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« Reply #6225 on: May 08, 2013, 05:57 AM »

Cyber attack knocks Dutch government websites out for hours

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 7:25 EDT

Dutch government websites were paralysed for several hours overnight after a mass cyber attack which targeted several ministerial sites, a spokesman said on Wednesday.

“The government’s sites have been the target of a DDoS attack since last night around 8:00 pm (1800 GMT),” Robert Wester told AFP, referring to a denial of service attack in which hackers bombard sites with traffic in order to jam them.

Computer experts worked through the night to restore the sites which appeared to be back online by mid-morning Wednesday.

The Netherlands has been the target of several cyber attacks in recent weeks including administrative services and banks.

More than 10 million Dutch citizens were unable late last month to use their official online signature to pay bills and taxes because of a so-called distributed denial of service (DDos) attack.

The use of the national DigiD system is widespread in the Netherlands, where more than 10 million people out of a population of 17 million rely on it.

DigiD users’ personal details were not under threat, the government said at the time.

Several Dutch banks including ING, ABN Amro and Rabobank as well as national carrier KLM were also hit by DDoS attacks in recent weeks, rendering websites and online banking services inaccessible for several hours at a time.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]
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« Reply #6226 on: May 08, 2013, 06:04 AM »


Flatpack homes offer Dutch first-time buyers chance to get on housing ladder

Self-build kit homes in Nijmegen in the Netherlands can be assembled within six to eight weeks

Tuesday 7 May 2013 16.15 BST The Guardian
   
If you like spending time in the greenhouse and following the sun throughout the day, you might opt for the Hayhouse; or if you're more drawn to the idea of a cosy Scandinavian log cabin, maybe the Deckhouse is for you.

Choosing your dream home has become as simple as picking furniture from the Ikea catalogue for residents of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where a neighbourhood of affordable architect-designed kit houses has just been launched.

Aimed at first-time buyers, the city's "I build affordable in Nijmegen" initiative (IbbN) has paired 20 architects with building companies to produce about 30 designs – from detached timber cabins to redbrick terraced houses – with a construction cost of as little as €115,000 (£97,400).

Anyone with an annual income of between €30,000 and €47,000 is eligible to apply for the IbbN loan, while all costs are fixed from the beginning, removing the usual danger of ballooning budgets and long delays when building your own, untested house. Designed to be manufactured from prefabricated parts, in close collaboration with the builder, the flatpack kits are delivered to the site and can be assembled within six to eight weeks.

"Since the economic crisis, both architects and the city are trying to find new ways to build houses," said Elsbeth Ronner of LRVH architects, a young practice that has designed one of the house types, a straw-bale eco-house inspired by local haylofts. "There are few developers willing to build, so the city is selling plots directly to the residents and letting them do it for themselves."

For young architects such as Ronner, whose practice has so far only worked on refurbishment projects, the scheme also provides an opportunity to get into housebuilding. "It is difficult to approach potential clients when you haven't built anything," she said.

"People always think working with an architect will be more expensive and take longer, but this way they feel more secure. We've always wanted to make a really cheap, sustainable house and this gives us a great way into the market."

IbbN joins a growing movement of self-build kit homes in the Netherlands, following the example set by the new town of Almere near Amsterdam, where more than 800 homes have been built in this way since 2006, with thousands more on the way. And momentum is beginning to build in the UK.

In Middlesbrough's docks, on the sprawling site of the stalled Middlehaven regeneration project, an area has been set aside for self-build, with a competition launched for innovative ideas, while parts of east London's Olympic site could be given over to up to 100 self-build homes. So could flatpack kit housing be part of the answer?

"System-building makes it so much easier," said Ted Stevens of the National Self Build Association. "Rather than giving people an entirely blank piece of paper, it's like a big menu with options to choose from. A lot of people are put off self-build because of the uncertainty involved, but this way the price and delivery time are guaranteed – making the process much more like buying a car."

It is also much cheaper: by cutting out the developer's profit, the average self-built house in the UK costs just 60% of its final value to build. If more local authority land can be opened up, and architects retained at the centre of the process, it seems to make more sense than ever to go Dutch.


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« Reply #6227 on: May 08, 2013, 06:12 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/08/2013 01:10 PM

Germany's Working Poor: More Low-Wage Earners Dependent on Welfare

Germany's low unemployment rate is the envy of much of Europe. Yet it masks the difficulties many working Germans have in making ends meet and their reliance on welfare benefits. The issue could become important as the election campaign heats up.

Despite Germany's low unemployment rate, a growing number of the working poor in the country are not earning a living wage and are therefore in need of supplemental welfare payments, according to a newspaper report on Wednesday.

Citing data from the Federal Employment Agency, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the past four years have seen a steady increase in the number of individuals who require state money to get by despite working full- or part-time jobs.

The agency registered a 2012 average of 323,000 households in such situations -- 20,000 more than in 2009. The figures were more striking for singles, showing a 38 percent increase over the same time period to 75,600.

The total number of employed recipients of welfare, which underwent a massive reform in Germany 10 years ago, has stayed about the same over the past four years at 1.3 million. Roughly half of those people had a so-called "mini-job" -- one that pays so little it is exempt from social insurance contributions.

Outsourcing Salaries to the State?

Critics say the welfare trend is evidence that employers are partially outsourcing their labor costs to taxpayers. The Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a related editorial that many companies are capable of paying their employees more, but are instead holding down wages because of the availability of welfare -- and in some cases even counseling their workers on how to apply for state benefits.

The Federal Employment Agency, in contrast, said the increase in working welfare recipients was not a bad thing, but rather a preferable situation to having higher unemployment with people even more dependent on government aid. It also said low-wage jobs can be a gateway toward more gainful employment, and that some increase in working welfare recipients could be attributed to rising rent costs.

Minimum Wage Enters Campaign

The figures are likely to add fuel to the debate over a minimum wage in Germany, where salaries are negotiated by unions on a sector-by-sector basis. Germany's center-left opposition and the far-left Left Party support a federally mandated minimum wage, with the main opposition Social Democrats and major unions calling for it to be set at €8.50 ($11.15) per hour. They accuse the government of allowing businesses to take advantage of their employees with unfair work contracts.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats favor of a looser policy that would vary by region and employment sector, as do their junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP). At its party convention over the weekend, the FDP narrowly agreed to this kind of wage regulation, but restated its fundamental opposition to stricter rules.

The minimum wage is a question that is turning into a campaign issue ahead of federal parliamentary elections in September. Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir said Monday in response to the Free Democrats' weekend convention that he was "very thankful" to the party for making its differences with the opposition so clear.


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« Reply #6228 on: May 08, 2013, 06:15 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/07/2013 05:59 PM

Leading or Following?: Merkel Speaks with Two Tongues on Climate

By Joel Stonington

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded an international climate deal by 2015 on Monday. Yet at home, she has declined to push for badly needed fixes to Europe's ailing carbon cap-and-trade program. She is putting off the toughest decisions until after fall elections.

Angela Merkel would seem to want it both ways. On Monday, she opened a dialogue on climate change issues in Berlin with strong words on the timing of a binding international pact to limit emissions that cause global warming.

"Waiting is not an option," she said in demanding a global deal by 2015.

In the same speech, however, the chancellor demonstrated a distinct lack of urgency when it comes to a vital piece of European climate policy, apparently preferring to wait until after German elections in September. Acting now, after all, could slow Germany's already fragile economy and may jeopardize her prospects for re-election.

The Berlin dialogue comes following some very real setbacks on climate change policy in the last month. Most importantly, a plan to prop up Europe's ailing carbon emissions cap-and-trade system failed during a close, contentious vote in the European Parliament in mid-April. The plan, known as backloading, would have taken 900 million carbon allowances out of the system temporarily to help boost the carbon prices and partially relieve a massive glut. Though few expected the plan to boost the price of carbon credits enough to change companies' current investment policies, it was seen by many as a test as to whether European politicians were committed to saving a faltering policy.

Germany in particular showed itself to be uninterested in embracing climate change policies at a time when economies in Europe -- including Germany's own -- are struggling. In the run-up to the April vote, Berlin largely remained on the sidelines, with Merkel choosing not to provide European parliamentarians from her center-right Christian Democratic Union guidelines on how to vote. In the end, most CDU MEPs voted against the backloading plan and Merkel on Monday blamed the economy.

Waiting for Germany

"I believe that we have a good chance by autumn at the latest to get to a better solution for our German problems," Merkel said. "Then Germany will also have a chance to tackle the backloading issue as a whole. That's what I'm hoping for. But at the moment, that's not possible against the entire force of the German economy."

The backloading plan was rejected by the European Parliament in an extremely close vote of 334 to 315, with more than 60 abstentions. The vote was contentious enough that some parliamentarians later indicated they would reconsider their vote if the issue was revisited. And it might be. The plan went back to committee and may be voted on again at the parliamentary level as soon as June. Still, the approval of a backloading plan is by no means certain.

"We might have to wait for October or November for this to move forward, until after the elections, though we would have liked Ms. Merkel to put Germany's weight behind backloading as early as possible" said Rémi Gruet, senior regulatory affairs advisor on climate and environment at the European Wind Energy Association. "Everybody is waiting for Germany."

The price of carbon in the EU reacted to the vote by dropping 43 percent to an all-time low of €2.63 per ton of emissions while electricity prices in Germany also sank to eight-year lows. Prices continued a two-week rebound on Monday to €3.78 per ton based on Merkel's tentative optimism about passing a backloading plan this fall. But that is still far below the €20 or €30 per ton that analysts say is needed to spur industry to cut carbon emissions and to fund many of Germany's clean energy plans.

With the current carbon price, utility companies that have invested in low-carbon electricity generation such as wind and nuclear are losing market share to companies that produce energy using coal. Some companies are already acting on the low price of carbon in Europe. E.ON, for example, one of Germany's largest utilities, announced recently that clean-energy investments will be cut to less than €1 billion in 2015 from €1.79 billion last year.

Going It Alone

All of this is good news for the coal industry. Though Germany's supply of renewables has been on a steady upward trend, coal remains an important part of the country's energy mix and investments in highly polluting coal-fired power plants have not slowed. Two coal-fired plants opened in 2012 and six more will open this year, adding up to 7 percent of Germany's capacity. A dozen more are on track to open before 2020.

The need for the plants is certainly there. With Germany backing away from nuclear power and renewables not yet providing the capacity needed to meet demand, coal is not going to go away soon, even if carbon credits become more expensive. Indeed, that realization, combined with international foot-dragging on a global agreement, could very well be informing Merkel's approach.

