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« Reply #9765 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:43 am »

November 4, 2013

Editor Did Not Agree to Phone Hacking, Lawyer Says

By STEVEN ERLANGER
IHT

LONDON — Andy Coulson, former editor of the tabloid The News of the World, now defunct, never agreed to any illegal phone hacking at the newspaper, his lawyer told the jury on Monday at the Old Bailey in the trial of Mr. Coulson; his former boss and onetime lover, Rebekah Brooks; and six others.

Mr. Coulson, later the communications director for Prime Minister David Cameron, wishes he had made some “different decisions” but “he did not commit these offenses,” said his lawyer, Timothy Langdale.

In fact, Mr. Langdale said, Mr. Coulson’s phone was hacked by a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who has pleaded guilty to phone hacking for the newspaper.

“Both a conspirator and a victim at the same time?” Mr. Langdale asked. “The two things do not sit easily together, do they?”

Mr. Coulson, Ms. Brooks and the others are on trial here on a variety of charges involving the tabloid’s cellphone hacking to get voice mail messages of prominent people; illegal payments to government officials, including police officials, to gain access to private information and closely held phone numbers; and conspiracy to hide or destroy evidence.

All eight defendants deny guilt, but the prosecution maintains that Mr. Coulson, Ms. Brooks and other senior editors at the newspaper must have known about the hacking.

Wrapping up his summary, the chief prosecutor, Andrew Edis, said Monday that Ms. Brooks and her husband, Charlie Brooks, engaged in an elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful effort to hide computers and documents from the police.

According to Mr. Edis, on July 8, 2011, Ms. Brooks had her personal assistant, Cheryl Carter, remove seven boxes of her notebooks, dating from 1995 to 2007, from the newspaper’s archives before detectives could find them. She resigned from her post as chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International a week later, on Friday, July 15, and was arrested two days after that.

Mr. Edis said that the Brookses and News International’s chief of security, Mark Hanna, had arranged for a security staff member to pick up a laptop and other material from the couple’s Oxfordshire home and hide it in a garbage bag near garbage bins in a parking garage close to their London apartment on the following Saturday night.

The staff member texted Mr. Hanna, who is also on trial: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy. Pizza delivered and the chicken is in the pot.”

But the bag was discovered by a cleaner and turned over to the police, Mr. Edis said. When Mr. Brooks and a driver went to the garbage area to recover the material, Mr. Edis said, it was gone.

“The only rational explanation,” he asserted, “was to hide material so police can’t get it.”

Two iPads belonging to the couple have never been recovered, he added.

Mr. Langdale acknowledged that his making the defense statement for Mr. Coulson before the prosecution presented evidence was unusual. But he said it was necessary to emphasize to the jury that Mr. Coulson, as deputy editor to Ms. Brooks and then as her successor, had a lot to do and was not aware of everything taking place at the newspaper.

Mr. Coulson “was never part of an agreement to hack phones — no matter what others were doing on his watch,” Mr. Langdale said. “He wished he had made some different decisions, and although he might wish he had made some different decisions, he did not commit these offenses.”

He told the jury that the prosecution was misguided. “Their interpretation is wrong, their conclusions are wrong — there will be a time to reflect all that.”

Mr. Edis argued to the jury last week that The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, was not the length of “War and Peace” and that the top editors would have to have known of and approved the illegal activities.

He quoted one note from Mr. Coulson ordering an investigator to “do” a target’s telephone, which Mr. Edis suggested had been a reference to phone hacking.


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« Reply #9766 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:44 am »


November 4, 2013

Violence Mars Election in Kosovo

By DAN BILEFSKY
IHT

PARIS — The future of a landmark power-sharing agreement between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo was called into doubt on Monday after local elections in Kosovo over the weekend were blighted by violence and intimidation by people suspected of being Serbian hard-liners.

The elections were seen as an important test of an April accord brokered by the European Union that aimed to overcome ethnic enmities in Kosovo and the region. Under the agreement, Serbia agreed to recognize the authority of Kosovo’s government over the police and the courts in the ethnically divided north of the country in return for greater autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbs in the north.

But two hours before polls closed on Sunday in the ethnically tense city of Mitrovica, witnesses and European Union officials said that several dozen men in masks, some wielding bats, stormed three schools on the Serbian side of the city that were being used as polling stations, smashing ballot boxes, assaulting staff members, firing tear gas and eventually forcing election officials to flee.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s mission in Kosovo, which was monitoring the election, said in a statement late on Sunday that an explosive device had also been found at one of the schools. Law enforcement officials in Kosovo said on Monday that they suspected Serbian hard-liners were behind the attack, and witnesses said that some of the assailants were heard speaking the Serbian language.

Nikola Gaon, a spokesman for the security organization’s mission in Kosovo, said on Monday that voting had been interrupted at 27 out of 33 polling stations in northern Kosovo.

“The voting in these stations was suspended to protect the security of our staff and maintain the integrity of the elections,” he said by telephone from Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. He underlined that the voting had progressed smoothly in the rest of the country, adding that it was now up to the central electoral commission to decide how to proceed.

The European Union, which has praised the Kosovo accord as a potent symbol of regional reconciliation, deplored the attack. “We condemn the violent incidents of yesterday in Mitrovica north which disrupted the otherwise orderly run electoral process in the rest of Kosovo,” said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who brokered the agreement.

Since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, around 50,000 Serbs in northern Kosovo have lived parallel but largely separate lives, with a majority steadfastly refusing to recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. Serbian flags hang in the north, Serbian history is taught in schools and only a minority of local Serbs ever set foot in Pristina, just an hour’s drive away.

The April accord was supposed to integrate the Serbs by, among other things, calling on the police and the courts in the north to obey Kosovo’s laws, and for public sector salaries to be paid by Pristina rather than Belgrade. It is a sign of some progress made that the Serbian government in Belgrade had called on Serbs in the north to vote in the elections.

But analysts said the attacks underlined the challenges the authorities in Kosovo faced to win the hearts and minds of Serbs in a region where memories run deep. Ahead of the vote, protesters had papered Mitrovica with signs saying “Don’t Vote” and “Don’t Be a Traitor.”

Speaking to B92, the independent broadcaster in Belgrade, Milivoje Mihajlovic, a senior spokesman for the Serbian government, said that the elections had been a political failure, and that the European Union deal was in jeopardy. He told the broadcaster that the voting had been marred by irregularities, and that voters in the north had faced a “verbal lynching” and broken ballot boxes.
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« Reply #9767 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:46 am »

Greek PM vows ‘relentless’ action after escalating political violence

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 4, 2013 16:06 EST

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promised “relentless” action against political violence Monday, amid fears of score-settling after the murders of an anti-fascist musician and two members of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.

