04/26/2013 02:22 PM
German Jihadists: Officials Fear Return of Syrian War Veterans
By Matthias Gebauer and Raniah Salloum
German security officials believe that a number of Germans have teamed up with radical Islamists on the frontlines in Syria. What worries them most are the training and ties they've gained abroad -- and whether they'll continue the jihad once home.
The trail of Ibrahim R. ran cold in March 2013. The young man from the southwestern German town of Pforzheim had already appeared on the radar of the German domestic intelligence agency when he participated in demonstrations with other Salafists in Germany. But then he got on a bus headed for Turkey and disappeared. Authorities suspect he is now fighting in Syria. The police were able to block his first attempt to enter Syria with a group of fellow Muslim extremists. But now they classify him among those who have made their way or are in transit to Syria.
The case of Ibrahim R. is one of many precarious movements being closely followed by German security officials. Though outside the view of the public, the issue has long been treated as a domestic priority. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview Thursday, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich officially confirmed for the first time that there were German "jihadists" in Syria. Friedrich particularly expressed concern about "calls for those Europeans who have been trained in battle (in Syria) to return home and pursue jihad."
The findings of German officials mirror the general picture of international intelligence agencies, which holds that Muslim extremists are streaming into Syria more rapidly than anywhere else. Since the revolution began there in March 2011, the country has become a virtual training camp for al-Qaida sympathizers. There, they learn how to use weapons and explosives -- and they forge new, dangerous ties with likeminded individuals from around the world.
German officials believe that 20 German nationals are currently fighting in Syria. Some have reportedly even taken their wives there and live directly on the frontlines. In July 2012, the US State Department estimated that somewhere between a few dozen and 100 foreign jihadist fighters were active in Syria. But a recently published study posits that this figure has since grown to between 2,000 and 5,500, and the European Union's top counter-terrorism officials have stated that at least 500 of those come from EU countries. Of these, some are reportedly immigrants holding European passports, while others are native-European converts to Islam.
German Salafists Mobilizing for Syria
For months now, Germany-based preachers of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam, have been championing the cause of Syria more than any other. They appear at regularly held large benefit events, where they call for donations for humanitarian relief. At the same time, the preachers leave no doubt that they are not opposed to Muslims who want to do more than just donate money. "Our brothers and sisters in Islam are being killed around the world because they are Muslims. Our brothers and sisters in Syria need our support," said well-known Salafist preacher Ibrahim Abou-Nagie in December. For him, the civil war in Syria is part of a global war between religions.
Another star of the German Salafist scene may have already set off for Syria: the jihad-rapper Denis Cuspert, better known among his cohorts as Deso Dogg. After fleeing to Syria out of fear that he would be arrested, Cuspert is rumored to have made repeated attempts to enter Syria along with other fellow Muslims. Officials cannot confirm whether Cuspert is already fighting on the Syria front. A few months ago, rumors circulated that he had been killed during a firefight in Aleppo. Since then, however, he has apparently re-established contact with people close to him in Germany.
German officials are particularly worried about Deso Dogg's abilities to serve as a propaganda mouthpiece. Analysts say a video he made before going to the front, in which he called on Muslims to go and fight in Syria, prompted some hesitant members of his scene back home to follow his example. If he soon starts disseminating videos from Syria itself, officials are concerned the material could have an even stronger effect.
International jihadists took a rather long time before joining the uprising in Syria. Indeed, it was only in February 2012, almost a year after the revolt began, that leading al-Qaida figures publicly mentioned it. That was when al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri said in a video: "I call on every Muslim to help his brothers in Syria as much as he can." In March 2013 came the first German-language summons to Syria. Hajan M., who lived in the central German city of Kassel for several years, called on Germans in a video to come and join the "holy war" in Syria.
Easier to Get to Syria than Waziristan
German security officials have been seriously concerned about Syria's ability to attract German jihadists for months. In late 2012, Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany's BND foreign intelligence service, told a small group of senior security officials in Berlin that joining the rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and, even more so, the brigades of the extremist Muslim Al-Nusra Front had become much more attractive for volunteer fighters than traveling to the austere mountainous region straddling the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Al-Nusra Front is an offshoot of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, and the US State Department says the group is also in regular contact with top al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.
One of the main reasons that European and German jihadists are making their way to Syria is simple: The journey to this front is considerably easier than traveling to Waziristan. Many of the people headed for terrorist camps of the Taliban or other militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been held up in Iran or other neighboring countries. But volunteer fighters in Europe can in most cases fly to Turkey without a visa. From the south of the country, it is only a short distance to Syria, and the border is easy to cross.
Given the large number of veteran extremists fighters already present in the region, German officials now believe that jihadists from Germany are not playing a leading role in Syria. They do, however, note that at least a portion of the funds the rebels are using to arm and equip themselves is coming from Germany. Police are aware, for example, of the frequent trips that Berlin native Reda Seyam has been making to the front. Each time, he is reportedly carrying in his luggage several thousand euros in donated money collected from people in radical circles across Germany.
What has German analysts most worried are the experience that these fighters are gaining in Syria, as well the contacts they are making there. As has been the case with Afghanistan and Pakistan, they fear that these guest warriors -- particularly given the usefulness of their passports for all terrorist plans -- will return to their home or adopted countries in Europe with concrete terror missions. "There is a host of disillusioned people," warned Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, a few weeks ago. "We have to particularly keep an eye on these people since they could possibly be returning with weapons know-how."
04/26/2013 02:23 PM
Lithuanian President: 'Brussels Was Target Before, Now It's Merkel'
The Baltic countries have already moved on from their debt crisis, and are exhibiting healthy growth. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite explains that austerity is merely a question of political will -- and why her country wants to join the euro zone despite the crisis.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In spite of the ongoing crisis, Lithuania wants to join the euro zone in January 2015. Why?
Grybauskaite: This is not a crisis of the euro zone, but a debt crisis. Some states, inside and outside the euro zone, have difficulties because of their irresponsible economic and fiscal policies.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, this crisis does not seem to be going away. Have you considered not joining the euro?
Grybauskaite: No. For a small open economy that trades mostly with the euro zone it makes absolute sense to be part of the currency union. Our currency has already pegged to the euro since 2002. We don't have an independent monetary policy. We are regulated by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, but we are not able to reap all the profits. Our businesses want to save the transaction costs.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But why not wait a little longer to see how the situation develops? What if the euro zone implodes?
Grybauskaite: It is our duty not to allow it to implode.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Really? Are Lithuanians looking forward to bailing out other countries?
Grybauskaite: Lithuania is a small country, so our contribution would not be that large. We are not afraid of our responsibility. We receive 25 percent of our national budget from the European Union. We understand the value of solidarity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is one thing to receive money, but quite another to give money to others.
Grybauskaite: I don't think this would change our attitude to the EU. Some 70 percent of our people are pro-European.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A new poll in six big EU countries shows that trust in the EU is declining rapidly. Are EU leaders taking this growing unease seriously enough?
Grybauskaite: This is the consequence of the crisis in Europe and people's reaction to the inability of the politicians to tackle the challenges.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The president of the EU commission, José Manuel Barroso, said this week that austerity in Europe had reached its limit. The political and social acceptance is not there any longer. Is it time to relax the efforts?
Grybauskaite: There is not one rule you can apply to every state. In the Baltic states, after 2009 we had to implement very radical austerity measures. In Lithuania, we consolidated 12 percent of GDP in two years. We cut public salaries by 20 percent and pensions by 10 percent. Our adjustment was a lot deeper than what we see now in Southern Europe. And we saw growth return after 2 years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Barroso is wrong?
Grybauskaite: Some countries need extra stimulus in specific areas. Something has to be done against high youth unemployment in Greece and Spain, for example. But in the end, there is no way around it: The debt levels have to come down.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You say that reducing public debt is mainly about political will. Where do you see this will lacking in Europe?
Grybauskaite: I won't name countries, but reforms could be quicker in many parts. There are different mentalities and different ideas about political responsibility in the North and the South.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Austerity is often seen as a diktat from Germany. From the perspective of a small country, is Berlin too powerful?
Grybauskaite: We need to understand the situation of the German people. They are largely responsible for paying for these bailouts. I cannot imagine a head of government whose country is paying for something not asking for certain conditions. It is legitimate that Berlin leads the way.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you describe Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership in the crisis?
Grybauskaite: In the council meetings where I see her there is no one around the table who knows the European facts better. She is interested in everything and feels responsible for everything. She knows exactly how much every policy move costs for Germany. For these critical times, she is very well placed. Also, in four years in the council, I have never felt she was ignoring the interests of the smaller states. That's how she works. She tries to find a consensus.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, anti-German sentiment is on the rise everywhere in Europe, Merkel is pictured at demonstrations with a Hitler moustache.
Grybauskaite: I think the mood is not anti-German. It is anti-EU. Germany is now representing the EU, because it pays for the bailouts and sets the conditions. Before, institutions in Brussels were the target. Now it is Merkel. It is easier for local politicians who are themselves responsible for a national crisis to blame somebody from the outside. But one has to remember: If it wasn't for Germany, these countries would be bankrupt.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: This rift between North and South threatens to tear the EU apart. How can it be overcome?
Grybauskaite: During turbulent economic times, it is inevitable that these contradictions will appear. They will fade away once the economy recovers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On May 9, will be awarded the Charlemagne Prize for your contributions to European integration. You were budget commissioner in Brussels from 2004 to 2009. Will we see you again on the EU stage?
Grybauskaite: I am of an age where I don't plan my life. I will do whatever I have to do. In 2009, I came back from my commissioner job in Brussels to help my country in crisis. My term as president ends in summer 2014. I will decide in spring of 2014 whether to run for a second term.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would be ready for an offer next year, when Barroso and EU president Herman Van Rompuy retire from their posts?
Grybauskaite: I am focused on my job now and not yet thinking about 2014.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would Angela Merkel make a good EU president?
Grybauskaite: She would be good anywhere.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Grybauskaite, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Carsten Volkery in Vilnius.
04/26/2013 01:05 PM
Money Mountain: Swiss Banks 'Plundering German Treasury'
Sociologist and former politician Jean Ziegler has few nice things to say about the banking sector in his native Switzerland. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he argues the Alpine nation is the world capital of dealing in stolen goods, and that Germany has the power to change it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Bayern Munich manager Uli Hoeness deposited money in Switzerland. Does that surprise you?
Ziegler: No. Switzerland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the strongest currency and the largest financial center for foreign assets. And we're a small country with no natural resources. Switzerland is the world capital of dealing in stolen goods.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's a harsh accusation. How do you reach that conclusion?
Ziegler: Money comes to Switzerland through three illegal sources: tax evasion in other developed countries, the blood money of dictators and other rulers in the Third World and organized crime.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have criticized the Swiss business model for more than 20 years. Has absolutely nothing changed since then?
Ziegler: No, things have changed. Tax evasion formerly wasn't a crime in Switzerland. That's why in cases like that of former Deutsche Post CEO Klaus Zumwinkel there was no cooperation with German authorities. That has changed under pressure from industrialized countries. But Switzerland still rejects the automatic exchange of bank information.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That was a big sticking point in the planned tax treaty with Germany. Hoeness evidently hoped the deal would pass so he could anonymously legalize his assets. But the plans were blocked by the upper house of parliament in Germany.
Ziegler: Thank God! I don't understand why Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble accepted the treaty. It was the last wise-guy move of the Zurich bankers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do Swiss politicians now see the country's role as a finance center in a more critical light?
