03/28/2013 01:12 PM
World from Berlin: Turkish Media Exclusion in Neo-Nazi Trial a 'Global Embarrassment'
A scandal is brewing in Germany over the refusal of a Munich court to provide the Turkish media with reserved seats at an upcoming neo-Nazi murder trial. German editorialists claim bureaucracy is getting in the way of needed transparency and could damage the country's image.
What may be perceived by some as old-fashioned German bureaucracy is threatening this week to grow into a full-scale international scandal. On Monday, Munich's Higher Regional Court released a list of media organizations that would be given reserved seats in the upcoming trial of an alleged neo-Nazi believed to have been involved in the murder of 10 people, mostly of Turkish origin. The list doesn't include a single Turkish media outlet. The court is claiming it provided accreditation on a first-come-first-served basis, but international outrage is growing. Turks in Germany and in Turkey are feeling left in the cold over a series of murders of which their community was the primary target.
The trial of Beate Zschäpe, a suspected member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi terror cell, is expected to be the biggest in the country since the Red Army Faction trial of the mid-1970s. International attention is expected to be considerable, particularly given the xenophobic nature of the crimes and the involvement of right-wing extremists. This week, Turkish journalists and politicians have been demanding a guaranteed presence at the trial. Many are asking why such a small courtroom has been chosen and why an overflow room with live video isn't being set up for journalists.
The chairman of the German parliament's Legal Committee, Siegfried Kauder of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), defended the court's procedures in an interview published on Thursday. "A video transmission into another room would come across like a show trial and a public viewing, and it would violate the human dignity of the accused," he told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. "The judiciary doesn't differentiate between Turkish or non-Turkish. Besides, half the seats have already been reserved for journalists. The court's decision is within the scope of what is permitted and possible."
Compromise in the Works?
But others have called for reserved seats to be opened up for Turkish media. And even the German government has expressed its understanding for the deep Turkish interest in the case. "The hope must be that this media interest is also dealt with sensibly," said government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
On Thursday, there were some signs that a compromise might be in the works. "The Higher Regional Court has promised me it will involve the Turkish media -- whatever that means," Barbara John, the German government's ombudswoman for the NSU victims, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "I hope the problem can be solved." Turkish journalists have not been excluded from the proceedings, but many consider it an affront that not a single one of the 50 reserved seats for the media has been assigned to a representative of the country.
Many had criticized justice officials for not choosing a larger courtroom for the trial, but judge and chief press spokeswoman Margarete Nötzel had dismissed such concerns, saying the hall chosen had been specially remodelled and modernized for the trial, and that it was the biggest courtroom in Bavaria that conformed to the security measures required for such a trial.
On the editorial pages, German newspapers are highly critical of the court's decision not to provide seats to the Turkish media, with several fearing significant damage to Germany's reputation abroad.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"For the coexistence of people in Germany, for the country's political culture, a series of murders like this (perpetrated out of pure xenophobia) has a different significance than the crimes of some jealous husband or violent pederast. These crimes and the profound cynicism of its perpetrators endanger the foundations of a societal pact which dictates that everyone who lives here has the same right to a safe existence, to be protected by the law and to have their human dignity safeguarded."
"Given that, this court has an even greater responsibility than some jury court doing the routine work of the criminal justice system. One of its primary responsibilities is to ensure that the process of truth-finding takes place with the greatest possible openness and transparency. It is incomprehensible to claim that a larger courtroom couldn't have been found in Munich for the trial … indeed, it's a shamefully inadequate excuse. And the argument about security? Bavarian police have successfully secured events that presented a significantly greater threat."
"It is entirely incomprehensible that it wasn't possible to secure even just one guaranteed seat for the Turkish media in the courtroom. It would have been so simple. Who would have objected if the court had reserved four or five of the seats allotted for the media from the get-go to journalists from the country with whom the majority of the victims were associated? Several media organizations have since offered to give their seats to Turkish colleagues. But the fact that the court has not even been willing to accept this compromise, and is instead hiding behind its apparently incontrovertible accreditation process, is demonstrative of a siege mentality that is unbecoming of this trial."
In a special editorial, Celal Özcan, the Berlin-based editor-in-chief of the European edition of Turkish daily Hürriyet, writes in the leftist Die Tageszeitung:
"My newspaper, Hürriyet, called the court repeatedly before the accreditation period, asking to be informed of dates so that we wouldn't miss them. We registered on the first day of accreditation, and now we are told by the press office of the Munich Higher Regional Court that others were faster? How can that be? It is absolutely unacceptable that the Turkish media has been excluded from the courtroom. Many Turks aren't just disappointed -- they are shocked, both in Turkey and in Germany."
"For Turkish people living in Germany, this trial is eminently important, and they feel like it has touched them personally. They want to know the truth. They want to be informed. And Turks will be looking to this trial."
"In the trial against Anders Breivik in Oslo, the court very meticulously considered who would get a seat in the courtroom and which media representatives would have to follow the procedures on video. In Munich, a reasonable and justifiable solution must also be found."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Just imagine if eight businessmen of German origin were to be insidiously murdered over 10 years in Turkey. The police, prosecutors, intelligence services -- all failed miserably over a decade in their effort to solve the murders. Suddenly the suspected perpetrator is detained, and Turkish officials are forced to admit massive failures. Then comes the court case. Neither the German ambassador nor the German media are invited by Turkish justice authorities to get an objective image of the trial. No seat is reserved for them."
"It's not difficult to image the kind of outcry this would create -- at the Chancellery, the Foreign Ministry, the Federal Press Conference (an association of journalists who cover the German parliament) and the German journalists' union. A scandal, impudence, making a mockery out of the families of the victims, they would cry. And their outrage would be correct, too."
"It is obvious that nobody in the stubborn Bavarian justice system has recognized or even understood the international dimensions of this trial. The case opens on April 17, and officials will have until then to prevent a global embarrassment."
-- Daryl Lindsey
03/29/2013 09:11 AM
Imprisoned, Tortured, Killed: Human Trafficking Thrives on Sinai Peninsula
By Nicola Abé in North Sinai
The Sinai Peninsula has become a prison and grave for thousands of African refugees. They are kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured to death even after their families have paid hefty ransoms. But Egypt refuses to act.
Five people fled at night under the cover of heavy wind. Gusts were whipping fiercely against the hut they had been chained in. Their guard seemed to be sleeping, and the storm raged so loudly that they were able to use a rock to smash their chains without waking him. One by one, they slithered on their sides through a gap in the wall and out to freedom. "We wanted to either escape or die," says Zeae, a 27-year-old man from Eritrea.
The five of them were barefoot and had only a few scraps of clothing on their emaciated bodies, which were covered with burns and scars. "We saw lights in the distance," Zeae says. But two of the men were too weak to walk. They stayed behind, lying there in the desert, because the others were too weak to help them. It was hard enough just dragging their own bodies forward.
In the end, two young men and one girl reached the first of the houses they had seen. When a Bedouin opened the door, Zeae says, "I thought it was about to start all over again" -- the beatings, the torture, the rape.
The Sinai Peninsula, which connects Egypt and Israel, has become a place of suffering and death for thousands of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, from Eritrea, Somalia or Sudan. They come in search of a better life in Israel or Europe, but many of them end up kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured. Criminals among the Bedouins living here demand ransom from the victims' families back home. They often torture their prisoners to death. The government in Cairo, meanwhile, seems to ignore these brutal crimes.
Trapped in a Lawless Land
Since the revolution that upended power structures in Egypt, the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula has slipped further out of the country's political control. It has become a lawless region and a hotbed of criminals and terrorists. Groups of young men armed with AK-47s loiter in the streets. The business of human trafficking is booming, and the murder rate has skyrocketed.
"There are no police here," says Sheikh Mohammed, a young, bearded Bedouin leader. Sinai is run by family clans that follow their own rules.
Sheikh Mohammed is one of the Bedouins who reject the brutal trade in refugees. Still, he explains, "I can't free them. No one can interfere in another clan's affairs." Doing so could spark a bloody feud between clans. "I can only help the Africans if they escape on their own," he says.
The morning after their escape found the three Eritreans sitting in a hut on Sheikh Mohammed's property. The Bedouin whose house they first approached brought them here at around 6 a.m., and they were given jackets and blankets. Glowing coals smolder in a metal drum sunk into the sand, and a pan of rice and chicken sits next to it. But the refugees can't eat much. Their bodies are repeatedly racked by tremors, and they often simply bury their heads between their bony knees and cry.
Ransoms without Release
"We had barely anything to eat or drink. And we weren't allowed to sleep. If we did, they burned us," explains Mhretab, 27. "They scorched the skin on our arms or backs with burning plastic, or they burned us directly with lighters." He points to a long scar on his neck. "They hung us from our feet and hit us. If we cried, they called our families and we had to beg them over the phone to pay for us."
The three Eritreans were held against their will in Sinai for over a year. First, they say, human traffickers imprisoned them for months in an underground room. Then, they were moved to the hut in the desert. "There were 22 of us at first," Zeae says. "Ten of us died in the cellar."
They say their families transferred ransoms amounting to about $30,000 (€23,000) per prisoner. But instead of releasing the hostages, the kidnappers passed them on to other human traffickers. "My parents don't have anything else to give," Zeae says. "They sold their land and all their animals. They took up a collection for me at church." In fact, it often happens that entire communities pool their money to pay a refugee's ransom.
Lemlem, an emaciated 15-year-old girl with bloodshot eyes, sits in a corner wearing the giant sweater she was given when she arrived. Zeae explains that Lemlem was raped repeatedly: "They simply came and took her away, any time, whenever they wanted." Lemlem rarely says a word. The only time she does, it's to ask if the reporter could find her a pair of underwear.
The stories of these three refugees are like hundreds of other ones collected by Human Rights Watch. Certain elements come up again and again in the reports -- electric shocks, rape, sleep deprivation and being tortured with burning plastic that is sometimes even inserted in the vagina or anus. Videos taken by a local photographer show refugees with deep flesh wounds crawling with flies and infected, badly swollen limbs.
The New York Times estimates that 7,000 refugees have been abused in this way over the last four years, and that 4,000 of them may have died. These figures are drawn from data provided by aid organizations in Israel, Europe and the United States. Locals often find the dead bodies of African refugees who have simply been dumped in the desert or whose limbs can be seen sticking out of the sand.
In the darkness between the city of el-Arish and the border town of Rafah lies a low building with no electricity. Only a few candles provide light inside, where the room is lined with carpets. A stocky young man in a light-gray quilted jacket sits in one corner. He introduces himself as Mahmoud. He is a human trafficker.
"We keep them here until we have the money from their families," he says.
Just three days ago, he says, he released another group of Africans to people smugglers who will take them over the border into Israel. He has been in this business since 2009. But life here, he says, has gotten more difficult.
At mosques in Sinai, respected local figures such as Sheikh Mohammed decry the behavior of traffickers like Mahmoud, denouncing their crimes against the defenseless as un-Islamic. People no longer greet Mahmoud on the street, and he says he fears for his life.
"But what else am I supposed to do?" Mahmoud asks. "There are no jobs here, there's no way to make money!"
Then he kneels down in a corner to pray.
The ransom for a refugee from sub-Saharan Africa can now run as high as $50,000. And, in the last 20 months, an alarming new trend has developed: Many refugees end up in Israel who didn't actually want to go there. Bedouins from the Rashaida tribe kidnap these people in Sudan, sometimes even abducting them from refugee camps, then hand them over to clans in Sinai. Refugees report that this takes place in cooperation with Sudanese border police.
"As soon as the ransom for one person is paid, they immediately take their next hostage," says Mohammed Bakr, manager of a local NGO in North Sinai. Bakr says the only solution he can see is to inform people while they're still in their home countries about the dangers of trying to escape through Sinai.
Once these refugees are kidnapped in Sinai, they find themselves in a situation that is as hopeless as it is harrowing. Even if they do survive and are eventually released by their captors, they're left to wander in the no man's land near the Israeli border. If they cross the border, they risk being shot. If they make it into Israel, they may be arrested. If the Egyptian police catch them before they cross, they'll be locked up at police stations in Sinai and held in heinous conditions before eventually being deported back to their home countries.
Ignoring International Laws
The Egyptian government refuses to let the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) visit these prisons. It claims that the people being held in them are economic refugees who have no right to asylum because they are in Sinai illegally.
