Saturday, 13 December 2008

A Place in the Auvergne, Friday, 12th December 2008


IW: No camera I own can capture the light on snow of a full moon in a clear night sky. The hightlight of my day.

Otherwise I am a largely bed-bound, impatient, cranky, cooped up person who knows the snow's on this weekend at the station 40 minutes drive from our house and that I won't be taking M. and starting B. I am in poor humour.

I await the other highlight of my day: the rising shadow of the sinking sun as it squeezes the pink light off the mountain top. I watch the shadow rise, then the snow lit crest is gone and within a few minutes it is dark.

WTO won't seek Doha breakthrough this year
Friday, December 12, 2008
GENEVA: The World Trade Organization dropped plans on Friday to seek a breakthrough for a new trade deal this year, risking an increase in protectionism as the world economy suffers its worst crisis in a generation.
The WTO's director-general, Pascal Lamy, told members that he had decided against calling trade ministers to Geneva this month to push for a deal in the WTO's seven-year-old Doha round, because they were not showing enough political will to narrow differences.
The decision means ministers were unable to meet a call by leaders of the Group of 20 rich and emerging nations last month to reach an outline Doha deal by the end of this year to help counter the financial crisis by warding off protectionism.
It also promises an uncertain period for international trade, the lifeblood of the global economy, as the world navigates the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
Lamy clearly decided that the prospects of a successful meeting were not high enough to invite ministers now. That formally leaves the Doha round still in progress, but economists say it will be much harder to reach a deal next year when the world economy will already be in a much worse state than today.
But Lamy left political leaders, like Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, who has pushed hard for a deal, the opportunity to save the talks over the weekend.
"Leaders have expressed a desire but this has not translated into enough will at this stage," Lamy told a meeting of key WTO ambassadors.
"Unless this dramatically changes in the next 48 hours this is the reality from Geneva," he was quoted as saying at the meeting by a participant, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The next steps for negotiations will be discussed at a meeting of the WTO's general council on Dec. 18 to 19.
The U.S. ambassador to the WTO, Peter Allgeier, said a ministerial meeting was unlikely now to take place while George W. Bush is U.S. president, and the next moves were likely after President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20.
"We're very disappointed but we also agree that that is a prudent conclusion to draw given the gaps that still exist in some crucial issues," Allgeier told reporters.
Lamy had previously indicated that a meeting could be held this weekend. But on Monday, after meeting key WTO ambassadors to discuss revised negotiating texts on agriculture and industrial goods issued on Saturday, he decided that further consultations were needed on three sensitive issues.
These were proposals to create duty-free zones in some industrial sectors such as chemicals, a proposal to safeguard farmers in poor countries from surges in imports, and cotton subsidies - all of which touch on key U.S. interests.
Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim told reporters that the United States was making excessive demands, when, as the source of the financial crisis that Doha deal would help solve, it should be showing the most flexibility. But Allgeier denied the United States had refused to budge.
Lamy told ambassadors that major trade players were not willing to spend the political capital to narrow differences over the sector deals and farm safeguard issues.
"It has been a tough week, trying and trying again, which is, I believe, my responsibility," Lamy told WTO members. "But at the end of the day the responsibility to compromise lies with you."
Lamy spent the last three days in one-on-one conversations and conference calls with ministers and top officials from the United States, China, India, Brazil and other trade powers to try and narrow the gap on those issues, trade officials said.
Estimates of the value of a Doha agreement vary widely. Some advocacy groups say it would damage the interest of developing countries, although poor nations have been among the loudest calling for a deal.
A study last month by the International Food Policy Research Institute said more than $1 trillion in world trade could be at risk if Doha was not concluded soon - $336 billion in increased trade from lower tariffs and subsidies in a deal, and $728 billion in lost sales as countries hike tariffs to ceilings allowed under previous deals.
Cambodia confirms new human case of bird flu
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia's Health Ministry confirmed on Friday the country's eighth human case of virulent bird flu since 2005.
The ministry said in a statement with the U.N.'s World Health Organization that a 19-year-old man from Kandal province, southeast of the capital Phnom Penh, was confirmed to have the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus in laboratory tests Thursday.
The case, the first this year in Cambodia, comes a day after a senior World Health Organization official warned that Asian nations must remain vigilant against the disease.
The World Health Organization says there have been 246 confirmed fatal cases of the disease in humans worldwide since 2003.
The man is being treated at Calmette Hospital in the capital. Cambodian health and agriculture ministry officials have been sent to the victim's village to ensure that there is no further spread of the disease.
Ly Sovann, a health ministry expert on bird flu, said the victim became sick after touching a dead chicken that had been raised at his home.
"The boy is being treated at hospital now but his health is getting better day by day," Ly Sovann said. "If nothing changes with his health, he will be released from hospital soon."
The seven previous Cambodian victims of the disease had died.
On Thursday, the World Health Organization's regional chief urged Asian governments not to let down their guard against bird flu, saying a new outbreak among poultry in Hong Kong showed the disease still poses a threat.
"This is an indication that we have to remain vigilant," Shigeru Omi said in Malaysia. "Constant vigilance is the key."
Omi said the outbreak in Hong Kong was "not unexpected because the virus is still circulating in the world, and certainly in this part of the world."
Twenty countries had outbreaks of the disease during the first nine months of 2008, down from 25 during the same period last year, U.N. officials have said.
Some officials worry that the public has largely lost interest because the virus has so far not mutated into a much-feared form that could spread easily among people. It remains hard for people to catch, with most human cases linked to contact with infected birds.

EU leaders drastically weaken their emission ambition
By James Kanter and Stephen Castle
Friday, December 12, 2008
BRUSSELS: European leaders agreed on Friday to binding measures to curb global warming but pushed back deadlines and granted significant concessions to smokestack industries that said they were struggling in a hard economic climate.
At the close of a two-day summit meeting, the leaders also endorsed a €200 billion, or $267 billion economic stimulus package of mostly national measures, which are devised to avert the worst effects of recession.
But most of the focus was on the climate deal amid fears that the dire economic straits would result in a watering down of the package. In the end, the leaders stuck to their ambitious targets of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020, and insisted the goal would not be jeopardized by the breaks, granted mainly for East European countries and heavy manufacturers.
They also challenged the United States, after Barack Obama becomes president, to match their ambition.
"This is historic," said the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who added that no other continent had agreed to be bound by such strict rules. He called on Obama to "join Europe and with us to lead in this global effort."
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, echoed Obama's campaign slogan with his message, telling the EU's global partners: "Yes you can."
But analysts and representatives from the renewable energy industry criticized the concessions made to East European countries fearing sky-high energy bills and to industries facing stiff foreign competition that will continue to receive some of their pollution permits for free, rather than having to pay for them. Critics say that will only allow industries to put off making fundamental improvements in their operations to reduce emissions.
"EU governments to some extent have removed the incentive to invest in less carbon-intensive processes," said Mark Lewis, the global head of carbon research at Deutsche Bank in Paris. "We could have gone further and done so a good deal faster without this political compromise."
Under the original plan, electric utilities, which now get most of their pollution permits for free, would have had to start paying for them starting in 2013. Instead, utilities in East European countries like Poland and Hungary would not need to buy all of their required permits until 2020.
In another concession, heavy industry sectors like steel and chemicals would receive free emissions permits if they can show their costs are increasing and that they are significantly exposed to international competition.
Manufacturers not exposed to international competition will have to pay for their permits beginning in 2013, starting with 20 percent and gradually increasing. But rather than paying for all of their permits by 2020, as under the commission's original plan, they would pay for only 70 percent by then.
Christian Kjaer, the chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association, warned that Europe was "losing credibility and leadership in the fight against climate change."
Even so, EU governments kept in place an earlier goal of capping emissions in Europe at a level significantly lower than the current level. That was "a genuine achievement in the current very difficult economic circumstances," said Lewis of Deutsche Bank.
During tense negotiations in Brussels, Sarkozy first won over Germany with concessions to its industry and then, gradually, managed to reach a deal with Eastern European nations.
"At the end of the negotiation," said Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland's Europe minister, "Hungary and Poland were the last actors on the stage," underlining their tough negotiating stance, he said.
Warsaw would gain €15 billion in the form of free emissions permits to help poorer nations, he added.
Dowgielewicz said that the package "would not have been workable" without that concession.
"It would have blown up after introduction in countries like Poland because of the economic and social effect."
Sarkozy also argued that without assistance, Polish energy prices would rise two or threefold, because of the country's heavy reliance on dirty coal.
Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, greeted cameras with a V for victory sign as he left the summit meeting.
But analysts said large windfall profits would continue for some electricity generators in Eastern Europe.
Under the accord, power companies in countries that are comparatively poor and that use significant amounts of coal still will be able to receive 70 percent of their permits for free from 2013, although that amount would gradually decline to zero by 2020. The formula devised by the EU would include Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
Stig Schjolset, a senior analyst at Point Carbon, said power companies in these countries stood to make billions of euros in windfall profits in the same way that West European companies, like RWE of Germany, have been able to in recent years.
West European power companies would have to buy all of their permits beginning in 2013, and that meant "their fat margins should disappear," Schjoset said. But Germany - worried about Polish electricity companies gaining a competitive edge from continued access to free permits - also won important benefits for its powerful, coal-fired electricity sector.
In a measure aimed at placating Germany in particular, governments will be entitled to use money earned from selling permits to help companies like RWE build highly efficient power stations that could connect to equipment to capture and store carbon dioxide underground or under the sea.
Even so, RWE reacted furiously to the decision to make power companies buy their permits, saying that risked a power shortfall in coming years.
Johannes Lambertz, the chief executive of RWE Power, said "the EU has failed to create a level-playing field and has greatly weakened Germany as a center of energy production." He said "the EU has seriously curtailed its prospects" of secure energy supplies and said that would mean more reliance on imported gas.
Despite the breakthrough on the so-called climate package, the precarious economic situation still overshadowed the summit meeting on Friday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, endorsed proposals for a €200 billion stimulus package for the European economy, and kept open the possibility of announcing extra measures above the €32 billion worth of proposals already announced.
Germany had gone into the summit with a more strident position than that traditionally taken by a country renowned for its commitment to European integration. But Merkel, who has been nicknamed "Madam Non" by the French media over her reluctance to sanction greater spending, said that on Friday she had turned out to be "Madam Yes."
Sarkozy said that backing for a commission proposal to spend €5 billion of EU money on infrastructure projects, including installation of broadband networks, was conditional on specific plans being proposed and approved. Sarkozy said that finance ministers would reach a decision next March on reductions of sales taxes and that he had received an assurance from Merkel that her finance minister's approach would be "constructive."
Merkel declined to give any such commitment at her press conference.
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, said that the debate over the need for a fiscal stimulus had been ended by the summit's endorsement of the European package.
U.N. climate talks agree fund to help poor states
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Megan Rowling and Gerard Wynn
U.N. climate talks agreed on Friday to launch a fund to help poor nations cope with the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, mudslides and rising seas.
Under the existing mechanisms, the fund could be worth $300 million (200.7 million pounds) a year by 2012. The United Nations says tens of billions of dollars a year are likely to be needed by 2030 to cope with the impacts of climate change in developing nations.
"Everyone has now agreed," Richard Muyungi, board chairman of the Adaptation Fund, told Reuters during the December 1-12 talks by 189 nations that have been overshadowed by fears about the impact of recession on plans to fight global warming.
The decision would have to be formally endorsed by all nations at a meeting later on Friday night.
The U.N. Climate Change Secretariat said the Polish talks had already achieved main goals of agreeing a plan of work towards Copenhagen, where a new climate treaty is due to be agreed at the end of 2009, and helped narrow options in a 100-page document summing up thousands of pages of ideas.
But the talks remained split on whether to raise more cash from other sources to help fund projects such as storm-warning systems, sea defences or drought-resistant crops.
Poor nations such as the Pacific island state of Tuvalu had previously accused rich nations of putting up too much red tape and barring direct access to the fund, saying it is a "survival fund" to cope with rising seas that could wipe them off the map.
But the EU said making cash too accessible could set a bad precedent in an economic downturn as the world seeks to work out a new global climate treaty by the end of 2009.
"We also want to be secure about the credibility of the use of the money and the credibility of the projects," German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said.
Gabriel and other EU ministers at the Poznan talks expressed relief after EU leaders in Brussels agreed a historic pact to cut greenhouse gases by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 -- after making concessions to east European states.
Under the current Adaptation Fund, cash will be raised by a 2 percent levy on a U.N. system of emissions cutting projects in developing nations -- raising roughly 60 million euros ($79.6 million) for the fund so far.
Climate negotiators also agreed measures to speed up approval of those projects, such as cutting greenhouse gases from factories in China or by building windmills in Morrocco.
Under rules of the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, rich countries can lay off their greenhouse gas emissions and meet their climate targets by funding cuts in developing nations.
The delegates delayed a decision on whether to allow coal plants to use the scheme to earn offsets from burying carbon dioxide underground, a little-tested technology called carbon capture and storage.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore won the biggest applause of the conference with a speech predicting a far more active U.S. climate policy under President-elect Barack Obama after President George W. Bush leaves office next month.
He also said a new U.N. climate deal could be agreed, as planned, at a meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009 despite the recession.
"To those who are fearful that it is too difficult to conclude this process with a new treaty by the deadline that has been set ... I say it can be done, it must be done," he said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)
Italy plagued by torrential rains
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
ROME: Rome residents were on alert Friday for possible overflowing of the Tiber river as heavy rain battering much of the country caused three more deaths, officials said.
Rescuers recovered the body of a man in southern Italy who was swept away in the heavy rains, while an elderly man died after his car was hit by a tree and another was killed in a car crash in a rainstorm, police in the southern city of Reggio Calabria said.
Downpours disrupted transport from Milan in the north to Palermo, Sicily, in the south. Trains were delayed and many streets were flooded or blocked by fallen trees. Water again covered Venice's lowest areas, including the landmark St. Mark's Square, while Alpine rescuers recovered a group of boy scouts who had been trapped on Mount Etna.
In Rome, the Civil Protection Department said the Tiber might burst its banks in some neighborhoods on Friday. The department said the river had risen by about 16 feet, or 5 meters, in the past two days.
Officials evacuated gypsy camps on the river's banks, and three boats broke loose from their moorings. The smaller Aniene river, which flows into the Tiber, has already overflowed, forcing officials to close down some streets.
On Thursday, more rain fell in Rome than the average for the entire month of December, city officials said.
"It's as if there has been an earthquake," Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno told daily La Repubblica.
In Rome and Venice, two of the hardest-hit cities, union officials called off local transport strikes.
Alemanno was among the local officials to ask for a state of emergency for their battered cities. Italy has been hit by days of bad weather, and entire neighborhoods have been flooded or covered in mud.
On Thursday, a woman was killed after her car was submerged in an underpass in Rome.
The oceans' shifting balance
Friday, December 12, 2008
Most of us understand that what we give off in the form of exhaust - from cars and manufacturing and energy production and burning forests - makes its way into the atmosphere, and is responsible for changes in the global climate. What is less familiar is the fact that the oceans are absorbing as much as a third of the carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.
The effects are already being felt. That added carbon dioxide is slowly making the oceans less alkaline and more acidic, altering the chemical balance on which much of oceanic life depends. Carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, a process that consumes carbonate ions. Those ions are necessary for the chemical reaction used to form calcium carbonate, the structural element in corals and the shells of many marine animals.
As the oceans acidify, shells will simply dissolve. The growth of coral reefs will slow, and their structural integrity would be weakened, making them more vulnerable to storms and erosion. That would be a catastrophic loss. The list of potential long-term effects to oceanic life is only beginning to be explored.
Scientists have understood ocean acidification for a long time. But what they are learning now is how quickly it is increasing, in step with increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. New studies show that if carbon dioxide emissions continue at current rates, shells and corals could begin to dissolve - especially in the southern oceans - within 30 years. Observations from many places, including the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, suggest that ocean acidification is proceeding much faster than anyone had thought.
Combating a change as fundamental as this requires a fundamental change in awareness and behavior. What is needed is a mental stencil of the kind you find near storm drains in Los Angeles that say: "This Drains to Ocean." A third of whatever we emit in the way of carbon dioxide ultimately drains to the ocean, which is all the more reason to curb emissions quickly.
With loan, a chance to clean up polluted Indonesian river
By Peter Gelling
Friday, December 12, 2008
BEKASI, Indonesia: During the height of the dry season here, a once raging river and the canal that leads it to Jakarta, supplying the city with 80 percent of its water, carry a thick layer of sludge, a flotilla of solid waste that former fishermen now use to forage for potentially valuable trash in their wooden boats.
Some environmentalists call the Citarum the most polluted river in the world.
"There is no scale really to determine which is the worst," said Christopher Morris, a water resources engineer with the Asian Development Bank. "But it is very nasty. To say you can't swim in it, I mean, you know when you are a few kilometers from it."
The Citarum is a mighty river. Its basin stretches 13,000 square kilometers, or 5,000 square miles, across West Java, supporting a population of more than 28 million people and more than 20 percent of the country's industrial output.
Three hydroelectric dams produce 1,400 megawatts, and the river irrigates 400,000 hectares, or one million acres, of farms that supply 5 percent of the country's rice.
But rapid, and unregulated, industrialization and urbanization over the last 20 years have reduced the river to a national embarrassment.
More than 2,000 factories are now situated along its banks, everything from steel to oil to garments is produced using the river as both a source of water and a dumping ground for waste. The hundreds of smokestacks here in Bekasi, an industrial suburb of Jakarta, could be mistaken for a forest consumed by fire.
The 70-kilometer, or 43-mile, canal passes through Bekasi on its way to Jakarta, and along its banks another industry has formed - prostitution. Young women sit outside small houses, or cafés, offering sex to the thousands of nearby factory workers.
Along this stretch lives a woman in her 40s who runs a small restaurant.
The restaurant sits atop a high slope, at the bottom of which meanders the river. In the distance, the fog of industry swirls.
"I know the color of the river is not right," Sutri says, adding that she washes the restaurant's dishes in the river, along with her clothes and occasionally her family. "But I don't know anything about dangerous chemicals. Anyway, there is nowhere else for me to get water."
She will be one of the first to benefit from a $500 million loan from the Asian Development Bank that aims to jump-start a government program to clean up the entire Citarum River and the West Tarum Canal that connects it to Jakarta. In all, the Indonesian government expects the cleanup to cost $3.5 billion and take 15 years.
The loan from the Asian Development Bank, approved last week, will be delivered in several phases over those 15 years, with the first $50 million to go toward revitalizing the all-important canal, securing Jakarta's main source of water. The entire loan package will fund a myriad of sanitation and environmental projects as well as the building of waste treatment plants.
"We are taking a long-term approach while recognizing there are some things we can fix quickly," Morris said. "But changing the behavior of the community takes a lot of careful planning and preparation."
The plan, however, has critics. A coalition of community advocacy groups, collectively called the People's Alliance for Citarum, have raised concerns over the amount of debt the country is taking on for a cleanup plan that, they say, has few safeguards from corruption. Indonesia is widely considered to be one of the world's more corrupt countries.
Also, more than 800 people, mostly banana growers, who live along the canal might have to relocate. The alliance says there is no clear plan for their relocation or to reimburse them for the loss of their livelihood.
"We are worried that the money could be lost through corruption," said Nugraha, 30, who has been working to clean up the Bekasi environment since he graduated high school. "And we are worried the farmers will be left out. The focus seems to be on the people of Jakarta, not the local people here."
Nugraha's comment touches on another potentially difficult issue down the line: management of the Citarum River Basin, which spans several provinces. Questions remain about the allocation of clean water across the provinces.
The solution proposed by the Asian Development Bank is a "water council," half of which would represent government agencies and the other half civil society. What authority the council would have remains to be seen, as different levels of government disagree. Of particular concern to the alliance is how this water council might be manipulated, creating yet another avenue for corrupt practices.
The bank will, for the first time in Indonesia, introduce a multitranche financing system to address this very problem, Morris said, disbursing portions of the loan over time as needed.
"The point is to make the money available to the government in an efficient way, so they aren't sitting with a loan and paying charges on it until they actually need to use it," he said. "But it also allows us to put in some safeguards and implement our anti-corruption policies and other policies the Asian Development Bank promotes."
Vatican issues instruction on bioethics
By Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo
Friday, December 12, 2008
The Vatican on Friday issued the most authoritative and sweeping document on bioethical issues in more than 20 years, taking into account recent developments in biomedical technology and reinforcing the Roman Catholic church's opposition to in vitro fertilization, human cloning, genetic testing on embryos before implantation and embryonic stem cell research.
The Vatican document says that these techniques violate the principles that every human life - even an embryo - is sacred and that children should be conceived only through intercourse by a married couple.
The 32-page instruction, titled "Dignitas Personae," or "The Dignity of the Person," was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, and carries the approval and the authority of Pope Benedict XVI. It was developed to provide moral responses to bioethical questions that have been raised in the 21 years since the congregation last issued instructions.
The document also bans the morning-after pill; intrauterine devices and the pill known as RU486, saying these can result in what amounts to abortions. The church also said it objects to freezing embryos because they are exposed to damage and manipulation and it raised the issue of what to do with frozen embryos that are not implanted.
"There is no morally licit way to get out of the blind alley created by the thousands of frozen embryos already in existence," Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, president emeritus of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said at a news conference Friday in Rome.
The Vatican's intended audience for the document includes individual Roman Catholics as well as doctors, scientists, medical researchers and legislators who might consider regulating new developments in biomedical technology.
In the United States, President-elect Barack Obama has said that he will end the restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that were instituted by President George W. Bush.
The Vatican document reiterates that the church is opposed to research on stem cells derived from embryos. But it does not oppose research on stem cells derived from adults, blood from umbilical cords or from fetuses "who have died of natural causes."
One new development addressed in the document is the attempt by researchers to create alternative techniques of producing stem cells for medical treatments without involving human embryos, said Reverend Thomas Berg, executive director of The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic ethics research group in New York state.
Berg said that one particularly promising technique, called altered nuclear transfer, would "allow us to get past this cultural divide on stem cell research." He said he was pleased to see that the Vatican document did not prohibit such techniques, although it cautions that there must be absolute assurance that human embryos are not destroyed in the process.
"The document is neither accepting or rejecting, simply raising a caution," Berg said, adding that he finds it a "very positive, very forward-looking" position.
Some were also hoping that the Vatican would clarify its position on whether couples could "adopt" surplus embryos that have been frozen and abandoned by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. Such "prenatal adoption," although rare, has been taken up as a cause among some Catholics and evangelical Christians.
But the Vatican did not issue a clear or definitive ruling in this document, saying that while "prenatal adoption" is "praiseworthy," it presents ethical problems similar to certain types of in vitro fertilization and, in particular, surrogate motherhood, which the church prohibits.
"I see the church recognizing that there are strong opinions on both sides, and they have not wanted to make a pronouncement," Berg said.
Experts responded Friday by saying that there was little new in this document but that it might still come as a surprise to many Catholics who are unaware that the church bans most in vitro fertilization methods.
Kathleen Raviele, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Georgia who is president of the Catholic Medical Association, the largest group of Catholic physicians in the United States, said that she tells her patients: "God creates through an act of love, and that's not what's happening in the laboratory. It's the technician who's creating. What in vitro does is it separates the creation of a child from the marital act."
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group based in Washington that contradicts church teaching on abortion and sexuality, issued a statement on Friday saying, "It remains difficult to reconcile the Vatican's self-avowed pro-life approach with the rejection of in-vitro fertilization and embryo freezing, not to mention the condemnation of the potential of stem-cell research."
Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at the news conference Friday that because the document excludes a number of biomedical technologies as unethical, "it will likely be accused of containing too many bans."
Nonetheless, the Church "feels the duty to give voice to those who have no voice," he said, referring to the unborn.
Laurie Goodstein reported from New York and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.
Amish study sheds light on heart disease
By Gina Kolata
Friday, December 12, 2008
For the sake of heart disease research, 809 members of the Old Order Amish community agreed to go to a clinic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, near their homes, and drink a rich milkshake that was made mostly of heavy cream. Over the next six hours, a group of investigators took samples of their blood, determining how much fat was churning through their bloodstreams.
Most of the study participants responded as expected - their levels of triglycerides, a common form of fat in the blood, rose steadily for three to four hours and then declined. But about 5 percent had an extraordinary reaction: Their triglyceride levels started out low and hardly budged.
It turns out, the researchers report in the Friday issue of the journal Science, that those individuals who barely responded have a mutation that disables one of their two copies of a gene called apoC-III. The gene codes for a protein, APOC3, that normally slows the breakdown of triglycerides.
