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« Reply #3975 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:17 AM »

January 10, 2013

A Celebration That Accentuated an Absence


CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez is famous for speeches that last for hours, and Thursday should have been a special day for the loquacious socialist to let loose. But even with a parade of foreign dignitaries in town to laud him and a large, boisterous crowd on the day he was to be sworn in for a triumphal new term, Mr. Chávez’s silence spoke loudest of all.

The country had been warned in advance that Mr. Chávez was too sick to slip on the presidential sash and raise his hand to take the presidential oath. He remained in Cuba, where government officials said he was going through a delicate recuperation from surgery on Dec. 11 for cancer.

But in a telling sign of the severity of his illness, Mr. Chávez apparently sent no greeting to the crowds wishing him well. There was no message from him read to the tens of thousands of followers who attended the rally in front of the presidential palace. There was no video or recording from the once-omnipresent president, who has not been seen or heard from directly in a month.

There was not even any mention that Mr. Chávez might be watching the televised broadcast of the huge get-well rally held in his honor.

Nonetheless, Vice President Nicolás Maduro urged the multitude “to send a shout of gigantic love on the count of three to our Commander Chávez.” Then he led them in doing the wave and finally held up a pocket-size copy of the Venezuelan Constitution, saying it was time to recite an oath of “absolute loyalty” to Mr. Chávez and his socialist revolution.

Thousands of people in the crowd raised their hands and repeated in unison, “I swear by the Bolivarian Constitution that I will defend the presidency of Commander Chávez in the streets, with reason, with truth and with the strength and intelligence of a people that has liberated itself from the yoke of the bourgeoisie.”

Mr. Chávez’s silence, and the sudden reticence of government officials about him, were glaring because in past trips to Cuba for treatment Mr. Chávez has taken pains to stay in the spotlight, appearing in photos or videos, calling in to programs on government-run television or posting on Twitter.

Moreover, Mr. Chávez, who has been president for 14 years, had fought particularly long and hard to reach this day. He had overcome great opposition to change the Constitution to allow him to run an unlimited number of times — losing a referendum on constitutional changes in 2007 before bringing the issue to a second vote, which passed in 2009.

Last year, in the midst of his struggle with cancer, he campaigned against the strongest opposition he has faced since first being elected in 1998, and he won, in October, by 11 percentage points. He vowed to use his new six-year term, which would extend his time in office to two full decades, to lead Venezuela further down the path of socialism.

But the inaugural event that had been meant to cement his permanence instead became an occasion that accentuated his absence.

Last month, Mr. Chávez went on television to announce that his cancer had returned and that he would have to go to Cuba for an operation, his fourth since June 2011. In a somber mood, he named Mr. Maduro as his political heir should he be unable to continue as president.

Since then his stentorian voice has gone silent.

Elías Pino Iturrieta, a historian, said that this was the first time in Venezuela that an elected president had missed his inauguration.

And yet Thursday’s rally, on the day the Constitution sets as the start of the new presidential term, seemed more of a celebration, or a campaign event, than a sickroom vigil. People packed sunny blocks leading to the presidential palace. Sound trucks blared Mr. Chávez’s campaign song, with the words “Chávez, heart of the people.” A salsa band played. People danced. Air Force jets zoomed across the blue sky. Vendors sold revolutionary memorabilia: inflatable Chávez dolls, red caps, T-shirts with the slogan “I am Chávez.”

“Today we are all Chávez, and today we are all going to take the oath as president, with our maximum leader,” said Mercedes Paredes, 55, who wore a yellow, blue and red strip of paper — the colors of the national flag — across her shirt in the form of a sash.

Mr. Chávez’s absence set off a standoff this month as the political opposition and government officials traded barbs over whether the Constitution required that a caretaker president be named. On Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Chávez could be sworn in at a later date — but set no time limit.

That was just fine with Ms. Paredes. “As long as it takes,” she said.

The government has released few details about Mr. Chávez’s condition — except to say that he is conscious and in touch with family and government officials — making it virtually impossible to ascertain his chances of recovery or how long his convalescence may take. The opposition has called for a team of medical experts to go to Havana to evaluate his condition.

Zenaida Hernández, 45, said she did not think the government had an obligation to provide more information: “A human being has the right to privacy.”

On the main stage, Mr. Maduro said he was evaluating “very forceful actions” against opposition governors who had criticized the government and the Supreme Court decision. Cabinet ministers and state governors in red shirts, and generals in olive green, were joined by visiting left-wing dignitaries, including Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and José Mujica of Uruguay.

Ivian Sarcos, a former Miss World, dressed all in white, waved to the crowd, where a person held a sign that said, “Chávez Christ I love you.”

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.
« Last Edit: Jan 11, 2013, 08:23 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3976 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:22 AM »

January 11, 2013

Mali Government Is Left Reeling After Islamists Take Village Long Held by Army


DAKAR, Senegal — Islamists advanced into territory held by the Mali government on Thursday, overrunning a long-held defensive position in the center of the country and dealing a significant blow to the Malian Army in its attempt to contain the militants who have seized the nation’s north, according to a Malian Army officer.

Over the last two days, clashes have erupted between the army and militants around Konna, a sleepy mud-brick village that for months had marked the outer limit of the Malian Army’s control after it lost half of the country to Islamists and their allies last April.

On Thursday, though, the town appeared to have fallen to the Islamists, forcing Mali’s army to retreat and inflicting losses on it. The Malian officer, reached by phone in Bamako, the capital, was categorical, confirming the loss of Konna and calling the situation “critical” for the Malian Army.

“It’s a very serious situation, very dangerous,” said the officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.

“There were hard fights, but we lost,” the officer said.

“The Malian Army has retreated to Sévaré,” he said. “We need the help of everybody to save Sévaré.”

A spokesman for the Islamists, Sanda Ould Boumana, said from rebel-held Timbuktu: “We have taken the town of Konna. We control Konna, and the Malian Army has fled. We have pushed them back.”

The army’s official spokesman, Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, refused to confirm or deny the loss of the village. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, who was traveling in neighboring Niger on Thursday, said that he had seen the reports from Mali but could not yet independently verify them.

“If true, this is a significant change in the situation,” General Ham said.

This week’s clashes were the first time that the two sides had fought since Islamists and their Tuareg rebel allies conquered the north of Mali last spring, splitting the country in two and leaving the Malian Army in disarray.

For months, the United Nations and Mali’s neighbors have been debating and planning a military campaign to retake the north by force, if necessary, an international push that is supposed to be led by Malian forces. Analysts had previously said that the outcome of this week’s fighting at Konna would be a significant indicator of the army’s fitness to undertake the reconquest of the north.

Its loss now raises serious questions about the plan, tentatively approved by the United Nations Security Council last month. A retooled Malian Army was to be the plan’s centerpiece, aided by troops from around the region.

The rebel advance prompted the Security Council to meet Thursday night in an emergency session on the deteriorating situation. Afterward it issued a statement expressing “grave concern” as well as determination to enforce previous resolutions on ending the crisis, including the dispatching of an African-led force to help the government reclaim lost territory.

France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud, who had called for the meeting, confirmed that Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, had sent a letter to President François Hollande of France and the president of the Security Council seeking help in countering the Islamists’ latest advance.

Mr. Hollande said on Friday he was ready to respond to Mali’s appeal for assistance, The Associated Press reported. He said France would seek a United Nations resolution for action but that it was “ready to stop the terrorists’ advance if it continues.”

The loss of Konna could add urgency to Western preparations — France and to some extent the United States have pledged assistance — aimed at extinguishing the quasi-state of militants. Many of them belong to, or are affiliated with, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which controls a vast portion of territory in West Africa.

“They had eight months to prepare their defense,” said a Western military attaché in Bamako, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “What does this say? That they were not prepared? That they were not ready to cope with such an advance? Some people should be answering for this.”

Malian politicians reacted with shock to news of Konna’s loss.

“This is a very disagreeable surprise. Terrible. A dagger blow,” said Fatoumata Dicko, a deputy in Mali’s Parliament, speaking from Bamako. “People are fleeing Sévaré. They think there is nothing to hold the Islamists back.”

