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« Reply #3735 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:25 AM »

Obama signs law against Iran Latin America influence

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 22:56 EST

President Barack Obama enacted a law to counter Iran’s alleged influence in Latin America, through a new diplomatic and political strategy to be designed by the State Department.

The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, passed by lawmakers earlier this year, calls for the State Department to develop a strategy within 180 days to “address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity” in the region.

Although the strategy is confidential and only accessible to lawmakers, it must contain a public summary.

The text also calls on the Department of Homeland Security to bolster surveillance at US borders with Canada and Mexico to “prevent operatives from Iran, the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), its Quds Force, Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization from entering the Untied States.”

And within Latin American countries, the text provides for a multiagency action plan to provide security in those countries, along with a “counterterrorism and counter-radicalization plan” to isolate Iran and its allies.

Washington has repeatedly stated it is closely monitoring Tehran’s activities in Latin America, though senior State Department and intelligence officials have indicated there is no apparent indication of illicit activities by Iran.

Iran, placed under a series of international sanctions because of its suspect nuclear program, has opened six new embassies in the region since 2005 — bringing the total to 11 — and 17 cultural centers.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made regular visits to Latin America, though he only toured the region twice this year.

Tehran has particularly close ties with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, where it has strengthened its presence through investments.


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« Reply #3736 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:28 AM »

December 28, 2012

Russian Acquittal Escalates Human Rights Feud With U.S.

By ANDREW E. KRAMER
IHT

MOSCOW — A judge issued an acquittal on Friday of the only official to have gone to trial in Russia in the case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer whose death in prison three years ago inspired the United States Congress to pass a law addressing human rights abuses in Russia.

The official, Dr. Dmitry Kratov, the former head of the medical service at Butyrka Prison, where Mr. Magnitsky had been held, was accused of negligence for refusing repeated requests for treatment for a life-threatening illness.

Charges against another doctor had been dismissed earlier, elevating the significance of Dr. Kratov’s trial, coming just weeks after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which was critical of the Russian courts for failing to prosecute any suspects in the lawyer’s death.

But far from pursuing the case, prosecutors announced at a hearing on Monday that they would no longer press for a conviction and instead asked the judge, Tatiana Neverova, to acquit Dr. Kratov.

That reversal came four days after President Vladimir V. Putin said at a news conference that Mr. Magnitsky had died of natural causes, a statement that a lawyer for the family said had sent a message to prosecutors to drop the case.

In granting the prosecutor’s request for an acquittal, Judge Neverova also indicated that Dr. Kratov could sue the government for damages under a Russian law related to illegal prosecution, Interfax reported. Dr. Kratov told journalists at the Tverskoi Court that he had not decided whether to sue.

The judge said she had seen no evidence in the course of the proceedings incriminating Dr. Kratov or convincing her that any connection existed between his actions and Mr. Magnitsky’s death, Interfax reported.

Dr. Kratov was the only person on a list of 60 Russian officials implicated in the Magnitsky case by the United States Helsinki Commission to have stood trial in Russia. Fewer than 1 percent of suspects are acquitted in Russian criminal trials.

Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer representing the Magnitsky family, said that Dr. Kratov had signed documents refusing Mr. Magnitsky’s request to be moved to an infirmary and that he had been aware of a diagnosis of pancreatitis and gallstones five days before Mr. Magnitsky death.

In the United States, the Magnitsky Act bans suspects like Dr. Kratov from entering the country and freezes assets in the American banking system.

In retaliation, Mr. Putin signed the Dmitri Yakovlev Act on Friday, named for a Russian child adopted in the United States who died after being forgotten in a hot car. The law bans Americans from adopting Russian orphans because of cases of abuse like Dmitri’s.

Mr. Magnitsky’s employer, the hedge fund Hermitage Capital, issued a statement Friday calling the ruling “a total miscarriage of justice.”

“There is no doubt that people responsible for Magnitsky’s death are being protected by the president of Russia,” the statement said. “Now that President Putin is personally involved in the obstruction of justice in a major case of extrajudicial killing, he will have to face the consequences of his actions.”
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« Reply #3737 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:30 AM »

December 28, 2012

Russian Adoption Ban Brings Uncertainty and Outrage

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ANDREW E. KRAMER
IHT

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by American citizens, apparently blocking the departure from Russia of hundreds of orphans who had already been told that they would soon go home with new parents.

Among the children whose lives were caught up in uncertainty by the ban was a 3-year-old girl with H.I.V. Her adoption by a couple from the Rocky Mountain West was approved by a judge on Thanksgiving Day but still required a 30-day waiting period, followed by numerous bureaucratic steps that cannot be completed before the ban will become effective on Tuesday.

“I’m really, really stressed out,” said the adoptive mother, who asked not to be identified to protect the privacy of the girl she still expected to bring home.

She said she was filled with second thoughts about whether they had done everything they could to assure the adoption. “Why weren’t we on a plane as soon as there was even a mention of the ban?” she said.

The adoption ban, which was included in a broader law retaliating against the United States for an effort to punish Russian human rights violators, has opened a deep and emotional schism at the highest levels of the government and more broadly throughout Russian society. It has also dealt a severe blow to the country’s already strained diplomatic relationship with the United States.

The Kremlin’s announcement that Mr. Putin had signed the law set off fierce reactions and some immediate second-guessing, even by some of the president’s political allies.

Robert Schlegel, a lawmaker from the majority United Russia party, which championed the adoption ban in the lower house of Parliament, posted on Twitter that he had proposed an amendment that would create an exception to the ban for children with disabilities. Critics asked why he had not done so before the measure was approved.

A number of commentators, including Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a well-known host on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, compared Mr. Putin to the biblical King Herod, noting that the adoption ban was signed on the same day that the Orthodox Church commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the killing of infants in Bethlehem.

There was also sharp reaction in Washington, where some officials seemed to have been holding back in the vain hope that Mr. Putin would veto the ban.

In a statement, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called the ban “shameful and appalling.”

“The effects of this legislation are cruel and malicious,” Mr. McCain said, adding, “To punish innocent babies and children over a political disagreement between our governments is a new low, even for Putin’s Russia.”

Mr. McCain was a leading supporter of the American law targeting human rights violators in Russia. That law is named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who tried to expose government tax fraud but was arrested and died in prison in 2009 after purportedly being denied proper medical care.

In a judicial corollary to the dispute over the Magnitsky bill, a Moscow judge on Friday acquitted the only official to be tried on charges related to Mr. Magnitsky’s death.

The official, Dmitry Kratov, the former head of the medical service at Butyrka Prison, where Mr. Magnitsky had been held, had been charged with negligence for refusing repeated requests for treatment of a life-threatening illness.

Charges against another doctor were dismissed this year, and in closing arguments on Monday, the prosecutor did an about-face and urged the acquittal of Dr. Kratov, saying there was no evidence that he was responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death.

That reversal came four days after Mr. Putin, at his annual news conference, told journalists that Mr. Magnitsky had died of a heart attack, and waved off criticism by noting that prisoners die in jails all the time, including in the United States.

Dr. Kratov was the only person on a list of 60 Russian officials implicated in the Magnitsky case by the U.S. Helsinki Commission to be brought to trial in Russia.

Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer representing the Magnitsky family, said that Dr. Kratov had signed documents refusing Mr. Magnitsky’s request to be moved to an infirmary, and that he had been aware of a diagnosis of pancreatitis and gallstones five days before Mr. Magnitsky’s death.

The Magnitsky law bars individuals like Dr. Kratov, who have been accused of human rights abuses, from traveling to the United States or from owning property or other assets here.

Russian policy makers were vexed in trying to come up with a reciprocal response, in large part because Americans typically do not vacation, own homes or maintain assets in Russia. Wealthy Russians, on the other hand, have been involved in some of the biggest real estate deals in America in recent years, and often travel to the United States.

The initial legislative response in Russia focused on sanctions similar to those in the Magnitsky law on American judges and others accused of violating the rights of adopted Russian children in the United States. The law was named for Dmitri Yakovlev, a toddler who died of heatstroke in Virginia in 2008 after his adoptive father left him in a parked car for nine hours. The father was acquitted of manslaughter by a judge who ruled the death an accident.

Such cases have generated outrage here, which spilled over in 2010 when a Tennessee woman who was the adoptive mother of a 7-year-old boy sent him alone on a flight back to Russia with a note saying she could no longer handle him.

Along with the Yakovlev law, Mr. Putin signed a presidential decree ordering that the government take steps to encourage additional adoptions by Russians, and to improve health care for orphans.

Child welfare advocates, however, have mocked the decree as lip service in a country where more than 650,000 children live in foster care or orphanages, of whom about 120,000 are eligible for adoption. Many children in orphanages are sick or disabled, and most are unlikely to ever find permanent homes.

Critics of the ban say there are not enough Russians willing to adopt healthy children, let alone those with special needs.

Heather Whaley and her husband, Aaron, from Frederick, Md., were willing to do so and have been matched with a 4-year-old girl with several developmental delays who is in an orphanage in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. They have gone through exhaustive screening, and have been scraping together money to visit the girl, who is named Regina.

But now they say they do not know what to expect.

Ms. Whaley, 31, a therapist for special-needs children, and her husband, 28, an engineer, said devout Christianity drove them to adopt, along with Ms. Whaley’s happy personal experience when her parents adopted two girls, giving her two new sisters.

Regina, according to medical reports, is tiny for her age, and her speech is delayed. Russian families have not offered to take her. “With my training, I firmly believe that I can help her,” Ms. Whaley said.

The mother from the American West said she had visited her daughter twice this year, in July and in November. The little girl has blond hair and big blue eyes and is so active that the orphanage director has said, “I think there’s a boy in that little girl.”

But because she is H.I.V.-positive and already 3 years old, her chances of being adopted are slim.

“I don’t think she is desirable to anybody in Russia at this stage of the game,” said the mother, who still plans to travel to Russia next month. “She would grow up in an orphanage for her entire life and be turned out when she comes of age.”

Erik Eckholm contributed reporting from New York.


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« Reply #3738 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:35 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/28/2012 02:49 PM

The Miracle of Wenchi: Ethiopian Kids Using Tablets to Teach Themselves

By Fiona Ehlers

A US aid organization has handed children in the remote Ethiopian village of Wenchi tablet computers in an experiment aimed at enabling them to teach themselves. They are now speaking their first words of English -- without ever having encountered a teacher.

The path to Wenchi leads along the rim of an extinct volcano. It winds through banana plantations and brier patches, with wild marjoram growing rampant along the edge. There is a crater lake below, and beyond it lies the Great Rift Valley, also known as the cradle of humanity.

The ancestors of Homo sapiens lived in the valley a million years ago. Gazing across the plateau, with its green, gently rolling hills, it looks as if everything is as it has always been, before the modern age came to the village.

It takes an hour to hike to the village of Wenchi on Wenchi Lake, 3,400 meters (11,152 feet) above sea level. Eight families live there in mud huts with steeply pitched roofs covered with straw. Wenchi looks a little like the Smurfs Village. There is no electricity and no running water, the next well is an hour away and it's 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the nearest school.

The first time American Matt Keller stood on the crater rim, between the lake and the valley, looking down at Wenchi, he could hardly believe his eyes. He was searching for a place that was sufficiently far away from the rest of the world. He was already on the verge of turning around, because he didn't think anyone still lived here.

But Keller has felt a little closer to the people of Wenchi since the end of October, when floodwaters inundated Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives. Hurricane Sandy was raging, his house was underwater, and nothing worked anymore. There was no heat, no hot water and no electricity. Keller spent two days in his car, charging his mobile phone with the cigarette lighter and answering calls from around the world. Scientists, journalists and sponsors wanted to know about his computer project, and about the children from Wenchi and their prospects for the future.

It's a December morning, and Keller is making his way down to the village for his fifth visit to Wenchi. He wants to know how much progress the children have made since the last time he was there. A few girls and boys run out to greet him, reach for his hand and lead them to a new hut with solar panels on the roof.

