British embassy flies the flag for gay pride in France
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 28, 2013 16:48 EDT
Britain’s embassy building in Paris will be adorned by a rainbow flag this weekend in an official show of support for gay pride marches scheduled to take place in the French capital and London.
The celebration of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual) pride in Paris will be the first since France legalised gay marriage. Britain is in the process of enacting similar legislation.
Peter Ricketts, the British Ambassador in Paris, explained the move.
“I am delighted to fly the rainbow flag over the Embassy to mark this week and to show our pride in our LGBT staff and our celebration of diversity in our staff and our society,” Ricketts said.
“The British government supports LGBT rights around the world and believes no one should face prejudice and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Events such as this give us a chance to come together to mark and celebrate the journey towards equality for LGBT people.”
Croatia to join European Union on Sunday
Saturday, June 29, 2013 20:45 EDT
By Zoran Radosavljevic
ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatia becomes the 28th member of the European Union at midnight on Sunday, a milestone that caps the Adriatic republic’s recovery from war but is tinged with anxiety over the state of the economy and the bloc it joins.
EU flags fluttered from a stage in Zagreb’s central square ahead of the evening’s festivities, though there have been few signs of the gushing welcome that marked past expansions to ex-communist Eastern Europe.
Croatia joins the bloc just over two decades after declaring independence from federal Yugoslavia, the trigger for four years of war in which some 20,000 people died.
But, facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21 percent, few Croatians are in the mood to party.
They join a bloc deeply troubled by its own economic woes, which have created internal divisions and undermined public support for the union.
“Just look what’s happening in Greece and Spain! Is this where we’re headed?” asked pensioner Pavao Brkanovic. “You need illusions to be joyful, but the illusions have long gone,” he said at a Zagreb market.
The country of 4.4 million people, blessed with a coastline that attracts 10 million tourists each year, is one of seven that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia during a decade of war in the 1990s.
Slovenia was first to join the EU, in 2004, but Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are still years away.
Some in Croatia have drawn comparisons between Sunday night’s celebrations in Zagreb and the Eurovision Song Contest that the city hosted in 1990, when Yugoslavia was on the brink of collapse just as Europe was poised to unite with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Italy’s Toto Cutugno won with the refrain “Unite, unite Europe”, but instead Yugoslavia fell apart and Croatia went to war with Serb rebels who tried to break away from the newly-independent state with the backing of Belgrade.
“Back then, it looked to me as if everything should be resolved in a fortnight and we would quickly jump in (to the EU),” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told the European Parliament this week.
“But then the war happened, and it didn’t come to pass until today.”
To get to this point, Croatia has gone through seven years of tortuous and often unpopular EU-guided reform.
It has handed over more than a dozen Croatian and Bosnian Croat military and political leaders charged with war crimes by the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
It has sold shipyards, steeped in history and tradition but deeply indebted, and launched a high-profile fight against corruption that saw former prime minister Ivo Sanader jailed.
Some EU capitals remain concerned at the level of graft and organized crime. Croatia will not yet join the 17-nation single currency zone, nor the visa-free Schengen zone.
The spirit of the occasion took another knock when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s most powerful leader, pulled out of the accession ceremony, saying she was too busy.
Croatian media linked the move to a row over a former Croatian secret service operative wanted in Germany, though a spokesman for Merkel denied this.
The chancellor, instead, urged Croatia to press on with reforms.
“There are many more steps to take, especially in the area of legal security and fighting corruption,” Merkel said in a weekly podcast.
Despite the mood, however, for some Croatians the merits of accession are undeniable.
“The EU is not perfect but it is Croatia’s only option,” said popular novelist Slavenka Drakulic Ilic.
“We need it for financial and economic reasons,” she told the T-portal website on Friday, “and we need it for the sake of peace and stability. We belong to a region that is still volatile.”
(Additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt in Berlin; Editing by Matt Robinson and Kevin Liffey)
[Image: The European Union and Croatian flag is seen in Zagreb's downtown June 19, 2013. By Antonio Bronic for Reuters.]
06/29/2013 03:28 PM
Latvian Prime Minister: 'We Have Learned From Our Mistakes'
Just a few years ago, Latvia was on the edge of bankruptcy. Now, it's poised to join the euro zone in 2014. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis explains why austerity turned the country's economic fortunes around and insists Latvia is not becoming a tax haven.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Prime Minister, Latvia was almost bankrupt just a few years ago. Now you are joining the euro zone. What happened in the meantime?
Dombrovskis: We have learned from our mistakes. Latvia's problems started back in 2004, when the country entered the EU. At that time, the government poorly controlled the financial markets, which lead to a real estate bubble and an inevitable burst. Since then, we have cut down public spending, increased the productivity of our industry and transformed our banking sector into one of the most stable in the whole common currency area.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did austerity work in Latvia, while in Greece it has deepened the crisis?
Dombrovskis: Latvia started to restore financial stability quickly. Greece and the other countries waited too long. They postponed necessary measures, as they believed austerity and structural adjustments would be bad for the economy. It turned out that not doing anything, sometimes for years, was much worse.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It sounds like you're seeking to join the club of Germany, Finland and the other northern countries that have been trying to discipline the south.
Dombrovskis: Living on deficit never pays, but we should not overstress the divide between north and south. Debt is high in the entire euro zone -- around 90 percent of the gross domestic product, a consequence of a failed stability policy. Ten years ago, a lot of Euro member states started to break the Maastricht criteria …
SPIEGEL ONLINE: … Germany among them …
Dombrovskis: … including Germany, yes. And since nobody was penalized, debt grew. That culture of discipline has been changing radically since the euro crisis started.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Latvia will have to contribute 228 million Lats (€325 million) to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). How do you feel about paying for the mistakes of others?
Dombrovskis: Europe helped us when we were in crisis, now we are helping Europe. Give and take. Moreover, the money we pay into the ESM is not gone. It can be compared to a life insurance policy. We are investing in the financial stability of the entire euro zone, which is a reasonable thing to do. The euro is a package deal for us. Our converting costs will vanish, rating agencies might upgrade us, our interest rates might drop, which will attract new investors. The bottom line is: We will gain more than we will invest.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the Latvian countryside, we met a woman whose salary was cut by one-third during the recession and has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels. She thinks money from the current boom should be used to improve her standard of living, not to rescue other countries.
Dombrovskis: In the long run, people like her will also benefit from the euro. A common currency will boost our economy. Eventually, this will be filling people's pockets.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most Latvians do not seem to agree. Only 38 percent are in favor of the euro.
Dombrovskis: The approval rate used to be even lower. Since we launched an information campaign to explain the benefits of the euro to the citizens, it has been constantly going up. I am confident that when we will finally introduce the euro, a majority of the population will be in favor of it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On that same day, Latvia will not only enter the euro zone -- holding companies will also be granted huge tax benefits. You advocate fiscal and financial stability, and yet you are creating a tax haven at the same time. That seems somewhat contradictory.
Dombrovskis: The change of tax law does not endanger Latvia's stability. Our banking sector is small, it only adds up to 128 percent of our GDP. That's three times less than the average in the European Union and roughly seven times less than in Cyprus before the crash. Also, our banks are very well capitalized, even better than the banks in Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Yet there are worries that the change in tax law might cause a drastic expansion of your financial sector.
Dombrovskis: Statistics show that the money which has been withdrawn from Cyprus is not flowing into Latvia.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Not yet. But according to our research, Latvian law firms specializing in holding companies are receiving a lot of phone calls from investors in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia who are interested in transfering their money to your country next year.
Dombrovskis: The new tax law was introduced in order to strengthen the competitiveness of our financial marketplace, but it will definitely not create a massive capital influx. The law does not conflict with the stability criteria of the euro zone. The European Commission is projecting that our financial system will remain stable, and we agree.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, the timing of your tax law is pretty awkward. For a couple of months, the EU has been debating ways to fight tax dodging. Now, the newest member of the euro zone is introducing a law that facilitates exactly that.
Dombrovskis: We are involved in many EU groups on how to fight illegal tax avoidance, and we are willing to contribute as much as we can to improve the situation.
Interview conducted by Stefan Schultz in Riga
Fears of a civil war growing as Egyptians prepare for day of reckoning over Mohamed Morsi
Seven die, hundreds are injured, as rivals organise massive rallies on anniversary of president's rule
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Observer, Saturday 29 June 2013 15.57 BST
Egypt's leading Islamic institution has warned of a possible civil war as clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi spread across the country on Saturday – exactly a year after his inauguration as the first democratically elected president.
Egypt's fate feels as uncertain as at any point since the 2011 uprising, which toppled Hosni Mubarak, with repeated rumours of military intervention.
At least eight people have died and more than 600 have been injured in fighting between Morsi's Islamist allies – who argue that his democratic legitimacy should be respected – and his often secular opponents, who say that he has not shown respect for the wider values on which a successful democracy depends.
But with at least four attacks nationwide on offices of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamist group from which Morsi hails – divisions are being increasingly drawn on ideological grounds. Anger is directed not just at Morsi, but at the Brotherhood, which is considered a partner in his eventual aim of restructuring the state along more religious lines. A former Brotherhood MP was killed in fighting earlier in the week.
The US has warned its citizens to defer non-essential travel to Egypt and told non-emergency diplomatic staff to leave. Cairo's main airport was crammed on Saturday, with all international flights reportedly fully booked.
"We're here to bring down the Murshid's regime," said Saad el-Aswany, a builder from Aswan attending an anti-Morsi protest in Tahrir Square. The Murshid is the Muslim Brotherhood's leader, and members of the opposition think his office is the real power behind Morsi's throne. "Banish the Murshid and all who are with him," shouted thousands alongside him, many waving Egyptian flags.
Five miles away, hundreds of thousands were waving the same national flag – but with a different vision of what it represented. "Islam, Islam," chanted those who had descended on the capital to support their president. "Islam in spite of liberalism."
"I'm here for Islamic law first, and democracy second," said Moustapha Sabry, a maths teacher who follows the strict Salafi form of Islam.
Cairo remained relatively calm on Saturday as tens of thousands of people, both supporters and opponents of Morsi, were engaged in relatively peaceful sit-ins. But with deaths in several provincial cities, there are mounting fears over stability — especially since Morsi's opponents have promised to mobilise millions on Sundayto force him from office. Protest organisers said a petition calling on Morsi to quit had collected 22 million signatures, although the figure, which amounts to 40% of the electorate, could not be verified.
President Barack Obama urged both sides to engage in dialogue and refrain from violence. If unchecked, he warned, the unrest could spill beyond the country's borders. "Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world," Obama said. "The entire region is concerned that, if Egypt continues with this constant instability, that has adverse effects more broadly."
Egypt's highest Islamic authority expressed its own concerns over the situation. "Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," said Sheikh Hassan al-Shafie, a senior cleric at al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university often considered the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Islam world.
"Egypt's current crisis goes beyond a reasonable political struggle that could be explained within the context of democratic dispute," argued Khalil al-Anani, an academic specialising in Egyptian politics. "It is more an attempt to banish and abort one party by the other."
But there were signs that the divisions were not unbridgeable. "I'm not here for religious reasons, I'm just here to respect the office of the presidency," said Tariq Shabasy, a lawyer and former member of Kefaya, the liberal Mubarak-era protest movement – a surprising attendee at the pro-Morsi rally.
