May 2, 2013
A Rate Cut in Europe, and a Hint of Limits
By JACK EWING
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The European Central Bank cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low on Thursday. But its president, Mario Draghi, indicated that his promise last year to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro had limits.
For now, at least, the bank remains unwilling or unable to wield the more powerful weapons that many economists say are needed to jolt the Continent out of recession. Although the big fear last year that the euro zone might break apart has receded, the danger now could be prolonged stagnation like that which has plagued Japan for most of the last two decades.
Even the traditionally conservative Bank of Japan has become bolder lately, aggressively buying government bonds to try to double the supply of money in circulation and spur growth. Such a step would be unthinkable for Mr. Draghi, who is hemmed in by the bank’s narrower mandate and the historically rooted inflation fears of Germany, the euro zone’s wealthiest and most politically powerful member.
The bank’s Governing Council, meeting in Bratislava, reduced its benchmark interest rate to 0.5 percent from 0.75 percent. But that move was widely seen as mostly symbolic, to avoid the impression that the bank and Mr. Draghi were doing nothing as the euro zone recession threatens to engulf countries, like Germany, that have previously been spared.
The central bank also extended its promise to provide banks with as much cheap cash as they need through 2014, and said it was exploring ways to use the European Union’s house bank to stimulate lending to small businesses.
Intriguingly, Mr. Draghi raised the possibility of imposing a “negative rate” on the deposits that banks routinely park at the central bank, essentially charging banks to store their money. That might discourage lenders from hoarding cash rather than lending. But it could have unintended consequences. For example, banks might store huge amounts of paper bills as a low-risk alternative to central bank vaults.
Mr. Draghi insisted that the rate cut, which takes effect May 8, would stimulate growth, especially now that the economic slump that has afflicted Spain and Italy for more than a year is spreading north to countries like Germany, Austria and Finland. Anticipating skepticism, he urged reporters “not to underestimate the impact” of the rate cut and other measures at his news conference on Thursday, under a crystal chandelier in an ornate building that houses the Slovak Philharmonic. It was one of the central bank’s twice-a-year meetings in the capital of one of its member countries.
Not only is the central bank avoiding Japanese-style shock therapy, but it remains far from pursuing any equivalent of the so-called quantitative easing that the United States Federal Reserve Board and the Bank of England have used to stimulate their economies.
“The bright minds in the Eurotower are still working hard to come up with a new magic bullet,” Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Bank, said in a note to clients, referring to the central bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt. “In the meantime, the only thing Draghi found in his tool kit was an old tool and a chill pill to keep markets happy in the waiting room.”
Under the euro zone’s political structure as a loose confederation, the European Central Bank does not have the monolithic power of the Fed, Bank of England or Bank of Japan. Even if Mr. Draghi and some others on the 23-member Governing Council wanted to do more to spur growth, they are hamstrung by a charter that obliges the bank to defend price stability above all else and forbids it from providing financing to governments.
Mr. Draghi has at times been willing to stretch that mandate. Last summer, for example, he promised to buy government bonds in unlimited amounts to control borrowing costs. His expression of resolve has been enough to keep speculators at bay and tamp down the interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt, without any actual bond purchases.
Mr. Draghi also must contend with the politics of the central bank’s Governing Council, which includes the heads of all 17 national central banks in the euro zone. Germany, in particular, remains staunchly opposed to bond buying or other aggressive measures to stimulate growth, for fear of inflation.
“There are 17 governors of 17 member states with completely opposing views,” said Zsolt Darvas, a research fellow at Bruegel, a research organization in Brussels. “There are major disagreements.” The need to promote consensus breeds caution, he said.
Mr. Darvas also noted that the European Union lacked a central treasury that would stand ready to provide financial backup if central bank investments went wrong, as the United States Treasury implicitly backs the Fed. “That probably makes the E.C.B. more reluctant to take risks,” Mr. Darvas said.
Mr. Draghi promised on Thursday to continue letting banks borrow as much as they wanted at the benchmark rate for “as long as needed,” and at least until mid-2014. That was a longer time commitment than the E.C.B. has offered in the past.
Bank loans are still readily available in the northern countries, so it is easier for an official rate cut to reach borrowers. In the latest sign of trouble in Europe’s core, two stalwarts of corporate Germany, BMW and Siemens, warned on Thursday of lower profits for 2013 because of the weakness in European markets.
While acknowledging that the slowdown was spreading to Germany, Mr. Draghi listed several indicators that he said signaled that the euro zone was healing, including big gains in the Italian and Spanish stock markets and lower market interest rates on their government bonds. Some economists argue that the central bank can do little to force-feed credit to small businesses in countries like Greece and Portugal that are having prolonged downturns. Banks’ reluctance to lend reflects the fact that many businesses and consumers are poor credit risks.
The rate cut, Mr. Draghi said, “is going to be more effective today than it would have been a few months ago.”
Even at its new low of 0.5 percent, though, the central bank benchmark rate remains higher than the 0.25 percent rate the Federal Reserve has had in place since late 2008.
In another disturbing parallel to Japan, inflation in the euro zone was just 1.2 percent in April, well below the European Central Bank’s target of about 2 percent. Mr. Draghi gave no indication Thursday that the bank was worried that the euro zone was edging toward deflation, the growth-sapping decline in wages and prices that vexed Japan. But a few analysts have begun to warn of the danger of such a price spiral, which could be more destructive than runaway inflation because it is so difficult to reverse.
05/02/2013 04:21 PM
Gnome City: How Garden Kitsch Saved a Polish Town
By Jan Puhl
A flourishing garden gnome industry spared an entire region around the town of Nowa Sól in western Poland from economic ruin. With the decorations now out of style, the industry is branching out to plastic tigers, dinosaurs and even churros.
Pope John Paul II smiles down at dozens of red-capped, wheelbarrow-pushing gnomes at his feet. His arms are outstretched, as if he were preaching, but there is dust on his shoulders. This nearly-lifesize pope is made out of white plastic.
As a practicing Catholic, Adam Zakrzewski is a little embarrassed by the scene in his warehouse. "After we made the pope statue, we decided not to put it into serial production," he says. Zakrzewski's company, Bezet, has been making garden gnomes in the Polish town of Nowa Sól near the German border for the past three decades.
First, they adorned garden plots in communist East Germany. After the Wall came down, they were primarily bought by visiting western Germans exploring their family roots in the area. However, garden gnomes have gone out of style again in Germany, and they were never popular in Poland.
"Garden gnomes don't suit us," Zakrzewski says. Polish buyers apparently favor decorating their front gardens with statuettes of angels, their hands piously clasped in prayer. Zakrzewski is sad that the heyday of the garden gnome has passed. After all, they were what started his family business. These days he mainly casts figures of tigers, horses, dinosaurs, decorative fountains, Egyptian sarcophagi, Elvis and the Blues Brothers.
His company may be the oldest of its kind in Nowa Sól, but it is by no means the only one. Some 30 manufacturers in the town supply fantasy figures to fairs and amusement parks across Europe. Many of the colorful cows used in the international "CowParade" art project were produced in Nowa Sól. The world's largest statue of Pope John Paul II in Czstochowa, southern Poland, which is almost 14 meters (45 feet) tall, was also made by a company from Nowa Sól. The garden gnomes and their successors have become the most important factor in the region's economy.
Adam Zakrzewski's father Bogdan, the man who founded the family business, turned Nowa Sól into Europe's gnome capital. As a result, the locals all refer to him as the "Father of the Gnomes."
Bogdan Zakrzewski worked as a mechanic, but yearned for another, more colorful life. When he came upon a garden gnome by chance, he knew he'd found his calling. Bogdan spent weeks experimenting with plaster figures. He fashioned his first casts from melted down car tires, and finally developed a way to produce gnomes in bulk.
"When the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, business took off," his son recalls. At a time when state-run metallurgical combines went bust, and half of the adult population of Nowa Sól found itself out of work, the Zakrzewskis could hardly fill their orders quickly enough.
Eventually, Bogdan Zakrzewski sold his patented procedure to friends and neighbors, thus spawning an entire industry. For a while after the Wall came down, the town that had once produced munitions for the Soviet army was home to up to 300 companies making the epitome of West German bourgeois kitsch. "You could say that gnome-making saved Nowa Sól from economic ruin after the fall of communism," the mayor says.
Gnomes were such a boon to the local economy that a park was set up in their honor in the town's center. There the most popular models are on display, including the hunting gnome complete with dachshund and rifle, the lantern gnome, and, of course, the wheelbarrow-pushing gnome. For a long time, Bogdan Zakrzewski's best-selling model was a very German gnome, one with its index finger held in the air, as if it were giving a lecture.
But the Father of the Gnomes wasn't content to sell his creations at the side of the road to western Germans passing through. Soon he was supplying wholesalers and home improvement stores in Germany and Switzerland. But when the financial crisis hit five years ago, the gnomes of Nowa Sól turned from saviors of the town to the victims of globalization. After all, Chinese-made garden gnomes are even cheaper than their Polish rivals.