“We will not let democracy succumb to criminal violence under any circumstances,” Samaras told Mega television channel in an interview. “We will be relentless against those responsible.”

On Friday, two armed assailants riding a motorbike shot dead two members of Golden Dawn and seriously injured a third one in a shock drive-by attack outside the party’s offices in an Athens suburb.

Experts fear the attack could spark further violence, as it followed the September assassination of an anti-fascist rapper by a Golden Dawn member.

So far no one has claimed responsibility for the double murder and Greece’s anti-terrorist squad is searching for the assailants who remain unidentified.

Samaras warned that Greeks had to stand united to address the economic crisis still gripping the nation, three years after it narrowly avoided bankruptcy with the aid of EU-IMF loans.

The premier said the double murder was “like lighting a match in a powder magazine, at a moment when we have so many other fires, economic (fires) before us.”

“Severity from the state and a mood for unity are needed,” Samaras said.

Mission chiefs from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — the so-called troika of creditors — will on Tuesday embark on a new round of talks with Greek officials.

The troika’s report is necessary to unlock a vital one-billion-euro ($1.3 billion) disbursement of financial aid from the country’s rescue loans.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9768 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:48 am »

Iranian political prisoners go on hunger strike over medical care

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 4, 2013 17:24 EST

Several Iranian political prisoners have gone on hunger strike in protest at being denied proper medical care in jail, international rights groups said in a statement Monday.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DRRC) and League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI) issued a joint statement expressing alarm at the action by more than 80 inmates.

Among them are human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, who began a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison on November 1 in protest at the authorities denying adequate medical care to dozens of sick prisoners there, it said.

“Two days later, about 80 prisoners also started a three-day strike in Rajaishahr prison, near the city of Karaj, west of Tehran,” the statement said.

The hunger-strikers are denouncing security service “interference” during prisoner transfers to hospitals and the refusal of the authorities to meet costly medical bills.

“Authorities seem to be seeking revenge against prisoners of conscience for exercising their rights,” said FIDH president Karim Lahidji.

“In addition to suffering torture during pre-trial detention and harsh sentences after extremely unfair trials, they are denied access to adequate medical treatment.?

?More than two dozen prisoners of conscience have died as a result of extensive neglect under highly dubious conditions in Iranian prisons in the past few years,” said Shirin Ebadi, DHRC President and 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate.

‘The Iranian authorities are silently preparing the death of prisoners of conscience,” the statement quoted the rights lawyer, who lives in exile, as saying.

In the statement, the groups called on the international community to express their concern at the plight of political prisoners by voting for a UN resolution “bound to reflect the gross violations of human rights” in Iran.

On October 24, Iran angrily rejected a UN report which said the Islamic republic’s human rights record showed no sign of improvement.

In the report, special human rights monitor for Iran Ahmed Shaheed condemned the high number of executions in the country this year as well as tough restrictions on freedom of speech, especially online.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9769 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:50 am »

November 4, 2013

Pakistani Party Votes to Block NATO Supply Lines if Drones Persist

By DECLAN WALSH and ISMAIL KHAN
IHT

LONDON — The ruling party in a northwestern province of Pakistan voted Monday to block NATO supply lines by Nov. 20 unless the United States stops its drone strikes in the nearby tribal belt.

The party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday.

The death of Mr. Mehsud has set off a furious reaction from Pakistani politicians, particularly Imran Khan, the leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf, who with others said that the targeted killing had derailed incipient peace talks with the Taliban.

But Mr. Khan’s resolution stopped short of imposing an immediate blockade on NATO supplies. Setting the Nov. 20 deadline was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines.

In his first public remarks since Friday’s lethal drone strike, Mr. Sharif said Monday that peace could not be achieved in Pakistan “by unleashing senseless force.” He later told the cabinet that he would press ahead with efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban.

Unusually, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan backed Pakistan’s protests, saying that the American strike “took place at an unsuitable time.” He told an American congressional delegation in Kabul on Sunday that he hoped the peace process would not suffer as a result.

Mr. Khan has led the tide of outrage in Pakistan since Friday, making heated accusations of American sabotage of the peace process, and threatening to cut the NATO lines unless the drone campaign ends.

The United States, having weathered years of Pakistani criticism over the drone campaign, is unlikely to accede to his demand, although the pace of drone strikes has already dropped sharply this year.

Mr. Khan’s threat contains one paradox: Peshawar residents say that much of the NATO traffic through the northwest is now headed out of Afghanistan, not into the country, in preparation for the withdrawal of Western combat troops by the end of 2014. If Mr. Khan cut those routes, he would be slowing the withdrawal of American troops — a withdrawal that he has demanded for years, citing the American presence in the region as a cardinal factor in fueling Islamist militancy inside Pakistan.

Critics point out that Mr. Khan has financial levers, too, at his disposal to punish the United States. Foreign donors, including the United States, will provide development assistance of about $325 million this year, or about 30 percent of the province’s budget.

But the provincial finance minister, Sirajul Haq, ruled out sending that money back. “We don’t want to fight war with them,” Mr. Haq said in an interview. “The government will continue to honor its commitments with international donors.”

The drones issue also contains potential financial stakes for Mr. Sharif’s federal government. During his trip to Washington last month, when Mr. Sharif met President Obama, the State Department said it was releasing $1.6 billion in aid that had been frozen during a previous confrontation, and would provide an additional $1 billion this coming year.

The Taliban leadership, meanwhile, is meeting in North Waziristan to choose a successor to Mr. Mehsud. A rival commander named Khan Said was the favorite, but no final decision had been made.

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« Reply #9770 on: Nov 05, 2013, 06:53 am »


India's Mars rocket Mangalyaan blasts off

India aims to follow US, Europe and Russia in having successful Mars mission amid criticism at home about Isro's spending

Associated Press in Delhi
theguardian.com, Tuesday 5 November 2013 11.23 GMT   

Link to video: India launches rocket to Mars

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/nov/05/india-rocket-mars-isro-video

India has launched its first Mars-bound spacecraft in a complex mission it hopes will demonstrate and advance space travel technology.

Hundreds of people watched Mangalyaan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi, take off from the east-coast island of Shriharikota and streak across the sky. Many more across the country watched live TV broadcasts provided by the Indian Space and Research Organisation (Isro).
Mars Orbiter blasts off from Sriharikota The orbiter blasts off from Sriharikota. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA)

The 1,350kg (3,000lb) Mangalyaan orbiter will first head for an elliptical orbit around Earth, after which a series of technical manoeuvres and short burns will raise its orbit before it slingshots towards Mars.

