmoud says there are 300 -- along with the many wounded and the sick, he adds. "If nothing changes, it's a maximum of three weeks before many people will begin dying of starvation."
The only help for those trapped in Amirli comes from the air. Every two or three days, an old army helicopter from Baghdad lands with munitions, food and medicine, but it is never enough. Two weeks ago, Red Cross representative Isma joined one of the flights. When they landed, he says, the wounded with their families had "their arms stretched out like people drowning in water," he recalls.
The whole time, Isma says, IS fighters were lobbing grenades at the landing site. But everyone wants to get out, which is why they expose themselves to the danger. "They say, 'We'll die anyway if we stay,'" Isma says. Seven patients were loaded onto the flight Isma was on. There wasn't room for more.
Isma speaks in a calm voice when he tells his story, but he too is sick with worry. His parents, six sisters and a brother all remain trapped in Amirli. He could perhaps get them out with a helicopter. But people in Amirli know them and are aware of Isma's job with the Red Cross. He worries that if people saw them being evacuated, the "would know the game is up" and that panic might break out.
It has been more than a month since the last known residents were able to escape the town on their own. "We left on foot," carrying just a small bag, recalls Ali Abd al-Rida, who fled with 32 family members. They left in secret, not even daring to tell their friends and neighbors of their plans, worried that if too many people tried to escape on the discreet path leading past IS positions, the Islamists would be certain to discover them. Ali Abd al-Rida says that the IS discovered the path three days later and closed it off.
The elderly man and his family found their way to a refugee camp in Kirkuk, the closest large city to Amirli, figuring they would be safe there. But two weeks ago, a car bomb exploded next to a construction site of a mosque in the city where refugees, most of them from Amirli, had sought refuge. Twelve were killed and 50 more wounded.
Bullet Holes and RPG Craters
Abd al-Rida says that the jihadists tried to get the people of Amirli to surrender, promising through middlemen that a deal could be reached. "Send us Colonel Mustafa and Captain Hassan and we will open the road," they offered, according to Abd al-Rida. "But people refused."
Those best positioned to help the trapped people of Amirli are just 12 kilometers away. Here, on a hill overlooking the frontlines, the southernmost checkpoint belonging to the Kurdish peshmerga fighters is located. The exterior wall is pockmarked with bullet holes and a couple of RPG craters.
Inside, though, soldiers sit around lethargically in the sweltering heat. The commander isn't here, says his deputy, Colonel Omid Abd al-Karim, adding that not much has happened since a big attack a month previously.
"It has been calm here since the last attack a month ago," he says. The Iraqi army, he says, tried to save the people of Amirli not long ago. "Before they went, I told them it would not be successful, but they didn't listen," another officer says. An attack on the IS "would be easy with good weapons and air support, but we don't have any," Abd al-Karim says. The message is clear: Amirli is a problem, but not theirs.
As is so often the case in Iraq, there is a story behind the story, stretching far back into the past. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite Turkmen were tormented before being terrorized by al-Qaida. In 2007, four-and-a-half tons of explosives hidden under melons detonated in the market square, killing more than 150 people.
'All of Us Are From Amirli'
Because the Iraqis didn't protect them, the Turkmen from Amirli remained loyal to Turkey and Ankara was more than happy to act as their patrons and the Turkish government supported Turkmen parties in northern Iraq. But the alliance brought the Turkmen into conflict with the Kurds, whose help they now so badly need. They certainly can't count on Turkey, which is currently staying out of the conflict out of fear for the lives of 49 Turkish hostages currently being held by the IS.
The result is that nobody feels responsible for the people of Amirli.
"It would be useful if the US conducted airstrikes here," Kurdish party functionary Hassan Baram says in his office in Tuz Khormato, the last town before the front. "But I think they haven't," he adds, downplaying the seriousness of the situation in the city, "because nobody has been killed in Amirli and nobody is fleeing."
Baram's office has no windows, the result of a car bomb a couple of months ago, and the facade is threatening to collapse. "We have almost constant contact with Amirli. We want to go free them, but it's not easy," he says.
The US too has recognized the precarious situation in Amirli. "We are aware of the dire conditions for the mainly Turkmen population in Amirli and the ongoing humanitarian crisis throughout northern and central Iraq," reads the statement of a State Department official who asked not to be named. Both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have publicly discussed the possibility of a far-reaching operation against the IS, including airstrikes in Syria as well. But it could be some time before such an offensive becomes reality.
Last Thursday, Colonel Mustafa al-Bayati was once again waiting for the arrival of the next helicopter, well within range of the IS fighters. He says that almost half the force under his command is wounded and around 20 of them have died. "I don't know how long we can protect Amirli," he says. "But we're going to fight until we die. It's our town. I'm from Amirli. All of us are from Amirli."
Abdullah Threatens to Pull out of Afghan Election Audit
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 August 2014, 11:13
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah threatened on Tuesday to withdraw from an audit of votes cast in the election, a move that could wreck U.N. efforts to rescue the country's first democratic transfer of power.
The June 14 election has triggered a standoff between Abdullah and his poll rival Ashraf Ghani, with both candidates claiming victory amid allegations of massive fraud.
To end the impasse, a deal was brokered for an audit of all eight million votes to remove fraudulent ballots, and for the formation of a national unity government under whoever becomes the next president.
But with the audit entering its final stages, Abdullah's campaign team ignored pleas from the United Nations and the United States to allow the process to be completed and then to respect the outcome.
"If they accept our demands by tomorrow morning we will continue the process. If not, we will withdraw from the process and consider it finished," Fazel Ahmad Manawi, a senior member of Abdullah's campaign team, told reporters.
"Such a process is not acceptable for us and has no value."
He said Abdullah's demands over how fraudulent votes should be thrown out had been ignored.
Abdullah won the eight-candidate first-round election in April, but preliminary results in the June run-off vote showed he had fallen well behind Ghani.
On Monday the invalidation stage of the audit finally began -- but Manawi dismissed it as "a joke".
"The sites we had asked to be invalidated were not considered," he said.
"We boycotted the audit once or twice before and they asked us to come back, but they have never listened to our demands.
"The audit has confirmed that there has been widespread fraud in the election."
The country has been in paralysis for months due to the election to choose the successor to President Hamid Karzai, who will step down as U.S.-led NATO troops prepare to end their 13-year war against Taliban insurgents.
On Monday 3,644 of the 23,000 ballot boxes were put through the invalidation process. Only 74 boxes were thrown out, with 697 selected for a further recount.
"It is still premature to draw conclusions about the final audit result based on these initial findings," U.N. mission chief Jan Kubis said in a statement late Monday.
"All parties should continue to respect the process so as to not create unrealistic expectations."
Karzai has insisted the delayed inauguration ceremony must be held on September 2, imposing a tough deadline that has raised tensions between supporters of the opposing candidates.
A smooth transition of power was meant to be the democratic keystone of the multi-billion dollar military and civilian aid effort in Afghanistan, but the crisis has emboldened the Taliban and weakened the fragile economy.
The U.N. has voiced fears of a return to the ethnic divisions of the 1990s civil war if the election dispute sets off a spiral of instability.
Any backlash against the final result could split the country, since many of Ghani's supporters are Pashtuns in the south and east, while Abdullah's loyalists are Tajiks and other northern groups.
Unrest has worsened nationwide in recent months, with major Taliban offensives in the southern province of Kandahar and in Logar province, south of the capital.
Bhutan battles to preserve its culture as development accelerates
A push for growth could destabilise the delicate cultural ecosystem, but officials vow to keep its unique identity alive
Alexandra Topping in Ura, Bhutan
theguardian.com, Tuesday 26 August 2014 10.50 BST
In the village of Ura, nestled in a sweeping valley in central Bhutan, the locals are celebrating. Men wearing grotesque masks and brandishing huge wooden penises leap through traditional dances. And in the village dzong – its monastery, fortress and spiritual centre – locals in national dress eat, drink and gossip.
But overseeing the celebrations at Ura’s annual three-day festival, Tashi Wangyal, a member of the national council, the country’s upper chamber, explains that this year it has been difficult to find enough young men to perform the traditional dances. Those who have moved away have been urged to return for the festivities. “How do we prevent the fissures between modernity and tradition opening out?” he asks. “Bhutan has a distinct culture, language and tradition. We do not have military power, we don’t have economic power but we do have culture – and that is what keeps us distinct, and safe.”
As Bhutan – a nation best known for valuing GNH, gross national happiness, above GDP – accelerates its development, its government and people have engaged in a new fight to preserve its culture and keep its unique identity alive.
In a bid to fight globalisation with a form of Bhutanese “glocalisation”, the government has passed a heritage sites bill, which protects its cultural traditions as well as its monuments. It has its own broadcast channel, the Bhutan Broadcast Service, and insists on national dress in government meetings and in schools. The tourist board is pushing homestays – a Bhutanese version of bed and breakfast – in an attempt to bring money to rural areas, while giving value to a traditional way of life.