With the mutated gene, people break down triglycerides unusually quickly. And, the investigators find, they also have low levels of LDL cholesterol, which at high levels increases heart disease risk. They have high levels of HDL cholesterol, which is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. And they appear to have arteries relatively clear of plaque.
To find the gene mutation, the researchers, led by Toni Pollin, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, scanned the entire genomes of their study subjects, looking for genetic regions that were linked to levels of blood triglycerides.
That led them to a region containing the apoC-III gene. When they sequenced it, they found the mutation that destroyed its function.
Dr. Alan Shuldiner, head of the division of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and the senior author of the paper, said the Amish were ideal for the study because they were an isolated population that had been in the United States for 14 generations and whose members shared many genes.
In this case, Pollin said, she and her colleagues traced the apoC-III mutation to a member of the Amish community who was born in the 18th century.
The gene is also regulated by insulin, noted Dr. Daniel Rader, a heart disease researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and people with diabetes have high levels of APOC3, high levels of triglycerides and an increased risk of heart disease.
The discovery of the gene mutation, researchers say, helps bolster the case that triglycerides are related to risk of heart disease and that APOC3 is an important contributor. But clinical applications may be years away.
Dr. Ira Goldberg, chief of the division of preventive medicine and nutrition at Columbia University, said the triglyceride case had mostly rested on studies showing an association between high triglyceride levels and an increased incidence of heart disease. But that, Goldberg added, is not cause and effect. The new study provides more direct evidence.
"Here we have a group of people with a genetic mutation that lowers triglycerides," Goldberg said. "They seem to have less cardiovascular disease."
As for apoC-III, the study clarifies its role, said Dr. Alan Tall, head of the molecular medicine division at Columbia. "It was known from animal studies that apoC-III might have a role like this," Tall said. "But the human information is really novel. We suspected it might be the case but this nails it down."
Rader agreed. "This is among the strongest human evidence we have that APOC3 is quote, unquote, bad," he said. "If you had a drug to turn off the gene to prevent as much APOC3 being made, this study suggests that that would be beneficial to do."
But he added that there were no such drugs on the immediate horizon.
Global immunization rates may be exaggerated
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Julie Steenhuysen
Global childhood immunizations are growing at only about half the rate reported to global health agencies as countries receiving aid exaggerate coverage to meet performance goals, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.
They analyzed independent surveys and found gaps between actual rates of childhood immunization and estimates reported to the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children's Fund.
"An incentive to over-report progress, either intentionally or unintentionally, will always exist with performance-based payments," said a statement from Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington in Seattle, whose study appears in the journal Lancet.
Murray and colleagues studied the number of children receiving the three-dose diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DPT3) vaccines in countries receiving aid money from the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunizations, or GAVI, a Geneva-based body working to improve access to vaccines.
They looked at 193 countries between 1996 and 2006 and found that since 1999, when GAVI was launched, officially reported estimates show a 9 percent jump in DPT3 vaccination coverage, while independent surveys showed only a 4.9 percent increase in global coverage.
They also found that the GAVI immunization services support program that pays countries $20 dollars (13 pounds) for each additional child immunized leads to over reporting in two-thirds of the countries studied.
They said the gap between country-reported and independently reported data was especially wide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Pakistan.
"We don't know exactly why there is such a striking gap between the survey data and the country-reported data when it comes to over-reporting -- or in some cases under-reporting -- the number of additional immunizations," Stephen Lim, who worked on the study, said in a statement.
"What we do know is that there is a clear correlation between when those gaps start to widen and when GAVI started funding these countries."
The researchers called for independent measurement of immunization levels, which they said should be a condition of funding.
But Dr. David Bishai of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, who wrote a commentary in the journal, said the findings were suggestive but not quite conclusive.
"I really want to caution readers to slow down and hold off in reaching the conclusion that, 'Aha! We caught them over-reporting,'" Bishai said in a telephone interview.
In his commentary, Bishai said the findings were tentative and voiced concern they may spark an "inquisition that diverts country vaccine staff away from the important job of immunizing children."
(Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)
China chooses new site for quake-levelled town
Friday, December 12, 2008
BEIJING: China has chosen a new site to rebuild the town of Beichuan, where the massive May 12 earthquake killed two-thirds of the population and which the government has decided to leave in ruins as a memorial.
It was one of the places worst hit by the 7.9 magnitude tremor, which fewer than 4,400 of its 13,000 inhabitants survived. Around 70 percent of the town's buildings were toppled.
The survivors' misery in subsequent weeks was compounded by fear of an inland tsunami if unstable mud dams created by landslides and storing huge reservoirs of water were to burst.
The new Beichuan will be around 35 km (20 miles) away on the flatter land of Anchang township, with building work on the first phase due to start after the Chinese New Year in February, the official Xinhua news agency said.
New housing, government offices and public facilities like schools and hospitals is expected to cost around 20 billion yuan (1.93 billion pounds).
The local government of a Sichuan, most famous for its pandas and fiery cuisine, also hopes to set up an "experimental tourist zone" tracking the quake fault line through Wenchuan county.
It would encompass ruins, a memorial in Yingxiu, a museum in Beichuan and a lake created during the tremors at Tangjiashan, to showcase the devastation and the courage of survivors.
(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Oil sinks with failed auto bailout
Friday, December 12, 2008
LONDON: Oil fell to $45 a barrel on Friday after the collapse of a $14 billion rescue for U.S. automakers caused heavy losses across global financial markets.
The plight of the big U.S. auto firms, including General Motors and Chrysler, illustrates the severity of the global economic downturn that has hit demand for oil.
Crude has shed two-thirds of its value over the past five months, down about $100 from a record of $147.27 in July. It rebounded 10 percent Thursday in anticipation of a big supply cut from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
U.S. crude oil for January delivery was down $2.98 at $45 a barrel by midmorning.
The president of OPEC, Chakib Khelil, has called for more "severe" supply cuts when the cartel gathers for its next meeting on Wednesday in Algeria.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia also weighed in, saying his country was ready to work with OPEC on possible oil output cuts.
Oil hit $40.50 a barrel on Dec. 5, its lowest in four years. Goldman Sachs, which had once predicted $200 per barrel oil, virtually halved its 2009 price forecast for U.S. crude to $45 and said the price could fall to $30 in the short term.
"The collapse in world oil demand in the fourth quarter of 2008, as the global credit crunch intensified, now threatens to push oil prices below $40 a barrel in the near term," Goldman Sachs said in a research note.
Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, predicted that prices would hit a trough in the first quarter of 2009.
Nippon Oil of Japan said on Friday that it expected OPEC to agree to cut 1.5 million to 2 million barrels a day at its meeting.
"Chances for a 2.5 million bpd cut are possible, but that would put increased criticism on OPEC amid the economic slowdown, so I think the likely cuts are up to 2 million bpd," Kazuyoshi Takayama, general manager for Nippon Oil, said.
Book Review: 'Sun In a Bottle'
By Ann Finkbeiner
Friday, December 12, 2008
Sun In a Bottle The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. By Charles Seife. Illustrated. 294 pages. Viking. $25.95.
Science has a cure for wishful thinking. It goes like this: You have an elegant idea, you do the experiment, it seems to work. Colleagues and competitors repeat or refine your experiment, and now it doesn't work. You really want it to work so you do it again, differently, and then so do they, and it still doesn't work. After enough of this, and sometimes years of it, you admit it doesn't work and everybody quits.
But sometimes wishful thinking is incurable: the poster child is nuclear fusion, the subject of Charles Seife's substantive and lively new book, "Sun in a Bottle." Fusion - the process by which hydrogen bombs explode and stars shine - could potentially mine cheap, limitless energy from atomic nuclei, but after decades of experiments and numberless careers, it still doesn't work and still nobody quits. "There's something about fusion that is a little different," Seife writes, "that makes generation after generation of scientists deceive themselves."
Fusion occurs only in charged gases at extraordinary temperatures and pressures that happen in bombs only for fractional seconds and that only stars can maintain. Every time scientists try to confine a charged gas, and heat and compress it until its nuclei fuse, the gas squirts out of its confinement, cools off and generally declines to light our light bulbs.
Still, as Seife shows, fusion's grand promise has led to some dubious experiments. In 1989, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed to have achieved fusion at low temperatures (so-called cold fusion), effectively bottling a star on a table top. But no one else could repeat their results, and when the researchers wouldn't back off their claims, they were effectively excommunicated. In 2002, another team of scientists claimed that sound waves in liquid could create hot little bubbles that imploded and caused fusion. But this effort - recounted vividly by Seife, who originally covered it for Science magazine, which published the controversial paper - couldn't be repeated either and likewise ended in disgrace.
These experiments make good stories, but they occurred on fusion science's margins - something Seife doesn't make clear enough. Most fusion experiments are reputable and repeatable: they're real science. They're done by large international collaborations building machines that have been in the process of improvement since 1951 and have grown to more than 50 feet across, or by well-financed national teams using lasers powerful enough to be classified. But the state of the art is still what it has always been: fusion can't be sustained, and the energy released is less than the energy required to produce it in the first place. The decades-old mantra - "fusion is only 20 (or 30, or 50) years away" ' remains wishful thinking at its best.
Seife writes with effortless clarity, taking readers through the complex physics and engineering. That means the reader can not only understand but, even better, evaluate Seife's message: fusion scientists should just cut bait.By analogy to your closet, if you haven't worn it, throw it out. If you've been trying it for the last half-century and it hasn't worked, then enough already.
Book Review: 'The Lost Art of Walking'
By D.T. Max
Friday, December 12, 2008
The Lost Art of Walking The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. By Geoff Nicholson. 276 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.
If golf is a good walk spoiled, then walking is a great game made dull. How sluggish locomotion is, compared with the speed at which the mind absorbs new images and information. The brain strains at the body's tether, seethes for new scenery, new stimulation, bridles at the slow feet below. Look at that tree with such lovely orange leaves, how pretty it is. . . . A minute later: the same tree, the same leaves, still good looking. Walking is adding with an abacus, it's space travel on a donkey.
All the same, many people do it, and clearly Geoff Nicholson, the British author of "The Lost Art of Walking," is among them. "I've strolled and wandered, pottered and tottered, dawdled and shuffled, mooched and sauntered and meandered," he brags at the beginning of this pleasant tour of the literature and lore of ambulation. "I've certainly ambled and I could be said to have rambled. . . . I've also shambled, but I don't think I've ever gamboled."
It turns out that the highly prolific Nicholson also composes novels on his feet. It's how he keeps his productivity up. He solves plot twists and problems of characterization as he walks. One supposes that at some point, strolling along in the Hollywood Hills, the neighborhood in Los Angeles where he lives part of the year, Nicholson, with more than a dozen books to his credit, asked himself how he had overlooked writing about something so central to his life. Could he do it? Did he have the qualifications? "The overriding one was that I liked walking: I liked it a lot," he answered himself, feet pounding the canyon asphalt, and set to work
A disclaimer: I can't walk, at least not easily. I have a condition that makes it painful to do so. Nicholson writes of the pleasurable self-annihilation to be found in a purposeful stride, and another noted writer, the British novelist Iain Sinclair, tells him that "as well as hoovering up information," walking is "a way of actually shifting a state of consciousness, and you get into things you didn't know about, or you begin to find out about, and that's the interesting part." But I think only of hyperextended knees, strained lower backs and concussed heels. In fact, the part of "The Lost Art of Walking" with which I most easily identify is the book's opening, when Nicholson takes a spill on an ordinary hill and breaks his arm in three places. My heart felt not joy, to be sure, but at least the same soft oomph one experiences when Icarus falls into the sea. We were designed to move on all fours, at best knuckle-walk.
Nicholson's wipeout put him on the sidelines at an inopportune moment for this book. That may be why in "The Lost Art of Walking" he is not often on the road. This is not a travel book so much as an omnium-gatherum for those who like to ride what was once called "the marrow bone coach." It is perfect for the armchair walker. Nicholson's stance is that of the ordinary man on the street, fortified by his commonsense Englishness.
For instance, the Continent has recently given us the science of psychogeography, which its founder, Guy Debord, described as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." "This is fine as far as it goes," Nicholson notes, "but it doesn't go very far." Nor is Nicholson crazy about the neoromantic effusions that are common among New Agers when they walk. "Personally I blame Thoreau for a lot of this," he writes. For his part, Nicholson is just as happy in a parking lot as at Big Sur. A walk is a walk. It is "something but not much, certainly not a means of salvation." It can be made even better by a drink or two, as Nicholson shows when he wanders around Manhattan, trying, in a doff of the hat to psychogeography, to figure out whether certain streets in the Village outline a martini glass.
The loping pace of this book, comparable to the act of walking itself, invites time for trivia, and there is a lot in these pages. Nicholson's previous books, among them "Sex Collectors," reveal a taste for offbeat information, and the nuggets collected here must have taken him some work to unearth. According to Nicholson: Wordsworth walked more than 180,000 miles in his life; Norwegians have more than 50 words for walking; roughly 40 percent of pedestrians killed in car accidents are drunk. Private security guards keep what is called the Hollywood Entertainment District Public Urination Map to record instances of this unlawful act. Erik Satie liked to write his music while walking. "Before I compose a piece," he once said, "I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself." World War I hurt his productivity, because he could not write down his ideas under the blacked-out streetlamps of Paris. Mrs. Dalloway could have covered the distance in the famous walk in the eponymous novel in the time frame the book allows only by taking a taxi. There was a man who twice walked naked across England, from one corner to the other. In 1974, Werner Herzog walked from Munich to Paris because he believed it would cure the film historian Lotte Eisner, who was gravely ill. After his arrival she lived another nine years.
Walking turns out to have had a heyday, at least as a competitive sport. That heyday came in the 19th century, when for the first time it was no longer something nearly everyone had to do. The sport was called pedestrianism, which was not then, Nicholson says, a synonym for the act of walking as it is now. Pedestrians walked on bets, they walked to set records, they walked for love. On a bet, the great pedestrian Capt. Robert Barclay Allardice walked a mile in each of a thousand successive hours, which means, as Nicholson points out, that he never got to rest for more than an hour and a half at a stretch for more than 40 days.
One of Nicholson's favorite walkers, though, trod his path more recently. The explorer Sebastian Snow walked the 8,700 miles from Tierra del Fuego to the Panama Canal in 19 months in the early 1970s. Snow, who died in 2001, was "droll, debonair, tough as granite and an eccentric by any conventional standard," Nicholson writes. Asked how he did it, the Old Etonian commented: "By some transcendental process, I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire (horse), my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t'other, mentally munching nothingness." Which is why I'd rather ride a bike or grab a cab.
The Big Three bailout plan: Flawed, but unavoidable
Friday, December 12, 2008
Senate Republicans determined to block the $14 billion rescue package for Chrysler and General Motors have trotted out predictable rhetoric about the dangers of Big Government. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, warned Thursday that "a government big enough to give us everything we want is a government big enough to take everything we have."
As the American economy sinks into the deepest recession in a generation - caused in large part by this sort of anti-government and anti-regulatory dogma - it would be folly to allow the ideologues to undermine efforts to pull the country out.
Let's be clear. The rescue plan passed by the House this week won't fix the ailing automakers that are hemorrhaging cash as sales plummet. But allowing one or more of these companies to collapse into bankruptcy proceedings could potentially cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and even greater economic havoc.
Furthermore, if the Detroit carmakers are going to survive, they will have to completely overhaul the way they do business - and start building cars that people will buy. For that, they are going to need new leadership, a rational assessment of their long record of failure and, yes, a much larger infusion of government cash.
The short-term bailout not only buys time, it uses the time to build a restructuring plan. The incoming Obama administration can then decide whether to invest billions more to rebuild the industry. Nobody - including the carmakers - fully understands the depth of Detroit's problems or how much money it will take to dig them out.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody', told Congress last week that rescuing the companies would cost taxpayers $75 billion to $125 billion over the next two years. And that's probably optimistic. As sales fall, the more taxpayer money the automakers will need to survive, and the more doubts will arise about whether it makes sense to support failing car companies that can't sell cars.
Before it makes any decisions, the next administration will need a lot more information. The current plan calls for a government car czar who would have full access to the automakers' finances. By the end of the year, the czar would establish benchmarks to evaluate the carmakers' progress in restructuring.
The official would bring the companies together with creditors, workers, dealers and suppliers to hammer out a plan to restore their long-term viability. The various stakeholders would be given until March 31 to reach such a deal. And the czar could use the threat of forcing them into bankruptcy proceedings to encourage all parties to reach an acceptable agreement.
The bill has big weaknesses. Most importantly, it fails to demand that top executives of any car company receiving taxpayer money step down. These companies need new managers who are not wedded to Detroit's failed strategies. And the bill doesn't set any conditions to ensure automakers invest in fuel-efficient vehicles. Any long-term plan must make sure the automakers don't simply keep making gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles, whose popularity - unfortunately - has recovered as gas prices have declined.
We were distressed by the effort by Senate Republicans to scuttle the deal. Despite all the flaws of the temporary fix, we don't see a long-term solution without it.

Pink Panthers' global trail glitters with jewels
By Doreen Carvajal
Friday, December 12, 2008
PARIS: Their timing was as impeccable as a tourbillon watch, a luxury timepiece whose name means whirlwind.
And after the diamond thieves disguised in women's wigs and flowing foulards had vanished, police detectives on several continents pondered a trail of more than €100 million in jewelry heists over the last four years and wondered whether the so-called Pink Panthers had struck again.
The whirlwind started near closing time, a favorite moment for diamond thieves to strike. As the second hand ticked, four men - three dressed as women with long blonde tresses, sunglasses and winter scarves - stood in front of an intercom and demurely requested to enter the deluxe Harry Winston jewelry store on Avenue Montaigne. It was a chilly evening within the golden triangle of boutiques that includes Dior, Chanel and Gucci, the ornate facades and trees resplendent with Christmas lights.
Buzzed in, the men rolled a small valise on wheels into the hushed inner refuge. Then they pulled out a hand grenade and a .357 Magnum. As Parisians strolled unawares past the store's wrought-iron gates, the robbers smashed display cases and barked out orders - and the names of some of the Harry Winston employees. They spoke French with strong Slavic accents.
There was no time for officers from a nearby police station in the luxury district to rush over. In less than 15 minutes, the jewel thieves were gone, roaring away in a waiting car through the 5:30 p.m. twilight with sacks of emeralds, rubies, and chunky diamonds the size of tiny birds' eggs - the lot valued at more than €80 million.
The robbers may not have been suave celluloid jewel thieves with the charm of David Niven - aka Sir Charles Litton, the debonair phantom bandit of the original Pink Panther film - but their meticulous planning, swift execution and creative style quickly raised suspicions that the Harry Winston heist was the handiwork of a loose global network of battle-hardened former soldiers and their relatives from the former Yugoslavia.
Investigators, marveling at the gang's ingenuity, have dubbed this unlikely network the Pink Panthers. The parallels between film and reality are perhaps best summed up in the fractured accent and words of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau himself, from the original 1963 movie: "In a strange way," he said of his nemesis, the phantom bandit, "I admire him, for he has a unique flair for the dramatic."
The Pink Panthers - many of whose grim Interpol wanted posters show they come from the town of Nis in southern Serbia - have been roving the world's luxury capitals since at least 2003 on reconnaissance missions for hard diamonds that can be, in the parlance of luxury security specialists, "soft targets."
Defense lawyers for some thieves who have been arrested insist that membership in the Pink Panthers is an invention of drama-loving law enforcement authorities. But investigators say that there are about 200 members in the group, linked by village and blood, and that the Pink Panthers have scooped up jewels worth more than $130 million in bold robberies in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco.
The group's members live all over Europe, with some working in mundane jobs as hospital cleaners, waiting to be summoned for the next discount flight to a foreign capital, investigators said. And the group's leadership is loose and unstructured.
When cornered they fight hard; one Pink Panther fugitive escaped from a French prison in 2005 by sliding down a ladder while his friends raked a watchtower with machine-gun fire.
In Paris, investigators are weighing all the possibilities - including the return, literally, of the Pink Panthers.
"Of course there is a hypothesis that it is the Pink Panthers, but we cannot at this stage say absolutely that it is them," said Isabelle Montagne, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office. It was the second major robbery at the same store in the last year. "We're open to all theories," she said.
The risk adjusters and syndicates associated with Lloyds of London - the Harry Winston insurer that also has a representative playing a supporting character in the original Pink Panther movie - harbor the same suspicions. They have placed strategic classified advertisements all over the world, including in the former Yugoslavia, to publicize a $1 million reward for information that might lead to the recovery of the Harry Winston sparklers.
The nature of their suspicions is underlined by the fact that in France they have placed a classified notice in a local daily, Le Parisien, instead of one of the country's grand newspapers like Le Monde. The newspaper reaches the working-class outskirts, the banlieue of Paris where the adjusters suspect that many of the professional thieves may live or have family.
France is already home - if a cold jail cell can be called home - for two Serbians considered by prosecutors to be former Pink Panther members, who have been blamed for robberies that reaped more than €7.5 million in jewelry from swank French boutiques in the Riviera towns of St. Tropez and Cannes and the Atlantic resort of Biarritz.
Just a day before the Harry Winston robbery, these two men - Boban Stojkovic and Goran Drazic - were sentenced respectively to sentences of 6 and 10 years in prison. Dragan Mikic, the man identified as the group's ringleader who was sprung from prison in a machine-gun attack, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years.
"Almost all of them are intelligent," remarked the prosecuting lawyer, Gilbert Lafaye, at their sentencing. "But with this intelligence, why do they follow the path to easy money?"
The fact that cool cleverness, boldness and speed are the hallmarks of the group's robberies has led investigators to speculate that the Pink Panthers are casting for ideas from movie thieves - right down to storing a signature €500,000 blue diamond in a jar of face cream, a ruse used in "The Return of the Pink Panther."
In comparison with other robberies blamed on the gang, the Harry Winston job, despite the violence - some of the workers were struck in the head - was almost subtle.
In the Gulf emirate of Dubai, masked members of the gang were alleged last year to have rammed two luxury Audi cars into the window of a Graff jewelry boutique in a gleaming Wafi City shopping mall. They scooped up $3.4 million of diamonds and then bolted away in the same cars - in a daylight heist that has become a YouTube classic with more than 200,000 hits. Later, they burned the cars to erase their traces.
It took well-dressed Pink Panthers less than three minutes to attack the Graff store in Tokyo's Ginza jewelry district in 2004 and stuff a sack with rare yellow diamonds and other loot, the brazen proceedings captured on video.
The haul: a 125-carat necklace of 116 diamonds known as the Comtesse de Vendôme, worth an estimated $31.5 million, which has never been recovered. Some suspects were later arrested and ultimately tried in Serbia under an agreement with Japan, but as with other cases attributed to the group, the thieves insisted that they didn't know where the jewels were.
In London, thieves believed to be Pink Panthers last year stepped out of a chauffeur-driven Bentley Continental and struck a jewelry store in Mayfair.
Sometime they match their brutality with cleverness. In Biarritz, for example, they coated a bench with fresh paint to deter pedestrians from resting near a jewelry store that was a soft target.
"The modus was always the same," said Olivier Jude, the commander of the police department in the tiny principality of Monaco. "Very fast, very well-organized with a plurality of perpetrators, and violent, too. The criminals used to break the shop windows most of the time with hammers."
There are more than 400 closed-circuit cameras in Monte Carlo's Casino Square, a playground for the wealthy, with designer shops including Cartier, Hermes and Louis Vuitton. But in the summer of 2007, jewelry thieves struck the Ciribelli shop, prompting the Monaco police force to request an international conference of investigators.
The conference was held a month later at Interpol headquarters in Lyon. Interpol now presides over what it calls Project Pink Panthers to share and coordinate information about the gang.
As part of that effort, Interpol started circulating the names and pictures of Pink Panthers on its so-called "red" list of fugitive criminals. One of them was Dusko Poznan, 30, whose picture shows a mournful man with dark hair and circles under his eyes, dressed in a sweater and tailored shirt.
Poznan, fluent in Russian and English and a native of Bihac, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a suspect in the Dubai robbery and in a theft in Liechtenstein. In October, Poznan drove to Monaco with another man in a rented Audi A3 and headed directly for Casino Square, the authorities said. There he was crossing the road on foot when he was hit by another car.
Initially he resisted medical treatment, according to police officers who arrived on the scene. Once he arrived at Princess Grace Hospital, an officer made the connection to the red list photo.
Both Poznan and his companion had forged passports, but insisted they were simply holiday tourists, Jude said, noting dryly that the surveillance cameras later showed that "they were exactly in the area of jewelry shops and they weren't doing their Christmas shopping."
Yet for all their daring, the thieves have been tripped up at times by smallest of details.
