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« Reply #5505 on: Apr 03, 2013, 07:34 AM »

04/02/2013 06:03 PM

Hitler's Food Taster: One Bite Away from Death

By Fabienne Hurst

Each meal could have been her last, but Adolf Hitler's food taster Margot Wölk lived to tell her story. Forced to test the Nazi leader's meals for more than two years, the 95-year-old tells SPIEGEL ONLINE that she lived in constant fear.

It might have been something as simple as a portion of white asparagus. Peeled, steamed and served with a delicious sauce, as Germans traditionally eat it. And with real butter, a scarcity in wartime. While the rest of the country struggled to get even coffee, or had to spread margarine diluted with flour on their bread, Margot Wölk could have savored the expensive vegetable dish -- if not for the fear of dying, that is. Wölk was one of 15 young women who were forced to taste Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's food for some two and a half years during World War II.

The 24-year-old secretary had fled from her parents' bombed-out Berlin apartment in the winter of 1941, traveling to her mother-in-law's home in the East Prussian village of Gross-Partsch, now Parcz, Poland. It was an idyllic, green setting, and she lived in a house with a large garden. But less than three kilometers (1.9 miles) away was the location that Hitler had chosen for his Eastern Front headquarters -- the Wolf's Lair.

"The mayor of the little nest was an old Nazi," says Wölk. "I'd hardly arrived when the SS showed up at the door and demanded, 'Come with us!'"

Sitting in the same apartment in Berlin's Schmargendorf area where she was born 95 years ago, she carefully eats tiny pieces of crumb cake from a silver fork. "Delicious," she says. Wölk has learned to enjoy food again, but it wasn't easy.

Hitler's thugs brought her and the other young women to barracks in nearby Krausendorf, where cooks prepared the food for the Wolf's Lair in a two-story building. The service personnel filled platters with vegetables, sauces, noodle dishes and exotic fruits, placing them in a room with a large wooden table, where the food had to be tasted. "There was never meat because Hitler was a vegetarian," Wölk recalls. "The food was good -- very good. But we couldn't enjoy it."

Trapped at the Wolf's Lair

There were rumors that the Allies had plans to poison Hitler. After the women confirmed that the food was safe, members of the SS brought it to the main headquarters in crates. Each morning at 8 a.m., Wölk was rousted from bed by the SS, who shouted "Margot, get up!" from beneath her window. She was only needed if Hitler was actually at the Wolf's Lair, though she never actually saw him.

Thus a young woman who had refused to join the League of German Girls (BDM), the girl's version of Hitler Youth, and whose father had been hauled off for refusing to join the Nazi party, became Hitler's helper. Each day, her life was on the line for a man she deeply despised.

Flight, however, was not an option. Allied bombs had damaged her Schmargendorf apartment, which stood in knee-deep water. Her husband Karl was at war, though having heard nothing from him in two years, she had long since assumed he was dead. "Where was I supposed to go?" she asks. At least in Gross-Partsch she had her mother-in-law and her own bed.

Then July 20, 1944 arrived. A few soldiers had invited women from the area to a film showing in a tent near the headquarters, when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's bomb exploded. "The explosion ripped us off the wooden benches," Wölk says. Then someone yelled, "Hitler is dead!" But the assassination plot had failed. "He walked away with a few bruises," Wölk says dryly.

After that, the Nazis tightened security around the Wolf's Lair, and the tasters were no longer allowed to live at home. Instead, they were boarded in an empty school nearby. "We were guarded like caged animals," Wölk says.

Escape to Berlin

Then one night an SS officer used a ladder to get into the room where she was sleeping and raped her. She says that she remained silent during the attack. "The old pig," Wölk says, adding that she had never felt so helpless. "The next morning the ladder was still lying in front of the building." She remains quiet and matter-of-fact, saying it's important to her that her story be taken seriously.

When the Soviet army was just a few kilometers away from reaching the Wolf's Lair, a lieutenant took her aside and told her, "Go, get out of here!" He put her on a train to Berlin, and it saved her life. After the war she saw him again there, and he told her that all of the other food tasters had been shot by Soviet soldiers.

Her life was saved a second time by a Berlin doctor who took her in after she fled the Wolf's Lair. When SS soldiers showed up at his practice searching for the fugitive, he lied to them and they left.

As she returned to Schmargendorf, however, she fell into the hands of the Soviet army. For two weeks, they raped her repeatedly, inflicting such brutal injuries that she was never able to bear children. She pauses at the painful memory. "I was so desperate," the 95-year-old whispers. "I didn't want to live anymore."

A Survival Trick

It wasn't until she was reunited with her husband Karl in 1946 that she began to have hope again, Wölk says. He was marked by years of war and imprisonment, but she nursed him back to health, and the couple spent another 34 happy years together.

Wölk smiles when she thinks of her husband. After all of her experiences, she is not a bitter woman. Quite the contrary, in fact. She's dressed up in a royal blue sweater and a necklace of wooden beads. She's also put on makeup, or "painted herself," as she calls it. Despite the past, she says she has always tried to be happy. "I didn't lose my humor," she says. "Though it got more sarcastic."

Instead, she decided not to take it all too seriously. "That was always my trick to survival," she says.

But for a long time, Wölk didn't want to even think about what happened in Gross-Partsch, much less discuss it. The experience came to her often in dreams, however. It wasn't until this winter, when a local journalist paid her a visit for her 95th birthday and began asking questions, that she spoke about what she calls the worst years of her life. At that moment, she suddenly decided to break her silence. "I just wanted to say what happened there," she says. "That Hitler was a really repugnant man. And a pig."

This article originally appeared in German on, SPIEGEL ONLINE's history portal.

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« Reply #5506 on: Apr 03, 2013, 07:48 AM »

Who are the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Arab Spring gave the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates the chance to play vital roles in the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions. But now the organisation has itself become the target of violent protests. So, who are these men and how did they get where they are?

Patrick Kingsley   
The Guardian, Tuesday 2 April 2013 19.16 BST   

The 25 Muslim Brothers had been locked inside the mosque for five hours, but the protesters couldn't agree about what to do with them. Some simply wanted to swap them for demonstrators captured and beaten by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. "Our religion is about forgiveness," said one protester, speaking through a window to the Brothers inside. "We won't hurt you."

But other protesters disagreed. "They are infidels," screamed a man repeatedly. "Let them die inside."

The date was Friday 22 March, and the rest of Cairo was dulled by a pale fog of dust. It was the first of the khamseen, a dust-filled wind that sweeps in from the Sahara each spring, blurring the streets and skies into a single ochre smudge. But high up in Moqattam – a vast hump of rock that rises from the slums in the east of the city, and houses the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood – the air was clogged with something more menacing.

In the streets near the Brotherhood's compound, there were molotovs and rocks, birdshot and teargas. Elsewhere, black smoke billowed skywards as protesters burned posters of Mohamed Morsi – onetime Brotherhood stalwart and president of Egypt. What had begun as a protest against Morsi and his alleged deference to Brotherhood interests was now a full-scale street battle between Brotherhood loyalists and opposition demonstrators.

Where the fighting happened on Friday was as significant as how it did. Since the 2011 uprising that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, protesters have usually focused their attention on institutions of the state, with Brotherhood offices generally attacked as part of wider violence. But last month, protests exclusively targeted the headquarters of the Brotherhood. The implication was clear. For its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood is now as much an enemy of the revolution's goals as the police, the army – even Mubarak. "Hosni is Morsi," summarised Maha Hatab, who had travelled to the protest from a town 10 miles west of Cairo. "It's the same revolution."

The charge sheet against the Ikhwan – as the organisation is known in Arabic – is long. But if it was melted down to a single criticism, it might be this: democracy does not end at the ballot box – and yet the Brotherhood and its affiliates behave as if it does.

In particular, the opposition is furious at how – in an act seen as that of a dictator – Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers in November to ram through a deeply controversial new constitution. The document had been drawn up by a committee dominated by allies of the Brotherhood. It is felt to be ambiguous about free speech, women's rights, and minorities, while paving the way for an Islamic state.

At a time when a polarised Egypt urgently needs to build political consensus, Morsi has also been criticised for appointing allies to key positions within the Egyptian administrative hierarchy. "The general concern," explains Khaled Fahmy, head of history at the American University in Cairo, "is about the Ikhwanisation of the state."

More specific concerns include the police – whose brutality Morsi is felt to have made little attempt to reform – as well as outbursts of extraordinary misogyny. Last month, a Brotherhood statement claimed that if women were allowed to work without their husband's permission, it would lead to the "complete disintegration of society". The Brotherhood's supporters hope it will usher in a moderate Islamist state in the mould of Turkey. But statements such as this add grist to the view that – though no worse on gender equality than the Mubarak regime – it is in fact the harbinger of a second Iran.

For its part, the Brotherhood can barely see itself in these accusations. In its eyes, its is a long-suffering movement with a strong support-base and a rich history of grassroots social work that is doing its best in trying economic circumstances to hold the country together. Anger at the government and at the Brotherhood may be rising across all echelons of Egyptian society, as unemployment rises along with the cost of living. But the Brotherhood feel it still has a mandate to govern, especially as the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), its political wing, has won every election since 2011. And it considers critics members of a metropolitan elite out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Egyptians.

"It's scary for them to believe that that amount of people believe the same things and support the same guy," Gehad al-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, told the Guardian earlier this year. "In reality," he added, "the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most mature, non-violent political [movement] in the Middle East."

Back in early 2011, some would have been surprised by the Brotherhood's current prominence. As one dictator after another was toppled in the Middle East, it seemed – from a distance – that they would be replaced by a generation of young westernised tweeters, well versed in liberalism and iPhones. Brotherhood members played a sizeable role in Tahrir – but at the time, even Morsi claimed the group had little interest in power. "We don't wish to lead [the revolution]," he said, "but we want to be part of it." The Brotherhood even sacked a leading member for announcing plans to run for president. Instead, liberal leaders such as Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN diplomat, were touted by some as Egypt's likely new head of state.

But ElBaradei never even ran for office. Two years on, the power vacuum left in two of the countries most associated with the Arab Spring – Tunisia and Egypt – has instead been filled by incarnations of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, the wellspring of the 2011 uprisings, the ruling party is Ennahda – a movement regarded as the Tunisian manifestation of the Brotherhood that, before the revolution, was practically in exile. In Egypt, the Brotherhood's political wing controlled 2012's short-lived parliament, while Morsi, once one of its senior officials, became Egypt's first elected president last June (before resigning from the movement in a gesture of independence). In Libya, the Brotherhood's political offshoot did not do as well as expected in last year's elections – but still came second. Meanwhile, its Syrian branch plays a significant (and, some argue, obstreperous) role in the country's ongoing civil war. "The Brotherhood," concludes Alison Pargeter in the new edition of her eponymous biography of the movement, "has shifted from semi-clandestine opponent to legitimate political power almost overnight."

It is quite some change. For much of its history, the Brotherhood's main managerial experience lay in its grassroots social work: clinics, classes and food-handouts in some of Egypt's poorest areas. And yet it is this work that explains both its continued popularity among many Egyptians – as well as its ability to mobilise so quickly after the fall of Mubarak. "They were very organised," says John McHugo, author of The Concise History of the Arabs. "They basically had an electoral organisation throughout Egypt at a time when very few other people did."

The organisation extends beyond Egypt, too – with branches in Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Libya. Brotherhood members founded Hamas in Gaza, while Tunisia's ruling party, Ennahda, was set up by admirers of the movement. "There's always been a sense that Ennahda was from the same school of thought as the Brotherhood. All of them were. All of them were effectively descendants or affiliates of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood," explains Shadi Hamid, an expert on political Islam, and director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "The Egyptian Brotherhood was the mother of all Islamist movements."

And it has been a long time coming. Eighty-five years last Saturday, in fact: the Brotherhood was born in Egypt in March 1928 – founded by a teacher called Hassan al-Banna. Fed up with colonialism, and the westernisation of Egyptian life, al-Banna saw a need for a group that would promote traditional Islamic values. Twenty years later, the Brotherhood had an estimated 500,000 members; today, it claims to number over a million – whose rank-and-file are said to be lower-middle-class, but whose leaders are often doctors and businessmen. Each pays a portion of their income to help fund the movement.

Members take orders from a Guidance Office of around 20 elders – nominally headed by the supreme guide, Murshid Mohamed Badie, but dominated by one of his deputies, businessman Khairat el-Shater. "The Murshid is not in charge," says one middle-ranking Brother. "If we want to arrange a demonstration, Khairat el-Shater does it … He has a really strong personality. He knows how to make people follow him."

Al-Banna had a reputation for being all things to all men. Contemporaries report that he would happily change from a suit to a traditional jalabiya and back again to appeal to his different audiences. He was pragmatic and versatile almost to the point of paradox – characteristics that could also collectively describe his successors, who include thinkers as diverse as the gradualist Hassan al-Hodeibi and the fundamentalist Sayyid Qutb.

Yet the Brotherhood is not so versatile as to be a cohesive international force. Despite attempts in the 80s to bring its various wings closer together, the Brotherhood's international committee "doesn't really have binding control over the constituent branches," says Hamid. "Yes, there is consultation and some degree of coordination but it's not as if there's some Brotherhood international that is overseeing some mass regional conspiracy. There's really nothing of the sort."

Following disagreements within the movement, the Brotherhood's one-time branches in Iraq and Algeria are no longer part of the parent organisation – though ties between most other affiliates remain cordial.

"They have warm, friendly relationships and many of them lived together in exile – in London for example," says Hamid. "So when you see them at conferences they hug and they're happy to see each other because they do recognise that they're all sharing in a similar project … even though some of them might have gone in slightly different directions over the last few decades."

Tunisia's Ennahda is a case in point. Its founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, studied in Cairo – where he was heavily inspired by the Egyptian Brotherhood – before founding Ennahda in the 1970s. But, says Ghannouchi's daughter Yusra, a spokesperson for Ennahda: "The two movements are not identical. They share a lot in common, but they do have differences."

For instance: either through belief or pragmatism, Rachid Ghannouchi and parts of Ennahda seem more disposed to a pluralist society than their counterparts in Egypt. In March last year, Ghannouchi gave a lecture in which he appeared to suggest that secularism does not conflict with the principles of Islam. "The primary orbit for religion is not the state's apparatuses," he said, "but rather personal, individual convictions."

So while Ennahda and the Egyptian Brotherhood may have the same broad aims, they operate within different political environments, and behave accordingly. From the early 90s, Ennahda was brutally repressed by the former Tunisian dictatorship, which meant that by the time of the revolution, the group had a very weak organisational structure. Many of its most senior figures had been in exile for many years, and "were essentially being introduced to a society they don't really know any more," says Hamid.

Since 2011 Ennahda has therefore had to rebuild itself virtually from scratch. Significantly, it has also had to do so within a political environment that is more secular in outlook than its equivalent in Egypt. "In Tunisia, there have always been indigenous Islamist and secular parties," says Yusra Ghannouchi, "and I think that diversity will always be there."

By contrast, Egypt's Brotherhood has had 40 years to set down organisational roots, and the 2011 uprising occurred within a society that was already more influenced by grassroots Islamic trends. The Brotherhood may have remained an illegal organisation under Mubarak, but from the 70s onwards, the Egyptian authorities tacitly allowed it to develop its community programmes. By 2005, its members also formed the largest opposition grouping in parliament. Hopeless as its current actions may sometimes seem, the Brotherhood's years in opposition have left it with considerably more organisational know-how than most of its new secular rivals.

To the Brotherhood, last November's decision to fast-track the new constitution would be an example of this maturity. In its rhetoric, a new constitution was urgently needed to ensure the maintenance of Egypt's democratic transition. Had Morsi not used his powers to push it through, goes its argument, the constitution risked being derailed by judges loyal to the old regime – prolonging Egypt's post-2011 limbo. Even if the move seemed dictatorial in the short term, it served to enshrine a constitution that in the long-term actually curtails Morsi's power – which to the Brotherhood makes his actions well-intentioned, if clumsy.

