Archive for September, 2013

Obama Tells Netanyahu: US ‘clear-eyed’ on Iran’s nuclear program

September 30, 2013

By MICHAEL WILNER,  JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT

Obama agrees it is “paramount Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons,” says US is entering talks “clear eyed,” taking no options off the table, including military option.

Netanyahu and Obama meet in Washington on September 30, 2013.
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Netanyahu and Obama meet in Washington on September 30, 2013.  Photo: Courtesy of GPO

WASHINGTON — Hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, President Barack Obama said the US remains “clear-eyed” going into direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and said it is “absolutely clear” that words will not be enough to stop Western sanctions— or his consideration of military action, should Iran choose to continue enriching uranium.

“We have to test diplomacy,” Obama said. “We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions.”

Obama said he would insist on the “highest level of verification” on any deal that may be reached with the Iranians.

But sitting beside each other in the Oval Office, Netanyahu urged Obama to tighten sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and said Israel reserves the right to wage a unilateral military campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities should the words of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, not quickly be followed by constructive action.

“It is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened,” Netanyahu said.

“Iran must fully dismantle its military nuclear program,” he added.

Netanyahu believes four steps are required of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program for Israel to accept such a deal. Iran must completely halt uranium enrichment throughout the country’s multiple facilities; remove all uranium already enriched; close the well-fortified mountain facility in Qom; and shut down their plutonium plant in Arak.

Netanyahu encouraged Obama to demonstrate a “credible threat of military force” similar to what was seen from the US military throughout a showdown with Syria’s President Bashar Assad over his chemical weapons program last month, after 1,400 civilians were gassed by Assad’s military on August 21.

On Iran, “no deal is better than a bad deal, and that’s what our bar will be,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said after the White House meeting.

“Look at last week at how challenging a handshake was, just politically,” Psaki said. “We are going into any discussion eyes wide open.”

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, the US offered Iran a meeting between the two leaders. That offer was declined by the Iranians, but Rouhani ultimately requested a phone call with Obama, which occurred on Friday.

It was the first direct contact between leaders of the two nations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Later in the afternoon on Monday, Netanyahu met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez over coffee, as the upper chamber prepares to consider language of a new sanctions bill that would no longer exempt firms in allied nations from buying Iranian oil.

He also met with Secretary of State John Kerry, just as Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the J Street Conference in Washington on the Obama administration’s push for a two-state solution.

Obama commended Netanyahu “for entering into good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian authority,” he told pool reporters at the White House after their meeting.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that Moscow would push for a summit that would establish a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, after Syria agreed to disown its chemical weapons arsenal and days after Rouhani told the UN General Assembly that Iran would support such a zone.

“Almost four decades of international efforts to establish nuclear weapons-free zones have regrettably failed,” he said. “Urgent, practical steps toward the establishment of such a zone are necessary. The international community has to redouble efforts in support of the establishment of this zone.”

Rouhani said Iran believes Israel has stockpiled roughly 200 nuclear bombs, and has called on the Jewish state to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty “without delay.”

U.S. NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Nominated For Europe’s Top Human Rights Honor

September 30, 2013

BRUSSELS September 30, 2013 (AP)

U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden is among three finalists for the European Union’s top human rights prize.

European lawmakers on Monday narrowed down the list of nominees for the prestigious 50,000 euro ($65,000) award to Snowden, Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, and imprisoned dissidents from Belarus.

The pro-environment Greens’ caucus said Snowden, who leaked a trove of documents on U.S. surveillance agencies’ programs, deserves to win because he “risked his freedom to protect us.”

Still, the 16-year-old Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt last year when coming home from school in Pakistan, enjoys wide backing and is seen as the likely front-runner.

The winner will be announced next week.

The Sakharov prize is considered Europe’s top rights award. Previous laureates include Nobel Peace Prize winners Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.

Nations Building More Powerful Naval Forces

September 30, 2013

File:Flickr - Official U.S. Navy Imagery - Ships are are underway participating in exercise Bold Alligator 2012..jpg

By Peter Apps

LONDON (Reuters) – After a quarter century of Middle Eastern land wars and a sharp fall in big powers’ naval spending after the Cold War, sea power is back in vogue in response to the rise of China and Western reluctance to deploy ground troops in conflicts like Syria.

The greater interest in navies is being felt from the corridors of Washington to the pirate hunting grounds off Africa and the shipyards of Asia.