A pharmacist in Mopti, reached by phone, said residents were fleeing that city as well. “People are getting on the road. There is fear, and disappointment,” he said, asking that his name not be used.

A small army detachment, only a dozen-odd men, has been based in Konna, a small village set amid fields; beyond is some 40 miles of no man’s land, and then the town of Douentza, held by the Islamists. The army did not send out patrols. Officers, in interviews there last August, acknowledged that they were not seeking to engage with the enemy.

On Wednesday, the Islamists moved in with small arms and artillery fire, according to the Malian Army officer. “The Islamists advanced, and our people counterattacked.”

Fierce fighting continued Thursday afternoon, according to a resident of Konna reached by phone, who said residents did not dare venture outside.

“I’m hearing gunfire even now,” said the resident, Soumaila Dicko, who is not related to the Parliament deputy. “There’s been shooting since 8 this morning. Everybody is very frightened. What’s happening here is very serious.”

Another resident said he had counted the bodies of at least 10 Malian soldiers on the paved road outside Konna.

The officer in Bamako said that the Islamists had encircled the town while shelling army positions. “While the fighting was going on, they infiltrated Konna by foot,” he said, “and it was this that allowed them to take it.”

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Niamey, Niger, Cheick Diouara from Accra, Ghana, Rick Gladstone from New York, and Richard Berry from Paris.
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« Reply #3977 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:27 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Critics of Likud's new vanguard say party has abandoned founder's ideals

By Ben Lynfield, Correspondent / January 10, 2013

Few Israelis today remember that until 1966, Arab citizens of the Jewish state were under army rule and needed permits from the local military governor to travel outside their home towns for work, study, or medical care. Even fewer know that a key figure in bringing an end to this less than democratic system was Menachem Begin, the fiery founder of the right-wing opposition Herut party, predecessor of today's Likud party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Begin was an extreme nationalist and he was also a real democrat and liberal," recalls Uri Avnery, a peace activist who was a left-wing member of the Knesset during the 1960s. "He really believed in full equality for Arab citizens. The communists, Begin, and people like me all cooperated inside the Knesset and outside to have this system abolished."

Mr. Begin, former head of the pre-state Irgun underground that fought British rule, and prime minister from 1977 to 1983, is remembered at the state-funded heritage center in Jerusalem that bears his name as a scrupulous democrat in domestic affairs, upholding the rule of law, minority rights, and the right to criticize.

"I recommend that we not be content with just the independence of the law but that we raise the banner of the supremacy of the law," an exhibit quotes Begin as saying. Nearby is a black-and-white picture of Arabs at a session of the High Court of Justice. In its legacy section, the exhibit gives as much space to Begin's stress on "human freedom," including "freedom from the dictatorship of the majority," as it does to his well-known project of building settlements throughout the West Bank, which he referred to by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

But the liberal aspects of Begin's legacy are now, according to many observers, being discarded. In the run-up to Israel's Jan. 22 elections, in which Netanyahu is expected to easily win reelection, a new generation of Likud leaders unabashedly seeks to move the party and the country further to the right on the Palestinian issue and on domestic matters.

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Though the party's rising stars deny the charge, some critics argue that the new Likud threatens Israeli democracy.

"'This young country is still a very fragile democracy," says Ofer Kenig, a scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank whose stated goal is to bolster Israeli democracy. "If the governing party doesn't stand to protect and strengthen the democratic values, then we have things to worry about."
The new Likud platform

Mr. Kenig cited young Likud legislators' efforts in the outgoing Knesset to limit foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, a move seen as aimed at silencing criticism of groups that monitor West Bank occupation practices. Kenig also takes issue with their ambitions to limit the power of the Supreme Court, and, in his view, to infringe on freedom of expression and the standing of the Arab minority.

Four architects of that controversial legislative drive – Danny Danon, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levine, and Tzipi Hotovely – surged to prominent slots in Likud's November primaries and have emerged as key voices during the campaign. Meanwhile, three ministers who were older stalwarts of Begin's liberal approach, including the Likud founder's son Benny, and Dan Meridor, moderate son of another Irgun leader, appear unlikely to hold influential positions in the next parliament.

The primary also saw the rise to 15th on the Likud party list of candidates of Moshe Feiglin, a Jewish fundamentalist who calls for rebuilding the biblical temple in Jerusalem and has campaigned on a proposal to pay Arab families half a million dollars each to emigrate from the West Bank.

And moving the party even further to the right was a merger of lists with Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for the ouster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Yisrael Beiteinu stoked anti-Arab racism during the 2009 election campaign with its slogan "Only Lieberman understands Arabic," hinting he would get tough with the Arab minority.

Mr. Danon, who soared from 24 to six within the Likud in the primaries, has not espoused Mr.Feiglin's initiative for a voluntary removal of Arabs but he does make clear in remarks to the Monitor his view that the international community should forget about a two-state solution to the conflict, to which Netanyahu gave qualified endorsement in 2009.

Danon believes that Israel should annex the Jewish settlements along with open land in the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians with scraps. "I believe that the ones who need to be in blocs are the Palestinians and not the settlers in Judea and Samaria," he says.

The thesis of Danon's recently published book (in English) The Will to Prevail is that Israel should stop being afraid of foreign objections to its policies. "We have to do what is good for us and to ignore foreign pressures," he says.

In domestic matters, Danon has advocated that members of Israel's Arab minority be required to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state before they are granted driver's licenses or identity cards, a stance inspired by Yisrael Beiteinu, which campaigned in 2009 on a proposal that people who do not take such a loyalty oath should lose their citizenship.

In his comments to the Monitor, Danon sharply criticized the Israeli Supreme Court for a decision last week reinstating the electoral candidacy of Haneen Zoabi, a legislator from the Arab nationalist Balad party. Danon was among those who led the successful campaign to have the Central Elections Committee cancel Ms. Zoabi's candidacy on the grounds that she violated Israeli law by participating in a pro-Palestinian flotilla in 2009 to protest Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Even though the judges showed rare unanimity in ruling 9-0 to overturn the ban, Danon accuses the court of "ignoring the language of the law and deciding on norms that are against what has been legislated." He is vowing to advance a bill in the new Knesset to bar Zoabi from serving if she is reelected.
Battling to be most 'right'

Danon denies that Likud is deviating from Begin's legacy. "One of the big changes is generational change, and this is something welcome. Just as in Britain and the US, younger leaders were chosen for more senior positions, so too in Israel, a young generation, active, and with ideology, worked hard and got the backing of the public. I am very proud of today's Likud. The way I was elected was very democratic, more than other parties."

As the campaign nears a close, analysts say a surge in opinion polls by Likud's rival for right-wing religious voters, the smaller Jewish Home party, is contributing to extremism as the two seek to outbid each other in their nationalism. Like Danon, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett is calling for Israel to annex most of the West Bank, not including densely populated Arab areas.

Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the US, says that Netanyahu wants to limit the clout of Danon and his allies and will be able to do so in the short term. "The composition of the list is a fact that cannot be disputed," he says. "But Netanyahu is a pragmatic centrist and he will look for coalition partners to try to balance things."

However, Avnery, the former legislator, does not believe Netanyahu will prove a restraining influence. "Israel will become more of what it is, more right wing, antipeace, and less democratic," he says.

Of today's Likud, Avnery says, "Begin would have looked upon it with abomination."

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« Reply #3978 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:29 AM »

Saudi King appoints woman to advisory council for first time

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 11, 2013 9:14 EST

Saudi King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the previously all-male consultative Shura Council in decrees published on Friday, marking a historic first as he pushes reforms in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The decrees gives women a 20 percent quota in the Shura Council, a body appointed by the king to advise him on policies and legislation.

One decree amended an article in the council’s statute to allow women to be members while the other named the 150 members, among them 30 women.
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« Reply #3979 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:33 AM »

January 10, 2013

Blasts in Pakistan Kill Scores and Stir Fears on Elections


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Bomb blasts in two Pakistani cities killed at least 115 people on Thursday and wounded more than 270, offering harrowing evidence of how the country’s myriad internal conflicts could destabilize it as elections approach.

