North Korea set to stage major military drill
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 10:18 EDT
North Korea appears to be gearing up for a major military exercise, a report said, amid tensions over an expected missile test and South Korea’s pullout from a joint industrial complex.
Preparations are under way near the North’s western port of Nampo for a combined live-fire drill involving artillery units and air force jets, the South’s Yonhap news agency said, citing a Seoul government source.
“It appears that the scale of the drill will be quite big,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying, voicing fears of military provocations against the South or a missile test by Pyongyang during the exercise.
A North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November 2010 killed four people. Seoul also holds Pyongyang responsible for the sinking of one of its naval vessels with the loss of 46 sailors the same year.
Angered by new United Nations sanctions over its third nuclear test in February and joint South Korea-US military drills — due to end on Tuesday — the North has for weeks been issuing threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.
The expected missile launch has kept Seoul and Washington on heightened alert for the past month, particularly on key dates such as the founding anniversary of the North’s military and the birth of its late founding leader.
But Pyongyang, which has a habit of linking high-profile military tests with key dates, celebrated the key dates without the test, fanning speculations that the wait may even take months.
Another Seoul military official quoted by Yonhap said the communist North may try to “fan military tension” after South Korea pulls out all its remaining workers from a jointly run factory park.
Kaesong — built in 2004 just north of the border as a rare symbol of inter-Korea cooperation and a valued source of hard currency for the impoverished North — has fallen victim to the growing cross-border tensions.
Seoul on Friday announced that it would withdraw all of its remaining workers from the site after Pyongyang rejected its ultimatum to join formal negotiations on restarting the stalled operations.
Dozens of workers returned on Saturday and the remaining 50 are expected to leave on Monday, a move that experts say could lead to the permanent closure of the complex, seen as a bellwether of stability on the Korean peninsula.
Thousands march in Japan’s first ‘Rainbow Week’ parade
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 10:07 EDT
Thousands of people marched in Tokyo on Sunday at the start of Japan’s first “Rainbow Week”, a series of events aimed at supporting sexual minorities.
Organisers said about 12,000 people took part in the parade, which has been running for several years, and other events on Sunday, part of a programme that runs until May 6.
“This is our first attempt to link up with many groups” of sexual minorities, said one of the organisers, Hiroko Masuhara, 35. “The parade is a symbolic event in the (Tokyo) Rainbow Week programme.”
Masuhara, who held a wedding with her partner at Tokyo Disney Resort last month, said support for gay rights was rising in Japan.
“We have an impression that we are seeing more women and various nationalities of people participating in our parade in recent years,” she said.
Gay marriage has no legal standing in Japan despite growing legal recognition elsewhere in the world.
Vietnam’s gay sitcom becomes an Internet sensation
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 10:15 EDT
Vietnam’s first gay sitcom has become a YouTube sensation, racking up millions of views as support for legalising same-sex marriage strengthens within the communist government.
Homosexuality was once seen as a social evil in Vietnam and the success of “My Best Gay Friends”, a low-budget series about three people sharing an apartment in southern Ho Chi Minh City, has taken even its creator by surprise.
“I thought it would only interest Vietnam’s gay community — but we’re hearing that parents, grandparents, whole families watch and love the shows and long for new episodes,” Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa, who also stars in the series, told AFP.
From moving out of home to work and relationship trouble, the series details life as a typical perpetually-broke twenty-something in Vietnam — but the characters are mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Khoa decided to make the show after hearing about the weird but often very amusing situations faced by a close friend — who also stars in the sitcom — as he came out and began living an openly gay life in Vietnam.
“We didn’t have much money so everyone chipped in — we had a little cash to cover equipment, and buying food for when we were shooting all day,” said Khoa, who used his own digital SLR camera to shoot the whole series.
Most of the characters are played by Khoa’s friends — both gay and straight — but Cindy Thai Tai, a well-known transgender singer who was one of the first Vietnamese celebrities to have sex-change surgery, also makes an appearance.
“I wanted to show people that homosexuals have ordinary lives, full of emotion, friends, family — very normal lives,” said 22-year-old Khoa, who is himself gay.
While it is not illegal, homosexuality has long been a taboo in Vietnam, where Confucian social mores — with their emphasis on tradition and family — still dominate.
But in a surprise move last year the authoritarian government said it was considering legalising same-sex marriage — a proposal that recently won the support of the Ministry of Health.
“People of the same sex have the right to live… love, find happiness (and) get married,” said Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Viet Tien.
The move would make Vietnam the second country in the Asia Pacific region to legalise such unions after New Zealand.
Some symbolic but non-legally binding same-sex weddings have already been held in Vietnam, with footage of one such event going viral in 2010.
Sociologist Le Quang Binh told AFP that social attitudes towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community were changing rapidly in Vietnam at the moment but it was hard to know how much “My Best Gay Friends” had helped.
“We are lobbying the government on (same-sex weddings). I hope good change will come,” said Binh, who has worked on numerous research projects on Vietnam’s LGBT community.
Even if Vietnam stops short of allowing gay marriage, any legal change to recognise same-sex unions would catapult the country to the forefront of gay rights in Asia, where traditional values dominate many societies and sodomy is illegal in some.
“My Best Gay Friends” tackles the issue in episode nine — the most recent episode which has already been watched half a million times — when a lesbian wedding ceremony runs into problems.
“The couple is female! This wedding goes against Vietnamese traditions and customs,” the manager of a restaurant says as she forces the wedding party to leave the establishment. “They are violating the law.”
When one flamboyant member of the party — played by Cindy Thai Tai — protests, asking “so you think that the homosexuals have no rights to love and wed each other lawfully?” the manager quickly explains the establishment has no choice.
“Please madam, local authorities called us and forced us to cancel this wedding. If we go against the order we’ll get a serious fine!” the manager adds.
The wedding is quickly moved to an alternative venue and goes ahead — to the delight of the couple’s friends and family present.
The first episode of the low-budget series recently passed the one million views mark and the further eight completed episodes, out of a planned 15, are swiftly accruing hits.
“I feel a lot of sympathy, and admiration, towards the friendship and love they show for each other. I think they live a more beautiful life than ordinary people,” read one typical comment from a viewer, posted on YouTube.
In 2011, curious Vietnamese filmgoers streamed into cinemas to catch “Lost in Paradise”, which chronicled the doomed love affair between a gay prostitute and a book seller, providing a rare glimpse into a usually hidden side of the country.
Despite the online popularity of “My Best Gay Friends” Khoa said there were no plans to broadcast the series on television as it was “rather sensitive” and did not appeal to networks or their advertisers.
Southern Africa's first multiracial school celebrates 50 triumphant years
Waterford school in Swaziland reflects on its historic role with a series of parades and tributes from students old and new
David Smith in Mbabane
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 April 2013 10.00 BST
Russell Palmer, a journalist from South Africa, described it as like landing on another planet, a feeling of having suddenly arrived in an environment so different from what he has known that there is overwhelming bewilderment. The place was Waterford school, just 14 miles across the border in Swaziland, but a brave new world in its attitude to race.
The first multiracial school in southern Africa was born in direct opposition to the apartheid regime, which branded it "sick" and "unnatural", and became a haven for the children of struggle leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Desmond Tutu. On Saturday it celebrated its 50th anniversary with colourful parades, performances and reflections on its courageous role in the continent's history.
"We were here during the era of apartheid and this school was an absolute beacon of what was to come," former student Amanda West, a last-minute replacement for Tutu as guest speaker after he withdrew due to illness, told a gathering of alumni, donors and teachers past and present. "As a student population we were wildly involved in the politics … This is an astounding place."
Eighty-six nationalities have studied there over the years and most were represented in a sports field parade featuring students in national dress and speaking national languages. Although it ran the gamut from Angola to Zimbabwe, the biggest cheer was reserved for the Swazi delegation.
