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« Reply #4080 on: Jan 16, 2013, 08:55 AM »

In the USA...

January 15, 2013 01:00 PM

President Obama's News Conference: An Ultimatum and Invitation

By karoli

I know you've probably already read about the president's press conference, because my friends John Amato and Susie Madrak have already written about it. If you haven't read theirs, you should, and you should also read Mike Lux' analysis of the issues surrounding the deficit.

These are people I deeply respect, but I confess that I simply did not hear the same messages in the press conference that they did. In fact, I heard something completely different.

On the Grand Bargain

What I heard was that the president was done with efforts to find a Grand Bargain. He expressed his concerns about the deficit, yes. But he also left the negotiating table. Here's the key moment, in the Q & A session with Major Garrett asking the question:

    MAJOR GARRETT: Thank you, Mr. President. As you well know, sir, finding votes for the debt ceiling can sometimes be complicated.

    You, yourself, as a member of the Senate, voted against a debt ceiling increase. And in previous aspects of American history — President Reagan in 1985, President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990, President Clinton in 1997 — all signed deficit reduction deals that were contingent upon or in the context of raising the debt ceiling. You, yourself, four times have done that. Three times, those were related to deficit reduction or budget maneuvers.

    What Chuck and I and I think many people are curious about is this new, adamant desire on your part not to negotiate, when that seems to conflict with the entire history in the modern era of American Presidents and the debt ceiling, and your own history on the debt ceiling. And doesn’t that suggest that we are going to go into a default situation because no one is talking to each other about how to resolve this?

    THE PRESIDENT: Well, no, Major, I think if you look at the history, getting votes for the debt ceiling is always difficult, and budgets in this town are always difficult. I went through this just last year. But what’s different is we never saw a situation as we saw last year in which certain groups in Congress took such an absolutist position that we came within a few days of defaulting. And the fact of the matter is, is that we have never seen the debt ceiling used in this fashion, where the notion was, you know what, we might default unless we get 100 percent of what we want. That hasn’t happened.

    Now, as I indicated before, I’m happy to have a conversation about how we reduce our deficits further in a sensible way. Although one thing I want to point out is that the American people are also concerned about how we grow our economy, how we put people back to work, how we make sure that we finance our workers getting properly trained and our schools are giving our kids the education we deserve. There’s a whole growth agenda which will reduce our deficits that’s important as well.

    But what you’ve never seen is the notion that has been presented, so far at least, by the Republicans that deficit reduction — we’ll only count spending cuts; that we will raise the deficit — or the debt ceiling dollar for dollar on spending cuts. There are a whole set of rules that have been established that are impossible to meet without doing severe damage to the economy.

    And so what we’re not going to do is put ourselves in a position where in order to pay for spending that we’ve already incurred, that our two options are we’re either going to profoundly hurt the economy and hurt middle-class families and hurt seniors and hurt kids who are trying to go to college, or, alternatively, we’re going to blow up the economy. We’re not going to do that.

That was a clear signal to me that the president is done trying to mash up budget resolutions, tax reform and the debt ceiling. It sounds to me like he was saying plain and flatly that nothing other than a clean, reasonable increase on the debt ceiling will be acceptable. Further, he acknowledged the progressive argument advanced in John Amato's post that the real solution to the deficit is economic growth. In other words, he acknowledged that the deficit issue is a Republican flog, and Americans have something else on their minds.

He reinforced that later in the Q&A session when he said this, which I found to be the strongest gesture that he expected these things to be dealt with in an orderly fashion, beginning with a clean debt ceiling vote, in response to Julianna Goldman's question:

    THE PRESIDENT: No, Julianna, look, this is pretty straightforward. Either Congress pays its bills or it doesn't. Now, if — and they want to keep this responsibility; if John Boehner and Mitch McConnell think that they can come up with a plan that somehow meets their criteria that they’ve set for why they will — when they will raise the debt ceiling, they're free to go ahead and try. But the proposals that they’ve put forward in order to accomplish that — only by cutting spending — means cuts to things like Medicare and education that the American people profoundly reject.

    Now, if they think that they can get that through Congress, then they're free to try. But I think that a better way of doing this is go ahead and say, we’re going to pay our bills. The question now is how do we actually get our deficit in a manageable, sustainable way? And that's a conversation I’m happy to have.

    John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are free to try and get something through Congress, but they will have no assistance from the White House.
    There will be no approval from the White House on proposals that simply gut Medicare, education and other social safety nets, because that goes against what the American people want.
    Whatever they might try to do with deficit reduction has nothing to do with the debt ceiling.

The invitation

The president also invited people to use their voices to pressure Congress. It was subtle and almost easy to miss, but still there in his answer to Matt Spetalnick:

    But it seems as if what’s motivating and propelling at this point some of the House Republicans is more than simply deficit reduction. They have a particular vision about what government should and should not do. So they are suspicious about government’s commitments, for example, to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat, or whether we should be spending money on medical research. So they’ve got a particular view of what government should do and should be.

    And that view was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign. I think every poll that’s out there indicates that the American people actually think our commitment to Medicare or to education is really important, and that’s something that we should look at as a last resort in terms of reducing the deficit, and it makes a lot more sense for us to close, for example, corporate loopholes before we go to putting a bigger burden on students or seniors.

    But if the House Republicans disagree with that and they want to shut down the government to see if they can get their way on it, that’s their prerogative. That’s how the system is set up. It will damage our economy.

    The government is a big part of this economy, and it’s interesting that a lot of times you have people who recognize that when it comes to defense spending — some of the same folks who say we’ve got to cut spending, or complain that government jobs don’t do anything, when it comes to that defense contractor in their district, they think, wow, this is a pretty important part of the economy in my district and we shouldn’t stop spending on that. Let’s just make sure we’re not spending on those other folks.

In other words, House Republicans can go ahead and blow everything up if they really think that's what they were elected to do, but it would appear that they were not elected to do that, and so their constituents should speak up.

For the rest of January and into February, President Obama has the bully pulpit. He has an inaugural speech coming up next Monday, and a State of the Union speech coming up the following month. He has the benefit of winning the last election by over 5 million votes, and he has the message that resonates with Americans on many levels.

I did not in any way, shape or form hear him say he wanted a Grand Bargain. I heard him say he wants a clean debt ceiling raise with no negotiating or bargain. Period. I heard him say that while he views deficit reduction as something to pay attention to, we've already tackled a chunk of the deficit reduction issue by $2.5 trillion in spending cuts and increased taxes, that this Congress is incapable of being reasonable, and he's done with the Grand Bargain game. While it's true that he mentioned the Grand Bargain in his introduction, he also did it in the past tense, which to me meant he's done with the bargaining and has moved into action mode.

Here's my question: What happens if they pass a debt ceiling increase loaded with cuts that do harm to Medicare and Medicaid and that somehow gets through the Senate? That would place him in an untenable position, where we all would wish that Grand Bargain had been struck. I worry that they're trying to maneuver him into vetoing their bill so they can have their choice of people to blame: him or the Senate. In reality, I would expect the Senate to reject any debt ceiling increase that wasn't clean, but it would still fall on the head of Democrats in that situation.

Key Republicans are beginning to make some critical statements to their side of the aisle. Frank Luntz' remarks about how they should abandon the hostage-taking over the debt ceiling were very telling, and even Peggy Noonan, incoherent as she is, also says the same thing. If they couldn't bring themselves to see the fiscal cliff from the other side of January 1st, I doubt they (or their billionaires) want the entire global economy on the brink.

It's interesting how all of us can watch the same things and take out different points. To me, the President said the time for bargains are behind us. Others heard an appeal for a Grand Bargain.

In the end, I think the purpose of this press conference was to educate the public about what the debt ceiling is, why it must be raised, and why it is unrelated to any discussion of deficit reduction.

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WQUHe2kINM&feature=player_embedded

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Obama's gun control agenda includes universal background checks for buyers

President to unveil legislative proposals for Congress – along with 19 executive actions – meant to stem gun violence in US

Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 January 2013 12.50 GMT   
    
Customers look over Remington rifles and shotguns during the annual Shot Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Gun dealers at the show are reporting booming sales resulting from worries about possible gun control legislation. Photograph: Steve Marcus/Reuters

Barack Obama is poised to propose a rigorous new system of background checks on all buyers of firearms as the centrepiece of what amounts to the largest campaign in a generation to tighten America's gun laws.

Obama will unveil a plethora of new legislative proposals, together with 19 executive actions that he can introduce without congressional approval, at a White House event on Wednesday morning. The president will be flanked by children who have written into him about their desire for change in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 27 people died including 20 young pupils.

Top of the list of demands from gun control groups is the closure of massive loopholes in the current federal system of background checks. Unlicensed gun sellers who trade through gun shows or on the internet do not have to ask their customers to undergo the FBI checks – which means that fully 40% of weapons sold in the US every year are exempt from federal safeguards.

"In most states convicted felons, domestic violence abusers, and those who are dangerously mentally ill can walk into any gun show and buy weapons from unlicensed sellers without being stopped, no questions asked," said the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The four weapons used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to kill 12 students and a teacher at Columbine high school in April 1999 were bought by a friend of the shooters from unlicensed sellers at a gun show.

The problem of the so-called "gun show loophole" was graphically exposed in 2011 by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City who has spearheaded the movement for greater gun controls. He sent a team of undercover investigators into several gun shows across the country posing as would-be purchasers.

Though private sellers at gun shows are exempt from the need to have a background check on their customers, they are still legally obliged to turn away any buyer they suspect of being unable to pass such a test. That includes criminals and fugitives, drug addicts, those diagnosed "mentally defective" and individuals under a domestic violence restraining order.

Yet when the New York investigators told the private sellers that they probably couldn't pass an FBI background check, 19 out of the 30 vendors included in the investigation agreed to sell to them illegally anyway. One seller responded to New York's dummy buyer who had admitted he wouldn't pass a check by saying: "I wouldn't pass either, buddy."

Another area of weakness in the federal system of safeguards is that private individuals can sell guns through the internet without background checks on those receiving the weapons. The gap was highlighted by the Brady Center which last month filed a law suit against a gun dealing website on behalf of the family of a woman who was killed by a stalker who had acquired the murder weapon through the site.

Vice-president Joe Biden, who was nominated by Obama to lead a White House mission to advise him on how to combat gun violence, has indicated that he favours not only closing the gun show loophole, but "total universal background checks, including private sales". To achieve that, the president would be dependent on the support of both houses of Congress to steer through new legislation.

That could prove heavy lifting, given the historic opposition of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, to federal monitoring of private sales. The first encounter between Biden and the NRA, which is highly influential among Republican members of Congress, did not bode well: the association came out of last week's White House meeting accusing the vice president of putting together "an agenda to attack the Second Amendment".

However, not all pro-gun groups are opposed to the idea of extending federal checks to gun shows. Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, said that background checks on all sales at gun shows made "absolute sense".

"When you sell a gun at a gun show as a private citizen you don't have a clue who you are selling to – that's why checks are a good idea," Feldman said. But he added that his group would vigorously oppose any attempt to impose checks on the exchange of guns between family members or friends, which he called "political over-reach".

While Obama faces an Herculean struggle to see universal background checks enacted by Congress, there are several measures that are likely to be on Biden's proposed list that could be introduced by the president acting alone by dint of his executive powers. The 19 executive orders that Biden will propose are expected to include a requirement on all federal agencies that they pass on information on criminals, drug users and mentally ill people to the FBI background check database.

That still leaves the individual states who are also notoriously lapse in forwarding intelligence on individuals to the FBI computer. Some 19 states have filed details on 100 or fewer individuals.

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And here is the voice of Evil:

January 16, 2013 06:00 AM

NRA’s New Ad Goes After the Obama Daughters

By CrooksAndLiars

Apparently President Obama is a hypocrite because his children are protected by the Secret Service. Doubtless the NRA goons used similar tactics in the 1990s with Chelsea when President Clinton pushed for the assault weapons ban.

via the Washington Post:

    The National Rifle Association released a new video on its Web site Tuesday calling President Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for having Secret Service protection of his daughters at school but saying he was “skeptical” about installing armed guards in all schools.

    The NRA’s provocative, 35-second video is as harsh as any attack ad in a political campaign and illustrates how emotionally charged and personal the debate over gun control is becoming.

    “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” a deep-voiced narrator asks. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”

    A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Click to watch and hear the voice of Lucifer as Evil: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0LfGNtrRX8

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New York passes tough new gun control laws

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 17:47 EST

New York on Tuesday passed what supporters called the toughest gun ownership law in the country and became the first US state to impose new restrictions in the wake of last month’s elementary school massacre in Connecticut.

Lawmakers in the lower house of the State Assembly voted 104-43 in favor of the measure, which had been approved by the upper house in a 43-18 vote late Monday.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who rushed through the legislation, welcomed the assembly’s “bold statement, coming together in a bipartisan, collaborative manner to meet the challenges that face our state and our nation, as we have seen far too many senseless acts of gun violence.”

He told lawmakers ahead of the votes: “The people of this state now are crying out for help on the issue of gun violence.”

The measures, which include a full ban on sales of military-style rifles, were linked directly to the national horror at the December 14 massacre of 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Those killings sparked a major national debate over the need for curbing America’s liberal gun laws. President Barack Obama said Tuesday he would unveil his own proposals on Wednesday.

New York’s rapid action on the opening days of its new session grabbed national attention and ramped up momentum for supporters of sweeping new restrictions, particularly regarding assault rifles — the kind of weapon the Newtown killer used.

The NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or NY SAFE, closes several loopholes in an existing state ban on assault weapon sales.

It reduces the maximum magazine size from 10 rounds to seven and extends the requirement for background checks to all sales, including private deals.

Another notable aspect of the new rules is emphasis on preventing the mentally ill from gaining access to weapons. An existing law allowing judges to order mentally ill people to get treatment was strengthened.

“I think the message out there is so clear after Newtown,” State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said as the debate got underway on Monday. “It is an emergency,” he said.

However, opponents questioned whether focusing on assault rifles was wise, given that handguns are used far more frequently in crimes. They also accused Cuomo and his allies of violating the US constitution’s guarantee of the right to bear arms.

The law “tramples on the constitutional rights of our citizens,” Republican assembly member Marc Butler said during the debate on Tuesday.

Advocates of gun control say that rifles designed for firing at a high rate and at multiple targets make it easier for such massacres to take place.

In the run-up to Monday’s vote, Cuomo also ridiculed the argument that assault rifles — which resemble those carried by the military, except that they cannot be fired on full automatic — are needed by ordinary people, such as hunters.

“No one hunts with an assault rifle,” Cuomo said. “No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer. End the madness.”

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NRA triggers furor with its shooting-range app

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 17:48 EST

The National Rifle Association, which blames video games in part for mass shootings, triggered controversy Tuesday after coming out with its own game for iPhones and iPads.

“NRA: Practice Range,” released Sunday, is billed as “the NRA’s new mobile nerve center” with access to information about gun safety, legislation and news from the influential 4.25 million-member US gun lobby group.

But its main feature are shooting ranges — some with vaguely coffin-shaped targets — and a choice of handguns, rifles and shotguns, including the type of assault rifle used in the Newtown school massacre in December.

Players have one minute to pick off as many targets as possible, then post their scores on a leader board open to all.

“Is this some kind of sick joke?” wrote one customer in the review section of the game’s App Store page.

“The NRA complains about violent games and then releases one a week later. Sure you’re not shooting at humans but does it really matter? F***ing ridiculous.”

But in a reflection of how guns divide Americans, others gave the app five-star reviews.

“Freaking awesome,” wrote one satisfied customer. Another added: “Better hurry and download this before they take it away from us.”

As news of the game spread, an online petition was launched on SignOn.org urging Apple chief executive Tim Cook to withdraw the app, which is rated as appropriate for youngsters as young as four years old.

“In no way is this shameless and disrespectful product appropriate for children even younger than the Sandy Hook victims,” said the petition, which by mid-afternoon had gathered close to 300 signatures.

The game’s release coincided with this week’s SHOT convention, an annual trade show for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry organized in Las Vegas by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group.

The foundation happens to be based in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza, 20, cut down 20 children aged just six and seven, along with six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14.

Lanza — who had earlier shot and killed his mother, owner of the Bushmaster assault rifle used to kill the children — also took his own life in one of the worst mass shootings in US history.

While President Barack Obama launched a task force to look into tougher gun laws, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre blamed “vicious, violent video games” and the wider entertainment industry for such bloodbaths.

Separately, 52 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll said the Newtown shooting had made them more supportive of gun control.

The poll also found broad support among both Democrats and Republicans for mandatory background checks for those who purchase firearms at gun shows. Such events are said to account for 40 percent of all US gun sales.

Prospects of tighter gun laws from the Obama administration — which in its first term did nothing to renew a ban on assault rifles that lapsed in 2004 — has seen a buying frenzy for firearms and ammunition.

It has also seen the NRA pick up 250,000 members in just a month, the US News and World Report website reported.

“I would say that every time President Obama opens his mouth… about gun bans and restricting the rights of law-abiding Americans, people pay

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Maryland governor seeks to abolish death penalty

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 18:20 EST

The governor of the eastern US state of Maryland said Tuesday he will present a bill to abolish the death penalty.

If the legislation passes, Maryland would become the 18th state in America to do away with capital punishment. The bill will be formally presented next week.

Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said pursuing a capital case is three times as expensive as pursuing a non-death penalty homicide conviction and that the punishment does not deter crime.

“Every dollar we spend on an ineffective death penalty is a dollar we’re not spending on crime-fighting tools that actually work,” O’Malley told a news conference organized by the NAACP, a venerable advocacy group for African-Americans.

Maryland has not executed anyone or issued a death penalty conviction since 2005, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state has five prisoners on death row.

O’Malley first came out against the death penalty in 2009, calling it intrinsically unfair.

He presented a bill that would abolish it, and divert to families of murder victims the money that would have gone to pursuing death penalty convictions. But the bill failed to gain passage.

O’Malley said most executions in the world take place in Iran, North Korea, China, Yemen and the United States, and questioned what company America wanted to keep on this issue.

Last year Connecticut became the 17th US state to abolish the death penalty. That raised to 29 the number of states that, either on paper or de facto, have renounced it, says the DPIC.

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U.S. taps pension fund to avoid debt ceiling

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 20:58 EST

The US government stopped investing in a federal employee pension fund Tuesday to avoid breaching the nation’s legal borrowing limit, the Treasury Department said.

The action is among the extraordinary bookkeeping measures the Treasury announced on December 31 to keep the government’s debt below the current $16.4 trillion limit.

In a letter to leaders of Congress, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he was unable to invest fully in the fund beginning Tuesday “to avoid breaching the statutory debt limit.”

Geithner said the fund would be “made whole once the debt limit is increased.”

Federal employees and retirees would not be affected by the action, he said.

On Monday, Geithner called on Congress to raise the debt limit, warning that failing to do so would “impose severe economic hardship on millions of individuals and businesses.”

“Threatening to undermine our creditworthiness is no less irresponsible than threatening to undermine the rule of law, and no more legitimate than any other common demand for ransom,” he wrote in a letter to the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner.

