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« Reply #7665 on: Jul 22, 2013, 05:55 AM »

Former jail keeps memory of Communist repression raw

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, July 21, 2013 10:27 EDT

Sixty years ago, as the Iron Curtain sealed off Eastern Europe, Teodor Stanca was among millions sentenced to jail, death or forced labour for opposing Communist rule.

Today, as survivors of this dark page of history are getting older and fewer, 80-year-old Stanca says he hopes a Romanian jail-turned-museum will remind future generations that “freedom needs eternal vigilance”.

“The Sighet Memorial for the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance”, as the museum is known, is the first of its kind in Europe.

More than one million people have visited the memorial in the northern town of Sighetu Marmatiei, which was founded 20 years ago on the site of one of the most notorious political prisons in Romania.

About 200 politicians, priests and intellectuals were held there in secret between 1950 and 1955, when the Communist terror reached its peak in Romania. Fifty-four of them died.

The former jail “prevents people from forgetting those who sacrificed their lives to defend democracy,” Stanca, a retired engineer, told AFP at an exhibition dedicated to the student movement he led in 1956 to call for more freedom.

The museum includes a research centre, a memorial to those who resisted and summer schools where young people meet with former political prisoners and historians from around the world.

“We want to inform foreigners and Romanians themselves about the sufferings endured by people living under totalitarian Communist regimes from the end of the Second World War until 1989,” poet Ana Blandiana, who founded the museum with her husband, told AFP.

Blandiana’s books were banned under Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last Communist dictator, who was toppled and executed in 1989.

In Sighet, each cell shows a different aspect of the brutal repression of Communist rule, from the massive surveillance by the Securitate secret police to torture.

Detailed accounts of forced labour remind visitors that tens of thousands of Romanians had to work like slaves building a canal towards the Black Sea.

“Since 1993, even before the archives were opened, we recorded thousands of hours of testimonies from survivors,” Blandiana said.

The extent of the suffering had largely been hidden.

“There are two different memories in Europe,” said Stephane Courtois, a French historian who edited the bestseller “The Black Book of Communism”.

“In the West, we had a glorious memory of Communism — the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, anti-fascism, resistance to Nazism. Here it was the exact opposite. People talk only of terror, torture, misery,” he told AFP.

Stalinist purges in the former Soviet Union and Communist repression in Eastern Europe claimed millions of lives in the 20th century, according to historians.

In Romania alone, more than 600,000 people were sentenced and jailed between 1945 and 1989 for political reasons.

Stanca was one of them.

“In the jail, we suffered from hunger, we did not get any medical assistance, we were continuously humiliated,” he said.

He was then sent to a labour camp to erect dikes along the Danube river.

“I think only the pyramids were built with such inhumane physical work,” he added.

But despite the grim conditions, detainees tried to resist.

“We fabricated paper to write poems by mixing dust we scratched from the walls, a bit of soap and water. If we were caught it meant seven days in the ‘black room’,” or punishment cell, he said.

Verses were transmitted using Morse code from one cell to the next.

When he was on the verge of dying, his fellow inmates forced bread into his mouth and saved him, he said.

The museum also dedicates several rooms to repression and resistance movements in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

“In Romania, we discovered that more than 200 revolts of farmers took place against forced collectivisation but had remained unknown to the public,” said Blandiana.

“Understanding what took place — the repression we felt for about 50 years — you can understand the hangover from this period of totalitarianism in Romania, and why the country still struggles to establish the rule of law and a solid democracy,” she added.

The task has not been easy in a country where former Communists and informants still hold key positions in public life.

“This memorial is very important, not only because of the past but for the future,” said former Czech political prisoner Petruska Suskova.

“The danger of totalitarian regimes has not disappeared.”

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« Reply #7666 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:05 AM »

Norwegian woman convicted of having extramarital sex after reporting rape gets Dubai pardon

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 22, 2013 7:40 EDT

A Norwegian woman in a rape case in Dubai said Monday she was pardoned and allowed to fly home after having been convicted of extramarital sex in the Muslim emirate.

“I was told that I’ve been pardoned,” Marte Dalelv, 24, told reporters outside a Dubai court, adding that her passport had been returned and she would leave the Gulf state “as soon as possible”.

In Oslo, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide also said that Dalelv was being allowed to leave the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a member.

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« Reply #7667 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:07 AM »

EU deliberations on blacklisting Hezbollah come to a head

Meeting in Brussels will decide whether the Shia group should be put on list of terrorist organisations

Reuters in Brussels, Monday 22 July 2013 06.31 BST   

European Union governments may decide to blacklist the military wing of Hezbollah today, in a major policy reversal fuelled by concerns over the Lebanese militant movement's activities in Europe.

Britain has sought to persuade its EU peers since May to put the Shia Muslim group's military wing on the bloc's terrorism list, citing evidence that it was behind a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria last year.

Until now, the EU has resisted pressure from Washington and Israel to blacklist Hezbollah, arguing that it could fuel instability in Lebanon, where the group is part of the government, and add to tensions in the Middle East. Diplomats say the opposition to such a move is fading.

"There are still reservations, but we are moving towards what could be a decision on the possible listing," a senior EU official said. "The number of member states which have difficulties with a possible decision has been slowly diminishing."

EU foreign ministers will discuss the issue in Brussels today.

Blacklisting the military wing would mean the freezing of any assets it may hold in the EU, though officials say there is scant information on the extent of Hezbollah's presence in Europe or on its assets.

Britain, backed by France and the Netherlands among others, has argued that Hezbollah's growing involvement in the Syrian war means Lebanon is already in a fragile situation and that the EU must weigh the possibility of future attacks in Europe.

To soothe worries that sanctions against Hezbollah could complicate the EU's relations with the Lebanese government, EU governments are also likely to issue a statement pledging to continue dialogue with all political groupings in the country.

"A few member states wanted to be reassured that such a decision will not in any way jeopardise political dialogue," the senior EU official said.

Some EU diplomats, responding to concerns that sanctions could further radicalise the group, have argued that targeting the military wing could, in the long term, persuade some of its members to move away from violence into the political sphere.

Hezbollah denies any involvement in last July's attack in the Bulgarian coastal resort of Bourgas that killed five Israelis and their driver. But the Bulgarian interior minister said last week that Sofia had no doubt the group was behind it.

In support of its bid to impose sanctions, Britain has also cited a four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court in March to a Hezbollah member accused of plotting to attack Israeli interests on the island.

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« Reply #7668 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:09 AM »

July 22, 2013

Pressure on Portugal Eases After Crisis Defused


LISBON, Portugal — Portuguese stocks rose Monday and the country's borrowing costs fell after a governing crisis was defused by a decision to allow the fragile coalition to remain in charge, eliminating for now the prospect of snap elections.

Shares on Lisbon's PSI 20 exchange were up 1.7 percent in afternoon trading while the interest rate on the benchmark 10-year bond fell 0.36 percentage points to 6.37 percent.

Investors got a boost of confidence after President Anibal Cavaco Silva late Sunday said the best option for Portugal is for the coalition to stay in power. It nearly fractured on July 2 when Foreign Minister Paulo Portas offered his resignation. Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho sought to save the coalition by offering Portas a position as his deputy.

Cavaco Silva did not say whether he would accept Portas' nomination to the new post. But his decision to give the coalition another chance put on the backburner the possibility of holding early elections amid broad public discontent over harsh austerity measures the government has pushed through to abide by the terms of its 78 billion euros ($102 billion) international bailout.

Analysts were divided on whether the government will survive until elections scheduled for 2015.

"A cabinet reshuffle as was previously expected before Cavaco Silva's intervention remains likely in the near future; while imminent elections are now doubtful, this government is unlikely to last until 2015," said Rahman Mujtaba, of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, in a note to clients.

The two main parties that make up the coalition have been at odds over austerity and will have a difficult time implementing painful economic policies that are expected to make life even more difficult for Portugal's citizens. A proposal outlining reforms that must be implemented over the next two years will probably submitted to Parliament sometime after the summer, Mujtaba said.

"Both parties are expected to stagger on trying to implement the bailout agreement as the Portuguese president decides on what steps to take next," said Michael Hewson, an analyst for London-based CMC Markets UK. "This failure to adopt consensus is becoming all too familiar in the politics of southern Europe."

