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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1082843 times)
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« Reply #6150 on: May 03, 2013, 07:27 AM »

Barack Obama discusses business and the drug war with Mexican president

US president plays down war on drugs and praises Enrique Peña Nieto for his boldness over economic reforms

Jo Tuckman in Mexico City, Friday 3 May 2013 01.02 BST   

US president Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto appeared determined to refocus the rhetoric of the bilateral relations away from drugs and violence and on to the potential of the economic relationship when they met in Mexico City on Thursday.

"When the United States prospers Mexico does well, and when Mexico prospers the United States does well, and that's the message I want to focus on today," Obama said at a press conference held immediately after the hour long meeting in which he rattled off impressive trade figures and downplayed recent differences over US collaboration in the Mexican drug war.

The two presidents announced the formation of a high-level working group to explore ways of pushing the economic relationship forward, and Obama showered praise on Peña Nieto for his "boldness" in pushing economic reforms within Mexico.

Alongside all the talk of greater productivity, competitiveness and taking advantage of growing markets in Asia, the US president also explicitly set out to smooth over recent signs of tension over the new Mexican administration's moves to reduce US influence in Mexican anti-narcotics strategy since the departure of president Felipe Calderón in December.

"We had a wonderful relationship with President Calderón," Obama said, "This is a partnership that will continue."

US involvement in Mexican efforts to bring home-grown cartels under control reached unprecedented levels under Calderón with US drones flying deep into Mexican territory and US agents effectively free to polygraph any Mexican official they liked.

As well as reportedly turfing US agents out of a joint intelligence centre in the northern city of Monterrey, Peña Nieto's government has also made it clear it now wants all co-operation to go through the interior ministry. This is a dramatic change from the individual relationships that US officials enjoyed by with different Mexican security players such as the army, the federal police, the navy or the attorney general's office. That arrangement allowed the US to choose which information it gave to which part of the Mexican apparatus it trusted most.

On Thursday Obama appeared to deny that there were any concerns in the US administration about the new arrangements. "It is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with other nations including the United States" he said, at the same time as stressing that the US was keen to "co-operate in any way we can to combat organised crime."

The deeper problem appears to be a widening of differences regarding the broader objectives in the drug war that killed around 70,000 people during the Calderón administration and has continued largely unabated since Peña Nieto took office five months ago.

Peña Nieto promised to make reducing the violence his priority, though exactly how he plans to do this remains vague.

At the press conference Peña Nieto saidhe planned to "reduce violence through an effective attack on organised crime," and insisted there was not a contradiction between the two.

Obama's first visit to Mexico since Peña Nieto took office is also due to include a working dinner with his Mexican counterpart as well as a speech to business figures on Friday morning before he flys to Costa Rica for meetings with Central American leaders there.

He was greeted with a major security operation, including the temporary closure of the capital's airport and a metro station and secret service agents all but taking over the area around the hotel where he is due to spend the night.

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« Reply #6151 on: May 03, 2013, 07:30 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Flight of the RoboBee: Tiny hovering robot creates buzz

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / May 2, 2013 at 6:16 pm EDT

A robotic fly with a body not much taller than a penny standing on edge has taken to the air, passing its tests with flying colors. The Robobee, as it's called, is the smallest artificial insect yet flown, according to the team that built it.

It lifts off the table, hovers, and flies in different directions. At this point in its evolution, the bug is still tethered by thin wires that allow its designers to power and guide it. And landing remains an issue. The robot ends its sorties with all the grace of a mosquito nailed with a burst of Raid.

Still, the tiny craft's success – the team that designed it said it was the first such object to fly in a controlled manner – represents a key step in developing insect-size drones that designers say could one day search collapsed buildings for survivors after a disaster, sample an environment for hazardous chemicals before humans are sent in, or pinpoint enemy soldiers or terrorists holed up in urban areas.

Some members of the team suggest that future generations of the bug could serve as a robotic pollinator for plants, though without the side benefit of honey.

Over the years, researchers have marveled at insect flight in no small part because it appears to violate every principle that keeps a bird or an airliner aloft.

Together with an announcement this week that another team of researchers has developed a bug-like compound lens for collecting video taken with small aerial vehicles, the description of RoboBee appearing in Friday's issue of the journal Science signals how far robotic bug research in the past decade.

"Just fantastic," enthuses John Rogers, who heads the Seitz Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when asked about RoboBee. Dr. Rogers guided the team that developed the artificial compound lens.

RoboBee is something of a misnomer. The team modeled its bug after a hoverfly, which looks like a bee. Hoverflies show remarkable control over their movements – from hovering, as the name implies, to lightly touching down on a wind-tossed blossom.

The hoverfly wanna-be was built by researchers and graduate students at Harvard University and weighs a scant .003 ounces. Its wingspan stretches just over an inch, and its wings flap up to 120 times a second, with each stroke covering an angle of 110 degrees – all comparable to a hoverfly's characteristics. Each of the two independently controlled wings weighs about .00003 of an ounce.

The bug is far too small for hardware typically used in robots as stand-ins for muscles and joints, so the team "had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything," said Harvard engineering professor Robert Wood, who led the team, in a prepared statement.

The body of the bug was made from carbon-fiber composites with thin plastic strips serving as joints. The team crafted muscles from thin layers of ceramics that expand and contract when electricity is applied to them. The bug's overall power consumption is a paltry .019 of a watt – so small a flashlight bulb wouldn't notice.

Over the past two years, the team has refined the manufacturing process to such a degree that they can replace a bug that augers in fairly quickly. In the past six months, the team has gone through 20 prototypes, according to Kevin Ma, a graduate student at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and one of two lead authors on the formal research paper appearing in Science.

The team's next challenge is to gradually move the bug from tethered to increasingly autonomous. At some point, that means it needs to see where it's going.

One potential solution appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, where an international team – including Kenneth Crozier, with Harvard's Schools of Engineering and Applied Sciences – formally unveiled an artificial eye similar in design to the eyes of a fire ant or bark beetle. It boasts an array of 256 microlenses, 180 of which are used for imaging. Each of these imaging lenses sits atop a light sensor. All sitting in tidy order on a half sphere.

In nature, this arrangement gives insects an extraordinary field of view and an ability to keep virtually everything they see in focus, no matter how close or distant.

In the past, researchers have developed layouts that mimic to some degree a compound eye, but the arrays have been either flat, or hemispherical but laboriously hand crafted.

The team the University of Illinois's Rogers guided found a way to use elastic materials to give the overall array the shape it needed without throwing the microlenses and the light sensors each was paired with out of alignment. The compound lens is just under half an inch wide.

In an e-mail, Rogers says the team hopes to improve the compound lens's resolution – its ability to distinguish between two closely spaced objects. Indeed, he says he's confident that the approach will yield lenses that outperform even the best insect eyes.

"We are working on that, and on schemes that allow the overall size of the camera to be reduced," he says, including a size befitting a RoboBee.

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« Reply #6152 on: May 03, 2013, 07:44 AM »

In the USA...

Pentagon rethinking arming Syrian rebels

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, May 2, 2013 16:38 EDT

The United States is taking a fresh look at whether to provide weapons to Syria’s rebels after having rejected the idea previously, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.

At a news conference with his British counterpart Philip Hammond, Hagel was asked if the US government was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels and replied: “Yes.”

But the Pentagon chief added that no decision had been reached and declined to say if he favored arming the opposition.

“I’m in favor of exploring options and seeing what is the best option in coordination with our international partners,” he said.

After the White House acknowledged last week that US intelligence agencies believe the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons on a small-scale, speculation has mounted that President Barack Obama could reverse his opposition to arming the rebels.

At the same press conference, Hammond said Britain had not ruled out arming the rebels or other military options but that his government had to abide by a European Union prohibition on sending weapons to the opposition.

“Certainly in our case, for the UK, we have been subject to an EU ban on supplying armaments to the rebels,” Hammond said.

“We will look at the situation when that ban expires in a few weeks’ time. We will continue to keep that situation under review.

“But we will do what we are able to do within the bounds of legality, and we regard that as very important.”


U.S. adds 165,000 jobs in April, lowering unemployment to 7.5 percent

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 3, 2013 8:58 EDT

WASHINGTON — The US economy added a solid 165,000 jobs in April, and the unemployment rate fell from 7.6 percent to 7.5 percent, its lowest level since December 2008, the Labor Department said Friday.

The better-than-expected monthly jobs data also showed much stronger hiring in February and March — data revisions showed 114,000 more jobs were generated than originally thought in that period.

The job gains were all in the private sector, as government continued to shed jobs amid tough spending cuts.

But the overall number of people counted as officially unemployed was little changed at 11.7 million.


House to vote on restrictive debt ceiling bill

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, May 2, 2013 18:56 EDT

The Republican-led House of Representatives plans to vote next week on legislation that would allow the US government to borrow above the debt ceiling, in a move meant to stave off default.

But the “Full Faith and Credit Act,” which was adopted in committee last week, would allow the government to borrow above the debt limit for only two types of spending: paying down the debt and funding Social Security.

The US government currently has enough money for another couple of weeks, facing the latest in a series of spending precipices, as Congress and President Barack Obama continue to clash over budget priorities.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a measure which suspended the debt ceiling, currently set at $16.4 trillion dollars, through May 18.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which passed the latest measure, warned in a report Wednesday of the potentially disastrous impact of debt default on the US economy.

Focusing on Social Security — the entitlement program for retirees — and debt interest would help forestall a default if no agreement is reached on raising the congressionally-mandated ceiling, the committee said.

“The consequences of the US government failing to make timely and complete payment on Treasury debt, that is, a default, could be severe,” the committee said.

“A default could push the country back into recession, which would worsen our debt problem, hinder an already stagnant economic recovery and threaten our ability to make any of the payments we owe.”

The US Senate would have to pass the measure if it clears the House and it would have to then be signed into law by President Barack Obama.


Reports of forced feeding puts pressure on Obama to close Guantanamo

By Owen Bowcott, The Guardian
Thursday, May 2, 2013 20:01 EDT

Controversy over the Guantánamo Bay detention camp has intensified as United Nations experts condemned the force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates by the US, and a former White House lawyer claimed that drone strikes are being used an alternative to detaining al-Qaida suspects.

With more than 100 inmates refusing food, four senior UN human rights experts and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for an end to the indefinite detention of Guantánamo’s inmates and for their prosecution, transfer or immediate release.

Earlier this week, Barack Obama vowed to make good on a broken promise, made during the 2008 presidential race, to get rid of the prison in Cuba. It currently holds 166 detainees despite more than half having been cleared for release. Among them is Shaker Aamer, a British citizen, who has been held for more than 11 years.

Obama is likely to need the Republicans’ support to close the base and rehouse the prisoners, because they control the House of Representatives.

The UN move came as John Bellinger, who worked for President Bush and drew up the first White House policy on lethal drone strikes, accused the Obama administration of over-reliance on the attacks because it realises imprisoning them in Guantánamo is too problematic.

Released in response to the deteriorating situation in the camp, the UN experts’ declaration points out that force-feeding hunger strikers is against international medical standards. The declaration, released through UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, also condemned the policy of indefinite detention as “a flagrant violation of international human rights law [which] in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”.

It said: “According to the World Medical Assembly’s Declaration of Malta, in cases involving people on hunger strikes, the duty of medical personnel to act ethically and the principle of respect for individuals’ autonomy, among other principles, must be respected.

“Under these principles, it is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure. Moreover, hunger strikers should be protected from all forms of coercion, even more so when this is done through force and in some cases through physical violence.

“Health care personnel may not apply undue pressure of any sort on individuals who have opted for the extreme recourse of a hunger strike. Nor is it acceptable to use threats of forced feeding or other types of physical or psychological coercion against individuals who have voluntarily decided to go on a hunger strike.”

The statement is signed by El Hadji Malick Sow, chair of the UN working group on arbitrary detention; Juan E Méndez, UN special rapporteur on torture; Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights; and Anand Grover, UN special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. It is supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Speaking to Guardian, Emmerson, who has also questioned the legality of US drone strikes, said: “President Obama’s announcement that he will renew and redouble his efforts to close Guantánamo as soon as possible is a highly positive indication. His administration has been committed to this policy since he was first elected, but he has been blocked by Republicans in the senate taking advantage of the toxic state of US politics … [Obama] knows, as all informed observers know, that if the hunger-strikers at Guantánamo starve themselves to death, the threat of reprisal against the US will be immediate and significant.

“Any further Republican attempts to block the president’s renewed move to close [Guantánamo] will place the lives of US citizens at immediate risk all over the world.”

In the US, Bellinger accused the Obama administration of overusing drones because of its reluctance to capture prisoners who would otherwise have to be sent to Guantánamo Bay.

Bellinger, who drafted the legal framework for targeted drone killings while working for George W Bush after 9/11, said he believed their use had increased since because Obama was unwilling to deal with the consequences of jailing suspected al-Qaida members. “This government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaida [at Guantánamo] they are going to kill them,” he told a conference at the Bipartisan Policy Centre.

An estimated 4,700 people have now been killed by some 300 US drone attacks in four countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – and the question of the programme’s status under international and domestic law remains highly controversial.