“You’re going to see a much greater emphasis on using sea-based forces to produce an effect,” said Admiral Gary Roughead, who retired as Chief of Naval Operations, the professional head of the U.S. navy, in 2011.

“You’re seeing it in the Mediterranean, with Syria, and you’re seeing it in the Pacific and the Middle East,” said Roughead, who is now a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

India last month launched its first locally built aircraft carrier and a dozen such ships are to be completed worldwide in the next decade, including two U.S. Gerald R. Ford-class giants, two British vessels, a refurbished Russian carrier for India and one or more of the first indigenous carriers to be built by China.

U.S.-based consultancy AMI International estimates about $800 billion will be spent globally on naval programs in the next two decades, a quarter of it in Asia, which now surpasses austerity-hit Europe as the second-largest naval market after North America.

In April’s 2014 budget, the U.S. Navy pulled ahead to win the biggest chunk of funding of all three services. The Pentagon requested $155 billion for the Navy, just under 30 percent of the total $527 billion baseline budget, which does not include contingency funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

That did not take into account the automatic across-the-board spending cuts of “sequestration” that the Navy says could leave it with 10 percent less than its budget submission in 2014 if Congress cannot agree a deal to tackle the U.S. deficit.

“Sea power is growing in importance,” said U.S. Rear Admiral Robert Kamensky, commander of NATO’s submarine force, in a presentation on behalf of the U.S. Navy in London.

“We are experiencing increased demand … at the same time as a reduction in resources.”

Washington is moving ships from the Atlantic to Pacific in part to confront Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, seen the primary beneficiary of years of double-digit defense budget increases.

Beijing began operating its ex-Soviet carrier late last year, though it says it is not yet fully operational. It is also building submarines, patrol boats and other warships.

In September, state-backed China Shipbuilding Industry announced it planned to raise $1.4 billion through a private share sale to buy assets used for building warships, the first time Beijing had tapped the capital market to fund its military expansion.

U.S. TO SHRINK, OTHERS TO GROW?

Worried nearby nations – particularly those with maritime boundary disputes with China – are upgrading everything from radar to missiles and torpedoes.

Japan will next year see its largest defense spending rise in 22 years, purchasing patrol boats and helicopters and creating a force of marines. Australia is boosting its navy to include new assault ships, while Vietnam is buying Russian submarines.

The Philippines is dramatically expanding its once almost moribund force, acquiring two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, Japanese patrol boats and a second-hand French warship.

Western defense firms struggling elsewhere are keen to get in on the act. BAE Systems is working with Thailand on building an offshore patrol boat, while other smaller firms are selling electronic equipment and weaponry.

Washington’s ability to strike from the sea remains without parallel, going well beyond its 10 massive carriers, currently over half the global total.

Five U.S. navy destroyers and an unspecified number of submarines are still holding position off Syria, ready to make good on threats of a cruise missile strike should a U.S.-Russian deal to put Syrian chemical weapons beyond use collapse.

Still, if the sequestration budget cuts continue throughout the decade, the U.S. Navy says it could be left with 38 fewer ships and might have to consider cutting its carrier fleet to eight or nine.

Sources say spending cuts are already affecting major U.S. shipbuilders such as Huntingdon Ingalls, with projects delayed, including the construction of the new USS John F. Kennedy nuclear carrier.

In the Gulf, worries over Iran’s swarms of small boat flotillas and the U.S. reduction of permanent carrier presence from two taskforces to one has prompted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to buy and build new patrol boats.

Such deals can be highly lucrative. In July, Saudi Arabia asked to buy 30 Mark V special forces-style patrol boats worth $1.2 billion from unlisted Mississippi-based Halter Marine Inc.

In number of ships, many European fleets – including Britain’s Royal Navy, once the world’s pre-eminent maritime force – are now at their smallest in centuries. Britain has spent the last three years without a single operational aircraft carrier.

Though smaller, European navies remain potent. Spain, France and Italy have all built new carriers since 2000, the latter two using theirs heavily during the 2011 Libya war.

Britain’s “Queen Elizabeth” class – built by a BAE Systems-led consortium, with the first due to launch in 2014 – will be even more capable, the Royal Navy says, even if they will not have Lockheed Martin F-35 jets to fly for at least three years. By 2022, naval spending will have increased to 46 percent of Britain’s entire defense equipment budget.