President Barack Obama has warned Republicans against using the borrowing limit as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.

Republicans insist that it be part of any deal with the Democrats on a longer-term budget to rein in big deficits and debt.

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House passes Sandy relief bill despite Republican opposition

By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 21:05 EST

The House of Representatives voted in favour of a $17bn Hurricane Sandy relief bill on Tuesday, 11 weeks after the superstorm struck the north-east of the US. Congress was due to vote on a second part of the package, which would add $33.7bn to recovery funds, later on Tuesday. Along with the $9bn package to fund insurance claims passed earlier this month, the total relief funding could total nearly $60bn.

The $17bn will go towards basic needs in areas that were hit hard by the storm. The money will be spent on temporary housing and other urgent measures, mostly in New York and New Jersey, which bore the brunt of the hurricane. Congress was debating an amendment to the bill on Tuesday evening which could add $33.7bn which would be spent on longer term structural issues, such as rebuilding train and subway systems and repairing flood-prevention measures.

There had been some concern that the Republican-controlled House would vote against further federal Sandy relief. Conservatives had proposed a series of amendments to the bill which would impose spending cuts elsewhere in exchange for awarding the funding. An amendment that would have offset the $17bn with a 1.63% cut on appropriations in the 2013 budget was voted down by 258-162. Of the 162 voting for the amendment, 157 were Republicans, five Democrats.

The fight over Sandy relief goes back to 1 January, when the Republican leadership in the House opted not to vote on a $60bn bill which had been passed by the Senate. That delay meant the bill had to be reintroduced in the House, causing lengthy delays at a time when federal relief funds were in danger of running out.

In the week following that decision, New Jersey governor Chris Christie gave an angry press conference in which he accused the Republican leadership in the House of showing “callous indifference” in delaying consideration of Sandy relief. This prompted a vote on 4 January over a $9.7bn package to fund insurance arising claims from the storm.

Tuesday was the first day that the larger relief package – which would bring the funding total close to the initial $60bn deal passed by the Senate – could be debated in the House.

As the House debated the $33.7bn amendment to the Sandy bill, introduced by New Jersey representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, on Tuesday afternoon, congressmen from New York, New Jersey and beyond lined up to chide those who intended to vote against it. Congressman Frank LoBiondo, a Republican who represents New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district, which includes Atlantic City, was critical of some House members who had experienced disaster in their own states but were now opposing relief for the north-east.

“California – did you get rid of the San Andreas fault?,” LoBiondo said in an impassioned speech on the House floor. “Mississippi: you think you’re not going to have a flood again?”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

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New York VA hospital exposes hundreds of veterans to HIV risk

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, January 15, 2013 11:56 EST

More than 700 veterans may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C due to improper use of insulin pens at a New York hospital. According to CNN, personnel at a Veterans’ Administration hospital in Buffalo, New York used the single-use injection pens on multiple patients, exposing them to the same risk of blood borne diseases as IV drug users who share needles.

A memo sent from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to the Congress said, in part, “On November 1, 2012, officials at the (Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System) reported that while conducting pharmacy inspection rounds on the inpatient units, they discovered that insulin pens intended for individual patient use were found in the supply drawer of the medication carts without a patient label on them.  Although the disposable needles were changed each time it was used, the insulin pens intended for individual patient use may have been used on more than one patient.”

The office of Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) supplied the memo to CNN.  The document went on to say that risks to veterans who were patients in the hospital was very low.

“There is a very small chance that some patients could have been exposed to the hepatitis B virus, the hepatitis C virus, or HIV, based on practices identified at the facility,” it reads. “(The health system) determined that all veterans who were prescribed the insulin pen during an inpatient stay from October 19, 2010, to November 1, 2012, should be notified.”

During that period, 712 patients were given doses of insulin from the disposable pens, which are injection devices intended to allow one person to perform multiple self-injections. Because blood can flush back up the needle into the cartridge during injection, pathogens left behind by one patient could potentially be passed on when the device is used on a second patient, even if the needle has been changed.

Jim Blue, regional director of the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, said to CNN, “Veterans and their families will have an opportunity to speak with a nurse who will answer questions they may have and assist with managing followup care.”

Higgins’ office took the VA to task in a statement for dragging its feet when it came to notifying the affected patients.

“Beyond the fact that the error occurred at all, most concerning was the length of time it took the Buffalo VA to catch the error — over two years, as well as the three-month delay in informing patients who may have been exposed,” it said.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) blamed improper training of VA hospital personnel.

“Unfortunately, since the day that new technology was introduced at the VA, they did not have a protocol in place that let the nurses know they were not supposed to use the cartridge on more than one patient,” he said, calling the situation “unacceptable.”

Higgins has also requested an action plan from the VA that will ensure that such errors do not take place in the future.

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January 15, 2013

For ‘Party of Business,’ Allegiances Are Shifting

By JACKIE CALMES
NYT

WASHINGTON — Not for the first time, the White House made known on Monday that top administration officials had reached out to corporate executives for their help in getting Republicans in Congress to compromise on pending budget issues. But as both President Obama and industry chieftains are finding, today’s Republican Party is hardly so quick to bow to big business.

Corporate chiefs in recent months have pleaded publicly with Republicans to raise their taxes for the sake of deficit reduction, and to raise the nation’s debt limit without a fight lest another confrontation like that in 2011 wallop the economy. But the lobbying has been to no avail. This is not their parents’ Republican Party.

In a shift over a half-century, the party base has been transplanted from the industrial Northeast and urban centers to become rooted in the South and West, in towns and rural areas. In turn, Republicans are electing more populist, antitax and antigovernment conservatives who are less supportive — and even suspicious — of appeals from big business.

Big business, many Republicans believe, is often complicit with big government on taxes, spending and even regulations, to protect industry tax breaks and subsidies — “corporate welfare,” in their view.

“One of the biggest lies in politics is the lie that Republicans are the party of big business,” Ted Cruz, a new senator from Texas and a Tea Party favorite, told The Wall Street Journal during his 2012 campaign. “Big business does great with big government. Big business is very happy to climb in bed with big government. Republicans are and should be the party of small business and of entrepreneurs.”

The tension, so evident last month in the tax fight over the fiscal deadline, is apparent again as Mr. Obama and a new Congress contend over the even more pressing need to increase the nation’s debt limit next month.

Big business is so fearful of economic peril if Congress does not allow the government to keep borrowing — to pay creditors, contractors, program beneficiaries and many others — that it is nearly united in skepticism of, or outright opposition to, House Republicans’ demand that Mr. Obama first agree to equal spending cuts in benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

That explains the administration’s outreach to corporate chiefs, like Monday’s conference call. Mr. Obama wants business’s support to buttress his vow that he will never again negotiate over so essential an action like he did in 2011, when the nation flirted with default and the economy suffered. Vexing Republicans, many business leaders are siding with him.

“I’m agreeing with the president — you should not be using the debt limit as a bargaining chip when it comes to how you run the country,” said David M. Cote, chief executive of Honeywell, and a Republican. “You don’t put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.”

As a new warning was issued Tuesday about a possible credit downgrade, even the hard-line conservative group Americans for Prosperity, financed by the billionaire Koch family, urged Republicans not to use the debt limit as leverage for deep spending cuts.

Another flash point between Republicans and corporate America: Even as they pocket big campaign contributions from business, many Republicans resent that the donors play both sides of the political fence. A senior aide to a House Republican leader summed up the feeling: “Corporate America isn’t the friend to Republicans that most people assume. So I think there is a healthier sort of skepticism that is brought into those meetings” with business leaders. (Chief executives still have some sway; no critics wanted to be identified slamming them.)

Some of the Republicans’ distancing from big business is a matter of political tactics — to alter their image as the party of wealth and corporate power. A writer for the conservative Weekly Standard said of the fiscal fight last month, “While big business cozies up to Obama once again, Republicans have an opportunity to enhance their reputation as the party of Main Street.”

A news release e-mailed in late December from the office of Speaker John A. Boehner captured the changed dynamic. On a day when Mr. Obama met executives from the Business Roundtable, a group that for decades was close to Congressional Republicans, the subject line on the Boehner e-mail, abbreviating “President of the United States,” read: “GOP to Meet With Small Biz While POTUS Meets With Big CEOs.”

Courtship of business has been central to the president’s postelection legislative strategy, both to repair relations strained in his first term and to gain allies who might influence Republican lawmakers in the second. Yet Republicans on Capitol Hill profess bemusement, saying that administration officials misread their party.

“They trot out these big business executives and just assume, ‘Well, these guys are big business — if they just go tell Republicans what to do, they’ll do it.’ That’s just a cartoon version of how things work,” said a House Republican adviser.

But the White House was not alone late last year in believing that a group called Campaign to Fix the Debt — the biggest and best-financed mobilization of corporate clout in lawmakers’ memory, with more than 150 chief executives and $46 million — could create pressure for a bipartisan grand bargain of tax increases and entitlement program reductions to stabilize the federal debt.

There was no such deal in December, and people in both parties agree that Fix the Debt has had no impact so far. Yet the coalition is back: “I definitely think this is a marathon, not a race, so it’s not going to all happen when we want it to happen,” said Mark T. Bertolini, chief executive of Aetna and a leader in the coalition.

Privately, however, some Republicans in the group concede their advocacy has limits among the new breed of Republican lawmakers.

With each year, “you’re getting even further away from the big-city, corporate domination of the Republican Party,” said Merle Black, a scholar of Southern politics at Emory University. And if a Republican in a conservative district did back a deal with Mr. Obama, Mr. Black added, “It won’t get you very far if you say, ‘Well, I talked to the corporate guys and they’re all for this.’ “

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January 15, 2013

Schumer Says He’s Satisfied With Hagel on Mideast

By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
NYT

WASHINGTON — In a boon for the Obama administration’s efforts to advance the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York told President Obama on Tuesday that he was optimistic that he could vote for Mr. Hagel’s confirmation based on his grilling of Mr. Hagel on a variety of issues pertaining to Israel and Iran.

After a 90-minute meeting in the West Wing of the White House on Monday, Mr. Schumer appeared to be mollified on a number of concerns he has with some votes Mr. Hagel made while serving in the Senate and myriad comments he has subsequently made regarding the nuclear threat of Iran and other matters.

“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement, “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.” Mr. Schumer, the first senator to meet privately with Mr. Hagel since he was nominated last week, is likely to have influence over many of his Senate colleagues, particularly Democrats, who have been fretting over the nomination. He called Mr. Hagel Tuesday morning to let him know he was prepared to support him.

While the nod is unsurprising, having the support of Mr. Schumer, the most influential Jewish member of the Senate, may be helpful to Mr. Hagel’s pursuit of the defense job, effectively neutralizing the idea that he is somehow anti-Israel. His nomination has been met with suspicion, and even outright hostility, among Republicans and Democrats who are strongly aligned with pro-Israel groups.

Mr. Schumer himself appeared cool to the prospect of Mr. Hagel’s nomination in December interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Of deepest concern to Mr. Schumer and many Israel advocacy groups, are Mr. Hagel’s positions on the nuclear threat posed by Iran, particularly his suggestions in the past that a military strike against Iran would be counterproductive. It is a position that is out of step with the Obama administration, which became increasingly hawkish on Iran during the 2012 campaign.

“On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country,” Mr. Schumer said. “But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force.”

As a Republican senator from Nebraska, Mr. Hagel voted against several rounds of sanctions against Iran that ultimately passed the Senate, citing unilateral sanctions are ineffective. On this matter too, Mr. Schumer seemed to find comfort. “Senator Hagel clarified that he ‘completely’ supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran,” Mr. Schumer said. “He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.”

On nearly every other issue that Mr. Schumer brought up with Mr. Hagel — his views on the militant Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, his prior comments about gays, his use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to Israel advocacy groups — all seemed to be tamped down in the meeting.

“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post,” Mr. Schumer said. “But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago.”

On Sunday, Mr. Hagel got a resounding vote of support from a fellow Republican moderate, Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, who said on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” that Mr. Hagel was “superbly qualified.” Mr. Powell’s remarks could well influence many Republicans who have expressed skepticism about his confirmation, although some, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, are almost certain to continue to express opposition.

Mr. Hagel offered to discuss these matters with Mr. Schumer over the phone last week, but the senator wanted to hold out for a discussion in person. Mr. Schumer, who appears to enjoy his role in the catbird seat on the Hagel matter, will also likely help to tamp down criticisms from some groups aligned with Israel, who are not eager to have a fight with the newly re-elected president.

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January 15, 2013

An Oil Town Where Men Are Many, and Women Are Hounded

By JOHN ELIGON
NYT

WILLISTON, N.D. — Christina Knapp and a friend were drinking shots at a bar in a nearby town several weeks ago when a table of about five men called them over and made an offer.

They would pay the women $3,000 to strip naked and serve them beer at their house while they watched mixed martial arts fights on television. Ms. Knapp, 22, declined, but the men kept raising the offer, reaching $7,000.

“I said I make more money doing my job than degrading myself to do that,” said Ms. Knapp, a tattoo artist with dark streaks in her light brown hair, a bird tattoo on her chest and piercings above her lip and left cheekbone.

The rich shale oil formation deep below the rolling pastures here has attracted droves of young men to work the labor-intensive jobs that get the wells flowing and often generate six-figure salaries. What the oil boom has not brought, however, are enough single women.

At work, at housing camps and in bars and restaurants, men have been left to mingle with their own. High heels and skirts are as rare around here as veggie burgers. Some men liken the environment to the military or prison.

“It’s bad, dude,” said Jon Kenworthy, 22, who moved to Williston from Indiana in early December. “I was talking to my buddy here. I told him I was going to import from Indiana because there’s nothing here.”

This has complicated life for women in the region as well.

Many said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth.

“So many people look at you like you’re a piece of meat,” said Megan Dye, 28, a nearly lifelong Williston resident. “It’s disgusting. It’s gross.”

Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults. “There are people arriving in North Dakota every day from other places around the country who do not respect the people or laws of North Dakota,” said Ariston E. Johnson, the deputy state’s attorney in neighboring McKenzie County, in an e-mail.

Over the past six years, North Dakota has shot from the middle of the pack to become the state with the third-highest ratio of single young men to single young women in the country. In 2011, nearly 58 percent of North Dakota’s unmarried 18-to-34-year-olds were men, according to census data. That disparity was even starker in the three counties where the oil boom is heaviest — there were more than 1.6 young single men for every young single woman.

And most people around here say the gap is considerably larger. Census data mostly captures permanent residents. Most of the men who come here to work maintain their primary residences elsewhere and split time between the oil fields and their homes. And women note that many of the men who approach them are married.

Some women have banked on the female shortage. Williston’s two strip clubs attract dancers from around the country. Prostitutes from out of state troll the bars.

Natasha, 31, an escort and stripper from Las Vegas, is currently on her second stint here after hearing how much money strippers made in Williston on a CNN report last year. Business in her industry is much better here than in the rest of the country, she said. She makes at least $500 a night, but more often she exceeds $1,000.

“We make a lot of money because there’s a lot of lonely guys,” she said.

On a recent night at City Bar in nearby Watford City, the only women in the long, wood-paneled room were two bartenders and the woman running the karaoke. Under flashing lights, some of the male patrons huddled at the bar, while others played games like simulated buck shooting and darts.

Zach Mannon, 23, who has been working in the oil patch for three years, said he once bumped accidentally into a woman in a bar packed with men. He excused himself, he said, but then her boyfriend came over and accused him of grabbing her buttocks. He denied it. The man insisted they step outside, so they did, but 14 of Mr. Mannon’s co-workers from his rig came along. The man backed down, they talked things over and no punches were thrown.

For Mr. Mannon, having women around was more about finding sanity than a soul mate.

“Out here, you can’t tell a guy, like, ‘I had a rough day,’ “ Mr. Mannon said. “They’re going to go, ‘Everyone has a rough day. Get over it, you sissy.’

“The bartender,” he added, nodding toward the bar, “she’s the friendliest gal in the world. Every time I go in, she goes, ‘How was your day, Zach?’ I say, ‘Ah, it was long; it was cold out.’ She actually listens.”

But sensitivity is often absent here when men discuss women. Here, men talk of a “Williston 10” — a woman who would be considered mediocre in any other city is considered a perfect 10 out here.

“I’ve noticed my standards dropping,” said Ian Hernandez, 24, who moved to Williston from Chicago a couple of months ago. “I just went home two weeks ago. I saw the girls I had planned to see. That, hopefully, should hold me off until I go back next time in two months or so.”

Some men have forced themselves on women.

Jessica Brightbill, a single 24-year-old who moved here from Grand Rapids, Mich., a year and a half ago, said she was walking to work at 3:30 in the afternoon when a car with two men suddenly pulled up behind her. One hopped out and grabbed her by her arms and began dragging her. She let her body go limp so she would be harder to drag. Eventually, a man in a truck pulled up and began yelling at the men and she got away, she said. The episode left her rattled.

Going out alone is now out of the question, and the friend she moved here with no longer has much time to spend with her because she has since found a boyfriend and had a baby. Ms. Brightbill said she has difficulty finding other young single women with the freedom to hang out. And, she said, finding good men does not come easy.

“It’s just people trying to have sex,” she said.

But some women have taken aggressive steps to protect themselves.

At the urging of her family, Barbara Coughlin, 31, who recently moved to Williston after her 11-year marriage ended, is now getting her concealed weapons permit so she can carry a Taser. Ms. Coughlin, who wore silver glitter around her eyes at work as a waitress on a recent day, said her mother and stepfather, who live here, advised her to stop wearing the skirts and heels she cherishes, so she does not stand out like “a flower in the desert,” as her stepfather put it. Her family hardly ever lets her go out on her own — not even for walks down the gravel road at the housing camp where they live.

“Will I stay for very long? Probably not,” she said. “To me, there’s no money in the world worth not even being able to take a walk.”

Kevin Quealy contributed reporting.



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« Reply #4081 on: Jan 17, 2013, 07:49 AM »

Court denies Pussy Riot member request to defer prison time for her 5-year-old son

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 12:42 EST

A Russian court on Wednesday turned down a request by a jailed member of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot to defer serving her jail sentence until her five-year-old son is older.

“The court has ruled not to satisfy the petition,” the judge said at Berezniki city court in the Perm region of the Urals, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, had asked the court to allow her to serve the remainder of her two-year prison term after her son turns 14.

Under Russian law, a court can allow a woman convicted of a minor crime not to serve the sentence until her child turns 14.

The judge said that Alyokhina’s sentence already took into account the fact that she had a young child.

“We have not established any new circumstances to soften the sentence,” the court said.

Alyokhina was sentenced to two years in August last year along with bandmates Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after they performed a “punk prayer” critical of President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

Samutsevich in October had her sentence suspended on the grounds that security guards grabbed her before she could take part in the stunt.

Tolokonnikova has a young daughter and has filed a similar request to Alyokhina’s.