Mangalyaan must travel 485m miles over 300 days to reach an orbit around the red planet next September.

India is aiming to follow the US, Russia, and Europe in having a successful mission to Mars.

Some have questioned the $72m (£45m) price tag for a country of 1.2 billion people still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty. But India defended the Mars mission and its $1bn space programme by noting its importance in providing hi-tech jobs for scientists and engineers and practical applications in solving problems on Earth.

Decades of space research has allowed India to develop satellite, communications and remote sensing technologies that are helping to solve everyday problems at home, from forecasting where fish can be caught by fishermen to predicting cataclysmic storms and floods.


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« Reply #9771 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:03 am »


Sinosphere - Dispatches From China
November 4, 2013, 4:49 pm

Disabled Chinese Struggle for a Good Education, and Acceptance

By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW

Ni Zhen didn’t want to become a masseur, even though neighbors, educators and seemingly everyone else in his native Shandong Province urged him in that direction — because he is blind.

“The whole environment was saying, ‘Blind people can only do massage,’ ” said Mr. Ni, 28. “But I wasn’t the slightest bit interested.” Music was the other career considered suitable for a blind person, but while attending schools for disabled people in the cities of Tai’an and Qingdao he dreamed of taking the “gaokao,” the all-important university entrance examinations, so he could choose his subject freely. Yet, “the local education department said, ‘We don’t have the ability to let blind people do the gaokao,’” he said.

Mr. Ni seemed to bow to fate, taking a special examination for the blind and entering a five-year massage program. “I was rebellious because I didn’t like being forced to do something that I wasn’t into, and to have to spend so long doing it,” he said.

It has taken years for Mr. Ni to find his way, but he has: via Britain, where he completed a master’s degree in education at Durham University, and Hong Kong, where he is now studying law at the University of Hong Kong. And he has a message for the world, summed up by the title of a 77-page, unpublished manifesto he has written about disability in China: “Untapped Talent.”

Around the world, one in 10 people have some form of physical or mental disability. “They are the world’s largest minority,” according to United Nations Enable, the official website of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. China says it has 85 million disabled people, about 6.5 percent of the population. The reasons for the lower figure aren’t clear.

For many, gaining access to treatment and jobs is a challenge. Poverty is a common companion. The World Bank estimates 20 percent of the world’s poorest are disabled. They face hurdles to getting a good education, reducing their chances of emerging from poverty.

In China, too, disabled people are poorer than their able-bodied peers with a disposable income about half of the national average. They are “one of the most needy groups in China, with many living below the poverty line,” Zhang Haidi, the chairwoman of the China Disabled Persons Federation, was quoted by Xinhua, the state news agency, as saying at the federation’s recent annual meeting in Beijing.

China has signed and ratified the United Nations convention, the goal of which is to shift perceptions of disabled people from “objects of charity” to “subjects with rights,” the United Nations website said. In 2008, China gave disabled citizens the right to attend mainstream schools.

Improvements are slow but real, said Xu Jiacheng, a professor of special education at Beijing Union University. In September 2012, about 8,700 disabled children began school in Beijing, with about 5,700 going to mainstream schools and nearly 3,000 to special schools, he said, citing government figures. Sometimes, though, the parents of able-bodied children object to the inclusion of disabled children in class. “We have some cultural attitudes to overcome,” he said.

And the state is investing in people with disabilities, even if not always in the right way, experts said. In 2008, it spent 600 million renminbi, or $87 million, on 190 new schools for disabled people, “10 times what the government spent on education for the disabled in the whole of the decade between 1991 and 2001,” China Daily quoted an official at the federation as saying. The federation’s chairman is Deng Pufang, who is paraplegic and a son of Deng Xiaoping.

In 2009, it spent more than 12 billion renminbi on “comprehensive service facilities” for disabled people, about four billion more than the previous year, federation figures show.

Yet more than buildings, China needs well-trained therapists, said John Giszczak, general manager of Eliott’s Corner, a private pediatric therapy center in Beijing.

“That’s where they need to invest,” Mr. Giszczak said. “Eventually, they need to create armies of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists, and they’re not doing that.”

The profession’s low standing hampers its development, he said.

“There is no occupational therapy license in China,” Mr. Giszczak said. “There is a ‘kangfu’ or rehabilitation license. But you are below even nurses in the hospital system. You are considered a technician and have low status. The best students will go on to do a master’s in medicine or the general field and will not go on to practice in rehabilitation.” Physiotherapy and occupational therapy college degrees have just started in some universities, he said.

So despite the significant fixed-asset investment, Mr. Giszczak said, “There is a huge need, a huge dearth in rehabilitation.”

Meng Weina, the founder of Huiling, a nongovernmental organization for people with mental disabilities, said the government often felt its efforts were not appreciated.

“They feel they have done a lot, they have invested a lot. And they have,” Ms. Meng said in an interview. But its urge to control has hampered its effectiveness, she said, with bureaucrats and politics, not specialists with real, on-the-ground experience, in charge.

As a result, disabled people are suffering, she said. “People lack information,” leaving many parents of disabled children desperate, she said. “In the West, if a child is born disabled, a whole system kicks in to help. Early intervention. That’s not necessarily the case here. The government has hung up a lot of signs advertising services, but it can’t get the system internally to link up. Each part does its own things and guards it jealously.”

One result is that disabled people are not being integrated into mainstream society.

“The government hasn’t understood that disabled people need to grow up in society,” she said. “They build these huge places and stuff all these kids in them.” There is little incentive to change — the facilities are run by officials who may employ their relatives, she said.

The lack of integration means disabled people aren’t often seen in public, and that impedes acceptance. For Mr. Ni, this is revealed not just in the big challenges like education, but also in the daily inconveniences.

He divides his experiences into two distinct spheres: easy in Britain and Hong Kong, hard in mainland China. Public transport in China is very difficult to navigate as a disabled person, he said. When asking for directions on the street, people often respond with incomprehension.

“I’d take out my” government-issued “disability card and ask the way,” he said. “People would point with their hands. I’d say, ‘I’m blind, I can’t see where you are pointing,’ because I could feel their movement. ‘Can you please describe it?’ ” They would still point, he said, even if they added words of description.

In a recent report on access to education for disabled people in China, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch presented many examples of exclusion, such as the 2009 enrollment charter of Capital Medical University in Beijing, which stipulated no admission for  “students with disabilities in the torso or the limbs.”

