EU Agrees Launch of Central Africa Military Operation
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 18:39
The European Union officially launched its delayed military mission to the Central African Republic on Tuesday, seeking to bolster French and African forces that have failed to end months of Christian-Muslim violence.
The 1,000-strong force, dubbed EUFOR RCA, will work to restore security to the capital Bangui during a six-month mission, with a view to handing over to a United Nations peacekeeping operation or African troops, the EU said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the operation was meant to address the "huge challenges" facing the CAR, whose crisis began a year ago when the mostly Muslim rebel group Seleka overthrew the government.
The leader the rebels installed as president, Michel Djotodia, proved unable to control his former fighters, some of whom went on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.
That led members of the Christian majority to form vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete), leading to a wave of religious and ethnic killings across the chronically unstable former French colony.
Djotodia has since stood down under international pressure, and Catherine Samba Panza was named interim president but she too has struggled to restore stability.
The peacekeeping forces in the country -- around 2,000 French and 6,000 African troops -- have meanwhile struggled to prevent what the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority.
"It is vital that there is a return to public order as soon as possible, so that the political transition process can be put back on track," Ashton said in a statement announcing the deployment of the EU force.
EUFOR RCA -- originally due to deploy in late March was delayed by insufficient troop and aircraft commitments from the EU's 28 member states -- will operate in Bangui and its airport and cost an estimated 25.9 million euros ($40.6 million), the EU said.
Highlighting the problems that have beset peacekeeping efforts so far, Samba Panza launched a probe Tuesday into the killing in Bangui at the weekend of at least 24 people by Chadian peacekeepers.
"We have requested investigations be launched to establish exactly what happened" on Saturday, she said on an official trip to Paris.
"As soon as we have those facts, we will see who was responsible for these incidents."
Chadian troops had entered Bangui to repatriate compatriots who wanted to flee the chaos in the capital and opened fire in still-unclear circumstances.
According to local officials and witnesses, they fired rockets at civilian homes during a flare-up that left at least 24 dead and around 100 wounded.
The bloodbath was the worst known incident involving foreign troops since French and African peacekeepers deployed late last year.
Chad is major power broker in the neighboring CAR and its peacekeepers have been accused of bypassing the African peacekeeping force MISCA chain of command and protecting ex-Seleka fighters.
The MISCA force has said that on Saturday the Chadian troops opened fire in response to a grenade attack but residents and members of "anti-balaka" denied it.
The incident has enraged Christians and prompted hundreds of Bangui residents to flee, fearing a wave of retaliatory violence.
"It appears that Chadian soldiers fired indiscriminately at a crowd following an incident," Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, told reporters Tuesday, stressing that her office was "still trying to confirm the exact affiliation of these soldiers".
The U.N. refugee agency meanwhile said it was prepared to help evacuate some 19,000 Muslims at risk of attack by anti-balaka fighters.
"What we don't want is to stand by and watch people being slaughtered," UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told reporters in Geneva.
"The only thing keeping them from being killed right now is the presence of (international) troops."
According to UNHCR numbers, 637,000 people in total are now displaced inside the country, including 207,000 in Bangui, while 82,000 mostly Muslim Central Africans have streamed into neighboring countries in the past three months.
Hardline Kenyan Muslim Cleric Shot Dead
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 21:53
A hardline Kenyan Muslim cleric was shot dead in the port city of Mombasa on Tuesday, said an Agence France Presse reporter who saw his bloody corpse, as rioting erupted in response.
It was not clear who had killed Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, better known as Makaburi, who was on U.N. sanctions lists accused of being a "leading facilitator and recruiter of young Kenyan Muslims for violent militant activity in Somalia", and for having "strong ties" with senior members of Somalia's Al-Shebab Islamist insurgency.
Senior police officer in Mombasa Richard Ngatia confirmed Makaburi, a vocal supporter of al-Qaida, had been killed by "unknown assailants".
Police fired into the air to push back furious supporters of the cleric, as family members came to identify the body.
The firebrand cleric had praised the suicide commandos who stormed Nairobi's Westgate mall in September, massacring at least 67 in a four-day siege.
Another young man was also shot dead alongside Makaburi, in circumstances that were not immediately clear.
Makaburi, dressed in white robes, had been shot in the chest.
Previous killings of clerics have sparked deadly riots, with supporters clashing with the police.
In August 2012, radical preacher Aboud Rogo Mohammed was gunned down, and in October last year his successor, Sheikh Ibrahim Ismail, met the same fate on a road near Mombasa, again sparking riots.
Many of the clerics' supporters accuse the Kenyan authorities of being behind the killings, claims that officials have repeatedly denied.
In an interview with Agence France Presse last month, Makaburi said he was resigned to being killed. "My life is in danger. They will eventually kill me. They do that," he said.
Colombia Army: Six FARC Guerrillas Killed, 8 Captured
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 07:07
Colombia's army said it killed six FARC rebels and captured eight on Tuesday in a fierce and prolonged clash that came against the backdrop of ongoing peace talks.
The incident took place in Tumaco, southern Colombia, in Narino department, the army reported.
"Pegasus Task Force troops killed in combat six guerrillas," an army statement said.
A military source told Agence France Presse the fighting dragged on for 24 hours.
Meanwhile authorities blamed the FARC on a strike on the Pan-American highway Tuesday between Cali and Popayan.
The FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, has been at war with the state since 1964. Considered Latin America's longest-running insurgency, the fighting has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced 4.5 million.
The Marxist rebels have been in peace talks with President Juan Manuel Santos' government for more than a year but there has been no ceasefire agreement.
Santos, who is seeking re-election in the presidential election May 25, said Saturday that military offensives against the FARC would continue "until the time we get these (peace) agreements."
"We can't condemn further generations of Colombians to a never-ending and pointless war," Santos recently said in an exclusive interview with AFP.
Venezuelan Police Block Opposition Lawmaker's Return
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 07:07
Venezuelan police blocked an opposition lawmaker from returning to the legislature to retake her seat on Tuesday and fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of her supporters.
In a direct challenge to President Nicolas Maduro, Maria Corina Machado had vowed to attend the National Assembly, despite her removal from office being confirmed Monday by the Supreme Court.
"You will not break us! You will make us stronger! You will give us more reasons to fight," Machado shouted at police who blocked her on the street a block away from the building.
With Venezuela's red, blue and gold flag around her neck and a white rose in her hand to symbolize peace, 46-year-old Machado waved her lawmaker's identity card but made no headway.
Backed by 22 opposition lawmakers and a crowd of praising her courage, she was confronted by a small group of supporters of the late president Hugo Chavez denouncing her as a "traitor."
Police lobbed tear gas to break up the crowd.
Machado said the block on her returning to her seat was "proof that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela."
The head of the legislature had expelled Machado, of opposition coalition Table for Democratic Unity (MUD), and stripped her of her legislative immunity last week after she tried to speak before the Organization of American States about her country's political crisis.
Diosdado Cabello, the assembly speaker and head of the ruling United Socialist Party, contends that Machado forfeited her seat when she was accredited to the Panamanian delegation to the OAS, a Washington-based pan-American bloc.
She attended a closed-door meeting of the OAS permanent council on March 21, but Caracas blocked an open session on the anti-government protests that have roiled the country since February.
Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Panama on March 5.
"She is not going to enter. She is not a deputy," Cabello said in response to Machado's vow to defy his order.
Backing the decision, government supporters delivered a complaint to the attorney general Tuesday accusing Machado of "treason of the homeland."
Maduro's leftist government has faced a wave of near-daily street protests since February 4, with the public venting anger over soaring crime, high inflation and shortages of essential goods.
At least 39 people have died in the unrest.
Maduro, the heir Venezuela late long-term leader Chavez, has lashed out at the demonstrations, branding them a "fascist" US-backed plot to overthrow his government.
