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« Reply #4125 on: Jan 19, 2013, 07:57 AM »

01/18/2013 04:24 PM

POW Comfort: Life Inside Nazi-Germany's Model Camp

By Solveig Grothe

Many Nazi prisoner-of-war camps were notorious for their forced labor and deadly conditions. Yet a collection of photos that mysteriously turned up in southern France tells the story of a seemingly relaxed prison camp in Bavaria, once touted by the Nazis to show their supposed respect for human rights.

The Polish prisoners in the photographs are wearing costumes. Some of the men are decked out in made-up uniforms complete with impressive medals, moustaches and pince-nez. Others have squeezed into women's dresses, darkened their eyelashes and hidden their hair under blond wigs. They laugh and dance across the stage, while in the orchestra pit below them sit more fellow prisoners, cheerfully intent on the score they are playing on their violins, flutes and trumpets.

These are scenes from daily life in a Nazi "Oflag" -- short for "Offizerslager," or prisoner-of-war camp for officers -- in Murnau, in the far south of Bavaria, during World War II.

The pictures don't exactly fit the usual image of a Nazi camp, with its associations of forced labor and mass murder. Indeed, reports of prisoners performing plays, of libraries, exhibitions, athletic events and academic lectures behind the barbed wire and prison walls have always sounded highly implausible. There was reasonable skepticism even after the war ended and the prisoners returned home, bringing with them tales of an apparently rich cultural life in the prisoner-of-war camp.

In Germany, most people still know little about the living conditions of the Polish officers who were held in Oflags. One reason for this is the language barrier: Memoirs by former Polish prisoners of war published over the years have generally appeared only in Polish.

It's a different story with photographs. Yet it still took over a decade before the general public in Murnau learned of an unusual collection of pictures found in southern France, documenting with an astonishing level of detail activities at Oflag VII-A here at the foot of the Alps, shortly before the end of World War II.

A Wooden Box in the Trash

It was a winter night in 1999 and Olivier Rempfer, then 19, was walking back to his town of Cagnes-sur-Mer in southeastern France after an evening spent with friends in the neighboring town of Saint-Laurent-du-Var, when a wooden box on top of a trash container caught his eye. Curious, he opened the box and saw a number of cylindrical objects wrapped in paper.

Rempfer waited until he was back home to unwrap the objects. When he did, they turned out to be rolls of black and white 35-milimeter film. Holding the filmstrips up to the light, he saw uniforms, barracks, guard towers -- and men in costume onstage. Assuming the pictures must have been taking during the filming of a war movie, and the men in them to be actors, Rempfer set the box aside and forgot about it.

Years later his father, Alain Rempfer, came across the box. The elder Rempfer, a photographer, was also unsure what the film negatives showed -- until 2003, when he bought a film scanner and eventually found the time to take a closer look at the images, around 300 of them. "I quickly realized that these were real, historical photos, taken during the war in a prisoner-of-war camp," says Rempfer, 64. "The brand name 'Voigtländer' was written on the edge of the film. That name wasn't familiar to me from movies, but I knew Voigtländer was a German camera manufacturer."

'These Young Men Looked Right at Us'

Rempfer looked for some clue as to where the pictures might have been taken. One showed a truck with several men seated on its bed. On the back of the truck, Rempfer made out the words "PW CAMP MURNAU" in white letters, then the letters "PL." A little research showed that from 1939 to 1945, the German town of Murnau was the site of a prisoner-of-war camp for Polish officers.

Father and son studied the photographs closely and with fascination. "All these young men looked right at us through the camera, during the time they lived in the camp," Alain Rempfer says. "And we don't know their names or what their daily life was like there, we don't know anything about their hopes, their feelings." It was a strange experience, Rempfer adds, as if someone had turned off the sound and left him watching a silent film.

"Olivier and I thought perhaps we should give the photographs to a museum or a library," Rempfer says. "But we worried they would just be forgotten for years all over again." Ultimately, the father and son decided a website would be the best way to show the pictures to the world. They hoped the images would reach anyone who might be interested in them, but especially family members of the former prisoners of war who might be looking for information, or might recognize someone in the photographs.

An Overlooked Chapter of History

And indeed the Rempfers heard from many family members of Polish prisoners-of-war, families now living in the US, Australia, Canada or England. "Some of them recognized their fathers, grandfathers or uncles in the pictures," says Alain Rempfer. After their liberation, the former prisoners of war generally said little about their years in captivity, keeping their memories to themselves, Rempfer adds. For many of the family members, this was their first opportunity to learn what these officers' lives had been like during that difficult period.

Rempfer says he never tried to find the photographer who took the pictures. "That just seemed too difficult," he says. "We thought that, if anything, the website might help. But so far that hasn't been the case."

In Murnau, too, there has been an effort over the years to collect information about the camp, but few publications on the topic have reached readers outside the region. The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung did publish one article, "Polish Prisoners of War in German Officers' Camps - an Overlooked Chapter of History" by German historian Alfred Schickel, in 1980. Schickel, however, later came to be associated with right-wing extremism. In the 1980 article, he lamented the lack of interest on the part of "historians both here and elsewhere in the West" in the fate of the approximately 18,000 Polish officers who became German prisoners of war.

Model Camp

Out of 12 Nazi prisoner-of-war camps for officers, Murnau was the one with the highest-ranking prisoners. These included, among others, Admiral Jósef Unrug, commander of the Polish navy, as well as General Juliusz Rómmel, who led the defense of Warsaw in 1939.

"The prisoners were treated well, at least as much as that can be said under these circumstances," explains Marion Hruschka, head of Murnau's historical association. Hruschka has spent many years looking into the history of the Oflag, and organized an exhibition about it. Oflag VII-A in Murnau, which held more than 5,000 prisoners in total, was run as something of a "model camp," Hruschka says, and was "regularly inspected by the International Red Cross." The Nazis' intention, she explains, was to convey the impression that they were adhering to international law and to the Geneva Conventions.

But this was far from true, Hruschka continues. In multiple cases, prisoners were shot. And in general the supposedly correct treatment of the prisoners ceased wherever it collided with the Nazis' racist ideology. Jewish Polish officers, for example, were separated from the other prisoners and kept in a camp ghetto.

But how did photographs from a prisoner-of-war camp in Murnau end up in the south of France?

In the last days of the war, Hruschka says, several hundred Allied soldiers arrived in Murnau, French soldiers among them. It's certainly possible the connection lies there, but it's not the only possibility. Hruschka suggests, for example, that a Polish officer might have moved to France after the war and taken the pictures with him.

Who Was Allowed to Take Photographs?

Just as it is impossible to say who might have taken the photographic film out of the camp, it's also impossible to know whether the pictures, which include photos of the camp's liberation by American troops and images of a bombed-out Munich, were taken by one photographer or several.

The value of the find, however, is indisputable. "Seeing so many photographs stunned me," Hruschka says. "I always assumed only Germans were allowed to take pictures inside the camp."

Hruschka says she's now revised opinion. One German photographer is known to have been present inside the camp, she explains. His pictures, in censored form, were printed out as postcards that the prisoners were allowed to send home. Most of these images showed theater performances or sporting events, and some of them are archived in Murnau.

But Hruschka doesn't believe the pictures found in France were taken by that German photographer. She is certain that as the camp was being liberated by the Allies, no German photographer was standing by with a camera in hand.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #4126 on: Jan 19, 2013, 08:02 AM »

01/18/2013 07:41 PM

Interview with George Church: Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead?

In a SPIEGEL interview, synthetic biology expert George Church of Harvard University explains how DNA will become the building material of the future -- one that can help create virus-resistant human beings and possibly bring back lost species like the Neanderthal.

George Church, 58, is a pioneer in synthetic biology, a field whose aim is to create synthetic DNA and organisms in the laboratory. During the 1980s, the Harvard University professor of genetics helped initiate the Human Genome Project that created a map of the human genome. In addition to his current work in developing accelerated procedures for sequencing and synthesizing DNA, he has also been involved in the establishing of around two dozen biotech firms. In his new book, "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves," which he has also encoded as strands of DNA and distributed on small DNA chips, Church sketches out a story of a second, man-made Creation.

SPIEGEL recently sat down with Church to discuss his new tome and the prospects for using synthetic biology to bring the Neanderthal back from exctinction as well as the idea of making humans resistant to all viruses.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, you predict that it will soon be possible to clone Neanderthals. What do you mean by "soon"? Will you witness the birth of a Neanderthal baby in your lifetime?

Church: That depends on a hell of a lot of things, but I think so. The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before. In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning. We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it's very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn't we be able to do so?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps because it is banned?

Church: That may be true in Germany, but it's not banned all over the world. And laws can change, by the way.

SPIEGEL: Would cloning a Neanderthal be a desirable thing to do?

Church: Well, that's another thing. I tend to decide on what is desirable based on societal consensus. My role is to determine what's technologically feasible. All I can do is reduce the risk and increase the benefits.

SPIEGEL: So let's talk about possible benefits of a Neanderthal in this world.

Church: Well, Neanderthals might think differently than we do. We know that they had a larger cranial size. They could even be more intelligent than us. When the time comes to deal with an epidemic or getting off the planet or whatever, it's conceivable that their way of thinking could be beneficial.

SPIEGEL: How do we have to imagine this: You raise Neanderthals in a lab, ask them to solve problems and thereby study how they think?

Church: No, you would certainly have to create a cohort, so they would have some sense of identity. They could maybe even create a new neo-Neanderthal culture and become a political force.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be ethically problematic to create a Neanderthal just for the sake of scientific curiosity?

Church: Well, curiosity may be part of it, but it's not the most important driving force. The main goal is to increase diversity. The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the recreation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.

SPIEGEL: Setting aside all ethical doubts, do you believe it is technically possible to reproduce the Neanderthal?

Church: The first thing you have to do is to sequence the Neanderthal genome, and that has actually been done. The next step would be to chop this genome up into, say, 10,000 chunks and then synthesize these. Finally, you would introduce these chunks into a human stem cell. If we do that often enough, then we would generate a stem cell line that would get closer and closer to the corresponding sequence of the Neanderthal. We developed the semi-automated procedure required to do that in my lab. Finally, we assemble all the chunks in a human stem cell, which would enable you to finally create a Neanderthal clone.

SPIEGEL: And the surrogates would be human, right? In your book you write that an "extremely adventurous female human" could serve as the surrogate mother.

Church: Yes. However, the prerequisite would, of course, be that human cloning is acceptable to society.

SPIEGEL: Could you also stop the procedure halfway through and build a 50-percent Neanderthal using this technology.

Church: You could and you might. It could even be that you want just a few mutations from the Neanderthal genome. Suppose you were too realize: Wow, these five mutations might change the neuronal pathways, the skull size, a few key things. They could give us what we want in terms of neural diversity. I doubt that we are going to particularly care about their facial morphology, though (laughs).

SPIEGEL: Might it one day be possible to descend even deeper into evolutionary history and recreate even older ancestors like Australopithecus or Homo erectus?

Church: Well, you have got a shot at anything where you have the DNA. The limit for finding DNA fragments is probably around a million years.

SPIEGEL: So we won't be seeing the return of the caveman or dinosaurs?

Church: Probably not. But even if you don't have the DNA, you can still make something that looks like it. For example, if you wanted to make a dinosaur, you would first consider the ostrich, one of its closest living relatives. You would take an ostrich, which is a large bird, and you would ask: "What's the difference between birds and dinosaurs? How did the birds lose their hands?" And you would try to identify the mutations and try to back engineer the dinosaur. I think this will be feasible.

SPIEGEL: Is it also conceivable to create lifeforms that never existed before? What about, for example, rabbits with wings?

Church: So that's a further possibility. However, things have to be plausible from an engineering standpoint. There is a bunch of things in birds that make flying possible, not just the wings. They have very lightweight bones, feathers, strong breast muscles, and the list goes on.

SPIEGEL: Flying rabbits and recreated dinosaurs are pure science fiction today. But on the microbe level, researchers are already creating synthetic life. New bacteria detect arsenic in drinking water. They create synthetic vaccines and diesel fuel. You call these organisms "novel machines". How do they relate to the machines we know?

Church: Well, all organisms are mechanical in the sense that they're made up of moving parts that inter-digitate like gears. The only difference is that they are incredibly intricate. They are atomically precise machines.

SPIEGEL: And what will these machines be used for?

Church: Oh, life science will co-opt almost every other field of manufacturing. It's not limited to agriculture and medicine. We can even use biology in ways that biology never has evolved to be used. DNA molecules for example could be used as three-dimensional scaffolding for inorganic materials, and this with atomic precision. You can design almost any structure you want with a computer, then you push a button -- and there it is, built-in DNA.

SPIEGEL: DNA as the building material of the future?

Church: Exactly. And it's amazing. Biology is good at making things that are really precise. Take trees for example. Trees are extremely complicated, at least on a molecular basis. However, they are so cheap, that we burn them or convert them into tables. Trees cost about $50 a ton. This means that you can make things that are nearly atomically precise for five cents a kilo.

SPIEGEL: You are seriously proposing to build all kinds of machines -- cars, computers or coffee machines -- out of DNA?

Church: I think it is very likely that this is possible. In fact, computers made of DNA will be better than the current computers, because they will have even smaller processors and be more energy efficient.

SPIEGEL: Let's go through a couple of different applications of synthetic biology. How long will it take, for example, until we can fill our tanks with fuel that has been produced using synthentic microbes?

Church: The fact is that we already have organisms that can produce fuel compatible with current car engines. These organisms convert carbon dioxide and light into fuels by basically using photosynthesis.

SPIEGEL: And they do so in an economically acceptable way?

Church: If you consider $1.30 a gallon for fuel a good number, then yeah. And the price will go down. Most of these systems are at least a factor of five away from theoretical limits, maybe even a factor of 10.

SPIEGEL: So we should urgently include synthetic life in our road map for the future energy supply in Germany?

Church: Well, I don't necessarily think it's a mistake to go slowly. It is not like Germany is losing out to lots of other nations right now, but there should be some sort of engineering and policy planning.

Is Church Playing God?
SPIEGEL: Germans are traditionally scared of genetically modified organisms.

Church: But don't forget: The ones we are talking about won't be farm GMOs. These will be in containers, and so if there's a careful planning process, I would predict that Germany would be as good as any country at doing this.

SPIEGEL: There has been a lot of fierce public opposition to genetic engineering in Germany. How do you experience this? Do you find it annoying?

