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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1073164 times)
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« Reply #4350 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:39 AM »

February 1, 2013

Another Reset With Russia in Obama’s Second Term


MOSCOW — Four years ago, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. used an audience of world leaders at an annual security conference in Munich to propose a “reset” with Russia, the Obama administration’s first big foreign policy statement. But as Mr. Biden arrives in Germany for the same conference this weekend, the United States is quietly adopting a new approach to its old cold war rival: the cold shoulder.

The intense engagement on the reset led to notable achievements, including the New Start nuclear arms treaty and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. But after more than a year of deteriorating relations, the administration now envisions a period of disengagement, according to government officials and outside analysts here and in Washington.

The pullback — which may well be a topic of discussion when Mr. Biden meets with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on the sidelines of the conference — is a response to months of intensifying political repression in Russia since Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency last May and a number of actions perceived by Washington as anti-American.

Because American officials do not want to worsen the relationship and still hope for cooperation, they declined to publicly describe the plans. But within the administration it is taken for granted that the relationship with Russia is far less of a priority.

“We have real differences, and we don’t hide them,” said Tony Blinken, who has served as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser and is now joining the president’s national security team.

Briefing reporters before the Germany trip, Mr. Blinken said: “We have differences over human rights and democracy. We have differences over — in a number of areas that have been in the media in recent days and weeks.”

The distancing began with the recent withdrawal by the United States from the “civil society working group,” one of 20 panels created in 2009 to carry out the reset between Moscow and Washington under an umbrella organization known as the Obama-Medvedev Commission.

If that step was barely perceptible outside diplomatic circles, the strategy will soon become far more obvious. American officials say President Obama will decline an invitation — publicly trumpeted by Mr. Lavrov and the Russian news media — to visit Moscow on his own this spring. Instead, he will wait until September, when the G-20 conference of the world’s largest economies is scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg, Russia.

And while Secretary of State John Kerry has yet to select his first overseas destination, officials said Russia had been ruled out.

The main goal seems to be to send a message that the United States views much of its relationship with Russia as optional, and while pressing matters will continue to be handled on a transactional basis, Washington plans to continue criticizing Russia on human rights and other concerns. As for the anti-Americanism, the new approach might be described as shrug and snub.

Nevertheless, Mr. Blinken said there was real potential to work through the differences. And American officials are clearly betting that Mr. Putin desires a prominent role on the world stage and will ultimately decide to re-engage.

But the chances of that seem slim. Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, warned that a pullback would be a shirking of American responsibility to work with Russia to maintain global stability. He said that Russia wanted to improve economic ties and build a stronger relationship, but that the United States must stay out of Russia’s affairs.

“We have heard numerous times the word in Washington that Russia’s domestic affairs are not satisfactory,” Mr. Peskov said. “Unfortunately these voices cannot be taken into account here, and we cannot agree with them. We are a genuine democratic country, and we are taking care of ourselves.”

In the nearly three years since the signing of the New Start treaty, followed by Russia’s vote two months later at the Security Council in support of sanctions on Iran, American officials say only one major thing has changed: the return of Mr. Putin to the presidency.

Confronted by the emergence of a potent political opposition movement among Moscow’s urban middle class, Mr. Putin has taken steps since his inauguration last May to suppress political dissent. Many of those steps were also seen in Washington as anti-American and undermining human rights.

These included the prosecution and jailing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot; the decision to end more than 20 years of cooperation on public health programs and civil society initiatives run by the United States Agency for International Development; cancellation of a partnership to dismantle unconventional weapons; and approval of legislative initiatives clamping down on pro-democracy groups and other nonprofit organizations.

The final straw appeared to be a law signed by Mr. Putin in December prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, which the Kremlin said was retaliation for a new American law punishing Russian human rights violators. Senior Obama administration officials viewed the adoption ban not only as geopolitically disproportionate, but so utterly cruel in denying orphans the chance to join a family that it left many speechless and some near tears.

That the Russian government would put children in the political cross-fire convinced American officials that they were not confronting political theatrics, as they believed when Mr. Putin was running for re-election, but rather an increasingly idiosyncratic government driven by Russian domestic concerns, especially Mr. Putin’s fears of popular unrest.

“It’s a feeling of frustration that Putin and company are unnecessarily imposing strains on the Russian and American relationship,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, now a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a telephone interview.

“I would not construe that as saying that Russia needs to be downgraded, or is irrelevant,” Mr. Brzezinski said, but that “we do not need it for everything.”

Even Russia’s most critical role in the global economy, as a major supplier of oil and gas — particularly to American allies in Europe — has ebbed, given the rise of the United States as a major producer of shale gas and the return of Iraq as a big oil producer.

At the same time, outside its borders, Russia remains indisputably relevant on a range of global issues, including the threats and opportunities from climate change in the Arctic and the political uncertainty in North Korea, that prevent the United States from pulling back too far.

“We can manage these issues effectively together, or end up shouting at each other,” said James F. Collins, who was ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton. “Anybody who suggests we are going to disengage and let them stew just doesn’t get it. We will have to deal with them.”

Matthew Bryza, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs, said it would be best to deal dispassionately with Moscow.

“Every American president in my career has come into office thinking that they are going to be the great communicator that makes a breakthrough with Russia,” Mr. Bryza said. “As their terms have continued, every president has been disappointed.”

He added: “Russia behaves like Russia. Russia pursues its own hard-core national interests. That is realpolitik. We should de-sentimentalize our relations.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting from Washington, and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin.

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« Reply #4351 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:43 AM »

02/01/2013 03:56 PM

Full Throttle Ahead: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking


The United States is sitting on massive natural gas and oil reserves that have the potential to shift the geopolitical balance in its favor. Worries are increasing in Russia and the Arab states of waning influence and falling market prices.

Williston, North Dakota, is a bleak little city in the vast American prairie. It's dusty in the summer and frigid in the winter. Moose hunting is one of the few sources of entertainment. But despite its drawbacks, Williston has seen its population more than double within a short period of time.

The city is so overcrowded that new arrivals often have no place to stay but in their motor homes, which, at monthly parking fees of $1,200 (€880), isn't exactly inexpensive. And more people continue to arrive in this nondescript little town.

The reason for the influx is simple: Geologists have discovered a layer of shale saturated with natural gas and oil deep beneath the city. The Bakken formation, spanning thousands of square kilometers, has become synonymous with an American economic miracle that the country hasn't experienced since the oil rush almost 100 years ago.

North Dakota now has virtual full employment, and the state budget showed an estimated surplus of $1.6 billion in 2012. Truck drivers in the state make $100,000 a year, while the strippers being brought in from Las Vegas rake in more than $1,000 a night. President Barack Obama calls the discovery of Bakken and similar shale gas formations in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Utah a "stroke of luck," saying: "We have a hundred years' worth of energy right beneath our feet."

A Vital Nerve

The future of the American energy supply was looking grim until recently. With its own resources waning, the United States was dependent on Arab oil sheiks and erratic dictators. Rising energy costs were hitting a vital nerve in the country's industrial sector.

But the situation has fundamentally changed since American drilling experts began using a method called "fracking," with which oil and gas molecules can be extracted from dense shale rock formations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the United States will replace Russia as the world's largest producer of natural gas in only two years. The Americans could also become the world's top petroleum producers by 2017.

Low natural gas prices -- the price of natural gas in the United States is only a quarter of what it was in 2008 -- could fuel a comeback of American industry. "Low-cost natural gas is the elixir, the sweetness, the juice, the Viagra," an American industry representative told the business magazine Fortune. "What it's doing is changing the US back into the industrial power of the day."

The government estimates that the boom could generate 600,000 new jobs, and some experts even believe that up to 3 million new jobs could be created in the coming years. "My administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy," Obama said during his most recent State of the Union address.

Shifting Calculations

The gas revolution is changing the political balance of power all over the world. Americans and Russians have waged wars, and they have propped up or toppled regimes, over oil and gas. When the flows of energy change, the strategic and military calculations of the major powers do as well.

It is still unclear who the winners and losers will be. The Chinese and the Argentines also have enormous shale gas reserves. Experts believe that Poland, France and Germany have significant resources, although no one knows exactly how significant. Outside the United States, extraction is still in its infancy.

The outlines of a changed world order are already emerging in the simulations of geo-strategists. They show that the United States will benefit the most from the development of shale gas and oil resources. A study by Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, concludes that Washington's discretionary power in foreign and security policy will increase substantially as a result of the country's new energy riches.

According to the BND study, the political threat potential of oil producers like Iran will decline. Optimists assume that, in about 15 years, the United States will no longer have to send any aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf to guarantee that oil tankers can pass unhindered through the Strait of Hormuz, still the most important energy bottleneck in the world.

The Russians could be on the losing end of the stick. The power of President Vladimir Putin is based primarily on oil and gas revenues. If energy prices decline in the long term, bringing down Russian revenues from the energy sector, Putin's grip on power could begin to falter. The Americans' sudden oil and gas riches are also not very good news for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

European industry is also likely to benefit from falling world market prices for oil and gas. But according to prognoses, without domestic extraction the Europeans' site-specific advantages deteriorate.

German chemical giant BASF has already invested a lot of money in the United States in the last two years. In Louisiana, for example, it has built new plants for the production of methyl amines and formic acid. "The local natural gas price is a criterion that affects the question of where we invest in new production facilities," says BASF Executive Board member Harald Schwager. At the moment, the United States has a clear advantage over Europe in this regard."

German Reservations

So far, the political debate in Germany has been dominated by concerns over adverse environmental effects. Fracking has become a dirty word for citizens' initiatives and environmental groups.

The concept of pumping water laced with chemicals into the earth at high pressures to crack open layers of rock several thousand meters beneath the surface makes many citizens uneasy, even though the technology has, in principle, already been used for decades in conventional gas extraction in the northern German state of Lower Saxony.

At the same time, Germany's energy and climate policy would in fact be a reason to use the new gas reserves. Flexible gas power plants would be the best approach to offsetting unpredictable fluctuations in wind and solar electricity, thereby maintaining a reliable power supply. Besides, burning natural gas generates up to 60 percent less climate-damaging CO2 than burning coal.

With the help of natural gas, the Americans have been able to reduce their CO2 emissions associated with energy production to the lowest level in years. This is one of the reasons the country plans to replace one in six coal-fired power plants with gas power plants by 2020.

At the Munich Security Conference this weekend, fracking will be at the top of the agenda for the first time. In fact, one of the agenda items is called "The American Oil and Gas Bonanza." In past years, nuclear weapons and threats from international terror were discussed at the conference, but this year one of the hot topics is the "Changing Geopolitics of Energy." This shows how important the issue has become. "It is perhaps a permissible exaggeration to claim a natural gas revolution," John Deutch, a former undersecretary at the Energy Department and CIA director, and now a professor at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. Deutch has been monitoring the development for years.

America 's Energy Miracle

In the late 1990s, American oil and gas companies used new technologies to advance into previously unexplored layers of the earth. They drill up to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) into the shale, then make a sharp turn and continue to drill horizontally. Then they inject a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into the drilled well at high pressure. This creates small fractures in the surrounding rock, allowing gas and oil to be released and rise to the surface through pipes.

New technologies are drastically reducing drilling costs. In 2012, shale gas already made up 34 percent of total production, and the technology is constantly improving. The sector is booming, and there are dozens of new companies searching for additional, previously undiscovered deposits.

In the future, the United States could even go from being a net energy importer to a net exporter. But that would require a true policy shift. Since the oil shock of the 1970s, the export of domestic petroleum resources has been banned in the United States. Many companies also have an interest in keeping as much of the cheap natural gas in the country as possible, as it provides them with a competitive advantage over foreign competitors.

According to a study, lower natural gas prices last year created a benefit worth more than $100 billion for US industry. "The country has stumbled into a windfall on the backs of these entrepreneurs," says study co-author Professor Edward Hirs of the University of Houston.

And perhaps things will indeed improve substantially. The US government has identified a new deposit in Utah, although additional major advances in technology are needed to make extraction economically viable. The Utah deposit contains an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of extractable oil, or as much as the world's entire proven oil reserves to date.

Russia on the Losing End

A building in the southwestern section of Moscow juts into the sky like a rocket. The architectural message of the headquarters of energy giant Gazprom, which towers over everything else around it, is clear: The only way is up. Until recently, there was still an overwhelming consensus that nuclear weapons and energy commodities like oil and gas are the two currencies that gave a country its superpower status. Russia, the world's largest exporter of natural resources, has both in abundance.

President Putin built his dominance at home and his foreign policy on Russia's wealth of natural resources. Oil and gas revenues make up about 50 percent of the national budget. The president needs Gazprom's billions in revenues to keep his supporters, mostly government employees, retirees, blue-collar workers and farmers, happy with expensive social benefits. Gas also plays a central role in the plan to expand Russia's sphere of influence into the former Soviet republics.

But now the American natural resources boom threatens Putin's dreams of an imperial resurrection of his country. It is already struggling with falling gas prices. Gazprom's operating profit shrank by more than 25 percent in the first nine months of 2012.

The Russians are now forced to give their customers, like Germany's E.on and Italian energy company Eni, discounts in the billions. Still, the Europeans are reorienting themselves. In the first three quarters of 2912, Gazprom sales fell by 43 percent in the Netherlands, 30 percent in Slovakia and 20 percent in France.

The Kremlin Is Alarmed
No one in Moscow can rattle off these statistics as quickly as Vladimir Milov. He was deputy energy minister after the turn of the millennium, and today he heads a small opposition party. Milov believes Gazprom is a giant with clay feet. "America is announcing the shale gas revolution, while Gazprom and Russia remain in hibernation," he says.

If liquefied natural gas from the United States lands at the ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg or Odessa in the future, it will further increase the pressure on prices. And if Moscow remains intransigent in the discussion of an Iran resolution in the UN Security Council, Washington could threaten to flood the market with natural gas.

If that happened, Russia's attempt to influence the world market price through a natural gas group similar to OPEC would also be off the table once and for all. Last July, Russia invited the world's large gas exporters to discuss improved cooperation, but to no avail. If the United States exports a portion of its enormous resources, price and production agreements will likely become impossible once and for all.

The Kremlin is alarmed, despite Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller's dismissive characterization of the revolution as an exaggeration in the style of "American Hollywood films." Shale gas will play only a secondary role in the market, says Miller, citing the billions Western energy companies are investing in pipelines and the traditional exploration of Siberian gas fields.

But new pipelines are expensive, and it is completely unclear whether the South Stream pipeline, which is to transport Russian gas from the Black Sea to Italy, across a distance of 2,380 kilometers (1,490 miles), and will cost an estimated €16 billion to build, will ever pay off. Miller's spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov admits that the new technologies work in America's favor.

But another trend is being overlooked, says Kupriyanov. "The demand for gas will increase worldwide," he explains, "because the economies of the rapidly growing emerging countries need energy and, in the future, more automobiles and soon more ships will be operated with environmentally friendly natural gas."

It seems certain that Russia will remain an important supplier of commodities. But its political threat potential will shrink if the countries of Western Europe and Ukraine have more alternatives to Russian natural resources. Moscow will likely become the biggest political loser of the America natural resource boom. But what does it look like at other key points in the business?

No Blood for Oil

The Middle East, for example, is a dangerous region, repeatedly racked by war in the last few decades. The Americans attacked Iraq twice to secure their oil supply.

More than 20 US warships are stationed in Bahrain, including an aircraft carrier, as well as several destroyers and submarines. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is intended to secure the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman. Some 35 percent of the global oil trade involving ships passes through the Strait.

With its efforts in the Gulf, the American military is not only protecting trade routes, but also the monarchies in the region. In return the Saudis, still the world's largest oil producer today, have ensured that OPEC pursues a moderate price policy. But the tradeoff of security against oil is costly for the Americans.

Washington pays billions for its military presence in the Middle East. And the costs are not just material. The fact that American troops were deployed to the war in Kuwait from Saudi soil was the catalyst that triggered former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's fight against the United States.