While protests appear to have ebbed somewhat in recent weeks, the government sent national guard troops and police into the western city of San Cristobal -- where unrest first flared -- to clear barricades from key avenues.
The city's opposition mayor, Daniel Ceballos, was sentenced last week to a year in prison by the Supreme Court for allegedly failing to take action to remove the barricades.
The government also arrested another opposition mayor last week on similar charges.
A prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, meanwhile has been in a military jail since February 18 on charges of inciting violence.
Machado and Lopez advocate a strategy called "the exit," using the street protests to pressure Maduro to resign. Less radical opponents are pushing Maduro's elected government towards reform.
In a New York Times editorial Tuesday, Maduro reiterated his calls for dialogue with opposition activists, and for exchanging ambassadors again with the United States.
"Venezuela needs peace and dialogue to move forward. We welcome anyone who sincerely wants to help us reach these goals," Maduro wrote.
‘Serious problems’ continue to delay construction at Brazilian World Cup stadium
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 19:52 EDT
Construction will only resume at Sao Paulo’s World Cup stadium once it is safe for workers, the Brazilian government said Tuesday, three days after a fatal accident.
Arena de Sao Paulo, which hosts the opening match of the tournament between Brazil and Croatia on June 12, had already been lagging badly behind schedule prior to the latest accident, which resulted in the third death there since work began.
“We shall only free the site (for continued work) once worker conditions are guaranteed secure,” ministry of work spokesman Luiz Antonio Medeiros told Globo News.
“There are serious worker security problems.”
The venue had already been the scene of two deaths in November when a crane collapsed and on Saturday another worker died after falling eight meters (26 feet) while installing temporary seating.
There have been seven deaths at Brazilian World Cup venues — three others in the north at Manaus and another in the capital Brasilia.
“We all want to finish the job but what happened is very serious,” said Medeiros, whose ministry suspended work on temporary seating at the stadium, which is owned by Corinthians club, on Monday.
Authorities have demanded that safety nets are used to protect those working high up in the arena.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA performed warrantless searches on Americans' calls and emails – Clapper
Spencer Ackerman in Washington and James Ball in New York
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 21.17 BST
US intelligence chiefs have confirmed that the National Security Agency has used a "back door" in surveillance law to perform warrantless searches on Americans’ communications.
The NSA's collection programs are ostensibly targeted at foreigners, but in August the Guardian revealed a secret rule change allowing NSA analysts to search for Americans' details within the databases.
Now, in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the intelligence committee, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has confirmed for the first time the use of this legal authority to search for data related to “US persons”.
“There have been queries, using US person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-US persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States,” Clapper wrote in the letter, which has been obtained by the Guardian.
“These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the Fisa court and consistent with the statute and the fourth amendment.”
The legal authority to perform the searches, revealed in top-secret NSA documents provided to the Guardian by Edward Snowden, was denounced by Wyden as a “backdoor search loophole.”
Many of the NSA's most controversial programs collect information under the law affected by the so-called loophole. These include Prism, which allows the agency to collect data from Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech companies, and the agency's Upstream program – a huge network of internet cable taps.
Clapper did not disclose how many warrantless searches had been performed by the NSA.
Confirmation that the NSA has searched for Americans’ communications in its phone call and email databases complicates President Barack Obama’s initial defenses of the broad surveillance in June.
“When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about,” Obama said. “As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.”
Obama was referring specifically to the bulk collection of US phone records, but his answer misleadingly suggested that the NSA could not examine Americans’ phone calls and emails.
At a recent hearing of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, administration lawyers defended their latitude to perform such searches. The board is scheduled to deliver a report on the legal authority under which the communications are collected, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), passed in 2008.
Wyden and Colorado Democrat Mark Udall failed in 2012 to persuade their fellow Senate intelligence committee members to prevent such warrantless searches during the re-authorisation of the 2008 Fisa Amendments Act, which wrote Section 702 into law.
Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the committee, defended the practice, and argued that it did not violate the act’s “reverse targeting” prohibition on using NSA’s vast powers to collect content on Americans.
“With respect to analysing the information lawfully collected under Section 702, however, the intelligence community provided several examples in which it might have a legitimate foreign intelligence need to conduct queries in order to analyze data already in its possession,” Feinstein said in June 2012.
“The Department of Justice and the intelligence community reaffirmed that any queries made of Section 702 data will be conducted in strict compliance with applicable guidelines and procedures, and do not provide a means to circumvent the general requirement to obtain a court order before targeting a US person under Fisa.”
Clapper referred to that debate in his letter to Wyden, which came in response to the senator’s request in January for a public answer on whether the NSA had in fact conducted such searches.
“As you know, when Congress reauthorized Section 702, the proposal to restrict such queries was specifically raised and ultimately not adopted,” Clapper wrote.
Much of the NSA's bulk data collection is covered by section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act. This allows for the collection of communications – content and metadata alike – without individual warrants, so long as there is a reasonable belief the communications are both foreign and overseas.
The communications of Americans in direct contact with foreign targets can also be collected without a warrant, and the intelligence agencies acknowledge that purely domestic communications can also be inadvertently swept into its databases. That process is known as "incidental collection".
Initially, NSA rules on such data prevented the databases being searched for any details relating to "US persons" – that is, citizens or residents of the US. However, in October 2011 the Fisa court approved new procedures which allowed the agency to search for US person data, a revelation contained in documents revealed by Snowden.
The ruling appears to give the agency free access to search for information relating to US people within its vast databases, though not to specifically collect information against US citizens in the first place. However, until the DNI's disclosure to Wyden, it was not clear whether the NSA had ever actually used these powers.
On Tuesday, Wyden and Udall said the NSA’s warrantless searches of Americans’ emails and phone calls “should be concerning to all.”
“This is unacceptable. It raises serious constitutional questions, and poses a real threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans. If a government agency thinks that a particular American is engaged in terrorism or espionage, the fourth amendment requires that the government secure a warrant or emergency authorisation before monitoring his or her communications. This fact should be beyond dispute,” the two senators said in a joint statement.
They continued: “Today’s admission by the Director of National Intelligence is further proof that meaningful surveillance reform must include closing the back-door searches loophole and requiring the intelligence community to show probable cause before deliberately searching through data collected under section 702 to find the communications of individual Americans."
• This article was amended on 1 April to correct the month in 2012 when the 2008 Fisa Amendments Act was reauthorsied.
A ‘Smoking Gun’ in TN Pols’ Anti-UAW Campaign?
April 1, 2014
by Joshua Holland
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant will decide in a three-day vote Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers at the plant will decide in a three-day vote Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, whether they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)
In February, workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant voted by a narrow margin against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the weeks leading up to the election, during a heated anti-union campaign by outside “pro-business” groups, Republican state lawmakers had held press conferences threatening to withhold incentives from the company if workers opted to join the union. It was widely reported that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam may have made similar threats, but according to Nashville’s local News Channel 5, “the governor had emphatically denied rumors heard by Democratic lawmakers that state incentives were tied to Volkswagen rejecting the UAW.”
But yesterday, the station reported that it had uncovered documents that appear to contradict the governor’s statements. Phil Williams reports, “documents leaked to NewsChannel 5 Investigates offer conclusive proof that the Haslam administration wanted a say in the automaker’s deal with organized labor — in exchange for $300 million in economic incentives to help VW expand its Chattanooga operations.”
Volkswagen opened the Hamilton County facility in May 2011 with great fanfare.
Initially producing the midsize Passat, there were hints of more to come. It was located on a 1,400-acre site with plenty of room for expansion.
Last year, when Volkswagen began talking about adding a midsize SUV to its product line, the Haslam administration began discussing financial incentives to convince the company to build it in Chattanooga.