“It amounts to nothing less than a maritime renaissance,” Britain’s First Sea Lord Admiral George Zambellas told an arms fair in London. “The Navy is back in business.”

(Editing by Will Waterman)

China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning was designed and built in Russia. China now is building its first indigenous aircraft carrier

China Russia Sea of Japan exercise

In this photo taken Wednesday, July 3, 2013, Chinese destroyer Wuhan( hull number 169) leads a  fleet of naval ships, heading to take part in a joint exercise with Russia in  the Sea of Japan. (AP Photo)

Japan's new warship 'Izumo', which has a flight deck that is nearly 250 meters (820 feet) long, is unveiled in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.  Japan on Tuesday unveiled its biggest warship since World War II, a huge flat-top destroyer that has raised eyebrows in China and elsewhere because it bears a strong resemblance to a conventional aircraft carrier.  Izumo is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

Japan’s new “flattop” Izumo is a “symbol of Japan’s strong wish to return to its time as a military power,” China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper said in a commentary. Japan already has two helicopter carriers.

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in port, Norfolk, Virginia, to save money during the sequester, earlier this year.

USS Ronald Reagan

HMAS Broome and four other ships arriving into Sydney, heading to Waverton.

HMAS Broome in Sydney

ASEAN-DEFENSE-CHINA-EXERCISE

Warships arrive at the Jervis Bay, Australia, Sept. 29, 2013. Warships from 11 countries arrived at Jarvis Bay to take part in a marine security exercise held during the enlarged meeting of ASEAN Defense Ministers on Sunday. The exercise would last till Tuesday. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Filipino fishermen in colorful fishing boats and a navy patrol gun boat welcome the arrival of BRP Ramon Alcaraz, the second Hamilton class cutter, in Casiguran sea, Aurora province, northeastern Philippines August 2, 2013. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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Photo - Philippine President Benigno Aquino III  greets the crew of the second warship of the Philippine Navy, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz during a welcome ceremony as it docks Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, at Subic Freeport, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Manila, Philippines. The Philippines on Tuesday celebrated the arrival of the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter as its second major warship to challenge China's massive territorial claims in the South China Sea that Filipino officials say have intruded into their country's potentially oil-rich offshore territory. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez) .

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III  greets the crew of the second warship of the Philippine Navy, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz during a welcome ceremony as it docks Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, at Subic Freeport, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Manila, Philippines. The Philippines on Tuesday celebrated the arrival of the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter as its second major warship to challenge China’s massive territorial claims in the South China Sea that Filipino officials say have intruded into their country’s potentially oil-rich offshore territory. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

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India will soon put into service INS Vikramaditya — an aircraft carriers first built for Russia. India also has already launched its first home-built carrier.

India’s indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, built by the Cochin Shipyard Limited for the Indian Navy, is docked at the Cochin Shipyard Limited in Kerala, on Aug. 11, 2013. India launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier Monday, which will put the country in the league of nations to have such a capability, a top defense official said. (Xinhua/stringer)

Always Charming Alec Baldwin calls movie producer Arki Busson a ‘pockmarked toady’ — Says Warner Bros Execs are “douchebags”

September 30, 2013

Making enemies: Alec Baldwin called movie producer Arki Busson a 'pockmarked toady' in a recent interview

  • The 30 Rock actor had a tongue-lashing  for Busson after he told Baldwin he is ‘only a TV star’
  • Baldwin complained about Hollywood movie  execs, saying: ‘They’re all factotums of multilateral  corporations’

By  Louise Boyle

The Daily Mail

Making enemies: Alec Baldwin called movie producer Arki  Busson a ‘pockmarked toady’ in a recent interview

Alec Baldwin has doled out yet another tongue  lashing and this time the target of his ire is billionaire investor Arki  Busson.

The 30 Rock actor has taken umbrage with  Busson, who recently announced a move into movie producing, after he claimed  Baldwin was ‘only a TV star’.

Baldwin told TV  Guide: ‘He’s  a pockmarked toady who hops from  yacht to yacht and bed to bed.

‘So when some bloated little toad like  Busson labels me a certain way, I say to myself, ”Consider the  source.”

‘If movie stardom meant being trapped on a  yacht with Busson, I’d rather  be a weatherman for Ch. 4 in New  York.’

It appears that Baldwin crossed paths with  Busson, who is the partner of Uma Thurman, in Cannes earlier this year.

