The lure of plain vanilla from Germany
Like its reclusive German founders, the supermarket chain Aldi does not do much to draw attention to itself.
Its stores in the United States are small and spartan, with minimal décor and a limited selection of products. They are often found in nondescript shopping strips and lack the flashy signs and window displays of some competitors. Grocery carts cost a quarter apiece, which is refundable after the cart is returned.
But as the U.S. economy sputters and consumers look to save money, the privately held Aldi is suddenly emerging as a major force in the U.S. grocery business, one that some predict could one day rival Wal-Mart.
What makes Aldi so special is that, quite simply, its prices are cheaper than just about anyone else's, including Wal-Mart's.
The company said recently that prices of its private-label products were 16 percent to 24 percent below those at discounters and big-box stores, and 40 percent less than those at traditional supermarkets.
While the chain's format might perplex some shoppers who are used to a much broader selection, Aldi officials have maintained that the advantage of shopping at its stores — cheap prices — quickly becomes clear.
For shoppers, "there isn't much of a learning curve with a head of lettuce for 99 cents," Jason Hart, president of the United States division of Aldi, told Supermarket News.
Morrison to top growth league
LONDON: Wm Morrison Supermarkets is set to post a 19 percent rise in first-half underlying profit on Thursday and confirm it is taking market share from bigger rivals as cash-strapped shoppers flock to its lower price stores.
Britain's fourth-biggest supermarket group is also expected to confirm plans to return 500 million pounds to shareholders both this fiscal year and the next, despite having only bought about 10 percent of this year's tranche so far.
Analysts say the buyback could help underpin Morrison's shares as it faces more demanding sales comparatives in the second half of the year.
Morrison is set to report profit before tax and one-off items of 294 million pounds for the 26 weeks to August 3, according to the average forecast of 8 analysts polled by Reuters. Estimates range from 284 million to 305 million.
Like-for-like sales excluding fuel, a key industry measure, are forecast to climb 7.2 percent in the second quarter, boosted by higher food prices as grocers pass on the rising cost of commodities such as meat and dairy products.
The group is, after several integration problems, feeling the benefit of its purchase of rival Safeway in 2004 as well as its "Refresh" campaign to revamp stores and its image as a lower-priced alternative to some of its rivals.
Cash-strapped Britons are trading down to cheaper stores amid higher fuel and food costs, as well as sliding house prices.
Analysts are looking for signs of whether Morrison will step up promotional spending as it comes up against the second half's tougher sales comparatives, after having a quieter first half than some of its rivals.
They are also keen for an update on whether Morrison will try to buy stores from The Co-Operative Group, which is expected to put some on the market following its purchase of Somerfield.
Bradford-based Morrison runs around 375 stores and has a market share of about 11 percent, trailing J. Sainsbury , Wal-Mart-owned Asda and market leader Tesco .
Anti-tank mine kills 5 and wounds 3 in Cambodia
PHNOM PENH: A truck hit an anti-tank mine in a former stronghold of Cambodia's ultra-communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas, killing at least five people and wounding three, police said on Sunday.
The victims of Friday's accident in the northwestern district of Anlong Veng included women and children who were travelling in a truck carrying rice to a mill, police said.
Warmth opens Arctic routes, scientists say
Leading ice specialists in Europe and the United States have agreed for the first time that a ring of navigable waters has opened all around the fringes of the cap of sea ice drifting on the warming Arctic Ocean.
By many accounts, this is the first time in at least half a century, if not longer, that the Northwest Passage over North America and the Northern Sea Route over Europe and Asia have been open simultaneously.
While currents and winds play a role, specialists say, the expanding open water in the far north provides the latest evidence that the Arctic Ocean, long a frozen region hostile to all but nuclear submariners and seal hunters, is transforming during the summers into more of an open ocean.
Global warming from the continuing buildup of human-generated greenhouse gases is almost certainly contributing to the ice retreats, many Arctic specialists now agree, although they hold a variety of views on how much of the recent big ice retreats is caused by human activity.
Last month, news reports said that satellites showed navigable waters through both fabled Arctic shipping routes.
McCain's energy follies
The world is consuming oil at a ferocious pace because of runaway demand in India and China and because America - the world's largest consumer - is only beginning to confront its addiction. This cannot go on forever. Even the conservative U.S. Geological Survey predicts that oil production will peak by midcentury, meaning that future prices will make today's $3.70 gas look like chump change.
Emissions from fossil fuels are the main drivers of global warming. Scientists warn that unless they are sharply reduced the planet will face rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, widespread famine and other frightening consequences.
Global problems obviously require a global response. As the world's most profligate user of energy, and as one of its most technologically gifted nations, the United States should lead the way by developing more efficient vehicles and by expanding carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar power.
The John McCain of a few years ago understood this. He sponsored a bill with John Kerry that would have aggressively raised fuel economy standards, and another that would have put a stiff price on carbon emissions to encourage investment in cleaner technologies.