Poster child for development
A nation of only 740,000 people, Bhutan is already a poster child for development (pdf). On target to meet all eight millennium development goals, its poverty rate has halved in less than a decade, to 12% in 2012 from 23% in 2007. Healthcare and education are free, and since 1980 life expectancy has increased by 20 years and per capita income by 450%.
But economic growth has stumbled in recent years. The economy is expected to grow by 7.3% in 2014, but a heavy debt burden and a currency shortage forced the government to push through an $88m (£53m) stimulus package last year. Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, admitted last year that too much focus on GNH rather than providing basic services could be “a distraction”, causing some to worry that a new push for growth could destabilise the country’s delicate cultural ecosystem still further.
Mass migration from villages to urban centres is a key concern. The UN human development report in 2009 revealed that rural-urban migration in Bhutan – which got its first television sets in 1999 and held its first democratic elections in 2008 – was one of the highest in south Asia. This year’s World Bank report (pdf) found that only 37% of rural households said they were happy, compared with half of households in cities. “Low living standards, lack of alternative job opportunities, especially for young people, and unhappiness is contributing to increased out-migration as well as families’ breakdown and loss of communities’ vitality,” said the report.
With greater development comes greater expectation, says Sangay Khandu, an MP in Bhutan’s national council. “You promise a road, the next thing people want is a car to drive on that road; you promote telecommunications, the next thing they want is a mobile phone. The reality is that people want comfort, they want the benefit of development,” he says.
Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is one of the fastest growing cities in south Asia, expanding at a rate of about 10% a year. Although attempts are being made to curb its growth (pdf) – strict building rules, tax breaks for businesses in other towns and rural areas, new roads and planned regional airports – its brights lights are still a draw for a population who, until recently, might have lived several days’ walk from the nearest road.
A new road is bringing change to Merak, a stop on one of Bhutan’s most celebrated treks in the remote far east, and a bone-jangling three-day drive from Thimphu. Here, narrow paths wind past the carved wooden houses, and many of the semi-nomadic local Brokpa (highlander) people wear the traditional dress of the region while tending their yaks. But the road means the village is only an hour’s trek from the junction. Electricity arrived in 2012.
Yak herder Lam Richen, 45, explains that two of his three children now live in Thimphu – his daughter has just graduated, his son is a police officer. He hopes the road will bring more tourists, but he is wary too. “I am happy for people to come here, to show them my culture,” he says. “But the risk is that if more tourists come then people here might want a different culture to the one they already have.”
The Shejun Agency, an NGO that aims to preserve Bhutan’s culture, warns that remote and diverse microcultures within Bhutan may be disappearing (pdf) before their existence can even be recorded. The brutality of progress is laid bare on the trek from the village of Merak to Sakteng, which only opened to the public in 2010. For days, the only sounds on the rhododendron-laden route are the rustling of leaves and the occasional whip of a set of prayer flags. But the peace is shattered on the approach to Sakteng by the sound of heavy machinery, as diggers cut a new road into the mountainside, leaving fallen Himalayan cypress in their wake.
Bhutan is unique in its promise to keep at least 60% of its landmass as forest, but roads keep on coming (pdf): in 2004 the country had around 800km (497 miles) of roads, but by 2012 that had grown to 5,500km.
The balance of Bhutan’s economy is already shifting. In 2002 farming accounted for 26% of GDP, but by 2011 that was down to 16%. Industry – mainly due to four massive hydropower projects (pdf) – accounted for 44% of GDP in 2011, up from 28% in 2002. But there is a sense that this development is benefitting a few, and leaving many behind. As of last year only 2% of the population were employed in water, gas and electricity supply (pdf).
A huge new hydropower plant, partly financed by India, in Dagachhu is set to open within months, and 11 more are planned. The country is attempting to meet its declared aim of increasing hydropower capacity to 10,000MW by 2020, most of it for export to India, which is funding the expansions.
Agriculture still features highly in Bhutan’s plans. Around two-thirds of the population still work in agriculture, the vast majority as subsistence farmers. The country – the world’s only nation aiming to be fully organic – plans to diversify production into hazelnuts, coffee and organic vegetables, and is launching the Green Bhutan Project giving rural people plots of land and greenhouses.
Tourism, another area of potential growth and revenue, is increasing by about 10-15% every year. Tourists can only visit Bhutan on an organised tour, which, alongside a daily visa fee to the government, can cost about $250 a day. “We need to make tourism sustainable, so it’s not just about numbers but about yield,” says Kinley Wangi, of Bhutan’s tourism council. “If you don’t plan well, tourists can ruin a country.”
Until now much of the money raised from tourism – which Wangi estimates accounts for only 6-9% of GDP – has stayed in the hands of tour companies. But the government is encouraging local people in remote areas to open up their homes for curious tourists, so that more money is spent locally.
Bhutan will have to make a herculean effort if it is to preserve its unique identity, and, as the Ura festivities close, there are signs of hope.
As the sun dips below the mountains, all the men and women of the village dance around the courtyard of the dzong to the rhythmic sound of bells. A couple of tourists pull the hoods of their all-weather jackets tighter around their faces while a monk in ochre robes takes a photo on his smartphone.
Watching, 12-year-old Rigzin Pema Yodchan says she hopes that in the future her country will be more developed, with computers and phones. Asked if she will stay here in Ura, she nods. “Yes. Lots of people now leave,” she says. “But we should stay and preserve our culture.”
***************Bhutan brings children's rights to monastic schools
Thousands of Bhutan's poorest children living and studying in monasteries can now report any mistreatment or abuse
Annie Kelly in Thimphu
theguardian.com, Wednesday 20 February 2013 07.00 GMT
The Dechen Phodrang monastery sits on top of a steep hill overlooking the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu. Since the 16th century, prayer flags have fluttered in the hills around Dechen Phodrang, one of thousands of monastic orders scattered throughout this tiny Himalayan kingdom.
The Buddhist faith is tightly woven into the fabric of Bhutan's fiercely protected national identity. Monks are still revered by large sections of the population and for many remain an integral part of everyday life, performing birth and death rituals and presiding over prayers at national holidays.
For centuries, the monasteries have provided a home and an education to thousands of Bhutan's poorest children. More than 4,000 live and study in monasteries across the country, usually sent by parents who can't afford to feed their large families or pay for the uniforms and textbooks required by government schools. Officially, the monasteries take children of seven and older. In reality, many take children as young as five when they have nowhere else to go.
Since 1971, Dechen Phodrang has been home to about 450 student monks, many coming to the monastery from villages in the mountainous interior. Living conditions are basic. The children sleep on mats on the floor of the drafty study rooms, and respiratory infections, lice and scabies are part of life. The monastery struggles to provide basic sanitation facilities and adequate food for the boys.
"Many of these children who come here arrive because their situation at home is desperate. We try to do the best we can for them," says Kencho Tshering, principal of Dechen Phodrang's monastic school. "Most don't see their families for many months, or even years, as many families can't afford the journey. There is an understanding that once the boys enter the monastery, their lives are now committed to spiritual knowledge."
Until three months ago, the monastic students here were cut off from state or social welfare programmes. The government rarely intervenes in the monastic orders, and the monasteries have their own courts, which operate outside the state penal system.
Now, a groundbreaking project is entering this closed-off world. A child protection framework is being set up within the monastic school system. Designed and funded by Unicef Bhutan, it aims to instil the concept of child rights into the monastic orders and, more practically, provide children in the monasteries with a way of reporting violence, neglect, mistreatment or abuse. It aims to forge links between the monastic orders, the police and state child welfare services.
"The idea that these children have basic rights – to be protected from harm, to good health, sanitation – is a new concept to many of the monks who have themselves gone through a monastic education, where there is an emphasis on hard discipline and on total integration into spiritual life," says Dorji Wangdi, child protection officer at Unicef Bhutan.
Dechen Phodrang has been selected as one of the test sites for the scheme. All teachers, senior monks and pupils have attended child rights workshops, and a child protection officer is now housed permanently at Dechen Phodrang to act as a bridge between the monastery and state child welfare services.
"Before, the lay and monastic systems were very separate, except in cases of serious criminal activities, but now any response to any child rights issue is co-ordinated between the monastic and federal justice systems," says Wangdi. "Just because a child has entered the monastic order does not mean they should not get the same protection as any other child in Bhutan. The authorities here have to understand that the child's welfare is the responsibility of the state as well."
Wangdi says the results are already showing. As a result of child rights workshops, corporal punishment – banned in the rest of Bhutan's schools but still used widely in monastic ones – has stopped at Dechen Phodrang.
When Phub Gyeltshen, a shy 16-year-old, first came to the school three years ago, he had already spent years in the state education system. His family took him to the monastery after struggling to feed him and his four sisters.
"The first months were very hard," he says. "I missed school and my family and learning English. I was also bullied and beaten by the older boys, and also in class, but I thought this was just something I had to bear as I was on my own.