At the same time, VW began talks with the UAW about creating a workers council to help run the plant.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained a summary from last August for what the Haslam administration called “Project Trinity.”
Marked confidential, it offers Volkswagen incentives of some $300 million — in exchange for 1,350 full-time jobs at a new SUV facility.
“The incentives … are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee.”
The Haslam administration claims that it withdrew the offer before the vote was formally announced, but Tennessee Democrats say the document represents a smoking gun in the case. “This is exactly what we was looking for,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner said when News Channel 5 showed him the document. “Looks like to me they put a gun to their head and said, ‘Look, this is what we are going to give you if you do it our way and we are going to jerk it away if you don’t.’”
In February, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) hinted that he had inside knowledge that Volkswagen would locate the new SUV production line in Tennessee if the plant’s workers rejected the union, a statement that Volkswagen, which remained neutral in the election, flatly denied. And as Williams notes, “that would appear to conflict with the Haslam administration’s admission that it had withdrawn the incentive offer that would have made the deal possible.”
Additional documents obtained by the station “show that Senator Corker’s chief of staff was in direct contact with anti-union organizers who were brought in to fight the UAW. He then shared those emails with people in the Haslam administration who were in charge of the incentives.”
The UAW has asked the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the results of the election due to outside interference by Tennessee politicians. Meanwhile, Volkswagen workers in Germany have threatened to block any future expansion into Southern states that are hostile to organized labor.
Koch Brothers group trying to derail mass transit project in Tennessee
By Arturo Garcia
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 19:13 EDT
The Tennessee branch of Americans For Prosperity (AFP) — funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch — has been working with lawmakers opposed to mass transit projects in the state.
Think Progress reported that AFP has been not only credited with inspiring a bill recently passed in the state senate that undermines such projects through lane restrictions, but was thanked in a statement from a group opposing the Amp, a proposed $174 million rapid bus system in Nashville.
“It’s pretty tough to fight that kind of money — AFP gets funds from the Koch brothers, and they’re billionaires,” Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) spokesperson Holly McCall was quoted as saying. “We continue to work our local campaign, and we’re probably going to make some tweaks to the design — we’re interested in compromise, because if we don’t, our entire future transit plan is going to be dictated by people who live out of state.”
The MTA said on its website that the Amp would help offset an influx of new residents — nearly 1 million by 2035 — by offering an alternative way for residents to commute, which would in turn cut down on drive times. The agency also argued that implementing the project would allow Nashville to remain competitive with other major cities benefitting from new public transportation investments.
“In Cleveland, a city that is otherwise experiencing economic challenges, the Healthline helped generate an estimated $4 to $5 billion worth of investment,” the MTA stated. “And in Eugene, Oregon, $100 million worth of construction projects are underway near the Franklin EmX line.”
However, last week the state Senate approved Senate Bill 2243, which includes an amendment banning agencies like the MTA and city governments from “constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway.”
The Tennessean reported that a state House version of the bill, which lacks the amendment banning separate bus lanes, is scheduled to be debated on Thursday.
Andrew Ogles, the state director for AFP, told The Tennessean that his group has not contributed financially to local efforts opposing the Amp, but that SB 2243 did stem from a conversation he had with the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jim Tracy (R)
Ogles also suggested that his group, which has been established for less than a year, saw an opportunity to use the state as a testing ground of sorts for future AFP efforts.
“With supermajorities in both houses, Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states,” Ogles was quoted as saying.
‘Change is hard’: Obama marks 7 million sign-ups for Obamacare
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 18:07 EDT
President Barack Obama Tuesday cheered seven million people who signed up for insurance under his health care law, and lashed out at political foes who he said were bent on denying care to Americans.
“Yes, at times, this reform has been contentious and confusing and obviously it’s had its share of critics,” Obama told a crowd in the White House Rose Garden.
“That’s part of what change looks like in a democracy. Change is hard. Fixing what is broken is hard.
“But this law is doing what it is supposed to do. It’s working,” Obama said, celebrating the fact that the White House met its seven million sign-up target for the law, despite a disastrous launch of the Healthcare.gov website.
Poverty among black children ‘should be considered a national crisis’
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 12:56 EDT
By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) – African-American children’s poverty, poor housing and lack of access to education pose a national crisis, said a report released Tuesday that found a wide gap in well-being among U.S. children of different races.
In almost every region of the United States, African-American, Latino and Native American children face far greater barriers to their future success than their white and Asian counterparts, according to the study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which aims to improve the life of all children.
The “Race for Results” report used 12 indicators and a single composite score to determine a child’s chance at future success. The factors included whether the children were born at normal birth weight, if they were enrolled in preschool by the ages of 3 to 5, whether they lived with an adult who has at least a high school diploma, and their proficiency at reading and math during elementary and middle school.
“This first-time index shows that many in our next generation, especially kids of color, are off track in many issue areas and in nearly every region of the country,” said Casey Foundation Chief Executive Officer Patrick McCarthy.
The report also says that by 2018, the majority of U.S. children will be of non-white ethnicity.
African-American children fared the worst in the study, and the situation “should be considered a national crisis,” the report said.
Only 18 percent of African-American fourth-graders in U.S.-born families and 7 percent in immigrant families scored at or above “proficient” in reading, the report said.
African-American children face the greatest barriers to success in Michigan, Wisconsin and across southern states, including Mississippi and Alabama, the report said.
Asian and Pacific Islander children had the highest overall index score, followed by white children.
African-American, American Indian and Latino teens are the least likely to graduate from high school on time, and teenage girls are less likely to delay childbearing than their white and Asian peers.
The country’s 17.6 million Latino children are the least likely to live in a household where someone has at least a high school diploma, an indicator of the “obstacles families of color face in gaining economic security,” the study said.
“Overall, the index shows that at the national level, no one racial group has all children meeting all milestones,” the report said.
The report suggests that the breakdown of racial demographics can influence policy decisions.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Von Ahn)
Obama White House Drops A Fact Bomb That Eviscerates Paul Ryan’s Bogus Budget
By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, April, 1st, 2014, 2:48 pm
The White House responded to Paul Ryan’s latest attempt to cut taxes for the rich with a faux budget with a devastating fact bomb.
Here is the White House reaction to Paul Ryan’s budget via Press Secretary Jay Carney:
To build real, lasting economic security for the middle class, the President and Democrats in Congress have a plan to grow our economy from the middle out, not the top down, and create more opportunities for every hardworking American to get ahead. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress do not have a plan that works for the middle class and the House Republican Budget is the same old top-down approach. Because of a stubborn unwillingness to cut the deficit in a balanced way by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and well connected, the House Republican Budget would slow the economy, stack the deck against the middle class, and threaten the guaranteed benefits seniors have paid for and earned.
The House Republican Budget would raise taxes on middle class families with children by an average of at least $2,000 in order to cut taxes for households with incomes over $1 million. It would force deep cuts to investments in our roads and bridges, scientific research to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and at every level of education from early childhood to community college. It would end Medicare as we know it, turning it into a voucher program and risking a death spiral in traditional Medicare. Instead of ensuring that Americans earn a fair wage for a hard day’s work and lifting millions of people out of poverty, the House Republican approach undermines Americans working hard to support their families by slashing food stamps and Medicaid. And rather than expanding health coverage for all Americans and making it more affordable, it would repeal the Affordable Care Act, raising health care costs on families and businesses and eliminating coverage for the 3 million young adults who have gained coverage by staying on their parent’s plan, the millions of people who have signed up for private insurance plans through the Marketplaces, and millions more who can continue to gain coverage through Medicaid.
