February 15, 2013
Obama to Detail ‘Promise Zone’ Program to Aid Distressed Areas
By JACKIE CALMES
CHICAGO — At a high school near his own neighborhood here, President Obama on Friday will provide new details about an initiative to select 20 communities nationwide as laboratories for better coordination of federal, local, nonprofit and private-sector investments to revitalize long-distressed areas, according to administration officials.
Mr. Obama had announced his proposal to designate the so-called Promise Zones during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, but did not provide many details. As part of the effort, he also is seeking tax breaks, for capital investments in the zones and for employers who hire unemployed residents.
But Congress has not passed similar tax incentives that he proposed in the past two years — a testament to the legislative hurdles for the president’s second-term agenda.
Much of the anti-poverty proposal, which is one of several initiatives that Mr. Obama is calling “ladders of opportunity” to help more Americans reach the middle class, would actually not require new legislation or spending. The president’s visit to Chicago follows trips over the last two days to North Carolina and Georgia to showcase two other proposed “ladders” — one to create manufacturing innovation centers and the other for universal preschool.
A senior administration official said that the Promise Zones, which ultimately could exceed 20 communities, would be selected over the next several years from among urban and rural areas whose applications document problems like high and persistent unemployment, low rates of high school graduation and college attendance, high crime levels and residents’ health problems.
Administration officials would not quantify the cost of the initiative and said it would mostly involve existing programs and federal resources, but would align them more effectively and holistically with local efforts of the private and public sectors.
“The premise behind this is that the federal government has to be a positive actor in all of this effort — but as an actor who’s a partner,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “This has to be driven locally,” Ms. Muñoz added, with the federal government as “a catalyst for change.”
The initiative, according to officials, will involve the departments of education, commerce, agriculture, justice and housing and urban development.
As an example of how it would work, they suggested that federal programs, local agencies and nonprofit organizations and private investors might team up in a zone to redesign a troubled area. Decrepit public housing, for instance, might be replaced with mixed developments for low- and moderate-income residents, with plans that involve education opportunities for preschool, after-school and summer instruction to reduce dropout rates; law enforcement grants for anti-crime measures, and job-skills training geared to local employers.
While local officials would take the lead in coordinating such public-private efforts, federal representatives would help them navigate the range of programs available and intervene to cut red tape and expedite action, administration officials said.
Mr. Obama’s decision to promote the Promise Zone idea in his hometown did not indicate that a Chicago community would necessarily be picked, officials said.
The neighborhood where he will speak is about a mile from Mr. Obama’s Hyde Park home, and also near a park where a 15-year-old honor student was shot and killed days after she had been to Washington to perform as a majorette in the president’s inaugural parade — a tragedy, along with Chicago’s high murder rate, that is likely to lead the president to discuss his separate initiatives to address gun violence.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 15, 2013
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She is Cecilia Muñoz, not Cecelia.
February 14, 2013
Senate Democrats Offer a Proposal to Head Off Automatic Cuts
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders reached agreement Thursday on a $110 billion mix of tax increases and spending cuts to head off automatic spending cuts through the end of the year. But with even some Democrats tepid on the proposal, the chances of a deal before the March 1 deadline have receded.
The Democratic proposal would establish a 30-percent minimum tax rate on incomes over $1 million to raise about $54 billion over 10 years. It would raise $1 billion more by subjecting tar sands oil to a tax to pay for oil-spill cleanups and by ending a business tax deduction for the cost of moving equipment overseas.
The remaining $55 billion would come from $27.5 billion in defense cuts from 2015 to 2021 and $27.5 billion in farm-subsidy cuts.
The legislation is more a bargaining position than a solution. Republicans have said they will not accept any new taxes in a deal to head off the so-called sequester — across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic programs of 5 percent to 8 percent and totaling about $1 trillion over 10 years. But Senate Democratic leaders said Thursday that their party must rally support around an alternative to try to move negotiations forward.
“This bill is an important chess piece,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio on Thursday repeated his demand that the Senate take the first steps to replace the spending cuts before the House considers its move, but no one predicted that the Senate Democrats’ proposal would rally the bipartisan support needed to overcome a near-certain Republican filibuster and reach the House.
“I would hope that we can get to 51 votes, and that majority would rule,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I’m confident we will have the majority — if not the totality — of the Democratic caucus.”
Senate Democrats emerged from a protracted lunch meeting over the plan voicing only grudging support. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, said he worried that wringing savings from farm subsidies now instead of in a broad farm bill would make it harder to pass an overhaul of agricultural programs that has been stalled for nearly a year.
Senators Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, and Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, denounced the 50-50 mix of cuts and taxes, after Democrats have swallowed far more spending cuts than tax increases over two years of deficit-reduction efforts.
Republicans dismissed the proposal as a worthless gimmick.
“This is not a solution — even they know it can’t pass; that’s the idea,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “It’s a political stunt.”
The White House praised the package. Jay Carney, the press secretary, called it a “balanced plan to avoid across-the-board budget cuts that will hurt kids, seniors, and our men and women in uniform.”
“Republicans in Congress face a simple choice,” he added. “Do they protect investments in education, health care and national defense, or do they continue to prioritize and protect tax loopholes that benefit the very few at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans?”
As the cuts approach, warnings of disaster are growing increasingly dire. The Senate Appropriations Committee released a barrage of letters from agencies spelling out how the cuts would be meted out: 600,000 low-income women and children dropped from federal nutrition programs; meat and poultry plants forced to close because of furloughed federal inspectors; deep cuts to the poor school systems that rely most heavily on federal assistance; delayed permits for oil and gas production; and shorter seasons, reduced operating hours and possible park closings in the national park system. Job losses could reach 750,000 this year, said Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.
While Republicans and Democrats agree the cuts would be destructive, neither side seems ready to negotiate a solution. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, reached out to Mr. Boehner on Thursday. Mr. Boehner said he told Mr. Reid what he has been saying publicly: The House will look at what the Senate can produce.
“This sequester was the president’s idea,” Mr. Boehner said. “His party needs to follow through on their plans to replace it.”
Obama: There must be ‘checks and balances’ on drone strikes
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 14, 2013 19:29 EST
President Barack Obama said Thursday that Americans needed more than just his word to be assured he was not misusing his powers in waging a secret drone war overseas.
The president was asked about the debate over the deadly tactic, a backbone of the US campaign against Al-Qaeda, and whether the Constitution allows the use of drones against Americans who have turned against their country.
“It is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing,” Obama told an online forum sponsored by Google.
The president, who has said he is working with Congress to provide more oversight of the clandestine drone war against Al-Qaeda, was also asked what was to stop the US government from using unmanned aerial vehicles at home.
“There has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil,” Obama said in the Google Plus “Fireside Hangout.”
“The rules outside the United States are going to be different than the rules inside of the United States in part because our capacity, for example, to capture terrorists in the United States is going to be very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Debate about the use of drones has slowly been mounting following the September 2011 killing in Yemen of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior Al-Qaeda operative who was an American citizen.
The president said that he was working with Congress to ensure that the public was also able to understand the constraints and legal rationales of the US drone war.
“I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counter terrorism,” he added.
“There have to be checks and balances on it.”
Some observers, including prominent senators, are considering whether a special court should monitor the secret drone war.
Missiles fired from unmanned aircraft have become the Obama administration’s weapons of choice in its war against Al-Qaeda.
The administration’s legal rationale for the targeted killings was leaked to the media ahead of Senate hearings last week on the nomination of Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.
The guidelines allow the use of drone strikes against US citizens suspected of being senior Al-Qaeda operatives, even if there is no evidence they are actively plotting an attack.
Some administration critics have questioned the legality of drone strikes against US citizens, while others fear that raining death from the skies may do more harm than good in increasing anti-US sentiment.
February 15, 2013Shock Wave of Fireball Meteor Rattles Siberia, Injuring 1,200
By ELLEN BARRY and ANDREW E. KRAMER
MOSCOW — Gym class came to a halt inside the Chelyabinsk Railway Institute, and students gathered around the window, gazing at the fat white contrail that arced its way across the morning sky. A missile? A comet? A few quiet moments passed. And then, with incredible force, the windows blew in.
The scenes from Chelyabinsk, rocked by an intense shock wave when a meteor hit the Earth’s atmosphere Friday morning, offer a glimpse of an apocalyptic scenario that many have walked through mentally, and Hollywood has popularized, but scientists say has never before injured so many people.
Students at the institute crammed through a staircase thickly blanketed with glass out to the street, where hundreds stood in awe, looking at the sky. The flash came in blinding white, so bright that the vivid shadows of buildings slid swiftly and sickeningly across the ground. It burst yellow, then orange. And then there was the sound of frightened, confused people.
Around 1,200 people, 200 of them children, were injured, mostly by glass that exploded into schools and workplaces, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. Others suffered skull trauma and broken bones. No deaths were reported. A city administrator in Chelyabinsk said that more than a million square feet of glass shattered, leaving many buildings exposed to icy cold.
And as scientists tried to piece together the chain of events that led to Friday’s disaster — on the very day a small asteroid passed close to Earth — residents of Chelyabinsk were left to grapple with memories that seemed to belong in science fiction.
“I opened the window from surprise — there was such heat coming in, as if it were summer in the yard, and then I watched as the flash flew by and turned into a dot somewhere over the forest,” wrote Darya Frenn, a blogger. “And in several seconds there was an explosion of such force that the window flew in along with its frame, the monitor fell, and everything that was on the desk.”
“God forbid you should ever have to experience anything like this,” she wrote.
At 9 a.m., the sun had just risen on the Ural Mountains, which form a ridge between European Russia and the vast stretch of Siberia to the east. The area around Chelyabinsk is a constellation of defense industry manufacturing cities, including some devoted to developing and producing nuclear weapons. The factory towns are separated by great expanses of uninhabited forest.
As residents of Chelyabinsk began their day on Friday, a 10-ton meteor around 10 feet in diameter was hurtling toward the Earth at a speed of about 10 to 12 miles per second, experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences reported in a statement released Friday. Scientists believe the meteor exploded upon hitting the lower atmosphere and disintegrated at an altitude of about 20 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface — not an especially unusual event, the statement said.
This meteor was unusual because its material was so hard — it may have been made of iron, the statement said — which allowed some small fragments, or meteorites, perhaps 5 percent of the meteor’s mass, to reach the Earth’s surface. Nothing similar has been recorded in Russian territory since 2002, the statement said.
Estimates of the meteor’s size varied considerably. Peter G. Brown, a physics professor and director of the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario, said it was closer to 50 feet in diameter and probably weighed around 7,000 tons. He said the energy released by the explosion was equivalent to 300 kilotons of TNT, making it the largest recorded since the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia, which is believed to have been caused by an asteroid.
Meteors typically cause sonic booms when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and the one that occurred over Chelyabinsk was forceful enough to shatter dishes and televisions in people’s homes. Car alarms were triggered for miles around, and the roof of a zinc factory partially collapsed. Video clips, uploaded by the hundreds starting early Friday morning, showed ordinary mornings interrupted by a blinding flash and the sound of shattering glass.
Maria Polyakova, 25, head of reception at the Park-City Hotel in Chelyabinsk, said it was the light that caught her eye.
“I saw a flash in the window, turned toward it and saw a burning cloud, which was surrounded by smoke and was going downward — it reminded me of what you see after an explosion,” she said. The blast that followed was forceful enough to shatter the heavy automatic glass doors on the hotel’s first floor, as well as many windows on the floor above, she said.
Valentina Nikolayeva, a teacher in Chelyabinsk, described it as “an unreal light” that filled all the classrooms on one side of School No. 15.
“It was a light which never happens in life; it happens probably only in the end of the world,” she said in a clip posted on a news portal, LifeNews.ru. She said she saw a vapor trail, like one that appears after an airplane, only dozens of times bigger. “The light was coming from there. Then the light went out, and the trail began to change. The changes were taking place within it, like in the clouds, because of the wind. It began to shrink and then, a minute later, an explosion.”
“A shock wave,” she said. “It was not clear what it was, but we were deafened at that moment. The window glass flew.”
The strange light had drawn many to the windows, the single most dangerous place to be. Tyoma Chebalkin, a student at Southern Urals State University, said that the shock wave traveled from the western side the city, and that anyone standing close to windows — security guards at their posts, for instance — was caught in a hail of broken glass.
He spoke to Vozhd.info, an online news portal, four hours after the explosion, when cellphones, which had been knocked out, were still out of order. He said that traffic was at a standstill in the city center, and that everyone he could see was trying to place calls. He said he saw no signs of panic.
In those strange hours, Ms. Frenn, the blogger, wrote down the thoughts that had raced through her mind — radiation, a plane crash, the beginning of a war — and noted that her extremities went numb while she was waiting to hear that the members of her family were unhurt.
When emergency officials announced that what had occurred was a meteor, what occurred to her was: It could happen again.
“I am at home, whole and alive,” she wrote. “I have gathered together my documents and clothes. And a carrier for the cats. Just in case.”
Reporting was contributed by Viktor Klimenko and Andrew Roth from Moscow, Alan Cowell from London and Rick Gladstone from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 15, 2013
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the name of the university at which Peter Brown is the director of the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration. It is Canada’s University of Western Ontario, not Western University.
Click to watch this from six different points of view: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/15/world/europe/16meteorite_videogrid.html?ref=europe
February 15, 2013, 8:20 amEarth May Not Be Ready for the Next Close Encounter
By HARVEY MORRIS
LONDON - The suspected meteor shower that blasted Siberia early Friday somewhat stole the thunder of another chunk of space rock that was due to stream past Earth later in the day.
In the closest encounter ever recorded with a large space object, the 150-feet diameter asteroid 2012 DA14 was on course to come within 17,200 miles of the Earth at 2:24 p.m. E.S.T.
In cosmological terms, that counts as a near miss, although scientists have issued reassuring statements that there is no need to panic.
What is believed to be a meteor shower struck Russia's Chelyabinsk region, reportedly injuring more than 400 people, was a reminder that danger can come literally out of the blue.
It raised the question whether the world is prepared to avert the threat of a potentially much bigger disaster from a collision with a near-Earth object.
Scientists have warned that greater international cooperation is needed if humanity is to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, believed to have been wiped out after an asteroid struck what is now Mexico 66 million years ago.
Space-watchers are already keeping a close eye on 1999 RQ36, a 1,837-feet giant that has a one in a thousand chance of hitting Earth on its next close encounter in 2182.
It is one of 1,300 space rocks on NASA's list of "potentially hazardous asteroids." The U.S. space agency plans to launch an unmanned mission in 2016 to bring back rock samples from the asteroid and measure the forces acting on it.
"Anything over a few hundred yards across that appears to be on a collision course with Earth is very worrisome," according to Edward Beshore, a University of Arizona scientist involved in the mission.
Research has focused on how to divert potentially Earth-bound space rocks with a variety of technologies that range from attaching them to space-borne versions of a ball and chain to blasting them with a nuclear bomb.
But first you have to find them.