Since then Adam Zakrzewski has branched out, making different figures and hiring a sculptor to come up with new models in a dusty studio. In the room next to the sculptor's studio, molds are made out of fiberglass mats and polyester resin. The exact recipe is a closely-guarded company secret. The firm's 16 employees process 2 metric tons of plastic per week.
Today, Adam Zakrzewski the gnome manufacturer is the boss of a mid-sized business. He says things like: "We've transformed the boom into sustainable growth." His latest order is for human-sized cones filled with plastic churros (deep-fried dough) as long as arms, which was commissioned by a chain of bakeries in Spain.
Meanwhile, the last gnomes in his warehouse were destined for a new home: a fairytale-themed amusement park in Romania.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt.
Turkish Airlines crew banned from wearing red lipstick and nail polish
Europe's fourth-biggest carrier says bright makeup 'impairs visual integrity', triggering concerns over creeping Islamisation
Reuters in Istanbul
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 08.56 BST
Turkey's national airline has barred flight attendants from wearing red lipstick and nail polish, triggering concerns among secular Turks that the country is becoming more Islamic.
Turkish Airlines, Europe's fourth-biggest carrier, said the ban was aimed at keeping crews "artless and well-groomed, with makeup in pastel tones", as a natural look improved communication with passengers.
"As a consequence of our current cabin uniforms not including red, dark pink, etc, the use of lipstick and nail polish in these colours by our cabin crew impairs visual integrity," the statement said.
Turkish Airlines declined a request for further comment.
The guideline follows other restrictions on employees' appearance and on serving alcohol. Critics say they reflect the influence of the government's conservative religious values at the fast-growing state-run airline, one of Turkey's most recognised brands.
"This new guideline is totally down to Turkish Airlines management's desire to shape the company to fit its own political and ideological stance," Atilay Aycin, president of the airline's Hava-Is labour union, said. "No one can deny that Turkey has become a more conservative, religious country."
Turkey is 99% Muslim but the Nato state and EU candidate has a secular constitution.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP party, which traces its roots to a banned Islamic party, has relaxed the state's control over the expression of religion, such the as once-strict limits imposed on wearing the Islamic-style headscarf.
Such restrictions were aimed at reining Islamism and improving women's rights, but in effect prevented many devout women from studying at university or taking government jobs.
Turkish Airlines scrapped its ban on the headscarf more than a year ago, and covered women work at check-in counters and in other positions in the company, Aycin said.
Other Turkish carriers also have guidelines on the appearance of cabin personnel.
The flag carrier caused a stir this year when newspapers published mock-ups of an Ottoman-style uniform for women with ankle-length dresses, a proposal the airline's management appears to have since abandoned.
That was followed by a ban on alcohol on planes flying to most domestic destinations and some Islamic countries.
"They are objecting to the lipstick and nail polish that we have been using for years," said Asli Gokmen, 30, a flight attendant who lost her job along with more than 300 others last year during a union protest and is petitioning for her position back. No current employees were available for comment.
Turks worried the government is undermining the country's secular order see a hidden agenda.
On Twitter, women posted pictures after applying red lipstick. One wrote: "Why not just ban stewardesses altogether so we can all breathe a sigh of relief?"
Some male users of the microblogging site were indignant over the insinuation that red lipstick would induce a sexual frenzy.
A Turkish Airlines passenger, Ahmet Yerli, 33, said he did not think the new guidelines were a sign of creeping Islamisation but that the ban was still "absurd". "I've never heard of a plane crashing because of women's lipstick," he said before boarding his flight.
Transplant hope for women born without wombs
Doctors are holding their breath as they await the outcome of a pregnancy of a Turkish woman who has had a uterus transplant
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 12.33 BST
Sophie Lewis was told at the age of 16 that she would never be able to bear a child of her own. If she wanted a family, the only options would be adoption or surrogacy. She was born without a womb.
"Everyone in school was getting periods and my mum was a bit concerned that I was not," she said. They went to the GP and then for a laparoscopic examination in hospital. Doctors broke the news that she had MRKH syndrome, which affects one in 5,000 women: her uterus had not developed.
"At the age of 16, I don't think I really took it in," she said. "Obviously I wasn't at a stage of wanting children, so it didn't really affect me. As I have got a lot older, people around me are having children and the feeling is a lot stronger."
Things are different now. Lewis, 28, has been with her partner for three years and they would like to have a child. They could have a baby who is genetically their own through surrogacy, but Lewis fears the heartbreak if their surrogate changed her mind and decided to keep the child. "You are putting your trust in somebody you possibly don't know for them to carry your child for nine months and then they finally give birth to the child who they can legally keep if they want to," she says. And adoption "is so difficult – there is so much red tape".
But thanks to a remarkable medical advance, it is possible that Lewis could after all become pregnant and have her own baby. She is on the waiting list for one of the first womb transplants in the UK.
In southern Turkey, 22-year-old Derya Sert, born with the same syndrome as Lewis, is said to be six weeks pregnant. The Akdeniz University Hospital in Antalya says doctors have heard a heartbeat. While there is some tongue-clicking over the decision of the hospital to announce the pregnancy at a stage when even ordinary conceptions have a 25% chance of miscarriage, the handful of top doctors around the world who have been researching womb transplants and hope to carry them out are all holding their collective breath. Richard Smith, the UK consultant gynaecologist who has dreams of starting a womb transplant programme here, says there is no race to be first to achieve a pregnancy. A baby for Sert would be a fantastic step forward for everybody.
"I'm very, very pleased," says Smith. After 15 years of research, he has been told he can apply for the necessary ethical approval to embark on womb transplants. He will need the data he and others have from animal studies and from the few human transplants that have taken place. If Sert has a child, the case for transplants in the UK suddenly looks a lot more convincing.
"There is no reason to suppose that it won't happen. She has a normally functioning uterus and will be delivered by caesarean section at 38 or 39 weeks," says Smith, who is based at Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea hospital and Imperial College in London. But there are unknowns, he adds. "The biggest 'if' in all of this is what happens to a transplanted uterus in pregnancy. Data from animals is thin on the ground."
There are just a few experts in this field and they have got together for international conferences three times. The first was four years ago in Sweden, the home of Mats Brännström, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Gothenburg. The second was hosted by Giuseppe del Priore, director of gynaecologic oncology at Indiana University school of medicine in the US, with whom Smith collaborates. The last was in London and the Turkish gynaecologist, Ömer Özkan, came along. Smith says they were impressed with his presentation.
Brännström in Gothenburg has already done two womb transplants – from living donors. These are mothers who have donated their wombs to their daughters, both of whom are in their 30s. One of the young women went through a hysterectomy because of cancer, while the other was born with MRKH syndrome. The operations took place last September and Brännström will wait a year – all the surgeons agree with this – before attempting to implant the embryos that are waiting in a freezer. All the transplant recipients will have to go through IVF before a transplant, to ensure they are able to create healthy embryos. There would be no point going through major surgery only to find you could not produce viable eggs.
Smith says that taking a womb from a live donor is unlikely to be permitted in the UK. "The risk to the donor is larger than the risk to the recipient," he says. "It's a four-to-five hour procedure. That's not going to be the UK approach." Like Özkan in Turkey, Smith plans to take the wombs from dead multi-organ donors.
There are 15,000 women in the UK without a womb. He will have no shortage of volunteers like Lewis. "There are 60 women who have actually approached us wanting a transplant and fall within our eligibility criteria," he says. "They have to have the capacity to create an embryo themselves, they have to be an adult and probably not over the age of 40." Smith has launched a charity, Womb Transplant UK, to share information and raise money. They need £250,000 for the first five operations.
Lewis found out about the putative transplant programme when she decided to run the London Marathon and contacted the hospital looking for a charity to support. Instead, they invited her in for a chat. "I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about it, so I put it off," she said. But eventually she went along with her partner. Now she hopes to be one of the first five to get a transplant, maybe next year.
"I'm really, really excited about it. People ask: 'Are you scared? Are you worried about what might happen?' But to be given this opportunity is such an amazing thing that I would go through everything and anything just to have the experience," she says.
She will have to take immuno-supressant drugs to prevent her immune system rejecting the uterus, which will make her vulnerable to infections. But the drugs will not affect a foetus, say doctors – women with kidney transplants who must take the drugs for the rest of their life go on to have healthy babies.
And there is a big advantage to a womb transplant. Once Lewis and her partner have their family, the womb will be removed and she can stop the immuno-supressants. She sees a bright future.
"If possible I would like three children," she says, "but I'd be happy even with one. I'd be over the moon."
May 2, 2013
Afghan Government Faces Cash Crunch
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government is supposed to cover less than half its own bills this year, yet achieving even that modest goal is proving an unexpected challenge, Afghan and Western officials said.
A confidential assessment of Afghan finances by the International Monetary Fund said the potentially severe cash crunch was caused by widespread tax evasion abetted by government officials, the increasing theft of customs revenues by provincial governors and softening economic growth.
The I.M.F. assessment, which has not been publicly released but was described by American and European diplomats who were recently briefed on its findings, estimated that Afghan revenue in the first quarter of the year was roughly 20 percent to 30 percent short of an informal target the fund had set for the government.