Then came a series of cultural performances including ballroom, hip-hip and traditional Swazi dancing along with martial artists chopping a plank of wood and a finale symbolising how Waterford rose like a phoenix from the ashes of school closures in South Africa. Students ran food stalls selling everything from Mozambican prawns to American chocolate chip cookies and staged a debate on African leadership in the school hall.
For West, 50, who works in marketing and lives near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, it was a moving spectacle. She was last here in the seventies shortly after events such as the Soweto uprising and murder of Steve Biko. "It's no exaggeration to say the student diaspora was on top of and absorbed in every political event happening in South Africa."
On one occasion, she recalled, two students locked themselves in a broom cupboard for a weekend to understand the plight of political prisoners in solitary confinement. Another student, Susan Westcott, later joined the African National Congress's armed struggle and was imprisoned for terrorism. Tutu came to speak at school assemblies.
Among West's friends was Zindzi Mandela, one of two of Nelson Mandela's daughters to attend. "Sometimes Zindzi would be able to get home, other times not because she couldn't get over the border," she said. "She was very lively and a very strong individual. There were really big moments where she would go to see her dad."
The seed of this "South African school in exile" was planted by a 1955 article in the Observer newspaper in the UK, written by the priest and anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston and headlined "For God's sake, wake up!" His warning of what apartheid laws would mean for education inspired Essex teacher Michael Stern to emigrate to South Africa.
He became head of a black school in Johannesburg but it was shut down and he was appointed head of a white school. Frustrated, Stern went on a work-camp in neighbouring Swaziland, then a British protectorate, and came up with the idea of a secondary school for all races or, as he put it, "a happy human mixture".
Martin Kenyon, 83, Waterford's longest-serving trustee in London, attended the weekend celebrations and recalled: "Michael was a very old-fashioned English schoolmaster. He came to me and slept on my floor and was looking for the great and the good to help."
Benefactors soon included Harry Oppenheimer, head of Anglo American, Lady Dorothy Macmillan, wife of the prime minister Harold, the dean of Westminster and actor and director Richard Attenborough, whose decades of support include the Sheila and Richard Attenborough fine art centre on campus.
The school opened in 1963 on part of what had been Waterford farm, owned by Irish immigrants, high on a hill overlooking the capital, Mbabane. Another supporter was the Swazi king Sobhuza II who would rename it Waterford Kamhlaba ("of the earth") There were 16 boys and a basic curriculum including English, maths, science, history, geography, a choice of languages – Afrikaans, Zulu, Latin, French, Portuguese – divinity, art, woodwork, forestry, engineering and music.
It was a revolutionary act under the nose of the white-minority regime. Kenyon, who lives in Stockwell in London added: "Michael said it was unnatural for people to be divided by the colour of their skins. It was a huge statement. It was kicking against bricks just over the border. A lot of students couldn't go home because South Africa assumed Michael was a communist."
School lore, passed down successions of teachers and students, has it that the apartheid government sent spies masquerading as parents to the campus and believed that radio masts on a nearby hill were being used to send secret messages to Moscow.
Bruce Wells, the acting headteacher, who as a boy went to a "coloured" school in South Africa, said: "Waterford was very brave and bold. It was a very provocative thing to do at the time, showing a finger to the South African authorities."
In the past half century, nearly 5,000 students have passed through the school, including Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, Richard E Grant, the actor, Matthew Parris, the British MP turned journalist, and Mandela's grandson Mandla. Prince Charles came in 1987, while Khama and the king of Swaziland have visited to mark the 50th anniversary.
Today the school has 600 students from 50 countries and 55 academic staff from 20 countries; 80% of the student body is African and 30% from Swaziland. Fees range from 49,000 to 130,000 emalangeni (£3,477 to £9,224). Nearly a third of students receive bursaries, meaning that children from townships and refugee camps rub shoulders with the sons and daughters of royalty, diplomats and tycoons. Many go on to prestigious US universities.
Waterford's mission has broadened from opposition to apartheid to concerns around economic inequality and international dialogue. It is part of the United World Colleges movement.
"I'd never hung out with a Muslim or atheist before," said Zimbabwean Dalumuzi Mhlanga, 24, who after leaving the school went to Harvard University in America and is bound for Oxford. "I'd never gone to school with a white person. Your world view changes. There is so much that everyone brings to the table."
Ruddy Paluku Ndina, 18, spent years in a refugee camp in Swaziland after fleeing conflict in Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. He secured a scholarship at Waterford and is about to study at university in Canada. "It does hurt knowing that you're from a background where you don't have much," he reflected. "But most of my friends didn't know I was a refugee. The school also does a good job of hiding the disparity between rich and poor. They did things to make me fit in."
Although students undertake community service projects, this idyllic and idealistic microcosm can seem remote above an impoverished, HIV-hit nation, the last absolute monarchy in Africa. The recent visit of King Mswati III generated healthy debate among staff and students, with some arguing that more should be done to welcome him, while others questioned whether such an undemocratic figure should be invited at all.
One member of staff said: "I think the school hasn't worked out its relationship with the king. As we are guests in this country, we can't really push against the system too much."
Walking a diplomatic tightrope, acting headteacher Wells explained: "We've always viewed our position as guests of this country at the invitation of the royal family. While we disagree with some of the policies of the country, we find it difficult to be vocal about it. We change the world by providing better education to children.
"There has been debate that we should leave this country because it's oppressive but we also feel that we would be letting down Swaziland."
One man missing from the 50th anniversary events was Stern, who died in a car accident in Britain in 2002 aged 80. In an article for the Swaziland Recorder in 1963, he wrote: "We are trying to prove nothing except that there is nothing to prove. At the worst we shall find it as difficult as starting any new school anywhere; at the best we shall have made our small contribution to better human understanding in southern Africa."
Kenya’s new cellphone money model could disrupt global banking industry
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 17:17 EDT
AFP - Six months ago, Jane Adhiambo Achieng walked into a local Kenyan bank with the hope of getting a loan for her small grocery business.
After providing all the paperwork and after weeks of back and forth between her and bank officials, she was turned down.
“They just told me I don’t qualify. My income was too little,” said 42-year-old Achieng, who was asking for some $250 — about half her monthly turnover — to expand her fruit and vegetable stall in the Kenyan capital.
But in early March, she applied for the same amount through a different source — and got the money in a matter of minutes.
She credits the Kenyan mobile telephone money application called M-Shwari that lent her the cash for facilitating the growth of her business.
M-Shwari is a new banking platform that allows subscribers of Kenya’s biggest mobile network, Safaricom, to operate savings accounts, earn interest on deposits, and borrow money using their mobile phones.
It expands on Kenya’s revolutionary use of sending money by mobile phone — known as M-Pesa, “mobile money” in Swahili — launched in 2007 and now widely used across the east African nation, where some 70 percent of people have mobile phones.
With a minimum transfer of cash set at five shillings — around five US cents — the application revolutionised day-to-day banking for millions left out of the formal system, and is used for transactions ranging from sending money to far-away relatives to paying utility bills or even school fees.
Now it is hoped the new M-Shwari application — meaning “no hassle” — can do the same for savers and borrowers.
“We have always been thinking of how to move M-Pesa forward. We knew there was a boundary to be broken and the next frontier was to be reached,” said Nzioka Muita, communications manager at Safaricom, which owns both the M-Pesa and M-Shwari systems.
Through this platform, Safaricom says clients can open a bank account, move money in and out of their savings accounts, and access instant micro-credit of a minimum of 100 Kenyan shillings — slightly more than a dollar — at any time, all through the mobile phone application.
While loans must be repaid within a month, a single fee of 7.5 percent is charged, a far lower interest rate than high-street banks. Maximum loans depend on how much clients have in their M-Shwari accounts.
The mobile banking application has been so successful that on its first day of operations late last year, more than 70,000 new accounts were opened.
“Up to this point in time, no one in the formal banking sector had thought of implementing such an idea,” said Tiberius Barasa, an economic expert with Kenya’s Institute of Policy Research and Analysis.
“I am sure that a few bank managers are looking at M-Shwari steadily to see if it is a potential threat to their business.”