Bellinger, who also used to work at the state department and the national security council, insisted that the current administration was justified under international law in pursuing its targeted killing strategy in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen because the US remained at war. “We are about the only country in the world that thinks we are in a conflict with al-Qaida, but countries under attack are the ones that get to decide whether they are at war or not,” he said.

A petition launched by Colonel Morris Davis, the former Guantánamo chief prosecutor, calling for the prison to close attracted 64,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Writing for the Guardian, Morris said: “First, the 86 cleared detainees should be transferred out as soon as reasonably possible … Second, there are about 30 detainees the administration intended to prosecute. Third, and the most problematic, is the group of 50 or so (plus any of the 30 who do not clearly warrant prosecution in federal court) that fall in between: the indefinite detainees.”

Obama said of the camp this week: “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens co-operation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.” © Guardian News and Media 2013


Rhode Island becomes tenth state to embrace marriage equality

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, May 2, 2013 19:12 EDT

Rhode Island became the tenth state to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday, after Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) signed the Marriage Equality Act into law.

“This is truly a proud day for Rhode Island. Gov. Chafee’s signature on this historic marriage equality legislation ensures that all families are recognized, valued and respected equally under the law,” Ray Sullivan, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage Campaign Director, said in a statement.

The law takes effect on August 1, allowing same-sex couples to officially tie the knot.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Chafee said Monday the country was witnessing a national shift in regards to same-sex marriage.

“A historic realignment is happening all around us, as Americans from all walks of life realize that this is the right thing to do,” he wrote. “It is occurring both inside and outside of politics, through conversations at the office and over kitchen tables, and at different speeds in different parts of the country. But once the people have spoken, politics should do its part to make the change efficient and constructive. “


South Carolina House passes nullification bill to make Obamacare a crimeM

By David Edwards
Thursday, May 2, 2013 12:58 EDT

The South Carolina state House on Wednesday passed a so-called “nullification” bill that is declares President Barack Obama’s health care reform law to be “null and void,” and criminalizes it’s implementation.

The South Carolina Freedom of Health Care Protection Act was passed by a state House vote of 65 to 39. The bill intends to “prohibit certain individuals from enforcing or attempting to enforce such unconstitutional laws; and to establish criminal penalties and civil liability for violating this article.”

The measure would allow the state Attorney General “to restrain by temporary restraining order, temporary injunction, or permanent injunction” any person who is believed to be causing harm with the implementation of the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Any South Carolina taxpayer who is forced to pay a penalty due to the federal health care mandate would be able to deduct the full amount of the penalty from their state taxes.

Additionally, the measure would outlaw state and local government from creating or using non-profit health care exchanges a outlined by the health care reform law.

States rights advocates see nullification as a viable alternative to secession because they claim the state has authority under the Tenth Amendment to invalidate unconstitutional legislation.

But many constitutional scholars believe that the Tenth Amendment is too vague to be used as a way for states to usurp federal authority on key issues.

“To say that the Tenth Amendment somehow empowers states or gives them state sovereignty is just reading way too much into the text,” John Marshall Law School law professor Steven Schwinn told CNN in 2010. “The Tenth Amendment just can’t bear that weight.”

South Carolina’s Obamacare nullification bill was introduced in the state Senate on Thursday and referred to the the state Committee on Finance.

In her State of the State address earlier this year, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) pledged not to accept the president’s health care reform law.

“South Carolina does not want, and cannot afford, the president’s health care plan,” she said. “Not now, and not ever. To that end, we will not pursue the type of government-run health exchanges being forced on us by Washington. Despite the rose-colored rhetoric coming out of D.C., these exchanges are nothing more than a way to make the state do the federal government’s bidding in spending massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on insurance subsidies that we can’t afford.”

Haley has not indicated if she would sign the South Carolina Freedom of Health Care Protection Act.


North Carolina Republicans push through anti-renewable energy bill in ‘banana republic’ vote

By David Edwards
Thursday, May 2, 2013 14:06 EDT

Democrats in North Carolina say they could have defeated a bill to repeal renewable energy subsidies on Wednesday if Republicans had not pushed it through committee without counting the votes.

The state Senate Finance Committee debated the bill to end the state’s 6-year-old renewable energy program for over 40 minutes before Republican chairman Bill Rabon called for a motion.

“It’s still a factor that renewable energy sources really don’t provide a constant reliable source of electricity to be put into the grid and that means that we still have to have the baseload plant cost into delivering electricity so that anytime that switch is turned on, there has to be power there,” bill supporter state Sen. Bob Rucho (R) argued. “So with that being said, I move for a favorable report.”

As one lawmaker shouted out to have the votes counted by a show of hands, Republican chairman Bill Rabon called for the yeas and nays, decided that the motioned carried and then gaveled the hearing to a close.

“Opponents of the bill shouted ‘No!’ when voting to show their frustration at Republican chairman Bill Rabon’s refusal to count votes with a show of hands,” the Raleigh News & Observer noted. “In what was clearly a razor-thin margin, both sides said they would have won if the votes had been counted.”

“North Carolina is not a banana republic,” Sen. Josh Stein (D) complained following the hearing. “That was no way to run a proceeding.”

Republican Sen. Andrew Brock said that opponents yelled “No!” so loudly that they must have confused the meeting with the “Spivey’s Corner Hollerin’ Contest.”

Environmental advocates have suggested that Republicans based the bill on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Republican state Rep. Mike Hager, who authored the bill, is an ALEC member.
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« Reply #6153 on: May 04, 2013, 06:43 AM »

Israeli warplanes bomb Syrian weapons convoy to Lebanon, say officials

Sources say attack targeted shipment of ground-to-ground missiles not chemical weapons facility as first reported

Staff and agencies, Saturday 4 May 2013 12.02 BST   

Israeli warplanes have bombed a convoy carrying missiles from Syria to Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Israeli officials said.

The air strike, which is understood to have been carried out from Lebanese airspace, took place on Friday after the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his security cabinet approved the attack in a secret meeting on Thursday night.

The target was a convoy carrying a shipment of advanced long-range ground-to-ground missiles to Hezbollah and not a Syrian chemical weapons facility, according to unnamed Israeli officials.

The attack was first reported in the US media on Friday, with US officials claiming the Israelis had hit a building.

The US president, Barack Obama, reiterated on Friday that he does not foresee deploying US forces on the ground in the Syrian civil war. But the New York Times reported that US officials were on Friday considering military options, including carrying out their own air strikes.

The details of the Israeli strike remain vague but Netanyahu has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to take military action if chemical weapons or other advanced arms were to reach Hezbollah from Syria.

Unnamed officials told CNN that the strike took place "in the Thursday-Friday time frame" and the Israeli jets did not enter Syrian airspace.

The Israeli air force is equipped with "standoff" bombs that coast dozens of kilometres to their targets, which could allow them to strike Syria from Israel or Lebanon, Reuters reported.

A Lebanese security source said he understood that Israeli aircraft were monitoring potential arms shipments between Syria and Lebanon, possibly to Hezbollah.

"We believe that it is linked to Israel's concerns over the transfer of weapons, particularly chemical weapons, from Syria to its allies Lebanon," the unnamed official told Reuters.

A Syrian rebel commander, Qassim Saadedine, a defected colonel, told Reuters: "Our information indicates there was an Israeli strike on a convoy that was transferring missiles to Hezbollah. We have still not confirmed the location."

The Syrian government has yet to confirm the strike. Bashar Ja'afari, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, told Reuters: "I'm not aware of any attack right now."

But earlier this week Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, confirmed for the first time that members of the powerful Lebanese Shia organisation are helping the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, fight the uprising against his rule and will stand by him.

Hezbollah fighters have been seen in Syria helping the government from early on in the 25-month uprising but their presence, long formally denied, has become much both more open and large-scale in recent weeks, and funerals of fighters killed there are now a regular occurrence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's arsenal, especially of long-range rockets, makes it the most powerful military force in Lebanon.

Assad has long had a close relationship with Hezbollah, and Syria has been a gateway for transferring Iranian arms to the Islamist militia.

A senior Israeli defence ministry strategist, Amos Gilad, said on Saturday that Assad retains control of his regime's reputed chemical weapons and they are not being sought by Hezbollah.

"Syria has large amounts of chemical weaponry and missiles. Everything there is under [Assad government] control," Gilad said in a speech.

"Hezbollah does not have chemical weaponry. We have ways of knowing. They are not keen to take weaponry like this, preferring systems that can cover all of the country [Israel]," he said.

Israel bombed a convoy in Syria in January, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah, according to diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources in the region.

Israel fought a 34-day war against Hezbollah and other Lebanese militias with Israel in 2006 in which hundreds of missiles were fired from Lebanon. Dozens of Israeli tanks and armoured cars were damaged and destroyed by anti-tank missiles when they invaded south Lebanon.

Since the end of the war, Israel has accused Hezbollah of stockpiling thousands of short and medium-range missiles which were supplied via Syria.

Israeli remains technically at war with Lebanon and Syria. It captured Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war, built settlements and annexed the land. The border has remained peaceful until recently when Syrian government forces have withdrawn from border position and UN peacekeepers have reduced patrols, creating a vacuum which has been filled with Syrian rebel militias.


Syrian National Coalition claims 50 killed in new massacre

Syrian opposition group has condemned 'large-scale massacre in Bayda' and asked for protection for country's people

Associated Press, Friday 3 May 2013 18.27 BST   

Syria's main opposition group has accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of committing a "large-scale massacre" in a Sunni village near the Mediterranean coast in which activists say at least 50 people were killed with guns, knives and blunt objects.

The killings in Bayda reflect the sectarian overtones of the country's civil war. Tucked in the mountains outside the coastal city of Banias, the village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the rebel movement. But it is in the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam that is the backbone of the regime.

In an amateur video purportedly taken after the killings, the bodies of at least seven men and boys are seen strewn in pools of blood on the pavement in front of a house as women weep around them. The video is consistent with reporting from the area.

The regime has so far kept a relatively solid grip on the Alawite heartland, centred on the mountainous region along the coast. The area is dotted with Sunni villages, but they are surrounded by larger Alawite communities, meaning the anti-Assad revolt has had a harder time taking hold. If confirmed, the bloodshed in Bayda would be the latest in a string of alleged mass killings in Syria's civil war. Last month activists said that government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

The main western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, on Friday condemned what it called "a large-scale massacre in Bayda", and urged the international community to act to protect Syrian civilians.

"It is time for the world to intervene and put an end to the grievous crimes of the Assad regime," the Cairo-based group said in a statement.

While the US and its European and Gulf allies have backed the opposition forces, they have been reluctant to provide the rebels fighting Assad's troops with weapons that could stand up to the regime's superior firepower. They fear the arms could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups that in the past year have become the most effective fighting force on the opposition's side.

On Thursday, Barack Obama said his administration was looking at every option to end the bloodshed in Syria. Speaking at a news conference in Mexico City, he said the administration was proceeding cautiously as it looked at options to ensure that what it does is helpful to the situation rather than making it more deadly or complex.

In Washington, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, became the first top American official to publicly acknowledge that the administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels. Hagel said on Thursday that "arming the rebels – that's an option", but added that the administration was looking at all options.

The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, started with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011, but shifted into an armed insurgency as opposition supporters took up weapons to fight a harsh regime crackdown on dissent.

The conflict has devastated the country, killing more than 70,000 people, forcing more than 1 million Syrians to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and displacing millions more inside Syria.

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« Reply #6154 on: May 04, 2013, 06:51 AM »

Kenyan president Kenyatta to join Somalia talks in London

Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces ICC charges of crimes against humanity, has been invited by UK to attend conference

The Guardian, Friday 3 May 2013 14.52 BST   

The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces charges of crimes against humanity at the international criminal court, is expected to visit London at Britain's invitation next week for a conference on Somalia.

It will be his first trip to a western capital since his election in March. Britain and other countries said before his victory it would have only "essential contacts" with him if he won because of the court case.

"Kenya is a vital partner on Somalia and we judge our contact according to the issue concerned," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said.

A source close to the president and a diplomat both said Kenyatta was likely to travel to the meeting, which aims to build support for Somalia. Kenya is an ally in the battle against Islamist militancy in the region and has sent 5,000 troops to Somalia as part of a western-backed African force that has driven back al-Shabaab fighters.

The charges against Kenyatta relate to post-election violence five years ago.

The British spokesman said the invitation was extended because he had committed to co-operating with the court in The Hague.

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« Reply #6155 on: May 04, 2013, 07:00 AM »

Imran Khan reaches out to young voters with 'third-way' in Pakistan's general election

Cricketing hero wins hearts with promises to empower the people, but can sentiment be turned into seats for his PTI party?

Jason Burke in Okara
The Guardian, Friday 3 May 2013 21.07 BST   

Link to video: Pakistan elections: ex-cricketer Imran Khan offers 'third way'

Mohammed Saeed had been waiting all day. Early that morning the 27-year-old bakery worker had cycled from his home on the outskirts of Okara, a rural town in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province, to the scruffy crossroads at its centre. Now, as evening came, the man he had come to see was only 100 metres away, standing on the roof of his campaign bus.

