North Korea's threats of war make Chinese neighbours nervous
Over the border from North Korea, residents of mountainous Kuandian county fear effects of conflict could spill over
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 12.10 BST
Every time North Korea threatens a nuclear strike, Ge Weihan receives a frantic call from his mother. Although the 34-year-old filmmaker moved to Beijing years ago, his parents still live in a small Chinese village less than 25 miles (40km) from the insular nation.
"If a war ever actually breaks out, I'm very nervous about what it would do to my hometown," Ge said. "It's hard living right next to a country that seems willing to do anything."
Residents of Ge's home village in mountainous Kuandian county have become accustomed to an influx of Chinese troops every time tensions flare on the Korean peninsula – just in case things spin out of control. Yet this time the soldiers are so numerous, and media reports so shrill, that even the most hardened villagers are nervous.
It's no accident that China is the North Korea's most important ally, economic lifeline and primary source of humanitarian aid – a political meltdown in the country could send an unsustainable flood of refugees into border areas such as Kuandian and push a US-friendly unified Korea right up to China's doorstep.
Yet the vast majority of Chinese people consider North Korea just as strange and frightening as western observers. "It's just awkward," said Ge, who has lived among North Korean refugees. "It's an extremely awkward situation for the government, and that makes common people feel awkward as well."
Beijing rarely deviates in its response to North Korean tempers. Officials express concern – or "serious concern" as of Wednesday – and request that the international community "remain calm" and "exercise restraint".
Chinese news outlets have given North Korean declarations of war slightly less airtime than their western counterparts.
China's official newswire Xinhua published a dispatch from a Pyongyang-based correspondent on Thursday about how life in the city is business as usual. According to the report, 100,000 Pyongyong residents are preparing for North Korea's most important national holiday – Kim Il-sung's birthday, on 15 April – by planting trees throughout the city.
Prices in Pyongyang's "foreigner" supermarkets are stable, according to the report; schoolchildren are just beginning a new term. The city hosted an athletic competition on Thursday amid radio broadcasts warning residents to remain alert for provocative actions by American imperialists and their South Korean puppets.
Despite the state-sanctioned front of tranquillity, China's social media sites betray a widespread mix of curiosity, confusion, and unease. Some users on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo wondered if this had all been an elaborate joke. "Actually lets hope that Kim does start a war – that he uses self-destruction to save the Korean people," said one user in a widely forwarded post.
Yet the most popular North Korea-related topic by far was a brief news report about a bottle of North Korean spring water discovered in a Chinese supermarket. Weibo users expressed shock at its £1 price tag – significantly higher than most domestic brands. In the subsequent debate about the cleanliness of North Korea's water supply, mentions of war were hard to find.
In North Korea's sights: Baengnyeong islanders prepare for the worst
Islanders at the centre of the world's last cold war conflict are divided over how seriously they should take Pyongyang's threats
Justin McCurry on Baengnyeong island
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 14.49 BST
On a clear day, it is possible to stand on the beach on Baengnyeong and make out the North Korean coastline a few miles away. The view is just one of many physical reminders that this isolated South Korean island in the Yellow Sea could be the first to come under attack, should the crisis now engulfing the Korean peninsula turn into conflict.
Just offshore, steel girders poke out of the water to frustrate North Korean boats in the event of an invasion. Thick concrete walls and fences topped with razor wire offer a second line of defence, punctuated by bunkers from which South Korean soldiers would engage their sworn enemy of six decades.
On the hilltops, watchtowers and radar stations stand ready to issue early warnings of an attack, giving residents time to flee into the 26 air-raid shelters that have been built in the past two years.
Experts may dismiss Pyongyang's recent threats to rain nuclear missiles on the US mainland as bombast by an attention-seeking dictator, but its promise to target Baengnyeong is being taken seriously.
"My children on the mainland call me every day because they're so worried," says a 50-year-old woman who asked to be identified only by her surname, Lee. "What else can I say except reassure them that everything is OK?
"People say they are not worried, but in truth I'm terrified. North Korea has attacked this area before. How are we supposed to stay calm?"
At its closest point the island, home to 5,000 civilians and a similar number of marines, lies just 10 miles from the North Korean coast. Located just south of the Northern Limit Line – a disputed Yellow Sea border separating the two countries – it has been the scene of several military exchanges of the kind that, in today's fraught atmosphere, could easily escalate.
The more alarmed residents point to their home's unenviable place at the centre of the world's last cold war conflict. In the past 14 years, the waters around Baengnyeong have been the focal point of more military clashes between the two Koreas than any other part of the peninsula. The sea border, which the North has refused to recognise since it was drawn up at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war, was the scene of deadly naval battles in 1999, 2002 and 2009.
And in March 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan as it was sailing off Baengnyeong's coast. The attack killed 46 sailors, whose faces, rendered in bronze relief, adorn a hilltop memorial overlooking the stretch of water where they died.
This time the North has already identified Baengnyeong's impressive array of military hardware, including rocket launchers and self-propelled howitzer batteries, as potential targets.
Only last month the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was photographed standing in a wooden boat, staring directly at Baengnyeong through binoculars. He instructed his commanders to "engulf the island in flames", according to the North's official KCNA news agency. "Once an order is issued, you should break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and so clearly show them what a real war is like," he said.
More recently the regime's official website, Uriminzokkiri, warned of a "thunderous attack" on Baengnyeong, telling residents here and on four other islands south of the border to flee or face "devastating consequences".
The people of Baengnyeong are divided over how seriously they should take the North Korean threats. No one has left the island since Kim's outburst, although some say they are reluctant to leave because they would lose the $50 (£33) a month in "danger money" the government has paid every resident since the nearby Yeonpyeong island was shelled in November 2010.
But the standoff is ruining the tourist industry, one of the island's main sources of income. Ferries that once brought tens of thousands of tourists a year from the mainland now carry troops and supplies. Guesthouse reservations have plummeted since the crisis began in February, and custom at the island's famed shorefront restaurants has slowed to a trickle.
"Tourists are staying away because they're petrified of what might happen," said Kim Byung-deuk, a former public official. Kim, 66, who has left the island only once to perform military service, doesn't believe North Korea will make good on its threats. "We've heard it all before. There's no way I'm leaving. Even if they attack, we have plenty of shelters here."
Others are more cautious given that Kim Jong-un, in power for just over a year, is proving every bit as capricious as his father. "I worry about him," said Park Se-ahn, a 63-year-old fisherman. "He's way too young to know what he's doing, to stay in control of a country like that."
A group of South Korean marines dining on barbecued pork belly and soju said they had stepped up preparations for a possible North Korean attack, but refused to elaborate.
"We're encouraged to come out for a casual drink to reassure the residents that everything is normal," said a staff sergeant who asked not to be named. "The military wants to give the appearance of calm. But as individual soldiers, we all know in our hearts that this is an emergency situation."
The island's authorities seem to agree. A few days before the Guardian's visit, residents took part in an air-raid drill, and local troops recently started to conduct random vehicle checks.
Residents have been told to stockpile a week's worth of food and water, and to be ready to donate blood. Each has been issued with a gas mask for use in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Some have reportedly taken to sleeping in their clothes in preparation for a night-time assault.
But in other ways, life on Baengnyeong goes on as normal. On a pebble beach, with North Korea's coastline in the distance, elderly women collect rubbish in the hope that tourists will soon be drawn back to their island's dramatic coastline, hiking trails and unrivalled seafood.
Behind them, carved into a stone monument, is a slogan that encapsulates an abiding dream among Koreans on both sides of the border, but which now seems hopelessly optimistic: "Towards unification."
Russia: N.Korea suggests evacuating diplomats
The Associated Press
Russia's foreign minister says Moscow doesn't understand why North Korea has suggested that Moscow and other countries close their embassies in Pyongyang, and he says he's concerned about the high tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted Friday during a visit to Uzbekistan as saying that Russia is in touch with China, the United States, Japan and South Korea - all members of a dormant talks process with North Korea - to try to figure out the motivation.
"We are very perturbed about the supercharged tensions, which for now are verbal. We want to understand the causes of this proposal," Lavrov said, according to the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti.
About two dozen countries have embassies in North Korea. A spokesman for the Russian embassy there, Denis Samsonov, told Russian media that the embassy was working normally.
Russia has appeared increasingly angry with North Korea as tensions roiled following a North Korean nuclear test and the country's subsequent warnings to South Korea and the United States that it would be prepared to attack.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich on Thursday strongly criticized North Korea for its "defiant neglect" of U.N. Security Council resolutions. A ministry statement Friday after the embassy evacuations proposal said "We are counting on maximum restraint and composure from all sides."
A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said his government was considering its next move in North Korea but that it regarded the North Korean suggestion to embassies as an effort to portray the United States as a threat.
US defends military deployments in response to North Korea threats
State Department says US has no choice but to respond robustly to North's 'bellicose statements' as John Kerry visits Asia
Dan Roberts in New York and Justin McCurry In Seoul
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 19.35 BST
The US has defended its robust response to military threats from North Korea amid criticism that both sides are to blame for the escalating rhetorical standoff.
Pyongyang ratcheted tensions in the region to new levels on Thursday by reportedly moving a medium range missile to its eastern coast after warning it has been authorised to attack the US using "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons. This followed steps by Washington to move interceptor missiles and warships to the region to defend against possible attack by the North.
But the US State Department responded to questions from reporters about the danger of a downward spiral by insisting that it had no choice but to respond in this way.
"When you have a country that is making the kind of bellicose statements and taking the kind of steps that they have, you have to take it seriously and you have to take steps to defend the US and its allies," said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"The ratcheting up of tension on the DPRK side was the cause of us shoring up our defensive posture."
However, Washington also announced fresh moves to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis, revealing that it had made a phone call to officials in Beijing to ask them to press North Korea to tone down its rhetoric. Secretary of state John Kerry is due to meet his counterpart in Beijing on a scheduled visit to Asia, and South Korean leader Park Geun-hye is also due to meet President Obama in Washington for talks next week.
The State Department said it was optimistic that the international alliance calling on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme would hold firm and "recognise the threat we share is common and that we are stronger if we work together".
Nuland also said it was within Pyongyang's ability to return to the international community and end sanctions. "This does not have to get hotter," she said. "They just have to comply with their international obligations."