"Egypt is breaking international refugee law," says Mohammed Dairi from the UNHCR's Cairo office. His organization is the body that determines the status of refugees, he says, adding that many of the refugees from Eritrea and Somalia qualify for asylum because they are threatened with persecution and torture in their home countries.
In its ignorance over these crimes against sub-Saharan African refugees, Egypt is breaking its own laws, which expressly forbid human trafficking. Smugglers of tomatoes or potatoes are regularly arrested in Egypt, yet not a single human trafficker has been prosecuted. The government in Cairo has generally justified its inaction by citing security concerns.
Since August, President Mohammed Morsi's government has been expanding its military presence in Sinai -- but to fight Islamist terrorists rather than free innocent refugees. Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah from the Egypt Independent, an English-language weekly, criticizes her government for its failure to act and its indifferent attitude. "Some tribesmen tell us that security forces are underequipped and can easily be beaten by the military prowess of the traffickers," she wrote in November 2012. "But they also direct us to a more poignant fact speaking to a profound racism: the victims don't matter. They are Africans. They are refugees and migrants." She also points out that there isn't any powerful organization looking out for the refugees' interests.
Traffickers Bribe Border Police
Mohammed Bakr, from the NGO in North Sinai, likewise has serious doubts about his government's willingness to intervene. "They simply don't want to recognize this problem," he says. Bakr is certain the traffickers bribe border police to let them smuggle refugees into Sinai. He believes the police and military know precisely who the traffickers are and where they hide their prisoners. "But they do nothing about it," he says, "even though that's their job."
Still, the flood of refugees entering Sinai has slowed in recent months because of the many new checkpoints that have sprung up as a result of the increased military presence. "Unfortunately, that doesn't solve the problem," says Dairi, from the UNHCR. "The traffickers simply find different routes. We know of refugees who are now being held in Aswan" -- a city in southern Egypt.
It's believed there are around 1,000 African refugees currently being held in captivity in Sinai.
Zeae, Lemlem and Mhretab managed to escape their torturers, but they are still waiting in Sheikh Mohammed's hut in Sinai, their future uncertain. Their hope is that the sheikh will smuggle them to Cairo and turn them over to an aid organization.
"And then I want to go to Europe," Mhretab says. "I want to work very hard and pay my family back all the money."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
March 28, 2013
U.N. Approves New Force to Pursue Congo’s Rebels
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations Security Council authorized a new “intervention brigade” for the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday with an unprecedented mandate to take military action against rebel groups to help bring peace to the eastern portion of the country.
The resolution, which the Council adopted unanimously, gives the brigade a mandate to carry out offensive operations alone or with Congolese Army troops to neutralize and disarm militant groups. The intervention brigade will be the first such unit created within a traditional United Nations peacekeeping force.
But the resolution states clearly that it will be established for one year “on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping.”
The resolution, sponsored by France, the United States and Togo, says the “intervention brigade” must have “a clear exit strategy.” It says the Council will determine its continued presence based on its performance and according to whether Congo has made sufficient progress in improving its security sector and creating a Congolese “rapid reaction force” that can take over responsibility for neutralizing armed groups and reducing the threat they pose to civilians and the government’s authority.
A United States deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, said coordination between the military and civilian sides of the United Nations mission remained crucial to ensuring the protection of women and children, and to preventing “the continuation of the horrible streak of sexual violence” in Congo.
The British ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, said he welcomed the resolution’s adoption as an important step toward peace and a time when the women of eastern Congo “no longer need to fear sexual violence and children are protected from the impact of conflict.”
The brigade will be part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, within its troop ceiling of 19,815. The United Nations currently has more than 17,700 peacekeepers and more than 1,400 international police in Congo.
The resolution extends the mission’s mandate until March 31, 2014. The brigade’s headquarters will be in the eastern city of Goma. United Nations officials say it will probably include 2,000 to 3,000 troops.
Eastern Congo has been engulfed in fighting since the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias before a Tutsi-led rebel army took power in Rwanda. More than a million Rwandan Hutus fled across the border into Congo, and Rwanda has invaded Congo several times to take action against Hutu militias there.
The exploitation of Congo’s mineral resources continues to exacerbate conflict and instability on the ground.
In late February, the United Nations and 11 leaders from central Africa signed an agreement to try to establish peace in eastern Congo.
The resolution demands that Congo and the 10 other African nations carry out the peace accord “in good faith” and expresses the Council’s intention “to take appropriate measures as necessary” against any party that does not comply with its commitments.
Under the peace deal, the signers pledged not to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring countries or provide any support to armed groups.
The Congolese government pledged to reform its army and police, consolidate its authority in the volatile east and promote reconciliation, tolerance and democratization.
The signers include Rwanda and Uganda, which were accused in a United Nations report last year of helping aid the March 23 Movement rebel group, or M23, which swept through eastern Congo in 2012 and captured Goma in November but pulled out under international pressure. Both countries denied the allegations.
United Nations peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from the M23 rebels, whose movement began in April 2012 when hundreds of troops defected from Congo’s armed forces.
March 28, 2013
Kenyan Officials Advise Against Calling New Election Despite a Vote’s Flaws
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s besieged election commission, accused of bungling the recent presidential vote, fired back in court on Thursday, with its lawyers dismissing the allegations as “reckless, misguided and without regard for the truth” and saying that even if there were a few irregularities here and there, canceling the entire election and calling for a new one would be even worse.
Kenya’s Supreme Court, which was recently overhauled through the passage of a new Constitution, has been asked to play referee in the disputed election, in which Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, was declared the winner this month. Mr. Kenyatta beat Prime Minister Raila Odinga in the first round of voting and averted a runoff, clearing the majority threshold by a wafer-thin margin of less than one-tenth of a percent.
On Thursday, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a lawyer for Kenya’s election chairman, told the court that “in every election, votes get stolen.”
He then played down video images that appeared to show vote rigging, saying they were fraudulent, produced in a notorious, crime-ridden neighborhood of Nairobi. And he warned the Supreme Court that “there would be an enormous constitutional crisis” if the justices deemed the election invalid and called for a new one.
All eyes in Kenya are on the five men and one woman who sit on the Supreme Court, which is now widely considered one of the most professional and trusted public institutions in a country with a long history of corruption.
But that did not stop Mr. Kenyatta, the president-elect, from making a disparaging remark about the justices. On Wednesday, he was filmed at a meeting with political allies, offhandedly saying he was ready to start his job “once some six people decide something or other.”
On Thursday, he apologized via a Facebook message, saying, “My informality may be interpreted as disrespect for the court, and that is not the case.”
Kenyan voters streamed to the polls on March 4 in the first presidential election since 2007. In that contest, Mr. Odinga asserted that the presidency had been stolen from him through electoral fraud, stirring longstanding ethnic grievances and leading to clashes that killed more than 1,000 people.
Since then, Kenya has overhauled some of its public institutions — including the Supreme Court and the election commission — but ethnic identity remains a stubborn undercurrent of political life. Ethnicity has even come up in the choice of lawyers in this landmark election case, as lamented by letters to the editor on Thursday in the newspaper Daily Nation.
Mr. Odinga, the second-place finisher in the election, chose a lawyer from his Luo ethnic group; Mr. Kenyatta put his case in the hands of a lawyer from his Kikuyu ethnic group; William Ruto, Mr. Kenyatta’s running mate, picked a Kalenjin lawyer from his ethnic group; and even the election chairman, Isaack Hassan, selected a fellow Somali-Kenyan to represent him.
“We may need the intervention of psychologists,” said the first letter to the editor.
“It’s a big shame and a pity,” said another.
Mr. Odinga’s lawyers and several nonprofit groups have claimed that there was a conspiracy to pad the vote for Mr. Kenyatta, whose ethnic group has dominated much of politics and economics since Kenya’s independence in 1963. On Wednesday, they presented videotaped evidence that appeared to show that election results certified by the election commission differed from those announced at local tallying centers, giving Mr. Kenyatta an extra edge of several thousand votes, just enough to clear the 50 percent bar and be declared the winner.
“It would be a sad day if these grave irregularities can be ignored,” said George Oraro, Mr. Odinga’s lawyer.
But the election commission then presented a multifanged defense, citing case law from Uganda to India — even mentioning Bush v. Gore from the 2000 election in the United States — and urging the Supreme Court to consider the consequences of nullifying the results.
“Don’t crucify our nascent institutions,” said Lucy Kambuni, a lawyer for the election commission. “I ask you to be consequentialists.”
The Supreme Court basically has three options: uphold Mr. Kenyatta’s win; call for a runoff between Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga; or call for a whole new election.
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a former human rights lawyer who presides from the bench with an iPad, has said that the court will decide by Saturday.
March 28, 2013
Turkey and Israel Feel the Effect as Syria’s Civil War Fuels Tensions at Borders
By SEBNEM ARSU and RICK GLADSTONE
ISTANBUL — Border tensions caused by Syria’s civil war worsened on Thursday, as Turkey threatened to prosecute or deport 130 refugees implicated in a violent protest, and Israel reported rising numbers of injured Syrians seeking medical help on the Israeli side of their disputed boundary.
The tensions, which underscored how the Syrian conflict is threatening the region’s stability, came as international diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict faced new complications. Russia, a major supporter of the Syrian government, suggested that the special Syria envoy of the Arab League and United Nations had lost credibility because the Arab League had sided with the insurgency.
Turkey, like Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrian refugees since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began two years ago. The Turks threatened for the first time to deport a group of refugees after a riot at one of Turkey’s 17 refugee camps on Wednesday, a threat that alarmed the United Nations refugee agency, which said such a move would violate international law.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, said in an interview that a forced return would breach legal protections that prohibit host countries from forcing refugees out.
Turkey changed its stance on Thursday, saying that the refugees would not be deported but had agreed to leave voluntarily after having been told that they would face prosecution if they stayed.
The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, said the group of refugees “wanted to use the right to voluntary return, and left for Syria.”
A local government official in Turkey confirmed this Thursday afternoon, saying, “A deportation is out of question, and we cannot deport them when we do not have the right to do so according to the terms of temporary protected status.”
The 130 Syrians had been identified as residents of the Suleiman Shah camp, in the township of Akcakale in Sanliurfa Province, who had been involved in a riot on Wednesday that damaged the camp’s facilities, including a medical center.
The circumstances behind the riot are in dispute, but it may have started after a fire in a tent that killed a 7-year-old girl and injured her two sisters.
Television images showed dozens of people hurling stones inside and outside the camp, cars with broken windows and damaged laptops inside a press vehicle.
Camp security officers, unable to contain the violence, called in the military police, and images on television showed armored military vehicles moving into the camp. The military police tear-gassed and hosed down the protesters.
The Turkish government said that the protest broke out when a crowd gathered outside the camp demanding entry. With 35,000 refugees, the camp is full, another local government official said, denying that the protest was linked to the fire, which he attributed to faulty electrical wiring.
“It was clearly an act of provocation, which started at the gate, outside the camp, far from where the fire broke out,” the official said.
Unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Israel — which remains in a technical state of war with Syria — has not accepted any Syrian refugees. But it has become increasingly concerned as fighting between Syrian insurgents and loyalists has crept close to the decade-old cease-fire line in the Golan Heights. An Israeli military official said Thursday that it had bolstered medical teams on the frontier because of wounded Syrians seeking aid.
The latest such episode occurred on Wednesday, when several Syrians arrived at the demarcation fence. Israeli Army medical crews attended to most of them on location and returned them to Syria, but two who had suffered severe head wounds were taken to a hospital in Nahariya, in northern Israel.
One of them died soon after, and the military transferred his body back to Syria early Thursday with help from United Nations peacekeepers in the area, according to Haggai Einav, a spokesman for the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. The second remained in serious but stable condition on Thursday after having three operations, Mr. Einav added.
At the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador, enlarged on remarks Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov had made in Moscow, saying that the Arab League was playing a “destructive” role in international attempts to peacefully resolve the Syrian conflict because it had granted Syria’s vacant seat to the main opposition coalition, which seeks to topple Mr. Assad by force.
Mr. Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the Arab League’s action had raised serious questions about the role of Lakhdar Brahimi, the special Syria envoy who represents both the Arab League and United Nations. Mr. Churkin said Mr. Brahimi should distance himself from the Arab League.
A spokesman for Mr. Brahimi said he had no immediate comment. Mr. Brahimi was appointed the joint envoy last August.
