EU relents and lets a banana be a banana
By Stephen Castle
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
BRUSSELS: In the European Union, carrots must be firm but not woody, cucumbers must not be too curved and celery has to be free of any type of cavity. This was the law, one that banned overly curved, extra-knobbly or oddly shaped produce from supermarket shelves.
But in a victory for opponents of European regulation, 100 pages of legislation determining the size, shape and texture of fruit and vegetables have been torn up. On Wednesday, EU officials agreed to axe rules laying down standards for 26 products, from peas to plums.
In doing so, the authorities hope they have killed off regulations routinely used by critics - most notably in the British media - to ridicule the meddling tendencies of the EU.
After years of news stories about the permitted angle or curvature of fruit and vegetables, the decision Wednesday also coincided with the rising price of commodities. With the cost of the weekly supermarket visit on the rise, it has become increasingly hard to defend the act of throwing away food just because it looks strange.
Beginning in July next year, when the changes go into force, standards on the 26 products will disappear altogether. Shoppers will the be able to chose their produce whatever its appearance.
Under a compromise reached with national governments, many of which opposed the changes, standards will remain for 10 types of fruit and vegetables, including apples, citrus fruit, peaches, pears, strawberries and tomatoes.
But those in this category that do not meet European norms will still be allowed onto the market, providing they are marked as being substandard or intended for cooking or processing.
"This marks a new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot," said Mariann Fischer Boel, European commissioner for agriculture, who argued that regulations were better left to market operators.
"In these days of high food prices and general economic difficulties," Fischer Boel added, "consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible. It makes no sense to throw perfectly good products away, just because they are the 'wrong' shape."
That sentiment was not shared by 16 of the EU's 27 nations - including Greece, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy and Poland - which tried to block the changes at a meeting of the Agricultural Management Committee.
Several worried that the abolition of standards would lead to the creation of national ones, said one official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Copa-Cogeca, which represents European agricultural trade unions and cooperatives, also criticized the changes. "We fear that the absence of EU standards will lead member states to establish national standards and that private standards will proliferate," said its secretary general, Pekka Pesonen.
But the decision to scale back on standards will be welcomed by euro-skeptics who have long pilloried the EU executive's interest in intrusive regulation.
One such controversy revolved around the correct degree of bend in bananas - a type of fruit not covered by the Wednesday ruling.
In fact, there is no practical regulation on the issue. Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94 says that bananas must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature," though Class 1 bananas can have "slight defects of shape" and Class 2 bananas can have full "defects of shape."
By contrast, the curvature of cucumbers has been a preoccupation of European officials. Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 states that Class I and "Extra class" cucumbers are allowed a bend of 10 millimeters per 10 centimeters of length. Class II cucumbers can bend twice as much.
It also says cucumbers must be fresh in appearance, firm, clean and practically free of any visible foreign matter or pests, free of bitter taste and of any foreign smell.
Such restrictions will disappear next year, and about 100 pages of rules and regulations will go as well, a move welcomed by Neil Parish, chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee.
"Food is food, no matter what it looks like," Parish said. "To stop stores selling perfectly decent food during a food crisis is morally unjustifiable. Credit should be given to the EU agriculture commissioner for pushing through these proposals. Consumers care about the taste and quality of food, not how it looks."
Child obesity is seen as a warning sign of heart disease
By Pam Belluck
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
NEW ORLEANS: A new study finds striking evidence that children who are obese or have high cholesterol show early warning signs of heart disease.
The study, presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association conference in New Orleans, found that the thickness of artery walls of children and teenagers with obesity or high cholesterol resembled the thickness of artery walls of an average 45-year-old.
The study, which has not yet been published, was small, involving 70 children from 6 to 19 years old, and several experts said the results would need to be replicated to be considered conclusive. But they said the method used to measure artery-wall thickness was considered a reliable indicator of heart-disease risk, usually more reliable than cholesterol levels or other measures. The method, which uses ultrasound, has been applied to children in other studies in the last few years, but experts said this appeared to be the first time that results had been correlated to adults.
"I think this is a red flag," said the lead author of the study, Dr. Geetha Raghuveer, a cardiologist and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. "These kids are more similar to middle-aged adults."
Scientists not involved in the study said the findings supported a growing body of research suggesting that childhood obesity in the United States was likely to result in heart disease as the children age.
"These findings are potentially consistent with predictions that obesity and its complications would result in cardiovascular disease becoming a pediatric illness," said Dr. David Ludwig, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard, who co-authored a 2005 study predicting that obesity could shorten the average child's lifespan by two to five years.
"There are other indications that this might be the case, but much of that has been speculative, so this may well be significant hard data, which has been largely lacking," Ludwig said. "This is actually looking at the development of atherosclerosis, the process that we know will, if it is not dealt with, lead to heart attack or stroke."
Childhood obesity is considered an epidemic in the United States, with about 16 percent of children from 2 to 19 years old considered obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the number of new cases of childhood obesity appears to be leveling off, some experts say they are now seeing an increase in Type 2 diabetes in children, which they believe is a consequence of increased obesity.
The Kansas City study was one of several presented at the conference that looked at the link between childhood obesity and heart disease.
Another study of 991 Australian children aged 5 to 15 found that children who were obese had greater enlargement of their hearts, as measured by the size of their left atrium, said the study's leader, Dr. Julian Ayer, a heart researcher at the University of Sydney.
Also in Australia, another study of 150 10-year-olds found that in the heart pumping process, the left ventricles were slower to untwist in children with a higher body-mass index, a relationship of weight to height, said a co-author of that study, Walter Abhayaratna, a researcher at Australian National University.
"These studies are interesting, imperfect corollary evidence of something we all believe is true," said Dr. Lee Goldman, a cardiologist who is dean of the faculties of health, sciences and medicine at Columbia University. "The obesity epidemic in adolescents is the biggest adverse time bomb we've got going on in coronary diseases. These are high-tech ways of adding more evidence."
Goldman co-wrote a study published in December 2007 in The New England Journal of Medicine in which a computer model was used to predict whether heart disease deaths in the United States would rise.
The authors predicted that by 2035, there would be 100,000 additional cases of heart disease attributed to current instances of obesity in children, an estimate especially noteworthy given that advances in treatment have reduced cardiac deaths in recent years.
Another study published in the same journal at that time further bolstered the link between childhood obesity and heart disease.
Analyzing the records of 276,835 Danish people who were examined as children in 1930, researchers from Denmark found that the higher the children's body-mass index in 1930, the greater the chances they would develop heart disease.
While it is too early to know whether the current generation of American children will suffer more heart attacks, strokes or other heart problems, or experience them sooner, many heart researchers consider the growing corroboration of links between childhood obesity and heart disease alarming. Still, Raghuveer said that for the children she studied, hope was not lost.
"A lot of these kids' arteries, even though they are in the early stages of atherosclerosis, are not hardened or calcified, not really advanced," she said. "There may be an opportunity to implement lifestyle alterations, be it exercise, be it diet, or perhaps even medication. Perhaps it may be reversed."
Japanese greenhouse gas emissions reach record level
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
TOKYO: Japanese greenhouse gas emissions rose 2.3 percent to hit a record high in the year that ended in March, hurt by the extended shutdown of some nuclear power plants, while emissions from manufacturers continued to rise, government data released Wednesday showed.
Emissions of heat-trapping gases including carbon dioxide rose to 1.371 billion tons from 1.34 billion tons a year earlier, according to data compiled by the Environment Ministry. That is an increase of 8.7 percent since 1990.
The continued closure of Tokyo Electric Power's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was damaged by an earthquake July 16 last year, has thwarted the country's efforts to increase carbon-free power generation. Japan is under pressure to achieve its emission-reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol for emissions reduction.
Japan, which has the world's second-biggest economy behind the United States, has pledged to cut emissions of gases blamed for global warming by 6 percent from the 1990 level. The reduction must be made in the five years that started in April this year.
Output of carbon dioxide increased 2.6 percent to 1.305 billion tons in the year that ended in March, or 14.1 percent since 1990, according to the report from the ministry. Methane emissions fell 1.6 percent to 23.1 million tons.
The Japanese nuclear plant utilization rate dropped to 60.7 percent of capacity in the year that ended March from 69.9 percent a year earlier, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan said.
Tokyo Electric's nuclear plant operating rates fell to 44.9 percent of capacity from 74.2 percent.Storage off Australian coast
Australia passed legislation Tuesday that would establish new licenses to allow companies to inject and store greenhouse gases in waters off the Australian coast, Bloomberg News reported from Sydney.
The law facilitates the storage of greenhouse gases while providing oil and natural gas exploration and production license holders a "high level of protection" for their existing property rights, Belinda Robinson, chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, said in an e-mailed statement.
Australia, which is seeking to develop carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technologies and regulations to help tackle global warming, started its first demonstration project in April for the underground disposal of carbon dioxide. The move was part of a strategy to prolong the use of coal as a fuel source while reducing emissions.
"The passing of this bill creates an environment in which industry can invest in CCS with confidence, and will encourage the commercialization of technologies capable of reducing future global greenhouse gas emissions," Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said Monday in a statement before the bill had been passed. Chevron, the U.S. oil company, plans to use underground disposal for carbon waste from its proposed Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia.
Japan governor under fire for Tokyo quake comments
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
TOKYO: A Japanese governor has come under fire for comments appearing to suggest that a huge earthquake in Tokyo would be an opportunity for western Japan to boost its economy.
Toshizo Ido, governor of Hyogo prefecture -- where 6,400 people were killed by a 7.3 magnitude quake in 1995 -- made the remark at a meeting of governors from western Japan Tuesday.
"If there were a big earthquake in Kanto (eastern Japan), Tokyo would suffer great damage. This would be a chance, and we should take advantage of it," media reports quoted Ido as saying.
A government panel has estimated that a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hitting Tokyo Bay would probably kill up to 11,000 people and leave 7 million people homeless. Estimates of economic damage have topped more than $1 trillion (647 billion pounds).
Ido later said he was referring to the concentration of economic activity in Tokyo, whose more than 12 million residents make up about a 10th of Japan's population, and meant backup elsewhere was vital to be ready for a quake in the capital.
"I should have used a different word," he told reporters.
Japan accounts for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater. The 1995 quake, Japan's worst in more than 50 years, devastated the western port city of Kobe and caused an estimated $100 billion in damage.
In 1923 a magnitude 7.9 quake hit the Tokyo area killing more than 140,000 people.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg)
How much can we blame DNA for who we are?
By Natalie Angier
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I owe an apology to my genes. For years I offhandedly blamed them for certain personal defects conventionally associated with one's hereditary starter pack - my Graves' autoimmune disease, for example, or my hair, which looks like the fibers left behind on the rim of an aspirin bottle after the cotton ball has been removed, only wispier.
Now it turns out that genes, per se, are simply too feeble to accept responsibility for much of anything. By the traditional definition, genes are those lineups of DNA letters that serve as instructions for piecing together the body's proteins, and, I'm sorry, but the closer we look, the less instructive they seem, less a "blueprint for life" than one of those disappointing two-page Basic Setup booklets that comes with your computer, tells you where to plug it in and then directs you to a Web site for more information.
Scientists have learned that the canonical "genes" account for an embarrassingly tiny part of the human genome: maybe 1 percent of the three billion paired subunits of DNA that are stuffed into nearly every cell of the body qualify as indisputable protein codes. Scientists are also learning that many of the gene-free regions of our DNA are far more willing to express themselves in ways that have nothing to do with protein manufacture.
In fact, I can't even make the easy linguistic transition from blaming my genes to blaming my whole DNA, because it's not just about DNA anymore. It's also about DNA's chemical cousin RNA, doing complicated things it wasn't supposed to do. Not long ago, RNA was seen as a bureaucrat, the middle molecule between a gene and a protein, as exemplified by the tidy aphorism, "DNA makes RNA makes protein." Now we find cases of short clips of RNA acting like DNA, transmitting genetic secrets to the next generation directly, without bothering to ask permission. We find cases of RNA acting like a protein, catalyzing chemical reactions, pushing other molecules around or tearing them down.
For many scientists, the increasingly baroque portrait of the genome that their latest research has revealed, along with the muddying of molecular categories, is to be expected. "It's the normal process of doing science," said Jonathan Beckwith of Harvard Medical School. "You start off simple and you develop complexity."
Nor are researchers disturbed by any linguistic turbulence that may arise, any confusion over what they mean when they talk about genes.
"Geneticists happily abuse 'gene' to mean many things in many settings," said Eric Lander of the Broad Institute. "This can be a source of enormous consternation to onlookers who want to understand the conversation, but geneticists aren't bothered."
For some researchers, though, the parlance of molecular biology is desperately in need of an overhaul, starting with the gene. "The notion of the gene as the atom of biology is very mistaken," said Evelyn Fox Keller, a science historian and author of "The Century of the Gene" and other books. "DNA does not come equipped with genes. It comes with sequences that are acted on in certain ways by cells. Before you have cells you don't have genes. We have to get away from the underlying assumption of the particulate units of inheritance that we seem so attached to."
Keller is a fan of the double helix considered both in toto and in situ - in its native cellular setting. "DNA is an enormously powerful resource, the most brilliant invention in evolutionary history," she said.
Still, she said, "it doesn't do anything by itself." It is a profoundly relational molecule, she said.To focus endlessly on genes, she said, keeps us stuck in a linear, unidirectional and two-dimensional view of life, in which instructions are read out and dutifully followed.
"What makes DNA a living molecule is the dynamics of it, and a dynamic vocabulary would be helpful," she said. "I talk about trying to verb biology." And to renoun it as well. Writing last year in the journal PloS One, Keller and David Harel of the Weizmann Institute of Science suggested as an alternative to gene the word dene, which they said could be used to connote any DNA sequence that plays a role in the cell. So far, Keller admits, it has yet to catch on.
Complex as our genome is, it can be comprehended: Our cells do it every day. Yet as the physician and essayist Lewis Thomas once noted, his liver was much smarter than he was, and he would rather be asked to pilot a 747 jet over Denver than to assume control of his liver. "Nothing would save me or my liver, if I were in charge," he wrote.
U.S. top court rules for Navy in whales-sonar case
By James ViciniReuters
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The U.S. Navy can conduct sonar training exercises off the southern California coast without restrictions designed to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a defeat for environmentalists.
In the most significant environmental case of its new term and its first ruling of the term, the high court rejected a federal judge's injunction that had required the Navy to take precautions during submarine-hunting exercises.
Environmental groups brought the lawsuit and said the intense sound waves can harm or even kill 37 species of marine mammals, including sea lions and endangered blue whales, by interfering with their ability to navigate and communicate.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the court's conservative majority, said the overall public interest in the case tipped strongly in favour of the Navy.
He said the Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines outweighed the interests advanced by the environmentalists.