The past week has seen a growing series of threats in the most significant bout of sabre-rattling since an artillery exchange between North and South in 2010. North Korea also closed the shared Kaesong industrial zone and vowed to restart a mothballed nuclear plant.
Although officials in South Korean stress they do not think an attack is imminent, the risk of accidental conflict is high after North Korea withdrew from a system of hotlines. South Korea also adopted more proactive deterrence strategy after attacks by the North in 2010, threatening to respond with disproportionate force to any future provocation.
South Korea's defence minister claimed early on Thursday that Pyongyang had 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.
In a further reminder of historic tensions, the White House announced on Thursday that President Obama would next week be making a posthumous medal of honour award to a Korean war veteran captured in 1950.
Computer hackers apparently also broke into at least two of North Korea's government-run social media accounts on Thursday.
The North's Uriminzokkiri Twitter and Flickr accounts stopped sending out content typical of that posted by the regime in Pyongyang, such as photos of North's leader Kim Jong-Un meeting with military officials.
Instead, a picture posted Thursday on the North's Flickr site showed Kim's face with a pig-like snout and a drawing of Mickey Mouse on his chest.
Underneath, the text read: "Threatening world peace with ICBMs and Nuclear weapons/Wasting money while his people starve to death."
Another posting said "We are Anonymous" in white letters against a black background. Anonymous is a name of a hacker activist group. A statement purporting to come from the attackers and widely circulated online said that they had compromised 15,000 user records hosted on Uriminzokkiri.com and other websites. The authenticity of the statement couldn't be confirmed, but the North's official website did not open Thursday.
In North Korea, nine is the magic number
An analysis of the regime's significant dates shows nine rules, meaning we should be worried on Friday 5 April (5+4=9)
Jang Jin-sung, editor-in-chief of New Focus International
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 11.18 BST
North Korea is a notoriously secret society, led by an equally secretive dynasty of Kims. But as hostilities with the west over the country's nuclear programme escalate, revelations from deep within the regime might shed some light on what is guiding its leaders' actions.
Apparently it's the number nine.
It all started at the time of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation, when there were eight shamans representing the eight provinces of Korea. Out of these, the strongest shaman was thought to be the one from of Pyongan-do. He is said to have told Kim Il-sung that the destiny of his bloodline was aligned with the ninth number, which is considered auspicious in east Asia.
Perhaps it was because of this that Kim Il-sung declared the founding date of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to be 9 September. Although there were five provinces at the time, he increased the number to nine. The Supreme Guard Command, Kim's personal bodyguard corps, was named Unit 963 (double nine is an especially lucky combination).
The Kims have their own food chain, also using the number nine. Throughout North Korea you will find so-called No 9 farms and No 9 work details, specially assigned by the central party's financial administration department. Their produce is used to feed the Kims, and these meals are called No 9 products.
The second Kim is said to have repeatedly stressed the fact that his birthday fell on 16 February (1+6+2=9). He decreed that the numberplates of his vehicles should read 2.16; and then, so as to disguise his personal vehicles, assigned this as a common numberplate for all of North Korea's inner elite.
Kim Jong-il was appointed to the highest military post on 24 December (2+4+1+2=9). His appointment as party secretary, which effectively formalised his powers, was made three years and three months after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung.
Applying this to recent North Korean history, we note that Kim Jong-il gave his son, Kim Jong-un, his first public role as general of the Korean People's Army on 27 September 2010 (2+7=9, plus the 9th month, equals double nine). On 11 April (20)12 (1+1+4+1+2=9) Kim Jong-un was appointed first secretary of the Workers' party. Then on 18 July 2012, he was appointed to the rank of marshal.
When North Korea makes international news with an impending rocket launch or nuclear test, outside analysts often cite recent birthdays of the Kims, or other state anniversaries, as influencing the choice of date. But a closer look suggests it has more to do with the number nine.
The country's first nuclear test took place on 9 October 2006. The second long-range rocket launch was on 5 April 2009 (5+4=9 and nine of 2009, double nine). The next one was successfully launched on 12 December 2012 (1+2+1+2+1+2=9). There was a nuclear test on 12 February (20)13 (1+2+2+1+3=9). A recent North Korean propaganda video released on YouTube, in which the east coast of the US is consumed in a "sea of fire", features a rocket labelled No 9.
So, it all adds up. Three generations of the Kim family seem to have been fixated on nines. In the current climate this suggests that we should all be on our guard today, Friday 5 April (5+4=9). If we make it safely to Saturday, the world is probably safe from a nuclear attack until the 14th or, perhaps, the 23rd.
U.S. official: We are ‘not on the brink of war’ with North Korea
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, April 4, 2013 21:00 EDT
After weeks of intensifying warnings from Washington and threats by Pyongyang, US policymakers are hoping to stop the crisis from spiraling into war while still standing firm on North Korea.
North Korea is famous for its shrill proclamations but it has sent shudders in the United States, South Korea and Japan in recent days by brandishing nuclear war and apparently moving a missile to its east coast.
The United States took the unprecedented step of announcing last week a bomb test by its nuclear-capable B-2 stealth fighter, one of a series of moves meant partly as reassurance to the new administration in ally South Korea.
A senior US official insisted that such shows of force were needed to influence North Korea but said that the United States also wanted to climb down from the crisis and minimize the potential for a miscalculation.
“No one should think we’re on the brink of war, at least at this point, and we have to do everything we can to avoid it,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The official said the United States was committed to its annual joint maneuvers with South Korea — which end in April and included the B-2 and other advanced jets — but that it may “go a little less public with our exercise activities.”
The Pentagon said Wednesday it would speed up stationing of ground-based THAAD missile-interceptor batteries to protect the US Pacific territory of Guam but characterized the move as defensive.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied any shift in tone but said that the situation “does not need to get hotter” and that the United States was open to a “different course” if North Korea acts differently.
Driving the concern, the United States knows little about Kim Jong-Un, a third-generation leader in his late 20s who since taking charge in late 2011 has met few foreigners other than basketball all-star Dennis Rodman.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States had likely already taken enough actions to make its message clear to North Korea, which in February defiantly carried out a third nuclear test.
But Snyder said Washington had little incentive to turn down the temperature when it appears that Pyongyang may not have completed its playbook.
“My impression is that the North Koreans have got the message. At this point, the problem is that the North Koreans are already on a set course of action,” he said.
Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the United States had more leeway on revealing military moves as the key stretch of its exercises with South Korea was winding down.
But she said the United States could not make gestures toward North Korea, other than continuing to state that the door is open for dialogue.
“We do not want to reward their threats and I don’t think we should really be offering them anything new, absent any steps by them to start ratcheting down these tensions,” she said.
Kurt Campbell, who stepped down in February as the top State Department official on East Asia, said that President Barack Obama’s administration has deliberately sent a “dual message” on North Korea.
The administration has warned North Korea but highlighted that it saw little concrete military build-up by Pyongyang.
“I think they (the administration) are doing that in a way so that we don’t have a set of circumstances where things escalate beyond a point where it can be effectively managed,” Campbell said at Johns Hopkins University.
“This is one of the most dangerous parts of the world. It’s a hair-trigger, heavily militarized (area) and so great care needs to be taken,” he said.
April 4, 2013
Beijing Flaunts Cross-Border Clout in Search for Drug Lord
By JANE PERLEZ and BREE FENG
BAN MOM, Laos — It was 100 miles downstream from China, on the banks of the Mekong River, where a notorious drug lord slipped ashore in the dusk into the hands of law enforcement.
Security officials from Laos arrested the trafficker, Naw Kham, but the international manhunt that led to his capture was organized in Beijing, by top Chinese government officials intent on making him pay for the killings of 13 Chinese seamen on the river, which has become a major trade route into China.
The bodies of the Chinese, the crew of two cargo boats, were found badly mutilated on the Thai side of the river in early October 2011. The killings, the worst slaughter of Chinese citizens abroad in recent memory, angered the Chinese public. Chinese investigators insist that Mr. Naw Kham was the mastermind of the murders.
China’s search for Mr. Naw Kham, overseen by its powerful Ministry of Public Security, was a hard-nosed display of the government’s political and economic clout across Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, the three countries of Southeast Asia that form the Golden Triangle. The capture shows how China’s law enforcement tentacles reach far beyond its borders into a region now drawn by investment and trade into China’s orbit, and where the United States’ influence is being challenged.
It took six months for China to catch Mr. Naw Kham, a citizen of Myanmar in his 40s, a man of many aliases who was at the center of the booming synthetic drug business in the Golden Triangle, once known for its opium.
What came next was quick: the authorities flew the drug lord from Laos to China, tried him in a provincial court and executed him last month in a highly publicized live television broadcast that captured the proceedings until just moments before he received a lethal injection.
The Chinese hunt for Mr. Naw Kham was methodical and unyielding.
Immediately after the killings of the sailors, the Chinese government invited senior officials from the three countries that form the Golden Triangle to Beijing.
There, it pressured the countries to participate in Chinese-led river patrols, intended to ensure security for the river trade. Meng Jianzhu, who was China’s minister for public security, flew to Myanmar to meet with President Thein Sein, and Wen Jiabao, then China’s prime minister, spoke by telephone to his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, to urge her cooperation.
It fell to Liu Yuejin, leader of the antinarcotics bureau of the Ministry of Public Security, to coordinate the three-country search. Like the F.B.I., the ministry operates more than 20 liaison offices in places around the world, including the United States.
Mr. Liu took up temporary headquarters at Guan Lei, on the Mekong River in southern Yunnan Province, and sent Chinese officers to the three capitals to work as liaisons with local officials. He was in touch with these officers every day, Mr. Liu said.
Mr. Naw Kham proved to be a formidable target.
He had operatives within the Burmese and Thai armies and the Laotian security forces, according to an Asian official who works in the Golden Triangle and who spoke of the delicate case on the condition of anonymity. To counter Mr. Naw Kham’s web of protection, China was able to rely on contacts developed over the past decade from the training of more than 1,500 police officers in Southeast Asia, the official said.
China also had an array of informers — “flip-flops,” the official said — from among the increasing number of Chinese petty traders and businessmen in the region.
“He had his people, we had our people,” acknowledged Mr. Liu in a rare interview with a foreign reporter in his office in Beijing.
