Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad's Wife Pregnant?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is embroiled in a now two-year civil war that has killed tens of thousands, gave a cheery interview to unnamed “visitors,” as reported by a sympathetic newspaper, in which he offhandedly revealed that his wife is pregnant. Asma al-Assad, the 37-year-old, British-born young mother of three (now four?), was warmly profiled in Vogue’s February 2011 issue for her style and flair; shortly after, she was placed under severe economic sanctions by the European Union for her role in state abuses.
Bashar al-Assad let the news slip in a recent talk with mysteriously anonymous “visitors,” who relayed his comments to the Beirut-based al-Akhbar newspaper, an aggressive outlet often described as aligned with such anti-Western movements as Hezbollah. He mostly spent the interview insisting, against all evidence, that his regime was sure of imminent victory in the country’s civil war and that the resistance came purely from foreign-funded extremists. The article also strained to show Assad as coolly confident, including by apparently confirming rumors of his wife’s pregnancy:
On the personal level, the man seems calm and in control. His confidence level stands out. Also, there’s the news of the pregnancy of his wife Asmaa, which could not be dealt with as a simple personal matter between a couple.

Iran launches monkey into space: state news agency

 Iran has successfully launched a live monkey into space, the state news agency IRNA said on Monday, touting it as an advance in a missile and space program that has alarmed the West and Israel.
There was no independent confirmation of the report, which quoted a defense ministry statement. It said the launch coincided "with the days of" the Prophet Mohammad's birthday last week but gave no date.
IRNA said the monkey was sent into space on a Kavoshgar rocket. The rocket reached a height of more than 120 km (75 miles) and "returned its shipment intact", IRNA reported.
The Islamic Republic's state-run, English-language Press TV said the monkey was retrieved alive.
Iran announced plans in 2011 to send a monkey into space, but that attempt was reported to have failed.
Western powers are concerned that the long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into

Philippines accuses China of chasing fishing boats

 Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Saturday accused Chinese vessels of preventing Filipino fishing boats from seeking shelter at a disputed South China Sea shoal in new incidents that he said prompted his government to elevate the case to international arbitration.

Aquino told reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos that the incidents took place recently at the Scarborough Shoal near the western coast of the northern Philippines. He said in one incident Chinese vessels got within 10 meters (yards) of two fishing boats and sounded their horns at full blast, and on another occasion two other Philippine boats were ordered out of the shoal despite bad weather.

Aquino quoted the fishermen's account given to Philippine authorities.

The Chinese government did not immediately comment late Saturday.

Vietnam Tries 22 Democracy Activists on Subversion

A Vietnamese court has begun the trial of 22 democracy activists on charges of plotting to overthrow the Communist government in one of the biggest such trials in years.

A court official in central Phu Yen province says the defendants appeared in court Monday. The official didn't give his name, citing government policy.

He says the trial could last five days.

State-controlled media have quoted the indictment as saying the group operated under the cover of an ecotourism company. The media say the group allegedly authored documents that distorted Communist Party policies to create distrust.

Compensation for Philippine dictatorship victims

 Almost four decades after he was arrested and tortured and his sister disappeared into a maze of Philippine police cells and military houses, playwright Bonifacio Ilagan is finally seeing his suffering officially recognized.
A writer for an underground communist newspaper, Ilagan and thousands like him were rounded up by dictator Ferdinand Marcos' security forces after he placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972. Detentions, beatings, harassment and killings of the regime's opponents continued until Marcos was toppled in 1986.
Even though democracy was restored, it would take another 27 years for the Philippine Congress to vote on a bill awarding compensation and recognition to martial law victims. The bill was ratified Monday and will be sent to Pres. Benigno Aquino III for signing into law, said Sen. Francis Escudero, a key proponent.
"More than the monetary compensation, the bill represents the only formal, written document that martial law violated the human rights of Filipinos and that there were courageous people who fought the dictatorship," said a statement from SELDA, an organization of former political prisoners that campaigned for the passage of the bill.

Former PM Wins Czech Presidency

Left-leaning former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has won his country's first direct presidential elections with about 55 percent of the vote.  The international community was closely watching the voting as it will impact the Czech Republic's future relations with the European Union.

Supporters celebrated upon learning that Zeman won the Czech Republic's first direct presidential poll since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It came as a blow to his rival, Karel Schwarzenberg, the current Czech foreign minister, who at age 75 hoped to become the first prince-turned-president of a European Union nation.

The election defeat of the pipe-smoking prince followed a bitter campaign in which both men clashed over the Czechs' troubled history and about the European Union.

Senators Offer a Bipartisan Blueprint for Immigration

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to American citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire. The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats’ insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants.

Their blueprint, unveiled on Monday, will allow them to stake out their position one day before President Obama outlines his immigration proposals in a speech on Tuesday in Las Vegas, in the opening moves of what lawmakers expect will be a protracted and contentious debate in Congress this year.

Lawmakers said they were optimistic that the political mood had changed since a similar effort collapsed in acrimony in 2010. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and one of the negotiators, said he saw “a new appreciation” among Republicans of the need for an overhaul.

“Look at the last election,” Mr. McCain said Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.” The senator also said he had seen “significant improvements” in border enforcement, although “we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Brazil tries to fight cocaine trafficking at huge, porous borders

Brazil — The cocaine that anti-drug officials say is flooding into Brazil these days comes from neighboring Bolivia, in small planes that make 20-minute flights, in luggage ferried into river ports and in small dugout canoes that make clandestine trips in the middle of the night.

But in hamlets such as this one, Brazilian federal police officers try to stem the flow by urging villagers to report the suspicious activity on the 2,126-mile frontier with Bolivia, one longer than the U.S.-Mexico border. And in a speedboat, others patrol the Mamore River separating the two countries, guessing which of the countless motorized boats are carrying drugs bound for Brazil’s big cities. Here, the problem is grave, with lots of drugs crossing constantly,” said Alexandre Barbosa, one of 35 federal police officers assigned to this sector in Rondonia state in far western Brazil. “You see this region, where the frontier is separated by a river. So there are many ports. Every 100 meters, or sometimes less, you see a port. So you can move from one port to the other very fast.”

The tide is not favoring Brazil, which is facing the newest big trend in the transnational drug trade in South America.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Argentina and Iran create 'truth commission'

Argentina and Iran have reached a breakthrough in the investigation of a Jewish centre bombing that killed 85 people in Buenos Aires 19 years ago, agreeing to establish an independent international "truth commission" led by a jurist "with high moral standing and legal prestige" to examine Argentina's worst terrorist attack.

The commissioners will examine the evidence and recommend how to proceed "based on the laws and regulations of both countries".

Then, commissioners and Argentine investigators will travel to Tehran to question the suspects.

Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, Argentina's President, described the agreement signed on Sunday in Africa by foreign ministers Hector Timerman and Ali Akbar Salehi as "historic".