Over 40 percent of disabled Chinese are illiterate, the report said, adding, “While government figures show near universal enrollment of children in primary school, there is a large gap for children with disabilities: 28 percent of such children are not receiving the basic education to which they are entitled.”

“Children with disabilities have the right to attend regular schools like all other children, and are entitled to support for their particular learning needs,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “But instead some schools fail — or simply refuse — to provide these students what they need.”

Said Mr. Ni: “In the mainland of China, there is prejudice against the disabled. It’s not people’s fault. But they’re not educated to know how to understand us.”

Yet like several other people, while he said China was moving in the right direction. Slowly.

“I feel there is a lot of hope because the information age is here, and it’s giving us so many opportunities to learn,” he said. “There are fewer barriers. There’s access to international knowledge. I feel the direction is good and changes are afoot.”

Mr. Giszczak said he believes the chances of building a solid educational system to train therapists are “quite good, long term. We’re talking 20 to 30 years.” Some special education university departments, he said, were “making real changes to the structure of their programs.”

If education is the key to change — for disabled people, for the staff needed to educate them and the general public — then there is still much work to be done. Mr. Xu estimates that only 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese university students are disabled, out of a total student population of millions. Many of them, if they were blind like Mr. Ni, studied massage or music, the two subjects the state makes easily available. The state still does not offer disabled students access to the general “gaokao,” instead directing them to different systems, he said.

“There is real progress,” he said. “But it’s not perfect, and there are still large gaps.”

************

China replaces top general in Xinjiang after Beijing attack

Peng Yong relieved as military commander after Islamic extremists blamed for 28 October attack in Tiananmen Square

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
The Guardian, Monday 4 November 2013 14.34 GMT   

A high-ranking military officer in western China was sacked days after a deadly attack in the heart of Beijing, suggesting that the incident may have rattled China's leadership enough to precipitate a political fallout.

On 28 October a white Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle ploughed through a crowd in Tiananmen Square, crashed into a guardrail and exploded. The driver, his two passengers and two tourists died and 40 other people were injured.

General Peng Yong was removed from the Communist party standing committee in Xinjiang, the restive western region that was home to the driver, the state-run Xinjiang Daily said in a front-page article on Sunday.

He was replaced by Liu Lei, another high-ranking military official. The paper did not give explicit reasons for Peng's removal.

China's official newswire, Xinhua, called the crash a "carefully planned, organised and premeditated" attack and said authorities had arrested five suspects within hours. It identified the driver as Usmen Hasan, a 33-year-old ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang, and the passengers as his wife, Gulkiz Gini, and mother, Kuwanhan Reyim. It said that police found machetes and a flag showing "extreme religious content" in the vehicle's charred remains.

Xinjiang is a massive sprawl of desert, mountains and forests that borders eight countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and India on China's westernmost frontier. It is home to nine million native Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group which, according to advocacy groups, suffers from religious repression and economic marginalisation as the region is flooded by majority Han Chinese. Ethnic tensions occasionally flare into violence; in 2009 about 200 people died amid riots in the regional capital, Urumqi.

China has heightened security throughout Xinjiang since the attack, according to media reports. "Flights between Xinjiang and inland regions are currently under more stringent security checking," reported the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Citing local police, the BBC reported that security levels were raised and police were visiting "sensitive religious families". The Wall Street Journal reported that Hasan's home town, Lukqun, was in lockdown. Local authorities could not be reached for comment on Monday.

A raft of state media reports and editorials have cast the crash as an act of terrorism. Last week China's top security official, Meng Jianzhu, blamed the attack on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Xinjiang-based Islamic fundamentalist group with ostensible ties to al-Qaida. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Advocacy groups have disputed the official version of events, claiming the group lacks the resources to carry out an effective terrorist attack. "If the Uighurs did it, I believe they did it out of desperation because there is no channel for the Uighur people to seek redress for any kind of injustice they had suffered under Chinese rule," Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the international advocacy group World Uighur Congress (WUC), told Reuters. The Chinese government considers the WUC a terrorist organisation.

Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "We have to recognise there is a terrorism issue, and there is political violence in Xinjiang. But at the same time, it is true that China is instrumentalising this terrorising to suppress the Uighur people [and] deny them basic rights."

Bequelin said Chinese authorities were unwilling to admit that the centre of the terrorism threat lay within the country's borders. "If it's located inside of China, you have to ask yourself, is it because we have terrorists in Xinjiang? Which leads you to: why do these people have grievances? Which then opens up the whole issue of why Chinese policies are making Uighurs feel like strangers in their own land."


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« Reply #9772 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:07 am »

North Korea using Russian tech to create ‘electromagnetic pulse weapons’

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 4, 2013 10:43 EST

South Korea’s spy agency said Monday that North Korea was using Russian technology to develop electromagnetic pulse weapons aimed at paralysing military electronic equipment south of the border.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a report to parliament that the North had purchased Russian electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry to develop its own versions.

EMP weapons are used to damage to electronic equipment. At higher energy levels, an EMP event can cause more widespread damage including to aircraft structures and other objects.

The spy agency also said the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un sees cyberattacks as an all-purpose weapon along with nuclear weapons and missiles, according to lawmakers briefed by the NIS.

The North is trying to hack into smartphones and lure South Koreans into becoming informants, it said.

It has collected information on where South Korea stores chemical substances and oil reserves as well as details about subways, tunnels and train networks in major cities, it said.

The spy agency also said North Korean spies were operating in China and Japan to distribute pro-Pyongyang propaganda.

North Korea is believed to run an elite cyber warfare unit of 3,000 personnel.

A South Korean lawmaker, citing government data, said last month that the North had staged thousands of cyberattacks against the South in recent years, causing financial losses of around $805 million.

In addition to military institutions, the North’s recent high-profile cyberattacks have targeted commercial banks, government agencies, TV broadcasters and media websites.

North Korea has denied any involvement in cyberattacks and accused Seoul of fabricating them to fan cross-border tension.

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« Reply #9773 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:13 am »


152 Bangladeshis sentenced to death over 2009 border guard mutiny

Human rights groups criticise Dhaka court for mass trial of 846 defendants over deaths of 74 people in military revolt

Associated Press in Dhaka
theguardian.com, Tuesday 5 November 2013 12.29 GMT

A court in Bangladesh has sentenced 152 people to death for their actions in a 2009 border guard mutiny in which 74 people, including 57 military commanders, were killed.

Dhaka's metropolitan sessions court judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman also sentenced 157 others, mostly border guards, to life in prison while 271 people were acquitted. The extensive case involves 846 accused, and the verdicts are still being announced.