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« Reply #4082 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:03 AM »

France adopts words of war by vowing to ‘destroy terrorists’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 17, 2013 7:24 EST

With its talk of “destroying” enemies and confronting “jihadi terrorists”, France has adopted a language of war for its intervention in Mali that few expected from Socialist President Francois Hollande.

As French warplanes carry out airstrikes and French troops clash with Islamist rebels in the West African country, Hollande and his ministers seem to have taken a page from former US president George W. Bush’s playbook on war-time communications.

This has led some critics to accuse the government of carrying out a propaganda war alongside the fighting on the ground.

Hollande and his chief lieutenants — Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius — have been ubiquitous on French television and radio, giving regular updates on France’s military progress.

Their language has been simple, direct, and clearly designed to portray the conflict in black-and-white.

“The use of language is calibrated: the cause is just, a fight against terrorism, us/them, good/bad. These are the fundamentals of war-time communication,” said Francois-Bernard Huyghe, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

In a speech during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Hollande pulled no punches in describing France’s mission, saying: “What do we plan to do with the terrorists? Destroy them.”

His words seemed to echo not only Bush but also Russian officials who have repeatedly vowed to “liquidate terrorists” in their fight against insurgents in Chechnya and other parts of the volatile North Caucasus region.

“Hollande is being simple and soldierly,” Huyghe said, noting that the communications effort has so far been largely successful, with a poll Wednesday showing three-quarters of French supporting the intervention.

“Faster even then the outbreak of the war, France’s propaganda war was launched at supersonic speed,” noted influential French media critic Daniel Schneidermann.

French media reported that ministers have been banned from using the words “Islamist fighters” in statements on the conflict and must always refer to rebels as “terrorists”.

Officials have often gone further, with Le Drian referring to “jihadi terrorists” and Fabius to “terrorists and criminals”.

“This is approaching Bush’s rhetoric and it’s bizarre from the mouth of a Socialist”, Huyghe said, noting that “excessive use of the word ‘terrorist’ is aimed at presenting the opponent as evil and inhuman.”

He said branding the rebels “terrorists” was a simplification of the situation of Mali, where at least three distinct Islamist groups — Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) — are fighting.

“Reducing them simply to terrorists is too easy, it erases the complexity of the problem, obscures the reality,” Huyghe said.

Critics said the branding operation could eventually hurt peace efforts by making it impossible for France to justify negotiations with any of the Islamist groups.

Hollande “is condemning himself to exclusively being able to speak to the current government in Mali, which is the result of a putsch… and is seen as completely illegitimate by the public,” news website Mediapart wrote.

**********

EU set to back French war in Mali

European foreign ministers expected to finalise plans to send hundreds of military personnel to train Malian army

Ian Traynor in Brussels
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 08.54 GMT   

European foreign ministers have been summoned to an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday to decide how to support France's war in Mali.

They are expected to finalise plans to dispatch hundreds of EU military personnel to Bamako to train half the Malian army and appoint a head of that mission as well as a senior diplomat as an EU special representative to the Sahel.

Caught by surprise by the Islamist surge at the weekend from the north of the country, individual EU countries have been quick to offer the French logistical support, mainly in the form of transport aircraft from the Germans and the British. While the French media have largely cheered on the president, François Hollande, in what is considered to be a rare display of decisiveness in Africa, they have also showered scorn on the other Europeans, seen as failing to step up to the plate.

Senior diplomats and officials in Brussels on Wednesday admitted they had been stunned by the rebel offensive and also surprised by the Islamists' prowess, capability, assets, and level of training, while rejecting the charge of fecklessness.

"It's all happened extremely fast," said an EU military officer. "But it's the postcolonial legacy. It was always going to be a French ball."

"It's important the EU shows unity of purpose and determination in support of the Malian government," added an EU diplomat, although there was palpable dismay in Brussels at the political chaos in Bamako since last year's coup, the disarray among government forces, and the lack of progress towards elections and constitutionality. Around €230m (£190m) in EU aid is currently being withheld.

The training mission for four battalions of the Malian army or 2,600 troops – half the government forces – is expected to be launched next month, with a reconnaissance team due in Bamako this weekend. Britain is expected to supply two staff officers to the training mission. Up to 12 EU countries have offered to take part.

Senior French diplomats told their EU colleagues on Tuesday that France's initial aims in Mali were to drive the rebels back into their northern heartland, contain them there, "prevent the collapse of the Malian state", "create a political space" and slowly enable troops from the Ecowas grouping of west African states to supplant the Europeans.

The EU appears alarmed at the incipient threat posed to Mali, the wider region, and Europe by the Islamist militants.

"AQIM [al-Qaida in the Maghreb] is growing, reinforcing itself, deepening itself in the region," said another senior diplomat. "It's becoming more and more a safe haven for jihadis coming from Europe and is a threat to the EU. There is also an increasing threat to Bamako. If Bamako had fallen, the situation would have deteriorated drastically. The only way to remove the risk is to remove the threat."

The initial plan was to dispatch an army training mission of around 250, but officers involved in the planning said this would now need to be augmented by "several hundred" combat troops deployed to protect the mission.

The training would take place in a safe area north-east of Bamako and the EU troops would stay put, not venturing into the northern battle zone.

"We need to have very strong force protection," said the official. "We won't do mentoring. We won't go up north."

**********

Islamist militants and Algerian troops in hostage standoff

One Briton killed and two wounded in initial attack, and several more Britons being held against their will at gas field building

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Thursday 17 January 2013   

Algerian troops were in a standoff on Wednesday night with Islamist militants who took at least 20 western contractors hostage in a raid on a desert gas field in which two people were killed, one of them British.

Downing Street said "several British nationals" had been caught up in the attack, which appeared to be in retaliation for France's military intervention in neighbouring Mali.

The Algerian interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said that Algerian troops had surrounded a wing of the living quarters at the Ain Amenas gas field on the Algerian border with Libya, where the jihadists were holding the hostages. "We reject all negotiations with the group, which is holding some 20 hostages from several nationalities," Kablia declared on national TV.

Algerian authorities said a Briton and an Algerian had died in the initial attack at dawn and that six people had been wounded – two Britons, a Norwegian and three Algerian security guards.

Foreign secretary William Hague said: "A number of people are held hostage. This does include a number of British nationals. This is therefore an extremely dangerous situation. We are in close touch with the Algerian government, the Algerian military have deployed to the area, and the prime minister has spoken to the prime minister of Algeria."

One militant spokesman claimed that as many as 41 foreigners were being held, but that could not be confirmed. The Algerian Press Service (APS) said Algerian workers at the site were being gradually released in small groups. But a French catering company, CIS, told the BBC that 150 of its Algerian employees were still being held. A spokesman said they were "allowed to move around … unlike the foreign hostages, who are trapped in a corner and cannot move".

Kablia said there were "about 20 terrorists" involved, adding that they had not come from a neighbouring country, implying they were Algerian, and that "they are acting under the orders of" Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist with close ties to al-Qaida.

Norway's prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said 13 Norwegians were among the hostages . The country's foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, said: "We've asked the Algerian authorities to put the life and health of the hostages above all."

Tthe US confirmed that some Americans had been seized; Japanese news agencies, citing unnamed government officials, said there were three Japanese hostages; and Ireland said a 36-year-old Irishman was part of the group. US defence secretary Leon Panetta said Washington "will take all necessary and proper steps" to deal with the attack.

The gas field is operated by BP, in partnership with Norwegian oil company Statoil and Algerian state oil firm Sonatrach, with a Japanese firm, JGC Corp, providing services. BP confirmed that the site had been "attacked and occupied by a group of unidentified armed people".

As night fell, it appeared that the militants and their hostages were still in the gas field complex, ringed by Algerian forces. There were unconfirmed reports that the jihadists had rigged the site with mines or other explosives.

There were claims of responsibility from groups calling themselves the Masked Brigade and Signers in Blood, both names used by followers of Belmokhtar.

They said the attack was a reprisal for the French intervention against a jihadist offensive in Mali, which Algeria has supported by opening its air space to French warplanes.

"It's the United Nations that gave the green light to this intervention and all western countries are now going to pay a price. We are now globalising our conflict," Oumar Ould Hamaha, a close associate of Belmokhtar, told Associated Press by phone.

The US and other European countries have supported the French intervention, Operation Serval, by sending transport planes, while Washington has offered help with transport, intelligence and surveillance.

However, the target of the attack, Ain Amenas, is about 700 miles from the Algerian border with Mali.

British officials speculated that the attack could have been planned long before the French action began last week. One report said the hostage-takers were demanding the release of 100 fellow militants in Algerian jails.

The Algerian interior ministry said the assault began at 5am when heavily armed jihadists arrived at the living quarters on the complex in three vehicles.

"The attack began on a bus which was leaving the base, taking foreigners to the airport in Amenas," according to a statement quoted by the APS. "After this failed, the terrorist group headed towards the camp, taking over part of it and taking hostage an unknown number of workers with foreign nationalities."

The bus attack was repelled by its police escort, the Algerian government said, but the British victim appears to have been killed in that exchange and six others wounded.

The bus managed to escape and the injured were being treated on Wednesday night in the hospital at Ain Amenas. There was an unconfirmed report that a French national had also been killed.

Belmokhtar, a veteran of Algeria's civil conflict, was a deputy commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (Aqim), until last month when he broke away and set up his own group, to which he has referred as the Masked Brigade and Signers in Blood, dedicated to resisting western efforts to suppress the jihadist uprising that has taken control of northern Mali and spilled into the surrounding region.

Hague said a diplomatic rapid deployment team had been sent to Algiers to reinforce the British embassy and consular staff in Algeria. He added that the government's emergency response committee, Cobra, would continue to meet.

**********

Algeria keen to lead on hostage crisis, says No 10

PM has chaired Cobra meetings but spokesman says handling of crisis is 'very much an Algerian and BP-led process'

Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 13.24 GMT   

The Algerian government has told David Cameron it is determined to take the lead in dealing with the hostage crisis involving western contractors at a desert gas field, according to government sources.

As Downing Street confirmed that the prime minister still planned to travel to the Netherlands to deliver a speech on Europe on Friday, government sources said Algiers "very much" saw itself taking the lead.

The prime minister has chaired a series of meetings of the government's emergency Cobra committee since news of the crisis broke on Wednesday and, if needed, will chair another meeting from The Hague on Friday morning before his speech in Amsterdam.

"Arrangements are in place for the prime minister to chair a meeting of Cobra tomorrow morning from The Hague, should that be necessary," the prime minister's spokesman said.

The message that Algiers wants to retain complete control of the response to the crisis was delivered to Cameron by his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, in a telephone call on Wednesday.

One British government source said: "The Algerian government understandably very much sees itself as being in the lead on its sovereign territory. That is why we are taking the approach we are taking. It is very much an Algerian and BP-led process."

The gas field is operated by BP in partnership with Norway's Statoil and the Algerian state oil firm Sonatrach, with a Japanese firm, JGC Corp, providing services.

Downing Street said Cameron had told Sellal that Britain would consider any requests for assistance. Algiers had made none so far, the spokesman said. "It is a very serious and dangerous situation. As soon as he was informed of the incident the prime minister called a ministerial Cobra meeting that met after prime minister's questions."

The prime minister has spoken to his Norwegian and Japanese counterparts about the incident, which was described as planned. "The nature and the extent of the attack suggests some considerable degree of pre-planning," the spokesman said. "We are aware of the reports that the group claiming to be responsible has linked it to events in Mali. It is too early to speculate on exactly what may underpin it. But absolutely nothing whatsoever justifies these appalling and criminal actions."

No 10 said the Foreign Office had amended its travel advice after the action in Mali, where France – supported by other European countries and the US – has intervened against a jihadist offensive.

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

January 17, 2013

Surrounded, Attackers Warn of Explosive End in Algeria

By ADAM NOSSITER, SCOTT SAYARE and ALAN COWELL
Guardian

BAMAKO, Mali — A tense and confusing standoff developed Thursday between government forces and armed attackers holding dozens of hostages, including Americans and other foreigners, at an internationally managed gas field in Algeria. News reports said that some captives had escaped and others had been caught up in fighting.

Other reports from news agencies in Algeria and neighboring Mauritania said the Algerian military had attacked the site with helicopters and inflicted casualties, possibly many.

The Algerian news Web site TSA, quoted a local official, Sidi Knaoui, as saying 10 foreign hostages and 40 Algerians escaped Thursday after the kidnappers made several efforts to flee with their captives but were contained by security forces. Mr. Knaoui said he had been scheduled to meet with the hostage takers in an attempt at negotiations. He could not be reached for confirmation.

The kidnapping in Algeria was a retaliation for a French military assault on Islamist extremists in Mali that has escalated into a potentially much broader North African conflict. Other Algerian news reports said that 30 Algerian hostages and 15 foreigners escaped on Thursday, but there was no immediate independent confirmation of that account. The Associated Press, quoting an unidentified Algerian official, said 20 foreigners, including some Americans, had escaped.

The situation is “very confused,” President François Hollande of France said at a news conference in Paris and was “evolving hour by hour.” Mr. Hollande confirmed for the first time officially that French citizens were among the captives.

Earlier, a French television station, France 24, quoted an unidentified hostage as saying the attackers “were heavily armed and forced several hostages to wear explosives belts. They threatened to blow up the gas field if Algerian forces attempted to enter the site,” the station reported.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel also quoted a hostage identified as British as saying the captives were “receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers” but Algerian forces surrounding the installations were “firing at the camp.”

Both stations said it was unclear whether the people they interviewed had been speaking under duress. Al Jazeera quoted a kidnapper as demanding that the Algerian Army pull back to permit negotiations to end the crisis.

Apart from foreign hostages, said by the attackers to number 41, a large number of Algerians were also seized. Some 40 of them, mainly women working as translators, had been freed, Reuters quoted Algeria’s Ennahar television station as saying, although it was not clear if this was the same group as had earlier been reported as escaping. Reuters also said the kidnappers were demanding safe passage out of Algeria.

Algerian officials said at least two people, including a Briton, were killed in the assault, which began with an ambush on a bus trying to ferry gas-field workers to an airport and was depicted by the attackers as reprisal for the French intervention in Mali and also to punish Algeria for allowing French warplanes to use its airspace to reach targets in northern Mali.

The British Foreign Office confirmed that a British citizen had been killed in the attack but a spokeswoman declined to give details or identify the victim. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the hostages included “a number of British nationals. This is therefore an extremely dangerous situation.”

Hundreds of Algerian security forces surrounded the gas-field compound and the country’s interior minister said there would be no negotiations.

Algeria’s official news agency said at least 20 fighters had carried out the attack and mass abduction. There were unconfirmed reports late on Wednesday that the security forces had tried to storm the compound and had retreated under gunfire from the hostage takers.

Many details of the assault on the gas field in a barren desert site near Libya’s border remained murky, including the precise number of hostages. American, French, British, Japanese and Norwegian citizens who worked at the field were known to be among them, officials said.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta called the attack a terrorist act and said the United States was weighing a response. His statement suggested that the Obama administration could be drawn into a military entanglement in North Africa that it had been seeking to keep at arm’s length — even as it has conceded that the region has become a new haven for extremists who threaten Western security and vital interests.

“I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation,” Mr. Panetta said during a visit to Italy.

The attack, which seemed to take foreign governments and the British and Norwegian companies that help run the facility completely by surprise, appeared to make good on a pledge by the Islamist militants who seized northern Mali last year to sharply expand their struggle against the West in response to France’s military intervention that began last week.

The hostage taking broadened the conflict beyond Mali’s borders and raised the possibility of drawing an increasing number of foreign countries into direct involvement, particularly if expatriates working in the vast energy extraction industries of North Africa become targets. It also doubled, at least, the number of non-African hostages that Islamist militants in northern and western Africa have been using as bargaining chips to finance themselves in recent years through ransoms that have totaled millions of dollars.

But there was no indication that the attackers wanted money, and no other demands or ultimatums were issued. In a statement sent to ANI, a Mauritanian news agency, they demanded the “immediate halt of the aggression against our own in Mali.”

The statement, made by a group called Al Mulathameen, which has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, claimed it was holding more than 40 “crusaders” — apparently a reference to non-Muslims — “including seven Americans, two French, two British as well as other citizens of various European nationalities.” Algeria’s interior minister, Daho Ould Kablia, said that the raid was overseen by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has reportedly established his own group in the Sahara after falling out with other local Qaeda leaders.

Mr. Belmokhtar is known to French intelligence officials as “the Uncatchable” and to some locals as “Mister Marlboro” for his illicit cigarette-running business. His ties to Islamist extremists who seized towns across northern Mali last year are unclear, though he is thought to be based in the Malian city of Gao.

The gas-field attack coincided with an escalation of the fight inside Mali, according to Western and Malian officials, as French ground troops, joined by soldiers of the Malian Army, engaged in combat with Islamist fighters. The officials said the French-Malian units had begun to beat back the Islamist militant advance southward from northern Mali, a move that had provoked the intervention ordered by President François Hollande of France.

The attackers seemed particularly incensed that Algeria’s government had permitted the French to use Algerian airspace to fly warplanes and military equipment into Mali, according to their statement, which may explain why they chose Algeria for retaliation. Some Algerian military experts said the Algerian public also was unhappy about the government’s decision.

“The setting in motion of a military machine in north Mali was going to have definite repercussions in Algeria,” said Mohamed Chafik Mesbah, a former Algerian Army officer and political scientist, adding, . “There are going to be much worse consequences. There will be more attacks.”

A senior Algerian official said the militants, who claimed to have come from Mali, had used three unmarked trucks to breach the gas-field compound, outside the town of In Amenas. An oil company official who had knowledge of the attack said the militants had shut down production at the site, an indication of carefully planning. But how and why they chose In Amenas, which is more than 700 miles from the Malian border and is much closer to Libya, were among the unknowns.

The facility is the fourth-largest gas development in Algeria, a major oil producer and OPEC member. The In Amenas gas compression plant is operated by BP of Britain, the Norwegian company Statoil and the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach.

Bard Glad Pedersen, a Statoil spokesman, said that of 17 Statoil employees who had been working in the field, four escaped to a nearby Algerian military camp, but he would not say how. The Sahara Media Agency of Mauritania, quoting someone it described as a spokesman for the militants, said that they were holding five hostages in a production facility on the site and 36 others in a housing area, and that there were as many as 400 Algerian soldiers surrounding the operation. But that information could not be confirmed.

Islamist groups and bandits have long operated in the deserts of western and northern Africa, and a collection of Islamists have occupied the vast expanse of northern Mali since a government crisis in that country last March. Those groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had pledged to strike against France’s interests on the continent and abroad, as well as those of nations backing the French operations. In France, security has been reinforced at airports, train stations and other public spaces.

The militant groups are financed in large part through ransoms paid for the freeing of Western hostages, and regular kidnappings have occurred in the West African desert in recent years. At least seven French citizens are presently being held there, officials say.

Oil and gas are central to the Algerian economy, accounting for more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product, over 95 percent of its export earnings and 60 percent of government financial receipts. Algeria is an important gas supplier to France, Spain, Turkey, Italy and Britain. Reuters said on Thursday that the flow of Algerian gas to Italy had slowed slightly and traders blamed the hostage crisis.