Unfortunately, that John McCain has receded from view. He has dropped his opposition to offshore drilling, pandered shamelessly by urging a gas tax holiday, and missed several crucial votes on bills extending credits for wind and solar power.
And while his acceptance speech promised "the most ambitious national project in decades," including efforts to improve energy efficiency, increasing oil production remains the centerpiece of his strategy.
McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate raises even more worrisome questions. Her strategy is drill here, drill there, drill now.
She would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a heartbeat - something McCain continues to oppose. She has sued the Bush administration for declaring the polar bear a threatened species, fearing it would interfere with oil exploration in Alaskan waters. She has questioned whether humans are responsible for climate change.
Palin's views are alarmingly out of touch with reality. No less alarming was McCain's decision to welcome them into his campaign.
Fuel is added to French debate over separation of religion and state
PARIS: A decision by a French court to postpone a robbery trial involving a Muslim defendant until the end of the holy month of Ramadan has set off a new fracas here about whether France's fiercely secularist institutions are bending to religious demands.
The court in the western city of Rennes did not cite the period of religious fasting as the reason for rescheduling the trial, which was due to begin Sept. 16. It stated only that the decision was made to ensure "a good administering of justice."
The prosecutor in the case, Léonard Bernard de la Gratinais, responded to the protests by saying at an impromptu news conference Friday that Ramadan had nothing to do with the postponement. "That could be contrary to the principles of the republic," he said.
But several observers argued that the request to reschedule the trial had been filed by the Muslim defendant explicitly on the grounds that he would be fasting and therefore at a disadvantage during the proceedings.
On Aug. 27, the court rejected two other pleas his lawyers had made for a delay: that a separate narcotics case involving some of the defendants was in progress and that an appeals court decision was pending on the alleged sexual harassment of one of the defendants by a police officer.
"A detailed analysis of the case allows one to doubt the words of the prosecutor," the conservative newspaper Le Figaro wrote in an editorial. "This is secular France, one and indivisible, that is attacked in its foundations, its integrity flouted, its values disowned."
The case has added to a debate that the nation's delicate balance between a tradition of republican secularism and the freedom of religion guaranteed under the Constitution is shifting.
It came three months after a court in Lille annulled a marriage at the request of a Muslim husband who said his wife had lied about being a virgin. The government subsequently demanded a review of the verdict and a final decision is expected this month.
Fadela Amara, the minister for urban affairs, warned that, between the two cases, there was the risk of a trend emerging.
"One point plus one point makes a straight line," Amara, a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent, said in an interview with the newspaper Libération that was published Saturday.
Others warned against an overreaction, arguing that taking account of religious holidays and practices, within reason, was a sign of pragmatism rather than a threat to the notion of "laïcité," France's separation of religion and state.
Libération quoted a number of lawyers who said that Christian and Jewish holidays were routinely, if informally, taken into account when scheduling hearings.
"We would be wrong, unless we wanted to stigmatize Islam, to raise a hue over Ramadan, a private and peaceful rite," the newspaper wrote in an editorial.
Yann Choucq, the lawyer who had filed the request for a postponement of the trial, said: "Why all the excitement? Are there hearings on Christmas or Thanksgiving, not republican holidays as far as I know? Isn't it common to obtain postponements for Jewish or other holidays? Are there religions that are more respectable than others?"
Differing accounts on U.S. strike in Afghanistan heighten tensions
AZIZABAD, Afghanistan: To the villagers here, there is no doubt what happened in an American airstrike on Aug. 22: more than 90 civilians, the majority of them women and children, were killed. The Afghan government, human rights and intelligence officials, independent witnesses and a United Nations investigation back up their account, pointing to dozens of freshly dug graves, lists of the dead, and cellphone videos and other footage showing bodies of women and children laid out in the village mosque.
Cellphone footage seen by this reporter shows at least 11 dead children, some with blast and concussion injuries, among some 30 to 40 bodies laid out in the village mosque. Ten days after the airstrikes, villagers dug up the last victim from the rubble, a baby just a few months old. Their shock and grief is still palpable.
For two weeks, the United States military has insisted that only five to seven civilians, and 30 to 35 militants, were killed in what it says was a successful operation against the Taliban: a Special Operations ground mission backed up by American air support. But on Sunday, General David McKiernan, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, requested that a general be sent from Central Command to review the American military investigation in light of "emerging evidence."
"The people of Afghanistan have our commitment to get to the truth," he said in a statement.
The military investigation drew on what military officials called convincing technical evidence documenting a far smaller number of graves, as well as a thorough sweep of this small western hamlet, a building by building search a few hours after the airstrikes, and a return visit on Aug. 26, which villagers insist never occurred.
Afghan civilians: Caught in the crossfire
Civilians in Afghanistan are paying a deadly price in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. America is fast losing the battle for hearts and minds, and unless the Pentagon comes up with a better strategy, the United States and its allies may well lose the war.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 540 Afghan civilians died in fighting related to the conflict in the first seven months of this year. It says the Taliban were responsible for 367 of those deaths; 119 Afghans died in U.S. and NATO airstrikes, while 54 died in other U.S. and NATO attacks.