After a decade of steadily growing tax and customs revenue, the budget shortfall has caught Afghanistan’s international backers by surprise. Diplomats portrayed it as an unwelcome reminder that the Afghan government remains weak and corrupt — and years away from being able to pay its own expenses.
If the trend is not reversed, diplomats said, the Afghan government will be unable to pay salaries by midsummer, though Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal disputed that assessment. He put the shortfall at no more than 20 percent.
No one here expects the Afghan government to actually run out of money. It is supposed to cover about 40 percent of its nonsecurity spending this year, projected to total roughly $5 billion, and it could raise money by cracking down on tax evaders or imposing new fees for services.
As a last resort, international donors could always fill the gap. They already pay nearly the entire cost of Afghanistan’s police force and army, and have agreed to cover roughly 60 percent of the government’s other spending this year.
For now, fear of instability still trumps the desire for good governance among Western donors, and aid commitments are likely to hold through the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014, diplomats said.
But the looming cash crunch comes at a delicate time. Kabul is negotiating a long-term security deal with the United States and is looking for other Western countries to make good on aid pledges that amount to tens of billions of dollars after 2014.
Smaller countries with little or no military commitment here are especially likely to reassess their aid spending at that point, diplomats said.
If Afghan officials “don’t have the confidence in their own country to find a way to pay for it themselves, then why should we?” said a European diplomat from one of those smaller countries. The diplomat and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Afghan officials.
For President Hamid Karzai, who has been pushing for greater control of Afghanistan’s affairs, the revenue problem strikes at a more fundamental issue: a country that cannot pay for itself is not its own master.
“Let us be honest,” Bernard Bajolet, the recently departed French ambassador, said at a farewell cocktail party. “Sovereignty won’t be effective as long as Afghanistan won’t be fully self-reliant financially.”
Afghanistan, to be sure, has made huge economic strides since 2001, and the signs of growing prosperity abound. Dozens of international flights a week arrive in Kabul, late-model cars crowd the congested streets of the capital, and cellphones have largely replaced the hand-held satellite phones that just over a decade ago were the sole way to make a call.
But the country will nonetheless need billions in financial aid through 2032 to cover its nonsecurity spending, never mind to pay for its army and police force, according to another I.M.F. review that was released in February.
American and European officials rarely speak of horizons that long. The current aid pledges for nonsecurity spending, which are contingent on the Afghan government combating corruption, run only through 2016 — it is 2018 for security spending — with only vague assurances of what will come afterward.
“I’m not sure that Mr. Karzai or Mr. Zakhilwal should be walking into a bank with promises, not if Afghans aren’t going to pay,” said another European official who deals with financial matters. “This matters to us.”
Mr. Zakhilwal, the finance minister, said he was confident the government would get its finances in order. In an e-mail, he attributed the shortfall largely to a shift in the start of the Afghan fiscal year to Dec. 21 from March 21, which resulted in people overpaying taxes last year.
The shifting fiscal year also accounts for why Afghan and European officials are measuring revenue against a target rather than comparing the numbers with the same quarter from previous years.
Slowing economic growth contributed to the revenue shortfall as well, Mr. Zakhilwal said, blaming the international news media for offering a “negative analysis” of what will happen after 2014.
That coverage, reflected in the Afghan news media, “has caused nervousness and has affected trade and business activities,” he said.
American and European officials said the shifting fiscal year and weakening confidence are certainly part of the problem.
But the economy grew by 12 percent last year, and many Afghans who should be paying large tax bills, especially wealthy businessmen, are closely linked to senior officials and political figures. An American official described them as the “untouchables,” saying they rarely pay their full tax bill.
The presidential election slated for next April further complicates matters. Cracking down on tax evasion is that much tougher in an election year; the business elite, for instance, finances campaigns.
Then there are customs revenues, which account for about half of Afghan government revenues. They “are declining, not increasing, due to the diversion of part of them,” said Mr. Bajolet, the former French ambassador. He did not elaborate.
But American and European officials said it was because of election year political jockeying. Some governors of provinces with lucrative border crossings are positioning themselves for presidential runs, and others are looking to help finance top contenders, they said. Customs revenues are an easy way to fill their war chests.
In his e-mail, Mr. Zakhilwal tacitly acknowledged the corruption, and called the revenue numbers a “blessing in disguise” that has allowed him to take politically perilous corrective measures.
He said 34 customs officials have been replaced “with more reputable, reform-minded and serious individuals. This is the biggest change in any single Afghan ministry in the past 12 years.”
He also said Finance Ministry officials were under orders to more strictly enforce tax and customs rules, and the cabinet decided last month to fire any official caught abetting tax evasion or stealing customs duties.
A senior official has yet to be fired.
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting.
May 2, 2013
A Border Clash Stirs Emotions in Afghanistan
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan forces claimed on Thursday that they had overrun and destroyed a Pakistani-held border crossing in a remote area, an event that provoked a spontaneous outpouring of nationalist sentiment here, sending thousands of students into the streets to demonstrate and setting off lively debate on social networking sites.
A funeral for Qasim Khan, an Afghan border policeman who was the only confirmed victim of the clash, turned into a patriotic rally. An ambulance pressed into service as a hearse to carry Mr. Khan’s body from Jalalabad to his home village in rural Nangarhar Province was strewn with flowers, and mourners declared a victory over Pakistan. Nearly 200 miles away in Gardez, a city in Paktia Province, Mr. Khan was hailed as a national hero by marching crowds of students who beat drums and chanted anti-Pakistan slogans.
A Facebook page was started by Afghan supporters to campaign for Mr. Khan to be posthumously awarded the rank of general.
A spokesman for the Afghan Border Police unit in eastern Nangarhar Province said troops from the unit burned the post at the border crossing in fighting that began Wednesday night and finished early Thursday morning. They also took back five Afghan police posts that had been occupied by Pakistani forces, he said. Afghan officials have said Pakistan built the crossing without Afghan approval, and it was one of several that President Hamid Karzai had publicly complained about last month.
The border police spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with his agency’s policy, said there were unconfirmed reports that nine Pakistani militiamen had been killed in the clash, which took place in the Goshta district.
However, Pakistani government officials said only two of their frontier constabulary officers were wounded in what a Foreign Ministry statement described as an “unprovoked firing incident” started by the Afghans, to which the Pakistani side reacted with “maximum restraint.” An Afghan member of Parliament from the Goshta district, Friadon Momand, said he had heard that the border crossing had not been destroyed and was still operating.
“We are not the aggressors, they are the ones provoking and fanning these clashes,” said Maj. Gen. Gul Nabi Ahmadzia, the Afghan Border Police commander in charge of the operation. “While we are waiting for our politicians to take action and decide what to do, we showed that Afghans are not incapable of protecting their country.”
Whoever was to blame, the operation aroused an unusual degree of reaction, especially among young Afghans, in contrast to their apathy over actions by their army and police forces in clashes with Afghan insurgents.
“An Afghan Border Police officer died last night fighting Pakistanis,” read a Facebook post attributed to Sohrab Sharifi. “Afghans enraged and showed emotions. But now eight Afghan local policemen killed by (Sons of Pakistan) Taliban, all will remain silent.”
Mr. Sharifi was referring to reports that eight Afghan Local Police officers were killed on Thursday morning by a roadside bomb that blew up as their truck passed by in the village of Pashtunabad in Logar Province.
Abdul Wali Wakil, the chairman of the Logar Provincial Council, said the officers had just graduated from a training program run by American Special Forces soldiers and had just been brought by the Americans to their assignment in the area.
“I have personally warned the provincial governor and provincial police chief about the potential threat in the area, but they ignored my advice,” he said.
The governor of Logar, Arsala Jamal, said the area of that attack was normally under full government control. “However, there are some individuals who are creating some minor problems for us every now and then,” he said.
In an unrelated episode in western Afghanistan, another Afghan Local Police unit was attacked by the Taliban, and 18 policemen were captured and taken prisoner in the Ghormach district of Faryab Province, according to Ajmal Wardak, the deputy commander of the 209th Afghan National Army Corps, which is responsible for the area.
The attack took place Tuesday but was not reported until Thursday. Another official in Faryab, Rahmatullah Turkistani, head of the provincial council, said he understood that 40 local policemen had been captured by the insurgents.
The border clash in Nangarhar Province comes after months of complaints by Afghan authorities about cross-border shelling and control of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In addition, Afghan political leaders, including Mr. Karzai, have greatly stepped up their anti-Pakistan talk lately, blaming their neighbor for supporting insurgents and hindering efforts at peace talks.
On Facebook and Twitter, many Afghans called for further demonstrations after Friday Prayer.
The border clash came a day after the reopening of the major crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at Torkham on the Grand Trunk Road between Kabul and Peshawar. It had been closed for two days after a fistfight between Afghan and Pakistani border guards over the Pakistanis’ refusal to let an Afghan woman enter without a visa.
Pakistan closed the crossing for two days until the Afghans apologized. According to Col. Enayatullah Abdullah, an Afghan Border Police official at Torkham, four Afghan patients died waiting at the crossing to go to hospitals in Pakistan.