The children are barefoot. Eight-year-old Kelbessa, with his tousled hair and dreamy eyes, is wearing a men's jacket covered with dirt and carrying a brown leather case under his arm that looks like a briefcase. Abebech is 10 and is wearing matchsticks as jewelry in her pierced earlobes. She is carrying her youngest brother in a piece of material slung over her back.

Abebech is holding the same brown leather case in her hand, containing a portable tablet PC with a touchscreen, which local residents refer to as a Computera. When Abebech switches it on, three letters appear on the screen: the letter A is wearing a baseball cap, B is warbling into a microphone and C is rapping. The letters sing the ABC song with high-pitched digital voices. They sound like Teletubbies. It isn't a sound that adults can stand listening to for long.

But with Abebech it's a different story. She loves the song and can sing along for hours. Using her fingers, she paints the letters onto the screen, concentrating on the task at hand. She wipes the snot from her nose with the back of her hand, and then she wipes her finger across the screen, quickly opening applications, typing and writing ecstatically.

After a few minutes Kelbessa, the boy, shows Keller his latest work. He has circumvented the security system that's intended to prevent children from accessing photo and video programs, because they eat up too much electricity and space on the memory cards. Kelbessa has shot a two-minute video. It shows his grandfather with the cattle, a shaky image of the hut and his sisters. Kelbessa is beaming.

Keller squats in the dust next to the children, watching quietly, thinking to himself that he is witnessing a miracle, the miracle of Wenchi. He is the first person from the Western world to come to Wenchi to explore this miracle.

Keller, 48, is a thoughtful American in safari pants. The villagers refer to him as the "ferenji," or white man. Everything has changed in Wenchi since he began making his occasional visits to the village.

Self-Teaching Experiment

Keller works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His goal is to prove that children can learn independently and without instruction. The children in Wenchi have no opportunity to attend school, because the nearest school is too far away or their parents prefer to send them out to fetch water or into the fields, where they watch the cows in the morning and the goats in the afternoon.

But what if these children, who, like their parents, can neither read nor write, were provided with a computer? And if the computer were loaded with learning programs, films about animals and faraway countries, arithmetic games, in both English and Amharic, Ethiopia's official language? And if the children were simply allowed to do as they please, in the hope that they would teach themselves and learn from each other?

Could this approach enable developing countries to make the leap into the information age? Or would the tablets end up in the dust just as quickly as children's toys end up in the garbage in the West when they cease to be new and exciting? If the experiment were a success, could the same approach be used to help 100 million children worldwide, children who don't go to school because they live in rural areas or their families are too poor?

Keller strongly believes in his hypothesis. He believes that all you have to do is give children a computer, and that everything else will fall into place. "Children are autodidacts," says Keller. "They don't have to be taught to walk and speak, either."

If his project succeeds, it will be a veritable revolution, one that could put an end to the plight of uneducated children and help bridge the gap between rich and poor.

The idea came from Nicholas Negroponte, 69, the world-famous American computer scientist, technology enthusiast and visionary. His bestseller "Total Digital," which he wrote on a notebook computer in a hut on a Greek island, was the manifesto of the Internet age.

In the book, which Negroponte wrote back in 1995, he predicted that we would live in a networked and digitized world one day. Negroponte is Keller's boss, and he's usually right. Their joint project, called "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC), has been underway in Ethiopia since February 2012. In Wenchi and another village, Wolondhete, they gave each of 20 children between the ages of four and 11 a Motorola Xoom tablet. It's a test project, and they plan to collect data for one to two years. Their plan is to find governments to finance the tablets, so that they can be distributed worldwide.

'It Works'

A few months ago, Negroponte himself was sitting in a hut in Wenchi. The children didn't know who he was, and they had only had their computers for 10 weeks. On that day, Kelbessa wrote the word "lion" in the dust in front of his hut for the first time, and Abebech reached the letter W in the alphabet. Negroponte jumped up and was close to tears, says Keller, but he quickly sat down again so as not to disturb the children.

In late October, Negroponte was at a conference in Cambridge, 10,000 kilometers away, reporting on his successes in Wenchi. He described how they had handed out the computers in their packaging, expecting that the children wouldn't know what to do with them.

"Instead," said Negroponte, with great enthusiasm, "they ripped open the packaging and, after only four minutes, found the power button." After five days, he reported, children who had never seen letters before were using 47 apps. They were singing the ABC song after two weeks, and after five months they had circumvented the Android security settings. "Now they can read and write," Negroponte said. "It works."

This meant, in other words, that children all over the world have the same capacity to learn and are equally gifted. It meant that they don't need teachers, that tablets can simply be thrown out of airplanes like CARE packages, and that this could reduce the gap in knowledge between affluent and primitive societies -- a theory that Negroponte also found thrilling.

Negroponte loves bold theories. "If a child can learn to read, reading will enable him or her to learn everything else," he says. He also believes that it's better for a child to sit in front of a computer for six hours a day than to sit in a school, with 80 other children, memorizing and mechanically reciting information. He could be right, at least when it comes to places like rural Ethiopia, Kabul or Burma.

The news of the miracle of Wenchi -- and the possibility of saving the world with tablet computers -- spread rapidly on the Internet. Suddenly Keller found himself inundated with phone calls, as he sat in his car in the middle of the storm.

But Negroponte's project was not without critics. Many were taken aback by the Western arrogance with which the project was launched. Why should African children be less gifted than Western children, someone asked in an Internet chat room. After all, they're not little monkeys.

In fact, Negroponte's words at the Cambridge conference are reminiscent of the film "Out of Africa," especially the scene in which Robert Redford puts a record player in front of baboons. The animals were hearing music for the first time, and Mozart, at that. What were they going to do, run away? It took less than two minutes before the baboons had scratched the record.

"One Laptop per Child" (OLPC) may make the world a slightly fairer place, and computer makers could make millions in the process, but the project isn't new, and it wasn't always successful.

Previous Projects Encountered Problems

Seven years ago, members of Negroponte's team handed out the first green laptops, better known as "hundred-dollar laptops." School projects in Peru, Uruguay and Rwanda attracted a lot of attention at the time. One of the problems, however, was that the students were soon surfing the Internet faster than their teachers. Besides, the teachers were locking up the computers because, as they said, the students would only play around with them and end up on pornography websites.

Another problem was that the XO-1 computers, which used the independent Linux operating system, were more expensive than promised: $188 (€142). The goal of putting 10 million of the laptops into circulation was not met. Instead, it was only three million, albeit in 25 languages and in 40 countries.

At the time, Keller was working for the United Nations World Food Program in Rome, where he felt that his talents weren't being fully utilized. He became part of the OLPC after a trip through Afghanistan, where he was trying to convince the US military to pay for a few million laptops. He met with General David Petraeus, the then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who gave him only 10 minutes and hardly listened to anything Keller said. His predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was very enthusiastic by comparison, says Keller. But McChrystal resigned the day before the two men had intended to reach a deal. Keller gave up.

But this time, with the tablets, the project has to succeed. It's a new beginning. The technology has progressed since then, and this time the project doesn't involve schoolchildren but illiterate children. They aren't surfing the web, either, not yet, at least. A tablet still costs about $400, but now that Google has brought the "Nexus" onto the market, at $199, prices will continue to fall.

'Anthropological Disneyland '

Until that happens, Keller will continue to dream about the future. He sees tablets as a tool for peace and international understanding. "Just imagine," he says, "immigrant children from the Bronx expanding their education with tablets, and Palestinian kids communicating via email with kids from Tel Aviv."

Keller is surrounded by the village elders and by grandmothers who are whipping butter in clay pots and picking lice out of their grandchildren's hair. He is troubled by the thought that even more foreigners will soon come to Wenchi, including sponsors and the press, and he fears that the village could turn into an "anthropological Disneyland."

But isn't it that already? Teletubbies in the untouched highlands of Ethiopia, children who see white children of the same age in the films they watch on their tablets, and who long for things that they'll never be able to afford?

Keller's assistant Mike is sitting next to him in the hut. He comes to Wenchi from the capital Addis Ababa once a week to replace the memory cards so that he can send the data to Cambridge, where learning experts and linguists evaluate them and can see which child is using which apps, and for how many hours the children are on the computers. The average is six, and they're usually used at night.

Mike isn't a Ferenji, a white man. He is a 29-year-old Ethiopian with an Afro and cool jeans, who studied computer science in Helsinki and works for a German aid organization in Addis Ababa. If anyone can judge whether the miracle of Wenchi is real or just a good business idea, he can.

Mike says that he's proud of his work for the first time in his life. He says that he's sick and tired of the word aid. He wasn't even born yet when Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm established his foundation for Ethiopia. Mike was only a year old when singer and activist Bob Geldof sang "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in Wembley Stadium and raised millions for the victims of famine with his "Live Aid" concert.

Self-Help Rather Than Aid

"Ethiopia was helped to death," says Mike. You can see this in Addis Ababa, he adds, the stronghold of East African aid workers, who drive around in SUVs with tinted windows and have barbecues at the Western Five-Star hotels. "You whites fed us fish," says Mike, "but you didn't show us how to fish."

But the tablet project is truly changing Ethiopia, he says, because no one is receiving handouts. "The Wenchi children work hard for six hours a day," says Mike, "merely because they like to and are proud of the fact that they can do something. We have nothing against schools, but schools just aren't being built here in the highlands."

Mike believes that Ethiopia has moved past its image as a country of starvation. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing countries on earth. It will develop into the leading economic power in East Africa within a few years, and officials there hope to see the country grow into a site for textile plants and even develop technology. This is the reason why the project means so much to the government in Addis Ababa. Apparently the education minister can hardly wait until the test phase is over and more tablets are brought to his country -- with the help of foreign sponsors, of course.

The evening fog is beginning to settle over the roofs of Wenchi. Keller is back at his five-star hotel. The solar hut in Wenchi is locked, and no one is allowed to charge his mobile phone or siphon off electricity. Those are the rules.

Eight-year-old Kelbessa is tending his father's oxen. He says that when he grows up he wants to live in the city and work with computers. He knows that it's the answer whites like to hear. Abebech says she wants to be a truck driver, and to drive from Wenchi to the market in Ambo, "with my father's potatoes." He stands next to her, looking skeptical but proud. "In the past, girls were married off," says the father. "We paid their dowries, and they were worth nothing to the family."

But how far can Abebech go when she's an adult? Two-thirds of the 85 million Ethiopians are under 25. Ambo, the next town, is filled with young, dissatisfied people who loiter in the streets. They are well educated, but they can't find jobs because there simply are no jobs to be had.

The black emptiness of night descends on Wenchi. Half the village is sitting around a fire in the hut owned by Abebech's father. It feels like it did in the past, before the modern age came to Wenchi, like a stable in Bethlehem, with an ox and two donkeys standing near the fire. The women are breastfeeding their babies and the men are telling stories about Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. The fire provides warmth and fills the hut with light, and then it slowly subsides.

Suddenly the children arrive, like a swarm of fireflies. The tablet computers serve as flashlights, as the blue glow of the future lights their way.

And then it seems as if everything made sense, after all. Abebech walks into the hut, and as the Teletubbie voices sing the ABC song on her computer, the men gather around the child. She explains the foreign letters to them and shows them how they're written. The men marvel at this 10-year-old child, a girl, at that, and they listen to her. It's a scene that would have been unthinkable before the whites came to Wenchi with their strange devices.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #3739 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:40 AM »

December 28, 2012

Official Warns Britain Against Leaving European Union

By STEPHEN CASTLE
IHT

LONDON — Almost 40 years after Britain joined the forerunner of today’s European Union, the debate over the country’s future in the Union has quickened with a warning from a top E.U. official that any moves to renegotiate the terms of British membership could wreck the bloc.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, the body that groups the 27 E.U. member states, said that the European Union had benefited tremendously from British membership and that Britain’s departure would be like seeing “a friend walk off into the desert.”

