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« Reply #8910 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:17 AM »

PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ...

Russia opens piracy investigation over Greenpeace Arctic oil protest, saying it will prosecute activists

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 6:27 EDT

Russia on Tuesday opened a piracy probe over a Greenpeace protest against the Arctic oil activities of the Gazprom energy giant, saying it will prosecute all activists involved.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said a criminal probe for piracy undertaken by an organised group had been opened over Greenpeace’s September 18 protest on a Gazprom oil rig in the Barents Sea.

“It should be noted that all persons who attacked the (oil) platform, regardless of their citizenship, will be brought to criminal responsibility,” Markin said in a statement.

The Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise had been monitoring the exploration activities of Gazprom since August in the hope of exposing the dangers of drilling for oil in one of the world’s great nature reserves.

Russian security forces seized the global environmental lobby group’s ship and its 30-member crew a day after two activists from Finland and Switzerland climbed up the side of a Gazprom platform to draw attention to its controversial work.

The two were detained after Russian navy patrol boats opened warning shots at the ship. They and the entire crew were later placed under arrest and locked up in the Arctic Sunrise’s mess.

The group says the Russian action was illegal because the Arctic Sunrise was in international waters at the time of the raid.

But Markin argued that the Greenpeace ship was located “in the exclusive economic zone of the Russian Federation” when it was boarded by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB).

It was not immediately clear from Markin’s comments whether the investigation had been launched against just the two activists who had attempted to scale the platform or all activists on board the ship.

The Arctic Sunrise was approaching the shoreline of Russia’s Far Northern city of Murmansk on Tuesday after being tugged from the scene of the action by a Russian border guards boat.

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« Reply #8911 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:19 AM »


The Spanish language school that delivers lessons on a budget

In Alicante's state-funded schools talk really does come cheap, with low fees and rigorous grammar practice the core principles

Trevor Baker   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 09.16 BST   

The queue up the stairs of the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, Alicante's state-funded language school, seems shorter this year. It takes 45 minutes to get to the office on the first floor, only for the secretary to point out that I don't have the right sticker for the registration form. Downstairs there's another 40 minutes of queuing for the special sticker, before finally going back upstairs.

Then it's a case of taking the form to a bank, queuing again, paying, getting the form stamped and bringing it back to the Escuela for one more queue.

This bureaucratic ritual feels like a metaphor for the whole business of classroom-based language learning.

In July 2013, however, 25,500 people applied to one of the EOI's 11 language courses, about 40% of them for English. This is, at least in part, because of the price. For my Advanced Spanish course I'm paying €67. This is for the entire academic year, four hours a week, from late September until the exam at the end of May. Last year it was €47. For that you can forgive them a little bureaucracy.

"We're unique," Mercedes Pozo, the school's director, says. "An organisation like the Escuela de Idiomas, that's paid for through taxation, just like primary and secondary school education, there's nothing like this anywhere else in Europe. All the foreign students who come here are surprised by the fact that there's such a high standard of teaching and you only have to pay a minimal fee."

A typical lesson would horrify anyone who holds the fashionable view that the only way to learn a language is to get out there and speak it. In the first two years there are conjugation tables to be learned. Last year our inordinately patient teacher, Antonio, spent most of his time taking us through the subjunctive, the part of Spanish grammar that's most resistant to being simply "picked up" in the street.

This isn't a problem for us because, living here, we have the best of both worlds. We can learn the grammar in the classroom and everything else in our day-to-day lives. Spanish students studying English with the same approach, though, are not so lucky. They complain that, with the large class sizes, they have few opportunities to speak. Pozo, however, argues that we underestimate the importance of grammar.

"When you learn the language in the street you learn the music of the language," she says. "That's very important. It's not just about words and grammar, it's about rhythm and intonation, too. But adults can't learn by just reproducing what they hear. It's easy to learn to say, 'I want to eat'. But if you want to convince a friend to lend you €100 euros. You can't just say, 'Give me 100 euros!' They'll say 'Why?' You need persuasion. That's grammar."

Mónica Mateo, an architect currently working as an academic, has every reason to learn English. Her profession has been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis in Spain and many architects have been driven to look for work abroad. She studied English more than 10 years ago at the EOI and, still speaking the language well today, she's grateful to the school.

"In Spain they now teach children of three English," she says. "But I didn't start learning until I was 12 and the teachers weren't as good then. They taught you the basic grammar and not much more. In the Escuela Oficial the teachers were much better and it was really cheap."

At the EOI the cost is set by local government, and the Valencian region's schools are among the cheapest in Spain. Even with spending cuts they've survived better than some public services, although teaching staff might not agree. Valencia now expects each teacher to take five classes this year, instead of four, for the same salary. Maximum class size at beginner level is now 42, although many students drop out after a few weeks.

The Escuela's biggest problem is its success. They don't have space for all of the 12,000 applicants who want to study English. Each year they draw a letter of the alphabet and then produce a list of students in alphabetical order, from that letter, until they've filled all the places. Wouldn't it be better to choose students on the basis of need or ability?

"That's the big debate," Pozo says. "Should there be some kind of assessment? But how do you assess 12,000 people who don't have any money? To cover all the demand we'd need another school of the same size as the one we already have."

For all its problems, there's a sense of urgency to language learning in Spain that doesn't exist in the UK. The country is acutely embarrassed by its English language skills. Any politician or public figure who dares to speak English on TV without being fluent can expect a wave of ridicule, not from Anglophones but from other Spaniards. Most recently Madrid mayor, Ana Botella, has been the recipient after her pitch to the Olympics committee went viral.

In the UK we're also a little embarrassed about our language skills, but only in the way that we might be embarrassed about not knowing how to cook. The problem with this attitude is that when the skills suddenly become necessary they seem almost impossible to acquire. Spain's British ex-pat community will tell you that they've tried to learn Spanish but it just hasn't "gone in".

Language classes help the language go in much faster when you start the fun bit of actually speaking to people. After studying at the EOI, Mateo took a month-long intensive course in Bedford. She says that when she first met her host family she had a moment of panic, on realising that she had no alternative but to speak English. Very quickly, though, she realised that she already had the basics.

"When you study slowly over a long period of time you don't realise how much you've learnt," she says. "They couldn't speak Spanish so I had to speak to them in English and it was great."


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« Reply #8912 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:30 AM »


Rouhani's visit to UN is unique chance for west and Iran, says Khatami

Exclusive: former Iranian president says opportunity to engage is unprecedented but consequences of failure could be global

Saeed Kamali Dehghan   
The Guardian, Monday 23 September 2013 19.00 BST   

The leader of Iran's reformist movement, Mohammad Khatami, has urged the west to show courage and work with President Hassan Rouhani or risk losing an unprecedented opportunity to end the current standoff.

In an article published in the Guardian today, Khatami, a former president of Iran, said on the eve of Rouhani's eagerly anticipated visit to the UN that the moderate cleric had "the necessary authority" for a diplomatic resolution to the longstanding differences between Tehran and the west, not least on the nuclear issue. He warned that failure would strengthen extremists on both sides.

Speaking before leaving Tehran for New York , Rouhani pledged to revamp Iran's image, which he said had been distorted. But he fell short of blaming his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who delivered anti-western tirades each time he spoke at the UN.

Rouhani is scheduled to deliver his speech a few hours after Barack Obama's welcoming statement on Tuesday, amid speculation that the first face-to-face encounter between leaders of the two countries since the 1970s will take place. Rouhani will also be accompanied on his visit by Iran's only Jewish MP.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who met Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Monday in New York to talk about the country's nuclear programme, described her discussions as constructive. According to Ashton, Zarif and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, will meet on Thursday in what will become the first ministerial talks between Tehran and Washington since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, met Zarif for the first time on Monday night and discussed the nuclear issue and Syria. They also talked about the prospect of gradually restoring full diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran, which were severely damaged when the British embassy in Tehran was over-run by a mob in November 2011. Hague made clear Britain required solid guarantees from Tehran that its diplomats could operate in safety.

"We don't want a confrontational relationship with Iran," Hague said after the meeting with Zarif.

"We have discussed how to improve our bilateral relations but it will have to take place on a step-by-step basis. I think we are agreed on this. So we have asked our officials to some work on this. Ultimately for Britain to be able to operate an embassy in Tehran again, we would have to know that the embassy could perform all the normal functions of an embassy without harassment and difficulties that it had to face before."

British officials said that no further meetings had been scheduled but that British and Iranian diplomats would be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss how to re-establish confidence in Tehran's intentions..

Khatami, meanwhile, is throwing his weight behind Rouhani in the hope that lessons are learned from missed opportunities under his own presidency.

"For the first time there is an opportunity to create a national consensus above and beyond partisan factionalism, which may address the political predicaments of the country with an emphasis on dialogue and mutual understanding globally," Khatami writes in his first article published in a foreign newspaper.

According to Khatami, Rouhani enjoys backing from all segments of Iranian society in his bid to pursue "constructive engagement" with the west, including from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has shown some softening in his views about diplomacy recently.

In a further move to boost Rouhani's credibility at the UN, Khamenei on Monday declared an amnesty for 80 political prisoners, including many arrested in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 election.

Khatami's intervention comes as 500 prominent Iranian intellectuals and activists wrote to Obama, telling the American president that it is now his turn to reciprocate.

Signatories to the letter – also published exclusively by the Guardian – include the Oscar-winning film director Asghar Farhadi, the imprisoned reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh and the prominent intellectual Saeed Hajjarian.

"The people of Iran seized the opportunity to elect Hassan Rouhani … as a result, we have witnessed the release of several political prisoners and relative progress in the country's public and political atmosphere," the letter says.

"It is now your turn, and that of the international community, to reciprocate Iran's measures of goodwill and pursue a win-win strategy that encompasses the lifting of the unjust economic sanctions on Iran."

At least 88 of the signatories are former or current political prisoners, some still serving lengthy prison terms. Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, a former political prisoner who was behind the letter, said if Rouhani meets Obama, it will pave the way for a positive change in Iran's internal political atmosphere.

He said: "This letter … says with a loud voice that Rouhani has the support of reformists and those seeking for democracy in Iran."

Hajjarian, who was the target of an assassination attempt in March 2000, echoed Jalaeipour, saying sanctions have hurt the quality of ordinary people's lives in Iran. "The US has not yet realised the changes that have been taking place after people's vote [for Rouhani]," he told the Guardian.

Under Khatami's administration between 1997 and 2005, Iran opened up towards the west, even helping American forces in Afghanistan, but was nevertheless labelled a part of the "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea, by George Bush. Khatami's support was crucial in Rouhani's sensational victory in the June election.

In his article, the ex-president warns that diplomatic mistakes now will have consequences beyond Iran's borders later. "Failure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only further boost extremist forces on all sides. The consequences of such a failure will not only be regional but global," Khatami writes. "For a better world, not only for the Iranian people but for the next generation across the globe, I earnestly hope that President Rouhani will receive a warm welcome and meaningful responses during his visit to the UN."

Sadeq Zibakalam, a Tehran University professor and one of the signatories of the letter, said different factions within the Iranian establishment, including fundamentalists, had come to the conclusion that Iran needed a rapprochement with the US: "They have realised that without this, they can't bring changes to Iran's current dire situation, especially its economy."

Zibakalam warned that if Rouhani fails to engage with the US, "his position in Iran will be significantly weakened" and he will have a hard time in the next four years.