“The Arab League has basically taken itself out of the joint effort,” Mr. Churkin said at a news conference, criticizing opposition supporters as concentrating on a military solution while merely “paying lip service” to a political one.
“Now, instead of dialogue, we have a group of people whose legitimacy has been established from outside the country,” Mr. Churkin said. “Their legitimacy does not have any ground in Syria, no elections.”
Mr. Churkin dismissed the opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as “an international traveling thing” and described its work as “chaotic,” with a constant parade of new leaders.
He said Russia still maintained hope for a political settlement, although critics maintain that it has done little to actually push Mr. Assad in that direction.
Mr. Churkin also said the Syrian opposition’s aspiration to take Syria’s seat at the United Nations would probably fail.
“We’ll oppose it very strongly,” he said. “The U.N. is an intergovernmental organization. You simply do not seat opposition groups who have not gone through the process of legitimization.”
Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.
Jerusalem's long Good Friday: tears, prayers and rented crosses
Easter means brisk business on the Via Dolorosa for a Palestinian Muslim with unusual goods for hire
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Friday 29 March 2013
The hushed prayers of Christian pilgrims at dusk are swiftly drowned out by the muezzin's call from nearby mosques, but nothing can disturb the piety of the small group on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City.
In the fading light, they gather around a large wooden cross they have carried along the Via Dolorosa, retracing the steps taken by Jesus nearly 2,000 years ago from the point of his condemnation to the site of his crucifixion. Along the way, they stop at the Stations of the Cross for prayer and recitation of the liturgy.
It is a path followed by thousands of Christian pilgrims to the Holy City every Easter. For Maria Immaculada, among a group of 25 Spanish devotees, it is the pinnacle of her 48 years. "It is very emotional. I have been waiting for this my whole life," she says. "Carrying the cross was very special. It made me want to cry."
For Yosef Kanan, a 25-year-old Palestinian Muslim, it is simply another day for his three-generation family business renting plain wooden crosses to pilgrim groups. On Good Friday, the peak of his year, Kanan greets the first devotees at dawn and will only lock away his 30-plus crosses in a small store off the Via Dolorosa around sunset. "There will be a sea of people," he predicts.
But this year he has seen fewer pilgrim groups in the Old City. "There are not so many from Europe, because of the economic crisis. They don't have the money. And people see what's happening in Syria on the television, and they think the whole region has trouble."
Kanan's oldest cross, made more than 50 years ago, two metres high and worn to a rich dark brown, is brought out of the store only on Good Friday, to be carried by an elderly priest who makes the journey from Portugal to the Holy Land every Easter.
The olive wood crosses are made by craftsmen in the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala, now cut off from Jerusalem by Israel's separation barrier. Kanan's family pays around $220 (£145) for each cross, recouped by charging $20 a hire.
But the business's main income comes from the sale of photographs taken by Kanan and his uncle to pilgrims after their journey across the Old City. "Even though everyone has their iPhones, they still want my pictures because they are very beautiful," he says.
His grandfather started the business "in Jordanian times" – before East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed – taking black and white photographs, hand-developing them in a darkroom in the Old City and delivering them to clients the same evening. "Today, no one has time, everything is done on a computer, everything comes out chik-chak," laments Kanan, using Hebrew slang for "quick" or "on the double".
After 10 years in the business, Kanan knows every inch of the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Grief – and almost every word of the liturgy in several languages. "Sometimes the priest forgets something," he says, "and I can remind him." Along the route, he gently ushers pilgrims to the next station and suggests when it is time for someone else to take a turn at carrying the cross.
The ancient rose-coloured stones and smooth cobbles of the route can be treacherous for elderly or cross-burdened pilgrims. The narrow artery is lined with shops selling a typical Old City mix of spices, sweets, underwear, Chinese-made incense, pottery, jewellery, saucepans and religious memorabilia. T-shirts bearing the insignia of the Israel defence forces are displayed next to those calling for a "Free Palestine". The pilgrim groups jostle with tourists, residents, armed Israeli border police, priests, nuns, ultra-Orthodox Jews and devout Muslims.
The pilgrims come from all over the world. "The Indonesians are the biggest spenders," says Kanan. "The Koreans are the craziest – very emotional, crying, kissing stones and the ground – but they don't give money."
He has no qualms, as a Muslim, servicing a Christian festival. "Just like we do Hajj in Mecca," he says, "the Christians come here. It's the same thing. Everything comes from God."
• This article was amended on 29 March 2013. The original referred to pilgrims "retracing the steps taken by Jesus more than 2,000 years ago".
Turin shroud makes rare appearance on TV amid claims that it is not a forgery
Cloth seen by Catholics as burial shroud of Jesus, and medieval forgery by scientists, to be shown on TV for first time in 30 years
Lizzy Davies in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 March 2013 17.02 GMT
The shroud of Turin is to be shown on television for the first time in 40 years on Easter Saturday as a new claim that the four-metre-long linen cloth dates from ancient times proves its enduring ability to fascinate and perplex.
As what the Vatican described as his parting gift to the Roman Catholic church before he resigned, Benedict XVI signed off on a special 90-minute broadcast of the shroud that will take place from Turin Cathedral and be introduced in a brief preamble by his successor, Pope Francis.
"It will be a message of intense spiritual scope, charged with positivity, which will help hope never to be lost," said the archbishop of Turin, Cesare Nosiglia.
Timed to mark the 40th anniversary of the shroud's last appearance on TV – ordered by Pope Paul VI in 1973 – the unusual programme on Italian state broadcaster Rai comes as the new pope, the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, prepares for his first Easter as head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
It also comes amid new claims that the piece of fabric, which many Catholics believe Jesus was buried in, does indeed date from around his lifetime. Previous tests apparently confirmed the shroud to be a clever medieval forgery.
Giulio Fanti, associate professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at Padua University, claims tests had shown that the cloth, which bears the image of a man's face and body, dates from between 280BC and 220AD.
Fanti claims that the carbon-14 dating used in a landmark study in 1988 was "not statistically reliable". That study claimed that the shroud actually dated from the Middle Ages. But the mystery of the cloth has lingered ever since.
The Vatican does not have a position on its authenticity. When he was still cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the previous pope wrote that the shroud was "a truly mysterious image, which no human artistry was capable of producing".
Fanti's results are detailed in a new book, Il Mistero della Sindone (The Mystery of the Shroud), written by him and journalist Saverio Gaeta.
Although it is rarely displayed, Catholics and historians keen for a closer look at the shroud will be able to study it at their leisure with the help of a new app launched on Friday. Users of smartphones and tablets will be able to download the multilingual application for free and examine detailed images of the shroud courtesy of high-definition technology.
On Thursday the Catholic church's first Latin American leader celebrates the Holy Thursday mass in a youth detention centre on the outskirts of Rome, where he will wash the feet of a dozen prisoners, two of whom were women.
On Friday he will lead a Good Friday procession from the Colosseum marking the stations of the cross and on Easter Sunday he will celebrate mass in St Peter's square and give the traditional Urbi et Orbi – "to the city [of Rome] and to the world"– blessing. Tens of thousands of pilgrims are expected to attend.
Study: Archeologists find remains of human-Neanderthal hybrid
By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, March 28, 2013 15:22 EDT
Researchers believe they have pinpointed the skeletal remains of the first known human-Neanderthal hybrid, according to a study published Wednesday in the peer reviewed scientific journal PLoS ONE.
The finding comes from northern Italy, where some 40,000 years ago scientists believe Neanderthals and humans lived near each other, but developed separate and distinctly different cultures.
A portion of a jawbone found during an archaeological dig in the area reveals that the bone’s owner had facial features attributable to both modern humans and Neanderthals, the study explains.
Scientists have debated the theory of human-Neanderthal interbreeding since DNA analysis revealed in 2010 that modern humans share significant portions of their genetic code with their long extinct cousins.
Studies since then have suggested that inbreeding might not have been the case and that humans and Neanderthals instead likely shared a common ancestor before Neanderthals died out about 50,000 years ago, but the findings in PLoS One seem to contradict that thinking.
Of course, despite the wonders of modern science, there’s really no telling whether the sex was consensual or not, but the PLoS One study does seem to suggest that a scenario not unlike the “Clan of the Cave Bear” books is indeed plausible.
***********Evolution: First Love Child of Human, Neanderthal Found
Mar 27, 2013 05:00 PM ET
by Jennifer Viegas
The skeletal remains of an individual living in northern Italy 40,000-30,000 years ago are believed to be that of a human/Neanderthal hybrid, according to a paper in PLoS ONE.
If further analysis proves the theory correct, the remains belonged to the first known such hybrid, providing direct evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Prior genetic research determined the DNA of people with European and Asian ancestry is 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.
The present study focuses on the individual’s jaw, which was unearthed at a rock-shelter called Riparo di Mezzena in the Monti Lessini region of Italy. Both Neanderthals and modern humans inhabited Europe at the time.
“From the morphology of the lower jaw, the face of the Mezzena individual would have looked somehow intermediate between classic Neanderthals, who had a rather receding lower jaw (no chin), and the modern humans, who present a projecting lower jaw with a strongly developed chin,” co-author Silvana Condemi, an anthropologist, told Discovery News.
Condemi is the CNRS research director at the University of Ai-Marseille. She and her colleagues studied the remains via DNA analysis and 3D imaging. They then compared those results with the same features from Homo sapiens.
The genetic analysis shows that the individual’s mitochondrial DNA is Neanderthal. Since this DNA is transmitted from a mother to her child, the researchers conclude that it was a “female Neanderthal who mated with male Homo sapiens.”
By the time modern humans arrived in the area, the Neanderthals had already established their own culture, Mousterian, which lasted some 200,000 years. Numerous flint tools, such as axes and spear points, have been associated with the Mousterian. The artifacts are typically found in rock shelters, such as the Riparo di Mezzena, and caves throughout Europe.
The researchers found that, although the hybridization between the two hominid species likely took place, the Neanderthals continued to uphold their own cultural traditions.
That's an intriguing clue, because it suggests that the two populations did not simply meet, mate and merge into a single group.
As Condemi and her colleagues wrote, the mandible supports the theory of "a slow process of replacement of Neanderthals by the invading modern human populations, as well as additional evidence of the upholding of the Neanderthals' cultural identity.”
Prior fossil finds indicate that modern humans were living in a southern Italy cave as early as 45,000 years ago. Modern humans and Neanderthals therefore lived in roughly the same regions for thousands of years, but the new human arrivals, from the Neanderthal perspective, might not have been welcome, and for good reason. The research team hints that the modern humans may have raped female Neanderthals, bringing to mind modern cases of "ethnic cleansing."
Ian Tattersall is one of the world’s leading experts on Neanderthals and the human fossil record. He is a paleoanthropologist and a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History.
Tattersall told Discovery News that the hypothesis, presented in the new paper, “is very intriguing and one that invites more research.”
Neanderthal culture and purebred Neanderthals all died out 35,000-30,000 years ago.NEWS: Neanderthals Lacked Social Skills
For ages, anthropologists have puzzled over Neanderthal and human brains, since they were the same size. If each species had comparable brainpower, why did humans dominate?
A comparison of Neanderthal and human brains has revealed it was a matter of allocation: Neanderthal brains focused more on vision and movement, leaving less room for cognition related to social networking.
According to the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, bigger eyed and larger bodied Neanderthals required more brain space devoted to the visual system and basic body functions, leaving less area for what co-author Robin Dunbar called "the smart part."
He explained to Discovery News that this is "the part that is doing the creative thinking."
Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and colleagues Eiluned Pearce and Chris Stringer compared the skulls of 32 anatomically modern humans and 13 Neanderthals. The skulls date to 27,000 to 75,000 years ago. The researchers noticed that Neanderthals had significantly larger eye sockets.
The researchers next used the known relationship between the height of the eye socket and the size of visual brain areas in living primates to estimate how much of each brain was dedicated to visual processing. Once differences in body and visual system size were taken into account, the researchers could then compare how much of the brain was left over for other types of cognition.
It's clear that environmental differences affected the evolution of each species. The common ancestor of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens was Homo heidelbergensis. It had a bulkier body, as for Neanderthals, but did not possess enlarged eyes.
"The large eyes (of Neanderthals) are purely an adaptation to low light levels, and long dark nights at higher latitudes outside the tropics," Dunbar said.
Neanderthals also tended to be shorter than humans, which again was an adaptation to colder climates since this reduces heat loss through the extremities. Modern Eskimos exhibit some of this adaptation.