"Things are a mess," said Brian Ricketts, secretary general of the European Coal Association. "If you want to solve the climate problem, you have to begin at the international level. It's going to be very hard to convince Europe to go it alone and impose costs on itself that the rest of the world isn't accepting."

'Europe Does A Lot'

Coal and energy-heavy industries have taken a strong stance against the backloading plan. And BusinessEurope, an industry group that represents 41 major organizations in 35 countries, has been using the momentum from the April vote to push the idea that Europe should change focus from stopping climate change to cost issues and energy security.

Despite her party's skepticism of backloading, Merkel on Monday wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel. Still, she hinted strongly that Europe is growing weary of trying to lead an unwilling world on efforts to limit global warming.

"I think it's completely inappropriate to say Europe doesn't lead on climate protection anymore because the European Parliament decided narrowly against backloading," Merkel said. "Europe does a lot, Europe will continue to do a lot. Our problem, when looking beyond Europe, is more the fact that we are doing everything by ourselves and are facing a difficult economic situation at the same time."


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« Reply #6229 on: May 08, 2013, 06:20 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/07/2013 01:23 PM

Turkish Diaspora: Erdogan's Paternalism Proves Counter-Productive

By Maximilian Popp

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a self-styled patron of Turkish immigrants in Germany. But critics say that his aggressive diaspora policy is increasingly driving a wedge between immigrant families and mainstream society.

The young woman from Melle, a town in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, was received like a guest of state. A government representative and several photographers met Elif Yaman in Ankara. A limousine took the 19-year-old to a hotel, where she fell, weeping, into her mother's arms. It was all captured on live TV.

The Turkish journalists and politicians had been waiting for these images, and for what Yaman then said: "I think it would have been nicer to grow up in a Turkish family."

It was the sort of thing Bekir Bozdag loves to hear. Bozdag, 48, is Turkey's deputy prime minister and, even more important in the Yaman case, head of the Office for Turks Abroad.

Seven years ago, a German youth welfare office deprived Yaman's stressed single mother of custody for her daughter. The girl was sent to live with German foster parents and grew up in the German family. Her mother moved back to Turkey.

A few months ago Bozdag began to take an interest in the Yamans. His boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is running a Europe-wide campaign against the supposed forced conversion of Turkish Muslim foster children.

In fact, when Muslim parents lose custody of their children, German youth welfare offices try to place them with Muslim families. Only when this is not possible are children entrusted to parents of other faiths.

"You are my family"

Bozdag denounces this practice as "assimilation." "We are facing a great tragedy," he said last year, promising to do everything possible "to rescue our little ones."

But his position is only fueling immigrants' suspicions of German authorities. The Turkish media have been all too pleased to hone in on Bozdag's accusations. "So they're Nazis," the tabloid Takvim wrote. German youth welfare offices are "destroying families," Zaman, Turkey's largest daily newspaper, remarked.

The Turkish authorities hoped that the Yaman case would lend credence to these claims. When officials in Bozdag's office organized a reunion between the mother and the daughter, they staged the encounter like the return of a missing child, as if the Turkish government had heroically fixed something the heartless German authorities had broken.

In the dispute over foster families, Prime Minister Erdogan is placing himself in a role in which he likes to be perceived: as the patron of Turks worldwide. During a campaign appearance in Germany in 2011, he told his supporters: "I am here to represent your interests. You are my family, and you are my siblings."

The most recent campaign is typical of Erdogan's increasingly aggressive policy on the Turkish diaspora. While claiming to support the integration of Turkish immigrants and their children, his government is in fact achieving the opposite effect.

In 2010, Erdogan created the Office for Turks Abroad, an agency in Ankara staffed with about 300 employees, responsible for roughly four million Turks around the world. "We are wherever one of our countrymen is," Bozdag's office promises.

But in recent months the deputy premier has attracted more attention with his attacks against the German government. During a meeting with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich in February, he criticized language courses for immigrants as a "human rights violation." When two Turkish immigrants died in a fire in Cologne, Bozdag derided the authorities' information policy as "ridiculous." In the dispute over access to the NSU trial for Turkish journalists, he questioned the judges' credibility and said: "From our perspective, this court is finished."

Self-Serving Goals

In this fashion, the Turkish government is using the fact that many immigrants have lost confidence in the German government, as a result of the Sarrazin debate and the NSU murders, to drive a wedge between immigrant families and mainstream society.

Politicians in Ankara have always tried to exert influence on Turks abroad, says Ali Dogan, general secretary of the Alevi Community of Germany, which does not align itself with the Turkish government. But no one, he says, behaves as shamelessly -- and yet strategically -- as Erdogan.

In 2005, the prime minister opened the headquarters of the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD), a lobbying group of his conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). The organization aims to drum up votes for Erdogan among immigrants, as well as preparing the prime minister's speeches in Germany.

In a speech Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag gave at the dedication ceremony for the UETD office in Berlin, he said: "We intend to address their concerns and search for solutions day and night."

A Champion of Turkish Interests
But that is only part of the truth. The Turkish government is primarily pursuing self-serving goals with its diaspora policy. It seeks to gain the support of immigrants abroad for the AKP and portray itself at home as a champion of Turkish interests.

At the beginning of the year, the Office for Turks Abroad created an advisory board consisting of representatives of immigrant organizations, academics and Islamic officials from around the world, especially from Germany. It includes the general secretary of the Islamist Milli Görü movement, which is under observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, and a senior official with the Islamist congregation of the imam Fethullah Gülen.

On its website, however, the Office for Turks Abroad also lists as a member of the advisory council the political scientist Ahmet Ünalan. As an advisor to the education ministry in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ünalan is responsible for the structuring of instruction in Islam. Ünalan criticizes the polemics of Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag and says that he has since asked to be removed from the list of advisory council members.

The office's official role is to assist the government in providing better support to Turkish citizens abroad. However, Murat Cakir of the left-leaning Rosa Luxemburg Foundation believes that the advisory council members are meant to act as lobbyists for the Turkish government, to promote, for example, a portrayal of the Kurdish conflict or the Armenian genocide in keeping with the party line.

In his controversial speech in Cologne in 2008, Erdogan characterized assimilation as a crime against humanity. At the same time, he openly called upon his fellow Turks abroad to champion the interests of Turkey. "You can apply pressure to bring about parliamentary resolutions in your respective countries. Why shouldn't we engage in lobbying activities to protect our interests?"

Representatives of the Turkish government regularly ask members of the German parliament of Turkish origin, like the Green Party's integration policy spokesman Memet Kilic, to attend AKP events in Turkey. Kilic has declined such invitations so far, determined not to be part of a strategy that exploits immigrants for Erdogan's "neo-Ottoman" agenda.

A Sense of Belonging

Germany now has between 1.1 and 1.3 million Turks who are entitled to vote in Turkey. This makes the country the fourth-largest Turkish electoral district, after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. However, until now, overseas Turks have been required to travel to Turkey to vote at an airport there. There is no absentee voting. Next year, Erdogan plans to have ballot boxes set up in the Turkish embassy and in Turkish consulates in Germany.

In the 2011 parliamentary election, 61 percent of overseas Turks voted for the AKP, which is a significantly higher percentage than in Turkey itself, where the party garnered 50 percent of the vote. Erdogan is very popular among Turkish immigrants in Germany. He gives them self-confidence and a sense of belonging, which they frequently lack in Germany.

His deputy Bozdag would like to see the right to vote expanded to include former Turkish passport-holders, that is, German citizens of Turkish origin.

Armin Laschet of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), erstwhile integration minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, has called the proposal "harmful to integration policy," partly because he believes it suggests that the Turkish government is in a position to improve living conditions for Turks in Germany.

In Germany, people from immigrant backgrounds still have poorer chances of finding apprenticeship positions and jobs than the children of German parents. Many immigrants feel that German politicians don't take their concerns seriously. This is where the Turkish government comes in, with Erdogan portraying himself as a sort of ersatz chancellor for Turkish immigrants and their children. At the same time, he alienates German society with campaigns like the recent push against Christian foster families.

During his visit to Ankara in February, Interior Minister Friedrich tried in vain to appease the Turkish government. The self-confident prime minister is also undaunted by appeals from Europe. The best way to thwart Erdogan, says Green Party politician Kilic, is through a successful integration policy, one that discourages immigrants from seeking support from Ankara in the first place.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #6230 on: May 08, 2013, 06:23 AM »


Kurds dare to hope as PKK fighters' ceasefire with Turkey takes hold

Turkey's three decades of conflict with its Kurdish minority might finally be giving way to peace, as guerrillas prepare to withdraw

Constanze Letsch in Semdinli
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 May 2013 18.04 BST   

In a region that has been on the frontline of conflict for decades, the long years of intimidation, violence, and humiliations in south-east Turkey are giving way to tentative hope for a normal life.

Springtime has come to the places where fighting between the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) and Turkey's security forces has been at its most violent. For the first time in more than a decade, Semdinli residents are looking forward to the new season.

"Since the ceasefire was declared a month ago, Semdinli has started to live again," said Pinar Yilmaz, head of the local women's committee of the main Kurdish political party, the BDP.

Sitting outside her house on a mild Sunday evening, she is happy and enthusiastic about the ongoing peace negotiations. "Only last year, we would never have been able to go out after nightfall, because it was too dangerous. The army did not allow it; there was constant fighting. We would not have been able to understand our own words over the sound of bombings and missiles. But now things will get better."

Nestling in Turkey's easternmost corner between the Iranian and Iraqi borders in Hakkari province, Semdinli is where PKK fighters led their first armed attack against Turkish security forces in 1984. It might now be the place where it all ends.

On Sunday night, hundreds of football fans followed a match on a big screen in the centre of town, surrounded by two heavily fortified military bases. Teahouses spill their light on to the street, and young men set off fireworks in honour of their favourite team.

Peace negotiations between the PKK and Turkey began gingerly last October, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to openly engage in dialogue with the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, deemed the state's enemy No 1. After the declaration of a ceasefire on 21 March, rebel commander Murat Karayilan announced the withdrawal of PKK fighters stationed in Turkey, starting tomorrow .

The withdrawal would mark a vital step towards the end of one of the world's longest-running and bloodiest ethnic conflicts, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives in 30 years.

"We have seen so many things we cannot forget. But still, all we want is peace, and an end to this conflict," Yilmaz says. "People used to dread the coming of spring here. As soon as the snow melted, the fighting would start again. But this year, spring is full of hope."