A van loaded with fertiliser and fuel oil was exploded on July 18, 1994, levelling the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building.

Friday, 25 January 2013

U.S. man who aided Mumbai plotters sentenced to 35 years in prison

CHICAGO (Reuters) - David Headley, an American who admitted scouting targets for the 2008 Islamic militant raid on Mumbai and later agreed to testify against the plotters to avoid the death penalty, was sentenced on Thursday to 35 years in prison.

The sentence, handed down by U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, was the maximum sought by federal prosecutors.

The attacks killed more than 160 people, including six Americans. Headley, a 52-year-old U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, admitted videotaping sites that were targeted by the Mumbai attackers.

He was arrested in 2009 and pleaded guilty to 12 charges, including conspiracy to bomb places of public use and commit murder and plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper.

After entering his plea in 2010, Headley cooperated with U.S. investigators and foreign intelligence agencies to avoid the death penalty and extradition to India, Pakistan or Denmark, agreeing to testify in foreign judicial proceedings, the government said.

Spanish newspaper withdraws 'fake photo' of Hugo Chávez

Spain's influential El País newspaper has withdrawn what it says was a false photo of Hugo Chávez that it published in its online and print editions on Thursday.

The grainy photo that El País originally splashed on its front page, billed as a global exclusive, portrayed the head of a man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth.

The Venezuelan president has cancer and has been undergoing medical treatment in Cuba, where he had surgery in December. He has not been seen publicly for six weeks.

El País, one of the biggest Spanish-language publications in the world and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America, said in a brief online statement that it had withdrawn the photo after ascertaining that the image was not of Chávez.

Venezuelan political opposition leaders have criticised government secrecy over Chávez's condition while his supporters have accused foreign media of being in league with the opposition to spread rumours that the president's medical condition is worse than it is.

Canadian police in Algeria to investigate gas plant attack

Canadian police are in Algeria looking for evidence that Canadian citizens were involved in last week's attack and hostage-taking at a desert gas plant, a government official said on Thursday.

Around 70 people died when Algerian troops stormed the plant and ended the siege on Sunday. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said a Canadian gunman, identified only as "Chedad," had coordinated the operation.

"I can confirm that they are on the ground," the official told Reuters when asked whether members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were in Algeria.

The official declined to give more details. A spokeswoman for the Mounties said she could not comment.

Slovenian Government on Verge of Collapse

Slovenia's conservative government is on the verge of collapse after a junior partner quit the coalition Wednesday.

The Civic List party says it is quitting over Prime Minister Janez Jansa's refusal to resign because of alleged corruption.

Jansa will now be forced to govern with a minority in parliament, until early elections are held.

Meanwhile, government offices and schools were closed Wednesday and hospitals were forced to cut services because of a day-long strike by government workers. Tens of thousands of civil servants marched against economic austerity plans, including layoffs and pay cuts.

Malta parties fight "tablet war" as election nears

VALLETTA (Reuters) - Parties running for election in Malta launched a 'tablet war' on Thursday, issuing rival promises to hand out iPad-style computers to school children if elected next month.

Putting education and technology at the center of the two-party race to lead the tiny island state, the opposition Labour Party promised a tablet computer for every eight-year-old school child.

Two hours later, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi unveiled his Nationalist Party's electoral program which included plans to give tablets to all school children aged between 5 and 16.

Bloggers in the euro zone's smallest country lampooned the politicians' largesse, likening the parties to both Father Christmas and Moses, the biblical figure who brought the word of God inscribed on tablets of stone.

Gonzi said his government had already given laptops to all teachers and put computerized white boards into all classrooms. Giving tablets to all children was the next logical step, he said, adding that pupils would in future use digital text books.

Labour Party leader Joseph Muscat told a news conference: "Tablets are key to fighting IT illiteracy."

Spain's unemployment rate reaches record high

Nearly 55 percent of Spanish youth under 25 years out of job as unemployment rate surges to 26 percent in final quarter.

Spain's unemployment rate has surged to a modern-day record of 26.02 percent in the final quarter of 2012 as nearly six
million people searched in vain for work in a biting recession, official data shows.
The jobless rate data released on Thursday climbed from 25.02 percent the previous quarter, reaching the highest level since Spain returned to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
The story for young people was even grimmer: the unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 soared to 55.13 percent, up from 52.34 percent the previous quarter.
The result shattered even the modest expectations of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government, which had been forecasting an unemployment rate of 24.6 percent by the end of 2012.
"It is a very, very high figure," said Soledad Pellon, market strategist at IG Markets in Madrid.
"The expectation is that this figure will carry on growing during 2013.
This year will still not be a year in which we will see job creation," she said.

Poland stumbles as shale gas industry fails to take off

 A map of Poland, unevenly colored in shades of yellow, brown, green and purple, like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, hangs prominently on the walls of the country’s ministries, state agencies and corporations. Official visitors are cordially invited to take a closer look.

The label in the upper right-hand corner of this new map reads, “Map of Concessions for Hydrocarbon Exploration and Production.”

Poland, which last century was the target of foreign armies shaping the region’s political history, today is being divided up by a hydrocarbon fever that the Polish government has energetically encouraged. Hoping to reproduce the recent “energy revolution” brought about in the United States by the advent of fracking and other drilling technologies, the Polish government has spearheaded shale gas exploration in Europe in the hopes that one day it will have its own dynamic natural gas industry.

“Shale gas exploration and extraction is a priority for our government, and that’s the reason we’ve decided to focus the investment energy of many companies,” says Mikolaj Budzanowski, Poland’s treasury minister, supervising the country’s state-owned oil and gas enterprises.

Two years since uprising, Egypt braces for more protests

(Reuters) - Egypt marks the second anniversary of the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power with little to celebrate. Deeply divided and facing an economic crisis, the nation is bracing for more protests, but this time against a freely elected leader.
President Mohamed Mursi's opponents plan to march to Tahrir Square on Friday to vent anger at the new Islamist leader and his Muslim Brotherhood backers, whom they accuse of betraying the goals of the January 25 revolution that galvanized Egyptians in a display of national unity that has not been seen since.
"We don't see it as a celebration. This will be a new revolutionary wave that will show the Brotherhood that they are not alone - that there are other forces that can stand against them," said Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 - a group that helped ignite the uprising by using social media to organize.
The Brotherhood has said it will not send its supporters to Tahrir Square on Friday - a decision that at least limits the scope for more of the unrest that has compounded Egypt's economic troubles.
Instead, with its eye on forthcoming parliamentary polls, the electorally savvy Brotherhood is marking the anniversary with a campaign to help the poor. With allies, it promises to send volunteers to renovate 2,000 schools, plant trees, deliver medical aid and open "charity markets" selling affordable food.
"The importance of the anniversary is to lift the spirits of the Egyptian people: more hope and more work," said Ahmed Aref, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who was in Tahrir Square for the entire 18-day uprising against Mubarak.