"We want to make a new Pakistan," Imran Khan shouted. "You have to make this new Pakistan for your future." Saeed cheered. "He's right," he said, "We have to make our own future."

Okara was the third of five stops for the cricketer turned politician that day. The pace of campaigning is accelerating, as the general election in the troubled, strategically situated nuclear power draws nearer.

For more than four decades the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have alternated in power between periods of military rule. Now Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Movement for Justice, offers voters a third option.

Khan's campaign has triggered a wave of enthusiasm, particularly among younger voters. Nearly 35% of the 85 million people registered to take part in the elections are under 30 and nearly 60% under 40. As Khan's campaign convoy wends its way through the towns of central Punjab it is preceded by a swarm of excited young men on motorbikes – as well as pickup trucks full of armed commandos.

"He will win here because he is new and energetic and people are fed up with previous rulers," said Mushtaq Haq, another onlooker in Okara. A stagnant economy, massive power shortages and extremist violence are largely blamed on the PPP, in power at the national level for the past five years.

Khan started the day at the home he built for himself and his family in Islamabad, the capital, before his divorce from Jemima Goldsmith in 2004.

PTI now has more funds than when Khan paid for his own campaigns in the late 1990s. A helicopter flew the candidate to the day's first rally. Then he moved into the bus – actually a spartan portable building mounted on a truck.

At each stop Khan shouted his message: "Until now, no one has changed anything. The parties take turns but have not changed the system. I will transfer power to the common people."

The crowd waved cricket bats, some made of wood, others of cardboard. Many Pakistanis are illiterate so parties are designated by symbols. Khan won the Cricket World Cup for his country in 1992 and retired from the sport a national hero. A senior campaign aide of Nawaz Sharif, the PML president and current frontrunner in the coming polls, dismissed him last week as "a sportsman not a politician".

Khan told the Guardian that such attacks did not bother him. His style of politics, which consciously rejects patronage, tactical alliances and the support of powerful well-known figures with solid "votebanks", threatens the established parties, he said.

"Have you seen the energy? The passion? It's huge. There is so much hope," he said, over a rapid lunch of flatbread and curried mutton in the moving office.

Policies such as forcing the wealthy to pay tax – most currently do not – and making parliamentarians declare all their assets also worried his political opponents, he said, along with his own party's internal democracy.

Khan has also pledged to curb crippling power cuts within months and take money from the budget of Pakistan's powerful military to fund health, education and welfare programmes. Both, analysts say, are extremely ambitious objectives. Khan is convinced he can fulfil his promises.

Once known as a playboy, the 60-year-old has raised eyebrows in the west with a new faith and conservatism. In an autobiography he describes turning to religion, particularly the mystical sufi strand of Islam, after the death of his mother. "One lot call you a fundamentalist; the other a so-called secularist," he said.

Khan has led demonstrations over US drone strikes against Islamists in the west of the country and vehemently opposed Islamabad's decision to allow supplies for international forces in Afghanistan to cross Pakistani territory. Liberals accuse him of being too close to Pakistan's Islamists.

Khan said the roots of extremist groups waging an insurgency against the Pakistani state, "secular elements" and local opponents from bases in the restive tribal areas along the western border lay not in religion but the historic resistance of the Pashtun tribes there to "outsiders".

Such groups, however, are making systematic, and often successful, efforts to kill or maim other campaigning politicians from parties seen as insufficiently devout. "These parties [which are being targeted] were all perceived as pro-war. They all made pro-war statements," said Khan, whose mother was Pashtun.

Few doubt the wave of enthusiasm Khan has inspired. Rallies over the past 18 months have been among the biggest for many years, and in Lahore he has won over everyone from wealthy young professionals to a 24-year-old tea seller in a rough central neighbourhood.

Though Khan speaks of a "tsunami", analysts wonder if popular sentiment can be turned into votes without the experienced, well-funded machines of the major parties – and their sometimes ruthless tactics. "That's been the question for a year or more. No one knows the answer," said Cyril Almeida, a political journalist.

PTI party workers are, privately, unsure. Some talk of winning either "30 or 130" out of a total of 272 directly elected seats. Khan himself says a clear majority is "conceivable" but admits nothing is certain. "As a sportsmen I know the game isn't over until the last ball is bowled," he said.


May 3, 2013

Prosecutor in Bhutto’s Death and Mumbai Attacks Is Killed in Pakistan


MULTAN, Pakistan — Gunmen on Friday killed a Pakistani prosecutor who had been investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Assailants opened fire on the prosecutor, Chaudhry Zulfikar Ali, as he drove to work from his home in a suburb of the capital, Islamabad, for a court hearing in which the former military leader, Pervez Musharraf, faces charges in relation to Ms. Bhutto’s death in 2007.

The police said that gunmen traveling by motorbike and in a taxi sprayed Mr. Ali’s car with bullets, lightly wounding his bodyguard and killing a woman who was passing by when his car veered out of control. Television footage from the scene showed a bullet-riddled vehicle crashed by the roadside.

Mr. Ali died before he reached a hospital in Islamabad, where a doctor said he had been shot 13 times. The police said that Mr. Ali’s bodyguard returned fire and managed to wound one of the attackers. The police are searching for the attackers, all of whom escaped.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, and the police said it was too early to comment on a possible motive. But few doubted that it was linked to Mr. Ali’s work as a state prosecutor in some of the most sensitive cases in the country, and his death reinforced the vulnerability of senior government officials who challenge Islamist militants and other powerful interests.

Mr. Ali represented the Federal Investigation Agency, which has implicated Mr. Musharraf in the death of Ms. Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007, just before the last election.

After the previous hearing in the Bhutto case on April 30, Mr. Ali told reporters he had “solid evidence” that connected Mr. Musharraf with Ms. Bhutto’s death.

Prosecutors and Bhutto supporters accuse Mr. Musharraf of failing to provide adequate security to Ms. Bhutto after her return from exile in October 2007. Mr. Musharraf has denied those accusations.

Since Mr. Musharraf’s return from exile in March, investigators have questioned him about the security arrangements for Ms. Bhutto in 2007. He insisted that, as head of state, he was not involved in administrative matters such as security arrangements.

Mr. Ali was also involved in another sensitive case: the trial of seven people from the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba charged with involvement in the attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, which killed more than 160 people.

Seven Lashkar activists have been on trial since 2009, accused of orchestrating the slaughter from Pakistan, and one of the defendants is the group’s operational leader, Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi. But the hearings have been characterized by opacity and a lethargic pace.

The trial is taking place at Adila jail in Rawalpindi, ostensibly on security grounds, and the news media are barred from proceedings. Hearings have been repeatedly adjourned because of the absence of lawyers or the presiding judge.

Currently, defense lawyers are cross-examining the prosecution witnesses. Mr. Ali was scheduled to appear in court on Saturday in relation to the case.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was founded with help from the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s spy agency, in the 1990s, and its presumed leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, lives openly in the eastern city of Lahore. The spy agency says it has cut all links with the group.

Mr. Ali’s death comes at a sensitive time, with Pakistanis scheduled to go to the polls for a general election on May 11. Campaigning has been marred by widespread Taliban violence against candidates from secular parties.

In the latest attack, gunmen shot dead a candidate from the secular Awami National Party, which has borne the brunt of attacks, along with his 6-year-old son, in the port city of Karachi on Friday.

Although Islamabad suffered a number of militant attacks in 2008 and 2009, it has escaped major violence in recent years. But several prominent figures have been assassinated on its streets, including the former governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseeer, and a minister for religious affairs.

Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, the interim prime minister, addressed the nation Friday evening and reiterated his government’s resolve to hold free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections, and he said a special security cell had been established in the Interior Ministry to coordinate with the national election commission.

“This cell will collect intelligence reports and share it with provincial government and law enforcing agencies, and this cell is also empowered to take decisions for timely action if needed,” Mr. Khoso said. “All resources will be used to improve security of the sensitive polling stations and their effective monitoring,” he added.

Mr. Musharraf returned from exile with a plan to run for Parliament in a general election. He faces charges in several cases related to his time in power, including the murder of Ms. Bhutto, the killing of a Baloch nationalist leader, and the firing of senior judges.

Mr. Musharraf, a retired general, has been disqualified from contesting the election, and this week a court banned him from politics for life. He also faces possible treason charges.

In the court hearing in nearby Rawalpindi, lawyers for Mr. Musharraf argued that he should be exempted from appearing in person in the case, Pakistani television stations reported. The hearing was adjourned until May 14.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.


Pakistan's rulers accused of turning to underworld in battle to stay in power

Alleged gangster facing murder charges given safe Peoples party seat in former stronghold of Bhutto dynasty

Jon Boone and Saba Imtiaz in Karachi, Thursday 2 May 2013 19.28 BST   

Pakistan's historic elections are just over a week away, but Shahjahan Baloch has still not hit the streets.

It is not that the 42-year-old official Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) candidate can't be bothered, on account of the fact that he is already certain to win in what is one of the party's most famous political strongholds – a Karachi slum called Lyari. Baloch's problem is that he has been in police custody for more than a year and faces two murder charges.

According to the police and his political enemies, Baloch is a gangland kingpin directly associated with a banned gang, the People's Amn Committee (PAC), which has supplanted the old order in a constituency formerly seen as the political backyard of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto's family.

The police say Baloch's crimes have continued even while he has been behind bars. On Tuesday he was formally charged with ordering the murder of Arshad Pappu, a leading member of a rival gang, in March. A mob reportedly made up of well-known PAC men are said to have tortured Pappu, killed him, paraded his body around Lyari and played football with his head.

Even by Pakistani standards, where politicians are routinely accused of graft and corruption, the selection of an alleged gangster facing murder charges is a startling choice for such a safe seat.

It is particularly striking in Lyari, a seat the PPP had hoped would launch the parliamentary career of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir and the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, thereby sustaining one of south Asia's most famous political dynasties for a third generation.

But with the PPP likely to be clobbered after five tumultuous years in government, during which the country has suffered terrorist violence, a weak economy and acute energy shortages, the party has been forced to strike unsavoury deals to shore up support – even with a man sitting in Karachi's Central Prison, a place normally associated with overcrowding and appalling conditions. "Jail is a good place if you have money or clout," Baloch told the Guardian over soft drinks in a visiting room in the jail, his only interview of the campaign so far. "For those who don't have that, it's hell."

He is likely to be released in a few months' time, not least as witnesses have been gradually withdrawing their evidence – a common occurrence in cases involving the gangs of Karachi.

A local councillor and owner of a cable television business, he says the charges were trumped up by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a bitter rival party in Karachi. Even the city's anti-terror prosecutor thinks the evidence against him is flimsy.

But his detractors allege that the man certain to be Lyari's next MP is closely involved in the economy of Lyari's criminal underworld, including gun trading and gambling dens. "He is not a murderer, but he is involved in collecting the money, the extortion and drug money, from his area," said Nabil Gabol, the former PPP MP for the area who defected to the MQM, he says, because of "the criminals and gangs".

Two years ago, Zardari announced that he wanted Bilawal, his 24-year-old son and the PPP's chairman, to fight his maiden election campaign from Lyari. It would have been a neat fit given the deep personal and political history the family shares with the oldest sector of the sprawling city.

The people of Lyari gave wild support to Bilawal's grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1970 when his populist rhetoric and socialist programme resonated with Lyari's downtrodden immigrants and labourers from the nearby docks. They voted overwhelmingly for Bilawal's mother, Benazir, in 1988 when she ran from the constituency and then for his father, Zardari, in 1990. The couple held a massive "people's reception" in Lyari when they got married.

Bhutto opted to give birth to Bilawal in Lyari because, she claimed in her autobiography, she hoped to prove to the people that their local hospital was as good as "fancier" ones in richer neighbourhoods.

Bilawal cannot legally stand until his 25th birthday in September, but the prospect of the seat being vacated for him to stand at a byelection seems remote, given the PAC's disdain for him.

Last year the PAC sabotaged a planned photo opportunity in a Lyari hospital by firing off weapons near the area just as he was about to leave a mansion named after him, Bilawal House. "The Amn Committee people did not want to let him enter because they wanted to show they had the power over Lyari," said Gabol, whose study walls are still covered with photos of Benazir despite having quit the party.

Most political parties in Karachi are said to be allied to militant supporters. The PPP's enemies have long claimed the PAC is, in effect, the armed wing of the PPP in Karachi, providing a handy source of cash and maintaining an iron grip over the voters. Even the police, it is said, cannot enter Lyari without the PAC's permission.

But the balance of power between the PAC and the PPP has been shifting as the gang has become ever stronger and flaunted its willingness to consider joining forces with other parties. Last year it shocked the PPP high command by organising a rally to which rival parties were invited and in which the normally ubiquitous PPP posters and Bhutto photos were noticeably absent.

Gabol, the PPP representative at the time, said the episode convinced Zardari the PAC needed to be answered with force. The resulting eight-day "operation" by police in April last year turned Lyari into a war zone, with security forces and gang members trading fire with machine guns, rockets and grenades. Twenty-six people died and none of the targeted PAC leaders were apprehended.