But Mr. Van Rompuy also suggested that the strategy developed by Prime Minister David Cameron to restore dwindling public support for keeping Britain inside the bloc was likely to fail.

In an interview published Friday in The Guardian, a British daily, Mr. Van Rompuy said that renegotiation could undermine the one part of the European Union that Mr. Cameron says he values most: the single market under which around 500 million Europeans can do business without barriers.

“If every member state were able to cherry-pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those that they least like, the Union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel,” he said.

The intervention from Mr. Van Rompuy highlights the fact that other nations are likely to resent a process under which Britain seeks to retain the parts of E.U. membership that it likes, while rejecting the rest. In order to renegotiate British membership terms, all other member states would have to agree on the changes.

And, if that sort of discussion begins, other countries may make demands too, including some that could weaken the single market which seeks to establish a level playing field on trading issues.

“All member states can, and do, have particular requests and needs that are always taken into consideration as part of our deliberations,” Mr. Van Rompuy said in the interview. “I do not expect any member state to seek to undermine the fundamentals of our cooperative system in Europe.”

Mr. Cameron argues that, to persuade euro-skeptical British voters to stay in the European Union, the country should loosen its political and social policy ties to the Union and refocus them around Europe’s single economic market. He wants to renegotiate the terms of British membership and seek approval for the result of that negotiation from the public, possibly in a referendum.

Britain formally joined in the process of European integration in 1973, when it acceded to the European Economic Community. Two years later, after a change of government and negotiations on the terms of membership, it held a referendum in which around two-thirds of those who voted elected to stay.

One theory in Britain is that the euro debt crisis presents a new opportunity to re-fashion the process of European integration because the 17 countries that use the single currency may need to rewrite the Union’s governing treaties in order to become more closely integrated. That could give Britain the chance to negotiate its looser relationship simultaneously as part of a grand bargain.

Mr. Van Rompuy suggested, however, that such a rewriting of the treaties might not happen because it might not be necessary.

“The treaties allow a considerable degree of flexibility and much can be done without needing to amend them,” he told The Guardian. “It is perfectly possible to write all kinds of provisions into the treaties, but amending them is a lengthy and cumbersome procedure needing the unanimous agreement of every single member government and ratification.”

Mr. Van Rompuy’s comments come at a sensitive moment, ahead of a widely anticipated speech by Mr. Cameron, expected in mid-January, during which he might make the promise of a referendum explicit. Many of his own lawmakers now want Mr. Cameron to promise a straight “in or out” vote, though he has so far resisted.

The political mood within Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party has hardened against engagement with Europe, partly because of the rise in popular support for the U.K. Independence Party, which has campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union and for tighter immigration controls.

UKIP is expected to do well in the next elections to the European Parliament in 2014, which will be held under a proportional electoral system that favors smaller parties. The party is unlikely to win many, or even any, seats in British parliamentary elections, expected the following year, because these will be fought under a first-past-the post system that tends to favor mainstream parties.

The smaller party could, though, take enough votes from the Conservative Party to deprive it of the seats it will need to form the next government.
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« Reply #3740 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:41 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/28/2012 05:57 PM

Fear of Global Recession: Germany Urges US to Resolve Budget Dispute

By Severin Weiland

All eyes are on Washington where US President Barack Obama and lawmakers are due to launch last-ditch talks Friday to avert automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that could plunge the country into recession. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reminded all sides that they have a responsibility not just to the US, but to the global economy.

Time is running out. Leading Democrats and Republicans only have a few more days left to reach a deal in their bitter dispute over spending cuts, tax hikes and the budget. If they don't, the US economy could tumble into a recession and drag the global economy down with it. At 3 p.m. EST (8 p.m. GMT) on Friday, President Barack Obama will meet congressional leaders from both parties at the White House for a last-ditch round of talks.

World attention is focused on the negotiations, for which Obama broke off his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. A deal must be reached by Sunday at the latest otherwise the US economy will go off a "fiscal cliff," shorthand for the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes worth $600 billion that will begin to take effect on Jan. 1.

The German government too is closely watching the budget battle. It could have a crippling effect on a euro-zone economy that is already struggling to keep its head above water.

"I am sure all the decisionmakers in the US are aware of their responsibility for their country and the global economy," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE hopefully on Friday.

He then added what sounded like a dig at a US that has for months been urging Europe to spend its way out of crisis. "We welcome that there is unity in Washington about the need for budget consolidation."

Still, Congressional leaders in Washington have shown no unity whatsoever when it comes to measures that might actually achieve such consolidation. And it is a division that is beginning to worry the world. The director of the International Monetary Fund's Monetary and Capital Markets Department, José Viñals, warned a few days ago that a fall off the fiscal cliff would have "dramatic consequences" for the US, the global economy and financial markets which would be likely to become far more nervous.

Accounting Tricks to Buy Time

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner informed Congress on Wednesday that without any action, the government is set to reach its $16.4 trillion debt ceiling on December 31. He said the Treasury would begin a series of "extraordinary measures" to buy time. "These extraordinary measures ... can create approximately $200 billion in headroom under the debt limit," Geithner wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.

The accounting tricks could buy the government about two months to resolve the dispute.

If no deal of any sort is reached, the consequences would be disastrous, with the spending cuts slowing the economy. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that economic growth in 2013 would be reduced by up to four percentage points, which would probably plunge the economy back into recession.

The rate of unemployment would rise from 7.9 percent at present to 9.1 percent, according to US forecasts, which translates into two million more jobless people.

Many economic analysts fear there could be a long-term recession resulting from the various measures that are set to take effect in the coming months in the form of income tax hikes, cuts in unemployment benefit and increased taxes on income from capital and real restate.
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« Reply #3741 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:42 AM »

December 28, 2012

Former Greek Official Is Said to Have Obstructed Tax Inquiry

By NIKI KITSANTONIS
IHT

ATHENS — A former Greek finance minister appeared to be implicated Friday in the tampering of the so-called Lagarde list of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts after prosecutors revealed that three of his relatives had been removed from the list.

The former minister, George Papaconstantinou, who was given the list in 2010 by his French counterpart at the time, Christine Lagarde, in an effort to prod Greece to crack down on widespread tax evasion, was expelled immediately from the beleaguered Socialist party, Pasok.

His ouster came after official documents revealed a discrepancy between the list that is under investigation by the Greek authorities and the original version, which the French gave to Greece again last week after protracted political and news media speculation about whether the original data had been tampered with.

Documents exchanged Friday by the Greek financial crimes squad and prosecutors showed that the newly delivered French list included three Swiss bank accounts that were absent from the list the Greek authorities were investigating. Those bank accounts belonged to a cousin of Mr. Papaconstantinou’s, her husband and the spouse of another cousin.

Prosecutors did not make explicit accusations of tampering but sent the list of 2,062 account holders supplied by the French authorities to Greece’s Parliament for inquiry into whether any politicians should be held accountable for the discrepancy.

Mr. Papaconstantinou, who was finance minister when Greece signed its first multibillion-euro bailout with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which Ms. Lagarde now leads, vehemently denied tampering with the list and said he had no knowledge of the missing accounts. He said he would resist attempts to make him a “sacrificial lamb” in the investigation, which has led to heavy criticism of him and his successor as finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, the current leader of Pasok, for failing to oversee a thorough investigation of the list for possible tax evasion and money laundering.

The developments on Friday prompted the two former ministers to exchange barbs in what the Greek news media speculated could become an escalating political scandal. In a written statement, Pasok accused Mr. Papaconstantinou of “handling the list in the worst possible way.” He responded by accusing Mr. Venizelos of incriminating him. “If the list has been doctored, justice must immediately investigate who had the motive to doctor it so heavy-handedly with the aim of incriminating me,” he said. All three parties in the shaky coalition government called late Friday for Parliament to investigate allegations that Mr. Papaconstantinou had removed names from the Lagarde list. The conservative New Democracy party, which leads the coalition, called for anyone found to have “intervened and doctored the contents of the list” to be “held accountable.”

A version of the Lagarde list published in October by the Greek magazine editor Costas Vaxevanis caused a political storm and led to his arrest and trial. Mr. Vaxevanis’s case shined a light on failure by the Greek authorities to curb tax evasion and fueled a debate over media freedom. He was cleared of charges of violating personal privacy but faces a retrial after a prosecutor appealed the verdict.
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« Reply #3742 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:44 AM »

December 28, 2012

As Walmart Makes Safety Vows, It’s Seen as Obstacle to Change

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and JIM YARDLEY
IHT

When Walmart’s chief executive, Michael Duke, appeared at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in New York this month, a raucous crowd of protesters awaited him. Walmart was confronting reports of bribery in Mexico, a wave of labor demonstrations in the United States and, perhaps most critically, questions about a grisly fire that had killed 112 workers at a Bangladeshi garment factory used by several Walmart suppliers.

“We will not buy from an unsafe factory,” Mr. Duke told the audience. “If a factory is not going to operate with high standards, then we would not purchase from that factory.”

But Mr. Duke’s reassurances that Walmart enforces high standards in the global clothing industry appear to be contradicted by inspection reports it requested and some of Walmart’s own internal communications:

¶ Just two weeks before Mr. Duke’s vow, a top Walmart executive acknowledged in an e-mail to a group of retailers that the industry’s safety monitoring system was seriously flawed. “Fire and electrical safety aspects are not currently adequately covered in ethical sourcing audits,” Rajan Kamalanathan, the executive, wrote to other board members of the Global Social Compliance Program, a business-led group focused on improving the supply chain.

¶ Three inspection reports from 2011 and 2012 at the Tazreen Fashions factory where the fire occurred revealed serious repeated violations, including a lack of fire alarms in many areas, a shortage of fire extinguishers and obstacles blocking workers’ escape routes. At the same time, those inspections did not even cover whether the factory had fire-safe emergency exits, leaving that responsibility to often lax government inspectors.

¶ Walmart led an effort to block a plan to have global retailers underwrite safety improvements at factories in Bangladesh, according to minutes of an April 2011 meeting as well as several participants.

Walmart has become the world’s largest retailer by demanding the lowest costs from suppliers and delivering the lowest prices to consumers — while promising its customers that the billions of dollars of goods it buys from Bangladesh, China and other countries are produced in safe, nonsweatshop factories. Walmart buys more than $1 billion in garments from Bangladesh each year, attracted by the country’s $37-a-month minimum wage, the lowest in the world.

But even as the deadly Nov. 24 fire at the Tazreen factory has stirred soul-searching inside and outside the apparel industry about the effectiveness of its global factory monitoring system, some nonprofit groups say Walmart has been an important obstacle to efforts to upgrade fire safety. That is partly because it has shown little interest in changing the existing practice of demanding that the factories, often operating at razor-thin margins, meet fire safety standards at their own cost.

“They are squeezing the manufacturers, and the manufacturers are happy to get away with the minimum compliance that they can,” said Farooq Sobhan, a former Bangladeshi diplomat involved in past negotiations between Bangladesh and the United States on trade policy for apparel. “It is kind of a vicious cycle.”

Walmart says it is doing everything it can to prevent factory fires. “Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers,” Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We firmly believe factory owners must meet our supplier standards, and we recognize the cost of meeting those standards will be part of the cost of the goods we buy. We know our customers expect this of us and our suppliers.”

Walmart also insists that several of its apparel suppliers were using the Tazreen factory without its approval. Two days after the Tazreen fire, Walmart said it had “de-authorized” use of the factory, but without saying when or why; two weeks later it said it had taken the action “many months ago.”

But critics say that the inspection reports discovered in the Tazreen factory— which were obtained by The New York Times from a labor advocacy group — underscore fundamental problems with Walmart’s supply chain in Bangladesh, allowing it to avoid addressing safety problems it should have dealt with.

“The Walmart system of audits and inspections is not improving the factory safety conditions here in Bangladesh,” said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. “They maintain this system to enable them to keep their hands clean and deny responsibility.”