The worst violence occurred in the southwestern city of Quetta, where two explosions a few minutes apart in the evening ripped through a snooker hall in a neighborhood dominated by ethnic Hazara Shiites, killing at least 81 people and wounding more than 170, the police said.

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside the hall, and a second attacker then blew up his vehicle outside the club as police officers and journalists arrived, a senior police officer, Mir Zubair Mehmood, told reporters. Five police officers and one camera operator were killed in the second explosion. Hospitals were overwhelmed as casualties arrived through the evening.

Hazara leaders said it was the worst sectarian attack in Quetta since attacks on their community started about 14 years ago.

Quetta is no stranger to sectarian, nationalist or Islamist violence. Most violence against Shiites there has been directed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group with strong ties to the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the snooker hall attack. Snooker is a variation of billiards.

An ethnic Baluch separatist group claimed responsibility for another bombing earlier on Thursday, aimed at paramilitary soldiers in a commercial part of Quetta, which killed 12 people.

The Hazara, minority Shiites who migrated from Afghanistan more than a century ago, have been the target of dozens of attacks from sectarian death squads led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Quetta over the past year, but the snooker hall bombing was by far the bloodiest.

Human rights activists said the police and the security forces failed to protect the vulnerable community. “The callousness and indifference of the authorities offers a damning indictment of the state, its military and security agencies,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch.

The other focus of violence on Thursday was the Swat Valley, in northwestern Pakistan, where an explosion at a religious seminary killed at least 22 people and wounded an additional 60. It was not clear why the seminary, run by the Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat, was a target.

Initial reports said a gas leak had caused the explosion, but police and hospital officials later said that there was clear evidence of a bomb.

Doctors at a hospital in Saidu Sharif, near the site, said blast victims were being treated for wounds caused by ball bearings, which are sometimes packed into suicide bombs to make them more deadly.

“There was a smell of explosives,” Muhammad Iqbal, a senior doctor, said by telephone.

Islamist violence in Swat drew international condemnation in October after Taliban gunmen shot a teenage girl and education activist, Malala Yousafzai. The episode highlighted how Islamist fighters were slowly returning to the valley three years after a Pakistani military operation drove them away.

The violence underscores the fragility of state authority in parts of Pakistan as the country prepares for a general election that is scheduled to take place before June. Many Pakistanis worry that instability could cause the elections to be postponed.

Frustration about the violence among the Pakistani public has been stoked by anger toward the United States, which continued to press its campaign of drone strikes against militant targets in the tribal belt on Thursday.

A C.I.A.-directed missile strike on a compound in North Waziristan killed five people, Pakistani officials said. It was the seventh such attack in two weeks.

Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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« Reply #3980 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:36 AM »

January 10, 2013

Syria Denounces U.N. Envoy as ‘Biased’


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s government appeared to distance itself from further engagement with the special peace envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League on Thursday, declaring him “flagrantly biased” even as his efforts aimed at a political transition to end the nearly two-year-old Syrian conflict were accelerating.

The efforts by the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, include a planned meeting in Geneva on Friday with top diplomats from the two powers on opposite sides of the Syria conflict: the United States, which supports the insurgency, and Russia, which supports the Syrian government but has increasingly displayed ambiguity about support for President Bashar al-Assad himself.

A statement from the Foreign Ministry in Damascus denouncing Mr. Brahimi appeared to be a response to remarks he made to Western news agencies the day before in which he suggested that Mr. Assad must relinquish power and could not be part of any replacement government in Syria. The verbal back-and-forth came as new violence hit Idlib Province in northwest Syria, where rebel fighters were reported to have raided an important air base housing helicopters and warplanes that Mr. Assad’s military has been using to attack rebel-held territory.

One antigovernment activist said the military was blowing up those aircraft pre-emptively to prevent insurgents from gaining access to them.

New signs of civilian desperation were emerging on Thursday in the Syrian refugee camps of neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, where the United Nations children’s agency issued an unusually blunt appeal for help at a mud-soaked encampment housing more than 54,000 Syrians, most of them women and children.

The Syrian criticism of Mr. Brahimi, a veteran Algerian statesman who spent days talking with Mr. Assad and other Syrian officials in Damascus last month, raised the possibility that he, like his predecessor, Kofi Annan, could be sidelined into irrelevance by the antagonists in the conflict, who have shown little or no interest in dialogue as the violence has worsened. At least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011, the United Nations said last week.

Mr. Brahimi told the BBC on Wednesday that Syrians want the Assad family to go after four decades in power. He told Reuters that he saw no place for Mr. Assad in any political transition.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday in a statement that such remarks were a surprise and showed that Mr. Brahimi “is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people.” The ministry statement suggested that Syria’s government had lost whatever faith it might have reserved for Mr. Brahimi. Still, it did not specifically declare unwillingness to work with him.

At the same time, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran, which is Mr. Assad’s only friend in the region, expressed admiration for Mr. Assad and insisted that he must be part of any political solution to the conflict. Mr. Salehi made Iran’s position clear during a visit to Egypt, which wants to see Mr. Assad deposed.

The Syrian insurgent assault on the Idlib air base, the Taftanaz military airport, lasted for hours and included fighters from the jihadi groups Jabhet al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, according to accounts from antigovernment activists, rebel commanders and videos posted on the Internet. Rebel forces have ringed the air base for months.

The videos showed what appeared to be rebels in a commandeered armored vehicle driving near a fence on the base and firing at buildings, as well as fires raging near helicopters on the tarmac. Abu Moyaed, the leader of a rebel battalion participating in the attacks, said in an interview from Turkey that the fighters had entered the airport, destroyed armored vehicles and aircraft, seized ammunition and withdrawn. “It’s very hard to stay there,” he said, asserting that the government had used surface-to-surface rockets to attack their positions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group based in Britain with a network of contacts inside Syria, said base defenders had also attacked the insurgents with airstrikes. The observatory said that more than 15 helicopters appeared to have been damaged and that at least 24 soldiers and pro-Assad militia fighters had been captured by the attackers. Other rebel accounts asserted that 26 pilots had been captured.

Tarek Abdel-Haq, an activist in Idlib reached on Skype, said earlier that government forces had shelled the airport “to destroy the warplanes on the runway to make sure the rebels and people can’t use them.”

The fighting raged against a backdrop of brutal cold, snow and rain. Winter flooding appeared to be worsening at the Zaatari camp run by the United Nations refugee agency and other groups in northern Jordan, where hundreds of tents were felled by storms earlier in the week. In a candid description of the conditions, Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, said it was working to help drain the flooding in the camp and replace waterlogged mattresses and clothes.

“The next 72 hours will be a critical test of our ability to meet the basic needs of children and their families at Zaatari,” said Dominique Hyde, the Unicef representative in Jordan. She also appealed for more money, saying, “The resources in 2012 have been exhausted, and no fresh funds have come for this year.”

There were conflicting reports about the possibility that Israel, the only country bordering Syria that has not accepted refugees, might allow some to relocate in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank or Gaza. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had sought help from Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, in making such a request. Israeli officials had no comment.

Martin Nesirky, a United Nations spokesman, told reporters that Mr. Ban “has expressed deep concern over Palestinians in Syria” and had “called generally for assistance from countries in the region,” but that he had no further comment.

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.


January 11, 2013

Syrian Rebels Say They Seized Key Base in North


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian rebels said on Friday that they had seized the largest helicopter base in the north of the country, a key facility in the government’s escalating air war that the rebels had been trying to take for months.

Fighters from several battalions, including the jihadist groups Al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham battalion, took over the base as soldiers fled and were captured. The government immediately began airstrikes on the base and nearby town in an effort to drive them out, according to videos purportedly shot at the scene and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment group based in Britain that relies on a network of activists inside Syria.

The rebel claims that they had captured the base, Taftanaz in Idlib Province, came as the international envoy on the Syria crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with senior Russian and American officials in Geneva in hopes of reviving efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.

But in terms of the fighting inside Syria, the base would be a particular prize for the rebels because the airborne reach it affords has helped the government to retain some control over the province, which borders pro-rebel Turkey and separates it from the Syrian government’s strongholds along the coast.