Ziegler: Not in the least. The structure of the Swiss ruling class is rock-hard, and unchanged since the time of Napoleon. They sit on their mountains and lecture the world on democracy. It's an unbelievable show of self-satisfaction and arrogance.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Come on, some things have changed in Switzerland in recent years.
Ziegler: Yes, but only under pressure. That was the case in the battle over assets owned by Jews that Swiss banks silently held onto after the war. Reparations were first paid out after the United States threatened the banks with a boycott.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ex-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück went so far as to compare the situation to needing a military threat to keep a country under pressure. What did you think of his threat?
Ziegler: It was good. I've never understood why Germany lets itself be duped. The Swiss banks have been plundering the German treasury for decades.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's another very harsh accusation. Is the influence of the banks on the government that strong?
Ziegler: Yes. A lot of Swiss are ashamed of this bank oligarchy. Switzerland has been a multicultural country for 750 years. It's only because of banking secrecy that we haven't joined the EU.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that's slowly being eased up. Is Switzerland getting competition from other tax havens?
Ziegler: Switzerland has no competition. It sits in the middle of Europe, it has the highest technological development, it's legally safe and the political circumstances are never going to change.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why not?
Ziegler: Because of the hypocritical European elite. Look at France, even their Socialist ex-Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac had a secret foreign bank account. The hope lies with Germany because it has the political will and the economic power.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The recent enormous data leaks are also building up pressure.
Ziegler: That's right. The secrets of offshore companies used to be managed religiously, now they're stored on the computer -- otherwise money can't speed around the world electronically. Then along come foreign employees like Hervé Falciani, who stole tax data from HSBC and handed it over to French authorities. They are the good guys.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But ultimately that's also a form of dealing in stolen goods, which you just accused your home country of.
Ziegler: But it's a venial sin in comparison to what the banks practice with their plundering of allied democracies.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for eight years. In your book "We Let Them Starve," you attack the financial sector. Is it also in part responsible for world hunger?
Ziegler: It shares a great deal of responsibility. Ever since the big banks brought on the financial crisis, they've been increasingly gambling in the food trade. At the same time, 1 billion people are permanently and seriously malnourished. Every five seconds, a child dies.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the gambling alone doesn't explain world hunger. You call the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank "the three horsemen of the Apocalypse" because of their economic policies. How did you arrive at such harsh accusations?
Ziegler: Through my own experience. I recently saw in Peru how mothers in a slum aren't able to afford more than one plastic cup of rice. That's due to the market speculation on food prices, which could be banned tomorrow. But that goes against the neo-liberal, delusional idea that markets should be as unregulated as possible.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you propose?
Ziegler: There's no powerlessness in democracy, and Germany is the liveliest democracy in Europe. The voters could push Schäuble to approve of the complete forgiveness of debt owed by poor countries to the IMF. Chancellor Angela Merkel could put high tariffs on biofuels, because they destroy millions of tons of food. And German lawmakers could change the stock market laws so that speculation on food prices in Germany would be impossible.
Interview conducted by David Böcking
04/26/2013 05:40 PMPhoto Award: Utøya Survivor 'Carries History on Her Shoulders'
For a year, Andrea Gjestvang photographed teenagers who survived the massacre on Utøya island. Her resulting photo series, "One Day in History," just earned the Norwegian the top prize in the Sony World Photography Awards. In an interview, she talks about the challenge of recording the internal and external scars of the survivors.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Gjestvang, the young people who survived the massacre by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik on the Norwegian island of Utøya in 2011 have suffered severe trauma. Why did you decide to put it in front of a camera?
Gjestvang: I started thinking about it right after the attack. It is important to tell this terrible story. But I could not photograph the survivors immediately. I wanted to give them time to return to a nearly normal life. I started working on the photos six months after the massacre and took about a year to complete them.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your pictures we see young people who bear scars, who have lost their body parts. How does one approach such a photo project?
Gjestvang: That was the big challenge. I found it difficult to meet the kids, because as an outsider, I can't understand what they have been through. So I had to concentrate entirely on the survivors.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean, exactly?
Gjestyang: I wanted to know: How do these young people feel? Who are they? Is it OK to photograph them? I had to pull myself back as a photographer and decide not to try to beautifully compose the photos, not to use any camera effects. I wanted to photograph the young people in their homes. But everything else -- where they sit, whether indoors or out -- I decided on the spot.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you gain their trust?
Gjestvang: I talked with them for a long time. I addressed them with respect.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your photos are both thoughtful and disturbing, because they show not only the vacant stares and lethargy of the survivors, but also their external wounds.
Gjestvang: I didn't photograph the biggest scars. And some of the survivors didn't want that. Most of them agreed to show their injuries. They are not proud of their scars, but they wear them with dignity.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What image moved you the most?
Gjestvang: All the pictures from this series are important to me. But there is this photo of a red-haired girl that really consumed me. Ylva Schwenke Helen is 15 years old. She has a large scar on her neck. She looks into the future, but she carries history on her shoulders.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you changed over the course of this project?
Gjestvang: Utøya itself changed me, the whole incident. People say that time heals all wounds. But since Utøya, I no longer believe that. Sometimes things are just not good anymore. Life inflicts wounds, and we have to live with them. But I have also learned not to worry so much about little things, not to take some things so seriously.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the survivors react to their photos?
Gjestvang: They were happy that I had taken the pictures. Some of them recognized something different in themselves -- something they had never seen before.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have received multiple awards for the photo series. What will this prize mean?
Gjestvang: I am grateful. My photos have moved many people, evoked something in them. But I also wish that I never would have had to take these pictures.
Interview conducted by Kristin Haug
Please click here to view her photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/andrea-gjestvang-wins-sony-world-photography-award-a-896816.html
April 26, 2013
Europe Facing More Pressure to Reconsider Cuts as a Cure
By ANDREW HIGGINS
BRUSSELS — Unemployment has surpassed Great Depression-era levels in Southern Europe. Recession is drifting to the once resilient economies of the north. Even some onetime hawks on government spending say they cannot cut any more.
After years of insisting that the primary cure for Europe’s malaise is to slash spending, the champions of austerity, most notably Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, find themselves under intensified pressure to back off unpopular remedies and find some way to restore faltering growth to the world’s largest economic bloc.
On Friday, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who once promoted aggressive budget cuts, became the latest leader to reject European Union targets for reducing deficits.
That is one of several developments — a recent court ruling against job cuts in Portugal; a new, austerity-averse prime-minister-in-waiting in Italy; and mounting doubts among ordinary Europeans and even the International Monetary Fund — that have forced senior officials in Brussels to acknowledge that a move away from what critics see as a fixation on debt and deficits toward more growth-friendly policies is necessary.
“There has been a clear shift in thinking,” said Guntram Wolff, a German economist who has worked at the European Commission, the union’s policy-making arm, and is now acting director of Bruegel, a Brussels research group.
The flurry of activity comes after an influential academic paper embraced by austerity advocates as evidence that even recessionary economies should cut spending to avoid high debt levels, written by the Harvard scholars Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, has come under attack for errors that opponents of austerity say helped lead European policy makers astray.
Europe is not about to throw open the spending spigots in the 27 nations of the European Union, even as the bloc teeters on the edge of a new regionwide recession. But officials are clearly shifting toward what Leonardo Domenici, an Italian member of the European Parliament, described as “austerity with a human face.”
Even Ms. Merkel has tried of late to soften her image as the unbending deficit scold of Europe. Asked at a forum in Berlin this week whether the “screw of austerity” had been turned too tight, she complained that what used to be “called saving or consolidation or balanced budgets” is “now called austerity,” adding that this “really sounds like something completely evil.”
In Brussels, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said Europe had been right to tighten its belts, but now needed to soften its approach to win back an angry public. “While this policy is fundamentally right, I think it has reached its limits in many respects,” he said. “It has to have the minimum of political and social support.”
Hints of a new approach in Europe are likely to be greeted as good news by the Obama administration, which has urged healthy European economies to stimulate growth with increased spending and more relaxed monetary policy. The American economy, where government spending has not been reduced as drastically, looks relatively robust in comparison with Europe.
Olli Rehn, a tough-minded Finn responsible for economic and monetary affairs at the European Commission, has taken pains in recent days to stress that, with financial markets mostly becalmed, rapid “fiscal consolidation” — essentially spending cuts and tax hikes — has run its course and will slow to a less painful pace.
Such consolidation, he told a hostile audience in the European Parliament on Thursday, will this year be just half what it was last year, and substantially less severe than cuts planned in the United States. “It is important that we strengthen the social dimension,” he added, describing unemployment in hard-hit countries like Spain, which this week reported a jobless rate of 27.2 percent, as “unacceptably high.”
The change, Mr. Wolff of Bruegel said, began months before the recent academic flap over the Reinhart and Rogoff research but had often gone unnoticed, in part because Germany, the dominant voice in the union’s economic policy, “didn’t want to make a big fuss” and risk pushback from German politicians opposed to cutting Europe’s heavily indebted economic laggards any slack.
But while Ms. Merkel, who faces an election in September, may be backing away from the word “austerity,” she is not aligning herself with France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, and others in demanding that the policy behind the word be radically revised.
European Union officials insist that their economic policy has never been as dogmatic or narrowly focused on spending cuts as critics claim, and say they have long since moved beyond just austerity. But unable to speak plainly in any of the union’s 23 official languages, they have had trouble explaining their efforts in a manner that ordinary people can understand.
Like Ms. Merkel, the European Union shuns the word “austerity,” which has been banished from the official lexicon in favor of the technocratic euphemism “fiscal consolidation.” At a summit meeting in Brussels in February, the union’s 27 leaders, who met just out of earshot of thousands protesting austerity, responded to public fury by endorsing “differentiated, growth-friendly fiscal consolidation,” code for flexible policies tailored to each country rather than doctrinaire, one-size-fits-all debt and other targets.
The linguistic adjustment, while doing little to calm protesters, has since translated into real steps to relieve economies straitjacketed by budget cuts. Portugal and Ireland, for example, were this month given seven more years to repay bailout loans. Spain, France and the Netherlands are meanwhile likely to get a green light from Brussels in coming weeks to miss what are supposed to be mandatory budget deficit targets.
The rule bending does not go down well with countries that have played by the book, like tiny Estonia, which, along with its Baltic neighbor Latvia, is feted by fans of austerity as proof that harsh medicine works. “If you signed up for something, why start yelling that the rules are unfair?” asked President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, which, after a catastrophic slump, now has one of Europe’s few economies with robust growth.
In much of Europe, austerity has become a byword for misery and has helped stir a fierce backlash against the so-called European project, a venture that began in 1951 to bind the Continent’s previously warring states into a zone of harmony and, it was hoped, prosperity.
Public confidence in the European Union has slumped to record lows, according to survey data compiled by Eurobarometer, the union’s polling arm, and leaked this week by a research group, the European Council on Foreign Relations. Seventy-two percent of those polled in Spain said they “tended not to trust” the group, compared with 23 percent in 2007, the year before Europe got swept up in a global financial crisis. Distrust has also soared in Germany, rising to 59 percent from 36 percent.
“At a time when so many Europeans are faced with unemployment, uncertainty and growing inequality, a sort of ‘European fatigue’ has set in,” Mr. Barroso, the commission president and a former Portuguese prime minister, acknowledged recently.
