Tesco to report slowest growth since early 90s
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Mark Potter
Tesco is set to report its worst underlying sales performance since the early 1990s recession next week, underscoring the challenges facing the country's store groups.
The supermarket group will report third-quarter like-for-like sales growth excluding fuel -- a key industry measure of performance -- of just 1.9 percent, according to the average forecast of 11 analysts polled by Reuters.
That would be the worst like-for-like sales performance for any reporting period since its annual results in 1992 to 1993, although it is only in recent years that the group has posted quarterly numbers and a sales figure stripping out fuel.
Forecasts range from 1.1 percent to 2.5 percent, and compare with 4 percent growth in the second quarter.
The slowdown is likely to add to jitters about consumer spending in the run-up to Christmas.
Store groups, including Tesco, have been slashing prices in a bid to attract shoppers hit by sliding house prices and fears of unemployment. The pain has been too much for some, with the retail chain of sweets-to-DVDs group Woolworths and furniture group MFI both calling in administrators this week.
The Confederation of British Industry said on Thursday that retail sales plunged in November at their joint-fastest pace since records began 25 years ago.
Tesco, the world's third-biggest retailer, has been losing market share to rivals for several months, partly because of its greater exposure to non-food sales, which have suffered more than groceries in the downturn.
But some of the recent slowdown in sales growth is self -inflicted, as Tesco introduced a range of discount brands in September in a bid to head off strong competition from hard discounters like privately-owned German groups Aldi and Lidl.
Data from market researchers Nielsen suggests the new brands have attracted customers, but with many existing shoppers also trading down to the cheaper products this has hit sales growth.
Analysts will be keen to hear whether Tesco expects this to continue, with many of them now forecasting like-for-like sales growth for next financial year below the group's usual forecast range of 3 percent to 4 percent.
Tesco also faces challenges in its international markets.
The group, which employs about 440,000 people in almost 4,000 stores across 14 countries, said earlier this month that underlying sales in its second-biggest market, South Korea, had fallen, and that it was slowing down its expansion in the United States because of an economic downturn there.
Weak number from Tesco are likely to contrast with a strong performance from rival Wm Morrison on Thursday.
The country's fourth-biggest grocer is expected to report like-for-like sales of 7.2 percent, according to the average forecast of six analysts polled by Reuters, with estimates ranging from 6.5 percent to 7.8 percent.
Tesco shares have fallen about 40 percent over the past year, hitting a four-year low of 283.80 pence earlier this month. They have underperformed the DJ Stoxx European Retail Index by 3 percent this year, compared with Morrison, which has outperformed the same index by 18 percent.
Tesco shares trade at 11 times forecast earnings, below Morrison on 14.6 times and J. Sainsbury, the third biggest grocer, on 14 times.
At 4:25 p.m., Tesco shares were down 3 percent at 292.8 pence, valuing the business at about 23 billion pounds. Morrison was down 0.3 percent at 241 pence, giving a market value of around 6.5 billion pounds.
(Editing by Sharon Lindores)
UK set for surge in discount grocers
Friday, November 28, 2008
LONDON: The economic downturn provides an opportunity for discount grocers to extend their influence in European retailing and in particular make headway in the UK and France, a report said on Friday.
Verdict Research said discounters like privately-owned German groups Aldi and Lidl should raise as much finance as possible to aggressively expand in markets where they are under-represented.
"Now is the time for the likes of Aldi and Lidl to pounce in the UK," said analyst Daniel Lucht and co-author of the report.
Discounters currently account for an average of 16 percent of total grocery sales across the European Union, the report said, adding there were huge variations, with Germany on 43.8 percent and the UK on just 3.7 percent.
It said France, on 14.6 percent, was another opportunity for strong growth as the Loi Raffarin, which has tightly regulated retail space, is relaxed in January 2009.
(Reporting by Mark Potter; Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)
Where the wild things were
By Andrew Beahrs
Friday, November 28, 2008
BERKELEY, California: In 1879, a homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and wrote a long fantasy menu of all his favorite American foods. The menu began as a joke, with Twain describing the 80-dish spread as a "modest, private affair" that he wanted all to himself.
But it reads today as a window into a great change in American life - the gradual, widespread disappearance of wild foods from the nation's tables.
Twain listed cranberry sauce, "Thanksgiving style" roast turkey and the celery essential to poultry stuffing. But he surrounded these traditional holiday dishes with roast wild turkey, frogs and woodcock.
Along with hot biscuits, broiled chicken and stewed tomatoes, Twain wanted turtle soup, possum and canvasback ducks fattened by Chesapeake Bay wild celery. In Twain's day, New York City markets still sold raccoon, a profusion of wild ducks and bear. From Delmonico's restaurant to hunters' homes, the nation's tables held an easy blend of wild and cultivated foods.
So it was natural for Twain's wonderful menu to include the best of America's forests and waters, as well as its orchards and plowed fields. But for that very reason, it was as different from the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth in 1621 as from our own intensively domesticated holiday meals.
The first Thanksgiving was a wild affair. Though a version of traditional English "Harvest Home" festivals, and intended as a celebration of the Pilgrims' first successful crop of corn, squash and beans, the meal was largely built around foods taken from the woods and waters around the struggling Plymouth Colony.
The two early accounts of the meal tell us that the Wampanoag guests (who outnumbered the English settlers two to one) brought several deer, and that a party of Pilgrims returned from "fowling" with a good take. The latter almost certainly referred to ducks and geese, which migrate in autumn and could be taken much more easily than wary wild turkeys.
Gooseberries, wild plums and lobsters, as well as eels "trod" from the nearby salt marsh, completed a meal intimately bound to the surrounding land and water. Though corn prompted the celebration, and was doubtless included in pottages and stews, the centerpieces were all products of the bountiful yet intensely threatening natural world.
Twain's Thanksgiving meals were separated from the Plymouth settlers by more than two centuries. Still, his menu suggests that wild foods continued to give American cuisine its unmistakable character. On Thanksgiving, Twain wanted a domestic turkey, with cranberry sauce and stuffing. But every Christmas, he delighted in the gift of a brace of prairie hens a dear friend sent him by rail from the Illinois tall grass.
Even some farmed foods had recent wild roots, such as the cranberries first cultivated a mere half-century earlier. Though the majority of foods in Twain's day were domestic, the wild ones were distinct and wonderful, rooting meals in the natural world as cultivated things never could.
His menu celebrated the amazingly varied landscapes of an entire nation. Shad from Connecticut, mussels from San Francisco, brook trout from the Sierras and partridges from Missouri all found their place alongside apple dumplings, Southern-style egg bread, and strawberries, which were "not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way."
In a sense, Twain's menu was a biographical sketch, for during a lifetime of travel he had eaten each and every one of the wild foods near its source. But it was also a portrait of what American food could be at its best: a cuisine with a deep sense of place, reflecting a splendid jumble of national landscapes and the people who lived in and off them.
But with the exception of fish, today it is rare to find wild foods in our marketplaces. The 10 million prairie hens in the Illinois of Twain's day have diminished to a mere 300 birds; his terrapin struggle to survive amid wounded Eastern wetlands; his titanic Lahontan cutthroat "lake trout, from Tahoe" were killed off by over-fishing and the introduction of invasive species. Tasting some of Twain's wild things is impossible or illegal, or limited to dedicated hunters and fishermen.
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer - extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon.
Andrew Beahrs is the author of the novel "The Sin Eaters" and the forthcoming "Twain's Feast."
Wine investing 2009: End of the madness
By Holly Hubbard Preston
Friday, November 28, 2008
ST. HELENA, California: When John Kapon, president of the New York wine merchants Acker Merrall & Condit, touched down in Hong Kong this month for his firm's autumn auction, he said he had no idea what to expect.
Would his Asian clients, known for their insatiable demand for rare Bordeaux and Burgundy, buy big or hold back? Having recently displaced Americans as the leading purchasers of fine wine, wealthy Asian buyers are an important indicator of trends in prices.
The worsening global economy did not derail the autumn sale, but it did throw it off. While the auction did bring in $6.7 million, some 13 percent of the lots went unsold, compared with only 8 percent at the previous Hong Kong auction - held in May before the meltdown on Wall Street. Many of the lots that did sell in November, according to Kapon, were purchased at or below preauction estimates.
Among the unsold lots were 12 bottles of vintage 2000 Château Haut-Brion valued before the sale at 60,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $7,735, and three bottles of vintage 2005 Romanée-Conti, a sparely produced grand cru classé Burgundy whose preauction value was set at 200,000 dollars.
That no one raised a paddle for these two lots says more about collectors than the wines themselves. The fact is, after nearly three years of frenzied buying, fine wine collectors are pushing back, snubbing that which looks overly inflated and only buying when the price seems right.
"The estimates were a bit aggressive and based on a bull market in the spring," Kapon acknowledged. At the May auction, Kapon's firm had hauled in a record $8.2 million, including a hard-to-find case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1990 that sold for an unprecedented $242,308.
By this month, however, wine buyers had found their bearings and were ready to make only the most judicious purchases. "Most lots still found eager buyers, even though bidding was more 'civilized' over all, and prices were relatively solid," Kapon said.
The autumn sale suggests a certain financial fortitude among Asian fine wine collectors less evident among their counterparts in Europe and the United States. At its fine wine auction in New York on Nov. 2, Sotheby's sold only 65 percent of its offering. Its rival auction house Christie's, meanwhile, sold 75 percent of its lots at a fine wine sale in Geneva on Nov. 18.
While Bordeaux and Burgundy blue-chips are still seen as havens, bidders at the Acker Merrall & Condit auction snapped up plenty of Champagne, Rhônes, and California cabernets, sometimes at a premium.
Among the sale's top sellers in Hong Kong was a lot containing 12 bottles of 1992 Screaming Eagle, a coveted cult wine from the Napa Valley of California that sold for 871,200 dollars. Meanwhile, a four-bottle lot of 2000 Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée de Capo from Domaine du Pégaü in the Rhône Valley sold for 15,488 dollars, above its presale estimate.
The push-back by collectors is being felt not only at auctions but in the retail sector, too. Simon Staples, sales director at Berry Bros. & Rudd in London, quoted a case of 2000 Château Lafite Rothschild, priced at £10,000 in June, before a steep drop in the pound against the dollar, now selling for £7,800, or $12,000. A case of 2005 Château Mouton Rothschild, priced at £6,500 in June, is now available for £5,400. Staples deemed both "best buys" at the reduced prices, adding to that list the 2005 Château Palmer, currently listed at £2,400 a case.
Would-be collectors encouraged by such prices might be less so when they understand that such declines, while sharp, only put these wines back at their 2006 levels.
"You are only seeing the insanity stop at the top," said Serena Sutcliffe, wine director at Sotheby's in London.
In particular, Sutcliffe is referring to the three-year run-up in prices for coveted "investment wines," including first-growth Bordeaux from the 2000, 2005, 1990 and 1982 vintages, as well as always hard-to-find Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, among them La Tâche and Romanée-Conti.
Having attracted the most speculative attention from investors - including professionally managed wine investment funds - investment wines are the most subject to price volatility.
Liv-ex, a British fine wine exchange that tracks pricing around the globe, provides telling evidence of this trend. Its Liv-ex 100 fine wine index, which tracks the price of top-tier investment-grade wines primarily from Bordeaux and Burgundy, was down by 7.4 percent at the end of October.
In contrast, the Liv-ex 500 fine wine index, a more broad-based benchmark featuring collectible wines from around the world, showed a 12.3 percent gain over the 12-month period ended in October.
The index, which is based on best list price for each component wine it tracks, supports what many in the industry contend: that the bulk of fine wine collectors buy to hold and enjoy over long periods, as opposed to flipping their stock when times get tough.
While Liv-ex has yet to post its November figures, most industry observers are expecting relatively moderate declines in the broader fine wine sector for the period: As their gains over the past few years have been less steep, so will be their downward adjustments.
Sutcliffe suggested that collectors look for values among the 2000 and 2005 second-, third- and fourth-growth Bordeaux wines from St. Émilion and Pomerol. Not subject to the same level of investment speculation as their first-growth and Romanée-Conti counterparts, these wines probably will not experience the same drastic price corrections, either. Still, given their association with two truly prized Bordeaux vintages, they are a good value, particularly as their prices soften.
Exactly how much softening will take place is "hard to call," said Alun Griffiths, wine director at Berry Bros. & Rudd. While customer buying throughout the wine merchant's global network has slowed down, Griffiths said he had not yet seen any significant supply being returned to market, either by collectors or the trade.
This could change come January when, as Griffiths pointed out, small to midsize wine traders, needing to free up cash to buy 2007 Bordeaux vintages and other new releases, will be required by their bankers to liquidate inventory. While not outright fire sales, such developments could lead to real bargains, he said, particularly for previously supply-restrained 2000 and 2005 Bordeaux and Burgundy vintages.
"They are both great outstanding vintages and they will repay long-term collectors," he said.
A 32-year industry veteran, Griffiths saw it happen during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. He recalled seeing a case of 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild - "the best wine of that great vintage" - drop to £2,800 from £4,000 in just a few months. That same case today - its contents considered at peak maturity - recently sold for £11,000 at auction.
To hunt down rereleased stock, Griffiths advised keeping a close eye on the Web sites of wine merchants. "That's the fastest way you will hear about inventory becoming available," he said.
As for the likelihood of a forced sell-off that could send prices tanking, Stephen Williams, proprietor of the Antique Wine Co. in London, said don't count on it. He brokers wines to some 17,000 clients in 67 countries. As Williams wrote in an e-mail message, "Fine wine is rarely leveraged or funded by debt, and therefore forced sale disposals rarely arise, even in the current market."
Tumultuous as times are, truly great vintages - for example those that came from Bordeaux in 1945, 1959 and 1961 - do have a track record for holding their value, which could explain why collectors aren't rushing to market to dump their stock.
Whether a collector buys now or in a few months, veteran industry observers like Williams say they believe wine values will resume their upward trajectory once the current financial crisis sorts itself out. So while prices might fall further, collectors who buy now, rather than wait for further fallout, are not necessarily leaving money on the table.
Clive Coates, a master of wine and the author of many books on Burgundy and Bordeaux, explained by telephone that since end of 1960s, there has been "an enormous increase in the market for fine wines and an enormous increase in the people who have oodles of boodles to spend on them."
While Coates says he thinks prices could fall an additional 15 percent to 20 percent, he does not think they will stay there for long. "We are still stuck with the basic fundamentals, which is a finite supply and increasing demand. At the moment prices are inflated, but the market, long term, is still going to be one where there are more and more buyers from places like Russia and China and India."
By Olivia Judson
Friday, November 28, 2008
Last week, the woolly mammoth came back. Into the news, that is. For it has had its genome sequenced, and is the first extinct animal to have done so.
The sequence is a draft - for technical reasons, parts of it are likely to be inaccurate - and it is not yet complete. But that didn't stop joyous speculations about the prospects for the mammoth's resurrection.
And I have to say, I love this stuff. I adore thinking about the science that would need to be done to bring back an extinct species, be it a mammoth or a glyptodon, a dodo or a Neanderthal. (Glyptodons were boulder-sized mammals related to armadillos, and are a particular favorite of mine. )
The outline of how to stage a resurrection is clear. In essence, it's a matter of cross-species cloning - using an egg from one species to host the genome of the other. The procedure is more or less the same as for regular cloning. First, you make a "blank" egg by removing the egg's nucleus - this contains the egg's genome. You then insert the genome of the animal you want to clone.
In regular cloning, the genome is from the same species as the egg. In cross-species cloning, the genome and egg are from different species. So, for mammoths, you'd put mammoth DNA into a blank elephant egg, and transplant the egg into an elephant surrogate mother. For Neanderthals, you'd put Neanderthal DNA into a blank human egg, and have a human surrogate mother. For a bird like a dodo, you'd put dodo DNA into a blank pigeon egg, and pop the egg into an incubator. Easy peasy.
Or not. In the decade since Dolly the Sheep was cloned, enormous progress has been made on regular cloning. To date, more than 10 different species of mammal have been cloned, including ferrets, rabbits, horses, cows and pigs. Nonetheless, success rates are still low. Even for cows, the animals that have been cloned the most, fewer than 5 percent of embryos transferred to surrogate mothers result in offspring.
The reasons for the failures are many and various. Sometimes the embryos don't grow. Sometimes the placenta goes wrong. Many clones are stillborn, or born with gross abnormalities. In short, despite the successes, cloning is still far from being reliable.
Given the difficulties of normal cloning, it's surprising that cross-species cloning has been tried, let alone had any successes. But it has. For example, two African wildcat kitten clones have been born from domestic cats, and three gray wolf clones have been born from domestic dogs. Again, though, the failure rates have been high. To get the three wolves, 372 embryos were transferred into surrogate mothers. The wildcats were even worse: 1,552 embryos were transferred, but only two healthy kittens were born.
Cloning a mammoth would be even more difficult. For one thing, elephants and mammoths are less closely related to each other than cats and wildcats or dogs and wolves, so the difficulties would likely be greater in any case. And elephants have a 22-month pregnancy - so you'd have to wait a long time to find out whether the experiment had worked.
But there's a far more profound problem, as well. The normal way to get a new genome into a blank egg is to take a single cell from the animal you want to clone, and fuse it with the egg. The nucleus of that single cell then becomes the nucleus of the egg. But with a mammoth, this almost certainly won't work. Because mammoth carcasses have been lying around for 10,000 years or more, their cells aren't in good shape. Instead of being neatly arranged in chromosomes, as ours are, mammoth genomes are in tiny pieces. So before we could put a mammoth genome into an egg, we would have to build one - something we are nowhere close to being able to do. Woolly mammoths will not be coming soon to a zoo near you.
All the same, research in this direction would surely yield astonishing discoveries. Our efforts to clone have opened up immense vistas of new research questions, and advances in the field have already shed light on aspects of how an embryo grows. During growth, cells become committed to being one type of tissue or another - heart muscle, say, or skin cells. Through cloning, we are learning how to reverse those commitments, something that may, one day, lead to revolutionary medical treatments. Likewise, learning to build a genome, whether of a mammoth or anything else, will certainly be interesting, and will probably be important in ways that we can't foresee.
And yet. No matter how much I enjoy thinking about the science of resurrection, I have to admit that the absence of mammoths isn't exactly a pressing problem. What is pressing is the number of species we are currently in danger of losing. It would be a shame if, in 200 years, our descendants were wondering whether to try and resurrect the elephant or the polar bear, the albatross or the mourning dove.
Let's get our act together. Let's prevent that first.
Olivia Judson writes "The Wild Side" column at nytimes.com/opinion.
Magnitude 6.0 quake hits Indonesia's Sumatra
Friday, November 28, 2008
JAKARTA: A magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck off Indonesia's Sumatra island on Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey said, although there was no tsunami warning or reports of damage or casualties.
The quake was centred 141 km (88 miles) south southwest of Bengkulu city at a depth of 35 km, the agency said in a bulletin on its website.
An official at Indonesia's meteorology agency said the quake could be felt in Bengkulu and Lampung provinces in southern Sumatra, but there was no report of damage or casualties.
Indonesia suffers frequent earthquakes lying in an extremely active seismic area where several tectonic plates collide.
Last week, several strong earthquakes also struck off Bengkulu and a more powerful earthquake hit northern Sulawesi, killing at least six people.
The sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands was hit by a devastating tsunami four years ago that left an estimated 170,000 people dead or missing in Aceh province.
(Reporting by Telly Nathalia and Sanjeev Miglani in Singapore, Writing by Ed Davies)
Portugal leads way in electric cars
By Patrick Blum
Friday, November 28, 2008
LISBON: António Pereira Joaquim is Nissan Motor's representative in Portugal, which has been chosen for rolling out the company's "zero-emission" electric car, to be marketed globally in 2010.
"The challenge is to make people believe it can work," Joaquim says.
The Japanese automaker and its French strategic partner, Renault, chose Portugal as one of several small markets to gauge the technology and consumer response under market conditions. There are similar plans in Denmark and Israel.Installation of a battery charging network will start next year and Nissan says the cars, made in Japan, will go on sale here starting in 2011.
The Portuguese government will oversee installation of the network of charging stations, which will offer a fast 20-minute battery top-up in the country's two major cities, Lisbon and Porto, and along some motorways. A recharge at home using the standard grid will take about six hours.
The infrastructure needs to be in place before the cars go on sale, and this could be a challenge for a country that has often seen deadlines slip and costs escalate on major projects.
But the government is enthusiastic and believes that success will burnish the country's image as a modern, environment-friendly location. It has assembled a consortium of some of the country's leading utilities and retail chains whose task will be to deliver a functioning network on time.
Analysts say motorists' confidence that they will have easy access to power is an important factor in deciding to switch to an electric car. A fully charged battery is expected to provide around 160 kilometers, or 100 miles of motoring - adequate for inner-city journeys, but potentially limiting for longer trips across the country.
"It's a chicken and egg situation. We need the infrastructure in place for people to buy the car. The question is, if I buy an electric car, how do I fuel it," said Nick Gill, automotive industry leader at the consultancy and services company Capgemini.
"People are afraid they'll be left stranded without a battery, but it's the same as with petrol. When the gauge shows you're low on gas you know it's time to look for the next petrol station," says Joaquim, using the British term for gasoline.
The price of the cars and the cost of leasing and recharging batteries will also be crucial factors.
Joaquim says electric cars should be tax free to help establish the market. Car tax is high in Portugal at around 3,000 to 4,000, or $4,000 to $5,000, for a conventional vehicle with a 1.5 litre engine.
"The government needs to guarantee that the network will happen and provide incentives so that we can offer the car at the right price," said Joaquim.
Nissan's electric car will be priced at around 25,000 in Portugal, which is roughly in line with a comparable 1.6 liter model running on conventional gasoline.
"People don't want to pay more for being green. The car cannot be more expensive" than a conventional gasoline powered model, Joaquim said. "If it's more expensive, it will be a failure, we will not do it."
"The challenge for the industry is how do you do this without loading back the costs on the consumer," said Gill.
Portuguese motorists may enjoy the feel-good factor of being among the first in Europe to opt for a "clean," zero-emission car, but they are likely to be even more enthusiastic about cutting their fuel bills, which are among the highest in the European Union.
Not only buying the car, but also driving it "has to be cheaper than using petrol," reiterated Joaquim.
That would be fine for consumers; but it could result in a loss of revenue for the government.
So, the key to success will be establishing a network pricing formula that encourages use, but "is not too expensive for the government," Gill said.
land rush in Wyoming spurred by wind power
By Felicity Barringer
Friday, November 28, 2008
WHEATLAND, Wyoming: The man who came to Elsie Bacon's ranch house door in July asked the 71-year-old widow to grant access to a right of way across the dry hills and short grasses of her land here. Bacon remembered his insistence on a quick, secret deal.
The man, a representative of the Little Rose Wind Farm of Boulder, Colorado, sought an easement for a transmission line to carry his company's wind-generated electricity to market. His offer: a fraction of the value of similar deals in the area. As Bacon, 71, recalled it: "He said, 'You sure I can't write you out a check?' He was really pushy."
A quiet land rush is under way among the buttes of southeastern Wyoming, and it is changing the local rancher culture. The whipping winds cursed by descendants of the original homesteaders now have real value for out-of-state developers who dream of wind farms or of selling the rights to bigger companies.
But as developers descend upon the area, drawing comparisons to the oil patch "land men" in the movie "There Will Be Blood," the ranchers of Albany, Converse and Platte Counties are rewriting the old script.
Bacon did not agree to the deal from the Little Rose representative, Ed Ahlstrand Jr. Instead, she joined her neighbors in forming the Bordeaux Wind Energy Association among the new cooperative associations whose members, in a departure from the local culture of privacy and self-reliance, are pooling their wind-rich land.
This allows them to bargain collectively for a better price and ensures that as few as possible succumb to high-pressure tactics or accept low offers. Ranchers share information about the potential value of their wind.
The development of eight Wyoming wind associations (with three more waiting in the wings) and similar groups in Colorado, Montana and New Mexico has not always been a simple matter. While ranchers have always been ready to help their neighbors, they have been less willing to discuss their financial affairs.
That has made it easier for wind developers to make individual deals and insist that the terms be kept secret. The developers' cause has not been hurt by a 10-year drought's impact on agricultural families' finances.
Gregor Goertz heads the Slater Wind Energy Association, one of the oldest although less than two years old, formed by dozens of independent-minded men and women. "Maybe they wouldn't talk to each other often about other issues," he said, "but here they could see a common goal."
Goertz added that, of the 45 or more landowners who came to his first meeting, just one declined to join. The group's land holdings, which total about 30,000 acres, are centered on a row of buttes where the wind routinely blows at 25 miles per hour.
Goertz said that because of the changes a forest of turbines would make in the serrated, far-flung vistas here, "everybody in the community is going to be affected." The association, he said, would "assure that everybody will have some income whether they have a turbine placed on their property or not."
The developers hope to supply Wyoming wind power to markets like California, which intends to have one-third of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
"This is the best wind in North America, we think," said Ronald Lehr, a representative of the American Wind Energy Association, the developers' trade group.
Of course, the decline in oil prices and the constraints on the capital markets are most likely to slow the development of wind energy. But for ranchers, the calculations remain the same about whether to deal with developers individually or as a group.
Bob Grant, 82, a rancher who sleeps in the bed his Scottish grandfather brought across the ocean and the prairie a century ago, has never liked the wind here. Grant has seen it hurl gravel off ridges and into a friend's face like shrapnel.
He said he warmed to the idea of wind associations after long, individual negotiations with enXco, a French-owned developer.
In early 2007, the centerpiece of the price discussed was a per-acre payment of about $2.50, Grant and an enXco representative said. Discussions broke off, then resumed a year later; the suggested price per acre has nearly doubled.
The doubling of the offer made Grant and his sons wonder how they could assess, and trust, any offer, they said.
Greg Probst, a representative of enXco, said the first offer had not been an effort to drive a hard bargain. It was, Probst said, a realistic appraisal, given the difficulties of transporting wind power to market when there was little transmission capacity to spare.
From early 2007 to late 2008, he said, the potential marketability of wind power in southeastern Wyoming was enhanced as plans for construction of the Wyoming-Colorado Intertie, a privately financed transmission line, became firmer and Xcel Energy showed an interest in buying the renewable energy.
"There's a better chance that there's a market for the power, and a way to get the power to market, than there was 18 months or two years ago," Probst said. "So we're definitely willing to pay more at this point."
But the experience made the Grant family look harder at the possibility of joining their lands with those of their neighbors in a new group, the Bordeaux Wind Energy Association, which sent its incorporation papers to the state just before Thanksgiving.
The godfather of such associations is a federal official, Grant Stumbough, whose work for the Resource Conservation and Development office of the Agriculture Department was focused on ways to keep ranchers on the land. Revenue from wind farms, he believed, could mean the difference between success and failure for some ranchers.
Stumbough felt the ranchers were at a disadvantage when dealing individually with wind developers. The developers, in most cases, know more than landowners about the value of the wind and the transmission lines that will carry it.
For instance, the deal that Ahlstrand offered Elsie Bacon was valued, yard for yard, at as little as a quarter of the amount that the largest local electrical cooperative had paid for a large transmission right of way. And it included a nondisclosure clause to prevent her from comparing notes with neighbors.
Ahlstrand did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mail messages seeking his version of these events.
Stumbough said: "I thought we could use collective bargaining strategies to maybe have a little more leverage in negotiating with wind developers. If we could all get together and work together cooperatively and do some cost sharing and maybe share some of the profits, I think it's going to be a benefit to everybody."
The idea has quickly spread. Aside from the promise of economic dividends, which may make it easier to stay on the land, ranchers are finding other less tangible benefits to the groups.
Larry Cundall, a rancher in Glendo who heads the Glendo Wind Energy Association, said the organizational meeting in April attracted 126 people, some from 60 miles away. It had, Cundall said, "the feeling of an old country dance."
"Afterward," he went on, "everyone stood around and visited like we did before we had TV."
The initial reaction, Cundall said, had been "90 percent positive," although he admitted there was skepticism. "Everyone takes everything with a grain of salt around here," he said.
The associations send out requests to wind developers who may be interested in constructing a wind farm; Goertz's Slater Association, the first one formed, gave tours of their lands to at least a dozen different developers, Goertz said, and are in the final stages of making a deal.
Asked if the terms of the impending deal were better than those offered to some of the ranchers originally, Goertz said simply, "Yes."
The financial arrangements of each association are unique, but in the case of the Slater Wind Energy Association, 55 percent of the total annual royalties is to be distributed among the landowners who have turbines on their properties. The rest is to be distributed among all association members, both those with turbines and those without.
Jim Anderson, the state senator whose district covers the windy acres of this region, welcomes the rise of these associations as vehicles to market their wind and as bargainers with the leverage to get ranchers a good deal. "I think the word is kind of out," Anderson said, "that Wyoming is probably ahead of the curve in regard to those people who might be opportunist and want to come in and take advantage" of local ranchers.
"I think that we've positioned ourselves well to be prudent and intelligent negotiators."
Lévi-Strauss, a French icon, turns 100
By Steven Erlanger
Friday, November 28, 2008
PARIS: Claude Lévi-Strauss, who altered the way the West looks at other civilizations, turned 100 on Friday, and France celebrated with films, lectures and free admission to the museum he inspired, the Musée du Quai Branly.
Lévi-Strauss is one of France's icons, another reminder of cultural significance in the year a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for work that also, in a different way, explores the otherworldly nature of other civilizations.
Lévi-Strauss shot to prominence early, but with his 1955 book "Tristes Tropiques," a sort of anthropological meditation based on his travels in Brazil and elsewhere in the 1930s, he became a national treasure of a special French kind. The jury of the Prix Goncourt, France's most famous literary award, said that it would have given the prize to "Tristes Tropiques" had it been fiction.
But there was an element of guilt, there, too. Lévi-Strauss, a Brussels-born and Paris-raised Jew, fled France after its capitulation to the Nazis in 1940. He spent the next eight years based in the United States, where he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York and was influenced by noted anthropologists like Franz Boas, who taught at Columbia University and died in Lévi-Strauss's arms.
There were no false notes Friday, the culmination of several days of celebration. At the Quai Branly, to which admission was free from 11 in the morning to 9 at night, 100 scholars and writers read from or lectured on the work of Lévi-Strauss, while documentaries about him were screened and guided visits were provided to the collections, which include some of Lévi-Strauss's favorite artifacts.
Stéphane Martin, president of the museum, said in an interview that Lévi-Strauss was himself a major collector, and as the anthropologist first toured the new museum, in 2006, "he remembered various pieces and complained that he had to sell them to pay for a divorce."
Martin, with Culture Minister Christine Albanel and the minister of higher education and research, Valérie Pécresse, presided over the unveiling of a plaque outside the museum's theater, which was already named after Lévi-Strauss. Pécresse announced a new annual prize of 100,000, or nearly $127,000, in Lévi-Strauss name for a researcher in "human sciences" working in France, and said that President Nicolas Sarkozy would visit Lévi-Strauss at his home.
Roger-Pol Droit, a philosopher who read from "Tristes Tropiques" on Friday, said that he "would have loved a text from Lévi-Strauss today saying, 'I hate birthdays and commemorations,' just as he began 'Tristes Tropiques' saying, 'I hate traveling and explorers.' This is all about the effort of making him into a myth, because that is what we do in our time."
The museum was the grand project of former President Jacques Chirac, who loved anthropology and embraced the idea of a colloquy of civilizations, as opposed to the academic quality of the old Musée de l'Homme in Paris, which Descola described as "an empty shell - full of artifacts but dead to themselves."
The Branly museum, which has 1.3 million visitors a year, was a sort of homage to Lévi-Strauss, who "blessed it from the beginning," giving an important voice of support for a much criticized and politicized idea, Descola said.
In 1996, when asked his opinion of the project, Lévi-Strauss wrote to Chirac: "It takes into account the evolution of the world since the Musée de l'Homme was created. An ethnographic museum can no longer, as at that time, offer an authentic vision of life in these societies so different from ours. With perhaps a few exceptions that will not last, these societies are progressively integrated into world politics and economy.
"When I see the objects that I collected in the field between 1935 and 1938 again - and it's also true of others - I know that their relevance has become either documentary, and also, or mostly, aesthetic. Under the first aspect, they suggest the laboratory and the study hall, under the second, the big museum of the arts and civilizations that the Museums of France wish for."
The building is striking and controversial, imposing the ideas of the star architect Jean Nouvel on the organization of the spaces. But Martin says it is working well for the museum, whose marvelous objects - "fragile flowers of difference," as Lévi-Strauss once called them - can be seen on varying levels of aesthetics and serious study. They are presented as artifacts of great beauty but also with defining context, telling visitors not only what they are, but what they were meant to be when they were created.
"This museum is a forum for different points of view," Martin said, an effort to get away from Western ethnocentrism. "We won't be a museum with a big statement to say, 'Let us show you the world,' so Lévi-Strauss was friendly to us."
On Thursday, from noon to midnight, the television channel ARTE showed nothing but Lévi-Strauss, with documentaries, films and interviews with him and those inspired or influenced by his work, including the novelist Michel Tournier.
The Académie Française, which governs the French language and elected Lévi-Strauss in 1973 to the chair of the writer Henri de Montherlant, honored him in what its permanent secretary, Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, called "a huge event and perhaps above all 'a family celebration."'
On Tuesday, there was a daylong colloquium at the Collège de France, a research institute where Lévi-Strauss once taught. The anthropology chair there, Philippe Descola, said that centenary celebrations were being held in at least 25 countries. "People realize he is one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century," Descola said in an interview.
"His thought is among the most complex of the 20th century, and it's hard to convey his prose and his thinking in English," Descola said. "But he gave a proper object to anthropology: not simply as a study of human nature, but a systematic study of how cultural practices vary - how cultural differences are systematically organized."
Lévi-Strauss took difference as the basis for his study, not the search of commonality, which defined 19th-century anthropology, Descola said.
Rather than generalize from field work, Lévi-Strauss "built models with hypotheses drawn from field work, to ask," for example, what is important in kinship and why it matters, before collecting data on forms of descent, Descola explained.
He was 17 years old when he read "Tristes Tropiques," said Descola, now 59, and "it left a lasting mark," he said. "I can't say I decided on the spot to become an anthropologist, but rather to become a man like that."
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Quai Branly museum is its landscaping, designed by Gilles Clément to reflect the questing spirit of Lévi-Strauss. Clément tried to create a non-Western garden, he said in an interview, "with more the spirit of the savannah," where most of the animist civilizations whose artifacts fill the museum live.
Clément said he tried to think through the symbols of the cosmology of these civilizations, their systems of gods and beliefs that also animate their agriculture and their gardens. The garden here uses the symbol of the tortoise, not reflected literally, "but in an oval form that recurs," Clément said. "We find the tortoise everywhere - it's an animal that lives a long time, so it represents a sort of reassurance, or the eternal, perhaps."
Lévi-Strauss "is very important to me," Clément said. "He represents an extremely subversive vision with his interest in populations that were disdained. He brought a precise attention, not touristic but profound, to the human beings on the earth who think differently from us.
"It's a respect for others, which is very strong and very moving. He knew that cultural diversity is necessary for cultural creativity, for the future."
Basil Katz contributed reporting.
Sarkozy voodoo doll wins 'right to humor' in court
By Katrin Bennhold
Friday, November 28, 2008
PARIS: Amid deepening economic gloom, the tale of the voodoo doll of Nicolas Sarkozy has provided some needed light relief for the French.
Twice, the French president asked the courts to ban the sale of a figurine made in his image. On Friday, an appeals court dealt him the latest rebuff: not only can the doll remain on sale, but the judges ordered that it be sold with a bright-red banner on the packaging entitled "Judicial Injunction" and a warning that sticking needles into the doll affronts Sarkozy's dignity.
So far, Sarkozy's actions in court have had the apparently unintended consequence of turning the voodoo doll into something of a cult item. The actions Friday may give another boost to its popularity.
The doll's light-blue body, which comes with a set of 12 needles and a manual explaining how to put a curse on the president, also features some of Sarkozy's best-known quotes and gaffes: "Work more to earn more" reads one quote, a slogan from Sarkozy's presidential campaign. "Get lost, you poor jerk," reads another, a swipe Sarkozy took at a bystander at a farm fair who refused to shake his hand.
In keeping with the often meticulous nature of French officialdom, the ruling Friday was very specific. The distributor of the dolls, K&B Editions, was ordered to write the notice that will be distributed with the doll in black block-lettering and it must say exactly this: "It was ruled that the encouragement of the reader to poke the doll that comes with the needles in the kit, an activity whose subtext is physical harm, even if it is symbolic, constitutes an attack on the dignity of the person of Mr. Sarkozy."
The court also awarded the president a symbolic euro in damages and ordered K&B Editions to pay the equivalent of about $2,000 in legal costs.
But the court also stuck to the initial ruling by a lower court last month: "The demanded ban is disproportionate," the judges ruled, "in that it is a measure that would compromise freedom of expression." The earlier ruling had already argued that the case fell under what it dubbed "the right to humor."
Thierry Herzog, a lawyer for Sarkozy, appeared to indicate on Friday that the president was satisfied with the ruling and that he would not appeal a second time. "The important thing is that consistent principles and jurisprudence should be applied," Herzog said.
In asking for a ban, Herzog had argued that the president owns the right to his image and that the doll could provoke violence against him. It was Sarkozy's sixth lawsuit this year, and the first time that a sitting French president has lost a court case dealing with the country's strict privacy laws.
Sarkozy is not the only public person whose voodoo doll is on sale. K&B Editions has sold similar figurines in the image of Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy's Socialist rival for the presidency last year. Other dolls represent President George W. Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton.
According to K&B Editions, the initial 20,000 Sarkozy dolls that went on sale on Oct. 9 sold out by Oct. 28. Another 20,000 will be delivered to newsagents from mid-December, this time with the court-ordered label.
Standoff in Mumbai down to one hotel
By Keith Bradsher and Somini Sengupta
Friday, November 28, 2008
MUMBAI, India: The standoff in the Indian commercial capital of Mumbai narrowed to a final running battle between commandos and at least one gunman who was still roaming the charred corridors of a luxury hotel, the Taj Mahal, but the murderous assault on this city continued to shake the nation and ratcheted up tensions with neighboring Pakistan.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday there was mounting evidence that a Pakistani militant group based in Kashmir, most likely Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for the deadly attacks on Mumbai.