But were they? For those filling the streets of Moqattam, or the hundreds recreating the Harlem Shake in the same place last month, or the thousands who embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience in Port Said, the idea is laughable. To its critics, the Brotherhood's years in opposition have arguably left its members defensive and paranoid, and therefore culturally incapable of running a democracy worthy of the name. Since its founding, many of its leaders – including Morsi – have been locked up, and some executed. For several decades, it was also a banned group. In order to survive, the movement became reliant on secrecy and a strict hierarchy. "The Brotherhood historically is not an organisation known for transparency or democracy," says McHugo. "If you are loyal and you follow all your instructions," adds one Cairo-based Brother, "then you can get a higher rank." Morsi is a prime example.

Morsi may have been elected by a clear majority, his critics admit. But they feel that support was grudgingly given. Last June, many did not vote for Morsi because they strongly believed in political Islam, but because Morsi was marginally preferable to Ahmed Shafik – his opponent in the election run-off, and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In fact, in the first round of last year's presidential elections, most voters (55.7%) actually opted for non-Islamist candidates.

When Morsi first came to power, he appeared to accept this, promising to govern in the name "of all Egyptians". But critics say he and his colleagues have since only had the Brotherhood's interests at heart. They cite the constitution debacle, the so-called Ikhwanisation, and claim that draft electoral legislation drawn up by FJP politicians will allow the FJP to gerrymander upcoming parliamentary elections.

The Brotherhood denies the claim. "We won the elections at the last parliament [but] the prime minister is not from our party," says Walid al-Haddad, a spokesman for the FJP. "We have a maximum of six-to-eight ministers in cabinet."

Still, the perception remains that many ministers – prime minister Hisham Qandil included – are at the very least Brotherhood-sympathisers. Former Brotherhood members also allege that the FJP – which is nominally independent of the movement – in fact still takes its orders from the Ikhwan. Morsi's opponents also claim that the president, who resigned from the Brotherhood to highlight his autonomy, remains a front for El-Shater and the Brotherhood's Guidance Council.

Naturally, the FJP denies this too. "It's a big lie," says a former member of the party's election team. "He listens to them. Every day he listens to them. Every hour even. But he doesn't follow their advice. He doesn't follow everything … It's really normal. It's sharing ideas. It doesn't mean he has to do everything they suggest."

"We are a civil party built on an Islamic background," Al-Haddad. "We are not for the Muslim Brotherhood only." But even if it was, he adds, it would be legitimate for them to use their power to appoint allies to key positions: "In England, the ruling party implements their programme."

Besides, the Brotherhood argues it is nearly impossible to implement any such programme, let alone an Ikhwanised one, within such a sclerotic state apparatus as Egypt's. The police force is a case in point, it argues. Many Egyptians would like to see a reformation of the security sector, whose brutality was a major cause of the 2011 uprising, and whose malpractice remains unchecked by Morsi. But his allies say his best intentions are thwarted by a police hierarchy controlled by Mubarak-era holdovers. Still, respond rights campaigners, reform is not even a priority for a Muslim Brother schooled in authoritarianism.

"It's not just that he hasn't delivered on any changes," says Heba Morayef, the head of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, "it's that he hasn't publicly acknowledged that there is a serious problem of police abuse."

Rumours also abound of Brotherhood militias, set up to bypass the police. The Brotherhood strongly rejects this: "there are no Muslim Brotherhood militias," says Al-Haddad. It can also point to equivalent behaviour from its opponents, who beat and dragged lone Brothers down the sandy slopes of Moqattam on Friday, and set on fire at least one Brotherhood member. But the opposition would argue that what happened last week is just a belated retaliation for what happened outside the presidential palace last December, when Ikhwan members allegedly led a torture campaign against demonstrators.

Others can't stand the Ikhwan's religious posturing. Religiosity is high among Egyptians of all political stripes – but many of the most devout wish the Brotherhood (as well as the ultra-orthodox Salafist groups to their right) would leave people to interpret religion in their own way. "It is only a misinterpretation of Islam that creates these kinds of statements," argues Soad Shalaby, a spokeswoman for Egypt's National Council of Women, of last month's outburst against women, which the Brotherhood made in the name of Islam. "Islam is not the Muslim Brotherhood," agreed Maha Hatab, wearing a headscarf at Moqattam. "Before 2011, we thought that the Brotherhood were real Muslims. Now we know that they are not."

It's commentssuch as Hatab's that skewer the greatest longterm challenge facing the Brotherhood. Analysts argue that, before 2011, the Brotherhood's appeal lay in its ability to transcend the dirty game of secular politics – both through its connection to ordinary Egyptians, and through its offer of a redeeming and untried alternative: Islamism. But as Hatab shows, Islamism has lost some of this innocence since coming to power – dislocated from its social work, and tarnished by the failures of government. "There was a time when you could have been part of the Muslim Brotherhood but you didn't really care about politics," says Hamid. "It was about teaching, it was about education, it was about social services. But now the Brotherhood is so much about politics that it has consumed the organisation."

So could power be the Brotherhood's undoing? For Pargeter the answer is no – or at least, not yet: "The movement can still rely upon a core base who will vote for them because of what they stand for as much as for what they do or achieve politically." It is, she says, "likely to still be able to connect with people in a way that [its] non-Islamist political rivals cannot."

But according to Hamid, it is not necessarily the non-Islamists who pose the biggest electoral threat – but other Islamist groups such as the centrist Strong Egypt party, or one of the Salafi groups. "If you're a young religious Egyptian and you want to be part of a movement, you may have wanted to join the Brotherhood 10 years ago," says Hamid. "But now the Brotherhood is so controversial in government, you may feel: well, they're too political, maybe I should consider a Salafi group that is less directly involved in politics."

It is this kind of conundrum, Hamid argues, that foregrounds the biggest challenge facing the Brotherhood: "How do you balance the demands of a religious movement with specific political objectives?" For the 25 Brothers trapped inside a mosque high above Cairo last month, the answer must have seemed painfully clear. With difficulty.

Inside the Muslim Brotherhood

• The Brotherhood is a strictly hierarchical organisation that rewards obedience. "If you are loyal and you follow all your instructions," says one of the Brotherhood's 1 million estimated members, "then you can get a higher rank."

• Nominally, the movement is led by the Murshid or supreme guide, Mohamed Badie. But according to insiders, the real power is held by one of his deputies, Khairat el-Shater. A supermarket mogul with a big beard, ­el‑Shater has allegedly pulled the strings since the start of the millennium – even when he was in prison.

"The Murshid is just a guy," explains a middle-ranking Brother who says Badie's responsibilities are religious rather than political. "Khairat el-Shater has been in charge for 12 years." Part of ­el‑Shater's influence comes from his wealth, which helps to bankroll the party – giving rise to his nickname inside the movement: minister for finance.

El-Shater is one of 20 deputies drawn from a larger, 180-strong Consultative Council – whose members set the Brotherhood's agenda. Academic pedigree is regarded as a plus for those seeking Council membership. Those with degrees and foreign languages are looked on more favourably.

• Beneath the council, there are several rungs – ranging from regional chiefs to those in charge of urban districts, or even small neighbourhoods. Each local division meets once a week, with regional discussions occurring every three months, and a national conference every six – "depending on Khairat el Shater's time".

• Rising stars are encouraged to expand their reading. "Every week they give me a book," says one, currently making his way through an analysis of the Koran. "And then they discuss this book with me."

• The Brotherhood is represented in elections by its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is nominally independent. But even members say that the FJP and its former leader still relies heavily on their Brotherhood allies. "Khairat el-Shater has a vision," argues a member. "Morsi doesn't have a vision."


Morsi’s office denies filing complaint against ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 7:25 EDT

President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday stressed Egypt’s commitment to freedom of expression, insisting his office was not behind a probe against a popular satirist that has raised international concerns.

“The presidency reiterates the importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom,” Morsi’s office said in a statement.

It denied having filed any complaint against satirist Bassem Youssef, whose wildly popular show Albernameg offers a biting critique of Egyptian politics and public figures.

Youssef is out on bail facing accusations of insulting Morsi and Islam, and he now faces a new investigation for “threatening public security.”

“The presidency has not filed any complaint against stand-up comedian Bassem Youssef,” Morsi’s office said, stressing that “the current well-publicised claims were initiated by citizens rather than the presidency.”

Under Egypt’s legal system, complaints are filed to the public prosecutor, who decides whether there is enough evidence to refer the case to trial. Suspects can be detained during this stage of investigation.

The soaring number of legal complaints against journalists has cast doubt on Morsi’s commitment to freedom of expression — a key demand of the popular uprising that toppled his predecessor Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Youssef’s high profile case prompted the United States to express “real concerns” about the direction being taken by the Egyptian government.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #5507 on: Apr 03, 2013, 07:52 AM »

April 3, 2013

Clashes Resume Across Israel-Gaza Border as Tensions Mount


JERUSALEM — Israeli-Palestinian tensions rose sharply on Wednesday, with a resumption of clashes over the Israel-Gaza border as Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails declared a three-day hunger strike to protest the death on Tuesday of a fellow inmate, a death that the Palestinians blamed on Israel.

In response to rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel, apparently in support of the Palestinian prisoners, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike in Gaza late Tuesday night, its first since a cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November. Warplanes struck two open areas in northern Gaza, causing no damage or casualties, the military said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, called the airstrikes a clear violation of the cease-fire. “We call on international parties to intervene immediately to end the Israeli escalation and also the violations against the prisoners,” he said in a statement.

The rocket fire from Gaza was the third such violation of the cease-fire brokered by Egypt in November, evidence of its fragility.

An Islamic extremist group in Gaza, the Mujahadeen Shura Council — Environs of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s rocket fire, saying in a statement that it was in support of the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The group criticized other Palestinian factions for their inaction on the prisoner issue.

On Wednesday morning, Gaza militants fired two more rockets into southern Israel. One landed at the entrance of the Israeli border town of Sderot, according to the police, and the other fell in open ground. Neither caused injuries.

The tensions in the south came amid signs in the north of increasing spillover from Syria’s bloody civil war. The Israeli military destroyed a Syrian post with tank fire on Tuesday night after shots were fired from the Syrian side at an Israeli Army jeep in the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Earlier that day, a mortar shell from Syria sailed over the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line and crashed into an open field, according to the Israeli military.

The United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert H. Serry, called the situation volatile and said it was “of paramount importance to refrain from violence in this tense atmosphere and for parties to work constructively in addressing the underlying issues.”

“The renewed violations of the cease-fire risk undermining the ‘understanding’ reached between Israel and Gaza on 21 November, and unraveling the gradual but tangible improvements achieved since then in the easing of the closure and the security situation in Gaza and southern Israel,” he said in a statement.

In a statement on Wednesday referring to the fire from both Gaza and Syria, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said, “We will not allow shooting of any sort, even sporadic, toward our citizens and our forces.”

He added, “As soon as we identify the source of the fire, we will take it down without hesitation, as we did last night and in previous cases.”

The highly charged issue of Palestinian prisoners came to the fore again after the Palestinian leadership accused Israel of deliberately delaying the treatment of Maysara Abu Hamdiya, 64, who received a diagnosis of throat cancer two months ago and died in an Israeli hospital on Tuesday.

Mr. Hamdiya, a resident of the West Bank and a retired general in the Palestinian Authority security services, was detained by Israel in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, and was serving a life term for attempted murder after sending a suicide bomber to a cafe in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said. The bomb failed to detonate.

Mr. Hamdiya’s death came amid efforts by the Western-backed Palestinian leadership to place the prisoner issue high on the diplomatic agenda, with the Obama administration calling for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Emotions over the prisoner issue have been running high among the Palestinian public in recent months, leading to protests in support of prisoners on hunger strikes and over the death of a prisoner in February under disputed circumstances.

Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.
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« Reply #5508 on: Apr 03, 2013, 07:55 AM »

April 2, 2013

Palestinians Jailed in Israel Protest After Inmate Dies


JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners staged protests in Israeli jails on Tuesday as the Palestinian leadership accused Israel of deliberately delaying the treatment of a fellow prisoner who died that morning of cancer.

Maysara Abu Hamdiya, 64, a retired general in the Palestinian Authority security services, died in a hospital in southern Israel two months after receiving a diagnosis of throat cancer. Mr. Hamdiya was detained by Israel in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, and was serving a life term for attempted murder after sending a suicide bomber to a cafe in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said. The bomb failed to detonate.

Mr. Hamdiya’s death came amid efforts by the Western-backed Palestinian leadership to place the prisoner issue high on the diplomatic agenda, with the Obama administration calling for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Emotions over the prisoner issue have been running high among the Palestinian public in recent months, leading to protests in support of prisoners on hunger strikes and over the death of a prisoner in February under disputed circumstances.

The Palestinian Authority said Mr. Hamdiya had been suffering severe throat pain since August. In the days and weeks leading up to his death, Palestinian representatives blamed Israel for procrastinating in his diagnosis and treatment as they pressed for his early release.

Sivan Weizman, a spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service, said that Mr. Hamdiya had been under medical supervision and that a committee would examine the circumstances of his death, as in all cases of prisoners dying in custody. Ms. Weizman added that the prison service had applied to a parole board for an early release for Mr. Hamdiya about a week ago, once it was clear that his illness was terminal.

The office of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said in a statement that it held the Israeli government “fully responsible” for Mr. Hamdiya’s death, which it said stemmed from a policy of “deliberate medical negligence.”

Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the authority, also accused the Israeli prison authorities of a “policy of medical negligence,” saying in a statement that the delay in treating Mr. Hamdiya “was a primary reason for his martyrdom.” He called for international monitoring of the conditions inside Israel’s prisons.

Prisoners in Israeli custody hold an honored place in Palestinian society, with many Palestinians regarding even compatriots convicted of deadly terrorist acts as political prisoners and fighters for the Palestinian cause.

With news of Mr. Hamdiya’s death, Palestinian prisoners in several Israeli jails erupted in anger, banging on cell doors and throwing objects, Ms. Weizman said. Tear gas was used to quell unrest in one prison, though calm was restored by the afternoon.

Rioting also broke out in East Jerusalem and in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, Mr. Hamdiya’s hometown, where many stores closed in protest on Tuesday and a public hall was opened to receive mourners.

Also on Tuesday, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket into southern Israel and Israel carried out an airstrike, its first since a cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there had been a strike in Gaza, Reuters reported, but gave no further details. The Hamas Interior Ministry said that Israeli planes bombed “an open area in northern Gaza” and that there were no casualties, Reuters said.

The rocket caused no damage or injury but was the latest violation of the cease-fire from the Gaza side. The Israeli military reported two launchings from Gaza earlier Tuesday, but those rockets apparently fell short and did not reach Israeli territory.

Several rockets crashed into southern Israel during President Obama’s visit last month, prompting Israel to temporarily close a commercial goods crossing into Gaza and to limit Gaza fishermen to a zone of three nautical miles off the coast. Israel had agreed to extend the zone to six nautical miles under the terms of its Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

Nayef Hashlamoun contributed reporting from Hebron, West Bank.

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« Reply #5509 on: Apr 03, 2013, 07:58 AM »

April 3, 2013

Analysis: Mali Insurgency Endangers French Pull-Out Plan


PARIS (Reuters) - France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable.

Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels' brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.

"The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let's hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat," said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.

Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups.

But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.

The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Presidential and legislative elections due in July are vital steps to stabilizing the gold and cotton producer after a military coup a year ago left a power vacuum which the rebels exploited to make gains.