When she was 10, her father was killed by the military. "I had to pick up pieces of his body myself," she recalls. "They drove over him with a tank."

Eight years later, she was kidnapped by Turkish secret police. "I was active in [the pro-Kurdish party] HADEP at the time, and they wanted to force me to work for them. I refused." She takes a deep breath. "They tortured me for days to break me. In the end they threw me on to a pile of rubbish because they thought I was dead."

After recovering, she spent several years in prison for political activities, the last time between 2010 and 2012.

Pinar and her husband, Seferi Yilmaz, also used to run the famous Umut Bookstore in Semdinli before it was bombed by non-commissioned military officers pretending to be PKK members. The case was never fully solved.

Despite the thirst for peace, many still have mixed feelings about the planned withdrawal of PKK fighters. "The 8th of May is a day we both anticipate and fear," Pinar Yilmaz said. "We don't trust the government at all. Many people here are afraid that once the guerrillas are gone, the Turkish military will crack down on us again. And after all we have been through, it is impossible not to understand why people are worried."

For more than a month, the BDP has been organising events and meetings in Semdinli to explain the details of the ongoing peace process to worried residents, to make sure that everyone is on board.

"People here still have many questions," she explains. "In order for this to work, all these questions need to be answered as best as we can."

She criticises the Turkish military for erecting 14 new forts around Semdinli since the ceasefire was announced. "They say they only want to prevent smuggling, but history has shown us that they cannot be trusted."

But she adds that the overwhelming majority of Kurds trust the judgment of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan: "Everything we have won, including the current peace talks, we have won through the PKK and through resistance."

It would not be the first time that hopes of a peace deal have been shattered. In October 1999, eight PKK fighters crossed into Turkey as part of a peace delegation, ordered by then newly jailed Ocalan as "a sign of goodwill". All of them were arrested and imprisoned, some for up to 12 years.

"This first peace delegation entered through the mountain pass in Semdinli just above our village," Yusuf Ozcan from Tekeli village recalls. "Back then, we were so happy, so excited! They were greeted by a large group of soldiers. They embraced. But it turned out that Turkey did not want peace at all. They had lied to us."

Trying to withdraw, 500 additional PKK fighters were reportedly killed by Turkish security forces, smothering any hopes of peace.

The Turkish government seized part of his land 18 years ago to build a military base just across from his house.

"They never asked me, they simply took it. At some point they offered me a quarter of the market price in compensation, so I refused."

He recounts the constant intimidation, the nightly raids on his house, the beatings and countless humiliations. Only two weeks ago, his 21-year-old son took to the Iraqi mountains to join the PKK after Turkish nationalists attacked him at his university in Adana.

But Ozcan underlines the importance of not giving up: "If this peace process fails, we will all lose – Kurds and Turks. Enough blood has been spilled. I have family members in the PKK and in the military, and all I want is peace, no matter what." He says life in Tekeli has improved since the ceasefire was called on 21 March.

"We did not have permission to go out after six o' clock in the evening; we were imprisoned in our villages, and lived in continuous fear of military operations.

"Last year our house shook with the sounds of missiles being fired, bullets were whizzing around our heads."

For the first time in over more than 15 years, he has bought a herd of sheep: "The high meadows were off limits by order of the military, and even if we were allowed to go, the constant fighting made it too dangerous to graze animals there."

Ozcan hopes that shepherding and beekeeping, formerly a main source of income in the Semdinli region, will take off again. "We will need some financial aid from the government to make it work. Most people had to sell all their livestock because of the conflict and now cannot afford to buy new animals."

Like many of his fellow villagers, he relies on smuggling petrol, cigarettes, tea and rice. "For literally every household here, smuggling is the only possibility to get by. There are no factories here, and no work at all."

He underlines that many families simply do their own shopping across the borders, because local staples are too expensive, risking high fines, prison terms and death. "For example, rice costs five times as much here as in Iran. Turkish gasoline is the most expensive in the world! How would we afford it?"

He is worried that some people may take up arms against the Turkish military out of desperation if all smuggling routes are shut down, but argues that peace is worth the sacrifice: "I would accept going hungry, and I don't need any money if we get peace in return. Money can be lost, and it comes back, but a lost life is lost forever."

Some names have been changed

The long war: high cost in lives and lira

The Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) launched its armed struggle for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds in 1984.

Almost 30 years later, the conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives and has cost Turkey up to 800bn lira (£290bn).

The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in Kenya in 1999 and imprisoned for treason. He is still being held in solitary confinement on the prison island of Imrali, south of Istanbul.

According to the International Crisis Group, the past 18 months have been the most violent in more than a decade, leaving more than 900 dead.

Over the same period, the Turkish state imprisoned more than 8,000 Kurdish activists, politicians and journalists under arbitrary terrorism laws.

In the autumn of 2012, Kurdish prisoners started a hunger strike involving up to 600 inmates that lasted 68 days until Ocalan ordered an end to the protest.

Tentative and secret peace talks got under way late last year between Ocalan and Turkey's intelligence chief, leading to the announcement of a ceasefire in March and the expected announcement tomorrow of a PKK withdrawal from Turkey into mountain strongholds in northern Iraq.


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« Reply #6231 on: May 08, 2013, 06:25 AM »


Imran Khan's accident triggers wave of sympathy in Pakistan

Injured candidate appeals to voters from hospital bed – though his PTI party is not expected to win majority in election

Jon Boone in Islamabad
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 May 2013   

Imran Khan, a leading candidate in this week's general election in Pakistan, was rushed to hospital with a skull fracture and injured back on Tuesday after falling off an improvised platform attached to a forklift truck at one of the final rallies of his campaign.

The images of the dazed and bloodied leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) being rushed to hospital with a skull fracture and back injuries has added another element of uncertainty to an election that even seasoned observers are hesitating to call.

But just hours after falling from an overcrowded platform attached to a forklift truck, Khan was recording video messages from his hospital bed, urging his countrymen to vote for his party in the coming polls on Saturday.

"I did whatever I could for this country," Khan said while lying flat on a hospital bed, his neck partially restrained by a brace. He went on to urge people to vote for the PTI.

"Now I want you to take responsibility. If you want to change your destiny, I want you to take responsibility."

Earlier yesterday the 60-year-old politician had been pulled off the platform used to raise him to a stage at a political rally in the city of Lahore after one of his guards lost balance and toppled over the side.

The accident triggered a flood of concern and support on social media, where Khan already has a passionate following.

Crowds gathered outside the Shaukat Khanum hospital, a private cancer hospital named after his mother that Khan established, after he was transferred there.

When news came through that a scan had shown Khan had not suffered internal bleeding, the gathered supporters cheered and waved cricket bats, the official symbol of the PTI which will appear on ballot papers next to candidates' names.

The extraordinary twist to an already drama-filled election complicates the guessing game over how many seats the PTI, a relatively young party that has only ever held one seat in the past, will win.

Although most analysts do not think the PTI will emerge as the biggest party, Khan had appeared to be gaining momentum in recent days with a frantic schedule of back-to-back campaign events that have helped to galvanise a young, middle-class fanbase with huge numbers of supporters flocking to his events.

The more seats he wins, the harder it will be for frontrunner Nawaz Sharif, a two-term prime minister who heads a wing of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), to win an outright majority or even enough seats to form a strong coalition.

Sharif's campaign was quick to respond to events, announcing the cancellation of all campaign events on Wednesday and the dropping of all ads attacking Khan. The country's interim prime minister, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, also expressed concern over Khan's injury and wished him a quick recovery.

Khan's political rallies have been full of energy but also chaotic at times, with security guards powerless to prevent the PTI leader throwing himself into heaving crowds despite the terrorist attacks that have cast a shadow over the election.

In 2007 the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed after she was attacked by militants. The incident helped her party, the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP), ride to power on a wave of sympathy.

The runup to the elections has been marred by near-daily violence by militants targeting candidates and their election offices.

On Tuesday 12 people were killed and more than 40 injured by a suicide bomb attack on a candidate for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a rightwing religious party, in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Later in the day a roadside bomb killed another five people, including the brother of a PPP candidate standing for the provincial assembly.

So far more than 100 people have been killed by the Taliban's campaign of violence, largely directed against candidates standing for secular parties that back army operations against the militants.

Khan believes the Pakistani army should withdraw from the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and resolve the conflict through negotiations. He has also been an outspoken opponent of the US drone programme targeting al-Qaida and Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan.

Some of Khan's supporters, pictured left, took the accident as a good sign, citing the example of the 1992 cricket World Cup, in which Khan led Pakistan to victory despite suffering acute pain in his shoulder.

"Imran Khan won 92 World Cup with a shoulder injury, this time he'll win Elections 2013 with a head injury," said one Facebook commenter.

Dr Mohammed Shafiq, who treated Khan after the fall, told Geo News the former all-rounder had received seven stitches to a 15cm wound in his head, but expected him to recover. "He is fully conscious and he was complaining of backache," he said. "He is fine, but he must have some rest for one or two days."

"Imran Khan wants his supporters to remain peaceful and united, and he says he will soon be among them," his sister, Rani Hafiz Khan, told the Pakistani ARY news channel. According to a recent poll by the Pew research centre, 60% of respondents viewed Khan favourably. However that figure was slightly down on a year ago, and now Khan is slightly outranked by Sharif.

The election will mark a historic transfer of power from one democratically elected government fulfilling its full term to another, something that has never happened in Pakistan's history.


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« Reply #6232 on: May 08, 2013, 06:28 AM »


Ahmadinejad looks to make confidant his successor as Iran race starts

Outgoing president's aide likely to stand in election but opposition Green Movement's leaders still under house arrest

Saeed Kamali Dehghan   
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 May 2013 23.34 BST   

Iran started its six-week search for a new president on Tuesday as candidates began to register for an election that will mark the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's turbulent period in office.

Dozens of hopefuls from various political groups have put their names forward for June's presidential poll. It is the first since the 2009 election, which resulted in months of unrest, bloodshed and the arrest of hundreds of protesters, journalists and political activists.

Local media reported that 62 people took their identity cards and documents to the interior ministry on the first of the five-day registrations to announce their candidacies. Among them were a handful of serious contenders, including Hassan Rouhani, a former chief nuclear negotiator, Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, a former health minister, and Mostafa Kavakebian, a former MP. Other big players have yet to step forward for a battle between conservative "principlists", reformists, government associates and independents. Saeed Jalili, the country's current chief nuclear negotiator, is also a potential nominee.

Shortly after filing his candidacy, the former nuclear negotiator Rouhani pledged "constructive interaction with the world" to try to address concerns about Tehran's atomic programme.

The interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, who opened the candidate registration on Tuesday via video link, warned the nominees not to violate the rules by launching their campaign before being vetted.

"The registration continues until 11 May and vetting the qualification of the candidates by the guardian council will start from 12 May," he was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

When registration finishes, the guardian council's powerful group of clergymen and jurists will examine the nominees' competence and loyalty to the Islamic republic and pick up the final list of this year's candidates, which is expected on 23 May, in what looks like a very tight election calendar. A three-week campaign period will follow before the vote on 14 June.

For a large number of Iran's opposition Green Movement, which was crushed after the 2009 events, this year's vote has little legitimacy as the opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest.

Even so, reformists who were allied with the Green Movement do not appear to have any active plans for a boycott. In recent weeks, controls and blocks on internet traffic appeared to be boosted in possible attempts to limit opposition voices during the election period.

Rouhani and Kavakebian are both reformist candidates, but it is still unclear whether more high-profile figures such as former president Mohammad Khatami or the moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will run.

Rafsanjani has hinted this week that he would be willing to run if the supreme leader, Khamenei, approved his decision. "I will not enter the field without [Khamenei's] consent," he said, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency. Khamenei's supporters have criticised Rafsanjani, saying he sided with the Green Movement after the 2009 elections that gave Ahmadinejad a second term in office.

Under Iranian law, Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third term but he is widely suspected to be grooming his close confidant and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as a possible successor as part of a plan for a Putin/Medvedev-style reshuffle.

In recent weeks, Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, has been accompanying Ahmadinejad in an extensive schedule of provincial visits that opponents claim is designed to promote the former for the June elections. Pro-Khamenei conservatives have labelled Mashaei the head of a "deviant current" in Ahmadinejad's inner circle, accusing him of undermining clerical power by advocating nationalism, putting Iran ahead of Islam, and favouring greater cultural openness.

Ahmadinejad's unwavering support for Mashaei has cost the president a great deal of influence in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad has been drawn into a bruising power struggle with the conservatives, many of them his former supporters, and has issued serious challenges to Khamenei, such as engaging in public spats with top-level officials.

Khamenei is thought to be tolerating Ahmadinejad only to avert any risk of greater embarrassment, especially as the president appears to be going out with all guns firing.

Conservatives widely predict that Mashaei will be rejected by the guardian council if he enters the race, while others say Ahmadinejad will fight to the end should that happen. Khamenei this week strongly warned officials against any plans to postpone the June elections.


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« Reply #6233 on: May 08, 2013, 06:30 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/07/2013 06:10 PM

Blunder in Burma: Scrapping of EU Sanctions Sends Wrong Message

A Commentary by Lotte Leicht

Although Burma is shrugging off the burden of five decades of military dictatorship, its transition to democracy is still far from complete. Reform remains precarious, and ethnic violence is rife. But in its eagerness to claim a foreign policy success, the EU is turning a blind eye, says Human Rights Watch.

Over the past two years, Burma has been emerging from 50 years of brutal military rule at a breathtaking pace. The country has made some impressive and unprecedented changes, including the release of many political prisoners, the rolling back of censorship and the lifting of restrictions to allow opposition political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, to stand for election for a modest number of seats in the military-laden parliament.

However, it is far too early to say whether Burma will continue to make progress, stall, or even fall back into a vicious circle of ethnic and sectarian violence that derails the efforts of reformers and empowers vested interests in the army. In fact, some of the most important signs are currently pointing in a distressing direction.

Despite such signs, the European Union recently scrapped nearly all of its sanctions on Burma. It was a serious mistake and sends the wrong message at the wrong time.

The grim fact is that Burmese authorities and local groups have engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Rohingya Muslims that has left that community devastated. Though many of the massacres occurred last year, the campaign continues to this day through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement for many of the 125,000 Rohingya who have been displaced. With bodies dumped into mass graves and perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence remaining free, this is hardly a time to lift sanctions against the government.

When the EU imposed sanctions in the 1990s and expanded them over the years, it argued that those targeted were officials and entities involved in abuses. In lifting sanctions, the EU failed to apply the same logic -- that of removing sanctions from those not engaging in serious human rights abuses.

Instead, we see the blanket lifting of the travel bans, asset freezes and trade restrictions for Burmese military officials and their companies without establishing whether these individuals continue to be involved in abuses. Everything apart from an arms embargo is now gone.

Such a move is unlikely to encourage better behavior and accountability for crimes. On the contrary, by prematurely lifting all targeted sanctions, the EU surrendered critical leverage against the government that could have helped Burmese rights activists work for irreversible change.

The downhill slide to this sorry situation began in April of last year, when EU foreign ministers decided to suspend sanctions. At that time, some argued they could be reinstated if the situation in Burma deteriorated. However, after their suspension, the lifting of sanctions seemed a foregone conclusion. Burmese President Thein Sein then toured Europe in March 2013 to press for the sanctions regime to end altogether, and he met a host of gushing European leaders seemingly desperate to claim a foreign policy success and to find a new trading partner at a time of economic crisis.

Undeserved Euphoria

But despite the international praise, many things inside the country have not changed. Burma's abusive military is still involved in perpetrating serious offenses -- including war crimes and crimes against humanity -- with impunity, as evidenced over the past two years in its war with the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State that has displaced over 80,000 civilians, and its role in stoking and perpetrating crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.

The army still has an official role in governance and enjoys complete immunity from civilian control, justice and any oversight in its affairs. It maintains a bloated budget that crowds out spending to address the massive poverty and social problems caused by its long period of misrule -- a situation recognized by the EU in its decision to retain the arms embargo, a clear indication that it still doesn't trust the army.

While the EU has been caught up in an undeserved euphoria about change in Burma, the country's ethnic and religious minorities suffer. Playing down recent atrocities that just a few years ago would have led to a call for greater penalties, the EU seems to have forgotten that sanctions are a major reason that the army finally caved in to pressure and agreed to a reform process that remains in its early stages. Indeed, the first act of Burma's newly constituted parliament was to demand the lifting of sanctions.

Moving forward, EU member-states are expected to discuss and ultimately agree on a comprehensive policy package vis-à-vis Burma. Part of that package should be a credible threat to reinstate targeted sanctions -- such as visa bans, asset freezes and the prevention of financial transfers by named individuals -- should serious abuses continue with impunity.

If the EU makes that clear, it would aid the reform process by helping Burmese reformers in their internal struggle with hardliners. There is no evidence that the more than 800 individuals and entities previously sanctioned for actively facilitating, aiding and abetting abuses have changed their behavior. Indeed, many of the key companies that were on the EU's sanctions list are military proxies and directly benefit army officials and their cronies.

The EU's rush into lifting sanctions against officials and entities defies a principled explanation. It can't be because the important human rights issues the EU designated as key benchmarks to lift sanctions have been met. These included the complete release of political prisoners. While many have been released, some 240 remain in prison for political offenses.

A second benchmark was an end to army abuses and offensives in ethnic areas. Yet in Kachin State, the army continues to perpetrate abuses against civilians with little restraint from the civilian government.

Another benchmark, unfettered humanitarian access to ethnic conflict zones and areas where over 125,000 displaced Rohingya live in desperate circumstances, has still not been met, while aid workers face systematic obstructions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. This is despite millions of euros in generous EU aid.

EU Resorts to Euphemisms

Even the highest profile human rights promise has still not been met. In November 2012, President Thein Sein promised US President Barack Obama that he would permit the establishment of a permanent presence of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Thus far, that promise has not been fulfilled and there is no sign that an office will open any time in the foreseeable future. That would have been an easy benchmark for the EU to insist on before weakening its leverage, but sadly, the EU and its 27 member-states ignored this target for improvement just like all the others they set.

Instead, gross human rights abuses are now referred to as "challenges," outcries about continued impunity are replaced with nice phrases about "rule of law commitments," and broken promises concerning cooperation with the UN are ignored. Some diplomats call this "engagement." But real engagement is rewarding improvements while keeping the pressure on to address problems.

While the Burmese government is involved in ethnic cleansing, the EU has shown itself unable to understand the basic elements of a sensible foreign policy, which include both carrots and sticks. The question now is, just how far the Burmese authorities have to go to feel the EU's opprobrium.

Lotte Leicht is European Union Director for Human Rights Watch


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« Reply #6234 on: May 08, 2013, 06:35 AM »


China detains activist Liu Ping on subversion charges

Liu Ping is one of at least 10 activists who have been detained for campaigning for officials to publicly disclose their assets

Reuters in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 10.43 BST

Chinese police have detained an activist agitating for officials to disclose their assets on subversion charges, her lawyer said on Wednesday, underscoring the limits of an anti-corruption push by President Xi Jinping.

Xi, who became Communist party chief in November and president in March, has called for a crackdown on corruption, warning, as many have before him, that the problem is so severe it could threaten the party's survival.

But China has detained at least 10 activists who have led a campaign for officials to publicly disclose their wealth – the first co-ordinated crackdown by the new government on activists, according to Maya Wang, a researcher with the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The detention of Liu Ping, 48, makes her the first person to be singled out by the government for putting pressure on officials over their wealth.

Police from Xinyu, in the southern province of Jiangxi, detained Liu for "inciting subversion of state power", her lawyer, Zheng Jianwei, said. The charge is often levelled against critics of the party.

Police could not be reached for comment.

Liu, who has also advocated on women's rights issues, last year started demanding that officials disclose their assets, Zheng said. She took her campaign to the internet and to fellow Chinese.

Zheng said he did not know the exact reason for Liu's detention, but added that he had warned her "to be aware of her actions" six months ago.

"I felt that her profile was too high, I thought she should quieten her heart and just carry out very basic activities for citizens' rights and the law," Zheng said. "But Liu Ping is a person who can't be idle."

Xi's ascendancy in a once-in-a-decade generational leadership transition had given many Chinese hope for political reform, spurring citizens to push officials to disclose their wealth in several movements throughout the country.

Xu Zhiyong, the founder of one such movement, said he was being held under house arrest and that "it could be due to his campaign to push for asset disclosure".

Wang of Human Rights Watch said the detentions of the anti-corruption activists appeared to be part of a co-ordinated campaign to halt public calls for fighting corruption.

"How can calling for anti-graft measures be a crime?" Wang said. "Liu Ping's detention makes Xi Jinping's stated policy goal to fight graft seem like tiresome, broken rhetoric."