The court overturned the restrictions in the injunction that the Navy had challenged, including a requirement that it stop using sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards (2,012 metres) and to reduce sonar decibel levels under certain ocean conditions.
Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented in part and agreed in part with the ruling, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter disagreed with the entire decision.
The dispute involved 14 training exercises off the California coast that began in February of last year and are scheduled to end in January.
President George W. Bush intervened in the dispute by citing the national security necessity of the training and exempting the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.
But a U.S. appeals court rejected the White House's effort to exempt the Navy from the laws, prompting the administration to appeal to the Supreme Court and to argue that the judges should have deferred to the judgement of the Navy and Bush.
The Bush administration argued that there has been no documented case of sonar-related injury to marine mammals in the 40 years of exercises off the southern California coast.
Roberts said the Navy had previously taken voluntary measures to address concerns about marine mammals.
He said the court did not address the ultimate underlying legal claim that the Navy must prepare an environmental impact statement. Such an assessment is expected to be completed early next year.
In her written dissent, Justice Ginsburg cited the substantial and irreparable harm to marine mammals, saying sonar has been linked to mass strandings and haemorrhaging around the brain and ears.
She said the training exercises serve critical interests, but they do not authorise the Navy to violate the environmental laws.
(Editing by David Alexander)
Thomas L. Friedman: How to fix a flat
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Last September, I was in a hotel room watching CNBC early one morning. They were interviewing Bob Nardelli, the chief executive of Chrysler, and he was explaining why the auto industry, at that time, needed $25 billion in loan guarantees. It wasn't a bailout, he said. It was a way to enable the car companies to retool for innovation. I could not help but shout back at the TV screen: "We have to subsidize Detroit so that it will innovate? What business were you people in other than innovation?" If we give you another $25 billion, will you also do accounting?
How could these companies be so bad for so long? Clearly the combination of a very un-innovative business culture, visionless management and overly generous labor contracts explains a lot of it. It led to a situation whereby General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, GM threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers.
This included striking special deals with Congress that allowed the Detroit automakers to count the mileage of gas guzzlers as being less than they really were - provided they made some cars flex-fuel capable for ethanol. It included special offers of $1.99-a-gallon gasoline for a year to any customer who purchased a gas guzzler. And it included endless lobbying to block Congress from raising the miles-per-gallon requirements. The result was an industry that became brain-dead.
Nothing typified this more than statements like those of Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman. He has been quoted as saying that hybrids like the Toyota Prius "make no economic sense." And, in February, D Magazine of Dallas quoted him as saying that global warming "is a total crock of [expletive]."
These are the guys taxpayers are being asked to bail out.
And please, spare me the alligator tears about GM's health care costs. Sure, they are outrageous. "But then why did GM refuse to lift a finger to support a national health care program when Hillary Clinton was pushing for it?" asks Dan Becker, a top environmental lobbyist.
Not every automaker is at death's door. Look at this article that ran two weeks ago on autochannel.com: "ALLISTON, Ontario, Canada - Honda of Canada Mfg. officially opened its newest investment in Canada - a state-of-the art $154 million engine plant. The new facility will produce 200,000 fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines annually for Civic production in response to growing North American demand for vehicles that provide excellent fuel economy."
The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.
Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the "honor" of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.
O.K., now that I have all that off my chest, what do we Americans do?
I am as terrified as anyone of the domino effect on industry and workers if GM were to collapse. But if we are going to use taxpayer money to rescue Detroit, then it should be done along the lines proposed in The Wall Street Journal on Monday by Paul Ingrassia, a former Detroit bureau chief for that paper.
"In return for any direct government aid," he wrote, "the board and the management [of GM] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver - someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical - should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company. ... Giving GM a blank check - which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant - would be an enormous mistake."
I would add other conditions: Any car company that gets taxpayer money must demonstrate a plan for transforming every vehicle in its fleet to a hybrid-electric engine with flex-fuel capability, so its entire fleet can also run on next generation cellulosic ethanol.
Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn't need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he'd like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I'd bet it wouldn't take him much longer than that to come up with the GM iCar.
Treasury chief resisting aid to automakers
By Brian Knowlton, Carl Hulse and David M. Herszenhorn
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
WASHINGTON: With a showdown looming, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Wednesday resisted calls from congressional Democrats and the president-elect to do more to bolster imperiled American automakers, saying that while the industry was "critical," the money in the $700 billion bailout package was meant above all for the financial sector.
"We need a solution, but the solution has got to be one that leads to viability" for the auto industry, helping it retool and not just survive a cash crisis, Paulson said. Referring to the bailout plan, formally the Troubled Asset Relief Program, he said, "Again, the intent of the TARP was to deal with the financial industry."
Paulson spoke a day after Democratic congressional leaders said that they were ready to push emergency legislation to aid automakers during a lame-duck session of Congress next week. Democratic aides say their stance has been coordinated with advisers to President-elect Barack Obama.
Obama advocated such assistance in a meeting with President George W. Bush, but the White House insists that bailout funds are better spent easing the credit crunch underlying the economic crisis.
On Wednesday, however, a presidential spokeswoman said that the White House was "willing to listen" to Congress and was waiting to hear its proposals.
"We want these companies to succeed," Dana Perino said.
Obama remained in Chicago on Wednesday, in closed meetings, planning for his transition to power Jan. 20. But his team has been moving quickly ahead.
A spokeswoman said that a veteran Democrat with extensive security credentials, former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, had been appointed to help guide transition planning at the Pentagon. But she denied reports that the former secretary of state Warren Christopher would fill the corresponding role with the State Department.
Nunn, who was once rumored as a potential Obama running mate, will play "an informal senior adviser role throughout the defense transition process," the spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter, said.
A transition team co-chairman, John Podesta, announced sweeping ethics restrictions Tuesday on those who work in, or raise funds for, the transition team.
"If someone has lobbied during the past 12 months, they're prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied and will have to cease all lobbying activities during their work on the transition," Podesta said in the first news conference by the transition team.
He called the restraints "the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history." That team will have a budget of $12 million, with $5 million in government funds and the remainder from private sources. But donations from lobbyists, corporations and political-action committees will be banned, as will any gift exceeding $5,000.
The intent seemed to be to mirror the way the Obama campaign raised record sums by relying on a large number of small donations. Money will be raised separately for the presidential inauguration, but details were not yet available. Bush raised more than $40 million for his second inauguration, mostly from companies and executives.
As a candidate, Obama laid out more detailed and onerous ethics rules than any previous prospective president. The transition rules have led to some grumbling that, at a time of immense challenges, an Obama administration could be excluding a pool of substantial talent by stopping people from working for the White House in the areas they know best.
Obama's aides indicated that they expected the rules to apply to his inauguration as well as the transition. A crowd estimated at more than 1 million is expected for the inaugural period.
While aides to Obama say they are aware that a lavish celebration might not be well received given the faltering economy, they indicate that the historic nature of Obama's inauguration and the expectations of high turnout all but guarantee that the occasion will be a huge one.
As the two sides in the auto debate squared off, an Obama economic adviser, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, issued an urgent plea Wednesday for help for an industry of primordial importance in her state.
"The crisis is real," Granholm said on CBS. "This is urgent. The national economy rests on this." She added: "If this industry is allowed to fail, there would be a ripple effect throughout the nation.'
Granholm is the only governor on Obama's economic advisory board, placed there partly to reflect his concern for the auto industry, aides have said. She is also reportedly being considered as his energy secretary.
Even as Democrats called for quick action to bolster the auto industry - beyond the $25 billion in federal aid already allocated for retooling - it was not clear exactly what shape that action might take.
"Next week, during the lame-duck session of Congress, we are determined to pass legislation that will save the jobs of millions of workers whose livelihoods are on the line," the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said in a statement.
His call for the session came after the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said that Congress and the administration "must take immediate action" to stave off a possible collapse of the auto industry.
Pelosi stopped short of saying Congress would adopt legislation to provide emergency financial aid to the automakers, seemingly to give the Treasury Department the option of using money from the $700 billion bailout program instead.
But that was the approach Paulson appeared to foreclose on Wednesday, and a senior Democratic official said Democrats would try to force Bush's hand.
Congressional aides said that Democrats, should they move ahead with emergency legislation, would have to decide whether to put forward a stand-alone measure for the auto industry or include the aid in a wider economic stimulus measure. Such a package is likely to include extended unemployment benefits, aid to strapped states and cities, new money for health care and possibly money for public works - all programs Bush has resisted.
Obama preparing comprehensive technology policy
By Hiawatha Bray
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Barack Obama's Internet-fueled campaign has transformed the way Americans choose a president. Now, the president-elect's administration plans to change the way Americans - and government - use technology.
If Obama gets his way, all Americans would have broadband Internet access, whether they live in big cities or remote villages. Online life would be safer, with better defenses against cybercriminals. And there would be greater access to government, with online services to let anyone question members of the president's cabinet or track every dime of the U.S. budget.
"I think it's not going to happen in the first 100 days, but I think a lot of this can happen in the first term," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a media reform organization based in Washington.
Calls and e-mail messages to the Obama transition team were not returned. But judging by the campaign's position paper on technology policy, the president-elect believes that Internet technology should be as thoroughly integrated into U.S. agencies as it was in his campaign, where the Web was used to communicate, raise money and get out the vote in a way unprecedented in U.S. politics.
Obama is in the process of choosing the country's first chief technology officer, a post that's long existed in most corporations but never in government.
Obama has also said he wants to put YouTube-like videos of government meetings online and has proposed a Google-like database of grants and contracts, so people can see where their money is going. And he would require his cabinet members to hold regular online town hall meetings, where they would field questions from the Internet audience.
"His use of the technology in the campaign would imply a lot of positive things for government as well," said Phillip Bond, a former under secretary of commerce in the administration of President George W. Bush's president of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry lobbying group. "I think we're going to see a lot of things we can't even imagine today."
But before they can benefit from online government, many Americans still must get online. The U.S. ranks 15th out of 30 industrialized countries in the percentage of citizens with access to the Internet. Obama promises to make Internet access as commonplace as telephone service.
Obama has called for tax and loan incentives to spur construction of broadband networks. He wants to divert some of the Universal Service Fund, which the federal government uses to subsidize telephone service in rural areas, to build high-speed Internet lines that could also carry phone traffic.
"You don't have to take that money out of budget," said Scott, the policy director at Free Press, which backs the idea. "It's basically already there."
But Obama is bound to face resistance from rural phone companies. He also faces a fight on a proposal to reallocate licensed radio and television frequencies to create wireless broadband networks. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved the sale of wireless networking devices that will transmit over unused television frequencies.
Promising a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy to make U.S. computer networks safer from criminals, terrorists, or enemy nations, Obama has said he plans to appoint a national cybersecurity adviser.
Art Coviello, president of RSA, the data security division of EMC, said the Bush administration had drawn up a sound cybersecurity plan but failed to carry it out. He is expecting better from an Obama administration.
"He was the first presidential candidate who held a round table on national security that had cybersecurity as a priority," Coviello said.
But any comprehensive cybersecurity strategy must be international in scope, said Tom Kellermann, vice president for security awareness at Core Security Technologies. "Many hackers use less-developed countries as bastions or havens for their acts," he said, adding that it would take complex multinational negotiations to build global fire walls against online crime.
Obama is a staunch supporter of "net neutrality," the idea that Internet providers should be barred by law from discriminating against particular kinds of data. But there is intense debate over whether a law is needed.
Comcast admitted this year that it had delayed the flow of data generated by the popular file-swapping program BitTorrent, used by many Internet users to trade in television shows and movies, to ease congestion on its network. The FCC ordered a halt to the practice. Comcast has appealed to a U.S. court.
A U.S. net neutrality law would prohibit such restrictions by service providers, and has strong support from online activists worried about digital censorship."That's been a key point of our agenda for some years," Scott of Free Press said. But
Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, said such a law was unnecessary and perhaps dangerous. "It will allow the FCC to begin comprehensively regulating the broadband marketplace, including broadband speech," he said.
An even tougher fight could await Obama if he sticks to his goal of attracting more high-technology workers from abroad. He favors expanding the H-1b visa program, which is used by U.S. technology companies to import foreign workers for as long as six years. But Obama is seeking to expand the number of permanent visas made available to skilled foreign workers and offer those who obtain college degrees in the United States a chance to become citizens.
Any effort to welcome foreign-born tech workers would not sit well with Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, an organization of technology workers who oppose increased immigration. "We don't need more workers," Berry said. "We need more companies that'll hire Americans."
General Motors might not survive without government help
By Bill Vlasic
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
DETROIT: Just two months after celebrating its centennial, General Motors is facing the grim prognosis that it may not survive to see another year unless it is rescued by a bailout from the U.S. government.
Shares in GM sank to the lowest point in 65 years, to $2.92, Tuesday, the day after the company disclosed in a federal filing that its "ability to continue as a going concern" was in substantial doubt because it might run out of money by the end of the year.
Its cash cushion has been shrinking by more than $2 billion a month this autumn.
If that pace continues, by January its reserves will fall below the minimum of $10 billion in cash it needs to run its global operations, GM said in its third-quarter filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In that event, GM said, it might be unable to pay its suppliers, meet its loan covenants or cover health care obligations in its labor contracts. The extent of the financial crisis at GM, disclosed in greater detail in its filing than it had acknowledged before, is proving to be far worse than investors and analysts had expected just last week.
Only an emergency government bailout seemingly stands between GM and a bankruptcy filing, according to industry analysts.
As the depths of the crisis grows, the pressure increases in Washington to pass a rescue package for as much as $50 billion in assistance for the troubled Big Three Detroit automakers or risk the economic fallout of a bankruptcy that would affect hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on the auto industry.
Democratic congressional leaders said Tuesday they would push next week for emergency legislation to help the automakers.
Despite a recent plea from the U.S. president-elect, Barack Obama, the administration of President George W. Bush has been unwilling to commit any funds to Detroit beyond a $25 billion loan program to assist the companies in developing more fuel-efficient cars.
The GM chairman, Rick Wagoner, said the company could not wait for aid that might come when Obama took office in January.
"This is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently," Wagoner said in an interview with Automotive News.
Investors drove stock in GM down for a fifth consecutive day Tuesday.
The market value of the company fell to about $1.7 billion, a decline of more than 90 percent from a year ago. A spokesman for GM, Steve Harris, said Tuesday that Wagoner's job was not in jeopardy and reaffirmed the support of the GM board for its embattled chairman.
"Nothing has changed relative to the GM board's support for the GM management team during this historically difficult economic period for the U.S. auto industry," he said.
The federal filing that showed the depth of the problems at GM painted a bleak picture of a company that had lost more than $20 billion this year and was in danger of not being able to pay its bills in a few weeks.
"We do not currently expect our operations to generate sufficient cash flow to fund our obligations as they come due," the company said. "And we do not have other traditional sources of liquidity available to fund these obligations."
GM ended the third quarter with $16.2 billion in available cash.