"We're doing everything we can to ensure the elections happen in that timeframe," said a senior Malian government official speaking on condition of anonymity. "But if you ask me what could stop them (pulling out), I'd say: security, security, security."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius travels to Mali on Friday to make sure the main political players know what France's priorities are and that they are doing all they can to keep the political timetable on track.

Hollande has made it clear France's history of propping up African leaders indefinitely is over. He was quick to intervene against the militants who he argues could emerge as a global jihadist threat, but stresses the longer-term military, political and economic solutions must come from Malians and Africans first.

But the clock is already against him. The U.N. Security Council will vote this month to turn the current French and African mission into a U.N. peacekeeping force by July. If security does not quickly improve, French diplomats acknowledge it could be hard to justify an early winding down of troops.

"The fear is that the jihadists that have spread out will return when we leave," said one French diplomatic source. "The real political risk for us is if something serious then happens on the ground."


Caretaker Malian President Dioncounda Traore's announcement in late-January of presidential elections on July 7 and the parliamentary vote by July 31 answered a demand of Western governments which backed France's intervention.

Despite the attack in Timbuktu, Paris remains sure a good portion of the military work has been accomplished and that the withdrawal plans can be kept. It has promised to keep a rapid intervention force to fight militants if needed.

"From a security perspective things are better, but now we have to reinforce this improvement by extending that politically and through economic development," Fabius said. "We need democratic legitimacy ... Malians must express what they want for their future," he said before his visit to the capital Bamako, which lies in the country's south.

The French diplomat put the message more bluntly: "We have pushed forward the calendar to shake the Malians up a bit ... It's easy for them to let us do all the work, but at some point they need to move politically."

Officials believe the technical side of holding elections by July is possible as long as political parties agree to certain concessions, such as accepting that it may be too complicated for all refugees or displaced Malians to vote.

French officials also say that any later than July would delay elections until the end of the year due to heavy rains.

But a sporadic insurgency coupled with a slow process in negotiating with disenfranchised Tuareg separatists in the north, who have vowed to remain armed until they have certain guarantees, may also scupper Hollande's plans.


African and Malian officials privately fear France's early exit and few believe elections are possible in July. Those locals who lived under rebel rule, which included amputations as a form of punishment, are bracing for the worst.

"The withdrawal of 3,000 French troops in the northern cities would signify an abandonment and catastrophe," said Maîga, the Timbuktu teacher.

Mali's army, which is now being re-trained by European Union advisers, remains in tatters after the coup and a string of morale-sapping defeats last year. African troops have mostly stayed in the south and many lack logistics, funding and training, although a U.N. mandate could ease that burden.

Adding to general concerns, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo remains influential in Bamako.

"There is a lot of goodwill from Hollande, but the reality on the ground will mean that elections will be pushed back until after the rainy season," predicted a senior African diplomat.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; editing by Mark John and David Stamp)

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« Reply #5510 on: Apr 03, 2013, 08:00 AM »

April 2, 2013

U.N. Treaty Is First Aimed at Regulating Global Arms Sales


UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve a pioneering treaty aimed at regulating the enormous global trade in conventional weapons, for the first time linking sales to the human rights records of the buyers.

Although implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism, proponents say the treaty would for the first time force sellers to consider how their customers will use the weapons and to make that information public. The goal is to curb the sale of weapons that kill tens of thousands of people every year — by, for example, making it harder for Russia to argue that its arms deals with Syria are legal under international law.

The treaty, which took seven years to negotiate, reflects growing international sentiment that the multibillion-dollar weapons trade needs to be held to a moral standard. The hope is that even nations reluctant to ratify the treaty will feel public pressure to abide by its provisions. The treaty calls for sales to be evaluated on whether the weapons will be used to break humanitarian law, foment genocide or war crimes, abet terrorism or organized crime or slaughter women and children.

“Finally we have seen the governments of the world come together and say ‘Enough!’ ” said Anna MacDonald, the head of arms control for Oxfam International, one of the many rights groups that pushed for the treaty. “It is time to stop the poorly regulated arms trade. It is time to bring the arms trade under control.”

She pointed to the Syrian civil war, where 70,000 people have been killed, as a hypothetical example, noting that Russia argues that sales are permitted because there is no arms embargo.

“This treaty won’t solve the problems of Syria overnight, no treaty could do that, but it will help to prevent future Syrias,” Ms. MacDonald said. “It will help to reduce armed violence. It will help to reduce conflict.”

Members of the General Assembly voted 154 to 3 to approve the Arms Trade Treaty, with 23 abstentions — many from nations with dubious recent human rights records like Bahrain, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The vote came after more than two decades of organizing. Humanitarian groups started lobbying after the 1991 Persian Gulf war to curb the trade in conventional weapons, having realized that Iraq had more weapons than France, diplomats said.

The treaty establishes an international forum of states that will review published reports of arms sales and publicly name violators. Even if the treaty will take time to become international law, its standards will be used immediately as political and moral guidelines, proponents said.

“It will help reduce the risk that international transfers of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement after the United States, the biggest arms exporter, voted with the majority for approval.

But the abstaining countries included China and Russia, which also are leading sellers, raising concerns about how many countries will ultimately ratify the treaty. It is scheduled to go into effect after 50 nations have ratified it. Given the overwhelming vote, diplomats anticipated that it could go into effect in two to three years, relative quickly for an international treaty.

Proponents said that if enough countries ratify the treaty, it will effectively become the international norm. If major sellers like the United States and Russia choose to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the world negotiates what weapons can be traded globally, they will still be affected by the outcome, activists said.

The treaty’s ratification prospects in the Senate appear bleak, at least in the short term, in part because of opposition by the gun lobby. More than 50 senators signaled months ago that they would oppose the treaty — more than enough to defeat it, since 67 senators must ratify it.

Among the opponents is Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican. In a statement last month, he said that the treaty contained “unnecessarily harsh treatment of civilian-owned small arms” and violated the right to self-defense and United States sovereignty.

In a bow to American concerns, the preamble states that it is focused on international sales, not traditional domestic use, but the National Rifle Association has vowed to fight ratification anyway. The General Assembly vote came after efforts to achieve a consensus on the treaty among all 193 member states of the United Nations failed last week, with Iran, North Korea and Syria blocking it. The three, often ostracized, voted against the treaty again on Tuesday.

Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian envoy to the United Nations, said Russian misgivings about what he called ambiguities in the treaty, including how terms like genocide would be defined, had pushed his government to abstain. But neither Russia nor China rejected it outright.

“Having the abstentions from two major arms exporters lessens the moral weight of the treaty,” said Nic Marsh, a proponent with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “By abstaining they have left their options open.”

Numerous states, including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, said they had abstained because the human rights criteria were ill defined and could be abused to create political pressure. Many who abstained said the treaty should have banned sales to all armed groups, but supporters said the guidelines did that effectively while leaving open sales to liberation movements facing abusive governments.

Supporters also said that over the long run the guidelines should work to make the criteria more standardized, rather than arbitrary, as countries agree on norms of sale in a trade estimated at $70 billion annually.

The treaty covers tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber weapons, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and launchers, small arms and light weapons. Ammunition exports are subject to the same criteria as the other war matériel. Imports are not covered.

India, a major importer, abstained because of its concerns that its existing contracts might be blocked, despite compromise language to address that.

Support was particularly strong among African countries — even if the compromise text was weaker than some had anticipated — with most governments asserting that in the long run, the treaty would curb the arms sales that have fueled many conflicts.

Even some supporters conceded that the highly complicated negotiations forced compromises that left significant loopholes. The treaty focuses on sales, for example, and not on all the ways in which conventional arms are transferred, including as gifts, loans, leases and aid.

“This is a very good framework to build on,” said Peter Woolcott, the Australian diplomat who presided over the negotiations. “But it is only a framework.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Jonathan Weisman from Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 2, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the head of arms control for Oxfam International. She is Anna MacDonald, not McDonald.

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« Reply #5511 on: Apr 03, 2013, 08:01 AM »

April 2, 2013

U.S. Grows More Helpful to International Criminal Court, a Body It First Scorned


THE HAGUE — When a fugitive African warlord, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, gave himself up in March to the United States Embassy in Rwanda and asked to be sent to the International Criminal Court here, American diplomats publicized the episode and swiftly brokered the transfer.

Court officials were elated. “It was important that Washington was so upfront about cooperating,” one official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not an authorized spokesman. “It was a great boost for the court.”

On Wednesday, Washington is expected to further bolster the decade-old court, an institution that it initially tried to sink and still has no intention of joining.

As part of its Rewards for Justice program, the State Department plans to pay up to $5 million for information leading to the arrests of fugitives in atrocity cases. It will issue a list of names that for the first time will include some of the court’s most-wanted fugitives, Stephen J. Rapp, the United States ambassador for global criminal justice, said in an interview. The names will be broadcast on radio and appear on reward posters printed in the languages of the fugitives’ countries, he said.

“The offer of rewards for I.C.C. fugitives will be the biggest step we’ve taken toward engagement and support” for the court, he said.

Under United States law, no money can be paid directly to the court. But a law adopted by Congress in January allows for payments to third parties for crucial information leading to fugitive arrests. Similar payments were offered to track down fugitives from the courts investigating atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

“We have paid 14 rewards in the last three years,” from $75,000 to $2 million, Mr. Rapp said.

Washington can also help the court in more discreet, indirect ways, by, for example, protecting crucial witnesses, sharing DNA data and providing forensic assistance, he said, declining to give details.

As the court has become better known and its approval rating has risen in American public opinion polls, the United States has replaced its outright hostility with a measure of cooperation.

Harold H. Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, speaking last November in the Netherlands, made a strong impact on his audience, including lawyers and diplomats, when he called the court “an important forum” for advancing United States national security and humanitarian interests. Global criminal justice “can help increase stability and thus decrease the need for more costly military interventions in the future,” he said.

Florian Jessberger, who teaches international criminal justice at the University of Hamburg, described the I.C.C. as a global court that is “somewhere between a court of justice and politics,” adding, “If the U.S. got involved without even being a member, it is to extend its influence for political reasons.”

Courtenay Griffiths, the defense lawyer for former President Charles Taylor of Liberia, called the United States’ shift in attitude toward the court a sea change.

“To use the court as an adjunct to soft power makes sense for the U.S.,” he said. “It’s cost-effective. If you can remove a warlord through the court, it’s a lot cheaper and more acceptable than using force.”

Other experts note that the court’s prosecutors have indicted only suspects from conflicts in Africa, which have not offered a true test of United States support for the court. “The U.S. wants to be at the table when the I.C.C. doesn’t touch on issues of vital interest to it,” said Philippe Sands, author of “Lawless World,” who teaches international law at University College in London. “I suspect the U.S. position would change direction rather quickly if issues of vital interest began to be investigated.”

He offered as possible examples investigations of Israel, Afghanistan and the treatment of prisoners during the United States-led war on terrorism.

Others see the growing cooperation with the court as a way for the United States to regain the moral standing they contend it lost as a result of the war in Iraq and the scandals surrounding waterboarding and other harsh treatment of prisoners.

“It deflects attention from the past American violations of international law and their own judicial anomalies like torture and disappearances,” said Antoine Bernard, a director of the International Federation for Human Rights, a group with members in more than 160 countries.

But others praised the Obama administration’s practical approach toward the court. About 100 elite American troops are training and advising forces in four African countries where brutal rebel leaders operate. No important fugitives have been caught, but attacks have reportedly decreased.

Court officials in The Hague often complain that while many of the court’s members pay their financial contributions as well as lip service to its goals, few throw their diplomatic weight behind the court. Yet it must rely on members’ cooperation for much of what happens outside its walls, including intelligence gathering, protecting its staff in insecure places and arresting suspects.

“This court needs some American muscle and power to produce in the future,” said Geoffrey Robertson, the author of “Crimes Against Humanity” and a former international judge. “The Obama administration could become an associate member, if this were on offer. That the United States remains leader of the free world should realistically be welcomed, given the alternative candidates.”
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« Reply #5512 on: Apr 03, 2013, 08:04 AM »

Astrophysicists: Black hole awakens to swallow planet-sized object

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 11:35 EDT

Astrophysicists have witnessed the rare event of a black hole awakening from its slumber to snack on a planet-sized object in a galaxy 47 million light years away, the University of Geneva said Tuesday.

The observation made using the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL satellite project, revealed a black hole that had been slumbering for years chomping on a giant, low-mass object that had come too close.

Scientists at the Swiss university analyse the data collected by INTEGRAL, launched in 2002 to study gamma rays and throw light on events far from Earth’s galaxy.

They spotted a light flare coming from a black hole in the centre of the NGC 4845 galaxy, which has a mass more than 300,000 greater than the Sun and had been dormant for more than 30 years, the university said in a statement.

Matter-sucking black holes normally lurk dormant and undetected at the centre of galaxies, but can occasionally be tracked by the scraps left over from their stellar fests.

This black hole had woken up and absorbed an object with a mass 15 times that of our own Jupiter — after taking three months to drag the snack from its trajectory.

It managed to swallow 10 percent of the object’s total mass, while the remainder stayed in orbit.

In a separate statement, the European Space Agency said the object was either a giant planet or a brown dwarf — a stars that lacks sufficient mass to sustain a thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen and helium which makes other stars, like our sun, shine brightly.

Astronomers estimate there as many errant planets in the Universe as there are stars — meaning plenty for lunch options for black holes.

Details of the project’s findings were published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“The observation was completely unexpected, from a galaxy that has been quiet for at least 20-30 years,” the European Space Agency quoted lead author Marek Nikolajuk of Poland’s University of Bialystok as saying.

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« Reply #5513 on: Apr 03, 2013, 08:37 AM »

In the USA...

April 2, 2013

In Mexican Villages, Few Are Left to Dream of U.S.


EL CARGADERO, Mexico — The pretty houses in the hills here, with their bright paint and new additions, clearly display the material benefits of having millions of workers move to the United States over the past few decades. But these simple homes also reveal why another huge exodus would be unlikely: the bulk of them are empty.

All across Mexico’s ruddy central plains, most of the people who could go north already have. In a region long regarded as a bellwether of illegal immigration — where the flow of migrants has often seemed never-ending — the streets are wind-whipped and silent. Homes await returning families, while dozens of schools have closed because of a lack of students. Here in El Cargadero, a once-thriving farm community of 3,000, only a few hundred people remain, at most.

“It’s not like it used to be,” said Fermin Saldivar Ureño, 45, an avocado farmer whose 13 brothers and sisters are all in California. “I have three kids, my parents had 14. There just aren’t as many people to go.”

As Congress considers a sweeping overhaul of immigration, many lawmakers say they are deeply concerned that providing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States would mean only more illegal immigration.

They blame the amnesty that President Ronald Reagan approved in 1986 for the human wave that followed, and they fear a repeat if Congress rewards lawbreakers and creates an incentive for more immigrants to sneak across the border.

“The big problem with immigration is convincing people in the country that it won’t turn into a 1986 endgame,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is in the bipartisan group of senators working on a bill.

But past experience and current trends in both Mexico and the United States suggest that legalization would not lead to a sudden flood of illegal immigration on the scale of what occurred after 1986. Long-running surveys of migrants from Mexico found that work, not the potential to gain legal status, was the main cause of increased border crossings in the 1990s and 2000s. And as Mr. Saldivar points out, times have changed.

The American economy is no longer flush with jobs. The border is more secure than ever. And in Mexico the birthrate has fallen precipitously, while the people who left years ago have already sent their immediate relatives across, or started American families of their own.

“It’s a new Mexico, it’s a new United States, and the interaction between them is new,” said Katherine Donato, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who specializes in immigration. As for Congressional action spurring a surge of illegal crossings, she added: “You’re just not going to see this massive interest. You don’t have the supply of people. You have a dangerous trip that costs a lot more money, and there has been strong growth all over Latin America. So if people in Central America are disenfranchised and don’t have jobs, as was the case in Mexico three or four decades ago, they might decide to go south.”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of people, from all over Mexico and other parts of the world, still try to reach the United States each year, and the country’s magnetism will partly depend on the details of what Congress approves. Who will be eligible? How long will they have to wait, and what barriers will lawmakers erect to prevent new immigrants from entering illegally and finding work?