Hewson said investors remain concerned that Portugal may not be able issue new debt next year. The country could be forced to seek another bailout if it is unable to comply with a plan for it to exit its current rescue program in 2014.


Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy keeps counsel as corruption allegations fly

Rajoy ignores pressure to address six-figure kickback claims against him and other senior members of governing party

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
The Guardian, Sunday 21 July 2013 15.56 BST   

It's a story of six-figure kickbacks, briefcases of banknotes handed over in car parks and politicians pocketing cash-filled envelopes that allegedly goes right to the top of Spanish politics. And yet the man who has the most explaining to do, Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, refuses to discuss the allegations, which he dismisses as lies and insinuations.

Despite a series of well-documented allegations that Rajoy and senior party members received illegal cash payments over a period of years, Rajoy seems prepared to tough out growing calls for his resignation and the threat of a motion of censure, knowing that parliament and the nation are about to pack up for the summer.

However, the questions will still be waiting to be answered when Spain wakes up again in September. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the opposition Socialist leader, said on Sunday that "until he answers these questions, Rajoy cannot govern".

According to a survey published in the conservative El Mundo newspaper, 83% of Spaniards believe the allegations and think Rajoy should answer them. However, Rajoy's Partido Popular (PP) has an overall majority and even Rubalcaba admits the motion of censure is largely symbolic.

"Rajoy's strategy has always been the same. He never wants to explain or justify his policies," says Antonio Argandoña, a professor of business ethics at IESE Business School, speaking in a personal capacity. "It would be difficult to change now. I think he's counting on sticking it out until everyone comes back from holiday; there'll be something else on the front pages. He may even take big and unpopular policy decisions to show that he can stand the pressure and won't be blown off course."

The scandal broke in 2009 when the alleged slush fund was investigated. The anonymous donations came from large companies, mainly in the construction industry, in order to sweeten deals for public contracts. One leading politician was allegedly paid in order to secure the refuse collecting contract for the city of Toledo. The allegations against the PP's treasurer over a period of 20 years, Luis Bárcenas, first emerged in 2009 but the story took off at the beginning of this year when El País newspaper reproduced the accountant's handwritten records detailing illegal monthly cash payments to senior politicians, including €250,000 (£215,000) to Rajoy. According to Bárcenas, senior party figures were paid an "extra salary" ranging from €5,000 to €15,000 a month in cash. Under Spanish law, government ministers may not receive any other income apart from their government salary.

It is also alleged that the party's secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, took a €200,000 kickback that was handed to her in a briefcase in a car park. The ledgers also record slush fund payments of several thousand euros to the current health minister, Ana Mato, allegedly to cover the cost of her children's communion and birthday parties.

Bárcenas is in prison on remand, having been declared a flight risk after it was revealed that the former accountant has €47m in Swiss bank accounts.

The government at first dismissed the El País documents as mere photocopies and stood by Bárcenas, who initially denied authorship of the ledgers. This month El Mundo published the originals and last week Bárcenas admitted they were authentic. The PP has now turned its back on its former treasurer, calling him a criminal and a liar. However, last week El Mundo published text messages sent between Rajoy and Bárcenas that show that as late as March Rajoy was expressing his solidarity with Bárcenas and urging him to hold his nerve and keep quiet. Now the PP fears Bárcenas, angry that his party has abandoned him, may have more up his sleeve, including recorded conversations that will implicate Rajoy.

The Rajoy allegations are the latest in a succession of corruption cases, of which there are more than 200 currently before the courts. They involve politicians ranging from village mayors to former cabinet ministers, as well as leading business and cultural figures and even the royal family. Spanish people knew the system was bad, but few imagined it was this bad. Transparency International, which assesses countries on their perceived levels of corruption, ranks Spain 30th, just below Botswana and one place above Estonia, out of 176 countries surveyed.

If people are not taking to the streets in any numbers to demand Rajoy's resignation it is because they are disillusioned with the political system as a whole. Rubalcaba scores even lower in approval ratings than Rajoy, who himself barely makes it into double figures in most surveys.

"The positive thing about a crisis is that it exposes the hidden reality and this is what's happened in Spain," says Francesc de Carreras, who teaches constitutional law at the Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona. "Economic growth was partly based on false foundations. The government has set off on a new economic path but what hasn't begun is the necessary reform of political parties."

At the moment Rajoy is looking no further than the end of the week. He has no immediate rivals either within his party or in opposition. However, the scandal has attracted international coverage and fear of political instability is damaging confidence in the country. "I think Rajoy will survive all this but Spain's image right now is very bad all over the world," says Argandoña.

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« Reply #7669 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:11 AM »

Philippe I succeeds Albert II as king of Belgium

Belgium's seventh monarch takes oath after father's abdication and faces task of uniting country riven by political division

Reuters in Brussels, Sunday 21 July 2013 14.02 BST   

King Philippe I has become Belgium's seventh monarch after the abdication of his father, Albert II, amid uncertainty about the power of the monarchy to heal the fractured country.

Philippe, 53, took his oath in Belgium's three official languages – Dutch, French and German – two-and-a-half weeks after King Albert, 79, announced he would abdicate after 20 years on the throne.

Albert could be seen mouthing "vive le roi" (long live the king) at the swearing-in ceremony in parliament.

Before signing a legislative act in the royal palace to step down, Albert thanked his wife, who wiped away tears, and said his son had all the qualities to serve the country well.

"My final recommendation to all those gathered here is to work without rest in keeping Belgium together," he said.

Philippe returned to the subject in his address to parliament, saying Belgium's richness lay in its diversity.

Philippe is the seventh king of the 183-year-old country, which is split across the middle. Many Dutch speakers seek greater autonomy for Flanders, in the north, and are wary of a monarchy seen to be rooted in the once-powerful but now poorer French-speaking Wallonia, in the south.

Outside the palace, the scorching heat caused some in the crowd to faint. Many shouted "Vive le roi!" and waved flags when Philippe and his wife Mathilde arrived on the balcony.

"The new king is a bit of history. That doesn't happen very often so we wanted to be here," said flag-waving Xavier de Graef from French-speaking Liege, wearing a Belgian football shirt and wig in the red, yellow and black of the Belgian tricolour.

There were a few dissenting voices, including the N-VA party, which favours a republic in Dutch-speaking Flanders.

"It leaves me cold," said Jan Jambon, the party's parliamentary chief. "It doesn't make the hairs on my arm stand up. This is part of my job as a lawmaker. Otherwise it just passes me by."

The party has been particularly vocal in recent weeks about the need to reform the monarchy but said it would not disturb Sunday's pageantry.

Fewer than half of people in Flanders believe Philippe will be a good king, compared with two-thirds in Wallonia, according to an opinion poll.

Belgian kings do plenty of handshaking and ribbon-cutting, but also appoint mediators and potential government heads to steer coalition talks after elections – no small task in Belgium.

Neighbouring Netherlands stripped its monarchs of involvement in politics last year. Queen Beatrix also stepped aside to allow her popular son Willem-Alexander to become king amid wild celebrations.

Philippe's investiture was tagged on to festivities already planned for 21 July, which is Belgium's national day and also marked 20 years of Albert's reign.

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« Reply #7670 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:16 AM »

Paris riots sparked by police identity check on veiled Muslim woman

Cars destroyed and 14-year-old injured after police ID check triggers two nights of violence in suburb of French capital

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Sunday 21 July 2013 16.20 BST   

Two nights of rioting in the Paris suburb of Trappes have left dozens of cars destroyed, at least 10 arrests and a 14-year-old injured, after police carried out an identity check on a Muslim woman in a full-face veil.

On Friday night, about 250 people hurling stones and paving slabs clashed with police firing teargas, while 400 others gathered to protest across the high-rise suburb west of Paris, torching cars, bins and bus-shelters.

On Saturday, a further 20 cars were burned and four people arrested after 50 people were involved in a standoff with police as the violence spread to towns in the surrounding area.

The Versailles state prosecutor said the trouble started on Thursday after police stopped and carried out an identity check on a woman in a niqab, or full-face veil.