The House Republican Budget stands in stark contrast to the President’s Budget, which would accelerate economic growth and expand opportunity for all hardworking Americans, while continuing to cut the deficit in a balanced way. The President has put forward a Budget that rewards hard work with fair wages, equips all children with a high-quality education to prepare them for a good job, puts a secure retirement within reach, and ensures health care is affordable and reliable, while at the same time asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share and making tough cuts to programs we can’t afford. And by paying for new investments and tackling our true fiscal challenges, the President’s Budget builds on the progress we’ve already made to cut the deficit by more than half since 2009 and cuts the deficit as a share of the economy to 1.6 percent by 2024. It also stabilizes the debt as a share of the economy by 2015 and puts it on a declining path after that.
Budgets are about choices and values. House Republicans have chosen to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest rather than create opportunities for middle class families to get ahead. The President believes that is the wrong approach and that we should instead be making smart investments necessary to create jobs, grow our economy, and expand opportunity, while still cutting the deficit in a balanced way and securing our nation’s future.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is trying to pass off Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) exercise in fantasy math as a jobs plan, “”With this balanced budget, Republicans are continuing to build on our plan to get Americans working again. This fiscal blueprint helps people who work hard and do the right thing by promoting an all-of-the-above energy strategy, overhauling the tax code, repealing Obamacare, strengthening entitlement programs, and beginning to pay down our debt. All of this adds up to more jobs and more security for hardworking people, and less spending and less government in Washington.”
The new Ryan budget has the same ideological mission as all of his previous attempts at faux budgeting. Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are still trying to sell their job creator mythology. At the heart of the Ryan budget is the belief that if the “job creators” a.k.a. the wealthiest Americans are given more, they will benevolently create more jobs and boost the economy.
What really happens when the rich are given more at the expense of everyone else is that the already wealthy get richer while income inequality grows.
The big secret behind the Ryan budget is that it isn’t really a budget. Paul Ryan and the House Republicans aren’t interested in laying out a fiscal vision for the country’s future.
The mission behind Ryan’s budget is a massive upward redistribution of wealth away from those he views as lazy takers.
Just like the Ayn Rand fantasy novels that guide his political career, Paul Ryan’s budget is a work of fiction, and the Obama White House dissolved the fantasy with a dose of reality.
Death Panels Come To Life as Thousands Will Die In Obamacare Obstructing Red States
Tuesday, April, 1st, 2014, 12:11 pm
If there is one thing a voter never expects of their representatives is that they would deliberately inflict harm leading to deaths of their constituents, but this is 21st Century America and Republicans have demonstrated they will go to extraordinary lengths to create hazardous conditions for the people they were elected to serve. Republicans will even spread blatant lies about policies created to protect Americans to instill fear in the public even though their fear-mongering lies never come to pass, but one of the greatest lies Republicans have ever told about health care reform is coming true regardless the lie was deemed the “lie of the year” in 2009.
According to perennial idiot Sarah Palin, “seniors and the disabled will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.” The cruel twist is that in a sense Palin was right; seniors, the disabled, and the poor have stood in front of Republican death panels that decided they are not worthy of healthcare because Republicans rejected a major component of the Affordable Care Act. According to a recently published report, Republican governors and legislatures will be responsible for sentencing thousands of their constituents to death every year due to lack of medical care and the GOP’s intense hatred of President Obama.
A Harvard Medical School team of researchers recently published a report, “Opting Out Of Medicaid Expansion: The Health And Financial Impacts,” that calculated the body count in Republican states rejecting free Medicaid expansion for millions of Americans because they hate the Affordable Care Act more than they care about their residents. According to the Harvard report, Rick Perry will be responsible for up to 3,000 Texans’ deaths every year, Florida governor Rick Scott will have 2,221 Floridians’ deaths on his watch, Nathan Deal will help kill 1,176 Georgians each year, and North Carolina governor Pat McCrory will be responsible for 1,145 North Carolinians’ deaths every year. All told, 24 Republican states will kill off up to 17,000 poor Americans every year and the travesty is that the deaths are preventable and the cost of saving their lives to Republican states is nothing.
Before the Affordable Care Act was fully implemented, three organizations, the Urban Institute, Families USA and Harvard Medical School released studies estimating the number of preventable deaths among 50-million uninsured Americans was between 22,000 and 45,000 each year. But according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the death toll would virtually disappear as 25-plus million Americans gained healthcare insurance coverage over the next decade due to the ACA unless they are poor and reside in a Republican-controlled state; especially in the third world Southern United States where healthcare is the worst and GOP governors rejected free Medicaid expansion to show their distaste for the Affordable Care Act.
Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act is a stop-gap measure to assuage the “coverage gap” for Americans too poor to qualify for subsidies to buy healthcare insurance that the Republican Wall Street Journal noted would cover “nearly five million people ages 18 to 64 clustered mainly in the South according to estimates by the Kaiser Family Foundation.” The number is actually nearly 8 million Americans who could have been covered by Medicaid expansion if their Republican leaders were not entrenched in opposition to anything remotely affiliated with the African American President the GOP hates as much as they despise their own constituents. Tragically, Republican states opposed to free Medicaid expansion are not only killing their own residents, they are closing down hospitals people with healthcare insurance will lose access to.
According to a Fitch ratings agency special report released last October titled, “Adverse Expansion: Hospitals, States and Medicaid,” it warned that “Hospitals operating in states not expanding Medicaid, which usually have higher uninsured and poverty rates, will have to absorb the full impact of the ACA reimbursement cuts without the full benefit of increased insured volumes” as a result of better than expected enrollment in private insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act. States such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina that reject expanding Medicaid are among states with highest uninsured and poverty rates, and the most stringent Medicaid eligibility requirements. “Fitch believes hospitals in these states, particularly those with weak payer mixes, will be particularly vulnerable.” For example, in Georgia, as many as 16 hospitals face closure in coming months, and according to the Tennessee Justice Center, “Almost half of the 61 rural hospitals in Tennessee face ‘major cuts or closure’ without Medicaid expansion.” If it was not bad enough Republicans are deliberately closing down hospitals in Southern states, the refusal to take free Medicaid expansion money will hurt hospital workers as much as patients without access to hospitals. Some conservative estimates claim struggling hospitals already laid off 5,000 people since last June in Republican states that refused to expand Medicaid.
To make matters worse, Republican states Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming refuse to guarantee that insurance companies follow the ACA’s new regulations to protect consumers, and residents of those states already reported encountering insurer abuses thanks to Republican governors. Constituents cannot appeal to the state’s representatives in Congress for assistance with crooked insurance carriers because several Republicans, including Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), announced they will not answer any calls about the Affordable Care Act leaving consumers to fend for themselves by contacting the federal authorities for redress.
Americans get it; Republicans hate President Obama and, by association, his signature healthcare law and are bound and determined to make it as difficult as possible for their constituents to either procure affordable health care insurance or get medical care through Medicaid expansion. The Republicans are so opposed to saving their residents’ lives through Medicaid expansion that they are costing their states certain economic benefits they would likely use for tax cuts for the rich, but at least millions of poor Americans would have basic medical coverage. As despicable and pathetic as Arizona and Ohio’s Republican governors are, they are intelligent enough to see the economic benefits ($400 million surplus in Ohio) of expanding Medicaid and took advantage of the opportunity to both help poor citizens receive medical care and bolster their state coffers. Twenty four other Republican states are bound by spite and will take credit for the body counts as long as they can boast they rejected free healthcare for their residents because it is associated with an African American man occupying the White House.
This is another case of Republican voters, primarily in third world Southern states, who continue electing Republicans deliberately imperiling the lives of their constituents who are willing instruments of their own demise. They, like their Republican heroes, are so driven by racial animus and void of self-preservation or regard for their loved ones it is likely they cheered wildly upon news their state was one of 24 that would be responsible for the deaths of thousands by showing Obama the prospect of dying due to lack of medical care was a worthy way of demonstrating racism. One might understand Republicans’ fear of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion because they knew it would be a success and save countless thousands of innocent American lives; especially the poor. However, it is telling they knowingly plagued their states with a completely unnecessary death toll that has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with malice for an African American President their poor constituents will pay for with their lives in mostly Southern states with Republican death panels producing body counts in the thousands every year.
