Thursday, 27 November 2008

A Place in the Auvergne, Wednesday, 26th November 2008


Bring back the woolly mammoth?
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
A new research report suggests that scientists may be able to recreate an extinct woolly mammoth from its long-frozen DNA. The most gung-ho scientists think it could be done in a decade or two for as little as $10 million. The deeper question is, should we try?
Michael Crichton warned us in his novel "Jurassic Park" about the dangers of tinkering with extinct species (and populating a theme park with dinosaurs). That sort of improbable disaster is not what gives us pause. There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth - a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. rex. We're just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.
The first mammoth would be a lonely zoo freak, vulnerable to diseases unknown to its ancestors. To live a full and rewarding life, it would need other mammoths to hang out with, a mate to produce a family and a suitable place to live. The sort of environment it is used to - the frigid wastes of Siberia and North America - are disappearing all too fast.
No one is quite sure why the woolly mammoths died out toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Theories include warmer temperatures that gradually displaced the plants on which they fed, overhunting by primitive man, widespread disease or an asteroid or comet colliding with Earth and disrupting the climate.
If scientists do bring back a few mammoths, we suspect our warming world won't look any more hospitable than the one that did them in.

Gazprom threatens Ukraine with price rise
By Sophia Kishkovsky
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
MOSCOW: Gazprom said Wednesday that if Ukraine did not pay a $2.4 billion debt, the company might more than double the price of natural gas, a move that would deal a harsh blow to Ukraine's economy.
The Russian state-controlled natural gas monopoly said it would try to "avoid" cutting off supplies to Ukraine. Gazprom briefly cut off the flow of gas in 2006 in a dispute that disrupted supplies throughout Europe. Most of the gas Russia sends to Europe is piped through Ukraine.
"We will certainly try to take into account all the lessons of that situation and make every effort to avoid events developing according to this scenario," Sergei Kupriyanov, a Gazprom spokesman, told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.
Gazprom has said that an Oct. 2 memorandum signed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia would lead to a long-term agreement on supplies and a transition to market prices over a three-year period, beginning Jan. 1, provided Ukraine pays its debt.
Ukraine now pays $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, or 35,000 cubic feet, of gas. The market price would be more than $400, Gazprom said.
Naftogaz, the Ukraine state energy company, estimates its debt at $2 billion for the past three months of gas supplies. Oleg Dubina, chief executive of the company, said Wednesday that due to a spike in demand for dollars, Naftogaz was having some difficulty acquiring the currency necessary to make payment.
The $2.4 billion Gazprom has demanded includes penalties for late payment.
During Wednesday's conference call, Kupriyanov of Gazprom reiterated that the debt must be paid in order for the agreement on a gradual transition to market prices to hold.
"If the transition to market prices is not gradual, but as of January 1 of next year, then based on current European prices for gas, the price for Ukraine might be more than $400," said Kupriyanov, adding Ukraine had been warned about the situation last summer.
A caravan of auto company backers hopes to win over Washington
By Nick Bunkley
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
DETROIT: This city does not normally embrace the idea of carpooling. But these are not normal times in Detroit.
Car dealers, parts makers, union leaders and others hoping to convince lawmakers that the industry is an indispensable piece of the economy are planning a caravan to Washington in early December. The 525-mile drive will occur as auto executives make a second plea for U.S. government assistance. The caravan participants are not asking for money directly, but are among those who would suffer if the industry collapsed.
As of now, the three executives — Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Alan Mulally of Ford Motor and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler — are not planning to join the carpool, though they are trying to burnish their image on Capitol Hill. The three executives were chastised for traveling to Washington last week by corporate jets. ("Couldn't you have downgraded to first class or something, or jet-pooled or something to get here?" asked Representative Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York.)
It is unclear how the executives might get to Washington when Congress reconvenes Dec. 8 to consider an aid package, but "it can be safely assumed it will not be by company plane," a GM spokesman, Greg Martin, said.
The automakers, which are seeking a $25 billion bridge loan to help weather the downturn and the tight credit markets, have expressed support for the caravan, though they are not organizing it. Both Chrysler and General Motors have said that they are rapidly running out of cash.
"We think it's a very important opportunity to tell the story of the role that dealers and suppliers play in the auto industry and the U.S. economy," a Ford spokesman, Mike Moran, said. Moran noted that no congressional committees had specifically asked the executives to offer more testimony.
The idea for a giant carpool to drive home Detroit's importance, so to speak, came from discussions involving Timothy Leuliette, the head of Dura Automotive Systems, a parts supplier; Jason Vines, a former public relations executive with Chrysler and Ford; and dealers like Carl Galeana, who sells domestic and foreign brands at showrooms in Florida, Michigan and South Carolina.
Galeana said the browbeating that the executives received in Washington last week indicated to him that Congress did not comprehend the auto industry's true breadth and had an outdated perception of Detroit.
"There was a groundswell of frustration after the hearings, not just here in Detroit but from dealers all over the country," Galeana said. "We're not saying this is going to be some explosive 'Walk on Washington.' It's nothing radical, just a quiet show of support just to say we're here and this is who we are, and to put a face on the automotive industry. It's more than so-called Rust Belt factories."
Initially, organizers intended to assemble a convoy of numerous fuel-efficient, American-made vehicles to demonstrate the innovation coming from Detroit, but it might end up being more about the people involved than the products.
"From an efficiency standpoint, getting a bus or two would probably be the best way to go," Galeana said.
The group is planning a quick trip, perhaps leaving Dec. 7 and heading back late the next day, with no stops for rallies or demonstrations. During the approximately nine-hour drive, they will undoubtedly pass much evidence of the industry's troubles — foreclosed homes in Michigan, vacant lots where dealerships recently closed and GM's Lordstown assembly plant along the Ohio Turnpike. GM is laying off more than 1,000 workers at Lordstown and doubling the length of its annual holiday shutdown to four weeks because of slow sales.
Paradigm shift gives new momentum to electric cars
By Malachy Tuohy
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
PARIS: Five years ago, the claim that electric cars would one day be a serious contender in the automobile market would have been laughable. But times have changed.
Serge Yoccoz, electric-vehicle project director at Renault, said he expected electric vehicles to represent as much as 20 percent of the European market in 10 years. Renault, he said, is committed to developing a whole range of electric vehicles, which are to be available starting 2011.
Renault is not alone: Some of the world's largest manufacturers have announced plans to produce electric vehicles within the next five years. So what has led to this change?
With the prospect of a medium to long-term rise in gasoline prices, a growing fear of dependence on foreign oil and the threat of global warming, all signs point to a shift in consumer demand. Gasoline-inefficient cars are piling up on lots in the United States, for example, and sales have fallen sharply for automakers worldwide.
"The century we are living in will see the end of oil - there is no doubt about that," said Gildo Pastor, president of Venturi, an electric-vehicle producer based in Monaco. "Automakers will have to evolve or they will disappear."
At the same time, technological advances have meant that newer electric vehicles can match the performance of their gasoline-powered contemporaries in many domains and are capable of meeting the needs of an increasing number of motorists. The greatest leaps have been made in the field of battery technology.
"The previous generation of electric vehicles, based on nickel-cadmium batteries, in which we were very committed, was a commercial failure," said Cédric Lewandowski, director of transport and electric vehicles at EDF, the French electricity provider. "Today, thanks to the arrival of lithium-ion technology, the question of electric vehicles and mobility has resurfaced."
Performance has been further improved by the development of lightweight, high-performance electric motors, intelligent management of auxiliary electrical systems, and regenerative breaking systems, which recover energy lost in slowing down.
According to Yoccoz, the Renault executive, 80 percent of people who live in suburban areas travel fewer than 60 kilometers, or 37 miles, a day. The electric vehicles envisioned by Renault would, therefore, amply meet their needs. Using current lithium-ion battery technology, Renault's electric cars could travel 180 to 200 kilometers per charge and reach top speeds of 120 to 140 kilometers per hour; and the technology has great potential for further development, Yoccoz said, with distances of as much as 300 kilometers between charges possible in the future.
Renault's models are typical examples of what consumers can expect of electric cars, and other manufacturers are working on vehicles with similar capabilities.
For those skeptics who might not be impressed, and who still crave the thrills of a real driver's car, there are the high-performance roadsters manufactured by smaller companies like Tesla Motors or Venturi. They rely on battery technology similar to that in standard small next-generation electric cars but combine it with far more powerful motors and lightweight body shells, which make them capable of rivaling high-performance gas-driven machines.
"Electric vehicles needed to be designed in a different way, integrating concepts of lightness and dynamic quality, i.e., road holding - the essential elements of what an automobile should be - as we would have done for a race car," said Pastor, the Venturi president.
With that underlying philosophy, it is no surprise that Venturi's flagship sports coupé, the Fetish, offers impressive performance. It can accelerate from zero to 100 kilometers an hour in four seconds, has a top speed of 180 kilometers an hour and can travel nearly 300 kilometers on a single charge.
Its successor, the Volage, introduced at the Paris motor show this year, is even more advanced, with miniaturized components, lower weight and improved aerodynamics.
These are cars intended for an exclusive niche market. But, Pastor said, they serve a wider purpose in the development of advanced auto technologies. Venturi's compact electric motor technology has already made its way to electric vans that it is developing in cooperation with PSA Peugeot-Citroën for the French post service.
They also play an important role as technological ambassadors.
"What we did four years ago, presenting the Fetish," Pastor said, "was to show that an electric vehicle could be glamorous, sexy, sporty and, in certain conditions, superior to gas-driven vehicles."
Still, despite the vastly improved capabilities of electric vehicles, and growing consumer acceptance, major hurdles remain. In the long term, electric cars may be less costly to operate than cars that run on gasoline or diesel; but the cost of the batteries risks puts electric vehicles at a disadvantage in the showroom, and recharging is an issue: it could take as long as eight hours.
Also crucial for their overall impact on the environment, and their technical viability, are the development of renewable energy sources for generating the electricity and the installation of battery charging networks, both of which are major infrastructure projects.
Automakers, national governments, electricity providers and ambitious start-ups are working together to address these issues. EDF has recently started partnerships with PSA Peugeot-Citroën and the Renault-Nissan alliance that Lewandowski, the EDF executive, said would advance along three main axes: battery technology, charging systems and business models.
EDF, he said, could offer automakers one of the best services in Europe for testing next-generation battery technology. And consumers would benefit from EDF plans to develop an infrastructure integrating three types of charging systems: one for individual homes; one for public and private parking lots and one for Main Street.
A key feature of these charging systems will be their incorporation of "smart" interactive technology.
"We have patented a system of communication between the vehicle and the charging point," Lewandowski said.
The system, now being tested, is based on a technology called "power-line communication," in which drivers use a small card that allows the charging point to recognize their vehicle, allows them to program the amount of charge they want and warns them of any danger if a charging point is malfunctioning.
And "why not a whole series of complementary services?" asked Lewandowski, who sees distance-billing and systems that locate charging points as future possibilities.
EDF is not alone in planning electric vehicle infrastructure. Better Place, a Silicon Valley start-up founded by a former software executive, Shai Agassi, has reached agreements to develop electric vehicle infrastructure and business models in Israel, Denmark, Australia and California.
Mike Granoff, a senior executive at Better Place, said it would develop infrastructure that offered consumers "ubiquity of charge." A country the size of Israel, for example, would have a network of hundreds of thousands of charging points for drivers to plug into, Granoff said.
"Every time you get in your car," he said, "you come back with the full range of the battery."
Better Place will draw on its software expertise, Granoff says, to ensure that the charging networks are capable of recognizing individual vehicles and optimizing their charge according to the individual driver's needs and the level of demand on the electricity grid. The network will be powered by renewable sources of energy: wind power in Denmark and solar power in Israel.
The network would be designed to meet 95 percent of its users' travel requirements and, Granoff said, "it was really when Shai was thinking of how to solve the other 5 percent that he unlocked the secret of the electric car, in our mind, which is the separation of the car and the battery."
The batteries powering the vehicles would be considered part of the infrastructure, he said, rather than part of the vehicle. Better Place is developing battery exchange stations, where drivers can have their old batteries replaced, in less than five minutes.
With such a battery-exchange network in place, electric vehicles would be able to entirely replace gas-driven ones, including for use on long journeys. Once a comprehensive battery exchange infrastructure has been installed along major routes, "then you have limitless range," Granoff said.
Separating battery and vehicle lies at the heart of Better Place's business model. A good analogy is that of a mobile communications provider that owns airwaves and sells talk time to its users. In the same way, Better Place would own the batteries and charging infrastructure and sell distances of driving to its users, offering different plans tailored to individual needs.
Consumers would pay no more than they currently pay to operate their gas-driven vehicles, and in some cases possibly less.
"The bottom line," Granoff said, "is that what we do is make the efficient car, the electric car, not a premium car but a discount car."
Better Place is optimistic about the future of electric vehicles. Granoff foresees that when motorists understand that they can have a better and cleaner vehicle that costs less to drive, very few will opt for a traditional gas-driven vehicle. Better Place says it believes that it can achieve 100 percent market penetration in Israel within 10 years, Granoff said, and his personal belief is that "after 2020, you won't see cars with tailpipes sold anywhere in the world."
That is an extreme view. Probably most transport experts say they believe that electric vehicles, while catering to a significant portion of the market, will be unable to completely replace gasoline-driven cars.
Major automakers in particular tend to see electric power as only part of an environmentally friendly road transport future, alongside other technologies such as hybridization, hydrogen fuel cell technology, alternative fuels like bio-ethanol, and even advanced, high-efficiency conventional gasoline motors.
Still, nobody at this point, whether pessimist, pragmatist or cynic is denying that electric cars an increasingly significant role in the future of auto transport.
Wind project hits a hurdle in Scotland
By Simon Marks
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
EDINBURGH: On the Isle of Lewis, a blustery wedge of highland and bog at the northern tip of the Outer Scottish Hebrides, a battle over a planned wind farm holds lessons for investors and industrialists seeking to meet alternative energy targets for Europe.
The island's 859 square miles, or 2,225 square kilometers, are home to about 20,000 people and 12 protected bird species that include black-throated divers, golden plovers and white-tailed sea eagles. Under plans submitted in 2004 by Lewis Wind Power, a joint venture between British Energy Group and the energy engineering services company Amec, it would also become home to one of the world's biggest wind farms.
A rambling complex of 181 turbines, connecting cables and support facilities, the proposed farm could contribute the equivalent of 6 percent of the British renewable energy target for 2010: And follow-up proposals for a further 64 turbines could turn Lewis and neighboring islands into a major power-generating hub.
Despite fierce opposition from local campaigners, the project received approval from the local authority, the Western Isles Council, early in 2007.
But in a surprising reversal, the Scottish government rejected the project in April this year on the ground that enough planning applications already existed to meet Scottish renewable energy targets and that the project would do serious damage to peat marshes that are designated as a Special Protection Area under European Union bird and habitat directives.
The government is now compiling a study of renewable energy resources in the Western Isles, to be published early next year. The study aims to clarify the role of renewable energy in sustaining Scottish economic growth and what else Scotland needs to do to achieve its target of supplying 50 percent of its gross electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2020.
Lewis Wind Power, meanwhile, is drafting another proposal to put forward after the study is published.
The company "believes that the government's assessment of the scheme is flawed," said David Hodkinson, a project manager. In addition to the energy benefits, "the proposals would have enhanced tourism" on the island, he said. "Currently there are a very limited number of hotels on Lewis, which are reliant on a very short tourist season. The wind farm would have potentially helped create a more sustainable tourist industry."
The British Wind Energy Association say that a more robust planning policy is needed if Britain is to meet its 2010 renewable energy targets. The average time for applications to be processed is now 11 months, despite government guidelines stating that major proposals should be decided within 16 weeks.