Politicians on the left who have long campaigned against austerity worry that the softer tone on spending cuts adopted by Mr. Barroso and others will bring only policy tweaks on the margins. “Are we just fiddling while Rome burns?” asked Udo Bullmann, a German Socialist. “Europe is burning,” he told Mr. Rehn in Parliament on Thursday.
Pervenche Berès, Socialist chairwoman of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, is skeptical that signs of greater flexibility will result in a dramatic change of policy. “They still want to kill Keynes,” she said, referring to the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed that fiscal stimulus, not contraction, is sometimes the best solution to crisis. “They always make minimal changes at the very last minute when they have no choice,” she added.
April 27, 2013
Italy's Letta Meets Berlusconi to Try to Form Government
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's center-left prime minister-designate Enrico Letta met Silvio Berlusconi and other center-right officials on Saturday to try to resolve the remaining differences holding up the formation of a coalition government between the rival parties.
Letta, given a mandate to form a government by President Giorgio Napolitano, is under pressure to reach an agreement with the center-right to end the political stalemate that has paralyzed Italy since inconclusive elections in February.
Agreement has been held up by wrangling over ministerial posts and policy differences, notably over Berlusconi's demand to scrap the unpopular IMU housing tax, a move that would blow an 8 billion euro hole in this year's budget plans.
Letta, a 46-year-old moderate on the right of his Democratic Party and the nephew of one of Berlusconi's closest aides, said on Friday that he was determined to reach an accord.
If the two sides can come to an agreement on Saturday, he could go before parliament for a confidence vote as early as Monday.
Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, has been without an effective government for months, with the long post-election deadlock holding up any concerted effort to end a recession set to become the longest since World War Two.
Letta received some encouragement late on Friday when the ratings agency Moody's kept its rating on Italian government debt unchanged at Baa2 because low interest rates were making it possible to buy time to implement much-needed reforms.
Bond yields have fallen to their lowest in more than two years as investors hope for enough stability to help Italy revive its economy and gradually tackle its large public debt.
However Moody's also said medium-term growth prospects were weak and forecast the economy would shrink by 1.8 percent this year, compounding more than two decades of stagnation.
Letta has said his priorities will be boosting the economy and tackling unemployment, restoring confidence in Italy's discredited political institutions and trying to turn Europe away from austerity to focus more on growth and investment.
On paper, the priorities laid out by Letta fit in well with proposals from Berlusconi's camp, which has been attacking the austerity policies pursued for months by the outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti.
But the selection of ministers will show more clearly how a Letta government will work in practice.
Berlusconi, in the middle of legal battles over a tax fraud conviction and charges of paying for sex with a minor, has pressed for the cabinet to include has close political allies, and has rejected technocrats such as those who served in Monti's government.
He has backed Renato Brunetta, the lower house leader of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, for the key Economy Ministry and also wants to place party secretary Angelino Alfano in the government, possibly as deputy prime minister.
However there is strong resistance in parts of the Democratic Party to an accord with Berlusconi, its sworn enemy for almost 20 years.
Former party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who resigned this month after a party rebellion, told Letta on Saturday that he should not accept a deal with the PDL on any terms, according to a person with knowledge of their conversation.
Without an agreement, there would be no alternative to new elections, a disastrous prospect for the center-left, which threw away a 10-point lead before the last poll and now trails Berlusconi by more than five points, according to a poll by the SWG institute on Friday.
The other main force in parliament, Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, has ruled out taking part in a government made up of the two main parties. He called the right-left coalition "an orgy worthy of the best of bunga bunga", a reference to Berlusconi's much publicized parties at his private villas.
(Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
April 26, 2013
Musharraf Under Arrest on Charges in Bhutto Assassination
By SALMAN MASOOD
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — An antiterrorism court here placed Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military leader, under arrest on Friday on charges related to the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, adding to a tangle of legal woes that have hobbled Mr. Musharraf’s hopes for a political comeback.
The order changes little for Mr. Musharraf in immediate terms. Mr. Musharraf, a retired army general, is already under house arrest at his villa on the edge of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in a case involving his detention and firing of senior judges after imposing emergency rule in 2007.
Mr. Musharraf was brought to the Rawalpindi court under tight security on Friday. He was ordered to return on Tuesday, said Salman Safdar, one of his lawyers.
The prosecution’s case rests on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist and friend of Ms. Bhutto’s, who alleges that Mr. Musharraf made a threatening phone call to her before she returned to Pakistan in 2007 from self-imposed exile, Mr. Safdar said.
Prosecutors will question Mr. Musharraf about Mr. Siegel’s statement, as well as about allegations that he sent a threatening e-mail to Ms. Bhutto and failed to provide security to Ms. Bhutto, Zulfiqar Ali, special prosecutor for the Federal Investigation Agency, which is spearheading the investigation, was quoted as saying in local news media.
Mr. Musharraf, 69, himself returned to Pakistan last month after four years in exile, hoping to carve out a place in politics. But his plans quickly went awry. His party received little public support, and the national election commission disqualified him from running in the general election, scheduled for May 11.
And he found himself in court. In all, Mr. Musharraf faces charges in four different cases — all related to decisions made during his nine years in power — as well as possible treason charges. Last week he tried to avoid arrest in the judicial firings case by dramatically fleeing an Islamabad court, protected by bodyguards, before eventually surrendering to the police.
A decision on whether to file treason charges, which carry a potential death penalty, will probably be made by the next government.
Mr. Musharraf’s supporters and lawyers say all the cases are politically motivated.
“I would call this a political case, based on mala fide,” Mr. Safdar said in an interview about the Bhutto case on Friday evening, using the Latin for “bad faith.” “This is a prosecution merely on the basis of suspicion. The prosecution does not have concrete, tangible evidence.”
Mr. Safdar said that Mr. Musharraf had not been implicated in Ms. Bhutto’s assassination until 2010, a year after he left Pakistan, and that Interpol had declined to arrest him despite four requests by the government that succeeded him.
Mr. Musharraf took to power in 1999 after a bloodless coup and wielded immense power until 2007, when his rule began to crumble. A botched attempt at removing Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry set off a political opposition movement that he failed to contain.
Ms. Bhutto had left the country in 1998 to avoid corruption charges stemming from her time as prime minister in the 1990s, and had become a leading opposition figure in the meantime.
Mr. Musharraf grudgingly allowed Ms. Bhutto to return, but they quickly developed differences. He briefly put her under house arrest after her return in October 2007, and on Dec. 27, after addressing a political rally in Rawalpindi, Ms. Bhutto was assassinated in a gun and bomb attack.
Mr. Musharraf’s government blamed Baitullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Pakistani Taliban, for masterminding the attack. Ms. Bhutto’s supporters have long insinuated that Mr. Musharraf’s military-led government also played a role.
Seven Pakistani men, including two police officers, are currently on trial in the assassination case. The police officers are accused of failing to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto and of removing crucial evidence at the behest of Mr. Musharraf.
Mr. Musharraf insists that Ms. Bhutto died because of an “internal security breach,” said Mr. Safdar, the lawyer.
One of Pakistan’s most charismatic, popular and polarizing politicians, Ms. Bhutto had become a larger-than-life figure, despite accusations of corruption and mismanagement during her two terms in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A public wave of sympathy after her assassination catapulted her Pakistan People’s Party to power in the 2008 elections. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected president later that year after Mr. Musharraf resigned under the threat of impeachment. The Zardari-led party headed a coalition government that completed its five-year term last month.
The images of Ms. Bhutto’s assassination remain a powerful symbol for her party, which has used them in its election campaign to win voter support.
Mr. Musharraf remains in high spirits and determined to prove innocence, Mr. Safdar said. “Mr. Musharraf has two expectations — fair investigation and justice.”
Bangladesh building collapse: dramatic rescue for survivors found in air pocket
Prime minister and other politicians under fire over response to Rana Plaza collapse as victims' relatives clash with police
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood in Dhaka and Jason Burke
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 18.27 BST
The rescue operation at the collapsed building site in Dhaka, Bangladesh took a dramatic turn on Friday afternoon when a fire service rescue team located a large group of survivors in an air pocket on the third floor of the wrecked structure.
The building, which came down on Wednesday was "stacked like slices of bread", said Manzur Ahsan, a fireman. Unable to access the lower floors, army engineers had started tunnelling into the wreckage from an adjoining building.
"We broke through on Friday afternoon and immediately heard cries for help," said Ahsan. "Some survivors struck the concrete with loose bricks to attract attention."
The anxious crowd gathered outside broke into cheers as, one by one, 24 people were brought out alive by army and fire service personnel. By evening, more survivors had been dug out, bringing to 100 the number of people rescued on Friday. A total of 2,300 people have been rescued from the rubble. Rescuers fear hundreds may still be inside.
Among the survivors on Friday was Rehana Begum, a seamstress who worked at the Ether Tex garment factory on the third floor. Even though her left arm was broken, she knew she was among the lucky ones.
"I felt I was buried alive," Begum said through her tears. "I never thought I'd see sunlight again."
Meanwhile pressure was mounting on the government of Bangladesh amid anger at senior officials' reaction to the deaths this week of hundreds of workers in the collapse of the factory making clothes for western companies.
The death toll rose to well over 300 on Friday and was expected to continue to climb as bulldozers were brought in to clear the rubble of the eight-storey Rana Plaza complex in the Savar industrial zone on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka.
Western retailers including Primark and Matalan have said they had been supplied by factories in the complex.
Up to 3,000 workers may have been in the building when it collapsed at 9am on Wednesday morning. Rescue efforts have relied heavily on volunteers using crowbars, picks and bare hands to clear debris and reach survivors. Firefighters and military personnel were forced to halt operations on Fridayfor two hours after relatives angry at the slow pace clashed with police and teargas was fired in response.
Volunteers were seen holding placards calling for drills, surgical masks and other items. "We're struggling for supplies. We need more help from the authorities," said Mehdi Hassan, a volunteer.
"The police barred us from going near the spot and when we protested, starting hitting us with sticks," said Majid Mia, who had been waiting outside the site for two days hoping for news of his missing daughter, Minara. "When some men pelted the police with stones, they fired teargas," he added.
Elsewhere in Dhaka on Friday, angry garment workers protesting about the Savar tragedy damaged an estimated 100 vehicles in the Mirpur, Rampura and Badda areas while thousands more downed tools. Iqbal Hossain, in charge of Badda police station, said demonstrations had suddenly turned violent.
"We're trying to talk to garment labour leaders to calm the situation," he said.
The tragedy is potentially damaging for the ruling Awami League of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.
Local media have criticised statements by Hasina and the home minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir. On Wednesday, Hasina said on TV that the building had been evacuated but some people were trapped after "they went back for their things". Survivors say workers were ordered into the building on Wednesday even though large cracks had appeared in the wall the previous day.
Alamgir was ridiculed on social media after he told the BBC that the building may have collapsed after opposition activists enforcing a general strike "pushed at the gate and columns of the building".
On Friday Hasina bowed to popular demand and ordered the arrest of the owner of the building, Sohel Rana, who is on the run, and the owners of the five garment factories. Rana is a local politician with the ruling Awami League and is accused of exploiting his political influence to flout planning regulations to build the complex six years ago.
"The prime minister has ordered the top officials of the law enforcement agencies to arrest the owners of Rana Plaza and the garment factories operating in the building immediately," said a spokesman for the prime minister.
Rana is also accused of ignoring repeated warnings about the building and forcing factory employees to return to work despite fears that a collapse was imminent.
Officials said Rana was told of dangerous cracks in the building on Tuesday. While a bank in the building closed on Wednesday because of the warnings, the five clothing companies told their workers there was no danger, industry officials said.