Baldwin, 55, who is launching his own MSNBC  talk show, also used the interview as an opportunity to air his grievances  against Hollywood movie bosses, saying that they were clueless when it came to  making films.

The actor said: ‘They’re  all factotums of multilateral corporations. It’s all money, money,  money.’

However Baldwin did express admiration for  Steven Spierlberg, adding: ‘He doesn’t  have to go to one of the douchebags from Warner Bros. and explain to them why  his movie is marketable.’

Baldwin has been given his own Friday night  TV talk show called Up Late With Alec Baldwin. It begins next month.

New target: Billionaire investor Arki Busson (pictured with his partner Uma Thurman, left, and ex Elle Macpherson, right) has attracted the ire of Alec Baldwin after announcing a move into movie producing
New target: Billionaire investor Arki Busson (pictured with his partner Uma Thurman, left, and ex Elle Macpherson, right) has attracted the ire of Alec Baldwin after announcing a move into movie producing

New target: Billionaire investor Arki Busson (pictured  with his partner Uma Thurman, left, and ex Elle Macpherson, right) has attracted  the ire of Alec Baldwin after announcing a move into movie producing

 

 

The  rant is the latest from Baldwin, who recently became  a father again to daughter Carmen with second wife, 29-year-old Hilaria. The actor also has a 17-year-old daughter  Ireland with ex-wife Kim Basinger.

Baldwin is known for his fiery outbursts.  Last month he tackled a photographer in New York City who he believed had come  too close to him and Hilaria while they were out for a stroll. The couple did  not have their baby daughter with them at the time.

More…

 

Photos of the scene appear to show the angry  actor first warning off the male photographer then manhandling him over the hood  of a parked car.

No charges were made against Baldwin or the  photographer following the incident.

 

Looking mellow: Baldwin took a break from his usual fiery outbursts on Friday as he accompanied wife Hilaria and their newborn daughter to breakfastLooking mellow: Baldwin took a break from his fiery  outbursts on Friday as he accompanied wife Hilaria and their newborn daughter to  breakfast

 

The actor has previously been involved in  altercations with both  reporters and photographers, and admits he struggles to  deal with the  interest in his private life.

Earlier this year the 30 Rock star told  Gothamist: ‘The one element of  culpability I have is I did let it get to me,  and I have been  confrontational with them [the press].’

Back in February he allegedly told a  reporter to ‘choke to death’ after she questioned him about a lawsuit  involving his wife Hilaria’s work as a yoga instructor.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2438836/Alec-Baldwin-lashes-Uma-Thu
rmans-billionaire-fiance-Arki-Busson-calling-pockmarked-toady.html#ixzz2gO9HGmOV

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Netanyahu tells Obama that Rouhani’s “sweet talk” cannot be trusted

September 30, 2013

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem September 17, 2013. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem September 17, 2013.Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

By Dan Williams and Matt Spetalnick

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON |          Mon Sep 30, 2013 9:27am EDT

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will warn President Barack Obama in White House talks on Monday that Iran’s diplomatic “sweet talk” cannot be trusted and will urge him to keep up the pressure to prevent Tehran from being able to make a nuclear bomb.

While Obama will attempt to reassure Netanyahu that he will not act prematurely to ease sanctions on Iran, growing signs of a U.S.-Iranian thaw have rattled Israel and could make for a tense encounter between the two leaders, who have not always seen eye-to-eye on the Iranian nuclear dispute.

They will meet in Washington three days after Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone in the highest-level contact between the countries in more than three decades. The call fueled hopes for a resolution of Iran’s decade-old nuclear standoff with the West.

“Netanyahu does not care that he is the only one ruining the party,” an Israeli official said.

Obama is expected to voice sympathy for Israel’s skepticism about Iran, its longtime enemy, but will make clear his determination to test Rouhani’s intentions and will press Netanyahu for time to do so, U.S. officials say.

For his part, Netanyahu will tell Obama that tough economic sanctions have succeeded in forcing Iran back to the negotiating table and “they should not be eased, quite the contrary, they should be tightened,” a second Israeli official said.

Netanyahu will urge Obama to reject any concessions by the West and instead demand specific steps by Iran, including shutting down its uranium enrichment and plutonium projects and shipping out their fissile material. “He will tell the president ‘better no deal than a bad deal,'” the official said.

The Obama administration has been vague on what concessions it wants from Iran, and a source close to the White House said the president is expected to resist Israeli pressure for a precise time limit for diplomacy to produce an agreement.