So far this year, Britain has seen 32 proposals refused, 50 approved and 24 built, according to the association. Even after approval, energy companies have to overcome multiple barriers including turbine-order backlogs, compliance with British aviation radar regulations, and connection to the national electricity grid. These can stretch construction and commissioning delays up to two years for large wind farms, the association said.
The global wind market is growing fast: from $30.1 billion in revenues last year, it is likely to reach $83.4 billion in 2017, according to a report published this year by the research firm Clean Edge, based in San Francisco. But as the industry grows, so does opposition from local communities and environmentalists.
The Lewis project is a case in point. Nearly 11,000 Scots signed a petition against it, arguing that the proposal would have created a development zone of turbines, roads, quarries, transmission lines and other forms of infrastructure stretching almost continuously for 40 miles, or 65 kilometers across the Lewis moorland, threatening internationally recognized populations of protected species and peat lands.
Martin Scott, the Western Isles officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said areas of natural beauty should not be destroyed in the name of cutting carbon emissions.
"Developers seem to be going for remoter areas where there are less people," Scott said. "Obviously, if they were built near to big cities, there would be far more complaints." A wind farm on the Smola Islands, off the coast of Norway, kills four or five white-tailed eagles every year, a potentially devastating toll considering their "incredibly slow rate of reproduction," he warned.
On Lewis, bird-watching is one of the major attractions for the thousands of visitors who come to the island every year.
According to Moorland Without Turbines, a local protest group, 143,402 recreational visitors came to the Western Isles in 2006 - the equivalent of five times the permanent population - supporting around 1,000 jobs and injecting more than £36 million, or $54 million, to the islands' economy.
But Hodkinson, the project manager, said that "recent Scottish government-commissioned research demonstrated that there is minimal impact on tourism from on-shore wind farms."
"The number of visits to the island would have increased due to the construction and maintenance of the wind farm," he said.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tourist Board, also known as VisitScotland, says it supports the drive for renewable energy and recognizes the potential of Scotland's vast resources. Still, the increasing number of planning applications worries some board members.
"VisitScotland is becoming increasingly concerned over the proliferation of speculative development proposals, many of them in areas of high landscape or scenic value or in locations which directly impact on tourism," it said.
Neil MaCauthur, owner of the Eshcol Guest House on Lewis said the islanders "are generally split down the middle" on the issue.
"There is no doubt that wind farms would boost the island's economy, but whether there is a spin-off effect on the tourism industry is unknown," he said. "It really is an unknown quantity."
Still, wind industry advocates argue that sacrifices must be made if countries are to meet government targets on reduced carbon emissions - in Britain the European Union target is to supply 15 percent of total energy demand with renewable sources by 2020 - and help fight global warming. According to Greenpeace, Britain generates 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
Ditlev Engel, the chief executive of Vestas Wind Systems, the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer, expresses deep concern about the lack of energy resources to serve adequately the needs and expectations of a growing global population.
"If people don't want turbines in their own back yard, we should be asking people what we should do instead," he said. "Would you prefer that we build a new coal plant?"
The question will not go away: For now, the eagles still soar over Lewis, to the relief of many islanders and environmentalists.
"The government has made it clear, in repeated statements on this issue, that renewables must be delivered, but not at any price," the bird protection society said.

Slowdown and sterling nix French homes for Brits
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Elizabeth Pineau
A sagging economy on both sides of the Channel and a slump in sterling have put a hex on Britons' love affair with French real estate, and their disenchantment underlines a broader trend among foreigners.
From western Brittany to the southern Cote d'Azur, real estate agents contacted by Reuters said sales to cross-channel clients have slumped by up to 50 percent.
In 2005, official statistics showed Britons held 29 percent of the 260,000 foreign-owned secondary residences in France, ahead of Italians with 14 percent, Swiss with 12 percent, and Germans with 11 percent.
As overall real estate sales fell from 10 to 15 percent over the first nine months of this year, according to estate agent association Fnaim, regions favoured by the British have been particularly hard hit.
"The main reason is the fall of the pound against the euro. Plus the financial crisis, which has hit Britain stronger than France. On top of that, there's difficulty in securing loans," said British-born Charles Gillooley.
The pound has fallen around 15 percent against the euro over the past 12 months, sapping the spending power of buyers who may already have been hit by dwindling share portfolios or worries about their jobs.
As head of Fnaim's regional office in Dordogne, a mini-Mecca within France for some 20,000 Britons, Gillooley saw sales to British clients fall by half in over a year.
In a region with around 600 British-owned businesses and where some UK-born residents have even joined local government, there could soon be an impact on the estimated 206 million euros (174 million pounds) they contribute to the economy.
Two real estate agencies have already closed shop.
Elsewhere in France, the trend is similar. In Brittany, where British buyers were major market players between 2000 and 2005, the drop in transactions has been stark.
"The market has been more difficult since January 2007, but since early 2008 it's really dropped, with around 50 percent fewer transactions with the British," said estate agent Charles Regnauld, who works in the Morbihan district.
"Many are selling their property for diverse reasons -- homesickness, problems with employment or finances, family reasons, etc.," he said.
The slowing economy has even left its mark on the Norman countryside, traditionally a British bastion and home to the D-Day beaches of World War Two.
In some villages among the bocage -- fields divided by earth and brush mounds fiercely fought over in 1944 -- the British make up a quarter of the population, but that could be changing.
"We're seeing many fewer transactions," said notary Patrick Durel from the town of Vire.
The drop has even been felt in Paris, where a legion of monuments, restaurants and museums usually drive a timeless demand among high-end buyers.
Estate agent Leo Attias said he's seen a 20 percent drop since September, mainly among the British and their "Anglo-Saxon" American cousins.
"Since late 2007, Anglo-Saxon bankers and notaries seeking properties over 500,000 euros have been in "wait-and-see" mode."
But for those Britons who manage to sell at a time of buyer hesitation, there may be a silver lining in getting out of the French market just as it starts to head down.
A euro was buying 0.84 pounds on Wednesday, and with economists expecting house prices in Britain to fall another 10 percent next year, a lucky Briton could sell up in France and, cash-rich, might snap up a bargain back in his home country.
(Writing by Brian Rohan; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
Newfound respect for Pouilly-Fuissé
By Eric Asimov
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
When I was first learning about wine in the late 1970s, people had a word for Pouilly-Fuissé. It was "joke." It was the go-to wine of the ignorant and the pseudo-sophisticated, attractive for its mellifluous, if not-easy-to-say French name, and little else. As white wines were ascendant, Pouilly-Fuissé was a proto-pinot grigio, in demand for every reason except for what was in the bottle.
Pouilly-Fuissé's problem was not its popularity. While the area around the towns of Pouilly and Fuissé, in the southern Mâconnais region of Burgundy, was blessed with great chardonnay vineyards, the 1970s were a nadir in French winemaking. The industry latched on to the notion of better winemaking through chemistry and technology.
The result was a profusion of herbicides and fertilizers, which produced overly abundant grapes, harvested early by mechanical pickers because growers feared the risk of waiting for optimal ripeness. It was a formula for diluted, acidic wines, which were also overpriced. Not every Pouilly-Fuissé fell into the sinkhole, but the reputation stuck.
While that reputation has been hard for Pouilly-Fuissé to live down, things have been looking up. A new generation of growers and producers is treating the land and the winemaking with more respect, and the wines have improved greatly. It is still easy to find insipid, overpriced wines besmirching the name, but nowadays it is just as easy to find delicious wines that speak of their terroir and do the region proud.
For a sense of what is available from Pouilly-Fuissé, the wine panel recently sampled 25 bottles. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Laura Maniec, director of wine and spirits for B.R. Guest Restaurants; and Olivier Flosse, the wine director for the MARC U.S. restaurant group, which includes A Voce, near Madison Square Park.
First, we had no qualms about the quality. The standard was high, with none of the thin, acidic wines of yore. This was true even with some of the top Pouilly-Fuissé producers unrepresented.
As with many chardonnay wines of Burgundy, our favorites did not emphasize the pronounced fruit flavors more common in American chardonnays. Instead, they tended to show off a mouthwatering "drink me" texture and mineral flavors that Burgundy lovers prize.
That said, the wines divided into two main styles. One was the crisp, somewhat steely style associated with Mâconnais wines, with added depth and substance in the better versions. The other was a richer, more concentrated barrel-fermented style, like the whites of the Côte de Beaune.
Some of these were very well done. Others Florence scorned as Burgundy pretenders, while Laura was disturbed by an extravagance in a few that reminded her of California viogniers.
Olivier thought the main stylistic differences were better explained by geography. Wines from the northern Pouilly-Fuissé territory, around the town of Vergisson, which has a longer growing season, tend to be richer and more succulent, while those from the south, closer to the town of Chaintré, are usually leaner with more minerality. Incidentally, a small percentage of the wines known collectively as Pouilly-Fuissé may be called Pouilly-Vinzelles or Pouilly-Loché, after two other towns in the area.
What kind of value do the Pouilly-Fuissés offer? Well, in a rare case of price being related to quality, the six most expensive wines in the tasting, from $37 to $65, made our top 10, while none of the six least expensive wines, from $14 to $22, made the list. This suggests that higher prices reflect greater pains in the viticulture and the winemaking.
Nonetheless, our No.1 wine and the best value in the tasting was a $26 bottle, the deliciously focused and refreshing 2006 Marie-Antoinette from Jean-Jacques Vincent & Fils. Vincent is the négociant arm of Château Fuissé, a longtime leader in the appellation. The 2004 Château Fuissé Vieilles Vignes, from estate-grown grapes, also made our list, at No.9. It was more expensive at $47, and richer and more complex, but had less energy and drive than the younger wine.
Our No.2, the 2006 Vieilles Vignes from Denis Jeandeau, was an excellent combination of precision and juicy richness, and should continue to evolve. I would love to taste this wine in a few years. Our No.3, the 2005 Guffens-Heynen, is from Jean-Marie Guffens, a visionary who has helped lead the striking improvement in the Mâconnais in the last 15 years. His wine, the most expensive in the tasting at $65, combined the minerality of a Chablis with a spicy richness, and had me longing for oysters.
Among the rest of our favorites, the 2006 Domaine des Vieilles Pierres Cuvée Tradition, from Jean-Jacques Litaud, the 2006 from Christophe Cordier and the 2006 La Roche from Daniel et Martine Barraud all tended to be on the more concentrated end, while the 2005 Domaine Chataigneraie-Laborier from Gilles Morat, the 2006 Vieilles Vignes from J. Pierre & Michel Auvigue and the 2007 Joseph Drouhin were leaner and more minerally.
We liked several wines that narrowly missed our top 10. Olivier in particular liked a 2006 Les Scélés from J.A. Ferret, while Florence and Olivier both liked a 2006 Clos Varambon from Château des Rontets. Both were on the richer side. I very much liked the 2007 Louis Jadot, lively, refreshing, and a good buy at $25.
Just as they have everywhere else in France, producers in Pouilly-Fuissé have learned that what sells internationally is quality.
A French connection
By Kenneth C. Davis
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
To commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America's shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the "New World" were French.
And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
Long before the Pilgrims sailed in 1620, another group of dissident Christians sought a haven in which to worship freely. These French Calvinists, or Huguenots, hoped to escape the sectarian fighting between Roman Catholics and Protestants that had bloodied France since 1560.
Landing in balmy Florida in June of 1564, at what a French explorer had earlier named the River of May (now the St. Johns River near Jacksonville), the French émigrés promptly held a service of "thanksgiving." Carrying the seeds of a new colony, they also brought cannons to fortify the small, wooden enclosure they named Fort Caroline, in honor of their king, Charles IX.
In short order, these French pilgrims built houses, a mill and bakery, and apparently even managed to press some grapes into a few casks of wine. At first, relationships with the local Timucuans were friendly, and some of the French settlers took native wives and soon acquired the habit of smoking a certain local "herb." Food, wine, women - and tobacco by the sea, no less. A veritable Gallic paradise.
Except, that is, to the Spanish, who had other visions for the New World. In 1565, King Philip II of Spain issued orders to "hang and burn the Lutherans" (then a Spanish catchall term for Protestants) and dispatched Admiral Pedro Menéndez to wipe out these French heretics who had taken up residence on land claimed by the Spanish - and who also had an annoying habit of attacking Spanish treasure ships as they sailed by.
Leading this holy war with a crusader's fervor, Menéndez established St. Augustine and ordered what local boosters claim is the first parish Mass celebrated in the future United States. Then he engineered a murderous assault on Fort Caroline, in which most of the French settlers were massacred.
Menéndez had many of the survivors strung up under a sign that read, "I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to heretics." A few weeks later, he ordered the execution of more than 300 French shipwreck survivors at a site just south of St. Augustine, now marked by an inconspicuous national monument called Fort Matanzas, from the Spanish word for "slaughters."
With this, America's first pilgrims disappeared from the pages of history. Casualties of Europe's murderous religious wars, they fell victim to Anglophile historians who erased their existence as readily as they demoted the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine to second-class status behind the later English colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth.
But the truth cannot be so easily buried. Although overlooked, a brutal first chapter had been written in the most untidy history of a "Christian nation." And the sectarian violence and hatred that ended with the deaths of a few hundred Huguenots in 1565 would be replayed often in early America, the supposed haven for religious dissent, which in fact tolerated next to none.
Starting with those massacred French pilgrims, the saga of the nation's birth and growth is often a bloodstained one, filled with religious animosities. In Boston, for instance, the Puritan fathers banned Catholic priests and executed several Quakers between 1659 and 1661.
Cotton Mather, the famed Puritan cleric, led the war cries against New England's Abenaki "savages" who had learned their prayers from the French Jesuits. The colony of Georgia was established in 1732 as a buffer between the Protestant English colonies and the Spanish missions of Florida; its original charter banned Catholics.
The bitter rivalry between Catholic France and Protestant England carried on for most of a century, giving rise to anti-Catholic laws, while a mistrust of Canada's French Catholics helped fire many patriots' passion for independence. As late as 1844, Philadelphia's anti-Catholic "Bible Riots" took the lives of more than a dozen people.
The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America's bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida's shores so many years ago.
Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation."
At least 100 dead in India terror attacks
By Somini Sengupta
Thursday, November 27, 2008
MUMBAI, India: Coordinated terrorist attacks struck the heart of Mumbai, India's commercial capital, on Wednesday night, killing dozens in machine-gun and grenade assaults on at least two five-star hotels, the city's largest train station, a movie theater and a hospital.
Even by the standards of terrorism in India, which has suffered a rising number of attacks this year, the assaults were particularly brazen in scale and execution. The attackers used boats to reach the urban peninsula where they hit, and their targets were sites popular with tourists.
The Mumbai police said Thursday that the attacks killed at least 101 people and wounded at least 250. Guests who had escaped the hotels told television stations that the attackers were taking hostages, singling out Americans and Britons.
A previously unknown group claimed responsibility, though that claim could not be confirmed. It remained unclear whether there was any link to outside terrorist groups.
Gunfire and explosions rang out into the morning.
Hours after the assaults began, the landmark Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, next to the famed waterfront monument the Gateway of India, was in flames.
Guests banged on the windows of the upper floors as firefighters worked to rescue them.
Fire also raged inside the luxurious Oberoi Hotel, according to the police. A militant hidden in the Oberoi told India TV on Thursday morning that seven attackers were holding hostages there.
"We want all mujahedeen held in India released, and only after that we will release the people," he said.Some guests, including two members of the European Parliament who were visiting as part of a trade delegation, remained in hiding in the hotels, making desperate cellphone calls, some of them to television stations, describing their ordeal.
Alex Chamberlain, a British citizen who was dining at the Oberoi, told Sky News television that a gunman had ushered 30 or 40 people from the restaurant into a stairway and, speaking in Hindi or Urdu, ordered them to put up their hands.
"They were talking about British and Americans specifically," he said. "There was an Italian guy, who, you know, they said, 'Where are you from?' and he said he's from Italy, and they said, 'Fine,' and they left him alone."