"We asked the garment owners to keep it closed," said Mohammad Atiqul Isla, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The booming garment trade is a major foreign exchange earner in Bangladesh and employs about 4 million people. Most of the exports – 60% – goes to Europe while the US takes 23% and Canada 5%.
All political factions actively court the powerful lobby of garment manufacturers and activists say this is what hinders efforts to improve conditions in factories.
A series of accidents at garment factories have claimed hundreds of lives. Only months ago a blaze in a factory without proper fire escapes killed 112.
Bangladesh has been hit by political turmoil in recent months following verdicts on alleged war crimes during the brutal 1971 war of independence by a new tribunal set up by the government. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party and Islamist groups have organised vast demonstrations in protest. A campaign supporting the tribunal and calling for harsher sentences has waned in recent weeks.
The political loyalties of the owner of the collapsed complex will give further ammunition to the opposition. On Friday there were further demonstrations and political violence in Bangladesh.
Elections are due later this year and analysts say further instability is likely.
April 26, 2013
Bangladeshis Burn Factories to Protest Unsafe Conditions
By JULFIKAR ALI MANIK, JIM YARDLEY and STEVEN GREENHOUSE
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Thousands of garment workers rampaged through industrial areas of the capital of Bangladesh on Friday, smashing vehicles with bamboo poles and setting fire to at least two factories in violent protests ignited by a deadly building collapse this week that killed at least 340 workers.
The protests, which continued into Saturday, came as rescue teams spent a third day searching for survivors in the rubble of the building, the Rana Plaza, in a suburb of the capital, Dhaka. Officials reported that 72 people were pulled out alive, a rare bit of good news in what is already considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry — with a death toll expected to keep rising.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the arrests of the owner of Rana Plaza, as well as the owners of four garment factories that were operating on the upper floors of the eight-story building. Pressure also mounted on Western clothing brands that rely heavily on Bangladesh to manufacture their products; labor activists have found labels inside the wreckage for clothes being made for J. C. Penney, Cato Fashions, the British retailer Primark and other clothing brands.
Two of the factory owners turned themselves in to the police early on Saturday,bdnews24.com, an online newspaper, reported.
A special government committee has been appointed to investigate the accident, and questions are already arising about why more than 3,000 employees were working at Rana Plaza when it collapsed on Wednesday morning. Cracks had been discovered in the structure a day earlier, and police officials and industry leaders say they had asked the factory bosses to stop work until the building had been inspected.
“I wouldn’t call it an accident,” the government’s information minister, Hasanul Haque Inu, told Bangladeshi journalists. “I would say it’s a murder.”
Friday’s violent protests ricocheted among industrial sections of Dhaka as garment workers took to the streets to vent their fury. Many of the protesters demanded the death penalty for Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, as well as the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors. More than 150 vehicles were reported damaged, and some protesters burned two factories.
In Narayanganj, an industrial district near the capital, protesters vandalized at least five garment factories and clashed with the police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Ten people were injured and nearly two dozen workers were arrested on vandalism charges after demonstrations halted traffic on a major road.
Labor groups in the United States on Friday distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J. C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, the Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse. Seeking to press American retailers to do more to assure factory safety in Bangladesh, dozens of worker advocates held protests on Thursday at the Gap’s headquarters in San Francisco and at a Walmart store in Renton, Wash.
A leading factory monitoring group, the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which is based in Brussels, said that two of the factories in the building — New Waves Style and Phantom Apparel — were inspected and had complied with the group’s code of conduct.
Another factory in the building, Ether Tex, said on its Web site that it had passed an inspection by a monitoring group in Düsseldorf, Germany, the Service Organization for Compliance Audit Management. The Web site said Ether Tex was being evaluated by the Business Social Compliance Initiative.
Officials from such monitoring groups say they generally focus on internal matters, like smoke detectors and whether exit doors are locked, and not on matters like fire escapes or the soundness of a building’s structure, which are normally the responsibility of government inspectors.
Labor activists and human rights groups called on retailers and global brands to help pay for programs to improve factory safety and upgrade fire prevention equipment, a need underscored by a November fire that killed 112 workers. Activists say that spending about $600 million a year for five years could bankroll sweeping improvements to the country’s 5,000 garment factories — noting that global brands could finance such a program by agreeing to pay an additional 10 cents per garment for the more than six billion articles of clothing exported each year.
Leaders of two Bangladesh garment industry trade groups announced Friday that factories in their association would close for the weekend so that workers could aid in the rescue efforts at Rana Plaza. Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, called on the owner of Rana Plaza and the owners of the factories inside the building to surrender to the authorities.
Mr. Islam also said that the trade group would hire engineers to examine the structural stability of all the country’s garment factories.
The Bangladeshi military has established a command center near Rana Plaza to coordinate rescue efforts. Teams of soldiers, paramilitary police officers and ordinary citizens were carefully digging through the rubble, sometimes with their bare hands.
Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, Jim Yardley from New Delhi, and Steven Greenhouse from New York.
Canada attacks 'evil' of Sri Lanka hosting Commonwealth summit
Canadian foreign minister criticises Sri Lanka's 'appalling' record, authoritarianism and failure to tackle rights abuses
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 21.49 BST
The Canadian government has launched a blistering attack on Sri Lanka's "appalling" record on democratic accountability as the controversy intensifies over the Commonwealth's decision to allow Colombo to host its biennial heads of government meeting later this year.
The Commonwealth's general secretary said on Friday that he saw no reason to strip Sri Lanka of the honour of staging the meeting in November despite mounting international concern over the country's failure to tackle human rights abuses and demonstrate a clear commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
John Baird, Canada's foreign minister, said he was stunned that Colombo was not facing censure for its behaviour.
"We're appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to host CHOGM and to be chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years," he told the Guardian.
"Canada didn't get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it. We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role."
Far from seeing "meaningful progress" since the last CHOGM in Perth in 2011, said Baird, the Sri Lankan government had only grown more authoritarian and less accountable and open to reconciliation.
He added: "It's not just Canada: the Commonwealth Journalists' Association; the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association; the Commonwealth Legal Education Association; the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association; Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council – all of these people have come out and unanimously have said that not only has Sri Lanka not made progress, but in many instances, is getting worse."
Baird pointed to the impeachment and sacking three months ago of the country's chief justice and her replacement with a successor who is close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
"Both of those actions are appalling and they show that not only have we not seen an improvement, we've seen a deterioration in recent months and that is causing Canada great concern," he said.
The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, has repeatedly raised concerns over Sri Lanka's hosting of CHOGM and threatened to boycott the meeting if Colombo does not show real evidence of progress.
Asked whether Harper was planning to snub CHOGM, Baird said: "Certainly nothing I've learnt in recent months and days would lead me to give him any contrary advice on that issue."
Baird was speaking after a meeting in London of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which describes itself as "the custodian of Commonwealth values and principles".
Although Sri Lanka was not on the agenda, the country was discussed and Baird is understood to have restated his government's firm opposition to the decision to let Colombo host CHOGM.
At a press conference after the meeting, the secretary general of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, appeared to contradict the Canadian position when he told reporters that "no member government had indicated remotely that it wished to change the venue".
He also defended the CHOGM decision, saying that he had found Sri Lanka to be "engaged and willing" to improve itself through measures such as institution-building.
Sharma denied suggestions that the Commonwealth risked compromising its credibility by refusing to take Colombo to task over accusations of war crimes, torture and institutional corruption – or for its failure to bring to justice the alleged killers of Khuram Shaikh, a British man who was murdered on the island in 2011.
"I think the credibility of the Commonwealth is increasing right now because as far as the judicial sector is concerned, we are the ones who are working with them on what can be a solution to the pluralities and institutional confrontations that they've had in the past," he said. "I think the way in which we are acting and the way in which we are planning to make real progress on the ground is actually a sign of this institution's relevance in the difficulties which are faced by member states rather than the other way around."
A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said the British government had not yet decided whether it would attend CHOGM in Colombo, adding: "Ahead of the meeting, we will look to Sri Lanka, as any other CHOGM host, to demonstrate its commitment to upholding the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights."
April 27, 2013
Australian Billionaire Plans New Political Party
By MATT SIEGEL
SYDNEY, Australia — An Australian billionaire who is perhaps best known for his efforts to build a seaworthy replica of the Titanic says he will use his vast fortune to form a new political party to compete in federal elections scheduled for September.
The man, Clive Palmer, had been a major financial supporter of the conservative Liberal-National Party, from which he resigned last year amid quarrels surrounding his political aspirations. He says the newly minted United Australia Party, which he unveiled at a news conference on Friday, will be a serious challenger rather than a vanity project.
“I’m running to be the prime minister of Australia,” he told reporters. “I am standing because I think I can offer better service to the community than anyone else.”
Mr. Palmer is a major player in Australia’s resource-driven economy. He owns considerable mining and other natural resource assets, including a nickel refinery that he bought from the mining giant BHP Billiton and large coal and iron ore deposits in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.
He made international headlines earlier this year when he unveiled his plans for Titanic II, a $200 million replica of the doomed ocean liner that will be equipped with high-tech engines and modern amenities like air-conditioning. Mr. Palmer says that the ship, which will be built by China’s state-owned CSC Jinling Shipyard, could set sail on its maiden voyage as early as 2016.
Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, has seen her poll ratings plummet since she announced in January that federal elections would be held in September. The unusually early announcement kicked off an election season that has been bruising and marked by political infighting in Ms. Gillard’s Labor Party, and it remains to be seen what impact Mr. Palmer’s announcement will have on the race.
Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition Liberal-National coalition, is widely expected to capture the premiership, but Mr. Palmer’s deep pockets and conservative stances on issues like climate change and taxes could steal crucial votes from Mr. Abbott, especially in Mr. Palmer’s home state of Queensland.
Julie Bishop, deputy leader of the Liberal Party, urged conservatives not to jeopardize the coalition’s chances by splintering the vote.
“If you want to get rid of the Labor government, if you want to get rid of the waste and incompetence and inability to stop the boats, then you have to vote for the coalition,” she said in an interview with Sky News, referring to the rickety boats used by asylum seekers on the perilous crossing from Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
“It’s got to be a vote for the Liberal Party and the National Party. That’s how you get rid of this government.”
The Labor Party, however, seemed to welcome the announcement, which has the potential to at least partially reverse its flagging fortunes.
“I think pretty clearly anyone who votes for a Clive Palmer-led party wasn’t a former Labor supporter, they’ll be a former LNP supporter,” Anthony Albanese, the infrastructure and transportation minister, told The Australian newspaper.
“That’s his niche market. If the far-right want to fight with the not-so-far-right in Queensland, then good luck to them,” he said.
April 26, 2013
Shadows of an Old Military Base
By FLOYD WHALEY
SUBIC BAY, Philippines — Abraham Parungao watched hopefully as three American sailors walked through his souvenir shop full of T-shirts, decorative beer mugs and placards with cheeky slogans. After haggling for a while over a $5 wood carving, the young men left without buying a thing.
“Before, the Americans had so much money,” said Mr. Parungao, 64, in his small stall in front of where the U.S. submarine tender Emory S. Land was tied up for a visit. “These new American sailors are cheap.”
The thousands of big-spending sailors have been gone for more than two decades — since the United States turned over the Subic Bay Naval Station to the Philippines in 1992 — but the sprawling former military base still receives regular visits from U.S. Navy ships.