Lavrov: Russian Forces to Quit Ukrainian Border after Exercises
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 13:20
Russian troops deployed close to the Ukrainian border will return to base after completing their exercises, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.
"After finishing training in the Rostov region (bordering Ukraine), one of the battalions that took part has already returned to base in the Samara region."
"As they finish the tasks given to the participants in exercises, the other units will also return to their permanent bases," Lavrov said at a news conference with his Kazakh counterpart.
Lavrov said President Vladimir Putin had given the same assurance to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when they last spoke on the phone on Monday.
The Russian defense ministry on March 31 said that it was pulling back a battalion from the Rostov region and that the troops were returning to the Samara region, which is around 950 kilometers (600 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
Lavrov stressed that Russia was free to deploy its troops within its own borders and said that "our Western partners recognize that in a legal sense there is no problem here."
The Russian defense ministry has said that its troops have been deployed to carry out several rounds of training exercises in regions close to Ukraine.
Lavrov accused the new authorities in Kiev and Western powers of exaggerating Russia's military presence on Ukraine's borders.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday the buildup that the alliance estimates at 40,000 troops was a "matter of grave concern."
The alliance's troop commander General Philip Breedlove has also said Russian troops are poised to attack within 12 hours and could invade vast portions of Ukrainian territory in three to five days.
But Lavrov called on them to "de-escalate the rhetoric", saying: "I would not blow this topic out of proportion as the current Ukrainian authorities and their Western protectors are trying to do."
He in turn warned NATO that it should not deploy additional permanent forces in the alliance's Eastern European member states according to its agreements with Russia.
"As for plans to increase the military presence of NATO forces on the territory of Eastern European member countries... there should not be additional permanent military presence on the territories of Eastern European countries," Lavrov said.
NATO said Wednesday it had stepped back from a floated idea to reinforce the alliance's military presence in countries bordering Russia, preferring for now to suspend cooperation with Moscow and give more time to talks.
NATO in 'Grave Concern' over Russia Troop Buildup
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 19:35
NATO warned on Wednesday that Russia's military presence on the flashpoint border with Ukraine was of "grave concern" and that Moscow's forces could reach military objectives in just days.
General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander, told the Wall Street Journal that Russian troops could invade vast portions of Ukrainian territory in three days to five days.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he shared that assessment and warned of a "a very massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border" which NATO estimates at about 40,000 troops.
"This is really a matter of grave concern," Rasmussen said, at the close of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.
Breedlove said potential objectives for Russia included a land corridor linking Crimea and mainland Russia, the taking of the strategic Odessa port or an occupation of the breakaway Russian-speaking region of Transdniestr in Moldova.
Rasmussen warned that if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, he "would not hesitate to call it an historic mistake."
"It would be a miscalculation with huge strategic implications," he said.
The warning came the day after NATO announced the alliance was suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian, and that there was no confirmation that Russian troops were pulling back from the border.
Ukraine detains 12 police accused of shooting at protesters
Riot officers allegedly opened fire during Kiev demonstrations, as new government points finger at Yanukovych and Moscow
Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 11.26 BST
A dozen Ukrainian police officers have been detained on suspicion of shooting at protesters during violent clashes that shook Kiev in February, the country's new interior minister announced on Thursday.
Arsen Avakov said that the former interior minister Vitali Zakharchenko, currently on the run, was directly involved in giving orders to shoot at protesters, along with the SBU security services.
Valentyn Nalivaichenko, the new head of the SBU, added that a number of officers from Russia's FSB had been consulting with the SBU in Kiev in December and January, and that Russian citizens were present at SBU headquarters. He also claimed that explosives and weapons were delivered to Ukraine from Russia during the protest period.
More than 100 people were killed during February's violence. The ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, denied he had any involvement in ordering the sniper attacks during an interview on Thursday. Yanukovych fled Kiev shortly after the shootings and eventually left Ukraine for Russia, where he is now living.
He still claims to be the legitimate president of Ukraine, although even his own party has disowned him. He confirmed on Wednesday that he had asked Russia to send troops to Crimea, a decision he now says was a mistake, after Moscow moved to annex the territory last month.
The Kremlin has put forward a completely different version of events, alleging the violence which spurred Yanukovych's downfall was organised by far-right radical protest groups keen to radicalise the situation. On Sunday, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow had evidence that Ukrainian nationalist groups were behind the sniper attacks.
In an interview with Russian media, he said while he could not be 100% certain, but "many factors point to this". Lavrov said he has repeatedly raised the allegations with western partners and hoped they would not be swept under the carpet. There is also footage that purportedly shows snipers shooting at both protesters and riot police, which Russia says is evidence that the violence was carried out by "provocateurs".
A recording of a phone call between the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, and Estonia's foreign minister, Urmas Paet, was leaked last month – with suspicions falling on Russian intelligence or organistaions close to it – in which the pair discussed the theory that the opposition itself was responsible for the snipers.
Paet tells Ashton he had heard discussions in Kiev in which people claimed possible involvement, to which Ashton responds with surprise. Russian media have seized on the call as evidence that there has been a western coverup about supposed involvement.
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials said their investigation had determined some, but not all, of the sniper locations, and that 12 people had been arrested after thousands of riot police were questioned. Officials said some of the Berkut (special police) officers whom Kiev wants to arrest are currently in Crimea. Hundreds of Berkut returned to the peninsula after the violence in Kiev and were treated as heroes.
After the new government disbanded the regiment, Russia said it would give Berkut officers passports and integrate them into Russian security services, while former Berkut officers played a part in the Crimean "self-defence" forces that sprung up ahead of Russian moves to annex the territory.
In Crimea, Russia Showcases a Rebooted Army
By C. J. CHIVERS and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
APRIL 2, 2014
PEREVALNOYE, Crimea — The soldiers guarding the entrances to the surrounded Ukrainian military base here just south of the capital, Simferopol, had little in common with their predecessors from past Russian military actions.
Lean and fit, few if any seemed to be conscripts. Their uniforms were crisp and neat, and their new helmets were bedecked with tinted safety goggles. They were sober.
And there was another indicator of an army undergoing an upgrade: compact encrypted radio units distributed at the small-unit level, including for soldiers on such routine duty as guard shifts beside machine-gun trucks. The radios are a telltale sign of a sweeping modernization effort undertaken five years ago by Vladimir V. Putin that has revitalized Russia’s conventional military abilities, frightening some of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe and forcing NATO to re-evaluate its longstanding view of post-Soviet Russia as a nuclear power with limited ground muscle.
Across Crimea in the past several weeks, a sleek new vanguard of the Russian military has been on display, with forces whose mobility, equipment and behavior were sharply different from those of the Russian forces seen in the brief war in Georgia in 2008 or throughout the North Caucasus over nearly two decades of conflict with Muslim separatists.
Past Russian military actions have often showcased an army suffering from a poor state of discipline and supply, its ranks filled mostly with the conscripts who had not managed to buy deferments or otherwise evade military service. Public drunkenness was common, as were tactical indecisiveness and soldiers who often looked as if they could not run a mile, much less swiftly.
Not so in Crimea. After a Kremlin campaign to overhaul the military, including improvements in training and equipment and, notably, large increases in pay, the results could be seen in the field. They were evident not only in the demeanor of the Russian soldiers but also in the speed with which they overwhelmed Crimea with minimal violence.
The troops in Crimea may be the elite of the new Russian military. But the Kremlin’s investment, analysts said, has revived the military, which has now shown that it can field a competent and even formidable force, and both guard the nation and project power to neighboring states.