Sajjad Karim, 38, a British member of the European Parliament, told Sky News: "A gunman just stood there spraying bullets around, right next to me."
Before his phone went dead, Karim added: "I managed to turn away and I ran into the hotel kitchen and then we were shunted into a restaurant in the basement. We are now in the dark in this room, and we have barricaded all the doors. It's really bad."
Attackers had also entered Cama and Albless Hospital, according to Indian television reports, and struck at or near Nariman House, which is home to the city's Chabad-Lubavitch center.
The police told Reuters that an Israeli family was being held hostage. Israel's Foreign Ministry said it was trying to locate an unspecified number of Israelis missing in Mumbai, according to, the Web site of an Israeli newspaper.
Several high-ranking law enforcement officials, including the chief of the antiterrorism squad and a commissioner of police, were reported killed.
The military was quickly called in to assist the police.
Hospitals in Mumbai, a city of more than 12 million that was formerly called Bombay, have appealed for blood donations. As a sense of crisis gripped much of the city, schools, colleges and the stock exchange were closed Thursday.
Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister for Maharashtra State, where Mumbai is, told the CNN-IBN station that the attacks hit five to seven targets, concentrated in the southern tip of the city, known as Colaba and Nariman Point. But even hours after the attacks began, the full scope of the assaults was unclear.
Unlike previous attacks in India this year, which consisted of anonymously planted bombs, the assailants on Wednesday night were spectacularly well-armed and very confrontational. In some cases, said the state's highest-ranking police official, A. N. Roy, the attackers opened fire and disappeared.
Indian officials said the police had killed six of the suspected attackers and captured nine.
A group calling itself the Deccan Mujahedeen said it had carried out the attacks. It was not known who the group is or whether the claim was real.
Around midnight, more than two hours after the series of attacks began, television images from near the historic Metro Cinema showed journalists and bystanders ducking for cover as gunshots rang out. The charred shell of a car lay in front of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus, the mammoth railway station. A nearby gas station was blown up.
The landmark Leopold , a favorite tourist spot, was also hit.
Reached by phone, some guests who had been trapped in the Taj said about 1 a.m. that they had heard an explosion and gunfire in the old wing of the hotel.
A 31-year-old man who was in the Taj attending a friend's wedding reception said he was getting a drink around 9:45 p.m. when he heard something like firecrackers — "loud bursts" interspersed with what sounded like machine-gun fire.
A window of the banquet hall shattered, and guests scattered under tables and were quickly escorted to another room, he said. No one was allowed to leave.
Just before 1 a.m., another loud explosion rang out, and then another about a half-hour later, the man said.
At 6 a.m., he said that when the guests tried to leave the room early Thursday, gunmen opened fire. One person was shot.
The man's friend, the groom, was two floors above him, in the old wing of the hotel, trapped in a room with his bride. One of the explosions, he said, took the door off its hinges. He blocked it with a table.
Then came another blast, and gunfire rang out throughout the night. He did not want to be identified, for fear of being tracked down.
Rakesh Patel, a British businessman who escaped the Taj, told a television station that two young men armed with a rifle and a machine gun took 15 hostages, forcing them to the roof.
The gunmen, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, "were saying they wanted anyone with British or American passports," Patel said.
He and four others managed to slip away in the confusion and smoke of the upper floors, he said. He said he did not know the fate of the remaining hostages.
Clarence Rich Diffenderffer, of Wilmington, Delaware, said after dinner at the hotel he headed to the business center on the fifth floor.
"A man in a hood with an AK-47 came running down the hall," shooting and throwing four grenades, Diffenderffer said. "I, needless to say, beat it back to my room and locked it, and double-locked it, and put the bureau up against the door."
Diffenderffer said he was rescued hours later, at 6:30 a.m., by a cherrypicker. "That was pretty hairy," he said. "I don't like heights."
Among those apparently trapped at the Oberoi were executives and board members of Hindustan Unilever, part of the multinational corporate giant, The Times of India reported.
Indian military forces arrived outside the Oberoi at 2 a.m., and some 100 officers from the central government's Rapid Action Force, an elite police unit, entered later.
CNN-IBN reported the sounds of gunfire from the hotel just after the police contingent went in.
In Washington, the Bush administration condemned the attacks, as did President-elect Barack Obama's transition team. The State Department said there were no known American casualties, but the White House said it was still "assessing the hostage situation."
Afghan president wishes he could down U.S. planes
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Wednesday he would bring down U.S. planes bombing villages if he could, in a sign of growing tension between Afghanistan and its Western backers as the Taliban insurgency grows in strength.
As Western dissatisfaction with Karzai has grown over his failure to crack down on corruption and govern effectively, the Afghan president, facing elections next year, has hit back over the killing of dozens of civilians in foreign air strikes.
In recent weeks, Karzai has repeatedly blamed the West for the worsening security in Afghanistan, saying NATO failed to target Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan and calling for the war to be taken out of Afghan villages.
"We have no other choice, we have no power to stop the planes, if we could, if I could ... we would stop them and bring them down," Karzai told a news conference.
He said that if he had something like the rock attached to a piece of string, known as a chelak in Dari, used to bring down kites in Afghanistan, he would use it.
"If we had a chelak, we would throw it and stop the American aircraft. We have no radar to stop them in the sky, we have no planes," he said. "I wish I could intercept the planes that are going to bomb Afghan villages, but that's not in my hands."
Afghanistan has suffered its worst violence this year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, with at least 4,000 people killed, around a third of them civilians.
Despite the presence of 65,000 foreign troops backing 130,000 Afghan security forces, Taliban insurgents have grown increasingly confident in their traditional heartland in the south and east and have also extended their influence close to the capital, Kabul.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Giles Elgood)
U.S. says troops kill 32 militants in Afghanistan
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
KABUL: U.S.-led coalition troops and Afghan security forces killed 32 militants in a series of raids against Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
Violence has sharply escalated in Afghanistan this year, the bloodiest period since the Taliban's removal in 2001, and has raised doubts about the prospects for security in the country despite an increasing number of foreign troops.
Afghan security forces and coalition forces killed seven militants late Wednesday, and uncovered three caches containing drugs and materials for making improvised explosive devices in the Nahr Surkh district of Helmand.
In one of the raids early Wednesday, coalition troops killed 15 militants and detained six suspected insurgents outside the southern city of Kandahar, the U.S. military said.
The soldiers were clearing "a compound known to be an IED command and control node" when fired upon. There were no casualties among civilians or coalition forces.
The other two attacks occurred Tuesday in southeastern Afghanistan. One targeted a senior Taliban commander believed to be a liaison between al Qaeda and Taliban networks and who had helped foreign fighters enter Afghanistan, the U.S. military said.
Five armed militants were killed during the operation, but the U.S. military did not name the commander or say whether he was among the casualties.
In Paktika province, coalition forces killed five armed militants and detained four more in another operation that targeted a pro-Taliban sub-commander, The U.S. military said.
The Taliban could not immediately be reached for comment and Reuters had no independent verification of the U.S. military's accounts.
More than 4,000 people, over a quarter of them civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone.
Separately, the Taliban kidnapped three engineers of a foreign-funded construction company in the northwestern province of Badghis overnight, a provincial official said.
In Helmand, five police were killed and five more went missing in an attack on their post late Tuesday, a provincial spokesman said. The attack may have been carried out by an officer with links to the insurgents.
(Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Giles Elgood)
10 arrested for Afghan acid attack
By Abdul Waheed Wafa
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan: The police in Kandahar Province arrested 10 Taliban militants they said were involved in an attack this month on a group of Afghan schoolgirls whose faces were doused with acid, officials in Kandahar said Tuesday.
The officials said that the militants, who were Afghan citizens, had confessed to their involvement in the attack on the schoolgirls and their teachers on Nov. 12 and that a high-ranking member of the Taliban had paid the militants 100,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,275) for each girl they managed to burn.
The girls were assaulted by two men on a motorcycle who were apparently irate that the girls had been attending high school. The men drove up beside them and splashed their faces with what appeared to be battery acid.
Zalmay Ayobi, the spokesman for General Rahmatullah Raufi, the governor of Kandahar, said the orders to carry out the attack had been given from a foreign country, although he did not identify it.
The militants were arrested by the police last week. Ayobi said a joint delegation from the Interior Ministry and the office of the attorney general in the capital, Kabul, had arrived in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, on Monday to evaluate the cases of the suspects.
The delegation, led by the deputy interior minister along with the governor of Kandahar, announced today that the suspects confessed their involvement in the attack, Ayobi said.
He said Afghanistan's courts would decide the attackers' fate after the investigation was completed.
At least two of the girls were hospitalized by the attack, their faces blackened and burned.
The attack was condemned at the time by Laura Bush, who described the Taliban as "cowardly and shameful" for carrying out the attack.
"The Taliban's continued terror attacks threaten the progress that has been made in Afghanistan," the first lady said in a statement, adding, "These cowardly and shameful acts are condemned by honorable people in the United States and around the world."
Mrs. Bush has been an advocate for the women of Afghanistan during her husband's tenure. She has visited Afghanistan three times to put a spotlight on development and women's issues, most recently in June, a trip cloaked in secrecy so she would not become a target of terrorists.
Purging history of Stalin's terror
By Clifford J. Levy
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
TOMSK, Russia: For years, the earth in this Siberian city had been giving up clues: a scrap of clothing, a fragment of bone, a skull with a bullet hole.
And so a historian named Boris Trenin made a plea to officials. Would they let him examine secret archives to confirm that there was a mass grave here from Stalin's purges? Would they help him tell the story of the thousands of innocent people who were said to have been carted from a prison to a ravine, shot in the head and tossed over?
The answer was no, and Trenin understood what many historians in Russia have come to realize: Under Vladimir Putin, the attitude toward the past has changed. The archives that Trenin was seeking, stored on the fourth floor of a building in Tomsk, in boxes stamped "KGB of the U.S.S.R.," would remain sealed.
The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governance of the country. In seeking to restore Russia's standing, Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system's horrors.
As a result, throughout Russia, many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off-limits. The role of the security services seems especially delicate, perhaps because Putin is a former KGB agent who headed the agency's successor, the FSB, in the late 1990s.
To historians like Trenin, the closing of these archives reflects a larger truth. The country, they say, has never fully grappled with and exposed the sins of communism, never embarked on the kind of truth and reconciliation process pursued by other countries, like South Africa, after regimes were overthrown.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. For one, after the Soviet Union fell, Russia underwent a tremendous economic upheaval, and people were focused on just surviving. Still, now that the country is more stable, the Kremlin, if anything, is moving toward more secrecy. It tends to be hostile toward those who want to study the grimmest aspects of Soviet rule, as if attempts to diminish the Soviet image will discredit the current leadership.
"They say Russia has gotten up off its knees, and this is why we should be proud of our past," Trenin said. "The theme of Stalin's repressions is harsh and gloomy and far from heroic. So they say that this is why it should be gradually pushed aside. They say the less we know about it, the better we will live."
His comments were echoed in interviews with more than a dozen historians across Russia, all of whom said they had had far greater access in the 1990s to archives of the KGB and other security services. They spoke of the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union as a time when scholarship flowered, saying that they had a chance to delve into historical episodes that had long been concealed.
"There was a period when we could go to the archives as if we were going to our workplace," Trenin said.
Under Putin, the historians said, these records have usually been out of reach. Putin, who served two terms as president, is now prime minister, after installing his protégé Dmitri Medvedev as his successor in May.
Officials at the security archives, which are now mostly controlled by the FSB and the Interior Ministry, typically reject requests for access by citing a need to protect state secrets and personal privacy. (Though a vast majority of people mentioned in records from Stalin's time are obviously dead.)
The head of the FSB archives in Moscow, Vasili Khristoforov, has said all records related to "ways and methods of operational investigative activity" will never be declassified.
The chill over the Soviet security archives has not only thwarted inquiries into events of the 1930s, when millions were executed or died in prison camps. It also has prevented historians from gaining a better understanding of other aspects of Soviet persecution, like the hounding and the deportation of dissidents through the 1980s.
It also has aggravated tensions between Russia and its neighbors. The Kremlin, for example, has recently rebuffed requests from Poland to release documents related to the World War II massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and others at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere in Russia. For decades, the Soviets blamed the Nazis for the killings; Mikhail Gorbachev was the first leader to admit that Soviet security services had carried them out.
The restrictions have also frustrated Russians who are seeking the truth about their families and want future generations to be aware of what once happened here.
In 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges, a man named Cheslav Yasinski was summarily executed in Tomsk after being accused of counterrevolutionary activities. For years, his wife was told that he was alive and cutting trees at one of the prison camps known as gulags, and she continued sending him food packages. She later received an official letter asserting, falsely, that he had died of a heart attack.
Seventy years later, his great-grandson Yuri Kultamakov sought Yasinski's file from the FSB, hoping that the information would help him make peace with his family's past in Siberia.
While barring historians, the government says it will make an exception and allow individuals access to their relatives' files from the security archives. But this policy is not as open as it seems, as Kultamakov discovered.
The FSB offered him a heavily redacted file, with many pages removed. Officials said their policy was to withhold documents that include the names of any other people, including those who carried out persecution or were informers.
"I would like to know everything, but received little," Kultamakov said.Trying to unearth the past
Here in Tomsk, 3,000 kilometers, or 1,900 miles, east of Moscow, Trenin had long been drawn to an area called Kashtak.
It was once an empty expanse with a large ravine, but in recent decades, the city had filled it in and settled it. Yet rumors of a mass grave had persisted, and in 1989, before the Soviet collapse, Trenin and a colleague, Vasili Khanevich, conducted a small, unauthorized dig there and found two skulls with bullet holes.
Like so many people in Siberia, Trenin, 62, and Khanevich, 52, have a personal connection to the sorrows of Stalin's reign. Trenin's family was deported to the region, and Khanevich's grandfathers were executed by the secret police.
Throughout the 1990s, when ground was broken on construction projects in Kashtak, laborers repeatedly uncovered remains. Sometimes people tending gardens came across bones.
By the end of the decade, Trenin said, some retired KGB officers were acknowledging what had happened. They said that twice a week, during the purges of the late 1930s, prisoners were executed and thrown into the ravine.
Trenin said he believed he had enough information to make the case that he should receive access to the secret documents. He lobbied officials for permission to conduct a full investigation into the events there, and to establish a memorial.
But it was too late. Putin had become president. The FSB would not allow access to the records, and at subsequent meetings in 2002 and 2003, city officials, who had close connections to the security services, would not help Trenin either.
"He had an absolute absence of interest," Trenin said of one city official, a former KGB agent. "There was this sense of: It happened, it was there, no need to look any further."
The former KGB agent, Aleksandr Melnikov, who is a deputy mayor, said in an interview that Kashtak represented an enormous calamity, but that "it had been studied in-depth."
Melnikov said he was surprised to hear of Trenin's difficulties.
"Today, there is no problem obtaining access to the archives of that period, absolutely not," Melnikov said. "If they encounter a problem, they can appeal to me. I will provide every assistance to them to get the material that they are interested in."
Told of Melnikov's comments, Trenin sighed.
"That's absurd," he said.
Trenin and Khanevich are active in Memorial, a human rights group, and operate a small museum dedicated to 23,000 people killed under Stalin in Tomsk. The museum is in a former jail used by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, the predecessor to the KGB.
Exhibits are displayed in a gloomy warren of small cells where people were tortured and crowded 20 at a time. But there is little about Kashtak. Trenin says he believes that more than 15,000 people were executed there, but without access to records, it is impossible to be certain.
A few years ago, officials erected a large cross at Kashtak as a memorial. But it is in an isolated spot overlooking a major road, and is rarely visited.
To Khanevich, whose grandfathers were rounded up and executed one day in 1938 in a Siberian village, this indifference stings.