The group's numbers for American and NATO-caused civilian deaths were much higher last year - 434 deaths, including 321 from airstrikes - but the 2008 figures are still unacceptable. And they do not count an airstrike last month in which Afghan officials charge that 95 people died. Washington disputes that number, and there needs to be a credible investigation.
Afghans once looked on American troops as their liberators, but far too many have come to see them as enemies. Add to that the corruption and incompetence of the government of Afghanistan's American-backed president, Hamid Karzai, and we fear Afghans are being driven back into the hands of the repressive Taliban.
There are too few American and NATO troops in Afghanistan to wage this fight on the ground. So the war against an increasingly powerful Taliban is often fought from the sky. Bombs dropped in populated areas increase the chances of deadly mistakes. In 2007, under pressure from Karzai, NATO made changes in targeting tactics, including delaying attacks in areas where civilians might be harmed. This has had some impact but obviously not enough.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to send 4,500 more American ground troops to Afghanistan - if they can be spared from the war in Iraq. But American commanders in Afghanistan have been pleading for months for about three times that number. NATO needs to step up its military efforts, and with other states build up Afghanistan's security forces, administrative capacity and rural development.
NATO commanders are also trying to coordinate operations more closely with the Afghan military, giving it a bigger role in planning operations and conducting searches. These changes are welcome but long overdue.
We have similar concerns about Pakistan. This week, helicopter-borne American Special Operations forces attacked Qaeda militants in a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. At least one civilian, a child, was killed and possibly more in what may be the start of a new American offensive.
Pakistan's political situation is extremely fragile, and anti-American sentiment there is fierce. Sending more American troops and planes into Pakistan's lawless border regions might be worth the backlash if the mission apprehended a top Qaeda operative. That apparently did not happen last week.
Pakistan's army, with intelligence help and carefully monitored financial support, should do most of the fighting. Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's new president, has promised to work to defeat the Taliban and ensure that the country is not used for terrorist attacks. We hope he delivers.
Real wars and the U.S. culture war
In Afghanistan, a Taliban-led insurgency is growing in reach and effectiveness. There's talk of a mini-surge in U.S. troops there - now about 34,000 - to counter the threat, but little serious reflection on what precise end perhaps 12,000 additional forces would serve. Until that's clarified, I'm against the mini-surge.
France, which just mini-surged in Afghanistan, is now embroiled in an agonizing debate over the slaying of 10 soldiers, mostly paratroopers, east of Kabul on Aug. 18. At least one of them had his throat slit. Photos in Paris Match of Taliban forces with uniforms of the Frenchmen have enflamed the national mood.
Hervé Morin, the defense minister, has called for "national unity" in fighting a threat "from the Middle Ages." But polls suggest a majority of the French favor withdrawal. A furor is building over suggestions the paratroopers were abandoned.
These French rumblings are a reminder that the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is fragile and that sending more forces is no remedy in itself.
Obama has been right to underscore the price Iraq exacted on the Afghan campaign - something McCain airily denies. But his calls to send "at least two additional combat brigades" to Afghanistan and his promise in Denver to "finish the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan" are rash.
After 30 years of war, the Afghan struggle won't be finished for another 30. It's a weak country, sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan, two far stronger ones that do not wish it well. The Afghan-Pakistani border cannot be sealed, although it can be better policed; the jihadi traffic across it will continue.
None of this means the United States is condemned to having tens of thousands of troops there for decades - although I'd say that's more likely than a victory within four years.
On the day the French were attacked, a large American military base - Camp Salerno in eastern Khost Province - came under sustained Taliban assault. I spoke to a U.S. official who's just ended an 18-month assignment in Khost.
He sees the exclusive focus on more troops as wrong-headed. The priority must be "an Afghan surge." Get the Afghan National Army to 120,000 troops as a priority, from about half that level today. If more U.S. troops do go, training Afghans should be their first task. Only Afghans can win this.
Pour money into Afghan army salaries (now about $100 a month). Keep buying loyalty with U.S. cash in the provinces, where it counts. Make a big push on human capital - "engineering minds is becoming far more important these days than engineering more roads." If the best brains leave, the country's lost.
Rethink policy toward schools. Getting madrassas registered with the government - and so gaining some control over curricula - is smarter than stigmatizing them and pushing students over the border into Waziri zealotry. Get serious about the national reconciliation program, designed to bring ex-Taliban moderates into politics. Focus on Pakistan.
Absent such cornerstones of a strategy - and absent realistic expectations - surging in Afghanistan is a mistake.
Suicide bombers kill 6 police officers in Kandahar
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Two suicide attackers detonated bombs inside the police headquarters in Afghanistan's second-largest city Sunday and killed six policemen, officials said.
The two bombers targeted General Abdul Raziq, a border police commander, two police officers at the scene in Kandahar said. One high-ranking officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said an additional 13 police offers, including Raziq, were wounded.
Canadian troops and Afghan soldiers surrounded the police headquarters shortly after the explosions.