Today, the Subic Bay Freeport is a special economic zone established to attract job-generating investors with low taxes, duty-free import privileges and streamlined procedures. It has also become a popular tourist destination for Filipinos seeking to enjoy the jungles, the beaches and the American legacy of the former military base.
In line with the Obama administration’s greater focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Subic is once again a popular port of call for the U.S. Navy. A subsidiary of a major U.S. defense company is bidding on ship repair and logistical support contracts, and the Philippine Department of National Defense has reserved large portions of the former base for future use by the Philippine military and its allies, principally the United States.
U.S. Navy ships can often be seen in Subic these days, but the seaport that millions of U.S. service members passed through will probably never be the center of U.S. power in Asia that it once was.
The 678-square-kilometer, or 262-square-mile, base — about the size of Singapore — played a role in every major U.S. military engagement between 1898 and 1992. In October 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, it took in 47 U.S. Navy ships in a single day. During the 1991 Gulf war, 70 percent of U.S. naval supplies in that conflict came from Subic, Rear Adm. Thomas Mercer said when the base closed.
“Subic Bay was the service station and supermarket of the fleet,” said Gerald Anderson, a retired naval officer and the author of several books on the area.
Today, the Freeport features lively commercial areas and tourist attractions, but it is also studded with evidence of failed investments and the ruins of a decaying military base. New or renovated buildings stand beside an abandoned casino and the foundations of a never-completed South Korean skyscraper.
The U.S. Navy left behind more than 1,800 centrally air-conditioned houses in neighborhoods designed to resemble American suburbs. Some sit empty, while others have been converted into tourist accommodations. Yet others have been leased by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the government agency that oversees the Freeport, as private residences with the pitch that Subic offers an American lifestyle in the middle of the Philippines.
A recent drive down Easy Street in one of the former U.S. Navy housing areas found people living a semblance of the American dream. In front of one house was a monster truck with a custom paint job that looked ready for an American car show. Speedboats and water scooters sat in driveways with children’s bikes in the yards. The community has a school, a public swimming pool and ample playgrounds.
Just down the road, at the Royal department store, a Filipino family lined up at the cashier with two cases of Spam, stacks of American breakfast cereals and boxes of Cheez-Its. The children lobbied their parents for American candy bars on display near the cash register.
The scene was probably not much different in 1967, when about 4.2 million military personnel and their dependents purchased more than $25 million in goods at the same location. At that time, it was one of the largest navy exchanges in the world.
Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between the old and new more vivid than along the polluted river that divides the Freeport from the city of Olongapo. The Olongapo River, given a derogatory nickname inspired by the sewage it held, was once the boundary between the well-appointed U.S. Navy base and the poverty of the Philippines.
During a recent visit, a Filipino couple was discussing in hushed tones which type of Swiss chocolate to buy from the new Marks & Spencer outlet in the high-end shopping mall that now hugs the Freeport side of the river.
A drive deeper into the former base leads to the outskirts of a 4,000-hectare, or 10,000-acre, jungle preserved by the U.S. Navy, and now by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, that is one of the last virgin forests on Luzon Island.
During the 1980s, George Soper underwent survival training in the dense rain forest. He and other U.S. marines were paired with local tribesmen who taught them how to find clean water, food and medicine in the forbidding environment. “Nowhere else in the world did you have a U.S. military base with access to a jungle like this,” Mr. Soper said.
Today, those same tribesmen teach jungle survival tips to tourists, usually in staged demonstrations that include slapstick comedy routines.
Just past the former jungle training area lies what had been the Cubi Point Naval Air Station, an airstrip that could handle some of the largest military aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Now ambitiously redesignated the Subic Bay International Airport, it is largely languishing in disuse. During a recent visit, the only aircraft using the airport was a cargo plane delivering dolphins to a nearby ocean park.
Next to the airport are symbols of the once-high hopes for Subic’s transformation into a booming commercial area. In 1996, Subic hosted the Fourth Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders Meeting. In honor of the event, 18 luxury villas were built — one for each head of state visiting the new Freeport.
These days, the villas lie in disrepair. The tennis court is clogged with weeds, and the water in the swimming pool has an off-putting green tint.
Farther inside the former base is the once heavily guarded naval magazine area, which was once home to an estimated 50,000 tons of ordnance. The munitions were stored in more than a hundred bunkers, now abandoned or, in rare instances, repurposed.
In the cool dark confines of one of these former bunkers, now a restaurant known as Bunker Bob’s and run by a former U.S. Navy officer, tourists from a nearby beach area were dining at tables adorned with camouflage-patterned linens. On the menu were pizza and Mexican dishes. Historic maps of Subic and World War II-era posters lined the walls.
There is little consensus, among the thousands of retired U.S. military personnel and Filipinos who live around Subic, as to whether the conversion of the base into a commercial zone can be considered a success.
About 90,000 people work in the Freeport, according to government data. That is nearly double the 46,000 Filipinos employed by all U.S. military bases in the Philippines in 1987, when the bases were in full operation, according to Mr. Anderson, the historian.
But the Freeport has also experienced problems. The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority has reported losses of about 7 billion pesos, or $175 million, from its creation in 1992 through 2011. The area has also been investigated repeatedly by Philippine legislators, and criticized by President Benigno S. Aquino III, in connection with large-scale smuggling of oil, vehicles, rice and other commodities.
In addition, many of the jobs in Subic today are low-paying service-sector positions. The jobs created by the U.S. Navy offered high pay, generous benefits and valuable technical training, according to former base employees.
Perlita Felicitas, 58, a resident of Olongapo, said that her father had worked for more than a decade in the U.S. Navy’s Ship Repair Facility. Employees in the current shipbuilding and ship repair operations in Subic, she said, make a fraction of what her father earned.
“We were four children and all of us were able to go to college because of the U.S. Navy,” she said. “We were sad when they left. There are no opportunities like that anymore.”
April 27, 2013
Last Groups of SKoreans Leaving NKorean Factory
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Regret etched on their faces, the last groups of South Korean managers began pulling out Saturday from a shuttered factory park in North Korea after their government ordered them to leave the border city, as Pyongyang issued a new threat to shut down the last symbol of detente.
The South Koreans stuffed their cars with as much as they could take from their factories in the North Korean city of Kaesong, located just on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. A total of 125 South Koreans left Saturday, and the last 50, including government employees who manage facilities, will leave Monday, the Unification Ministry said.
Once the last South Koreans leave, what will become of the jointly run factory park remains unclear.
"It is only a matter of time" before the complex shuts down for good, an unnamed spokesman for North Korea's General Bureau for Central Guidance said Saturday. "We treasure the Kaesong industrial complex but won't bestow favors on those who return evil for good."
Until earlier this month, 53,000 North Korean workers were managed by 800 South Koreans at more than 120 South Korean-run factories in a special economic zone in Kaesong. The decade-old arrangement provided Kaesong with work and salaries, and the South Koreans with cheap labor.
But as tensions flared between Seoul and Pyongyang over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and other perceived slights, Pyongyang pulled its entire work force out on April 9 and banned South Koreans from crossing the border to bring food and supplies.
With factories suspending operations and food supplies dwindling, Seoul issued a Friday deadline for North Korea to agree to talks on Kaesong.
After Pyongyang dismissed the call as an insufficient show of sincerity, Ryoo Kihl-jae, South Korea's top official on relations with North Korea, announced that Seoul would pull the rest of the South Koreans from Kaesong out of concern for their safety.
Han Jae-kwon, head of the association of South Koreans managing factories in Kaesong, expressed regret that the government made the decision without notifying them first. Speaking in front of businessmen running factories in Kaesong, he called on Seoul to continue to pursue dialogue with Pyongyang over the industrial park.
"I came down for the time being with the hope that the Kaesong industrial complex would reopen later," Lee Byung-yun, a South Korean worker, said after crossing the border on Saturday. Park Yun-kyu, head of a factory in Kaesong, told reporters he had no choice but to pull his staff out in the face of a government call to leave Kaesong.
Dozens of cars, many of them covered with cargo from hood to trunk, lined up at a checkpoint to enter South Korea after arriving from the North across the heavily fortified border between the two countries.
The park, which broke ground in 2003, is the last joint Korean project left from a previous era of reconciliation. Other projects, including tours to a scenic mountain in North Korea and to downtown Kaesong, were suspended in recent years.
However, Lee Hochul, a political science professor at Incheon National University in South Korea, noted that neither side has decided to permanently shut down the industrial complex.
"This is a war of pride between the Koreas, but they are conducting it while leaving some room for talks," he said.
Obama: proof of Syrian chemical weapons would be 'game-changer'
President says US allies 'could not permit the use of chemical weapons' but stops short of saying red line had been crossed
Dan Roberts in Washington and Julian Borger in London
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 April 2013 21.51 BST
President Barack Obama warned the Syrian regime on Friday that proof it had used chemical weapons on its civilian population would be a "game-changer", but cautioned that more evidence was required.
Speaking at the White House, Obama said that confirmation Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical agents in the protracted Syrian civil war would alter his administration's "calculus", but stopped short of declaring that a "red line" had been crossed.
Obama's cautious comments reflected the lack of a consensus in Washington over how to respond to claims that Syria has used sarin gas in recent incidents. US congressmen briefed by secretary of state John Kerry on Friday said the most likely option would involve joining other countries in arming specific rebel groups.
Sitting alongside King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House, Obama said that the international community "could not stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations".
But he left open the possibility that their use in Syria would not be proved: "I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime.
"But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists – all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region."
On Thursday, the White House said that US intelligence had concluded with "varying degrees of confidence" that the Syrian government has twice used chemical weapons. British officials say there is evidence of sarin use in at least three incidents in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, in Homs and near Damascus.
In London, the British prime minister David Cameron described the evidence of chemical weapons use as "limited but growing", and played down any suggestion British troops could be deployed in Syria as a consequence, saying only that it represented a red line for the international community "to do more".
Speaking to the BBC, Cameron echoed the White House's caution over the evidence so far, saying the UK government would not make the mistake of "rushing into print" and would work to verify the evidence with its allies.
"It is very disturbing what we are seeing. It's limited evidence but there's growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," Cameron said. "It is extremely serious – this is a war crime – and we should take it very seriously."
He also stopped well short of suggesting that confirmation of chemical weapons use would necessarily trigger military action. "I think what President Obama said was absolutely right – that this should form for the international community a red line for us to do more."
There has been speculation that western special forces could be sent in to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, but Cameron said he could not envisage British troops on the ground. "I don't want to see that and I don't think that is likely to happen, but I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome," he said.
Asked if he was concerned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – which toppled Saddam Hussein – was having an impact on the way in which western leaders were dealing with the conflict in Syria, Cameron told the BBC: "I do worry about that."
He added: "Let me be absolutely clear. I think the Iraq lesson must be about how we marshal and use information and intelligence and I think that lesson has been learned but I think it is very important for politicians and leaders of this generation to look at what is happening in Syria and ask ourselves what more we can do."
In the Khan al-Assal incident on 19 March, the Syrian government and the rebels claimed that chemical agents had been used against them. British officials say that Syrian army troops appear to have been affected in that incident but suggest it was either case of "friendly fire", a projectile going astray, or a deliberate attempt to implicate the rebels.
Chemical weapons experts have mostly reacted with caution over the claims. Referring to video footage purported to show victims foaming at the mouth, Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), said: "That would not be indicative of use of nerve agents, but is more likely to be a sign of a choking agent such as phosgene being used, if anything were used."