The asteroid 2012 DA14, which was near enough to be visible from Earth on Friday during its 4.9 miles-per-second fly-by, was first spotted only in February 2012 by a Spanish dentist.
According to asteroid-hunting scientists at the B612 Foundation, who include NASA veterans, Friday's close encounter amounts to a wake-up call from space.
"Of the million asteroids as large as or larger than 2012 DA14, we have only tracked less than 10,000," it said in a posting on its Web site.
"So the fact that we knew ahead of time that 2012 DA14 is about to buzz by Earth is really only a matter of luck," it wrote. "Ninety nine percent of the time we are oblivious, simply because we have not mapped and tracked 99 percent of Near Earth Asteroids."
In 2008, space experts from the Association of Space Explorers called for a coordinated international action plan, under the umbrella of the United Nations, to counter the asteroid threat.
Its proposals included mounting an international mission to practice diverting a small, harmless space rock, as well as launching a global scientific debate on how best to deflect an asteroid (and who would pay for it.)
Like the script of a science fiction movie, it evokes the prospect of disparate nations coming together to counter a common extraterrestrial threat.
As Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister, said on Friday, the Siberian meteorite strike showed the need for an international initiative to create a warning system for "objects of an alien origin."
***************Tunguska, 1908: Russia’s greatest cosmic mystery
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 15, 2013 11:14 EST
The stunning burning-up of a meteor over Russia on Friday that unleashed a shockwave injuring hundreds of people appears to be the country’s most dramatic cosmic experience since the historic Tunguska Event of June 1908.
The Tunguska Event was an explosion that went off in a remote region in Siberia on June 30, 1908, near the river Podkamennaya Tunguska in the north of current Krasnoyarsk region.
Most scientists believe it was caused by a massive meteorite, an asteroid or even a comet although the failure to find fragments from the impact created a mystery that has spawned sometimes endless theories.
The few people closest to the supposed impact area of the Tunguska meteorite were the indigenous Evenki hunters.
Assuming the crater was caused by an impact from space, the body estimated as being of up 70 metres in diameter caused a seismic wave and lit the sky above Siberia for several days.
The sound of its impact was heard about a thousand kilometres away and the overall effect knocked people and livestock off their feet.
However, some theories suggest that there was in fact no rock, because no fragments of it were ever found. One of such theories looks at the possible escape of methane gas from the ground.
The incident remains a source of multiple wilder hypotheses, ranging from an encounter with a black hole, a landing of a UFO or experiments by the celebrated physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla thousands of kilometres away in New York.
The event still tickles the imagination of Russians and is a tourist attraction for those bold enough to make it to the Podkamennaya Tunguska area.
Black and white early photos taken around the supposed impact area show fallen taiga, which the first explorers measured to spread out from the epicentre for up to 30 kilometres.
The remoteness of the swampy Tunguska area, and the fact that Russia was enveloped in several wars and the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 20th century, meant that only a limited number of people managed to travel there.
The first scientist who ventured to look for the meteorite was mineralogist Leonid Kulik, who made several expeditions, starting in 1927, scavenging for metal remains over hundreds of kilometres in extreme conditions precipitated by lack of money and constant illnesses in the team.
Despite digging and draining scores of apparent craters, nothing resembling a meteorite was recovered.
NASA plans mission to Jupiter moon Europa to look for signs of life
By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Friday, February 15, 2013 15:41 EST
$2bn project, yet to get funding approval, would look for life on Europa, which has vast ice-covered oceans of water
Nasa scientists have drawn up plans for a mission that could look for life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is covered in vast oceans of water under a thick layer of ice.
The Europa Clipper would be the first dedicated mission to the waterworld moon, if it gets approval for funding from Nasa. The project is set to cost $2bn.
“On Earth, everywhere where there’s liquid water, we find life,” said Robert Pappalardo, a senior research scientist at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, who led the design of the Europa Clipper.
“The search for life in our solar system somewhat equates to the search for liquid water. When we ask the question where are the water worlds, we have to look to the outer solar system because there are oceans beneath the icy shells of the moons.”
Jupiter’s biggest moons such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa are too far from the sun to gain much warmth from it, but have liquid oceans beneath their blankets of ice because the moons are squeezed and warmed up as they orbit the planet.
“We generally focus down on Europa as the most promising in terms of potential habitability because of its relatively thick ice shell, an ocean that is in contact with rock below, and that it’s probably geologically active today,” Pappalardo said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
In addition, because Europa is bombarded by extreme levels of radiation, the moon is likely to be covered in oxidants at its surface. These molecules are created when water is ripped apart by energetic radiation and could be used by lifeforms as a type of fuel.
For several years scientists have been considering plans for a spacecraft that could orbit Europa, but this turned out to be too expensive for Nasa’s budgets. Over the past year Pappalardo has worked with colleagues at the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins University to come up with the Europa Clipper.
The spacecraft would orbit Jupiter and make several flybys of Europa, in the same way that the successful Cassini probe did for Saturn’s moon Titan.
“That way we can get effectively global coverage of Europa – not quite as good as an orbiter but not bad for half the cost . We have a validated cost of $2bn over the lifetime of the mission, excluding the launch,” Pappalardo said.
A probe could be readied in time for launch around 2021 and would take between three to six years to arrive at Europa, depending on the rockets used.
Unfortunately for Pappalardo, it seems Nasa’s priority for exploration missions does not extend beyond Mars for now. In December, the space agency announced plans for yet another rover for Mars, to build on the ongoing success of the Curiosity rover which last week drilled its first hole into the planet’s surface to begin an examination of the soil.
Under Nasa’s current timetable for missions, the US will have no probes in the outer solar system after Juno arrives at Jupiter in 2016 and crashes into the planet a year later. Nasa scientists may have a small role in the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (Juice) mission, but that will not reach those moons until around 2030.
“Mars exploration is part of the bigger picture of human exploration,” said Pappalardo. “However, part of Nasa’s mission is to go explore and that should include places that are an extremely high scientific priority. It really is one of the most profound questions we can ask: is there life elsewhere in the solar system?”
Whereas Mars might have been habitable billions of years ago, he said, Europa might be a habitable environment for life today. If it took 50 years before humans ended up sending probes and then landers to Europa, Pappalardo said, “we’re going to look back and say we should have been doing this all along – and that would be tragic”.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Image of Europa via Wikimedia Commons]
Vatican’s chief exorcist thanks the Pope
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 16, 2013 6:09 EST
The Vatican’s chief exorcist has thanked Pope Benedict XVI for opening the way to exorcisms, not only for those possessed by the devil but also those tormented by him.
“Benedict held an audience with exorcists from all over the world and welcomed us with words of great, great encouragement,” Gabriel Amorth, devil fighter for the diocese of Rome for 27 years, said late on Friday in an interview with Italian religious channel TV2000.
“He has continued to encourage us. The Pope has done a lot to revise procedures… and given us powerful prayers that serve to exorcise,” said Amorth.
The praise came after the 85-year-old pontiff said he was resigning on February 28 due to old age. Benedict’s papacy has been hit hard by sex abuse scandals and divisions within the church – both of which Amorth has previously blamed as the work of the devil.
As cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he helped reform the catechism of the Catholic Church to “widen the front in the fight against Satan… not just in cases of the diabolic possession of people but in all cases of disturbances caused by the devil and that’s 90 percent of the cases,” Amorth said.
He said cases of full possession by the devil were rare, but he has seen victims “walk on walls, slither across the floor like a snake”.
Disturbances caused by the devil, however, “have become extremely common”.
“People go to wizards, to fortune-tellers, to those who call themselves exorcists… it’s become a problem, because when someone wants an exorcist, there aren’t very many and they are ill prepared,” he said.
The Association of Exorcists also has its work cut out because “the act of exorcism had been suspended for centuries, and while there is a huge request for exorcists, there are priests and bishops who do not believe in it”.
Vote to name new pope may take time due to rifts in Church
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 15, 2013 11:12 EST
What would appear at first glance to be a cakewalk for a staunch conservative, to follow in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI, will be anything but Vatican experts say.
Of the 117 cardinal electors, 67 were named by the outgoing pontiff, and the other 50 by his beloved predecessor and ideological soulmate John Paul II.
More than half of them are European including 28 Italians, which points strongly to a successor in the same mould as Benedict, who yearned for a rebirth of Christian faith on the Old Continent.
But the arithmetic is misleading, given the water that has flowed under the bridges of the Tiber since the 2005 conclave that elevated the Polish pope’s German protege after just four voting sessions.
The gaffes and scandals that came to characterise Benedict’s papacy, combined with unflattering comparisons between the introverted German and the charismatic Pole, have laid the foundations for divisions and dissent.
Benedict, who took office as the Roman Catholic Church appeared cut adrift, proved unable to quell public relations disasters, came up short in addressing an avalanche of scandals over child sex abuse by priests and made only modest progress in efforts to clean up the Vatican’s murky financial dealings.
But insiders have pointed to the “Vatileaks” scandal, in which the pope’s butler stole documents containing revelations about corruption and mismanagement that turned up in a tell-all book, as the last straw.
More than any of the other crises, Vatileaks underscored the cerebral Benedict’s failure to stamp his authority over the Curia, the Church’s secretive and powerful governing body dominated by feuding Italian clerics.
“The scandals that brought enormous pain to Benedict XVI had the effect of digging up divisions,” Franca Giansoldati wrote in the Rome daily Il Messaggero on Thursday.
A “wave of emotion” over the death of John Paul II speeded Benedict XVI’s election, she said, something that cannot be matched for someone who is simply retiring at the age of 85.
When they gather for the conclave in mid-March, the cardinals will be under pressure to choose a reformer, someone to fix the “central machinery” of the Curia, said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert and staunch supporter of Benedict who writes for the Italian weekly L’Espresso.
“A great majority are in favour of a strong leader with a strong public presence and a capacity to govern,” Magister told AFP, noting that cardinals outside the Curia — most of them bishops in overseas dioceses — “will weigh very heavily in favour of reform”.
The 28 Italian cardinals are not the “compact group” that they once were, he added.
What is more, Benedict reinstated an old rule requiring a two-thirds majority to elect the next pope — or 78 of the 117 possible this time.
South African cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, who is among the handful dubbed “papabile” or possible successors, said the Church was in a state of “profound crisis” and needed a new pope to bring about “spiritual renewal”.
“The determining factor is he must have the wisdom and energy to confront the challenges that await the Church in every corner of the globe,” he told Italian daily La Stampa.
“Church institutions should help evangelisation, not slow it down,” he said. “People, and young people in particular, are waiting for words of truth from the Church.”
Magister, like many Vatican watchers, dismissed the chances of an African or Latin American rising to the top, predicting that the race would come down to Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola, 72, versus Marc Ouellet, the 67-year-old former archbishop of Quebec who heads the influential Congregation of Bishops.
London bookmaker Paddy Power makes Ouellet, described as “good pals” with Benedict, the frontrunner, with Scola as his main contender.
Meanwhile speculation is mounting over how the new pontiff will deal with Benedict’s future status as a former pope living out his years within the Vatican walls after he retires on February 28.
The pope’s decision to take up residency in a disused Vatican convent, which Magister described as “provocative”, sets up an unprecedented situation.
With the Vatican insisting he will be a paragon of discretion and Benedict saying that he will remain “hidden from the world”, others are not so sure.
Also adding to the intrigue was an announcement Thursday that Benedict’s closest confidant Georg Gaenswein will continue as his personal secretary while also overseeing the new pope’s household.
Benedict promoted Gaenswein to prefect of the papal household in December — a move interpreted now as a key part of his plans to resign.
Prominent German theologian Hans Kung warned that Benedict could become a “shadow pope”, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica: “I would have preferred for him to have chosen to retire into meditation and prayer in Bavaria. Contacts and conversations will be inevitable if he stays at the Vatican.”
02/14/2013 05:57 PM
The Last Supper: Germany's Great Church Sell-Off
By Matthias Schulz
Dwindling church attendance and dire financial straits are forcing the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany to sell off church buildings en masse. Some are demolished, while others are turned into restaurants or indoor rock climbing centers.
The crew tasked with demolishing the Holy Family Church in the northern German town of Barmstedt arrived bright and early and began by removing the baptismal font. Next, a bulldozer moved in and knocked down the main church hall and the bell tower. In the space of a just a few hours, this house of worship to the Almighty was reduced to a pile of rubble.
"Very painful," is how Rev. Stefan Langer describes the demolition of this church north of Hamburg. For years, Langer oversaw baptisms, weddings and services here, but now the former church grounds stand nearly empty. The congregation has put the plot of land up for sale, advertising the property as "developable land" in a "prime location," and asking a price of €310,000 ($416,000).
"Upon this rock, I will build my church," Jesus said with confidence. He said nothing, though, about demolishing those churches.
Two millennia later, churches are being forced to make dramatic cuts due to dire financial straits and declining membership. "Between 1990 and 2010 we closed 340 churches, and of those 46 were demolished," says Thomas Begrich, head of finances for the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD), Germany's largest federation of Protestant churches. This, Begrich says, is only the beginning. "It may be necessary to give up an additional 1,000 buildings," he said.
Churches are being demolished throughout Germany. Take, for example, the city of Frankfurt am Main. In the 1950s, when Konrad Adenauer was German chancellor, there were 430,000 Protestants living in the city. Today, that number is 110,000. These declining numbers have forced the Church's regional authorities to close every fourth house of worship.
Art Centers to Dance Halls
In Hamburg, meanwhile, a former Protestant church has ended up in the possession of the Muslim community for the first time, after a former church building in the Horn district of the city was sold in 2005 to a businessman who then sold the property to an Islamic center.
Church members were indignant over the transaction, but the EKD had little choice. If a buyer can't be found and a building is left standing vacant, eventually the only other option is to allow the bulldozers to raze it.
Things are no different for the Catholic Church. There are churches standing empty even in staunchly Catholic Bavaria, and one has even had to close in the famous pilgrimage site of Telgte, near Münster.
The central German town of Börssum, in the state of Lower Saxony, offers a typical example -- the Church of Saint Bernward here is facing demolition. The church is named for Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, who lived from around 960 to 1022 and built defensive towers and forts to protect his followers from attacks by Normans and other non-believers.
Now, though, many of Börssum's own residents could fall into that category. The most recent figures show that only about 5 percent of church members in Börssum attend Sunday services. The laundry list of necessary repairs for the church buiding, meanwhile, has reached a total of €134,500.
There are also many church buildings in Germany that have already been used for other purposes, from art classes to sports courses. There are churches that serve as event locations or offer storage space for companies. St. Maximin's Abbey in Trier now serves as a school gym, while the Sacred Heart Church in Katlenburg houses a school for dance and Pilates.
'It Makes Me Ill'
When a local pastor announces that the time has come for a church to observe its very last supper, the declaration causes many a heavy heart among the congregation's members, who gather in the pews, contrite and often weeping, no one quite daring to strike up a hymn.
Protestant congregations tend to take a simple approach: Collect the Bible, cross and other liturgical items, and the last one out shuts the door -- that's enough to close down and deconsecrate a church.