Kandahar is the Taliban's former stronghold. Militants unleashed a massive attack on the city's prison in June, killing several police officers and setting free almost 900 prisoners.
U.S. forces, Afghan police kill over 20 Taliban
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: U.S.-led soldiers, backed by air support, and Afghan police killed more than 20 Taliban fighters in two separate clashes, officials said on Sunday.
A U.S. military statement said its forces killed more than 10 insurgents during an operation in the southeast province of Khost on Saturday, and did not mention any casualties on its side.
In Helmand, a southern province also regarded as a Taliban stronghold, militants lost 10 men in an assault on a police post, provincial police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said. Four police were wounded defending their post.
The Taliban could not be reached immediately for comment.
Pakistan bombing underscores risks to Zardari presidency
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The death toll in a devastating suicide blast has reached 35, officials said Sunday, as Pakistan prepared for Benazir Bhutto's widower to take over as president.
The suicide attack Saturday underscored the militant threat facing the country and its president-elect, Asif Ali Zardari, who was expected to be sworn in by Tuesday.
Dozens of people were wounded in the bombing when an explosives-packed pickup blew up at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province.
A spokeman for the Taliban, Maulvi Umar, said that the organization's militants had carried out the attack but they apparently had another target in mind; that seemed to confirm an earlier theory offered by officials, citing the large amount of explosives used. Umar speculated that the driver feared being discovered at the checkpoint and decided to detonate.
Umar said that there had been no plan to attack the checkpoint, but the Taliban were satisfied because seven police officers were killed.
Urgent aid for Pakistan
Anatol Lieven is a professor at King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington. He is currently in Pakistan doing research for a book.
The Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator Joe Biden, has drawn up an excellent long-term plan for the United States to help Pakistan economically, thereby strengthening the state against Islamist extremism. This is a vital American interest, not just because of the role of Pakistani Pashtuns in supporting the Taliban's campaign in Afghanistan, but even more importantly because Pakistan itself risks becoming a source of threats to the West that will vastly outweigh those from Afghanistan. It is to be hoped that if John McCain wins the presidential election, his administration too will devote far more attention to helping Pakistan.
The problem is, however, that Pakistan may not be able to wait that long. By the time a new administration has begun to work out its plans, it will be next spring. And as the editor of a leading Pakistani newspaper said to me in Lahore last Monday, "if the government here can't do something serious to help the population economically within six months, it will be finished."
He and others have warned that mass anger at rising food prices and lengthening electricity cuts could combine with hostility to the government's campaign against the insurgents and to Pakistan's alliance with America. Sporadic violent protests against power cuts have already occurred in several cities. The resulting instability could wreck any hope of Pakistan continuing its tough campaign against the insurgents.
Pakistan's new president, Asif Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party, is already hated by much of the population, in part because he is seen as too pro-American. His government's prestige is being damaged still further by intensifying American raids into Pakistan's tribal areas.
The main opposition party, the Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will undoubtedly try to exploit all this as much as it possibly can. Sharif's popularity has soared in recent months, partly due to his opposition to Pakistani help to the Americans in Afghanistan and criticism of the Pakistan Army's campaign against the insurgents.
This does not mean that the United States should treat Sharif as an enemy. If he comes to power, he will probably follow a course of pragmatic cooperation with Washington. Nonetheless, initially at least, his return to power would be a blow to U.S.-Pakistani cooperation.
The Pakistani population is suffering acutely from the twin effects of the surge in the international price of oil, almost all of which Pakistan has to import, and the surge in international food prices. The latter should at least have benefited farmers - but their gains have been largely wiped out by the increased cost of fuel for their tractors, transport and water pumps.
Electricity cuts, meanwhile, have reached 16 hours a day in some areas, including the North-West Frontier Province, where the insurgency is gathering strength. The cuts stem from a number of long-term factors, including poor management and inadequate new investment in power generation. The most immediate problem, however, is that the state cannot pay some $1.4 billion in debts to the power companies, which in turn do not have the money to import necessary fuel.
The United States should make these funds available to Pakistan immediately for this specific purpose. Secondly, America should give emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Pakistani military offensives in Bajaur in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Swat in the North-West Frontier Province. This should be treated with the same urgency that the United States approaches natural disasters like the Pakistani earthquake four years ago.
America should also use its influence with the IMF to procure its assistance to Pakistan. It is essential, however, that this should not be made conditional on cuts in subsidies and social programs that will further hurt Pakistan's poor; such cuts would undermine the Pakistani government still further.
Limited American financial help can tide Pakistan over its immediate crisis. At the same time, the United States should urgently craft longer-term aid programs intended to strengthen resistance to the spread of insurgency.
These should be focused on the North-West Frontier Province. The planned $750 million for the tribal areas is a good idea in itself, but given the security situation and lack of basic infrastructure in these areas, it will be many years before this money can be spent effectively. Meanwhile, the North-West Frontier Province itself is in grave danger from the militants.
