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« Reply #8340 on: Aug 26, 2013, 07:54 AM »

Peru's archaeologists turn to drones to help protect and explore ancient ruins

Remote-controlled aircraft can save months of survey work and defend against growing threat from miners and squatters

Reuters in Lima, Sunday 25 August 2013 13.34 BST      

In Peru, home to the spectacular Inca city of Machu Picchu and thousands of ancient ruins, archaeologists are turning to drones to speed up sluggish survey work and protect sites from squatters, builders and miners.

Remote-controlled aircraft were developed for military purposes and the US is increasingly using them to attack alleged terrorists, but the technology's falling price means it is increasingly used for civilian and commercial projects around the world.

Small drones have been helping a growing number of researchers produce three-dimensional models of Peruvian sites instead of the usual flat maps – and in days and weeks instead of months and years.

Speed is important to archaeologists here. Peru's economy has grown at an average of 6.5% a year over the past decade, and development pressures have surpassed looting as the main threat to the country's cultural treasures, according to the government.

Researchers are still picking up the pieces after a pyramid near Lima, believed to have been built 5,000 years ago by a fire-revering coastal society, was razed in July by construction firms. The same month, residents of a town near the pre-Incan ruins of Yanamarca reported that miners digging for quartz were damaging the three-storey stone structures.

And squatters and farmers repeatedly try to seize land near important sites such as Chan Chan on the northern coast, thought to be the biggest adobe city in the world.

Archaeologists say drones can help set boundaries to protect sites, monitor threats and create a digital repository of ruins that can help build awareness and aid in the reconstruction of any damage.

"We see them as a vital tool for conservation," said Ana Maria Hoyle, an archaeologist with the culture ministry.

Hoyle said the government planned to buy several drones and the technology will help the ministry comply with a new business-friendly law that has tightened the deadline for determining whether land slated for development might contain cultural artefacts.

Commercial drones made by the Swiss company senseFly and the US firms Aurora Flight Sciences and Helicopter World have all flown over Peru.

Drones are already saving archaeologists time in mapping sites – a crucial but often slow first step before major excavation work can begin. Mapping typically involves tedious ground-level observations with theodolites or pen and paper.

"With this technology, I was able to do in a few days what had taken me years to do," said Luis Jaime Castillo, a Peruvian archaeologist with Lima's Catholic University and an incoming deputy culture minister who plans to use drones to help safeguard Peru's archaeological heritage.

Castillo started using a drone two years ago to explore the San José de Moro site, an ancient burial ground encompassing 150 hectares (0.58 sq miles) in north-western Peru, where the discovery of several tombs of priestesses suggests that women ruled the coastal Moche civilisation.

"We have always wanted to have a bird's-eye view of where we are working," said Castillo.

In the past, researchers have rented small planes and strapped cameras to kites and helium-filled balloons, but those methods can be expensive and clumsy. Now they can build drones small enough to hold with two hands for as little as £650.

"It's like having a scalpel instead of a club. You can control it to a very fine degree," said Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist with Harvard University who has worked at San José de Moro and other sites in Peru. "You can go up three metres and photograph a room, 300 metres and photograph a site, or you can go up 3,000 metres and photograph the entire valley."

Drones have flown over at least six archaeological sites in Peru in the past year, including the colonial Andean town Machu Llacta 4,000 metres (13,123 feet) above sea level.

Peru is well known for the stunning ruins of the 15th-century Machu Picchu, probably a getaway for Incan royalty that the Spanish were unaware of during their conquest, and the Nazca Lines in southern Peru, which are best seen from above and were mysteriously etched into the desert more than 1,500 years ago.

But archaeologists are just as excited about other chapters of Peru's pre-Hispanic past, such as coastal societies that used irrigation in arid valleys, the Wari empire that conquered the Andes long before the Incas, and ancient farmers who appear to have been domesticating crops as early as 10,000 years ago.

With an archaeology budget of about £3m, the culture ministry often struggles to protect Peru's more than 13,000 sites. Only around 2,500 have been properly marked off, according to the ministry.

"And when a site is not properly demarcated, it is illegally occupied, destroyed, wiped from the map," said Blanca Alva, an official with the ministry charged with oversight.

Steve Wernke, an archaeologist with Vanderbilt University exploring the shift from Incan to Spanish rule in the Andes, started looking into drones more than two years ago.

He tried out a drone package from a US company that cost about $40,000 (£26,000). But after the small plane had problems flying in the thin air of the Andes, Wernke and his colleague, engineer Julie Adams, teamed up and built two drones for less than $2,000.

The drones continue to have altitude problems in the Andes, and Wernke and Adams now plan to make a drone blimp.

"There is an enormous democratisation of the technology happening now," Wernke said, adding that do-it-yourself websites such as have helped enthusiasts share information.

"The software that these things are run on is all open-source. None of it is locked behind company patents," he said.

There are some drawbacks to using drones in archaeology. Batteries are big and short-lived, it can take time to learn to work with the sophisticated software and most drones struggle to fly in higher altitudes.

In the US, broader use of drones has raised privacy and safety concerns that have delayed regulatory approval. Several states have drafted legislation to restrict their use, and one town has even considered offering rewards to anyone who shoots a drone down.

But in Peru, archaeologists say that it is only a matter of time before drones replace decades-old tools still used in their field, and that the technology can and should be used for less destructive uses.

"So much of the technology we use every day comes from warfare," said Hoyle. "It is natural this is happening."

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« Reply #8341 on: Aug 26, 2013, 07:58 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Hunt for near-Earth asteroids is new mission for slumbering NASA craft

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / August 23, 2013 at 6:23 pm EDT

NASA is getting set to rouse a slumbering spacecraft after a nearly three-year nap and hand it a new assignment: hunting for near-Earth asteroids.

The craft not only would keep a keen eye out for objects that could threaten Earth; it also would hunt for objects that might make a good target for a manned mission.

The center of attention is NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The agency launched it in December 2009 to survey the entire sky in a kind of reconnaissance mission for orbiting observatories such as the Spitzer Space Telescope – a far more powerful infrared observatory that could conduct the detailed follow-up observations of objects that WISE detected.

Much of WISE's science program focused on hunting for nearby brown dwarfs, dim star wannabes whose internal furnaces never quite got hot enough to ignite the stars. WISE also hunted for galaxies with high rates of star formation – galaxies typically obscured at optical wavelengths by thick cocoons of dust. And the craft was to provide data that would shed additional light on the formation and evolution of stars, planets, and galaxies.

The mission "was not originally designed to look for asteroids and characterize them," says Amy Mainzer, deputy project scientist for WISE during its initial mission and now the lead scientist for the dedicated asteroid hunt.

But it's well suited to the task. Near-Earth asteroids can approach Earth from all directions, so having a telescope that surveys the entire sky is a plus.

In addition, the telescope operates at infrared wavelengths, in essence detecting heat. This allows it to pick up dark asteroids that might be difficult or impossible for ground-based telescopes to spot, since such asteroids still re-radiate as heat the energy they receive from the sun.

Using infrared data, scientists can get a better idea of how many of these darker objects are out there. And it helps reduce uncertainties in estimates of the size of an object – estimates typically based on brightness. A small but highly reflective asteroid can have a similar brightness to a much larger but darker asteroid when viewed only at optical wavelengths, Dr. Mainzer explains.

By comparing the amount of visible light an asteroid reflects to the amount of infrared radiation it emits, researchers also can glean in general terms the asteroid's composition.

Toward the end of the original WISE mission, the craft ran out of coolant for two of its four infrared detectors. That left two others, which could operate at warmer temperatures. The infrared wavelengths that these two detectors covered were suitable for asteroid detection, so WISE became NEOWISE for the craft's near-Earth object search.

By the time the National Aeronautics and Space Administration put the craft to sleep in February 2011, the craft had discovered 21 comets, more than 34,000 asteroids out in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and 135 near-Earth asteroids.

Other than running out of the hydrogen ice needed to cool two of the detectors, the solar-powered craft had no other "expendables" left to lose and two good detectors remaining, making it a prime candidate for revival.

In the meantime, the Obama administration's budget for fiscal year 2014 included money for NASA to begin work on what's come to be known as the Asteroid Initiative. This combines a robotic mission to capture and park an asteroid in an orbit between Earth and the moon for later human exploration with efforts to find all the near-Earth asteroids that threaten Earth.

The threat struck home in a dramatic way in February, when a small asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere and exploded high over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. The blast damaged more than 7,200 buildings and by some estimates injured nearly 1,500 people.

Against that backdrop, "a few months ago NASA came to us and asked us for a proposal to reactivate" NEOWISE, Mainzer says.

Within the first two weeks of September, her team hopes to wake up the craft and check out its telescope for a three-year mission.

Time is not on the mission's side, however. The craft is in an orbit uniquely suited for its original mission – one that keeps the telescope pointed at deep space and the solar panels always facing the sun. Over time, however, this sun-synchronous orbit undergoes subtle changes. By 2017, the orbit will have changed enough to prevent the team from keeping the sun out of the telescope, rendering it useless.

"When that happens, the mission will really be over," Mainzer says. "The clock is ticking. That's why there was some urgency to get this restart on the road."

Mainzer acknowledges that NEOWISE isn't the slickest asteroid-hunter to ever grace a PowerPoint presentation. "It can do a good job, but it's limited in what it can do," she says.

Among her other activities, Mainzer, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is also the lead investigator for a mission concept called NEOCam – twice proposed for a NASA mission.

It didn't make the cut either time. But her team has received money to work on the detectors, with an eye toward submitting the proposal again, perhaps in 2015. The mission is designed to help meet a congressional mandate to find 90 percent of all near-Earth objects larger than about 500 feet across. The Chelyabinsk asteroid has been estimated at between 55 and 65 feet wide.

While NEOWISE will gather useful data, part of its value also lies in teaching her team how to operate future asteroid-hunting missions, she says.

That alone is worth the price of admission, suggests Harold Reitsema, an aerospace engineer who retired from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., and now serves as mission director for the Sentinel program. That program aims to launch and operate its own asteroid-hunting craft in 2017 or 2018. The project is run by the B612 Foundation, a 12-year-old nonprofit organization focused on the asteroid threat to Earth.

Sentinel's goal is to help achieve the congressional objective as well, while also identifying asteroids as small as 100 feet across.

"This is a good demonstration of the detectability of asteroids, especially the near-Earth asteroids," Dr. Reitsema says of a revived NEOWISE. "It's a great proof of concept for Sentinel."

To which Mainzer would probably add: for NEOCam as well.

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« Reply #8342 on: Aug 26, 2013, 08:02 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

In new concept video, NASA bags an asteroid to theme music

In an Armadggedon-like video, NASA outlines its controversial Asteroid Retrieval Mission.

By Elizabeth Barber, Contributor / August 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm EDT

NASA has released a new concept video that animates its ambitious plan, called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, to snag an asteroid and then send a manned spacecraft to sample it, all between the years 2018 and 2021.

The new video’s theme music is as dramatic as the political debate over NASA’s future that the mission has furnished, dividing congress along partisan lines over just how much the government is willing to spend on a plan that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has called one to “protect our home planet” and that Republican congressman Steven Palazzo has deemed a “costly and complex distraction.”

NASA’s new video shows the final bookend of its proposed mission, beginning with the launch of a manned Orion capsule toward an asteroid that a robotic capture vehicle has already bagged up out in space.

In the video, Orion hurtles through a space landscape stylized in celestial blues and purples in a trip that takes just nine days, thanks to a quick tour around the moon and a little help from its gravity. Once at the asteroid, Orion attaches to the robotic capture vehicle so that the team can exit the craft to sample and photograph the snagged asteroid, wrapped up in white material, like a bubble-wrapped gift. It takes ten more days for Orion to return to Earth, parachuting into the ocean.

In the video, the plan is neat and simple, going off without a hitch. But in Congress, there have been quite a few hitches.

In July, the House’s Science, Space and Technology committee voted 22 Republicans to 17 Democrats to bar NASA from going ahead with its asteroid mission, pegging the agency’s plan as vague, romantic, and overall lacking merit.

“While the committee supports the Administration’s efforts to study Near Earth Objects, this proposal lacks in details, a justification or support from the NASA own advisory bodies,” said Steven Palazzo, Chair of the Space Subcommittee (R-MS), in a statement from his office. “Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project and we will work with appropriators to ensure the agency complies with this directive.”

Instead, the House bill makes a visit to the moon, not an asteroid, a pit stop in a goal that has bipartisan support: ferrying humans to Mars. The bill also scales down NASA’s budget, offering just $16.8 billion for the fiscal year 2014. The president had asked for $17.7 billion, $100 million of which would go to the asteroid retrieval mission.

Still, the Democratic-controlled Senate has floated a separate bill proposing $18.1 billion in funding for NASA. That bill does not address the asteroid mission, but gives NASA the open language – and the funds – to do what it wishes.

NASA announced its asteroid retrieval mission in April, just a month after a meteor exploded above Siberia, injuring about 1,500 people. NASA’s telescopes had not seen the meteor coming, since the agency’s programs are largely focused on monitoring larger objects, and the event rung like an eerie alarm bell signaling just how vulnerable the planet is to the objects ringing the sun. As of June, NASA had tallied about ten thousand Near Earth Objects – asteroids and comets that come within 28 million miles of Earth’s orbit – though it has said that, at least so far as it knows, none of the objects are on an impact trajectory toward Earth.

NASA is still reviewing the some 400 responses it received to the Asteroid Challenge it issued in June in a call for the public to submit its asteroid-wrangling knowhow and to help NASA out. The agency plants to host a workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 to discuss those proposals and possibilities for incorporation into its mission design.

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« Reply #8343 on: Aug 26, 2013, 08:25 AM »

In the USA...

The Republican ‘defund Obamacare’ disorder shows their denial of political reality

By Michael Cohen, The Guardian
Sunday, August 25, 2013 13:56 EDT

The Republican party is not in a good place right now. They are historically unpopular (particularly House Republicans); they have no discernible governing agenda; they are under assault from their own supporters; they continue to say stupid things that upset key voting groups … and – guess what? – things are about to get even worse.

Case in point: the ongoing GOP obsession with Obamacare.

It’s now been three and half years since the legislation was signed into law; more than a year since it was upheld by the US supreme court, and nearly 10 months since Mitt Romney, running on a pledge to repeal it, was defeated in the 2012 presidential election. Yet, rather than accept the reality of Obamacare, the GOP’s effort to ensure that millions of Americans are prevented from receiving healthcare coverage and remain forever mired in financial and personal anxiety because of their lack of insurance continues unabated.

How to accomplish that, of course, is the hard part – particularly since Democrats control the Senate and the bill’s namesake is sitting in the Oval Office. Indeed, because of this political reality, Republicans have appeared lately to be putting aside their strategy of shutting down the federal government in October unless Obamacare is defunded.

But don’t pop those champagne corks too soon. Instead, they are now debating the idea of refusing to raise the debt limit in return for a White House agreement to “delay” implementing Obamacare. This is the political equivalent of “we’re not going to hold our breath until we turn blue and collapse now; instead, we’re going to wait a few additional weeks and then we’re going to hold our breath until we turn blue and collapse.”

Now, granted, if the GOP wants to knock themselves out (literally), who are we, as non-crazy and rational people, to stop them? Knock yourself out, GOP!

The problem, however, is that while shutting down the government would be bad for the country and disastrous for the GOP, it’s not the desired political Armageddon. Refusing to raise the debt limit – well, that’s something else altogether. So, instead of holding its breath, collapsing and perhaps suffering a nasty cut, the GOP would prefer to hold its breath, collapse and fall on a plunger – a la Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai – and blow up the whole goddamn bridge. (In this analogy, the bridge is a stand-in for the US economy.)

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a greater self-inflicted wound that Congress could impose on the nation than not raising debt limit. It would put at risk the full faith and credit of the United States and do grievous harm to the US economy.

The GOP’s new “defund Obamacare” strategy actually increases this terrifying possibility. By avoiding a government shutdown in October, Republicans will dodge the immediate political minefield of their own making. But at the same time, if Republicans agree to pass a budget and keep the government up-and-running (while getting nothing in return from the White House), it will further increase the pressure on the Republican leadership of Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to get something, anything, out of the White House when the debt limit ceiling needs to be raised.

The problem, of course, is that the President Obama has made clear he has no intention of negotiating over the debt limit – a mistake he made in the summer of 2011 that he dares not repeat again. That immovable obstacle makes the GOP’s efforts to defund Obamacare a largely fruitless exercise.

Democrats aren’t going to deal and they know (or, at least, strongly assume) that Republicans will give in eventually – and they are probably right. The GOP has negotiated itself into a completely untenable position: namely, one in which the last hostage they can take (the debt limit) they have no real intention of killing and no real interest in doing so.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t shoot the hostage by accident or out of rank, careless stupidity. That’s what makes this game so dangerous. But for Republicans, the danger is even greater – because while debt default can perhaps be avoided long-term, catastrophic damage to the GOP likely cannot. If Republicans let the nation default on its debt, they will pay a very heavy political price for doing so. It is almost certain that the American public will hold the GOP responsible.

But if Republicans give in on the debt limit/defund Obamacare strategy, they will not only have failed to stop Obamacare this fall, but they will also have failed to stop Obamacare, period. The law’s healthcare exchanges go into effect 1 October, and the law becomes fully enacted on 1 January 2014. Once that occurs, the train will have left the station and there will be no turning back.

