August 29, 2013
Pakistan Overturns Conviction of Doctor in Bin Laden Hunt
By SALMAN MASOOD and DECLAN WALSH
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani judicial official on Thursday overturned the conviction of a Pakistani doctor who helped the C.I.A. while it was searching for Osama bin Laden, and ordered a retrial.
The official, Sahibzada Muhammad Anis, who presided over an appellate court hearing the case, ruled that the tribal judge who convicted the doctor, Shakil Afridi, exceeded his authority when he sentenced him to 33 years in prison in May 2012.
Dr. Afridi’s lawyer, Samiullah Afridi, told reporters gathered outside Mr. Anis’s office in Peshawar that the court had agreed to a new trial under the auspices of the political agent of Khyber, the most senior government official in Dr. Afridi’s home district.
“Earlier, Shakil Afridi was a convict,” said Qamar Nadeem, a cousin of Dr. Afridi, in a telephone interview. “Now, he is again an accused.”
Officials said that Dr. Afridi would not be released before the retrial concluded.
Although he was convicted on charges of aiding a banned Islamist group, Dr. Afridi’s conviction was seen as a proxy for Pakistani accusations that he had helped the C.I.A. trace Bin Laden to a house in Abbottabad. Bin Laden was killed there in a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011.
His original trial was conducted in secret in the tribal belt, where senior government officials double up as judges in tribal disputes. Since then he has been held in a Peshawar prison, where his lawyers say his life is at risk.
Dr. Afridi’s fate has been a matter of contention between Pakistan and the United States. Leon E. Panetta, who was director of the C.I.A. at the time of the raid, confirmed in early 2012 that Dr. Afridi had played a role in the hunt for Bin Laden and expressed anger at his prosecution.
American officials say Dr. Afridi was originally recruited by the C.I.A. about three years earlier to provide intelligence about Islamist militants in the Khyber tribal area, where he was working as a senior medical officer.
In Abbottabad, Dr. Afridi used C.I.A. funds to establish a hepatitis vaccination program that allowed his team to approach the house where Bin Laden was staying in a bid to confirm whether he was indeed inside. But Dr. Afridi did not manage to confirm Bin Laden’s presence in the house, American officials say. That uncertainty led to debate within the Obama administration about whether to order the SEAL raid.
Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, and Declan Walsh from London. Ismail Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.
Anti-Taliban governor dies in Afghan suicide attack
Official killed with 11 others at memorial service in mosque as insurgents step up campaign to destabilise government
Reuters in Kunduz
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 08.28 BST
A suicide attack in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province killed a district governor, one of his bodyguards and 10 civilians at a memorial service at a mosque on Friday, government officials said.
It was the latest in a string of attacks this week across Afghanistan, where insurgents are seeking to destabilise the government ahead of the withdrawal of most international troops by the end of 2014.
The group in Kunduz was attending a ceremony for a tribal elder who had died the day before, the officials said. The district governor, Sheikh Sadruddin, had been in his position since 2002 and been active in the fight against the Taliban.
"Officials … were attending prayers in a mosque when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives," said Enayatullah Khaliq, a spokesman for the Kunduz governor. Twenty people were also wounded in the morning blast, police said.
Government officials and aid groups working with ministries and security forces have been targeted in reprisal killings this week, in provinces previously regarded as relatively stable.
Six men who worked for a development programme were executed in western Herat, one of Afghanistan's more stable provinces with a prosperous private sector that is helping to drive the national economy.
The toll on security forces this week has also been high. An ambush in western Farah killed 15 policemen and another four were killed in Ghazni in the east, in a Taliban attack on an international military base.
Several soldiers were also killed in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold in the south.
Civilians, however, continue to bear the brunt of the war, with about 20 killed in attacks during the week, and more than 50 wounded in the Ghazni attack alone.
Former North Korean spy’s memoir details ‘enemization’ training conducted by abducted South Koreans
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 29, 2013 15:42 EDT
As well as the obvious classes like bomb-making, Kim Dong-Sik’s intensive spy training in North Korea included memorising hundreds of South Korean pop songs and dance moves.
Such strategies for assimilating into South Korean society were considered essential to avoid suspicion, Kim revealed in a recently-published memoir that lifts the lid on some of the workings of the North’s spy agency.
Now 51, Kim was captured in the South in 1995 and spent years undergoing interrogation before renouncing communism and joining the South’s intelligence authorities as an analyst.
In his memoir, he recalls being handpicked when he was 17, and entering the Kumsong political military university in Pyongyang which specialised in nurturing secret agents to run covert operations in the South.
He was among 200 students selected each year after a national search that took into account looks, family background, school grades and, above all, unquestioning loyalty to the North Korean leadership.
The elite trainees were not allowed to leave the campus or contact anyone outside its walls — including their families.
The only exceptions were New Year greetings cards they were allowed to send home, but with no return address.
Days were filled with intense training in a large range of skills from martial arts, weapons and bomb-making to wall climbing, geology, Morse code and marine navigation.
All these were fitted around mandatory ideology classes.
In an interview in Seoul with AFP, the stocky, soft-spoken Kim said the course instructors repeatedly hammered home the idea that he and his classmates must always be prepared to sacrifice their lives for their mission.
If faced with capture, they should swallow cyanide pills rather than allow themselves to be taken alive and interrogated.
“The thought of death always weighed on our shoulders … it was a very heavy burden for a bunch of 20-year-olds,” he said.
Dozens dropped out of the high-pressure course, but Kim persevered, lured in part by the prospect of quick promotion within the ruling Workers’ Party.
After graduation, the focus switched to training the agents to pass as locals.
South Koreans abducted and smuggled back into the North were among those who instructed them in mastering the right accents and understanding the social and political culture of the capitalist South.
This “enemization” process gave them their first real taste of life outside the isolated North, as they consumed a daily diet of South Korean TV shows, movies, magazines, newspapers and books.
Popular songs and dance moves were memorised, along with the names and careers of prominent TV celebrities and sports stars.
The course material suggested that the life of South Koreans was very different from the image portrayed in the North’s official propaganda of “impoverished puppets suffering under US imperialism”.
But Kim said he and the other trainees saw nothing amiss.
“We were too loyal to be shaken up by things like that,” he said. “We were told that only rich capitalists could enjoy all the good things in the South, and we never questioned that.”
After nearly 10 years of training, Kim was finally given his first mission and sent to the South in 1990 to try and recruit some left-wing activists, and help bring back Ri Son-Sil, an elderly agent who ran a vast network of spies in the South.
Two years later, Ri’s name would make headlines in the South when dozens of leftwing activists were arrested and accused of cooperating with her to spy for the North in the 1980s.
“The activists were important targets because they could provide valuable inside information and help shape public opinion in our favour if they got into politics,” Kim said.
His mission was successful and he was awarded the prestigious “Hero of the Republic” medal on his return to North Korea.
In 1995, he was sent back as part of a two-man team to bring out — by force if necessary — a spy posing as a monk who was suspected of working as a double agent with the South Korean intelligence service.
The mission was compromised and the two were tracked down by South Korean security forces. In the ensuing gun battle, Kim’s fellow agent was killed and he was wounded and captured.
Kim declined to comment in any detail about the four years he spent in the custody of military intelligence, saying only that it was “quite difficult.”
In the end, he was not imprisoned, but taken on as an intelligence officer having renounced any loyalty to the North.
“Apparently they thought that, with all the experiences and information I had, I had more value as an intelligence analyst than something else,” Kim said.
The North Korean authorities were not so forgiving. Kim later learned his parents in the North had been “purged” after his arrest, meaning they had either been sent to a prison camp or executed.
“In their eyes I had failed twice — both with the mission and in not killing myself before being arrested,” he said.
He started a new life in South Korea, marrying and having two sons, and earning a Ph.D with a thesis on the North’s spying strategy.
“My life was once full of drama … there were so many days when death seemed to be constantly hanging over my head,” he said.
“But I’ve learned to appreciate an ordinary, quiet life. I wish I could grow old and die that way.”
Kim, who still guards his privacy and refused to be photographed front-on, said he had written the book for his sons, so that “they can someday understand my past.”
“I also wanted to get things off my chest … and put this piece of history people don’t really know into the record,” he added.
Special forces unit faces allegation of misconduct in Afghanistan
ABC report claims elite ADF troops chopped off hands of dead insurgent after battle, possibly to collect the fingerprints
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 05.41 BST
The Australian Defence Force is investigating allegations of misconduct directed at an elite Australian special forces unit on a combined operation in Afghanistan earlier in the year.
The ABC reports that the Australian troops on operation with Afghan forces in the southern province of Zabul removed the hands of at least one insurgent's corpse to take back to an Australian base in Tarin Kot, the capital of the neighbouring Uruzgan province.
The ADF did not confirm this part of the ABC's story, referring only to "an incident of potential misconduct".
In a statement, it described the troops' mission that day, 28 April 2013, as a "clearance operation" targeting an "insurgent commander responsible for a key insurgent network". Australian troops were involved in a "high-intensity, complex and dangerous battle", which resulted in the death of four insurgents, it said.
The statement continued: "Following the mission, an incident of potential misconduct was raised through the ADF's internal command chain.
"The ADF, in co-operation with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), immediately commenced an investigation into this incident when the matter was reported."
The ADF said the ISAF had informed the Afghan government of the investigation.
Earlier on Friday, Kevin Rudd was asked if he had been briefed on the investigation. He said he had "full confidence in the Australian defence force" and had "full confidence in the chief of the defence force's capacity to investigate" allegations of misconduct.
The ADF said it would not comment on the allegations until its own investigation was complete.
The ABC claims that Australian special forces were briefed to collect fingerprints and eye scans of insurgents fighters killed in combat, and that special forces troops were told that it did not matter how the fingerprints were obtained.
Juvenile detainees at Perth's Hakea prison damage cells
Disturbance leaves some inmates with 'minor cuts during the vandalism', corrective services department says
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 10.18 BST
The controversy surrounding the detention of juveniles at an adult prison in Western Australia has taken a new turn as the state's Department for Corrective Services confirmed a disturbance at Hakea prison involving 12 young detainees has left 10 cells damaged and some of those involved with minor injuries.
The damage occurred on Thursday evening about 7pm. After a riot in January at WA's only juvenile detention facility, Banksia Hill, more than 100 young male inmates have been held at Hakea adult prison in a juvenile compound.
In a statement the department said shelving, toilets, shower screens and observation windows had been damaged. Some detainees were left with "minor cuts during the vandalism" and Guardian Australia understands those involved have been moved to secure cells at Banksia Hill. They will remain under the supervision of youth custodial staff.
The department said the unrest was not categorised as a riot and no staff had been injured.