Neither can Egypt's differences be solely explained along zero-sum lines. "This is not a binary struggle between Islamists and secularists," wrote Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. "Rather, there are at least three principal political forces at work: Islamists, secularists, and the old state."
Morsi's opponents include both the liberals and leftists who helped to bring down Mubarak and Mubarak-era officials who spent years repressing the Brotherhood and its allies. On Saturday, the Brotherhood sought to blame members of Mubarak's former party, the National Democratic party, for stoking opposition to Morsi. Opposition activists rejected this, though they condemned any hypothetical act of trouble-making by old-regime figures.
Morsi's opponents also disagree on who should follow him, were he to go. A senior military source indicated that it might step in should anti-Morsi protests rival those that toppled Mubarak. This would please the hundreds of Morsi opponents camped outside the ministry of defence calling for army intervention – but would appal many of the revolutionaries who rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising.
In a sign of the opposition's divisions, Tarek Shalaby, a hero of the 2011 uprising, was escorted from Tahrir square for querying military intervention.
Egypt: a revolution on the brink of self-destruction
The talk among Egyptians is of a 'second revolution' to finish the business of the first, but the country could lose all it has gained
The Observer, Saturday 29 June 2013 16.53 BST
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets of Cairo and other major cities on Sunday to demand that President Mohamed Morsi , elected exactly one year ago, stand down and make way for some form of transitional government. Hundreds of thousands more, many though not all supporters of the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to mount counter-demonstrations, urging President Morsi to carry on regardless. Given the passions aroused on all sides, and the uncompromising, maximalist nature of the opposition's agenda, the scene is thus set for a physical confrontation of possibly epic proportions. Outbreaks of deadly violence have already been reported. Religious leaders have warned of "civil war". The fear is that these clashes may presage, and precipitate, a more general, anarchic breakdown.
Nothing could be more contrary to Egypt's national interest, nor more disastrous for the cause of "bread, freedom, social justice" – the 2011 revolution's rallying cry. Nothing could please more the bloodied criminals of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, justly disowned by Egypt's leadership. Nothing might encourage more the pernicious, anti-democratic regional conspiracies of Iran's clerical conservatives, nor more dismay aspiring democrats from Libya to Bahrain. For Egypt, this proud nation, seat of an ancient civilisation and current home to 85 million people, has long been regarded, rightly, as the natural leader of the Arab world. When Egyptians rose irresistibly to overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, they made that nebulous concept, the Arab spring, an inspirational reality for oppressed peoples everywhere (and not only Arabs). If Egypt were now to collapse into disordered bedlam, the implications for the region as a whole, and for that shared hope of liberation, would be dismaying.
All the talk in Egypt is of a "second revolution" to continue or finish the business of the first. But the danger is that in seeking to perfect or redirect the transformation they so gloriously initiated, Egyptians, caught up in a storm of dissent degenerating into outright violence, may lose what gains they have made, and be swept backwards, against the tide of history, into the blind alleys of grim authoritarianism, repression and enforced silence. What was won may be forfeited. What may follow could be much, much worse.
Speaking for the army last week, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned of a "dark tunnel" ahead, and urged the rival factions to seek consensus. This time around, the military, which tipped the scale against Mubarak but whose virtual independence is now fortified by President Morsi's constitutional guarantees, appears not to want to play so pivotal a role. But General Sisi was clear that if the nation itself were threatened, he would not hesitate. The outcome of another military takeover might not be as relatively benign, nor as short-lived, as in 2011. The prospect is greatly to be discouraged, despite the ill-judged nods and winks of secular opposition leaders such as Mohamed ElBaradei. Yet nor is it the case, despite the floods of scornful rhetoric from all sides, that General Sisi's "consensus" is impossible. If they would only pause and take a breath, Egyptians might find they all agree, vehemently, on one unifying principle: they want the best for their country. The only question, though complex, is how to achieve it while remaining true to the ideals of the revolution.
It is certainly true that President Morsi has made, on the whole, a poor fist of the job gingerly handed to him, with much misgiving, and a scraped 51% of the final tally in last year's elections. The imperative of avoiding a violent implosion is not an argument, far less a justification, for his continued rule. The president has failed to build the inclusive administration he promised, with both Copts and women among the disappointed constituencies. He pushed through a constitution that was too indulgent by far of the military, and too Islamist in character for the comfort of Egypt's secular or non-religious peoples. He has attacked, or has seemed to attack, the judiciary and independent media. He has failed to rein in a sometimes brutal police force, which utterly disgraced itself in Port Said in January. And has made some woeful appointments, not least the short-lived governor of Luxor, a former jihadi linked to the extremist group that in 1997 murdered scores of westerners in that famous tourist destination.
Responding to his critics, the president has become more and more Mubarak-like, preferring to discern conspiracies by "enemies of Egypt" than address the substance of their arguments. In these misjudgments he has been abetted by the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems unable to manage the transition from outlawed pressure group to governing authority. Despite the muddle-headed, meddling support for him from the Obama administration, President Morsi's resignation would not necessarily deal a fatal blow to Egypt's youthful democracy. Outside the US, prime ministers and presidents resign every day and call new elections if they feel they have lost the public confidence. Depending what happens today and in the ensuing days, President Morsi may feel this is the honourable and responsible course.
But President Morsi's defenestration, fresh elections, a transitional government of technocrats, a revised constitution and all the other mooted "second revolution" reforms conjured by his critics depend, crucially, on similarly honourable and responsible behaviour by the disparate opposition forces. This, so far, has often been lacking. Old regime diehards, rightwing nationalists, liberal secularists, purist revolutionaries and the hardline Salafis who outflank the Muslim Brotherhood appear to agree on little but their disdain for the president. Should the current Tamarod (rebellion) campaign succeed in removing him, it is entirely unclear how any interim civilian authority might be constituted or proceed. That is not to say the attempt should not be made, if people want it. But the mass of the people, for the most part, perforce remain more fundamentally preoccupied, on a day-to-day basis, with Egypt's escalating economic crisis. Rocketing food prices, fuel shortages, lack of jobs and educational opportunity, falling government reserves and credit, and all the ills that accompany increasing poverty present pressing problems to which the opposition, like President Morsi, lack ready and credible answers. Yet this, undoubtedly, is Egypt's most urgent existential challenge.
In this larger, chronically unstable context, the desirability of reaching a consensus on the way ahead that engages all the various factions as well as President Morsi and the Brotherhood, of an historic national compromise however messy and unsatisfactory, of a collective effort to pull, prod and coax the country into the next stage of its post-revolution development, seems undeniable. Egypt, literally, cannot afford to fight. The Arab world awaits its choice. The Arab spring, that fragile growth, awaits its example. The revolution's mantra, "bread, freedom, social justice", must be honoured. But bread comes first.
June 29, 2013
Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels
By MARK MAZZETTI, C. J. CHIVERS and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.
The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft.
But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.
Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force. Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when American officials expect that President Obama’s decision to begin a limited effort to arm the Syrian rebels might be interpreted by Qatar, along with other Arab countries supporting the rebels, as a green light to drastically expand arms shipments.
Qatar’s aggressive effort to bolster the embattled Syrian opposition is the latest brash move by a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West. The strategy is expected to continue even though Qatar’s longtime leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down last week, allowing his 33-year-old son to succeed him.
“They punch immensely above their weight,” one senior Western diplomat said of the Qataris. “They keep everyone off balance by not being in anyone’s pocket.”
“Their influence comes partly from being unpredictable,” the diplomat added.
Mr. Obama, during a private meeting in Washington in April, warned Sheik Hamad about the dangers of arming Islamic radicals in Syria, though American officials for the most part have been wary of applying too much pressure on the Qatari government. “Syria is their backyard, and they have their own interests they are pursing,” said one administration official.
Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The United States has little leverage over Qatar on the Syria issue because it needs the Qataris’ help on other fronts. Qatar is poised to host peace talks between American and Afghan officials and the Taliban, who have set up a political office in Doha, the Qatari capital. The United States Central Command’s forward base in Qatar gives the American military a command post in the heart of a strategically vital but volatile region.
Qatar’s covert efforts to back the Syrian rebels began at the same time that it was increasing its support for opposition fighters in Libya trying to overthrow the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Its ability to be an active player in a global gray market for arms was enhanced by the C-17 military transport planes it bought from Boeing in 2008, when it became the first nation in the Middle East to have the durable, long-range aircraft.
The Obama administration quietly blessed the shipments to Libya of machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars and ammunition, but American officials later grew concerned as evidence grew that Qatar was giving the weapons to Islamic militants there.
American and Arab officials have expressed worry about something similar happening in Syria, where Islamists in the north have turned into the most capable section of the opposition, in part because of the weapons from Qatar. Saudi Arabia recently has tried to wrest control from Qatar and take a greater role in managing the weapons shipments to Syrian rebels, but officials and outside experts said the Qatari shipments continue. The greatest worry is over the shoulder-fired missiles — called man-portable air-defense systems — that Qatar has sent to Syria since the beginning of the year. Videos posted online show rebels in Syria with the weapons, including the Chinese FN-6 models provided by Qatar, and occasionally using them in battle.
The first videos surfaced in February and showed rebels wielding the Chinese missiles, which had not been seen in the conflict previously and were not known to be in Syrian government possession. .
Western officials and rebels alike say these missiles were provided by Qatar, which bought them from an unknown seller and brought them to Turkey. The shipment was at least the second antiaircraft transfer under the Qataris’ hand, they said. A previous shipment of Eastern bloc missiles had come from former Qaddafi stockpiles.
The shipments were small, the Western officials and rebels said, amounting to no more than a few dozen missiles. And rebels said the Chinese shipments have been plagued with technical problems, and sometimes fail to fire. The first FN-6s were seen in the custody of groups under the Free Syrian Army banner, suggesting that they were being distributed, at least initially, to fighters backed by the United States and not directly to extremists or groups with ties to Al Qaeda.
American and Arab officials said that Qatar’s strategy was a mixture of ideology — the ruling family’s belief in a prominent role for Islam in political life — and more hard-nosed calculations.
“They like to back winners,” one Middle Eastern official said.
In meetings with Mr. Obama, the leaders of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have expressed a host of grievances about the Qatari shipments and have complained that Qatar is pursuing a reckless strategy.
In Mr. Obama’s meeting with Sheik Hamad at the White House on April 23, American officials said, he had warned that the weapons were making their way to radical groups like Jabhet al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, a Qaeda-affiliated group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization.
“It was very important for the Qataris to understand that Nusra is not only an organization that destabilizes the situation in Syria,” said one senior Obama administration official. “It’s a national security interest of ours that they not have weapons.”
But Charles Lister, an analyst with the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London who follows the Syria opposition groups, said that there was evidence in recent weeks that Qatar had increased its backing of hard-line Islamic militant groups active in northern Syria.
Mr. Lister said there was no hard evidence that Qatar was arming the Nusra Front, but he said that because of existing militant dynamics, the transfer of Qatari-provided arms to certain targeted groups would result in the same practical effect.
“It’s inevitable that any weapons supplied by a regional state like Qatar,” he said via e-mail, “will be used at least in joint operations with Jabhet al-Nusra — if not shared with the group.”
At least some extremists have already acquired heat-seeking missiles and have posted videos of them, although the sources for these arms are not apparent from videos alone. And they appear to have been made principally in the Eastern Bloc, not in China.