For those Americans who can’t get health insurance or have an ounce of social empathy for their fellow citizens, this is an altogether good thing. For Republicans, it will be yet another sign of their impotence and their failure as a political party. And it will be made worse if Boehner and McConnell are forced to rely on Democratic votes to pass a clean debt limit extension.

The incandescent rage from Tea Partiers at yet another bout of failed brinkmanship will not be directed at Obama; it will be directed at their own leaders.

It’s already happening. This week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander joined Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell in finding himself under assault from a Tea Party primary challenge. Alexander is hardly a moderate (he even penned an op-ed this week defending his conservative bonafides), but in the increasingly radicalized GOP, he’s considered something of a Rino (Republican In Name Only). His crime: an apparent willingness to seek “compromise” with Democrats.

At the same time, conservative groups are now funding ad campaigns against Republicans in both the House and Senate for refusing to embrace the Tea Party’s suicidal defund Obamacare strategy. For Republicans who are in safe seats or in red states the biggest threat they face today is not from Democrats, but from their own supporters – and even more directly, from potential primary challenges. Considering how many “establishment Republicans” have lost Senate and House primaries to outside-the-mainstream Tea Party candidates in the past two election cycles, this is no idle threat.

So, while this intra-party challenge reduces the desire of Republicans compromise, it also makes them that much more vulnerable politically when they are forced to do so. It’s not difficult to imagine that when the smoke clears from this fall’s budget showdown and debt limit hostage-taking that Republicans will find themselves mired in full-scale civil war with Tea Party radicals who are even further emboldened to push their no-compromise agenda on the party.

Keep in mind, that’s the best possible outcome for Republicans. The worst one is that they blow up the US economy. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Ted Cruz Sabotages The Republican Campaign to Defund and Stop Obamacare

By: Jason Easley
Aug. 25th, 2013

By admitting on CNN’s State of the Union that he helps Texans sign up for Obamacare, Sen. Ted Cruz has sabotaged the GOP effort to defund the ACA with a government shutdown.


    CANDY CROWLEY: Will you, or have you helped those people?

    SEN. TED CRUZ: You know, we have not been getting significant calls in that regard. We have been getting significant calls from people saying please stop Obamacare. Please stop this train wreck.

    CROWLEY: Would you help someone who called and said I wanted to sign up?

    CRUZ: Look, we have a major constitutent services operation that helps anyone dealing with the government.

    CROWLEY: That includes signing up for something that you don’t believe in?

    CRUZ: Oh sure, sure. It’s the job of someone representing. You know, I’m honored to represent 26 million Texans, and dealing with the government is inherently frustrating, it’s inherently confusing and one of the things our office takes very seriously is trying to help Americans deal with the government.

If Obamacare is so evil, why is Sen. Cruz helping his constituents sign up for it? Cruz like all Republicans is refusing to tell people that they are now eligible to sign up for affordable health insurance, but if somebody calls his office and asks, he will be more than willing to help them out.

Cruz’s comments demonstrate that the Republican demagoguery on the law is just a load of hot air designed to turn out the Republican base. The reason why Cruz doesn’t get many calls in red state Texas from people wanting to sign up for the health insurance exchanges has nothing to do with the law itself, but is a demonstration of the effectiveness of the propaganda effort against the ACA in red states.

The number of calls he gets doesn’t matter. What matters is that Cruz is contradicting his position on the ACA.

This is the kind of thinking out loud that will get Cruz branded a heretic among the far right crowd that he is desperately courting for his potential 2016 presidential run. Cruz’s main issues have been getting rid of the IRS and Obamacare, and he just poked a big hole in his war against Obamacare image.

When pushed, Ted Cruz has to acknowledge by helping constituents who ask that the ACA is the law of the land. The Texas senator elevated himself to be being the most high profile congressional voice against Obamacare, so having him admit that his office will help constituents sign up for it is a death blow to the right wing movement to shutdown the government in order to defund the ACA.

Intentionally or not, Ted Cruz just stopped the effort to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government dead in its tracks.


Media critic: Al Jazeera appealing because it’s not identified with corporate interests

By Eric W. Dolan
Sunday, August 25, 2013 16:02 EDT

The Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera is an important contributor to the political landscape of the United States, according to the media critic for The Baltimore Sun.

“We have had a narrowing of the conversation about democracy, especially on television,” David Zurawik said Sunday on CNN. “Throughout the media, we’ve become sort of identified with corporate interests and with the powers that be. I think part of that is the economic crunch we have all gone through. Al Jazeera in general is oriented towards what is called global south, which is people south of the equator — people who have been the victims of colonization.”

“You know, in the Middle East, we say Al Jazeera is much more in touch with the street,” he continued. “Well, there’s a street in America, too, that a lot of television, a lot of network, a lot of cable is not in touch with. And in their first week, their first night, I saw them. They did a story on a woman who makes coats for homeless people. You know, in America, we drive right by the homeless. Driving in Washington today, how do the congressmen, how does the president drive down this street and not see what I see today? Al Jazeera sees it.”

The Al Jazeera America cable channel went live on Tuesday.

Watch video, uploaded to YouTube, below:


August 25, 2013

South Carolina City Takes Steps to Evict Homeless From Downtown


COLUMBIA, S.C. — In South Carolina’s capital, officials declare that their tree-lined Main Street, clogged with shops, banks, restaurants and hotels, is evidence that a long-sought economic revival has arrived.

But mere blocks north, a dozen or so of the county’s approximately 1,500 homeless people sit on a short wall near an empty parking lot, waiting for private shelters to open. They sporadically shout curses at passers-by while they smoke cigarettes and endure the summer humidity.

With business owners sounding increasingly worried about the threat they believe the homeless pose to Columbia’s economic surge, the City Council approved a plan this month that will essentially evict them from downtown streets.

The unanimous vote epitomized how Columbia’s dueling realities — a rush of self-confidence among political and business leaders and continuing poverty for others — have become driving forces of public policy.

Among metropolitan areas in the South, the nation’s fastest-growing region, Columbia is late to a boom period.

New Orleans rebounded after Hurricane Katrina and became a hub for start-up companies. Raleigh, N.C., has logged significant job gains. Greenville, S.C., transformed its downtown, earning the admiration of Columbia. And in Nashville, an investment company recently introduced an exchange-traded fund exclusively featuring area businesses.

In Columbia, which has branded itself “the new Southern hot spot,” residents say the city’s time has come.

They point to plans for the 181-acre campus that once housed the state’s mental hospital and will, over the next two decades, become a mixed-use development with an annual economic impact of more than $1 billion. Speculation is rampant that a minor-league baseball team will relocate to Columbia. Less flashy projects also abound, including the conversion of a vacant office building into housing for University of South Carolina students, some of the more than 780,000 people who live in the metropolitan area.

But business owners are warning that rising homelessness in Richland County — up 43 percent in two years, according to the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless, an increase many blame on an absence of affordable housing options and a sluggish national economy — is imperiling the area’s prospects.

“People are afraid to get out of their cars when they see a homeless person,” said Richard Balser, who owns a luggage store downtown. “They haven’t been a problem. They just scare people.”

Others offered more dire assessments. One executive cautioned the City Council in an e-mail that “our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe” and that it is “virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.”

Comments like those have galvanized city officials, whose controversial plan was widely supported by business leaders.

“If we don’t take care of this big piece of our community and our society, it will erode the entire foundation of what we’re trying to build in this city,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan, who wrote the proposal and has suggested moving Columbia’s homeless shelter as far as 15 miles from downtown. “What I see is a giant risk to business.”

Mr. Runyan has also cited a report from the police that showed increases in crime last year among the homeless, including assault and trespassing.

City officials have clashed about what precisely the Council approved during a marathon meeting, but Mr. Runyan said the intent of his strategy was to increase enforcement of existing vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail or leave Columbia.

Although those options were not detailed in Mr. Runyan’s emergency proposal, he said they were “implicit.” They are included in his permanent plan, which the Council will consider later.

Opponents of the emergency plan, which will keep the city’s 240-bed shelter open two months longer than the previous November-to-March schedule, have said it would do little more than degrade Columbia’s neediest.

“You’ve got to get to the root of the problem: why we’re homeless,” said Jaja Akair, a homeless man who spoke during a City Council session that stretched past 3 a.m. “You can’t just knock us to the side like we’re a piece of meat or a piece of paper.”

Turning to executives in the audience, Mr. Akair said: “Try giving us a shot. I guarantee you some of us would run your business better than you do.”

Other critics have warned that they are considering court challenges to the plan, which will take effect in September.

This summer, cities like Tampa, Fla., and Portland, Ore., have pursued aggressive policies against the homeless. But Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, characterized Columbia’s plan in an e-mail as “an extreme, highly disturbing example.”

Although Ms. Foscarinis’s group found in 2011 that cities were increasingly enacting prohibitions against activities like panhandling and loitering, researchers have questioned the efficacy of such tactics.

“These kinds of proposals are happening more and more around the country,” said Robert Adelman, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo. “But to me, all of these ordinances and policies just redistribute homeless persons. They don’t solve the problem of homelessness. You can’t jail people out of homelessness.”

Columbia’s efforts to support the wishes of local businesses have not been limited to the homeless initiatives. City leaders are also asking the courts to stop plans for a federal halfway house that would be near the widely anticipated mixed-use development on Bull Street, a project led by the same man credited with revitalizing Greenville’s downtown.

“We’ve got to make sure that every single thing we do focuses on continuing to attract advancement,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “Nothing can be a distraction.”

But Lori Brown, who owns a fabric store on Main Street, wondered if the city had misplaced its efforts. “People complain more about parking,” Ms. Brown said.


August 25, 2013

Challengers to South Carolina Senator Are Lining Up on the Right


LAKE WYLIE, S.C. — Some of the early shots in the Republican primary battle against Senator Lindsey Graham have been fired from this tiny community on the northern border of the state where the Civil War began.

A small group called Carolina Conservatives United, one of dozens organized loosely under the flag of limited government, low taxes and strict adherence to the Constitution, sent out images last week of a milk carton bearing Mr. Graham’s face and asked Gov. Nikki R. Haley to issue the state’s version of an Amber Alert to find its missing senator.

“Lindsey Graham has not been seen in the state of South Carolina for most of the last two years,” said Bruce Carroll, the chairman of the group.

Conservatives in South Carolina are eager to oust Mr. Graham, who has enraged the far right for, among other things, reaching across the aisle on immigration and supporting President Obama’s nominations for the Supreme Court. Tea Party supporters called him a community organizer for the Muslim Brotherhood when, instead of heading home for the Congressional break this month, he went to Egypt at the request of the president.

But to stand a chance against the politician who succeeded Strom Thurmond in 2003, conservatives will have to win a civil war of their own. At least 40 groups align themselves along Tea Party and Libertarian lines, and trying to unify them to topple the state’s senior senator will be no easy task.

So far, three people have stepped forward to challenge Mr. Graham in the June primary: State Senator Lee Bright; Richard Cash, a former Congressional candidate; and Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel and, at the moment, the challenger whose political star is rising the fastest.

Ms. Mace, the owner of a public relations firm in Charleston, prides herself on her social media skills. She has never run for office, but her story is familiar to many here. For a time, she became the face of gender integration when she graduated from the Citadel in 1999, an experience she followed with a 2001 book, “In the Company of Men: A Woman at the Citadel.”

Toughing it out at the formerly all-male military college makes her a perfect candidate for voters seeking a true conservative, she said.

“I feel like they are looking for someone who is very strong and who won’t waver,” she said in an interview last week. But Ms. Mace is also the biggest target so far, in part because of her connection to a political gossip Web site called FitsNews, which she helped create in her role as a Web designer and media manager.

Will Folks, once a press secretary for Representative Mark Sanford and a former political consultant for Governor Haley, runs the site, which consistently attacks the governor. In 2010, Mr. Folks claimed to have had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with Ms. Haley two weeks before the election in her highly competitive bid for governor.

The claims were never proved, and Ms. Haley, who is heading into a campaign for her second term next year, has long said it was just another example of underhanded South Carolina politics.

Suggestions of a connection to the Web site can quickly throw Ms. Mace off message.

“My opponents’ political operatives have started smearing me,” she said. “I’m talking about all of them. It says more about my opponents than it does about me.”

The smears, she said, began in Mr. Graham’s camp two months before she announced her candidacy. The others have joined in.

One is Mr. Bright, who endorsed Ron Paul in the state’s presidential primary and has used the Web site connection to attack Ms. Mace. He has also been at odds with Ms. Haley over ethics changes and strategies to keep Mr. Obama’s health care law from being implemented in the state. Mr. Bright tends to support extremely conservative legislation and introduced a bill in 2011 to have the state create its own currency if the Federal Reserve system collapsed.

Ms. Haley said she was not jumping into the battle over who should replace Mr. Graham. Speaking this month at the annual Red State gathering, organized by Erick Erickson, the founder of the conservative blog, the governor said: “I controlled Tim Scott. We’ll see what you do with the other one.”

She was referring to former Representative Tim Scott, a Tea Party favorite she appointed this year to the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who left to head the Heritage Foundation.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, which Mr. DeMint founded in 2008, took on Mr. Graham last week for suggesting that a government shutdown as a way to fight the Obama administration’s Affordable Health Care act would be “a bridge too far.”

Mr. Cash, a businessman and a social conservative from Piedmont in the vote-rich upstate region, is considered a sleeper in the race, said David Woodard, a longtime South Carolina political consultant who ran Mr. Graham’s Congressional campaign in 1994 and wrote the 2006 book “The New Southern Politics.”

“You got to look at their money, and the guy with the most money is Richard Cash,” Mr. Woodard said.

According to recent campaign finance records, Mr. Cash had about $250,000, including at least $200,000 of his own money. Ms. Mace said she raised more than $100,000 in her first two weeks. Mr. Bright has not filed any campaign finance papers.

Mr. Graham has $6.3 million. Although he declined to comment on his opponents, his campaign staff pointed out that tough opposition in a primary is nothing out of the ordinary in South Carolina.

“Lindsey Graham is a strong fiscal, social and national security conservative with the record to back it up,” said Tate Zeigler, a campaign spokesman.

But Mr. Cash is staking out a position as the most anti-abortion, Christian constitutionalist in the race.

He is certainly the most seasoned campaigner among the challengers, even though his first race was not until 2010, when he was one of six Republicans trying to capture an open Congressional seat. Although he was not well known, he ran a disciplined campaign that moved him into a runoff against Representative Jeff Duncan, Mr. Woodard said.

In meetings with Tea Party groups, Mr. Cash repeats a carefully honed slogan about his candidacy, which he says is built on three C’s: capitalism, Christianity and the Constitution.

The state’s traditional Republican leaders and political consultants say that it will take a deeply unified effort to mount a successful campaign against Mr. Graham, but that in South Carolina, an unpredictable state with one of the country’s largest number of prominent Tea Party politicians, it is not unthinkable.

The key is for one candidate to find a way to harness that power.

“Anybody who wants to look at all those groups with a broad stroke should think again,” said Matt Moore, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party.

This summer, dozens of conservative groups talked about finding the state’s Ted Cruz — a reference to the Texas senator whose long-shot, grass-roots victory in 2012 is considered a model among Tea Party supporters.

It remains to be seen whom that should be, said Paul Anderko, the president of the GPS Conservatives for Action PAC.

“We know it’s not going to be an easy fight, and people are just listening and waiting to find the right candidate,” Mr. Anderko said. “But South Carolina is a funny state. Sometimes incumbents do go down in flames.”


Republican Insiders Admit that the Party Has Become a Danger to Itself

By: Rmuse
Aug. 26th, 2013

In sane parts of the world people are commenting on the state of politics in the United States and like many Americans, even long-time conservative scholars, they describe Republicans as an “off the rails train wreck” or the vernacular equivalent, “batshit crazy.” Insanity, craziness, or madness is a spectrum of behaviors characterized by abnormal mental or behavioral patterns that may manifest as a person becoming a danger to themselves or others and it aptly defines the current crop of Republicans. Americans affected by Republican hijinks they call economic policies can attest to the danger Republicans are to the American people, and Republican insiders quietly admit that they are rapidly becoming a danger to themselves. However, unlike mentally dysfunctional people who are hardly to blame for defects that prevent their brain from processing normally, Republican insanity is self-inflicted and borne of their racial animus and irrational obsession over the people’s choice of an African American man as President.

It is difficult to choose any particular Republican behavior that qualifies them as insane to the point of becoming a danger to the people or themselves, and it is not because there is a dearth of items. Over the course of four-and-a-half years, they have inflicted damage on the economy and the people, and it  is all predicated on their opposition to any agenda or policy proposed or supported by President Obama; even if the ideas originated with Republicans. Recently there has been an uptick in their threats to impeach the President, and one of conservative’s favorite assertions is that President Obama has violated the Constitution and there are myriad lists floating around that demonstrate ignorance and insanity plaguing conservatives.

Some of the highlights conservatives cite as Constitutional violations are the President’s refusal to acknowledge state’s rights to nullify federal laws, Congress passing the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, congressional reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), congressional oversight of the NSA, the Senate immigration bill, and of course the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and ruled Constitutional by the conservative Supreme Court. It is the crazed Republican obsession with repealing, defunding, and eliminating the Affordable Care Act that poses the greatest danger to the American people, the government, and Republicans themselves and most defines their insanity.