For Catholics, on the other hand, every house of worship is a holy place and must be officially deconsecrated. Only a bishop or someone delegated by a bishop has the authority to conduct this ritual. With the air thick with incense, the bishop or delegate first reads out an official decree, then rolls up the altar cloth, empties the tabernacle where the host is stored and extinguishes the eternal light.
Rev. Michael Kemper, who conducted one final Corpus Christi mass in his Duisburg church, says it still pains him to remember walking beneath the altar canopy in his pale choir robe, past rows of bitter souls. "The closing of these churches makes me ill," he said.
That it is happening, though, is not much of a surprise. For 2,000 years, Christianity has lived and thrived on the fervor of its missionaries, but there are few people these days who want to hear that message. "Just 13 percent of children born today will be baptized as Protestants," says Thomas Höflich, a church superintendent in Hanover, in explaining the Church's tough downsizing decisions.
A Little Piece of Home
The situation for Catholic churches is particularly bad in the Ruhr region of western Germany and in northern Germany, places that saw an influx of refugees from the former German lands of Silesia and East Prussia after the Second World War. The church established small "branches" throughout these areas, so that there was always a confessional for parishioners within walking distance.
But now these small houses of worship, often built in an unappealing modern style, are at very high risk of being demolished. In the Diocese of Hildesheim, one out of every two churches is on the endangered list, while in the Diocese of Essen, 83 churches are slated for demolition and another 13 have already been torn down. The situation is the worst in Wilhelmshaven, where six out of nine Catholic churches are slated to be destroyed.
There are certainly people in Germany -- including historic preservation specialists, cultural groups, and city planners -- who are resistant to this destruction of churches. For many Germans, these places of Sunday worship are a familiar part of the urban backdrop. As theologian Margot Kässmann puts it, churches are "prayer-filled spaces" and each one that is torn down amounts to the loss of a little piece of home.
But when church officials explain that there's little point in heating a church that has no thermal insulation and high-arched ceilings every Sunday for just 10 churchgoers, these critics of closing churches are also left at a loss for what to say.
And so the demolition continues. In the eastern part of the country, more than 200 village churches are gradually crumbling. In the city of Wiesbaden, even a church that was listed for historic preservation was recently torn down.
Deals Found Online
But every cloud has its silver lining, and in this case there's the opportunity for hard-up congregations to turn no longer needed items such as collection boxes and wooden altars into cash through new websites dedicated specifically for this purpose, such as "Kircheninventar-verkauf.de."
Congregations can even sell the church buildings themselves online. The Archdiocese of Berlin is active on eBay, where it is offering for sale "a church in a popular residential area" in the nearby city of Brandenburg.
Yet many of these properties do not find a buyer. Most churches have cold floors and high ceilings of 10 meters (30 feet) or more, and lack kitchen facilities. Even give-away prices often aren't enough of an incentive. The Maria Goretti Chapel in the small northeastern city of Demmin, for example, costs just €20,000, but no one wants to buy it.
A church that has been standing empty for months in the small western German city of Altena provides another example of just how sluggishly these sales move. "Built in 1907 and all natural stone!" chirps realtor Dan Ossenberg-Engels, producing an iron key and opening the building's main door, which creaks as he pushes it.
Blue light filters through the rose windows, illuminating wooden pews and an enormous chandelier. "One prospective buyer wanted to put in a drop ceiling and live here," Ossenberg-Engels relates. Now the realtor is in negotiations with an entrepreneur who wants to convert the building into a music club. The pulpit would certainly serve well as a DJ stand.
Hauled By Truck to Romania
Hip-hop replacing hallelujah -- is that going too far? What is acceptable and what crosses the line into sacrilege?
The Protestant EKD has made its peace with its properties being taken over by groups who take the buildings' former purpose lightly. Still, if given the choice, the Church prefers purposes that preserve the "dignity of the space," such as nursing homes or preschools. The Church is also happy to accept one of its former buildings being put to use as a site for burying cremation urns, or converted into choir practice rooms. In Boostedt in northern Germany, one undertaker even uses a former church to display his coffins.
The Church is even happier if it can find buyers who are fellow Christians, for example, Russian or Serbian Orthodox congregations. One church near Lake Steinhude was even hauled to Romania by truck, to be used by a congregation there.
Such ideal matches, though, are rare. And at the same time, the number of properties up for sale is only increasing. The New Apostolic Church, for example, is also foundering, and has put more than 60 of its properties up for sale online.
These churches have no choice but to make compromises. One funeral chapel in Berlin is now being used as a theater, while the sanctuary of a church in the northern town of Milow houses an ATM. And in the former Church of St. Martin in the city of Bielefeld, patrons relax in lounge chairs and dine on white truffle cream and wasabi dip to the tinkling of background piano music.
For the Catholic Church, this is going too far. Although the church has allowed some of its properties to be turned over for less-than-sacred uses -- a rock climbing facility, for example, with a vitamin bar in the nave and showers in the former sacristy -- in most cases, the church takes a stricter approach. If a building is in danger of falling down and no suitable buyer can be found, the Catholic Church prefers to simply tear it down.
Not for Other Religions
One point on which it seems both the Protestant and Catholic Churches can agree is that sects and other religious groups are generally not acceptable as buyers. A handbook issued by the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau says that in order to avoid increasing the "fog of religious diffusion," the sale of church buildings to Muslims or Buddhists, for example, is "not possible."
Where Muslim communities have nonetheless taken over former church buildings, they are generally properties that belonged to unaffiliated churches. In four cases so far, such churches have sold buildings to Muslim congregations. In addition, there's the one former Protestant church in the Horn district of Hamburg that went through an intermediate step before then being bought by a Muslim group.
There's no doubt about it -- the Christian churches' fighting spirit is a thing of the past. The publication Spirit estimates that out of about 45,000 churches in Germany, 15,000 soon will no longer be needed. These buildings are simply too opulent, too empty and too expensive to maintain, something akin to an aging grandmother still living in a mansion when just one room would do.
But all this should not worry pious minds too unduly. The Bible itself offers faith and love, solace and hope, enough to cover even this thoroughly modern real estate problem.
Most relevant is the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:1 -- "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.
Environmental icon Marina Silva establishes new political party in Brazil
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 15, 2013 13:40 EST
Environmental icon and former senator Marina Silva will set up a new party Saturday, one year before Brazil’s presidential elections, an aide said Friday.
Silva, 55, won a surprising 20 million votes — 19 percent of the total — in a first round of voting when she ran for president in 2010.
President Dilma Rousseff, from the leftist Worker’s Party, won the subsequent run-off vote in a race against a right-wing rival.
Silva’s party will push for “a sustainable future and seek to break the monopoly of traditional political parties,” said Pedro Ivo Batista, who is helping set up the new organization.
Batista said the still-unnamed party plans to tap the strength of social networks where Silva is extremely popular.
“We want a new way of conducting politics, bring politics to the people, use the networks of civil society,” he added.
A figurehead of Brazil’s environmental movement, Silva has been a tireless fighter for the protection of the Amazon rainforest.
A member of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Worker’s Party until 2009, Silva served in his cabinet as environment minister for five years from 2003. She later joined the Green Party.
Born into a family of rubber tappers in the northern state of Acre, she was a colleague of Chico Mendes, the environmental pioneer who was assassinated for defending the Amazon environment.
Australia ‘deeply involved’ in Israeli ‘Prisoner X’ case: report
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 15, 2013 23:49 EST
Australian intelligence had detailed knowledge of the case of a Melbourne man thought to have been an Israeli spy well before he died in a Tel Aviv jail in 2010, a report said on Saturday.
“Every day that goes by you see how deeply involved they were,” a senior Israeli official told The Australian newspaper. “It is clear they were in the know long before he died.”
The unnamed source told the paper that Australian officials had suspected the man known as “Prisoner X” of spying for Israel and had interrogated him, adding “they (the Australians) knew many things”.
“Then, when the coffin was returned to Australia, they knew he was not some backpacker who got lost trekking,” the official said.
An Israeli probe into the death in December 2010 of the prisoner identified in Australian media as Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old Australian Jew recruited by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, found he had committed suicide.
But a justice ministry official told Israeli journalists the judge handling the case has demanded a further probe “to examine issues of negligence”.
The fact that the detainee, held in a high security prison under continuous surveillance, managed to hang himself has raised questions and fed conspiracy theories that have been reported by the Israeli and Australian media.
Many questions remain unanswered in the mysterious case and Zygier’s family has not commented since the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broke the story naming him as Prisoner X last week.
Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis, who interviewed Zygier several times in 2010 while working for Australia’s Fairfax Media, said the Melbourne-raised lawyer who moved to Israel in about 2002 had vehemently denied spying.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr said last week he was troubled by Zygier’s death but could do little without a complaint from the family.
Carr, who only became foreign minister in early 2012, had earlier said he had been told there was no record of contact between the prisoner’s family and the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv or the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra.
“So on my advice, the Australian government was not informed of his detention by his family or by anyone else,” he told the ABC.
Carr has since admitted that Canberra was informed in February 2010 — 10 months before Zygier died — that Israel had detained an Australian-Israeli citizen on national security grounds.
He has since ordered a review of Australia’s handling of the case.
Carr said Canberra had sought assurances at the time that the detainee’s legal rights would be respected and that he was not being mistreated.
“At no stage during his detention did the Australian government receive any request from the individual or his family to extend consular support,” he added.
Israeli government 'to compensate family of Prisoner X'
Reports of deal emerge as calls mount for the Mossad and Israeli prison service to be investigated over death in custody
Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv and Peter Beaumont
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 18.50 GMT
The Israeli government has reportedly offered to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation to the family of "Prisoner X" – an agent of the Mossad with Australian and Israeli citizenship who took his own life while secretly imprisoned for undisclosed "grave charges".
An unnamed source was quoted in the Haaretz newspaper claiming a compensation deal was agreed six weeks ago following the conclusion of an official inquiry into the death of Ben Zygier, who was imprisoned in 2010 under a false identity and who killed himself in Unit 15, a "secret prison" within Ayalon jail near Tel Aviv.
Reports of a secret deal with the family follow claims by Zygier's lawyer that he had protested his innocence on the day before his death in a cell that was supposed to have been monitored 24 hours a day.
Its also comes amid mounting calls for the Mossad and the Israeli prison service to face investigation over their alleged negligence in the scandal. A justice ministry official said the judge who had originally handled the case has demanded a further inquiry "to examine issues of negligence".
"If she [the judge] had not found anything suspicious, she would not have transferred the case," said the official, adding that charges would be filed if the investigation finds there was any negligence in monitoring Zygier during his detention.
Neither Zygier's Israeli wife nor his Australian parents have spoken publicly about his detention or his death. His wife is believed to have fled her home in Israel owing to the unrelenting media interest in her late husband. The Prisoner X case, which was thrust into the international spotlight after an Australian documentary named Zygier earlier this week has prompted a furious debate in Israel over both its military censorship regime, which had tried to silence reporting about the case with draconian gagging orders, and the ability of Israel to "disappear" some prisoners.
As Israeli officials moved to say that Zygier was treated fairly, media in the country revealed that the case was not been unique and others suspected of security offences have been subjected to similar treatment. Several papers on Friday carried details of other 'Prisoner Xs', including Mordechai Kedar, a military intelligence officer who murdered a collaborator, KGB spies Marcus Klingberg and Shabtai Kalmanovich and Nahum Manbar.
According to one unnamed source familiar with the Zygier case who spoke the YNet website: "When an Israeli is detained for security offences, a process begins, but no one knows how it will end. He disappears into interrogation rooms, and no one knows where he is. They do it using two tools: A gag order and an injunction that prevents the detainee from meeting with an attorney.
"In this manner, the detainee is interrogated without being aware of his rights and without meeting anyone. The entire system is recruited to make him disappear."
Although it has not be revealed what crime Zygier was charged with, details about his life and the case have emerged in recent days, including a claim that he had been one of several Israelis with Australian passports who had worked for business exporting telecommunication equipment from Italy to Iran that was a cover for an espionage operation.
It has also been alleged that the Australian intelligence service Asio – which was already investigating the misuse of several Australian passports Zygier had acquired – believed he was about to disclose information about operations by the Mossad.
Zygier is known to have operated under several monikers, including Ben Alon. It was under this name that he visited Iran, Syria and Lebanon. The Age newspaper has also listed Benjamin Burrows as a name Zygier adopted while studying for an MBA at Monash University in Melbourne.
The latest claims came as Avigdor Feldman, a prominent human rights lawyer in Israel who visited Zygier in the days before his death to offer advice on the plea bargain he was negotiating, voiced his doubts over the official verdict of suicide.
Feldman told ABC: "I was impressed by a person thinking of his future and the decision he was about to make. I met someone who was definitely apprehensive, but with the rational apprehension of a person in his situation. The end of the affair is something that needs to be investigated."
Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei denies wanting to develop nuclear weapons
Supreme leader warns that no state has right to stop Tehran building nuclear arms if it chose to do so
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 16 February 2013 11.09 GMT
Iran's supreme leader has said the Islamic republic is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons but warned that no world power could stop the regime from building them if it chose to do so.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that his country backs the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"We believe that nuclear weapons must be eliminated. We don't want to build atomic weapons. But if we didn't believe so and intended to possess nuclear weapons, no power could stop us," Khamenei said in comments posted on his website, khamenei.ir.
The US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany are due to meet Iran for talks in Kazakhstan on 26 February to tackle a decade-old row that has already produced four rounds of UN sanctions against Iran.
Separate talks between Iran and the UN nuclear watchdog agency this week failed to produce a deal on reviving an investigation into Iranian research that could be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Tehran's leaders have remained defiant against six UN security council resolutions calling on them to halt enrichment of uranium and they have refused to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency over their nuclear programme.
Iran recently said it had begun installing a new generation of centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, a move that will allow it to vastly increase its pace of uranium enrichment in defiance of UN calls to halt such activities.
February 15, 2013
U.S. Military Faces Fire as It Pulls Out of Afghanistan
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
STRONG POINT HAJI RAHMUDDIN II, Afghanistan — When the last American soldiers to occupy this squat, lonely outpost in southern Afghanistan pulled out this week, they left the same way earlier units had arrived: ready for a fight.
They were leaving this violent patch of land outside Kandahar, the south’s main city, just as Taliban fighters were filtering back in from winter havens in Pakistan. It was, as First Sgt. Jason Pitman, 35, bluntly put it, “no time to get stupid.”
The Americans knew they would be most vulnerable in their final hours after taking down their surveillance and early-warning systems. The Taliban knew it, too, and intelligence reports indicated that they had been working with sympathetic villagers to strike at the departing soldiers. Two days earlier, the militants made a test run against the outpost, taking the rare step of directly engaging it in a firefight, albeit a brief one, soon after the first radio antennas came down.
On the same day that President Obama announced that roughly half of the American troops still in in Afghanistan would withdraw this year, and that Afghan forces would begin taking the lead in the war, the smaller-scale departure from the Haji Rahmuddin II outpost was an uncelebrated milestone.