Karachi journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha believes the PPP has become a prisoner of the PAC: "The dynamics of Karachi dictated they had to have their own militant wing, which they then became stuck with. When they tried to get rid of them it was a disaster."

Taj Haider, the PPP's general secretary in Sindh province, agreed the military operation was a "huge mistake". "We dealt with a political problem with force, when we should have dealt with it through talks," he said. "But we negotiated and we have now restored peace."

The most important concession in the negotiations, led by Zardari's sister Faryal Talpur, was agreeing that the PAC would chose national and provincial assembly candidates for a swath of Karachi, including Lyari.

"The PPP leadership has always thought the people of Lyari are uneducated, like how a feudal lord thinks of his serfs," said Zafar Baloch (no relation), a founding member of the PAC, who gives interviews from his bed where he is still nursing a leg broken during a gangland grenade attack on him last summer. "But this time they had to accept our choice. They had no choice. Lyari is a symbol of the PPP and if they go down in Lyari it will have an impact on the whole country."

Indeed, without compromise the PPP would have lost one of just three seats it controls in Pakistan's biggest city and vitally important commercial capital.

But the historic link with the Bhutto family appears to have been severed for the time being.

"[Bilawal] has no future here," said Uzair Baloch (no relation), head of the former PAC, whose house was raided by police on Saturday. And he mocked the weak Urdu skills of a young man who is more comfortable speaking English and has been unable to campaign publicly due to Taliban death threats. "The only people acceptable to us are people from Lyari itself," he said. "If you can't even be among your people, what is the point of politics?"

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Neo-Nazi gang trial to get under way in Germany after chaotic start

Beate Zschäpe charged with nine racially motivated murders in country's highest-profile trial since second world war

Kate Connolly in Berlin, Friday 3 May 2013 15.29 BST   

The string of murders shook Germany but remained unsolved for years, eventually revealing an underground Nazi cell and raising questions about the competence of the German intelligence services.

Now the surviving member of a neo-Nazi gang accused of carrying out nine racially motivated murders and the killing of a policewoman will go on trial on Monday in one of the country's highest-profile court cases since the second world war.

Beate Zschäpe is charged with complicity in the murder of eight Turkish men , a Greek man and a German policewoman, as well as involvement in 15 bank robberies and two nail bombings. Other charges include arson, founding a terrorist organisation and facilitating robbery. The 38-year-old will be joined in the dock by four others who have been charged with assisting the group.

But though the spotlight falls on Zschäpe, the trial is also expected to raise serious questions about the German intelligence agency that failed to detect the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which operated undetected for 13 years, carrying out its killings between 2000 and 2007.

Its existence only came to the attention of authorities in November 2011 by chance, after Zschäpe's alleged accomplices Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt killed themselves in a joint pact after a bank robbery went wrong. Police found the Ceska pistol used to murder all their victims in their torched caravan in the eastern town of Eisenach.

A DVD in which the NSU introduced itself and its militant racial hatred policy was also found. In it the bodies of the murder victims are shown, while a Pink Panther figure adds up the number that have been killed. The group claimed responsibility for the killings in the film.

Zschäpe subsequently set fire to the flat the trio had shared in Zwickau, 112 miles away, and fled, turning herself in to police four days later.

The discovery of the cell only in 2011, despite the fact a bomb-making factory had been found in Zschäpe's garage as far back as 1998, sparked a lengthy catalogue of accusations as to how and why the authorities had failed to seize the group.

Police and intelligence agents have been charged with everything from carrying out amateurish investigations, failing to share information with each other, having a firmly rooted apathy towards the far-right threat as well as a general disregard of the victims because they were foreign.

"The really terrible thing," said Hans-Christian Ströbele of the Green party and a deputy member of the parliamentary NSU committee that has been investigating the authorities' failures, "is that while information about the NSU was known again and again, it was not pursued. Huge mistakes were made – in short, it was a huge failure".

The federal and domestic intelligence agencies have been reshuffled since details of the bungled investigation, which Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to as a "disgrace" for Germany, started emerging. Before the cell came to light, investigators had seen little reason to pursue the line that the murders might have been racially motivated, concentrating instead on what they suspected was a connection to organised crime within immigrant circles – a suspicion that turned out to be groundless.

Many of the victims' families have avoided media attention. But the most vocal, Semiya Şimşek, wrote a book about the murder of her father, Enver Şimşek. A shepherd's son from the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey, Şimşek emigrated to Germany in search of a better life in 1986 and set up as a flower seller. The 39-year-old was gunned down at close range in the back of his delivery van in Nuremberg, southern Germany, in September 2000, in what was the first in a string of killings that were dubbed the "doner murders" by the media.

"I will be looking closely at how Germany conducts the trial," Şimşek, who will be one of the joint plaintiffs, said in an interview. Her book accuses the police of trying to implicate her father in criminal activity, and says the Şimşek family felt they were treated like suspects rather than victims of a horrific crime.

"I feel like the neo-Nazis shot him [but] the German authorities killed him a second time," Şimşek said.

More embarrassment was heaped onto German authorities last month with the discovery of a sophisticated network of far-right prisoners. The network, whose members have communicated with a secret code undetected by prison authorities, has repeatedly attempted to contact Zschäpe, who has become something of a heroine of the far-right scene.

A case of this scale has rarely been seen in Germany. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats, called the case a "farce", saying it had damaged Germany's image abroad, making it "the laughing stock of the world".

The trial is expected to last about two years.

Battle for media seats causes diplomatic row

Media places for the NSU trial have been allocated by lottery after the first attempt to distribute the 50 seats set aside for journalists on a first-come-first-served basis led to no Turkish or Greek journalists gaining access – despite the fact that eight of the NSU's alleged victims were of Turkish origin, one of Greek. It created a diplomatic row between Berlin and Athens.

But the subsequent decision to delay the trial by three weeks to introduce a complex lottery involving three groups, each with several sub-categories (but with no online provision), has been yet more controversial.

A huge media furore was prompted after major newspapers and television outlets – including state TV channel ZDF, the dailies Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and Die Welt – failed to secure seats. In contrast, several small local radio stations and a women's fashion magazine got lucky.

Neither was there to have been an English-language representative at the trial until the German press agency DPA offered last week to relinquish one of its places to news agency Reuters.

Suggestions to the court by politicians and experts that it either move the trial to a larger court or install a television screen outside the courtroom – similar to the process adopted at the 2012 trial of the Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik – were dismissed as unconstitutional.

Several journalists have lodged complaints with Germany's highest court but these were not expected to delay the trial's start. The court has brushed off the journalists' criticism, justifying the lottery procedure by arguing it had "weighed up which process would best ensure equal chances for all".

Asked why it had not simply put a few more chairs into the courtroom, the court official added: "that would have entailed a whole new procedure just for the Turkish journalists over who got those seats and other journalists would then have complained".

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« Reply #6157 on: May 04, 2013, 07:15 AM »

Italian women rise to positions of power under new prime minister

Enrico Letta continues the political revolution that began under Mario Monti by naming seven women in his 22-member cabinet

John Hooper in Rome, Friday 3 May 2013 14.37 BST   

Josefa Idem is not easily rattled. An international canoeist who won an Olympic gold and five world championships, she knows what it is like to face a daunting challenge.

But, after taking a call from Italy's new prime minister, Enrico Letta, asking her to be a member of his cabinet, she told her followers on Twitter: "My hands were shaking". The German-born Idem, 48, who took Italian nationality after marrying her coach, entered politics 12 years ago and was elected to the senate for Letta's Democratic party (PD) in February's general election. She is one of seven women in Letta's 22-member cabinet – the highest proportion in an Italian government.

The new left-right coalition, which began work on Tuesday after surviving the second of two votes of confidence in parliament, has completed a revolution in the status of women in Italian politics that began with the previous government of the former EU commissioner, Mario Monti. Before that, women were central to Italian politics but not in a way that did much to advance their cause.

Arguably the most important woman in the closing months of Silvio Berlusconi's 2008-11 government was Karima el-Mahroug, otherwise known as "Ruby the Heartstealer", the Moroccan teenage runaway whose friendship with the septuagenarian former prime minister contributed to his departure from office. Berlusconi also appointed women to his cabinet. But one was a former showgirl and glamour model while another had a habit of appearing on TV chat shows wearing hold-up stockings under a microskirt.

"In Berlusconi's governments, women were selected very much on the basis of – how can I say this? – their personal, external characteristics," said Natalia Augias, a political correspondent for the state-owned RAI television network. "Letta has chosen his women ministers for their competence alone."

Two of the four most important jobs in the government have gone to women: Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner, takes over the foreign ministry, while Anna Maria Cancellieri, who served as interior minister under Monti, has been given the even more sensitive justice portfolio. How Cancellieri deals with the challenges of her job could decide the fate of the government. It depends for its survival on the backing of Berlusconi who is a defendant in four trials in which he claims his indictments were arranged by politically motivated, crypto-Marxist prosecutors.

A third woman, Maria Chiara Carrozza from the PD, a scientist and academic, will be in charge of education, one of the biggest-spending departments. The others have more junior posts: two of Berlusconi's lawmakers have been given health and agriculture, ministries whose responsibilities have been largely transferred to the regional administrations and the EU commission respectively. Idem has responsibility for sport, youth and equal opportunity. And another foreign-born PD politician, Cécile Kyenge, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is minister for integration.

Her appointment prompted fierce criticism from the anti-immigrant Northern League and a storm of vituperative abuse on the web, some of it obscene. In an early indication of what the presence of so many women in government could mean, Idem has ordered Italy's anti-discrimination watchdog to look into whether action could be taken against those responsible for the racist slurs against Kyenge. She offered her backing to her colleague "above all as a woman".

"Letta," said Augias, "is much more international than 90% of our politicians – he's keenly aware of what other democratic leaders are doing around the world." The prime minister is also very much a "new man": his wife is a successful journalist who edits the Rome supplement of the Corriere della Sera, and when Letta was called to the presidential palace to be asked to form a new government, he turned up in the family car with the baby seats still attached in the back.

The appointment of so many women to positions of power is also a reflection of the greater numbers in the new parliament. According to a study by the Inter Parliamentary Union, until the last election, the share of women in the Italian legislature was substantially lower than that in Afghanistan's.

What Italians – without a trace of irony – term la quota rosa (the pink proportion) shot up after the election from 20% to 31%. An important reason for this has been the pressure exerted by Beppe Grillo's maverick Five Star movement (M5S) which selected its candidates online. Of the 163 lawmakers elected for the M5S, 38% are female.

But there is still a way to go for the old attitudes in Italy die out. Berlusconi made a point of kissing the hand of Nunzia De Girolamo, the new agriculture minister and at 37 the youngest member of the government. One newspaper drew attention to her "chestnut hair and dark eyes". But then that was Bild Zeitung.


Italy's female politicians: breakthrough or tokenism?

In Italy, one third of cabinet members are women. And they are women of substance. But do they have power?

Catherine Fieschi, Friday 3 May 2013 19.41 BST   

Women are not new to Italian politics – Silvio Berlusconi was famous for appointing models and actresses to cabinet, including a former topless model as minister for equal opportunities.

But there is, thankfully, something fundamentally different going on here: one third of cabinet members are women. And they are, as the expression goes, women of substance.

The question on everyone's lips is whether this a breakthrough or, as some argue, no more than a headline case of tokenism? Only time will tell whether this turns out to be a breakthrough – whether this changes fundamentally the way in which politics is done, or the manner in which issues in which women might have a particular stake (workplace reforms, childcare and equal pay) are tackled in Italian and, by extension, European politics.

But, in any case, theword tokenism is overly cynical and defeatist. Symbolism, which is what this is, needn't be tokenistic. It can be extremely powerful. Here this is the case in two ways. First, because Italy's new cabinet reflects the government's explicit acknowledgment that only a visible break with Italy's geriatric and sexist politics might alleviate the public's repulsion toward a coalition government that includes an element of Berlusconism (the deputy PM and the minister of the interior) – an obvious response to demands for change that should not be so easily dismissed.

Second, accusations of tokenism generally stem from the notion that this can easily be rolled back – a government reshuffle could easily wipe out these gains. But politics (even in Italian ones) work in ratchet effects: there may be occasional backlashes, but it is difficult to 'roll back'. Because changes – however symbolic – in such powerful institutions as cabinets change norms and by consequence public expectations: institutions start to look different and we can't remember a time when they looked otherwise. Fits and starts there may be, but rolling back is generally less of an option.

Fears of tokenism need to be put in context: Looking across Europe today, these fits and starts are obvious: Blair's Babes, the French PM's Alain Juppé's 'Jupettes' (literally, 'little skirts'), the comments around Rachida Dati under Sarkozy, and the lone Theresa May are all illustrations of progress' uneven march. And even as late as last year, the number of women in François Hollande's (enormous) government was the subject of comments. France is a good illustration of the web of tensions and paradoxes around the issue—and explains why we are so loathe to take what has happened in Italy at face value.

Though it took the parity law, passed in 2000, to improve the representation of women in the national assembly somewhat, the number of women in cabinets in France has often been proportionally higher than in the assembly.