Even as rebels operate with more and more freedom along the roads of the province, the base has allowed the government to keep them from establishing a secure territory inside Syria; helicopters from the base have been used to attack rebels and supply isolated troops. Holding the base would allow rebels to create something closer to real “liberated” territory, a goal that has eluded them until now.

But rebels have frequently overrun air defense or army bases and seized weaponry but have found it more difficult to hold the bases against overwhelming air power.

Video posted by a rebel group showed fighters shouting “God is great,” ripping down a poster of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and milling around armored vehicles and damaged buildings on what they said was the territory of the base. Another video showed about a dozen men who identified themselves as government soldiers who had been captured at the airport.

“The officers’ morale is down,” one of the men said on camera. The soldiers said that before the base fell, senior officers took a plane and left.

Members of pro-government militias from a nearby Shiite village, Foua, were also killed in the fighting, the Observatory said. The uprising has largely been led by Syria’s Sunni majority; Mr. Assad’s government is dominated by members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

In Geneva, Mr. Brahimi, the senior Algerian diplomat who is the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, held talks with Russia’s deputy foreign minister and Middle East envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov, and the American deputy secretary of state, William Burns. It was the second time in the past month that the three men have met, as international concern grows about the stalemate in Syria.

There had been speculation over the holidays, when Mr. Brahimi met Mr. Assad in Damascus, that Mr. Brahimi was renewing efforts to broker a deal in which a transitional government with broad powers would take over from Mr. Assad, a formula agreed upon internationally in Geneva in June.

But Mr. Assad rebuffed Mr. Brahimi’s mediation in a rare public speech on Sunday, a move that was believed to have irked Russia, which has long blocked foreign intervention in Syria but has signaled that it is not wedded to Mr. Assad remaining in office.

On Thursday, Mr. Brahimi declared that many Syrians feel that Mr. Assad’s family had been in power too long — 42 years — using phrasing similar to that used recently by the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin, who has begun to distance himself from Mr. Assad personally though he still strongly opposes outside intervention to remove or install a Syrian government.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011, when demonstrators demanded democratic reforms, and became a civil war after government forces fired on peaceful protesters.

Discussions have so far failed to bridge the gap among the powers on the fate of Mr. Assad, despite growing concerns in Washington and Moscow over the threat to regional security posed by the conflict, in which the United Nations says 60,000 people have died, and the deepening humanitarian crisis.But there was little sign that any agreement was close.

In his defiant speech last weekend, Mr. Assad condemned “foreign meddling” and made no concession to the demands of opposition groups described as terrorists or puppets of foreign powers.

The difficulties confronting Mr. Brahimi’s efforts to broker a political solution only increased when the Syrian government on Thursday accused him of “flagrant bias” over remarks he made to the media suggesting Mr. Assad would have to give up power.

Mr. Brahimi, talking to journalists after Mr. Assad’s speech, described it as a missed opportunity and said that “surely he would not be a member” of the transitional government created under the terms of the formula agreed in Geneva last year.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry expressed surprise at Mr. Brahimi’s remarks and said they showed he “is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people.”

In Syria, people reacted with intense emotion to the news that the base was taken. Taftanaz is seen as the source of barrel bombs — explosives dropped from helicopters — that had become one of the most feared government weapons in the north.

In Binnish, a town in Idlib Province, a crowd gathered and sang songs and chanted about the liberation of the airport. One man held a small girl on his shoulders, in a video posted by local activists.

“My Taftanaz,” they chanted. “The martyrs of God, our country is winning.”

Fighters, too, appeared emotional in videos they posted of the events. “This mortar used to bomb villages like Binnish,” one said as he filmed a mortar tube set up at what had been a checkpoint on the approach to the air base. “Now it’s under the control of the mujahedeen,” he said, using a term for holy warriors. “Assad’s vehicles and tanks are the spoils of war.”

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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« Reply #3981 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:40 AM »

Billions in Afghan aid could be wasted: U.S. inspector

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 10, 2013 18:19 EST

Billions of dollars in American assistance to Afghanistan could ultimately go to waste without better planning and security in the war-torn nation, a US investigator said Thursday.

John Sopko, the congressionally mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, aired his concerns as Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks in Washington to prepare for next year’s withdrawal of US combat troops.

“We are at a risk now of wasting billions of dollars if the agencies charged with implementing new programs and constructing new facilities do not first answer some basic questions,” Sopko said at the Stimson Center think tank.

Despite US commanders’ talk of progress in Afghanistan, Sopko said that it was becoming more difficult for inspectors to head into the field to ascertain that US money was being well spent.

“As the military draws down, we too find that there are fewer places that we can go to safely in Afghanistan to monitor projects,” he said.

Sopko accused both the Pentagon and the US Agency for International Development of lacking long-range plans on where and why they were building projects and of often failing to ensure quality standards.

He pointed to a $70 million US-funded garrison for Afghan troops in northern Kunduz province that was rendered unusable because it was built on unstable soil with roofs that collapsed due to improper welding.

The United States has appropriated more than $90 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2001, when a US-led coalition ousted the hardline Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda.

Sopko said the assistance amounted to $28 million a day and was more than the United States has spent on any nation since World War II.

He also pointed to concerns over graft. In its latest annual survey, Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International ranked Afghanistan worst — in a tie with North Korea and Somalia — on perceptions of corruption.

President Barack Obama’s administration has voiced concern to Karzai over corruption, leading to sometimes rocky relations.

Obama meets Karzai on Friday as the US administration debates how many troops to leave in Afghanistan. Opinion polls have shown that the US public wants to end America’s longest war and pull out the 66,000 combat troops.

Some US officials want to keep just a few thousand US troops to train Afghans and take part in operations against Al-Qaeda. The White House has left open the option of withdrawing forces completely.

January 10, 2013

Priorities Are Far Apart as Karzai and Obama Meet


WASHINGTON — The last time President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan spoke face to face, it was on a video conference call on Sept. 21. Mr. Obama, distracted by an election in which the Afghanistan war was barely discussed, deflected Mr. Karzai’s most probing questions about the future of the American commitment there.

On Friday, the two leaders will finally confront those questions at the White House. For Mr. Karzai, it may prove to be a jolting illustration of how sharply Mr. Obama has scaled back his ambitions in a conflict he once called a war of necessity — going so far as to entertain an option to leave behind no American troops after 2014, when the NATO combat mission ends.

Emboldened by what administration officials assert are gains against operatives of Al Qaeda, and concerned about the financial and political costs at home, Mr. Obama is leaning toward a more aggressive timetable for withdrawing troops than his military commander in Afghanistan initially recommended.

As the White House examines options for the size of a residual military force in Afghanistan that ranges from roughly 3,000 to 9,000 troops, Mr. Obama has directed his advisers to answer a basic question: Is such a force necessary to carry out the narrow counterterrorism objective and training mission the United States envisions for postwar Afghanistan?

Mr. Karzai, who met Thursday with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, has far different expectations, according to Afghan officials.

Although he has been careful not to discuss specific troop numbers in public, Mr. Karzai appears to be counting on a substantial residual American force — perhaps as many as 15,000 troops, whose mission would be to advise Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban insurgency and carry out raids against Al Qaeda.

And he is hoping the United States will supply the Afghan Army with the latest military hardware, including tanks and fighter planes.

These very different expectations, analysts said, could reignite the tensions in a relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai that has been notoriously fraught over issues like corruption, civilian casualties and threats to Afghan sovereignty.

“There’s been a steady rollback of our objectives of what’s good enough in Afghanistan,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan and is the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“If you’re Karzai, you’re basically now facing the same calculation that Maliki did in Iraq,” said Mr. Nasr, referring to Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister. “ ‘If you’re not willing to stay in large numbers, why do I need you?’ ”

The possibilities for friction are compounded by cynicism on both sides: the sense in Washington that Mr. Karzai is a mercurial, unreliable partner, and the suspicion in Kabul that the Americans care about Afghanistan only when they need it for other purposes, like fighting Al Qaeda.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander in Afghanistan, warned in a recent interview that if the United States shrank too radically its advisory support for the Afghan military or curtailed its civilian programs, it might lose Afghan support for the counterterrorism operations it might want to continue there.