At least 12 million Kenyans remain outside the formal banking system, according to central bank estimates.
Safaricom controls about 70 percent of the Kenya mobile-phone market, translating to some 19 million subscribers. Of those, some 15 million are already M-Pesa users, a customer base rivalling any banking institution.
On its own, M-Pesa transactions account for more than $50 million (38 million euros) every day in Kenya.
“This is a huge head start for the company,” Barasa said.
M-Shwari was launched in partnership with one of Kenya’s privately owned banks, the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), a deal that could see it boost its slice of the banking sector of east Africa’s largest economy.
The family of newly elected President Uhuru Kenyatta hold the major stake in CBA, which provides the banking infrastructure for M-Shwari.
Currently, even with its slightly over $1 billion asset base, it is still some distance away from east Africa’s largest banks, such as Equity Bank, Cooperative Bank and the Kenya Commercial Bank.
“In a matter of years, through the sheer volume of transactions that they will be handling on a daily basis, CBA may become a banking powerhouse in the region,” Barasa said.
Policy analysts believe that the biggest winners from the M-Shwari service will be those in the market previously thought unbankable, due to its meagre savings and individuals located in remote, inaccessible parts of the country.
“This will greatly change our lives. You can access credit from any part of the country,” Abbas Godana, a school teacher in Kenya’s remote eastern Tana River district, told AFP.
“You do not have to travel for miles to your bank just to complete some paperwork and wait for the manager to approve the loan.”
Godana’s village, Cha Mwana Muma, is some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the nearest shopping centre in which his bank operates a branch — which, in the impoverished coastal area, where roads are virtually nonexistent, can take a whole day to travel.
In February this year, three months after its launch, transactions on M-Shwari crossed the $35-million mark, with 1.6 million customers having used the service for deposits or loans.
M-Shwari was not the first: telecommunications company Bharti Airtel, an Indian-owned firm, launched a similar product last year known as Kopa Chapaa — Swahili for “borrow money” — but the product has not had as much impact.
Smaller micro-credit loan companies have also set up similar schemes.
But “Safaricom has the numbers,” Barasa said. “All they need to do is ensure that whatever they come up with resonates with the majority of their subscribers.”
Diplomats warn westerners in Libya face growing threat of violence
By Chris Stephen, The Observer
Sunday, April 28, 2013 20:43 EDT
Diplomats are warning of growing Islamist violence against western targets in Libya as blowback from the war in Mali, following last week’sattack on the French embassy in Tripoli.
The bomb blast that wrecked much of the embassy is seen as a reprisal by Libyan militants for the decision by Paris the day before to extend its military mission against fellow jihadists in Mali.
The Guardian has learned that jihadist groups ejected from their Timbuktu stronghold have moved north, crossing the Sahara through Algeria and Niger to Libya, fuelling a growing Islamist insurgency.
“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya – we know there are established routes,” said a western diplomat in Tripoli. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”
That anxiety escalated last week after militants detonated a car bomb outside the French embassy, wounding two French guards and a Libyan student, the first such attack on a western target in the Libyan capital since the end of the 2011 Arab spring revolution.
“The armed groups we are fighting are fleeing to Libya,” said Colonel Keba Sangare, commander of Mali’s army garrison in Timbuktu. “We have captured Libyans in this region, as well as Algerians, Nigerians, French and other European dual-nationals.”
France sent troops to Mali in January after an uprising in the north started by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), named for the independent state it hopes to create.
The impetus for this uprising came from ethnic Tuareg soldiers who had fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi and fled south when his regime fell. They were later augmented by jihadists from Libya and across northAfrica, who triggered international condemnation for their destruction of ancient Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. The fear across the Maghreb is that the French operation that has pushed them out of the northern cities has inadvertently compounded problems elsewhere in north Africa as jihadist units disperse.
“If you squeeze a balloon in one part, it bulges out in another,” said Bill Lawrence, of International Crisis Group, a political consultancy. “There’s no question that the French actions in Mali had the effect of squeezing that balloon towards Algeria and Libya.”
Timbuktu residents say there are links between Tuareg militants there and in southern Libya. “There were many Tuaregs in Mali who left during the drought of 1973 – some of them became senior figures in the Libyan army under Gaddafi,” said Mahaman Touré, 53. “I personally know a local Tuareg who became a general under Gaddafi and was here with the jihadists. Now they have all gone back to Libya.”
Diplomats say jihadists cross the Sahara to join cadres in Libya’s eastern coastal cities of Benghazi and Derna. Police stations in both cities have been hit by bombings in the past few days, part of an insurgency that threatens to undermine the country’s fragile new democracy. Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, claimed at the weekend that Benghazi was now home to training camps for Chadian rebel fighters.
“From the perspective of an Islamist, it makes sense,” said Dr Berny Sèbe, an expert on the Sahara region from Birmingham University. “If you are in northern Mali, the best thing that you can do is to make your way across Niger and then into southern Libya, where there is no state control.”
Eastern Libya has long been a base for Islamists, who launched an unsuccessful uprising against Gaddafi in the 1990s. Their units reappeared in the uprising two years ago, and while many have integrated with government forces, others are campaigning for a state ruled by clerics rather than secular politicians. Benghazi has become a virtual no-go area for foreigners following attacks on the British, Italian and Tunisian consulates, the fire-bombing of an Egyptian Coptic church and the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in September when militants overran the American consulate. The bombing in Tripoli indicates that terrorism has now spread to the capital.
“Libya suffers this Mali blowback in two ways,” said a diplomat in Tripoli. “First there are the fighters arriving here, second there are units carrying out attacks in support of their brothers [in Mali].”
The result is not only being felt in Libya. In January, units from al-Qaida in the Maghreb, an Algerian-based al-Qaida offshoot, struck the In Amenas gas plant, killing 38 hostages, in what they said was retaliation for the France’s Mali offensive.
Ordinary Libyans are suffering. Watching French police investigators sifting through the mangled wreckage outside the abandoned embassy, neighbour Emad Tillisy, a Tripoli businessman, shook his head. “This is so bad for Libya,” he said. “It is the worst message we can send out to the world. We need to have foreigners coming here for business, to build our country, but after this [bombing] they say ‘no thanks, have a nice day’.”
Libya’s efforts to tackle the militants are restricted by the distrust felt by much of the population for government security units, many of them drawn from former Gaddafi-era formations. Twin rocket attacks on oil and gas pipelines earlier this month south of Benghazi have meanwhile sent a shudder through Libya’s oil industry, almost its only export earner.
Libya has already piled resources into cutting the jihadist flow of men and weapons over its southern border, declaring its entire desert region a “free fire zone” for patrolling jets. In the south-west, work has now finished on a 108-mile trench cut through the desert to deter smugglers crossing into Libya.
But experts say the Libyans face a herculean task. “To ensure that these borders are completely sealed off is impossible – we are talking about desert areas with mountains and very narrow valleys,” said Sèbe.
Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zaidan, has vowed to launch a clear-out of militias in Benghazi, but many wonder if he has enough reliable units for the job.
In December Washington provided drones and an Orion electronic warfare aircraft to support government units arresting jihadist suspects in Benghazi. It is now delivering border surveillance equipment to Libya and setting up a base for drones in Niger, from where it can monitor both Mali and Libya.
This policy has its critics, who say experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows military action works only when coupled with a political process that ensures the grievances of all sections of the population are met, denying militants popular support. “A drone-only approach to intelligence gathering can backfire,” said Lawrence. “There’s always bad guys who may blow up buildings – the question is what sea are they swimming in? The priority should be the support of a legitimate government that reflects the aspirations of all elements of Libyan society.”
The rise of Islamism in north Africa has spawned a galaxy of competing jihadist organisations, with alliances as fluid as the borders they cross. The units that staged the northern Mali uprising were drawn from both Libyan Tuareg fighters and jihadists, despite the fact that they fought on opposite sides in Libya’s civil war. “For me, they are all the same – the Islamists and the MNLA,” said Ahamadou Tahir, who was attacked by militants while delivering medical supplies 60 miles north of Timbuktu. “They all have guns and they all want to cause us harm.”