The mutiny on 25-26 February 2009 took place two months after the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, took office. The military was unhappy over the response of the government, which did not allow troops to attack the border guards' headquarters in Dhaka where military commanders were killed.

Hasina offered an amnesty to quell the revolt but rescinded the offer when dozens of bodies were found in sewers and in mass graves.

Bangladesh's military has staged 21 coup attempts. The amnesty offer and the government's handling of the case strained the military's relationship with Hasina, and she pledged to try those responsible.

The country's criminal investigation department investigated and pressed charges against 850 people with serious crimes including murder and arson. Four of the accused died and 20 were tried in absentia.

Human rights groups have criticised Bangladesh for the mass trial, saying it will not aid justice. New York-based Human Rights Watch last week said at least 47 suspects have died in custody while the suspects have had limited access to lawyers, and to knowledge of the charges and evidence against them. Bangladeshi authorities have denied the allegations.


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« Reply #9774 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:15 am »


Congo's M23 rebels call off revolt

M23 says it will disarm and pursue political solution with Joseph Kabila's government after being driven out of last strongholds

David Smith, Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Tuesday 5 November 2013 10.01 GMT   

Congolese rebels have surrendered after a 20-month uprising, offering the best hope of peace for years in the country's war-ravaged east.

The M23 rebel group declared a ceasefire and said it was ready to disarm and demobilise troops and pursue a political solution to end the crisis.

"The chief of general staff and the commanders of all major units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo," the M23 leader, Bertrand Bisimwa, said.

The announcement came hours after Democratic Republic of the Congo government forces drove the rebel fighters out of their two remaining strongholds. "Tshanzu and Runyoni were taken by the army around 3am," government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters. "Many M23 fighters are surrendering. Militarily this is finished."

The Kinshasa government expects peace talks mediated by neighbouring Uganda to resume soon, Mende added.

Al-Jazeera showed pictures of M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga's abandoned home in the village of Chanzu and quoted witnesses saying he had fled to neighbouring Rwanda.

The M23 is made up of fighters who deserted the Congolese army in April 2012 following a mutiny. Its name is a reference to a 23 March 2009 peace deal the CNDP militia accused the Congolese government of betraying. Eight hundred thousand people have fled their homes since the insurgency began.

The rebels' capitulation marks a dramatic turnaround. Less than a year ago they marched into and captured the major eastern city of Goma and bragged they were ready to march on the capital. UN peacekeepers were passive spectators and the Congolese army descended into a drunken, defeated shambles.

But the lightning reversal appears to be a vindication of the UN decision to create its first fighting force with a mandate to go on the offensive. Tanks and helicopters from the 3,000-strong UN intervention brigade have supported a reorganised, better paid and more disciplined Congolese army in the recent advances.

Perhaps most crucially of all, the backing that the M23 received from Rwanda has virtually dried up in recent months, regional analyst Jason Stearns blogged last week. "According to several reports from the frontlines, despite indications of some cross-border support in the Kibumba area, the M23 was largely left to its own devices," Stearns wrote. "'The Rwandans just wouldn't pick up their phone calls,' one source close to the M23 leadership told me."

Rwanda has always denied the charge made by the UN's group of experts that it was providing military and logistical support to the M23.

African leaders meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, congratulated Congolese government forces and the UN peace enforcement mission in eastern Congo for "recapturing M23 strongholds and restoring government control". Joseph Kabila, the Congolese president, was at the meeting but his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, sent his foreign minister.

Conflict in eastern Congo goes back two decades to the Rwandan genocide and has claimed millions of lives, earning the label "Africa's first world war". The collapse of the M23 marks a hopeful breakthrough but numerous other armed groups continue to operate in the vast area.

Russell Feingold, US special envoy to the Congo and the Great Lakes region, told a briefing in Pretoria: "In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step in the right direction."


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« Reply #9775 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:18 am »


'I am the president of the republic' – chaos in court as Morsi stands trial

Ousted Egyptian leader strikes defiant tone in first words in public since he was deposed by army in July

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Guardian, Monday 4 November 2013 18.21 GMT   

Mohamed Morsi did not look like a man who had just spent four months in a secret prison with barely any contact with the outside world. Dressed in a dark suit and no tie, and still full of figure, he did not even look like a prisoner. And he tried not to sound like one, either.

"What is happening now is a military coup," he bellowed shortly after entering the courtroom, in the hectoring tone that Egyptians came to lampoon during his year-long presidency. "I am furious that the Egyptian judiciary should serve as cover for this criminal military coup."

They were his first words in public since 2 July, when he gave a rambling televised speech the night before he was deposed by the army following days of mass protests in which millions of Egyptians had called for the military to intervene.

On Monday he resurfaced for the preliminary hearing of his trial for incitement to murder. And his reappearance sparked bedlam. Seven of Morsi's co-defendants chanted against the army who ousted him, local journalists shouted for his execution, and scuffles broke out between rival lawyers.
Mohamed Morsi in a cage in a courthouse Ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi stands in a cage on the first day of his trial in Cairo. 'What is happening is a military coup,' he said. Photograph: Reuters

Amid the melee, Morsi and his colleagues rejected the authority of the court before the chaos forced the presiding judge to adjourn proceedings until 8 January.

The dramatic scenes followed days of uncertainty about whether Morsi would even be allowed to attend the hearing. When he finally did appear, proceedings began in an orderly enough fashion. His co-accused gave a polite round of applause as he strode defiantly into the defendants' cage, flashing a four-fingered salute known as the Rabaa sign that has become a calling card for Morsi supporters.

But the trial quickly descended into farce, with the defendants' legal team chanting Morsi's name and crying "the people demand the return of the president".

Morsi's co-defendants added to the chorus with chants of "down with military rule", a slogan the Muslim Brotherhood declined to use before Morsi's overthrow in a vain attempt to win over the army.
A supporter of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi shouts to a police officer outside of a police academy compound were the trial of ousted President Mohammed Morsi is held in Cairo, Egypt.

Incensed, a group of local journalists responded by shouting "execution", a reference to the death penalty some Egyptians hope awaits Morsi and his Brotherhood allies.

Then followed a scrum of journalists – foreign and Egyptian – who clambered over the court stalls and pushed past policemen to catch their first glimpse since July of Egypt's first democratically elected president.

He appeared well, even suave in comparison to his fellow defendants, who were clad in white prison tracksuits. He did not appear to have lost weight during his spell of incarceration. Other defendants had earlier spoken of a more difficult time in prison, with one claiming to journalists from inside the defendants' cage that most of them been tortured. The hair of Mohamed Beltagy, once a member of parliament, had turned from black to grey.