Two Walmart-sponsored inspections in 2011, along with a third monitoring report in April 2012, revealed recurring violations, with the first Walmart audit report, containing a warning from a Walmart official, giving the factory an “orange,” or high risk, assessment. Under Walmart’s rules, such factories are to be reinspected within six months, and are disqualified only after failing three audits within two years — raising the possibility that workers remain exposed a year or more to serious dangers before a factory is dropped.

“It is not enough to have a system that does a checklist of problems and keeps track of what happens to those problems every six months,” said Dara O’Rourke, a labor specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. “They should say, ‘We got Code Orange problems in this factory, which are putting workers’ lives at risk. What can we do immediately to solve these problems and eliminate these risks?’ ”

Flawed Monitoring

In February 2010, Douglas McMillon, chief executive of Walmart International, arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, on an unannounced visit. Walmart was already a major buyer of garments in Bangladesh but now planned to purchase far more.

Under tight security, Mr. McMillon held court in a conference room of the Radisson hotel, summoning a small delegation of industry leaders. One participant recalled even being forbidden from taking his cellphone and fountain pen. During the meeting, according to the participant, Mr. McMillon spoke out about Walmart’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and expressed sympathy when one Bangladeshi factory owner complained about the difficulty in meeting certain standards, given the low prices paid by buyers.

“They wanted to enhance their actions of corporate social responsibility,” said the participant, agreeing to speak only on the condition of anonymity because of Walmart’s influence in Bangladesh. “But it never happened.”

Walmart has long held itself out as an industry leader in pushing for safety and ethical standards at the overseas factories that supply its stores, saying it further toughened its fire safety standards this year. It boasts that monitors did 9,737 inspections at 8,713 factories last year to verify that Walmart’s suppliers were adhering to its standards. Moreover, Walmart executives have played a forceful role in industry discussions about what should be done to prevent future factory fires.

“We need to work with the industry and to find other ways to raise the bar on safety standards,” Mr. Duke said at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the days after the Tazreen disaster, Mr. Kamalanathan, the Walmart executive who acknowledged the inadequacy of factory inspections, proposed a series of recommendations to improve fire safety. But nearly all of them put the onus on Bangladeshi authorities and factory owners.

He called on the government to conduct more inspections, tighten standards and phase out factories deemed unsafe. He suggested more rigorous fire safety training and, significantly, said factory owners should pay for any corrective actions. A copy of his e-mail was provided by an official who believes Walmart has not done enough to improve factory safety.

Many workplace safety experts say Walmart’s own monitoring system is part of the problem. A report on an inspection of Tazreen Fashions, conducted in May 2011, found that the factory had only 30 of the 66 required fire extinguishers. There were no fire alarms or fire hose pipes on the factory’s fourth and fifth floors and no smoke detectors in the room where yarn was stored. The evacuation plan was outdated, and the factory lacked a health and safety committee, as required by law. The factory’s managers said they would fix most of the problems within weeks.

The factory was again inspected seven months later, in December 2011, and again serious problems were discovered. Like the previous inspection, it was sponsored by NTD Apparel, a Montreal-based company that supplies Walmart. The inspection found an inadequate number of fire extinguishers; partly blocked exit routes; an absence of battery-powered, backup emergency lights on the work floor to help workers escape in case of a power failure; and three exit doors on the ground floor that opened inward, a feature that can prove fatal when hundreds of workers are rushing and pushing to escape a blaze.

Sajeev Jesudas, president of UL Verification Services, whose company conducted the daylong December inspection, said it did not consider itself responsible for inspecting for fire escapes or enclosed stairways. “That’s the responsibility of the local building code inspector,” he said in an interview. “We don’t have jurisdiction to inspect the building code.”

Bangladesh’s government inspectors, however, are known to be overstretched and prone to frequent lapses. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, said a major reason so many workers died was that yarn and fabric were not stored in a fireproof warehouse, as required by law, and that the eight-story factory did not have the external fire escapes or enclosed fireproof, smoke-proof staircases that the Walmart-backed inspector should have flagged.

“If Walmart’s audits are not ensuring that a multiple-story factory in Bangladesh has functioning fire emergency exits,” Mr. Nova said, “then they’re not really auditing for fire safety.”

Repeat Violations

Serious safety problems continued well into 2012. An inspection last April — done by a Bangladesh apparel contractor that often supplies Western companies — found numerous violations, not just continuing problems with fire extinguishers and fire alarms but also that Tazreen needed to keep aisles “free from blockage at cutting section and sewing section.”

Walmart has released only limited details of its own relationship with Tazreen Fashions. Documents found at the factory after the fire show that six Walmart suppliers had been using the factory in the previous 18 months, including two relying on Tazreen in the weeks just before the fire. Documents show that as recently as last Sept. 13, two months before the fire, 55 percent of the factory’s production was for Walmart suppliers. Two days after the fatal fire, Walmart said it had fired a supplier who it said was using the factory without permission.

Walmart says on its Web site that it has dropped 94 factories in Bangladesh for fire safety issues since 2010; 23 other factories moved to safer buildings.

For all the problems, though, many labor advocates do not want buyers like Walmart to simply abandon factories found wanting.

“We want buyers to stay and use their power to ensure factories treat workers decently,” said Ms. Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. “Walmart did not have to leave, because they had the power and the money to make the factory safe.”

In April 2011, an urgent meeting was called in Dhaka, bringing together 50 labor leaders, factory owners, government officials and representatives of retailers like Walmart, Sears, Gap and Target. The issue was fire safety. Two factory fires in 2010 had killed 50 workers.

Blocking Fixes

On the table were two issues: how to improve safety and who should pay for it. Labor advocates and Bangladeshi officials hoped Western companies would pledge to help finance improvements in fire safety, like fire alarms and fire escapes. But according to the minutes of the meeting and several participants, Walmart took the lead in blocking the proposal.

The minutes, which were made available to The Times, state that Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, joined by an official from the Gap, noted that the proposed improvements would involve up to 4,500 factories and would “‘in most cases” involve a “very extensive and costly modification.”

“It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,” the minutes quoted them as saying.

One participant, Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an antisweatshop group based in Amsterdam, said that Walmart was the retailer that “most strongly advocated this position” and that its opposition effectively killed the proposal.

Walmart said its remarks were taken “out of context,” adding that it “has been actively developing and implementing proactive programs to raise fire safety awareness and increase fire prevention.”

But Richard Locke, a factory monitoring expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, questioned Walmart’s approach. “If Walmart is serious about trying to improve safety,” he said, “then the retailers need to contribute” to financing safety improvements.

Labor groups and some Western retailers are pressing Walmart to join an effort in which PVH, the parent of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have agreed to help pay for fire and electrical safety improvements at Bangladeshi factories. Under the plan, an independent international monitor would inspect factories, and the companies would promise to pay what was needed to bring the factories up to standard.

In the recommendations he e-mailed to officials at other retailers, Mr. Kamalanathan, Walmart’s head of ethical sourcing, expressed sadness about the Tazreen fire but largely attributed the problems to inadequate fire safety preparations and poor oversight by Bangladeshi agencies, which he noted were “understaffed” and “unable to adequately and comprehensively monitor all factories.” He then floated Walmart’s new plan, including recommendations that Bangladeshi government officials inspect more strictly, closing unsafe factories, while factory owners finance needed safety improvements.

Experts agree that Bangladesh’s government and factories provide inadequate monitoring and enforcement on fire safety. But many also agree that it is unrealistic to expect governments to enforce labor laws aggressively and shut down unsafe factories, given the disincentives for Bangladesh and other low-wage countries that are eager to attract apparel orders to create jobs and increase exports.

“It is disingenuous,” said Professor O’Rourke of Berkeley, “for a company to blame the local government for not doing its job, when the company knows very well that part of the reason there are so many factories in this country is that local labor laws and other laws are not enforced and production costs are lower because of that.”

Mr. Sobhan, the former Bangladeshi diplomat, said that Walmart, for all its ambitions, was far less active on corporate social responsibility issues in Bangladesh than retailers like Carrefour and H&M. “They are certainly lagging well behind the others,” Mr. Sobhan said. “We’d like to see them being more proactive in doing the right thing.”
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« Reply #3743 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:45 AM »

Pharma firms tested drugs on East Germans: report

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 16:21 EST

Major Western pharmaceutical companies carried out tests of medications in the 1980s on patients in communist East Germany, in some cases without the subjects’ knowledge, a media report said Friday.

“We have documents showing there were contracts between Western drug companies and East German institutions for medical tests,” a staff member at the German national archive told AFP, partially confirming a report in the daily Der Tagesspiegel.

The newspaper, which examined the documents, reported that more than 50 Western firms had contracts with East Germany’s Health Ministry to carry out a total of 165 medical tests between 1983 and 1989.

In exchange, the communist authorities were paid up to 860,000 deutschmarks (around 430,000 euros today or $567,000), according to the report, at a time when East Germany was desperate for hard currency.

Der Tagesspiegel said the companies involved included Bayer, Schering, Hoechst (now Sanofi), Boehringer Ingelheim and Goedecke (today owned by Pfizer).

It said the test subjects often were not informed, citing seven specific cases in which patients said later they had been unaware they were involved in testing. The national archive said it could not confirm this.

Regional public broadcaster MDR, which also reported on the issue, cited the case of a 60-year-old patient, Gerhard Lehrer, who was recovering from a heart attack in a Dresden hospital in 1989.

After receiving “special” medications “that were not on the market” prescribed by a doctor at the clinic, his condition deteriorated further.

Lehrer’s wife secretly pocketed some of the pills. When MDR had them tested at her request, it learned they were placebos that it said were part of a study commissioned by Hoechst.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea admitted in November that some of its suppliers used forced labour in communist East Germany and expressed “deep regret” that its controls were less strict at the time.

According to media reports, mail-order companies Neckermann and Quelle also employed East German prisoners against their will.
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« Reply #3744 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:50 AM »

Light-powered magnetic levitation could create ‘new class’ of solar energy

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, December 28, 2012 11:01 EST

In a breakthrough that could one day revolutionize transportation and electricity generation, scientists at the University in Kanagawa in Japan demonstrated this month a disc that spins at over 200 rotations per minute when placed over a magnet in direct sunlight, saying the discovery could help create a wholly “new class” of solar energy.

Professor Jiro Abe and Dr. Masayuki Kobayashi presented their discovery in the December issue of Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Speaking a reporter with Phys.org, Abe said their research represents “the first time in the world” that humans have been able to achieve “real-time motion control” of inanimate objects without individual parts of the machine coming into direct contact.

The study goes on to explain that it works because the light slightly changes the temperature of the graphite, which causes subtle fluctuations in the material’s “magnetic susceptibility.”

Video of the discovery published to YouTube earlier this month showed scientists moving a tiny disc over an array of small magnets by firing a laser at it. Additional footage also featured that same disc levitating over a single magnet, rapidly spinning in place when placed under direct sunlight.

“Because this technique is very simple and fundamental, it is expected to apply to various daily living techniques, such as transportation systems and amusement, as well as photo-actuators and light energy conversion systems,” Abe reportedly said.

It is unclear how long such a discovery will take to be implemented into a practical mass-transportation system, if ever. It remains questionable if the discovery will lend itself to a device that generates enough electricity to become self-sustaining.

This video was published to YouTube on December 19, 2012.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AJ7fMVp_O5s


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« Reply #3745 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:52 AM »

December 27, 2012

Carbon Taxes Make Ireland Even Greener

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
IHT

DUBLIN — Over the last three years, with its economy in tatters, Ireland embraced a novel strategy to help reduce its staggering deficit: charging households and businesses for the environmental damage they cause.

The government imposed taxes on most of the fossil fuels used by homes, offices, vehicles and farms, based on each fuel’s carbon dioxide emissions, a move that immediately drove up prices for oil, natural gas and kerosene. Household trash is weighed at the curb, and residents are billed for anything that is not being recycled.

The Irish now pay purchase taxes on new cars and yearly registration fees that rise steeply in proportion to the vehicle’s emissions.