In Dubai, investigators retrieved DNA evidence from the fire-scorched Audi rental cars and found a mobile telephone number on the rental agreement.
That set them on the trail of Bojana Mitic, 27, a native of Nis. Her cellphone led investigators to six other suspects.
When caught, some of them have denied everything - including what appear to be their images in jewelry-store robbery photographs - while others, like Boban Stojkovic, have spoken in detail to investigators.
"I don't demand your pity," Stojkovic said as he was sentenced the day before the Harry Winston robbery in Paris. "Because I know that I have to pay for these crimes. But just leave me an open door to remake my life."
Stojkovic's attorney, Emmanuel Auvergen-Rey, said Stojkovic was an ex-soldier from the former Yugoslavia whose role it was to be the enforcer. But, he said, he had the manner of what can only be described as a gentleman bandit.
"He committed robberies with a minimum of violence," said Auvergne-Rey, who insisted that Stojkovic was not part of the Pink Panthers, which he claimed was an invention of the police. "I find him extremely sweet, extremely polite and nice."
If he was so clever, then why did he become a bandit? "Permit me to say something," Auvergne-Rey said, pausing, "It's not necessary to be an idiot to act like a fool."
Although he was arrested before the Paris job, Stojkovic described aspects of his gang's modus operandi that should help investigators. He revealed that his group would minutely observe a target for up to 10 days before striking.
Such painstaking surveillance may well have led to the decision to wear wigs at Harry Winston: women, even fake ones, glimpsed through a security camera might appear less threatening to weary workers. It could also reveal how the robbers knew some of the workers' names - other members of the team may have visited enough times to pick up identities, the authorities said.
Tom O'Neill, the president of Harry Winston who was in Paris on Thursday, said that "we are working on reopening the salon as soon as possible and we are appreciative of the work of authorities and our insurance carrier in this very unfortunate matter."
The authorities who are investigating the Dec. 4 heist will also be reviewing the robbery at the same Avenue Montaigne store just a year ago, a crime that someone now feels absurdly small - just €10 million worth of jewels.
Taking another pass at Easter Island's story
By John Vinocur
Friday, December 12, 2008
PARIS: Down at the end of a dead-end street here, there's an exhibition hall where a famous and politically correct notion about one of the world's real mysteries is getting a rough ride.
In an era of lowered expectations, the exposition about Easter Island is worth a look.
It comes for free, certainly the right price these days, and in a low-toned, less than riveting way goes after what it says is a myth about man's irrepressible self-destructiveness - a parable forced on what's rather gently suggested is an overdrawn link between the island's extraordinary statues and its civilization's downfall.
Since Paris at recession's precipice is not offering enormous new extravagance - give or take a magazine ad pitching limited edition men's perfume in 100 milliliter snail-shaped bottles at €800, or $1,070, a throw - you could do worse than wandering at no cost into a slice of controversy.
The exhibition hall belongs to the foundation of Électricité de France, the country's former electricity monopoly.
For decades, EDF has played so big and rich and rough in the business world that the foundation's shows inevitably seem intent on lacquering it as a caring environmentalist. Currently butting heads with Warren Buffett in a megabuck takeover deal involving U.S. atomic energy suppliers, EDF rarely turns away from the tender touch of its corporate PR airbrushers.
A couple of years ago, EDF ordered up a television commercial set on Easter Island. Against a background of its powerful moai, or statues, EDF was cast as a protector of renewable energy while the island's ancestors were turned into miscreants of historical proportion who used up their woodland (and virtually destroyed themselves) by making wooden sleds for transporting the increasingly enormous statues from the quarries where they were sculpted.
Oh, those passionately creative but unthinking primitives!
Recalling that the commercial had been called an outrage, or at least a misrepresentation, and that Chile had made its displeasure known, I took a look at the show, which runs until March 1 (Espace Fondation EDF, 6 rue Récamier, Paris 75007).
You go in, and there's a plastic replica, covered in kind of grayish stucco, of one of the island's stone heads. You find out that there were about 800 of them, weighing up to 270 tons. They were created on an island, roughly the size of Paris and some of its suburbs, that at a distance in the Pacific of about 3,500 kilometers, or 2,200 miles, from the coast of Chile, is the most isolated inhabited place in the world.
Head upstairs and there are small wooden sculptures, like snippets from the island's crashing symphony, that echo the intensity and fierce grace of the moai. Alongside them, long, slightly curved staffs, called ua, are topped with double-faced heads that glare with the giant sculptures' stern mouths.
On another floor, a movie from 1934, made by visitors from the Belgian and French navies, looks at Easter Island through colonialists' eyes, offers a pith-helmet version of its pathos, and pictures, with a kind of repugnant nonchalance, an attempt to drag one of the statues onto the expedition's ship. The object sinks, then gets hauled up for transport to Europe, but minus its distinctive nose.
My urge was to applaud the Polynesian gods' spite.
The exhibition's interest and controversy comes in a display about the disappearance of the island's foliage that left the place with a little more than 100 people in the 1800s after once, centuries earlier, having as many as 20,000.
Since the mid-1990s and an article written by the American academic Jared Diamond, the idea has been popularized - as in the EDF commercial - that men determined to make bigger statues led to deforestation and the implosion of the island's unique civilization.
Diamond called it "an escalating spiral of one-upmanship as rival clans tried to surpass one another with shows of wealth and power."
He imagines concerned islanders' warnings "being overridden by vested interests of carvers, burocrats and chiefs," and insists, "Easter Island is the Earth writ small."
The exhibit says, hey, wait a minute. Its version brakes what had become a comfortable message of political correctness.
The curators, Michel and Catherine Orliac of France's National Center for Scientific Research, explain (although not in English) that an examination by Ms. Orliac of 12,000 charcoal remains demonstrated the disappearance of trees, shrubs and undergrowth to be a brutal process. They link its cause to a fall in ocean temperatures and salinity, caused by a natural phenomenon like El Niño in the years 1600 to 1640.
Before the middle of the 17th century, the exhibit's documentation says, the island had 23 species of trees and shrubs; afterward only six remained. For Michel Orliac, to whom I spoke, it would be hard to conceive of the island's accomplished Polynesian sailors disregarding their need for wood to make boats in favor of sleds for moving the statues.
"If it were just the big trees that disappeared, you could accuse man," he said. "But it was all the little species, too."
The exhibit's verdict: "Only a natural phenomenon of great dimensions is capable of producing such a catastrophe. It was probably a drought."
This comes as a relief to me, and probably fits what seems to be EDF's idea that a little penance might be due Easter Island's people and their ancestors.
My issue was having heard on the radio in a more confident, credulous time that the whole problem was caused by extraterrestrials who came, built the moai and then rocketed off, leaving things a mess.
Way back then, I reported this with a wow! to my grandmother. Scanning the living room, she told me to listen to more intelligent programs and make sure I picked up the potato chip crumbs from the carpet.

Africa: Another anti-terrorism front
By Eric Schmitt
Friday, December 12, 2008
KATI, Mali: Thousands of miles from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, another side of America's fight against terrorism is unfolding in this remote corner of West Africa. Green Berets are training African armies to guard their borders and patrol vast desolate expanses against infiltration by Al Qaeda's militants so the United States does not have to.
A recent exercise by the United States military here is part of a wide-ranging plan since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to take counterterrorism training and assistance to places outside the Middle East, including the Philippines and Indonesia. The five-year, $500 million partnership between the State and Defense Departments, aimed at Africa, also includes Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, and, possibly soon, Libya.
American efforts to fight terrorism in the region also include nonmilitary programs, like instruction for teachers and job training for young Muslim men who could be singled out by militant recruiting campaigns.
One goal of the program is to act quickly in these countries before terrorism becomes as entrenched as it is in Somalia, an East African nation where there is a heightened militant threat. And unlike Somalia, Mali is willing and able to permit dozens of American and European military trainers to conduct exercises here, and its leaders are plainly worried about militants who have taken refuge in its vast Saharan north.
"Mali does not have the means to control its borders without the cooperation of the United States," Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister of Mali, said in an interview.
Mali, a landlocked former French colony nearly twice the size of Texas, has one of the more stable, but still fragile, democracies in West Africa. But it borders Algeria, whose well-equipped military has chased Qaeda militants into northern Mali, where they have adopted a nomadic lifestyle, making them even more difficult to track.
With only 10,000 military and other security forces, and just two working helicopters and a few airplanes, Mali acknowledges how daunting a task it is to try to drive out the militants from their territory.
The biggest potential threat comes from as many as 200 fighters from an offshoot of Al Qaeda called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which uses the northern Malian desert as a staging area and support base, American and Malian officials say.
About three months ago, the Qaeda affiliate threatened to attack American forces that operated north of Timbuktu in Mali's desert, three Defense Department officials said. One military official said this warning contributed to a decision to shift part of the recent training exercise out of that area.
The government in neighboring Mauritania said 12 of its troops were killed in a militant attack there in September. By some accounts, the soldiers were beheaded and their bodies were booby-trapped with explosives.
Two Defense Department officials expressed fear that a main leader of the Qaeda affiliate in Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is under growing pressure to carry out a large-scale attack, possibly in Algeria or Mauritania, to establish his leadership credentials within the organization.
Members of the Qaeda affiliate have not attacked Malian forces, and American and Malian officials privately acknowledge that military officials here have adopted a live-and-let-live approach to the Qaeda threat, focusing instead on rebellious Tuareg tribesmen, who also live in the sparsely populated north.
To finance their operations, the militants exact tolls from smugglers whose routes traverse the Qaeda sanctuary, and collect ransoms for kidnapping victims. Last month two Austrians were released after a ransom of more than $2 million was reportedly paid. They had been held in northern Mali after being seized in southern Tunisia in February.
For those reasons, American officials still eye the largely ungoverned spaces of Mali's northern desert with concern.
This year, the United States Agency for International Development is spending about $9 million on counterterrorism programs here. Some of the money will expand an existing job training program for women to provide young Malian men in the north with the basic skills to set up businesses like tiny flour mills or cattle enterprises.
The agency is also building 12 FM radio stations in the north to link far-flung villages to an early-warning network that sends bulletins on bandits and other threats. Financing from the Pentagon will produce radio soap operas in four national languages that will promote peace and tolerance.
"Young men in the north are looking for jobs or something to do with their lives," said Alexander Newton, the development agency's mission director in Mali. "These are the same people who could be susceptible to other messages of economic security."
Concern about Mali's vulnerability also brought a dozen Army Green Berets from the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany, and several more Dutch and German military instructors, to Mali for the two-week training exercise that ended last month.
The mock skirmish lasted just a few minutes. The Malians, shouting to one another and firing at their attackers, retreated from the ambush rather than try to fight through it.
"We're still learning," said Captain Yossouf Traore, a 28-year-old commander, speaking in English he learned in Texas and at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a visiting officer. "We're getting a lot of experience in leadership skills and making decisions on the spot."
Still, some worrisome indicators are giving some Malian government and religious leaders, as well as American officials, pause about the country's ability to deal with security risks.
Mali is the world's fifth-poorest country and, by some measures, getting poorer, according to United Nations and State Department statistics. One of every five Malian children dies before the age of 5. The average Malian does not live to celebrate a 50th birthday. The country's population, now at 12 million people, is doubling nearly every two decades. Literacy rates hover around 30 percent and are much lower in rural areas.
There are also small signs that radical clerics are beginning to make inroads into the traditionally tolerant form of Islam practiced here for centuries by Sunni Muslims. The number of Malian women wearing all-enveloping burqas is still small, but the increase is noticeable from just a few years ago, religious leaders say.
New mosques are springing up, financed by conservative religious organizations in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran, and scholarships offered to young Malian men to study in those countries are also on the rise, Malian officials say.
American and African diplomats here said Mali was one of the few countries in the region that had good relations with most of its neighbors, making it a likely catalyst for the broader regional security cooperation the United States is trying to foster. American commanders expressed confidence that by training together, the African forces might work together against transnational threats like Al Qaeda.
"If we don't help these countries work together, it becomes a much more difficult problem," said Lieutenant Colonel Jay Connors, the senior American Special Forces officer on the ground here during the exercise.
American officials say their strategy is to contain the Qaeda threat and train the African armies, a process that will take years. The nonmilitary counterterrorism programs are just starting, and it is too early to gauge results.
"This is a long-term effort," said Connors, 45, an Africa specialist from Burlington, Vermont, who speaks French and Portuguese. "This is crawl, walk, run, and right now, we're still in the crawl phase."
Somalia backs U.S. plan to hunt pirates
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Abdi Sheikh
Somalia's government has welcomed a call by the United States for countries to have U.N. authority to hunt down Somali pirates on land as well as pursue them off the coast of the Horn of Africa nation.
A surge in piracy this year in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia has driven up insurance costs, brought the gangs tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and prompted foreign navies to rush to the area to protect shipping.
Diplomats at the United Nations said the U.S. delegation there had circulated a draft resolution on piracy for the Security Council to vote on next week.
A draft text seen by Reuters says countries with permission from Somalia's government "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace" to capture those using Somali territory for piracy.
"The government cordially welcomes the United Nations to fight pirates inland and (on) the Indian Ocean," said Hussein Mohamed Mohamud, spokesman for Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf.
"We're also willing to give them a hand in case they need our assistance," Mohamud told Reuters in the capital Mogadishu.
Somalia has seen continuous conflict since 1991 and its weak Western-backed government is still fighting Islamist insurgents. The chaos has helped fuel the explosion in piracy: there have been nearly 100 attacks in Somali waters this year, despite the presence of several foreign warships. The gunmen are holding about a dozen ships and nearly 300 crew.
Among the captured vessels are a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million (67 million pounds) of crude oil, the Sirius Star, and a Ukrainian cargo ship carrying some 30 Soviet-era tanks, the MV Faina.
Many of the pirates are based in Somalia's semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland. An official there said he was sceptical whether the international community would take action.
"We are not happy because the United Nations never implements what they endorse," Abdulqadir Muse Yusuf, Puntland's assistant fisheries minister, told Reuters in Bosasso.
"We urge them to fight the pirates on land and in our waters. We would also like them to empower our security forces so that we can participate in the global war on piracy too."
There are already several international naval operations off Somalia, including a NATO anti-piracy mission. The European Union agreed on Monday to launch anti-piracy naval operations in the area, involving warships and aircraft.
The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, told an international meeting on piracy in Kenya on Thursday that the pirates were "threatening the very freedom and safety of maritime trade routes, affecting not only Somalia and the region, but also a large percentage of world trade."
(Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis; editing by Mark Trevelyan)
India's circumscribed options
By Somini Sengupta
Friday, December 12, 2008
NEW DELHI: Even as Indian officials lambasted Pakistan as the "epicenter" of terrorism and dismissed its crackdown on extremist groups as inadequate in the wake of the attacks last month in Mumbai, they all but ruled out the prospect of a military confrontation.
Rather, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told members of Parliament on Thursday that it would take time for India to turn off the tap of support for militant groups operating across the border and that war was "no solution."
"We shall have to patiently confront it," he said. "We have no intention to be provoked."
His words signaled India's delicate and somewhat circumscribed options. If it were to carry out even limited military strikes against Pakistan, it would be likely to lose the support of its allies, namely the United States, which fears that Pakistan would then divert troops from its western border with Afghanistan to its eastern one with India.
Second, India confronts a weak civilian government in Pakistan, which, as Indian officials have long acknowledged privately, has little muscle to counter the powerful military and spy agency.
India's options range from suspending peace talks to what military analysts call limited punitive strikes on terrorist training camps.
Mukherjee said Thursday that he had no "quarrel" with the Pakistani administration of President Asif Ali Zardari but pressed him to do more to dismantle support for militants. Initially after the Mumbai attacks, Zardari had described the suspects as "nonstate actors" over whom the Pakistani government had no control. On Thursday, that statement met with a stinging retort from Mukherjee.
"Are they nonstate actors coming from heaven, or are they coming from a different planet?" Mukherjee asked. "Nonstate actors are operating from a particular country. What we are most respectfully submitting, suggesting to the government of Pakistan: Please act. Mere expression of intention is not adequate."
India's coalition government, led by the Congress Party, is keenly aware of public outrage over the administration's failure to heed intelligence warnings or stop the attackers more quickly. On Thursday, it unveiled an overhaul of the national security system. The government said it would set up a national investigative agency to coordinate with various state and local law enforcement agencies, increase coastal security and modernize the police forces.
"Given the nature of the threat, we can't go back to business as usual," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a speech to Parliament. He said it would require "hard decisions to prepare the country and people to face the challenge of terrorism."
The gunmen who carried out the three-day siege of Mumbai, India's financial capital, killed 163 people. Nine of the gunmen were killed and a 10th was arrested. The Mumbai police said all of the attackers were Pakistani citizens who had traveled across the Arabian Sea to Mumbai, formerly Bombay. They are believed to have belonged to a Pakistan-based group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is officially banned in Pakistan.
This past week, in response to appeals by India and the United States, the UN Security Council declared that a charity called Jamaat-ud-Dawa was a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and subject to United Nations sanctions, including the freezing of its assets and a travel ban on four of its leaders. Those leaders include Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of the charity, and Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who India said had planned the Mumbai attacks and whose arrest the Pakistani government announced last Sunday.
Indian officials dismissed the arrests as inadequate. They pointed out that Pakistan had placed many of the same men under house arrest after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, which India said was the work of Pakistan-based groups, but quietly released them later.
"We have noted the reported steps taken by Pakistan, but clearly much more needs to be done," the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, told Parliament on Thursday evening. He called for the dismantling of "the infrastructure of terrorism" across the border and then issued a warning to India's allies abroad. "The political will of the international community," he said, "must be translated into concrete and sustained action on the ground."
India's wait-and-watch approach seems to be primarily directed at the United States, political analysts here say, and particularly at President-elect Barack Obama, who India hopes will exert a stronger hand against Pakistan. "India will have to wait until the logic of this is going to work out and the United States will have to act," said K. Subrahmanyam, a strategic affairs analyst in New Delhi. "What we are waiting for is when Obama takes over, there will be a showdown between Pakistan and the United States, unless Pakistan is prepared to mend its ways."
The United States has sought to temper India's reaction and has pushed Pakistan to do more. The deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, was in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, on Thursday, a week after visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"There is a lot of pressure to do something meaningful and see Pakistan take long-term irreversible steps, but the Indian government has up to this point been very cautious," said Xenia Dormandy, a former Bush administration official who runs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
If Pakistan does not go further, she added, India would be likely to act with a heavier hand. "Whether it is as forward leaning as bombing camps in Jammu and Kashmir, I don't know," she said. "I think you will see India take some stronger steps in the next two, three weeks."
Adding to the difficulty of dealing with Pakistan, Indian and foreign analysts point out, is that the civilian government itself confronts a powerful army and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, the spy agency. Indeed, immediately after the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan's civilian administration announced that it would send its spy chief to India; within hours, that offer was withdrawn.
"Who do you deal with, who do you talk to?" a Western diplomat in India said. "If you get the government to do something about it and if the real organization is the ISI - and I say if - then any action by the government is going to be of limited use, really. It is a problem. It is one everybody is thinking about."
Pakistan presses India to share evidence in Mumbai attacks
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan pressed India on Friday to share evidence from the Mumbai attacks, warning that any effort to prosecute key suspects rounded up in Pakistan would be hamstrung without it.
India says that Pakistan must dismantle Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for the attack last month that left at least 163 dead, along with the nine men believed to have been gunmen, and sharply raised tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Pakistan, under pressure from the United States to avoid a crisis that would divert Islamabad from battling the Taliban and Al Qaeda on its Afghan frontier, has arrested two men accused of masterminding the assault. On Thursday, it clamped down on an Islamic charity after the United Nations branded it a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the powerful Pakistani guerrilla group blamed for the Mumbai attacks.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Friday that Pakistan firmly believed that its territory should not be used to commit any act of terrorism. "However, our own investigations cannot proceed beyond a certain point without provision of credible information and evidence pertaining to Mumbai attacks," Qureshi said in a televised statement.
The Indian authorities have made public what they said were the names and Pakistani hometowns of the 10 gunmen who assaulted the Indian commercial capital over three days. Indian investigators, having interrogated the lone gunman captured alive, allege that the gunmen were trained in camps in Pakistan.
Pakistan complains that its own investigation has had to rely on Indian news reports because of the lack of information coming from the authorities. Bun Dawn, a respected Pakistani newspaper, reported Friday that its correspondents had tracked down the family of the surviving gunman.
The English-language daily quoted Amir Kasab as saying he was the father of Muhammad Ajmal Kasab, the 21-year-old suspect now held in India. Interviewed in his village of Faridkot, Amir Kasab said his son had disappeared around four years ago.
"I was in denial for the first couple of days, saying to myself it could not have been my son," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "Now I have accepted it."
The United States says Lashkar-e-Taiba, which grew out of the 1980s resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, has developed ties to Al Qaeda. India accuses it of involvement in a string of terrorist attacks on its territory and alleges that Pakistani intelligence continues to back it - a charge vehemently denied in Islamabad.
However, the group's main focus has been fighting Indian troops in Kashmir, the Himalayan region divided between Pakistan and India since independence from Britain in 1947 and the source of two of their three wars.
The Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa says it cut its ties with Lashkar-e-Taiba when the group was banned in 2002. But the United Nations said Wednesday that Jamaat-ud-Dawa was no more than a front. The next day, the Pakistani authorities put the charity's leader, the Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, under house arrest, sealed the charity's offices around the country and ordered banks to freeze its assets.
The clampdown continued Friday, with the police and charity officials reporting that dozens of its offices were closed in northwest and southern Pakistan. Attique Chohan, a Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman in North-West Frontier Province, said that scores of activists had been arrested.
The United States is pressing Pakistan and India to cooperate in the investigation and to resume a peace process that had lowered tensions without resolving the core dispute over Kashmir. Analysts say Washington wants to defuse tensions as quickly as possible so Pakistan does not find an excuse to pull its troops from its western borders and slacken its military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met with Pakistani political leaders and the army chief before going to New Delhi on Friday. There, he met External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and urged more international cooperation into the investigation.
"We're cooperating in this effort, obviously the government of India is in the lead, but all of our diplomatic partners have a responsibility to contribute to this effort," Negroponte said in a statement in New Delhi.
Analysts warn that the shaky civilian government in Pakistan could face a backlash if it moves strongly against Jamaat-ud-Dawa under pressure from India and the United States and without making public the evidence against it.
In the first sign of public dissent, about 500 people marched Friday to a UN office in the Pakistani portion of Kashmir, chanting slogans against the United Nations and India, including, "India your death came, Lashkar came, Lashkar came!"
Also Friday, a police team arrived in northern India to seek a warrant to bring two men suspected of being Lashkar-e-Taiba militants to Mumbai for questioning. Faheem Ansari and Sabauddin Ahmed, both Indians, have been in jail in the city of Rampur since being detained in February after an attack on a police station there.
Pakistan cracks down on Islamic charity
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Abu Arqam Naqash
Pakistan shut offices and arrested scores of activists of an Islamic charity, officials said on Friday, as international pressure mounted for firm action against militants blamed for the Mumbai attacks.
The overnight raids came after Pakistan said it would abide by a U.N. decision placing Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, on its terrorism sanctions list of people and organisations linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
India and the United States have been urging Pakistani action after the Mumbai attack by gunmen that killed 179 people last month.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met with Pakistani political leaders and the army chief before going to New Delhi on Friday.
There, he met External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan and urged more international cooperation into the investigation.
"We're cooperating in this effort, obviously the government of India is in the lead, but all of our diplomatic partners have a responsibility to contribute to this effort," Negroponte said in a statement in New Delhi.
Pakistan said it was investigating links with the Mumbai attack, but that India has not provided any evidence.
"Our own investigations cannot proceed beyond a certain point without provision of credible information and evidence pertaining to the Mumbai attacks," Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in a televised statement early on Friday.
Washington has kept up diplomatic pressure to keep Pakistani-Indian relations from worsening and Islamabad focussed on the war on terrorism. Pakistan has responded by rounding up some of the 40 people India has demanded be extradited.
Saeed, who founded Lashkar in 1990 and officially left the jihadi group in 2001 just days before Pakistan banned it, has been put under house arrest, according to one of his spokesmen.
Three associates were also added to the U.N. list and will be subject to sanctions freezing assets and restricting travel, but a Pakistani TV news channel reported one of them was dead and another had been in a Saudi jail for the past three years.
An intelligence official told Reuters that Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammad group blamed with Lashkar for a 2001 attack on India's parliament, was also detained.
One close aide of Azhar's told Reuters: "I think they could have detained him to relieve pressure, but I don't know the exact whereabouts of the Maulana."