The Chinese were so intent on catching up with Mr. Naw Kham that security forces considered using a drone to kill him.
The drone idea was eventually abandoned even as Mr. Naw Kham outfoxed his pursuers in Myanmar’s mountainous jungles, said Mr. Liu, a precise man with a photograph of himself at a Mao heritage site on his office wall.
The Chinese news media reported that Mr. Liu’s superiors had ordered that Mr. Naw Kham be captured alive. Mr. Liu, whose antinarcotics bureau runs a fleet of unarmed drones for surveillance in China’s border areas, insisted that the idea was shelved because of legal restraints.
“China using unmanned aircraft would have met with problems,” he said. “My initial reaction was that this was not realistic because this relates to international and sovereignty issues.”
But China had another asset, on the ground. In northern Laos, 10 miles south of where Mr. Naw Kham would eventually be arrested, a lavish Chinese-owned casino called the Kings Roman, decorated with statues of larger-than-life Roman figures and a huge crown affixed to its roof, operates in a special economic zone run by Chinese businessmen on the edge of the Mekong.
The complex feels like a Chinese enclave: street signs are in Chinese, and Chinese currency, the renminbi, is favored over the Laotian kip. The casino offers stretch limousines for its customers, and a caged tiger to pet. It maintains its own Chinese security force, which probably played a role in the search for Mr. Naw Kham, the Asian official said.
In the beginning, the Chinese had no idea of Mr. Naw Kham’s whereabouts, and did not know on which side of the river he was hiding, Mr. Liu said. Gradually, they began picking up his tracks.
In December 2011, they learned he was in northern Laos. “Naw Kham had many friends, including in the local police,” Mr. Liu said. “His friends would alert him and protect him, and local officials would delay operations by leading us down the wrong road, literally.”
With the help of his supporters in Laos, Mr. Naw Kham evaded the Chinese and at night escaped across the river to Myanmar. “Under Lao norms, law enforcement activity is not done after dark,” Mr. Liu said wryly.
Once back in Myanmar, Mr. Naw Kham shuttled between hiding places in the mountains around the district of Tachilek, a center for the manufacture of methamphetamine. The factory-made drug has overtaken opium as the most lucrative product in the Golden Triangle, and antinarcotics officials say it was central to Mr. Naw Kham’s empire.
One of the links between Mr. Naw Kham and the two boats with the 13 Chinese seamen involved 920,000 methamphetamine pills, with an estimated value of $6 million, on board, according to the Thai police.
The Chinese authorities say the drugs were planted on the boats. Some Thai authorities contend that Mr. Naw Kham knew the boats were laden with drugs and sent his men to punish the crews for not paying protection money as they sailed from China into Thai waters.
Other Thai officials say that nine members of an elite Thai military unit were also involved in the killings of the Chinese seamen. Mr. Liu said that he agreed with that assessment, and that the nine Thai soldiers should be prosecuted.
The factories for making the methamphetamine pills are hidden throughout the mountainous terrain of Shan State in Myanmar, an area Mr. Naw Kham knew instinctively, Mr. Liu said.
In February and March 2012, the Chinese investigators missed him twice. But each time the Chinese closed in, they swept up supporters, increasing the chances they would flush him out, Mr. Liu said.
“There were gunfights where people were captured or killed, others were frightened off, and so he had fewer and fewer people around him,” Mr. Liu said.
As Mr. Naw Kham’s security net evaporated in Myanmar, the Chinese learned that he planned to escape across the Mekong River to Laos in a small boat, Mr. Liu said. The Laotians were alerted. “This time we didn’t have to persuade the Lao to act,” he said.
Mr. Naw Kham landed on the muddy banks with two associates. The Laotian police captured him as he tried to flee, Mr. Liu said.
Mr. Liu denied having his own men on the spot, but it was almost certain that Chinese agents were on hand, the Asian official said.
For China, the arrest was a substantial victory, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and an author of the book “Cashing In Across the Golden Triangle.”
“The capture of Naw Kham sends a message that no group or state is going to be allowed to mess around with China on the Mekong River,” Mr. Chambers said. “Everyone now knows the top dog on the Mekong is China.”
In some ways, China’s operation to scoop up the drug lord echoed Gen. John J. Pershing’s endeavor to capture Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader who in 1916 killed 18 Americans in New Mexico, Mr. Chambers said.
At the time, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to demonstrate that under the Monroe Doctrine, the United States was the power in Mexico, and that a popular folk hero would not be permitted to challenge it.
“China has its own Monroe Doctrine in the region, and this is the Pancho Villa case of the Mekong,” Mr. Chambers said.
But there were two distinctions.
“No. 1, the Chinese caught Naw Kham,” Mr. Chambers said, alluding to Pancho Villa’s skill in dodging General Pershing’s army. “And No. 2, for smart diplomacy, they gave the credit to Laos.”
April 4, 2013
Arrests in China Show Limits of War on Graft
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, remains something of a mystery, but he has made one element of his agenda abundantly clear: The government will no longer tolerate the rampant corruption that he says is threatening the Communist Party’s grip on power.
But President Xi’s apparent war on graft has limits, at least judging by the detention on Sunday of four activists after they unfurled banners in central Beijing expressing support for the party’s self-described war on official malfeasance.
“Unless we put an end to corrupt officials, the China Dream will remain a daydream,” said one of the banners, in a pointed reference to Mr. Xi’s pledge to revitalize the nation through more equitable economic growth, a strong military and increased government transparency. Those are main elements of his so-called Chinese dream.
Another banner called for officials to disclose their assets publicly, a proposal that has met resistance from powerful interests within the party. The activists also demanded that officials reveal whether they secretly hold foreign passports, an increasingly common practice that in recent years has helped thousands of corrupt civil servants escape Chinese justice by fleeing abroad with their ill-gotten loot.
The short-lived demonstration at a public plaza not far from China’s leadership compound was promptly, and roughly, broken up by the police as a small crowd listened to a speech by one of the protesters. By Thursday evening, the three men and one woman were still being held on criminal charges of illegal assembly, according to their lawyers, charges that carry a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Ma Gangquan, one of the lawyers, said the activists were dumbfounded by their treatment.
“Our leaders are the ones who came up with the ‘China Dream’ slogan, vowing to rule by law and to fight corruption,” said Mr. Ma, who represents Ma Xinli, 47, an employee in the logistics department of a Beijing bus company. “Their goal was simply to make his cause their own.”
Another lawyer, Ding Xikui, complained that the police bloodied the face of his client, Hou Xin, as they dragged her away.
Although it is unlikely that Mr. Xi and other top leaders were aware of the protest, rights advocates say the detentions, coupled with the recent harassment of other people fighting corruption, are a worrying sign that the leadership is determined to constrain any populist campaigning on an issue central to the president’s agenda.
A petition calling for senior leaders to disclose their wealth publicly has been largely scrubbed from the Internet in China, and a number of citizen activists across the country have been detained in recent weeks for trying to collect signatures or for staging similar demonstrations against graft.
Last month, two activists were held in a secret “black jail” here in Beijing for more than a week, rights advocates say.
Despite Mr. Xi’s vow to take down “tigers and flies” in his crusade against cronyism and self-dealing, Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said the recent detentions suggested a lack of resolve among top leaders.
Even if the party is wary of public protests, Mr. Bequelin said, previous leaders had harnessed popular sentiment to promote agendas that faced resistance from powerful interests.
“If society is kept in shackles, there is little chance of overcoming the status quo within the party,” he said, noting how a previous leader, Deng Xiaoping, enlisted public support in the early 1990s to overcome conservative opposition to his economic reforms.
So far, much of Mr. Xi’s campaign against corruption has focused on extravagance and waste among government employees.
The austerity measures he announced late last year, which include a ban on frivolous overseas travel and taxpayer-financed banquets, have chastened the nation’s formerly free-spending bureaucrats.
Ordinary Chinese have been heartened by the results, but many are still awaiting further signs that Mr. Xi is determined to stamp out the culture of kickbacks and bribery that have enriched countless party members.
“When officials see citizens arrested for calling for a law that would require officials to disclose their assets, it doesn’t exactly send the message that the party is serious about fighting corruption,” Mr. Bequelin said.
Patrick Zuo contributed research.
April 4, 2013
Ethnic Rifts Strain Myanmar as It Moves Toward Democracy
By THOMAS FULLER
MYITKYINA, MYANMAR — When residents of this northernmost region of Myanmar talk about the tremendous changes of the past two years, they are not referring to the media freedoms or the economic liberalization transforming other parts of the country.
They mean the radicalization of the Kachin ethnic group, whose members inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas near the borders with China and India and have become more militant than at any time in living memory, Kachin leaders say.
As a measure of the difficulties of national reconciliation in Myanmar, a visit to the Kachin region is a sobering reminder of how much hatred and mistrust exist between the majority Burman and the ethnic minorities who live in the country’s highlands.
After 22 months of resurgent fighting with Myanmar government troops, young people openly talk of independence. Churches across the Kachin region are organizing prayers and 24-hour fasting periods in support of the Kachin Independence Army, which has been retreating in the face of attacks by the Myanmar military.
“People are committed to this fight,” said the Rev. Samson Hkalam, a leader of the Baptist church in Myitkyina. Young men who were previously skeptical of the Kachin Independence Army are volunteering to join, Mr. Samson said. “It’s a miracle — the people’s spirit and motivation,” he said.
Two years ago, when President Thein Sein inaugurated Myanmar’s first civilian government in five decades, he announced he would give top priority to national unity. But religious rioting in central Myanmar in recent weeks and the pessimism expressed by many minority leaders have underlined the depth of the fissures in Myanmar society.
The resumption of fighting in Kachin in June 2011, breaking a 17-year cease-fire, aggravated longstanding grievances, snuffing the flickers of hope that the end of military rule would bring greater autonomy to the Kachin region.
“We are angry, we are sad, and we feel alone,” said Tsin Ja, a teacher in a village outside Myitkyina, the capital of the region. “Democracy has been a loss for us.”
Ms. Tsin says the numbers of students in her Kachin language classes have swelled over the past year as both parents and children champion their Kachin identity.
She teaches the Kachin language at a church in the village because the government bans Kachin-language instruction at state schools, a major source of resentment.