Algeria has also historically been known as a relatively secure place for foreign companies to work and invest. Sonatrach and the security forces had put tight security around oil and gas facilities during the struggle with Islamic militants in the 1990s, when energy infrastructure was never a major insurgent target.

Energy experts expressed concern that the Algerian raid could signal a new strategy by Islamic militants to attack the West by focusing on Western-operated oil and gas facilities in the region.

Adam Nossiter reported from Bamako, and Scott Sayare and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Clifford Krauss from Houston, Rick Gladstone from New York, Elisabeth Bumiller from Rome, and Steven Erlanger from Paris.

*********

UPDATE:

Several killed as Algerian troops strike gas complex hostage site

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 17, 2013 8:48 EST

Algerian troops launched strikes on Thursday on a desert gas plant where radical Islamists are holding dozens of foreigners hostage, killing several people, kidnappers said.

The Islamists were trying to “ferry some hostages in vehicles to a safer place” when Algerian forces launched air strikes “killing both the hostages and  the kidnappers,” the spokesman told Mauritania’s ANI news agency.

The Algerian military opened fire on vehicles of hostage takers at the site of a siege in the desert, and many people were killed there, a resident of the locality where the incident took place told reporters.

A group calling itself the “Signatories for Blood” claimed responsibility for the brazen attack at the In Amenas gas field near the Libyan border and a member of the outfit said Thursday that Algerian troops had attacked the site.

An unnamed source from the group told Mauritania’s ANI news agency that “two Japanese were injured” following the helicopter attacks.

Algerian media reported that 15 foreigners and 30 Algerians being held hostage since Wednesday had managed to escape, but authorities could not confirm this.

The attack on the complex dragged Algiers and several top Western powers with citizens among the hostages into the conflict, taking the spotlight off French and government troops battling the Islamists controlling Mali’s north.

The Algeria kidnappings that were in retaliation to the ongoing offensive next door saw two people killed and dozens of others from the United States, Europe and Asia taken hostage. Veteran Islamist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian with ties to al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility.

“We demand the Algerian army pull out from the area to allow negotiations” to end the drama, one of the kidnappers, identified as Abu al-Baraa, told the Al-Jazeera news channel.

He also said Algerian snipers had opened fire at the site where the hostages were held, injuring a Japanese national. Algeria has sent troops to the site, insisting it would not negotiate with the gunmen.

Al-Baraa confirmed there were “around 41” hostages from several countries – Austria, Norway, France, the United States, Britain, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, and Germany.

A 52-year-old French man who figured among the hostages told French newspaper Sud Ouest on Thursday that they were not being mistreated.

“It’s ok, we’re being well-treated,” the man, from the town of Anglet near the Spanish border, told the newspaper by telephone.

The head of a French catering company that has 150 Algerian employees being held at the plant jointly operated by British oil giant BP, Norway’s Statoil and state-run Algerian energy firm Sonatrach said he had spoken to one on Thursday and the situation was stable.

“I spoke to the branch manager on the phone this morning and it seems there is a status quo in terms of the current situation,” Regis Arnoux, CEO of CIS Catering said on Europe 1 radio.

The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said meanwhile that French intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating “a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa”.

“I’m not a warmonger and in the past, faced with other episodes of war, as in Libya, I expressed doubts. But in this case, it seems to me that there were no other means of action to avoid the worst,” the Italian former prime minister told the newspaper L’Unita.

The one-eyed jihadist Belmokhtar was until recently one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but was pushed out of the group towards the end of last year. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.

On Thursday, more French troops poured into Mali, boosting their number to 1,400, the defence minister said. At full strength the force will be made-up of 2,500 soldiers.

Contingents from Chad and Nigeria for an eventual African force of over 5,000 troops in Mali were also expected to arrive Thursday.

Malian soldiers, backed by French troops meanwhile were involved in overnight clashes with Islamist insurgents ringing the central town of Konna, military sources said Thursday.

Rebels who have controled northern Mali since April pushed south into government-held territory last week and seized Konna, about 700 kilometres by road from the capital Bamako, prompting France to intervene.

*********

Mali refugees flee across borders as fighting blocks humanitarian aid

Relief agencies fear conflict between French troops and Islamist militants could halt aid to displaced Malians in dangerous areas

Mark Tran   
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 12.09 GMT   

Relief agencies are bracing themselves for an influx of refugees to neighbouring countries as the conflict in Mali escalates following the arrival of French troops.

Since France intervened by sending warplanes and troops to stop an Islamist offensive into southern Mali, humanitarian organisations have reported an increase in the number of Malians leaving the country. Almost 1,500 have crossed into Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso since 11 January amid worries the figures could multiply if the fighting persists.

"Refugees are telling us they fled the military intervention, the absence of subsistence opportunities and basic services, and the imposition of sharia law," said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in Geneva on Tuesday.

UNHCR, other UN agencies and national authorities have prepared contingency plans to cope with 300,000 internally displaced Malians and 407,000 refugees. The number of Malian refugees in the region is estimated to be 144,500, with around 54,100 in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, 38,800 in Burkina Faso and 1,500 in Algeria. Small groups are also in Guinea and Togo.

Most of the refugees are arriving in underdeveloped and difficult to reach areas. Poor infrastructure and harsh conditions, including flooding during the rainy season, make the situation even more difficult. The UNHCR has been registering refugees in Niger; once this is done, some of the estimated 50,000 Malian refugees will be moved away from the dangerous border areas.

The internally displaced population inside Mali, including people who fled last year, and those newly displaced in the past week, is estimated by Mali's Commission on Population Movements to be 228,918. They are mainly in the capital, Bamako, Ségou, Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso and Mopti.

Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has called on all parties to the conflict to respect the safety of civilians and leave medical facilities untouched. It said bombardments started again on Sunday morning in Douentza, a town to the north-east of Mopti, in central Mali.

"Because of the bombardments and fighting, nobody is moving in the streets of Douentza and patients are not making it through to the hospital," said Rosa Crestani, MSF emergency response co-ordinator. "We are worried about the people living close to the combat zones and we call on all the parties to the conflict to respect the safety of civilians and to leave medical facilities untouched."

MSF said that during the night between 10 and 11 January it had received several phone calls about dead and injured people in the central town of Konna, including civilians. The seizure of Konna by Islamists precipitated France's military intervention as it feared the rest of the country would fall into the hands of the Islamists.

Oxfam, which is providing humanitarian assistance in the Gao region of northern Mali, called for UN monitors to be "urgently deployed" in the country, and urged the Malian authorities and France to report regularly to the UN security council on civilian casualties and human rights violations by all parties.

Military action has disrupted the work of some NGOs in the north. Action Against Hunger said it has suspended its programmes in Gao temporarily, and warned that clashes are hampering humanitarian aid to vulnerable communities.

"This new phase of the conflict is adding to the fragility of the population," said Vincent Stehli, director of operations for Action Against Hunger. "We fear the worst is yet to come in the spring – the period between harvests, when food reserves will be exhausted. For now, we have been forced to suspend our projects in Gao, as the hospital where we were treating malnourished children is closed."

***********

Why Malians are welcoming French intervention with open arms

Mali's new adulation for its ex-colonial ruler seems a strange turnaround, when other African troops are greeted with suspicion

Afua Hirsch   
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 January 2013 14.30 GMT         

The front page of Malian newspaper 26 Mars yesterday said it all. It simply read "Vive La France!" It would have been an utterly unimaginable headline when Nicolas Sarkozy – who once provoked an entire continent when he said that "the tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered into history"– was at the helm. But this week, in Mali and elsewhere in west Africa, France adulation is standard fare.

It all began last Friday, when Operation Serval was launched. French fighter jets entered Malian airspace and started pounding al-Qaida-linked rebels, who control the north of the country. Contrary to what the sudden flood of misinformed tweets tried to suggest, this was not another Afghanistan: the Malian government had been pleading for foreign assistance to regain control of its territory for months. Plans for an African-led military intervention – approved by the UN security council last month – were going nowhere.

As Jeune Afrique reported in depth, the sudden decision by France to intervene was met with one gigantic bienvenue!. Although a few sensible Malians pointed out that it was western powers who created this mess in the first place by failing to prevent thousands of Gaddafi-armed Tuaregs crossing into the desert from Libya, most were just happy to see something happen. One newspaper editor I spoke to in Bamako was furious at the French, but not because they are bombing his country – only because it took them so long to begin with.

The Malian press was almost unanimously singing from the same hymnsheet. For Le Republicain, the French president had become "Hollande le Malien". Online paper Journal du Mali celebrated "the outstretched hand of France in our country." Even Burkinabe Le Pays, despite stating in an editorial that it found the inability of Mali to defend its own territory "humiliating", grudgingly accepted that without French intervention, the crisis could not be contained.

Here on the ground, French flags are flying in small provincial towns – something I have never seen before. In the capital, people are organising a collection for the French helicopter pilot who was killed in action (there are, it has to be said, similar feelings of affection for wounded Malian soldiers). One blogger in Bamako pointed out that last weekend, over 1,000 people showed up at a health centre to donate blood to the armed forces, despite the fact that the national blood bank apparently could accommodate just 113 donors per day.

There are however some major exceptions to this wave of support. Algeria – which many in Mali blame for facilitating, fuelling and funding the rebels in the first place – is not a huge fan of the French military action. Conspiracy theories about Algeria's interests in the Sahara are circulating, some of which seem a little far-fetched, until a remarkable op-ed in today's New York Times by a former US ambassador to Mali suggested – no doubt unintentionally – that there is a hidden agenda involving American and French support for some kind of Algerian occupation of the desert.

Grumbles about Algeria are common in Mali these days. But how can we explain this almost unchallenged adoration of France?

For one thing, there is a credible theory that the French defence ministry has imposed a media blackout on reporting Operation Serval, preventing less savoury details from being reported. Since I've been in Mali, many humanitarian workers active in the north have told me that they are concerned about civilian casualties, which they believe far outnumber both official estimates, and would put a dampener on things, to put it mildly, if released.

There is another, equally depressing side to the joyous greeting Malians have offered the French. When I have asked people here about the impending arrival of west African troops, facial expressions have switched from welcoming smiles to snarls and pouts. "Comedians," one Malian told me. "They are just coming into the country to rob and vandalise us, then they will leave us again no better off."

It's as if I went to bed one night in a place where pan-African regional pride still existed, and woke up in another where the former colonial master is king. And that is much, much less welcome




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« Reply #4083 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:07 AM »


106 dead in new Homs massacre, says Syrian monitor

British-based group says women and children among victims after army or pro-Assad militia stormed Basatin al-Hasawiya

Reuters in Beirut
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 12.06 GMT   

More than 100 people were shot, stabbed and possibly burned to death in the Syrian city of Homs this week, in what a monitoring group said was a massacre by the army or militia loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said women and children were among the 106 people killed by forces who stormed Basatin al-Hasawiya, an impoverished district on the edge of town. The claim could not be independently confirmed due to reporting restrictions in Syria.

"The Observatory has the names of 14 members of one family, including three children, and information on other families who were completely killed, including one of 32 people," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the monitoring group.

"This needs to be investigated by the United Nations," said Abdelrahman, a Syrian who has documented human rights violations in Syria since 2006 and now reports on killings by both sides of the 22-month-old conflict.

In May 2011 Homs province was the scene of the killing of 108 people, including nine children and 34 women, in the town of Houla, which UN monitors blamed on the army and pro-Assad militia.

Homs saw some of the biggest anti-Assad protests at the start of the revolt, and heavy bombardment levelled whole neighbourhoods and killed thousands of people as the army attacked rebels who moved into the city.

The United Nations sent observers to Syria in April 2011 but after several attacks on their convoys they left in August, complaining that both sides had chosen the path of war.

Abu Yazen, an opposition activist in Homs, said the rebel Free Syria Army occasionally entered the farmlands of Basatin al-Hasawiya to attack a nearby military academy. "Assad's forces punish civilians for allowing the rebels to enter the area," he said.

Another activist said it was unclear which group carried out the attack, but said some of the victims appeared to have been burnt after they were killed – something the opposition says is often done by the pro-Assad Shabiha militia. However, many houses had been torched during the raid, which could also explain the burnt bodies.

The Shabiha are drawn largely from Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Homs has seen some of the worst sectarian violence between Alawites and other minorities and Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population, who are leading the uprising.
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« Reply #4084 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:10 AM »

January 16, 2013

Morsi Says His Slurs of Jews Were Taken Out of Context

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
IHT

CAIRO — A spokesman for President Mohamed Morsi said on Wednesday that inflammatory comments that he made about Jews before taking office had been intended as criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians but had been taken out of context. The spokesman said that Mr. Morsi respected all monotheistic religions and religious freedom.

It was Mr. Morsi’s first public response to news reports that as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood he had made anti-Semitic statements about Jews and Zionists. A recently resurfaced video of a speech that Mr. Morsi gave at a rally in his hometown in the Nile Delta nearly three years ago shows him urging his listeners “to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” In another video of a television interview he gave the same year, Mr. Morsi criticized Zionists in recognizably anti-Semitic terms, as “these bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Both sets of comments were reported this week in The New York Times. Representatives of the White House and the State Department condemned them. And on Wednesday Mr. Morsi was confronted about the remarks by a visiting delegation of six American senators led by John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island.

Yasser Ali, the Morsi spokesman, said on Wednesday night at a news conference that Mr. Morsi had told the delegation that the comments were meant as criticism of the “racist” policies of the Israeli government, not as insults to Jews.

“President Morsi assured the delegation that the broadcast comments were taken out of an address against the Israeli aggression against Gaza,” Mr. Ali said, according to The Associated Press. The spokesman said Mr. Morsi also assured senators of his respect for monotheistic religions as well as for “freedom of belief and practicing religions,” The A.P. said.

At a news conference after the meeting, the senators declined to characterize Mr. Morsi’s response. But they appeared to feel he had addressed the issue. The senators emphasized their support for Egypt’s transition to democracy. They also said they would press Congress to provide badly needed financial aid and urge American businesses to invest in Egypt, although they also said that Mr. Morsi’s inflammatory statements in 2010 made both requests tougher to sell.

“The Egyptian people are going to have to showcase your best behavior,” said another senator in the delegation, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
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« Reply #4085 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:15 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/16/2013 04:03 PM

Upcoming Israeli Elections: Netanyahu Veers Right on Path to Nowhere

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is popular because he doesn't want to change the status quo. Like the majority of Israelis, he's finished with compromising and fed-up with foreign criticism. But, if re-elected, he might be forced further to the right.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to explain what his country is all about, he talks about a golden signet ring displayed in a glass case in his office. The ring was discovered near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is believed to be 2,800 years old and to have originally belonged to a Jewish official, and it has the name "Netanyahu" inscribed on it.

"That's my family name," the 63-year-old says. His first name, he then always adds, is 1,000 years older: Benjamin, the son of Jacob. "Nearly 4,000 years ago, this Benjamin roamed the hills of Judea," Netanyahu says. "This connection between the Jewish people and Israel cannot be denied." The signet ring is Netanyahu's justification for why Jerusalem cannot be divided and why Israel has a right to this land, no matter what its borders are.

Netanyahu uses virtually the same choice of words when he speaks to members the US Congress, at the United Nations and with journalists.

But his father was actually born in Warsaw as Benzion Mileikowsky, and it wasn't until the family moved to Israel that it adopted the family name Netanyahu. And a modest choice it wasn't, as the word means "God-given."

But for Benjamin Netanyahu, a ring becomes a right, and a Biblical claim becomes a modern-day political policy. That's the kind of reasoning that he often uses when he speaks. Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit calls him a "mythomaniac," or someone driven by a feeling of being on a historic mission.

In one of his campaign commercials, Netanyahu stands in front of the Western Wall wearing a kippah, the skullcap worn by Jewish males to show respect for God. He uses the word "Jewish" so often that one can hardly keep count. In another video, two speeches are spliced together -- one delivered before the US Congress, the other before the UN General Assembly. "Three thousand years ago, King David reigned over the Jewish state in our eternal capital, Jerusalem," the prime minister says. "The Jewish people have come home. We will never be uprooted again." Indeed, all of his campaign advertising is like that. There is no agenda; there are no plans. It is all emotion.

Enslaved to Opinion Polls

This is yet another reason why Netanyahu has an excellent chance of being re-elected next week for a third term as prime minister, a feat that has only been accomplished once before, by David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel.

Opinion polls show that 81 percent of Israelis believe that Netanyahu will be re-elected, while 64 percent see him as the best candidate. The Middle East is in turmoil, Iran is most likely continuing its efforts to build a nuclear bomb, and Hamas is even growing stronger in the West Bank. Nevertheless, Israelis might re-elect a man who promises the past rather than the future for another four years.

Netanyahu's success says a great deal about the current emotional state of Israel. Indeed, the prime minister is the lowest common denominator of this belated nation, addicted to constant self-affirmation and tired of incessant criticism from abroad.

In fact, it's nearly impossible to speak with Netanyahu. Anyone who wants to learn more about him has to talk with his advisers and staff members, whether current or former. There's especially a lot in the second category -- and it's no coincidence that some of them are now his rivals.

Israel Bachar was one of them. For four years, he was Netanyahu's chief strategist, a reserved man of facts and figures who organized Netanyahu's political resurrection. Now he advises the Shas party, Netanyahu's ultra-orthodox competition.

Over a decade ago, following his first disastrous term in office and his election defeat in 1999, it was generally agreed that Netanyahu was finished -- too loathed and despised to ever become prime minister again. But after the second intifada and the 2006 Lebanon War, Israelis yearned for the return of "Mister Security," and Netanyahu managed to stage one of those comebacks that are so typical of this country.

Before the 2009 election, Netanyahu and his strategist forged a right-wing alliance with populist Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") party and the religious Shas party, which have since dominated Israeli politics. Although Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party came out of the elections with the most votes, she didn't have enough coalition partners to govern, so Netanyahu became prime minister.

His election victory also marked the beginning of a period of political stagnation. Since the last election, Netanyahu has lived in constant fear of seeing his coalition collapse and usher in a defeat like the one in 1999. No step is taken without first checking to see what the opinion polls say. "Netanyahu will do nothing that goes against public opinion," says Bachar. Very often, the prime minister tells his staff to "check that," meaning to "check that" with the opinion polls.

A Policy of Playing It Safe
Bachar was the one who surveyed positions until a majority could be found. As a result, Netanyahu became a prime minister who molded himself according to voter sentiment and remained finely tuned to public opinion, which can be summed up in this way: Two-thirds of all Israelis want an agreement with the Palestinians, but they fear the risk it involves. At the same time, most of them feel that the conflict cannot be resolved, but they also don't want to live with the cognitive dissonance of being both a democracy and an occupying power. Consequently, they prefer to ignore all conflict and criticism.

This explains why they embrace Netanyahu's policy of convenience, which doesn't believe in the chances of success and prefers to stress the risks. Under his leadership, the understandable desire for security has become a collective mantra -- and perhaps to some degree an excuse. His voters don't ask him why there is still no Palestinian state. It's enough to have offered negotiations -- and others are to blame for their failure.