Iran's currency significantly recovered against the dollar on Monday, rising to its strongest value in several months. Expectations of a Rouhani-Obama meeting come as a poll commissioned by the international civic organisation Avaaz, was released showing strong support both in the US and in Iran for an improvement in bilateral relations. It showed that, of those who expressed an opinion, 74% of Americans and 80% of Iranians support direct talks

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

September 23, 2013

Handshake With Iran Might Say Much More

By MARK LANDLER
IHT

UNITED NATIONS — It has become the diplomatic big tease of the year, a rumored geopolitical rendezvous that, if not quite as momentous as Nixon and Mao in 1972, would still rank as a landmark encounter for two countries that have been estranged for more than three decades.

So, will President Obama actually shake hands with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at the United Nations on Tuesday, when both men are scheduled to speak to the General Assembly?

On Monday, the White House insisted again that there was no meeting with Mr. Rouhani on the president’s schedule. But administration officials did nothing to dispel feverish speculation that the two leaders would find a way to bump into each other, whether in a hallway, in an elevator bank or by scraping their chairs together at lunch.

“We are open to engaging with Iran on a variety of levels,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One as Mr. Obama flew to New York. “This is not something we object to in principle. We will do so if we believe it is in our interest.”

By any standard, a meeting of Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani would be a seminal event: Iranian and American leaders have not met since before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Even if it does not happen, officials noted, Secretary of State John Kerry planned to meet Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, here later this week — the highest-level meeting between the countries since May 2007.

If the two sides were to orchestrate a handshake, diplomats said, the most likely venue would be a luncheon Tuesday for heads of state given by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. While any encounter might appear impromptu, Mr. Rhodes made clear that in such matters of high-level schmoozing, spontaneity has its time and place.

“I don’t think anything would happen by happenstance in a relationship, on an issue that’s this important,” he said.

Less predictable is what a not-so-accidental encounter would mean for Iran’s confrontation with the United States and other Western countries over the Iranian nuclear program. Israel and American allies in the Persian Gulf are watching nervously, worried that Mr. Obama will trade their security for an easing of tensions with Tehran.

Analysts and former officials say a face-to-face meeting could be pivotal, opening the door to a direct negotiation between Washington and Tehran that many believe is crucial to breaking the long impasse. But they, too, warn of risks, most notably that a handshake would reward Mr. Rouhani and magnify expectations for diplomacy that may not be warranted, given the fallow history of diplomacy with Iran.

“It will certainly play to the Rouhani charm offensive, making the new Iranian leadership appear more moderate without any overt change in behavior,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former adviser to Mr. Obama on Iran. “At the same time, it makes a bilateral engagement much more likely.”

Mr. Ross drew a distinction between a handshake and photo opportunity, and a working meeting. But he said, “We will still need to manage expectations and Israeli fears that we will end up in a rope-a-dope dialogue while the Iranian nuclear program creates facts on the ground.”

It would not be the first time the Obama administration used an informal meeting to try to open a channel to Iran. In March 2009, the special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke table-hopped at a lunch in The Hague to greet an Iranian deputy foreign minister. The two chatted about Persian architecture, Mr. Holbrooke recalled at the time.

It also would not be the first time an American president had viewed the General Assembly as an auspicious place for breaking the ice with the Iranians. In September 2000, before leaving office, President Bill Clinton instructed his aides to arrange a face-to-face encounter with Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami.

The White House requested that the United Nations schedule Mr. Clinton’s speech so that it fell just before Mr. Khatami’s. At the secretary general’s lunch, the Americans asked to have Mr. Clinton seated not far from Mr. Khatami so that if they pulled back their chairs, they would almost bump into each other, recalled Bruce O. Riedel, then a senior director at the National Security Council who advised Mr. Clinton on Iran.

“Imagine Clinton saying, ‘Oh, Mr. President, so sorry for spilling soup on you; how would you like to make peace with America?’” Mr. Riedel said with a laugh, adding, “We tried very hard to arrange a meeting, but Khatami was unwilling to take the political risk.”

This time, Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani have already exchanged letters, and both have spoken in conciliatory terms about the intentions of the other. Mr. Rouhani, administration officials noted, also appeared to have a broader mandate than his predecessors to make a diplomatic opening.

Mr. Obama has shown willingness, especially early in his presidency, to shake hands with other difficult leaders. He greeted Hugo Chávez of Venezuela warmly at a summit meeting in Trinidad in April 2009 and, somewhat less warmly, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya at a Group of 8 meeting in Italy in July 2009.

If Mr. Clinton’s experience shows one thing, however, it is that Mr. Obama can do only so much to make a connection. “The real issue is not whether the Americans want to meet,” Mr. Riedel said. “The real issue is whether the Iranians want to meet.”

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

September 23, 2013

Enigmatic Leader of Iran Backs Overture, for Now

By THOMAS ERDBRINK
IHT

TEHRAN — This is Hassan Rouhani’s moment. The toast of the United Nations, the new Iranian president is busy granting interviews to select audiences and possibly cramming in a meeting with President Obama — the first such high-level get-together since the 1979 revolution. But when he stands before the world to speak on Tuesday, he will do so as the loyal representative of Iran’s supreme leader, the ultimate authority behind the country’s recent diplomatic charm offensive.

Since his election in June, Mr. Rouhani has made no secret of his wish to reach an accord with the West on Iran’s nuclear program — and no secret that the only reason he can reach out so conspicuously is that he has the support, for now anyway, of one man, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

“Rouhani can only attempt to have direct talks because the supreme leader has agreed to it; otherwise, Rouhani would not be in New York now,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, an insider who is one of the few people trusted to interpret for the public the supreme leader’s sermons and speeches. “The president and his team enter any talks only under the leader’s direct command.”

An enigmatic and cunning man, Ayatollah Khamenei, 74, is the one who gave Mr. Rouhani the authority to pursue a deal with the United States, top aides to Mr. Rouhani and outside experts say, and could just as easily cut off support — as he has done to some Iranian leaders before, including Mr. Rouhani.

Ayatollah Khamenei sees himself as a sort of referee of Iran’s complex political system, sitting in judgment of the politicians he anoints to lead the country in what are often sharply different directions. In 1997, for example, he blessed the reformist candidacy of Mohammad Khatami, who relaxed some social restrictions and allowed more press freedom.

But he allowed the hard-liners to undermine Mr. Khatami’s presidency, and in 2005 he pinwheeled to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the strident nationalist hard-liner, who denied the Holocaust and antagonized the West for much of his eight years in office.

This year, in a surprise to almost all Iran watchers, Ayatollah Khamenei has seemed to get behind Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic push, talking in somewhat opaque but nevertheless conciliatory terms of “heroic flexibility.” And on Monday, in another gesture of support for Mr. Rouhani, Iran released 80 political prisoners. But the question for many here is, how much room will the supreme leader allow for diplomacy before pulling the rug out from under Mr. Rouhani?

This is not the first go-round for Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Rouhani, himself something of a prodigy who was once the darling of the clerics who founded the Islamic republic. In 2003 Mr. Rouhani, then the chief nuclear negotiator, persuaded Ayatollah Khamenei to suspend uranium enrichment for several months in hopes of reaching a nuclear deal. But the negotiations broke down, and Mr. Rouhani was banished from the circles of power before being resurrected this spring.

From Ayatollah Khamenei’s perspective, experts say, it makes perfect sense to stand back and allow Mr. Rouhani to conduct talks with the country’s main adversary.

“Everybody understands that Supreme Leader Khamenei is in a win-win situation,” said Mojtaba Mousavi, an Iranian political commentator who is often briefed by officials close to the leader. He explained that if talks lead to the reduction or elimination of the economic sanctions that have damaged Iran’s economy, Ayatollah Khamenei will get the credit for approving the new negotiating strategy.

But Ayatollah Khamenei can also take the credit if the talks should collapse. “If talks fail to reach any results, he will be praised for having proved his warnings over the dishonesty by the West towards Iran,” said Mr. Mousavi. “In that case his doubts will be proved once again.”

Experts here say that Ayatollah Khamenei, who was appointed supreme leader in 1989, is interested in testing the flexibility of the United States in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful uses but the West says is a cover for developing nuclear weapons.

“The leader is giving the U.S. an opportunity to change its ways, although he doubts such a thing can ever happen,” said Mr. Taraghi, who stressed that Ayatollah Khamenei had “permitted” Mr. Rouhani to explore possibilities. “Our leader is waiting to see whether the U.S. will follow Iran in taking a step towards positive engagement.”

But as Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, work the corridors and back rooms of the United Nations this week, their mandate will be limited, restricted by the supreme leader to the nuclear program and possibly Syria, those close to him say.

For all the attention paid to Iran’s new tone of moderation, insiders here say the supreme leader will never compromise his basic positions. “We have no intention to change,” said Mr. Taraghi. “Our ideology will remain the same. Iran will remain the same even after possible talks.”

By this he meant that Iran would never recognize the state of Israel or stop supporting Palestinian groups fighting what it calls “the Zionist entity.” In nuclear matters, it means accepting nothing less than full recognition of what Iran says is its “right” to a nuclear program under its own control. Support for the Syrian government will continue, as will Iran’s overall confrontational stance toward the West.

The change in Iran’s diplomatic language is a new tactic to be explored, Mr. Taraghi and others said. Iran’s supreme leader is mainly interested to see whether the United States has shifted its position and is ready to recognize Iran as a main power in the Middle East.

Suspicions of American intentions and policies lie at the core of Ayatollah Khamenei’s beliefs. “The domination system spreads war, poverty and immorality with a specific mechanism which is dividing the world between oppressors and oppressed,” he said in a speech for commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps last week. He said Iran’s resistance to American policies is the reason it is being pressured “by imposing sanctions, and by efforts to impose a civil war and a coup in Iran.”

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has often emphasized that he is “a revolutionary, not a diplomat,” also urged the president and his team never to forget the nature of their rivals. “It is good and necessary to have flexible approaches sometimes and somewhere,” he said, citing a theory he called “heroic leniency,” in which “you can show leniency to the rival, while never forgetting his goals.”

While many advocates of détente have interpreted this remark as illustrating Ayatollah Khamenei’s readiness to compromise, his close supporters say it means that he sees America as an eternal enemy that needs to be approached with different tactics at different times.

“Our leader is convinced the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to foil our spirit of confrontation and change our behavior,” Mr. Mousavi said. “The basis of our revolution is fighting the hegemonic powers.”

It was a surprise when Iran’s hard-liners, who had held sway for eight years in tandem with Ayatollah Khamenei, lost to Mr. Rouhani in the presidential elections in June. They and the institutions they control — the Revolutionary Guards, the nationwide Friday Prayer venues, the judiciary and the state broadcaster — have all been ordered by Ayatollah Khamenei not to sabotage Mr. Rouhani’s effort with criticism or controversial remarks.

This is not to say that the hard-liners are out of power, nor are they excluded from deciding Mr. Rouhani’s mandate for negotiations. “We have coordinated our policies in order to talk with a single voice, which for now is the government’s voice,” Mr. Mousavi said.

It is almost the polar opposite of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the former president, who was allowed to antagonize world leaders using a tactic he called “active diplomacy,” which ultimately helped create an atmosphere in which many countries supported sanctions against Iran.

Iran’s establishment now agrees across the board that Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic offensive can reinvigorate the stalled talks over Iran’s nuclear program and potentially reduce sanctions, analysts say.

“This is about convincing the U.S. that the Islamic republic is a big dam against their policies in the region,” Mr. Taraghi said. “They need to realize the huge price they are paying for their hegemonic policies in the Middle East. It is better for them to find common ground with us.”

That does not mean, however, that the two traditional enemies will become fast friends overnight.

“Whatever happens,” Mr. Taraghi said, “don’t expect a U.S. embassy to open up in Tehran any time soon.”

