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« Reply #4140 on: Jan 20, 2013, 08:58 AM »

Bulgarian assassination attempt airs on television

By Arturo Garcia

Saturday, January 19, 2013 18:36 EST

The Huffington Post reported that Ahmed Dogan, head of the country’s ethnic Turkish party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was in the midst of speaking at the conference when a man identified as 25-year-old Oktai Enimehmedov rushed the stage and pointed a gas pistol at Dogan’s head.

The footage shows the gun seemingly misfiring, giving Dogan an opening to bat at the gun before getting away. Enimehmedov is then brought to the ground by security guards, and also attacked by delegates. Dogan was not injured in the attack.

CBC News reported that the gas pistol is usually a non-lethal weapon, but can allegedly cause “life-threatening injuries” if fired at close range. The gunman also allegedly carried two knives.

The conference was reportedly being held to nominate a successor to Dogan, who founded the party 12 years ago. His presumed successor, Lyutvi Mestan, said “the true reason for the assault was the language of hatred and confrontation.”

Watch footage of the attempt on Dogan’s life, posted by The Associated Press on Saturday, below.

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« Reply #4141 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:00 AM »

Hundreds rally against spread of Neo-Nazi influence in Greece

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 19, 2013 20:30 EST

Hundreds of people held a rally against racism and fascism in central Athens on Saturday as mourners gathered to pray over the body of a man killed in a suspected racist attack.

Nearly 3,000 people, according to state broadcaster NET, joined the peaceful protest that ended with a concert and was organised amid a nationwide surge in xenophobic sentiment.

“I have been the victim of a racist attack and when I tried to complain about it I was arrested. Police are the same as Nazis,” 35-year-old Gildas Batola from Congo told AFP at the rally organised by groups including municipalities, migrant communities and the radical left main opposition party Syriza.

“I have been spat on, I’ve been told to go home because my boyfriend is from Tanzania,” said 38-year-old Tracy Roberts from the UK.

“Sometimes they (police) stop my boyfriend, lock him up for several hours for no reason,” she added.

Protesters carried banners reading: “Fascism never again”, “End to racist attacks”, “Out with neo-Nazis” — also a gay flag was thrown into the mix.

“The message today is a strong reaction against racist murders which take place here,” said Benjamin Abtan, president of the Paris-based European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) that organised the previous Athens anti-racism march in December.

“All over Europe people look here to support people who fight against neo-Nazism and racism,” he added.

Earlier this week, police arrested a 29-year-old firefighter and another man, 25, for the murder of a 27-year-old Pakistani migrant in Athens, in what was feared to be a racism-fuelled crime.

Election propaganda leaflets of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found at the 25-year-old’s home.

The accused said they had had an argument with the victim, who was reportedly on a bicycle on his way to work.

The Pakistani community in Greece held a prayer gathering in memory of the deceased at Kotzia square in central Athens Saturday before joining the anti-racism rally.

A coffin with the dead man’s body was at the centre of the prayer meeting attended by about 150 people, according to an AFP photographer.

Pakistanis who took part in the rally called for the “punishment of the fascist murderers”.

“There is no room for racism in Greek society,” Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said Friday at an event organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

International human rights groups have warned of a surge in xenophobic attacks on migrants in Greece, where economic hardship and a sixth year of recession have fuelled the rise of the far-right.

In a Greek first, Golden Dawn earlier this year saw 18 deputies elected to the country’s 300-seat parliament. Recent polls indicate the party’s popularity has since risen to over 10 percent.

In November, the US Embassy in Athens warned Americans to be wary of violent attacks targeting perceived foreign migrants.

On Friday, EGAM called on Greek authorities to stick to their promise to keep neo-Nazis out of the Council of Europe.

The council promotes cooperation between European states on human rights.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ conservative New Democracy party, the socialists Pasok, the moderate Democratic Left as well as Syriza have said they are in favour of a Greek parliamentary delegation to the Council that excludes Golden Dawn.

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« Reply #4142 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:03 AM »

David Cameron will deliver EU speech this week, says William Hague

When and where prime minister will give postponed address on Britain's EU future to be announced on Monday

Press Association, Sunday 20 January 2013 13.24 GMT   

David Cameron will deliver his long-awaited speech on UK relations with the EU this week, the foreign secretary, William Hague, has said.

The prime minister had been due to make the speech in the Netherlands on Friday but it was postponed owing to the Algerian hostage crisis.

"It will happen this week," Hague told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. "We will make an announcement on when and where tomorrow."

Cameron is expected to use the speech to warn that Britain could "drift towards the exit" unless there is change in Brussels. He has indicated that he will set out proposals to negotiate a new relationship with the EU which would then be put to a referendum after the next general election in 2015.

The prime minister has made clear that he wants Britain to stay in the EU and opposes a straight in/out referendum. But critics have warned that any "no" vote could mean the UK would have to leave.

The US ambassador to London, Louis Susman, on Sunday became the latest senior figure to make clear that the Obama administration wants Britain to remain in the EU.

"We believe in a strong EU. We cannot imagine a strong EU without a vibrant partner in the UK," he told Sky News's Murnaghan programme. "That is what we hope will come about but it is up to the British people to decide what they want."

Hague said there was a strong case for seeking "fresh consent" from the voters for Britain's relationship with Brussels.

"We want to succeed in the European Union – we want an outward-looking EU to succeed in the world, and for the United Kingdom to succeed in that," he said.

"But we have to recognise that the European Union has changed a lot since the referendum of 1975 and that there have been not only great achievements to the EU's name but some things that have gone badly wrong, such as the euro."

Former defence secretary and Eurosceptic Liam Fox said he would prefer to have a renegotiated relationship with Europe. He told BBC1's Sunday Politics programme: "I think that for most British politicians on the right of the political spectrum, we would prefer to have the ideal solution of being able to have that type of renegotiated relationship from inside.

"If we were put into a position where the British people didn't like any renegotiated solution and decided to be outside, there are a lot of countries who do exist outside the EU, it would have undoubtedly some difficulties for us, but I don't think they could not be overcome."

He added: "I think ultimately an in/out referendum has to mean that – that if you vote for whatever the government is putting forward that is to remain in on that basis, and a no vote would be to leave."

Fox said eventually there needed to be an in/out referendum, adding that if the one choice was going in the current direction with a greater and greater loss of British sovereignty, "my personal preference would be to leave".

He said: "I don't want to have ever closer union, I don't want to be a European first and British second."

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« Reply #4143 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:05 AM »

January 19, 2013

Priest Is Planning to Defy the Vatican’s Orders to Stay Quiet


DUBLIN — A well-known Irish Catholic priest plans to defy Vatican authorities on Sunday by breaking his silence about what he says is a campaign against him by the church over his advocacy of more open discussion on church teachings.

The Rev. Tony Flannery, 66, who was suspended by the Vatican last year, said he was told by the Vatican that he would be allowed to return to ministry only if he agreed to write, sign and publish a statement agreeing, among other things, that women should never be ordained as priests and that he would adhere to church orthodoxy on matters like contraception and homosexuality.

“How can I put my name to such a document when it goes against everything I believe in,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “If I signed this, it would be a betrayal not only of myself but of my fellow priests and lay Catholics who want change. I refuse to be terrified into submission.”

Father Flannery, a regular contributor to religious publications, said he planned to make his case public at a news conference here on Sunday.

The Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Father Flannery’s religious superior, the Rev. Michael Brehl, last year instructing him to remove Father Flannery from his ministry in County Galway, to ensure he did not publish any more articles in religious or other publications, and to tell him not to give interviews to the news media.

In the letter, the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus” or that he designated “a special group of his followers as priests.”

Instead, he wrote, “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

Father Flannery said the Vatican wanted him specifically to recant the statement, and affirm that Christ instituted the church with a permanent hierarchical structure and that bishops are divinely established successors to the apostles.

He believes the church’s treatment of him, which he described as a “Spanish Inquisition-style campaign,” is symptomatic of a definite conservative shift under Pope Benedict XVI.

“I have been writing thought-provoking articles and books for decades without hindrance,” he said. “This campaign is being orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers.”

His superior was also told to order Father Flannery to withdraw from his leadership role in the Association of Catholic Priests, a group formed in 2009 to articulate the views of rank-and-file members of the clergy.

In reply to an association statement expressing solidarity with Father Flannery, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denied it was acting in a secretive manner, pointed out that Father Flannery’s views could be construed as “heresy” under church law, and threatened “canonical penalties,” including excommunication, if he did not change his views.

This month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to an American priest, Roy Bourgeois, notifying him of his laicization, following his excommunication in 2008 over his support for the ordination of women.

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« Reply #4144 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:11 AM »

January 19, 2013

Steering a Path to Acceptance for Gay Israelis


WHEN moviegoers last saw the stoic young Israeli Army officer Yossi, he had lost a fellow soldier in a botched ambush along the mountainous, snow-covered border of Lebanon. Yossi stood by silently as a young woman told the mother of the dead soldier, named Jagger, that she had been his girlfriend, a fantasy that might have brought some comfort to the bereaved parents. But Yossi alone knew the truth: He had been Jagger’s lover.

Ten years later this survivor from the director Eytan Fox’s groundbreaking 2002 Israeli film, “Yossi & Jagger,” is back in “Yossi,” opening in New York on Friday.

During the decade since the first film came out, the treatment of gay and lesbian Israelis has undergone a liberalizing transformation, and the country’s cinema has experienced a creative renaissance. Mr. Fox has been a central figure in both cases.

In much the way that “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family” have been credited with advancing the cultural acceptance of gay men and lesbians in the United States, Mr. Fox’s films anticipated societal change by being the first to portray gay Israeli men in everyday situations and free of stereotypes.

But when we encounter Yossi again in Mr. Fox’s new film he has the dulled affect of someone suffering from depression, merely going through the motions of his life. Ten years after Jagger’s death Yossi is still in the closet.

“I had left Yossi in such a difficult place, maybe even a tragic place, that I had this need to go back to him, to start a process of healing,” Mr. Fox said by telephone from his home in Tel Aviv. “It was a way for me to go back to not only where Yossi was 10 years ago but to go back to who I was 15 or 20 years ago.”

At that time there had been one notable Israeli filmmaker devoting his work to the portrayal of gay men. From the 1970s to the early ’90s Amos Guttman made movies about gay men at odds with a hostile environment. (Mr. Guttman died of AIDS-related causes in 1993.)

“When I was 17 years old, I drove to Tel Aviv to watch his first feature film,” Mr. Fox said of Mr. Guttman’s “Drifting.” “I was moved to see people going to see a movie with a gay character.” On the other hand, he was disturbed that the character was on the fringes of society, cruising for sex in public parks. “I thought, I don’t want to be gay if that’s what gay means.”

That realization fueled Mr. Fox’s resolve to be a different kind of gay director. “I started my first short film with an Israeli flag because I fought in a war, I know the Israeli songs by heart,” he said. “I am not an Amos Guttman character. I don’t live in these underground bars. I’m gay, and I’m a part of Israel.”