In the Pakistani Kashmir capital Muzaffarabad, police raided an office, two schools and a religious seminary run by Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity regarded as a Lashkar front. The U.N. has put the JuD on its terrorist list too.
Hundreds of supporters and people who recalled JuD's work during an earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 protested the raids.
"Pakistan should revisit its policy of bowing before international pressure immediately, without regard for the pros and cons of its actions," Maulana Abdul Aziz Alvi, JuD's head in Pakistani Kashmir, told Reuters from house arrest.
Police raided JuD offices elsewhere in Pakistani Kashmir, as well as in several cities including Multan, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Lahore, Karachi and Quetta. A Jamaat spokesman said 100 workers were arrested in North West Frontier Province alone.
The charity's headquarters at a sprawling complex in the eastern town of Muridke appeared deserted. Officials said the office, schools and hospitals it ran there had shut on December 4.
A spokesman for Pakistan's central bank said late on Thursday that directives had been issued to banks to freeze JuD accounts and assets of the four men added to the U.N. sanctions list.
Television reports said the JuD would be banned though no official announcement has yet been made.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Boucher, after meeting Chinese officials in Beijing, said Pakistan's moves were "good steps."
"But you also have to find out who else was trained and what else might they have planned, and so I think we want to keep working with Pakistan and make sure that other threats, other dangers, other terrorists, can be stopped," he told reporters.
A Pakistani crackdown on Jaish and Lashkar after the 2001 attack on India's parliament was regarded as a sham, and India will be looking for more concrete and lasting steps this time.
(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Multan, Gul Yousafzai in Quetta, Imtiaz Shah in Karachi, Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
Spain to remove limit on troops abroad
By Victoria Burnett
Friday, December 12, 2008
MADRID: The Spanish government plans to lift a cap on the number of troops it can station overseas, signaling a willingness to extend its military presence abroad and eliminating a barrier to sending more soldiers to Afghanistan.
Defense Minister Carme Chacón told lawmakers this past week that she intended to remove the limit of 3,000 when the measure came up for review on Dec. 31 and would seek approval from the cabinet in the next few weeks.
Spain is pushing against the ceiling of 3,000 overseas troops, with deployments in Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Chad as well as Afghanistan. It has, so far, resisted calls from NATO allies to increase its Afghan force of nearly 800.
A Defense Ministry spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity under government rules, said the decision to remove the limit was not linked to a plan to increase Afghan troop levels.
However, defense analysts and diplomats from NATO member-states in Madrid said the move would pave the way for Spain to heed a fresh request for troops after President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January. The Spanish contribution to NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is a third, or less, the size of that of Italy, France or Germany.
The government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wants to play a bigger role in resolving international conflicts after years of relative pacifism, analysts said.
"The government is redefining the defense policy of Zapatero's first term," said Rafael Calduch, professor of international relations at the Complutense University in Madrid. "There is a shift from idealism to realism."
Zapatero introduced the ceiling on overseas troop levels after he was elected in 2004. That year he also withdrew the Spanish forces sent to Iraq by his predecessor José María Aznar, chilling relations with the administration of President George W. Bush.
Chacón said the ceiling on overseas troops was obsolete because of a 2005 law that requires approval from Parliament for all foreign deployments. Spain now has the capability to station as many as 7,700 troops outside Spain, she said.
"Spain's international obligations keep growing, as does the credibility of our commitment among international bodies," she told the parliamentary defense committee on Wednesday, according to a transcript of the meeting. "From 2009, the number of Spanish troops abroad will be determined by the legitimacy of the mission, the wish of the Spanish people and the capacity of our Armed Forces."
Chacón indicated that, irrespective of troop limits, Spain would only be willing to send more soldiers to Afghanistan if the military and political strategy there were revised. She said any decision about the future of NATO forces in Afghanistan had to involve "a thorough debate about how to refocus our strategy in this country and adjust it to the changing situation."
Nicolás Sartorius, executive vice-president of the Alternatives Foundation, a progressive research organization in Madrid, said the Spanish public would also want to see a shift in approach in Afghanistan. "Spain cannot send more troops to Afghanistan just because the U.S. President asks for them - the Spanish public would not understand that," he said. "There has to be a new strategy."
A total of 87 Spanish soldiers have died during deployments to Afghanistan. Most of the deaths were caused by two air accidents.
The immediate impact of lifting the troop limit would be felt in the spring, when Spain intends to send nearly 200 military personnel to help fight pirates off the coast of Somalia, analysts said.
Japan leader wins extension of navy's Afghan mission
By Martin Fackler
Friday, December 12, 2008
TOKYO: Japan's governing party pushed through a law on Friday to extend a refueling mission by its navy in the Indian Ocean, allowing Tokyo to keep its small but symbolic presence in the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party used its majority in Parliament's more powerful lower house to override an earlier rejection of the bill by the opposition-controlled upper house. It was the second time this year that the governing party rammed through an extension of the refueling operation, a strong-arm tactic that risks alienating Japan's pacifist public.
Aso had sought quick passage so he could turn his attention to the global financial crisis, amid rising calls at home and abroad for Tokyo to take more action to stimulate its recession-bound economy. Hours after the refueling extension passed, he appeared on national television to announce billions of dollars in new spending and loans to create jobs and help cash-strapped companies.
Aso is struggling to overcome growing doubts about his leadership, which have driven his public approval rating down near 20 percent as his party faces crucial national elections later this year.
The refueling law passed Friday allows a Japanese Navy tanker and escorting destroyer to continue operating for another year in waters off Pakistan, where they provide fuel and water for American and other warships supporting operations in Afghanistan. While the mission has limited military value, it carries political significance as a test of Japan's alliance with its biggest ally, the United States.
"Anti-terror patrols have suppressed and deterred terrorist activities in the Indian Ocean," Aso said in a statement. "It is extremely significant for Japan to continue its refueling mission as a member of international society."
J. Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, immediately issued a statement welcoming the mission's extension.
Any use of its military overseas is a touchy issue in Japan, whose post-World War II Constitution renounces its right to wage war. Because of such sensibilities, the law authorizing the refueling operation must be extended every year, setting the stage for an annual political fight with the opposition.
The country's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has seized on the refueling issue to attack the unpopular Liberal Democrats, whom they accuse of slavishly following the United States.
Aso and his predecessors called the refueling mission important for keeping open the sea lanes through which the bulk of Japan's oil must pass. Extending the mission had taken additional urgency in light of President-elect Barack Obama's shift of America's military and diplomatic priorities to Afghanistan from Iraq.
The refueling mission began in 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition began its war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Japanese refueling effort was briefly halted late last year when the opposition won control of the upper house of Parliament. It then resumed in January with new restrictions limiting refueling to ships directly involved in the Afghanistan operation.
Last month, Japan announced that it would pull its military out of Iraq, ending its airlift operation there by the end of the year.
U.S. tries to reassure Karzai with visit to warship
Friday, December 12, 2008
MANAMA: Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited a U.S. aircraft carrier this week as the U.S. military tried to reassure him about air strikes he has bitterly denounced for causing civilian casualties.
Karzai paid a visit Thursday to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which launches bombing missions on insurgent targets in Afghanistan from the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Navy said.
In one of a string of recent strongly worded complaints about international military operations, Karzai said last month he would bring down U.S. warplanes bombing villages if he could, before they dropped bombs on Afghan villages.
Afghanistan has suffered its worst violence this year since U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban Islamist government in 2001, with at least 4,000 people killed, around a third of them civilians.
Afghan officials have blamed NATO and U.S. forces for scores of civilian deaths. Western forces say they go to great lengths to avoid such casualties and have blamed the Taliban and other insurgents for hiding among innocent people.
"President Karzai was able to see first hand the professionalism demonstrated by our personnel and gain a better understanding of how we do operations," U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney said in a statement released Friday.
Gortney, head of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, who accompanied Karzai on the visit, said the Afghan leader had not raised his concerns about the air strikes.
"He was there ... fact-finding and quite frankly was very grateful for our support," Gortney told reporters travelling with visiting U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates at his headquarters in Bahrain.
(Reporting by Frederik Richter and Andrew Gray; Editing by Louise Ireland)
"Che": Perpetuating the myth of Guevara as a macho Marxist superman
Reviewed by A.O. Scott
Friday, December 12, 2008
Che Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Nearly four and a half hours long, spanning more than a decade and reconstructing a pair of brutal insurgencies, "Che" surely deserves the overworked, frequently misapplied name of epic. Steven Soderbergh's new film, a two-part portrait of the Argentine doctor-turned-international revolutionary Ernesto Guevara (it opened in limited U.S. release as one film on Friday and will open as two films worldwide early next year), plants itself squarely in an old tradition of martial poetry: it sings of arms and the man.
But in chronicling the deeds of their hero - and the heroism of Ernesto Guevara is not something "Che" has any interest in questioning - Soderbergh and the screenwriter, Peter Buchman, restrict themselves to a narrow register of themes and effects. This is a very long song composed in about three notes. Its motifs are facial hair, tobacco smoke and earnest militant bombast. (The excellent score, less austere in its moods and effects, is by Alberto Iglesias.)
The first half, detailing the grinding campaign of Fidel Castro's guerrilla army against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which culminated in Batista's ouster in 1959, is intercut with scenes of a visit to New York that Guevara made in 1964 to address the UN General Assembly. Those bits, shot in a gorgeously grainy mock-antique black-and-white, offer a bit of visual relief from the long slog through the Cuban countryside, as well as providing an occasion for defiant revolutionary apologetics.
The New York passages also establish Guevara's status as a demon in the eyes of the U.S. government and a celebrity and fetish object for, as far as the movie is concerned, just about everyone else.
Journalists interview him in purring, fawning tones. An unctuous fan in round spectacles asks for an autograph. Cocktail party guests in an elegant Manhattan apartment crowd around him. But Che, media star and darling of the international left-leaning intelligentsia, regards the fuss with detachment, preferring to sit and smoke with the common folk in kitchens and back rooms.
"Che," in effect, represents the position of a person at that cocktail party who feels superior to the others because, unlike those liberal phonies, he really understands, in the depths of his soul, the Cuban revolution and the agonies of the third world. More dogmatic than thou (and certainly than Walter Salles's 2004 "Motorcycle Diaries," a vivid and sympathetic picture of the young Ernesto Guevara), "Che" not only participates in the worship of its subject but also spares no effort to insulate him from skepticism.
Benicio Del Toro's performance is technically flawless: you can be sure when he crooks his arm to look at his watch, or squints at a comrade through a plume of pipe smoke, or peels an orange, that you are seeing the thing done exactly as Che would have done it. He also infuses the character with the full and considerable measure of his own charisma.
But the charisma is the whole of the performance. Jean-Paul Sartre once called Guevara "the most complete human being of our time," a description that in a way means the opposite of what it seems to. Che represented, to Sartre and others, and perhaps to himself, a new kind of person, a creature of pure revolutionary integrity free of the usual trappings of bourgeois subjectivity. Those trappings, of course, are part of what make characters in movies interesting. In honoring the myth of Che as a kind of macho Marxist superman in whom thought and feeling, action and theory, passion and discipline are united, Soderbergh and Del Toro (a producer of the picture as well as its star) remove him from the realm of ordinary human sympathy.
He has friendships (with Fidel, wittily impersonated by Demián Bichir, and with Camillo Cienfuegos, played with great verve by Santiago Cabrera) and relations with women (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Franka Potente). He faces hard choices as a strategist and a field commander and is subject to crippling asthma attacks. But his inner life is off limits, except insofar as his thoughts and emotions might illuminate the exemplary character of his deeds.
"Che," in other words, is epic hagiography. Its second half, recreating Guevara's failed attempt to reproduce the Cuban revolution in Bolivia, might be called "The Passion of the Che," in honor of the fanatical fidelity with which it walks its sanctified hero through the stations of his martyrdom. (Guevara was executed in 1967 by the Bolivian military after his insurgency had been crushed.) But the film is also, in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don't just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action - what people do, as opposed to why they do it - is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.
The narrowness I mentioned earlier comes from the decision to treat complicated and consequential political events - the Cuban revolution, for starters, and nearly everything that followed, by implication - in purely tactical terms. The precision with which Soderbergh charts the progress of Castro's army across the Cuban countryside - and the even greater meticulousness in his depiction of the unraveling Bolivian campaign - has something in common with the exertions of Civil War re-enactors or online gamers.
It's not that Soderbergh is a military history nerd; he's more of a process geek, fascinated by logistics and the intricacies of how stuff gets done. He indulged this tendency in the "Ocean's 11" franchise, and while "Che" is hardly the same type of commercial entertainment, its military operations are, like the capers in the "Ocean's" pictures, at once formal challenges and allegorical stand-ins for the act of filmmaking itself.
"Che," shot on locations in Latin America with a small crew and a new kind of lightweight digital camera, both studies and mirrors Guevara's two wars. With diagrammatic rigor, it lays out how one revolution succeeds - by cultivating popular support, by marshaling a disciplined and growing contingent of troops - and how another fails.
It communicates a sense of difficulty and frustration, and also the kind of elation that comes from being absorbed in a heroic communal task.
This self-absorption - the extent to which "Che" is a movie about itself - saves it from becoming too dull and allows you, at least temporarily, to overlook its naïve and fuzzy politics. But the film's formal sophistication is ultimately an evasion of the moral reckoning that Ernesto Guevara, more than 40 years and several million T-shirts after his death, surely deserves. Soderbergh once again offers a master class in filmmaking. As history, though, "Che" is finally not epic but romance. It takes great care to be true to the factual record, but it is, nonetheless, a fairy tale.
Silver Stars awarded to 10 soldiers for Afghan battle
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
FORT BRAGG, N.C.: Capt. Kyle Walton remembers pressing himself into the jagged stones that covered the cliff in northeast Afghanistan.
Machine gun rounds and sniper fire ricocheted off the rocks. Two rounds slammed into his helmet, smashing his head into the ground. Nearby, three of his U.S. Army Special Forces comrades were gravely wounded. One grenade or a well-aimed bullet, Walton thought, could etch April 6, 2008 on his gravestone.
Walton and his team from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group had been sent to kill or capture terrorists from a rugged valley that had never been penetrated by U.S. forces — or, they had been told, the Soviets before them.
He peered over the side of the cliff to the dry river bed 60 feet below and considered his options. Could he roll the wounded men off and then jump to safety? Would they survive the fall?
By the end of the six-hour battle deep within the Shok Valley, Walton would bear witness to heroics that on Friday would earn his team 10 Silver Stars, the most for a single battle in Afghanistan.
Walton, a Special Forces team leader, and his men described the battle in an interview with The Associated Press last week. Most seem unimpressed they've earned the Army's third-highest award for combat valor.
"This is the story about Americans fighting side-by-side with their Afghan counterparts refusing to quit," said Walton, of Carmel, Ind. "What awards come in the aftermath are not important to me."
The mission that sent three Special Forces teams and a company from the 201st Afghan Commando Battalion to the Shok Valley seemed imperiled from the outset.
Six massive CH-47 Chinook helicopters had deposited the men earlier that morning, banking through thick clouds as they entered the valley. The approaching U.S. soldiers watched enemy fighters racing to positions dug into the canyon walls and to sniper holes carved into stone houses perched at the top of the cliff.
Considered a sanctuary of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin terrorist group, the valley is far from any major American base.
It was impossible for the helicopters to land on the jagged rocks at the bottom of the valley. The Special Forces soldiers and commandos, each carrying more than 60 pounds of gear, dropped from 10 feet above the ground, landing among boulders or in a near-frozen stream.
With several Afghan commandos, Staff Sgt. John Walding and Staff Sgt. David Sanders led the way on a narrow path that zig-zagged up the cliff face to a nearby village where the terrorists were hiding.
Walton followed with two other soldiers and a 23-year-old Afghan interpreter who went by the name C.K., an orphan who dreamed of going to the United States.
Walding and Sanders were on the outskirts of the village when Staff Sgt. Luis Morales saw a group of armed men run along a nearby ridge. He fired. The surrounding mountains and buildings erupted in an ambush: The soldiers estimate that more than 200 fighters opened up with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47s.
C.K. crumbled to the ground.
Walton and Spc. Michael Carter dove into a small cave. Staff Sgt. Dillon Behr couldn't fit so the Rock Island, Ill., native dropped to one knee and started firing. An F-15 made a strafing run to push back the fighters, but it wasn't enough.
Sanders radioed for close air support — an order that Walton had to verify because the enemy was so near that the same bombs could kill the Americans.
The nearest house exploded; the firing didn't stop.
"Hit it again," Sanders said.
For the rest of the battle, F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters attacked.
Behr was hit next — a sniper's round passing through his leg. Morales knelt on Behr's hip to stop the bleeding and kept firing until he, too, was hit in the leg and ankle.
Walton and Carter, a combat cameraman from Smithville, Texas, dragged the two wounded men to the cave. Gunfire had destroyed Carter's camera so Walton put him to work treating Morales who, in turn, kept treating Behr.
Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer, a medic from Pullman, Wash., fought his way up the cliff to help.
"Heard some guys got hit up here," he said as he reached the cave, pulling bandages and gear from his aid bag.
Walton told Walding and Sanders to abandon the assault and meet on the cliff. The Americans and Afghan commandos pulled back as the Air Force continued to pound the village.
Walding made it to the cliff when a bullet shattered his leg. He watched his foot and lower leg flop on the ground as Walton dragged him to the cliff edge. With every heartbeat, a stream of blood shot out of Walding's wound. Rolling on his back, the Groesbeck, Texas, native, asked for a tourniquet and cranked down until the bleeding stopped.
The soldiers were trapped against the cliff. Walton was sure his men would be overrun. The narrow path was too exposed. He sent Sanders to find another way down. Sometimes free-climbing the rock face, the Huntsville, Ala., native found a steep path and made his way back up. Could the wounded make it out alive? Walton asked.
"Yes, they'll survive," Sanders said.
Down below, Staff Sgt. Seth E. Howard took his sniper rifle and started climbing with Staff Sgt. Matthew Williams.
At the top, Howard used C.K.'s lifeless body for cover and started to shoot. He fired repeatedly, killing as many as 20 of their attackers, his comrades say. The enemy gunfire slowed. The Air Force bombing continued, providing cover.
Morales was first down the cliff, clutching branches and rocks as he slid. Sanders, Carter and Williams went up to get Behr, then back up to rescue Walding. As Walton climbed down, a 2,000-pound bomb hit a nearby house. Another strike nearly blew Howard off the cliff.
Helicopters swooped in to pick up the 15 wounded American and Afghan soldiers, as well as the rest of the teams. Bullets pinged off the helicopters. One hit a pilot.
All the Americans survived.
Months later, Walding wants back on the team even though he lost a leg. Morales walks with a cane.
The raid, the soldiers say, proved there will be no safe haven in Afghanistan for terrorists. As for the medals, the soldiers see them as emblems of teamwork and brotherhood. Not valor.
"When you go to help your buddy, you're not thinking, 'I am going to get a Silver Star for this,'" Walding said. "If you were there, there would not be a second guess on why."
Iraqis in north mourn suicide bombing deaths
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Mustafa Mahmoud
Mourners poured into mosques in Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk on Friday, vowing not to let the worst bomb attack in months turn ethnic tensions into bloodshed.
Fifty people were killed and some 100 wounded in the suicide bombing on Thursday of a restaurant north of the city that is disputed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. It has been an oasis of relative calm during Iraq's wave of sectarian violence.
"What is their sin?" said Miaad Ridha Mohammed, 45, a Kurd, breaking into tears before the funeral in a Sunni mosque for his brother, his brother's wife and two of their three children, all killed in Thursday's blast near Kirkuk.
Only his brother's two-year-old daughter Mina survived the bomb in a popular eatery north of Kirkuk, the bloodiest attack in Iraq since a Baghdad truck bomb killed 63 people in June.
The explosion reminded Iraqis of the fragility of a recent, decline in the sectarian slaughter prompted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The security gains will be tested when Iraq holds provincial elections in January and a general election later next year, and when U.S. troops start to pull out of cities in the first half of 2009, ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
While the wholesale sectarian killings of two years ago have faded, suicide and car bomb attacks are common.
Suicide bombings are a trademark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, but no group claimed responsibility for the attack on the restaurant, where Kurd and Arab officials were dining after holding talks to discuss tensions between their communities.
The ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk has been generally one of the less violent places in Iraq.
But it is disputed by ethnic Kurds, who claim it as their ancient capital and want it to become part of semi-autonomous Kurdistan, and Arabs and Turkmen, who want the city to remain under central government authority. Under the city lie rich, largely untapped, reserves of oil.
"This attack is an attempt by the terrorists to derail the peace in this united city," said Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, vowing to give the city authorities all the help they needed to cope with the incident.
Residents of Kirkuk said they would not allow the bombing to tip the city into the inter-community violence that swept through the rest of Iraq for years after the U.S. invasion.
"It is terror in general that doesn't differentiate between kids, and young men and old men," said Mohammed, an employee of the state-run North Oil Company. "This explosion has nothing to do with Arabs, Kurds or Turkmen. It targets innocent civilians. They want to kill Iraqis' joy."
Mohammed said the shock of losing almost his entire family in the bomb blast was so great that he lost consciousness when he arrived at a local hospital and was told the news.
His brother had taken his family out to lunch after going to a fairground during the Muslim Eid al-Adha religious holiday.
Imad Ahmed, 30, an editor at a TV station in Kirkuk, said that one colleague, presenter Kanaan Guzal, a Turkmen, had been killed in the blast along with his three children and brother.
"I can't describe that moment when I found out that all five members of one family were killed," he said. "I just want to ask those who did this: 'What victory do you gain by killing children, women, young men and old men?'."
(Writing by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Michael Christie and Elizabeth Piper)
Thousands celebrate in Baghdad as violence falls
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Mohammed Abbas
Iraqis have visited Baghdad's parks and shrines in their thousands in the past few days during a major Muslim festival, the highest turnout for years as violence falls in the Iraqi capital, security officials said.
For much of last year the city was still mired in sectarian bloodshed, unleashed shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Mutilated and tortured bodies were dumped on the streets almost daily.
Now Iraqis screamed and shouted from Zawraa park's "Space Gun" ride, which spins people full circle and holds them upside down in the air, handbags and glasses tumbling 30-feet (9 metres) onto the floor below with each revolution.
"We are proud of ... achievements that led millions of people to visit shrines, mosques, parks and fairs in a way Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces haven't seen before," Baghdad security spokesman Major-General Qassim Moussawi told reporters.
He was speaking in the park, where thousands of Iraqis were celebrating at the end of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, a four-day event that ends Friday for Shi'ites and ended on Thursday for Sunnis. Moussawi could barely be heard over processions of boys banging drums and tambourines and singing.
Moussawi said there had been no security violations in the city for six days.
The relatively quiet Eid in Iraq was still marred by a suicide blast near the northern city of Kirkuk that killed 50 people in a busy restaurant Thursday.
For many Iraqis out at Baghdad's parks, it had been the first Eid al-Adha they could remember in the capital since Saddam Hussein fell that had not been overshadowed by violence.
"It's been a huge change. People were slaughtering each other last year. This is the first Eid we've felt this secure. Before it was all murders and bombings," said Saad Hussein, sat in Abu Nawas park on the banks of the Tigris.
Young men who might have grown a beard when Islamist militias and insurgents controlled chunks of Baghdad now roamed the parks in packs, clean shaven with slicked back hair and tight jeans, eying young women passing by.
Many women wore figure-hugging outfits, heavy make up and openly displayed flashy jewellery.
"These three days have been good, no bombs at all, not like the last Eid when there was a bomb on the first day. But we're still afraid when we go out," said park goer Shaymaa Irzouqi.
Like many others in Abu Nawas park and Zawraa park, Irzouqi's assessment of security in Baghdad was qualified. There had been several bomb attacks in the weeks leading up to Eid.
For some, the high turnout at Baghdad's parks and shrines was only partly due to better security.
"We're used to it. There's an explosion and then we quickly carry on as normal," said Hussein Mohammed, walking with his friend Ali Mohammed near a carousel in Zawraa park. He and his friend had run from the park under gunfire at Eid last year.
"Security is better than it was. But you can't really say anything for certain. There could be an explosion any time," Mohammed said.
Security in and around the park was heavy, and military helicopters buzzed overhead at Abu Nawas and Zawraa.
Others said that while security was good now, they feared for the future. Provincial and parliamentary elections and a referendum are due to be held next year, events that could spark an upsurge in violence.
Thousands of mainly Sunni prisoners, many detained on suspicion of being insurgents, have been released in recent months under an amnesty law.