But it pointed at a harsh reality of the process: that some of the withdrawal will happen under fire in areas of the Taliban heartland where the idea of Afghan-led security remains an abstraction. With the start of the annual fighting season just weeks away, some of the hardest-won gains of the war are at risk of being lost.
In the years since the Obama administration’s additional tens of thousands of American soldiers and their Afghan allies pushed into the grape fields, pomegranate orchards and opium poppy fields of southern Afghanistan, some islands of relative calm have been cleared.
But even though this corner of Kandahar Province — the Zhare district — was also a focus of the troop increase, it is far from calm. And it is not unique: many areas in the south and east where troop pullouts are under way have had only tenuous security gains at best, despite years of hard-fought American-led advances.
The Taliban here have not given up their fight, on ground where Mullah Muhammad Omar and his followers first rose up against a local warlord, in the movement’s genesis. In one telling indication of the level of strife in Zhare, even many Afghans are hesitant to make the hourlong trip from Kandahar to the district’s mud-brick villages, many of which stand semiabandoned after three summers of intense fighting.
“My sons live in Kandahar City, and they do not like to come back here,” said Abdul Malik, an elder from Tieranon, a village in central Zhare. Once you are in the villages, he added, “anything can happen.”
The American withdrawal is picking up pace regardless, and American commanders have begun to cede even the most contested of ground to Afghan forces.
There are still places “that the Taliban can find sanctuary, and we still believe there is an informal network or support structure in place that they can rely on,” said Maj. Thomas W. Casey, the executive officer of the Third Battalion, 41st Infantry, which operates in the eastern and central half of Zhare.
So the Americans are out on patrol alongside Afghan units here almost every day, and running larger operations on a regular basis. Last week, they used a weapon that shoots a line of explosives and is intended to clear mined roads to knock down roughly 600 yards of trees that could provide cover for Taliban scouts and attackers.
On Thursday, they demolished a hill that the Taliban had used as a fighting position. Three huge explosions — 100 pounds of high explosives were used in each of the last two, which could be felt over a mile away — reduced the hill to dust and dirt. The Americans on the mission outnumbered Afghan soldiers nearly three to one.
There are some things the Americans have to do solo because the Afghans cannot do them, nor will they be able to anytime soon, commanders say. One example is using high-tech surveillance — blimps, drones, cameras mounted on towers at every base — to help spot militants before they attack, and to direct airstrikes against them. They have launched numerous such attacks in the past month alone.
The Afghans send out regular patrols on their own, and conduct a growing number of small, independent operations. Their fighting ability is getting close to where it needs to be, but the crucial back end of the army — the logistics and supply teams that get bullets, fuel, food and water to where they need to be — is woefully unready, American and even some Afghan officers say.
The Afghan brigade based here, for instance, nearly ran out of fuel this week. It was down to a few hours’ worth when a supply came through after some behind-the-scenes prodding from coalition officers up the chain of command.
But with fewer American troops here — the force level in Zhare and the neighboring district of Maiwand is down from a brigade of roughly 4,500 soldiers to two battalions totaling about 1,500 — Afghan forces have to fill the holes.
“There’s no white space in Zhare — white space being the area that no one owns or controls,” Major Casey said. If an area is not occupied by American or Afghan forces, “it’s occupied by the Taliban. It’s red space.”
Unless the Afghans can hold what the Americans give up, he said, “more space is going to turn red.”
That is now the case in the villages that surround Strong Point Haji Rahmuddin II. As recently as September, the outpost was home to a company of roughly 120 American soldiers, along with a few dozen Afghan troopers.
By January, its American force was down to a single understaffed platoon. Between watching from their four guard towers, running patrols, starting to break down the base and taking care of basic human necessities — eating, bathing and sleeping — the platoon was stretched thin.
They did manage to find a few more minutes in each day about two weeks ago — after the showers were trucked away and not replaced. Hot food went next, and chow time became whenever rations could be grabbed. The soldiers here still manage to joke about it. Then the radio antennas were taken down. The brief Taliban attack followed, after which the battalion dedicated a single balloon camera to keeping watch around the outpost’s perimeter day and night, Major Casey said.
The Afghan force at the base, now down to 16 soldiers, watched warily, telling the Americans that they had to stay. The morning of the Americans’ departure, the Afghan commander, Lt. Muhammad Mohsen, said in an interview that he believed they would come back. If not, he said grimly, the villagers would soon want them back.
“We’ll have the freedom to do what we want,” Lieutenant Mohsen said. Those villagers who desired peace would get it. Those who did not, “maybe we can destroy their homes.”
The Americans brought down their towering surveillance camera, one of the single biggest advantages for the defenders. At that point, security became “a huge concern,” Major Casey said. “We focused pretty much all our assets we had on watching that.”
They had to watch a few hours longer than planned. Lieutenant Mohsen had left only three soldiers at the base, not even enough to put one man in each of the five towers he now controlled. The Americans sat for two hours past their appointed departure time waiting for him and the rest of his men to return.
In the end, the Americans managed to vacate the outpost having faced just the one firefight — a relief after preparing for days for an attack.
But Major Casey and other commanders said they expected the Taliban to learn from what they had just seen.
The platoon that departed Haji Rahmuddin II will also be returning on a regular basis to work with the Afghan forces based there. The Americans would keep watching from the sky, as well.
“The last thing we want,” Major Casey said, is “the Taliban successfully overcoming a strong point after we’ve left. That’s almost as bad as them getting ready to attack us as we’re leaving.”
Bryan Denton contributed reporting.
February 15, 2013
Syrian Opposition Group Is Open to Talks, With Conditions
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s main opposition body on Friday formally endorsed an initiative to pursue a political solution through talks with members of the Syrian government — provided that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and security and military leaders involved in his bloody crackdown are excluded.
The group’s president, Moaz al-Khatib, had faced intense criticism from fellow opposition members after proposing the talks, a departure from the opposition’s longstanding refusal to negotiate with the government until after Mr. Assad steps down or is removed. The opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, made the announcement after its 12-member politburo met in Cairo overnight.
But challenges remain: the Syrian government has said it is open to talks to end the conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people, but rejects setting Mr. Assad’s removal as a precondition, as does Russia, its most powerful backer. And it is unclear where talks would be held. The government insists they must be in Syria; Mr. Khatib responded by saying they were welcome to meet in rebel-held areas, an invitation officials are unlikely to accept.
The coalition sought to reassure members of Mr. Assad’s Baath Party and government employees that they would have a place in a future Syria. Winning over such people is one of the key challenges facing the opposition.
“All Syrians will be part of any future political solution, including those currently serving with the state institutions,” the coalition declared in a statement after the meeting, “as long as they did not participate in any crimes committed against other Syrians.”
By contrast, the coalition said Mr. Assad and his security forces are “outside the political process and must be held accountable for their crimes.”
The coalition also issued sharp calls to Mr. Assad’s main allies, Russia and Iran, to back their calls for a political solution with action. Russia has said it is not wedded to keeping Mr. Assad in power; the coalition called on Russia to turn those statements “into practical steps.”
On Friday, Finnish customs officials said they had intercepted a shipping container carrying 9.6 tons of spare parts for tanks on its way from Russia to Syria, The Associated Press reported. Officials said they were investigating the shipment, which may violate a European Union ban on weapons exports to Syria. Many of Syria’s arms come from Russia, a legacy of Syria’s long military relationship with the Soviet Union, and while Russia has said that any Syrian weapons on the battlefield today were delivered long ago, there is widespread suspicion that Russia is still supplying Mr. Assad’s army.
The coalition also called on Iran to “recognize that its support of Bashar Assad is pushing the region towards sectarian conflict, which is not in the interest of anyone.”
On Friday, heavy fighting raged around the northern city of Aleppo after rebel fighters took control of a military base near the main airport. Government soldiers in and near the airport put up a fierce defense to prevent rebels from seizing the airport. Activists reported that 150 rebel and government soldiers had been killed in the past two days.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
Cyprus prepares for presidential elections as bailout threat looms
With Greek debt contagion cutting GDP by 25%, opposition leader Nicos Anastasiades expected to inherit poisoned chalice
Helena Smith in Nicosia
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 19.38 GMT
Cypriots are preparing to vote on Sunday in crucial presidential elections amid rumours of money laundering that could imperil the bailout needed to keep the crisis-hit island's economy afloat.
For the first time since the 1974 Turkish invasion, the vote is about the economy and not the perennial efforts to reunite feuding Greeks and Turks on the isle. It is an election that takes place in an atmosphere of fear, and the uncertainty that has come with the shock of violent change.
From her flower shop in the heart of the divided capital, Nicosia, Avgousta Neophytou has had a front-seat view of that change. "Custom is down by 50%," she said. "This week was an exception because it was Valentine's Day and I did surprisingly well, but usually people walk through those doors and moan about how they have lost work, how their shares have been wiped out, how from being rich, they suddenly feel very poor."
Until last year, Europe's most easterly member seemed insulated from the economic crisis savaging Greece. But, say officials, a tempest took hold when Nicosia, in the name of EU solidarity, stood by debt-stricken Athens, agreeing to participate in a "haircut" that saw the value of privately-held Greek bonds drop by over 70%. Instantly, the island's banks lost 4.5bn euro. "Overnight Cyprus lost 25% of its GDP," said George Sklavos, a senior official at the finance ministry.
Reckless exposure to Greece plunged its banking sector – one of the key pillars of the economy – into crisis and brought the island to the brink of penury.
"When the banks got into trouble it underscored how bad the fiscal situation was and our failure to take necessary measures earlier," the former finance minister Michalis Sarris said.
In a replay of the scenario that has haunted Greece, officials now speak of public coffers running dry. With Nicosia cut out of international markets since May 2011, help is imperative if bankruptcy is to be kept at bay. "At the beginning of June we will face a big debt repayment of €1.6bn and if we are not given financial assistance, it will be a make-or-break situation," said Sklavos.
"It is vital that a rescue programme is agreed with the EU and IMF," he said dismissing concerns that public debt would likely reach 140% of the island's GDP. "We are not asking for a gift but a loan that will be paid back."
The tell-tale signs of crisis are not only in the closed shops that now dot the streets. Soup kitchens have begun to appear as both public and private sector employees have suffered steep salary cuts. In a blow to tourism, hotels, unable to afford heating oil for the winter, have closed. The Cypriot middle class – which grew with the resurgence of the Greek-populated south in the wake of an invasion that saw a third of the island seized by the Turkish army – has also been hit.Many complain they can no longer afford private tuition fees or the gas to run fancy cars. In a society that takes its status symbols seriously, maids – like Porsche Cayennes – have disappeared.
The outgoing president, Demetris Christofias, an unrepentant communist, has been widely blamed for bringing Cyprus to this point. But even those who do not hold him responsible for failing to act earlier, taking unpopular reforms to shore up the economy, express fear. They look at Greece and shudder.
"Yes, I am frightened," said Christos Tombazos, general secretary of the Pancyprian Federation of Labour, the island's biggest trade union. "Unemployment is at 15% when two years ago it was at 5%. I am in contact daily with comrades in Athens and we all know what's happened there. They're one step before fascism," he said, referring to the ascent of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Whoever wins the poll – and it is widely expected to be the conservative opposition DISY leader Nicos Anastasiades – inherits a poisoned chalice.
The island's predicament has not only brought the eurozone crisis back into sharp focus, just when market sentiment was beginning to improve but, once again, has raised fears of the bloc breaking up.
The bleak mood has been exacerbated by a feeling of injustice at the way Cyprus, the fourth country to seek financial aid, has been treated by its fellow EU member states.
German accusations of money laundering have angered many, with Nicosia vehemently denying that the island has become a tax haven for Russian oligarchs. Instead, officials say Cyprus has fallen victim to internal politics in Berlin and vicious in-fighting ahead of general elections in September.
"If you look, you will find Russian money everywhere, Germany, the UK, everywhere," said the foreign minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, pointing to international risk rankings giving the island a better rating than Germany in its ability to crack money-laundering.
"They are welcomed by everyone and definitely their money is not branded as dirty," she said. Hypocrisy is one element of the crisis enveloping Cyprus. Another is the massive reserves of natural resources in the form of oil and gas that Cypriot officials believe lie within the island's territorial waters. "It is a treasure, a gift from nature … and it has to be taken into account by our partners in the eurozone," said Marcoullis. "Whatever loans are given will be paid back fully."
February 15, 2013
In Spain, Graft Inquiry Is Widening
By RAPHAEL MINDER and DOREEN CARVAJAL
MADRID — For 20 years, Luis Bárcenas toiled in obscurity for Spain’s governing Popular Party, working as a bookkeeper and treasurer. These days when he walks the streets of Madrid in his signature chesterfield coat, strangers lash out at him with just one word: “Envelope!”
While Spaniards suffer with the sacrifices of government-imposed austerity, Spain’s top politicians, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, have been accused in a widening scandal of pocketing envelopes of cash sometimes amounting to nearly $35,000 a year for nearly two decades. Mr. Bárcenas is suspected of distributing the illicit payments in an elaborate scheme to finance the party and enrich its leadership.
Having started as a low-level case, the scandal has now reached the very top of the political pyramid, with fresh disclosures emerging almost daily, directly threatening Mr. Rajoy’s government and rattling financial markets. It has fueled public anger among Spaniards — like their southern European counterparts in Greece and Italy — who have seen traditions of institutionalized graft exposed by the downturn in Europe’s economy.
The scandal has also shined an uncomfortable light on how the political parties operate and their clubby relations with a corporate elite in an alliance that stifles competition throughout the economy — to the detriment of the middle and lower classes.
“In Spain, there is a perverse system in the way that political parties are financed,” said Jorge Trías Sagnier, a former conservative lawmaker. “It was public knowledge that there were ‘envelope salaries’ for the parties.”
In an effort to quell the clamor, Mr. Rajoy publicly recently released his tax returns — a first for a prime minister here — and called for a vigorous internal investigation of the party’s finances. But critics charge that Mr. Rajoy showed no interest four years ago in pursuing accusations that party members had amassed wealth beyond official salaries, benefiting from a decade-long property boom and the largess of construction companies that provided cash, luxury Patek Philippe watches, Caribbean vacations and birthday parties in return for no-bid contracts and development rights.
According to a person familiar with the Swiss banks who asked not to be named, the investigation quietly lapsed after the Spanish authorities failed to clarify a request made to their Swiss counterparts to comb bank accounts in search of money held by Mr. Bárcenas.
The request was reactivated only in 2011 by Pablo Ruz, a judge from Spain’s national court, finally revealing last month that Mr. Bárcenas, the former treasurer, had stashed away $29 million in Swiss bank accounts in the name of shell companies.
Mr. Bárcenas resigned as party treasurer four years ago, when he was tied to what appeared to be a mundane graft case in which mayors and other regional politicians from Mr. Rajoy’s party were accused of taking bribes from a conglomerate led by a communications entrepreneur and developer, Francisco Correa, in exchange for no-bid contracts. The current scandal grew out of that, with one shocking disclosure after another.