“My students say, ‘We are not going to speak Burmese anymore,”’ Ms. Tsin said. “Young people have so much hate and acrimony toward the Burmese people. It’s dramatically different from when I was growing up.”
Like other minority groups in Myanmar, the Kachin have relatively little in common with the Burman. Their languages are not mutually comprehensible. The Kachin are mostly Christian, while the Burmese are overwhelmingly Buddhist. The Kachin inhabit hills and the Burman the lowlands. They celebrate different holidays. The Kachin were only loosely governed by the British during colonial days, while the Burman areas were integrated into the British empire.
Manam Hpang, author of an English-Kachin-Burmese dictionary, said the Kachin had an acute sense of persecution as Christians in a Buddhist land. During military rule, the government built Buddhist pagodas across the state and tried to censor a Burmese version of the Bible, including a ban on the Burmese word for “Proverbs,” because it was the same word used in Buddhist texts.
“We have different background, different culture — we’re incompatible,” Mr. Manam said. “We have no connection with these people,” he said of the Burman.
“The Kachin have realized that we must have independence. Without it, we will be swallowed up,” he said.
Analysts are divided on what the deteriorating relations between the Kachin and central government mean for the country’s overall moves toward democracy and economic liberalization.
A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including the neighboring Thailand, have become prosperous despite ethnic or religious conflicts.
The Kachin make up a small slice of the Myanmar population — about 1 million out of a population of 55 million. But the Kachin Independence Army, with more than 4,000 men under arms, is a significant threat for the Burmese military, especially if the Kachin rely more on their specialty, guerrilla tactics. Until now the Kachin army has fought a type of trench warfare, retreating mountain by mountain as Burmese troops advanced near its headquarters outside the town of Laiza.
The Kachin have a potential alliance with a neighboring ethnic group, the Wa, who have about 20,000 soldiers and are armed with sophisticated weaponry. A wider war that included the Wa and other ethnic allies would be potentially debilitating for Myanmar.
“There are always going to be tensions, rival nationalisms, debates about discrimination and at least the possibility of communal violence,” said U Thant Myint-U, a scholar of Burmese history and an adviser to President Thein Sein. “But that’s very different than having a significant part of the country being fought over by tens of thousands of armed men, belonging to dozens of different militia.”
There have been attempts by private groups to help reconcile the Burman and Kachin in recent months, including a “Peace March” across the country of about 100 people.
Led by Ashin Thon Data, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk, the peace marchers arrived in Myitkyina in March and traveled to refugee camps scattered around the city, where some of the 90,000 people displaced from the fighting live in thatch huts.
Among them was a 72-year-old Kachin woman, Mahkaw Lu, who still appeared rattled by the rushed exit from her village in October as fighting approached. “We couldn’t take anything with us,” she said. “They burned everything.”
Mr. Thon Data, draped in crimson robes, addressed Ms. Mahkaw and the other assembled refugees.
“As a monk I do not normally get a chance to talk with you — you are from a different religion,” he said.
“But you are our brothers,” he said. “We do not differentiate between highland and lowland. We are one flesh.”
As members of the peace march read poems and sang songs, some refugees wept.
The visit by the peace marchers offers a small measure of hope that Myanmar can overcome its religious and ethnic divisions. But they have had very little support in Burman areas. Many Buddhist monasteries refused to house Mr. Thon Data and his peace activists as they marched through the Burmese countryside, he said. And the march came at a personal price: He was expelled from his own monastery for leading the march.
“People say we are crazy,” he said. “Yes, we are crazy for peace.”
Arrests in sectarian riots
Myanmar’s government has arrested dozens of people for their role in an outbreak of sectarian violence in central Myanmar last month, officials said on Thursday, and some of them will go on trial within days, The Associated Press reported from Yangon.
The city of Meiktila was swept by several days of anti-Muslim unrest in which armed Buddhist mobs burned Muslim-owned homes and shops. At least 43 people died and more than 12,000 others, most of them Muslims, were driven from their homes after the violence began on March 20. State prosecutors are putting together 13 separate cases, and the first two will include three people who worked at a Muslim gold shop where an argument broke out, setting off the unrest, Attorney General Ye Aung Myint said.
April 4, 2013
Japan Initiates Bold Bid to End Years of Tumbling Prices
By HIROKO TABUCHI
TOKYO — Haruhiko Kuroda, the new governor of the Bank of Japan, delivered on his promise to drastically change Japan’s economic policy to end a long, debilitating era of deflation.
The nation’s central bank announced on Thursday that it would double the amount of money in circulation and try to produce annual inflation of about 2 percent. “This is monetary easing in an entirely new dimension,” Mr. Kuroda said after the bank’s decision.
The central bank said it had inflated the economy by aggressively buying longer-term bonds and doubling its government bond holdings in two years. The bank said it would aim to create a robust 2 percent inflation rate “at the earliest possible time.”
This major shift in Japan’s monetary policy is a stark contrast to years of what many economists said was a halfhearted battle to end deflation. Deflation is a damaging fall in prices, profits and wages, and it weighs on economic growth.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in late December, has made beating deflation a central point of his economic policy. He wrestled with the bank’s former leaders over creating the 2 percent inflation goal. Mr. Abe’s pressure was so relentless that the bank’s previous governor, the moderate Masaaki Shirakawa, resigned weeks before the end of his term. That departure led to the appointment of Mr. Kuroda, who shares Mr. Abe’s economic philosophy.
Mr. Kuroda emphasized the break with history, repeatedly pointing to a graph showing the planned jump in the country’s money supply as he answered reporters’ questions on the bank’s new policies.
“Incremental steps of the kind we’ve seen so far weren’t going to get us out of deflation,” Mr. Kuroda said. “I’m certain we have now adapted all policies we can think of to meet the 2 percent price target,” he said.
And if prices do not rise as expected, he said he “would not hesitate” to step up the bank’s easing program. Mr. Kuroda faulted his predecessors for fearing the possibility of igniting runaway inflation and for being too ready to pull back at the first sign of higher inflation.
Japanese stocks have soared in recent months on anticipation of a reversal in monetary policy under Mr. Abe. It was fanned by recent assurances from Mr. Kuroda that he would do “whatever it takes” to defeat deflation.
But in recent days, the stock market had retreated as investors wondered whether Mr. Kuroda would make good on his promises.
Shortly after the bank’s announcement, the benchmark Nikkei 225 index jumped from negative territory to end the day 2.2 percent higher. The yen weakened to 96.13 yen per dollar in Tokyo from about 93 yen before the announcement.
“Kuroda did it,” Masaaki Kanno, economist at JPMorgan Securities Japan, said in a note to clients. “This is a historical change in the B.O.J.’s policy.”
Some economists were cautious, though. The central bank’s giant purchases of government debt could eventually be seen by investors as enabling runaway public spending, quashing confidence that Japan would ever pare its already sky-high public debt. They also said it could also drive up long-term interest rates.
If Japan recklessly pursued aggressive monetary and fiscal policies, “the long-term interest rate could rise and fiscal collapse would ensue,” said Ryutaro Kono, an economist at BNP Paribas.
Others argue that rising prices, once stoked, can be hard to control, a fear related to memories of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s and the subsequent painful collapse.
Some experts also question whether monetary policy alone can end deflation in Japan. The country has other deflationary pressures like an aging and shrinking population and cumbersome regulations that make the economy inefficient. They say that lending has not increased at a high enough rate despite the easy money already available because businesses and consumers see little potential for growth.
Mr. Kuroda said that such risks or doubts should not hold the bank back from fighting deflation.
“We have debated the side effects but we are currently not concerned that long-term interest rates might spike, or conversely, that there would be an asset bubble,” Mr. Kuroda said. “That risks exist should not hold us back from pursuing much-needed monetary easing. We will keep in mind those risks, but push ahead,” he said.
He also said that once Japan had fought off deflation and restarted its economy, lending would surely follow, spurring more economic growth in a virtuous cycle. “We are already seeing an improvement in sentiment among consumers and companies,” he said. “As the economy expands, and prices rise, lending will also grow.”
In a statement detailing the new measures, the bank said it would buy longer-term government bonds, lengthening the average maturity of its holdings to seven years from three years and expanding Japan’s monetary base to 270 trillion yen by March 2015.
Under that plan, the bank will buy about 7 trillion yen in bonds each month, equivalent to over 1 percent of its gross domestic product, which is almost twice the bond purchases of the United States Federal Reserve Bank.
The policies are part of a new asset purchase framework that focuses on the monetary base instead of the overnight interest rate. That rate has remained close to zero for years with little effect on increasing prices or expanding the economy. The bank will also consolidate all its purchases in a single operation in an effort to improve transparency of the bank’s purchases.
Mr. Kuroda said that the bank would suspend, for now, a long-standing rule that limits its bond holdings to the amount of money in circulation. The new governor pointed out that limit had already been surpassed anyway.
Mr. Kuroda acknowledged that Japan’s new monetary push was weakening the yen, which will bolster Japan’s exporters at the expense of overseas rivals. A weak yen has long been a sticking point between Tokyo and its trading partners. But he declined to comment further, saying currencies were beyond his mandate as central bank governor.
Government officials welcomed the bank’s decision.
“The bold monetary easing steps go beyond expectations,” said Akira Amari, the economic minister. “The Bank of Japan is finally steering Japan toward rising prices.”
Bird flu fears lead to Shanghai poultry market cull
Authorities slaughter more than 20,000 birds after H7N9 strain of virus is detected in pigeons and human death toll rises to six
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Friday 5 April 2013 11.15 BST
Officials have closed Shanghai's poultry market and slaughtered more than 20,000 birds as the death toll from a new outbreak of bird flu rose to six.
Huhai market for live birds was closed after authorities detected traces of the H7N9 virus in pigeons, according to the Xinhua state news agency.
Live poultry trading sections of two markets in the city's Minhang district have also been shuttered. Online videos showed groups of workers in protective suits shoving chicken carcasses into rubbish bags.
Since last month, 14 cases of H7N9 infection have been reported in Shanghai and four eastern provinces, the first time the strain has been detected in humans.
Chinese health authorities are actively monitoring 400 people who have been in contact with H7N9 patients, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has said that the virus cannot be transmitted from person to person.