This has led to the rise of this consensus prime minister who portrays himself as a hard-liner although he tends to be indecisive and to bow to public pressure. After once dedicating an entire book to the position that the state must never allow itself to be blackmailed, he released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one abducted Israeli soldier. Although he formerly said he would never negotiate with terrorists, he agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas. He delivered a speech in which he endorsed a two-state solution, yet he has demonstratively continued to allow settlement construction. And when there was really no chance to reconcile ideology with the law, the homes of illegal settlers even had to be cut into segments so they could be reassembled elsewhere.

Of course, his caution also has its advantages. Despite all his saber-rattling, Netanyahu has never fought a war -- with the exception of the seven-day air offensive launched in the Gaza Strip last November. Likewise, he has pursued a relatively moderate settlement policy that has admittedly resulted in many new buildings in East Jerusalem, but not that much construction deep inside the West Bank.

Netanyahu boasts that he has succeeded in bringing peace and stability. But these are a legacy from his predecessors, an inheritance he has used up without making any contribution himself.

Instead, his maneuvering has strengthened reactionary elements in the country, isolated Israel and undermined the chances of reaching a compromise with the Palestinians. Tensions between rich and poor, between secular and religious, have grown. When his government joined forces with the moderate Kadima party in May, he gained the majority needed to enact wide-ranging reforms -- but he did nothing. Two months later, the coalition collapsed because it was more important to Netanyahu, the power tactician, to crush the opposition than to venture any changes.

"He will only seek a compromise with the Palestinians if our existence is at stake," says Bachar, his former chief strategist. Everything else, he adds, is just tactical maneuvering, including the speech in June 2009 in which he promised the existence of two states.

Controlling the Message and Image

Thanks to his painless policies, Netanyahu has achieved and retained a high standing in opinion polls for nearly three years -- an impressive accomplishment in a country that appears to take more delight in pulverizing its leaders than virtually any other nation. Indeed, that is why his popularity is not pure coincidence.

Netanyahu is the only prime minister to have his own newspaper: Israel Hayom, also known as "Bibiton," a play on Netanyahu's nickname "Bibi," for Benjamin, and the Hebrew word for newspaper, "iton." The free publication is a multimillion-dollar present from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a prominent Jewish-American benefactor. What's more, the newspaper makes it difficult for other, more critical dailies to survive. Israel Hayom has been very important, Bachar, the adviser, says emphatically, adding that "Netanyahu wanted an organ that would proclaim his positions."

Furthermore, Netanyahu has put loyalists in key state-media positions, made the work of journalists more difficult with a new libel law, and thwarted independent organizations with new regulations on donations. This has allowed him to tame the media, weaken the opposition and turn Israel into a country whose leadership is less and less receptive to criticism.

The prime minister is convinced that, if his country is to be better understood, he merely has to put more focus on explaining it. This belief is widespread in Israel and even reflected in an official government organ, the Ministry for Public Diplomacy. Netanyahu acts as if he were the nation's top press spokesman, and one driven by a basic conviction: The entire world is against us, while Israel is a beacon of human rights surrounded by medieval societies. His speeches are like a fireplace at which the nation's citizens can warm themselves.

Indeed, the only thing that Netanyahu has mastered is pathos. When he visited a group of children with cancer, he said they should cling to hope because "that is the history of our people, that is what gives us strength." And after an entire family of settlers was brutally killed, he said: "They murder, and we build."

When it comes to human emotions, Netanyahu is a mechanic rather than a naturalist. "He's not a mensch," says a former adviser. The Yiddish word mensch means the kind of person one would like to be friends with. "Netanyahu has no sense of humor about himself. He never asks how you're doing," he says, "and he's very paranoid. He believes that everyone is against him." In fact, this is so extreme that Netanyahu has even used lie detectors in his own office.

Netanyahu is likewise a public prime minister simultaneously shut off from the rest of the world. His appearances are painstakingly choreographed. He doesn't allow questions. He prefers to convey his policies in video clips, and he rarely grants interviews.

"He thinks more about his image than about his strategic vision," says a former aide, "and that's an unhealthy balance." Early every morning, Netanyahu telephones his staff to ask what the Israeli media are saying about him. He personally prefers to read the US press, and criticism from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reportedly bothers him more than criticism from Israeli journalists.

Netanyahu is constantly thinking about US-Israeli relations. In fact, Netanyahu is so American that many Americans once mistook him for the US ambassador to the United Nations when he was working there as the Israeli representative. He grew up in Philadelphia, studied at Harvard and worked for the Boston Consulting Group. New York-based consultant Arthur Finkelstein still advises him on strategy, and 96.8 percent of his campaign donations are from abroad. According to the former aide, Netanyahu is "not interested in social affairs or education, but only in international diplomacy."

Imagining Himself as a Second Winston Churchill
Netanyahu sees it as his life's mission to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. "He literally believes what we Jews recite at Passover: In every generation, there is someone who wants to destroy the Jews," says another aide to the prime minister. He goes on to say that Netanyahu views Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as his generation's nemesis. What's more, he says the prime minister sees himself as the chosen one who will save his people -- a second Winston Churchill. Indeed, Netanyahu regards the man who foresaw Hitler's madness as his great role model.

Everyone who knows Netanyahu says the Holocaust influences his thinking more than anything else. That's hardly surprising, given that he is the son of a historian who devoted his life to studying the persecution of Jews under the Spanish Inquisition.

He has used his term in office to warn against Iran -- not softly, like other prime ministers before him, but as loudly as possible and with threats of a military strike. By frightening the world and convincing the international community to impose stricter sanctions, he has gotten what he wanted. But the price has been high. He has strained his relationship with US President Barack Obama and provoked worldwide criticism -- and the bomb still remains a potential threat.

Nevertheless, at least by Netanyahu's standards, his actions have succeeded. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, not only do words create deeds -- words are already deeds in their own right. Thus, he views drawing a red line on a cartoon bomb during a speech he delivered in September 2012 before the UN General Assembly as one of his greatest accomplishments.

Creating His Own Undoing

However, by believing in the power of speech, Netanyahu has forgotten to take action. And this, in turn, has created a domestic political vacuum that others are now filling.

By making concessions to settlers and religious groups in order to maintain peace and stability within his coalition, Netanyahu has strengthened the extremists. And now it looks as if he can no longer get rid of the right-wing forces he once welcomed to join him. In his own center-right Likud party, the tone is now set by people like right-wing nationalist Moshe Feiglin, who wants to pay Palestinian families to leave the West Bank. The settler and populist Avigdor Lieberman, with whom Netanyahu has forged a joint list for the elections, is already being treated as his likely successor one day. And then there's Naftali Bennett, his greatest rival in the upcoming election.

Bennett, 40, once served as Netanyahu's chief of staff, but they had a falling out after two years. Bennett has also led a high-tech software company, which he sold for $145 million (€109 million), and headed the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Now, Bennett is pursuing a career in politics. It was only a few months ago that the energetic man took the helm of Jewish Home, a hard-line, nationalist party on the religious right that he has made into a mouthpiece for secular settlers and young people as well. Since then, opinion polls show that Netanyahu's election alliance has lost a quarter of its voters, and that Bennett could become the third-strongest political power in the country.

This political newcomer's meteoric rise in popularity has much to do with Netanyahu. Bennett studied Netanyahu's weaknesses while serving as his adviser. He knows that the prime minister expresses his policies as vaguely as possible so as to avoid losing centrist voters. These lessons have prompted Bennett to openly proclaim that the conflict with the Palestinians cannot be resolved. He wants to expand the settlements and has made public a plan that would have Israel annex 60 percent of the West Bank. But he also talks about justice and the country's social problems.

Bennett used to openly criticize the Netanyahu and ranks among the many who have become disillusioned with him. But, today, he no longer wants to publicly comment on his rival -- since they might soon be governing the country together.

Israel could then become a different country, less liberal and more engrossed with itself. One can already see what this might look like. Indeed, Netanyahu has to react to and trump Bennett's pithy slogans. Last week, he made his first visit to a settler outpost deep in the West Bank, something that he had steadfastly avoided doing during his term. "When the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu are strong, we will be able to maneuver, to navigate and to continue to take care of the future of the settlements," he said while surrounded by a group of settler leaders.

If Netanyahu were to rule with Naftali as part of a coalition government, he would hardly be able to maintain his carefully balanced stick-to-the-status-quo policies. Netanyahu would have to do what he has always avoided: He would have to commit himself to a clearly defined political course.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

*********
January 16, 2013

Netanyahu Issues Veiled Barb in Response to Reported Criticism From Obama

By ISABEL KERSHNER
IHT

JERUSALEM — Days before an Israeli election that he is expected to win, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday directed a veiled barb at President Obama, who was quoted this week as denouncing Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

Relations between the two leaders have long been marked by tension that has erupted on occasion into open hostility, particularly over the handling of Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli settlement plans. Israeli commentators said the latest exchange of messages suggested that future relations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu could be equally fraught.

In a column published by Bloomberg View on Monday, Jeffrey Goldberg, an American journalist who is well acquainted with Israel, wrote that in the weeks after the United Nations General Assembly voted in November to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a nonmember observer state of the United Nations, “Obama said privately and repeatedly, ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.’ With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.”

Responding to a journalist’s question about the comments and the timing during a televised visit to a military base on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said, “I think everyone understands that only Israeli citizens will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents the vital interests of Israel.”

Many Israelis regard Mr. Goldberg as being well connected to Mr. Obama, citing a widely publicized interview by Mr. Goldberg with the president that The Atlantic published in March. Mr. Obama said then, regarding Iran, “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” and, “In terms of Israeli politics, there’s been a view that regardless of whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration, the working assumption is: we’ve got Israel’s back.”

Asked for a response to Mr. Goldberg’s column, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said: “I can’t confirm that specific comment or what was allegedly discussed in private meetings. The president has been clear in stating what he believes is a realistic basis for successful negotiations, and we will continue to base our efforts on that approach.”

The stinging criticism attributed to Mr. Obama made headlines in Israel, not least because of the timing. Months ago, Mr. Netanyahu was widely perceived as meddling in the American presidential campaign in favor of the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Now, some Israeli commentators posited, it is payback time.

Others suggested that Mr. Obama’s criticism could only help Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative who is battling political parties further to his right.

Tensions peaked last fall, before the American election, when Mr. Netanyahu publicly criticized the Obama administration for refusing to set clear “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear progress and said that, as a result, the administration had no “moral right” to restrain Israel from taking military action of its own.

The Netanyahu government’s frequent announcements of plans to build more Jewish homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the annexed East Jerusalem have been also been continual sources of friction. Washington has long viewed settlement construction as an obstacle to peace. With the Palestinians demanding a settlement freeze before returning to the negotiating table, Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled for years.

Mr. Netanyahu blames the Palestinians for the stagnation, saying he is ready for talks without preconditions.

Soon after the General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinians, the Netanyahu government announced that it would advance plans to settle a particularly contentious area of the West Bank known as E1. Mr. Obama “didn’t even bother getting angry,” Mr. Goldberg wrote. “He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu had led the country responsibly, and that some of his actions found favor with the United States and Europe while others did not. Asked about the timing of Mr. Goldberg’s column, so soon before Israeli elections set for Tuesday, Mr. Yaalon said that perhaps the journalist had chosen this “sensitive time” to publish it.

Mr. Goldberg, a columnist for Bloomberg and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, dismissed speculation that his column had been timed to influence the Israeli election.

“Think of the column as coming out after the E1 announcement rather than before the election,” Mr. Goldberg said by telephone. Arguing that American criticism of Israeli settlement building was nothing new, he added, “My column just reflects the ongoing concerns of the administration.”

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 16, 2013

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Palestine’s status at the United Nations. It is a nonmember observer state, not a nonvoting member state.

**********
January 16, 2013

As Israeli Vote Nears, Arab Apathy Is a Concern

By JODI RUDOREN
IHT

BAKA AL-GHARBIYA, Israel — There are two distinct strains of voter apathy here in what is known as the Triangle, home to many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens.

The first is familiar to citizens in many democracies. “No one deserves my vote,” was how Fayez Najmi, who sells fresh fish from a sidewalk in this town of 20,000, put it. “We don’t see any progress or any achievement. We only see the politicians during campaigns.”

The second is more particular to this community. Nidal Jazmawi, who runs a dry cleaners in nearby Umm Al-Fahm and who has lived his entire life in Israel, said he was abstaining because as part of the Palestinian minority he feels his citizenship is meaningless. “This is not my country,” he said. “I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

With Israel heading to the polls on Tuesday, the two intensifying sources of apathy are raising new concerns here over the health of Israeli democracy. Experts say a social media campaign to boycott the election and a growing frustration with Arab lawmakers’ focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than local concerns like crime, poverty and unemployment, threaten to depress Arab turnout below 50 percent.

That has raised alarm among Arabs and Jews concerned that a long-marginalized minority is increasingly alienated by Israel’s right-wing government and by the general tone of the campaign, particularly in the face of international criticism that its treatment of Palestinians within and beyond its borders is discriminatory and undemocratic.

Several Israeli newspapers have run opinion pieces this week calling on Arabs to vote, with the liberal Haaretz newspaper taking the unusual step of printing an editorial also in Arabic. “Parliamentary elections are the heart of any civic struggle,” it read. “Despair and abstention are the worst enemies of such a struggle, and they are luxuries that Israel’s citizens cannot afford.”

Ahmad Tibi, a member of Parliament since 1999, said his United Arab List had joined with its two rivals, Hadash and Balad, in Facebook campaigns and election day efforts aimed at persuading voters to go to the polls, noting that in Israel’s coalition system, staying home bolsters the largest faction, in this case Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Beiteinu.

“In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote,” Mr. Tibi said in an interview on Wednesday. “In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life — education, infrastructure, employment. In only one thing there is equal rights: the day of the election. One person, one vote, Jews and Arabs. Those who are not participating are shooting their own legs.”

While Arab-Israeli participation in national elections has been declining for decades, voters and experts alike said the situation had sharpened this year, citing as causes Israel’s political march to the right; the rising view that its conflict with the Palestinians is insoluble; an increase in laws perceived as discriminatory against Arab citizens; and the lack of unity among Arab parties.

“There’s a lot of issues of trust in the system, and that drives people away from the polls.” said Guy Ben-Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University who studies the Arab community in Israel.

Capitalizing on these concerns, a group of young activists created a boycott initiative that has gained some traction on Facebook, with an anti-voting rally scheduled for Saturday. “Voting would be a wrong way to deal with our ambitions,” said one of the organizers, George Ghantous. “Under Israel we won’t be able to get our ambitions.”

There have been Arab parties in Parliament since Israel’s founding, but none have ever been part of a governing coalition (though some Palestinians elected from so-called Zionist parties have). Today, Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population of nearly 8 million, and 11 of Parliament’s 120 members represent the three Arab-dominated parties — one religious, one Communist and one nationalist. A new party, Hope for Change, has joined this year’s campaign promising to focus only on domestic issues and to join the government regardless of who leads it.

While more than three-quarters of Arab citizens voted in the 2008 municipal elections, turnout for national elections has been spiraling downward for decades, to 53 percent in 2009 (when 66 percent of Israeli Jews cast ballots). A November survey by As’ad Ghanem, a political scientist at the University of Haifa, found it would fall to 51 percent this time, and others predict it will plunge even lower.

If Arabs voted at the same rate as Jews, they could win more than 20 seats and be the second-largest bloc in Parliament. “It’s in our hands,” said Ghaleb Majadleh, a Parliament member and former minister from the Labor Party whose headquarters is here in Baka al-Gharbiya. Increase turnout by half, he said, and “Netanyahu would not be in the government.”

Israeli leaders often cite the presence of Arab citizens and their right to vote as evidence of the state’s commitment to democracy and equality. But many of the Arab lawmakers reject Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state.

Arab lawmakers and their constituents complain that their communities suffer from scarce jobs, crowded classrooms and a lack of municipal services. “You drove here: did you see the roads? Have you ever seen a city of 50,000 with no industrial zone?” Afou Eghbariyeh, a Hadash lawmaker, asked foreign journalists in Umm al Fahm. “No Ministry of Interior, no Ministry of Transportation; we have no representatives of the government here.”

In Professor Ghanem’s survey, 31 percent of those who did not plan to vote said it was because they had no one to vote for, 26 percent said they were not interested in politics and 8 percent each said it was a matter of conscience or their votes did not count. A majority of nonvoters said they would cast ballots if the Arab parties united in a single list. Ibrahim Sarsur, the leader of the United Arab List, said he had tried to join with his rivals for the campaign but decided “they are not mature enough.”

All three parties have blanketed towns like this one with election banners shouting their slogans: “The situation needs unity.” “We need to live in dignity.” “The whole truth.”

The message is getting through to some. “The more Arabs vote, the more seats we get — this is important,” said Aseel Fadoos, 27, a carpenter who stopped at a supermarket here on Tuesday afternoon and plans to vote Balad. A young woman at a children’s clothing shop up the street said she was supporting United Arab List because “if I don’t vote, the missing voice, maybe it will go to the extremist parties.”

Said Eghbariyeh, 60, who was sitting on a plastic chair outside a store in Umm Al Fahm smoking and sipping coffee, said he had always voted for Arab parties, but this time would support Meretz, a left-wing faction that pushes peace with the Palestinians. “The Arabs are only numbers, they have no influence,” he explained.

Nadim Nashef, the director of Baladna, a Haifa-based youth organization, said his friends had been fiercely debating whether to vote this time, with the boycott campaign “clearly a louder and stronger voice than before.”

He was torn. “Israel is using the Arab parties and the Arab citizens voting to say it’s a democracy; it’s not,” he said. “But then we need some kind of voice for our community, some people to speak out against racist rules and racist legislation, and that’s the main reason I’m voting.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.





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« Reply #4086 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:19 AM »


Mauritanian ex-refugees lack ID cards and access to their old farmland

Thousands of Mauritanians returning from Senegal struggle to gain access to official paperwork and the land they used to farm

IRIN, part of the Guardian global development network   
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 January 2013 11.28 GMT   

Nearly 25,000 Mauritanian refugees who had sheltered in Senegal for two decades after fleeing violence in 1989 have returned home since 2008, but, despite extensive efforts to resettle them in their original villages, many lack ID papers and/or access to their old farmland.

Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians fled ethnic killings carried out by security forces in the early 1990s. Some fled to Mali but most to Senegal.

Aliou Moussa So is head of a returnee community of 73 families in PK6 village, 6km from Rosso in southern Mauritania near the Senegalese border. Like most of the returnees, he fled in 1989 and returned in 2008 when the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) started to repatriate refugees.

Most of the returnees were originally from PK6, though when they fled it was called Wellingara, loosely meaning "a nice place to visit" in their local language, Peulhar.

Moussa So was angry when IRIN spoke to him. "I can't recount all the problems I've had or we'd end up spending all night. I am sick of answering questions to you people in 4x4s – that is all that anyone ever does here. They come, ask questions, and do nothing."