They have included the publication by Spain’s leading newspaper, El País, of handwritten ledgers that the paper said showed secret payments to Mr. Rajoy and other party members from 1990 to 2008, when Spain’s construction boom ended.
Mr. Bárcenas has denied that the secret ledgers are his, but handwriting experts for Spanish newspapers have confirmed his script. At the time of his resignation, he is believed to have walked out of his party headquarters with nine boxes of documents. Though he remains loyal to his party, the trove has become a source of endless speculation, centered on the looming threat that if Mr. Bárcenas is made to take the fall in any partywide scandal, others may fall with him.
He “was the guy in charge of the money and most probably has an awful lot of secrets in his closet,” said Kenneth A. Dubin, professor of political science at the Carlos III University in Madrid.
Since the ledgers were unearthed, Mr. Trías and others have come forward to denounce a shady system of political financing that allowed parties to deposit anonymous donations in banks at least until 2007, when the practice was banned and individual contributions were limited to 100,000 euros, or about $133,000.
“What I saw is that there were donations that did not get paid into any bank,” Mr. Trías said in an interview in his Madrid law office. “That amounts to irregular accounts.”
Mr. Trías denies receiving “even one cent” of illicit payouts, and said he had urged the party leadership to carry out an internal inquiry of its finances in 2009 but was ignored. Mr. Rajoy and other senior conservative politicians, he claimed, “don’t want to know the reality of what is happening in their party.”
He described Mr. Bárcenas as “a practical man who likes concrete things.” Among those things was art, and his particular love of it has raised suspicions that he used purchases of Spanish artworks to launder illicit contributions. The bookkeeper’s deal-making first came under scrutiny in 2009 when Baltasar Gárzon, an investigative judge who had gained worldwide fame for his pursuit of human rights abuses, picked up the investigation of the conglomerate owned by Francisco Correa.
Within months, Mr. Gárzon used secret recordings made by a junior politician, who acted as whistle-blower, to accuse several regional politicians of accepting bribes from the business group led by Mr. Correa, who presided over a network of companies that organized concerts and political rallies for the Popular Party.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Correa and his associates were also pressuring politicians to lift environmental and other building restrictions on property projects in return for kickbacks, according to Mr. Gárzon. Part of the cash, according to the prosecution’s filings, was then funneled into party electoral campaign funds, putting Mr. Bárcenas at the top of Mr. Gárzon’s list of suspects. Some of the same private donors have surfaced again years later in Mr. Bárcenas’s secret ledgers.
The case, however, proved to be Mr. Gárzon’s own undoing, after he was accused of relying on illegal eavesdropping. Last year, the Supreme Court endorsed the unlawful wiretapping accusations and banned him from the judiciary for 11 years, effectively ending his career in Spain.
Since the disclosures about the $29 million in Swiss bank accounts, Miguel Bajo, a lawyer for Mr. Bárcenas, has offered a variety of explanations: canny business deals with others, profits from selling restored artworks, the sale of real estate. Most recently, Mr. Bárcenas spoke briefly to a Spanish magazine, Interviú, indicating that there were three other investors who also used the same Swiss bank accounts, fanning speculation that they are party members.
Mr. Bajo, whose office declined a request for an interview with Mr. Bárcenas, also has said that the money in the Swiss accounts dates back 25 years, before Mr. Bárcenas was active in the Popular Party.
That was around the time that Mr. Bárcenas briefly made a name for himself in an ascent of Mount Everest. Mr. Bárcenas and his climbing partners boasted about opening a new Spanish route up the world’s highest peak in 1987.
Spanish mountaineering experts, however, almost immediately scoffed at the claim and questioned the group’s ethics, saying they had simply followed an existing Japanese route.
France to return paintings stolen by Nazis to Jewish owners
Move to return paintings stolen by Nazis ends campaign by owners' families, whose claims were validated last year
Associated Press in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 19.02 GMT
France has promised to return seven paintings taken from their Jewish owners during the second world war, part of efforts to give back hundreds of looted art that hangs in the Louvre and other museums.
The works were stolen or sold under duress up to seven decades ago as their owners fled Nazi-occupied Europe. All seven were destined for display in the art gallery Adolf Hitler planned to build in his birthplace of Linz, Austria, according to a catalogue for the proposed museum.
At the end of the war, with Hitler dead and European cities rebuilding, the paintings were unclaimed, and many thousands thought to have been French-owned were later displayed in the country's top museums.
The move to return the paintings ends years of struggle for the owners' families, whose claims were validated by the French government last year.
"This is incredibly rare. It's the largest number of paintings we've been able to give back to Jewish families in over a decade," said Bruno Saunier of the National Museums Agency. Many of the 100,000 possessions looted, stolen or appropriated between 1940-44 in France have been returned to Jewish families, but Saunier said the country had increased its efforts in the past five years to locate the rightful owners of what the French government says are some 2,000 artworks in state institutions. Archiving errors and the challenge of identifying the paintings have made it slow process.
Six of the paintings – among them works by Alessandro Longhi, Sebastiano Ricci and Gaspare Diziani – were owned by Richard Neumann, an Austrian Jew whose ticket out of France was his art collection, which he sold off at a fraction of its value.
It is not clear to whom Neumann sold them, and the route they took to show up in French museums is unclear. They found homes at the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art of Saint-Etienne, the Agen Fine Arts Museum and the Tours Fine Art Museum.
Neumann's grandson, Tom Selldorff, was a young boy in 1930s Vienna when he last saw his grandfather's collection. At 82, the US resident is going to get them back and wants to pass a piece of his Austrian grandfather's heritage down to his children.
"Tom is 82 years old ... So time is important; they need to act quickly," said Muriel de Bastier, arts chief of the Spoliation Victim's Compensation Commission, a French government body that helps families retrieve stolen work.
The other painting, The Halt by Dutch painter Pieter Jansz Van Asch, was stolen by the Gestapo in Prague in 1939 from a Jewish banker, Josef Wiener, who was later deported and died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
After the war, the painting was confused with a work owned by a Frenchman and erroneously sent to Paris, so Wiener's widow's efforts to locate the painting in Germany were fruitless.
For years it hung in the Louvre, until the family tracked it down online in the mid-2000s. After problems identifying the painting were resolved, the thenFrench prime minister François Fillon gave the family the green light to give it back last year.
Other Jewish-owned property was "legally" appropriated by the state. Some 100,000 houses were seized and sold to non-Jews between 1940 and 1944, as the Vichy government copied the Nazi's anti-Semitic policy of "Aryanisation" – of displacing Jews from society. The French state then pocketed the money.
A national exhibit at Paris's Shoah Memorial confronts the issue for the first time, tracing the 1941 creation of a commission that enforced the seizures, often with the help of volunteers called "administrators". They exercised full rights over the property of Jewish families.
All around the country, billboards, posters and classified ads in newspapers appeared, calling on the public to buy the stolen property.
The exhibit features one that reads: "For sale: beautiful bourgeois home", or another in bold writing: "Sale of Jewish property ... belonging to (an) Israelite".
The exhibit's curator, Tal Bruttmann, said this was the only time in history where the state called on the whole nation to take part in antisemitism. "It's a crucial story that has not been told before," he said. The exhibtition runs until 21 September.
02/15/2013 05:27 PM
Surrender or Capture?: Files Shed Light on Fate of Stalin's Son
By Christian Neef
For decades, some have suspected that Yakov Dzhugashvili, the oldest son of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, surrendered to invading German forces instead of being captured. Files in a Russian archive now suggest that the suspicions might be warranted.
It's Wednesday, April 14, 1943, a spring evening in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. A man jumps from a window in Barrack 3 at Special Camp A.
The special camp is an area for prominent prisoners separated from the rest of the prison population. It's 140 meters (460 feet) long and 50 meters wide, sealed off from the main camp by a brick wall. A 2.6-meter high-voltage fence is intended to prevent inmates from escaping.
The man is wearing high boots and soldiers' trousers, and his black hair is uncovered. "Corporal, corporal," he shouts at SS Rottenführer Konrad Hafrich. "Shoot me!"
Hafrich shouts that he should return to the barrack, but the man keeps going. "Don't be a coward," the prisoner yells, as he walks toward the electric fence. "When he grabbed the wire," Hafrich said, "I shot him, as ordered."
It is shortly after 9 p.m. The man at the fence is dead. His body stiffened as he was jumping. The left leg is almost horizontal in the trip wire, and the right leg is bent. The body is left in this position for a considerable amount of time. It's a sensitive case for camp commandant Anton Kaindl, who has notified the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin. When an SS officer and two professors arrive the next day, the dead man is photographed, lifted out of the barbed wire and taken to the camp crematorium.
The coroners examine the body. In their report, they write that a bullet entered the head four centimeters behind the right ear and shattered the skull. But according to their assessment, the victim had already died after being electrocuted by the high-voltage fence. The body is cremated on the spot, and the urn is sent to the Reich Security Main Office along with the investigative report and the death certificate.
Eight days later, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop receives a matter of "secret Reich business" from SS chief Heinrich Himmler. It reads: "Dear Ribbentrop, please find enclosed a report on the fact that prisoner of war Yakov Dzhugashvili, son of Stalin, was shot to death during an attempted escape at Special Camp A in Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg."
Prisoner or Traitor?
For decades after the war ended, it remained unclear exactly how Dzhugashvili, the eldest son of Soviet dictator Joseph Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, had died. Dzhugashvili, a lieutenant in the Red Army, had fallen into German hands in the summer of 1941, but his father had vehemently refused to include him in any prisoner exchanges.
It was only in 1968 that documents turned up at the State Department in Washington that made it possible to reconstruct the prisoner's last few years. They indicate that Stalin's son succumbed to a prison psychosis and conclude that his death was tantamount to a suicide.
But another question has remained unanswered: Did the Germans truly capture Stalin's son during combat in 1941, or did he surrender? Did this officer in the Red Army, of all people, desert to the Germans shortly after the war had begun? And did his father know it and consequently refuse to lift a finger for his son?
Starting in 1940, the military oath of the Red Army read: "Surrendering to the enemy is treason." It was a sentence that sealed the fate of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens. Many who returned safely from German war captivity at the end of the war were executed at home or sent to prison camps for 25 years.
But Russians were not told that Stalin's own son had been in German captivity since one month after the war began. This meant that Yakov Dzhugashvili himself was considered a traitor to his country.
Was he? Even after Stalin's death, there was no mention of his son anywhere. His fate only became an issue when party leader Mikhail Gorbachev had the Moscow archives opened to the public during the perestroika era, although many documents still remained secret.
Dad, the Dictator
To this day, they are still kept at the central archive of the Russian Defense Ministry in Podolsk, south of Moscow. SPIEGEL was recently given access to the Stalin file. A 389-page document tells the story of a young man whose life was spent in the shadow of his overpowering father and ended after only 35 years. They also provide, 70 years after the Battle of Stalingrad, unexpected insights into the family life of a dictator.
Unlike his half-siblings Vasily and Svetlana, Yakov, nicknamed Yasha, born in 1908, was the product of Stalin's first marriage with a Georgian seamstress. The boy grew up essentially without parents. His mother died of typhus when he was eight months old, and Stalin paid hardly any attention to him. Dzhugashvili was entirely correct when he told authorities that his father was a "professional revolutionary."
Yakov was unable to cope with the pressure from his powerful and inconsiderate father. But he was popular among the girls. When he finished high school in 1925, he moved in with Zoya Gunina, a 16-year-old classmate and daughter of an Orthodox priest.
When Stalin found out, he turned it into such a scandal that his 18-year-old son grabbed a pistol in the kitchen of his Kremlin apartment one night and tried to shoot himself in the heart. But the bullet missed his heart, and after spending three months in the hospital, Yakov fled to Leningrad, where he stayed with relatives of his stepmother. But he married Soya.
In April 1928, Stalin wrote to his wife: "Tell Yasha that I think he behaved like a thug and an extortionist, someone with whom I no longer have anything in common and with whom I no longer want a relationship. Let him live where and with whom he wants. J. Stalin."
Although the connection was not actually severed, Stalin was displeased by his son's behavior. Yakov was soon living with another woman, and the couple had a child together.
After finishing school, Yakov attended the workers' faculty, a preparatory institute for the university, and at 23 he enrolled in the Dzerzhinsky Transport Institute. He completed his degree in 1935 and then spent a year working as an engineer in an auto factory in Moscow named after his father before joining the artillery academy of the Red Army.
Becoming an Officer
"I don't know why Yasha became a career officer," his half-sister Svetlana later wrote. "He was a deeply peaceful person -- soft, a little clumsy, very quiet, but inwardly solid and committed. He had nothing in common with his father except the almond-shaped Caucasian eyes. He had no brilliant abilities whatsoever. He was modest, simple and hard-working."
Yakov wasn't like his father, and he desperately tried to escape his influence. He wanted to emerge from the shadow of the forbidding family name and be a patriot, as others did, when it came to the fate of the fatherland. He rejected all offers to give him a special position.
He volunteered for the army in 1937, a choice that was also a way of fleeing from his father. In 1938, he finally married ballerina Yulia Meltzer, a Jew from Odessa. Yakov had met her in a restaurant, and their daughter, Galina, was born the same year. Stalin was also unable to warm to this daughter-in-law. Yakov became a lieutenant in 1940, and the next year, on May 6, 1941, he received a diploma from the artillery academy. He assumed his first official position three days later, as a commander in the 14th Howitzer Regiment of the 14th Tank Division.
The photo in his file shows him wearing the Red Army uniform, with collar patches but no epaulets, as well as a leather strap pulled across his chest and shoulder. His mouth and eyes look soft, and his black hair is combed back. The photo was taken only six weeks before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The war took him by surprise during firing practice near Naro-Fominsk, a town 70 kilometers (44 miles) west of Moscow. His regiment was mobilized and began marching westward in the direction of Minsk, and toward the enemy. He was unable to see his father before he left, but he did telephone him. "Go and fight," Stalin told his son.
Fighting the German Invasion
But what did fighting mean in June 1941? The army was in chaos, and Soviet soldiers were being sent to the front unprepared. In the first three weeks, 1.3 million Red Army soldiers were killed or captured.
Yakov's division was also marching to its doom, and its path can be reconstructed with the help of the files. The political officers' daily reports to the army leadership are full of propaganda messages, and yet they also contain hints of uncertainty and despair.
June 28: The soldiers and commanders are burning to plunge into battle with the fascist cutthroats … However, there are also negative moods: They say the Germans are very experienced, and that it's difficult to fight them … Some 300 men are missing in the mid-level leadership section of the division, 800 noncommissioned officers are missing, 35 percent of the planned trucks are missing, only 24 percent of all tanker trucks are here, and only 53 percent of armored vehicles.
The Russians launched a counteroffensive at 4 a.m. on July 7, but the Germans destroyed half of their tanks, and 200 soldiers died in the flames. Yakov's battery fired at the Germans from a knoll near the edge of the forest, but it soon fell silent as well. In the evening, regiment commander Abalashov was reported missing.