The corrective services minister, Joe Francis, said the youth custodial staff and prison officers had dealt with the matter with "absolute professionalism".
"I am thoroughly impressed by the youth custodial officers and the emergency service group team members who were on duty last night at Hakea," he told the ABC.
He said it had taken staff "a couple of minutes" to get to the disturbance, adding: "It certainly won't be a case of using tasers on juveniles."
The acting commissioner for corrective services, Heather Harker, told the ABC that the disturbance had been started by one inmate.
"Officers went to him, then he started shouting to others to encourage them to damage their cells," she said, adding that the vandalism had gone on for between two and three hours.
On Monday, Guardian Australia published allegations that a number of the boys charged with being involved in January's riot had been singled out by corrective services staff during transfers to and from Hakea prison. These allegations included the use of lockdowns and shackling some of the children by the wrists and ankles during transfer. The department said it had not received any formal complaints on these grounds.
It said it could not comment on whether any of those juveniles involved in Thursday's disturbance were also involved in January's riot.
Earlier in August the WA inspector of custodial services, Neil Morgan, published a report on the January riot which concluded the event had been "entirely predictable". Referring to the staff shortages and rolling lockdowns that preceded it, Morgan said: "Idle, bored children will invariably become frustrated and are very likely to act out their frustrations."
The department has missed multiple deadlines to return the children detained to Banksia Hill. There are now more than 100 detainees, the majority of whom are Indigenous, at Hakea, with the department committed to a phased return over the coming weeks.
August 29, 2013
In Trial Account, Chinese Ex-Official Strays From Script
By EDWARD WONG
BEIJING — In secret remarks on the final session of his trial, Bo Xilai, the fallen Communist Party star, denied on Monday that he had tried to upset the party’s selection of top leaders or grab extensive new powers for himself, according to a court observer’s written record of his closing statement.
That part of Mr. Bo’s statement, providing a glimpse of the power politics many believe were behind the purging of Mr. Bo in 2012, did not appear in court transcripts released online Monday. The discussion appeared to have been kept from public view because officials overseeing the trial and party leaders wanted to prevent any mention of infighting among party elites, said a person briefed on the court proceedings.
Mr. Bo’s testimony, in which he denied designs to become China’s prime minister, was one of the few instances during the trial in which Mr. Bo appeared to stray far from the narrow parameters set by senior officials; those limits confined him to talking mostly about his family and personal matters. That remark and some others kept from the transcripts were described in a document obtained by The New York Times on Thursday.
The document of Mr. Bo’s final statement was written from memory by the court observer, who was among 110 or so people who had been invited by the authorities to watch the proceedings. The person briefed on the trial confirmed that the document had been written by someone inside the court. The document was being circulated Thursday within a small group of people who have ties to figures within the trial.
“Some say I wanted to be the prime minister,” Mr. Bo, 64, said, according to the document. “That is completely untrue. As we all know, party central had determined after the 17th Party Congress that Comrade Li Keqiang should take that position.”
At this point a judge interrupted Mr. Bo’s speech, apparently aware that Mr. Bo was treading on delicate ground.
Mr. Li is the current prime minister, appointed at the 18th Party Congress in November, and the fact that he was a favorite for the position was revealed in the 17th Party Congress in late 2007, as Mr. Bo stated. Around that time, Mr. Bo was given a seat on the 25-member Politburo and selected by party leaders to be the party chief of Chongqing, in southwestern China, a move that was widely seen as an attempt to remove him from contention for the elite Politburo Standing Committee in 2012.
But the charismatic Mr. Bo used his time in Chongqing to promote neosocialist policies that won him popular support from residents, even if an anticorruption campaign angered some liberal Chinese. Because of that strategy, Mr. Bo became a contender for the standing committee, until news emerged in March 2012 that his wife, Gu Kailai, was suspected in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, and Mr. Bo was put under house arrest.
Mr. Bo’s trial on charges of taking bribes, embezzlement and abuse of power began on Aug. 22, and a verdict, likely predetermined, as in other political show trials, is expected to be announced next month.
“Some say I wanted to be China’s Putin,” Mr. Bo also said in his closing argument, referring to Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s strongman president, according to the document. “This is also completely untrue.”
Those elements in Mr. Bo’s speech appeared to be an attempt to dispel the reputation that he had earned in Chongqing and earlier in his career that he was a ruthless, ambitious politician who would do anything to secure a top party post. Some political analysts say he was a direct rival to Xi Jinping, who, like Mr. Bo, is a “princeling,” the child of a Communist revolutionary leader. Mr. Xi was appointed as party chief and the top leader in China last November.
Those political rivalries are often quietly discussed among the elite in China, but are never supposed to be aired for public consumption. Mr. Bo’s mention of them in the trial violated that unwritten rule.
In other testimony kept from the official transcripts, Mr. Bo beseeched the residents of places he had governed to support him. “I love my people deeply,” he said, according to the document. “I want to say to them: ‘I did not fail you. I’m not a corrupt element. I would admit to any bit of corruption if you could find any.’ ”
Mr. Bo also insisted that he did not have any property in his name, and that a house on Beijing’s Xinkai alley was a temporary home given to him by senior officials while he was working as commerce minister before late 2007. Mr. Bo and his family were accused during the trial of taking lavish gifts from a young tycoon, Xu Ming. Prosecutors said Mr. Xu had given Ms. Gu $3.2 million to buy a villa on the French Riviera. Mr. Bo has denied knowledge of specific gifts.
“Money means nothing to me,” he said, according to the document. “I don’t want to be left with any money.”
A family associate said that after Mr. Bo delivered his full statement, Mr. Bo’s five relatives in the courtroom stood up and clapped. “We’ll always be with you,” they said.
August 29, 2013
In Thailand, Rubber Price Plunge Has Political Cost
By THOMAS FULLER
KHUAN NGOEN, Thailand — The rubber farmers of southern Thailand are inured to hardship, whether from the toilsome predawn harvests in mosquito-infested plantations or the vagaries of the market for their latex. But this month, they snapped.
After two years of falling rubber prices had driven many farmers into debt, hundreds of them blockaded the region’s main north-south road and railroad to protest.
“This was our last resort, our only option,” said Thaworn Ruengkling, a rubber farmer who says he can no longer earn enough from farming to cover the cost of fuel and fertilizer, never mind feeding his family.
“We can’t take it anymore,” Mr. Thaworn said Thursday at one of the intersections that the farmers had blocked with commandeered trucks and buses.
For years, breathless economic growth in Asia, especially in China and India, helped send the prices of commodities like rubber, palm oil and coffee soaring. But as Asia began to cool off and the West remained sluggish, the prices of many commodities have crashed, threatening the incomes of millions of farmers, especially in Southeast Asia.
The rubber farmers’ blockade has caused a political storm in Thailand, and analysts say it will not be the last. The Thai police tried and failed to remove the farmers here by force, a clash that has helped embolden the political opposition led by the Democrat Party, which is strongest in southern Thailand.
Bridget Welsh, a researcher based in Singapore and an expert on Southeast Asian politics, said that falling commodity prices were likely to have political implications in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam as well, all countries where the government relies to varying degrees on rural support. In Indonesia, five million people work on palm oil plantations; in Malaysia, farmworkers and holders of small tracts of land are part of the core of the governing party’s support.
If prices continue to slide, governments in Asia may soon be faced with deciding which farmers to support, as Thailand has on a large scale by providing billions of dollars in subsidies to rice farmers, and which ones they cannot afford to help.
Ms. Welsh predicted that the price declines would “lead to instability and strengthen the opposition” in Malaysia and Thailand, and “expose regional governments to more scrutiny” of how they manage their economies.
The sharp decline in rubber prices — more than 45 percent in two years — appears traceable to a classic boom-and-bust cycle: farms that expanded when demand was high now produce too much rubber when demand is slack.
Thailand has long been the world’s leading producer of rubber, but over the past decade China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam have contributed to an increase in output of millions of tons, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“We are in real trouble,” said Banlue Chankaew, a third-generation rubber farmer standing at a barricade on the main north-south road on Thursday. After splurging on cars, motorcycles, furniture and smartphones during the good years, many farmers have now had to borrow money, often at usurious rates from loan sharks. Those who cannot pay their debts have fled to other parts of the country, Mr. Banlue said.
Responding to the farmers’ calls to guarantee them prices well above current market rates, government officials have held negotiations and appear to be haggling over how much assistance they will provide. But the government has also sought to portray the protesters as troublemakers. The provincial police chief warned reporters and government officials on Thursday that it would be dangerous to visit the protests.
“Don’t risk your life,” said Maj. Gen. Ronnapong Saikaew, the chief of police in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Mr. Banlue does not elicit fear. Soft-spoken and courteous, he seemed out of place at the barricade. “I’m 45 years old, and this is my first time taking part in a protest,” he said.
Other protesters, especially younger ones, were armed with wooden sticks and slingshots. At night, they burn tires near the barricades.
Opposition leaders accuse Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, of botching the government’s response to the protests. Responding to reporters’ questions earlier this month, Ms. Yingluck said Thailand would not be able to influence the global rubber price because “with regards to the quantity of rubber, we have a small amount compared with other countries.” Thailand has been the world’s largest rubber producer since 1990, when it overtook neighboring Malaysia and today produces just under one-third of the world total.
The rubber crisis is one of a number of problems facing Ms. Yingluck, who had not held political office before becoming prime minister in 2011, and the opposition often faults her for being inexperienced and for lacking detailed knowledge of the economy. Beyond that, rubber farmers say she favors rice farmers, who are concentrated in areas where Ms. Yingluck’s political party, Pheu Thai, has strong support.
“We feel we are the forgotten child in the family,” said Mr. Banlue, who was also the deputy headman of his village.
The rubber farmers say they only resorted to blockades after repeatedly writing to government officials asking for help but never receiving a response.
“We had to think of a way,” said Wichan Raksapon, whose neat rows of rubber trees grow beside the blocked road, “that would make people understand that we have severe problems.”
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand.
August 29, 2013
Central Figure in Philippine Graft Case Surrenders
By FLOYD WHALEY
MANILA — The woman at the center of a wide-ranging corruption scandal in the Philippines surrendered to President Benigno S. Aquino III on Wednesday night, ending a nationwide dragnet that had detectives searching airports and yacht clubs.
Janet Lim-Napoles, a wealthy Manila businesswoman, was arrested on a warrant accusing her of the “illegal detention” of a witness who claims that she helped divert billions of pesos away from poverty-reduction programs and into the coffers of lawmakers and their associates. Justice Department officials have said they are preparing additional charges against Ms. Lim-Napoles related to the scandal.
The case set off outrage in the Philippines when photos emerged on social media sites showing Ms. Lim-Napoles’s daughter enjoying lavish vacations in Europe and the United States, posing on a Porsche and in a limousine, and hobnobbing with celebrities.