Jobless Tunisian man sets himself on fire at key revolutionary site
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 16:20 EDT
AFP – A young jobless man set himself ablaze and was seriously wounded on Sunday in front of the town hall of Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, witnesses said.
Brahim Slimani, 23, doused himself with petrol and set himself alight in front of the closed town hall, to the alarm of passers-by who rushed to his rescue.
He was taken to the local hospital where doctors said he had third degree burns over three-quarters of his body.
Witnesses said the man did not utter a word before his action but a friend told AFP that he was unemployed and living in poverty.
The number of people committing suicide or trying to take their own lives has multiplied since a young Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in a drastic act of protest against police harassment.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s death ignited a mass uprising that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali the following month and touched off the Arab Spring.
Limited economic prospects, especially in the neglected interior, were key factors behind Tunisia’s revolution. Two years on, nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, with unemployment at around 18 percent.
Northern Mali still unstable despite French intervention
Inhabitants of Timbuktu live in fear of attacks by bandits and suicide bombers
Afua Hirsch, West Africa correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 April 2013 15.10 BST
There is an eerie silence in Timbuktu. A sweltering heat lingers at this, the hottest time of year, and a mist of sand obscures the fabled Saharan town – but something is missing.
"When the jihadists came here, they killed all the dogs," explains Tahar Haidara, 32, one of the town's hotel owners. "They called it Operation Dog. There used to be many pet dogs here – they were barking at them and it annoyed them. So they [shot] them."
It's not just the absence of dogs – a staple presence in most Malian towns – that gives Timbuktu a subdued air. Banks, restaurants and many other businesses remain shut after they were looted and vandalised by the city's jihadist occupants. Army vehicles patrol the streets and there is a ban on driving after 6pm, when night begins to fall. The famously diverse city has been almost emptied of its Tuareg inhabitants. Residents say that only a few Tuareg women remain and all the men have left.
Many accuse the Tuaregs – whose rebellion in the quest for an independent state in the Malian desert paved the way for al-Qaida-linked rebels to seize control of northern Mali last April – of continuing to wage armed conflict. There are also reports of armed robbery. "There is a lot of banditry outside the city," said Colonel Gilles Bationo, from Burkina Faso, who leads the UN-backed African military force in the Timbuktu region. "It is difficult to know who is a jihadist, who is the MNLA [the Tuareg Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad], and who is a bandit. All these bandits have taken advantage of the security situation. The jihadists are getting supplies from people by attacking them on the road."
The security problems in northern Mali, where militants have lost their grip on towns but large weapons caches are believed to be hidden in the desert, have dampened the jubilant spirit that arose when French forces swept into the region in January. In addition to regular incidents outside Timbuktu, it and other towns in the north have been rocked by a spate of suicide bombings, previously unheard of in the country. Army officials and residents alike say it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of further similar attacks."No one knows if there will be more suicide bombings," said Bationo. "It is possible at any time. All we can do is continue to patrol the city and the area outside it, and to be vigilant."
On one empty billboard "Vive la France" has been scribbled in chalk, then crossed out. Nearby, Arabic graffiti is daubed on a wall in red paint.
Across the road, a gaudy mansion, which residents say belonged to a Tuareg narcotics chief, is barricaded with a makeshift fence of dry branches. The empty bag of an intravenous drip lies in the sand outside. "The jihadists were well-equipped," said Haidara, who left the city for the capital, Bamako, two days before the jihadist occupation began. "They had all their own medical supplies. They occupied this house when the owners were forced to flee.
"Everyone is happy that the French drove them out – that is why I came back. But the suicide bombings have made people fear that [we have] not really been liberated.
"We listen to music, dance, drink alcohol, do what we want. But at 9pm or 10pm, we go home and stay inside."
April 29, 2013
Syrian Prime Minister Escapes Assassination Bid
By ANNE BARNARD and ALAN COWELL
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the latest reported attack on a high-ranking Syrian official, Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt Monday in an upscale neighborhood of the capital, Damascus, when a car bomb exploded near his convoy, according to state-run media and opposition reports saying that a bodyguard was killed.
The reports said the attack had taken place in Mezze, a central district where many senior officials live. The prime minister was reportedly unhurt, thought state media said others had been injured. Video on state television showed a car reduced to a charred skeleton and, nearby, a bus with its windows shattered.
The assault fit a pattern of attempts to attack high officials. Less than two weeks ago, another official — Ali Balan, the government’s chief coordinator of emergency aid distribution to civilians — was killed by gunmen with silencer-equipped weapons at a restaurant in the same heavily guarded neighborhood, close to buildings housing government and military institutions.
Last July, an explosion at a security headquarters in the Syrian capital killed or wounded several key aides loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who has been fighting a growing revolt that began with street protests in March 2011 and has escalated into a bloody civil war with insurgents battling for positions across the land, including the outskirts of Damascus.
State television in Syria called the attack a “terrorist explosion” that was “an attempt to target the convoy of the prime minister.” Terrorist is the word used by the authorities to depict their armed adversaries. The television said the prime minister was “well and not hurt at all,” Reuters reported, but his condition could not immediately be independently confirmed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and draws information from a network of opposition sources inside Syria, said initial reports showed that a bodyguard had been killed.
Mr. Halqi has been part of an effort by President Assad to wage an energized diplomatic campaign to persuade the United States that it is on the wrong side of the civil war.
“We are partners in fighting terrorism,” Mr. Halqi said of the United States in a recent interview.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from London. Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.
April 28, 2013
Israel Says It’s Not Seeking U.S. Intervention in Syria, Despite Chemical Arms
By ETHAN BRONNER
A senior Israeli official said Sunday that Israel was not urging the United States to take military action in Syria, despite intelligence assessments asserting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad recently used chemical weapons in the civil war gripping its country.
The official, Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations, also said that his government saw no comparison between American policy toward Syria and the Obama administration’s announced intention to stop Iran from gaining nuclear capability.
“We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria,” Mr. Steinitz said at a conference in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post. “And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.”
Last week, the research chief of Israeli military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, said he had evidence that Mr. Assad’s government had repeatedly used chemical weapons in the past month.
Then, on Thursday, the White House told Congressional leaders that the nation’s intelligence agencies had determined, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that Mr. Assad’s government had used sarin, a chemical agent, on a small scale. President Obama said last summer that use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that, if crossed, could prompt the United States to intervene, but administration officials made clear that more conclusive evidence would be necessary before any action would be taken.
Some Israeli officials and analysts suggested that Mr. Assad was testing Mr. Obama and that failure to act could send a signal to Iran that American threats were not to be taken seriously.
But Mr. Steinitz said the situations in the two countries were not comparable. Syria was engaged in a civil war with terrible humanitarian consequences internally; Iran’s nuclear program, he contended, posed devastating, even existential, threats to Israel and much of the region and world.
“It is problem No. 1 of our generation,” he said of Iran’s nuclear program, comparing it, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often done, to the threat posed by the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s.
Mr. Steinitz said that recent visits to Israel by top American officials, including President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, had shown the deep level of cooperation between the two countries, especially on the matter of Iran. But, he added, Israel had made clear to the visitors that it could not hand off such a significant security issue to anyone — even its closest ally — and that it had to be able to handle the threat on its own.
Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at energy generation, not weapons.
The questions of Syria, where more than 70,000 civilians have been killed, and of Iranian nuclear ambition hovered over much of the conference at which Mr. Steinitz spoke. Meir Dagan, a past head of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, said he doubted that chemical weapons used in Syria, which he described as limited, had been authorized by Mr. Assad. Therefore, he said, he understood American caution about intervening.
Mr. Dagan also endorsed a statement made by an earlier speaker, Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, who said Israel’s strategic situation was better than it had been in many years because its neighbors all faced internal turmoil and none posed a conventional threat to Israel.