Neanderthals in Europe also "developed a very confrontational and dangerous style of hunting, and were very dependent on a heavy meat diet," Dunbar shared. "Modern humans (in Africa) developed the bow and arrow, as well as spear throwers, which allowed hunting at arms’ length and often focused on smaller prey."
As for what happened to the Neanderthals, some researchers believe that they were simply absorbed into the modern human population. There is evidence that, as numerous humans migrated north into Europe, they interbred with Neanderthals.
Another theory, supported by this new study, is that Neanderthals went extinct because they were less capable of forming larger social networks. Pearce theorized that "smaller social groups might have made Neanderthals less able to cope with the difficulties of their harsh Eurasian environments because they would have had fewer friends to help them out in times of need."
She continued, "Overall, differences in brain organization and social cognition may go a long way towards explaining why Neanderthals went extinct whereas modern humans survived."
Dunbar further thinks that new diseases brought in by humans could have hurt Neanderthals. He said, "It was clear that, by the end, they were struggling to maintain a foothold in Ice Age Europe, having been squeezed down into the southern appendages of Europe (in places like Spain and Italy)."
Clive Gamble, an expert on the archaeology of human origins and a professor at Southampton University praised the new work, saying, "This paper cracks a big problem in human evolution. Neanderthals had brains as big as ours, yet did not regularly produce the sorts of cultural stuff- art, ornamentation and complicated tools -- that we take for granted…Brains got bigger, but in different ways."
"I've long argued for social differences between Neanderthals and ourselves," Gamble concluded. "It doesn't make us better than them and it doesn’t confirm the age-old prejudices about stupid, brutish Neanderthals. What it does do, quite literally, is make us see them with different eyes."
*********Neanderthals may have died out earlier than before thought, researchers say.
These findings hint that Neanderthals did not coexist with modern humans as long as previously suggested, investigators added.
Modern humans once shared the planet with now-departed human lineages, including the Neanderthals, our closest known extinct relatives. However, there has been heated debate over just how much time and interaction, or interbreeding, Neanderthals had with modern humans.
To help solve the mystery, an international team of researchers investigated 215 bones previously excavated from 11 sites in southern Iberia, in an area known as Spain today. Neanderthals entered Europe before modern humans did, and prior research had suggested the last of the Neanderthals held out in southern Iberia until about 35,000 years ago, potentially sharing the region with modern humans for thousands of years.
Their data suggest that modern humans and Neanderthals may have actually lived in the area at completely different times, never crossing paths there at all. Even so, these findings do not call into question whether modern humans and Neanderthals once had sex — the findings simply indicate this interbreeding must have occurred earlier, before modern humans entered Europe.
PHOTOS: Humans Vs. Neanderthals: How Did We Win?
"The genetic evidence for interbreeding — 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in present-day modern humans — suggests that interbreeding probably occurred before the period we are looking at in the Levant, the region around Israel and Syria, when modern humans first migrated out of Africa," researcher Rachel Wood, an archaeologist and radiocarbon specialist at Australian National University in Canberra, told LiveScience.
Scientists discover the ages of artifacts and fossils using a variety of techniques. For instance, radiocarbon dating determines the age of biological remains based on the ratio between the carbon isotopes (atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons) carbon-12 and carbon-14 it holds — this proportion changes as radioactive carbon-14 breaks down while stable carbon-12 does not. Researchers can also look at the layers of soil and rock in which objects are found — if these layers were not disturbed over the years, then objects in the same layer should be the same age.
The investigators concentrated on collagen, the part of bone most suited for radiocarbon dating. Only eight of these bones from two sites in Spain — Zafarraya Cave and Jarama VI — had enough collagen for analysis.
**********Humans Vs. Neanderthals: How Did We Win?
Up until about 30,000 years ago, humans shared the planet with Neanderthals, a relative so close to humans that our species interbred. In fact, some Neanderthal lives on in some of our DNA to this day. But around then, Homo sapiens were already well into the process of displacing Neanderthals, an undertaking that had been some 20,000 to 40,000 years in the making. How humans outpaced their relatives remains a mystery, but fossil evidence has left some clues about the scenarios that may have led to the downfall of Neanderthals. No single smoking gun is likely responsible for the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis. Here, we explore some of the factors that likely contributed to their decline.
In the end, Neanderthals may have been wiped out because they simply lost the numbers game. As Homo sapiens moved from Africa into areas of southern Europe where Neanderthals had already been settled, the two species were placed in direct competition with one another. Eventually outnumbered 10 to one, Neanderthals were pushed to less favorable areas where food and shelter were more difficult to find, according to a study published last month in the journal Science. Resource competition and interbreeding wiped out the Neanderthals in this scenario.
Field Museum Library/Getty Images
Forced into Cannibalism?
With Homo sapiens pushing Neanderthals to fringe settlements, it’s possible that resource competition between Neanderthal groups forced them to turn to cannibalism. Fossil evidence suggests that may have been the case. Bones discovered in a cave in France show a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of others within their species for sustenance. They even ate humans. As grisly as the practice was, cannibalism also took a hidden toll on those who hunted and consumed their own species: a fatal epidemic similar to mad cow disease that caused severe mental impairments and wiped out thousands. These series of events could have contributed to the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis.http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/02/27/nean
The Fitter Specimen
In a battle of the brawn, Neanderthals would surely come out ahead. But in a footrace over a long distance, humans had the advantage. Humans were built for long-distance running, which allowed for hunting in hotter climates. Neanderthals, on the other hand, were strong and sturdy. They could run faster than humans, but only over a short sprint. As such, Homo neanderthalensis was better equipped for cooler climates. Distance-running and endurance could have given prehistoric Homo sapiens an edge when they entered Neanderthal strongholds in Asia and Europe, and came into direct competition with their cousins.
The Big Bang Theory
Neanderthals may not have quietly faded away so much as they went out with a bang, according to a study published last September in Current Anthropology. Around 40,000 years ago, a sequence of three major volcanic eruptions devastated Neanderthal homelands in Europe and Asia, speeding the demise of this species. Homo sapiens, by contrast, lived on the fringes beyond the range of the volcanic ash clouds. In other words, simple geographic luck could have led early humans to overtake Neanderthals.
Neaderthals had brawn, but early humans had a leg up on brains. Starting at birth, human and Neanderthal brains are similar. During the first year of life, however, the human brain begins more activity in neural circuitry. Although this doesn't mean that Neanderthals weren't as intelligent as humans, the brains of Homo sapiens developed to support higher-order functions, such as creativity and communication. Traces of Neanderthal creativity have been found, but no evidence has yet emerged to show they had a complex language of their own. However, according to one study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, this lack of cognitive complexity also may have meant that Neanderthals didn't suffer from the same mental disorders as humans. This distinction, however, proved to be a net gain for humans and may have "helped early Homo sapiens survive in the process of natural selection," according to one report.
Humans Weren't to Blame
Neanderthals and humans were not in direct competition for too long, because Neanderthals disappeared earlier than once thought, according to one study published in May of this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, In this scenario, Neanderthals disappeared around 39,700 years ago -- 10,000 years earlier than is commonly believed. Since Homo sapiens arrived in the northern Caucasus region a few hundred years earlier, that didn't leave too much time for the two species to interact. This theory discounts any human intervention in the decline of Neanderthal populations, but still leaves open the possibility of other extinction scenarios.Who Didn't Have Sex with Neanderthals?
Very few populations of modern humans do NOT carry genetic traces of Neanderthals, say researchers.
The only modern humans whose ancestors did not interbreed with Neanderthals are apparently sub-Saharan Africans, researchers say.
New findings suggest modern North Africans carry genetic traces from Neanderthals, modern humanity's closest known extinct relatives.
Although modern humans are the only surviving members of the human lineage, others once roamed the Earth, including the Neanderthals. Genetic analysis of these extinct lineages' fossils has revealed they once interbred with our ancestors, with recent estimates suggesting that Neanderthal DNA made up 1 percent to 4 percent of modern Eurasian genomes. Although this sex apparently only rarely produced offspring, this mixing was enough to endow some people with the robust immune systems they enjoy today.
The Neanderthal genome revealed that people outside Africa share more genetic mutations with Neanderthalsthan Africans do. One possible explanation is that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals mostly after the modern lineage began appearing outside Africa at least 100,000 years ago. Another, more complex scenario is that an African group ancestral to both Neanderthals and certain modern human populations genetically split from other Africans beginning about 230,000 years ago. This group then stayed genetically distinct until it eventually left Africa.
To shed light on why Neanderthals appear most closely related to people outside Africa, scientists analyzed North Africans. Some researchers had suggested these groups were the sources of the out-of-Africa migrations that ultimately spread humans around the globe.
The researchers focused on 780,000 genetic variants in 125 people representing seven different North African locations. They found North Africans had dramatically more genetic variants linked with Neanderthals than sub-Saharan Africans did. The level of genetic variants that North Africans share with Neanderthals is on par with that seen in modern Eurasians.
The scientists also found this Neanderthal genetic signal was higher in North African populations whose ancestors had relatively little recent interbreeding with modern Near Eastern or European peoples. That suggests the signal came directly from ancient mixing with Neanderthals, and not recent interbreeding with other modern humans whose ancestors might have interbred with Neanderthals. (10 Mysteries of the First Humans)
"The only modern populations without Neanderthal admixture are the sub-Saharan groups," said researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, a paleogeneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Barcelona, Spain.
The researchers say their findings do not suggest that Neanderthals entered Africa and made intimate contact with ancient North Africans. Rather, "what we are saying is that the contact took place outside Africa, likely in the Near East, and that there was a back migration into Africa of some groups that peopled North Africa, likely replacing or assimilating some ancestral populations," Lalueza-Fox told LiveScience.
This research also suggests that North African groups were not the source of the out-of-Africa migrations. Rather, other groups, perhaps out of East Africa, might have led this diaspora.
The scientists detailed their findings Oct. 17 in the journal PLoS ONE.
In the USA...
March 28, 2013
Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms
By MICHAEL WINES
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.
The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.
“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”
In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.
In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.
The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”
Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow.
Bret Adee, who is an owner, with his father and brother, of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the nation’s largest beekeeper, described mounting losses.
“We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss,” he said in an interview here this week.
“They looked beautiful in October,” Mr. Adee said, “and in December, they started falling apart, when it got cold.”
Mr. Dahle said he had planned to bring 13,000 beehives from Montana — 31 tractor-trailers full — to work the California almond groves. But by the start of pollination last month, only 3,000 healthy hives remained.
Annual bee losses of 5 percent to 10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. But after colony collapse disorder surfaced around 2005, the losses approached one-third of all bees, despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure their health.
Nor is the impact limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.
Almonds are a bellwether. Eighty percent of the nation’s almonds grow here, and 80 percent of those are exported, a multibillion-dollar crop crucial to California agriculture. Pollinating up to 800,000 acres, with at least two hives per acre, takes as many as two-thirds of all commercial hives.
This past winter’s die-off sent growers scrambling for enough hives to guarantee a harvest. Chris Moore, a beekeeper in Kountze, Tex., said he had planned to skip the groves after sickness killed 40 percent of his bees and left survivors weakened.
“But California was short, and I got a call in the middle of February that they were desperate for just about anything,” he said. So he sent two truckloads of hives that he normally would not have put to work.
Bee shortages pushed the cost to farmers of renting bees to $200 per hive at times, 20 percent above normal. That, too, may translate into higher prices for food.
Precisely why last year’s deaths were so great is unclear. Some blame drought in the Midwest, though Mr. Dahle lost nearly 80 percent of his bees despite excellent summer conditions. Others cite bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides. Still others blame viruses.
But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used to control pests.
While each substance has been certified, there has been less study of their combined effects. Nor, many critics say, have scientists sufficiently studied the impact of neonicotinoids, the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths.
The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.
Neonics, as farmers call them, are applied in smaller doses than older pesticides. They are systemic pesticides, often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it.
Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded — often in a matter of days — neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous.
“Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing.”
Research to date on neonicotinoids “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns,” the president of CropLife America, Jay Vroom, said Wednesday. The group represents more than 90 pesticide producers.
He said the group nevertheless supported further research. “We stand with science and will let science take the regulation of our products in whatever direction science will guide it,” Mr. Vroom said.
A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the E.P.A. last week, saying it exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids. The agency has begun an accelerated review of their impact on bees and other wildlife.