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

Iran: This time, the west must not turn its back on diplomacy

President Rouhani's UN speech can reignite the diplomacy that over a decade ago I saw was the only path to a better world

Mohammad Khatami   
The Guardian, Monday 23 September 2013 19.00 BST        

As Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Islamic republic of Iran, prepares to deliver a speech on Tuesday to the UN general assembly, advocating "constructive engagement" with the world, I reflect on my own experience as president of this great country, and my attempts to promote dialogue among nations, instead of hostility.

At my suggestion, 2001 was named the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilisations. But despite reaching a global audience, the message of dialogue barely penetrated the most intractable political dilemmas, either at home or abroad.

More than at any other time in history, events in the Middle East and north Africa have taken on global significance, and there is a great shift in the importance of this region. This transformation, which began with Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution – a surprise to many in the international community – intensified with the end of the cold war.

Today the Middle East has become a centre for new political, social and ideological forces as well as a site of collaboration and conflict with powers beyond the region. Almost all the problems facing the Middle East and north Africa today have international implications. Iran's nuclear issue is but one of these, and certainly not the biggest; but in addressing the Middle East's other problems, much depends on the manner in which this one is resolved.

In order to be successful, any dialogue must use the language of politics and diplomacy. President Rouhani's platform of prudence and hope is a practical translation of the idea of dialogue among nations into the realm of politics. And this is more necessary than ever at a time when a range of overlapping political crises are threatening global catastrophe.

With the initiative of Rouhani, who enjoys widespread support from almost all segments of Iranian society, I hope this country will succeed in steering a path towards global dialogue.

The opportunity to diplomatically resolve differences between Iran and the west, including the impasse over the nuclear issue, presented itself many years ago during my presidency. That opportunity was missed, for reasons that are now public knowledge.

To understand why, one only needs read the memoirs of Jack Straw, then British foreign secretary, or Mohamed ElBaradei, then secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency – or indeed the memoirs of Rouhani, who was then the chief negotiator of the Iranian nuclear delegation.

More than a decade ago, although agreement appeared possible, diplomacy failed. After 9/11, the US initiated costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Iraq invaded on the false pretext that it was developing weapons of mass destruction. It is no surprise that, in this political atmosphere, diplomacy with Iran ended in failure.

Israel, too, sabotaged the chance for the west to reach an agreement with Iran, by injecting scepticism and doubt at the time. On the eve of Rouhani's speech at the UN, Israel has again begun a campaign to discredit him because it fears the end of tension between Iran and the west.

Those who are trapped by bitter experience make every effort to disrupt the progress of diplomacy once again. These people fail to realise a simple point about the relationship between domestic and foreign policy.

President Rouhani's government was elected by a society seeking positive change, at a time when Iran and the wider region was desperately in need of prudence and hope. This vote was not limited to a specific political camp; as well as many reformers, many political prisoners and a significant body of conservatives had a share in Rouhani's victory. For the first time there is an opportunity to create a national consensus above and beyond partisan factionalism – one that may address the political predicaments of the country, with an emphasis on dialogue and mutual understanding globally.

Explicit public support from the supreme leader of the Islamic republic provides Rouhani and his colleagues with the necessary authority for a diplomatic resolution of a number of foreign policy issues with the west, not just the nuclear issue.

A peace-seeking Iran can contribute as a willing partner not only to solving its own differences with the global powers, but also to overcoming some of the region's chronic political disputes. But it requires a degree of courage and optimism from the west to listen to the voices of the Iranian people who have been painfully targeted by unjust sanctions, which have threatened the very fabric of civil society and democratic infrastructures.

Failure now to create an atmosphere of trust and meaningful dialogue will only boost extremist forces on all sides. The consequences of such a failure will be not only regional, but global. For a better world – for the Iranian people and the next generation across the globe – I earnestly hope that Rouhani will receive a warm and meaningful response at the United Nations.

Iran today is different from the Iran of years ago, and the consequences of the Islamic revolution are still playing out. Our positive and negative experiences of the past 16 years have added another dimension to the reforms that Rouhani is conducting at both domestic and international levels; they have enriched the Islamic republic's democratic capacities and added, I very much hope, to the experience of the international community.

The Iranian people's vote for Rouhani and his agenda for change has provided an unrivalled and possibly unrepeatable opportunity for Iran, the west and all local and regional powers. With a foreign policy based on dialogue and diplomacy at the heart of the Middle East, we can imagine a better world for the east and the west – including the diplomatic resolution of Iran's nuclear issue, which is utterly feasible if there is goodwill and fairness.

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

Iran's nuclear diplomacy: a moment of truth looms

The surge of optimism accompanying Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations is facing its first reality check

Mohammad Khatami   
The Guardian, Monday 23 September 2013 19.00 BST        

Some things never change. The UN media liaison unit gave both the wrong time and place to pick up badges for the general assembly. When journalists arrived, volunteers were still being trained. The badge-printing computers did not function properly.

But the wrinkles were dealt with in good humour by a multinational, multilingual team. And it all came out right in the end. It was more endearing than irritating.

The UN has many flaws, but if it were ever abolished it would immediately have to be reinvented. The world needs somewhere to meet and talk. It beats the alternatives. That is true even in average years when leaders simply come to deliver pre-cooked monologues. And this is no average year.

With the newly-elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, flying in to New York for his UN debut, a genuine drama is brewing. On Tuesday, Obama will take to the podium in the morning. Rouhani will follow in the afternoon. We do not know what either will say. We do not know what doors they will open. We don't know if they will make history and meet face to face.

The potential for disappointment is huge. Humans are hard-wired for optimism and tend to project that optimism on to their leaders, usually unwisely. But on this occasion, Rouhani is stoking expectations with every passing day, pledging to present nothing less than a new Iran on the world stage.

There is little doubt Rouhani will deliver the rhetoric. The devil as ever will be in the fine print. It may be that the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has empowered him to make a deal that critically falls short of international expectations, in the hope that the momentum building around Rouhani would bounce the West into giving away more than it intended.

It does seem likely that Obama is prepared to be flexible to ensure that Rouhani is not undermined at home, and to keep diplomacy in play. But he cannot accept a deal that does not significantly push back and restrain Iranian capacity to make a nuclear weapon in the future.

The contours of the Rouhani negotiating position will emerge in the coming days. The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet his counterparts, including John Kerry, on Thursday. Ultimately, however, the moment of truth will only come when Khamenei has to approve whatever is tentatively agreed in New York or Geneva.

The last moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, understood only too well that nothing could be achieved without the trust and confidence of the Supreme Leader. But Khatami suggests in The Guardian today that Rouhani is in a better position from that point of view than he was:

    Explicit public support from the supreme leader of the Islamic republic provides Rouhani and his colleagues with the necessary authority for a diplomatic resolution of a number of foreign policy issues with the west, not just the nuclear issue.

Nobody outside Khamenei's tightest circle knows his mind for sure. But arguably he has let expectations rise to such heights this time that - assuming the US and allies to not dramatically botch their hand - he cannot pull back from the brink of a historic breakthrough without inflicting considerable political damage on himself and on the Islamic Republic.

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

Israel sceptical about easing of pressure on Iran to halt nuclear programme

Jerusalem says Hassan Rouhani's conciliatory remarks are not enough: Iran must remove all enriched uranium from the country

Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Monday 23 September 2013 09.36 BST   

Faced with a stream of conciliatory rhetoric from Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, and a diplomatic overture to Tehran by Washington, Israeli officials are voicing scepticism and concern about a possible easing of western pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear programme.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, says he will make Iran the focus of a meeting next week with the US president, Barack Obama, and a speech the next day at the UN general assembly, where he drew a red line on a cartoon bomb last year.

A statement from Netanyahu's office described the newly elected president's remarks about the peaceful aims of Iran's nuclear programme and his readiness to pursue diplomacy as an exercise in media spin. "The true test is not Rouhani's words, but rather the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to aggressively advance its nuclear programme while Rouhani is giving interviews," said the response, issued on Thursday after an interview the Iranian president granted to the American network NBC.

The statement raised the prospect of a reheating of old disagreements with the Obama administration over the handling of Iran, fuelled by an exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani and talk in Washington of negotiations that could remove sanctions. Reflecting the Israeli government's concern that the US and Europe may be wavering, Netanyahu told a meeting of his cabinet last week that "the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed, and certainly not eased".

Netanyahu asserted that Iran must halt all uranium enrichment, remove enriched uranium from the country, dismantle the Fordo nuclear plant and stop "the plutonium track" to a nuclear weapon.

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former adviser to Netanyahu, said: "Right now Rouhani is in the midst of a charm offensive, and there are officials all across the west who feel compelled to respond with hopeful signals about Iranian intentions.

"Israel is obviously focused on what actions Iran has taken. The real question is what tangible change you see in Iranian behaviour. We're not talking about mood music."

Other analysts were similarly sceptical. Rouhani "is really focused on the economic hardship in Iran as a result of sanctions, and that's why he wants to talk to the US and the international community," said Emily Landau, director of the arms control programme at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "He wants to get the sanctions off his back. He has given absolutely no indication that Iran is willing to reverse course on the nuclear issue."

Israeli officials are concerned that in return for an easing of sanctions, Iran could give up part of its nuclear programme while maintaining components that will enable it to move quickly towards building a bomb when it sees fit. Pointing to the recent confrontation with Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, the officials argue that a credible military threat has to be maintained to press Iran to change course.

Even as he pursues diplomacy with Iran, Obama has said the military option remains on the table.

But Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for strategic affairs, asserted in an interview published on Friday that such a promise was not enough. Claiming that Iran was six months away from developing a bomb, Steinitz told the right-leaning newspaper Yisrael Hayom that time had run out for negotiations.

Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the US and a special envoy for Netanyahu, said that while "officially there's no space between us and the Americans, we're more cautious, or perhaps more suspicious".

He added: "With the economic situation in Iran approaching bankruptcy in many respects, if the pressure is working it shouldn't let up at this crucial point."


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« Reply #8913 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:32 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
09/23/2013 06:28 PM

Return of the Lion: Former Warlord Preps for Western Withdrawal

By Christian Neef

While the West is trying to extricate itself from the war zone in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, old warlords like Ismail Khan are preparing for a post-withdrawal period that many anticipate will be violent.

Ismail Khan abruptly gets up from his armchair. "I understood the question," he says. "So you want to know whether now, 12 years after Western troops arrived, every village finally has electricity." Afghanistan's minister of water and energy walks over to a map on the wall on which rebuilt hydroelectric power plants, new solar plants and modern wind turbines are marked.

Khan grabs a pointer, taps it onto an area west of Herat and says: "This is where I came across the border from Iran with 17,000 men in 1996, during the Taliban era. Then we continued through Faryab and Mazar to Faizabad and back to Herat." He drags the pointer to the north and then to the east, sweeping it across all the wind turbines and power plants, as if they were nothing but hindrances. "My militias fought bravely everywhere," says Khan.

This minister doesn't want to talk about water and electricity, or about what his ministry has been up to since the Taliban was ousted. All he wants to talk about is the past, about fighting the Soviets, about the regime of former President Mohammad Najibullah and about the Islamists after they assumed power in Afghanistan.

But when he mentions the Taliban, he is also talking about the future. He foresees a return of the fundamentalist Taliban, the collapse of the government in Kabul and the eruption of a new war between ethnic groups. He sees a future in which power is divided between the clans as it was in the past, and in which the mujahedeen, the tribal militias seasoned by battles against the Soviets and later the Taliban, remain the sole governing force.

Khan's advisors sit at a respectful distance from the minister. Some have dozed off -- it's afternoon during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and their strength is waning. But now they are nodding their approval. Filled with reverence, they gaze at their boss, a diminutive Tajik with a magnificent white beard, who always wears an equally white pajama-like outfit known as a Perahan Tunban, together with a black turban.