The prosecutor said the woman's husband had assaulted one of the officers and tried to strangle him so was immediately taken into custody at the police station. Muslim full-face veils have been banned from all public places in France after a controversial law introduced by President Sarkozy in 2011. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France released a statement complaining of "heavy-handedness" and "provocation" by the police during the identity check.

The day after the arrest, 30 people gathered outside the police station demanding the man be released. When the police refused, others joined them and projectiles were thrown. Riot police were called in as backup and police fired teargas. The local prefect's office said the police station was under siege for over an hour.

"[The police] didn't want to listen and it got out of control," one local man, who gave his name as Sofiane, told iTele. "Trappes is a big family. When you attack us we're going to respond."

A police inquiry has been opened into how a 14-year-old suffered an eye injury from a projectile during the violence, which witnesses said could have been from a police flash-ball gun.

Trappes, a poor suburban town outside Paris with a large immigrant population, is well-known for producing some of France's biggest comedy stars, including the comedian Jamel Debbouze, and the actor Omar Sy as well as the footballer Nicolas Anelka.

The right was quick to accuse the Socialist government of not being tough enough on law and order, while the left accused rightwing politicians of trying to exploit events to stigmatise people in the poor suburbs.

In 2005, France declared a state of emergency after the worst urban rioting for 40 years was sparked by the death of two boys who had been running from police in a suburb north-east of Paris. Since then, tension between police and young residents have remained high on suburban estates.

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« Reply #7671 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:26 AM »

July 22, 2013

Wave of Violence Continues in Iraq


BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber drove into an army patrol on Monday, killing nine soldiers and four civilians in the northern city of Mosul as a wave of insurgent attacks throughout Iraq continued, a security source said.

In separate attacks on Sunday night, 29 people were killed in coordinated assaults on the two main prisons in Baghdad, including eight members of the security forces and 21 prisoners, the Justice Ministry said. Another 25 prisoners were wounded while trying to escape, according to the ministry.

The assaults on the two prisons — Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad and Taji to the north — began with simultaneous mortar fire, followed by suicide bombers attacking the main gates, officials said. Security sources said that nine attackers were killed during the clashes. Unconfirmed local reports said that 100 prisoners escaped from Abu Ghraib.

Bombings, shootings and other attacks killed at least 84 people across Iraq on Saturday and Sunday as the wave of violence during Ramadan continued. The Information Ministry said more than 250 people have been killed since the holy month began two weeks ago.


Iraq prison attacks kill dozens

At least 25 members of security forces die in Baghdad jailbreak attempts, while another car bomb kills 12 soldiers

Associated Press in Baghdad, Monday 22 July 2013 11.32 BST   

Jailbreak attempts at two large prisons outside Baghdad have claimed the lives of at least 25 members of Iraq's security forces, while a car bombing targeting soldiers early on Monday killed another 12, according to officials.

The prison attacks that began late on Sunday in Taji and Abu Ghraib, were the latest indication of deteriorating security conditions across the country. Authorities said on Monday that government forces were continuing to comb surrounding areas for attackers.

Attackers detonated bombs and lobbed mortar rounds at Taji prison, 12 miles(20km) north of Baghdad. A suicide car bomber then attacked the main gate while another suicide bomber blew himself up nearby, sparking clashes between militants and the guards, according to police.

As the battle raged for about two hours outside, rioting inmates set fire to blankets and furniture, police said.

Fifteen soldiers were killed and 13 others were wounded in the Taji attack, they said. At least six among the militants were also reported killed.

A similar raid unfolded at the prison in Abu Ghraib in Baghdad's western suburbs. Insurgents there struck the prison walls with mortar rounds and a car bomb, and at least one militant blew himself up at the main gate.

Ten police officers were killed and 19 others were wounded, they added. Four militants were reported killed in that attack.

Security forces reported finding undetonated car bombs and explosive belts used by suicide bombers near both prisons after the attacks.

Local media and jihadist internet forums reported some prisoners had managed to escape, but authorities have not reported any breakouts.

A surge of attacks has killed more than 450 Iraqis since the start of Ramadan on 10 July. It comes amid a larger spike in bloodshed in recent months that is raising fears of a return to the widespread sectarian killing that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 US-led invasion.

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« Reply #7672 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:31 AM »

July 21, 2013

Afghans See Their Army Woo Them With Piety


CHAWKE, Afghanistan — Dozens of local herders waited on the cold concrete steps of an abandoned school building, warily watching the Afghan soldiers gathered nearby. The tribesmen had been searched twice already, their shawls unraveled and turbans probed for weapons.

Days earlier, a local mullah had declared that it was the duty of Afghans to attack soldiers and policemen as infidels. Col. Hayatullah Aqtash, a small army officer with smoky blue eyes, had come to Chawke District with his men to offer a counterpoint. He strode through the barren courtyard, greeted the men with a prayer and began.

“God and the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, put the responsibility on my shoulders to protect you,” he told the men, pointing to his shoulder where the Shahada, an oath all Muslims make, is stitched in gold onto every army uniform. “If you shoot at me, you shoot at them.”

The weathered faces of the men, about 40 in all, shifted. The din of traffic hummed on a neighboring highway.

The colonel continued: “Let’s make a judgment — what the insurgents do versus what we do. I want peace. I want schools and paved roads, electricity. Now what do they do? They blow up the roads. They blow up the schools. They commit suicide in our mosques.”

“Now tell me,” he concluded, “who is the Muslim?”

Even as his Afghan Army brigade patrols violent stretches of Kunar Province in the north, the colonel is waging a parallel battle that he calls his “propaganda war” against the Taliban: to combat the branding of the army as a secular, corrupt puppet of foreigners. By stressing his soldiers’ faith in Islam, and pointing out the absence of American forces on the battlefield this year, Colonel Aqtash is hoping to erode popular support for the insurgents.

It is a tall order. There is still a prevailing suspicion of the army and the police, born of rampant drug use and theft by ill-disciplined recruits in the early years after the Taliban’s ouster. And even as many Afghans acknowledge improvements in those areas, there is still widespread skepticism about the Afghan forces’ ability to secure the country on their own after the exit of Western troops — who have themselves failed to pacify the insurgency over the past decade.

So for Afghan commanders in the field, it is a constant challenge to build credibility with local leaders.

They are taking it on by emphasizing the one advantage that American soldiers and Marines could never claim: commonalities with the insurgents and the villagers who support them — language, culture, custom and, most importantly, religion.

“Naturally, when the Afghans go, people are more welcoming of them,” said Mohammad Hanif Khair Khwa, the governor of Sarkano District, which is adjacent to Chawke District. “The foreigners might even be more kind than the Afghans in the village, but they are still foreigners.”

Across the country, Afghan troops are adopting the strategy, employing religious and cultural affairs officers to craft messaging and outreach efforts. In the 203rd Corps, which patrols some of the most deadly stretches of eastern Afghanistan, troops hand out Korans and prayer rugs to the villagers they meet. In the 209th Corps up north, soldiers pray in the local mosques and invite elders to attend religious ceremonies on base.

“In order to repel the enemy’s propaganda, our top priority is our own personal religious development,” said Col. Shah Wali, the religious and cultural affairs officer for the 205th Corps in Kandahar. “We have mosques in every battalion, and our soldiers pray five times a day.”

It is too soon to know whether the religious emphasis will work, given the myriad challenges for the army.

First, there is the Taliban’s fighting capability to reckon with. Three months ago, an outpost overseen by Colonel Aqtash’s unit — the Second Brigade of the 201st Corps — came under withering attack from Taliban fighters. The base, in the Narai District of Kunar, was briefly overrun as the soldiers slept, and the battalion stationed there, one of the colonel’s best, suffered more than a dozen deaths.

Equally worrisome, the Taliban still have a local advantage. Taliban commanders often hail from the same villages the army is trying to extend its influence to, making it difficult to persuade residents to shun the insurgents. That has been an issue in the Wardoj District of Badakhshan, a northern province where violence has been raging through the summer.

“Our efforts to reach to people through religious means has been effective in some parts,” said Lt. Col. Hazratullah Azghari, the head of cultural and religious affairs for the Second Brigade of the 209th Corps, which operates in Badakhshan. “But in other parts, despite all our efforts, people still show animosity towards the army.”