According to BND estimates, the Americans could soon dispense with energy shipments from the Middle East altogether. It is conceivable that the United States could then no longer have a direct interest in protecting the flow of oil out of the Gulf region, London-based energy expert Alan Riley recently wrote in the New York Times.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the United States will withdraw from the region in the foreseeable future. "The United States will remain dependent on international energy markets for a long time to come," says Joseph Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Besides, US interests in the Middle East are not limited to oil. They also include both containing Iran and fighting Islamist terror. Finally, protecting Israel also plays a central role in American foreign policy.

"Anyone who thinks that the Americans could withdraw from the Middle East understands neither the dynamics of the oil markets nor the geopolitical relationships," says Braml. One reason that America will maintain a presence at the Strait of Hormuz, he explains, is to be able to shut off the energy tap to the Chinese if necessary.

Still, the Europeans, in particular, could face new political challenges. "It ought to become easier for America in the future to demand more help from others in securing the energy supply," says security expert Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. This applies to Washington's NATO allies, he adds, and to Japan, South Korea and even India.

For Germany, this would probably not mean sending its own troops to the Gulf. But it would have to make a stronger contribution to the costs of the US mission.

According to the BND's assessment, the Chinese will be significantly on the losing end of American oil wealth. The country will become even more dependent on the Gulf region than it is now, and yet it is still not in a position to protect the transport routes on its own. This makes it vulnerable, the BND argues, and gives the United States more room for maneuver with its global political rivals. But what does all of this mean for Germany?

'Typical German Behavior'

In a study conducted last year, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in the northern German city of Hanover concluded that even Germany has substantial untapped natural resources beneath its soil: between 700 and 2,300 billion cubic meters of extractable shale gas, or 200 times the country's current natural gas production. "This means that shale gas from domestic reserves, if used extensively, could contribute significantly to Germany's natural gas supply," say the institute's experts. Representatives of energy companies ExxonMobil and Wintershall estimate the marketable value of this treasure at up to €1 trillion.

The Hanover study makes it seem as if Germany could immediately start drilling. It also states that environmental concerns are unfounded, because the method in question has been around for a long time, although it has only been used so far in other types of rock.

"The risks of fracking activities in the geological subsoil are low compared with potential accidents in above-ground activities," the study reads. In other words, if an oil truck tips over on the road, the risk of groundwater contamination is much greater than with fracking. But the study also points out that it would be best to stay away from regions vulnerable to earthquakes.

But the concerns about fracking prevail in politics. The government of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a coalition of center-left Social Democrats and the Greens, imposed a moratorium of sorts, and it has even refused to issue a permit for an exploratory well requested by ExxonMobil. And in Lower Saxony, where the fracking process has already been widely used in conventional gas deposits, the mood has shifted after the recent SPD-Green Party win in state parliamentary elections.

The critics base their arguments in part on a position taken by the Federal Environment Agency, which is of course particularly sensitive when it comes to environmental matters. According to the agency's position, fracking should only be allowed under the strictest of conditions, which in turn displeases proponents.

"It's typical German behavior," says BASF board member Schwager, "to initially see only the risks with every new technology, instead of thinking about the opportunities.

Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler have learned their own lessons from the dispute among experts. Fracking, they state in their position papers, is technically complex and environmentally controversial. In other words: Let's not touch it with a 10-foot pole, at least until after the national parliamentary election in the fall.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #4352 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:45 AM »

02/01/2013 05:59 PM

Under Pressure: Once Mighty Gazprom Loses Its Clout

By Stefan Schultz and Benjamin Bidder

Energy giant Gazprom is no longer the powerhouse it once was. The company is losing its tight grip on the European market and its rivals are gathering steam. The world's largest producer of natural gas might even lose its export monopoly.

Early this week, an invoice was delivered to the Ukrainian government and Naftogaz, the country's national oil and natural gas company. It was sent by Russian energy giant Gazprom, and it read almost like a declaration of war: the Russians were demanding $7 billion for 16 billion cubic meters of natural gas -- which Ukraine hadn't even used.

The principle at stake is "take or pay." According to a long-standing clause in Gazprom's supply agreement, customers are obligated to accept a contractually-agreed minimum quantity of natural gas, and even if the customer uses less, Moscow gets paid the full sum. It's a common practice in the energy business and indicative of Russia's energy clout. But now Ukraine is digging in its heels and there is a good chance it won't have to pay up.

The dispute is symptomatic of the Russian energy giant's current plight. Technological progress is threatening its business model and the company that has long monopolized the market has failed to adjust in time. "Eat or be eaten" has been its general operating principle when it comes to prices. For decades, many countries, including Ukraine, relied on Gazprom for its gas supply, but the market is becoming increasingly global. With the supply of natural gas growing and prices falling, Gazprom is beginning to lose its grip on the market.

Three-Fold Pressure

There are three primary risks that are threatening the country. For one, rivals in the Middle East are constructing facilities for liquefied natural gas (LNG) and developing a fleet of special tankers that will be able to transport LNG to destinations thousands of kilometers away -- further than any pipeline and with far more flexible trade routes. In Europe and Asia, LNG is increasingly competing with Gazprom. Qatar in particular has massively boosted its LNG supply to Europe: In 2011, the emirate exported 44 billion cubic meters, compared to 5 billion cubic meters in 2006.

Secondly, Norway is expanding its gas exploration and wresting market share from Russia in Europe. According to Eurostat, the European Union's statistical authority, Norway's gas sales in Europe rose by 16 percent in 2012, while Gazprom's fell by 8 percent.

And thirdly, thanks to new drilling methods, it has become easier to extract natural gas trapped in permafrost, dense clay and, especially, shale, allowing for gas production in previously untapped regions. In the US particularly, fracking, as it known, has triggered a gas bonanza, making it hard for Russia to get a foothold in the market. Gazprom was aiming to secure 10 percent of the US market, but this goal now seems decidedly out of reach.

The Kremlin is feeling the effects of these developments in the gas market. In coming years, EU countries such as Poland are planning to concentrate on unconventional gas extraction in order to reduce reliance of Russia. With gas and oil accounting for 50 percent of state revenue, a drop in Russian exports will hit Moscow hard. In addition, it will lose leverage over countries such as Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other states that used belong to the Soviet sphere of influence. The German intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) predicts that the erstwhile energy giant will soon begin to lose power.

Reality Catches Up

Gazprom, as a result, has devolved from being one of the Kremlin's biggest political assets to becoming a problem child. Decades of market domination have made the company lazy and it is now failing to adapt. The company continues trying to impose costly, long-term supply contracts on its customers, even though gas prices on the spot market have long since begun undercutting Gazprom. Furthermore, it remains inefficient, often spending up to three times as much as its rivals on similar projects.

Now, reality is quickly catching up with the company -- and it has been brutal. Gazprom has beem forced to concede discounts to its customers with increasing frequency. Recently, Polish company PGNiG beat the supply price of Russian natural gas down from $500 to $450 per 1,000 cubic meters. German market leader E.on Ruhrgas, meanwhile, negotiated a price reduction of over €1 billion for 2012 alone. Customers are also buying more from Gazprom's rivals.

Gazprom is feeling the pinch. Between January and September, 2012, the company saw profits of some €20.2 billion, down 12 percent on the same period in 2011. Its turnover from gas exports dropped 8 percent to €44.9 billion. According to the former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, now an opposition politician, the company's gas production fell by 6.7 percent to 478 billion cubic meters last year.

Gazprom blames the crisis in the key European market, which usually is responsible for two-thirds of the company's profits. Yet demand for Gazprom natural gas has dropped more steeply than demand for gas in general. In Italy, for example, general demand for natural gas declined in the first three quarter of 2012 by 2.6 percent, but Gazprom supplied 11 percent less in the same period. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, total sales dropped by 9 percent, with Gazprom's supply to the country dropping by 42.6 percent. Polish demand for gas actually rose by 6.2 percent, but imported 11.5 percent less from Gazprom.

As the company loses its market share, the European Commission is preparing to clip its wings even further. In early September, regulators launched an investigation into whether Gazprom might be hindering competition in Central and Eastern European gas markets, in breach of EU anti-trust rules. The investigation strikes at the heart of the Russian business model, and will examine several of its practices, such as whether it has imposed unfair prices on its customers by linking the price of natural gas to that of oil.

Changing Paradigms

Gazprom is also under pressure outside the EU. Ukraine, a chronically cash-strapped key customer of the Russian company, is cutting down on gas imports. The "take or pay" contracts signed in 2009 foresaw annual deliveries of 41.6 billion cubic meters, but Kiev imported just 25.9 billion cubic meters in 2012. In 2013, it expects to import only 20 billion cubic meters.

High energy costs are threatening to derail the Ukrainian economy. For the time being, the country pays an extortionate $425 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas, with Russia tying any potential reductions to political demands. Moscow has let Kiev know that it can only expect a discount if Ukraine joins the Russian-led Customs Union. Belarus has already caved in and now pays just $185 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas.

But Ukraine is working on ways to get by the blackmail. A terminal for LNG tankers is planned in Odessa, and just days before Gazprom presented the $7 billion invoice, Kiev signed a shale gas production sharing agreement with Shell. Further deals with Chevron and Exxon are also in the cards.

Gazprom is even under pressure in Russia. Moscow wants to open up natural gas and oil extraction on the Arctic continental shelves to smaller companies -- a decision that comes as a blow to Gazprom and the state oil company Rosneft.

'No Doubt That It Will Change'

Novatek, Russia's second-largest gas producer, cultivates close ties to the Kremlin and has begun stealing customers and market share from Gazprom. In 2011 alone, Novatek's gas exports rose by 45 percent. Political observers in Moscow say Gazprom chairman Alexey Miller is falling out of favor with President Vladimir Putin and believe his position is weakening.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- a former chair of Gazprom's board -- likewise fears that the days of Russia's natural gas monopoly are numbered and appears to be weighing up alternatives. Only recently, he made comments suggesting that Gazprom may have its export monopoly status rescinded.

Russia needs to lower its dependence on the export of energy resources, he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "We should give thought to what we can present to the world in case the paradigm of energy development is changed," he said. "I have no doubt that it will change."

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« Reply #4353 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:48 AM »

02/01/2013 04:44 PM

Auto Revolution: A Promising Future for Self-Driving Cars

By Christian Wüst

The technology needed for driverless cars is here and could be ready for the market in less than a decade. Automation holds the promise of revolutionizing the automobile industry and making our streets safer, but will it spell the end of Fahrvergnügen?

A Lexus drives down the eight-lane highway outside Palo Alto, California, in heavy rush-hour traffic. Except for the rotating cylinder perched on its roof like an oversized tin can and the word "Google" on its doors, it looks like any other car. In reality, though, it's a search engine on wheels.

The Lexus steers itself down the highway all by itself. The man in the driver's seat -- Dmitri Dolgov, a software engineer for Google -- never actually touches the wheel.

Dolgov explains what the car can do, which turns out to be quite a lot. It can steer, accelerate and brake automatically; it surveys its surroundings with cameras and uses radar to measure the distance to the car in front of it; and its laser scanner -- the cylinder affixed to the roof -- monitors objects in all directions.

"See?" Dolgov asks, pointing as a car swerves in front of the Google vehicle from the right. There's no need for Dolgov to intervene. The robotic car has identified what is happening and gently brakes until there is once again a proper distance between the cars.

With its 12 vehicles, Google has the largest known test fleet of self-driving cars. All together, the Internet giant has covered over half a million kilometers (300,000 miles) in these robotic vehicles, most of it on California's public roads and highways. The cars have driven through Los Angeles, around Lake Tahoe and down the famous hairpin turns of San Francisco's Lombard Street. They have become so reliable, in fact, that Google is now taking SPIEGEL out for a demonstration.

Self-driving cars, long dismissed as a utopian pipe dream, are rapidly reaching the stage where they will be ready for the market. "We're not talking about 20 years here, but more like five," says Sebastian Thrun, initiator and director of Google's project.

Five years until the first driverless cars hit the streets? It sounds like just any of the other science-fiction ideas that seem to percolate out of the manically creative world that is Google headquarters. But could it be that the company is about to show the automobile industry what the future of mobility looks like?

In truth, however, the real surprise here is something else entirely: Everything Google can do, carmakers already do as well -- they just don't talk about it as openly. In one European Union-funded research project, Volvo successfully drove a convoy of five vehicles that only had a human driver in the lead car. BMW recently sent a robotic car on a two-hour drive from Munich to Nuremberg. And Volkswagen and a research team from Stanford University have caused a stir with their driverless Audi sports car, which that has been zipping around US racetracks.

Gradually Automating Cars

Although Google doesn't enjoy a monopoly on the field, its prominent position allows it to exert pressure on others and demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. The auto industry isn't missing the technology needed for the next revolution in mobility. It lacks the guts to put that technology on the market.

"The necessary technology for autonomous cars is already in place," confirms Lothar Groesch, an expert on safety technology. Groesch, 66, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, has spent most of his career working in development for Daimler and Bosch, the automotive parts giant. But now his job as a freelance industrial consultant allows him to speak his mind freely, rather than being limited to what his bosses want him to say.

Groesch recently helped Bosch with its development of driver assistance systems. He quickly recognized that, when taken together, all of the instruments designed to assist drivers added up to a technology suite that will ultimately make it possible to liberate cars from their drivers.

The question is whether or not people will embrace it. Carmakers' greatest fear is that this development will rob the automobile of its magic, reducing the once all-powerful driver to a passive passenger.

But the fact is that this process has already been underway for a long time. It began 20 years ago with the introduction of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems that apply targeted braking to individual wheels so as to prevent skidding and make sure that overzealous drivers don't lose control while accelerating around curves. Of course, most cars offer a way for people looking to drive the old way to switch the ESC system off. But, says Groesch: "That's foolishness in terms of road safety." And engineers believe that there is less and less justification for having drivers the better automated vehicle-control technology gets.

Today's cars come with radar sensors and cameras that can recognize, for example, situations where a collision may occur if the driver doesn't react in time. These cars first sound a warning, then brake fully, although often not until it's too late -- the vehicle still crashes into the obstacle but at a lower speed. "The car could do better, but it's not allowed to," Groesch explains. "It would make a lot more sense to intervene earlier, without first giving a warning. The warning only wastes time."

Freedom vs. Safety

This is where car developers -- and lawmakers -- are forced to ask themselves some weighty questions. Is the experience of driving a car something worthy of preserving? Does it lose its allure when drivers are stripped of the freedom to drive their cars themselves -- and also of the freedom to cause accidents with those cars? How much blood is society willing to spill for the sake of our freedom to drive cars by ourselves?

No other invention in the history of civilian technology has caused as much harm as the automobile has -- not airplanes or electricity or even nuclear power. A person dies in a traffic accident somewhere in the world every 30 seconds, adding up to well over 1 million deaths each year. And the World Health Organization estimates that his figure will only continue to rise as more and more people in developing countries acquire cars. What's more, human error is the cause of almost every automobile accident.

As measured by capacity, commercial airplanes and trains are up to 1,000 times safer than automobiles. And the reasons are clear: Airplanes and trains are not steered by hundreds of millions of people who have received driver's licenses without any further verification of their character or intelligence. Instead, they are controlled by a much smaller group of experts trained for precisely this task.

Additionally, the controls for vehicles traveling by rail and air are largely automated. At this point, the primary function of the driver of a high-speed train is to regularly press a so-called "dead man's switch," which informs the automatically driven train that the driver is still awake and alert. The captain of a commercial airplane, meanwhile, turns on the autopilot shortly after takeoff, and only takes over the controls again shortly before landing.

What, then, qualifies an overtired traveling salesperson to manually drive his or her car 100 kilometers or more to get home through monotonous, steady traffic on a Friday evening? And is he or she really having any fun in doing so?

From Deserts to Drawing Boards
These are the kinds of questions Sebastian Thrun was asking himself even in his days as a computer science student in the German cities of Hildesheim and Bonn. Thrun, a 36-year-old genius in his field, took up a position as a professor at Stanford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, and is now a developer at Google. Thrun explains that he lost a friend in a car accident as a teenager and sees this as his motivation for turning to his field, computer science, as the key to accident-free automobiles.