The 'Lion of Herat'

In truth, the 65-year-old minister is still what he was 30 years ago: a mujahed, or warlord, although he doesn't like the latter term. "The Americans and English tried to discredit us with that word, until they realized that they couldn't do without us in their fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban," Khan, now an older, more peaceful man, says with a smile.

But he is also a man who had entire armies march across the Hindu Kush Mountains in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. He was one of the commanders in the ensuing civil war, in which Afghanistan's ethnic groups -- the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks and Pashtuns -- massacred one another and laid waste to the capital Kabul.

Khan, governor of the most important province in western Afghanistan until 2004, was known as the "Lion of Herat." He still prefers to be addressed by his former title of Emir. But then he became too powerful for the Americans and President Hamid Karzai, so they removed Khan from office and brought him to Kabul to keep a closer eye on him. He was finally given the somewhat laughable position of water and energy minister, despite his feeling that he should have been offered the job of defense or interior minister instead. "I'm not in this position voluntarily," says Khan.

His office is now in a dilapidated building on the street leading to the Darul Aman Palace on the outskirts of Kabul, a stately building that once housed the parliament and was reduced to a ruin in the country's civil war. Khan, who has been water and energy minister for eight years, dedicates power plants, solicits bids for the construction of power lines and attends cabinet meetings. His ministry is not important in Kabul, and yet both the Americans and Karzai are afraid of him -- especially Karzai.

The year 2014 is approaching, and with it the withdrawal of NATO troops. When Khan appears in public today, it is with the demeanor of the mujahed. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to be destroyed once again," he said publicly late last year. He has also said that government forces are powerless in large parts of the country, that Afghans should arm themselves once again, new recruits should enlist and the command structures of the former militias ought to be reestablished.

The international coalition "has taken away our artillery and tanks and turned them into scrap metal. Instead, they have brought Dutch, German, American and French girls to our country, along with white soldiers from Europe and black soldiers from Africa, who were supposed to bring security to Afghanistan. They have failed," Khan said in a speech at a rally in Herat.

Mujahedeen Comeback?

After the speech, President Karzai announced that the minister's words had "nothing to do with the government's policies." An Afghan senator said that people like Khan smell blood, and that they see the withdrawal of Western troops as "the opportunity to launch another civil war and eliminate local rivals." American four-star General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan until February, expressed his concerns in a letter to Karzai.

Khan laughs. "One letter? There were two. Karzai showed them to me. And I said to him: It's a good thing that someone like Allen realizes what kinds of people we have here."

"So you believe that the Taliban will return as soon as NATO is gone?"

"The arrogant Americans drove the most important Taliban out of Kabul, bombed the rest from the air and then ended the war," says the minister. "So far, 2013 has been the bloodiest year yet in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in all the villages once again. They want all the power. Our army won't be able to stop them."

"And you could stop them?"

"We have 20 years of combat experience, and we defeated a superpower. We can deal with the Taliban too," says Khan, leaning back in his chair. "But not this army," he adds, waving his hand in the direction of the defense ministry. The Afghan army, trained by the West, has lost 63,000 men, or one in three soldiers, to desertion in the last three years.

Rarely have officials in Afghan government ministries spoken as frankly as they do today, now that the Western troop withdrawals have begun. And Ismail Khan is by no means an eccentric maverick. Marshal Mohammed Fahim, a former warlord and Afghanistan's first vice president, speaks of a comeback by the mujahedeen. And Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of legendary mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has even said publicly that his followers are arming themselves once again.

"Before the West leaves this place, it should give us back our planes and artillery, or the equivalent," Khan says before going to pray.

The Trust of the People

The town where Khan gave a speech last November is called Shahrak Shuhoda, or Town of Martyrs. The road to Shahrak Shuhoda leads from Herat toward the Iranian border. It is a village of 130 families, who live in houses with covered inner courtyards, built less than a decade ago with German money. The residents of Shahrak Shuhoda are all former mujahedeen and their families, as well as the widows of fallen fighters. The school, also built with German funds, is called the "Ismail Khan School."

Jalil Ahmad, a slim 25-year-old man, teaches at the school and is also a student of literature in Herat. His father and uncle died in the struggle against the communist government in 1990. He earns a monthly salary of €93 ($126), enough to buy a sack of rice, cooking oil and gasoline for his motorcycle. It isn't much, and yet he is convinced that the Taliban would deprive him of even that small income if it returned to the region. It's one of the reasons he attended the celebrated rally with Ismail Khan.

"There were 15,000 people there," he says. "But what the government is saying about Ismail Khan isn't true. He didn't talk about rearmament or about the formation of new militias. He called for unity. He said that we shouldn't be afraid of 2014, but that we should be well-prepared."

Ahmad adds that people trust Khan, and that the mujahedeen leader has a good reputation in Herat. "They assumed power here twice: In 1992, when they overthrew Najibullah, and in 2001, after the fall of the Taliban. The region blossomed each time."

But fear has become pervasive in all provinces as the Americans transport their containers across the Khyber Pass and the Germans fly their military equipment to Turkey. In Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan, the fear isn't immediately apparent. The population has swelled to one million, with four million people living in the surrounding area. Herat, which benefits from trade with Iran and Turkmenistan, seems cleaner and more orderly than other Afghan cities. The Taliban has never enjoyed any support in the region.

That must have changed at some point, though. In mid-September, a truck loaded with explosives blew up in front of the US consulate in Herat. A bomb destroyed a motorized rickshaw in the Obe District, causing 19 deaths, almost all of them women and children, say police. In the town of Karukh, Taliban militants recently killed Wali Jaan, a public prosecutor and the brother of National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

Old Scores to Settle
"I believe the worst days are ahead of us," says Said Hussein. He should know. He was a captain with the mujahedeen and remembers all too well what happened after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. Najibullah, put in office by Moscow, had another three years before he was toppled and the civil war began. He was later hung. Will the same thing happen to Karzai?

Hussein, 55, is a guard at the Jihad Museum in Herat, the only memorial site to the mujahedeen's war of resistance in Afghanistan. It is located above the city, next to the heavily guarded United States Consulate. It provides an image of what could happen in Afghanistan after 2014.

The museum is closed, but Hussein is happy to open the building for us. Century-old English carbines, Soviet weapons and homemade grenade launchers are exhibited in glass cabinets. The displays convey the message that the Afghans defeated the Soviets like Davids to a Goliath.

On the way to the upper floor, there is a display of a group of mujahedeen, 50 figures made of cement and plaster, listening to their leader, a thickset man with a white beard: Ismail Khan. Then the room opens onto a monumental, 360-degree diorama that depicts the history of the resistance movement against the Soviet occupiers and the communist regime in Kabul.

There is a portrayal of tribal elders and village clerics, who unleashed the Herat resistance movement against the communist regime in March 1979. The garrison joined forces with the rebels, including Khan, a 31-year-old captain at the time. They massacred hundreds of civilians, together with the Soviet occupiers and their women and children. Soviet aircraft bombed Herat in response, killing 24,000 Afghans. Khan went underground and assembled his rebel army.

The museum depicts attacking Soviet tanks, burning villages, farmers wielding clubs as they fought the soldiers and the refugee treks to Pakistan. It also depicts the rebel war against the occupiers, which was also a struggle against communist Kabul, followed by the battles against Najibullah's army in 1991 and, finally, the triumphal march of the mujahedeen into Herat in 1992.

Khan appears in many of the images, hidden among the other figures and yet easily recognizable. In one photo, he is sitting on an anti-aircraft missile used to shoot down Russian fighter jets, and in another he is shown promising a woman to bring home the body of her fallen son. In the final image, Khan is marching with the victors through the city's triumphal arch.

There is very little mention of what happened after that, including the civil war and the period of Taliban rule, Khan's flight to Iran and his return, his capture by the Taliban and his escape from the prison in Kandahar. The struggles that cost him his governorship in 2004 are not mentioned at all. At the time, local commanders staged a coup against him, prompting NATO troops and Karzai's forces to intervene. Khan's son died in the fighting. He undoubtedly has some old scores to settle.

'Mr. Khan Helped Us a Great Deal'

"There are plenty of people here who would follow him immediately if it became necessary," says museum guard Hussein. Then he tells the story of a US general who came to the museum and asked him whether he, Hussein, had handed in his weapons after the fall of the Taliban. Yes, Hussein replied, he had turned over his old Kalashnikov. But, he added, he still had two new Kalashnikovs, wrapped in oil paper and hidden in his house. The American said nothing for a moment and then thanked Hussein for his honesty.

"Weapons are being distributed everywhere in the villages, both here and in neighboring provinces," says Hussein. "The price of a good Kalashnikov from one of the weapons markets in Pakistan or Iran is already up to $1,500 again. Demand is growing."

Abdul Wahab Qattali, also known as General Wahab, is a good person to ask whether Herat is still a stronghold for Ismail Khan. He is sitting on the terrace of his restaurant in the northern part of the city, just as the evening call to prayer heralds the Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan.

Wahab's business is more than a restaurant. It is a glass palace in the middle of an amusement park where Herat residents celebrate weddings. It also includes a zoo and a pond, where visitors paddle around in swan-shaped gondolas. Others picnic in small pavilions above the lights of the city.

Wahab calls his business, which cost him several million dollars, a "citizens' garden." It is his second signature project, next to the Jihad Museum. "Mr. Khan helped us a great deal," says Wahab, who once served as Khan's chief of staff.

General Wahab has become prosperous in recent years. He also owns a large poultry farm with a refrigeration plant, and his family owns a TV and a radio station. He is in de facto control of the local parliament, which his son Sayed Wahid chairs. The son, 28, sits next to his father like a schoolboy. It is difficult to imagine that the will of the people was responsible for putting this young man into office. In Afghanistan, a person's vote can be bought for $20.

Wahab is a diminutive man who harbors a great deal of anger. The people who are in power in Kabul have "no relationship with this country," he says, as he walks through the citizens' garden, greeting acquaintances and allowing his underlings to kiss his hand. The country's current rulers came from abroad and "pushed the mujahedeen out of the way," he explains. According to Wahab, the money flowing into the country is stolen in Kabul, so that the rest of the country sees none of it.

'Everything Will Start All Over Again Next Year'

There is also a more specific reason for his anger. His company, the Faizi Group, spent eight years protecting NATO transports and the roads built in the region by the West. Wahab concedes that it was a good business. "I paid $1.7 million in taxes to the government, but I also created many jobs," he says.

Some $800 million was invested in the new highway from Herat to Kandahar. Two years ago, Wahab was forced to turn over his control of the road to the government. Since then, he says, bridges have fallen into disrepair and a fifth of the route is already in poor condition. According to Wahab, the government doesn't care about this, or about the 2,500 workers he had to let go. Some 30,000 jobs were lost in Herat, says Wahab, and residents are now barely able to afford the electricity imported from abroad. He explains that while he is merely losing money, local residents are struggling to survive.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, Wahab inspects his radio station, Azar Dokhtran Herat. Of the city's 10 radio stations, his is the only one that exclusively targets young women and girls. A live call-in show hosted by two women, called "Good Morning," is underway. The listeners talk about family problems, abuse and their efforts to find work.

What is happening in the studio is the mujahedeen's attempt to build a bridge to the generation that has no memory of the wars, and yet will play an indispensable role if the cards are reshuffled in Afghanistan.

"It's clear that everything will start all over again here next year," says General Wahab. He isn't willing to explain exactly why, but one gets a sense of what he means. The Taliban isn't his biggest concern. Herat is Tajik country, where the ruling Pashtuns make up only a small percentage of the population. Everyone knows that a Pashtun will succeed President Karzai in Kabul, which will only lead to renewed strife. And NATO will be gone by then. So why not turn Herat Province into a separate principality of sorts once again? "We need someone with authority here," says Wahab. "We need Ismail Khan."