The European Union has proposed to ban their use on crops frequented by bees. Some researchers have concluded that neonicotinoids caused extensive die-offs in Germany and France.
Neonicotinoids are hardly the beekeepers’ only concern. Herbicide use has grown as farmers have adopted crop varieties, from corn to sunflowers, that are genetically modified to survive spraying with weedkillers. Experts say some fungicides have been laced with regulators that keep insects from maturing, a problem some beekeepers have reported.
Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.
“Where do you start?” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”
Experts say nobody knows. But Mr. Adee, who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about such issues, said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.
Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”
March 28, 2013
Study Links 2011 Quake to Technique at Oil Wells
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
A damaging earthquake in central Oklahoma two years ago most likely resulted from the pumping of wastewater from oil production into deep wells, scientists say.
The magnitude 5.7 quake, which destroyed more than a dozen homes and injured two people, was one in a series that occurred in November 2011 in an oil-producing area near Prague, Okla. The researchers said the quakes occurred near wells where wastewater had been injected into porous rock for two decades.
“The link is pretty compelling,” said Heather M. Savage, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University, and an author of a paper on the quake published online this week by the journal Geology. “The aftershocks show that the first fault that ruptured comes very close to one of the active wells.” The first quake then touched off the others, including the largest one, the researchers said.
The findings are the latest to link earthquakes to underground disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production. Most of those quakes have been minor, causing little or no damage; the 5.7 quake is the largest in the United States to be connected to disposal wells.
The National Academy of Sciences has called for more research into links between quakes and well activities.
Last year, a well in Youngstown, Ohio, that was used to dispose of waste fluids from the production method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was shut down after scientists showed a link to a series of small earthquakes in the area. The Oklahoma oil wells used more conventional production techniques, said the new study’s lead author, Katie M. Keranen, a seismologist at the University of Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey, a state agency whose mandate includes promoting “the wise use of Oklahoma’s natural resources,” took issue with the findings. In a statement, it noted that earthquakes had occurred regularly in the state, including some of magnitude 4.0, and added, “The interpretation that best fits the current data is that the Prague earthquake sequence was the result of natural causes.”
Pumping of wastewater continues at the wells in the area, and minor quakes still occur, but the authors of the new paper said it was not possible to say whether those smaller quakes were related to the disposal wells.
The researchers said that although the wastewater injection at the wells started in the early 1990s, data showed that injection pressures were increased beginning about a decade ago. Dr. Keranen said that was an indication that pressure down in the rock was rising when it became filled with water. The pressure would have reduced stress on the fault, causing it to slip.
But Steve Horton, a researcher at the University of Memphis who studied a series of quakes in Arkansas in 2010 and 2011 that were linked to disposal wells, said that in most cases the time between the start of wastewater disposal and the occurrence of earthquakes was much shorter.
“Even if the earthquakes just started five years ago, that would still be quite a long time,” he said.
That is why the researchers could not say definitively that the disposal led to the quakes, Dr. Horton said, adding, “What they said is as much as they could say, given the data.”
March 28, 2013
Cyberattacks Seem Meant to Destroy, Not Just Disrupt
By NICOLE PERLROTH and DAVID E. SANGER
American Express customers trying to gain access to their online accounts Thursday were met with blank screens or an ominous ancient type face. The company confirmed that its Web site had come under attack.
The assault, which took American Express offline for two hours, was the latest in an intensifying campaign of unusually powerful attacks on American financial institutions that began last September and have taken dozens of them offline intermittently, costing millions of dollars.
JPMorgan Chase was taken offline by a similar attack this month. And last week, a separate, aggressive attack incapacitated 32,000 computers at South Korea’s banks and television networks.
The culprits of these attacks, officials and experts say, appear intent on disabling financial transactions and operations.
Corporate leaders have long feared online attacks aimed at financial fraud or economic espionage, but now a new threat has taken hold: attackers, possibly with state backing, who seem bent on destruction.
“The attacks have changed from espionage to destruction,” said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a cybersecurity training organization. “Nations are actively testing how far they can go before we will respond.”
Security experts who studied the attacks said that it was part of the same campaign that took down the Web sites of JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and others over the last six months. A group that calls itself the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters has claimed responsibility for those attacks.
The group says it is retaliating for an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube last fall. But American intelligence officials and industry investigators say they believe the group is a convenient cover for Iran. Just how tight the connection is — or whether the group is acting on direct orders from the Iranian government — is unclear. Government officials and bank executives have failed to produce a smoking gun.
North Korea is considered the most likely source of the attacks on South Korea, though investigators are struggling to follow the digital trail, a process that could take months. The North Korean government of Kim Jong-un has openly declared that it is seeking online targets in its neighbor to the south to exact economic damage.
Representatives of American Express confirmed that the company was under attack Thursday, but said that there was no evidence that customer data had been compromised. A representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not respond to a request for comment on the American Express attack.
Spokesmen for JPMorgan Chase said they would not talk about the recent attack there, its origins or its consequences. JPMorgan has openly acknowledged previous denial of service attacks. But the size and severity of the most recent one apparently led it to reconsider.
The Obama administration has publicly urged companies to be more transparent about attacks, but often security experts and lawyers give the opposite advice.
The largest contingent of instigators of attacks in the private sector, government officials and researchers say, remains Chinese hackers intent on stealing corporate secrets.
The American and South Korean attacks underscore a growing fear that the two countries most worrisome to banks, oil producers and governments may be Iran and North Korea, not because of their skill but because of their brazenness. Neither country is considered a superstar in this area. The appeal of digital weapons is similar to that of nuclear capability: it is a way for an outgunned, outfinanced nation to even the playing field. “These countries are pursuing cyberweapons the same way they are pursuing nuclear weapons,” said James A. Lewis, a computer security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s primitive; it’s not top of the line, but it’s good enough and they are committed to getting it.”
American officials are currently weighing their response options, but the issues involved are complex. At a meeting of banking executives, regulators and representatives from the departments of Homeland Security and Treasury last December, some pressed the United States to hit back at the hackers, while others argued that doing so would only lead to more aggressive attacks, according to two people who attended the meeting.
The difficulty of deterring such attacks was also the focus of a White House meeting this month with Mr. Obama and business leaders, including the chief executives Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Brian T. Moynihan of Bank of America; Rex W. Tillerson of Exxon Mobil; Randall L. Stephenson of AT&T and others.
Mr. Obama’s goal was to erode the business community’s intense opposition to federal legislation that would give the government oversight of how companies protect “critical infrastructure,” like banking systems and energy and cellphone networks. That opposition killed a bill last year, prompting Mr. Obama to sign an executive order promoting increased information-sharing with businesses.
“But I think we heard a new tone at this latest meeting,” an Obama aide said later. “Six months of unrelenting attacks have changed some views.”
Mr. Lewis, the computer security expert, agreed. “The Iranian attacks have tilted private sector opinion,” he said. “Hence the muted reaction to the executive order versus squeals of outrage. Companies are much more concerned about this and much more willing to see a government role.”
Neither Iran nor North Korea has shown anywhere near the subtlety and technique in online offensive skills that the United States and Israel demonstrated with Olympic Games, the ostensible effort to disable Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants with an online weapon that destabilized hundreds of centrifuges, destroying many of them. But after descriptions of that operation became public in the summer of 2010, Iran announced the creation of its own Cyber Corps.
North Korea has had hackers for years, some of whom are believed to be operating from, or through, China. Neither North Korea nor Iran is as focused on stealing data as they are determined to destroy it, experts contend.
When hackers believed by American intelligence officials to be Iranians hit the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Aramco, last year, they did not just erase data on 30,000 Aramco computers; they replaced the data with an image of a burning American flag. In the assault on South Korea last week, some affected computers displayed an ominous image of skulls.
“This attack is as much a cyber-rampage as it is a cyberattack,” Rob Rachwald, a research director at FireEye, a computer security firm, said of the South Korea attacks.
In the past, such assaults typically occurred through a denial-of-service attack, in which hackers flood their target with Web traffic from networks of infected computers until it is overwhelmed and shuts down. One such case was a 2007 Russian attack on Estonia that affected its banks, the Parliament, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters.
With their campaign against American financial institutions, the hackers suspected of being Iranian have taken that kind of attack to the next level. Instead of using individual personal computers to fire Web traffic at each bank, they infected powerful, commercial data centers with sophisticated malware and directed them to simultaneously fire at each bank, giving them the horsepower to inflict a huge attack.
As a result, the hackers were able to take down the consumer banking sites of American Express, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks with exponentially more traffic than hit Estonia in 2007.
In the attack on Saudi Aramco last year, the culprits did not mount that type of assault. Instead, they created malware designed for the greatest impact, coded to spread to as many computers as possible.
Likewise, the attacks last week on South Korean banks and broadcasters were far more sophisticated than coordinated denial-of-service attacks in 2009 that briefly took down the Web sites of South Korea’s president and its Defense Ministry. Such attacks were annoyances; they largely did not affect operations.
This time around in South Korea, however, the attackers engineered malware that could evade popular South Korean antivirus products, spread it to as many computer systems as possible, and inserted a “time bomb” to take out all the systems at once for greatest impact.
The biggest concern, Mr. Lewis said: “We don’t know how they make decisions. When you add erratic decision making, then you really have something to worry about.”
Obama launches commission to investigate voting irregularities
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 28, 2013 19:27 EDT
US President Barack Obama Thursday tasked a presidential commission to probe long lines at polling stations and other irregularities faced by voters in last year’s election.
Obama, making good on a promise issued in his victory speech last November, signed an executive order to charter the commission, which will deliver a report within six months of its first formal meeting.
The nine-member panel will be chaired by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, who served as top lawyers for the presidential campaigns of Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney last year.
They will be tasked with finding ways to shorten lines at polling booths and to promote efficient elections by helping voters from the military, those with poor English skills and the disabled to cast their ballots.
It will look into the location, management and operation of polling places, the training of poll workers and the efficiency of often problematic voting machines that are used in many states.
White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the report was intended to serve as a “best practices guide” for state and local election officials.
He said Obama also supported any effort by Congress to improve voting conditions.
In practice however, Obama’s commission will be more of an attempt to promote reform rather than mandate it, as voting laws are mostly administered by states, hence the widely differing standards throughout the country.
Reports of voting irregularities, long lines at the polls and attempts to disenfranchise voters often surface following US elections, but only in ultra-tight races like in 2000 do they have the potential to sway a result.
In November 2012, there were tales of voters enduring hours-long waits outside polling stations as well as allegations of failures of voting machines.
Republican Policies Result In 20%-32% of Kids In the Poorest Red States Living In Poverty
Mar. 28th, 2013
America is home to a very active pro-life movement founded on the concept that all life is precious, and is synonymous with the concepts of right-to-life and culture-of-life the religious right and Republicans spend undue time on attempting to control women and protect single-celled organisms. However, at the end of gestation, the same movement spends unwarranted amounts of time and energy abandoning infants and children to poverty, hunger, and ill-health in a never-ending crusade to cut programs that ensure babies and children are mired in poverty and lack basic necessities of life making a mockery of their pro-life moniker.
Republicans have developed a stellar record of perpetuating poverty, and are renowned for cutting safety nets for the poorest Americans while taking particular delight in promoting their cuts as common sense and crucial to protect future generations from crushing deficits. However, at the rate poverty among children is rising, future generations will be hard-pressed to survive, much less contribute to paying off Republicans’ debts. In a new study from First Focus and the Urban Institute, there are 6.2 million children living in poverty where at least one parent is unemployed, and the number rises to 12.1 million when considering that most of the parents are underemployed. Obviously, when parents are under, or unemployed, children are bound to live in stark poverty and suffer the effects of hunger, ill-health, and the likelihood of never escaping poverty in their lifetime.
The report shows that instability of home life accompanying long-term unemployment, and the inability to stay situated in one place very long predicts children have poor school attendance, lower math scores, and increased chances of being held back in school by 15%, and are unlikely to pursue or afford higher education. The pro-life Republicans exacerbate children’s plight by perpetually cutting funding from safety nets that are the worst in the industrialized world, and it has reached a point that more families qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – food stamps) than unemployment insurance.