Thrun first attracted attention in 2005, when he participated in a challenge run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research wing of the US military. The DARPA Grand Challenge involved 23 driverless, automatically controlled cars racing through the Mojave Desert, in the American Southwest. The Stanford Racing Team, headed by Thrun, entered the competition with a converted Volkswagen Touareg and steered its way to victory on rough terrain. The first autonomous cars were off-road vehicles by necessity, because they still weren't able to orient themselves well enough to keep them safely on the road.

One young computer entrepreneur was a spectator at the DARPA Grand Challenge that day and took an interest in the new technology. Larry Page, a Google co-founder and something of a rock star in the Internet world, recognized the alluring possibilities of driverless driving. So he immediately hired Thrun and other key members of his team.

Google's fleet of self-driving cars has become an integral part of the mystique surrounding America's most successful Internet firm, which started out as something quirky and has since become rather uncomfortably omnipresent. So far, though, the company has only used its autonomous vehicles as a form of advertisement. It has no official plans to commercialize vehicles, nor does it give the impression that such plans are the works. "We have no need to open up a car company here," Thrun says.

What's more likely is that Google would seek out a partner, thereby giving the ailing American automobile industry with a badly needed technological boost. General Motors, Ford or Chrysler could eventually become a hardware supplier for Google's designs, something of a Foxconn for the automobile world.

Challenges and Progress

Dressed in a green fleece jacket, Thrun warmly receives visitors at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, not far from Stanford. Just outside the entrance, Google employees playing beach volleyball are living representations of the company's aura of eternal corporate coolness. The formalities required for entry into the building, on the other hand, are roughly as strict as those at the Pentagon, and the company spokesman urges visitors to hurry. Google doesn't have all day.

Thrun, the computer science professor from Germany, has become an important figure at Google. He helped create Street View, the company's controversial compendium of photographic images of front yards and houses from around the world. Street View, Thrun explains, was a useful exercise in preparation for the autonomous vehicle project, since the streets that self-driving cars travel will also need to be thoroughly photographed first, although with a focus on a different type of data. Google Maps' collection of images, in other words, cannot be directly used for driverless vehicles.

Google's self-driving cars draw on a detailed directory of every street, building and bridge, all of which is stored on computer servers. Cameras and laser scanners mounted on vehicles check the images they receive from their surroundings against what is in this directory. In other words, this system's precision and reliability rely entirely on computing power -- something that is increasing at a furious pace.

Moore's Law, a standard principle of computer science, effectively posits that processing power doubles every two years. The first Intel processor, built in 1971, had 2,300 transistors. Today's standard microchip holds over 2.5 billion. And as computers' processing speed increases, so does the reliability of robotic cars. Just a year ago, Thrun says, the test operators of these cars had to intervene an average of once every 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) to correct a mistake on the part of the automatic driving system. "Now we can drive 80,000 kilometers without having to intervene," he says.

That's impressive, but not yet a breakthrough. A human driver who made a serious mistake once every 80,000 kilometers wouldn't exactly be held up as a model driver -- and a computer that does so certainly won't be.

But Thrun tries to put things in perspective. His self-driving cars, he says, don't make careless mistakes. The cameras never ignore a red light, and the radar reliably prevents rear-end collisions. "In those areas," he says, "robotic vehicles are already better than humans."

The driverless vehicles are worse, though, at reliably identifying objects. "That's something we humans are incredibly good at," Thrun explains. He picks up objects from the conference table in front of him to illustrate his point: "Here, a telephone. A roll of tape. It's not something we have to think hard about."

The cars' cameras see these things just as clearly as the human eye does, but the computers take longer to assess whether or not it would be dangerous to drive over them. What this means is that a robotic car will slam on the brakes even when the object in question turns out to be just a cardboard box blowing down the street, because it can't immediately assess whether the box isn't actually a baby carriage. And if suddenly braking for a cardboard box in the road causes a collision with the car behind, who is liable?

"Robotic cars are still too polite, which means they can sometimes be a nuisance," admits Doglov, the Google programmer. The vehicles always err on the side of caution, braking for cardboard boxes and never cutting into a stream of traffic where each car is traveling closely behind the one in front of it -- something drivers sometimes need to do, because they can otherwise end up sitting for hours on a highway on-ramp, waiting for an opening.

But humans won't always trump computers even when it comes to distinguishing between boxes and baby carriages, one of humanity's last bastions in its competition against artificial intelligence. When Thrun says this technology will be ready to go into mass production in five years, he's assuming that computing power will continue to multiply -- and that's a realistic assumption. Though high, the standards that need to met are attainable.

Pioneering Steps at Daimler

However, this isn't the first time that computer technology and automotive engineering have clashed. These are two industries with two very different approaches to the issue of susceptibility to failure. If a home computer crashes, the user simply boots it up again. But if the same thing occurs to the system that controls a car's safety functions, it could be life or death.

"Before we certify that a new driver assistance system is ready for mass production, it needs to have completed millions of kilometers of test driving without any errors," says Jochen Hermann, head of development for this product sector at Mercedes-Benz. The Stuttgart-based Daimler subsidiary is viewed as the founder of the automotive industry, and still seen as the keeper of the Grail when it comes to safety technology. Many pioneering driver assistance systems, from anti-locking brakes to ESC to brake assist technology, all had their breakthroughs here in Mercedes-Benz's research and development division.

Thrun, the Google developer, also has the highest respect for the company. "Mercedes does beautiful work, absolutely," he says. Such comments would seem to imply that Daimler might well number among Google's preferred potential partners for implementing its technological ideas. But Daimler might not even need Google at all.

The company has also developed its own cars with self-driving technology, the first of which will hit the market this summer, when Mercedes-Benz launches the next generation of its S-Class luxury sedan.

The S-Class is the company's flagship model, and the one Daimler often uses to introduce its latest developments. Mercedes took a decisive step toward autonomous driving, for example, with the 1998 S-Class, which introduced Distronic, a cruise control system with sensors for measuring and maintaining the vehicle's distance from the car in front of it. The 2013 model will go a step further by being capable of steering itself, making it the first to fulfill all the criteria of fully automated driving.

It will do so, though, only under one specific set of circumstances: in congested traffic. When the vehicle is traveling at walking speed, the driver can choose to switch on cruise control and take his or her feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel. The car then does everything itself, automatically accelerating, braking and steering. Simple sensors and cameras to monitor lane markings, along with radar equipment to measures the distance from the car in front of it, are enough to allow the vehicle to perform these functions.

"Traveling at a crawl is a very easy thing to master," Thrun agrees. But the new Mercedes S-Class can do more than that. It corrects the driver's steering at higher speeds as well, although in this case the driver must remain at least minimally involved, by keeping his or her hands on the steering wheel. Pressure sensors check that the driver is doing so and after a few seconds of handless driving, an alarm sounds and the autopilot switches off.

Legal Road Bumps

Here, Mercedes is following much the same principle as the dead man's switch in a high-speed train -- and for legal rather than technological reasons. Indeed, Mercedes could allow its S-Class to drive on highways completely autonomously. But it doesn't believe it's allowed to do so.

The reason for this lies with the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, a UN treaty signed on November 8, 1968. Article 8 of this document clearly states, "Every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver."

This same principle, carried over more or less verbatim, has found its way into the laws of the treaty's signatory nations. And, there, has remained, largely ignored for decades because the prospect of driverless cars was simply never an issue.

Added wording in these state-level laws further specifies that that "driver" is understood to mean a living being and not a collection of semiconductors. The German law on the subject, for example, reads, "Every driver must be physically and mentally capable of driving," before going on to talk about regulations concerning driving lessons. In other words, there can be no doubt here that "driver" means a person, not a computer.

Still, Ralf Herrtwich, who oversees the development of driver assistance and chassis systems for Daimler, believes there is "a lack of clear regulations." And, indeed, there is no doubt that technological developments in this area far have far outpaced amendments in the applicable laws. Even the new S-Class' autonomous driving capabilities in low-speed traffic exist somewhere on the edge of what the law allows, putting Mercedes' new luxury sedan in a legal gray area.

Thrun, the Google researcher, takes a less delicate view when it comes to the situation in the US. "No state in the US expressly forbids autonomous driving," he says. Nevada, in fact, expressly allows it and is currently working to establish more precise regulations. California and other states plan to follow Nevada's example.

Utopian? Or Feasible?
This open-mindedness on the part of the authorities ties in with certain economic policy interests. The computer industry is the last true bastion of the American Dream, the last economic sector in the US that is entirely intact and has the potential for boundless growth. Apple and Google are what General Motors once was, and Google's self-driving car is tantamount to an embodiment of the belief in digital progress.

Thrun, almost boyish-looking despite his 45 years, is perfect for his role as a major player in this pursuit. He took time off from his job at Stanford to found a free online higher-education portal called Udacity as a way of democratizing education, and he likewise sees his driverless car as serving a redemptive societal function. "Think of all the people who are blind or suffer from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's," he says. "Millions of Americans are denied the privilege of driving on health grounds."

In one advertising video, Google technicians have a man who is almost completely blind take the driver's seat of an autonomous Toyota Prius, which drives the man to do his shopping. To film this video, the car was surrounded by a police escort -- in the real world, it's still too soon for blind reliance on digital robotic driving.

What, then, is actually possible here and what is not? Designers in the automotive industry find Google's showy celebrations of its autonomous vehicles unsettling. Daimler developer Herrtwich, for example, finds it inappropriate to act as if computer-steered vehicles will soon be able to navigate through the fray of urban traffic. "City traffic is an utterly chaotic situation, and designing autonomous cars that can drive in it is not even one of our goals at this point," he says. "Autonomous driving in monotonous, steady highway traffic is a far more reasonable and feasible goal."

Still, even some conservative German designers take things considerably further. "The pace of development in electronics has often been underestimated," says Groesch, the industrial consultant. In another project with Daimler and Bosch, Groesch worked on developing airbag controls. In the beginning, it was widely believed to be impossible to develop sensors that would react quickly enough to deploy side airbags in time. Today, such airbags are an industry standard.

Reducing Mistakes to an Acceptable Level

That Groesch no longer considers autonomous driving a purely utopian vision is owed to one key piece of technology that has advanced by leaps and bounds: "Laser scanning," he explains, "is unbeatable at identifying traffic entering from the side."

Capable of up to 10 revolutions per second, these scanners fire 60 laser beams or more in a 360-degree arc around the vehicle. The beams are invisible to the eye and pose no danger to humans, but they strike objects and bounce back as pulses of light. From the time lapse between pulses, the computer can measure the car's distance from objects.

This allows the vehicle to establish a three-dimensional image of its surroundings to a distance of up to 100 meters (330 feet) -- a more comprehensive view than is possible with the human senses. Interpreting the information from the laser beams faster and better than the brain can interpret feedback from the eyes is only a matter of increasing computing power.

It's more than likely that, within the foreseeable future, autonomous cars will no longer make a mistake every 80,000 kilometers, but perhaps only every couple million kilometers. And someday they will outperform humans in every situation, even in chaotic city traffic.

The benchmark for developers in this field is ASIL D, under ISO 26262, an international standard applied to the safety of electronic and electric systems in automobiles. The standard stipulates that failures should be nearly eliminated -- a tall order when it comes to this sort of mobile technology. What happens when condensation or snow blurs a laser's lens, even if just for a few seconds? "Driving autonomously through Nevada on a sunny day is fairly easy," says Daimler developer Herrtwich. But in a flurry of snow in the mountains, the world looks very different for cameras and lasers.

Fading Interest in Driving?

How many mistakes can a robotic car make and still be unquestionably better than a human driver? There's no question that the first autonomous car to run over a person will receive more attention by far than the thousand human-driven cars that will undoubtedly do the same on the same day.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, expect to meet with fewer reservations toward self-driving cars from younger people, many of whom have little interest in cars anyway and would rather check their email during a drive than put in the effort necessary to turn the steering wheel. This is a generation that might even be grateful to let a computer take over as chauffeur.

Market researchers have observed a "trend toward de-emotionalizing automobility," in the words of Stefan Bratzel of the FHDW University of Applied Sciences, in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. In one study, Bratzel found that fewer and fewer young people living in cities own their own car, and that many no longer even have a driver's license. How else can car manufacturers expect to reach these potential customers, if not with a car that takes care of the driving itself?

At the same time, developers in the field are coming to a bitter realization. "Driving a car will increasingly be seen as a waste of time," says Groesch.

At Mercedes' development headquarters in Sindelfingen, Germany, designer Hermann ponders for a moment, then says something that no longer sounds blasphemous even here in this temple to the cult of the automobile: "There are plenty of situations where I don't want to have to drive because doing so isn't any fun."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #4354 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:52 AM »

02/01/2013 05:46 PM

Volunteers Wanted: Locals Help Save Germany's Shrinking Towns

By Sigrid Lupieri

While a graying population affects all of Germany, small rural towns have been hit the hardest. To counteract the demographic trend and make up for lacking resources, many communities are asking citizens to pitch in -- for free.

The school bus was one of the first things to go. Then, one by one, store owners and residents pulled out, leaving behind crumbling buildings and boarded-up windows. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the small German town of Altena is all but deserted.

"This is where I grew up," says Ulrich Hins, a 71-year-old retired resident, pointing toward a pale yellow house along Altena's main pedestrian thoroughfare. Down the street, "To rent" signs hang in darkened storefronts. "Now even the bakery only opens once a week," Hins says.

Altena lies in the rugged hills south of Dortmund in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It was once known for its steel mills and booming textile industry, but decades of economic stagnation have led younger generations to search for better prospects elsewhere, leaving many older residents behind to fend for themselves. From 32,000 residents in the early 1970s, only about 18,000 remain. Local government projections show that, by 2020, more than 35 percent of residents will be over the age of 60.

While a graying population affects Germany as a whole -- about 27 percent is over the age of 60, according to the Federal Statistical Office -- rural communities like Altena have been hit the hardest. With declining birthrates, high mortality and younger families moving to cities, many residents in Altena wonder whether their town will survive at all.

But Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena, has a plan to at least slow the effects of what may be an inevitable decline. He is asking his citizens to help out -- for free. "The truth is that the state is reaching its limit, and we can't finance everything we'd like to," Hollstein says. "When that's the case, we have to go back to the basics and rely on our citizens."

'Civic Engagement Is Fundamental'

These days, younger and older residents in Altena pitch in where they can. Since 2008, they can sign up at Stellwerk, a volunteer coordination center, to help their struggling community. A volunteer-run bus, called the "Bürgerbus" (or "citizen bus"), ferries older residents around to buy groceries across town or use the swimming pool in the next village. Retirees babysit children of single or working parents, and younger volunteers teach arts and crafts to nursing home residents. Even the local high school has gotten involved. As part of the seventh-to-ninth grade curriculum, students have set up a business to help elderly residents with daily chores -- from walking the dog to mowing the lawn.

As a result, in 2008 and 2011, Altena brought home the first prize in an "Idea Competition" sponsored by North Rhine-Westphalia. The award recognizes particularly innovative projects at the municipal level. "We have over 1,000 citizens who have stepped up," Hollstein says. "For such a small town, that's incredible."

And Altena isn't the only town to get residents involved. A study by the nonprofit Berlin Institute for Population and Development finds that, with a shrinking population affecting two-thirds of Germany's rural communities, private and state-run projects are now focusing on community-based solutions in an attempt to counteract demographic trends.

"Civic engagement is a fundamental issue," says Hans Jörg Rothen, a project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a nonprofit think tank advocating social change. "It's important to involve citizens and to include them in the decision-making process."

As part of an ongoing project, the Bertelsmann Stiftung recently compiled a report on expected demographic trends between 2009 and 2030 in municipalities with over 5,000 residents. In addition to publishing the data online, the foundation's Web portal, called "Municipal Guide" (Wegweiser Kommune), provides local authorities with concrete ideas for dealing with rapidly declining and aging populations.

Time as Currency

The small town of Eggesin lies some 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of Altena, in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The community has lost about half its population over the past few decades. Those remaining are mostly elderly -- the average age is 54 -- and face difficult economic prospects.