Some scholars argue that granting any form of legal status encourages illegal migration because it creates a more settled immigrant class, attracting other relatives. “If that person is a green card holder, the power of that network would seem to be significantly stronger,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates reduced immigration.

Many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, see the 1986 law — the Immigration Reform and Control Act — as the prime example of what can go wrong.

Billed as a sweeping effort to halt illegal immigration, it gave legal status to around 2.7 million immigrants through two programs: one for farm workers and another for immigrants who had been living in the United States since 1982. For the first few years after it passed, illegal crossings fell because migrants who had once entered the United States illegally suddenly had papers allowing them to come and go at will.

But by 1990, the flaws began to show. The documentation requirements for agricultural workers were loose enough to allow for widespread fraud, encouraging people to cross the still relatively unprotected border and apply.

More significant, experts say, work visas for Mexico’s masses of poor, young men were hard to obtain and sanctions against employers using illegal workers were rarely enforced. As a result, American companies and immigrants continued to seek each other out.

“The great wave of Mexican migration to the U.S. in the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s was driven by the abundance of jobs generated by the U.S. economic boom of this period,” said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Any delayed effects of” the 1986 amnesty “were inconsequential compared with the incentives created by U.S. job growth,” he said.

Here in central Mexico, local economics and demographics also played a significant role. The collapse of the Mexican peso in 1994 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which made it harder for Mexican farmers to make a living, pushed some families to Mexican cities and accelerated a migration pattern that would soon reshape both sides of the border. More immigrants now living in the United States come from central Mexico than from any other place in the world, according to census and survey data in both countries.

In states like Zacatecas, many areas emptied out gradually. If a visa could not be obtained, the sons and daughters of farming families crossed with smugglers, calling local radio stations back home to announce to their relatives that they had survived the journey.

“It became a way of life,” said Eduardo López Mireles, president of the municipality of Jerez, which includes El Cargadero. “There are 50,000 people from Jerez over there, and 57,000 here.”

But over the past few years, the traffic patterns have changed. In Jerez and other places, the established cross-border networks of family connections that made possible one of the greatest immigration waves in American history are either tapped out — with most close relatives already in the United States — or they are sending people home. Not only were more than 10,000 Zacatecans deported in 2012 alone, according to state figures, but thousands of others have returned voluntarily because of a lack of work.

Many of these returning migrants — like Angel Castro, 38, who was sitting on a bench wearing a watch with an American flag — say they do not intend to head north again for a shot at legalization. “It’s just too hard,” Mr. Castro said.

In a half dozen towns in Zacatecas, scores of residents of all ages said that crossing the border had become too expensive and dangerous to consider seriously. In Perales, a hilltop village surrounded by fields of oats, corn and beans, a dozen men gathered by a church said it was not just all the extra American enforcement; they also feared the criminal gangs that now dominate smuggling.

Though most of the men had worked illegally in the United States before, they all said that even if they got in again, new rules would probably make it harder for them to work and impossible for them to qualify for any proposed pathway to citizenship. And because of increased prosecution in the United States, they said, getting caught without papers now could torpedo any chance of a visa later on, even just to visit relatives.

“The amnesty, it’s for them, the people who are there,” said Jose Luis Lopez, 32, a laborer in Perales with a brother in Dallas and another in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t mean much for us.”

Over the long term, experts predict that eventual citizenship for 11 million more immigrants could greatly increase legal migration as families reunite. Congress appears interested in limiting the swell, with the senators drafting legislation saying the bill might eliminate visas for married adult children and siblings of American citizens.

Regardless, the pool of potential applicants is shrinking. In a sign of just how much family reunification has already occurred, legally or not, remittances to Jerez have fallen to $100,000 or less per day, down from $1 million in the late 1980s, according to Jerez officials.

Especially in the small towns that have been sending migrants north for decades, the void is stunning. In Santa Ines, three secondary school grades were combined this year into just two classes, including one with only 11 students.

On the main road into El Cargadero, most homes are locked up and gathering dust. On a recent afternoon, there were only two people on the street: an old man in a wheelchair and another with a cane. The sound of a radio inside a home blocks away could be heard as clearly as the men’s conversation.

Nearly everyone in the town has relatives in the United States — one woman counted 150 — but the families still here tend to be intact, suggesting that legalization would be less of a magnet than before. And there are simply not as many young people over all: the birthrate across Mexico has fallen from nearly seven children per family in 1970 to just over two, partly because of a government push for family planning. Mr. Saldivar, the avocado farmer, says his daughter’s sixth-grade class has seven students, compared with 30 when he attended.

He doubted that his three children would bother heading to the United States. His son is in a college preparatory program. He and his wife, whose nine siblings are also all in the United States or Canada, live comfortably in a small, well-kept home with flowered curtains. Their main nod to migration is linguistic: they pay an English teacher to instruct their children so they can communicate with their American cousins. They are among the many here who no longer see the United States as a dreamland, recoiling at the anti-immigrant sentiment there and the stories of struggle that relatives share in phone calls and e-mails.

At least initially, many Zacatecans said, legalization may actually send more people south than north, as millions of immigrants would be able to come and go from the United States legally for the first time in years.

J. Reyes Sanchez, 53, one of the men chatting near the church, said he wanted nothing more than to see his three children in the United States, and his American grandchildren, and a pathway to citizenship could let that happen. “They could come see their family, they could come see me,” he said. “They’d practically be tourists here, but they need to come.”


April 02, 2013 03:00 PM

As Predicted, Higher Taxes Not Hurting Spending by the Rich

By Jon Perr

As the nation teetered on the edge of the so-called "fiscal cliff" in late 2012, Republican leaders warned that higher taxes for the rich would crush "job creators" and derail the U.S. economic recovery. But according to a new survey, a majority of those earning over $500,000 a year report that the new higher rates on income and capital gains have not impacted their spending, charitable giving or investment strategies. As it turns out, the Chicken Little conservatives could have spared themselves this embarrassment had they just heeded the lessons of American history and the predictions of the Congressional Budget Office.

Last fall, the nonpartisan CBO forecast the impact of "going over the fiscal cliff." As the chart above shows, CBO warned that the combination of the expiring Bush tax cuts for all Americans, the end of the temporary payroll tax holiday and the steep budget cuts of the sequester could catapult unemployment to 9.1 percent while slashing gross domestic product by 2.9 percent in 2013. But ending the Bush tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 a year, the agency assured lawmakers, would have virtually no impact (the 0.1 percent of GDP in light blue above) on the U.S. economy at all.

As CNBC reported last Wednesday, the CBO appears to have had it exactly right--at least so far. The GOP's dire predictions that upper-income Americans would "would spend less, invest less and give less to charity" have not come to pass:

    The Shullman Luxury and Affluence Monthly Pulse found that 55 percent of people making $500,000 or more said higher taxes have not impacted their spending plans. Fully 61 percent of those making $250,000 or more said taxes have not impacted their spending plans.

    On investing, 59 percent of those making $500,000 or more (and 64 percent of the $250,000-plus group) said higher taxes have not impacted their investment strategies. When it comes to charity, 55 percent of those making $500,000 or more, and 62 percent of those making $250,00 or more, said paying more taxes has not impacted their giving plans.

Of course, it's still early in the year. It's possible some of the well-to-do (that is, households earning over $450,000 a year) have not yet adjusted to the fiscal cliff deal that raised their income tax rate to 39.6 percent (from 35) and capital gains and dividend tax rate to 20 percent (from 15) in addition to the surcharges from the Affordable Care Act.

Possible, but unlikely. As the decades of U.S. history show, the American economy grew faster and produced more jobs when upper-class tax rates were higher--even much higher--than today. And as the data also show, lower capitals gains tax rates don't fuel greater investment, but instead greater income inequality.

And right now, income inequality is at record highs. For the wealthiest Americans, the recession was a blip. Their steep losses have already been erased by the doubling of the stock market over the past four years. As a recent analysis by University of California Professor Thomas Saez revealed, between 2009 and 2011 the top one percent saw their incomes rise by 11 percent, even as the other 99 percent continued to lose ground. To put it another way, during that period the gilded class more than captured all of the income gains.

But despite having once again been mugged by reality, Republicans won't be changing their talking points any time soon. After all, when the Congressional Research Service last fall published an analysis which found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth, Senate Republicans demanded its retraction. And as it turns out, this spring's continuing budget resolution contained a little noticed GOP amendment asking the CBO to use so-called "dynamic scoring" which assumes that tax cuts will pay for at least part of their cost by generating more economic activity.

Republicans, who have accused the agency of "budget gimmickry" or called for its outright elimination, are demanding these changes not because the Congressional Budget Office got it wrong, but precisely because the CBO got it right.


Obama launches $100 million brain-mapping project

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 13:13 EDT

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a $100 million project to map the intricate inner mysteries of the human brain, targeting cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“The most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with,” Obama said at the White House.

“There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. And the BRAIN initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action,” Obama said.

The research initiative, financed with $100 million of Obama’s budget that will be unveiled next week, will seek to find new ways to treat, cure and prevent brain disorders like epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

Researchers will try to make complex pictures of the inner brain that show how individual cells and neural circuits work and interact and examine how the brain records, uses and retrieves vast amounts of information.

The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will be run by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

Obama was introduced as “scientist in chief” at the White House event by NIH Director Francis Collins, and his administration makes the case that despite tough fiscal times, investments in science are vital.

“I am glad I have been promoted to scientist in chief — given my grades in physics, I am not sure it is deserving,” the president said.

“But I hold science in proper esteem, so maybe I get some credit.”


The Christian Science Monitor

Fannie Mae record profit: How long until it pays back bailout money?

By Mark Trumbull, Staff writer / April 2, 2013 at 6:51 pm EDT

The mortgage giant Fannie Mae said it racked up its highest profit ever during the 2012 calendar year – a signal of housing-market recovery that raises hopes that US taxpayers will recover billions of dollars in bailout funds from the company.

Fannie Mae on Tuesday reported earnings of $17.2 billion for the year.

The firm, along with a sibling corporation named Freddie Mac, is at the heart of a US mortgage market that imploded during the financial crisis. The two firms received some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts in 2008.

But now, as housing markets are recovering, so are their fortunes.

Fannie Mae has drawn some $116 billion in financial support from the US Treasury since the firm was taken over in a federal conservatorship in 2008. Some $35.6 billion of that has, in effect, been paid back through dividend payments to the Treasury since 2009.

The company has paid a $4.2 billion dividend to the Treasury in the first quarter of 2013.

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“We expect to remain profitable for the foreseeable future and return significant value to taxpayers,” said Susan McFarland, the firm’s chief financial officer, in releasing the new profit numbers.

In February, Freddie Mac gave a similar progress report of its own, banking $11 billion in net income for 2012. The firm has paid dividends totaling some $23.8 billion to the Treasury – or 33 percent of the company’s cumulative bailout draw – since conservatorship.

Paying back the full bailout funds is still a long way off for both firms.

And even if they achieve that goal, that doesn’t mean the bailouts would be cost-free. For one thing, economists say the rescues come with “moral hazard” attached. That term refers to the risk that the behavior of large financial firms will be guided somewhat that they can expect bailouts in future crises.

Still, the rescue of Fannie and Freddie symbolize policies that worked, in the view of many economists, to quell a spreading panic in financial markets that could have made the recession much deeper.

And, in the housing market in particular, Fannie and Freddie (along with the Federal Housing Administration) have acted as bulwarks of mortgage underwriting during the past five years, when other sources of credit had largely dried up.

Fannie and Freddie provide mortgage guarantees to private lenders, or purchase loans, when the loans conform to their standards.

The goal of helping to ensure a reliable flow of mortgage credit, even during hard times, is the reason Fannie and Freddie were created in the first place. Until the conservatorship, they operated with an unusual hybrid identity as investor-owned companies serving a Congress-created purpose.

Their futures remain in doubt. Congress must consider what role the government should play in providing Fannie- and Freddie-style loan guarantees in the future.

With the example of the bailouts in mind, many argue for downsizing any implicit taxpayer underwriting of the risk that home loans will go bad, as occurred in dramatic fashion in recent years. At the same time, other lawmakers say the market for home loans shouldn’t be left completely to soar and plunge on its own.

For their part, executives at Fannie and Freddie are touting the role they’ve played in buoying the housing market since the recession ended.

“Actions [by the company] have helped … to support the housing recovery by enabling families to buy, refinance, or rent a home even during the housing crisis,”  Timothy Mayopoulos, Fannie’s chief executive officer, said in the company’s statement Tuesday.

Fannie Mae was involved in some 4 million new or refinanced mortgages in 2012, and Freddie Mac accounted for another 2 million.

With the housing market stabilizing and starting to recover since 2010, the share of Fannie-backed loans where borrowers are seriously delinquent on payments has been declining.

Some 3.3 percent of its single-family loans were in serious delinquency as of December, down from 5.5 percent in March 2010. The improvement stems partly from completing foreclosures, and partly from preventing foreclosures.


GM, Ford and Chrysler post best U.S. sales since 2007

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 1:20 EDT

Total (NYSE: TOT – news) industry sales rose 3.4 percent from March 2012 and came in at a seasonally adjusted, annual pace of 15.3 percent, according to Autodata.

That’s down slightly from February, but means the industry has now racked up five consecutive months with a sales pace of over 15 million vehicles.

The strong sales come after years of painful restructuring and the plunge in demand following the 2008 financial crisis, which pushed GM and Chrysler into government-backed bankruptcies.

“We’re not quite back to pre-recession levels, but the industry is getting closer to a full recovery every month,” said analyst Jessica Caldwell.

“As long as the auto industry continues this string of 15-plus million (sales pace) every month, there won’t be any shortage of optimism.”

Since auto sales vary significantly from month to month because of traditional shopping patterns, seasonal sales and product launch schedules, analysts focus on the seasonally adjusted sales pace.

GM said it posted its best March performance since 2007 “thanks to a strengthening economy and new products” as sales rose six percent to 245,950 vehicles.

“Sales of smaller cars have been robust for some time,” GM sales chief Kurt McNeil said in a statement.

“Trucks have improved in lockstep with the housing market and the strength of the crossover market signals that America’s families are more confident about their financial health.”

Chrysler said its sales rose five percent to 171,606 vehicles in March despite limited inventory of some of its best-selling models, including Jeep and heavy-duty Ram trucks.

It was the company’s 36th consecutive month of gains in year-over-year sales, and the strongest sales for any month since December 2007.

Ford posted its best performance for any month since May 2007 as sales rose six percent to 236,160 vehicles in March.

Meanwhile, Toyota sales rose one percent to 205,342 units in March.

“The auto industry continued its string of impressive monthly results, and at Toyota we had our best month since Cash for Clunkers in August of 2009,” said Bob Carter, head of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, USA.

“A strong first-quarter close and increased consumer confidence continue to position the auto industry as a leader in the economic recovery.”

Honda sales rose seven percent to 136,038 units while Nissan saw its sales rise by one percent to 137,726 vehicles.

Korean automakers bucked the positive trend, with Kia down 15 percent at 49,125 and Hyundai (KSE: 011760.KS – news) down two percent at 68,303.

Volkswagen (Other OTC: VLKAY – news) , which has been aggressively expanding in the United States, marked its 31st consecutive month of gains and its strongest March in 40 years as sales rose three percent to 37,704 vehicles.

“While we are cautious in terms of economic outlook, we expect to see continued growth at a moderate pace in the months ahead,” said Jonathan Browning, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America.