Fear of the Future

The first thing visitors see when they land at the Herat airport and drive into the city is an industrial park. It includes a small steel mill operated by Kabul Folad Steel, where we meet with the owner, Esmatullah Wardak.

There is currently no company in Afghanistan that produces construction steel. Builders have had to import reinforced steel from Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Wardak, 40, has built a large factory building where steel bars are cast in a giant scrap melting furnace.

Ismail Khan? "He was the one who created this industrial park, with its 30,000 jobs, brought in electricity from Turkmenistan and Iran and made the city safe. It wasn't the government in Kabul, which would have taken 100 years to do it," says Wardak, as his prayer beads glide through his fingers. "And I'm not a member of his people. I'm not from his province, and I was never a supporter of his ideology."

Wardak has invested $20 million in the last three years, and he employs 500 workers. Now the government in Kabul has given him the runaround. He brought in 10 engineers from India and Turkey, because there are hardly any professionals in Afghanistan, but their visas are not being renewed, at least not in Herat, despite an order from Karzai to renew the visas. "But his officials aren't obeying the order," says Wardak.

He stomps furiously through the dust in front of his factory building. "I'm not afraid of the NATO withdrawal. But I am afraid of whoever comes into power after Karzai." Even this president, he says, has done nothing for Afghanistan in 12 years. "If something goes wrong with Iran, all they have to do there is flip a switch and we no longer have electricity."

Wardak says that he will close his factory again unless Kabul does something to help him. According to Wardak, investment has declined by 60 percent since NATO announced its withdrawal. Real estate values have plummeted and business owners are taking their money out of the country. The adjacent factory, he says, used to assemble 400 motorcycles a day but now produces only 100.

"I deal in steel, but I'm also as tough as steel. I will close the doors in full view of the press and will unload my 500 people in front of the governor's office." What happens after that, he says, will no longer be his concern. His family is already in Dubai. He has a visa for Europe's Schengen zone and one for the United States. All he has to do is drive to the airport and buy a ticket, he says. "Then I'll be gone from here."

Out at the airport at this very moment, the engines of a Boeing jet are churning up the yellow desert sand as a plane operated by the state-owned airline Ariana lands on the runway. It is filled with Afghan dignitaries, half of the Kabul government. They get into SUVs and are taken to Herat's Friday Mosque, where Wali Jaan, the murdered brother of National Security Advisor Spanta, is being buried today.

Ismail Khan is also sitting in one of the vehicles. He is back in Herat. This time it will only be for two hours, but perhaps his next stay will be of a longer duration.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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

Pakistani Christians mourn 85 killed in suicide bombings at Peshawar church

Pakistan's worst-ever attack on beleaguered Christians prompts warning by bishop for future of minority in Muslim countries

Jon Boone in Peshawar
theguardian.com, Monday 23 September 2013 21.15 BST

With its Mughalesque features, gleaming white dome and minaret-like towers, the All Saints' church in Peshawar has been a symbol of interfaith harmony ever since it was built in 1883.

As in a mosque, worshippers remove their shoes before entering the historic building, where biblical quotations are emblazoned on the walls in English, Hebrew and Persian scripts.

Some of the congregation were in bare feet as they filed out of the Anglican church on Sunday morning straight into the blast zone of one of two suicide bombers from a Taliban faction that has vowed to kill non-Muslims until the US cancels its lethal drone strikes in the country.

A day later and a blood-soaked jumble of shoes still lies in a pile on the right-hand side of the tall wooden doors where female worshippers usually congregate.

According to a tally based on information from local officials, 85 people were killed and more than 100 injured, although one doctor who arrived at the scene moments after the blast believes that even more died but their bodies were recovered by relatives before they could be accounted for.

Whatever the number, it was Pakistan's worst attack on Christians, sparking impassioned, country-wide protests.

Christians are a tiny and politically weak minority in Muslim-majority Pakistan who suffer from prejudice and sporadic bouts of mob violence. But Sunday was the first time that bombs had been used to such deadly effect on worshippers.

It bore the hallmarks of similar attacks by sectarian terror groups whose attacks have caused huge casualties among Shia communities. And Sunday's atrocity was claimed by the Jundullah branch of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that has orchestrated attacks against Shias. On Monday, the TTP's main spokesman denied any involvement.

In the streets and lanes of Peshawar's old city, where All Saints' is located a short distance from one of the historic gates of the city walls, all of the tightly-knit Christian community knows or is related to one of the dead.

"He had made a promise to God that when he got better he would go to church," said Joel Fakhar, the 20-year-old son of a man called Khalid who returned to the church after months of serious illness had kept him away.

Their 52-year-old father had been looking forward to it, particularly the period after the service when the congregation spills out into the enclosed courtyard to chat.

"He was looking forward to seeing his friends," said Joel.

On Monday the bodies had all been removed from the area where hundreds of worshippers milled around in the moments before the blasts, but dark, blood-soaked patches remained. The walls of the church and surrounding buildings were pockmarked by shrapnel, the windows blown in.

"It's not safe for Christians in this country," said Mano Rumalshah, the bishop emeritus of Peshawar, who was standing in the courtyard, comforting sobbing parishioners who clasped his white robes.

"Everyone is ignoring the growing danger to Christians in Muslim-majority countries. The European countries don't give a damn about us."

Others echoed the bishop's warning, saying that Christians would only be safe if they left Pakistan. But others vowed to remain and show they were not afraid.

Many analysts predict that the attack will torpedo efforts by the government to negotiate with the TTP and other militant groups – a policy agreed at a meeting of all the leading parties earlier this month.

On Sunday the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said during a visit to London that the government would be "unable to proceed further" with talks following the Peshawar attack.

Some diplomats think the government's offer of seemingly impossible negotiations with a loose coalition of violent Islamists intent on toppling the state was a strategy designed to demonstrate the futility of talks and build public support for a military crackdown on terrorist sanctuaries.

Nonetheless the policy has been angrily criticised, with many arguing it is tantamount to appeasement.

"How can you talk to people who are killing civilians?" said Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance. "We are just wasting time and we will lose more people. This is a message that the government must take concrete steps against terrorists."

He had harsh words for Imran Khan, the opposition leader whose party controls the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the north-western province that is home to much of the country's militant violence.

Khan has strongly promoted his solution to militancy, which includes ending Pakistan's support for the Nato mission in Afghanistan, withdrawing troops from the autonomous tribal areas and striking a deal with the Pakistani Taliban.

On Sunday he suggested the church attack was a deliberate effort by unnamed forces to scupper talks. He also linked militant violence to US drone strikes, prompting his many critics to accuse him of making excuses for terrorism.

"By going soft on these people he is showing that he is pro-Taliban," said Chaudhary.

But, in a sign of how hard it will be to persuade a sceptical public that tough action is required against militant groups, some victims of Sunday's bombing said they agreed with Khan.

"It's because of the drones and the US war on terror," said Amir Masih, a 25-year-old lying in a cacophonous ward in the city's Lady Reading hospital packed with survivors recovering from severe injuries, emergency surgeries and the grief of losing friends and relatives.

In addition to his badly injured wife in the adjacent bed, Masih's two sons and daughter were killed.

"We have no choice," he said. "We have to negotiate with them."


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« Reply #8914 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:36 AM »


Delhi gang-rape lawyers appeal against convictions

Indian high court to consider appeals in case of four men sentenced to death for brutal rape and murder of woman on bus

Associated Press in New Delhi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 08.28 BST   

Lawyers for four men sentenced to death for raping and murdering a young woman on a New Delhi bus have challenged the convictions and death sentences at a high court hearing.

The brutal attack in December sparked a public debate and protests over the chronic sexual violence faced by women in India.

"I am challenging this verdict," said AP Singh, who has defended all four men at various times.

The high court said it would begin hearing prosecution arguments on Wednesday, while defence lawyers file their appeals.

"We have to deal with this as expeditiously as possible because the sword of death is hanging over them," Judge Pratibha Rani said.

It could take weeks or months for the court to hear arguments, review evidence and consider the appeals before deciding whether to confirm the execution orders. A review is required for all death penalty cases in India, and the same court is hearing the men's appeals.

For Tuesday's hearing, the men walked under police escort from a bus into the high court complex. Three had their faces uncovered in public for the first time since the crime, while one wore a handkerchief tied over his nose and mouth.

In sentencing the four, trial court Judge Yogesh Khanna said the crime had "shocked the collective conscience" of India.

The four had been joyriding through New Delhi on a bus the night of 16 December when they lured the 23-year-old woman and her male friend into boarding. They then beat the friend, took turns raping the woman and violated her with an iron rod. She died from internal injuries two weeks later.

Another defendant hanged himself in prison, though his family insists he was murdered. An 18-year-old who was a juvenile at the time of the attack was sentenced in August to a maximum of three years in a reform home.


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« Reply #8915 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:37 AM »

September 23, 2013

Cambodian Prime Minister Extends Reign Amid Opposition Boycott of Parliament

By THOMAS FULLER
IHT

BANGKOK — Cambodia’s long-serving, authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, was elected to another five-year term in office on Tuesday despite a deadlock with the opposition, which has refused to attend the National Assembly in protest over alleged electoral cheating.

Mr. Hun Sen was set to be sworn into office later Tuesday by Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihamoni, officially extending the prime minister’s 28 years in power.

The king has sought in vain to broker an end to the acrimony after Mr. Hun Sen’s foes claimed widespread cheating in the July 28 election and rejected the official results, which left Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party in the majority, though weakened.

But the prime minister appears willing to govern Cambodia without the cooperation of the opposition. According to The Associated Press, Mr. Hun Sen told reporters Tuesday that he was willing to offer the opposition senior posts in the government but only if they ceased their boycott of the National Assembly.

Still, Mr. Hun Sen has projected what some analysts see as unusual signs of weakness.

He has made uncharacteristic, conciliatory gestures, including three recent meetings with Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. One lasted about five hours and centered on changes to the country’s electoral system.

Analysts disagree on whether Mr. Hun Sen, who in the past was dismissive of the opposition, is biding his time or has been significantly damaged by the election.

In its worst showing since 1998, the Cambodian People’s Party won just 68 seats of the 123 in the National Assembly, compared with 55 for the opposition, which made its greatest gains in a decade thanks to Mr. Rainsy’s newly unified party. The opposition said it would have captured the majority in a fair election.

David Chandler, a historian based in Australia and a leading expert on Cambodia’s politics, said Mr. Hun Sen “has no intention of diminishing his grip on the country” and has control of the major levers of power.

“Cambodian politics are very crass,” Mr. Chandler said. “The people who run the country are the ones with the money and the guns.” But the opposition’s parliamentary gains and the losses by the Cambodia People’s Party have put Mr. Hun Sen in “slightly unfamiliar territory,” Mr. Chandler said.

“I think he feels like he’s lost a couple of chess pieces,” he said. “He’s a bit more cautious.”

By contrast, Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, sees Mr. Hun Sen as badly wounded and fearful for the future.

The governing party’s election campaign was very personalized and built around the presumed popularity of Mr. Hun Sen, so the outcome “was a major blow to his ego,” Mr. Ou Virak said.

In his speeches over the past three years, Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly mentioned the Arab Spring, an apparent preoccupation that Mr. Ou Virak said helped give insight into the prime minister’s mind-set.

“He is fearful, and he is looking at some of the other long-term dictators and strongmen around the world who have fallen,” Mr. Ou Virak said.