Despite their differences behind closed doors, Obama and Netanyahu are expected to try to project unity. Talks begin in the Oval Office at 11:15 a.m. EDT/1515 GMT, ending with statements to a small pool of journalists, followed by a working lunch.

Netanyahu spent Sunday holed up at his New York hotel working on a speech he will deliver at the United Nations on Tuesday while his aides mostly stayed out of the public eye.

“I will speak the truth. Facts must be stated in the face of the sweet talk and the blitz of smiles,” Netanyahu said at the airport in Tel Aviv before departing for the United States.

Signaling Netanyahu’s aim to counter Rouhani’s charm offensive with one of his own, aides said the U.S.-educated Israeli leader will extend his visit by a day to conduct a series of media interviews.

HISTORY OF STRAINED TIES

Obama and Netanyahu have a history of difficult encounters, including a blowup in the Oval Office in 2011 when Netanyahu famously lectured the president on Jewish history.

Iran strategy has strained relations between them before, most notably last year when Netanyahu pushed back against U.S. pressure on Israel not to launch its own pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Having secured a second term, Obama visited Israel in March, where he eased the personal rift with Netanyahu and offered reassurances that he was determined to deny Iran the means to make a bomb, something that Tehran denies it is seeking.

But different clocks tick for the two allies. While they agree that Tehran could make its first nuclear device in months if it were intent on doing so, Israel warned last week this gap could shrink to weeks due to new Iranian uranium centrifuges.

Limited in conventional military clout, Israel – believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power – would prefer the U.S. superpower takes lead against Iran if diplomacy fails.

Yet Israelis watched worriedly as Obama stumbled in his bid to muster domestic support for attacking Syria in reprisal over Damascus’s suspected use of chemical weapons on August 21.

Netanyahu will look for proof of Obama’s commitment to confront Tehran with a “credible military threat.” Obama insists he is not bluffing but has not been as explicit as Israel wants.

However, neither does Netanyahu look any closer to launching a strike on Iran alone, with Israeli public support lacking and questions about whether it would be militarily effective.

In the meantime, Obama’s engagement with Iran could be limited by the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and lawmakers who share Netanyahu’s suspicion of Rouhani, a moderate cleric who took office in August and conducted a public relations blitz at the United Nations last week.

Netanyahu could meet supporters on Capitol Hill on Monday.

Seeking to stress common ground, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN on Sunday the United States, Israel and other allies “have been largely united in agreeing on the process going forward” with Iran. But she acknowledged the path was unclear as negotiations with Iran were not yet under way.

Further complicating matters is Obama’s reinvigorated push for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in talks that restarted earlier this year. Middle East diplomacy is expected to figure more prominently in Monday’s meeting than originally thought, after Obama listed it as a top priority in his address to the United Nations on Tuesday.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell, Stacey Joyce, Doina Chiacu)

Nigeria: Islamist insurgents massacre 40 students in their sleep in a college dormitory

September 30, 2013

Damaturu (Nigeria) (AFP) – Boko Haram gunmen on Sunday opened fire in a college dormitory in northeast Nigeria as the students slept, killing 40, in the latest massacre blamed on the Islamist insurgents.

All of the dead were students of the College of Agriculture in the town of Gujba in Yobe state, the area governor said in a statement.

The early morning attack was carried out by “Boko Haram terrorists who went into the school and opened fire on students” while they were sleeping, the military spokesman in Yobe, Lazarus Eli, told AFP.

Salamanu Ibrahim, a 23-year-old student at the college, said dozens of gunmen took part in the killing, bursting into dorm rooms and firing indiscriminately in the dark.

“The attackers went berserk,” he told AFP in Yobe’s capital Damaturu, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) away, where he fled along with hundreds of other students.

FULL SUPPORT. A grab made in July from a video obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau, dressed in camouflage and holding an Kalashnikov AK-47. Photo from AFP
A grab made in July from a video obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau, dressed in camouflage and holding an Kalashnikov AK-47. Photo from AFP

“They were fully armed with sophisticated rifles, and improvised explosives,” and razed several college buildings after leaving the dorms, he said.

The office of Yobe Governor Ibrahim Gaidam put the death toll at 40, with four others injured.