"Young men are coming out of prison. There are no jobs, no hope. It's very easy for them to get caught up in terrorism," said Abu Nawas park drinks vendor Mohammed Abdullah.
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Editing by Michael Christie)
A gift from the king
By Tim Sebastian
Friday, December 12, 2008
AMMAN: An odd thing happened the other day in the Arab world.
Amid all the recent backsliding on free speech and the general disinterest in democracy among Middle Eastern governments, one head of state drew a thin and highly significant line in the sand.
Typically, the other Arab states chose to ignore it, local journalists didn't believe it and the international press had its mind on other things. But in a region where good news has become a long-forgotten curiosity, it would be unwise to let it pass unnoticed.
The man at the center of this event was King Abdullah of Jordan, who last month gathered together the chief editors of Jordan's main newspapers and told them that from now on there would be big changes in the country's media environment. Specifically, no more jailing of reporters for writing the wrong thing and a new mechanism would be created to protect the rights of journalists, including their access to information.
"Detention of journalists is prohibited," he said. "I do not see a reason for detaining a journalist because he/she wrote something or for expressing a view."
Perhaps, after nearly five years broadcasting debates from the confines of the Middle East, I'm easily pleased. But over that period, no other Arab leader has come close to making a similar, public commitment and all the recent changes affecting the Arab media have led inexorably backward.
I am deluged by stories from editors in the region, who regularly have the guts censored out of their political articles, and who have seen a steep rise in the number of warning calls from their political masters, telling them what they can or cannot print.
In addition, all but two Arab states signed up last February to an Arab League initiative that pledged to restrict still further the rights of the myriad satellite stations in a vain effort to shore up that rarest of regional commodities - Arab unity. So against this background, King Abdullah's declaration marks a sharp departure from the current trend.
And yet it's hardly surprising that local journalists were unimpressed. The government still has plenty of legal instruments it can use against them. More than 20 laws continue to govern media conduct in Jordan, including the Penal Code, and there is no guarantee against "creative" prosecutions in the future under the pretext of other crimes or misdemeanors. No single statement from the royal palace can airbrush away years of harassment and interference.
Besides, the king's statement comes in the same year that his country has been downgraded by the Paris-based organization "Reporters without Borders" in its 2008 Worldwide Press Freedom Index. Jordan now stands at 128th position out of 173 countries - six places lower than last year.
Even a government report by the grandly titled Higher Media Council last year admitted serious problems with the country's journalism. The majority of reporters faced difficulties getting information, it said - or worse, were completely denied access to data.
So was the king serious about pushing through improvements?
One senior diplomat in Amman was heard to wonder whether his majesty's wishful thinking had got the better of him. A government minister even hinted that some "authorities" might take no notice of his strictures. There were suggestions that the engine room often took time to react to orders from the bridge.
Whatever the case, it would be a mistake to do what the opponents of free speech would like the world to do: Forget about the whole thing.
Jordan's king needs to be reminded that the world will not ignore his fine words. He should also be persuaded to repeat them and expand their scope in the months to come.
Plenty of leaders in the region have talked about reform - although considerably fewer these days than three years ago - but King Abdullah, now facing serious economic problems, is more receptive than most to external encouragement. Sweeping away repressive practices on the treatment of journalists would go a long way to improving his country's image, especially amid new accusations by Human Rights Watch of torture in Jordanian jails.
One other event also passed unnoticed in Amman over the last few weeks: the first regional conference for Arab investigative journalists.
Like me, you may be amazed that, given the many and varied disincentives, such an organization can still exist in the Middle East. But it is a tribute to a small number of brave and single-minded reporters, who labor across the region under the constant threat of arrest or arbitrary detention.
All they have to protect them are their questions - and in many cases, that isn't enough.
Last month, they got a small gift from the king of Jordan in the shape of a declaration of support. They need to unwrap it, display it and ask for more. If nobody takes it seriously - either at home or abroad - there is a strong chance this gift could be taken back.
Tim Sebastian is the chairman of The Doha Debates.
6 terror suspects charged in Belgium
By Steven Erlanger
Friday, December 12, 2008
PARIS: The authorities in Belgium charged six suspected extremists Friday with membership in a terrorist group, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office said in Brussels.
They were among 14 people arrested in raids early Thursday, including a woman who writes jihadist screeds on the Internet and three men the Belgian authorities said had just returned from training camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. One had "said goodbye to his loved ones," according to the Belgian federal prosecutor, Johan Delmulle, leading to fears of an imminent suicide attack around the time that European Union leaders were meeting in Brussels.
Lieve Pellens, spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, said by telephone that the six suspects charged Friday included the woman, Malika El Aroud. She said the eight others had been released because a judge had determined that there was not enough evidence to press charges.
The six suspects are all Belgian nationals and most are of Moroccan origin, Pellens said. She said they should be arraigned within five days. Under rules to preserve the secrecy of the investigation, Pellens could not give out more detailed information on the charges.
Though the possible target was not clear, the arrests Thursday came on a day when European leaders began a two-day summit meeting in Brussels.
"We don't know where the suicide attack was to take place," Delmulle said in Brussels. "It could have been an operation in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but it can't be ruled out that Belgium or Europe could have been the target."
An investigation into the suspects had been under way for a year.
But given the EU meeting, Delmulle said, the authorities felt they had "no choice but to take action" or to sharply raise security around the meeting.
The police carried out 16 raids in Brussels and one in Liège. Those arrested included El Aroud, 49, who accompanied her husband to Afghanistan in 2001, where he trained in a camp run by Al Qaeda and then, days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, helped kill the anti-Taliban resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. El Aroud, whose husband was eventually killed, writes online as Oum Obeyda.
Basil Katz contributed reporting.
Iran cleric says Obama adopting old U.S. tactics
Friday, December 12, 2008
TEHRAN: A senior Iranian cleric described President-elect Barack Obama on Friday as a novice who was adopting old U.S. tactics of "deception and fraud," underscoring Iran's scepticism about prospects for change in U.S. policy.
Some Iranian officials have said Iran would "wait and see" before judging how Obama would act in office, but the president- elect's call for Iran to stop part of its disputed nuclear work has drawn an uncompromising line from Iran.
Tehran says it will not suspend uranium enrichment, which Washington says has military aims, insisting it wants technology to make fuel for power plants not material for warheads. It says nuclear weapons have no role in Iran's defence doctrine.
"He (Obama) recently opined that the development of nuclear arms in Iran would be unacceptable, and also that Iran's support for 'terrorist organisations', such as Hezbollah (in Lebanon), is unacceptable," conservative cleric Ahmad Khatami said.
"I want to say that these statements are made by a raw person, an upstart (in politics), who has just reached power and is travelling the world of thoughts and imagination. The policy of deception and fraud has been an instrument that has defamed all American presidents," he said.
Khatami, a member of Iran's powerful oversight body, the Assembly of Experts, was speaking to worshippers in Friday prayers broadcast on state radio.
The cleric also said Obama was following the past "carrot and stick" policy, a reference to an offer by world powers of trade, nuclear and other incentives in return for halting its nuclear work. But they warn of more sanctions if Tehran refuses.
Obama, who takes office on January 20, said on Sunday he was ready to talk to Iran directly to give the Islamic Republic the "clear choice" to accept incentives or face tougher sanctions.
In his sermon, Khatami also criticised the heads of some Islamic countries and "particularly those of the Arab states" for not doing enough to stop Palestinian suffering in Gaza.
Hundreds of Iranians demonstrated in Tehran on Friday to call for an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, Iranian media showed.
"Behind the crime scene against Muslims, the hands of some Islamic states can be seen," Khatami said. He singled out Egypt, which borders Gaza, in his sermon.
Egypt and Iran do not have full diplomatic ties. Cairo complained to the head of the Iranian mission in Egypt this week after Iranians protested outside Egypt's interests section in Tehran. An Egyptian diplomat said demonstrators threw a petrol bomb at the mission's fence and chanted anti-Egypt slogans.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari, writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Wall Street legend arrested on fraud charges
By Diana B. Henriques and Zachery Kouwe
Friday, December 12, 2008
NEW YORK: On Wall Street, his name is legendary. With money he had made as a lifeguard on the urban beaches of Long Island, he built a trading powerhouse that had prospered for more than four decades. At the age of 70, he had become an influential spokesman for the traders who are the hidden gears of the marketplace.
But on Thursday morning, this consummate trader, Bernard Madoff, was arrested at his New York home by U.S. government agents who accused him of running a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme, perhaps the largest in Wall Street's history. Regulators have not yet been able to verify the scale of the fraud. But the criminal complaint filed against him Thursday in U.S. District Court reports that Madoff himself estimated the losses at $50 billion.
"We are alleging a massive fraud, both in terms of scope and duration," said Linda Chatman Thomsen, director of the enforcement division at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the fraud and protect remaining assets for investors."
Andrew Calamari, an associate director for enforcement in the SEC's regional office in New York, said the case involved "a stunning fraud that appears to be of epic proportions."
According to his lawyers, Madoff was released on a $10 million bond. "Bernie Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry," said Daniel Horwitz, one of his lawyers. "He will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events."
Madoff's brother and business colleague, Peter Madoff, also declined to comment on the case or discuss its implications for the firm, which at one point was the largest market maker on the Nasdaq market, regularly operating as both a buyer and seller in the marketplace. The firm employed hundreds of traders.
There was some worry on Wall Street that Madoff's fall would shake more foundations than his own.
According to the most recent government filings, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the firm he founded in 1960, operated more than two dozen funds overseeing $17 billion. These funds have been widely marketed to wealthy individuals, hedge funds and other institutional investors for more than a decade. An SEC filing in the case said the firm reported having 11 to 23 clients at the beginning of this year.
As news about Madoff's arrest spread on Friday, dozens of customers called the company, the media and their lawyers seeking information about their accounts, which for many represented essentially all their net worth.
"The scale of this is unprecedented," said Brad Friedman, a lawyer who has been retained by dozens of older customers whose money had been entrusted to Madoff for decades. "These are people who were living very, very well who are now destitute, whose only remaining asset is their home or their apartment."
About a dozen angry investors gathered on Friday in the lobby of the Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan, where the market-making firm and advisory fund are both headquartered, demanding to know the fate of their money, Reuters said.
The two most prominent hedge funds that invested with Madoff were the $7.3 billion Fairfield Sentry, run by Fairfield Greenwich Group, and the $2.8 billion Kingate Global Fund. Fairfield called Madoff's arrest "a shocking development," according to a statement on its Web site, and said it's taking steps "to protect our investors and our firm."
European investors in Madoff's firm include the British fund manager Nicola Horlick's Bramdean Alternatives and UniCredit's Pioneer Alternative Investments, according to Bloomberg News and Reuters, who cited unnamed people. Benedict Hentsch, a Swiss private bank, said it had 56 million Swiss francs, or $47 million, of exposure to Madoff's investment advisory business.
At the request of the SEC, a District Court judge appointed a receiver to secure the Madoff firm's overseas accounts and warned the firm not to move any assets until he had ruled on whether to freeze the assets.
Regulators said they hoped to have a clearer picture of the losses potentially facing investors. "We have 16 examiners on site all day and through the night poring over the records," said Calamari, of the SEC.
The Madoff funds attracted investors with the promise of high returns with low fees. The Fairfield Sentry fund reported $7.3 billion in assets in October and said it had paid more than 11 percent interest a year through its 15-year track record.
Competing hedge fund managers have wondered privately for years how Madoff generated such high returns, in bull markets and bear, given the generally low-yielding investment strategies he described to his clients.
"The numbers were too good to be true, for too long," said Girish Reddy, a managing director at Prisma Partners, an investment firm that invests in hedge funds. "And the supporting infrastructure was weak."
Reddy said his firm had looked at the Madoff funds and decided against investing in them because their performance was too consistently positive, even in times when the market was extremely volatile.
But the essential drama is a personal one - one laid out in the dry language of a criminal complaint by Lev Dassin, the acting chief U.S. prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, which includes Wall Street, and in a regulatory lawsuit filed by the SEC.
According to those documents, the first alarm bells rang at the firm Tuesday, when Madoff told a senior executive he wanted to pay his employees their annual bonuses in December, two months early.
Just days earlier, he had told another senior executive he was struggling to raise cash to cover about $7 billion in requested withdrawals from his clients, and he had appeared "to have been under great stress in the prior weeks," according to the SEC complaint. So on Wednesday, the senior executive visited Madoff's office, maintained on a separate floor with records kept under lock and key, and asked for an explanation.
Instead, Madoff invited the two executives to his New York apartment that evening. When they joined him there, he told them that his money-management business was "all just one big lie" and "basically, a giant Ponzi scheme."
The senior employees understood him to be saying that he had for years been paying returns to certain investors out of the cash received from other investors.
In that conversation, according to the criminal complaint, Madoff "stated that he was 'finished,' that he had 'absolutely nothing."'
By this account, Madoff told the executives he intended to surrender to the authorities in about a week but first wanted to distribute about $200 million to $300 million to "certain selected employees, family and friends."
On Thursday morning, however, he was arrested on a single count of securities fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $5 million.
According to the SEC, Madoff confessed to an FBI agent that there was "no innocent explanation" for his behavior and said he expected to go to prison.
He had lost money on his trades, he told the agent, and had "paid investors with money that wasn't there."
Madoff's alleged fraud hits other investors
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Jon Stempel and Christian Plumb
Investors scrambled to assess potential losses from an alleged $50 billion (33.4 billion pound) fraud by Bernard Madoff, a day after the arrest of the prominent Wall Street trader.
Prosecutors and regulators accused the 70-year-old former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market of masterminding a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions through his investment advisory business, which managed at least one hedge fund. Hundreds of people, investing with him through the firm's clients, entrusted Madoff with billions of dollars, industry experts said.
"Madoff's investors included captains of industry, corporations -- some of which are publicly traded -- that used Madoff almost as a high-yielding cash management account, endowments, universities, foundations and, importantly, many high-profile funds of funds," said Douglas Kass, who heads hedge fund Seabreeze Partners Management.
"It appears that at least $15 billion of wealth, much of which was concentrated in Southern Florida and New York City, has gone to 'money heaven,'" he said.
A Ponzi scheme is an illegal investment vehicle that pays off old investors with money from new ones, and is dependent on a constant stream of new investment. Because the invested capital is not earning a sufficient return on its own, such schemes eventually collapse under their own weight.
Federal agents arrested Madoff at his apartment on Thursday after prosecutors said he told senior employees that his money management operations were "all just one big lie" and "basically, a giant Ponzi scheme."
Madoff is the founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, a market-making firm he launched in 1960. His separate investment advisory business had $17.1 billion of assets under management.
About a dozen angry investors gathered on Friday in the lobby of the Lipstick Building in midtown Manhattan, where the market-making firm and advisory business are headquartered, demanding to know the fate of their money.
One woman said that when she called the firm's offices on Thursday she was told it was "business as usual."
Another investor groused, "Business as usual? Of course it's business as usual. We're getting screwed left and right."
Police later evicted the small group from the building.
Individual investors were feeling the squeeze elsewhere.
"I expect to get back zero," said Susan Leavitt in Tampa Bay, Florida, who invested through Madoff. "When he tells the Feds, he has $200 million to $300 million left out of billions, what can you expect."
The two most prominent hedge funds that invested with Madoff were the $7.3 billion Fairfield Sentry, run by Walter Noel's Fairfield Greenwich Group, and the $2.8 billion Kingate Global Fund, run by Kingate Management.
Fairfield Sentry and Kingate Global were among a small group of hedge funds to report positive returns for 2008; the average hedge fund was down 18 percent, according to data from Hedge Fund Research.
"People who came to us for portfolio construction were often already invested with Bernie Madoff, he had hundreds of clients," said Charles Gradante, who invests in hedge funds as a principal at Hennessee Group. "Now his whole legacy is destroyed. He was God to people."
Prior to Madoff's arrest, investors had wondered how he was able to generate annual returns in the low double digits in a variety of market environments. Many questioned how U.S. regulators were able to ignore numerous red flags with regards to Madoff's operations.
"Many of us questioned how that strategy could generate those kinds of returns so consistently," said Jon Najarian, an options trader who knows Madoff and is a co-founder of
In May 2001, Barron's reported that option strategists for major investment banks said they could not understand how Madoff managed to generate the returns that he did.
"We weren't comfortable with Madoff," said Brad Alford, president at investment adviser Alpha Capital in Atlanta. "We didn't understand how his strategy could generate the kind of returns it did. We will walk away from things like that."
U.S. stocks tumbled in early trading on Friday, with some investors citing the Madoff case as well as the failure of talks in Congress on a rescue for the U.S. auto industry. The market later rebounded, with the Dow Jones industrial average rising 64.59 points, or 0.75 percent, to end unofficially at 8,629.68.
Investors overseas were reeling from the alleged fraud.
Benedict Hentsch, a Swiss private bank, said it had 56 million Swiss francs ($47 million) of exposure to Madoff's investment advisory business. UniCredit SpA's fund management unit, Pioneer Investments, has exposure through its Primeo Select hedge fund, two people familiar with the matter said.
Bramdean Alternatives said almost 10 percent of its holdings were exposed to Madoff, sending shares in the UK asset manager crashing.
CNBC Television reported that Sterling Equities, which owns the New York Mets baseball team, had accounts managed by Madoff.
Madoff said "there is no innocent explanation" for his activities, and that he "paid investors with money that wasn't there," according to the federal complaint.
Prosecutors also accused Madoff of wanting to distribute as much as $300 million to employees, family members and friends before turning himself in.
Charged with one count of securities fraud, he faces up to 20 years in prison and a $5 million fine. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed separate civil charges.
A hearing had been scheduled for Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on the SEC's request to grant powers to the court-appointed receiver to oversee the entire firm, as well as on the commission's request for a firmwide asset freeze.
But the hearing was cancelled after the matter was resolved, said a deputy for U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton. No other details were immediately available. The receiver, lawyer Lee Richards, had been appointed by the judge on Thursday to oversee assets and accounts of the firm held abroad.
Madoff's lawyer, Dan Horwitz, said on Thursday, "We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events." His client was released on $10 million bond.
Madoff is a member of Nasdaq OMX Group nominating committee. His firm has said it is a market-maker for about 350 Nasdaq stocks.
He is also chairman of London-based Madoff Securities International, whose chief executive, Stephen Raven, said the firm was "not in any way part of" the New York-based market-maker.
All equity trades involving the market-making firm will be processed as usual, the Depository Trust Clearing Corp told Reuters on Friday.
(Reporting by Jennifer Ablan, Edith Honan, Aarthi Sivaraman and Leah Schnurr and Dan Wilchins in New York; Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston, Steve Slater in London and Lisa Jucca in Zurich; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, John Wallace, Toni Reinhold)
Mugabe insists his statement on cholera was misunderstood
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
HARARE, Zimbabwe: President Robert Mugabe claims that the cholera crisis that has killed nearly 800 people in Zimbabwe is contained, and his spokesman said his much criticized remark that there was no cholera was misunderstood, state media reported Friday.
Mugabe's comments Thursday drew strong criticism from the United States and Britain. The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said it showed "how out of touch he is with the reality."
The Herald newspaper quoted Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, on Friday as saying that Mugabe had been being sarcastic and had wanted to make the point that the crisis was contained.
The World Health Organization, though, said Friday that the death toll from the waterborne disease had risen to 792 and that the number of cases had increased to 16,700.
"I don't think that the cholera outbreak is under control," a WHO spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, said.
Cholera has spread rapidly in Zimbabwe because of the crumbling health care system and lack of clean water. The country's health care system was among the best in Africa before the economic meltdown.
Now most hospitals have been forced to close because they can no longer afford drugs, equipment or wages for their staff, and some of the sick seeking treatment are being transported by wheelbarrow. Officials are also unable to afford spare parts and chemicals for water systems.
Zimbabwe's decline began in 2000, when Mugabe began an often violent campaign to seize white-owned farms and give them to blacks; most of the land ended up in the hands of his cronies, and production has dropped. Now, Zimbabweans scrounge for corn kernels spilled from trucks carrying the harvest to market in a nation that once exported food.
On Friday, the opposition accused Mugabe of being disingenuous for his "careless and reckless" remarks about the cholera crisis.
"The epidemic is still with us and is spreading fast," Henry Madzorera, health spokesman for the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, said in a statement.
Aid agencies have warned that the outbreak could worsen with the onset of the rainy season and that the disease has spread to Zimbabwe's neighbors.
The South African authorities have declared the border region with Zimbabwe a disaster area. About 664 people have been treated for the disease and at least 8 people have died in South Africa.
Mugabe has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980 and refused to leave office after disputed elections in March. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have called for Mugabe, 84, to step down.
Shell's pension underfunded
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Tom Bergin and Cecilia Valente
Royal Dutch Shell's Dutch pension fund has fallen into deficit as share market turmoil knocked 40 percent off the fund's value, forcing the oil major and employees to increase contributions.
The fund said in a letter sent to its members this week that its funding ratio -- a measure of how well a pension scheme can meet its liabilities -- was 85 percent at the end of November, down from 180 percent at the end of 2007.
A spokeswoman for Shell confirmed the letter had been sent but could not say how much the new arrangements would cost Shell. She said Shell's UK defined benefits fund was fully funded.
A Dutch pension fund manager estimated the company would need around 2 billion euros (1.78 billion pounds) to bring the funding ratio to 100 percent or 2.5 billion euros to hit the 105 percent level Dutch law requires such funds to maintain over time.
The drop in ratio is a result of the fund's focus on equities and the fund said it would now decrease its share investments and shift into government bonds to reduce risk, the letter, seen by Reuters, said.
A full copy of the letter is published on activist website
The scheme's annual accounts show that at the end of 2007 the fund had assets at 19.2 billion euros, and liabilities of 10.6 billion euros.
At the time, equities investments accounted for 12.2 billion euros and bonds for 5.5 billion euros.
An agreement between Shell and the fund requires Shell to provide additional funding up to a funding ratio of 105 percent, if the funding ratio regularly is below 105 percent over a six-month period, the letter said.
Under Dutch law, a pension scheme whose funding ratio is under 105 percent has three years to fill the deficit. The scheme must notify the regulator and submit a recovery plan.
Shell's pension fund has commissioned a report to establish if its long-term strategy needs changing and will submit a recovery plan to the Dutch Central Bank, which is also the country's pension regulator, next year.
The fund's 70 percent equity focus is in the upper end of the range Dutch and UK defined benefit schemes usually operate within while similar funds in Germany, France or Italy typically have a clear bond focus.
The Dutch central bank responded to the current market downturn last month by allowing underfunded pension schemes to postpone recovery plan submission until April next year.
(Reporting by Tom Bergin and Cecilia Valente; Editing by Hans Peters and Rupert Winchester)
For private banker, prudent is in
By Karina Robinson
Friday, December 12, 2008
LONDON: If you are going to be a banker these days, better to be in private banking. Wealth management, with its conservative investment strategy and sustainable revenue, has become much more appealing in a financial crisis in which the formerly high-earning commercial end of the business has fallen out of favor.
In this charmed circle, Chris Meares would seem to be leading an especially charmed life. As chief executive of HSBC Private Bank, he presides over a division with assets of $499.3 billion under management - larger than the gross domestic product of Sweden - and profit before tax of $822 million in the first six months of the year, or 8 percent of the total for its parent company, HSBC Group.
HSBC, for its part, is weathering the current storm better than many global banks, despite its well-heralded exposure to the U.S. subprime market. At a time when banks' capital is being sapped by bad loans, HSBC's core Tier 1 capital, a measure of safety, stands at a healthy 8.9 percent. A comparable U.K.-based competitor, Standard Chartered, will have core Tier 1 of 7.4 percent even after a recent rights issue.
The perception of safety has led to a solid inflow of funds to HSBC Private Bank even since the credit crisis hit. Of the $24 billion net inflows this year, 42 percent came in the third quarter.
"Clearly the market has now settled down," Meares, 51, said in a recent interview at HSBC's headquarters in the Canary Wharf district. "We hope people still appreciate we have come through without government assistance," he added. Other banks, like HSBC Private Bank's key competitor UBS, have requested and received aid from the government.
HBSC's private client profile - wealth creators and entrepreneurs, rather than old money - means that many have come through referrals from the commercial bank. In 2007, nearly $6 billion, or 20 percent of net new inflows, came from referrals.
Client profile is one reason that HSBC Private Bank sponsors Design Miami, a fair that takes place in early December at the same time as the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. Contemporary art is suffering the same volatility as commercial banking, but Meares noted that design was as appropriate in difficult economic times as in boom times.
His ambitions for the private bank unit to lift its contribution to group profit to 10 percent will both benefit and suffer from the current difficult times. On the one hand, plummeting financial markets cut total assets under management and make clients cautious; on the other, acquisition opportunities are greater.