The opening of the National Assembly on Monday was attended by foreign dignitaries, including the American ambassador to Cambodia, William E. Todd. But soon after the ceremony, the United States Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement saying Mr. Todd’s attendance was “not an endorsement of any election outcome or of any political party.” The statement also called for a “transparent review of irregularities” in the July election that would help address “flaws in the electoral process.”
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« Reply #8916 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:38 AM »


North Korea 'has technology to build uranium-based nuclear bombs'

Pyongyang thought to be mastering production of components for gas centrifuges needed to make such bombs, say experts

Associated Press in Seoul
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 09.03 BST   

North Korean scientists are thought to have attained the ability to build uranium-based nuclear bombs on their own, cutting the need for imports that had been one of the few ways outsiders could monitor the country's secretive atomic work.

According to evidence gathered by two North American experts, material published in North Korean scientific publications and news media shows that Pyongyang is mastering domestic production of essential components for the gas centrifuges needed to make such bombs.

The development further complicates long-stalled efforts to stop a nuclear bomb programme that Pyongyang has vowed to expand, despite international condemnation.

If Pyongyang can make crucial centrifuge parts at home, outsiders cannot track sensitive imports, which could spell the end of policies based on export controls, sanctions and interdiction that have been the centrepiece of international efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear programme over the last decade, Joshua Pollack, a Washington-based expert on nuclear proliferation, said.

"If they're not importing these goods in the first place, then we can't catch them in the act," said Pollack, who gathered the evidence with Scott Kemp, an expert on centrifuge technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We won't necessarily see anything more than what the North Koreans want us to see."

The state of North Korea's nuclear programme is of vital concern to Washington because Pyongyang wants to build an arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles that can reach American shores.

The North has conducted three nuclear tests of apparently increasing power since 2006, most recently in February, and it is believed to have a handful of crude plutonium-based bombs. Many experts estimate, however, that Pyongyang has not yet mastered the miniaturisation technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile.

Fuel for North Korea's plutonium bombs has been made in a reactor that is large and easily monitored. But uranium-based weapons are more difficult for outsiders to investigate because the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium for bombs can be easily hidden from satellites and prying inspectors.

The UUS and others long suspected North Korea was clandestinely developing a uranium programme, despite denials from Pyongyang. US officials confronted North Korea in 2002 with claims its scientists were pursuing uranium enrichment, sparking a nuclear crisis. In a reversal, visiting Americans were shown in November 2010 what they called a sophisticated, modern uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges at the North's main nuclear facility.

Restrictions on imports to North Korea are tightening thanks to China, which is a key ally of Pyongyang but also has been pressing it to give up nuclear weapons. A notice posted on the commerce ministry's website on Tuesday listed 236 pages of items and technologies banned from export to North Korea because of their potential use in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

International sanctions banning nuclear weapons-related shipments to North Korea did not stop its progress even when it relied on imported equipment, but the US enjoyed some success tracking the parts allegedly used in the programme. In 2007, for instance, the then US nuclear envoy, Christopher Hill, said Washington had evidence that Pyongyang had bought equipment used only for uranium enrichment.

News media reports and unclassified government documents showed North Korea imported large amounts of centrifuge parts in the early 2000s, Pollack said, but an apparent dearth of observed imports since then suggests that Pyongyang is making the necessary components at home. He said the knowhow for domestic production of key parts appears to have been in place no later than 2009.

Pollack said he and Kemp found "strong and clear" evidence in state media photographs taken inside North Korean factories of specialised lathes that produce the strong metal cylinders needed for centrifuges.

He also spoke of accounts in North Korean propaganda and technical journals of iron and steelmaking consistent with the production of an extremely hard steel alloy that can resist high rotational speeds in centrifuges, although the final step of the process was not described.

Pollack said their research also found scientific reports and patent awards describing work on technologies for crucial centrifuge parts. Those include vacuum pumps that remove air from centrifuges and pipes before uranium-bearing gas is added and electronic devices that control the speed of the electric motor in the base of each centrifuge.

North Korea's nuclear programme is cloaked in secrecy and treated domestically as a national treasure. The small, impoverished country says it must defend itself from US attempts to overthrow its political system.

It is not clear whether North Korea has made bomb-grade uranium, and Pyongyang says the programme is for peaceful, energy-generating purposes. But analysts strongly suspect that, even beyond the facility Americans toured in 2010, Pyongyang has other uranium enrichment facilities that could be producing large amounts of weapons-grade material.

Earlier this year, during a barrage of threats aimed at Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang vowed to resume all its nuclear fuel production. Recent satellite imagery appears to show that North Korea was restarting its plutonium reactor.


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« Reply #8917 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:40 AM »


China's richest man starts to build world's most costly film studio

Wang Jianlin, a property tycoon who also owns the world's largest cinema operator, plans £3bn complex with 20 stages

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Monday 23 September 2013 18.40 BST   

It's a uniquely Chinese equation: take a government that's increasingly obsessed with its image abroad, add a wildly ambitious property tycoon, and you get a business announcement so elaborate that Leonardo DiCaprio will fly halfway across the world to bear witness to it.

China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, broke ground on Sunday for what is being touted as the world's most expensive film studio in Qingdao, a quiet city of three million people on the country's east coast.

When the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis opens in 2017, according to Wang's speech at the ceremony, it will cover more than 500 hectares (two square miles) and include a studio for filming underwater, a permanent car show, seven resort hotels, an indoor amusement park, a 300-berth yacht club, 20 sound stages and a hospital.

DiCaprio, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jet Li and Ewan McGregor were all at the launch, alongside a host of other celebrities.

Wang, 58, the chairman of the Beijing-based property developer Dalian Wanda Group, called the studio the most expensive film industry investment of all time – an "unprecedented project that will create history" according to transcripts of his speech posted to the company's website. It will cost up to 30bn yuan (£3bn) and open in 2017.

The complex's sheer size is in keeping with the challenges that it seeks to overcome. China's film industry, while growing, is burdened by a stultifying bureaucracy and draconian censorship.

Hollywood imports account for the bulk of the country's box-office takings. While US-China co-productions have become common in recent years, few have gone on to conquer global markets. Many get so tangled up in negotiations that they never make it past the planning stage.

China maintains a strict quota on the number of foreign films screened in the country each year, and those that make the cut are often dragged down by censorship. The government-approved cut of the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas was 40 minutes shorter than the original. In April, Quentin Tarantino's revenge western Django Unchained was withdrawn from cinemas minutes into its first screening; it reopened a month later with three of the goriest minutes missing and flopped.

The Chinese government has pumped billions of pounds of subsidies into the arts, hoping that domestic films can help improve the country's image abroad. China's film industry has grown tenfold since 2002, with an average of nine new screens opening in the country every day.

Wang is suffused with optimism: he told reporters that he expected China's cinema audience, currently the world's second largest, to take the top spot from the US by 2018. "With the huge potential that comes with a population of 1.3 billion, the global film industry will recognise that the sooner you partner with China, the sooner you make more money," he said, according to the state news agency, Xinhua.

Yet critics say that no matter how much cash is in the system, China will not outshine Hollywood until its film-makers are given more creative space.

Feng Xiaogang, a historical epic director sometimes called China's Spielberg, broached the topic while accepting a "director of the year" award from the China Film Directors' Guild in April. "A lot of times when you receive a [censorship] order, it's so ridiculous that you don't know whether to laugh or cry," he said. A video of his acceptance speech briefly went viral online before it was itself removed by censors.

Wang grew up hungry during Mao's Cultural Revolution and spent 17 years in the People's Liberation Army; he later became the first Chinese citizen to own a private jet.

His company is best known for its prime properties throughout China, including 72 Wanda Plazas – sprawling developments that usually include shopping centres, hotels and cinemas.

The company has also been exploring abroad. Last year, Wang's £1.6bn acquisition of the US multiplex chain AMC Cinemas made international headlines. He is building luxury hotels in New York and London. Last week, he donated £12m to the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in Los Angeles, which will name a new film library in his honour.


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« Reply #8918 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:45 AM »


Westgate mall siege: hostage crisis over, say Kenyan officials

Officials have declared that all hostages being held by al-Shabaab militants at the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi are now free

Afua Hirsch in Nairobi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 10.20 BST   

A siege at Kenya's largest shopping mall in Nairobi launched by Islamic radicals in which dozens of shoppers were killed and more than 170 were injured, appears to be finally over.

With the crisis entering its fourth day, Kenyan officials have declared that all hostages being held at the Westgate shopping mall are free. They also claimed that the Kenyan military had taken back control the building from al-Shabaab militants.

"We believe all hostages have been released… situation of hostiles to be confirmed," a message on the Twitter account of the government's disaster operations centre said late on Monday.

There was confusion as a series of explosions continued to detonate at the five-storey mall in the early hours of this morning.

A source quoted by the Kenyan media said that the forces involved in the siege had left the building, and that the incidents were controlled explosions as the general services unit swept the complex for remaining explosives.

"A highly placed military source [said that the] hostage situation had been resolved," reported Kenya news channel KTN.

"[The operation] was spearheaded by Kenyan defence force which made inroads to the mall where captors were taking cover."

"All six suspected al-Shabaab militants [have been] killed. The authorities are now combing the mall floor by floor to make sure no explosive devices have been left."

On Tuesday morning, smoke continued to be visible from the mall, although there were conflicting accounts of the cause. The government said fires were started by the attackers as a diversionary tactic.

"We say the fire was put on by the terrorists to try and distract our activities," said one official. "But I also hasten to confirm that the fire will be put off shortly."

But Nairobi residents familiar with the mall said that the smoke appeared to be coming from the parking lot.

There were conflicting reports about the identity of the attackers, six of whom were reported to have been killed during the siege, and a number of whom were being held in custody.

"We have an idea who these people are, and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world," said Major General Julius Karanja, the chief of general staff for the Kenyan military. "We also have an idea that this is clearly not a local event."

The Somali al-Shabaab Islamist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although its claim is still being investigated by Kenyan authorities. Kenya's foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, said on Monday that two or three Americans and one female British national were among the attackers. The claim sparked fierce speculation as to whether Samantha Lewthwaite, the British woman suspected of masterminding a terrorist cell in Kenya's second largest city of Mombasa, may have taken part in the incident.

Lewthwaite, 29, is the widow of Jermaine Lindsay, who blew up an underground train at King's Cross in July 2005 killing 26 people. She is believed to be in east Africa after having escaped a police raid on a property in Mombasa. But while witness and intelligence reports have claimed that one of the terrorists was an armed, white female, official sources have maintained that all the attackers were men.

As international interest in the Westgate attack mounts, with the death toll of 62 – including British, Canadian, American, Chinese, French, Ghanaian, Indian, Dutch, Peruvian, South African and South Korean victims – expected to rise, Kenyan authorities are under intense pressure over their handling of the investigation.

"We really need proper investigations. Kenya has been bungling all investigations it has handled in the past," said David Ohito, vice-chair of the Kenya Editors Guild. "We need to expose the gaps that allowed these attackers to run into the mall, stay there for days, making it very difficult for our security forces to overcome. There will be begging questions and we will be waiting for answers from the authorities."

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

Obama offers support to Kenya as FBI investigates American involvement

US president pledges security help amid rumours American al-Shabaab recruits took part in Westgate shopping mall attack

Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 23 September 2013 21.10 BST   

Barack Obama offered security support to Kenya on Monday, as authorities in Washington investigated reports that American citizens may have been involved in the terrorist attack on a shopping mall that killed at least 62 people.

"We're providing all the co-operation that we can as we deal with this situation that has captivated the world," he said, arriving in New York for the United Nations general assembly. "We will provide them with whatever law enforcement support is necessary and we are confident that Kenya, which has been a pillar of stability in eastern Africa, will rebuild."

The US government insists it has no firm proof that any American nationals took part in the Westgate attack, but the FBI is thought to be investigating the suspected involvement of al-Shabaab recruits from Somali communities in Minnesota and Maine. A number of US citizens have been recruited to fight in Somalia from Minneapolis, which is home to 32,000 of the estimated 100,000 Somalis who have fled the country's civil war and settled in the US.