After two days of fighting, Indian security forces killed the attackers in one luxury hotel in the city known as the Oberoi Trident, freeing civilians trapped inside, as well as gunmen occupying the headquarters of an Orthodox Jewish organization nearby, ending the conflicts there.
All told, police said, more than 150 people, including at least 22 foreigners, were killed in the attacks across the city, which began on Wednesday night, as more bodies were carried out from the two hotels and the community center.
A rabbi from Brooklyn, New York, Gavriel Holtzberg, who held dual American and Israeli citizenship, and his wife, Rivka, an Israeli citizen, were among five hostages who were killed by attackers at the Jewish center, Nariman House.
Two French nationals, the founder of a French lingerie line and her husband, were also among those killed in the violence in the city, according to Agence France-Presse. Among other foreigners who died in the attacks were two other Americans, two Australians, an Israeli, an Italian, a Canadian, one Japanese, a British-Cypriot, a German and a Singaporean, The Associated Press reported.
Nine gunmen were slain, the police said. One was arrested; he was identified as a Pakistani national.
At Nariman House, the militants had executed the hostages in the center most of whom were believed to be Israeli citizens as Indian commando units stormed the attackers inside the building, the Indian military said, adding that two attackers had also been killed. Two French nationals, the founder of a French lingerie line and her husband, were also among those killed in the violence in the city, according to Agence France-Presse.
Shortly before night settled over Mumbai, the police said 30 bodies were discovered in the Oberoi hotel, where the police had finally taken control and many guests and employees were evacuated earlier on Friday. The national security guard said it found two AK-47's, a 9 millimeter pistol and some grenades inside the hotel; two gunmen were killed inside.
But the army's operation at the second luxury hotel, the Taj, was only entering its "final phase," according to the Indian military, with commandos battling at least one terrorist left inside who the army said was moving between two floors of the hotel, including an area that had been a dance floor for weddings and other parties. The army said two other militants had been killed overnight in the Taj. Later, commandos were seen rushing through the front door of the hotel, in what appeared to be another major assault to dislodge the militants.
Loud explosions and gun battles raged inside the Taj for most of the afternoon and evening. Shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday, a sniper positioned on a cherry-picker used by firefighters was seen advancing toward the building.
Indian commandos involved in the fighting in the hotels said the attackers were well-trained and remorseless, with one attacker carrying a backpack packed with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and they seemed to know the hotel layout better than the security forces, indicating a high degree of preparation and sophistication.
With the situation seeming to come gradually under the authorities' control, attention was shifting to the identities of the attackers, several of whom were reported to be seized during the onslaught.
The Indian media focused on the possible involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani guerrilla group run by Pakistani intelligence in the conflict with India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
As the State Department reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called President-elect Obama twice to brief him on the attacks, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday there was mounting evidence pointing to the involvement of Lashkar- e-Taiba, or possibly another Pakistani group based in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad.
The American officials cautioned that they had reached no hard conclusions about who was responsible for the operation, as well as how it was planned and carried out. An FBI team has been sent to Mumbai to assist with the forensic investigation of the attacks.
In a statement, President George W. Bush said he was saddened by the American deaths.
Amid an atmosphere of recrimination between political parties within India, a senior Hindu nationalist leader, L.K. Advani, said the Indian security services had become "preoccupied" with Hindu terrorists and missed threats from Islamists. The Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said early evidence explicitly pointed to Pakistan's involvement. "Preliminary evidence, prima facie evidence, indicates elements with links to Pakistan are involved," Mukherjee told reporters in New Delhi.
An Indian official said one assailant had been captured alive and was a Pakistani citizen. The assertion, by R.R. Patil, the home affairs minister of Maharashtra State, where Mumbai is located, could further increase tension between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed states which have fought wars in the past.
In London, officials said they were unable to confirm reports in a British newspaper that some of the attackers held British passports, which are relatively common among people with ties to former British colonies, but other officials said such a link was unlikely.
While the situation was gradually being brought under control by the Indian army and police, there were still pockets of resistance. In the Oberoi, some guests were still barricaded in their rooms Friday afternoon as security forces reasserted control of the hotel, and they were watching events outside on television news channels. But police and military officers did not explain why the operation to flush out a handful of assailants in the Taj hotel and the Jewish community center had taken so long.
At the Jewish center, commandos slid down ropes from a hovering army helicopter on Friday morning as they stormed the building. The blue-uniformed troopers landed on the roof and soon made their way inside the center, home to the Hasidic Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch.
Throughout Friday, a gun battle raged inside the Jewish center, which echoed to the thump of explosions and the rattle of automatic fire. Later, Reuters reported that the commandos had blown up the outer wall of the center, and that the bodies of five hostages were discovered, quoting an Israeli diplomat speaking on Israeli television.
Late in the day, commandos in black uniform wearing heavy body armor moved into buildings around Nariman House, relieving commandos in blue or black uniforms who had been in action all day. For the first time, a van with six medics in surgical gowns and masks parked close to Nariman House, apparently in anticipation of casualties.
The main success of the day for the authorities came at the Oberoi hotel where police said that 93 foreigners some of them wearing Air France and Lufthansa uniforms had been rescued on Friday. Exhausted survivors offered harrowing accounts of their ordeal, trapped on the upper floors of the high-rise hotel occupied on lower floors by gunmen.
Troopers appeared to be starting an assault on the Taj hotel, where an army official said at least one militant was still holding hostages. Throughout Friday, explosions and small arms fire were heard from the hotel as security forces sought to free hostages. But progress seemed cautious and slow. By late afternoon, smoke had again begun to billow from the roof of the hotel, parts of which were gutted by a huge blaze after the gunmen first moved into the hotel on Wednesday. By nightfall, explosions and gunfire continued to shake the building.
The leader of a commando unit involved in a gun battle Thursday morning inside the Taj said during a news conference on Friday that he had seen a dozen dead bodies in one of the rooms.
His team also discovered a gunman's backpack, which contained dried fruit, 400 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, four grenades, Indian and American money, and seven credit cards from some of the world's leading banks. They pack also had a national identity card from the island of Mauritius, off Africa's southeastern coast.
The attackers were "very, very familiar with the layout of the hotel," said the commander, who disguised his face with a scarf and tinted glasses. He said the militants, who appeared to be under 30 years old, were "determined" and "remorseless."
On Thursday, the police said 14 police officers had been killed in the city, along with nine gunmen. Nine suspects were taken into custody, they said.
In a televised speech Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed forces "based outside this country" in a thinly veiled accusation that Pakistan was involved. A day later, India's foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying that, according to preliminary reports, "some elements in Pakistan are responsible."
But Pakistan seemed anxious to defuse the mounting crisis in relations with its neighbor. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said India and Pakistan should join hands to defeat a common enemy, and urged New Delhi not to play politics over the attacks in Mumbai, Reuters reported.
"Do not bring politics into this issue," the Pakistani foreign minister told reporters in the Indian town of Ajmer during a four-day visit to India. "This is a collective issue. We are facing a common enemy and we should join hands to defeat the enemy."
President Asif Ali Zardari called Singh, Reuters reported, to say he was "appalled and shocked" by the terrorist attacks. "Non-state actors wanted to force upon the governments their own agenda, but they must not be allowed to succeed," he said.
Trident-Oberoi Hotel survivors tell a tale of panic, then relief
Friday, November 28, 2008
Most of the scores of victims of Mumbai's 48 hours of terror were Indians: diners, waiters, business folk, police officers who fought the assailants.
But an outside world riveted for two days by images of burning luxury hotels and streets crackling with gunfire and explosions also had eyes for its own: the British entrepreneur in his 70s who spoke to the BBC while cowering under a table in his hotel, only to die hours later of gunshot wounds; the young Japanese businessman felled while checking in to his hotel; the German who apparently plunged to his death.
Among the most closely followed fates were those of a young rabbi and his wife, both Israeli-born Americans who moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Mumbai in 2003 to run a Jewish center there.
Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, headed a Chabad center known as the Nariman House, one of 3,500 outposts of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement around the world. They managed a synagogue, led religious classes and reached out to a community.
On Friday, they were declared dead after commandos stormed the center, which had been seized by gunmen in the coordinated assault on at least 10 locations Wednesday night. "Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg made the ultimate sacrifice," the Chabad-Lubavitch movement said in a statement. "Their selfless love will live on with all the people they touched."
Firing grenades and automatic weapons, the gunmen took the Holtzbergs and at least six other people hostage Wednesday night, according to friends of the couple. Moshe, their 2-year-old son, and a cook, managed to escape about 12 hours into the siege, the friends said, and the boy was in the care of grandparents who flew in from Israel.
The dramatic end to the siege of the Chabad center began Friday morning. Commandos slid down ropes from a hovering Army helicopter, landed on the roof and made their way inside.
Throughout the day, a gun battle raged inside the center, echoing the thump of explosions and the rattle of automatic fire. Later, Reuters reported that the commandos had blown up the outer wall of the center, and that it was then that the bodies of five hostages were discovered.
It was not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen or if it was an accidental hostage scene. But if the center lacked the size and prominence of the attackers' other targets, the news of its fate reverberated among Chabad homes from Australia to Tunisia.
Israeli officials said Friday that three other bodies were removed from the Jewish center. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said two men who supervised Jewish dietary laws were apparently among the dead. The third corpse was that of an unidentified woman.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Israel depicted the Israelis and others as victims of terror. "Our world is under attack, it doesn't matter whether it happens in India or somewhere else," she said. "There are Islamic extremists who don't accept our existence or Western values."
The Foreign Ministry reported that four Israelis were among captives freed from another attacked site, the Oberoi Hotel.
Survivors of the siege at the Oberoi, exhausted but safe Friday afternoon, told how they had barricaded themselves in a room and endured 36 hours of terror after attackers invaded the luxurious seaside hotel Wednesday night.
James Benson, 36, an Australian lawyer based in London, was one of six foreigners escorted from the Oberoi and herded onto a bus through a crush of journalists and Indians searching for family members.
Speaking to a reporter aboard the bus, Benson explained how an ordinary night was overwhelmed by desperate fear. On Wednesday, he said, he was trying to find out why his room-service order had not arrived.
"I rang up and they said, 'No, there's no room service, there's been an emergency,"' he said. "But they wouldn't say what it was. So I decided I would go downstairs."
Benson left his room on the 27th floor around 10:15 p.m. When he reached the 14th floor, he said, other people were running back up, and an Indian man named Ravi said that there had been a terrorist attack and that there was a lot of blood on the 14th floor. "I got very scared," Benson said.
As they climbed the stairs together, there were two large blasts that rattled windows in the hotel.
Sebastian Gonzalez, an information-technology specialist from Toronto, said he was in his room on the 23rd floor when he heard blasts. He rushed to the stairs and ran into Benson and Ravi on their way up. Gonzalez told them to take shelter in his room, along with two other terrified guests - an American flight attendant for Northwest Airlines who identified himself as Daryll, and a Frenchman who identified himself as Philippe.
The five men piled into Room 2324, locked the door and barricaded themselves inside using furniture and a mattress, which they hoped would block any shrapnel from grenades set off by the terrorists inside the hotel.
"When I first felt the explosions I had no idea what was going on," Gonzalez said. "Once all five of us were inside, we started trying to calm down. I stopped panicking and became just worried."
Then the wait began. The men turned on the television and watched the BBC and CNN. They found that they could use the hotel phone; the land line was working. And they used cellphones to contact relatives abroad, who in turn called back with information.
They grew very concerned when the BBC reported that U.S. and British citizens were being singled out by the terrorists. From that point on, they had Ravi answer all telephone calls.
Because they had an oceanfront room, they could not really see what was going on, they said. They heard grenades and occasional gunfire but could only judge where the explosions were coming from by watching birds, they said, imagining that birds startled by a blast would fly off in the opposite direction.
The men lost television reception at about 10 a.m. Thursday, more than 24 hours before finally leaving the hotel. On Thursday evening, they were phoned by someone from the hotel who told them that they would eventually be rescued.
As the hours wore on, the men grew hungry and thirsty. They went to the minibar and shared a packet of cookies. They drank the bottled water first, then the soda pop. When they heard they were to be evacuated, they shifted to the beer and hard liquor. Around 11 a.m. Friday, help finally arrived.
Keith Bradsher and Jeremy Kahn reported from Mumbai, and Meg Bortin from Paris.
Intelligence aides in U.S. point to Kashmiri militants
By Mark Mazzetti
Friday, November 28, 2008
WASHINGTON: American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday there was mounting evidence that a Pakistani militant group based in Kashmir, most likely Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for the deadly attacks in Mumbai.
The American officials cautioned that they had reached no hard conclusions about who was responsible for the operation, nor on how it had been planned and carried out. Nevertheless, they said that evidence gathered over the past two days has pointed to a role for Lashkar-e-Taiba, or possibly another Pakistani group focused on Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad.
The American officials insisted on anonymity in describing their current thinking and declined to discuss the intelligence information that they said pointed to Kashmiri militants.
Lashkar-e-Taiba on Thursday denied any responsibility for the terrorist strikes. The group is thought by American intelligence agencies to have received some training and logistical support in the past from Pakistan's powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, but American officials said Friday that there was no evidence that the Pakistani government had any role in the Mumbai attacks.
American and Indian officials for years have blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for a campaign of violence against high-profile targets throughout India, including the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi and an August 2007 strike at an amusement park in Hyderabad.
At times, Indian officials have also said that Jaish-e-Muhammad was responsible for the 2001 attack on the Parliament building.
A State Department report issued this year called Lashkar-e-Taiba "one of the largest and most proficient of the Kashmiri-focused militant groups." The report said that the group drew funding in part from Pakistani expatriate communities in the Middle East, despite the freezing of its assets by the United States and Pakistan in 2002, after the attack on the Indian Parliament.
The report said that the actual size of the group was unknown, but estimated its strength at "several thousand" members.
Pakistani officials announced Friday that the head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, would travel to India to assist the Indian government with its investigation of the attacks. If it occurred, the visit would mark a first for an ISI chief.
But by Friday evening, Pakistani officials were suggesting that a lower-level representative of the ISI would make the trop.
An FBI team has also been dispatched to Mumbai to assist with the forensic investigation of the attacks.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has, for the most part, not targeted Westerners in past attacks, as some reports said the attackers in Mumbai did. But one counterterrorism official said Friday that the group "has not pursued an exclusively Kashmiri agenda" and that the group might certainly go after Westerners to advance a broader goals.
The official said that there was also strong evidence that Lashkar-e-Taiba had a "maritime capability" and would definitely have been capable of mounting the sophisticated operation in Mumbai, which intelligence officials say they believe began when the attackers arrived in the city in small boats.
American and Indian officials are pursuing the possibility that the attackers arrived off the coast of Mumbai in a larger merchant ship, and then boarded the smaller boats before they launched the attack.
Even as a Kashmiri connection to the attacks began to emerge Friday, American officials said there were puzzled by some developments of the past two days. For instance, they said they still know next to nothing about a group called the Deccan Mujahedeen that has reportedly taken responsibility for the attacks.
Terrorism experts have said there is no evidence that the group was involved in past strikes, and speculated that the name was made up by another militant group to mask responsibility for the attacks.
Pakistan, meanwhile, seemed anxious to defuse the mounting crisis in relations with its neighbor.
The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said that India and his country should join hands to defeat a common enemy, and urged New Delhi not to play politics over the attacks in Mumbai, Reuters reported.
"Do not bring politics into this issue," the Pakistani foreign minister told reporters in the Indian town of Ajmer during a four-day visit to India. "This is a collective issue. We are facing a common enemy and we should join hands to defeat the enemy."
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, Reuters reported, to say he was "appalled and shocked" by the terrorist attacks. "Non-state actors wanted to force upon the governments their own agenda, but they must not be allowed to succeed," he said.
2 from U.S. meditation group killed
By Ginger Thompson
Friday, November 28, 2008
The two Americans killed in Mumbai were on a meditation retreat with a Virginia ashram making its first collective visit to India, according to the ashram's managing director.
The ashram official, Bobbie Garvey, said those killed were Alan Scherr, 58, and his daughter Naomi, 13. Two other Americans and two Canadians on the retreat were injured.
According to Garvey, Scherr was an artist and astrologer. His daughter had grown up at the ashram, Synchronicity, which is based in Virginia.
Most of the group, a total of 25 people, were in their rooms at the Oberoi when gunmen burst into the hotel, Garvey said. Six, however, were having dinner in a hotel café, when the gunmen arrived.
The ashram was been established in 1985, but this was the first time the ashram's leader, Charles Cannon, had taken a group from Virginia with him to India.
Garvey said Naomi wanted to travel to India to learn about the ashram's roots, and she planned to write about her experiences as part of her application to a boarding school.
Garvey said the two injured Americans were Rudrani Devi of Nashville, who was shot in the leg and arm, and Linda Ragsdale, also of Nashville, who was shot once in the back. The injured Canadians, she said, were Michael Rudder of Montreal, and Helen Connolly, of Toronto.
Garvey said she had been in touch with most of the group during the two-day siege by cell phone. They had barricaded themselves in their hotel rooms, until authorities rescued them from the hotel.
"I don't think the whole event has sunk into this community yet," Garvey said. "We are joyous that so many of our people made it out of this okay, and that they are able to come home. But at the same time, we are heavily grieving the loss of Alan and Naomi. They were very valued members of our community."
The reaction of the state
By Dileep Padgaonkar
Friday, November 28, 2008
Terrorist attacks have shattered the peace in over half a dozen Indian cities during the past year alone. Yet none was fraught with so much risk for India's secular and democratic polity as the ones that jolted Mumbai on Wednesday night.
Mumbai is India's financial and commercial capital. It is also arguably the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the country. By targeting, among other establishments, two of the city's most opulent hotels, the Taj and the Trident, where the rich, famous and influential congregate, the terrorists struck at the very heart of a resurgent nation.
The timing of the assault was equally significant: It came on the eve of elections to five provincial assemblies. The campaign rhetoric has polarized opinion along sharply antagonistic lines. It has essentially pitted the ruling Congress Party, which swears by secularism, against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
After every terrorist attack in the past, the BJP denounced the Congress, which sought to mobilize the substantial Muslim vote its favor, for being soft on terrorism. Congress in turn debunked the BJP and its affiliates for Muslim-bashing. Indians have a peculiar word to describe this state of affairs - communalism - which denotes a determined bid to exploit religious sentiments for electoral gain.
The result of this competitive demagoguery has been disastrous on many counts. Suspects in a terrorist attack have been picked up at random and denied their rights under the law. Allegations of torture by the police are routine. The suspects have been kept behind bars for years as court cases have dragged on. Convictions have been few and far between.
Commissions set up to investigate certain particularly gory incidents of religious violence have taken their own time to produce their reports. Few are opened for public debate. The recommendations contained in these reports have been routinely ignored or implemented in a highly selective way. Muslims convicted in a case often have been punished while Hindus have been let off lightly or not punished at all.
As a consequence, India's Muslim community has begun to lose faith in the Indian state. This has led to the radicalization of Muslim youth. Religious extremism has pushed them on the path of violence. Increasing evidence suggests that some of them have joined the ranks of the international jihadi movements.
To complicate matters further, a Hindu holy woman, a Hindu holy man, a serving officer of the Indian armed forces and some other Hindu extremists are under arrest for their alleged involvement in certain terrorist attacks. Now the BJP is charging that the police, at the behest of their "secular" masters, are failing to observe the due process of law. Indeed, they charge that the Hindus have been framed in order to "appease" the Muslims in time for the elections to the provincial assemblies.