Japan Forces Taiwanese Activists to Retreat from Islands

Japanese forces used water cannons to repel a ship carrying Taiwanese activists who were headed to a disputed island in the East China Sea on Thursday.

The Japanese Coast Guard says the boat, escorted by four Taiwanese government ships, was turned away about 30 kilometers from the islands, which are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Taiwan's official Central News Agency says the activists had wanted to reach the islands to install a statue of Matsu, the "goddess of the sea," which they believe will help protect Taiwanese fishermen in the area.

The islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, have become a flash-point for small-scale conflicts in recent months, mostly between Japanese and Chinese vessels.

More recently, both countries have also sent fighter jets to patrol the islands, raising fears of war between Asia's two largest economies.

The uninhabited islands are located in a strategic area of the East China Sea and are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially vast energy deposits.

U.N. to consider validity of China's claim over disputed islands

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations is planning to consider later this year the scientific validity of a claim by China that a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea are part of its territory, although Japan says the world body should not be involved.

Tensions over the uninhabited islands - located near rich fishing grounds and potentially huge oil-and-gas reserves - flared after Japan's government purchased them from a private Japanese owner in September, sparking violent anti-Japanese protests across China and a military standoff.

Taiwan also claims the islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in China, the Senkaku islands in Japan and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

In a submission to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, China claims that the continental shelf in the East China Sea is a natural prolongation of China's land territory and that it includes the disputed islands.

Under the U.N. convention, a country can extend its 200-nautical-mile economic zone if it can prove that the continental shelf is a natural extension of its land mass. The U.N. commission assesses the scientific validity of claims, but any disputes have to be resolved between states, not by the commission.

Gay Marriage Could End Humanity, Nigerian Pastor Says

A prominent Nigerian pastor this week said gay marriage could wipe out the human race within 20 years.  This comes as the Nigerian parliament sends a bill to President Goodluck Jonathan that would make gay marriage an offense punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Pastor Enoch Adeboye heads the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a mega-church in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.  The church has 6,000 parishes around the world and the president of Nigeria attends his sermons.

Last weekend, the pastor weighed in on an issue that is barely controversial in Nigeria - gay marriage.  He called gay marriage an “evil” and that, if it is allowed, no one will have babies and the human race will die out.

Right now, gay marriage is not recognized anywhere in Nigeria but it’s not a crime either-not yet anyway.

Late last year, the Nigerian parliament passed a bill that will make gay marriage, or ‘abetting or aiding’ gay marriage punishable by up to 14 years in prison.  The lone voice of dissent among lawmakers said homosexuality is already a crime in Nigeria, so the bill is redundant.

Philippines Aims to Drill in South China Sea

Palestinians say they may have no choice but to take Israel to Hague court

 The Palestinians declared Wednesday that they will have no choice but to complain about Israel to the International Criminal Court if the Jewish state proceeds with plans to build housing on land the Palestinians want for a future state.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the Middle East, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said his government's decision will largely depend on what the Israelis do with the so-called "E1" area outside the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem.

"If Israel would like to go further by implementing the E1 (settlement) plan and the other related plans around Jerusalem then yes, we will be going to the ICC," he said. "We have no other choice. It depends on the Israeli decision."

The Palestinians have previously suggested that bringing their various disputes with Israel to the Hague-based court was an option, but Malki's remarks on Wednesday were the most direct threat his government has made against the Jewish state to date.

Bahraini princess facing multiple torture charges

A Bahraini princess is facing charges of torturing pro-democracy activists in the Gulf island kingdom.
Noura Bint Ebrahim al-Khalifa, who serves in Bahrain's Drugs Control Unit, is accused along with another officer of torturing three people in detention.
Hundreds of protesters were detained as Bahrain struggled to put down a popular uprising that began in February 2011.
The uprising, which began peacefully with calls for democratic reform, was crushed by the ruling al-Khalifas.
Noura al-Khalifa, 29, who denies the charges, appeared in court on Sunday and Monday to hear the allegations.
In one case, the princess is accused of torturing two doctors, Ghassan and Bassem Daif, brothers who worked at the Salmaniya medical complex.
Medical staff from the facility went to help injured protesters after security police used force to disperse thousands of people who had camped out at an iconic landmark, Pearl Roundabout, in the capital, Manama.
At least two people were killed and hundreds wounded when police attacked with batons, tear gas and birdshot.

Turkey Aids Iran Through Gold Trade

Saudi Arabia Sent 1,200 Death Row Inmates To Fight In Syria

A leaked internal memo shows how Saudi officials commuted 1,200 death row inmates under the condition they go and fight against Assad in Syria, according to the Assyrian International News Agency.

 From the memo:

We have reached an agreement with them that they will be exempted from the death sentence and given a monthly salary to their families and loved ones, who will be prevented from traveling outside Saudi Arabia in return for rehabilitation of the accused and their training in order to send them to Jihad in Syria.

Saudi officials apparently gave them a choice: decapitation or jihad? In total, inmates from Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, and Kuwait chose to go and fight in Syria.

The news agency AINA also reported that an unnamed Iraqi official said Russia objected to the Saudi's decision to release the prisoners. Russia has several military contracts with Bashar al Assad and has

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Mexican president vows to end hunger for millions

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto launched a campaign against hunger on Monday, pledging to transform the lives of nearly 7.5 million of the country's poorest, though he gave few details, prompting criticism that the plan was a "rehash" of old policies.
Tackling the poverty that blights Mexico has been a priority for many presidents of Latin America's second-biggest economy, and it was one of the first pledges Pena Nieto made when he launched his election campaign at the end of March.
The 46-year-old president outlined a four-point plan to tackle hunger in 400 of Mexico's roughly 2,500 municipalities, urging community action, local government responsibility and pledging to strengthen agricultural production in afflicted areas.
However, he did not detail the cost of the plan.
"It's painful and saddening that there are still Mexicans suffering with hunger here in Chiapas, and, it has to be said, in every corner of Mexico," said Pena Nieto, who took office on December 1.
"This is not a handout program; it's not just about giving out food to those that need it," he added.
Pena Nieto was speaking in Las Margaritas in the poor southern state of Chiapas, a town that was a hotbed of resistance to the federal government in the 1990s.
Las Margaritas was also a stronghold of the Zapatistas, a leftist revolutionary movement that rose up against the government in 1994, partly in protest against Mexico's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada.
Pena Nieto has won praise for pushing hard on a variety of reforms since taking office, but analysts were not convinced on Monday, saying the anti-hunger plan was vague and seemed much like existing policies.
"I would say it's a disappointment because it's very thin on details," said Susan Parker, an economist at Mexico City's CIDE university, adding that it failed to address what would happen to older poverty-fighting programs.