Four days after surviving the firestorm, Yakov and what was left of his unit turned up again. In a note to the division chief, written in pencil, his commanding officer said that Dzhugashvili was "especially brave," recommending him and 50 other men in the division for a medal.
When the Germans captured Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus, on July 9, the Soviet army corps began to retreat. Yakov and his unit were given the task of covering the withdrawal.
The morning of July 14 must have been pure hell for Yakov and his men. The Germans were attacking the town of Yartsevo with 30 aircraft. Russian tanks were exploding, and so were the tanker trucks behind them.
According to the staff reports from that evening, there was no information about the whereabouts of the 14th Howitzer Regiment.
Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin's son, had also disappeared.
Disappearance and Capture
On July 26, brigade commissar Alexei Rumyanzev typed a three-page letter to the political director of the Red Army. The disappearance of Stalin's son had become an important matter. Rumyanzev, knowing that the report would end up on Stalin's desk, insisted that the army had treated the Soviet leader's son very carefully.
Rumyanzev wrote that the army: "had tried from the start to assign Comrade Dzhugashvili to the regiment staff, but that he had stubbornly insisted on being deployed as a battery commander. Comrade Dzhugashvili even asked the commissioner of the regiment to speed up his acceptance into the battery."
The letter describes Yakov's behavior at the front as "impeccable and fearless." When his unit came under bombardment from the fascists, Rumyanzev wrote, the head of the operations division had offered to drive him to a safer area. But Comrade Dzhugashvili reportedly replied: "I will only return with my battery."
On July 21, the division sent a motorcycle unit to the area where it believed Stalin's son was to be found. The men encountered Red Army soldier Popuride, who had managed to escape with Yakov. Rumyanyev's letter reads: "They buried their papers together and put on civilian clothing. When they reached the lakeside, Comrade Dzhugashvili told Popuride to keep going, but that he wanted to stay and rest." The episode Rumyanzev described suggests that Yakov had allowed himself to be taken prisoner.
On July 25, a group of intelligence officers set out to find Yakov once again, but they also returned empty-handed. By then, Yakov was already in German hands.
Dzhugashvili's first interrogation took place on July 18. After the end of the war, the Soviets found the original interrogation report in the archives at the Aviation Ministry in Berlin. The document provides insight into the young officer's mind. Stalin's son was proud and defended the political system in his country, and yet he made no secret of his disappointment in the Soviet army, whose commander-in-chief was his own father:
When they were surrounded, they went into such a panic that everyone scattered in different directions… We had no maps at all. In our unit, everything was slovenly and poorly organized…The division wasn't prepared for the war at all…
Question: How did this affect the leadership?
Dzhugashvili: They were completely worthless because they spent all their time in the field camps. That's all they did for three years. We lost about 70 percent of the tanks.
Question: What exactly are the reasons for your army's poor fitness for action?
Dzhugashvili: The German Stuka bombers, the unwise actions of our leadership, the stupid and idiotic actions … They sent the units into the fire, directly into the fire.
Another segment of the interrogation is noteworthy -- when the Germans discuss the role of the Jews with Yakov.
Dzhugashvili: Based on my personal experience, I can tell you that the Russian people have never shown any sympathy for the Jews… Jews and Gypsies are the same -- they simply don't want to work. In their view, making business deals is the most important thing. The Jew doesn't want to work because he can't.
What Stalin's son said about the Jews reflected popular opinions in the Soviet Union. It just sounded especially disconcerting because his wife, Yulia, was Jewish. When the Germans asked him whether she was to be notified of his capture, Dzhugashvili said: "If you want to do me one favor, then don't do it." Perhaps he had an idea of what was in store for her.
In fact, Stalin had Yulia Dzhugashvili arrested that fall. "Yasha's daughter should stay with you for now," he told his daughter, Svetlana, referring to Yakov's daughter Galina. "His wife is apparently a dishonest person, and we have to look into that."
Disputes about His Fate
In her memoirs, Svetlana Alliluyeva wrote that their father had believed that Yakov, instigated by his wife, had deliberately surrendered to the Germans. "That absurd idea got Yulia Isaakovna several years in prison. First it was Lubyanka, with nightly interrogations, the ice chamber and constant electric light. Then the prison in the city of Engels, and then back to Moscow, to Lefortovo (Prison)."
Stalin remained suspicious when it came to his son. In the winter of 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad, he told Svetlana that the Germans had proposed trading Yakov for a few of their own. "I will not negotiate with them," Svetlana quoted her father as saying.
In his memoirs, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the winner of the Battle of Berlin, describes a walk he took with Stalin, during which he had asked the Soviet leader about Yakov. According to Zhukov, Stalin said nothing for a while and then replied: "Yakov will not escape captivity. The fascists will shoot him."
Zhukov also said that Stalin was pained by his son's fate, but that seems unlikely. When director Mikheil Chiaureli later made the 1949 film "The Fall of Berlin," he tried to portray Yakov Dzhugashvili as a tragic war hero, but Stalin prevented him from doing so. And when Stalin received a telegram from the Soviet military administration in Germany in 1945 that informed him about the search for his son's remains, Stalin didn't even feel the need to respond.
Dzhugashvili's odyssey through the German camps lasted almost two years. From Hammelburg in the Franconia region of Bavaria, he was transferred to Lübeck in northern Germany in the spring of 1942, just as the British had started bombing the city. After that, he was sent east to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The years leading up to his death are well documented. Nevertheless, to this day, many Russians do not believe that Stalin's son was ever in German captivity. Some believe he later fled to Italy, the United States or Canada, while others were convinced that he had gone to Iraq and married into the family of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
His daughter, Galina, who saw her father for the last time when she was three, also believed that the Germans had presented the world with a look-alike and claimed that her father had been killed in an unevenly matched battle in the middle of July 1941. The Germans, she insisted, had merely acquired his papers.
Of course, the documents contradict such claims, but there was a reason why the speculation over how Yakov died never ended: The urn containing the ashes of the man killed in Sachsenhausen arrived in Berlin, but then it mysteriously disappeared -- and, with it, the last traces of Yakov Dzhugashvili.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
February 15, 2013
Texas Senator Goes on Attack and Raises Bipartisan Hackles
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — As the Senate edged toward a divisive filibuster vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, sat silent and satisfied in the corner of the chamber — his voice lost to laryngitis — as he absorbed what he had wrought in his mere seven weeks of Senate service.
Mr. Hagel, a former senator from Mr. Cruz’s own party, was about to be the victim of the first filibuster of a nominee to lead the Pentagon. The blockade was due in no small part to the very junior senator’s relentless pursuit of speeches, financial records or any other documents with Mr. Hagel’s name on them going back at least five years. Some Republicans praised the work of the brash newcomer, but others joined Democrats in saying that Mr. Cruz had gone too far.
Without naming names, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, offered a biting label for the Texan’s accusatory crusade: McCarthyism.
“It was really reminiscent of a different time and place, when you said, ‘I have here in my pocket a speech you made on such and such a date,’ and, of course, nothing was in the pocket,” she said, a reference to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s pursuit of Communists in the 1950s. “It was reminiscent of some bad times.”
In just two months, Mr. Cruz, 42, has made his presence felt in an institution where new arrivals are usually not heard from for months, if not years. Besides suggesting that Mr. Hagel might have received compensation from foreign enemies, he has tangled with the mayor of Chicago, challenged the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat on national television, voted against virtually everything before him — including the confirmation of John Kerry as secretary of state — and raised the hackles of colleagues from both parties.
He could not be more pleased. Washington’s new bad boy feels good.
“I made promises to the people of Texas that I would come to Washington to shake up the status quo,” he said in e-mailed answers to questions, in lieu of speaking. “That is what I intend to do, and it is what I have done in every way possible in the responsibilities that have been granted to me.”
In a body known for comity, Mr. Cruz is taking confrontational Tea Party sensibilities to new heights — or lows, depending on one’s perspective. Wowed conservatives hail him as a hero, but even some Republican colleagues are growing publicly frustrated with a man who has taken the zeal of the prosecutor and applied it to the decorous quarters of the Senate.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that some of the demands Mr. Cruz made of Mr. Hagel were “out of bounds, quite frankly.” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, issued a public rebuke after Mr. Cruz suggested, with no evidence, that Mr. Hagel had accepted honorariums from North Korea.
“All I can say is that the appropriate way to treat Senator Hagel is to be as tough as you want to be, but don’t be disrespectful or malign his character,” Mr. McCain said in an interview.
Democrats were more blunt.
“He basically came out and made the accusation about money from North Korea or money from our enemies, and he just laid out there all of this accusatory verbiage without a shred of evidence,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “In this country we had a terrible experience with innuendo and inference when Joe McCarthy hung out in the United States Senate, and I just think we have to be more careful.”
Mr. Cruz, a Canadian-born lawyer who won an upset primary victory last year, is adamant in his own defense. He said his focus at hearings had been on policy, not personality. With Mr. Hagel, whose nomination is set for a Senate vote the week of Feb. 25, he said his request for financial disclosures were backed by 24 other senators. As for his statement that Mr. Hagel may have received honorariums from nefarious sources, “the suggestions I have made in my arguments have been merely to raise examples for why I believe Senator Hagel’s financial disclosure is so important,” he said.
“Comity does not mean avoiding the truth,” he added. “And it would be wrong to avoid speaking the truth about someone’s record and past policy positions, even if doing so inevitably subjects me to personal criticism from Democrats and the media.”
To the growing core of ardent conservatives in the Senate, Mr. Cruz has offered a jolt of positive energy.
“If you don’t ruffle any feathers, you’re not doing anything right,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who garnered similar attention in his opening weeks in the Senate two years ago.
Mr. Cruz was among the 22 senators who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, among the 34 who voted against raising the debt ceiling, among the 19 who tried to cut off military sales to Egypt, among the 36 who opposed a relief package for the regions hit by Hurricane Sandy, and among the three senators who voted against Mr. Kerry’s confirmation.
“I was compelled to vote no on Senator Kerry’s nomination because of his longstanding less-than-vigorous defense of U.S. national security issues,” said Mr. Cruz, who also questioned the commitment of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel to the armed forces, though both served in Vietnam. Mr. Cruz has no record of military service.
Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, a conservative free-market political action committee that strongly backed Mr. Cruz in his victory last year against the establishment’s favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said the new senator was doing precisely what he had expected. The growing caucus of ardent conservatives — Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul, Marco Rubio of Florida, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Tim Scott of South Carolina — has begun reshaping what it means to be a Republican in the Senate, he said.
“The last thing we need is another status quo senator or congressman who will go along to get along,” said former Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who pumped money into Mr. Cruz’s campaign, then left the Senate to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Last month, Mr. Cruz faced off aggressively with Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York on a Sunday talk show. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago wrote to the chiefs of big banks urging them not to invest in gun manufacturers, Mr. Cruz followed up with letters criticizing the “bullying” of a political “Godfather.”
After she raised the specter of McCarthyism, Ms. McCaskill was asked if she had spoken to Mr. Cruz about her concerns.
“I’m not sure it would do any good,” she said. “Do you?”
February 15, 2013
Child Abuse at Reservation Is Topic for 3 Lawmakers
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Federal officials will hold a town hall meeting on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota this month to discuss the reservation’s child sexual abuse problem, which last year led the federal government to take over the tribe’s social services program.
Residents have complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal prosecutors have done too little to stop child abuse, which officials acknowledge is commonplace on Spirit Lake and has reached epidemic levels, whistle-blowers say. North Dakota’s senators and a representative are expected to attend the meeting.
The federal government took over the tribe’s social services in October, and in one month federal officials said they had investigated more than 100 cases of reported child abuse. More recent figures are not available, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In May 2011, a 9-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were killed on the reservation after being raped and sodomized.
In recent months, residents have protested outside tribal headquarters about the lack of prosecutions of those accused of child abuse, and what they say is a continuing failure to protect Spirit Lake’s children. The reservation’s registered child sex offender list includes the man who plays Santa Claus at tribal events, as well as a brother of Roger Yankton Sr., the tribal chairman.
Mark Little Owl, 34, the official hired by the tribe to oversee its social services, was arrested in December on several charges, including domestic violence, after he punched a woman in the face, the authorities said. He was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor after throwing a child out of a bedroom where the assault was taking place, according to court documents.
The town hall meeting, announced by Senators John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, and Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican, will include an update from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on federal efforts, according to a news release. A date for the meeting has not yet been set.
“We have pressed them not only to use every legal and administrative measure in their jurisdiction to ensure the safety of children on the Spirit Lake Reservation, but also to be transparent and forthcoming with tribal members about what they’re doing,” the lawmakers said in a statement.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs said that among the changes it has made since taking over tribal social services was imposing a rule that required all adults who live with foster children to have their fingerprints taken.
While fingerprinting in such circumstances is already mandated by federal law, it was not being done regularly at Spirit Lake, officials said. Reservation residents say they believe significant numbers of foster children on the reservation have been sexually abused.
February 15, 2013
Kentuckians Don’t Rule Out a Star as a Potential Senator
By TRIP GABRIEL
ASHLAND, Ky. — It would seem like a Republican fantasy: a famous actress, who has been described by her own grandmother as a Hollywood liberal, is floated as a Senate candidate in one of the country’s most conservative states, where she does not even live.
That is how Republican operatives gleefully seized on reports that the movie star Ashley Judd, who campaigned for President Obama, might challenge Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the United States Senate, when he is up for re-election next year.
“Ashley Judd — an Obama-following, radical Hollywood liberal” is how an attack ad put it, produced by a group led by the Republican strategist Karl Rove.
How serious could such a candidacy be? Plenty, it turns out.
“I would actually be surprised if she didn’t run right now,” said Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky. “She’s done everything a serious candidate would do.”
But even as Ms. Judd moved this week from a Republican chew toy to an increasingly likely candidate, Democrats in Kentucky fought publicly over whether she would be a viable challenger in 2014 to Mr. McConnell, or a serious liability.
Some Democratic strategists said her views were too far left of Kentucky voters, warning that she would drag down other Democrats on the state ballot.
“I say we place in peril our control of the State Legislature,” said Dale Emmons, a strategist who advised the last unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Mr. McConnell, in 2008.
He added, “Her Siamese twin will immediately be Barack Obama,” who lost Kentucky by 23 percentage points in November.
Another Kentucky-based consultant, James Cauley, said he began hearing fears from Kentucky officials last month when Ms. Judd attended the Bluegrass Ball in Washington during the inauguration, where she confirmed she was “taking a close look” at a run.
“People started saying, ‘Oh my God, she is serious,’ ” said Mr. Cauley, who managed Mr. Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois. “One state legislator asked me to go to the White House and talk to Barack.”
Mr. Cauley demurred. He and the president are not close.
Ms. Judd, 44, who has starred in “Ruby in Paradise,” “Double Jeopardy” and other movies, spent much of her childhood here in Ashland, in the Rust Belt of eastern Kentucky. Her mother is the country singer Naomi Judd, and Wynonna Judd, another country star, is a half-sister.
She attended the University of Kentucky and regularly returns for home basketball games in Lexington, sometimes leading the crowd in cheers for the Wildcats.