The de facto leader of the attempt to undo the ACA is teabagger Jim DeMint, former senator and current president of the Heritage Foundation that is ironic in that it was Heritage that proposed major parts of the healthcare reform law they are obsessed with eliminating at any cost to the nation. Heritage Action, a group that takes conservative policy visions outlined by the Heritage Foundation  claims it provides a “unique combination of top-notch conservative policy analysis, a widely respected government relations team, and dedicated grassroots activists that advance conservative policies” that includes abolishing a healthcare law they once advocated. The group’s senatorial front men Rubio (R-FL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are leading an effort to shut down the government unless President Obama allows Republicans to defund the ACA. However, their efforts pose as much danger to the party as the government because some Republicans are not inclined to take part in shutting down the government or creating a credit default the crazies propose to force the President’s hand.

The obsession to defund the ACA or shut down the government has crazed conservatives framing the debate in apocalyptic terms to pressure other Republican lawmakers to back the effort or face teabagger wrath. The executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund said, “This about stopping the worst law that has ever been passed, something we believe will destroy the country, and not all Republicans are willing to stop it. We need to draw a line in the sand. Anyone who votes to fund ObamaCare should be replaced.” Heritage Action Communications director Dan Holler said, “Pretty much since 2011 and the debt ceiling fight there’s been an unwillingness to be aggressive and push conservative policy. On ObamaCare, arguably the biggest issue facing our country, they’re not willing to take the same principled stance.” Holler may not realize it, but he exposed why Republicans cannot govern, grow the economy, create jobs, or help lift an increasing number of Americans out of poverty. They are still fighting the healthcare reform battle they lost in 2010 and they are willing to create more harm for the people and themselves over a law that reduces the deficit, creates jobs, and insures 30-million Americans. It is nothing short of insane and some Republicans see the folly that may fracture the party in time for the 2014 midterm elections.

Speaker John Boehner indicated he wants a continuing resolution to keep the government funded, but even his proposal borders on lunacy because he proposes that Republicans boast to their constituents about their damaging cuts caused by the sequester. Doubtless, millions of Americans find little joy in what insane Republicans think of as success, but then again delusion is a symptom of insanity. Obviously Boehner is grasping for straws to brag about the sequester, but he is also aware that according to his pollster, more than half of Republicans oppose shutting down the government to defund ObamaCare. In fact, Heritage Action’s own push poll revealed that 52% of Americans favored leaving the health law in place that Heritage ignored and went on the attack to primary challenge Republicans unwilling to join their shut down effort.

Republicans targeted by Heritage are not amused by the effort to damage Republican electoral chances in 2014 for not jumping on the government shutdown and credit default bandwagon. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) asked why Heritage Action is spending $550K to attack Republicans like herself, and former communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said, “When you’re a so-called conservative organization that’s spending more money attacking Republicans than the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has, it’s time to look in the mirror. That’s not a constructive strategy, that’s a strategy of fratricide.” He is right, but that is the price Republicans pay for embracing crazy in 2010 to win congressional seats and they have no-one to blame but themselves; especially when their demented opposition to the health law inspired teabagger outrage they dreamt would usher in a new era of Republican dominance and a 2012 White House victory.

For some Democrats it may be entertaining to watch the political infighting among Republicans, but it does nothing but further the damage they are laying on the people that may be part of the bigger Republican plan. It is important to remember that the sequester is raping the economic life out of the American people and it appears Boehner is willing to use the insanity of the defund or shut down sect to keep the drastic cuts in place for nine-and-a-half more years. There is still the very real threat that the “crazier” Republicans will garner support to shut down the government or worse, refuse to raise the debt limit and create a credit default.

President Obama already told Republicans he is not going into hostage negotiations over the debt ceiling, but Republicans promised to hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to achieve their goals. With the debt falling faster than any time in 60 years, and eliminating the Affordable Care Act as their only goal and ransom demand, it is no stretch that Republicans fearing for their electoral lives will avoid becoming a danger to themselves and shut down the government and create a credit default; all because of their crazed opposition to the Affordable Care Act.


Colin Powell Blasts Republicans and Warns That Their Voter ID Scheme Will Backfire

By: Jason Easley
Aug. 25th, 2013

Gen. Colin Powell didn’t pull any punches on Face The Nation today, when he bluntly warned Republicans that their plan to suppress the vote through voter ID laws is going to backfire.

Bob Schieffer asked Powell about the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the general dropped a fact bomb. Powell said:

    The concern I have now is that many states are putting in place procedures and new legislation that in some ways makes it a little harder to vote. You need a photon ID, but you didn’t need a photo ID for decades before so is it really necessary now?

    They claim that there’s wide spread abuse and voter fraud, but nothing documents, nothing substantiates that. There isn’t widespread abuse, and so these kinds of procedures that are being put in place to slow the process down, make it likely that fewer Hispanics and African Americans might vote. I think they’re going to backfire, because these people are going to come out do what they have to do in order to vote and I encourage that.

Gen. Powell reminded his fellow Republicans for the millionth time that the country is getting more diverse, and that the minority will be the majority within the next generation. He said that Republicans don’t just need a new message. They need new substance.

Most Republicans view Powell as a traitor to the party because he endorsed President Obama in 2008, but the GOP would be in a lot better shape if they would listen to him.

Powell was exactly right. The Republican efforts to suppress the vote will backfire. People aren’t stupid. They know that the Republican Party is trying to disenfranchise them.

The right’s best chance at making their massive plan to suppress the vote work was their attempt to surprise implement it before the 2012 election. Now that people have had time to plan, this effort will most definitely backfire.

Instead of discouraging voters, Republicans are encouraging them to get out there and do what they have to do in order to protect their vote. There are organizations all across this country that are committed to helping voters get the identification that they need. Attorney General Holder is still fighting to protect voting rights, and recently challenged Texas’s plan to suppress the vote. Democrats have made the right to vote a central issue, and fighting for all Americans nationwide.

Maybe after Republicans get routed again by the Democratic nominee in 2016, they will begin to understand that they can’t suppress their way to the White House.

I’m with Powell on this one. I think the GOP’s suppress the vote scheme is destined to backfire and fail in spectacular fashion.


Prominent Female GOP Donor Says Republicans Assumed She Was the Secretary

By: Sarah Jones
Aug. 25th, 2013

A prominent female donor to the Republican National Committee in 2012 is breaking off to head a Super PAC called “Women Lead”, so that her agenda to get more women elected won’t get co-opted by the boys party.

Christine Toretti took over her grandfather’s drilling company, S.W. Jack Drilling Co., after her father died, and served as the finance co-chair of the Republican National Committee in 2012. In 2010, Politics Magazine named her one of the most influential Republicans in Pennsylvania. Yet, she tells Politico that at GOP dinners, she would often be the only woman and it was assumed that she was the then-RNC finance chair’s secretary.

Hello, 1950, where’ve you been?

From Politico:

    Toretti recalled that as she traveled the country raising money with then-RNC finance chair Ron Weiser, “At a lot of dinners I would go to, I was the only woman in the room and they would assume I was Ron’s secretary.”
    “I decided that if I was going to do this again, I was going to do it differently,” she continued. “Really, for me, it’s about getting more women at the table.”

They thought she was his secretary. Really.

THIS woman — “If she’s not the most powerful, non-elected woman in the GOP, I’d like to be introduced to one that is because I haven’t met them,” former Gov. Tom Ridge told PennLive.

I doubt anyone can explain to someone whose financial interests lay in the Republican Party’s deregulation fever that appealing to women who do not, say, own a drilling company, is going to be a bit tougher. And the number of women who do own a drilling company is not enough to win elections, by a long shot. There’s only so far you can go on the morality of hate and racism, especially when your party is taking aim at women’s freedom.

In some ways, Toretti seems like a woman who might get it. After all, she’s divorced and she has kids.

However, the very wealthy operate in a different legal arena than the rest of America. This is yet another example of how electing more ovaries does not necessarily mean that better policies for women will be enacted. Being female does not necessarily mean that you support equality, freedom and liberty for women (see Sarah Palin).

The Republican Party endorses laws that make it harder for single mothers and children. These are the issues Republicans should be addressing as they try to win back women. Toretti knows that female donors are hanging on to their money because they feel disenfranchised, telling Politico, “There are a lot of women we would meet with who have the capacity to write really large checks who feel disenfranchised by the party.” However, she seems to believe this sense of disenfranchisement centers around the abortion issue, which she is wisely leaving alone in her PAC.

It does not center around abortion. Women are fleeing the Republican Party because the party is obsessed with regulating their bodies, and stealing liberty and legal protections away from women every chance they get. Republicans are against equal pay, which might not matter when you are running your grandfather’s drilling company, but it matters very much when you work for someone else for a living.

Republicans are against healthcare for children, food programs for children of single parents, and much more. Republicans spend a lot of time denying the existence of rape or sexual harassment and trying to use the law to make it harder for a woman victimized by either.

And at the heart of the “abortion” debate is not a debate about abortion, but rather about if women can be trusted to make good decisions about their own bodies or if we should let politicians tell women and their doctors what they have to do. It’s a matter of freedom and liberty.

It’s not a surprise that Toretti doesn’t care that Republican men assumed she was the secretary. She is not relying on them to pass laws that will impact her. She is not relying upon them for a raise, or for the freedom to make her own medical decisions. She knows her family will always be safe from the tyranny of Republican big government overreach. Money assures that.

It is a surprise that Toretti doesn’t get how offensive that is to a woman who has no choice but to rely upon these Republicans to make decisions about her salary, her medical care, who she can have sex with and whether or not she will be tossed in jail for having a miscarriage.


Hillary Clinton Crushes All Republicans As Ohio Swings Towards Solid Blue

By: Keith Brekhus
Aug. 25th, 2013

A poll released August 23rd by Public Policy Polling reveals just how formidable a presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is and just how bad the GOP brand has become in the Buckeye State. Ohio, the quintessential swing state that went for George W Bush twice and then delivered narrow margins of victory for Barack Obama twice, is poised to become solid blue in 2016. If an election were held today in Ohio, Hillary Clinton would trounce Rand Paul 51-36 and crush Paul Ryan 52-36. Even Chris Christie would have trouble keeping from losing by double digits managing to lose to Clinton by a still decisive 45-36 margin. In fact, not a single GOP presidential hopeful polls better than 36 percent versus Clinton in Ohio, the ultimate must win state in presidential contests. Most amusingly, the Buckeye State’s Governor, John Kasich fares worst of all, losing by an epic 18 point margin to Clinton 53-35.

Apparently there is nothing like having a Republican Governor and legislature to help voters see the folly of voting GOP. Ohio voters oppose the recently signed restrictions on abortion rights 40-34.  Furthermore, the state’s voters also now favor gay marriage 48-42, a 29 point reversal from just two years ago when voters opposed same sex marriage by a 55-32 spread.  The state that John Boehner calls home and that once gave George W. Bush the necessary electoral votes to eke out an electoral college victory over John Kerry is in danger of being hopelessly lost for the GOP.

The Republican Party apparently learned nothing from the national drubbing Mitt Romney took in the 2012 election. Even in that contest Ohio was regarded as a toss up and Barack Obama’s margin of victory was less than three points, 50.58-47.6. To put the poll results in perspective, if Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul became their party’s respective nominees in 2016, and Clinton held her 15 point advantage, Ohio would deliver a bigger margin for the Democrats in 2016 than Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alaska or Montana did for the Republicans in 2012. The Republican Party has veered so far to the dysfunctional hard right that they run the risk of getting annihilated in the pivotal state of Ohio.

If the Republican Party cannot regain a sense of pragmatism and reason they are headed for humiliation in Ohio. The drubbing will be so thorough that even Karl Rove will not question Megyn Kelly’s judgement when FOX News calls Ohio for Hillary Clinton less than thirty minutes after the polls close. If the GOP does not reinvent itself and renounce some of their extreme positions on social and economic issues, they are headed for political disaster in the Buckeye State. Luckily for the Democrats, at this stage, the Republicans neither seem to notice nor care. If that apathy continues, Ohio will be colored a very deep shade of blue in 2016.

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August 26, 2013

Kerry Cites Clear Evidence of Chemical Weapon Use in Syria


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria last week was undeniable and that the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable for a “moral obscenity” that has shocked the world’s conscience.

In some of the most aggressive language used yet by the administration, Mr. Kerry accused the Syrian government of the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and of cynical efforts to cover up its responsibility for a “cowardly crime.”

Mr. Kerry’s remarks at the State Department reinforced the administration’s toughening stance on the Syria conflict, which is now well into its third year, and indicated that the White House was moving closer to a military response in consultation with America’s allies.

Administration officials said that although President Obama had not made a final decision on military action, he was likely to order a limited military operation — cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at military targets in Syria, for example — and not a sustained air campaign intended to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, or to fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict on the ground.

In the coming days, officials said, the nation’s intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad’s forces. The information could include so-called signals intelligence — intercepted radio or telephone calls between Syrian military commanders.

Officials said it was conceivable that military action could still be averted by a dramatic turnabout on the part of the Assad government, or by the Russian government that has been supporting it. But they said there were few expectations that this would happen.

Although the United States was consulting with allies, administration officials said they had largely abandoned hopes of obtaining any authorization for action in the United Nations Security Council, given the all-but certain veto from Russia.

In a move that reflected its differences with the Kremlin over a possible American-led military operation against Syria, the Obama administration has decided to postpone a coming meeting with the Russians on the crisis. A Russian delegation had been scheduled to meet this week in The Hague with Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary of state for political Affairs, and Robert S. Ford, the senior American envoy to the Syrian opposition, to discuss plans for a peace conference to end the fighting in Syria.

A senior State Department official said Monday night that the session would be postponed because of the administration’s  “ongoing consultations about the appropriate response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria.”

Other signs of Western momentum toward a military response also took shape on Monday. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, cut short a vacation to deal with Syria, and the foreign ministers of Britain and Turkey suggested that bypassing the United Nations Security Council was an option. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said inaction was unacceptable.

“The only option I do not envisage is to do nothing,” Mr. Fabius told Europe 1, a French radio station. France has been a close ally of the rebels seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster in the country’s civil war.

News media in Cyprus, where Britain maintains a military air base that is less than 100 miles from Syria’s coast, reported stepped-up flights there in recent days, although such activity may not have been unusual.

Mr. Kerry spoke hours after United Nations inspectors were finally allowed access to one of the attack sites, despite shooting from unidentified snipers that disabled their convoy’s lead vehicle. The inspectors still managed to visit two hospitals, interview witnesses and doctors and collect patient samples for the first time since the attack last week that claimed hundreds of lives.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement after the assault that he had told his top disarmament official, Angela Kane, who was visiting Damascus, to register a “strong complaint to the Syrian government and authorities of opposition forces” to ensure the inspectors’ safety. There was no indication that any inspection team member had been hurt.

Mr. Ban’s spokesman, Farhan Haq, told reporters at a regular daily briefing at United Nations headquarters in New York that the assailants, who had not been identified, fired on the first vehicle in the convoy, which was “hit in its tires and its front window.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “it was not able to travel farther.”

Antigovernment activists posted videos online of United Nations inspectors in blue helmets arriving in the Moadamiya area, southwest of the capital, where they were shown entering a clinic and interviewing patients.

The visit by the United Nations inspectors to the Damascus suburb, in a half-dozen vehicles escorted by Syrian security forces, came shortly after Mr. Assad denied that his forces had used poison gas.

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, published on Monday, Mr. Assad said accusations that his forces had used chemical weapons were an “outrage against common sense” and warned the United States that military intervention in Syria would bring “failure just like in all the previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day.”

Obama administration officials said that Mr. Kerry’s statement was calculated to rebut the claims made by Syria and its longtime patron, Russia, that the rebels were somehow responsible for the chemical weapons attack, or that Mr. Assad had made an important concession by giving the United Nations investigators access.

Mr. Kerry said that on Thursday he told Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, that if the Assad government had nothing to hide it should provide immediate access to the attack site.

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Mr. Kerry said. “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.”

For Mr. Kerry, the denunciation of Mr. Assad carries a personal edge. As a senator in 2009, he met with Mr. Assad in Damascus to explore the possibility of building a more constructive relationship with Syria after a long chill. On Monday he accused him of “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians.”

On Capitol Hill, top House and Senate Republicans called on the administration to confer with lawmakers before any military strike and to make the case to a skeptical public. The White House on Monday reached out to Speaker John A. Boehner after Mr. Boehner’s office noted publicly that he had not heard from the president on Syria.

“The speaker made clear that before any action is taken there must be meaningful consultation with members of Congress, as well as clearly defined objectives and a broader strategy to achieve stability,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner.

Others welcomed the signals from the administration that it was preparing to take action. Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Assad “has crossed more than a red line and the United States must act in the interest of our national and global security.”

In Israel, a senior government official made a similar argument and suggested that Iran would be monitoring how the United States and its allies responded.

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of international affairs, strategy and intelligence, told reporters at a briefing on Monday morning in Jerusalem that it was “crystal clear” that Mr. Assad’s forces used chemical weapons last week and called the United Nations investigation a “joke.”