Environmentally and economically, the new taxes have delivered results. Long one of Europe’s highest per-capita producers of greenhouse gases, with levels nearing those of the United States, Ireland has seen its emissions drop more than 15 percent since 2008.

Although much of that decline can be attributed to a recession, changes in behavior also played a major role, experts say, noting that the country’s emissions dropped 6.7 percent in 2011 even as the economy grew slightly.

“We are not saints like those Scandinavians — we were lapping up fossil fuels, buying bigger cars and homes, very American,” said Eamon Ryan, who was Ireland’s energy minister from 2007 to 2011. “We just set up a price signal that raised significant revenue and changed behavior. Now, we’re smashing through the environmental targets we set for ourselves.”

By contrast, carbon taxes are viewed as politically toxic in the United States. Republican leaders in Congress have pledged to block any proposal for such a tax, and President Obama has not advocated one, although the idea has drawn support from economists of varying ideologies.

Yet when the Irish were faced with new environmental taxes, they quickly shifted to greener fuels and cars and began recycling with fervor. Automakers like Mercedes found ways to make powerful cars with an emissions rating as low as tinier Nissans. With less trash, landfills closed. And as fossil fuels became more costly, renewable energy sources became more competitive, allowing Ireland’s wind power industry to thrive.

Even more significantly, revenue from environmental taxes has played a crucial role in helping Ireland reduce a daunting deficit by several billion euros each year.

The three-year-old carbon tax has raised nearly one billion euros ($1.3 billion) over all, including 400 million euros in 2012. That provided the Irish government with 25 percent of the 1.6 billion euros in new tax revenue it needed to narrow its budget gap this year and avert a rise in income tax rates.

The International Monetary Fund, which oversees the rescue plan, recently suggested that Ireland should “expand the well-designed carbon tax” and its automobile taxes to generate even more money.

Although first proposed by the Green Party, the environmental taxes enjoy the support of all major political parties “because it puts a lot of money on the table,” said Frank Convery, an economist at University College Dublin. The bailout plan for 2013 requires Ireland to embrace a mix of new tax revenues and spending cuts.

Not everyone is happy. The prices of basic commodities like gasoline and heating oil have risen 5 to 10 percent. This is particularly hard on the poor, although the government has provided subsidies for low-income families to better insulate homes, for example. And industries complain that the higher prices have made it harder for them to compete outside Ireland.

“Prices just keep going up, and a lot of people think it’s a scam,” said Imelda Lyons, 45, as she filled her car at a gas station here. “You call it a carbon tax, but what good is being done with it to help the environment?”

The coalition government that enacted the taxes was voted out of office last year. “Just imagine President Obama saying in the debate, ‘I’ve got this great idea, but it’s going to increase your gasoline price,’ ” said Mr. Ryan, who lost his seat in the last election and now leads the Green Party. “People didn’t exactly cheer us on.”

A recent report estimated that a modest carbon tax in the United States that increased incrementally over time could generate about $1.25 trillion in revenue from 2012 to 2022, reducing the 10-year deficit by 50 percent, based on projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

“I think most economists — on the right and the left — think a carbon tax is a good idea,” said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group that held a daylong seminar on carbon taxes in November. Some economists estimate that a carbon tax could raise $400 billion annually in the United States, she said. But the issue remains a nonstarter in the American political arena. even though Gilbert Metcalf, the Obama administration’s deputy assistant Treasury secretary for environment and energy, long promoted carbon taxes as a Tufts University economist.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative advocacy group, has even filed a Freedom of Information suit seeking the release of Treasury Department e-mails containing the word “carbon” to make sure that nothing is in the works. Like many other economists, Dr. Metcalf has argued that carbon taxation is preferable to government regulation or cap-and-trade systems because it sets a straightforward price on greenhouse gas emissions and is relatively hard to evade.

Although carbon taxes in some ways disproportionately affect the poor — who are less able to buy new, more efficient cars, for example — such taxes do heavily penalize the wealthy, who consume far more. As with “sin taxes” on cigarettes, the taxes also alleviate some of the societal costs of pollution.

For several years, the European Commission has encouraged debt-ridden members of the European Union to embrace environmental taxes, saying that its economists have concluded they have “a less detrimental macroeconomic impact” than new income taxes or corporate taxes.

“Europeans don’t like taxes either,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action. “But this is good for the environment, and also good for our competitiveness.”

Some of Europe’s strongest economies, like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, have taxed carbon dioxide emissions since the early 1990s, and Japan and Australia have introduced them more recently.

Ireland took the plunge after its economy collapsed in 2008 as a result of loose credit policies that created a real estate bubble; in one year, tax revenues fell 25 percent. With a huge bailout in 2010 by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Ireland’s deficit soared to 11.9 percent of its gross domestic product, or over 30 percent with all loans factored in.

The environmental taxes work in concert with austerity measures like reduced welfare payments and higher fees for health care that are expected to save 2.2 billion euros this year. The carbon tax is levied on fossil fuels when they enter the country and is then passed on to consumers at the point of purchase. The automobile sales tax, which ranges from 14 to 36 percent of a car’s market price depending on its emissions, is simply folded into the sticker price.

That sent manufacturers racing to reduce emissions. Automakers like Mercedes and Volvo began making cars with high-efficiency diesel engines that shut off rather than idle when they stop, for example. “For manufacturers it’s all, ‘How low you can get?’ ” said Donal Duggan, a brand manager at an MSL showroom near central Dublin.

Other emissions taxes on cars, including the annual car registration fee, or road tax, are billed directly to customers, potentially adding thousands to annual operating costs. Ninety percent of new car sales last year were in the two lowest-emission tiers.

The taxes on garbage had an immediate impact. In Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County in southeastern Dublin, each home’s “black bin” for garbage headed to the landfill is weighed at pickup to calculate quarterly charges. Green bins for recyclables are emptied free of charge.

“There was a big furor initially, but now everything I throw out, I think, ‘How could I recycle this?’ ” said Tara Brown, a mother of three.

Of course, new environmental taxes bring new pain. Gas, always expensive in Europe, sells here for about $8 a gallon, around 20 percent more than in 2009 because of tightening market supplies and the new tax.

Still, Dr. Convery, the economist, is encouraging the government to raise carbon tax rates for 2013, declaring, “You don’t want to waste a good crisis to do what we should be doing anyway.”


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« Reply #3746 on: Dec 29, 2012, 08:08 AM »

In the USA...

December 28, 2012

Senate Leaders Set to Work on a Last-Minute Tax Agreement

By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JENNIFER STEINHAUER
NYT

WASHINGTON — At the urging of President Obama, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate set to work Friday night to assemble a last-minute tax deal that could pass both chambers of Congress and avert large tax increases and budget cuts next year, or at least stop the worst of the economic punch from landing beginning Jan. 1.

After weeks of fruitless negotiations between the president and Speaker John A. Boehner, Mr. Obama turned to Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader — two men who have been fighting for dominance of the Senate for years — to find a solution. The speaker, once seen as the linchpin for any agreement, essentially ceded final control to the Senate and said the House would act on whatever the Senate could produce.

“The hour for immediate action is here. It is now,” Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room after an hourlong meeting with the two Senate leaders, Mr. Boehner and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. He added, “The American people are not going to have any patience for a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy, not right now.”

Senate Democrats want Mr. McConnell to propose an alternative to Mr. Obama’s final offer and present it to them in time for a compromise bill to reach the Senate floor on Monday and be sent to the House. Absent a bipartisan deal, Mr. Reid said Friday night that he would accede to the president’s request to put to a vote on Monday Mr. Obama’s plan to extend tax cuts for all income below $250,000 a year and to renew expiring unemployment compensation for as many as two million people, essentially daring Republicans to block it and allow taxes to rise for most Americans.

Bipartisan agreement still hinged on the Senate leaders finding an income level above which taxes will rise on Jan. 1, most likely higher than Mr. Obama’s level of $250,000. Quiet negotiations between Senate and White House officials were already drifting up toward around $400,000 before Friday’s White House meeting. The two sides were also apart on where to set taxes on inherited estates.

But senators broke from a long huddle on the Senate floor with Mr. McConnell on Friday night to say they were more optimistic that a deal was within reach. Mr. McConnell, White House aides and Mr. Reid were to continue talks on Saturday, aiming for a breakthrough as soon as Sunday.

“We’re working with the White House, and hopefully we’ll come up with something we can recommend to our respective caucuses,” said Mr. McConnell, who has played a central role in cutting similar bipartisan deals in the past.

The emerging path to a possible resolution, at least on Friday, appeared to mirror the end of the protracted stalemate over the payroll tax last year. In that conflict, House Republicans refused to go along with a short-term extension of the cut, but Mr. McConnell reached an agreement that permitted such a measure to get through the Senate, and the House speaker essentially forced members to accept it from afar, after they had left forChristmas recess.

This time, the consequences are more significant, with more than a half-trillion dollars in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts just days from going into force, an event most economists warn would send the economy back into recession if not quickly mitigated. With the House set to return to the Capitol on Sunday night, Mr. Boehner has said he would place any Senate bill before his chamber and let the vote proceed and the chips fall. The House could also change the legislation and return it to the Senate.

If the Senate is able to produce a bill that is largely bipartisan, there is a strong belief among House Republicans that the same measure would easily pass the House, with a large number of Republicans. While Mr. Boehner was unable to muster enough votes for his alternative bill that would have protected tax cuts for income under $1 million, that was because the measure lacked Democratic support, and was roughly a few dozen votes shy of passage with Republicans alone.

“I’ve got a positive feeling now,” said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who said a burst of deal-making talk broke out as soon as the leaders returned to the Capitol.

Despite the new optimism, it was clear that any deal in the next three days would only alleviate the worst aspects of the “fiscal cliff” while leaving big decisions on taxes and spending to the next showdown, most likely by February when Congress must raise the government’s debt limit. A Republican aide briefed on the meeting said the speaker told the other negotiators that House Republicans would not turn off $100 billion in automatic military and domestic spending cuts in 2013 without equivalent cuts elsewhere. Also likely to be left out of a deal is any agreement to raise the debt limit.

But Mr. Boehner appeared to recognize that he was no longer dictating terms. According to the aide, the speaker said repeatedly, “Let us know what you come up with, and we’ll consider it — accept it or amend it.”

Even before the meeting, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Finance Committee, said “things are starting to gel” around a deal. According to aides familiar with the talks, the plan, in its early stages, centered on a deal that would extend all the expiring Bush income tax cuts up to $400,000 in income.

Some spending cuts would pay for a provision putting off a sudden reduction in payments to medical providers treating Medicare patients. The deal would also prevent an expansion of the alternative minimum tax to keep it from hitting more of the middle class. It would extend a raft of already expired business tax cuts, like the research and development credit, and would renew tax cuts for the working poor and the middle class included in the 2009 stimulus law.

Democrats from high-tax, high-wealth states have pressed the White House and their leaders to accept a threshold higher than the president’s $250,000, but they appear ready to accept anything that can pass.

“I have a very practical standard to apply: whatever threshold we need to avoid the fiscal cliff,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent from Connecticut.

After the meeting, Mr. Obama and officials at the White House appeared visibly optimistic. The president was cheerful with his aides before he walked into the Brady Press Briefing Room to deliver his remarks before assembled reporters. A person briefed on the meeting described a “give and take” atmosphere.

“They could have just sat there,” said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly. “But they didn’t; they were going back and forth, which is a pretty good sign.”

In an effort to keep the pressure on, Mr. Obama, for the second time in his presidency, has agreed to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, giving him a forum to push for a deal and to provide his view of the state of the negotiations.

Hoping to stave off the expiration of dozens of farm programs and the carrying out of a 1949 farm law that could double the price of milk, Senate and House leaders were also working on legislation to extend the current farm bill. The most recent farm bill, passed in 2008, expired on Sept. 30. If a new farm bill is not passed or the current one extended, farm programs would lose billions in financing and revert to the 1949 law.

The old law would reintroduce higher government price supports for milk, corn, rice, wheat and other crops and could lead to higher consumer prices and federal spending.