Church: Quite to the contrary. I personally think it has been fruitful. And I think there are relatively few examples in which such a debate has slowed down technology. I think we should be quite cautious, but that doesn't mean that we should put moratoriums on new technologies. It means licensing, surveillance, doing tests. And we actually must make sure the public is educated about them. It would be great if all the politicians in the world were as technologically savvy as the average citizen is politically savvy.

SPIEGEL: Acceptence is highest for such technology when it is first applied in the medical industry ...

Church: … yes, and the potential of synthetic life is particularly large in pharmaceuticals. The days of classic, small molecule drugs may be numbered. Actually, it is a miracle that they work in the first place. They kind of dose your whole body. They cross-react with other molecules. Now, we are getting better and better at programming cells. So I think cell therapies are going to be the next big thing. If you engineer genomes and cells, you have an incredible amount of sophistication. If you take AIDS virus as an example ...

SPIEGEL: ... a disease you also want to beat with cell therapy?

Church: Yes. All you have to do is take your blood cell precursors out of your body, reengineer them using gene therapy to knock out both copies of your CCR5 gene, which is the AIDS receptor, and then put them back in your body. Then you can't get AIDS any more, because the virus can't enter your cells.

SPIEGEL: Are we correct in assuming you wouldn't hesitate to use germ cell therapy, as well, if you could improve humans genetically in this way?

Church: Well, there are stem cell therapies already. There are hematopoietic stem cell transplants that are widely practiced, and skin stem cell transplants. Once you have enough experience with these techniques you can start talking about human cloning. One of the things to do is to engineer our cells so that they have a lower probability of cancer. And then once we have a lower probability of cancer, you can crank up their self-renewal properties, so that they have a lower probability of senescence. We have people who live to be 120 years old. What if we could all live 120 years? That might be considered desirable.

SPIEGEL: But you haven't got any idea which genes to change in order to achieve that goal.

Church: In order to find out, we are now involved in sequencing as many people as possible who have lived for over 110 years. There are only 60 of those people in the world that we know of.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any results already?

Church: It's too early to say. But we collected the DNA of about 20 of them, and the analysis is just beginning.

SPIEGEL: You expect them all to have the same mutation that guarantees longevity?

Church: That is one possibility. The other possibility is that they each have their own little advantage over everybody else. What we are looking for is protective alleles. If they each have their own answer, we can look at all of them and ask, what happens if you put them all in one person? Do they cancel each other out, or do they synergize?

SPIEGEL: You seriously envisage a new era, in which genes are used as anti-aging-cures?

Church: Why not? A lot of things that were once left to luck no longer have to be if we add synthetic biology into the equation. Let's take an example: virus resistance ...

SPIEGEL: ... which is also achievable using synthetic biology?

Church: Yes, it turns out there are certain ways to make organisms of any kind resistent to any viruses. If you change the genetic code ...

SPIEGEL: ... you are talking about the code that all life forms on Earth use to code their genetic information?

Church: Exactly. You can change that code. We're testing that out in bacteria and it might well be possible to create completely virus-resistant E. coli, for example. But we won't know until we get there. And I am not promising anything. I am just laying out a path, so that people can see what possible futures we have.

SPIEGEL: And if it works in bacteria, you presumably could then move on to plants, animals and even humans? Which means: no more measles, no more rabies, no more influenza?

Church: Sure. And that would be another argument for cloning, by the way, since cloning is probably going to be recognized as the best way of building such virus resistance into humans. As long as it is safe and tested slowly, it might gain acceptance. And I'm not advocating. I'm just saying, this is the pathway that might happen.

SPIEGEL: It all sounds so easy and straightforward. Aren't biological processes far more complicated than you would like to lead us to believe?

Church: Yes, biology is complicated, but it's actually simpler than most other technologies we are dealing with. The reason is that we have received a great gift that biology has given to us. We can just take a little bit of DNA and stick it into a human stem cell, and all the rest of it is self-assembled. It just happens. It's as if a master engineer parked a spacecraft in our back yard with not so many manuals, but lots of goodies in it that are kind of self-explanatory. You pick up something and you pretty much know what it does after a little study.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand that there will be people who feel rather uncomfortable with the notion of changing the genome of the human species?

Church: I think the definition of species is about to change anyway. So far, the definition of different species has been that they can't exchange DNA. But more and more, this species barrier is falling. Humans will probably share genes with all sorts of organisms.

SPIEGEL: First you propose to change the 3-billion-year-old genetic code. Then you explain how you want to create a new and better man. Is it any wonder to you when people accuse you of playing God?

Church: I certainly respect other people's faith. But, in general, in religion you wouldn't want people to starve. We have 7 billion people living on this planet. If part of the solution to feed those people is to make their crops resistant to viruses, then you have to ask: Is there really anything in the Bible that says you shouldn't make virus-resistant crops? I don't think there's anything fundamentally more religiously problematic about engineering a dog or a cow or a horse the way we have been doing it for 10,000 years versus making a virus-resistant crop.

SPIEGEL: Virus-resistant crops is one thing. Virus-resistant humans is something altogether different.

Church: Why? In technology, we generally don't take leaps. It's this very slow crawl. We are not going to be making a virus-resistant human before we make a virus-resistant cow. I don't understand why people should be so deeply hurt by that kind of technology.

SPIEGEL: Apart from religious opposition, biotechnology also generates very real fears. Artificial lifeforms which might turn out to be dangerous killer-bugs. Don't we need special precautions?

Church: We have to be very cautious, I absolutely agree. I almost never vote against caution or regulations. In fact, I requested them for licensing and surveillance of synthetic biology. Yes, I think the risks are high. The risks of doing nothing are also high, if you consider that there are 7 billion people who need food and are polluting the environment.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, do you believe in God?

Church: I would be blind, if I didn't see that faith in an overall plan resulted in where we are today. Faith is a very powerful force in the history of humanity. So I greatly respect different kinds of faith. Just as I think diversity is a really good thing genetically, it's also a good thing societally.

SPIEGEL: But you're talking about other people's faith. What about your own faith?

Church: I have faith that science is a good thing. Seriously, I'd say that I am very much in awe of nature. In fact, I think to some extent, "awe" was a word that was almost invented for scientists. Not all scientists are in awe, but scientists are in a better position to be in awe than just about anybody else on the planet, because they actually can imagine all the different scales and all the complexity. A poet sees a flower and can go on and on about how beautiful the colors are. But what the poet doesn't see is the xylem and the phloem and the pollen and the thousands of generations of breeding and the billions of years before that. All of that is only available to the scientists.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Church, we thank you for this conversation.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle.

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« Reply #4127 on: Jan 19, 2013, 08:25 AM »

In the USA....

Joe Biden proves an essential weapon for Obama as he maps out second term

Biden recasting the role of vice-president – and his long career in Senate is invaluable to the Washington-averse Obama camp

Paul Harris in New York, Friday 18 January 2013 15.54 GMT      

Trying to pass new gun control laws is perhaps one of the hardest things any American president can attempt, even in the wake of a tragedy like the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown.

But when Barack Obama decided to push back against the mighty National Rifle Association, its cohort of Republican allies and America's entrenched gun culture, he chose one man to spearhead the effort: Joe Biden, the vice-president. He delivered a set of proposals that Obama presented in public this week.

It's not the first time Biden has come to the fore recently. In the hotly disputed talks over the "fiscal cliff" raft of tax hikes and spending cuts that threatened to plunge America into a new recession last December, it was Biden who led talks with the Republican opposition and struck a last-minute deal. And, during the election campaign last year, when Obama fumbled badly in his first debate, it was Biden who rode to the rescue with a strong performance that rallied Democrat morale.

Biden's high profile is now recasting his role as Obama's number two and turning the vice-president's office into a core part of the Obama team as it maps out a second-term agenda. "It is slightly unusual in American history to have such a high profile as Biden has had," said Professor James Josefson, a political scientist at Bridgewater College.

Indeed, through much of American history, the vice-presidency has been lampooned as a toothless ceremonial job, despite being "one heartbeat" away from the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt's vice-president John Garner famously quipped that it was not worth a "bucket of warm piss". More recently, in the hit TV show Veep, the fictional vice-president Selina Meyer – played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus – spends much time waiting breathlessly to hear if the president might have a heart attack.

Though previous exceptions have existed – notably the enormous influence Dick Cheney wielded in the administrations of George W Bush – it does seem Biden has now emerged as a major influence in the Obama administration. "Recently and post-election we have had these moments when Biden has been stepping to centre stage with marquee events, not peripheral issues," said Professor Joel Goldstein, an expert on vice-presidential politics at Saint Louis University.

Experts say that the relationship between Biden and Obama has developed a close symbiosis that benefits both men: Obama has a trusted lieutenant and Biden gets to be at the heart of the action. Indeed, some say they make a complementary double-act despite the hugely different temperaments, ages and experiences of the two men. After all Biden, at 70, is a completely different generation from Obama's. He is a garrulous talker compared to the professorial, intellectual Obama. Biden has a 36-year career in the Senate, compared to Obama's four years. That was especially crucial with the fiscal cliff deal where Biden was able to use his long experience of dealing with Republicans in Congress and his vast network of personal contacts to finally secure agreement.

Whereas Obama has a famously fractious relationship with Speaker John Boehner, who heads the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Biden is a similar kind of machine politician and is comfortable with Washington wheeling and dealing.

"There is a sense in the White House that Joe Biden is better at this kind of retail politics than Obama. He likes it. Whereas the president does not like it. He likes the big picture stuff," said Josefson.

Those who know Biden well agree. Professor Ted Kaufman was Biden's chief of staff for 19 years and took over his Delaware Senate seat after the 2008 election. He is still close with Biden and said that the vice president's lengthy career and experience made him a crucial resource for Obama when dealing with Republicans.

"He knows these people and he's dealt with these very partisan issues for a long time," he said, adding that Biden's jovial public and private persona also helped in a presidency known for its seriousness and dislike of Washington. "People like Joe Biden," Kaufman said.

Biden's rise has even survived his well-deserved reputation for gaffes. His remarks on gay marriage last year were seen as catapulting Obama into embracing the issue sooner than he had planned. When Biden kicked off his run for the 2008 presidency he opened with a gaffe about Obama when he referred to the then young black Senator from Illinois as "articulate and bright and clean". But that is all firmly in the past now. "He has got a great relationship with the president," said Kaufman.

Biden's star is unlikely to fade. This year, Obama is facing tough fights over gun control, fresh debates over raising the debt ceiling, a looming round of massive government cuts as well as a vow to pass immigration reform. Biden again is likely to be sent out to walk point politically on these issues. But it is not just that Biden enjoys the fight. Many, including Kaufman, believe that Biden will eventually mull the possibility of a 2016 run for the White House, which would mark his third attempt to win the presidency.

Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide in the Clinton White House, said that it was hard to imagine any vice-president declining to make such a move. "You are flying on Air Force Two and you want to be on Air Force One. You have an office in the West Wing, but you want to be in the Oval Office. If he believes that he is viable in 2016 then I think he will go for it," Haas said.

That might not be an easy decision. By the time the 2016 race swings around, Biden's advanced age will be a tough issue. Any run to succeed Obama will also pay close attention to the ambitions of secretary of state Hillary Clinton who is an overwhelming favourite should she throw her hat into the ring. "If Hillary wants it, it is hers. But if she doesn't want it, it would be open for Biden," said Josefson.


House Republicans back 3-month debt limit increase

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 18, 2013 18:31 EST

Republicans proposed a three-month increase to the US debt ceiling Friday as they lean toward breaking a protracted fiscal impasse, but warned any long-term deal would require Congress to pass a budget that cuts spending.

The Republican-led House of Representatives will hold a vote next week on the temporary measure, Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced at the end of a two-day Republican work retreat outside Washington.

The move could help defuse a fiscal time bomb that Congress and the White House face in late February with the nation hitting its debt ceiling, looming automatic federal spending cuts, and debate over the budget.

The three-month extension of US borrowing authority would buy time for the Senate to pass a non-binding budget, Cantor said.

The House has passed budgets every year of Barack Obama’s presidency, but the Senate has not passed one for four years.

Should they fail to approve a budget by April 15, the legislation would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks, he added.

“Members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay. It’s time to come together and get to work.”

Obama has repeatedly said he will not negotiate on extending US borrowing authority and has called on Congress to raise the limit so the government can meet its obligations.

Some Republicans have signaled they would be willing to let the government shut down unless a debt ceiling increase was met with an equal reduction in federal spending.

The latest move is seen by some officials as a concession and a sign of a more pragmatic approach to debt negotiations by House Republicans amid pressure over the prospect of sending the government into default.

“We are encouraged that there are signs that congressional Republicans may back off their insistence on holding our economy hostage to extract drastic cuts in Medicare, education and programs middle class families depend on,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in response to Friday’s proposal.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office suggested he would swiftly bring the Republican measure to a vote.

“If the House can pass a clean debt ceiling increase to avoid default and allow the United States to meet its existing obligations, we will be happy to consider it,” Reid’s spokesman Adam Jentleson said in a statement.

Congressman Paul Ryan, the powerful House Budget Committee chairman and Republican Mitt Romney’s losing vice presidential nominee, backed the proposal but insisted the Senate pass a budget that gives priority to how taxpayer dollars are spent.

Any deal to temporarily raise the debt ceiling “rests on the recognition that our challenge is twofold: We have to pay our bills today, and we have to make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow,” Ryan said.

“To achieve both ends, we must cut spending and budget responsibly.”

House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, favored the proposal — and made it clear that the debt ceiling would remain a bargaining chip, despite Obama’s insistence to the contrary.

“Before there is any long-term debt limit increase, a budget should be passed that cuts spending,” Boehner said.

Delaying the debt ceiling debate could allow lawmakers to focus more thoroughly on the $110 billion in broad mandated cuts set to hit the military and domestic programs from early March, as well as the temporary funding that is keeping the government running and which expires at the end of that month.


Senate considers ending Pharma pay-for-delay deals

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 18, 2013 16:13 EST

US senators are introducing legislation to end pay-off deals that keep generic drugs off shelves and give pharmaceutical giants market exclusivity that costs consumers billions of dollars per year.

The bid follows Thursday’s release of a Federal Trade Commission report documenting a significant rise in the number of so-called “pay-for-delay” agreements that smother competition in the massive drug industry.