PK6 is a scrappy village with half-built brick rooms scattered around a small shop with half a dozen sacks of cereal for sale, and a few corrugated-iron shelters covered in rugs to protect them from the sun.

UNHCR provided the materials to returnees to build 150 brick shelters, but turned to corrugated-iron shelters held up by wooden poles when their funding ran out. The agency's repatriation exercise ended in March. It repatriated 24,536 refugees and resettled 14,000 in Senegal.
Access to land

The problem for returnees in PK6 is they cannot access the land they used to farm – about 14 hectares (34.6 acres) have been sold to someone else (they do not know who), and many of them cannot access the ID papers required to officially make their claim.

Moussa So has "complained to everyone", including the National Agency for the Support and Resettlement of Refugees (ANAIR), the mayor of Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania), the ministry of interior, "even the president of the republic". Authorities from the interior ministry visited the village last year, but since then nothing has happened, he said. "I am starting to lose hope. We are exhausted. We are farmers. If we have no fields, how can we live?"

Many returnees face these same problems, said Oumar Diop, head of the Clinique Juridique in Rosso, which is partly funded by Oxfam and the UN, and helps returnees try to access lost land. "We have many cases of people who have difficulties reclaiming their land. We follow these cases at the district level, and will even go up to the national ministry [of interior] level if necessary," Diop said.

The Clinique Juridique is working on 16 cases, but Diop is exasperated. "Most cases just don't have a solution," he said. Out of 640 problem cases, he said, only 115 have been resolved.

According to ANAIR director Ndiwar Kane, the success rate is much higher, and 400 have been sorted out. One of the problems, says Kane, is that the land never belonged to the villagers in the first place; in the 1980s most farmland was owned by the state. After the villagers left, the land was redistributed among other villagers, mainly by village chiefs.
Private land ownership

Since then, private land ownership rights have been developed in Mauritania, and businessmen and officials have started to purchase the land – many of them living in Nouakchott or other towns, and managing it from afar. "A lot of the deals that took place were quite murky," said Kane. "We are not used to individual land ownership here."

To diminish tensions, in some cases the government and ANAIR tried to strike deals with locals to return part of the land to the returnees. But ANAIR has no legal right to intervene in land rights issues – and neither does UNHCR. Instead, it is the job of the civil affairs bureau, which is in charge of registering people's status, and the ministry of interior, says the government.

"We can only try to help resolve small problems," said Kane. In 2008, ANAIR, UNHCR and others presented a report listing returnees' main problems and priorities for district and regional chiefs and for the ministry of the interior. Four years on, the principal problems remain.
Hard to get an ID card

Getting hold of identification cards has been a process fraught with difficulty, Kane agreed, but the same is true for many Mauritanians, he says – it is a national issue.

Returnees who had been registered as refugees by UNCHR were registered on the Mauritanian side by the civil authorities who gave them a formulaire de rapatriement volontaire, which allowed them to move around freely. A deal was struck with the civil administration, whereby these two forms would suffice to attain an ID card.

The tripartite repatriation agreement signed by Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR in November 2007 stated that repatriated Mauritanians should have their citizenship papers within three months of their arrival. But hundreds of returnees still do not have their cards, says the Clinique Juridique. Without ID cards, it is difficult to register for healthcare, or to enrol children in school. Even travel can be difficult in a country littered with military checkpoints.

The problem lies at the level of the civil administration, said Kane, which lacks the resources to adequately process returnee identification, and has not been restructured as advised by others. Hundreds of cases remain blocked in their systems, said Diop.

A minority of returnees – those included in the first convoy – returned to Mauritania without having the correct birth registration records for their children born in Senegal. A solution to this was found during meetings between ANAIR, UNHCR and the Senegalese authorities, though Kane is unaware of the outcome of individual cases.

Returnees say the civil authorities choose not to address their problems. One refugee official said the problem also lay with the returnees: you have to pay 1,000 ouguiya ($3.40, £2.10) to pick up your identity card, a sum that many returnees refuse to pay.
ANAIR assistance

The residents of PK6 have not been abandoned, said Kane. ANAIR provided the village with a water source; provided materials to the returnee association to set up a community shop to sell grains at reduced prices and gave them cooking gas to sell. It gave the women's association a grinding machine so they would not have to walk long distances to purchase flour, helped them set up a dyeing business, and provided rudimentary fencing to protect their market gardens from being eaten by animals and pests.

ANAIR has distributed 91 grinding machines to returnee villages as part of wider income-generating efforts across many of the 124 villages to which ex-refugees have returned. PK6 villagers have access to 18 hectares of land, he said, six of which are for market gardening.

Moussa So recognises the help ANAIR has given. "It has certainly helped us. But when we complained about our papers, we got cooking gas," he said, pointing to a heap of canisters in the corner of his one-room house.

Although returnees do have small market gardens, they cannot access their land to grow rice, said Moussa So. Returnees get by mainly on small trade or by dyeing clothes.

For UNHCR's reporting officer in Nouakchott, Elise Villechalane, the fact that 80% of returnees stayed in the regions to which they had returned is a sign of success. UNHCR was in charge of registering and repatriating more than 24,000 people across 124 villages. "It wasn't an easy operation," she said.

Returnees whom IRIN spoke to do not want to move on – they are home at last – but they do want their old lives back. "We used to farm. We used to get by. Now we rely on outside help," said Moussa So, using the Peulhar expression "boofni", which loosely translated means: "How can an empty sack stand up?"


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« Reply #4087 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:22 AM »

January 17, 2013

Pakistani Official Refuses Order to Arrest Prime Minister

By SALMAN MASOOD
IHT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —   The country’s top anti-corruption official told the Supreme Court on Thursday that he cannot comply with court orders to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, raising the prospect of a fresh confrontation between the senior judiciary and the country’s embattled leadership.

On Tuesday the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, ordered the arrest of Mr. Ashraf and 15 other current and former officials as part of a year-old corruption prosecution relating to Mr. Ashraf’s tenure as minister for water and power between 2008 and 2011.

The order coincided with a large protest march in Islamabad, led by a charismatic cleric, and government officials accused the judge of taking advantage of the chaotic situation to press his long-standing rivalry with the government.

But on Thursday Fasih Bokhari, the head of the National Accountability Bureau, the government’s main anti-graft body, said that the investigation into Mr. Ashraf’s case had been “inaccurate” and “hurried,” and told the court that he needed more time to complete his work.

Chief Justice Chaudhry, who has pursued cases against the political government and senior military generals with zeal, responded with ire. The three-judge bench he presides over chided Mr. Bokhari and his prosecutors for being overly timid and accused them of behaving like defense counsel for the government.

Chief Justice Chaudhry then ordered K.K Agha, the prosecutor general of the anti-corruption body, to immediately present investigation documents before the court. Mr. Bokhari’s team demurred, insisting the court should pass a written order if it wanted the investigation documents brought before the court.

“An order is an order,” one of the three judges replied tersely.

The timing of the arrest order is striking. General elections are expected to be announced in the comings weeks, perhaps earlier, and set for sometime in early May, according to senior government officials.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who is the co-chairman of the ruling party, is unlikely to enter into a fresh round of finding and nominating a new prime minister if Mr. Ashraf is dismissed by the court.

Mr. Zardari’s rivalry with Chief Justice Chaudhry reached its climax last June when the Supreme Court effectively dismissed Yousaf Raza Gilani as prime minister, convicting him of contempt of court in a different corruption case related to Mr. Zardari’s finances.

Meanwhile, the preacher who has camped outside the Parliament in Islamabad, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, has drawn thousands of his followers, and he gave Mr. Zardari until the afternoon to hold a dialogue with him. But he stopped short of announcing his next course of action if his demands were not met.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Qadri said as thousands of his followers stood, huddled together, under a pouring rain.

“You do not have any more time,” thundered Mr. Qadri, referring to the government. “We have to finish it by the end of this day today.”A team of cabinet officials, including the law and information ministers, arrived at the protest site late Thursday to meet with Mr. Qadri, who is hunkered down in a bulletproof shipping container. Before receiving the officials, Mr. Qadri made a brief speech in which he urged his followers to show patience and predicted victory.

The interior minister, Rehman Malik, suggested Wednesday evening that the security forces could try to remove the protesters on Thursday. But the order was publicly countermanded shortly afterward by Mr. Zardari, who is staying at his Karachi residence, highlighting the political sensitivity of the situation.

In any event, the weather was helping the government’s cause by Thursday. Heavy rain swept the capital on Thursday morning, soaking the Qadri supporters, who are estimated to number at least 20,000 people. The miserable conditions failed to dampen their spirits — television images showed the protesters, many hailing from towns and villages in Punjab Province, dancing and chanting in the rain.

But concerns are growing over an outbreak of chest and throat infections, particularly among young children who have accompanied their parents to the protests, and the deteriorating conditions could increase pressure on Mr. Qadri to end his action.

Mr. Qadri, 61, who has vowed to remain peaceful despite his aggressive and increasingly threatening rhetoric, is demanding a complete overhaul of the electoral system.

His demand of an immediate dissolution of the country’s election commission has been rejected by a majority of the ruling alliance and opposition political parties, leaving Mr. Qadri in a political buffer zone.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting.

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

January 16, 2013

Pakistan Says Preacher and Crowd at Risk

By DECLAN WALSH
IHT

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Two days after a charismatic preacher swept into the capital surrounded by thousands of supporters, Pakistan’s government responded by rejecting his political agenda and hinting that an operation to dislodge him was imminent.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters on Wednesday that there were indications that suicide bombers planned to target the preacher, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, who is in a bulletproof container near Parliament.

Mr. Qadri and his boisterous supporters, estimated at 25,000 people, could be the subject of a “targeted operation” as early as Thursday, Mr. Malik said. “For the safety of the women and children in the protest, I request you to leave by tomorrow,” he said at a news conference.

Mr. Qadri, 61, who has demanded that the government resign to make way for a caretaker administration, insisted that he was standing firm, but also suggested the standoff could be resolved within a couple of days, although he declined to specify how.

“We are in the victory zone and about to achieve our target,” he told The New York Times, speaking inside the fortified container, mounted on the back of a truck, from which he has delivered several fiery speeches. “The march will be successful in the next one or two days at most.”

Earlier, the information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, mocked Mr. Qadri’s demands at a news conference, and accused him of using the many women and children among his supporters as “human shields.” But Mr. Kaira said, “The people will not stand by him.” The government was showing some teeth after Mr. Qadri managed to lead his supporters into the capital, despite numerous obstacles, leaving officials looking outwitted.

The government’s authority was also challenged on Tuesday by the Supreme Court, which ordered the arrest of the prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, as part of a corruption prosecution. The government has signaled that it intends to challenge the order when the case comes to court on Thursday morning; officials see the move as part of a long-running proxy battle between the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and the president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, has been grappling with its longtime foe India in the disputed province of Kashmir, where at least five soldiers from both sides have died in a series of skirmishes over the past two weeks.

In the latest episode, Pakistan said Wednesday that Indian troops had shot a Pakistani soldier at a position named Kundi, and lodged an official complaint with New Delhi. India denied responsibility. The tensions have raised worries that months of steady diplomatic progress between the rival neighbors could be undone. But hopes for a resolution of the dispute rose late on Wednesday when, after a phone conversation between senior commanders on both sides, India said an agreement to calm the situation had been reached.

Pakistan’s director general of military operations, Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, spoke for 10 minutes with his Indian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia, an Indian spokesman told reporters.

The spokesman, Col. Jagdeep Dahiya, told Agence France-Presse that the Pakistani general “said strict instructions have been passed not to violate the cease-fire.”

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« Reply #4088 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:41 AM »

Slovenia: Democracy or kleptocracy: What’s it to be?

16 January 2013
Delo Ljubljana   

The divorce between the political class and the Slovenian population is expanding at the same rate as the revelations about corruption. Now that the head of government himself has been caught up in the scandals, Slovenian society stands at a crossroads.
Zoran Potič

We have to admit it: Slovenian society is schizophrenic and sick.

On one side of the split is a dramatic conflict within the ruling coalition, and in Slovenian politics in general, in which the actors think only of clinging onto their positions and avoiding getting swept up and tossed into the rubbish bin of history by an angry populace. On the other side of the split is the majority of the citizenry insurrection against the government.

It can fairly be asked, who represents reality in the present circumstances? Is it the political elite, which behaves like a bull in a china shop and keeps corrupting Slovenian society, or is it the protesters who are calling for politicians to act in accordance with ethical and moral standards?

Following the most recent event, which saw several thousand people gather in Ljubljana on January 12, it's clear that [the protest movement] will keep at it until the political elite hear the cries of discontent and relinquish power.
Tired of the lies

This is the message that is being sent to them in many ways: by placards, masks, and by shouts of “Enough!” The people are tired of lies, of the kleptocracy, of insults and humiliations. The spirit of the challenge is best embodied by the slogan: “Lie, steal, rule – that's democracy in Slovenia."

Those who expected that Christmas and the New Year would put a brake on the [protest movement] were wrong. The report of the Parliamentary Committee on the fight against corruption gave new life to the wave of protest by disclosing undeclared transactions in the bank accounts and assets of Janez Janša, Prime Minister and leader of the ruling party [ the Slovenian Democratic Party, SDS, Liberal], and Zoran Janković, leader of the main opposition party [Positive Slovenia, PS, centre left].

Slovenian society is at the crossroads of becoming a true democracy – or remaining a kleptocracy. The days, weeks and months ahead will be crucial. It is time that the voice of the citizens was heard. And taken into account.

Commentary: Janša’s departure: not the end of the world

"MPs prefer to avoid new elections," reports Slovenian daily Delo. It explains that although they are calling for Prime Minister Janez Janša to resign, the members of his government coalition fear this will aggravate the political crisis and would prefer a simple replacement.

But Janša refuses to accept this, according to philosopher Alenka Zupančič writing in another daily, Dnevnik. "I am the State, that is Janez Janša's message. If you want what is best for the State, love me. All the rest is nothing more than attacks on our sovereignty and leads to our decline," she says, adding that

    Janša's reaction sounds like a broken record. [...] No one had as yet so usurped the State and taken its citizens as hostages, using them to blackmail the political sphere and his own coalition. Just as the world did not end on December 21, it won't either if Janša leaves. On the contrary, it's possible that we might obtain a government that will know how to use the report issued by the International Monetary Fund last October to say: "OK, we were wrong. We underestimated the impact of austerity measures on growth. We should have done things otherwise; we should not have been in such a hurry to enact fiscal consolidation."


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« Reply #4089 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:44 AM »

Belgium: Wallonia on the way to renaissance

17 January 2013
De Volkskrant Amsterdam   

For a long time, Wallonia was considered the poor half of Belgium, reliant on aid from rich Flanders. Today, the Walloon economy is back on its feet and the Walloons want to seize their destiny and address the pressure from Flemish separatists. Excerpts.
Leen Vervaeke

Visitors to Château Mélot, on the crest of a hill above the Walloon capital, Namur, are pampered like royalty. Their cars are cleaned free of charge, they receive complimentary champagne on their birthday, and their children are treated to an annual visit by Sinterklaas, who is flown in by helicopter.

Money flows easily, as the castle of Mélot is home to the Cercle de Wallonie, a business club for Walloon entrepreneurs. The castle exudes the ambience of a traditional gentlemen's club, with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And not to forget an impressive box of cigars alongside the bar.

"This shows that Wallonia is not just an industrial apocalypse, where the entire population is unemployed," says André Van Hecke, director of the Cercle de Wallonie. "That's the view held in Flanders, but it no longer reflects reality. It might have been true in the past, but things are really starting to change in Wallonia."

The portly Van Hecke, who earned his fortune in the communications industry, started the Cercle de Wallonie in 2006. Initially he had difficulty gaining ground among down-to-earth Walloon entrepreneurs, largely running small to medium-size companies. But with workshops, lectures by successful bankers and entrepreneurs, and ultimately aided by some wine and cigars, Van Hecke won them over. Now Cercle de Wallonie has almost 1,500 members.
Wind of change

"Something is changing in Wallonia," Van Hecke says. "We are starting to believe in ourselves. But the new socialists too are aware that a different outlook is necessary, that the future does not lie in a state dependent on handouts, but rather in work and enterprise."

When looking at Belgium, people often focus on Flanders, the rich Northern region that under influence of Flemish nationalist party chairman Bart De Wever is demanding ever more autonomy. It long appeared that the sole ambition of the poorer Walloon region was damage limitation, but that is where a change has occurred.

The Walloons got sick and tired of their underdog position and want to stand on their own two feet. Not that they want separation from Flanders, by no means. But they want to be prepared for when Flanders lays down its demands.

"There is a growing awareness that Wallonia must take control of its own destiny," says Béatrice Delvaux, chief commentator of the newspaper Le Soir. "There are as yet no polls to support this opinion, but you can feel it in society, you can hear it in the politicians' statements. Many French-speaking Belgians feel insulted by the Flemish attitude during the crisis, which they feel depicted them as lazy scroungers. They have had enough."

Walloon Marshall Plan

This new level of Walloon consciousness expresses itself in the first place in the area of economics, where the “Marshall Plan” [a state-funded investment plan unveiled in 2005 to relaunch the Walloon economy] must create a worthy successor to the industrial past. The Walloon government has invested €366m in new, high-tech companies, creating more than 10,000 jobs. And although the big breakthrough is yet to come, the gap in wealth between Flanders and Wallonia has not increased for a couple of years now.

Wallonia is also gaining in cultural self-confidence. Mons (Bergen) will become the European Cultural Capital in 2014, while Liege has put itself forward as a candidate for the World Expo of 2017. Mayors of Namen and Charleroi have set the ambition of giving new élan to their cities.

In the political field, meanwhile, the Walloon government launched “Plan Horizon 2022”, which must determine how French-speaking Belgium will be governed in 10 years' time. Following the new state reform, in a decade, Wallonia will receive less financial support from Flanders. Its economy, education, mobility and building planning will be reformed to reflect this new reality.

"Various politicians are pushing for ever-faster change," says Béatrice Delvaux. "They want to be ready for the elections of 2014, in case they have to face Bart De Wever."
Meetings shrouded in secrecy

According to Delvaux there been various high-level meetings to determine how the French-speaking politicians can present a united front against Flanders. Those meetings are shrouded in secrecy, because critics regard them as grist to the mill of Bart De Wever: if the Walloons set their own course, there is nothing preventing him from dividing Belgium.

"That nothing but an idle threat," says Jean-Pascal Labille, the secretary general of the Socialist Mutual Societies. "It is used as an excuse by those who resist progress. Bart De Wever will not change his stance, whether we agree with him or not. But if we say nothing, we also do nothing."

Labille wants the Walloon dignitaries to conceive the ideal Belgian state structure, as a counterweight to the Flemish vision.

Labille would then be very optimistic about the future of the Walloon region. "We have plenty of space, an abundance of qualified workers and an extremely favourable geographical position. If we continue along this chosen path, Wallonia could within 10 years climb to new economic heights.