April 2, 2013

Pipeline Spills Stir New Criticism of Keystone Plan


Two recent oil pipeline spills have prompted new criticism from opponents of the proposed Keystone XL project, while raising more questions about whether the federal government is adequately monitoring the nation’s vast labyrinth of pipelines.

An Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in central Arkansas on Friday, leaving a sheen of oil on nearby streets and causing the evacuation of 22 homes in the small town of Mayflower.

Exxon Mobil said its Pegasus Line, which runs from Patoka, Ill., to Nederland, Tex., was carrying heavy crude from western Canada when the spill occurred. On Tuesday, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel of Arkansas announced that he was opening an investigation into the spill, and he asked Exxon to preserve all documents related to the accident.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would also move heavy Canadian crude, leapt on the Exxon spill, reiterating their contention that crude drawn from Canada’s tar sands region is too risky to transport and especially vexing to clean up.

“What we’ve got here is a small example of the type of risks associated with a tar sands pipeline,” said Anthony Swift, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of many environmental groups fighting the pipeline proposal, which is awaiting State Department approval. “It also demonstrates the large gaps in pipeline safety.”

On Tuesday, vacuum trucks and crews were still working to clean up the accident, which the Environmental Protection Agency called a “major spill.” While it was unclear how much oil had leaked, Exxon Mobil said it had recovered thousands of gallons of oil mixed with water and had prepared for a spill as large as 420,000 gallons, though it said it believed that the amount released was smaller.

“Our focus is on the safety of the people in the community and restoring the environment as soon as we possibly can,” said Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman. “We’re committed to the cleanup and will stay until it’s done.”

The spill appears to be the largest accident involving heavy crude since an Enbridge Energy pipeline spill in 2010 that dumped more than 840,000 gallons near Marshall, Mich., soiling a 39-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

Late Tuesday, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration ordered Exxon not to restart the pipeline without getting approval, because of its proximity to populated areas and waterways, and because the initial investigation had not yet uncovered the cause of the spill.

The Arkansas spill followed an accident in Utah on March 18 in which a Chevron pipeline leaked more than 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel in a wetlands area about 50 miles from Salt Lake City.

“Chevron Pipe Line Company regrets this incident, and we are committed to remediating the affected area and mitigating all impacts on the environment,” Gareth Johnstone, a Chevron spokesman, said in a statement.

The Chevron spill was the third in three years in Utah, prompting Gov. Gary R. Herbert to sharply criticize the pipeline agency at a recent news conference. “Obviously, they have not done a very good job of overseeing the pipes that travel between our states,” he said.

The safety records of both the Exxon and Chevron pipelines have been under scrutiny in recent years. Last week, the pipeline agency proposed imposing a $1.7 million fine on Exxon Mobil over a 2011 spill that dumped an estimated 63,000 gallons of oil in the Yellowstone River in Montana.

Records show that the pipeline agency has proposed a fine of about $150,000 in the same year over the company’s failure to properly test several pipelines.

In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline spilled more than 33,000 gallons of crude into Red Butte Creek near Salt Lake City. The company took more than 10 hours to respond to the spill, and it was fined $423,600, according to pipeline agency records. Seven months later, a second Chevron spill sent an additional 21,000 gallons of oil into the same area.

Carl Weimer, a member of the agency’s technical advisory committee, said he was told by a federal official that Chevron was thought to have misidentified the section of the pipeline that caused the spill last month.

According to Mr. Weimer, who runs a pipeline safety watchdog group, regulators believed that Chevron might have mistakenly classified the part of the pipeline in question as seamless in its integrity management plan, an internal document that helps guide inspections. In fact, the section had a seam, and it was of a type known to be subject to accidents, Mr. Weimer said.

Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the pipeline agency, said it was investigating whether Chevron had correctly identified the types and ages of pipe in its integrity management plan.

However, Mr. Johnstone, the Chevron spokesman, said the company had indeed identified the part of the pipeline that ruptured as having a seam.

In recent years, critics have said that the pipeline agency has allowed pipeline companies too much autonomy in regulating their own operations. In 2011, Congress approved legislation that increased maximum fines that pipeline operators face for safety violations, among other measures.

Ms. Layson said the pipeline agency had become more aggressive in holding operators accountable for pipeline safety, while increasing enforcement and fines.

Last month, the State Department released a revised environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline, finding no conclusive evidence to keep the project from moving forward. A public hearing on the environmental report will take place this month in Nebraska. President Obama is expected to make a decision on the pipeline this year.


April 2, 2013

Report Links High Rates of Gun Violence to Weak State Regulations


Many states with the weakest gun laws have the worst rates of gun violence, ranking high on numerous indicators, like gun homicides and suicides, firearm deaths of children, and killings of law enforcement officers, according to a report to be issued Wednesday by the liberal Center for American Progress.

Alaska ranked first in overall gun deaths, the report found, with 20.28 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 — more than twice the national average — followed by Louisiana and Montana, all states that prior analyses have judged to have weak gun laws. Eight of the states with the highest levels of gun violence were among the 25 with the weakest gun laws, the report found.

The report is the second in recent weeks to link gun deaths and firearms laws. Last month, a group of Boston researchers reported online in JAMA Internal Medicine that more firearm laws in a state were associated with lower rates of firearm deaths. That study took into account factors like poverty, unemployment, sex and race, education, population density, violent deaths unrelated to firearms and household firearm ownership.

Deborah Azrael, a research scientist at Harvard’s School of Public Health who studies firearms and violence, called the latest state-by-state report “a useful collation of data,” and said it “reinforces what we know from other studies, which is that the rate of exposure to firearms is associated with overall mortality.”

But the report was criticized by opponents of tighter gun laws, who faulted its methodology and said it ignored the beneficial effect of gun ownership in combating crime.

“The real world experience of guns obviously is that they are harmful in the wrong hands and protective in the right hands,” said David B. Kopel, an assistant policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “So you want to look at both effects.”

He added that high rates of gun violence in states with less gun regulation did not necessarily indicate higher crime rates over all.

“Is Louisiana a low-control state with a lot of crime? Absolutely,” he said. “On the other hand, New York and California are clearly dangerous states in comparison to the rest of the country, and they’re also very high-control states.”

The new report was based on an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In addition to firearm deaths, the report looked at other indicators of gun violence, like aggravated assaults with firearms, the percentage of guns traced to crimes within two years of their purchase, and the rate at which guns bought in one state are recovered in another after a crime is committed, a measure of illegal gun trafficking.

When all 10 indicators of gun violence were taken into consideration, Louisiana — the state with the highest rate of gun homicides, 9.5 per 100,000 people in 2010, and one of the states with the highest numbers of firearm deaths among children from 2001 to 2010 — ranked as the most violent state. Hawaii had the lowest overall rate of gun violence, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, all among the 10 states that an analysis last year by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found had the toughest laws.

“Obviously, we know that correlation is not causation necessarily,” said Arkadi Gerney, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and the lead author of the report, “but it suggests that there could be a causal relationship, and there are a lot of reasons to think that there is.”

Some states did not follow the pattern. Vermont, which has relatively weak gun laws, had low rates of gun violence. Maryland, which has relatively strong firearm legislation, had a high level of gun homicides, ranking fifth, with 5.3 per 100,000 people.

Dr. Azrael, of Harvard, noted that the factors that were driving gun violence differed from state to state — in states like Montana and Idaho, for example, the rate of gun suicides greatly outstrips the rate of homicides committed with firearms.

Tightened laws like universal background checks could address the availability of guns to criminals and the spread of trafficked guns across state borders, she said. But understanding more about things like “household decision making about guns and how people weigh the costs and benefits of guns” should also be part of the conversation, she said.


April 2, 2013

Background Checks Are Still Stumbling Block in Gun Law Overhaul


WASHINGTON — With Senate Democrats still struggling to line up support, the success or failure of President Obama’s four-month campaign to overhaul gun laws will most likely revolve around a single provision: a proposal to expand federal background checks for gun purchases.

Background checks, both advocates and independent researchers say, would have a bigger potential effect on gun violence than any other measure under consideration — including the much-discussed assault-weapons ban, which has little chance of passing in Congress. Proposed federal gun-trafficking laws and changes to mental health databases would have a marginal impact on gun violence, experts say.

But even though around 90 percent of those polled in public surveys support background checks, the fight for it and the rest of the first major piece of gun control legislation since 1993 faces a difficult test in the coming weeks. On Tuesday, Senate aides said that formal debate and substantive votes on the gun issues would probably slip to the week of April 15 — a setback considering that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, had pledged that it would be the first issue to come up when Congress returns from spring recess next week.

Background checks are central to the delay. Efforts to reach a compromise between Senators Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, have foundered. Separate talks between Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, and Mark Steven Kirk, Republican of Illinois, have also yet to yield a breakthrough.

Among the most difficult questions are which gun-purchase records the government would track and which purchases would be subject to background checks.

“The background-check piece is the single most important thing we can do right now to make a difference,” said Pia Carusone, the executive director of Americans for Sensible Solutions, the advocacy group formed by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman, and her husband, Mark Kelly, after Ms. Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson in 2011.

“If the background check bill doesn’t pass Congress,” Ms. Carusone said, “we are not going to be happy.”

Mr. Obama will push for the legislation on Wednesday not far from the site of a movie theater massacre in Colorado last year. Next week, he will travel to Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at a school in December, as part of a stepped-up public campaign to pressure lawmakers.

Lawmakers who support gun rights and officials with the National Rifle Association deride background checks as ineffective and a threat to gun ownership. Most Republicans in the Senate oppose the measure, and several have said they will filibuster to prevent its passage. A handful of Democratic senators also have expressed doubts.

In the face of that opposition, approval of the legislation would represent a major victory for Mr. Obama and his allies, only months after gun-control legislation seemed a political impossibility. Advocates say that more stringent background checks would shut down large gaps in a system that allow felons, domestic abusers and the mentally ill to buy guns.

Since the existing background-check system began, in 1994, officials have screened more than 108 million people before they could buy a gun, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the federal government has blocked 1.9 million attempted purchases because of felony convictions or other problems with the would-be buyers’ background.

But no background check is required for about 40 percent of gun purchases, including those made online or at gun shows, federal officials estimate. Requiring checks for those purchases would be the single most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, advocates say.

“The research is so strong that it would actually make a difference,” said Ellen Alberding, the president of the Joyce Foundation, which makes research grants to inform gun violence prevention efforts. “It has been our grantees’ top priority from Day 1 on this.”

Should it eventually pass the Senate, the background check legislation would then head to a House chamber firmly controlled by Republicans and advocates of gun rights. If it fails, gun-control supporters may have missed their best chance in a generation at significant new federal laws. For the president, it would be a reminder of the limits of his powers to persuade.

“We have always said that this would be hard,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “We remain engaged in conversations with the Senate and those senators who are interested in forging a bipartisan compromise on measures to reduce gun violence.”

A new assault weapons ban has always seemed the most visceral response to the massacre in Newtown, Conn. But with advocates of stricter gun laws turning their attention to background checks, opponents of new gun laws are doing so as well.

In the past, the N.R.A. had supported background checks. But in a February speech, Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s chief executive, lashed out at the tougher background checks being pushed by gun control advocates, which he called “the heart of their anti-gun agenda.” Mr. LaPierre said the legislation would create a national gun registry.

“When another tragic ‘opportunity’ presents itself, that registry will be used to confiscate your guns,” Mr. LaPierre warned.

Groups that oppose new gun laws are pushing hard to block the legislation. The Heritage Foundation’s lobbying group said Tuesday that it would consider votes on the gun proposals crucial to earning its support in the future. The group urged lawmakers to vote against what it called “feel good” legislation.

Gun control advocates are also stepping up their campaigns in support of an expanded background check system. The group headed by Ms. Giffords and Mr. Kelly will run online ads next week in four Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Nevada — urging people to call their members of Congress.

Separately, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, will continue to run television ads aimed at persuading senators to vote for the background check legislation.

John Feinblatt, a senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg on guns, compared the existing background check system to an airport with two lines for screening passengers — one line with security and one where people “just waltz through” without being checked.

“If you were only going to do one thing, this is the single most important thing that Congress can do to prevent gun violence,” Mr. Feinblatt said. “That’s what is going to make a difference. That’s what’s going to keep people safe.”

Mr. Bloomberg has indicated he is willing to invest some of his personal fortune in defeating candidates who refuse to support gun control measures.

“If it does fail, then Congress is going to need to explain why they thwarted the will of the electorate,” Mr. Feinblatt said of the background check provision. “When the next tragedy occurs, members of Congress will have to explain what they did to prevent it.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.


Republicans Use the Deficit As an Excuse to Cut Food and Health Care for Children

By: Rmuse
Apr. 2nd, 2013

There is an intrinsic quality in the animal kingdom, including human beings, to care for the young that transcends species, religion, and race without exception. In nature, the innate protection quotient is based on maintaining the species survival, and to a degree it is true of human beings as well although love and parental bond certainly play a major role. Even selfish Republicans care for children, except their regard is limited to their own offspring, unless it is politically expedient to make a phony outward display of concern for “future generations” as they enact austerity cuts to education and domestic programs that provide children with healthcare, food assistance, and a secure future.  Now, Republicans are back again fighting for children’s futures and, as is their wont, they are protecting the next generation by seeking entitlement cuts to Social  Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as the debt and deficit reduction frenzy focus shifts to protect America’s most precious resource; our children.

Over the past few weeks Republicans acknowledged there is not an imminent debt crisis even as they voted for an austerity-laden budget and celebrated drastic job-killing sequestration cuts. The fear-mongering over the immediate debt crisis is now fear mongering over the long-term deficit Republicans claim is a moral issue, and that unless deeper austerity and Social Security cuts are enacted,  then America is waging “generational warfare” by “imposing a crippling burden on the next generation.” Of course, with nearly 25% of America’s children living in extreme poverty, and deeper sequester cuts over the next nine years loom large, chances are the next generation will be much smaller so it makes sense to cut “entitlements” like Social Security in the Republicans’ never-ending war on the deficit.

Last month when the President  met with Republicans to mend fences and find common ground to address the deficit threatening today’s children, Social Security chained CPI cuts were on the agenda. Chained CPI reduces the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) calculations for Social Security and veterans’ benefits, and it is curious that the President is unaware that Social Security does not, by statute, add to the nation’s deficit. Perhaps the President is still laboring under the illusion that Republicans will compromise if he just gives them everything they want in exchange for a so-called “grand bargain,” but after four years of intransigence and obstruction, anything less than privatizing or eliminating both Medicare and Social Security will be met with a new hostage situation over increasing the nation’s debt limit. However, at least the President is not yet acquiescing to eliminating domestic programs or education that give the next generation a slim hope of escaping poverty.

Republicans who are now worried sick about America’s children’s future, have already taken care to assure future generations will stay mired in poverty and ignorance unless they are part of the privileged elite who can afford private schools, healthcare, and three nutritional meals a  day. Over the course of the past three years, hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers were dismissed and assistance that, at one time, made college affordable for children of less-affluent families has been slashed to ensure the next generation struggles to survive the poverty 24% of today’s children live in. The millions of jobs Republican austerity cuts destroyed in deficit reduction madness all but guarantees recent high school and college graduates will never start a career unless one considers part-time minimum wage WalMart jobs a career.

If Republicans are so concerned America is cheating today’s children with crushing future deficits and creating undue burden with Social Security that does not affect the deficit, there are fiscally responsible ways to help them now and in the future. The President just re-introduced an infrastructure plan that will save over 3.1 million jobs and create millions more, but Republicans claim “America is broke” even though corporations and big businesses are hoarding huge amounts of cash from soaring profits and avoiding paying taxes on that cash. Republicans could also stop slashing public education funding and rehire over half a million teachers instead of shifting public school funds to under-performing charter schools (read private religious training) in a massive union-busting scheme funded and promoted by ALEC and the Koch brothers. No, it is much more fiscally responsible to protect children now, and in the future, with cuts to Social Security, education, Head Start, and education that all but guarantees the nearly 25% poverty-level children will struggle to survive, much less contribute to  Social Security with decent paying jobs.