The FTC determined that 40 patent dispute resolutions between brand name drugs and generics in 2012 may involve pay-for-delay payments, a year-on-year rise of 40 percent.

Those deals, the commission said, involve products with combined US annual sales of $8.3 billion.

“Drug manufacturers are using pay-off agreements to keep cheaper generic drugs off the market while raking in huge profits, and it has to stop,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who will introduce the legislation together with Republican Chuck Grassley.

The FTC expressed similar concerns and has argued that such deals violate US anti-trust law, delay generic drug entry to the market by an average of 17 months, and cost US consumers $3.5 billion annually.

“Sadly, this year’s report makes it clear that the problem of pay-for-delay is getting worse, not better,” FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement.

“More and more brand and generic drug companies are engaging in these sweetheart deals, and consumers continue to pay the price.”

Prescription generics often cost just a fraction of their brand-name equivalents.

The Generic Pharmaceutical Association on Friday dismissed the FTC report as perpetuating the “myth” that such settlements are bad for consumers, and said the deals were a necessary evil of a competitive industry.

Banning the settlements would “put a chill on patent challenges” and further delay generic drug entry to the market, costing consumers billions of dollars, GPhA spokesman Greg Howard told AFP.

“The more you limit the options that companies have, the more likely they’ll say: we just won’t bother trying to challenge the patents.”

The pay-for-delay deals usually originate from lawsuits which question patents of the original drugs, a process eased by a 1984 law which encourages generic manufacturers to challenge patents for brand-name drugs.

Such litigation is costly and uncertain, and a branded firm often pays generic companies to drop or postpone their challenges, figuring that the payoff for delaying the generic drug would be less than the profit it can generate from extended market exclusivity.

The debate comes as the US Supreme Court is due to hear arguments in March on a case in which the FTC accuses generic drugmakers of accepting hefty payments in exchange for agreements to drop until 2015 legal challenges to the patents on a brand of testosterone gel.


Naked-image full-body scanners to be taken out of U.S. airports

By David Ferguson
Friday, January 18, 2013 12:06 EST

The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has announced that U.S. airports will soon discontinue their use of controversial full-body scanners which reveal nude images of passengers as they pass through the machine. According to Bloomberg News, OSI Systems, the company that makes the scanners, was unable to write a software program that would cover passengers’ genitals.

The TSA has terminated its $5 million contract with OSI’s Rapiscan unit, which was awarded to the company with a software fix in mind. Head TSA administrator John Pistole determined that the company will not be able to meet a deadline imposed by Congress to make the scans less invasive and revealing.

Privacy advocates have likened the machines to electronic strip-searches that constitute an unreasonable invasion of passengers’ privacy. In 2010, engineering professors at University of California at San Francisco sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration questioning the safety of the machines due to the type and amount of radiation they produce. The group, led by Dr. John Sedat, said that the safety of the machines had never been independently verified and that the TSA was being reckless with passengers’ health by relying on the manufacturers’ promise that the machines are safe.

The TSA removed 76 of the Rapiscan machines from the nation’s busiest airports in 2011. The remaining 174 machines will now be decommissioned. The TSA plans to switch over to scanners manufactured by a company called L-3 Communications Holdings, which use radio signals rather than X-rays to scan passengers for weapons.

Allegations have surfaced that OSI personnel faked data on the efficacy of Rapiscan’s initial software fix. In November, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) wrote to Pistole alleging that Rapiscan “may have attempted to defraud the government by knowingly manipulating an operational test.” Rogers, then head of the House Transportation Security subcommittee, said that he had received a tip that the company was falsifying test results on its initial software fix for the passenger nudity problem.

OSI CEO Deepak Chopra denied that the company has manipulated data. The decommissioned machines, he said, will be used for security in other government buildings.


King: Republicans force us to act ‘like third-world beggars’ for hurricane relief funds

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, January 18, 2013 12:05 EST

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said Friday that his fellow Republicans are making New York’s members of Congress walk around “like third-world beggars” pleading for votes for hurricane relief funds.

“Quite frankly it’s going to be difficult going back and working with people you sit next to and whenever they were in need, we responded immediately,” he said Friday guest hosting a radio interview with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), first reported by New York Daily News. “Not one member of Congress ever voted against or said one word in opposition to aid going to other states when the money was needed.”

“We’re going around like third-world beggars,” he lamented. “At least, they put us in that position.” King’s staff published his comments on the congressman’s official website.

The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a package of roughly $50 billion in spending to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy and harden civil infrastructure to future storms. Just 49 House Republicans voted for the relief bill, while 179 opposed it.

East coast Republicans like King and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were aghast after House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delayed a vote to partially fund flood insurance claims from states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Christie blamed his own party for delaying the vote and opposing the additional spending, and even said that Boehner was avoiding his calls. King went so far as threatening to quit the party, saying that nobody should contribute money to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.


January 18, 2013

Panetta Hits Final Stretch, and Finds a Crisis


LONDON — Leon E. Panetta’s final weeklong trip to the old capitals of Europe initially had the feel of a valedictory lap, one that would nurture the trans-Atlantic alliance and give him the chance to dine in the Italy of his heritage. His staff had to insist it was not a junket.

But by the time Mr. Panetta, the defense secretary, arrived in Rome on Wednesday, news had broken of the hostage-taking in Algeria as Pentagon officials, frustrated and alarmed, scrambled to get basic information out of Algiers.

Mr. Panetta learned of the seizure of the Algerian gas facility after a meeting on Wednesday afternoon with Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy. He declared it a “terrorist act,” cut short a dinner that night with the Italian defense minister and was up until midnight in his hotel room in briefings.

By Thursday, he was overseeing plans to deploy American military cargo planes to ferry French troops and equipment to Mali, where the government of neighboring Algeria said France’s armed intervention was the cause of the abductions.

On Friday, he trundled into a hastily scheduled meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain as snow fell outside 10 Downing Street. “Let’s start with Algeria,” Mr. Cameron said.

Earlier, Mr. Panetta inserted language into a set-piece speech on the United States’ relationship with Europe, telling students at King’s College London that “terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere.”

But the reality is that pursuing those terrorists and any others is now to be the job of the next defense secretary. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for the post, is encamped down the corridor from Mr. Panetta’s Pentagon office, preparing for his Jan. 31 confirmation hearings. If Mr. Hagel, 66, is confirmed, Mr. Panetta is likely to exit in mid-February, leaving a NATO meeting later that month in Brussels to his successor.

“The time has come for me to go home,” Mr. Panetta told the students in London.

Mr. Panetta’s aides say that after nearly a half-century in public service, starting as a first lieutenant in the Army in 1964, Mr. Panetta, 74, is more than ready to retire to his walnut farm in Carmel Valley, Calif. There, he will help his wife, Sylvia, run the Panetta Institute, a public policy organization they founded nearby that works to draw students into public service.

He is also likely to make money: in 2008, the year before he became director of the C.I.A., government disclosure forms show that he made more than $1 million speaking, consulting and serving on corporate boards.

Despite a mostly sunny disposition and a perch near the top of the Obama administration, Mr. Panetta has lived something of a lonely-guy life in Washington.

Aides say that if he does not have an evening event, he returns to an attic walk-up apartment, heats a can of soup or has chicken picked up from Popeye’s, and watches sports or old movies. (Mr. Panetta could have lived in a larger house on a compound near the State Department, but aides say he did not want to pay the several thousand dollars a month in rent.)

Since becoming C.I.A. director in 2009 and then starting as defense secretary in July 2011, Mr. Panetta has commuted nearly every weekend to his home in California.

Aides say he would have preferred to retire after his time at the spy agency and to have had the C.I.A.-run raid that killed Osama bin Laden be the final act of a long career. But the White House persuaded him to take over the Pentagon after Robert M. Gates retired as defense secretary in June 2011.

In the past 18 months, Mr. Panetta has largely presided over policies set in place before he arrived: the end of the war in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan and the cutting of the defense budget by nearly $500 billion, possibly more, over the next 10 years. He has quietly attended funerals at Arlington National Cemetery for troops killed in war, and on this trip he intends to write about 10 notes by hand to families of the dead.

But at the C.I.A., he oversaw a vast expansion of a drone program that killed militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Gregarious and profane, Mr. Panetta has become more disciplined in public since his first freewheeling trip as defense secretary to Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, when his aides were cleaning up misstatements at nearly every stop. But he returned to his old unleashed ways on Thursday during a talk to soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team at the United States Army Garrison Vicenza in northern Italy.

“Who the hell needs armor-piercing bullets except you guys in battle?” he said during an off-the-cuff discourse into gun control.

Mr. Panetta had saltier words for members of Congress — he served in the House from 1977 to 1993 — who have not reached a budget deal.

“People just got to suck it up, and take on some of the risks, and take on some of the challenges,” Mr. Panetta told the troops. “You take the worst risk of all, which is that somebody may shoot you, and you may die. It’s a hell of a risk. All we’re asking our elected leaders is to take a small part of the risk that maybe” they will anger some constituents, he said, “but the fact is, that they’ll be doing what is right for the country.”

Mr. Panetta is to meet on Saturday with the British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, and will be in regular briefings on Algeria and Mali until then. The crisis will continue, even as he prepares to head home to California.

“As I retire from my own career in public service, I recognize that there’s a generational shift under way,” he told the students in London. “There will probably not be another U.S. secretary of defense with direct memories of World War II.”

He called the trans-Atlantic alliance of the United States and Europe “the rock upon which we will build our future security and our prosperity,” then concluded, “The baton now passes to a new generation.”


January 18, 2013

Poll Finds Most Back Obama, With a Split on Party Lines


President Obama begins his second term on Sunday with Americans cautiously optimistic about both the years ahead and his stewardship, but more polarized politically than four years ago and with less lofty hopes.

After a first term of both big achievements and disappointments and the economy still struggling to recover from the financial crisis he inherited, Mr. Obama retains the approval of a slim majority of Americans, 51 percent, according to a pre-inauguration survey for The New York Times and CBS News. That is down from 62 percent soon after he took office four years ago, and conceals a sharp divide: 8 in 10 Republicans disapprove of how he is handling the job, while almost 9 in 10 Democrats approve. Independents are split.

The public’s approval of Mr. Obama’s job performance is similar to George W. Bush’s rating at the start of his second term. But it is lower than the standings for the previous two-term presidents, Bill Clinton (60 percent) and Ronald Reagan (62 percent), who served in less polarized times.

Still, Mr. Obama is in a considerably stronger position as he opens his second term, especially relative to the increasingly unpopular Republicans in Congress. The percentage of Americans who disapprove of Congress — 82 percent — is the highest for a new Congress since The Times and CBS News began asking the question regularly two decades ago. While neither party in Congress gets high marks, the public is far more negative toward Republican lawmakers.

That negativity appears to be causing introspection among some top Republicans. After a retreat this week in which they heard bad news from their own pollsters, House Republicans announced that they would agree to an unconditional three-month increase in the nation’s debt limit without equal spending cuts immediately — a tactical retreat that most likely reflects their sense of their disadvantage against Mr. Obama.

Nearly half the public blames Republicans for the partisan impasse that nearly blocked a needed tax agreement over the holidays, compared with almost one-third who blame Mr. Obama. Independents sided with the president by a two-to-one ratio. Almost half of Americans said the episode made them more pessimistic about Washington’s ability to resolve other problems in the future.

More broadly, Americans remain deeply concerned about the state of the country. Only 38 percent said it was on the right track, compared with 57 percent calling it on the wrong track. Nearly a decade has passed since more people viewed the country on the right track than the wrong.

As for the next fiscal confrontation — over a longer-term increase in the nation’s debt limit, which is essential for the government to borrow to pay existing obligations — the poll had some of its only good news for Republicans. Six in 10 Americans say the borrowing limit should not be raised without the White House and Congress also approving cuts in spending — which had been the Republicans’ position before their retreat — while just 17 percent say the limit should be increased without conditions, which is Mr. Obama’s stance.

“Unless the Republicans hold fast and say, ‘Come to the table and give us cuts and a budget,’ the Democrats will keep saying, ‘We’ll do it later,’ ” said John Asam, 47, an unemployed Republican in Downey, Calif.

While a majority continues to disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of annual deficits, 54 percent to 37 percent, Americans favor by about two to one his call to both cut spending and increase taxes instead of cutting spending only, as Republicans would.

“I side with the president on social issues, but I do think it’s important to be moderate on financial issues,” said Anna Kroncke, 33, a psychologist and political independent in Denver who voted for Mr. Obama both times. “That’s where it might be really helpful to compromise with the Republicans.”

But the poll holds other signs that the public sees Mr. Obama as having greater leverage than Republicans. Six in 10 say Mr. Obama will have more influence over the next four years, compared with almost 3 in 10 who say Republicans will hold sway.

“I think Barack Obama will have more influence than the Republicans in Congress because the mood of the nation has changed,” said Sandy Brassard, 52, an independent who is a music teacher in San Francisco. “I’m not sure what will happen with the budget and the debt, but I am very optimistic about gun control and immigration and gay marriage and even Social Security because of his stance and the mood of the country.”

More Americans say that they trust the president over Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions about the economy, budget deficits and taxes — the fiscal issues that could dominate Mr. Obama’s next term. Half favor him on those issues, while about one-third say they trust Republicans more.

On the more recent issue to join the nation’s list of priorities, dealing with gun violence, not quite half say they trust Mr. Obama over Republicans; 47 percent choose the president and 39 percent Republicans.

On illegal immigration, the other issue that Mr. Obama promises to address this year, almost 7 in 10 say they are confident about the president’s ability to deal with the matter. And significant majorities, including most Democrats and independents, also express confidence about Mr. Obama’s ability to make the right decisions regarding Afghanistan, protecting the United States from a terrorist attack and the economy.

Now a president with a record instead of a newcomer, Mr. Obama has seen his favorability among Americans tarnish a bit. Four years ago, 6 in 10 had a favorable opinion, about 1 in 10 did not and 3 in 10 reserved judgment. Now about one-third of the country has an unfavorable view of him, though a plurality — 46 percent — retains a favorable opinion.

Mr. Obama’s resilience despite continued high unemployment and partisan battling partly reflects that twice as many Americans continue to blame his predecessor, Mr. Bush, for the state of the economy. More also blame Wall Street, and about the same number fault Congress as Mr. Obama.

By 48 percent to 22 percent, Americans approve of his cabinet picks, despite criticism that he has favored white men, with women no less approving than men. Four years ago, Mr. Obama’s cabinet choices were supported 71 percent to 22 percent.