To convert villagers, the army will have to establish credibility in pockets of the country long hostile to the government or accustomed to lackluster soldiers. Among the challenges for the military: combating abuse of power, curtailing drug use and trying to persuade soldiers not to desert and to stay in the army past their initial enlistment.

But perhaps the biggest question hovering over the viability of the approach is the role of the government itself.

“The major problem I see here is good governance needs to be implemented,” Colonel Aqtash said. “Without good governance or job opportunities for the people, it will overshadow any military achievements being made.”

The visit to the Kuchi elders, in the village of Chawke, was a spontaneous decision by Colonel Aqtash, who broke off a meeting with American forces at another point farther along in order to address the mullah’s criticism of the Afghan forces.

After some initial wariness, the Kuchi elders in Chawke actually seemed to open up to the colonel a bit.

“We all believe in the same God and the same holy word,” said one elder, hobbling from the compound after speaking with Colonel Aqtash. “They are our people. There’s a difference between your own people and outsiders.”

Still, the colonel acknowledges that it will be a long struggle.

Colonel Aqtash, 52, first joined the army in the late 1970s, receiving Soviet training and serving Afghanistan’s Communist governments into the 1990s. After taking his family to Pakistan during the civil war, he returned to resume his Afghan military career in 2003. Since then, he has studied at the Marshall Center in Germany and finished a 15-month training program at the Defense Academy of Britain.

By training, experience and temperament, he has come to emphasize how critical information operations are to his command. He has made the message clear to his brigade: This is a Muslim army, and piety is crucial. Officers preach the message to the public, as do the district and even provincial officials in the areas they operate within. The soldiers themselves need little convincing.

As the day wound down one warm evening, soldiers played soccer on a field adjacent to the brigade’s whitewashed mosque in Kunar. A honey-colored sunset ignited the clouds of dust kicked up from the scrimmage. A few men sat on Humvees parked along the edge of the field, watching the match.

But a moment later, the call to prayer blared out over a tinny speaker, and the ball was abandoned in the middle of play.

Soldiers performed their ablutions at a concrete wash station before entering the mosque. Inside, they packed the structure, forming tidy lines along the frayed carpet as an officer recited the Koran.

The men began to pray — for guidance, for safety, for strength from God to defeat the enemy.

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Chawke, and Habib Zahori from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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« Reply #7673 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:32 AM »

July 21, 2013

Pakistan Battles Polio, and Its People’s Mistrust


KARACHI, Pakistan — Usman, who limps on a leg bowed by the polio he caught as a child, made sure that his first three children were protected from the disease, but he turned away vaccinators when his youngest was born.

He was furious that the Central Intelligence Agency, in its hunt for Osama bin Laden, had staged a fake vaccination campaign, and infuriated by American drone strikes, one of which, he said, had struck the son of a man he knew, blowing off his head. He had come to see the war on polio, the longest, most expensive disease eradication effort in history, as a Western plot.

In January, his 2-year-old son, Musharaf, became the first child worldwide to be crippled by polio this year.

“I know now I made a mistake,” said Usman, 32, who, like many in his Pashtun tribe, uses only one name. “But you Americans have caused pain in my community. Americans pay for the polio campaign, and that’s good. But you abused a humanitarian mission for a military purpose.”

Anger like his over American foreign policy has led to a disastrous setback for the global effort against polio. In December, nine vaccinators were shot dead here, and two Taliban commanders banned vaccination in their areas, saying the vaccinations could resume only if drone strikes ended. In January, 10 vaccinators were killed in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north.

Since then, there have been isolated killings — of an activist, a police officer and vaccinators — each of which has temporarily halted the campaign.

The war on polio, which costs $1 billion a year and is expected to take at least five more years, hangs in the balance. When it began 25 years ago, 350,000 people a year, mostly children, were paralyzed. Last year, fewer than 250 were, and only three countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan — have never halted its spread at any point.

While some experts fear the killings will devastate the effort here, Pakistan’s government insists that they will not, and has taken steps to ensure that. Vaccinators’ pay was raised to $5 a day in the most dangerous areas, police and army escorts were increased and control rooms were created to speed crisis responses.

But the real urgency to finish the job began earlier, for a very different reason. Two years ago, India, Pakistan’s rival in everything from nuclear weapons to cricket, eliminated polio.

“Nothing wounded our pride as much as that,” said Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, a vaccine expert at Aga Khan University’s medical school.

Bill Gates, who is the campaign’s largest private donor and calls beating the disease “the big thing I spend the majority of my time on,” said that Pakistan’s desire to not be further humiliated “is our biggest asset.”

After India’s success and hints from the World Health Organization that it might issue travel warnings, Pakistan’s government went on an emergency footing. A cabinet-level “polio cell” was created. Vaccinators’ routine pay doubled to $2.50. More than 1,000 “mobilizers” were hired to visit schools and mosques to counter the ever-swirling rumors that the vaccine contained pork, birth control hormones or H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

Mullahs were courted to endorse vaccination. They issued 24 fatwas, and glossy booklets of their directives were printed for vaccinators to carry.

Perhaps most important, local command was given to deputy commissioners, who have police powers that health officials lack.

Pakistan is closer than ever. Although cases will not peak until after the summer monsoons, there have been only 21 so far this year. A few years ago, 39 substrains of the polio virus circulated; now only two do. About 300,000 children live in areas too dangerous for vaccinators, but almost all the sewage samples from those areas are clear of the virus.

Ultimately, though, success will depend on more than political will and the rivalry with India. In the wake of the recent killings, it will rely most of all on individual acts of courage, like those by prominent imams who pose for pictures as they vaccinate children.

Or by Usman, who appeared with his polio-stricken son, Musharaf, in a fund-raising video asking rich Persian Gulf nations to buy vaccines for poor Muslims elsewhere.

Or by volunteers, like the women of the Bibi family, in Karachi, who formed a vaccination team. Two of them, Madiha, 18, and Fahmida, 46, were gunned down in December. Television news showed female relatives keening over their bodies. Not only are those women still vaccinating, but Madiha’s 15-year-old sister also volunteered for her spot.

“All the children of Pakistan are our children,” said Gulnaz Shirazee, 31, who leads the team. “It’s up to us to eradicate polio. We can’t stop. If we’re too afraid, then who will do it?”

A Moving Target

If there is one spot on earth where polio may make its last stand, it is a cramped slum called Shaheen Muslim Town No. 1 in Peshawar, a hotbed of anti-Western militancy. Since sampling began, its sewers have never tested negative for the virus.

It is a neighborhood of migrant Pashtun families who rent rooms briefly and move on, looking for menial jobs picking fruit or making bricks. On a recent sunny afternoon, its alleys were full of carts drawn by donkeys whose faces were decorated with the red prints of hands dipped in henna. Many women wore the full burqa popular in Afghanistan.

In this part of the world, virtually all those with polio are from the Pashtun tribe, in which resistance to vaccination is highest. It is Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and the wellspring of the Taliban, but a minority in Pakistan. Pakistani Army sweeps and American drone strikes have driven many Pashtuns from their mountain valleys into crowded cities.

Peshawar worries even Dr. Elias Durry, a normally optimistic polio specialist with the W.H.O. “You can get 90 percent vaccine coverage, and come back a few months later, and it’s 50 percent,” he said. “People just move so quickly.”

Shaheen’s sewers are concrete trenches about a foot deep, into which wastewater, rendered milky white by dish soap, flows from pipes exiting mud-brick houses. A child reaching into one for a stick to play with showed how easily the virus, carried in fecal matter, could spread.

Though the area has clean water from a well, the steel pipe it flows through at times dips inside the sewerage trench. It has dents where trucks have banged it, and it is pierced by connectors, some attached just to rubber hoses.

“Piped water with sewage mixed in is worse than no piped water,” said Dr. Bhutta of Aga Khan. “Sometimes rural populations have it better. They carry water from the river, and they defecate in open fields, so there’s no mixing.”

Pakistani children suffer diarrhea so often that half the country’s young are stunted by it. Polio immunity is low, even in vaccinated children, because other viruses crowd the gut receptors to which the vaccine should attach.

At the clinic in Shaheen, the doctor running the polio drive, an ophthalmologist, complained that he got too little police help.