After the room quietened enough to let the presiding judge formally begin proceedings, each defendant rejected the legitimacy of the court, arguing that they had been imprisoned on political grounds. "I am Dr Mohamed Morsi and I am the president of the republic," shouted Morsi, when asked to identify himself. "This coup is a crime and treasonous, and the court is held responsible for it."

Another melee followed, with some journalists and policemen in the courtroom calling Morsi a traitor. One lawyer tried to throw a shoe, while others held up pictures of a reporter who was shot during street clashes last December – fighting that Morsi is now accused of inciting.

Prosecutors allege that Morsi encouraged the murder of protesters demonstrating outside Cairo's presidential palace last December, charges also faced by the 14 other senior officials from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The 15 defendants, eight of whom were absent on Monday, are accused of ordering hundreds of Brotherhood cadres to attack secular protesters camped at a sit-in outside his presidential palace. Those at the sit-in were demonstrating against a new constitution drafted by Morsi's allies.

The confrontation sparked night-long clashes that left at least 11 dead, some of them Brotherhood supporters, and began a spiral of political upheaval that led the army to overthrow Morsi in July following days of mass protests.

One of the reporters calling for his execution alleged that she had been tortured by Muslim Brotherhood members during the clashes in December.

Morsi and his co-defendants say they were arrested for political reasons as a result of July's regime change. But human rights lawyers acting for those who died last December reminded journalists during a break in proceedings that their charges were valid and predated Morsi's overthrow.

"This is not a case that has been orchestrated," said Ragia Omran, a lawyer for the victims' families. "It's important to note that we filed the charges on 5 December itself."

Pandemonium inside the court twice forced the trial's adjournment. Each time it reconvened, Morsi made a further speech. He spoke out four times in total.

"This is not a court," he said in his fourth outburst. "This court, with all due respect to the people in it, is not specialised to deal with the trial of the president of the republic. This is a coup. I am held against my will. The coup is treasonous and a crime, and I am president of the republic."

The defendants' outbursts led to unlikely exchanges between them and the judge, Ahmed Sabry Youssef, who tried to calm them in an avuncular fashion. "Mohamed, you are not the one running the court," Youssef told Mohamed Beltagy, another Muslim Brotherhood member, after he disrupted proceedings. "I am the one running the court."

During Morsi's final outburst, Youssef repeatedly told the former president "malesh" ("never mind") before giving up and leaving the courtroom for good. An official later announced that the next session would be on 8 January, and said Morsi would be sent to prison instead of being held incommunicado in a military facility.

Morsi refused to give the power of attorney to the lawyer secured for him by colleagues outside prison – Selim al-Awa, a prominent Islamist thinker who also ran for president last year. But one of the Brotherhood's legal team later grudgingly admitted that Morsi and his colleagues would have to engage with the trial.

"The defendants don't want to recognise it, but this is the de facto court," said Bahaa Abdelrahman, a lawyer acting for Essam el-Arian, a senior Brotherhood official who was arrested last week. "And we are going to have to deal with it."


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« Reply #9776 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:20 am »


Ghana accuses UK recycling firm Environcom of illegal fridge imports

Country impounds huge shipment and claims British companies are using it as dumping ground for toxic old appliances

Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Monday 4 November 2013 18.10 GMT      

One of the UK's largest recycling companies has imported thousands of banned second-hand fridges into Ghana, according to the west African country's energy regulator.

Thousands of fridges discarded by British households have been shipped to Ghana by Environcom, which describes itself as the UK's largest electrical re-use and recycling company, flouting rules designed to protect the country's environment against harmful chemicals, according to the Ghanaian authorities.

"Environcom have sent a shipment of about 37 containers – almost 4,000 second-hand fridges – to Ghana," said Victor Owusu, public affairs spokesman for Ghana's energy commission.

Environcom has links to British retailers Dixons and Argos, which supply used appliances to the company for recycling. It admitted exporting the fridges to Ghana but said it did so before the ban came into place.

"Environcom stopped exporting fridges to Ghana some months ago in line with the introduction of the ban, however some containers that left us on time got delayed in transit and arrived in Ghana late and containers that were received prior to the ban were also impounded," said a company spokesperson.

The Guardian has seen documents which show the fridges were shipped from Britain to Ghana in August this year, almost two months after the ban came into force. Environcom says it sells second-hand fridges to third parties to ship to Ghana, and that it could not be held responsible for delays during the process.

The Guardian has seen an email exchange between Environcom and the Ghanaian authorities in which the company threatened to withdraw plans to invest in a recycling plant in the country if it was not allowed to import parts from second-hand fridges.

"Environcom have been working on a multimillion GBP investment in Ghana … Your latest feedback has led us to question whether we withdraw from this project and look at alternative markets within west Africa," wrote Graeme Parkin from Environcom, in an email dated 21 June.

Environcom says it had been seeking to clarify the law in Ghana and was now working on a new agreement to invest in recycling facilities in the country.

There is increasing criticism of the practice of sending second-hand electrical goods to African countries, where many end up in toxic rubbish dumps scavenged by children and poisoning local environments.

A study by Greenpeace found that as much as 75% of "second-hand goods" imported to Africa could not be reused, and that in Ghana, goods that had been dumped were releasing hazardous substances into the environment, including toxic metal lead; chemicals such as the phthalates DEHP and DBP, which are known to interfere with sexual reproduction; and chlorinated dioxins known to promote cancer.

Second-hand fridges have been banned in Ghana since 1 January, after officials became increasingly concerned about the number of old electrical products no longer wanted by British households which were ending up in the country.

Ghana is the first country in the region to introduce a ban on old fridges, and officials hope it will reduce the quantities of toxic and ozone-unfriendly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and reduce the energy burden on its already squeezed national grid, where old fridges suck up more than half of the national energy output of 2,000 megawatts a year.

Ghanaian officials say numerous British companies are still importing second-hand fridges to Ghana in violation of the ban. "Since the ban came into force, we have made about 177 seizures of second-hand fridges," said Owusu. "Most of those have come from the UK – over 90% of the imports are coming from there. They know about the regulations, but they are errant companies that want to defy the law."

Environcom said discussions with the Ghanaian authorities about its impounded fridges were continuing. But Ghanaian officials said the shipment would be destroyed, and accused Britain of being the main exporter of unlawful second-hand electrical goods to the country.

"We are also determined that this ban of second-hand fridges into Ghana becomes a success story," said Owusu. "Now that energy is becoming so critical, who would allow their country to become a dumping ground for used refrigerators from the rest of the world?"