But do these women have power? There were fewer women in Sarkozy's government but they had key posts. On the other hand – because the French president can appoint ministers from outside the assembly – these appointments were often seen as patronage. Not to mention weak since, parachuted as some were, many of the women in question seldom had the necessary political power base to remain in post for very long.

The combination of weaker posts and shorter stints conspires to give the impression of tokenism, but the fact is that over time it has become unacceptable not to have a significant number of women in cabinet.

You have to travel much further north of course (Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden) to find women in key posts for very long. In Norway, justice, and petroleum and energy are posts held by women; in Sweden, defence, justice and EU affairs are all in the hands of women; the picture is similar in Denmark and Finland.

What the Nordics have in common is an early adoption by the larger parties of quota systems. Everywhere quotas were met with resistance but most of them got through. Fears that quotas would amount to institutionalised tokenism seem to have yielded to a reality which is a far more gender representative politics. Not just in the number of women elected, but also in terms of female power in the cabinet. The tokens have come a long way.

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« Reply #6158 on: May 04, 2013, 07:17 AM »

Ireland's pro-choice activists risk prison with mass leafleting campaign

Campaigners target cafes, pubs, changing rooms and public toilets with illegal information on abortion access

Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent, Friday 3 May 2013 17.29 BST   

Pro-choice activists in Ireland are risking up to 14 years in prison with a guerilla-style information campaign designed to help the estimated 11 Irish women per day who travel to Britain for terminations.

They are targeting cafes, pubs, clubs, gym changing rooms and public toilets with thousands of leaflets giving contact details for British abortion clinics as well as the price of terminations. The literature includes a website where Irish women can buy early abortion pills (effective up to nine weeks of pregnancy) online via

Organisers and supporters behind the campaign, which began after Savita Halappanavar's death in Galway University Hospital last autumn, say they intend to intensify their leaflet blitz after the government approved a bill on Tuesday to allow for strictly limited abortions in Ireland.

Disseminating information on how to buy early abortion pills is illegal in the Republic and under the new legislation those helping to procure an illicit termination risk being jailed for up to 14 years.

The abortion information blitz is taking place as Irish politicians in parliament debate whether or not to support the Fine Gael-Labour coalition's protection of life in pregnancy bill, which the cabinet backed last Tuesday night.

One part of Ireland the pro-choice activists have targeted to distribute highly detailed information on abortion access is Galway, the city where Halappanavar died.

Sarah McCarthy, a member of Galway Pro-Choice, told the Guardian: "We've only handed them out at public stalls on the main shopping street so far. A few people have taken them. There hasn't been much of a reaction bar that; I would say that most people aren't even aware that it's illegal to hand out that sort of information."

The new bill, which will have to be passed in both houses of the Irish parliament, will not include cases concerning rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.

And a controversial measure in the new proposed law stating that a woman seeking an abortion because she is suicidal will have to be assessed by up to six doctors including psychiatrists has been condemned by pro-choice groups.

In the new bill, three consultants reviewing the case of a woman with suicidal thoughts while pregnant must all agree that a termination should proceed.

There is provision for an appeal by the woman where termination of pregnancy is not approved by the first three doctors. That final appeal would be to three other separate consultants.

The appeal panel of three doctors must also be unanimous in approval for a termination to be granted under law. The procedures mean that in the case of suicide threat, a woman could in effect have six doctors reviewing her application.

Pro-choice campaigners in Ireland and abroad have denounced the elements of the bill concerning a woman at risk of suicide due to pregnancy.

The Abortion Support Network (ASN), a charity that helps Irish women access abortion services in Britain, said that while it welcomed the new bill it would not stop thousands more travelling across the Irish Sea for terminations there.

Mara Clarke, one of the founders of the ASN, also applauded the campaign giving Irish women information on how to terminate pregnancies including the costs of abortion clinics.

"The leaflet is a one-stop shop that tells women which local organisations can provide unbiased information about all their options, contact details for clinics in England and information on where to turn to for financial help or access to early medical abortion pills," Clarke said. "This information needs to be put into the hands of women and I hope the leaflets find their way into every women's toilet, changing room and pub in Ireland."

Meanwhile a group of women who had to travel for terminations in Britain because their babies would have died shortly after birth due to fatal foetal abnormalities told the Guardian they have been left out and let down by the new legislation.

The basis of the new bill is an Irish supreme court judgment 21 years ago, which successive governments until the current coalition have failed to implement. The seven-judge court recommended that a 14-year-old girl, who was in danger of committing suicide if a pregnancy caused by rape continued, should have a life-saving termination. The X case controversy began in the early 1990s after the state tried but failed to force the child rape victim to remain in the Republic and have a baby despite her desire to travel to Britain for an abortion.

Ruth Bowie from Terminations For Medical Reasons Ireland, who had to travel for an abortion to Britain because her child would never have survived due to foetal abnormality, said the legislation made no consideration for their cases.

"Although not surprised, we are frustrated and extremely disappointed that the government has not used this opportunity to provide legislation for those wishing to terminate for a fatal foetal abnormality," Bowie said.

"It has taken them 21 years to legislate for the X case – do we have to wait another 21? How long is it going to take for our country to afford couples humane, compassionate and dignified care when faced with this devastating news? We are extremely angry that the government seem to think it is acceptable in 2013 to continue to brush this issue under the carpet and pretend it's not happening."

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« Reply #6159 on: May 04, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Eurozone recession expected to deepen

European commission lowers GDP forecast and says the unemployment crisis willl continue

Katie Allen, Friday 3 May 2013 16.43 BST   

The eurozone's recession will be even deeper than previously feared this year, the European commission has warned, as it slashed its outlook for crisis-stricken Cyprus and downgraded the prospects of the bloc's biggest economies.

The EU's executive arm now expects GDP in the single currency zone to shrink by 0.4% in 2013, a sharper decline than its previous forecast for a drop of 0.3%. The recovery pencilled in for 2014 will also be slower than expected and the unemployment crisis in the eurozone will persist, the commission said in its spring forecasts.

Painting a picture of subdued domestic demand and lacklustre investment, the commission slackened its deficit-cutting targets to help some countries focus more on jobs and growth. Speaking against the backdrop of record high eurozone unemployment, the economic and monetary affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, said the commission was now prepared to give France and Spain two more years to get their deficits below 3% of GDP.

"France badly needs to unlock its growth potential and create jobs," he said, warning that the pace of economic activity in the eurozone was too slow to cut unemployment.

With that in mind, he gave France and Spain greater leeway. "For France and Spain it is very obvious that it is more reasonable to have a correction of the excessive deficit over another two years," Rehn said.

Germany will be the only one of the area's five largest economies to escape recession this year and even its prospects were downgraded to growth of 0.4% from 0.5%. France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are all expected to shrink.

The sharpest revision was reserved for Cyprus, which the commission now sees contracting by 8.7% this year, from a 3.5% drop forecast in the commission's winter outlook in February – before the island was forced into a bailout led by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the EU. Unemployment on the troubled Mediterranean island is expected to be 15.5% this year and rise even further to 16.9% next year.

"Reduced business activity, possible spillovers from the restructuring of the banking sector to professional business services and the hiring freeze in the public sector are expected to push the unemployment rate higher in 2013 and more so in 2014," the commission said in its report, referring to the consequences of a bailout that included a raid on savers' deposits.

The spring forecasts underlined the stark contrasts between eurozone member states, with France becoming decoupled from Germany as the economic centre of the single currency bloc. The commission sees the German economy recovering gradually on the back of improving domestic demand, helped by a "robust labour market and more dynamic wage growth". GDP in France, however, is forecast to stagnate this year amid modest exports.

Eslewhere among the eurozone's largest economies, GDP in Italy is set to decline again in 2013, as reduced disposable incomes, low confidence and difficult financing conditions continue to weigh on consumption and investment. In Spain, the correction of pre-crisis imbalances "remains a strong drag on domestic demand" and the Netherlands is expected to shrink as the housing market and low disposable income hit consumption.

The forecast of a 0.1% contraction in GDP for France contrasts with the government's own prediction of growth of 0.1%. The commission expects that the gloomy prospects for France mean it will run a deficit of of 3.9% of GDP in 2013, and 4.2% in 2014. Rehn said Paris was "overly optimistic" on growth as he granted an extension on the deadline originally set for this year to get the budget deficit under 3%. France said it would meet that target by 2014.

The increased headroom for France and Spain will be welcomed by politicians and campaign groups pushing for a moveaway from austerity towards stimulating growth and employment.

The commission's spring forecasts touched on the risks of failing to drive down unemployment, which it sees hitting 12.2% in the eurozone this year, up from 11.4% in 2012.

"While the risks to the economic outlook have become more balanced on the back of important policy decisions since last summer, downside risks remain predominant. Very high levels of unemployment in some member states could affect social cohesion and become persistent if further reforms are not undertaken," it said.
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« Reply #6160 on: May 04, 2013, 07:23 AM »

May 3, 2013

Insurgent Party in Britain Gains in Popular Support


LONDON — By winning about a quarter of all votes cast in local elections across England, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a hitherto gadfly force on the center right of British politics, appeared on Friday to have reset the political landscape, challenging all major parties, and the Conservatives in particular, with its demands for Britain’s withdrawal from the 27-nation European Union.

Calling also for stringent immigration controls and a rollback of the country’s welfare system, the Independence Party, known as UKIP, had struggled for years to shake off the scornful labels pinned on it by political opponents in all major parties who have worried that UKIP’s breakthrough moment might eventually come.

Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative leader, once described the party as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” and one of his ministers, Kenneth Clarke, used his own dismissive term, “a bunch of clowns,” on the eve of Thursday’s voting. Harsher critics, particularly on the left, have sought to link UKIP to two far-right fringe parties, the British National Party and the English Defence League, that have plied a politics tinged with racist and Nazi sympathies.

But as the ballot counting for 2,300 council seats was completed, results from widely separated areas of England, including districts that will be swing-vote battlegrounds in a general election set for May 2015, showed that UKIP had drawn levels of popular support not matched by any insurgent party in an electoral contest with the mainstream parties, mainly the Conservatives and Labour, since Labour’s rise in the 1920s.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, 49, a former commodities broker, made the most of the party’s red-letter day, poking fun at detractors in ways that reinforced his popular image as a raffish, jocular and, as British newspaper profiles have described him, a “bloke-ish” fellow unafraid to voice opinions that many politicians regard as better left in the pub.

“We’ve been abused by everybody, the entire establishment, and now they’re shocked and stunned that we are getting over 25 percent of the vote everywhere we stand across the country,” Mr. Farage told reporters. “I know that everyone would like to say that it’s just a little short-term, stamp-your-feet protest — it isn’t. There’s something really fundamental that’s happened here.”

The results prompted caution and surprise among political analysts, who noted that UKIP, despite its strength in the popular vote, remained a distant fourth in the number of council seats won. It secured only 147 of the contested seats, compared with 1,116 for the Conservatives, 538 for Labour and 352 gained for the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ partners in the coalition government formed after the general election of 2010.

A BBC tally showed that UKIP won an average of 25 percent of the vote in the 1,700 seats it contested. Another BBC projection that used Friday’s results to compute the vote share that each party would win in a general election showed Labour with 29 percent, the Conservatives with 25 percent, UKIP with 23 percent, and the Liberal Democrats with 14 percent. It was the first time in decades that all major parties have scored below 30 percent in the BBC calculation, leading some voting experts to say that Britain had entered a new era in which it would be unlikely that any party could win a majority at a general election.

Local elections, particularly midterm votes held between the general elections that determine the makeup of the national government every five years, have been precarious predictors of general election outcomes. Often, the surge of minor parties in similar contests has turned out to be a protest vote, with supporters returning to their traditional loyalties when it comes to choosing a party, and a prime minister, to lead the country.

But the scope of UKIP’s surge this time had many politicians saying that the old mold of politics had been broken. While guarded about the longer-term implications, many political commentators said UKIP appeared to have crossed a crucial threshold by establishing itself as socially and politically respectable, and by thrusting its key policies, particularly on Europe, into the mainstream of political debate.

UKIP was founded in 1993, and made the most striking of its previous electoral breakthroughs — and then only with scattered successes — in elections to the European Parliament, where Mr. Farage, whose second wife is German, first made his mark.

A pointer to bigger successes came with the party’s second-place finish in a by-election for a seat in the British Parliament outside Southampton in February. UKIP drew 28 percent of the vote, about 3 percent more than the Conservative candidate in a seat once considered solidly Conservative. But few foresaw the scope of the latest success.

As the scale of UKIP’s performance became known, Mr. Cameron and other political leaders keen to draw UKIP voters back to the mainstream parties in the battle of 2015 were quick to rescind their contempt. “We need to show respect for people who have taken the choice to support this party, and we are going to work really hard to win them back,” Mr. Cameron said.

Many of UKIP’s successes came in districts known as redoubts for the Conservatives, in counties that included Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire. The importance of these erstwhile strongholds for the Conservatives is based on a long-established pattern in British politics, in which the Conservatives have relied on their strong support in England in general elections to offset the strength of rival parties in Scotland and Wales.