Jean-Pascal Zanders, another expert at the EU Institute for Strategic Studies said: "It's not possible that what is being shown to the public is a chemical weapons attack. The video from Aleppo showing foaming at the mouth does not look like a nerve agent. I'm wholly unconvinced." Some press reports of the sarin attack on the Tokyo metro system in March 1995 do refer to some victims foaming at the mouth.
Experts also said that evidence in the form of physical samples, of soil or human tissue, would be of little use without a clear "chain of custody" between the site of an alleged attack at the laboratory where it was analysed. According to a report by McClatchy in the US, the soil sample examined by American experts is "minuscule" and contains a byproduct of sarin that could also be a byproduct of fertiliser production.
The UN has launched an investigation in cooperation with the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the world's experts on the subject. However, because of disagreements with the Syrian government, some of the investigators are still in Cyprus waiting for a green light, and some have returned to their home countries.
In Washington, Kerry briefly took questions from politicians in the House of Representatives, but there has been a marked stepping down of rhetoric on Capitol Hill even among more hawkish members.
"There was about as much appetite in the room for getting involved as I have when I leave an all-you-can-eat restaurant," said Brad Sherman of California, who has previously sponsored a bill calling on Obama to arm rebels with anti-aircraft weapons.
Other Congressmen who spoke to reporters after said they had more confidence now that the evidence pointing to chemical weapons use was strong, but not conclusive. "There is enough evidence to pass muster in a civil court but I can't say it has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt," added Sherman.
Additional reporting by Associated Press in Damascus
April 26, 2013
Obama Not Rushing to Act on Signs Syria Used Chemical Arms
By MARK LANDLER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he would respond “prudently” and “deliberately” to evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons, tamping down any expectations that he would take swift action after an American intelligence assessment that the Syrian government had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale in the nation’s civil war.
Mr. Obama’s remarks, before a meeting here with King Abdullah II of Jordan, laid bare the quandary he now faces. The day after the White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said that the nation’s intelligence agencies had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government had used sarin, the president said he was seeking further proof of culpability for chemical weapons attacks. It is a laborious process that analysts say may never produce a definitive judgment. But Mr. Obama is also trying to preserve his credibility after warning in the past that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” and prompt a forceful American response.
“Knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. “We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately.”
“But I meant what I’d said,” the president added. “To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law. And that is going to be a game changer.”
At the same time, the White House cited the Iraq war to justify its wariness of taking action against another Arab country on the basis of incomplete or potentially inaccurate assessments of its weapons of mass destruction. The press secretary, Jay Carney, said the White House would “look at the past for guidance when it comes to the need to be very serious about gathering all the facts, establishing chain of custody, linking evidence of the use of chemical weapons to specific incidents and actions taken by the regime.”
As Mr. Obama and his aides walked a fine line on how to confront the evidence about chemical weapons, they engaged in an intensified round of diplomacy with Arab leaders to bolster support for the Syrian opposition and to try to develop a consensus on how to deal with the escalating strife.
In addition to King Abdullah, Mr. Obama met in recent days with leaders from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Saudi foreign minister. Next month, he will meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which borders Syria and is among the countries most exposed to the threat of a chemical weapons attack.
“If their policy is premised on not going it alone, even in response to chemical weapons,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, “you’re going to need a lot of people reading from the same song sheet.”
The more pressing problem, Mr. Katulis said, was that the president’s strong warnings to Syria “are running ahead of their policy.” In his remarks, King Abdullah did not address the American suspicions about chemical weapons or Mr. Obama’s warnings, but expressed confidence that the president, working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, could “find a mechanism to find a solution.”
A major focus of the meeting, a senior administration official said, was coordinating more robust aid for the Syrian opposition. The United States pledged last weekend to double its nonlethal assistance, and the official said it was working with regional allies to direct it to reliable opposition groups.
On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain echoed Mr. Obama’s cautious assessment of the use of chemical weapons, saying that there was limited but growing evidence that such weapons had been used, probably by government forces.
The British government, like the Obama administration, is concerned about avoiding a repetition of the events that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the presence of unconventional weapons, cited as justification for military action, had not been corroborated.
Mr. Cameron said that while definitive information was limited, “there’s growing evidence that we have seen, too, of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime.”
“It is extremely serious; this is a war crime, and we should take it very seriously,” he added.
Still, Mr. Cameron said, the British authorities were trying to avoid “rushing into print” news about the use of chemical weapons. And he repeated that Britain had no appetite to intervene militarily.
“I don’t want to see that, and I don’t think that is likely to happen,” he said. “But I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome. But we need to go on gathering this evidence and also to send a very clear warning to the Syrian regime about these appalling actions.”
The United States has called on the United Nations to carry out a thorough investigation of the suspected use of chemical weapons by the government. But the government of President Bashar al-Assad has so far not allowed United Nations inspectors into the country, and backed by its supporter Russia, it is insisting on limits to the scope of the investigation.
“As long as Damascus refuses to let the U.N. investigate all allegations, and as long as Russia provides the regime with political cover at the Security Council, it may be impossible for Washington to meet that standard,” Michael Eisenstadt, director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a report.
The risk of not responding now, even with less than definitive proof, Mr. Eisenstadt said, is that it could embolden Mr. Assad to use chemical weapons on a wider scale. American officials said the administration had privately warned the Syrian government not to take that step.
On Thursday, the head of the United Nations agency for disarmament sent another letter to Syria demanding “unconditional and unfettered access” for inspectors investigating the use of chemical weapons, said Martin Nesirky, the spokesman for the secretary general.
The top inspector for the team of some 15 members, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is due in New York on Monday to brief Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, on its work.
“Members of that team have been collating and analyzing the evidence and information that is available to date from outside,” Mr. Nesirky said, adding that there was a concern about the evidence degrading.
Reporting was contributed by Peter Baker from Washington, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations, Alan Cowell from London, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.
Obama is right to be cautious over Syria's possible use of sarin – but then?
The debacle of the Bush administration's rush to judgment over Saddam Hussein's 'WMD' shows why the US is in a quandary
Julian Borger, Diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Thursday 25 April 2013 22.06 BST
The circumstances are familiar. The US is pointing to evidence that a despotic Arab regime has used weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But with the caution and caveats of its letter to Congress, the Obama administration is seeking to demonstrate this is not a repeat of the Iraq debacle.
In 2003, the Bush White House played down uncertainties and reservations about the strength of the evidence. Ten years on, Washington is playing them up, making a virtue of its uncertainty. In what appears to be a clear reference to the Iraq fiasco, the White House's letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin states: "Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community."
Remarkably for public pronouncements about intelligence assessments, the letter goes into detail over the reasons for doubt, most importantly that the "chain of custody" of the chemical samples is unclear. In other words, American officials did not collect the samples – whether soil or hair or other tissue from victims – and so cannot guarantee their provenance, other than reason that since the government alone is believed to have stockpiled sarin, a nerve agent, in Syria, it was the government which "very likely" was behind its use.
But such reasoning falls well short of proof. In the Iraqi case, much of the bogus WMD evidence came from defectors chaperoned by exile opposition groups with a vested interest in Saddam Hussein's overthrow. On this occasion, the White House is explicitly conceding it "cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions".
Another striking phrase in the White House letter refers to the "varying degrees of confidence" the US intelligence community is said to have in the evidence. The variation reflects disagreements among the 16 agencies that make up that community, whose sharp differences of opinion were papered over by the Bush administration in the rush to war in 2003.
Another deliberate divergence from the Bush-era methods is the administration's explicit deferral to a UN investigation to adjudicate the claims and counter-claims surrounding chemical weapons use, together with its emphasis on maintaining international consensus on its judgements and actions. All of that would have been anathema to George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who saw any such deferral as a dilution of sovereignty.
The caution is not just explained by the inherent uncertainty in assessing forensic evidence that comes from a third party, and which is subject to rapid decay with each passing day. It also reflects the Obama administration's quandary having declared a "red line" over chemical weapons, without being entirely clear how to enforce it.
Bombing Assad's chemical arsenal risks dispersing the agents over a wide area and causing a humanitarian catastrophe. The suspected stockpile is so large it cannot be shipped out, and any special forces sent in to secure it would quickly become a target not just for the regime but some of the jihadist groups now fighting it.
Alternatively, the US could unleash punitive strikes aimed at decapitating or at least weakening the regime, but that would draw it into an open-ended war it has so far sought to avoid, potentially involving direct lethal exchanges with Russian military advisers.
Yet the taboo built up around the use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein's use of them against his own people in Halabja in 1988, is arguably one of the achievements of international diplomacy of the quarter-century since then. To allow their use once more without a decisive international response would imperil those gains.
There are no easy options and no road maps. Iraq showed what not to do in the absence of proof. It provides no lessons on what to do if the evidence does eventually become overwhelming.
April 26, 2013
Israel Sees U.S. Response to Syria as Gauge on Iran
By DAVID E. SANGER and JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — As President Obama wrestles with how to respond to new assessments that Syria appears to have used chemical weapons, leaders in Israel say they will be watching for clues about how he might handle the Iranian nuclear issue in the future.
In Syria’s case, Mr. Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would “change my calculus,” but he has not said how. Even while Israel appeared to be egging on Mr. Obama toward taking action, with officials here saying Tuesday that it appeared sarin gas had been used by the Syrian government, those officials also conceded that none of the military options were good.
“If you bomb the sites, you could cause exactly the catastrophe you are trying to prevent,” said an Israeli military officer who has spent considerable time studying the options. “If you just go in to secure the weapons, you can get stuck” in the middle of a civil war, he added, with American troops and their allies suddenly targets, and no easy way out.
But to the Israelis, how Mr. Obama navigates the next few weeks will be viewed as a gauge for what he might do later regarding the potentially bigger confrontation in the region.
“There is a question here: when a red line is set, can we stick by it?” Zeev Elkin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said Friday in a radio interview. “If the Iranians will see that the red lines laid by the international community are flexible, then will they continue to progress?”
Mr. Obama, during his visit to Israel and Jordan last month, repeated that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon on his watch. Yet judging when it would be too late to stop Iran is an even greater intelligence challenge than determining whether chemical weapons were used in Syria near Aleppo and Damascus.
“In the case of chemical weapons, you have forensic evidence,” one former aide to Mr. Obama noted recently. “Ground samples. Tissue samples. In the Iranian nuclear program, unless they conduct a test, you are never likely to have that kind of certainty. It’s more art than science.”
Mr. Obama’s polices in the Arab uprisings have been specific to each country, making it hard to draw lessons of how action in one would predict action in the next. He pressed former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, and led an international bombing campaign to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s attacks on rebels in Libya. But he effectively supported the king of Bahrain through the uprising in that tiny nation, which is host to the largest American Navy base in the region.
White House officials clearly understand the stakes in Mr. Obama’s decision on Syria. On the one hand, they say, he is deeply mindful of the mistakes made exactly a decade ago in Iraq; for that reason, they say, he is insisting on what the White House called on Thursday “credible and corroborated facts.”
On the other hand, if the president waits for courtroom levels of proof, what has been a few dozen deaths from chemical weapons — in a war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives — could multiply. Israeli officials, in interviews, made clear that they see the limited use of sarin so far as a test by President Bashar al-Assad — and fear that a lack of international reaction would tempt him to deploy chemicals more broadly.
“If you ask me why they used it, I would say it was just to test the world,” an Israeli military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of army rules. “If somebody would take any reaction, maybe it would deter them from using it again.”