On Monday, tens of thousands of Filipinos gathered here in Manila to protest the brewing corruption scandal. A government investigation, and subsequent local media outlets, discovered muddy mountain tracks where multimillion-peso government-financed roads were supposed to have been built. Other bogus projects include ramshackle buildings that were financed as modern community centers.
The government investigation, which alleges that at least 6.1 billion pesos, or about $140 million, was diverted from poverty programs into the pockets of politicians, also found that fake organizations were set up to receive the funds. In some cases, the relatives of politicians authorizing the payments were the directors of the organizations receiving the money.
Ms. Lim-Napoles met Wednesday night with Edwin Lacierda, a presidential spokesman, in a Manila cemetery and asked to be allowed to surrender directly to the president. Mr. Lacierda said she was taken to Mr. Aquino, who assured her of her safety and told her that she would be given due process in her defense.
On Thursday, Mr. Lacierda denied that Ms. Lim-Napoles had received special treatment by being allowed to surrender directly to Mr. Aquino. He said other high-profile fugitives had turned themselves in to presidents.
“Let me just say that the president is an honorable man,” Mr. Lacierda said at an afternoon news conference. “It is in our culture that if the fugitive throws himself at the mercy of the highest official, the president is honor-bound to secure and receive the fugitive.”
Ms. Lim-Napoles, who has denied the allegations against her, was taken to the Philippine National Police Headquarters before her transfer to a city jail.
Mr. Aquino has made the battle against corruption a hallmark of his three-year-old administration, but he has faced a series of high-profile allegations in recent months: police officers’ engaging in extrajudicial killings and thefts, immigration officers’ allowing a fugitive to escape the country, and diplomats’ sexually harassing Filipinos working in the Middle East.
Despite the problems, Mr. Aquino has received positive marks from financial ratings agencies and international organizations for his efforts to address persistent corruption.
The latest Global Corruption Barometer report, produced by Transparency International and released in July, pointed to the Philippines as one of only 11 countries out of 107 where people reported a general improvement in the corruption situation.
But the report said Mr. Aquino had not been effective in overhauling government institutions like the police and customs departments, nor had pushed through pending anticorruption legislation, including a freedom of information act and a whistle-blower protection law. “The government has initiated a number of anticorruption frameworks, plans and road maps, and the strategies can be overwhelming and confusing,” the report said. “Moreover, there is no synergy among the government agencies tasked to implement them and, in the end, nothing gets accomplished.”
Lawmakers in the Philippines are no stranger to corruption allegations and legal problems. According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 504 candidates in the national elections in May had been charged at some point with corruption or other crimes and more than half of them were elected, including 17 who had been convicted.
“If you can’t jail them, elect them,” said Malou Mangahas, executive director of the center. “If you do jail them, well, you can always elect them again.”
Colombia braced for nationwide protests
Students and labour unions to march in support of farmers unhappy with free trade agreements
Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá
theguardian.com, Thursday 29 August 2013 16.19 BST
Colombia's largest cities were braced on Thursday for marches by students and labour unions in support of a growing nationwide strike by miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers and potato farmers protesting against everything from high fuel prices to free trade agreements that farmers say have them on the brink of bankruptcy.
The protests began on 19 August, with demonstrators joining striking miners,to block some of the country's main highways using tree branches, rocks and burning tyres. At least one protester and one policeman have died in the demonstrations, dozens have been injured and more than 150 have been arrested.
The protests spread to the cities where residents banged pots in solidarity with the farmers after president Juan Manuel Santos, in a failed effort to downplay the importance of the strikes, said the "supposed national farmers' strike does not exist".
Forced to apologise for the statement, he sent out high-level officials to begin negotiating separately with the different sectors. "We recognise that the farmers' protests respond to real needs and problems. We are listening to them and offering solutions," Santos said on Wednesday night.
Farmers complain that agricultural imports allowed under free trade agreements with the US, the EU, Canada and other nations are undercutting their livelihoods.
Strike leaders said solutions offered – eliminating import tariffs on fertilisers, easing agricultural credit and triggering protective safeguards allowed under the free trade agreement for sensitive sectors – were not enough. "Talks continue," strike leaders said on Wednesday, but called on farmers to continue protests.
Thursday's marches are planned for Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other mid-sized cities. With access to cities from the countryside disrupted, the price of some staple foods has nearly doubled. Gloria Galindo, a mother of three who lives in Bosa, a working-class district of Bogotá, said she sympathised with the protesters but that the roadblocks were hurting her family's wallet. "Vegetable prices have shot through the roof," she said.
Officials have accused leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is in talks with the government to end nearly 50 years of war, of infiltrating the strikes. Strike leaders have denied the claims.
Rural development was the first point of agreement between the Farc and the government in the peace process. But the current protests show that Colombia's conflicts are not limited to an armed insurgency and will not necessarily be resolved at the negotiating table in Havana, according to Alejandro Reyes, an adviser to the government on land issues. "When we get to a post-conflict stage there will be an enormous social conflict to deal with," he said.
Valley as deep as the Grand Canyon lies beneath Greenland
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 29, 2013 17:15 EDT
A huge canyon twice the size of the longest river in Britain and as deep as the Grand Canyon lies beneath the ice sheet in Greenland, scientists said Thursday.
Prior to the establishment of the ice sheet some four million years ago, the canyon is believed to have been a major pathway for water from the interior of the land mass to the coast.
Even today, the deep river channel — which originates in the center of Greenland and terminates at its northern coast — transports sub-glacial meltwater to the edge of the ice sheet and then into the ocean.
“A 750-kilometer (460-mile) canyon preserved under the ice for millions of years is a breathtaking find in itself, but this research is also important in furthering our understanding of Greenland’s past,” said David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey.
“This area’s ice sheet contributes to sea level rise and this work can help us put current changes in context.”
Scientists found the canyon using airborne radar data, much of which came from a NASA mission called Operation IceBridge, which used radio waves that traveled through the ice to measure the depth of the bedrock.
The Greenland sub-ice canyon is about twice as long as the River Severn in Britain, which extends 350 kilometers.
Michael Studinger, Operation IceBridge Project Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, described the finding as “quite remarkable.”
“It shows how little we still know about the bedrock below large continental ice sheets.”
The study was published in the US journal Science.
The Christian Science Monitor
Saturn moon's 'buoyant' mountains perplex, befuddle
By Liz Fuller-Wright, Correspondent / August 29, 2013 at 2:36 pm EDT
Titan is tricky. The enormous moon of Saturn has topography like Earth's, but it's made of ice instead of rock. Throw in an opaque (and poisonous) atmosphere and a space probe that only occasionally passes by to pick up a new swath of data, and you have a truly mysterious planet. Er, moon.
"Titan has been a hard planet to study," says Chuck Wood, a member of the Cassini science team based at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, adding, "It's bigger than Mercury; that's why we call it a planet."
The opaque atmosphere has defeated Cassini's impressive cameras, leaving scientists relying on low-resolution radar and other instruments to interpret Titan's mysteries. "It's almost like seeing the moon with telescopes from Earth," says Dr. Wood. "It's hard to have enough resolution to be confident in what we're seeing."
Despite the challenges, scientists have been announcing new and bizarre findings from Titan, Saturn's biggest (and arguably weirdest) moon ever since NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission arrived at Saturn in 2004.
Titan is a "deranged version of Earth!" scientists said. Titan has lakes! When scientists dropped the Huygens probe through Titan's thick atmosphere, they saw shorelines! Rivers! Evidence of "exotic and exciting" methane-ice-sludge volcanoes! Five years later, a methane rainstorm made more headlines, followed by Titan's potential for bizarre and smelly lifeforms, mile-wide dunes shaped by 'backward' winds, and theories about Titan-esque DNA.
Last year, the liquid story got more involved, with the discovery of a humongous methane lake in the (comparatively warm) tropics and growing evidence for a subsurface ocean underneath a frozen crust.
With that model, Titan is like an egg: liquid on the inside, thin and brittle on the outside. And there may or may not be a solid (or solid-ish) "yolk" somewhere deep inside.
Now, a team of scientists from the University of California at Santa Cruz are throwing a new wrinkle into the story, published Wednesday in Nature. What if Titan's crust isn't thin and brittle like an eggshell, but thick and firm, with humongous mountains floating over its subsurface ocean? What does that do to the implications for lakes, subsurface seas, and life?
It started when Cassini had made enough passes by Titan to generate a reasonably complete topography and gravity map of the moon's surface. Since Cassini is orbiting Saturn, and only occasionally swinging near Titan, it has taken the better part of a decade to brush past Titan close enough, often enough, to gather the necessary data.
And when scientists looked at the results, they were baffled.
"Normally, if you fly over a mountain, you expect to see an increase in gravity due to the extra mass of the mountain. On Titan, when you fly over a mountain the gravity gets lower. That's a very odd observation," said Francis Nimmo, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) and one of the lead scientists on the team, in a press release.
Wait a minute, you say. Isn't gravity constant? Drop an apple, it falls, end of story. Right?
Gravity depends on the mass of nearby objects. If you wander around Earth's surface with a "gravimeter," an instrument that measures the precise tug of gravity in any location, you'll discover that gravity pulls a bit more strongly over a mountain than it does over nearby lowlands, because of the huge volume of rock that makes up a mountain.
In fact, mountains are even bigger than you may have realized. We usually think of mountains as rising up from the surrounding plains, but that's only seeing the top sliver of the story. The rest is underground, called the "root," which, at least on Earth, is less dense than the underlying rock. Just like icebergs have more mass underwater than above the surface, mountains have more mass in their "roots" than above ground.
You can prove it to yourself: Pour a glass of water and drop an ice cube in it. See how little of the cube pokes above the water, and how much is in your drink? That above-to-below ratio will stay constant, even as the ice cube melts. Mountains have to follow the same law of physics, which scientists call "isostatic equilibrium," but which I'll call "the ice cube principle."
Mountains, volcanoes, icebergs, ice cubes – they all follow the same rule. Some above, more below. Even on Titan.
Dr. Nimmo and his team used the ice cube principle to create a model of Titan's outer layer that could explain why Titan's mountains have less gravity than the surrounding areas, in defiance of expectations.
To explain the low gravity, they suggested that each bump on the surface of Titan has a truly enormous "root" – big enough to overwhelm the gravitational effect of the bump on the surface, and much bigger than the ice cube principle would predict. "Because ice is lower density than water, you get less gravity when you have a big chunk of ice there than when you have water," Nimmo explained.
So how are they getting around the ice cube principle? They suggest that something – maybe methane rain – has eroded away part of the mountains. Taking a piece off the top should mean that the rest of the mountain rises up, just like knocking a chip out of the top of your ice cube would make it float a little higher.