Republicans care about as much about future generations as they do this generation or the children they cut services and education for eliminating any hope of a living wage job now or in the future. It is important to remember, that cutting the deficit will not produce one job, hire one teacher, or feed one child that Republicans are suddenly concerned about, and cutting Social Security will not reduce the deficit by one penny which makes the bipartisan “entitlement” hawks’ argument seriously suspicious. There is a simple fix for Social Security that no Republican will consider, and it is possible they are unaware that lifting the cap on earnings will keep the American peoples’ retirement accounts solvent forever, but asking the wealthy to contribute like every other American is anathema to Republicans. It is much easier to cut Social Security under a “protect our children’s future” meme because it tugs at Americans’ heartstrings and demonstrates concern for the next generation that will face deeper poverty in their retirement.

One hopes President Obama has a strategy in acquiescing to Republicans’ 80 year assault on the New Deal’s Social Security Trust, because if cutting benefits for retirees, Veterans, and the disabled is truly to reduce the deficit and unburden future generations from Republican debt for two unfunded wars, an entitlement to big pharma, and tax cuts for the rich, he needs to read the statute that forbids the Trust from adding to the deficit. Republicans have no excuse because they were slashing programs and enacting austerity before they changed course to “unburden future generations” from “generational warfare,” and they will proceed cutting domestic programs and push for tax cuts for the rich regardless if America is swimming in cash.

It is true that children need to be protected now and in the future, but it is from Republicans who have shown a predilection to cutting education, safety nets, and jobs their parents need to provide for them now and in the future. What cutting Social Security now does is ensure that in the future, not only will today’s children struggle to provide for their own children because jobs vanished from Republican cuts, they will struggle to provide for their parents whose Social Security benefits were slashed in the deficit cutting frenzy and all because no politician in Washington understands Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. Fortunately, President Obama does understand that jobs and education will protect children’s’ future, but if he thinks giving Republicans Social Security cuts they lust for will protect children or fund job creation and better schools, he needs to look back at his first term and recall that regardless what he gave Republicans, they still cut spending on children, their education, and their future they suddenly are concerned about.


Arkansas Republican Led Senate Committee Refuses to Ratify the ERA

By: Sarah Jones
Apr. 2nd, 2013

Conservatives like to pretend there’s no war on women, but at every legislative turn, they can be found obstructing equal rights for women. In Arkansas today, the Republican-controlled State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected a proposal to ratify the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.

Two Democrats sponsored the legislation, but the committee is comprised of 5 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Seven men to one woman. That’s a ‘no’ to equal rights for women from Arkansas.

Sure, the deadline was 1982 but hey, these guys have been busy. On March 22, 1972, the ERA passed both the Senate and the House and was sent to the states for ratification. The states were given until 1982 to respond. It is currently April 2, 2013.  Arkansas sure took their time about it.

Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was written in 1923 by Alice Paul and introduced in Congress the same year. It has been reintroduced in every Congressional session for half a century. What awful piece of legislation is this, that can’t pass? Oh, just that rights will be equal, not denied or abridged based upon sex.

The Equal Right Amendment Organization explains why the amendment is necessary:

    The Equal Rights Amendment would provide a fundamental legal remedy against sex discrimination for both women and men. It would guarantee that the rights affirmed by the U.S. Constitution are held equally by all citizens without regard to sex.

    The ERA would clarify the legal status of sex discrimination for the courts, where decisions still deal inconsistently with such claims. For the first time, sex would be considered a suspect classification, as race currently is. Governmental actions that treat males or females differently as a class would be subject to strict judicial scrutiny and would have to meet the highest level of justification – a necessary relation to a compelling state interest – in order to be upheld as constitutional.

    To actual or potential offenders who would try to write, enforce, or adjudicate laws inequitably, the ERA would send a strong preemptive message – the Constitution has zero tolerance for sex discrimination under the law.

Fifteen states have not ratified the EA. They are (wait, take a guess first): Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.

In the current 113th Congress, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) reintroduced the measure.

As even the AP noted, “Similar resolutions failed before legislative panels in 2007 and 2009, after facing opposition from conservative groups.”

Conservatives often complain that the ERA is a federal power grab, citing a clause that just so happens to appear in eight other amendments. This fact suggests that it’s not about a “federal power grab”; it’s about control over women, otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted the last several years attacking women’s freedom and trying to justify rape.

How is not wanting women to have equal protection under the law anything other than a war on women?


Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp Put the Fool in April Fool’s Day

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Apr. 2nd, 201

Tim HuelskampYesterday was April 1. April Fool’s Day. Good times. People say and do silly things and don’t mean it. Some jokes can be downright mean. Some can be downright stupid.

Sadly, Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp was not joking when he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Times about marriage equality. He might have been intentionally stupid, however.

Mary Elizabeth Williams at AlterNet called it an “onion-like parody of the absurd” and it was certainly that, and so much more. Titled The War on Marriage and Motherhood, this brave Republican defender of womanhood opened his barrage on our shared reality by proclaiming, ” President Obama and I have very different notions of what a family is.”

Good thing he told us. I don’t think anyone would have known, otherwise.

Williams called his piece “unambiguous” . This is true: as in an unambiguous assault on the common sense Huelskamp pretends to be defending. Take a look at Huelskamp’s straw man:

    For liberals, the family can apparently be everything from “Heather Has Two Mommies” to “Daddy’s Roommate” to Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s “It Takes a Village.” In the opinion of electoral majorities in Kansas and 40 other states, however, that does not a family make.

    For conservatives, the concept of family is the same as the Judeo-Christian model God ordained, a model supported by every other major world religion. It is the same unit recognized by the laws of nature, the laws of government, and civilized societies for thousands of years: one man, married to one woman, with so many children as God should see fit to entrust to their care through birth or adoption. In my case, that means me, Angela (my wife of 18 years), and our four children (who happen to be adopted).

You wouldn’t know from this that there are many more gods – or many less – than Huelskamp proclaims. There were many gods before the God of Abraham and many people now assert there are none. Many others have vastly different conceptions of the divine than Huelskamp.

The term “Judeo-Christian” is a non-starter. As I’ve pointed out before, there is no tying Judaism to Christianity. Christianity spent the better part of its 20 centuries of existence damning Judaism and Jews to hell as “Christ-killers” – those wicked spawn of Satan who put Jesus to death. You can’t fool us now, you know. We all know how you really feel about Jews: people who continue to deny Christ, who need to be perfected.

Judaism has just one God, undivided and indivisible. Christianity has a trinity. There are good reasons Jews have continued, after 2000 years, to reject Jesus. And all that “Jews for Jesus” crap doesn’t fool anybody, least of all actual Jews.

But ideological constructs like “Judeo-Christian” aside, we could look at the reality of marriage (because we certainly can’t look at the marriage of reality and Huelskamp’s conservative Christianity). Judaism did not invent marriage. neither did Christianity. People were getting married a long time before anyone had heard of the hill tribe called Jews, first mentioned in the historical record c. 1220 BCE by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, who had chastised them, and other, more powerful groups, on a tour through Palestine.

Essential to conservative Christian mythology is the idea that marriage is a religious institution. But marriage is not a religious but a social institution, and often a very political one. People were being married long before Moses and without the interference of religious authorities. There is nothing inherently religious about marriage.

But if God ordained marriage and Christians have the only God (and if cave men played with dinosaurs) then, of course, Christians have control of marriage and are in a position to tell us how we can and cannot define it.

Sadly for Huelskamp and their allies, neither history nor science are on their side. Nature abounds with homosexual behavior among animal species. Marriage in the ancient world could include same-sex partners.  Even Christians for many centuries cared little about homosexuality, but for all the fuss they make now you would think the entire Bible was written with only homosexuality in mind.

Huelskamp is making a mountain out of a molehill but that is not his chief offense. His chief offense is his soaring hyperbole: claims that marriage equality is somehow unpatriotic and will destroy not only the family, but motherhood itself.

It is too late for conservative Christians to pretend to be protectors of mothers, when so much of their legislation insists mothers must die, and have no rights to their own bodies or reproductive systems. But nobody is taking mothers out of the equation. As long as we have a human race we will have mothers. The existence of other gods and other religions, or of no god at all, does not preclude Christianity and Christians and their God anymore than marriage equality precludes mothers and motherhood.

Having his hyperbolic tiger by the tail, Huelskamp proclaims, “Redefining marriage to remove parents of both sexes from the equation would further the destruction of the family, the most fundamental building block of society. If that definition is changed by the court, the purpose of marriage devolves to mere recognition of an emotional union. In so doing, the children of America will be shortchanged — and the will of the American people would be once again short-circuited by black robes in Washington.”

He warns us that if the Supreme Court does not block Obama, “the high priests and priestesses of political correctness will have done irreparable harm to yet another pillar of the American paradigm for our patriotic, wholesome culture — ‘God, the flag, mom and apple pie.’”

I don’t know about you, but if the Supreme Court does not block Obama, I’m going to honor my gods, fly my flag, and serve myself a hefty serving of apple pie.

Huelskamp is wrong. We will still have families. We will have more families, families of men and women and men and men and women and women. Where is the destruction of the family? Nowhere. The damage done to science and to common sense if Huelskamp gets his way is another matter.


Republican Economic Ignorance Is Pushing America Off The Austerity Cliff

By: Rmuse
Apr. 3rd, 2013

Leadership is a highly regarded commodity and includes social influence where one person enlists the aid and support of others to accomplish a specific goal or agenda, and without adherents or devotees willing to follow without question, success at achieving the leader’s goal is nearly impossible. America has been a world leader for the past seventy years, but for the past two years under Republican rule, America relinquished its leadership position to Europe and became a devotee of austerity economics to follow the Eurozone into economic contraction and recession regardless the damage to America and its citizens.

For two years immediately following the Great Recession, President Obama showed true leadership and avoided following Europe’s lead in imposing austerity economics, and with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created jobs, grew the economy, and set the country on a course toward fiscal health. However, Republicans took control of the country’s purse-strings in 2011 and committed Washington to follow Europe’s austerity lead and their course began bearing fruit in the fourth quarter of 2012 when the economy’s growth slowed on the way to a new recession. Europe never recovered from the Great Recession, and is precariously close to full-blown depression that Republicans have convinced nearly all of Washington to follow with blatant disregard for the deleterious effects to the people, the economy, and nation’s well-being. It is a sad commentary for America that Republican leadership convinced Washington to blindly follow Europe’s lead with their infectious debt and deficit reduction agenda, but they succeeded driving a narrative that without cutting government, killing jobs, and contracting the economy, America was doomed.

The economic retardation and contraction aside, the effect on Americans is beginning to produce real results that Europeans have experienced for over two years with massive unemployment, shredded social safety nets, and rising debt that Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman labeled “Europe’s Second Depression,” and it is slated to last much longer than the first one. In fact, the current European recession has already gone on longer than the 2008 financial crisis. As was pointed out several times, austerity is toxic during a recession, and seeing the effects of prescribing poison to

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North Korea: War could break out ‘today or tomorrow’

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 19:39 EDT

North Korea dramatically escalated its warlike rhetoric on Thursday, warning that it had authorised plans for nuclear strikes on targets in the United States.

“The moment of explosion is approaching fast,” the North Korean military said, warning that war could break out “today or tomorrow”.

Pyongyang’s latest pronouncement came as Washington scrambled to reinforce its Pacific missile defences, preparing to send ground-based interceptors to Guam and dispatching two Aegis class destroyers to the region.

Tension was also high on the North’s heavily fortified border with South Korea, after Kim Jong-Un’s isolated regime barred South Koreans from entering a Seoul-funded joint industrial park on its side of the frontier.

In a statement published by the state KCNA news agency, the Korean People’s Army general staff warned Washington that US threats would be “smashed by… cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means”.

“The merciless operation of our revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” the statement said.

Last month, North Korea threatened a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States, and last week its supreme army command ordered strategic rocket units to combat status.

But, while Pyongyang has successfully carried out test nuclear detonations, most experts think it is not yet capable of mounting a device on a ballistic missile capable of striking US bases or territory.

Mounting tension in the region could however trigger incidents on the tense and heavily militarised border between North and South Korea.

The White House was swift to react to Pyongyang’s latest “unhelpful and unconstructive threats”.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said: “It is yet another offering in a long line of provocative statements that only serve to further isolate North Korea from the rest of the international community and undermine its goal of economic development.

“North Korea should stop its provocative threats and instead concentrate on abiding by its international obligations.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier said Pyongyang represented a “real and clear danger” to the United States and to its allies South Korea and Japan.

“They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now,” Hagel said after a strategy speech at the National Defense University. “We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously.

“We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese and others, to defuse that situation on the peninsula.”

The Pentagon said it would send ground-based THAAD missile-interceptor batteries to protect military bases on the island of Guam, a US territory some 3,380 kilometres (2,100 miles) southeast of North Korea and home to 6,000 American military personnel, submarines and bombers.

They would complement two Aegis anti-missile destroyers already dispatched to the region.

The THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) is a truck-mounted system that can pinpoint an enemy missile, track the projectile and launch an interceptor to bring it down.

The new defensive measures came as Pyongyang stopped South Korean staff members from entering the Kaesong complex, a shared industrial zone funded by Seoul but 10 kilometres inside the North.

Pyongyang said the 861 South Koreans already in the zone could leave.

The move cut the last practical cooperation between the rival powers and was seen as a dramatic escalation in the crisis.

South Korea’s defence ministry said it had contingency plans that included “military action” if the safety of its citizens in Kaesong was threatened.

China, the North’s sole major ally, appealed for “calm” from all sides, and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said he was worried the situation could spiral out of control.

Describing the Kaesong ban as “very regrettable”, South Korea’s Unification Ministry urged the North to normalise access immediately.

Around 53,000 North Koreans work at 120 South Korean plants at the complex, which was still operating normally Wednesday.

Tensions have soared on the Korean peninsula since December, when the North test launched a long-range rocket. In February, it upped the ante once again by conducting its third nuclear test.

Washington has deployed nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and two US destroyers to South Korean air and sea space.

This week, the North warned it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium. It was closed in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord.

The US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University said Wednesday that a satellite photograph seen on March 27 appeared to show construction work along a road and near the back of the reactor was already under way.

Experts said it would take at least six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it will be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year.


North Korea moves missile with 'considerable range' to coast, says Seoul

South Korea's defence minister confirms move, but says North is showing no other signs of preparing for full-scale conflict

Ewen MacAskill, Justin McCurry in Seoul and agencies, Thursday 4 April 2013 12.19 BST   

North Korean Musudan-class missiles displayed during a 2012 military parade
South Korea's description suggests the weapon in question may be a Musudan-class missile, shown here on display during a 2012 military parade. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea's defence minister has confirmed that Pyongyang has moved a missile with "considerable range" to its east coast, but said there were no signs that North Korea was preparing for a full-scale conflict despite the continuing standoff.

The confirmation from Kim Kwan-jin came hours after North Korea's military announced it had been authorised to attack the US using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons.

Kim said he did not know why the North had moved the missile, but suggested it "could be for testing or drills".

He dismissed Japanese media speculation that the missile could be a KN-08, which is believed to be a long-range missile that - if operable - could hit the US.

Kim told a parliamentary committee meeting that although the missile had considerable range, it was not sufficient to hit the US mainland.

His description could suggest a missile known as the Musudan, which has a range of 3,000km (1,800 miles). That would make Japan and South Korea potential targets along with US bases in both countries.

There are doubts, however, about the missile's accuracy and range, and some suspect that long-range missiles unveiled by Pyongyang at a parade last year were actually mock-ups.

Kim said that if North Korea were preparing for a full-scale conflict, there would be more signs of the mobilisation of troops and supplies.