US military forces are also already active in the horn of Africa, training the Kenyan military to help pursue radical Islamic groups.

There was a confused picture on Monday over who might be behind the shopping-centre attack, with one of a variety of conflicting Twitter accounts claiming to represent al-Shabaab insisting that three of the attackers were US citizens.

Kenya's chief of defence, General Julius Karangi, said fighters from an array of nations participated in the attack claimed by al-Shabaab, a Somali group allied with al-Qaida. "We have an idea who these people are and they are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world," he said.

But authorities in Washington are still trying investigate the claim. "At this point we have no definitive evidence of the nationalities or identities of the perpetrators," a State Department spokesman told the Guardian.

The White House acknowledged concern over previous al-Shabaab attempts to recruit US citizens. "All we've seen are the same reports coming out of al-Shabaab … but we have to run those to ground," said White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. "We do monitor very carefully and have for some time been concerned about efforts by al-Shabaab to recruit Americans or US persons to come to Somalia," he said.

"So this is an issue that has been tracked very closely by the US government and it's one that we'll be looking into in the days ahead."

The FBI would not confirm reports that it has been in touch with police in Maine investigating the alleged involvement of an American recruited to al-Shabaab.

In 2011, a Minneapolis community leader warned the House homeland security committee during testimony on the extent of radicalisation of young Somali Americans in the state. "Looking back, my sister and I realised [along with the other mothers] that these young men had been behaving very strangely within the last three or four months before they went missing, spending most of their time at the mosque, even sleeping overnight and during the weekends there," said Abdirizak Bihi, who is the uncle of a young Somali American who was recruited by al-Shabaab and who died in fighting in Somalia.

"They appeared pensive and spent hours alone thinking to themselves, and wouldn't leave the mosque. We would never have guessed that our kids had been brainwashed already and recruited to fight for al-Shabaab in a jihadist war that was killing other innocent Muslim Somalis thousands of miles away.

Obama, whose father was Kenyan, said America stood with the country's people in the face of the latest attack, which he said "underscores the degree to which all of us as an international community have to stand against the kind of senseless violence that these kind of groups represent".

"I want to express personally my condolences not only to President Kenyatta, who lost some family members in the attack, but to the Kenyan people, we stand with them," Obama said on Monday afternoon in New York. "And the United States will continue to work with the entire continent of Africa and around the world to make sure that we are dismantling these networks of destruction."


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« Reply #8919 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:50 AM »


Alsarah, the new star of Nubian pop

Meet the Sudanese singer/songwriter with a powerful voice and eclectic mix of north and east African tunes with Arabic influence

Andreas Hansen and Karen Obling for Addis Rumble in the Guardian Africa Network   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 10.18 BST      

Alsarah: I sing about people the world likes to ignore except when speaking of them in the past.

When Sudanese singer, songwriter and ethnomusicologist Alsarah performed in Nairobi together with the great Kombo & Afrosimba earleir this year, we were immediately spellbound by her powerful voice and eclectic mix of north and east African tunes, as well as Arabic sounds and traditions. We are now eagerly awaiting the release of Alsarah & the Nubatones's first full length album later this year, but in the meantime meet Alsarah, the new princess of Nubian pop and Sudanese retro.

You have been traveling extensively through north and east Africa this year. From Egypt and Sudan to Somalia and Kenya. What inspiration have you picked up on the road?

Oh that's a tough one. Traveling is one of the most inspiring experiences for me, and so to have been able to travel all over north and east Africa so much recently has been like a blast of fresh air. The best part about being an immigrant (which I consider myself still) is going home and seeing it with an outsider/insider eye… it teaches you more about yourself and your assumptions of who and what your people are, than anything else possibly could. So it is hard to pinpoint exactly what inspiration I've picked up, but suffice to say I am plenty inspired.

This spring you performed at the first music festival in Mogadishu in more than 20 years. How was it?

The music was very well received. People in Mogadishu are hungry for music, ALL types of music. They are hungry for the world. So it was a very positive experience. The audience was engaged and uninhibited. They even stormed the stage a few times to make sure they got their dance on with the bands.

Click here to view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPOnonHh6a4

How is your music received in the US as opposed to in Africa?

Well in the US I often have the experience of getting audience members who are avid music listeners but have never heard east African music before, especially Sudanese music like mine, so I think of my concerts as partly educational and try to do a lot of explaining in the middle. When I have performed in Africa I have noticed that people instantly connect with the music and the overall sound even if they have never heard music from Sudan before. There is a familiarity there that I don't need to explain, which means I can just focus all my energy on revving up the band because the crowd doesn't need to be guided through the musical experience quite as much.

You are involved in numerous initiatives that go beyond the music such as The Nile Project and WISE Muslim Women. What motivates your engagement in these endeavors and how do you see it complementing your musical efforts?

I actually see these endeavors as part of my music. I sing about migration, voluntary and forced, I sing about people the world likes to ignore except when speaking of them in the past, and I sing about what it means to yearn for home. I also sing about survival and love and joy, which is how people continue despite policies that change the course of their existence. So I see these initiatives as part of the musical culture.

How do you see your background in ethnomusicology influencing your music?

Well, I think it has made me able to look past rudimentary ways of viewing music, ie I like it or i just don't like it, and look deeper into the background and culture of a musical movement. So over all it has made me hyper-conscious of music as a three-dimensional cultural being.

What do you see as the main features that distinguishes Nubian music from the related Sudanese or Egyptian music tradition?

The rhythms, the frame drums, the type of metaphors used when singing in Arabic, the language when not singing in Arabic, and for a lot of the more recent works after the high dam was built in the 1960s also focus on the subject of returning home.

Who are some of your favourite Nubian or Sudanese singers?

Well, Nubian specifically I am a huge fan of Hamza Al Din and Ahmed Munib. Sudanese overall I'm a big fan of Abdel Gadir Salim, Rasha, Gisma, and Nur AlJilani just to name a few.
Ethiopian music has experienced quite a revival in the past decade. Do you see a potential for a similar revival of Nubian pop music?

Totally, in fact I see a similar revival for all of east Africa in general. I think Africa overall is the new future and the next wave in art and music. Do you have any album plans – with the Nubatones, alone or side projects?

As a matter of fact I do. The Nubatones are gearing up to release our first full length album at the end of this year, and I also plan to release a project with French producer Débruit later this year. Stay tuned for more on that via my website and facebook page.


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« Reply #8920 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:53 AM »


Zimbabwe's coffee farmers struggle amid global boom and political gloom

The EU restored aid earlier this year but not to farms on 'disputed' land – excluding the majority of small coffee growers

Ray Mhondera in Harare
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 September 2013 12.24 BST      

A misty dawn has not yet given way to daylight in Zimbabwe's eastern highlands. Lenard Moyo, a coffee farmer near Chipinge town, is prising red arabica beans out of their trees and putting them in his bag – as he does every morning during harvest season.

"It's hard when it's so cold outside, but we have to pick them early," he said.

Zimbabwe's coffee belt has the perfect growing conditions for the beans: high mountain peaks and cool climates, and the country used to be famous for its "super-high-quality" product, slowly sun-dried, and tasting smooth and fruity. In the 1990s it produced some of the best coffee in the world, alongside South America and Kenya, generating crucial foreign currency and a livelihood for many labourers and small-scale farmers, as well as the big commercial farms.

But today the industry is in decline: many of the mills have been abandoned, farmers are in debt, and Zimbabwe produces just 60 "bags" of coffee beans a year compared with 250 bags in 1988 – with one bag amounting to 60 tonnes of coffee.

Earlier this year the European Union announced €10m (£8.4m) in aid to Zimbabwe's medium and small-scale farmers, in an attempt to revive the industry. But there's a catch. "Coffee is an important crop and we'll consider funding requests from small farmers provided the land involved is not in dispute," Aldo Dell'Ariccia, head of the EU delegation to Zimbabwe, told the CAJ news agency.

Moyo said this caveat disqualified the majority of farmers. "Most of our small coffee plots are on land being contested in court by former white farmers. We'll simply not qualify," he said.

The disputes began in 2000, when young militants loyal to the president, Robert Mugabe, stormed white-owned farms to reclaim the land. At the time, Moyo was what was known as an "out-grower" – a black farmer owning a small plot of land next to a large commercial farm, relying on his neighbours for finance, expertise and machinery.

"First, [the militants] pruned down our coffee beans and burned hectares of trees in a week of rage. Coffee drying pens were turned into nurseries for marijuana and wild vegetables," he said. "The new farm owners wanted instant profit but a coffee tree once planted takes three to five years to mature."

Production plummeted as the new land owners could not secure bank loans to buy fertilisers or repair ageing infrastructure. Many were new to the business, and lacked the expertise to keep quality high.

In turn, international buyers began to shun Zimbabwean coffee, and in 2010 the Mutare Coffee Mill, considered one of the best in Africa, was forced to shut down. It required at least 4,000 tonnes of coffee to operate profitably but was receiving just 300.

And while Zimbabwean coffee growers struggle, elsewhere the industry is booming. Ten years ago the average cost of a tonne of coffee was $1,400, now it can fetch up to $4,000 (£2,500), according to the International Coffee Organisation.

"Zimbabwe is losing billions of dollars annually as the price of coffee has increased to about $3 per pound, up from $1 per pound in the 90s," Gifford Trevor, president of Zimbabwe's Coffee Growers Association, told News24.

Most of the country's coffee farmers lack cash reserves to support themselves when the crop fails or yields are low, according to World Vision. The charity is training farmers and offering much-needed supplies such as fertilisers, irrigation systems and pesticides. But the farmers are still unable to compete with better organised growers in countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and Malawi.

The global coffee industry is also stacked against suppliers, with the bulk of the profit going to those further up the chain.

In August, on a sponsored trip to Johannesburg, 39-year-old Moyo tasted his first cappuccino. "I thought it was bitter lemon," he said. He was particularly horrified to pay $3 for one cup, compared with the $5.30 he receives for a bag of raw coffee beans.

Peter Multz, a former consultant for the Dutch charity SNV, which works with Zimbabwean farmers to improve their business skills, said most of the profit went to shippers, roasters and retailers. He said Zimbabwean farmers also faced particular problems. "Sometimes the coffee is delayed at border crossings for up to a week, and without proper facilities the beans go bad. Sometimes buyers have to pay a bribe to let their coffee shipments go through," he said.

With a more stable economy and western governments starting to release aid, Zimbabwean farmers hope that the country's coffee industry will recover. But for Moyo times are still hard: "I can't even pay my farm workers and coffee pickers properly," he said. "Sometimes we reward them with milk, soya meals, and clothes after every harvest. As we say here, cash is a crunch."

Ray Mhondera is editor of The Africa Scientist Magazine


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« Reply #8921 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:54 AM »


September 23, 2013

Egyptian Court Shuts Down the Muslim Brotherhood and Seizes Its Assets

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
IHT

CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Monday issued an injunction dissolving the Muslim Brotherhood and confiscating its assets, escalating a broad crackdown on the group less than three months since the military ousted its ally, President Mohamed Morsi.

The ruling, by the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, amounts to a preliminary injunction shutting down the Brotherhood until a higher court renders a more permanent verdict. The leftist party Tagammu had sought the immediate action, accusing the Brotherhood of “terrorism” and of exploiting religion for political gain. The court ordered the Brotherhood’s assets to be held in trust until a final decision.

If confirmed, the ban on the Brotherhood — Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group — would further diminish hopes of the new government’s fulfilling its promise to restart a democratic political process that would include Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters. For now, though, it effectively formalizes the suppression of the Brotherhood that is already well under way.