Mr. Steinitz said Iran, which provided arms to the Assad government and sent members of its paramilitary Quds force to fight with the Syrian military, should also be held responsible.

In the latest round of American consultations on Syria, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Monday with Prime Minister Kevin M. Rudd of Australia about possible responses to the attack, and Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, met with a delegation of senior Israeli officials for talks that covered Iran, Egypt, Syria and other security issues.

The Israeli delegation was led by Yaakov Amidror, the chairman of Israel’s National Security Council and the national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even as the United States and its allies considered their next steps, the toll from the attack continued to mount.

Doctors Without Borders reported Saturday that 3,600 patients had been treated at three hospitals it supports for symptoms that appeared to stem from exposure to chemical weapons.

On Monday, the group said that 70 volunteers who had taken care of these patients in one of the hospitals had also become ill and that one had died.

Reporting was contributed by Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon; Rick Gladstone from New York; Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem; Alan Cowell from London; Andrew Roth and Noah Sneider from Moscow; and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.


Syria crisis: UK armed forces 'making contingency plans' for military action

No 10 says Britain and US will not be bound by findings of UN weapons team investigating chemical attack

Nicholas Watt, Tuesday 27 August 2013 11.26 BST

Britain's armed forces are making contingency plans for a possible military strike against the Assad regime to deter the "abhorrent" use of chemical weapons, Downing Street has confirmed.

Amid expectations that David Cameron will announce that parliament is to be recalled later this week to discuss the Syrian crisis, No 10 indicated that Britain and the US would not be bound by the findings of the UN weapons team which inspected the Damascus suburb hit in the chemical attack.

In a sign of the increased pace of activity, the prime minister's spokesman said plans for a military strike were under way. The spokesman said: "I am not going to get into details on any specifics. All I would say is it is reasonable to assume that our armed forces are making contingency plans."

Downing Street said any military action would be designed to act as a deterrent against the future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and by others around the world. The prime minister's spokesman said any action would be fully in line with international law.

"Any use of chemical weapons is completely abhorrent and against all international law," the spokesman said. "In terms of endgame, this is about looking at how we deter the use of chemical weapons because this is something that is completely abhorrent and against all international law. This is about deterring the use of chemical weapons."

Downing Street, along with the US and France, is waiting to see the findings of the UN inspectors who saw the sites of alleged chemical attacks in the east Ghouta region of Damascus on Monday. But the allies would not be bound by the UN findings.

The No 10 spokesman said: "We will see what the UN produces. But, as the foreign secretary has said, it is possible that given the regime prevented that UN team from going in on day one, the evidence from the site could well have been tampered with, moved or degraded."

The spokesman said this would be considered alongside the evidence that had been amassed by Britain, the US and France. Asked whether the response to the chemical attack would depend on the UN findings, the spokesman said: "Yes. What I am saying is there is a process that is going on. We are in discussions with our international partners looking at the evidence that is available."

The remarks by No 10 indicate that military action could take place without UN evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. Britain has also made clear that it is prepared to act without a UN security council resolution because this would be vetoed by Russia. William Hague made clear on Monday that action would be allowed under international law which bans the use of chemical weapons.

It is expected that Cameron will announce on Tuesday that parliament will be recalled later this week. The spokesman said: "The prime minister's view has been consistent throughout, which is that it is important that parliament has an opportunity to debate and discuss these very important matters."

Michael Gove, the education secretary, suggested the decision on military strikes in Syria was one for Cameron and his advisers, rather than parliament.

"I think the decision about how the government is going to respond to the horrendous humanitarian atrocities we have witnessed is one which is properly taken by the prime minister and the members of the national security council," he said after a speech in central London on Tuesday.

"I know the prime minister has said in the past he respects the right of the House of Commons to be kept up to date. I don't think there has been any foreign secretary who has been as assiduous in keeping the House of Commons up to date with not just what's been happening in Syria but with what's been happening elsewhere in the Middle East as William Hague.

"So, I am absolutely confident the prime minister and the foreign secretary are the right people to be leading at this time and I think their response so far has been absolutely right in the face of what are horrendous crimes."


Iran warns west against military intervention in Syria

Tehran threat comes as John Kerry says US would respond to 'undeniable' use of chemical weapons by Assad regime

Paul Lewis in Washington, Martin Chulov in Beirut, Julian Borger and Nicholas Watt   
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 August 2013

Iran has warned that foreign military intervention in Syria will result in a conflict that would engulf the region.

The threatening rhetoric from Tehran came in response to a statement by the secretary of state, John Kerry, on Monday that the US would respond to the "undeniable" use of chemical weapons in Syria.

In the strongest signal yet that the US intends to take military action against the Assad regime, Kerry said President Bashar al-Assad's forces had committed a "moral obscenity" against his own people.

"Make no mistake," Kerry said. "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapon against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny".

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Araqchi, indicated it was equally resolved to defend Assad.

"We want to strongly warn against any military attack in Syria. There will definitely be perilous consequences for the region," Araqchi told a news conference. "These complications and consequences will not be restricted to Syria. It will engulf the whole region."

Shi'ite Iran is Syria's closest ally and has accused an alliance of militant Sunni Islamists, Israel and western powers of trying to use the conflict to take over the region.

The White House immediately echoed Kerry's comments, and said it would release an intelligence assessment about the use of chemical weapons in the coming days.

"The fact that chemical weapons were used on a widespread basis, against innocent civilians, with tragic results is undeniable," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "And there is very little doubt in our minds that the Syrian regime is culpable."

He added that while the president is still considering the appropriate response, he had already concluded that the attack constituted a "horrific violation of an international norm".

Pressed on whether the US would take military action, Carney said the last time the administration determined chemical weapons had been used, "on a smaller scale", it had decided to provide opposition fighters with assistance. On that occasion, in June, the US announced the CIA would begin supplying rebel groups with small arms and ammunition.

"The incident we're talking about now is of a much more grave and broader scale, and merits a response accordingly," Carney said, adding that the attack in Damscus was "obviously significantly more serious, with dramatically more heinous results".

The hardening of Washington's response came on a day which saw the UK, France, Germany and Turkey join the calls for intervention. David Cameron cut short his holiday in Cornwall to return to work in Downing Street on Tuesday ahead of a meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday. However, Russia maintained its opposition to military action, with its foreign minister appearing to rule out becoming embroiled in any conflict.

On Monday night the rift between Russia and the western allies appeared to deepen when the White House postponed a meeting with diplomats from Moscow that had been scheduled for Wednesday in The Hague.

Washington said the high-level talks meant to discuss a Syria peace conference, had been put off because of "ongoing consultations" over the alleged chemical weapons attack But Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, said it was a "regrettable" decision that the US had taken unilaterally.

Kerry said that Obama was liaising with world leaders to determine the appropriate response to an "indiscriminate use of chemical weapons" in Syria, but provided no timetable, and no further indication about what form any US-led action might take.

On Monday night the White House announced Obama had spoken with Kevin Rudd, the prime minister of staunch wartime ally Australia, about the Syrian situation and "possible responses by the international community".

Australia takes the rotating chair of the UN security council from Sunday. Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday, Rudd said: "I do not believe the world can simply turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population resulting in nearly 300 deaths, or more, and some 3,600 people hospitalised."

UN inspectors were able to access some of the alleged sites of chemical attacks in the east Ghouta region of Damascus on Monday, but had to cut short their trip after regime officials warned that they could not guarantee the inspectors' safety.

The UN team collected some biological and environmental samples but refused to accept other samples of blood and urine that had already been taken by medical workers, presumably because they were unable to verify their source.

Earlier in the day two mortars landed near the Four Seasons hotel where the inspectors are staying before they set off for east Ghouta, and on the way there their convoy was hit by gunfire as they crossed the buffer zone from the regime-controlled centre of Damascus to the rebel-held east of the city.

The presence of the inspectors had been a central demand of the UN and their belated permission to enter the affected areas did little to calm the situation.

A build-up of military aircraft on RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus suggested that planning had reached a developed stage. With Russia and China likely to block a UN resolution, the UK and US have both signalled that they are prepared to act without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN's "responsibility to protect".

Earlier the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was outspoken over the necessity to act if his inspectors found evidence of chemical weapons use. "If proven, any use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is a serious violation of international law and an outrageous crime. We cannot allow impunity in what appears to be a grave crime against humanity," he said.

Under the terms of its mandate negotiated in the security council, the UN inspection team under Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom, can determine whether chemical agents have been used, but not who has used them.

Kerry said that regardless of the outcome of the UN weapons inspections, the US had already concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons. "Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass," he said "What is before us today is real. And it is compelling."

Chemical weapons could only have been used by Assad's forces, which has "custody" over chemical weapons in the country, Kerry said. He added that failure to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors for five days, and its decision to shell the affected neighbourhoods, "destroying evidence", indicated an attempt to conceal the truth. "That is not the behaviour of a government that is has nothing to hide," he said. "That is not the behaviour of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons".

"Our sense of basic humanity is offended, not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up," Kerry said. He said the decision to allow weapons inspectors to the scene of the attack on Monday "is too late, and is too late to be credible".

"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world," Kerry said. "It defies any code of morality. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standards, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable," Kerry said, adding that the US and its allies had gathered more information about the atrocity which it would release in the "days ahead".

In Britain, No 10 said that the prime minister earlier clashed with Vladimir Putin over whether the Assad regime was responsible for the attack. In a telephone conversation, the Russian president said Moscow had no evidence as to whether such an attack had taken place – or who was responsible – after Cameron said there was "little doubt" that the Syrian regime was responsible.

Nick Clegg has cancelled a trip to Afghanistan to allow him to attend the NSC amid a growing expectation that parliament could be recalled before the end of the week to allow MPs to debate developments in Syria.

William Hague, who insisted Britain shared a common position with the US and France, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have tried those other methods – the diplomatic methods – and we will continue to try those. But they have failed so far."

Meanwhile, General Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the UK defence staff, discussed military options with his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, and other allied military chiefs at a military summit in the Jordanian capital Amman.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The chief of defence staff has met with General Dempsey in Amman as part of pre-planned talks with the Americans and other allies to consider how the international community should best respond to the ongoing crisis in Syria.

"As you would expect, the discussions have focused on the chemical weapons attack in Damascus last Wednesday. No decisions have been taken – as we've said, we are looking at all the options."

On Monday night, British government sources were downplaying expectations that a strike could be imminent. They said that Britain and the US wanted to consider the findings of the UN weapons inspectors with care before deciding whether to act. Downing Street said it would consult attorney general Dominic Grieve on the legalities of intervention.

However, it seemed unlikely on Monday night that the findings of the UN inspection team would heal the deep rift over Syria in the UN security council. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be "a crude violation of international law." He compared the situation to the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Asked what Russian would do if missile strikes were launched, he appeared to rule out military retaliation, saying Russia is "not planning to go to war with anyone".

In a reminder of the potential for any military action to escalate across the Middle East, Israel warned that it would hit back if there were any Syrian reprisals in the wake of western air strikes. The Israeli minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, said on Monday: "If we are under attack, we will protect ourselves and we will act decisively."

In Paris, France's president, Francois Hollande, said it was unthinkable that the international community would fail to respond to the use of chemical weapons, telling the Parisien newspaper: "Everything will be decided this week."

• Additional reporting: Mona Mahmood, Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Constanze Letsch in Istanbul, Kate Connolly in Berlin, Alec Luhn in Moscow, and Kim Willsher in Paris


Syria crisis: warplanes spotted in Cyprus as tensions rise in Damascus

Signs of advanced readiness at likely hub of air campaign as UN inspection team comes under fire near site of alleged chemical attack

Martin Chulov in Beirut, Mona Mahmood and Julian Borger   
The Guardian, Monday 26 August 2013 19.51 BST

Warplanes and military transporters have begun arriving at Britain's Akrotiri airbase on Cyprus, less than 100 miles from the Syrian coast, in a sign of increasing preparations for a military strike against the Assad regime in Syria.

Two commercial pilots who regularly fly from Larnaca on Monday told the Guardian that they had seen C-130 transport planes from their cockpit windows as well as small formations of fighter jets on their radar screens, which they believe had flown from Europe.

Residents near the British airfield, a sovereign base since 1960, also say activity there has been much higher than normal over the past 48 hours.

If an order to attack targets in Syria is given, Cyprus is likely to be a hub of the air campaign. The arrival of warplanes suggests that advanced readiness – at the very least – has been ordered by Whitehall as David Cameron, Barack Obama and European leaders step up their rhetoric against Bashar al-Assad, whose armed forces they accuse of carrying out the chemical weapons attack last Wednesday that killed many hundreds in eastern Damascus.

The standoff between Syria and the west intensified when a UN inspection team came under sniper fire as it approached the site of the suspected chemical weapons attack.

A spokesman for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the vehicle was "deliberately shot at multiple times" by unidentified snipers while travelling in the buffer zone between rebel and government-controlled territory.

After replacing the vehicle, the team returned to the area, where they met and took samples from victims of the apparent poisoning. The attack on the inspectors came shortly after Ban said there could be "no impunity" for the use of chemical weapons, saying the international community owed it to the families of the victims to take action in Syria.

Speaking in Seoul, Ban said the UN inspection could not be delayed. "Every hour counts," he said. "We have all seen the horrifying images on our television screens and through social media. Clearly this was a major and terrible incident."

A Syrian doctor who runs a makeshift medical clinic in the Mouadamiya district of west Ghouta in Damascus, where the chemical weapons attack is said to have taken place, spoke to the Guardian by Skype after meeting the inspection team.

"The UN inspection committee was supposed to come at 10am today," Dr Abu Akram said. "The route between the Four Seasons Hotel [where the inspectors were staying] and Mouadamiya is only 15 minutes. But UN convoy was targeted by gunfire and when they are arrived we could see bullet traces on their cars. They arrived at 2pm."

He said there had been doctors with the UN team, who took blood and urine samples, as well as strands of hair, from the victims in the hospital. They also recorded statements on from the victims on video.

"They visited the hospital and talked to more than 20 victims," he said. "They were supposed to stay for six hours but they stayed for an hour and a half only."

Akram said he then accompanied the team to the site where a chemical rocket had fallen, where they collected samples from the soil and animals. "They took a chicken [but] they refused to take the chemical rocket," Akram said, speculating that the Syrian regime had refused permission for the team to take military hardware.

After an a hour and a half, the inspectors received an order from the Syrians to leave immediately, he said. "The security forces told the committee if they do not leave now, they cannot guarantee their security. They could not visit the main six sites where the chemical rockets had fallen and lots of people were killed," he added.

Akram said his clinic had received about 2,000 victims of the gas attack, about 500 of them in a critical condition. "Eighty people were pronounced dead at the hospital and I now have 20 victims in intensive care, he said."

The UN team spoke to his patients and asked them where they had been when the rockets landed. "Most of the people were civilians, sleeping at their homes," he said. "The committee did not visit any house in the district. We asked them if they could supply us with medical aid but they said that they do not have the authority to do so."

Likely targets in Syria Likely targets in Syria

The US, Britain and their allies are likely to wait until the UN team has compiled its report and left Syria before carrying out any air strikes against the government. If the strikes go ahead, they are expected to focus on the strongest sinews of the Assad regime's power.

Hitting stockpiles of chemical weapons could appear more proportionate but that would bring with it the risk of dispersing neurotoxins over a wide area, potentially causing even more harm than Wednesday's gas attack.

For that reason, military experts think that if the western allies do decide to strike, they will aim to deliver a punishment and a deterrent against any further chemical weapons use.

To do so, they will probably concentrate their fire on the regime's greatest strength – the elite units on which it relies militarily and which are most tied to its chemical weapons programme.

Foremost among these is the 4th armoured division, an overwhelmingly Alawite formation headed by the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. It has its headquarters in the Mazzeh military complex in the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Another likely target is the regime's Republican Guard, another Allawite diehard unit, which is deployed around the presidential palace and in the Qasioun military complex to the north of the Syrian capital.

Much will depend on whether the chosen option is a strictly limited strike with a handful of cruise missiles, intended as demonstration of intent, or a more complex, further-reaching campaign involving waves of stealth bombers.

That would involve a huge amount of ordnance being targeted at Syria's substantial air defences, which include multiple arrays of Russian-made missiles. Such a campaign would dramatically increase the risk of causing casualties among civilians and perhaps even Russian advisers, who western intelligence officials say are present in Syria helping the regime's troops train on and maintain the anti-aircraft missiles.

Both options have shortcomings. The more limited version could be rejected by the regime's friends and foes as "pin-prick strikes" with political rather than military significance. The longer, more complex option threatens to drag the US, Britain and their allies into a more open-ended conflict that would help Assad to define his role as a bulwark of resistance against western imperialism.


08/26/2013 06:52 PM

Assad's Cold Calculation: The Poison Gas War on the Syrian People

By Hans Hoyng and Christoph Reuter

Evidence clearly suggests that Syria's president has deployed chemical weapons. The latest poison gas attack should set aside once and for all any reservations about military intervention. The credibility of Western countries is on the line.

Why exactly, Syrian President Bashar Assad asked in mid-June, were so few people killed in the chemical weapons attacks he had allegedly ordered? The United States government had cited a death toll of 100 to 150 a few days earlier. But it would be "illogical," Assad pointed out, to kill such a small number of enemies with chemical weapons, since they could easily be killed "using conventional weapons" instead.