So far, he said, South Korean military officials had found no evidence of such preparations.

"[North Korea's recent threats] are rhetorical threats," he said. "I believe the odds of a full-scale provocation are small."

He did, however, add that North Korea might mount a small-scale provocation as it did in 2010, when it shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday night that it would deploy a missile defence system known as the terminal high altitude area defence system to the US Pacific territory of Guam to strengthen regional protection against a possible attack.

The deployment is the biggest indication yet that Washington regards North Korea's sabre-rattling as more worrying than similar threats over the past few years. It also suggests the US is preparing for a long standoff.

The $800m (£529m) battery was not due for deployment until 2015, but will now be in place within weeks. There had been debate within the Pentagon about deploying it first to the Middle East to protect Israel, but the threat from North Korea is now viewed as more serious.

A Pentagon statement said the deployment was "a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defence posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat".

On Wednesday, the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said North Korea posed "a real and clear danger" to South Korea, Japan and the US.

"They have a nuclear capacity now," he told the National Defense University in Washington. "They have a missile delivery capacity now. And so, as they have ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric, and some of the actions they have taken over the last few weeks, present a real and clear danger."

His response contrasted with more muted comments by other members of the Obama administration over the past few days as they sought to reduce tensions.

China also voiced strong fears about rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. Its foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, told reporters in Beijing that the country's deputy foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, had expressed serious concern over the crisis at a meeting with ambassadors from the US and South Korea.

"In the present situation, China believes all sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation," Lei said.

North Korea followed Tuesday's announcement that it would resume operations to produce weapons-grade plutonium by barring South Korean workers from entering a jointly-run industrial complex.

The Kaesong industrial complex, six miles north of the heavily fortified border that has separated the two countries for six decades, is viewed as the last remaining symbol of co-operation.

The North has disrupted operations at Kaesong before, but Wednesday's move caused particular concern as South Korea and the US attempt to respond to a catalogue of provocations by Pyongyang.

The disruption at Kaesong, which draws on investment from more than 100 South Korean firms and employs workers from both countries, was seen by some experts as a sign of a swift deterioration in an already tense situation.

In recent weeks, North Korea has threatened a nuclear attack against the US and its overseas bases – a hollow threat, experts say, given the regime's relatively primitive nuclear and missile technology – and declared a "state of war" with South Korea.

China is North Korea's only remaining ally and its biggest aid donor. Its description of the situation in such bleak terms is being interpreted as a sign of growing frustration with the unpredictable behaviour of the 30-year-old North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.


Defense secretary: North Korea threats pose ‘real and clear danger’

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 15:07 EDT

WASHINGTON — North Korea’s threats and recent actions represent a “real and clear danger” to the United States as well as its allies South Korea and Japan, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.

“They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now,” Hagel said after giving a major strategy speech at the National Defense University, calling Pyongyang’s “bellicose dangerous rhetoric” problematic.

“We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously,” he added. “We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese and others to defuse that situation on the peninsula.

“I hope the North will ratchet its very dangerous rhetoric down.”

North Korea on Wednesday blocked access to the key Kaesong joint industrial zone with South Korea — the only surviving example of inter-Korean cooperation and a crucial source of hard currency for Pyongyang.

The move represented a sharp escalation of a military crisis that has also seen the North threaten missile and nuclear strikes against the United States and its ally South Korea in response to UN sanctions and joint military drills.

Tensions have been soaring on the Korean peninsula since the North launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February.

In a rare show of force in the region, Washington has deployed nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and two US destroyers to South Korean air and sea space.

“We’ve been trying to work with the North Koreans to try to persuade them it’s not in their interest, and certainly not in the Korean peninsula interest… to pursue nuclear weapons,” Hagel said.

“There is a pathway that is responsible, for the North to get on the path to peace, working with their neighbors… but they’ve got to be a responsible member of the world community.”


U.S. boosts missile defense after North Korea warns of nuclear strike

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 23:30 EDT

The United States has scrambled to reinforce its Pacific missile defences, preparing to send ground-based interceptors to Guam, as North Korea said Thursday it had authorised plans for nuclear strikes on US targets.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Pyongyang’s increasingly bellicose threats combined with its military capabilities represented a “real and clear danger” to the United States and to its allies South Korea and Japan.

“They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now,” Hagel said Wednesday. “We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously.

The Pentagon said it would send ground-based THAAD missile-interceptor batteries to protect military bases on Guam, a US territory some 3,380 kilometres (2,100 miles) southeast of North Korea and home to 6,000 American military personnel, submarines and bombers.

They would complement two Aegis anti-missile destroyers already dispatched to the region.

Shortly after the planned THAD deployment was announced, the North Korean military released a statement saying it had received final approval for military action against the United States, possibly involving nuclear weapons.

“The moment of explosion is approaching fast,” the Korean People’s Army general staff said, responding to what it called the provocative US use of nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers in ongoing war games with South Korea.

The US aggression would be “smashed by… cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means,” the statement said.

“The merciless operation of our revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it added.

Yun Duk-Min, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, said the latest threat was similar to one issued a month ago, but with the added weight of “approval” — presumably by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

“The problem is whether Kim, who is still young and inexperienced, knows how to handle this escalation,” Yun said. “Where does it end? That’s the worrying question.”

Later Thursday morning, North Korea blocked access to its Kaesong joint industrial zone with South Korea for the second day running.

Pyongyang had informed Seoul on Wednesday it was stopping the daily movement of South Koreans to the Kaesong complex, the last real surviving point of contact between the two countries.

The North said several hundred South Koreans currently in Kaesong — 10 kilometres (six miles) inside the North Korean border — would be allowed to leave whenever they wanted.

North Korea threatened a “pre-emptive” nuclear strike against the United States in early March, and last week its supreme army command ordered strategic rocket units to combat status.

While Pyongyang has successfully carried out test nuclear detonations, most experts think it is not yet capable of mounting a device on a ballistic missile capable of striking US bases or territory.

Tensions have soared on the Korean peninsula since December, when the North test-launched a long-range rocket. In February, it upped the ante once again by conducting its third nuclear test.

Subsequent UN sanctions and joint South Korea-US military drills triggered weeks of near-daily threats from Pyongyang, ranging from artillery strikes to nuclear armageddon.

The escalating crisis has triggered global concern, with China and Russia issuing repeated calls for restraint and UN Chief Ban Ki-moon warning that the situation had “gone too far” and risked spiralling out of control.

This week, the North warned it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium. It was closed in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord.

Experts said it would take at least six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it will be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year.


Originally published Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 7:47 PM

North Korea’s escalating rhetoric: sign of a troubled regime?

Those who watch North Korea closely don’t think the audience for Kim Jong Un’s saber-rattling was the wider world he appeared to be threatening, but the small band of elites in his own country without which he can’t maintain total control.

By Matthew Schofield and Tom Lasseter
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The North Korean army warned the United States on Wednesday it has been cleared to wage nuclear war using “smaller, lighter and diversified weapons.”

In a speech earlier in the day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that North Korea has the nuclear weapons and the delivery system “now.”

It’s the latest round in an escalation of rhetoric and actions that began with a North Korean nuclear test in February. Still, military officials and experts don’t expect North Korea to launch an attack on the United States. In fact, they label such an attack as suicidal, and note that while North Korea has had one almost-successful test launch of an intercontinental missile, and carried out their third apparently successful nuclear-test explosion, it is thought they still only have the materials for perhaps 10 weapons, and they have yet to prove their missile works with a nuclear warhead.

For comparison, the United States has 4,650 working nuclear warheads and an array of delivery systems.

Those who study the Hermit Kingdom have very serious doubts that any attack on the United States or allies South Korea and Japan is even being seriously considered.

“It could be there’s a whole other game going on,” said Stephen Long, a North Korea expert at the University of Richmond.

Little is still really known about the young and untested North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Even his age, either 29 or 30, is uncertain. But in recent weeks, the “glorious successor,” as he is known inside his sheltered nation, one of the few remaining communist dictatorships, has said that “the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists.”

He warned of a conflict that “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.”

Reaction at the Pentagon has been relatively calm: an almost daily effort to state U.S. solidarity with South Korea and to defend territory and allies. Missile defenses have been positioned in the region, including Wednesday’s announcement of a land-based system to be deployed to protect Guam.

The United States also recently announced a billion-dollar upgrade to its missile-defense system in Alaska.

But those who watch North Korea closely don’t think the audience for Kim’s saber-rattling was the wider world he appeared to be threatening, but the small band of elites without which he can’t maintain total control.

“It’s probable that he was trying to appease military hard-liners with his threats,” said Ellen Kim, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

The actual threat may be minimal, but that Kim felt compelled to make such threats might be very worrying, experts said.

North Korea continues to struggle under Kim. The nation is poor, the people often starving, and it remains overly reliant on China for trade. Kim needs to retain the loyalty of the military, the most significant power base outside of himself.

Jina Kim, who studies North Korea from Seoul’s Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, is concerned the recent rhetoric is a sign of “potential friction among elites.”

“It was reported that Kim Jong Un has ordered troops near the demilitarized zone not to make any mistake that can be utilized by (U.S. and South Korean) forces to use force against the North,” she said, noting that he pointedly told troops to be cautious.

But as the rhetoric escalated, the North Korean leader was reshuffling his inner circle.

“The fact that organizational change continues means that North Korea’s political stability has not yet been realized,” she said.

The strongest sign of discord might be that recent moves appear to have angered China, something that would not be done lightly. In the United Nations Security Council, China voted in favor of harsh sanctions on North Korea after a February nuclear test.

“The top priority now is to defuse the tension, bring down [the] heat, focus on the diplomatic track,” said Chinese U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong.

Instead, Kim Jong Un ratcheted up the tension.

Long called a deeply divided North Korean elite “a worst-case scenario.”

If military hard-liners are rejecting Kim’s rule for not being aggressive enough, that would leave the rest of the region and the world to deal with unhappy and nuclear-armed generals.

“If Jong Un’s government fails, the likelihood is that whoever takes his place would be far more hard-line,” Long said.

In addition to threatening nuclear war, testing a nuclear device, testing long-range missiles, declaring that the war with South Korea is still on and restarting an old nuclear reactor, North Korea cut off access to the Kaesong industrial park on Wednesday.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency quoted an unnamed official as saying, “Although the action taken is serious, it is not without precedence.”

But there are also concerns, especially among conservatives in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, that beneath the heated rhetoric and posturing, the North has gained strategic ground through its continued development of its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea in December launched a satellite into space, a development widely seen as cover for testing its ballistic-missile program, followed two months later by a test of what it described as “a smaller and lighter A-bomb.”

Both programs have presumably upped the stakes when it comes to decision-making by South Korea and the United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in the South, about how to react to provocations from the North.

Still, a full-scale attack by the North on the United States or its allies, as Kim’s bellicose rhetoric has threatened, almost certainly would be suicidal for the Pyongyang leadership. While the Pentagon believes North Korea has produced a rocket that appears capable of hitting the United States, it’s had only one mostly successful test flight.

Beyond that, the North Koreans aren’t thought to have a nuclear warhead they could fit onto a missile. Their most recent test is believed to have been with a device of about the force of the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The United States has an array of anti-missile defenses. Recently, F-22 fighters and B-2 stealth bombers took part in joint U.S.-South Korean War games. Both aircraft are thought to be beyond the ability of North Korean radar to track, meaning impossible to defend against.

In fact, when Hagel was asked last month about the North Koreans’ ability to produce “a true intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead,” he said that the U.S. would not be developing policy in reaction to Kim’s timelines, but that “we’re ahead of any timelines of any potential threat.”


Think tank: North Korea has already restarted plutonium reactor

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 20:56 EDT

North Korea has already begun work to restart a plutonium production reactor in a sign that its confrontational rhetoric may not all be bluster, a US think tank said Wednesday.

The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said that a satellite photograph seen on March 27 indicated construction at the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in 2007 as part of a US-backed agreement.

The analysis comes one day after North Korea announced it would restart all facilities at Yongbyon, one of a string of recent bellicose statements that included a warming that it will attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

Writing on the institute’s 38 North blog, researchers said that the photograph showed what appeared to be construction along a road and near the back of the reactor building aimed at restoring vital cooling functions.

The construction may indicate that the North Koreans are connecting a secondary cooling system at the reactor to a facility built for a separate light water reactor that is located nearby.

Such a move is necessary because North Korea in 2008 demolished the cooling tower in a bid to give visible proof of its denuclearization as it tried to seal an accord with then US president George W. Bush’s administration.

Analysts Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis wrote that the construction would offer a faster way to restore production at the reactor, which can produce 13 pounds (six kilograms) of plutonium a year once operational.

North Korea, led by young leader Kim Jong-Un, has vowed to restore its nuclear weapons program and to attack the United States and its allies as part of a worsening crisis.

North Korea voiced outrage over US-led criticism of a rocket launch it carried out in December that put a small satellite into orbit. The regime undertook its third nuclear test in February.


CNN previews how war with North Korea would play out

By Eric W. Dolan
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 21:46 EDT

CNN brought retired General James Marks into their studio on Wednesday afternoon to explain the military strategies North Korea and the United States would likely employ in a conflict.

Assuming North Korea struck first, the country would begin firing artillery into South Korea while deploying special operation forces along the coast of the peninsula. Marks also warned North Korea had sleeper agents in South Korea who would spot targets.

The United States would respond by destroying North Korea’s artillery with its overwhelming naval and aerial power. The U.S. military would then destroy North Korea’s aerial defenses, communication lines, and transportation routes. Marks predicted the “instantaneous” response from the U.S. and South Korea would paralyze the North within days.

North Korea has become increasingly hostile over the past weeks. The country has threatened to “mercilessly strike” the United States with nuclear weapons and warned that war could break out “today or tomorrow.” But the retired general doubted the North Koreans would provoke a full-scale war.

“The risks are way too high, the North understands that,” he explained. Marks said any conflict would likely be limited, citing the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in 2010.

Watch video, uploaded to YouTube by CNN, below:

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« Last Edit: Apr 04, 2013, 06:39 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #5515 on: Apr 04, 2013, 06:37 AM »

China reports tenth case of H7N9 bird flu

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 4, 2013 7:20 EDT

Chinese authorities on Thursday reported a man in the eastern province of Zhejiang has been infected with the H7N9 strain of bird flu, the tenth human case of the disease which has claimed three lives.

The 64-year-old from Huzhou city was admitted to hospital on March 31 after being ill for two days, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing local authorities.

The man is the third person to be infected from the province of Zhejiang, where the disease has so far claimed one life. The other two deaths from the new strain of avian flu occurred in Shanghai.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of a pandemic because the disease is not thought to be transmitted from human to human.

In a separate development, a man in the central province of Hunan died from the H1N1 (swine) flu on Wednesday, reported Xinhua.

A 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic resulted in over 18,000 deaths, according to WHO estimates. But the strain, while highly contagious, is not thought to be more lethal than ordinary flu.
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« Reply #5516 on: Apr 04, 2013, 06:44 AM »

Japanese central bank doubles money supply in fresh bid to spur inflation

New Bank of Japan governor seeks to end long spell of deflation which has hindered investment and economic growth

Associated Press, Thursday 4 April 2013 08.29 BST   

The Japanese central bank has said it will massively expand the country's money supply to spur inflation as it strives to get the world's third-largest economy out of its slump.

The Bank of Japan (BoJ) on Thursday vowed to achieve a 2% inflation target at "the earliest possible time".

To do so, the central bank has launched "a new phase of monetary easing both in terms of quantity and quality" that will double the money supply, it said in a statement.

The new BoJ governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, has vowed to meet the inflation target within two years, heeding demands from the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to once and for all end a long spell of deflation which has hindered investment and economic growth.