With money tight, it has implemented an innovative, grassroots initiative that focuses on using time as an alternative form of currency. Those who have the time but little cash to spare offer services such as babysitting, assisting elderly neighbors with repairs or minor construction, or teaching computer classes. In exchange, volunteers receive help from other residents, whether it's with gardening or a ride to the supermarket.

Nevertheless, many towns in Germany may need more help than their citizens can provide. "The further a small town is removed from a city, the faster it will shrink," says Manuel Slupina, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. "One of the reasons is that young people want to study and have to move to a big city. And then they want a job that fits their qualifications." According to Slupina, even with stable birthrates and an estimated 100,000 immigrants every year, Germany will still lose 17 million residents by 2060. "Civic engagement can only partially close the gap," he says.

When it comes to Altena, no one knows whether the combined efforts of its residents will be enough to keep younger generations from leaving. Sixteen-year-old Lea Burgardt has her doubts. As a 10th-grade student in Altena, she has volunteered to teach seniors classes on how to use mobile phones. And though she says she enjoys helping out in her community, she still plans to move away after graduation. "I never thought Altena was that great," Burgardt says. "I mean, it's tolerable."

Other residents, however, are cautiously optimistic. Renate Schwager, 60, a retired sales assistant, has mostly lived in the outskirts of town since 1973. She now shops at a volunteer-run local store that also functions as a community center. And when Schwager bought a new touch-screen mobile phone, volunteers from the local high school helped her figure out the new technology. "I do think that some things are changing," she says.

Back in the central part of town, a brand-new wheelchair-accessible boardwalk hugs the banks of the Lenne River. Neat clusters of bushes defy the winter chill, carefully tended by Altena's volunteers as part of an "adopt a plant" initiative. Not far from the town's volunteer-run art gallery, the retiree Hins points at cheerful patches of yellow wool festooned across a concrete bridge. "Our knitting group made these," he says.

As to whether Altena's volunteers will be able to revive the town's flagging center: "The prognosis is still bad," Hins says. "But it's not as terrible as it used to be."

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« Reply #4355 on: Feb 02, 2013, 07:57 AM »

02/01/2013 06:11 PM

'Blood Must Flow': Searching for the Perpetrators of a WWII Massacre

By Charles Hawley

A German prosecutor is involved in a race against time as he searches for enough proof to bring charges against former SS troops responsible for the gruesome World War II massacre in the French village Oradour-sur-Glane. Proving the utterance of a single quote might be enough.

"Today, blood must flow." The sentence is said to have been uttered by Heinz Barth, a junior officer in the SS division "Reich," which was stationed in France in the summer of 1944. A group of some 150 soldiers from the division were on the road to the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane when Barth allegedly spoke the words. Just hours later, the village lay in smoking ruins, its population massacred by the Nazi troops.

Now, seven decades later, the sentence -- and whether it can be proven that Barth indeed said it -- has become a key element into an ongoing German investigation into the events of June 10, 1944, one of the most horrific slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II. This week, investigators from the public prosecutor's office in Dortmund travelled to Oradour-sur-Glane as part of this search for evidence. Should they ultimately be successful, a handful of aging Germans could finally be brought to justice for a crime that has never been adequately atoned for.

"As a state prosecutor, one of the things that I must prove is that the perpetrators knew that murders were taking place," Andreas Brendel, head of the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in Dortmund, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Barth's statement means that members of the unit knew what was going to happen on that day. That was one of the main things that encouraged me to reopen the investigation."

An initial attempt by Dortmund prosecutors to investigate the massacre in the 1980s had made little progress and was abandoned. But in 2010, having been tipped off to Barth's statements by a book outlining the 1983 trial against the junior officer carried out by East Germany, Brendel reopened the case. The book, based primarily on trial records kept by the East German secret police, the Stasi, led Brendel to the court documents, starting a process which has now resulted in an investigation focused on six living members of the German unit that perpetrated the massacre. The trio of suspects that remain fit enough to stand trial, says Brendel, are all in their late 80s.

'More Historical Material'

"We have been able to find a couple of more soldiers than had been turned up in previous investigations, partially because the methods today are better," says Brendel. "More archives have been opened and there is a great deal more historical material available. The Internet has helped as well."

Barth himself was sentenced to life in prison by the East German court. He was released in 1997 due to his poor health and died in 2007.

The facts of the carnage are undisputed. At 2 p.m. on the afternoon of June 10, 1944, SS troops arrived in Oradour-sur-Glane, located northeast of Bordeaux, and herded the population on the town's main square, those who were too old or infirm were shot in their homes. The men were then separated from the women and children, with the latter being crammed into the village church, into which German troops then lobbed hand grenades and fired machine guns. Those that weren't killed instantly died in the ensuing fire. A single woman survived.

The men, meanwhile, were crammed into nearby barns, shot at and then set on fire. There were but five survivors. In all, 642 people lost their lives in the June 10, 1944 slaughter, including 240 women and 213 children.

It is thought that the motivation for the attack was revenge. On the previous day, Obersturmbannführer (the SS equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel) Helmut Kämpfe had been taken prisoner by a local partisan cell and later killed. Barth's blood thirst seems consistent with the widespread Nazi practice of taking revenge on local populations following such partisan attacks.

An initial trial undertaken by the French in Bordeaux in 1953 involved charges against dozens of soldiers belonging to the German unit that attacked Oradour-sur-Glane. Ultimately, however, despite several guilty verdicts, most of the suspects were set free on the strength of a political amnesty.

Over a half century later, gathering proof has become much more difficult, and proving Barth's statement remains a significant challenge. Brendel himself notes that the East German court documents represent the only source that makes note of the aggressive comment.

Not Symbolic

And the search for additional evidence has proved challenging as well. Brendel obtained a number of search warrants in 2011 for raids undertaken on the homes of suspects in the hopes of finding diaries, drawings or keepsakes that might solidify their case. Little was turned up, however.

Furthermore, there were very few witnesses to the original massacre and most of those have since passed away. Robert Hébras, who survived by crawling out the back of one of the burning barns, is one of those who remains. "Lots of people concerned are now old men like me, who may well have lost their memories," he told BBC this week. "Nonetheless, it is good that Germany is taking responsibility for Oradour and remains concerned by it."

An additional challenge facing Brendel is the relative low rank of the suspects he has identified, largely a function of the amount of time which has passed since the massacre and their young age in 1944. "It is difficult to prove what individual soldiers did at the site," he says.

Still, Brendel says, he remains committed to gathering enough evidence for a trial. He is currently looking at the results from this week's trip to the French town, saying that such visits can sometimes be helpful in determining what individual soldiers may have seen from where they were standing. He plans to conduct further witness interviews and document analysis in the coming weeks.

"By no means is this merely a symbolic investigation," he says. "We are talking with people who were victims and to their family members. It is a significant burden for them. Were this merely of a symbolic nature, it would be a case for the historians rather than for the public prosecutor."

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« Reply #4356 on: Feb 02, 2013, 08:03 AM »

In the USA...

US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans

Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. And after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse

Ed Pilkington in New York, Friday 1 February 2013 16.42 GMT   

Libby Busbee is pretty sure that her son William never sat through or read Shakespeare's Macbeth, even though he behaved as though he had. Soon after he got back from his final tour of Afghanistan, he began rubbing his hands over and over and constantly rinsing them under the tap.

"Mom, it won't wash off," he said.

"What are you talking about?" she replied.

"The blood. It won't come off."

On 20 March last year, the soldier's striving for self-cleanliness came to a sudden end. That night he locked himself in his car and, with his mother and two sisters screaming just a few feet away and with Swat officers encircling the vehicle, he shot himself in the head.

At the age of 23, William Busbee had joined a gruesome statistic. In 2012, for the first time in at least a generation, the number of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves, 177, exceeded the 176 who were killed while in the war zone. To put that another way, more of America's serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.
Soldier suicides Credit: Guardian graphics

Across all branches of the US military and the reserves, a similar disturbing trend was recorded. In all, 349 service members took their own lives in 2012, while a lesser number, 295, died in combat.

Shocking though those figures are, they are as nothing compared with the statistic to which Busbee technically belongs. He had retired himself from the army just two months before he died, and so is officially recorded at death as a veteran – one of an astonishing 6,500 former military personnel who killed themselves in 2012, roughly equivalent to one every 80 minutes.
'He wanted to be somebody, and he loved the army'

Busbee's story, as told to the Guardian by his mother, illuminates crucial aspects of an epidemic that appears to be taking hold in the US military, spreading alarm as it grows. He personifies the despair that is being felt by increasing numbers of active and retired service members, as well as the inability of the military hierarchy to deal with their anguish.

That's not, though, how William Busbee's story began. He was in many ways the archetype of the American soldier. From the age of six he had only one ambition: to sign up for the military, which he did when he was 17.

"He wasn't the normal teenager who went out and partied," Libby Busbee said. "He wanted to be somebody. He had his mind set on what he wanted to do, and he loved the army. I couldn't be more proud of him."

Once enlisted, he was sent on three separate year-long tours to Afghanistan. It was the fulfillment of his dreams, but it came at a high price. He came under attack several times, and in one particularly serious incident incurred a blow to the head that caused traumatic brain injury. His body was so peppered with shrapnel that whenever he walked through an airport security screen he would set off the alarm.

The mental costs were high too. Each time he came back from Afghanistan. between tours or on R&R, he struck his mother as a little more on edge, a little more withdrawn. He would rarely go out of the house and seemed ill at ease among civilians. "I reckon he felt he no longer belonged here," she said.

Once, Busbee was driving Libby in his car when a nearby train sounded its horn. He was so startled by the noise that he leapt out of the vehicle, leaving it to crash into the curb. After that, he never drove farther than a couple of blocks.

Nights were the worst. He had bad dreams and confessed to being scared of the dark, making Libby swear not to tell anybody. Then he took to sleeping in a closet, using a military sleeping bag tucked inside the tiny space to recreate the conditions of deployment. "I think it made him feel more comfortable," his mother said.

After one especially fraught night, Libby awoke to find that he had slashed his face with a knife. Occasionally, he would allude to the distressing events that led to such extreme behaviour: there was the time that another soldier, aged 18, had been killed right beside him; and the times that he himself had killed.

William told his mother: "You would hate me if you knew what I've done out there."

"I will never hate you. You are the same person you always were," she said.

"No, Mom," he countered. "The son you loved died over there."
Soldiers' psychological damage

For William Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist who directed the marine corps' combat stress control programme, William Busbee's expressions of torment are all too familiar. He has worked with hundreds of service members who have been grappling with suicidal thoughts, not least when he was posted to Fallujah in Iraq during the height of the fighting in 2004.

He and colleagues in military psychiatry have developed the concept of "moral injury" to help understand the current wave of self-harm. He defines that as "damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you – but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty."

Contrary to widely held assumptions, it is not the fear and the terror that service members endure in the battlefield that inflicts most psychological damage, Nash has concluded, but feelings of shame and guilt related to the moral injuries they suffer. Top of the list of such injuries, by a long shot, is when one of their own people is killed.

"I have heard it over and over again from marines – the most common source of anguish for them was failing to protect their 'brothers'. The significance of that is unfathomable, it's comparable to the feelings I've heard from parents who have lost a child."

Incidents of "friendly fire" when US personnel are killed by mistake by their own side is another cause of terrible hurt, as is the guilt that follows the knowledge that a military action has led to the deaths of civilians, particularly women and children. Another important factor, Nash stressed, was the impact of being discharged from the military that can also instil a devastating sense of loss in those who have led a hermetically sealed life within the armed forces and suddenly find themselves excluded from it.
William Busbee Busbee

That was certainly the case with William Busbee. In 2011, following his return to Fort Carson in Colorado after his third and last tour of Afghanistan, he made an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. He was taken off normal duties and prescribed large quantities of psychotropic drugs which his mother believes only made his condition worse.

Eventually he was presented with an ultimatum by the army: retire yourself out or we will discharge you on medical grounds. He felt he had no choice but to quit, as to be medically discharged would have severely dented his future job prospects.

When he came home on 18 January 2012, a civilian once again, he was inconsolable. He told his mother: "I'm nothing now. I've been thrown away by the army."

The suffering William Busbee went through, both inside the military and immediately after he left it, illustrates the most alarming single factor in the current suicide crisis: the growing link between multiple deployments and self-harm. Until 2012, the majority of individuals who killed themselves had seen no deployment at all. Their problems tended to relate to marital or relationship breakdown or financial or legal worries back at base.

The most recent department of defense suicide report, or DODSER, covers 2011 . It shows that less than half, 47%, of all suicides involved service members who had ever been in Iraq or Afghanistan. Just one in 10 of those who died did so while posted in the war zone. Only 15% had ever experienced direct combat.

The DODSER for 2012 has yet to be released, but when it is it is expected to record a sea change. For the first time, the majority of the those who killed themselves had been deployed. That's a watershed that is causing deep concern within the services.

"We are starting to see the creeping up of suicides among those who have had multiple deployments," said Phillip Carter, a military expert at the defence thinktank Center for a New American Security that in 2011 published one of the most authoritative studies into the crisis . He added that though the causes of the increase were still barely understood, one important cause might be the cumulative impact of deployments – the idea that the harmful consequences of stress might build up from one tour of Afghanistan to the next.

Over the past four years the Pentagon, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, have invested considerable resources at tackling the problem. The US Department of Defense has launched a suicide prevention programme that tries to help service members to overcome the stigma towards seeking help. It has also launched an education campaign encouraging personnel to be on the look out for signs of distress among their peers under the rubric "never let our buddy fight alone".

Despite such efforts, there is no apparent let up in the scale of the tragedy. Though President Obama has announced a draw-down of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, experts warn that the crisis could last for at least a decade beyond the end of war as a result of the delayed impact of psychological damage.

It's all come in any case too late for Libby Busbee. She feels that her son was let down by the army he loved so much. In her view he was pumped full of drugs but deprived of the attention and care he needed.

William himself was so disillusioned that shortly before he died he told her that he didn't want a military funeral; he would prefer to be cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. "I don't want to be buried in my uniform – why would I want that when they threw me away when I was alive," he said.

In the end, two infantrymen did stand to attention over his coffin, the flag was folded over it, and there was a gun salute as it was lowered into the ground. William Busbee was finally at rest, though for Libby Busbee the torture goes on.

"I was there for his first breath, and his last," she said. "Now my daughters and me, we have to deal with what he was going through."

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« Reply #4357 on: Feb 02, 2013, 08:23 AM »

In the USA continued .....

America Moves Forward with Obama as Republicans Double Their Attacks on Gays and Women

By: Rmuse
Feb. 1st, 2013

It is important for a nation’s leaders to prioritize their agenda for the coming year, and it is expected they would assign importance to issues regarding their country’s economic health, national security, and benefits for its people. In his Inauguration Address, President Obama’s priorities for his second term were immigration reform, global climate change, sane gun controls, growing the economy, and he stressed the importance of the nation coming together to assure the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights is extended to every citizen regardless of gender, sexual preference,  or economic station. It has taken a little over a week, but finally as Republicans floundered to find a specific priority besides obstruction, corporatism, austerity, and gun proliferation, they picked up where they left off from the last session of Congress and officially announced their highest priority is imposing policy shaped by right wing Christianity on Americans.

Speaker of the House John Boehner made the announcement to an anti-choice group he addressed at a National Right to Life rally, and he did not have to make it official after Republicans in Congress began the 113th session with a personhood bill, opposition to the VAWA, and balking at immigration reform that includes same-sex couples. Boehner said Republicans were focusing on “working to pass the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” and that it was the GOP’s “most fundamental goal this year” to “commit ourselves to doing everything we can to protect the sanctity of life” and pledged to make legal abortion a “relic of the past.” It is ironic that Boehner is using the Christian bible, a true “relic of the past” as the guiding force for making legal abortion a relic of the past, especially since a majority of Americans believe it is a woman’s personal choice and do not want legal abortion restricted via overturning Roe v. Wade. However, the theocrats have a different opinion, and they will waste more of Americans’ time and money to replace the Constitution with the Christian bible.