Scientists, however, are particularly concerned about two of the virus's traits. H7N9 does not show symptoms in infected birds, allowing it to spread rapidly without detection. It also seems to be mutating quickly, meaning it could become contagious among humans.
According to Xinhua, Shanghai's health authorities announced on Thursday night that someone who had close contact with one of the city's H7N9 victims was currently being treated for flu-like symptoms
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was developing a vaccine for the virus. The commercial production of a H7N9 vaccine commercially has become a subject of hot debate among public health experts, according to Reuters.
"There is a possibility now that flu researchers will all rush to work on H7N9 and grants will be awarded for intensive research to develop vaccines … and that could be pouring money down a drain because it could be that the barriers for this virus are high enough that we don't need to worry about it," Wendy Barclay, a flu virologist at Imperial College London told the news agency.
China's public health system has changed dramatically since 2003, when the Sars virus killed hundreds of people in southern China and the government hushed up news of its spread. Chinese authorities co-operated with the WHO when responding to an outbreak of the more virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu in 2007 and a hand, foot and mouth disease epidemic a year later.
On Friday, H7N9 was the most-discussed topic on the social network Sina Weibo. Most threads concerned ways to prevent the disease but suspicions of a cover-up were also widely voiced. Many Weibo users wondered why the Shanghai authorities waited weeks to announce the first two cases in March.
Some cast doubts on the government's assertion that the virus had no connection to the thousands of dead pigs that were dredged from a Shanghai river last month. Earlier this week, a self-identified hospital administrator in Nanjing leaked a bird flu diagnosis on to Weibo. Although the post was initially censored, health officials later confirmed the case.
"If there is anything that Sars has taught China and its government, it's that one cannot be too careful or too honest when it comes to deadly pandemics," Xinhua wrote on Wednesday. "The last 10 years have taught the government a lot, but it is far from enough."
Vietnam and Hong Kong have temporarily banned Chinese poultry imports, and airports in Japan have put up notices warning passengers from China to report any flu-like symptoms to medical professionals. Stock prices for mainland poultry-meat producers have plummeted, while pharmaceutical company stocks have surged.
April 4, 2013
C.D.C. Begins Work on Vaccine for China Flu
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. and ANDREW JACOBS
Federal health officials have begun to make a seed vaccine against the mysterious new H7N9 flu circulating in China, they said Thursday.
While it is being made “only as a precaution,” a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasized, an agency virologist said the agency was “fairly worried” about the new virus.
China reported that it had confirmed 14 cases of the new flu, and on Friday it reported that six cases were fatal.
No cases of human-to-human transmission have been confirmed, even though China’s disease control agency has traced hundreds of people who had contact with the 14 known cases, the news agency Xinhua reported.
The flu, previously found only in wild birds, was isolated for the first time in domesticated birds on Thursday; after it was found in pigeons in a Shanghai live bird market, the authorities began culling every bird there.
It will take at least a month to create the seed vaccine, even though the agency is speeding the process by building it from synthetic DNA rather than waiting for a virus sample to arrive from China, said Michael Shaw, associate laboratory director for the C.D.C.’s influenza division.
Because China has posted the genetic sequences of the virus on public databanks, it is possible to build the genes for the virus’s outer spikes in a laboratory and attach them to a viral “backbone” that has already been proven to grow well in labs and in the sterile chicken eggs in which flu vaccines are made.
Then the seed vaccine must be tested in ferrets. They will be vaccinated and given some time to grow antibodies, then a solution of the H7N9 flu will be squirted into their noses. Doctors will then have to wait a few days to see if they get sick.
“If everything works smoothly the first time, we could theoretically have it ready to send to manufacturers within four weeks,” Dr. Shaw said. “But some things, like ferrets, you can’t speed up.”
By that time, said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the agency, it would have a clearer idea how dangerous the new flu is.
It is still not clear how lethal it is, Dr. Shaw said, “because we may be seeing only the serious cases, the ones who go to hospitals.” How many mild cases went undetected will be known only by testing hundreds of blood samples for antibodies.
It is also not known how people are getting infected, he said. The few known cases are spread out in a wide area around Shanghai. Exposure to infected poultry is an obvious suspicion. That is the risk factor for H5N1, another bird flu that has killed 371 people since 2003 but recently has been found only in Cambodia, China and Egypt. With the new flu, only two of the 14 known cases are poultry workers; a third was a cook.
Finding it in pigeons is novel, Dr. Shaw said. “It’s clearly not making the pigeons ill, since no one’s seen large numbers of pigeons dying. Pigeons usually aren’t tested. And this could make control harder. Chickens are easy to round up.”
According to the World Health Organization, preliminary tests in China suggest the new virus is susceptible to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.
Several countries have acted against the flu. Vietnam banned imports of Chinese poultry. Japan posted airport notices urging people to report flu symptoms. Hong Kong banned the import of live birds from the mainland.
Donald G. McNeil Jr. reported from New York, and Andrew Jacobs from Beijing.
Iran nuke talks open, EU asks Tehran to compromise
AP foreign, Friday April 5 2013
Associated Press= ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Talks seeking to find common ground between Iran and a group of six nations over concerns that Tehran might misuse its nuclear program to make weapons appeared to run into trouble shortly after they began Friday.
A Western diplomat said Iran had failed to deliver "a clear and concrete response" to the offer on the table from the group and instead offered a "reworking" of proposals it made last year at talks that broke up in disagreement.
The diplomat said the move was puzzling for the six nations. He demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing the confidential talks taking place Friday and Saturday in the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty.
Iran is demanding international recognition of its right to advanced nuclear technology, but other countries are concerned that the Islamic Republic wants to misuse that expertise to make atomic arms.
Comments by representatives of the sides laid out starkly different visions of what each sought from the other.
The six insist Iran cut back on its highest grade uranium enrichment production and stockpile, fearing Tehran will divert it from making nuclear fuel to form the material used in the core of nuclear warhead. They say Iran must make that move — and make it first — to build confidence that its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri challenged the six countries on that point, telling reporters "what is being referred to as confidence-building measures are actions that both sides ... need to take" simultaneously.
He gave no specifics, but the comment could be an allusion to Iranian demands of sweeping sanctions relief instead of the offer from the six offering only a limited lifting of sanctions.
It also wants any nuclear concessions it makes to have specific limits instead of leading to others. Alluding to that demand, Bagheri said his country wanted to nail down "the start of the process, the dimensions of the process and the final outcome of the process."
And he described any would-be nuclear deal as only "part of a comprehensive process," suggesting Iran was still holding to its earlier demands of a broader deal also addressing security issues.
Such views were unlikely to sit well with the six — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
At the talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty they are asking Tehran only to greatly limit its production and stockpiling of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is just a technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. That would keep Iran's supply below the amount needed for further processing into a weapon.
But they view that only as a first step toward the process. Iran is operating more than 10,000 centrifuges. While most are enriching below 20 percent, this material, too could be turned into weapons-grade uranium, although with greater effort than is the case for the 20-percent stockpile.
Tehran also is only a few years away from completing a reactor that will produce plutonium, another pathway to nuclear arms.
The U.N. Security Council has demanded a stop to both that effort and all enrichment in a series of resolutions since 2006. Iran denies any interest in atomic arms, insists its enrichment program serves only peaceful needs, says it has a right to enrich under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and describes U.N. Security Council demands as illegal.,
Ahead of the meeting an EU official speaking for the six world powers said Friday the onus was on Iran to engage on the six-nation offer, which foresees a lifting of sanctions on Iran's gold and petrochemical trade but keeps penalties crippling Iran's oil sales and economy in place.
"The core issue here is the international community concern of the very strong indications that Iran is developing technology that could be used for military purposes," said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the formal convener of the talks.
"There are suspicions of an enrichment program that could have military uses," he said. "The confidence building has to come from Iran because it is Iran that is developing its nuclear program."
The meetings Friday and Saturday are at best expected to achieve enough progress for agreement to hold another round of talks. But after 10 years of inconclusive negotiations, even an agreement to keep talking would give both sides short-term gains.
It would leave the international community with some breathing space in its efforts to stem Iran's nuclear advance. For Tehran, continued negotiations are insurance that neither Israel nor the United States will feel the need to act on threats to move from diplomacy to other means to deal with Iran.
Israel says Iran is only a few months away from the threshold of having material to turn into a bomb and has vowed to use all means to prevent it from reaching that point. The United States has not said what its "red line" is, but has said it will not tolerate an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
Any strike on Iran could provoke fierce retaliation directly from Iran and through its Middle East proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, raising the specter of a larger Middle East conflict.
04/04/2013 04:32 PM
'Strong Lack of Instinct': Turkish Paper Threatens to Sue over Trial Access
No journalists from Turkish media organizations have been provided with reserved seats at the upcoming trial of a member of a neo-Nazi terror cell that killed eight men of Turkish descent in Germany. Now a publication in Turkey is threatening to sue for access, and others may follow.
The Turkish daily newspaper Sabah says it is planning to file an expedited suit at Germany's highest court in the hopes of securing a reserved seat at the massive upcoming trial of the sole surviving member of a German neo-Nazi terror cell that killed 10 people, most of then of Turkish origin.
"We will sue," Ismail Erel, the paper's deputy editor-in-chief, told the German news agency DPA on Wednesday, adding that the newspaper had yet to submit its complaint.
A dispute has been brewing for weeks in Germany over the distribution of regular press seats in the murder trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of three suspected members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). The group is believed to be responsible for the killing of 10 people, including eight people of Turkish descent, a Greek man and a policewoman, between 2000 and 2007.
The trial against Zschäpe and four men suspecting of aiding the NSU, one of the biggest cases to unfold in Germany in years, will begin on April 17 at the Munch Higher Regional Court. The court claims that reserved seats for the media were allotted on a first come, first serve basis during the accreditation process. Although most of the victims were of Turkish origin, not a single journalist from a Turkish media outlet has been provided with a reserved seat.
Speaking to German public broadcaster ZDF, Erel demanded equal treatment under the German constitution. "Court cases must be public for fellow Turkish countrymen in Germany as well," he said, referring to the estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany today. Erel added that freedom of the press and freedom of information laws must also be applied to Turkish-speaking journalists working in Germany. Officials at Turkish daily Hürriyet, which publishes editions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, said they were also considering filing a lawsuit.