Abe's government, which took power late last year, accused the previous central bank governor, Masaaki Shirakawa, of balking at undertaking bold enough monetary easing to get the economy back on track. The steps announced on Thursday under the first policy meeting chaired by Kuroda were in line with expectations and are likely to reassure jittery financial markets of Japan's resolve to push ahead with its "reflationary" strategy.

The announcement pulled the Nikkei 225 stock average out of the red and sent the yen lower against the US dollar.

The BoJ will conduct money market operations to increase the monetary base by about ¥60tn to ¥70tn (£420bn to £490bn) a year. At the same time it plans to increase purchases of Japanese government bonds to total ¥50tn a year to encourage interest rates to decline, which it hopes will facilitate more lending.

The central bank is also extending the average remaining maturity of the bonds it purchases from three years to an average of seven years. Meanwhile, bonds with all maturities up to 40 years will be eligible for purchase.

As expected, the bank also extended the range of assets it can purchase, to include more risky real estate investment trusts and exchange-traded funds.

As part of the new strategy, the BoJ will end its current asset-purchasing programme, absorbing it into the future purchases of bonds, it said.

Answering concerns that the stimulus programme would further raise Japan's public debt, the statement said that the government bond purchases would be "executed for the purpose of conducting monetary policy and not for the purpose of financing fiscal deficits".

The BoJ will "examine both upside and downside risks to economic activity and prices and make adjustments as appropriate", it said.

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« Reply #5517 on: Apr 04, 2013, 06:49 AM »

April 3, 2013

Malaysia Vote May Rule on Racial Divide


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, announced Wednesday that he was dissolving Parliament, he set in motion an election campaign that will render judgment not just on his embattled governing coalition, but also on Malaysia’s longstanding system of dividing the power and spoils of public life on ethnic lines.

“This is a referendum on race-based politics,” Ibrahim Suffian, the director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency, said of the election. “The ruling coalition continues to argue that the existing system brings stability. The opposition is talking more about politics based on class, not race.”

The country has been led since independence in 1957 by a coalition, now known as the National Front, whose three main members are parties that define themselves on explicitly racial lines: one for Malays, the country’s largest ethnic group; one for Chinese; and one for Indians. But in recent years, the cohesion of those groups has begun to fray.

Chinese voters, who make up about one-quarter of the country’s population of nearly 30 million, have abandoned the coalition in large numbers, and the Malays who have dominated the political hierarchy for five decades are divided.

“How can you have a country based on race? It’s like South Africa 30 years ago,” said Nariza Hashim, a voter in Kuala Lumpur who is classified as Malay but who has Chinese, Indian and Scottish as well as Malay ancestors.

Though her grandfather was an early leader of the United Malays National Organization, the Malay component of the coalition, Ms. Nariza said the country’s ethnic classifications baffled her five children. “They really don’t understand why you would ask someone’s race on a government form,” she said.

The ethnic system has been reinforced over the years by paternalistic news media with close ties to the governing coalition. A leading English-language newspaper, The New Straits Times, ran an article about the elections on its front page Wednesday with a photograph of Mr. Najib waving his index finger, next to the headline “Choose wisely.”

But young Malaysians are increasingly cynical about the view they see in the establishment press. As Internet access has spread — two-thirds of Malaysians can now use it, up from about 55 percent at the last election in 2008 — independent voices and opposition parties have had an easier time reaching voters.

“A lot of what I know about what’s happening in the country comes from what my friends share on Facebook,” said Pei Ting Tham, 27, an outdoor sports instructor. “People are much more aware of what’s going on.”

Some Malaysian policies that discouraged people from speaking out have been repealed in the past two years, including laws barring university students from politics and allowing for detention without trial.

The opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, made major gains in the 2008 elections, winning control of several states and enough seats in Parliament to deny the governing coalition the two-thirds supermajority that had allowed it to amend the Constitution at will. This time around, analysts and polling experts say, the opposition has its first chance to win outright.

The way the electoral system is structured and constituency boundaries are drawn may still give the National Front the edge. It won only 51 percent of the total popular vote in 2008, but that translated to 63 percent of the seats in Parliament.

But Mr. Ibrahim of the polling agency said the government faced a challenge in winning over new voters, who appear “more inclined” to vote for the opposition. More than one-quarter of the electorate this year will be voting for the first time.

Chinese voters are another challenge. Longstanding preferences for ethnic Malays in land purchases, bank loans and university admissions have angered and alienated Chinese Malaysians. “We are always reminded that we are not full-fledged citizens,” said Ms. Tham, the sports instructor, who said she intended to vote for the opposition.

Mr. Najib sounded defensive at times as he announced the dissolution of Parliament on national television. “Don’t gamble the future of your children and Malaysia,” he said. “Think and contemplate as much as you can before making a decision. Because that will determine the direction of the country and also your grandchildren’s future.”

The precise date has yet to be set by the country’s election commission, but the vote must be held within two months; Malaysian news media speculation centered on late April. State legislatures will be elected the same day.

Although the opposition has held some power at the state level over the last five years, some people still see a vote for the opposition as a leap in the dark.

“Malaysians have been so loyal; it was blind loyalty,” Ms. Nariza said. “We grew up with this system, and there was never a strong alternative. Now there is. Can they deliver? We don’t know.”

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« Reply #5518 on: Apr 04, 2013, 06:52 AM »

April 3, 2013

Power Struggle Is Gripping Iran Ahead of June Election


TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not going quietly.

With only three months to go in his second and last presidential term, he has raised a series of controversies intended, experts say, to reshape his public image and secure the support of dissatisfied urban Iranians for his handpicked successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. It is all part of a power struggle ahead of the June election between Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction and a coalition of traditionalists, including many Revolutionary Guards commanders and hard-line clerics.

With the demise of the protest movement that sprang up after the last presidential election, in 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters have emerged in the unlikely role of the opposition. They are now fighting the traditionalists who, among other things, take a tougher line in negotiations with the West on Iran’s nuclear program and would like to abolish the presidency — a locus of opposition to their power.

In Iran’s complex politics, these struggles are typically waged under the watchful eye of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately decides the winners and losers, carefully balancing competing interests, to make sure no faction amasses too much power.

But this time, the jockeying for power is more than politics as usual. If the president and his supporters fail, they will lose any claim to immunity from prosecution and find themselves at the mercy not only of the judiciary but also of the country’s security forces, state television and influential Friday Prayer leaders, all controlled by the traditionalists.

Already, prosecutors have opened several files against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s lieutenants and are publicly warning them of possible prosecution on charges of financial corruption, mismanagement and deviating from Islam.

That is not to say that Mr. Ahmadinejad has had an epiphany and is ready to embrace Western democracy. Nor has he renounced his Holocaust denials and denouncements of Israel. But in recent months he has surprised his many critics in the West by challenging his enemies, sometimes in ways that are shockingly public.

In February, during a session of Parliament that was broadcast nationwide, he showed a secretly taped video of a meeting between one of his allies and Fazel Larijani, the youngest of five influential brothers closely associated with the traditionalists, who Mr. Ahmadinejad said was proposing fraudulent business deals.

At the funeral of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, he was photographed embracing the former president’s mother, a display that was denounced by the clerics, who forbid physical contact between unmarried men and women who are not closely related. But urban Iranians, many of whom have moved far beyond the social restrictions set by the Islamic republic, viewed his action as a simple gesture of friendship.

Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. “He more and more resembles a normal person,” said Hamed, a 28-year-old driver in Tehran who did not want his last name used. “He doesn’t allow them to tell him what to do.”

In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.

Mr. Ahmadinejad regularly brings up the topic of corruption by other officials, and he hints that they have accumulated wealth and power because of their positions. “Some of the relationships, which had been formed as a result of groupings and power-mongering pursuits in the country, have come to an end, and with the help of God will be purged from the revolution and the holy Islamic republic,” he asserted recently.

The president has also taken to using the slogan “long live spring” in his speeches, which some have interpreted as an allusion to the Arab Spring uprisings. “This way of thinking and talking about ‘Human Awakening’ is political mischief and dangerous,” one newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s maneuvering is all about his legacy, experts say, an effort to preserve both his political power and his allies.

“In effect, the president has created a new current in Iran’s political establishment,” said Reza Kaviani, an analyst at the Porsesh Institute, which is aligned with Iran’s former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate opponent of Mr. Ahmadinejad. “He has organized himself, placed bureaucrats in key positions. He will outlive his two terms, and so will his friends. But how he will remain and at what costs is unclear for now.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support of Mr. Mashaei, his spiritual mentor and the father-in-law of his son, is a particular stick in the eye for the conservatives, as well as a subtle appeal to more progressive Iranians. In messages filled with poetic language, Mr. Mashaei repeatedly propagates the importance of the nation of Iran over that of Islam.

Leading ayatollahs and commanders say that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been “bewitched” by the tall, beardless 52-year old, whom they have called a “Freemason,” a “foreign spy” and a “heretic.” They accuse Mr. Mashaei of plotting to oust the generation of clerics who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and of promoting direct relations with God, instead of through clerical intermediaries. He and his allies, they say, are part of a “deviant” current.

In response to Mr. Ahmadinejad, several opponents have warned about unrest and “sedition” around election time, comparable to the protests and riots after the president’s 2009 re-election, when millions took to the streets to dispute his victory.

“However, this time the scenario comes from figures who appear to be loyal and hold an office in the establishment,” Avaz Heydarpour, a lawmaker and critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad, told the Farda News Web site in March.

Those opposing Mr. Ahmadinejad are the same clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders who supported Mr. Ahmadinejad’s candidacy in 2005 because he promoted religious values. They also backed him during the 2009 protests, cracking down on the opposition with blunt force at high political cost.

The presidency has evolved over time, starting out weak in the early years of the revolution but taking on greater importance after the abolition of the office of prime minister in the late 1980s. Once in office, presidents now create their own power bases, often clashing with the very people who backed their rise to power.

“All presidents in Iran start out under the patronage of a powerful faction,” said Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a former member of Parliament who is critical of Mr. Ahmadinejad. “But after they gain power they create their own circles and say they represent the people.”

The factional wrangling may well be a preview of what could unfold in Iran over the coming months. The first critical point may come if the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for public office, rejects Mr. Mashaei’s candidacy. In that case, said Ehsan Rastgar, a political scientist, “only the leader can decide.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has for now tried to calm the warring factions, repeatedly warning that their infighting is hurting the country’s interests.

Of late, the ayatollah has allowed Mr. Ahmadinejad to score victories in minor battles, like preventing Parliament from bringing him in for questioning. While both factions claim to have the ayatollah’s support, his position is unclear, and deliberately so, many Iran experts say.

If Mr. Mashaei’s candidacy is ultimately rejected by the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Khamenei can keep the peace by issuing a decree that would allow him to run, as he did for a reformist candidate in 2005.

“If Mr. Ahmadinejad refrains from all-out speeches with grandiose statements following a possible disqualification of Mr. Mashaei by the council, there is a chance the leader will allow him to run using a state decree,” Mr. Rastgar said. “If not, we might witness unrest.”

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« Reply #5519 on: Apr 04, 2013, 06:54 AM »

April 3, 2013

Taliban Assault on Afghan Compound Leaves Dozens Dead


KABUL, Afghanistan — In one of the deadliest insurgent attacks in the decade-long war in Afghanistan, nine Taliban fighters dressed as Afghan soldiers stormed a government compound in the western part of the country on Wednesday morning, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 100 in a hostage standoff.

The complex assault began around 8:45 a.m., when two suicide attackers detonated explosives packed into an army pickup truck at the entrance gate of the provincial government compound in Farah, according to police officials. After the explosion, which ripped through the mayor’s office and neighboring buildings, insurgents rushed the packed provincial courthouse, taking civilians and a handful of employees hostage.

Afghan security forces surrounded the building, firing at the Taliban fighters tucked away on the second floor. At some point during the nearly seven-hour gunfight, the insurgents took the hostages downstairs to the basement and shot them, the police said.

By 4 p.m., the fight was over, leaving behind a scene of carnage and destruction. The death toll: 34 civilians, 10 Afghan security forces and the 9 insurgents, the Farah police said. More than 100 people, mostly civilians, were wounded.

“Terrorists once again have shed the blood of innocent people visiting government departments for their work,” President Hamid Karzai said in a statement. “Terrorists should know that they must answer for this before the nation and that they will face the God’s punishment in the afterlife.”

The attack highlighted the deteriorating security situation in Farah, a restive province that borders Iran to the west. The last major assault in the province occurred in May, when four insurgents dressed as police officers staged an attack on the governor’s compound, killing at least 11 people and wounding a dozen others. But violent attacks in general have been on the rise recently in the province.

Officials from Farah said the province had become a hotbed for the insurgency and drug traffickers, as the government focused its resources on more violent areas of the country. Humaira Ayobi, a member of the Parliament who represents Farah, said that a recent effort by the police to stem the drug trade may have contributed to the violence on Wednesday. Last month, five police officers were killed in the province while conducting a poppy eradication campaign.

As warm weather spreads throughout Afghanistan, a period referred to as the fighting season, Taliban violence is expected to increase. And as Afghan forces take the lead role in securing the nation, they are preparing for a particularly fierce year of fighting ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal of international forces.

“Farah is bleeding and crying today,” Ms. Ayobi said. “The province will mourn for weeks.”

On the street where the attack took place on Wednesday, witnesses described a nightmarish scene, with bodies splayed all over. Ambulances carted charred bodies from the buildings, including the offices of the mayor, the prosecutor and the governor.

“When I reached the street I saw that all shops and houses around the courthouse were destroyed,” said Jalil Khan, 47, a civil servant at the customs office. “I saw men, women and some children lying on the ground, bleeding or burned. Some of them didn’t know where they were or what had happened to them.”

Shujauddin, 22, a teacher in the city of Farah, said he was in the courthouse to address a land dispute when the first explosion struck the government compound. When Shujauddin, who uses one name, tried to escape, he was shot in the arm twice and caught a third bullet in the leg. He woke up hours later in the hospital, he said.

The attack in Farah Province coincided with the highly anticipated return of Afghanistan’s powerful intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid, who was seriously wounded in a December suicide attack. Mr. Khalid, who was treated in the United States and required multiple surgeries, returned to Kabul on Wednesday morning.

Mr. Khalid’s return, heralded by banners reading “Welcome” strung from traffic posts across Kabul, is seen by many as a symbolic victory for the Afghan government. At the time of the attack in December, when an insurgent detonated a hidden bomb at a National Directorate of Security guesthouse, Mr. Khalid’s very survival, no less his return, was in question.

But for months, the government promised he would again take the helm of the intelligence agency. On Wednesday, the agency issued a statement celebrating his return and promising to “continue its services day and night to bring security, peace and stability to the country.”

A former governor of Kandahar and Ghazni Provinces, Mr. Khalid is seen as a close confidant and supporter of Mr. Karzai. After the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was killed in 2011, Mr. Khalid took over the brother’s security portfolio in the south. Many here see Mr. Khalid as instrumental in whatever political transition takes place in the 2014 elections after Mr. Karzai is set to step down.

In his various governmental assignments under Mr. Karzai, Mr. Khalid has proved his anti-Taliban credentials. During his short tenure as chief of the National Directorate of Security, he has presided over a fierce crackdown on the insurgency. He is also seen as a relentless detractor of Pakistan.

His efforts have won him both praise and criticism from Western officials.

He received visits from President Obama and Leon E. Panetta, who was the defense secretary at the time, while hospitalized in the United States, but Mr. Khalid has been dogged by accusations of corruption and that he was associated with a torture prison while governor of Kandahar.

Those concerns have followed him to the National Directorate of Security, which has been accused by the United Nations of abuse in its prison facilities. Mr. Khalid and the intelligence agency have denied the allegations of torture and corruption.

Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi, Jawad Sukhanyar, Sharifullah Sahak and Habib Zahori.

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