Amos Harel, the defense correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, said in a column Friday that this week’s wrestling over chemical weapons might have been as much about Iran as it was Syria. He noted that a speech Tuesday by Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s top military intelligence analyst, asserting that sarin had been used was followed by one in which Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence in Israel, declared that Iran was at or about to cross the red line set by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s possible that mention of chemical weapons was also intended as a wake-up call to the U.S.,” Mr. Harel wrote. “Israel may have expected that the Americans would stick to their guns in the Syrian case, as well, as a way of sending a regional signal that would also be understood in Tehran.”
Iran, too, may well be watching Mr. Obama’s decision-making on Syria closely. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has huge stakes in the survival of Mr. Assad, his only real ally in the region. And United States intelligence analysts believe that Iran’s leaders have interpreted two decades of American drift on the North — during which Mr. Obama’s three immediate predecessors all said they would never tolerate the country’s obtaining nuclear arms — as a sign that Washington will not wage war to stop even a rogue nation from obtaining nuclear arms, or the ability to build them.
If the United States intervened in Syria to secure its chemical stockpiles — perhaps organizing the Arab League, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council or NATO to share the job — Israeli officials say it would be a signal that Mr. Obama would most likely back up his warnings to Iran the same way. But the prospect of such a move also worries many in Jerusalem: one senior official said he feared that an intervention in Syria could also obfuscate “the problem of greater concern” for Israel, stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
All this is a reminder that red lines are never quite as clear as they sound at first. But failing to set limits has its own risks, as one of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party allies in Israel’s Parliament, Tzahi Hanegbi, said in an interview Friday with Israel Radio.
“There is also a problem in not setting red lines,” Mr. Hanegbi said. “Because then you admit from the outset that there is no line whose crossing is considered grounds for taking action.”
Still, Mr. Hanegbi said, Israel was not trying to force Mr. Obama’s hand. “I think that we have no interest in the world getting sucked into the fighting in Syria.”
April 26, 2013
In Trek North, First Lure Is Mexico’s Other Line
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico — With her leg snapped and folded excruciatingly over her shoulder, Elvira López Hernández lay flat on a railroad bed as the freight train hurtled above her, clinging tightly to two things: the railroad ties beneath her and the memory of the 4-year-old daughter she had left behind in Guatemala.
“I said: ‘My God, I don’t want to die! My daughter!’ ”
She slipped off the train in January, one of scores of migrant stowaways heading to the United States. Now she sat at a shelter here, an amputee. But she had no intention of returning to the crime and desperation of Guatemala City; she was still looking north.
“What can I do?” she said.
In Washington, the biggest immigration overhaul in decades would tighten border security between Mexico and the United States to stem the flow of illegal crossings.
But there is another border making the task all the more challenging: Mexico’s porous boundary with Central America, where an increasing number of migrants heading to the United States cross freely into Mexico under the gaze of the Mexican authorities. So many Central Americans are fleeing the violence, crime and economic stagnation of their homes that American officials have encountered a tremendous spike in migrants making their way through Mexico to the United States.
American arrests of illegal crossers from countries other than Mexico — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — more than doubled along the southwest border of the United States last year, to 94,532 from 46,997 in 2011.
Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, met with Mexican officials in January, partly to discuss improving security on Mexico’s border with its Central American neighbors, something the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has promised to do. The United States, which has provided equipment and other assistance to help shore up Mexico’s southern border, has long worried about migrants, drugs, guns and possibly even terrorists heading north, concerns shared by Mexico.
But Mexico has been conflicted about its border. Many here see migrants as Latin American brethren who need humanitarian assistance as they pass through on their journey north. Yet there is also growing concern that migrants may stay longer in Mexico as its economy picks up and it becomes harder to cross into the United States.
Here in Ciudad Hidalgo, a police officer watched on a riverbank as seven men crossed the narrow Suchiate River separating this part of Guatemala and Mexico. They sat on a makeshift raft of wooden planks and giant inflatable inner tubes, one of scores openly crossing back and forth carrying beer, paper towels, fruit, soft drinks and, of course, migrants heading to the United States.
The officer saw the men, dressed in tattered clothes and carrying backpacks, hop off the raft and drift into town. He did not stop or question them.
“If they are without papers, we would have to house and feed them until the immigration authorities come,” he said. “We don’t have a budget for that.”
The migrants from Central America speak of needing work — like previous generations. But they also talk about out-of-control crime in big cities, as drug and organized crime groups from Mexico push into their countries.
Few had even heard about the debate to overhaul immigration laws and possibly open a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the United States. Instead, the prevailing force seems to be deteriorating conditions at home.
Ms. López Hernández said neighbors had been kidnapped for ransom. One young man from Honduras hung his head as he recalled a brother gunned down. Another said he could never imagine returning to Honduras after being shot in the gut and seeing his sister’s arms chopped off by a man who invaded a party looking for a gang rival.
“Everybody wants to get out,” said another migrant from Honduras, Joel Bunes, 21.
The United States has poured money into Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to train and aid their police, but violence remains disturbingly high, raising vexing questions.
How far should the United States go in pressing Mexico to secure its free-for-all border? To what extent should the United States help alleviate the economic woes and instability driving migrants out of Central America, especially in cities like San Pedro Sula, Honduras, often called the murder capital of the world?
Next week, President Obama will attend a meeting with Central American presidents, who have said they want to discuss migration and improving the economy and public safety with him.
“This is a truly regional problem and needs regional decisions and even regional institutions to resolve, and the U.S. could play a larger role in developing that,” said Eduardo Stein, a former vice president of Guatemala who studies migration.
United States Customs and Border Protection said it planned to run public service announcements in Central America warning of the dangers of making the crossing. Migrants face robbers, rapists, crooked police officers and inhospitable terrain; disappearances are common.
Mexico says it is doing its part, spending about $300 million in the past few years building or modernizing border crossings, issuing identity cards for agriculture workers and establishing checkpoints on major roads to deter and catch migrants.
Yet on a recent afternoon, half of the eight checkpoints on a major highway heading north were unattended or staffed by officials paying only minimal attention. At one crossing at the Suchiate River, beneath a bridge, smugglers and migrants passed literally under the noses of customs and immigration officers above.
At a migrant shelter in Tapachula, young men from Honduras huddled around a map on a wall, placing one finger on Honduras and another on the United States.
“My God, we are not even halfway there,” one said.
Selvin Espinoza, 19, said the group had been robbed along the way by police officers in Guatemala who demanded nearly $100 for safe passage.
But factory jobs back home were drying up, Mr. Espinoza said, while gangs roamed, kidnapping and extorting at will.
“You cannot make enough to make ends meet,” he said.
Outside the shelter, a smuggler from El Salvador waited for them, recruiting more customers for the journey north.
“I know how to get them to the train north or on the buses,” he said.
Just north, in Arriaga, migrants gathered where the train, known as the Beast, departs for northern cities. A Panamanian bought soda as Guatemalans pooled their money for tortillas and Hondurans gathered around a pickup truck where church workers offered coffee and pastries.
Everybody knew of the danger of the train; nobody spoke of skipping it.
“I am afraid of the train, but it is something you have to do,” said one.
Ms. López Hernández knows it well. Her husband died four years ago, leaving her a widow at age 18 with a 9-month-old girl.
Unable to find work, she said, she decided to join a brother who had made it to Florida a few years before. He assured her there were jobs as maids, cooks, baby sitters, and she hoped to earn enough money to support her daughter and the relatives caring for her back home.
She made it to Mexico and onto the train. But after it departed there were cries of “Migra!” — the immigration police — and a scramble that sent her tumbling under the train.
“I closed my eyes and bore the pain,” she said.
Eddie Ventura, 31, a Guatemalan, stood on the bridge across the Suchiate River on the Guatemalan side, selling disposable razors for $1 apiece. His own prosthetic leg, an old donated one, rested against a railing; he had lost his leg, like Ms. López Hernández, after falling from the train, and now he watches his compatriots take their chances.
“They don’t know what is waiting for them,” Mr. Ventura said, shaking his head.
Yet he has not given up trying himself.
“I still want to get into that country,” he said of the United States.
04/25/2013 02:50 PM
Brazil's Heart of Darkness: Notorious Rebel-Killer May Finally Face Justice
By Erich Follath and Jens Glüsing
Like a character out of the film "Apocalypse Now," Colonel Sebastião de Moura allegedly hunted, tortured and killed rebels without remorse during Brazil's military dictatorship. Now, almost 40 years later, he is likely to face charges.
The Curió is at home where the Amazon rainforest begins to thin out and becomes slightly less impenetrable. It has a black back, its feathers are the color of hazelnuts and its call varies from light and bell-like to somber and plaintive. Rainforest residents like to catch the bird because, in captivity, the Curió reacts aggressively when confronted with one of its own kind in a cage. The bird is known for fighting until it drops, which makes it the perfect candidate for betting operations. Its name means "friend of mankind" in the local language. It's certainly an odd bird.
The man who is nicknamed after the bird also has a loose tongue. And everyone who knows him agrees that he is ruthless and brutal. But is Colonel Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura, known as Major Curió, also a friend of mankind? His enemies and friends alike can only shake their heads at the idea. "He doesn't have any feelings at all," says his associate Lício Maciel. In fact, he adds, if the retired Brazilian officer resembles anyone, it's a fictitious character: Colonel Kurtz, who went on murderous rampages through the jungles of the Mekong Delta in Francis Ford Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now," a megalomaniac who created his own realm, a godfather of horror culled from the pages of Joseph Conrad's novel about the Congo, "Heart of Darkness."
But the events and the people involved in the Brazilian's case are real. His story is one of murder and retribution, politics and personal vendettas. It's also about guilt, for which Major Curió will likely face charges in the near future.
It began during Brazil's military dictatorship in the late 1960s, when communist fighters became established along the Rio Araguaia. They wanted to be "fish in the water of the people," like their Maoist role models in China, and they planned to expand their operations from bridgeheads in the jungle to a large-scale revolution. They were an idealistic bunch, equipped only with light weapons and constantly threatened by malaria and snakebites. They remained undiscovered for a long time by blending in with the villagers along the big river, cautiously pushing forward with their infiltration campaign.
But in 1969 the military arrested regime opponents who were carrying information about the guerillas and, when tortured, revealed names. The military government was looking for someone to clean up in the Amazon region, and it found an agent within its own ranks who had just completed the army's jungle training program.
Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura came from a poor background. The son of a barber and a concierge, born in a small city in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, he had an unspectacular childhood. His ambitions were only aroused when a cousin, who had fought with the Brazilian expedition corps alongside the Italians in World War II, was carried through the streets in a victory parade. The sight convinced Sebastião that he too would be a hero one day and achieve great things for himself and his country.
He passed the entrance examinations for the military academy, where he distinguished himself through diligence and obedience. In his free time, he became a prizefighter to augment his paltry military pay. Through neither particularly tall nor powerfully built, he won almost every fight, and that was when he acquired his nickname.
The regime seemed to have hit the jackpot with Curió. Using an assumed name and given leeway to do more or less as he pleased, he circled the rebels' presumed hideouts in helicopters, chased them in Jeeps along bush trails and pursued them in boats on the river. He soon became notorious for taking no prisoners. According to some of the grisly stories that were told about him, Curió had people beheaded and personally supervised the worst of all the torture sessions. He and his men crushed the guerilla organization and covered their tracks. There was talk of at least 60 rebels dead or missing, and of collateral damage among the rural population, which sympathized with the rebels and also suffered casualties.