“I have 28 teams, so I requested 56 constables,” he said. “I was given 12.”

He said the underpaid officers inevitably knocked off at midday because their station house serves a hot meal.

The same problem was echoed in Gadap Town, a Karachi neighborhood where vaccinators were killed in December. As a team worked its way from house to house with a reporter, it had every reason to feel secure: because the visit was arranged by an official, six officers with AK-47s came along.

But another team passing by was guarded only by an aged sergeant with a cudgel.

“Yes, we have a security problem,” Dr. Syed Ali, a local official, said quietly on a side street. “What is a stick in front of a gun?”

The isolation and poverty of the Pashtun tribe underlie its resistance. Many of its imams are from Islam’s fundamentalist Deobandi sect, which emerged in the 19th century as a reaction to the British conquest.

Many Pashtun neighborhoods receive few government services like health clinics, paved streets or garbage pickup, but get shiny new billboards trumpeting the polio fight paid for by Western donors.

“People tell us, ‘We need schools, we need roads, we need housing, and all you bring our children is polio, polio, polio,’ ” said Madiha, a black-veiled Gadap vaccinator.

In the middle of last year, it became known that in 2011, the C.I.A. had paid a local doctor to try to get DNA samples from children inside an Abbottabad compound to prove they were related to Bin Laden.

Even though the doctor, Shakil Afridi, who is now serving a 33-year sentence for treason, was offering a hepatitis vaccine, anger turned against polio drops.

Leaders of the polio eradication effort could not have been more frustrated. They were already fighting new rumors that vaccinators were helping set drone targets because they have practices like marking homes with chalk so that follow-up teams can find them. Now, after years of reassuring nervous families that the teams were not part of a C.I.A. plot, here was proof that one was.

“It was a huge, stupid mistake,” Dr. Bhutta said.

Anger deepened when American lawmakers called Dr. Afridi a hero and threatened to cut off aid if he was not released. The W.H.O. and the Unicef, afraid of offending the United States, did not protest publicly. Unicef’s executive director, Anthony Lake, is a former White House national security adviser, which put the agency in an awkward position, an agency official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But the deans of a dozen top American public health universities wrote a letter of protest to the Obama administration. Mr. Gates said he endorsed it, though he was not asked to sign. He also said he discussed the issue with Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser, though he would not give details of the conversation.

Fistfuls of Rupees

New opposition has forced the adoption of new ground tactics.

Dr. Qazi Jan Muhammad, the former deputy commissioner of Karachi East, called his approach “a mix of carrots and sticks.”

Whole apartment buildings were missed, he discovered, because Pashtun watchmen were shooing away vaccinators.

“I had the police tell them: ‘Either you let them in, or you go behind bars,’ ” he said.

He had traffic circles blocked so teams could approach each car, and he led some teams himself holding fistfuls of rupees, worth about a penny each.

“I saw a girl, about 11, carrying her 2-year-old sister,” he said. “I gave her a 10-rupee note and said, ‘Will you allow me to give drops to your sister? You can get sweets for yourself.’ ”

“She told all the children, ‘A man is giving away 10 rupees,’ and they all came rushing. I vaccinated 400 kids for only 4,000 rupees.”

The sewers of his district, which has several million inhabitants, are now virus-free.

At the Front Lines Again

The country’s new determination has also brought Rotary International back to the front lines.

The club, founded in Chicago in 1905, started the global polio eradication drive in 1988. It has had chapters in what is now Pakistan since 1927, and is now led by Aziz Memon, a hard-driving textile magnate.

Mr. Memon, 70, and other Rotary-affiliated executives have used their money and political connections to keep the pressure on. They compensated the killed vaccinators’ relatives and held news conferences at which the families urged others to continue fighting.

Rotarians also work in places that terrify government officials. In an industrial neighborhood in Karachi, where both gangs and the Taliban hold sway after dark, Abdul Waheed Khan oversaw a Rotary polio clinic in his school, Naunehal Academy. A big, gregarious man, he angered the Taliban by admitting girls to his academy and offering a liberal arts education instead of only Koran study. His only security was local teenagers who ride motorcycles beside his car to keep anyone from pulling up alongside.

In March, he hosted Dr. Robert S. Scott, the 79-year-old Canadian chairman of Rotary’s polio committee, who flew in to vaccinate children to prove that the fight would go on despite the December killings.

“I had a fatwa put on my head,” Mr. Khan said in April as he led a tour of the clinic. “They said I was Jewish. I had a friend issue a counter-fatwa saying I was a good Muslim.”

On May 13, Mr. Khan was killed by gunmen who also wounded his 1-year-old daughter.

His clinic will not close. “No one can replace Waheed, but life has to go on,” Mr. Memon said.

‘This Is Good Work’

Rotary also sponsors a tactic used to reach children from areas too dangerous for home visits: “transit point” vaccinating.

At a tollbooth on the highway into Karachi, Ghulam Jilani’s team takes advantage of an army checkpoint. As soldiers stop each bus to search for guns, Rotary vaccinators hop aboard. On a typical day, they reach 800 children.

Yes, Mr. Jilani said, the soldiers’ presence may intimidate some resistant families into complying. Also, he added brightly: “We scare them a little. We say, ‘You are entering a city with the disease. Don’t you want your children safe?’ ”

About 90 percent comply, he said, sometimes after a public argument between a father who believes the rumors and a mother, outside their home and at times backed by other women on the bus, insisting the children be protected.

Near the Afghan frontier, where thousands of children live in valleys under Taliban control, teams do the same at military roadblocks. At hospitals, which are usually guarded by soldiers, nurses will pack extra doses of the vaccine on ice for families willing to smuggle it to neighbors.

Some frontier clan chiefs have lost their government stipends for opposing vaccination, and officials have threatened to deny national identity cards to their clans. But the chiefs are in a bind; the Taliban have assassinated many for cooperating with the government.

Mr. Memon of Rotary opposes what he called “these coercive gimmicks.”

“We can’t twist arms,” he said. “We want to win them over with love and affection.”

Among hundreds of men wearing turbans and topees at Karachi’s main train station, Muhammad Arshad stood out in his blue baseball cap with Rotary’s bright yellow gearwheel.

Threading his way through the crowd squatting on Platform 1, he picked out children under age 5.

“What a nice boy,” he said to Sohail Ameer, chucking his infant, Abadur Rahann, under the chin. “May I give him drops against polio?”

Mr. Ameer agreed, and it was over in seconds. Abadur looked nervous, but he did not howl and squirm like some.

After the December killings, Mr. Arshad worried briefly, he said. “But then I thought: This is good work, and God will protect me.”

Friendly strangers came up to the Rotary table to suggest he play it safe and quit. He replied that the railroad police would protect him.

His wife tried the hardest.

“But I told her,” he said. “If a man has to die, he can die even at home. I’m going back to work.”

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« Reply #7674 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:35 AM »

Burma blast injures four during radical monk's sermon

Explosion rocks Mandalay during address by Wirathu, an anti-Islamic monk who called himself 'the Burmese Bin Laden'

Reuters in Yangon, Monday 22 July 2013 09.48 BST   

An explosion in a car parked metres away from a radical Buddhist monk wounded four people at a mass sermon in northern Burma, police said on Monday.

The unexplained blast occurred late on Sunday in Burma's second-largest city, Mandalay, according to police and witnesses. It took place during a ceremony conducted by Wirathu, a prominent anti-Islamic monk who once called himself "the Burmese Bin Laden".

Two monks were among those treated in hospital for minor injuries but Wirathu was not among them.

"A small explosion went off in a car which was parked about 40ft away from U Wirathu," a Mandalay police officer said. The officer requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion or the result of any preliminary police investigation.

A witness said security had since been stepped up in Mandalay. Even prior to the explosion, security had been tight this week during Buddhist events in the commercial capital, Rangoon.

The explosion took place on the fifth and final day of mass sermons held by Wirathu, the chief proponent of a grassroots movement known as 969. The movement has been accused of stirring anti-Islamic sentiment in a deeply Buddhist nation, where curbs on freedom of speech and assembly have eased since the end of military rule two years ago.

A Reuters investigation last month showed 969 monks were providing a moral justification for a wave of anti-Islamic bloodshed that could derail Burma's nascent reforms.