"Now I know that there are things I can do, there is someone here at the monastery who has told us that we can go and tell him if anything is wrong and that they will listen to us. Things are better now, and I'm glad that they have put these things in to help us."
While the project is seen to have been a success at Dechen Phodrang, the main challenge is scaling up this initiative on a national scale. Bhutan is largely mountainous, with many smaller monastic schools in isolated and remote locations far from the capital city.
"We are often not really able to assess conditions at many of the smaller schools, especially during the winter months," says Wangdi. "Putting this programme of child rights and adequate reporting chains into these monastic schools is going to be a huge problem. It's going to be difficult gaining the confidence of both the monks and also the children as there won't always be someone on hand to be a point of contact – so we have to find ways of ensuring rights are actually implemented."
Despite the question marks that hang over the future of the fledgling child protection scheme, it is being heralded as the first step in preventing Bhutan's 4,000 child monks from falling through the gaps.
"It's hard because, in our culture, the pupils here are already monks, they are here to immerse themselves in the spiritual world," says Tshering. "But the world has changed and we have to change too, and make sure that all the children here are treated equally to those in the outside world."
**************Bhutan set to plough lone furrow as world's first wholly organic country
By shunning all but organic farming techniques, the Himalayan state will cement its status as a paradigm of sustainability
Bhutan plans to become the first country in the world to turn its agriculture completely organic, banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers.
But rather than accept that this will mean farmers of the small Himalayan kingdom of around 1.2m people (according to Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan's minister of agriculture and forests; the World Bank estimates it at around 740,000) will be able to grow less food, the government expects them to be able to grow more – and to export increasing amounts of high quality niche foods to neighbouring India, China and other countries.
The decision to go organic was both practical and philosophical, said Gyamtsho, in Delhi for the annual sustainable development conference last week. "Ours is a mountainous terrain. When we use chemicals they don't stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants. We say that we need to consider all the environment. Most of our farm practices are traditional farming, so we are largely organic anyway.
"But we are Buddhists, too, and we believe in living in harmony with nature. Animals have the right to live, we like to to see plants happy and insects happy," he said.
Gyamtsho, like most members of the cabinet, is a farmer himself, coming from Bumthang in central Bhutan but studying western farming methods in New Zealand and Switzerland.
"Going organic will take time," he said. "We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop."
The overwhelmingly agrarian nation, which really only opened its doors to world influences 30 years ago, is now facing many of the development pangs being felt everywhere in rapidly emerging countries. Young people reluctant to live just by farming are migrating to India and elsewhere, there is a population explosion, and there is inevitable pressure for consumerism and cultural change.
But, says Gyamtsho, Bhutan's future depends largely on how it responds to interlinked development challenges like climate change, and food and energy security. "We would already be self-sufficient in food if we only ate what we produced. But we import rice. Rice eating is now very common, but traditionally it was very hard to get. Only the rich and the elite had it. Rice conferred status. Now the trend is reversing. People are becoming more health-conscious and are eating grains like buckwheat and wheat."
In the west, organic food growing is widely thought to reduce the size of crops because they become more susceptible to pests. But this is being challenged in Bhutan and some regions of Asia, where smallholders are developing new techniques to grow more and are not losing soil quality.
Systems like "sustainable root intensification" (SRI), which carefully regulate the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out, have shown that organic crop yields can be doubled with no synthetic chemicals.
"We are experimenting with different methods of growing crops like SRI but we are also going to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance," says Gyamtsho.
However, a run of exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals.
In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.
"I have heard of the plan to turn everything organic. But we are facing serious problems just getting people to grow enough", said Rinzen Wangchuk, district farm officer.
"Most people here are smallholder farmers. The last few years we have had problems with the crops. The weather has been very erratic. It's been warmer than normal and all the chilli crops are full of pests. We are having to rely on fertilisers more than we have ever had to in the past and even these are not working as well as they initially did."
Dawa Tshering, who depends on his two acres of rice paddy and a vegetable garden, says that for decades his farming was chemical free.
"But its harder now because all our children are either in the capital or studying. Nobody wants to stay, which means we have to work harder. It's just my wife an myself here. We cannot grow enough to feed ourselves and take crops to the market, so we have to use chemicals for the first time. We would like to go back to farming how we used to, where we just used what nature provided."
But in a world looking for new ideas, Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, 80% of the country is forested and, to the envy of many countries, it is carbon neutral and food secure.
In addition, it is now basing its economic development on the pursuit of collective happiness.
"We have no fossil fuels or nuclear. But we are blessed with rivers which give us the potential of over 30,000megawatts of electricity. So far we only exploit 2,000 megawatts. We exploit enough now to export to India and in the pipeline we have 10,000 megawatts more. The biggest threat we face is cars. The number is increasing every day. Everyone wants to buy cars and that means we must import fuel. That is why we must develop our energy."
Agriculture minister Gyamtsho remains optimistic. "Hopefully we can provide solutions. What is at stake is the future. We need governments who can make bold decisions now rather than later."
*************'Let nature be your teacher': Bhutan takes conservation into the classroom
Bhutan's green schools project is an attempt to bring its revolutionary 'happiness' model to all young people
• In pictures: sustainability on the curriculum
Annie Kelly in Bhutan
theguardian.com, Wednesday 2 January 2013 09.44 GMT
The Jigme Losel primary school in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, is a riot of green. Plants cover most surfaces and are piled precariously on walls and stairwells. On the wall behind the school's vegetable patch a hand-painted sign says: "Let nature be your teacher."
"It's become our unofficial slogan," Choki Dukpa, who has been headteacher at Jigame Losel since 2005, says. "We want nature to be everywhere the children are. Most of our country is mountains, but here in the city I think the children can feel disconnected. It's our way of bringing the outside to inside the school environment."
For the past three years, Dukpa has been putting the environment at the heart of all teaching and activities at this busy primary school. "Environmental sustainability and nature is now central to the way we teach here," she says.
Since the end of 2009, Bhutan has been trialling a new approach to education. Its Green Schools for Green Bhutan programme is part of the country's attempt to integrate principles of its revolutionary Gross National Happiness (GNH) model into all areas of public policy.
Since 1971, this tiny Himalayan state has rejected the idea of measuring progress and prosperity through GDP alone, instead governing through a GNH index – based on four pillars: equitable social development; cultural preservation; conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance.
In 2009, an Educating for GNH conference announced that its principles, in particular the pillar of environmental conservation, would be integrated into the national curriculum to make "learning more relevant, thoughtful and aligned with sustainable practices".
"Green schools is not just about the environment, it is a philosophy, so we're trying to instil a sense of green minds, which are flexible and open to different types of learning," Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan's minister of education, says. "It's a values-led approach to education that stems from the belief that education should be more than academic attainment, it should be about expanding children's minds and teaching what it is to be human – and at the forefront of this is the conservation of the natural environment."
The primary school in Thimphu has a communal vegetable garden and teaches children basic agricultural skills. Each classroom has its own tree to look after and flower garden to tend. There is a scheme aiming to recycle all materials used in the school and a community "green clean" scheme, where children clean the school in the morning using brooms they have made from recycled bottles and twigs.
The children also have daily prayers and meditations, and undertake community work.
The government is determined to put the GNH pillar of cultural preservation into action to counter what it considers the decay of national identity in recent years. The children at Jigme Losel listen to traditional music and stories, and are educated in "Bhutanese values". Although it has faced criticism of its enforcement of cultural traditions – such as an insistence that people wear traditional dress in formal public settings – the education minister believes Bhutan's "strong national identity … should be passed down through the generations".
However, the well-stocked classrooms and vegetable patches of Jigame Losel are a far cry from the reality of school life for many Bhutanese children. The country has made considerable progress in achieving primary education for all children. In the 1960s, only 500 children were enrolled in 11 schools in Bhutan. Last year 170,000 were attending classes in 650 primary schools across the country.
Yet Bhutan is still struggling to get teachers, let alone recycling schemes, into many of its schools located in remote and very poor mountainous regions across the country. "The geography of Bhutan means that many children are very isolated," Bishnu Bhakta Mishra, education officer at Unicef Bhutan, says. "The provision of quality education is still a big issue for the country."
Unicef Bhutan has partnered the government to help roll out the green schools initiative. The agency is trying to roll out a nationwide teacher-training initiative that it believes is vital to take the lofty principles of the initiative and translate them into practical action in the schoolyard and classroom.
"We are caught up in the challenge of providing resources to 8,000 teachers," Mishra says. "In terms of resources, we are stretched. Implementation at school level is still a big problem, and without training we know it really is almost impossible. The idea is brilliant but it means a lot of added work for the teachers, and we're getting no additional resources from the government.
"I have no doubt that a generation of GNH-minded graduates would be a huge benefit to the country, but it will take time before we see if it really will work."