It was little surprise Republicans chose religion and the continuing GOP war on women’s reproductive rights as their top priority, especially after failed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan joined a gang of theocrats to re-introduce a ridiculous personhood bill soon after the 113th Congress was in session with a view to banning abortion, contraception, and decriminalizing rape.  In fact, in several Dominionist states, defunding Planned Parenthood and restricting abortion rights began in earnest within a week of the general election and continued shortly after the start of the new session of Congress.

Boehner is not alone in the GOP’s push for theocracy as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul told the crowd at the National Right to Life rally about his intention of pursuing a “spiritual cleansing” and imposing “a gospel that cannot be resisted. We much preach a gospel so full of compassion, a gospel so full of justice that it cannot be resisted.” Senator Paul’s rousing Inquisition-era rhetoric informs what many Americans have warned about for years, and it is the imposition of Dominionist martial law and little else, and it does not stop at attacking a woman’s right to choose.

The House of Representatives is still balking at re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act because they object to protection for same-sex victims of violence, and immigration reform that includes same-sex couples. Obviously, the Republican objections are founded in the bible’s prohibition on homosexuality and abortion, as well as a twisted adherence to patriarchy that provides the bible view that men are born to dominate women. What is telling about Republicans is that they still have not learned one lesson from the voters’ rejection of their extremist religious views they are intent on passing off as governance.

If one sets aside the GOP’s insistence on pursuing an extremist Christian vision of theocracy as a means of dominating women and gays in their war on women and homophobic frenzy, there is the little issue of exactly why they are in government to begin with. Their top priority of imposing a “spiritual cleansing, gospel full of justice, and preaching a gospel full of compassion” to protect the “sanctity of life” of a zygote, or defend the traditional definition of marriage, will not create one job, reduce gun violence, grow the economy, bolster national security, address climate change, or secure energy independence, but it does punish women and gays for their part in re-electing President Obama; all under cover of the Christian bible. Their top priority also wastes valuable time and taxpayer money that is better spent creating jobs or growing the economy because with a non-theocratic (Democratic) Senate and White House, there is little chance their predilection for Dominionism will succeed and, in fact, is doomed to fail.

Shortly after the November election, Republicans renewed their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood in the states and Congress, and pass more abortion restrictions in states. Any sane politician would think that after spending the entire 112th Congress assaulting women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, that reiterating those theocratic issues is a horribly bad idea after suffering an electoral defeat for attacking women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Many theocratic right-to-life groups assailed Republicans after the election for not engaging Democrats on the abortion/rape issue, despite that in races where abortion and women’s reproductive health were attacked in full view of the voters, Dominionist candidates were rejected by wide margins because voters understand woman’s reproductive health is the not the purview of Republicans’ puritanical sensibilities.

Republicans have found themselves in an unenviable position of lacking support from mainstream America that is not founded in extremist Christianity or guns, and instead of abandoning their two-year war on women’s reproductive rights, they have doubled down and made it their top priority for 2013. Although the right wing bible crowd is solidly behind any politician promising to impose the bible’s sanctions on women and gays, the rest of America is moving forward and supporting the President’s agenda of addressing gun violence, the economy, jobs, climate change, and most importantly, equality for all Americans; even women and their right to choose their reproductive health.

The religious right, Dominionists and theocracy advocates, have been attempting to impose their will on Americans for decades, and they have always had willing partners in Republican ranks. It is curious that the party that decries government intervention into Americans’ personal lives insists on spending another session of Congress intervening in a woman’s right to choose and it is down to one decision they determined is the hill they are willing to die on, and it is their choice to support and defend the bible as the law of the land instead of the nation’s founding document. As more Americans understand that Republicans are working toward a theocratic institution dominated by patriarchs wasting taxpayer money and precious time to punish women and make their reproductive decisions for them, they will continue rejecting them at the ballot box because at this point, rejecting Republicans is rejecting Dominionism and its archaic theocratic edicts.


One Video Destroys the Republican Myth that Their Opposition to Obama Isn’t Racial

By: Jason Easley
Feb. 1st, 2013

In this video, the evangelical, Koch-backed, tea party Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert explains why minorities like President Obama don’t represent his America.


While addressing a tea party rally in 2011, Rapert said, “I hear you loud and clear, Barack Obama. You don’t represent the country that I grew up with. And your values is not going to save us. We’re going to take this country back for the Lord. We’re going to try to take this country back for conservatism. And we’re not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in!”

This is Republican politics in a nutshell. Rapert isn’t some random person at a rally, so the one bad apple theory that conservatives love to use doesn’t apply. This is an elected state senator. His fellow Republicans nominated him for office. Rapert is the perfect embodiment of the three forces that currently make up the base of the Republican Party. He is an evangelical who is backed by the Koch brothers, who is pushing the state’s extreme anti-abortion legislation, who also happens to be filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Rapert is literally the model Republican. Earlier in the clip, he even mentions Obama hosting a dinner for Muslims at the White House. In a minute and a half, he invoked all of the the guiding principles of today’s Republicans. Rapert also delivered the clearest statement of why so many Republicans oppose this president. It isn’t just because they disagree with his policies. There is a belief among a sizable number within the Republican rank and file that Obama and his minorities are “running roughshod” over what they believe in.

Of course, what they seem to believe in is a conservative white man in power.

Videos such as this one from Republican elected officials make it impossible to take the party’s about face on immigration seriously. It also makes it difficult to see how a political party that is so anti-minority is going to convince their base to accept legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship.

A segment of the Republican Party has demonstrated in the 2010 and 2012 elections that they aren’t willing to sacrifice their beliefs in order to win elections. These people truly believe in the illegitimacy of Obama and the threat posed to them by minorities. This is why dressing up the same racist Republican Party with an attempt at immigration reform and Marco Rubio isn’t the answer.

Republicans can change the window dressing, but they can’t hide the rotten, intolerant heart of their party. At least Rapert was honest. Republicans don’t just hate Obama because he is a Democrat. They hate him because he is a minority who represents the changing face of America.


February 1, 2013

In Senate, Traditional Decorum Gives Way to New Discord


WASHINGTON — If Senator John McCain had an inkling of curiosity how his old buddy Chuck Hagel felt as the senator raked him over the confirmation coals on Thursday, Mr. McCain would get a slight taste an hour later during his own rendezvous with rudeness.

That is when Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky took to the Senate floor to deride Mr. McCain’s opposition to his measure that would punish Egypt as “spurious and really, frankly, absurd,” not the first time Mr. Paul has wielded verbal scythes toward his colleagues.

The willingness of Republicans to skewer one of their own became increasingly apparent on Friday as more and more members of the party peeled away from Mr. Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, saying they would not vote to confirm him after Mr. Hagel melted like chocolate on a dashboard under combative questioning from Republicans.

Still, Republican senators and aides said that despite a halting performance, Mr. Hagel would probably be confirmed with Democratic votes. A filibuster of his nomination is still possible, a likely first for a cabinet nominee. Aides to Senators John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, and Ted Cruz, a Texas newcomer, said Friday that they had not ruled out procedural roadblocks to stop Mr. Hagel’s nomination.

But Republican Senate aides say Democrats would probably be able to muster 60 votes to move to a final, up-or-down tally.

“For a cabinet office, I think 51 votes is generally considered the right standard for the Senate to set, and at that level, I think he makes it,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, said Friday on Fox News, even as he announced his opposition to Mr. Hagel.

The White House shared that view.

“I would be stunned if, in the end, Republican senators chose to try to block the nomination of a decorated war veteran who was once among their colleagues in the Senate as a Republican,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

Privately, White House officials agreed that Mr. Hagel came across poorly. “No one would argue that he had a good performance,” said one official, who declined to be named to be more candid.

Mr. Hagel has long been on the outs with some party mates because of policy disagreements with them over the years, which sometimes made him seem more like a Democrat. But stemming from their Senate ranks as he did, the intensity of their grilling was striking and illustrative of how the old ways of the Senate are disappearing.

With the current era of hyperpartisanship in Washington, the intra-Senate discord has reached new levels in the usually approbatory chamber in recent months, a place where a certain level of respect for fellow and retired members of the same party is generally more or less a given.

The easy, celebratory hearing afforded Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts on his way to confirmation as secretary of state was much more in keeping with Senate tradition than the smackdown delivered to Mr. Hagel, though his own search for answers did him no favors. The clubbiness of the Senate was what made the 1989 rejection of former Senator John Tower, Republican of Texas, for secretary of defense astonishing even with multiple tales of personal problems.

But Senate Republicans, in particular, who have added more conservative members to their ranks in the last two years, and who fear the constant and imminent threat of primary challengers from the right, have loosened their grip of late on the bonds that distinguish the Senate from any other legislative body.

In December, Bob Dole, the former majority leader, went to the Senate floor in a wheelchair to advocate for a disability treaty, and many of his Republican colleagues, including some who had praised the measure previously, waited for him to be wheeled away before turning the measure down. That would have been almost unthinkable in the past.

“Part of the shift in the Republican Party,” said Don Ritchie, the Senate historian, “means that old-time senators like Dole who were to the right of their party when they came here are to the left of their party now because the party has shifted so much beneath them. This all reflects that a bit.”

There were other moments as well. Earlier in the week, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, took to talk radio to refer to a Republican colleague, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, as “amazingly naïve” for his proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Mr. Rubio did not choose to respond or question the judgment of Mr. Vitter, whose phone number once appeared in a client list of a Washington madam.

History both predicted and, in some ways, diffused discord in the Senate. Thomas Jefferson, who “realized every issue was going to be difficult and emotional,” Mr. Ritchie said, wrote the first rules manual in the 1790s in which members were instructed not to call one another by name, but rather the “distinguished senator from state of X or Y,” and to address one another through the chairman and not directly.

Members are not supposed to question one another’s motives or criticize individual states. Duels have been fought over language on the floor. Before the floor activities were televised, senators quietly removed cutting words from the Congressional Record, as when one member called another a “rancid tub of ignorance” on the Senate floor in the 1950s.

But many Senate Republicans now are newly elected, deeply conservative members who have less regard for the old rules of comity and respect for elders.

“The Republicans in the Senate have moved decidedly to the right,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who recently said he would not seek re-election. “A lot of them are kind of fearful of what the Tea Party might do to them.”

This is something that appeared to not be lost on Mr. Cornyn, who, up for re-election next year, was one of just three senators, all Republicans, to vote against Mr. Kerry. Mr. Cornyn appears to be mapping the voting path of his new colleague from Texas, Mr. Cruz, a Tea Party star.

At the center of this is Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who could draw a primary challenge of his own next year, and who has generally maintained steady politesse even when thrashing Democrats on the floor. Mr. McConnell and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, had enjoyed years of cordial and even friendly relations, but their interactions are largely limited to talk of baseball now because the Senate floor has become a place of such disharmony.

Mr. Hagel’s hearing, his perceived subpar performance notwithstanding, still set some members on edge. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, used introductory remarks seemingly to make that point. “In my six years on this committee,” she said, “the defense of this country is a bipartisan effort.”

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, told Mr. Hagel he felt the need to “apologize for some of the tone and demeanor today.”


February 1, 2013

Clinton Out, Kerry in as Secretary of State


WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton formally resigned Friday as America's secretary of state, capping a four-year tenure that saw her shatter records for the number of countries visited. John Kerry was sworn in to replace her.

In a letter sent to President Barack Obama shortly before she left the State Department for the last time in her official capacity, Clinton thanked her former opponent for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination for the opportunity to serve in his administration. Clinton said it had been an honor to be part of his Cabinet.

"I am more convinced than ever in the strength and staying power of America's global leadership and our capacity to be a force for good in the world," she said in the letter.

Her resignation became effective at 4 p.m. EST, when Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan swore in John Kerry as the top U.S. diplomat. The former Massachusetts senator and 2004 presidential candidate is the 68th secretary of state.

"I'm just very, very honored to be sworn in and I'm very anxious to get to work," Kerry told reporters after the private ceremony at the Capitol. "I'll be reporting Monday morning at 9 o'clock to do my part," he said, but he refused to say what global hotspot he would visit first.

In the State Department's main lobby, Clinton pushed through a throng of American foreign service workers who clamored for handshakes and smartphone photos with her and gave an emotional goodbye speech.

She told them to continue to "serve the nation we all love, to understand the challenges, the threats and the opportunities that the United States faces and to work with all our heart and all of our might to make sure that America is secure, that our interests are promoted and our values are respected."

Clinton, however, also left office with a slap at critics of the Obama administration's handling of the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. She told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday that critics of the administration's handling of the attack don't live in an "evidence-based world," and their refusal to "accept the facts" is unfortunate and regrettable for the political system.

Clinton told the AP that the attack in Benghazi was the low point of her time as America's top diplomat. But she suggested that the furor over the assault would not affect whether she runs for president in 2016.

Although she insisted that she has not decided what her future holds, she said she "absolutely" still plans to make a difference on issues she cares about in speeches and in a sequel to her 2003 memoir, "Living History," that will focus largely on her years as secretary of state.

Clinton spoke to the AP Thursday in her outer office on the seventh floor of the State Department less than 24 hours before she walks out for a final time as boss. She was relaxed but clearly perturbed by allegations from Republican lawmakers and commentators that the administration had intentionally misled the public about whether the attack was a protest gone awry or a terrorist attack, or intentionally withheld additional security for diplomatic personnel in Libya knowing that an attack could happen.

An independent panel she convened to look into the incident was scathing in its criticism of the State Department and singled out four officials for serious management and leadership failures. But it also determined that there was no guarantee that extra personnel could have prevented the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. Clinton herself was not blamed, although she has said she accepted responsibility for the situation.

"I was so unhappy with the way that some people refused to accept the facts, refused to accept the findings of an independent Accountability Review Board, politicized everything about this terrible attack," she said. "My job is to admit that we have to make improvements and we're going to."

Hours later a suicide bomber linked to a domestic terror group exploded a device just outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, killing himself and a guard. Clinton told State Department staff on Friday that the attack showed again how "we live in very complex and dangerous times."

Clinton faced a barrage of hostile questions about Benghazi from Republican lawmakers when she testified before Congress recently in appearances that were delayed from December because of illness. Afterward, some lawmakers continued to accuse her and the administration of withholding evidence. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., told a television interviewer that he thought Clinton was getting "away with murder."

In the interview, Clinton had little patience for such allegations.

"There are some people in politics and in the press who can't be confused by the facts," she said. "They just will not live in an evidence-based world. And that's regrettable. It's regrettable for our political system and for the people who serve our government in very dangerous, difficult circumstances."

Because of that, she said, the partisan divide should not dissuade anyone with a cause from getting involved in politics, and she hinted strongly that a divisive atmosphere would not stop her in any future endeavor. "You have to have a thick skin because (politics) is just going to be a contact sport as far as we can look into the future."

Clinton is no stranger to partisan politics. As first lady, she railed in 1998 against a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she asserted had been attacking her husband, Bill Clinton, ever since he had become president.

But the woman who was once considered a divisive figure in American politics, yet leaves office as one of its most popular, remained coy about whether she would run for president in 2016.

"I am making no decisions, but I would never give that advice to someone that I wouldn't take myself," she said. "If you believe you can make a difference, not just in politics, in public service, in advocacy around all these important issues, then you have to be prepared to accept that you are not going to get 100 percent approval."

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.


HHS takes final steps toward near-universal contraception coverage

By David Ferguson
Friday, February 1, 2013 14:43 EST

Reproductive rights groups are applauding the latest announcement by the Obama administration of proposed policies aimed at providing contraceptive coverage to women employed by religious organizations. NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher institute and other organizations have enthusiastically greeted the news that under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, steps are being taken to remove the onus of providing contraceptive coverage from employers in instances where providing such coverage would violate religious principles.

“This is very much what the administration spelled out a year ago,” said Adam Sonfield, a Senior Public Policy Associated at the Guttmacher Institute, an international nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of sexual and reproductive health. In an interview with Raw Story on Friday, he said, “There is a religious exemption for churches and other purely religious organizations. There’s also an accommodation for a broader range of nonprofit organizations that put themselves out as being religious.”