Indeed, the use of weapons of mass destruction to kill a handful of civilians or rebels instead of against masses of people contradicts the common conception of these types of weapons.

Nevertheless, weeks earlier, a well-known poison gas expert voiced his suspicion in an off-the-record conversation that minimal use of chemical weapons was seen as the best way get the West used to its deployment -- triggering an ongoing international dispute over whether nerve gas was being used at all. The expert said that, at some point, "the commotion over the use of chemical weapons per se" would "have dissipated."

"Assad has been extremely calculating with the use of force," former US Army intelligence officer Joseph Holliday wrote in a study for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "He's introducing chemical weapons gradually."

Eventually, according to the plan, he would then follow this up with a major attack and continue until he felt strong enough to follow in the footsteps of other dictators, including his father, who had no scruples about mowing down opposition strongholds. During the massacre in Hama, for example, up to 10,000 people reportedly died under the orders of Assad's father. Another precursor was former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops murdered 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack on the city of Halabja 25 years ago.

Has the West become so accustomed to daily violence that Assad can now expect Western politicians to look the other way when small children die after suffering muscle convulsions, tears shooting from their eyes and foam from their noses and mouths?

Can we look away when we see the small girl from a Damascus suburb, in a T-shirt embroidered with glittering thread, captured in an image so heartbreaking SPIEGEL decided to show only a suggestion of the brutality of her death on its cover?

The real question is this: Has Assad's plan worked? Was this the major strike, the prelude to an even more brutal war that experts had warned would happen -- and that the world, already accustomed to so many images of violence from Syria, will watch with pity but ultimately not do anything about? Or will something change, and Aug. 21 go down in history as the moment when a new level of brutality forced the world to react? Even President Barack Obama, who has thus far avoided any military response to the cruelty of the Assad regime, is now considering the use of cruise missiles against Damascus.

A Crime Against Humanity

What happened last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus doesn't just add another 1,000 dead to the more than 100,000 victims to date. It was mass murder, a crime against humanity that is outlawed for good reason. Poison gas doesn't just target soldiers, it affects civilians, including women and children -- giving them no opportunity to defend themselves or flee, instead quietly and indiscriminately killing everyone.

The first reports of the morning, about hundreds of dead and injured in various suburbs to the south and east of Damascus, were followed by videos of gruesome scenes: corridors and rooms full of half-naked and outwardly unharmed bodies, people trembling and uncontrollably salivating and gasping for breath. Doctors and volunteers were shown wading through water among the dead and pouring water on newly admitted victims, both to wash the poison off them and avoid falling victim to it themselves.

At about 3 a.m., rockets fell to the ground in several parts of the East Ghouta district east of Damascus, as well as in Darayya and Muadhamiya in the southwestern part of the city. Witnesses later said that there were no massive explosions.

One of the rockets, which struck on the edge of the town of Zamalka, left no crater and, instead, remained stuck in the ground largely intact. It was the same type of rocket that had been used in earlier presumed chemical attacks, but not an internationally known model. Rescuers later pulled only dead bodies out of undamaged houses near the impact site. There, barns contained dead chickens and the gardens, dead sheep.

A doctor from Irbin and a volunteer from Douma said that it wasn't until the mosque loudspeakers repeatedly announced warnings of a gas attack and residents were told to keep all doors and windows closed that they realized what had happened. "I was familiar with the patients' symptoms from earlier attacks," doctor Abu Akram recounts from the emergency hospital in Irbin. "People are externally unharmed, but they are foaming at the mouth and trembling, and their heartbeat becomes weaker and weaker. It was only a few victims in the past, but this time it was hundreds. They were lying on the floors of the treatment rooms, in the corridors, everywhere, and more and more kept coming. One after another, the patients around us lost consciousness. We injected atropine," a drug used to counteract the effects of Sarin nerve gas, "until we ran out. Then we used hydrocortisone, and finally we dripped onion juice. Most were revived, but 73 people died."

'We Lied to the Ambulance Drivers'

They had wanted to document and photograph every dead person, says Akram, "but we kept getting new patients on Wednesday, while family members were simultaneously picking up the dead." By Thursday evening the hospital in Irbin had nevertheless compiled a file of all the bodies, 41 identified and 32 unidentified, including many children. The task was complicated by the fact that most of the victims came from the nearby town of Zamalka but had been taken to Irbin, where the hospital is better equipped. The bodies were also later taken to Zamalka and laid out in front of the central mosque, so that family members could identify the dead.

Under Islamic religious law, the dead must be buried within a day, but it is almost impossible to simply leave bodies lying in the mid-August heat without electricity and cooling anyways. Many of the dead had already been buried by Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, often in mass graves.

The volunteer from Douma had already taken 13 wounded and dead victims to the hospital in his pickup truck when he too collapsed. "I was wearing a gas mask, but I didn't know that skin contact can also be deadly. Men wearing gloves tore off my clothes, hosed the others and me down with the hose from a fire truck, and gave us atropine injections. I was unconscious for an hour. When I came around, at about six, people were still being brought in. Many were completely disoriented and didn't know where or who they were. A little boy kept screaming at his mother: 'You are not my mother.' It was very eerie." According to the volunteer, about 150 residents were killed.

"We lied to the ambulance drivers," says the distraught logistics expert at the hospital in Muadhamiya. "They were afraid and had no gas masks, but we told them that it was already safe to drive to the site. What else could we have done? There were seven of them. Three came back." There hadn't yet been a chemical attack in the small town southwest of Damascus. The hospital was prepared, but not for such a large casualty count. "Besides, we couldn't reach the houses, because the artillery bombing began at about 7 a.m., and snipers were shooting at every car near the front. For a while we heard the sounds of people from a distance, but then it became silent."

Soaring Death Toll

It is still unclear how many people died in the attack. According to the opposition in exile, the figure is 1,300. By Friday morning, about 300 of the dead had been identified, but information from several villages was still missing. Another 200 victims, mostly children, have not yet been identified. In several places near the front line, dozens of bodies were reportedly still lying in their houses.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, promptly denied the attacks, saying that all reports on the use of chemical weapons were "fabricated." But the large number of videos from the hospitals, of which 130 were posted on YouTube within a day, make it difficult for experts to conclude that poison wasn't used. Various experts, including Belgian chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders, Stefan Mogl of the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection and Alistair Hay of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, agreed that the combination of the symptoms of many patients was unmistakable and could not be simulated.

Experts say it's still unclear exactly which chemical agent was used, but the symptoms resembled those from earlier attacks. After those attacks, soil and body samples tested in French and British laboratories came out positive for sarin.

Who Will Stop Assad?
But why would Assad's army use these weapons two days after a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts arrived in Damascus? And only a few kilometers away from the hotel where they were staying? The Russian government, which initially characterized all news of the attack as "provocation," concluded that merely the presence of the UN inspectors in Damascus was sufficient proof that government troops couldn't have been behind the attacks. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is now also calling for an explanation from Assad.

Assad has belatedly given UN inspectors access to the site of the most recent attack, but, according to a senior Obama administration official the offer was "too late to be credible" because the delay had allowed evidence to decay. A vehicle belonging to the UN inspectors in Damascus was "deliberately shot at" by snipers on Monday, according to the United Nations. A UN spokesperson said the shooting had taken place in the area between rebel and government control.

Assad supporters also pointed out that the extremist Al-Nusra Front, which his aligned with al-Qaida, had gained control of the region east of Damascus and captured a chlorine gas plant there.

But experts doubt the rebels could have weaponized the chemicals found there. As poison gas specialist Stephen Johnson points out, enormous amounts of chemical agents are needed to kill hundreds of people, a feat impossible for the insurgents to pull off.

US reporter Jeffrey Goldberg suspects a completely different motive behind the attack: "Assad believes that no one -- not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League -- will do a damn thing to stop him. There is a good chance he is correct."

Drawing a Red Line

The Syrian regime was suspected of moving parts of its chemical weapons arsenal about one year ago, at which point a spokesman for the US Pentagon first used the words "red line." The spokesperson said the administration was discouraging the Syrian regime from using these weapons, and if the "red line" was crossed, that action would be taken seriously.

Ten days later, the regime in Damascus admitted for the first time that it had chemical weapons. But it also claimed that Syria only intended to use the weapons to defend itself against foreign enemies. Before that point, that had been a state secret, even through experts had long assumed that Assad's military possessed large amounts of chemical weapons. The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, estimates Damascus has up to 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including 700 tons of sarin, as well as mustard and VX gas.

After the statement from the Pentagon spokesman, the US government repeatedly warned the Assad regime against using chemical weapons. On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama himself used the term "red line," saying there would be "enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons."

French President François Hollande also stated that the use of poison gas would be a "legitimate reason for direct intervention." In September, when there was growing evidence the Syrian army was beginning to move chemical weapons, then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed that Washington had sent a contingent of 150 troops, mostly special operations forces, to Jordan to help keep an eye on Syria's chemical weapons and bring them to safety, if necessary.

Mounting Evidence

It is unclear when exactly chemical weapons were used for the first time in the conflict. In December 2012, US officials reported that Syria was now using Scud missiles -- which can easily be fitted with chemical warheads -- in the northern part of the country. Soon afterwards, a day before Christmas, Al Jazeera reported on a gas attack in Homs that claimed seven lives. However, there was no definitive evidence of the attack.

More and more videos were posted on YouTube showing dead animals and people -- the alleged victims of limited poison gas use -- in places like the city of Otaiba, near the Damascus airport. Chemical agents have reportedly been repeatedly used since then, as evidenced by soil and tissue samples, and eyewitness reports. This was the conclusion reached by the French and British governments and later reported to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A joint study by Harvard University and the University of Sussex lists 20 to 30 chemical weapons attacks within 18 months, although not all could be verified.

The largest likely use of chemical weapons before last week occurred on March 19 of this year in Khan al-Assal, a rebel-held city in Aleppo Province. Videos show workers without protective gear tending to the injured, who are gasping for air. In April, there were further reports of chemical weapons use, probably at low doses, in Aleppo, Homs and various suburbs and neighborhoods of Damascus.

But the US government didn't change course until four months ago, on April 25. For the first time, a White House spokesman admitted: "The Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin." But then the Americans tried to shift their red line. The use of chemical weapons alone was no longer a reason for intervention, Obama said. Instead, he added, it would first have to be determined what "exactly" happened, and whether it was the regime and not the rebels who had used the deadly weapons.

On April 13, the US once again declared that Assad had used poison gas -- which by then had allegedly claimed 100 to 150 lives -- and that in doing so he had crossed a red line for the international community. After the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, a senior government official told the Wall Street Journal: "There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack-clearly by the government." American intelligence agencies became convinced after their initial review that the massacre had occurred at the regime's behest.

Obama's Muddled Strategy

In June, Obama had also promised aid for the rebels in the form of light weapons and ammunition. But in the ensuing months, rebel commanders in northern Syria reported that the deliveries had made it into Turkey but not across the border. In Syria's Dara'a Province, a program backed by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States to train and equip moderate rebel groups, which had begun in the first months of the year, ground to a sudden halt in May. "It's what the Americans want," liaison officers with the Jordanian intelligence services told the baffled Syrians.

What exactly does America want? "Our strategy for the Middle East?" retired General James Mattis, the former supreme commander for the region, asked recently. "There is nothing there."

Shortly before the night rockets armed with poison gas warheads struck around Damascus, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, in a letter responding to an inquiry from Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel over whether the American military was capable of bringing down the Assad regime: "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

The Pentagon has, of course, developed intervention scenarios in response to Obama's requests. They range from training and support for the rebels to taking over and securing Assad's chemical weapons arsenals, which would require the deployment of up to 60,000 American troops to the country. The establishment of a no-fly zone also seems feasible -- at a price of $1 billion (€750 million) a month. The US military found this to be too expensive.

Syria: The New Bosnia?

Now Obama is realizing the horrific images and numbers are forcing him to act. The two-year uprising has already claimed 100,000 lives, and as the UN reported last week, some 2 million Syrians have fled abroad. Many have even preferred to flee across the Tigris River into Iraq, also shaken by unrest, than be at the mercy of Assad's hate-filled militias at home. A quarter of Syria's 21 million inhabitants are refugees within the country, including a million children.

Eighteen years ago, it was the reports and images of the Srebrenica massacre that convinced the reluctant then US President Bill Clinton to intervene militarily and end the bloodbath in Bosnia. Today there is no longer any doubt at the White House over who is to blame for the worst atrocities and poison gas attacks in the war in Syria.

Last Thursday, Obama's national security team once again discussed the use of cruise missiles against the Syrian artillery positions from which Assad could launch his poison gas attacks. Communication centers and government buildings were also mentioned as potential targets. Secretary of State John Kerry had already called for such military operations some time ago, until Obama reined him in.

There has been no talk in Washington about a more comprehensive program than the use of long-range weapons, which Republican Senator John McCain has called for. US military leaders have respect for Assad's air defenses.

The administration remains divided, as has generally been the case with all of the president's military operations thus far. But it won't be easy to postpone a significant decision much longer. If Obama continues to exercise restraint, he will be sending an unmistakable signal that the use of weapons of mass destruction can occur without consequence.

The West's Reputation Is at Stake

The credibility of both the United States and its Western allies is on the line: Anyone who mentions a red line but doesn't back it up may as well forget about making any threats in the future. If that becomes its reputation, how will the United States ever rein in North Korea's bomb-makers or Tehran's mullahs?

This latest chemical weapons attack should finally set aside reservations about a military intervention. Poison gas is outlawed internationally -- a ban that should be respected. The 1999 Kosovo mission showed that citizens of Western countries are prepared to accept a well-founded humanitarian intervention. The Americans' invasion of Iraq triggered so much outrage precisely because the weapons of mass destruction Washington had claimed as justification were never found. No one doubts they exist in Syria.

Of course, after the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the setbacks in Libya and the possible failure of the Arab spring in Cairo, Obama's hesitancy is understandable. It is certainly more comprehensible than the strong demands of European countries -- which never translated into political action because everyone hoped the big brother in Washington would take care of things. And people in Washington have argued against a military intervention on the side the Syrian rebels by citing how poorly the United States had fared after supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.

This explains why the West, especially the United States, had consistently justified their inaction by arguing that helping the rebels could end up promoting radical forces. But non-intervention has achieved what it was actually intended to avoid: The jihadists are becoming stronger, making any intervention even more difficult.

Assad's Internal Reasons

According to a general in Syrian intelligence who fled to Jordan a few months ago, and who still has contacts within the regime, the Wednesday gas attack could also have a completely different motivation, having to do with the course of the civil war. "It happened for internal reasons. For weeks, the rebels have threatened Assad's home province of Latakia, where they have captured several villages," the general told SPIEGEL. "But many of the irregular fighters, which the government has used instead of the army, are Alawites from the region. Now they're going back to protect their villages." According to the general, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks."

This version is reinforced by the regime's explanations of the attack to its supporters. In Facebook groups -- like the News Network of the Syria Armed Forces -- which are the most important media war zone in Syria, an "important statement by the army and the armed forces" was issued under the banner of Bashar Assad: "Today we attacked a number of terrorist hideouts with heavy weapons. To protect the civilian population, chemical weapons were also used." This request was posted below the statement: "Bomb them even more severely, Mr. President, with chemicals and other things, because they don't deserve to live!" The Martyrs of the Homeland, also on Facebook, reported that "more than 500 were killed today in a cleansing operation." One of Assad's relatives wrote that Bashar should fire off even more chemical weapons, and a supporter from Latakia made the same request. After the massacre, militia fighters handed out sweets, a traditional way of celebrating joyous events in the Middle East, to pedestrians in the Mezze 86 neighborhood in the western part of Damascus, a stronghold of Alawite members of the security forces.

Every audience is told what it is supposed to hear. Regime supporters are given reports of victory while other countries are fed denials. So far, all sides have been generally satisfied with this approach. No matter how spurious the denials from Damascus are, so far they have managed to push events into a controversial gray zone. In the case of earlier presumed uses of chemical weapons, for example, more information was called for -- but too much information was apparently unwanted.

SPIEGEL Investigation Foiled

At the beginning of May, SPIEGEL and several groups of doctors in the area around Damascus tried to provide clear proof of the use of poison gas. The doctors wanted to obtain soil and tissue samples from areas after chemical attacks and bring them out of the country, provided SPIEGEL could ensure that they would be analyzed and the results publicized.

The samples were taken from bomb sites, the clothing and tissue of the dead, and the gas mask filter of one of the doctors treating casualties at the scene. The investigators documented their work in videos. Once a Western institution agreed to perform the analyses, a courier was to embark on the dangerous journey out of the country. That was the plan.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is affiliated with the United Nations, has certified 18 institutes worldwide for the analysis of chemical and biological weapons. SPIEGEL approached the institutes in Europe or the ministries that supervise them. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Spain and Germany all declined. Department heads and diplomats spoke of internal conflicts between those who wanted to conduct the investigations and those who saw it as a "toxic" issue (which is, quite literally, correct).