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 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/07/2013 02:47 PM

Ai Weiwei Interview: 'I Want To Put Up a Fight'

Ai Weiwei of China is one of four artists who will represent Germany at the Venice Biennale in June. In a SPIEGEL interview, the artist discusses how he will participate in the event despite a travel ban imposed on him by the Chinese government.

Every year, as soon as spring arrives, China's leading contemporary artist Ai Weiwei shaves his cats. Freeing them from their thick winter fur is both a tradition and a gesture of compassion -- winter in northeastern China is cold and dry, summer hot and muggy, and the Beijing spring brief but intense. Ai is allergic to the white fuzz produced by weeping willows that floats these days through the city's streets like snow, and has to keep wiping his eyes as he sits in the garden of his workshop.

Indoors, his assistants are preparing for four exhibitions taking place in Germany and Italy this year. In June, Ai Weiwei will be joining Romuald Karmakar from France, Santu Mofokeng from South Africa and Delhi-born Dayanita Singh in representing Germany at the Venice Biennale, although he will be unable to attend.

The artist has been barred from leaving China since April 2011, when he was detained for three months by the Chinese authorities. He was released on bail but stripped of his passport. Now 55, Ai is China's best-known artist and activist. He's also a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.

SPIEGEL: Ai Weiwei, an Italian art gallery has just announced an exhibition of your work saying it will show you at "the height" of your "artistic and polemic powers." How do you feel being at the pinnacle of your career?

Ai: I'm not at the summit yet. I am still warming up.

SPIEGEL: The London-based magazine ArtReview rated you one of the most influential figures in international art. What do such awards mean to you?

Ai: This award was not about me personally but about what I stand for -- which are two essential functions of modern art: expression and communication. For me, art always has to ask for new possibilities and to try to extend existing boundaries. An artist must maintain his specific sensitivity, react to life and change it.

SPIEGEL: Can you still do this being as famous as you are?

Ai: I am 55 years old and have been working publicly for eight or nine years. But for three years, the craziest of my career, I have not been able to leave China. Therefore, my so-called fame does not affect me that much. My father, Ai Qing, was a well-known artist himself. I saw how his fame was used against him. So I have no illusions.

SPIEGEL: This summer you and three other artists will represent Germany at the Venice Biennale. Udo Kittelmann, director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie modern art museum, criticized this. He says you will overshadow the others, photographers Dayanita Singh, Santu Mofokeng and filmmaker Romuald Karmakar.

Ai: I think this is half true. But I won't be there personally and the project is not about advertisement. This is about content. I have gone through a difficult time, through a life or death situation really. I have been injured and detained, my studio was destroyed and they fabricated a sky-high tax bill for me. So I am not representing myself but a certain cause. This is about justice. It is about people who have no voice or are too shy to use it. I have become a symbolic figure for this anti-authoritarian attitude -- not just in China, but in any country that is dominated by such a political or economic power, also in the so-called free world.

SPIEGEL: Do you know the other artists who will exhibit at the German Pavilion?

Ai: I met Santu Mofokeng in 2002 when I curated the Guangzhou Triennial. We talked at length because I liked his work. I look forward to sharing the experience with all of them. And I don't really think that any artist can overshadow any other artist -- in today's world we don't see somebody's art because he is more famous or his art is bigger than anybody else's. I think the director of the Nationalgalerie underestimates the people's power of judgement and intelligence. He seems to be used to the perspective of the internal circles of art and their way of measuring things.

SPIEGEL: How have you been lately?

Ai: In general I am fine; my situation is as good as anybody else's. It is still difficult but that's because I want to put up a fight. I could have a more comfortable life if I gave up on this, and so could my relatives, my friends and state security.

SPIEGEL: Why don't you want this?

Ai: Because I can't feel comfortable if I have to give up my -- and other people's --rights for that. If I have to ignore injustice that I simply cannot ignore. My world is so connected to the world of others, how can I pretend I don't know about those things? On the face of it I am taking the essential right of speaking only for myself: I am not powerful, I haven't organized a party, I don't roam the streets with protesters. And I have to climb across the Great Firewall every day to post a few sentences on Twitter. If this alone is enough to make the powerful feel uncomfortable, then they really should check what will happen to them.

SPIEGEL: Outside of China you are not only known for your art and your tweets, but also because you frequently speak to foreign journalists. How would you describe your relationship with the Western media?

Ai: Journalists are professionals. They look at the truth the way doctors look at it -- not like a patient. As an artist I try to maintain the truth on a level where it can be more easily shared and accepted. Art has to be innocent. Journalists have to make judgements. That's why they covered the tragic Boston attacks widely, but didn't cover the 122 Tibetans who have immolated themselves over the past months. And that's why many of you write about my struggle but not about the struggle of others.

SPIEGEL: Do you think you are getting too much media attention?

Ai: It certainly raises my responsibility. I have been working on a video about my detention lately. The government understood this and police warned me: "You can't do this." I told them: "Sorry, but if you are embarrassed about this now, why did you arrest me in the first place?" Two hours later a cinematographer who worked with me on the project was detained. They accused him for having met with prostitutes in a massage salon and kept him arrested for 10 days. When he finally came out he told us that two men had invited him for a cup of tea …

SPIEGEL: … which is a Chinese euphemism for being summoned by State Security.

Ai: Anyway, he hid at the neighboring house to check out who exactly was going to meet him. Then however, he said, police raided the house and forced him to undress. He resisted, they beat him and then asked for the secret code of his cell phone and his computer. Such stories are scary; they rob you of any sense of security. But then again, they are very powerful if they are told in all plain truth to the media.

SPIEGEL: Will your exhibitions in Venice deal with your three "crazy years"? Are they connected to your experience with State Security?

Ai: I will show three projects in Venice. At the German Pavilion I'll exhibit an abstract work which has not been shown before. The two other projects are not being shown within the Biennale. Both of them relate to my recent experience. One is part of a project about the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan which was shown last year at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The other is a work about my detention. It will reveal certain truths about what happened to me in this period. It is a classical form of display, similar to those museums that simulate the age of dinosaurs.

SPIEGEL: What will your contribution for Germany be?

Ai: It is an installation, different from what the three other participants will do. It will occupy the center room and it will be large, filling the whole space. This is what I can tell you at this point in time.

SPIEGEL: How do you fill a room which you have never seen before? And how have you been able to work on international shows at all in the time since you have been unable to travel?

Ai: I have worked in architecture for a long time, so I am experienced with space and light. And as I've said before: My art is about communication. When I work, it is like using a remote control, with assistants and workers who understand me well, but whom I also encourage to trust their own judgement and skills.

'If I was a Western Politician, I Probably Would like Dictators, Too'
SPIEGEL: How does the fact that you can't travel affect your work?

Ai: Of course I feel restricted. Of course I want to see reactions and learn from them. No artist works like a genius creating only from his inner self. You want to try out things, you want to know if something works, you want to correct yourself. I don't have any of this at the moment. On the other hand, I live in a world which is full of other impulses that give structure to my work. Scientists often work in a similar way. They too have to predict the results of their work before they can actually see it.

SPIEGEL: Do you know Venice?

Ai: Yes, I took part in the Biennale of 1999.

SPIEGEL: How did you like it?

Ai: I left the day before the opening. Like many artists I don't particularly like these events -- all the hand-shaking, all the hellos. I am not really made for this.

SPIEGEL: And the city, the place itself?

Ai: I missed energy. Venice is an old beauty, no doubt. A precious old carpet. But where do you hang it? This time I convinced my mother to go there. She has suffered a lot during my detention; she is 80 years old now and has never seen my work abroad. My sister is going to accompany her.

SPIEGEL: In Germany, there are two rather extreme views on China. Some politicians, but mostly leaders from the business world, praise the Chinese model as efficient and forward-looking. Artists and human rights activists, on the other hand, portray China's leaders as criminals who oppress their own people.

Ai: I have never been visited by any of those German industry leaders. I am afraid they would be scared to death if they spent a few days with me. No, actually I do have one friend among them -- Hans-Olaf Henkel (the former president of the German Federation of Industries) who posed with a "Free Ai Weiwei" poster in Berlin and who is also in contact with the political leadership.

SPIEGEL: Next to Mao Zedong, you are probably China's best-known figure.

Ai: Well, Mao used to say: "Love and hate are never without reason." He may have been right there. If I was a Western politician, I probably would like dictators, too. After all, they are able to make decisions very quickly and they will sign any check as long as you have a smile for them. Who cares about the conditions in dictatorships? Everyone has to make ends meet and you can't take care of everything, right? I understand this attitude perfectly.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't it disturb you that both of these extreme views of China are grotesque simplifications?

Ai: Yes, but how did this critical view of China come about in the first place? It is because there is no free flow of information. You can't exchange arguments freely on issues like Tibet or the province of Xinjiang.

SPIEGEL: At the same time, there are also states where you could not speak out at all. Or countries where someone like you would perhaps not even live anymore.

Ai: I have never said that China is the most brutal of all systems. I don't even claim that I am being beaten routinely -- there was one such incident and I have repeatedly stated that this was an accident. What is not an accident, however, is that the powerful pretend that they have never touched me at all. Any state commits a serious mistake when it denies facts only to protect the system. But this is what happens here. And still it could be much worse. Maybe I should consider myself lucky: I am still alive -- and I can speak to SPIEGEL. What more do I want?

SPIEGEL: You have considerable influence on your country's image abroad. Isn't it difficult for an artist to depict reality without compromising its complexity?

Ai: I have a different view. A few days ago I saw a video about the sun. NASA had spent years producing the film, but it lasts for no more than three minutes. When I saw this I realized that truth will get much simpler the longer we think about something. Our existence as such is accidental, and we should appreciate it. I like the idiom we use in Chinese to express the brevity of life: "Bay ju guo xi" -- the moment a white foal takes to jump over a crevice. Life is a value in itself, and every dictatorial attempt to steal its surprises and cut its possibilities is a crime.

SPIEGEL: When the Chinese poet Liao Yiwu was awarded with the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers, he said about present-day China: "This empire must break apart." Do you agree with him?

Ai: I didn't read the speech. But I too have doubts about whether this system can hold up structure and order for a long time to come. The nature of this state is self-destructive. Whoever doesn't want to hear the voices of others, whoever doesn't let them speak freely, will not see danger coming. And he will be unable to adapt. Life, however, is nothing but permanent adaptation.

SPIEGEL: But hasn't this system adapted astonishingly? If someone visited China now, for the first time in 30 years, he or she would hardly recognize the place.