Government officials were unavailable for comment. President Thein Sein's office has described 969 as a "symbol of peace" and Wirathu as "a son of Lord Buddha".

At least 237 people have been killed in Burma in religious violence over the past year and about 150,000 people displaced. Most of the victims were Muslims and the most deadly incidents happened in Rakhine state, where about 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live, according to the United Nations.

Reuters' investigations in Rakhine state and in the central city of Meikhtila revealed the violence was started on both occasions by Buddhist mobs led by monks.

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« Reply #7675 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:37 AM »

Japan's ruling coalition wins control of upper house

Sweeping majority endorses tough 'Abenomics' policy and will make it easier for leader to pursue hawkish constitutional reform

Associated Press in Tokyo
The Guardian, Sunday 21 July 2013 18.38 BST   

The Japanese prime minister's ruling coalition won a comfortable majority in the upper house of parliament in elections on Sunday, giving it control of both chambers and a mandate to press ahead with difficult economic reforms.

The win is an endorsement of the Liberal Democratic party's "Abenomics" programme, which has helped spark a tentative economic recovery in Japan. It's also a vindication for Shinzo Abe, who lost upper house elections in 2007 during his previous stint as prime minister.

"We've won the public's support for decisive and stable politics so that we can pursue our economic policies, and we will make sure to live up to the expectations," Abe told public broadcaster NHK after he was projected to win based on exit polls and early results. Official results are not expected until early on Monday.

The victory also offers the hawkish Abe more leeway to advance his conservative policy goals, including revising the country's pacifist constitution and bolstering Japan's military, which could further strain ties with key neighbours China and South Korea, who are embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan.

Controlling both houses of parliament has been an elusive goal for Japanese governments in recent years. With a divided parliament, it has been hard to pass legislation, and voters fed up with the gridlock and high leadership turnover appeared willing to opt for the perceived safety of the LDP, which has ruled Japan for most of the time since the second world war.

Abe said voters supported the LDP to press ahead on his party's economic policies, and said it would be the government's top priority.

"Now that we got rid of the twisted parliament, the LDP is going to face a test of whether we can push forward the economic policies so that the people can really feel the effect on their lives," Abe told NHK.

Japan's stagnant economy is showing signs of perking up, helped by the aggressive monetary and fiscal stimuli that Abe has implemented since he took office in late December. Stocks have surged, business confidence is improving and the weaker yen has put less pressure on vital exporters.

"I want them to carry on doing their best as the economy seems to be picking up," Naohisa Hayashi, a 35-year-old man who runs his own business, said after casting his ballot at a downtown Tokyo polling station.

But long-term growth will depend on sweeping changes to boost competitiveness and help cope with Japan's rapidly ageing population and soaring national debt. Such reforms, long overdue, are bound to prove difficult even with control of both chambers of parliament.

Abe also faces a decision this fall on whether to follow through on raising the sales tax next April from 5% to 8%, a move needed to shore up Japan's public finances but one that many worry will derail the recovery.

Based on exit polls and early results, NHK predicted that the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, will have won a combined 74 seats, giving them a total of 133 seats in the upper house, more than the 122 needed for a majority.

The LDP was projected to have won 64 seats, which together with the 50 it held before the elections would give it 114, short of an outright majority.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which fell from power in December elections, was projected to lose nearly 30 seats.

Voter turnout was low, suggesting a lack of public enthusiasm. According to Kyodo News agency, 52% of eligible voters cast ballots, the third-lowest turnout since the end of the second world war.

The Liberal Democrats' "Recover Japan" platform calls for a strong economy, strategic diplomacy and unshakable national security under the Japan-US alliance, which allows for 50,000 American troops to be stationed in Japan.

The party also favours revising the country's pacifist constitution, drafted by the United States after the second world war, to give Japan's military a larger role – a message that alarms the Chinese government but resonates with some Japanese voters troubled by territorial disputes with China and South Korea and widespread distrust of an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Abe has upset both neighbours by saying he hopes to revise a 1995 apology by Japan for its wartime aggression and questioning the extent to which Korean, Chinese and other Asian women were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during the war.

Revising the constitution would require two-thirds approval by both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Polls show the public is less interested in such matters than in reviving the economy and rebuilding areas of north-eastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In his interview with NHK on Sunday night, Abe said he would not rush the debate on constitutional revision and seeks to "expand and deepen" discussion in order to gain public support over time. He said there was still some homework to do, including finalising details of a national referendum.

Abe also hinted at possibly co-operating with the new Restoration Party, co-led by Osaka's outspoken mayor, Toru Hashimoto, in trying to reach the two-thirds majority. Hashimoto stirred up controversy in May when he said that Japan's wartime system of using Asian women in battlefront brothels was necessary at the time.

The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said the LDP would try to make progress on constitutional revision because it's a long-cherished goal for the party.

"We have sought to revise the constitution in order to have one of our own. We have finally come to a point where a revision is a realistic option. We would definitely want to deepen a discussion," Suga told broadcaster NTV.

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« Reply #7676 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:39 AM »

Hazaras in Indonesia say they would still board boats to Australia

Rudd's new policy is greeted with scepticism by asylum seekers familiar with the twists and turns of Australian immigration

Kate Lamb in Puncak, Monday 22 July 2013 06.17 BST   

The chatter stops mid-conversation as the face of the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, flickers across the television screen in Puncak, a mountain town about 100km from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. As the footage cuts to rows of army green tents flanked by palm trees, the asylum seekers watch intently, trying to compute whether they are staring at their future.

The news of Rudd's boat people bombshell – that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will have no chance of being resettled in Australia but will instead be sent to Papua New Guinea – is still sinking in.

PNG remains an unknown entity to the ethnic Hazara asylum seekers living here, but to some that is inconsequential. "It takes a lot of time for us to process our cases here, so now I am compelled. I don't have any other choice but to take a boat to Australia," says Mohammed Ali.

The shellshocked 32-year-old arrived in Indonesia 20 days ago after he fortuitously escaped a blast in his hometown of Quetta, Pakistan. Like thousands before him he is in Puncak, where asylum seekers invariably end up as they wait for a boat or the years it normally takes to be granted refugee status by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR).

Between a baseball cap and the "Just Do It" slogan printed on his T-shirt, a look of desperation is fixed on his face. "In Quetta, every day there is a blast, an attack. At night we cannot sleep and during the day we cannot work," he says. "We don't have peace and we don't know what time we will be attacked."

More than 200 Hazaras have been killed this year in the city by bomb blasts carried out by Sunni extremists. Ali knows he could also die taking a boat to Australia, but life in PNG, he says, is better than being killed in Pakistan.

Some 15,000 people have arrived by boat to Australia this year, and over recent years hundreds have died making the journey.

Sayed Kamaluddin Mousani, 28, one of the six Hazara asylum seekers that share the mattresses on the floor in the Puncak house, says he is confused about policy but he would still take a boat if he could.

The shaggy-haired English teacher from Mazar-i-Sharif, north Afghanistan, fled to Iran after discovering his picture was on a Taliban hit list for teaching an "evil language". Five months ago he also fled Iran after he was threatened because his older brother works for the BBC's Persian TV service, a news agency that he was told is "against the Iranian government".

He has registered with the UNHCR but if he gets the US$5,000 (A$5,430) to pay for a boat he will, even though his mother is begging him not to.

"Most of the time when my mother is speaking to me she says, 'My dear, don't go to the ocean. I am your mother, what would happen to you?' But I think staying here is very difficult," says Mousani. "When I get the money I will speak to a people smuggler and I will put the money in front of him."

Down a dark alleyway off the main road, the Hazaras share small, sparse lodgings and tea as they discuss their fate. There are questions and confusion and perhaps optimistic disbelief.

Those that have been here long enough and have followed the twists and turns of Australia's immigration policy are sceptical the PNG deal is for real this time.

Mohammad Ali Babu, 47, was in detention in Surabaya, Java, when former prime minister Julia Gillard first announced that asylum seekers would be processed in East Timor and then in Malaysia.

"Then, when I was here [in Puncak], Australia announced that asylum seekers will be shifted to Nauru," he says, "but all their policies are in vain. They didn't implement it, and they didn't act upon them."