The vulnerability of Mr. Cameron, 46, lies in the fact that UKIP’s priority issues — Europe, immigration and welfare — are shared by an increasingly restive bloc of at least 100 Conservative Parliament members, a third of the Conservative strength in the House of Commons. Mr. Cameron’s push for approval of a same-sex marriage bill this year has been a touchstone for many of his Conservative detractors.

But the calls for Mr. Cameron to adopt new policies more amenable to his right-wing critics, or to resign and make way for a new Conservative leader, were dismissed by senior members of his cabinet. Michael Gove, the education minister, widely admired among the party’s right-wingers, told the BBC that Mr. Cameron’s position was not at risk.

“Any of my colleagues who want to engage in leadership speculation,” he said, “should spend the weekend reading history books and considering whether any party’s election prospects have been improved by a leadership change.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting from London, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
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« Reply #6161 on: May 04, 2013, 07:25 AM »

May 3, 2013

Opposition in Tight Race to Take Power in Malaysian Election


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysians will go to the polls on Sunday to decide what appears to be the most closely contested election in their country’s history. Its results will bring either a continuation of decades of leadership by the current government or the nation’s first handover of power.

While both Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing National Front coalition and the opposition three-party People’s Alliance are publicly expressing confidence, independent analysts said the race remained neck-and-neck as the 15-day official campaign period neared its end on Saturday.

“Going by conventional wisdom, the government has the advantage, but the opposition could pull off a surprise,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling organization. “It’s within the margin of error.”

The campaign has been marred by violence, opposition claims of vote-rigging by the government, a cyberattack on a leading online news service and even a dispute over whether the ink that will be applied to voters’ index fingers, to ensure that they vote only once, can be easily rubbed off.

Malaysia’s 13.3 million registered voters have been given a stark choice: to continue a political and economic system based largely on race, by a group that has firmly held power since the country’s independence in 1957, or take a completely new direction, with a combative but untested opposition promising enormous changes.

“It’s either to accept that we need to mature as a country and support reform or be stuck in the old ways of semiauthoritarianism, controlled media, an economic policy lacking in transparency and using the old race-based economic policies,” the People’s Alliance leader, Anwar Ibrahim, said in an interview.

Mr. Najib has countered with a “stay the course” argument, offering political, social and economic changes and saying that the government’s policies have maintained Malaysia as a stable, modern emerging country with Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

“That is why the opposition’s call for reform has had a poor response from the people,” Mr. Najib said during a campaign rally this week in Terengganu, a northern state. “Which is better, street demonstrations or respecting the law? Which is better, sowing discord in the community or inculcating good moral values?”

The governing coalition is led by the United Malays National Organization, the party of Mr. Najib, who is the son of a former prime minister. Mr. Anwar is a former senior leader of the party and deputy prime minister who was ousted in a power struggle in 1998 with Mahathir Mohamad, who was then prime minister. He was imprisoned from 1999 to 2004 after convictions on sodomy and corruption charges that he said were politically motivated.

Mr. Anwar has accused Mr. Najib’s government of authoritarian leanings, of turning a blind eye to official corruption and of continuing race-based politics by giving preferential economic treatment to ethnic Malays, who account for about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 29 million people.

On Thursday, Mr. Anwar said the government might have helped fly more than 40,000 “dubious” voters to key states to bolster its chances of winning. The government has denied the allegation, saying it has traditionally helped Malaysians working in the country’s eastern states on the island of Borneo to return to their home regions to vote.

But on Friday, local election groups said there was evidence that some of those flown in were foreigners, from Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

“We know the playing field for this election has not been level,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a chairwoman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. “The wish is that it’s the true will of the people that should prevail in these elections, but the fear is that it may not.”

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« Reply #6162 on: May 04, 2013, 07:27 AM »

Bangladesh building disaster death toll passes 500

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 3, 2013 6:07 EDT

The death toll from the collapse of a factory complex in Bangladesh passed 500 Friday as the prime minister said Western retailers had to share some responsibility for the plight of garment workers.

It also emerged that an engineer who had warned that the building may be unsafe before it imploded on April 24 was being questioned by police after becoming the latest person to be arrested over the disaster.

With bulldozers clawing away at the mountain of rubble at the site, the number of bodies being recovered from the country’s deadliest industrial disaster has been increasing sharply.

Lieutenant Mir Rabbi, an officer in a special army control room set up to coordinate the rescue operation, told AFP the “death toll now stands at 501″, a sharp rise on the figure of 441 compiled by authorities on Thursday evening.

Dozens more people are thought to have been buried alive after the eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, which lies around 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the northwest of Dhaka.

Around 3,000 garment workers were on shift at the time of the disaster in the Rana Plaza compound, which housed five different textile factories.

Spain’s Mango, Britain’s low-cost Primark chain and the Italian label Benetton were among the retailers who have confirmed having products made at Rana Plaza where the typical worker took home less than 40 dollars a month.

The collapse was the latest in a series of disasters to befall the $20 billion industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports.

A fire at another factory compound killed 111 workers last November and witnesses say the latest disaster happened after bosses insisted staff remain at their workstations even though cracks had been detected in the building.

In an interview with CNN, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defended the industry’s safety record, saying the recent deadly explosion at a fertiliser plant in the United States showed that no country was immune.

“Anywhere in the world, any accident can take place,” she said.

Some Western fashion brands have said they are considering their futures in Bangladesh and Disney has already announced it is pulling out of the country.

The prime minister insisted that “Bangladesh now is a place for good conditions for the investment” but she also suggested that Western firms drawn to the country by the cheap labour costs could hike salaries.

“If they want to do business, these buyers, they also should also consider increase the prices of the garments so that the business can run properly and labour can get a good salary so they are also partly responsible for it,” she said.

“What I is feel is that all the investors when they come here they get cheap labour and that’s why they come here.”

Industry bosses are desperate to avoid others following the lead of Disney in pulling out of the country and have promised to come up with credible answers to concerns raised about factory safety.

At least 12 people have been arrested over the disaster, including the owner of the Rana Plaza compound. Civil engineer Abdur Razzaq Khan was detained on Thursday night after police said he had given the building the all-clear on April 23 after inspecting the cracks.

Khan was quoted as telling one Bengali newspaper, Jugantor, on the night before the tragedy that the building was “risky” and should be the subject of “further investigation”.

But Dhaka police’s deputy chief A.B.M Masud Hossain said that investigators had found that Khan had cleared the building to carry on operating while at the same time suggesting that the owner seek further advice.

“According to our information he told the building owner, other owners (of shops and other businesses based in the building) and journalists that these cracks were not a major problem at this time,” Hossain told AFP.

The disaster has led to a slight thaw in the usually icy relations between Hasina and her long-time rival Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

After Zia accepted a request from the government to back down on her calls for a nationwide strike scheduled for May 2, Hasina has now asked her arch-rival to talks in a bid to end a dispute over upcoming elections.


The Christian Science Monitor -

The Walt Disney Company pulls out of Bangladesh: Will that make workers safer?

By Peter Grier, Staff writer / May 3, 2013 at 11:23 am EDT

The Walt Disney Co. is pulling out of Bangladesh and several other developing countries, in part because of fatal accidents in factories that produced branded merchandise for Western firms.

Announcement of the move follows last week’s collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory building, a tragedy that may be the worst such accident in world history. The official death toll is now more that 500 and keeps climbing as rescue workers continue the slow process of working through building rubble.

Disney officials said their pull-out decision was actually made in March, after a fire in a Bangladesh factory last November that killed more than 100. The company has told licensees that it wants to phase out production of Disney-brand items made in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Belarus, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

Disney said it relied on World Bank Governing Indicators, which measure rule of law, corruption, and other national characteristics, to help make its decision.

“After much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain,” said Bob Chapek, president of Disney Consumer Products, according to a CNN report.

Are Western firms such as Disney, the Gap, and Benetton in part responsible for the conditions that lead to these tragedies in low-wage nations? Disney’s move shows that some feel their reputations are at risk, at the least, if they are tied too closely to foreign workplace tragedies.

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Customers may avoid brands they suspect of abetting worker abuse. And a number of international nongovernment organizations today stand ready to publicize poor conditions found in factories linked to major nation retail brands.

But these NGOs don’t necessarily want their pressure to result in pull-outs. They want corporations to use their economic muscle to improve conditions.

The Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, for instance, says it works with big companies and their foreign licenses to try to remedy problems before issuing public reports.

“The WRC views ‘cutting and running’ from a factory as a serious abrogation of a licensee’s responsibilities,” says the group in a statement.

Worker groups often want foreign firms to stay to preserve jobs and economic development. Some experts say the blame for tragedies such as the Bangladesh building collapse should be directed at local and national authorities who have the responsibility to protect their workers.

“By misassigning the responsibility for the recent tragedies to global retailers, western media and consumer movements allow the real culprits to get away scot-free and further diminish the likelihood of governance reform in poor countries,” wrote Jagdish Bhagwati, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Amrita Narlikar, director of the Centre for Rising Powers at the University of Cambridge, last month in the British magazine Prospect.

Other experts put the problem in a larger political frame. The real problem in Bangladesh has been the complex trade apparatus erected by the US, which consumes most of the cheap clothing produced in developing nations, wrote Mallika Shakya, an assistant professor of sociology at South Asian University in Delhi, in the Indian newspaper The Hindu.

Between 1974 and 2004, the US Multi-Fiber Arrangement virtually dictated, item by item, the amount of clothing that third-world countries could export to the US, according to Ms. Shakya. Potential rivals to America such as China got small quotas, while Bangladesh and other unprepared nations got large ones.

The result was that Bangladeshi authorities could not keep up with the explosive growth of their country's garment industry.

“That is a reason why most factory buildings are found to be built haphazardly, without acquiring the necessary clearance from state agencies,” wrote Shakya.

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« Reply #6163 on: May 04, 2013, 07:36 AM »

Scientists warn Chinese-made air-transmissible bybrid bird flu puts humanity at risk

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 3, 2013 14:30 EDT

Immunologists expressed concern Friday about the “dangerous” work of scientists in China who created a hybrid bird flu virus that can spread in the air between guinea pigs, and now lives in a lab freezer.

The team from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Gansu Agricultural University wrote in the journal Science they had created a new virus by mixing genes from H5N1 “bird flu” and H1N1 “swine flu”.

H5N1, transmitted to people by birds, is fatal in about 60 percent of cases, but does not transmit between humans — a characteristic that has prevented a pandemic so far.

Some argue that hybrid studies like these shed light on how the virus could mutate in nature to cause a human epidemic, and may help us prepare.

Since 2003, H5N1 has infected 628 people, killing 374, according to the World Health Organisation.

H1N1, which erupted in Mexico, is highly transmissible and infected a fifth of the world’s population in a 2009-10 pandemic, but is about as lethal as ordinary flu.

The new mutant virus was easily transmitted between guinea pigs through respiratory droplets — which the Chinese team said proved the deadly H5N1 virus may need but a simple genetic mutation to “acquire mammalian transmissibility”.

Flu hybrids can arise in nature when two virus strains infect the same cell and exchange genes in a process known as reassortment, but there is no evidence that H1N1 and H5N1 have done so yet.

Some observers fear that science is putting mankind at risk by preemptively creating such mutants.

“These are manmade viruses, they have never been made in nature. They are now sitting in a freezer,” virology professor Simon Wain-Hobson of France’s Pasteur Institute told AFP.

He pointed to a laboratory leak of foot and mouth, a cattle disease, which caused an outbreak in Britain six years ago.

It was unclear how the flu hybrid, which is not deadly in guinea pigs, would affect people — but Wain-Hobson warned: “These could be pandemic viruses.

“That is, if there was ever an error of they got out or there was a leak or whatever, this could infect people and cause anywhere between 100,000 and 100 million deaths.”

Wain-Hobson and others fear the risk may far outweight the scientific value of the research.

The findings held little value for finding a vaccine or treatment that would take years to develop — probably long after an outbreak, they argue.

“The record of containment in the highest containment laboratories is not good. There have been repeated leaks,” said Robert May, a former president of Britain’s Royal Society of science.

“You do not do these things unless there is some call of extreme emergency,” he said. “We are encountering a real and present danger with extremely dubious benefits to the public.”

Virologist John Oxford from the Queen Mary University of London, however, said the experiment was a valuable wakeup call.

It showed that the two viruses, both still infecting people around the world, can swap genes.

“Mathematics will tell you that sooner or later a person will get co-infected,” he said — possibly leading to a hybrid virus “that will start spreading”.

“We need to get ourselves reorganises, relook our pandemic plans and make sure we have H5N1 vaccine stockpiles,” Oxford said.

In January, scientists in the United States and the Netherlands resumed controversial research into their own hybrid flu viruses after taking a year-long break to allay fears of the bug escaping the lab or falling into terrorist hands.

Their creation was able to jump between ferrets, considered a good research model for human disease spread.

The US-Dutch teams cited a “public health responsibility” to resume the work, halted after a public outcry and global safety probes.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, told Nature News the new study showed that H5N1 continued to pose a very real threat.