The new proposals, said Sonfield, “set up a mechanism so make the accommodation work so that that employers don’t have to touch contraception in any way. They won’t have to contract for it. They won’t have to talk to their employees about it. They won’t have to pay for it.”

Instead, a “third-party issuer” will handle issues related to birth control and contraceptives. Sonfield emphasized that for the employees, this coverage will be “seamless and automatic,” by dint of a “small, separate policy,” usually with their own insurer, dedicated solely to contraceptive coverage.

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue released a statement praising the administration.

“Today’s draft regulation affirms yet again the Obama administration’s commitment to fulfilling the full promise of its historic contraception policy,” said Hogue. “Thanks to this commitment, most American women will get birth-control coverage without extra expense. Increased access to birth control is a huge win for women and is necessary to prevent unintended pregnancy–a goal on which both pro-choice and anti-choice people ought to agree.”

A statement from Planned Parenthood for America read, in part, “This policy delivers on the promise of women having access to birth control without co-pays no matter where they work. Of course, we are reviewing the technical aspects of this proposal, but the principle is clear and consistent. This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control.”

UltraViolet, an online community of women and men dedicated to fighting sexism in the public sector also greeted the new policy proposals warmly. Co-Founder Nita Chaudhary said in a statement, “Our 375,000 members in every state and congressional district are thrilled that the Obama Administration is finalizing no-cost contraception for women under the Affordable Care Act. In a country where 99 percent of women will use birth control at some point in their lives, and where one out of every three will have trouble affording it, this rule has the potential to revolutionize women’s health and our economic security.”

Some religious pressure groups like the Catholic Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center-dubbed “hate group,” the Family Research Council have raised objections to the plan. FRC spokesperson Anna Higgins said, “The accounting gimmicks HHS is now proposing under the latest regulation fail to satisfy the religious freedom protections that exist in other current laws and in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Friday, however, “Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns. We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women’s organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals.”


February 1, 2013

Crow Indians’ Lawsuit Against F.B.I. Agent to Proceed


Two families from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana can proceed with a lawsuit against an F.B.I. agent that accuses him of failing to properly investigate crimes against American Indians on and around the reservation, the United States Supreme Court has ruled.

The court declined last month to reverse a 2010 federal court ruling that said the F.B.I. agent, Matthew Oravec, did not have qualified immunity from legal action, a protection usually given to government employees when acting in an official capacity — and a status sought by the Justice Department, which had appealed the ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“The decision puts federal and state law enforcement agents on notice that they may be held personally liable if they discriminate against Indians in investigating crimes against them,” said Patricia S. Bangert, a Denver lawyer who is representing one of the families.

The Supreme Court’s decision was dated Jan. 14, but lawyers were only recently made aware of it.

Mr. Oravec, who remains an F.B.I. employee, investigated the deaths of two men, Robert Springfield and Steven Bearcrane, who died in unrelated episodes on the reservation in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

Federal prosecutors did not file charges in either case, and the men’s families sued, accusing Mr. Oravec of conducting a second-rate investigation, which they said was part of a wider problem of discrimination against Indian crime victims on the reservation.

The lawsuit also asserted that Mr. Oravec had sought to intimidate family members, made derogatory remarks about Indians and had refused to carry out basic investigative tasks, including interviewing potential witnesses or taking crime scene photographs.

The Justice Department, which is representing Mr. Oravec, declined to comment.

The rate of violent crime on Indian reservations has for decades been far higher than in the rest of the nation. Most tribes, including the Crow Nation, rely on the federal government to investigate and prosecute serious crime because states generally lack jurisdiction there, and because tribes are prohibited from imposing sentences longer than three years.

But many Indians say that the crime problem is connected to the failure of F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors to take violent acts on reservations as seriously as they do crimes elsewhere.

The lawsuit is being closely watched around Indian country. Filed in 2009, it maintains that federal officials violated the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection and due process rights. In its 2010 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court dropped several other F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors from the lawsuit but allowed the claim against Mr. Oravec to continue.

Mr. Bearcrane, 24, was fatally shot on a ranch on the reservation in 2005, but federal officials determined the shooting had been committed in self-defense and declined to prosecute. But Mr. Bearcrane’s parents, Earline Cole and Cletus Cole, said that Mr. Oravec had conducted only a cursory investigation before arriving at his conclusion.

Ms. Bangert, who is representing the Bearcrane-Cole family, said they had offered to dismiss the lawsuit if the federal government agreed to allow a third party to investigate independently, but that the government had declined.

“All the Bearcrane-Cole family has wanted is for Steven’s death to mean something,” Ms. Bangert said. “The government’s continuing action in brushing it off as a nonevent that can just be ignored is the continuing fuel for much of the family’s anger and anguish.”

In the other case that prompted the lawsuit, Mr. Springfield failed to return from a bow hunting trip on the Crow reservation in 2004. His wife, Veronica Springfield, said the F.B.I. had not looked for him, and his body was found more than a year later.

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« Reply #4358 on: Feb 02, 2013, 11:35 AM »

Al Jazerra: People and Power

Goodbye Indonesia: People & Power investigates one of the world's most forgotten conflicts - the West Papuan struggle for independence.

When the Dutch decolonised their East Indies empire after the Second World War they handed it all to the emergent country of Indonesia - all except the territory of West Papua, which forms one half of New Guinea, the second largest island on Earth. This remarkable landmass - split neatly by colonial powers into West Papua and Papua New Guinea - is like few other places in the world.

Its mountainous terrain and dense rainforests have spawned extraordinary linguistic diversity among its indigenous population, some of whom are still in uncontacted tribes. Five decades ago few, if any of these tribes, showed any desire for their land to become an extension of Indonesia, a new nation state with which they shared neither history, culture, religion nor ethnicity, but which wanted resource-rich West Papua within its borders. 

The Dutch resisted Indonesia's demands for a while, beginning to invest in West Papuan education and encouraging nationalism. But eventually global realpolitik intervened in the shape of US President Kennedy. Concerned about the possibility of communism spreading across South and Southeast Asia, the Kennedy administration saw Indonesia as a useful regional ally that should be kept happy.

In 1963, with American backing, the United Nations gave Indonesia caretaker rights over the territory, on condition that a referendum on independence should follow. But when the poll - named, without apparent irony, as the 'Act Of Free Choice' - took place in 1969 it was widely perceived as a sham.

From a population of around of 800,000, just over 1,000 tribal elders were selected by the Indonesians to represent the nation. Allegedly threatened, intimidated and held in seclusion, they voted as they were told. Ignoring well-founded international protests that the referendum had been rigged, the UN accepted the result and West Papua moved from being a Dutch colony to an Indonesian province.

But a West Papuan resistance movement, the Free Papua Organisation (OPM), soon started fighting back - in the first instance using bows and arrows to capture the guns of the Indonesian military. A sporadic, low level conflict has continued ever since.

It has never been an even fight (a few thousand unfunded guerrillas against the well-equipped modern army of the world's fourth most populous nation) and Amnesty International and other human rights groups estimate that the Papuan death toll has reached in excess of 100,000 over the years. Some believe it might be even higher, although it is hard to know for sure because the Indonesian authorities have never welcomed independent monitors and foreign reporting is banned.

Even today, 15 years after a democracy replaced Indonesia's dictatorial President Suharto, West Papua is still one of the most policed places on the planet - with approximately 30,000 security personnel dealing with an indigenous population of around two million.

According to Jennifer Robinson, from International Lawyers for West Papua, it has also become one of the most brutal places on the planet. "West Papuans have suffered all forms of human rights abuse, whether it be torture, enforced disappearances, killings, extreme restrictions upon freedom of expression," she says.

Amnesty International is equally critical. In August 2012 it said it continued to receive "credible reports of human rights violations committed by the security forces … including torture and other ill-treatment, unnecessary and excessive use of force and firearms by the security forces and possible unlawful killings. Investigations into reports of human rights violations by the security forces are rare and only a few perpetrators have been brought to justice."

For its part, the Indonesian government routinely denies such charges and claims the actions of its security forces in West Papua are simply a necessary counterpoint to a criminal insurgency that threatens law and order, the safety of the population and the legitimacy of the state.

Over the last decade, however, the dynamics of this struggle have begun to change, with the emergence - alongside the armed struggle - of a new civic non-violent independence movement, the West Papuan National Committee (KNPB). Its membership has grown exponentially and it has bred a new generation of activists focused on both organising non-violent mass protest and making the outside world more aware of their plight. And that, says Robinson, has provoked the Indonesians into a predictably harsh response.

"In the past few years we've seen a change in the security situation in West Papua - I think in response to the growing momentum behind their campaign for a referendum on self-determination which has got widespread popular support, but which is also gaining momentum internationally. [It has] resulted in a greater security crackdown on all peaceful activists who are in any way affiliated with the independence movement," Robinson says.

So what lies behind this five-decade-old struggle and why, in the face of Indonesia's heavy handed intransigence, are activists so determined to continue with their campaigns and protests?

People & Power sent filmmaker Dom Rotheroe and fixer Sally Collister to find out. Because it is virtually impossible for foreign journalists to obtain official permission to visit the territory they travelled in the guise of tourists. Filming discreetly, keeping a low profile and evading the attention of the security police they managed to meet up with KNPB supporters and activists and hear a remarkable story of a people committed to doing whatever it takes to gain control of their own destiny.   

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« Reply #4359 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:05 AM »


Saudi preacher spared after raping, killing daughter

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 2, 2013 12:29 EST

A Saudi preacher who raped his five-year-old daughter and tortured her to death has been sentenced to pay “blood money” to the mother after having served a short jail term, activists said on Saturday.

Lamia al-Ghamdi was admitted to hospital on December 25, 2011 with multiple injuries, including a crushed skull, broken ribs and left arm, extensive bruising and burns, the activists said. She died last October 22.

Fayhan al-Ghamdi, an Islamic preacher and regular guest on Muslim television networks, confessed to having used cables and a cane to inflict the injuries, the activists from the group “Women to Drive” said in a statement.

They said the father had doubted Lama’s virginity and had her checked up by a medic.

Randa al-Kaleeb, a social worker from the hospital where Lama was admitted, said the girl’s back was broken and that she had been raped “everywhere”, according to the group.

According to the victim’s mother, hospital staff told her that her “child’s rectum had been torn open and the abuser had attempted to burn it closed.”

The activists said that the judge had ruled the prosecution could only seek “blood money (compensation for the next of kin under Islamic law) and the time the defendant had served in prison since Lama’s death suffices as punishment.”

Three Saudi activists, including Manal al-Sharif, have raised objections to the ruling.

The ruling is based on Islamic laws that a father cannot be executed for murdering his children, nor can husbands be executed for murdering their wives, activists said.

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« Reply #4360 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:16 AM »

‘King Bibi’ holds on for third term as Israel’s PM

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 2, 2013 19:00 EST

Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tapped on Saturday to form a new government for a third successive term, cuts a figure of admiration and loathing at home and abroad.

A May 2012 cover of Time magazine hailed him as “King Bibi,” using his nickname, but former French president Nicolas Sarkozy branded him a “liar” in a private conversation with US President Barack Obama.

The hawkish Netanyahu has been tasked with a third successive term as prime minister, following an initial 1996-1999 mandate that made him the Jewish state’s youngest ever premier.

Netanyahu’s rise on the international stage dates back to executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait after which the articulate Bibi gave countless interviews on CNN television.

Despised by much of the local media and the target of jabs by foreign leaders, the 63-year-old Netanyahu was riding high in polls ahead of the January 22 election although the final results were less convincing for his rightwing bloc.

Netanyahu, once dubbed The Magician for his ability to outwit political rivals, will now need his famous horse-trading skills to build a government with a working majority.

Smooth-talking and ever ready with a sound bite in slick American-English, he was defeated in 1999 polls by Labour chief Ehud Barak who campaigned under the slogan “Anyone but Bibi”.

Six years later, he served as both foreign minister and finance minister under Likud premier Ariel Sharon.

In late 2005, he took over as Likud leader after Sharon left to found Kadima, and led the party to a humiliating defeat in the 2006 election. But the party bounced back in 2009.

The stocky leader with the trademark comb-over has had a difficult relationship with several world leaders, notably Obama.

Over the past four years, the two have clashed over the peace process with the Palestinians and how to handle Iran, which Israel and much of the West see as a guise for developing a weapons capability, a charge Tehran denies.

Media reports ahead of the election suggested Obama saw Netanyahu as a “political coward” on the peace process, with his ongoing settlement activity moving Israel “down a path toward near total isolation”.

Born on October 21, 1949, Netanyahu was educated in the United States after his father Bentzion, a history professor, was considered so rightwing in the Labour-dominated Israel of the time that he was forced to leave.

Before attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he served in an elite Israeli army commando unit, took part in a number of operations and was wounded. He was discharged with the rank of captain.

He was deeply affected by the death of his elder brother Jonathan, killed leading the legendary 1976 Israeli commando raid on an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe, Uganda.

Netanyahu then plunged into studies of terrorism, writing three books on the subject.

His career took off when he was posted to Israel’s embassy in Washington and later made ambassador to the United Nations, before he launched a political career that has also seen him hold the foreign affairs and finance portfolios.

He only accepted the concept of a Palestinian state for the first time in 2009. Yet he has done little to move forward in negotiations, and his government has pushed through the highest number of settler homes in a decade.

Grandson of a rabbi, he has doggedly insisted the Palestinians recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” and has rejected their condition for restarting stalled peace talks — freeze on settlement construction.

Netanyahu has vowed not to remove any Jewish settlements and has ruled out any future freeze on construction beyond the so-called Green Line, the line that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

On the personal level, his wife Sarah has been a figure of controversy.

She has faced repeated accusations in the Israeli press of abusing her domestic staff and leading an extravagant lifestyle at the expense of business donors to her husband’s party.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #4361 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:22 AM »

Egypt tensions rise as footage emerges of police beating protester

Film of Egyptian man being beaten by riot police outside presidential palace sparks calls for 'an end to this regime of tyranny'

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Sunday 3 February 2013 11.51 GMT   
Link to video:

Graphic footage of a naked Egyptian man being dragged across a street and beaten by at least eight riot policemen during a protest in Cairo on Friday night has intensifed popular fury at President Mohamed Morsi and sparked calls from Egypt's opposition for "an end to this regime of tyranny".

The video shows Hamada Saber, reportedly a 50-year-old unemployed labourer, lying on the ground outside the presidential palace in north-east Cairo, with his trousers around his ankles, being beaten with batons and fists before being dragged into a police van.

The scene is reminiscent of the "woman in the blue bra" – a protester stripped and beaten by soldiers during protests against military rule in December 2011, whose plight became a lightning rod for opposition dissent.

"I don't know how to describe this. It's appalling," said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front, a disparate coalition of liberal, secular and leftist opposition groups. "The name of the president has changed but his policies haven't," Dawoud added, calling for "an end to this regime of tyranny" but stopping short of calling for Morsi's resignation.

After a week of civil unrest across the country, in which nearly 60 people died, protesters had gathered outside the presidential palace in Cairo to intensify calls for Morsi's downfall, sparking clashes during which petrol bombs were thrown over the palace walls.

Amid the fighting, private television footage, corroborated by witness accounts, clearly shows Saber being beaten by police. The interior minister has since apologised for the attack and offered to resign.

Yet in a bizarre twist, Saber later claimed in an interview from a police hospital that the police had in fact saved him from thieving protesters. Saber's account sparked fears that he had either been threatened into silence, or paid off.

"Everything points to him having been coerced into not pressing charges at the ministry and being co-operative," wrote commentator Issandr el-Amrani. "What kind of regime would both beat this man and then force him to stand up on TV and say these things?" said Dawoud.

Saber's words were also contradicted by some members of his own family. His daughter Randa – who says she was present at the scene of the attack – called a television chatshow to dispute Saber's version of events, saying he was "afraid to talk".

For the opposition, the video is a clear sign that police reform – a key demand of the 2011 revolution – remains a low priority for the Morsi government, which some believe has become as authoritarian as Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship.