Babu, the eldest of the beleaguered Hazara group, says he made a mistake by choosing not to get on a boat after the Nauru announcement.

Asylum seekers he knows have since been through the offshore processing centre and are now resettled in Australia.

Besides Mohammed Ali and Mousani, the other men have all taken shoddy and overloaded boats that capsized, been caught by the authorities and escaped detention – all multiple times. Even before Rudd announced his new policy they had decided to take the legitimate route.

But applying for refugee status with the UNHCR means resigning yourself to living in protracted limbo, sometimes for years.

Kamran Ali, an articulate and fresh-faced 25-year-old who worked for the US army as an interpreter in Afghanistan, waited one year just to get an interview with the UNHCR in Jakarta.

Like the others, Kamran Ali doesn't know how long it will take to process his case. Even those that have been granted refugee status continue to wait, with no housing or financial support.

Babu, for example, was granted refugee status one year ago but was denied asylum in Australia because "he didn't fit the criteria". He believes it is because he is too old.

Now he is waiting to see if the US will accept him.

Of those that have registered with the UNHCR, they all say that if takes too long they might be forced to take a boat. While they wait for word from the UN body they cannot work or study and they can't afford to stay here indefinitely.

"The process for resettlement in America will take too long," says Babu. "I don't have money to survive here and I have been attacked by Indonesian extremists four times. So my survival here is in danger."

Attacks against the Hazaras in Puncak are also on the rise and most asylum seekers stay in at night to avoid trouble. The International Organisation for Migration is reportedly moving its office and temporary housing in the area due to the rising tensions.

But even during the days of mounting hopelessness, Kamran Ali says he does not regret leaving Quetta where "people have been killed like animals" in front of his eyes.

The 25-year-old says that if the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan does not improve, asylum seekers will continue to come. Another boat left Indonesia on Sunday morning, he says, and in Pakistan, the persecuted Hazaras are willing to travel and take the risk.

After an arduous journey, usually through Thailand and the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia, they may end up in Puncak wiling away the time, bemoaning the UNHCR and listless days, playing soccer, and swapping stories of ingenious detention escapes.

Alihan Haidary, a 20-year-old Afghani, for example, likes to show newcomers the photo of the 25-metre-long hole he dug with a spoon to escape from a detention centre in Manado, Sulawesi.

English teacher Mousani says he has also been reading, and re-reading the few books he has.

The last book he finished was on René Descartes' philosophy and he has an interesting take on the key message. Rather than "I think therefore I am", in Mousani's mind it is, "I think, therefore I am alive."

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« Reply #7677 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:42 AM »

Plan for U.S.-led peace talks hits wall of skepticism in Israel

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, July 21, 2013 11:02 EDT

A US announcement that Middle East peace talks are to resume, possibly as early as next week, was met Sunday with a wall of scepticism from Israeli officials and commentators.

Analysts said the negotiations, announced on Friday by US Secretary of State John Kerry, were doomed to fail, while cabinet ministers and senior officials reacted with caution and even outright opposition to the plan.

“Such talks were held 21 years ago. They failed utterly,” wrote Nahum Barnea, right-leaning columnist for top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot.

“Negotiations aren’t a goal,” he continued. “They are just a means. The way in which Kerry is dealing with the conflict will almost certainly lead to yet another failure, and the resulting crash.”

The centre-right Maariv daily agreed: “(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu … got a process with no peace right from the start; no negotiations based on the 1967 borders with a land swap… (and) no freeze of the settlements,” it said in an editorial.

Palestinians have long demanded that peace talks be based on the 1967 lines that existed before Israel occupied the West Bank, and have stressed that settlement building in the territory must be frozen before they would resume talks.

Israel has insisted that there be no such “preconditions”.

The exact basis for Kerry’s plan remains unknown, but commentators thought it unlikely agreement would already have been reached on such sensitive issues.

“The gap between the objectives of the two sides is unfathomable; mutual suspicion runs high… at the moment there are no conditions pushing the sides… toward painful concessions,” Barnea wrote.

Kerry has given away very little detail of the agreement, which came after months of intense consultations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, beyond saying both sides had reached “an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations”.

Due to the lack of detail about the peace talks, speculation is swirling as to how exactly Kerry managed to convince the two sides to agree to come together.

“There is no Israeli declaration that the basis for the talks is the 1967 borders, there is no freeze of construction in any kind in (the West Bank), and there is no prisoner release before the talks begin,” Yediot quoted an Israeli official as saying.

Maariv reported that Netanyahu might have agreed to an “unofficial” settlement freeze.

And many media outlets latched onto and fiercely criticised the planned release of Palestinian prisoners — announced on Saturday by Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz as a “gesture” towards the peace talks — with some rumouring it could happen at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Veteran terrorists will go home,” said a Maariv editorial.

Comment from high-ranking Israeli officials appeared to justify the commentators’ cynicism.

“I am against a Palestinian state,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, told AFP on his way into a cabinet meeting.

“I can (only) support starting talks that are not preconditioned on the 1967 borders or a settlement freeze,” he said.

Steinitz, before the same meeting, said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas “doesn’t seem eager to negotiate, or strong and determined enough to make the concessions necessary from the Palestinian side.”

Housing Minister Uri Ariel told Maariv he opposed a settlement freeze.

“I will not lend a hand to an immoral and non-Jewish act that will enable a construction freeze in Jerusalem and in the settlements,” he said in reference to occupied east Jerusalem, even vowing to ensure more settlements were built.

The Palestinians too remained cautious.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erakat — who will travel to Washington to begin talks with his Israeli counterpart Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — told Maariv that neither side had yet received the promised invite from Washington.

He added that the US had still not “relayed clear answers to basic questions such as the 1967 borders, construction in the settlements and a prisoner release. It is too early to declare any progress.”

Former negotiator Uri Savir, who led Israel’s team at the talks leading up to the 1993 Oslo Accord, told BBC radio on Sunday that he thinks the planned talks do indeed have merit.

“I think they will (achieve something),” he said.

“One should not look only at the starting point and the very end point of a permanent status peace agreement.”

He likened Kerry’s efforts to those of “Superman”.

“He conducted something that nobody has achieved in three years, which is to bring the sides to talk to each other directly.”

“This is quite an achievement.”

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« Reply #7678 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:43 AM »

July 22, 2013

Across Syria, Violent Day of Attacks and Ambush


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Violence raged across Syria on Sunday as government forces killed dozens of rebels in an ambush east of Damascus, fighters linked to Al Qaeda battled Kurdish militias and Syria’s military peppered an outdoor market with mortar rounds.

Antigovernment activists also accused government forces of killing 13 members of a family in northwestern Syria.

In the deadliest attack, government forces ambushed a group of rebel fighters in the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, and left dozens of dead bodies lying in the sand, according to video broadcast on Al Manar, a television station run by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party that supports President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group based in Britain that tracks the conflict through a network of contacts on the ground, said on Monday that 65 people had been killed in the countryside around Damascus, including 58 insurgent fighters. The ambush in Adra accounted for 49 rebel deaths.

It was another blow to the rebel movement. The momentum in the civil war has shifted in favor of Mr. Assad, whose forces have rolled back a number of rebel gains near Damascus, the capital, and elsewhere. Infighting among rebels who took up arms to topple Mr. Assad has allowed his forces to solidify their hold on central Syria and gradually expand their reach.

Skirmishes between groups are increasingly common, and many fighters have gotten bogged down in local turf wars.

Clashes have been raging for days across the ethnically mixed strip of land along the northern border with Turkey, pitting mainstream rebels and extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda against Kurdish militias. The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, seek greater control of their own areas and fight to keep the rebels out.

On Sunday, Kurdish fighters surrounded the local leader of one of the groups linked to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, inside a school he and his fighters were using as a base near the border town of Tel Abyad. Activists said the Kurdish fighters did not storm the school to detain the group’s leader, who is known by the nom de guerre Abu Musab, because they feared he would blow up the school.

To push the Kurds to grant him safe passage, rebels and the group’s fighters detained hundreds of Kurdish civilians. The two sides finally reached a deal and the group’s leader was released in return for the 300 detained Kurdish civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory group.