Confident Obama lays out battle plan as he launches second term

A confident President Barack Obama kicked off his second term on Monday with an impassioned call for a more inclusive America that rejects partisan rancor and embraces immigration reform, gay rights and the fight against climate change.
Obama's ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol was filled with traditional pomp and pageantry, but it was a scaled-back inauguration compared with the historic start of his presidency in 2009 when he swept into office on a mantle of hope and change as America's first black president.
Despite expectations tempered by lingering economic weakness and a politically divided Washington, Obama delivered a preview of the priorities he intends to pursue - essentially a reaffirmation of core liberal Democratic causes - declaring Americans "are made for this moment" and must "seize it together."
His hair visibly gray after four years in office, Obama called for an end to the partisanship that marked much of his first term in the White House in bitter fights over the economy with Republicans.
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said from atop the Capitol steps overlooking the National Mall.
Looking out on a sea of flags, Obama addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people that was smaller than the record 1.8 million who assembled on the mall four years ago.
Speaking in more specific terms than is customary in an inaugural address, he promised "hard choices" to reduce the federal deficit without shredding the social safety net and called for a revamping of the tax code and a remaking of government.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Israeli election campaign enters final hours

Israelis to vote in general elections, widely expected to usher in government which will swing further to the right.

With less than 24 hours until Israelis vote in general elections, party leaders were campaigning down to the wire ahead of a ballot that is expected to return Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to office.
The vote on Tuesday is widely expected to usher in a government which will swing further to the right, whittling away at the chances of a peace deal with the Palestinians and raising the prospect of greater diplomatic isolation for Israel.
Those elected will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including Iran's nuclear programme, which some governments believes is a cover for a weapons drive, and pressure to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
No less pressing are the domestic challenges, including a major budget crisis and looming austerity cuts which are likely to exacerbate already widespread discontent over spiralling prices and the cost of living.
For weeks, opinion polls have given a clear lead to Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud, which is running on a joint list with the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu.
Falling support
But as the day of reckoning neared, polls showed falling support for the joint list, which was seen taking 32 seats - 10 lower than they currently hold - or just over a quarter of the 120-seats in parliament.
With the campaign entering its home stretch, party leaders and activists fought to secure the support of the as-yet undecided 15 percent of the electorate, which press reports said amounted to 17 or 18 seats.
One of the key issues of the vote has been the public anger over the rising cost of living, with Netanyahu coming in for heavy criticism over his economic record.
In an 11th-hour attempt to sway voters, Netanyahu on Sunday night named a former Likud minister known for his success in slashing mobile phone costs to the top post in the Israel Land's Administration in a move he claimed would significantly lower the price of housing.
But his opponents slammed the move as a "fig leaf" and several pundits said it was testimony to the "panic" that Netanyahu was feeling ahead of the vote.

Islamists to sit out Jordanian election

The candidates running in Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections have slogans and campaign promises that would sound familiar to voters in the historic recent polls of other Arab countries.But a quick glance at the Jordanian ballot reveals a list of hopefuls who stand apart from many of the competitors in other post-Arab Spring elections: Of the 1,400 candidates running on Wednesday for this 
monarchy’s 150-seat Parliament, only 22 are Islamists. After major gains in elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Islamists are set to make little electoral impact in the first Jordanian polls since a pro-democracy movement broke out here in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood — which is Jordan’s strongest opposition force and runs its most organized political party — is boycotting the vote, mainly in protest of an elections law it claims will prevent a fair vote.The boycott has cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jordan’s first elections since 2010, which officials tout as the centerpiece of the democratic reforms undertaken by the kingdom after nearly two years of simmering protests. But the boycott has also highlighted a key difference, and limitation, that Islamists in the region’s monarchies confront as they seek to capi­tal­ize on the rise of political Islam.

Iraq PM trades blame with Kurd leader in row

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the leader of the Kurdish region traded barbs on Sunday, each blaming the other for an ongoing political crisis amid weeks of anti-government protests.

The two issued rival statements in the latest in a series of disputes that have hardened opposition against Maliki and pitted him against several of his erstwhile government partners, including Iraq's main Kurdish political faction, who accuse him of authoritarianism and sectarianism.

"The federal government... has increased the crisis through neglect and threats that have led to dangerous consequences," Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani said in a statement issued late on Saturday.

"Iraq has, for a long time, been going through a major crisis because of the neglect of services for citizens, and not implementing the constitution and agreements."

Barzani also backed "the legitimate demands" of demonstrators in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq who have for weeks railed against the Shiite-led authorities for allegedly holding members of their community without charge and misusing anti-terror laws to target Sunnis.

Maliki, meanwhile, issued his own statement on Sunday in which he expressed surprise at Barzani's statement, which he said "reveals a desire to hinder dialogue among the Iraqi people and components, and revive ugly sectarian strife."

NKorea Eases Rules, Lets Visitors Bring Cellphones

North Korea is loosening some restrictions on foreign cellphones by allowing visitors to bring their own phones into the country. However, security regulations still prohibit mobile phone calls between foreigners and locals.For years, North Korea required visitors to relinquish foreign cellphones at the border until their departure, leaving many tourists without an easy way to communicate with the outside world.

The ritual of handing over phones was part of an exhaustive security check that most visitors face at immigration in North Korea. Many foreigners — including Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, who traveled to North Korea earlier this month — choose to leave their phones behind in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang.

Now, foreigners can bring wideband, WCDMA-compatible mobile phones into the country or rent a local handset at the airport, and purchase a local SIM card for use in North Korea. The SIM card allows them to call most foreign countries, foreign embassies in Pyongyang and international hotels in the North Korean capital, according to Ryom Kum Dan of 3G cellphone service provider Koryolink.

Dissident Eritrean troops seize ministry

Dissident Eritrean soldiers with tanks took over the information ministry on Monday and forced state media to call for political prisoners to be freed, a senior intelligence official said.

The renegade soldiers have not gone as far as to demand the overthrow of the government of one of Africa's most secretive states, long at odds with the United States and accused of human rights abuses.

Eritrea has been led by Isaias Afewerki, 66, for some two decades since it broke from bigger neighbor Ethiopia. The fledging gold producer on the Red Sea coast has become increasingly isolated, resisting foreign pressure to open up.

Soldiers forced the director general of state television "to say the Eritrean government should release all political prisoners," the Eritrean intelligence source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate statement from the Asmara government.

Cameron to Deliver Delayed Europe Speech on Wednesday

Prime Minister David Cameron will deliver his postponed address on Britain’s future relations with Europe on Wednesday, his office said Monday.Mr. Cameron had planned to deliver the speech in Amsterdam on Friday but delayed it amid the Algerian hostage crisis, in which at least three Britons were killed. However, Mr. Cameron’s office released excerpts suggesting he had planned to explicitly warn that Britain might leave the European Union unless the bloc changed the way it was run.

Under pressure from his Conservative Party, Mr. Cameron has signaled his readiness for a referendum on the relationship with Europe, although the precise question to be asked is not clear.