No policeman has been jailed for a role in the deaths of the 800 protesters killed during the 2011 revolution, while in a televised speech last Sunday Morsi praised the police for their part in recent clashes in the Suez canal region that left over 40 dead, many of them passersby killed by police snipers.

A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Gehad al-Haddad, said this week that the president needed more time to reform the police. "If it took them 60 years to build a system that corrupt," he said, "imagine how long it will take to reform it."

But Heba Morayef, head of the Egypt branch of Human Rights Watch, said Morsi had showed little reforming intent so far. "It's not just that he hasn't delivered on any changes, it's that he hasn't publicly acknowledged that there is a serious problem of police abuse," said Morayef.

The video is not the only film to have shocked Egypt in recent days. On Saturday, a women's rights group – Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment – released footage of a woman being gang-raped in Tahrir Square to highlight the dangers facing women on protests, and throughout Egypt in general. At least 25 women have been sexually assaulted in the square since protests restarted there last week – while according to a 2008 report by an Egyptian women's rights group, 83% of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis.


February 2, 2013

Egypt’s Government Apologizes After a Beating Is Televised


CAIRO — Egypt’s interior minister offered a rare apology on Saturday after officers under his command were seen on television beating a naked man two blocks from the presidential palace. But under what his family said was police coercion, the victim, Hamada Saber, said in an interview later that the officers had been helping rather than attacking him.

The spectacle of the beating quickly revived fury at Egypt’s police force, whose record of brutality helped set off the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the former president, and served as a reminder that nearly two years later, the new president, Mohamed Morsi, had taken few steps to reform the police.

Mr. Morsi’s office issued a statement saying it was “pained by the shocking footage.”

More than 50 people have been killed over the last 10 days in fighting in several Egyptian cities, in some of the worst violence since the fall of Mr. Mubarak in 2011. The beating of Mr. Saber has provoked a different kind of outrage, crystallizing for many the collapse of order and civility that has derailed Egypt’s transition from its authoritarian past.

In the shifting versions of the attack given on Saturday, it was hard to know exactly what happened.

In video images, a group of riot police officers are heard cursing at Mr. Saber on Friday night as they beat him on the ground and drag him across a street to an armored vehicle. A witness, Mai Sirry, said that when she saw Mr. Saber, his pants were around his knees. In its initial statement, the Interior Ministry said it regretted the beating and called it an “individual attack” that did not reflect police doctrine.

Later, though, in a television interview, Mr. Saber gave an account of the beating from his hospital bed in which he said the officers had come to help as he was running from a group of protesters who had stripped and robbed him. They had apparently thought he was an officer, he said, and left him alone after deciding he was “just an old man.”

“I was afraid,” he said, adding that as he ran away from the protesters, officers came to help. He ran from them too, but they pulled him back, he said, telling him he would die if he did not let them help him.

A woman who identified herself as Mr. Saber’s daughter Randa, speaking Saturday on another Egyptian channel, said her father was being prompted to lie during the interview and was “afraid to talk.”

“We were with him” when he was attacked on Friday, she said. “They took his clothes off and started kicking him, beating him,” she said, referring to the police. “They dragged him and put him in the car. All this happened. What he says are lies.”

Speaking to local news media on Saturday, the interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, said that after Mr. Saber was released from the hospital, he would invite him to the ministry’s offices to offer his apologies. He repeated Mr. Saber’s account, though he still acknowledged that the officers’ conduct was “excessive” and said he had ordered an investigation.

The latest violence deepened the sense of crisis in Egypt, and it undermined efforts by the country’s quarreling political forces to settle their differences. After the clashes, supporters and opponents of President Morsi blamed each other.

On Saturday, just days after leaders of a secular-leaning opposition coalition sat down at a rare meeting with representatives of Mr. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, the opposition group released a statement saying it was “aligned” with those who want “to topple the regime of tyranny, and domination of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In Tahrir Square early on Saturday morning, Mr. Morsi’s prime minister, Hesham Qandil, bore the brunt of the antigovernment anger. He was forced to cut short his visit to protest tents in the square after he was heckled, according to state media. His office said Mr. Qandil left to avoid creating a “pretext” for violence.

In a speech later in the day, the prime minister acknowledged the widespread perception that both the government and opposition were losing control. “Let us admit that the government, all the political forces, all the parties failed in containing the youth,” he said. “This is something that we all have to work on.”

At least one person was killed in the clashes on Friday, which broke up what had been a peaceful afternoon sit-in, when a small group of protesters, some wearing masks, tried to ram the gates of the presidential palace, according to video of the episode.

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.

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« Reply #4362 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:26 AM »

February 2, 2013

Timbuktu Gives France’s President an Ecstatic Welcome


TIMBUKTU, Mali — France’s president, François Hollande, paid a triumphant visit to this ancient city on Saturday, receiving a rapturous welcome from thousands of people who gathered next to a 14th-century mosque to dance, play drums and chant “Vive la France!” The muezzin, whose singing calls residents to pray five times a day, wore a scarf in the colors of the French flag as he shouted, “Vive Hollande!”

It had the trappings of a “mission accomplished” moment.

But even as people outside the mud-and-wood mosque hailed the French leader as the city’s, and their country’s, savior, questions remain about what France has accomplished aside from chasing Islamic extremists from the cities and into their desert and mountain redoubts.

“These Islamists, they have not been defeated,” said Moustapha Ben Essayouti, a member of one of the city’s most prominent families who lined up to greet Mr. Hollande here. “Hardly any of them have been killed. They have run into the desert and the mountains to hide.”

Even Mr. Hollande, who praised French and Malian troops gathered here for accomplishing “an exceptional mission,” acknowledged that “the fight is not over.”

Indeed, little is known about the fate of fighters who fled the cities that have been retaken in the lightning northward advance by French and Malian troops to clear Islamists who had taken over the north of the country in recent months. In interviews, residents of cities now abandoned by the Islamist rebels have said that the bulk of the fighters fled in the night long before the French arrived.

Given the fighters’ deep familiarity of the vast, forbidding territory between this city and the borders of Algeria and Mauritania, many worry that the Islamist groups will simply regroup and come back to try again.

“If France leaves, they will come back,” Mr. Essayouti said.

The spidery network of Islamist militants in Mali numbered about 2,000 hard-core fighters before the French airstrikes and march north, according to American intelligence officials, and there are no clear figures yet on how many died in the fighting. The most dangerous component of that mix is Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the officials said.

The group has been attracting heavily armed Islamists from about 10 countries across North and West Africa, making Mali the biggest magnet for jihadi fighters other than Syria, one of the senior American intelligence officials said.

The Islamists who advanced toward a pivotal frontier town on Jan. 10 — leading to worries of a possible march south to the capital and drawing France into the battle in the process — were well armed, with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns mounted on vehicles. They also had some armored personnel carriers seized from the Malian military last year.

American military and counterterrorism officials applauded the speed and efficiency of the French-led operation, but they voiced concerns that the militants had ceded the northern cities with little or no resistance in order to prepare for a longer, bloodier insurgency.

“Longer term, and the French know this, it’s going to take a while to root out all these cells and operatives,” Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon’s top special operations policy official, told a defense industry symposium on Wednesday.

The senior United States intelligence official said that the real measure of success would be whether follow-up operations in the north would be able to diminish the strength of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamist groups. Like other American officials, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because operations were continuing.

Whether the Islamists are routed in the end may depend in part on how involved France remains. The Malian troops are considered to be poorly trained, and even the most capable of the other African troops pouring into the country as part of a regional force do not have the same level of weaponry to back them up as the French.

Mr. Hollande refused to give a timetable on Saturday for the withdrawal of the 3,500 French troops currently in Mali. In a speech here he said that it is “not our role to stay,” but later in the capital of Bamako he said, “We will be with you to the end, all the way to northern Mali,” according to the French news media.

In the past, French officials have talked about handing off the fight in the north to the Malian Army and other African troops.

North Africa specialists and American intelligence officials say the militants might lay low until French forces leave.

“Are they going to dig in and be guerrillas or go to ground and wait?” said Michael R. Shurkin, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who is now at the RAND Corporation.

For now, the people of Timbuktu are grateful for France’s help. They waved French and Malian flags and sang to the thumping rhythms of djembe drums, which were banned under the harsh version of Shariah imposed by the Islamist group that took control of the city. Men and women danced side by side.

As Mr. Hollande, ringed by security guards, plunged into the crowd to shake hands, some waved banners that said “Papa François, the mysterious city welcomes you.”

“Hollande is our savior,” said Arkia Baby, a 24-year-old college student, who wore a purple batik dress of a style banned by the Islamists. “He gave us back our freedom.”

That sentiment represents a strange twist in France’s often troubled history in Africa. France had a vast belt of colonies here that spanned the Sahara, from the Atlantic coast to just short of the Red Sea. After many of its colonies won independence in 1960, many remained bound to France, using a currency pegged to the franc and then the euro, and maintaining close trade, military and diplomatic ties.

France’s role has been fraught with moral peril. It pioneered brutal techniques to put down insurgencies in the Algerian war for independence, carpet-bombing villages suspected of harboring nationalist guerrillas. In the early 1990s France staunchly supported the Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda, despite growing signs that a blood bath was in the making.

More recently, French military intervention in Ivory Coast may have heightened ethnic tensions in that country. Even though the French intervened to install the country’s democratically elected leader, because the vote was cast along ethnic lines they were seen as favoring northerners and Muslims over southern Christians.

The French lost only one helicopter pilot in Mali, but Mr. Hollande’s aides are conscious of the risks of overstaying and becoming targets themselves.

The French hope that with the Islamists in far northern deserts and hills, they can be watched by drones and attacked from the air without harming civilians. The French also expect that the Islamists will have a harder time getting gasoline and food, especially if Algeria, as promised, seals its border with Mali. The French also say the Islamists will find it harder to plan further raids and kidnappings of Westerners that have helped finance their insurgency.

Still, staying and fighting carries risks for France, beyond the safety of its troops. French officials have voiced concerns about charges that the regular Malian Army has been guilty of human rights abuses, including murders of Tuareg and Arab civilians they accuse of ties to the militants.

Mr. Hollande warned the French and African troops here that they must avoid abuses, lest they “tarnish the mission.”

Writing in the newspaper Libération, the French columnist Vincent Giret argued that the French face an unhappy choice in Mali. If they remain on the front line they will look, “sooner or later, like white neocolonialists,” and any bad episode can turn public opinion quickly sour. But if the French Army “settles for a role supporting the Malian and African troops left on the front line, it then risks being accused of covering up abuses and score settlings.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Munich, Eric Schmitt from Washington, and Scott Sayare from Paris.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 2, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of one of the Timbuktu residents who lined up to greet the French president. He is Moustapha Ben Essayouti, not Essagouté.


February 2, 2013

Militants’ Goal in Algeria Gas Plant Siege: A Giant Fireball


TIGUENTOURINE, Algeria — The goal of the heavily armed militants who seized the desert gas plant here is becoming increasingly clear: to turn the forest of pipes and tubes into a giant bomb, and to blow up everything and anyone around. What none of them knew was exactly how, in the endless maze of metal, to do it.

The hundreds of workers at the plant when it was taken over last month found themselves caught between the ruthless militants on the inside and an Algerian Army ringing the perimeter that was bent on showing no weakness. As the realization dawned on the captors that they, too, were essentially captives, they grew agitated and more aggressive, witnesses say. Moreover, the plant’s operations had shut down during their initial assault.

Bristling with weapons, they made their demands known to the remaining employees: restart the plant, get the compressors working again and turn the power back on.

“They pushed me very hard to restart the plant,” said Lotfi Benadouda, the Algerian plant executive whom the militants singled out as the man in charge. “Their objective was to move the hostages to the plant. They wanted to get to the factory with the hostages, and explode it.”

A more complete view of the hostage drama in the Sahara that began the morning of Jan. 16, and of the militants’ motives in carrying it out, has emerged as some of the captives provided detailed accounts of the four-day standoff, which left at least 37 foreign hostages and 29 kidnappers dead.

Their accounts contradicted some of the Algerian government’s public assertions about the crisis and supported others. At times, the government said the militants planned to destroy the gas complex and kill the hostages en masse, but it provided no details or evidence to back up that assertion. At other times, government officials, defending a military raid on the facility, said the militants sought to flee and take captives into the desert, an assertion that some of the captives contradicted.

Now it seems clear that the siege was about more than disabling the plant, and that holding hostages for ransom was not part of the plan. Instead, the militants sought to orchestrate a spectacular fireball that could have killed everyone in the vicinity. While that plot could offer more justification for the Algerian government’s take-no-prisoners response, questions remain about whether the standoff could have been ended with fewer lives lost.

To visit the plant is to appreciate both its vulnerability and the opportunity it afforded the militants, who traveled a mere 30 miles through the Sahara’s sands, across the border from Libya, to attack it.

The plant’s production towers rise suddenly and starkly out of the nearly featureless desert landscape at Tiguentourine after a 45-minute drive from the nearest Algerian settlement, the town of In Amenas. The isolation appears total; there is nothing around it but a sea of sand.

The fierceness of the fight to retake the complex by Algerian security services over four days in mid-January is still evident. Bullet holes pockmark the low, sand-color living quarters; deep gashes in one wall are a testament to the artillery fired on both sides. Between the living quarters and the plant itself, a 10-minute drive, a jumble of shredded, carbonized vehicle remnants stick out from the sand.

Still unclear was whether some of the carnage was avoidable, as officials in foreign capitals have suggested. The Algerians remain convinced their doctrine of no negotiations and maximum force was the right course of action.

What appears increasingly certain is that the attackers benefited from inside help. They used a map to guide them around the facility, and at least one of them had once worked at the plant as a driver, officials said. But what the militants lacked was the technical expertise to execute the dramatic ending that some captives say was envisioned.

The Algerian authorities credit one of the facility’s security agents at an outer guard post with sounding a crucial alarm before being shot in the head. The guard, Lahmar Amine, has since been hailed as a national hero in the Algerian news media, and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal credited him with allowing workers at the plant to shut down gas production.

Others said the militants might have inadvertently cut the power during their assault, thus preventing the plant from operating.

“The plant was shut down because the terrorists blew up the generators,” said an employee at the facility who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions with his employer. The valves needed power to function, he said, and restarting the facility was a much more involved process than taking it down. “It wasn’t going to be started for a long time,” the employee said.

Outside experts said that even with rocket-propelled grenades and high-grade explosives, a natural-gas plant would have been harder to destroy than the militants may have realized. “Natural gas does not explode unless it is in a confined area,” said E. Darron Granger, the senior vice president for engineering and construction at Cheniere Energy, a liquefied natural gas terminal company.

Mr. Benadouda, the plant’s director general and the militants’ main interlocutor for the first two days of the crisis, was still visibly affected by what he had been through. He recalled on Thursday seeing colleagues blown apart and militants’ corpses severed in half, and he was speaking from a central courtyard where, two weeks earlier, hostages had been assembled and menacingly sorted. “I saw many bad things, terrible things,” he said, turning away.

The hostage drama began before dawn on Wednesday, Jan. 16, with the bright muzzle flashes of automatic rifles in the dark Saharan night. A busload of expatriate workers was leaving the facility in an armed convoy when the attackers opened fire. The militants split into two groups, one taking over the living quarters, and the other headed for the gas production facility, which they mined with explosives, witnesses said. Once inside the living quarters, “they were firing everywhere,” said an engineer, Djamel Bourkaib, who stood as he spoke in the shadow of the giant In Amenas towers, still blackened by an explosion during the siege. “If it moved, they shot at it.”

Quickly, the militants began to separate foreign workers — American, British, Japanese and Norwegian — from the Algerians, who were told they would not be harmed. “The terrorists tried to restart the plant in order to get maximum pressure,” Mr. Bourkaib said. “They were looking for engineers to restart the plant.”

Hours into the siege, the gunmen recognized Mr. Benadouda as a man who could be useful to them. That was when the pressure started on him to restart the plant. “We gave them vehicles and food, but we didn’t restart the plant,” Mr. Benadouda said.

By the first evening, tension was building inside the living quarters. The power was still off, everything was dark and the militants were starting to run out of battery charge on their communications equipment. With military forces building up outside, even the militants “thought they were going to be attacked,” Mr. Benadouda said.