In plain words, after the Muslims, it is the Hindus who have now started to question the credibility of the police and, by extension, of the Indian state. The Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai can only compound fears in both communities that law enforcement authorities cannot be trusted to bring the guilty to book. Such fears set the stage for bloody confrontations.
These fears cannot be calmed unless the Indian state cracks down on terrorism regardless of the religion of the suspects. That some Muslim youth are engaged in a war against the "infidels" can not be denied. That the approach of the secular parties to terrorism has been pusillanimous is also clear. But the refrain of the Hindu nationalists - "all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims" - is no less wrong and dangerous.
The pan-Islamist character of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai needs to be stressed. At the Taj Hotel the terrorists asked for the numbers of the rooms occupied by foreign, and especially American and British, guests. Another building they attacked housed Israeli guests. Overnight Mumbai has been turned into a stage for "civilizations" to clash.
Over the next few days and weeks many questions that have been raised regarding the murderous assault in Mumbai will need to be answered.
Who are these terrorists? Who are their mentors and their accomplices? Where did they acquire their arms and their organizational skills? Why did the intelligence agencies fail to keep track of them?
In the meantime, it is necessary to draw comfort from certain developments. At the time of writing, the attacks in Mumbai have not led to an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence in other parts of India. Politicians have chosen to be remarkably discreet. Members of both communities have condemned the terror attacks without indulging in a blame-game.
Even more remarkable, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the leader of the opposition, L. K Advani of the BJP, have agreed to visit Mumbai together to comfort family members who lost their kin in the carnage. The victims include senior-most officers of the Mumbai police. This single gesture by Singh and Advani will go some way to reassure a dazed and nervous India that the political establishment can still be trusted to rise above partisan passion.
Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of The Times of India, edits the bimonthly magazine India & Global Affairs. This Global Viewpoint article was distributed by Tribune Media Services.
U.S. strategy on India and Pakistan clouded
By Jane Perlez
Friday, November 28, 2008
ISLAMABAD: The terrorist attack in Mumbai occurred as India and Pakistan, two huge, hostile and nuclear-armed nations, were delicately moving toward improved relations with the encouragement of the United States and in particular the incoming Obama administration.
Those steps could quickly be derailed, seriously so and with deep consequences for the United States, if India finds Pakistani fingerprints on the well-planned operation. India has raised suspicions. Pakistan has vehemently denied them.
As part of its effort to forestall such accusations, Pakistan said Friday that it would send Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, to India to help with the inquiry into the terrorist attacks.
No matter who turns out to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, their scale and the choice of international targets will make the agenda of the incoming U.S. administration harder.
Reconciliation between India and Pakistan has emerged as a basic tenet in the approaches to foreign policy of President-elect Barack Obama and the new leader of the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus.
The point is to persuade Pakistan to focus less of its military effort on India and more on the militants in its tribal regions.
A strategic pivot by Pakistan's military away from a focus on India to an all-out effort against the Taliban and their associates in Al Qaeda, the thinking goes, would serve to weaken the militants who are battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But attacks as devastating as those that unfolded in Mumbai - whether ultimately traced to homegrown Indian militants or to others from abroad, or a combination - seem likely to sour relations, fuel distrust and hamper, at least for now, America's ambitions for reconciliation in the region.
The early sign was that India, where state elections are scheduled next week, would take a tough stand and blame its neighbor.
In his statement to the nation, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who in the past has been relatively moderate in his approach to Pakistan, sounded a harsh tone.
He said the attacks probably had "external linkages," and were carried out by a group "based outside the country." There would be a "cost" to "our neighbors," he said, if their territory was found to have been used as a launching pad.
He did not name Pakistan. But everyone - certainly on Pakistani television news programs Thursday night - knew that is what he meant, and that the long history of Pakistani-Indian finger-pointing had returned.
The Hindustan Times, an Indian newspaper, reported Thursday that India's security agencies believed that the attacks in Mumbai were carried out by an Islamic militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, operating out of Pakistan.
The newspaper reported that the special secretary at the Home Affairs Ministry, M.L. Kumawat, said that Lashkar-e-Taiba was a "distinct possibility."
The newspaper stopped short of saying that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency had helped Lashkar-e-Taiba plan and execute the Mumbai operation, a role the Indian government has ascribed to the Pakistani intelligence agency in past terror attacks.
But if India discovers that the intelligence agency was connected to the Mumbai attacks - even rogue elements of the agency - the slightly warmer relationship that has been fostered between the neighbors would no doubt return to a deep freeze. That may have partly been the motivation of whoever carried out the attacks.
"If the Indians believe this was Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al Qaeda as they are suggesting, we could see a crisis like 2002 with enormous pressure to do something," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. "The key will be if the Indians see an ISI hand."
After a dozen people died in an assault on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001, India blamed an extreme Islamist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and said Inter-Services Intelligence had backed the operation. For the next year, the neighbors remained on the brink of war with forces massed along their 2,900-kilometer, or 1,800-mile, border.
According to a new book, "The Search for Al Qaeda," by Bruce Riedel, an adviser on South Asia to Obama, Osama bin Laden worked with the Pakistani intelligence agency in the late 1980s to create Lashkar-e-Taiba as a jihadist group intended to challenge Indian rule in Kashmir.
But the new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, appears to be acting according to America's playbook for better relations with India.
A businessman at heart, Zardari understands the benefit of strong trade between India and Pakistan. Pakistan, which is struggling economically, would profit immensely from the normalization of relations.
Zardari has called for visa-free travel, a huge step from a situation in which there are not even scheduled flights between the nation's capitals. Speaking to an Indian audience over a video link from Islamabad last weekend, Zardari proposed a "no first nuclear strike" policy with India. The idea came as a shock to the Pakistani Army, which has always refused to commit to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.
Going even further, Zardari said South Asia should be a nuclear-weapon-free zone, which could be achieved by a "nonnuclear treaty."
Pakistani officials said that the president's sentiments might be admirable, but they did not reflect the policies of Pakistan's powerful security establishment, whose existence has been predicated since partition of the subcontinent 61 years ago on viewing India as the enemy.
It would take more than off-the-cuff remarks intended to please a dinner audience to change those longstanding policies, Pakistani newspaper editorials said.
"He wants improved relations with India," said Sajjan Gohel, director for international security of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London. "But Zardari needs the full support of the Pakistani security apparatus, and he doesn't have it."
The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on a four-day trip to India, had just finished discussions with the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, on terrorism, trade and the loosening of visa restrictions when the terrorists struck.
Visibly moved by the attacks, Qureshi appeared on Indian television on Thursday calling the attacks "barbaric." He appealed to both sides not to resort to "knee jerk" reactions and to drop the usual "blame game." Across the board, senior Pakistani officials condemned the attack.
But there was also immediate anxiety among Pakistanis about the Indian prime minister's unequivocal tone.
"It is unfair to blame Pakistan or Pakistanis for these acts of terrorism even before an investigation is undertaken," said the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. "Instead of scoring political points at the expense of a neighboring country that is itself a victim of terrorism, it is time for India's leaders to work together with Pakistan's elected leaders in putting up a joint front against terrorism."
Unless care is exercised, one of the apparent goals of the Mumbai attack will be achieved, said Moonis Ahma, a lecturer in international relations at Karachi University. And the new American agenda of reconciliation between India and Pakistan will be sacrificed.
"It's a well-thought-out conspiracy to destabilize relations between the two countries," Ahma said.
Taliban kill 13 in ambush of Afghan truck convoy
The Associated Press
Friday, November 28, 2008
KABUL: Taliban insurgents killed 13 Afghan soldiers in an ambush of a convoy in northwestern Afghanistan, while NATO-led troops fired on insurgents inside Pakistan, officials said Friday.
More than 300 militants attacked the Afghan forces' convoy, which was transporting 47 vehicles for their units in the Bala Murghab district of Badghis Province late Thursday, said Naeem Khan, a border police official.
In a several-hour battle, 13 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed and 11 were wounded, said Abdul Ghani Sabri, the deputy provincial governor. Seven Taliban fighters were killed, Sabri said.
In addition, he said, 16 Afghan soldiers were captured by the militants, who also took most of the 47 vehicles being transported in the convoy.
After the ambush, helicopters were dispatched to the area and fired at the militants, Khan said.
Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan have increased by 40 percent since 2007, military officials say. Their figures show that more than 5,400 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year. Most of the casualties were suspected militants, the officials assert.
In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, NATO troops fired more than 20 artillery rounds into Pakistan on Thursday. They said insurgents had been attacking their bases in Paktika Province, an alliance official said.
The artillery attacks killed several insurgents and caused several secondary explosions, the official said, which he said indicated that ammunition was being stored at the locations.
There have been a number of artillery attacks by NATO-led troops inside Pakistan's tribal region, which the alliance said were launched in coordination with the Pakistani authorities.
The strikes Thursday came as NATO and Pakistani forces have been cooperating in a series of complementary operations that involve the army and the Frontier Corps in Pakistan and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. military officials said.
Afghan militants have been using Pakistan's tribal areas as havens from which to attack U.S. and NATO military installations and convoys in Afghanistan.
Separately from NATO operations, the U.S. military has launched several airstrikes on militants in the tribal areas since August, deepening already widespread anger among Pakistanis toward the presence of Western forces in the region.
10-year sentence for British army spy
The Associated Press
Friday, November 28, 2008
LONDON: A former British army interpreter in Afghanistan who was convicted of espionage was sentenced to 10 years in prison Friday.
Iranian-born Daniel James, who translated for NATO's commander in Afghanistan, was sentenced after the Crown Prosecution Service said it would not seek a retrial on two other charges on which a jury deadlocked.
James was stationed in Afghanistan in 2006 as an interpreter for Gen. David Richards, then-NATO commander in the country. Richards has since been appointed as the next head of the British army.
Prosecutors said James began sending coded e-mails after meeting Col. Mohammad Hossein Heydari, military attache at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, in late August 2006. One allegedly read, "I am at your service."
Justice Roderick Evans said James should never have been in such a sensitive position because of his nationality, his disenchantment with the army and his narcissistic personality.
"The gravest part of your offending and what made this case unique was that you engaged in this activity when you were actually serving in a war zone," Evans said.
There was no evidence that James had damaged any British or NATO operations, the judge said, but "the potential for serious harm, had this relationship between you and the Iranian authorities developed, was immense."
A jury convicted James earlier this month on the espionage charge, but the jury could not decide on a charge related to a memory stick containing secret documents that was found in his possession, and a charge of misconduct in public office.
Prosecutors said James had debts of 25,000 pounds (US$38,000) and mortgages on four properties in Britain's south coastal city of Brighton.
Born Esmail Gamasai in Tehran, James came to Britain at age 15 and became a British citizen.
After leaving college without qualifications, he worked as a casino croupier and became a dedicated bodybuilder, once competing in a Mr. Universe contest. He joined the Territorial Army, a reserve force, in 1987.
In Brighton, James was caught up in the dance scene, billing himself as "Danny James, king of salsa."
His fluency in English, Farsi, Dari and Spanish led to his appointment as Richards' translator.
Feelings are mixed as Iraqis ponder U.S. security agreement
By Campbell Robertson
Friday, November 28, 2008
BAGHDAD: In the 36 hours after the Iraqi Parliament's decision to ratify a security agreement that sets a 2011 deadline for the presence of U.S. troops, Iraqis across the country were still trying to absorb the meaning of the ratification, for the country and their own near future.
Some were elated that a date for the American departure had officially been set; others were angered that the Iraqi government had been, in their view, bullied into an deal by an occupying force; others worried that the agreement would leave the central government with too much power, and still others were not at all convinced that a superpower would voluntarily withdraw from a much weaker country.
Opposition to the pact was most virulent from senior leaders loyal to the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who issued a statement Friday declaring three days of mourning to mark the pact's ratification.
At Friday prayers in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite district in northeastern Baghdad, Sayyid Hassan al-Husseini thundered against the pact's supporters, delivering specific critiques of the agreement's provisions and criticizing the fact that it was made with the Bush administration rather than with President-elect Barack Obama, who has proposed a shorter timetable than the one outlined in the agreement.
"Obama might change his opinion because of the signing of the agreement," Husseini said. "But now the Iraqi Parliament has signed on; they want the American forces to stay, to give them three more years."
But in interviews with Iraqis in cities around the country, there was less concern about the agreement itself than a widespread skepticism that the Americans would actually adhere to it.
Iraq has a long history of foreign occupation, by the Persians, Ottomans and British, all of which lasted for decades if not centuries. To many in Iraq, a country where the past is durably present, it is simply unimaginable that a foreign occupation would last only eight years.
"In the security agreement much has been achieved," said Khadum al-Quraishi, 40, a teacher from Diyala Province. "But as to ending the occupation in three years, that's implausible. America occupied Iraq for its interests, and it would not leave Iraq after so many enormous losses."
Far more important than Sadr's opinion on the pact is the view of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the enormously influential Shiite cleric who has conditioned his support for the agreement on several issues, including support across sectarian lines.
A number of Sunni lawmakers voted for the so-called status of forces agreement in Parliament on Thursday, but one of the most pressing questions being asked by the pact's mostly Shiite and Kurdish supporters has been exactly how much Sunni support was needed for the ayatollah's approval. That remained unclear on Friday, as a representative of Sistani's offered only vague statements.
"Iraq's sovereignty remains incomplete with the presence of the foreign forces," said Ahmed Saafi in a sermon in Karbala. "But supporters of the agreement are optimistic that it will give Iraq eventually the full sovereignty. Some are pessimistic, for our previous experience proves the opposite."
Opposition to the agreement was by no means universal. Even among the inhabitants of Sadr City opinion was mixed, with some quietly celebrating what they saw as a display of Iraq's strength in the face of American pressure.
"God willing it will be good for Iraq and Maliki," said Ayad Mohammed, 27, a grocer in Sadr City, referring to President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. "We are not interested in politics; we are simple people, and that's why we are counting on him and the representatives to make decisions."
More surprising were the words of approval from Iran, which many lawmakers said had interfered in Parliament deliberations and almost derailed the pact's ratification the night before the vote.
"This was a very good decision by the Iraqi Parliament," said Ahmad Jannati, a senior Iranian official, during Friday prayers at Tehran University, specifically citing the Parliament's decision to put the agreement up for a nationwide referendum in July.
"Then the ball would be in the court of the Americans who claim that they are after democracy," he said.
But some Iraqis who support the pact were so disillusioned by the spectacle of lawmakers brawling, shouting and grandstanding during the 10 days of deliberations that they were beginning to have second thoughts.
"Frankly speaking, the agreement is very clear," Alaa Mohammed, a 29-year-old journalist from the southern city of Basra, said Thursday, shortly after seeing the ratification vote on television. "But some members of Parliament disagreed with it just to attract attention. They have no idea about what benefits the people. What I saw today made me feel I want the forces to stay longer, because without these forces we will eat each other."
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran, Tariq Mahir, Anwar J. Ali and Mohammed Hussein from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Basra, Karbala and Diyala.
12 killed in bombing near Baghdad
By Alissa J. Rubin
Friday, November 28, 2008
BAGHDAD: A suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest blew himself up just inside the courtyard of a Shiite mosque in a town south of Baghdad on Friday, killing 12 people and wounding 19, according to eyewitnesses and officials.
The attack took place in Mussayib, a town about 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, south of Baghdad, as about 700 people were attending Friday prayers and preparing to hold a peaceful march in protest at the ratification in the Iraqi Parliament on Thursday of a new security agreement with the United States.
Mussayib, a predominantly Shiite town, has many Sunni villages nearby and has been struck several times in the past by suicide bombings and attacks on local government officials.
The mosque, the Sadrist Hussainiya, was a Sunni mosque under Saddam Hussein. But after he was ousted supporters of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr took it over and turned it into a Shiite mosque and an office for the local Sadrists.
The bomber made it past the main checkpoints where worshipers were searched, said an Iraqi Army officer, who said he could not be quoted because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
"I was standing inside the Hussainiya and do not remember anything except feeling something like the blast of a storm," said Nema Adnan, 18, a day laborer.
On Thursday, Parliament ratified a sweeping security agreement that sets the course for an end to the United States' role in the war and marks the beginning of a new relationship between the countries.
Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims live peacefully together in Tatarstan
By Sophia Kishkovsky
Friday, November 28, 2008
KAZAN, Russia: There are few spots on earth these days where religions mingle without rancor, or worse. But the Russian republic of Tatarstan has turned religious tolerance into its post-Soviet brand - a place where Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics mix and respect each other's traditions.
For the outside world, the latest proof of Tatarstan's multifaceted religious identity came during an extraordinary appearance last month by the Muslim president of Tatarstan and a leading Russian Orthodox churchman at a conference in Jidda.
Just weeks before, the consecration of an important Catholic church in Kazan was celebrated as an example of the Volga River region's special harmony.
"Tatarstan has already become an example - not only in the Russian Federation - of tolerance and friendship between different religions and cultures," Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the Vatican's College of Cardinals, said in his invocation at the church, according to the Tatar-inform news agency.
In Jidda, the Tatarstan president, Mintimir Shaimiyev, who steered his republic past separatist sentiment in the 1990s toward broad autonomy within the Russian Federation, read a greeting from President Dmitri Medvedev that stressed: "Russia intends to stick firmly to its course to expand active interaction with the Islamic world."
The Reverend Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, spoke of Russia's deep ties to Islam.
"We are intermingled: Russia is inseparable from the Islamic world, as many millions of Muslims live there, and the Islamic world is inseparable from the Russian and Orthodox world, whose members live in so many Muslim countries," Chaplin told the forum, the Interfax news agency reported.
None of this surprises inhabitants of Kazan, a 1,000-year-old city in the heart of Russia, where Muslim minarets and Russian Orthodox onion domes rise in seemingly equal proportion.
The huge Kul-Sharif Mosque, which in symbolism and glitziness evokes a Muslim version of Moscow's vast, re-created Cathedral of Christ the Savior, was built within the city's UNESCO-listed, white-walled Kremlin to mark Kazan's millennium. It stands next to the 16th-century Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation and is meant to evoke a mosque destroyed by Ivan the Terrible when his forces sacked Kazan in 1552.
Although the sacking still rankles over 500 years later, Russian-Tatar relations are notable for equanimity. According to Russia's 2002 census, ethnic Tatars accounted for just over half of Tatarstan's population. The census does not record religious adherence, but various estimates place the number of Muslims in Russia at 14 to 23 million out of a population of about 140 million.
"This place is unique in the world," said Dmitry Khafizov, a historian and adviser to the city government who was instrumental in the return to Kazan by Pope John Paul II of a famous 18th-century copy of a revered icon. The original icon is attached to a firm belief that the Virgin Mary appeared in Kazan in 1579, and directed a 10-year-old girl toward the image.
Khafizov's evident pride in the Virgin legend was reflected by Reverend Sergei Titov of the Kazan diocese of the Orthodox church. "This is a multinational region," he said. "It is essential to live together and be tolerant enough of each other's values."
Muslims and Orthodox clergy are present at all official events and official buildings are blessed by both, said Titov.
The local bishop, Anastasy, is "able to have relations with Muslims and Catholics and the authorities," he said. "He is able to speak of his problems peacefully, with Christian love."