“If you don’t have the support of the Afghan people,” he said, “there’s no reason for them to be supportive of this.” 

It is a measure of the potential disconnect between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Obama that Afghan officials involved in preparing his trip said the belief in the Afghan leader’s inner circle was that Mr. Karzai was coming to the talks with the upper hand.

In Mr. Karzai’s view, these officials and other people close to the president said, the United States needs a robust American presence in Afghanistan after 2014 to keep Al Qaeda off balance and Iran and Pakistan at bay. The Afghans “think they are indispensable; they think they have all the leverage,” one Afghan official said.

The Afghans were readying complaints about the United States’ continuing to detain Afghans at a prison next to Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, which was supposed to have been handed over to Afghan authorities in September.

Some of Mr. Karzai’s advisers are aware of the tenuous support at the White House for the war effort. Fearful of a repeat of Iraq, where Mr. Obama ordered a total military withdrawal, they have prevailed on the Afghan president to soften his position on granting immunity to any American troops stationed in Afghanistan after 2014, which he has done in recent months.

The ideal outcome for Mr. Karzai, these officials said, would be an American and allied training force that would help the Afghan Army make the most of the billions in aid it is expecting to receive, and a robust counterterrorism force that could work with Afghan Special Forces to combat the remnants of Al Qaeda.

The White House’s calculation looks very different. While cost was a consideration in Iraq, Mr. Obama is more sensitive now to the budget consequences of keeping troops in Afghanistan after his bruising fiscal showdown with Congress, and the prospect of huge mandatory cuts in the Pentagon’s budget.

“You’ve got to step back and see the whole field from the point of view of taxpayer spending,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

To some extent, officials said, the administration’s floating of a “zero option” for troops is a bargaining ploy, with both the Pentagon and with Mr. Karzai.

But resolving the differences between the United States and the Afghan government, if they are resolved, is likely to have a profound effect on the long-term commitment of other NATO members.

An allied official said that if the White House opted for a minimal troop presence, the rest of the NATO allies were expected to follow suit, especially since the war was even more unpopular among their publics. Many critics complain that Mr. Karzai has been slow to pursue corruption. But some analysts said the emerging American policy might deepen Mr. Karzai’s insecurities.

“We will not be able to give Karzai any more spine to go after cronyism and nepotism,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution.

The one issue on which both sides appear in sync is the peace process, according to the Afghan officials and people close to the Afghan leader. Like their American counterparts, Afghan officials want to see negotiations with the Taliban make progress and offer rosy public assessments of the diplomatic effort.

But privately, the Afghans are aware that there have been no meaningful engagements with the Taliban in nearly a year, and that until the insurgents prove willing to sit down, the peace process will make little headway.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3982 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:43 AM »

January 10, 2013

To Counter China, Japan and Philippines Will Bolster Maritime Cooperation


TOKYO — In a telling sign of how China’s rise has helped turn former wartime foes into allies, Japan and the Philippines agreed on Thursday to cooperate more closely on maritime security.

During talks in Manila, the foreign ministers of Japan and the Philippines proclaimed their nations to be strategic partners that would collaborate more in resolving their separate territorial disputes with China, news reports said. They also expressed “mutual concern” over increasingly assertive claims by China that have embroiled both nations, according to Kyodo News.

Japan is in a tense showdown over islands in the East China Sea, while the Philippines has wrangled with China over control of islands and fishing grounds in the South China Sea. The two nations agreed to exchange information and discuss each other’s strategies for responding to China, the ministers were quoted as saying. The Philippine minister, Albert del Rosario, said the discussion included a request by his country for 10 new patrol ships from Japan to strengthen the Filipino coast guard.

His Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, was appointed last month by Japan’s new conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe. The decision to have Mr. Kishida visit the Philippines for his first trip was seen as a symbolic gesture by Mr. Abe, who has vowed to strengthen security ties with other democracies in the region in an effort to offset China’s growing military and political clout.

Mr. Abe has also said he wants to work more closely with the United States and Australia to help bolster the capacity of less-developed nations like the Philippines to stand up to China. While long-pacifist Japan has restricted its aid to mostly nonmilitary purposes, like building up coast guards, its leaders have recently begun loosening some of the self-imposed restrictions. Japan is now in talks about providing training to submarine crews from Vietnam, and last year it gave its first limited military aid to East Timor and Cambodia.

Japan has long supplied development aid in the region, but it has operated carefully to avoid stirring bitter memories of its militarism during World War II, when its forces swept across much of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, then emerging from its colonial relationship with the United States. However, in recent years Japan’s military has slowly raised its profile by joining regional training exercises and holding its first bilateral military maneuvers with Australia and India.

The building of regional military ties represents a significant strategic departure for the country, which after World War II relied for its defense on the United States and the roughly 50,000 military personnel it bases in Japan. For its part, China has pointed to the moves as proof of a resurgent militarism in Japan, which it says is swinging to the right.

News reports said Mr. del Rosario, the Philippine minister, called China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea a threat to regional stability.

“We also need to be able to address the possibility that the freedom of navigation would be adversely affected,” he was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

The Japanese foreign minister agreed.

“As the strategic environment is changing, it is necessary for us as foreign ministers to share recognition of the situation,” Mr. Kishida said after the talks, according to Kyodo News. Kyodo said that Mr. Kishida also offered development loans to help build a light-rail system and a new airport.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 10, 2013

An earlier version of this article described imprecisely the status of the Philippines during World War II. The islands were emerging from their colonial relationship with the United States.

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« Reply #3983 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:48 AM »

Anger as Norway police drop Breivik response probe

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 11, 2013 7:29 EST

The family of a teenager killed by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik reacted angrily Friday after a probe into police’s slow response to the July 2011 twin attacks was dropped.

“Apparently, no one will ever learn from the grave mistakes that were made on July 22, not the police nor anyone else,” lamented Alf Vederhus who lost his son Haavard in Breivik’s mass shooting on the island of Utoeya.

The Norwegian police’s internal affairs unit said in a statement Thursday that while there were serious shortcomings in the police’s response, it had dropped its investigation into complaints filed by the families of two victims because there was no evidence police had broken the law.

“I think internal affairs looked too lightly on the mistakes that were made,” Vederhus told the daily Dagsavisen.

Breivik, a right-wing extremist, detonated a bomb outside the centre-left government’s headquarters and then went on the rampage at a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoeya, killing a total of 77 people, many of them teenagers.

He was in August 2012 found sane and sentenced to Norway’s maximum sentence of 21 years in prison, a sentence that can be extended indefinitely if he is deemed a continued threat to society.

Breivik confessed to the attacks, calling them “cruel but necessary” to protect his country from the multiculturalism his victims embraced and which he hates.

Less than two weeks before the verdict was rendered, a commission tasked with learning lessons from the attacks harshly criticised the Norwegian authorities, saying the bombing could have been prevented and Breivik’s killing spree could have been stopped earlier.

* breivik_rectangle-460x307.jpg (23.29 KB, 460x307 - viewed 75 times.)
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« Reply #3984 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:49 AM »

France reluctant to restrict newer generation birth control pill despite health concerns

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 11, 2013 9:09 EST

France insisted Friday on restricting the prescription of newer-generation birth control pills even as Europe’s medicines watchdog declared there was no evidence to back a health warning.

Citing concerns over risks of blood clots from the so-called 3rd- and 4th-generation pills, France said it would limit prescriptions of these contraceptives and urged the rest of Europe to follow suit.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine said she would ask the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to “modify” its market authorisation for 3rd- and 4th-generation contraceptive pills.

“The objective is that these pills are no longer prescribed to women as a first option,” she said in a statement.

But the EMA earlier said it saw no need to change guidelines.

“There is currently no new evidence that would suggest any change to the known safety profile of any combined contraceptives marketed today,” the agency said in a statement from London.

“Therefore, there is no reason for any woman to stop using her contraception.”

The 3rd-generation Pill, introduced in the 1990s, and the 4th generation approved in the last decade, contain synthetic versions of the female hormone progestogen and claim to skirt side-effects associated with older versions.