"Russia positions itself as a completely different democratic country with democratic values, but at the same time, it does not reject, it does not disassociate itself and does not condemn the regime that preceded it," he said. "On the contrary, it defends it."Officials toe the line
Trenin and others emphasized that it was not as if the security archives had been thrown open in the 1990s. They said officials had to be persuaded to provide access, but that there was a spirit of cooperation that no longer exists.
Archives from Stalin's secret police have become a flash point because of the rise of a movement that has sought to idolize Stalin as a leader who defeated the Nazis, spurred industrialization and made the Soviet Union a superpower.
Last year, the Kremlin promoted a study guide for high school teachers that deems Stalin "one of the most successful leaders of the U.S.S.R.," while describing his "cruel exploitation" of the population. Putin himself has acknowledged the losses under Stalin, but has said Russians should not be made to feel ashamed of them.
"We do have bleak chapters in our history; just look at events starting from 1937," Putin said at a meeting where the guide was presented. "And we should not forget these moments in our past."
"But other countries have also known their bleak and terrible moments," he said. "In any event, we have never used nuclear weapons against civilians, and we have never dumped chemicals on thousands of kilometers of land or dropped more bombs on a tiny country than were dropped during the entire Second World War, as was the case in Vietnam."
In interviews, officials of the FSB and other security agencies said they had in fact declassified many documents. Asked about complaints from historians, Oleg Matveyev, a senior official at the FSB archives in Moscow, said some people wanted to depict Soviet rule only negatively.
"To draw the line at 1991 and say, everything before was black, and now has come white, as is done in many countries and regions in the former republics of the Soviet Union, we have nothing like that here," he said. "We are more careful about our past."
Matveyev added that it was vital that the FSB protect the personal privacy of people mentioned in the records.
It is a particular concept of privacy. The FSB does not keep names secret; in fact, it has provided nonprofit groups like Memorial with lists of those persecuted, which have been published in so-called memory books. But it will not allow access to the files, preventing historians from gaining insight into the security services.
The FSB also has promised that many records will be declassified after 75 years. But historians said the regulation was often ignored, adding that the FSB tends to declassify documents that do not present the security services in a bad light.
A prominent historian, Sergei Krasilnikov of Novosibirsk State University in Siberia, said officials routinely cited personal privacy and other regulations to block access. But it is a ruse, he said.
"The order has been given to rehabilitate Russian and Soviet statehood in all epochs and in all times - for all the czars and general secretaries," he said. "This is why we have all these restrictions on access to the archives, because the archives allow us to show more profoundly the mechanisms of power, the mechanisms of decision-making, the consequences of these decisions, which were very often tragic for society."
Unable to obtain records from the security archives, Trenin and Khanevich gather them from relatives and researchers who acquired them in the 1990s. They scrounge information from more open Soviet archives, such as those covering industry or local government.
Sometimes, they feel despondent, as when they hear of polls that reveal that a majority of young people believe that Stalin did "more right than wrong." Yet they also find signs to be hopeful.
Khanevich convinced the Interior Ministry to have employees visit the museum as part of their training, and recently 15 lawyers and investigators came by. Some appeared moved, saying they had not realized the scope of the killing.
"These are people with epaulets, and they have to carry out orders, but the orders are not always humane and sometimes they are criminal," Khanevich said. "They need to think about whether it's the right thing to do to carry them out. Of course, they may lose their epaulets. But they will remain human beings, with their dignity intact."
Laos still paying the price of Vietnam war
Thursday, November 27, 2008
By Thin Lei Win
Imagine growing up in a country where the equivalent of a B52 planeload of cluster bombs was dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
Then imagine seeing your children and grandchildren being killed and maimed by the same bombs, three decades after the war is over.
Welcome to Laos, a country with the unwanted claim of being the most bombed nation per capita in the world.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military dropped more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance, including an estimated 260 million cluster munitions -- also known as bombie in Laos.
To put this into perspective, this is more bombs than fell on Europe during World War Two.
The U.S. bombing was largely aimed at destroying enemy supply lines during the Vietnam war that passed through Laos. The war ended 35 years ago, yet the civilian casualties continue. According to aid agency Handicap International, as many as 12,000 civilians have been killed or maimed since, and there are hundreds of new casualties every year.
On December 3 this year, over 100 nations will sign an international treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs to prevent further tragedies like Ta's, a father of seven who lives in a remote village in Khammoune Province in southern Laos.
One morning four years ago, he saw something that looked like a bombie. He knew it was dangerous, but he had also heard that the explosive inside could be used for catching fish, so he decided to touch it with a stick.
That one small tap cost him both arms and an eye. Ta had to travel nine hours to get medical help. He sold his livestock to pay hospital bills, and when he ran out of things to sell, he went home.
Ta says he had to 'eat like a dog' for four years, before non-governmental organisation COPE provided him with prosthetic arms. Now he is able to help with small domestic chores.
Then there is 31-year-old Yee Lee. He was digging around in his garden in August when suddenly his hoe came down hard on a bombie. He lost both legs and two fingers.
"I have five very young children, and my wife is six months pregnant," Lee said at Xieng Khouang provincial hospital where he was having a moulding done for prosthetic legs. He was unsure and worried about what the future held.
For now, his elderly parents and younger brother help his family. "I hope, with the prosthetic leg, to get back to work either in the field or around the house."
Unfortunately, most survivors are unable to continue physical work, even if, like Lee, they receive free treatment and prosthetic limbs from agencies such as COPE and World Education.
A prosthetic leg that can last up to two years costs as little as $50 (32.6 pounds), yet in a country consistently ranked one of the region's poorest and where almost 30 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day, this is more than most families can afford. Worse, loss of a breadwinner means loss of income and increased poverty.
Cluster bombs are dropped by planes or fired by mortars. They open mid-air releasing multiple explosive sub-munitions that scatter over a large area. These bomblets are usually the size of tennis balls.
Aid agencies say the indiscriminate nature of these weapons and the fact many bomblets fail to go off mean they have a devastating humanitarian impact.
In Laos, it's thought that around 30 per cent of bombies failed to explode on impact, leaving about 80 million live munitions lying on or under the soil which has posed a serious threat to people's lives and livelihood.
So far, fewer than 400,000 bombies have been cleared, a meagre 0.47 per cent. The United Nations estimates almost half of all cluster munition victims are from Laos.
Even with community awareness programmes run by national authority UXO Laos, with support from numerous aid agencies, the injuries and deaths continue. Sometimes people touch the bombies out of ignorance, other times it's out of curiosity (children) or for economic reasons (adults).
With scrap metal going at $1 to $3 a kilogramme, some people collect war remnants to sell, and this includes unexploded ordnance.
In a private foundry on the outskirts of Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang, the humanitarian organisation Mines Advisory Group (MAG) sorted through five years' worth of scrap metal, and discovered over 24,000 live items, including 500 cluster munitions.
Xieng Khouang, in northern Laos, is one of the most affected areas. More than 500,000 tons of bombs were dropped here. The mountainous and beautiful terrain is marred by craters of all sizes -- locals liken it to the surface of the moon - and littered with metal shrapnel.
Children are at constant risk. In a small village school 20 minutes from the provincial capital, 248 bombies were found in a 4,200 sq metre area.
The province is also famous for the Plain of Jars, a vast plateau of ancient stone jars whose origins remain a mystery. But the amount of war debris scattered between the giant jars has seriously hampered archaeologists' efforts to find out more about them.
David Hayter, country director of MAG, says the sad truth is that Laos will never be 100 percent rid of cluster bombs.
"The priority is in clearing the land where people are living and working," he said. "We are teaching them to learn to live safely within the environment. It's a mixture of education and clearance."
(For more information on humanitarian crises and issues visit
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)
U.S. consumer spending declines again
By Michael M. Grynbaum
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
NEW YORK: The consequences of financial meltdown in October continued to roll across the U.S. economy Wednesday.
Consumer spending, traditionally the engine of U.S. economic growth, dropped a full percentage point last month, the biggest monthly decline since after the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the U.S. Commerce Department reported.
The grim news is particularly painful for retailers, who are starting a holiday shopping season that, in good years, can provide up to 40 percent of their yearly revenue. This year, sellers are bracing for low demand and overstocked inventories.
The decline in spending could also drag U.S. economic growth down further, already in negative territory in the July-to-September quarter. The significant spending decline in October signals that the fourth quarter could be far worse.
It marked the fourth consecutive month that U.S. consumers have reversed the free-spending habits that dominated for much of the last decade. But the decline also represented an acceleration of this worrisome trend: spending was down 0.3 percent in September, and 0.1 percent in August.
U.S. consumers are cutting their spending for many reasons, but high on the list is the weakening employment picture. Even people who still have jobs are pinching pennies as a result of the constant news of cutbacks and layoffs. Consumer confidence ticked down again this month, according to a University of Michigan survey released Wednesday.
"We could well be seeing the first signs of households altering their behavior in the face of large capital losses in their investment and real estate portfolios, a deteriorating labor market, and tight credit," Joshua Shapiro, chief domestic economist at the research firm MFR, wrote in a note to clients.
The market collapse in October seemed to frighten many people into canceling or delaying major purchases, a reaction that wreaked havoc in both the consumer and business sectors. Orders for durable goods, a crucial measure of spending by businesses, plunged 6.2 percent in October, twice what economists had expected, the U.S. Commerce Department said in a separate report.
Orders for metals, factory equipment, computers and transportation equipment all dropped sharply. While the durable goods report is considered volatile from month to month, the overall decline in October was much worse than the 0.2 percent dip in September.
Most striking to economists was the 4 percent drop in civilian capital goods orders that exclude aircraft. This is a widely watched gauge for core spending by businesses, which has seen three negative months in a row.
"The previously shallow downturn in the factory sector has now escalated into something worse," Cliff Waldman, an economist for the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a trade group, wrote in a note.
Only communications equipment saw an increase in demand for the month.
Evidence also emerged that could feed fears of deflation: prices fell 0.6 percent in October after rising 0.1 percent in September, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Personal income rose 0.3 percent, and prices that exclude food and fuel were unchanged.
The housing market has also taken its lumps during the market turmoil. A small sales increase reversed itself in October, with sales of new homes dropping 5.3 percent to an annual rate of 433,000, more than erasing a 0.7 percent rise in September, the U.S. Commerce Department said.
The median price of a new home sold in October was $218,000, down 7 percent from a year ago. Home prices are falling at the fastest pace in decades and have reached levels not seen since 2004.
Inventories remain high, as well, which contributes to the decline in prices. At the current sales rate, it would take 11.1 months to sell off the backlog of newly constructed homes. New homes account for about 10 percent of the overall housing market.
In a separate report Wednesday, the U.S. Labor Department said that new applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to 529,000, a bigger drop than economists had expected.
Co-presidents steer makeover at Morgan Stanley
By Louise Story
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
NEW YORK: Call it Morgan Stanley 2.0.
Two months ago, Morgan Stanley, one of the grandest names on Wall Street, transformed itself into an old-fashioned bank holding company in a desperate bid to survive the financial crisis.
But now this new Morgan Stanley faces an even bigger challenge: figuring out where to go from here. Goldman Sachs, its perennial rival, is in the midst of a similar metamorphosis, and both firms face a somewhat uncertain future.
Drawing up the road map at Morgan Stanley are Walid Chammah and James Gorman, who are not only co-presidents but also potential rivals to succeed John Mack as chief executive.
Chammah is trying to re-engineer Morgan Stanley's vaunted investment banking operation for leaner times, which means cutting jobs - lots of them. Since July the firm has announced plans to eliminate 16 percent of its work force.
Gorman, meantime, is urgently hunting for a bank to buy to build a base of customer deposits that would provide a crucial cushion and new types of earnings. So far, he has not sealed any deals.
Morgan Stanley has had some good news in the past few days. Its share price rose three days in a row, along with those of other financial stocks, and Fitch Ratings upgraded its outlook for the bank's credit rating to stable from negative. The company plans to sell more than $2 billion in new debt that will be backed by a U.S. government program.
Still, neither Mack, 64, nor the co-presidents have fully persuaded investors that Morgan Stanley can recapture its past glory or past profits. Morgan's stock is worth only a fraction of what it was a year ago and the company's next quarterly results, due in mid-December, do not look promising.
The transformation under way at Morgan Stanley is emblematic of the tectonic shifts reshaping American finance. Given the faltering economy and the wild ride in the markets, few think the changes will be smooth for Morgan Stanley or any other bank.
"Morgan Stanley, in particular, has explicitly recognized that the reality has changed," said Guy Moszkowski, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. "They are actually going to build a banking business."
Along with their boss, Chammah, 54, and Gorman, 50, are trying one of the most radical makeovers in Wall Street history in the middle of their industry's darkest moment since the Depression. Many Americans are outraged that banks like Morgan Stanley have gotten multibillion-dollar lifelines from Washington, particularly when the Detroit automakers are being turned away.
It is hardly surprisingly, then, that neither Chammah nor Gorman is eager to talk about compensation or the annual bonuses that Morgan Stanley is expected to pay its employees next month. Last year, Morgan Stanley paid out $4 billion in bonuses to its then 48,000 workers.
Mack did not take a bonus because of the bank's mortgage losses. It is widely expected that the bank's top executives, like their counterparts at Goldman Sachs, will forgo bonuses this year.
During an interview last week, Gorman and Chammah acknowledged that Morgan Stanley would probably have to build its consumer banking operation piecemeal. Wells Fargo recently scooped up Wachovia, the last easy target for Morgan Stanley. Now that Citigroup has been stabilized, it seems unlikely that Morgan Stanley could pick off that bank's consumer banking business. (Morgan Stanley and Citigroup discussed a possible merger in September, but the talks went nowhere.)
But as a commercial bank, Morgan Stanley can no longer operate with the level of risk or borrowed money that made it so profitable in the past. Big money-printing businesses like mergers and acquisitions and securities underwriting have all but vanished. The bank's real estate and hedge fund investments are under water. And its wealth management advisory businesses are not making many people wealthier.
While Morgan Stanley has a long history of political infighting, the two co-presidents paint a friendly picture of their relationship.
Their predecessors disliked each other, and one of them, Zoe Cruz, was fired last year because some blamed her for Morgan Stanley's ill-fated expansion in mortgage investments.
When asked how Morgan Stanley had changed in the year since they became co-presidents, Chammah instead proclaimed his fondness for Gorman.
"Let's put this issue to bed: I don't think you could ask to have a better relationship with two partners," he said. "We like each other."
In September, as Morgan Stanley came under siege in the markets, the two worked side by side, ate dinner together and then crashed on couches in neighboring offices, the two said. Now, two months later, they lavish praise on each other, with Gorman spontaneously calling Chammah, "Mr. Charmer."
Things looked a lot different when they were promoted last year.
Chammah, who shares Mack's Lebanese heritage, got the part of Morgan Stanley that long defined the firm and provided most of its revenue: mergers, capital raising, sales and trading, research and advisory services. Gorman got the job of overseeing what then looked to outsiders like a relative backwater: retail brokerage and asset management.
But now the roles have somewhat reversed, with many of Chammah's businesses suffering, and Gorman's becoming more vital to the firm because they provide steady, stable earnings.
It is a shifting of roles that they acknowledge, but they say it does not bother them.
"We don't think of it as decrease and increase between us," said Chammah, whose businesses still account for nearly 70 percent of the bank's revenue. "I'm a very big proponent of James's retail and asset management."
Gorman is making cuts in some of his businesses, like the money market fund area. And he pointed to bright spots in Chammah's businesses like commodities and currency trading. He said clients had told him they still needed Chammah's investment bankers.
"All these things that Walid's business has managed will be a growth business," Gorman said.
Their relative success over the next year will probably contribute to Mack's thinking about his heir. The chief has no plans to retire any time soon, according to a spokeswoman.