Erin Banco and Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington, and Karam Shoumali from Antakya, Turkey.
June 29, 2013
Syria Attacks Rebel-Held Area in New Push to Retake City
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian military used airstrikes and heavy artillery to assault rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs on Saturday, residents and antigovernment activists said, as the government renewed efforts to retake that perennially restive and divided city.
A new government push in Homs has been expected since the Syrian Army, backed by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, took over the nearby border town of Qusayr this month after it was held by rebels for about a year.
The new fighting suggested that President Bashar al-Assad was continuing his push to consolidate control of areas from the capital, Damascus, and up the country’s western spine along the Lebanese border to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the president’s ancestral homeland and a bastion of his supporters.
Homs has existed as a divided city throughout much of the two-year uprising, with some neighborhoods under rebel control. The government’s bombardment of the Baba Amr neighborhood in early 2012 was one of the first assaults to herald the escalation of the state’s use of heavy weapons against residential areas harboring rebels; the government has periodically retaken some areas, sometimes losing them again months later.
Fighting raged in several areas of the city, including the historic city center and around the Khalid bin al-Waleed mosque, and explosions sent columns of smoke rising skyward, according to residents and video posted by activists.
Dr. Walid Fares, an activist in Hamidiyeh, an area of the Old City in Homs, said the government had spent several days mobilizing troops around rebel areas in Homs, then pummeled some of them with airstrikes.
Then, he said, “they used rocket launchers for hours.” He said government troops “shelled us with heavy mortar shells” and “raided us from four different directions.”
Dr. Fares said that electricity and telecommunications in the Old City had long been blocked or damaged, and that he relied on satellite connections. As he talked, explosions echoed in the distance.
“They’ve blocked everything here — electricity, phones, water,” he said. “The only thing they haven’t blocked is the air we breathe.”
About 30 Christian families remain in Hamidiyeh, along with mostly Sunni supporters of the rebellion, he said.
The government’s news agencies said the army was making progress against “armed terrorist gangs” in Homs.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition issued an appeal for international powers to help the rebels and said the government offensive “threatens the unity of Syria” by reinforcing the possibility that supporters of Mr. Assad could create a rump state. Supporters of Mr. Assad in Syria and elsewhere have said that is not his goal, and that he seeks to maintain a united Syria.
Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
06/28/2013 05:39 PM
Chaos and Crime: The Trials of Running a Syrian Refugee Camp
By Takis Würger
Local mafia controls a Jordanian camp housing over 100,000 war refugees from Syria. A German aid worker competing with these criminals is determined to preserve the camp residents' dignity.
Kilian Kleinschmidt walks into the camp armed with a 6-inch stainless steel hook. "I hate refugee camps," he says. He is holding the hook in his hand like a dagger.
It is getting dark, and a military policeman tells Kleinschmidt that under no circumstances should he go into the camp at night. Kleinschmidt walks through the gate in silence.
The Zaatari Camp houses 116,000 refugees who fled to Jordan from the war in Syria. They live in trailers and tents with the letters UNHCR imprinted on them in blue. The UNHCR, or United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is Kleinschmidt's employer. The refugees arrive in buses from the border in this stretch of desert in northern Jordan, and their numbers are growing by the day. The local Bedouins say that before the refugees came, the only resident of this desert was the devil. Not even scorpions lived there.
Kleinschmidt's job is to ensure that the refugees survive in the Zaatari Camp. He wants to give them back their dignity, and he is supposed to create order in the camp. Kleinschmidt is German. A German can restore order -- at least that's the gist of the plan.
The refugees receive water, food, shelter, toilets and warm blankets for the night. They could be satisfied. Instead, they stormed a trailer where detergent was being distributed, and broke an aid worker's foot with a rock. Kleinschmidt was caught in the middle of a battle between the military police and refugees, and his throat still hurts from the tear gas. Refugees also pulled a police officer from his obstacle-clearing tank and beat him on the head with a rock.
Every day, four buses stop at the camp to collect people who want to travel back to Syria. The refugees stand in line in the morning, and when the buses arrive, they fight over seats, because they would rather live in a war zone than in Zaatari. For Kleinschmidt, the camp is a place where the devil still lives today.
A Parade of Aid Organizations
In March, the UNHCR assigned him to rescue Zaatari from chaos. He was flown in from Kenya, put in a trailer in an area secured with fences, barbed wire and guards, and given a stack of business cards that read "Senior Field Coordinator," indicating that he was in charge at the camp.
Kleinschmidt spent 10 days touring the premises. Speaking to the people there, he determined that the aid workers had managed to save the lives of all the refugees and satisfy their basic needs, but no one had been able to make the refugees happy. Kleinschmidt thought about it and concluded that Zaatari must have two problems. The first is the refugees, and the second is the aid workers.
Before Kleinschmidt embarked on his nighttime walk, he passed through the camp where a number of aid organizations are located. He walked by the trailers housing the offices of: UNICEF, UNHCR, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), the International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, International Relief & Development, the World Food Programme, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the United Nations Population Fund, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation, the Jordan Health Aid Society, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Relief International, Reach, Japan Emergency NGO, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
It was night and almost all the trailers were empty. The workers had finished their work for the day.
Everything had been different a day earlier. The parking lot was full of SUVs. Aid workers who didn't normally work in the camp had arrived from the Jordanian capital Amman. The European Union Commissioner for Enlargement had announced a visit. Politicians are important to aid organizations, because they have access to money and bring along journalists who tell stories that are heard by people with money. Money is even more important to aid organizations than suffering.
Kleinschmidt shook the EU commissioner's hand and said: "Welcome to Zaatari. I'm the mayor here."
The commissioner, accompanied by the military police, visited a school built by UNICEF. He was followed by many young people who spoke excellent English and wore the vests of their aid organizations like parade uniforms. A few women were wearing heels, which sank into the desert sand. Kleinschmidt, wearing a dusty shirt, stood in the crowd and said: "Most of the vests will have left by this afternoon."
He too has a sky-blue UNHCR vest. It hangs on a chair in his office, and he sometimes uses it to wipe the sweat from his face. He believes that aid workers wear vests to dazzle people with big letters.
A Reputation for Solving Problems
Kleinschmidt is a little like a bulldozer, flattening everything he doesn't like in the camp. But his job is actually to do the opposite, by both developing and keeping the peace in Jordan's largest camp for Syrian refugees. A man with a steel hook is supposed to bring meaning to the camp.
On the day of the EU commissioner's visit, two young women stood in the crowd of aid workers, wearing brown vests with UNESCO stitched onto them in blue letters. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is known for dealing with global cultural heritage. Kleinschmidt had never seen the women and had no idea what sort of cultural heritage they could be concerned about in Zaatari. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"We're doing a mentoring program for children," said one of the women, handing him a business card with the words "Project Manager" on it. Kleinschmidt replied: "It would be nice to know exactly what you're doing here, because I'm the camp manager."
One would think that the camp manager is someone who manages this camp. But it's all much more difficult than it sounds, says Kleinschmidt.
He doesn't know how many aid workers are in the camp. According to a list on the UNHCR website, 139 organizations are helping the people in Zaatari. Doctors Without Borders is there, and so are Electricians Without Borders and Gynecologists Without Borders. Clowns Without Borders, which performs in crisis zones to cheer people up, has already left.
Private donors from Saudi Arabia brought in several hundred residential trailers without discussing it with Kleinschmidt or his team first. South Korea spent $20,000 (€15,300) on a soccer field that no one uses. There is a Dutch guitar group, although Kleinschmidt has no idea what they are doing there. And the Korean ambassador in Jordan plans to offer Taekwondo lessons for the children in Zaatari soon.
An aid worker says: "Imagine UNHCR was Nike. We build an athletic shoe and have suppliers make the individual parts of the shoe. Each part of the shoe comes from a different supplier, the sole, the laces, the leather, and each supplier works according to his own designs. Try to imagine what that shoe ends up looking like."
Kleinschmidt was brought in because he has the reputation for solving impossible tasks. Some worship him for his work, while others feel that he would be better suited for the Foreign Legion. He wears a chain around his neck with a silver pendant his wife designed. The symbol means "warrior," says Kleinschmidt.
'The Most Difficult Refugees I've Ever Seen'
He used to be a pacifist and wanted to work at a vineyard. After graduating from high school in Berlin, he drove to southern France to pick grapes. Then he and his friends bought a herd of goats and made cheese. Then he learned to slate roofs. He also raised a few rabbits and made pâté. He fell in love and got married, and he and his wife had a daughter together. When the marriage ended, Kleinschmidt bought a motorcycle and drove into the Sahara.
In a bar in Mali, he met a man and a woman who were aid workers, and after many glasses of whisky they asked Kleinschmidt whether he'd like to help them build a school in the desert.
He says that he has learned the meaning of freedom, adventure and purpose. He became an aid worker, and in the course of his life, he says he has heard many nice responses to the question of why people choose this profession, but few honest ones.
He went to Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and he was amazed to survive it all. He chose to subordinate everything else in his life to his work. Kleinschmidt himself lives like a refugee.
In the mid-1990s, his boss called him from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva and said that 100,000 Hutu refugees were lost in the forest in Congo and afraid of being slaughtered by the Tutsi. Kleinschmidt put together a team, flew to Congo, found an old railroad built by the former Belgian colonial rulers, had it repaired and drove into the bush with a steam locomotive pulling the train. He found the refugees and rescued many of them.
Kleinschmidt falls silent when asked why he does what he does. "I just do it," he finally replies. He does it because he is obsessed, and there can be many reasons for that, but two are especially obvious: he is obsessed with saving lives, and he is also obsessed with risking his own life.
Today, at 50, Kleinschmidt has a stepson and five children with three different women, spread across Europe and Africa. He no longer drinks whiskey or smokes cigarettes, but he does see a military psychologist regularly to cleanse his soul. It stands to reason that there is little in the realm of the living or the dead that could still shock Kleinschmidt, but the camp in Zaatari has done it. "These are the most difficult refugees I've ever seen," he says.
Crime in the Camp
He marches past a fenced complex where newly arrived refugees are sitting. He could sit down with the women and listen.
One woman says: "My neighborhood in Damascus was bombed, and people were murdered."
Another says: "First I fled to Lebanon. There were Hezbollah fighters who tried to break into my house."
One woman says: "My father is in prison. I don't know if he's still alive."
Another says: "They said on TV that my husband is a terrorist. His nickname is 'The Bird.' He was arrested."
Another says: "They told my husband to go to the police station and bring along sweets. He never returned."
Kleinschmidt says: "Our weakness is that we see the individual trees and not the forest." He doesn't stop to listen to the many stories.
There are probably 116,000 explanations for the rage of the 116,000 refugees in Zaatari, but Kleinschmidt believes he has been able to isolate three important explanations.
First: These people come from a country where the elite are their enemies. Now they have fought for their freedom and don't want the next set of elites to tell them how many lentils they are allowed to eat. Second: Many refugees believe that the international community owes them something, because it isn't stopping the killing in Syria. Third: The mafia.
Kleinschmidt is only gradually able to identify the criminals that are working against him on the other side of the barbed wire, but he thinks he knows what they want. They want to keep the camp in an unstable state, and for free trade to remain forbidden so that smuggling continues to be worthwhile. They also want to prevent the aid organizations from installing a power grid, so that they can continue to sell illegally tapped electricity. And they want police to fear entering the camp, so that the mafia can go about its business without interruption.