The United States has been unusually public in its insistence that Britain, a close ally, stay in the union. Last week, a White House spokesman quoted President Obama as telling Mr. Cameron by telephone that “the United States values a strong U.K. in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity and security in Europe and around the world.”

Split Emerges Over Cyprus Bailout Package

Cyprus is in urgent need of money from the euro rescue fund, but the troika responsible for the bailouts is split over how it should be structured. The IMF is worried that the country's debt load is not sustainable.
When euro-zone finance ministers meet in Brussels on Monday, a welcome guest will be missing. Christine Lagarde, 57, the French managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is currently unwilling to discuss giving aid money to ailing euro-zone member Cyprus. For some time now, the Americans in particular have been eyeing the IMF's involvement in Europe with suspicion, causing the Frenchwoman to hit the brakes time and again. "I have no mandate for that" is a statement that the euro-zone finance ministers have heard only too often from Lagarde.As such, it remains to be seen whether the IMF will ultimately participate in a loan program for Cyprus. A number of countries, Germany first and foremost, have said that IMF participation is crucial. The statutes of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro zone's €700 billion ($931 billion) permanent backstop fund, stipulate that the IMF must rubber stamp a country's debt sustainability before any cash can flow.
But this time around, the IMF is hesitating. A member of the troika which is currently negotiating the bailout deal with the Cypriot government, the IMF has an entirely different notion as to how the program should look.

Obama sworn in for 4 more years in office

 Stepping into his second term, President Barack Obama took the oath of office Sunday in an intimate swearing-in ceremony at the White House, the leader of a nation no longer in the throes of the recession he inherited four years ago, but still deeply divided.
The president, surrounded by family in the ornate White House Blue Room, was administered the oath by Chief Justice John Roberts. With Obama's hand resting on a Bible used for years by Michelle Obama's family, the president vowed "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," echoing the same words spoken by the 43 men who held the office before him.
"I did it," Obama whispered to his youngest daughter, Sasha, as he wrapped her in a hug moments later.
The president said the oath in just minutes before noon on Jan. 20, the time at which the Constitution says new presidential terms begin. There was little pomp and circumstance Sunday - Obama walked into the room flanked by his family and exited almost immediately after finishing the oath.
He'll repeat the swearing-in ritual again Monday on the west front of the Capitol before a crowd of up to 800,000 people.
Only about a dozen family members were on hand to witness Sunday's swearing in, including the first lady, daughters Malia and Sasha, and the president's sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and her family. Mrs. Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, and the first lady's brother, Craig Robinson, and his family were also on hand, along with a few reporters and photographers.
Yet the mood in the nation's capital was more subdued during this year's inaugural festivities than it was four years ago, when Obama swept into office on a wave of national optimism, becoming the first African-American to hold the nation's highest office. Since then, he has endured fiscal fights with Congress and a bruising re-election campaign - and has the gray hair and lower approval ratings to show for it.

Canadian in charge of deadly hostage-taking named by Algerian PM

ALGIERS, ALGERIA-A total of 37 foreigners and an Algerian died at a desert gas plant and five are still missing after a four-day hostage-taking coordinated by a Canadian gunman, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said on Monday.

More bodies found at Algeria gas plant

Sellal also told a news conference that 29 Islamists had been killed in the siege, which Algerian forces ended by storming the plant on Saturday, and three were taken alive. Most of the gunmen were from various states of north and west Africa.

With some bodies burned beyond recognition and Algerian forces still combing the sprawling site, some details were still unclear or at odds with figures from other governments.

The siege has shaken confidence in the security of Algeria's vital energy industry and drawn attention to Islamist militancy across the Sahara, where France has sent troops to neighbouring Mali to fight rebels who have obtained weaponry from Libya.

Of the 38 dead captives, out of a total workforce of some 800 at the In Amenas gas facility, seven were still unidentified but assumed to be foreigners, Algerian premier Sellal said.

Cancer-Stricken Chavez ‘Enters New Phase of Treatment’

  • Venezuela’s cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez is entering a new phase of treatment after finishing post-operative care, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Sunday.
    “The president’s condition and the functioning of all vital organs stabilize, he is conscious. He has more vital forces to enter the next phase of treatment, which will be officially announced,” Maduro told Venezuelan media.
    After visiting Chavez in Havana on January 14, Maduro said the Venezuelan leader “is recovering from surgery” and "the entire infection phase has been controlled," referring to Chavez’s respiratory problem.
    Univision channel said on Friday Chavez was transferred from the intensive care unit to a secret underground bunker-hospital in Havana, which was designed for emergency medical assistance to Fidel Castro.
    Hundreds of security agents and physicians took part in the operation. This was made to avoid leakage of information about Chavez’s health and possibly start preparation for sending him to Caracas.
  • Dreamliner probe widens after excess battery voltage ruled out

    U.S. safety investigators on Sunday ruled out excess voltage as the cause of a battery fire this month on a Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner jet operated by Japan Airlines Co (JAL) and said they were expanding the probe to look at the battery's charger and the jet's auxiliary power unit.

    Last week, governments across the world grounded the Dreamliner while Boeing halted deliveries after a problem with a lithium-ion battery on a second 787 plane, flown by All Nippon Airways Co (ANA), forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing in western Japan.

    A growing number of investigators and Boeing executives are working around the clock to determine what caused the two incidents which the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration says released flammable chemicals and could have sparked a fire in the plane's electrical compartment.

    There are still no clear answers about the root cause of the battery failures, but the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's statement eliminated one possible answer that had been raised by Japanese investigators.

    It also underscored the complexity of investigating a battery system that includes manufacturers across the world, and may point to a design problem with the battery that could take longer to fix than swapping out a faulty batch of batteries.

    Sunday, 20 January 2013

    Thousands call for election boycott in Jordan

    Thousands of Jordanians have been demonstrating across the country demanding the government suspend next week's parliamentary elections.

    Friday's peaceful demonstration in the capital, Amman, drew nearly 2,000 people, including youth activists and Muslim Brotherhood members, united in the election boycott and in demands that King Abdullah II cede some of his powers.

    The Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest opposition group, has renewed calls for King Abdullah to transfer his authority to appoint governments to the "people", meaning an elected parliament.

    More than 1,500 candidates, including 213 women, have been registered for the January 23 election for 150 seats in the lower house of parliament, which the opposition groups have boycotted over a lack of reform.

    "We reject cosmetic elections and schemes against our demands for reform," read a banner at the rally, organised by the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The protesters chanted: "The people want to reform the regime," and "listen Abdullah, the people demand freedom."

    Former Japanese prime minister slammed as 'traitor' at home

    The Japanese government has criticized former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's acknowledgment of a "territorial dispute" with China over islands in the East China Sea, with the defense minister going so far as to use the word "traitor."