“I do believe such research is critical to our understanding of influenza. But such work, anywhere in the world, needs to be tightly regulated and conducted in the most secure facilities, which are registered and certified to a common international standard,” he said.

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« Reply #6164 on: May 04, 2013, 07:44 AM »

In the USA...

05/03/2013 03:56 PM

Conspiracy Theories in Kyrgyzstan: Accounts Tie Boston Bombers' Family to Mafia

By Marcus Bensmann and Matthias Schepp in Bishkek/Moscow

As law-enforcement officials search for clues about the early life of the Boston Marathon bombers, a number of conspiracy theories are coming to light. Many are based on alleged ties between the men's father and a local mafia boss in Kyrgyzstan.

In the eyes of Nataliya Kurotshkina, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not a likely candidate to carry out attacks using explosives. "The boy winced at even a small firecracker," recounts the 49-year-old, who was Tamerlan's first-grade teacher in School No. 2 in Tokmok, a typical Soviet-era city in northern Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakhstan. The teacher with dyed-blond hair runs past a portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on the second floor of the school. She produces a class picture from May 1995 showing Tamerlan, then a 9-year-old second grader, standing in the back row. He is wearing a blue suit and a white shirt while he gazes at the camera with curious eyes.

A class register listing the grades of all the students indicates that Tamerlan was ambitious and smart. He had top grades in almost all subjects, and was second-best only in math, geography and English. Kurotshkina describes her former student as "extraordinarily polite and well-raised."

However, even then there was another parallel world in which Tamerlan had been forced to grow up. In this world, violence was part of everyday life. "Tamerlan was a refugee child from Chechnya," the teacher recounts. "That's probably also why he was very withdrawn at first."

Driven Back and Forth by War

US investigators have identified Tamerlan and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, as the presumed perpetrators of the double bombing attack during the Boston Marathon on April 15. The homemade pressure cooker bombs they allegedly built killed three and injured more than 260, and they are also accused of subsequently killing a campus police officer. The brothers had lived in the United States for years. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout while trying to flee police, while Dzhokhar was cornered and captured on April 19 after being severely wounded.

In 1944, the brothers' grandfather was one of some 90,000 Chechens who Stalin had deported to Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Tsarnaevs sold their small house in Tokmok before returning to Chechnya.

Once they arrived, the Tsarnaev family reportedly owned some land in the early 1990s in the village of Chiri-Yurt, which lies about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the capital, Grozny. By all indications, the family was hoping to build a new life in Chechnya. Instead, they entered a region that was sliding into a war between Russian soldiers and independence fighters. "Tamerlan's father told me that he had no desire to fight and die in Chechnya," says Abil Seimkasiyev, Tamerlan's former boxing instructor.

The war fought between Russia and Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 was particularly savage, with kidnappings, bombings and decapitations. The family fled and returned to Tokmok.

Anzor Tsarnaev, Tamerlan's father, then owned a red Skoda that he would drive around the area. By all accounts, he made a living there as an auto mechanic. Reports from a number of international media sources, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have frequently indicated that Anzor was a lawyer. But, in reality, he only had an identification card listing him as a "aide to the prosecutor's office," a document that was easily purchased on the black market in the 1990s. In any case, the father of the two suspected terrorists never studied law, says the Kyrgyz National University, which was the only institution training lawyers in the country at the time. There is also nothing to be found about Anzor Tsarnaev in the Central Asian country's archives, leading one senior official in the Interior Ministry to posit that the archives must have been "sanitized."

The Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan

These and other clues have given rise to a number of conspiracy theories in Kyrgyzstan. They revolve around the friendship that Tamerlan's father had with Aziz Batukayev, a crime boss known as the "Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan" who has been accused of being behind murders, gang wars, drug trafficking and prostitution. He also numbers among the main figures in criminal organizations operating in an area of the former Soviet Union that stretches across several borders.

Batukayev and Anzor Tsarnaev were close childhood friends. Both ethnic Chechens, they were born in the same year, attended the same school (No. Cool, shared a boxing coach and often played soccer together on dusty streets. They also grew up in the same neighbourhood, with less than 200 meters (650 feet) separating their parents' homes. "They herded goats and cows together," says the brother of the mafia kingpin. "But Batukayev already looked lost on any day that he didn't get in a fight, while Anzor Tsarnaev also liked to read books a lot."

On April 9, six days before the attacks in Boston, Batukayev was surprisingly released from prison after serving several years because he was supposedly terminally ill with leukaemia. He then disappeared into Chechnya in a rented SUV. The blood sample used to prove Batukayev's illness reportedly came from another patient. Indeed, many in Kyrgyzstan believe that the short period of time between the release of the mafia boss and the Boston attacks are more than coincidental, though there is no concrete evidence to back these assertions.

Last week, individuals claiming to work for American law-enforcement agencies were trying to gather details about the Tsarnaev family's earlier life. They knocked on the doors of former neighbors, asked questions and gave candy to children. "But a lot of the kids don't try them because they might be poisoned," says the sister-in-law of the mafia boss.

Here, just as everywhere in the countries once belonging to the Soviet Union, residents are deeply ambivalent about the United States, which is simultaneously an object of hate and a land of promise. The Tsarnaevs came to the US in 2002. In the wake of the terror attacks in Boston, many of their former neighbors in Tokmok don't want to be associated with them anymore. "After the family returned from Chechnya, I only ran into Tamerlan's father a few times in the city," Batukayev's brother guardedly says. But another neighbor says that Tamerlan's father had tea with the Batukayevs during his last visit to the city in the summer of 2012.


May 3, 2013

Path From ‘Social Butterfly’ to Boston Suspect’s Widow


When Katherine Russell arrived as a freshman at Suffolk University just over five years ago, she seemed to bond so well with her new roommates in their lively dorm opposite Boston Common that one classmate likened them to sitcom characters. “They reminded me of the show ‘Sex and the City,’ ” he recalled. “Two of them were free-spirited, one was materialistic and Katherine was the social butterfly.”

Then Ms. Russell began dating Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a boxer from Cambridge, Mass., known for his flashy clothes, and her life began to change. As he became a steadily more religious Muslim, Ms. Russell converted to Islam. She started to cover her head with a hijab in public, startling some classmates. She dropped out of college in 2010, the year they got married and had a daughter.

She moved into his family’s run-down apartment in Cambridge, trading her old life of New England comfort and privilege — her father and grandfather both went to Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale — for the struggles of an immigrant family, with money so tight that they were on public assistance at times.

Now Ms. Russell, 24, is known around the world as the widow of the man suspected of bombing the Boston Marathon with his brother before he was killed April 19 after a shootout with the police. And she has attracted the interest of the F.B.I., which is trying to determine whether she knew about the bombings or helped the two brothers in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, before or after the attacks.

The surviving bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has told investigators that he and his brother built their bombs in the Cambridge apartment where Ms. Russell lived with Tamerlan, 26, and their daughter, Zahira, a toddler, according to two law enforcement officials. Other officials raised the possibility that the bombs may have been assembled elsewhere.

Investigators are also interested in a text message Ms. Russell sent to her husband after the F.B.I. released photographs of him and his brother a few days after the bombings, two other law enforcement officials said. (This week, the F.B.I. took samples of Ms. Russell’s DNA, and determined that her fingerprints and DNA did not match samples found on some bomb fragments, the officials said.)

Ms. Russell’s lawyers issued a statement saying that the marathon bombings had “caused profound distress and sorrow to Katie and her family” and adding that “the reports of involvement by her husband and brother-in-law came as an absolute shock to them all.”

The recent turn of events has stunned Ms. Russell’s friends, relatives, former classmates and neighbors. In North Kingstown, R.I., where she grew up, a newspaper, The Standard-Times, summed up local sentiment in a front-page headline. “NK native widow of Boston bombing suspect,” it read. “Former high school classmate calls situation ‘odd.’ ”

Ms. Russell grew up in a comfortable home on a leafy street there, the daughter of a doctor. Stephen Constantine, 23, who, like Ms. Russell, played alto saxophone in a middle school band, recalled her as popular and a good musician. “She could play more complex music than I could and learn it faster, and her sound was warmer and fuller bodied,” he said. In high school, she won an award for her drawing of a cat menacing a mouse. “It was a large colored-pencil drawing of a black cat with its paw raised and a gray mouse scooching out of the way,” her art teacher, Amos Trout Paine, recalled. She quoted a David Bowie song, “Quicksand,” in her high school yearbook.

Shortly after graduating, she had a brush with the law: she was arrested and charged with shoplifting five items worth $67 from an Old Navy at the Warwick Mall, according to a police report. She performed community service and paid money toward a general restitution fund that benefits crime victims, and the case was dismissed. The lawyer who represented her, J. Patrick O’Neill, who serves in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, said he could not recall details of the case or much about Ms. Russell.

In 2007, she moved to Boston to major in communications at Suffolk. It was there that friends introduced her to Mr. Tsarnaev, who had gone to a nearby community college. They dated on and off, people who knew them said, and eventually Ms. Russell converted to Islam.

She seemed to embrace her new religion willingly and enthusiastically, said someone who occasionally attended Russell family gatherings, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to betray the family’s confidence. “She was infatuated with this guy, and she adopted that religion,” the person said, recalling a dinner in Boston when she announced that she had decided to start wearing a head scarf as part of her faith. “It was a big surprise.”

Mr. Tsarnaev had a rough side: a domestic violence complaint was lodged against him in 2009 by another girlfriend, officials said. His father, Anzor Tsarnaev, said last month that he had “hit her lightly.”

But things seemed promising for the young couple in 2010, said Julian Pollard, 31, a boxer who recounted a conversation with Mr. Tsarnaev that year at a Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell, Mass. “He said the training was going great, that he was happy with his faith and that he had just met a girl and he was very happy about that,” he said. “He told me that he was engaged to her, or was about to propose.”

They married on June 21, 2010, in a 15-minute ceremony in an office on the third floor of the Masjid Al Quran, on a quiet residential street in Dorchester. Imam Taalib Mahdee said that he had not met the couple before the ceremony, and that she was the one who had called and asked to be married there. “They were a happy couple,” he said. Their marriage certificate listed his occupation as driver, hers as student.

But Ms. Russell did not go back to college that fall. Mr. Tsarnaev, who had given up boxing after being barred from national Golden Gloves tournaments because he was not a United States citizen, was growing increasingly religious, neighbors said. Money was scarce: the family’s income was supplemented by public assistance and food stamps from September 2011 to November 2012, state officials said. And last year, Mr. Tsarnaev left his wife and daughter behind in Cambridge for six months while he traveled to Dagestan to see his father, and to visit Chechnya.

Her mother-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, said in an interview that Mr. Tsarnaev had wanted Ms. Russell and their child to move to Dagestan with him, and that she had been thinking of it. “She herself agreed; she said she wanted to study a different culture, language,” Ms. Tsarnaeva said.

At times Ms. Russell supported the family by working as a home health aide — “working long hours, caring for people in their homes who are unable to care for themselves,” her lawyers said in the statement.

One neighbor said that Ms. Russell often seemed shy and quiet in the presence of her husband, but warmer and friendlier when he was not around. Another neighbor recalled hearing yells coming from the apartment.

A relative said that Ms. Russell attended family gatherings less frequently, and withdrew a little from her old social life. “I think she believes in Islam,” said the relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and who said that she had seemed happy with her husband. “I don’t think she was coerced. I think she’s faithful to the religion.”

On April 19, as the news spread that the Tsarnaev brothers were believed to have committed the marathon bombings and had gone on a nightlong crime spree that involved the fatal shooting of a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a carjacking and a gunfight with the police in which Tamerlan was killed, a neighbor knocked at the door of their third-floor apartment in Cambridge, where Ms. Russell had apparently just heard the news from a relative. “She was in utter shock,” the neighbor said. “Utter shock.”

Then law enforcement officers arrived and ordered them all out. Their downstairs neighbor Albrect Ammon, 18, said that Ms. Russell, who was dressed all in black, tried to borrow a cellphone from another woman, but an officer snatched it away, saying she was the suspect’s wife.

Reporting was contributed by William K. Rashbaum and Julia Preston from New York, Deborah Sontag from Boston and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Research was contributed by Sheelagh McNeill, Susan Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Jack Styczynski.


May 3, 2013

Jobs Data Ease Fears of Economic Slowdown in U.S.


Washington may be hitting the brakes, but the private sector is still rolling ahead, helping create nearly 200,000 jobs a month, on average, since the beginning of the year and forcing the overall unemployment rate in April down to its lowest level since the end of 2008.

This push-and-pull dynamic was evident in data released Friday by the Labor Department, as private employers added 176,000 people to their payrolls even as the public sector shed an additional 11,000 workers.

The latest figures painted a somewhat brighter picture of the overall economy than had been expected as the government sharply revised upward its estimate for job creation in the previous two months. Those revisions concluded that the economy generated a robust 332,000 jobs in February, not the 268,000 originally reported, and 138,000 in March, up from 88,000.

The news sent the stock market soaring to new highs, with major stock market indexes closing up 1 percent for the day.

Still, at 7.5 percent, a slight drop from last month’s 7.6 percent, the jobless rate remains far higher than it typically would be this far into a recovery. It is also a full percentage point above the level the Federal Reserve has said it wants to see before it will consider raising interest rates from their current levels near zero.