Unlike the tribal areas, the province does have a basic industrial infrastructure. American help should be devoted to building that infrastructure, above all in the areas of hydro-electric plants and communications. The province also badly needs hard cash to combat the militants directly. At present, for example, the North-West Frontier Province's demoralized policemen earn only two thirds of the salary of their comrades in Punjab - and half what the Taliban pays its fighters.
The sums involved are miniscule compared to those spent by the United States on the war in Afghanistan - and Pakistani help is essential if the U.S. is to have any chance of winning that war. Reliance on purely military means will be the surest way for the America to lose it.
A hardening of hearts in South Ossetia
TSKHINVALI, Georgia: It is not easy for Ireya Alborova to root through the events that cracked this city in half, but one small bright memory stands out from 1989, when she glanced at the building across the street from her high school and spotted a flag.
It was a small Georgian flag, fixed in an attic window. Alborova was an unruly 15-year-old, preoccupied with her friends and her classes, and she took it in - a small piece of information - and kept walking. But now she thinks of it as the first signal of what was coming.
Most of the world now knows what happened: South Ossetians and Georgians began a drawn-out struggle to control this sleepy valley, where the main feature is a road that cuts through the Caucasian ridge into Russia. That flared into a global standoff last month, when Georgia pounded Tskhinvali, the capital of the enclave of South Ossetia, with rocket fire. Russian troops poured across the border in response.
But for Alborova's family, which is partly Georgian but wound up on the Ossetian side of the conflict, the crucial event took place during the last months of the Soviet Union, when the fabric of a multiethnic society tore apart with breathtaking speed. For the past 18 years, in a city encircled by Georgian positions, the family and its neighbors have been reliving the rifts and betrayals of that period.
Her Aunt Fuza's neighbor, a Georgian woman, crossed ethnic lines to pass on a warning that an attack on Ossetians was planned - and then disappeared. A checkpoint appeared between Tskhinvali and her mother's ancestral village, cutting the Alborovas off from their Georgian relatives. Construction suddenly halted on a huge supermarket being built near their apartment 18 years ago, and not a day's work has been done there since.
Its foundation was eventually picked apart to build trenches. And the citizens of Tskhinvali became a resistance.
"It's not a question of whether you choose to or not," said Alborova, who is now 34 and lives in Toulouse, France. "Sometimes you are obliged. In some situations you don't choose anything."
Tskhinvali is a city of low-slung, sand-colored buildings suspended between urban and rural life. Roosters crow in the cool of the morning, and almost every house has its own grape arbor, used to make sweet pink wines that are stored in plastic soda bottles and brought out for the slightest occasion. There were also monumental Stalinist-era apartment buildings where the elite lived, and a grand neoclassical theater.
Alborova practically grew up in that theater. Her mother, Medeya, was Georgian. (Though her mother's mother had been Ossetian, children in the Caucasus take their father's ethnicity.) Medeya met Gelim Alborov in a state folk dancing troupe; when they married in the 1970s, unions between Georgians and Ossetians were still unremarkable.
To a teenager's eyes, the two ethnic groups were woven together inextricably. Children in Alborova's class were given their choice of language for classroom use, and though most of them were Ossetian, 28 out of 32 opted to study Georgian.
"Our teacher was embarrassed," Alborova said. "No one wanted to learn Ossetian."
In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, about 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, to the southeast, Georgia's first post-Soviet leader was emerging. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a longtime anti-Soviet dissident, based his campaign for the presidency on a vaulting Georgian nationalism - an idea powerful enough to fill the vacuum left by Communism's collapse.
The platform, known as Georgia for the Georgians, cast ethnic Georgians, who made up 70 percent of the population, as the country's true masters. Gamsakhurdia derided South Ossetians as newcomers, saying they had arrived only 600 years ago - and were tools of the Soviet Union.
On the street in Tskhinvali, small changes began to appear.
Alborova's aunt was exasperated to go to the store and see that pasta manufactured in Russia had been put in packages labeled with Georgian script. Her neighbor, Emma Gasiyeva, kept hearing slogans: "Brush them out with a broom!" and "Who are the guests, and who are the hosts?" a reference to the theory that Ossetians had been brought to the area as agricultural workers.
In 1989, Alborova was 15, and she saw only shadows. She heard that her Georgian classmates were gathering for some kind of meeting, but she was not invited. "They stopped talking to us," she said of her Georgian neighbors. "It was done very quickly."
Over the next three years, Tskhinvali became something like Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The government in Tbilisi established Georgian as the country's principal language, enraging the Ossetians, whose first two languages were Russian and Ossetian. A few months later, more than 10,000 Georgian demonstrators were transported to Tskhinvali in buses and encircled the city, until they were repelled by Ossetian irregulars and Soviet troops.
Venezuela to host Russia navy exercise
CARACAS: Several Russian ships and 1,000 soldiers will take part in joint naval manoeuvres with Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea later this year, exercises likely to increase diplomatic tensions with Washington, a pro-government newspaper reported on Saturday.
Quoting Venezuela's naval intelligence director, Salbarore Cammarata, the newspaper Vea said four Russian boats would visit Venezuelan waters from November 10 to 14.