A woman looks at a boy sitting along a roadside with …

A woman looks at a boy sitting along a roadside with some belongings, after Boko Haram militants raided the area (AFP Photo)

In a previously scheduled television interview, President Goodluck Jonathan said he instructed Nigeria’s security chiefs “to look at different ways of handling” the insurgency hours after learning of the latest bloodshed.

He also voiced exasperation at the targeting of students in the interview broadcast on several networks, saying: “Why did they kill them? … You can ask and ask.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the slaughter “horrific”.

Government officials stand by a damaged house following an attack by Boko Haram. Photo: AAP

Yobe has seen a spate of attacks on schools and universities, all blamed on Boko Haram, an extremist group that has killed hundreds in its four-year insurgency.

The name Boko Haram, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden”, and the group has become notorious for slaughtering students.

In July in the town of Mamudo in Yobe, Islamists threw explosives and sprayed gunfire into dormitories in the middle of the night, killing 41 students.

Military offensive criticised

The military has described the recent school attacks as a sign of desperation by the Islamists, claiming that they lack the capacity to strike anything but soft targets.

A screengrab taken on September 25, 2013 from a video distributed through an intermediary shows a man claiming to be the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau

A screengrab taken on September 25, 2013 from a video distributed through an intermediary shows a man claiming to be the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (AFP)

Defence officials have said that an offensive launched against Boko Haram in mid-May has decimated the group and scattered its fighters across remote parts of the northeast, the insurgents’ traditional stronghold.

While many of the recent attacks have occurred in more remote areas, often targeting defenceless civilians, the unchecked killing has cast doubt on the success of the military campaign.

“Although there is increase in troop movement and… more military hardware in the northeast, people were yet to see the kind of action on the ground that effectively nips criminal and terrorist activities in the bud,” the Yobe governor’s statement said.

Scores have been killed this month, including in the northeastern town of Benisheik, where at least 142 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram fighters who came disguised as soldiers, set up checkpoints and fired on motorists and bystanders.

Some of the recent violence has targeted vigilante groups that have formed to help the military.

Map of Nigeria locating an attack in Gujba, near Damaturu, …

Map of Nigeria locating an attack in Gujba, near Damaturu, Yobe State (AFP Photo/)

The northeast remains under a state of emergency imposed on May 14.

The phone network has been switched off in much of the northeast since the emergency measures were declared, a move the military said would help prevent the Islamists from coordinating attacks.

Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, but the group is believed to be made up of different factions with varying aims.

The group has attacked churches, mosques, newspaper offices, the security forces, politicians and a UN building, among other targets.

According to an estimate made earlier this year, the conflict has cost more than 3,600 lives, including killings by the security forces. The current figure is likely much higher.

Nigerian troops patrolling in the streets of the remote …

Nigerian troops patrolling in the streets of the remote northeast town of Baga, Borno State (AFP Photo)

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer, roughly divided between the mainly Muslim north and a predominately Christian south.

Widespread corruption in China’s state-owned corporate sector

September 30, 2013

By Charlie Zhu

HONG KONG, Sept 27 (Reuters) – In March last year, after getting government approval to go ahead with a $900 million refinery expansion in China’s southeastern Fujian province, state-run oil giant Sinopec Corp warned the team handling the project against taking bribes.

“Project engineering and construction has been a main area for corruption at Sinopec,” the Fujian unit of Asia’s largest refiner said in a blunt memo, according to a Sinopec source who read it to Reuters. “All members, especially those in key posts, must treasure their positions, stay guarded and resist temptation.”

The memo underscores what experts say is one of the biggest challenges facing President Xi Jinping and his drive to tackle corruption – rampant graft in engineering, procurement and construction contracts awarded by state firms.

Graft in the state sector has been acknowledged before but shot to the headlines recently when authorities stunned the energy industry with an investigation into five former senior executives at state-run oil and gas behemoth PetroChina  and its parent firm China National Petroleum Corp.

That investigation has raised questions about how far Xi will go to root out graft in an industry that ranks as one of the most powerful corners of the state-owned corporate sector.

Virtually all senior officials at state firms are members of the ruling Communist Party, whose power is largely unchecked.

And there is a lot of money on the table.

According to the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, state enterprises issued tenders for goods and services worth 9.26 trillion yuan ($1.51 trillion) in 2011.

It’s not clear how much of this was for engineering, procurement and construction contracts, commonly referred to as EPCs in the industry. Nor are there any figures for graft investigations into EPC contracts.