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, the new government appointed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood members in mass shootings at protests against the takeover and arrested thousands more, including almost all of the group’s leaders. Security services have closed offices of the group and its political party in cities around the country. Members are now sometimes afraid to speak publicly by name for fear of reprisals.

And even before Mr. Morsi was overthrown, the police watched idly as a crowd of anti-Brotherhood protesters methodically burned down the group’s gleaming Cairo headquarters — a symbol of its emergence after the 2011 revolution from decades underground. The destruction capped weeks of attacks on its offices around the country.

Some Islamist lawyers said Monday that they would appeal the injunction, but the Brotherhood’s legal status is likely to remain uncertain for some time. Amid the anti-Islamist fervor after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, the group now faces several similar legal claims seeking to rescind its license or prohibit its work, and it is unclear how long it might take to resolve them.

In a statement issued from an office in London — out of reach of the Egyptian police — the Brotherhood called the verdict “an attack on democracy,” arguing that the court overstepped its jurisdiction and failed to allow the group to present its side of the case. “It is clearly an attempt to ban the Muslim Brotherhood from political participation,” statement said, accusing the military leaders of “throwing Egypt back into its darkest days of dictatorship and tyranny.”

“We have existed for 85 years, and will continue to do so,” it continued. “We are part and parcel of the Egyptian society, and a corrupt and illegitimate judicial decision cannot change that.”

Laying out its reasoning, the court reached back to the Brotherhood’s founding as a religious revival group in 1928, when Egypt was in the last tumultuous decades under a British-backed monarchy. From its beginning, the court argued, the Brotherhood has always used Islam as a tool to achieve its political goals and adopted violence as its tactic.

The state newspaper Al Ahram elaborated further, declaring on its Web site that the court found the Brotherhood had “violated the rights of the citizens, who found only oppression and arrogance during their reign” — until fatigued citizens had risen up this summer “under the protection of the armed forces, the sword of the homeland inseparable from their people in the confrontation with an unjust regime.”

Despite the tone of the official news media, it was hard to discern whether the court’s ruling was part of a plan by the generals now leading Egypt or a more ad hoc judicial decision, said Michael Hanna, a researcher who studies Egypt at the Century Foundation in New York. “It could be part of a broader strategy with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood, or it could be that people in the military were as surprised as anyone,” he said.

In a sweeping injunction, the court banned both the Brotherhood itself and “all activities” it organized, sponsored or financed. It immediately returned the Brotherhood to the outlawed, underground status it occupied for most of its 85 years, including the long decades from President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1954 crackdown on the group until the 2011 revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

If enforced, the ruling could take a toll on communities across Egypt where the Brotherhood has often played a philanthropic role. For decades, the Brotherhood has also played an open role in political life by sponsoring candidates who formed a minority bloc of the Parliament.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
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« Reply #8922 on: Sep 24, 2013, 06:57 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
09/24/2013 11:38 AM

Free Syrian Army Chief: 'Why Is the West Just Looking On?'

Gen. Salim Idriss is head of the Free Syrian Army. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses why the chemical weapons deal with Assad is a ruse, why the West worries too much about Islamic extremists and how he coordinates his forces via Skype.

Brigadier General Salim Idriss, 56, taught at the military academy in Aleppo before joining the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2012. He was subsequently elected by its various commanders and other members of the Syrian revolutionary council to serve as the chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council and, as such, has been the FSA's highest-ranking commander as well as the most important contact person for foreign governments. He knows German after having studied electrical engineering in the eastern German city of Dresden.

SPIEGEL: The agreement with Syrian leader Bashar Assad for him to give up his chemical weapons has been seen across the world as a promising sign…

Idriss: Not by us. The gas attack on August 21 was a crime against humanity -- and no one has been brought to account for it. Everyone speaks about the chemical weapons monitoring, but not about Syria's destruction and the ongoing killings. Everyday, Assad's air force attacks towns and villages, annihilating entire housing blocks with Scud missiles, carrying on the bombardment with artillery and tanks -- and that bothers no one. Every day, we have 100 dead and more, and almost a third of Syria's inhabitants have fled their homes. That is madness. I don't understand the West. Why are all of them just looking on?

SPIEGEL: But wouldn't the destruction of these weapons still be a step in the right direction?

Idriss: That won't work! We are already getting reports that the regime is hiding its chemical weapons. When the inspectors come, many of the storage facilities will be empty. Furthermore, the same game as in previous UN missions will then begin. The regime's overseers will say: "You unfortunately can't leave the hotel today; it's too dangerous." At the same time, the regime will have the inspectors shot at. It is profoundly dishonest.

SPIEGEL: What effect would attacks with US cruise missiles have had?

Idriss: The threat of them alone was enough to send the regime's troops into panic. Had there been air attacks, many would have abandoned their posts straight away. All we are waiting for is a blow to the airports, against the Scud missile launchers. Then the regime would no longer be able to bear up. We don't need any troops on the ground, but rather air attacks -- or at least anti-aircraft missiles we can defend ourselves with

SPIEGEL: But no one plans to deliver any to you out of fear that they could fall into terrorist hands.

Idriss: Terrorists? We experience terror every day. A short while ago, I spoke with one of our commanders in the east. The air force had just bombarded the Euphrates dam again. If it breaks, billions of cubic meters of water will destroy everything. Is that not terror? We have given the Americans every guarantee that we will only use anti-aircraft weapons against Assad's air force.

SPIEGEL: One of the West's fears is that the jihadists could take power if Assad falls.

Idriss: Do you know who vacated their positions in Idlib and Aleppo when a US attack seemed imminent? The radicals from the "Islamic State." Since they have absolutely no interest in the fall of the regime, they thrive in war and profit from our weakness. They get support from I don't know where. And as long as hardly anyone provides us with support, the fighters will be associated with them because they need money and weapons.

SPIEGEL: But the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also cooperates on military operations with the jihadists, even with the Islamic State.

Idriss: I am against it and have warned against it. The jihadists have killed several of our commanders; they are very dangerous for us, as well. But so long as no one helps us otherwise, I can't prohibit cooperation on a local level.

SPIEGEL: How much control do you really have over FSA fighters?

Idriss: We have a common goal: the destruction of the regime and a Syria in which everyone can live in freedom and dignity. But loyalty strongly depends on what help we can offer to units. Our foreign friends have already promised much for months, but they have delivered little. But if we provide no more weapons, ammunition, medicine or satellite phones to the commanders, we also can't do much in terms of giving orders.

SPIEGEL: Who makes decisions about attacks?

Idriss: The initiative sometimes used to come from the Supreme Military Council, sometimes from the commanders on the ground. For two months, we have been giving suggestions about what should be done. Then we discuss it with the commanders, mostly via Skype.

SPIEGEL: A chain of command over the Internet?

Idriss: Yes, that works best. I am online every night until 3 a.m., trying to coordinate the units scattered across the whole of Syria. In addition, I negotiate with our foreign friends about support and am in contact with the National Coalition, the political opposition.

SPIEGEL: What chance do you give the planned peace conference in Geneva?

Idriss: We support every political solution, but under one condition: Assad must be brought before a court. We will not negotiate with someone who uses chemical weapons against his own people.

SPIEGEL: But what if things keep going as they have been? What if there is neither intervention nor compromise?

Idriss: Then Syria will continue to be ravaged; then we will experience more hatred and a total collapse. That's exactly what we want to prevent, but we need help.

Interview conducted by Christoph Reuter


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« Reply #8923 on: Sep 24, 2013, 07:05 AM »

World Bank devotes $700 million to women and childrens’ health

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 23, 2013 19:25 EDT

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced Monday that at least $700 million would be made available over the next two years for women’s and children’s health needs in poor countries.

Speaking at the United Nations, Kim said the money was to help developing countries meet the targets of the Millennium Development Goals, by focusing programs on achieving results rather than just the gross deployment of resources.

“We need to inject greater urgency into our collective efforts to save more women and children’s lives, and evidence shows that results-based financing has significant impact,” Kim said, according to his prepared remarks.

“The World Bank Group is committed to using evidence-based approaches to help ensure that every woman and every child can get the affordable, quality health care necessary to survive and live a healthy, productive life.”

The new funding comes from the World Bank’s International Development Association, and adds to $600 million pledged for IDA programs related to the millennium goals in 2010.

The bank said its approach has fostered concrete results in reducing maternal and infant mortality and in expanding health care access.

For instance, it said, its approach enabled sharp gains in just one year in Burundi: births at health facilities increased 25 percent, prenatal consultations rose 20 percent, and the number of children fully vaccinated increased by 10 percent.

Kim was speaking at a meeting of international political, business and development-focused leaders on how to achieve the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals with just over two years to go before the target date.

The goals, established in 2000, lay out tough targets for reducing poverty and hunger, improving education, and improving health and health care for the world’s most impoverished.

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« Reply #8924 on: Sep 24, 2013, 07:07 AM »


NSA surveillance goes beyond Orwell's imagination – Alan Rusbridger

Guardian editor says depth of NSA surveillance programs greatly exceed anything the 1984 author could have imagined
   
Dominic Rushe in New York
theguardian.com, Monday 23 September 2013 22.08 BST   
   
The potential of the surveillance state goes way beyond anything in George Orwell's 1984, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's editor-in-chief, told an audience in New York on Monday.

Speaking in the wake of a series of revelations in the Guardian about the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance operations, Rusbridger said: "Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this, this concept of scooping up everything all the time.

"This is something potentially astonishing about how life could be lived and the limitations on human freedom," he said.

Rusbridger said the NSA stories were "clearly" not a story about totalitarianism, but that an infrastructure had been created that could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.

"Obama is a nice guy. David Cameron is a nice social Democrat. About three hours from London in Greece there are some very nasty political parties. What there is is the infrastructure for total surveillance. In history, all the precedents are unhappy," said Rusbridger, speaking at the Advertising Week conference.

He said that whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked the documents, had been saying: "Look, wake up. You are building something that is potentially quite alarming."

Rusbridger said that people bring their own perspectives to the NSA revelations. People who have read Kafka or Orwell found the level of surveillance scary, he said, and that those who had lived or worked in the communist eastern bloc were also concerned.

"If you are Mark Zuckerberg and you are trying to build an international business, this is dismaying to you," Rusbridger said.

Zuckerberg recently criticised the Obama administration's surveillance apparatus. "Frankly I think the government blew it," he told TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco.

The Facebook founder was particularly damning of government claims that they were only spying on "foreigners".

"Oh, wonderful: that's really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that's really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies," said Zuckerberg.

"All sorts of people around the world are questioning what America is doing," said Rusbridger. "The president keeps saying: well we don't spy on our people. [But] that's not much comfort if you are German."

Rusbridger said the world of spying had changed incomparably in the last 15 years. "The ability of these big agencies, on an international basis, to keep entire populations under some form of surveillance, and their ability to use engineering and algorithms to erect a system of monitoring and surveillance, is astonishing," he said.

He said that as the NSA revelations had gone on, the "integrity of the internet" had been questioned. "These are big, big issues about balancing various rights in society. About how business is done. And about how safe individuals are, living their digital lives."

The Guardian editor rebuffed criticism from the Obama administration that the newspaper was drip-feeding the stories in order to get the most from them. "Well, the president has never worked in a newsroom," he said.

"If there are people out there who think we have digested all this material, and [that] we have all these stories that we are going to feed out in dribs and drabs, then I think that misunderstands the nature of news. What is happening is there is a lot of material. It's very complex material.

"These are not stories that sit up and beg to be told."

Rusbridger said the Guardian and its partners at the New York Times and ProPublica were working through the material. "It's a slow and patient business. If I were the president, I would welcome that."


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