Mr. Olmert, who began his political life as a conservative and has moved more to the left in recent years, used his analysis of Israel’s strategic position to argue that its policy toward the Palestinians was “dramatically inadequate,” given the risk the occupation of the West Bank poses to Israel’s desire to be a Jewish democratic state.
He warned that Israel faced diplomatic isolation unless it moved decisively to help the Palestinians establish their own state. His statements were met with a mix of boos and cheers from the audience, mainly American Jews.
Mr. Dagan, the former Mossad chief, said in an interview afterward that he agreed the Palestinian issue needed far more attention than it was getting.
“For its own benefit, Israel should open a serious dialogue with the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to establish such a dialogue. We are on the giving side, they are on the receiving side.”
Mr. Dagan added that there should be two tracks, one directly with Palestinian leaders and the other quietly through the Arab world, which, he said, shared Israel’s concerns about Iran.
“It’s in our interest to widen our dialogue with the Palestinians to the Saudis and the rest of the Arab countries,” he said. “That would widen what we would receive. Israel can have a secret dialogue with those countries.”
One result of that, Mr. Dagan said, was that the Palestinians would feel more secure in any deal that was struck.
Eyewitness accounts call Syrian nerve gas allegations into question
By Peter Beaumont, The Observer
Sunday, April 28, 2013 17:02 EDT
New questions have emerged over the source of the soil and other samples from Syria which, it is claimed, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, amid apparent inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts describing one of the attacks and textbook descriptions of the weapon.
As questions from arms control experts grow over evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a limited scale on several occasions, one incident in particular has come under scrutiny.
While the French, UK and US governments have tried to avoid saying where the positive sarin samples came from, comments by officials have narrowed down the locations to Aleppo and Homs.
Last week the Obama administration suggested that Syrian government forces may have used the lethal nerve gas in two attacks. Opposition fighters have accused regime forces of firing chemical agents on at least four occasions since December, killing 31 people in the worst of the attacks.
A letter from the British government to the UN demanding an investigation said that it had seen “limited but persuasive evidence” of chemical attacks, citing incidents on 19 and 23 March in Aleppo and Damascus and an attack in Homs in December, suggesting strongly that samples were taken at these locations.
A US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Los Angeles Times, appeared to confirm that one of the samples studied by the US was collected in December – suggesting that it too originated in Homs.
According the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “sarin is a nerve agent that is one of the most toxic of the known chemical warfare agents. It is a clear colourless liquid … generally odourless and tasteless”.
But eyewitness accounts of that attack, in which six rebels died and which were reported at the time by the Associated Press described “white smoke” pouring from shells that “smell[ed] … like hydrochloric acid”.
The suggestion that one of the sarin-positive samples may have originated in Homs has added to the growing confusion surrounding the claims made with different degrees of caution by the Israeli, French, UK and US governments in recent days.
According to the US and UK governments, “miniscule” samples recovered by opposition sources and passed on to western intelligence agencies have shown traces of sarin. No other agents have been mentioned.
While the contradictions between the eyewitness accounts and traces of sarin in the samples may well be attributable to the confusion of battle, it underlines the uncertainties around the claims, which have included questions about whether some of the videotaped symptoms are consistent with sarin exposure.
Reflecting just how little is known about the circumstances in which people may have been exposed to chemical agents in Syria, President Barack Obama has said: “Knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately.” Obama warned in December that the Assad regime would face “consequences” if it were disclosed that chemical weapons had been used.
Venezuelan president pledges Cuba ‘a strategic alliance that transcends the times’
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 16:32 EDT
AFP – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has renewed a strategic alliance with Cuba, signing $1 billion in cooperation agreements two weeks after his election to replace the late Hugo Chavez.
The 51 agreements signed Saturday during Maduro’s visit to Cuba encompass health, education, transportation, sports, energy and special “social missions.”
An estimated 40,000 Cuban doctors, technicians and advisers work in Venezuela, which supplies Cuba with 130,000 barrels of oil a day as part of a 12-year-old relationship that has closely bound together their leftist, anti-US governments.
“Cuba and Venezuela are going to continue working together,” Maduro said, calling it “a strategic alliance that transcends the times, which, more than an alliance, is a brotherhood.”
Cuba is only the second country Maduro has visited since his election April 14 by a narrow margin that is the subject of a bitter, unresolved dispute with the opposition charging the vote was stolen.
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said late Saturday it will begin an expanded audit of the results on Monday, but not under terms demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
The council’s president, Tibisay Lucena, has said that the audit cannot overturn Maduro’s win. The opposition has until the end of next week to file suit with the Supreme Court to contest the outcome.
In Cuba, Maduro held talks with President Raul Castro, who reaffirmed Cuba’s “unyielding will to continue cooperation in solidarity with Venezuela, determined to share our fate with the heroic Venezuelan people.”
Maduro said he met separately for five hours with Fidel Castro, 86, the retired leader of the Cuban revolution, remembering Chavez and the alliance they forged in October 2002.
“It is a relationship of brothers,” Maduro told reporters.
The relationship has been crucial to Cuba, shoring up a Soviet-style economy that has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
The deal is Cuba’s biggest source of cash, well ahead of money sent home by expatriate Cubans, tourism or exports of nickel, tobacco and drugs.
The two countries also have engaged in a variety of joint projects, like a refinery in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
But the Cuban connection remains a point of heated contention in Venezuela, which split 50.8-49 in the elections to succeed Chavez, which saw some 700,000 people switch to the opposition.
During the election campaign, Capriles repeatedly attacked the “gifts” sent from Venezuela to Cuba, calling Maduro “Cuba’s candidate” and demanding that Caracas cut off oil supplies to Havana.
World on the verge of a new industrial revolution: Mass 3D printing
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 28, 2013 10:17 EDT
As potentially game-changing as the steam engine or telegraph were in their day, 3D printing could herald a new industrial revolution, experts say.
For the uninitiated, the prospect of printers turning out any object you want at the click of a button may seem like the stuff of science fiction.
But 3D printing is already here, is developing fast, and looks set to leap from the labs and niche industries onto the wider market.
“There are still limits imposed by the technology available today,” said Olivier Olmo, operational director of Switzerland’s EPFL research institution.
“But I’m certain that within 10 or 20 years, we’ll have a kind of revolution in terms of the technology being available to everyone,” he said.
The concept’s roots lie in fields ranging from standard two-dimensional printing to machine-tooling.
First, a 3D digital design is created either from scratch on a computer or by scanning a real object, before being cut into two-dimensional “slices” which are computer-fed into a printer.
The printer gradually deposits fine layers of material — such as plastic, carbon or metal — and builds a physical object.
The product can be as hard or as flexible as you programme the printer to make it, and even include moving parts rather than being a solid block.
“In theory, anything that we have today can be produced through 3D printing. It may just alter manufacturing as we know it,” said Simon Jones, a technology expert at global law firm DLA Piper.
In addition to the potential ecological impact of producing products right where they are needed, Jones said, 3D printing could make small-scale production of objects cheaper, rather than turning out huge numbers which may go to waste.
The uses go beyond easy replication of things that exist already.
“The technology offers possibilities that available manufacturing does not,” said Carla van Steenbergen of i.materialise, a Belgium-based service that prints designs for users.
Van Steenbergen pointed to objects such as customised screws for broken bones which match a patient’s specific anatomical characteristics and thereby cause less deterioration than the traditional variety.
“It’s the kind of thing that traditional technology won’t allow. It’s the kind of area where the big added value lies, making the impossible become possible,” she underlined.
The technology has been around for longer than many would think: the first commercial 3D print technology, known as stereo-lithography, was invented in 1994.
It has taken time to inch into the limelight, however.
“It’s honest to say that 3D printing is far from the mainstream, but it’s a sign that something is happening,” said Tristan Renaud of Prevue-Medical, a company that turns out models from 3D medical imaging data.
His technology chief Erik Ziegler said using online 3D printing services was likely to remain the norm for a while, given printer costs.
An alternative is provided by “Fablabs” — short for “fabrication laboratories” — a concept created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offers grassroots access to small-scale manufacturing facilities.