The post-Soviet era has fostered a resurgent Tatar identity, but has not resulted in religious fundamentalism. Young women in miniskirts and skinny jeans mingle in the streets of Kazan with veiled women, and far outnumber the latter.
Moscow, has, in turn, "played the 'Tatar card"' and used Tatarstan as "a kind of showcase of Russian Islam," writes Aleksey Malashenko, a Russian expert on Islam with the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent paper, "Russia and the Muslim World."
The peaceful mingling is not confined to officialdom. Earlier this year, foreign visitors searching outside Kazan for the Raifsky Mother of God Monastery, a spiritual center, were eagerly shown the way by a Tatar Muslim woman. In Soviet times too, said the woman, who gave her name only as Roza, she preferred Orthodox shrines to Soviet ones. Visiting Moscow back then, she said, she skipped Lenin's tomb to visit the Dormition Cathedral.
On a bench outside the monastery, Father Sergius, an 85-year-old monk, sat reading a book by Pope John Paul II - scarcely typical for Russian Orthodox churchmen, who often in the post-Soviet era have come to resent what they see as Roman Catholic proselytizing on Orthodox territory.
"This is a very interesting book," said the monk. "Pope John Paul says the right things."
Kazan's pre-revolutionary Catholic church was turned into a wind tunnel by a Soviet research institute. Kazan officials offered to help finance construction of the new church to serve the Catholic community of several hundred.
The August consecration was a duly official occasion, with local notables and Russian Orthodox and Muslim clerics joining Cardinal Sodano, and all exulting over the new home for the returned icon. The mayors of Czestochowa in Poland, Fatima in Portugal and Mariazell in Austria, towns in Europe famous for their shrines to the Virgin Mary, attended.
Russian Orthodox critics accused the Pope, who died in 2005, of using the icon to try to fulfill his unrealized dream of visiting Russia. The image is especially credited here with saving Russia in 1612 from invaders from Poland, the late Pope's native land.
Kazan appears free of Catholic-Orthodox frictions.
"We don't have any problems with the Orthodox in Kazan," the Reverend Diogenes Urquiza, an Argentine who has served the Catholic community in Kazan since 1995, said while the church was still under construction. "I know how it is in other cities and dioceses. To this day they can't develop any relations."
In Kazan, he said, there is even a joint church summer camp for Orthodox and Catholic children.
The Muslim-Orthodox rapprochement, meanwhile, seems fashioned as part of a larger Kremlin design to ease tensions with the Muslim world.
"Since Putin came to power, there has been an attempt to position Russia separately from Europe in its foreign relations," said Rafik Mukhametshin, rector of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, referring to Vladimir Putin, now prime minister.
"The attitude to the West is not always positive," the rector said of the Orthodox church. "Here, I think to strengthen status, the Islamic factor is beneficial.
"That's why recently these kinds of thoughts have been expressed about Islam," he continued. "I don't think it's a strengthening of tolerance, of interfaith dialogue. I think there are other goals."
In Kazan, said Titov, the reality of daily coexistence tempers politics and extremism. "Moscow's thinking is ambitious," he said. "Here it's real life, an opportunity to live in peace."
Clashes kill at least 20 in Nigerian city of Jos
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Shuaibu Mohammed
Clashes between rival ethnic and religious groups in the central Nigerian city of Jos killed at least 20 people on Friday, injured hundreds more and forces thousands from their homes, the Red Cross said.
Authorities imposed a night-time curfew on the capital of the central Plateau state and soldiers deployed on the streets after rival gangs burnt churches, mosques and homes in a dispute triggered by a local election.
The unrest is the most serious of its kind in Africa's most populous nation, roughly equally split between Christians and Muslims, since President Umaru Yar'Adua took power in May 2007.
"Over 20 people died. Churches and mosques and 100 houses were burnt down," a senior Red Cross official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. He said more than 300 people were injured.
Youths with machetes hacked to death a policeman and burnt tyres in one part of the city, sending plumes of thick black smoke into the air, witnesses said.
"All law-abiding citizens are assured that government is on top of the situation and should go about their normal lives," Jonah Jang, governor of Plateau state of which Jos is the capital, said in a broadcast.
"Government is imposing a curfew in Jos ... and the environs from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. (5 p.m.-5 a.m. GMT). Government wishes to advise against any further attempt to test its will to maintain peace on the Plateau," he said.
The violence was triggered by a disputed vote for a new local government chairman in Jos North, the commercial centre of Plateau state.
Residents said demonstrators from the Hausa ethnic group began protesting in the early hours of Friday after a rumour spread that their ANPP party candidate had lost the race to the ruling PDP party.
"The group said they were not fighting people but fighting government because of their action," said one witness, who asked not to be named.
Christians and Muslims generally live peacefully side by side in Africa's top oil producer, a country of 140 million people. But hostility has simmered in the past in Plateau state.
Hundreds were killed in ethnic-religious street fighting in Jos in 2001. Three years later, hundreds more died in clashes in the town of Yelwa, leading then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency and impose a curfew.
The tensions in Plateau state have their roots in decades of resentment by indigenous minority groups, who are mostly Christian or animist, towards migrants and settlers from Nigeria's Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
The official results of Thursday's vote have not yet been announced but ANPP observers at polling stations had forecast a clear win for their candidate.
(Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba in Lagos; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
Reclaiming my religion
By Nadira Artyk
Friday, November 28, 2008
My relationship with Islam has never been straightforward. I grew up in Soviet Uzbekistan, hearing my grandfather recite the Koran on a daily basis. Sometimes he would translate a few verses for us. I was drawn to the beauty of the prose. I sensed a strong connection and especially admired the values of social justice, equality and generosity of human spirit.
On the other hand, I was a Soviet Young Pioneer and later a Komsomol activist. Despite all my respect and love for my pious grandfather, I saw a mismatch between his words and my reality, at least in one area - there was no equality or justice to be found in Muslim families. The superiority of men over women was deeply entrenched and never questioned.
In Soviet Uzbekistan, women were emancipated in the public sphere, but that emancipation usually ended at the doorstep to their homes. Society remained deeply patriarchal and the principal roles for women were still those of wife and mother. Any aspirations of women that went beyond the "classical" female jobs of teacher and medic were discouraged.
I came to believe that gender inequality was part and parcel of Islamic teachings. As this didn't fit with my world view, I distanced myself from my religion and embraced secular feminism.
My return to Islam began four years ago when I started a blog for women in Uzbekistan. Together with a couple of girlfriends, we raised some highly contentious and even taboo issues - domestic violence, family vs. career, child abuse, divorce, virginity, sexuality. At one point, the blog was taken hostage by some Islamist men who left highly restrictive and extremely conservative views on every topic.
I then decided to educate myself on the original sources - the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad). That's how I discovered progressive Islam and Islamic feminism. I came to understand that my faith had strong egalitarian messages within it; that the Koran and the Hadith, having been interpreted for 14 centuries by men, had layers of patriarchal bias stuck on them like layers of dust.
Fast forward to late October. I am attending the International Congress of Islamic Feminism in Barcelona, organized by the Islamic Council of Catalonia, and I hear stories of Muslim women from around the world who have faced similar challenges.
With the global rise of political Islam, the traditional messages of secular, Western-style feminism based on the concepts of democracy and human rights seem not to work any longer.
Feminists from Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Senegal and elsewhere confided that when they tried to educate women about their rights based on the Western human rights agenda, they were often regarded with suspicion and asked whether those principles were compatible with Islam. Women responded with far greater enthusiasm to arguments based on the Islamic teachings, to solutions to their social problems that originated from within their own faith.
Islamic feminism is a fledgling movement, but it is fast spreading its wings. Its aim is to recuperate the egalitarian voice of the Koran. Its main struggle is to uphold gender equality within families. That's where the Muslim feminists differ from classical feminists - they say a woman will only be capable of practicing all her rights in the public sphere if her rights within her family are respected.
The Muslim feminists point out that the Koran always describes marriage as a sacred and serious pact between two equal parties. The verse about marriage, "They are your garments / And you are their garments" implies closeness, mutuality and equality.
They go to the Koran and the Hadith to demonstrate that Islam does not inherently discriminate against women, that the Islamic scriptures grant women rights to inheritance, divorce, choosing a husband, respectful treatment by the husband, and even for being fulfilled professionally outside of the family.
The concept of equality of men and women is best illustrated in the Koranic rendition of the Adam and Eve story: "Oh mankind! Be conscious of your Lord, who has created you out of one living entity, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad the multitude of men and women."
A woman is recognized in the Koran as an equal partner in procreation. She is equal to man in the pursuit of education and knowledge; she has equal rights to make a contract, to earn and to own independently: "To men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn."
With conservative Islam on the rise, the small and underfunded groups of feminists in Islamic societies are perceived as more radical than their secular Western counterparts.
One of the most impressive Muslim women I met in Barcelona was Siti Musdah Mulia, a soft-spoken and veiled scholar from Indonesia. She is a respected authority in her country, and she is behind a new draft of an Islamic marital law that has been accepted for consideration by the Indonesian government.
The country's male clergy becomes nervous each time Mrs. Mulia appears on national television to talk about family matters. On a recent program about polygamy - which is legal in a small number of Muslim countries - she cited a hadith in which the Prophet spoke out against the practice. "Where do you find those hadith?" the clergy demanded to know. Mrs. Mulia has received death threats.
When Koranic verses appear to discriminate against women, Mrs. Mulia and other Muslim feminist scholars stress the need to read the Koran within the socio-historical context of 7th century Arabia. It was not God's intent to discriminate and spread injustice, they say.
One of the Koranic verses they point to implies that women can be leaders: "And the believers, both men and women - they are friends and protectors of one another; they enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong."
Islamic feminism faces many serious challenges. The greatest is a broad societal resistance to non-traditional interpretations of the Koran. A lack of progressive Islamic scholars has created a great imbalance in Islamic discourse in general and Islamic law in particular by giving far more weight to extremely restrictive opinions on the role of women.
It took me two decades to find my Koran. When I did, I found messages that were deeply empowering, just and true for me.
Today the conditions of the Muslim world and of Muslim women stand in sharp contrast with the original Islamic vision. Islamic feminism has the potential to change this.
Nadira Artyk is a women's-rights advocate and journalist. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
U.S. and EU fear Syria "sanitised" alleged nuclear sites
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Mark Heinrich
The United States and the European Union said Friday they were disturbed by apparent Syrian efforts to "sanitise" sites U.N. inspectors want to examine in a probe into alleged covert nuclear activity.
Washington accused Damascus of adopting Iranian tactics to impede a nuclear watchdog investigation into what U.S. officials say was a secret atomic reactor that could have made plutonium for atom bombs if Israel had not bombed the site last year.
A November 19 International Atomic Energy Agency report said satellite imagery of the site revealed a layout resembling that of a reactor. Traces of uranium, or nuclear fuel, were found by inspectors allowed to scour the Al-Kibar site in June.
The IAEA's director urged Syria Thursday to heed multiple agency requests for a return trip to Al-Kibar and to three military sites, as well as documentation about their uses, to help inspectors draw conclusions about what they were.
U.S. and EU envoys told a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors that Syria needed to clarify why Syria had landscaped all four sites and removed objects after inspectors asked to see them, as revealed by satellite pictures.
U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte said the pictures, which inspectors screened last week for governors, offered "dramatic evidence that Syria took immediate steps to sanitise" the locations in question.
Syria has dismissed the intelligence as fabrications and ruled out more inspection visits on national security grounds.
"So far Syria seems to be testing the tactics of hindrance and unhelpfulness that Iran has so finely honed," U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte told the closed-door gathering.
The IAEA says Iran is stonewalling a longer-running probe into intelligence material that Washington says shows Tehran illicitly studied how to design atom bombs. Iran denies this but has not provided back-up evidence, the U.N. watchdog says.
SYRIA STANDS GROUND
Syria's top envoy reiterated to the meeting that the site Israel hit was a conventional military building. He also ruled expanded IAEA inspections on national security grounds.
Still, a diplomat close to the IAEA said it had resumed contacts with Syria about follow-up steps in the investigation and the next agency report would be issued in February.
An official summary of the meeting said some members -- an allusion to developing nations who comprise half the board -- complained that tardy sharing of intelligence and Israel's "unilateral use of force" had severely hampered the inquiry.
Western delegations said that, given Syria's assertion that the uranium traces came with missiles used to destroy Al-Kibar, the only way to verify their origin was to let the IAEA examine debris and equipment whisked away from the desert site.
Schulte said the case underlined the IAEA's limitations in a country that has not ratified the Additional Protocol, a crucial tool in detecting clandestine nuclear behaviour since it permits short-notice inspections beyond declared nuclear sites.
"Syria is one state that declined to adopt the protocol. Perhaps we now understand why," he said.
Schulte and French Ambassador Francois-Xavier Deniaud, speaking for the European Union, urged Syria to embrace the protocol to help rebuild confidence in its intentions.
Syria has ruled this out as long as Israel refuses to do so as well as join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East.
(Editing by Richard Williams)
Qaeda says U.S. wars behind financial crisis
Friday, November 28, 2008
DUBAI: Al Qaeda's second-in-command said in an Internet video the U.S. financial crisis was caused by Washington's military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and taxpayers were paying the price.
"This crisis is one of ... the series of American economic haemorrhages after the strikes of September 11... And these ... will continue as long as the foolish American policy of wading in Muslim blood continues," Ayman al-Zawahri said on the video, posted on Islamist websites on Friday.
"The ones shouldering the burden are taxpayers, whose money was spent to rescue senior capitalists and to protect the fraudulent interest-based system from collapse," Zawahri said.
Asked by an off-camera interviewer whether Washington would be able to resolve the crisis, Zawahri said: "They might be able to lighten their losses if they were to stop the insane haemorrhaging of funds which they are spending on wars against Muslims."
Zawahri said U.S. military action against militant tribal forces in Pakistan, who are allied with al Qaeda, would fail despite more troops being sent by President George W. Bush to neighbouring Afghanistan.
"I challenge you (Bush), if you are really a man, to send the entire American army to Pakistan and the tribal regions for it to end up in hell," Zawahri said on the video, which carried English subtitles.
Calls for talks to end the war in Afghanistan showed the failure of U.S.-led forces in defeating the Taliban, he said.
"All this is proof of the failure of their crusade," Zawahri said on the 80-minute video, referring to efforts to start a dialogue between the Afghan government and some moderate figures from among Taliban insurgents.
With the Taliban insurgency spreading seven years after the hardline Islamists were forced from power, the possibility of talks with more moderate Taliban leaders is increasingly being considered, both in Afghanistan and among its allies.
Zawahri called for a general strike in Egypt to pressure the government to open the Gaza border to defeat an Israeli siege of the area ruled by militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
"What is the problem if students, employees and workers were to refuse to study and work until the siege is lifted on Gaza?" the Egyptian militant leader said. "Are we unable to carry out such a peaceful strike?"
The video appeared to have been made earlier than an audio recording issued on November 19, in which Zawahri criticised U.S. president-elect Barack Obama for vowing to back Israel during his campaign, and warned he would fail if he follows the policies of Bush.
(Reporting by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
European inflation falls, while jobless rate rises
U.K. takes over Royal Bank of Scotland
Congo rebels say they've taken more territory
The Associated Press
Friday, November 28, 2008
GOMA, Congo: Rebels have captured two border posts and another town in eastern Congo, increasing their hold over the region as thousands of refugees fled into Uganda, officials said Friday.
A Ugandan Army spokesman, Tabaro Kiconco, said the rebels seized control of the border post of Ishasha on Friday morning after capturing a town with the same name about two kilometers, or one mile, away.
A spokesman for the rebels, Bertrand Bisimwa, confirmed that his forces had taken the town but did not mention the border post. "We took this area of Ishasha peacefully," Bisimwa said. "There wasn't a fight."
Kiconco said the rebels also had taken the Nyakokoma landing site on Lake Edward, which acts as a border post for people traveling to Uganda by boat.
At least 13,000 civilians have fled into Uganda in the last two days, said Robert Rosso, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Some of the stories told by the refugees are terrifying," he said. "They talk of passing many dead bodies as they walked for several days into Uganda."
The town and border posts are the latest to fall into rebel hands as the army of a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda, consolidates its hold over a lawless stretch of Congo's eastern hills.
Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, says his rebels are fighting to protect Congo's minority Tutsis from elements of the Hutu militia that fled here after perpetrating the genocide that killed more than half a million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.
His critics contend that he is really interested in gaining power over eastern Congo's mineral wealth.
Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, asserted that the Rwandan Hutu militia known as the FDLR was trying to attract international attention, and stop the progress of Nkunda's forces, by telling people to flee.
"If people cross the border, they think they can use the international community to force us to stop our initiative," Bisimwa said. "This is the propaganda of the FDLR."
Some refugees have already fled three or four times since years of low-level fighting in eastern Congo intensified with the rebel offensive that began Aug. 28. More than 250,000 people have abandoned their homes since then.
As the fighting continued, the health situation in the region grew worse. Médecins Sans Frontières said 4 of 10 children suffering from measles had died in the village of Birundule, which they reached Thursday with a mobile clinic.
Doctors are trying to get care to tens of thousands of people hiding in forests or running from village to village as they try to stay ahead of the fighting.
The militia, the rebels and soldiers serving the government have all been accused of grave atrocities.
On Friday, Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for urgent action to stop the killing, raping and looting. Pillay said UN investigators should be given unhindered access to investigate abuses and that perpetrators must be held accountable.
The UN Security Council has agreed to reinforce its mission in Congo with 3,000 more soldiers and police officers because the current mission of 17,000 is spread too thin. It is not known when additional troops could arrive.
Should child care be at mercy of market?
By Meraiah Foley
Friday, November 28, 2008
SYDNEY: The global credit crisis has claimed an unlikely victim in Australia with the fall of the world's largest child care company, leaving thousands of parents to wonder who will look after their children and raising questions about whether community services should be left to the marketplace.
The company, ABC Learning Centers, was placed in the hands of administrators on Nov. 6 when it revealed that it could no longer repay more than 1 billion Australian dollars, or $1.54 billion, racked up during a debt-fueled expansion into the United States and Britain.
Chris Honey, a spokesman for ABC's receiver, McGrathNicol, said Wednesday that 656 of the 1,042 centers across Australia would continue to operate through next year under a revised business plan. But the future of the remaining 386 centers, covering about 30,000 children, is still in doubt.
The collapse of the company, which looks after about 120,000 Australian children, or 25 percent of the day care population, has sent the government scrambling to avoid the economic and political fallout of leaving tens of thousands of working parents stranded without child care services.
Critics say the rise and fall of ABC Learning will become a textbook case highlighting the dangers of allowing the private sector to dominate essential services like education, care for the elderly and utilities.
"This is not just an Australian story," said Deborah Brennan, a social policy expert at the University of New South Wales, who has been studying ABC for the past 18 months.
"It is a story about where a rather blind belief in market forces can get you in the area of community services."
ABC opened in 1988 as a single kindergarten run by Eddy Groves, an entrepreneur based in Brisbane. The company grew slowly until the late-1990s, when the conservative government at the time stopped subsidizing nonprofit child care centers and introduced a market-based approach that gave parents tax rebates they could spend on whatever form of day care they chose.