Environcom has come under the spotlight for sending second-hand electrical goods to Africa in the past.

Earlier this year company director Sean Feeney, a former senior Dixons executive, admitted Environcom had exported old-fashioned cathode-ray tube TVs to Africa when they became "hazardous" products, which could not be safely disposed of.

"In the past unscrupulous companies have used west Africa as a dumping ground," the Environcom spokesperson said. "In fact, when the new management came on board, Environcom stopped exporting refurbished TVs to Africa for many years because of the difficulties in controlling the end results and the impact on the local environment."

But as shipments of second-hand British fridges continue to arrive at its ports, Ghana said it would be making a complaint to the British government.

"We are going to file a complaint to the EU, and to the British high commission," Owusu said.

"I know that in the UK itself this kind of thing would not happen. I think they think it's Africa, so they can get away with it."


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« Reply #9777 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:22 am »


South Sudan poised to sign new deal compact with aid donors

Western officials praise 'focused' consultations, which listed protection of civilians among the fragile state's priorities

Mark Tran   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 5 November 2013 07.00 GMT   
   
South Sudan is poised to become the latest "fragile state" to sign a new deal compact with aid donors, setting out benchmarks for peace and statebuilding.

Western aid officials say they have been impressed by the level of consultations from the South Sudanese government since the broad agreement on a compact in April. Consultations have taken place in all 10 states, from which 10 benchmarks for the government have emerged and five for donors.

"It has been quite focused. In other fragile states, there is a long list of priorities meaning nothing is a priority, so bringing it down to 10 is quite a positive achievement," said Stephan Messing, lead adviser on fragile states for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

Endorsed at an aid effectiveness conference in Busan, South Korea, in 2011, the new deal is an initiative put forward by the g7+ group of 19 conflict-affected countries, including Timor-Leste, Somalia and Afghanistan.

At its heart is the notion that developing countries should be in the driving seat on development strategy, with the focus on five state-building goals: legitimate and inclusive politics; security; justice; economic foundations (jobs); and revenues and services (managing revenue and delivering accountable and fair services). The thinking behind the new deal is that unless aid focuses on peace and security in fragile states, money will go to waste.

Somalia is fleshing out its new deal and installing the institutions needed to deliver it. Last month, a Somalia Development and Reconstruction Facility (SDRF) was established to bring together Somali officials and international organisations to co-ordinate and implement financing of its new deal compact. An SDRF joint-steering committee will decide where and how aid money will be spent after pledges of €1.8bn in Brussels in September.

South Sudan is expected to sign its compact in early December. The priorities that have emerged from the consultations include national reconciliation, infrastructure and roads, access to justice and protection of civilians and human rights. For donors, better aid flows and results reporting, increased use of government systems and more predictable aid commitments are among the priorities.

South Sudan, which gained its independence two years ago after years of conflict with Sudan, experiences extreme poverty, weak and corrupt institutions, internal conflict, large numbers of internally displaced people, recurrent natural disasters and simmering tension with Sudan over the oil-rich border region of Abyei, which brought the two countries to the edge of war.

Recently, South Sudan has been hit by floods, which have affected more than 150,000 people. Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states were reportedly worst hit. Apart from natural disasters, South Sudan has been plagued by inter-ethnic conflict in Jonglei. Dinka Bor, Lou Nuer and Murle ethnic groups have been carrying out violent cattle-rustling attacks for years. Conflict between the groups has been exacerbated by a rebellion from ethnic Murle rebels from the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A).

During the long civil war preceding South Sudan's independence, Khartoum armed southern ethnic militias to fight against southern rebels. A Murle militia was one of several absorbed into the South Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). However, South Sudan accuses Sudan of supplying weapons to rebel groups in Jonglei, including the SSDM/A.

Human Rights Watch has said that since December 2012, the SPLA has committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, notably the unlawful killing of at least 96 people, mostly civilians, from the Murle.

"The potential for further grave violations and violence is very high, in part because the SPLA – an army still in transition – faces significant command and control and discipline challenges but also because ethnic tensions are so high in Jonglei especially anti-Murle sentiment," a recent Human Rights Watch report said.

Tens of thousands of Murle are displaced, including most of the civilians from all six main population centres in Pibor county in Jonglei; many are too frightened to return. Murle rebels have also been accused of human rights abuses, killing and abducting civilians, and destroying facilities belonging to providers of emergency healthcare and food aid. The high level of tension in Jonglei is just one of the major hurdles for South Sudan's nation-building efforts under the new deal.

Somalia faces its own security problems as al-Shabaab, the radical Islamists, shows signs of regrouping after recent military gains by Amisom, the African Union force. Officials admit that, after forcing al-Shabaab out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011, and Kismayo in 2012, the campaign against it has lost momentum and stalled, at a time when Somalia seeks to rebuild after decades of war.

"Al-Shabaab is a major concern," said Massing. "Even in Mogadishu, security is very challenging. Second is the political challenge – the relationship between the federal government and the regions. That has to be worked out. The South Sudan consultation was a very good process, whereas the Somali compact endorsed in Brussels was based on more limited consultations with the regions.

"The federal government now has to reach out and build support for the compact. As for the donors, they have to live up to the principles of the new deal. It's not easy but it is necessary. It is not an answer for donors to work through parallel systems, as that can undermine the national government."


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« Reply #9778 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:24 am »

Niger authorities rescue 72 stranded immigrants from the Sahara

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 4, 2013 19:25 EST

The Niger authorities on Monday rescued 72 illegal migrants stranded in the scorching Sahara desert after their truck got a flat tyre.

The people who found them were on their way to the burial site for some of the 92 migrants who died of thirst after a similar incident last month.

“They were spotted in the middle of the desert by a delegation from Agadez that was on its way to the graves of the migrants who died recently,” Azaoua Mamane, from the Niger-based aid group Synergie, told AFP.

A local security official confirmed the rescue but provided no details.

Mamane said the group, mostly women and children under the age of 10, were on their way back from Algeria.

Upon hearing of last month’s tragedy, in which 92 migrants perished stranded in the desert when their truck broke down, they had decided to leave their life of begging in southern Algeria and return home.

One of the group’s rescued women, Baraka Souley, said the migrants, from southern Niger, “were voluntarily returning to their homeland after those horrible deaths”.

She said their truck, which had left from the main southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, burst a tyre in the desert, causing a panic among the migrants.

They were eventually driven back on Monday to Arlit, the last town in northern Niger before the border with Algeria, in vehicles sent by the governor of nearby Agadez.