But on Titan, they argue, the ice crust is so thick and rigid that it fights against the mountains' buoyancy. "It's like a big beach ball under the ice sheet pushing up on it, and the only way to keep it submerged is if the ice sheet is strong," said Doug Hemingway, a doctoral candidate in planetary geophysics at UCSC and lead author of the paper.
To fit the massive root model, the crust would need to be at least 25 miles thick, the team calculated, and ruthlessly inflexible.
"The fact that you can 'unload' the mountain and it doesn't spring back straightaway does suggest the crust is rigid," agrees Ralph D. Lorenz, a Titan expert at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, who was not involved in the study.
"That's already weird," he says, because other data from Cassini's gravimeter suggested that Titan was flexing back and forth under the effects of Saturn's gravity – an argument for a flexible crust, not a rigid one. "How do we explain this? Titan deforms on orbital timescales – short timescales – yet it's stiff enough to hold mountains up that aren't being held up by [the ice cube principle]. So it's kind of a challenge. A bit of a paradox," says Dr. Lorenz.
"That's the challenge of science that they never tell you when you're learning science in high school or undergrad," says Lorenz. "You get the impression it's like a crossword puzzle: There's a right answer, and when you get the right answer, you'll know. That it's just a case of fitting the facts together. But it's really a lot more like a detective novel. You get all these pieces of information, but somebody out there is lying, and you have to figure out who that is."
The ambiguity of the data only adds to Titan's mysteries. Is Titan really flexing with the tides? Is it rigidly supporting floating mountains? Could both be true?
A rigid crust has serious implications for understanding the planet-sized moon. For example, on the one hand a thick, rigid ice shell makes it very difficult to produce ice volcanoes, which some scientists have proposed to explain certain surface features. On the other hand, Earth has thick, rigid continental crust that magma succeeds in forcing its way through. In fact, the challenging journey through rigid crust ultimately makes the eruptions more explosive, and explains many of the differences between a Mount St. Helens-style eruption and a gently oozing volcano like Hawaii's Kilauea, which rises through the thinner, more flexible ocean crust.
Studies like this one are important, says the Planetary Institute's Dr. Wood, because "anything about the crust that gives us information about whether the crust would restrict the flow of possible heated material to the surface is important.... It's frustrating, with the evidence we have, to really understand how Titan works. Is Titan geologically active today, with volcanism and tectonism happening recently? Or is everything dominated and made to happen by the atmosphere?" he asks. "On Titan, we just don't have clarity."
In the USA..
Leaked documents show massive expansion of CIA budget
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, August 29, 2013 17:20 EDT
The CIA has mushroomed into the largest US spy agency with a nearly $15 billion budget as it expands intelligence, cyber sabotage and overseas covert operations, secret leaked documents showed Thursday.
Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked the government’s “black budget” for fiscal year 2013 to The Washington Post, which published portions of the top-secret document online in the latest in a series of revelations that have put the US intelligence community under a spotlight.
The $52.6 billion budget request for the nation’s 16 spy agencies is not a startling revelation in itself — the White House has published overall intelligence spending since 2007.
But it shows a dramatic resurgence of the Central Intelligence Agency, once thought to be on the decline after it acknowledged intelligence failures prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It now is the dominant colossus within the national intelligence community, expanding its workforce by more than 25 percent from a decade ago, to 21,575 this year.
CIA has increased its budget request to $14.7 billion, nearly 50 percent more than the NSA this year, according to the Post’s review of the documents, even as government austerity has forced agencies to contend with shrinking budgets.
By comparison, in 1994 the CIA accounted for $4.8 billion of the total $43.4 billion intel budget in 2012 dollars, according to the Post.
In the budget’s introduction, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that the intelligence community faced “hard choices” as government is forced to rein in costs.
Spending is projected to remain level through 2017, but Clapper stressed that “never before has the IC (intelligence community) been called upon to master such complexity and so many issues in such a resource-constrained environment.”
Snowden’s earlier disclosures to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and the Post uncovered details of the NSA’s vast surveillance programs that scooped up data on nearly every American.
The NSA has long been considered the behemoth of the intelligence community, but according to the black budget, CIA’s resources are nearly 50 percent larger.
The funding pays for an array of spy satellites, high-tech equipment and employees including analysts, linguistic experts, cryptologists and an increasing number of cyber specialists.
But CIA resources have also been funding secret prisons, an enlarged counterterrorism center, a series of paramilitary operations, and some $2.3 billion in human intelligence operations, the Post said.
It is also spending $2.6 billion on “covert action programs,” which include deployment of lethal drones, payments to militias in places like Afghanistan, and efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
August 29, 2013
New Neighbor’s Agenda: White Power Takeover
By JOHN ELIGON
LEITH, N.D. — The bearded man with thinning, gray-and-bleach-blond hair flapping down his neck first appeared in this tiny agricultural town last year, quietly and inconspicuously roaming the crackly dirt roads.
Nettie Ketterling thought nothing of it when he came into her bar to charge his cellphone in an outlet beneath the mounted head of a mule deer. To Kenneth Zimmerman, the man was just another customer, bringing his blue Dodge Durango in for repairs. Bobby Harper did not blink when the man appeared in front of his house and asked him if he had any land to sell. And the mayor, Ryan Schock, was simply extending a civic courtesy when he swung by the man’s house to introduce himself.
Their new neighbor, they thought, was just another person looking to get closer to the lucrative oil fields in western North Dakota known as the Bakken.
But all that changed last week.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Bismarck Tribune revealed that the man, Paul Craig Cobb, 61, has been buying up property in this town of 24 people in an effort to transform it into a colony for white supremacists.
In the past two years, Mr. Cobb, a longtime proselytizer for white supremacy who is wanted in Canada on charges of promoting hatred, has bought a dozen plots of land in Leith (pronounced Leeth) and has sold or transferred ownership of some of them to a couple of like-minded white nationalists.
He is using Craigslist and white power message boards to entice others in the movement to take refuge in Leith, about two hours southwest of Bismarck. On one board, he detailed his vision for the community — an enclave where residents fly “racialist” banners, where they are able to import enough “responsible hard core” white nationalists to take control of the town government, where “leftist journalists or antis” who “come and try to make trouble” will face arrest.
The revelations have riveted this community and the surrounding area, drawing a range of reactions from disgust to disbelief to curiosity.
“If that man wanted to live in Leith and be a good neighbor and be decent and not push his thoughts on the people, then he could live there,” said Arlene Wells, 82, a farmer and local historian. “But to come in and want to change everything and be the big dog — no. I don’t like bulldogs.”
It is all people are talking about, in bars and in their homes, at funerals and at church. They are poking around on the Web to read Mr. Cobb’s positions for themselves. A stream of cars creep through the streets where horses occasionally trot, their passengers hoping to catch a glimpse of some action or take a peek at Mr. Cobb’s peeling, two-story clapboard home. Sheriff’s cars, too, are making more rounds.
This is not how residents wanted Leith to get back on the map. Founded in 1909, the town bustled in the middle of the century, a regional center for festivals, movies and skating. The population began slipping after peaking at 174 in 1930, but the death knell was the closing of the railroad some 30 years ago. Though the 2010 census said the population is 16, Mr. Schock puts it at 24, and the Leith Bar is the only one of the five remaining buildings on Main Street still open. Most lots are empty and overgrown, laden with high-flying grasshoppers, in this town that sits in a bowl surrounded by wheat and sunflower fields.
Mr. Cobb happened upon the community, he said, through an ad for the home he eventually bought on Craigslist. He paid a total of about $8,600 for the house and 12 plots, he said, making his first purchases in 2011. He moved here in May 2012, he said, after fleeing Canada in 2010 to avoid the criminal charges. He spent some time in Montana, before coming to North Dakota to find work in the oil patch. He said he lost his construction job last week after the story broke.
People have knocked on Mr. Cobb’s red door to offer to buy back his land and to preach the Gospel. The City Council is looking into potential ordinance or health code violations (his home has no septic tank or running water). There is a doomsday plan in place, Mr. Schock explained: If enough of Mr. Cobb’s friends move in to gain a majority that could vote out the current government, the Council would immediately dissolve the town.
Mr. Harper, Leith’s only black resident, said a lot of people approached him at his mother-in-law’s funeral on Monday to tell him they had his back.
“People told me to leave town for the weekend and they’d take care of everything,” he said.
But he and his wife, Sherrill — who found herself referred to as a “filthy race-mixing white woman” in one of Mr. Cobb’s online posts — said they were not going anywhere.
Mr. Cobb, meanwhile, seems to be soaking in the publicity and mocking it.
“Just want to let you know I’m not going to cause any trouble,” he said to Don Hauge, 61, who rolled up in a red Chevy pickup truck to where Mr. Cobb was sitting on a bench, peering through smudged rectangular glasses that slid down the bridge of his nose. Mr. Cobb is a lanky figure, dressed neatly in a button-down shirt tucked into slender black slacks he says he bought from someone who had stolen them, and rubber sandals.
In rapid-fire speech, Mr. Cobb cuts through a vast trove of facts and thoughts in his head, inevitably veering toward racial slurs. But he maintained a soft, calm tone, and was friendly when chatting with a black reporter who knocked on his door this week. He said he admired Louis Farrakhan because “he organizes people and they’re for themselves.”
But in that interview he also said that he hoped his plans in Leith would “excite” white people and “give them confidence because we’re being deracinated in our own country. We’ve been very, very tolerant about these major sociological changes.”
His beliefs began developing at an early age, he said — he read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” when he was 11. To hear him tell it, he has had a colorful, nomadic life that has brought him face to face with James (Whitey) Bulger (the mob boss piloted the tugboat he rode to boarding school in Boston) and Barack Obama (he claims to have driven the future president in his taxi in Hawaii in the early 1980s).
It is difficult to tell whether Mr. Cobb wants or expects his vision for Leith to succeed.
Although he said that four fellow white nationalists have bought or acquired some of his plots, he said he did not know if or when they would be moving to the town, nor would he push the issue on them.
He gave the community’s run-down former meat locker and creamery to the National Socialist Movement. Jeff Schoep, the movement’s leader, said he was unsure how easy it would be for people, in a tough economy, to pack up and head to Leith. But he said he thought it was a fantastic idea to establish a community for white nationalists so they could have a safe place to land in a crisis — say, a civil war.
“I would like to see it prosper and move forward,” Mr. Schoep said. “People should move there and get the process going. It gives us a base of support for elections and things like that.”
But as Ms. Ketterling has been hearing from her bar patrons all week, residents would rather see the venture fail.
“They’re not happy,” she said. “We don’t like that kind of stuff.”