Meares insisted that organic growth should continue to serve the bank well, but the 20 percent compound annual growth rate of the last five years may be difficult to sustain. The bank is "keeping a close eye" on possible acquisitions, he said, but with price/earnings ratios at a lofty 20 for recent deals, he is waiting for prices to fall.
The current rise in inflows, moreover, does not directly translate into a large profit margin. Many clients are sticking to cash, which provides smaller profits for the bank than if they were investing in financial instruments like stock market and private equity funds.
Caution may be newly fashionable in most banking circles, but in private banking it has long been a calling card.
"Clients and depositors appreciate the low-risk nature and stable, predictable earnings streams associated with the private banking business," said Guido Versondert, a vice president at Moody's Investors Service. "HSBC Private Bank contributes increasingly to HSBC group's profits but hardly requires precious capital so that risk-adjusted returns are very attractive."
A criticism often leveled at private banks with investment banking arms, which include Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, is that they push inappropriate products with too much risk in them onto clients.
Meares acknowledged that despite regulatory pressure, "some banks are more aggressive in using their own products, which enhances the margin." But, he noted, HSBC offers products from other banks and providers as well as HSBC. He added that the bank would very likely use HSBC asset management for emerging markets, a known expertise, but unlikely for an investment in the U.S. stock market.
Mexicans seek solace at shrine to face economy
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Robert Campbell
Crowds thronged Mexico's holiest Catholic shrine on Friday in one of the world's biggest regular pilgrimages, with many of the faithful seeking spiritual support as the economy slips towards recession.
Streams of people from across Mexico and as far away as the United States, worshiped in front of a centuries-old cloak emblazoned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is said to have appeared to a 16th-century Indian peasant in December 1531.
Many walked for days carrying images of the dark-skinned virgin on their backs to pray at the giant basilica in Mexico City for health, forgiveness of their sins and, as Mexico's economy slows, help to find jobs and money.
"I am hoping the virgin will help my husband find a job," said Margarita Lopez as she led her two small children through the crowd towards the giant basilica. "He's in the United States and has been out of work for two months."
Prospects for Mexico's economy have dimmed sharply with the deepening recession in the United States. The country sends about 80 percent of its exports to its neighbour to the north and money sent home by millions of migrant workers there provides a critical cash lifeline for many impoverished Mexican families.
Economists who were optimistic that Mexico could skirt a recession now fret that a deep downturn may be difficult to avoid.
A river of mostly poor people poured into the shrine from the early morning. Some crawled the trash-strewn final stretch on their knees past troupes of twirling dancers decked out in Aztec garb.
Church and municipal leaders expect several million people to make the pilgrimage in the days up to and including Friday and claim the basilica is the second most visited Catholic church in the world after St Peter's in Rome.
More than 2 million Muslims attended the Haj in Mecca this year, a lower number than usual after the Saudi Arabian government cracked down on pilgrims attending the event without permits.
Despite the huge crowds in Mexico City, vendors grumbled that business was slow.
"They're all looking but no one is buying," said Ramon Martinez, who runs a stall selling religious pictures, disposable cameras and snacks.
"By this time last year I had sold a lot more," he said before rushing up to an old school bus festooned with flowers and pictures of the virgin and the pope to show his wares to newly arrived pilgrims.
The pilgrimage to the basilica has been an annual event since the late 17th century. The Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 on a hilltop which had once been a shrine to an ancient Aztec goddess.
After Juan Diego told a bishop of his vision, the virgin's image later appeared on his cloak, according to legend. The event was key in converting Mexico to Catholicism.
The humble woodcutter was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002 in an effort by the Vatican to reach out to Latin American believers.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Bell, editing by Vicki Allen)
Joblessness grows in New York
By Patrick Mcgeehan
Friday, December 12, 2008
Well-paid professionals like lawyers, accountants and architects are joining the rapidly expanding unemployment rolls in New York City, as the effects of the financial crisis have spread beyond Wall Street not only to other white-collar industries but also to the construction and retail trades, a new report shows.
The number of white-collar workers outside the financial industry receiving unemployment checks was up by more than 40 percent in October from the same month last year, and the number of college graduates collecting benefits was up by 50 percent, according to the report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group.
"Unemployment is starting to shoot up in New York City, and it's affecting a spectrum of workers, both professionals and blue-collar," said James Parrott, the institute's chief economist and author of the report. "It's hitting young workers and older workers, and it's poised to rise dramatically in the weeks and months ahead."
The report comes amid continued bad news in the financial industry. On Thursday, Bank of America said it planned to cut 30,000 to 35,000 positions over the next three years as it digests its acquisition of Merrill Lynch .
The report, based on state and federal unemployment statistics, provides hard data confirming a trend that was until now best understood anecdotally. It also showed that New York entered the recession much later than the rest of the country, largely because hiring by law and accounting firms, media companies and tourism-related industries remained strong through the first half of the year.
As recently as July, the number of new claims for unemployment benefits in the city was only about 10 percent higher than it had been a year earlier. But since employment peaked in August, the city has lost about 10,000 jobs. And in the 12 weeks between late August and late November, first-time unemployment claims increased by more than 40 percent over the same period the year before, the sharpest year-over-year increase since February 2002.
Parrott said that the figures understate the severity of unemployment because many laid-off workers have not started collecting checks and many others do not qualify for benefits. In October, fewer than one-third of the 225,000 unemployed residents of New York City were collecting benefits, he said.
That portends an upsurge in the city's unemployment rate for months to come, Parrott said. Most forecasts project that the city will lose more than 150,000 jobs during this recession. The Fiscal Policy Institute report estimates that job losses will average about 10,000 a month from November 2008 through the end of 2009.
The city's unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in October, up from 5.2 percent in October 2007. The national unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, up from 4.8 percent the year before.
The growth in New York's ranks of the well-educated unemployed seems to parallel a national trend, said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Since March 2007, the number of college graduates who are unemployed has risen at a faster rate, 75 percent, than has the number of all unemployed Americans who are 25 and older, 62 percent, Mishel said.
"This is very strong evidence that this recession is very hard on college grads, more than usual," Mishel said.
Mishel's organization works with Parrott's to promote the concerns of organized labor and low-wage workers.
Kenly Lambie, an architect who lives in Brooklyn, joined the ranks of the unemployed this summer after she was laid off by a firm where she had worked for a year. The dismissal caught her by surprise, but she said other firms have also cut back as construction loans have dried up.
"It's really grim, and almost everyone I know who was at my level is unemployed," Lambie, 29, said. She said she hopes to land at another firm in the city, but added, "If a really interesting opportunity came along in, say, Argentina, I'd jump on it."
In the meantime, Lambie is trying to get by on a weekly unemployment check of $405, which she said is "definitely not enough."
A separate report released on Thursday by the city comptroller's office echoed the central findings of Parrott's study, doubling the city's projection of the number of people who will lose their jobs by August 2010, to 170,000.
The comptroller's report also estimated that total Wall Street bonuses this year will be less than half what was paid last year, making it the smallest amount since 2002. Largely as a result, city tax revenue will fall by 4.3 percent in the next half year, the comptroller concluded.
The layoffs in New York are following a traditional recessionary pattern by radiating out from the big financial companies to other professional services and to lower-paying businesses like retailing, according to the report, which uses the latest data available from the state's Labor Department.
In October, 6,428 people who had worked in professional, technical and scientific services were receiving unemployment benefits, up 42 percent from October 2007. That total — which includes the fields of law, accounting, consulting and engineering — exceeded the 5,935 people from the finance and insurance industries who were receiving benefits, the report showed.
The number of blue-collar beneficiaries was up 50 percent, driven mainly by a jump in laid-off construction workers.
Among those collecting benefits in the city, the smallest increases have come in management and from the fields of health care and social services and arts, entertainment and recreation, the report found. Health care and businesses that benefit from tourism have helped to bolster the city's economy as the financial crisis has worsened.
But with the dollar strengthening against other currencies and foreign economies faltering, tourism has already begun to decline, threatening employment in that sector.
Not every unemployed person has a tale of woe. Lynne Figman, a real estate lawyer, said that she was given only about five minutes to clean out her desk at Phillips Nizer when she was laid off on Nov. 5. Her boss said he was letting her go because the firm expected its real estate practice to plummet next year, she said.
But Figman, who is receiving unemployment benefits now, has already begun setting up her own practice from her Upper West Side apartment and expects to have a healthy list of small businesses and homeowners as clients. On Sunday, she turns 50.
"I'm still going through with the plan to party," Figman said. "My parents insist."
Shop says get out of UBS, get into a new suit
Friday, December 12, 2008
ZURICH: Shareholders of troubled Swiss bank UBS have been offered a new way to get out of their investment at a premium: buy a suit.
A Zurich boutique is accepting UBS shares as payment at a 40 percent premium over the stock's closing price on Friday.
"We take your UBS shares at 21 Swiss francs (11.94 pounds) for your purchase," says the poster in window of boutique Premier in Zurich's downtown, only a few blocks from UBS' main building.
"On the day that the UBS shares fell to their lowest level, I had the idea that the shares were not so worthless and that we now needed to have confidence in them," Marcel Gayer, the shop's owner, told Reuters.
UBS shares have lost over two thirds of their value this year as the bank has been forced to make some $49 billion in writedowns, more than any other bank in Europe.
The stock hit an all-time low on November 20, falling to below 11 francs. Shares closed at 14.41 francs on Friday.
So far, nobody had paid with UBS shares but the poster has been a marketing success, said Gayer, adding that he did not own UBS shares. "Hundreds of people have seen the poster, stopped and smiled. It has been the trigger for conversations."
Gayer, who sells brands from Armani to Zegna, said he was feeling the pinch from the crisis: "We feel that people are spending less."
His offer is valid until the end of the year, he said. Should someone pay with UBS shares, he would keep them: "I would keep them and hope that I would make a profit."
(Reporting by Katie Reid and Rupert Pretterklieber; editing by Elizabeth Piper)
Even in recession, spend they must: Luxury shoppers anonymous
By Ruth La Ferla
Friday, December 12, 2008
ONLY a year ago, Maggie Buckley might have indulged a craving for, say, satin opera gloves or python sandals with a quick trip to Saks or Bergdorf Goodman. But now, in these recessionary times, she tends to avoid such public sorties.
"Shopping is almost embarrassing, and a little vulgar right now," said Buckley, an editor at Allure magazine. Loath to be seen loading freezer-size parcels into the back of a waiting cab, she finds herself shopping at under-the-radar soirees in the homes of her friends.
Buckley is one in a coterie of shoppers turning their backs on conspicuous consumption but trawling for treasures nonetheless at invitation-only shopping events springing up in hotel suites, at private showrooms or in the well-appointed parlors of their peers. Feeling the pangs of conscience, they are shopping on the down-low, finding deals in places that are the retail equivalent of a safari on a private game reserve.
"People don't want to be as public about shopping for luxury goods as they were in the past," said Robert Burke, a luxury retail consultant in New York. "It's a feel-good way to buy, and this is a time for feel-good things."
Such covert shopping has long been enjoyed by the upper crust, people who could pay six figures for diamond-and-sapphire brooch or sable wrap — and the privilege of exclusivity. But in the current climate, stealth consumption has gained a more potent appeal, taking place at gatherings with an insiders' feel.
"We're like a little secret that people want to share, but not with just anybody," said Eve Goldberg, an owner of William Goldberg, a diamond dealer in New York. Goldberg's company recently opened a salon that caters to clients who prefer to shop discreetly.
"People are saying: 'It's that time of year; I want to buy something, but I feel a little weird,' " Goldberg said. "Often they tell me, 'I don't want to be out there making an announcement with a big bag that says Harry Winston.' "
Private dealers, many of them dilettantes who acquire their wares from designer friends, at trade shows and from dealers and artisans in exotic locales, are the bane of recession-battered high-end merchants. Established retailers are hard pressed to compete with such luxury pop-up shops while maintaining inventories and absorbing the high costs of operating their businesses.
But under-the-radar parties offer the well heeled, and the well connected, a chance to snap up temptations without an inner censor chiding them for their spendthrift ways.
"There is certainly a stigma to spending openly in this economy," said Eric Spangenberg, a consumer psychologist and the dean of the business school at Washington State University. "These people don't want to appear flippant by disregarding the woes of the economy," he said, "but they still want to get their shop on, and they're going to find a way."
Those who cannot wean themselves off the shopping habit flock to events that are, in Spangenberg's phrase, "the high-end equivalent of a Tupperware party." There they trade gossip and air kisses — and spring for crewelwork pashminas or pavé diamond pet collars.
Sure, they are shopping. "But they are also enjoying the camaraderie and a social experience," said Joan Horton, an event planner and decorator who offered a selection of shrugs she bought during buying trips abroad. Last week she displayed those items, sold under the Shrug Shop label, at a lavish three-day shopathon in the apartment of a friend.
The gathering, the brainchild of a clutch of freelance stylists, designers and merchants, offered handmade Balinese lace blouses, ikat patterned tablecloths, Indian shawls, snakeskin bags and Bakelite bangles.
"We were looking for a retail outlet," said Amy Eller, an organizer of the event. But then the Dow went into free fall, putting a crimp in their plans. "We decided we would just become a floating marketplace," she said.
That marketplace took the form of a haute bohemian souk on Park Avenue, stocked with items priced from $25 to $700, shown off against a backdrop of crimson walls, 19th-century lithographs and faux leopard carpeting worthy of Elsie de Wolfe. Ten percent of the proceeds from the event, which drew about 300 guests and took in an estimated $60,000, went to VetDogs, which provides service dogs for disabled veterans.
"People like the private atmosphere," Eller said. "And they also felt they were giving back a little while they shopped."
SIMILAR opportunities for altruism may have eased the consciences of the 250 guests at the International Fashion party, a by-invitation event held last week at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco to benefit Rebekah Children's Services, which aids children with emotional and behavioral problems. But the party, which attracted the social figures Vanessa Getty, Sloan Barnett and the wives of several Silicon Valley executives, was also a magnet for trophy hunters. Filigreed chokers and diamond-studded earrings with an ornate Asian cast were offered alongside hair and eyelash extensions and a rack of furs supplied by Saks Fifth Avenue, which saw an opportunity to reach affluent clients. Prices ranged from $100 to $10,000 — or, furs apart, about 10 percent above the wholesale cost.
"We don't need to mark up items so much as a store might," said Dorothy Toressi, an organizer of the benefit. "We don't need to hold inventories or pay salaries or other costs of overhead."
After checking in at the door and filing by a phalanx of security guards, guests sipped Champagne, fingered baubles arranged on muslin-draped tables and tested the heft of new handbags, happy all the while to be mingling with their own.
"These parties can be social networking opportunities," said Susanna Stratton-Norris, a London-based knitwear designer who offered her opulent cashmeres for sale last month in a suite at the Regency Hotel in New York. She pulled her guest list together from a roster of clients she had cultivated in an earlier career as a decorator.
"These people felt as if they belonged to a club," Stratton-Norris said, one that caters to their tastes "and where they could meet like-minded people." Socially at ease, they were free to indulge an acquisitive streak, "not embarrassed to purchase in multiples or to tell me, 'I'll have one of these in every color.' "
Other covert shoppers conduct their operations on the Web.
"It seems counterintuitive, but the big ticket items are flying out," said Ricky Serbin of Ricky's Exceptional Treasures, a luxury resale store on eBay. Serbin said that in one week in November, he sold three Oscar de la Renta gowns, each for about $3,000. In flusher times they might have languished while shoppers indulged a yen for finery at luxury boutiques and upscale department stores.
What's changed? "People like the anonymity of the Web," Serbin suggested. "No one can see you coming out of Neiman Marcus moving a ball gown."
Tatiana Sorokko, who recently bought a Ralph Rucci ensemble from Serbin, supported that theory. "In this economy, the people I know are making adjustments. Their transactions tend to be between themselves and the seller," said Sorokko, a former model and the owner with her husband, Serge, of a gallery in San Francisco.
Stealth shopping provides the satisfaction of "buying something special from a person who you trust," she said. "But you haven't gone public. No one will talk."
David Brooks: Your envoy's report
Friday, December 12, 2008
Your Excellency,
Your humble ambassador requests the honor of your time so that he may apprise you of the mood and conditions in Washington. Seeking nothing for himself, but only seeking to serve your most Serene Majesty, your ambassador has been working tirelessly to understand the spirit of the U.S. capital.
Your ambassador discerns three emotions. At the most obvious level, the capital is enjoying a season of rebirth. Sixty-seven percent to 75 percent of Americans have positive feelings toward Barack Obama and his transition. Perhaps up to 4 million people will attend the inauguration, possibly filling the entire space between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
Washingtonians do not speak of this as a political transition. They speak of the inaugural as a cultural, psychological and historic event. It seems to have become, in their minds, like an ancient tribal rite - the purging of sin, the elevation of the pure, the moral regeneration of the nation's soul. It would not surprise your ambassador if the Americans were to throw a sacrificial goat into a volcano as part of the primal offerings.
Second, there is a feeling of audacity sweeping the ruling circles. America's rulers have widened their eyes, enlarged their perspectives.
For example, zeros have lost their meanings. The amount of consideration once devoted to a proposal costing $3 billion is now devoted to a proposal costing $300 billion. Americans have entered the age of budgetary infinity.
Once a $100 billion stimulus package was large, but now the stimulus proposals have passed through $300 billion to $500 billion on their way to infinity. Some Americans believe the automakers should be bailed out even without the reforms proposed by Senator Bob Corker. But without those reforms, which were shot down in the Senate on Thursday night, the bailouts would go on and on into infinity.
Once, Americans considered health care and energy reform to be gigantic undertakings. Now President-elect Obama describes these initiatives as mere subplots in his economic rescue effort. Analysts casually tick off the elements of the Obama plan: Enact the largest infrastructure project in 50 years, initiate the broadest tax cut in history, reorganize 14 percent of the U.S. economy, replace the carbon-based economy with a renewable-energy economy, restructure the auto industry.
Democrats also talk about passing a stimulus plan on Day One. That is, they seek to pass a piece of legislation perhaps equal to half the federal budget without a single hearing or a second of floor debate. Your humble ambassador has not seen the Americans in such a fit of transformational zeal since the run-up to the Iraq war.
Something has been revealed about the psychology of the nation's capital. When investors in New York become gripped by fear, they pull inward. When Washingtonians are gripped by fear, they rush outward, with bigger and more daring plans. The risk tolerance in the financial world has shrunk to zero, but the risk tolerance in the political world has risen to infinity.
Once America was a decentralized country, but now all roads lead to Washington. Mighty CEO's abase themselves before junior House members. Governors and mayors come groveling. The status of the lowliest bureaucrat has risen delightfully, and there is a feeling of overflowing abundance amid the national scarcity as Washington spends the trillions it doesn't have. Such is the local boom that your humble ambassador can drive from his residence, and in a few minutes he can count 10 McMansions under construction.
And this leads, sad to say, to the third layer of emotion: anxiety.
Many of those swept up in the excitement of this moment also have the nagging sensation that perhaps the laws of gravity, economics and history have not been repealed. Perhaps Obama's talents, while great, are not as great as his self-confidence. Perhaps the New Deal paradigm everybody is applying doesn't actually fit the circumstances. Certainly something big needs to be done, but perhaps in the doing, some unholiness is being unwittingly and rashly created.
Why is it, some ask, that America is so slavishly following the same failed route earlier taken by the Japanese - from bank capitalization, to industrial bailouts to infrastructure spending? Why is it that the pork-meisters in Congress are already distorting the best-laid stimulus plans? Why are there so few saying "no" to any budget request? Why do so many of the plans being offered rely upon a Magic Technocrat - an all-knowing Car Czar who can reorganize Detroit, an all-seeing team of Olympians who decide which medicines doctors will be allowed to prescribe?
The wisest Americans are throwing piles of money around, while looking nervously for signs of fiscal ruin. Your humble ambassador will remain your eyes and ears, and will scoop up any stray billions he finds lying around.
Youths throw firebombs in Athens in 7th day of violence
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
ATHENS: Youths hurled rocks and firebombs Friday, as the seventh straight day of riots triggered by the police killing of a teenager tapped into anger at the government's fiscal policies. Officers responded to the new violence with stun grenades and tear gas.
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, however, rebuffed calls to resign and hold early elections, insisting that a steady hand was needed in times of financial crisis.
Terrified workers in banks on the central Syntagma Square in Athens watched in fear as protesters shattered windows replaced just days ago after being damaged in the worst riots Greece has experienced in decades.
Protesters also smashed their way into the main branch of the National Bank of Greece, sending employees fleeing in panic. A protester walked up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside Parliament and threw a black-and-red anarchist flag at it.
The riots broke out within hours of the police shooting death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos last Saturday and have since expanded to encompass general anger about economic hardship. Hundreds of stores and dozens of cars have been destroyed or damaged across the country.
"What started as an outburst of rage over Alexandros's killing is now becoming a more organized form of protest," said Petros Constantinou of the Socialist Workers Party.
The violence has hammered Karamanlis's increasingly conservative government, which already faced vociferous opposition to economic and social reforms.
Karamanlis, whose party has only a single-seat majority in Parliament, explicitly rejected mounting calls for him to resign, saying Friday that Greece needed to focus instead on the global financial crisis.
"That is my concern and the concern and the priority of the government, and not scenarios about elections and successions," Karamanlis said in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of European Union leaders on climate change.
Protesters, occupying high schools and universities, are demanding a reversal of public spending cuts, the resignation of the country's interior minister and the release from custody of arrested riot suspects.
About 100 people have been arrested during the riots and 70 injured.
Protesters also briefly occupied a private Athens radio station Friday and read a statement on the air. A municipal building in the northwestern city of Ioannina was occupied.
The two police officers involved in the shooting have been jailed pending trial, one on manslaughter charges and the other as an accomplice. They contend that they were attacked by a group of youths and that one officer had fired warning shots, but witnesses have disputed the claim.
The officers' defense lawyer, Alexis Cougias, said ballistics testing of the bullet that killed Grigoropoulos showed it had ricocheted. The ballistics report has not been made public.
The Greek police will review their firearms policy, Panayiotis Chinofotis, the deputy minister for public order, said Friday.
The unrest has also spilled over into other European cities, raising concerns that the clashes could be a trigger for opponents of globalization, disaffected youth and others outraged by the Continent's economic turmoil and soaring unemployment.
EU aims to up military goals amid Congo inaction
Friday, December 12, 2008
By David Brunnstrom
European Union leaders were set on Friday to adopt goals on expanding military capabilities to respond to crises, even after failing to meet a U.N. plea for an emergency force for Congo.
A draft statement from a Brussels summit repeated a goal of being able to deploy a force of 60,000 to a major crisis within 60 days. The bloc should also be able to plan and conduct more than 20 missions simultaneously, including stabilisation and reconstruction and rapid response operations, it said.
However, the timeframe for the 60,000-strong force first mooted in 1999, which has slipped from 2003 to 2010, is now stated vaguely as "in the years ahead."
The EU is hopes to become a global player in the foreign and security sphere, but the aim has been hobbled by an inability to present a united political response, and shortfalls in equipment and interoperability that the draft says must be corrected.
On Thursday, EU foreign ministers were unable to agree on a response to a request by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a "bridging force" to help a 17,000-strong U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo known by the French acronym MONUC.
EU diplomats said those who want the force were dealt a blow when EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel told the meeting that an EU force was not needed.
Karel De Gucht, foreign minister of Belgium, the former colonial power in Congo and an advocate of EU intervention, told reporters: "Everybody agrees there is a serious problem but political will and means have not been deployed to try to find a solution."
"Its about moral responsibility, it bothers me that the biggest economic power in the world does not succeed in alleviating human suffering, it bothers me fundamentally as a human being."
He said he disagreed with Michel -- also Belgian -- that the problem could be resolved through political dialogue.
"I don't share this view because it means putting all your hopes in the protagonists ... it's the wrong assessment."
He and others ministers questioned why the deployment should be a problem when the European Union had fast response battle groups on standby -- one led by Britain, the other by Germany.
"What I find strange is that a couple of these battle groups only exist on paper and not in reality," de Gucht said. "The UK says 'we don't have troops', but they are leading the battle group, so who is leading these battle groups then?"
On Thursday, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the Congo issue was a test of the battle group concept.
"If it is worth anything it could be used; if it can't be used we have to question the concept of it," he said.
Britain has repeated its position favouring strengthening the existing U.N. force in Congo rather than a separate one.
"A single chain of command is always important," Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Reuters on Thursday. "EU members can contribute to MONUC and that's the first port of call."