Ai: No! China has become prosperous, there is no denying this. And maybe the system is lucky for having abandoned any principle. But what have we paid to get so prosperous? How sustainable is this sort of change? We have exploited our resources, it will take decades to fill the holes we dug. And the powerful have neither the vision nor the passion nor the bravery they would need to do this. Take education, for example: There were a few dozen Chinese high school students studying in the United States a few years back. Now there are 170,000 at America's universities. Even my neighbors, my craftsmen ask me to recommend their daughters to foreign universities. This is a nation which lacks trust.

SPIEGEL: Trust in what?

Ai: When we drink water, we are suspicious. When we buy food, we hesitate. When we visit a doctor, we ask ourselves if we will be treated correctly. And when we are entering a legal dispute, we think about how we can find someone to bail us out. What kind of state is this? Can it get any worse?

SPIEGEL: New President Xi Jinping says he has a "dream for China": Greater prosperity, a better environment, a life of dignity. What is your dream for China?

Ai: Very simple: Give the powerless their voice, give them the right to vote. And if you think you cannot do this now, then give them a schedule: Tell them that you will give them the right to vote in 10 days, 10 months or 10 years. But don't tell them that they are living in the best of all worlds already. The Chinese are patient, but those in power have betrayed them. When the communists started out around 80 years ago, they got so much support from the people that they succeeded remarkably easily in founding a new state. Today you are not allowed to print an article they would have printed before 1949. Why? Because they themselves called for a democratic society, for the freedom of speech and human rights back then.

SPIEGEL: Will those who succeed the communists be any better?

Ai: There is no guarantee, and this is why this country needs its artists. People often ask me: So when China finally becomes democratic -- what will you do then? My answer is: I will fight for the democratic system to dissolve. This will be the only way to look for what other possibilities there are.

SPIEGEL: Can you move freely within China?

Ai: Yes, I can fly. I only need my identity card for that. When the air pollution became unbearable last winter, I took my children to Fujian. It isn't fair to expose them to such air for months. At the airport, of course, we were followed again. I kicked the guy in the ass, but he didn't even turn around. I recorded the scene, it is funny. They have a clear rule: If there is a camera running, never show your face.

SPIEGEL: What has happened since then?

Ai: Not much. Apart from being prevented from leaving the country, I don't feel any other restrictions. It seems they have completely given up on me. They don't even call to correct me. They used to do that when they didn't want me to comment on any particular matter. I had suggested this to them myself, but of course I couldn't help it anyway, because too many things came up. And then they found out, mostly two weeks later, when some Chinese exile newspaper or website had translated my tweets.

Interview conducted by Bernhard Zand


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« Reply #6235 on: May 08, 2013, 06:38 AM »

IHT Rendezvous
May 8, 2013, 1:19 am

A Cash Chokehold on North Korea Gets Tighter

By GERRY MULLANY

HONG KONG — The noose is tightening on North Korea. And for the leaders in Pyongyang, two developments in recent days suggest that the country’s ravenous thirst for foreign currency, which fuels its military ambitions, may be much harder to satisfy.

As my colleague Keith Bradsher reported Tuesday, the state-controlled Bank of China is shutting down transfers to North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, a vital source of funds for the government, an action that could further financially hobble a regime that is already dealing with a tightening web of international sanctions. Particularly noteworthy was that the bank did not take such an action quietly, instead issuing a statement that drew widespread notice as a possible sign of Beijing’s toughening stance against North Korea, its longtime ally.

The action comes a week after the doors closed, perhaps for good, on the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint operation in which South Korean businesses employed North Korean workers on North Korean soil, pumping yet more precious hard currency into the North’s economy.

With an outdated industrial infrastructure and a poorly functioning agricultural sector that cannot feed its own people, North Korea’s need of foreign currency cannot be understated, and in recent decades the failures of its economy have forced it to rely on the benevolence of other nations to survive.

Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote in his recent book “Escape from Camp 14″ about Pyongyang’s perennial reliance on outside help, noting that a country that owes its very existence to military support from China now relies on it for financial survival.

“North Korea would have lost the Korean War and disappeared as a state without the Chinese,” Mr. Harden noted about Chinese intervention in the Korean War as Pyongyang stood on the brink of defeat in 1950. He added that after the collapse of its financial benefactor the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the subsequent end in 2008 of the “sunshine policy” that channeled aid from South Korea, “Pyongyang has become increasingly dependent on China” for trade, food aid, and fuel.

Under North Korea’s “military first” strategy, the nation’s financial resources are channeled primarily to its military, allowing it to make advances in nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions at the expense of the welfare of its people. With the foreign currency spigot running drier, the regime may be forced into a corner.

Recent weeks have in fact seen a relative lessening of the North’s outbursts of bellicosity. A widely anticipated missile launch expected around the time of the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, did not come to pass last month. On Tuesday came word that North Korea appeared to have moved its missiles away from its launch site on the country’s east coast while reducing its military alert level.

These developments all raise the question of whether the North is paying closer attention to the concerns of a more exasperated Beijing, although the history of North Korean behavior does not offer much hope for moderation.

*************

May 7, 2013

Obama Backs Policy of South Korea’s President on North

By MARK LANDLER and DAVID E. SANGER
IHT

WASHINGTON — President Obama offered an endorsement Tuesday of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, and her blueprint for defusing tensions with North Korea, but warned that the first move was up to the erratic, often belligerent young leader in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un.

In a news conference after an Oval Office meeting, Mr. Obama said Ms. Park’s policy, which mixes deterrence with an openness to engagement, is “very compatible with my approach.”

But after weeks of warlike statements from Mr. Kim, which subsided only in recent days, Mr. Obama emphasized that the “burden is on Pyongyang to take meaningful steps to abide by its commitments and obligations, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It was the first meeting for Mr. Obama and Ms. Park, a steely conservative who is the first female leader of South Korea and the daughter of an assassinated South Korean strongman, Park Chung-Hee. And it came after a tempestuous few weeks, in which North Korea threatened to rain nuclear missiles on both South Korea and the United States.

“If Pyongyang thought its recent threats would drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, or somehow garner the North international respect, today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again,” Mr. Obama said. “President Park and South Koreans have stood firm, with confidence and resolve.”

Yet behind the display of unity, some analysts questioned whether Ms. Park’s emphasis on engagement, as well as deterrence, could end up at odds with Mr. Obama’s more hands-off approach with the North Koreans.

Much of their meeting, a senior administration official said, was devoted to Ms. Park, 61, explaining her strategy — called “trust-politik” — which aims to rebuild trust between the North and South by looking for ways to engage, even while responding strongly to acts of provocation.

The Obama administration has eschewed direct contact with North Korea and has made negotiations contingent on getting a commitment from the North to abandon its nuclear weapons. Whether Ms. Park believes that must be a precondition is not clear. She appears to be open to initial talks while turning to denuclearization later.

“If there is no nuclear component to it, or a security component, than I doubt if the North Koreans are going to be responsive,” said Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator on North Korea. “Without active U.S. participation on the security issues, it’s not going to get very far.”

The administration official played down those fears, noting that in her meeting with Mr. Obama and in the news conference, Ms. Park declared that the “ultimate objective that all of us should be adopting is for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.”

There were other modest tensions just beneath the surface, involving how far to allow South Korea to go in developing its own nuclear fuel cycle. That issue surrounded the renewal of a civilian nuclear accord with South Korea — a major issue in Seoul, because it prohibits the South from enriching or reprocessing its own nuclear fuel.

That restriction is considered critical by the United States because it keeps the South from gaining the technology it would need to build its own nuclear weapon, something it tried to do decades ago, before the effort was detected and stopped by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Before Mrs. Park’s arrival, the White House and the South Koreans agreed to extend the current accord, and the prohibition, for two years. But Mr. Obama remains concerned that if the United States permitted South Korea to produce nuclear fuel, it would be impossible to persuade North Korea to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula, under a two-decade-old agreement between North and South.

“We didn’t want this to be a cliffhanger visit,” said the senior official, when asked why the accord was extended while negotiations on a new one continued. “No one wanted to make a mad dash to an accord.”

The meeting came as tensions on the Korean Peninsula seemed to ebb, at least for now. The North appeared to roll back two Musadan missiles from their coastal launching sites. But analysts said they believed the reduction in tensions was a pause, not a long-term trend.

“I think the lull is mostly about tone, and the trajectory hasn’t changed at all,” said Michael J. Green, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There may a Musadan launch soon; they are chugging ahead.”

In a development greeted with cautious optimism by American officials, the state-controlled Bank of China said Tuesday that it had ended all dealings with a key North Korean bank — the strongest public response by China yet to North Korea’s behavior. In a statement, the United States Treasury said, “We welcome these steps to protect the financial system from illicit North Korean activity.”

China analysts said the move carried clear diplomatic significance at a time when the Obama administration has been urging China to limit its longtime support for the North Korean government.

The Bank of China’s action also dovetails with a longstanding American effort to target the North Korean government’s access to foreign currency. Most countries’ banks already refuse to have any financial dealings with North Korea, making the Bank of China’s role particularly important.

“I personally don’t believe that this would have been a business decision by the bank alone, and it’s probably a signal from the government to reflect its views on North Korea,” said Cai Jian, the deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“This appears to be a step by the government to show that it’s willing to cooperate with the international community in strengthening sanctions or perhaps taking steps against illicit North Korean financial transactions,” he said.

At the White House, Ms. Park stressed China’s leverage over North Korea, saying, “China’s role, China’s influence can be extensive, so China’s taking part in these endeavors is important.”

In another sign of international pressure on North Korea, the United Nations announced Tuesday that it had appointed a retired Australian judge, Michael Kirby, to lead a panel charged with investigating human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity in North Korea “with a view to ensuring full accountability.”

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong.


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« Reply #6236 on: May 08, 2013, 06:39 AM »

May 7, 2013

Australian Central Bank Cuts Key Rate to Historic Low

By BETTINA WASSENER
IHT

HONG KONG — The Australian central bank dropped its key interest rate to a record-low 2.75 percent Tuesday, becoming the latest central bank in recent weeks to try to stimulate growth.

Few analysts had expected the central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, to deliver a rate cut at its policy meeting, and the reduction, by a quarter of a percentage point, prompted the Australian dollar to decline about half a cent against the U.S. dollar, to $1.019.

In a statement accompanying the rate decision, Glenn Stevens, the central bank’s governor, struck a sanguine note about the global economy, saying it was “likely to record growth a little below trend this year before picking up next year,” with the United States currently on a path of moderate expansion and China’s growth running at a robust pace. And although commodity prices — which are important to resource-rich Australia — have moderated in recent months, they “remain high by historical standards,” he added.