The growth most investors are focused on at the moment is Morgan Stanley's deposit base, which will be overseen by Gorman, a lanky Australian who moved to the United States in the 1980s. When he was a consultant for McKinsey, Merrill Lynch was one of his main clients, and in 1999, he joined that investment bank as chief marketing officer. While there, he oversaw the bank's brokers and the creation of a Merrill Lynch credit card, which is still offered. He joined Morgan Stanley two years ago and turned around its band of brokers, inherited from the merger with Dean Witter.
But Gorman has never worked at a commercial bank, and there is quite a lot of work ahead of him at Morgan Stanley. Commercial banks typically have deposits worth 25 to 45 percent of their assets. Morgan has about $1 trillion in assets, so even while reducing assets, the bank would want to reach about $200 billion in deposits - or six times its current $36 billion. That kind of growth will only come with acquisitions of banks in the United States and possibly abroad, which Gorman said Morgan Stanley had the capital to pursue.
To some extent the field of competitors for bank buyouts is narrowed by rules that limit how much of the national deposit base can be owned by a single company. Bank of America and Wells Fargo are brushing up against that limit.
"This country of 8,000 banks is going to go through enormous consolidation in the next few years, and we want to be one of the players," Gorman said.
In the long run, it will probably be Chammah's units - the old Morgan Stanley - that will restore the firm's luster. Until then, Gorman's businesses must carry a heavy load.
"The sooner Morgan Stanley can build a deposit base, the more quickly confidence will come back, and Gorman is carrying the ball on that one," said Brad Hintz, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein and the former treasurer at Morgan Stanley. "But the future of Morgan Stanley really belongs to Walid because he manages what drives the value of Morgan Stanley - the trading and the investment banking."
Goldman takes the lead ... with a bailout
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
For once, rivals might be pleased Goldman Sachs took the lead. The Wall Street firm is the first bank to sell debt backed by the U.S. government under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s debt guarantee program. The $5 billion deal - around twice what Goldman initially expected to raise - looks like a crowd pleaser. That's just what the market needs, even if it is still effectively a bailout.
Goldman wasn't facing a liquidity crisis any time soon, but should be glad to be able to tap the public bond market for the first time in seven months - and at a decent price, as the guarantee means the debt is rated triple-A. After adding in the one percentage point fee for using the program, Goldman is paying 4.25 percent - roughly half the yield its existing bonds are trading at in the secondary market. That's a better deal than British banks are getting. They have to pay the British government their median credit default swap premium for the past year, plus a 50-basis-point fee for their guarantees.
True, most of Goldman's regular bondholders won't touch the new paper with such a low coupon. But the deal should give them some comfort that their debt is safe, and may even convince them to buy more of the older bonds. Over time, that may bring those spreads down.
But the new debt certainly looks to be a boon to investors who usually buy U.S. mortgage agency and government debt. Goldman priced the deal to yield more than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds, even though the FDIC program offers participants the explicit backing of the U.S. government.
Goldman appears to be overpaying by another metric, too: The deal is priced to yield 0.85 percentage points over mid-swaps, or the median rate at which double-A-rated banks lend to each other. Of course, it's not unusual to offer a sweetener for a new deal from a new program. That it succeeded should encourage other banks to follow suit, and potentially at better rates - and then start lending the money to get the economy moving. U.S. banks shouldn't get too cocky, though. After all, any success is up to Uncle Sam. Without U.S. taxpayers propping them up, most would be in bond market hell. - Antony Currie
Citigroup "went wrong" with real estate
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
NEW YORK: Citigroup Chief Executive Vikram Pandit on Tuesday blamed prior management for diving too deeply into real estate, causing losses that led to this week's massive government bailout of the second-largest U.S. bank by assets.
"What went wrong is we had tremendous concentration in the sense we put a lot of our money to work against U.S. real estate," Pandit said in an interview on PBS' Charlie Rose show. "We got here by lending money, and putting money to work in the U.S. real estate market, in a size that was probably larger than what we ought to have done on a diversification basis."
The government late Sunday rescued Citigroup by agreeing to shoulder most potential losses from a $306 billion (200 billion pound) portfolio of risky assets, and by injecting $20 billion of new capital, in its biggest effort to prevent a large U.S. bank from failing.
Citigroup has lost $20.3 billion in the last year, and many expect further losses from credit cards and other areas tied to the global economic crisis to pile up.
Since closing Friday at $3.77, Citigroup shares have risen 61 percent, and closed Tuesday up 13 cents at $6.08 on Monday. They have nevertheless tumbled 79 percent this year, after closing last year at $29.44.
Pandit said in the interview that short-sellers, as well as investors worried about Citigroup's asset quality, were among those who drove the bank's shares down in recent sessions, and that it was important "that we got control of the situation."
"I can completely understand how people on Main Street, people who are not close to this industry, would be furious at what's happened," he said.
Some wealthy investors have begun or pledged to begin buying Citigroup shares.
A Mexican brokerage controlled by Carlos Slim, one of the world's wealthiest people, spent about $150 million to buy nearly 29 million Citigroup shares between Nov 19 and Nov 25.
Meanwhile, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal last week said he plans to boost his stake in the bank to 5 percent from less than 4 percent.
(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Armando Tovar in Mexico City)
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Bernard Orr)
First audit of U.S. bailout to cite some snags
By Diana B. Henriques
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The first operational audit of the $700 billion financial rescue plan, to be delivered to the U.S. Congress next Tuesday, is expected to be critical of the Treasury Department's failure to set up ways to track how its bailout money is being used in the marketplace, according to people briefed on a draft of the report.
The audit, done by the Government Accountability Office, is also likely to call for tighter controls over the conflicts of interest that are arising as financial specialists, institutions and law firms are hired for Treasury work that could later aid their private-sector clients, said these people, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because the briefings were confidential.
But the overall assessment was "a mixed bag," as one person put it. It was clear, he said, that the auditors took into account how quickly the program was carried out, how much its focus shifted over time and how little feedback Treasury has had from oversight agencies so far.
The pending audit is a milestone for the rescue program because the GAO is, in effect, the "first responder" in the oversight effort. Within days of the plan's enactment on Oct. 3, the agency had assembled a 20-member team of lawyers, accountants, contracting experts, ethics monitors and market regulation specialists to start tracking the Treasury Department's work.
The two other elements of the oversight machinery created by the law are still works in progress. A U.S. prosecutor from New York, Neil Barofsky, has been nominated as the special inspector general for the program, but he is still awaiting Senate confirmation. And the last two appointments to the five-member congressional oversight panel set up under the law were made only last week.
"This is the first of the reports we are directed by law to provide," said Richard Hillman, managing director of the accountability office's financial markets and community investment team. Hillman confirmed that he and members of his team visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss the report's principal findings with staff members of "the appropriate committees." But he declined to discuss the report's contents, which are still subject to review.
The Treasury Department has been criticized already in Congress for not tying more strings to its investments in banks and other financial institutions.
Through its Capital Purchase Program, it has injected $160 billion into the banking system through the purchase of preferred shares. But auditors found that no plan had been put in place to track how, or whether, that money is being put to use by the first eight institutions that received it.
The personnel consequences of the Treasury's unexpected shift in strategy in the rescue plan — from the purchase of so-called troubled assets on financial balance sheets to the injection of capital directly into financial institutions — also drew attention from the auditors, those briefed on the study said.
The audit team noted that Treasury already had hired staff members for the initial mission, some of whom were not necessary or best suited for the work required under the new strategy.
The GAO's report will be the first of a series it is required to submit to congressional committees every 60 days; its next audit will be due at the end of January.
Besides those reports, it will also produce a separate study by mid-January that will document the existing financial regulatory scheme, describe the events that have overtaken it and provide a framework for assessing proposals for a new arrangement, Hillman said.
The new congressional oversight panel is required by law to produce a similar report before the end of this year, but Hillman said he expected that deadline to be extended because the panel was just now going to work.
'Recovery' is in; 'stimulus' is so seven months ago
By Carl Hulse
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
WASHINGTON: Democrats are bailing out on the word "stimulus."
In a notable shift, congressional leaders and officials of the incoming Obama administration are actively trying to retire that term and use the more marketable "economic recovery program" as the descriptor for the multibillion-dollar economic initiative to be considered early next year.
The change in emphasis reflects a realization that words matter. Architects of the $700 billion Treasury Department program concluded too late that something unabashedly promoted as a Wall Street "bailout" conjured images of well-heeled suspects sprung from jail or water feverishly tossed from a rapidly filling boat. By the time officials tried to rebrand it as a Wall Street "rescue," the bailout's reputation was sunk.
And "stimulus" — a buzzword from earlier this year — combines bureaucratic wonkiness with the concept of shock therapy, Democrats worried.
But "economic recovery," they figured, somehow sounds more substantial and optimistic — We can lick this thing — and stirs thoughts of successful New Deal initiatives.
" 'Stimulus' is Washington talk, and 'economic recovery' is how the American people think of it," said Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff for the incoming White House team.
For Democrats like Emanuel, there is a serious purpose behind the semantic stagecraft: they want the public to get accustomed to the idea that turning the economy around is going to take some doing and that the money coming down the congressional pike is not just a short-term, one-shot burst intended to produce instant results.
President-elect Barack Obama hit the economic recovery theme hard in his recent public pronouncements as did his top advisers. Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught herself last week just as she was about to let the S-word slip. "We're not using the word 'stimulus,' " Pelosi confided at a news conference.
Apparently with good reason. Public opinion researchers have found that voters do not consider the term particularly reassuring, perhaps because past stimuli have not proved to be personally rewarding or maybe because the phrase is just too Pavlovian in trying to elicit a predetermined economic response.
Republicans, who note that they have been talking about their own "economic recovery" proposals for quite a while, are skeptical that the Democrats are doing anything more than changing a few lines in the talking points.
"They have consistently said they are for more Washington spending, and they have been trying to outbid each other day after day," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader. "New rhetoric, same old Washington spending plan."
Yet Democrats say the program will go far beyond a simple stimulus to a comprehensive approach that mixes tax policy, road and bridge building, alternative-energy projects and technological improvements that will have far-reaching consequences. It should not be equated, they say, with a program that provides eligible taxpayers with a check to cover a quick trip to the electronics store.
Still, they are well aware that imagery has proved powerful in the economic crisis. Besides the ill-fated labeling of the bailout, executives of the nation's automakers learned the hard way last week that flying to Washington on corporate jets to plead for U.S. government aid was not the most effective message for car manufacturers to send.
Remorseful ex-officials decline pay from UBS
By Jonathan D. Glater
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
As a number of American banks resist calls to rein in executive pay, the unthinkable is happening — at least in Switzerland, where three former officials of UBS, the troubled Swiss financial giant, said on Tuesday that they would forgo more than $27 million in compensation.
Marcel Ospel, the former chairman of the board at the Swiss bank, and Stephan Haeringer and Marco Suter, two former directors, said they would give up pay promised them after the bank reported nearly $50 billion in losses and received even more than that in financial support from the Swiss government.
"With the involvement of the Swiss government, I realized that decisive action was required on my part," Ospel said in a statement. "I hope that my action will help to resolve a situation that was inconceivable to me until a short time ago," he said.
Ospel will contribute more than two-thirds of the total; the balance will be paid by Haeringer and Suter.
In response, UBS issued a very brief statement: "We welcome the decision."
As indeed UBS might. The former UBS executives had been the focus of intense public criticism after the bank reported stunning losses on devastating subprime-related investments. This month, the bank announced that its chairman, Peter Kurer; its chief executive, Marcel Rohner; and members of its executive board would also have a bonus-free 2008.
In the United States, lawmakers and regulators have expressed profound frustration over a perceived lack of remorse among executives who made millions while peddling investments in securities whose plummeting value has pushed the financial system to the brink of collapse. Executives have resisted cuts.
Regulators in the United States have called on companies to slash bonuses this year and, in at least one case, to figure out ways to get back bonuses and severance payments already given to executives — a difficult and potentially embarrassing exercise. The former UBS executives have eliminated the need for such action, at least in their case.
"That is almost unheard of," Dirk Jenter, an assistant professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said of the move by the executives. "They've clearly been shamed into doing that."
But shame has been much less effective on this side of the Atlantic, where companies have resisted cutting bonuses and salaries even as their businesses crater. Only in recent weeks have companies receiving taxpayer assistance, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, agreed to reduce or eliminate bonus payments to current executives.
On Tuesday, under pressure from the New York attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, American International Group, the troubled insurance conglomerate now reliant on support from the U.S. government, said the company would not pay any bonuses to its top seven executives this year and that the top 60 executives would not receive any raises through 2009.
Those limits are a "positive step," Cuomo said in a statement. "It is only fair that top executives, who benefit the most when firms do well, should also bear the burden of the difficult economic consequences their firms now face."
Perhaps of more long-term significance are changes in compensation structure now under consideration in corporate boardrooms. AIG, for example, also announced that its chief executive would receive no severance payments and that such payments to senior management would be limited.
Last week, UBS announced that under its new regime, as of 2009 a maximum of one-third of an annual bonus would actually be paid at year's end, with the rest held in escrow. The amount in escrow could be reduced if UBS subsequently had poor results, if regulations were violated or unnecessary risks were taken.
In their press release, the three former UBS board members noted that their decision should not be considered an admission of guilt "in a legal sense."
Asked whether he thought executives at Wall Street firms might follow the example of their counterparts in Switzerland, Jenter was skeptical.
"I would not put my money on it — not that I have much left after what the market has been doing," Jenter said. "But it certainly seems unlikely."
Credit card firms agree to give customers help
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
LONDON: Britain's credit card companies have agreed to give some "breathing space" to customers struggling to pay off their debts after talks with government ministers on Wednesday.
This agreement will help debt-laden consumers organise their finances at a time when the latest official data released on Wednesday showed that in the third quarter, Britain's economy shrank at its fastest rate since 1990. The economic figures reinforced concerns that Britain's economy is falling into a deep recession.
Representatives of the credit card sector were called in for a summit with Business Secretary Peter Mandelson and Consumer Affairs Minister Gareth Thomas to hear government concerns about the high level of interest rates charged on credit cards and store cards despite official rates plunging in recent weeks as the global financial crisis unfolds.
"It was agreed that the credit card industry would report back in two weeks' time on a set of fair principles to help card borrowers to manage their debts," the industry and government said in a joint statement.
The Department for Business said customers in difficulty would now get 30 days' grace from card companies if a debt advice agency was helping a consumer with a repayment plan.
This could be extended for a further 30 days "subject to demonstrable progress being made but not yet concluded," the two sides added.
The industry also agreed to look at its practice of risk-based repricing -- where card companies increase interest rates when they think there is a risk of default by the customer -- and report back in two weeks.
"It's these sorts of repricing decisions that have led to the sorts of cases we're unhappy about, where people have faced very significant increases in their interest rate, sometimes of 10 percentage points or more," a government spokesman said.
Stephen Sklaroff, director general of the Finance and Leasing Association, said the industry was "very keen indeed to ensure that our customers are given the best and fairest deal."
"We have agreed that it is entirely sensible to ensure that customers who are in difficulties and in the process of coming to a sensible arrangement with companies to deal with their debt, should be given a breathing space in which to do that," he told the BBC.
"We have also agreed to do some further work on the principles that should be applied when the companies are thinking about repricing the product and communicating that to customers."
(Reporting by Frank Prenesti; Editing by Jan Paschal)
As India's stock markets plunge, so do middle-class dreams
By Bappa Majumdar and Biman MukherjiReuters
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
NEW DELHI: Sunil Kapadia regularly borrowed from banks to invest in Indian stock markets, seeing them as a one-way ticket up the economic ladder as growth in the nation hummed along at near double-digit rates.
But his dream of easy riches was wrecked as the main Indian stock index tumbled to three-year lows last month, taking its losses in 2008 to more than 50 percent and forcing him to move his family to a cramped suburban apartment.
"In the quest for jam, I have lost my bread and butter," said Kapadia, a 48-year-old Mumbai resident who lost 20 million rupees, or about $400,000, in share trading this year.