At this pace, GM will have less than $10 billion by the end of the year - and that is after cutting 30 percent of its white-collar work force, halting the development of new models and temporarily shutting down most of its North American assembly plants in a desperate bid to save money.
The credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's cut its ratings on GM debt further into junk status Tuesday, and Fitch ratings was also considering another cut.
Analysts said the inability of GM to raise cash, other than from government loans, would force another, deeper round of restructuring, at a minimum, to keep the company solvent.
"We expect cash outflows to quickly reduce the company's liquidity during the next few quarters, perhaps to levels that would force GM to consider a financial restructuring, even if it does not file for bankruptcy," S&P said.
By its own admission, GM cannot cut its costs fast enough to balance the sharp fall in revenue in what is the worst U.S. vehicle market in 15 years.
"Looking into the first two quarters of 2009, even with our planned actions, our estimated liquidity will fall significantly short of the minimum required to operate our business," the company said its third-quarter filing.
GM said that the deterioration in its balance sheet could make it difficult to pay its suppliers by the end of this year, and that it had no other sources of cash to tap except federal funds.
It also said it might not be in compliance with its credit agreements, including a $4.5 billion revolving credit line and a $1.5 billion term loan. "There is no assurance we could cure a default, secure a waiver or arrange substitute financing," GM said.
France weighs deporting Afghans
By Caroline Brothers
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
PARIS: France and Britain are preparing to resume deportations of Afghans found without papers on their territory, say officials and a nongovernmental group that aids detainees.
The first plane could leave next week and would be the first such move by France since 2005, said Julie Chansel, a spokeswoman for Cimade, the migrant support group.
Hoping to halt the flow of clandestine migration across France to Britain, the two governments - which both have troops in Afghanistan - are taking advantage of efforts spearheaded by France to unify EU immigration rules with a pact that stresses policing and urges co-operation on deportation.
Neither country wants to see migrants living in the streets of Calais, or crossing to Britain to work illegally.
But critics of the measure, like Hélène Flautre, a member of the European Parliament, say that deportation flights - in winter, to a country at war - amount to collective expulsions that violate European human rights laws.
"We can confirm these flights will go ahead," a spokeswoman for the UK Border Agency said Tuesday, invoking the customary practice of talking to the media only on the basis of anonymity. "We are working together with Afghanistan and France to bring them together."
Liam Byrne, the British immigration minister at the time, met with Brice Hortefeux, the French immigration minister, in Paris on Sept. 30 to discuss "joining forces to deliver joint returns of illegal migrants" and other issues, according to the British Embassy in Paris.
An official close to the situation who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue said the governments had discussed a charter flight that would leave Britain on or around Nov. 18 and stop in France to pick up a number of Afghans from the Calais region before continuing to Kabul via Baku, Azerbaijan.
But the sub-prefect of Calais, Gérard Gavory, denied Tuesday that any such flight was planned. "The British proposed that we join the flights that they run to Afghanistan under a bilateral accord with the agreement of the UNHCR, but the government hasn't given its response," he said.
Rahela Abdullah, an assistant to the Afghan ambassador in Paris, said that a consular official had visited a detention center in Calais on Friday to verify whether about 40 people being held there were indeed from Afghanistan.
"It is not easy, if they do not have papers, to identify whether or not they are Afghans," she said Monday. No country can legally send undocumented foreigners home without the home government recognizing them as citizens and issuing them with temporary travel documents.
Most Afghan migrants picked up in Europe have only the vaguest memories of Afghanistan. Although born to Afghan parents, most have grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, their lawyers said.
Some were born in the camps. Others have lost contact with family during their journeys to Europe.
"If they say they are Afghan but they know Pakistan better, we are in a difficult situation," Abdullah said.
The French police have been conducting nightly raids in the Calais port area for a week, said Jean-Claude Lenoir of the volunteer group Salam, which feeds migrants in Calais.
A total of 57 Afghans were detained Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 and placed in the nearby Coquelles detention center, Cimade said. It was that center that Afghan diplomats visited.
Gavory said the police operations were unrelated to any deportation plan and had been provoked by attacks on drivers by smugglers hustling migrants onto trucks in the port area.
Cimade said a few of the 57 Afghans detained had already been sent back to Greece, Italy and Austria under EU migration rules.
Another person close to the situation said bone testing had found that seven of the detainees were children, who cannot legally be deported, leaving 43 still in detention.
Flautre has written to Hortefeux, saying that deportation to Afghanistan would flout the European Convention on Human Rights and betray a three-way agreement between the French and Afghan governments and the UN refugee agency in 2002.
The agency annually suspends its own program of voluntary returns in winter, and warned Monday that drought and a food crisis were pushing thousands of Afghans to leave their villages in the north and west.
The agency is helping run a donor conference in Kabul on Nov. 17 to bring in urgent supplies.
Can Europe produce an Obama?
By Steven Erlanger
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
PARIS: In the general European euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, there is the beginning of self-reflection about Europe's own troubles with racial integration. Many are asking if there could be a French, British, German or Italian Obama, and everyone knows the answer is no, not anytime soon.
It is risky to make racial comparisons between America and Europe, given all the historical and cultural differences. But race had long been one reason that Europeans, harking back to the days when famous American blacks like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin found solace in France, looked down on the United States, even as Europe developed postcolonial racial problems of its own.
"They always said, 'You think race relations are bad here in France, check out the U.S.,' " said Mohamed Hamidi, former editor of the Bondy Blog, founded after the 2005 riots in the heavily immigrant suburbs of Paris.
"But that argument can no longer stand," he said.
For many immigrants to Europe, Obama's victory is "a small revolution" toward better overall treatment of minorities, said Nadia Azieze, 31, an Algerian-born nurse who grew up here. "It will never be the same," she said, over a meal of rice and lamb in the racially mixed Paris neighborhood of Barbès-Rochechouart.
Her sister, Cherine, 29, is a computer engineer. Obama "really represents the dream of America if you work, you can make it," she said. "It's a hope for the entire world."
But the sisters are less optimistic about the realities of France, where minorities have a limited political role, with only one black deputy elected to the National Assembly from mainland France.
Has the Obama election caused any real self-reflection among the majority here? "It's politically correct to say, 'O.K., great! He's black,' and clap," Nadia said. "But deep down, there's no change. People say one thing and believe another."
In all the jobs she has ever had, she said, "I've always been asked to do more, because I'm an immigrant. We always have to prove ourselves."
Down the street, picking through the cheap clothes on sidewalk stands, Fatou Diedhiou, 34, born in Senegal, said that Obama's victory may make the French give blacks "a bit of respect." But she finds deep racism among the French, who she says "think that all blacks are illiterate and can't do anything but clean."
Obama is an exceptional figure even in the United States, a nation of immigrants with a long and complex history of racial problems going back to the Indian wars and the extensive slave trade, which produced a bloody civil war.
Most European countries were relatively monoethnic until the postcolonial period. Britain, for example, was largely white until the mid-20th century and still does not have a substantial black middle class, while French immigrants are almost all from former French colonies in North Africa, like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, or in black Africa, like Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
Measured by political representation of minorities, both the United States and Europe seem lagging, though Obama's victory seemed to underscore how much farther behind Europe is.
Obama is the only black in the current Senate, and unless he is replaced by an African-American, the new Senate will have none. The new House has 39 black representatives, about 9 percent. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the country's population.
But Rama Yade, the Senegal-born state secretary for human rights, called herself "a painful exception" in the French government, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy's appointment of three prominent black or Muslim women to his government. As for the political elite's embrace of Obama, she said, "The enthusiasm they express toward this far-away American, they don't have it for the minorities in France."
It is not only immigrants who are pondering what Obama's victory says about Europe. France's defense minister, Hervé Morin, called the Obama victory "a lesson" for a French democracy late to adopt integration.
"In this election, the Americans not only chose a president, but also their identity," said Dominique Moïsi, a French political analyst. "And now we have to think, too, about our identity in France it's the most challenging election ever. We realize we are late, and America has regained the torch of a moral revolution."
In Italy, Jean-Léonard Touadi, the only black member of the Italian Parliament, sees the Obama victory similarly. It is "a great and concrete provocation to European society and European politics," said Touadi, born in the Congo Republic. Obama gives hope, he said, that "one day" there can be a similar outcome in Europe.
But not soon. Hossain Moazzem, a Bangladeshi waiter at L'Insalata Ricca restaurant, said he hoped Obama's victory would foster "change all over the world." But Italy, he said, had a "long, long" way to go.
In Britain, too, there was skepticism. Trevor Phillips, the black chairman of the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that the political system held immigrants back. "If Barack Obama had lived here, I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break through the institutional stranglehold that there is on power," he told The Times of London.
Britain has several minority ministers below cabinet rank, but just 15 nonwhites in the 646-member House of Commons. The parliamentary system makes it harder for a young person or an outsider to emerge.
"In Britain, you can't make a brilliant speech and get noticed the way Barack Obama did," Sadiq Khan, a Labor minister, told The Guardian. "You have to rise up through the ranks in Parliament."
But Ashok Viswanathan, assistant director of Operation Black Vote, which works to engage members of minorities in politics, predicted that Britain could have a party leader from a minority in the next 10 to 15 years, and a minority member as prime minister in 30.
"If someone said two years ago that there would be a black president, most people would have laughed that person out of town," he said. "The very nature of aspiration is when barriers are broken, whether in flying to the moon or being the first black person around a cabinet table it's something that nobody believes will happen."
Germany is yet a different case, with its largest immigrant population invited from Turkey to work in West German factories in the 1960s and 1970s. Germany now has some 2.9 million inhabitants of Turkish background, 800,000 of them with German citizenship under new laws. But they have little political representation in the unified Germany of 82 million, with just 5 members of the 613-seat Bundestag.
Even Cem Ozdemir, Germany's best-known ethnic Turkish politician, currently a European legislator, is having trouble getting on the Greens Party list of candidates for the Bundestag in part because of internal opposition to his ambition to lead the party.
"Germans can't believe a Turkish politician believes in a politics for Germany," said Mely Kiyak, 32, a German-born daughter of Turkish parents who wrote a book, "Ten for Germany," about the problems of ethnic Turkish politicians. "The Germans think, 'This is our country. Why should we elect a Turk? He might want to Islamicize the country."'
The Germans love Obama, she said, "but we don't have minorities anywhere, not in media, in politics, in the executive or the judiciary."
Ferdi Sarikurt, 22, who works in a bakery in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, came to Germany at age 1 and is a citizen. A German Obama is beyond his imagination, he said. "The German government would not allow this to happen because it would think that a person with an immigrant background would favor the foreigners. Maybe this will change when I am 50 years old, if at all."
But Kiyak said the Obama victory was causing significant reflection in the immigrant community, if not yet in the country at large. "Minorities see what is possible in another country, and they become jealous," she said, noting that President Abdullah Gul of Turkey said recently in Der Spiegel that Turkish Germans "should take part in German society and politics and not look back."
Given that France has such close ties to its former colonies and more Muslims than any other country in Europe, the debate here is more complicated.
On Sunday, numerous politicians signed a manifesto written by Yazid Sabeg, a millionaire child of Algerian immigrants, calling for affirmative-action programs to turn the supposedly colorblind French ideal of equality into reality for alienated immigrants.
"The election of Barack Obama highlights via a cruel contrast the shortcomings of the French Republic and the distance that separates us from a country whose citizens knew how to go beyond the racial question," the manifesto said. It won support from Sarkozy's wife, Carla, who told Le Journal du Dimanche, "our prejudices are insidious" and hoped the "Obama effect" would help to reshape society.
But the French model of citizenship does not allow for official distinctions by race or religion. When a legislative official here was asked for data on the number of black or Muslim legislators, he told a reporter to "look at the pictures on the Senate directory," to judge by name and skin color.
Joseph Macé-Scaron, writing in the French-language weekly Marianne, said that the discussion of a "French Obama" was a diversion and a screen, substituting a false American model onto France. The problem here, as in other parts of Europe, he said, was less the rejection of nonwhite immigrants than the way political and cultural elites patronized and used them, "only to better block access to the top of the social ladder."
Praising "the 'difference' of nonwhites locked them inside identities of resentment," he said.
But the conservative Le Figaro blamed French minorities themselves for part of their exclusion. The paper noted that Obama's success was based on his upbringing, education and success at integrating into the larger society and articulating its values, including patriotism.
"From this point of view, Obama should be the model to follow for young immigrants who have come to doubt their feeling of belonging to the nation," the paper said. "Minorities, who have chosen their exile, in contrast to black Americans, still have a lot to prove."
Truck bomb shakes southern Afghan city
By Taimoor Shah and C. J. Chivers
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: A tanker truck packed with explosives detonated outside the provincial council office in Afghanistan's largest southern city on Wednesday, killing the driver and at least six other people and wounding more than 40 others.
The bomb shook the entire city, collapsed at least five houses and left a huge crater near the government building, which housed an office of a national security service. One of the victims was a woman, the authorities said, and two were members of the security service.
"The enemies of Afghanistan and peace once again put us in mourning," General Rahmatullah Roufi, the provincial governor, said at a news conference, during which he announced a "purification" operation to arrest insurgents in and near the city.
The attack, which marked the continued deterioration of security in Afghanistan, occurred just hours after two men on motorcycle sprayed acid on the faces of eight teenage girls, apparently as a punishment for daring to attend high school.
The students were walking to school when the man drove up and splashed their faces with what appeared to be battery acid.
At least two of the girls required hospitalization, with their faces blackened and burned and the doctors trying to save their eyes. A woman who gave her name as Malina, stood beside the hospital bed of Shamia, 18, a ninth-grader who was moaning
"She is in pain," Malina said. "Her sin was that she was going to school, what else can I say?"
Nearby, Atifa, 16, another student, was similarly injured, and said the attack caught the students entirely by surprise. "We haven't received threats or warning from anybody," she said. "I will not go to school any more, until security becomes better."
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said by telephone that the Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing but was not involved in the burning of the students' faces. "We condemned this event," he said. "It's very bad whoever carried out."
The veracity of his statement could not be immediately confirmed.
Karzai's brother escapes suicide blast unhurt
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
KABUL: Six people were killed and at least 40 wounded in a suicide bomb attack on government buildings in southern Afghanistan Wednesday, officials said, but a brother of the Afghan president who was in one of the offices was unhurt.
The blast occurred on a road between the main intelligence office in the southern city of Kandahar and a compound used by the provincial government council. The council is led by Ahmad Wali Karzai, a brother of President Hamid Karzai.
Wali Karzai said the force of the blast smashed windows in the compound, wounding some people inside.
"Half of the building has been destroyed," Wali Karzai told Reuters by telephone.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its worst level this year since the Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. A resurgent Taliban have stepped up attacks against Karzai's U.S.-backed government and foreign forces.