Still, unemployment has edged up despite a string of rate cuts in recent years, and investment in mining, a major source of economic activity, is projected to peak this year.

A persistently strong Australian dollar has weighed on the economy. The currency has climbed against the U.S. dollar for much of the past 12 years, with only a brief slump after the Lehman Brothers collapse in late 2008, and reached parity with the U.S. dollar for the first time since 1982 in late 2010. It has been worth more than $1 for much of the time since then.

The exchange rate’s strength over the past 18 months, Mr. Stevens said, “is unusual, given the decline in export prices and interest rates during that time.” The central bank thus decided that “a further decline in the cash rate was appropriate to encourage sustainable growth in the economy,” he continued.

The fact that inflation in Australia, at 2.5 percent during the first quarter of this year, remains within the central bank’s comfort level also provided the leeway for a reduction in interest rates, analysts said. The rate cut Tuesday was the seventh by the Australian central bank since November 2011 and took the total reduction in borrowing costs to 2 percentage points.

“Further easing looks unlikely at the moment,” analysts at Standard Chartered said in a research note, adding that the central bank was likely to wait for more data before making further moves. “However, continued sluggishness in both the domestic and global economies will increase the risk of a rate cut, inflation permitting,” they said.

The Australian move follows recent efforts in several other regions and countries to prop up growth. Both the European Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of India lowered borrowing costs last week in a bid to bolster growth, which has been flagging. And in Japan, the central bank and the government have announced spending plans and asset purchases and have promised measures to attract investment in an effort to combat deflation and reignite growth.
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« Reply #6237 on: May 08, 2013, 06:41 AM »

Nigeria extremist attacks leave many dead

Two hundred fighters attack army barracks and federal prison in latest violence threatening peace in Africa's most populous country

Associated Press in Maiduguri
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 10.27 BST   

Co-ordinated attacks by Islamic extremists armed with heavy machine guns have killed at least 42 people in north-east Nigeria, according to authorities, the latest in a string of increasingly bloody incidents threatening peace in Africa's most populous nation.

Multiple locations were struck in Bama in Nigeria's Borno state, where shootings and bombings have been rife since an insurgency began there in 2010.

Fighters raided a federal prison during the assault, killing 14 guards and freeing 105 inmates, officials said.

Details of the attack remain unclear, although military spokesman Lt Col Sagir Musa said about 200 fighters in buses and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns attacked the barracks of the 202 Battalion of Nigeria's army. Musa said 10 insurgents and two soldiers died in the attack.

"They came in army uniform pretending to be soldiers but [we] were able to detect them," he said.

The attackers also razed a police station, a police barracks, magistrate's court and local government offices, the spokesman said.

At least 22 police officers, three children and a woman were killed in those attacks, said Bama police commander Sagir Abubakar. He said officers killed three insurgents during the fighting.

Calls rang unanswered or would not connect on Tuesday night to those living in Bama, a town 40 miles (65km) south-east of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. In attacks in the region by Islamic extremists, phone towers have been bombed and burned to the ground, making communication even more difficult for security officials and civilians as well. At least 17 people died in an attack in Bama in late April.

Much of the violence has been blamed on the extremist network known as Boko Haram, which translates as "western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north. The group has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and Nigeria to adopt strict sharia law across the multi-ethnic nation of more than 160 million people.

While President Goodluck Jonathan has launched a committee to look at offering an amnesty deal to extremist fighters, Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has dismissed the idea in messages.

The Islamic insurgency in Nigeria grew out of a riot in 2009 led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri that ended in a military and police crackdown in which about 700 people were killed. The group's leader died in police custody in an apparent execution. Since 2010, Islamic extremists have engaged in hit-and-run shootings and suicide bombings, attacks that have killed more than 1,500 people.

Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, alleged atrocities committed by security forces against the local civilian population has caused anger in the region.

In late April, at least 187 people were killed in fighting between Islamic extremists and the military in Baga, another city in Borno state that sits along the banks of Lake Chad. Witnesses say soldiers angry about the death of a military officer set fire to homes and killed civilians.

Human Rights Watch recently said an analysis of satellite imagery before and after the attack led it to believe the violence destroyed about 2,275 buildings and severely damaged another 125.

************

Goodluck Jonathan's report card for Nigeria? Must try harder

After three years as president, the economy is booming but Jonathan's record on helping his people is poor

Remi Adekoya   
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 May 2013 09.22 BST   

Nigerians had no rational reason to believe their lives would improve after Goodluck Jonathan became president three years ago this week. The list of promises their rulers have broken is so long it would make a virgin cynical. But then Nigerians can be stubbornly optimistic.

When Jonathan first appeared on the political scene in 2007, when Nigeria's then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, announced him as the running-mate of his party's next presidential candidate, Musa Yar'Adua, many mythologised the good fortune that seemed linked to Jonathan's first name. And so, when Yar'Adua died in 2010 from heart disease and Jonathan was handed the most coveted job in Nigeria, many voters believed good luck had come to Nigeria. Were they right?

Nigeria's economy has averaged an impressive 7% annual growth since 2010. Fiscal policy is responsible. The country has a debt-to-GDP ratio of roughly 18% and a budget deficit of under 3%, levels Europe would be delighted with today. This is largely thanks to finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director. But Jonathan deserves praise for not intefering.

Still, his end-of-year report is not spotless. While the economy is booming, precious little wealth trickles down to the poor. Jonathan must be more energetic about changing that. The electricity supply is erratic, so businesses and individuals spend fortunes on generators and diesel. This in one of the world's biggest oil exporters. Things have improved since 2010, but far too tepidly: Jonathan only gets a C minus.

Infrastructure also remains a problem. Without a modern road network, doing business in Nigeria will remain prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging. Nigeria is a federation: individual states play a big role here. In the richer, well-governed states such as Lagos, where the commercial capital city is located, progress is visible. But Jonathan needs to do more to facilitate modernism in poorer states: he gets a C.

On healthcare, Jonathan gets an F. If a Nigerian gets cancer today and can't afford private treatment, he will die. Even obtaining aspirin in a public hospital can prove impossible.

Education is particularly problematic: tens of millions of Nigerians are illiterate. Most cannot afford an education: without government assistance, thus far feeble, they will remain intellectual invalids. Nigeria's rulers need to understand that a country is not respected because of the number of oil barrels it sells, but because of the quality of citizen it produces: F.

Jonathan's record on corruption is a disgrace. A recent report from the US State Department was spot on when it cited "massive, widespread, and pervasive corruption affecting all levels of government".

Asked to disclose his assets, the man whose parents couldn't afford shoes refused. For emphasis, he said he "doesn't give a damn" what anybody thinks about it. The Council of States, led by Jonathan, meanwhile pardoned his former boss, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who had been convicted of money-laundering.

On security, Jonathan has dithered. Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group, has killed thousands on his watch, while he seems unsure whether to use crushing force or grant "amnesty" (read: bribes), as he has offered. Boko Haram laughed in his face. It is Jonathan's government that should plead for amnesty, it has suggested.

In a country where the rule of law remains a dream, Jonathan's message is terrible: he is, in effect, saying: "Prove to us you are strong enough to make our lives difficult and we'll give you a share of the pie." How can a president expect loyalty from his citizens if he appears to lack the power to protect them?

It's no easy job running a country that is half-Christian, half-Muslim, underdeveloped and home to some 250 ethnic groups. Some say Jonathan is too weak for the job. But you don't have to be a great man to be a great president, as long as you are clever enough to you surround yourself with wise advisers, possess the intelligence to process information and have a steadfast desire to improve things for your people.

I personally don't deny that Jonathan some good intentions. But he is hostage to the powerful interests that catapulted him to the top. Ultimately though, he is Mr President, which gives him some pretty sharp fangs. If he wants to be remembered fondly, he should start baring those fangs in the interest of his people. Otherwise, he might as well call it quits in 2015, and spare us a second term. Nigeria has a lot of catching up to do. There is no time to waste.



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« Reply #6238 on: May 08, 2013, 06:50 AM »

Russia and US pledge Syria conference with both sides

Announcement by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry comes after months of stalled co-operation

Miriam Elder and agencies in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 7 May 2013 23.26 BST   

Russia and the United States have pledged to convene an international conference aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, hoping to give the situation a new diplomatic push following two years of bloodshed.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, announced the move at a midnight press conference in the Russian capital. Kerry also met Vladimir Putin during his visit to Moscow.

The announcement of the joint initiative comes after months of stalled co-operation on Syria. Officials from both sides hope that representatives from the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition will attend. Russia remains Assad's staunchest ally and has opposed foreign involvement in the conflict which has killed more than 70,000 people.

Russia has consistently pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis while continuing to supply Assad with arms. Barack Obama is facing increasing calls for military intervention following reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. Bob Corker, the ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, told CBS on Tuesday that: "I do think we'll be arming the opposition shortly."

Speaking in Washington during a press conference with the visiting South Korean president, Obama said: "There are continuing re-evaluations about what we do."

Kerry said at the midnight press conference that the conference would be held "as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully as soon as the end of the month". Falling in line with Russia, he played up the importance of the Geneva communique, agreed last year, which calls for an end to the violence in Syria and the creation of a transitional government that could include members of Assad's regime.

"Despite different points of view, committed partners can accomplish great things together when the world needs it," Kerry told reporters in Russia's capital. "And this is one of those moments."

Kerry and Lavrov declined to discuss Assad's fate in the early hours of Wednesday.

"We are not interested in the fate of certain persons," Lavrov said. "We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people."

Asked about the future of Assad, Kerry brushed off the question and said: "I'm not going to decide that tonight."

Speaking to reporters at a government guesthouse in Moscow, Lavrov praised the Assad regime for expressing its willingness to work on a political transition and its decision to establish a dialogue with all Syrians. He said the opposition, by contrast, "hasn't said a single word yet which would show their commitment".

"When we hear the right words from the opposition, given the fact that the regime has already voiced the right words, then we will try to convert such words into actions," Lavrov said.

Kerry took a different view.

He said the alternative to the political transition strategy was more violence, a Syria that "heads increasingly towards an abyss, a worse humanitarian crisis and possibly even ethnic cleansing and the breakup of the Syrian state. He said the opposition supports the peace plan and the transition strategy and that it was up to the government to make good on its obligations, also as they pertain to not using chemical weapons.

Lavrov and Kerry appeared chummy, exchanging whispers and slaps on the back, in marked contrast to the strained relationship the longtime Russian foreign minister maintained with the new secretary of state's predecessors. He also described his talks with Putin as "warm and friendly".