As for much of his presidency, significantly more Americans favor his handling of foreign policy than disapprove. And more continue to disapprove of his record on the economy than approve of it, though the margin has narrowed to a statistically insignificant one as the recovery has picked up. Just 42 percent expect the economy to be better in four years than it is today.

The nationwide poll was conducted Jan. 11-15 with 1,110 adults, using land lines and cellphones, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.


Fracking debate draws Yoko Ono and son to rural battlegrounds

By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Friday, January 18, 2013 18:50 EST

Artists Against Fracking board bus for magical mystery tour of Pennsylvania as New York and New Jersey decisions draw near

Yoko Ono might not seem the most likely bus traveller. Northern Pennsylvania, on a cold, snowy January day, might not seem a likely destination.

Yet the threat of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and its impact on the farm she and John Lennon bought in New York spurred Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, into action. On Thursday the pair, a group of activists and the actress Susan Sarandon formed an improbable troupe for a road trip through towns which have been affected by fracking.

The expedition travelled under the banner of Artists Against Fracking, the group Ono and Lennon set up last summer, when governor Andrew Cuomo was originally due to rule on whether to allow fracking in New York State. Thanks no doubt to the star power of its founders, the group quickly managed to attract backing – from regular celebrity activists such as Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo to Alec Baldwin, the two living Beatles and Robert DeNiro. They also earned the support of the Scissor Sisters.

“It was an incredible response,” Ono said, as the bus picked its way along narrow lanes. “All these artists are starting to come together. These days artists are very much into, and very sensitive to what is happening in society, not just what is happening with their work.”

It was the potential impact of fracking on rural parts of New York State that prompted Lennon and Ono to get involved in the anti-fracking cause last summer. Cuomo eventually delayed his decision, pending further investigation into the practice; he is now due to rule on whether to allow fracking as early as 27 February, following a four-and-a-half year ban.

Ono and Lennon clambered aboard the bus – in fact a relatively luxurious coach – on Thursday as part of their bid to persuade the governor against the practice. Ono and Lennon still spend time at their rural farm, which was bought in the years before John Lennon died. While the farm might have inspired Ono to take up the cause, she said the campaign now went beyond that.

“It’s not just for me, but for New York State and New York City as well. But also when we lose this game we’re losing not just for New York State but for the United States and for Britain. I’m getting letters from Britain saying, ‘Yoko, please do something, they’re starting to frack here.’”

The pair keep secret the exact location of their farm, where Ono and John Lennon famously tended a herd of cows, but they will say that it is in prime fracking territory. The pair established Artists Against Fracking in August and organised the bus tour to show the impact fracking has had in Pennsylvania.

Fracking involves drilling a hole into shale rock deep underground, then blasting in water mixed with sand and chemicals. This creates fissures in the rock, releasing natural gas that is captured in a well at the surface. Problems can arise if the cement casing around the well-hole is inadequate, allowing chemicals to leak into water supplies. Those who support fracking say that with tougher regulation and stricter controls on the drilling process the practice is safe, although opponents argue that this is too much to risk.

‘Our water was bubbling in our well’

The home of Michael and Tammy Manning in Franklin Forks was one of the bus tour’s first stops – after four attempts to climb a particularly icy hill. The couple say the water in their home, which is sourced from their own well, like many homes’ water supply in this region, became contaminated after fracking was carried out nearby.

“Our water was bubbling in our well. It looked like a full running boil in our well,” said Tammy Manning, 45. Four generations of their family live in the house, a two-storey wood-paneled structure set in perhaps an acre of land. Video taken by Matthew Manning and shown as the anti-fracking entourage crammed into the Mannings’ small living room showed water spurting out of the top of their well as from a fire hydrant. Inside the house, the water ran brown.

Pennsylvania’s department of environmental protection tested the Mannings’ exploding well soon after it began erupting. It found extremely high levels of methane, and told the family to keep all windows and doors open when running the taps or taking a shower – any build-up of the gas could be dangerous. The Mannings said they have received little help beyond that, and have to buy mineral water for drinking and cooking. They shower in tainted water.

“We don’t want to have to leave,” Tammy Manning said. “We just bought the house. But if we’ve no water what can we do.” The reality is that the family has few options. “I don’t think we can sell it with no water. We’re stuck.”

Supporters of fracking argue that the process can produce cheap fuel, promote energy independence and create jobs. The roads of Susquehanna County were certainly busy on Thursday, activists on the bus shouting out “sand truck” or “water truck” time and again, as heavy goods vehicles bearing the key elements of fracking passed by.

Some spoke of the tension within small towns and villages that has been caused by differing opinions over fracking. Companies pay good money for access to mineral rights, but one or two neighbours resisting the deal can deter companies from becoming involved with a whole street or community.

Representing ‘the 1%’?

As the bus arrived in Dimock, where the department of environmental protection ruled in 2010 that fracking wells drilled by Cabot Oil and Gas Corp had leaked into 18 drinking wells, a man who identified himself as living locally shouted and gesticulated animatedly at the members of Activists Against Fracking as they disembarked. The man, who left before the Guardian could ask his name, insisted loudly that money from fracking had paid for his wife’s cancer treatment.

He was not the only fly in the ointment. Filmmaker Phelim McAleer, a vocal critic of those opposed to fracking and something of a courter of controversy, approached the bus with a cameraman, loudly accusing Ono, Lennon and Sarandon of acting in the interests of the “1%” in their opposition to the practice.

As McAleer jogged and jostled for position, heckling Ono, Lennon and Sarandon and being heckled back by activists, the Irish filmmaker – who made the news recently after accusing Matt Damon, the actor whose new film, Promised Land, deals with the subject of fracking, of being a “liar” – became separated from his trilby hat, which he had to collect from the muddy slush.

McAleer shouted to the group that the drinking water in Dimock was safe, citing EPA studies that activists say are incorrect. In any case, Cabot Oil and Gas Corp agreed in December 2010 to pay a $4.6m settlement that required it to fix its leaking wells. The Pennsylvania DEP ruled that Cabot could resume fracking near Dimock in August last year.

McAleer’s arrival marked the only time Ono took advantage of a large V12 Mercedes-Benz which an aide drove behind the coach for the entire trip, and which might raise some questions over the environmental soundness of the exercise. Ono got into the back of the black car as McAleer made himself known nearby, later popping her head out of the window to check all was clear before clambering back on to the bus for the ride home.

‘I’m not an activist by nature’

Artists Against Fracking have already given Cuomo plenty to consider ahead of his February ruling. In addition to the clutch of celebrity supporters, the group and other anti-fracking organisations collected 200,000 messages during a 30-day public consultation period in December and January. Ono and Lennon helped to deliver the messages to the governor in Albany on 11 January.

The campaign could have an impact in New Jersey too. The Garden State’s year-long moratorium on fracking expired on Thursday, and governor Chris Christie is due to make an announcement on the immediate future of the process before the end of the month.

“I’m not an activist by nature, I’m a musician. What I’m interested in is making music and art,” Lennon said on the bus. “I had no desire to be spending any of my time researching things like benzene, methane and uranium and well-pits and well-casings and what percentage of well-casings fail over how many years.”

Lennon said he had been moved by the stories of people who face having to leave their homes because of a lack of clean water, but like those people, he had the sense of a personal threat. His family’s farm draws fresh water, unfiltered, from its own well, just like the Mannings’ house and the homes in Dimock. To Lennon, fracking poses a risk to the farm at which he can remember spending time with his father as a young boy.

“It would actually change my life,” he said. “I think on some level I might have to consider leaving. I’m so into nature and the country, and having a place in the country where I could drink my own water was really essential to my feeling safe, it means a lot to me. So if that changes, I might leave.”

Lennon said he was unsure if he would leave New York, or leave the US entirely – he both American and British passports and describes himself as an Anglophile. “But I don’t want to be in a place where I feel like I can’t drink clean water,” he said. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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Originally published Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 6:45 PM

Algerian hostage crisis ends with grisly assault

Although the Algerian government declared an end to the siege, authorities believed a few militants were still hiding in the sprawling, Sahara Desert gas complex.

The Associated PressThe Associated Press and The New York Times

ALGIERS, Algeria — In a bloody finale, Algerian special forces stormed a natural-gas complex in the Sahara Desert on Saturday to end a standoff with Islamist extremists that left at least 23 hostages dead and killed all 32 militants involved, the Algerian government said.

With few details emerging from the remote site in eastern Algeria, it was unclear whether anyone was rescued in the final operation, but the number of hostages killed Saturday — seven — was how many the militants had said that morning they still had. The government described the toll as provisional and some foreigners remained unaccounted for.

Although the government declared an end to the siege, authorities believed a few militants were still hiding in the sprawling complex, and said troops were searching for them.

The details of what transpired in the Sahara and the final battle for the plant remained murky late Saturday — as did information of which hostages died and how — with even the Obama administration suggesting it was unclear what had happened. A brief statement said the administration would “remain in close touch with the government of Algeria to gain a fuller understanding of what took place so that we can work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future.”

Philip Hammond, the British defense secretary, called the loss of life “appalling and unacceptable.” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who appeared with Hammond at a news conference in London, said he did not have reliable information about the fate of Americans at the facility, although an Algerian official said two had been found “safe and sound.”

Late Saturday, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said five Britons and one British resident had died in the final battle for the plant. He declined to provide details.

The siege at Ain Amenas started Wednesday, when Islamists linked to al-Qaida stormed the complex, which contained hundreds of plant workers from all over the world. In response, the Algerian military and its attack helicopters surrounded the complex for four tense days that were punctuated by gunbattles and tales of escape.

Algeria’s response to the crisis was typical of its history in confronting terrorists, favoring military action over negotiation, which caused an international outcry from countries worried about their citizens. Algerian military forces twice assaulted the two areas where the hostages were being held — first Thursday, then on Saturday.

Immediately after the assault, French President François Hollande gave his backing to Algeria’s tough tactics, saying they were “the most adapted response to the crisis.”

“There could be no negotiations” with terrorists, the French media quoted him as saying in the central French city of Tulle.

Hollande said the hostages were “shamefully murdered” by their captors, and he linked the event to France’s military operation against al-Qaida-backed rebels in neighboring Mali. “If there was any need to justify our action against terrorism, we would have here, again, an additional argument,” he said.

In the final assault, the remaining band of militants killed the hostages before 11 of them were in turn cut down by the special forces, Algeria’s state news agency said. The military launched its Saturday assault to prevent a fire started by the extremists from engulfing the complex and blowing it up, the report added. The reports could not be confirmed independently.

A total of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers were freed over the course of the four-day standoff, the ministry statement said, adding that the group of militants that attacked the remote natural-gas complex consisted of 32 men of various nationalities, including three Algerians, and explosives experts.

The military also said it confiscated heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, missiles and grenades attached to suicide belts.

Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil company running the Ain Amenas site along with BP and Norway’s Statoil, said the entire refinery had been mined with explosives, and that it was being cleared of the devices.

The accounts of hostages who escaped the standoff showed they faced dangers from both the kidnappers and the military.

Ruben Andrada, 49, a Filipino civil engineer who works as one of the project-management staff for Japanese company JGC, described how he and his colleagues were used as human shields by the kidnappers, which did little to deter the Algerian military.

On Thursday, about 35 hostages guarded by 15 militants were loaded into seven SUVs in a convoy to move them from the housing complex to the refinery, Andrada said. The militants placed “an explosive cord” around their necks and were told it would detonate if they tried to run away, he said.

“When we left the compound, there was shooting all around,” Andrada said, as Algerian helicopters attacked with guns and missiles. “I closed my eyes. We were going around in the desert. To me, I left it all to fate.”

Andrada’s vehicle overturned, allowing him and a few others to escape. He sustained cuts and bruises and was grazed by a bullet. He later saw the blasted remains of other vehicles, and the severed leg of one of the gunmen.

While the Algerian government has only admitted to 23 hostages dead so far, the militants claimed through the Mauritanian news website ANI that the helicopter attack alone killed 35 hostages.

One American, a Texan — Frederick Buttaccio, 58, from the Houston suburb of Katy — was among the dead. “Fred spent a lifetime experiencing the world and always respecting everyone he met, no matter their position, culture, or religion,” the family said in a statement Saturday.

The attack by the Masked Brigade, founded by Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, had been in the works for two months, a member of the brigade told the ANI news outlet.

He said militants targeted Algeria because they expected the country to support the international effort to root out extremists in neighboring Mali.

The kidnappers focused on the foreign workers, largely leaving alone the hundreds of Algerian workers who were briefly held hostage before being released or escaping.


British survivors recount terror in Algeria

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 20, 2013 9:03 EST

British survivors returning from the Algerian gas plant hostage crisis have told of their experiences, with the mother of one saying that her son will have nightmares for life.

One Briton has been confirmed killed in the attack by Islamist militants, while a further five British nationals and one UK resident are either dead or unaccounted for.

Stephen McFaul, a 36-year-old electrician supervisor from Belfast, was among those who survived and has returned to his family.

Forced to wear explosives, he fled when the kidnappers’ convoy he was in came under fire.

“He’ll have nightmares for the rest of his life after the things he saw,” his mother Marie told the Sunday Mirror.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in for him yet. It’s so traumatic for him… he’s spoken about it to me.

“He doesn’t want to say anything publicly because he has friends still out there and he’s so worried about them. He just wants to spend time with his family.”

Fellow survivor Iain Strachan, 38, from Howwood outside Glasgow, told the tabloid: “I am fine but I don’t want to say too much at the moment until we find out what has happened to the others.”

Meanwhile the family of Darren Matthews said in a brief statement through the Foreign Office that they were relieved he had survived.

“We have been extremely worried about Darren and we are pleased and relieved to learn that he is safe and well. We look forward to having him home soon,” they said.

An aircraft had been sent to Algeria to bring Britons back from the remote In Amenas plant near the Libyan border.

The dramatic four-day crisis ended in a bloodbath Saturday when Islamists executed all seven of their remaining foreign captives as Algerian troops stormed the desert complex.

Relatives of Kenneth Whiteside, 59, an engineer from Glenrothes in Scotland, were left “devastated” after hearing that an Algerian co-worker claimed to have witnessed him being shot but dying bravely with a smile on his face.

Whiteside’s brother Robert, 66, told The Mail on Sunday newspaper: “It is now just a waiting game and we are suffering badly.