August 29, 2013
Talks to Avert a Fiscal Crisis in the Fall End With No Result
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — A White House meeting with Senate Republicans to try to find a path forward on deficit reduction and avert a fiscal crisis in the fall ended Thursday with both sides saying the talks have proven fruitless and might not continue.
The meeting between senior White House aides, including Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, and eight senators ended with no date set for the next meeting and blunt talk of failure. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, expressed concern that carrying on the dialogue would give a false impression of progress.
“This is just not going to happen at this time,” he said. “There’s no point in continuing to act as if these discussions are leading some place.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said: “In America, you have to believe there’s a pathway forward, but right now, I don’t see it.”
With the next fiscal showdown in Washington just weeks away, the failure of the Senate-White House talks will shift attention toward Congressional leaders who have yet to engage in detailed talks to avert a political and possibly an economic disaster.
On Oct. 1, much of the government will run out of authority to spend money unless Congress acts to approve at least a stopgap spending measure. Then by mid-October, the Treasury will no longer be able to borrow money to finance the government unless lawmakers approve an increase in the statutory debt ceiling.
White House officials said Thursday that they never expected the Senate talks to defuse those twin crises. But the talks did grow out of a high-profile “charm offensive” by President Obama earlier this year aimed at wooing Senate Republicans to a deficit deal and isolating more intransigent House Republicans.
“We appreciated the meeting, which continued the series of candid — and helpful — exchanges,” a White House official said.
Over the past weeks, the Senate group — which called itself the “sounding board” — had moved away from the kind of “grand bargain” Mr. Obama had sought, which would combine higher tax revenues and changes to social programs like Medicare to produce trillions of dollars in deficit reduction.
Instead, they aimed simply to replace the automatic across-the-board cuts known as the sequester over the next eight years with other budget changes.
Mr. Obama, in his most recent budget plan, had accepted $200 billion in sequester savings over eight years, and both sides appeared ready to leave in place small cuts to entitlement programs in the sequester legislation.
That left $518 billion in savings to find over eight years, but the White House’s insistence that tax revenues be included and Republicans’ refusal left the talks at an impasse.
August 29, 2013
U.S. Won’t Sue to Reverse States’ Legalization of Marijuana
By ASHLEY SOUTHALL and JACK HEALY
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Thursday said it would not sue to block laws legalizing marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia, a move that proponents hailed as an important step toward ending the prohibition of the drug.
In a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide on Thursday, James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general, erased some uncertainty about how the government would respond to state laws making it legal to use marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.
Citing “limited prosecutorial resources,” Mr. Cole explained the change in economic terms. But the memo also made clear that the Justice Department expects states to put in place regulations aimed at preventing marijuana sales to minors, illegal cartel and gang activity, interstate trafficking of marijuana, and violence and accidents involving the drug.
“A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice,” he wrote.
Voters in Washington and Colorado recently approved measures decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana, while 18 other states and the District of Columbia permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
In a phone call on Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. explained the government’s “trust but verify” approach to Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington and Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Justice Department official said.
Marijuana advocates praised the decision as a potentially historic shift in the federal government’s attitude toward a drug it once viewed as a menace to public health. By allowing states to legalize and regulate marijuana, advocates said, the federal government could reduce jail populations and legal backlogs, create thousands of jobs, and replenish state coffers with marijuana taxes.
“This is a historic day,” said Ean Seeb, a co-owner of a marijuana dispensary called Denver Relief. “This is the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition.”
But the prospect that marijuana could be legalized after a ban of decades drew criticism from law enforcement and drug policy officials. They warned that the Justice Department’s decision would have unintended consequences, like more impaired driving and more criminal marijuana operations.
“This sends the wrong message,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who is a recovering prescription drug addict and a founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a policy group. “Are we going to send up the white flag altogether and surrender and say ‘have at it’? Or are we going to try to reduce the availability and accessibility of drugs and alcohol? That should be our mission.”
Under the new guidance, a large scale and a for-profit status would no longer make dispensaries and cultivation centers a potential target for criminal prosecution.
However, prosecutors have broad discretion in determining, for instance, whether drug laws exacerbate “adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use.”
If federal prosecutors believe that a state’s controls are inadequate, “the federal government may seek to challenge the regulatory structure itself in addition to continuing to bring individual enforcement actions, including criminal prosecutions,” Mr. Cole wrote.
The Justice Department official said the guidance was mandatory and did not apply retroactively.
In Colorado and Washington, the passage of ballot measures left the states’ drug laws in sharp opposition to federal drug policy, and raised questions about how federal law enforcement agents would respond to new retail marijuana stores. Some members of Congress sought to have the administration clarify whether state officials risked federal criminal prosecution while carrying out their duties under the state laws.
“It’s a relief,” said Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat. “It’ll get the criminal element out of the marijuana trade. It’ll provide legitimate business opportunities for everything from farmers to processors to retail store owners.”
Mr. Cole is scheduled to testify on Sept. 10 at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing focused on clarifying the administration’s stance.
The White House said last week that President Obama did not support changing federal laws regulating marijuana, which treat the drug as a dangerous substance with no medical purpose.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said the president believed it was best to focus on high-level offenders like kingpins and traffickers.
The decision on Thursday followed Mr. Holder’s announcement this month that federal prosecutors would no longer seek federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
The announcement did not address the financial hurdles facing marijuana dispensaries and growing operations, like their access to loans and other banking services. Many banks are reluctant to do business with marijuana growers and sellers, for fear of violating federal laws.
Ashley Southall reported from Washington, and Jack Healy from Denver.
US set for Syria strikes after Kerry says evidence of chemical attack is 'clear'
• Secretary of state brands Assad 'a thug and a murderer'
• Kerry: attack killed 1,429 Syrians including 426 children
• Obama considering 'limited, narrow action'
• UN inspectors pull out of Damascus
Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman Washington
The Guardian, Saturday 31 August 2013
John Kerry advanced what he called a "clear and compelling" case that Syria was responsible for a chemical attack that killed nearly 1,500 people, in a statement on Friday that made clear the US was on the verge of military strikes against the Assad regime.
Speaking in a blunt terms, the US secretary of state branded the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, a "thug and a murderer", and said the United States could not stand by and let a dictator get away with such serious crimes.
"History will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction," Kerry said in a briefing to reporters at the state department in Washington.
Signals of an impending attack continued to build on Saturday. UN weapons inspectors left their Damascus hotel and their convoy headed via the Masnaa border crossing to neighbouring Lebanon, where they were seen arriving at Beirut international airport to take flights out of the region, according to Reuters and the Associated Press.
Speaking soon after Kerry, Barack Obama said that he was considering "limited, narrow action" against Syria. "We can not accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale," he said.
Pointedly, Kerry made no mention of the decision by the British government to pull out of the coalition, after prime minister David Cameron lost a crucial vote in the House of Commons on Thursday. Instead, Kerry referred to France as the "oldest ally" of the US, after President François Hollande pledged support for military action against Syria.
As Kerry spoke, the White House released an unclassified four-page dossier. The assessment said the US intelligence community had "high confidence" that Assad's forces were behind the attack, which it said killed at least 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children.
Obama said the US did not intend to be dragged into Syria's civil war. "We're not considering any open-ended commitment," he said at a photo opportunity with Baltic leaders. "We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach."
The president conceded that many people, himself included, were "war-weary" after a decade of US military interventions, but added: "A lot of people think something should be done – but nobody wants to do it."
An attack could happen as soon as Saturday when UN weapons inspectors are due to leave Syria after their mission in the country was apparently cut short amid expectations of an attack. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told security council members on Friday evening that it could be two weeks before the final results of their analysis is ready.
Late on Friday a sixth US warship joined five US cruise missile destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean. Officials said the USS San Antonio, an amphibious ship with several hundred US Marines on board, had arrived in the region for a different reason but given the current situation it was being kept near the destroyers "as a precaution", the Reuters news agency reported.
On Thursday the White House said any strikes would be "discrete and limited".
Kerry said there would be no boots on the ground and the attack would not be open-ended, "and it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already under way". He described a "limited and tailored response that a despot's flagrant use of chemical weapons will be held responsible".
He insisted the impending military action would not be a similar to conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq, saying of the 2003 invasion of the last named: "We will not repeat that moment."
However, in a line reminiscent of George W Bush's "axis of evil", Kerry specifically mentioned a host of US enemies, saying Iran could be "emboldened" if the US did not act.
"It is about Hezbollah and North Korea and every other terrorist group that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons' current or future use? Or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?"
Kerry portrayed taking tough action as a matter of US credibility, saying other countries that might use chemical weapons were watching. "They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say," he said. "It matters deeply to the credibility and the future of the United States of America and our allies."
The secretary of state, who along with Obama has been involved in an intense diplomatic offensive to garner support for the administration's Syria policy, sought to cast the planned action as having broad support. He mentioned an Arab League statement and quoted statements from the leaders of Australia and France.
In his statement Kerry gave the most detailed assessment yet of what happened on 21 August. He said Assad's forces had the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East and had used them several times this year. The regime wanted to clear problematic Damascus suburbs of opposition forces and had grown "frustrated", he said.
"We know that three days before the attack the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations," Kerry said.
He claimed Syrian forces took precautions such as putting on gas masks before the attacks.
"We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time; we know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods." Thirty minutes later "all hell broke loose" on social media, Kerry said.
Kerry chose highly emotive language to describe the aftermath of the attacks, painting a vivid scene of "twitching bodies" and victims "foaming at the mouth", all captured in video posted online. "Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home we saw rows of children, lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor – all of them dead from Assad's gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate."
The secretary of state sought to reassure the public that the intelligence, which has come under growing scrutiny in recent days, was reliable. "This is common sense," he said. "This is evidence. These are facts."
Kerry added that it was in the interests of the world to punish Assad but repeatedly cast the impending action as a matter of US credibility. "If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve, and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe they can do what they will."
Meanwhile, senior administration officials pressed the case against Syria in a telephone briefing for journalists. "I don't think there's any doubt to the world that a chemical weapons attack took place given the thousands of sources," one said on the call.
The senior officials were authorised by the White House to speak on condition of anonymity. On Thursday White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest had discouraged reporters from trusting anonymous administration sources, saying they should "place more credibility in on-the-record statements".
One of the officials said: "We feel like our case is strong, our case is clear: the Assad regime is responsible for this mass casualty chemical weapons attack."
Kerry's remarks came five days after he first signalled the US was planning to take tough action against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus. Kerry and Obama have been involved in an intense round of diplomacy over the last week, seeking to conjure international backing for a tough response against Syria. However they are faced with launching a military assault with less support than George W Bush received for the 2003 war in Iraq.