There are men in Zaatari who take advantage of chaos to acquire power -- some of them mean well and some are evil. One of them, perhaps the most powerful, is called Abu Hussein.
He is sitting in a trailer on a sofa with a floral pattern, serving strong Turkish coffee. His wife places nine ashtrays on the table. There are two Nokia mobile phones on the carpet, one red and one pink. Hussein's children are sitting in an adjacent trailer, where an air-conditioner keeps the temperature at around 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), watching "Hero Turtles" on TV. "If I wanted to, I could have the entire camp burning in five minutes," says Hussein.
The 48-year-old keeps his beard neatly trimmed, and his hair is either blow-dried into shape or possesses some sort of natural tension that keeps it elevated from his head. He says that before becoming the most powerful man in Zaatari, he lived in the Syrian city of Daraa, where he worked in a school, teaching a subject called "Air-Conditioning and Heating." When the people revolted against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hussein joined the rebel fighters and became commander of a special unit of the Free Syrian Army, the "Falcons of the Tribe of the Prophet Mohammed." The Falcons specialized in mines, says Hussein. "I killed people."
Then he got scared and fled. When he reached Zaatari on Aug. 5 of last year, he was the 60th refugee to arrive at the camp, when a cold desert wind was blowing, he says. Hussein asked the aid workers for blankets for the women and children. When one of them refused, Hussein said that he had killed 73 people and that number would reach 74 if the worker didn't comply with his request. The aid worker gave him the blankets. From then on, he says, he was "the Akeed," or ruler.
As ruler, Hussein is accustomed to controlling the conversation. It's difficult to ask him a question and get a straightforward answer. Or perhaps he is too clever to respond directly to the questions.
What do people give him for being the boss?
"The only ruler is Allah."
But doesn't he, Abu Hussein, have a say here?
"I control 21 streets. My men patrol day and night. I have 10 barbers who will give free shaves to anyone who wants one."
What do the people give him in return?
"Just their love."
How can a refugee like him afford three trailers and an air-conditioner?
"Politics is like an ocean. Not everyone can swim in it."
What is his assessment of the work by the aid organizations?
Hussein takes a few drags from his cigarette and then inhales deeply, as if he were about to go diving. Then he slams his fist on the carpet, so hard that the coffee pot shakes. He begins to shout. "I went to the World Food Programme and said that I wanted a piece of cheese. They told me that someone in Geneva had to make that decision. I wonder who is sitting in Geneva deciding whether I can eat a piece of cheese?"
He continues to shout for half an hour, talking about corruption and Jews and cheese. He complains about the fact that some of the male aid workers have ponytails. Finally, he shouts that Mister Kilian is the only halfway decent one of the lot.
In Zaatari, there is a man inside every tent who claims to be the boss. Maybe Hussein is lying. Perhaps he was never a Falcon. But he has understood one thing: The person who makes people believe that he is the best ruler will emerge as their leader.
Viewing the Camp Like a City
Kleinschmidt paid a visit to Hussein one day to find out whether he was dealing with just another braggart. Five men wearing red Palestinian scarves on their heads sat with them. One of them said: "I've seen you walking through the camp at night. I've thought about having you kidnapped."
Kleinschmidt, who was there with a colleague, smiled and thanked Hussein for the invitation. The colleague was a young Irishman who had only been working in the camp for a few days and eyed the beverages in Hussein's trailer as if they were hand grenades. There is a diarrhea epidemic in Zaatari. Kleinschmidt chugged two cups of coffee from the same cup as Hussein and ate two pastries stuffed with spinach. Hussein said: "We have the feeling that the aid workers are heartless."
Hussein lives in a trailer that cost $3,000. The air-conditioner runs with electricity he is tapping from the Italian hospital. The water for his tea is from canisters provided by UNICEF. He hasn't worked, paid or thanked anyone for any of it.
Kleinschmidt concealed what he was really thinking. Before the meeting, he had said that what mattered wasn't the content of the discussion, but the fact that it took place at all. He drank tea and listened. After two hours, Hussein said: "You are a clever man, Mister Kilian. We should work together."
Kleinschmidt says that this camp can only become a place where refugees can regain their dignity if he manages to get all the anarchists out there to respect him.
He works 18 hours a day so that the aid workers respect him. He doesn't give orders, but instead tries to convince them of his idea, which is to view Zaatari as a city and not as a camp. He divided the city into 12 administrative districts and sent a member of his staff to each district to meet with the street bosses every day. He visited the military police commanders at home, ate lamb with them and convinced them to begin deploying night patrols. He had a ditch dug to prevent the smugglers from getting into the camp, and when that didn't work, he had excavators build a two-meter earth wall.
He met with politicians and explained to them that he needed more money, which he got. He gave interviews, waved his steel hook and argued that journalists should be brought to Zaatari. Most of the workers with the other organizations now give him reports on their activities. His colleagues have started spending nights in the camp with him. More and more of them are leaving their offices and following Kleinschmidt to the other side of the barbed wire.
He takes walks at night so that the refugees will respect him, and so that people will see that he is one of them. He had streetlights installed in the section of the camp where the refugees arrive, to make sure they can see where they're going. He has hot tea served to the new arrivals. He announced that the refugees would soon be given vouchers to buy their own groceries in supermarkets. He believes that in three months no one will have to live in a tent anymore. And, when he recently met with a group in the most dangerous of the 12 administrative districts, a few men said that they would like to plant olive trees.
Playing the Strong Man
One could see Kilian Kleinschmidt as a Rambo-like figure and disagree with his management consultant approach to the refugee camp. But before he came to Zaatari, no one there would have thought to plant an olive tree.
In the evenings, when the other aid workers are already asleep, Kleinschmidt says that he misses his wife so much that it hurts. He hopes to return home soon, to his children and his grandson. He says that he has applied for an office job in Strasbourg, but fears he'll eventually be sent to another crisis zone.
This is the moment when it becomes clear that Kleinschmidt is the smartest dazzler in this camp. Instead of ruling, he serves. But he does a great deal to ensure that no one notices. When he feels unobserved, he puts his hands on childrens' heads and listens to the concerns of their mothers. In the end, he points out that the hook he carries around is merely a tent hook. He would never hit a person with it, he says, and only carries it to counter his own nervousness. He really only keeps it with him in the company of journalists, who like to photograph him with it, he adds.
Kleinschmidt understands that donors want a strong man, so he plays along. He also understands that the aid workers need a leader, so he gives them one. He understands that the refugees only accept him if he behaves like a mayor in their presence.
What he doesn't admit to anyone in the camp is that when he calls his wife in the evening, he sometimes tells her how burned-out and shaken he feels. He tells her that he doesn't know if he can last another week. He says: "I hate refugee camps, because they deprive people of their dignity." When asked why he became an aid worker, Kleinschmidt responds: "If we know that we are doing good, we find it easier to love ourselves."
On a holiday in June, when he was in Amman, he received a text message from a colleague in Zaatari. He receives text messages every day, but they're normally about how many stone-throwing incidents there were or what the refugees have stolen. But this message consisted of only three letters: NTR. Nothing to report.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Nelson Mandela's wife draws strength from Barack Obama's words of comfort
US president stays away from hospital out of deference to Mandela's 'peace and comfort', but meets family members who praise the Obamas' personal warmth and sensitivity
David Smith in Soweto
The Observer, Saturday 29 June 2013 23.08 BST
It spoke volumes that when an audience awaiting the president of the United States burst into full-throated song, it was with the words "Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, ha hona ya tshwanang le wena", which translates as: "There's no one and never will be anyone compared to him."
Not even Barack Obama, at least not here. The aching absence of the most important black politician of the 20th century was inescapable for an African audience gathered in Soweto to hear the most significant of the 21st.
The US president wisely did not try to compete with the 94-year-old lying critically ill in hospital. "Obviously he's on our minds today," he told the town hall event for young African leaders. "He still inspires us all."
Obama's first visit to South Africa as president is going ahead as planned despite the frenzy of anxiety and attention around Mandela's condition. On Saturday Obama and his wife, Michelle, did not call on Mandela in hospital out of deference to his "peace and comfort", but did meet some members of his family for about half an hour at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg.
Mandela's wife, Graça Machel, said: "I have drawn strength from the support received from President Barack Obama, Michelle, Malia and Sasha. Having taken the time to telephone me to express their solidarity and meet our children, they have added a touch of personal warmth that is characteristic of the Obama family. I am humbled by their comfort and messages of strength and inspiration, which I have already conveyed to Madiba."
Obama went on to the highly symbolic location of Soweto, South Africa's biggest township, the heart of the urban black struggle against racial apartheid. Mandela moved to a matchbox house there in 1946, an era when the township remained in poverty, illuminated at night only by candles and coal fires. He was arrested in 1962 – allegedly with the help of America's CIA – and returned for 11 days after being released from prison in 1990.
Poverty persists in today's Soweto but it also contains shopping malls and theatres, hosts literary and wine festivals, and invites tourists to view its middle-class homes and visit Mandela's old house, now a museum. There is also a university campus, where on Saturday giant US and South African flags decorated a black-curtained auditorium. Obama's audience included Nigeria's Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest man, and Patrice Motsepe, the wealthiest black South African, as well as hundreds of young movers and shakers.
In a short speech Obama quoted Mandela's writings, urged young leaders to follow his example, and referred to the anti-apartheid hero's former home nearby. He said the 1976 student uprising in Soweto "helped open my mind to a broader world".
The president described "the yes-we-can attitude of young African leaders" and earned applause for referring to Johannesburg by its nickname "Jozi". He denied that the US fears competition from China in Africa or that it is seeking to expand on the continent militarily.
Describing Africa as a region "on the move", Obama said: "There is, as the song says, a new Africa. More prosperous, more confident, taking its place on the world stage."
A television link provided questions from Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, pushing him on why he is not visiting his father's homeland during this tour. Explaining that he had been there multiple times before, Obama, whose itinerary also includes Senegal and Tanzania, replied: "I was trying to spread the wealth a little bit in terms of my visit."
Among those present was Matsi Modise, 28, the leader of an organisation for black South African entrepreneurs. "It's a great privilege to be here," she said. "To hear his voice means a lot. He made it possible for young black people to dream in this world. Black used to be associated with racism and oppression, but he's redefined black in terms of leadership."
By the end of his 90-minute event, Obama had evidently won some hearts and minds despite the big story elsewhere. People crowded forward to shake his hand. Mandy de Waal tweeted: "Twitter is alive with the sound of South Africans falling in love with Obama. Looks like we're star-struck!"
But outside the campus, several hundred protesters sang and waved a banner: "Away with USA. Arrogance, violence and plunder." Riot police fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
The other reaction in South Africa has been one of apathy, partly because all attention is on Mandela, partly because excitement about Obama in Africa has waned since the heady days of 2008. "He's now 'only' an American to us," said Eusebius McKaiser, a political commentator and radio talkshow host. "His blackness is no longer of interest."
Mandela's health inevitably weighed heavy. Earlier, at a joint press conference, South African President Jacob Zuma told Obama: "I know that he is your personal hero as well, Mr President.
"The two of you are also by bound by history, as the first black presidents of your respective countries. Thus you both carry the dreams of millions of people in Africa and the diaspora, who were previously oppressed."
The US removed Mandela from its terrorist watch list only in 2008, 15 years after he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. But it now has a president who described Mandela as "one of the greatest people in history".