“The development of Russian armed forces is going in two big trends, first strengthening of strategic nuclear forces, giving a guarantee that no one country in this world will try to attack Russia,” said Aleksandr Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow.
“Second, the development of these rapid deployment forces,” he said, “to deal with any kind of local conflict, such as the war against Georgia, or this operation in Ukraine or anywhere.”
“As a result of these reforms,” Mr. Golts added, “Russia now has absolute superiority over any country in the post-Soviet space.”
One Western official who analyzes military forces in the region said the differences from the past were striking. “It does seem to us that they are much more professional this time around,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s impressive.”
The transformation of the armed forces has been a personal priority of Mr. Putin, who as prime minister from 2009 to 2012 and more recently in his return to the presidency has overseen billions of dollars in new military expenditures. The military was one of the few areas of the Russian budget to receive big spending increases, along with preparations for the Sochi Olympics, the 2018 World Cup and improvements to the railroad system, which is also a military asset.
Since the start of 2012, salaries for most military personnel have roughly tripled, to between $700 and $1,150 a month for privates and sergeants — a respectable amount in Russian terms. The Kremlin has also expanded housing and education benefits.
In a speech to military officers in February shortly after the raises were enacted, Mr. Putin declared, “I have always believed that military servicemen should be paid, as has always been the case in Russia, by the way, even more than skilled specialists in the sphere of economics or administration or other civilian sectors.”
The Russification of Crimea
As Moscow’s grip on Crimea tightens, ethnic Russians who were born under Soviet rule are eager to recapture their identity.
The spectacular rise in military spending, which is expected to increase to about $100 billion in 2016 from about $80 billion this year, even as the economy shows signs of recession, was one of the main reasons that Russia’s respected finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, who was credited with steering Russia safely through the 2008 financial crisis, left the government in 2011.
Mr. Putin has been unapologetic. He has repeatedly emphasized that rebuilding the military is crucial to Russia’s future.
At his direction, a comprehensive, multiagency military strategy was developed for the first time, with ambitious goals that included bringing all units to permanent combat readiness and upgrading weapons systems.
As commander in chief, Mr. Putin has also presided over unprecedented training exercises, including what the Kremlin billed as the largest peacetime mobilization ever — about 160,000 troops, officials said, in Russia’s Far East in the summer of 2013 — and an array of drills in western Russia to prepare for potential threats along the borders with Europe and the Caucasus.
“Our goal is to create modern, mobile and well-equipped armed forces that can respond rapidly and adequately to all potential threats, guarantee peace, and protect our country, our people and our allies, and the future of our state and nation,” Mr. Putin said in a meeting with military leaders in February 2013.
The lightning-quick seizing of strategic installations and the surrounding of military bases in Crimea, including the base here in Perevalnoye, provided a clear show of the new Russian military’s capabilities.
It was a sharp contrast to the brief war with Georgia in 2008, when Russia overwhelmed its much smaller foe on a tiny patch of ground, but also revealed the sorry state of its own forces — problems that stretched back to the two military campaigns in Chechnya. (In Georgia, Russian military vehicles were commonly seen broken down on the roads, with cursing soldiers beside them.)
“First of all, there were communications problems, because the communication is the basis of troop management,” said Mikhail Khodaryonok, editor in chief of Military-Industrial Courier, a weekly newspaper focused on the Russian armed forces.
“Problems with communications were so obvious that sharp measures were taken to improve all types of communications, including the confidential communication,” Mr. Khodaryonok said.
The upgrade was visible down to the smallest unit levels in Crimea. Here at Perevalnoye, many soldiers on guard duty wore new push-to-talk encrypted radios — a piece of equipment long used by American soldiers but only recently provided to conventional Russian units.
The Western official said the wide distribution of the encrypted radios suggested more than procurement. It might also mean that Russian noncommissioned officers were exercising more tactical latitude and decision-making, a deeper type of overhaul that could make Russian units nimbler and more effective.
“That is a rather empowering device for the Russian Army,” the official said.
The radios were one part of a broad element of Mr. Putin’s military overhaul: the replacement of equipment carried by individual soldiers. Known as the Ratnik program — from the Russian word for warrior — the upgrade includes new helmets, flak jackets with bulletproof plates, ballistic goggles, kneepads, uniforms, and communications and navigation equipment, as well as thermal and night-vision sights for firearms.
Apparently modeled after the equipment upgrades visible on Western soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade, the Ratnik kit has not yet been fully fielded. But many of its signature components were evident in Crimea, including the uniforms, helmets, goggles, flak jackets and kneepads.
Out on the roads, Russian forces could also be seen deploying electronic-warfare platforms, including the new Tigr-M and the R-330Zh jamming station, which can block GPS and satellite telephone signals.
Like many of the Russian military vehicles visible in the crisis, these vehicles contrasted with those seen in Georgia or the North Caucasus in that they had fresh paint jobs and new tires, and seemed to be in an excellent state of repair.
While analysts said that there was now better equipment and training throughout the Russian military, some cautioned against drawing too broad a conclusion based on the forces in Crimea, many of which were part of elite units that were among the first to benefit from the overhaul.
“It is certainly a step up from where they were in 2008, but how far of a step up we don’t know yet,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, a Virginia-based research group financed by the United States government. “Is the Russian military now a conventional threat to NATO? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s that much of an improvement yet. It could be down the road.”
Mr. Gorenburg noted that the Russian troops had faced no opposition, and that there had been no fighting. “Essentially they were taking over facilities and buildings from troops that had been given no orders or who had been given orders not to resist,” he said. “There was no actual combat.”
Mr. Khodaryonok, the editor of Military-Industrial Courier, said it would be a while before the modernization campaign spreads to all the armed forces. Nevertheless, he said, the military had made extraordinary strides.
“Everything is in order,” he said. “There is no more such shame as broken tanks and A.P.C.’s on the road and outdated weaponry.”
More important, he said, the military was able to make it all work. “The biggest achievement, in my opinion, is how the management was organized,” he said. “The operation’s cover, its quickness and suddenness. There were no data leaks.”
“The epoch of decay has been fully overcome,” he said. “And the armed forces of the country are on the rise.”
Italy Seizes 'Tank' in Venice anti-Separatism Swoop
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 18:39
Italian police on Wednesday arrested 24 alleged separatists for terrorism after thwarting a bizarre plan to take over St Mark's Square in Venice armed with guns and a rudimentary "tank" made from a digger.
Police said they had arrested activists from a group called "The Alliance" on charges of "terrorism conspiracy and subversion of the democratic order," which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The underground group, made up of radical separatists from the Lombardy, Sardinia and Veneto regions, had been planning to "liberate" the iconic Venetian piazza using weapons from the Albanian mafia and set up a new independent government, police said.
They were planning an attack "by hundreds of people, some of them armed" and "an insurrection from the inhabitants of northern Italy most affected by the economic crisis," law enforcers said in a statement.
"The tank was built to be used for a spectacular action on St Mark's Square," police said, adding that they had nicknamed the vehicle "Tanko".
The plan comes after more than two million residents of Venice and its surrounding region last month voted overwhelmingly in favor of breaking away from the rest of the country and forming their own state.
The online poll, although not legally binding and open to manipulation, showed the strength of separatist feeling in Italy's northern regions.
Local media named one of the men arrested Wednesday as Franco Rocchetta, a former lawmaker for the Italy's Northern League party who helped organize the referendum in the wake of Crimea's break from Ukraine.
News reports also quoted investigative documents including an intercepted phone conversation in which one of the suspects is heard saying: "We're going to install a real climate of fear. It's going to be fun".
The suspect is heard apparently detailing the plan to occupy St Mark's Square, saying: "There'll be 800 of us. Well equipped, with gas masks. Some of us with machine guns and there will be people from abroad too".
In another wiretap, a suspect was reported referring to "sticks of dynamite" and saying: "It's time to fight".