Three out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, the only international authority that can sanction military action that is not in a nation state's self-defence, now oppose action.
Russian and Chinese opposition was widely expected. But the vote in the British parliament on Thursday came as a deep surprise to Washington, which appears to have taken for granted that London, which has spent months lobbying for tough action on Syria, would support strikes.
The White House has indicated it does not believe it needs the backing of Congress, nor the support of traditional allies, before taking action against Assad.
France is the only major power that has indicated it would support force against Syria. Hollande told Le Monde on Friday that France wants "proportional and firm action", adding that the chemical weapons attack in Syria "cannot and must not remain unpunished".
Germany has ruled out backing military action against Syria and it was not clear whether the US had significant support from the region, although the Arab League strongly condemned the Syrian regime.
Late on Thursday the administration held a conference call with congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of relevant committees. The White House said the call was to "to brief them on the administration's thinking and seek their input" on what to do about Syria.
Reports said senior administration officials assured members of Congress that there was "no doubt" Assad's forces were responsible for the chemical attack. Sixteen members of Congress asked questions during the 90-minute call; 11 apparently did not.
Administration officials, while pledging to work with Congress, were non-committal about whether a strike requires legislative approval, a longstanding tension between the congressional and executive branches of the US government.
There were few signs of a consensus emerging from the meeting. Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the armed services committee, was notably more cautious than the administration's position. "I have previously called for the United States to work with our friends and allies to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime by providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition," Levin said after the call.
"Tonight I suggested that we should do so while UN inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime's large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."
Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, said after the call that Obama was "still weighing his options and will continue to consult with Congress". Engel said he was persuaded that Assad's forces used chemical weapons "intentionally" against Syrian civilians on 21 August.
Politico reported that Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress and a former House speaker, pressed Obama on the phone call to "do something" in response to the chemical attack.
Yet even some typically hawkish Republicans are balking at intervening in Syria. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate armed services committee, issued a statement ahead of the call rejecting a Syria strike, partly on the grounds that Obama's Pentagon budget cannot afford it, and questioning the utility of a limited attack.
"It is vital we avoid shortsighted military action that would have little impact on the long-term trajectory of the conflict," Inhofe said. "We can't simply launch a few missiles and hope for the best."
More than 200 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, have signed a letter rejecting military action without the explicit permission of Congress.
France expected to replace UK as key US ally in Syria intervention
François Hollande reaffirms resolve to 'punish' Damascus over chemical weapons as he prepares for talks with Barack Obama
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
The Guardian, Friday 30 August 2013 18.30 BST
France looked likely on Friday to replace Britain as the US's key ally in the international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as Barack Obama and François Hollande were due to hold what the latter called in-depth talks with "all options on the table".
In an interview with Le Monde, Hollande reaffirmed his resolve to "punish" Damascus over an attack that he said had caused irreparable harm to the Syrian people.
But if Westminster's no vote on Syria intervention was marked by the spectre of Britain's role in the Iraq war, France's stance was similarly marked by the fact that Paris led global opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq 10 years ago.
Hollande set out to convince a sceptical French public that action on Syria was totally different from the US-led war in Iraq. He said he would not make a final decision before having "all the elements to justify it", meaning waiting for the UN experts' report on chemical weapons.
He stressed the contrast in France's goals to the US push for regime change in Iraq, saying he was not in favour of any intervention that aimed to "liberate" Syria or "overthrow a dictator". Instead he said the Syrian regime's crossing of the "red line" of chemical weapons use could not go unpunished or it risked an escalation in use of such weapons there and elsewhere. He brushed aside the word "war", preferring to talk of a "sanction".
France, whose military has stated it is ready for any action as soon as Hollande gives a go-ahead, is not constrained by a parliament vote. As president, Hollande has the authority to launch an attack and is only obliged to inform MPs afterwards.
A special session of parliament next Wednesday, where Syria action will be debated but not voted on, is in some ways a mere courtesy. Hollande hinted that any action could take place beforehand. When France intervened in its former African colony Mali in January, parliament debated the issue days after the first operations were launched, although there was more consensus among the political class than over Syria.
Hollande told Le Monde on Syria: "We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies."
He said France was prepared to act without Britain. But for political reasons the Socialist government wants as broad an international coalition as possible, to avoid being accused of being Washington's lone "poodle". One poll this week showed 59% of the French public opposed military engagement in Syria.
If military action goes ahead, France will most likely deploy Rafale and Mirage fighter jets, fitted with Scalp air-to-surface missiles with a range of up to 155 miles, from Corsica.
Paris, the former colonial power in Syria, has been one of the most outspoken western powers on Damascus from the start, ramping up its rhetoric in condemnation of chemical weapons in June, well before the latest allegation of a chemical attack on 21 August. Hollande and his foreign minister have for months been at pains to show that France's stance is a moral one, vowing to "punish" those who "took the vile decision to gas innocents", leaving the French president now under pressure to carry through. One concern in Paris remains the spread of violence into Lebanon where France has its strongest political and economic links in the region.
Although a close Paris allegiance with Washington in any Syria action would seem to reverse the casting of the 2003 Iraq war, the cooked-up image of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" has not rung true for a long time. Under Sarkozy, France cemented its military relations with the US and Britain with a major defence pact with the UK and a return to the Nato command structure. In 2011, France was a key ally in the intervention in Libya with the US and UK.
US-led attack on Syria reduced to 'coalition a deux'
Barack Obama may get broad political support to punish Bashar al-Assad, but only France looks likely to join in military action
Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Friday 30 August 2013 17.59 BST
Britain's withdrawal from a campaign to punish Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using banned chemical weapons leaves US planners contemplating a lonely operation, with so far only the French looking likely to join in.
Barring surprises, this "coalition a deux" looks set to be dwarfed by a far larger coalition of the unwilling and nervous. The vote in the UK parliament robs Washington of its most loyal and capable military partner, though Barack Obama is still likely to get substantial political support despite the paralysing divisions on the UN security council.
Nato is sharply divided, with individual members including Canada, Germany and Italy making clear they will not take part in any US-led attack on Syria without full UN authorisation.
Turkey is important to watch. It is a neighbour of Syria, it has the largest army in the Atlantic alliance and is a bitter enemy of the Assad regime.
"Turkey could provide critical support if a military operation escalates beyond a limited strike," according to Stratfor, a strategic consultancy. "But Turkey is also the Nato member most vulnerable to retaliatory strikes, and although the government issued strong statements calling for action, the already constrained government in Ankara could be calculating that it is not worth the risk to join a dwindling coalition at this point, particularly for a limited strike scenario."
Another key group comprises Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — all are Assad's foes, and Riyadh and Dohaare important backers of the Syrian opposition. Qatar and the UAE both sent forces to back the Nato-led intervention in Libya in 2011, but they are far less keen to do the same in Syria.
Qatar is now following a less activist foreign policy to defuse anger over its support for Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere. All the conservative Gulf states fear Iran, even though Tehran's bark is usually worse than its bite. Their support for US air strikes will probably be political rather than military, most analysts argue.
On past form, the Saudis are likely to agree to any US request to operate Awacs surveillance aircraft from bases in the kingdom, but that is likely to happen discreetly. On Friday the Saudis reportedly raised their military alert level from two to five. Jordan, Turkey and Israel have all taken similar steps in recent days.
Jordan, another anxious neighbour of Syria, has made clear that it will not be involved in any military action, but it is an important base for the anti-Assad opposition. Arab sources predict a new rebel offensive in the Deraa area near the Jordanian border to take advantage of any US attacks.
Egypt has shifted position on Syria since the army overthrew Mohamed Morsi. Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister in the military-backed interim government, made clear this week that Cairo opposed US action at a time of heightened sensitivities about any kind of western involvement in the region.
Britain's domestic political drama may also have consequences beyond Syria. "The setback for David Cameron in the House of Commons may come at a political and military cost for the UK in the Gulf states," according to Emile Hokayem of the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
"Under his government, the UK has worked to re-establish its presence in the Gulf even if it stirred uncomfortable questions in London about human rights in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
"This 'East of Suez' strategy has political, strategic and commercial dimensions. Several Gulf states have welcomed this, but the credibility of the UK as a strategic actor willing to project force may now suffer. France is the other important European actor in the region, with a base in Abu Dhabi and several defence relationships. Many see the two as competitors. A French involvement in Syria may raise its profile further."
08/30/2013 04:51 PM
Atoning for Libya: Germany Seeks Low Profile in Syria
By Daryl Lindsey
All eyes are on the international community this week as the US prepares to strike Syria. In Germany, political leaders are keen to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing mistakes made in the run-up to the Libya intervention. Experts say Berlin will offer political support but little else.
Will it come this weekend? Early next week? Or will it follow the G-20 summit in Russia, which begins on Thursday? Few in Germany doubt the likelihood that the United States will launch some kind of strike against Syria in the coming days. British Prime Minister David Cameron may have suffered a bitter defeat by a negative vote in his country's parliament on Thursday, but that likely won't stop the US from acting.
In comments made to the New York Times and the Washington Post published on Friday, White House officials began signalling that the US would act unilaterally if it has to. Pentagon officials also stated that a fifth US destroyer carrying dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles has been moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. A red line is a red line -- and most expect Washington to respond in order to protect its credibility.
The growing calls for a military strike are in response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria -- an attack that White House officials believe was conducted by dictator Bashar Assad's forces. "The message the Americans are sending is that they are planning a small attack against Syrian army installations," says Henning Riecke, the head of the trans-Atlantic relations program and expert on German and US security policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The goal here is to cause damage to demonstrate to Assad that if he deploys chemical weapons, then the costs will be greater to him than the benefits. That's how deterrent is intended to work."
'Germany Will Stand in the Way'
Coming as it does just weeks before a national election, the developments create discomfort for incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat challenger, Peer Steinbrück, given that two-thirds of Germans oppose an international military intervention against Syria. Worse yet, what would happen if the US were to ask for anything beyond political support from Germany?
"Election campaigns are a bad time to go to war, and Germany's Western allies know that, too," says Markus Kaim, a security policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin-based think tank that advises the government on foreign policy matters.
More likely, he and other experts say -- particularly given Berlin's abstention from the United Nations Security Council vote on the Libya intervention in 2011 -- Washington is unlikely to ask for much if anything at all.
"At the very most, the Germans will be asked to act friendly and cooperative from the sidelines," says DGAP's Riecke. "In other words, to provide political support for the mission, approach the critics in Moscow and Beijing diplomatically and not undertake any political countermeasures." Earlier this week, Merkel's spokesman called for punitive measures against Syria and "consequences" in the wake of the chemical weapons attack. Riecke said he interpreted this to be an announcement that, "Germany will not stand in the way."