    On his four-day private visit to China, Hatoyama told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday, "The Japanese government says there are no territorial disputes (between the two countries). But if you look at history, there is a dispute."

    The remarks contradict his own government's position of indisputable territorial sovereignty over the islands that it calls Senkaku and that China calls Diaoyu.

    "If his (Hatoyama's) remarks have been politically used by China, I'm unhappy," Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on television Thursday. "At that moment, the word of 'traitor' arose in my mind."

    Dangerous waters: Behind the islands dispute The day after his controversial remarks, Hatoyama, 66, and his wife visited the Nanjing Memorial, which is for the estimated 300,000 people killed in a 1937 massacre by Japanese forces.

    UNHCR Predicts Another 700,000 Displaced in Mali

    The U.N. refugee agency says it expects another 700,000 people will be uprooted by the conflict in Mali in the coming months.  The UNHCR says this number includes hundreds of thousands of people inside Mali who were forced out of their homes, and additional hundreds of thousands who fled the country and are now refugees.

    The 700,000 uprooted Malians are in addition to nearly 375,000 people already displaced inside Mali and in neighboring countries.  The U.N. refugee agency says refugee numbers have been rising steadily since the fighting began between French forces and Islamist militants in the central part of the country.

    UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says people are fleeing the fighting and the region occupied by the Islamists at a rate of about 3,000 a day.  She says the refugees are giving horrific accounts of living under the rule of rebel Islamic fighters.

    “Many also fear the strict application of Sharia law.  They report having witnessed executions, amputations and they say that also large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters," she said. "Disturbingly also, we are hearing accounts that there are children among the rebel fighters.  They are certainly not there willingly.  Also, people are very distressed and saying that family members have just disappeared.”

    Egypt drops hundreds of charges over post-Mubarak violence

    An Egyptian court dismissed cases against 379 people accused of involvement in clashes with police during protests near the Interior Ministry in November 2011 in which 42 demonstrators were killed, the state news agency reported.

    Saturday's decision was based on President Mohamed Mursi's offer of an amnesty for those facing charges related to events during and after the 2011 uprising that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, the agency reported.

    Cairo and other cities saw many violent protests against the army rulers who took over interim power after Mubarak was ousted on February 11, 2011.

    Judge Gamal el-Din Safwat Roshdy, who presided over the Cairo criminal court, dismissed the cases against 379 suspects linked to clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the agency said.

    Spain's PM defends party from corruption inquiry

     Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed action against wrongdoers in his ruling People's Party (PP) after revelations of a former treasurer's Swiss bank account threatened to stir a deeper party crisis.

    An ongoing judicial investigation of former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas last week showed he had a Swiss bank account which at one point held as much as 22 million euros ($29 million), according to a court document and statements by court officials.

    Barcenas stepped down as party treasurer in 2009 when judges began to investigate his possible involvement in alleged illegal payments and kickbacks to party officials from builders and other businesses that won government contracts.

    PP leaders have denied any knowledge of illegal schemes but Rajoy said he would act if wrongful activities were found.

    Greek conservatives tie with leftists in opinion polls

    Greece's power-sharing conservatives continue to draw the same levels of support as the anti-bailout leftist opposition, according to two polls on Saturday which showed two-thirds of Greeks feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.

    A poll by VPRC for Syntakton newspaper showed support for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's New Democracy party at 29.5 percent, tied with the leftist opposition SYRIZA party.

    Another survey by Metron Analysis for weekly newspaper Ependytis showed support for New Democracy at 27.8 percent versus SYRIZA's 28 percent.

    The conservatives had trailed SYRIZA for months after the June election, but a January 11 poll by Public Issue showed they had pulled broadly level with the leftist opposition for the first time in months.

    "The three-party ruling coalition seems to be regaining ground after the Eurogroup's decision in December secured the disbursement of a bailout tranche," Ependytis newspaper said.

    "But it still faces a public opinion majority of 64 percent which feels the country is headed in the wrong direction."

    Italy Needs 9 Billion Euros for Deficit Goal, Official Says

    Italy may need at least 9 billion euros ($12 billion) in additional budget measures in 2013 to meet its deficit targets as the worsening recession hurts tax revenue and fuels unemployment costs, a Finance Ministry official said.

    Italy will need to find 8 billion euros to finance jobless schemes and faces a 6 billion-euro revenue shortfall from value- added and gambling taxes, Finance Undersecretary Gianfranco Polillo said in an interview in Rome. That will be partly offset by a bigger-than-expected take from a new property tax and falling debt financing costs that will add 5 billion euros in resources.

    The Bank of Italy today cut its forecast for the economy, predicting a contraction of 1 percent this year compared to a previous forecast of a 0.2 drop, saying the global slowdown and weak domestic demand were choking growth. That will make it harder for Italy to meet its goal of a 2013 deficit of 1.6 percent of gross domestic product, he said.

    This year “there will be some spillover from a bigger deficit in 2012 stemming from the fact that GDP has slumped and we will have less coming in from VAT and a bit less from gaming, which we will only be able to partly compensate for with the increase in the property tax,” he said.
    Structural Goal

    After abuse scandal, Pope appoints new head of Irish church

    Pope Benedict on Friday appointed the new head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland to succeed Cardinal Sean Brady, whose tenure has been plagued by scandal over the sexual abuse of children on the predominantly Roman Catholic island.

    The Vatican said Monsignor Eamon Martin, 51, had been named "coadjutor" archbishop of Armagh, meaning he will automatically succeed Brady when he retires next year.

    Brady, who will remain primate until his retirement, has resisted calls by three of the four main parties in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland's deputy first minister to resign over the sexual abuse scandal.

    The Vatican's move was seen as an attempt to give him a soft exit. While it spared him the embarrassment of stepping down before his scheduled retirement, he will effectively be sidestepped as Martin takes over the running of the diocese.

    Armagh, which is in Northern Ireland, is a particularly significant diocese because its archbishop has the title "Primate of All Ireland," the senior Church position on the divided island.

    Ukraine prosecutor accuses Tymoshenko of murder

    Ukraine's chief prosecutor accused jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko of ordering the killing of a business rival 16 years ago, dealing a new blow to the ex-prime minister who the West says is the victim of a political vendetta.
    The announcement came on Friday after a court adjourned a second trial against Tymoshenko for tax evasion and her defense counsel warned her health had declined to a "critical" level.
    Tymoshenko is already serving a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office, meted out in October 2011.
    She and Western governments say she is the victim of a witch-hunt by the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovich who narrowly beat her in a run-off for the presidency in February 2010.
    Political enemies of the 52-year-old politician have indicated for a year that an additional case was building against her over the killing of Yevhen Shcherban, a deputy and businessman who died in a hail of bullets in 1996 as he stepped from a plane.
    But the announcement by state prosecutor Viktor Pshonka that Tymoshenko, a powerful gas trader in the 1990s, had conspired with a former prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, in ordering a $2.8 million "hit" against Shcherban came as a surprise.