Most U.S. companies ignore new rules on executive pay
Two years ago, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began requiring companies to explain performance targets used to calculate incentive pay for executives, shareholders hoped that the rule would discourage fat compensation awards for thin results.
With two years of data in hand, how is the new rule working? In some cases, well - but in most, not at all.
Under the rule, companies were supposed to divulge performance benchmarks - growth in earnings per share, for example - and why they were chosen. Companies were also supposed to detail the range of performance under which incentive payouts would be made, and the corresponding payout percentages.
But many companies are simply not bothering to comply. At least, that is the conclusion of a study by James Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm in New York that analyzed a representative sample of the midsize companies in the Standard & Poor's MidCap 400-stock index.
According to the most recent proxy filings, which covered the results for 2007, only 47 percent of the companies made the required disclosures concerning short-term incentive pay, like cash bonuses. While this figure is substantially higher than the 23 percent that complied with the rule in 2006, it is nonetheless distressing.
U.S. takes control of 2 mortgage giants
WASHINGTON: The Bush administration seized control of the nation's two largest mortgage finance companies on Sunday, seeking to shrink drastically their outsize influence on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill while at the same time counting on them to pull the nation out of its worst housing crisis in decades.
The bailout plan for the companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a seismic event in a year of repeated financial crises followed by aggressive U.S. intervention, places the companies in a government conservatorship, much like a bankruptcy reorganization. The plan also replaces the management of the companies.
Despite decades of free-market rhetoric from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Washington has a long history of providing financial help to the private sector when the economic or political risk of a corporate collapse appeared too high.
The effort to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is only the latest in a series of financial maneuvers by the government that stretch back to the rescue of the military contractor Lockheed Aircraft and the Penn Central Railroad under President Richard Nixon, the shoring up of Chrysler in the waning days of the Carter administration and the salvage of the U.S. savings and loan system in the late 1980s.
More recently, after airplanes were grounded because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress approved $15 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees to the faltering airlines.
Now, with the U.S. government preparing to save Fannie and Freddie only six months after the Federal Reserve Board orchestrated the rescue of Bear Stearns, it appears that the mortgage crisis has forced the government to once again shove ideology aside and get into the bailout business.
"If anybody thought we had a pure free-market financial system, they should think again," said Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
The closest historical analogy to the Fannie-Freddie crisis is the rescue of the Farm Credit and savings and loan systems in the late 1980s, said Bert Ely, a banking consultant who has been a longtime critic of the mortgage finance companies.
The savings and loan bailout followed years of high interest rates and risky lending practices and ultimately cost taxpayers roughly $124 billion, with the banking industry kicking in another $30 billion, Ely said.
Even if the rescue of Fannie and Freddie ends up costing tens of billions of dollars, the savings and loan collapse is still likely to remain the costliest government bailout to date, said Lawrence White, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University.
"The S.& L. debacle cost upwards of $100 billion, and the economy is more than twice the size today than it was in the late 1980s," he said. "I don't think this will turn out to be as serious as that, when over 2,000 banks and thrifts failed between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s."
Most of those losses were caused by the shortfall between what the government paid depositors and what it received by selling the troubled real estate portfolios it acquired after taking over the failed thrifts.
In the Chrysler case, Carter and lawmakers in states with auto plants helped push through a package of $1.5 billion in loan guarantees for the troubled carmaker, while also demanding concessions from labor unions and lenders.
While Chrysler is remembered as a major bailout, White says it was minor compared with the savings and loan crisis or the current effort to shore up Fannie and Freddie.
The government did not have to give money directly to Chrysler, and it actually earned a profit on the deal because of stock warrants it received when the loan guarantees were provided. At the time, Chrysler had a work force of more than 100,000 people.
Still, Ely makes a distinction between the rescue of Fannie and Freddie and the thrifts versus the aid packages for Chrysler and other industrial companies. "They didn't have a federal nexus," he said. "They weren't creatures of the federal government."
This effort is also different from the others because of the potential fallout for the broader economy and especially the beleaguered housing sector if it does not succeed.
Unlike a particular auto company or even a major bank like Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, which was bailed out in 1984, "we depend on Fannie and Freddie for funding almost half of our mortgage market," said Thomas Stanton, an expert on the two companies who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
"The government," he added, "has many less degrees of freedom in dealing with these companies than in the earlier bailouts.
Immigrant death sparks revenge riot in Spain
ROQUETAS DE MAR, Spain: Immigrants went on a rampage in a southern Spanish town overnight, setting fire to homes and cars and throwing stones at police, after a Senegalese man was stabbed to death, police said on Sunday.
Police said the killing of the 28-year-old man in the town of Roquetas de Mar, in the province of Almeria, led to "a numerous concentration of Africans, which degenerated into violence and public disorder".
"For reasons which the police are investigating, (the man) was attacked by a person from the neighbourhood who police are looking for," a police statement said.
A witness said the man was killed as he tried to intervene in a dispute between Senegalese and gypsy families in the area.