Kandahar governor Rahmatullah Rawufi said six people, two of them members of the intelligence agency, were killed and 42 wounded. Many of the wounded were civilians, he said.
He told reporters in Kandahar that the bomber had detonated explosives packed into a lorry.
Security forces cordoned off the area after the attack, residents said by telephone.
Hours before the blast, attackers threw acid on a group of girls outside their school in Kandahar, the Afghan government said in a statement.
It said the schoolgirls had their head scarves removed by the unidentified attackers before the acid was thrown. Rawufi said five girls were hurt and had been taken to hospital but there was no more information about their condition.
The Taliban had banned girls from receiving educations while it was in power under its strict interpretation of Islam.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for either of the attacks in Kandahar.
The Taliban have claimed many suicide bomb attacks in the past as part of their campaign to drive out foreign forces and topple Karzai's Western-backed central government.
(Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Paul Tait)
U.S. aid worker and driver killed in Pakistani tribal region
The Associated Press
Thursday, November 13, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: A group of men shot and killed an American aid worker in northwest Pakistan on Wednesday, dealing a blow to plans to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into impoverished regions where Taliban and Qaeda militants have found refuge.
The ambush in the increasingly lawless city of Peshawar was the latest in a string targeting foreigners in Pakistan and was likely to further dent confidence in a nuclear-armed country that is also battling an economic crisis.
The American, Steve Vance, and his Pakistani driver were shot as their car approached the house in Peshawar where Vance ran a program to bring small-scale projects and jobs to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, his associates said.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed that an American citizen and his driver were killed in an attack in Peshawar. The embassy was working with local law enforcement agencies to determine what happened, said a spokesman, Wes Robertson.
While there was no claim of responsibility for the attack - which occurred around 8 a.m. in an upscale residential area of the city known as University Town - suspicion immediately fell on Muslim militants angered by bloody military operations along the Afghan border and by a surge of U.S. missile attacks in the same region.
"It seems to be a sort of reprisal against the policies of the Pakistani government, which is considered to be supportive of the U.S. grand plan, as they see it," said Khalid Aziz, a former top provincial administrator who now advises the government on development work in the northwest.
The assailants blocked Vance's vehicle in a narrow lane with their own car, then opened fire at close range with automatic weapons, killing both Vance and his driver, said a Western aid worker in Peshawar.
The Western aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said staff members of the United States Agency for International Development were shifted to the capital, Islamabad, later Wednesday. A U.S. Embassy official said he had no information about the evacuation.
The killings came after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded sports stadium in the center of Peshawar on Tuesday night, moments after leading politicians had left the arena.
An umbrella Taliban group, Tehrik-i-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the stadium attack.
Vance worked for part of an ambitious program run by the United States Agency for International Development to invest $750 million in infrastructure and other projects in the tribal region over five years, according to his associates, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the incident.
Vance was the director of a "livelihoods" project run by the Cooperative Housing Foundation, which was financed by Usaid, they said.
Several dozen Americans working on the effort, which aimed to counter the Taliban by creating jobs and building infrastructure in the tribal areas, are based in Peshawar.
The city is on the frontline of the tribal areas, and serves as something of a rear base for the increasingly powerful Taliban.
The tribal areas count among the least-developed regions on earth and are considered a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Vance lived with his family in a house in Peshawar, his associates said. American diplomats are required to use bulletproof vehicles in Peshawar because of the security risks in the sprawling city.
Vance, however, like other aid workers involved in the American development effort, was traveling in a car that was not armored, his associates said.
The Taliban have increasingly flexed their muscles in Peshawar, stepping up suicide bomb attacks against law enforcement targets and politicians. In August, a group of men shot at the car of the senior American official at the U.S. Consulate there. The diplomat, Lynne Tracy, was unharmed.
Figuring out why Vance was killed is important for Western and Pakistani officials who hope to counter the spread of radical Islamic extremism in Pakistan's border badlands by delivering economic assistance.
In early 2007, the U.S. government pledged $750 million over five years for the effort, and those projects are only now getting under way - a delay for which diplomats in Islamabad blame Pakistani government inefficiency as well as poor security.
In other violence Wednesday, three Pakistani security officers were killed when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into the gate of a government school for boys in the northwestern village of Subhan Khwar, 35 kilometers, or about 20 miles, north of Peshawar.
No students were inside, said Pir Shahab Khan, an area police chief.
He said several people were wounded in the attack, most of them security officers.
Two U.S. soldiers reported killed by Iraqi in Mosul
By Sam Dagher
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
BAGHDAD: Two U.S. soldiers were shot and killed and six were wounded Wednesday by an Iraqi soldier after an altercation in the northern city of Mosul, Iraqi security sources and witnesses said. The shooter was killed by other American soldiers, the witnesses said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. military in northern Iraq, Major Peggy Kageleiry, confirmed that the Americans were shot in what she described as "a firefight." She declined to provide any information regarding the circumstances of the incident and would not confirm whether the shooter was an Iraqi soldier. She said the incident was under investigation.
Iraqi police and Iraqi Army sources, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of facing retribution from commanders for their comments, provided some details.
The sources said that an American military patrol had stopped Wednesday afternoon to inspect a checkpoint staffed by Iraqi soldiers in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Zanjili on Mosul's west side.
A heated argument ensued between one of the Americans and an Iraqi soldier identified as Barzan Mohammed Abdullah, prompting the American to curse the Iraqi, spit in his face and then slap him, the Iraqi sources said.
The Iraqi soldier then opened fire on the Americans, the Iraqi sources said, killing two and wounding six. Other American soldiers then responded with a barrage of fire directed at the Iraqi soldier, the Iraqi sources said, killing him.
That account of events was corroborated by a civilian who lives in Zanjili, a notoriously violent part of Mosul.
There are about 5,000 U.S. soldiers in Nineveh Province, of which Mosul is the capital. About 600 soldiers were recently sent to Mosul from Diyala Province to take part in a new military operation.
Mosul was also the scene of a sectarian killing Wednesday that underscored the tensions that continue to plague the city. The police said two Christian women were murdered and their mother seriously wounded.
The killings came less than two weeks after church leaders and the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki urged more than 2,000 families that had fled a wave of attacks against Christians in Mosul in September and October to return to the city. The government had guaranteed their safety.
It is estimated by church leaders that 400 to 700 families have so far returned from the relative safety of the Nineveh Plain, a predominantly Christian stretch of villages northeast of the city protected by forces from the neighboring Kurdistan region.
Mosul is home to a mix of Sunni insurgents linked to both the former regime of Saddam Hussein and to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. They continue to be active in the city despite numerous major operations in the past, including one this summer.
The whole province is also the scene of escalating tensions between the central government the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
An employee of The New York Times in Mosul contributed reporting.Bombs kill 23 in Baghdad
A series of bombings shook the capital for the third consecutive day Wednesday, killing at least 23 people and wounding about 90, The Associated Press reported from Baghdad.
The Iraqi military said it was taking measures to curb "the increasing number of terrorist attacks" in the city. A military spokesman said the measures would include stepped up intelligence gathering and pre-emptive strikes on suspected extremists.
The first car bomb ripped through a bustling section of central Baghdad during the Wednesday morning rush hour, killing 4 people and wounding 15. The blast occurred around 9:30 a.m. off Nasir Square in the heart of the city - a busy neighborhood of shops, pharmacies and photography stores.
A second car bomb exploded near the Baidha secondary school in the Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Shaab in north Baghdad. The police said 5 people were killed and 12 were wounded.
In the Shiite district of New Baghdad, a bomb exploded around 5 p.m. Moments later, a car bomb blew up in the same area after the police arrived at the scene of the first blast. The police and hospital officials gave an initial total of 14 dead from those two explosions, including 3 children and 2 women. Twelve children, 8 women and 6 policemen were among the 60 wounded.
The attacks Wednesday followed two days of morning rush hour blasts in Baghdad that killed more than 30 people and wounded at least 70.
The increase in bombings has occurred despite security gains in recent months that have seen violence drop sharply in the capital. Many of the attacks have targeted police and army patrols, government officials heading to work, and commuters.
In the first nine days of November, there were at least 19 bombings in Baghdad, compared with 28 for all of October and 22 in September.
The rise in attacks also comes as U.S. and Iraqi officials try to hammer out a final agreement on a security deal that would keep U.S. troops in Iraq until the end of 2011. The security pact has drawn sharp criticism, especially from the majority Shiite community.
The current United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq expires at the end of December. Without a security agreement or a new UN mandate, the U.S. military would have to cease operations in Iraq.
Gaza clash puts shaky truce under pressure
U.S. Army to use webcasts from Iraq for recruiting
By Stuart Elliott
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
For the last two years, the Army has presented itself to potential recruits as the way to become "Army strong." Beginning on Tuesday, Veterans Day, the Army will seek to make its pitch stronger by making the campaign more relevant to the desired audience of Americans ages 17 to 24.
One new feature on a redesigned version of the Army Web site (goarmy.com) called "Straight From Iraq" states, "Now you can find out what it's really like to be deployed in the Middle East from the men and women stationed there."
"Soldiers are ready to take your questions," says a section of the site devoted to a webcast series. The feature represents the first time that visitors can ask questions of soldiers deployed overseas as well as the first time the Iraq war has been referred to so directly and prominently on the Web site.
The goal is to provide those considering the Army along with parents and others who influence their decisions with "verifiable information about what being a soldier is really like, what combat is really like," said Lieutenant General Benjamin Freakley, commanding general of the Army Accessions Command in Fort Monroe, Virginia, which is overseeing recruitment.
The changes in the "Army strong" campaign place more emphasis on the Internet, event marketing and other methods that connect with young Americans on a closer, more personal level.
To help pay for the new media features, cutbacks are being made in areas like the Army's sponsorships of professional rodeos.
The changes include an additional theme for the campaign, "Strength like no other," which will appear along with "Army strong"; a focus on the skills that recruits can learn in the Army, to make a stronger case about how serving can bring personal and career success later in life; and new information about becoming an officer.
"The campaign has been successful conveying the benefits of 'Army strong,' the physical, emotional and mental benefits," said Ed Walters, chief marketing officer for the Army at the Pentagon.
"We wanted to more clearly articulate that," he added, through efforts like sharing with civilians the video clips of "real soldiers' stories."
The "Army strong" campaign is produced by nine agencies, eight of them part of the McCann Worldgroup division of the Interpublic Group of Companies. The Army ad budget from 2006 through 2011 is estimated at $1.35 billion.
The Army has met its recruiting goals for the first two fiscal years during which the "Army strong" campaign has appeared. Critics of the military's practices contend that bonuses being awarded to recruits as well as less stringent entry standards have also helped meet the goals.
"We love the 'Army strong' campaign because it resonates with youth," General Freakley said, and it "says in a nutshell who our soldiers are, that it is a strength they get by serving."
"This is a progression, an evolution," he added, referring to the new phase of the campaign.
In addition to the new content on goarmy.com, there will be new TV commercials, meant to help drive traffic to the Web site. The first ones compare the Army to a company, a team and a school by showing young men and women in settings like an office building, a gym and a campus. The scenes shift into scenes of soldiers performing military tasks like marching and saluting the flag.
In the gym commercial, young athletes are seen working out, then stacking sandbags. "There is a team like no other team in the world," says the narrator, the actor Gary Sinise, who took over the narration work for the campaign last year from the actor Josh Charles.
"When they raise their flag in victory, you will know what these men and women are fighting for," Sinise says, "and you will feel fortunate to be counted among them."
In the office commercial, young workers in business attire suddenly start climbing walls. "This company is filled with dreamers," Sinise says, "but they also have courage, strength and honor, and when they leave this company it will be with a thousand opportunities and the respect of millions."
The intent is "to show the Army in a way you haven't thought about it," said Craig Markus, executive creative director at McCann Erickson Worldwide in New York, one of the McCann Worldgroup agencies working on the campaign.
"Obviously, the buzzword right now is 'relevance,' " he added, "and we're trying to talk to people in a way that's relevant to them at the moment."
Coincidentally, it turns out the campaign was developed months before the start of the steep economic downturn. The growing unemployment rate could benefit the Army because young men and women may enlist rather than search fruitlessly for work.
"History will tell you that's true," Markus said, "but I'm not going to predict what may happen."
The other McCann Worldgroup agencies working on the campaign are: Casanova Pendrill, for ads aimed at Hispanics; the IW Group, for ads aimed at Asian-Americans; Momentum, for event marketing and sponsorships; MRM Worldwide, for the Web site, digital marketing and direct marketing; NAS Recruitment, for medical recruiting; Universal McCann, for media planning and buying; and Weber Shandwick, for public relations.
Another agency, Carol H. Williams Advertising, is creating ads aimed at African-American recruits.
Other changes the Army is making include reworking the content of the Virtual Army Experience, a traveling interactive exhibit with games and other displays that is intended for an audience as young as 13. There have been complaints that the exhibit is inappropriate because it makes combat seem to be fun.
"If we show the Army fighting, people say it's violent," General Freakley said. "If we don't, people say it's not truthful."
The new content for the exhibit will concentrate on the peaceful purposes the Army can serve, he added, like providing humanitarian aid.
The new elements of the "Army strong" campaign aimed at so-called influencers like parents are scheduled to start in January. Such ads have been part of the campaign since it began in 2006.
Veterans' families seek aid for caregiver role
By Leslie Kaufman
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tracy Keil met her husband, Matt, in August 2005 between his first and second tours of duty in Iraq. They married in January 2007. Six weeks later, Staff Sergeant Keil was shot in the neck while on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, and rendered a quadriplegic.
Because her husband, now 27, could no longer take care of himself, not even to get a drink of water, Keil, 31, quit her job as an accountant to take care of him.
She tried to hire others to help her, a service that is paid for by the government, but after going through four workers in nine months she gave up. She said many of the caregivers from contractors on the government-provided list "were awful." One did not know how to use the lift system that hoists Keil out of bed; another gossiped about the family's private business.
But the real problem was that even the good caregivers could not help Keil live as he wanted. Regulations, for example, do not permit them to take him out of the house. "Matt is back to his old self, and we like to get out and about, go grocery shopping or a see a movie," Keil said. "He doesn't want just a baby sitter."
While she has never regretted leaving her job, the financial repercussions have been serious. Although Keil gets a full disability pension of $6,800 a month and their house in Parker, , was donated to them, they have lost Keil's salary of $58,000 a year, as well as employer contributions to her retirement account, and her dental plan.
Keil has joined a growing group of veterans' families who are asking to be compensated in place of a caregiver. She sees it not only as a battle about income but also about dignity and respect.
"I am here and I take wonderful care of Matt and I enjoy it," she said. "But he would be institutionalized without me. He is my full-time job now. I just feel like I should be compensated for that. They should value what I do."