On Thursday, Jan. 17, some of the militants, who had communicated that they were protesting the French military intervention in Mali, gathered hostages laden with explosives in five vehicles. The army started firing inside the compound, wounding the militants’ leader. The militants panicked, Mr. Benadouda said, and hundreds of Algerian workers fled.

The militants assembled a convoy carrying foreign hostages. What happened next is still unclear and the source of debate.

Some reports in the Algerian news media speak of army helicopters firing missiles at the procession of vehicles, causing several to explode. Mr. Sellal, at a Jan. 21 news conference, simply said, “There was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded.” Among the casualties, he said, was Taher Bechneb, the militants’ leader, and some of the hostages.

But a senior official who requested anonymity maintained in an interview that militants in three of the vehicles, realizing that they were immobilized, simply blew themselves and the cars up. A recently retired senior officer who still has ties with his former colleagues also said that no missiles were fired at the cars.

The hostage crisis dragged on for two more days, but the events of Jan. 17 were crucial. The core of the militant operation, including its leadership, had been devastated. The remnants were now at the gas-producing section of the complex, but they did not know how to destroy it.

On Saturday, Jan. 19, the militants parked a car packed with explosives under two central gas-producing towers, then placed five handcuffed hostages — three Norwegians and two Americans, executives at the plant — above the car, workers said. All of the foreigners died in the resulting explosion, workers said.

In the military’s final assault, army snipers killed many of the militants, Mr. Sellal said at the news conference as he defended the government’s approach toward militants whose goal officials here are convinced was a fiery end.

“If you don’t terrorize the terrorists, they will terrorize you,” the senior Algerian official said in the interview.

Adam Nossiter reported from Tiguentourine, and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Clifford Krauss from Houston; Henrik Pryser Libell from Oslo; Martin Fackler and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo; Stanley Reed, Lark Turner and John F. Burns from London; and Ravi Somaiya from New York.

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« Reply #4363 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:29 AM »

David Cameron in fresh peace talks with Afghan and Pakistani leaders

PM to meet Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari for talks aimed at preventing Taliban resurgence after British troops leave

Press Association, Sunday 3 February 2013 09.29 GMT   

David Cameron is to meet the Afghan and Pakistani presidents in the latest round of talks aimed at preventing a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan when British troops leave next year.

The prime minister will dine with Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari at Chequers on Sunday night as part of his efforts to strengthen Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and promote regional peace and stability.

The meeting comes before in-depth discussions on Monday focusing on how the Pakistanis and international community can support the Afghan-led peace process.

Foreign ministers, army chiefs of staff, intelligence chiefs and the chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council are expected to attend the third trilateral session since last summer.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "As the prime minister has set out previously, a stable Afghanistan is not just in the interests of Afghans, but also in the interests of their neighbours and the UK. We share the same vision for Afghanistan: a secure, stable and democratic country that never again becomes a haven for international terror.

"We are working together to achieve it and Afghanistan's neighbours have a vital role to play. It is vital not just for the future security of their citizens, but for their prosperity too."

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« Reply #4364 on: Feb 03, 2013, 07:36 AM »

February 2, 2013

As Self-Immolations Near 100, Tibetans Question the Effect


NEW DELHI — A crowd of Tibetans came here to India’s capital last week, bearing flags and political banners and a bittersweet mixture of hope and despair. A grim countdown was under way: The number of Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet had reached 99, one short of an anguished milestone.

Yet as that milestone hung over the estimated 5,000 Tibetans who gathered in a small stadium, so did an uncertainty about whether the rest of the world was paying attention at all. In speeches, Tibetan leaders described the self-immolations as the desperate acts of a people left with no other way to draw global attention to Chinese policies in Tibet.

“What is forcing these self-immolations?” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, asked in an interview. “There is no freedom of speech. There is no form of political protest allowed in Tibet.”

Billed as the Tibetan People’s Solidarity Campaign, the four-day gathering featured protests, marches, Buddhist prayer sessions and political speeches in an attempt to push Tibet back onto a crowded international agenda. If the Arab Spring has inspired hope among some Tibetans that political change is always possible, it has also offered a sobering reminder that no two situations are the same, nor will the international community respond in the same fashion.

“The world is paying attention, but not enough,” Mr. Sangay added. “There was a self-immolation in Tunisia which was labeled the catalyst for the Arab Spring. We’ve been committed to nonviolence for many decades. And how come we have been given less support than what we witnessed in the Arab world?”

Yet even as the self-immolations have become central to the Tibetan protest movement, a quiet debate has been under way among Tibetans who are anguished over the deaths of their young men and who question how the acts reconcile with Buddhist teachings. Again and again, speakers emphasized that the Tibetan movement remains nonviolent and that the people who have self-immolated harmed only themselves.

“None of them have tried to harm anybody else,” said Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, which is based in Dharamsala, the Indian city that is host to the exiled Tibetan government. “None of the 99 people have tried to harm any Chinese.”

The Tibetan self-immolations began in 2009 as protests against China’s rule in Tibetan regions of the country. At least 81 Tibetans have died after their acts, and nearly all the self-immolations have occurred inside Tibet, with news smuggled out via e-mail or through networks of advocacy groups.

The Chinese authorities have responded by taking a harder line. Last week, a Chinese court handed down stiff sentences to a Tibetan monk and his nephew on charges that they had urged eight people to set themselves on fire, according to Chinese state news media. The monk was given a suspended death sentence, usually equivalent to life in prison, and the authorities have made it clear that committing or encouraging the act will be treated as intentional homicide. (Mr. Sangay said that six others in a different area of Tibet were also given harsh sentences.)

The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, for inciting ordinary Tibetans to carry out self-immolations. Tibetans rebut the claim, saying the cause is Chinese repression.

“What are you left with?” Mr. Penpa asked. “The only thing you can do is sacrifice your life.”

With the Dalai Lama having ceded political control of the Tibetan government — and having encouraged the elections that elevated Mr. Sangay, a former lecturer at Harvard, to prime minister — the Tibetan movement is in flux. To some degree, last week’s events were part of continued efforts to establish Mr. Sangay and other democratically elected Tibetan members of Parliament as figures capable of rallying political support for a movement long dependent on the charisma and stature of the Dalai Lama. (He did not attend the gathering.)

For more than a half century, India has been the primary host of exiled Tibetans, and many of the people who flocked to New Delhi came from special Tibetan villages elsewhere in the country. Lobsang Thai, 28, who came from Mundgod, a Tibetan village in the Indian state of Karnataka, said the self-immolations reflected the desperate situation in Tibet. “I don’t think it is about right or wrong,” he said. “That is the only thing we can do without hurting other people. That’s the best way to get the world’s attention.”

Tenzin Losec, 42, who is from Mainpat, a Tibetan village in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, agreed. “This is very sad for us,” he said. “But people inside Tibet, they have no other way. They have no rights. Outside Tibet, we are trying to raise awareness around the world.”

Tibetan leaders were determined to portray the week’s events as evidence that the global community, especially India, supported their aspirations. Lawmakers and other political figures from India’s leading political parties appeared at different events, though the government’s top leaders stayed away.

Mr. Sangay and others want the United Nations to push China to improve conditions in Tibet and also to allow inspectors to tour the region. “The Chinese government should feel pressure to do something,” he said. “This is leading to a vicious cycle: hard-line policies, protests, repression, more hard-line policies, more protests, more repression.”


IHT Rendezvous
February 3, 2013, 2:24 am

In Villages, Praying for the Souls of Tibetan Self-Immolators


BEIJING - Since November, when cold winter began in the high Tibetan Plateau, thousands of Tibetan villagers have been gathering daily to pray for the souls of the nearly 100 Tibetans who have burned themselves to death in protest over Chinese rule, in a show of widespread support for the self-immolators among ordinary people, according to witness testimony from a person recently returned from the region.

In traditional winter prayer meetings in villages, they gather to chant "Om mani padme hum," Tibetan Buddhism's most important mantra, which speeds a soul toward a good reincarnation, said the person, who witnessed a meeting in the Tibetan region of Qinghai Province in China.

The meetings are a sign of support for the self-immolators and point to widespread dislike among ordinary Tibetans for repressive policies in the region that have turned it into an "open-air prison," said one ethnic Tibetan police officer in Lhasa, quoted by the witness.

The witness cannot be identified because of the high risk of persecution by the Chinese authorities. But the reliable account of ongoing, severe repression and resentment among Tibetans confirms other reports from the Tibet Autonomous Region or from Tibetan regions in Chinese provinces, where the authorities have been cracking down as they try to stop the spread of the self-immolations.

Chinese courts last week sentenced eight Tibetans for helping self-immolators, The Associated Press reported, including one man to death with a two-year reprieve, and others to between 3 and 12 years in jail, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

The detail and content of the grass-roots prayer meetings is new.

"The meetings are a traditional thing to do during the winter and are held daily in different villages, and last three days," the witness said. They are known in Chinese as "fahui," or dharma meetings (also Buddhist law meetings).

"People drive on motorbikes for long distances, 50 or 60 kilometers, to whichever village is holding a prayer meeting. It's mostly adults, and they are anywhere between 16 and over 80 years old. As soon as they can drive a motorbike, they'll go," the person said.

"Around 1,000 people may attend, often going from one meeting to another without returning home."

"Their aim is for each meeting to have chanted 'Om mani padme hum' 100 million times. There's no question that they regard the self-immolators as very great, and believe that with the help of their prayers, they will come back as powerful and blessed people," said the person, who confessed to having reservations about the self-immolations.

Yet, "It's extremely moving. Because if the self-immolations really were a mistake, how could they get so much support and sympathy form ordinary people?"

As my colleague Jim Yardley reports from India, where many Tibetans live in exile, some there are questioning the self-immolations.

The witness confirmed that, saying: "There is a feeling among some Tibetans," especially monks or those in the religious hierarchy, "that the Dalai Lama needs to say something to stop it."

Yet Tibetans who are deeply unhappy with Chinese rule are constrained in how they can protest.

"The problem is that Tibetans are Buddhists. The way things are there now, in other places, people might rise up and set off bombs. But they can't do that because Buddhists believe you shouldn't destroy other people's happiness. So the only way they can protest is by killing themselves," the person said.

And so the grass-roots support goes on.

The testimony from this person also confirmed reports of a very harsh crackdown under way in Lhasa, seat of the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple, and the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans revere and who has lived in exile since fleeing the Chinese in 1959.

The crackdown, in response to the self-immolations that began not long after an uprising in Lhasa was crushed in 2008, has turned Tibet into "an open-air prison," said an ethnic Tibetan police officer. Like some other ethnic Tibetan police officers, he was considering resigning his post, he said.

"Lhasa used to be a sacred place for Buddhism. Now it's a sacred place for Marxism-Leninism," he said. "Every day there are meetings where leaders both big and small tell you that maintaining stability," or "weiwen," in Chinese, "is the most important thing, what the main tasks in Lhasa are. Lhasa is no longer a Buddhist sacred place," he said.

"Lhasa is stuffed with police, every 10 paces there are several. I am growing to hate my own work. It's really not possible to keep doing it. Some have already resigned," he told the witness.

The crackdown includes forbidding ethnic Tibetans from the outlying regions, like Qinghai or Sichuan Provinces, which lie outside Tibet proper, from traveling to Tibet and is strictly enforced at airports and other transport nodes. Ethnic Han Chinese, however, can pass, effectively making Tibet out of bounds for many Tibetans.

Any Tibetan from outside the region wishing to travel to Lhasa must have a "sponsor" in the city working for the government, the witness said. They must surrender their identity cards and be photographed. Uniformed and plainclothes police officers and military patrol heavily in the city, trying to stop self-immolations.

The ban on ethnic Tibetans from outside Tibet, many of whom have traditionally taken pilgrimages to Lhasa, means that hotels and other businesses in the city have suffered since last May when they were ordered shut to such travelers. A petition is currently circulating from hotel owners asking the government to compensate them financially, "or we will take our request higher." For reasons of political sensitivity, the petition, which has been seen by this newspaper, cannot be discussed in detail.

It is also extremely difficult for ordinary ethnic Tibetans to get a passport, meaning they cannot travel overseas, the witness said. The person believes the government's motive is to minimize accounts, like this one, of the harsh repression in the region.

"They don't want Tibetans leaving the country and telling the world what's happening there. Hundreds of people leaving and telling the world is very different from one or two," the person said.

With the Lunar New Year approaching, the prayer meetings will soon be scaled back, as farm work and animal husbandry resume. For now, though, the villagers are praying hard for the souls of the dead, millions of mantras circulating in the thin air of the plateau.

"They say, we want their lives to come back. We want world peace. They pray for Tibet to have peaceful and happy days, and the world, too," the person said.

Said the police officer: "Living in this tightly controlled atmosphere is unbearable. There's no feeling of happiness. But maybe it's good this way, it may speed up the day when the situation has to change. But I don't have the courage to self-immolate. Maybe after I retire I'll go to Beijing and petition."


January 31, 2013

Chinese Court Issues Severe Sentences in Tibetan Self-Immolations


BEIJING — A court in southwest China gave severe prison sentences on Thursday to two Tibetans who court officials said were guilty of urging eight people to self-immolate, three of whom died, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

One Tibetan, Lorang Konchok, 40, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, which often means the convict will eventually get a lifetime prison sentence. His nephew Lorang Tsering, 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Xinhua report said the older Tibetan was also being stripped of his “political rights” for life, while the younger would have his stripped for three years.

The sentencing took place in Aba Prefecture of Sichuan Province, an area at the heart of the recent wave of self-immolations by Tibetans. Nearly 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan regions, which lie in western China but which many Tibetans say should be granted independence or true autonomy.

At least 81 died after their acts, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group based in London. Few other nations have been confronted by such a large wave of self-immolations as political protest.

Chinese officials have sentenced Tibetans before to prison sentences for what courts have said were their roles in promoting self-immolations, but Thursday’s sentences were among the harshest. There now appears to be a concentrated effort to rein in the self-immolations, which gathered pace in late 2012, by criminalizing both the act itself and helping or encouraging people to commit it.

On Dec. 3, a newspaper in a Tibetan area of Gansu Province published an editorial that said China’s supreme court, prosecution agency and Ministry of Public Security had issued “guidelines” that said, “The act of self-immolation by Tibetans is a crime.” The guidelines said assisting or encouraging self-immolations was considered intentional homicide, and those who committed self-immolation were also criminals and punishable by law if they “have caused severe damage,” according to the newspaper.

The Xinhua report on Thursday said the two monks “incited and coerced” eight people to self-immolate; three committed the act and died last year, and the others “willfully” abandoned their plans after the police “intervened.”

The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans, for encouraging the self-immolations, even though the Dalai Lama has not made any explicit statements in support of the acts. Tibetans have said in interviews that the self-immolations are genuine expressions of political anger and frustration at Chinese oppression, not the result of plots hatched by senior monks or other Tibetan leaders.

The two monks sentenced in Aba, which Tibetans called Ngaba, were detained in August 2012, according to a report in December by Xinhua. Both monks are from the Kirti Monastery, which was a site central to the earliest self-immolations.

That Xinhua report said Lorang Konchok became involved in promoting self-immolations after being contacted by a “Tibetan independence organization” tied to the Dalai Lama. Xinhua said the contact took place after February 2009, when a young monk from Kirti named Tapey set fire to himself outside the monastery. Tapey did not die, but the second Tibetan to commit the act, Phuntsog, also from Kirti, killed himself in March 2011.

After Phuntsog’s death, a court sentenced three monks to long prison sentences in the first legal punishments handed out in relation to the self-immolations. Two monks were found guilty of involvement in Phuntsog’s self-immolation and one, an uncle of Phuntsog’s, was found guilty of refusing to turn his body over to the police at the time.

The Tibetans who have self-immolated have come from a variety of backgrounds. They include men and women, young and old, clergy and laypeople. So far this year, at least three Tibetans have self-immolated, all men. The second one, Tsering, who killed himself in Aba Prefecture on Jan. 18, is survived by a wife and two children.

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