Mr. Karzai has repeatedly raised the long-festering issue of the Durand Line, which forms the border between the two countries and was established by the British. The line divides traditionally Pashtun tribal areas on both sides of the border; Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and they predominate among the Taliban insurgents.
Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Kabul; an Afghan employee of The New York Times from Jalalabad, Afghanistan; and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.
May 2, 2013
Where China Meets India in a High-Altitude Desert, Push Comes to Shove
By GARDINER HARRIS and EDWARD WONG
NEW DELHI — The disputed border region between India and China attracts troops from both countries, but two weeks ago the Chinese sent an unusual number of military patrols into the mountains of Ladakh, a remote high-altitude desert at the northern tip of India.
Two Chinese patrols came on foot, two more arrived in military vehicles and a Chinese helicopter flew overhead. With all the activity, the Indian authorities failed to notice until the next morning that about 30 Chinese soldiers had pitched three tents in an area both countries claim.
Indian military officials protested. The Chinese stayed put. India protested again. The Chinese, who had with them a few high-altitude guard dogs, responded by erecting two more tents and raising a sign saying, in English, “You are in Chinese side.”
As the dispute enters its third week, alarm in the Indian capital is growing. At a Thursday news briefing, Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said, “There is no doubt that in the entire country this is a matter of concern.”
But the prime minister has sought to play down the dispute.
“It is a localized problem,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Saturday. “We do believe it can be solved. We have a plan. We do not want to accentuate the situation.”
Still, jingoistic comments are growing by politicians linked to both the opposition and the government.
“This government is cowardly, incompetent and good for nothing,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, an important regional leader allied with the governing coalition. Arun Jaitley, a leading opposition politician, said in Parliament on Thursday, “You may have some security options, you may have some diplomatic options, but being clueless is not an option.”
In China, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman denied that Chinese troops had crossed into Indian territory and said the dispute would be resolved peacefully and through appropriate channels.
“I would also like to point out that China and India are neighbors and their borders haven’t been demarcated,” said the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, at a news conference last week in Beijing. “As such, it is difficult to avoid this or that kind of problem.”
On Thursday, the online edition of People’s Daily ran an editorial that urged China to continue friendly relations with India, but said China should not “indulge” India’s “bad habits,” and in particular the “lies” of the Indian news media.
Though Indian and Chinese politicians have not described the reasons for the dispute, Indian news reports have stated that Chinese officials have demanded that Indian authorities demolish some newly constructed bunkers and reduce patrols in the area.
As its economic might has grown, China has become increasingly assertive in its territorial claims across Asia. In disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, China’s claims revolve around islands or sea lanes that are potentially rich in oil and gas deposits. What puzzles Indian analysts is that China has chosen to squabble over a barren moonscape frequented only by nomadic cattle herders.
“It’s an inexplicable provocation,” said Gen. Vasantha R. Raghavan, a former top Indian military commander who once commanded the region in dispute. “There is something happening inside China which is making the military act in an irrational manner.”
Trade between China and India is growing rapidly. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid of India is expected to visit Beijing next week, and Prime Minister Li Keqiang of China is scheduled to visit India three weeks later on his first official trip abroad since taking office in March. Indian and Chinese officials have emphasized that relations remain friendly, and Indian officials say that Mr. Khurshid still intends to go to Beijing as planned. But there are growing calls in India for both trips to be canceled.
General Raghavan said the dispute was likely to accelerate improving military ties between India and the United States — a development that is not likely to be welcomed by China.
M. Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on China’s border issues, said that China might be responding to local concerns about Indian military construction in the disputed area. But he said information about the incursion was sketchy.
The dispute is playing out hundreds of miles from what has long been seen as the most contested area between the countries — a stretch of land that separates Tibet, occupied for decades by China, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Chinese soldiers crossed that part of the border during the 1962 war and took over a section of Arunachal Pradesh, including the culturally Tibetan area known as Tawang, before decamping and returning to China. In 2009, China became more vocal in its claims to parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
The latest spat between India and China is bound to resolve itself this year, one way or another. In six months, snow and bitterly cold weather will make the Chinese encampment very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.
Gardiner Harris reported from New Delhi, and Edward Wong from Beijing and Hangzhou, China. Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi. Sue-Lin Wong contributed research from Beijing.
Bangladesh factory building collapse death toll exceeds 500
Engineer becomes ninth person to be detained over country's worst industrial accident, as number of deaths climbs to 501
Reuters in Dhaka
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 09.48 BST
The death toll from the collapse of a Bangladesh factory building has passed 500, officials said, as police investigating the disaster arrested an engineer who warned the day before the tragedy that the eight-storey complex was unsafe.
The detention of Abdur Razzak brought to nine the number of people held over the disaster, which has put the spotlight on the many western clothing retailers using the country as a source of cheap goods.
Scores of relatives remained at the site in a Dhaka suburb on Friday, clutching photographs of loved ones attesting to the many more still missing, as the number of deaths in the country's worst industrial accident rose to 501.
Razzak had been called to Rana Plaza in Savar, 20 miles north of the capital, by its owner when cracks appeared in concrete pillars the day before the accident.
Despite his warning that the building was unsafe – quoted in local media hours before it came crashing to the ground – thousands of mostly female workers were sent back into its upper-storey factories when the morning shift began the next day.
Police said Razzak had been arrested because he had been involved in the construction of the building.
Duty-free access offered by western countries and low wages have helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a $19bn (£12bn) a year industry, with 60% of clothes transported to Europe.
People mourn for their relatives trapped inside the Bangladesh building People mourn for relatives trapped under the rubble of the building
The EU said it was considering trade action against Bangladesh, which has preferential access to EU markets for its garments, to pressure Dhaka to improve safety standards.
About 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest clothing exporter after China. Some earn just $38 a month, conditions Pope Francis on Wednesday likened to slave labour.
There were about 3,000 people inside the complex, which was built on swampy land, when it collapsed. About 2,500 people have been rescued, many injured, but many remain unaccounted for.
The building's owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, his father, four factory owners and two engineers have been arrested, while the local mayor has been suspended from office accused of improperly approving its construction.
It was the third deadly incident in six months to raise questions about worker safety and labour conditions in Bangladesh.
In November, scores died in a garment-factory fire in Dhaka, many of them because supervisors ordered workers back to their stations even as an alarm rang and smoke rose through an internal staircase.
Human-rights groups say there has never been a case in which a factory owner was prosecuted over the deaths of workers.
****************EU considers trade action to improve Bangladesh labour standards
After collapse of illegally built Rana Plaza factory, EU intends 'to turn up diplomatic heat' on Bangladesh garment industry
EurActiv.com with Reuters, part of the Guardian development network
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 03.30 BST
The EU is considering trade action against Bangladesh, which has preferential access to EU markets for its garments, to pressure the country to improve safety standards after a building collapse killed more than 400 factory workers.
The death toll from the collapse last week of the illegally built Rana Plaza near Dhaka rose to 411 on Wednesday, and about 40 unidentified victims were buried. There were about 3,000 people inside the complex, which was built on a swamp, when it collapsed. About 2,500 people were rescued, many injured.
Duty-free access offered by western countries and low wages have helped turn Bangladesh's garment exports into a €14.4bn (£12.2bn) a year industry, with 60% of clothing going to Europe.
In Brussels, the EU reacted by urging stronger health and safety standards in overseas factories supplying European textile companies. "The EU calls upon the Bangladeshi authorities to act immediately to ensure that factories across the country comply with international labour standards," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and trade commissioner Karel de Gucht said.
"The EU is considering appropriate action, including through the generalised system of preferences, through which Bangladesh receives duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market," Ashton and De Gucht said. "The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged criminality around the building's construction is finally becoming clear to the world."
Any action by the EU on Bangladesh's duty-free and quota-free access would require the agreement of all member states and could take more than a year to implement.
'Turning up the diplomatic heat'
With local anger growing at the country's worst industrial accident, a delegation from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) met the Bangladeshi prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka to offer support and press for action to prevent such incidents.
The EU had already urged Bangladesh to adhere to ILO standards in January after two earlier factory fires, including one last November in which 112 people died. An EU official said the latest statement was "a shot across the bows". "We want to turn up the diplomatic heat on them and get them to sit down and discuss this with us."
About 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter behind China. The industry employs mostly women, some of whom earn as little as €29 a month.
The Bangladeshi prime minister warned factory owners they would have to take care of their workers. "You will have to ensure workers' fair wages, allowances and other rights … you must look after their workplace safety if you want to do business," she told a discussion forum.
The April factory collapse in Bangladesh was the third deadly incident in six months to raise questions about worker safety and labour conditions in the poor south Asian country, which relies on garments for 80% of its exports.
In the year to June 2012, Bangladesh's garment exports to the EU rose to €8.6bn from €8bn a year earlier, according to Bangladesh's commerce ministry. Germany is the main EU market, followed by the UK, Spain and France. Bangladesh's next biggest garment export market is the US.