Turkey's ambassador to Germany, Avni Karsioglu, acknowledged that the court's actions in the media-accreditation process were at least technically correct. But he told journalists that the procedures had not been entirely transparent. Others accuse the court of political insensitivity, specifically given the high number of Turkish victims in the slayings.
'A Strong Lack of Instinct'
"The court has shown a strong lack of instinct," Pascal Thibaut, the deputy chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Germany, told public broadcaster NDR. "Lawyers have apparently handled the material without appreciation for the political and media dimensions the case has domestically and internationally."
Meanwhile, the Judicial Press Conference of Karlsruhe, an association of journalists reporting at Germany's high courts, which are all located in the southwestern city, is calling for a video transmission of the court proceedings into a spillover room (as was done with the Anders Behring Breivik trial in Oslo) -- a move the court has so far rejected. "It is our opinion that this is probably the only feasible way left to be able to make the inclusion of the so-far excluded Turkish media in this historic case at least partially possible," the group wrote in a letter.
Several German media establishments have offered to give their reserved seats to Turkish media, but these requests have been rejected by the court, which has refused to allow changes.
Stephan Mayer, a member of parliament for the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union, has even called on the court to reserve 10 out of the 50 media seats for foreign journalists.
Meanwhile, Turkish Ambassador Karsioglu has confirmed that he also plans to attend the trial. "It is a given that I will be there with the victims' families and accompany them during their difficult journey," he said in an interview with ZDF. "It is my job and my duty to be there."
In recent weeks, suspicions between Ankara and Berlin have increased following two fires in Germany in buildings housing large numbers of people of Turkish origin. The approaching trial in Munich and the debate over seating for journalists has only heightened those tensions. This distrust has grown over the years following several deadly attacks against Turks in Germany, including the 1993 arson attack on a home in Solingen that killed five people.
04/04/2013 05:01 PM
Tax Scandal: Ex Budget Minister's Failings Threaten French Government
By Stefan Simons in Paris
Former Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac shocked France this week by admitting to tax evasion. The scandal represents a potential disaster for the struggling Socialist government and could increase pressure from the public and the political opposition against President François Hollande.
France initially reacted with shock and anger to former Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac's online "confession" on Tuesday to having illegal accounts in foreign banks. These emotions were quickly replaced with disenchantment, acrimony and frustration. And now the case of the plastic surgeon-turned-politician has triggered a crisis for the 10-month-old government of Socialist President François Hollande. Indeed, Cahuzac's defiant four-month lying campaign, the reaction to the accusations and its surprising denouement -- all of which has happened in a Fifth Republic that has not exactly been wanting for scandals, intrigues and affairs -- will confront France's political culture with a decisive test.
What did government officials know? When did it dawn on Hollande that he had been duped by his budget minister, who stepped down in mid-March? And how could the president, equipped with his almost monarchical power, rely on the solemn word of his fellow Socialist during a one-on-one talk in the Elysée Palace? During his election campaign, Hollande pledged to usher in an "irreproachable republic." But now, in addition to being outmatched by the ongoing economic crisis, he is also being found morally culpable.
Cahuzac's fiscal sins and his "expulsion from the tax paradise" (in the words of the communist daily L'Humanité) are not merely the faltering of an individual. Rather, his misstep exposes an entire system in which Cahuzac not only enjoyed the presumption of innocence, but was also able to shield himself from suspicion thanks to his ministerial post. The principles of the Republic are shaken, warns French political scientist Stéphane Rozès, when laws don't apply to those who make them.
As budget minister, Cahuzac was tasked with cleaning up France's state finances. The former plastic surgeon was supposed to use his scalpel to make precise cuts to pensions as well as health and social expenditures. In the meantime, however, he clandestinely multiplied his own capital income. For two decades, the self-proclaimed spearhead in the fight against tax evasion dodged taxes by having his money in undeclared accounts in Switzerland and Singapore.
And now a completely fresh accusation against a high-ranking politician is coming fast on the heels of the latest scandal: The Süddeutsche Zeitung, a leading German daily, has reported that Jean-Jacques Augier, Hollande's campaign manager, has two shell companies on the Cayman Islands. The report notes that Augier denies that there is anything illegal about this, quoting him as saying that he has "neither an account on the Caymans nor (has he) directly invested there."
The revelation comes as part of thereport on Thursday on the scandal over secret transactions in tax havens. An anonymous source leaked detailed records on the transactions to an international network of journalists. The data reportedly involves 2.5 million documents relating to 130,000 individuals -- including hundreds of Germans -- in more than 170 countries.
Worse than the illicit money-laundering is the complete loss of confidence: Cahuzac openly lied to Hollande's government and the entire National Assembly only to turn around -- with a healthy dollop of chutzpah -- to ask for a "pardon" from the French once he was ultimately threatened with exposure. In the eyes of his countrymen and -women, Cahuzac's actions have now unmasked him as one of those rapacious politicians who are aptly labelled in the popular vernacular as "completely rotten."
A Political Disaster
In the eyes of many in France, this group includes the members of an elite that, despite all the public rivalries between opposition and ruling parties, is joined into a secret conspiracy to pursue its members' own private interests. Widespread public suspicion focuses on the caste of high-level public servants, politicians and company executives who are often alumni of the same elite universities. This upper crust of the upper class is seen as continuously and incestuously striving to perpetuate their control over the country.
Of course, the public has long been resigned to the fact that, as former Prime Minister Michel Rocard once said, lies are a necessary part of politics. Campaign promises are not to be taken on face value, and announcements, proposals and reform projects often turn out to be nothing more than mere words on campaign flyers and party platforms. Likewise, when new governments start performing their everyday tasks, grand visions also shrink to normal size.
However, in the case of Cahuzac, a politician has been found guilty of brutal dishonesty -- and triggered a political disaster. This is particularly true for Hollande. It is still a mystery why his government didn't more thoroughly look into the accusations of Mediapart, the online investigative journalism website that first reported on Cahuzac's secret Swiss bank account in December. Indeed, it only took investigating prosecutors less than three weeks to confront Cahuzac with proof that prompted him to plea that he had been "trapped in a spiral of lies," in what the Belgian daily De Standaard has dubbed France's "Lance Armstrong moment."
But, given that, why did Hollande rely on his gut rather than on all the police, intelligence and diplomatic resources at his disposal as president? Likewise, did the French Ministry of Economics, Finances and Industry protect Cahuzac when it asked its Swiss counterparts to only look at UBS, the Swiss banking giant, to see if the minister had an account there and didn't ask about more banks when it was told no?
Apart from the issue of individual responsibility, Cahuzac's downfall might widen the gulf between average French citizens and the ruling establishment. The deterioration of faith in the work of public institutions, which will now only become more pervasive, benefits leaders of parties on both the extreme right and left. The conservative opposition is calling for a cabinet reshuffle, and Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front, is demanding fresh elections.
President Hollande has reacted angrily to the scandal. During a TV appearance on Wednesday, he called it "unpardonable" and "an outrage," but he also tried to deflect criticism from his government by labelling it "the failure of one man." Likewise, he announced a package of anti-corruption reforms that would ban convicted tax-dodgers from holding public office and require all government ministers and parliamentarians to publish details about their personal finances.
But, given the profundity of this crisis in confidence, such moves seem rather ramshackle and feeble. French citizens already passed verdict on his government long ago. A survey by the Ipsos polling firm found that 62 percent of them consider "the majority of their politicians to be corrupt." And that was in January, long before Cahuzac's lying was exposed.
Meanwhile, French authorities have now filed preliminary money-laundering charges against Cahuzac. If convicted, the Associated Press reports that he could face up to five years in prison and a €375,000 ($480,000) fine.
04/05/2013 01:04 PM
'Secrecy-Cloaked Companies': Deutsche Bank Criticized for Offshore Operations
As part of an international reporting project on offshore companies and trusts, two German newspapers are reporting that Deutsche Bank helped to establish some 300 such entities through its operations in Singapore. The news isn't entirely new, but criticism of the company is growing.
Of the institutions under scrutiny by an international consortium of investigative journalists, Germany's Deutsche Bank appears to be a significant European player in the flow of offshore money. Research by German public broadcaster NDR and the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper has found that the company has helped to maintain more than 300 secretive offshore companies and trusts through its Singapore branch. Most of these are located in the British Virgin Islands.
The information comes from records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in a reporting project that has been jointly published by media in 46 counties.
The records include details on more than 122,000 offshore companies or trusts spread across over more than 170 countries and territories and the names of 130,000 people who have allegedly parked their money in offshore tax havens. They involve a "well-paid industry of accountants, middlemen and other operatives" who have "helped offshore patrons shroud their identities and business interests, providing shelter in many cases to money laundering or other misconduct," the ICIJ wrote. This network includes "many of the world's top banks -- including UBS, Clariden and Deutsche Bank," which it accuses of having "aggressively worked to provide their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore hideaways."
Bank Defends Operations
In response to questions by journalists, a Deutsche Bank spokesman said the company offers "services to wealthy clients on the basis that these customers fully comply with all tax rules and reporting requirements." He said the bank's operations in Southeast Asia primarily offer services to customers based in the region.
The bank has also said that it "is not offering any tax advice or any service offering registration of companies in tax havens" and that Deutsche Bank takes "extensive precautions to obstruct misuse of the bank's products and services for money laundering."
A brochure posted on the website of Deutsche Bank's Private Wealth Management unit advertises "the creation, management and administration" of "trusts, companies, foundations" in several countries. On its website dboffshore.com, the bank advertises its businesses in tax havens like the Cayman Islands or Mauritius, offering a "variety of professional services which best suit your financial objectives."
According to a Thursday report in the Süddeutsche, the records reviewed showed that up until 2010, Deutsche Bank's Singapore unit had established 309 offshore companies and trusts. Under its tutelage, entities were formed with names like Roseburn or White River Holdings Group Ltd. The bank would not comment on what the businesses were used for.
Merkel 'At Least Tolerates Illegal Structures'
As the Süddeutsche itself reports, news that Deutsche Bank conducts offshore operations isn't new. As the paper notes, such activities aren't as prolific at Deutsche as at Switzerland's UBS, where the records traced at least 2,900 offshore entities. Back in 2009, it was already public knowledge that Deutsche Bank had some 500 subsidiaries in places known to be tax havens.