In the last session of Congress, families and veterans groups persuaded lawmakers to introduce legislation that, among other things, would allow families of soldiers with traumatic brain injuries to be paid for their caretaking after training and certification by the Veterans Affairs Department. The Keils think they would benefit because Keil has minor brain trauma as well. The bill did not come up for a vote but the families think it stands a better chance next year because President-elect Barack Obama has endorsed other supportive legislation and the future first lady, Michelle Obama, has said helping veterans' families will be a priority to her.
The Veterans Affairs Department opposed the legislation, saying it would create unacceptable liability; if a veteran was injured by a family member trained by the department, it would be liable. But Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said families of veterans suspected that the government was not compensating them for another reason: because they know they would do the work anyway. "They are kind of being taken advantage of," Rieckhoff said.
The question of how to best take care of a service member wounded in war is a well-worn battleground. But broader compensation for family members has become a pressing issue, veterans' groups say, because better medical technology has allowed so many soldiers to survive with serious injuries.
In 2007, the Dole-Shalala Commission said there were 3,000 service members so severely injured that they required full-time clinical- and care-management services.
Five years into the war, "the impacts of those injuries are first being fully realized by the families today," said Jeremy Chwat, executive vice president of the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that is lobbying for this change.
Today's families are less likely than those of previous generations to just accept the situation, said James Peake, the secretary of veterans affairs.
"When Bob Dole came home from World War II wounded," Peake said, referring to the former Senate majority leader who lost the use of his right arm after being wounded in Italy at age 21, "his mother in Kansas quit everything she was doing and came to take care of him at the hospital, no questions asked. That's not the case anymore," he said. Families still race to veterans' sides, but they are demanding more from the government.
Programs are already evolving. In the 1990s, the Veterans Affairs Department allowed family members to train with the companies under contract to provide home-health aides. Certain veterans are allowed to go through those companies to hire family members, but for only four hours a day. The department does not keep data on how many families use this program.
Families who think that program does not go far enough object to giving a third party a cut of the money, and say four hours is insignificant when they often spend 24 a day in the job. It also limits compensation to time spent on medical needs like bladder assistance and feeding, leaving out other tasks like chauffeuring and paperwork.
The sense of injustice is particularly acute for families whose loved ones are suffering from brain-related injuries and who tend to get lower levels of disability pay than those with severe visible physical ailments, like blindness or paralysis. That is the case for Ted and Sarah Wade of Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Wade, now 30, was wounded in Iraq in 2004 when someone threw a homemade bomb at what Wade describes as his "roofless, doorless, unarmored Humvee."
He was classified as 100 percent disabled because one arm was amputated, and brain damage gave him problems with speech, memory and interpreting visual signals. When Wade took him from the hospital she was told, she said, that he should never be out of her line of sight.
But because Wade's needs are not of the physical variety that veterans have traditionally recognized he can use the bathroom and feed himself, for example the family received only $3,500 a month in pension, which includes $780 a month for an aide, or four hours of daily assistance. That does not fill all of his needs, Wade said. Wade's vision is so poor that he cannot cross a street by himself, his short-term memory is such that he is unsafe in a kitchen, his voice is too unclear to use the phone (even the Veterans Affairs Department sometimes hangs up on him because they cannot understand him, Wade says), and he cannot drive himself to his numerous therapy appointments.
It also does not address the quality of his life. In February, Wade plans to attend an adaptive ski program in Colorado, and he requires someone to travel with him. He likes using his adapted bicycle to go on 30-mile rides, but requires someone to keep him safe from traffic that he cannot see.
Recently the stress of caring for Wade full time became so overwhelming that they both agreed he would temporarily go into respite care, paid for by the Veteran Affairs Department at $857 a day, or about $25,700 a month.
It is a welcome break, but makes Wade even more determined to get compensation so she can provide more help for her husband. "What makes me mad is what I see happening to him is institutionalization," she said, "as opposed to giving him the supports he needs for the real world."
Afghanistan calls for more foreign fighting troops
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
LONDON: More international troops are needed in the south of Afghanistan and they must be ready to fight insurgents, the country's foreign minister said on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, visiting Britain with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said international efforts to train the Afghan military to handle security by itself remained vital for the long-term, but in the meantime more foreign fighting troops were needed.
"For the short-term strategy ... we need more forces in the south, and the south east ... to control cross-border terrorist activities," Spanta told BBC radio.
"But these troops have to be fighter troops, to be active in this part, to respond to terrorist activities."
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan, where the United States already has more than 30,000 military personnel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has not ruled out sending more troops to add to the 8,000 British soldiers already there.
But Brown stressed on Tuesday that NATO allies should do more to share the burden.
Some NATO members have complained that others are not sending troops to southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the fighting is taking place.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband said after talks with Spanta: "We are both absolutely clear that an economic approach and a political approach must go side by side with a security approach on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border.
"Britain is the second largest contributor already (of foreign forces in Afghanistan) and the principle of burden-sharing is an important principle that needs to be adhered to as we consider the needs in Afghanistan."
He said a review was taking place in the United States about their military force in Afghanistan, adding: "I think we should wait and see how American plans develop and then make our own assessment in due course."
Despite the presence of 71,000 foreign troops and more than 130,000 Afghan security forces, Afghanistan's Taliban, who were driven from power by U.S.-led forces after the September 11 2001 attacks, have extended their insurgency.
This year in Afghanistan more than 2,500 people have been killed in the first six months alone, 1,000 of them civilians. Western diplomats admit there is no purely military solution to the conflict, a view echoed by Spanta.
"The military option is not the only option -- but it is still, in the south part of Afghanistan, the relevant option to fight terrorism," Spanta said.
He said it was vital "to destroy the sanctuaries of terrorists and cross-border terrorist activities in this part of the world."
(Reporting by Adrian Croft and Kate Kelland; Editing by Giles Elgood)
Taliban and Qaeda militants among four Afghans hanged
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
KABUL: Afghanistan has executed four men, including three linked to deadly attacks by Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents, a state newspaper said on Wednesday.
The four men were hanged inside a prison in Kabul on Tuesday, bringing to nine the number of people executed in Afghanistan in the past week since President Hamid Karzai signed orders to carry out their death sentences.
About 120 more Afghans are on death row waiting for Karzai to sign their death warrants, a senior judge said on Tuesday.
Three of those executed on Tuesday were behind attacks which included the killing of female election workers and other raids in which scores of people were killed or wounded in eastern Afghanistan four years ago, the Anis daily said.
The fourth was a criminal, it said.
A Supreme Court judge confirmed the latest executions, but did not give any more details. Five other men were executed this week for murder, rape and abduction.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay said she was dismayed about the recent and pending executions, especially because Karzai's government has acknowledged the Afghan judicial system has serious shortcomings.
Crimes such as kidnapping, rape and killing have increased sharply in Afghanistan in recent years.
The Taliban, ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, carried out public executions for similar crimes.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing Paul Tait)
Indonesia says Bali executions became spectacle
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By Rob Taylor
The execution of three militants for the 2002 Bali bombings should have been more tightly controlled to avoid becoming a public spectacle, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said on Wednesday.
The three men from the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiah -- Imam Samudra, Mukhlas, and Amrozi -- were executed by firing squad on Sunday for the 2002 nightclub attacks that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians.
"Perhaps myself I expected that the process leading to the executions of the Bali bombers would have not been wide open," Wirajuda told reporters during a meeting with his Australian counterpart in Canberra.
Just days ahead of the executions, the three bombers gave interviews to television channels, calling for more attacks on westerners and encouraging other Indonesians to take up their militant struggle for an Islamic state.
Their burials in their home towns in Java saw violent clashes between police and hundreds of militant Islamic supporters, and prompted fresh travel warnings from western nations about possible attacks on foreigners
"Perhaps that's the cross that we have to bear in an open and democratic Indonesia," Wirajuda said.
He said in carrying out the executions, Indonesia's government had demonstrated its resolve to fight extremists and delivered what most of the Indonesian public had expected.
"The Bali bombers had committed unforgivable acts in killing so many people, and I think it's not only our view, but the people of Indonesia, that they deserved that kind of punishment," Wirajuda said.
Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said daily media commentary in the leadup to the executions likely caused great distress to victims of the nightclub bombings.
"Its always open to the Australian media and the Indonesian media not to report these matters," Smith said, backing Wirajuda's assessment that post-execution clashes and demonstrations were part of a democratic Indonesia.
There have been a string of threats made against hotels, Western embassies and government offices since the executions, although no major bomb attacks have occurred since 2005.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
Former Guantanamo prisoners still struggling
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By Jane Sutton
Former Guantanamo prisoners released after years of detention without charge went home to find themselves stigmatized and shunned, viewed either as terrorists or U.S. spies, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The report by human rights advocates urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to form an independent, nonpartisan commission with subpoena powers to investigate the treatment of U.S. detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
"We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation's history under the rug by simply closing the Guantanamo prison camp," said study co-author Eric Stover, director of the University of California at Berkeley's Human Rights Centre.
"The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable."
The authors at the centre and at the Centre for Constitutional Rights interviewed 50 U.S. government officials, military experts and former guards and interrogators, as well as 62 former Guantanamo prisoners in nine nations.
Two-thirds of the former captives said they had psychological and emotional problems, which the authors called consistent with being held in extreme isolation for extended periods.
Only six had regular jobs, with many saying employers would not hire anyone who had been held at Guantanamo.
"It doesn't matter that they cleared my name by releasing me. We still have this big hat on our heads that we were terrorists," said a Chinese Muslim former prisoner, one of eight who were settled in Albania in 2006.
That group was still struggling to learn Albanian and had abandoned hope of ever being reunited with their families, said the report titled "Guantanamo and Its Aftermath."
The United States has released 520 men from Guantanamo since it opened the detention camp for suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives after the September 11 attacks. Currently about 250 are being held.
It has not publicly acknowledged that any were there by mistake, although intelligence reports and a former camp commander had said as early as September 2002 that one-third to one-half of the 600 captives there at the time had no connection to terrorism, the report noted.
The most notorious prisoners who are accused of plotting the September 11 attacks, the Bali nightclub bombings and attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa were not taken to Guantanamo until 2006, when they were transferred from secret CIA prisons.
Many of the former prisoners said they had lost their homes and businesses or that their families had piled up debts in their absence because there was no one to support them.
One returned to find his wife had divorced him and remarried, another to learn his father had been murdered and his estranged wife had taken their children and moved away.
"Two Afghan respondents said that rumours of sexual abuse at Guantanamo had stigmatized them and made it difficult to find a marriage partner. One of these was also accused of being an American spy and as a result was fearful of becoming a Taliban target," the report said.
'I AM NOT A BEAST'
Others said they had received death threats.
Those who fared best seemed to be Afghans from tightly knit villages, where several said they were greeted when they came home with celebrations that even some local police attended.
"When I'm walking on the streets and I meet some people, they usually say to me, 'We're sorry for you...' Everyone knows that I'm innocent, that I'm not involved in any political activities," the report quoted an Afghan shepherd as saying.
Among the 55 freed captives who discussed their interrogations, 31 said they were abusive and 24 said they had no problems. The majority held "distinctly negative views of the United States" but many said that was directed at the U.S. government, not the American people.
One-third said they ended up in U.S. custody after being sold for bounties. Many viewed their time at Guantanamo as a test of their Muslim faith.
Others said they only wanted the American public to recognise that they were innocent.
"I just want to tell them that I am not this savage beast, what they were told I am," one said.
(Editing by Michael Christie and David Storey)
North Korea to bar taking of nuclear samples
India test-fires nuclear-capable missile
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
NEW DELHI: A Defense Ministry official says India has test-fired a medium-range, nuclear-capable missile from a land-based launcher.
The official says the K-15 missile is an undersea ballistic missile with a range of up to 435 miles. It was fired on Wednesday from a test range in Chandipur in eastern Orissa state.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
India and longtime rival Pakistan routinely test-fire missiles. They usually notify each other ahead of missile launches in keeping with an agreement between the two nations.
Iran reports new missile tests
By Nazila Fathi and Alan Cowell
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
TEHRAN: Iran said Wednesday that it successfully test-fired a new generation of long range surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 1,200 miles, state-run television reported. A senior official said the missile would be used only defensively, but did not identify a potential aggressor.
A television news broadcast said the new missile, called the Sejil, used solid fuel and was more accurate than some other missiles. A British expert on Iran's missile armory, Duncan Lennox, said the missile seemed to resemble an earlier weapon called the Ashoura. Its claimed range, equivalent to about 1,900 kilometers, would enable it to strike targets in Israel or the Gulf region, he said,
Iran's defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, was quoted by state-run television as saying the missile was "very fast," could be produced and stored "in mass" and was easy to prepare for launching. Its launcher could immediately be removed from the firing location, he said.
The state television broadcast footage of Najar praying before giving the order to fire. The missile was shown in a desert area rising from a launch pad and leaving a white trail in the sky.
Najar said the test had been planned for months and had nothing to do with any recent international developments.
"This missile gives our military force a new capability," he said. "It was produced as part of our deterrent policy. It will be for peace and security in the region and we will only use it against enemies who invade the Islamic Republic." He did not refer to any specific country.
The news of the launching emerged a day after Iranian media said the Revolutionary Guards had test-fired another new missile, known as the Samen, in the western city of Merivan near the border with Iraq on Monday.
Iran is locked in a long-running dispute with the United States and other powers over its nuclear program. While Western nations suspect that Iran is seeking a nuclear missile capability, Iran says its program is designed for civilian purposes.
In the past, Iran has announced new developments in missile technology in a manner that Westerners interpreted as saber-rattling to bolster its regional and international posture.
Last July, Iran's Revolutionary Guards test-fired nine missiles during war game, including at least one the government in Tehran described as having the range to reach Israel.
At the time, state-run media said the missiles were long- and medium-range weapons, and included a Shahab-3, which Tehran maintains is able to hit targets up to 1,250 miles away from its firing position. Parts of western Iran are within 650 miles of Tel Aviv.
Iran's missile capability is cited by the United States as one reason for an American plan to station an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe a project that has enraged Russia. In response, Moscow said last week it would station short-range missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
Lennox, the British expert from a publication called Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems, said the new missile's claimed range would not reach eastern Europe. "The worry would be that it would be used against Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel anyone in the region the Iranians took a dislike to," he said in a telephone interview.
The latest Iranian reports of missile test-firings came after Tehran said last week that American helicopters were spotted flying close to Iran's airspace. The Bush administration has consistently refused to rule out military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Another city in Somalia falls to Islamist insurgents
By Jeffrey Gettleman
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
NAIROBI: Another major city in Somalia fell to Islamist insurgents without a shot being fired, as guerilla fighters took over the strategic port of Merka on Wednesday, residents and Somali officials said.
The Islamists are now in control of a large - and rapidly growing - swath of south-central Somalia, and the weak transitional government seems too paralyzed by infighting to do much about it. The government has repeatedly asked the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops, but because of the continuing conflicts in eastern Congo and Darfur, that seems unlikely at the moment.