After the man was pronounced dead at the scene immigrants began vandalising property, burning rubbish bins and throwing stones and bottles at officers, said police.
Rioters also set fire to two homes belonging to family members of the man they believed killed the Senegalese man, said police. They also burned various parked cars.
A policeman who went to the scene told national radio station RNE that rioters attacked firefighters with stones.
"They began to throw stones at the cars...They ended up destroyed, with broken windows, dents in the doors, at the front. The only thing there wasn't was injuries," policeman Carlos Manuel Ruiz said.
The authorities sent 20 police cars to the neighbourhood to restore order. Three police officers were slightly injured.
Officers arrested a 33-year-old and a 30-year-old, both originally from Guinea-Bissau, a 31-year-old Nigerian and a 19-year-old Sudanese suspect for public order offences.
Police say they expect further arrests.
"It looks as if there was a dispute over some kind of debt -- that's the hypothesis which the police are finding strongest," Miguel Corpas, Spanish government representative in Almeria, told radio station RNE.
"The police is going to be working all day today to make sure there is no new incident."
An African resident told Spanish state television channel TVE that the community was against violence and racism, but he added: "We want justice."
More than a quarter of the residents in Roquetas de Mar, in the province of Almeria, are immigrants, many of whom work in the region's thriving agricultural sector.
Landslides leave at least 11 dead in Philippines
MANILA, Philippines: Two landslides triggered by heavy rains buried more than 20 houses in a remote gold-mining village in the southern Philippines, leaving at least 11 people dead and 16 others missing, officials said Sunday.
Small stone houses and huts at the foot of the mountain village of Masara were destroyed Saturday by falling mud and rocks, killing six villagers and injuring 17 others. Another landslide struck the village early Sunday, killing five more people.
The landslides, which cascaded down a mountainside with frightening booms, buried about 28 houses and forced up to 5,000 people in Masara and nearby villages to run for their lives, said Mayor Voltaire Rimando.
Rimando declared a state of emergency in Masara, which he described as a "no man's land" because of the danger and devastation.
Army and police, backed by two air force helicopters and workers from a gold-mining company, battled heavy rains and mud to search for at least 16 villagers reported buried, regional police Chief Andres Caro told The Associated Press by telephone.
Among the missing were Masara village chief Juvencio Anquera, who helped in the rescue work following the first landslide. He went missing with his two children when their house was hit by the second landslide Sunday, Caro said.
The landslides occurred in Compostela Valley province, about 520 miles (840 kilometers) southeast of Manila.
Roger Corales, who escaped unharmed, said Saturday he saw people crying for help as they slowly disappeared under the falling earth, their hands grasping desperately for something to hold on to.
A culture clash in Gaza
Islamists vs. pop culture in weary Gaza
GAZA: In a dingy storefront on a noisy block in the middle of Gaza City, metal shelves bulge with dusty audiotapes extolling Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Alongside them, a pouty Jennifer Lopez beckons from the cover of a CD.
DVDs are also on display, of movies not yet officially released, like "Wanted," "Hancock" and "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," the Adam Sandler comedy about a Mossad agent-turned-hairdresser in a New York City salon run by a Palestinian woman.
Amer Kihail, 32, a slender man with an elastic, hangdog face, runs the store, called New Sound. Do Gazans living under Hamas buy much Western music or many Western movies? Kihail looked baffled, and maybe even a little annoyed, by the question.
"Of course," he said.
Ruled by Hamas, penned in by Israel, grappling with daily shortages of food and supplies, Gazans need an escape. Culture turns out to be not just an afterthought but, many say, essential to surviving here.
Especially for young Gazans, what's on satellite television and the Internet, on tapes and compact discs, is a window to the world beyond the armored checkpoints, and a link to Arab society elsewhere and, crucially, to the West.
And in what is clearly an emerging struggle within Hamas between political pragmatists, trying to consolidate their new authority, and extremists who have begun pressing a more fundamentalist agenda, culture is a central battleground for control of Gaza. A release from confinement and hardship, even mundane television becomes freighted in this context.
As much as the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, this is a front line in the so-called global war on terror, in which anti-Western strains of Islam rub up against the social and cultural proclivities of many, perhaps most, Muslims. How the West fares, improbable as it might seem, may depend as much on whether people in this forsaken strip of land and elsewhere in this part of the world are watching "Zohan" and Dr. Phil as on skirmishes in the mountains south of Kabul. What's happening in a humble Gazan music store, it turns out, has repercussions across the region and beyond.
Like the West Bank, Gaza occupies a special place in the Middle East: Gazans may loathe Israel but have worked there or spent years in Israeli prisons, and while they haven't taken up Jewish culture, they've experienced Western life as many other Arabs have not. This has encouraged a sensibility that, until lately anyway, had a moderating effect on both religion and society.
As they do throughout much of the Arab world these days, the streets here clear each night when "Noor" comes on the television. Centered around the title character and her rich Muslim family enduring the usual soap opera imbroglios, the Turkish show has become so wildly popular that imams in Saudi Arabia and Gaza have lately issued fatwas against anyone who watches it. Nobody pays much attention.