Helene Cooper and Ron Nixon contributed reporting.

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Obama urges ‘immediate action’ as Senate leaders get to work on new deal

By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Friday, December 28, 2012 19:33 EST

President says talks ‘good and constructive’ but if deal cannot be struck by Sunday Senate will have to vote on fallback proposal

President Barack Obama has demanded that Senate leaders strike a fiscal cliff deal by Sunday to avert the looming US economic crisis, or face a vote based solely on his own measures.

Speaking after a short meeting on Friday afternoon with Congressional leaders, the president expressed frustration with the slow pace of talks. “This is déjà vu all over again,” said Obama.

“The hour for immediate action is here, it is now. We are now at the point where, in just four days, every Americans’ tax rates are set to go up,” he said, adding: “The American people are watching what we do here. Obviously their patience is already thin.”

Obama met with House speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Democrat colleagues Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, in the hope of thrashing out a deal. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner was also in attendance.

The president described the talks as “good and constructive”, but added that the way Washington works must seem to be “mind-boggling” to those outside the capital.

If no deal is done, 88% of Americans will see their taxes rise on January 1, a wave of deep spending cuts will start to take effect, and 2 million long-term unemployed people will lose their benefits.

Obama said he had asked Reid and McConnell to draw up a Senate bill. But in the event of no deal being struck, he has also instructed Reid to draw up a basic package to be put before the floor for an “up or down vote”.

That bill would be based solely on his own remedy to the immediate fiscal crisis facing the US at year end. Nonetheless, Obama expressed a belief that such a bill could pass both the House and Senate.

Obama said the measures would protect “the middle class from an income tax hike, extends the vital lifeline of unemployment insurance to two million Americans looking for a job and lays the ground work for future cooperation on more economic growth a deficit reduction.”

McConnell said he was “hopeful and optimistic” that a deal could be done. “We will be working hard to see if we can get this done in the next 24 hours,” he said after the meeting.

Boehner released a statement after the meeting: “The leaders spent the majority of the meeting discussing potential options and components for a plan that could pass both chambers of Congress. The Speaker told the President that if the Senate amends the House-passed legislation and sends back a plan, the House will consider it – either by accepting or amending. The group agreed that the next step should be the Senate taking bipartisan action.”

Friday’s moves came after a day of bitter recriminations on Thursday, there were small signs of hope Friday ahead of the White House meeting, as senior senators said they believed a deal could be brokered. “I am hopeful there will be a deal that avoids the worst parts of the fiscal cliff – namely taxes going up on middle-class people,” Democrat Chuck Schumer told NBC’s Today show. “I think there can be, and I think the odds are better than people think there could be.”

“I think in the end we’ll get a deal,” said Republican John Thune. “The question is the timing of that. It is encouraging that sides are sitting down. They continue to have lines of communication there, and I view that as optimistic.”

Scepticism remains about the chances of a deal being done. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker told reporters prior to the meeting that while he expected a new offer from Obama, “it’s feeling very much like an optical meeting, not a substantive meeting.”

In the US, stock markets fell for the fifth straight day, as investors waited nervously for the latest twists in the slow-moving drama. The Congressional Budget Office has warned that going over the fiscal cliff will push the US back into recession, and drive unemployment up to 9.1% from its current rate of 7.9%.Sean West, a policy analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said he was still hopeful a deal could be done. “We think the best-case scenario is that they will leave the meeting voicing cautious optimism. Everyone is looking for signs of progress. If they can’t signal that things are different from last week, that would be a very bad situation,” he said.

Following a flurry of activity before Christmas, there has been little sign of a breakthrough in recent days. On Thursday, the White House scotched rumours that a new bill was set to be presented to Congress. Reid and McConnell will spend Saturday hammering out a bill before presenting it to the Senate on Sunday.

Friday’s comments came after a day of fierce rhetoric in Washington. Reid, the Senate majority leader, lambasted Boehner and his Republican colleagues, and said the speaker was operating a “dictatorship” and had delayed compromise ahead of a vote on his role on January 3.

“Members of the House of Representatives are out watching movies, and watching their kids play soccer and basketball, and doing all kinds of things,” Reid said as the Senate sat for the first time since Christmas. “They should be here.”

Boehner has now called back the House of Representatives, whose members will get back to work on Sunday. He warned colleagues to be prepared to work through the New Year.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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Senate votes to extend warrantless wiretapping powers

By Stephen C. Webster
RawStory
Friday, December 28, 2012 13:41 EST

The U.S. Senate passed a bill on Friday that reauthorizes and extends the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a law that was originally meant to retroactively grant legal immunity to the Bush administration and telecoms, along with temporary authorization to wiretap non-Americans inside the United States without first having to acquire a warrant.

The law was set to expire at midnight on Friday, but the Senate’s vote means it will almost certainly be extended through December 2017.

Before passing the extension by a vote of 73-23, lawmakers blocked amendments by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (R-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have narrowed the window of reauthorization, added more oversight to the program and required annual reports to Congress on the privacy impacts of the program.

The extension continues warrantless wiretapping powers that apply even in the event that one person participating in the communication is an American citizen, despite the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for court oversight. It was originally passed in 2008 as a means of granting top Bush administration officials and the telecommunications companies legal immunity against suits over wiretaps that even the former president once claimed to be illegal.

The bill amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was passed in 1978 after President Richard Nixon’s (R) wiretapping of political opponents was exposed by journalists. It set up a secret court to retroactively approve wiretapping requests by law enforcement agencies up to several days after the spying begins.

In amending the FISA statute, Congress largely sidelined the court and granted law enforcement blanket authority to single out non-Americans for wiretaps, in addition to retroatively forgiving the telephone companies and Internet providers for assisting the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping requests after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As a Senator, Barack Obama vowed he would end warrantless wiretaps and initially opposed the FISA law based on the addition of telecom immunity, but ultimately voted for it with immunity intact just six months before winning the 2008 presidential election. Incidentally, the plan was opposed then by six in 10 Americans, according to a poll by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Some of Obama’s highest-profile supporters, like former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), said they believed President Obama would push for amendments to better protect Americans’ constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment, but the Obama White House has supported extending the act’s powers without an iota of change.

“This is a sad moment,” Feingold told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2008. “It really is a black mark, not only on the Democrats, but on the Congress and really the history of our country.”

Reacting to the Senate’s vote on Friday, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michelle Richardson said in an advisory that the move is a “tragic irony.”

“The Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping, once considered a radical threat to the Fourth Amendment, has become institutionalized for another five years,” she said.

The House version of the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act was passed by the House in September. The vote was 301 to 118, with just five Republicans opposing the extension.

Although the 112th Congress is on track to be the least productive in U.S. history, Republicans and Democrats somehow also managed to agree upon the indefinite detention of American citizens – even though a majority of Senators voted to strip that provision from the bill.

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The Caucus - The Politics and Government blog of The New York Times
December 28, 2012, 4:45 pm

Democratic Establishment Voices Support for Markey’s Bid to Succeed Kerry

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

The Democratic ranks are closing behind Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts in the race to succeed Senator John Kerry, who hopes to become secretary of state.

The race is shaping up with unusual speed, considering that Mr. Kerry has not yet vacated the seat, and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has yet to set a date for a special election.

But several big guns in the Democratic Party began on Friday to line up behind Mr. Markey, who declared his candidacy on Thursday in a race that was expected to be crowded with high-profile possibilities.

The first to issue a statement was Mr. Kerry.

"While I began last week to formally step out of politics and it's very important that I respect the apolitical nature of the post I hope to soon occupy, as Massachusetts' senior senator today and as a colleague of Ed Markey's for 28 years, I'm excited to learn of and support his decision to run for the United States Senate,'' the statement said.

It avoided the word "endorse" but was clearly intended to send a signal that Mr. Kerry was supporting Mr. Markey.

Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, then endorsed Mr. Markey, saying in a statement, "He knows how to get things done."

Mrs. Kennedy is said to be interested in being appointed interim senator until the winner of the special election is declared, but she did not mention it in her statement.

A statement from Senator Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also favored Mr. Markey.

"At a time when the country needs real leadership that looks out for the middle class, Ed Markey always remembers where he came from and will continue the hard work needed to turn our economy around," Mr. Bennet wrote.

Mr. Markey, 66, is the dean of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation and was first elected to the House in 1976. The other most likely candidates are also members of Congress: Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano.

The Democrats appear to be trying to head off a potentially bruising primary to save their money for the special election. Their most likely Republican opponent is Massachusetts's other outgoing senator, Scott Brown.

Mr. Brown, who lost his seat last month to Elizabeth Warren, has not said yet whether he intends to run again this time. But he is presumed to be a formidable candidate; he is certainly the best known in the field, now that several high-profile Democrats have said they are not interested. They include Edward M. Kennedy Jr., the son of the senator, and Ben Affleck, the actor.

Representative Niki Tsongas, the widow of another senator, has also said that she will not run. So has Martha Coakley, the state attorney general, who lost a special election to Mr. Brown in 2010.

Mr. Markey, the son of a milkman, has $3 million in his campaign account. He ranks ninth in seniority in the House.

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December 28, 2012

A Record Worth Wilting For: Death Valley Is Hotter Than ...

By ADAM NAGOURNEY
NYT

FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — For Death Valley, a place that embraces its extremes, this has long been an affront: As furnace-hot as it gets here, it could not lay claim to being the hottest place on earth. That honor, as it were, has gone since 1922 to a city on the northwestern tip of Libya.

Until now. After a yearlong investigation by a team of climate scientists, the World Meteorological Organization, the climate agency of the United Nations, announced this fall that it was throwing out a reading of 136.4 degrees claimed by the city of Al Aziziyah on Sept. 13, 1922. It made official what anyone who has soldiered through a Death Valley summer afternoon here could attest to. There is no place hotter in the world. A 134-degree reading registered on July 10, 1913, at Greenland Ranch here is now the official world record.

And while people were not quite jumping up and down at the honor, the 134-degree reading has inspired the kind of civic pride that for most communities might come with having a winning Little League baseball team.

“For those of us who survive here in the summer, it was no surprise that it’s the hottest place on the world,” said Charlie Callaghan, a Death Valley National Park ranger who personally recorded a 129-degree day here a few years back.

The opening wall panel in a new exhibition at the National Park Service visitor center off Highway 190 has been unveiled with a burst of superlatives: “Hottest. Driest. Lowest.” (Lowest refers to a spot in Death Valley, Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest place in North America.)

Promotional leaflets that still boast of Death Valley as being merely the hottest place in the United States are being rewritten, and resort owners say they are girding for a crush of heat-seeking visitors come next summer. There is even talk of having an official 100-year celebration of the record-setting measurement next July.

“It’s about time for science, but I think we all knew it was coming,” said Randy Banis, the editor of DeathValley.com, an online newsletter promoting the valley. “You don’t underestimate Death Valley. Most of us enthusiasts are proud that the extremes that we have known about at Death Valley are indeed the most harsh on earth.”

Still, the designation was a momentous event among this nation’s community of climatologists — or, as some of them proudly refer to themselves, “weather geeks” — the climax of a long debate set off by a blog item written by Christopher C. Burt, a meteorologist with Weather Underground. Mr. Burt cited numerous reasons to be suspicious of the Libyan claim, which he described in an interview the other day as “completely garbage.”

“The more we looked at it, the more obvious it appeared to be an error,” he said.

Mr. Burt brought his blog post to the attention of members of the World Meteorological Organization. Randall S. Cerveny, a geology professor at Arizona State University who holds the title rapporteur of climate extremes for the World Climate Organization, appointed a committee of 13 climatologists, including himself and Mr. Burt, to resolve what can often be tricky disputes.

“There are a lot of places that do like these records,” he said. “It can be a source of pride for that country or a source of contention for other countries. Politics unfortunately is going to play a role sometime in the determining of these records.”