But her primary residence is outside Nashville. She was a Tennessee delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, speaking on behalf of President Obama. She has been outspoken for animal rights and against violence toward women in Africa. More relevant to Kentucky, perhaps, is her opposition to mountaintop-removal coal mining, which many oppose but which no prominent candidate has publicly denounced for fear of losing support in coal country.
Mr. Yarmuth, who is the only Democrat in the state’s Congressional delegation, dismissed concerns that Ms. Judd would be a liability. On the contrary, he said, she would neutralize Mr. McConnell’s fund-raising advantage and energize opposition.
“It will be the No. 1 race in the country without question if she runs,” Mr. Yarmuth said.
He added, “An Ashley Judd race will bring out so many people energized to defeat Mitch, that will help Democrats down-ballot.”
He said Ms. Judd’s trial balloon has included hiring experienced national consultants in Washington and New York to conduct polls and opposition research on herself to identify her vulnerabilities.
Last week, Ms. Judd invited her 159,000 Twitter followers to join a mailing list, a ready-made base, teasing them, “You’ll be the first to know, well, all sorts of things.”
Her spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A campaign professional in Washington whom Ms. Judd has spoken with said she was closely studying a race.
“She’s getting lots of encouragement and is going to take some time to consider running,” said the expert, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Public polling in Kentucky 21 months from the election, therefore imprecise, shows that Mr. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, leads all potential Democratic challengers. But he won re-election to a fifth term in 2008 by one of the narrowest margins of any Senate incumbent in the country, running in a state where registered Democrats are in the majority.
For those reasons, Democrats consider him vulnerable despite his national prestige and power as minority leader.
Even opponents agree, however, that he is one of the toughest campaigners Kentucky has known. Other potential Democratic rivals, such as Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, have remained on the sideline, either out of fear of a costly primary battle or because their sights are fixed on goals like the 2015 governor’s race.
“Leader McConnell will focus on a specific opponent when one files,” Jesse Benton, Mr. McConnell’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Our eventual opponent, whoever that may be, will be treated with respect, but we will run an outstanding campaign and communicate with every Kentuckian to make sure they know Senator McConnell is fighting for them and make sure he earns their vote.”
Other Republicans have not been so courtly; they are following the lead of Mr. Rove’s “super PAC,” American Crossroads, which created a mocking online ad last week. Its narrator declared Ms. Judd “right at home in Tennessee — I mean Kentucky.”
“What you have here is probably the state that has the most distaste for the Obama administration policies, from coal to gun policy to you name it,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist in Louisville. “Enter Ashley Judd, who apparently because she doesn’t live here didn’t get the memo on how unpopular Obama is.”
But those attack lines might not prove as potent as Mr. McConnell’s supporters hope, judging by conversations with voters in here in Ashland. Even discounting a tendency to support a local girl made good, the city of 22,000 on the Ohio River is the embodiment of many Kentucky communities, a onetime Democratic stronghold whose voters feel the national party has drifted too far left.
Still, many residents said Ms. Judd’s character, which they admired, was more important than her politics.
“She may be a little too liberal for me,” said Janice Taylor, a 71-year-old retiree. But neither was she a fan of Mr. McConnell’s.
“I’ve got tired of him,” she said. “He’s always against everything.”
Perry Dalton, 67, who retired from the AK Steel plant in Ashland, said he was a Republican but liked Ms. Judd because she was not a typical politician.
“I know she wants to come back to help her state, her community, just from her heart,” said Mr. Dalton, holding the hand of a granddaughter before a ride on an electric indoor train at the Town Center mall. “I know she’s more liberal than me. But honesty is more important to me than anything.”
Joan Christian, 42, a hospital technician, said she previously voted for Mr. McConnell but would not rule out Ms. Judd even because of her current residence out of state.
“I think she’s as qualified as anyone,” Ms. Christian said. “She was an educated professional woman before she was an actress.”
February 15, 2013
In His Hometown of Chicago, a Policy Speech by Obama Turns Personal
By JACKIE CALMES
CHICAGO — President Obama came home on Friday for a policy speech that inevitably turned personal: He spoke of teaching law nearby, meeting his wife, Michelle, raising their daughters less than a mile away and then, most recently, watching the first lady return for the funeral of a vivacious teenager gunned down in a park.
Less than two minutes into his remarks at the mostly African-American Hyde Park Academy high school, Mr. Obama paid tribute to 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a girl who had been just a bit older than his daughter Malia, but who now represents Mr. Obama’s private connection to the gun violence that he has only begun to address in his second term.
Ms. Pendleton had attended a nearby high school until she was caught in what the police say was gang gunfire just days after she had marched in the president’s second inaugural parade. In the audience here were her parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton Sr., the latest involuntary activists for gun safety. On Tuesday, they sat with Mrs. Obama in the House gallery for Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address. When the president recognized them here on Friday, there was awkward applause, as if people were unsure whether losing a child was reason to clap.
“Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.”
He spoke of Newtown, Conn., where 20 first graders and 6 of their guardians were massacred two months ago. But as profoundly tragic as their murders were, he said, “last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city, and 65 of those victims were 18 and under. So that’s the equivalent of a Newtown every four months. And that’s precisely why the overwhelming majority of Americans are asking for some common-sense proposals to make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.”
Mr. Obama was met at the airport by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor and the president’s first White House chief of staff. At the school, Mr. Obama’s speech was delayed while they privately talked with 16 students enrolled in a youth antiviolence program — some of them voluntarily and others not, according to officials.
The hometown visit was a risky political balancing act for Mr. Obama. He is under pressure to speak to the rise in gun homicides in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, just as he has comforted towns like Newtown and Aurora, Colo., which have seen mass shootings. “We need him to come here and address this gun violence. It’s terrible. I’ve got kids,” said a cabdriver, Serge Diop, when he learned that a passenger’s destination was the site for the president’s remarks.
Yet for Mr. Obama’s former aide and friend Mr. Emanuel, the murder rate has become a crisis despite a generally positive mayoral record. The president’s stop, with the national news media following him, inevitably stoked attention across the country.
Mr. Obama had come for the third of a three-city swing to promote new antipoverty policy initiatives he announced on Tuesday in his State of the Union address — his “ladders of opportunity” for helping more Americans into the middle class. But the gun issue was inescapable.
Hyde Park Academy is roughly a mile from both Mr. Obama’s house and, in another direction, from the park where Ms. Pendleton was shot in the back. Immediately she became a tragic symbol not only for the city but the nation.
While the impetus for Mr. Obama’s postelection call for legislative action against gun violence was a string of mass murders like Newtown, her death came to represent the urban, often gang-related killings that are more typical of the nation’s homicide statistics. But they mount perhaps one or two at a time, drawing little notice in more affluent communities. At Ms. Pendleton’s funeral, her godfather urged that her death not be politicized, but even he said that she stood for victims of random gun violence nationwide.
Mr. Obama’s visit followed trips to North Carolina and Georgia to promote the antipoverty proposals — among them initiatives to spur manufacturing innovation centers, provide incentives to cities and states to make preschool available to all 4-year-olds and raise the federal minimum wage.
Here he offered new details about an initiative to select 20 communities nationwide as laboratories for better coordinated federal, local, nonprofit and private-sector investments to revitalize long-distressed areas. The communities would be selected over the next several years, administration officials said, from urban and rural applicants that show persistent woes like high joblessness and crime rates, low rates of high school graduation and college attendance and health concerns among residents.
For these so-called Promise Zones, Mr. Obama is seeking tax breaks for those who make capital investments in the zones and for employers who hire unemployed residents. But Congress has not passed similar tax incentives that Mr. Obama proposed in the past two years, testifying to the legislative hurdles for the president’s second-term agenda.
In describing his initiative, Mr. Obama spoke in unusually personal terms, acknowledging that laws alone cannot prevent crime or strengthen families. He said marriage should be encouraged and child support laws changed to get more men working and engaged with their children.
“As the son of a single mom who gave everything she had to raise me, with the help of my grandparents, you know, I turned out O.K.,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, “I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”
February 15, 2013
Rise of Drones in U.S. Drives Efforts to Limit Police Use
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
They can record video images and produce heat maps. They can be used to track fleeing criminals, stranded hikers — or just as easily, political protesters. And for strapped police departments, they are more affordable than helicopters.
Drones are becoming a darling of law enforcement authorities across the country. But they have given rise to fears of government surveillance, in many cases even before they take to the skies. And that has prompted local and state lawmakers from Seattle to Tallahassee to proscribe how they can be used by police or to ground them altogether.
Although surveillance technologies have become ubiquitous in American life, like license plate readers or cameras for catching speeders, drones have evoked unusual discomfort in the public consciousness.
“To me, it’s Big Brother in the sky,” said Dave Norris, a city councilman in Charlottesville, Va., which this month became the first city in the country to restrict the use of drones. “I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial about it, but these drones are coming, and we need to put some safeguards in place so they are not abused.”
In Charlottesville, police officers are prohibited from using in criminal cases any evidence obtained by drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles. Never mind that the city police department does not have a drone, nor has it suggested buying one. The police are not barred from using drones for other efforts, like search and rescue.
Mr. Norris said the advent of new policing technologies poses new policy dilemmas for his city.
Charlottesville permits the police to install cameras temporarily in areas known for drug dealing, but it has rebuffed a police request to install cameras along its downtown shopping corridor. It has also chosen not to install cameras at traffic lights to intercept speeding cars, as is common elsewhere.
“Drones are capable of taking surveillance to a whole new level,” Mr. Norris said.
Last week, the Seattle Police Department agreed to return its two still-unused drones to the manufacturer after Mayor Michael McGinn answered public protests by banning their use. On Thursday, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in Oakland, Calif., listened to the county sheriff’s proposal to use federal money to buy a four-pound drone to help his officers track suspected criminals — and then listened to raucous opposition from the antidrone lobby, including a group that uses the Twitter handle @N.O.M.B.Y., short for Not Over My Back Yard.
This week, members of Congress introduced a bill that would prohibit drones from conducting what it called “targeted surveillance” of individuals and property without a warrant.
A federal law enacted last year paved the way for drones to be used commercially and made it easier for government agencies to obtain them. The Department of Homeland Services offered grants to help local law enforcement buy them. Drone manufacturers began to market small, lightweight devices specifically for policing. Drones are already used to monitor movement on the United States’ borders and by a handful of police departments, and emergency services agencies around the country are just beginning to explore their uses.
The Federal Aviation Administration has received about 80 requests, including some from police and other government agencies, for clearance to fly drones, according to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which seeks to limit their use for police surveillance.
Law enforcement authorities say drones can be a cost-effective technology to help with a host of policing efforts, like locating bombs, finding lost children, monitoring weather and wildlife or assisting rescue workers in natural disasters.
“In this time of austerity, we are always looking for sensible and cost-effective methods to improve public safety,” said Capt. Tom Madigan of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. “We are not looking at military-grade Predator drones. They are not armed.”
For now, drones for civilian use run on relatively small batteries and fly short distances. In principle, various sensors, including cameras, can be attached to them. But there is no consensus in law on how the data collected can be used, shared or stored.
State and local government authorities are trying to fill that void. As they do, they are weighing not only the demands of the police and civil libertarians but also tricky legal questions. The law offers citizens the right to take pictures on the street, for instance, just as it protects citizens from unreasonable search.
State legislatures have come up with measures that seek to permit certain uses, while reassuring citizens against unwanted snooping.
Virginia is furthest along in dealing with the issue. In early February, its state Legislature passed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones in criminal investigations, though it has yet to be reviewed by the governor.
In several states, proposals would require the police to obtain a search warrant before collecting evidence with a drone.
Arizona is among them. So is Montana. The bill’s sponsor there, Senator Matt Rosendale, a Republican, said he had no problems with drones being used for other purposes, like surveying forest fires, but he was especially vexed by the prospect of government surveillance. The manufacturers, he added, were marketing the new technology to government agencies, but neither federal nor local statutes specified how they could be used. “The technology was getting in front of the laws,” Mr. Rosendale said.
An Idaho lawmaker, Chuck Winder, said he did not want to restrict law enforcement with a search warrant requirement. He said he was drafting language that would give law enforcement discretion to evaluate if there was “reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.”
The attention by lawmakers has delighted traditional privacy advocates. “I’ve been working on privacy issues for over a decade and rarely do we see such interest in a privacy threat that’s largely in the future,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “Drones are a concrete and instantly graspable threat to privacy.”
A counterargument has come from an industry group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which downplays fears about wholesale surveillance. The drones for sale for civilian use, it says, are nothing like the armed military grade aircraft used in wars overseas.
“They’re another tool in the law enforcement representative’s tool kit,” said Gretchen West, the group’s executive vice president. “We’re not talking about large aircraft able to surveil a large area.”
The F.A.A. is drafting rules on how drone licenses will be issued. On Thursday, it announced the creation of six sites around the country where drones of various sorts can be tested. Pressed by advocacy groups, it said it would invite public comment on privacy protections in those sites.
The agency estimates that the worldwide drone market could grow to $90 billion in the next decade.
February 15, 2013
As Fisheries Struggle, Debate Heats Up Over How to Help
By JESS BIDGOOD
GLOUCESTER, Mass. — B. G. Brown, a second-generation fisherman who chases cod and haddock from this port city, spent a recent morning rigging up his 31-foot commercial vessel to be manned alone. He had just lost his only crew member to the more lucrative lobster fishery, days after fishery regulators last month approved a 77 percent cut in the amount of cod that can be harvested from the Gulf of Maine waters here.
“It’s kind of tricky setting hooks by yourself,” said Mr. Brown. At 41, he is one of the younger members of the aging cadre that still plumbs these waters for groundfish, but he has reluctantly listed his boat for sale. “I don’t want to give up, and I really want to find a way to try and stay on the water, but I really just don’t see a way at the moment,” he said.
Mr. Brown is one of hundreds of fishermen caught in the net that has tightened around this industry and its seaside communities as the numbers of both fish and boats appear to be at historically low levels. Changes in the ecosystem, lingering effects of decades of overfishing and imperfect fishery management could all be to blame for the crisis, depending on whom you ask.
The situation looked so dire that the Commerce Department declared the Northeastern commercial groundfish fishery a disaster last fall, along with three salmon fisheries in Alaska and Mississippi’s blue crab and oyster fisheries.
That declaration paved the way for Congress to appropriate financial relief to those areas — a stop-and-start process that saw $150 million attached to, then stripped from, the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. Recently, Representative John Tierney, a Democrat of Massachusetts, proposed legislation that would draw aid money from a tax on imported fish.
But the prospect of significant money coming into the community has ignited a debate here over who gets it, dividing the fishermen on the piers, who see it as a lifeline in a time of deep struggle, from city officials who agree, but would also like to spend some of it as a boost to a new shoreline economy.
On a cold winter day, Carolyn Kirk, the mayor of Gloucester, looked over a fallow stretch of the inner harbor where a white sign read “Under Idea Development.” This, she says, could be a research center or the home of an ocean technology company. She hopes businesses like that could help Gloucester maintain its economic identity as a port city, even as the fishing fleet shrinks.