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander and Yvonne Bell; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Thank you for oversharing
By Alex BeamThe Boston Globe
Friday, December 12, 2008
Last month, the writer Lauren Slater published a column in The New York Times about her lack of interest in making love with her husband. Lauren, whom I know a little, is a veteran revealer, so the notion that she would share the intimacies of the marriage bed with millions of readers was nothing new. Over the years, she has written about her struggles with cancer, depression and suicidal thoughts.
This piece seemed ever more cringe-inducing because it involved her husband of 10 years (eager for "hot sex") and her children, who someday may read about Mommy's first orgasm, her torrid affair with a man not her fiance, and the onset of her personal Big Chill: Sex "interests me these days about as much as playing checkers," she wrote.
"I often feel very disconnected from the pieces after they are published," Lauren e-mailed. "My goal is certainly not to attract attention. That what I feel is controversial surprises me as it is not my intention." Yet after reading her column, I wondered: Did we really need to know?
Oversharing, of course, is the default setting in modern American letters. Elizabeth Wurtzel's wild tales of sex and personal degradation in her 1994 "Prozac Nation" demonstrated the wild alchemy that translates self-abasement into best-selling books. (Slater probed this same territory in her somewhat more subdued 1998 memoir, "Prozac Diary.") A friend directed me to Michael Ryan's icky 1995 memoir, "Secret Life," detailing his serial seductions of students while teaching at Princeton.
The second exhibit in today's Too Much Information museum would be the just-published authorized biography of novelist V.S. Naipaul. Social niceties have never meant much to the Trinidadian-born 2001 Nobel laureate, but Patrick French's biography, "The World Is What It Is," paints its subject in the darkest tones imaginable.
Naipaul gave French access to family diaries and correspondence that revealed the writer's systematic psychological torture of his first wife, Pat, as well as accounts of him beating his longtime mistress, Margaret Gooding, black and blue.
"Even more shocking than certain details of Mr. Naipaul's life is his willingness to share them," Martin Rubin wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Mr. Naipaul seems to be lashing himself into an orgy of public remorse."
I asked French what prompted Naipaul to unleash himself with such fury on his deceased wife and his still-living mistress? "To him the material might not seem so horrific, because he has those experiences sitting in his mind, and they've been there for a long time," the biographer said. "He tends to detach himself from the consequences of his own actions."
Also in the bookstores is the reigning Queen of Oversharing, Susan Cheever, who has just published "Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction." This follows an earlier work about her addiction to alcohol, and a memoir in which she disclosed the homosexuality of her father, the writer John Cheever. When her mother voiced reservations about the disclosure, Susan informed a Boston Globe interviewer: "My mother is no one."
In "Desire," Cheever "wants you to know that she has had sex - a lot of sex - with all sorts of men," Chelsea Cain wrote in a not very flattering New York Times review. "She has committed adultery. She has been up to hanky-panky in hotel rooms. She has made eyes at lawyers and book salesmen and the guys from the moving company."
TMI, as the youthful txters say? Too Much Information? "Some people think I overshare, some people think I undershare," Cheever told me. "For a long time I wrote to bear witness, now I have the motivation of a teacher. Memoirs have been a democratizing force in literature: The voices that didn't get heard were the voices of addiction, of alcoholism, of eating disorders. If artists worried about what people thought, there wouldn't be any art."
When I mentioned Cain's cheerily dismissive book review, Cheever countered: "People never review my books, they just end up reviewing me." But isn't that because ... Oh, never mind.
Book Review: 'Martial's Epigrams'
By Steve Coates
Friday, December 12, 2008
Martial's Epigrams A Selection. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. 205 pages. Viking. $24.95; £18.99.
You have to admire a scholar who can produce a small library of erudite, elegant and accessible books on American history, the New Testament and his own powerful brand of Roman Catholicism, winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. And you have to be impressed by a plucky Spanish provincial, in the dangerous days of Nero and Domitian, who could manage to earn a handsome living writing dirty poems for the urban sophisticates of ancient Rome. But can you condone what they get up to under a single set of covers? "Martial's Epigrams," Garry Wills's enthusiastic verse translations of Marcus Valerius Martialis, Rome's most anatomically explicit poet, offers a chance to find out.
The pairing is not as counterintuitive as one might imagine. Wills, who has a Ph.D. in classics and who once taught ancient Greek at Johns Hopkins, has long kept a foot in the ancient world. His Pulitzer winner, "Lincoln at Gettysburg," brilliantly analyzed Lincoln's greatest speech in terms of the conventions of ancient Greek funeral orations, and he has also translated the Latin of St. Augustine's "Confessions."
Martial, though, was no saint. Arriving in Rome around A.D. 64, he spent much of the next four decades composing short topical verse about life in the big city, an urban panorama as broad, as varied and as full of depraved humanity as any to have survived from classical times. In conventional but nimble Latin meters, he wrote gory epigrams about the Colosseum, sycophantic ones to flatter the ruler of the day, tender ones about such topics as a slave girl's early death and, above all, comic ones aimed squarely at Roman society's foibles. Preoccupations including combovers, stingy hosts, medical quacks, the poetry racket, the futility of cosmetics, consumptive heiresses and one-eyed women lend his books the ambience of a front-row seat at the Roman carnival.
Modern readers, however, are drawn to Martial mostly for his scorpion-tailed epigrams of sexual invective, written, limerick- and graffiti-like, as raunchy entertainment. Even by today's standards, many are grotesquely obscene; Martial takes us down some of Rome's sleaziest streets ("I write, I must confess, for dirtier readers, / My verse does not attract the nation's leaders").
If Martial's poems weren't saintly, though, they were all in good fun ("My poetry is filthy - but not I," he insisted). His targets were types, not real people, and many of his outrageous sketches, it has been rightly said, "come no closer to plausible reality than a Victorian Punch cartoon." In this spirit, Martial riffs endlessly on prostitution, marital infidelity, oral sex, pederasty, exhibitionism, unapproved modes of homosexuality, and incest ("Of course we know he'll never wed. / What? Put his sister out of bed?"). Roman sexual humor, it seems, when not simply gross-out comic description of intimate body parts - Martial wrote a notorious poem involving a loquacious vagina - hinged largely on the question of who might be on the passive end of any copulatory squirming ("I thought 'twas you that played the man / But find receive is all you can").
In the case of lines far more lubriciously explicit than these, Wills embraces the Roman poet's copious Latin obscenities in tumescent Anglo-Saxon translations, and in this sense certainly conveys the authentic Martial. He suggests that his happy-go-lucky rhyming verse and dogged meters work toward the same end, preserving some of the strict formality of Martial's elegiacs and hendecasyllables. But in fact, Wills's commitment to rhyme, not a significant concern for Latin poets, forces his syntactical hand and allows much of the real Martial to fall between the cracks. One neat example is a two-line poem that Wills translates: "Her teeth look whiter than they ought. / Of course they should - the teeth were bought." A prose version reveals that Martial was able to insult not one woman but two in the same space: "Thais's teeth are black, Laecania's snow-white. The reason? The latter has ones she bought, the former her own."
Most of Wills's translations, denuded of Martial's enlivening proper names, are impressionistic in this same way, and readers wanting to get closer to the Latin text would be much better off picking up a volume or two of the well-annotated Loeb Classical Library prose edition by the great Latinist, textual critic and translator D. R. Shackleton Bailey, who died in 2005.
Educated Romans often translated Greek poetry, or even tried their hands at epigrams, as a cultured way of amusing themselves. From Wills's affectionately rambunctious dedication to the same Shackleton Bailey ("Martialissimo" - essentially, "Martial to the max") to the acknowledgments' revelation that most of these poems were translated at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve in Rome and the Grand Hotel Continental in Siena, this collection bespeaks a great scholar at play. Recreational classicists should feel flattered that he wants them to watch.
Book Review: 'The Jewel Of Medina'
By Lorraine Adams
Friday, December 12, 2008
The Jewel Of Medina By Sherry Jones. 358 pages. Beaufort Books, $24.95.
For some devout Muslims, perhaps the most objectionable chapter in Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" concerned a brothel where prostitutes used the names of Muhammad's 11 wives. For certain pious Christians, the most offensive aspect of Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" was the dream sequence of Christ's marrying Mary Magdalene and then becoming involved with two other women. Both 1988 works ignited violence. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued the fatwa that forced Rushdie into hiding and led to deadly riots, bombings of British bookstores and the fatal stabbing of the book's Japanese translator. The most dramatic incident associated with Scorsese's film occurred when a Paris theater where it was playing was gutted, apparently by an arson attack, sending 13 people to the hospital.
Now, 20 years later, Sherry Jones, a Montana and Idaho correspondent for the Bureau of National Affairs, a specialty news service covering legislative and regulatory issues, has written a novel from the point of view of Muhammad's third and youngest wife, A'isha. Most accounts agree that she was 6 at their engagement, 9 at their wedding and 14 when publicly accused of adultery. The novel's story line coincides with a pivotal time in Islamic history - the 10 years beginning with Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622 and ending with his death at age 62. His actions during that period have also been seized upon by Western commentators and poets as proof of Muhammad's unmanageable sexual appetite and self-serving declaration of divine revelation. Among the most contested criticisms of Muhammad are his taking of many more than the four wives he decreed as the limit for other men and his edict, supposedly inspired by Allah, requiring his wives to be placed behind a curtain, the basis for the veiling of Muslim women. Both matters are fictionalized in Jones's novel, which was scheduled to be published by the Random House imprint Ballantine until controversy intervened.
The most authoritative contemporary English-language account of A'isha - "Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A'isha Bint Abi Bakr" ' is not listed as one of Jones's sources. But its author, Denise Spellberg, played a role in Random House's decision to abandon the book. According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay last August, "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad," Spellberg received an advance copy, usually sent to solicit a blurb, and responded instead with a warning that Jones's novel could incite violence from Muslim extremists. An associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Austin, Spellberg also emphasized that she supported freedom of expression. "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,' " she told the essay's author, Asra Q. Nomani. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography."
Rushdie defended Jones's novel (although it's not clear he read it), declaring "this is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed." The following month, the small New York press Beaufort Books (which also published O. J. Simpson's "If I Did It" after another publisher scotched the project) bought the novel. A few weeks later, somebody pushed a firebomb through the mail slot at the home office of Jones's London publisher.
In a Q. and A. included in "The Jewel of Medina," Jones explains that she first became interested in A'isha in 2002 after the American invasion of Afghanistan. "I discovered that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives and concubines. Being unable to find very much information about any of them made me want to tell their stories to the world." Most Muslims would be surprised to hear that these women's stories were little known - they've been an object of scholarly debate and political maneuvering since the seventh century. They're also firmly entrenched in contemporary Muslim popular culture.
A'isha in particular is, as Spellberg has pointed out, at the center of key disagreements between the Shia and Sunni sects. Her father, Abu Bakr, was the first caliph. Shiites consider him a usurper and place Ali - whom A'isha led armed forces against in the first Muslim civil war - as the true heir of Muhammad. For Sunnis, A'isha is an exemplary woman, in part because of a Koranic revelation exonerating her from the charge of adultery.
One of Rushdie's characters in "Satanic Verses" makes much of her, suggesting that Muhammad's forgiveness of A'isha arose from personal preference, not divine inspiration. Jones doesn't go that far: regarding A'isha's exoneration, she follows Sunni tradition. Yet, like Rushdie, Jones looks through A'isha's eyes to question Muhammad's revelation concerning the curtain and his motives for his many marriages. Jones's novel stops short of the blasphemy "The Satanic Verses" was accused of: her A'isha accepts the curtain revelation as divine even though she passionately dislikes it. And she jealously believes that Muhammad's multiple marriages are motivated at least partly by desire ' not, as he tells her, to make strategic alliances.
Jones's novel accurately conveys A'isha's overall jealousy and her outspokenness, Muhammad's exasperated monthlong retreat from his squabbling harem, his marked preference for A'isha and his death in her arms. Jones alters early Islamic versions of A'isha's life - the first of which was written 150 years after Muhammad's death - in relatively few aspects. She transforms A'isha into a sword fighter. She makes her a precocious military strategist. She depicts her kissing a man she was briefly engaged to prior to Muhammad, her accused partner in the adultery episode. The record doesn't mention kissing, and the man was not engaged to A'isha. Jones also inserts a Turkish custom ' the choosing of a harem's premier wife, or hatun' unknown in seventh-century Arabia.
Spellberg's characterization of "The Jewel of Medina" as soft porn doesn't hold up, since the language describing A'isha and Muhammad's conjugal relations is always euphemistic and most often juvenile. The novel is, in fact, an example of that subspecies of genre fiction, "historical romance." Yet even judged by that standard, Jones's prose is lamentable. Here's A'isha as a girl, peeping at a couple in the throes of passion: "I stared at his behind, as big as my goat's-bladder ball and covered with hair." The Prophet isn't spared either: "Desire? Muhammad was having so many of them at that moment, they clashed like lightning bolts on his face."
An inexperienced, untalented author has naïvely stepped into an intense and deeply sensitive intellectual argument. She has conducted enough research to reimagine the accepted versions of Muhammad's marriage to A'isha, thus offending the religious audience, but not nearly enough to enlighten the ordinary Western reader. Should free-speech advocates champion "The Jewel of Medina"? In the American context, the answer is unclear. The Constitution protects pornography and neo-Nazi T-shirts, but great writers don't generally applaud them. If Jones's work doesn't reach those repugnant extremes, neither does it qualify as art. It is telling that PEN, the international association of writers that works to advance literature and defend free expression, has remained silent on the subject of this novel. Their stance seems just about right.

The simple life: Finding peace in upstate New York
By Shivani Vora
Friday, December 12, 2008
It began at 4:30 on a Saturday morning.
The three dozen participants started out with two half-hour Buddhist meditation sessions before dawn. They then spent the next two hours doing what's called work practice, which consisted of scrubbing toilets and raking leaves, all in silence. An afternoon of instruction on the essentials of Buddhism led to more meditation, cleaning the dinner dishes, and sleeping in dorm-style accommodations. Sunday was an abbreviated version of the day before.
Perhaps what was the most unusual aspect of this austere weekend at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, was that many of the attendees were not adherents of Eastern religious practices, but were part of an increasing number of nonbelievers who are seeking stress-free, spiritual and often inexpensive weekend breaks at local ashrams (isolated communities formed around a guru who follows Hindu philosophy) and Buddhist monasteries (residences for monks).
Philipp Malkmus, a 30-year-old consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the rigorous agenda at Zen Mountain Monastery over the Halloween weekend actually left him refreshed. "It wasn't fun in the traditional sense, but it was the opposite of my life in New York City and a return to a very uncomplicated way of living," he said. "It gave me the rest and relaxation I was looking for."
Zen Mountain is just one example of an ashram or monastery in upstate New York that promises to recharge the mind and spirit of its guests with a combination of simplicity and meditation, served up on a tight schedule. At least half a dozen of these spiritual retreats are tucked away among the Catskill Mountains.
Most have been around for several decades, but until recently their visitors were mainly practicing Buddhists, serious yoga students or devotees of an ashram's guru. Today, these spots are attracting clientele from the surrounding metropolitan areas who've had limited interaction with Eastern religions, yoga or a spiritual guru. Like Malkmus, who spent several months before his trip clocking 60-hour workweeks, more nonbelievers are coming to experience the rigors of an ashram or monastery as a way to escape.
At Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, an ashram in Stone Ridge founded in 1997 on the principles of Swami Vivekananda, for example, Pravrajika Gitaprana, the minister in residence, estimated that half of the roughly 100 guests the ashram sees every year aren't followers of the swami. Five years ago, she said, almost all were.
Jennifer Schmid, the marketing director for Ananda Ashram in Monroe, said that many of the guests in the past few years had no knowledge of the ashram's guru, Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, before visiting. "It used to be that most of the people coming to stay here had read our guru's writings or had studied with him," she said. "Today, people are realizing that we're a place they come to for refuge. They don't necessarily know anything about our guru or know that we even have a guru."
Malkmus had no prior knowledge of Buddhism or meditation before his stay at Zen Mountain. He discovered the monastery when he was searching the Internet for a weekend getaway in the Catskills. He chose to stay there, he said, because it represented the antithesis of his life of technology overdrive and constant action. "I've done lots of local trips to places like Fire Island and the Jersey Shore," he said. "The scenery changes, but the vibe doesn't. This has a back-to-the-basics approach that's unlike anything I've ever done."
It's the spartan living style and firm scheduling at these retreats that make them increasingly popular as an alternative vacation option. Harried urbanites can spend whole days without making a decision or facing a crisis, without trying to find a cab in the rain or worrying about a client. The activities are predetermined and tightly scheduled: meditation, chanting religious verses, doing chores around the property and silent self-contemplation.
The retreats' accessibility to several metropolitan areas and their affordability also enhance their appeal at a time when the economy is weak.
Schmid said that Ananda Ashram has been booked to its capacity of 50 guests nearly weekend, even in the winter, for the past two years. It is a marked change from when the ashram was not even half full during colder months. And the Introduction to Zen program that Malkmus participated in at Zen Mountain currently attracts 35 to 40 guests most weekends, up 25 percent from 10 years ago, said Ryushin Osho, a resident monk.
It's generally stress — whether personal or job related — that drives guests to choose one of these spiritual getaways, according to surveyed clientele and the staff at ashrams and monasteries. Melissa Poller spent a weekend at the Dai Bosatsu Zendo monastery in Livingston Manor last May in an effort to ease her incessant worrying about her job in technology services. Its routine is similar to Zen Mountain's, but with communication limited to only essential talking during much of the retreat, since activities such as eating and chores are viewed as a form of meditation. Poller said it was mentally and physically challenging to sit still and not talk for such long periods but that she felt free from stress for the first time in several months. "You push yourself to a limit," said Poller, a 30-year-old Brooklyn resident, "but the experience gave me a lot of clarity and peace and helped me cope with my constant anxiety."
Stays at monasteries such as Dai Bosatsu tend to be stricter than those at ashrams. At Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, a picturesque 77-acre spot surrounded by woods in Woodbourne, for example, days begin at 6 a.m. with meditation and chanting, a two-hour yoga class and an hour of chores around the property. In the afternoons, ashram residents or outside speakers usually present workshops on topics such as "The Essentials of Yoga" and conduct question-and-answer sessions on meditation. But guests also have free time each day to go on staff-guided nature walks or relax in a 12-person wood-burning Russian sauna.
Grace Lee, a 32-year-old from New York City working in pharmaceutical research, stayed at Sivananda in October when a breakup with her long-term boyfriend, on top of an already stressful three-hour commute to and from work every day, began to affect her mental and physical health. "I was tense and fatigued all the time," she said, "and the massages I was getting at fancy spas were doing nothing for the knots in my neck."
Lee remembered the handful of yoga classes she had taken at various gyms as being relaxing and thought a few days of intense practice might be her ticket to unwinding. She came across Sivananda while researching yoga vacations, and though she's an avid globetrotter who has visited 32 countries, she said that the ashram's proximity to home was a deciding factor. "It's stressful to go to the airport and worry about lost luggage and the other negatives of flying," she said. "This is close to home, but it feels so far away and gives you the feeling that you've really disconnected from everything."
The days are lush with spiritual offerings, but the accommodations at Sivananda and other such sites are in line with the most barebones European youth hostel. At Ananda Ashram, for instance, housing is either dorm-style, single-sex quarters that sleep four to six or semi-private rooms with two single beds. Bathrooms are shared.
What they lack in deluxe lodgings, however, ashrams and monasteries more than make up in meals, which can rival those at an upscale spa. They're almost always buffet style vegetarian affairs and incorporate locally grown produce and organic products. On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Ananda's high school-like dining hall, lunch featured six varieties of breads, including spelt and sprouted, roasted herbed potatoes, a vegan tomato bisque, orzo salad, pineapple-and-vegetable stir-fry, lemon bars, and apples and pears from a nearby farm. Nearly everything is made from scratch, including the ketchup, salad dressings and even tempeh.
Stays at ashrams and monasteries are all-inclusive and usually include accommodations, activities and three meals a day. Prices are as low as $60 a night for dorm-style rooms. Poller said the $200 cost for her weekend trip to Dai Bosatsu made the decision to go that much easier. "In the current economy, I worry about money," she said. "I'm trying to find ways to go away without spending so much money, and this is really inexpensive."
Although they're in vacation settings, the residents emphasize, these are not hotels for travelers looking for a cheap place to stay for a few nights. Pravrajika Gitaprana said anyone making a reservation at Vivekananda Retreat was told that participation in the meditation sessions and classes was encouraged. And Jokei Kyodo, a resident at Dai Bosatsu, said the monastery is not a resort for guests looking to put their feet up. "I had a lady who called me recently and said she had a few extra vacation days she needed to use up," she said. "We want people to come here and make a commitment to our Zen practice, which isn't exactly comfortable."
And while all the monasteries and ashrams surveyed said they weren't attempting to convert guests to any particular religion or guru and only wanted to provide spiritual solace, many guests find the getaways alluring enough to make a second trip. Ian Reclusado, a 28-year-old project manager in account sales from New York, stayed at Zen Monastery over a weekend in October and intends to go back for an intense weeklong session that involves 10 hours of meditation a day, and both Poller and Lee found their visits to Dai Bosatsu and Sivananda so beneficial that they've already returned for more stays.
Still, some say one visit is sufficient to give them what they were searching for. "It's not like I'm a die-hard Buddhist after this," said Malkmus of his weekend at Zen Mountain. "I wanted to get away from the permanent noise in New York City and get a break, and that's exactly what I got."
Ananda Ashram, Monroe (845-782-5575; Late risers will appreciate the 8 a.m. start time to most days. The ashram holds several kinds of yoga classes, including hatha, anusara and vinyasa, and has a theater that shows dance performances and plays.
Blue Cliff Monastery, Pine Bush (845-733-4959; This Vietnamese Buddhist monastery opened in June 2007 in an old conference center. Meals are vegan, and students and those 65 and older get a discount on overnight stays.
Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Livingston Manor (845-439-4566; Open to guests from March through June and September through November, for monthly Introduction to Zen retreats. Everyone must adhere to the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls, work practice and silence.
Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, Woodstock (845-679-5906; Days at this Woodstock monastery begin at 5 a.m. with chanting and meditation followed on weekends by Buddhist teachings. Afternoons repeat the morning schedule.
Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, Woodbourne (845-436-6492; Founded in 1976 on the principles of hatha yoga, the ashram offers four hours of yoga a day in this style. It also has special programs, such as juice fasting and family weeks.
Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, Stone Ridge (845-687-4574; It has twice daily meditation sessions and often offers classes on yoga sutras or Vedantic scriptures but builds in four hours of unstructured time a day.
Zen Mountain Monastery, Mount Tremper (845-688-2228; In addition to retreats, guests can visit this 230-acre property on most Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for an introduction to meditation and Buddhism.
Scare tactics don't work
By Martin Lindstrom
Friday, December 12, 2008
Ten years ago, in settling the largest civil lawsuit in American history, Big Tobacco agreed to pay the 50 states $246 billion, which they've used in part to finance efforts to prevent smoking. The percentage of American adults who smoke has fallen since then to just over 20 percent from nearly 30 percent, but smoking is still the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States, and smoking-related health care costs more than $167 billion a year.
To reduce this cost, the incoming Obama administration should abandon one antismoking strategy that isn't working.
A key component of the Food and Drug Administration's approach to smoking prevention is to warn about health dangers: Smoking causes fatal lung cancer; smoking causes emphysema; smoking while pregnant causes birth defects.
Compared with warnings issued by other nations, these statements are low-key. From Canada to Thailand, Australia to Brazil, warnings on cigarette packs include vivid images of lung tumors, limbs turned gangrenous by peripheral vascular disease and open sores and deteriorating teeth caused by mouth and throat cancers. In October, Britain became the first European country to require similar gruesome images on packaging.
But such warnings don't work. Worldwide, people continue to inhale 5.7 trillion cigarettes annually - a figure that doesn't even take into account duty-free or black-market cigarettes. According to World Bank projections, the number of smokers is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2025, from the current 1.3 billion.
A brain-imaging experiment I conducted in 2006 explains why antismoking scare tactics have been so futile. I examined people's brain activity as they reacted to cigarette warning labels by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a scanning technique that can show how much oxygen and glucose a particular area of the brain uses while it works, allowing us to observe which specific regions are active at any given time.
We tested 32 people (from Britain, China, Germany, Japan and the United States), some of whom were social smokers and some of whom were two-pack-a-day addicts. Most of these subjects reported that cigarette warning labels reduced their craving for a cigarette, but their brains told us a different story.