“We are trying to keep a lid on our anger at the lack of information but it is almost more than we can bear at times. The latest report from one of his colleagues has left us devastated.”

His wife Stephanie added: “We’ve had no official confirmation about Kenny. But why would his Algerian co-worker say something like that, knowing the upset that it would cause to his family if it wasn’t true?”

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “We now face the difficult news that there are Scots or individuals with strong Scottish connections among those who are believed to have been killed or remain unaccounted for.

“Two families have been informed of the position.

“We will provide details as soon as we are satisfied that the information is full and final.

“The Scottish authorities continue to offer every support to all caught up in this crisis.

“We extend our condolences to all those, of all nationalities, who have lost loved ones and colleagues in this terrorist outrage.”


Originally published January 19, 2013 at 7:20 AM | Page modified January 20, 2013 at 12:10 AM    

From Munich to Algeria, hostage rescues turn deadly

By The Associated Press

Algeria said Saturday that at least 19 hostages and 29 militants have died in a standoff between Islamists who stormed a natural gas plant deep in the Sahara, and special forces trying to drive them out. Here's a look at some previous standoffs that ended in significant bloodshed:

-MUNICH, 1972: Eleven members of Israel's Olympic team were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen at the Munich Games. Two hostages were killed as the Palestinian "Black September" group raided the Olympic village; the remaining nine died amid a botched rescue attempt by German police.

-TEHRAN, 1980: A U.S. special forces mission to rescue 53 American hostages from a bunker in Tehran, Iran, ended in failure and the deaths of eight servicemen. The mission had already been aborted due to bad weather and mechanical problems when a helicopter collided with a transport plane at a clandestine staging area near the Iranian capital.

-WACO, 1993: A 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, ended with a fire destroying the structure after federal agents began smashing their way in. Nearly 80 people, including sect leader David Koresh, were killed.

-MOSCOW, 2002: Russian counterterrorism forces stormed a theater where Chechen guerrillas were holding hundreds of people hostage. About 130 of the hostages were killed. Families say many of the victims died from a knockout gas pumped into the building before it was stormed. Russian officials have never accepted responsibility for the deaths.

-BESLAN, 2004: A hostage standoff in the southern Russian town of Beslan ended in a bloodbath as Russian commandos stormed a school seized by Chechen militants. More than 330 people were killed, about half of them children.


David Cameron: fight against terrorism in north Africa may last decades

Prime minister highlights growing problem of terrorism in the region and likens situation to Pakistan and Afghanistan

Andrew Sparrow, political correspondent, Sunday 20 January 2013 10.52 GMT   

David Cameron said the fight against terrorism in north Africa would go on for years or "even decades" as he announced that a total of six Britons were thought to have died in the Algerian hostage crisis.

Three British nationals are known to have been killed, and three more were missing presumed dead, Cameron said in a statement from Chequers on Sunday morning. A British resident is also presumed to have been killed.

A further 22 Britons involved in the crisis at the In Amenas gas facility survived and have returned to the UK.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, William Hague, the foreign secretary, said it was "quite likely" that some of the Britons were executed by the hostage-takers, who identified themselves as the Signers in Blood – a splinter group of al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb.

In his statement, Cameron said he had spoken to his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, and confirmed that it was clear that the "appalling terrorist incident" at the gas plant was over.

"Tragically, we now know that three British nationals have been killed, and a further three are believed to be dead. And also a further British resident is also believed to be dead," he said.

"I know the whole country will want to join me in sending our sympathies and condolences to the families who have undergone an absolutely dreadful ordeal, and now face life without these very precious loved ones."

Cameron said the attack had involved up to 30 terrorists and it illustrated that terrorism was a growing problem in north Africa.

"This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months," he said.

"It requires a response that is patient and painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve and that is what we will deliver over these coming years."

There are parallels between north Africa and Pakistan/Afghanistan, he said.

"It is different in scale but there are similarities. What we face is an extremist Islamist violent al-Qaida-linked terrorist group – just as we have to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa. It is similar because it is linked to al-Qaida, it wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can."

Cameron said he would use Britain's chairmanship of the G8 this year to put the issue "at the top of the agenda" for the international community.

In his statement, Cameron said responsibility for the deaths "lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack". He did not criticise the Algerian government's handling of the crisis.

"No one should underestimate the difficulties of responding to an attack on this scale with 30 terrorists absolutely determined to take lives, and we should recognise all the Algerians have done to work with us and to help and co-ordinate with us, and I'd like to thank them for that," Cameron said.

In his BBC interview, Hague said London had not been consulted about the Algerian decision to launch the attack that terminated the crisis. "Of course, we would have liked to have been consulted," he said.

But he said the Algerians had acted swiftly because, according to the Algerian foreign ministry, the military thought the hostage-takers were planning to blow up the installation.

He also insisted the Algerian military knew how to deal with crises of this kind. "Whatever people think of them, whatever has been said about the Algerian military, they are experienced."

Hague said he did not know whether the Britons had been killed before the final assault, or while it took place. But, when asked if they had been "executed", he replied: "That sort of thing is quite likely to have happened."

Twenty-two Britons who survived the attack were back in the UK, he said. "We brought them back and BP brought others back on chartered flights during the night so they are being reunited with their loved ones," he said.

Hague also confirmed that Cameron's long-awaited Europe speech, which was originally scheduled for Friday, would go ahead this week. The date would be announced on Monday, he said.

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« Reply #4129 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:15 AM »

January 20, 2013

Africa Must Take Lead in Mali, France Says


PARIS — With French officials saying confidently on Saturday that an advance by Islamist militants on Bamako, Mali’s capital, had been halted, France’s foreign minister told African leaders that “our African friends need to take the lead” in a multilateral military intervention in Mali.

The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, spoke in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, at a summit meeting to discuss how to accelerate the involvement of West African troops in Mali, although he acknowledged that it could be weeks before they were there in force.

“Step by step, I think it’s a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks,” said Mr. Fabius, referring to the time frame when the bulk of troops from the Economic Community of West African States, the regional group known as Ecowas, would arrive.

On Sunday, Mr. Fabius told Europe 1 radio that Russia, which has previously remained on the sidelines of the conflict, had suggested helping France transport soldiers and equipment to Mali. He did not say whether France had accepted the offer.

He also said African forces would be transported in part with European and Canadian logistical support.

France intervened militarily on Jan. 11 after the Malian government said it was afraid that Islamist militants, who control the north, could continue their push south and take over Bamako with little opposition from a dispirited army.

Once the situation is more stable, France wants African troops to do most of the work to wrest the north from the Islamists, as called for under a United Nations Security Council resolution passed in December.

French officials conceded, however, that there were disputes over how African participation would be financed and about the best way to transport troops to Mali. In Paris, French officials said the United States, while willing to help ferry African troops, wanted to bill France for the use of transport aircraft, which officials said would not go down well with the French. The Pentagon favors providing rapid help with transport and even with air-to-air refueling, but the White House is more reluctant, the officials said.

But the officials said France and that the United States were sharing intelligence about Mali and the Sahel region of North Africa that was garnered from drones and other means, and that discussions with Washington continued amicably.

The African troops also need equipment and training, and Mr. Fabius pointed to a donors’ meeting in Ethiopia scheduled for Jan. 29 as “a key moment.”

The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Saturday that France now had 2,000 troops in Mali, with more in the region, and that France was likely to add to its forces there. He said that the Mali operation could involve at least 4,000 soldiers in the region, and French officials said they would put no fixed limit on the number of troops that might be required to restore the territorial integrity of Mali and drive back the Islamist fighters, who have ties to Al Qaeda.

The French officials emphasized that the targets of the mission were the Islamists, not the Tuaregs or other Malians fighting for more autonomy or independence in the north. They also said Islamist terrorists in Mali had made four or five efforts to carry out operations in France in the last few years.

Despite reports of French forces fighting on the ground in and around the village of Diabaly, Mr. Le Drian said that “there has been no ground combat” there, only airstrikes. He dismissed reports from Malian Army sources that French troops were fighting or even in the town. “I think someone is hallucinating,” he said. Residents have told local news agencies that the Islamists have left Diabaly, which they seized as an important way station on the road to the administrative capital, Ségou, north of Bamako.

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that it had obtained video filmed by a resident of Diabaly showing a street dotted with burned-out vehicles and scattered bullets. The town remained calm on Sunday, The A.P. said. The video showed residents inspecting vehicles and charred weaponry destroyed by French airstrikes.

In the Islamist-controlled northern town of Gao on Saturday, young residents lynched an Islamist police commissioner in retaliation for the killing of a local radio journalist earlier in the day, according to a Twitter post from the office of Mali’s president, Dioncounda Traoré. The journalist had been suspected of working with foreign radio stations, Reuters reported.

French airstrikes have halted the Islamist advance toward Mopti and nearby Sévaré, French officials said, while they confirmed that the village of Konna, north of Mopti, was now back in the hands of Mali’s government.

Also on Saturday, Human Rights Watch said it had received what it called credible reports of abuses being committed by Malian security forces against Tuareg and Arab civilians.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.
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« Reply #4130 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:22 AM »

Mali's army suspected of abuses and unlawful killings as war rages

Amnesty International says it has evidence of civilian executions and indiscriminate shelling of nomadic Tuaregs' camp

Afua Hirsch in Mopti, Mali   
The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 22.44 GMT   

There are growing reports of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in Mali, as troops battle Islamist militants in the west African country.

Residents of Mopti, in the centre of the country, told the Observer of arrests, interrogations and the torture of innocents by the Malian army of those mistakenly suspected of involvement in rebel activity. "One day my son just disappeared," said a woman from the Fulani ethnic group, who asked not to be named. "We looked for him there for two or three days, but couldn't find him. Then some people told us that on the day he left, the army shot two people and put them in a pit inside the military base."

The victim's cousin, who also asked to remain anonymous for fears of reprisals, said: "We are Fulani people, the soldiers can tell from our dress that we come from the north.

"Because of that, the army suspects us – if we look like Fulani and don't have an identity card, they kill us. But many people are born in the small villages and it's very difficult to have identification.

"We are all afraid," the cousin continued. "There are some households where Fulanis or others who are fair-skinned don't go out any more. We have stopped wearing our traditional clothes – we are being forced to abandon our culture, and to stay indoors."
Mali graphic Graphic: Giulio Frigieri

Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that in September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the Malian military in Diabaly. Some commentators in Mali speculate that the occupation of Diabaly by Islamist fighters – whom French and Malian soldiers said they had defeated on Friday – was sparked by vengeance for the actions of the Malian army there.

The Observer asked Mali's minister of justice, Malick Coulibaly, whether the government believes Malian troops may be guilty of war crimes. "No army in the world is perfect," said Coulibaly, speaking at his office in Bamako. "The US army is one of the most professional in the world, yet they have been found to have committed acts of torture and unlawful killings. That exists in all armies."

Fears of human rights abuses come as offensives by Malian and foreign military forces are beginning to gain pace in north and central Mali. On Saturday French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called for a faster deployment of other African forces, before a meeting of African leaders in Ivory Coast. Around 5,000 African soldiers are expected to join the French forces in Mali. So far several hundred Nigerian and Togolese troops have arrived.

But analysts link the war in Mali and the kidnapping crisis in Algeria, and predict a possible terror threat throughout the west African sub-region, where a tradition of religious tolerance and lack of security makes many cities soft targets.

"This situation is going to get messy and stay messy," said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based researcher on the Sahel and north Africa region. "I don't know if there will be a wave of attacks in west Africa, but I do think that what just happened in Algeria is a sign. I think it may get worse before it gets better."

In Mali, tension from the war and troubled security situation is prompting concern that civilians could take the law into their own hands. The traditionally nomadic Tuareg population, many of whom are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees sheltering in neighbouring countries, have been singled out for reprisal attacks. Amnesty says that it has evidence of extrajudicial killings of Tuareg civilians, indiscriminate shelling of a Tuareg nomadic camp and the killing of livestock, on which the nomadic population rely for survival.

"It's true that people feel very angry towards the Tuaregs, and we are concerned about that," said Coulibaly. "We are looking into measures we can take after the war to repair these relations."

Relations with Mali's Tuaregs – estimated to comprise between 3% and 10% of the population – have been in crisis since Tuareg separatists were accused of killing Malian soldiers last year in the northern town of Aguelhok, one of the factors sparking the 22 March coup.

The resulting power vacuum in Bamako then led to a Tuareg–led offensive, which resulted in northern Mali first falling under Tuareg control, then under the Islamists, splitting the nation. The government also fears the general population could carry out revenge attacks on individuals they believe are involved in Islamist activities.

The Observer has learned that the director of Sonef, a bus company, has been arrested by authorities after one of the company's buses was used by Islamist rebels in a planned attack. "We arrested the director and some of his staff primarily for their own security," said Coulibaly. "They are being detained at the gendarmerie in the north where they are also being questioned."

This month there were reports that Islamists used a bus belonging to the company to drive into Konna, before seizing the town. It is one of numerous alleged war crimes of which the Islamists are accused, and comes after the international criminal court last week announced that it was launching an investigation into events in the country.

"It is the government of Mali who requested the ICC launch an investigation into crimes committed here," said Coulibaly. "I personally went to The Hague and formally requested the ICC's involvement. We are already aware of acts that we believe constitute crimes within the court's jurisdiction, such as the attack at Aguelhok, the mass rapes at Gao and Timbuktu, and the destruction of our cultural heritage."

Evidence of crimes by rebel groups during their control of the north is expected to emerge now that bombing around the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu has loosened their grip on power.

"We have gathered a lot of evidence of sexual crimes committed by the rebels," said Sékou Konaré of the law advocacy group the International Federation for Human Rights. "I have just returned from the north, where I obtained medical proof from victims. We have medical certificates which show their injuries. It is well documented."

"Right up to when the bombings started, the Islamists were beheading people in Konna," said Amadou Bocar Teguete, the vice-president of Mali's national commission for human rights. "We still don't know the full extent of this, but we have had people on the ground there."

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« Reply #4131 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:24 AM »

January 19, 2013

The French Way of War



IN 1966, the French president, Charles de Gaulle, war hero and general nuisance in Allied eyes, wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that France was pulling out of full membership in NATO and would expel NATO headquarters from France.

“France is determined to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty, at present diminished by the permanent presence of allied military elements or by the use which is made of her airspace; to cease her participation in the integrated commands; and no longer to place her forces at the disposal of NATO,” de Gaulle wrote.