But China’s petrochemical engineering market should be worth $40 billion by 2016 alone, according to industry data. China is also investing $65-$80 billion between 2012 and 2016 to expand its oil refining capacity.

“It’s inevitable to have the corruption problem because of the high concentration of power at the top,” Chen Weidong, chief energy researcher at CNOOC Group, parent of Chinese offshore oil giant CNOOC Ltd, said of graft in tenders for energy EPC contracts in China.

A CNOOC drilling platform. (Photo/Xinhua)

A CNOOC drilling platform. (Photo/Xinhua)

“They hold public tenders for projects but the process of choosing winning bids is not open.”

EX-RAILWAYS MINISTER CONVICTED

China has taken steps to curb graft in public procurement.

It passed laws in the early 2000s requiring tenders for state-funded  projects with an estimated construction contract value of more than two million yuan or where the purchase of equipment would exceed one million yuan.

It has also sought to improve transparency with online platforms for purchases, although this cannot always be used because not all local governments or state entities have the system and a unified national procurement programme has yet to be finished.

But industry officials and analysts say the process is still riddled with graft partly because China’s rapid economic growth has fuelled a surge in fixed asset investment by the government and state firms that has often escaped proper oversight.

They say officials at state firms involved in tendering often accept bribes to award contracts or select companies run by relatives or friends. Irregularities include splitting a major project into pieces to dodge the tender process, they add.

One recent example was former railways minister Liu Zhijun, who was given a suspended death sentence this year for graft. Liu was found to have helped 11 people win railway contracts or get promotions in return for 64.6 million yuan in bribes between 1986 and 2011, official media said.

China’s former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, attends a trial for charges of corruption and abuse of power at a courthouse in Beijing, in this file still image taken from video dated June 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/CCTV via Reuters TV/Files

The party’s top graft buster, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, last week called for an overhaul of how transactions take place for public resources – such as procurement and land transfers.

It gave no details and did not explain what prompted the commentary on its website, although it referred to the anti-corruption campaign Xi launched when he became party chief in November.

Officials from the commission or the agency overseeing major state-owned enterprises could not be reached for comment.

FIRST SINOPEC, NOW PETROCHINA

Sinopec vowed to step up its fight against graft after former chairman Chen Tonghai was given a suspended death sentence in 2009 for taking $32 million in bribes.

It has been relatively open about the problem – part of the 2012 memo was cited in a report posted on its website, including the following quote: “The number of major corruption cases at Sinopec has been on the rise, especially in the area of project tendering, contracting and sub-contracting and procurement.”

Chinese soldiers watch a China National Offshore Oil Corp. deep-water oil drilling rig leave the of Qingdao, May 21, 2012

Sinopec did not respond to a request for comment.

Its refinery expansion is taking place at a $6.5 billion refinery and petrochemical complex run jointly with Saudi Aramco and Exxon Mobil. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. There have been no public reports of any irregularities.

The focus, instead, is on PetroChina after the government in late August and early September said several of its former senior executives were being investigated for “serious discipline violations” – shorthand used to describe graft.

No details of the investigation have been released. PetroChina also did not respond to a request for comment.

Similarly, Chinese authorities have released no details about a probe into Wison Engineering Services Co Ltd, a private contractor whose major customer in recent years has been PetroChina.

“Public procurement corruption is not limited to energy. It is across the board,” said Lin Boqiang, director of the China Centre of Energy Economics at Xiamen University in Fujian and an adviser to China’s National Energy Administration.

“The energy sector gets more attention as the projects they build are mostly huge.”

EU CRITICAL OF CHINA PUBLIC PROCUREMENT

The European Union has criticised China for the murkiness of its public procurement and has called for a further opening of the market to foreign players.

“The bidding process … still cannot be fully executed online, which inhibits optimal information sharing and transparency of the various entities’ processes,” the EU said in its 2013/14 annual China position paper.

To try to address some of the concerns, China’s Finance Ministry is developing a nationwide government procurement system that will have a shared database and more e-commerce related functions to enable online bid appraisal and payments.

Still, some industry insiders don’t believe a clean system will emerge anytime soon in the absence of a transparent decision-making process.

“Some of the tenders are conducted behind the curtain,” said a Chinese oil industry official with knowledge of the public procurement process in the energy sector.

“It is not about whether there are rules and regulations. It’s about implementation.”

Is it Christian to single out the Christians? Beyond terror in Peshawar

September 30, 2013

Christianity under fire?