The author Nir Cohen, who devoted nearly a quarter of his recent book, “Soldiers, Rebels and Drifters: Gay Representation in Israeli Cinema” (Wayne State University Press), to Mr. Fox’s films, said: “He situated gay characters and gay issues at the heart of Israeli life. At the same time he’s one of the most popular filmmakers in Israel.”

Mr. Cohen argues that Mr. Fox’s films paved the way for movies like “Eyes Wide Open,” a 2009 Israeli film about love between two Orthodox Jewish men. “That probably wouldn’t have been made without the influence of Eytan Fox.”

According to Ohad Knoller, who played Yossi in both films, “Yossi & Jagger” changed the way Israeli films portray not just gay images but the military. “The army is supposed to be very serious,” he said. “But it’s real life. And if you want to tell a story of young people, young people are living in the army.”

Mr. Fox followed “Yossi & Jagger” with “Walk on Water” in 2004 and two years later with “The Bubble,” about gay men falling in love across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. More recently he made “Mary Lou,” a musical mini-series for television that has been compared to “Glee.”

Now 48, Mr. Fox found his creative voice when he studied film at Tel Aviv University, alongside Ari Folman, who went on to make the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir,” and Hagai Levi, who created “BeTipul,” on which the HBO series “In Treatment” was based.

He also found his voice as a gay man. “While at Tel Aviv University I had a partner, and I felt strong enough to say to friends and family: This is the life I’ve chosen and I want you to love me for it.” (Gal Uchovsky, Mr. Fox’s partner of nearly 25 years, was a producer of “Yossi & Jagger” and is a leading cultural commentator.)

When Mr. Fox came out to his father, Seymour Fox, then the director of education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his father was devastated. But the elder Mr. Fox entered therapy for the first time in his life. “He was in his 60s,” Eytan Fox said. “He changed. He became a better father to me and my brothers and a better husband to our mother.” (His father died in 2006.)

In the new film Yossi meets a young, openly gay soldier. The journey that follows seems to mirror that taken by Mr. Fox and many gay men in Israel. Let’s just say the movie could have been titled, “How Yossi Got His Groove Back.”

“Yossi was a victim of the Israel he grew up in,” said Mr. Fox. “He fears there’s a contradiction between being an Israeli man and being gay. That was the world I grew up in.”

Intriguingly, “Yossi” reveals the title character’s surname to be Guttman, a seeming nod to Mr. Guttman the director and, in turn, the struggle for gay men to shed their self-hatred and emerge from the shadows of society. But Mr. Fox said the name is pure coincidence. “I didn’t think about it,” he said, then conceded, “Sometimes you don’t know everything you’re doing.”

Click below to watch trailer's for the movie Yossi:

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« Reply #4145 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:14 AM »

$240 billion amassed by 100 richest people enough to end extreme poverty four times over: Oxfam

By Phillip Inman, The Guardian
Saturday, January 19, 2013 9:47 EST

The vast fortunes made by the world’s richest 100 billionaires is driving up inequality and hindering the world’s ability to tackle poverty, according to Oxfam.

The charity said the accumulation of wealth and income on an unprecedented scale, often at the expense of secure jobs and decent wages for the poorest, undermined the ability of people who survive on aid or low wages to improve their situation and escape poverty.

Oxfam said the world’s poorest could be lifted out of poverty several times over should the richest 100 billionaires give away the money they made last year.

Without pointing a finger at individuals, the charity argued that the $240bn (£150bn) net income amassed in 2012 by the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over.

It is rare for charities to attack the wealthy, who are usually regarded as a source of funding. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are among a group of 40 US billionaires who have pledged much of their wealth to aid projects, but there is little detail about the level of their annual donations. Their actions have also not been matched by Russian, Middle Eastern or Chinese billionaires.

In the report, The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt Us All, published before the World Economic Forum in Davos next week, the charity calls on world leaders to curb income extremes and commit to reducing inequality to at least 1990 levels.

The report found that the richest 1% had increased their incomes by 60% in the past 20 years, with the financial crisis accelerating rather than slowing the process.

Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, said extreme wealth was “economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive”.

She pointed to studies that show countries have suffered low levels of investment and growth as workers are forced to survive on a smaller share of total incomes.

She said: “We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.”

The report said the issue affected all parts of the world. “In the UK inequality is rapidly returning to levels not seen since the time of Charles Dickens. In China the top 10% now take home nearly 60% of the income. Chinese inequality levels are now similar to those in South Africa, which is now the most unequal country on Earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid.”

In the US, the share of national income going to the top 1% has doubled since 1980 from 10 to 20%, the report says. For the top 0.01% the share of national income is above levels last seen in the 1920s.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have argued that extreme income inequality undermines growth and both organisations have attempted to tie their loans to programmes that limit the growth of inequality.

Members of the richest 1% are estimated to use as much as 10,000 times more carbon than the average US citizen.

Oxfam said world leaders should learn from countries such as Brazil that had grown rapidly while reducing inequality.

Stocking said: “We need a global new deal to reverse decades of increasing inequality. As a first step world leaders should formally commit themselves to reducing inequality to the levels seen in 1990.”

She said closing tax havens, which the Tax Justice Network says hold as much as $31 trillion, or as much as a third of all global wealth, could yield an additional $189bn (£118bn) in additional tax revenues.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #4146 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:17 AM »

On the trail of dinosaur fossil swindlers

By Brian Switek, The Observer
Sunday, January 20, 2013 8:00 EST

Dinosaur fossils are big business, with complete skeletons fetching millions. And that much cash attracts swindlers, science writer Brian Switek reports

Fossils are priceless. I mean that in both senses: they are invaluable clues about vanished lives and their worth should never be measured in dollars. But Eric Prokopi made quite a bit of money dealing fossils and, as it turns out, brazenly smuggling them. He pleaded guilty in December 2012 to conspiracy, making false statements to customs officials, illegally importing fossils into the United States and fraudulent transfer of dinosaur bones. He is due to be sentenced in April and faces up to 17 years in prison. Prokopi’s string of offences was finally exposed because of a dinosaur that was almost sold for $1m. His story is one of the most egregious cases of dinosaur rustling in recent years and it shows just how corrupt and harmful to science the fossil market can be.

The ugly tale began when Texas-based Heritage Auctions put out a catalogue for an event in New York City on 20 May last year. The lots included an ankylosaur skull, a troodontid skeleton and the hyped star of the sale, a “75% complete” Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton. This tyrannosaur, which roamed Mongolia about 70 million years ago, was comparable in size and ferocity to its famous cousin Tyrannosaurus rex. (The auction ads took advantage of a taxonomic disagreement among palaeontologists and called the fossil Tyrannosaurus bataar, but I’m in the camp that believes these dinosaurs should be kept in distinct genera.)

It seemed the dinosaur was going to slip away into a private collection. For years, palaeontologists have watched as significant specimens have gone from field sites to wealthy fossil enthusiasts. Some researchers have even had dinosaurs stolen right out from under them, finding their carefully excavated quarries turned to a shambles, littered with cigarette butts, booze bottles and broken bones.

There are legitimate dealers who abide by laws on collecting, importing and selling fossils, but you’ll always find questionable specimens from China, Brazil, Morocco, and other locations at a fossil or mineral show. What’s on display is the tip of the iceberg. The real action at such places is behind closed doors in hotel rooms, where sellers save their fanciest – and most illicit – deals for customers they feel they can trust. Countries around the world have passed laws that make it difficult to sell fossils legally, but dealers keep finding new ways around the laws and the black market thrives. Even dealers who keep their noses clean almost never contribute anything to science: they treat fossils as petrified postage stamps to be hoarded, traded and sold off.

Whoever had collected the tarbosaurus had stripped away almost everything of scientific importance about the animal: how the bones were scattered in the rock where they were found, what preparations were used to clean and reassemble the skeleton, what other fossils were in the same or nearby layers. But palaeontologists were certain that the dinosaur came from the Cretaceous rock of Mongolia. This is the only place in the world where tarbosaurus skeletons are found in great numbers and the dinosaur’s off-white bones were the same colour as other dinosaur remains found in the Gobi desert.

There was no reasonable doubt that the tarbosaurus had been stolen. China and Mongolia strictly regulate who is allowed to launch dinosaur expeditions and collect fossils and where those specimens must be stored. There was no legal route by which the dinosaur could have ended up in a New York auction. Days before it was due to be sold, palaeontologists and the president of Mongolia objected to the auction. Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, who has worked extensively in Mongolia, pointed out that the dinosaur must be an illicit specimen from the Gobi. Mongolian law says any recovered bones must ultimately rest within an approved Mongolian institution.

Heritage Auctions said that it trusted the dealer it was working with. Greg Rohan, company president, said it was too close to the date of the auction to do anything about the complaints of Mongolia and the researchers. Lawyers working with the Mongolian government demanded that the auction be halted until the provenance of the skeleton could be settled.

The auction went ahead. In the middle of the bidding, a lawyer announced that he had on the phone a judge who had issued an order against the sale. Even this last-minute tactic didn’t stop the sale. The tarbosaurus went for just over $1m.

Fortunately, the buyer couldn’t simply walk off with the dinosaur. Investigations continued, now with the assistance of Heritage Auctions, and Norell and other palaeontologists confirmed that it must have been uncovered in Mongolia. More than that, what was billed as a nearly complete individual animal turned out to be made of several dinosaurs.

The investigation revealed that the origin of the bones had been obscured by shipping them from Britain to the United States labelled as assorted reptile fossils. By June 22, Prokopi was identified as the dealer and the skeleton had been seized by the US government. Though it is still bound by red tape, the dinosaur soon may be returned home to Mongolia.

Sadly, other dinosaur fossils in the same auction were sold off without much attention. Still, inspired by the controversy, Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London halted the auction of a tarbosaurus leg at Christie’s that was scheduled for about the same time. Barrett had noticed the leg in the window of the South Kensington auction house and contacted Christie’s, which informed the owner that the specimen was questionable. The lot was pulled from sale and, Barrett says, is presumably still with its UK owner.

Such simple actions may help deter illegal and illicit fossil sales. “I’d say it’s just a case of staying vigilant, helping auction houses know about the legality of the specimens they handle and in some cases attempting to persuade owners of their responsibilities,” Barrett told me. Private owners may not even know where their prize came from, how it was collected or whether any laws were broken in the process. Repatriation, however, is hard to enforce. Unless there’s some kind of illegal activity, such as a customs violation, Barrett said, where an illicit fossil ends up depends on the whim of the owners.

Prokopi wasn’t so lucky. His defence crumbled as it became clear that he had tried to hide the dinosaur by lying about what kind of bones he had and claiming the fossils were found and collected legally in the UK. Customs violations were his undoing.

Following his guilty plea, details about Prokopi’s dealings have started to trickle out. The Tampa Bay Times – Prokopi is from Florida – characterised him as, in part, a passionate Indiana Jones who followed his dream. But Prokopi actively undermined legitimate palaeontology. He fuelled a black market that robs specimens from science and the public alike.

We can’t learn anything from a tarbosaurus that stands in a millionaire’s mansion. And contrary to what you might expect, such relatively abundant dinosaurs are important exactly because so many have been found. By comparing multiple specimens, even cutting up fossil bones to get a look at the microstructure of bone or drilling geochemical samples, researchers can get a better idea of how dinosaurs grew up, how they varied as individuals and details about dinosaur biology.

Dinosaurs sent to auction are often showpieces, sold without information. The geological context of a dinosaur – which is destroyed by fossil thieves – allows palaeontologists to identify the age of the animal and the position of the bones in death can illustrate how it died or what happened to the body after death. As Jack Horner put it in his book Dinosaur Lives: “A dinosaur out of context is like a character without a story. Worse than that, the character suffers from amnesia.”

The international market for unusual fossil specimens damages science in other ways as well. Some sellers create forgeries and chimeras. Irritator, a croc-snouted dinosaur, got its name because a fossil dealer glued extraneous bones to the dinosaur’s skull to make it look more complete than it was. Palaeontologists were able to catch that fake, but researchers can be fooled, as in the case of a fossil cheetah skull described in a US National Academy of Science paper that was retracted last year. The skull was artificially enhanced and the lack of locality data meant that no one could be sure where it fitted in the big picture of cat evolution.

Even the National Geographic gave undue attention to a faked fossil. (I should mention that I blog about palaeontology for the magazine’s Phenomena website.) In autumn 1999, the magazine heralded “archaeoraptor” as a significant stage in the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. The animal seemed to exhibit a mixture of traits from early birds and their dinosaur predecessors, fitting within the pattern of authentic feathered dinosaurs that were just beginning to be described in the peer-reviewed literature.

But the origins and identity of “archaeoraptor” were shady from the start. The fossil had been purchased for $80,000 from a commercial dealer and was supposed to go to the tiny Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah, run by artists Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas. They approached professional palaeontologist Phil Currie, who contacted National Geographic to suggest a story. It quickly became clear that the fossil had been illegally exported from China. Even worse, further research suggested that “archaeoraptor” was a composite of at least two different fossils.

The Czerkases denied that their prize could be a fake, going so far as to submit manuscripts to Nature and Science to legitimise the find, but the journals wouldn’t touch the hot fossil. National Geographic went ahead with its publication and press conference. Shortly after, Xu Xing, an expert on feathered dinosaurs, confirmed that “archaeoraptor” was pieced together from different animals, later identified as including the non-avian microraptor and the early bird yanornis.

A few months later, National Geographic recanted. The magazine’s confession was admirable, but the hype gave ammunition to creationists and those who stubbornly insist that birds cannot be dinosaurs. Authentic, well-studied fossils have confirmed over and over again that birds are just one kind of dinosaur, but fundamentalists still trot out “archaeoraptor” to insist that scientists cannot be trusted. Black market fossils can hurt science in an unfortunate array of ways.

No one benefits from the sale of fossils except the dealer. The bylaws of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology hold its members to a professional standard: “The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust.” Even then, many professional palaeontologists feel unsettled by high-profile sales that inspire unethical collectors to obtain and sell off important fossils. The hyped fossil primate darwinius – known to the public as “Ida” and presented at the time as the link to our primate ancestry – was sold to Norway’s Natural History Museum in Oslo for a reported $750,000. Prehistoric primate expert Elwyn Simons and other palaeontologists explained in Nature that “such objectionable pricing and publicity can only increase the difficulty of scientific collecting by encouraging the commercial exploitation of sites and the disappearance of fossils into private collections … We strongly believe the fossils should not have any commercial value.”

I understand the urge to have a dinosaur to call your own. I’ve got one myself: a skull of the long-necked, stout Jurassic sauropod apatosaurus. But mine is a cast, which I found at the estate sale of the late American palaeontologist James Madsen Jr. Such alternatives let dinosaur fans have a piece of prehistory without depriving science. Indeed, reconstruction exports such as Robert Gaston create and sell beautiful, lightweight casts of scientifically accurate dinosaur skeletons that are easier to mount and less expensive than real fossils. Museums rely on casts for their displays, after all, and museum-quality reproductions should satisfy the need of anyone who loves dinosaurs.

When I initially objected to the tarbosaurus auction, many readers responded that museums should fend for themselves. This argument ignores the perilous state of many museums and misunderstands how modern palaeontology is done. What is happening to the home of the $8m T rex named Sue is a sad example of why museums can’t, and shouldn’t, pay through the nose for questionable dinosaurs.

Sue had a twisted back story of her own, with commercial palaeontologists from the Black Hills Institute, landowner Maurice Williams and even the federal government disputing ownership. Ultimately, after drawn-out legal disputes, Williams was granted ownership of the dinosaur and he put it up for auction at Sotheby’s. With the help of deals made with Disney, McDonald’s and other sources, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History acquired the dinosaur. As the institution recently made clear, though, they’re no longer in any state to purchase fossils.

The Field Museum is so strapped for cash that administrators are threatening to scrap various branches of scientific research. They plan to save the museum by cutting its heart out – a museum is not really a museum without responsibly kept collections and an active research programme. Under such circumstances, even major institutions such as the Field can’t compete with rich private buyers. More than that, trying to outbid wealthy buyers for improperly collected specimens would be a stupid move for any self-respecting institution, especially since $1m would allow a museum’s palaeontology crew to spend several seasons finding and collecting new dinosaurs.

Cases such as Prokopi’s, the illegal activities of commercial fossil hunter Nathan Murphy and the legal tangles around “Tinker” the tyrannosaurus underscore the shady nature of commercial collecting. And during a time when many museums are financially squeezed, the insistence of commercial collectors that they’d really like to sell specimens to research institutions where the fossils will be properly conserved and used to communicate science to the public – they really do claim this is their goal – is disingenuous. Rather than assisting science, commercial collectors are robbing everyone of specimens by making them accessible only to those with deep pockets.

Commercial collectors could work with professionals to excavate fossils for public institutions responsibly, with a small finder’s fee and rights to produce casts going to the commercial dealer. Of course, this would require private landowners and commercial collectors to stop seeing dollar signs made out of dinosaur bones. After the sale of Sue, Ida, and other high-profile fossils, researchers will continue to struggle against those who seek to turn petrifactions into profit.

Commercial collectors argue that, if they don’t act, many fossils may be destroyed due to erosion. And it’s true that there are not enough professionals to excavate every dinosaur that starts peeking out of the ground. But it would be better to let a triceratops skull fall to pieces than have that specimen mangled by amateurs who ignore basic scientific data collection and then try to sell that skull to private buyers, hiding it away from researchers and fuelling a market that makes significant specimens inaccessible. There is an opportunity cost to digging up one dinosaur and not another, but it’s better to lose a few in the process of rigorous science than to wind up with a jumble of dinosaurs of questionable provenance.

© Brian Switek, 2013. First published in Slate magazine and reproduced with permission

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #4147 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:19 AM »

‘Forgotten man of evolution’ gets his moment

By Robin McKie, The Observer
Saturday, January 19, 2013 19:43 EST

Alfred Russel Wallace formed the theory of natural selection, but Darwin’s connections ensured he got the glory, writes Robin McKie

Alfred Russel Wallace is far from a household name, but he changed the world. Recovering from a bout of malaria on the remote Indonesian island of Halmahera, the young British biologist came up with an idea that would transform humanity’s view of itself: he worked out the theory of natural selection. Wallace wrote down his idea and sent it to Charles Darwin, who had been contemplating a similar theory of evolution for more than a decade. Both versions were read to members of the Linnean Society in 1858.

Today Darwin is the man who gets the lion’s share of the credit for a theory that provides the mechanism to explain how a species can be slowly transformed into another. Wallace has been forgotten. But this week curators at the Natural History Museum, London, will launch Wallace 100, a project aimed at righting this wrong.

On Thursday, Wallace’s portrait – which has been kept for years in a storeroom – will be hung beside the grand statue of Darwin that overlooks the museum’s main hall. Wallace’s entire correspondence will also be put online.

“It has taken two years to find all his letters from universities scattered round the world and to put them online,” said George Beccaloni, a curator and expert on Wallace. “Now people can see just what a fine writer he was, and what a great mind he had.”

The museum’s ceremony marks the beginning of its Wallace 100 programme, which will mark the centenary of Wallace’s death and aims to bring him back to the public’s attention. Comedian Bill Bailey, a committed fan of the biologist, will unveil the portrait on Thursday and will also host a BBC2 TV series about Wallace which is to be screened in spring. The programme involved Bailey following Wallace’s footsteps round the East Indies where the biologist was working on an expedition to collect birds and animals in the 19th century.

“I was on a trip to Malaysia a few years ago and discovered there was a huge group of Indonesian islands known as Wallacea, named after Wallace,” Bailey told the Observer. “He is still considered to be a hugely important figure there but has been ignored in Britain. I got interested and became absorbed by the man, like so many other individuals have been. There is a sort of secret society of Wallace fans. Mention his name and you create a frisson of interest among these people. I have tried to get over the feeling of the excitement that is evoked by his name in our programmes.”

Wallace was born in Usk, Monmouthshire, to middle-class parents, but was forced to leave school at 13 when the family fell on hard times. He worked as a surveyor before deciding to travel to the Amazon to collect specimens and to work as a naturalist. After four years, with his health deteriorating, he sailed home. Twenty-six days out of port, his ship caught fire and his drawings, most of his notes and his collection of specimens were destroyed. Wallace survived, in an open lifeboat, with only a couple of notebooks and an indignant parrot.

Two years later, Wallace left Britain again. This time he sailed to the Malay archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) where he spent nearly eight years collecting and studying the local wildlife. These included the standardwing bird of paradise which is now named Semioptera wallace after the biologist. “It is a beautiful bird and Wallace was particularly impressed by it, though they are difficult to find, for they live deep inside forests,” added Bailey. “We were lucky. We filmed one in perfect high definition for the programme.”

In 1858, in Halmahera, Wallace wrote his essay on natural selection and posted it to Darwin. Darwin and his friends, the botanist Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell, were horrified. Darwin had been working on a similar theory for several years and now faced the prospect of being robbed of glory. Lyell and Hooker arranged a reading for Wallace’s paper and for a hastily written one by Darwin at the same meeting of the Linnean Society.

“It was a rather shabby trick,” said Bailey. “Wallace had sent his paper to Darwin to help get it published. Unluckily for him, he sent it to the one person in the world who had a vested interest in not seeing in print. Lyell and Hooker intervened and a reading was arranged instead.

“Darwin’s paper was read first and he is the one we now remember as the man who came up with the idea of natural selection. Wallace should have got priority, but it was Darwin, the man with the connections, who got the glory.”

In fact, Wallace did fairly well when he came back to Britain and he produced an extremely popular book, The Malay Archipelago, which provides a vivid, highly readable account of his travels in the East Indies. At one point he admits to sleeping comfortably one night “with half-a-dozen smoke-dried human skulls suspended over my head”. Joseph Conrad kept a copy of the book on his bedside table and drew on it for his own works, including Lord Jim. More recently, David Attenborough has admitted reading the book as a schoolboy and credits it with stimulating his interest in the natural world.

“It is wonderful book,” added Beccaloni. “It is written in modern English and is not at all stilted, as so many Victorian books seem today. It reveals what an advanced thinker Wallace was.”

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #4148 on: Jan 20, 2013, 09:37 AM »

In the USA...

Obama seeks American support to pressure Congress on gun control

President warns of the power of the NRA as pro-gun lobby prepares for a 'high noon' protest over proposed measures

Matt Williams in New York, Saturday 19 January 2013 16.45 GMT      

President Barack Obama called on Americans to pressure Congress into backing his gun control proposals Saturday, as the pro-gun lobby prepared for a "high noon" protest over the proposed measures.

In his weekly radio address, Obama pledged do everything in his power to push through a broad package of legislation, which includes bans on the sale of assault rifles and high-capacity clips alongside improved background checks for owners.

And in a swipe at the National Rifle Association (NRA), the president accused special-interest lobbyists and gun-loving pundits of attempting to derail the debate by framing the proposals as an "all-out assault on liberty". This, he claimed, was aimed more at getting them more air time and money than contributing to the national dialogue. "Behind the scenes, they are doing everything they can to protect the status quo," he said.

To counter the power of the NRA and the influence it wields in the corridors of the Capitol, Obama called on the public to harass pro-gun members of Congress who refuse to budge on the issue of guns despite an apparent surge of support for further controls following the deaths of 20 children and six adults in a school shooting in Connecticut in December.

"Ask them why an A-grade from the gun lobby is more important than keeping his kids safe in a first-grade classroom," Obama said Saturday.

His comments came ahead of a day of activism from those determined to keep America's notoriously lax gun controls in place.

Pro-gun enthusiasts plan to hold demonstrations in 49 states at "high noon" in support to what they say is their second amendment right to arm themselves with assault rifles and other guns.

The rallies, most of which are planned to be staged at state capitals, were being organised by Guns Across America, an organisation launched by Texas airline pilot Eric Reed.

As of Friday afternoon, a Facebook page for Guns Across America listed more than 18,000 people who say they plan to attend events, and Reed said Alaska was the only state with no organiser for a rally.


Obama's second chance: the re-elected president has gun law and even climate change in his sights

Barack Obama's second-term inauguration sees him return with a far more aggressive political programme

Paul Harris   
The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 15.22 GMT    

When the firebrand Republican senator Ted Cruz went on conservative Laura Ingraham's radio show last week, the topic of conversation swiftly turned to Barack Obama.

As the president prepares to be inaugurated on Monday for a second term, Cruz, who is a Tea Party favourite freshly elected from Texas, let loose with both barrels. "He is feeling right now high on his own power!" Cruz fumed.

Cruz was particularly angry about Obama's plan to try to enforce tighter gun controls. But the president appears to be preparing a whole series of reforms that will raise the ire of the right. He has vowed action on immigration, hinted that he will try to tackle climate change, and has already taken a much tougher line with Republicans on fiscal issues, forcing them to agree to a tax rise for the wealthy.

For many it seems that Obama has been reinvigorated by his victory over Mitt Romney and might be in a position to win back a liberal base disappointed by a first term that many saw as timid, overly concerned with Republican co-operation and – most important – hamstrung by the needs of dealing with the Great Recession. "Maybe we now get to see what Obama would have been like if there had been no financial crisis," said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

The political ground that Obama is standing on as he maps out strategy for the next four years certainly looks fertile. He ended up beating Romney easily, seeing off a challenger whom many thought was the Republican party's strongest candidate, albeit in a weak field. But Obama is likely to strike quickly as the honeymoon period for second terms usually lasts little longer than a year before electoral considerations of the 2014 mid-term elections loom into view.

Indeed, he has already done so. After being widely criticised in his first four years for a lack of savvy during negotiations with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Obama has suddenly taken a much harder line. In debates over the so-called "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and spending cuts at the end of last year, Obama's team secured a deal widely seen as a victory. That tougher stance has also been matched by Obama staking out a strong position on forthcoming talks with the Republicans in Congress over raising the debt ceiling. Indeed, only days after Obama gave a speech on the issue marked by stern language the Republicans last week appeared to cave in and moved to extend the ceiling for another three months.

It marks an apparent shift in Obama's view of the presidency, from one where he has to act as a conciliator to one where he can lead from the front. "He has made noises that he is going to give up his old theory of the presidency and he is going to now use it as a 'bully pulpit'," said Professor James Josefson, a political scientist at Bridgewater College in Virginia.

The change has also won Obama much praise among his party's supporters and top party advisers. "He will decide what he wants to do and he will just do it. He's going to push ahead," said Ted Kaufman, a former Democratic senator from Delaware who was Vice-President Joe Biden's chief of staff for 19 years.

But as Obama finds himself at the head of a relatively unified Democratic party he is staring at a Republican party in disarray and riven by civil war. Its conservative wing, still infused by the Tea Party, believes Romney lost because the party was not rightwing enough. But a powerful cohort of more moderate leaders, such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, want to broaden its appeal. They see the party as having lost five out of the last six popular votes at a presidential level and staring at a future where Democrat-friendly minorities, especially Hispanic voters, are getting ever more powerful at the ballot box.

That has seen the party indulge in rare outbursts of public bickering. Christie slammed House speaker John Boehner over delays to aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that devastated his home state. Jindal has even warned that Republicans need to "stop being the stupid party". The fight has reversed the usual dynamic of American politics – where Democrats are seen as fractious and Republicans disciplined – and raised hopes that Obama might actually extend his power in the 2014 mid-terms, which would usually be a tricky election to face. At the moment Obama's approval ratings are at a healthy 55%, compared with an anaemic 24% for House Republicans.

But it is not all good news for Obama and the Democrats. America's political system is defined by checks and balances between competing institutions, and Republican control of the House still acts as a major check on his ambitions. Though many experts believe the Republicans may have to give ground on an issue like immigration reform, other policy areas – such as gun controls and limiting the social impact of spending cuts – might still end up scuppered. "It still depends on how co-operative the Republicans are going to be, and for most of them Obama is just thought of as appalling, no matter what he does or says," said Bowler.

Republicans may be able to block a great deal of Obama's second-term agenda but on a host of things – from gun controls to gay rights to abortion and women's issues – they are frequently seen as far to the right of mainstream public opinion. "Obama is either going to win on these issues legislatively or he is going to win on them in the arena of public opinion. He is going to have a year of success ahead of him either way, even if it ends up being just as much appearances as substance," Bowler said.

That is a remarkable turnaround for Obama. It is only four short months since the president gave a disastrous performance during his first debate with Romney, causing the Republican to spike in the polls and suddenly look like he might win. Right up until election night itself last November many Republicans, including Romney himself, who wrote no concession speech, and a few nervous Democrats believed they could be witnessing the return of a Republican to the White House. Now, as Obama plots out a second term aimed at cementing his legacy, those doubts and fears feel a long time ago. "He has been freed by the fact that the American people seem to be on his side," Kaufman said.



Executive director, National Security Network, focusing on foreign policy; speechwriter for President Clinton

Obama's first term foreign policy was spent working to clear away the debris of what had come before: Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, but also the threat of global economic meltdown and an Arab world hangover more than 30 years in the making.

In his second term, he now has the opportunity to reshape the model and direction of America's outreach to the world for the next 10 years or more. Here are longer-term priority areas:

Clarity and oversight on counterterrorism: setting clear limits and public oversight on where the US goes to war, and how, particularly around targeted killings and the use of remote or cyber-warfare tools, he can constrain his successors, set global norms and increase the effectiveness of a counter-terrorism agenda.

Economic statecraft: Hillary Clinton's signature initiative, reasserting the importance and breadth of economic diplomacy, must outlast her tenure. Efforts overseas will have to be matched by budget realignments at home, to make economic and trade diplomacy as empowered as the military-first approaches of the previous decade.

Pursue the promise of Prague: Obama cannot count on much help from Moscow or Tehran or even the US Congress in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security policy. But there are steps he can take alone: accelerating US reductions under the New Start [arms limitation] treaty, reconsidering and reducing the number of warheads demanded by US nuclear targeting policy, making further cuts without waiting for Moscow.


Head of pollsters Mitchell Research and Communications

Any ideas that I, or any other Republican might have, would never be listened to by Obama. I don't have the time or inclination to think about what he should take a chance on doing. Obama's rhetoric and actions today are diametrically opposed to the ideals on which he ran in 2008.

Whether on the fiscal cliff, budget deficit, guns, or any other issue, he seems gleeful in his desire to bludgeon his Republican opponents and win every contest by 100-0.

The fact that he has four more years to do some of the things I think he may do is quite disconcerting to me. My hope is that he follows the Hippocratic Oath and "does no [more] harm."


Chair, Democracy for America

President Obama should stay in touch with his inner Teddy Roosevelt and continue to lead with the same strong conviction he is displaying regarding gun safety. Americans favour strong leadership, even if they do not always agree with the substance of a leader's position. If the recent elections proved anything, they proved that the country is continuing to move beyond the discourse in Washington that is too often fuelled more by money and less by public support.In the case of gun safety, most of the public, and even NRA members, support the President. It is time for him to lead the public rather than hope for acquiescence. The people have overwhelming elected Obama, not once but twice – now he must use that position to get things done, and not shy away from a fight.


Political commentator and former aide in Clinton White House

In the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, dissidents are struggling to bring freedom and democracy to their nations, but the autocrats in power are finding harsher, more creative ways to crack down on them. Traditionally, the US has led global efforts to advance freedom and democracy around the world and US support has proven important to the important gains of recent decades.

To date, however, Obama has provided only lukewarm support for the cause. With his last election behind him, Obama should shift course and more forcefully put the US behind the brave democratic activists, labour leaders, journalists and others who are putting their lives on the line every day.

Bolder U.S. support for the cause will make it more likely that the dissidents and their movements will succeed. That, in turn, will make the world a safer and more prosperous place from which the United States and every other nation can benefit."


Special assistant and speechwriter to President George W Bush and first lady Laura Bush

Obama should start by eliminating the danger to religious liberty posed by Obamacare. Under the law, most employers are required to pay for female employees' sterilisations and contraceptives, including some drugs that can destroy fertilised embryos. This presents many religious employers, both institutions and individuals, with an impossible choice: violate their religious beliefs, or close down.

Obama needed women's votes last year, and forcing religious employers to provide birth control was good politics. But the election is over, and the consequences of the "HHS mandate," as the requirement is known, are starting to be felt.

Obama can fix the problem himself by ordering health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius to rewrite the rule and exempt any employer who objects to the mandate for religious reasons.


Writer and founder of the progressive blog Shakesville

I would love to see President Obama take a more active role in defining the national conversation on reproductive rights, with an uncompromising position in favour of choice. During his first term, a record number of pieces of anti-choice legislation were proposed and passed in state legislatures and our pro-choice president must use his bully pulpit to give visibility to the war on agency being waged across the nation.

I was deeply moved by the president's affirmation of his support for marriage equality, which was followed by an increase in national support for same-sex marriage. I hope, in his second term, we may see a similarly influential advocacy on behalf of choice. He cannot intervene in state legislatures to stop assaults on reproductive rights, but he can be a vocal ally.


January 19, 2013

Washington Prepares for Festive but Scaled-Down Version of 2009 Events


WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of visitors — most, but not all, happy Democrats — streamed into a dressed-up capital city this weekend as organizers prepared for an inauguration that, while not as grand as four years ago, is still cause for celebration among supporters of President Obama.

Barbara and Loren Ing drove their minivan here from rural Ohio, lugging a trailer filled with glass centerpieces. As a volunteer for the society representing her native state, Illinois, Mrs. Ing — who ordinarily works in the layaway department of her local Kmart — spent months creating the table décor for the society’s inaugural ball, one of countless unofficial parties marking Mr. Obama’s second swearing-in.

At the historic Willard Hotel — where the four-night inaugural rate for elegant “Oval Suites” is $22,800, with a $27,000 catering minimum — women in mink coats and pearls milled about the lobby. The bartender mixed “Blue Hawaiians” in honor of Mr. Obama’s birthplace. In the kitchen, the pastry chef spent last week baking delicate French macarons in red, white and blue.

By Saturday afternoon, out-of-towners clutching maps strolled past the White House in the bright sunshine, as street vendors hawked inaugural trinkets. Parade reviewing stands were decked with patriotic bunting, Pennsylvania Avenue was lined with flags, and across town at the Washington Convention Center, workers were busy erecting lighting and stages for Mr. Obama’s two official inaugural balls.

Tens of thousands of ticket holders will cram into the 2.3-million-square-foot convention center Monday night to hear Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and the cast of TV’s “Glee” — all while hoping for a glimpse of Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, twirling around the dance floor.

“It’s clearly not as big or as plentiful or elaborate as the last time, but in many ways for Democrats it’s even sweeter,” said Hilary Rosen, a prominent Obama supporter. “People are thrilled about the president; there are a record number of women in the Senate. Gay people are happy, and Latinos. You have these pillars of the election; it meant something different to everybody, but it culminated in this collectively powerful feeling.”

For Donna Hardy, a federal employee from Oakland, Calif., who walked in front of the White House on Saturday clutching a newly purchased “Obama” hat, the second swearing-in is more historic than the first.

“An African American being elected back to back?” she asked. “I don’t think we’ll ever see that again.”

Officials expect 600,000 to 800,000 people to turn out on the National Mall for Monday’s ceremony on the West Front of the Capitol — a crowd typical for inaugurations but far short of the 1.8 million who clogged the city in 2009, creating pedestrian gridlock that kept many from getting to their seats.

This year, the Congressional committee overseeing the ceremony arranged for extra cellphone towers on the Mall, and devised a mobile phone app with a GPS system to help inaugural-goers navigate the city, said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and the committee chairman.

Mr. Schumer spent Saturday at the Capitol, overseeing preparations as tables were set in Statuary Hall for Monday’s inaugural luncheon. He will make opening remarks and introduce the participants; he said the thought that “so many people who have been waiting with anticipation for months won’t be able to get their seats” was one of two fears that had kept him awake at night. The other is that he will miss his cue to introduce the chief justice.

“I’m practicing my speech, but I’m less worried about that and more worried about when I’m supposed to get up and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the Supreme Court,’ ” he said. “I’m worried I won’t get up in time.”

Mr. Obama will take his official oath on Sunday just before noon in the Blue Room of the White House; the Constitution states that presidential terms expire at noon on Jan. 20. Monday’s festivities, which coincide with Martin Luther King’s Birthday, are ceremonial. (Mr. Obama will use one of Dr. King’s Bibles, along with one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, when he retakes the oath on Monday.)

To honor Dr. King, Mr. Obama designated Saturday a national day of service. He, Mrs. Obama and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, spent part of the afternoon helping to refurbish a school in Northeast Washington, with hundreds of other volunteers organized by the City Year nonprofit group. Mr. and Mrs. Obama stained a bookshelf.

While much of Washington is gearing up for a party, some Republicans are lying low — or getting out of town.

“My wife had a partial knee replacement, so I am staying with her in Mississippi,” Trent Lott, the former senator from that state, wrote in an e-mail. “Most Republicans will be otherwise busy. Some will attend events and parties, because it does only happen every four years.”

But Democrats are in the mood to celebrate. Emily’s List, which helps elect Democratic women who favor abortion rights, was planning a party for 1,400 to welcome female Congressional newcomers. “We’re celebrating our shattering of glass ceilings everywhere,” said Jen Bluestein, the group’s communications director.

The Futuro Fund, which mobilized Hispanic voters in support of Mr. Obama, staged a symposium on Latino issues on Saturday as part of a three-day “Latino Inaugural.” It planned a celebration at the Kennedy Center on Sunday night, headlined by Eva Longoria, José Feliciano, Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno and other Hispanic entertainers.

Although Bruce Springsteen — a staple of Obama campaign events — will not return to Washington for this year’s inauguration, James Taylor will perform “America the Beautiful,” Kelly Clarkson will sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” and Beyoncé will close the ceremony with the national anthem.

In 2009, hotels were sold out months in advance; marketing representatives said rooms were finally booking up last week, in part because celebrities and their entourages were making last-minute decisions to come.

“The amount of celebrities, the wattage, may be a little dimmer,” said Barbara Martin, whose business, BrandLinkDC, represents luxury clients, including the W Hotel on the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route. “Like, I don’t think Beyoncé is party-hopping. That being said, I feel that there are just as many A-list and B-list celebrities. There are probably fewer A-plus ones.”

This being Washington, all sorts of companies, organizations and federal agencies are trying to get in on the act. Knob Creek, the Kentucky bourbon maker, is promoting itself as “the exclusive whiskey being served” at a candlelight celebration Mr. Obama is hosting for his donors at the National Building Museum on Sunday night. The National Archives, in a rare treat for history buffs, is marking the inauguration by putting two pages of George Washington’s first Inaugural Address — a document ordinarily in a vault — on display.

“It’s one of those documents that I informally call a goose bump — it gives me goose bumps,” said Michael Hussey, the curator of the exhibit, which closes at the end of the month.

Though some view the inauguration as partisan, Steve Kerrigan, chairman of Mr. Obama’s inaugural committee, said he and his staff hoped that Americans would “walk away from this with the sense that it is not just a celebration of the president, but a celebration of the entire country.”

That is the view of Mrs. Ing, the volunteer from Ohio. She voted for Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent. This is her fifth inaugural making centerpieces for the Illinois ball.

“Every inaugural seems different,” she said. “Different energy, different people. I think everybody should do it at least once.”


January 19, 2013

Change Comes: After 4 Years, Friends See Shifts in the Obamas


Barack and Michelle Obama have spent more than a thousand days on display before the nation’s eyes, but the personal changes they have undergone can be hard to detect.

Up close, though, those who know the Obamas say they can see an accumulation of small shifts in the president and the first lady since they walked the inaugural parade route four years ago. The man who wanted to change the nature of Washington now warns job candidates that it is hard to get anything done there. Not so long ago, he told others that he did not need a presidential library, a tribute to himself costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Now a former aide, Susan Sher, is quietly eyeing possibilities for him in Chicago.

The first lady who wanted to forge connections with her new city found that even viewing the cherry blossoms required a hat, sunglasses and wheedling the Secret Service. In a demonstration of how difficult it can be for any president or first lady to sustain relationships, Mrs. Obama stopped taking on girls in a mentorship program she founded because of concerns that other teenagers would envy the lucky advisees, according to an aide.

When the president returned from consoling families of teachers and children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre — he wept as they handed him photos and told him stories of victim after victim — aides could see in his face the toll of absorbing the nation’s traumas. “This is what I do,” Mr. Obama told them.

“This position has perhaps cost him more on a personal, and even energic, level than most of his predecessors, because he was most entirely an outsider,” observed the playwright Tony Kushner, a supporter who recently dined with Mr. Obama to discuss the film “Lincoln,” for which Mr. Kushner wrote the screenplay.

The Obamas have gained and lost in their four years in the White House, becoming seasoned professionals instead of newcomers, more conventional, with a contracted sense of possibility. They are steady characters, not given to serial self-reinvention. Yet in interviews, current and former White House and campaign aides, donors and friends from Chicago said they could see how the president and the first lady had been affected by their roles.

Describing them, they used phrases like: more confident but more scarred. More isolated. Less hesitant about directing staff members, whether butlers or highest-level advisers. Gratified by re-election, which the Obamas view as sweet vindication, and bloodier-minded when it comes to beating Republicans. And Mr. Obama has learned that his presidency will be shaped by unanticipated events — “locusts,” one former aide called them, for the way they swarm without warning.

Mr. Obama never wanted to be an ordinary politician — there was a time when Mrs. Obama could barely use that noun to describe her husband — and his advisers resist the idea that he has succumbed to standard Washington practice. Some donors and aides give an “if only” laugh at the idea that the couple now follows political ritual more closely: this is a president who still has not had Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to dinner but holds lunches to discuss moral philosophy with the fellow Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

“He thinks about destiny in human terms,” Mr. Wiesel said in an interview.

Still, others say the Obamas have become more relaxed schmoozers, more at ease with the porous line between the political and social, more willing to reveal themselves. They have recently begun inviting more outsiders into their private living quarters, including Mr. Kushner, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis at the “Lincoln” dinner. At a dinner in late November to thank top campaign fund-raisers, the first couple was like a bride and groom, bantering and traveling from table to table to accept congratulations and good wishes for the years ahead, making sly jokes that guests would not repeat for publication.

Even Mr. Obama’s speech has changed a bit, close observers say. Though he still disdains Washington, he often sounds less like a disapproving outsider and more like a participant. One former aide was startled to hear Mr. Obama use “impact” as a verb, a particular tendency in the capital. Another longtime adviser said he was struck during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations when Mr. Obama grew offended that House Speaker John A. Boehner did not return his multiple phone calls. The old Barack Obama would have thought the who-calls-whom protocol was stupid, the adviser said, but “the world that he inhabits now is the world of inside-the-Beltway maneuvering.”

In video footage of Mr. Obama as president, the contrasts can be subtle but amusing. At his first Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony in 2009, the president played along, but then paused to distance himself from what he was doing and hint that he found the tradition ridiculous. “There are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office,” he said. “And then there are moments like this — where I pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland.” Cut to the same ceremony, three years later, and cue Mr. Obama promoting a contest over which bird to pardon and giggling just a little. “You can’t maintain your day-to-day cynicism about that stuff,” said Arun Chaudhary, the former White House videographer, because many Americans cherish White House rituals.

What Mr. Obama wants to achieve this term is pretty clear: a fiscal deal and overhauls of gun and immigration laws, steps to address climate change and less restrictive voter identification laws. But what Mrs. Obama wants is more of a mystery. In almost every appearance, she sounds warm, unpretentious notes; on Friday, she continued her Twitter banter with Ellen DeGeneres over who could do more push-ups.

That informal tone can mask how disciplined she is. Though many surrounding the Obamas say she has changed far more than her husband, mastering a role she initially found uncomfortable, she still treats the job of first lady like a dangerous country through which she must navigate safe passage. The woman who never wanted to live in the bubble now uses it to protect herself, according to friends and former aides, preparing her public activities in 6- and 12-month strategic plans, rarely saying anything unscripted. First ladies are often figures of comfort, but she did not address the Newtown tragedy, beyond two brief letters she published, even though some of her fans were clamoring for the self-described “mom in chief” to do more.

In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama and her advisers have been discussing whether to expand her work beyond childhood obesity and military families and how to capitalize on her popularity. On Friday, she threw herself into her husband’s new effort to organize supporters, introducing the group, Organizing for Action, in an announcement video. (The effort did not seem to garner as much attention as her new hairstyle, which set off headlines like “Michelle Obama’s Bangs Are a Total Shock to the System.”)

Mrs. Obama cannot wait too long to set out on a new course: the Obamas will soon have more time behind them in the White House than in front of them. The rituals they introduced are now matters of tradition instead of innovation. At their White House Seder, the small group of mostly African-American and Jewish attendees reads the Emancipation Proclamation right before welcoming Elijah, just as the year before. The president played basketball on Election Day 2012, as he did on most of the voting days in 2008. But this time it felt different: the men older, the action slower, a reunion game with everyone talking about the old days, said John Rogers Jr., a longtime friend who joined in.

Mr. Obama’s entire career has been about getting to the next stage: if he could only become a lawyer, and then a public official, and then a United States senator, and then president, he could create real change. But soon there will be no higher job to reach for, and aides say there is an all-business quality to the Obamas now, a contrast with the sense of possibility that hung over the first inauguration. Early in the presidency, Mr. Obama would sometimes spend hours polishing ceremonial speeches, like one for Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial; now, the president has a more finely honed sense of how to use his precious time, said Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter. When Mr. Obama walked off the stage on election night, he did not pause to exult; instead, he wanted to talk about the impact of outside spending in that night’s Congressional races, said Patrick Gaspard, the director of the Democratic National Committee.

But Mr. Obama also knows now that he is not fully in control of his fate, that the presidency will continue to bring tasks that no one could ever anticipate. Mr. and Mrs. Obama were supposed to spend the evening of Dec. 16 enjoying their daughter Sasha’s “Nutcracker” recital. Instead, the president was making condolence calls in cordoned-off rooms at Newtown High School.

“Words don’t exist” to describe the grief on his face as he approached the families, said Sarah D’Avino, whose sister Rachel died protecting her students. The president asked each family to describe the relative who died, paying special attention to the victims’ mothers. Mourning parents handed him pictures to carry back to the White House, and he told them that the children were beautiful, that the teachers were national heroes.

Moments later, he was smiling, on cue. One of his photographers was on hand, as always, and despite everything, the bereaved wanted pictures with the president.

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« Reply #4149 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:02 AM »

Delhi gang rape trial begins

Five men accused of gang rape and murder of student in December appear at fast-track court in Indian capital

Jason Burke in Delhi, Monday 21 January 2013 12.03 GMT   

Five men accused of the brutal gang rape and murder of a student in Delhi have gone on trial in a new fast-track court in the Indian capital that was set up after the incident to bring speedy justice to victims of sexual violence.

The attack on 16 December provoked outrage and grief in India, with protests across the country. It has led to an unprecedented national debate and calls for widespread changes in cultural attitudes as well as policing and legal reform.

The five men on trial could face the death sentence if convicted. A sixth accused, believed to be 17 years old, is likely to face a separate proceedings.

The trial is being held behind closed doors, with media excluded. The men arrived at the courtroom wearing hoods. A date will be set later on Monday for the next hearing.

Police say the victim and a male friend were heading home from an evening movie when they boarded the bus. The attackers beat the man and raped the woman, causing her massive internal injuries with a metal bar, police said.

The victims were eventually dumped on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital.

Attacks that previously would have received little publicity are now frontpage news in India. In the north-western Punjab state they have included a 17-year-old who killed herself after being repeatedly raped by two men in December, a woman raped by six men after being hauled from a bus in which she was the only passenger and another raped by two men after being drugged last weekend. An attack by five men on a teenager in Haryana state has also been reported, as well as the rape of a minor in Rajasthan.

In the Delhi case, prosecutors have said DNA evidence links the accused to the crime, but defence lawyers say police "tortured" and beat their clients into making confessions. Such abuse is systemic in India. One lawyer said he would ask the supreme court to move the trial out of New Delhi to ensure his client got a fair trial.

The fast-track courts are among the measures taken or being considered by authorities to tackle the problem of sexual violence and particularly the impunity of many offenders. Many families pressure relatives who have been assaulted not to press charges, police often refuse to file cases for those who do and courts rarely deliver swift justice in the few cases that are filed. Indian courts had a backlog of 33m cases as of 2011.

Delhi police records show a rise in reported rape cases in 2012 of nearly a quarter, taking the total to 702. The numbers increased at the end of the year in the city, which has a population of around 15 million. Only one of the 635 rape cases filed in the capital last year has ended in a conviction so far.

Police said it was not realistic to expect crimes committed late last year to have wound their way through the system yet.

Ranjana Kumari, a women's activist and director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi based thinktank, said the fast-track courts were an important step for clearing some of the 95,000 rape cases pending in India.

"We need a system in which women can get justice quickly. Otherwise, in the normal course of things, it can take 10 or 12 or 14 years for cases to be taken up by the court. That is tantamount to denying justice to the victim," she said.

Others, however, are worried that fast-track courts sacrifice justice for speed, overlooking evidence, limiting the cross-examination of witnesses and racing through hearings. They also point out that long delays are possible when convictions in those courts are appealed.

Authorities are moving to increase recruitment of women police officers and train more for higher rank. The ministry of home affairs has announced that legislation on sexual harassment – known euphemistically in India as "eve-teasing" – will be tightened.

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« Reply #4150 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:03 AM »

January 21, 2013

Algerians Find Many More Dead at Hostage Site


ALGIERS, Algeria — The known death toll from the bloody four-day hostage siege in Algeria rose on Monday after Algerian officials said that security forces combing the scene had discovered many more corpses, some badly burned, at a gas-production complex deep in the Sahara.

With the Philippines reporting new casualties, the Algerian officials also said for the first time that some of the hostage takers were captured alive.

“There are a good 20 bodies,” a senior Algerian official said of the grim discoveries at the site on Sunday, a day after a final assault ended the siege. “These must be identified.”

Once they are, the preliminary count of 23 dead hostages seemed certain to rise, officials acknowledged.

“I’m very afraid that the numbers are going to go up,” the Algerian communications minister, Mohamed Saïd Oublaïd, told France 24 Television.

Despite persistent confusion over the precise number of dead hostages, the minister’s assessment was borne out on Monday when the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department announced casualties among its nationals for the first time, saying 6 Filipinos were among the hostages killed, 4 were still missing and 16 had been accounted for.

Additionally, citing an unidentified government source, Reuters said Algeria had informed Japan that 9 of its citizens died — if corroborated the highest death toll by nation reported so far — while previous Japanese accounts had spoken of 10 unaccounted for. Officials in Tokyo declined to confirm those figures.

Japan’s NHK television interviewed an unnamed Algerian worker who escaped the gas plant. He said not long after sporadic firing started, militants appeared armed with machine guns, anti-tank rockets and antiaircraft missiles. He said the attackers were kind to Algerian staff, who were given food and blankets. Their targets were the foreign workers, who were rounded up.

The first ones he saw killed were two Japanese and a Filipino, gunned down before his eyes. He said the militants made the foreign hostages wear bombs strapped onto their bodies. He fled during the army attack, and doesn’t know if those foreigners survived.

The standoff between several dozen radical Islamists and Algerian security services came to a bloody conclusion on Saturday when the Algerians assaulted the kidnappers’ last redoubt at the facility, where hundreds of Algerian and scores of expatriate workers were employed.

The victims — from the United States, Britain, France, Japan and other countries — were killed after hours of harrowing captivity in which some were forced to wear explosives. An unknown number of the hostages died in the assault on Saturday; Algerian officials said they also killed most of the remaining hostage takers, who they said were followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a warlord linked to Al Qaeda based in northern Mali. A regional Web site reported that he had issued a video claiming responsibility for the attack.

Specifics on exactly who was held hostage, who escaped and who was killed remained patchy and contradictory on Sunday, including the number and status of Americans caught up in the events. One senior American official said that as many as 10 American hostages who were seized at the remote gas field may have died, including one identified as dead by the State Department on Friday. But another American official said that some Americans who were at the site survived. An official with BP, one of the companies operating the complex, identified one surviving American, and the office of a Texas congressman said there was another. A senior Algerian official interviewed on Sunday declared that “seven Americans were liberated.”

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron also revised earlier estimates of fatalities, saying Sunday that three British citizens were confirmed dead and three more were believed to have been killed, along with one resident of Britain who was not a citizen. Earlier, the government had said five Britons and one British resident had died or were unaccounted for.

The confusion over the count of victims reflected the murky circumstances at the gas field, near a remote town in southeastern Algeria called In Amenas. Senior Algerian officials, hundreds of miles away in Algiers, the capital, said they were in the dark themselves about some aspects of the events.

They may learn more from the surviving attackers — Algerian media reports cited by The Associated Press said there were five — that the Algerian authorities said had been captured. Officials said that security forces were scouring the complex on Sunday, looking for booby traps and mines the attackers might have planted, as well as anyone who might still be in hiding. Officials have said that 32 attackers were known to have been killed over the four days.

Official declarations from the Algerian authorities have been sparse. The country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has hardly spoken about the crisis, even as foreign leaders have demanded details.

While the Algerians have weathered criticism from British, Japanese and other foreign officials over their no-holds-barred handling of the crisis — typical of their approach to a decades-old terrorism problem in Algeria — other foreigners have spoken up to defend it, especially in France, the former colonial power.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a radio interview on Sunday that he was “shocked” that Algeria has been criticized for its response to terrorists who “pillage, rape and ransack.” He said “there can be no impunity for terrorists” and that efforts to combat them “must be relentless.” The death toll at the gas field was “very high,” he said, but the Algerian authorities faced an “intolerable situation” there, Mr. Fabius said.

Algerian officials said from the outset that any sort of negotiation with the kidnappers was out of the question. Their response with overwhelming force — including missile-firing helicopters — was in character with the brutal 10-year war Algeria waged against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people died. Mr. Belmokhtar, the leader of the group that apparently staged the gas-field attack, is himself a veteran of that war.

A former BP executive, who knows In Amenas and the North African oil business well, said in an interview that Mr. Belmokhtar had been on the industry’s radar as a potential threat for a decade or more. The executive said Mr. Belmokhtar, though not a member of the Tuareg ethnic group himself, often used the desert tracks that the Tuaregs use to roam among the remote desert areas of Libya, Mali, Niger and Algeria. Some of those routes pass near In Amenas.