• This article was amended on 8 January 2013. The original stated that last year 17,000 children were attending classes in 650 primary schools. The figure should have been 170,000. This has now been corrected.
*************Bhutan puts sustainability on the curriculum – in pictures
Bhutan's new approach to education incorporates the principles of its index to measure prosperity through Gross National Happiness into the curriculum. Its green schools initiative aims to teach children about environmental conservation and sustainable living, although reaching schools in more remote regions takes more time.
Click to view: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/gallery/2013/jan/02/bhutan-sustainability-curriculum-in-pictures
Joe Hockey is Australia's least popular recent treasurer, poll suggests
Labor targets minister at question time, highlighting his disputed statements as he has tried to sell budget
Lenore Taylor, political editor
theguardian.com, Tuesday 26 August 2014 07.23 BST
Only 5% of Australians nominate Joe Hockey as Australia’s best recent treasurer, including just 10% of Liberal voters – meaning he ranks last among the four treasurers polled.
The survey emerged as Labor targeted the treasurer with every one of its questions during parliamentary question time on Tuesday, using Hockey’s own various explanations and arguments as he has sought to sell his unpopular budget over the past three months.
Peter Costello topped the Essential Media poll, nominated as the best treasurer by 30% of respondents, including 54% of Liberal voters, followed by Paul Keating (23%, 12% of Liberal voters) and Wayne Swan (8%, 3% of Liberals). More than one in three (35%) said they “didn’t know” when asked who had been Australia’s best recent treasurer.
Despite the faltering budget sales pitch and the fact that much of the budget appears unlikely to pass the Senate, Tony Abbott insists the Coalition will demonstrate it is an “outstanding” reforming government.
Speaking at the launch of News Corp commentator Paul Kelly’s book Triumph and Demise, Abbott took issue with the author’s view that good government may have become impossible.
“There is no doubt that good government today is harder than ever before, in part, because of the 24/7 media cycle, which politicians inevitably need to feed,” Abbott said.
But he said it wasn’t the system that was the problem. Rather, “it is the people who, from time to time, inhabit it”. He said the mission of the government was “to demonstrate, through its action, ultimately through its record, that the last six years – the six years between 2007 and 2013 – is not the new normal; that it was in fact just a passing phase”.
Among the Hockey quotes thrown back at the treasurer during question time were his incorrect contention on the ABC’s Q&A program that a chronically ill patient would not pay the $7 GP co-payment (for most doctor’s visits the patient would pay), and his concession on the same program that the co-payment could be called a tax.
“It’s a payment,” Hockey said. “You can call it a tax … It comes out of a pocket. It comes out of someone’s pocket. A taxpayer’s pocket. You want to call it a tax, you can call it anything you want, you can call it a rabbit.”
Hockey now insists it is a “payment for service”.
Labor also harked back to Hockey’s statement in an interview on the ABC that “one of the things that quite astounds me is some people are screaming about a $7 co-payment … One packet of cigarettes costs $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor. You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that’s two middies of beer to go to the doctor. And is a parent really going to deny their sick child a visit to the doctor which would be the equivalent payment of a couple of beers or one-third of a packet of cigarettes?”
They also asked him about his statement that “the poorest people don’t have cars or don’t drive far in many cases” for which the treasurer subsequently apologised. Hockey said he had “dealt with that last week”. And they questioned whether the fuel tax was in fact a “progressive” tax, as Hockey contended, on the basis of total spending figures, rather than calculations of fuel spending as a proportion of household income, the usual measure of whether a tax is regressive or progressive.
The government has removed many budget policies from the list of bills to be debated in the Senate this week, because they appeared set to be voted down, and continues to negotiate with the Senate crossbenchers, without any apparent breakthroughs.
Labor insisted the government had no mandate for a budget “built on lies” and the Palmer United party confirmed it would vote against the $7 GP co-payment, meaning it will not pass the Senate based on the current positions of opposition parties.
According to the Essential poll the Coalition is on 48% of the two-party-preferred vote, with Labor on 52%.
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said Hockey was “an albatross around the neck of this government”.
The whale that swallowed New Zealand's election campaign
A spectacular exposé alleging prime minister John Key and his National party colleagues were involved in dirty tricks campaigns has created the most significant political maelstrom in nearly six years in office and blown the government’s re-election strategy dramatically off course, writes Toby Manhire
Toby Manhire in Auckland
26 August 2014 04.21 BST
At the beginning of the month, the New Zealand National party looked all but unassailable. The centre-right party, led by the enormously popular trader-turned-politician John Key, seemed firmly in control as they approached a September election, helped by an opposition in disarray. If a third term was not yet guaranteed – New Zealand’s proportional electoral system makes landslide victories improbable – it was clear it would take some remarkable turn of events to shift the momentum.
What a difference a book makes. Investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s “Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment” has blown the National party strategy dramatically off course, propelling the campaign into uncharted territory. Its allegations have dominated news bulletins for the 10 days since its publication, as accusations of dirty tricks, smear campaigns and conspiracy sally in every direction.
Many predicted Hager’s book, details of which remained a secret until launch to forestall any injunction, would return to the subject of an earlier work, New Zealand’s role in the Five Eyes spying network. But instead of leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Hager had something which, in domestic political terms at least, would prove even more explosive: a cache of correspondence from the computer of Cameron Slater, a vigorous, venomous rightwing blogger better known by his site’s title, Whale Oil.
The fallout spreads
The great risk for Key is that his sparkling reputation becomes contaminated by association with Slater’s toxic style.
Hager draws on thousands of hacked emails and Facebook private messages, which reveal Slater’s links to Jason Ede, then a senior press adviser and so-called “black ops” co-ordinator in the prime minister’s office, as well as to senior cabinet minister Judith “Crusher” Collins and others. Taken together, Hager claims in the book, the material exposes “the covert attack machine run by the National party and its allies” and “a new kind of attack politics … rapidly changing the political environment”.
The allegations have thoroughly sucked the oxygen out of a National campaign carefully crafted – as its official hashtag, #TeamKey, implies – around a hugely liked leader. As one political editor put it this week: “Nothing short of discovering the cure for cancer will divert the conversation from Dirty Politics.”
In an unlikely convergence of old and new media, the acts described in the book have been supported by the drip feed of source documents online, via an anonymous Twitter account, @Whaledump, almost certainly controlled by the same individual who handed the documents to Hager. In a wink to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Whaledump lists as its contact address “Flat 3b, 3 Hans Crescent”, site of the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
The National party has scrambled to explain correspondence suggesting Collins, the justice minister and an avowed close friend of Slater, had fed him with information about a public servant so that he could attack him on his blog, which led to death threats in the comments. Key, who earlier this year acknowledged that he regularly spoke with Slater “to see what he’s got on his site and mind”, this week described Collins’s action as “unwise” but refused to ask for her resignation, despite having given her a “last chance” after she was at the centre of political controversy earlier in the year.
The prime minister, facing by far the most sustained political maelstrom in nearly six years in office, has been accused of making contradictory statements about his knowledge of the process by which Slater had been handed material from the domestic spy agency, SIS, that would embarrass the Labour leader in the leadup to the 2011 election. Slater’s Official Information Act request, which Hager says was encouraged by one of the PM’s staff, had been almost immediately fulfilled, while similar requests from other media were denied. It was, Slater boasted in a message, “expedited, in the public interest. It is devastating for [Labour leader Phil] Goff, I am told”.
Key strongly rejects claims he was briefed on the matter and it is now the subject of an inquiry by the spy watchdog, the inspector general of intelligence and security.
Ede, meanwhile, is shown in correspondence reproduced by Hager to have allegedly colluded in probing a Labour party website that had been left insecure. Other published exchanges allegedly show Slater and his associate, political consultant Simon Lusk, discussing smear campaigns to help a client win a National candidate selection, the blackmail of a sitting MP (it never happened, the MP has since insisted) and the description of those forced from their homes after the Christchurch earthquake as “scum”. The book also alleges Slater routinely posted associates’ contributions under his own name and took thousands of dollars from tobacco companies, a claim he denies.
As far as possible, senior National figures have refused to engage with the detail in the book, dismissing it as an exercise in “joining dots that shouldn’t be joined” and based on stolen material. Even before the subject of the book was revealed, Hager was characterised by Key as a “screaming leftwing conspiracy theorist”. On Thursday, having spent most of the day fending off allegations relating to the SIS issue, Key told media: “I think there’s a real risk that a hacker, and people with a leftwing agenda, are trying to take an election off New Zealanders.”
While Ede, Lusk and Collins have avoided talking to media, Slater, the son of a former National party president, has gone on the offensive. Talk of a “vast conspiracy” between him and the PM’s office with Ede as “ringmaster” was nonsense, he told the New Zealand Herald. His critics were guilty of “hypocrisy and sanctimony”. Ede, he added, had proved himself “squeamish and gutless” by going to ground, adding: “I play politics like Fijians play rugby. My role is smashing your face into the ground. Politics is a nasty despicable game and it’s played by nasty despicable people. Where’s the surprise in this?”