Still, the paper claims, the government has done little to stop a German firm from engaging in the kind of financial behavior Berlin has been aggressively combatting in countries like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Cyprus. The paper quotes the financial policy point man in parliament for the Green Party, Gerhard Schick, criticizing both the government and the business model of firms like Deutsche Bank. He alleges the banks may be contributing to the shielding of money laundering activities, tax evasion and money linked to corruption. He also alleges that Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government "at the very least tolerates these illegal structures and is possibly protecting them."
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE published on Friday, the head of Germany's Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin), Elke König, said her authority, although not responsible for taxes, would investigate if banks appeared to be systematically violating or helping people to violate tax law. "Banks have a special responsibility," she said.
For Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest bank, the revelations are creating a second wave of unwelcome scrutiny this week. On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, has launched an investigation into claims the bank hid billions of dollars of losses on credit derivatives during the financial crisis. Bundesbank investigators plan to fly to New York next week as part of the inquiry into claims that the bank misvalued credit derivatives in order to hide losses as high as $12 billion and avoid a government bailout.
Eurozone crisis: what next for Portugal?
Inside parliament, consensus between the two main parties on how to cut has long gone, while outside, unrest is growing
Marina Costa Lobo
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 15.35 BST
On Wednesday, the Portuguese government survived a vote of no-confidence in parliament. Although the proponents were defeated, the vote marks a definitive rupture between the two main parties, the PS (Socialist party) who tabled the vote, and the main governing party, the centre-right PSD. "Your government is destroying Portugal. We need to replace this incompetent government with a better one," said the Socialist leader António José Seguro to the prime minister, Passos Coelho, in parliament on Thursday.
The acrimony between the two leaders contrasts vividly with the consensus that existed only two years ago. The economic deterioration of the country and growing social discontent is taking its toll on political stability. In May 2011, when Portugal was bailed out by the EU troika, the two main governing parties signed a pact committing to harsh deficit and public debt targets for the next three years.
In the June 2011 parliamentary elections, 70% voted for one of these two parties. The Portuguese adjustment process thus gained legitimacy at the ballot box.
Since then, however, there have been persistent failures in meeting the economic objectives, despite the fact that the government has implemented an extremely ambitious cuts agenda. The government forecast that GDP would fall by 1.8% in 2012 and 1.5% in 2013. In fact it fell by 3.2% in 2012 and is predicted to fall by 2.3% in 2013. The budget deficit has not fallen as much as expected, reaching 6.4% in 2012 and 5.5% in 2013. Significantly, unemployment has soared to 15.7% in 2012 and is predicted to reach 19% in 2013. In March, the troika agreed to give the government an extra year to meet its targets, which had the effect of compounding the general feeling that the government is ineffective, and that the recipe for Portuguese economic problems is wrong.
Social tensions are growing – a recent report counted more than 3,000 demonstrations in 2012, compared with just 708 in the previous year. There have been key anti-government protests – most recently in the beginning of March – that gathered hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
The Socialists' initial support gave way to their abstention in last year's budget. However, that budget was deemed unconstitutional by the constitutional court. This year, the Socialists voted against the budget, and the country awaits the court's verdict on the 2013 budget in the next few days. If the court once again rejects some of the budget cuts as unconstitutional, this would signify that the government needs to find alternative sources of income to meet the fiscal targets. Depending on the size of the sum involved, Coelho has said that he may resign.
In a letter sent to the troika on Wednesday, Seguro reaffirmed his support for fiscal adjustment and that his party would honour Portugal's international commitments. However, he did suggest that it was necessary to renegotiate the conditions under which the adjustment takes place, through changes to deadlines, deferment of interest payment and renegotiated interest rates, among others. Still, given that the parties on the left of the Socialists are vehemently against the pact, the PS knows that it can only lead a stable government if it agrees to enter a coalition with one of the rightwing governing parties.
Thus, although recent events make future consensus on cuts less likely, the vote of no-confidence in no way posits the end of Socialist support for the adjustment process. What it signals is a decline in the likelihood of success of the programme's implementation for 2013, which includes further cuts to be proposed in the next few months, including an extra €4bn cut in state expenditure.
Portugal's political stability, and its capacity to deliver on its international promises, may end up hanging on the EU's sensitivity to the political and social tension which the derailing of the adjustment process is producing.
Catholic priest arrested for stealing €4m from Rome hospital
Rev Franco Decaminada also accused of helping to bankrupt IDI hospital by running up €600m in debt
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 23.25 BST
Italian police on Thursday arrested a priest accused of pocketing €4m (£2.76m) from a Catholic hospital he ran and helping run up €600m in debts that forced it into bankruptcy.
The Rev Franco Decaminada, who until 2011 was the chief executive of the IDI dermatological hospital in Rome, was placed under house arrest by Italy's financial police. They also detained two other people while seizing a Tuscan villa that police say Decaminada built with stolen money.
The plight of 1,500 IDI workers who haven't received paychecks for months had prompted Benedict XVI in one of his last acts as pope to name a delegate in February to take over the religious order that owns the hospital to try to bring it back to financial health.
But in the end the Vatican refused to provide any financial assistance and last week a Rome court certified the hospital as insolvent.
IDI workers have occupied the hospital's management area and are buying food to help needy co-workers while continuing to work without pay in hopes of saving their jobs.
"After years of suffering and eight months without salary, we at least have the satisfaction of seeing that justice is starting to work," Bartolomeo Di Gregorio, 56, a biomedical lab technician, told the Associated Press on Thursday.
He welcomed the arrival of Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi as the papal delegate to head the religious order – the Congregation for the Children of the Immaculate Conception – which runs the hospital, but said in the end it didn't help "because we went into bankruptcy anyway".
The problems at the IDI are the latest in a series of financial scandals at Catholic-run health facilities in Italy that, while not directly involving the Vatican, have links to its No. 2, the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
According to leaked Vatican correspondence, Bertone looked into investing money from the Vatican bank into a failing Milan hospital, the San Raffaele, in 2011 after it accumulated millions in debt because of mismanagement. In the end, the hospital went to outside investors.
But Bertone's apparent interest in building up a Vatican healthcare network in Italy has been cited as evidence of his own administrative failings in running the Holy See by focusing too much on small Italian problems and not on global church issues.
On Thursday, Decaminada's order sought to distance itself from his crimes, saying it was a victim in the case and it was co-operating with investigators. It stressed that "no member of the congregation ever saw or visited the home in Tuscany built by Father Decaminada" and its construction was never authorised.
April 4, 2013
South Africa to Withdraw Its Troops From Central African Republic
By LYDIA POLGREEN and SCOTT SAYARE
JOHANNESBURG — However the chaotic situation in the Central African Republic plays out, it will do so without the South African troops who have been deployed there since 2007. After the troops suffered one of their deadliest days since the end of apartheid in 1994, President Jacob Zuma is bringing them home.
At least 13 South Africans were killed and more than two dozen were wounded on March 24 when the soldiers, who were stationed in Bangui, the republic’s capital, got caught in a firefight with hundreds of fighters from the Seleka rebel coalition as the rebels swept into the city and overthrew President François Bozizé.
Mr. Zuma announced the troop withdrawal on Wednesday at a meeting of African leaders in Ndjamena, Chad, to discuss the situation in the Central African Republic.
The assembled leaders refused to recognize the fledgling government of the rebel leader Michel Djotodia or to accept Mr. Djotodia as the legitimate head of state; they called instead for the creation of a transitional governing council.
Mr. Djotodia responded on Thursday by dissolving his government and trying to form such a council, according to Vianney Mboé, a lawyer who is involved in negotiations between African officials and Mr. Djotodia.
The proposed council, whose members would be selected based on criteria that have yet to be specified, would write a new constitution and elect an interim president. Mr. Djotodia will presumably be a candidate for that post, Mr. Mboé said.
In accordance with the demands of the African heads of state meeting in Chad, the legislative and presidential elections that Mr. Djotodia had said would be held in three years will now be moved up by a year, Mr. Mboé added.
The decisions made at the summit meeting in Chad “have been totally accepted by Mr. Djotodia,” Mr. Mboé said, adding that Mr. Djotodia’s decision to declare himself president had been “a bit hasty.”
The republic has had a long history of coups and dictatorships. Mr. Bozizé came to power in a military coup in 2003; the rebels drove him from power last month because they said he had not lived up to a peace agreement he had signed with them. He was reported to have fled to Cameroon.
The foreign minister of Benin said on Thursday that Mr. Bozizé would be welcome in Benin if he made a formal request for asylum.
The 400 South African troops in the Central African Republic were sent there originally as part of an agreement to beef up the republic’s military abilities. But many South Africans questioned the motive for the deployment.
The Mail and Guardian, an investigative weekly newspaper, published an article last week that questioned business deals between the African National Congress, the governing party in South Africa, and the Central African Republic; the government has defended its actions.
The deployment was the subject of a heated discussion in Parliament on Thursday, with the South African defense minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, struggling to explain precisely what the troops were doing in Bangui.
In sharp exchanges, Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula said the South African troops had no idea what kind of heavy weapons the Seleka rebel coalition had.
“We’ve never heard of rebels with mortars and heavy weaponry,” she said.
Asked whether the South African soldiers had killed children who were fighting on the rebel side, she replied that the troops had little choice.
“We are not expecting our soldiers were going to blow kisses to them and say, ‘Oh God, these are children,’ ” Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula said.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Johannesburg, and Scott Sayare from Paris. Benno Muchler contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic.
April 4, 2013
Jordanians and Turks Are Focus of Syria’s Ire
By RICK GLADSTONE
Syria lashed out at Turkey and Jordan on Thursday for what it called their duplicitous work in fomenting the Syrian rebellion, accusing the Turkish prime minister of chronic lies and telling the Jordanians they were “playing with fire” in letting insurgents arm and train on their soil — a possible hint of retaliation.
The criticisms in the state news media appeared to be part of an intensified propaganda response to new rebel gains in the two-year-old conflict and President Bashar al-Assad’s further isolation.
It included snippets of an interview that Mr. Assad had given to a Turkish television station, in which he also denounced the Arab League for granting Syria’s seat to the opposition coalition bent on overthrowing him.