Germany Seeks to Avoid Embarrassment
In the corridors of power in Berlin, the international isolation Germany faced after its abstention from the Libya vote hangs over the current Syria debate like an 800-pound gorilla. At the time, the US, Britain and France moved ahead to establish a no-fly zone in the country without Germany's support.
"It was a mistake and some in (Merkel's) government readily admit that today," says SWP's Kaim. "The lack of coordination with our Western allies and the abstention put German on the same side as Russia and China. It was a meltdown for German politics and the government is now seeking to avoid that."
It's a position shared by General Harald Kujat, the retired former head of Germany's Bundeswehr armed forces. He calls the abstention and subsequent "errors" made by the German government over Libya a "disaster," both militarily and politically. This time around, he says, the only thing the German government will do is "seek to avoid making any major mistakes -- but no more than that."
When asked what Germany could provide if Washington moves to strike next week or after the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Kujat has few illusions. "When it comes to geopolitical issues," he says, "Germany plays no role. We are merely extras, and if you're an extra, then you need to make sure you don't disrupt the performance taking place on stage. But disrupt is precisely what we did in Libya."
'A Lot More Time'
Of course, there certainly is some aid, albeit largely symbolic, that the Bundeswehr could provide. DGAP's Riecke points to assistance like the monitoring of additional airspace by German military personnel using AWACs reconnaissance planes, for example. But such aid would likely only become relevant if there were a longer-term intervention in Syria, a prospect few seem to be seriously considering at this time.
In terms of the brief missile strikes the Obama administration appears to be planning, there's not much Germany can do to help. "If the Bundeswehr were to participate, it would require a lot more time," notes Kujat.
And even then, it would face severe limitations. The Bundeswehr has already been stretched close to its limits with deplyoments in Afghanistan, Kosovo and along Turkey's border, where Bundeswehr troops man Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries as part of NATO operations. It is also hamstrung by physical limitations. Whereas Britain has bases in nearby Cyprus and the US in Crete, Germany has none.
If a longer engagement were to take shape, DGAP's Riecke says there could still be a bit role for Germany to play. "I could imagine that the Germans might be asked to monitor a larger share of the airspace with AWACs planes, but I'm not sure the Americans would really even need that," he says.
Germany Could Offer Its Soft Power
For now, the main thing Germany has to offer is diplomacy -- the soft power it wields as the European Union's largest economy and as a partner of Russia.
Political support is important, "but it is also important that we act constructively in the international bodies where we have seats and votes -- in NATO, at the European Union, which still hasn't stated a position on Syria, and at the G-20 summit next week where we will sit at the same table as the other Western actors, including Russia and the US. At these forums, Germany has the ability to help shape foreign and security policy. The country may not be decisive, but it can still state its position and push for things," former Bundeswehr General Kujat says. Despite strained relations between Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says "Germany still has good ties to Russia as well as a very good name in the Arab world."
The point of a strike, argues SWP's Kaim, is to assert pressure on Assad to eschew chemical weapons, but just as importantly to push for movement in Syrian peace talks in Geneva. Kaim sees a possible strike next week as opening a "window of opportunity" for European diplomacy.
"If there is a strike next week, then Damascus, Moscow and Tehran would have to reassess their options," Kaim says. "Wouldn't that be a terrific opportunity for Germany and the EU, together with the British, French or even Polish foreign minister and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton to say: We're going to fly to Damascus and use this opportunity for a fresh diplomatic start?"
'Broad Consent for the Americans to Take a Step'
There's almost universal consensus that next week's G-20 summit in Russia should be used as an opportunity to seek a deal with Moscow. "Perhaps a compromise is actually possible with Russia," says military observer Kujat. "It's certainly not in the interest of the Russians for Assad to be using chemical weapons against his own people. As Assad supporters, this would discredit the country."
So far, though, there are no signs Moscow is ready to seek a deal. "Russia is against any resolution of the UN Security Council which may contain an option for the use of force," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Friday. The statement came after a UN meeting seeking to come up with a resolution on the Syrian crisis failed to reach any agreement.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Friday that the Obama administration doesn't want to go it alone, but it appears increasingly likely it will. This time, though, in sharp contrast to the Iraq war, there is far less resistance to the US taking solo action in Syria. Although Germans would like to see a solution take shape at the United Nations Security Council, foreign policy experts note that those efforts have failed so far.
"The Security Council has been dysfunctional and its members have been unable to find agreement on any kind of sensible approach," says trans-Atlantic relations observer Riecke. "Russia blocked that. That's why, mostly in the Western world, there is a large degree of support, acceptance or at least tolerance for the Americans to take a step."
Syria: Pig Putin rubbishes chemical attack claims
• Russian president goes on offensive against Obama
• US weighs up next move as UN team go to Lebanon
• Two-thirds of French people oppose intervention, says poll
Saptarshi Ray and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 31 August 2013 12.31 BST
Pig Putin has rejected US intelligence claims that Bashar al-Assad's regime used chemical weapons in Syria, saying it would be "utter nonsense" for government troops to use such tactics in a war it was already winning.
"That is why I am convinced that [the chemical attack] is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States," Pig Putin told journalists in Vladivostok.
The Russian president also challenged the US to present its case for military intervention to the UN security council, after suggesting that if Barack Obama was worthy of his Nobel peace prize, he should think about the possible victims of any intervention by foreign forces.
UN experts left Syria on Saturday after investigating the gas attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, while the US said it was planning a limited response to punish Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for the "brutal and flagrant" assault.
Barack Obama said the US, which has destroyers equipped with cruise missiles in the region, was planning a "limited, narrow" response that would not involve boots on the ground or be open-ended.
Russia responded by saying US threats to use military force against Syria were unacceptable and that Washington would be violating international law if it acted without the approval of the UN security council.
Pig Putin said world powers should discuss the Syrian crisis at a meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations in St Petersburg next week. "This (G20 summit) is a good platform to discuss the problem. Why not use it?"
A poll in France revealed that most French people do not want their country to take part in military action on Syria, and most do not trust the president, François Hollande to do so.
A Lebanese soldier watches as the UN experts arrive at Beirut international airport.
The poll was published by Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui en France on Saturday, showed 64% of respondents opposed military action, 58% did not trust Hollande to conduct it and 35% feared it could "set the entire region ablaze".
Russia opposes any military intervention in Syria, warning an attack would increase tensions and undermine the chances of ending the civil war. "Washington statements with threats to use force against Syria are unacceptable," the Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement late in Friday.
"Any unilateral use of force without the authorisation of the UN security council, no matter how 'limited' it is, will be a clear violation of international law, will undermine prospects for a political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict in Syria and will lead to a new round of confrontation and new casualties."
Lukashevich also said that Washington's threats were made "in the absence of any proof" of the Syrian government having used chemical weapons.
In a sign the US may be preparing to act, the secretary of state, John Kerry, spoke on Friday to the foreign ministers of key European and Gulf allies, as well as the head of the Arab League, a senior state department official said.
The team of UN weapons inspectors arrived at Beirut international airport on Saturday, after crossing the land border from Syria into Lebanon by foot earlier in the day.
The 20-member team, including experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, have been into the rebel-held areas in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus three times, taking blood and tissue samples from victims. They also took samples of soil, clothing and rocket fragments. They will be sent to laboratories in Europe, most likely Sweden or Finland, for analysis. The experts have already been testing for sarin, mustard gas and other toxic agents.
The analysis should establish if chemical weapons were used, but not who was responsible for the 21 August attack. Final results might not be ready for two weeks, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told security council members, according to diplomats.
In France, Hollande said Britain's parliamentary vote against military strikes would not affect France's own actions.
Two other opinion polls published this week, and carried out after the Ghouta attack, indicated lukewarm support among French voters for military intervention in Syria.
Hollande, whose popularity has been hurt by economic gloom, showed unexpected military mettle when he dispatched troops to help Mali's government fend off Islamist rebels earlier this year, an intervention backed by two-thirds of the public.
August 30, 2013
Experts Fear That U.S. Plan to Strike Syria Overlooks Risks
By ANNE BARNARD and ALISSA J. RUBIN
BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Obama says he is considering a “limited, narrow” military strike against Syria — an aim that many Middle East experts fear overlooks the potential to worsen the violence in Syria and intensify a fight for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Supporters of the president’s proposal contend that a limited punitive strike can be carried out without inflaming an already volatile situation. But a number of diplomats and other experts say it fails to adequately plan for a range of unintended consequences, from a surge in anti-Americanism that could bolster Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to a wider regional conflict that could drag in other countries, including Israel and Turkey.
“Our biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria,” said Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.
The American strike could hit President Assad’s military without fundamentally changing the dynamic in a stalemated civil war that has already left more than 100,000 people dead. At the same time, few expect that a barrage of cruise missiles would prompt either side to work in earnest for a political settlement. Given that, the skeptics say it may not be worth the risks.
“I don’t see any advantage,” said a Western official who closely observes Syria.
In outlining its tentative plans, the Obama administration has left many questions unanswered. Diplomats familiar with Mr. Assad say there is no way to know how he would respond, and they question what the United States would do if he chose to order a chemical strike or other major retaliation against civilians.
That would leave the United States to choose between a loss of credibility and a more expansive — and unpopular — conflict, they said. “So he continues on in defiance — maybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye — and then what?” Mr. Crocker said. “Because once you start down this road, it’s pretty hard to get off it and maintain political credibility.”
For the United States, the challenge is to deliver the intended message to Mr. Assad without opening the door to a takeover by rebels linked to Al Qaeda, the collapse of state institutions, or a major escalation by Syria’s allies. Skeptics doubt that the United States — or anyone else — has the information to calibrate the attack that precisely.
That is partly because the United States is preparing to inject itself into a conflict that is no longer just about Syria, but has become a volatile regional morass that pits Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon, against Qaeda affiliates backed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf benefactors.
Iran’s and Syria’s defense ministers threatened on Friday to unleash attacks on Israel if Mr. Assad was in danger. While Hezbollah has said it would wait to see the scale and nature of the attacks before responding, in practice, analysts close to the organization said, it is probably prepared for any contingency.
There is also concern that Shiite-led Iraq could send thousands more militants to help Mr. Assad if it believed he was truly threatened, and that such a step would in turn further rally and embolden Sunni jihadists on both sides of its border with Syria.
Many diplomats and analysts consider retaliation unlikely, but the consequences could be grim. Israel has vowed that if Hezbollah attacks it again, it will respond forcefully, drawing Lebanon into war. And if Syria lobbed missiles into Israel and it responded with airstrikes through Lebanese airspace that threatened Mr. Assad further, Hezbollah would consider that further justification to attack Israel.