Even Hamas tunes in. Imad Alifranji is helping to start up Al Quds, a new Islamic television station, Gaza's second after Al Aqsa, the Hamas station, which recently devoted three full days of programming to stories about promising Gazan high school students. Alifranji is wrestling with what might attract just a few more viewers.
"There's so much pressure here to find jobs, because of the Israeli siege, because of internal fighting, and with no places for young people to go out, that Gazans take comfort in a Turkish soap opera," Alifranji said with a shrug.
"It is true, Hamas is upset with some scenes in 'Noor,' which it fears provide a bad example for Palestinian families, scenes of sex before marriage. My 15-year-old daughter is obsessed with 'Noor.' My son, Mosab, who's 18, tries to stop her from watching. He disapproves."
As if on cue, Mosab, who looked 12, walked into Alifranji's office.
The only time he visited a Gazan café, Mosab said, he left because "Noor" was on the television. He used to listen to Arab pop stars like Elissa and Tamer Hosni but now finds "they have no respect for religion." He prefers Jackie Chan movies and rap.
"'Noor,"' he said, "doesn't know the difference between what should be taboo and what is acceptable."
Suddenly, Mosab's cellphone rang. He blushed.
The ringtone was the theme from "Noor."
Gaza has not had a movie house since the last one burned two decades ago during the first intifada. The Palestinian territories are bitterly split, with the more moderate Fatah ruling the West Bank, and Gaza under the control of Hamas, which won the Palestinian popular election two years ago and fought back an attempted coup by Fatah last year. Now Gaza has become isolated. The French Cultural Center is virtually the only institution that organizes the occasional art exhibition or music recital.
But that doesn't mean Gazans don't consume and make culture themselves.
At a recording studio called Mashareq, Rima Morgan, a 28-year-old business student-turned-singer in a white head scarf and black leotard, was recording a jingle for a West Bank radio station. "My family, which is traditional, didn't want me to sing, because it meant late nights, at parties, with men and women together," she said. "But for me singing is the only way to keep going."
She said she listened to Indian music, to Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias, and to Arab pop stars like Elissa.
On television, she watches "Friends."
And "Noor," of course.
"We can't travel, so it's our exposure to another Islamic society," she said.
Ramy Okasha, a fellow singer, who was also there, shook his head.
"The man is not a man," he complained about Noor's husband, Mohannad, the soap opera's blue-eyed answer to Fabio. His face, like that of Noor's, hangs on the bedroom walls of countless Gazan teenage girls. "She's too stubborn," Okasha grumbled.
What does he watch instead?
"'The Bold and the Beautiful,"' he answered.
Hamas, too, produces its own version of culture.
The cartoonist Omayya Joha's caricatures appear in many Arab magazines and newspapers. She's the widow of a Hamas fighter killed by Israelis. She married another fighter after he died. "I have a quill in one hand and a gun in the other," she likes to say.
At a Hamas office not long ago, sitting reservedly in hijab and black gloves before a conference table and tray of candy and fruit juice, she said coolly: "Israel thinks of me as a radical anti-Semite, but I'm not. I simply do not think that we can ever have peace. No way. Never."
She studies Western cartoons. "The exposure is very important," she explained, brightening at the prospect of talking shop, not politics. Lately, the Fatah-linked newspaper in the West Bank rejected some of her work, and that saddened her. "You start to think about self-censorship," she frowned, "anticipating what Fatah will not like."
This is exactly what many Gazans say Hamas has lately caused them to do.
She stiffened at that remark. "There is a price to pay for your affiliations," she said.
Eyad Sarraj shook his head when this was repeated to him.
"Hamas has not yet officially imposed its cultural program, but it's in place," he said. He is a Gazan psychiatrist. "After the election last year, we were assured Hamas would not infringe on our personal freedom, but now they are trying hard to prove us wrong. They are coming into our homes."
He was alluding to an incident last month in which hooded Hamas police officers broke into the rooftop apartment of a businessman and his wife, who were quietly drinking with guests. The police officers beat up the men and confiscated the liquor.
Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader, claimed that was a mistake. "Those were wrongdoings by some individuals in Hamas who don't reflect the movement's position," he said.
Stone-faced, built like a weightlifter, he was sitting on a patio overlooking the sea. Below, teenage boys played paddle ball in the surf and women in head scarves, and also some without, sat under makeshift tents. Rifles across their laps, black-clad police officers, who are everywhere in Gaza, perched on an embankment beside the patio, watching.
"Hamas has not implemented any restrictions regarding cultural life," Taha said. Aside from slowing Internet access, ostensibly to deter Gazans from looking at pornography, that's technically true. But there is also no law here against alcohol, and you won't find a bar in Gaza.
"If some people are restricting their own freedoms as a reaction, out of fear, that is their decision," he went on in a deadpan voice.
"Do you hear that music?" A restaurant was piping Steely Dan across the patio. "Do I use my power to stop this? No. People are entitled to their behavior - so long as they do not harm this culture."
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