As a result, most experts expect the economy to continue to be buffeted by countervailing factors in the months ahead, with business activity and the Fed providing a healthy measure of support for growth even as fiscal austerity in Washington makes a substantial drop in the unemployment rate unlikely.

“The drag from the government sector is quite substantial,” said Gregory Daco, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “Given the fiscal headwinds, the private sector is doing O.K.”

Despite repeated fears of a double-dip recession, an economy that has endured a spring swoon for three consecutive years and other potential perils, the country’s rate of job creation has been remarkably steady, if subdued. Over the last three years, the economy has added an average of 162,000 jobs a month, within a hairbreadth of April’s pace, at least as initially estimated, of 165,000 new jobs.

But experts have been warning that the economy and job creation are likely to slow in the second quarter, largely as a result of fiscal tightening in Washington. Payroll taxes increased in January, and the effect of across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress is expected to be felt more broadly in the months ahead.

While the private sector has been on the upswing since last summer, cutbacks in government employment continue to prevent a stronger acceleration in the economy, economists said.

“If it weren’t for the government, the economy would be stronger,” said Mr. Daco, citing the spending cuts hitting now, as well as the higher Social Security deductions for all workers and increased income taxes for top earners that began in January.

On the other hand, he said, “If the Fed hadn’t loosened monetary policy, we’d be seeing weaker growth. Both sides are generating opposing forces.”

Even though job growth now looks better, continued strains in the economy and data this week showing inflation over the last 12 months running at a low 1 percent rate suggest that the Fed is not likely to slow its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases intended to stimulate the economy for at least the next few months. On Wednesday, the Fed said it was “prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases,” depending on the outlook for the labor market and inflation.

The White House was quick to highlight Friday’s report, even as it warned of the potential dangers from the fiscal squeeze.

“While more work remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement. Mr. Krueger urged Congress to replace automatic budget cuts with a more balanced approach. “Now is not the time for Washington to impose self-inflicted wounds on the economy,” he said.

Republicans cautioned against drawing too positive a conclusion from April’s data. “President Obama’s desperate hype-and-blame campaign will try to spin today’s anemic jobs report six ways to Sunday,” Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “But the facts remain clear: too many Americans have been unemployed for far too long. For millions, the economy is simply not working.”

The jobs report provided plenty of fodder for differing views. On the positive side, the size of the labor force increased, while the total number of unemployed Americans dropped by 83,000 to 11,659,000. What’s more, the ranks of the long-term unemployed, defined as workers who have been out of a job for 27 weeks or more, declined especially sharply, falling by 258,000 to 4.4 million. That is still far above what is typical at this stage of a recovery, but it is a marked improvement from past months. The long-term unemployed have been a particular cause of concern for economists in this recovery, because skills degrade the longer a person is out of the work force, and employers are reluctant to hire someone who has not held a job in a while.

On the downside, the least-educated workers continue to bear the brunt of elevated joblessness, with the unemployment rate for workers who failed to graduate from high school rising to 11.6 percent from 11.1 percent in March. At the other end of the education spectrum, unemployment among people with a college degree or more remained at a low level, rising by 0.1 of a percentage point to 3.9 percent.

Employment in the construction sector, which increased at a healthy pace in the first three months of 2013, actually dipped by 6,000 in April. The recovering housing market has been one of the bright spots in the economic landscape, and economists will be closely watching to see if higher home prices and increased construction translate into additional jobs. The manufacturing sector, which is closely watched as a gauge of broader economic strength, was unchanged in April.

Analysts noted that the number of hours worked fell in April, another sign that the economy is having trouble generating enough additional income and jobs to help lift spending. The typical workweek fell to 34.4 hours from 34.6 in March. Average hourly earnings inched up 4 cents to $23.87.

The economy has been showing other signs of weakness of late. Several indicators beginning in March have pointed to much slower growth, with everything from retail sales to manufacturing looking soft recently.

“In one line: Not bad, especially in the light of beaten-down expectations,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist with Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors, after Friday’s report. “This could have been much worse.”


May 3, 2013

As Senators Head for Exit, Few Step Up to Run for Seats


WASHINGTON — The retirement of Tom Harkin, a Democrat who has represented Iowa in the Senate for nearly 30 years, should be the kind of rare opportunity that sends the best and brightest of his state’s political class scrambling to get on the ballot.

But so far the only viable candidate to raise his hand is Representative Bruce Braley, also a Democrat. On the Republican side, one potential candidate after the other has taken a pass — the popular governor, his lieutenant governor, two congressmen and an ambitious state senator who said that he is not willing to have his life turned upside down.

The dearth of candidates for an open Senate seat reflects what former and current senators and those who once aspired to the office say is a sad truth: rarely has the thought of serving in the Senate seemed so unappealing.

Once considered an apex of national politics second only to the presidency, the “greatest deliberative body in the world” is so riven by partisanship and gummed up by its own arcane rules that potential candidates from Georgia to Kentucky, Iowa to Montana are loudly saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Add to that the cost of getting there — which can include fighting off special interests and “super PACs” from your own party, exhausting criticism from the increasingly partisan news media, and prohibitive campaign expenses — and a Senate seat no longer seems so grand.

Such weariness is evident not just in the people who are forgoing a Senate bid but also in the exodus of senators not seeking re-election. So far, 8 of the 33 whose terms expire in 2014 have decided not to run again. They include some who probably could have sailed back into office, like Mr. Harkin and his fellow Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.

“In the old days, you’d have to carry the Senate Finance chair out on a stretcher,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran political strategist who has advised Republican politicians for four decades, including one in Iowa, State Senator Brad Zaun, who just decided not to run against Mr. Harkin. “There’s just not quite the enthusiasm I’ve seen in other years.”

Senate retirements are at the highest levels on record. Since the 2010 elections, a total of 30 senators have bowed out. And more could come yet.

A similar wave of 29 retirements occurred in the mid-1990s, but there is nothing else on record before that quite as large, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress, which has data going back to 1930. Ordinarily, only a handful leave with each election cycle.

At this point in 2011, seemingly vulnerable incumbents like Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, and Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, had Republican challengers. In states where seats opened up like Nevada and Virginia, the Democratic and Republican sides of the tickets both quickly filled up.

This year there are numerous states with open seats where only one party has a candidate, and many states without a challenger where there is an incumbent the other party would very much like to pick off.

No Democrat has emerged in Kentucky to challenge Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, despite repeated avowals from Democrats to defeat him. Democrats also have no strong candidate yet in West Virginia, where John D. Rockefeller IV is retiring.

The recruiting troubles for Republicans are worse, in part because gains in the Senate are theirs to lose.

Twenty Democratic-held seats are up in 2014, compared with 13 held by Republicans. And many of those Democratic seats are in states where President Obama lost in 2012 — including North Carolina, Montana, Arkansas and Alaska.

So far, Republicans have no viable declared candidates in any of those red states yet, though conservatives are urging several strong possible contenders to run, like Representative Tom Cotton in Arkansas. Late Friday, Alaska’s governor, Sean Parnell, said he would not run, as did Representative Steve King of Iowa.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican first elected in 2010 who is helping his party recruit this year, said his first piece of advice to prospective candidates was to spend $50,000 on an exhaustive opposition research paper on themselves so they can get a sense of what mud might be slung their way. “It can be a pretty miserable process,” he said. “And I’ve got to try and get people over that hurdle.”

The reasons for choosing not to run involve many personal factors. They vary from politician to politician, but all share a common thread: a belief that the Senate is too difficult a place to accomplish much of anything these days.

“I don’t know that you’d find any legislative body in America — or the world — that’s as dysfunctional,” said Jay Dardenne, the Republican lieutenant governor of Louisiana, who decided not to run next year against Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat considered among the most vulnerable.

Like many politicians with aspirations of higher office, Mr. Dardenne says he will instead run for governor, where he said he has a much better platform from which to affect policy in Louisiana. Representative Tom Latham, who declined to run despite encouragement from Iowa Republicans, said the rush to the Senate exits was a warning sign. “It becomes quite clear that there’s a lot of frustration,” he said. “Some really good people are willing to go home.”

Representative Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who was considering a run to replace Mr. Rockefeller, said he believed he could actually be more effective in the House of Representatives — a body hardly known for its functionality. But at least it’s a dysfunction he knows. Today’s ultrapartisan Senate is radically different from the one he started working in as an elevator operator as a young man. “I never envisioned it getting to where it is,” he said.

Another factor keeping people away is the new array of options in the super PAC era — many of them quite lucrative — available to politicians outside of government.

Norm Coleman, the former Republican senator from Minnesota who lost to Al Franken in 2008 and declined to run again, said he had found fulfilling work in his advocacy group American Action Network, which is playing a major role in increasing conservative support for immigration law overhauls.

Now, he said, “I can have a tremendous impact, in many ways a broader reach.”

“On the other hand,” he went on, “when you’re in the United States Senate I don’t think there was a person in the world who wouldn’t return your call. People still return my calls now. But maybe not as quickly.”


May 3, 2013

Visitors From Outer Space, Real or Not, Are Focus of Discussion in Washington


WASHINGTON — While President Obama was promoting an immigration overhaul in Mexico, six former members of Congress gathered two blocks from the White House to consider what they see as the enforced government secrecy surrounding another kind of visitor: the kind who come from a lot farther away.

Every day this week, the former legislators presided over panels made up of academics and — former, of course — government and military officials, who were there to discuss their research or their own eyewitness accounts of unidentified flying objects and the extraterrestrials who presumably would have occupied them.

“Something is monitoring the planet, and they are monitoring it very cautiously, because we are a very warlike planet,” said Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska who ran in both the Democratic and Libertarian presidential primaries in 2008.

Mr. Gravel and his fellow panelists were assembled by the Paradigm Research Group, which says it is committed to ending the government’s “truth embargo” on the existence of extraterrestrial life. The lawmakers were there in hopes that their presence and political credibility would be enough to persuade Congress to take the issue seriously.

“I’ve been exploring how we might get this issue out of the shadows of the lunatic fringe,” said Roscoe G. Bartlett, a former Republican representative from Maryland. Before his defeat last year, Mr. Bartlett was known for sounding the alarm on the threat posed to the nation’s energy infrastructure by electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, the shock wave from a nuclear weapon detonated beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Called the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure, the event might have been mistaken as advocacy for government transparency, and some of the panelists had impressive résumés.

“I’ve come to understand and appreciate the importance of open, transparent government and the power of truth,” said Paul T. Hellyer, who served as Canadian minister of defense during the 1960s.

“We are not alone in the cosmos,” he added.

One reason the ex-members of Congress agreed to sit on the dais and ask questions may have been curiosity.

“Our country has trivialized it, has made it a joke, has made it green people with horns sticking out,” said Carolyn Kilpatrick, a Democratic representative from Michigan who lost her seat in 2010. “Now I find that it’s much more than that. And it’s not a joke. And there is scientific data that there may be something there.”

Another reason might have been the $20,000 the organizers said they paid each panelist. But they are still maintaining a healthy skepticism.

“Just because the government might have had a document about how to handle extraterrestrials doesn’t mean there were any,” said Merrill Cook, a Republican from Utah who was twice elected to the House.

The panels this week have been low-hanging fruit for the news media while President Obama is out of town and Congress is out of session, and not all of the people who study U.F.O.’s think the meetings will help them improve their stature in Washington.

“There really is something to this issue, and there is a serious side to it, but that’s not what’s being presented as this event,” said Leslie Kean, a journalist and author of “U.F.O.’s: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record,” a collection of firsthand accounts by people who believe they saw them.

The conclusion that U.F.O.’s are proof of extraterrestrial life is misguided, she said, and the people who broadcast that belief hindered support for real scientific research.

Despite the ridicule that usually accompanies the discussion of U.F.O.’s, they have been quietly talked about in corridors of power here. Some panelists at the event this week counted among true believers John D. Podesta, a chief of staff in President Bill Clinton’s White House, because of his role in Executive Order 12958, which requires the declassification of most government documents over 25 years old.

But the possible existence of extraterrestrial life is not exactly why he believes in government transparency, Mr. Podesta said.

“At the end of the day, there are going to be people who say that even if you did that, there must be other files that exist that you’re not disclosing,” he said in an interview.

But objects in the sky have piqued his interest. In June 2011, the Center for American Progress hosted government officials, from the Pentagon, NASA and the Department of Transportation, as well as Congressional staff and former officials from intelligence organizations, for a briefing by Ms. Kean and experts from academia and foreign militaries.

The private briefing was organized to discuss a proposal that the government establish a small office of two staff members who would selectively investigate mysterious skyward sightings and seek to understand them by applying scientific method. The proposal did not refer to U.F.O.’s, but rather, U.A.P.’s, unidentified aerial phenomena, as if those who drew up the proposal were keenly aware of how their objective could be perceived.

“They were interesting, credible people who had observed aerial phenomena that were unexplained and worthy of additional follow-up,” Mr. Podesta said. “Going back and looking at and declassifying whatever government documents exist is a smart thing to do.”

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