Obama praised South Africa's transition from white minority rule as a shining beacon for the world. "The struggle here against apartheid for freedom, Madiba's moral courage, this country's historic transition to a free and democratic nation, has been a personal inspiration to me, it has been an inspiration to the world," he said.
"The outpouring of love that we've seen in recent days shows that the triumph of Nelson Mandela and this nation speaks to something very deep in the human spirit, the yearning for justice and dignity that transcends boundaries of race and class and faith and country. That's what Nelson Mandela represents, that's what South African at its best represents to the world, and that's what brings me back here."
Obama finishes his South African trip on Sunday, when he plans to give a speech on US-Africa policy at the University of Cape Town. He will also stop at another sacred space in the Mandela story: Robben Island, where the activist spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars.
The two men met once in Washington in 2005; both have the single photo of the five-minute encounter in their offices.
June 30, 2013
Kerry Sees Progress in Effort to Revive Mideast Talks
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — Secretary of State John Kerry met for the third time in as many days with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Sunday, after a marathon six-hour session with the Israeli leadership that ended at 3:30 a.m.
But it was unclear whether the most intense shuttle diplomacy yet of Mr. Kerry’s three-month push to revive Middle East peace talks would yield any breakthrough. “We have had very positive discussions, very important discussions, for the last three days,” Mr. Kerry said after emerging from the two-hour talk at Mr. Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank.
“We agreed we have made real progress, but we have a few things we need to work on,” he said. “We both feel good about the direction.”
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said “It was a positive and profound meeting with President Abbas, but there has been no breakthrough so far and there is still a gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions.”
Mr. Kerry was headed to Ben-Gurion International Airport where he was expected to brief reporters and then leave for Asia.
Earlier, Mr. Kerry held a lengthy meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, which began with a dinner of olives, hummus, Caesar salad and sea bream, and afterward, he and some of his advisers went for a walk to a nearby park, returning to their hotel around 4 a.m.
Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, updated his cabinet on the overnight talks.
“Israel is prepared to enter negotiations without delay, without preconditions,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “There are things that we will stand on with strength in these discussions, the first of which is security. We will not compromise security and there will not be any agreement that will endanger the security of citizens of Israel.”
Israeli and Palestinian news reports suggested that he has thus far been unable to close a deal for a four-way summit meeting this week between Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Abbas, himself and King Abdullah II of Jordan, or to secure a commitment for renewed talks between the top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
The sticking points are familiar: Mr. Abbas is reportedly insisting on a freeze of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, the release of some 120 Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons for more than 20 years and the use of the pre-1967 borders as the basis of negotiations. Ziyad Abu Ain, the Palestinians’ deputy minister for prisoner affairs, told Voice of Palestine Radio on Sunday that Mr. Abbas would only accept a full release of all those imprisoned before the 1993 signing of the Oslo peace accords.
Israeli newspapers reported Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu had expressed a willingness to release prisoners but only in stages, and to freeze construction, but only outside of three large blocs he says must remain part of Israel. As for the 1967 borders, there are indications that both sides might accept an American statement regarding the point, along with one about Israel being a Jewish state, rather than the parties having to say it themselves. “It appears that nothing will come of the determined Kerry’s fifth visit,” Eitan Haber, a long-time Israeli journalist, wrote in a column published in Sunday’s Yediot Aharanot. “Nor the sixth, seventh and eighth. Even if an Israeli-Palestinian meeting is held, its chances of bringing about an end to the conflict are slim to nil.”
Even as Mr. Kerry worked around the clock, controversy continued over settlement building, with the latest flash point being a hearing scheduled for Monday regarding a new neighborhood of 930 apartments in the Har Homa area of southern Jerusalem that Israel annexed after the 1967 war. Har Homa is considered an illegal settlement under international law, and this development is particularly problematic for the Palestinians because it would separate Bethlehem, in the West Bank, from other parts of East Jerusalem.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government has not launched any new settlement projects during Mr. Kerry’s three-month push for peace talks, but it has allowed developments already in progress to move closer to construction, angering the Palestinians — and the Americans.
Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said a city hearing on the development of public spaces in the neighborhood was a routine step automatically scheduled after the apartments were approved three years ago. She noted that the city would also be approving the building of new classrooms in Arab neighborhoods at the same hearing.
“This is not a provocation,” Ms. Sprung said. “It has nothing to do with the Kerry visit. We don’t have Kerry’s schedule months in advance.”
From the start, Mr. Kerry acknowledged that getting Israeli-Palestinian talks started would be a formidable undertaking. But he has resolutely insisted that it is doable — so much so that he has traveled between Jordan and Israel by motorcade, Jordanian helicopter and his own American government plane pursuing a formula that could lead to the first formal negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders since 2010.
Mr. Kerry’s trip had appeared to take a dramatic turn on Saturday when he ripped up his itinerary and canceled a news conference and a trip that day to the United Arab Emirates so he could continue his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for another day.
That spurred speculation in the Israeli news media that a summit meeting among Israeli, Palestinian and American officials might be hosted by Jordan.
At the start of Mr. Kerry’s dinner meeting here on Saturday with Mr. Netanyahu, there were indications that the principals thought speculation of a game-changing breakthrough had gotten out of hand.
“They’re saying a four-way summit?” Mr. Netanyahu was heard to say to Mr. Kerry at the start of the dinner. “Did you hear that?”
“I did,” Mr. Kerry replied.
The dinner — Mr. Kerry’s third meeting with Mr. Netanyahu in three days — was all business. On the Israeli side, it also included Tzipi Livni, Israel’s minister of justice and the government’s chief negotiator on the Palestinian issue; Isaac Molho, Mr. Netanyahu’s special envoy; Yaakov Amidror, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser; and Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, Mr. Netanyahu’s military secretary.
On the American side, Mr. Kerry was joined by Frank Lowenstein, his Middle East adviser; Jonathan Schwartz, a State Department legal expert; and John Bass, a senior aide to Mr. Kerry at the State Department.
But skeptics were insisting there was little reason to anticipate a breakthrough. Gilad Erdan, an Israeli government minister and member of the Likud Party, asserted on Israeli television just before Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu that the two sides were not close to resuming negotiations.
Mr. Abbas, Mr. Erdan said, “is still demanding the same preconditions that we have no intention of complying with.”
Mr. Kerry said early during his travels that significant headway toward resuming the peace talks needed to be made long before September, when the General Assembly resumes its debate on the Middle East.
Mr. Kerry has frequently said that time is the enemy, arguing that attitudes could harden and that unexpected developments could complicate painstaking efforts to lay the basis for progress at the negotiating table.
Even before Mr. Kerry left on this trip to the Middle East, his fifth, American officials were signaling that he was prepared to make a sixth if needed.
On Saturday, Mr. Kerry had little to say as he went from meeting to meeting. Asked if he was making any progress as his Amman meeting with Mr. Abbas got under way, Mr. Kerry replied, “Working hard.”
June 29, 2013
Ghana’s Crackdown on Chinese Gold Miners Hits One Rural Area Hard
By DAN LEVIN
MINGLIANG, China — To the people of Shanglin County, gold is a curse.
For nearly a decade, thousands of peasants from this rural speck in southern China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region borrowed heavily before boarding flights for Ghana, Africa’s second-largest gold producer, with glinting ambitions and no backup plan.
The Chinese found their gold, though trouble soon found them, in the form of crooked police officers and armed bandits who prowled the mining camps. Then, this month, the Ghanaian authorities declared the mines illegal and arrested more than 200 Chinese miners, accusing them of polluting the land and abusing local workers. Countless others fled as local residents armed with guns and machetes attacked the camps, robbing miners of their possessions and killing some who fought back.
After the crackdown, images of violent deaths and vandalized mining camps blazed across Chinese social media, fueling national anger and soul searching. But here in Shanglin, a mountainous county of 470,000 in one of China’s poorest regions, it is despair over financial ruin that is most pronounced.
“My son might be killed in Ghana, but if he comes back he’s dead anyway,” said Shen Aiquan, 65, whose family borrowed 3 million renminbi, or $489,000, to build a mining operation, though from whom exactly she did not know. All she could do was wait for her son, and the debt collectors who would surely follow.
The crisis in Ghana has revealed the perils of a high-stakes economic gamble, in which countless people have taken part in overseas investment projects endorsed by the Chinese government but have been left to fend for themselves when things go wrong.
Some of the problems facing residents here stem from the informal lending practices common among the rural poor. Lacking the hard assets banks usually require, many people leverage “guanxi” — the social collateral binding business and personal relationships in China — to secure loans from relatives and friends.
Based on trust and often little else, guanxi financing has devastated the villages and townships of Shanglin, whose residents are now bound not just by blood and sweat but by bankruptcy as well.
And the trust is sometimes misplaced. Early this month, a Chinese man in Ghana disappeared with millions of dollars that miners had given him to wire home. Ms. Shen’s son was one of the victims. Another was one of her neighbors, Yang Baofa, 52, who returned from Ghana two weeks ago with barely enough money to travel to his village. “We trusted him because he was Chinese,” he said of the missing man.
On the day Mr. Yang arrived, several of the men who had accompanied him back to China were stuck in the southern city of Guangzhou working construction jobs to earn the $40 needed to buy a long-distance bus ticket home.
The miners who have been trickling back to Shanglin since the violence began insist that they broke no Ghanaian laws. Taking a break from playing basketball across from his concrete house, Wu Jian, 34, a former mine owner, said he had made sure to get all the necessary paperwork in Ghana, including land deeds and a mining license. “The local people said as long as we had money we could do anything we want,” he said.
Last month, he fled, leaving behind an operation that he said was worth about $326,000. The money, he said glumly, was borrowed from friends, relatives and loan sharks.
“I went there because that’s what everyone else did,” he said. Despite his debts, he had no regrets about leaving Ghana. “Coming back wasn’t the right decision; it was the only option.”
Shanglin’s connection to the African gold mining project is widespread. “Everyone has a relative or friend in Ghana,” said Lan Xiongwen, 45, as he slurped some fish stew at a restaurant in the county seat.
When relatives took his son to the Ghanaian mines two years ago, Mr. Lan’s family invested $489,000 in excavating machines, paid for by plundering savings and getting bank loans. Back then it seemed like a smart move. With 980 tons of gold being exported to Shanglin annually, he said, residents figured it would be only a matter of time before they realized their dream: after paying off the loans, they would build a house and buy a car.
But everything the Lan family earned went into paying for the machines, which now sit rusting in Ghana. “We didn’t make one cent,” Mr. Lan said. Even as he fretted over his son’s safety, he envisioned a future of endless toil. “A lifetime isn’t long enough to pay off our debts.”
Residents like Mr. Lan say they feel betrayed by the Chinese government, which they say has shirked its responsibility after years of encouraging the Ghanaian gold rush. In April, despite the growing problems in Ghana, the local government here continued to ship mining equipment and hand out passports, he said.
When the crackdown came, many Shanglin villagers gathered in front of the local government headquarters to beg for help. The county sent an official delegation to Ghana, but few expect their fortunes to be salvaged.
The raids and violence threaten to mar a relationship China has long considered a crown jewel in its African strategy. It hinges on importing the raw materials needed to fuel China’s economic growth in exchange for the sale of Chinese goods and the Chinese government’s financial support for critical infrastructure projects. According to the Chinese government, bilateral trade between China and Ghana hit $5.43 billion last year, an increase of 56 percent from 2011.