Thousands of small investors were lured into booming stock and commodity markets as the economy soared at growth rates of 9 percent or higher in the past three fiscal years.
Now, with the vicious collapse of the market, their savings are lost and many are unable and unwilling to invest again.
It is a hard blow to the confidence of India's aspiring middle classes, and their curtailed spending has also unsettled the foreign companies and investors who were lining up to do business in India's $1 trillion economy.
"At the moment, investors are scared of their own shadows, and it will take some time for them to be back," said Vikram Bhatt, head of the brokerage firm Ajmera Associates of Mumbai.
Most small investors were lured by a seemingly unstoppable bull run in the stock market.
The main 30-share index on the Bombay Stock Exchange rose from 6,000 in 2000 to 20,000 by the end of 2007, bolstered by foreign funds.
Foreign institutional investors, having bought a record net $17.4 billion of stocks last year as the market rose 47 percent, have sold more than $13.5 billion net of stocks in 2008. The crash has also hit commodities, with prices of goods from edible oils to metals dropping 40 to 50 percent over the past four to five months.
Brash traders became a symbol of India's modernizing economy, and stocks were so popular among retail investors that some could eke out meager livings on the sidewalks by selling IPO and mutual fund applications for a few rupees.
But small investors have largely disappeared as the market imploded. From a record high just above 21,200 points in January, the BSE index crashed to just below 7,700 last month.
Although statistics show only 2.5 percent of India's 1.1 billion people invest in stocks, experts say the number of investors was growing steadily before the market nosedived.
"I want to sell off my apartment to pay off my loans, but word has spread that I have fallen on bad times and the offers are not good," said Abhijit Choudhury, a stock investor from Calcutta, who lost two million rupees in a month. "I am ruined and not coming back to the stock market."
Risk-averse investors now favor the safety of fixed deposits. Annual bank deposit rates have risen to more than 10 percent in the past two to three months.
"The market will continue to downslide as most of the money was flowing in from FIIs and the insurance sector all this while," said Vinod Kumar Sharma, head of research at Anagram Capital, using the abbreviation for foreign investors. "The impact on stocks have been huge."
"Until the markets revive again to a level where people are comfortable," said Sharma, "investors will keep away from the markets and will opt for fixed income and fixed deposits."
Analysts have downgraded forecasts for India's economy, although growth is still expected to be around 7 percent in the fiscal year ending next March.
As a result, many traders and investors in the once-booming sector, who had bought luxury cars and plush apartments with bank loans, are now struggling to meet the expense of their children's education or monthly grocery bills.
"I used to drive a Toyota Innova car, but nowadays I prefer to take a three-wheeler scooter to work," said Dharmesh Dave, a copper and brass trader.
"I wanted to buy a house, but my capital has now been held up in business. In any case, the way stocks markets have crashed, it is quite likely that property prices would follow."
Some experts say stock markets may rise after a year or so, if global markets stabilize, but only 20 to 30 percent over the main index's current level of around 9,000 points.
"It is not likely to climb to the record level of 20,000 to 21,000 points reached in January," said Chandra Mohan Mukherjee, director of Ace Financial Services in Calcutta, "as the impact of the global financial turmoil is expected to linger even after a year until the FIIs return."
For holidays, it's toys for the children, not clothes for mom
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Come Christmas, McKenna Hunt, a gregarious little girl from Safety Harbor, Florida, will receive the play kitchen and the Elmo doll she wants. But her mother, Kristen Hunt, will go without the designer jeans she covets this season.
For Kristen Hunt and for millions of mothers across America, the holiday season is turning into a time of sacrifice. Weathering the first severe economic downturn of their adult lives, these women are discovering that a practice they once indulged without thinking about it, shopping a bit for themselves at the holidays, has to give way to their children's wish lists.
"I want her to be able to look back," Hunt declared, "and say, 'Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff."'
In this economy, nearly everyone is forgoing indulgences, and many fathers will no doubt sacrifice this year to put toys under the tree. But figures suggest the burden is falling most heavily on women, particularly mothers.
In September and October, sales of women's apparel fell precipitously compared with the same months the year before. They were down 18.2 percent in October, for instance, compared with a decrease of 8.3 percent for men's apparel, according to SpendingPulse, a report by MasterCard Advisers.
And a survey of shoppers' intentions by the NPD Group, a consulting firm, suggests that such cutbacks may continue through the holiday season. About 61 percent of mothers surveyed said they would shop less for themselves this year, compared with 56 percent of all women and 45 percent of men.
The survey suggested that mothers, more than any other group, would also spend less money over all and postpone big-ticket purchases, like the dishwasher that Hunt wants to buy.
It may be noble sacrifice for women to spend less on themselves to benefit their families, but it is bad news for the troubled retail industry, which relies heavily on sales of women's apparel.
"As we go into the holiday, it's not going to be 'One for my sister and one for me,"' said Marie Driscoll, an analyst for Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services. "You might not even get one for your sister so you can buy great gifts for her kids."
Reyne Rice, who studies toy trends for the Toy Industry Association, said mothers do at least 80 percent of the holiday shopping in a family, and in past recessions, they have been the first to do without. They tend not to get a new coat for themselves, Rice said, so they can provide for their children.
Analysts say the pullback by women in this downturn is among the most drastic they have seen.
"You just keep hearing, 'We've stopped shopping altogether,"' said John Morris, a retail analyst with Wachovia, adding that the typical woman was "finding fashion in the back of her closet."
The downturn, analysts said, is being exacerbated by unexciting fashions in stores. And the lack of pressure to conform to one particular style these days means women do not feel they have to update their work wardrobes.
As they scale back their self-indulgences, mothers are looking for additional ways to cut the cost of the holidays. Some are using online tools to organize meetings with other mothers to swap clothing, toys, video games and books. Others are buying DVDs and video games in bulk from warehouse stores like BJ's Wholesale Club, then taking the sets apart to create multiple gifts.
Matriarchs of big families are bringing back the old practice of pulling names out of a hat to decide who will buy a gift for whom. Some mothers have made pacts, with their spouses or other family members, not to buy gifts for anyone but the children.
Despite all these efforts, many mothers will nonetheless end up cutting back, at least a bit, on spending for their children. Historically, the toy industry has been more immune to economic downturns than other industries, but this year, analysts expect it to feel the pinch.
That could translate into fewer presents for children over all, even though many parents will go to great lengths to buy the one or two gifts a child wants most.
"While times are difficult, the last thing parents are going to cut from their budget is the Christmas present for their child," said Gerald Storch, chairman and chief executive of Toys "R" Us. "We are not seeing price resistance for the hot toys."
Hundreds flee as Congo Tutsi rebels hunt Hutu foes
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Hereward Holland
Hundreds of Congolese civilians fled east into neighbouring Uganda on Wednesday to escape reported attacks on villages by Tutsi rebels who said they were hunting their Rwandan Hutu militia enemies.
A U.N. refugee official in Uganda said families were streaming across the border at Ishasha from Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where a Tutsi rebel spokesman said rebel forces had launched "policing" operations.
The rebel activities and related refugee exodus signalled recurring violence and unrest in North Kivu despite a week-long relative lull in combat between rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army.
A U.N. envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, was preparing to begin another peace mission to try to prevent the North Kivu conflict from escalating into a repeat of the wider 1998-2003 war that devastated Congo.
Fighting in North Kivu since late August has driven a quarter of a million people from their homes, creating what aid workers say is a humanitarian catastrophe.
Roberta Russo, spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in the Ugandan capital Kampala, told Reuters that 1,300 Congolese refugees had crossed through Ishasha on the Congo/Uganda border since Tuesday afternoon.
"My colleagues at the border say there is just a stream of people coming," she said.
Some of the newcomers, joining more than 13,000 Congolese who had already fled into Uganda since August, reported their villages between Rutshuru and Ishasha had been attacked two days ago by Nkunda's fighters, she said.
"We have some people who said their villages were directly attacked, and family members killed, by what they said were Nkunda rebels," Russo said.
Rebel-held Rutshuru was calm on Wednesday and U.N. agencies distributed aid supplies to civilians there.
A spokesman for Nkunda, Bertrand Bisimwe, said rebel forces had since Saturday launched operations north of Rutshuru against locations occupied by Rwandan Hutu fighters of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Nkunda's Tutsi fighters are sworn enemies of the FDLR, which includes perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which Hutu soldiers and militia slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"We've launched policing operations to force them (the FDLR) to withdraw. They are fleeing, but they're taking the population hostage, using them as shields," Bisimwe told Reuters.
He said the rebel actions involved no clashes with Congo's government army and did not affect a cease-fire declared by Nkunda. "This has got nothing to do with the cease-fire."
"But there's no cease-fire for the FDLR because every Congolese has the right to chase them out of the national territory, because they are foreigners," Bisimwe said.
A spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC), Lt.-Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, described the latest incidents as "some small skirmishes, but not really fighting."
Uganda's army said it had deployed soldiers on the border to prevent any spillover of violence from Congo.
The U.N., which is preparing to send 3,000 extra troops and police to bolster its 17,000-strong peacekeeping force in Congo, has accused both Nkunda's rebels and government forces of carrying out mass killings, rape and torture.
Nkunda, from Congo's minority Tutsi community, cites the presence of the FDLR in the east as the justification for his four-year-old rebellion, which he says aims to defend Tutsis.
Tutsi-led Rwanda denies repeated Congolese government allegations that it supports Nkunda.
Nkunda is demanding direct talks with President Joseph Kabila's government, protection for minorities like the Tutsis and integration of his fighters into the ranks of the army and the administration.
But the government says it will only talk to Nkunda within the framework of a January peace pact signed with several armed groups including his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Nkunda has repudiated this deal as one-sided.
(Reporting by Frank Nyakairu in Kigali, Joe Bavier in Kinshasa and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by Tim Pearce)
2 mass graves found in eastern Congo
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
KINSHASA, Congo: Two mass graves containing as many as 2,000 bodies have been discovered in eastern Congo, government officials said Wednesday.
Justice Minister Luzolo Bambi told reporters the graves were found Saturday in the town of Bukavu in a plot of land formerly owned by a member of the Congolese Rally for Democracy, or RCD, a Rwandan-backed rebel group. At one point, the RCD controlled much of eastern Congo, but it became a political party in 2003. Many of its top leaders were integrated into the government, taking jobs as vice presidents and army chiefs.
Constantin Charhondangwa, the head of civil society in the Bukavu region, said the parcel of land owned by the ex-rebel was sold to a resident. The new landowner discovered the remains when he dug up the land put in a septic tank, Charhondangwa said.
Bambi and state-run TV said as many as 2,000 people are buried in the twin graves.
UN officials visited the site and confirmed the presence of the mass graves but did not offer an estimate of the number of dead.
Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, said the world body is calling for authorities to undertake "a serious investigation."
The discovery comes as eastern Congo has once again come to the brink of war, with a different rebel group fighting government forces.
Bukavu has not been touched by the latest round of violence, but has been a frequent theater of war. It is located 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, southeast of Goma, the epicenter of the latest fighting.
Six women shot dead in Chechnya
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
GROZNY, Russia: Six young women were found shot dead in Russia's restive Chechnya region on Wednesday, prosecutors said.
Three of the dead were found in the regional capital, Grozny, while another three were discovered on roadsides outside the city, said Mariam Nalayeva, spokeswoman for the investigative arm of the local prosecutor's office.
The women, aged between 25 and 35, had all suffered gunshots to the head and chest, leading investigators to believe the deaths may be related, RIA news agency reported, citing an investigator on the case.
Interfax news agency reported that a Kalashnikov assault rifle had been used in several of the killings.
There are sporadic flare-ups of violence in Chechnya, which is now relatively peaceful after two wars fought by separatist rebels and Islamist militants against Moscow's rule starting in 1994.
The region is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who declares loyalty to the Kremlin.
Earlier this week, three police officers and one passer-y were killed by a bomb explosion near an apartment building in Chechnya after police went to investigate a report of gunfire.
(Writing by Simon Shuster; Editing by Matthew Jones)
Woolworths on brink of failure
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
LONDON: The board of Woolworths Group met late Wednesday to approve plans to put its two principal operating businesses into administration after failed attempts to sell the group.
A person familiar with the talks, who insisted on anonymity because the meeting was in progress, said the board had decided to put the company's 800-store retail business and its EUK subsidiary, which distributes music and videos to retailers, in the hands of administrators.
"The board of Woolworths retail and EUK have resolved to take the necessary steps to enter administration," the person said.
The decision would leave the company with 2 Entertain DVD, a publishing joint venture with BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of BBC, and the Bertram book wholesale business.
Going into administration is similar to filing for bankruptcy, something that does not apply to companies in Britain. Administrators are appointed to salvage as much of the company as possible for the benefit of its creditors, a process that can involve trying to keep the business in operation or breaking it up and selling it off.
Woolworths shares were suspended earlier Wednesday at a price of little more than a penny as the discussions continued with potential buyers for both the retail business and 2 Entertain.
Hilco UK, which buys underperforming retail businesses and turns them around for profit, had been interested in the retail arm, but there was speculation that the company's lenders were blocking the sale of the division in favor of selling off the company's assets.
Separately, the company said it was in talks with BBC Worldwide about the sale of its 40 percent interest in the 2 Entertain joint venture.
Woolworths' current debt-laden predicament is a long way from the clamor that greeted its first store opening, in Liverpool, in 1909 under the FW Woolworths brand, a subsidiary of its U.S. parent.
The British company has outlasted its original U.S. parent, which closed its final Woolworths stores in 1997.
But in recent years the company has struggled to remain relevant as supermarket chains expanded aggressively into its traditional business, selling everything from bed linen to toys and underwear.
"Every year supermarkets take more and more business away in confectionery, kids' clothing, music," said Nick Bubb, a retail industry analyst with Pali International. "The convenience of one-stop shopping at the supermarket is very powerful."
Shares in Woolworths, which came under British ownership in 1982, have plummeted 90 percent over the past year to just 1.22 pence, or 2 U.S. cents, before the suspension Wednesday as fears grew about its future.
In August, Woolworths rejected an offer of £50 million, or $75 million, for its retail stores from Iceland Foods.

Mayor killed in North Ossetian capital
By Michael Schwirtz
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
MOSCOW: The mayor of Vladikavkaz, a southern city in Russia's conflict-prone North Caucasus region, was assassinated on Wednesday near his home, law enforcement officials said.
Gunmen opened fire on the mayor, Vitaly Karayev, at about 9 a.m. Moscow time, said a statement on the Web site of the Prosecutor General's Investigative Committee. The mayor died at the hospital.
A Russian law enforcement source told the official Ria Novosti news agency that only one shot was fired "from afar" at Karayev, 46, who was in his car at the time of the attack.
Vladikavkaz is the capital of North Ossetia, a Russian republic that borders Ingushetia and Chechnya, where shootings and bomb attacks occur almost daily.
Last week, a 12th person died from injuries following a suicide bombing attack earlier this month outside a minibus close to the central market in Vladikavkaz. The city is not far from Beslan, where in 2004 gunmen from Chechnya raided a local school, sparking a fight with Russian law enforcement officials that killed more that 300 people, many of them children.
North Ossetia also borders South Ossetia, where Georgia and Russia fought a brief war in August. More Articles in World »
Former Georgian envoy to Moscow puts blame for war on his own country
By Olesya Vartanyan and Ellen Barry
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia: A parliamentary hearing on the origins of the war between Georgia and Russia in August ended in tumult after a former Georgian diplomat testified that the Georgian authorities were responsible for starting the conflict.
Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Tbilisi's former ambassador to Moscow, testified Tuesday for three hours before he was shouted down by members of Parliament.
A former confidant of President Mikheil Saakashvili, Kitsmarishvili said Georgian officials had told him in April that they planned to start a war in Abkhazia, one of two breakaway regions at issue in the war, and had received a green light from the U.S. government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia.