Viewed from that perspective, the political crisis and the inflexibility of Bart De Wever may well have a positive impact on Wallonia. The Flemish nationalists might have offended the Walloons, but they have also given them a wake-up call.

********

A cockerel, the symbol of Wallonia


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« Reply #4090 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:49 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/17/2013 01:05 PM

Woodland Heists: Rising Energy Costs Drive Up Forest Thievery

By Renuka Rayasam

With energy costs escalating, more Germans are turning to wood burning stoves for heat. That, though, has also led to a rise in tree theft in the country's forests. Woodsmen have become more watchful.

With snow blanketing the ground, it's the perfect time of year to snuggle up in front of a fireplace. That, though, makes German foresters nervous. When the mercury falls, the theft of wood in the country's woodlands goes up as people turn to cheaper ways to heat their homes.

"The forest is open for everyone to enter and people just think they can help themselves, but they can't!" says Enno Rosenthal, head of the forest farmers association in the northeastern German state of Brandenburg. "Naturally, those log piles belong to someone and there is a lot of money and work that goes into them."

The problem has been compounded this winter by rising energy costs. The Germany's Renters Association estimates the heating costs will go up 22 percent this winter alone. A side effect is an increasing number of people turning to wood-burning stoves for warmth. Germans bought 400,000 such stoves in 2011, the German magazine FOCUS reported this week. It marks the continuation of a trend: The number of Germans buying heating devices that burn wood and coal has grown steadily since 2005, according to consumer research company GfK Group.

That increase in demand has now also boosted prices for wood, leading many to fuel their fires with theft.

Rosenthal said just last weekend someone stole an entire bundle of oak wood worth about €150 ($199) from a private forest in the town of Neuruppin outside of Berlin. "Many foresters come back to their wood piles and find them a little smaller or even gone," he says.

A Gray Zone

About 10 percent of the firewood that comes out of Brandenburg's forest every year is stolen, resulting in losses of about €500,000, Rosenthal estimates. In the southern German state of Bavaria some 5 percent is absconded with annually says Hans Bauer, head of the state's forest owners association.

"A gray zone has developed," says Rosenthal. "Normally if you sell sausages, you create a business and pay taxes, but with wood some people are laxer." He says many people steal wood and then resell it via ads in the newspaper. Such sales, needless to say, tend to be of the under-the-table variety.

Other thieves are more spontaneous, says Bauer. Often people will just drive by a pile of wood and see it as invitation to steal, he says. "Drivers just stop, open up their trunks and put the wood in and drive off," he says. "It's that easy."

Bauer says that a couple of years ago, a driver loaded up €2,000 worth of wood into a truck and drove off. He was eventually caught and paid a fine to the forest owner. But Bauer says such retribution is rare.

Extreme Measures

Bauer now advises foresters to keep wood deep in the forests away from busy thoroughfares and to make logs too large to fit in regular cars, keeping temptation for casual thieves at bay.

Often, however, even those measures aren't enough. Rosenthal said that just a few years ago foresters would leave log piles in the forest for up to a year to dry. Now, though, he says they aren't kept for more than a month before moving to more secure locales. "Keeping the wood under your own surveillance is the best protection," says Rosenthal.

In the western German city of Hessisch Lichtenau other foresters are taking a more extreme approach, according to local daily the Hessische/Niedersächsische Allegemeine. In recent years, two major tree heists have taken place in town and the state experiences losses of millions of euros as a result. The paper reports that now some foresters are outfitting log piles with GPS devices to track thieves.
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« Reply #4091 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:50 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/16/2013 06:59 PM

Power Play: Politician Calls for Nationalization of Electricity Grid

By Frank Dohmen and Gerald Traufetter

Germany urgently needs to expand and update its power grid to meet its goal of phasing out nuclear energy and going green, but development appears to have short circuited. A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet is calling for a radical change: the partial nationalization of the grid.

A member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet is calling for a radical solution to the desperately needed expansion of high-voltage power lines across the country, a critical infrastructure project that has stalled in recent months. Ilse Aigner would like to see the partial nationalization of the country's electricity grid in order to ensure that massive power lines required to transport green energy from offshore windfarms and other sources to the industry-heavy regions of southern Germany are finally built.

The consumer protection minister, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), seems to have struck a chord with the call, too. Many experts in business and politics believe that Germany would be better off with a national power grid that is partially or even fully owned by the government -- especially at a time when the German electricity market will have to be completely revamped because of the Energiewende , Berlin's policy of phasing out all nuclear power plants by 2022 and ensuring that 80 percent of the country's electricity supply comes from clean energy by 2050.

It would also constitute the correction of what many consider to have been a historic mistake: the sale in recent years of power grids owned by the major energy companies in Germany like RWE, Vattenfall and E.On. Those divestitures have contributed to an atmosphere that has made it extremely difficult to create the national grid needed to implement the government's new policy, passed in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe.

Aigner's initiative, which the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, voted to support last week at a closed meeting in the spa town of Wildbad Kreuth, throws the government even more off-course in its clumsy handling of the Energiewende. The minister is playing into the hands of the opposition Social Democrats and their Green Party allies, who have long called for government control of the German power grid.

Shortly before Christmas, Aigner wrote a letter seeking the support of Germany's vice chancellor, Economics Minister Philipp Rösler of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, also a junior partner in Merkel's coalition government. In it, she demanded that he back "the federal government's entry into the grid operators' market" -- in other words, a partial nationalization of Germany's power lines.

A "strong government partner" could "provide security" in connecting offshore wind farms to the German power grid, she wrote. The proposal has been floating around for some time, she noted, adding that he should examine it "again, and thoroughly." Voters, Aigner reminded Rösler, don't understand why they should pay higher electricity prices to cover the risks of the federal government's shift away from nuclear power and toward green energy, while grid operators are raking in "a high, guaranteed return on their equity."

Rösler never replied to the letter, and only said in an interview that he totally disapproved of Aigner's idea.

But both Aigner and the political opposition in Berlin have strong arguments, given the dramatic nature of the situation. For the Energiewende to succeed, Germany's grid will have to be expanded and rebuilt in record time.

Green Energy Needs to Find Its Way to the Grid

In the future, a large share of electricity in Germany will no longer be generated in power plants near major metropolitan areas. Instead, the electricity will come from solar and biogas plants, as well as offshore wind farms, mostly in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The goal is to generate clean, green energy and supply it to large parts of the country. The only problem is that the German electricity grid isn't ready to be connected to the wind farms and transport energy to southern Germany.

According to the current plans approved by the federal government, in the coming years the four grid operators in Germany are to build 1,550 kilometers (963 miles) of high-voltage power lines, including several direct-current transmission lines from north to south. At the same time, dozens of wind farms will have to be connected to the terrestrial power grid through new underwater cables that will cost billions to install. These measures, say the environment and economics ministers, as well as industry representatives, must be "tackled immediately" if the prestigious Energiewende project is to succeed within the foreseeable future. But the steps taken to date are nothing short of paltry.

Of the lines that have been planned for years, less than 250 kilometers have actually been built. The project has become bogged down, especially in the critical northern region. On Wednesday, Japan's Mitsubishi announced it would invest €576 million ($765 million) to help one grid operator, Holland's TenneT, connect offshore wind farms to the power grid. In recent months, however, TenneT has fallen under severe criticism in German political quarters because it has not succeeded in establishing the necessary connections to the wind farms operated by major energy companies like RWE and E.on. And Wednesday's deal represents a relatively small part of the work that remains to be done.

Even though the federal government offers extensive loan and liability guarantees, the banks and insurance companies that normally finance such projects have considered the risks to be too high to assume. And because the Dutch operating company apparently lacks both the right management and the necessary equity capital, the planning and start-up of the costly offshore wind farms has been repeatedly delayed.

Even the pro-industry Economics Ministry is losing patience with TenneT, and has summoned company representatives to deliver a status report on Jan. 30. Ministers from the northern German states and the head of the Federal Network Agency, Jochen Homann, will also attend the meeting. "Then we'll want to know whether or not investors are on board," say government officials.

But what happens if TenneT continues to founder? It's possible that solvent grid operators Amprion and 50Hertz will acquire the Dutch firm. "The willingness of the shareholders is certainly there," says Klaus Breil, the energy expert for the FDP parliamentary group.

Calls for Creation of National Grid Company

Still, some are asking why the country doesn't implement a much bigger solution, one that involves a German national grid operator? In contrast to many neighboring European Union countries, Germany's most important high-voltage cables belong to companies, in which insurance companies, banks, capital funds and foreign operators, like TenneT, are calling the shots.

High-ranking executives like former RWE CEO Jürgen Grossmann warned the federal government against a sell-off of valuable infrastructure that took place in recent years. At the time, says Oliver Krischer, the Green Party's energy policy spokesman, the chance to establish a German national grid company was carelessly wasted.

According to Krischer, the offshore business and individual, costly power lines create a new opportunity to build the core of such an organization. Other companies could also gradually incorporate their infrastructure into this national grid company, receiving shares in return.

There is broad support for such a national grid company. For instance, Norbert Römer, the SPD's parliamentary leader in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is calling for a "national grid company with public investment." Even the power companies, normally strictly opposed to government intervention, are apparently not opposed to a public stake.

Executives at E.on, for example, say that combining infrastructure in this way would have many advantages. Today there are four grid zones with different line prices and individual control stations and control centers. If the companies were combined, both administrative costs and electricity prices could be reduced.

Felix Matthes, an electricity expert with the Institute for Applied Ecology, based in the southwestern city of Freiburg, advocates a step-by-step model. First, he says, a company could be established for the three new high-voltage lines and to connect the offshore wind farms to the grid. The current grid operators would be the majority owners and the KfW banking group, a government-owned development bank, would serve as minority shareholder. The federal government would gradually increase its share. A newly formed government agency could assume control of operations and planning.

Researchers with ties to industry also believe that a national grid company could be beneficial. Stephan Kohler, head of the German Energy Agency (DENA), feels that current conditions are in need of improvement. But, he adds, a nationwide grid operator would not necessarily have to be government-owned, but could also belong to private investors. "The government would have to get the ball rolling, though," says Kohler.

'Power Grid VEB'

Federal Network Agency President Homann can also envision a grid company operating direct-current transmission lines. "This doesn't necessarily mean that the government has to be involved," he says. "In fact, it's much more worthwhile to actively continue developing the idea of citizen participation in the power grids of the future."

Homann supports an initiative by Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, which is jokingly referred to in his ministry as the "Power Grid VEB," a reference to VEBs, the publicly owned industrial enterprises in the former East Germany. Under the plan, the operators would issue bonds to finance the new power lines, which any citizen could buy.

He is currently putting his ideas into more concrete terms. The assumption, says Altmaier, a member of Merkel's CDU party, is that at least 10 percent of the sum needed for grid expansion, could be made available for bonds. "With a guaranteed return of up to 5 percent, this ought to be a very attractive investment opportunity," says Altmaier, who is opposed to the nationalization of power grids.

If citizens have to put up with the crackle of his new high-voltage lines behind their properties, the reasoning goes, at least they should be able to derive some financial benefit from the plan.

At the moment, there is nothing Altmaier and his fellow cabinet members fear more than the wrath of the people, especially over the steadily climbing cost of electricity.

Politically, it would be a disaster for Germany if the Energiewende were to fail.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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« Reply #4092 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:51 AM »

January 16, 2013

Prime Minister Ready to Stake Britain’s European Role on a Referendum

By JOHN F. BURNS
IHT

LONDON — Now, it is David Cameron’s turn.

Weighted down by centuries of entrenched wariness in this island nation toward the Continent — and the knowledge that a gallery of his predecessors as Conservative prime ministers saw their tenures blighted by divisions within the party over the issue — Mr. Cameron is heading for Amsterdam on Friday to set out his vision of a sharply whittled-down role for Britain in the affairs of 21st-century Europe.

The speech in the Netherlands, carefully chosen as a country with a strong historical friendship with Britain, is a watershed moment for Mr. Cameron, and for Britain. It could be a deeply jarring occasion, as well, for other European nations, which have grown increasingly impatient, angry even, with Britain’s policy during the crisis in the euro zone. Some European officials have described as blackmail its use of the crisis — one that Britain, with the pound, has largely escaped — to demand a new, “pick-and-mix” status for itself within the 27-nation European Union.

After months of delay, Mr. Cameron is expected to brush aside the warnings of the Obama administration and European leaders and call for a referendum on whether Britain should remain squarely in Europe or negotiate a more arm’s-length relationship, most likely before the next Parliament’s mandate expires in 2018. In a clamorous House of Commons on Wednesday, the prime minister set out his thinking.

“Millions of people in this country, myself included, want Britain to stay in the European Union,” he said. “But they believe that there are chances to negotiate a better relationship. Throughout Europe, countries are looking at forthcoming treaty change, and asking, ‘What can I do to maximize my national interest?’ That is what the Germans will do. That is what the Spanish will do. That is what the British should do.”

For months, Mr. Cameron has been holding off on a promise to explain just what he wants from Europe. As a reformist Conservative pressing ahead with, among other things, a plan to legalize gay marriage, he has scant common ground with the “little Englanders” in his party, the core of about 100 members who make up a third of its representation in Parliament.

But Mr. Cameron can see votes, too, in the strong anti-Europe currents that run wherever people in Britain gather.

In pubs and bars, on radio and in Parliament itself, talk of the European Union tends to center on the bloc’s real — and, in some cases, apocryphal — abuses: its highhanded, bloated bureaucracy, with nearly 1,000 featherbedded officials earning more than Mr. Cameron’s $230,000 salary as prime minister; its endless proliferation of rules on everything from the length of dog leashes to the shape of carrots; the recent claim by a former high-ranking Cameron aide that government ministers spend 40 percent of their time dealing with the mass of pettifogging European “directives,” many of them widely ignored elsewhere in Europe.

Not only has Mr. Cameron been hemmed in by deep divisions over Europe within the Conservative Party — an issue that helped unseat Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major as prime ministers — but he has also been wary of stirring a fresh wave of anger among other European leaders, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a center-right politician and onetime ally in European councils.

Her aides have described her as frustrated with Mr. Cameron’s maneuvering and, as she is said to see it, his bid to take advantage of other European states as they struggle to save the euro and keep the most debt-laden nations, like Greece, Portugal and Spain, from dropping out of the European Union.

Concern about the reactions in Berlin and Paris prompted a last-minute rescheduling of the Amsterdam speech. Germany and France had protested that the original date, next Monday, might overshadow long-planned celebrations that day of the 50th anniversary of the treaty between them, itself a landmark in the building of postwar Europe, that sealed their reconciliation after the wounds of World War II.

Along with this, commentators say, Mr. Cameron has been recalculating the ways in which the European issue can be managed to bolster the Conservatives’ sagging prospects in a general election expected in 2015, in which polls show them lagging as much as 13 percentage points behind the opposition Labour Party. He has also been contending with heavy lobbying by American officials, including President Obama.

The Americans, diplomats say, have told Mr. Cameron squarely in private what made headlines here last week when a senior State Department official, Philip Gordon, who is assistant secretary for European affairs, spoke on the issue with British reporters. Mr. Gordon said a continued “strong British voice” in an “outward-looking” European Union was in America’s interests, and warned specifically against the referendum on Europe that is an important component in Mr. Cameron’s plans. “Referendums,” Mr. Gordon said, “have often turned countries inward.”

For all his delaying, his aides say, Mr. Cameron is ready now to outline a strategy for renegotiating Britain’s status in the European Union in a way that would keep Britain free from the centralizing forces at work. Other major European states, France and Germany in particular, see a new federal Europe with enhanced powers of fiscal oversight as essential to the long-term survival of the tottering euro.

A referendum, the first on Britain’s European Union membership since the one that overwhelmingly approved British entry in 1974, would aim at settling whether Britain will continue in the union or seek a new role free from the entanglement with European laws, regulations and court rulings that have aroused widespread antipathy among “Euroskeptics” in the Conservative Party and elsewhere on the center-right of British politics.

The models for this new Britain, some have said, would be Norway or Switzerland, both outside the European Union, or possibly Singapore, a prosperous island nation.

As a nation that flirted with adopting the euro when the currency was begun in 1999, but chose to stick with the pound, Britain is already outside the core, 17-nation euro zone. Proponents of withdrawal say it could negotiate trading and other economic ties with the European Union that would avert the economic disaster that many center-left politicians and business leaders in Britain say would be the inevitable price of dropping out.

On both sides of the raucous, embittered debate in Britain, a referendum has long been viewed as a nuclear option. Mr. Cameron has said all along that he wants Britain to remain in the European bloc but on terms better suited to Britain’s autonomous urges and its desire for a “more flexible, competitive” Europe. He says he believes a referendum on a sparer role for Britain, with the European Union’s power to regulate social, legal and financial matters sharply trimmed back, would yield a strong popular mandate for remaining in the union.

For many years, polls in Britain have shown a majority for withdrawal, and Mr. Cameron’s critics say his plan could set the country on a “sleepwalk” toward that. With five years of uncertainty before the vote likely to compound the woes, a recession-bound British economy has failed to respond to the harsh austerity measures that the Cameron government has prescribed as the route back to prosperity.

That has been a major theme in the stark warnings in recent days from elder statesmen in the Conservative Party, and from a group of powerful business leaders. Those leaders have argued that the prospect of a referendum, with its threat of choking off European markets accounting for more than half of all Britain’s exports of goods and services, could stifle the foreign investment that Britain needs if it is to make major headway in trimming the ranks of its 2.5 million unemployed.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and Stephen Castle from London.
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« Reply #4093 on: Jan 17, 2013, 08:57 AM »

January 16, 2013

Leader Issues Populist Vows in Hong Kong

By GERRY MULLANY and KEITH BRADSHER
IHT

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive on Wednesday used his first policy address to outline a series of populist proposals to alleviate the severe housing shortages and air pollution that have bedeviled the city.

The chief executive, Leung Chun-ying — who took office in July and has already weathered one legislative vote of no confidence, one vote to start an impeachment process and a series of large street protests — pledged to help produce 100,000 housing units over the next five years by streamlining approvals, opening undeveloped land for housing and even using rock caverns and other underground spaces for development.

Despite a moderation in apartment prices, demand for housing remains intense, Mr. Leung said.

“Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings,” he said. “Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and subdivided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people.”

Large developments in Hong Kong take 10 to 20 years to approve and build because they involve considerable public consultation, elaborate engineering for building on the city’s steep slopes and sometimes the construction of subway stops. Mr. Leung, 58, cautioned that his suggested measures might not bring quick relief.

His address came amid an increasing drumbeat of criticism over his administration, centering on his perceived close ties to the Chinese leadership and his actions during his election campaign. During the race, he concealed the fact that he had expanded his $64 million home without receiving government planning permission, while criticizing his opponent for similar transgressions.

Mr. Leung’s tenure in office has been star-crossed almost from the start. A plan for patriotic education, which had been under preparation for a decade, set off huge demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes at the local government’s headquarters when schools began moving to introduce it two months after Mr. Leung took office.