Even as Chinese diplomats have worked to bring the miners home, the Chinese government has been eager to move past the episode, which it feared could be bad for business. “This issue of illegal mining is a disharmony in bilateral relations, but we should always have the bigger picture in mind,” Qiu Xuejun, an official in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a recent news conference in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
People here, however, cannot afford to just move on. Along the dusty main drag of Mingliang village, the workshops that clanged with workers assembling mining machines were silent, their heavy red doors locked with chains. In a nearby factory, chickens roosted among steel pipes once used to make water pumps for the mines. “Now it’s all just scrap metal,” the factory boss said.
Pulling out his smartphone, he scrolled through a series of photographs from Ghana sent via Weixin, a popular social media app. The images showed brutalized Chinese miners, one covered in purple welts from a beating, another dead from a gunshot to the face and two more connected to IV bags hanging from trees.
The factory owner refused to be identified, saying officials had warned him not to speak to reporters.
With no hope for reopening, he said he planned to go back to pig farming, like many of his neighbors. “There’s nothing else to do,” he said.
Mia Li contributed research.
June 29, 2013
Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh
By JIM YARDLEY
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Inside Courtroom 21, the two judges peered down from high wooden chairs as lawyers in formal black robes presented their motions. Activists and victims watched from the back. And a few steps away, a portly man with a thick black beard remained silent. He was the suspect. He did not seem especially nervous.
Perhaps that is because the man, Delowar Hossain, has not yet been charged with anything — and may never be. He has been a vilified figure since his garment factory, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire last November, killing 112 workers who were making clothes for retailers like Walmart and Sears. A high-level government investigation found fire safety violations and accused Mr. Hossain of “unpardonable negligence.”
“How do you sleep at night?” a woman screamed as Mr. Hossain left the courtroom after the hearing on June 19. The more pertinent question might be this: In Bangladesh, where the garment industry powers the economy and wields enormous political clout, is it possible to hold factory owners like Mr. Hossain accountable?
Now is undeniably the test. The Tazreen Fashions fire was followed by the April collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building, in which 1,129 people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. A global supply chain that delivers low-cost clothes from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West was suddenly redefined by images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble. The Obama administration responded last week by rescinding a special trade privilege for Bangladesh over concerns about safety problems and labor rights violations in its garment industry.
But Bangladeshi factories have always suffered fires and accidents, usually without attracting international attention. One study estimated that more than 1,000 workers died in hundreds of factory fires or accidents from 1990 to 2012. Not once was a factory owner charged with any crime, activists say.
“We want to set a legal precedent that factory owners can’t get away with this,” said Saydia Gulrukh, an anthropologist and social activist.
One way to interpret the hearing for Mr. Hossain was as an act of exasperation. It was not a criminal trial. Instead, Ms. Gulrukh and a handful of other activists and lawyers had become so frustrated that they petitioned the Bangladesh High Court to overstep the stalled police investigation and decide whether criminal charges should be filed. The proceeding is already bogged down and could take months, or longer.
“They are just delaying the process,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, the lawyer handling the petition, speaking of Mr. Hossain’s defense team. “They think we will lose the spirit of fighting. But they have miscalculated.”
Bangladesh’s legal system has rarely favored anyone confronting the power structure. Much of the legal code has remained intact since the British imperial era, when laws were devised to control the population and protect the colonialist power structure. Legal reformers continue to push to modernize the criminal code, but the pace of change has been slow. Moreover, the police and other security forces are deeply politicized, with a bloody legacy of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Many garment factory owners are now entrenched in the nation’s power elite, some as members of Parliament. Garments represent 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing exports, giving the industry vast economic power, while factory owners also finance campaigns during national elections, giving them broad political influence.
The April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza, located in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, seemed to shock a system often inured to factory accidents. On the morning of the collapse, factory workers had been ordered into the building, even though cracks had appeared a day earlier and an engineer had warned that the structure was unsafe. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, disappeared amid speculation that he would avoid prosecution because he was affiliated with the governing political coalition, the Awami League.
But incensed High Court judges ordered the police to arrest Mr. Rana, as well as the owners of the garment factories inside the building. Mr. Rana was hauled into the courthouse, along with the factory bosses, surprising some legal activists who could not remember a single case in which judges had taken such action against members of the garment industry.
“That was very unusual,” said Sara Hossain, a Supreme Court lawyer and legal activist, who is not related to Delowar Hossain. “I think it was only possible because of the level of national and international outrage.”
Ms. Hossain has fought the garment industry for years over the 2005 collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Savar, in which at least 64 workers died. Soon after the collapse, she and other lawyers petitioned the court and pressed for affidavits from different agencies to determine who was to blame, in hopes of stirring a prosecution.
But years passed without any action until, in 2009, government lawyers announced that the court file had been lost. Hearings kept getting postponed, she said, as court officials kept saying the file was lost. Then, after the Rana Plaza collapse, Ms. Hossain won another hearing. The judges suddenly seemed animated as she asked for a formal investigation into the missing file.
“The next day, we went to court and the file reappeared,” she said.
Inside the file were dusty affidavits, including one from the agency that regulated construction projects in Savar. It warned that Savar and other areas had many hazardous buildings and recommended forming a task force to investigate. It was dated 2006, the year construction began on Rana Plaza. “If that report had been acted upon and seen the light of day,” she said, “surely you could have avoided Rana Plaza.”
Now, the lawyers trying to bring charges against Mr. Hossain, the owner of Tazreen Fashions, are facing their own obstacles. First, they sought a copy of the government investigation that had blamed Mr. Hossain for negligence. Though reporters were briefed on the main findings last December, the investigation report was never publicly released. But at one hearing, government lawyers said the Home Ministry had not yet provided them with a copy.
On June 19, the two-judge panel seemed annoyed when the government lawyers again failed to properly file the report with the court. (They did so later in the day.) When one of the judges, Quazi Reza-ul Hoque, expressed interest in broadening the case, the main defense lawyer stepped to the lectern, agreeing that the failings of the government should also be explored, but also adding a reminder about the garment industry.
“This is a very important economic factor in our country,” said the lawyer, Fida M. Kamal. When he raised the same point a few moments later, one of the judges agreed.
“We have to keep that always in mind,” Judge Hoque said.
In the days after the Tazreen Fashions fire, evidence of negligence mounted: the factory did not have a current fire safety license; the blaze had started in an illegal ground floor storage area filled with flammable fabric; some managers had ordered workers to ignore a fire alarm while others had locked metal gates, blocking some of the staircases.
The police arrested a few factory managers but took no action against Mr. Hossain, even as families of victims called for murder charges. Investigators initially questioned whether the fire was caused by sabotage, though the country’s home minister later discounted that claim, but he also said that arresting Mr. Hossain was not necessary.
In court this month, Mr. Hossain and his lawyer refused to comment. A few men stood silently near the owner in the rear of the small room. One of them, Motiqul Islam Matin, had lost his sister in the Tazreen Fashions fire. She had called him from the fourth floor, shrieking, saying she was trapped because her managers had locked the metal gates.
Last month, Mr. Matin filed a court petition, seeking murder charges against Mr. Hossain. Soon after, he said he began getting telephone calls. “They wanted to know where I lived,” he said. “I was scared. I did not tell them. I went into hiding.”
Another man in the courtroom, Mohammad Abdul Jabbar, carried a photograph of his wife and infant son. His wife had died on the fourth floor. He had tried in vain to seek compensation or government help and now said he only wanted to see Mr. Hossain convicted.
“I want justice,” he said after the hearing. “The whole system favors men like Delowar. He is a rich man. He is getting protection from the people who are supposed to listen to our voices.”
He added, “Wherever I go, officials tell me to go somewhere else.”
Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.
June 29, 2013
President-Elect of Iran Says He Will Engage With the West
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, said Saturday that he would engage with the West and fulfill his electoral promises to allow more freedom for the Iranian people.
Mr. Rouhani, who calls himself a moderate, won the June 14 presidential election by a large margin, surprising many who expected Iran’s governing establishment to block any candidate calling for change. Hinting at the revolutions that have ousted several leaders in the Middle East, Mr. Rouhani emphasized that it was important to listen to the “majority of Iranians.”
“In our region, there were some countries who miscalculated their positions, and you have witnessed what happened to them,” he said during a live broadcast of a conference organized by Voice and Vision, Iran’s state television and radio organization.
“The world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established,” he said. “If we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.”
He also said Iran should not hesitate to criticize the Syrian government for some of its actions in its war against rebels seeking to oust it. While Iranian officials have staunchly defended Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Rouhani warned against a double standard in international affairs.
“We should not describe as oppressive brutal actions in an enemy country while refraining from calling the same actions oppressive if they take place in a friendly country,” he said. “Brutality must be called brutality.”
Mr. Rouhani appealed for more moderation in foreign and domestic policies and praised the police for tolerating recent street celebrations over his election victory and for Iran’s soccer team.
He also hinted that he would consider loosening some of the restrictions imposed by the much-loathed morality police, who arrest people for wearing “improper clothing” or not observing Islamic codes strictly. “Happiness is our people’s right,” he said. “We should not be strict toward the people. People follow the morality codes by themselves and are careful about them.”
Mr. Rouhani, who will be sworn in on Aug. 3, reminded those opposing change in Iran that the election was also a referendum on the country’s future.
“The majority of Iranian people voted for moderation, collective wisdom, insight and consultation,” he said. “Everybody should accept the people’s vote — the government should accept the people’s vote. The people have chosen a new path.”
Many Iranians are carefully optimistic about Mr. Rouhani. Last week, Iran’s currency gained strength against the dollar. Business owners said they were hopeful that he would address domestic economic problems and possibly find a way to ease the international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Rouhani also appealed for a more open state news media. “The age of monologue media is over; media should be interactive,” he said. In Iran, millions of Web sites are blocked, and the state news media has a monopoly, while the authorities use radio waves to block satellite transmissions from abroad. “In a country whose legitimacy is rooted in its people, then there is no fear from free media,” he said.
International forces will provide advice to Afghan military until 2020
Senior military sources say Nato will continue to play major role as Afghan forces are unprepared for 2014 withdrawal
Nicholas Watt at Camp Bastion
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 June 2013 11.31 BST
International forces will provide logistical advice to the Afghan military up until 2020 after concluding that Afghanistan's national security forces will be unprepared for full operations when Nato combat troops withdraw from the country at the end of 2014.
As David Cameron paid a visit to British troops in Helmand province on Armed Forces Day, senior military sources indicated that Nato would need to play a major role in Afghanistan until the end of the decade.
The prime minister said British forces were reaching the final phase of the 12-year campaign. But senior British military sources said the Afghan forces would need advice on providing close air support, the distribution of food and fuel and on medevac facilities.
British military commanders have been able to make their assessments after Nato handed control of security for the whole of the country to Afghan forces this month. The commanders have concluded that a great deal has been achieved but that Afghan forces will not have built their capacity to full operational levels by the time Nato combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
The military advice contrasts with the approach of Cameron, who aims to have a minimal British footprint in Afghanistan by 2015. Britain is to provide financial help and is to run an officer training academy near Kabul dubbed "Sandhurst in the sand".