Hundreds of fighters rolled into the port town of Merka at around 8 a.m. on Wednesday in heavily armed pickup trucks, meeting no resistance because government-allied militias had fled the night before, residents said.
Merka is only 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, south of Mogadishu, Somalia's bullet-pocked capital, and Somali officials warned that the Islamists were now planning to lay siege to Mogadishu.
"We know their grand plan," said Abdi Awaleh Jama, an ambassador at large for the transitional federal government. "But we're not going to run away. We're going to fight with whatever we have." But, he added, "We need help - urgently."
The Islamists have been steadily acquiring territory - Merka, Kismayu, Bulo Marer, El Dheer and Qoryooley - and now control many strategic areas across the country.
They seem to be fast approaching Mogadishu, from the north and the south. In some areas, they have begun imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, even stoning to death a young woman who said she was raped. The Islamists convicted her last month of adultery. UN officials said she may have been as young as 13.
The U.S. government has accused the Islamists of sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for killing Americans.
But many Somalis are so eager for law and order that they are welcoming the gains made by the Islamists. On Wednesday, residents in Merka said they poured into the streets to welcome the gunmen. "I am very happy with them," said Axmed Warfaa, an elder in the town. "I am Muslim and our religion is fair."
The Islamist fighters, who are part of a fearsome group called the Shabab, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, quickly took over Merka's police station and government buildings, residents said. Their leaders addressed a crowd at one of the city's public squares, telling people to stay calm, to put aside clan differences and to embrace the banner of Islam, residents said. Merka's deposed officials fled to a suburb of Mogadishu.
In Mogadishu, the transitional government seems to be embroiled in another round of bitter infighting. Officials allied with the president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, are accusing the prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, of secretly helping the Islamists. Some of the president's men have even gone as far as saying that Ethiopian forces, who have been in Somalia for almost two years to help prop up the government, are now working with the insurgents.
At the same time, Ethiopian officials are blaming Somalia's leaders for not making peace with Islamist clerics, who enjoy a large degree of popular support. When the Islamists briefly ruled much of Somalia in 2006, many Somalis considered it the most peaceful era the country had experienced since the central government imploded in 1991.
The Ethiopians, with U.S. help, overthrew the Islamists in the winter of 2006 and an intense guerrilla war has raged ever since, with thousands of civilians killed. The Ethiopians seem to be running out of patience. They have indicated that they would withdraw their troops soon, which many Somalis believe would spell the end of the government.
Complicating matters is the fact that Merka has been home to a major United Nations operation to bring in desperately needed food. Somalia has been teetering on the edge of famine for much of the past year because of drought, conflict-related displacement and high global food prices. Millions of people need emergency rations to survive.
UN officials said Wednesday that Merka's port was crucial to keeping people alive. More than 24 million pounds of food passed through the city in October alone, feeding as many as 850,000 people.
"Merka is so important to us," said Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program. "We hope we can continue operations there."
Smerdon said that local UN employees in Merka were trying to speak to the new Islamist authorities about continuing the life-saving operations. The United Nations works in several other areas in Somalia that the Islamists now control. In the past, UN officials have said they faced fewer problems and interference in some Islamist areas than in those under nominal government control. Yet Islamist insurgents have also been widely blamed for a string of assassinations of aid workers.
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.
By Doreen Carvajal
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
SOFIA: When the white-haired coroner of Bulgaria's capital died hanging from the jungle gym of a placid city playground, he left behind a series of what his longtime staff considered cryptic clues.
These forensic examiners balked at the horror of preparing an autopsy of their former teacher, Stoycho Radanov. At the time of his death at 76 in mid-October, he was still vigorous, presiding over politically radioactive cases that uncovered botched investigative work and a deadly beating by top police officials.
Could the death of the coroner be murder? Or was it suicide provoked by the pressures of challenging the system?
"We can't say for certain what drove him," said Stanislav Hristov, head of the forensic department at the Alexandrovska Hospital in Sofia. "But his clear message was that we always have to fight for the truth."
Exposing corruption is not a battle for the fainthearted in Bulgaria, one of the newest and poorest nations in the European Union where graft has seeped into the fabric of life, tainting everything from sausage-making to highway construction.
This month the Bulgarian government is pressing to avert the loss of millions of euros in European subsidies for road-building and agriculture that were frozen after the European Commission concluded the money was vulnerable to fraud, organized white-collar criminal networks and weak financial controls.
But there are quiet corners of this country of seven million people where voices rise against corruption, including journalists, two nonprofit organizations, several environmental groups and even some politicians. Many corruption-busters labor in obscurity, methodically gathering information at local nonprofit organizations to expose systemic graft that prompted Transparency International, a nongovernmental global watchdog on corruption, to dub Bulgaria the most corrupt country in the 27-nation EU.
Some journalists and researchers have taken their fight public, facing death threats, a home bombing, telephone calls from organized crime figures and even the bone-shattering blows of pipes and hammers. Environmentalists regularly face off against burly private bodyguards, including one who slammed a car door into a demonstrator's head.
"Corruption affects the entire population, from clerks in the countryside to senior government officials. Unfortunately, people are becoming apathetic. They accept it as a part of life," said Ognian Stefanov, who almost a year ago started Frognews, a news Web site funded by Mladen Mutafchiyski, a wealthy Black Sea hotel owner.
At age 54, Stefanov winced as he talked, rolling his shoulder in a burst of pain. He was wearing a bright track suit and unlaced sport shoes, but there is no place he can run from his wheelchair parked among brittle autumn leaves outside a Sofia hospital.
"Certain people weren't happy with things that we've been writing," said Stefanov, a journalist for 25 years who was accustomed to ignoring threats. "We began to expose connections between organized crime and politics, corruption that's obvious to everyone."
There was no warning on the September night that he left the Kiparisite restaurant in Sofia after meeting Evelin Banev, a real estate entrepreneur who is under investigation for money laundering. Stefanov was attacked by four men in black with pipes and hammers, who methodically shattered his most sensitive bones, breaking his elbows and both legs in four places. Banev intervened and suffered a broken nose and concussion.
"Certain people just decide they can react anyway they choose," said Stefanov, who needed eight hours of surgery and remembers that night as a blur of pain. "The saddest thing is that they can decide anything they want. They are untouchable here."
No one has been arrested, and the co-owner of Frognews, Mutafchiyski, called the police investigation "pathetic." But the site's Web traffic has leaped from 40,000 hits to more than 250,000. And Stefanov's second-in-command, Alexander Ivanov, has been working his news beat with two police officers discreetly trailing behind him.
Ivanov's new companions arrived after he heard the shrill buzz of his apartment intercom and a crackly, anonymous threat: "Your beating will be even worse."
"It's very hard for journalists in Bulgaria to write about corruption," Ivanov said, noting that he got his threat on the day a newspaper promoted a coming interview with his boss at his hospital bedside.
But with European pressure on Bulgaria to root out graft, anti-corruption crusading has emerged as a fashionable notion and even a sharp political tool. Opposition figures to the Socialist-led coalition government have used corruption charges to undermine rivals, making it hard to determine the difference between pure and murky motives.
"The fight against corruption has become a political show," said Stefan Popov, executive director of RiskMonitor, founded in 2006 and financed by the Open Society Institute in New York and Sofia. "If everybody is against corruption, it means that nobody is against corruption. Then you can use fighting corruption for your own political purposes."
With eight researchers headed by Popov, RiskMonitor examines money laundering, organized crime and vote-buying where city governments are under siege from criminal networks drawn by the billions in EU subsidies that could flow to Bulgaria through 2013.
RiskMonitor also hosts annual summits on Bulgarian organized crime, bringing experts to develop counterstrategies. There has been no backlash, but some anxious board members worry about the safety of the group's ground floor offices.
One RiskMonitor researcher is Iva Pushkarova, a lawyer who also heads the Bulgarian Judges Association, which represents more than 900 judges in a judiciary tainted by graft. "Fighting against corruption is actually fighting for democracy, human rights and rule of law," said Pushkarova, whose group is developing training programs and ethical codes.
Within the Bulgarian legal elite, she said, lawyers are well aware of judges with criminal ties. "How do we know? They have marriage connections or business ties with organized criminal bosses. They are neighbors. Usually organized crime bosses live in protected territory in compounds and they live in the same area."
Her organization's efforts at higher standards have led to strains. A rival group of about 100 judges started in the last two years. "They know that the European funds are coming to Bulgaria," Pushkarova said, "and a lot will be allocated for projects for judicial reform."
Bulgarians who investigate corruption and organized crime often develop personal strategies to minimize hazards. Tihomir Bezlov, a longtime criminologist with the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, speaks openly on television and radio, betting that a high profile offers protection.
Atanas Atanasov, an opposition Parliament member and former counterintelligence chief who has made a political career of exposing corruption, takes a mordant view: "My grandfather used to say that if you're destined to be kicked by a horse, you're not going to be kicked by a donkey. Someone has to say what's going on."
But the atmosphere is more baffling for outsiders like David Hammerstein, a Spanish lawmaker and European Parliament member from the Green Party who toured Bulgaria to investigate suspect land deals.
In May in the mountainous Rila National Park, Hammerstein and a group of Bulgarian environmentalists were confronted by a private security guard in a forest area where a road is being constructed without environmental permits. The guard ordered them out, he said.
"Cars arrived full of guys in black leather jackets and they followed us for 40 to 50 kilometers," Hammerstein said, referring to a distance of about 25 to 30 miles. "That's very common for people on a local level."
When Hammerstein returned in October, he experienced petty corruption firsthand. A taxi driver from the airport charged him five times the normal fare to reach the city. Hammerstein protested directly to Bulgaria's transportation minister, but got no comfort.
For Radanov, who helped found Bulgaria's criminal forensics, questioning authority was the thorniest part of being a coroner. When police said a drug dealer died of a heart attack in custody, Radanov concluded that he was killed with a heavy blow to the head. He also cast aside findings that two teen sisters were raped and battered to death with stones, concluding instead that they were struck by a car. His conclusion last May was that police mistakes destroyed evidence.
For two weeks before he died, his colleague Hristov said, Radanov seemed preoccupied. He was facing a potential fine of €25,000, or $31,000, in a defamation lawsuit filed by a professor angered that Radanov questioned her competence in the investigation of the girls' killings. He was worried about selling a country home he built himself to raise money.
Radanov left no note, but Hristov said he was sure the coroner planned his clues, including the strange choice of the playground. His body, for instance, should have shown signs of a struggle if he had been dragged below the climbing bars to his death by someone else, Hristov said. But there were no marks, proving to the staff that it was a suicide.
On Radanov's hospital desk, Hristov found two titles, the coroner's own autobiography and a book of poetry by a friend, entitled "Testament." It was marked at a poem about the struggle of a person walking through storms.
"Society did this to him," mused Hristov, smoking a cigarette by antique wooden bookcases stocked high with medical titles donated by Radanov. "I don't exclude this as a motive."
His staff has collected money for a marble sculpture on Radanov's grave that will be installed in late November, 40 days after his death. Hristov would like an epitaph inspired by the coroner's clues: "Always tell the truth."
By Michael Slackman
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
DUBAI: The world financial crisis has hit Dubai's economy, slamming the brakes on its surging development and dimming its gold rush status. Development projects are being delayed, tourism is expected to decline and the government is even exploring how to begin collecting taxes, once almost unthinkable in this freest of free market enclaves.
All this is troubling news for the fortune seekers who flocked here in recent years but a surprisingly welcome development in some respects for one group: Emirati natives, the 10 percent or so who trace their lineage to the Bedouins and traders who once had this baking sliver of sand to themselves.
Emiratis have fretted for years over the loss of their culture, as social norms became more a product of the newcomers than of the nationals. Now, some are pinning their desires for a cultural salvation on the global economic downturn, which they hope will reduce the numbers of foreigners pouring into their country and give them a chance to reassert their customs and way of life.
"This is a blessing; we needed it," Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University, said of the fiscal crisis. "The city needs to slow down and relax. It's good for the identity of our country.
"The city reached the summit, but we knew every time we got closer to the top, we got closer to the edge too," he added. "That's the feeling inside each Emirati. When we felt like we had it all, we also felt like we will lose it all."
The sudden cold snap in the economy, more than in societies in the West and the Far East, has forced a collective rethinking of the country's direction. Perhaps the most difficult question is being asked by Emiratis themselves, who want to know where they fit into their own country. In an odd case of role reversal, the minority of nationals fear they are becoming like colonial lords in their own country.
"I'm not just concerned about my future, I'm concerned about the future of my country," said Rashid Ali, 24. He and his friend Fahd Muhammad, 25, were the only two Emiratis seated in a crowded city mall last week. "I'm concerned about our national identity," Ali said.
He and Muhammad embody the challenges and contradictions that have roiled this country, forcing a top-to-bottom reassessment in the face of a financial crush that has cut off the easy money that was the lifeblood of the development boom.
The local population has largely been pacified by the largess of a gilded welfare state. For Ali and Muhammad, that meant free tuition and expenses for their university studies in Britain, including a monthly stipend of $1,258 while abroad.
Returning from school this year, they were given government jobs that pay $3,600 a month, which like all income here is tax free. When they plan to marry, they said, the government will give them each a free piece of land and about $200,000 to build a house, plus access to a 10- or 20-year interest-free loan.
That generosity is a problem now, as the government faces the prospect of having to control spending, raise revenue and encourage its own citizens to move into industries like finance and banking, which are now controlled by foreigners. Locals make up only 3 percent of the private work force, experts here said, with Emiratis opting for the shorter workday and higher pay of guaranteed government jobs.
The problem is that many like Ali and Muhammad say they enjoy what they get from the growth — the luxury villas and fancy cars — but not the costs in terms of social change. If the economy slows too much, however, the fear is that the costs may ultimately outweigh the benefits.
"Most people worry now, where is the welfare government?" said Salah Al Halyan, a financial consultant in Dubai, who explained the concerns of Emiratis. "Where is all the comfort? Where is my country? Who are all these people coming? The problem is the attitude of the nationals. They want to live on food stamps."
As the two men walked amid a sea of foreigners in the mall, they alternated between pride in the development and anger about what they called a loss of control of their national identity.
"We are Bedouins, developed Bedouins, but we still have our traditions," Ali said. "It's all changing and disappearing."
And then with deep sarcasm, he said, "What's up dude?" a phrase as alien to his culture as blue jeans and, now, as common in his city as blue jeans.
Sultan al-Suwaidi, a banker and member of the National Council, which serves as a kind of parliament or advisory board, said that he was hoping that the country would rethink its development model over the next decade and substantially reduce the number of foreigners. "We have to bring our percentages up to 40 percent, then there will be good control in our society," he said.
The financial crisis has also forced Emiratis to confront another fundamental question: Would the United Arab Emirates respond to the problems as one country or as seven separate entities, with Dubai in particular taking a go-it-alone approach? The answer, so far, has been one country, financial analysts said.