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was once close to Mr. Assad, has turned into an ardent enemy and repeatedly called for his departure. Turkey is also housing more than 250,000 Syrian refugees and is helping the Free Syrian Army insurgent group, although the Turks insist they are not providing weapons. Syria, which shares a 550-mile border with Turkey, has frequently accused Turkey of arming the rebels.
“Erdogan has not said a single word of truth since the beginning of the crisis in Syria,” Mr. Assad said in the interview with the Ulusal Kanal television channel in Turkey that is to be broadcast on Friday. A brief preview was posted on YouTube.
Mr. Assad appeared to reserve special criticism for the Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011 and awarded the vacant seat to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in a formal ceremony on March 26.
“Real legitimacy is not accorded by organizations or foreign officials,” he said. “All these theatrics have no value in our eyes.”
Syria state television, citing reports in The New York Times and other Western news media about Jordan’s role in helping the rebels, said they showed Jordan had “a hand in training terrorists and then facilitating their entry into Syria,” according to a translation by The Associated Press. It quoted state radio as saying Jordan was “playing with fire.”
The Syrian newspaper Al Thawra, also citing those Western news reports, said in a front-page editorial that the Jordanian government could not claim neutrality while actively supporting the insurgents and collaborating with the United States, Saudi Arabia and others hostile to Mr. Assad. “Their attempts to put out the flame that the leaked information caused will fail in allowing them to continue their game of ambiguity because they have gotten really close to the volcanic crater,” the editorial said.
In what appeared to be a veiled threat of retaliation, the editorial also said “it is difficult to prevent sparks from crossing the border.”
There was no comment from Jordan’s government on the warnings, which have come as insurgent activity in southern Syria near the Jordanian border has escalated and posed a new threat to Assad loyalists there. In the past few weeks, rebels have seized territory near the southern city of Dara’a, where the uprising against Mr. Assad first began.
At the same time, Jordan is facing an acute refugee crisis caused by the Syrian conflict. There are at least 320,000 registered refugees in the country, according to the United Nations, and many more who entered Jordan without registering.
United Nations officials have been warning that the refugee crisis could overwhelm Syria’s neighbors, who have collectively absorbed more than 1.3 million Syrians since the conflict began.
On Thursday in Lebanon, home to about 500,000 Syrian refugees, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Filippo Grandi, said the refugee flows caused by the conflict were becoming “unmanageable and dangerous.”
Mr. Grandi’s agency is responsible for Palestinian refugees, a legacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Lebanon, which has a population of four million, is already home to about 460,000 Palestinian refugees, and the Lebanese are increasingly concerned that Syria’s Palestinian refugee population of 530,000 could surge into Lebanon if fighting intensifies in the Damascus area, where many of them live. So far, however, Mr. Grandi said, more than 90 percent have stayed in Syria.
Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Thanassis Cambanis from Beirut, Lebanon.
Darfur and Sudan: visionary approach needed – and Qatar can help
Sudan needs a political framework to foster comprehensive peace. Neglecting it will doom peace and nation-building efforts
Najeeb Bin Mohammed al-Nauimi
Friday 5 April 2013 12.56 BST guardian.co.uk
The crisis in Darfur is now a decade old, yet fighting continues. More people were displaced by a surge of violence in January than in the whole of 2012. Over half the population (3.5 million Darfuris) still receives food aid – about the same amount as five years ago when the Darfur crisis was said to be at its height. Even more telling of the suffering of civilians, 1.4 million of those receiving food aid are still living in "temporary" camps.
In its bid to foster peace in this region, Qatar is hosting the Doha Donors Conference on Darfur this Sunday. Such leadership should be lauded. However, if Qatar wants to see real return on its investment, those attending the conference must understand the reality and look beyond Darfur to the fundamental drivers of conflict that affect all of Sudan.
The Darfur peace deal brokered by Qatar in February represents welcome and concrete progress. But the government of Sudan has demonstrated no real political will to implement this deal in good faith. It has failed to fund the peace process to the degree it committed and has taken no real steps to fight impunity, address accountability or resolve complex issues such as land and compensation. The result is that violence persists and stability remains elusive.
Furthermore, the advances that have been made by this deal remain extremely fragile and risk being undone by other protracted conflicts sharing the same root cause as the Darfur crisis – Sudan's political and economic marginalisation of its periphery.
A case in point is the conflict in Southern Kordofan state, which has been raging for almost two years. It bears many of the hallmarks of the brutality the Sudanese government unleashed on the people of Darfur, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas combined with ground attacks that displace thousands of civilians. Sparked in part by Sudan's failure to engage in genuine consultations about governance reform, the violence in Southern Kordofan quickly spread to the neighbouring border state of Blue Nile and now severely affects over 1 million people. Over 200,000 have fled to South Sudan and Ethiopia, and the majority of those that remain are cut off from aid.
The violence in these two states is not just linked to Darfur by common cause, but by common actors. In recent months, the Darfuri rebel faction, the Justice and Equality Movement, has formed a military alliance with the rebels in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army – North. This co-operation and rebel-to-rebel sympathy will proliferate as long as Sudan opts for military solutions rather than governance reform.
These alliances and shared drivers show that the international community must move beyond the current piecemeal approach to Sudan's conflicts and address them in context, and in relation to Sudan's central governance issues. Instead of looking at Darfur's needs in silo, donors should encourage the development of a national political framework to foster comprehensive peace across the whole country – a framework that is not exclusionary, bilateral or selective. Neglecting to do so will ultimately doom peace and nation-building efforts to failure.
Even if fully implemented, the current Darfur peace deal would not address wider internal conflicts, let alone the broader unresolved issues between Sudan and South Sudan that linger after 20 years of civil war and threaten any fragile Darfur peace. Military and repressive responses to internal dissent are not the answer. Instead, a visionary approach is required within the region. Leaders need to enable a political forum for alternate views and help create a credible, inclusive political process to bring about long-term stability.
Two things need to happen at this weekend's conference. First, pledges made by donors should not be at the expense of supporting humanitarian efforts. Evidence-based need and security provisions must drive the international response. Accountability and monitoring mechanisms need to be agreed and affected communities empowered to help implement them. The Sudanese government needs to be held to account for complying and co-operating with the peace deal.
Second, Qatar should champion a comprehensive and joined-up approach to Sudan's conflicts. As a first step, the conference could urge the resolution of the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile crisis, beginning with a cessation of hostilities to enable immediate and unimpeded humanitarian assistance. While this conflict continues, Qatar's efforts in Darfur remain at risk.
• Dr Najeeb Bin Mohammed al-Nauimi is the former minister of justice for Qatar and an international human rights lawyer
1m Sudanese trapped in dire need beyond reach of aid agencies
NGOs criticised for not securing access to people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions as hunger crisis worsens
guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 February 2013 11.08 GMT
The former head of the UN in Sudan has criticised NGOs for failing to campaign for aid to flow to people trapped in a war zone on the border with South Sudan.
A war is taking place in South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces, just north of Sudan's border with South Sudan. The conflict erupted in June 2011 just before the south's independence in July.
Mukesh Kapila, who crossed into the war zone without government permission during a visit last month, says there is a "puzzling silence" from aid agencies about the crisis. "Their silence kills," he said.
Last month, the director of operations for the UN humanitarian division, John Ging, told the UN security council that nearly 1 million people are in dire need, but not in reach of aid workers, forcing some to rely on roots and leaves for food. Describing the situation as a "severe humanitarian crisis", Ging said the UN had received first-hand reports from civilians fleeing these areas.
Responding to Kapila's criticisms, Oxfam said it has been highlighting the situation for months. "We've done a lot of advocacy here in Khartoum with the government to allow humanitarian actors, both national and international groups, to be able to access rebel-held areas and to better reach underserved government-held areas," said Oxfam's Sudan country director, El Fateh Osman.
"Partly as a result, we have seen some small improvement in access since the conflicts broke out, although, unacceptably, humanitarian agencies still don't have access to communities across Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile."
Kitty Arie, director of advocacy at Save the Children, described the situation as "very difficult and complex". "We are trying to balance meeting the immediate needs of children with highlighting publicly the factors that contribute to their plight," she said.
Neither agency wants to risk losing access to the rest of Sudan by alienating the government of President Omar al-Bashir. Relations between the Sudanese authorities and the aid agencies have been difficult, with the government expelling agencies in 2009 and again in June last year. But Kapila, who directed UN operations in Sudan in 2004 and broke the story of the Darfur crisis, believes this approach is mistaken.
"It is pointless to curry favour with the government in Khartoum as they turn access on and off for their own, other reasons," he said. "It is immoral to trade off humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile with the NGOs' work elsewhere in Sudan. This kind of attitude really makes me angry."
Other major aid agencies, speaking off the record, said that although they were not openly campaigning for access, they are crossing into the war zone from South Sudan – a journey they make without Sudanese permission. It isn't just international NGOs that are doing this: local charities have been carrying out operations in the area since before the war. The US government has been supporting their efforts, trucking aid into Sudan for several months. As many as 400,000 people are said to have been given food aid.
In an interview in September, rebel leader Abdel-Aziz Al-Hilu credited food from USAid with saving lives.
Aid is being taken in covertly, on what the agencies describe as a "modest scale" and without publicity. "Khartoum knows where we are," a relief worker said. "But doing it in a public way would add insult to injury."
The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (North) holds large areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The group, an offshoot of the movement that fought Khartoum for more than two decades until winning independence for South Sudan, has been trying to negotiate to get aid to areas under its control for the past year. In February 2012, SPLM (North) signed an agreement with the UN, African Union and Arab League allowing unrestricted access to all areas. This was backed by the security council in May.
But Khartoum has consistently prevented access. In June, Valerie Amos, the UN head of humanitarian affairs, accused the Sudanese authorities of accepting the proposals in principle, but not allowing them in practice.
Kapila said that if Bashir continues to hold up aid, he would want to see the launch of a full-scale cross-border operation into Sudan. This would replicate Operation Lifeline Sudan, which was launched in 1989 and united more than 40 NGOs to get aid into the south, despite bombing raids from Khartoum. It would be a risky strategy, but the aid wing of the SPLM (North) warned at the end of December that people are starting to die from hunger.