It took a year to investigate the claim — the inquiry was hampered by the revolution in Libya, which resulted in the temporary disappearance of a Libyan scientist who was central to the work. The final report found five reasons to disqualify the Libya claim, including questionable instruments, an inexperienced observer who made the reading and the fact that the reading was anomalous for that region and in the context of other temperatures reported in Libya that day.

“The W.M.O. assessment is that the highest recorded surface temperature of 56.7 degrees C (134 degrees F) was measured on 10 July 1913” in Death Valley, the report said.

The announcement was made on Sept. 11, the same day as the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and thus drew little notice.

Though it is easy to forget on days when it is so hot that people dare not step out of their cars, part of the allure of Death Valley has always been — besides the staggering beauty of its canyons, mountains and sunsets — the sheer challenge of visiting it.

“I think there might be such a thing as a weather tourist,” Mr. Burt said. “I may be one.”

Ben Cassell, who runs the Panamint Springs Resort on the west side of Death Valley, said that even before the long-awaited official recognition, his summer rooms typically were booked up by the spring, mainly by Europeans seeking temperatures they cannot find back home.

“The Europeans love to visit in the summer when it is the hottest,” he said. “The Americans tend to go in the spring for the flowers.”

The European tourists, he said, “definitely are looking for the extreme.”

“We get people who get upset that today it’s 120, and the day before they got here it was 121,” he said. “They want to have bragging rights.”

Mr. Callaghan, who would know, said there most certainly was a difference between 115 degrees and, say, 125 degrees.

“You kind of get used to the 115s, the 120s,” he said. “Once it gets above 120, 125, it’s just downright miserable. It’s just so excruciatingly hot. You don’t walk outside your air-conditioned car or your office. You don’t want to have jewelry on because you feel the burning on the ears. Your eyes, your eyebrows, feel real hot.”

Truth be told, it was hard to think of Death Valley in all its hot glory on a visit the weekend before Christmas. The thermometer outside the Ranch at Furnace Creek — which measures up to 140 — read a chilly 55 degrees. People could be seen on canyon hiking trails clothed in scarfs and parkas.

“There’s no normal or abnormal,” said Bob Greenberg, a ranger on duty. “But if it gets anywhere near freezing, you hear a lot of whining around here.”

For what it is worth, Mr. Burt said he had issues as well with the Death Valley claim of 134 degrees, and suspects it may be wrong. “It’s anomalous, even for Death Valley,” he said.

But no matter. Even if 134-Death Valley goes the way of 136.4-Libya, the temperature has most assuredly reached 129 degrees here in Furnace Creek at least three times, one of them recorded by Mr. Callaghan. And 129 is just as much a world record as 134.

“Death Valley would still win, so to speak, even if the 134 was erroneous,” Mr. Burt said.




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India gang rape: six men charged with murder

By Jason Burke, The Guardian
Saturday, December 29, 2012 14:49 EST

Indian police have charged six men with murder, hours after a woman who was gang-raped and thrown from a moving bus in Delhi nearly two weeks ago died in a Singapore hospital.

Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said the men could face the death penalty if convicted. Officials said that authorities would press for the harshest possible punishment.

The announcement came as thousands of Indians gathered to mourn and protest the death of the 23-year-old medical student. The woman, who has not been named, sustained serious internal injuries after being violated with an iron bar during the attack, which took place on 16 December and triggered mass demonstrations calling for better protection for women against sexual violence.

She died late on Friday in the Singapore hospital where she was being treated.

Her family had been keeping a bedside vigil after she suffered severe organ failure. She was flown to Singapore from India two days ago as her condition worsened.

Authorities in India reacted with statements of grief, calls for calm and a huge security operation.

Large numbers of police were deployed in Delhi to prevent demonstrators reaching parliament, the president’s residence and the India Gate war memorial. The official residences of ministers, top officials and Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, were also heavily guarded and metro stations were shut.

President Pranab Mukherjee said the victim was “a true hero and symbolises the best in Indian youth and women”. He called on “everyone to maintain peace”.

Gandhi made a rare televised address saying she spoke as “a mother and a woman”.

“To all of you who have expressed your anger publicly, I want to assure you that your voice has been heard. Today all Indians feel they have lost their own beloved daughter, their cherished sister, a young woman of 23 whose life was full of hope, dreams and promise,” she said.

Demonstrations were under way in most major cities of India, where the media have dubbed the woman “braveheart” after her lengthy battle to survive.

“I just want to be here to say how much she meant to all of us and how much we want nothing of this to ever happen again to any lady. Attitudes in this country must change now. There should be security,” said Beena Subramaniam, a 24-year-old student who had travelled to Delhi’s Janta Mantar observatory, where protests were being permitted.

Crowds in Delhi remained relatively small, with large numbers of men and vociferous calls for the execution of the rapists.

Demonstrations were also being held in the commercial capital of Mumbai and in Bangalore, the southern city known for its information technology business. Smaller commemorations were being held elsewhere, including in the victim’s home village in the north of the country.

The huge deployment of security forces in Delhi reinforced the impression of many that the government was out of touch with public emotion.

“They are not joining with us, they are keeping us away,” said Neeraj Kumar, 28, a businessman on his way to the demonstration.

Protests last weekend turned violent with police using water cannons, teargas and baton charges to disperse demonstrators close to parliament.

The government has set up a commission to recommend new measures to combat sexual violence against women. One is likely to be the publication on the internet of a registry of sex offenders. Others include fast-track courts and a higher proportion of female police officers.

“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated. These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change,” the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said.

Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, said she felt ashamed “not just as [chief minister], but as a citizen of India”. She was booed when she tried to visit one of the protests in Delhi.

The case has provoked an unprecedented debate on sexual violence towards women in India. Sexual harassment – known as “Eve-teasing” – is endemic and often accepted. A series of rapes in rural areas in the state of Haryana, adjacent to Delhi, earlier this year provoked suggestions from politicians and community leaders that much sexual violence was consensual and that the age of marriage should be lowered. Women who report rapes are repeatedly ignored or harassed by the police themselves. The belief that women are responsible for sexual assault is widespread.

In the wake of the most recent incident, dozens of other rapes, often by multiple assailants, have been reported by media across India. Many feature minors.

“These are not isolated incidents. The outrage now should lead to reforms in both system and attitude, so that victims are not blamed, humiliated or suffering silently,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the regional director of Human Rights Watch.

In one incident reported this week, police jeered and laughed when a 17-year-old in Patiala, in the north-western state of Punjab, attempted to report a gang rape. She later committed suicide. Two officers have now been sacked and one suspended.

The victim in the Delhi case is from a modest family who sold their ancestral land to fund her medical training.

She was returning from watching a film at 9pm when she and her 28-year-old male friend accepted a lift in the bus. Public transport in Delhi is grossly inadequate and though the wealthy can afford cars, usually chauffeur-driven, few others can. She was assaulted for more than an hour as the bus drove on crowded public roads, and was then dumped with her friend, severely injured, by the road near the international airport. A crowd gathered but help was only called after40 minutes. Police had to borrow sheets from a nearby hotel to cover the injured pair before rushing them to hospital.

“Rape and sexual assault are the fasting growing crimes in India. Women’s organisations have been raising this issue for so long and no one has acted,” Brinda Karat, a veteran member of parliament, told NDTV.

Karat said the right response was not “patriarchal, patronising assurances that we will make you safe by [having you] stay in your own homes”, but a concerted campaign to “ensure that women have equal rights in every public space, the workspace, cinemas, malls, the metro, buses, the street – everywhere”.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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December 29, 2012

Leaders’ Response Magnifies Outrage in India Rape Case

By JIM YARDLEY
IHT

NEW DELHI — India often seems to careen from crisis to crisis, with protests regularly spilling onto the streets over the latest outrage or scandal, a nation seemingly always on the boil. But when things settle, as they inevitably do, little seems to change. Public anger usually cools to a simmer.

Now, though, the heat has turned up again, as the death early on Saturday of a young woman savagely assaulted and raped here in the national capital has mushroomed into a new and volatile moment of crisis that has touched a deep chord of discontent. Protests that began more than a week ago as anguished cries against sexual violence in Indian society have broadened into angry condemnations of a government whose response has seemed tone deaf and, at times, incompetent.

On Saturday, hours after the rape victim died at a hospital in Singapore, several thousand people gathered at Jantar Mantar, the designated protest spot in the center of the capital, to express their anguish and rage. The latest demonstrations followed a week that saw the authorities clash with protesters and cordon off the political center of the city with a huge display of force.

“What the government is doing is politically stupid,” said Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, speaking during a protest last week. “This will cause public disaffection, because people are seeing the government as inflexible and intolerant. If the government listened, they would find that people are trying to find solutions.

“The problem,” she added, “is the government is not even listening.”

For much of last week, as some protesters complained that the Indian state was more interested in protecting itself than its citizens, especially women, the symbolism has been stark: the authorities invoked emergency policing laws, closing off the governmental center of the capital, blockading roads and even shutting down subway stations — a democratic government temporarily encircling itself with a moat. At one point, fire hoses were turned on college students.

Those restrictions were eased by Dec. 25, even as New Delhi remained consumed by an anxious vigil as the young woman remained in critical condition. Doctors gave daily, televised updates on her condition until Wednesday evening, when the authorities unexpectedly flew her by special airplane to a hospital in Singapore, where her condition deteriorated before she died of organ failure.

It is the graphic horror of the attack that set off the outrage: the victim was a 23-year-old woman, her identity still withheld, whose evening at the movies with a male friend on Dec. 16 turned nightmarish. The police say a group of drunken men waved the pair onto a private bus, promising a ride home, but instead assaulted them with an iron rod and raped the woman as the bus moved through the city.

College students, mostly women, led the early protests. Sexual violence has become a national scandal in India, amid regular reports of gang rapes and other assaults against infants, teenagers and other women. But women also spoke of a more pervasive form of harassment: of being groped in public; of fearing to ride buses or subways alone; of victims, not attackers, being shamed and blamed.

“Rape happens everywhere,” Urvashi Butalia, a feminist writer, wrote in The Hindu, a national English-language newspaper. “It happens inside homes, in families, in neighborhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller.”

Analysts say that India’s coalition national government, led by the Indian National Congress Party, had an early opportunity to defuse the anger by embracing the protests and providing comfort and reassurance. Yet that moment, analysts agree, was missed, as top leaders misjudged how quickly public anger would escalate, especially among the young. It was a generational divide between young urbanites, often communicating by social media, and a government unable to find a way to win public trust.

Reassurances offered by Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party, came off as unconvincing. Her son Rahul Gandhi, the party’s heir apparent, has barely been visible.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first attempted to calm the situation last Monday with a taped national address, but his speech was overshadowed by a stray remark. At the end of the taping, Mr. Singh, speaking in Hindi, asked “Theek hai?” meaning “Is it all right?”

It was most likely an innocuous comment to the cameraman that ordinarily would have been edited out. But it quickly went viral and became a bitter rallying cry on social media. That was followed by a sexist comment about female protesters by a member of Parliament, who also happened to be the son of India’s president.

When the protests grew angrier and more violent, especially as men joined the ranks, many reportedly allied with rival political parties, the police responded with fire hoses, tear gas and nightsticks. Then the authorities invoked the emergency policing law, known as Section 144, to lock down the area around the presidential palace, Parliament and the main government offices.

But if the government’s heavy-handed response met with broad criticism, the hard line taken by some protesters also raised concerns. Frustrated, many protesters called for the death penalty against convicted rapists, alarming many people in a country where executions are extremely rare.

Then a police constable died of a heart attack during the protests. The authorities say he had a seizure after being attacked by protesters — a claim denied by some witnesses.

“Collectively, we seem to have unthinkingly bought into a narrative of empowered indignation in which ‘anger’ against ‘authority’ is deemed to be just and justifiable and any means to vent that ‘anger’ is rationalized as socially acceptable and politically correct,” Harish Khare, a former spokesman for the prime minister, wrote in The Hindu.