Representatives of the individual countries suggested contacting senior OPCW or UN officials directly. But they too were uninterested, telling SPIEGEL to contact the individual countries instead. In the end, the rejecting parties consistently prevailed, sometimes without comment and sometimes citing the lack of a consistent chain of evidence -- a chain of evidence which would ideally go from manual sampling conducted by UN inspectors to laboratory analysis. The process went back and forth for two months, surrounded an overtone of regret from officials who said they would truly like to do more about the problem, but their hands were tied.

What now?

At the Friends of Syria conference in Qatar in late June, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL that Germany would not analyze any samples outside the confines of a UN mission.

But now more governments are demanding there be consequences for the Wednesday attack. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called it a necessary "strong reaction," while his British counterpart William Hague said that the likelihood that rebels could be behind the gas massacre was "vanishingly small." Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Obama to take the lead in a military offensive.

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin said, "before we talk about consequences, we have to facilitate a real investigation." On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the Syrian government "must be punished" if UN inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, in a statement, "Germany would be among those who would consider consequences to be appropriate."

All of this points to the risk that the same old pattern will repeat itself -- that the foreign ministers of the EU and the United States demand an investigation, which is initially blocked in the Security Council and then by the Syrian regime. But without UN support, and without an uninterrupted chain of evidence, there can be no verdict -- and, therefore, no consequences.

With additional reporting by Alexander Bühler; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


08/27/2013 12:04 PM

'A Slow Death': How the War Is Destroying Syria's Economy

By Ulrike Putz in Beirut

Food is scarce in Syria, the currency is collapsing and entire industries have come to a standstill. But not even economic suffering brought on by the civil war will likely help end it.

It's a sector that ought to be booming. Businessman Wissam* works in hospital supplies. He sells bandages, needles and disinfectants -- all products for which there is a great need in the increasingly bloody Syrian civil war. But unfortunately, Wissam has little opportunity to sell his wares.

"More than 50 percent of the Syrian healthcare system's infrastructure has been destroyed," says the man in his mid 40s. Of the 75 state-run hospitals, just 30 remain in operation. In the embattled city of Homs, just one of 20 hospitals remains open. The Al-Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, once the largest and most modern medical facility in the country, is now a pile of ash.

Wissam is matter-of-fact about the situation. The destruction of the hospitals is widespread, he says, and those who are injured or sick receive hardly any medical care. The business is "dying a slow death," he adds.

While the world debates what its reaction should be to what was likely a chemical weapons attack in Syria last week, and the United States positions its destroyers off the country's coast, much of the focus has been on the humanitarian crisis caused by two-and-a-half years of war. But the fighting has also crippled Syria's economy, which could potentially be a factor in ending the turmoil.

For this reason, facts and figures about the economic impact of the war are state secrets. There are, however, indications of how precarious the situation may be, and these reflect what Wissam says about the collapse of the health sector.

Desperation and Suffering

Experts estimate that some 75 percent of the production facilities in Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, are no longer operating. Some of the factories were bombed, while others burned down or have been taken over as rebel strongholds. Others can't even be reached due to the precarious security situation in the surrounding area.

Transport difficulties have hit the agricultural sector too. Farmers have been unable to till their fields or sell their crops. Food is becoming scarce and increasingly expensive. The Syrian people are suffering, and their rage and desperation are growing. In response, President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus is importing grain, rice and sugar.

The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and others have also hit Syria hard. The country used to sell some 95 percent of the oil it produced to Europe. That demand has now collapsed. Only a handful of countries now buy Syria's oil, and at significantly reduced prices.

Countries including Iran, China and Russia are s

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« Reply #8345 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:34 AM »

M23 rebels attack Congo troops near Goma

Both sides reportedly suffer heavy casualties and three UN peacekeepers are wounded near Rwandan border

Associated Press in Goma, Tuesday 27 August 2013 08.52 BST   

Congolese troops have come under fire from rebels in the country's volatile east as fighting resumed just outside Goma, a city of nearly 1 million people near the volatile Congolese-Rwandan border, army officials say.

Heavy weapons fire rang out at around 4.30pm near the frontline just nine miles (11km) outside the city.

Hostilities resumed last week after weeks of relative calm, and on Thursday a new United Nations intervention brigade with a stronger mandate than past missions shelled rebel positions for the first time.

Both sides suffered heavy casualties over the weekend, with more than 50 rebels killed and 23 government soldiers dead, according to a doctor near the frontline and an army chaplain. Three UN peacekeepers were wounded: two South Africans and a Tanzanian, the UN-backed Radio Okapi reported.

Dr Isaac Warwanamiza, treating casualties of the conflict, said he had seen 82 bodies since early Sunday, 23 of whom he claimed were government soldiers, the highest death toll reported since hostilities broke out last week. "I'm overwhelmed by what I've seen: bodies blown apart, arms and feet here and there," he said, speaking to the Associated Press by phone from a hospital north of Goma.

Eight of the dead had no uniforms, 23 were government troops and the rest were March 23 Movement (M23) rebels, the doctor added.

There are 720 wounded Congolese troops at the military hospital, according to the army chaplain Lea Masika.

The head of the United Nations mission in Congo, Martin Kobler, visited two hospitals on Sunday and paid his respects to wounded government and UN soldiers, hailing them as "heroes fighting to restore peace", Radio Okapi reported.

The Congolese forces have advanced less than a mile since Wednesday and have yet to achieve their immediate objective – cutting off the M23 from a border crossing where the rebel group is believed to get supplies from neighbouring Rwanda, say observers.

The Congolese are fighting with the help of a new UN intervention brigade, which was created after the M23 rebels invaded and briefly held Goma in November.

The M23 has been pounding Goma from its positions just north of the strategic city, killing civilians in Goma's residential neighbourhoods. By Saturday, scores of angry residents took to the streets in protest, claiming the UN had not done enough to protect them. A UN car was set on fire, and in the melée two protesters were killed.

Some Goma residents claim the UN opened fire on the mob, but the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, said in a statement over the weekend that Uruguayan peacekeepers had only fired rubber bullets to control the crowd. Mujica said it was Congolese police who had used live ammunition.

On Monday, the Congolese government called for an investigation into the deaths of the civilians. The minister of the interior, Richard Muyej, told the Associated Press: "We are absolutely in agreement that a joint commission needs to be created."

Medical services were struggling to cope with the scale of the casualties among government troops and the M23 fighters. Subsequent peace talks in neighbouring Uganda have repeatedly stalled.

This weekend's clashes are the first time the Congolese army has been backed by the new UN intervention force, which was created in March.

The M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honour the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Many of the movement's commanders are veterans of previous rebellions backed by Rwanda, which vigorously denies allegations that it has been supporting and reinforcing the M23.

In Washington, the state department condemned the actions of the M23, calling on the rebel group to immediately cease hostilities, disarm and disband. The US also suggested Rwanda was assisting the rebels.

"We urgently call on [Congolese] and Rwandan governments to exercise restraint to prevent military escalation of the conflict or any action that puts civilians at risk," the statement said. "We reiterate our call for Rwanda to cease any and all support to the M23."

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« Reply #8346 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:41 AM »

Italian politician compares black minister to prostitute

Cécile Kyenge is target of racist remark on Facebook by Cristiano Za Garibaldi, deputy mayor of Diano Marina in Liguria

Tom Kington in Rome, Monday 26 August 2013 17.20 BST   

An Italian politician has likened the country's first black minister, Cécile Kyenge, to a prostitute in the latest in a barrage of racist insults that has shed light on resistance in Italy to racial integration.

Cristiano Za Garibaldi, the rightwing deputy mayor of Diano Marina in Liguria, suggested on his Facebook page that Kyenge frequented an area used by prostitutes, many of whom are black.

Kyenge, 48, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to Italy 30 years ago, has grown accustomed to the intolerance of rightwing Italian politicians, notably Roberto Calderoli, a former government minister with the Northern League party, who compared her to an orangutan in July. Since being appointed minister for integration in April, Kyenge has pushed for a law granting Italian citizenship to children born in Italy to immigrants, and more recently suggested second homes in Italy could be rented out to homeless people.

That provoked Za Garibaldi, as well as a northern Italian winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, who allegedly called Kyenge a "dirty black monkey" on his Facebook page last week, prompting a debate in the wine world about boycotting his wines.

As Italy experiences large scale immigration for the first time in its history, there have been episodes of benevolence, such as the human chain formed in the sea by bathers in Sicily this month to help migrants land in rough water from their beached vessel. But racist attitudes hold out on football terraces, particularly at Lazio in Rome where one section of stadium was closed at the weekend after racist chanting.

In May, Northern League member and European MEP Mario Borghezio predicted Kyenge would force "tribal conditions" on Italy and create a "bongo bongo" government. Africans, he added, had "not produced great genes".

In June a local councillor for the Northern League called for Kyenge to be raped, so she would understand the seriousness of the attempted rape of two women in Genoa by a Somali. Bananas were thrown at Kyenge during a speech in July.

Za Garibaldi repented on Sunday, saying his comments were "in bad taste and offensive", adding he had made them because he was under stress from having to pay high Italian taxes.

"This is the umpteenth episode in a constant attack that is not only targeted at me, but anyone in this country who dares to think differently," said Kyenge

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« Reply #8347 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:43 AM »

Swiss segregation of asylum seekers: 'we get less respect than an animal'

Switzerland's policy of curfews and restrictions on asylum seekers' movements has prompted furious international reaction

Josie Le Blond in Alpnach, Monday 26 August 2013 15.11 BST   

A skull-and-crossbones glares out from a homemade sign. "No entry. Danger of death," it reads. For the first group of people arriving at a new state-run asylum seekers' facility in this central Swiss mountain village, the message is unambiguous.

"I've got a new alarm system for inside and outside the house so that it's not broken into," said Ernst Huser, 78, the retired mechanic who was busy securing his home from the imminent influx with a chain across the front yard, the expensive new burglar alarm and the macabre warning to would-be transgressors.

Huser is not alone in believing a horde of hardened criminals is about to turn up on his doorstep. An estimated 48,000 people have sought asylum in Switzerland this year, twice the European per capita average, and Swiss human rights activists say the wealthy nation is in the grip of a backlash against foreigners, who are widely perceived to be the cause of many social ills.

"People here don't want their children to come into contact with asylum seekers because they believe the crime rate is very high," said Werner Birrer, a member of the anti-immigrant Swiss People's party (SVP) and another resident of Alpnach.

This month the town of Bremgarten, near Zurich, the site of another new asylum centre, decided to restrict asylum seekers' access to school playing fields and facilities such as swimming pools – and subject them to a curfew.

Bemused at a furious international reaction from rights activists and the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the mayor of Bremgarten, Raymond Tellenbach, said they had decided on "security grounds not to allow access to these areas, to prevent conflict and guard against possible drug use".

On the other side of the debate are people such as Azizi Abed. A 30-year-old Kurd who came to Switzerland five years ago from Iran, he wonders whether the boredom, isolation and disenfranchisement are not almost as bad as the persecution that drove him to leave Iran.

"When I get on a tram and sit near a family with kids they move away to another seat. It's humiliating," he said. "I'm shocked by the curfews in Bremgarten. It's a denial of human rights."

"If I'm not allowed to work, not allowed to do sport and not allowed to go out, isn't it obvious that my psychological state is going to suffer?" he asked, pointing out that he shares his bedroom with four other asylum seekers and his kitchen with a further 28. Abed said boredom was a big problem in his building, which had no internet access and is in the middle of an industrial estate.
Tighter asylum laws

Alpnach's new centre for asylum seekers, a complex of former military buildings surrounded by traditional farms and woodland, is the second after Bremgarten that the government's immigration department (BFM) has opened since voters chose to tighten asylum laws in a referendum in June championed by the SVP.

The hidden thorn in this legislation is that the BFM now no longer needs to get a community's permission before stationing asylum seekers there. In Alpnach and Bremgarten, authorities have attempted to placate residents with assurances that the asylum seekers will be kept in at night and banned from certain public spaces.

"[The new law means] we could in principle say to the communities 'it's just like that, sorry'. But we don't," said Gaby Szöllösy, the BFM's head of information and communication, as a group of 22 asylum seekers, among them nine children, arrive at the Alpnach centre. "We want to take the communities on this path with us. We want them to help work out how we do this."

The BFM denies that it has given the go-ahead for plans to exclude asylum seekers from 32 "sensitive zones" in Bremgarten including churches, libraries and old people's homes. "After Bremgarten everyone suddenly started talking about apartheid in Switzerland. It was all a misunderstanding," said Szöllösy. "They were never going to ban people from those 32 zones. The restrictions only apply to school and sport facilities, just like in Alpnach. It was all just media hype."

Polarised debate

Even if the restrictions were limited to sport facilities and school premises, NGOs, the UNHCR and lawyers have suggested enforcing them could contravene international laws guaranteeing the right to freedom of movement, which is also a constitutional right in Switzerland.

"It's clear that the department for immigration has communicated catastrophically badly," said Swiss asylum lawyer Peter Frei. "Instead of focusing on the constitutional legal level, the BFM wanted to prevent potential hostile attitudes from local communities by rashly accommodating them. And then when the criticism came, they tried to hush it up."

Activist Sascha Antenen, the co-organiser of a small anti-segregation protest in Bremgarten last week, accuses the government of backtracking in a desperate bid for popular support. "[The bans] are being communicated as a misunderstanding but … they just realised that the rules weren't legally enforceable so they had to say they'll just keep the bans in the form of guidelines."

Bremgarten may have sharpened global scrutiny of Swiss asylum policies, but it is not an isolated case. Regional police often restrict asylum seekers' movement, either by imprisoning them in their centres or banning them from public places, in what Frei said were legally questionable procedures often introduced without judicial oversight.

In Lucerne, police placed more than 300 individual bans on "criminal" asylum seekers in 18 months between 2011 and 2012, though it remains unclear how police distinguish "criminal" from law-abiding asylum seekers.

"Police stop me all the time and ask me questions," said Abed. "In the park, when I'm waiting for a train, wherever. Asylum seekers get less respect than an animal would. They make me feel like a third- or fourth-class citizen."

He said the problem is often ignorance. "There are lots of people living in villages who don't know any asylum seekers. They've never spoken to them. The tabloid newspapers write terrible things about us almost every day saying we're criminals. How can we defend ourselves and say we're just normal people?"

The authorities refused to grant the Guardian entry to the Bremgarten and Alpnach centres, along with representatives from the national and local Swiss media, initially saying that the asylum seekers would be putting their lives in danger if they spoke, but later hinting that giving interviews could jeopardise their asylum applications. "All asylum seekers are scared of talking to the media," said Abed. "I have to be careful too. I've been an activist for the past year and the authorities could still play with me, ignore me and make me wait many more years without being able to work."

Residents in Alpnach, meanwhile, enthusiastically supported by the local SVP, feel that after the Bremgarten scandal, their concerns and fears will now also be ignored. "I'm not scared of the asylum seekers," said Gregor Jakober, 65, whose land is separated from the new centre by a free-standing metal fence encircling the camp perimeter. "But we will have criminals staying here at some point, that's for certain."

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« Reply #8348 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:46 AM »

Going Dutch? Berkshire site tests Netherlands cycling model

Experiments gauge how British pedestrians and motorists react to pioneering Dutch-style bike infrastructure

Peter Walker   
The Guardian, Monday 26 August 2013 15.52 BST

It is a sunny morning in the Berkshire woodland and a small group of men and women clutching clipboards are lurking behind trees or amid the ferns, looking alert and expectant. Then the object of their attention comes into view: not a shy songbird or a rare mammal, but a cyclist clad in a fluorescent bib.

Followed closely by a small car, the rider stops by traffic lights at a road junction set somewhat incongruously amid the trees. Another bike-and-car duo rolls into view at the other side. The various lights turn green, and everyone heads cautiously on their way.

This is the test ground of the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) near Bracknell, and the closely watched traffic flows are part of a pioneering project that could fundamentally change Britain's inner cities over the next few decades.

TRL, formerly part of the Department for Transport but now a world-leading independent research group, is conducting a £4m test programme for Transport for London (TfL) to see how Dutch-style cycling infrastructure, such as segregated lanes and cyclist-priority roundabouts, can be adapted to British road conditions.

Work has already begun to reshape some London roads and junctions, part of a grandiose £900m plan unveiled by Boris Johnson earlier this year. Campaigners hope other areas could follow suit, tilting life in urban Britain away from decades of car dominance.

The trial being observed that morning was for low-level, cycle-specific traffic lights set a couple of metres forward from those for cars, keeping riders ahead and visible. When they are introduced, the cyclists' lights will probably turn green a few seconds earlier than the standard traffic lights, giving riders a head start. Participants receive minimal information about what to expect and the TRL researchers keep out of view, hence the hiding amid the shrubbery.

Elsewhere on the vast TRL campus, a series of other bike-friendly layouts are being tested, including a "bus bypass", which places bus stops safely out of cycle lanes, a bike lane separated by intermittent "armadillo" reflective humps rather than a kerb, and, most ambitiously of all, a Dutch-style roundabout with a segregated gyratory flow for bikes. There is also a computer simulator in which people "drive" a real car around a bike-filled cityscape projected on to surround screens. The scheme has already used 2,500 paid testers and is seeking more all the time.

Such extensive testing is necessary, not least because innovations need regulatory approval, said Dana Skelley, director of roads for TfL. "Pretty much everything here is a layout that we're not permitted to have on national roads under the current legislation. We realised that if we wanted to attract more people to cycle, more safely and more often, it was necessary to create a more cycle-friendly environment, and we looked towards Europe for that."