A Danish study published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 found women who took one of the newer types of Pill ran twice the risk of developing blood clots in the veins than those who used older-generation drugs.

Compared with non-users of the Pill, the risk of a clot was between three and six times higher.

Clots formed in the veins can break up and be transported to the heart or lungs and may be fatal.

In absolute terms, though, the risk is small, experts stress.

About 2.5 million women in France take the 3rd- and 4th-generation Pill, about half of all oral contraceptive users — a statistic the French authorities judge excessive.

Touraine said she had asked the National Drugs Safety Agency (ANSM) to release safety data on the Pill and inform health professionals about giving priority to the older, second-generation Pill when prescribing.

The EMA said it had not received new evidence from “any member state” in relation to blood-clot risks, and promised that any information submitted to it would be reviewed promptly.

Under European rules, countries must accept medications that are approved by EMA but this does not prevent national authorities from making recommendations about how the drugs are used.

They are also allowed to temporarily suspend the drugs under the precautionary principle, but cannot ban them unilaterally.

The storm in France was triggered in part by the case of a 25-year-old woman, Marion Larat, who was left badly handicapped by a stroke that, in a lawsuit, she attributed to a later-generation pill made by German firm Bayer.

Her lawyer said in December that 30 other women are likely to file a suit targeting Schering, Merck and Pfizer as well as Bayer.

Some of the 3rd- and 4th-generation pills are already the target of lawsuits and tighter guidelines in the United States.

Last year, Bayer which makes the Yasmin and Yaz contraceptives, said it had spent $750 million to settle nearly 3,500 lawsuits for alleged deep-vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.

An estimated 3,800 more lawsuits remain to be settled, as well as nearly 5,000 other claims over other types of injuries allegedly caused by the pills.

In October last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required Yasmin, Yaz and two other brands, Beyaz and Safyral, to carry labels warning of a higher risk of clots.

The risks are also influenced by smoking, obesity, diabetes and genes.

The French government has already announced the country’s health system will no longer reimburse 3rd- and 4th-generation pills, a measure that will take effect on September 30.
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« Reply #3985 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:51 AM »

January 10, 2013

Signs of a Rift in British Coalition Over European Union


LONDON — A blunt warning from the United States to Prime Minister David Cameron over his plans to loosen ties with the European Union was echoed by Mr. Cameron’s coalition partner Thursday, opening new fissures here over Britain’s ambivalent attitude toward the 27-nation bloc.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, said risking Britain’s membership in the union was perilous, and he mocked a long-awaited speech on E.U. policy that Mr. Cameron is expected to make in the Netherlands before the end of the month.

Mr. Clegg, who is a Dutch speaker and whose party supports the European Union, joked that he would be on hand to translate Mr. Cameron’s speech “from double-Dutch to just Dutch.”

Mr. Cameron, whose Conservative lawmakers are increasingly critical of the European Union, has said he wants to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the bloc and seek consent from voters for the outcome of those talks.

Many observers expect him to make an explicit promise of a referendum in his upcoming speech — in part because Mr. Cameron’s party risks losing support to the  Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the union.

The political temperature rose following an unusual, on-the-record intervention on Wednesday, in which a senior United States official argued that Britain was a more useful ally if it remained fully engaged in the European Union. Speaking in London, Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, added that referendums held by other nations on E.U. agreements “have sometimes turned countries inward.”

Britons pride themselves on their “special relationship” with Washington, and the possibility that it would be weakened by a movement away from the European Union is problematic for Mr. Cameron.

Addressing parliamentary journalists in London, Mr. Clegg — who has been increasingly willing to take a different stand from Mr. Cameron on a range of issues — outlined a vision on Europe starkly at odds with that of the prime minister while asserting that such divisions need not affect the overall coherence of the coalition.

That seems plausible, because practical decisions over E.U. relations will probably be delayed until after the next elections, scheduled for 2015.

“When you have got one in 10 jobs in this country, three million people whose jobs are dependent in one way or another on our position as a full and leading member of the world’s largest single market,” said Mr. Clegg, “you play with that status at your peril.”

“Do we lead or do we hang back in a subsidiary status?” Mr. Clegg asked. “Obviously, the Americans and others, quite understandably, say, ‘Right, you are a big nation, you’ve got big horizons, you’ve got big ambitions, you’ve got a big history — act big, don’t act small.’ That’s my attitude.”

One argument in London is that the euro zone — which Britain never joined — will seek to integrate further and that this will require a new E.U. treaty. Many of Mr. Cameron’s supporters believe that in exchange for agreeing to that, he can wrest back some powers from Brussels, allowing him a new settlement that could be put to voters in a referendum.

But Mr. Clegg said a new treaty might not arise and advised against promising a referendum before it was clear what the future held.

“Why would you provoke a great national debate about nothing very much in particular in response to a document that hasn’t materialized yet and might never materialize?” he said.

In a separate development, Gunther Krichbaum, chairman of the European affairs committee in Germany’s Parliament, said a referendum “could paralyze efforts for a better Europe and deeper integration.”

“Britain would risk being isolated,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “That cannot be in Britain’s interests.”

Mr. Cameron’s official spokesman played down the controversy.

“The prime minister’s view is that it is in the British national interest to be in the E.U., but he wants to change that relationship with the E.U. and to seek fresh consent for it,” he said.
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« Reply #3986 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:53 AM »

January 10, 2013

In Cyprus Bailout, Questions of Whether Depositors Should Shoulder the Bill


LONDON — On their Web sites, the largest of Cyprus’s failing banks brag that their client representatives are fluent in Russian. No indication, though, whether strizhka — Russian for haircut — is part of their lexicon.

As negotiations with Europe over a bailout for Cyprus near an end, the country’s banks, flush with Russian deposits, hope they do not have to force haircuts, or losses, on some of their wealthiest depositors.

Europe, struggling to complete a potential 17 billion euro, or $22.2 billion, rescue package for Cyprus, is under intense pressure to make private sector investors, rather than European taxpayers, pay a bigger share of the bill than in past bailouts. Officials in Brussels and Berlin are said to be considering a controversial plan that could require depositors in Cypriot banks to accept losses on their savings. Russians, who hold about one-fifth of bank deposits in Cyprus, would take a big hit.

That step would be a radical departure from the bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In those rescues, while investors holding Greek bonds were eventually forced to take haircuts, it was largely loans from European countries that financed the bailouts, with bank deposits held sacrosanct.

In a Europe where big banks hold outsize political and financial power — Cypriot banks wield assets eight times the size of the country’s economic output — any move to punish depositors is certain to attract bitter opposition.

And though the plan may have some merit on paper, it would be hard to carry out in practice, given the ties that bind Cyprus to Russia.

Demetris Christofias, the Cypriot president, is a Communist who received his higher education in Russia. What is more, Russia provided Cyprus with $3.3 billion in emergency financing last year. And the largest individual shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus is Dmitry Rybolovlev, a billionaire Russian businessman.

But European officials see Cyprus as a new opportunity to censure banks for what they describe as their too-big-to-fail sense of entitlement, according to some people involved in the bailout discussions. Cyprus’s loosely regulated and tax-friendly banking climate has long made it a favorite destination for Russians seeking to place their rubles in a euro zone bank that does not ask too many questions.

People in favor of forcing depositors to share the cost of the bailout make this argument: It was an unusually high, $14.4 billion spike in Cypriot bank deposits in 2010 — as much as half of it from Russia — that prompted the banks to make the bad lending decisions that led to their collapse. The banks put much of the money into Greek government bonds, only to absorb big losses when those bonds were restructured last year.

Of the $22.2 billion needed to keep Cyprus afloat, at least $13.1 billion would need to be pumped into the country’s banks.

European officials caution that while it may still be a long shot, a move to force large, uninsured depositors to share the pain with Europe’s taxpayers would send a powerful message to the market that risky financial conduct has consequences.

“If it is just the official sector that does this, then what you end up doing is bailing out Russian oligarchs,” said Alessandro Leipold, chief economist of the Lisbon Council, a research organization in Brussels, and a former top executive at the International Monetary Fund. “I would be very surprised if there is no private sector involvement here.”