The constable’s death seemed to shift the tenor of the public mood, and Mr. Singh made another speech calling for calm and promising action. “The emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security,” he said. “We must reflect on this problem, which occurs in all states and regions of our country, and which requires greater attention.”

On Saturday morning, many of the people gathered at Jantar Mantar, shouting “We want justice,” were determined that the protests should remain peaceful. Neha Sharma, 24, a student at Delhi University, said capital punishment was not the solution but that reforms were needed in the criminal justice system. “We need to fix the system,” she said. “Neither the government nor the police are taking any steps.”

Protesters have repeatedly called for reforms, citing the frequent insensitivity of the police and the courts toward women and the skewed priorities of a government that devotes thousands of officers to protecting politicians and other so-called V.V.I.P.’s, even as departments too often fail to protect ordinary citizens. “I’m now beginning to feel that my government is not capable of understanding the situation, let alone solving it,” said Abhijit Sarkar, 28, a social activist who participated in a candlelight vigil last week. “During the candlelight vigil, policemen were actually laughing at us.”

Niharika Mandhana and Sruthi Gottipati contributed reporting.


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« Reply #3748 on: Dec 30, 2012, 08:07 AM »

29 December 2012 - 21H12  

Macedonian protesters call on government to resign

AFP - Several thousand Macedonians protested in the capital Skopje on Saturday, calling on the conservative government to step down amid a dire economic crisis in the former Yugoslav republic.

The rally, organised by the opposition left-wing SDSM party, came after the government adopted the 2013 budget Monday amid a series of skirmishes inside and outside the parliament.

Seventeen people, including 11 policemen and two deputies, were slightly injured in the scuffles.

Police said about 4,000 people protested without incident in front of the premises of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party in central Skopje on Saturday.

"We gathered here as we do not have a real parliament and a real government," SDSM leader Branko Crvenkovski said.

"This government can not even breathe without taking a loan," he added.

Macedonia slipped into recession this year, with its economy impacted by neighbouring Greece's financial crisis.

The unemployment rate has reached around 31 percent in this landlocked Balkan country with some two million inhabitants.

"We had enough from this government, they are just spending and we have no money to pay bills and feed our children," unemployed factory worker Stojanca Kostev said.

The 2013 budget forecast 2.7 billion euros ($3.5 billion) in spending and 2.4 billion euros in revenues. The budget is based on a projection of two-percent growth and an inflation rate of 3.5 percent.
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« Reply #3749 on: Dec 30, 2012, 08:17 AM »

December 29, 2012

Insisting on Assad’s Exit Will Cost More Lives, Russian Says

By ELLEN BARRY
IHT

MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Saturday that there was “no possibility” of persuading President Bashar al-Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff. He also said that the opposition leaders’ insistence on Mr. Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace talks would come at the cost of “more and more lives of Syrian citizens” in a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands.

Moscow has made a muscular push for a political solution in recent days, sending signals that the Kremlin, one of Mr. Assad’s most important allies, sees a pressing need for political change. As an international consensus forms around the notion of a transitional government, it has been snagged on the thorny question of what role, if any, Mr. Assad would occupy in it.

But after talks in Moscow on Saturday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Mr. Lavrov said that Russia could not press Mr. Assad to give up power. Mr. Lavrov has said that Russia “isn’t in the business of regime change,” but his characterization of Mr. Assad’s stance on Saturday sounded more definitive.

“He has repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, including during his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi not long ago, that he has no plans to go anywhere, that he will stay in his post until the end, that he will, as he says, protect the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so forth,” Mr. Lavrov said. “There is no possibility of changing this position.”

There have been evident changes in the standoff over Syria in recent weeks, as Russia acknowledged that government forces were losing territory and distanced itself from Mr. Assad. In televised remarks, President Vladimir V. Putin said that Russian leaders “are not preoccupied by the fate of Assad’s regime” and that after 40 years of rule by one family, “undoubtedly there is a call for change.”

But Moscow has watched the recent Arab uprisings with mounting worry, arguing that the West was unleashing dangerous turbulence by supporting popular rebellions, and it has vehemently opposed any international intervention in Syria as a matter of principle.

Developments on the battlefield have accelerated the pace of diplomacy.

Anti-Assad activists on Saturday reported fierce fighting and large numbers of casualties in the central city of Homs, where they said government troops were completely surrounding the Deir Ba’alba neighborhood after storming the area on Friday. An activist reached by telephone, who said he was less than a mile from the neighborhood on Saturday night, said he heard gunfire and saw houses in flames. Communications to the area had been cut, and civilians and rebel fighters who had managed to flee were “traumatized,” he said.

Mr. Brahimi, an Algerian statesman who is viewed sympathetically in Moscow, recommended last week that a transitional government be established, perhaps within months, and that it should rule Syria until elections could be held.

Like Russia, Mr. Brahimi hopes to arrange a political settlement on the basis of an international agreement reached this summer in Geneva, which envisages a transitional government and a peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address Mr. Assad’s fate, nor does it invoke tough sanctions against the Syrian government under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes economic measures and, if necessary, military action.

On Saturday, Mr. Brahimi said that it might be necessary to “make some small changes to the Geneva agreement.”

“Nonetheless,” he added, “I consider that it is a wonderful basis for the continuation of the political process.” He warned that if a political solution was not possible, Syria would be overrun by violence, like Somalia. He also said his recent visit to Damascus had convinced him that continued fighting in the country could turn into “something horrible,” and he envisioned the flight of a million people across Syria’s borders into Jordan and Lebanon.

“The problem could grow to such proportions that it could have a substantial effect on our future, and we cannot ignore this,” Mr. Brahimi said.

Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a gathering in mid-January between the United States, Russia and Mr. Brahimi to discuss Syria.

Moscow may see these talks as a chance to rebuild its prestige in the Arab world, where Russia’s historically strong alliances have been badly damaged by the standoff over Syria. Mr. Lavrov bridled on Saturday when a reporter from an Arabic news channel asked him to comment on criticism that Russia was “a participant in the Syrian conflict” because it continued to fulfill weapons contracts with Damascus after the outbreak of violence.

The accusation, Mr. Lavrov said, “is so far from the truth that there’s no way to comment on it.” He said that Russia did not supply the government with offensive weapons, and that much of Syria’s arsenal dated to the Soviet era. He also said the opposition was receiving a far more deadly flow of weapons and aid.

The leader of the main opposition coalition, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, responded coolly to an overture on Friday from Russia, saying Moscow should publicly apologize for its pro-government position. He also refused to meet with Russian leaders in Moscow, saying a meeting was possible only in an Arab country.

Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that he would agree to such a meeting, but he responded to Mr. Khatib’s remarks with an equally chilly response.

“I know that Mr. Khatib is probably not very experienced in politics,” he said. “If he aspires to the role of a serious politician, he will nonetheless understand that it is in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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

30 December 2012 - 13H29 

Brahimi says has Syria plan world powers may adopt

AFP - Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Sunday he has a proposal to end the deadly 21-month conflict in Syria "that could be adopted by the international community."

"I have discussed this plan with Russia and Syria... I think this proposal could be adopted by the international community," the UN and Arab League envoy said in Egypt after meeting League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

The situation in Syria "is very bad and getting worse by the day," added Brahimi a day after warning in Moscow that Damascus faced a choice between "hell or the political process."

"There is a proposal for a political solution based on the Geneva declaration foreseeing a ceasefire, forming a government with complete prerogatives and a plan for parliamentary and presidential elections," he said, referring to a failed peace initiative that world powers agreed to in Geneva in June.

"Either there is a political solution in Syria" or the country risks a descent into a Somalia-like situation, Brahimi told reporters.

Russia on Saturday acknowledged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be persuaded to quit, but insisted there is still a chance of finding a political solution.

Saturday's talks between Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came amid signs that key Syrian ally Moscow was beginning to distance itself from Assad.

Lavrov said both he and Brahimi agreed there was hope for a solution as long as world powers put pressure on both sides.

"The confrontation is escalating. But we agree the chance for a political solution remains," Lavrov said.

Assad's departure is a given for the Syrian opposition before any national dialogue such as that under the Geneva initiative can take place.

The international action group on Syria comprises the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- and representatives of the Arab League, the UN and EU and Turkey.

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

Without negotiations, Syria will be the new Somalia, UN envoy says

Luke Harding and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 December 2012 20.59 GMT   

A diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria seemed as far away as ever on Saturday, as the UN-Arab League envoy to Damascus, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the country risked slithering into "hell".

Following talks in Moscow with Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Brahimi said there was no alternative to negotiations. The country faced two stark choices, he said – a serious, Syrian-led political dialogue between the rebels and the regime, or what he darkly called "Somali-isation".

Brahimi – who held talks on Monday in Damascus with Syria's defiant president, Bashar al-Assad – said stopping the bloody civil war in 2013 was indispensable. But, he conceded, the obstacles to peace were enormous.

After almost two years of fighting, both sides "disagreed violently even about the analysis of the situation", he said. The Assad regime insisted it was battling "terrorists", while the armed opposition said it was leading a popular uprising against an "illegitimate" government, already in power for 40 years.

Brahimi's trip to Moscow came amid an upswing in diplomatic activity by the Kremlin, Assad's most significant foreign backer and arms supplier. Russia last week signalled for the first time it was willing to hold talks with Syria's opposition.

On Friday, however, the leader of the opposition coalition, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, bluntly dismissed an invitation to Moscow. He told al-Jazeera that Russia should apologise for supporting Assad, then unequivocally condemn his barbarity and press him to resign.

On Saturday Lavrov scathingly described Khatib's stance as "wrong" and a "dead-end position". He claimed it was "counter-productive" to insist Assad should step down as a precondition for any talks. "He [Assad] will stay until the end. He will defend Syria's people and Syria's sovereignty. There is no possibility that this position will change," Lavrov said, adding that Russia was willing to hold talks with Syria's opposition in a "neutral" Arab capital.

Russia has said it supports a proposal made in Geneva last June that would see Assad stay in power temporarily, while a transitional government was formed with the assistance of international peacekeepers. But the plan does not specify what would happen to Assad afterwards, nor how his security could be guaranteed. Syria's rebels have rejected it. They say it does not meet the key demand of their revolution – that Assad should quit.

Russia's efforts to push for a deal follow rebel gains on the ground. This month Russia's's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, admitted that the Syrian government was losing territory and that a victory for the opposition could not be ruled out. The Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition movement, now controls much of the countryside, having overrun a series of army bases, acquiring more arms and ammunition.

On Saturday government troops reportedly seized back an area of Homs, following fierce shelling of the Deir Baalbeh district. Clashes were also going on near the Crac des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Unesco-listed castle that was one of Syria's biggest tourist attractions.

In the north, there was fighting around the Menagh military airport, between Aleppo and the Turkish border. Rebels have been besieging the base for four weeks and reportedly penetrated it on Thursday.

**********

Syrian refugee influx could break Lebanon and Jordan, UN envoy warns    

Conal Urquhart and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 December 2012 14.42 GMT   

The United Nations envoy for Syria has warned that further violence could create waves of refugees which may destabilise neighbouring countries.

Lakhdar Brahimi said: "If you have a panic in Damascus and if you have 1 million people leaving Damascus in a panic, they can go to only two places, Lebanon and Jordan."

Both those countries could break if faced with half a million refugees, he said on Saturday after meeting the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow.

"If the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then we have got, all of us, to work ceaselessly for a political process," he said.

Neither Brahimi nor Lavrov gave an indication of progress toward resolving the 21-month-old conflict in which an estimated 40,000 people have died.

Lavrov said the demand by the Syrian opposition that President Bashar al-Assad step down as a precondition to talks was incorrect and counterproductive.

"The price for that precondition will be the loss of more Syrian lives," he said.

Meanwhile, in Syria government forces have pushed rebels from a district in Homs after several days of fierce fighting, opposition activists said on Saturday.

The army moved into Deir Baalba, a neighbourhood on the north-eastern edge of Homs, leaving the rebels in control of just the central neighbourhoods around the old city and the district of Khalidiya, immediately to the north.


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