************Bangladesh factory collapse: pope condemns 'slave labour' conditions
Pope Francis tells private mass in Vatican of his shock at the low wages of garment workers as thousands demonstrate in Dhaka
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 May 2013 14.07 BST
Link to video: Bangladesh building collapse: relatives identify remainshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/may/02/bangladesh-building-collapse-relatives-video
The pope has condemned as "slave labour" the working conditions of the Bangladesh garment workers who died in last week's factory collapse.
As Bangladeshi workers took the streets to demand better working conditions and the official death toll rose to more than 400, Pope Francis said he was shocked by a headline from saying some of the workers were living on €38 (£32) a month.
"This was the payment of these people who have died … And this is called 'slave labour'," he said. Vatican Radio said the pope made the remarks during a private mass on Wednesday at the Vatican.
Thousands of workers marched through Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, on Wednesday demanding the death penalty for the owner of the garment factory. A procession of workers on foot, in pickup trucks and on motorcycles wound its way through the streets, waving the national flag and banners, beating drums and chanting "direct action" and "death penalty".
From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the group: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."
May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in Bangladesh to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the 24 April disaster.
Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza that collapsed in Savar, a Dhaka suburb. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again highlighted safety problems in the country's $20bn (£13bn)-a-year garment industry, which supplies retailers around the world.
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing people to work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said whether more serious crimes will be added.
Strong concern over labour conditions in Bangladesh were voiced on Tuesday by the European Union, which said it was considering action to encourage improvements, including the use of its trade preference system. The EU suggested it would look at Bangladesh's preferential trade access to the European market in considering taking action to encourage better safety standards and labour conditions.
In Dhaka on Wednesday, workers demanded capital punishment for Rana, 38, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.
"I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories," said Mongidul Islam Rana, an 18-year-old garment factory worker.
Bangladesh's high court has ordered the government to confiscate Rana's property and to freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay workers' salaries.
Rana had permission to build five storeys but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants that it was safe and they should go back in. The next day, a bank and some shops in the building did not open but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building collapsed.
About 2,500 people escaped with injuries and rescue workers have recovered 395 bodies, but they believe many more are still buried on the ground level. There is confusion over how many people remain missing.
Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said 149 people had been listed as missing. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said officers had recorded up to 1,300 names of people believed to be missing, but he cautioned that there may be many duplications. "We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number," he said.
Rescuers estimate that the building turned into 600 tonnes of rubble, of which 350 tonnes has been removed.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, trousers and other garments a year.
The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers. British retailer Primark has acknowledged it sold garments made in a factory in Rana Plaza and on Monday said it was providing emergency aid and would pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.
May 2, 2013Bangladesh Arrests Engineer Who Warned of Dangers
By JIM YARDLEY and JULFIKAR ALI MANIK
SAVAR, Bangladesh — In an unexpected turn in the investigation into the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza building, the Bangladeshi police on Thursday arrested the engineer who warned a day before the disaster that the building was unsafe.
The collapse of Rana Plaza, which housed five garment factories employing more than 3,000 workers, is now considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry, with the death toll so far at 446 and many others still missing.
The arrest of the engineer, Abdur Razzaque Khan, was a surprise twist since he was regarded as something of a hero for trying to avert the April 24 disaster. A day before the building collapsed, Mr. Khan had been summoned because cracks had suddenly appeared in the structure, forcing an evacuation. He concluded that the building had become dangerous and should be closed until experts could conduct a more thorough investigation — advice that turned out to be grimly prescient.
His comments appeared the next morning in at least one national newspaper. But the police say that the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, and the factory owners are blaming Mr. Khan, saying he told them the cracks were just a small problem. A police official said that Mr. Khan is being interrogated to determine who is telling the truth.
The police have already arrested two engineers involved in the building’s construction, along with Mr. Rana and the factory owners, who ordered employees to work on the morning of the collapse. The disaster has focused attention on safety conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh, now the world’s No. 2 clothing exporter, after China.
But it has brought growing scrutiny of the response by the Bangladeshi authorities. Public suspicions about the death toll have become so fevered that the Army general overseeing the rescue effort called a news conference to denounce the rumors.
“Some quarters have alleged that bodies are disappearing,” Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Suhrawardy told Bangladeshi reporters. “They are fueling public anger by spreading rumors that actual casualties are unbelievably high.”
The authorities say 2,437 people have been rescued. Earlier, the Army announced that 146 people were still missing, a number that drew broad public skepticism. Hundreds of fliers of missing people are posted in Savar, and some people believe that several hundred or more remain unaccounted for. The recovery effort is expected to last at least several more days.
“Don’t listen to any rumors,” General Suhrawardy said. “We would like to assure that we won’t leave the place until we rescue the last body.”
On Thursday, the authorities also suspended the mayor of Savar for his role in the disaster. He is accused of improperly granting building permits to Mr. Rana, a political ally, and of failing to take appropriate steps to close the building once the structural cracks had appeared.
China arrests 900 in fake meat scandal
Chinese authorities seize 20,000 tonnes of illegal meat products and detains gang passing off fox, mink and rat as mutton
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 11.32 BST
Police in China have arrested 904 people for "meat-related offences" over the past three months, including a gang that made more than £1m by passing off fox, mink and rat meat as mutton, the country's public security ministry has announced.
Since January, authorities have seized 20,000 tonnes of illegal products and solved 382 cases of meat-related crime – primarily the sale of toxic, diseased and counterfeit meat.
One suspect, named Wei, earned more than £1m over the past four years by purchasing fox, mink and rat meat, treating it with gelatin, carmine (a colour produced from ground beetles) and nitrate, then selling it as mutton at farmers' markets in Jiangsu province and Shanghai. Authorities raided Wei's organisation in February, arresting 63 suspects and seizing 10 tonnes of meat and additives.
Suspects in the Baotou city produced fake beef and lamb jerky from duck meat and sold it to markets in 15 provinces. Levels of E coli in the counterfeit product "seriously exceeded standards", the ministry said.
A baby who suffers from kidney stones after drinking tainted milk powder, Chengdu, China. September 22, 2008 A baby treated for kidney stones after drinking tainted milk powder, in Chengdu, China. Photograph: China Photos/Getty
Hao, another suspect, from Fengxiang city, Shaanxi province, last year sold mutton that had turned black and reeked of agricultural chemicals to a barbecue restaurant, killing one customer and poisoning a handful of others.
In Fujian province, five suspects were arrested and two factories shut for butchering disease-ridden pig carcasses and selling their meat in nearby provinces. The suspects had been hired by the agriculture ministry to collect the carcasses from farmers and dispose of them properly.
Authorities closed two factories in the south-western province of Guizhou for soaking chicken feet in hydrogen peroxide before shipping them to markets. And in Zhenjiang city, Jiangsu province, two people were arrested for selling pork products that were made with meat from "poor quality pig heads".
China's meat markets are already reeling from a spring riddled with food safety scares. Pork sales plummeted in March after about 16,000 pig carcasses were dredged from a river in Shanghai, an incident authorities have yet to fully explain. A virulent strain of avian flu has killed 26 people and put more than 129 in hospital since mid-April, wreaking havoc on the domestic poultry industry.
New guidelines calling for harsher penalties for those found guilty of producing or selling unsafe food products were announced by the country's top court on Friday.
The supreme people's court said the guidelines would list as crimes acts such as the sale of food excessively treated with chemicals or made from animals that have died from disease or unknown causes.
rats A gang made more than £1m by passing off mink and rat meat as mutton. Photograph: PA
China's food safety authorities are turning their attention to dairy products, according to the Xinhua state news agency. In 2008, more than 54,000 infants became ill and six were killed after being fed milk and baby formula that was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.
Other food safety scandals in recent years include reports of glow-in-the-dark pork, exploding watermelons, cadmium-laced rice, fake eggs, salmonella-tainted seafood, carcinogenic recycled cooking oil and pesticide-soaked fruit.
May 2, 2013
U.S. Lifts Ban on Visas for Burmese Officials
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration lifted a sweeping ban on visas for officials from Myanmar on Thursday, further easing sanctions against the country despite growing fears that ethnic violence is threatening its nascent steps toward democracy.
Lifting the ban, first imposed in 1996, is the latest effort by the administration to reward Myanmar after its president, Thein Sein, began to open its political system and economy in 2011 after decades of military rule.
The State Department said in a statement that the move was intended “to strengthen and encourage further reform” in Myanmar, also known as a matter of American policy by its former name, Burma. The United States last year lifted most sanctions that limited trade between the two countries, though military commanders and companies affiliated with the military still face sanctions targeting human-rights abuses, drug trafficking and arms sales. Although the State Department never published the names of those banned, the restrictions on traveling to the United States applied to hundreds of military officers and other officials who were part of the country’s military dictatorship, as well as their families.
Mr. Thein Sein, removed from the list of banned officials last year, is scheduled to meet Mr. Obama during his first visit to Washington this month, according to administration and Congressional officials. He has been traveling extensively to encourage investment, but continues to face questions about the depth of changes. A United Nations envoy in Geneva warned in March that while Myanmar had made significant progress, the eruption of mob violence against Muslims and continuing civil wars were undermining its transition to democracy. In central Myanmar, a man was killed Wednesday in a new outbreak of sectarian violence, in which Buddhist mobs destroyed property owned by Muslims, Reuters reported.