The subsequent revelation that Mr. Leung had sealed up an illegal extension of his basement with a brick wall several days before he began his run for office — and then upended his opponent’s election campaign by accusing him of illegal basement construction — left him vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. Even Mr. Leung’s moves to improve the affordability of housing have been troubled, as his steep taxes on short-term real estate purchases by people without permanent residency cards have antagonized wealthy developers, who want to be able to sell their apartments to whoever will pay the most.

In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Leung tried to change the political narrative by addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of the residents of Hong Kong, where an influx of money, much of it from the Chinese mainland, has led to yawning wealth disparities.

“While Hong Kong is a generally affluent society, there are still many people who live a hand-to-mouth existence,” he said. “Public resources should be devoted to those who cannot provide for themselves.”

Mr. Leung also promised to reduce air pollution, notably through the retirement of diesel trucks. He said his government would offer a total of $1.29 billion to the owners of more than 80,000 old, heavily polluting trucks, who will be required to retire them or replace them with new models.

The government said the plan would reduce roadside emissions of particulates by 80 percent and emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides by 30 percent.

While cars tend to draw more attention than trucks as pollution sources because of their greater numbers, American air pollution researchers working in Asia have found that the diesel engines in trucks and buses are a far bigger threat. They account for over 90 percent of vehicular emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides in mainland China, studies have found. Some studies have also found that diesel exhaust is carcinogenic, but this aspect of Chinese air pollution has been studied less.

In a bid to blunt the criticism against his leadership, Mr. Leung has sought the support of young people, who have become increasingly active in the past year in street protests, which have traditionally drawn more middle-aged demonstrators. The city’s young people face higher unemployment than previous generations and more worries about housing affordability. But they also tend to be sympathetic to environmental concerns about encroachment on the city’s many hillside parks, which developers regard as a hindrance.

“Our young people should recognize that the planning proposals and development options under discussion today are intended to address their future needs,” Mr. Leung said. “It is all too easy for the government to sidestep the problem, but it is today’s young people who will have to bear the adverse consequences in the future.”

***********

Hong Kong LGBT activists blast government’s stalling on anti-discrimination laws

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 13:16 EST

Hong Kong’s gay community on Wednesday blasted the government for refusing to carry out a public consultation on the implementation of anti-discrimination laws to protect sexual minorities.

Rights groups hoped chief executive Leung Chun-ying would use his maiden policy speech to launch a debate on the issue, with a view to outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.

In a survey of the city’s gay community sponsored by British bank Barclays last year, 85 percent of people said they had experienced widespread discrimination and a “negative impact” at their workplace.

Although the Legislative Council in November voted down a motion to launch a public consultation on the issue, many hoped Leung would use his address to bring gay rights back into the spotlight.

“Society is deeply divided over this issue. Some are in support from the perspective of equal opportunity. Others are concerned that launching a consultation exercise may deal a blow to family, religion and education,” he said.

“We will continue to listen to different views from various sectors. At present we have no plan to conduct consultation.”

Following his speech three gay rights groups announced they were forming a coalition to push for new laws.

Activist Yeo Wai-wai said: “We have seen more and more complaints of discrimination. Hong Kong has the duty to protect the fundamental rights of everyone.”

At the weekend thousands of Christians demonstrated outside government headquarters opposing the introduction of anti-discrimination laws, claiming they would restrict freedom of speech.

Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, Raymond Chan from the radical pro-democracy People Power party, told AFP: “We were disappointed he (Leung) did not say a single thing on how to improve rights for the sexual minority group.

“But to look at it positively, I think this will make more people be concerned about gay rights in Hong Kong. The rainbow revolution will have to start now.”

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January 16, 2013

Next Made-in-China Boom: College Graduates

By KEITH BRADSHER
IHT

SANYA, China — Zhang Xiaoping’s mother dropped out of school after sixth grade. Her father, one of 10 children, never attended.

But Ms. Zhang, 20, is part of a new generation of Chinese taking advantage of a national effort to produce college graduates in numbers the world has never seen before.

A pony-tailed junior at a new university here in southern China, Ms. Zhang has a major in English. But her unofficial minor is American pop culture, which she absorbs by watching episodes of television shows like “The Vampire Diaries” and “America’s Next Top Model” on the Internet.

It is all part of her highly specific ambition: to work some day for a Chinese automaker and provide the cultural insights and English fluency the company needs to supply the next generation of fuel-efficient taxis that New York City plans to choose in 2021. “It is my dream,” she said, “and I will devote myself wholeheartedly to it.”

Even if her dream is only dorm-room reverie, China has tens of millions of Ms. Zhangs — bright young people whose aspirations and sheer numbers could become potent economic competition for the West in decades to come.

China is making a $250 billion-a-year investment in what economists call human capital. Just as the United States helped build a white-collar middle class in the late 1940s and early 1950s by using the G.I. Bill to help educate millions of World War II veterans, the Chinese government is using large subsidies to educate tens of millions of young people as they move from farms to cities.

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public, one that more closely resembles the multifaceted labor forces of the United States and Europe.

It is too early to know how well the effort will pay off.

While potentially enhancing China’s future as a global industrial power, an increasingly educated population poses daunting challenges for its leaders. With the Chinese economy downshifting in the past year to a slower growth rate, the country faces a glut of college graduates with high expectations and limited opportunities.

Much depends on whether China’s authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require, and that can help generate enough quality jobs.

China also faces formidable difficulties in dealing with widespread corruption, a sclerotic political system, severe environmental damage, inefficient state-owned monopolies and other problems. But if these issues can be surmounted, a better educated labor force could help China become an ever more formidable rival to the West.

“It will move China forward in its economy, in scientific innovation and politically, but the new rising middle class will also put a lot of pressure on the government to change,” said Wang Huiyao, the director general of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based research group.

To the extent that China succeeds, its educational leap forward could have profound implications in a globalized economy in which a growing share of goods and services is traded across international borders. Increasingly, college graduates all over the world compete for similar work, and the boom in higher education in China is starting to put pressure on employment opportunities for college graduates elsewhere — including in the United States.

China’s current five-year plan, through 2015, focuses on seven national development priorities, many of them new industries that are in fashion among young college graduates in the West. They are alternative energy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, biotechnology, advanced information technologies, high-end equipment manufacturing and so-called new energy vehicles, like hybrid and all-electric cars.

China’s goal is to invest up to 10 trillion renminbi, or $1.6 trillion, to expand those industries to represent 8 percent of economic output by 2015, up from 3 percent in 2010.

At the same time, many big universities are focusing on existing technologies in industries where China poses a growing challenge to the West.

Beijing Geely University, a private institution founded in 2000 by Li Shufu, the chairman of the automaker Geely, already has 20,000 students studying a range of subjects, but with an emphasis on engineering and science, particularly auto engineering.

Mr. Li also endowed and built Sanya University, a liberal arts institution with 20,000 students where Ms. Zhang is a student, and opened a 5,000-student vocational community college in his hometown, Taizhou, to train skilled blue-collar workers.

China’s growing supply of university graduates is a talent pool that global corporations are eager to tap.

“If they went to China for brawn, now they are going to China for brains,” said Denis F. Simon, one of the best-known management consultants specializing in Chinese business.

Multinationals including I.B.M., General Electric, Intel and General Motors have each hired thousands of graduates from Chinese universities.

“We’re starting to see leaders coming out of China, and the talent to lead,” said Kevin Taylor, the president of Asia, Mideast and Africa operations at BT, formerly British Telecom.

Sheer numbers make the educational push by China, a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, potentially breathtaking. In the last decade, China doubled the number of colleges and universities, to 2,409.

As recently as 1996, only one in six Chinese 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That was the same proportion as in the United States in 1919. Now, three in five young Chinese graduate from high school, matching the United States in the mid-1950s.

China is on track to match within seven years the United States’ current high school graduation rate for 18-year-olds of 75 percent — although a higher proportion of Americans than Chinese later go back and finish high school.

By quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, China now produces eight million graduates a year from universities and community colleges. That is already far ahead of the United States in number — but not as a percentage. With only about one-fourth the number of China’s citizens, the United States each year produces three million college and junior college graduates.

By the end of the decade, China expects to have nearly 195 million community college and university graduates — compared with no more than 120 million in the United States then.

Volume is not the same as quality, of course. And some experts in China contend that the growth of classroom slots in higher education has outstripped the supply of qualified professors and instructors.

Xu Qingshan, the director of the Institute for Higher Education Research at Wuhan University, said that many university administrators seek the fastest possible growth in enrollments to maximize the size and revenue of their institutions, even though this may overstretch a limited number of talented professors.

China’s president, Hu Jintao, in a speech in 2011 acknowledged shortfalls in the country’s higher education system. “While people receive a good education,” he said, “there are significant gaps compared with the advanced international level.”

Giles Chance, a longtime consultant in China who is now a visiting professor at Peking University, said that many of the tens of millions of new Chinese college graduates might find jobs at manufacturers but did not have the skills to compete in big swaths of the American economy — particularly in services like health care, sales or consumer banking.

“A Chinese graduate from a second-tier university is not the equal of an American in language skills and cultural familiarity,” he said.

The overarching question for China’s colleges is whether they can cultivate innovation on a wide scale — vying with America’s best and brightest in multimedia hardware and software applications, or outdesigning and outengineering Germans in making muscular cars and automated factory equipment.

Indeed, Japan’s experience shows that having more graduates does not guarantee entrepreneurial creativity.

In the decades after World War II, Japan mounted an educational effort similar to the one in China now. Japan’s version led to a huge middle class and helped turn that nation into one of the world’s largest economies. But partly because of a culture where fitting in is often more prized than standing out, Japan hit an economic plateau.

If China’s universities cannot help solve the innovation riddle, the country may also have a hard time moving forward once its advantages of low-cost labor and cheap capital disappear, which economists say could happen within 10 to 15 years, and possibly much sooner.

Still, with 10 times Japan’s population, China has the capability to compete with white-collar Americans and Europeans in a wide range of industries.

So Far, So Fast

To see how far China has come, so fast, look no farther than Ms. Zhang’s own family. For her parents, education was barely an option.

Her father, the eighth of 10 children, was born to rice farmers in 1968 in a small village near Nanchang in one of China’s poorest provinces, Jiangxi, halfway between Shanghai and Hong Kong. The family survived on one meager meal a day. Most of the children, including Ms. Zhang’s father, did not attend school. At age 12, he followed his brother to a construction job in neighboring Fujian Province.

Ms. Zhang’s mother was born two years after her father and was the daughter of the local Communist Party official who ran the village until 1990. She belatedly started school at age 7, in 1977, a year after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s longest anti-intellectual purge. She dropped out after primary school, six years later, following a pattern then common in rural areas.

Ms. Zhang’s father moved back to the village and married Ms. Zhang’s mother over her parents’ initial objections. He started a construction business with his brothers. The enterprise has done moderately well, enabling Ms. Zhang’s father to buy, six years ago, the family’s first car, a black Ford Focus that was already nine years old.

Rather than pursuing material comforts, the Zhangs, like hundreds of millions of families across China, have focused their money and effort on getting their children through high school and into universities.

One of Ms. Zhang’s two younger brothers — China’s one-child policy is less rigorously enforced in rural areas — is a sophomore studying international trade at Tongji University, a 105-year-old institution in Shanghai considered among the top two dozen or so in China. The other brother is now a freshman at highly regarded Nanchang University, having skipped a grade in middle school and another in high school.

When Ms. Zhang did not get into a top Chinese university despite attending a magnet high school, she recalled, “my parents were very disappointed.”

Nor did she initially win a government scholarship. Her parents had to pay the full annual tuition of $2,000 at Sanya University, which as a private institution does not receive subsidies as generous as those given to public universities. Room and board are an additional $1,800 a year.

At top public institutions, annual tuition is a little less than $1,000 — equal to about two months’ wages for a skilled factory worker.

But as a reward for top grades, Ms. Zhang has won government scholarships for her sophomore and junior years at Sanya that cover three-quarters of the tuition.

Even as students like Ms. Zhang flock to Chinese universities, rising numbers of China’s students attend foreign universities. Chinese undergraduate or graduate students at American universities reached a record high of 194,000 in the last academic year, according to the Institute of International Education in New York. That was almost triple the 67,000 five years earlier.

In part, this reflects the prestige of studying abroad, and that more Chinese families can afford the cost and are looking for ways to get their money and their children out of the country as a way to hedge their risk against internal political or economic turbulence. But it is also because a Western college education is better, and Western universities do not require the same high marks as Chinese ones do on China’s famously difficult college entrance exams.

Chinese undergraduates who study in the West tend to be from wealthy families and show a wide range of academic ability, from mediocre to outstanding. But Chinese graduate students studying abroad typically have bachelor’s degrees from top-tier universities either at home or in the West, and they almost always excel academically while overseas, said Doug Guthrie, a professor of Chinese business strategies who is the dean of George Washington University’s School of Business.

Graduate students from China often have government scholarships to study abroad. The scholarships are a tacit acknowledgment by Beijing that a superior graduate education, particularly in fields like engineering and science, often is still to be found in the West.

Quantity, but Quality?

Walk around some of the hundreds of newly built Chinese universities these days and at first glance they look a lot like big state universities in America.

Just as China has built national grids of high-speed rail lines and superhighways in the past decade, it has built campuses full of modern classroom buildings, dormitories, libraries and administration buildings.

Peek inside the classrooms and virtually every seat is filled.

One of the biggest questions about the quality of Chinese universities involves who is teaching, and what and how. Chinese administrators struggle to find seasoned professors. Because few Chinese went to college until the last decade, much less to graduate school, most universities find themselves in hiring competitions — with one another and with companies all over China that are struggling to find middle managers and executives.

“The biggest problem is finding good professors, especially good professors of around 40 years old with good experience — they are the most sought-after teachers in China,” said Nathan Jiang, the vice president of Geely University.

All but the best universities must find teachers among recent graduates, who may lack experience, or retirees, whose knowledge may be out of date.

China was producing fewer than 10,000 doctoral degrees a year until 1999, according to education ministry data. So for every person in China who received a doctorate during the 1990s and might now be in the prime of a teaching career, there are 3,000 undergraduates.

Especially in fields like engineering, the most popular undergraduate major by far in China, corporations can easily outbid universities. The basic pay of a professor is typically under $300 a month — less than an assembly line worker makes.

Professors can earn considerably more by winning promotion to university administration positions, but these posts are often based on activism within the Communist Party instead of research excellence. Those who stay as professors frequently line up multiple grants to conduct several research projects simultaneously, which almost inevitably places quantity of research ahead of quality.

Or, dissatisfied with their pay, many senior professors start companies on the side, said Weng Cuifen, a National University of Singapore researcher who studies Chinese university education. “They spend their time on second jobs, making money.”

Teaching methods in China also tend to be outdated by Western standards, and seem ill suited to producing either the entrepreneurs or the socially adept managers that multinationals covet.

A few newer colleges and universities have begun experimenting with seminars and workshops. But the prevailing pattern remains for professors to lecture in large halls, with students expected to be quiet and listen.

“Some younger teachers like to communicate with the students, but older teachers just stand in front of the students and speak alone,” said Long Luting, a 2010 chemical engineering graduate of Tianjin University, one of China’s best schools. She just finished a two-year trainee program and has moved into management at the Beijing offices of BASF, a German chemicals multinational.

As in Japan, students in China tend to do their most strenuous studying in high school. In college, they can slow down, whether to pursue more diverse interests — or, like many students around the world, to spend a lot of time at parties.

Growing up as the only child of a municipal civil servant in Zigong, a medium-size city in western Sichuan Province, Ms. Long said that she studied practically every waking hour in high school and had little chance to socialize.

“In high school, it’s a tragedy,” she said, recalling her father’s exhortations to succeed. “Most of my classmates were also only children; we have a lot of pressure from our parents.”

But when she reached Tianjin University, Ms. Long said, she could take her classes and do all her homework during the mornings. She spent her afternoons at an English language club, honing her considerable ability to banter in the language despite never having traveled overseas.

Some Chinese universities offer as many as 1,000 clubs. They cover everything from languages to karaoke.

Many academics inside and outside China question whether the growing number of clubs is enough to foster creativity because the Chinese system still requires students to specialize from an early age. Most students choose their major before going to a university, and then enter highly focused academic programs in which they have only a handful of electives.

Chinese employers tend to look for specialized students who can fill specific roles immediately. They have shown less interest in the long-term training of other types of students, like humanities majors.

Foreign-owned corporations in China often use Chinese graduates differently, putting more emphasis on long-term career development through a variety of assignments to build a trainee’s ability to understand complex issues, work in teams and lead.

Ms. Long, for example, spent her first two years as a trainee at BASF rotating through marketing, the performance management division and the business operations department, before settling in business operations, tracking sales and other reports from BASF units around China.

Graduates like Ms. Long from the country’s top 20 universities are among the best in the world, but multinationals are more able to make use of them than hierarchical Chinese companies, said Joerg Wuttke, BASF’s chief representative in China.

“Where does the seed land — on a rock or on fertile ground?” he said. “We benefit by being able to hire all these talented graduates.”

Ready to Take On America

China already has the world’s largest auto industry, producing twice as many cars and trucks last year as the United States or Japan. But it exports virtually none of those cars to the West — yet.

Chinese automakers and policy makers have been preparing for years to follow the example of Japan and South Korea. But reaching that goal will require at least four big advances: designing more attractive cars and engines, improving reliability, developing local technologies that do not depend on patents leased from foreign automakers, and understanding overseas buyers and how to market to them.

Chinese officials say that a big reason they are pouring billions of dollars into the development of electric and hybrid cars is that they hope to leapfrog the West and develop indigenous technologies before other countries do.

Progress on energy-saving and less polluting technologies could give Chinese companies an advantage, for example, when the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission decides in 2021 what model or models the city’s fleets will be required to buy next. The city has been asking for improved fuel efficiency in taxis.

But while China’s lavish investments on next-generation automotive technologies have drawn international attention, the country is also trying to develop the soft side of international business: marketers, advertising specialists and others who can intuit what overseas customers really want.

Mr. Li, the Geely chairman, grew up as a son of peasant farmers in east-central China. But he has become one of his country’s wealthiest auto tycoons by building inexpensive cars that have just enough pizazz to be appealing. His holding company, Geely Group, bought Volvo Cars of Sweden from Ford in 2010, and he now wants to take on the West.

Geely is starting elaborate market research in Britain to determine which of its models will be popular there. That is the leading edge of what is likely to be a full-fledged assault by Chinese automakers on Western markets by 2015.

Mr. Li is also far along on another goal, training his own managers. His companies hire the best graduates from the three campuses he has founded.

Sanya University is ramping up international business education. Students there, like Ms. Zhang, try to learn as much as possible about foreign markets: their languages, cultural touchstones and more.

She is majoring in English, but her favorite courses have been in marketing. She works in her spare time as a guide for international conferences and sporting events here, to gain more exposure to native English speakers. She reads actively about automotive trends. And she brims with confidence about her ability to persuade New York City to buy Geely cars for taxis.

“The status of China is growing all the time; we’ve got a really important role in international markets,” she said in fluent English. “We need the capability to communicate with foreigners.”


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