But for those tempted by home-output, a handful of 3D printers have hit the consumer market, retailing for around $2,000.
As with computers, the price is expected to fall over time as demand rises and technology advances.
Van Steenbergen said that at the industrial level, 3D printing is not set to take over from classical methods, but rather go hand in hand.
“I think it will affect the manufacturing of some products, but it’s never going to replace it,” she said.
It also raises a raft of questions.
For example, would a car manufacturer be ready to let a neighbourhood mechanic print spare parts? And if such goods were produced under licence, what quality guarantees would be offered to consumers?
On the intellectual property front, what constitutes fair production of a replacement part for something you already own? And would designers of 3D objects be protected from an equivalent of file-sharing, bemoaned by the music industry?
“We’d tend to see an increase in commercial impact,” said Jones. “It would be very difficult to prevent that once 3D technology got to a cost point that’s sensible.”
Francis Gurry, head of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation, underlined that the global 3D printing business is forecast to be worth $3.7 billion by 2015.
In contrast, world merchandise exports were worth $18.3 trillion last year, and commercial services, $4.3 trillion.
Despite remaining small in global terms, Gurry noted, the value of 3D printing is expected to expand relatively fast, to $6.5 billion by 2019.
Netherlands welcomes King Willem-Alexander
Celebration and pageantry as Queen Beatrix signs abdication document and makes way for first Dutch king in more than a century
Associated Press in Amsterdam
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 April 2013 10.31 BST
Link to video: Queen Beatrix abdicates as son becomes new Dutch kinghttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/apr/30/queen-beatrix-abdicates-son-dutch-king-video
King Willem-Alexander has become the first male Dutch monarch in more than a century after his mother Beatrix abdicated, ending a 33-year reign.
The change in the House of Orange-Nassau gave the Netherlands a moment of celebration and pageantry as the country of nearly 17 million struggles through a lengthy recession brought on by the European economic crisis.
Visibly emotional, the much-loved Beatrix ended her reign in a nationally televised ceremony as thousands of orange-clad people cheered outside. Millions more were expected to watch on television.
Willem-Alexander gripped his mother's hand and looked briefly into her eyes after they both signed the abdication document in the Royal Palace on downtown Amsterdam's Dam Square.
Beatrix looked close to tears when she appeared on a balcony overlooking some 20,000 of her subjects.
"I am happy and grateful to introduce to you your new king, Willem-Alexander," she told the cheering crowd.
Moments later, in a striking symbol of the generational shift, she left the balcony and Willem-Alexander, his wife and three daughters – the children in matching yellow dresses and headbands – waved to the crowd.
The former queen becomes Princess Beatrix and her son becomes the first Dutch king since Willem III died in 1890.
The 46-year-old father of three's popular Argentinian-born wife is now Queen Maxima and their eldest daughter, Catharina-Amalia, who attended the ceremony wearing a yellow dress, becomes Princess of Orange and first in line to the throne.
04/30/2013 12:20 PMModern Monarch: Holland Crowns a Laid-Back King
For years, the Dutch doubted whether Willem-Alexander -- the easy-going prince disparaged in the media as stupid, lazy and intemperate -- had what it takes to rule. Crowned king on Tuesday morning, the 46-year-old will now attempt something his mother never did: to be a thoroughly modern monarch.
A week before his mother was due to be crowned as the new queen of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander told a reporter he didn't really want to move to The Hague. He said he'd rather stay at Drakensteyn Castle. That was back in 1980, when Willem was 13 years old. Standing together alongside his brothers Friso and Constantijn in the garden of their parents' house, all three boys sported bell-bottoms and bowl haircuts.
The reporter chuckled kindly, and asked him to explain. Willem-Alexander stuck his hands in his pants pockets, and said, "It's much freer here."
Freedom seems to have always been Willem-Alexander's greatest concern. He knows what effect his being king could have on his family. He remembers how his mother was constantly traveling, hiding her feelings under her crown, while his father was depressed at home.
On April 30, Queen Beatrix passed the scepter to her son Willem-Alexander. Now, the names on Dutch naval ships will have to be changed from "HM" ("Harer Majesteit," her majesty) to "ZM" ("Zijner Majesteit," his majesty) for the first time in 123 years. But that won't be the only sea change. Now that the 46-year-old has been crowned king, the royal palace will be infused with an openness and easy-going attitude unthinkable under the 33-year reign of his mother.
King Willem-Alexander will also be something of an aloof monarch, although in contrast to Beatrix, it won't be his subjects, but rather the elevated position, that he keeps at bay.
He is the kind of person who might take part in a toilet-throwing competition and greet official guests with a friendly pat on the back, a man keen to point out that the importance of the monarchy is changing. "I'm not a protocol fetishist," he said in an interview two weeks before his coronation. Willem-Alexander wants to be a king who stands for continuity and stability. That much he's promised his mother. But he also wants to be a modern king -- and that's his appeal to the people.
Call Him King Alex
The atmosphere at court is also likely to change under the new regent. For example, Willem-Alexander doesn't insist on being addressed as "Your Majesty." He wants people to call him whatever they want and are comfortable with -- "Alex," for instance. That's what his wife calls him.
Of all of Europe's royal families, the Orange-Nassau dynasty is seen as particularly likeable. That's largely thanks to shirt-sleeved Willem-Alexander and his down-to-earth wife, Máxima. Both are cheerful souls, forever in a good mood, always looking as if they just returned from a bicycle ride. The "A-Team" -- daughters Amalia, 9, Alexia, 7, and Ariane, 6 -- all attend public schools.
Willem-Alexander's reign will therefore be very different than that of his mother, who always hid behind antiquated pomp and circumstance. Her abdication was probably her only nod to modernity. Explaining the decision to step down from the throne, she said, "I believe that the responsibility for our country belongs in the hands of a new generation."
She must have known that her son would usher in sweeping changes. He once said, "I didn't have a hard time with my parents. They had a hard time with me."
As a teenager, he had trouble coming to terms with his status as crown prince. Even as an 11-year-old, he told photographers to "go to Hell." When he was 16, his parents sent him to a boarding school in Wales. He was never an outstanding student, but he was a passionate athlete. After graduating from high school, he completed his national service in the navy. Later he trained in the air force. Flying became his passion.
Like his mother before him, he went to Leiden University, where he majored in history, human rights and international law. There he joined a Dutch student fraternity well-known for its hard partying as well as for its hazing rituals.
Photos document his ability to hold his drink, and he had soon earned the nickname "Prince Pilsner". When he took longer than usual to complete his degree, the media was quick to label him as a lazy and somewhat simple-minded crown prince.
As a result, the Dutch people had serious doubts about their heir apparent. Perhaps that was a blessing for Willem-Alexander, since it meant he had no expectations to meet, no disappointment to dread. Today the people are pleasantly surprised. They admire his work at the United Nations, where he is responsible for water management, and they adore his family.
Married to an Investment Banker
Willem-Alexander met his wife on a trip to Seville, Spain. Argentinean-born Máxima Zorreguieta was working at Deutsche Bank in New York at the time. Although she is a descendent of many noble families on the Iberian Peninsula, Máxima is just as laid-back as her husband.
The two quickly fell in love, and in 1999 Willem-Alexander officially presented her to his fellow countrymen. The crown prince may not have cared that her father had been a minister during Argentina's "Dirty War," but the people thought otherwise, and the announcement of the engagement brought a storm of protest. It didn't help matters when, in trying to defend his fiancée, Willem-Alexander unwittingly quoted the words of Argentine dictator Jorge Videla. The subsequent scandal robbed him of the little respectability he still had.
Luckily for him, Máxima reconciled the people with their crown prince. Yes, she admitted in fluent Dutch at a press conference, Alex had been "a little dumb." In an instant, her words shattered the royal detachment Queen Beatrix had worked so hard to uphold. So Willem-Alexander got his way, albeit under certain conditions: A clause in their marriage contract states that his father-in-law may not be present at any state occasions.