The prime minister arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday after General Nick Carter, the deputy commander of Nato operations in Afghanistan, told the Guardian that opportunities to build a dialogue with the Taliban had been missed in the past decade. The US recently announced that it would hold talks with the Taliban, who have been allowed to open a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Cameron indicated that he had some sympathy for Carter's view. He told Sky News in Lashkar Gah: "I think you can argue about whether the settlement we put in place after 2001 could have been better arranged. Of course you can make that argument. Since I became prime minister in 2010 I have been pushing all the time for a political process and that political process is now under way.
"But at the same time I know that you cannot bank on that, which is why we have built up the Afghan army, built up the Afghan police, supported the Afghan government so after our troops have left, and they will be leaving under the programme we have set out. This country shouldn't be a haven for terrorists."
The prime minister said it was right to talk to the Taliban and dubbed the Nato operation a success after it denied al-Qaida a base in Afghanistan. He said: "We want a political solution as well as making sure we have a security solution. What we have done in Afghanistan is we came here to stop it being used as a base for terrorist activities. That has been and is successful."
The US agreed to talk to the Taliban after dropping a series of conditions which had included an unequivocal renunciation of al-Qaida and an agreement to abide by the Afghan constitution. The Taliban simply said they agreed that Afghanistan should not be used as a base to attack other countries.
British diplomatic sources voiced strong support for the change of tack by the US. They even suggested that the Afghan constitution could be amended to take account of some of the Taliban's concerns.
One source said the constitution followed a winner-takes-all approach which concentrated strong powers in the hands of the president. This is not seen to be compatible with a process of reconciliation. But the other key Taliban demand – to give the constitution a more Islamic flavour – is regarded as unacceptable because diplomatic sources believe the constitution is sufficiently Islamic.
Any changes to the constitution would take place after the presidential election in April 2014. Hamid Karzai has to stand down as president after serving two terms.
The sources said Taliban prisoners would have to be released as part of negotiations. They would be free to play a role in the Afghan armed forces.
The prime minister announced during his visit that a wall at the main British army base at Camp Bastion, which commemorates soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict, is to be dismantled and rebuilt in Britain with funds from the Libor bank fines. The Bastion memorial wall at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire will be built with £300,000 from the £35m armed forces covenant (Libor) fund.
The prime minister said: "Britain must never forget those who gave their lives in Afghanistan. A Bastion memorial wall back at home deserves every penny of this funding. It will give us a permanent place to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and to show how proud and thankful we are for all they gave serving our country. They must never be forgotten."
A senior No 10 source added that after 2014 the British presence in Afghanistan would be a matter for the country's national security council.
David Cameron nudges Pakistan back towards focus on Afghanistan
Prime minister is anxious to prevent relations between the neighbours falling into neglect
Nicholas Watt in Islamabad
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 30 June 2013 06.57 BST
David Cameron is advising the newly elected Pakistani prime minister to revive relations with Afghanistan amid fears in Downing Street that its so-called "Af-Pak" strategy is losing momentum.
On the second day of his overseas visit, Cameron became the first western leader to visit Nawaz Sharif since his election in the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in Pakistan since independence in 1947.
The prime minister hailed Sharif's election. He said: "He's in a strong position because Pakistan is having and has had effectively this democratic transition which is a huge bonus for Pakistan and will raise its profile in a thoroughly good way in the eyes of the world. He won a decisive election victory and I'll congratulate him on that. I think it puts him in a strong position."
There are concerns in Downing Street that Sharif may be in danger of neglecting relations with Afghanistan amid historic and continuing enmity between the two neighbours. Relations hit a new low this month when an Afghan diplomat, Naqeebullah Ibrahimkhel, was shot in the leg in Islamabad.
Speaking at the Pakistani prime minister's official residence, Cameron said both countries had a shared interest in the "battle against terrorism".
He said: "This is a battle that requires a tough and uncompromising security response. But it is also a battle that has to go so much wider.
"Countering extremism and radicalisation, investing in education, tackling poverty, dealing in all the issues that can fuel extremism and radicalisation."
He added: "In this battle the friends of Pakistan are friends of Britain
and the enemies of Pakistan are enemies of Britain. We will stand together and conduct this fight against extremism and terrorism."
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is suspicious of the role played by Pakistan in the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. Karzai was outraged when the Taliban described it as the mission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the Taliban's name for the country during its period of rule.
Sharif has named trade, relations with India and the battle against extremism as his three main priorities. He wants to seek peace with the Pakistan Taliban, allies of the Afghan Taliban.
Cameron, who met President Asif Ali Zardari on his arrival in Pakistan on Saturday night, is making clear that two of Sharif's priorities – battling extremism and stabilising relations with its nuclear rival India – would be helped if relations with Afghanistan were put on a more stable footing.
The British prime minister said: "I think that increasingly Pakistan knows that it's in its best interest to have a stable Afghanistan as its neighbour and it supports the peace process and that's what the trilateral meetings I've held have been all about. From everything I've heard, and I've spoken to him [Sharif] on the telephone a couple of times, he fully supports that. We'll have a very constructive view."
Cameron hoped to achieve a breakthrough in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan when he held a trilateral summit at Chequers in February involving Zardari and Karzai. But officials believe the momentum has slipped and relations are deteriorating.
Britain believes Pakistan must play a pivotal role as Nato prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Cameron said: "Our approach is to have this very clear boost to Afghan security by funding their armed forces and police. The peace process then is additional to that. There are some difficulties but there are some good prospects and I think Pakistan will want to help with that."
The prime minister said Sharif's election was a good chance for a new start and played down concerns that the leader of the Muslim League, criticised for a soft approach to the Taliban, could not be even handed.
Cameron said: "I think he has the credibility of having just been elected with a full term ahead of him, with Pakistan's long term interests in mind, and I think that gives him a certain power and influence."
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff's support plummets in wake of protests
Approval rating drops from 57% to 30% in first opinion poll since a million Brazilians took to streets to air litany of grievances
Reuters in Sao Paulo
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 June 2013 18.00 BST
Dilma Rousseff's approval rating sank by 27 percentage points in the last three weeks, the strongest evidence yet that the recent wave of street protests sweeping Brazil poses a serious threat to the president's likely re-election bid next year.
The share of people who consider Rousseff's administration "great" or "good" plummeted to 30% from 57% in early June, according to a Datafolha opinion poll published in newspaper Folha de S Paulo on Saturday.
The drop was the sharpest for a Brazilian leader since 1990, when Fernando Collor outraged the population by freezing all savings accounts in a desperate attempt to stop hyperinflation. Two years later, Collor resigned from the presidency as Congress began impeachment proceedings against him over corruption allegations.
Until recently, Rousseff enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the western world, largely thanks to record low unemployment.
But her popularity started to slip in early June as rising consumer prices began to eat away at Brazilians' purchasing power, a sure recipe for trouble in a country with a long history of runaway inflation.
Then came the nationwide street demonstrations of the past few weeks which have sent shockwaves through Brazil's political establishment. While the protests have not been directed at a single leader or party, widespread discontent with a ruling class that is seen as self-serving and corrupt is eroding the popularity of politicians at all levels, including Rousseff.
The Datafolha poll was the first taken since more than a million Brazilians poured on to the streets in recent weeks to protest against a litany of grievances, from corruption and poor public services to outrage at billions of pounds in taxpayers' money being spent to host the 2014 World Cup.
The president's approval rating fell sharply in all regions of the country, the poll showed. In the north-east, the birthplace of her popular predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and a stronghold of the ruling Workers party, the share of people who view the administration favourably sank to 40% from 64% in a poll on 8 June.
The poll also asked Brazilians if they were in favour of the protests, the largest to hit Brazil in two decades. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they support the demonstrations. Asked if the protests had resulted in positive changes, 65% said yes.
The unrest has prompted a flurry of promises to improve public services and other measures aimed at quelling the protests.
In the past week alone, Brazil's Congress voted on a battery of bills promoting issues popular with the protesters, and the supreme court ordered the arrest of a lower house representative convicted of corruption.
Rousseff shocked Brazil on Monday by proposing a constituent assembly to overhaul the country's political system, but withdrew the plan a day later after it met widespread opposition, even from within her own party.
She is now seeking congressional support for a non-binding referendum to ask Brazilians how they would like to see the political system changed. In the Datafolha poll, 68% of respondents said they backed the idea of a referendum.
The drop in Rousseff's popularity comes at a delicate moment for Brazil's economy, which barely expanded last year and relies on an ambitious agenda of infrastructure projects to return to sustained growth.
The approval rating of Rousseff's economic team, led by the finance minister, Guido Mantega, and the central bank president, Alexandre Tombini, dropped to 27% from 49%.
The Datafolha poll, which was conducted on 27-28 June, surveyed 4,717 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.
The Christian Science Monitor Four habitable planets orbiting three tiny suns? New first in planet-hunting.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / June 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm EDT
Three, perhaps even four potentially habitable planets are orbiting a star in a triple-star system some 22 light-years from Earth, a team of astronomers announced Tuesday.
It's the first time researchers have found so many planets orbiting within a star's habitable zone – a region around a star where a planet receives enough energy for water to gather and remain stable on the planet's surface.
Three of the planets are so-called super-Earths, with masses ranging from 2.7 to 3.8 times Earth's mass. At 1.1 times Earth's mass, the fourth is the smallest and least well observed of the group – an object that the researchers say will require more observations to determine if it truly orbits in the habitable zone.
It's a packed neighborhood. All four orbit their star, Gliese 667C, in a 11.5-million-mile-wide belt that would comfortably fit within the distance between the orbits of Earth and Venus. In this case, however, the planets' orbits are much closer to their star – a red dwarf with only one-third the sun's mass and perhaps 1 percent of the sun's brightness.
The habitable zones for such faint stars are far closer to the star than is the case in our solar system. The most distant of the four planets orbits Gliese 667C once every 62 days, while the closest of the four orbits once every 16 days.
The team, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé from the University of Göttingen's Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, had focused its formal report, accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, on the three planets representing the most solid detections.
"This is the first time that three such planets have been spotted orbiting in this zone in the same system," said Paul Butler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington and a member of the research team, in a prepared statement.
Indeed, the three are among five to seven planets thought to be orbiting Gliese 667C. Last year, another team of astronomers reported the discovery of three planets orbiting the star. One was located within the star's habitable zone. The evidence for the three was strong, but researchers suspected more planets were lurking in the data the team had gathered from the European Southern Observatory's 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Dr. Anglada-Escudé's team added fresh observations to previously gathered data and applied a pair of statistical tools to sift through the data for more planets. Both approaches turned up "five very secure signals and up to seven low-mass planets" in very tight orbits around the star, he said.
For any sentient creatures living on any of the three super Earths, the two other stars in the triple-star system would bathe the the landscape with moon-like light and would remain visible during the day.
But the presence of a landscape, or even seascape – let alone life – on any of these objects remains speculative. The team used an approach to planet-hunting that yields an estimate of a planet's mass and orbital period. The technique involves hunting for the wobble a planet imposes on a star's spectrum as its gravity tugs the star to and fro with each orbit. However, nothing in the technique, known as the radial-velocity approach, gives enough information to estimate a planet's size and bulk density. Density would indicate whether a planet is rocky, mostly gas, or perhaps a water world.
Another approach, which looks for the dimming a planet imparts as it transits in front of its star, can provide the information that would permit density calculations. But none of these planets has been detected via the transit method.