“T-shirts, taffy, not interested,” said Ms. Kirk, alluding to coastal communities like Hampton, N.H., that have built boardwalk economies. “How do we take the working port and put it back to work in a different kind of way?”
To Ms. Kirk, a former management consultant who is running for a fourth two-year term, the disaster money is an opportunity to help the fishermen — but also to diversify the economy, which she thinks could position itself at the center of the marine science and technology sector. That, she hopes, could help the city rebuild its economy as have some Massachusetts mill cities, like Lowell and Worcester, that now host biotech companies and warehouse apartments.
“If we rely on the romance associated with the fishing industry, we will lose the port, we will lose the infrastructure, we will lose our heritage and authenticity,” Ms. Kirk said.
If Congress appropriates the full $150 million, Mayor Kirk thinks some of it should be used for direct aid to the fishing industry, “but then let’s also do some other things,” she said.
“Programs that might attract those other uses that allow you to maintain a smaller fleet, and maintain an infrastructure for that fleet, and sit side by side,” she explained. “My vision is, it’s more comprehensive than just taking care of one fisherman.”
Ms. Kirk is the first to admit that suggesting using any of the money for anything other than direct aid is controversial. “I made my vision and perspective known, and I had a line out the door of fishermen banging on my door, wanting to see me right away,” she said.
One of those fishermen was Paul Vitale. “She’s trying to get money to fix the city — that shouldn’t come out of my pocket,” Mr. Vitale said. “It shouldn’t go to anyone but the fishermen.”
Mr. Vitale and many other fishermen here say the aid offers them a way to hold on until the stocks rebound and the industry readjusts, and is intended to preserve this storied industry and individual livelihoods. A rebuilt infrastructure will not help, some say, if there is no fleet to use it.
Russell Sherman stood at the wheel of his boat, the Lady Jane, as light faded and his crew prepared to dock for the night. He made $19,800 fishing last year, he said, and at 64 is afraid he will go into foreclosure. “People are on the hook for money, and they’re not going to be able to pay it off,” said Mr. Sherman, who is a founding member of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group that supports fishermen and has pushed against deep cuts to the industry. “Desperate situation.”
“This is a harbor, it has a lot of potential, a lot of research potential and stuff, but that shouldn’t come out of our back. We’re going to try the best we can to get as many guys through this. I won’t get through it, but there will be younger fishermen who will,” Mr. Sherman said.
Mr. Brown hopes that aid might allow him to hold on. “I have huge bills on my permits that I had to buy just to stay in it. So whatever money I get from that, maybe it’ll cover those bills, but then the rest of my expenses, just living — and I’m not counting on it being much, usually there’s too many hands in the pie, you know,” he said.
Others hope the money can be used to reshape the industry itself. Chris Duffey, who runs the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange — a seafood auction through which local fish are bought and sold — has watched as commercially successful species like cod and haddock have dwindled. He says the money should be used strategically, to promote the sale of underused yet plentiful species like dogfish and skate, “instead of having Band-Aids to put on people who cry the loudest.”
“Let’s stop crying about the fish that’s gone and start talking about how we can sell the fish that’s here,” Mr. Duffey said.
February 16, 2013After Assault From the Heavens, Russians Search for Clues and Count Blessings
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
CHEBARKUL, Russia — After a brilliant flash illuminated the sky on Friday morning like a second sun, Alyona V. Borchininova and several others in this run-down little town in the Siberian wilderness wandered outside, confused and curious.
They followed the light’s path to the town’s lakefront, where they trudged for about a mile over the open ice until they came to a startling sight: a perfectly round hole, about 20 feet in diameter, its rim glossy with fresh ice that had crusted on top of the snow.
“It was eerie,” Ms. Borchininova, a barmaid, said Saturday. “So we stood there. And then somebody joked, ‘Now the green men will crawl out and say hello.’ ”
Russians are still coming to terms with what NASA scientists say was a 7,000-ton chunk of space rock that hurtled out of the sky at 40,000 miles an hour, exploding over the Ural Mountains, spraying debris for miles around and, amazingly, killing no one.
As the Russian government pursued the scientific mysteries of the exploding meteor, sending divers through the hole and into the inky waters of Lake Chebarkul on Saturday, residents reacted with a kind of giddy relief and humor over their luck at having survived a cosmic near miss.
NASA estimates that when the meteor entered the atmosphere over Alaska, it weighed 7,000 to 10,000 tons and was at least 50 feet in diameter, a size that strikes the Earth about once every hundred years, and that it exploded with the force of 500 kilotons of TNT.
The shock wave injured hundreds of people about 54 miles away in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, most from broken glass; collapsed a wall in a zinc factory; set off car alarms; and sent dishes flying in thousands of apartments. Broken windows exposed people and pipes to the Siberian winter; many residents focused Saturday on boarding windows and draining pipes to preserve heating systems.
If pieces of meteorite reached the surface, as NASA said was likely, they fell largely into the sea of birch and pine trees in this patch of western Siberia, now blanketed in snow.
Lake Chebarkul is one of four sites that the government believes felt a significant impact, the minister of emergency situations, Vladimir Puchkov, told the Interfax news agency.
As the sun rose there on Saturday, the snow crystals sparkling like a million tiny mirrors, steam wafted from the ice crater, apparently related to the work of the divers, but the lake yielded few clues.
Mr. Puchkov later said the divers had found nothing on the lake bed, but had not ruled out meteor shrapnel as the cause of the hole.
“Experts are studying all possible places of impact,” he said. “We have no reports of confirmed discoveries.”
A meteorite fragment could help scientists better apprehend the composition of the meteor, perhaps shedding light on how close it was to descending further before exploding from the heat or to hitting the surface. Such circumstances could have caused vastly more casualties in this rust-belt region of military and industrial towns, a major nuclear research site and waste repository, and other delicate infrastructure.
In Chelyabinsk, the worst-hit town, most who sought medical attention had been released from hospitals by Saturday, the Ministry of Health reported. A total of 1,158 people, including 298 children, sought medical care. Of those, 52 were hospitalized. On Saturday afternoon, 12 adults and 3 children remained in hospitals.
Health officials evacuated to Moscow a woman who had broken two vertebrae after falling down stairs. One man’s finger was cut off by broken glass.
Overshadowing these misfortunes, a fourth-grade teacher in Chelyabinsk, Yulia Karbysheva, was being hailed as a hero for saving 44 children from glass cuts by ordering them to hide under their desks when she saw the flash. Having no idea what it was, she executed a duck-and-cover drill from the cold war era.
Ms. Karbysheva, who remained standing, was seriously lacerated when glass severed a tendon in one of her arms, Interfax reported; not one of her students suffered a cut.
In its 32-second terminal plunge into Siberia, the meteor left a smoke contrail in the sky that twirled in a diabolical, turbulent wake. Some witnesses described an unbearably bright light, and the feeling of heat on their exposed faces.
Tatyana N. Vasiliyeva, a retired accountant who was walking with her husband on the lakeshore here Friday morning, said she had looked up to see “a star getting brighter, like the sun.”
“It was a fiery star falling right on me,” she said. “And so I thought I should just close my eyes now.”
But on Saturday, she was back at the shore, giggly and disappointed that the police would not let her near the ice hole.
Other Russians found different meanings in the event.
A hawkish deputy prime minister, Dmitri O. Rogozin, suggested that the world’s leading scientists develop a missile system to deflect asteroids from Earth. “Today neither the United States nor Russia has the capability to shoot down such an object,” he warned, according to Interfax.
In the Church of the Transfiguration in Chebarkul, on a hill overlooking the lake, Deacon Sergiy was in mid-service on Friday, having just closed the doors in a wall of icons symbolizing the entombment of Jesus in the holy sepulcher and the imminence of the Resurrection. Just then, a bright light spilled in through every window.
“It was like a new sun was born,” he said. “This all gives us reason to think. Is the purpose of our life just to raise a family and die, or is it to live eternally? It was a reason for people on earth to look up, to look up at God.”
He called the flash more significant than earlier signs he had noticed, like the time a white dove alighted on the church belfry, or when a cloud appeared above the church in the form of a cross.
Out on the lake, an ice fisherman, who gave his name only as Dmitri, shrugged off the event. “A meteor fell,” he said. “So what? Who knows what can fall out of the sky? It didn’t hit anybody. That is the important thing,”
***********Meteorite 'could have devastated northern UK'
Slight difference in time at which meteorite entered atmosphere could have resulted in widespread damage, say astronomers
Robin McKie, science editor, in Boston
The Observer, Saturday 16 February 2013 22.26 GMT
The meteorite that caused devastation in the Urals on Friday could have struck Britain if it had entered the atmosphere at only a slightly different time of day, astronomers revealed yesterday.
The region around Chelyabinsk hit by the meteorite impact is 55 degrees north, the same latitude as northern England. Had the meteorite's timing been only few hours different, it could have caused widespread damage in the British Isles, astronomers at the University of Hawaii said yesterday.
If a larger object, such as asteroid 2012 DA14 which grazed Earth later that day, had hit the planet, it would have obliterated any city it struck, they added.
These events have led several teams of scientists to propose schemes aimed at pinpointing asteroids or meteorites that could strike Earth and devastate regions. One is to be built by Hawaii University and is known as Atlas: Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System. It will consist of a series of eight telescopes, each fitted with powerful cameras, that would have sensitivity akin to detecting a match flame in New York City when viewed from San Francisco.
Professor John Tonry of Hawaii University said Atlas would give warnings of between one to three weeks of incoming meteorites. "That is enough time to evacuate the area of people, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts," he said.
News of the plans came as Russia revealed it was sending more than 9,000 workers to the region around Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains where Friday's meteorite crashed. President Vladimir Putin ordered the operation after it was revealed that around 1,200 people – including 200 children – were injured in the blast. Most are thought to have suffered cuts and lacerations from shattered glass. More than 50 individuals were still in hospital on Saturday night.
**************Scientists unveil new detectors in race to save Earth from next asteroid
Science editor Robin McKie reports from Boston as experts create warning systems to minimise risk from impact
Robin McKie in Boston
The Observer, Saturday 16 February 2013 22.48 GMT
The extraterrestrial double whammy that Earth only partially avoided on Friday has triggered an immediate response from astronomers. Several have announced plans to create state-of-the-art detection systems to give warning of incoming asteroids and meteoroids. These include projects backed by Nasa as well as proposals put forward by private space contractors.
In each case, scientists want to develop techniques that can pinpoint relatively small but still potentially devastating meteoroids, comets and asteroids that threaten to strike Earth. These would give notice of impact of several days or possibly weeks and allow threatened areas to be evacuated.
The announcements of the various plans follow Friday's meteorite crash that caused devastation in Chelyabinsk, Russia. On the same day, a 150ft-diameter asteroid swept to within 17,000 miles of Earth.
The fact that the two events happened together has been dismissed as "a cosmic coincidence" by scientists. Nevertheless, astronomers – many gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston this weekend – have been quick to reassure the public that they have plans to provide better warnings of future impacts.
"The hundreds of people injured in Russia show it is time to take action and no longer be passive about these events," said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the US company Deep Space Industries. His company is preparing to launch a series of small spacecraft later this decade. These are aimed at surveying nearby asteroids to see if they can be mined for metals and ores.
However the fleet could also be used to monitor small, difficult-to-detect objects that threaten to strike Earth. Deep Space Industries – which is based in McLean, Virginia – proposes building 10 spacecraft at a cost of $100m (£65m) over the next four years, though it has not indicated who will fund missions.
The University of Hawaii has proposed a cheaper, simpler system known as Atlas – Advanced Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System – to be constructed with the help of a $5m grant from Nasa. It will consist of a series of eight telescopes, each fitted with powerful cameras, to be built on Hawaiian islands whose clear air makes accurate observations particularly easy.
Astronomer Professor John Tonry, of Hawaii University, said Atlas – which is scheduled to begin operations in 2015 – would have an extremely high sensitivity, which he compared to the detection of a match flame in New York when viewed from San Francisco.
He said Atlas would give a one-week warning for a small asteroid – which he called "a city killer" – and three weeks for a larger "county killer". Tonry added: "That is enough time to evacuate the area, take measures to protect buildings and other infrastructure, and be alert to a tsunami danger generated by ocean impacts."
Astronomers believe they have pinpointed all large asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth. To date, none has been found on a collision course with our planet. However, small asteroids only a few dozen metres across are very difficult to spot but massive enough to cause local devastation.
Had the time of entry of the Chelyabinsk meteorite into the atmosphere varied by only a few hours, its path would have brought it down over much larger population centres in northern England. Hence the pressure from astronomers to develop ways to pinpoint small objects in space.
The announcement of these plans came as Russia revealed it was sending more than 9,000 workers to the region around Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains where Friday's meteorite crashed. President Vladimir Putin ordered the operation after it was revealed that around 1,200 people – including 200 children – were injured in the blast. Most are thought to have suffered cuts and lacerations from shattered glass. More than 50 individuals were still in hospital on Saturday.
Russian officials have estimated that the blast – which was preceded by a huge fireball that streaked across the morning sky on Friday – caused damage of about 1bn roubles, roughly £20m.
Russia's Academy of Sciences said the object that struck Chelyabinsk weighed about 10 tonnes. It was probably part of a larger meteorite that had entered the atmosphere at about 30km per second before breaking up.
The energy it released was comparable with a small nuclear bomb exploding. More than 4,000 windows were blown out by the blast, including many at schools where pupils were in their classrooms. Video footage has shown images of frightened, screaming children pouring out of schools.
A large fragment of the of the meteorite is believed to have crashed into a frozen lake near the town of Chebarkul. However, divers who searched the bottom of the lake reported that they could find no trace of any lumps of meteorite. Russian authorities said the search for the meteorite may have to wait until spring when the snow melts.
The last time the Earth was struck by a large extraterrestrial object was in 1908 when a huge blast – the equivalent of a medium-sized atomic bomb – in the Tungaska in Siberia flattened more than 80 million trees. It is thought a comet more than 100m in diameter was responsible for the devastation.
**********Bay Area stargazers abuzz after spotting meteor overhead
By Arturo Garcia
Saturday, February 16, 2013 17:31 EST
Northern California residents spotted the second meteor over Earth in less than 24 hours Friday night, KGO-TV reported.
This meteor, seen just hours after the one that injured more than 1,200 people after crashing to the ground in Russia, did not cause any damage. Astronomer Gerald McKeegan, who works for the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California, called it a “sporadic meteor,” a relatively harmless event which usually takes place away from populated areas, but can result in as much as 15,000 tons of debris falling to Earth per year. McKeegan also said the two events were not related.
Last night’s sighting was also the second one in the Bay Area in less six months, following reports of a bright fireball streaking through the region in October 2012 and producing “loud booms” as it passed.
One resident filmed the meteor while driving on Interstate 280 and posted the footage on YouTube, writing, “Looked amazing in person! Thought it was a meteorite like Russia for a second.”
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLpTOc1i8_8&feature=player_embedded