Flush with these government payments, ABC embarked on an aggressive strategy of buying up smaller, independently run centers across Australia. The company stock was listed in 2001 with just 43 centers. By 2006, ABC had claimed more than a quarter of all day care places nationwide; in some regions, it controlled up to half of the market.
The government's rebate strategy made the child care sector a more attractive place for private companies, which could count on a stream of public money to fill their coffers. It also gave them a green light to raise their prices, knowing the rebates would cover the difference, Brennan said.
About 70 percent of Australia's child care market is now controlled by private companies. What makes Australia unique, however, is the degree to which one company has been allowed to dominate the market. The largest child care providers in the United States and Britain control only about 2 percent or 3 percent of all day care places, compared to ABC's 25 percent in Australia.
Brennan and other critics say it is no coincidence that the cost of child care rose by 65 percent from 2001 to 2006, while household incomes grew by 17 percent, according to figures compiled by the Task Force on Care Costs, an independent monitor of the price of social services.
And quality may have suffered as well, according to a survey of 600 child care workers at 217 long-stay day care centers conducted in late 2005 by the Australia Institute, an independent research organization. One in five corporate child care employees who answered the survey said they would not send their children younger than 2 to the centers where they worked, citing poor staff-to-child ratios, lack of equipment and overly rigid routines.
Only one in 25 workers at smaller, community-run centers said the same.
"What was held out to the Australian public was that the market would bring choice, competition, higher quality and lower prices, and in fact it did none of those things," Brennan said. "There's never been another decade where the price of child care has increased so rapidly."
By the middle of 2006, ABC was being hailed as a stock market success story, valued at 4.8 billion dollars. Groves, a former milkman who turned his delivery run into a multimillion-dollar dairy distribution business before turning to child care, was named one of Australia's richest men under 40 by BRW, a monthly business magazine that publishes a closely watched annual "rich list." At the height of his fortune, Groves bought a basketball franchise, traveled by private jet and drove a red Ferrari, according to media reports chronicling his career. His professional success and love of fast cars also earned him the nickname "Fast Eddy" among business journalists and colleagues.
Also in 2006, ABC borrowed millions of dollars to buy a U.S. child care chain, La Petite Holdings, for $330 million, and the British chain Busy Bees Group for £71 million, or $109 million. By June 30, 2007, ABC owned more than 2,200 centers in four countries, making it the world's largest publicly listed child care company by the company's calculation. It had total liabilities of 2.16 billion dollars, up from 111 million dollars in 2004.
The ABC house of cards began to collapse in February, when auditors discovered accounting irregularities that, once addressed, caused a 42 percent decline in recorded profits for the six months to Dec. 31, 2007. The news led to a 70 percent slump in ABC shares, sending investors fleeing.
By mid-2008, ABC was struggling to repay its debts as a result of rising interest rates. But analysts say reckless management and a shaky balance sheet propped up by intangible, or nonmonetary, assets were also responsible for the company's failure.
The plunge in ABC's share price led to margin calls for Groves, who was forced to sell his stake of 40 million dollars stake in the company, leaving him with a minor holding, according to Stephen Mayne, an independent shareholder activist who tracks Australia's major corporations in his online newsletter, The Mayne Report. Groves stepped down from the ABC board and management altogether on Sept. 30.
Calls to ABC were referred to McGrathNicol, the receiver, which said it could not comment on past decisions by ABC management.
In an Oct. 14 speech to the Ipswich Chamber of Commerce in his home state, Queensland, Groves said the company's rapid expansion into the United States, coupled with sharp falls in the Australian dollar - which made ABC's U.S. debts more expensive, was partly responsible for the company's decline. He also blamed a climate of fear among investors and short-selling hedge fund managers for undermining debt-heavy companies like ABC, sending share prices into free fall
"We went down a pathway that we probably shouldn't have gone down when we headed to the U.S.," Groves said at the luncheon. But he blamed the imperative to please investors, rather than poor judgment, for the decision. "The enormous amount of pressure that the public market can put on a company to continue to grow is astounding," he said.
The Australian stock exchange halted trading in ABC shares on Aug. 21, when the company failed to release its latest financial figures. By then, shares had fallen 94 percent to 54 cents from their 2006 peak of 8.80 dollars a share.
The company has sold 60 percent of its U.S. operations to Morgan Stanley Private Equity and has also sold down its holdings in Britain. But Ferrier Hodgson, ABC's bankruptcy administrator, has said that the company still owes 1.6 billion dollars to creditors, including Australia's big four banks and Temasek, the investment arm of the Singapore government.
Now Australia must decide how to fill the hole left by ABC's collapse. Officials are searching for parties to purchase all or part of ABC. But finding a buyer may be difficult in the current credit market, especially since up to 40 percent of ABC centers are unprofitable in their current state, according to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Guillard.
Child care is already in short supply in parts of Australia, especially cities, where parents can wait for months to secure a place.
The government has pledged 22 million dollars to keep all of ABC's 1,042 Australian centers running until the end of the year, but it has ruled out nationalizing the chain.
Children's advocacy groups across the board have called on the government to rethink its market-based approach to child care.
"The government now needs to think about how we are going to change the competition and regulatory environment to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Helen Kenneally, executive director of Childcare Associations Australia, which represents independent operators. "We think that there needs to be a limit on the number of services that any one person can own or manage nationally, or manage in a regional area."
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has signaled that he may do just that. In a speech to Parliament on Nov. 21, he said the government was considering introducing tougher "creeping acquisitions" laws to stop corporations from establishing monopolies by gobbling up smaller players.
"That is the problem we face - it is a problem of market concentration," Rudd said. "When you have a company like that, with 25 percent of market share for long-day places in Australia, there is a problem for mums and dads right across the nation if something goes wrong."
David Brooks: Stimulus for skeptics
Friday, November 28, 2008
Over the past year, the U.S. federal government has poured money into the economy hundreds of billions of dollars at a time. It has also guaranteed investments, loans and deposits worth about $8 trillion. Barry Ritholtz, the author of "Bailout Nation," points out that this project constitutes the largest infusion in American history.
If you add up just the funds that have already been committed by the U.S. government, you get a figure, according to Jim Bianco of Bianco Research, that is larger in today's dollars than the costs of the Marshall Plan, the Louisiana Purchase, the New Deal, the Korean War, Vietnam and the S&L crisis combined.
Is all this money doing any good?
The financial system seems to have stabilized, but bank lending is minimal, home prices keep falling, consumer spending is plummeting, and the economy continues to dive.
It could be we just have to endure some fundamental adjustments. Housing prices have to reach a new level. Consumption has to settle on a new trajectory. Until those fundamental shifts are made, no federal sugar rush is going to restore economic health.
That's not a recipe for doing nothing. It's a recipe for skepticism. And it leads to some guiding principles for those designing the $500 billion stimulus plan the next administration seems set on: Don't just throw more money into the sugar rush. Spend money on projects that will enhance the long-term economic health of the country even without a crisis. Do what you would do anyway, just do it faster.
To understand how the short-term response might serve America's long-term economic interest, I called up Michael Porter, the competitiveness guru at Harvard Business School. Porter wrote an outstanding overview of America's long-term economic challenges in the Oct. 30 issue of BusinessWeek.
Porter wrote that the U.S. economy has historically benefited from several great assets: an unparalleled environment for entrepreneurialism, a tremendous infrastructure for scientific research, the world's best universities, a strong commitment to competition and free markets, decentralized regional economies, and efficient capital markets.
But, Porter continued, these advantages are starting to erode. The United States has an inadequate rate of reinvestment in science and technology. America's confidence in free markets is waning. Lack of regulatory oversight has undermined capital markets. Universities have not sufficiently increased graduation rates. American workers do not have a credible safety net. Regulations and litigation have inflated the cost of business. Most important, there is no long-term economic strategy to organize responses to these problems.
I asked Porter how this short-term crisis might serve as an opportunity to address those long-term problems. First, he said, the Obama team will have to avoid a few temptations: Don't just try to throw out money as fast as possible to stimulate demand. Don't spread the spending around too thinly. Don't try to save jobs that are going to disappear anyway.
Then he threw out a bunch of ideas that could be part of a stimulus package:
Send federal money to the states, but make sure a lot of it goes to state universities. There's going to be increased demand for their services at the same time their budgets are cut. We can't weaken that link in the social mobility chain.
Extend unemployment insurance, but also create vouchers and loans so workers can get the skills they need to move on.
Extend the Cobra period another 12 months to head off a rise in the uninsured during the recession.
Adjust the capital gains rate to give people the incentive to become long-term investors. Right now there's a tension between the real economy, which is gradual, and the financial system, which is manic. Low rates shouldn't kick in until an investment is held three to five years.
Accelerate depreciation on energy efficient goods and services. Increase tax credits for energy efficient buildings and appliances.
Porter's basic message was that President-elect Barack Obama should do nothing in the short term that doesn't serve a long-term goal.
To which I would add just one idea: Create a network of social entrepreneurship investment banks. These regionally operated semi-public funds would invest in the best local community organizations, so they could bring their ideas to scale.
These funds, first proposed by the group America Forward, would supplement the safety net and employ college grads entering a miserable job market. They'd have a powerful psychological effect on a country that desperately wants to feel mobilized and united.
This is a mental recession as well as an economic one. Solving it means getting more and more people involved in a fundamental rebirth.
Paul Krugman: Lest we forget
Friday, November 28, 2008
PRINCETON, New Jersey: A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing - what else? - the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policymaker asked, "Why didn't we see this coming?"
There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: "What do you mean 'we,' white man?"
Seriously, though, the official had a point. Some people say that the current crisis is unprecedented, but the truth is that there were plenty of precedents, some of them of very recent vintage. Yet these precedents were ignored. And the story of how "we" failed to see this coming has a clear policy implication - namely, that financial market reform should be pressed quickly, that it shouldn't wait until the crisis is resolved.
About those precedents: Why did so many observers dismiss the obvious signs of a housing bubble, even though the 1990s dot-com bubble was fresh in our memories?
Why did so many people insist that our financial system was "resilient," as Alan Greenspan put it, when in 1998 the collapse of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, temporarily paralyzed credit markets around the world?
Why did almost everyone believe in the omnipotence of the Federal Reserve when its counterpart, the Bank of Japan, spent a decade trying and failing to jump-start a stalled economy?
One answer to these questions is that nobody likes a party pooper. While the housing bubble was still inflating, lenders were making lots of money issuing mortgages to anyone who walked in the door; investment banks were making even more money repackaging those mortgages into shiny new securities; and money managers who booked big paper profits by buying those securities with borrowed funds looked like geniuses, and were paid accordingly. Who wanted to hear from dismal economists warning that the whole thing was, in effect, a giant Ponzi scheme?
There's also another reason the economic policy establishment failed to see the current crisis coming. The crises of the 1990s and the early years of this decade should have been seen as dire omens, as intimations of still worse troubles to come. But everyone was too busy celebrating success in getting through those crises to notice.
Consider, in particular, what happened after the crisis of 1997-98. This crisis showed that the modern financial system, with its deregulated markets, highly leveraged players and global capital flows, was becoming dangerously fragile. But when the crisis abated, the order of the day was triumphalism, not soul-searching.
Time magazine famously named Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers "The Committee to Save the World" - the "Three Marketeers" who "prevented a global meltdown." In effect, everyone declared a victory party over our pullback from the brink, while forgetting to ask how we got so close to the brink in the first place.
In fact, both the crisis of 1997-98 and the bursting of the dot-com bubble probably had the perverse effect of making both investors and public officials more, not less, complacent. Because neither crisis quite lived up to our worst fears, because neither brought about another Great Depression, investors came to believe that Greenspan had the magical power to solve all problems - and so, one suspects, did Greenspan himself, who opposed all proposals for prudential regulation of the financial system.
Now we're in the midst of another crisis, the worst since the 1930s. For the moment, all eyes are on the immediate response to that crisis. Will the Fed's ever more aggressive efforts to unfreeze the credit markets finally start getting somewhere? Will the Obama administration's fiscal stimulus turn output and employment around? (I'm still not sure, by the way, whether the economic team is thinking big enough.)
And because we're all so worried about the current crisis, it's hard to focus on the longer-term issues - on reining in the out-of-control financial system, so as to prevent or at least limit the next crisis. Yet the experience of the last decade suggests that we should be worrying about financial reform, above all regulating the "shadow banking system" at the heart of the current mess, sooner rather than later.
For once the economy is on the road to recovery, the wheeler-dealers will be making easy money again - and will lobby hard against anyone who tries to limit their bottom lines. Moreover, the success of recovery efforts will come to seem preordained, even though it wasn't, and the urgency of action will be lost.
So here's my plea: Even though the incoming administration's agenda is already very full, it should not put off financial reform. The time to start preventing the next crisis is now.
Italy to freeze tolls and restrict mortgage rates as part of economic stimulus plan
Cathay takes steps to address slowdown
Japanese manufacturers sharply cut back production
Economy tones down U.S. sport of bargain shopping
By Michael M. Grynbaum
Friday, November 28, 2008
Nikki Nicely, 19, wanted a television - a Samsung flat-screen, to be exact, on sale for $798, marked down from $1,000 and available for a limited time in the wee hours of Friday morning at the Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio.
So, at 4:40 a.m., when a fellow shopper tried to pry away the box she had been guarding for an hour, Nicely did not play nice. She jumped onto the man's back and began to pound his shoulders, screaming, "That's my TV! That's my TV!"
A police officer and security guard intervened, but not before Nicely took an elbow in the face. Still, when the dust settled, she had her hand on the box. "That's right," she cried as the man walked away. "This here is my TV!"
Welcome to Black Friday.
A quintessentially American ritual of self-sacrifice at the altar of consumerism, the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday marks a day of 5 a.m. openings, 50 percent discounts and the occasionally lurid spectacle of shopping as competitive sport. It is also, historically, the day that many major retail outlets became profitable for the year. But caught by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, retailers are facing weak sales, reluctant customers and the prospect of the worst holiday shopping season in decades.
In Long Island, New York, early Friday, the shopping turned tragic. A 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee was killed, the police said, after being knocked down and trampled by a wave of shoppers who broke down the doors of the store at the Green Acres Mall. Several other shoppers were hurt, including a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was taken to the hospital, the police said.
"The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority," Wal-Mart said in a statement, which identified the man as a temporary worker. "At this point, facts are still being assembled, and we are working closely with the Nassau County police as they investigate what occurred."
Retail outlets across the United States reported that the crowds were more mellow than usual, with more room to move in the aisles and fewer shoppers lined up outside before dawn.
"I've been doing this for 17 years. This year, it feels smaller," said Tracey Darwish, 37, who was waiting in line at the Wal-Mart in Columbus to buy "Madden NFL '09," the football video game for PlayStation 2, for $39, marked down from $59.
"Here we are, standing right in front of the 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band' games," she said. "These are the hottest toys this year, and look, I have room to move my arms. Nobody's crushing me. I have room to move. I don't think I've ever seen that."
November and December sales usually make up 25 percent to 40 percent of annual sales, according to industry groups. But this month, sales are down by double digits for clothing, luxury goods, electronics and appliances. A survey by the National Retail Federation survey said that 128 million Americans planned to shop this weekend, compared with about 135 million last year. Shoppers seeking bargains on Friday morning said they were aware of the leaner turnout.
Darwish said that in the past she would "spend thousands of dollars on Black Friday" - even withdrawing money from her retirement account. But after losing her job as a medical assistant in August, her routine has changed. "My son told me this year all he wanted was 'Madden '09,"' she said. "Other than that, 'Save your money, Mom,' he told me."
At the same store, Charisma Booker, 31, stood with a pair of flat-screen televisions, one for each brother, and her reward after arriving at the store at 2:30 a.m. The store is open 24 hours, but sale items could not be purchased until 5 a.m.
"This year feels different," said Booker, a 10-year veteran of the early morning Black Friday rush. "There were a lot more people here last year. You could hardly move in this aisle. There are fewer people here this year, but they're more aggressive. I've never seen anybody fight like this. This is crazy."
At some stores, smaller items appeared to be more popular, reflecting the tough times many shoppers find themselves in. At a Best Buy in Beaverton, Oregon, a bin of $4.99 DVDs was almost empty after a crowd of about 200 rushed in at 5 a.m. Mike Papp, a manager, said bargain bins were moving faster than flat-screen televisions, which were the big seller last year.
Some customers decided that they could resist the urge to buy entirely - not a trend that brings a smile to a retailer's face.
"I've been doing this for four years. This time, I said, there isn't anything I really need," said Susan Koslovsky of Miami, who was shopping at the Manhattan flagship store of Saks Fifth Avenue. "Tonight, I'll go to sleep and say, 'That was good.' Every year I come here and buy two pocketbooks, but this year there aren't any good ones."
Randye Abrams, riding an escalator at Saks, complained that the selections had "all been picked over."
"They put everything on sale before the holiday so it's nothing different," said Abrams, who was visiting Manhattan from Los Angeles.
In Niles, Illinois, Wal-Mart shoppers said the economy had cast a shadow on holiday shopping, prompting them to look for bargains.
But Michael Owolagi, 23, of Chicago, said the hard times had the opposite effect on his consumer habits.
"The fact that the economy is down has actually led me to spend a little more this holiday season, because there are so many good sales out there today," said Owolagi, a nurse, who spent more than $1,000 at three retailers by 8:30 a.m. Armed with fliers from Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart, Owolagi bought two televisions, two cameras, two printers and a GPS device. Back in New York, Rosemary O'Brien, 55, of Newport, Rhode Island, glanced over the selection of silver-wrapped electronic corkscrews at Bloomingdale's, selling for $39.99. She said that she was trying to cut back after her business, Freedom Yachts, recently closed.
"I am paying a lot with credit cards, and I'm hoping the banks go out of business and I won't have to pay them back," O'Brien said.
Ken Hicks, president and chief merchandising officer for J.C. Penney, said the day "probably will not be as big as it has been recently, but it's still going to be a huge day."
But the only real winners this season may be bargain-hunters with money to spend.
For weeks, name-brand department stores have been trying to outdo one another to capture the attention of consumers who have become numb to normal discounts. With more deals on the way after Friday, shoppers can get impressive savings without necessarily having to brave the crowds or the cold on the day after Thanksgiving.
"There's no reason to suspect this will end," said Dan de Grandpre, editor in chief of Dealnews.com, which has been tracking Black Friday deals for about a decade. "This kind of heavy discounting will continue until we see some retailers start to fail, until they start to go out of business."
Wal-Mart worker dies in apparent shopping stampede
By Jack Healy and Angela Macropoulos
Friday, November 28, 2008
A Wal-Mart employee in suburban New York was trampled to death by a crush of shoppers who tore down the front doors and thronged into the store early Friday morning, turning the annual rite of post-Thanksgiving bargain hunting into a Hobbesian frenzy.
At 4:55 a.m., just five minutes before the doors were set to open, a crowd of 2,000 anxious shoppers started pushing, shoving and piling against the locked sliding glass doors of the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, Nassau County police said. The shoppers broke the doors off their hinges and surged in, toppling a 34-year-old temporary employee who had been waiting with other workers in the store's entryway.
People did not stop to help the employee as he lay on the ground, and they pushed against other Wal-Mart workers who were trying to aid the man. The crowd kept running into the store even after the police arrived, jostling and pushing officers who were trying to perform CPR, the police said.
"They were like a stampede," said Nassau Det. Lieutenant Michael Fleming. "Hundreds of people walked past him, over him or around him."