SNAP benefits average $278 per month per household, and the average unemployment benefits are $299 per week ($1,286 month). In at least eight states with the highest child poverty rates, they have cut or reduced the length of unemployment programs from 26 down to 12 weeks according to a new report from the National Employment Law project. Unfortunately for children with unemployed parents, federal benefits are dependent on a state’s unemployment offerings that prevent the poor from having access to federal programs. In 2011, between federal and state unemployment insurance programs, 2.3 million Americans avoided falling into poverty, but when red states slash unemployment programs, the unemployed lose federal unemployment insurance that all but assures a drastic rise in children living in poverty. Cutting unemployment benefits also has a deleterious effect on the economy and other Americans because according to the Congressional Budget Office, cuts to unemployment benefits cost Americans at least 300,000 jobs in a year leading to more children living in poverty.
As it is now, America has the second highest child poverty rate in the developed world behind Romania, and the rate will only increase as Republican sequestration cuts keep 70,000 children out of the Head Start program as well as tens-of-thousands more losing access to healthcare coverage. The Republican budget slashes billions from anti-poverty programs and it leads one to wonder how Republicans claim to be pro-life when their policies are detrimental to children living in poverty’s lives. They are pro-life as long as life is a zygote, embryo, or fetus in a poor mothers’ womb for nine months, and then their culture of life becomes a culture of hunger, ill-health, and eventually death
Republicans could improve the lives of children and lift them and their parents out of poverty if they spent one tenth the time creating jobs as they do protecting zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. It has been two years and three months since Republicans took control of the House promising to focus on creating jobs, and yet they began the 112th Congress protecting zygote-life and cutting assistance to real live children and killing jobs ever since. They rejected all of President Obama’s jobs plans at the same time they deliberately killed jobs, and rejected raising the minimum wage that would keep some Americans just above the poverty line. Just their sequester cuts alone will kill a million jobs and send tens-of-thousands of middle class Americans into poverty with mandatory unpaid furlough days.
In the poorest red states, 20-32% of children live in poverty, and nationwide the rate is over 23% and climbing, and integral to high poverty rates are the lack of decent jobs. Many Americans who are fortunate enough to find jobs are offered part-time work at minimum wages at corporate-owned businesses, and even if they worked full-time at minimum wage they could not afford a place to live in any state in the Union. Many, many American families are nearly homeless and bounce around between shelters, motels, and live in cars to save what little they have to feed their children. There are millions of Americans who were in the middle class, but because of outsourcing and public sector layoffs slipped into poverty, and as their unemployment benefits run out and Republicans cut spending on safety nets, they have little opportunity of ever returning to the middle class in their lifetimes.
Republicans in Congress and statehouses have made every attempt to create a permanent underclass living in poverty, and they are unfazed at the devastation they are creating for children whose parents cannot find a job, or are severely under-employed at part time, minimum wage jobs. The key to lifting Americans and their children out of poverty, growing the economy, and reducing the deficit is creating jobs that generate a vibrant economy and a culture of life all Americans deserve, even children. If Republicans cared a fraction about children’s lives as they do a zygote’s, maybe they could wear the pro-life label with pride, but they care about children’s lives about as much as they do jobs, and as they are killing Americans’ jobs, they are killing America’s children; and they are barely getting started.
US warns North Korea of increased isolation if threats escalate further
White House says US will not be intimidated by 'bellicose rhetoric' and is fully capable of defending itself and its allies
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 March 2013 18.33 GMT
The White House warned North Korea on Friday that the rapidly escalating military confrontation would lead to further isolation, as the Pentagon declared that the US was fully capable of defending itself and its allies against a missile attack.
After North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared that rockets were ready to be fired at American bases in the Pacific – a response to the US flying two nuclear-capable B2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula this week – the White House blamed Pyongyang for the increased tensions.
"The bellicose rhetoric emanating from North Korea only deepens that nation's isolation. The United States remains committed to safeguarding our allies in the region and our interests that are located there," deputy press spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters travelling with Barack Obama on Air Force One to Miami.
Asked if the joint US-South Korean military exercises and the use of the stealth bombers had fuelled the escalation, Earnest replied: "It's clear that the escalation is taking place from the North Koreans based on their rhetoric and on their actions."
The Pentagon said on Friday that the US would not be intimidated, and was ready to defend both its bases and its allies in the region. Lt Col Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the US would not be intimidated. "The United States is fully capable of defending itself and our allies against a North Korean attack. We are firmly committed to the defence of South Korea and Japan," she said.
Secretary of state John Kerry will visit the region in a week or so for meetings with Japan, China and South Korea, the State Department said.
North Korea announced that its forces had been placed on high alert on Tuesday but the threats became graver when a picture was published of Kim reiterating the order at an emergency meeting on Friday.
The US Defense Department keeps secret its assessment of the distance North Korea's missiles can reach. But Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a fortnight ago it had one type of missile capable of reaching the US.
But while defence analysts agreed that while North Korea is theoretically capable of firing a missile, they expressed scepticism about whether its technology is as advanced as it claims and were doubtful about the accuracy in hitting targets.
But there is more concern than usual in Washington compared with previous standoffs with North Korea because Kim is a new leader, young and inexperienced and a largely unknown quantity in the west.
A major worry is that if North Korea was to attack a South Korean ship – it was blamed for the sinking a South Korean vessel in 2010 – or a land target, Seoul has said that it would retaliate this time.
Wilkinson said: "North Korea's bellicose rhetoric and threats follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others. DPRK will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in north-east Asia.
"We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations."
She added: "We remain committed to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. This means deterring North Korean aggression, protecting our allies and the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state; nor will we stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States."
At a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, defence secretary Chuck Hagel said: "There are a lot of unknowns here. But we have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new, young leader has taken so far since he's come to power."
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, played down the threat. "North Korea is upping its rhetoric to a world-class level, but it's still just rhetoric. They have no capability to hit the US mainland with anything – except through cyberspace. Their only tested missiles can fly a maximum of 1,600km, less than half the distance to Guam."
Fitzpatrick, who is scheduled to lead a thinktank discussion at the institute's Washington office next Thursday on whether the US policy of patience has run its course and instead it should pursue reunification of the Korean peninsula, said Friday that while North Korea is limited in its ability to hit US targets, it poses a threat to South Korea and Japan.
"Their Scuds and Nodongs can hit anywhere in South Korea and Japan. Using them would be suicidal, of course. The far more likely scenario is a pin-prick attack in the nature of the 2010 attacks. This time, however, South Korea is determined to respond with an eye for an eye, in order to restore deterrence. North Korea's ensuing response could trigger a larger conflagration."
Jim Walsh, a specialist on security and nuclear weapons at MIT, played down the prospect of an attack on the US, but said: "The reason it is scary is: you can get war even when no one intends to have a war. All the sides – South Korea, North Korea and others – are now leaning into each other, and if someone makes a mistake, I am concerned that that mistake will escalate into something larger than anyone expected.
"Suddenly you have a young man in a closed country who has to decide whether he is going to respond to your actions."
The risk was not of a North Korean attack on the US but on South Korea that would bring in the US, he said.
Walsh, who has visited North Korea and has had talks with its officials in Switzerland, Sweden and the US, said the present confrontation felt different because of the harsher rhetoric from North Korea, the secret defence pact agreed by the US and South Korea and the US military drills this week.
"If we are lucky it will all be bluster on everyone's side. That is the good outcome," Walsh said. "The bad outcome is that it is bluster until someone screws up and then war happens."
Michael O'Hanlon, one of the leading military analysts in the US, expressed worries that the US approach of tit-for-tat and imposition of additional permanent sanctions after its third nuclear test could exacerbate the situation. Like Walsh, he sees this confrontation as being different from previous ones.
In an email, O'Hanlon, a security specialist at Washington's Brookings Institution, told the Guardian: "I favour temporary sanctions in response to the third nuclear test, to give Pyongyang an incentive not to provoke again." He argues that by setting a time-limit such as two, three or four years, it could encourage North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test.
"I am talking about automatic sunset provisions with a specific time frame, unless of course there is another nuclear test or another act of violence," O'Hanlon wrote.
Click to watch:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/mar/30/north-korea-war-south-korea-video
March 29, 2013Pyongyang Blusters, and U.S. Worries About Quieter Risks
By CHOE SANG-HUN and DAVID E. SANGER
SEOUL, South Korea — This week, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jung-un, ordered his underlings to prepare for a missile attack on the United States. He appeared at a command center in front of a wall map with the bold, unlikely title, “Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S.” Earlier in the month, his generals boasted of developing a “Korean-style” nuclear warhead that could be fitted atop a long-range missile.
But the missile systems that figure in Mr. Kim’s blitz of threats and orders do not yet have the range to approach American shores. There is no evidence his nuclear weapons can be shrunk to fit atop a missile. And a prominent photograph showing Mr. Kim’s military making a Normandy-style beach landing appears to have been manufactured, raising questions about whether his forces could possibly repeat the feat his grandfather pulled off in 1950, ordering a ground attack to open the Korean War.
On top of all that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world.
“You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry. “We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology.”
In fact, it is the abilities that Mr. Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval corvette, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either — though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do American experts.
“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don’t know him,” one senior administration official said Friday. He added, “We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.”
The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings that Mr. Kim seems to be suggesting are imminent, they are hard to trace to North Korea, at least immediately. As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and in fact the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan, even after a commission of inquiry, with experts from outside South Korea, concluded it was the work of a submarine-launched torpedo.
To North Korea experts in Washington and Seoul, there is something familiar in the country’s threats to “keep the White House in the cross hairs of our long-range missiles.” Such threat of armed brinkmanship — the catchphrase in the 1990s was that Seoul would become a “sea of fire,” a term recently revived by North Korea’s news agencies — has in the past drawn its adversaries to the bargaining table with economic concessions. But at the same time, the tensions with the outside world provide the government with opportunities to elevate its leader’s status among his people — which might be more important to a young, untested leader than it was to his father and grandfather.
According to the view that North Korea’s propaganda machine pounds into its citizens’ minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its longtime Chinese ally and American enemy — all thanks to the strong “military-first” leadership of the Kim family and the country’s nuclear arsenal.
In such a setting, Mr. Kim’s trip to a border island on a wooden boat — it almost seemed designed to create a “Washington crossing the Delaware” motif — is proof of his “daring and pluck,” as the country’s main party newspaper, Rodong, explained. Rodong also declared about North Korea’s nuclear weapons: “Let the American imperialists and their followers know! We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.” The first, famously, had no nuclear weapons; the second gave up its nascent nuclear program in late 2003, a move North Korea describes as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s greatest mistake.
In the propaganda world that the three generations of the Kim dynasty has created, Mr. Kim is “a great iron-willed general admired by all of his people, including real generals who have actually served in the military,” said Lee Sung-yoon, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “For the Kim III, fantasy is reality.”
Keeping the fantasy up has required a lot of work in the past month, with many visits to military units on both of the country’s coasts, and a lot of conferences at midnight with generals.
Yet in each of these scenes, North Korea’s propagandists sometimes made Mr. Kim look as much a clumsy actor as a new leader of one of the world’s most belligerent governments.
For one, North Korean state-run media on March 12 released a photo showing Mr. Kim arriving at an island within the gun range of South Korean marines and quoted him as threatening to “cut the windpipes of the enemies.” But it strained credibility that he traveled to a region he called a powder keg on a small unarmed wooden boat, as shown in the photo.
On Tuesday, North Korea released a photo showing Mr. Kim watching hovercrafts storm a snow-covered beach in eastern North Korea. But it did not take long for journalists and analysts to conclude that the picture was clumsily doctored to add more amphibious landing vehicles and make the drill look far more imposing than it really was.
Then on Friday, photos released by the North’s state media, which also showed signs of digital manipulation, featured Mr. Kim huddling with his top generals during a midnight meeting to approve “plans to strike the mainland U.S.” A military chart behind them showed a series of lines shooting out of North Korea and hitting major cities in the United States, including those on the East Coast. Even if the North Koreans had such missiles — most analysts doubt it does — would they really intend to launch them at the United States in what would be a suicidal action for the Pyongyang government?
“We’re all trying to put him on the couch,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “A year ago the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form,” adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.
On Saturday those threats were South Korea and “the Americans and their puppets,” a statement from the North said. The two Koreas “were back to a state of war,” it said, and the North’s foes “should know that everything is different under our peerless general and dear Marshal Kim Jong-un.” While many fear that Mr. Kim’s rhetoric is building up toward some action, Mr. Pollack held out the hope that the threats could abate as United States and South Korean military exercises, which infuriate the North, wind up at the end of April.
Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, South Korea, and David E. Sanger from Washington.
March 29, 2013Global Powers Cast Wary Eye as Korean Tension Escalates
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean state media said Friday that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had ordered his missile units to be ready to strike the United States and South Korea, which South Korean officials said could signal either preparations for missile tests or just more blustering.
The United States criticized the North Korean threat, which came one day after American forces had carried out an unusual practice bombing exercise with advanced aircraft across South Korea.
“The United States is fully capable of defending itself and our allies,” said Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson, a Pentagon spokeswoman in Washington."North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and threats follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others.”
The back-and-forth was viewed with worry by China and Russia. China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its calls for restraint. Russia was more explicit, with its foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, telling reporters in Moscow that he was increasingly concerned about a situation that could “get out of control — it will descend into the spiral of a vicious cycle.”
Mr. Kim’s order, which North Korea said was given during an emergency meeting early Friday, was similar to the one issued Tuesday when the North’s top military command told all its missile and artillery units to be on the “highest alert” and ready to strike the United States and South Korea in retaliation against their joint military exercises.
But by attributing such an order to its top leader, North Korea tried to add weight to its threat.
“We believe they are taking follow-up steps,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry, referring to increased activities of the North Korean military units. "South Korean and American intelligence authorities are closely watching whether North Korea is preparing its short, medium, and long-range missiles, including its Scud, Rodong and Musudan.”
He did not elaborate. But government officials and South Korean media said that there had been a surge in vehicle and troop movements at North Korean missile units in recent days as the United States and South Korea has been conducting joint military drills. The national news agency Yonhap quoted an anonymous military source as saying that North Korean vehicles had been moving to Tongchang-ri near the North’s western border with China, where its Unha-3 rocket blasted off in December.
North Korea might be preparing for an engine test ahead of a long-range rocket test, the source was quoted as saying. Scud and Rodong are the North's mainstay short- and medium-range missiles. The Musudan, deployed around 2007 and displayed for the first time during a military parade in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in 2010, is a road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of more than 1,900 miles, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
In an angry reaction to the sanctions that the United Nations imposed after North Korea’s launching of a three-stage rocket in December and its third nuclear test last month, the North has repeatedly threatened to strike Washington, as well as the American military bases around the Pacific and in South Korea, with nuclear-armed long-range missiles.
A photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Friday showed Mr. Kim conferring with his top generals on what the agency called “plans to strike the mainland U.S.” A military chart behind them showed what appeared to be trajectories of North Korean missiles hitting major cities in the United States.
North Korea also said its leader, Mr. Kim, “finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets of the K.P.A., ordering them to be standby for fire so that they may strike any time the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea.” K.P.A. stands for the Korean People’s Army.
Kim Min-seok, the South Korean spokesman, said the North’s “unusual” public announcement of such plans was partly “psychological.” Many experts and South Korean officials doubted that North Korea has such long-range missiles, much less the know-how to make a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on such rockets.
But other analysts believed that the North’s new KN-08 missiles, which were put on public display last April, were indeed intercontinental ballistic missiles, although they and Musudan have never been test-launched before. They wondered whether North Korea might use the current tensions as an excuse to launch them.
The country is barred from launching ballistic missiles under United Nations sanctions. North Korea’s development of the KN-08 was one of the reasons the Pentagon cited last Friday when it announced a $1 billion plan to add more missile interceptors in Alaska to better protect the United States against a potential North Korean missile attack.
Although North Korea issued strident threats and stirred up fears of American invasion during previous joint American-South Korean military drills, Mr. Kim has been far more aggressive in issuing such threats personally than his late father, Kim Jong-il, was. Unlike his father, who had expanded his power base from his youth, Mr. Kim was catapulted into top leadership after his father’s sudden death in 2011 and must build his credentials as head of his “military-first” government, South Korean analysts and officials said.
Hours after Mr. Kim’s call to arms, thousands of North Koreans turned out for a 90-minute mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang, chanting “Death to the U.S. imperialists” and “Sweep away the U.S. aggressors,” according to The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang. Soldiers and students marched through downtown Pyongyang.
On Thursday, the American military carried out a rare long-range practice bombing run over the Korean Peninsula, sending two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers on a practice sortie over South Korea, underscoring Washington’s commitment to defend its ally amid rising tensions with North Korea.
“The reaction to the B-2 that we’re most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a news conference at the Pentagon. “Those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict.”
Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow, and Thom Shanker from Washington.
********Could a Korean Armageddon really happen?
North Korea's threat to attack the US may be unrealistic, but Seoul is vulnerable. The west should be wary in its response
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 March 2013 12.45 GMT
North Korea's latest threat to rain missiles on the US, with maps showing flight paths across the Pacific, and leader Kim Jong-un signing orders at a midnight meeting, raises even more pointedly the question that the past month of ever more feverish menaces has already posed. Namely: are they serious? Do they mean it? Could a Korean Armageddon really happen?
My one-word answer would be no. A wag at South Korea's defence ministry quipped earlier this month that "barking dogs don't bite". As a generalisation that seems dubious, but one sees his point. North Korea prefers sneak attacks, like the torpedo in March 2010 that sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan: 46 died. You don't give advance notice of an ambush.
Some of Pyongyang's specific threats can be discounted. There is no evidence that any of their missiles can go further than 4,000 miles, or that they have mastered mounting a nuclear warhead on them. Even if they could – but to repeat, they can't – such an attack would be intercepted. California, and a fortiori New York and Washington, can sleep soundly.
Yet complacency is ill advised. South Koreans have had the barking hound on their doorstep for 60 years now, and have grown blase. Yet 2010 was a nasty nip – two, in fact, for the North also fatally shelled a Southern island later in the year. There might be more bites. And no elderly Southerner forgets the ghastly 1950-53 Korean war, when the North really did invade – by land, mainly – and about 2 million died, even in those low-tech days.
If the US is unmenaced in reality, that by no means applies to South Korea or Japan. Both are within range of North Korea's hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles. The Southern capital Seoul – which including satellite cities is home to 20 million people – lies only 25 miles south of the border, the ironically named demilitarised zone (DMZ). Just north of the DMZ are thousands of KPA (Korean people's army) heavy artillery pieces, some with chemical shells. These could inflict carnage in Seoul's glittering skyscrapers, even in an initial onslaught.
The main risk now is twofold and linked. The cycle of provocation and reaction – which is which, depends where you are – could spiral out of control. North Korea's latest threat was prompted by the sending of US stealth bombers on practice runs over the peninsula – itself a reaction to Pyongyang's rabid rhetoric. The US can hardly not respond in some form, yet it is thus that escalation grows.
The other peril is miscalculation. Something could go off by accident, or either side might misinterpret a move by the other. In that case the risk of escalation would be very real.
Politics and context matter too. South Korea's hardline then-president, Lee Myung-bak, got much flak at home for not retaliating for 2010's sinking and shelling. His successor, Park Geun-hye, in office for barely a month, seeks "trustpolitik" with the North – whose current ferocity is thus all the more puzzling. Why won't Kim Jong-un give peace a chance?
If the North did bite the South again as in 2010, it would be third time unlucky. Some in the tough Southern military, who long ran the country (notably Park's father, the dictator Park Chung-hee), are itching to give the North a good kicking. Park may want peace, but if the North provokes again she would look intolerably weak if she did not authorise some sort of counter-strike.
The problem, of course, would be to keep that limited. One idea mooted would be to hit statues of the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, or their mausoleum. The symbolism would be potent. Even this might prompt the North to strike back.
More menacingly, Southern sources have told local media that their cruise missiles could fly in through a Pyongyang window and take out – well, anybody, know what I mean? That has put the wind up Kim Jong-un, and would be extremely high risk.
Almost 20 years ago the risks were quantified. In 1994, Bill Clinton seriously considered a strike on North Korea's nuclear site at Yongbyon. The joint chiefs of staff estimated that a new war in Korea would kill at least 1 million people, including up to 100,000 Americans. Immediate costs to the US would be $100bn, while business disruption in the region would cost more than $1tn. Those financial figures would be multiples higher now.
It was also Clinton who, on a visit to the DMZ, warned the North that going down this road would be "the end of their country". That still applies. One hopes that a callow, hot-headed youth in the Pyongyang hot seat has no illusions on that score. South Korea would prevail, if at a terrible cost.
What can be done? Basically extreme vigilance by the allies, who should try not to escalate. Try secret contacts to find out what the North really wants: a puzzle, as I wrote here before. Perhaps an upcoming rare party central committee meeting will give some clues. I suspect that internal politics lies behind much of this.
Meanwhile British firms such as Koryo and Young Pioneer are expanding tours to North Korea, not cancelling. And each day dozens of South Koreans still commute from Seoul across the DMZ to supervise Northern workers at a joint venture industrial park. That is the reality on the ground. With any luck it will remain so.
The Lede - The New York Times News Blog
March 29, 2013, 6:58 pmQuestions for an Expert on North Korean Propaganda
By ROBERT MACKEY
Last Updated, 11:47 p.m. As my colleague Choe Sang-Hun reports, North Korea’s state news agency released the latest in a series of saber-rattling images on Friday, this time showing the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, studying what the agency called “plans to strike the mainland U.S.”
#DPRK Kim Jong Un photo shows map of “Strategic Force Plan for Striking US Mainland.” http://t.co/Wo1mRKZpWx
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) 29 Mar 13
Since mocking North Korean propaganda featuring Mr. Kim has become something of a reflex in the West, the Internet’s attention was quickly focused on the comic possibilities of a military chart behind the young leader in the photograph, tracing what appeared to be trajectories of North Korean missiles aimed at major cities in the United States.
Are you on Kim Jong Un’s new America bombing map? http://t.co/HDUkjnO2bp http://t.co/AyRSNNAG4S
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) 29 Mar 13
After one blogger’s detailed analysis of the image suggested that the unlikely target of Austin, Texas, was in the firing line, Twitter lit up with a spate of “Why Austin” jokes, as Max Fisher of The Washington Post explained.
CONFIRMED: The reason North Korea wants to bomb #Austin, TX. #whyaustin http://t.co/IPg3bFBbrx
— Paul Szoldra (@PaulSzoldra) 29 Mar 13
Not to worry, Austin…we’re prepared: http://t.co/Zq7HdbFChR
— Austin Texas (@austintexasgov) 29 Mar 13
When pondering what all this means, it is easy, perhaps too easy, to focus on the accidental comedy in these photographs of North Korea’s unimposing young leader, and in the series of often bizarre propaganda videos and poorly Photoshopped images of war games that preceded them.
To find out how the current campaign looks to an expert on North Korean propaganda, The Lede contacted B. R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in the South Korean port city of Busan. Mr. Myers, who spent eight years studying the nation’s propaganda for his book “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters,” answered questions from The Lede on Friday via Gchat. Below is a transcript of the complete conversation, edited for clarity. (The Lede also added links to some of what Mr. Myers wrote, for the benefit of readers who want to know more about the historical context.)
We are wondering, essentially, what you make of these recent videos flowing from North Korea. Is this really some sort of escalation in rhetoric for them or has the Internet just woken up a bit more to the phenomenon?
The rhetoric itself has not escalated significantly over last year. And it’s been almost 20 years since North Korea first talked of turning Seoul into a sea of fire. I get the feeling that North Korea’s long-range missile launch and the nuclear test have both lent a new force to the old rhetoric.
Is the impression we get via these Web videos similar to what they broadcast on television, and what you see in other forms, or are we in the news business guilty of hyping the most inflammatory material do you think?
That’s a good question. We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says, “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.
The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now under way on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.
It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire work force — much as other countries do in times of actual war — as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.
That’s very interesting — I have to say we don’t even see the South Korean threats…. Are regular TV transmissions from the North blocked in the South, over the airwaves?
Yes, they are blocked as a rule. After a relaxation of the rules governing access to North Korean materials during the “Sunshine Policy” years, the government here has again become quite strict about such things.
A few final questions. First, does it seem to you that there has been any observable change in the propaganda since the change at the top? Second, what did you make of that strange episode with the U.S. TV crew bringing Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang? Was that a sign of a potential opening or just the sort of event that has gone on for years with visitors less well-known to Americans? And finally, are you at all concerned that our coverage of the propaganda in the Western media as something wacky and sort of comic is inappropriate, in that it shifts focus away from the hard realities of life in North Korea?