Slater alleges that the hack of his computer was orchestrated by Kim Dotcom, the New Zealand-based internet entrepreneur who is being sought for extradition by the US to face copyright and money laundering charges. Slater has run scores of posts attacking the German, increasing in frequency and ferocity since Dotcom’s founding of the Internet party. The party, which Dotcom has bankrolled to the tune of $3m, has formed an alliance with the leftwing Mana Movement, giving it an easier route to parliament under the rules of the electoral system.
Dotcom denies any involvement with the hack or the book. Hager, meanwhile, says he would have “run a mile” had Dotcom played any role in accessing the material.
“When a source is anonymous, like this person is, it’s possible to imagine all sorts of creepy things about them,” says Hager. “But it is an intelligent, thoughtful person, I’m pleased to say – a non-partisan person who I’m very comfortable working with.”
Hager says the source, whom he met through “contacts in the IT and geek world”, had been motivated by disgust at Slater’s blogging, in particular a post that described the innocent victim of a car crash as a “feral” who had “done the world a favour” by dying.
The hacker, who swiped only a small fraction of Slater’s private correspondence before the intrusion was detected, originally intended to publish the material online “in all directions to everybody”. Hager persuaded him to provide “all the political information that you’ve found ... I was saying: rather than just dumping this out in the world, like hackers tend to do, could I have it, and try to use it for something really worthwhile?”
The scale of the response has surprised Hager. “It has obviously hit a current of feeling ... There’s something about the way politics has been, or the nastiness of some of the politics.” While pundits have not agreed on its significance – “The fact is most New Zealanders don’t even know about this book,” said one talkback radio host, albeit on the fifth straight day discussing it – the coverage has been vast.
Hager says: “I think it’s kind of resonated because it seems there are a lot of journalists who felt they were being manipulated or played, or shut out of information by the political management that was being run by the government.”
Hager denies suggestions the book was designed as an election bombshell. He was provided the hacked material in March, he says, and while he was determined that it should be published before the election from a public interest point of view, “it was actually just the practicalities of how fast I could get it out”.
As to the claims of a leftwing conspiracy, Hager says he’s seen and heard it all before. “Whenever I do work which confronts powerful people they tend to attack the messenger rather than debate the issues,” he says. “I’ve got a long record of work which criticises the left and the right ... When I once before had a book before an election [Seeds of Distrust], 12 years ago, the National party called it a fine work of investigative journalism, and the Labour party was mad at me, and now when I write about the National party before an election, those roles reverse ... I know there are going to be personal insults. I know there are going to be evasions. And so accepting all that I’ve been really pleased at the uptake of real stuff, and the real discussion, the real response it’s got.”
Stonewalling and the poll reaction
The accusations in Dirty Politics mix the old and the new, says Colin James, a commentator who has covered New Zealand politics for four decades. “Attacking opponents, including below the belt, is part of politics. The means are different now, including the means to be found out.”
The Nationals’ stonewalling response has looked at times clumsy, says James. “The story could have been dampened by applying the three Fs of public relations: the second two Fs are ‘front up’ and ‘fess up’. Instead Key flailed all round the paddock and was forced to retreat centimetre by centimetre.” The controversy leaves a picture of “loose governance of his office ... and of his cabinet” as well as “bad judgment in talking to Whale Oil”, he says. “I listened in disbelief when he first said he talked to him as a matter of course at a post-cabinet press conference earlier this year or late last year.”
In the first poll conducted after the book’s release, there is little sign of any collapse in support for the Nationals. The NZ Herald/Digipoll shows the party losing five points but they still tally 50%, roughly where they were a few months earlier. The likely opposition coalition partners, Labour and the Greens, remain some distance behind, at 25% and 14%. Key’s preferred PM rating has fallen by 8.5 percentage points, but with his support still at 64.8% it is hardly the stuff of crisis.
What is unknown is whether this decline will continue; whether, crucially, Key will suffer reputational damage or whether the dirty politics story will, in the prime minister’s words, “burn out”. As it stands the Nationals have lost all control of the shape of the campaign. But as National strategists prepare for their formal campaign launch in Auckland on Sunday they may be relieved to note Whaledump’s tweet saying the leak at lunchtime on Friday was the “last political post”.
And there’s one more date in the calendar that will be circled. On 15 September, five days before the end of an already extraordinary election campaign, Kim Dotcom is hosting an evening at the Auckland Town Hall with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has become synonymous with Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, as the guest of honour.
The flamboyant mogul turned political incendiary has boasted that the event, announced long before the Hager book was published, will include accusations that will embarrass the prime minister and which could change the path of the election. He is calling it “The Moment of Truth”.
UAE and Egypt behind bombing raids against Libyan militias, say US officials
Strikes said to be from planes flying out of Egyptian airbases signal step towards direct action in conflict by other Arab states
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Chris Stephen and Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 26 August 2014 10.08 BST
US officials have claimed the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were behind several air strikes on Islamist militias in Libya last week, in what would be an escalation of a regional power-play between Islamists and opposing governments across the Middle East.
UAE pilots flying out of Egyptian airbases allegedly twice targeted Islamist fighters vying to take control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, last week, several US officials claimed to the New York Times, and later to the AFP news agency. Speaking to the Guardian, a US official confirmed the reports were plausible.
The air strikes failed to stop Islamist militias from capturing Tripoli later in the week, announcing a new breakaway regime and forcing Libya's elected government to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk.
The strikes' alleged origins suggest a block of Middle Eastern countries led by the UAE are seeking to escalate their opposition to the Islamist movements that have sought to undermine the region's old order since the start of the Arab spring in 2011.
Last summer, Egypt's military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood – a major Islamist group – and has since been cracking down internally on its activities, a tactic pursued for years in the UAE.
If the US allegations are true, both countries now want to expand the campaign beyond their borders, seeking to curb the rise of Brotherhood-affiliated militias threatening to take over Libya. The move could turn Libya into a proxy war between the country's elected government, backed by UAE and Egypt, and Islamists backed by Qatar, another Gulf state.
On Tuesday, the US would not confirm the reports on the record. But Jen Psaki, a state department spokesman, criticised any external military intervention. "We believe outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya's democratic transition," said Psaki.
A senior Egyptian military source denied Egypt's involvement, as did Egypt's foreign ministry. "We already issued two statements on this," said Badr Abdellatty, Egypt's foreign ministry spokesman, referring to comments made by the Egyptian government over the weekend. "That's all we're going to say."
In one of the statements, Egypt denied that "Egyptian military airplanes [had been] carrying out air strikes in areas controlled by armed militias in the Libyan capital Tripoli". But the wording stopped short of denying any Egyptian involvement whatsoever.
When asked about the air strikes, a Libyan cabinet minister expressed surprise at the reports of their provenance, and said that Libya did not want direct military intervention. But Habib Amin, Libya's culture minister, said the international community needed to provide more logistical and diplomatic support to his government.
"The international community until now has not been serious about helping the government, the legal authority in Libya, and the Libyan people," said Amin after discussing the Libyan civil war with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
"Libya is now in a civil war. And the international community is just watching. Tripoli is half-destroyed. Half of Benghazi is destroyed. What does the world want? To see the whole country destroyed?"
In an interview with the Guardian on Monday, Libya's foreign minister, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, claimed his government did not want foreign military intervention.
But he said Libya's government, which has fled to the eastern city of Tobruk, is now unable to safeguard key state institutions by itself, and called for "arms and any other equipment … that could ensure the possibility of protecting our strategic sites, our oil fields, our airports" against militias "who are now stronger than the government itself, and who do now possess arms even more sophisticated than the government itself".
And while Abdel Aziz ruled out requesting foreign air strikes against the insurgents in the short term, he hinted that they were a possibility should negotiations with the rebels fail. "Once we cannot achieve a serious or meaningful dialogue among all the factions, perhaps we can resort to other means afterwards," said Abdel Aziz, who was at a Cairo conference for regional foreign ministers about the future of Libya.
Syria offers to help fight Isis but warns against unilateral air strikes
Assad regime says it will co-ordinate with others to fight group, while Russia says west must now put ‘common threat’ first
Associated Press in Beirut
theguardian.com, Tuesday 26 August 2014 05.06 BST
Syria has declared it is ready to help confront the rising threat from the Islamic State group but warned the US against carrying out air strikes on its territory without the consent of Damascus, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said his government was ready “to co-operate and co-ordinate” with any side, including the US, or join any regional or international alliance against Isis. But he said any military action inside Syria should be co-ordinated with the Syrian government.
“Any strike which is not co-ordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” he said.
Moallem appeared acutely aware of how much has changed since last August when the US was threatening to carry out punitive air strikes against Assad’s government in the wake of a chemical attack that Washington blamed on his forces. Since then global disapproval has shifted away from Assad and towards the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.