The officer continued building his career during the military dictatorship. Beginning in 1980, he managed Brazil's largest gold mine, cleansing it of what he called undesirable elements, and he built an entire city centered around brothels. Even after the military was forced out of power in 1985, Curió remained on top, becoming a member of parliament and then mayor of the city that bears his name: Curionópolis.
For a long time, many Brazilians were reluctant to revisit the military's acts of brutality, preferring to forget the period instead. Under an amnesty law enacted by the military leaders in 1979, crimes committed during the dictatorship were exempt from prosecution. But then Dilma Rousseff, 65, became the country's president two years ago. Rousseff, a former guerilla fighter, had been tortured and humiliated at the hands of the generals' thugs at a prison in São Paulo.
She established a truth commission, which is expected to solve politically motivated crimes by 2014. The family members of the rebels who went missing also didn't give up, bringing a case against the Brazilian government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It delivered a groundbreaking judgment on Nov. 24, 2010, declaring the existing amnesty invalid and recommending that the case be tried in a Brazilian court. Now a group of young prosecutors is trying to bring a case against those responsible for the atrocities. The first person against whom an indictment will likely be filed is Curió. The accused, now 78, retired long ago and is keeping quiet about the matter.
Is it truly possible to prove that he was guilty of crimes committed almost 40 years ago, and are there any witnesses left? Who has an interest in stirring up old incidents, and who would rather keep things quiet -- both in the brightly lit corridors of power in the capital Brasilia and in the place where it all happened, in the Amazon's own heart of darkness?
'He Was God'
The men are digging. Ominous dark clouds are gathering above the wide, sluggish river nearby. The tropical downpour that usually happens in the afternoon could begin at any moment. But the sun is still beating down relentlessly and the air is full of mosquitoes, and the men continue to dig. The hole is already a meter (about 3 feet) deep, but they keep digging deeper. Finally, Marco Guimarães kneels down in the pit, his black shirt soaked with perspiration, and triumphantly holds up an object.
"A human skull," the forensic pathologist from Brasilia calls up from the pit, as he carefully blows bits of sand from the bones. "Judging by the size of the jawbone, these are probably the remains of an adult male."
Could it be a murdered guerilla fighter?
"The man was buried without a coffin. The body was not pointing toward the west, as is customary in the region. There are remnants of a rope tied around the neck," the expert dictates. "All indications suggest a guerilla fighter." The scientist will only be able to provide more detail after comparing the bones with DNA from a relative, who had reported her family member missing and provided genetic material. The investigators are certain in the case of two exhumed bodies, found with the help of information from villagers who remembered the executions.
The search continues on the opposite bank of the river, reached on a rusty ferry that chugs its way through the greyish-brown water. Xambioá is a typical river village, with faded stone houses, general stores and simple fish restaurants. The cemetery is on the edge of the village, near a decorative Catholic church. The investigators are also exhuming bodies in the cemetery and categorizing the bones. Even the dead can tell stories, but only if they are properly understood.
The investigators are pinning their hopes on Manuel Cajueiro, one of the local witnesses. He is sitting on one of the white gravestones, a wizened old man who wants to help and is still plagued with remorse over what happened decades ago. "On the other hand, what could I have done?" he whispers, as if expecting absolution. "I couldn't rebel against them, because they were too powerful."
At the time, Cajueiro was forced to expedite the hunt for fleeing rebels. "Curió was the law," says the old man. "No, in fact, he was more than that: He was God." He had heads chopped off and taken to a military base as evidence. Aside from his job, Curió had few other interests. "A general once arrived in a helicopter and shouted from the cockpit: Pack up the bodies. We'll get them on the way back. Let's go fishing!" Curió went along with the general.
According to Cajueiro, the colonel personally tortured his prisoners, using iron rods or fists, and he was always unemotional and stone-faced. The old man characterizes Curió as a systematic torturer, someone who wanted to see "results." Cajueiro even witnessed his boss committing a murder once. "We had tracked down several fighters in the jungle, and they had already been disarmed and tied up," he says. "Curió asked a young female rebel what her name was. She looked at him with contempt and said: A guerillera has no name. He turned toward her, pulled out his pistol and shot her in the head. Just like that. In the head."
Campaigning for the 'Disappeared'
A huge gallery of images covers an entire wall in the office of Victória Grabois, 69. At first glance, they look like nothing but harmless passport photos. But the truth is more tragic than that. "This is my husband, on the left," she says. "He disappeared in the Araguaia region in 1973, with my father, whose photo is next to his. And this down here is my brother, also a guerillero, and also a desaparecido."
She calls them the "disappeared," and yet she has no hope of ever seeing them alive again. She wants to know what happened, to see the remains of her loved ones buried and the culprits punished. It's what keeps her alive and gives her strength. She has to stick it out with the organization she co-founded, "Tortura Nunca Mais" ("Torture Never Again"), to finally put an end to the family nightmare. The many attractions of Rio de Janeiro -- nicknamed the "maravilhosa," or marvelous one, with its beaches, restaurants and galleries -- are just outside her doorstep. But amusement is a thing of the past for Grabois.
When she was in her late 20s, Grabois rebelled against the brutal military dictatorship and, like the rest of her family, sympathized with the outlawed communists. She understood why her husband, along with her father and her brother, became guerilla fighters, even though she was left behind with her young son, and despite the feeling that she could be saying goodbye to them forever. She never doubted that the struggle was worth it, she says, as her trembling voice becomes a bit firmer. She too would have gone into the jungle with the guerillas, but when she became pregnant, she says, her comrades insisted on removing her from the line of fire.
Didn't Grabois realize how hopeless and insane the jungle venture was? The question puzzles her. It's important to view the struggle in the context of the era, she explains. Fidel Castro's revolution certainly wouldn't have been launched under more favorable circumstances, she says, noting that Mao's teachings made sense to them at the time. "Anyone with a conscience simply had to do something against the brutal military dictatorship," she says.
Since no on else had the perseverance to keep up the campaign for the disappeared, Grabois did it herself. In 1980, she made her first research trip to Araguaia, traveling on her own, and more trips followed. She managed to find and identify two bodies. Nowadays, she says, she doesn't trust the democratic government's initiatives, even though President Rousseff was a guerilla herself. "She has to account for political realities," Grabois says. "Many of the military officers want only one thing: to forget those embarrassing episodes."
Grabois sees Curió as a henchman of the regime in power at the time. But he was also a driver and an especially ruthless implementer of its policies. "He once went on record as saying that he and his people had been given orders not to leave the jungle until they had killed every last guerilla," she says.
Grabois believes that Curió has kept all the files relating to his murders. He is a person, she says, who meticulously documented his actions, like the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge. "He bragged about it," she says. Grabois wants those documents. She is not convinced that there will be a trial, saying that influential friends and legal dodges could prevent it from happening.
But there has been a pretrial hearing. She forced herself to go, encouraged by her son, a university professor. Curió turned around and looked at her, and she stared back at him. But he didn't testify, nor did he say a word to her. It was only back in her office that she realized that her entire body was shaking.
Foes in the Jungle and Parliament
Hardly anyone has ever come as close to Colonel Curió as José Genoino, 66. It was first in the jungle and later in politics. And it was a painful, physical closeness.
Genoino, a working-class child who wasn't given his first pair of shoes until he was 15, was enthusiastic about Mao's writings and, as a student, made connections among the rebels. He set out into the jungle at 23 after being tasked with doing so by communist cells. He was used as a messenger for the rebels, who were waiting for revolutionary instructions from China.
After a few months, just as Genoino was beginning to feel somewhat comfortable, the adventure came to a sudden end. He walked into a trap and was arrested. Curió was apparently one of the men who grabbed him and took him to the capital. Genoino admits that he revealed secrets in the prison after being brutally tortured. But he insists that he didn't betray any of his co-conspirators.
He was in prison for five years, longing for the end of the dictatorship. He became politically active again in 1982 but severed his ties to the communists. He won a seat in parliament for the Workers' Party, and there he met his former persecutor, Curió, who had won a seat for a conservative faction. The two men avoided each other.
Genoino's career took off. In 2002, he was elected president of the Workers' Party. He enjoyed the confidence of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had won the presidential election. In his modest little house in a middle-class neighborhood of São Paulo, Genoino had collected everything that had been written at the time about the uprising in the Amazon region. Sometimes he would sit there at night, smoking a cigar and thinking about his days in the jungle. "Major Curió was hungry for power," he says. "Brazil let him do as he pleased, and there is still that city that was named after this criminal, and that worships him."
A Man for All Systems
It started with the gold mine, the Serra Palada, but then things became chaotic and Major Curió was brought in. In the early 1980s, more than 100,000 adventurous souls had set out to dig around like ants in the legendary "Bald Mountain," where enormous nuggets were found, the largest weighing more than six kilograms (13 lbs.). The gold rush flushed away all traces of civilized society. The workers came to blows over the best prospecting sites, they drank to excess every night, and pimps auctioned off prostitutes to the highest bidder. The military sent its hatchet man into this lawless environment, and Curió did what he did best: He cleaned up relentlessly. After the Rio Araguaia, the Serra Pelada mine became his second lifelong dream, the joy of his later years.
Curió threatened to have escaped criminals executed by firing squad, imposed curfews and established rules for buying gold. He banished the prostitutes to buildings 30 kilometers from the mine. A small city grew up around the brothels, and Curió self-confidently named it Curionópolis, apparently hoping to build a legacy bigger than just the guerilla graves. After completing his term in parliament, he was elected mayor of Curionópolis. He proved that he could be a man for all systems, successfully managing the transition from military dictatorship to democracy. Some even mourn his loss today, despite the executions. "He was the most effective mayor we ever had in Curionópolis," says Fernando Lopes, the union leader, near the old Curió villa, which unemployed gold prospectors have occupied for months. "His methods were questionable, but he brought order to the place."
Convinced of Innocence
In Brasilia, where he now lives, Curió has hired a top attorney to represent him. His name, Adelino Tucunduva, is printed on his expensive-looking black business cards, and his behavior is similarly ostentatious. Tucunduva, 71, calls his client his "best friend." He believes that the prosecution will embarrass itself, and that it has no case. According to Tucunduva, Curió's actions were always correct. "There is nothing he should regret and, in my eyes, he is a hero who protected us from great evils," Tucunduva says. "Every administration happens to have its own philosophy, and each one needs its scapegoat -- and this time it's Curió."
The defendant lives in an upscale middle-class suburb. He doesn't want to display any legal weaknesses and insists that he can only be quoted as saying the following. With regard to his work, he says: "The goal was to protect the integrity of the nation at all costs." And when asked about the torture allegations, he notes: "I ran interrogations, and you don't exactly serve cookies there. There is a limited window for extracting important information from an enemy prisoner. Such interrogations cannot be soft and must be in keeping with the circumstances." And when asked about the military dictatorship's crimes, he says: "If there were excesses, they are nothing when compared to the abuses that communist governments elsewhere have gotten away with."
The old man goes shopping every morning, and he also visits his three sons. He takes a nap in the afternoon. In the evening, he drinks a beer and sometimes watches one of the telenovelas that are ubiquitous on Brazilian television. But according to his attorney, he usually switches channels, searching from something more graphic, such as war films.
The retired colonel, who receives a pension of €2,500 ($3,300) a month, is enjoying his golden years. He has also forgiven his victims. He says that he has now accepted the notion that the young rebels of Araguaia "were probably idealists, imbued with a spirit not unlike our own. But their path went in one direction and mine in the other."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan