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« Reply #4245 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:03 AM »

NATO deploys Patriot as warplanes hit Syria capital

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 13:39 EST

NATO declared that a Patriot missile battery went operational on Turkey’s border with Syria on Saturday, as a watchdog reported regime warplanes launched raids on a Damascus district.

Britain, meanwhile, pledged a multi-million dollar aid package to help Syrian civilians, nearly half of which would be channelled through agencies in Jordan where a record 6,400 refugees arrived on Friday.

The UN, which says the 22-month conflict has killed more than 60,000 people, estimates the number of refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries will double to 1.1 million by June, if the bloodshed continues.

In northern neighbour Turkey, NATO said one of six batteries of Patriot missiles deployed to protect against a spillover of the conflict went into operation on Saturday.

The battery, provided by The Netherlands, would “help to protect the (southern) city and people of Adana against missile threats,” it said, adding the other five batteries should be ready in the coming days.

Ankara and NATO have stressed the deployment is for defensive purposes only, while Damascus and its ally Moscow have criticised the measure. The US-made missiles can take out cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as aircraft.

On the ground in Syria, the violence raged unabated on Saturday between rebel fighters and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

The air force raided rebel positions nationwide, including in an eastern district of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists said.

“Warplanes carried out three air raids on the outskirts of Hermela area in Jobar,” reported the Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists on the ground.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers, reported strikes on Jobar and the outlying region of Eastern Ghuta, where rebels have their rear bases.

At least four civilians were killed in air raids on the northern rebel city of Al-Bab, while similar strikes were reported in Daraa province in the south.

Warplanes also bombed the opposition stronghold of Qusayr in central Syria, where nine rebels were killed defending the town against an army onslaught.

The insurgents are working to keep control of Qusayr and nearby Rastan after being largely driven from their position in Homs city, which suffered bombardments for the past half year and where more than 100 people died amid an army offensive in the last seven days.

Driven from large swathes of land in the north and east by rebels, the regime is focused on maintaining its grip on the key axis from Damascus to Homs, and on to the coastal Alawite heartland.

Troops have meanwhile been forced to relinquish vast stretches of territory in the north and the east.

Near the northwestern city of Idlib on Saturday, rebels freed more than 100 inmates as they battled troops at a major prison, the Observatory said, reporting 10 insurgents killed since the attack began the day before.

Unverified videos posted online by activists showed dozens of prisoners escaping to an outdoor area of the prison, protected by rebels, as gunfire and explosions are heard.

Other green night-vision footage apparently from inside the prison showed bombed-out cells and dead inmates on the floor. Prisoners said they were summarily executed by soldiers.

The rebels did not take control of the prison, located west of the regime-held provincial capital, the Observatory said.

International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced Britain’s £21 million ($33 million, 25 million euros) of aid for Syrian civilians after a visit to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.

Greening implored other nations to step up aid at donor conference in Kuwait on January 30 to stem the humanitarian fallout from the brutal conflict that erupted in March 2011.

“Warm words won’t provide the shelter and support that Syrian refugees need. Money will,” she said. “This is a man-made crisis. That man is Assad.”


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« Reply #4246 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:06 AM »


How cigarette smuggling fuels Africa's Islamist violence

Contrabrand tobacco is a $1bn trade in north Africa, run by extremists including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who masterminded the attack on the Algerian gas plant. The trade is highly profitable – and very low risk

Jamie Doward   
The Observer, Sunday 27 January 2013      

For many years Mokhtar Belmokhtar was little more than a footnote in the intelligence reports analysing the increasingly muscular presence of Islamist groups in Saharan Africa.

The man whose al-Qaida-inspired Signed in Blood Battalion led the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which at least 38 people were killed, was considered a relatively unimportant figure in the political ecosystem of the vast region. But Belmokhtar, who fought for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Islamist GIA in the Algerian civil war before becoming a commander in the Mali-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was ambitious.

In 2003 he masterminded the kidnapping of 32 European tourists whom he successfully ransomed. The money gave him the seed capital he needed to develop a sophisticated trading business throughout Saharan Africa, along the ancient 2,000-mile salt route used by the Tuareg tribesmen to transport goods from the continent's west coast through to Timbuktu in Mali, then on to Niger before arriving in the Algerian south, gateway to the Mediterranean.

But while the Tuareg made their money in trading salt, gold and silk, Belmokhtar, who secured close links with the tribesmen through marriages to the daughters of several of their most prominent families, made a fortune through a different commodity: smuggled cigarettes. Such was the volume of his trade that he earned himself the sobriquet "Mr Marlboro".

"He was not an important figure in AQIM, he was quite different from al-Qaida and Bin Laden," said Morten Bøås, a senior research fellow at Oslo University and editor of African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine. "He is generally known as one of the more pragmatic figures, more interested in filling his own pockets than fighting jihad."

The key role cigarettes play in facilitating terrorism has been inexplicably ignored. But it has become of urgent interest to western intelligence agencies as they seek to check al-Qaida's diverse factions operating across the Saharan region.
Tracking the contraband flow in Africa Source: UNODC 2009. Credit: Observer graphics

Indeed, after interviewing numerous agents and experts in the field, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has concluded that "cigarette smuggling has provided the bulk of financing for AQIM". AQIM's affiliates include Ansar al-Sharia, an offshoot blamed for the killing of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, Libya, last year, and was thought to be behind threats last week that prompted the Foreign Office to urge Britons to leave the city.

The total value of the illicit tobacco trade in north Africa is thought to exceed $1bn (£632m). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that Africans smoke 400bn cigarettes a year, of which 60bn are bought on the black market.

However, five countries – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – smoke 44% of Africa's cigarettes, and their black markets are significantly larger. More than three-quarters of all cigarettes smoked in Libya, for example, are illicit.

Controlling the flow of contraband into these counties has triggered a turf war as Belmokhtar and other AQIM factions compete with each other, as well as with Tuareg tribes and corrupt army and government officials, in an attempt to "own" the trade. Some of the cigarettes transported across Saharan Africa are fakes produced in China and Vietnam. But most are genuine branded product, sourced through the Middle East and shipped through a multitude of countries via a Byzantine network of middle-men and companies, many in offshore tax havens.

The cigarettes often enter west Africa through Ghana, Benin and Togo. A second route is via Guinea, where the supply, according to UNODC, vastly exceeds the country's demand. The cigarettes are then moved to Mali by road or by boat on the Niger river, where there is little risk of detection. A third distribution hub – for Senegal, Morocco and Algeria – is provided by Mauritania.

In each case, Mr Marlboro and AQIM clean up, either by charging a "tax" for the safe passage of the cigarettes along the salt route, or facilitating their transport, using 4x4s, trucks, motorcycles and even bicycles.

Often the smuggled products are not a premium western brand, such as Marlboro, but one of the cheaper, less prestigious marques that the tobacco giants are keen to introduce to developing nations as a way of gaining a foothold in their markets.

Inevitably, the endemic smuggling of cigarettes in such countries has raised questions about the role played by big tobacco, and in particular the extent to which it should be made responsible for distribution routes being used to fill the coffers of some of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.

Internal company memos show that in the 1980s British American Tobacco in Africa used a Liechtenstein-based company, Sorepex, as a key distributor. BAT documents reveal that the company saw Sorepex as a "gravy train" and a way of providing "cover, albeit increasingly flimsy, for BAT in some fairly shady business". The company insists that it condemns all forms of smuggling.

In 2002, RJ Reynolds, owner of the Winston brand, was accused by the EU of selling its products in Iraq in breach of embargoes. The cigarettes were allegedly smuggled into the country by the PKK (Kurdish Workers' party), named by the American government as a terrorist group. Documents allegedly revealed that the cigarettes were transported from the US and shipped to Spain and then to Cyprus and Turkey before arriving in Iraq. The case is currently before a federal appeal court in the US.

More recently, Japan Tobacco confirmed last year that it is being investigated by the EU amid claims it broke sanctions by shipping cigarettes to a firm linked to the Syrian regime. The company has denied any wrongdoing.

Experts say that the profits provided by cigarette smuggling fuel other criminal activities, including drug, oil and human trafficking, activities which often use the same distribution networks. But cigarettes remain the most profitable and least risky form of contraband. As Louise Shelley, a crime expert at Washington's George Mason university, told the ICIJ: "No one thinks that cigarette smuggling is too serious, so law enforcement agencies don't spend resources to go after it."

This helps explain why terrorist groups exploit the illicit trade. According to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the IRA made as much as $100m between 1999 and 2004 by smuggling cigarettes into Northern Ireland. Hezbollah ran a successful smuggling operation in the US, shipping cigarettes from low-tax North Carolina to higher- tax Michigan.

"Tobacco smuggling is lucrative and widespread," said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the charity Action on Smoking and Health. "It helps to fund global terrorism and conflict, encourages corruption and remains a source of funds for some of the most repressive regimes in the world."

Intelligence experts told the Observer that pushing illicit cigarettes into north Africa was at the "low end" of cigarette smuggling. The real money, they said, comes from shipping big-brand products back into Europe via Greece, Spain or sometimes Italy. So far, this is believed to be a small but growing market for the smugglers.

While there is no suggestion that the tobacco giants are actively working with terrorist groups, monitoring where their products end up is extremely difficult. The companies' use of well-connected middlemen makes tracing their cigarettes almost impossible. Documents shared with the Observer by intelligence experts show how one middleman, who regularly buys product from a major tobacco company, has a complex operation involving offices, warehouses and bank accounts in Cyprus, Brussels, Dubai, Malaysia, Egypt, Israel, Uruguay, Panama and Singapore that allows him to move cigarettes around the world without being traced.

"Those providing 'protection' along the routes – often customs officers or security services, but in some instances 'terrorists' – make good money for little or no work," said one intelligence expert who has worked in counter-smuggling operations. "What's best for them is that the trade is either in US dollars or euros. It's hard currency into clean accounts which they can then use at their leisure to buy whatever they need."

Experts want countries to ratify the international treaty on the illicit trade in tobacco that would force cigarette companies to monitor and trace the distribution of their products while conducting due diligence on their customers.

"The only way you can effectively police this is if the manufacturers accept legal responsibility for their products all along the chain of supply – that will force them to deal with reputable agents," said Eric LeGresley, a Canadian lawyer who has studied tobacco companies.

Ironically, Belmokhtar may have been too successful at smuggling cigarettes. It is rumoured that late last year he was forced out of AQIM and his base in Mali after the organisation's leaders questioned his commitment to their cause. Mr Marlboro, they suggested, was more interested in money than ideals.

The slaughter in the Sahara may have been Belmokhtar's grotesque attempt to prove them wrong, something that has huge consequences for his smuggling operations.

"His days as a smuggler are over," Bøås predicted. "No bandits or traders will want to be within a kilometre of him now. They don't want to be targeted by American drones."

But, given the money at stake, there will be no shortage of others ready to take his place.
Tobacco and Terrorism

The Taliban Across the tribal belt of Pakistan, Taliban militias collect money from cigarette smugglers in exchange for allowing counterfeit Marlboro and cheap local brands into Afghanistan and China. Cigarettes have become an increasingly important source of financing for the groups, second only to the heroin trade, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

The PKK Charges a fee for every container of cigarettes allowed to pass through its territory. Controlled the flow of contraband cigarettes into Iraq during the 1990s; now controls the flood of counterfeit cigarettes out of the same country.

Farc The world's largest supplier of cocaine often uses its well established drug smuggling routes to move American cigarettes according to evidence given to the US Senate.

The CNDP In 2008, the UN claimed that The Congres National Pour la Defense du Peuple, a Tutsi-backed rebel group accused of atrocities, was being funded by Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, a tobacco tycoon who pleaded guilty to cigarette tax evasion charges in South Africa.

Sources: the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


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« Reply #4247 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:10 AM »

anuary 26, 2013

Israeli Official Hints Pentagon Plans May Make Lone Strike on Iran Unnecessary

By ISABEL KERSHNER
IHT

JERUSALEM — Israel’s departing defense minister, Ehud Barak, said that the Pentagon had prepared sophisticated blueprints for a surgical operation to set back Iran’s nuclear program should the United States decide to attack — a statement that was a possible indication that Israel might have shelved any plans for a unilateral strike, at least for now.

In an interview conducted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and published by The Daily Beast on Friday, Mr. Barak was asked if there was any way Israel could go to war with Iran over what many in the West believe is a nuclear weapons program without dragging in the United States.

Mr. Barak replied that there were more than just the two options — of full-scale war or allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability — in the event that sanctions and diplomacy failed.

“What we basically say is that if worse comes to worst, there should be a readiness and an ability to launch a surgical operation that will delay them by a significant time frame and probably convince them that it won’t work because the world is determined to block them,” he said.

Under orders from the White House, “the Pentagon prepared quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine, scalpels,” Mr. Barak added, referring to the ability to carry out pinpoint strikes.

Herbert Krosney, an American-Israeli analyst and the author of a book about the arming of Iran and Iraq, said Mr. Barak’s statement now “indicates that there is close cooperation” between Israel and the United States following months of tension between the country’s leaders (though military and intelligence services continued to work together closely).

“I think there is a realization in Israel that it would be extremely difficult for Israel to operate alone,” he said.

Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was pushing hard for the Obama administration to set clear “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike, infuriating the administration. And Mr. Barak repeatedly warned that because of Israel’s more limited military capabilities, its own window of opportunity to carry out an effective strike was closing.

It has appeared that Mr. Barak has drifted away from Mr. Netanyahu in recent months, sounding more conciliatory toward the Obama administration, but even the prime minister has become less antagonistic.

The Pentagon declined to comment on The Daily Beast report, but a senior defense official said, “The U.S. military constantly plans for a range of contingencies we might face around the world, and our planning is often quite detailed.” The official added, “That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”

In recent years, Mr. Barak and Mr. Netanyahu had become increasingly alarmed as Iran moved forward with a nuclear program that it says is solely for peaceful purposes, but that Israel, the United States and others believe is geared toward producing a bomb. The two men consistently emphasized Israel’s doctrine of self-reliance for such existential issues.

But faced with tough opposition from Washington and public criticism from a string of former Israeli security chiefs, the prospect of an imminent unilateral Israeli strike receded in recent months.

In the past few weeks Mr. Netanyahu campaigned for re-election in Israel as a strong leader who, among other things, had managed to persuade the world to deal with the Iranian threat.

Mr. Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party emerged weakened from the elections, with much of the Israeli electorate more focused on domestic issues. In a speech after the voting, he said, “The first challenge was and still is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” But he did not again threaten to go it alone.

In the interview last week, Mr. Barak did not specify what the Pentagon’s “scalpels” were. But there has been a broad effort at the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies to develop a series of options that could set back, though probably not halt, Iran’s nuclear progress.

The first was a covert plan called Olympic Games to undermine Iran’s nuclear enrichment plans with cyberattacks, according to participants in that program. The second layer of plans, American and other officials have said, involves covert means of interrupting the supply of uranium to Iran’s enrichment plants, or crippling the plants themselves. The biggest target is a deep underground plant called Fordo, near Qum. There, under a mountain, Iran is producing most of its medium-enriched uranium, which could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.

The site is hardened, and probably beyond Israel’s ability to destroy from the air. The United States recently added a weapon that officials believe could do significant damage: the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” a bomb that is designed to attack deep, hardened sites.

But the existence of any plans, officials note, does not indicate an intent to them carry them out.

Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.


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« Reply #4248 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:12 AM »

January 26, 2013

Iraq Parliament Votes to Keep Maliki From Seeking New Term

By YASIR GHAZI and TIM ARANGO
IHT

BAGHDAD — In the bloody aftermath of street protests that turned violent on Friday in Falluja, Iraq’s Parliament passed a law on Saturday intended to prevent Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki from seeking a third term.

The parliamentary move was the latest threat to Mr. Maliki’s hold on power and reflected rising anger among rivals over his leadership, but it appeared unlikely that the law, which would need to approved by Iraq’s president, would ever go into effect.

Mr. Maliki’s coalition in Parliament boycotted the vote, and an official close to the prime minister called it unconstitutional and vowed to appeal to the federal courts, which on paper are independent but in practice bend to Mr. Maliki’s will.

Sami al-Askari, a lawmaker from Mr. Maliki’s coalition, said the law would “not see the light of day” because, he said, it is unconstitutional. “We are not worried about the vote on this law,” Mr. Askari said.

The vote came after weeks of protests in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar resulted in violence on Friday, when the Shiite-led government’s security forces opened fire, leaving at least seven protesters in Falluja dead.

Dueling scenes that played out on Saturday — the hundreds of mourners who hoisted the coffins of dead protesters in the streets of Falluja and the lawmakers in Baghdad who cast votes in an attempt to limit the power of the prime minister — encapsulated the prevailing features of Iraqi public life after the long and costly American war: sectarianism, violence and political dysfunction.

Both events nudged Iraq further along the path of political instability before provincial elections in April, which will be the first test of Iraq’s fragile democracy at the voting booth since the departure of American forces at the end of 2011.

On Saturday, a curfew that had gone into effect on Friday in Falluja was lifted and, as the army withdrew from the city, one soldier was killed by sniper fire and another was wounded, according to a security official in Anbar. As mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” protesters set fire to an army checkpoint.

During the clashes on Friday, two soldiers were killed, and later three off-duty soldiers were kidnapped by gunmen and remained missing on Saturday, according to The Associated Press.

Mr. Maliki earned his second term as prime minister after a divisive political struggle and inconclusive elections in 2010, and it is not clear if he intends to seek a third term in 2014, when the next parliamentary elections are scheduled.

Last year, rivals unsuccessfully sought to oust Mr. Maliki from power through a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Yasir Ghazi reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Istanbul.


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« Reply #4249 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Peaceful rally in Azerbaijan broken up brutally by police

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 20:00 EST

Azerbaijan police on Saturday brutally dispersed an unauthorised rally in central Baku, beating up and arresting scores of people, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

Several dozen protesters briefly gathered in Baku’s central Sahil square to protest against the police using excessive force against peaceful protests.

But police halted the rally within 10 minutes, beating up and arresting dozens of people.

“We gathered to condemn illegal use of force against peaceful protesters,” one of the organisers, Radio Liberty journalist and pro-democracy activist Khadija Ismayilova, told AFP by phone.

Ismayilova was among those arrested.

Any display of public discontent or political dissent in the energy-rich ex-Soviet country draws a tough response from the regime of strongman President Ilham Aliyev.

On Thursday police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse thousands of people protesting against the local authorities in the central town of Ismayilli.

Aliyev’s government has long been accused of stifling free speech, jailing opponents and crushing dissent.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #4250 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:24 AM »

January 26, 2013

Former Prime Minister Is Elected President of Czech Republic

By DAN BILEFSKY
IHT

PRAGUE — Milos Zeman, a burly former leftist prime minister and economist known for his outspoken populism, was elected president of the Czech Republic on Saturday, becoming the country’s first popularly elected president.

The election of Mr. Zeman, 68, an avowed supporter of European integration, signals the end of the era of Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president for the past 10 years, whose vociferous skepticism of the European Union and scorn for the battle against climate change made him a sometimes awkward partner in Europe and the United States.

With all of the vote counted, Mr. Zeman, a feisty man of the people who is often seen with a glass of Czech beer, won 55 percent compared with 45 percent for Karel Schwarzenberg, a pipe-smoking prince who is foreign minister in the current center-right coalition government. During the campaign, Mr. Zeman linked Mr. Schwarzenberg to unpopular austerity measures, including tough spending cuts.

Speaking with characteristic bluntness after his victory was announced, Mr. Zeman said he wanted to be the president of all the Czechs, but “not of Godfather structures here,” an allusion to the country’s problems with corruption.

While the Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, the president influences foreign policy, makes central bank appointments and approves judges. Parliament used to select the winner.

The election campaign between a left-leaning populist and an urbane conservative deeply polarized the country. Mr. Schwarzenberg, retooled as a punk rocker in his campaign posters, struck a chord with middle-class urbanites yearning for a change. But it was Mr. Zeman who ultimately won the hearts of a majority of Czechs, buffeted by economic hard times.

Once considered an economic and democratic stalwart among the former Soviet bloc countries, the Czech Republic has been suffering from weak economic growth and a spate of corruption scandals.

Vaclav Havel, the hero of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism, died in late 2011, depriving the Czechs of their most celebrated moral leader. There is also a feeling of disappointment here that his revolution came up short.

Mr. Zeman is widely regarded as a canny pragmatist who, as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, helped modernize the economy, setting the stage for the country to join the European Union in 2004.

Petr Pithart, a former prime minister and lawyer, who has known Mr. Zeman for decades, said he was strong-willed and could prove to be an even more volatile presence in the Prague Castle, the seat of the Czech president, than the provocative Mr. Klaus. Mr. Zeman has indicated he will attend cabinet meetings and try to influence important legislation. Mr. Pithart predicted he would push the presidential powers to their limits and make life difficult for the government.

“Zeman is viewed as a relic of the past,” he said. “He plays on basic fears like xenophobia. He could prove to be a terrible nuisance for the government.”

During the campaign, he came under criticism after his supporters depicted Mr. Schwarzenberg as a foreigner because he had fled communist Czechoslovakia for Austria in 1948.

Mr. Zeman was also attacked by women’s rights advocates when he explained during a televised debate that raping female serfs had conferred an evolutionary advantage on “squires” that his rival Mr. Schwarzenberg, a prince, did not have. Mr. Zeman’s last name means squire in Czech.

While Mr. Zeman is seen as an avid supporter of close ties with the European Union and the United States, he is also perceived as being close to Moscow. In 2010, he suggested that Russia could become a member of the European Union in the next several decades.

Some analysts argue that a 1998 grand coalition agreement between the leftist Mr. Zeman and rightist Mr. Klaus entrenched links between powerful business interests and the main political parties that opened the door to endemic corruption.

Mr. Zeman is regarded as personally incorruptible, a perception solidified in the police surveillance recording of a notorious gangster who was caught complaining in March 2000 that Mr. Zeman could not be bribed, and wanted only “a sandwich, three pickles and for people to like him.”

Yet his sharp tongue has attracted controversy. When he was prime minister, he drew fire for comparing the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to Hitler. He has also heaped scorn on journalists, in the past labeling them “manure” and “hyenas.”

He has shrugged off criticism for his tendency to speak his mind, noting on occasion that his role model, Winston Churchill, had a much harsher vocabulary than his.

Mr. Zeman, who led a minority government when he was prime minister, has long been a presence on the Czech political scene. He gained prominence in August 1989 when, during the dying days of Communist Czechoslovakia, he wrote a strident article blasting the failure of the Communist economic system.

He had joined the Communist Party during the 1968 Prague Spring, a short-lived blossoming of freedom that was smashed by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by roughly 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops. Two years later he was kicked out of the party and lost his job as an economics professor, forcing him to make a living working for a sporting federation.

After the fall of Communism in 1989, he joined the Social Democratic Party, becoming its leader in 1993, and, five years later, prime minister.

After he failed to win the presidency in 2003, a contest won by Mr. Klaus, he retreated from politics to his dacha in the Czech countryside. But he was soon back meting out advice, delivered on camera in worn sweaters.

Zdenek Janek, 66, a retired construction worker from Zabcice, in South Moravia, said he voted for Mr. Zeman because he was a straight talker. “He is a reasonable man who understands economics, talks to the point and is a man of action.”

Mr. Zeman will take up his new role in March.

Hana de Goeij contributed reporting.


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« Reply #4251 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:28 AM »


World Economic Forum ends on warning note over 'complacency'

UBS chairman and top Chinese economist provide dissenting voices amid optimism of many speakers at Davos

Graeme Wearden in Davos
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 26 January 2013 23.05 GMT   

The World Economic Forum's annual meeting broke up on Saturday night amid warnings that attendees were too relaxed and optimistic about the state of the global economy.

Delegates left the congress centre in Davos with the words of Axel Weber, chairman of Swiss bank UBS, ringing in their ears. "In my view the mood [at Davos] borders on complacency," Weber said. "The mood has been good, in brackets too good to be true."

Many speakers at the four-day meeting at the Swiss ski resort predicted that the worst of the financial crisis was over, as stock markets continued to rally this week. Weber, though, warned that an unexpected event could easily puncture the mood, citing political events such as autumn's general election in Germany.

"My fear is that 2013 will be a repeat of 2012," explained Weber in a panel session to debate the global agenda for the next 12 months. He said that last year also began well, with companies posting solid financial results, before markets became gripped by fears that Greece would topple out of the eurozone.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was also cautious, describing the recovery as "fragile and timid".

Influential Chinese economist Li Daokui cited the disagreements in the US over its debts as a key risk to the global economy this year.

"In the eurozone we have had promises of action … In the US, my observation is that we've not even had promises," said Li, a former adviser to the People's Bank of China's Monetary Policy Committee. He suggested there was a 30% risk that the investor panic of summer 2011, when stock markets tumbled, would return this year if solid progress was not made in America.

Last Wednesday the US House of Representatives passed legislation suspending the legal limit on government borrowing for four months, which means the issue could dominate most of the first half of 2013.

Weber, the former head of the Bundesbank, also took issue with Mark Carney's assertion earlier in the day that monetary policy was not "maxed out".

"I think monetary policy now is too loose", Weber warned, saying investors were struggling to "price risk" now that central banks have expanded their balance sheets and pumped huge amounts of liquidity into the markets.

Frederico Curado, president of Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, agreed that businesses are much more confident about economic prospects. "Companies are sitting on probably unprecedented amounts of cash. Hopefully this optimism we are seeing will translate into investments."

Curado also reminded the Forum that the real economy needs further help, describing unemployment across the world as a "huge, huge issue for everyone."

***********

‘Under-represented’ women seek Davos equality

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 13:37 EST

One of the most noticeable aspects of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a gathering of the world’s top CEOs, politicians and officials, is the male dominance on the various panels.

Of the 2,500 movers and shakers who have descended on the picture-postcard Swiss ski resort, a mere 17 percent are women — a discrepancy that organisers tried to address on Friday by holding a top-level panel on gender equality.

While speeches by the likes of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and Forbes magazine’s world’s most powerful woman, and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, are highly anticipated, many believe Davos needs more equality.

“Only 17 percent of Davos participants are women. That is just a reflection of reality,” German Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen told AFP in an interview.

“Only the leaders of the world are here and women are represented far too little worldwide in positions of leadership,” complained the minister, 54, a close ally of Merkel and sometimes touted as a possible successor.

“Women are brilliantly educated, they have the ability but the glass ceiling is still very strong,” she added.

Artist Fernando Morales-de la Cruz has captured the inequality at Davos by creating a poster with 18 high profile women who attended last year’s shin-dig interspersed with just four men, to show what reality would be like if the gender balance was reversed.

Lagarde urged women to “speak out” against inequality and said obtaining more inclusion for women was an economic as well as a moral imperative.

“Gender inclusion is critically important, and, frankly, too often neglected by policymakers. In today?s world, it is no longer acceptable to block women from achieving their potential,” stressed the IMF chief.

“Think about it: women control 70 percent of global consumer spending,” she noted.

“The evidence is clear, as is the message: when women do better, economies do better,” added Lagarde.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) itself has put in place a quota since 2011 to address the problem, said Saadia Zahidi, a senior WEF director in charge of equality and it is beginning to show results, especially among younger participants.

Leading companies are required to select at least one woman executive among the five top-level representatives they send to Davos and Zahidi noted that while the situation was not ideal, it had at least improved.

“At the Annual Meeting 2013, approximately 17 percent of… participants are women, up from nine percent in 2002,” she told AFP.

Viviane Reding, from the European Commission, which aims to have a binding 40 percent quota for women on the boards of listed companies by 2020, hailed EU figures out on Friday showing female representation in business had risen.

She said that while quotas had been effective, she wished they were not necessary. But without them, it would take until 2060 to have equality in Europe’s boardrooms, she added.

German minister von der Leyen noted that quotas introduced in German politics had been successful and that they had given women “access to positions of leadership.”

“I think in a few years, we won’t need them any more,” she forecast.

And for her part, Lagarde, one of the world’s most influential women, said: “We must tear down all obstacles in the path of women, even the subconscious obstacles of the mind.”


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« Reply #4252 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:30 AM »


Italy: Rise and fall of the world’s oldest bank

25 January 2013
La Stampa Turin

Founded in 1472, the bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena has helped raise Siena's quality of life and governance to the top tier. The political and economic scandal that has erupted around the “MPS”, however, could mark the end of a system – and of an era.
Gianluca Paolucci

“Siena is in the red, and with shame,” remarks a keen observer of Siena affairs sitting outside a café, responding to the latest news of abysmal losses by the bank. The mood of the city today, it must be said, has been captured for almost seven hundred years in the cycle of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti hanging on the walls of the Palazzo pubblico, today's City Hall: the Effects of Good and Bad Government, which shows the city of the Sienese ruined and the countryside abandoned, should it ever suffer the ills of “bad government.”

Roberto Barzanti, grand old man of the local left and Communist Party (PCI) Mayor when Monte Paschi celebrated the 500th anniversary of its founding, attributes the ills of today to the “Sienese superstition” that the embrace between the bank and local political life would never be dissolved. “The transformation, in 1995, of the old institution of public law into a joint stock company was felt more painfully here than anywhere else,” said the former MEP.

“The Sienese have struggled to accept the split between the philanthropic activities of the ‘Monte’ and those of the bank proper, which should have been achieved by the creating, on the one hand, of a foundation, and on the other, of a publicly traded bank. When that finally did go through, things did certainly change – but everything has been tried to make sure that nothing really changes.”
Milking the cash cow

From that was born the “harmonious tangle”, these indissoluble links between the old Christian Democrats and the old Communist Party, the Church and Freemasonry, trade unionists and the bankers.

Appointments to the bank were decided at the meetings of the parties, and appointments to the town hall were decided at the bank. For the past 25 years, all the mayors of Siena have begun their careers at the Monte dei Paschi, except the last, Franco Ceccuzzi, who stayed in office just over a year and was also ushered out of it by the “Monte” crisis. The locals call the bank “Father Monte”, shrewd tongues the “milk cow”, and everyone tries to ensure that, when they pass by it, the bank does not deprive them of a little milk.

There used to a lot of milk, and for everyone: from 1995 to 2010, the Foundation handed out nearly €2bn “in the territory” for roads, heritage restorations, sports facilities, and for associations and their volunteers. All this was according to a fixed pay-out scheme, so that no one, whatever their political colour, could really have much to complain about.

Everything takes a tumble

The game was up a year ago, when the Foundation discovered that it was headed for a cliff edge. And from there, everything took a tumble. The local Democratic Party [inheritor of the PCI] fell apart during the budget presentation, when part of the mayor's coalition challenged the distribution of grants awarded by the Foundation and refused a vote of confidence in the (now former) mayor, Franco Ceccuzzi.

While the local political scene is being ripped apart by the debris of the “Siena system”, which is today in tatters, civil society is questioning its own future. The austerity imposed by the red ink in the accounts has led recently to drastic cuts in funding and sponsorships.

The first to pay the price has been the Siena Calcio football club, whose grants have been rudely cut, according to leaks, from €4m to €2m, and the basketball team, Mens Sana, the great passion of the Sienese, which has seen its grant slashed from €12m to €4m. But that's not all. Subsidies for the famous palio have been squeezed from €250,000 to less than €15,000 for each contrada [neighbourhood] competing. It may seem a minor thing, but it has a strong symbolic value.

“Paradoxically, the end of the era of largesse could have at least one silver lining,” blogs the “Heretic of Siena”, a valued and much-followed commentator on life in the city. “Everyone has to grasp now that an era is over, and for good.”


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« Reply #4253 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:35 AM »


'Human safaris' to end for Andaman tribe

Following an Observer report, India's supreme court has ruled that 'disgraceful' tourism must stop

Gethin Chamberlain   
The Observer, Sunday 27 January 2013   
   
Human safaris to see the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands have finally come to an end as the authorities there bow to domestic and international pressure.

For the first time in a generation, members of the tribe are able to wander through their jungle safe from the prying eyes of the tens of thousands of tourists who travel to the islands in the Bay of Bengal every year to view them.

India's supreme court last week ordered an end to the safaris that had scandalised the country and caused outrage around the world after they were exposed by the Observer last January.

Activists fighting to protect the reclusive Jarawa are hailing a ground-breaking victory. "We see this decision as an important victory in the campaign to stop the 'human safaris' around the world," said Survival International campaigner Sophie Grig. "It will stop the Jarawa being treated like animals in a zoo."

But, despite the celebrations, activists are still wary about the intentions of the Andaman authorities, who have fought tooth and claw against the ban. The supreme court has asked them to indicate whether they believe the tribe should remain in isolation or be assimilated, and have set 26 February as the date for another hearing.

"This is a very dangerous question, as it implies that this decision should rest with the authorities rather than with the Jarawa themselves," said Grig.

"History has shown that pushing tribal people into the mainstream robs them of their self-sufficiency and pride and leaves them struggling at the edges of society – diseases, suicides and addictions soar. This is not a future anyone wants for the Jarawa. They must be allowed to control the amount, and type, of contact they have with outsiders, and to choose what, if any, changes they make to their way of life."

The beginning of the end for the human safaris came last Monday, when two judges sitting at the supreme court in Delhi gave short shrift to attempts by the island's administration to keep the road open to tourists. "There is a total ban in the area," the bench ruled.

There are only about 400 members of the Jarawa tribe left in the thick jungles in the northern part of South Andaman island. Until about 15 years ago there was little contact between members of the tribe and Indian settlers, but the construction of the Andaman trunk road through the heart of the jungle in the 1980s had made it inevitable that the two groups would be brought into ever closer proximity.

The trunk road connects the capital, Port Blair, with Middle Andaman and North Andaman islands, and settlers argue that it is needed to carry essential supplies and to allow those living on the far side of the Jarawa reserve to be able to access medical services in the capital.

Opponents argue that the road brings the general population into unwanted contact with the Jarawa every day and should be closed. They claim that it has resulted in the Jarawa being exposed to diseases against which they have no natural protection.

But by far the biggest problem created by the road was the access that it provided to tourists – mostly Indian nationals – who were determined to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa. The daily convoys, ostensibly to see a limestone cave and mud volcano on Baratang island, quickly became known as human safaris.

In 2002 the supreme court ordered the closure of the road, but the island authorities refused to comply, despite repeated requests to do so from the UN commission on the human rights of indigenous peoples.

Last January the Observer published an investigation into the involvement of the authorities in the human safaris, accompanied by a video which was circulating on the islands, showing semi-naked women and children from the tribe being coerced into dancing for the amusement of tourists.

The publication caused consternation in India, with the government promising to bring an end to the 'human safaris'. The tribal affairs minister, Kishore Chandra Deo, condemned the practice as "disgraceful" and also called for exemplary punishment for those involved.


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« Reply #4254 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:38 AM »

January 26, 2013

Leader’s Visit Lifts a Village, Yet Lays Bare China’s Woes

By ANDREW JACOBS
IHT

LUOTUOWAN, China — Never before has grinding poverty had such a shiny silver lining. At least that is how the 600 corn farmers who inhabit this remote mountain hamlet in north China are feeling in the weeks since Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, dropped by to showcase their deprivation.

With a gaggle of local party chiefs and photographers in tow, Mr. Xi ducked into ramshackle farmhouses, patted dirt-smudged children on the head and, with little prompting, nibbled on a potato plucked from Tang Rongbin’s twig-fueled cooking fire.

“It was as if we had met Mao,” said a still-incredulous Mr. Tang, 69, who shares a bed with five family members.

The visit to this village in Hebei Province, broadcast on national television, was meant to highlight Mr. Xi’s concern for China’s rural poor. But it was also an important propaganda flourish intended to burnish the new leader’s bona fides as an empathetic man of the people.

“I want to know how rural life is here,” he said at one point as the camera lingered on the unvarnished details of the Tang family’s poverty: a single light bulb, a tattered straw ceiling, a huddle of grimy pots and mounds of detritus. “I want to see real life.”

But for all Mr. Xi’s celebrity wattage, the real manna began to rain down on Luotuowan after he and his entourage left. Money, quilts and pledges of government help have been pouring in from across the country. The government arranged for each household to receive $160 in cash, a bottle of cooking oil and a sack of rice, a precious commodity where corn gruel and corn cakes are often the main course.

That was just the beginning. A businessman from China’s northeast was so moved by Luotuowan’s suffering that he drove 500 miles with more cash and a carload of flat-screen televisions. A government work crew whitewashed the village’s stone walls, adding a band of turquoise paint for good measure.

Then came the government researchers, who were instructed to solve Luotuowan’s intractable poverty, perhaps by pursuing Mr. Xi’s suggestion that, with outside expertise, “the people can make yellow soil into gold.”

But whether the official visit by Mr. Xi, who was recently named Communist Party secretary and scheduled to be anointed president in March, will have a lasting impact on this isolated community — much less others like it — remains to be seen. The average per capita income here, about $160 a year, is less than half the official threshold for poverty, and it is a tiny fraction of the average urban income of slightly less than $4,000. Most young people have long since fled for jobs in distant cities.

The challenge to lift up impoverished backwaters like Luotuowan is a daunting one for the Communist Party, which has vowed to address a yawning wealth gap that some experts say threatens social stability, perhaps even the party’s hold on power. Although official statistics released this month suggested that income inequality has eased in recent years, many outside analysts say it has actually gotten worse, making China among the world’s most unequal societies.

In China’s rural hinterland, where half the nation’s 1.3 billion people live, incomes are, on average, less than a third of those in cities. During the 18th Party Congress in November that elevated Mr. Xi, Chinese leaders pledged to double per-capita incomes by 2020.

“The most arduous and heavy task facing China in completing the building of a moderately prosperous society is in rural areas, especially poverty-stricken regions,” Mr. Xi said during his visit to Luotuowan, which is 180 miles from Beijing.

Mr. Tang, at least, seemed convinced that Mr. Xi’s visit would somehow drastically improve their lives. “We have to believe something good will come of this,” Mr. Tang said. “Otherwise, why would the party secretary have come all the way here?”

Asked what the government had done before Mr. Xi’s visit, he paused and shook his head. “Not much,” he said.

Indeed, given China’s rampant corruption, another big question surrounding the antipoverty campaign, announced a few days after Mr. Xi’s visit, is how much of the additional $40 million that provincial authorities will funnel to Luotuowan and other villages in the surrounding county of Fuping next year will actually reach those in need.

While Chinese leaders certainly inhabit a cosseted world, tradition — and the tenets of good public relations — dictate that they occasionally mingle with the masses. According to popular lore, emperors would remove their dragon robes and venture out of the Forbidden City to see how their subjects were faring.

Mao’s choreographed rural tours were less successful, in part because the officials who arranged them often shielded him from peasant suffering, most notably during a famine, the result of an ill-conceived industrialization push, that began in the late 1950s and killed tens of millions.

“Every leader has their own way of doing it, but these days, they are surrounded by TV cameras,” said Lei Yi, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Wen Jiabao, the departing prime minister who is affectionately known as Grandpa Wen, played well to the cameras as he consoled victims of natural disasters or donned an apron to stuff dumplings alongside ordinary Chinese during the Lunar New Year holiday.

In contrast, President Hu Jintao, who leaves office in March, often comes off as wooden. It did not help that some of his encounters were poorly planned or clumsily staged. Two years ago, after he sought to spotlight the nation’s low-income housing program by visiting the apartment of a beneficiary, Internet sleuths accused the woman of living elsewhere and renting out the apartment for a $300 monthly profit. Despite her tearful denials to the state news media, the episode proved to be a public-relations debacle for Mr. Hu.

Mr. Xi, who is known as a princeling because of his pedigree as the son of a revolutionary hero, often displays a natural ease in the company of farmers and factory workers. Recently, party propagandists have worked hard to polish his image as a “secretary of the people.”

In a lengthy profile published last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency lingered on his years as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, when he lived in exile among the cave-dwelling inhabitants of a village in Shaanxi Province.

Once he became inured to the fleas and the arduous labor, Xinhua said, Mr. Xi helped transform the villagers’ lives by organizing a cooperative for blacksmiths and building a methane collection tank. “He arrived in the village as a slightly lost teenager and left as a 22-year-old man determined to do something for the people,” Xinhua wrote.

Mr. Xi’s arrival here in late December appears to have been relatively impromptu. Mr. Tang said he got only a half-hour warning that China’s most powerful official was arriving, although the village party chief, Gu Rongjin, said he had a week’s notice.

A jovial, gravel-voiced man, Mr. Gu, 60, says he lost count of the Chinese journalists, agricultural advisers and antipoverty specialists who have descended on the village in recent weeks. “In the beginning, I was getting calls at 2 in the morning,” he said over dinner at the large guesthouse he and his wife operate during the summer.

Some of the experts have proposed turning Luotuowan’s stony fields into walnut groves or ginseng farms; one ominously suggested that residents clear out so the area, which is surrounded by breathtakingly craggy mountains, can be developed as an eco-tourist destination.

“Once the weather warms up, the development will begin,” Mr. Gu said with gusto.

Down the road, Mr. Tang and his wife, Gu Baoqing, proudly re-enacted how Mr. Xi sat on their communal bed, legs crossed, and asked about their daily struggles, including details of Mr. Tang’s untreated ailments, including circulation problems and heart disease. “He had none of those officialdom airs,” his wife said.

To their surprise, a doctor from Beijing arrived a few days later and drove Mr. Tang to a hospital in the capital. He returned home with a bottle of medication, which he boasted costs about as much as he makes in a year.

But one detail tempered Mr. Tang’s elation: the complimentary pills would last only a month. Asked what he would do when they ran out, he seemed perplexed. “I guess I’ll just go without,” he said.

Patrick Zuo contributed research.


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« Reply #4255 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:44 AM »


January 26, 2013 04:00 PM

Iceland's President: Let Irresponsible Banks Go Bankrupt

By Susie Madrak
RawStory

Sure would be nice if the Obama administration was paying attention:

    Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson tells Al Jazeera's Stephen Cole that Europe should let banks that are ran "irresponsibly" go bankrupt. Speaking at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Grimsson also held his country as a model of economic recovery after its near-collapse four years ago. "We didn't follow the traditional prevailing orthodoxies. And the end result four years later is that Iceland is enjoying progress and recovery."

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTljJA_0Y6Y&feature=player_embedded

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« Reply #4256 on: Jan 27, 2013, 07:47 AM »

January 26, 2013

Rio’s Exploding Manholes Menace Residents and Highlight Aging Infrastructure

By SIMON ROMERO and TAYLOR BARNES
IHT

RIO DE JANEIRO — David McLaughlin was thrilled to be in Brazil. He had arrived here from Ohio State University on a Fulbright grant to research Brazilian hip-hop music with his wife, Sarah Lowry, a scholar of Russian literature. The graduate students, newlyweds, set out one morning in June 2010 to search for an apartment in the beachfront neighborhood of Copacabana.

Then, while crossing a bustling avenue, the asphalt under their feet started to tremble. A fireball surged suddenly from a manhole, enveloping Ms. Lowry in flames. Mr. McLaughlin leapt on her and extinguished the fire. But Ms. Lowry had burns on 80 percent of her body and spent 70 days in the hospital here. Mr. McLaughlin was burned on 35 percent of his body.

“The explosion was one of the most traumatic experiences I can imagine,” Mr. McLaughlin, 34, said in a telephone interview from New York, where he and his wife now live. “Almost three years later, recovering is made more complicated every time we learn there’s been a new explosion on the streets of Rio.”

Since 2010, manhole explosions here have shattered windows, flattened cars and injured passers-by. An explosion in 2012 killed a worker at Rio’s port. While the rate of explosions has slowed, the city was rattled yet again in December after a manhole erupted behind the Copacabana Palace, the neo-Classical-style gem that is arguably Rio’s most luxurious hotel. A motorcyclist narrowly escaped the recent blast, filming with his cellphone his motorcycle going up in flames.

Such explosions are not unique to Rio. Indeed, engineering experts say few large cities are immune. Gas from any number of sources can collect underground. Electrical cables, often running in the same pipes, can fray with age, producing a spark that can set off an explosion, shooting up fire and flinging hundred-pound cast-iron manhole covers high into the air.

But Moacyr Duarte, a senior researcher on the city’s infrastructure at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said dozens of explosions here, which often occurred in densely-populated areas, had “clearly gone beyond what it is statistically reasonable,” before recently declining.

The explosions have set Cariocas, as the residents of this traditionally relaxed city are known, on edge, and the blasts point to the broader problem of dilapidated infrastructure even as Rio emerges from a long economic decline.

As Rio prepares for its cameo as host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the expansion of offshore oil production has pumped life into its economy. The city has sought to revitalize neglected areas with projects like a new cable car system in Complexo do Alemão, a patchwork of slums, while a real estate boom has attracted the likes of Donald J. Trump, who plans to build five skyscrapers.

At the same time, Rio’s resurgence has only added to the stress on its aging infrastructure.

While passenger traffic at Rio’s international airport climbed 20 percent last year, it has been plagued by blackouts in recent weeks, escalators and elevators work sporadically, and vultures have descended through holes in the airport’s roof.

Rio’s car fleet grew 56 percent in the last decade, but road building and public transportation improvements failed to keep pace, intensifying traffic jams. Last year in downtown Rio, a 20-story office building just collapsed one night, knocking down two other buildings and killing 17 people.

Amid such challenges, erupting manholes have endured as just one more bizarre and potentially dangerous feature of the cityscape.

Some Cariocas have found dark humor in the sheer randomness. A video game for Facebook, “Rio Boom-eiro Challenge,” involves the nimble avoidance of sidewalk explosions.

Others have found artistic inspiration. Fábio Maia, an advertising executive, has been putting stickers in the shape of a lighted fuse alongside manholes. The idea came to him one day after he was dodging manholes while out with his son in a stroller. “I started asking myself, ‘What kind of craziness is this?’ ” he said.

Mr. Duarte, of Federal University, said many of the manhole eruptions have been caused by leaks of gas or oil into overloaded underground networks, some built as far back as the 1920s.

After a surge in street explosions in 2010 and 2011, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, and prosecutors pressured utility companies into agreeing to pay fines of about $50,000 for each explosion, in addition to damages to victims.

(The electric company, Light, said it had not yet reached an agreement to pay damages to Mr. McLaughlin and Ms. Lowry.)

Mr. Paes’s office said in a statement that the “worst phase” of the manhole crisis was over, explaining that an emergency operation in 28 neighborhoods that ended last year identified 314 manholes with a great risk of explosion, and that crews were sent to fix each one.

Still, the mayor’s office acknowledged that the issue “hasn’t been completely addressed,” prompting Mr. Paes to raise the fine for each explosion to $250,000 and to advance a project mapping the city’s entire underground network.

Light said it had undertaken a $115 million investment program in the last two years aimed at preventing more explosions.

The company declined to provide figures on how many explosions had occurred recently on Rio’s streets, but it argued that they had become less frequent. “Eventualities in subterranean chambers occur around the world,” the company said.

Manholes continue to explode. The mayor’s office acknowledged that at least five blasts occurred in 2012, leaving one person dead and several injured. The explosion in December in Copacabana, one of Rio’s most populous districts, sowed panic among passers-by.

Antônio Carlos Costa, president of Rio de Paz, a human rights group that has painted Rio’s manhole covers red to bring attention to their potential danger, said the blasts offered a view into the perils that the new economic climate has been unable to resolve.

“In Brazil we have two types of violence,” he said, “intentional violence and violence that is a product of neglect. This is a type of violence that is more subtle, but is very present in Brazilian culture. The country is economically strong, but we do not have a culture of protecting human life.”

Lis Horta Moriconi contributed reporting.


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« Reply #4257 on: Jan 27, 2013, 08:24 AM »

In the USA...

ALEC’s Fingerprints Are All Over the Electoral College Rigging Efforts in Blue States

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Jan. 26th, 2013

United States of ALEC

One of the benefits of living in a democracy is knowing, with relative certainty, that the people choose a representative to lead the country through the electoral process, and although not every voter is pleased with the results of an election, they can rest easy the leader was chosen by the people and not appointed by special interests. Republicans hate democracy and fair elections, and to ensure future presidents are chosen by conservative fascist committee, they have been on a two-and-a-half year crusade to rig the electoral process to guarantee a Republican will win the White House with fewer votes than their opponent. In the last election, although Democrats garnered 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, redistricting and gerrymandering enabled the GOP to hang on to the House of Representatives. Republicans are notorious for using revolting tactics to win elections, and the current coup d’état by electoral college rigging is a travesty, but like every dirty trick Republicans use to steal elections, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is behind Electoral College rigging efforts in Republican-controlled states that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama.

The current Republican assault on the democratic process began during the 2010 midterm elections when dark money groups helped Republicans pick up 675 legislative seats and gain complete control of 12 state legislatures, and the result was the GOP redrawing lines for four times as many congressional districts as Democrats. In early 2010, Karl Rove laid out the Republican approach to redistricting in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress” and his words were prophetic as Republicans held the House of Representatives despite earning 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats. Once Republicans controlled state legislatures, they had free rein to begin redistricting to tilt elections in Republicans’ favor, and it was ALEC that provided Republican governors and state legislators with the redistricting tactic to rig Electoral College votes and guarantee a Republican will always be president.

The corporate-controlled ALEC was instrumental in pushing redistricting tactics spearheaded by a former national Republican Party lawyer, Mark Brayden, who gave a presentation on redistricting to members of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force in December 2010.  Wisconsin Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, a member of that Task Force and former ALEC state chair, received an email invitation in January 2011 for an ALEC “special” conference call with other Wisconsin Republicans to discuss the legality of redistricting; Fitzgerald led the redistricting effort in Wisconsin, and no Democrats were invited to the secret ALEC conference call. Despite being sharply criticized by a court for developing redistricting maps in Wisconsin under a “veil of secrecy,” the new maps have taken effect and the majority of Congressional districts are now out-of-step with statewide voting patterns.

With new redistricting in place, Republicans plan to allocate electoral votes so that the lion’s share of the state’s electors would go, one by one, to the presidential candidate who won each individual congressional district, but only in blue states. For example, in Michigan where President Obama won by nearly 10 points in 2012, Willard Romney would have received 9 of the state’s 16 electoral votes because he received more votes than the President in nine of the state’s congressional districts. It is precisely how Republicans in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and Wisconsin plan on handing a Republican the White House if the despicable electoral rigging is allowed to reach fruition.

ALEC has been directing Republican-controlled state legislatures in various schemes to sway elections in favor of ALEC’s candidates since the 2010 midterm elections, and Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, made it clear he wants Republicans to use every dirty trick and bit of power they retain to rig the electoral process as part of a national strategy to hand Republicans victories even when they lose elections. Last week, Priebus urged Republican governors and legislators to rig the Electoral College by changing the rules for distributing Electoral College votes, and that is how democracy dies at the hands of ALEC and their Republican lackeys.

Republicans have to cheat to seize control of the nation because in a democratic process, their policies will never garner support from the voters, and although the latest ploy to subvert the Electoral College is just now gaining steam, it is part of ALEC’s long term strategy to appoint leaders their corporate masters demand. ALEC’s redistricting push began in late 2010 after dirty money from Karl Rove-types swept Republicans into state legislatures and governor’s mansions, and it is from those states that elected President Obama where the GOP’s coup d’état will have its greatest effect and ensure a permanent Republican president.

If any American thinks for a minute that there are limits to Republican fascists’ efforts to rig elections in their favor, they are blind, because ALEC and the Republican Party are threatening more than Democratic Presidents, congressional seats, state legislatures and governors; they threaten the existence of democracy itself. Americans should be repulsed and mortified it is even possible for ALEC and Republicans to impede the will of the people in choosing their president, but that is the price Democrats pay for sitting out the 2010 midterm elections, because now they will learn the hard way that “elections have consequences” and democracy can die.

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Judge Who Ruled Obama Violated the Constitution Has a History Of Right Wing Judicial Activism

By: Jason Easley
PolitcusUSA
Jan. 26th, 2013

The judge who ruled that Obama’s recess appointments violated the constitution is a Jesse Helms crony who overturned the convictions of Oliver and John Poindexter and sided with Bush on indefinite detentions.

Judge David Bryan Sentelle was first appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan. Sentelle history of right wing activism from the bench was detailed by Will Stabley, “However, Sentelle was promoted to the United States Appeals Court shortly after, as a circuit court judge, he voted to overturn the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter – two key Reagan aides who had been found guilty in the Iran Contra scandal. This seeming tit for tat between Sentelle continued as he appointed Kenneth Starr to the role which Starr would go on to use in his overtly aggressive impeachment case against democrat Bill Clinton…Sentelle then went on to side with republican George W. Bush on the issue of indefinite detention without the right to trial, in a controversial ruling which saw even a fellow judge on his own panel dissenting against him.”

Sentelle has been described as a crony of Jesse Helms. He is also a member of the Federalist Society a group that describes itself and its role as, “Law schools and the legal profession are currently strongly dominated by a form of orthodox liberal ideology which advocates a centralized and uniform society. While some members of the academic community have dissented from these views, by and large they are taught simultaneously with (and indeed as if they were) the law. The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The Society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities.”

In short, David Sentelle is the poster boy for right wing judicial activism.

Mainstream media reports of the story have quoted Sentelle’s ruling, but have failed to mention his right wing activism from the bench. The fact that Sentelle would rule in favor of Bush’s unprecedented expansion of executive powers on indefinite detentions, but would the rule against the precedent of 150 years of recess appointments illustrates the partisan nation of Sentelle’s judicial philosophy.

The right wing is celebrating this ruling because it feeds into their delusion that Obama is an illegitimate president who has no respect for the constitution. The reality, which the media is happily ignoring, is that a right wing judicial hack ruled based on nothing more than partisan politics.

This ruling illustrates why the filibuster reform that was agreed to this week matters. President Obama has 33 judicial nominees that are being blocked by Senate Republicans. The filibuster reform will allow Harry Reid to finally push some of these appointments through the Senate. The right wing has turned the judicial system into a conservative policy making establishment.

The real headline of this story should have read, “Hack Right Wing Judicial Activists Rule Obama Violated the Constitution,” but the truth rarely makes for a sexy headline. Instead, the media has chosen to maintain their ignorance under the disguise of “objectivity.”

Instead of being a serious legal ruling this decision was yet another partisan attack on the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency, but right wing judicial activism is a subject that the media refuses to discuss.

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Obama vows to watch U.S. financial industry to prevent ‘irresponsible behavior’

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 11:18 EST

President Barack Obama promised Saturday to watch the US financial industry to prevent what he called “irresponsible behavior” as he defended his nominations to key financial watchdog agencies.

The comments came after Obama nominated Mary Jo White to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission and Richard Cordray to continue as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The CFPB, set up under Obama’s 2010 financial regulatory law, has the power to protect consumers from predatory banking practices and hidden conditions on loans. It can also crack down on debt and credit agencies.

“Here in America, we know the free market is the greatest force for economic progress the world has ever known,” the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address. “But we also know the free market works best for everyone when we have smart, commonsense rules in place to prevent irresponsible behavior.”

He expressed the confidence that White and Cordray will be up to that task.

White has spent her career prosecuting high-profile fraud cases in New York and brought down mafia kingpin John Gotti, who headed the Gambino crime syndicate.

Cordray fought financial crime, serving as attorney general of the Midwestern state of Ohio.

“It’s not enough to change the law — we also need cops on the beat to enforce the law,” Obama said, showcasing both nominations and urging the Senate to give both candidates a speedy approval.

The president also noted that he was determined to create more jobs, improve education and job training, reform the immigration system and fight gun violence in his second term.

“As president, my top priority is simple: to do everything in my power to fight for middle-class families and give every American the tools they need to reach the middle class,” Obama said.

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The Christian Science Monitor

Can Republicans get their act together before Obama 'pulverizes' the right?

By Patrik Jonsson, Staff writer / January 26, 2013 at 4:26 pm EST

ATLANTA

Perhaps trying to eke some mojo out of the city where the Democrats held their successful convention last year, the Republican National Committee came out of a three-day meeting in Charlotte, N.C., this week with a blueprint for what the dispirited party hopes is a way out of the post-election weeds.

The meeting confirmed what most Americans can see plainly: The Party of Lincoln is having a crisis of confidence. The failure of Mitt Romney to connect deeply enough to win a race against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent shook the party establishment, which is already dealing with a powerful internecine and absolutist revolt from right-wingers in the guise of the tea party.

For Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the battle is to reach out to new demographics and beef up the party's moribund ground game, but also to shift the conversation away from "government bookkeeping" to dinner table dilemmas – all while remaining relevant against an attempt by President Obama to, in effect, "pulverize" the party, in the words of Slate columnist John Dickerson.

Though many Republicans believe the cure is for the party to run even harder on fiscal principles – lower taxes, lower spending, give me liberty or give me death – it may well be the party's success in breaking out its "older white guy" mold that defines its fortunes in 2014 and beyond, and calibrates it for battles with Obama that are likely to define America for generations.

Recommended: Republican Party 2.0: 4 GOP leaders share ideas for political upgrade

"The Republicans are dead in the water right now … they're an aging white party in a country that is less white each year," syndicated columnist Mark Shields told the PBS NewsHour Friday night.

It's a healthy and necessary debate, to be sure, for a party that serves as a counterweight to America's more progressive tendencies, as embodied by the reelection of President Obama – the man who has overseen the massive $5.8 trillion increase in the national debt.

While Obama is likely to use his second term to strengthen the Democratic fortress in hopes of further weakening the Republicans, there's plenty of ground that can be won by conservatives. After all, the country remains center-right on issues from abortion to gun control, and insecurity about the national debt runs across party lines and across regional and income demographics. Moreover, the party has built a serious stable of potential leadership contenders, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz

What Republicans say the party as a whole, as well as various candidates, have largely failed to do, however, is consider voters as people instead of numbers on a campaign consultant's chart.

In the process, experts say Republicans have failed to grasp how Americans are concerned about the economy and the debt, but also about policing and their neighborhood schools. Yes, they want their taxes spent more wisely, and most don't want an expansion of the welfare state (on the idea that permanent welfare inhibits the American dream), but they also see the power of compassion and remain concerned about family or friends in the military.

Last year, multitudes of potential GOP voters swung into the Obama column, because, as Mr. Shields said, "people found the other side to be more relevant, more real, and more plausible to their lives than they found [the GOP]."

Gov. Jindal – one of the party's most promising back-benchers – agreed, saying in remarks Thursday that Republicans need to "re-orient our focus to the place where conservatism thrives – in the real world beyond the Washington Beltway."

"Today's conservatism is completely wrapped up in solving the hideous mess that is the federal budget, the burgeoning deficits, the mammoth federal debt, the shortfall in our entitlement programs … even as we invent new entitlement programs," Mr. Jindal added. "We seem to have an obsession with government bookkeeping. This is a rigged game, and it is the wrong game for us to play…. We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth."

Mr. Priebus added to that sentiment, telling the RNC that "it's time to stop looking at elections through the lens of battleground states – being a 'blue state' is not a permanent diagnosis."

New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks said on the PBS NewsHour Friday night that it is, indeed, a sort of born-and-bred insularity that's hobbling the GOP, but that trait is noticeable even when populist up-and-comers like Jindal try to break out of that shell.

"A lot of smart Republicans understand the problem, but even in the Jindal speech, it's as if conservatives have learned to speak a special language within themselves …" Mr. Brooks said. "Jindal said some smart things, but he's still locked within a prism of code words. He doesn't tell a story about what it's like to be a waitress in Ohio or a struggling worker in Texas. It is hard to get outside the mental framework you've grown up in, and it takes pain to force you out."

For now, Republicans say they'll focus less on changing the message than tweaking the messenger. Talk of beefing up the party's ground game and social media activities dominated much of the discussion, as did "tone" – how ill-chosen words by a few candidates, including Mr. Romney, helped shade perceptions and weaken the party's message.

"There certainly is a lot of talk about tone," RNC official Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, told reporters.  "There are too many times that we have had candidates who have come across as hostile."

But if Republicans tweak the messaging and then look to the next wave of Republican candidates to foment a new deal with the American people, the party did leave Charlotte with what appeared to be genuine interest in having a more empathetic and down-to-earth conversation with the American people.

"One message is loud and clear from the 2012 election," said Ari Fleischer, President George Bush's former spokesman and a member of an RNC effort to restore the party's competitiveness. "Many voters found that Republicans were not inclusive."

Recommended: Republican Party 2.0: 4 GOP leaders share ideas for political upgrade

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January 26, 2013

Secret Donors Finance Fight Against Hagel

By JIM RUTENBERG
NYT

A brand new conservative group calling itself Americans for a Strong Defense and financed by anonymous donors is running advertisements urging Democratic senators in five states to vote against Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense, saying he would make the United States “a weaker country.”

Another freshly minted and anonymously backed organization, Use Your Mandate, which presents itself as a liberal gay rights group but purchases its television time through a prominent Republican firm, is attacking Mr. Hagel as “anti-Gay,” “anti-woman” and “anti-Israel” in ads and mailers.

Those groups are joining at least five others that are organizing to stop Mr. Hagel’s confirmation, a goal even they acknowledge appears to be increasingly challenging. But the effort comes with a built-in consolation prize should it fail: depleting some of Mr. Obama’s political capital as he embarks on a new term with fresh momentum.

The media campaign to scuttle Mr. Hagel’s appointment, unmatched in the annals of modern presidential cabinet appointments, reflects the continuing effects of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which loosened campaign finance restrictions and was a major reason for the record spending by outside groups in the 2012 election. All told, these independent and largely secretly financed groups spent well over $500 million in an attempt to defeat Mr. Obama and the Democrats, a failure that seemed all the greater given the huge amounts spent.

While the campaign against Mr. Hagel, a Republican, is not expected to cost more than a few million dollars, it suggests that the operatives running the independent groups and the donors that finance them — many of whom are millionaires and billionaires with ideological drive and business agendas that did not go away after the election — are ready to fight again.

“We were anxious to get back into the battle,” said Nick Ryan, a Republican strategist and the founder of the American Future Fund, which started as a small, Iowa-based political committee in 2007 and has grown larger since taking a leading role now against Mr. Hagel. “Postelection we have new battle lines being drawn with the president; he kicks it off with these nominations and it made sense for us.”

Groups like his would have been able to operate freely against Mr. Hagel even before Citizens United. But the ruling has served to erase what had been traditional fears among donors that their involvement in the fight of the day would lead to legal trouble or, for those who prefer to stay anonymous, unwanted public exposure. That confidence, in turn, has helped spur the increase in the number of political organizations that pop up to engage in the big political entanglement of the moment.

American Future Fund was formed under a section of the tax code that allows it to keep its donors secret. It spent more than $20 million seeking to defeat Mr. Obama and the Democrats last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Other major conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity — partly financed by the industrialist Koch family — and Crossroads GPS are not involved in the Hagel nomination, but have made it clear that they will continue to combat the president’s agenda on several fronts.

The outside activity is not confined to Republicans. Mr. Obama’s campaign apparatus has transformed itself into a nonprofit political group, though it said it would disclose the names of its donors (and it is not getting involved in the Hagel fight).

After Mr. Obama won re-election in November and Democrats kept their majority in the Senate and made inroads in the House, Republican Party officials and senior strategists with conservative outside groups predicted that some of the big financiers of the larger outside efforts would pull back and reassess their involvement and whether their millions were wasted. But while the donors have said they will insist that the groups they finance find lessons in last year’s losses, their interest and stakes in what happens in Washington have certainly not waned.

For instance, the biggest individual financier of the so-called super PACs that sought to defeat Mr. Obama, Sheldon Adelson, is so invested in the fight over Mr. Hagel that he has reached out directly to Republican Senators to urge them to hold the line against his confirmation, which would be almost impossible to stop against six Republican “yes” votes and a unified Democratic caucus.

Given the more than $100 million he donated to the anti-Obama effort last year, no lawmakers need to be reminded of his importance to their future endeavors. People briefed on his involvement said Mr. Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and a longtime supporter of Israel, was calling in conjunction with the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group he has financed for several years.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in December, Mr. Adelson said he was prepared to “double” his investment in politics in the coming year.

But it is unclear whether he is directly financing any of the anti-Hagel advertising. An associate of his, speaking about Mr. Adelson’s thinking on condition of anonymity, said he did not believe that expensive television campaigns are the answer to every political push given that Mr. Obama’s re-election team accomplished so much of its success through online and volunteer efforts.

Citing similar reasons, another major Republican donor, Foster Friess, said in an interview that he had developed his own skepticism over “the whole idea of these multimedia ads from 45,000 feet.” After last year’s losses he said he was devoting most of his resources to an effort he called “Left-Right, Left-Right Forward March,” which finds projects liberals and conservatives can support together, like water purification in developing countries.

Still, he said, “no one in this effort is going to give up the values that they think are important.” For him, that extends to Mr. Hagel, whose “past statements about Israel should be really taken into consideration” Mr. Friess said, adding, “and I would hope they could find a better person to serve in that position.”

Whatever its chances of success, the blitz against Mr. Hagel is of a sort that has generally been reserved for elections and some Supreme Court nominations. The last major cabinet skirmish, over President George W. Bush’s nomination of John R. Bolton as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, had no comparable outside media blitz. Though goaded along by a phone campaign organized by the political action arm of the liberal group MoveOn, Democrats succeeded in blocking him in the Senate, forcing Mr. Bush to appoint him during a congressional recess.

That was before the Citizens United decision.

“This is the first big cabinet fight since Bolton,” said Michael Goldfarb, a strategist for a conservative group opposed to Mr. Hagel called the Emergency Committee for Israel and a founder of a conservative Web site called The Washington Free Beacon, which is running a steady stream of anti-Hagel news articles. “And things have evolved in the last seven years.”

The most mysterious of the new groups is Use Your Mandate. Portraying itself as a gay rights group, it has sent mailers to voters in seven states — including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Montana — and run television ads against Mr. Hagel in New York and Washington. It has sent out posts on Twitter questioning his gay rights record and asking, “Is this what we worked so hard for?” Established gay rights activists have expressed skepticism about the group’s authenticity.

It has no Web site and it only lists as its address a post office box in New York. But paperwork filed with the Federal Communications Commission link it back to Tusk Strategies, a bipartisan political group founded by Bradley Tusk, a former strategist for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York.

In an interview, Mr. Tusk would only identify its financiers as Democratic “gay and L.G.B.T. people who have been active in campaigns around the country.”

Yet federal records show that Use Your Mandate uses Del Cielo Media, an arm of one of the most prominent Republican ad-buying firms in the country, Smart Media, with clients that have included the presidential campaigns of former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Senator John McCain of Arizona; the 2010 Senate campaign of Christine O’Donnell, who was known for positions against homosexuality, in Delaware; and, as it happens, the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Mike McIntire, Kate Zernike and Derek Willis contributed reporting.

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January 26, 2013

Tom Harkin of Iowa Won’t Seek Re-election to Senate

By JEFF ZELENY
NYT

WASHINGTON — Senator Tom Harkin, the Democrat from Iowa who championed landmark legislation banning discrimination against people with disabilities, said Saturday that he would retire and not seek re-election next year to a sixth term.

The announcement from Mr. Harkin sets the stage for one of the most competitive Senate races in the country in the 2014 midterm elections. It will be a crucial contest in the Republican Party’s quest to win control of the chamber from Democrats.

“It’s not easy to walk away, but life is fleeting,” Mr. Harkin, 73, said in an interview Saturday. “I’ve had the privilege to be here for 40 years. Too many people hang on to power for too long, and that’s not right.”

In a Washington career that began in 1974 with his election to the House, which was followed a decade later by his elevation to the Senate, Mr. Harkin has been a forceful voice of populism. He said his biggest achievement was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a bipartisan measure he pushed for on behalf of his brother Frank, who was deaf. He was also a leading proponent of overhauling the nation’s health care system.

Mr. Harkin sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. But he has played a larger role in subsequent races for the White House as a fierce supporter of the Iowa caucuses that traditionally open the presidential campaign. Barack Obama, as a freshman senator from Illinois, made his Iowa debut at the state’s marquee political event in 2006, the Harkin Steak Fry.

The announcement from Mr. Harkin took some Democrats by surprise on Saturday, particularly because he had not signaled his intentions and had a campaign account of nearly $3 million. His is the latest in a series of Senate retirements, and it forces Democrats to try to defend an open seat that would have otherwise been more challenging for Republicans.

“I appreciate that Senator Harkin has made this decision so early in the cycle, giving us ample time to recruit a strong Democratic candidate for this seat,” said Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Iowa has a strong record of electing great Democrats, and I’m confident that we will elect a new Democratic senator.”

Representative Bruce Braley is among the party’s early prospects for Mr. Harkin’s seat. Mr. Braley had been considering running for governor, but aides said Mr. Harkin’s retirement made it certain that Mr. Braley would try to follow the example of Mr. Harkin and jump from the House to the Senate.

Republicans, who need to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate, will probably draw a wide field of candidates. Party officials said one early contender could be Representative Steve King, who has drawn criticism from other Republicans for his outspoken opposition to changing the nation’s immigration system.

The race in Iowa, one of the nation’s consummate swing states, is still a challenge for Republicans and will be a critical test for the party as it tries to rebuild and recruit candidates who have a wider appeal to voters. Overhauling immigration laws is a top priority of many Republican leaders, and a candidacy by Mr. King could complicate those efforts.

Rob Collins, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Saturday that Mr. Harkin’s planned retirement “immediately vaults Iowa into the top tier of competitive Senate races next year.”

In addition to Mr. Harkin, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, has said he will not seek re-election for a sixth term, and there may be other Democratic senators who retire. The party also is contending with a race in Massachusetts, where the successor to Senator John Kerry, who was nominated to serve as secretary of state, will stand for election in November 2014.

Republicans face retirements of their own, including Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who announced on Friday that he would not seek re-election next year. He was facing criticism from conservatives and could have faced a Republican primary challenge.

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January 26, 2013

A true sickness of the U.S.A.

Selling a New Generation on Guns

By MIKE McINTIRE
NYT

Threatened by long-term declining participation in shooting sports, the firearms industry has poured millions of dollars into a broad campaign to ensure its future by getting guns into the hands of more, and younger, children.

The industry’s strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for “junior shooters” and sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the Web sites of their makers.

The pages of Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine that seeks to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15 — an advertisement elsewhere in the magazine directed readers to a coupon for buying one — the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent.

“Who knows?” it said. “Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!”

The industry’s youth-marketing effort is backed by extensive social research and is carried out by an array of nonprofit groups financed by the gun industry, an examination by The New York Times found. The campaign picked up steam about five years ago with the completion of a major study that urged a stronger emphasis on the “recruitment and retention” of new hunters and target shooters.

The overall objective was summed up in another study, commissioned last year by the shooting sports industry, that suggested encouraging children experienced in firearms to recruit other young people. The report, which focused on children ages 8 to 17, said these “peer ambassadors” should help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery or some other less intimidating activity.

“The point should be to get newcomers started shooting something, with the natural next step being a move toward actual firearms,” said the report, which was prepared for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Hunting Heritage Trust.

Firearms manufacturers and their two primary surrogates, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have long been associated with high-profile battles to fend off efforts at gun control and to widen access to firearms. The public debate over the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere has focused largely on the availability of guns, along with mental illness and the influence of violent video games.

Little attention has been paid, though, to the industry’s youth-marketing initiatives. They stir passionate views, with proponents arguing that introducing children to guns can provide a safe and healthy pastime, and critics countering that it fosters a corrosive gun culture and is potentially dangerous.

The N.R.A. has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rimfire rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.

Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach “life skills” like responsibility, ethics and citizenship. And the gun industry points to injury statistics that it says show a greater likelihood of getting hurt cheerleading or playing softball than using firearms for fun and sport.

Still, some experts in child psychiatry say that encouraging youthful exposure to guns, even in a structured setting with an emphasis on safety, is asking for trouble. Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, said that young people are naturally impulsive and that their brains “are engineered to take risks,” making them ill suited for handling guns.

“There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid,” Dr. Shatkin said. “You don’t need a gun to do it.”

Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said it was better to instruct children in the safe use of a firearm through hunting and target shooting, and engage them in positive ways with the heritage of guns in America. His industry is well positioned for the task, he said, but faces an unusual challenge: introducing minors to activities that involve products they cannot legally buy and that require a high level of maturity.

Ultimately, Mr. Sanetti said, it should be left to parents, not the government, to decide if and when to introduce their children to shooting and what sort of firearms to use.

“It’s a very significant decision,” he said, “and it involves the personal responsibility of the parent and personal responsibility of the child.”

Trying to Reverse a Trend

The shooting sports foundation, the tax-exempt trade association for the gun industry, is a driving force behind many of the newest youth initiatives. Its national headquarters is in Newtown, just a few miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, used his mother’s Bushmaster AR-15 to kill 20 children and 6 adults last month.

The foundation’s $26 million budget is financed mostly by gun companies, associated businesses and the foundation’s SHOT Show, the industry’s annual trade show, according to its latest tax return.

Although shooting sports and gun sales have enjoyed a rebound recently, the long-term demographics are not favorable, as urbanization, the growth of indoor pursuits like video games and changing cultural mores erode consumer interest. Licensed hunters fell from 7 percent of the population in 1975 to fewer than 5 percent in 2005, according to federal data. Galvanized by the declining share, the industry redoubled its efforts to reverse the trend about five years ago.

The focus on young people has been accompanied by foundation-sponsored research examining popular attitudes toward hunting and shooting. Some of the studies used focus groups and telephone surveys of teenagers to explore their feelings about guns and people who use them, and offered strategies for generating a greater acceptance of firearms.

The Times reviewed more than a thousand pages of these studies, obtained from gun industry Web sites and online archives, some of them produced as recently as last year. Most were prepared by consultants retained by the foundation, and at least one was financed with a grant from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

In an interview, Mr. Sanetti said the youth-centered research was driven by the inevitable “tension” the industry faces, given that no one under 18 can buy a rifle or a shotgun from a licensed dealer or even possess a handgun under most circumstances. That means looking for creative and appropriate ways to introduce children to shooting sports.

“There’s nothing alarmist or sinister about it,” Mr. Sanetti said. “It’s realistic.”

Pointing to the need to “start them young,” one study concluded that “stakeholders such as managers and manufacturers should target programs toward youth 12 years old and younger.”

“This is the time that youth are being targeted with competing activities,” it said. “It is important to consider more hunting and target-shooting recruitment programs aimed at middle school level, or earlier.”

Aware that introducing firearms to young children could meet with resistance, several studies suggested methods for smoothing the way for target-shooting programs in schools. One cautioned, “When approaching school systems, it is important to frame the shooting sports only as a mechanism to teach other life skills, rather than an end to itself.”

In another report, the authors warned against using human silhouettes for targets when trying to recruit new shooters and encouraged using words and phrases like “sharing the experience,” “family” and “fun.” They also said children should be enlisted to prod parents to let them join shooting activities: “Such a program could be called ‘Take Me Hunting’ or ‘Take Me Shooting.’ ”

The industry recognized that state laws limiting hunting by children could pose a problem, according to a “Youth Hunting Report” prepared by the shooting sports foundation and two other groups. Declaring that “the need for aggressive recruitment is urgent,” the report said a primary objective should be to “eliminate or reduce age minimums.” Still another study recommended allowing children to get a provisional license to hunt with an adult, “perhaps even before requiring them to take hunter safety courses.”

The effort has succeeded in a number of states, including Wisconsin, which in 2009 lowered the minimum hunting age to 10 from 12, and Michigan, where in 2011 the age minimum for hunting small game was eliminated for children accompanied by an adult mentor. The foundation cited statistics suggesting that youth involvement in hunting, as well as target shooting, had picked up in recent years amid the renewed focus on recruitment.

Gun companies have spent millions of dollars to put their recruitment strategies into action, either directly or through the shooting sports foundation and other organizations. The support takes many forms.

The Scholastic Steel Challenge, started in 2009, introduces children as young as 12 to competitive handgun shooting using steel targets. Its “platinum” sponsors include the shooting sports foundation, Smith & Wesson and Glock, which donated 60 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols, according to the group’s Web site.

The site features a quote from a gun company executive praising the youth initiative and saying that “anyone in the firearms industry that overlooks its potential is missing the boat.”

Larry Potterfield, the founder of MidwayUSA, one of the nation’s largest sellers of shooting supplies and a major sponsor of the Scholastic Steel Challenge, said he did not fire a handgun until he was 21, adding that they “are the most difficult guns to learn to shoot well.” But, he said, he sees nothing wrong with children using them.

“Kids need arm strength and good patience to learn to shoot a handgun well,” he said in an e-mail, “and I would think that would come in the 12-14 age group for most kids.”

Another organization, the nonprofit Youth Shooting Sports Alliance, which was created in 2007, has received close to $1 million in cash, guns and equipment from the shooting sports foundation and firearms-related companies, including ATK, Winchester and Sturm, Ruger & Company, its tax returns show. In 2011, the alliance awarded 58 grants. A typical grant: 23 rifles, 4 shotguns, 16 cases of ammunition and other materials, which went to a Michigan youth camp.

The foundation and gun companies also support Junior Shooters magazine, which is based in Idaho and was started in 2007. The publication is filled with catchy advertisements and articles about things like zombie targets, pink guns and, under the heading “Kids Gear,” tactical rifle components with military-style features like pistol grips and collapsible stocks.

Gun companies often send new models to the magazine for children to try out with adult supervision. Shortly after Sturm, Ruger announced in 2009 a new, lightweight semiautomatic rifle that had the “look and feel” of an AR-15 but used less expensive .22-caliber cartridges, Junior Shooters received one for review. The magazine had three boys ages 14 to 17 fire it and wrote that they “had an absolute ball!”

Junior Shooters’ editor, Andy Fink, acknowledged in an editorial that some of his magazine’s content stirred controversy.

“I have heard people say, even shooters that participate in some of the shotgun shooting sports, such things as, ‘Why do you need a semiautomatic gun for hunting?’ ” he wrote. But if the industry is to survive, he said, gun enthusiasts must embrace all youth shooting activities, including ones “using semiautomatic firearms with magazines holding 30-100 rounds.”

In an interview, Mr. Fink elaborated. Semiautomatic firearms are actually not weapons, he said, unless someone chooses to hurt another person with them, and their image has been unfairly tainted by the news media. There is no legitimate reason children should not learn to safely use an AR-15 for recreation, he said.

“They’re a tool, not any different than a car or a baseball bat,” Mr. Fink said. “It’s no different than a junior shooting a .22 or a shotgun. The difference is in the perception of the viewer.”

The Weapon of Choice

The AR-15, the civilian version of the military’s M-16 and M-4, has been aggressively marketed as a cool and powerful step up from more traditional target and hunting rifles. But its appearance in mass shootings — in addition to Newtown, the gun was also used last year in the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., and the attack on firefighters in Webster, N.Y. — has prompted calls for tighter restrictions. The AR-15 is among the guns included in a proposed ban on a range of semiautomatic weapons that was introduced in the Senate last week.

Given the gun’s commercial popularity, it is perhaps unsurprising that AR-15-style firearms have worked their way into youth shooting programs. At a “Guns ’n Grillin” weekend last fall, teenagers at a Boy Scout council in Virginia got to shoot AR-15s. They are used in youth competitions held each year at a National Guard camp in Ohio, and in “junior clinics” taught by Army or Marine marksmanship instructors, some of them sponsored by gun companies or organizations they support.

ArmaLite, a successor company to the one that developed the AR-15, is offering a similar rifle, the AR-10, for the grand prize in a raffle benefiting the Illinois State Rifle Association’s “junior high-power” team, which uses AR-15s in its competitions. Bushmaster has offered on its Web site a coupon worth $350 off the price of an AR-15 “to support and encourage junior shooters.”

Military-style firearms are prevalent in a target-shooting video game and mobile app called Point of Impact, which was sponsored by the shooting sports foundation and Guns & Ammo magazine. The game — rated for ages 9 and up in the iTunes store — allows players to shoot brand-name AR-15 rifles and semiautomatic handguns at inanimate targets, and it provides links to gun makers’ Web sites as well as to the foundation’s “First Shots” program, intended to recruit new shooters.

Upon the game’s release in January 2011, foundation executives said in a news release that it was one of the industry’s “most unique marketing tools directed at a younger audience.” Mr. Sanetti of the shooting sports foundation said sponsorship of the game was an experiment intended to deliver safety tips to players, while potentially generating interest in real-life sports.

The confluence of high-powered weaponry and youth shooting programs does not sit well even with some proponents of those programs. Stephan Carlson, a University of Minnesota environmental science professor whose research on the positive effects of learning hunting and outdoor skills in 4-H classes has been cited by the gun industry, said he “wouldn’t necessarily go along” with introducing children to more powerful firearms that added nothing useful to their experience.

“I see why the industry would be pushing it, but I don’t see the value in it,” Mr. Carlson said. “I guess it goes back to the skill base we’re trying to instill in the kids. What are we preparing them for?”

For Mr. Potterfield of MidwayUSA, who said his own children started shooting “boys’ rifles” at age 4, getting young people engaged with firearms — provided they have the maturity and the physical ability to handle them — strengthens an endangered American tradition.

Mr. Potterfield and his wife, Brenda, have donated more than $5 million for youth shooting programs in recent years, a campaign that he said was motivated by philanthropy, not “return on investment.”

“Our gifting is pure benevolence,” he said. “We grew up and live in rural America and have owned guns, hunted and fished all of our lives. This is our community, and we hope to preserve it for future generations.”

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January 25, 2013 03:52 PM

Message from Mexico: U.S. Is Polluting Water It May Someday Need to Drink

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, Jan. 25, 2013

Mexico City plans to draw drinking water from a mile-deep aquifer, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The Mexican effort challenges a key tenet of U.S. clean water policy: that water far underground can be intentionally polluted because it will never be used.

U.S. environmental regulators have long assumed that reservoirs located thousands of feet underground will be too expensive to tap. So even as population increases, temperatures rise, and traditional water supplies dry up, American scientists and policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.

As ProPublica has reported in an ongoing investigation about America's management of its underground water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions. Frequently, the reason was that the water lies too deep to be worth protecting.

But Mexico City's plans to tap its newly discovered aquifer suggest that America is poisoning wells it might need in the future.

Indeed, by the standard often applied in the U.S., American regulators could have allowed companies to pump pollutants into the aquifer beneath Mexico City.

For example, in eastern Wyoming, an analysis showed that it would cost half a million dollars to construct a water well into deep, but high-quality aquifer reserves. That, plus an untested assumption that all the deep layers below it could only contain poor-quality water, led regulators to allow a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into the underground reservoirs.

But south of the border, worsening water shortages have forced authorities to look ever deeper for drinking water.

Today in Mexico City, the world's third-largest metropolis, the depletion of shallow reservoirs is causing the ground to sink in, iconic buildings to teeter, and underground infrastructure to crumble. The discovery of the previously unmapped deep reservoir could mean that water won't have to be rationed or piped into Mexico City from hundreds of miles away.

According to the Times report, Mexican authorities have already drilled an exploratory well into the aquifer and are working to determine the exact size of the reservoir. They are prepared to spend as much as $40 million to pump and treat the deeper water, which they say could supply some of Mexico City's 20 million people for as long as a century.

Scientists point to what's happening in Mexico City as a harbinger of a world in which people will pay more and dig deeper to tap reserves of the one natural resource human beings simply cannot survive without.

"Around the world people are increasingly doing things that 50 years ago nobody would have said they'd do," said Mike Wireman, a hydrogeologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues.

Wireman points to new research in Europe finding water reservoirs several miles beneath the surface — far deeper than even the aquifer beneath Mexico City — and says U.S. policy has been slow to adapt to this new understanding.

"Depth in and of itself does not guarantee anything — it does not guarantee you won't use it in the future, and it does not guarantee that that it is not" a source of drinking water, he said.

If Mexico City's search for water seems extreme, it is not unusual. In aquifers Denver relies on, drinking water levels have dropped more than 300 feet. Texas rationed some water use last summer in the midst of a record-breaking drought. And Nevada — realizing that the water levels in one of the nation's largest reservoirs may soon drop below the intake pipes — is building a drain hole to sap every last drop from the bottom.

"Water is limited, so they are really hustling to find other types of water," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's kind of a grim future, there's no two ways about it."

In a parched world, Mexico City is sending a message: Deep, unknown potential sources of drinking water matter, and the U.S. pollutes them at its peril.



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« Reply #4258 on: Jan 28, 2013, 07:36 AM »

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01/28/2013 01:26 PM

Resisting Islamism: Life on the Front Lines in Mali

By Matthias Gebauer in Konna, Mali

In mid-January, the strategic town of Konna in central Mali was on the front line of the conflict. First it was occupied by Islamist insurgents advancing towards the capital, then it was bombarded by a French air assault. The locals were caught in the crossfire.

Despite the chaos that swept his hometown in recent weeks, 34-year-old Mohammadou Traore has not lost his sense of humor. It's Sunday afternoon and he's stretched out, exhausted, on a rickety plastic chair outside his small store in the center of Konna in central Mali. Just 10 meters away, a burnt-out pick-up truck that belonged to Islamist fighters from northern Mali is a reminder of the violent clashes that took place in the town earlier this month. But Traore grins when he says that for him personally, the fighting was good for business. "On Thursday morning, the Islamists bought six kilos of dates at my store, then the French troops came in the evening and paid me €20 for the last crate of water I was keeping in the refrigerator."

That Thursday, Konna was on the front line of the French intervention against Islamists in Mali. For months, the north of the country has been occupied by fundamentalist Islamist rebels, made up of a loose alliance of three jihadist groups. In mid-January, 300 rebel fighters in a convoy of around 100 pick-up trucks suddenly launched a southern offensive, infiltrating the small town and ambushing Malian soldiers. Just hours later, French President François Hollande took a unilateral decision in Paris to act against the advancing rebel troops and ordered an immediate deployment of French fighter jets and helicopter-borne special forces.

The trip to Konna gives an inkling of how heavy the fighting must have been. The sides of the roads are littered with the charred remains of jeeps, many of which were fitted with machine guns. Their dismembered parts now lie strewn amid the thorny bushes of the Malian desert, like the skeletons of slain beasts of prey. The Malian soldiers, who escorted a group of reporters to Konna on Sunday, stopped and posed in their shades next to the burnt-out vehicles, choosing to forget how powerless they were against the Islamists. The rebels were pushed back only thanks to the French intervention.

'I Thought It Was All Over'

Ahmadou Gourd has little faith in the Malian army. The 35-year-old Arabic teacher looks gaunt as he stands outside his modest farmstead, watching his children play in dirty puddles while his wife cooks up some millet. "When the Islamists arrived in Konna, five government soldiers fled to my farm," he says. In a state of panic, they told him they had run out of ammunition and needed help. Gourd showed them a small dirt track that led through thick bushes and away from Konna. No sooner had the soldiers made off than four bearded men with Kalashnikovs were knocking on his door. "Fortunately I was able to get rid of them by chatting them away in Arabic," recalls Gourd. "If they had found the soldiers, I would have been shot."

Gourd is one of the few residents still out and about. With its empty dusty streets lined with crooked mud huts, Konna resembles a ghost town. Now and then a car full of people returning home drives in. "Most of my neighbors fled as soon as they heard about the Islamist advance," explains Gourd. He himself decided not to leave his house, and believes the rebels spared him only because he spoke Arabic. "I also assured them that I was a devout Muslim, and that probably placated them," he says. Soon afterwards, he heard the first bombs dropping. "I thought it was all over," he remembers. "I didn't realize it was the French."

First, Islamists swept across entire swathes of the country in their pick-up trucks. Then an air assault -- militarily superior but invisible to locals -- began dropping bombs. It was these hours spent caught in the crossfire of an unequal war that most traumatized the people of Konna.

"I still can't sleep," says Dani Diana, a mother of three. "I'm jolted awake by the slightest sound." She had a similar experience to that of her neighbor, Gourd. The Islamist rebels knocked on her door, their rifles over their shoulders, demanding she give them whatever food she had. Shortly thereafter, the French fighter aircraft began pounding the town with bombs, and a day later, special forces went from house to house, looking for Islamists who might be hiding.

The Stench of Rotting Flesh

It's only now, driving through Konna, that Ahmadou Gourd can see how heavy the bombardment was. Craters three meters deep split the ground near to the town's small port and fish factory. This is where the Islamists had set up camp, using several light-wheeled tanks confiscated from the Malian army as a protective barrier. As soon as Gourd and the reporters rumble past the premise gates in a jeep, the Malian soldiers dozing in the shade are instantly awake and blocking their route. The grounds still aren't safe, they insist, maintaining that there might still be unexploded bombs beneath the rubble. But the stench of rotting flesh suggests the soldiers' main concern is to shield the sight of dead bodies.

Gourd accepts the inevitability of lives lost. Like most people in Konna, he heard on the radio that the French had reached Timbuktu in the north of the country and that the Islamists had taken flight. By Monday morning, French military officials were saying that ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters had taken control of the airport and roads leading to the desert town in an overnight operation.

"Now that France has intervened, there is hope for Mail," says Gourd. Germany, meanwhile, has pledged to support African troops fighting the insurgents with equipment such as trucks, uniforms and boots. So far, Berlin has ruled out supplying arms but has contributed two Transall transport aircraft.

The jeep drives on past the building where Konna's mayor works. The Malian flag was hoisted here again a few days ago. The colors are still bright -- after the mayor fled the rebels, he bought the flag in the nearest big town and brought it home with him when he returned to Konna.

**********

Mali rebels fleeing Timbuktu burn library full of ancient manuscripts

Town's mayor says Islamist insurgents torched two buildings containing priceless books as French-led troops approached

Luke Harding in Sévaré
guardian.co.uk, Monday 28 January 2013 11.40 GMT   
   
Islamist insurgents retreating from the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu have set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, in what the town's mayor described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings where the manuscripts were being kept. They also burned down the town hall and governor's office, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to save the leather-bound manuscripts, which were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's medieval history.

"It's true. They have burned them," Ciffe said, in a phone interview from Mali's capital, Bamako. "They also burned down several buildings. There was one guy who was celebrating in the street and they shot him."

He added: "This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north."

The manuscripts were being kept in two different locations – an old warehouse and a new South Africa-funded research centre, the Ahmed Baba Institute. Both buildings were burned down, the mayor said. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, he replied: "I don't know."

The manuscripts survived for centuries in Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara hidden in wooden trunks, boxes beneath the sand and caves. The majority are written in Arabic, with some in African languages, and one in Hebrew, and cover a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

Seydo Traoré, a researcher at the Ahmed Baba Institute, who fled Timbuktu last year shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised.

"They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don't know what it said."

Traoré told the Guardian that some rebels had been sleeping in the new institute where some of the manuscripts were kept. He said that they had also destroyed the shrines of more than 300 Sufi saints dotted around the city. "They were the masters of the place," he said

*********

Mali conflict: French and Malian troops begin restoring control in Timbuktu

Malian military source says troops met no resistance as they entered Timbuktu and were working towards securing the town

Reuters in Bamoko
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 27 January 2013 14.22 GMT   

French and Malian troops have begun restoring government control over Timbuktu, the latest gain in a fast-moving offensive against Islamist fighters allied to al-Qaida who have occupied northern Mali.

The rebels have retreated northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing ground troops to advance rapidly with armoured vehicles and air support.

A Malian military source told Reuters that the French and Malian forces reached the gates of Timbuktu late on Saturday without resistance from the insurgents who had held the town since last year.

The advancing troops were working on securing the town, a Unesco world heritage site and labyrinth of ancient mosques, monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any fighters who may still be hiding among the population.

"Timbuktu is delicate. You can't just go in like that," the source, who asked not to be named, said.

On Saturday, troops recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels whose ranks included fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

The third town, Kidal, remains in rebel hands.

The US and Europe are backing the UN-mandated operation as a campaign against the threat of jihadists using Mali's Sahara desert region as a launching pad for international attacks.

One Timbuktu resident now outside the town said a friend inside had sent him text messages saying he had seen government troops on the streets, but gave no more details.

The rebels in the town provoked international outrage by destroying ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.

They also imposed strict sharia law, including amputations for thieves and the stoning of adulterers.

Malian government control was restored in Gao after French special forces backed by warplanes and helicopters seized the town's airport and a key bridge. Around a dozen "terrorists" were killed in the assault, while French forces suffered no losses or injuries, the country's defence ministry said.

The rebels appeared to be withdrawing further north into the trackless wilderness of the Sahara, from where some military experts fear they could wage a guerrilla war.

Officials said the mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo, who had taken refuge in Bamako during the occupation, had been reinstalled at the head of the local administration while French, Malian, Chadian and Nigerian troops secured the town and the surrounding area.

As the French and Malian troops push northwards, African troops from a regional intervention force expected to number 7,700 are being flown into the country, despite delays caused by logistical problems and the lack of airlift capacity.



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« Reply #4259 on: Jan 28, 2013, 07:39 AM »

Mohamed Morsi declares emergency in three Egyptian cities

By The Guardian
Sunday, January 27, 2013 18:08

by Patrick Kingsley

State of emergency and curfews announced for Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez in response to wave of political violence

President Mohamed Morsi has announced a state of emergency in three cities near Egypt’s Suez Canal, following four days of civil unrest that have left at least 40 dead and over 500 injured.

Port Said, Suez, and Ismailiya – the cities most affected by the violence – will be subject to a 30-day curfew lasting from 9pm to 6am every night, Morsi said in a surprise televised speech.

Speaking to the Guardian, a spokesman for the opposition expressed frustration at the announcement, blaming the president’s policies and inaction for the violence, and arguing that the state of emergency was too little, too late.

Since Thursday, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in 12 of the country’s 21 provinces, to protest against the Islamist president, the Muslim Brotherhood, and police brutality – exactly two years after the start of the Egyptian revolution.

On Saturday, the government lost control of Port Said, a coastal city on the Mediterranean, when hardcore football fans rioted in protest at being scapegoated, as they saw it, by security forces for the massacre of over 70 Cairene supporters at a football match in February 2012.

Thirty-seven people died as rioters tried to invade a prison and several police buildings. The situation was inflamed once more on Sunday as police disrupted a funeral march for those killed the day before – sparking yet more upheaval.

“We think the president is totally responsible for the conflict,” said Khaled Daoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a disparate collection of liberal and leftist parties opposed to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“Almost all over Egypt you’re seeing dissatisfaction about the policies of the president,” Daoud said. “He only cares about the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Daoud also argued that the violence – particularly in Port Said, which was sparked by the long-awaited decision to sentence to death 21 local football fans – was entirely predictable, and therefore very preventable.

Yet as violence broke out last week, Morsi was slow to react publicly, until today. “When the bloodshed happened on [Friday], all the president did was tweet,” said Daoud.

Others felt that Morsi had been placed in a difficult position.

According to Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, the decision to declare a state of emergency certainly risks “inflaming the situation further – blood calls for blood.”

Yet the other routes available to Morsi also had their problems, Zarwan told the Guardian.

Instead of calling a state of emergency, Morsi might have placated the Port Said football ultras by involving himself in their court case.

But Zarwan said: “Any political approach he might take to calm the situation in Port Said would risk infuriating a constituency he can ill afford to infuriate, be it football ultras in Cairo, the judiciary, or the police.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
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