The employee, who was not identified, was taken from the Wal-Mart to nearby Franklin Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 6:03 a.m., the police said. His exact cause of death has not been determined. The police said that three other shoppers were injured and a 28-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant was taken to the hospital for observation.
One shopper, Kimberly Cribbs, said she was standing near the back of the crowd at around 5 a.m. on Friday when people started rushing into the store. She said several people were knocked to the ground, and parents had to grab their children by the hand to keep them from being caught in the crush.
"They were falling all over each other," she said. "It was terrible."
Crowds began building outside the Wal-Mart at 9 p.m. Thursday and grew throughout the night, as eager shoppers queued up in a line that filled the sidewalk and stretched toward the boundary fence of the Green Acres Mall.
At 3:30 a.m., store employees called the Nassau police to report that the crowd was growing quickly, the police said. Officers came by to try to organize the line, but were called away to a Circuit City, a Best Buy and a B.J.'s Wholesale Club nearby, to deal with crowds there.
A half-dozen Wal-Mart employees lined up in the entryway trying to hold back the crowd by pushing against the locked sliding doors, but they were overwhelmed by the force of the crowd, Lieutenant Fleming said.
As the doors snapped open and people streamed in, several people fell on top of one another. The 34-year-old employee who died was at the bottom of the pile, the police said.
On Friday, Wal-Mart released a statement saying that the man who was killed had been working for Wal-Mart through a temp agency. The company called the death "a tragic situation," and said it was working with police.
"The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority," Wal-Mart said in a statement.
Lieutenant Fleming said that the store "could have done more" to prevent the melee.
"I've heard other people call this an accident, but it's not," he said. "This certainly was foreseeable."
Burundi albinos live in fear of killers
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Jean Pierre Harerimana
On an inky night earlier this month, a gun-wielding gang burst into Generose Nizigiyimana's mud hut in Burundi and dragged her sleeping six-year old albino boy into the bushes.
The widow and her other dark-skinned children fled into the night and heard a gunshot a few moments later. They found the dismembered body of the little boy lying behind their home when they returned.
"After shooting him, they cut him into pieces and took his tongue, arms and legs," Nizigiyimana told Reuters Television. "They went away with the body parts."
Burundian officials say the young boy was the fourth albino murdered this year in the tiny east African country by criminals seeking body parts for witchcraft.
Albinos lack pigment in their eyes, skin or hair. Their killers believe their arms, legs, hair, skin and genitals can be used in rites to bring clients success in love, life and business, according to police and albino support groups.
Campaigners say about 30 albinos have been killed in neighbouring Tanzania in recent months.
Inside Burundi, near the border, 25 albinos have fled village homes to the small town of Ruyigi in fear for their lives. They are under police protection around the clock.
"We can't even go outside during the day because people could run after us and kill us," said Godefroid Hakizimana, a 26-year-old albino farmer.
"People say we have a good market, that they can make a lot of money with our body parts. Our lives are in danger, that is why we are not ready to go back to our villages."
He said Burundi's government had done little to protect people with his condition -- who already have a hard life living in region where there is plenty of sunshine. Albinos are more susceptible to skin cancer and sun burns.
Remy Nsengiyumva, a local administrator, said the security forces were doing all they could, but that it was clear why albinos in the area were being hunted.
"We have been told that there are people in Tanzania using albino body parts to improve their mining and fishing businesses," she said.
"I think the authorities in both our countries should sit down together and take joint measures to eradicate those killings."
Responding to the attacks in his country last month, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete denounced the superstition surrounding albinos as a "stupid belief."
(Writing by Patrick Nduwimana in Bujumbura; Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura)
EU says clear evidence of war crimes in Congo
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Stephanie Nebehay
The European Union said Friday there was clear evidence of war crimes being committed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and called on both sides to stop the violence.
Jean-Baptiste Mattei, France's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva who spoke on behalf of the EU, said both sides were carrying out executions and torture in North Kivu province.
"There is clear evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated," he told an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council about Congo. "We must react firmly to put an end to the violence."
The European Union is under pressure from aid agencies and a group of world dignitaries to send troops to protect civilians and aid workers in eastern Congo until U.N. reinforcements arrive, but EU diplomats say the chances are slim.
More than 250,000 people have been driven from their homes since fighting erupted between Congolese forces and Tutsi rebel General Laurent Nkunda in August.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the 47-member Council that perpetrators needed to be held to account for killings, kidnappings, rapes and other atrocities.
"My office has documented a steady deterioration of the human rights situation," she said, noting that sexual violence by Congolese soldiers seemed to be escalating in its "most brutal forms."
She called for unhindered access for the U.N. force MONUC to conduct investigations into serious abuses.
The Human Rights Council convened its special session at the request of the EU, which submitted a draft resolution calling on the government in Kinshasa to shield civilians and investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of crimes.
A text submitted by Egypt on behalf of African states also calls for attention to the causes of the conflict, "including illicit exploitation of natural resources and the establishment of militia that are the basis of human rights violations."
A cease-fire declared by rebel leader Nkunda has halted battles with government troops, but his fighters have kept attacking the government's Congolese and Rwandan militia allies.
Congo's delegation to the session in Geneva, due to continue Monday, called for a halt to the support it said Nkunda was receiving from other countries and arms makers.
"The population in North Kivu needs peace above all through putting an end to the rebellion. One must tell those countries now providing military support to stop," its envoy said.
(Editing by Laura MacInnis and Matthew Tostevin)
New U.S. relief plan may take time
By Ron Lieber and Tara Siegel Bernard
Friday, November 28, 2008
For U.S. consumers buying homes, refinancing mortgages or seeking auto or student loans, the new government plans to make borrowing cheaper and easier sound like a gift.
One problem, however, is that whole categories of people may be ineligible. Those refinancing could be out of luck if their mortgage balances exceed what their houses are worth. And for all kinds of new loans, lenders have raised their standards even as their customers' credit records have deteriorated because of late payments and other problems.
And then there is the issue that the government's efforts may take a while to start working - if they do at all. Once again, the government hopes that the benefits to consumers will trickle down. It is not simply lending to them directly.
So while U.S. mortgage rates fell by at least a quarter of a percentage point Tuesday, the day of the government announcement, and stayed there Wednesday, it could take months for provisions that involve credit card and small-business loans to take effect.
"It's not going to be like flipping a light switch," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "You're not going to see an avalanche of new loans. But the system is under a lot of stress, and anything that can lubricate the markets is a good thing."
And so it goes across the world. As China cuts interest rates and Europe introduces its own stimulus measures, consumers around the globe may not feel immediate relief: The benefits of the measures will take time to trickle down.
The U.S. federal government made two big moves on Tuesday. The first, already known as TALF, for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, is a $200 billion program to lend money to private investors who buy securities backed by student and auto loans, credit card debt and small-business loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.
The goal of the plan is to fix the mechanism that keeps credit flowing freely from lenders to borrowers. Lenders typically package consumer loans into securities and sell them to investors. Then the lenders use the proceeds to issue more loans to consumers. But over the past two months, those investors have stopped buying.
To encourage those investors to start buying again, the Federal Reserve has agreed to lend them money at attractive interest rates to buy the securities backed by consumer debt, as well as to provide an insurance policy should the loans underlying those securities default.
In the second part of the program, the Fed has agreed to purchase $500 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae.
"This brings a major buyer into the marketplace with very deep pockets to snap up available securities - and a sizable number of them at that," said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of the market research firm HSH Associates in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. "With new demand for both debt- and mortgage-backed securities coming into the market, the dollar value of those investments can rise, helping to lower their yields. Mortgage rates track those yields, and decline right along with them."
Lower mortgage rates will certainly help some consumers qualify for mortgages; lower rates translate into lower payments. The move downward will also move some borrowers to try to refinance their mortgages. But that does not necessarily mean banks will be any more likely to oblige.
Another complication is that the value of many homes - even those owned by people with stellar credit - has declined, making refinancing difficult.
"At the end of the day, it still comes down, not to just a rate discussion, but a discussion about qualifications as well," said Cameron Findlay, chief economist at LendingTree. "There are fundamental elements of qualifications for loans that will inhibit the ability of this program to have any meaningful, significant impact."
Lower mortgage rates also do little when unemployment is rising and wages are stagnating, he added.
To qualify for the best rates, a borrower will need to have a credit score of at least 720, close to the U.S. median of reliability, and a down payment of at least 10 percent and probably closer to 20 percent. Borrowers seeking to refinance will need to have the same amounts in home equity.
Still, lower rates may lure some potential home buyers back to the market. Some brokers have already started fielding calls.
"The phones are ringing," said Joseph Taglivia, chief operating officer of Manhattan Mortgage. "There were certainly people who called to lock in a refinancing or to find out what they qualified for to purchase."
The efforts to loosen the purse strings in other areas of consumer lending may take longer, however, if they work at all. Most of the big credit card companies are parts of banks with billions on deposit. They can already use those deposits as a ready source for new credit card loans.
"Banks may want to fund fewer of these loans out of their deposits," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, who worked in the card industry at Capital One before starting Evolution Finance, parent company of Cardhub.com, a consumer card selection site. It is possible, he said, that they will simply swap one source of financing for another and not increase the total amount of the loans they are willing to make.
American Express is unique in that it does not have a big deposit-gathering apparatus. Joanna Lambert, a company spokeswoman, said that the company was still working through the details of the TALF program but would take advantage of it if it were eligible.
It is not yet clear how much the government program will help grease the wheels for small-business bank loans, but there is already a potential bright spot that business borrowers may not have considered.
"Credit unions have been seeing so many opportunities in the marketplace," said Christine Barry, research director at Aite Group, a financial services research and consulting firm. About 40 percent of credit unions are either lending to small businesses now or expect to start doing so soon, she said.
With auto and student loans, there may be more reason for optimism, given that many lenders in these areas are specialists who may not have access to consumer deposits to use for financing loans. The renewed opportunity to sell more loans to investors could help those consumers.
But none of the government's moves alters some unfortunate facts.
U.S. lenders want better credit scores from consumers in every category. At the same time, millions of people are much less credit-worthy than they used to be, because of the damage they have done to their credit scores through late or missed payments.
Lenders themselves have contributed to the downturn in credit-worthiness by lowering the credit limits on huge numbers of customers' credit cards. This has the effect of raising the percentage of available credit that a consumer is using, which usually causes their credit scores to fall.
Clearly, the banks do not have the confidence in how consumers will handle credit that they might have had six months ago. It is not clear whether a new source of funds will cure this skittishness.
Nor is it certain how much untapped desire to borrow exists. The fact that consumer spending fell an entire percentage point in October, as the Commerce Department reported Wednesday, may reflect something other than a lack of capital.
"If consumers are afraid to make purchases, it doesn't really matter how much available credit you have," said Papadimitriou of Evolution Finance.
Crisis takes shine off Russia's Millionaire Fair
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Simon Shuster
The global financial crisis cast such a pall over Moscow's Millionaire Fair this week that even the yachts were two-for-the-price-of-one. And nobody was buying.
Instead, members of the crisis-hit Russian elite congratulated each other on simply finding the courage to attend what is usually a glittering show of ostentation.
"We're going through a murky and complicated period," socialite Ksenia Sobchak, the master of ceremonies, told the guests at the opening of the fair.
"Everyone is a superhero for finding it in themselves to come here tonight, to try to bask in the luxury."
With a helicopter and two dazzling sports cars greeting the guests at the door, there was plenty of luxury up for sale. But the main attraction seemed to be the central bar, where free champagne was served until around midnight.
As it began to run out, a Reuters reporter saw scuffles among the fur-clad ladies vying for a final glass.
"These are desperate times," said Irina Ivanova, a manager at Premium Yachts.
Moscow boasts more billionaires than any other city after a decade-long economic boom fuelled by soaring domestic consumption and high prices for raw materials.
But many fortunes have been clipped by the crisis, which has hammered investor confidence, wiped off more than a $1 trillion (653 billion pounds) from domestic stock values and pushed even Oleg Deripaska -- once ranked as Russia's richest man -- to turn to the state for financial help.
CRISIS, CRISIS, CRISIS
The first Millionaire Fair was held in 2002 in Amsterdam and organised by Dutch-based magazine publisher Gijrath Media Groep BV. The event has since been rolled out to other cities enjoying the fruits of growing affluence.
However, the current financial crisis, which many think could stall the boom and undermine Russia stability, was on everyone's lips on opening night this year.
Local celebrities at the event -- none had been flown in from Hollywood -- attributed the crabby mood of many guests to the state of the economy.
Some saw the crisis as a challenge which only the Russian soul can overcome, while others said the rich have no reason to worry as the crisis would only be bad for the poor people.
"These financial problems don't touch this stratum of society," said prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who is a member of the ruling United Russia party.
But moustachioed crooner Villi Tokarev, dressed in a canary yellow suit and matching shoes, took a more geopolitical stance.
Asked if he was enjoying the event, he said: "The crisis will teach us discipline, to cherish what we forget to cherish. When its over, Russia will be the most powerful country in the world, with higher traditions and morals."
This summer, Russia's wealthy fuelled a yacht craze in Moscow attracting some of the biggest international dealers to the capital.
That seems like a long time ago.
"But now it's all over," said Ivanova of Premier Yachts, standing beside the 18-metre Princess, which was guarded by men in ninja outfits.
A customer of hers in the Russian town of Samara, she said, had recently sold a boat worth 1.5 million euros (1.2 million pounds) for less than one third that price. "He had to cover a debt in a hurry."
Demand has become so bad, she added, that her company is selling the boats two-for-one. "You buy an 18-metre and you get a 10-metre yacht free... Nobody has taken us up on it yet, but at least it keeps people calling."
And by the looks of the parking lot, it is not only on the high seas that Russians are turning to modest vehicles.
"I only saw one Bentley outside, and I think that one was Sobchak's. It looks like everyone else came on their Toyotas," said singer Anna Sedakova, formerly of the pop group Viagra.
(Editing by Keith Weir)
Expecting the unexpected
By Conrad de Aenlle
Friday, November 28, 2008
After such a rotten year, investors may not be eager to contemplate the next one. Thinking ahead is part of the job description for people who work in the financial markets, though, so when fund managers and strategists were asked to foretell surprising developments for 2009, they bravely accepted the challenge.
Most of their predictions are upbeat, as they almost have to be. With the past and present so bleak, what could be more surprising than a rosy outlook?
A recovery of the financial system, the black hole of the global economy and stock market, might seem especially improbable. No surprise, then, that banks figure in the prognostications.
"The first thing that you just wouldn't expect is for the U.S. financial sector to come back in a big way," said Komal Sri-Kumar, chief global strategist at TCW Group, a subsidiary of the French bank Société Générale.
Sri-Kumar said he expected such an outcome in part because he thought that the U.S. economy, after a "pretty severe" recession in this quarter and the next, would rebound more swiftly than many of his peers were forecasting. One way for investors to benefit if he is right, he said, is to buy high-yield corporate bonds, which have been among the worst-performing assets this year.
"High-yield bonds are yielding upwards of 20 percent on the expectation that the default rate is going to increase exponentially in the next six months," Sri-Kumar said. "If the recession is a short one, they will come back and yields will narrow."
The life span of the downturn may hinge on Barack Obama's actions after he is sworn in as president. Tobias Levkovich, chief U.S. equity strategist at Citigroup, is looking for Obama to provide a much stronger jolt to the economy in the form of tax cuts and spending programs than is widely foreseen on Wall Street and in Washington.
"The Obama stimulus package could end up being much larger than anyone anticipates, given the needs generated by the credit crisis," Levkovich said. "A lot of people are talking about a couple hundred billion dollars. What if it's two or three times that?"
In that case, anxiety over deflation should abate, Levkovich predicted, and "the markets can get out of their funk."
Some economic and financial question marks are bound to linger whatever the people in charge do, but Max King, a strategist at Investec Asset Management, believes that the public is underestimating the potential for a rally in an investment that thrives on such uncertainty. "Gold will break well north of $1,000 an ounce," he said. That would be a gain of more than 20 percent from recent levels, and he suggested capturing it by buying one of the exchange-traded funds around the world that hold physical gold.
And now the bad news: Robert Arnott, chairman of the asset-management firm Research Affiliates, says he expects a development so grim that even investors accustomed to a whole new benchmark of awfulness would be shocked: a recession in China.
He does not mean a slowing in the pace of growth from breakneck to exhausting, but a genuine decline in economic output, perhaps 2 percent for the year.
"The credit and real estate bubble is, relative to the size of the banking sector and GDP, larger in China than the United States," Arnott said.
The investment strategy would be to resist bottom-fishing in emerging-market stocks, although he thinks that bonds there are a safe bet. "Bonds are cheap and priced to reflect a risk that's not in stocks yet," he said. "I think emerging-market stocks could suffer another leg down."
Kevin Landis, a portfolio manager for Firsthand, a firm specializing in technology industries, used his forecast to mock the pervasive gloom gripping the markets.
"Most companies will still be in business" at the end of 2009, he said. "That's my No.1 counter-trend argument."
As investors begin once more to tolerate, and then seek out, risk, they will shift out of government bonds into blue-chip stocks, he said. In his universe, that means companies like Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Intel.
And what if he is wrong? What if 2009 is even more rotten than 2008 and the public turns out to have been miserable with good reason?
"Then it doesn't matter what you do with your money," Landis said. "Then it's canned goods, bottled water and flashlight batteries."
Isolated Indonesia tribe immune to global crisis
Friday, November 28, 2008
By Ed Davies
High in the lush hills of far western Java, an animist tribe lives a peaceful existence, untouched by the turmoil of the financial crisis.
The Baduy, who are estimated to number somewhere between 5,000-8,000 people, are an anomaly surviving in tribal lands only 120 km (75 miles) from the teeming megacity of Jakarta.
Yet despite their proximity to the Indonesian capital, the Baduy might as well be a world away as they live in almost complete seclusion, observing customs that forbid using soap, riding vehicles and even wearing shoes.
Villagers stare blankly when asked about events in the outside world. Salina, a young mother, plays with her son on the steps of a thatched-roof hut in this small river-side village.
"I don't understand about any crisis," she says when asked about the economic turmoil that has taken its toll on the rupiah which has lost almost 25 percent of its value this year.
Within a 50 sq km (20 sq mile) area in the shadow of Mount Kendeng, the Baduy people cling to their reclusive way of life despite the temptations of the modern world.
No one is certain of their origin. Some anthropologists think they are the priestly descendents of the West Java Hindu kingdom of Pajajaran and took refuge in the limestone hills where they now live after resisting conversion to Islam in the 16th century.
They speak an archaic version of Sundanese, a language spoken by many in this part of western Java.
Blending ancient Hinduism and animism, the Baduy believe their homeland -- Pancer Bumi -- is the centre of the world and that they were the first people on earth who must follow a strict set of rules to prevent disaster striking.
Renowned for their mystical powers, Baduy leaders, known as pu'un, conduct rituals in a secret spot called Arca Domas surrounded by megaliths to appease ancestral spirits and gods.
On the surface at least their way of life appears primitive, but experts who have studied their farming techniques say they are well attuned to their environment.
For example, they are forbidden to use metal hoes, helping to prevent soil erosion, when cultivating a dry variety of rice.
Nonetheless, the long list of taboos often appear to make their lives unreasonably tough.
School education, glass, alcohol, nails, footwear, diverting the course of water and rearing four-legged animals are among some of the long list of things forbidden to the Baduy.