He would not identify the officials who he said had told him about the planned actions in Abkhazia, saying that identifying them would endanger their lives.
American officials have consistently said that they had warned Saakashvili against taking action in the two enclaves, where Russian peacekeepers were stationed.
Kitsmarishvili's testimony in front of a parliamentary commission, shown live on Georgian television, met with forceful and immediate denials. One commission member, Givi Targamadze, threw a pen and then lunged toward Kitsmarishvili, but was restrained by his colleagues.
The chairman of the commission, Paata Davitaia, said he would initiate a criminal case against Kitsmarishvili for "professional negligence."
Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria, who appeared on short notice to comment on Kitsmarishvili's testimony, called the allegations "irresponsible and shameless fabrication," and said they were "either the result of a lack of information or the personal resentment of a man who has lost his job and wants to get involved in politics." Kitsmarishvili was fired in September by the president.
Kitsmarishvili walked out amid the furor Tuesday.
"They don't want to listen to the truth," he said.
The hearings are part of an official Georgian inquiry, whose full name is the Temporary Commission to Study Russia's Military Aggression and Other Actions Undertaken With the Aim to Infringe Georgia's Territorial Integrity. Many senior Georgian officials have already testified, and the president is scheduled to appear Friday.
Kitsmarishvili had petitioned to appear, saying a refusal to hear him would show that the inquiry was hollow.
In his comments, the former diplomat said that Saakashvili was responding to Russian provocation, but that he had long been planning to take control of the enclaves, which won de facto independence from Georgia in fighting in the early 1990s.
Kitsmarishvili said the president aimed to start an offensive in 2004, but met with resistance from Western and other Georgian officials.
Among the catalysts for the offensive, Kitsmarishvili said, was the belief that U.S. officials had given their approval. When he tried to verify that information with the American diplomats in Tbilisi, Kitsmarishvili said, he was told no such approval had been given.
Olesya Vartanyan reported from Tbilisi and Ellen Barry from Moscow.
Russian senators pass extended presidency
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
MOSCOW: Russia's upper house of parliament gave its assent on Wednesday to constitutional amendments extending the presidential term from four to six years.
Critics of the Kremlin say the change could be part of a plan for ex-president Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, to return to his old job, although officials deny this.
The legislation has been rushed through the parliamentary process in less than four weeks with little dissent, except from opposition Communists who do not have enough votes to block it.
The law was nodded through the Federation Council with 144 votes in favour and one against. The Council comprises senators representing Russia's regions.
The amendments have now been passed by both chambers. The State Duma, the lower house, approved the amendments on final reading last Friday.
They now only need to be ratified by two-thirds of regional parliaments -- which are almost all dominated by Kremlin loyalists -- before they can take effect.
Police detained a lone anti-Kremlin protester outside the Federation Council building after he tried to unfurl a banner criticising the plans, a Reuters reporter said.
The proposal was first raised by President Dmitry Medvedev in his state of the nation address on November 5.
The longer Kremlin term will not apply to Medvedev's present mandate, and Putin's spokesman has said there is no plan for him to make a comeback in an early presidential election.
(Reporting by Aydar Buribaev; Writing by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

'Australia': A love story steeped in kitsch, and sincerity
By Manohla Dargis
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Baz Luhrmann's continent-size epic, "Australia," isn't the greatest story ever — it's several dozen of the greatest stories ever told, "The African Queen," "Gone With the Wind" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" included. A pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package, this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.
Luhrmann's use of culturally degraded forms both here and in earlier films like "Moulin Rouge" doesn't register as either a conceptual strategy or a cynical commercial ploy or some combination of the two, as it can with art world jesters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who have appropriated kitsch as a (more or less) legitimate postmodern strategy. Instead it feels — feeling being paramount in all of Luhrmann's films — like a sincere cry from the swelling, throbbing heart, a true expression of self. And while that self and its gaudy work may be stitched together from the bits and pieces of pop culture — the son of a movie-theater owner, Luhrmann grew up worshiping at the altar of Hollywood — they are also wholly sincere.
Sincere, if also sometimes confused and confusing: though there is no denying the scope and towering ambition of "Australia," which was largely shot on location in the outback, it can be difficult to gauge Luhrmann's intentions, or rather his level of self-awareness. The film begins with some text that scrolls importantly across the screen, immediately setting the uncertain tone with some (serious?) twaddle about Australia as a land of "adventure and romance." Before you have a chance to harrumph indignantly about the oppression of the Aborigines (or sneer at the country's early imported criminal population), the text has skipped to the topic of "the stolen generations," the children of indigenous peoples who, from the 19th century well into the 20th, were forcibly separated from their cultures by white Australians in the name of God and civilization.
But no worries! Though "Australia" is narrated by a young boy of mixed race, Nullah (the newcomer Brandon Walters), the illegitimate son of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, who is trying to escape the authorities, and while it opens in 1939, shortly before World War II blasted Australian shores, the film isn't a bummer. Like every other weighty or would-be weighty moment that passes through Luhrmann's soft-filtering lens — a man being trampled to death by rampaging cattle or a city being annihilated by bombing Japanese warplanes — the calamities of history are merely colorful grist for his main interest, the romance between a wilted English rose, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and an itinerant Australian cattleman, the Drover (Hugh Jackman).
The lady and the tramp meet soon after she lands in Australia to track down her cattleman husband, whose early murder sets all the narrative pieces in place. Initially intent on selling her property, including 1,500 head of cattle, Sarah soon transforms into a frontierswoman, seduced by Nullah's smile and the majestic valleys and peaks of both the land and of the Drover's musculature. Although Kidman and Jackman are initially riffing on Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart's prickly courtship in "The African Queen" — later, as they heat up, they slip into a sexier Scarlett-and-Rhett dynamic — only Kidman really embraces the more comic and potentially embarrassing aspects of her role, giving herself over to Luhrmann and his occasionally cruel camera with a pronounced lack of vanity.
Though looking bad (or at least less than perfect) on camera is a particular form of vanity for actors, Kidman has in recent years generally erred on the side of physical perfection, sometimes to the detriment of her performances. But she's wonderfully and fully expressive here, from wince-worthy start to heartbreaking finish, whether she's wrinkling her nose in mock disgust or rushing across a dusty field, her arms pumping so wildly that it's a wonder well water doesn't spring from her mouth. It's a ludicrous role — not long after priming her pump, the barren widow turns into a veritable fertility goddess — but she rides Sarah's and the story's ups and downs with ease. Jackman gives the movie oomph; Kidman gives it a performance.
More than anything else in the film, Nullah included, Kidman tethers "Australia" to the world of human feeling and brings Luhrmann's outrageous flights of fancy down to earth. That may not be where he prefers to make movies, but it's a necessary place for even a fantasist to visit. Although many of his Western contemporaries like to root around in down-and-dirty realism, Luhrmann maintains a full-throttle commitment to cinematic illusion and what he characterizes as the "heightened artifice" of his so-called Red Curtain trilogy, "Strictly Ballroom," "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge." You may not always see the people for the production design in these, but when you do — as in "Romeo + Juliet" and sometimes here — they spring forth from their fantastical milieus like fists.
A maximalist, Luhrmann doesn't simply want to rouse your laughter and tears: he wants to rouse you out of a sensory-overloaded stupor with jolts of passion and fabulous visions. That may make him sound a wee bit Brechtian, but he's really just an old-fashioned movie man, the kind who never lets good taste get in the way of rip-roaring entertainment. The usual line about kitsch is that it's an affront, a cheapening of the culture, a danger. "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession," Milan Kundera wrote. "The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."
True, but it doesn't make the second tear any less wet.
"Australia" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some bloody violence, many stampeding hooves.
Opens on Wednesday nationwide.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Dody Dorn and Michael McCusker; music by David Hirschfelder; production designer, Catherine Martin; produced by Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown and Catherine Knapman; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.
WITH: Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (the Drover), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George) and Brandon Walters (Nullah).
Australia to let doctor with disabled son stay
By Meraiah Foley
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
SYDNEY: A German doctor whose family was twice denied permanent residency in Australia because his son has Down syndrome has been allowed to stay after the immigration minister intervened on his behalf.
Bernhard Moeller moved to Australia with his wife and three children nearly three years ago when he was hired to work as a specialist at a rural hospital in the southern state of Victoria.
The family decided to apply for permanent residency, but its application was rejected earlier this month because Moeller's 13-year-old son, Lukas, has Down syndrome.
Australia has a longstanding policy of weighing medical conditions in its residency decisions. Immigration law stipulates that any applicant who is deemed to have a condition that would incur significant costs to the state-run health care system will be rejected.
The Moellers appealed the ruling to the Migration Review Tribunal, the appellate court of the Immigration Department, but it upheld the decision. As a final resort, the family took their case to the federal immigration minister, Senator Chris Evans. The immigration minister has the power to overturn decisions by the department if he deems there are special circumstances.
"I received a request this morning from Dr. Moeller to intervene, and I have granted permanent visas," Evans told Parliament on Wednesday, according to the national broadcaster. "As minister, I can take into account all the circumstances, and it was clear to me Dr. Moeller was making a very valuable contribution to their local community."
Moeller told local media the decision was "a great relief" and called on Australia to make its immigration rules more flexible.
The case involving the Moellers provoked outrage in Australia, where doctors serving rural areas are in short supply. International disability rights groups also expressed anger, calling the decision discriminatory.

Eight years is more than enough
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
As the sun sets on the Bush administration, the survival rite known as burrowing is under way. Burrowing is when favored political appointees are transformed into civil servants and granted instant tenure on the federal payroll.
There is, of course, nothing new in this cynical practice. Dozens of political loyalists were burrowed in the final months of the Clinton administration. But the score of Bush burrowers who have so far come to light bring with them the worst pro-industry, anti-regulatory biases of this administration.
At the Interior Department, six senior managers were burrowed as a package. One of the protected appointees was earlier criticized by the agency's inspector general for overriding career experts in the field to deliver a posh grazing agreement to a Wyoming rancher. Another has survived in a management position affording clout to continue the scandalous mining industry bias of the Bush years.
As a candidate, Barack Obama appealed to demoralized federal workers, writing campaign letters promising to reverse many of the Bush administration's worst practices. Obama went on record for more mine-safety workers, tougher regulation of workplace safety, an end to censorship of research by government scientists and a rollback of the Bush administration's outsourcing to favored private contractors.
The promises extend to such trouble spots as staff shortages that have created a backlog in Social Security disability claims, and the push to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency's library system. Obama also took care to warn that some agencies may face pruning because of merit or fiscal pressures.
It's encouraging that the president-elect recognizes that to make the changes he's promising - and deliver a government that will protect and help its citizens - he will need energized, rather than alienated, federal workers. His aides will have to circumvent or dump any Bush burrowers intent on sabotaging that effort.
Blackberry vs. the bubble
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
American presidents have profound influence from Washington to Timbuktu, so it would be ironic if the next one lacks the basic tools that even minimally tech-savvy people now use to keep up with the world. Yet such is the fate of Barack Obama, who was the most wired presidential candidate ever but is expected to give up his beloved BlackBerry come Jan. 20.
The alternative - letting White House insiders control the flow of information to the president - didn't work out so well during the current administration. Then again, Obama may have practical reasons to avoid e-mail, regardless of the device. Much of his correspondence, after all, will become public record.
Moreover, by staying off the Internet altogether, Obama would immunize himself against information overload, perhaps the greatest productivity-killer of our age. Most of us can waste hours just on Web sites related to our jobs. Similarly, the new president could wear out his thumbs Googling missile systems and public health threats.
The possibility that Obama will drop off the grid should give other CrackBerry addicts cause to reflect. Is it really a necessity to be reachable, and to reach others, at all times? Or is it vanity? Or is it merely a bad habit? Perhaps 24-7 connectedness, like skinny ties, will keep coming in and going out of style. People with cell phones clipped to their belts once looked like early adopters; now they evoke sympathy, as if sentenced to the corporate version of an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet.
By giving up his BlackBerry, Obama may only isolate himself within the White House bubble. Or maybe his example will persuade others to put down their handhelds and pay attention to the people around them.
Roger Cohen: A command of the law
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
NEW YORK: It's Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for many things right now, despite the stock market, and first among them is the fact that the next U.S. commander-in-chief is a constitutional law expert and former law professor.
Before I get to why, allow me to add two other reasons for thankfulness. The first is that Barack Obama is a man of sufficient self-confidence to entrust the critical job of Secretary of State to his former rival, Hillary Clinton. She has the strength and focus to produce results.
The second is that he's a man of sufficient good sense to retain the remarkable Robert Gates as Defense Secretary.
President Bush had one overriding criterion in choosing his inner circle: loyalty. The result was nobody would pull the plug on stupidity. Obama wants the kind of competence and brainpower that challenge him. The God-gut decision-making of The Decider got us in this mess. Getting out of it will require an Oval Office where smart dissent is prized.
But back to the law, which is what defines the United States, for it is a nation of laws. Or was until Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, unfurled what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history."
There is no need to rehash here the whole sordid history of the Bush administration's work on Vice President Dick Cheney's "dark side": the "enhanced" interrogation techniques in "black sites" outside the United States justified by invocation of a "New Paradigm" that rendered the Geneva Conventions "quaint."
When governments veer onto the dark side, language always goes murky. Direct speech makes dirty deeds too clear. A new paradigm sounds bland enough. What it meant was trashing habeas corpus.
The facts speak for themselves. This month, almost seven years after detainees began arriving at Guantánamo Bay on Jan. 11, 2002, a verdict was handed down in the first hearing on the government's evidence for holding so-called "unlawful enemy combatants" at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Yes, this was the first hearing in a habeas corpus case, so long has the legal battle been to get to this point, and so stubborn has the administration been in seeking to keep Guantánamo detainees out of reach of civilian courts.
Judge Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in Washington ruled that five Algerian men had been unlawfully held at Guanatánamo and ordered their release. He said, "Seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty."
Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those "enhanced" techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell.
What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the U.S. government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy.
Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:
"An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible."
That's it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan's life, written in language Orwell would have recognized.
We have "the deciding official," not an officer, or a judge. We have "the information about you," not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have "a decision about what will happen to you," not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States.
That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander-in-chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than debasing the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.
As well as closing Guantánamo, Obama should set up an independent commission to investigate what happened there, as suggested in a fine recent report, "Guantánamo and its Aftermath," from the University of California, Berkeley. Only then will "deciding officials" become identifiable human beings who can, if necessary be judged.
Obama should also ensure that former detainees receive an apology and compensation. An American official showing up, envelope in hand, at some dusty Afghan compound, and delivering U.S. contrition and cash to a man whose life has been ravaged by U.S. abuse will in the long term make the United States safer.
Give thanks on this day for the law. It's what stands between the shining city on a hill and the dark side.
Getting right with Israel
By Aaron David Miller
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Of all the foreign policy issues confronting President Barack Obama, one of the most challenging will be how to deal with Israel. Will the new president maintain a special relationship with Israel (which serves American interests) or permit that relationship to continue to be exclusive (which doesn't)?
The answer may well determine how successful the United States will be in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and in protecting its interests in the Middle East.
America has a special relationship with the state of Israel which is not likely to change. Sixty years on, that bond remains more resilient than ever, nurtured by a powerful pro-Israeli community that has made Israel a survival issue.
Israel figures prominently in the mind of America, in its politics, culture and foreign policy. For millions of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, a strong tie with Israel, driven by shared values, sympathy for Jewish victims of historic anti-Semitism and support for Israel's perilous security predicament, has become an integral part of the American story.
But President Obama will inherit more than just a special relationship that is good for American interests and values. He will also inherit an exclusive relationship with Israel that is not.
Over the past 16 years (eight under Bill Clinton and eight under George W. Bush), we have, perhaps with the best of intentions, allowed our relationship with Israel to get out of whack and out of balance. This has hurt America credibility, particularly in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and Israeli interests.