The euphoria that has greeted the release of political prisoners, most prominently Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves in Parliament, and the lifting of many draconian laws on unions and the media over the last two years has increasingly faded. State Department officials declined to discuss publicly those concerns or the reasons for lifting the travel ban now.
The European Union lifted most of its sanctions against Myanmar last month, a move that was criticized as premature by Human Rights Watch. In Washington, human rights advocates and lawmakers have supported the administration’s strategy to ease sanctions step by step, but some worry that Myanmar was no longer doing enough to merit more rewards. “While I’m still waiting to hear details of these and other potential moves,” Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement, “I urge the administration to stick to its policy of action for action.”
May 2, 2013
United States Calls on North Korea to Free American
By CHOE SANG-HUN and RICK GLADSTONE
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States said Thursday that North Korea should immediately release an American citizen who was sentenced this week to 15 years of hard labor, setting up a potential new source of confrontation between the two countries that could aggravate tensions that are still high over North Korea’s nuclear war threats.
A State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said the Obama administration had “longstanding concerns about the lack of transparency and due process in the North Korean legal system.” Mr. Ventrell said that the administration wanted the convicted American, Kenneth Bae, who was sentenced on Tuesday on charges of committing hostile acts, to be granted “amnesty and immediate release.”
Mr. Ventrell’s statement signaled the administration was not prepared, at least not now, to seek Mr. Bae’s release through a high-profile mission to North Korea, as it has done twice in the past when Americans were held by North Korean authorities essentially as hostages to gain concessions from the United States.
Asked at a briefing if such a mission to free Mr. Bae were an option, Mr. Ventrell said, “I’m not aware one way or another.” While he acknowledged such previous missions, he said, the administration was urging North Korea “to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop.”
Analysts of North Korea’s behavior said an American diplomatic mission to secure Mr. Bae’s release could easily be used by the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, as an example of Washington’s capitulation and an opportunity to burnish his profile as a tough anti-American strategist.
But by taking the tougher approach, the Obama administration is assuming the risk that one of its citizens will be incarcerated indefinitely.
The sentencing comes at a time of high tension between the North and the United States over the North’s nuclear program, and it was handed down the same day that joint American-South Korean military drills ended. With the end of the drills, some analysts have said, North Korea might tone down its bellicosity and shift its focus toward drawing Washington back to the negotiating table — using, among other things, the plight of Mr. Bae as bait.
“The timing of the sentencing makes us think that the North is again playing its old card,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “But will the Americans play the same game? If Washington sends a former president whenever North Korea holds an American captive, they say it will run out of former presidents.”
Mr. Bae, 44, a Korean-American from Washington State who ran a tour business out of China, was arrested in the special economic zone of Rason in northeastern North Korea in November after leading a group of businessmen there from Yanji, China.
Like several other Americans detained in the North in recent years, Mr. Bae is a Christian, according to rights advocates. While North Korea’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, in practice it cracks down on religious activities, according to human rights groups, and is wary of all Christians who visit.
The North said Saturday that it was indicting Mr. Bae on charges that he tried to overthrow the government, a crime that called for a punishment as severe as the death penalty. But on Tuesday, its Supreme Court convicted him of “hostile acts,” a charge less grave than the original, the North said.
Mr. Bae is at least the sixth American detained in North Korea since 2009, and his punishment was the most severe. The others eventually were deported or released. Two were released in 2009 when President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-il, the leader at the time. Another was released when former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang.
Americans recently held prisoner in the North were kept in special facilities, away from domestic inmates, possibly out of fear that when released, they would testify about the condition of prison camps where the State Department says starvation and forced labor remain rampant.
Choe Sang-hun reported from Seoul, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
May 2, 2013
Egypt’s Birthrate Rises as Population Control Policies Vanish
By KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — More than two years after the Egyptian uprising, the country’s new Islamist government has struggled to confront a drop in tourism and the faltering economy. But the leadership has remained silent about another crucial indicator that has surged to a 20-year high: the country’s birthrate.
In fact, officials have avoided public discussion about population and dropped the awareness campaigns of the past, in an early indication of how the Islamist leadership is approaching social policy in the most populous Arab state.
After two decades of steady declines and modest increases, the birthrate in 2012 reached about 32 for every 1,000 people — surpassing a level last seen in 1991, shortly before the government of the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, expanded family planning programs and publicity campaigns to curtail population growth that he blamed for crippling Egypt’s development. Last year, there were 2.6 million births, bringing the population to about 84 million, according to preliminary government figures.
The new government of President Mohamed Morsi has continued financing for family planning programs. But health officials have taken a starkly different view of climbing birthrates, presenting the problem as one of economic management — not the size of the population. Population experts are increasingly alarmed by the government’s silence and its lack of focus on the issue.
“The birthrate is important. It is not right to ignore the population problem,” said Hassan Zaky, a demographer who teaches at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. “Before, there was a clear policy. Now, we don’t know where we are going. We don’t know the view of the state.”
Government officials blame Egypt’s chaotic transition for the lack of public discourse. But the shift in priorities also reflects a longstanding critique by Islamists of Mr. Mubarak’s population policies. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservatives chafed at Mr. Mubarak’s almost single-minded focus on contraception and two-child families as a core component of public policy. Mr. Mubarak used family planning — a foreign imposition — to mask the government’s failed strategies, some Islamists said.
“The real problem is with us, as an administration,” said Hamid al-Daly, a representative of the ultraconservative Nour Party and a member of the health committee in Egypt’s upper house of Parliament. “The population in China is over a billion, but there is good management and good utilization of resources. The population is a blessing if we use it well, and a curse if we mismanage the crisis.”
Many public health workers agree that Mr. Mubarak’s approach, which was backed by international aid donors, was never a solution on its own. But they said the current government’s silence on the population threatens only to make the situation worse.
“No one is saying we should concentrate only on family planning, or only on development,” Mr. Zaky said. “We need a mix. We don’t want the new regime to focus on one thing.”
Over decades, Egypt’s climbing birthrates have helped choke its cities. Fertile land along the Nile disappeared under new buildings, as Egyptians crowded ever more tightly together on the tiny percentage of the country that the government bothered to develop. Egyptians chastised their leaders with taunts that illustrated the crisis: While presidents dressed in the latest fashions, “we live seven to a room,” a chant went.
The state’s formal role in family planning began in the 1960s under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the late 1970s, the United States Agency for International Development became the main supporter of family planning programs in Egypt, spending about $1.5 billion on population and other health programs over several decades. Efforts to rein in the birthrate intensified after 1994, when Egypt hosted an international conference on population and development.
Thousands of primary clinics were built around the country, providing family planning and other health services that were credited with decreasing the fertility rate as well as maternal and infant mortality rates. The outreach efforts of that period included advertisements on state television and banners on Cairo streets — with slogans like, “Before you have another baby, secure its needs.”
Dr. Nahla Abdel-Tawab, the Egypt director of the nonprofit Population Council, said of the Mubarak years: “The president himself used to talk about population increases. It was in the newspapers, in the prime minister’s speeches.”
Now, population has seemed to vanish from public discussion. Health workers said they were stunned when Dr. Abeer Barakat, an assistant minister for health who is responsible for family planning, made no explicit mention at a United Nations conference in December of population or family planning in describing the Health Ministry’s priorities.
In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Barakat said she had simply been trying to inject balance into the debate about population and planning, to reflect the new government’s priorities. “What was shocking for them was that I talked about family health, and family planning as part of family health,” she said.
Dr. Barakat, a former official in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing before joining the Health Ministry, said she was seeking to redress imbalances in the previous government’s approach to health care. Mr. Mubarak, she said, “was biased” toward family planning and ignored urgent concerns like cancer and hepatitis C.
And while she said that family planning programs would continue to be a part of health policy, she also said the government should play no role in encouraging families to limit the number of children they have. “Assigning a number is against reproductive freedoms, and against human rights,” she said.
“They are not rabbits, to stop giving birth,” she said. “Manpower is a treasure.”
Among the members of a large family in Greater Cairo, the new government’s approach is more popular than Mr. Mubarak’s.
Mohamed Rabia Ali, 62, a construction worker who lives with seven members of his family in a cramped apartment, said that Mr. Morsi could establish new communities in the desert to alleviate the housing crisis, and focus on providing more jobs for young people. The government does not need to tell Egyptians how many children to have. “The creator takes care of the created,” he said.
But for the moment, grand development plans that could alleviate overpopulation have taken a back seat as the beleaguered government focuses on keeping the lights on and feeding its citizens. “The primary issues are food and security,” said Dr. Atef El Shitany of the state-run National Population Council. As a result, he said, the political commitment to population issues “is decreasing.”
In the meantime, experts are trying to determine whether the latest birthrate spikes represent a reversal of Egypt’s long-term trends, including declining fertility rates. They are working in the dark because the uprising delayed Egypt’s most comprehensive demographic survey. The birthrate had started to creep up during the last five years of Mr. Mubarak’s rule, as fertility rates held steady.