German lawmakers have said they will reject any deal that has the effect of bailing out Russian depositors. And Chancellor Angela Merkel, who plans to visit Cyprus on Friday, said Wednesday that the country would be given “no special conditions.”

Forcing losses on bank depositors is a last-ditch measure taken by bankrupt governments when all other measures have been exhausted. During the debt crisis in Latin America in the ’80s, depositors lost money when their dollar accounts were changed into the local, devalued currency. Another way to make depositors share the pain would be to convert long-term deposits into bonds with stretched-out maturities.

In Europe, such an action is rare. That it is being discussed at all underscores how serious international creditors have become in ensuring that any coming euro zone bailouts will extract a toll from private investors.

European attitudes have hardened in recent weeks in the wake of the sky-high profits that hedge funds locked in when Europe decided not to try to force investors to accept a lower price for their bonds in the buyback of Greek debt last month.

No final agreement on the Cyprus bailout is expected until after the country’s presidential election on Feb. 17. Mr. Christofias, who opposes tough austerity measures like selling state assets, is not running for re-election. The favorite to succeed him, Nicos Anastasiades of the center-right DISY party, is seen by European officials as a better negotiating partner.

Other possibilities for extracting a price from private investors are also being examined, people involved in the discussions say. Those include steep write-downs in the value of the senior bonds in the country’s two largest financial institutions, Bank of Cyprus and Cyprus Popular Bank.

Another possibility is imposing losses on foreign investors holding Cypriot government bonds.

“All options are on the table,” said a senior European official who is participating in the talks but spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Of course, going after depositors carries significant risks. As much as $18.3 billion of Cyprus’s $91.5 billion in deposits is said to be Russian-held, and any hint that savers will have to take a hit could prompt a bank run and seriously damage its standing as an offshore banking hub. Russia, as the country’s largest creditor, would no doubt raise strenuous objections. Euro zone countries with fragile banking systems, moreover, would worry about the risk of contagion.

But the main alternative — loading losses onto investors holding government bonds — has its own drawbacks. The country’s banks own about $2.6 billion of the $4.97 billion worth of government bonds outstanding; hedge funds and other foreign investors hold the rest.

The banks’ bond losses, in the meantime, would be added to Europe’s bailout bill.

Analysts also argue that with a ratio of debt to gross domestic product of just below 80 percent — lower than Germany’s or France’s — Cyprus is not guilty of the sort of borrowing excesses that forced the Greek government to seek a bailout. Instead, it was the reckless conduct of its overambitious banks, which lent aggressively to Greece.

Unlike larger euro zone economies, Cyprus’s bonds are governed by the investor protections of English law — something Cyprus had to agree to in order to lure investors to its smaller, inherently riskier economy. English law makes it easier for private investors to sue if their bonds are restructured as part of a bailout.

And experts argue that with foreign funds now willing once again to make substantial investments in European banks and government securities, there is no point in testing the fragile nerves of portfolio managers.

Better that Europe pinch its nose and write Cyprus a $22.2 billion check, some analysts say — and if that means happy returns for hedge funds and Russian depositors, it is a small price to pay when the stability of the euro zone is at stake.

“If you did not do this in Ireland, then it is not worth doing now that Europe is on the mend,” said Gabriel Sterne, an analyst at Exotix, a securities house in London. “Cyprus is so small and piddly — why bother?”

But there’s the rub. Ireland, as part of an $111 billion bailout in 2010, granted a blanket guarantee to its depositors and investors who owned the senior bonds of its collapsed banks. That decision quickly rendered the country insolvent. Even now, having passed a raft of austerity measures, Ireland has a debt-to-G.D.P. ratio just below the 120 percent level that most economists, including the I.M.F., say is unsustainable for a country to bear.

The cost of making a Cyprus bailout an official-sector-only affair would push its debt-to-G.D.P. ratio above 140 percent.

“What you have here is an insolvent banking system that you are deliberately turning into an insolvent government,” said Adam Lerrick, a sovereign debt specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.

That might well be. But the Cypriot government “will fight deposit haircuts to the death,” said Alexandros Apostolides, an economist in Cyprus.

If the country gets its preference, when its Russian-speaking bankers say strizhka, they will be referring only to a trip to the barbershop.
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« Reply #3987 on: Jan 11, 2013, 08:54 AM »

01/10/2013 05:01 PM

Replacing Juncker: Dutch Minister Favored to Head Euro Group

By Stefan Simons and Carsten Volkery

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a relative newcomer to EU politics, is now the favorite to take over the top spot at the Euro Group of euro-zone finance ministers.

The evidence is mounting that Jeroen Dijsselbloem will be the new head of the Euro Group. The official announcement won't come until the next meeting of the group of euro-zone finance ministers on Jan. 21. But in Brussels and other capitals within the currency bloc, the 46-year-old Dutch finance minister is already being openly referred to as the designated successor of Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

On Wednesday, the 46-year-old member of Holland's center-left Labor Party met with French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici in Paris for a job interview. The Socialist government of President François Hollande has previously had reservations about Dijsselbloem, who has been leading a tough austerity program in the Netherlands in a coalition with the conservative Liberal party.

No details of the meeting in Paris have been made public. The French government is apparently not ready to bend and to endorse Dijsselbloem's nomination officially. But according to French observers, Moscovici and Dijsselbloem must have hit it off.

"Dijsselbloem has everything Moscovici is looking for," wrote the French business daily La Tribune. "Like Moscovici, he's a reasonable man of the Left." The French minister shouldn't expect too much enthusiasm from his counterpart, summarized the paper. As Euro Group leader, Dijsselbloem will have to prove himself -- particularly to the German public and government.

Budget Hawk and Reformer

Dijsselbloem belongs to the right wing of Dutch Labor Party (PVDA). He is regarded as a reformer and a budget hawk -- qualities that win him favor with the German government.

Germany previously insisted that the new Euro Group chief come from a country with a "AAA" credit rating, which dramatically narrows the field of candidates. Aside from Germany, only Luxembourg, Finland and the Netherlands have top marks. After German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble faced resistance from Paris, Dijsselbloem was, from Germany's point of view, the next best candidate. Berlin sees the Dutch government as their most trusted ally in the euro crisis.

That's why Dijsselbloem's inexperience is taken in stride. The youthful-looking man with dark hair and rimless glasses is a newcomer on the European stage. It was just last November that he was appointed Dutch finance minister and rose to the higher ranks of European politics. Before that, he was his party's spokesman on educational issues and was largely unknown, even within the Netherlands. If he ever made headlines, it was because of his criticism of video game violence.

Inconspicuous Candidate from a Small Country

The agricultural economist will have a lot of catching up to do if he is indeed appointed to one of the most important offices in the battle against the debt crisis. His inexperience stands in stark contrast to the wealth of experience of his predecessor, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who had been there to witness the birth of the common currency.

Dijsselbloem's low profile is unlikely to be a disadvantage. On the contrary, in Europe, inconspicuous candidates from small countries have a history of becoming successful bridge builders. The Belgian Herman van Rompuy was a blank slate in 2009 when he was unexpectedly elected the first president of the European Council. At the time, he was received with great skepticism, but soon proved himself an efficient power broker -- precisely because he was not perceived from the outset to be an advocate for one state or a particular position.

Dijsselbloem speaks English well, having graduated from a year-long masters program in business administration in Ireland. He is rumored to be a good listener, though in politics that is often a back-handed compliment. Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security, was also praised for being a good listener before she was reproached for her weak leadership skills and lack of vision.

Yet the top leadership position at the Euro Group certainly calls for a conciliatory disposition. Ultimately, the post involves few formal responsibilities, and its success depends largely on the officeholder's diplomatic skills.

Therefore, German Finance Minister Schäuble's candidacy was controversial. There is always suspicion that representatives from large countries will put their own national interests first. This accusation is one Dijsselbloem is unlikely to hear.