Members of the Northern League, an Italian political party which used to call for full independence for northern Italy and now advocates for broad autonomy, dismissed the investigation as "ridiculous".
"If the centralist state thinks it can scare or shut up men like Rocchetta, it is making a big mistake," said Antonio Borghezio, a European member of parliament from the Northern League.
Luca Zaia, a member of the Northern League who is governor of the Veneto region, said the investigation was "disproportionate" to the substance of the case.
Police said members of the group arrested Wednesday were also planning to set up "embassies" in "friendly countries" such as Serbia and Switzerland to obtain international recognition.
The "tank" they were planning to use was in fact a modified Fiat-Allis excavator with tracks had been fitted with "armored protection, video cameras and a gun turret still to be added".
Video footage released by the police showed people apparently welding metal sheets onto the digger.
The police said the suspects had fired blanks from the "tank" to test it in a warehouse in Casale di Scodosia, a small town of around 5,000 inhabitants around 90 kilometers (56 miles) southwest of Venice.
Italian media reported that two of those arrested were part of a group known as "Serenissimi" that occupied the Campanile on St Mark's Square for two days in 1997 in a symbolic protest that inspired the new group.
"The Alliance bases itself on the program of the Serenissimi but with more aggressive and violent methods," said the investigators, who are led by the prosecutor's office in Brescia in the Lombardy region.
France, Germany Plan Security, Economic Alliance in Africa
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 19:04
France and Germany announced a new plan at an EU-Africa summit Wednesday to work as allies in Africa on three fronts -- security, development and climate change.
"France and Germany can act on these three subjects," said French President Francois Hollande speaking alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "We want to deploy our friendship on the ground" in Africa.
Greek PM Aide Quits after Casting Doubt on Neo-Nazi Probe
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 21:25
A close aide of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras resigned on Wednesday following a secretly taped discussion purportedly showing him casting doubt on an ongoing probe into neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn.
Panagiotis Baltakos, general secretary of Samaras' cabinet, was filmed apparently having a discussion with Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris, one of the many senior party cadres facing criminal charges.
A voice resembling that of Kassidiaris can be heard on the video posted on Greek news sites and seen by Agence France Presse.
Baltakos is shown saying that the Supreme Court prosecutor who finalized criminal charges against the group had been "persuaded" to do so by Justice Order Minister Haralambos Athanassiou and Citizen's Protection Minister Nikos Dendias.
"She was persuaded that (you) are pagans, Nazis and against Christianity," he tells Kasidiaris in a familiar tone. "(By) Athanassiou and Dendias."
The Greek media said Kasidiaris released the video amid efforts by Golden Dawn to show that the judicial probe that has already placed one-third of the group's lawmakers in pre-trial detention is politically motivated.
Baltakos also dismissed the prime minister as a "bourgeois" who is "afraid" of Golden Dawn's electoral influence but unable to grasp its appeal to voters.
"I told him Golden Dawn will go to 20 percent, he called me a wanker," he says in the discussion.
In his resignation letter published by the Greek media, Baltakos said he had frequent "coincidental" meetings with Golden Dawn lawmakers in parliament because his office "was close" to that party's.
"There is no reality in talk of a 'plot'," Baltakos said.
The blow for the government came as the tide had appeared to turn for the neo-Nazi party, which had massively boosted its strength in the past two years.
Two weeks earlier, a Golden Dawn lawmaker had deserted the party's parliamentary group, condemning its actions, and another was similarly ejected.
The neo-Nazi group stands accused of orchestrating attacks on immigrants and political opponents.
A crackdown was ordered after the killing of a well-known anti-fascist rapper in September by a Golden Dawn member sparked public outrage.
Six of the party's 18 elected members of parliament including its leader are currently in prison awaiting trial and a total of nine have been indicted on charges of belonging to, or running, a criminal organization.
Parliament had been discussing in past weeks whether to permit the prosecution of the remaining Golden Dawn deputies so they can also face charges.
Despite the high-profile investigation, Golden Dawn was until now Greece's third most popular party.
Formerly on the fringe of Greek politics, the openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic group entered the 300-seat parliament in 2012 after tapping into widespread anger over immigration and austerity reforms in debt-ridden Greece.
Police raids at the homes of prominent members have found Nazi memorabilia and unlicensed firearms.
Court documents have linked Golden Dawn to two murders, three attempted murders and numerous assaults.
Witnesses have also testified that senior party members were involved in migrant beatings, extortion and possible arms smuggling.
NASA Suspends Russia Ties, Except on Space Station
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 06:34
NASA has cut ties with Russia except for cooperation aboard the International Space Station due to the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday.
"Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation," said a NASA statement.
"NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station."
The story was first reported by news site The Verge, which obtained an internal memo describing the policy change.
A copy of the memo posted online described a halt to travel to Russia by NASA employees and of visits by Russians to NASA facilities, and a freeze on exchange of email, teleconferences and video conferences.
The new policy does not apply to "operational International Space Station activities" or "multilateral meetings held outside of Russia that may include Russian participation," said the memo.
Russia's Soyuz spacecraft are the sole means of transport to the ISS for the world's astronauts. The United States pays Russia an average of $70.7 million per seat.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers on March 27 that he was aware of no threat that would jeopardize the Russian-U.S. partnership at the space station.
Earlier Wednesday, NATO warned that Russia's military presence on the flashpoint border -- estimated at about 40,000 troops -- with Ukraine was of "grave concern."
NATO on Tuesday announced the alliance was suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian, and that there was no confirmation that Russian troops were pulling back from the border.
Latvia Postpones Russian Patriarch's Visit amid Ukraine Crisis
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 14:26
Latvia has asked the head of the Russian Orthodox church, buffoon Patriarch Kirill, to postpone a planned visit amid tension between Russia and the Baltic states over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.
A letter from Latvian President Andris Berzins requesting that the May visit be put off indefinitely was handed to buffoon Kirill's representatives in Moscow on Thursday.
"The visit is postponed due to the circumstances regarding sanctions and the general international situation," foreign ministry spokesman Karlis Eihenbaums told Agence France Presse, adding that the request had been made "absolutely" because of Russian activity in Ukraine.
"The visit might take place later this year or it might be even later on. It very much depends on the international situation and Russia's behavior."
He said the request was consistent with a March 21 decision by the European Union, of which Latvia is a member, to suspend all high-level contacts with Russian authorities.
"We are a very open society here and there are a number of people for whom this visit is important, but if anyone can blame themselves it is the Russians," Eihenbaums said.
The ex-Soviet Baltic state, which has a population of two million people, counts around 350,000 Orthodox adherents among its large Russian minority, making it one of the country's three major religions alongside Lutheranism and Catholicism.
But Berzins's letter also stems in part from domestic pressure, with many prominent Latvians claiming in recent weeks that his response to the Ukraine crisis has been weak compared to that of his counterparts in neighboring Estonia and Lithuania.
Some even called on Berzins to step down, prompting him to issue a strong defense of his actions, saying on Tuesday that he had expressed "clear and direct views" regarding the situation in Crimea.
New Cyprus Defense Minister Named
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 April 2014, 13:24
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades named university lecturer Christoforos Fokaides as defense minister Thursday following the sudden death of his predecessor last month.
Fokaides, 40, teaches political science at the European University of Cyprus and is a member of the ruling right-wing Disy party's executive bureau.
He studied economics and Turkish history at Cyprus University before doing post graduate work at the University of Kent.
Before his appointment, he had been due to take up a visiting scholarship at Yale University in the United States.
Fokaides' key task will be to shepherd through parliament a government proposal to restructure the conscript-based National Guard and reduce service from 24 months now to 18 months and then 15 months.