Moallem said Damascus had warned repeatedly of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding but “no one listened to us”. Syria’s government has long described the rebels fighting to topple Assad as “terrorists” in a foreign conspiracy.
US officials revealed last week that American special forces had tried to rescue the American journalist James Foley in a failed operation in Raqqa, Syria, in July. Isis militants beheaded Foley last week.
Referring to the mission, Moallem said: “Had there been prior co-ordination, that operation would not have failed.”
The minister denounced “in the strongest terms possible” Foley’s killing, while also asking: “Has the west ever condemned the massacres by the Islamic State … against our armed forces or citizens?”
In seeking to portray itself as a partner for the international community, Syria seemed intent on capitalising on the growing clamour among some US officials, including military leaders, to expand the current American air campaign against the Islamic extremists in Iraq and hit them in Syria as well.
President Barack Obama has been wary of getting dragged into the Syrian civil war, which the United Nations says has killed more than 190,000 people. He has resisted intervening militarily in the conflict, even after the deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago that Washington blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government.
But the extremist group’s rampage across wide swaths of Iraq, declaration of a state governed by their harsh interpretation of Islamic law in territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, and beheading of Foley have injected a new dynamic into those calculations. Now Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the extremists inside Syria.
On Monday a senior administration official said Obama authorised surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could pave the way for US air strikes. The official was not authorised to discuss Obama’s decision publicly by name and insisted on anonymity.
In Moscow the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said western nations that long refused to condemn Assad’s enemies were now coming to realise the threat posed by Isis.
The west, he said, will “have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us: terrorism”.
Moscow has been a close ally of Damascus for decades and has provided it with weapons and funding to help support Assad throughout the current conflict.
The Abbas regime’s warnings about Isis ring hollow to many in the opposition, who have watched Damascus turn a blind eye to the militants’ expansion in Syria for more than a year. Many accuse the government of facilitating the group’s rise at the expense of more mainstream rebel factions.
The breakaway al-Qaida group is the most powerful faction fighting Assad’s forces, which means a US campaign to weaken the Islamic State extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office. Obama could try to counteract that awkward dynamic by also targeting Assad’s forces, though that could drag the US deeply into the conflict.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that Obama had not made a decision on whether to take military action inside Syria but noted that the president had demonstrated his willingness to take military action to protect American citizens. “That is true without regard to international borders,” he said.
Earnest tried to tamp down the notion that strikes against the Islamic State could have the unintended consequence of bolstering the Syrian government, saying: “We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime.” However he noted that there are “a lot of cross-pressures here in this situation”.
Moallem’s news conference came a day after jihadis captured a major military air base in north-eastern Syria, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamic State group. After several failed attempts, Islamic State fighters stormed the Tabqa air base Sunday, killing dozens of troops inside.
Moallem conceded defeat in Tabqa, saying that soldiers were withdrawn to nearby areas along with their weaponry and warplanes. Videos posted on militant websites on Monday showed celebrations in the nearby town of Tabqa, controlled by Isis, including fighters honking noisily as they drove in cars carrying the group’s black and white flags.
Obama Approves Air Surveillance of ISIS in Syria
By MARK LANDLER and HELENE COOPER
AUG. 25, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a precursor to potential airstrikes there, but a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.
Defense officials said Monday evening that the Pentagon was sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes. Mr. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said.
The flights are a significant step toward direct American military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war.
Administration officials said the United States did not intend to notify the Assad government of the planned flights. Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently.
As a result the Pentagon is drafting military options that would strike the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria. The administration is also moving to bolster American support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Mr. Assad as their main foe.
On Monday, Syria warned the White House that it needed to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.” But it signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against the militants.
The reconnaissance flights would not be the first time the United States has entered Syrian airspace without seeking permission. In July, American Special Operations forces carried out an unsuccessful rescue attempt for hostages held by ISIS, including the journalist James Foley, whose death was revealed last week in an ISIS video.
Mr. Obama met Monday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other advisers to discuss options, but the White House said Mr. Obama had not yet decided whether to order military action in Syria. The White House made clear that if the president did act, he had no plans to collaborate with Mr. Assad or even inform him in advance of any operation.
“It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIL,” he said, using the group’s alternative name, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Still, administration officials acknowledge that the sudden threat from ISIS to Americans — several of whom are still held by the militants in Syria — had complicated the calculus for the United States in a conflict Mr. Obama has largely avoided.
“There are a lot of cross pressures here in this situation,” the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters. “There’s no doubt about that. But our policy as it relates to pursuing American interests in this region of the world are actually really clear, that we want to make sure that we are safeguarding American personnel.”
Under plans being developed by the administration, a senior official said, the United States could target leaders of the militant group in and around their stronghold, the northern city of Raqqa, as well as in isolated outposts to the east, near the Iraqi border.
While the Syrian government has the capability to partly defend its airspace from American warplanes, American fighter jets can fly close to the border and fire on targets in Syria using long-range precision weapons.
The American military could also jam Syria’s air-defense systems by sending signals that would make it difficult or impossible for radar to pick up American fighter planes entering Syrian airspace. Such a move would give fighters a limited amount of time to hit ISIS targets or camps before leaving Syria. The military could also use B-2 stealth bombers, which are almost invisible to radar, or could fire at stationary targets in Syria using Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from ships at sea.
On Monday, even as he warned the Obama administration against unilateral strikes in Syria, Walid Muallem, the foreign minister, said, “Syria is ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism.” Mr. Assad has long tried to rally support by portraying the insurgency against him as a terrorist threat. He has made little headway with the West or his Arab neighbors.
Syria’s strategy, some former administration officials say, carries a risk for the United States, particularly if the moderate opposition is squeezed out by ISIS.
“We’re going to find ourselves maneuvered into a very uncomfortable position,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria policy. “We’re unconsciously walking into an ambush.”
The White House is betting that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria might help moderate Syrian opposition groups, which are opposed to the Assad government — and which are also fighting ISIS themselves, in Aleppo. The Free Syrian Army, which the United States has provided with training and equipment, is at risk of losing access to aid and other supplies from Turkey to ISIS militants.
A spokesman for the rebel coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, said, “The Free Syrian Army commanders on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Syria have declared their readiness to coordinate with the U.S. in striking ISIS.”
The Free Syrian Army has nowhere near the firepower or ground strength as either the Kurdish pesh merga fighters who have worked with the American military against ISIS in Iraq, or even the Iraqi Army. And the weapons and ammunition that the administration have been supplying to the rebels have so far failed to tilt the battle in their favor.
In an interview on Monday, however, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Secretary Hagel was “looking at a train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army.”
Some experts noted that the administration had another strong incentive not to do anything to help Mr. Assad. A central element of its strategy is to assemble a coalition in the region against ISIS, enlisting partners like Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“Any hint that our actions might further reinforce Assad’s grip on power would make it hard to build that coalition,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the White House. “They all want to see him go.”
Shiite Rebels Make New Demands to Yemen
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUG. 25, 2014
SANA, Yemen — Members of a Shiite rebel group on Monday presented Yemen’s government with new demands in order to stop their protests, hardening their positions and prolonging a standoff in the capital.
The demonstrations by tens of thousands of members of the heavily armed Houthi group have put security authorities on alert. Tanks and armored vehicles have been deployed to Sana, the capital, to protect government buildings and embassies.
The Houthis have set up tents in Sana, and some militants have taken over rooftops and beefed up their defenses along the city’s main airport road and near three ministries, prompting fears of armed confrontations.
They previously demanded the establishment of a new government and a review of all economic policies, first among them a recent decision to end fuel subsidies that caused prices to nearly double.
On Monday, the Houthis made additional demands, including having more representation in a national review agency that oversees the rewriting of the Constitution and efforts to carry out a new federal system, said a member of a Yemeni presidential delegation.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
The Houthis waged a six-year insurgency in the north against the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, that officially ended in 2010. After Mr. Saleh’s ouster, they have fought ultraconservative Islamists in several northern cities and towns, accusing them of turning their strongholds into incubators of extremism. Over the past several weeks, they have battled and defeated the Muslim Brotherhood group and its political arm, the Islah party.
The tension over the government has been simmering for months after critics accused Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Bassindwa of being too weak and too close to the Islah party. Critics also blame Mr. Bassindwa for the deteriorating security situation and the economic conditions.
Yemen’s international allies have called on the Houthis to end the protests.
Yemen continues to battle other militants and the country’s local branch of Al Qaeda, considered by the United States to be the most dangerous offshoot of the terrorist group.
American drones and Yemeni counterterrorism forces have conducted strikes against the group within Yemen.
Abbas Is Seen as Ready to Seek Pact on His Own
By JODI RUDOREN
AUG. 25, 2014
JERUSALEM — With no clear resolution in sight to the battle between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who has been largely sidelined as his popularity sank during the conflict, is making a new play to reassert his role and cast himself as the leader of all Palestinians.