After the humiliating capitulation to the Nazis, a tremendous shock to a prideful and martial France, it was not especially surprising that de Gaulle should seek to restore France to a place at the top table of nations, capable of defending its own interests with its own means at its own pace and pleasure.

Even today, as French troops intervene in Mali, the French take pride in their military capacity and in their independence of action. French forces still march every year down the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day, a military celebration unparalleled in the West. France has nuclear weapons and is the only country, other than the United States, with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. And even as Paris has slowly reconciled itself to full NATO membership, France has maintained its ability to send troops and equipment quickly to large parts of the globe, and it should soon overtake an austerity-minded Britain as the world’s fourth largest military spender, after the United States, China and Russia.

“The French, who are so gloomy and pessimistic about the situation in the country and the economy, have at least one reason to be proud of what their country can achieve,” Jean-David Levitte, the diplomatic adviser to former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the former ambassador to both the United States and the United Nations, told me. “We still have a foreign policy, a capacity to act beyond our borders, a capacity to make a difference.”

France cannot do everything on its own, Mr. Levitte freely acknowledges. “But if you don’t have the military means to act, you don’t have a foreign policy,” he said.

The French are willing to intervene militarily, but on the basis of new conditions, which differ, French officials argue, from the old colonial habits and traditions known as “Françafrique.”

In Mali, as they did in 2011 in Libya and in Ivory Coast, the French have intervened on the basis of a direct request for help from a legitimate government, the support of regional African groupings like the African Union and a resolution from the United Nations Security Council.

Even in Mali, France means to act multilaterally, even if it is leading from the front, as it did in Libya, in the name of saving an ally and helping the Sahel region combat the spread of radical Islamists, some of them foreign jihadists, strongly connected to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

So far, the decisive intervention by the French president, François Hollande, has been popular. A survey published on Wednesday by BVA for Le Parisien found that 75 percent of the French supported Mr. Hollande’s decision to take rapid military action against Islamist rebels in Mali, despite the risks, compared with 66 percent support for intervention in Libya last year and 55 percent for Afghanistan in 2001. An earlier poll on Monday for IFOP found that 63 percent backed Mr. Hollande’s decision.

More striking, perhaps, the consensus among the political elite has been unanimously supportive, says Bruno Tertrais, a defense analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The French people are ready to support a military operation as long as the objectives are clear and seem legitimate,” he told me. While stopping the Islamist advance on Bamako, Mali’s capital, is such a goal, he went on to say, “if it were a matter of an operation to reconquer the north of Mali, the perception would have been different.”

The French have an all-volunteer military, which distances the population further from the cost of war and makes soldiers “less visible to the populace at large,” notes Sébastien Jakubowski, a sociologist at the University of Lille who studies the army. It has also made the army more popular, with an approval rating of between 80 and 90 percent, he says.

But in another change from the past, the French expect that a decision to use the military will be based on clear moral criteria, Mr. Jakubowski said. And the French take some pride in playing a leading role from a moral foundation, even if French national interests are also at play, pushing other allies to act.

Mr. Jakubowski cited an interview in Le Figaro on Jan. 3 with the American neoconservative historian Robert Kagan, whose study of American and European attitudes toward the use of force, comparing America to Mars and Europe to Venus, was much caricatured but highly influential.

In the interview, and later to me, Mr. Kagan praised the French for their willingness to use force in the pursuit of legitimate goals, even if they may not always have sufficient means to accomplish them. “Nobody asks France to be at the forefront of military interventions, but the willingness of the French to take the initiative is positive,” he said. “I have a new philosophy: If the French are ready to go, we should go.”

But the French also understand that their military limitations are real, and they are far better off acting with others, even if not always with Washington. Paris has been a constant prod to other European countries, and to the European Union itself, to develop better military capacities.

“We think it is absolutely necessary for other European countries to do what we do,” Mr. Levitte said. “Otherwise there will be a kind of strategic irrelevance of Europe as a whole.” It should be obvious, he said, that the United States has other priorities and is concentrating on Asia, and need not act everywhere. “So if we are both independent and true allies of the United States we should be in a position to act when need be.”

Steven Erlanger is the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times.

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« Reply #4132 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:26 AM »

January 19, 2013

Jihadists’ Surge in North Africa Reveals Grim Side of Arab Spring


WASHINGTON — As the uprising closed in around him, the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi warned that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa. “Bin Laden’s people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea,” he told reporters. “We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.”

In recent days, that unhinged prophecy has acquired a grim new currency. In Mali, French paratroopers arrived this month to battle an advancing force of jihadi fighters who already control an area twice the size of Germany. In Algeria, a one-eyed Islamist bandit organized the brazen takeover of an international gas facility, taking hostages that included more than 40 Americans and Europeans.

Coming just four months after an American ambassador was killed by jihadists in Libya, those assaults have contributed to a sense that North Africa — long a dormant backwater for Al Qaeda — is turning into another zone of dangerous instability, much like Syria, site of an increasingly bloody civil war. The mayhem in this vast desert region has many roots, but it is also a sobering reminder that the euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has come at a price.

“It’s one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings,” said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “Their peaceful nature may have damaged Al Qaeda and its allies ideologically, but logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganization of police and security services in all these countries — it’s been a real boon to jihadists.”

The crisis in Mali is not likely to end soon, with the militants ensconcing themselves among local people and digging fortifications. It could also test the fragile new governments of Libya and its neighbors, in a region where any Western military intervention arouses bitter colonial memories and provides a rallying cry for Islamists.

And it comes as world powers struggle with civil war in Syria, where another Arab autocrat is warning about the furies that could be unleashed if he falls.

Even as Obama administration officials vowed to hunt down the hostage-takers in Algeria, they faced the added challenge of a dauntingly complex jihadist landscape across North Africa that belies the easy label of “Al Qaeda,” with multiple factions operating among overlapping ethnic groups, clans and criminal networks.

Efforts to identify and punish those responsible for the attack in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in September, have bogged down amid similar confusion. The independent review panel investigating the Benghazi attack faulted American spy agencies as failing to understand the region’s “many militias, which are constantly dissolving, splitting apart and reforming.”

Although there have been hints of cross-border alliances among the militants, such links appear to be fleeting. And their targets are often those of opportunity, as they appear to have been in Benghazi and at the gas facility in Algeria.

In the longer term, the Obama administration and many analysts are divided about what kind of threat the explosion of Islamist militancy across North Africa poses to the United States. Some have called for a more active American role, noting that the hostage-taking in Algeria demonstrates how hard it can be to avoid entanglement.

Others warn against too muscular a response. “It puts a transnational framework on top of what is fundamentally a set of local concerns, and we risk making ourselves more of an enemy than we would otherwise be,” said Paul R. Pillar of Georgetown University, a former C.I.A. analyst.

In a sense, both the hostage crisis in Algeria and the battle raging in Mali are consequences of the fall of Colonel Qaddafi in 2011. Like other strongmen in the region, Colonel Qaddafi had mostly kept in check his country’s various ethnic and tribal factions, either by brutally suppressing them or by co-opting them to fight for his government. He acted as a lid, keeping volatile elements repressed. Once that lid was removed, and the borders that had been enforced by powerful governments became more porous, there was greater freedom for various groups — whether rebels, jihadists or criminals — to join up and make common cause.

In Mali, for instance, there are the Tuaregs, a nomadic people ethnically distinct both from Arabs, who make up the nations to the north, and the Africans who inhabit southern Mali and control the national government. They fought for Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, then streamed back across the border after his fall, banding together with Islamist groups to form a far more formidable fighting force. They brought with them heavy weapons and a new determination to overthrow the Malian government, which they had battled off and on for decades in a largely secular struggle for greater autonomy.

Even the Algeria gas field attack — which took place near the Libyan border, and may have involved Libyan fighters — reflects the chaos that has prevailed in Libya for the past two years.

Yet Colonel Qaddafi’s fall was only the tipping point, some analysts say, in a region where chaos has been on the rise for years, and men who fight under the banner of jihad have built up enormous reserves of cash through smuggling and other criminal activities. If the rhetoric of the Islamic militants now fighting across North Africa is about holy war, the reality is often closer to a battle among competing gangsters in a region where government authority has long been paper-thin.

Among those figures, two names stand out: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the warlord who led the attack on the Algerian gas field, and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, a leader of Al Qaeda’s North African branch.

“The driving force behind jihadism in the Sahara region is the competition between Abu Zeid and Belmokhtar,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Middle East analyst at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris.

Mr. Belmokhtar has generated millions of dollars for the Qaeda group through the kidnapping of Westerners and the smuggling of tobacco, which earned him one of his nicknames, “Mr. Marlboro.” But Mr. Belmokhtar bridles under authority, and last year his rival forced him out of the organization, Mr. Filiu said.

“Belmokhtar has now retaliated by organizing the Algeria gas field attack, and it is a kind of masterstroke — he has proved his ability,” Mr. Filiu said.

Both men are from Algeria, a breeding ground of Islamic extremism. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as the regional branch is known, originated with Algerian Islamists who fought against their government during the bloody civil conflict of the 1990s in that country.

Algeria’s authoritarian government is now seen as a crucial intermediary by France and other Western countries in dealing with Islamist militants in North Africa. But the Algerians have shown reluctance to become too involved in a broad military campaign that could be very risky for them. International action against the Islamist takeover in northern Mali could push the militants back into southern Algeria, where they started. That would undo years of bloody struggle by Algeria’s military forces, which largely succeeded in pushing the jihadists outside their borders.

The Algerians also have little patience with what they see as Western naïveté about the Arab spring, analysts say.

“Their attitude was, ‘Please don’t intervene in Libya or you will create another Iraq on our border,’ ” said Geoff D. Porter, an Algeria expert and founder of North Africa Risk Consulting, which advises investors in the region. “And then, ‘Please don’t intervene in Mali or you will create a mess on our other border.’ But they were dismissed as nervous Nellies, and now Algeria says to the West: ‘Goddamn it, we told you so.’ ”

Although French military forces are now fighting alongside the Malian Army, plans to retake the lawless zone of northern Mali have for the past year largely focused on training an African fighting force, and trying to peel off some of the more amenable elements among the insurgents with negotiations.

Some in Mali and the West had invested hopes in Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg who leads Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, one of the main Islamist groups. Mr. Ghali, who is said to be opportunistic, was an ideological link between the hard-line Islamists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the more secular nationalist Tuareg group, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.

But so far negotiations have led nowhere, leaving the Malian authorities and their Western interlocutors with little to fall back on besides armed force.

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo, and Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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« Reply #4133 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:29 AM »

January 19, 2013

Brotherhood Struggles to Translate Power Into Policy in Egypt


CAIRO — When President Mohamed Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood pushed through a new constitution last month, liberals feared it would enable them to put an Islamist stamp on the Egyptian state, in part by purging nearly half the judges on the Supreme Constitutional Court.

But those warnings are turning out to be premature, at the very least, as the court itself made clear last week at its opening session last week, its first meeting under the new charter.

The president of the court sneered with disdain at a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood trying to address the reconfigured bench, stripped of 7 of its 18 members. “As if you left a court to be spoken of like this!” Judge Maher el-Beheiry snapped. He had already declared that the court, perceived as an enemy of the Islamists, “can never forget” the Brotherhood’s protests against it during the constitutional debate.

In the two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi and the Islamists have trounced their political opposition again and again at the polls and have accumulated unrivaled political power.

But Judge Beheiry’s rebuke was a vivid reminder that their political victories have not yet translated into real power over the Egyptian bureaucracy. Mr. Morsi still appears to exercise little day-to-day authority over the judiciary, the police, the military and the state-run news media.

“If you think of the main pillars of the bureaucracy, the Brotherhood has not gotten control of them yet, and I don’t think they will completely,” said Hani Shukrallah, 62, the left-leaning editor of an English-language state news Web site who was recently was asked to retire by its new management. “There are so many people who are very difficult to bring to heel,” he said. “I think we are in for several years of turbulence where state power is diffused.”

Although Mr. Morsi has the legitimacy of a democratic election, he has inherited the still-intact remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian state, built on fear, loyalty and patronage, and much of it permeated by a deep distrust of the Islamists.

Mr. Morsi and his allies are now only beginning to attempt to exert some control over the body of the state that would allow him to put in effect a social, economic and political program. And his ultimate success, or failure, will help decide some of the most pivotal questions concerning Egypt’s future, for better or worse.

On the one hand, the bureaucracy’s resistance could prevent the Islamists from consolidating their power, imposing their ideology, or, as some liberals say they fear, building a new dictatorship. But the failure to exert control could also prolong vexing social problems, like the collapse of public security because of the withdrawal of the police.

The analysts say that Mr. Morsi is clearly working to install networks of allies over key parts of the state. He has named Brotherhood members as governors in 7 out of 28 provinces. In a recent cabinet shake-up, he named another Brotherhood member as minister of local development, who under the new Constitution could have new powers over day-to-day local government.

His Islamist allies in the legislature named at least 11 fellow Islamists, including at least 3 ultraconservatives, to the 27 seats on the newly empowered National Council for Human Rights. The Constitution and other new rules give it the authority to regulate election observers, investigate human rights violations and act as a public ombudsman.

But Mr. Morsi’s attempts to consolidate his power have often yielded equivocal results. He finally persuaded Egypt’s top generals to relinquish their authority over the civilian government last August. But in December, the Islamist-backed Constitution granted the generals broad immunity and autonomy from civilian control, in an apparent quid pro quo.

Brotherhood leaders acknowledge they face deep resistance. When the president took office, the holdover staff was destroying his faxes and mail in small acts of sabotage, said one senior Brotherhood leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid further inflaming the tensions. In the Interior Ministry, which nominally reports to the president, rank-and-file officers remain all but openly antagonistic to Mr. Morsi and his party.

During the contentious run-up to the constitutional vote late last year, the police failed to increase security outside Brotherhood offices as one after another were vandalized and often burned. And when protesters clashed with Islamists outside the presidential palace, the police effectively vanished from the scene. “It seemed like a clear mutiny,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“It was as if the arm of the state was striking at its own head,” the senior Brotherhood leader complained.

The police say the lesson they learned from the revolution against Mr. Mubarak was not to stand against protesters on behalf of an individual president.