Dubai and the six other Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates form a loose federation that gained independence in 1971. While always a commercial crossroads, a hub for trade and a center of the pearl industry, Dubai did not have its first concrete building until 1956. It relied on the Indian rupee as its currency until the early 1960s. Abu Dhabi, with its hefty oil reserves and huge wealth, was the political center of the Emirates, its leader was the president of the federation.
At the highest levels, Dubai and Abu Dhabi worked together to transform Dubai into a global destination for investment and development. But there was also an undercurrent of competition, with Abu Dhabi taking a slower, more conservative, petro-fueled approach while Dubai moved so fast that, at times, it was compared to a theme park. But when the financial storms appeared Dubai — with a debt of nearly $50 billion — turned to the federal government, which quickly agreed to inject billions of dollars.
"There is this question in the market whether Dubai is on its own, or is there a one-country approach," said Marios Maratheftis, regional director of research at Standard Chartered, a Dubai-based bank. "There are signs there is a one-country approach."
These are the kinds of issues that the founders of the Cultural and Scientific Association, a public-private group devoted to promoting Emirati culture, take up every Monday night, when they gather to debate and exchange ideas. The association's new building was opened in January, but it usually stands empty.
On a recent Monday, 12 men sat in the lobby, designed to resemble a courtyard in a traditional house. They ate only traditional food, mostly beans and flat breads, and spoke a lot about the city's demographic composition and its cultural identity, and how to get more Emiratis into the private work force.
"I hear this complaint over and over, but what is the solution?" said Abdul Ghaffar Hussain, a businessman and writer. "What should I do, go to the street with a stick and chase people out? You have to be reasonable."
Bilal al-Bodour, a deputy minister of culture for the United Arab Emirates, walked through the building, showing it off with pride, and hope.
"You have to learn about yourself and where you are coming from, before you can know others," he said. "Everybody is concerned about this, it's just a matter of degrees."
By David Leonhardt
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Just as one crisis of confidence may be ending, another may be coming.
The panic on Wall Street has eased in the last few weeks, and banks have become somewhat more willing to make loans. But in those same few weeks, American households appear to have fallen into their own defensive crouch.
Suddenly, the American consumer society is doing a lot less consuming. The numbers are pretty incredible. Sales of new vehicles have dropped 32 percent in the third quarter. Consumer spending appears likely to fall next year for the first time since 1980 and perhaps by the largest amount since 1942.
With Wall Street edging back from the brink, this crisis of consumer confidence has become the No. 1 short-term issue for the economy. Nobody doubts that families need to start saving more than they saved over the last two decades. But if they change their behavior too quickly, it could be very painful.
Already, Circuit City has filed for bankruptcy, and General Motors has said that it's in danger of running out of cash. If the consumer slump continues, there is a potential for a dangerous feedback loop, in which spending cuts and layoffs reinforce each other.
"It's a scary time," Liz Allen, 29, a nursing student in Atlanta, told one of The Times reporters who fanned out across the country last weekend to ask people about the economy. "Worry can make the economy worse. If people worry too much, they won't spend as much money. We're seeing that happen, I think, already."
It's not entirely clear what anyone, including Barack Obama and his incoming administration, can do to temper the current worries. Obama has called for a stimulus package, which will make up for some of the consumer pullback. He and his advisers will also try to shore up confidence by projecting both a calm competence and a willingness to be more aggressive than the Bush administration. All of that should help.
But the stimulus package under discussion would bring no more than $150 billion in new government spending. The difference between a good year for consumer spending and a really bad one is about $400 billion.
So 2009 could turn out to be fairly miserable. The American consumer, long the spender of last resort for the global economy, may finally be spent.
You have heard such warnings before, I realize. For years, journalists and other economic worrywarts have been predicting a serious slump in consumer spending, and it did not happen. "Never underestimate the American consumer," as a Wall Street cliché puts it.
Like most clichés, this one has some truth to it. Even before its recent housing-fueled boom, consumer spending was a bigger part of the American economy than of, say, the French or German economy. Americans like to buy things, and they also don't tend to stay pessimistic for long.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, noted that his recent polls showed a sharp rise in the number of people planning to cut back on spending but also a clear increase in the number who expected the economy to be in better shape next year. "What the American economy has going for it is the innate optimism of the public," he said. "Americans get optimistic at the drop of a hat."
Perhaps falling gas prices or Obama's victory will shake them out of their torpor, Kohut said. A recent Gallup Poll found that consumer confidence rose slightly after the election. (Links to the Pew and Gallup research are at nytimes.com/economix.) Based on recent history, it's easy to imagine that the trend will continue and spending will soon bounce back.
Yet if the last year has proven anything, it's that we should not assume something can't happen simply because it hasn't happened recently. Cold economic realities deserve the benefit of the doubt, even when they point to uncomfortable conclusions. And right now, the economic realities are pointing to a serious consumer recession.
Let's start with the job market. It "already appears to be in worse shape than at any time during the recessions of the early 1990s or early 2000s," says Lawrence Katz, a Harvard professor and former Labor Department chief economist. Unemployment is higher than the official rate suggests, and it is rising. Incomes, which for most families barely kept pace with inflation over the past decade, are now falling.
In all, the total amount of income taken home by American households will still probably rise next year, because the population will grow and government transfer payments (like jobless benefits) will surely increase. But total real income will rise a lot more slowly than it has been rising recently. One percent is a reasonable estimate.
The next question is how much of that income people will spend. For decades from the 1950s through the 1980s Americans spent about 91 percent of their income, on average, and put away the rest. In the last few years, they have spent close to 99 percent and saved only about 1 percent.
This simply cannot continue. For one thing, people need to pay down their debts and replenish their retirement accounts. For another, the psychology of spending and saving may well be changing. After the worst housing bust on record and one of the three worst bear markets of the last century, Americans are probably starting to realize that they can't always fall back on ever-rising house values or stock values to make ends meet.
In the unlikely event that Obama decided to mimic President George W. Bush's post-9/11 plea for spending in the name of patriotism, it probably would not have the same impact. We're not as flush as we were in 2001.
Economists are now busy trying to forecast how rapidly people will begin saving again, but it's essentially an exercise in guesswork. There is no good historical analogy. A savings rate of about 3 percent seems plausible higher, but not radically so and that's what some forecasters are projecting.
At that rate, consumer spending would decline about 1 percent next year, which is worse than it sounds. It would be the first annual decline since 1980, as I mentioned above, and the biggest since 1942. Relative to the typical increases from recent years, it would represent $400 billion in lost consumer spending. To find a stimulus package so big, you'd have to go to Beijing.
And get this: Spending in the last few months has actually been falling at an annual rate of 3 percent. So the seemingly pessimistic events I have sketched out here are based on the assumption that things are about to get better.
As Joshua Shapiro of MFR, an economic research firm in New York, puts it, the American consumer has quickly gone from being the world economy's greatest strength to its Achilles' heel. "Everything has changed," he says. "The financial sector is deleveraging. Credit availability is severely constrained. Asset prices are deflating. And household balance sheets are severely stressed."
It would be silly to insist that a few terrible months meant the end of American consumer culture. But it would be equally silly to assume that culture could never change. It might be changing right now.
By Mark Landler and David D. Kirkpatrick
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
WASHINGTON: When the U.S. government said it would spend $700 billion to rescue the American financial industry, it seemed to be an ocean of money. But after one of the biggest lobbying free-for-alls in memory, it suddenly looks like a dwindling pool.
Many new supplicants are lining up for an infusion of capital as billions of dollars are channeled to other beneficiaries like the American International Group, and possibly soon American Express.
Of the initial $350 billion that Congress freed up, out of the $700 billion in bailout money contained in the law that passed last month, the Treasury Department has committed all but $60 billion. The shrinking pie and the growing uncertainty over who qualifies has thrown Washington's legal and lobbying establishment into a mad scramble.
The Treasury Department is under siege by an army of hired guns for banks, savings and loan associations and insurers as well as for improbable candidates like a Hispanic business group representing plumbing and home-heating specialists. That last group wants the Treasury to hire its members as contractors to take care of houses that the government may end up owning through buying distressed mortgages.
The lobbying frenzy worries many traditional bankers the original targets of the rescue program who fear that it could blur, or even undermine, the government's effort to stabilize the financial system after its worst crisis since the 1930s.
Among the most rattled are community bankers.
"By the time they get to the community banks, there may not be enough money left," said Edward Yingling, the president of the American Bankers Association. "The marketplace is looking at this so rapidly that those who have the money first may have some advantage."
Adding to the frenzy is the possibility that the next Congress and White House could change the rules further. President-elect Barack Obama has added his voice by proposing that the struggling automakers get U.S. government aid, which could mean giving them access to the fund something the Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson Jr., has resisted.
Despite the line outside its door, the Treasury is not worried about running out of money, according to a senior official. It has no plans to ask lawmakers to free the second $350 billion of the rescue package during the special session of Congress that could begin next week.
That could limit the pot of money available, at least until the next Congress is sworn in next January. Meanwhile, the list of candidates for a piece of the bailout keeps growing.
On Monday, the Treasury announced it would inject an additional $40 billion into AIG, amid signs that the government's original bailout plan was putting too much strain on the company. American Express won approval Monday to transform itself into a bank holding company, making the giant marketer of credit cards eligible for an infusion.
Then there is the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which is asking whether boat financing companies might be eligible for aid to ensure that dealers have access to credit to stock their showrooms with boats costs have gone up as the credit markets have calcified. Using much the same rationale, the National Automobile Dealers Association is pleading that car dealers get consideration, too.
"Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of good news for them individually," said Jeb Mason, who as the Treasury's liaison to the business community is the first port-of-call for lobbyists. "The government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers among industries."
Mason, 32, a lanky Texan in black cowboy boots who once worked in the White House for Karl Rove, shook his head over the dozens of phone calls and e-mail messages he gets every week. "I was telling a friend, 'this must have been how the Politburo felt,' " he said.
The congressional bailout law gave the Treasury broad authority to decide how to spend the $700 billion. Under the terms of the $250 billion capital purchase program announced last month, cash infusions are available to "qualifying U.S. banks, savings associations, and certain bank and savings and loan holding companies, engaged only in financial activities."
That definition has grown to include private banks and insurers like Allstate and MetLife, which own savings and loans. It may also encompass industrial lenders like GE Capital and GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors, provided they win approval to reclassify themselves as a bank or savings and loan holding company.
The Treasury set a deadline of Friday for institutions to apply for capital investments, which has meant a grueling few weeks for already overworked officials like Mason.
"Jeb is like the customer service agent at Verizon when the power lines go down," said Robert Nichols, president of the Financial Services Forum, a trade group for big institutions like Citigroup, Fidelity and Allstate Insurance, some of which have received U.S. government money.
The influential independent and community bankers group, which represents smaller institutions, won an extension of the deadline for privately held banks while the Treasury considers a way for them to participate in its program as well.
The Treasury, several industry executives said, wants to avoid too strict a definition of eligible institutions, in case the Obama administration decides it wants to tweak the requirements for an investment, or even overhaul the rescue program.
Several lobbyists said the Treasury's model contract acknowledges the possibility that Congress could impose new requirements on recipients of the money, and some Democratic lawmakers have talked about further restricting executive compensation, shareholder dividends or other uses of the money as part of the deal.
"We are like a tenant signing a lease contract with the landlord where the landlord can come back and change the terms after the fact, and in fact we are going to have a new landlord in a couple of weeks," said Yingling of the bankers association.
The first wave of lobbying came in early October when Paulson announced the plan to buy troubled mortgage-related assets from banks. The Treasury said it would hire several outside firms to handle the purchases, and would dispense with U.S. contracting rules.
Law and lobbying firms that specialize in government contracting fired off dispatches to clients and potential clients explaining opportunities in the new program. Capitalizing on the surge of interest, several large firms, including Patton Boggs; Akin Gump; P & L Gates; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; and Alston & Bird, have set up financial rescue shops.
Alston & Bird, for example, highlights its two biggest stars former Senator Bob Dole and former Senator Tom Daschle. Dole "knows Hank Paulson very well" and has been "very helpful" with the financial rescue groups, said David Brown, an Alston & Bird partner involved in its effort.
"And of course, Senator Daschle is national co-chair of the Obama campaign," Brown added, noting that because Daschle is not a registered lobbyist, his involvement is limited to "high level advisory and strategic advice."
Ambac Financial Group, in the relatively obscure bond insurance business, never needed lobbyists before, said Diane Adams, a managing director. But its clients persuaded the company to hire two Washington veterans Edward Kutler and John O'Rourke who helped arrange a recent meeting with Phillip Swagel, an assistant Treasury secretary. "We haven't really asked for much in the past," Adams said.
Initially, the banks reacted coolly to the prospect of the government taking direct stakes in them. They worried about restrictions on executive pay, and whether there would be a stigma attached. In conference calls with industry groups, Mason helped explain the Treasury proposal a job he and his colleagues did well, judging by the change of heart among banks.
"The biggest surprise was how quickly it went from 'I don't need this,' to 'How do I get in?' " said Michele Davis, the head of public affairs at the Treasury, who is Mason's boss.
Underscoring the many ways companies can take part in the rescue fund, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and other Hispanic business groups met with Paulson to push for minority contracts in asset management, legal, accounting, mortgage services and maintenance jobs, like plumbing and masonry.
"They are going to need a lot of folks in minority communities that are able to service their own communities," said David Ferreira, head of government relations for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
As the automakers have pushed for U.S. government help, the trade groups for car dealerships and even boat dealerships are pressing their own cases. They argue that showrooms are feeling a squeeze between higher borrowing costs to finance their inventory and slowing consumer sales to move it out the door.
"We have been encouraged by reports that Secretary Paulson is looking to broaden the program," said Mathew Dunn, head of government relations for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
On Friday, the automobile dealers sent Paulson a letter urging him to keep them in mind.
"A well-capitalized, financially sound dealer network is essential to the success of every automobile manufacturer," wrote Annette Sykora, a car dealer in Slaton, Texas, and the chairwoman of the National Automobile Dealers Association. "Any government intervention should include provisions to preserve the viability of dealers."
Some lobbyists, Mason said, had called him even though they did not have any clients looking to get into the program or worried about its restrictions. They were merely seeking intelligence on which industries would be deemed eligible for assistance. He suspects they were representing hedge funds that wanted to trade on that information.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
WASHINGTON: Sarah Palin represents a huge historic leap forward for women.
When Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton ran, their fates were inextricably linked with their gender. If they failed, many women felt, there was an X through the whole X chromosome. A blot on the female copybook.
If not this woman now, Hillary's supporters would ardently ask me, what woman ever?
But Sarah Palin can come across as utterly unready to lead the world - or even find the world on a map - and that doesn't reflect poorly on the rest of us.
It only means that she doesn't have enough mind grapes or thoughtsicles, as Tracy Morgan refers to brain droppings on "30 Rock," to be president soon.