Mr. Abbas plans to present an initiative Tuesday to the Palestinian leadership that, several people close to him said, would bypass American-brokered negotiations with Israel that have failed for many years to produce a Palestinian state. Instead he will call for an international conference or United Nations resolution demanding a deadline to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. As leverage, Mr. Abbas would finally join the International Criminal Court and other institutions where he has long threatened to pursue Israeli violations, these people said.
Egypt, Israel and the United States have all said for weeks that strengthening Mr. Abbas and reinstating his security forces on Gaza’s borders was a goal of cease-fire negotiations in Cairo, but Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates Gaza, has yet to accede to these and other conditions. Now, Mr. Abbas’s allies said they hoped to seize on the Gaza crisis and diplomatic stalemate to press for a fresh approach to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and to show the public that he is at the helm.
“This is exactly our moment, like it was the moment of the European Jews after the Holocaust, when they said, ‘Never again.’ This is our ‘never again,’ ” said Husam Zomlot, a senior foreign-policy official in Mr. Abbas’s Fatah faction. “This is the time to really operate. We either operate or we let the patient die, and the patient here is the two-state solution. We cannot just put bandages.”
Details of the Abbas initiative remain under wraps — he teased it only as “a nonconventional solution” in an interview on Egyptian television this weekend, and acknowledged that Israel and the United States were both likely to reject it. But even as Mr. Abbas tried to assert himself, his shaky position was on display. Asked whether he would visit Gaza, he said he would do so “on the proper timing,” but added, “because I’m the president of the country, it’s my duty to go there.”
Ziad Abu Amr, the Palestinian deputy prime minister, said Monday that underpinning the new initiative is the idea that “the status quo ante is no longer acceptable.”
“It’s going to be in the form of either-or: Either you do this and this and this and that, or we do this and this and this and that,” Mr. Abu Amr said. “It’s going to be a different approach to the ongoing modus operandi.”
Given how the continuing fighting has raised Hamas’s standing with the Palestinian public, some analysts saw the initiative, along with Mr. Abbas’s recent meetings with the Egyptian president and the Qatari emir, largely as a bid to stay relevant.
“He’s trying to be engaged, trying to survive politically as leadership, trying to find a place in this new reality,” said Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in Ramallah and a former spokesman for the Palestinian government. But Mr. Khatib, like others, said “the political weight of Hamas increased” during the war while the stature of Mr. Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organization waned.
“It’s an illusion and wishful thinking that they will have increased role in the postwar,” he said.
The initiative comes amid renewed Egyptian efforts to halt the hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Arab news agencies reported on Monday that Egypt called for an open-ended cease-fire in exchange for a full opening of Gaza’s border crossings, rehabilitation of what the fighting destroyed in the coastal enclave, and an expansion of the permitted fishing zone. Hamas’s demand for a Gaza seaport and airport — and Israel’s for Gaza’s demilitarization — would be discussed within a month.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the reports. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, confirmed in an interview that “there are efforts and contacts to reach a lull,” but said “nothing is final so far.”
More than 120 rockets soared from Gaza into Israel on Monday, the sixth straight day of intense barrages. Most landed in open areas and caused little damage.
The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 11 Palestinians were killed, including three in a car in Gaza City, three others in Beit Lahiya, and Farhana Attar, 48, all by Israeli airstrikes. Killed by artillery shells was Abdullah Mourtaga, 26, identified on his Facebook page as a worker for the Palestinian Religious Committee. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said Ms. Attar, 48, was feeding poultry at her home in Beit Lahiya when she was hit.
American diplomats said they did not yet have details of Mr. Abbas’s plan, and Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, said he would not comment until it was presented in full. Yaakov Peri, a senior Israeli minister, said Monday the ideas were “far from giving hope for a solution.”
“Instead of working with the axis of relatively moderate states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, Abu Mazen is again working on the Qatar-Turkey axis that blames and accuses of war crimes,” Mr. Peri said on Israel Radio, using Mr. Abbas’s nickname. “This is certainly not constructive, this is not a solution, and obviously is unacceptable to Israel.”
Palestinians have been threatening for years to prosecute Israel at The Hague for its occupation of the West Bank and its restrictions on travel and trade in Gaza, but in recent days Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s political chief, became the final Palestinian factional leader to sign a petition authorizing Mr. Abbas to join the court. He promised not to do so during the nine-month peace talks that collapsed in April, and has been under increasing pressure to since. But the court remains a third rail for both Israel and Washington.
Asked whether the United States would accept his initiative, Mr. Abbas said Saturday on Egypt’s Watan TV, “I believe not,” and said he would then “put my legs against the wall and move on.”
“But there are issues which I can’t accept the U.S. position on,” he said. Mr. Abbas said he would share his plan with Secretary of State John Kerry “within a week,” adding, “I won’t declare a war on Israel, but I’ll propose political and diplomatic solutions.”
Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the P.L.O. executive committee, said in an interview this month that the era of bilateral negotiations was over. “Never again, never again in my lifetime or Abu Mazen’s anybody will say, ‘Let’s continue the peace process,’ ” Mr. Abed Rabbo said. “Let’s have an international conference, and by this date there will be an end of the occupation, and everything will be done under that.”
Mr. Zomlot, the Fatah official, who has been promoting a new approach for some time, said the Israel-Hamas battle, in which some 2,100 Palestinians have been killed and at least 11,000 homes in Gaza destroyed, has made many in the West Bank leadership ask themselves, “How do we create some sort of positive momentum out of a negative vibe?
For a Gaza Athlete, There Is Nowhere to Run
By JODI RUDOREN
AUG. 25, 2014
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Everything looked about the same in this town near Gaza’s northern border with Israel: piles of smashed concrete to the left and right, up ahead and in the rearview. As we drove through the destruction earlier this month, Fares Akram, my Gaza-based reporting partner, somehow recognized a certain street as one we had been on four months before, to visit Nader al-Masri, Gaza’s premier distance runner.
There are few street addresses in Gaza, never mind Google Maps, but asking directions of passers-by will usually get you where you need to go. When Fares rolled down the window to confirm his suspicion that we were in Mr. Masri’s neighborhood, a series of strangers nodded and pointed the way — but not before clapping their hands against each other at an angle, in what has become a universal sign here. Roughly, it means “all gone.”
We had written about Mr. Masri in April, because Israel had denied exit permits to him and two dozen other runners who wanted to compete in a marathon in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Now, I searched the pile that had been his home for any sign of his vast collection of trophies and medals from 40 international competitions.
Two of his cousins helped us navigate. “That was my home there,” Naaman al-Masri, 63, said as he pointed to nothingness. Reziq al-Masri, 37, said of a bundle of dead branches, “This was a garden here — Nader and I used to sit here and make barbecue.”
We found Nader at a United Nations school-turned-shelter not far away, along with about 80 of his relatives. He said they had left home July 21, the day after Israel dropped leaflets and sent text messages warning that the neighborhood would not be safe. When he took advantage of a halt in the hostilities to return, he said, “I did not recognize the street,” though he had lived there for 33 of his 34 years.
He said that he retrieved some of his awards from the rubble, but that others remained buried. He wore a fine black Adidas running shirt with yellow piping on the sleeves and “Palestine” in Arabic on the back, but his feet were in flip-flops; his sneakers were under the pile, too.
In April, he told us that he worked out twice daily despite being denied permission to run in Bethlehem. But he said he had not run since before Israel’s bloody battle with Gaza-based militants began on July 8 — how could he, without shoes, staying in a school with no shower? His plans to compete in South Korea in October, where he hoped to run well enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, were fading.
“All the places where I used to train are leveled,” he said. “I’m handcuffed.”
An Increasing Appetite for Resistance
Just as Mr. Masri stopped running, Andalib Adwan Shehada stopped cooking. A crusader for women’s rights who loved to create fresh seafood feasts, Ms. Adwan said she had been feeding her husband tuna out of cans.
“My talent in cooking — I lost it during the war,” Ms. Adwan said when we met at a Gaza City restaurant during a temporary cease-fire. “I don’t know why, maybe stress. I don’t feel like I want to eat, even.”
Ms. Adwan, 49, is a secular dissident we profiled in October 2012. She has no love for Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates the Gaza Strip, and when we first met, she described the territory as a “dark heaven.” But now, she said, “there’s no one who can tell you I’m not supporting Hamas.”
“Supporting does not mean I have a weapon and fight beside them, but you cannot be against them,” said Ms. Adwan, who uses her original last name, which together with her given name translates as “aggressive nightingale.” “Hamas are people from Gaza,” she said. “You cannot cut off your fingers and say, ‘It’s not my finger.' ”
During the fighting, she interviewed about 40 women and children who lost their homes, mostly from Shejaiya, the eastern Gaza City neighborhood that was destroyed at the start of Israel’s ground invasion. She said she would collect the interviews in a book and film others for a documentary.