Willem-Alexander probably got his single-mindedness from his mother. Queen Beatrix always advised her son to remain true to himself and never swim with the tide. However he clearly inherited his easy-going manner from his grandmother. Queen Juliana could often be seen riding her bicycle or taking walks in her Wellington boots. Of Willem-Alexander and his family, there are also the obligatory cycling photos.
But as prepared as the Dutch are by their very nature to compromise, they still grumble now and again. Rumor has it that the new king has a penchant for expensive watches. He and Máxima are described as a "jet-set couple." In 2009 Willem-Alexander caused a furor when he tried to buy a luxury vacation home for himself and his family in the otherwise impoverished country of Mozambique. "Everyone makes mistakes," he later apologized. The people forgave him. After all, it showed he was human.
This morning Willem-Alexander IV became Europe's youngest king. At the same time, the Orange-Nassau dynasty is becoming less influential and more representative -- more Scandinavian. Not only because the government recently pared back the monarchy's powers: In contrast to his mother, Willem-Alexander has never seen himself as a politician.
His reign will be more modern and freer than that of his mother. It's not yet certain when exactly the new royal family will move into Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. For now, the palace has announced, the family will spend a little more time at its villa in neighboring Wassenaar.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
Yulia Tymoshenko imprisonment 'politically motivated'
European court of human rights backs former Ukraine PM's assertion that seven-year sentence is to keep her out of politics
Associated Press in Strasbourg
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 April 2013 12.39 BST
Ukraine's imprisonment of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was a politically motivated violation of her rights, Europe's human rights court has ruled.
A Ukrainian ambassador stormed out of the court in response to the ruling in a case that has strained the former Soviet state's ties with Europe and the US.
An architect of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, instantly recognisable by her crown of braids, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in October 2011 after being convicted of exceeding her powers as premier while negotiating a gas contract with Russia.
Tymoshenko has said her detention was intended to keep her out of politics and that her rights were violated when she was first imprisoned in August 2011. The court agreed unanimously that she had been jailed "for other reasons" than those permissible by law.
"It was not a criminal prosecution. There was another aim of that prosecution and everyone knows that that was a politically motivated prosecution," said Serhiy Vlasenko, Tymoshenko's lawyer.
He said the court found "the prosecution of Mrs Tymoshenko in Ukraine had nothing to do with the law, had nothing to do with democratic standards, had nothing to do with a criminal prosecution".
It is unclear how a decision by the European court would be legally binding in Ukraine.
In Kiev, the government representative at the European court of human rights, Nazar Kulchitsky, told Interfax news agency that the Ukrainian government needed time to study the ruling, but suggested the government might appeal against it.
Tymoshenko and her allies, including Vlasenko, who was expelled from parliament, say her conviction was masterminded by President Viktor Yanukovych, who is intent on keeping her locked in jail, away from politics and out of last year's parliamentary elections and the 2015 presidential election.
Yanukovych said this was a legal matter and could not interfere. Over the weekend, a presidential pardon commission said it would not consider a motion to pardon Tymoshenko while other legal cases against her were ongoing, including some that could take years to resolve.
The dilemma faced by the west is whether to bring Ukraine closer into its fold, despite Tymoshenko's case, or risk seeing the country move towards Russia.
Vlasenko called for Tymoshenko to be freed immediately, saying it was the only way to restore her rights. "She is under 24-hour a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year psychological pressure," he said.
If the decision is upheld on appeal, Tymoshenko's legal team could petition Ukraine's supreme court to annul Tymoshenko's conviction and sentence on the grounds that it was issued by the same judge who ordered her arrest.
Andriy Kozlov, an independent legal expert, said that while Ukraine's supreme court would be required to review Tymoshenko's case, it would not necessarily be obliged to overrule the decision by the local courts.
In Kiev, a handful of Tymoshenko supporters in tents outside the court where she was convicted reacted with joy but said they did not believe the government would release her. "Yanukovych has always been afraid of her," said Oleksiy Karaulny, 63, a retired carpenter. "Of course we are happy. And it's not only me who is happy, it's all the 12 million people who voted for her are also happy. They know that truth will come, that justice will prevail."
Moldova weighs up implications of overtures from EU and Russia
Country's politicians consider the geopolitical and economic benefits of closer ties with the European project or Moscow
Luke Harding in Chisinau, Moldova
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 30 April 2013 12.13 BST
In a flea market in Moldova's capital you can buy busts of Lenin, furry Russian army hats and gold icons. Next door the Russian language theatre is staging several productions of Chekhov. Billboards in Cyrillic proclaim the sponsor: the local Russian embassy.
Just round the corner, however, the EU's blue flag flies proudly outside the main government building, next to the Moldovan one. Brussels has also paid for a new fleet of trolley buses, adorned with the EU's twinkling stars; the buses rattle past Chisinau's triumphant arch, orthodox nativity cathedral and central park.
It is in Moldova – Europe's most impoverished state – where two geopolitical visions of the region's future collide. Moldova is one of six former Soviet republics that are members of the EU's Eastern partnership scheme (EaP). The others are Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Launched in May 2009, this partnership was meant to deepen ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours, countries which emerged from the Soviet collapse in 1991. Ever since then, the hope – in western Europe at least – has been that these new states might aspire to EU membership, like the Baltic troika of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Under the EaP, the EU would promote democratic values as well as good governance and trade. It would liberalise visa restrictions, bringing EaP citizens closer to the affluent west, and create an arc of political stability. That, at least, was the theory.
Fours years on this "partnership" is in trouble, disarray even. Most of the countries involved have failed to progress or gone backwards. In Moldova, the most promising of the six, the country's pro-European coalition government collapsed in March. It is now beset by crisis. In neighbouring Ukraine, the EaP's biggest member, President Viktor Yanukovych has locked up his chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, oblivious to EU protests.
In Georgia, meanwhile, there are signs that the country's new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is meting out selective justice against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili's former government. Belarus – a country that many felt should not have been included in the first place – remains what it was: an implacable dictatorship run by the long-term despot Alexsander Lukashenko.
Amid EU failure and fuzziness, Russia has moved decisively to rebuild its influence in its former backyard. President Vladimir Putin has been wooing the six post-Soviet republics with a variety of incentives ranging from cheap gas to a customs union. His big idea is the Eurasian Union – a rival integrationist project to the EU, in which Moscow rather than wishy-washy Brussels calls the shots.
In an interview with the Guardian, Moldova's prime minister, Vlad Filat, said he was determined his small country would shrug off its current turmoil and remain pro-European. "It isn't a secret that the Russian Federation would like to change the vector of Moldova's foreign policy. I confess there are lots of forces that want this [a move towards Moscow] both inside Moldova and outside it," he said.
"Russia obviously has an interest. They never hide this fact. They would prefer us to be in the Eurasian project, not the EU project. But for us it is absolutely vital for the EU integration project to continue. We will do our best to have a new alliance that would continue the European path."
Filat described Moldova as fundamentally central European. He noted that it is Europe's "only Latin state outside the EU". He admitted it has a special situation vis-a-vis Moscow. Russia maintains 1,300 troops in Transdnestria, a small breakaway Russian-speaking region of Moldova largely east of the river Dnestr. Moscow had an important role in settling this conflict, he said.
Moldova's future direction, however, may not be up to Filat. The communists ruled here for much of the past decade, winning elections in 2001, 2005, and 2009. Following alleged violations in the 2009 poll, and violence, a new three-party coalition led by Filat took power, the Alliance for European Integration. It comprises Filat's Liberal Democrats, together with the Democratic party and Liberals.
This pro-EU coalition came unglued last December after a political scandal. A local businessman was accidentally shot during a hunting trip to a royal forest. Moldova's prosecutor general, who was there, allegedly tried to cover up the death. Filat demanded an investigation. He then got rid of the prosecutor general, a member of the Democratic party, together with the party's shadowy patron, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. (Plahotniuc lost his job as vice speaker of parliament). The democrats then voted with the opposition in a no-confidence vote.