Even without such a direct entanglement, Lebanon could be very vulnerable. It has recently suffered its worst sectarian violence in years: a car bomb in Shiite Hezbollah territory in the Beirut suburbs, and two at Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli. Lebanese authorities accused Syria on Friday of involvement in the Tripoli attacks, and intelligence officials fear such bombings could increase.
Within Syria, there is also the prospect of civilian casualties, either from errant American missiles or among people near the target sites. The Syrian government has put some military bases in populated areas, and thousands of political and other prisoners are held in security buildings. Although the strikes are said to be aimed at elite units involved in chemical weapons use, Reuters reported Friday that many Sunni conscripts have been effectively imprisoned on bases because they are not trusted, leaving them vulnerable, too.
Significant casualties among the very people American officials say they are protecting could be exploited by the government. “That will completely empty any justification for this” in the eyes of many, the Western official said.
Some likely targets are in areas that up to now have remained relatively secure, including the corridor from western suburbs of Damascus to the Lebanese border. And in Damascus itself, a bubble of relative security, residents have expressed fear that in the aftermath, clashes could erupt. That could create a new humanitarian crisis and new refugee flows to Syria’s already burdened neighbors. American officials say they do not expect a refugee crisis because of the strikes’ limited nature, but Human Rights Watch has called on them to plan for the unexpected.
“We haven’t received any indication that plans for beefed-up humanitarian response are under way,” said Lama Fakih, the group’s deputy director in Beirut.
Anger over American involvement could also undo one of the major benefits to American interests from the Arab uprisings by restoring the alliance against Israel that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah had with the Sunni Palestinian group Hamas. The conflict in Syria has sorely tested that alliance, with Hamas supporting the Sunni-led Syrian rebellion.
Verifying information in Syria is extraordinarily hard, and another risk, however remote it may seem to American officials, is that it turns out that the Assad government was not responsible for the chemical attack. In any case, in a region where many have their doubts after the faulty intelligence that led to war in Iraq, wide sectors of the public may remain convinced. That would allow Mr. Assad to paint himself as the victim of an unjust American intervention and draw more supporters back to his fold.
All that said, no one is suggesting that the United States or other countries should turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons or the suffering of civilians. The problem, Mr. Crocker said, is to figure out a response that leaves the Syrians, the region and the United States in a better position rather than entangled in another messy conflict with an uncertain outcome.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Rwanda accuses Congo of rocket attacks over border
M23 rebels declare ceasefire and say they have withdrawn from frontline but fears of conflict escalating remain
David Smith, Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 16.13 BST
Rwanda has accused the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) of firing bombs and rockets into its territory, warning that "provocation can no longer be tolerated" and raising the prospect of all-out war. Such an outcome could result in the UN's first offensive force – whose arrival has inadvertently triggered the crisis – being dragged into a regional conflict or forced into a humiliating retreat.
The UN intervention brigade has been backing the Congolese army against the M23 rebel movement – alleged to be receiving support from Rwanda – in some of the most intense fighting of the past year near Goma in eastern Congo. There was hope of a respite on Friday when the M23 declared a ceasefire and said it had pulled back three miles from the frontline.
The M23 president, Bertrand Bisimwa, told the Associated Press: "We have decided to decree a unilateral ceasefire and we have started pulling our forces out of Kanyaruchinya in order to allow the investigation into the shelling. This announcement, which was made unilaterally, is meant to allow the Congolese to return to the negotiating table … and to give peace a chance."
But there were signs that the ceasefire alone would not resolve underlying tensions between Congo and Rwanda. A Congolese government spokesman, Lambert Mende, said: "It's our opinion that the only interesting proposition would be to see M23 demobilised, and to see them dissolve and cease all military action. Any other proposal is unacceptable."
Rwanda alleges that the Congolese army, or FARDC, has launched 34 attacks on its territory in the past week. A bomb fired on Thursday morning killed a woman and seriously injured her two-month-old baby in a market in the town of Rubavu, it claimed.
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign affairs minister, said: "The persistent shelling of Rwandan territory is unacceptable, as it would be to any sovereign nation. Rwandan civilians are being targeted by DRC forces. We have remained restrained for as long as we can but this provocation can no longer be tolerated. We have the capacity to determine who fired at us and will not hesitate to defend our territory. Rwanda has a responsibility to protect its population."
Kigali has repeatedly urged the Congolese government to stop the attacks, but they have increased in frequency and intensity, Mushikiwabo said. She also claimed that the Congolese army was collaborating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group composed mainly of remnants of the Hutu militias that perpetrated the 1994 genocide.
"It is hypocritical for the international community to talk about protecting civilians when FARDC together with FDLR are causing harm to our citizens as if the lives of Rwandans have no value. The attacks by FARDC and FDLR have now reached another level."
Mushikiwabo later challenged a report by al-Jazeera with a tweet that said: "No, al-Jazeera: Rwandan troops are not in DRC (yet); when they are, you will know, and no more need for erroneous reports."
With uncertainty around how Rwanda might retaliate, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has reportedly spoken with the president, Paul Kagame to urge restraint.
Both Congo and the UN claim that the attacks on Rwanda are being carried out by the M23. Edmond Mulet, the deputy UN peacekeeping chief, reportedly briefed the security council that the UN mission had seen only M23 rebels shelling Rwanda.
Some believe that the M23 could be targeting Rwanda to give it an excuse amid the fog of war for blaming Congo and mounting an invasion. Lambert Mende, a Congolese government spokesman, told the BBC that the rebels were firing on to Rwandan territory "in order to give Rwanda a pretext for coming in openly in this war".
Stephanie Wolters, an independent political analyst and Congo expert, said: "I don't have any evidence to that effect but I wouldn't rule it out at all.
"Rwanda is going to use it as an excuse to be as aggressive as it can be. It's very possible that in the coming days we'll see this turning into a war between two countries. I think Rwanda think they have nothing left to lose and they might go in. It may be a full-scale invasion unless something diffuses it, but I don't know what that would be."
Such a scenario would leave the 3,000-strong UN brigade caught in the middle of two armies, faced with a dilemma to fight or flee. In fighting this week a Tanzanian soldier was killed and three South Africans injured.
Although Rwanda is one hundredth the size of its neighbour, its military is better organised and twice invaded during the 1990s, forcing the overthrow of the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The current president, Joseph Kabila, is similarly vulnerable. Wolters predicted: "If Rwanda deploys in the east, it is likely to spell the beginning of the end of Kabila because the FARDC is incapable of defending its territory."
On Friday the M23 said they would stop fighting and withdraw from frontlines immediately to allow an investigation into the attacks on Rwanda. "We have just asked our forces to withdraw from the Kanyaruchinya front line and cease combat so as to allow for an investigation into who was shelling Rwanda," the M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa told French RFI radio.
Bisimwa said the M23 would hold on to other positions and he asked Congo's government to resume negotiations to end the crisis.
Rwanda this week blocked a joint US-French proposal to impose UN sanctions on two senior M23 commanders, arguing that the evidence against the men was weak.
Somalia celebrates that ultimate symbol of recovery: the return of TEDx
After delay caused by al-Shabaab attack, organisers say Mogadishu event poses toughest security challenge yet
David Smith Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 30 August 2013 18.09 BST
Along with a gourmet coffee shop, a literary festival and a rush of intrepid tourists, the staging of a TEDx event is one of those apparent symbols offered as proof that a war-torn country is normalising and even having fun.
The second TEDxMogadishu takes place in the capital of Somalia on Saturday and will be streamed live on the internet. Speakers include Iman Elman, a 21-year-old female military commander in charge of a battalion of nearly 100 men, and Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik, who opened Mogadishu's first dry cleaner in 20 years after noticing men carrying their suits on planes to get them cleaned in Nairobi.
A spin-off from TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks in California, the TEDx format of smaller events – "ideas worth spreading" – has caught on around the world with events held 7,500 times in more than 150 countries. These include Baghdad and Tripoli, but organisers say Mogadishu is still the toughest security challenge.
The low-budget debut event last year suffered some teething troubles but was generally regarded a success. The sequel was due to take place in June but was postponed after the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab attacked a UN base, killing eight employees and five Somali civilians. Audience members at Saturday's TEDx will pass through security checkpoints and be individually searched, and may not yet even know the venue.
Sebastian Lindstrom, TEDxMogadishu communications coordinator, does not hesitate to push the hopeful notion that the country is stabilising after two decades of civil war. "2012 was the year that peace returned to Somalia," he said. "It was largely seen as the 'rebirth' of the country, with the formation of parliament, election of the president, and cabinet of ministers. For the first time in over two decades, Somalia had an internationally-recognised federal government.
"Although the peace and stability remains fragile, in 2013 more Somalis are returning to their country than ever before, rediscovering the home they hadn't seen in decades, and for some young diaspora, had never seen. Even Somalis who have never left Mogadishu are rediscovering their city, swimming in Lido beach, enjoying new cafes, and attending international conferences like TEDx."
Some analysts question whether the progress is being over-stated, however, in line with the fashionable narrative of "Africa rising". They question whether the fragile peace in Mogadishu is reflective of the rest of the country, where al-Shabaab remains a force. Earlier this month Médecins Sans Frontières announced it was pulling out of Somalia after 22 years because of attacks on its staff. Last year some Twitter sceptics also questioned whether TED's Californian flavour really fitted with the nation's present troubles.
But TEDxMogadishu's symbolism may be enough in terms of contributing to morale and sending a positive message to the influential Somali diaspora. Lindstrom added: "We believe in the power of positive stories to bring about change. If TEDx can help move the needle – even just a little bit – towards a better Somalia, it's well worth the hard work of the volunteer organisers and bravery of our speakers to step into the spotlight."
The 14 speakers also include an artist who faced persecution for two decades and is now involved in peace-building; a blind journalist campaigning for disabled Somalis; the head of an initiative to restore the national library; a youth leader from the world's biggest refugee camp; a doctor rebuilding one of Mogadishu's most important hospitals; a young Somali-American discovering her country for the first time; a Somali novelist and a leader of Somalia's reconciliation efforts.
The live stream of TEDxMogadishu runs on on Saturday from 8am to 2pm UK time at tedxmogadishu.com
August 30, 2013
Congo: Government Retakes Critical Territory
Government troops occupied strategic hills overlooking the eastern city of Goma on Friday after rebel fighters withdrew. The development was the government’s most significant military success in a year. Congolese troops have been buoyed by the intervention of a new United Nations brigade fighting alongside them to drive back the rebels, known as the M23. The rebels said they had left the hills voluntarily to permit an independent investigation into shelling that killed civilians in Goma and the town of Gisenyi, across the border in Rwanda. But the Congolese Army disagreed. “They did not leave by choice — they were confronted with the power of the army,” said Lt. Col. Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for Congo’s armed forces.