Syria’s Kurds have used the erosion of state control during the civil war to push for greater autonomy in their areas. This has increased tensions with the area’s rebel fighters, many of whom hope to found an Islamic state. Other rebel groups resent the extremists who have joined the fight in Syria to serve their own ends.

Similar clashes between Kurds, rebels and extremists continued near Ras al-Ain in Hasaka Province, activists said.

In the northern city of Ariha, government forces fired mortar rounds into a market on Sunday, killing at least 23 people, some of them women and children, the Syrian Observatory reported.

Along the Mediterranean coast, opposition activists said, 13 members of a family in Bayda, another area where the war has heightened sectarian tensions, were killed. The account could not immediately be independently confirmed.

The Syrian Observatory said four women and six children were killed inside a home, and three men were slain nearby. A man unrelated to the family was found dead in a nearby field.

Dozens of Sunni Muslims were killed in the same area by government forces and pro-government militias in May.

The coastal Syrian province of Tartus is heavily populated with minorities, mostly Christians and Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Mr. Assad belongs.

The area has suffered less violence than other parts of Syria, and many Syrians from elsewhere have sought refuge there.

But the fighting there has caused tensions with the area’s Sunni Muslims, who are a minority in the region but a majority in Syria and form the core of the anti-Assad movement. Many residents fear that their Sunni neighbors support the rebels.

The Syrian Observatory said that clashes between rebel and government fighters had raged nearby overnight, killing fighters on both sides, and that the government held a mass funeral in Tartus on Sunday for 30 fighters killed in battles with rebels.

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« Reply #7679 on: Jul 22, 2013, 06:45 AM »

July 21, 2013

Promising ‘Real Revolution,’ Israeli Jolts Race for Chief Rabbi


SHOHAM, Israel — With his long gray beard and conservative black suit, Rabbi David Stav hardly looks like a revolutionary. But Rabbi Stav, whose upstart campaign has upended the race for Israel’s next chief rabbi, covers his head not with the signature black hat of the ultra-Orthodox, but with a large knitted skullcap, the symbol of Israel’s national-religious movement.

Similar subtleties characterize the “real revolution” Rabbi Stav promises if he is elected this month after the most public and bitter battle in Israel’s history to lead the rabbinate, whose strictly Orthodox control over marriage, divorce and conversion has alienated many of the state’s six million Jews. Denounced by ultra-Orthodox leaders as “wicked” and “dangerous” for his plans to help people prove their Jewish identity and thus make it easier for them to marry, Rabbi Stav insists he would not diverge from Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, or recognize the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, as many here and abroad would like.

Instead, he vows to transform what is widely seen as an obstructionist, divisive bureaucracy into a user-friendly — and unifying — service organization.

“It’s something that changes the approach of the rabbis to their customers: do we see them as our brothers and sisters or do we treat them as a monopoly to its captors?” said Rabbi Stav, 53, currently the rabbi of Shoham, an upscale bedroom community of 22,000 mostly nonreligious Jews near Ben-Gurion International Airport. “For the first time, a rabbi comes and says, ‘I want to have a dialogue with the Israeli society, I want to understand their needs, I want to make Judaism accessible to them.’ ”

The campaign has garnered unprecedented public attention, as many Israelis and American Jewish leaders see Rabbi Stav as a last-ditch hope to save a troubled institution they consider critical to Jewish unity, even if he would liberalize it ever so slightly. It has also set off a backlash among the ultra-Orthodox, for whom the rabbinate is not only a vehicle to impose their religious viewpoint but also a power base and financial boon, and led to growing calls among many on the left to abolish what they see as an anachronistic and irrelevant fief.

The debate is just one of many that Israel has been grappling with over the role of religion in the public sphere and increasingly harsh conflicts among the growing ultra-Orthodox minority, the national-religious — or modern Orthodox — camp and the secular, who make up nearly half the Jewish population and whose lives are most often tripped up by the rabbinate’s rules. Controlled for decades by ultra-Orthodox political parties through back-room deals, the rabbinate is up for grabs after parliamentary elections in January empowered secular and national-religious factions and froze the ultra-Orthodox from the new governing coalition.

Rabbi Stav’s main opponent is Rabbi David Lau, the son of a renowned former chief rabbi, who is backed by the ultra-Orthodox — and indeed wears the black hat — but also brags of his national-religious and secular connections and speaks about remaking the rabbinate “with a smile.”

“I represent all kinds of groups, and he represents only a group of the national-religious, this is the difference,” said Rabbi Lau, 48, now the rabbi of Modi’in, a city of 75,000 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “You need to think about a rabbi who can speak with the other rabbis, not fight with them. To speak is better than to fight, I think.”

Though the election on Wednesday will be decided by 150 rabbis, mayors and people handpicked by politicians, the campaign has captivated the public like never before, thanks to Rabbi Stav’s agenda, his high-profile media blitz and professional consultants. It has also been unusually ugly: a group of youths shoved Rabbi Stav and hurled epithets at him at a wedding last month, after an ultra-Orthodox sage said making him chief would be like “bringing idolatry into the temple.”

Rabbi Stav and Rabbi Lau are two of four candidates for a 10-year term as chief rabbi of the Ashkenazim, Jews of European descent, replacing Yona Metzger, who is under house arrest on suspicion of bribery and embezzlement, charges that have further damaged the rabbinate’s reputation. Five candidates face off in a parallel race for the Sephardic chief rabbi, representing Jews of Middle Eastern origin. One of the Sephardic candidates was questioned by the police for eight hours this month on a possible breach of trust charge, and there have been calls to disqualify him and another candidate for rulings they have made against renting apartments to Arabs and appointing women to public positions, as well as disparaging comments about gay men and lesbians and civil court judges.

All of which has made many here question the very need for the chief rabbinate, an institution with roots in the 17th-century Ottoman era that was formalized by the British in 1921. Once revered as a platform for intellectual and spiritual leadership, the $5.6 million operation, whose chiefs are paid $100,000 a year, has lately been dismissed as an anachronistic patronage farm rife with corruption.

Judaism is famously nonhierarchical, with individual rabbis worldwide having authority to interpret Jewish law for their congregations or communities, but the rabbinate and its religious courts are the only legal authorities here on family law and kosher food.

As many as one-third of Israeli couples marry abroad or live together without marrying rather than follow the rabbinate’s strictures. Jewish law requires that the husband agree to divorce, and about 3,400 women a year are denied dissolution of their marriages. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, mostly Russian immigrants and their children, are barred from marriage and adoption because they cannot adequately prove their Jew identity; only conversions conducted by rabbinate-authorized rabbis are accepted.

“This institution has to be abolished for the sake of religion, and for the sake of the state,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. “Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has other much more essential components than legislating Judaism.”

Rabbi Stav helped found Tzohar, a group of open-minded Orthodox rabbis that has helped 40,000 couples get married through the rabbinate over 18 years, and said he would bring the group’s experience in genealogical research to establish Jewish ancestry to the rabbinate. Rabbi Lau, for his part, said he would nationalize an online marriage-registration system he created to smooth the process in Modi’in.

These ideas are like putting a bandage on a broken bone for many Israelis who advocate the establishment of civil marriage and other ways to wrench religion from government.

“Democracies are not compatible with the notion of chief clergy,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, a group that recently rated the world’s countries based on freedom to marry. “It is legally offensive because it imposes their authority over the majority of Israelis who do not heed to their authority other than having it pushed down their throats.”

But David M. Weinberg of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies — who is backing Rabbi Stav — said the rabbinate’s coercive power was essential “to ensure that Jews in this country can continue to marry each other.”

“We’re so different in our outlooks, in our lifestyles, in our beliefs, at the very least we are one Jewish people in terms of Jewish definition,” Mr. Weinberg said.

Rabbi Stav, who, like Rabbi Lau, has spent recent days lobbying electors in one-on-one meetings, said he would end the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher supervision and encourage organ donation, for starters. But he opposes civil marriage, calling it “the exact recipe for the destruction of the Jewish society in Israel.”

“We have to choose a chief rabbi that will help Israel to be a more Jewish and a more Zionist state,” he said. “Otherwise we will become a nation of tribes that will not be able to survive in the Middle East with all the external threats.”

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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