    Top diplomats of Colombia, Venezuela meet for talks focused on ties, Colombian peace talks

    Venezuelan's newly appointed foreign minister is meeting with the top diplomat of neighboring Colombia in talks that are expected to touch on peace negotiations between the Colombian government and leftist rebels.

    Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua has said he hopes to deepen relations with Colombia's government during Friday's meeting with Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.

    Jaua also told the Colombian radio station Blu Radio on Thursday that Venezuela will continue to support the peace talks between Colombia's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The talks have resumed in Havana this week after a holiday break.

    Venezuela's vice president active in Chavez's absence, inaugurating public housing, schools

    Venezuela's vice president has inaugurated new public housing and a public school as he fills in for ailing President Hugo Chavez.
    Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other Cabinet ministers are maintaining a steady presence at televised events this week while Chavez remains out of sight in Cuba more than five weeks after cancer surgery.
    Maduro attended the opening of a housing project in Caracas on Thursday, and on Friday opened a school in Chavez's home state of Barinas alongside the president's elder brother, Adan.
    Those and other appearances by government officials appeared aimed at projecting an image of a government in action even without the presence of a president who usually presides over such events.
    Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told reporters that the government "hasn't stopped, not one minute."

    Got sugar? Venezuela faces shortages of staple foods

    The increased difficulty in finding basic consumer goods in Venezuela is raising concerns about the viability of Chávez's socialist economic policies at a time when the country is already on edge due to his prolonged absence.While President Hugo Chávez convalesces in Cuba following his fourth cancer operation, Venezuelans face a struggle of a different kind in the midst of shortages of basic food products. Consumers are having to scour markets for staples such as sugar, milk, chicken, and harina pan, a corn flour used to make arepas – corncakes that predominate the Venezuelan diet.

    "We're replacing one product with another," says Rosa Garcia, a real estate agent who was on a three-day hunt for meat across various Caracas neighborhoods. "First there was no beef, now no chicken. Last night I made eggs for my family's dinner." Grocery shopping in Venezuela is rarely an easy task, with consumers often forced to deal with long lines and sporadic shortages at their local markets. But the increased difficulty in finding basic consumer goods in recent weeks is raising concerns about the viability of Mr. Chávez's socialist economic policies at a time when the country is already on edge due to his prolonged absence and the uncertainty of Venezuela's political future. Chávez has not been seen or heard from since early December.

    Former New Orleans mayor Nagin charged with corruption

    A federal grand jury on Friday charged Ray Nagin, the former New Orleans mayor who denounced the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, with 21 counts of public corruption including receiving thousands of dollars in kickbacks for city services.

    The charges include six counts of bribery, nine counts of wire fraud, four counts of filing false tax returns and one count each of conspiracy and money laundering.

    "Nagin used his public office and his official capacity to provide favorable treatment that benefited the business and financial interests of individuals providing him with bribery or kickback payoffs in the form of checks, cash, granite inventory, wire transfers, personal services and free travel," the indictment said.

    In one case he received $72,500 in bribes, and $50,000 in another, according to the indictment. Nagin and his sons, Jeremy Nagin and Jarin Nagin, owned a countertop company called Stone Age LLC that provided granite for projects such as kitchen remodeling. In several instances, he received wire transfers and granite as bribes, the indictment said.

    U.S. Air Force finds pornography, "offensive" material in inspections

    The U.S. Air Force, reeling from a scandal over sexual abuse of female recruits, said on Friday a search of its facilities across the globe turned up tens of thousands of items it considered to be "offensive, inappropriate or pornographic."

    The inspections of public areas on Air Force facilities over 12 days in December were aimed at heightening awareness among personnel about sexual violence and professionalism in the workplace, said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.

    "I talked with airmen across the force and believe that some units were not meeting those standards," he said. "Every airman deserves to be treated with respect. They also deserve to work in a professional environment."

    The Air Force was rocked last year by revelations that female recruits were sexually abused at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Eleven instructors at the base, the home of all Air Force basic military training, have been charged with offenses ranging from inappropriate behavior to sexual assault.

    The Air Force has said that 48 women have come forward with what investigators consider credible stories of sexual misconduct.

    Algeria prisoner swap shows how Al Qaeda won't leave US alone

    As Al Qaeda-affiliated group proposed exchanging two US hostages in Algeria for two Islamist extremists jailed in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged stepped-up US support for counterterror efforts in North Africa.The United States has proceeded cautiously – and behind the scenes – toward France’s Mali intervention, hoping to deny radical Islamists the West-versus-Islam recruiting message that an overt American role in the effort to oust militant Islamists from northern Mali would offer. But reports Friday that the Al Qaeda-affiliated group that carried out the Algeria hostage taking wants to exchange two American hostages for two Islamist extremists and convicted terrorists jailed in the US suggests that America can’t help but be at the center of the global battle with Al Qaeda and associated Islamist radicals.

    Commenting Friday on the still-unfolding Algeria hostage crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged stepped-up US support for counterterror efforts in North Africa.The proposed exchange from the “Signers of Blood,” an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was relayed through a Mauritanian news service and underscores how radical Islamist groups have learned a cardinal lesson of Al Qaeda’s masterminds: that it serves the organization’s purposes to provoke the US and make it part of the anti-Western fight.

    The group proposed exchanging its American hostages for the release of Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving a sentence in North Carolina for plotting to bomb New York landmarks; and Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison for attempted murder of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

    Saturday, 19 January 2013

    Algeria Attack Shows The Arab Spring Morphing Into The War On Terror

    Taken together, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, the Islamist attacks on Mali, and now this Algerian offense, all point to north Africa as the geopolitical hotspot of 2013 — where the Arab Spring has morphed into the War On Terror.

    Dozens of hostages and militants have died in the attack on Algeria‘s Ain Amenas natural gas plant, 60 miles from the Libyan border. The companies operating the plant, including BP and Norway‘s Statoil, have evacuated hundreds of workers from the country. At least one of the remaining hostages is said to be from Houston, Texas.

    So far world oil and gas prices have barely reacted to the events. Clearly the market has reassured itself that this is just a one-off event rather than the beginning of an era of further oil and gas supply disruption in north Africa. Let’s hope the market is right.Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group, which launched the attack on the gas plant, has reportedly claimed that it will continue operations against the Algerian government. The militants who launched this week’s attack were reportedly carrying heavy weapons, machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades that were used by the Libyan  army during Khadafi’s rule.

    Algeria can’t afford that. Algeria’s 1.1 million barrels of daily oil exports bring in more than $50 billion a year to Algeria, cash that goes straight into government coffers, supply the lion’s share of the government budget. According to an IMF report, Algeria’s national balance sheet has deteriorated in recent years. Having ramped up social spending when oil output peaked in 2008, Algeria now needs oil prices north of $100 a barrel to balance its budget. That breakeven number could quickly ratchet up, as oil companies quash plans to invest in Algeria in favor of friendlier territories like Texas.