To answer the first question, I think that the international press exaggerated the extent to which Kim Jong-un departed from the leadership style of his father. He has a Kim Il-sung haircut, and the propaganda apparatus is happy to play up the resemblance, but from the start of the hype in 2008-2009, he was presented to the masses as a taejang or four-star general. That was years before he was officially promoted to that rank, by the way. And the first documentary about his life played up his military-first credentials, portraying him as an even more exclusively military figure than his father had been. Kim Jong-il, after all, spent his first decade or so of public life posing as an expert on film and ideology.
When Kim Jong-un took his wife around with him, the West was quick to see this as a sign of Gorbachev-like tendencies, when in fact Kim Jong-il had taken his second wife (the current leader’s mother) around with him on public visits; even though her presence wasn’t broadcast, it’s clear from the video footage of those visits that has since become public that the North Korean people knew who she was and accepted her as a kind of first lady. In any case, one of the main slogans of the propaganda is “Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il.” He’s compared to his father much more often than to his grandfather. And he is certainly continuing on the same military-first path.
Fascinating — we’ve previously quoted your explanation of the state’s military-first nature.
Second, the Dennis Rodman affair was very similar to the New York Philharmonic affair of 2008. In both cases the North Koreans were able to convey the impression of openness to the wishfully thinking West while at the same time showing to their own people the international appeal of their leader. All visitors to the country are treated in the media as pilgrims or as penitents.
As for your third question, I think the media underestimates the extent to which North Korea reads its own press.This is why you have Americans pleading in op-ed pages for “subversive engagement” with Pyongyang, as if the North Koreans would not think of actually reading one of our newspapers. And all the ridicule naturally poses a problem to a regime that derives almost all its legitimacy and popular support from the perception of its strength and worldwide renown. That doesn’t mean we need to censor ourselves the way the South Korean press did during the “Sunshine Policy” years, but we do need to realize how serious the situation is.
In a North Korean “historical” novel published last year, “Oseongsan,” a general looks at a 20-year-old Kim Jong-un and says, “That’s the man who’s going to lead the holy war of unification.” I have a hard time just chuckling about things like that.
Can I mention one more thing?
One of the few things that has restrained the North Koreans over the decades has been Pyongyang’s reluctance to alienate the South Korean left. I wonder now if, after two successive elections of the more hardline presidential candidate (the current president having been elected with an absolute majority of votes), the North may have given up on South Korean public opinion altogether.
The rapid aging of the South Korean electorate certainly does not bode well for the prospect of another “Sunshine Policy” in the near future. This may be one reason why the propaganda apparatus denigrated President Park as a “skirt” — a clear indication, by the way, that we are not dealing with a far-left regime up there but a far-right one. And I notice from the TV broadcasts that many of the people in the man-on-the-street interviews talk of how they would love to give the “sea of fire” treatment to Seoul and Washington almost as if they were the same enemy territory. If the regime has given up on winning over the South Korean electorate, things could get much more dangerous than they already are.
March 30, 2013
Myanmar Says Govt Not to Blame for Religious Riots
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's government on Saturday rejected remarks by a U.N. human rights official suggesting that the authorities bear some blame for recent mob attacks by Buddhists on minority Muslims that killed dozens of people.
The U.N. official, Tomas Ojea Quintana, urged Myanmar's government on Friday to investigate allegations that security forces watched as Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims. He also said the government needed to do more to protect the country's Muslims.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said on his Facebook page Saturday that he "strongly rejected" the comments by Quintana, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar.
Ye Htut, who is also the presidential spokesman, wrote that it was "saddening that Mr. Quintana made his comments based on hearsay without assessing the situation on the ground."
He added that such remarks amounted to ignoring efforts by the government, security personnel, religious leaders and civil society organizations trying to restore order.
The state-run Kyemon newspaper said Saturday that 43 people had died and 86 were injured since rioting first flared on March 20 in the central town of Meikhtila. It said there were 163 incidents of violence in 15 townships in the country, with 1,355 buildings damaged or destroyed.
It reported that a few attacks against "religious buildings," shops and houses continued Friday, a day after President Thein Sein declared that his government would use force if necessary to quell the rioting, which was sparked by a dispute between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers.
The report said soldiers and police had to shoot into the air to disperse the mobs Friday, though no casualties were reported.
Thein Sein warned in a televised address Thursday that efforts by "political opportunists" and "religious extremists" who tried to sow hatred would not be tolerated.
Quintana welcomed Thein Sein's public call for the violence to stop, but said authorities "need to do much more" to keep the violence from spreading and undermining the reform process.
"The government has simply not done enough to address the spread of discrimination and prejudice against Muslim communities," Ojea Quintana said in his statement. He also called on the government to look into allegations that soldiers and police stood by "while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs."
Police in Meikhtila had been criticized for failing to act quickly and decisively against the rioting, in which mostly Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques were burned down.
Occasional isolated violence involving majority Buddhists and minority Muslims has occurred in the country for decades, even under the authoritarian military governments that ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011. But tensions have heightened since last year when hundreds of people were killed and more than 100,000 made homeless in violence in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya.
Thein Sein took office in 2011 as part of an elected civilian government after almost five decades of repressive military rule. By instituting democratic changes and economic liberalization, he has built a reputation as a reformer and restored relations with Western nations that had shunned the previous military regime for its poor human rights record.
Chinese Nobel prizewinner Liu Xiaobo's brother-in-law arrested on fraud charges
Beijing police hold Liu Hui in what critics and family say is latest example of state intimidation of dissident's family
Associated Press in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 March 2013 12.49 GMT
Police have arrested the brother-in-law of China's jailed Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo on fraud charges, in what the family said is the latest act of official retaliation.
Beijing police detained Liu Hui on 31 January, just before the lunar new year and a planned family reunion, and formally charged him two weeks ago over a real-estate dispute, lawyer Mo Shaoping said on Thursday. He said the criminal charges were unwarranted in a business dispute that has since been resolved.
Liu Hui's arrest is the latest blow to the family and, Mo said, is particularly painful for his sister, Liu Xia, the wife of democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo. He was imprisoned in late 2008, and ever since he was awarded the Nobel prize two-and-a-half years ago, Liu Xia has been under house arrest. Isolated in an apartment with no phone or internet, she appears emotionally fragile, allowed only weekly visits with family members and a monthly visit to her husband in prison.
The latest arrest "affected the whole family, especially Liu Xia, who is worried about her brother", said Mo.
Calls to the prosecutor's office in the suburban Beijing district of Huairou where Liu Hui is to be tried rang unanswered. Family members publicly declined comment, but privately one said the stress on the family is taking its toll. They are under close surveillance and have been warned not to talk to the media about Liu Xiaobo or Liu Xia, said the family member, who asked not to be identified.
An associate of Mo's, who declined to be named, said Liu Xia skipped her February visit to Liu Xiaobo in Jinzhou prison 280 miles (450km) east of Beijing out of anger at the arrest of her brother.
Chinese authorities commonly put pressure on relatives and friends of government critics and political and religious dissidents as a way to try to keep them in line. Even by those standards, the treatment of the Liu family is severe and underscores how the Nobel award embarrassed the Chinese government, which bridles at criticisms of its human rights record and its authoritarian political system.
"We used to interact with both Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia's brothers and sisters, but now we have been completely cut off from them," said Pu Zhiqiang, an activist lawyer and family friend. "I think there is only one explanation about this: that the family has been the victim of repressive measures, which are cruel and cowardly."
Liu Xiaobo, once a literary critic and university lecturer, had campaigned for peaceful democratic change for 20 years and been imprisoned three times before his current stint, an 11-year sentence for drafting a programmatic call for political reform called Charter '08.
The recent arrest of the brother, Liu Hui, may be particular retaliation for two incidents that broke the security cordon around Liu Xia and her isolation in her fifth-floor apartment in central Beijing. Reporters from The Associated Press visited her briefly in December, getting into the building while the guards were apparently away at lunch. A few weeks later five Chinese activist friends did the same thing. In both cases Liu Xia appeared agitated and shaken.
Pu, the lawyer and Liu family friend, said arresting and prosecuting Liu Hui in an ordinary business dispute fits a pattern of selectively using the law to harass activists and their families.
The artist and prominent government critic Ai Weiwei has faced tax charges, for example, rather than a direct attack against his activism. "State security is increasingly using selective enforcement of the law," Pu said.
Police previously arrested Liu Hui in April last year for the same real-estate dispute but then released him on bail in September, Mo said. According to the recent indictment, Liu represented a company from the southern city of Shenzhen in development deals in Beijing, and he and a partner pocketed 3m yuan (£318,000) that was claimed by another party to the transaction.
He is scheduled to go on trial in May, Mo said, even though the disputed funds have already been returned, and there's insufficient evidence of a crime. "This is irregular," Mo said.
U.S. worried about Egypt’s rise in sexual violence
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 29, 2013 16:03 EDT
The United States on Friday expressed concern about a rise in sexual violence and gang rapes in Egypt and condemned local politicians who have said the women are to blame.
The response came after a string of reports by AFP and other media outlets about women who are speaking out about rape and other sexual attacks inflicted by groups of men at demonstrations in the wake of the 2011 uprising.
The same reports have quoted ultra-conservative Egyptian Islamists as saying the women are asking for such attacks because they mingle with men in public.
White House deputy spokesman Joshua Earnest said President Barack Obama’s administration has seen the reports and is “deeply concerned.”
“Sexual violence, including gang rapes, has occurred during recent demonstrations in Egypt,” Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One.
“This is a cause of great concern to the United States, the international community and to many Egyptians. These victims are the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of Egypt.”
Earnest said the Egyptian government should take measures to prevent sexual violence and to prosecute those involved.
“The idea that some Egyptians are blaming the victims for being raped and assaulted is abhorrent.
“We strongly condemn these views and reaffirm the right of women to express themselves in public squares alongside men, as well as the responsibility of the Egyptian government to protect them.”
Egypt has been rocked by demonstrations in recent months in which protesters opposed to President Mohamed Morsi — a former senior Muslim Brotherhood figure elected last year — clash with police and supporters of the Islamist group.
The demonstrations frequently turn violent, and several women have been assaulted by mobs of young men in and around Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, epicenter of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The attackers have stripped women of their clothes with knives, beaten them and penetrated them with their fingers.
On January 25, as thousands of Egyptians marked the second anniversary of the uprising, at least 19 women were assaulted, according to Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, one of several groups formed to try to stop the attacks.
Foreigners reporting on the demonstrations have also been targeted, including well-known CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who was sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square the night Mubarak was forced to step down.
The latest US travel warning for Egypt notes “a rise in gender-based violence in and around protest areas” and says that while Americans have not been targeted for their nationality, they should avoid all demonstrations.
March 29, 2013
Tunisian Protesters Join Lawmakers’ Call for Women’s Affairs Minister to Resign
By AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
TUNIS (Agence France-Presse) — Dozens of angry Tunisians brandishing shoes on Friday demanded the resignation of the minister of women’s affairs, accusing her of failing to stand up to the ruling Islamists.
The minister, Sihem Badi, has for months been strongly criticized by civil society activists over her ties to Ennahda, the Islamist party that leads the coalition government and that secular opposition groups say seeks to curtail women’s rights.
Fifty members of Parliament on Thursday signed a no-confidence motion against the minister, according to the official news agency TAP, after similar protests earlier in the week.
On Friday, protesters chanted “Badi get out!” and “Government of terrorism, minister of rape.” Many of them waved shoes, a gesture considered insulting in conservative Arab societies, and likened Ms. Badi to the reviled wife of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011.
Calls for Ms. Badi’s resignation have increased since the recent rape of a 3-year-old girl at a nursery in a Tunis suburb. The main suspect was arrested last Sunday.
After reports of the rape case emerged, Ms. Badi said that a member of the girl’s family was to blame and that no measures against the nursery were needed.
“She has not fulfilled her role as minister for the affairs of women and the family, and she has done nothing to guarantee the rights of children since her appointment” in 2011, said Lilia Ben Kheder, a lawyer.
Other critics of Ms. Badi say that the ministry has allowed illegal day care centers to operate without supervision and that rapes have occurred at other facilities under the ministry’s authority.
A number of people staged a counterdemonstration in support of the minister, shouting slogans like “The people still want Badi” and “Tunisia is Islamic and not secular.”
Ms. Badi belongs to President Moncef Marzouki’s party, which is Ennahda’s center-left ally in the governing coalition.