Each subject lay in the scanner for about an hour while we projected on a small screen a series of cigarette package labels from various countries - including statements like "smoking kills" and "smoking causes fatal lung cancers." We found that the warnings prompted no blood flow to the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers alarm, or to the part of the cortex that would be involved in any effort to register disapproval.
To the contrary, the warning labels backfired: They stimulated the nucleus accumbens, sometimes called the "craving spot," which lights up on f.M.R.I. whenever a person craves something, whether it's alcohol, drugs, tobacco or gambling.
Further investigation is needed, but our study has already revealed an unintended consequence of antismoking health warnings. They appear to work mainly as a marketing tool to keep smokers smoking.
Barack Obama has said he's been using nicotine gum to fight his own cigarette habit. His new administration can help other smokers quit, too, by eliminating the government scare tactics that only increase people's craving.
Martin Lindstrom is the author of "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy."

Russian police investigate grisly murder of migrant worker
By Michael Schwirtz
Friday, December 12, 2008
MOSCOW: The police in Moscow are investigating the ghastly murder of a Central Asian migrant worker, who was stabbed several times and decapitated in an apparent attack by ultranationalists.
The severed head of the victim, a citizen of Tajikistan, was discovered in a dumpster on Wednesday wrapped in a plastic bag, the press service for the investigative wing of the Prosecutor General's Office said.
Investigators say the victim and another Tajik migrant worker were attacked last Saturday after they left work at a food warehouse just south of Moscow. The newspaper Kommersant cited unidentified police sources, who said the murder victim was Salekh Azizov, 20, from the city of Vidnoe, also south of Moscow. The second Tajik worker was able to escape, but was hospitalized with injuries, according to the investigators.
An obscure group calling itself the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists announced it was responsible for the killing in an email sent to two human rights organizations that monitor hate crimes in Russia. The email also included a photo of the victim's decapitated head.
The authors of the email said the killing was "a demonstration of their resolve to fight against the non-Russian occupation, and a warning to officials that the same will happen to them if they do not stop the flow of immigration," said Galina Kozhevnikova a deputy director at the Sova Center, one of the rights organizations that received the email.
Millions of migrant workers, mostly from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, reside in Russia, which is dependent on their labor because of the country's rapidly declining population and dwindling domestic workforce.
But violent attacks against ethnic minorities in Russia are common and have been growing in severity as increasing numbers of non-Slavic migrant workers leave economically blighted regions for large Russian cities in search of work, analysts said.
In 2008, 85 people have been reported killed and 367 injured in attacks by violent nationalists, said Kozhevnikova, though she said that the numbers were likely far higher since many attacks go unrecorded or are reported months after they occur. Most of the victims tend to be dark-skinned men from Central Asia or the Caucasus region, though tourists and foreign students have also been attacked.
Stanley Robinson, a young African-American student from Rhode Island, on a study abroad program to Volgograd in southern Russia, remains in critical condition after he was stabbed three times last week on his way from the gym, a relative of Robinson said.
Human rights groups have frequently criticized Russian officials for appearing to sympathize with violent nationalists and for failing to adequately address the problems of racist attacks in the country.
State-run Russian television channels have largely ignored the murder of the Tajik worker, though newspapers, which are typically more independent from government meddling, have covered it heavily.
A police crackdown on nationalist and neo-fascist groups in Moscow earlier this year resulted in the attacks in the capital abating somewhat over the summer, Kozhevnikova said.
Yet violence in Moscow has begun to climb again in recent months, particularly following the rape and murder two months ago of a 15-year-old ethnic Russian girl. A city maintenance worker from Uzbekistan was charged with the crime, sparking protests and revenge attacks by ultranationalist groups, who often refer to non-Slavs on Russian soil as "occupiers."
Police found the head of the slain Tajik worker next to the Mozhaisky District administration building in western Moscow, not far from where the girl was murdered.
The incident is reminiscent of another grisly beheading videotaped and disseminated on the Internet over a year ago. In the video, a masked individual decapitates a bound, dark-skinned man with what appears to be a large knife. Moments later, another man, also bound, is shot point-blank in the head. The video ends with two people in masks giving Nazi solutes in front of a red banner emblazoned with a swastika.
Police have still not identified the killers.
Swiss scrap passport checks at land border
Friday, December 12, 2008
ZURICH: Most travellers entering Switzerland by land will no longer need to show passports from Friday after the Alpine nation opened its borders to all neighbouring European Union countries.
Switzerland, which borders France, Germany, Italy and Austria, is the 25th country to scrap routine passport controls as part of the Schengen club of European states.
But authorities said that because non-EU member Switzerland remains outside the bloc's customs zone, border guards will continue to make spot customs checks in which some travellers could be required to present ID.
The European Commission says about 900,000 EU citizens live and work in Switzerland and many more cross its borders on a regular basis, often commuting to work in cities like Geneva and Basel from parts of France or Germany where housing is cheaper.
Swiss authorities will share information with other Schengen countries on crime and on asylum applications under the Schengen-related Dublin agreement. Travellers to Switzerland with passports from outside the Schengen area will require a visa enabling entry to all 25 Schengen member countries.
Swiss voters voted in favour of joining up to the Schengen and Dublin accords in 2005, but have rejected membership of the European Economic Area, which could have paved the way for eventual EU membership.
(Reporting by Jason Rhodes, editing by Mark Trevelyan)
An American's lament: 'I was deported, too'
By Marc Lacey
Friday, December 12, 2008
TIJUANA: The two men could barely communicate. One was a Mexican laborer, the other an American wanderer, neither with any pesos in his pockets. But they bonded, having just gone through similar ordeals.
"The migra got me," lamented the downcast Mexican, using slang for the United States Border Patrol.
"I know what you mean," said the American, sitting on a bench near Tijuana's seedy Avenida Revolución, strumming his guitar in the hopes someone might toss him some change. "I was deported, too."
The United States government formally deported or otherwise returned more than a million foreigners — most of them Mexicans — according to immigration data. That figure has risen steadily over the years. But much to the surprise of many Americans, there is a trickle of deportees that flows north from Mexico to the United States as well.
Between January and September, the National Migration Institute, Mexico's immigration service, deported 350 Americans, some of them lawbreakers who had finished prison sentences in the country, but others merely travelers who were found to be without proper paperwork.
One of them was the scruffy wanderer in his early 40s who goes by the name Crash, eschews regular employment and racks up stories of his adventures.
"I didn't know you could be deported from Mexico," he said, requesting that his full name not be used to avoid running further afoul of the law. "I didn't know it was possible. Now I know."
He said he had been riding in the back of a pickup truck from Huatulco, a popular vacation spot in the southern state of Oaxaca, to the resort city of Acapulco several weeks ago when the vehicle approached a checkpoint. The authorities asked Crash for his passport. He did not have one.
He said he was taken away and later found himself in a police lineup. He said he had been told that a woman had been robbed in Acapulco by a blond man with a goatee. Looking at the other men in the lineup, Crash said they could have been his brothers, all of them blond and with goatees.
He was not chosen as the robber but said he was sent to jail nonetheless, which was not an altogether unpleasant experience for Crash. "The cell was better than some of the 300-peso hotel rooms I've stayed in," he said. "The only thing was that it had bars."
He said he spent about a week there while the American Consulate prepared travel documents for him. When informed that he was going to be deported to the United States, he said he initially could not believe it. "I thought to myself, 'You've got to be kidding. This is a joke. You're deporting me from Mexico?' "Crash said. "I told one of the guys, 'This gives you great satisfaction, doesn't it?' He said, 'You've been doing it to our people for years.' "
As it turns out, Americans make up a tiny portion of Mexico's deportees, who are usually Central Americans crossing Mexico's southern border with Belize and Guatemala. The 350 Americans sent home in the first nine months of this year represented just over 1 percent of the 28,778 deportations carried out by Mexican authorities. In contrast, Mexicans represent nearly two-thirds of America's deportees.
But the experience is remarkably similar, say some of those who have undergone it.
Crash was put on a plane from Acapulco to Tijuana and then carried to the actual border in a government van. Led to a crossing, he was told that if he returned within the next year he could face hard time.
Not one to be told what to do, Crash stayed in the United States about 15 minutes, he said. He then walked back across into Tijuana and, as is the case with most Americans, no official asked him for identification to get in.
His adventures did not slow up. As he roamed the streets of Tijuana, he said a man approached and offered him a more lucrative job.
Now, Crash, a California native who has worked in the past as a cook, nanny, farm worker and ship builder, among other jobs, is no materialist.
"As long as I have a pack of cigarettes in my pocket, tacos in my stomach and a beer in my hand, I have no needs in the world," he said.
But at that particular moment, he said he had nothing and readily accepted the nebulous money-making offer. The stranger took him to a house near the border and supplied Crash with all the beer and marijuana he desired. The only catch was that he also locked Crash up in the house for several days.
Then, another man came along and told Crash that he would be driving a truck across the border to the United States. Led to the vehicle, he said he saw several Mexicans hiding under a blanket in the back. They were obvious, Crash said, but he still hopped in the vehicle and headed to a border crossing.
American authorities easily spotted the illegal immigrants. He said they took him into a station along the border, put his personal information into a computer and then released him with the promise that any more smuggling would lead to jail time.
Again, Crash crossed the border back to Mexico, where he considers life cheaper and more carefree. He is now on crutches, having fallen and injured his ankle. He is staying with a stranger he met through, a site that promotes cheap traveling.
One of the songs he sings these days to earn some change is "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," in which Woody Guthrie laments the plight of a group of Mexican farm workers who died in a plane crash while being deported in 1948.
"Now I can sing it with a lot more emotion," Crash said.

Serb police search town in hunt for Mladic
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Adam Tanner
Police were searching a town outside Belgrade Friday as part of efforts to find former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, the Serbian war crimes prosecutor said.
The prosecutor said in a statement the search was taking place in Arandjelovac, a small town known for its marble and its mineral water 60 km (37 miles) from the capital Belgrade.
"As part of a plan to locate, arrest and transfer Hague indictees, and at the order of the War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic, police units are searching some objects in the territory of Arandjelovac municipality," the statement said.
An official who did not want to be named said the search was aimed at finding the people who were financing Mladic's long run from the law.
The most prominent Balkan war crimes suspect still at large, Mladic is the chief obstacle blocking Serbia from closer relations with the European Union.
The search comes as EU leaders meet in Brussels and a day after Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said Serbia has yet to show full cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal.
Serbia has set its sights on joining the EU, but the Netherlands has blocked further improvement of relations with the EU pending the capture of Mladic.
Mladic was indicted in 1995 on genocide charges for the siege of Sarajevo and for orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre. Also at large is Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, who is wanted for crimes against humanity.
Authorities have conducted frequent previous raids seeking clues leading to Mladic, including on December 4, when they searched a Mladic family apartment in Belgrade.
(Additional reporting by Gordana Filipovic and Branko Filipovic in Belgrade and Huw Jones in Brussels; Editing by Diana Abdallah)
Museum to Chile's Pinochet sickens victims
Friday, December 12, 2008
SANTIAGO: Family and friends of former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet quietly inaugurated a museum in his memory on Friday, replete with uniforms and medals he wore, to the horror of victims of his rule.
Among items displayed at the new Pinochet Foundation museum in an upscale quarter of the capital, Santiago, are the last uniform he used as commander in chief of the Chilean Army along with dozens of his medals.
"I am happy because this is a way of doing some justice to what he represented and what he did," said Lucia Hiriart, his widow, flanked by family and some former ministers and retired military. The event was low-key.
Pinochet led a bloody coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973, ushering in 17 years of dictatorship in which 3,000 people died or disappeared and around 28,000 were tortured.
Victims of his rule, some of whom complain the wheels of justice turn too slowly in Chile, were disgusted.
"Any monument to a dictator is shameful to the memory of all those who fell in the fight against the dictatorship," said Tito Tricot, an academic who was tortured and had his spine broken during Pinochet's rule.
"It is a reflection of what is going on in this country, of a negotiated, agreed transition, in which justice has not been done," he added. "It is offensive to me. Shameful."
Pinochet died of heart failure on December 10, 2006, at the age of 91, without having faced a full trial for human rights abuses committed during his rule.
(Reporting by Esteban Medel, Pav Jordan. Editing by Simon Gardner)

Nepal school bus crash kills 22
Friday, December 12, 2008
KATHMANDU: A school bus crashed in southwest Nepal, killing at least 22 people, most of them children returning from a picnic, police said Friday.
The bus skidded off a bridge on a highway and plunged 30 metres (100 feet) in Nawalparasi district, about 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Kathmandu late Thursday.
"At least 52 others were injured and are undergoing treatment at a medical college and nearby hospitals," Chet Bahadur Khatri, an officer at the Nawalparasi police control room said.
The cause of the accident was not known.
Accidents are common in mostly mountainous Nepal where roads are poorly maintained.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani)

Jury rebuffs U.K. police in mistaken killing of Brazilian
By John F. Burns
Friday, December 12, 2008
LONDON: A three-month inquest ended Friday with the jury effectively rejecting police claims that a 27-year-old Brazilian electrician was lawfully shot after he was mistakenly identified as a suspect in a failed plot to bomb the London Underground in July 2005.
With a vote of 8 to 2, the jury returned an open verdict in the case concerning Jean Charles de Menezes, essentially condemning the actions of two Scotland Yard firearms officers who shot the Brazilian seven times in the head after mistaking him for a terrorist.
An open verdict, in the British legal system, generally means an inquest jury has concluded that the evidence did not justify any firm conclusion about the responsibility for a death. Although open verdicts are supposed to carry no implication of censure, legal experts said the de Menezes verdict, by failing to exculpate Scotland Yard, effectively left the implication that the police may have acted unlawfully, opening the way for further legal action by the family of de Menezes.
The findings by the jury, announced after testimony from more than 100 witnesses, was expected to fuel a bitter controversy over the killing that has rocked Scotland Yard and contributed to the recent firing of Ian Blair, Britain's top police officer.
A statement after the verdict by de Menezes's family condemned the court proceedings as a "whitewash," and vowed to pursue legal action against the police in Britain's high court.
No British police officer has been prosecuted in about 50 years for unlawful killing in the pursuit of his duty, a course the de Menezes family has urged in the case concerning their son. But the profound impact the shooting has had on Scotland Yard was reflected in the statement made immediately after the verdict by Paul Stephenson, acting commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, which is informally known as Scotland Yard.
Stephenson took over Blair's responsibilities last month and, eager to be appointed to the position permanently, appeared eager to strike a contrite tone. Few recent cases involving the British police have stirred as much controversy as the de Menezes killing, which civil liberties groups have described as a shocking case of police incompetence followed by an effort at the highest levels of Scotland Yard to cover up the truth.
"Jean Charles Menezes was an innocent man, and we must, and do accept full responsibility for his death," Stephenson said Friday. "In the face of the enormous challenges faced by officers on that day," he said, "we made a most terrible mistake. I am sorry."
He said that Scotland Yard would learn from the mistakes it had made "so as to minimize the chance of this ever happening again."
The shooting of the Brazilian occurred on July 22, 2005, the day after four men, all later arrested and sentenced to life in prison, had sought unsuccessfully to replicate the bombings two weeks earlier that killed 52 people and injured more than 700 on London's public transport network. The homemade bombs used in the second plot failed to detonate, setting off a manhunt that led to the shooting of de Menezes.
The verdict Friday was set to foment new outrage from the de Menezes family and their supporters after the coroner at the inquest, Sir Michael Wright, a former high court judge, ruled last week that the jurors could not return a finding of unlawful killing by the police. That ruling was based on the coroner's conclusion that the inquest evidence did not support a verdict that unambiguously condemned the police for the killing.
The de Menezes family has already requested a high court appeal seeking to overturn the coroner's ruling, which left the jury with two possible verdicts - that the killing was lawful, as Scotland Yard has always contended, or the open verdict, which they underscored with a series of damning conclusions about the circumstances of the shooting.
In effect, the jurors' conclusions, in answer to a series of detailed questions put to them by the coroner, showed that they rejected as untrue essential parts of the police testimony. Crucially, the jurors said they had concluded that the two officers who shot de Menezes did not shout "armed police" as they stormed the stationary Underground carriage in which de Menezes was sitting. A total of 17 civilian passengers who were aboard the train testified that they heard no such warning before the officers opened fire.
The account of the two armed police officers, identified in court only by their code names, Charlie 2 and Charlie 12, was that their warning was ignored by de Menezes, who they said had stood up and walked toward them with his arms and hands in a position "consistent with someone who may be about to detonate a bomb hidden on their person or in a belt." They said his actions left them with no option, consistent with police procedures, but to shoot de Menezes in the head.
The jurors said they had concluded that the Brazilian did stand up, but that he had not moved towards the firearms officers, a finding that tallied with the testimony of other passengers. Outside the court, the jurors' findings were cited by members of the de Menezes family and their supporters as evidence of an attempted police cover-up.
Other factors that the jurors said contributed to the killing included the failure to provide police pursuit teams with better photographs of the suspect, Hussain Osman, one of those now serving a life sentence. The police had been provided with an indistinct gym-card photo and another from closed-circuit cameras in the Underground system, instead of high-quality photos available from government immigration files.
The gym card led the police to an apartment block in Tulse Hill, south London, where surveillance officers spotted de Menezes as he left for work the morning after the plot. They then followed him as he boarded two buses before entering the station at Stockwell. The suspect's erratic route, which was caused by the temporary closure of a station that he reached aboard the first bus, was cited by the police as part of the "suspicious" behavior that led them to mistake him for Osman.
But the jurors said the fatal shooting could have been prevented had the surveillance officers prevented de Menezes from boarding the buses or entering the Stockwell station. That decision was made by Cressida Dick, one of Britain's most senior female police officers.
Testimony during the inquest showed that Dick wavered at critical moments during the pursuit operation. She finally decided that there should be no attempt to halt de Menezes before armed police officers caught up with him, which they finally did after he boarded the train.
London risks losing financial centre lead
Friday, December 12, 2008
LONDON: London faces losing its crown as the world's top financial centre unless authorities take measures including reviewing some laws and improving the city's infrastructure, senior financial executives said on Friday.
"London faces a real and serious threat from competitor cities that have developed aggressive strategies to steal business away from the capital," they said in a statement on Friday, accompanying a report commissioned by London's mayor.
Dublin and Luxembourg, for example, have together attracted more than 420 billion pounds of investment funds away from London in the last year thanks to their favourable tax and regulatory regimes, according to the report.
The survey also identified Dubai and Singapore as fast-rising contenders to London's throne.
The Global Financial Centres Index published by the City of London Corporation in September showed London had retained its top spot, followed by New York and then Singapore.
"I will not stop until I lobby whoever it takes to remove the obstacles that are putting London's global reputation at risk from the new kids on the block chomping at our heels," said Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Among other problems, the survey found the British capital suffered from too much UK and European Union regulation and a lack of proficient science graduates.
It said the government must urgently review administration laws governing London-based subsidiaries of overseas companies and attacked unpredictable tax policies. The executives also support a move to more intense supervision by the financial regulator.
More than 80 senior executives from the financial industry took part in the survey between June and November, led by a panel which included Barclays Chief Executive John Varley, 3i Group head Philip Yea and the co-head of GLG Partners, Manny Roman.
(Reporting by Olesya Dmitracova; Editing by David Holmes)
"Woolies" sale brings out bargain-hunters
Friday, December 12, 2008
By Paul Adrian Raymond
Sentimental shoppers flocked to Woolworths stores across London on Friday, hunting for bargains on the second day of the troubled retailer's closing down sale.
The discount DVDs-to-sweets chain went into administration last month after almost a century in business, during which it became a household name for generations of Britons.
"It's going to be a great loss," said Leonard Kettle, a 77-year-old from the south London suburb of Camberwell.
"People of my age were brought up with it. You could go in there and buy something for sixpence when I was a child. I'll miss it when it's gone."
The disappearance of the familiar red Woolworths sign from British town centres will mark the end of 99 years of trading, while also likely leading to the loss of 25,000 jobs in 815 stores across the country.
"It's a shame, really, because it's history, isn't it?" said an 83-year-old great-grandmother from south London.
"We've known it all our lives. I've got two little porcelain animals at home that my daughter bought me from Woolworths when she was a baby, and she's 58 now."
Not everyone was as nostalgic, however.
While some bemoaned the demise of the high street shop, many just came in search of Christmas discounts. By mid-morning there were long queues at branches throughout the capital.
"Yesterday I was in the Clapham branch of Woolworths, and the whole place was heaving," said Aaron Deary, an in-store salesman of beauty products.
"A lot of people were saying, 'it's really sad that it's closing,' and were going to buy something for old time's sake. But I think they were vastly outnumbered by the people smelling a bargain."
Britain's first Woolworths store opened in Liverpool in 1909 as an offshoot of American F.W. Woolworth's retail empire.
Its mixture of low-cost household items and confectionery was an immediate success and branches soon opened in high streets around the country.
While "Woolies" sells more sweets than any other British retailer, competition from supermarkets, online retailers and specialist groups steadily became too much for the chain after it floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2001.
The credit crisis, which has hit businesses from banks to retailers over the past year, also made trading conditions for the company difficult, eventually forcing the board to call in the administrators and look for buyers.
While some have expressed interest, no one looks likely to buy the struggling brand. Administrators Deloitte have said they will keep selling stock, but may have to starting closing stores before the end of the month.
(Editing by Luke Baker)
Barclay twins shut Sark businesses after election loss
The Associated Press
Friday, December 12, 2008
LONDON: After 450 years of rule by feudalism, residents on the tiny Channel island of Sark knew their first democratic election would bring changes — but no one expected that 100 people would be immediately tossed out of work.
Two wealthy brothers abruptly closed their businesses on the island after their candidates for its first elected parliament were largely rejected by voters — job losses that hit Sark's 600 residents hard.
Sir David Barclay had warned that he and his twin brother, Sir Frederick Barclay, would be tempted to walk away from their investment in Sark, a 1,350-acre (545-hectare) island 25 miles (40 kilometers) off the French coast, after their opponents prospered in Wednesday's election.
Candidates backed by the brothers had proposed sweeping development of the island to create the first paved roads and to allow cars and helicopters for the first time. Their opponents advocated retaining the island's sleepy charms, and making only gradual reforms.
"They've taken their ball and taken it to another playing field," Paul Armorgie, who won a seat in the new legislature, told BBC radio. "(The Barclays) wanted democracy at their own pace, rather than at the pace of the island."
The Barclays, whose assets include London's Ritz Hotel and Britain's Telegraph newspapers, have agitated for change since establishing a castle home on Brecqhou, an 87-acre islet just 80 yards (meters) west of Sark, in 1993. They already have won a change in the law of primogeniture — inheritance to the first-born son — to allow land to pass to a female heir or a younger child.
Most of their 140 employees at two hotels, a cafe, shops and other ventures were laid off Thursday, but Gordon Dawes, a lawyer for the Barclays, said Friday he expected the businesses to reopen in the spring.
"The difference is that there will be no new investment, which had been running at 5 million pounds ($7.5 million) per annum," he said.
Sark's hereditary owner, 80-year-old Michael Beaumont, didn't seem worried by the layoffs. "We've managed for 400 years," Beaumont said in a telephone interview. "Life goes on."
But some who lost their jobs were not so confident.
Amandine Boquet, a 23-year-old from France who had been working in Web site design and marketing for the Barclays, said she and her boyfriend were both fired Friday.
"We are in a bad situation," she said. "It's the winter, and there aren't any jobs here, and with the economy the way it is we don't know if we can find a job anywhere."
Boquet said many of her friends, including some parents with toddlers, found themselves suddenly out of a job in the election aftermath.
The first elected parliament marked a significant break with the island's feudal system. The legislature, known as the Chief Pleas, had been controlled by leaseholders on the 40 tenements — the parcels of land granted to the original settlers in the 16th century.
Only two of the nine candidates backed by the brothers won seats in the legislature. Nine of the 12 candidates they had denounced as "dangerous to Sark's future" were elected.
Dawes said the final straw was the defeat of Kevin Delaney, manager of the Barclays' estate, who finished 36th in a field of 56.
Two of the Barclays' investments, the Aval du Creux Hotel and the Dixcart Bay Hotel — two of the island's five hotels — were closed on Friday, along with a cafe.
"I don't see it as a problem," said Beaumont, the seigneur or chief executive of the island. "It will take us back to a year and half before the Barclays came, and we were managing perfectly well then."
Beaumont is the latest in a line of hereditary owners of Sark dating back to Helier de Carteret, who was granted a fief by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565.
The seigneur of Sark each year pays one-20th of a knight's fee — now about 1.72 pounds ($2.55) — to Queen Elizabeth II, and has the sole right to keep pigeons and unspayed female dogs on the island.
Associated Press Writer Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.
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