“It fills me with pride that a police officer was the one who opened the improvised metal gate for protesters during the march to the presidential palace to allow them to continue,” said Ahmed Mansour al-Helbawi, the head of a police union that claims to have 400,000 members. “The protesters carried him on their shoulders and chanted: ‘The people and the police are one hand.’ ”

Mr. Helbawi said the officers were no longer willing to use force against demonstrators even outside the presidential palace. But he acknowledged that the police still show no such hesitation when protesters approach their own headquarters.

As for the failure to protect the offices of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, “If I protect the F.J.P., then I must also protect the Wafd Party and the Constitution Party and every other party there is!” Mr. Helbawi said, adding that the police would never again “turn into the ministry of just one political party,” as it was under Mr. Mubarak.

Mr. Morsi has tried to extend control over the police and removed the interior minister, who presided over last month’s debacle and was a Mubarak enforcer who had run the Cairo district during the brutal crackdown two years ago. But Mr. Morsi replaced him with another longtime Mubarak-era police official, Mohamed Ibrahim, in an apparent bid to avoid an even broader police insurrection. (Groups claiming to represent the police have still circulated anonymous calls for a police protest over the dismissal this week.)

Mr. Morsi’s allies have not fared much better in trying to gain control of the official state news media, one of the most visible bellwethers of their hold on the bureaucracy. The Islamist-controlled upper house of Parliament replaced the top officials, but state television still provides evidence that many of the tens of thousands who work in the state news media oppose the Brotherhood.

The host Hala Fahmy, for example, opened a show by accusing the new government of selling out the “martyrs” and theatrically holding up a shroud to show she was ready to join them. She is now off the air, pending an investigation of the outburst.

“There are 40,000 people working in the building,” said Ehab El Mergawi, a state television news producer who is also a member of the leftist April 6 group. “And I think 35,000 out of those can’t stand the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said that so far the Brotherhood takeover sometimes appears to be working in reverse. “You feel that the institutions are taking over Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, “not the other way around.”
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« Reply #4134 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:31 AM »

January 19, 2013

As Killings Go On, Syria Reacts Strongly to War-Crimes Petition


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government reacted with outrage on Saturday to a petition from 58 countries asking that it be investigated for war crimes, even as reports of new atrocities surfaced a day after the United Nations’ top human rights official called forcefully for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

“The Syrian government regrets the persistence of these countries in following the wrong approach and refusing to recognize the duty of the Syrian state to protect its people from terrorism imposed from abroad,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The Syrian government uses the word terrorists as a blanket term for its opponents, many of whom took up arms after the government fired on demonstrators early in 2011. Some rebel groups have increasingly used tactics like car bombs and other weapons that kill indiscriminately. Yet opposition supporters say the government has committed by far the majority of wanton attacks on civilians, using airstrikes and artillery barrages on residential neighborhoods.

The BBC reported Friday that it had found evidence of a massacre that government opponents said was carried out Tuesday in Al Haswiya, a suburb of Homs in northern Syria.

The BBC reported that visibly shocked villagers said at least 100 people, almost all of them Sunni Muslims, had been killed. Soldiers escorting the BBC journalists blamed the extremist group Jabhet al-Nusra for the killings, while out of earshot of the soldiers, villagers blamed the army and said some soldiers had apologized for the killings.

“Three charred bodies lay sprawled just inside one house. A trail of blood stained the cement,” the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet reported from the scene. “In the kitchen, where china teacups sat neatly on a shelf, more than a dozen bullet casings were scattered across a floor smeared with blood. In another room, two more burned corpses were curled up next to a broken bed.”

On Friday, Unicef’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, Maria Calivis, condemned what she called “the terrible price children are paying” in Syria, condemning the Haswiya killings of “whole families” and the deaths of women and children last week in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, and in explosions at Aleppo University that killed more than 80 people.

Each side accused the other of responsibility for the blasts in Aleppo and for other large explosions in Dara’a and Aleppo on Thursday — possibly from surface-to-surface missiles, whose frequent use would represent another escalation in the conflict.

On Friday, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, expressed dismay over the lack of Security Council action to halt the violence in Syria, where the death toll has surpassed 60,000.

She said her job was to give voice to the victims, and “certainly they see the situation as the United Nations not carrying out its responsibility to protect victims.”

Ms. Pillay strongly backed the call by 58 countries this month that the Security Council send Syria’s case to the International Criminal Court for investigation. Russia has made it clear that it will veto any such action.

Syria’s statement on Saturday accused some of the countries that signed the petition of “deceit and double standards,” blaming Syria for war crimes while financing, training and hosting “terrorists.”

“At the same time that they express their concern about the Syrian people and humanitarian laws, these countries ignore the political, media, logistical and military support that armed gangs are receiving,” it said.

It blamed the opposition’s foreign backers for “hindering the Syrian national dialogue” proposed on Jan. 6 by President Bashar al-Assad, who said he would talk only with opposition groups he considered to be loyal to Syria.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile opposition group, began meeting on Saturday in Istanbul in an effort to form a transitional government. The group has been recognized by many countries as Syria’s sole legitimate representative, but it has yet to consolidate support among rebels on the ground or to take on concrete planning for a post-Assad future.

The Western and Arab nations that pressed the opposition to reorganize its umbrella group last year had urged it to choose a prime minister, but the opposition leaders have so far been unable to agree on a candidate.

A member of the opposition, Kamal al-Labwani, said the group needed to choose a prime minister to maintain credibility. The coalition has yet to produce the results it was hoping for: getting other nations to provide the support the rebels need by persuading them that the group can control the flow of arms and head off sectarian tensions and religious extremism — trends the opposition attributes to international inaction, forcing the rebels to turn to extremist sponsors.

Mr. Labwani said his bloc of secular liberals would nominate Riad Hijab, the former prime minister and the highest-ranking defector, as prime minister, a choice that others are likely to oppose because they view him as too close to Mr. Assad.

Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from the United Nations.

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« Reply #4135 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:37 AM »

‘Political coward’ Binyamin Netanyahu sees rift with Barack Obama widen

By Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian
Sunday, January 20, 2013 7:44 EST

Israeli prime minister’s aides accused American president of interfering in Israel’s elections

Already fractious relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama have been further strained in the runup to the president’s inauguration on Monday and the Israeli prime minister’s anticipated victory in Tuesday’s election.

Netanyahu aides accused Obama of interfering in the Israeli election following publication of an article by Jeffrey Goldberg, which quoted the president as saying: “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Obama, wrote Goldberg, viewed Netanyahu as a “political coward”.

The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, who has voiced alarm at the rupture between the two leaders, was due to meet a delegation of US senators, led by Republican John McCain, in Jerusalem on Saturday night to discuss strengthening strategic relations between the two allies.

“We must not lose the support of the United States. What gives Israel bargaining power in the international arena is the support of the United States… Without US support, it would be very difficult for us. We would be like a lone tree in the desert,” he told the New York Times last week.

The Goldberg article, along with Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary, has been interpreted in Israel as clear signs of the president’s exasperation with Netanyahu and possible payback for the latter’s support of Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney, in the US election in November. Hagel is seen as “anti-Israel” because of his questioning of Israeli government policy and the pro-Israel lobby in the US.

Goldberg, who is known to be close to the president, wrote that Israel risked becoming “more of a pariah” and that Obama was reluctant to invest fresh effort in the Middle East peace process in the face of Netanyahu’s continued settlement expansion.

“On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise,” Goldberg wrote.

“Obama… has been consistent in his analysis of Israel’s underlying challenge: If it doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state.” The White House did not deny the words attributed to the president.

“Barack Obama said, simply and clearly, what he thinks about Israel’s prime minister and where he is leading Israel,” wrote former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas in Yedioth Ahronoth. “These are grave, alarming statements, which are without precedent.”

Netanyahu is expected to continue as prime minister following Tuesday’s election, which is likely to see a significant strengthening of the hardline pro-settler faction within the Israeli parliament. He is thought to be keen to include at least one centrist party in the next coalition government, in part to appease the US administration.

The Israeli prime minister is expected to visit Washington in March for the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobby group Aipac. Obama and Netanyahu did not meet during the latter’s last visit to the US in September in what was seen as a White House snub. Obama has not visited Israel since taking office four years ago, although there has been speculation about a possible trip in the summer.

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U.S. and Israeli leaders locked in tension as threats loom

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 19, 2013 16:30 EST

US President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu will have to bury past hostilities if the Israeli prime minister is re-elected to jointly face looming threats such as Iran, analysts say.

The two men have never warmed to each other, and ties have remained frosty. Obama pointedly failed to make time to meet the Israeli leader on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

Netanyahu also made little secret of the fact that he was rooting for Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, in November’s US presidential election.

Yet another spat made public headlines this week when Netanyahu reacted angrily to comments attributed to Obama that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”

“I think everyone knows that the citizens of Israel are the only ones who can decide who will faithfully represent the vital interests of the state,” Netanyahu snapped back.

Analysts say, however, that such posturing is part of Netanyahu’s campaign to portray himself domestically as a strong leader who can stand up for Israel, even against its closest ally the United States, ahead of Tuesday’s elections.

But they also argue that, ironically, US-Israeli ties at an institutional level may never have been stronger.

“It’s quite extraordinary that given the disparity of roles, obligations and world views, that there isn’t more that divides the US and Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center.

“The anomaly of the relationship is that while on the one hand you have the most dysfunctional relationship between an Israeli prime minister and an American president that I’ve seen, the relationship itself… the American public support, the military cooperation, security assistance… intel sharing, all of the aspects of this relationship are doing quite well,” he told AFP.

Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Middle East expert at Princeton University, agreed, saying he believed that “2012 was a year of repairing the personal relationship,” highlighting “some real accomplishments.”

He pointed to the Iron Dome technology deployed during the November Gaza crisis to shoot down Hamas rockets aimed at southern Israel, and the staunch US opposition to the Palestinian bid for UN recognition as an observer state.

Even Netanyahu’s angry appearance at the United Nations wielding a cartoon picture of a bomb to urge America to set red lines over Iran’s suspect nuclear program was seen as little more than elaborate grandstanding by analysts. Back home, it fed his desired image as tough on national security.

Iran is set to be one of the top foreign policy challenges in 2013, with Tehran ignoring international calls to halt its production of enriched uranium.

Israelis remain deeply fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran, which has repeatedly denied Israel’s right to exist.

Obama’s repeated insistence last year, therefore, that he did not bluff, that all options remained on the table if Iran obtains a nuclear bomb sent strong signals to Israel.

“That was a clearer annunciation of American policy on the issue than existed before. I think that notably changed the calculations of the Israelis,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The threat of unilateral action by Israel against suspected Iranian nuclear sites had receded somewhat in the past 12 months, thanks to both Obama’s “crystal clear” stand and toughened sanctions, Wittes told AFP.

Obama’s choice for his new national security team, with Senator John Kerry tapped to take over as secretary of state and retired senator Chuck Hagel nominated to lead the Pentagon, should also give both Israel and Iran pause.

The new team “is an Iran cabinet, assembled to decide and act on war or peace over the nuclear file,” writes analyst Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, on his blog, arguing that “this group wants to make a deal.”

“Take the deal, or face the consequences of an American action led by a group perfectly positioned ideologically and politically to lead their country, with credibility, into an exceptionally dangerous and risky conflict.”

But there is deeper pessimism on whether the two leaders could come together to revive the Middle East peace process, especially given US frustration at the relentless pace of settlement building, and a divided Palestinian people.

“There are things happening every day on the ground that foreclose possibilities that make a two-state solution even harder, and some would argue make it increasingly impossible,” Wittes said.

Miller, who has worked as an advisor to six secretaries of state, has said he is convinced Obama wants to try again, and Kerry has long worked to bring the two sides together and is adept at steering difficult negotiations.

Much will depend on how much room for maneuver Netanyahu has after the polls, and the make-up of any eventual coalition, with many radical right-wingers in his Likud party challenging the goal of a two-state solution.

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« Reply #4136 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:40 AM »

January 19, 2013

A Cease-Fire With Rebels in Myanmar Doesn’t Hold


BANGKOK — A cease-fire ordered by the Myanmar government failed to take hold on Saturday, with rebels and the government blaming each other for fighting that continued through the day.

But ethnic Kachin rebels and at least one independent observer said that the fighting was less intense than in previous days and that the government’s aerial bombardments had stopped. Both the government and the rebels called for a negotiated settlement, although they seemed far from agreeing on the fundamental question of how much autonomy the Kachin ethnic group should have — the emotionally charged issue at the root of the fighting.

“We have been inviting the K.I.O. into the peace process, and here I would like to invite them again,” President Thein Sein said Saturday, referring to the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the group fighting the government.

Mr. Thein Sein spoke as representatives from at least two dozen countries and international organizations, including the World Bank, gathered in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, for a conference on offering assistance to the country as it moves toward democracy after decades of military rule.

Many observers have said that the government may have decided to offer a unilateral cease-fire on Friday to coincide with the meeting, since national reconciliation with Myanmar’s many ethnic groups is seen as a measure of the success of Mr. Thein Sein’s ambitious democratic reforms.

Although the government has signed cease-fire agreements with other minority groups, it has been fighting the Kachin for the last year and a half after an earlier truce collapsed. The conflict had intensified in recent weeks.

Despite the continued battles on Saturday, there were some faint but encouraging signs of progress toward a peaceful settlement. The Kachin Independence Organization issued a statement calling for the cease-fire to include all of Kachin State, the mountainous, northernmost part of Myanmar and the homeland of the Kachin, suggesting it welcomed a halt to the fighting.

The government’s announcement on Friday mentioned only the area near the border with China known as Lajayang, but a government spokesman, Ye Htut, said by telephone on Saturday that the cease-fire would encompass “the whole conflict area.”

And yet the developments on Saturday followed a familiar pattern in Myanmar — a seeming disconnect between the orders of the president, who is not the commander in chief under the country’s new Constitution, and the actions of the military. Mr. Thein Sein has said before that the army should only defend itself, but some analysts say that leaves it wide latitude.

On Saturday, Mr. Ye Htut acknowledged the fighting but said that it had been initiated by the rebels and that the troops had been acting in self-defense.

La Nan, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization, said there were Myanmar artillery attacks and “skirmishes” on Saturday morning around Lajayang, at the very place and time the cease-fire was supposed to take effect.

Ryan Roco, an American photographer who was in the area, said there were no airstrikes and “minimal ground fighting” on Saturday. “But the shelling continued all day,” he said by telephone.