Domestic road users were generally not familiar with all this, she added: "Just because it works in Europe doesn't mean it's going to be OK. We needed to understand how British drivers understand these new road layouts and how they behave."

This is particularly the case with the roundabout, where drivers have to learn that the circular flow of cyclists has priority, not only over vehicles joining the system, but those turning to exit.

Commenting on the first tests, Peter Vermaat, a TRL engineer, said: "The drivers don't really know what to do, so generally they give way to the cyclists. We've had some sudden braking a couple of times, but nothing worse."

The test site is the physical manifestation of a long-running campaign by cycle groups for infrastructure that is not just well designed but sufficiently continuous to tempt a wider range of cyclists – children, or older people, especially women – on to urban streets.

The message of the London Cycling Campaign's Love London, Go Dutch project seemed to have been absorbed, said Mike Cavenett from the group. "I always liken TfL to one of those enormous oil tankers. It's a big, £7bn beast with thousands of employees and it takes time to turn around. But it is turning. There is a change in attitudes."

He added: "I think TfL are realising that. There is still inertia, and some elements are still deeply conservative about the changes. But other elements get it."

While some Dutch-style infrastructure will arrive soon – a new section of London's previously criticised cycle superhighways is being built with segregation and redesigned junctions – other innovations could prove more problematic.

Chris Peck, from the national cycling organisation CTC, argues that Dutch-style roundabouts are reliant on traffic flows much lower than the 50,000 vehicles a day seen on some roads in inner London. "That's far beyond the advised capacity for a Dutch roundabout. It's far too high to allow priority over side roads," he said. "If you had a platoon of cyclists coming all at once, which tends to be how traffic moves, and they have priority over traffic trying to get off the roundabout, that could lock up the roundabout very quickly. They will only work along with measures to reduce motorised traffic."

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« Reply #8349 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:53 AM »

August 26, 2013

Once an Outcast, Iranian Minister Carries Hope of Easing Tensions


TEHRAN — Until this summer, Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of Iran’s most accomplished diplomats, was an outcast, exiled from the government by ultraconservatives for working too closely with the West. Rather than presenting the Iranian case to the world, as he had done so effectively throughout a 35-year diplomatic career, he was spending his days teaching at the Foreign Ministry’s training center on a quiet, leafy campus in North Tehran.

That changed with the election of the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in June. Now, Mr. Zarif is the country’s new foreign minister and seems virtually certain to lead Iran’s delegation in nuclear negotiations with the West — further indications, analysts say, that Mr. Rouhani is serious about reducing tensions with the United States and other Western countries.

“Mr. Zarif is the new face of a new policy,” said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran, who knows Mr. Zarif personally. “Our former foreign policy obviously did not yield any results and was clearly doomed. We need to revise our former methods and soften our stances in order to find a solution to the nuclear problem and reduce the sanctions.”

Previous negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have broken down on the West’s insistence that the country’s government first stop enriching uranium, which world powers suspect is a first step to developing nuclear weapons. The Iranians have maintained just as steadfastly that they have the right to enrich uranium for fuel to power reactors and for other peaceful uses. Now, this diplomatic logjam may be giving way, analysts say.

“We can be sure that Mr. Zarif — if he gets to handle the nuclear issue — will quickly and officially propose ideas such as Iran ending enrichment up to 20 percent as a compromise,” said François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran who often met with Mr. Zarif.

If Iran’s leadership has decided to pursue a new policy of easing tensions with the West, and that still remains to be seen, Mr. Zarif would seem the ideal person to carry it out.

For most of the past three decades, Mr. Zarif, 53, has sought to establish a working relationship between Iran and the West. But he has focused particularly on the United States, a country he prefers to call a “rival” nation rather than “the enemy,” the label preferred by Iran’s hard-liners.

He helped draft the cease-fire ending the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, negotiated Iranian intelligence assistance for American forces in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and spent years in New York as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations.

But his government career faltered after 2005, with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative who relished confrontation, particularly with the United States and Israel.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was returned to office in disputed elections in 2009 with the support of Iran’s governing establishment of hard-line clerics and commanders, and that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But eight years of confrontation, primarily over the nuclear program, left Iran increasingly isolated politically and reeling economically from sanctions, discrediting the hard-liners in the public eye.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Rouhani scored heavily against his opponents by repeatedly calling for a review of the country’s foreign relations. “Review does not mean a change in the principles,” he often said. “But our tactics and approaches should change.”

Mr. Rouhani’s choice of Mr. Zarif as his tool for conducting this review is not surprising. The young Mr. Zarif moved to the United States to pursue his studies when he was 17. After Iran’s diplomatic corps was expelled in retaliation for the seizure of United States Embassy personnel in Tehran in 1979, Mr. Zarif staffed Iran’s embassy in Washington as an unofficial spokesman, only three weeks after his marriage. He was 19.

Years later, Mr. Zarif was allowed to fulfill his obligatory military service studying and working in the United States instead of in the trenches of the Iran-Iraq war, where upward of 400,000 young Iranian men died. He studied international relations at San Francisco State University and the University of Denver. From 2002 to 2007, largely under the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, he served as Iran’s representative to the United Nations.

He spent nearly 30 years in the United States, more than anybody in Iran’s current ruling establishment. So close are his ties to the United States — and so suspiciously are they viewed in Iran — that recently, while defending his nomination in Parliament, he was forced to emphasize that he had never applied for American citizenship or permanent residency.

His English is fluent, and both Western diplomats and journalists laud him as one of the rare Iranian officials who actually talk clearly to them. But Mr. Zarif is by no means a westernized Iranian. His wife rarely appears in public, and like other Iranian diplomats, he declines to shake hands with women for religious reasons. In New York, he rarely attended parties or gatherings, the way other diplomats do, saying he was by nature very shy.

In a series of interviews with him in recent years published a month ago and titled “Mr. Ambassador,” Mr. Zarif made clear that he was a proponent of establishing relations with the United States because that was in Iran’s best interests, and not because he had any special affection for the country or doubted Iran’s revolutionary ideals.

“I, due to many reasons, believe that we would lose less by having direct interaction,” he said in a chapter on hypothetical relations between the estranged countries. “Relations with America is a means to be in line with national benefits.” Still, as he mentions in another interview in the series, “those relations can never be friendly.”

He was a member of Mr. Rouhani’s three-man negotiating team in 2003, when Iran struck the only nuclear deal with the West and agreed to suspend enrichment from 2003 to 2005.

But that deal ultimately fell apart in acrimony, empowering hard-line factions that effectively sidelined Mr. Zarif and his mentor, Mr. Rouhani, labeling them as sellouts to the West.

The language of Iran’s foreign policy has long alternated between harsh language and delicate diplomacy, at times playing up tensions with Western countries and at other times cooling them down, often in response to domestic imperatives. With the appointment of Mr. Zarif, analysts say, the pendulum seems to have swung decisively to the cooler zone.

“Mr. Zarif is certainly the best choice for the coming time, when Iran will try to reach out to the West,” said Mr. Nicoullaud, the French diplomat. While he is optimistic about Mr. Zarif’s appointment, he cautions against raising expectations too high. “Iran’s style will change, but they will not give in on their principles.”

Both Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif have been calling for “a single foreign policy,” rather than sending out diffuse and conflicting messages and statements. If he is indeed given the nuclear portfolio, Mr. Zarif can be expected to bring this new approach to the negotiations — a far cry from his predecessor, Saeed Jalili, who was known for his endless theoretical debates with his Western counterparts.

But Mr. Zarif can bend only so far, many analysts warn. “Both he and Mr. Rouhani will try hard to solve this matter,” Mr. Nicoullaud said. “But in the end, their faith is in the hands of their Western counterparts. If they do not seize this opportunity, domestic critics will again take them down.”

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« Reply #8350 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:55 AM »

India approves food bill to subsidise grain for the poor

Vote breaks deadlock over programme, which government hopes will fight hunger and malnutrition, and boost the economy

Jason Burke in Delhi and agencies, Tuesday 27 August 2013 07.38 BST   

The lower house of the Indian national assembly, the Lok Sabha, has approved a controversial £13bn ($20bn) plan to provide cheap grain to the poor – a key part of the ruling Congress party's strategy to win re-election next spring.

Under the plan, the government will sell subsidised wheat and rice to more than two-thirds of its 1.2 billion population.

India is home to a quarter of the world's hungry poor, according to United Nations data, despite being one of the biggest food producers and experiencing years of rapid economic growth.

The vote broke a long stalemate in parliament, potentially clearing the way for several reforms aimed at spurring the flagging economy, which the government hopes to pass in an extended session that ends in two weeks.

The upper house – the Raj Sabha – must approve the decree before it becomes law.

India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata party, has criticised the welfare scheme, which expands an existing cheap food programme covering more than 200 million people, as still too narrow to tackle widespread malnutrition among India's poor.

However, the party voted for the bill, which was passed on Monday evening after nearly nine hours of debate and the inclusion of amendments that government sources say could lead to an additional requirement of about 3m tonnes of grain.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has called child malnutrition in India, where almost 50% of children are underweight, a "national shame".

However, critics have said the plan merely expands a wasteful and inefficient public distribution system at a time when public finances are under huge stress, as global and local investors lose faith in India's potential to grow fast in the immediate future.

The rupee has plunged against foreign currencies in recent weeks, while India still imports vast quantities of oil and gold. Some say widespread reform of the agricultural sector would lead to lower food prices and boost growth.

The bill is a pet project of Sonia Gandhi, who led the Congress party to victory in the last two elections, on the back of populist programmes such as a rural jobs plan and a multibillion-pound farmer loan waiver passed just before the most recent general election in 2009.

The party has suffered from a series of corruption scandals, bitter internal feuding and its apparent inability to tackle the deep economic and social challenges facing India.

Gandhi, 66, was taken to hospital at the end of the debate, suffering from viral fever but was later discharged, having been given the all clear.

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« Reply #8351 on: Aug 27, 2013, 06:57 AM »

August 26, 2013

Seeking Asylum in Australia, Refugees Find a Policy in Flux


JAKARTA, Indonesia — In January, Naqsh Murtaza had had enough of war-torn Afghanistan. Mr. Naqsh, a 27-year-old Afghan, fled with his mother and two younger brothers across the border into Pakistan, the first stop on a risky journey whose ultimate destination was Australia.

He lacked the money to get the whole family there, so he hoped to reach Australia himself, obtain asylum and then send for them once he was settled.

Getting as far as Indonesia or Malaysia is relatively easy for Muslims like Mr. Naqsh. Lax visa restrictions make it relatively easy to enter the countries, and well-established smuggling networks pack asylum-seekers into boats to brave the sea crossing to Australian soil.

Like many of the rickety vessels, the boat carrying Mr. Naqsh foundered midway, and he had to be rescued by the Indonesian authorities; he never reached Australia. But it might not have mattered if he had.

Under a new policy announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on July 19 in the prelude to what is expected to be a close national election next month, anyone arriving by boat without a visa, the way Mr. Naqsh tried, is to be sent to a refugee-processing center in neighboring Papua New Guinea and be barred from ever settling in Australia. It is the most exclusionary measure the country has tried in hopes of stemming the tide of asylum-seekers, which has become a hot-button political issue.

The government advertised the new policy heavily in Australian newspapers and on television, aiming to reach immigrant populations that could spread the word in their countries of origin to friends and relatives who were contemplating fleeing to Australia.

But Australia’s history of policy flip-flops has left many migrants confused about what the rules are and has raised hopes in others that the latest policy, too, will be reversed. Misinformation, not least from the smugglers, has also undermined the effort to spread the word.

In Pakistan, Mr. Naqsh said, he looked into applying for asylum in Britain, Canada or the United States and was told it could take 5 or 10 years. Fellow Afghans in Pakistan told him Australia was a faster option. So he flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Islamabad in June, and paid smugglers $2,000 to take him to Jakarta, and $3,200 to put him on a boat headed for Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

He heard about the new Australian policy when he was holed up in a backpacker hostel in Jakarta waiting for a place on a boat. But the smuggler making his arrangements assured him that the new policy would not take effect until Aug. 14, and that he would not risk being transferred to Papua New Guinea as long as he landed on Christmas Island before then.

“Obviously, he lied,” Mr. Naqsh said.

The fishing boat carrying Mr. Naqsh and more than 70 Iranians, Pakistanis and other Afghans set sail July 28. Some of the refugees carried prepaid cellphones and the emergency numbers of Australian officials taken from government Web sites. A few days out from shore, a powerful storm damaged the boat, which began to sink slowly in international waters. The migrants and five crew members were picked up by the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency after 17 hours of desperate calls to the Australian authorities, who passed the word to their Indonesian counterparts.

The migrants were taken back to Indonesia, where they will be allowed to stay until the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines whether they qualify as bona fide refugees and not economic migrants.

Mr. Naqsh said he would not attempt another sea voyage and would instead hope to be resettled somewhere legally through the United Nations refugee agency.

He now faces a long wait in limbo. He cannot legally work in Indonesia, where there were already more than 10,000 asylum-seekers and official refugees waiting to be processed when he arrived, the agency said. Resettling a single person can take two to three years, according to the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta; since 2000, about 2,500 United Nations-registered refugees in Indonesia have been resettled.

To help press the message that would-be refugees should not make the attempt, the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship posted its radio and television advertisements on its Web site in at least eight languages, and it has released photographs of distraught recent arrivals to Christmas Island who were being told they were being deported to Papua New Guinea.

Sandi Logan, a spokesman for the department, said it was an uphill battle. “The constant recalibration of policies has left, frankly, many in the diaspora and particularly many for whom English is a second or third or fourth language, very perplexed,” he said.

It is unclear how much the new policy will deter migrants in the long-term. What is clear is that it has had little effect so far.

According to Australian officials, in the four weeks after Mr. Rudd’s announcement, 2,784 migrants arrived in, or tried to reach, Australia from Indonesia and elsewhere, nearly double the monthly average of 1,434 in 2012. They said 356 who reached Christmas Island had been sent to a camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Some who set out after the announcement said they had not heard about it, including some survivors from a boat that left Indonesia on July 23 with more than 200 people from Iran and Sri Lanka and sank off the coast of West Java Province in Indonesia, killing at least 20.

Others who were fully aware of the new policy set out anyway. Abdulkadir Abdi, 28, a Somali refugee biding his time in Indonesia, saw a report about the policy on television. He said that some compatriots who also knew about it had sailed from the Indonesian port of Makassar on the night of July 31, headed for Christmas Island, and that he had not heard from any of them since they prepared to cast off.

Mr. Abdi, who had arrived in Indonesia in January 2011 expecting to attend a university only to learn that he had been defrauded by an “education agent” in Somalia, said he would have joined the group, but could not pay the smugglers’ fee.

“In the minds of refugees, there are two options: You die on the boat, or you will go to Australia,” Mr. Abdi said. As for the risk of being transferred to Papua New Guinea, he said, the thinking is, “maybe they won’t send me — policies can change.”

Joe Cochrane reported from Jakarta, and Matt Siegel from Sydney, Australia.

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« Reply #8352 on: Aug 27, 2013, 07:00 AM »

08/27/2013 01:18 PM

Capital Flight: Currencies Plunge Rapidly in Asian Economies

By Wieland Wagner

As the credit glut in the US nears an end, the currencies of developing countries like India, Thailand and Indonesia are plummeting. Now there are fears that a redux of the 1997 market crash is on the horizon.

Indian customs officials are out in full force these days in their attempt to stop the illegal import of gold. At the airport in Kochi, in the south of the country, officials recently caught a man who had hidden two kilograms (5.5 pounds) of precious metals in his socks -- he was given away by his odd gait. Other customs officers on the border with Nepal stopped a truck with 35 kilograms of gold hidden in its bumper.

Their battle is a frustrating one. For every kilogram of gold seized, it is estimated that another makes it into the country unnoticed. Gangs pay smugglers up to 50,000 Indian rupees (around €575 or $770) to bring them gold from, for example, Dubai, a favorite source. Indians are obsessed with gold right now -- and not only because of the approaching wedding season. As the rupee has dropped dramatically in value, many Indians have turned to tangible assets. The government has increased its tax on gold imports as a way of shoring up the country's currency, but that has only caused wary investors to flee further.

The government comes up with new ideas for slowing the rupee's fall almost every day: by imposing customs duties on flat-screen TVs -- which Indians could previously bring into the country unobstructed -- for example, or by making it more difficult for company managers to export capital and invest it abroad.

None of this has helped. Since May, the rupee has lost 17 percent of its value against the dollar.

There are two primary reasons for this crash. The first is that investors have lost faith in India's economic miracle and in Indian politicians. Growth has dropped by nearly half, the country's trade balance continues to slip further into the red, stock prices are practically in free-fall and inflation is deepening the divide between rich and poor.

The second reason, though, is something over which authorities in New Delhi have little control: the coming end of the credit glut in the United States.

No More American "Hot Money"?

Much of the money the US Federal Reserve Bank released onto the market as a way of stimulating the economy eventually made its way to India or other emerging markets, where it drove up property values and stock prices.