The latest population spikes could represent behavioral shifts resulting from the revolution, “because people are under pressure,” said Hisham Makhlouf, who teaches demography at Cairo University.
“That’s one theory,” he said. “The other is that it’s because no one talks about the population problem like before.”
Mayy El Sheikh and Asmaa Al Zohairy contributed reporting.
May 2, 2013
Syrian Forces Strike Rebels in Wide-Ranging Assaults
By HANIA MOURTADA and RICK GLADSTONE
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian forces carried out what antigovernment activists described as furious assaults against a range of insurgent enclaves on Thursday, seeking to snap a stalemate in the central city of Homs, attacking rebels ensconced in a seaport near Russia’s naval station and apparently destroying a historic bridge in the contested city of Deir al-Zour.
The new fighting may have left dozens of people dead just in the area of the seaport, Baniyas, and a nearby village, Bayda, according to activists affiliated with two antigovernment groups, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees. Some activists said more than 100 were killed in Bayda, including entire families, among them the mayor and his children.
Efforts to corroborate those reports were difficult because of restricted access for journalists in Syria. State news media said nothing about civilian casualties in the seaport combat, which the official SANA news agency described as part of a campaign to seize weapons in a “raid against terrorists’ dens.”
There were also reports of sectarian fighting near the border with Lebanon around the Syrian town of Qusayr, a focal point between insurgent Sunni fighters and Shiite militants loyal to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant organization that has sided with PresidentBashar al-Assad of Syria in the conflict and partly depends on him for weapons.
Activists and medical workers reached by telephone said that civilians were trying to evacuate the Qusayr area and that many people had been wounded.
Sunni-Shiite hostilities in Syria also appeared to have been further inflamed by what both SANA and Hezbollah-controlled news media in Lebanon called the grave-site desecration of a revered figure in Shiite history by insurgent fighters in Adra, a town north of Damascus. The reported pillaging of the tomb, containing Hajar ibn Adi al-Kindi, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, would be a direct challenge to Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Hasrallah, who in a speech this week publicly warned Syria’s Sunni fighters against such actions.
It was unclear whether the widened scope of fighting on Thursday signaled a dangerous new phase in the country’s civil war, which has become increasingly sectarian in nature and which by United Nations calculations has left more than 70,000 people dead.
The fighting coincided with what might have been the first armed clash between Syrian insurgent fighters and Turkish border guards, resulting in at least one Turkish death. The circumstances behind the clash, at the Akcakale crossing, were not immediately clear. Turkey, which shares a 550-mile border with Syria, has officially sided with the Syrian opposition in the two-year-old conflict and is home to at least 300,000 Syrian refugees.
Opposition activists said Thursday’s military campaign seemed partly intended to eject rebel fighters from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city and long a hotbed of the insurgency, which has defied multiple attempts by Mr. Assad’s forces to crush resistance there. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and draws information from activists in Syria, said loyalist forces had regained control of the strategically placed Wadi Sayeh district in the center of Homs.
Opposition activists said fighting was especially fierce in the Ras Rifa neighborhood of Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast north of the Tartus naval refueling station, Russia’s last remaining military outpost in the Middle East and an important symbol of the resilient Russian support for Mr. Assad’s government.
The Syrian Observatory said that government forces shelled Ras Rifa, with smoke seen billowing from the area, and that gunfire could be heard throughout the city as well as in nearby Bayda. It was the first time the government side had attacked the Baniyas area since troops stormed parts of the city in May 2011.
Thursday’s fighting there seemed to harden the overwhelmingly sectarian nature of the conflict, directed at Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims by representatives of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has provided the bedrock of the Assad family’s power base in Syria for four decades.
“The Alawites here are sectarian in every sense of the word and yet they accuse us of being prejudiced,” a Baniyas resident who identified himself as Abu Dajana said by telephone. “Starting today, I am sectarian. I don’t want ‘peaceful’ anymore. My brothers and friends are dying from the shelling.”
The Local Coordination Committees reported that a number of houses were set afire in Baniyas. It also reported, without attribution, mass arrests and summary executions by pro-government forces in Bayda, with “dozens of martyrs, including women by gunfire, knives and then burning the dead.”
In Deir al-Zour, a Syrian city that has been a recurrent battleground in the conflict, the Syrian Observatory reported that government forces shelled rebel positions and destroyed part of the Muaalak Bridge over the Euphrates River. A SANA dispatch later disputed that account, asserting the bridge was hit by rocket-propelled grenades launched by terrorists, its description of rebel fighters.
The suspension bridge, built in the 1920s during French occupation, is a replica of a bridge in southern France and was regarded as an important piece of Syrian history. Activist videos uploaded on YouTube showed the remnants of the bridge, its pillars seemingly intact but the suspension gone.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed on Thursday that the Obama administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels, although he said no decisions had been made. Mr. Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference after meeting with his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, whose government was among the early American allies to assert that Mr. Assad’s government may have used chemical weapons in the conflict. President Obama has said the use of such weapons would be a “red line” that could lead to military intervention. But he has also said the evidence is incomplete and he wants verifiable facts.
At the United Nations, senior diplomats and officials said that with the surge in fighting and no progress on the political front,Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy to Syria, was expected to resign his post. Mr. Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter, was appointed last fall after the first envoy, Kofi Annan, the former secretary general, also resigned.
Hania Mourtada reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Alan Cowell from Paris, Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Thom Shanker and Mark Landler from Washington, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.
May 2, 2013
Israeli Premier Backs Referendum on Any Peace Deal
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Thursday that any peace agreement with the Palestinians should be put to a referendum, a move that some Israelis view as a potential obstacle to a deal even as Secretary of State John Kerry works intently to renew long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Mr. Netanyahu’s statement came as his special envoy, Isaac Molho, and Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of justice, who holds a special portfolio dealing with the peace process in the new government, were in Washington for a meeting with Mr. Kerry. An Israeli government official said the trip was meant chiefly to update the parties and suggested that it was not indicative of any breakthrough.
Ms. Livni met later Thursday with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, in New York.
As part of the peace effort, Mr. Kerry embraced a proposal earlier this week by the Arab League to revive the Arab Peace Initiative, introduced in 2002, and to ease its demand that Israel return to its pre-1967 boundaries by accepting the possibility of minor and mutually agreed-upon land exchanges.
But Mr. Netanyahu has not endorsed the idea of land exchanges, and rejects any mention of the 1967 lines as the basis for talks. He has not commented on the new Arab League proposal but has reiterated his stance in recent days that talks should resume with no preconditions. Mr. Netanyahu will soon have to address the proposal in the Israeli Parliament after 52 of its 120 members signed a petition requiring him to do so.
The Palestinians are not opposed to Israel’s holding a referendum, and plan to hold one of their own should the sides arrive at an agreement. But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said in a telephone interview, “I think that Mr. Netanyahu should focus first on achieving peace and then on submitting it to a referendum.”
Reflecting the continuing impasse between the sides, Mr. Erekat added that he hoped that Mr. Netanyahu would specify his willingness “for two states on the 1967 lines.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks in favor of a referendum, widely viewed as a nod to rightists in his governing coalition who are pressing for new legislation on the matter, came at the start of a meeting in Jerusalem with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter of Switzerland.
“There are a few things that I think we can learn from you, and one of them is the referendum,” Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Burkhalter. “Not for every issue; not on every point of debate; but on one thing: that is, if we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I’d like to bring it to a referendum. And I’d like to talk to you about your experiences with that, and many other things.”
Mr. Burkhalter replied that Mr. Netanyahu was welcome to visit Switzerland any time and learn about that country’s experience with referendums.
Left-leaning Israeli supporters of a peace deal have long argued that a referendum could impede the leadership’s ability to seal a treaty with Palestinians.
Ms. Livni, a former foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians under the government led by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, has publicly opposed the idea of a referendum. Ms. Livni now leads her own party, which is considered dovish on peace issues. She told Israel’s Army Radio a few days ago, “At the moment, a referendum is a way to forestall decisions approved by the Parliament and the cabinet.”
Israeli supporters of a referendum, including many who oppose a large-scale Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, argue that a popular vote is an important means of establishing national consensus and legitimacy for what would inevitably be a hotly contested accord involving the removal of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from their West Bank homes.
Israel Harel, a leading intellectual of the settlement movement, wrote of the settlers on Thursday in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, “On such a crucial matter of their very existence and of their Jewish and Zionist identity and faith they will not agree to their own removal unless they are convinced that it truly is the will of the nation.”
The debate over the referendum was rekindled in Israel after reports that Naftali Bennett, a minister whose Jewish Home Party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, was soliciting the support of Yair Lapid, the finance minister and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, for new legislation. Mr. Lapid, who says he supports a two-state solution but not concessions on Jerusalem, has not yet declared his party’s position on the referendum issue.
Mr. Bennett is seeking to broaden and more deeply anchor legislation approved in 2010 requiring any peace deal involving the ceding of territory annexed by Israel — namely East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — to be put to a national referendum, unless it won the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament.
Mr. Bennett would now like to see such legislation extended to include the West Bank, where Israeli law does not apply. Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from the Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza in 2005 and destroyed all its settlements there without a referendum.
Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, appears to be trying to cover all political bases. In a closed meeting with senior staff members at the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, he said the purpose of a future agreement with the Palestinians was “to prevent a reality of a binational state and to ensure stability and security,” according to officials who attended the meeting. That is an argument more usually associated with the Israeli center and left.
But Mr. Netanyahu added that the root of the conflict was not the territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 war, but rather “the lack of willingness of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” — a formulation that the Palestinians adamantly reject.
No Somali pirate hijacking in nearly a year, says UN
Massive reduction in pirate attacks on ships put down to greater co-operation, use of armed guards and harsh jail terms
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 May 2013 09.13 BST
The fight against Somali pirates has been so effective that they have not been able to mount a successful hijacking in nearly a year, the chair of the global group trying to combat the pirates has said.
American diplomat Donna Leigh Hopkins credited the combined efforts of international naval forces and increased security on ships, including the use of armed guards. But she also pointed to the jailing of 1,140 Somali pirates in 21 countries, "which started de-glamorising piracy".
Somali pirates hijacked 46 ships in 2009, 47 in 2010, but only 25 in 2011, an indication that new on-board defences were working. In 2012, there were 75 attacks reported off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden – down from 237 in 2011 – and only 14 ships were hijacked, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
"Pirate attacks are down by at least 75%," Hopkins said. "There are still pirate attacks being attempted but there has not been a successful hijacking since May 2012," she said. "12 May will be the one-year anniversary of no successful hijacking off the coast of Somalia."
On Wednesday, the UN discussed combating pirates at a meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy, off the Coast of Somalia, which includes more than 85 countries as well as international organisations and private-sector representatives.
Hopkins, the group's chairman, and the Danish ambassador, Thomas Winkler, who leads its legal committee, stressed there was no room for complacency, citing havens for pirates on the northern Somali coast and million-dollar ransoms to release hijacked ships and crews that continue to attract young men to piracy.
Winkler said prosecuting more than 1,000 pirates and transferring them to Somali prisons, where conditions are grim, appeared to be having a preventive effect.
"The number of active pirates is perhaps 3,000," Winkler said. "So if you put a thousand behind bars, and 300-400 die every year at sea from hunger (or) drowning … you will quickly come down."
Hopkins said ships from Nato, the EU, China, Russia and other countries have succeeded in disrupting and discouraging Somali pirates but they still roam the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden looking for vessels to attack.
The last successful hijacking – on 12 May 2012 – was of the MV Smyrni, a Greek-registered tanker less than two years old and loaded with crude oil worth tens of millions of dollars. It was released after 11 months of negotiations and payment of "a record-breaking ransom nearing $15m", Hopkins said.
"In my opinion, it is a poster child for what happens when ship owners don't employ the best management practices … to prevent your ship from being hijacked," she said. "They did none of them, and they got exactly what one might expect. They got hijacked and they paid a very heavy price for it."
Hopkins said that while "not a single ship that has employed armed security has ever been hijacked", there were also many other security measures that have proved effective, including training crew and posting lookouts.
When asked how optimistic he was that there would not be a hijacking before 12 May, she said: "I'm not going to count days. Every day without a successful attack is a good day."
Cocaine flows through Sahara as al-Qaida cashes in on lawlessness
Young Malians risk their lives to earn big money transporting drugs across desert
Afua Hirsch in Timbuktu
The Guardian, Thursday 2 May 2013 16.35 BST
As the daily power cut struck Timbuktu, the town and surrounding desert were plunged into a sandy, grey darkness. Mohamed – a 31-year-old native of the town dressed in rich, deep blue cloth that engulfed his head in the traditional Tuareg style – seemed to shrink further into the shadows. He tipped ash into a saucer as he talked and smoked, telling his story for the first time.
"I didn't know cigarette trafficking was illegal," he said, exhaling into the black. "I smoke, everyone here smokes, so it didn't seem serious. But when I started transporting cocaine … I'm a Muslim, I knew it was wrong."
In 2009 Mohamed, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, joined a team that drove packages of cocaine across the Sahara. He and his boss – who introduced him to the illicit trade in cigarettes as a young apprentice – were lured into the business by the apparent wealth of Moroccan and Algerian narco-traffickers whom they encountered in desert towns.
"When we transported cigarettes, I would be paid around 100,000 CFA francs [about £130] for each trip. With cocaine, I earned 1 million," Mohamed explained. "We would drive through the desert in convoys, and each car would earn roughly 18m CFA – the driver, security man and I would all be paid a fee, and my boss would keep the rest."
It is impossible to estimate how many young Malians are, like Mohamed, drawn into drug trafficking by the prospect of earning big money in short periods. In a region where youth unemployment and poverty are high, the prospect of travelling for days at a time through one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth offers little deterrent.
"It was hard, but there was no other way I could earn that kind of money," said Mohamed. "Our routes were never fixed, but we would drive 24 hours a day, without stopping, until we got there. We would eat tinned food, and prepare tea in the car. The most important thing was to get there as quickly as possible."
The UN estimates about 18 tonnes of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $1.25bn (£800m), crosses West Africa every year – nearly 50% of all non-US-bound cocaine. Most of it originates in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and travels to west Africa on private jets, fishing boats and freighters along the notorious "Highway 10" — the shortest route between the continents along the 10th parallel of latitude.
Now the role of al-Qaida-linked Islamists – who controlled northern Mali from early 2012 until they were ousted by French and African troops this year – is fuelling fears for the potential of the drug trade to destabilise the region.
"There is hard evidence of the link between al-Qaida and cocaine trafficking in the Sahara," said Dr Kwesi Aning, director of academic affairs and research at the Kofi Annan international peacekeeping training centre in Ghana. "In the beginning, the trade was mainly dominated by Tuaregs and middlemen who guided traffickers to water and fuel dumps in the desert. But after al-Qaida got involved around 10 years ago, we saw a massive increase in the quantities of cocaine involved. They had the networks, and they had the logistical know-how."
Experts say the lack of law enforcement in the Sahara has allowed both Islamism and the cocaine trade to flourish, with vast, inhospitable, mountainous desert borders all but impossible to police. Many in Mali also accuse successive regimes of the now ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré of being deeply complicit in the trade.
The region's lawlessness was blamed for the 2009 "Air Cocaine" incident, when a Boeing 727 believed to have been carrying up to 10 tonnes of cocaine was found burnt-out in the Malian desert. In 2010, a Malian police commissioner was convicted in connection with attempts to build an airstrip in the desert for future landings. And in the same year, the UK Serious Organised Crime Agency reported that a plane from Venezuela had landed in Mali, and that its cargo was driven by 4x4 vehicles to Timbuktu before authorities lost track of the convoy.
"You have to bear in mind that we are talking about the middle of nowhere," said Pierre Lapaque, representative of the United Nations office on drugs and crime (UNODC) regional office for west and central Africa. "It's a huge piece of sand where you can easily cross borders without knowing it. It is a serious challenge for law enforcement.
"On top of that, these are countries where law enforcement officers are poorly trained, poorly equipped and corrupt, and were logistics don't work. Put that together, and it's a nice opportunity for criminals," he added.
The Nigerian former president Olusegun Obasanjo, commissioner for the recently formed West Africa Commission on Drugs, said: "These criminal groups have the money to buy influence, which makes it difficult to apprehend them. It is affecting the normal operations of civil, military and paramilitary officials. [Drug traffickers] are even paying for political campaigns."
Route taken by drugs
Mohamed said traffickers were highly organised and had well-established means of making their presence even harder to detect. "We waited to collect the drugs at a place between the mountains in the desert called 'al-Hanq' he explained. "The drugs were transported there by camels which travelled across the desert without a guide. The camels were trained by being starved and taken through the same route repeatedly, and fed when they arrive at al-Hanq, until they learned to do the journey alone.
"We would continue in convoys of 4x4s, but we had ways of hiding," Mohamed added. "A reconnaissance vehicle would always go ahead, with no drugs on board, and alert us to any obstacles. We would put grease on the car and stick sand on it as a camouflage, that way it's impossible to see from a distance in the desert."
Lapaque said: "We have heard about camels being trained to carry drugs. These are criminal groups which are well organised, and you have to understand that they have a business approach. They are weighing the potential risks against profits, which are really huge."
Mohamed said he had learned the risks first hand, and has now left the business after his convoy was attacked by heavily armed bandits. "We had stopped to repair a problem with the car, when a car mounted with weapons opened fire on us," he said. "I ran three hundred metres on foot until the shooting stopped, but three of my colleagues and all the attackers were killed. Two vehicles were burnt completely. It scared me so much, I told my boss I didn't want to be involved any more."
Mohamed said his boss is now a senior figure in the drug trade, with a mansion in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. In Timbuktu, the presence of drug chiefs is an open secret, he says, although many were forced to flee during the war.
"Everyone knows who in Timbuktu is doing drug trafficking, even the government," Mohamed said. "When senior officials [in the last government] came to Timbuktu, the drug traffickers were the ones who provided them with 36 brand new 4x4s."
• This article was amended on Friday 3 May 2013. In the original story we misspelled Colombia. This has been corrected.