"There is no education. Going to the field is an education for them," said Boedhihartono, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia, who has studied the Baduy for years.
Their society is divided into an outer zone of villages and an inner heartland of just three villages. Baduy who break the rules are banished to the outer zone.
Members of the inner zone of about 800 people, or 40 families, dress in white, as opposed to the black attire in the outer zone, and follow the Baduy traditions much more strictly.
Visiting the Baduy requires tough trekking along slippery paths in plunging valleys. Foreigners are allowed to visit the outer zone, but are limited to a few nights, sleeping on bamboo mats in villages pitch black at night due to a lack of power.
It is, however, nearly impossible for non-Indonesians to visit the sacred inner villages.
MONEY SEEPING IN
The outer area acts as a sort of buffer zone and the leaders from the inner Baduy sometimes pay surprise visits to make sure their outer zone compatriots are not breaking too many taboos.
They sometimes confiscate radios and other things deemed as pollutants from the modern world.
With none of the motorbikes and smoke-belching buses common in most of Indonesia, the villages are tranquil spots where the gentle clacking sound of weaving looms is one of the few noises.
But it is difficult to keep all things at bay from the modern world. On a recent trip some Baduy children had forsaken traditional wear, one wearing a blue Italian soccer shirt, while the use of formally taboo money has replaced bartering with the outside world.
The outer Baduy sell sarongs they make and also travel to nearby towns to sell honey and palm sugar. The cash is used to buy salted fish and other things they can't produce themselves.
"Even in the centre they already know money," said anthropologist Boedhihartono, who has over years developed what he describes as "a sort of friendship" with the Baduy.
He keeps a room free at his Jakarta home for when the Baduy sometimes make unannounced visits after a three-day bare-foot trek since they are not allowed to use transport.
Asked about whether they had much knowledge of the outside world, he said: "Of course not really, except if they come to my house they watch the TV."
While the Baduy are supposed to shun modern medicine, he said the use of antibiotics had helped sharply increase their numbers.
The main threats they faced, he said, are from outsiders trying to plunder their land and proselytising by some groups in the majority Muslim community surrounding them.
The Baduy have taken on some outside influences such as circumcision, which is in line with local Muslim practices.
Although generally left to their own devices by colonisers ranging from the Dutch to the Japanese, authorities have at times sought to include the Baduy in mainstream society.
When the government of Indonesia's long-time strongman president Suharto tried to foist development on the Baduy in the 1980s they sent an emissary to plead to be left alone.
Suharto, a deeply superstitious man with a weakness for Javanese mysticism, conceded and arranged for the Baduy to mark out their territory with poles to protect them from outside influence.
(Editing by Megan Goldin)
EU accuses drug companies of gouging consumers
By Marci Alboher
Friday, November 28, 2008
Some artists have begun to figure out ways to make money and make art - aiming to end the notion that "starving" and "artist" are necessarily linked.
Rather than seeing art as something to pursue in the hours when they are not earning a living, these artists are developing businesses around their talents. These artists are part of a growing movement that has caught the attention of business experts and is being nudged along by both art and business schools.
Living in the Internet era has certainly helped.
Claudine Hellmuth, for example, said that when she graduated from the Corcoran College of Art in Washington in 1997, career options for artists were limited. "You could teach, or do outdoor festivals, maybe get into a gallery," she said.
At the encouragement of her mother, she took an intensive summer course in Web programming and design at George Washington University and then returned home to Florida, where she found work as an online designer. All along, she continued to paint on the side, thinking that her day jobs would support her. A layoff in 2001 proved to be a turning point.
"I now had the skills to use the Internet to my advantage," she said. "I am so thankful that I left the art world for a little while." With a little Web savvy, she says, it is relatively easy for artists to reach a global marketplace for their work.
In a blog post on the American Express Open Forum, Steve King, a small business expert with Emergent Research, cited Hellmuth as an example of trends that are creating new opportunities for artist entrepreneurs.
King said he discovered Hellmuth after her name kept coming up in interviews with artists for research his firm was conducting on artist entrepreneurs. Hellmuth's success stems in part from the way she has created multiple revenue streams.
She has an online store on Etsy.com, a Web portal where artists sell their work. She does custom illustrations for customers using photographs they provide. She licenses her artwork for greeting cards, calendars and other products. She has written two books about her techniques and has a third one coming out. She tours the country teaching both business and art workshops. And last summer she partnered with Ranger Industries to manufacture a line of products including paintbrushes, paints and canvases.
"When I am making the custom artwork for people, there are only so many pieces I can make in a week, so it really limits the amount of income I can make," she said. By expanding into books and licensing deals for products, "then you have the potential to make a living."
Through her business, Hellmuth said, she contributes an equal share of the household income as her husband, who works on the technology side of newspaper publishing.
Art schools, too, are starting to step in. At the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., students can now major or minor in a program called "The Business of Art and Design." Larry Thompson, the school's dean, said he was inspired to create the program when he read about Dan Pink's book, "A Whole New Mind," which popularized the notion that artists, especially those who can marry left and right brain skills, the analytical and the creative, will be in high demand in the coming years.
"I am committed to destroying the myth of the starving artist," Thompson said.
Alexander Niles, 14, a high school freshman in Miami with dreams of making it big as a musician, is young to be focused on making a living. But he has already become an entrepreneur.
It all began by accident, he said. He was late in handing in his choices for elective classes and landed in a course on business. For an assignment to write a business plan, he turned to his passion, guitars, and decided to create a business building custom guitars for other people, something he had already done for himself.
After refining his idea in class, Niles entered his business plan into a local competition sponsored by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and captured the grand prize for South Florida, which allowed him to compete in a national competition in New York this fall.
The price for his guitars starts at about $2,000, and he expects to make a profit of around $700 a guitar. So far, he has made four, including one for a former instructor, Alex Fox, a flamenco guitarist who has endorsed Niles's company. Niles has set up a Web site, but he does not plan to start filling orders until he has lined up other endorsements, finished his YouTube video and started establishing his brand through an advertising campaign.
Though Niles has years of school ahead of him, he said he planned to tend to both his music and his business along the way.
"If I make it as a musician, then my guitars will go for way higher than I planned," he said, citing the example of Brian May of the band Queen who built his own guitar out of firewood with his father.
Niles and Hellmuth have learned on their own what Elliot McGucken teaches in his course, Artist Entrepreneurs, which he developed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a grant from the Kauffman Foundation. McGucken's course, now taught at Pepperdine University, rests on the principle that those who create art should have the skills to own it, profit from it and protect it.
"It's about how to make your passion your profession, your avocation your vocation, and to make this long-term sustainable," he said.
Friday, November 28, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia: President Mikheil Saakashvili on Friday offered a new defense of Georgia's assault on South Ossetia in August, denying assertions that Tbilisi was the aggressor in the war with Russia that ensued.
Speaking before a bipartisan parliamentary commission on the war, Saakashvili dismissed as "utter nonsense" testimony this week by Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former ambassador to Russia who said Tbilisi had convinced itself that it had the blessing of the United States.
The Georgian government, Saakashvili said, undertook "a military operation in order to offer resistance to a large-scale Russian intervention, a widescale assault on a peaceful population."
On Thursday, DefenE Minister David Kezerashvili told the commission that Georgia had attacked the rebel capital Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 because Russian forces were crossing the border and because it was a matter of time before they started attacking villages inhabited by Georgians.
But the Georgian leadership made no public statement at that time about Russian forces invading. The shelling of Tskhinvali after a cease-fire of several hours and the subsequent ground assault was justified as a response to rebel shelling of Georgian villages.
Saakashvili repeated a later assertion that Russia had already invaded and that his hand had been forced. He recalled the moment as "the most difficult choice of my life."
Russia refutes the and says that it only intervened in the region to defend South Ossetian civilians.
"Our answer to the question whether we have undertaken military action is 'Yes"' Saakashvili told the commission. "It was a difficult decision, but it was an inevitable one."
"It's the responsibility of any democratically elected leader to defend his country, borders and peaceful population," he said. " I couldn't believe they would be first to take this step."
The war that ensued piled pressure on already strained relations between the West and Russia and deepened concern over the security of the Caucasus as a transit route to Western markets for oil and natural gas.
By Julia Werdigier
Friday, November 28, 2008
LONDON: For sale: a vast tunnel complex in London. Former tenants include the British secret service, the hot line between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and 400 tons of government documents. The asking price is $7.4 million.
After years of lying unused beneath the traffic-jammed streets of the city, the tunnel complex - 1.6 kilometers, or one mile, of underground corridors and adjacent rooms - is for sale by the BT Group, the largest British phone company. BT hopes the site's special features will attract buyers even as the property market above ground goes through its biggest downturn in decades.
Looking more like the set of a James Bond movie than prime real estate, the complex has a bar and two canteens, not in use, and a billiard room, not to mention functioning water and electricity supplies.
The tunnels were built during World War II as bomb shelters for about 8,000 people and were designed to allow them to survive for five weeks, shut off from the outside world.
An eclectic range of would-be buyers has asked about the space, including an overseas billionaire seeking a spot to hold his board meetings. Others who have expressed interest include buyers looking for a location for a wine collection, the London police and local electricity companies, said Niall Gallagher, the realty agent at Farebrother Chartered Surveyors, which is in charge of finding a suitable buyer.
"It's a weird and wonderful space," Gallagher said. "It really captured people's imagination. There were many inquiries, and we received one or two interesting offers."
The tunnels were built in 1940 during the blitz, when Britain came under sustained air attack from Nazi Germany. The government decided to create eight underground bomb shelters in London, as the Underground stations were not big enough to accommodate all those seeking refuge.
But the BT tunnels, and one other, were never used by the public because the government needed them for its operations. The BT tunnels became a temporary base for troops before D-Day while another tunnel was turned into the headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower.
In 1944, the tunnels became a base from which the Allies helped resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries. Members of the secret service, in offices equipped with telephones and teleprinters hidden beneath the war-torn streets, helped coordinate as many as 10,000 men and women gathering support against the Nazi regime across Europe.
After the war, the tunnel network became an important operations center for the company once known as British Telecommunications. In recent years, though, BT has used the space mostly for storage. The company decided to put the tunnels up for sale a few weeks ago.
Though some may fantasize about buying the space and living a secret life in a cavernous underground world filled with gadgets suitable for the Bat Cave, the reality would most likely be harsher.
The air is dry, hot and stale. The constant rattling of London Underground trains rushing through a separate tunnel system just above and the sound of giant ventilation fans make the tunnels a noisy environment.
Turning the tunnels into a nightclub or hotel is out of the question because only two elevators link them to the outside world; even a small fire would be difficult to contain.
The tunnels are closed to the public. People who still work there, mostly for maintenance, enter through an inconspicuous iron door on Furnival Street, a quiet path behind busy Chancery Lane, close to the Royal Courts of Justice and not far from the River Thames.
Apart from an old industrial crane attached to the facade of the windowless building, nothing hints at the vast underground labyrinth below it.
The tunnels' history gives them an aura of mystery, kept alive by the handful of BT employees still working there.
David Hay, a BT historian, said legend had it that the government wanted to keep the location of the tunnels so secret that it hired foreign workers with no knowledge of the London streets to build them.
BT staff members are still under strict orders not to disclose the exact location of the system, though incomplete maps have surfaced on the Internet.
"We just don't know what the future owner will want to use it for, so we can't disclose more information," said David Hembra, one of the maintenance workers who visits the tunnels several times a week to check for gas leaks and other problems.
When Hembra started to work in the tunnels 10 years ago, their pivotal years were behind them, and little remained from the turbulent days of World War II. The offices were removed after the war ended, when new tenants moved in. Britain's public records office needed the space to store more than 400 tons of documents.
But it was not long before the documents had to be moved again to make room for a secure international telephone center that the government deemed necessary as relations between Washington and Moscow grew tense. During the Cold War, the British government instructed its telephone department, which later became BT, to set up a secret communications system based on the latest technology that would be able to survive a nuclear attack.
It was the beginning of the busiest period for the tunnels, with almost 200 workers spending their days and nights underground to route as many as two million calls a week across 6,600 phone lines. In 1963, the hot line established between Moscow and Washington after the Cuban missile crisis ran through the London tunnels.
The buzzing complex soon became known as "underground town," with a recreation room complete with dartboards and billiard tables, a movie theater and two dining halls. Workers often spent the night in sleeping rooms.
By the early 1980s, technology had advanced so much that the tunnels' telephone center had become obsolete, and BT's technicians moved back above ground.
Today, anyone wandering the vast corridors is still reminded of their place in history.
A bank of telephone cables stands next to colossal electricity generators from the 1960s. Remnants of that life are visible amid the brown-and-orange wall decoration in the old bar, color photographs of the world above in the restaurant and a canteen kitchen equipped with potato-peeling machine, dishwasher and a menu board offering sausages and peas.
"In the winter months, if you didn't come up at lunchtime, you never saw the light of day," John Warrick, a former worker, wrote on the Web site Subterranea Britannica, remembering his days in the tunnels. "Life down there was a little like living in a submarine."
By Landon Thomas Jr.
Friday, November 28, 2008
LONDON: Could Britain's plan to borrow and spend its way out of a recession result in a run on the pound?
George Osborne, the Conservative Party's spokesman on such matters, warned of just such an outcome this month. Peter Mandelson, the Labour government's new business secretary, promptly accused him of being "reckless and irresponsible."
This week, Osborne again accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of driving Britain toward bankruptcy but carefully avoided any mention of what one of the biggest borrowing surges in British history might do to its already fragile currency.
All the same, a feeling is building that Osborne may have had a point: The pound, already down more than 26 percent from its high of $2.11 a year ago, could have further to fall once the economy begins to feel the strain from the increased debt.
"Any economy with our level of borrowing and our deficit of trade should have one of the world's weakest currencies, not the strongest," said Peter Hargreaves, chief executive of Hargreaves Lansdown, an independent brokerage firm based in Bristol. "We don't make anything any more and our biggest export was the City of London, which is in disarray. We are in a very poor state."
Hargreaves sees the pound going to $1.25 from Thursday's level of $1.54, and he has recently moved £20 million of his liquid assets from sterling into U.S. Treasury bills and instruments denominated in, among other currencies, the Norwegian krone.
He says that other brokers he has spoken to in London's financial district are following suit by reducing their pound positions. "I just don't think this country understands how serious the problem is," he concluded.
Britain has a deep, emotional connection to its currency - the world's oldest still in use. Crashes, when they come - as they did in 1967, 1976 and 1992 - have been seen as moments of wrenching national shame.
The pound's buoyant decade under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, came to be seen as a lush emblem of Britain's financial as well as popular resurgence. Middle Eastern and Russian billionaires accumulated British assets and American investment bankers, once happy to be paid in dollars, schemed to see how they might manage to secure their bonuses in pounds.
Now, unemployment is rising, house prices are falling and economic growth is a far-away hope. Britain is seen as having been too reliant on volatile sectors like housing, finance and retail. The numbers paint a stark picture: Britain's public debt is expected to double to more than £1 trillion by 2012 - or about 60 percent of gross domestic product.
Still, when it comes to the currency - the ultimate barometer of an economy's heath and future prospects - few forecasters have predicted an outright collapse. In fact, after touching a recent low of $1.48, the pound has rallied in recent days on the back of the government's stimulus plan, which includes cuts in the sales tax and £3 billion in capital spending. Government officials said this week that the steep income tax increases built into the program, were aimed at high earners, were there to assure currency markets that these high debt levels would not be permanent.
According to Bloomberg, the average forecast by City economists for the pound at end of 2009 is $1.62 and $1.66 for 2010.
Of course, currency forecasting in the midst of a historic financial crisis is an imprecise art. And such estimates do not square with a growing pessimism about the pound's future that can be readily heard from the salons of West London to the trading desks of investments banks, where a popular bet has become when, as opposed to if, the pound might hit parity with the dollar.
The last time sterling came close to parity was February 1985, when the currency dipped below $1.10 as Britain was hobbled by labor unrest and a deep recession and investors abandoned the pound in droves.
"Parity is not impossible," said Theo Casey, an investment strategist at The Fleet Street Letter, a financial newsletter that has been forecasting a pound collapse since August. "We are this tiny island dependent on finance and housing. We are crashing and it will continue."
His newsletter foresees a return to past sterling crises, most notoriously the one in 1976, when Britain had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. According to Casey, such dire prognostications have a hit a chord, as subscriptions for the newsletter have increased by over 30 percent since he and his team made their call on sterling.
Willem Buiter, a political economist at the London School of Economics, points out in his widely read blog, Maverecon, that there are two factors unique to this crisis that were missing during previous sterling reversions.
First, is that the pound now floats freely, making it more vulnerable to the whims of speculators. And second is the added burden of a devastated banking sector.
These two elements are joined by the one common cause of past currency panics: a bet made by currency speculators that the highly leveraged British state would become insolvent.
"A sterling crisis would not be something highly unusual, if your idea of the distant past is not the market trader's last month," Buiter wrote recently, voicing sympathy for Osborne's warning that Labour's plan might ruin the pound.
The Associated Press
Friday, November 28, 2008
LONDON: The opposition Conservative Party expressed outrage Friday over the arrest of a key lawmaker as part of an investigation into the leak of secret government information.
Damian Green, the party's spokesman on immigration issues, was taken into custody Thursday and released nine hours later in an operation that involved the anti-terrorism police. Conservatives said the arrest was related to the publication of news articles about the Home Office, which is responsible for immigration and for managing Britain's borders.
Mayor Boris Johnson of London, a Conservative, said it was "hard to believe that on the day when terrorists have gone on the rampage in India that anti-terror police in Britain have apparently targeted an elected representative of Parliament for no greater crime than allegedly receiving leaked documents."
The case is unusual because opposition politicians frequently exploit information leaked by civil servants without becoming subjects of police investigations. The Home Office has suffered a string of embarrassing leaks over the past year - including the revelations that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in Parliament and that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working as security guards and bouncers in Britain.
A 26-year-old Home Office official was arrested on Nov. 19 on suspicion of misconduct in public office in connection with the same investigation into the leaks, the police said in a statement. The official, whose name was not disclosed, was released pending further questioning in January.
Asked about Green, the London police force issued a statement saying that a 52-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of "conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office." The police said he was released on bail without being charged, pending further questioning in February.
The Metropolitan Police department said that it was investigating an "alleged leak of confidential government material" and that the decision to carry out the arrest was made "without any ministerial knowledge or approval."
The police said that there was no suspicion of any terrorist offense, but that the investigation fell within the miscellaneous responsibilities of the Counter Terrorism Command.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office said he had no prior knowledge of the move. His Labour Party described the arrest as a police matter.
The Conservative Party's leader, David Cameron, described the police operation as "heavy handed."
A former financial journalist, Green was elected to Parliament in 1997 and re-elected in 2001 and 2005. He was recruited to serve as the Conservatives' spokesman on immigration in 2005.
He argued that opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government accountable. "I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret, information that the public has a right to know," he said.
British law protects whistle-blowers under certain conditions, like in cases of reporting crimes or threats to public health and safety. Four years ago, Katharine Gun, a translator at the secret Government Communications Headquarters, leaked a confidential memo from U.S. intelligence officers asking their British counterparts to spy on members of the United Nations Security Council before the Iraq war. The prosecution dropped the case when it went to trial.
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