In May, Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke hinted at a change of course. Since then, investors have speculated about a coming end to quantitative easing -- a strategic program the Americans adopted in an attempt to lower interest rates and push up prices in the US -- and increasingly to pull their money out of emerging markets. Currency value is now dropping in many countries that previously profited from foreign capital, like Brazil, Russia and South Africa, but hardly anywhere is the phenomenon as extreme as in India.

Until recently, the so-called BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- were seen as winners in the 2008 global financial crisis. Economists even predicted that these ascending countries would be able to "decouple" themselves economically from crisis-ridden Europe and the US. Instead, those countries are now quaking at the prospect of an end to the flow of so-called "hot money" from the US.

It is true that the leading BRICS country, China, is not directly affected by the current currency crisis, since the yuan is not freely convertible -- meaning, it cannot be immediately converted into major reserve currencies. But the country's Communist rulers are struggling with their own banking crisis and an urgently needed reorientation of Chinese industry toward more domestic consumption.

Trapped Between Two Economic Giants

As China's economy falters, its imports of raw materials from other newly industrialized countries declines as well, which means China's southeast Asian neighbors in particular are suffering on two fronts. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are now not only exporting less to China, they are also forced to stand by and watch as investors flee en masse from the Indonesian rupiah, the Malaysian ringgit and the Thai baht.

Prasarn Trairatvorakul, head of Thailand's central bank, has tried in vain to calm the markets. The general economic situation is "still okay," he declared, adding that the baht was moving in line with economic fundamentals.

Indonesia's central bank governor, Agus Martowardojo, has likewise played down the seriousness of the situation, saying, "the worst times of capital outflow in June and July are already over. Pressures against the rupiah are unlikely to continue." However, financial experts have doubts about the Indonesian government's ability to combat the crisis effectively. "We do not think there is a magic bullet that can turn things around," stated a team of Barclays analysts headed by Prakriti Sofat.

A Repeat of the 1997 Crash?

All this brings up some unpleasant memories: It is precisely these so-called "tiger economies" that, following a period of artificially inflated growth, triggered the 1997 Asian financial crisis. That debacle began in Thailand, where the newly rich middle class constructed skyscrapers and mansions and purchased luxury cars, all on credit. When this bubble became apparent, hedge funds in London and New York began speculating on a baht crash.

Thailand had pegged its currency to the US dollar. To maintain the exchange rate and fend off speculators' attacks, the country introduced nearly its entire foreign currency reserves onto the market within a very short space of time. Ultimately, the country's central bank had to capitulate to the hedge funds. Thailand abandoned its peg to the dollar and the baht tumbled in value. The country's debts also increased because most loans had been in dollars. Thailand ended up practically broke.

Next, trouble hit a number of banks in Malaysia and Indonesia, where enraged mobs looted shops owned by Chinese businesspeople; Suharto's dictatorship collapsed soon after. South Korea, too, only narrowly escaped national bankruptcy thanks to a $58 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

This time around, newly industrialized countries are better armed against capital flight. Having learned a lesson from the Asian financial crisis, they have increased their foreign currency reserves and partially reformed their banking sectors. Even more importantly, their currencies are no longer pegged to the dollar.

Flimsy BRICS

But the capital flight currently taking place also illustrates how far the BRICS countries and the Asian tigers still are from overtaking Western industrialized countries -- and to what degree these countries' accomplishments are now in jeopardy. According to analysts at Morgan Stanley, the central banks of developing countries, with the exception of China, lost a total of $81 billion between just May and July through the selling of dollars to protect their currencies.

Indonesia's foreign currency reserves have shrunk by 18 percent since the beginning of the year. Until recently, the world's largest Muslim country was a favorite for foreign investors. Thanks to its boom in raw materials, the country's manufacturing was still growing by over 10 percent in April, faster than almost any other country in the world. Companies from Europe, the US and Japan have built car and electronics factories in the country because, in addition to other factors, they also have faith in Indonesia's impressively well-functioning democracy.

At the same time, nearly half of Indonesia's almost 240 million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day. The rupiah's drop has forced the country's poor to cut back on food even more, while their newly rich neighbors search feverishly for a way to protect their wealth. As a precaution, the central bank in Jakarta has forbidden the withdrawal of dollars from ATMs.

These developing countries are in a tight spot. To curtail rapid capital flight, they would need to raise interest rates considerably, but doing so would cause the country's economy to stall. Indian economist Jayati Ghosh warns that this would lead to social unrest. The governments of India and Indonesia are particularly leery of causing that sort of nightmare scenario: both of these large democracies have elections in the coming year.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #8353 on: Aug 27, 2013, 07:01 AM »

08/27/2013 12:58 PM

Fighting for Sumo: Harsh Life Deters Would-Be Wrestlers

Sumo is as Japanese as Mount Fuji or the cherry blossom festival, but the traditional sport is facing problems. Deterred by the harsh training and life of privation that comes with joining a stable, dwindling numbers of boys are interested in becoming sumo wrestlers.

For a sumo wrestler, Takahiro Chino is a flyweight: He tips the scales at 88 kilos (194 pounds) and is 1.75 meters (5 feet 8 inches) tall. His sparring partner, on the other hand, looks like a mountain of flesh.

A huge belly hangs over his loincloth and his thighs resemble marble columns. The 130-kilo man flexes his knees and goes into a crouch, leaning his upper body forward so that his center of gravity is as low as possible. Whenever Takahiro Chino launches another attack in an attempt to throw him off balance, the powerful wrestler shakes off his young assailant as if he were an annoying insect.

"Keep your arms straight and get off to a faster start," Tadahiro Sato yells to the relatively slender wrestler, "you're using your light weight too little!" Sato, 52, is the stable master and his instructions sound gruff. He is sitting barefoot on the floor mat and drinking green tea -- and is the only one speaking in the training room.

A man who weighs 150 kilos, and will be the next one to step into the ring, is doing the splits as he stretches on the clay floor, while another man is knocking his head against a wooden pole. Warm-up exercises: Soon it will be their turn.

But first Takahiro Chino has to endure one more round as the fall guy. He groans and pants, and sweat runs down his back. Once again, he hits his opponent full force and, once again, predictably bounces off his rival's massive belly. Finally, after three hours, the stable master puts an end to the torturous workout. The wrestlers bow to each other and, after lunch, the routine continues, just as it does every day. The next activity on the schedule is 90 minutes of weight training.

Takahiro Chino, 20, is the youngest wrestler in the Otake sumo stable, one of the most traditional in Japan, located in a nondescript building in Tokyo's Koto district. He is the novice. One could also say that he is the servant. Seven sumo wrestlers live and sleep here in one room, located right next to the training ring, called the dohyo.

Girth Greater Than Their Wingspan

Chino cooks lunch and dinner for them every day. He does the dishes and the housecleaning, washes their laundry and even helps his corpulent fellow stablemates with their personal hygiene. Without complaint, he uses a washcloth to scrub the places that they themselves can no longer reach because their girth is greater than their wingspan.

It was only last summer that he joined this stable, which was founded by one of the top Japanese sumo wrestlers of the postwar era. At the time, Chino weighed 67 kilos. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 in his hometown of Nagano and lived off his parents for five years without any prospects for employment.

Chino says that the clear hierarchy, strict daily routine, Spartan surroundings and self-sacrifice of the stable have given his life the clarity that it was lacking. "I was fortunate enough to get out of that situation," he says.

In three years, he hopes to become a sekitori, a wrestler who receives a salary and special rights -- one of 70 who can live from sumo wrestling in Japan. He intends to weigh at least 120 kilos at that point. Until then, he has to suffer and serve in his stable.

Sumo is as Japanese as Mount Fuji and the cherry blossom festival. It has its roots in Shinto, the island kingdom's original religion. Ritual wrestling matches were already being held at the imperial court 2,000 years ago. Professional sumo wrestling has existed for 300 years.

A Life of Archaic Rituals

The rules could hardly be simpler: The winner is the man who knocks his opponent off balance, forcing him to touch the sand-covered clay floor with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet -- or out of the ring, which measures 4.55 meters in diameter and is marked by a rice straw rope. A match is usually over within a matter of seconds.

But the archaic rituals that characterize daily life in the stables, and can occasionally lead to violence against newcomers, are apparently deterring an increasing number of youth in Japan from pursuing careers as sumo wrestlers. As recently as the early 1990s, there were still over 200 young men who were accepted as novices in the country's approximately 50 professional stables. But over the past few years, the number of annual newcomers has dropped to around 50. At Otake alone, says stable master Sato, some 50 boys still annually applied during the 1970s. Most of them were turned away. "These days, it's much easier to get in," he says.

The traditional sport reached its height of popularity 20 years ago, at the end of Japan's rise as a major economic power. At the time, the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana engaged in a perfectly staged rivalry with the Hawaiian Akebono.

The clashes between the colossal Akebono, who was over two meters high and weighed over 230 kilos, and the comparatively agile Takanohana were stylized as a test of strength between Japan and Hawaii, the United States and even the rest of the world. Back then, Sumo wrestling could be seen on television abroad, and the Eurosport network broadcast matches in Germany.

The retirement of these stars from the sport sealed its decline. According to surveys by a leading Japanese polling institute called Central Research Services, even golf now has more supporters in Japan, with its population of over 120 million. Ever since Takanohana quit 10 years ago, not a single Japanese man has achieved yokozuna, the sport's highest rank.

"Japanese idols would definitely be good for the sport," says Harumafuji Kohei, an active yokozuna, during one of his rare appearances before the international press in Tokyo's Yurakucho business district. "But what young people here are really missing is the hunger to succeed," he adds. The 29-year-old Mongolian --134 kilos, 1.85 meters -- was driven to the event in a luxury limousine. He wears a fine kimono and his hair is tied up in a bun the shape of a ginkgo leaf.

'Eating, Training, Eating, Training'
Harumafuji describes his journey to the apex of sumo wrestling as "eating, training, eating, training" -- and daily physical exertion "to the verge of death." He grew up in poor circumstances in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator and, at an early age, had to provide for his siblings and parents. He says the young people in Japan's affluent society have gone soft -- an allegation that is often heard.

The strongest wrestlers traditionally came from Japan's poorer rural regions, and usually lacked the financial means to pay for a good education. "Stables were an appealing option because school didn't play a role there and there was food and a bed to sleep in," says sociologist Lee Thompson, 60, who researches sumo at the Waseda University in Tokyo.

But there are still children in Japan's middle-class who dream of a career as a sumo wrestler. One of them is a schoolboy named Seiya Kato. His classmates rave about professional football player Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United and the baseball stars of the Yomiuri Giants. But Kato, 12, raves about Harumafuji, the yokozuna.

The boy from Tokyo is barely 1.6 meters high, but he already weighs over 80 kilos, a promising weight for a sumo career. He shovels down six bowls of rice with fish or meat every day, and his mother supports the bulking up. "Seiya eats so much that it can add up to a lot of money," she says with a smile.

Twice a week, the teenager trains with 20 other children between the ages of five and 15. They are instructed by Shinichi Taira, 38, a former sumo professional who works at the Riverside Sports Center, located within walking distance of Tokyo's old town. Seiya is a model student. He marches across the straw rope that marks the edge of the ring and simulates attack techniques. The older disciples demonstrate the training exercises and use handholds to correct the sequence of movements carried out by the younger ones. Here, too, hardly a word is spoken. Only Taira, the instructor, occasionally makes a sharp comment.

Stretch, Stretch, Stretch

He's impressed with the chubby kid, Seiya. "He could become a great wrestler," he says. "During a match, he relies too much on his weight and too little on technique. He's still inexperienced," he notes. In keeping with Japanese tradition, the boy obediently does every exercise that his teacher commands: stretch, stretch, stretch. His instructor has decided that Seiya needs to become more flexible. He's still unable to fully do the splits on the floor.

No other boy in his class is in a sumo club. Most of them, says Seiya, would find it embarrassing to stand there virtually naked, merely clothed in an old-fashioned thong, and grapple with a sweaty wrestler. His mother has gotten used to the idea that her son will move into a sumo stable at age 15 -- despite the never-ending string of reports of bullying and brutality in the stables, and stories of young athletes who throw in the towel due to the harsh life there.

The most serious incident occurred six years ago. At the time, a sumo novice died after his fellow wrestlers, acting on the orders of the stable master, beat him with a baseball bat and burnt him with cigarettes.

At the beginning of the year, one of Takahiro Chino's fellow junior wrestlers at the Otake stable decided to quit. "He wasn't tough enough. Sumo isn't for everyone," says stable master Sato, who joined the ranks of the professional when he was only 15. "Back in my day, everything was much harsher," he adds.

In a bid to ensure that more young hopefuls apply to Japan's sumo stables, a few years ago the Japan Sumo Association lowered the size and weight requirements for newcomers. They must be at least 15 years old, 1.67 meters tall and weigh 67 kilos. It's only thanks to this reform that Chino was considered as a candidate at the Otake stable.

'I Started Eating as Much as I Could'

"It was a typical afternoon in which I had nothing to do," recalls Chino. "I was zapping through the channels and on one of them there was a report that they were looking for wrestlers." At the time, he weighed 63 kilos. "It was two weeks before the application deadline. I started eating as much as I could," he says. To his surprise, he was immediately accepted to the prestigious stable. He adopted the ring name Ginseizan, which, depending on the context, can mean silver, star or mountain.

After the training session, Chino's stablemates come out of the bathroom freshly washed. Even in their living room, most of them run around half-naked, wearing only boxer shorts. One of them rolls a flat, round table into the middle of the room and places some cushions on the wooden floor.

They are eating a typical sumo wrestler dish called chankonabe, a protein-rich stew with meat and vegetables, including rice, fish or meatballs. Chino has to cook lunch and dinner for himself and six other wrestlers. Each of them consumes over 10,000 calories every day. That's the equivalent of 10 portions of Wiener schnitzel with French fries.

Before every competition, though, he doesn't cook pork or beef, but rather chicken -- out of superstition. Pigs and cattle stand on four legs, but a chicken only needs two, just like a sumo wrestler.

And what happens if he fails to make a career for himself as a top-notch wrestler? Or if he, like so many sumo novices before him, becomes a diabetic or develops joint problems from the force-feeding? Then he'll move to South America, says Chino, "to a warm country where it's not so expensive."

In any case, both of the most common jobs that failed or stranded sumo wrestlers in Japan end up working would be out of the question: bouncer and soup chef.

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« Reply #8354 on: Aug 27, 2013, 07:03 AM »

August 26, 2013

Calm Returns to Violence-Scarred Myanmar Town


HTAN GONE, Myanmar — A tense calm returned Monday to a Myanmar town that was ripped apart by sectarian violence, leaving hundreds homeless after Buddhist mobs tore through the small, winding streets torching Muslim-owned houses and stores.

Some waved sticks and clubs as they sang the national anthem.

Authorities said they had arrested 12 suspects, and security forces were guarding the mosque in Htan Gone where some of the victims sought refuge late Saturday and early Sunday.

"We spent the whole night cowering at the back of the mosque," said 70-year-old Daw Tin Shwe, adding that police did not help them. "There was no one there to protect us."

The predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million has been grappling with sectarian violence since its military rulers handed over power to a nominally civilian government in 2011. More than 250 people have been killed in the last year and another 140,000 displaced, almost all of them Muslims.

The latest violence is part of a nationalistic trend, fueled by radical monks preaching that the minority Muslim community, representing 4 percent of the population, poses a threat to thousands of years of culture and tradition.

For the first time in decades, celebrations were held in several big cities across the country to commemorate the day in 1961 when then-Prime Minister U Nu signed legislation stating that Buddhism was the national religion. The law, however, is no longer in place.

"We couldn't celebrate this day in the past because people were not very united," said Sandara, a 33-year-old monk sitting in small wooden home on the outskirts of Yangon, the streets lined with yellow, red, blue and white striped religious flags.

"Now things have changed."

Asked how he felt about violence aimed at Muslims, he fired back with a question of his own: "If someone attacks your family, wouldn't you want to do something? We can't accept people who do bad things."

Religious tensions came to the forefront last year in the western state of Rakhine, where Buddhists accuse the Rohingya Muslim community of illegally entering the country and encroaching on their land.

Violence, on a smaller scale but still deadly, spread earlier this year to other parts of the country, fueling deep-seeded prejudices against the Islamic minority and threatening Myanmar's fragile transition to democracy.

The riot in Htan Gone village, 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Kantbalu in the region of Sagaing, began late Saturday after a crowd surrounded a police station, demanding that a Muslim man accused of trying to sexually assault a young Buddhist woman be handed over.

The rioters, some carrying swords and sticks, dispersed after security forces arrived early Sunday, shooting into the air. State-run media reported that two people were injured.

Myint Naing, who represents constituents in Htan Gone and surrounding villages, said the Muslim man accused of sexual assault was among the 12 people arrested. The other suspects were all Buddhists, he said.

In total, 48 houses were burned down by Buddhist-led mobs and 318 people were left homeless.

Since the violence first broke out Myanmar, dozens of people have been arrested, tried and convicted.

Three verdicts were handed down last Friday for Buddhist-led violence in April that left one dead and nine injured in the town of Okkan, an official with the National Unity Party, Myint Thein, said Monday.

Dozens of Muslim homes were set on fire in that attack.

One of the suspects was sentenced to five years in jail and the others to seven, he said, saying the men were found guilty of charges ranging from arson to helping plan riots that led to deaths and injuries.

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