Agadez, the main city in northern Niger, is a major transit point for migrants hoping to eke out a living as beggars in southern Algeria and others heading to Libya and planning to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that at least 30,000 economic migrants passed through Agadez between March and August of this year.

The authorities in the impoverished landlocked west African country announced the arrest of dozens of migrants attempting to cross the desert into Algeria at the weekend.

The governor of Agadez promised to crack down on smuggling networks in the region.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9779 on: Nov 05, 2013, 07:27 am »


Syria: my journey into a nightmare war

How did a young British man with no combat experience join the Free Syrian Army? A London student describes the horror of finding himself out of his depth in a bloody conflict

Samira Shackle
As told to Samira Shackle   
The Guardian, Monday 4 November 2013 17.58 GMT

I don't know how to feel. Part of me is relieved that I made it back alive, but I feel guilty that my relatives and my people are dying. I have only minor physical injuries, but the mental scars are still there. I don't sleep well at night and I often wake up screaming. Most people in Syria don't have the option of running away like I did. But I am glad to be alive.

My parents came to the UK from Syria in the 1970s. My dad is a doctor and my mum is a teacher. They're both Sunni Muslims. They'd been living here for the best part of 20 years when I was born in 1993 and always kept in touch with their family at home. I grew up in Britain, but spent many school holidays with relatives in Damascus.

Neither my parents nor my family in Syria ever spoke much about politics because they were scared about the repercussions. My parents grew up in Damascus under the Ba'athist regime where it was dangerous to speak your mind. Even in London, they were afraid that if they spoke out of turn it would cause problems for their relatives – their friends would sometimes talk about the Syrian embassy in London keeping tabs on British Syrians who were too openly political, intimidating their families back home. I never knew whether these stories were true but I didn't have much reason to challenge them.

When the revolution started in 2011, I was excited at the thought of change. It seemed far away from my own life in London, where I was finishing my A-levels. Then my 24-year-old cousin Zafar disappeared. He had been walking past a protest and was arrested and imprisoned. It was impossible to find out where he was. We panicked. When I spoke to his dad, my Uncle Ali, he said all the young men he knew had been detained at some point and that "Inshallah, he will be OK". Zafar was released a few weeks later. Everyone said he was different afterwards.

As the months went on, things got really bad. Our Syrian friends in the UK were anxious about their families but people weren't talking much about the war. My mum's family live in central Damascus, which has stayed relatively safe, but my dad's family are in a south-eastern area of the city that was a government target because there were a lot of rebels there. In September last year Uncle Ali, Dad's brother, was killed. I had always been close to him. Zafar told me that it was impossible to relocate to a safer part of the city because of military checkpoints. The family was stuck there. Over the months, I heard my cousins get angrier. Zafar and his brother Mohammed – who is 25 and only four years older than me – joined the rebels, the Free Syrian Army. They weren't the kind of guys you would ever imagine to be fighters but they didn't feel they had an option.

After my uncle had died, I lost interest in college, where I was studying graphic design. It felt irrelevant and I wanted to go to Syria. My cousins warned me to be careful but said they would look after me if I went. My parents tried to stop me but my mind was made up. Because of sanctions, it is impossible to fly directly to Syria from the EU, and fighting near the airport makes it difficult anyway. In April this year, I booked a flight to Beirut.

My cousins helped me arrange the overland journey from Lebanon. It was terrifying; nothing prepared me for what I saw when I arrived. My uncle's house was still standing but the streets around it were unrecognisable after months of shelling. My cousins were different too. Before the war, Mohammed was training to be an engineer. He was always pretty nerdy but now he was authoritative. He told me his mother and sisters had managed to get to south-western Damascus. It may sound like a small difference, but the area they had fled to was not under rebel control, so it was much safer. They hadn't been able to get residents' permits so were living in hiding. If the soldiers realised where they came from, they might have suspected them of rebel involvement.

I don't know what I expected to see in Syria and it's hard for me to talk about it. I think a part of me thought my British passport (I'm a dual national) would protect me, or that my presence there would make a difference. That was naive and wrong. It was impossible for me to be useful. I'd never done national service or any military training and I didn't know how to handle a gun. After growing up in London I wasn't even comfortable being around guns, which I had to get over quickly. My cousins didn't want me to get killed and I spent most of my time at the base camp, which was in a building that used to be a school.

On my journey from Beirut, I'd passed through some parts of Damascus that were still functioning: shops were open, schools were running and people were out on the streets. But this area had practically shut down. I spent time sorting out meals and supplies of food and water for our group, and helping the injured. There were long stretches of the day where there wasn't much to do except watch the camp with a couple of others. Some of the other rebels were boys I'd known as a kid. Some made fun of my English accent in Arabic. Sometimes my cousins were impatient with me. I could understand why.

Soon after I arrived, Mohammed taught me to use a gun so I could protect myself and the camp if I needed to. At first it was exhilarating to fire the gun and I was frustrated that my cousins wouldn't let me go out with them to fight. A couple of times I drove out with them to the frontline. Some of these trips were uneventful, but the second time there was gunfire and explosions and one of our battalion died right in front of me. I realised that even though I had learned to handle a gun, there was only so much it could do to protect me.

I saw and heard things that I will never forget. I was kept awake at night by the sound of bombs and the screams of people dying. I saw people with their limbs blown off, and worse. I remember one particular bomb attack that killed a lot of people. There was a makeshift hospital in a building that used to be a grocery shop. I tried to help. It was like being in a nightmare. I wasn't injured but I was covered in other people's blood. One woman had lost four children and she could not stop screaming. I can't forget the expression on her face. After two months, I spoke to my parents and I started crying and I couldn't stop. I decided to go home.

It wasn't as simple as just jumping on a flight back. There were a lot of checkpoints and soldiers around and travelling by road was a risk. The scariest thing about being in the middle of a conflict is that no laws apply. It sounds obvious, but realising that there is no one and nowhere to run to if something bad happens is deeply shocking. There was a period of a few weeks where I was waiting to leave, and I felt as if everyone was angry with me. Eventually, someone agreed to take me in their car and I got to central Damascus, where I found my mum's family. When my aunt saw me, she started to cry, and then she slapped me and told me I was stupid. I didn't stay there for long. I was paranoid that the army would realise I'd been with the rebels and target these relatives. I booked a flight home from Beirut and my aunt managed to find a taxi driver who would take me across the border.

After I got back there were chemical attacks in Damascus. In September – a year after his father was killed – Mohammed died in an air strike near where our base had been. I thought it should have been me. I failed. It's hard to talk about him. He was one of the bravest people I will ever know.

Some names have been changed


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