    The Algerian government’s forceful reaction to the attack — strafing the facility with helicopter gunships, and possibly killing hostages in the crossfire — shows that it is serious about stopping attacks by Islamist militants. The government is hunting militants who have escaped, presumably with the full cooperation of the United States. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday, “Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary or refuge; not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere. Those who will want only to attack will have no place to hide.”

    Is Mali the next Afghanistan?

    The war rages about cities with names such as Goa and Timbuktu, in a sparsely populated, mostly flat, dusty and landlocked country in northwest Africa.
    The combatants include a nomadic Berber people known as Tuareg, the French Foreign Legion and a coalition of al Qaida affiliates who identify themselves with the Maghreb, the desert region of Northwestern Africa.
    It sounds as if it could be the plot for a new Indiana Jones adventure. But those who study international terrorism say it would be a mistake for Americans to think of this conflict as anything but deadly serious. The war in Mali is the new front in the war on international terrorism.
    Some U.S. officials have downplayed the threat, noting in congressional testimony that those involved in Mali don’t appear capable of striking outside West and North Africa.
    But in some ways, what’s happening in Mali reminds experts of events in another little-known, faraway land in the latter half of the 1990s: Afghanistan. Back then, a fledgling al Qaida, though already a known threat, was using remote terrain to train a generation of elite terrorist fighters. The threat of those fighters was that once trained, they were disappearing to await plans and opportunities to strike at the hated West.
    “When we look back at Afghanistan, we wonder if we could have stopped what was to come,” said Daniel Byman, a national security and terrorism expert at Georgetown University who served as a staff member of the 9/11Commission.
    J. Peter Pham, a terrorism expert at the Atlantic Council research center, with particular emphasis on central Africa, notes that despite the continued focus of much of the resources of America’s anti-terrorism efforts on central Asia, the potential threat in Mali should look familiar.
    “Jihadists aren’t wedded to any one place over another,” he said. “They go to where the fight is. For the past year, northern Mali has been the place.”
    The Islamists rolled over their opposition. Mali’s U.S.-trained army, which staged a coup in March to protest a lack of government support in the fight to regain control of the north, was almost wholly ineffective. An international force of regional African troops approved by the United Nations – but not funded – existed in resolutions only.

    Saddam footsteps

    Events in Iraq in recent weeks suggest the country is sliding toward irreparable civil conflict, unless its causes are addressed.

    In the past couple of weeks of seemingly nonstop violence, the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites in the country has risen to the surface. This is thanks in no small part to the decisions of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies have raised fears among the Sunni population of him and his leadership.

    It appears to not be enough for Maliki and his people that the country has already lost thousands of lives and billions of dollars since the U.S. invasion. They are willing to risk losing more.

    At this stage all efforts should be focused on reuniting Iraqi society and bringing the country back into the 21st century. Iraq has suffered not only material damage, but also damage to its social fabric which requires intense effort to repair. That damage was the cost the country paid for the removal of one dictator. Now it is at risk of being subjected to another.

    The danger of this is obvious to all, except apparently Maliki himself. Even moderate Shiite leaders have cautioned against his government’s current path because they see it is a recipe for more violence.

    Without America’s help, Europe’s defenders can’t get off the ground

    The armed forces of France and Britain are woefully ill-prepared for the new age of self-sufficiency  

     It’s been a busy few days for those responsible for looking after our national security interests. On Tuesday, David Cameron hosted a lively discussion at the National Security Council about his decision to support the French military operation to Mali, and yesterday the Government was desperately trying to save the lives of British hostages in Algeria.

    The two events, of course, are not unrelated. By offering to provide France with two of the RAF’s giant C-17 transporter aircraft, Mr Cameron was committing Britain to support the French military operation to prevent al-Qaeda seizing control of Mali, with all the implications that was likely to have for British interests in the region. So he should hardly be surprised when, just as French forces began deploying to Mali, another al-Qaeda cell retaliated by attacking BP’s In Amenas gas field in neighbouring Algeria, killing one British worker and taking dozens more captive, including a number of Britons.

    Mr Cameron no doubt took a number of political factors into consideration when weighing the decision to back the French. At a time when Britain finds itself isolated in Brussels, he probably calculated that, by doing the French a favour, he would strengthen his friendship with François Hollande. The Mali operation also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the Anglo-French military cooperation accord.

    But following yesterday’s disastrous intervention by the Algerian military, in which scores of hostages were killed, as well as most of the kidnappers, when Algerian forces launched their botched rescue mission, Mr Cameron has experienced a painful lesson in the perils of committing Britain to overseas military operations.

    Pakistan to free all Afghan Taliban

    Pakistan is prepared to release all Afghan Taliban prisoners currently in Pakistani detention, Pakistani foreign secretary says.

    Speaking at a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Friday, Jalil Jilani did not discount the release of Mullah Baradar, the group's one-time second-in-command.

    "The remaining detainees, we are coordinating, and they will be released subsequently ... The aim is to release all."

    Jilani's statement followed a meeting with David Pearce, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Jawed Ludin, Afghan deputy foreign minister.

    The meeting took place at the embassy of Afghanistan in the UAE capital.

    Speaking to reporters, Luddin said the meeting intended to discuss "security and political dimensions of bilateral relationships" between the three countries.

    Luddin said the peace process had gained momentum in recent weeks with the release of some Taliban detainees by Pakistan, preparations by the Afghan Taliban movement to open a political office in Doha, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to the US.

    China's economy posts slowest growth since 1999

    China's economy grew at its slowest pace in 13 years in 2012, though a year-end spurt supported by infrastructure spending and a jump in trade signaled the foundation for the stable growth path Beijing says is vital for economic reform may be in sight.

    Evidence of a burgeoning recovery in exports, stronger than expected industrial output and retail sales, together with robust fixed asset investment, all indicated that Beijing's pro-growth policy mix has gained sufficient traction to underpin a revival without yet igniting inflationary risks.

    Year-on-year growth of 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter beat a consensus forecast of 7.8 percent in a Reuters poll and snapped a streak of seven consecutive quarters of slowdown.

    The performance was at the upper end of the 7-8 percent rate economists reckon is needed to deliver on reforms essential to China's long-term development after three decades of red-hot, double-digit growth.

    Full year growth of 7.8 percent was also just ahead of the poll's 7.7 percent call and, although the weakest since 1999, comfortably ahead of the government's 7.5 percent target, which just months ago seemed to some economists to be in jeopardy.

    "It's kind of like a golden spot - stronger growth, but not strong enough to trigger a lot more inflationary concern. That's perfect for equity markets." said Dariusz Kowalczyk, Asia ex-Japan senior economist and strategist at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.