This febrile political crisis is a significant blow to the EU. In November Chisinau is supposed to sign a free trade agreement with Brussels at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. (The three Baltic states joined the EU in 2004). But fresh elections could see the communists return to power, and a less pro-European foreign policy.
Moldovan officials say it is wrong to say their country of 3.5 million – Latin and Slavic, with both Romanian and Russian spoken – is at the centre of a Brussels-Moscow tussle. One said wryly: "The Russians don't think much about Moldova. Moldova is the cherry on the cake. The real cake is Ukraine." Nonetheless, several EU leaders have visited including German chancellor Angela Merkel and UK foreign secretary William Hague.
Most observers feel it is Russia rather than the EU that is winning the region's soft-power contest. The EU is bogged down in its economic woes. Since 2009 it has failed to make it easier for EaP citizens to get EU visas; by contrast Russia offers visa-free travel. And Brussels admits there is little realistic prospect of the six actually joining the EU club.
Critics complain that the EaP does not offer genuine strategic partnership, rather a watered-down association dubbed "enlargement-lite".
"The Eastern partnership is worth saving. But it lacks a narrative and a success story. Is it a path to Europe? Or is it a waiting room?" Andrew Wilson, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations wondered. In Moldova, paradoxically, the economy was growing but support for the EU was slipping, he said, adding: "A lot of hope was being invested in Moldova."
Victor Chirila, a Moldovan analyst, said that if the country's current coalition failed he doubted a new government would return to a Russian direction "entirely". Instead, he suggested, it would play Moscow off against Brussels, seeking benefits from both sides without properly committing to either. Other EaP countries such as Belarus and Ukraine have excelled at this tactic – "neo-Titoism", according to political scientists.
Chirila added: "The danger isn't Russia as such. The real danger is Moldova remaining a weak state controlled by a group of oligarchs, governed by corrupted officials, with an unsustainable economy, flawed democracy and dysfunctional institutions. Such a weak, underdeveloped state will be incapable to defend its national interest against ever-growing Russian efforts to re-establish its former sphere of influence in its western backyard."
Speaking in December, the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Putin's proposed Eurasian Union an attempt to "re-Sovietise" the region. Other prominent voices also sense a darkening. Pro-western revolutions in 2003 and 2004 in Georgia and Ukraine ended in disappointment; hopes of a thaw in Belarus in 2011 were similarly dashed, when Lukashenko jailed the pro-European opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov.
"The authoritarian model is more attractive, the EU model less attractive," Sannikov said. "Not for the people but for the rulers." Sannikov, who has political asylum in Britain, said he was in favour of the eastern partnership and the idea of promoting democratic values in the region. But the EU had to devote more resources if it is to work. "There isn't enough money. How do you fight Russia without money?" he asked.
Filat, meanwhile, accuses his coalition partners of failing to carry out reforms. Key ministries in Moldova have been divided along party lines, with Plahotniuc's Democrats in control of the powerful prosecutor's office – capable of initiating criminal investigations –and the anti-corruption agency. Plahotniuc is a controversial figure in Romania: according to leaked Interpol documents he has been investigated in Italy in connection with money-laundering. He denies wrongdoing.
Earlier this month Moldova's president, Nicolae Timofti, nominated Filat again for the post of prime minister. The pro-European coalition parties have 45 days to try to form a new government. If they fail to resolve their differences there will be early elections. Would Moldova ever join the EU? "We want this to happen as soon as possible," Filat said.
Social innovation is stepping in to help Denmark's exhausted welfare system
An inspiring enterprise which employs and empowers people with autism has already expanded to eight countries
30 April 2013 10.19 BST
Autistic people have a 10 times lower fault rate in software testing and other tasks. Photograph: Paul Thomas/Image bank/Getty Creative Image Bank/Getty
The term welfare is questioned in Denmark. MondayMorning, Scandinavia's leading independent thinktank, published the results of a six-month project Ways to Resource Denmark which involved 14 municipalities and 11 NGOs. The project investigates the Danish welfare system and explores its sustainability.
In Scandinavia, welfare is a service provided by the state, and something we take for granted – as long as we pay our taxes, we have done "our part". However, growing parts of the population are finding it hard to contribute to the society. According to the umbrella organisation for social enterprise VFSA, 670,000 out of a total of 5.6 million Danish citizens of working age are unemployed, which is putting an enormous burden on an already exhausted welfare system.
Many believe that the answer to this growing problem lies in social innovation.
In Denmark, there are several great initiatives that have inspired both public and private sector to take social innovation seriously. Among them is Denmark's The Specialist People Foundation (or Specialisterne) – an organisation that changes the way society perceives autism by transforming it from a handicap to a competitive advantage. The foundation employs autistic people, who have a 10 times lower fault rate in software testing and other tasks. Every €1 invested in the enterprise delivers an return on investment of €6 in savings for public spending, according to a cost–benefit analysis conduced by The Specialist People Foundation on their establishment in Austria.
The Specialist offers three main services. First, its assessment and training programme includes a three- to five month-long individual assessment where participants clarify their strengths, weaknesses, special aptitudes, capabilities and interests. Here, it map out their needs for support, guidance and environmental adjustments in order to perform in a job situation. Second, a business services programme helps the 40% of participants who progress to become IT consultants in Specialisterne Denmark. Specialisterne now has 34 consultants who solve computer problems for leading IT and telecommunications companies around the world. Third, the Specialisterne Denmark school has started a three-year education programme for young adults aged 16 to 24 with autism spectrum disorder.
The Specialist People Foundation is run by Thorkil Sonne and was driven by Thorkil's personal experience. His son Lars was two and a half years old when he and his wife noticed that his development started to differ from that of his elder brothers; he was later diagnosed with autism. When Thorkil and his wife couldn't find the help that they needed from the welfare system he left his job of 15 years, remortgaged the house and founded a company aimed at creating a fair and better life for their son.
"If our son got a good job, could be respected for his special personality, and appreciated for his skills then he would have a good life," Thorkil says.
But as things looked in the Danish society, Thorkil had a hard time seeing how his son would be able to fit in. "We didn't see any opportunities for our son to get a job since the work model favours people with very good social skills and ability to self-organise", he said.
In the following years, Thorkil became involved with the Danish Autism Organisation, started studying the Danish welfare model and met many more people diagnosed with autism.
"All of them had some great skills and were direct and honest people"' said Thorkil. "I saw them as potential great employees if you could just build a comfort zone around them."
At that point Thorkil set out to change the way we view and interact with [dis]ability in society. Today, The Specialist People Foundation is one of Denmark's most successful social enterprises, and has expanded to eight countries. According to Thorkil, now is the time to start taking social enterprises seriously in Denmark.
"The time is right to rethink what kind of value social enterprise can bring the welfare state"' says Thorkil. "The welfare system right now is under pressure and any crisis is an opportunity to rethink and make things better."
Thorkil and The Specialist People Foundation have set themselves an ambitious goal: to provide meaningful and productive jobs for one million people with autism and other invisible disorders. There are currently more than 70 million people with autism around the world.
To do this, they intend to replicate Specialisterne operations around the world to showcase and demonstrate the skills and contribution of specialist people. They aim to develop and share a management model, The Dandelion Model, that will enable companies and workplaces to hire and manage specialist people. They are also looking to increase awareness in society of the positive contributions of specialist people.
The Specialist People Foundation has shown that if you are innovative enough, you can run a prospering social business with both private and public customers, complementing and relieving the public welfare system. But as long as the welfare state holds the main responsibility for solving social problems in Denmark, social innovation will be challenged by the conditions in this strong public sector.
In Denmark, at Ashoka we're now scouting for more talents like Thorkil, who can play a vital part in reimagining the Scandinavian welfare model.
Max Parnas is community mobiliser for Join Our Core Denmark. Join Our Core is competition hosted by Ben & Jerry's which gives young social entrepreneurs around Europe the chance to showcase their business plans and win 6-months of business training with Ashoka. Click here to find out more