One fighter who is allied with the Kachin rebels, Min Htay, posted on his Facebook page that the Kachin were broadcasting a message over loudspeakers to government soldiers, telling them to stop fighting because the president had issued a cease-fire. Mr. Min Htay appeared to be suggesting that the government troops were not aware of the order, a possible sign of a rift between the military leadership and the president.

Mr. Ye Htut denied there was any such disagreement. “Government troops always obey President U Thein Sein’s order,” he said.

Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, which make up about one-third of the population, have called for a greater federal system, but Mr. Thein Sein appears to favor a more centralized union that would preserve the pre-eminence of the majority Burmese ethnic group. The current Constitution calls for a hybrid system of local administrations and a powerful central government.

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.
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« Reply #4137 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:45 AM »

January 19, 2013

A Gandhi Rises to No. 2 Post in Indian Party


NEW DELHI — Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of an Indian political dynasty, was formally elevated Saturday to the No. 2 position in India’s ruling National Congress Party, making him second only to his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Mr. Gandhi was appointed party vice president, but whether he will serve as the party’s candidate for prime minister in elections scheduled for next year is still unclear. Mr. Gandhi has long been expected to assume the mantle of his family’s and his party’s leadership, but his uncertain political skills and seeming reluctance to assert himself had held him back. Speculation had been building about whether this was the year that he would step firmly into the spotlight.

Mr. Gandhi’s elevation took place at a meeting of the Congress Party’s policy-making group, the Congress working committee, which unanimously adopted a resolution to make him the party’s No. 2 behind his mother, who remains the party president.

Whether Manmohan Singh, the country’s prime minister, will serve as the party’s prime ministerial candidate next year is uncertain, but given his age — he is 80 — it seems unlikely.

Equally uncertain is who will be the candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition. Narendra Modi is now that party’s most successful leader after he recently won a third term as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. But Mr. Modi’s unpopularity with Muslims could cost the party crucial allies, so his role in next year’s elections is unknown.

Mr. Gandhi has for years headed two youth organizations, the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. In recent remarks, Mrs. Gandhi said a key strategy for next year’s election was to find ways to appeal to India’s youth population. Half of India’s population is under the age of 25. Her remarks raised expectations that she would push her son to assume a greater role in the party’s leadership.

At 42, Mr. Gandhi is no longer a young man, but he is much younger than much of the rest of India’s leadership class, whose average age is 65.


India’s Sonia Gandhi slams ‘shameful’ attitudes towards women

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 20, 2013 7:31 EST

Sonia Gandhi, president of India’s ruling Congress party, on Sunday condemned “shameful” social attitudes that led to crimes like the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi.

“We cannot tolerate shameful social mindsets that lead to unspeakable atrocities on women and children… every woman in the country has the fundamental right to feel safe and secure,” she said.

Gandhi, seen as the country’s most powerful politician, said the 23-year-old woman, whose ordeal on a bus last month triggered nationwide protests, had tragically become a symbol for thousands of women who suffered a similar fate.

“The barbaric gang-rape of a young woman in the capital has shaken the entire country. People are rightly demanding answers and actions,” Gandhi, 66, said at a meeting of her party in the northern city of Jaipur.

“This brave young woman in many ways embodied the spirit of an aspirational India. We will ensure her death will not have been in vain.”

Sexual crimes against women have been in the spotlight since the physiotherapy student was gang-raped and violated with a rusty iron rod on December 16 as she returned home from a cinema with her boyfriend.

The woman died from her injuries about two weeks after the attack that triggered an outpouring of grief and anger over the failure of the government and the police to check rising crime against women.

Gandhi said there was an urgent need to overhaul patriarchal mindsets and referred to some “shocking” recent statements by politicians that she said reflected a “completely unacceptable” attitude towards women.

A female cabinet member in the state government of Madhya Pradesh said women who crossed “moral limits” deserved to be punished, while a lawmaker in the state of Rajasthan has suggested banning skirts in schools.

The president’s son, a ruling party lawmaker, dismissed protesters demanding protection for women as “painted” women seeking to spark a “pink revolution”.

Five men face murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping and other charges over the student’s death. The case against a sixth suspect, who claims he is 17, will be heard by a juvenile court if it is confirmed he is a minor.
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« Reply #4138 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:48 AM »

January 19, 2013

In China, Widening Discontent Among the Communist Party Faithful


BEIJING — Barely two months into their jobs, the Communist Party’s new leaders are being confronted by the challenges posed by a constituency that has generally been one of the party’s most ardent supporters: the middle-class and well-off Chinese who have benefited from a three-decade economic boom.

A widening discontent was evident this month in the anticensorship street protests in the southern city of Guangzhou and in the online outrage that exploded over an extraordinary surge in air pollution in the north. Anger has also reached a boil over fears concerning hazardous tap water and over a factory spill of 39 tons of a toxic chemical in Shanxi Province that has led to panic in nearby cities.

For years, many China observers have asserted that the party’s authoritarian system endures because ordinary Chinese buy into a grand bargain: the party guarantees economic growth, and in exchange the people do not question the way the party rules. Now, many whose lives improved under the boom are reneging on their end of the deal, and in ways more vocal than ever before. Their ranks include billionaires and students, movie stars and homemakers.

Few are advocating an overthrow of the party. Many just want the system to provide a more secure life. But in doing so, they are demanding something that challenges the very nature of the party-controlled state: transparency.

More and more Chinese say they distrust the Wizard-of-Oz-style of control the Communist Party has exercised since it seized power in 1949, and they are asking their leaders to disseminate enough information so they can judge whether officials, who are widely believed to be corrupt, are doing their jobs properly. Without open information and discussion, they say, citizens cannot tell whether officials are delivering on basic needs.

“Chinese people want freedom of speech,” said Xiao Qinshan, 46, a man in a wheelchair at the Guangzhou protests.

China’s new leadership under Xi Jinping, who took over as general secretary of the party in November, is already feeling the pressure of these calls. Mr. Xi has announced a campaign against corruption, and propaganda officials, in a somewhat surprising move, allowed the state news media to run in-depth reports on the air pollution last week. Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor, said he believed that the leaders had decided “to face the problems.”

Some Chinese say that they and their compatriots, especially younger ones, are starting to realize that a secure life is dependent on the defense of certain principles, perhaps most crucially freedom of expression, and not just on the government meeting material needs. If a ruling party cannot police itself, then people want outsiders, like independent journalists, to do so.

Proof of that can be seen in the wild popularity of microblogs in which ordinary citizens frustrated by corruption post photographs of officials who wear expensive wristwatches. It was evident, too, when hundreds of ordinary people rallied in Guangzhou to defend Southern Weekend, a newspaper known for investigative reporting, against censorship.

“What’s interesting is that these protests were not over a practical issue but over a conceptual issue,” Hung Huang, a news media and fashion entrepreneur, said in a telephone interview. “People are beginning to understand these values are important to a better life, and beginning to understand that unless we all accept the same universal values, things will never really get better.”

Ms. Hung also said, though, that most Chinese were “very practical,” and that calls to action here were “very, very far away” from the kind of revolutionary fervor that had gripped the Arab world.

The Guangzhou rallies were fueled by an outpouring of support on the Internet for Southern Weekend, where journalists were protesting recent censorship rules. Celebrity gadflies with big followings among China’s 564 million Internet users urged the journalists onward. They included Yao Chen, a young actress who quoted the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in an online post, and Ms. Hung, who changed the logo on her microblog to that of Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly. They ran risks by voicing their support; security officers reportedly interrogated some of the outspoken celebrities.

On the air pollution issue, prominent commentators have also taken to the virtual ramparts. Among those leading the calls for change is Pan Shiyi, a real estate tycoon. Mr. Pan’s demands that the government publicly release data on levels of PM 2.5, a potentially deadly particulate matter, contributed to an official decision that 74 cities would start reporting that information this year.

These elites are not just speaking to one another; they are also giving voice to widespread concerns among the middle class. Last Monday, in the middle of the record air pollution spike, there were 6.9 million mentions on a popular microblog platform of the term “Beijing air,” 6.7 million of “air quality” and 4.8 million of “PM 2.5.”

“It’s like never before, this consensus,” said Li Bo, director of Friends of Nature, an environmental advocacy group. “It took us so long to reach this consensus that China’s problems with the environment are rather serious.”

Such popular outcries can send ripples through the party’s upper ranks. Last Monday, the current prime minister, Wen Jiabao, criticized the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its cautious minister, Zhou Shengxian, in an internal discussion, according to an official with ties to the ministry. “This was a gesture that Wen had to make,” he said.

A day later, Li Keqiang, the incoming prime minister, who oversaw environmental policy during the past five years, somewhat defensively announced that solving environmental problems would require a long process.

The environmental official also said the pollution in northern China had deteriorated to the point at which senior party officials had been forced to loosen the reins on reporting of the problem in the state news media and on news Web sites. “Everyone is dissatisfied with the air pollution, even the Central Propaganda Department,” he said. “They have to breathe this bad air, too, after all.”

As frustration over the air quality grew, Internet users also waged an online campaign to demand official transparency on tap water. The spark came from a Southern Weekend article posted early this month about two married veteran researchers for government water safety bureaus in Beijing. The couple said that because of all the behind-the-scenes data to which they were privy, they had not let a single drop of tap water touch their lips in 20 years.

That unleashed a torrent of questions online about the government’s ability to ensure clean tap water, and it even prompted Global Times, a newspaper that often defends the party, to run a lengthy article on Tuesday with the headline “Watered-Down Truth.”

Last Monday, The Economic Observer, a respected newspaper, ran a strongly worded editorial that said the recent environmental debacles underscored the need for officials to provide more information.

“Our hope is that the government treats this as a turning point and presses ahead with an overarching reform aimed at promoting transparency, effectively guaranteeing the public’s right to know,” it said. “By doing this, they can help to restore the public’s trust in government.”

Any official commitment to transparency, though, could be fragile. After Hu Jintao and Mr. Wen took charge of the state in 2003, they opened up reporting on the SARS virus, which raised expectations for a more liberal administration. But the leaders dashed those hopes by enacting conservative policies.

Propaganda officials could simply now be allowing the state news media to report on the air pollution and other sources of discontent among the middle class to shape public opinion and prevent anger from swelling. Those same officials took a hard line on the Southern Weekend conflict by ordering newspapers to run a harsh editorial denouncing the protesting journalists.

Other officials, including those in the security apparatus, are sticking to their own methods for containing outbursts. The anticensorship rallies in Guangzhou lasted only three days before the police began hauling off protesters. By the fourth day, Mr. Xiao, the man in the wheelchair, was nowhere to be seen.

Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting. Mia Li, Amy Qin and Shi Da contributed research.
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« Reply #4139 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:51 AM »

Slovakian steel hub remaking itself as ‘European Capital of Culture’

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 19, 2013 19:00 EST

Known mainly for its steelworks, the gritty industrial hub of Kosice in east Slovakia is hard at work reforging itself as a centre of creativity and the arts as it enters 2013 with the tag “European Capital of Culture”.

A two-day gala blastoff featuring fireworks and gigs by international and local artists this weekend launches a year of metamorphosis with an unprecedented flurry of festivals and events to showcase Slovak film, literature and music.

“We want to transform Kosice from a heavy industrialised city to one focusing on creative industries,” Culture Capital project director Jan Sudzina told AFP.

Awarded the European Union title “European Capital of Culture” for 2013 and a 60-million-euro ($80- million) grant, central Kosice is a hive of hammering and drilling amid preparations for the opening show and side-events.

Tourists to the city’s most famous landmark, the 14th century St. Elisabeth Cathedral, are met with a buzz of activity inside the usually solemn church, setting up for an exhibition this weekend by Paris visual artist Elise Morin, known for her three-dimensional creations with light.

St. Elisabeth is Slovakia’s largest church and Europe’s easternmost Gothic cathedral.

Tomas Cizmarik, a spokesman for the Kosice European Capital of Culture project, said plans for the city’s artistic renewal include “renovating old industrial objects such as former army barracks and giving them a new function” as concert halls and galleries.

The most ambitious project — the transformation of a derelict swimming pool closed for three decades into a gleaming centre for contemporary art — is expected to conclude this spring.

On top of the EU grant, Kosice also received 10 million euros from the Slovak government.

Later this year, the city plans to honour its most famous native, Hungarian author Sandor Marai, by re-publishing his works — some for the first time in Slovak. “What (Franz) Kafka is for Prague, Marai is for Kosice,” goes the local saying.

March through April will see a marathon screening of films by Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko, and in May the “USE THE C!TY” festival will bring a variety of art forms to the city’s streets.

A modern art exhibition is planned from June through to September, followed in autumn by an international contemporary arts festival involving modern classical composers from across the globe.

The town’s efforts are starting to yield the desired effect.

Sudzina said a creative IT industry has started to take root, creating up to 6,000 jobs so far as the fastest developing sector.

– ‘Greater feeling of community’ –

Britain’s Guardian daily has named Kosice one of the best bargain city breaks of 2013, while US news giant CNN ranked the city replete with historical monuments this year’s third top travel destination.

Once a religious and cultural centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Kosice’s modern history is inseparably linked to steel.

Established in the 1960s, the communist state-owned giant Eastern Slovak Steel Works (VSZ), was bought by the United States Steel Corporation in 2000, a decade after the regime collapsed.

The company provides more than 11,000 jobs and is the largest employer in this eurozone country of 5.4 million people.

With Kosice the city struggling with a 10-percent unemployment rate, spiking to 20 percent in the broader Kosice region, the company caused panic when it said last year it was contemplating quitting Slovakia and looking for a buyer for the steelworks.

“We hope the European Culture Capital project will boost small and medium-sized businesses and help overcome the region’s dependence on one company,” director Sudzina said.

As a former U.S. Steel manager who left the steel business to launch an independent music recording company ten years ago, Sudzina believes the city will not only benefit from an influx of tourists, but that the project will inspire a greater feeling of community.

Locals seem to agree. Nikola Nevidova, a 22-year-old student, is optimistic the year will make its mark on her city.

“I believe Kosice will benefit a lot from this year as the European Culture Capital,” she told AFP gazing up at the soaring spires of St. Elisabeth Cathedral.

“I never realised how amazing the Cathedral is — sometimes when you see a treasure every day you tend to overlook its beauty,” she added.

The European Union has awarded the title European Capital of Culture every year since 1985, usually to two cities at a time.

The French port city of Marseille is Kosice’s twin beneficiary this year.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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