Several factors drive this exclusiveness. First is our tendency to let the Israelis have too much influence over our tactics and strategy when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. What I call the "Jewish lobby of one" - the impact that a compelling Israeli prime minister can have on an American president - can be decisive.
Whether it was Ehud Barak's success in convincing Clinton to go for a make-or-break Camp David summit or Ariel Sharon's campaign to persuade Bush to do the road map his way, we seem to be unable to say no to bad Israeli ideas.
Close coordination with Israelis on matters vital to their security is one thing. Allowing the Israelis to hijack American peacemaking and undermine our credibility is another matter. Far too often we end up being Israel's lawyer and not an advocate for both sides in a negotiation.
The other element in our exclusive relationship is our refusal to call the Israelis on behavior that undermines the very negotiating process we're trying to promote. Actually we're an equal opportunity employer on this one since over the years we've not been tough enough with the other side - Palestinians and Syrians - either.
Still, on settlement activity, bypass roads or land confiscation, we've given the Israelis a pass now for at least 16 years, imposed no accountability or transparency on policies that have nothing to do with Israeli security needs.
That we don't want to sanction the Israelis is understandable; they're a close ally. But we should make it unmistakably clear that we won't lend our authority or auspices to any peacemaking process in which Israeli or Palestinian behavior undermines it and destroys American credibility at the same time.
If Obama wants to have any chance of succeeding in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, he needs to get right with Israel. He needs to reassure Israel, a small country living in a dangerous neighborhood. But he also needs to be tough and tenacious in guarding America's role as an independent and fair mediator.
No one will plant a tree in his honor if he succeeds in brokering a peace agreement. Just ask Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter or James Baker. But he'll have done something quite remarkable for America - and in the process, despite the moans, for Israel as well.
Aaron David Miller advised Democratic and Republican U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
U.S. needs new China plan, former commander says
By Bryan BenderThe Boston Globe
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
WASHINGTON: In 2005, the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific confronted Pentagon hawks who insisted that he prepare for a future war with China, warning the defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, that the United States was headed for disaster if it insisted on confronting the Chinese militarily.
"There were people who warned me that you'd better get ready for the shoot 'em up here, because sooner or later we're going be at war with China," recalled the commander, William Fallon, a retired navy admiral. "I don't think that's where we want to go. And so I set about challenging all the assumptions."
In his first extensive interview since resigning from the navy this year, Fallon said that the United States desperately needed to come up with a strategy for dealing peacefully with a rising China.
Fallon, currently a fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies, is well known for his differences with the Bush administration, especially over Iran policy. He resigned unexpectedly in March as chief of the U.S. Central Command - responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - after publicly voicing criticism over its refusal to engage diplomatically with Iran. An Esquire magazine profile of Fallon in March set off the media firestorm leading to his resignation.
But it is clear that Fallon clashed with top Bush administration officials bent on using U.S. military might over other levers of power, such as diplomacy and economic cooperation, several years before he took command of U.S. forces in the Middle East in March 2007.
In an interview Monday, Fallon recalled that after he became chief of the U.S. Pacific Command in 2005, "I came back here about once a month and sat down with Secretary Rumsfeld. I'd walk through what I was thinking, why I was thinking that way. There were people who didn't like that."
U.S.-China relations had soured in 2005 after the Pentagon issued a high-profile report highlighting a growing threat from China, and after Rumsfeld publicly rebuked China's military buildup in a speech in Singapore.
Describing the message he brought back from the region at the time, Fallon said he told his superiors: "What are the priorities, guys? Do you want to have a war? We can probably have one. But is that what you really want? Is that really in our interest? Because I don't think so."
The friction with some of his political bosses in Washington continued when Fallon, a former navy pilot, was picked by Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, to run Central Command in 2007, just as the "surge" of additional U.S. combat forces was getting under way to try to quell skyrocketing violence, much of it said to be the fault of neighboring Iran.
Fallon said he quickly realized that dealing with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, would be critical to bringing long-term security to Iraq - not a popular position in the Bush administration.
Fallon said that the Esquire article was "unfortunate."
"The story came out, and it was obviously a political attack on the president and used me to put the president in a very awkward position," he said. "The rest of the news hounds jumped all over it, and it became a free-for-all."
Looking ahead, Fallon said he believes the war in Iraq "is essentially over."
"We have some combat activity still ongoing occasionally up in the Mosul area, but other than that it's pretty much over and been over," he said.
But the war in Afghanistan, though showing some progress in recent months as a result of increased cooperation with neighboring Pakistan, is "probably a bigger challenge than Iraq," Fallon said.
Obama recalls fondness for Indonesian food as a child
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
JAKARTA: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta, told Indonesia's leader he would like to visit the Southeast Asian nation again and recalled a taste for local food.
Obama's remarks were recounted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after a six-inute phone call between the two leaders.
"He greeted me with 'apa kabar, Bapak Presiden' (How are you Mr. President) in fluent Indonesian," Yudhoyono was quoted as saying by the Koran Tempo daily.
Yudhoyono has just returned from a trip to the United States and South America, where he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).
"When I invited him to come to Jakarta during the APEC meeting in Singapore next year, he said coming to Indonesia is very important," Yudhoyono said.
The Indonesian president said that Obama also said that besides forging greater cooperation between the two nations, a visit would give him a chance to try local food again including meatball soup, nasi goreng and rambutan, the paper reported.
Nasi goreng is a fried rice dish popular in Indonesia, while rambutans are a tropical fruit with a sweet translucent flesh.
Obama, who will be sworn in as the 44th U.S. president in January spent four years in Indonesia after his American mother married Muslim Indonesian Lolo Soetoro following the end of her marriage to Obama's Kenyan father.
Indonesians have followed Obama's political fortunes closely and the local media has been full of stories on his old school, the house he lived in, and the hopes of people in the world's fourth-most populous nation.
(Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Ed Davies)
Iran reports rocket launch amid nuclear tension
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
TEHRAN: Iran has successfully launched a rocket called "Kavosh 2," Iran's state media reported on Wednesday, displaying the Islamic state's advances in ballistics at a time when the West is worried about its nuclear ambitions.
The launch follows an announcement earlier this month that Iran had test-fired a new generation of surface-to-surface missile, saying the Islamic Republic was ready to defend itself against any attacker.
Tensions between Iran and Israel have been running high in recent months amid speculation of possible U.S. or Israeli strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities, which the West suspects form part of a covert weapons program.
Tehran insists its nuclear work is aimed at generating electricity to meet Iran's booming demand.
State television did not give any further details about "Kavosh 2," which means "Explorer 2," saying details about the home-made rocket will be announced later. "The rocket was launched to register and send correct environmental data and (to test) separation of the engine from the body," state radio said.
The long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into space can also be used for launching weapons.
Iran caused international concern in February by testing a domestically made Explorer 1 rocket as part of its satellite programme. Tehran said it needed two more similar tests before putting a domestically made satellite into orbit.
The United States, the Islamic Republic's arch foe, called the February rocket test "unfortunate" and said it would only further isolate Tehran from the international community.
On August 17, Iran said it had put a dummy satellite into orbit on a domestically made rocket for the first time. U.S. officials said the attempted launch was a failure.
Western experts say Iran rarely gives enough details for them to determine the extent of its technological advances, and much Iranian technology consists of modifications of equipment supplied by China, North Korea and others.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi)
3 Iranian militia members accused of spying for Israel
By Nazila Fathi
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
TEHRAN: Iran has broken a spy ring working for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and will seek the death penalty for three suspects in custody, the Iranian prosecutor general announced.
The prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, said Tuesday that the suspects, members of Baseej, Iran's volunteer militia, were expected to get close to senior Revolutionary Guard members so they could "assassinate military scientists and blow up strategic military and missile facilities."
At a news conference covered by the semiofficial Fars news agency, Mortazavi said they would be tried within a month, and, if convicted of "moharebeh," or crimes against Islam and the state, they would be sentenced to death. Conviction on lesser charges could mean 10 years in prison, he said.
Mortazavi said the suspects had been trained in 21 sessions to carry out assassinations, plant bombs, drive cars and motorcycles professionally and use special cameras, computers and satellite equipment. Three additional suspects are under surveillance, he said.
The leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, said Monday that its intelligence bureau had detected the spy ring.
Mortazavi said Tuesday that the inquiry had started six months earlier.
He said evidence was found on the suspects' laptops and satellite phones. "They also had advanced and sophisticated digital cameras for taking still shots and videos," Fars quoted him as saying.
Assessing the strength of the government's case is difficult. The Israeli government has declined to comment on it, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently hinted at intelligence achievements, without elaborating. Mossad is widely considered one of the world's most effective intelligence organizations, but as such, its activities are secret.
Iran's announcement was made amid severe tension between Israel and Iran, which does not recognize Israel and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is hostile to it.
Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal, has said it is convinced that Iran will soon be able to make nuclear weapons.
Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear site in 1981 and what it suspected was a Syrian nuclear site in 2007. In June, Israel conducted a major military exercise that U.S. officials said appeared to have been a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Last week, Iran executed Ali Ashtari, who had been convicted of spying for Israel, and warned that its war with Israel had become "more serious."
Israel has said military action to halt Iran's nuclear progress should be a last resort, and it has pressed for tougher international sanctions. But on Sunday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a "defense establishment paper" to be presented to the cabinet next month identified "Iran's threat to Israel's survival" as its top concern. It called international cooperation the priority but said that, if other countries gave up, Israel must have a military option.
On Tuesday, the supreme religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, discussed "the danger of Israel" with the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman.
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
Israeli attorney-general considers charging Olmert
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Ari Rabinovitch
Israel's attorney-general said on Wednesday he was considering indicting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for fraud, bribery and tax evasion in a case over fake travel expenses that has already forced him to resign.
Olmert is serving as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after a February 10 election, but an indictment could increase pressure on him to leave office earlier.
The announcement by the Justice Ministry came after Olmert wrapped up a visit to Washington where he met President George W. Bush and held out hope for a last-minute peace deal with the Palestinians.
Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz told Olmert he was "considering bringing criminal charges regarding suspicions of various violations as part of the Rishon Tours Affair," a statement said.
Olmert's lawyers responded in a statement that the prime minister "totally rejects the suspicions against him" and they were confident he would not be charged.
An official in Olmert's office said he had no intention of stepping down before a new government was formed.
The Justice Ministry said the charges being considered stemmed from allegations that Olmert submitted duplicate bills to various Jewish organisations abroad and inflated travel costs while serving as Jerusalem mayor and in another cabinet post.
"Under Mr. Olmert's instruction and knowledge, the funding organisations were systematically shown false accounts," and Olmert collected $85,000 in profits he used to fund private trips for him and family members, the statement said.
Mazuz's statement, issued two months after police had recommended an indictment, said he offered Olmert the option of a hearing before deciding whether to charge him on four counts of bribery, fraud, false documentation and tax evasion.
Israeli media said the charges carry a maximum jail sentence of seven years.
Police have launched several corruption investigations into Olmert, who has denied any wrongdoing but resigned in September after his ruling Kadima party elected Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as his successor.
An early national election was scheduled after Livni failed to form a new coalition last month.
Under Israeli law Olmert remains as caretaker until a new government is formed after the election. But analysts said he might be forced to step aside sooner, if he were charged before the election.
Olmert has also been questioned for allegedly accepting envelopes stuffed with cash from an American Jewish fundraiser and using a cabinet post to promote a friend's business interests.
(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan)
(Editing by Tim Pearce)

NZ coach Henry urges England to respect haka
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
LONDON: New Zealand head coach Graham Henry has urged England to respect the pre-match haka before Saturday's test at Twickenham (2:30 p.m.).
Last week Wales stood on the halfway line staring at the All Blacks after the traditional Maori war dance while referee Jonathan Kaplan attempted to get the game started.
After a minute's standoff at the Millennium stadium, New Zealand captain Richie McCaw intervened and the match began.
"The Welsh thought that was the best way to respond, I just wanted to know when the game was going to start," Henry told a news conference.
"It took someone with common sense, the All Blacks captain, to get things going. We don't need that every week. I hope a copycat situation doesn't occur."
"We've been there, it was interesting at the time but it's time to move on and be more sensible."
Centre Ma'a Nonu, who scored his second try in consecutive tests in the 29-9 win in Cardiff, said fans back in New Zealand would have been angered by the Welsh response.
"It was really hard," he said. "The haka is a war dance.
"People back home will have been hurt by what they decided to do. Standing in the way like they did is asking for a fight.
"My blood pressure was pretty high but then I regained my composure. I was a bit upset about it."
Victory on Saturday would complete a third grand slam of victories over the four home nations for the All Blacks, who started their tour by beating Australia in Hong Kong.
They have yet to concede a try in successive victories over Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
(Reporting by John Mehaffey; Editing by Alan Baldwin)
Britain wonders why system did not stop rapist father
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
LONDON: A man who fathered nine children with his two daughters had attracted official suspicion but avoided detection for decades by moving his family frequently and intimidating his victims into silence, British prosecutors say.
Authorities were investigating on Wednesday exactly how the rapist was never called to account by neighbors, teachers, doctors, social workers, police or his extended family. The 56-year-old man was only apprehended when his daughters finally broke their silence.
He was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for what a judge said was "the worst (case) I have come across" in 40 years of judicial practice.
Prosecutors told the court that the man raped his daughters from the time they were 8 or 10 years old, beating them when they resisted. Over a 25-year period he impregnated them 19 times, and they bore seven surviving children. Two more infants died at birth, while the other pregnancies ended in abortion or miscarriage. None of the family can be named because of reporting restrictions to protect the identity of the victims and their children.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that people "will rightly want to know how such abuse could go on for so long without the authorities and the wider public services discovering it and taking action,"
Britain's child welfare services are already under pressure after the case of "Baby P," a toddler who suffered months of abuse that led to his death, despite repeated visits by social services staff in London.
"If there is a change to be made in the system and the system has failed, we will change the system as a result of the inquiries," Brown said.
Authorities in Sheffield, the northern English city where the family lived for a time, said they had begun an investigation.
"Where were the medical professionals? Where were the social workers? What were they doing for the last 20 years?" said Nick Clegg, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, who represents a district of Sheffield.
One answer is that some people did notice. At various points police, schools and medical staff all asked questions about the daughters' situation — but the daughters denied anything was wrong and the pieces were never put together.
The Sheffield case has echoes of the allegations against Josef Fritzl, the Austrian accused of keeping his daughter locked in a cellar for 24 years, fathering seven children by her. He is awaiting trial on charges of murder, rape, incest, false imprisonment and enslavement.
Unlike Fritzl, the British man moved his family frequently around northern and central England and lived in small villages to avoid drawing the attention of outsiders.
Prosecutors described how the defendant used intimidation, fear and evasiveness to keep his secret. He warned his children to keep quiet and when they were older he beat them. Each daughter said she was unaware the other was being abused until the pregnancies began.
"The defendant also ensured that his family were kept isolated and that there were very few visitors to the home," prosecutor Nicholas Campbell told Sheffield Crown Court.
"The victims were too frightened to tell anyone, even their mother," Campbell said. The court was told that the girls' mother left their father in the early 1990s, more than a decade after the abuse began, and it is unclear whether she knew what was going on.
The court heard that authorities at several points raised concerns about the family. A school asked questions about burn marks on one girl's arm, but it was attributed to bullying.
In 1997 the daughters' brother went to police to report the incest. But his sisters refused to cooperate and the investigation stalled.
Medical staff also had concerns about the high number of abnormalities in the women's pregnancies. One doctor even asked one of the women whether her father was the father of her children. She denied it.
But in June the women finally reported their abuse to social workers. Their father was arrested and last month pleaded guilty to 25 counts of rape. Judge Alan Goldsack sentenced him to 25 life sentences, to run concurrently, with no possibility of parole for almost 20 years.


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