Fokaides' predecessor, Tasos Mitsopoulos, died aged 48 on March 22 after suffering an extensive brain haemorrhage, only a week after being appointed in a cabinet reshuffle.
Major labels sue Russian social network vKontakte for 'large-scale' music piracy
Sony, Universal and Warner want court to force site to scan for copyrighted songs and pay damages
theguardian.com, Thursday 3 April 2014 10.58 BST
Three major labels are suing Russian social network vKontakte, claiming that the company has deliberately fostered "large-scale" music piracy on its service.
Sony Music Russia, Universal Music Russia and Warner Music UK have filed separate lawsuits in the Saint Petersburg & Leningradsky Region Arbitration Court, working with locla industry body NFMI and global organisation the IFPI on the cases.
The labels claim that vKontakte, which has 143m registered users globally, including 88m within Russia, is storing a large catalogue of music uploaded by its users, and has refused to strike licensing deals with the rightsholders.
"VK's music service, unlike others in Russia, is an unlicensed file-sharing service that is designed for copyright infringement on a large scale," said IFPI chief executive Frances Moore in a statement.
"We have repeatedly highlighted this problem over a long period of time. We have encouraged VK to cease its infringements and negotiate with record companies to become a licensed service. To date the company has taken no meaningful steps to tackle the problem, so today legal proceedings are being commenced."
The IFPI believes that the widespread availability of downloadable music on vKontakte is harming licensed digital music services in Russia, including local players Yandex and Trava, and global services iTunes and Deezer.
The IFPI's most recent figures show Russian recorded music revenues of just 2.2bn roubles (£37.3m) in 2013, putting it outside the top 20 countries in the body's global rankings.
vKontakte declined to comment on the lawsuits when contacted by The Guardian, on the grounds that it has not yet received the claims filed by the labels.
vKontakte has been a thorn in the side of the music industry for some time. In November 2011, US industry body the RIAA was labelling the site as a "notorious market" for piracy that was "specifically designed to enable members to upload music and video files, hundreds of thousands of which contain unlicensed copyright works".
This week's lawsuits are not the first time vKontakte has been taken to court for facilitating copyright infringement, however.
In February 2012, the company lost a case brought by Russian music firms SBA Publishing and SBA Production, with the verdict upheld by the Russian appeals court in May that year. A few months later, vKontakte was fined in another copyright infringement case, before being refused leave to appeal in November 2012.
The IFPI claims vKontakte has refused to tackle the issue of copyrighted music stored and shared through its social network, but the company has said otherwise in the last year. In June 2013, local news sites reported that a number of songs by global artists including Justin Bieber, the Rolling Stones and Adele were being removed by vKontakte.
In December 2013, founder Pavel Durov claimed that vKontakte was willing to take down music in response to requests from labels. "If some music companies wish their content to be deleted from VK, we, as always, are willing to comply with their wish," he told TechCrunch.
"On the other hand, we are also ready to seek mutually beneficial ways to monetise their content. This year we managed to find such a solution for video content and we are optimistic about the audio section of VK as well."
In March this year, reports suggested that vKontakte was preparing to introduce "content identification, which will be used to monitor and promptly delete published content protected by copyright", although these plans have not dissuaded the major labels from launching their legal action.
The lawsuits come at a sensitive time for vKontakte. Its founder Pavel Durov resigned earlier this week, citing pressure from the site's Kremlin-linked owners since its ownership structure changed in 2013. The previous year, Durov had refused to close down groups on vKontakte that were organising protest marches against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In April 2013, vKontakte's offices were searched by investigators, as a fund belonging to oil mogul Ilya Shcherbovich acquired 48% of the company. Then, in January 2014, Durov sold his shares in the company to telecoms executive Ivan Tavrin, whose company MegaFon is controlled by Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov – who already owned 40% of vKontakte, and has close ties to the Kremlin.
"The freedom of action of the chief executive in managing the company has considerably decreased. It has been harder and harder to remain with those principles on which our social network is based," wrote Durov in a statement posted on his own vKontakte page earlier this week, as he resigned.
More recently, vKontakte has been in the news for offering a job to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden after he was granted temporary asylum in Russia, as well as being criticised for hosting homophobic groups like Occupy Paedophilia which used its social network to lure gay men to venues where they would be attacked.
Durov may now focus on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app startup that he launched with brother Nikolai, which is based in Berlin. The app recently added 5m new users in a single day following the announcement that Facebook was buying rival WhatsApp.
François Hollande's cabinet reshuffle will further split the weakened left
The French president's weak position has forced him to act prematurely by changing his PM and bringing in Ségolène Royal
theguardian.com, Wednesday 2 April 2014 19.55 BST
This reshuffle is François Hollande's biggest gamble, and has the whiff of a last-ditch gambit from a man less than halfway through his five-year mandate.
Hollande had hoped to change prime minister next year, to prepare for his re-election battle in 2017. But his rapidly weakening position forced him to act prematurely. After his Socialist party suffered major losses in Sunday's local elections, he has changed his government in a way that will further split the weakened left.
If the new cabinet doesn't deliver fast on the economic and social fronts, particularly the stubbornly high unemployment figures (3.3 million), he risks losing on all sides.
Sunday's second round of municipal voting provided the left with unprecedented losses, a miraculous "blue wave" for the traditional right, and a surge for the extreme right National Front of Marine Le Pen, now in charge of 11 small and medium-sized towns for the first time.
The main cause of the left's defeat at the weekend was abstention, at record levels, rather than a clear swing towards the centre and far right. In fact, the UMP party is still recovering from the former president Nicolas Sarkozy's loss to Hollande almost two years ago.
So why did the left stay at home? Is Hollande's politics not "left" enough? Is there disenchantment with the confused leadership of Hollande and his government? Alienation from the political system after right and left parties failed to solve economic and social woes?
Hollande himself said he had "heard the message", sacked his devoted but uncharismatic prime minister, and decided … not to change policy.
Hollande's new prime minister, Manuel Valls, is France's most popular cabinet member by far – but not so much among leftwing voters. His new team is described as a "war cabinet" and includes the return of Ségolène Royal, Hollande's former partner.
Ambiguity is the keyword of the whole operation.
First in the relations between the president and the premier. Valls enjoys higher popularity rates than the president, and is seen as a no-nonsense doer while the president is seen as a man of compromise and indecision. This could prove complementary, or a recipe for conflict at the top.
Second, the promotion of Valls to premiership has divided the shaky alliance between the Socialist party and the environmentalist EELV party which held two cabinet posts in the previous government. The greens have decided to boycott the new cabinet over policy disagreements, and might be tempted in the future by a shift of alliance to the left as they have successfully done locally in the city of Grenoble, winning the Mairie from the socialist candidate.
Third, this new social-liberal prime minister, in French political jargon, has had to appoint as economics minister Arnaud Montebourg, who campaigned in the socialist primaries in 2011 on a deglobalisation platform (winning three times as many votes as Valls), who advocates strong state intervention in the economy, and doesn't like the financial discipline imposed by the eurozone that France is, at the moment, unable to respect.
This doesn't augur well for government coherence, which was one of the main criticisms directed at the previous team.
Hollande made a pro-business shift in January, by announcing a "responsibility pact" with the private sector, aimed at improving competitiveness. This will be the first credibility test of the new political landscape. Valls's majority will be tested both in parliament and on the streets where supporters of the leftwing former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have been urged to stage mass demonstrations against such a "gift to business".
Valls will find it a tricky task to give confidence to business, give the disgruntled left something to cling to – and stick to France's EU commitments. But for Hollande, it could get even trickier. The president has lost his first big election test. He will most likely lose the next one with the European vote in May. If his gamble with Valls doesn't produce the hoped-for results, in terms of both economic growth and public confidence, he will be left with the spectre of a humiliating defeat at the end of the road.
• Pierre Haski is a French journalist and co-founder of Rue 89