Instead, the team offers speculation informed by what astronomers have been learning about the distribution of planets in other star systems where bulk composition has been determined, as well as what's known about solar-system formation.
The team posits that because the trio of planets is less massive than the lightest known gas planet or the most massive-known rocky planet, it will consider them rocky for the sake of discussion.
Gliese 667C, thought to be substantially older than 2 billion years, appears to lack the outbursts of radiation often seen in red dwarf stars. Astrobiologists have expressed concerns that such outburst could fry organisms on the surface of a planet in the habitable zone.
The planets also appear to be in circular, or nearly circular orbits and so would present the same face to Gliese 667C throughout their orbits. If the planets have thin atmospheres, the day side probably would be too hot and the night side too cold for life – at least on the surface. A thick atmosphere could redistribute heat among both hemispheres, moderating the climate in at least some locations on the surface.
For astrobiologists, finding such a high-density neighborhood around a star so close represents a scientific goldmine as a new generation of space telescopes come on line.
“Instead of observing 10 stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them,” said Rory Barnes, an astrobiologist and member of the research team reporting the results.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqdNSW9rnV8
In the USA...the ultimate surveillance country
June 29, 2013 12:30 PM
Red Light Camera Data Doesn't Require Judicial Oversight
By Susie Madrak
I was talking to one of my neighbors about why the city is putting a red light camera at an intersection near our street, when it wasn't a problem area. She said it didn't make sense; I said since it was the last intersection before the bridge to New Jersey, they were probably collecting information to track cars. She said I was "crazy" and "paranoid." (I get that a lot these days.)
Turns out the EFF and the ACLU are wondering, too. They've filed a lawsuit:
Around the country, police are adopting the widespread use of automatic license plate readers, and storing photos with time and location records in databases that are not subject to judicial oversight. In California, the Center for Investigative Reporting reveals that this data collection is widespread, with multiple counties creating coordinated databases that enable more thorough police location tracking of everyone, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime.
A computer security consultant who spoke with CIR requested records of his own police scans several years ago, and found that his county police had logged this information once a week on average. One photo shows him and his daughters in their driveway.
Expansion and funding of this collection has been led by anti-terrorist agencies. Last year in California, for example, a law enforcement intelligence-sharing center set up after 9/11 signed a $340,000 agreement with Palantir, a CIA-funded start-up that has denied alleged links to the recently uncovered NSA surveillance. And a New Jersey county recently purchased the license plate readers under a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. But information collected has been used to solve domestic crime and enforce small-time violations, including parking restrictions or motorists who run red lights. In New York City, police have used the readers to catch car thieves and identify motorists with open warrants.
Like other forms of location tracking, license plate readers pose obvious privacy concerns, which is why several states and jurisdictions have limited their use, with New Hampshire banning them entirely. And a recent report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police has said tracking driver locations could raise First Amendment questions, as it collects data about individuals’ activities, religious practices, and even political protests. But in places where legislative limits have not been set, police are expanding their use of the tactic. An investigation in Los Angeles found the city had already recorded 160 million “data points.” Attempts to pass a California law limiting retention of these records to 60 days failed, after law enforcement and businesses that profit from the technology resisted.
June 29, 2013
Local Officials Asked to Help on Health Law
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The White House is recruiting mayors, county commissioners and other local officials to promote and carry out President Obama’s health care law in states like Florida and Texas, where governors are hostile to it.
The effort comes as the administration is intensifying its campaign to publicize new health insurance options and to persuade consumers, especially healthy young people, to sign up for coverage when open enrollment starts on Oct. 1.
To bring people into the insurance market, the White House is using techniques it used to mobilize voters during Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, with a particular focus on Hispanics, who are much more likely than other Americans to be uninsured. About 7 in 10 Hispanic voters nationally and 6 in 10 in Florida voted for Mr. Obama last year, according to exit polls by Edison Research.
White House officials say the law will provide 10 million uninsured Hispanics with an opportunity to get affordable insurance. They account for 40 percent of the 25 million uninsured Americans expected to gain coverage in the next three years.
Texas and Florida refused to set up regulated marketplaces, known as exchanges, for the sale of subsidized insurance, leaving the task to the federal government. And they have refused to expand Medicaid to provide insurance for low-income people who do not already qualify.
Florida led legal challenges to the law, which was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Republican, said that expanding Medicaid would be like “adding a thousand people to the Titanic.” The expansion of Medicaid and the creation of an insurance exchange, he said, “represent brazen intrusions into the sovereignty of our state.”
But many local officials said they would help people take advantage of the law.
The chief executive of Dallas County, Tex., Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins, a Democrat, said: “The exchange is a tremendous opportunity to reduce the number of uninsured. It’s important that we move aggressively, as soon as possible, to get information to our citizens in a format they can use.”
Many people who could benefit from the law are unaware of it, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others. Early this month, Kaiser found that 79 percent of the public and 87 percent of the uninsured had heard little or nothing about the health insurance marketplaces, a centerpiece of the 2010 law.
To reduce those numbers, White House officials met recently with state library officials. Consumers often turn to public libraries for information about government services, and the American Library Association is telling its members to expect a “rush of patrons” who will need help completing insurance application forms.
“We are in the business of providing factual information,” said Maureen Sullivan, the president of the association.
In Texas, as in a number of states, counties have legal obligations to help pay for the care of the indigent. County officials see the federal law as a way to help reduce those expenses.
“More than almost anyone else,” Mr. Jenkins said, “we will benefit from a reduction in the cost of unreimbursed care, on which we spend $562 million a year. I have reached out to public relations firms, to hospitals, to insurance companies, to the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, to a lot of churches and religious institutions, and urged them to join our effort.”
Some Republicans will also spread the word.
Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington, Tex., a Republican, said he did not want to discuss the Affordable Care Act but did want to help people get “proper health care.”
“When the new health insurance system begins, it will be very complicated and very confusing,” Mr. Cluck said. “A lot of people will need a lot of help. Whatever we can do as community leaders, to help people understand the changes, it’s our responsibility to do.”
In Houston, State Representative Garnet F. Coleman, a Democrat, said, “We will hold events at zoos, museums and other sites where people can fill out applications and enroll on the spot.”
In Florida, two Democratic legislators, Representative José Javier Rodriguez of Miami and Senator Eleanor Sobel of Broward County, said they recently participated in a conference call organized by White House officials who sought their help in carrying out the law.
“We clearly do not have an ally in Tallahassee,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “So we are working directly with community groups and officials in Washington to make sure people here have access to affordable health insurance plans in the exchange.”
The White House said the administration had no choice but to bypass the governor’s office in states where Republican executives were balking. “Mayors are very, very involved,” a White House official said. “State legislators are very, very involved.”
Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, said: “It’s no surprise that the Obama administration is launching a public relations campaign to pump up their base about the implementation of Obamacare. It’s so incredibly unpopular that no amount of town halls or forums will stop the bleeding. This is their attempt at triage.”
Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said: “We are not opposed to county judges or county commissioners providing information to people about their options. But health insurance will still be too expensive for some people, even with federal tax credits, because President Obama has not delivered on his campaign promise to lower the cost of insurance.”
Dr. Thomas L. Schlenker, the public health director in San Antonio, said, “We will put some of our employees through 30 hours of training so they can identify people who are eligible for insurance and give them information on how to enroll.”
“We may assign some of our staff to sit with folks at computers and help them through the whole process,” Dr. Schlenker said. “It will be complicated. It will be confusing. But for the people who get connected to insurance, we are convinced it will do a lot of good.”
With open enrollment just months away, the White House and its allies are making a renewed effort to improve public perceptions of the law.
Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group that grew out of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, is running television advertisements that promote the law. Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the group, said it would spend at least $1 million on such ads.
Enroll America, a nonprofit group led by veterans of the Obama White House and the Obama campaign, said it would flood neighborhoods with volunteers, encouraging people to “get covered.” And it is trying to enlist sports stars and celebrities as spokespeople.
Chris Christie blocks Medicaid expansion for New Jersey
Friday, June 28, 2013 21:15 EDT
(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have expanded Medicaid eligibility under the healthcare law known as Obamacare, his office said on Friday, in an apparent reversal of position for the presumed 2016 Republican presidential hopeful.
Christie’s office announced he vetoed eight bills that “would add potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local budgets.” He also signed a $32.9 billion budget and three other bills, his office said in a statement.
Among the bills he vetoed was a Medicaid expansion under the U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law known as Obamacare.
Republicans have repeatedly tried to overturn the law since regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 election, making its repeal a centerpiece of their political opposition to the Democratic president.
While that has failed because Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate, many states led by Republicans have attempted to undermine the law by refusing to expand Medicaid, a program created by the federal government and administered by the states to pay for medical services for the poor.
Under Obama’s 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the federal government is offering to pay states 100 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid for three years beginning in 2014, declining to 90 percent in subsequent years.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obama’s healthcare overhaul but allowed states to opt out of a provision expanding the Medicaid program.
Christie, a critic of Obamacare, said in February he would accept federal money to expand Medicaid in New Jersey because if he did not the money would go to other states.
The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to requests to explain his apparent change.
Earlier this month, researchers said 14 Republican-led states that oppose expanding Medicaid under would leave 3.6 million of their poorest adult residents uninsured, at a cost of $9.4 billion per year by 2017.
The findings, published in the journal Health Affairs on June 3, did not include New Jersey among those 14 states.
Christie has emerged as a leading voice in the Republican Party and is seen as serious contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, should he decide to run. He is running for re-election as governor this year.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Eric Walsh)
Republicans enlisting sports world’s help against Obamacare
Friday, June 28, 2013 20:30 EDT
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is urging the National Football League and other professional sports leagues not to support President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law, calling Obamacare divisive and unpopular.
In a June 27 letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, McConnell and fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn accused the Obama administration of drawing the league into “one of the most divisive and polarizing issues of our day” by trying to enlist its help in promoting subsidized health coverage for millions of uninsured Americans.
“Given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of the health care law, it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion,” McConnell and Cornyn told the NFL.
The two lawmakers also sent similar letters to Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the Professional Golfers’ Association and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters on Monday that the administration was in discussions with the NFL and other sports groups.
“The NFL, for instance, in the conversations I’ve had, has been very actively and enthusiastically engaged because they see health promotion as one of the things that is good for them and good for the country,” she said.
But the league’s response to McConnell seemed less than enthusiastic.
“We have responded to the letters we received from members of Congress to inform them we currently have no plans to engage in this area and have had no substantive contact with the administration about (the law’s) implementation,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.
The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment.
The White House and HHS are reaching out to professional sports leagues, teams and players in hopes of encouraging young men and women to sign up for health coverage through new online markets that are slated to begin open enrollment on October 1.
McConnell’s letters represent a new line of Republican attack on Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted 37 times to repeal or defund the law, which they see as a costly and unnecessary expansion of government.
The party is now taking aim at administration efforts to rally private sector support, including fundraising by Sebelius on behalf of the non-profit group Enroll America, which is helping to lead a private-sector grassroots campaign aimed at driving enrollment.
Democrats and other reform advocates say Republicans are trying to undermine the law’s implementation ahead of the 2014 congressional elections, in which the party hopes to win control of the Senate.
Analysts say the ability of the online marketplaces, or exchanges, to attract younger beneficiaries will help determine whether Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement becomes a success or a failure.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Eric Beech)
[Image: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 18, 2013. By Yuri Gripas for Reuters.]