The scale of the operation, which supplies about 5 percent of Algeria’s gas output, and its remote location near the Libyan border meant that it was standard procedure for military escorts to accompany workers on every journey to or from distant wells, the airport or the town of In Amenas, the former executive said. He described the town as a base for the regional operations of the energy companies that operate the gas field — BP, Statoil of Norway and Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company — as well as oil-services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and JGC, the Japanese company that had employees among the hostages.

Mr. Belmokhtar is believed to have been involved in a series of kidnappings of European tourists for ransom in 2003, but obtaining money does not seem to have been the main purpose of the gas field raid; rather, he reportedly claimed a political motive.

“We in Al Qaeda announce this blessed operation,” Mr. Belmokhtar says in the video he issued on Sunday, according to Sahara Media, a regional Web site that sometimes receives communications from radical Islamists in North Africa. Sahara Media quoted from the video in its report, but did not immediately post the video.

The Web site said Mr. Belmokhtar offered to negotiate with “the West and the Algerian government, provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims” — a reference to the French-led military intervention in Mali. The statement was dismissed by Algerian authorities on Sunday.

Even so, it was another signal that the events at the gas field were linked in some way to those in Mali. French forces have stepped in there to assist the Malian Army and other African troops as they try to roll back the advance of radical Islamists who have carved out a ministate in the north.

That campaign is preceding largely through airstrikes against columns of Islamist pickup trucks; French television showed images on Sunday of incinerated vehicles in Diabaly, a town that was overrun and then abandoned by the jihadists after French strikes throughout the week.

French officials aid the main task for now was to stabilize central Mali and ensure that there was no further attempt by the Islamist rebels to move south toward the capital, Bamako.

Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger and Scott Sayare from Paris, Alan Cowell and Stanley Reed from London, Floyd Whaley from Manila, Martin Fackler from Tokyo, Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from New York.
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« Reply #4151 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:05 AM »

French military seeks ‘total reconquest of Mali’

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 20, 2013 14:18 EST

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday the end goal of France’s military action in Mali was to retake control of the whole country from Islamist militants who have seized the north.

“The goal is the total reconquest of Mali. We will not leave any pockets” of resistance, Le Drian said on France 5 television.

“The goal is to ensure that AFISMA, the African force, can take the baton from our own intervention,” he said.

Asked if French forces could move as far north as Timbuktu, Le Drian indicated that it was up to African forces to get there first.

“If necessary, the African forces can appeal for support from French forces when they arrive in Timbuktu,” he said.

Le Drian also said Malian forces had not yet been able to retake the town of Diabaly, seized nearly a week ago by Islamists and then heavily bombed by French planes.

“At this moment the city of Diabaly has not yet been retaken by Malian forces,” he said, adding, the situation there should improve “in the hours to come”.

“The Malian army with the support of French ground forces are approaching Diabaly,” the minister said.


French and Malian troops enter Diabaly after jihadists retreat

Malian army officers warn local population may still be loyal to Islamist fighters taking refuge in surrounding forests

Kim Willsher in Paris, Monday 21 January 2013 13.09 GMT   

French and Malian troops have entered the contested town of Diabaly in the west of the country after the retreat of Islamist fighters. About 30 tanks and armoured vehicles carrying 200 soldiers entered the town without resistance, French media reported.

Locals, some of whom came out of their homes to welcome the French and Malian forces, said the jihadists had fled Diabaly after French warplanes bombarded their positions last Thursday.

However, Malian army officers warned that some of the population remained loyal to the Islamist fighters, some of whom were said to have taken refuge in forests around the town to wait for reinforcements.

One Malian officer said the French and Malian troops had been advised to remain on high alert over the next few hours.

Diabaly, about 250 miles north of the Malian capital, Bamako, was occupied by the jihadists a week ago. Diabaly and the strategic towns of Niono and Sévaré, which has an airport, are reported to be in the hands of the French-Malian forces.

The aim of France's military intervention in the west African state of Mali is to reclaim the country from Islamic fundamentalists, Paris has said.

The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said the objective was to "totally reconquer" Mali. "We're not going to leave any pockets (of resistance)," he told France 5 state television, as the French Operation Serval entered its 11th day.

Le Drian said French forces had four orders. "The first is to stop the progression of terrorist groups," he said, either by air strikes or ground forces. This mission, he said, was "unfolding agreeably".

The second mission consists of "French air forces hitting the terrorist base" in the region of Gao and Timbuktu, to prevent the Islamic extremists from regrouping and resupplying.

Thirdly, he said, France wanted to guarantee security in Bamako, including institutions, the (local) population and French citizens. The final goal is to "help the Malian forces to organise a structure and enable Misma (the west African intervention force) to work together "to reach the total reconquering of Mali".

"The French forces have these four missions to fulfil at the same time and I must say that at the moment they are doing well," the minister added.

France has mobilised 2,300 troops for Operation Serval, named after a small African wildcat. Of these, 1,800 soldiers are already in country fighting alongside the under-equipped Malian forces.

France has called on other west African countries to "pick up the baton" and send troops to the region. So far, 250 soldiers from Nigeria and Togo have joined the Franco-Malian forces.

The north of Mali has been controlled by three groups of Islamic fundamentalists who have imposed sharia law since April 2012.

On Monday, French and Malian forces were said to be "progressing towards the north", and the Islamists' strongholds.

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« Reply #4152 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:06 AM »

January 20, 2013

North Africa Is a New Test


WASHINGTON — The bloody resolution of the hostage crisis in Algeria has brought into focus the broader challenges the United States and its allies face in confronting terrorist cells that have taken up sanctuary across northern Africa.

The United States and France have been courting Algeria for months, hoping to secure its support for an international effort to evict Islamic militants out of northern Mali.

But the militants’ advance south, which set off an appeal for the French military intervention by the Mali government, and the hostage-taking at a gas-producing complex in the Sahara to the north have caught the United States by surprise and prompted fresh White House vows to combat terrorism in the region.

In taking on the militants, Western nations are confronting multinational bands that are often able to move with relative freedom across porous African borders. And those cells have many inviting targets to choose from: the region is rich with oil, gas, uranium and other international ventures that clearly represent Western interests and in some cases are poorly defended.

Also, with the United States and Britain determined not to send troops to Mali, and the French hoping to avoid an open-ended deployment there, Western nations must rely heavily on the forces of local nations who are not always open to outside advice.

Rudolph Atallah, a former Pentagon counterterrorism official, noted that one major terrorist group in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had slowly branched out across borders. “To dismantle their network, the United States and its allies, African and European, will need a well-thought-out regional strategy,” he said.

Forging that strategy will be far from easy, given those involved. The Algerians have an able, if heavy handed, military, but have not been eager to cooperate extensively with the United States or their neighbors. Libya’s new government appears willing to cooperate but has little ability. Mali has little military ability and any enduring solution needs to be crafted with an eye to internal politics.

The harsh political realities of operating in Africa were evident during the hostage crisis in Algeria. Calculating that Algeria’s cooperation will be needed for the campaign against the militants in Mali, both France and the United States were careful not to complain that the Algerians had mounted their hostage rescue operation without consultation, nor did they complain about the tactics.

“Algeria has an approach which to me, as I see it, is the most appropriate because there could be no negotiation,” President François Hollande of France said Saturday.

Both France and the United States want Algeria to seal its borders with Mali, and France wants Algeria to continue to allow French planes to overfly its territory.

As the independent inquiry into the attack on the American mission in Benghazi observed, the Qaeda affiliate in North Africa and other militant factions in the region increasingly represent the new face of terrorism — groups that are violently anti-American but not under the command and control of Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb started out as an Algerian group that was fighting the Algerian government. Pushed out of Algeria, it found a sanctuary in northern Mali as did militants who left Libya following the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The initial French and American strategy was to keep a low profile in the region, while training African troops who would be sent to Mali to contend with the Qaeda-affiliated militants.

There were growing signs that North Africa was becoming more dangerous. A Western security expert who was asked to assess the threat to Algeria’s oil complex last year had reported an “elevated” risk due to the militants in Mali.

Still, the American and French plan assumed that the threat posed by the militants in Mali would be slow to build and that the West had time to organize an African military response — the plan had been to deploy it in September this year.

But the militants’ offensive in Mali and the attack in Algeria has demonstrated that the groups have a broader reach than anticipated and are prepared to take the offensive. The French intervention that followed has introduced a new variable in the equation.

“The ground has completely shifted,” said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University.

The Obama administration, which has sent 100 trainers to an array of African nations to help prepare African troops for their mission alongside the French in Mali, appears to be weighing how energetically to support the French military effort.

With the Americans still scrambling to determine just what happened in Algeria and to identify their dead, the United States has yet to detail how it plans to adapt its Africa strategy.

Experts say that any regional strategy needs to help African nations better secure their borders, both to limit the movement of militant factions and to reduce drug smuggling, which is one of their main forms of raising revenue.

Targeting the militant leaders who are responsible for most of the attacks is essential, Mr. Atallah said.

But he stressed that an enduring solution in Mali requires a political accommodation between the Mali government and the Tuaregs, a nomadic people in northern Mali, and ensure that Mali’s armed force does not use the counterterrorism campaign as an excuse to repress them.

The problem of human rights abuses remains a nagging concern for any Western-supported military intervention. Human Rights Watch recently reported that the militant groups in northern Mali have recruited several hundred children to use as soldiers, and added that some children were at checkpoints that had been bombed by French aircraft.

With the White House largely focused on domestic issues and officials long wary about expanding the American military footprint in the region, some of the barrier to action may be self-imposed.

Mr. Hoffman said that the United States should consider stepping up its support for the French intervention by providing additional logistical support and perhaps making use of drones so that the French military can better carry out its operations and hand over the mission as soon as possible to African troops.

“I do not think the U.S. involvement has to be extensive,” he said. “I do think we need to be more proactive.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.
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« Reply #4153 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:13 AM »

January 21, 2013

Syria Opposition Postpones Formation of Transitional Government


Almost two years into their ever bloodier uprising against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, his exiled adversaries met in Istanbul on Monday and said that they had again postponed the formation of a transitional government, an apparent setback to their plans to fill the power vacuum created by months of civil war.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile opposition group, gathered on Saturday to try to mold a transitional government. While the organization has won broad recognition among its foreign backers as Syria’s sole legitimate representative, it has not yet solidified support among rebels fighting on the ground or begun planning for a post-Assad future.

The Western and Arab nations that pressured Mr. Assad’s adversaries into a reorganization last year had urged the coalition to select a prime minister, but no candidate has won a consensus.

A statement by the National Coalition on Monday said it had formed a five-member committee to draw up proposals for a transitional government within 10 days.

The panel is to “lead consultations” with rebel commanders, foreign backers and others seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Coalition members met in Cairo last month and also failed to form a government, saying instead that they would create a committee to work on the idea.

In Syria, meanwhile, the government accused rebels of attacking an important power line, prompting a blackout that affected Damascus, the capital, areas to the north and a swath of territory reaching south to the Jordanian border.

SANA, the official news agency, quoted Electricity Minister Imad Khamis as saying the outage was “caused by a terrorist attack on a main electricity cable.”

Power returned early on Monday to some parts of the capital, The Associated Press reported. Like shortages of gasoline and cooking gas, The A.P. said, power outages serve as frequent reminders of the war that has engulfed much of the rest of the country, showing that while Mr. Assad’s forces still control the capital, they face growing challenges to provide basic services.

The latest blackout was the first to affect the entire city, residents were quoted as saying.

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.
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« Reply #4154 on: Jan 21, 2013, 08:17 AM »

January 20, 2013

An Election in Israel Unusual for What Isn’t Being Discussed


MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank — From the deck of a new cafe at the edge of this sprawling Jewish settlement, customers gaze out at a large patch of desert that is the latest point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People here, and in the Israeli leadership, hope that the land will soon become an unbroken chain of roads and homes linking their community to Jerusalem. But Palestinians — along with much of the world — see it as a critical part of their future state.

Yet a few days before the Israeli national elections on Tuesday, many of the settlers here said the existential question of what would happen in the West Bank was not their top concern. In this campaign, voters here and elsewhere said, the issues that have been staples of Israeli politics for generations have been largely invisible, and social values or pocketbook concerns have been front and center. “Sometimes you have to know there is no solution right now, put that aside and think of other things,” said Shlomo Cohen, 46, a landscaper who wears the signature knitted skullcap of the so-called national-religious sector.

If there is a consensus among voters and analysts alike of what by most accounts has been a moribund campaign, it is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to win a third term, despite a gaping deficit, despite a stalemated peace process, despite having a political partner indicted on fraud charges and even though he waged a war with Gaza to mixed reviews.

The headlines from Israel’s 2013 campaign have been about the failure of a fragmented center and left to field a credible challenger to Mr. Netanyahu, and the emergence of an emboldened national-religious party with a hard-line position on the Palestinian conflict. As the Middle East’s most stable democracy turns inward, experts say a growing majority of Israelis have given up on the land-for-peace paradigm that has defined the debate for decades, cementing the country’s shift to the right in politics, policy and public discourse. That promises to complicate Mr. Netanyahu’s already strained relations with President Obama, as Israel faces international condemnation for its continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

“Israeli society today is in despair,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “And despair is a dangerous political place, because despair can yield extreme temptations.”

It has been the least competitive election in memory, and the least substantive; one columnist wrote Sunday that “an indifferent and yawning Israel” was heading to the polls. Each party seems to be on a different playing field, in terms of priorities, as Mr. Netanyahu’s dominant Likud-Beiteinu faction has campaigned neither on issues nor accomplishments, failing to even produce a formal platform, but on the simple theme of strength. Experts say there is an unusually high percentage of undecided voters in the campaign’s final days.

Bambi Sheleg, a religious former settler who now runs a centrist magazine, Eretz Acheret, said the campaign is “like a plaster over the real issues.” David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the 2013 vote was Israel’s “Seinfeld election” — about nothing — and said it would yield no clear policy mandate, giving the new government “maximum flexibility.” Etgar Keret, a celebrated Tel Aviv short story writer and filmmaker, lamented a lack of “urgency or passion” among the candidates.

“In a metaphorical way, we are choosing the new captain of the Titanic,” Mr. Keret said. “When you say to them, ‘What about the fact that there is water coming in,’ they say, ‘You know, I really don’t want to talk about that.’ Right now we really don’t need a prime minister who will continue sailing our ship to the horizon, we need somebody who will know what to do when our ship hits an iceberg.”

One immediate challenge for the new government will be a $10 billion deficit. The divisive matter of whether ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens should go into the military or perform national service, punted by Mr. Netanyahu last summer, is also looming. The prime minister has said the time to decide whether to strike Iran’s nuclear program is this spring or summer. And then there is the perennial Palestinian question, with European leaders promising renewed pressure to return to negotiations even as the militant Hamas faction seems to be gaining strength.

An average of the public polls published Thursday and Friday suggests that candidates from Likud-Beiteinu will win 35 of Parliament’s 120 seats, down from its current 42. The next largest party looks like left-leaning Labor, with average 16 seats, followed by 14 for the new Jewish Home party, whose charismatic leader and hawkish stance on the Palestinians have been the most volatile aspects of the campaign.

Perhaps more important, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties are expected to total 62 to 71 seats, according to the polls, leaving Mr. Netanyahu in a strong position to form the next government, though it remains unclear whether he will reach out to the center or stick with staunch conservatives.

“Now’s the time to come together to tackle the big issues,” said David M. Weinberg, a Likud supporter who helps run the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He suggested that Mr. Netanyahu begin by inviting Tzipi Livni, the centrist former foreign minister, into his government, saying that by doing so he “would recapture his place as one of Israel’s strongest leaders.”

Many analysts see the campaign as a watershed on two fronts: the collapse of the center-left and the rise of the national-religious community — also called religious Zionists — mainly through Jewish Home, which advocates annexing the part of the West Bank where most settlers live.

In the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s strength, the opposition failed to unite behind a single candidate, or even agree on an agenda. Instead, the center-left leaders spent much of their time discussing whether they would join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

“From my point of view, it’s worse than the right,” said Tzaly Reshef, a Jerusalem lawyer who helped found the Peace Now movement. “With the right what you see is what you get.”

On the right, Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home emerged as the darling of the campaign, attracting voters with his hawkish policies and his persona: he is 40, wears a knitted skullcap, was an officer in an elite army unit and made millions in high-tech before entering politics.

Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent national-religious leader, said Mr. Bennett echoes the secular kibbutz pioneers who built Israel in the 1950s, “but with kippa, with yarmulke on the head.”

“This is the new population of the religious Zionists: a new generation grew up and said, ‘We don’t want to be secondary, we want to lead,’ ” Rabbi Lau said. “It’s a question of self-identity, not the policy but the place they want to take on the stage. This is why so many young people want to vote for that. They want to be proud.”

Yedidia Z. Stern, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that another way to understand Israel’s shift is to look at the probable makeup of the next Parliament, which is expected to have 40 to 50 new members, the largest turnover in its history. About 40 lawmakers will be Orthodox, Mr. Stern said, nearly half of them living in West Bank settlements. Only one kibbutz resident, himself a former settler, is expected to make it.

“This Parliament will be populated by many extremists,” Mr. Stern said. “The politics of identity are becoming more and more sharp. Every sector wants to rule, not just survive. Everyone thinks their way is the best for all the Jews.”

Over cappuccinos and fruit shakes at the cafe here in Maale Adumim on Friday, Yafit Hayon, 43, who works for the Jerusalem municipality, said she is ardently supporting Mr. Netanyahu because “he will take care of Maale Adumim; he won’t return it.”

But at the next table, Rivi and Yedidya Zuntz, teachers who backed Mr. Netanyahu in 2009, are moving further to the right to support Mr. Bennett. “He reflects my religious side more,” said Mr. Zuntz, 40. “Bennett’s values are important to me.”


January 20, 2013
Rightist Israeli Candidate’s Remarks Cause Stir

JERUSALEM — Snippets of a 2011 video broadcast on Israeli television over the weekend showed an American-born Israeli who is now a candidate on the rightist Jewish Home ticket in Tuesday’s elections contemplating how “incredible” it would be if a landmark Muslim shrine were blown up, making way for a new Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The video clip stirred up a storm in the Israeli news media and focused attention on some of the lesser-known members of the Jewish Home, which has become the only dynamic force in an otherwise lethargic campaign. Projected to win 12 to 16 seats in Parliament, based on recent polls, the party is also a likely candidate to join the governing coalition.

During a November 2011 lecture about biblical prophecies at the Fellowship Church in Winter Springs, Fla., Jeremy Gimpel, who is now a Jewish Home candidate, told the audience: “Imagine today if the dome, the Golden Dome — I’m being recorded so I can’t say blown up — but let’s say the dome was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine? I mean, none of you would be here, you’d all be like, I’m going to Israel, right? No one would be here. It would be incredible!”

Under the leadership of Naftali Bennett, a former elite army commando and high-tech entrepreneur, Jewish Home has tried to appeal to as broad a cross section of Israelis as possible, presenting itself as moderate and friendly to secular Israelis despite its hawkish position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its emphasis on Jewish heritage and education. Its detractors have been trying to highlight the party’s links to some radical elements of the settlement movement in the West Bank.

Mr. Gimpel, 32, a cleanshaven ordained rabbi and pro-Israel advocate abroad, placed 14th on the Jewish Home list. As a native speaker of English who moved to Israel with his parents from Atlanta when he was 11, he has worked mainly on the party’s outreach to English-speaking immigrants and was largely unknown to Israelis — until now.

In an exclusive interview with Israel’s Channel 2 news on Sunday, Mr. Gimpel, who lives in a settlement in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, said that he was not a politician at the time of his 2011 lecture, that he simply gave a Bible lesson on the Book of Ezra and that his remarks were intended as a “parody of the fanatics” who call for blowing up the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem. “Obviously I oppose such a thing,” he said. “It was meant as a joke.”

A spokesman for the Jewish Home did not return calls seeking comment.


Israel orders Palestinian protest camp removed

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 20, 2013 17:02 EST

The Israeli army ordered Palestinian demonstrators on Sunday to evacuate a protest encampment in the West Bank consisting of four tents and a building under construction, a military spokesman said.

Three of the tents and the building near the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa were on land owned by the Jewish state, and the fourth tent was on the route of a planned separation barrier, the spokesman told AFP.

Activists on Friday set up the encampment to protest against Israel’s intention to confiscate at least 124 acres (50 hectares) of land near the village, located on the northwestern outskirts of Jerusalem.

The activists said they were naming the village extension Bab al-Karama, Arabic for Gate of Dignity.

About 100 residents and activists were at the site when Israeli soldiers issued the “invasion removal orders,” and minor scuffles broke out before the troops left the scene.

One of the organisers, Saeed Yaqin, told AFP that “the first thing we did was to tear up the order and throw it in the soldiers’ faces. We and all the Palestinian people object and reject the military order.”

“This is the first time since 1967 somebody’s torn up a military order,” he said.

“The land here is under occupation, and international law prohibits touching it,” Yaqin added.

Bab al-Karama was inspired by a separate Palestinian protest camp of 24 tents set up on a disputed piece of land on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem that was dismantled by police last week.

Activists had established the camp, which they dubbed Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun in Arabic, also in a bid to draw attention to Israeli plans to build in the area, known as E1.

The army spokesman called the Beit Iksa encampment “a provocation intended to undo order in the West Bank.”

“If they want to protest the route of the separation barrier, which was approved by legal authorities in Israel, they can appeal to a court, which in the past has more than once ordered the route changed,” he added.

Israel is constructing a barrier between itself and the Palestinian territories which is intended to completely encircle Jerusalem.

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