The women she interviewed told of fleeing homes in bare feet without a hijab, the Muslim head covering, and of strangers throwing them scarves and shoes from high windows as they ran through the streets, sometimes sidestepping bodies. Boys of 10 or 12 wept quietly in initial interviews as they told of leaving home, Ms. Adwan said, but they shouted angrily in follow-up conversations after returning during the cease-fire to find nothing left.
“They said, ‘I want to be resistance’ — they were giving political speeches,” she said. “How stupid is Israel? If they killed 100 resistance men, they created thousands of resistance men by this.”
Trying to Grow in Harsh Conditions
The Khoudarys’ garden might be the loveliest place in Gaza, a serene oasis of lush fruit trees amid the city’s dingy concrete blocks. During the last war, in November 2012, we ate sweet clementines as we talked in an outdoor salon. This time, there were juicy green grapes, and fresh cardamom pods floating in the coffee cups.
Jawdat N. Khoudary is one of Gaza’s wealthiest men and boldest dreamers, the owner of a large construction company and the self-appointed protector of the territory’s antiquities. He spent the 2012 conflict learning how to use Facebook from his youngest son, Hamza, who is now 15; this time around, he shared bits of poetry and historical analogies on the website.
As Palestinians demanded the establishing of a seaport in Gaza as part of a long-term truce, Mr. Khoudary wrote of Anthedon, an ancient Gaza port he said was built in the seventh century B.C. to be the main trade conduit between the Arabian Peninsula and Greece, Italy and Asia Minor. He said Gaza was among the first cities in history to mint its own coins. (Today it uses Israeli currency.)
Mr. Khoudary had left Gaza to do some business in the West Bank during the cease-fire. So I sat instead with his wife and three of his five children. Yasmeen, 24, and Asma, 23, recently graduated from the American University in Cairo and now work at Mr. Khoudary’s Al Mat’haf hotel and archaeology museum; Hamza will attend 10th grade at the American International School in Gaza this fall, if the bombing stops.
They are anything but typical Gazans. Yasmeen said she read “Lolita,” “Kafka on the Shore” and a Pakistani comedic novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” during the recent fighting; Hamza watched “Harry Potter” movies. But they heard the bombs, too, and had nightmares.
“I was somewhere, and Asma and Omar were somewhere else,” Yasmeen recalled, referring to one of her other brothers. “I was going to join the other half of the family, and on the way, the Israelis were bombing what they thought were tunnels by Hamas. I saw headless fighters everywhere.”
“I was so worried about Asma,” she added. “I didn’t want her to see.”
In June, the family fulfilled one of the dreams Mr. Khoudary described in 2012: an exhibit and sale of thousands of cactuses that he collects from around the world and crossbreeds in the garden. “Sabr,” the Arabic word for cactus, also means patience, which Mr. Khoudary had said then “is what we need in Gaza.”
His wife, Faten, showed me her favorite: a hybrid of eight different species, cultivated over seven years, now taller than her.
“Here is a family, here a different family – like the people here, different families in the same place,” she said of the cactuses. “The bigger they are, the more beautiful they are, not like the human being. The more care you give them, the more they give you.”
Thousands Flee to Cameroon after Boko Haram Attack in Nigeria
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 August 2014, 16:19
A Boko Haram attack on a border town in northeast Nigeria forced thousands of people to flee on Monday, in a fresh assault indicating the militants' growing ability to strike at will.
The attack on Gamboru Ngala comes after the town was almost entirely destroyed in May in a devastating assault that also left more than 300 people killed and prompted outrage at the lack of military response.
Many local residents sought refuge across the border in the north Cameroon town of Fotokol, where troop reinforcements were being sent, a security service source told Agence France Presse.
Boko Haram, which has been blamed for more than 10,000 deaths in a five-year-old uprising, has in recent weeks sought to take over a number of towns in Borno state, shifting from hit-and-run tactics to an apparent holding strategy.
The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared in a video obtained by AFP on Sunday that the town of Gwoza, southwest of Gamboru Ngala, was now under an Islamic caliphate.
Residents said Monday's attack began at about 5:30 am (0430 GMT), with the extremists launching coordinated strikes on the main police station and a military base known as the Harmony camp.
"The sounds (of gunfire) became more deafening as police and soldiers responded to Boko Haram," said witness Hamisu Lawan. "Most of our people have fled into Cameroon."
Others locked themselves in their homes, voicing fears that the militants would turn their guns on civilians once they had overrun the police station and military camp.
Residents in Fotokol, which is separated from Gamboru Ngala by a river, also reported "intense" fighting throughout the morning.
"(Cameroonian) soldiers are at the bridge," one said.
Cameroon said on August 18 that it had closed its vast border with Nigeria to guard against the spread of Ebola, which has caused five deaths in the country's financial capital, Lagos, in the far southwest.
But few believed that Cameroon had the resources needed to seal all the possible crossing points along the roughly 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) frontier.
Local officials and residents in Borno say Boko Haram may be in control of a key road that connects Gamboru Ngala to the state capital Maiduguri.
Establishing which parts of the area have in fact fallen into rebels hands is difficult in the remote region, where travel is dangerous and prolonged fighting has hit mobile phone networks.
In Sunday's video, Shekau did not develop his claims about Gwoza being part of the Islamic caliphate, despite previously voicing his support for the leader of the Islamic State (IS) militants, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who proclaimed himself the "leader of Muslims everywhere" in June.
Al-Baghdadi's Sunni Muslim fighters have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria.
Nigeria's military dismissed Shekau's claim as "empty", maintaining that the country's sovereignty remained intact.
But that assertion is in conflict with multiple reports indicating that Boko Haram controls several towns in Borno and at least one in neighboring Yobe state.
Analysts believe that Boko Haram will attempt to hold more towns in Borno in the short to mid-term, with Nigeria's military unable or unwilling to tackle them.
Some Nigerian troops stationed in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, have refused to deploy to retake Gwoza because of what they say are sub-standard weapons that leave them at the mercy of the better-equipped rebels.
Defense analysts have also argued that Nigeria needs to improve its counter-insurgency strategy and adapt to guerrilla fighting rather than relying on conventional means.
Others complain of a lack of political will to properly tackle Boko Haram, which wants to establish a hardline Islamic state and whose campaign has targeted schools, churches and government installations.
S.Sudan Rivals Sign New Ceasefire Deal
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 August 2014, 16:54
South Sudan's warring leaders signed a fresh ceasefire deal Monday vowing to end more than eight months of conflict, according to mediators who threatened sanctions should the agreement fail once again.
East Africa's regional IGAD bloc, which mediated the talks between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, called on the leaders to forge a unity government within 45 days.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.8 million have fled civil war sparked by a power struggle between Kiir and Machar, who met Monday for the first time in more than two months.
An IGAD communique welcomed the "signature by the warring parties" to the deal, "which obliges the parties to bring the conflict to an end".
Three previous ceasefire commitments have been broken within hours.
"As a region, we have to show that any party which violates agreements that there are consequences to misbehavior," Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said at the summit of east African leaders.
"We are sending a clear message to the leaders of South Sudan. So delaying in the procedure will not be acceptable -- if not the region will take action."
Kiir and Machar last met in June, when they agreed to form a unity government within 60-days. They missed that deadline amid continuing war.
The United Nations has said the food crisis is the "worst in the world", and aid workers warn of the risk of famine if the conflict continues.
The IGAD communique expressed "serious concerns over the worsening humanitarian situation in South Sudan where millions face famine, and which presents a threat to the national security of the entire region".
The United Nations warns that 50,000 children face death from malnutrition, while half the country's population need urgent food aid.
Regional leaders at the summit included Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni.
Ugandan troops are supporting South Sudan's government forces in the battle against the rebels.
Fighting is between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided by tribe.
"All agree that the peace process so far has been difficult, on a path wavering between hope and disappointment, between encouragement and skepticism," said U.N. envoy Haile Menkerios.
"The warring parties have to understand that further delays in the peace process cannot be tolerated."
U.N. Security Council envoys, who visited South Sudan's capital earlier this month, when they warned both the government and rebel leaders of "consequences" of continuing to fight.
Almost 100,000 civilians are sheltering in U.N. camps across South Sudan, having fled to the bases in December to escape killings and massacres, and who are now too fearful to return home.
On Saturday, an IGAD ceasefire monitor died after being arrested by rebels.
Rebel forces arrested the IGAD monitor on Saturday after the team landed near the town of Bentiu, in war-torn northern Unity state, the bloc said.
But it was not clear how the IGAD monitor, who was a member of South Sudan's army, died.
The U.N. said it was "reportedly due to natural causes", but IGAD vowed in a statement that "those responsible for the death will bear the consequences".
Rebel forces in Unity are led by warlord Peter Gadet, who has been slapped with sanctions by both the United States and European Union for atrocities.
Other ceasefire monitors have been released, but the rebels continue to hold the U.N. helicopter, the U.N. peacekeeping mission said Monday.