The Russian president left Kerry waiting for several hours as he berated the cabinet of his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The two men's meeting in the Kremlin, originally planned to last under an hour, ran to three.

************

Arab League praises U.S.-Russia deal to stop fighting in Syria

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, May 8, 2013 7:35 EDT

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday hailed a US-Russia accord to push both sides fighting in the Syrian conflict to end the bloodshed, but cautioned that it was “only a first step”.

The US-Russia agreement came after lengthy talks in Moscow between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Brahimi said of Syria in a statement.

“The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step,” said the veteran Algerian diplomat who an aide has been mulling resignation over the apparent absence of a political track to resolve the brutal civil war.

“There is every reason to expect” backing for the accord from the remaining UN Security Council permanent members, his statement said.

“It is equally important that the entire region mobilises in the support of the process,” it added.

The latest moves came as the United Nations said efforts were under way to secure the release of four Filipino peacekeepers seized by gunmen on the Golan Heights.

Kerry and Lavrov announced the agreement at a Moscow news conference.

“We agreed that Russia and the United States will encourage both the Syria government and opposition groups to find a political solution,” Lavrov said.

He said both the countries were ready to use all their resources to bring “the government and opposition to the negotiating table”.

Lavrov and Kerry said they hoped they could convene an international conference by the end of May to build on the Geneva accord agreed by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria.

The Geneva agreement, which was never implemented, set out a path toward a transitional government without ever spelling out the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

The six-point accord — negotiated by the last UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan — “should be the road map… by which the people of Syria can find their way to the new Syria and in which the bloodshed, the killing, the massacres can end”, Kerry said.

“The alternative is that there’s even more violence, the alternative is that Syria heads even closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Kerry warned of a conflict that has already claimed more than 70,000 lives.

He said only the Syrian regime and the opposition can determine the make-up of a transitional government to shepherd the war-torn nation towards democratic elections.

“It’s impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place,” Kerry said.

“But I’m not going to decide that tonight, and I’m not going to decide that in the end.”

Russia has long accused the West of worsening the Syria conflict by seeking to topple the Assad regime.

The US and other Western states have in turn accused Russia of failing to use its influence with the regime to halt the bloodshed, and of keeping up military deliveries to Assad.

UN efforts were under way on Wednesday to free four peacekeepers from the Philippines who were seized by an unidentified armed group in the Golan Heights, the second such abduction of Filipino forces in two months.

Manila called their detention a “gross violation” of international law and urged the UN Security Council to “use its influence for the early and safe release” of the four.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday the Jewish state was not getting involved in Syria’s civil war, but insisted it would not permit the transfer of arms to Damascus ally Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a bitter war in the summer of 2006.

On Friday and Sunday Israel carried out air strikes near Damascus that sent regional tensions soaring.

On the ground on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels shot down a regime fighter over the northern province of Aleppo.

“Opposition fighters shot down a fighter jet that was shelling areas near Minnigh military air base… and the pilot’s fate remains unknown,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria’s Internet blackout went into its second consecutive day Wednesday, with the state news agency blaming a technical fault.

A similar blackout happened in November. Activists say sudden cuts in communications can happen before regime forces launch major offensives.

*********

May 7, 2013

Hezbollah Takes Risks by Fighting Rebels in Syria

By ANNE BARNARD
IHT

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Near Damascus, Hezbollah fighters are defending the shrine of Sayida Zeinab, revered by Shiite Muslims, from encroaching Sunni rebels. To the north, they are not just part of a Syrian government drive to take back the strategic town of Qusair, rebels say, they are leading it.

On Tuesday, Syrian opposition activists reported that rebels had killed 15 Hezbollah fighters in Qusair. But they also said the rebels were besieged in the town and in danger of losing it, after black-clad Hezbollah fighters swept them from surrounding villages.

Recruited and trained to battle Israel and defend Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Lebanese Shiite guerrillas are pushing more and more deeply into a very different fight: in neighboring Syria, against fellow Arab Muslims trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Their leaders have made it increasingly clear that Mr. Assad’s war is their war, too.

Though Hezbollah has never been militarily stronger — it has more than replenished the weapons and fighters it lost in its brief war with Israel in 2006 — it finds itself in an unaccustomed situation. It is struggling to preserve credibility at home and fend off an array of new challenges abroad as it fights what it sees as a battle to preserve Mr. Assad’s rule, and the crucial arms pipeline he provides.

Its chief patron, Iran, is suffering under sanctions over its nuclear program. Its members have been jailed on charges of helping to kill Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, as Europe considers joining the United States in labeling it a terrorist organization. It is facing heightened sectarian talk from its rivals in Lebanon — all while trying to keep its focus on its primary enemy, Israel.

That challenge burst into view on Sunday with a series of spectacular airstrikes that brightened the night sky over the Syrian capital, Damascus. American officials said Israel unleashed the attack to knock out sophisticated long-range missiles on their way from Iran to Hezbollah.

Israel has hit such shipments regularly in Lebanon and twice recently in Syria, but the sheer scope and boldness of Sunday’s strikes, analysts said, threw down a gauntlet to Hezbollah, Iran and Syria that could put the Lebanese group at greater risk as Israel appears to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to hit its nemesis with near impunity.

Politically, the strikes could help Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has sought to defend Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria by defining the uprising as an Israeli-American plot to destroy Mr. Assad and Hezbollah for opposing Israel.

But the strike also could undermine Mr. Nasrallah, said Mahmoud Haddad, a professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, if Hezbollah, not wanting to open a new battlefront, does not retaliate.

“They talk the talk, but as you say in America, they don’t walk the walk,” he said.

Militarily, even frequent Israeli strikes at its weapons in Syria would not immediately harm Hezbollah, said Timur Goksel, an editor at Al-Monitor and a former political adviser to United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon. It has an estimated 60,000 missiles in the country already, more than enough to deter Israeli attacks, and to strike back.

But, Mr. Goksel said, as Israel and Hezbollah deepen their involvement in Syria’s civil war, the chances grow of a miscalculation or mistake that could spark direct conflict or a regional conflagration.

Hezbollah is eager to avoid that; it might be able to bloody Israel and survive its bombardment, but the political costs in Lebanon would be high, experts said.

“What do I care if they destroy Tel Aviv and lose Beirut?” said Amin Hoteit, a retired Lebanese colonel close to Hezbollah.

But Hezbollah may face pressure from its own ranks to respond, said Nicholas Blanford, the author of “Warriors of God,” a military history of the group.

“Hezbollah guys don’t join to go and fight Arab Muslims in Syria and turn the other cheek when Israeli jets go and blow up weapons,” he said.

Hezbollah has already paid a political price for its Syria stance. Supporting Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown has already destroyed its reputation in the wider Arab world as a champion of the underdog.

Now it is stoking anger in Lebanon, where rivals say that Hezbollah, the most powerful political player, has betrayed promises to use its arms only to defend Lebanon.

But instead of backing away from Mr. Assad, Hezbollah has doubled down. Early in the Syrian conflict, it quietly tried to mediate a solution, then played down its involvement in Syria. Now, by comparison, it practically trumpets its presence.

Funerals for the small but steady stream of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria honor them as martyrs with all the pomp, circumstance and television coverage previously reserved for those who died fighting Israel. Hezbollah says they are defending Lebanese civilians in Syria, but no longer claims that they are individuals fighting on their own initiative.

“They are very organized; no one can breathe without orders,” said Abdulrahim Mourad, a member of Hezbollah’s March 8 parliamentary coalition.

And they are handling crucial missions in Syria. Mr. Mourad said that when he visited Mr. Assad in Damascus recently with a March 8 delegation, the president described the fight in Homs Province — where Hezbollah is fighting in Qusair — as a top priority. It is an arms corridor for rebels and links the capital with the coastal region that is a government stronghold.

Hezbollah is also helping train Syria’s pro-government militiamen into a more formal National Defense Force, Israeli and American officials say.

Success on the ground is intensifying the backlash from Sunnis, fueling sectarian anger. Sunni fighters have filmed themselves burning Shiite religious centers in Syria and sent calls for help to protect them from Hezbollah’s “Shiite dogs” or “the party of the devil,” a play on Hezbollah’s name, the Party of God.

Last month, rebels lobbed shells across the border at the Hezbollah-controlled town of Hermel, killing a boy and a man visiting his fiancée, the group Human Rights Watch reported.

That has only toughened Hezbollah’s conviction that the Syrian revolution threatens the Shiites, who are believed to be the largest group in Lebanon, but a minority in the region.

Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites are fighting on opposite sides in Syria, but so far not in Lebanon, even though the border along the Bekaa Valley teems with Hezbollah and Sunni militants heading in and out of Syria.

Despite all this, Hezbollah is still vigilant on the Israeli border, and its military is not too stretched to fight Israel, Mr. Blanford, the author, said. It has at most a few thousand fighters in Syria, analysts say, while its total force has grown to about 5,000 full-time fighters and as many as 15,000 in reserve.

If Mr. Assad falls, Hezbollah fears Israel would go after it, knowing it could no longer replenish its arms.

In the meantime, Syria is “a training battle,” said Dr. Kamel Wazni, another Lebanese analyst close to Hezbollah. “Preparation for the bigger battle.”



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May 7, 2013

More Islamists Join Cabinet in Shuffling Within Egypt

By BEN HUBBARD and MAYY EL SHEIKH
IHT

CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi swore in nine new cabinet members on Tuesday in a reshuffle that increased the role of Islamists in the upper ranks of the government but is not expected to herald any immediate policy shifts.

Two of the new ministers are in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, bringing the group’s representation in the cabinet to at least 11 of the 36 members. Others appointed to handle important portfolios are seen as allies of the Islamist movement.

The new cabinet members include the ministers of finance and investment, who will play a major role in the government’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan. The talks have been going on for months as Egyptian officials have balked at the economic reforms required by the deal.

The cabinet shake-up is unlikely to assuage the deep polarization between Mr. Morsi’s government and the opposition, which has called for a new government that includes figures from a broader range of political groups to run the country until the next parliamentary elections, expected later this year.

Rancor between Mr. Morsi’s supporters and the opposition has repeatedly exploded into violent and sometimes deadly street clashes in recent months.

Two of the figures most hated by the opposition, Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, kept their posts. Mr. Abdel-Maqsoud is seen as biased in favor of the Brotherhood, and rights groups say Mr. Ibrahim has failed to hold security forces accountable for abuses. Their presence in the government is often cited as evidence that Mr. Morsi has not carried out sufficient reforms since taking power last June.
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