Unlike the confident Juncker, who enjoyed using his role as "Mister Euro" on the large European stage, Dijsselbloem is expected to be relatively reserved. The example of Van Rompuy shows, however, that this can change with time. The Belgian acts with increasing self-confidence and has put his own stamp on the position -- often to the dismay of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It could be that Dijsselbloem, too, offers up such surprises.
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« Reply #3988 on: Jan 11, 2013, 09:01 AM »

January 10, 2013

Heat, Flood or Icy Cold, Extreme Weather Rages Worldwide


WORCESTER, England — Britons may remember 2012 as the year the weather spun off its rails in a chaotic concoction of drought, deluge and flooding, but the unpredictability of it all turns out to have been all too predictable: Around the world, extreme has become the new commonplace.

Especially lately. China is enduring its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Brazil is in the grip of a dreadful heat spell. Eastern Russia is so freezing — minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and counting — that the traffic lights recently stopped working in the city of Yakutsk.

Bush fires are raging across Australia, fueled by a record-shattering heat wave. Pakistan was inundated by unexpected flooding in September. A vicious storm bringing rain, snow and floods just struck the Middle East. And in the United States, scientists confirmed this week what people could have figured out simply by going outside: last year was the hottest since records began.

“Each year we have extreme weather, but it’s unusual to have so many extreme events around the world at once,” said Omar Baddour, chief of the data management applications division at the World Meteorological Organization, in Geneva. “The heat wave in Australia; the flooding in the U.K., and most recently the flooding and extensive snowstorm in the Middle East — it’s already a big year in terms of extreme weather calamity.”

Such events are increasing in intensity as well as frequency, Mr. Baddour said, a sign that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.

Here in Britain, people are used to thinking of rain as the wallpaper on life’s computer screen — an omnipresent, almost comforting background presence. But even the hardiest citizen was rattled by the near-biblical fierceness of the rains that bucketed down, and the floods that followed, three different times in 2012.

Rescuers plucked people by boat from their swamped homes in St. Asaph, North Wales. Whole areas of the country were cut off when roads and train tracks were inundated at Christmas. In Megavissey, Cornwall, a pub owner closed his business for good after it flooded 11 times in two months.

It was no anomaly: the floods of 2012 followed the floods of 2007 and also the floods of 2009, which all told have resulted in nearly $6.5 billion in insurance payouts. The Met Office, Britain’s weather service, declared 2012 the wettest year in England, and the second-wettest in Britain as a whole, since records began more than 100 years ago. Four of the five wettest years in the last century have come in the past decade (the fifth was in 1954).

The biggest change, said Charles Powell, a spokesman for the Met Office, is the frequency in Britain of “extreme weather events” — defined as rainfall reaching the top 1 percent of the average amount for that time of year. Fifty years ago, such episodes used to happen every 100 days; now they happen every 70 days, he said.

The same thing is true in Australia, where bush fires are raging across Tasmania and the current heat wave has come after two of the country’s wettest years ever. On Tuesday, Sydney experienced its fifth-hottest day since records began in 1910, with the temperature climbing to 108.1 degrees. The first eight days of 2013 were among the 20 hottest on record.

Every decade since the 1950s has been hotter in Australia than the one before, said Mark Stafford Smith, science director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

To the north, the extremes have swung the other way, with a band of cold settling across Russia and Northern Europe, bringing thick snow and howling winds to Stockholm, Helsinki and Moscow. (Incongruously, there were also severe snowstorms in Sicily and southern Italy for the first time since World War II; in December, tornadoes and waterspouts struck the Italian coast.)

In Siberia, thousands of people were left without heat when natural gas liquefied in its pipes and water mains burst. Officials canceled bus transportation between cities for fear that roadside breakdowns could lead to deaths from exposure, and motorists were advised not to venture far afield except in columns of two or three cars. In Altai, to the east, traffic officials warned drivers not to use poor-quality diesel, saying that it could become viscous in the cold and clog fuel lines.

Meanwhile, China is enduring its worst winter in recent memory, with frigid temperatures recorded in Harbin, in the northeast. In the western region of Xinjiang, more than 1,000 houses collapsed under a relentless onslaught of snow, while in Inner Mongolia, 180,000 livestock froze to death. The cold has wreaked havoc with crops, sending the price of vegetables soaring.

Way down in South America, energy analysts say that Brazil may face electricity rationing for the first time since 2002, as a heat wave and a lack of rain deplete the reservoirs for hydroelectric plants. The summer has been punishingly hot. The temperature in Rio de Janeiro climbed to 109.8 degrees on Dec. 26, the city’s highest temperature since official records began in 1915.

At the same time, in the Middle East, Jordan is battling a storm packing torrential rain, snow, hail and floods that are cascading through tunnels, sweeping away cars and spreading misery in Syrian refugee camps. Amman has been virtually paralyzed, with cars abandoned, roads impassable and government offices closed.

Israel and the Palestinian territories are grappling with similar conditions, after a week of intense rain and cold winds ushered in a snowstorm that dumped eight inches in Jerusalem alone.

Amir Givati, head of the surface water department at the Israel Hydrological Service, said the storm was truly unusual because of its duration, its intensity and its breadth. Snow and hail fell not just in the north, but as far south as the desert city of Dimona, best known for its nuclear reactor.

In Beirut on Wednesday night, towering waves crashed against the Corniche, the seaside promenade downtown, flinging water and foam dozens of feet in the air as lightning flickered across the dark sea at multiple points along the horizon. Many roads were flooded as hail pounded the city.

Several people died, including a baby boy in a family of shepherds who was swept out of his mother’s arms by floodwaters. The greatest concern was for the 160,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, taking shelter in schools, sheds and, where possible, with local families. Some refugees are living in farm outbuildings, which are particularly vulnerable to cold and rain.

Barry Lynn, who runs a forecasting business and is a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s department of earth science, said a striking aspect of the whole thing was the severe and prolonged cold in the upper atmosphere, a big-picture shift that indicated the Atlantic Ocean was no longer having the moderating effect on weather in the Middle East and Europe that it has historically.

“The intensity of the cold is unusual,” Mr. Lynn said. “It seems the weather is going to become more intense; there’s going to be more extremes.”

In Britain, where changes to the positioning of the jet stream — a ribbon of air high up in the atmosphere that helps steer weather systems — may be contributing to the topsy-turvy weather, people are still recovering from the December floods. In Worcester last week, the river Severn remained flooded after three weeks, with playing fields buried under water.

In the shop at the Worcester Cathedral, Julie Smith, 54, was struggling, she said, to adjust to the new uncertainty.

“For the past seven or eight years, there’s been a serious incident in a different part of the country,” Mrs. Smith said. “We don’t expect extremes. We don’t expect it to be like this.”

Reporting was contributed by Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem; Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Tzur Hadassah, Israel; Fares Akram from Gaza City, Gaza; Ellen Barry and Andrew Roth from Moscow; Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan; Dan Levin from Harbin, China; Jim Yardley from New Delhi; Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon; Matt Siegel from Sydney, Australia; Scott Sayare from Paris; and Simon Romero from Rio de Janeiro.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 11, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the organization for which Omar Baddour works. It is the World Meteorological Organization, not association.

* EXTREME-refer-articleLarge.jpg (56.47 KB, 600x330 - viewed 70 times.)
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« Reply #3989 on: Jan 11, 2013, 09:03 AM »

Astronomers spot biggest structure in the universe

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 11, 2013 9:04 EST

Astronomers on Friday said they had observed the largest structure yet seen in the cosmos, a cluster of galaxies from the early Universe that spans an astonishing four billion light years.

The sprawling structure is known as a large quasar group (LQG), in which quasars — the nuclei of ancient galaxies, powered by supermassive black holes — clump together.

The discovery in the deep Universe was made by a team led by Roger Clowes at the Jeremiah Horrocks Institute at Britain’s University of Central Lancashire.

It would take a spaceship travelling at the speed of light four thousand million years to get from one end of the cluster to the other.

To give a sense of scale, our galaxy (the Milky Way) is separated from its nearest neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy, by two and a half million light years.

“While it is difficult to fathom the scale of this LQG, we can say quite definitely it is the largest structure ever seen in the entire Universe,” Clowes said in a press statement issued by Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

“This is hugely exciting, not least because it runs counter to our current understanding of the scale of the Universe.”

The paper appears in a RAS journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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