(It's W., Cheney and Edward Liddy, the chief executive of AIG - who can't seem to stop the conga line of bailout beneficiaries from going on luxury retreats, even though taxpayers have to keep ponying up - who may have clinched the case that overprivileged white men are biologically or cognitively unsuited to hold higher office.)
Palin told Greta Van Susteren Monday on Fox News that her faith will guide her on a 2012 run. "I'm like, O.K., God, if there is an open door for me somewhere - this is what I always pray - don't let me miss the open door," she said. "Show me where the open door is, even if it's cracked open a little bit, maybe I'll plow right on through that and maybe prematurely plow through it."
The Alaska governor, who now thinks she is even bigger than her vast state, has certainly not missed an opportunity to throw open the door to the national press this week, letting them hang in her Wasilla kitchen as she makes moose chili and cake and baby formula and hefty servings of spin.
After her brutal transformation by the McCain campaign into a shopaholic, whack-job diva - "Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," as one angry McCain aide characterized it to Newsweek - Palin is now trying to unmake that makeover and morph from uptown cloistered girl back to down-home accessible girl.
Just hanging in the kitchen with her family and a bunch of camera crews, washing lettuce and washing John McCain and his tattling, gossiping sewing circle of aides right out of her fluffed-up hair. The same McCain aides who blasted the press as sexist for wondering if Palin was hopelessly over her head swiveled around and blasted Palin to the press as hopelessly over her head. The snippy McCain snipers once loved Palin's sassy ability to burn Barack Obama and Joe Biden with snide little remarks.
So let's see how they like the burn turned on them? She said that the anonymous aides scapegoating her were "cowardly" "mean-spirited," "immature," "unprofessional" and "jerks."
She's right. And where was the usually gallant John McCain during all this? Usually Republicans protect their own. There was plenty W. didn't know during his coaching sessions when he was running for president, but it never leaked out from staffers.
And yet, Palin still seems disturbingly unconcerned about how much she does not know.
Calling Tina Fey. Here's Palin defending herself on the contention that she got confused about Africa:
"My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska's investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."
And, she concluded, "never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don't know about this issue."
Palin's father, Chuck Heath, told The Associated Press over the weekend that his daughter was "frantically" trying to sort out the clothes she got as Eliza Knowlittle so she could send them back.
"You know," Heath said, "the kids lose underwear, and everything has to be accounted for."
As Michael Shear reported in The Washington Post, on top of the $150,000 first cited in FEC filings, Palin spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on more clothes, makeup and jewelry for herself and her family, including $40,000 in luxury goods for the First Dude.
The campaign was charged for silk boxers, spray tanners and 13 suitcases to carry the designer duds, Shear reported, adding that one source said, "She was still receiving shipments of custom-designed underpinnings up to her 'Saturday Night Live' performance" in October.
Silk boxers and custom-designed underpinnings? Sounds like Sarah and Todd were treating the vice presidential run as a second honeymoon.
Palin should follow her own reformer precedent and put the borrowed underpinnings on eBay. The windfall would undergird her new presidential bid.
By Charles McGrath
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
SAGAPONACK, New York: Among the nominees for this year's National Book Award in fiction, which will be presented Wednesday, is a book that some have complained is not exactly new: Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country," published by Modern Library, which is a one-volume compilation of three novels that Matthiessen published from 1990 to 1999: "Killing Mister Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone." After the finalists were announced in October, there was a small flare-up in the blogosphere from readers who questioned whether "Shadow Country" should have been eligible. Others, who loved the three original novels just as they were, regretted that the one-volume version was 400 pages shorter.
"It wasn't really a controversy," said Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the awards. "It was as much a head-scratcher as anything else." He explained that the foundation ruled twice, in effect, on the book's eligibility - once when "Shadow Country" was submitted, and again when the panel of judges asked for guidelines, without mentioning a specific title. "We allow collections of previously published material," he said. "Collected poems, collected essays, short-story collections - books like that. We don't allow reprints, but we didn't consider this a reprint. There's a lot of new writing here.
"There's no perfect system, and we try to leave it up to the judges," he added. "I can't give you a percentage of how much new writing there needs to be for a book to be eligible. The issue is whether it's a different reading experience, and that's for the judges to decide."
An article by Michael Dirda in The New York Review of Books last May compared passages from both versions and suggested that portions of "Shadow Country" were substantially rewritten. Matthiessen said recently, "There's hardly a sentence in the whole damn thing that's exactly the same."
Matthiessen, now 81 and the author of some 28 books, is probably best known for his journalism and travel writing and for books like "The Snow Leopard," his account of a 1973 trek through Nepal with the zoologist George Schaller, which won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 1979. But he thinks of himself primarily as a novelist.
Tall and craggy, he lives near the beach here, on a six-acre, or 2.5-hectare, bird-thronged island of trees surrounded by former potato fields that have lately been replanted with McMansions. There is a zendo, or Buddhist meditation room, in a converted stable on the property, where Matthiessen, a Zen monk, leads services three times a week.
Matthiessen began writing here in the late '50s, after a couple of years of knocking around in Europe, where he was one of the founders of The Paris Review, and in the beginning supported himself by working as a commercial fisherman.
But as a fiction writer, he said, he "couldn't cut the mustard." He had a wife and a family and wasn't making any money. His agent at the time was the legendarily hard-bitten Bernice Baumgarten, wife of the novelist James Gould Cozzens, who sent back his first novel with the note: "Dear Peter: James Fenimore Cooper wrote this book 150 years ago, only he wrote it better."
In the late '70s he started to think about what would eventually become "Shadow Country," imagining it as a modest, one-volume novel set in the Florida Everglades and dealing with the oppression of the blacks and Indians there and the despoiling of the environment. "I can blame Mr. Watson for what happened," Matthiessen said. "He just took the book over."
Edgar J. Watson, sometimes known as Bloody Watson or Emperor Watson, was a historical figure born in 1855. He was an immensely successful, if ruthless, entrepreneur and cane farmer who settled on the west coast of Florida and so alienated his neighbors that in 1910 a band of them shot him 33 times. Watson was also said to be a serial killer, who numbered among his victims the outlaw Belle Starr.
As he tried to come to grips with this figure, Matthiessen's book took on both Conradian and Faulknerian dimensions: The first part is told by a chorus of Watson's killers; the second is narrated by Watson's son Lucius, who has made it his life's work to discover the truth about his father; and the third is in the voice of Watson himself.
"My challenge was to make Mr. Watson a character anyone would be interested in," Matthiessen said. "I'm not interested in the criminal mind, but Watson is much more than a criminal in the usual sense. The challenge was to make him a human being but not to blink at what he did. They say he killed 55 people, one for every year of his life. I can only account for seven, but seven is plenty. One of the things I did was make him funny - by my warped sense, anyway. That made him more habitable."
The first draft of what was then called "Killing Mister Watson" was more than 1,500 pages, so long, Matthiessen joked, that he had to deliver it to Random House, his publisher, in a wheelbarrow. When it became clear that the book would have to appear in parts, he set about restructuring, and several years elapsed between the publication of the first volume and the second. The first, under the original title, was a hit with critics and book buyers alike, but the next two did less well. Matthiessen said he was almost immediately unhappy with the second, "Lost Man's River."
"That book had some of the best stuff," he explained, "but it was a mess. It was a weak book. It was too long in its time span, too long in every way." In an author's note to "Shadow Country," he now compares "Lost Man's River" to "the long belly of a dachshund, slung woefully between its upright sturdy legs."
After the third volume, he resolved to restructure the whole thing, he said, just for his own satisfaction, and even if he couldn't find a publisher for it. The task, which he imagined could be done in a year or so, took him seven.
"I brought forward some characters, and gave them a voice," he explained. "Like Henry Short, a black man who probably fired the first shot. I dropped others. I also dropped a lot of historical stuff and cut 40 years out of the time span. But a lot of the changes were just deepening, or I use the rather pretentious word 'distilling."'
Asked if after 30 years he finally had "Shadow Country" in the shape he wanted, Matthiessen laughed and threatened to rewrite it all over again. "There are people who are scared to death that I'll really do that," he said, smiling. "I'm such an obsessive and perfectionist. But the truth is I can hardly bear to go back. I immediately see an adverb that should come out. It kills me."
By Solomon Moore
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
ST. JOHNS, Arizona: The divorced mother of an 8-year-old boy accused of shooting his father and another man to death last week said she was as puzzled as everyone else about what led to the killings, but added that her son was not capable of the crime.
"I don't believe he did this," said Erin Bloomfield, 26, who has shared joint custody with her son's father, Vincent Romero, 29, after their divorce six years ago.
She said that the boy, who lived here with his father and stepmother, had grown more withdrawn in recent months, and that she worried that he might have been abused in some way. Bloomfield, who looked wan and worried, confirmed reports that Romero had spanked their son the day before the shootings. She also said that her son was close to his father. The two played ball, and went hiking and hunting together regularly.
Other residents of this small, predominately Mormon and Catholic town echoed Bloomfield's sentiments, voicing confusion about how an 8-year-old Bible student could be accused of killing his church-going, doting father and Timothy Romans, 39, a boarder and co-worker of Romero.
The killings are unprecedented and, residents said, unthinkable in St. Johns, with a population of about 4,000. Until the shootings, crime here consisted of the occasional methamphetamine lab bust, police officials said. A larger problem is unemployment, which has risen recently with job cutbacks at two nearby coal-burning plants.
A windy hamlet of horse ranches, low-slung houses, and double-wide trailers, the biggest structures in St. Johns are a few churches and schools along the single main road, which has no stoplights.
But last week's killings have swept the town into a swirl of trepidation and speculation. Pretty much everyone knows Romero family, or knows someone who knows the family. Hundreds of people turned up for Romero's funeral on Monday at St. Johns Catholic Church, the same church where Romero married his wife, Tiffany, in September. They and the boy spent their honeymoon at Disneyland, Bloomfield said.
She expressed disgust over rumors sweeping the town, and said her son was being vilified by residents who assumed he was guilty. "This town is too small," she said. "Everybody thinks they know what happened. They're saying all kinds of things about my son."
She described said her son as a normal boy who plays video games nonstop, dotes on his new dog, a boxer, and enjoys playing softball and basketball with his father. Bloomfield also confirmed that Romero had recently bought their son a .22 rifle for hunting, a common pastime of young boys and their fathers in this rugged town.
She said she also feared reports that prosecutors may seek to try her son as an adult. He has been charged as such with two counts of premeditated murder.
Bloomfield accused the police of coercing a confession from her son before he was represented by a lawyer or had a guardian present. Police officials said this occurred because they were questioning her son as a possible witness to the killings when, about 45 minutes after the interview begun, he unexpectedly admitted he was the gunman.
She said she was especially appalled to see that the police led her young son into court on Monday in shackles, his hands bound to a security belt that had to be looped around his waist three times because of his small stature.
The judge ordered the restraints removed.
"I blew some kisses at him and told him to put some in his pocket for later," she said. "Later he told me he needed more kisses to put in his pocket."
Sister Angelina Chavez, a soft-spoken woman in a dark habit, led the boy's religious instruction at St. Johns Catholic Church and has known the family since he was a baby.
"The father and his wife sang in the choir," she said as she put away chairs that were used during the funeral. Her view of the boy, she said, was of "a person who took his religious faith very seriously."
"I just don't know what happened to him spiritually, emotionally," Sister Angelina said.
The child walked across the street from Coronado Elementary School every Monday for the religious lessons, she said.
"This is going to take a while to get over," said Chavez. "Parishioners have come to me asking why it happened. I just don't know."
Lucas Graf, 12, and Jude Chavez, 11, said they used to play with the boy and were baffled as to how a youngster whom they wrestled and swam with in the scorching summer just past could have committed such a brutal act on a recent autumn day.
"He's a nice kid," Lucas said. "He's normal."
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By Joseph Guyler Delva
A two-story school partially collapsed in Haiti's capital on Wednesday and at least nine people were taken to hospitals, five days after another school collapse that killed 95 people, officials said.
Hundreds of panicked parents and other people rushed to the Grace Divine school in the Canape Vert section of Port-au-Prince, where emergency workers dug through rubble in search of possible victims.
Officials at the scene said most of the children were on a break from classes and were outside the school when part of the building collapsed. There were no immediate reports of deaths.
Haitian authorities blamed the collapse on Friday of the three-story La Promesse school in the Nerettes area on shoddy construction. They said the building had little structural steel or cement holding its concrete blocks together.
They said Wednesday's collapse appeared to have the same cause.
"It is the same kind of construction we have seen in Nerettes," said Eucher Luc Joseph, secretary of state for public safety. "It is construction with practically no cement, no iron. It has been built in total violation of regulations."
The owner of the La Promesse school was arrested.
The government declared Thursday a day of mourning and promised about $3,000 (2,000 pounds) to the family of each victim of the La Promesse disaster to pay funeral expenses.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, is still recovering from four tropical storms and hurricanes that killed more than 800 people and destroyed 60 percent of its crops in August and September.
(Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By Peter Griffiths
The Royal Navy killed two Somali pirates after the attempted hijacking of a Danish cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping routes, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said on Wednesday.
The men were killed when a Royal Navy crew returned fire as they intercepted a boat about 60 miles south of Yemen on Tuesday.
HMS Cumberland was in the region as part of a NATO mission to protect shipping after scores of pirate attacks on ships in the key route that links Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
It was joined by a Russian frigate Neustrashimy (Fearless) from Russia's Baltic Sea Fleet, Russian navy spokesman Igor Dygalo told state channel Vesti-24.
"Boats launched by Cumberland to intercept the dhow (traditional Arab boat) were involved in an exchange of fire," the MoD spokesman said. "Two foreign nationals, believed to be Somali pirates, were shot and killed in self defence."
British sailors found a third man, thought to be a Yemeni national, dead on the vessel. It was not clear whether he had been killed in the shooting or in an earlier incident, the spokesman added.
The Yemeni dhow was towing a smaller boat which the Cumberland's crew believed had attacked the Danish-registered cargo ship MV Powerful earlier on Tuesday.
Dygalo said a Russian Ka-27 helicopter and a British Lynx helicopter were involved.
"The pirates tried to shoot at the (Danish) vessel with automatic weapons and made several attempts to seize it," he added. "But thanks to the joint efforts of the Russian and British warships the pirates' actions were disrupted."
He said the Russian frigate was now escorting several foreign merchant ships in the area.
Pirates have been causing havoc in the Gulf of Aden, taking millions of dollars in ransoms, raising insurance costs and threatening humanitarian supplies.
Diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia have been strained following the murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko who was killed with a radioactive substance in London two years ago.
Moscow sent the Neustrashimy to the area in September and said at the time its ships would regularly go to zones where pirates were active.
Some observers say the Kremlin is increasingly using the Russian navy to project its renewed power.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Matthew Jones)
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