By

Some commentators have claimed that not enough has been said by political leaders about the atrocious terrorist killing of Christians in Peshawar recently. Eighty five people died and over two hundred were injured in an attack at All Saints Anglican Church in this Pakistani town. This is truly Terror with a capital T because its aim is intimidation through fear. I’m a weekly church goer; it could have been me.

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But has the response by the West been an example of cowardice as some claim, a politically correct reluctance to support Christians who are now one of the religious groups most under threat across the world? I don’t know about motives nor have I counted words but I was conscious as I thought about this that I, as a Christian, would be as horrified by an attack on innocent Hindus in their temple, on innocent Tories at their conference, or on innocent students at a rowdy nightclub as I was by this particular incident.

If one had to make a short list of Christ’s most powerful, revolutionary insights one of the most important would be the undoing of that human reflex to want to be part of a special, privileged group or clique. To see Christianity as a club or a cultural identity is to negate its very soul – not to mention the madness of cliques within the cliques when denominations fight and fume. The God Christ preached and lived was one who is Father to all and who views everyone as beloved because everyone was created and is upheld in His love. The word ‘gospel’ means good news, and that inclusive insight is Christianity’s front page headline.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, which still challenges any Christian who reads it, we are shown a vision of the King at the Last Judgement sorting out the good and bad of humanity. The only criterion for salvation appears to be the practice of charity towards our neighbours – feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners etc. But wait a minute! As the card-carrying Christian begins with satisfaction to tick the boxes to assure his or her salvation the theological thunderbolt strikes: those who do these virtuous acts are not even aware they are doing them for God or religion’s sake. They are unselfconsciously responding to need with a reflex of compassion.

We may not like it, but Christians are not God’s ‘favourites’; and we may like even less the fact that God loves terrorists as much as he loves well-behaved little me. This is not to suggest turning a glib, blind eye to evil or injustice, far from it; but it is to suggest that any Christianity worth preserving, defending or celebrating is (if at times with gritted teeth or a broken heart) to strive to forgive to the last breath.

The last will be first and the first will be last“, said Christ. A strident demand for Christianity to be pushed to the front of the queue in our present age may well turn out to be counterproductive. In the West Christendom had over a thousand years to make its point, its mouth close to the only microphone in town. In our global, post-Christian times a gentler, kinder voice will need to be used, and we may even thereby find a way of changing Terror itself into hope and reconciliation.

The feelings of solidarity and outrage a Christian feels towards those tragically killed in Peshawar should be because human beings have been senselessly murdered. The fact that they were Christians is (strangely, radically, life-givingly) beside the point.

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Sept. 24, 2013: Pakistani Christians mourn in a family home as they gather around the coffins of their relatives, who were killed in Sunday’s suicide attack on a church, in Peshawar. (REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz)

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Pakistani Christians shout slogans during a protest in Quetta on Sunday, Sept.  22, 2013, against the killing of their community members in two suicide bomb attacks on a church in Peshawar.

Pakistani Christians shout slogans during a protest in Quetta on Sunday, Sept.  22, 2013, against the killing of their community members in two suicide bomb attacks on a church in Peshawar.Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
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A Pakistani man helps an injured victim of a suicide attack at a Christian church in Peshawar, Pakistan, September 22, 2013. (AP)

People gather at the site of suicide attack on a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. A suicide bomb attack on a historic church in northwestern Pakistan killed scores of people Sunday, officials said, in one of the worst assaults on the country’s Christian minority in years. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad) AP

Pakistanis help victims of a suicide attack at a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. A suicide bomb attack on a historic church in northwestern Pakistan killed scores of people on Sunday, officials said, in one of the worst assaults on the country’s Christian minority in years. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

An Egyptian walks in the ruins of the Evangelical Church …

An Egyptian walks in the ruins of the Evangelical Church of Malawi  Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, after it was ransacked, looted and burned on Thursday by an angry mob, in Malawi, south of Minya, Egypt. In the province of Minya, protesters attacked two Christian churches, security officials said. (AP Photo/Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper)

A picture taken on August 14, 2013, shows the facade of the Prince Tadros Coptic church after being torched by unknown assailants in the central Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

A picture taken on August 14, 2013, shows the facade of the Prince Tadros Coptic church after being torched by unknown assailants in the central Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

St. Gevorg church in Aleppo’s Armenian-populated district of Nor Kyugh, Syria, after a Muslim attack and arson, October, 2012.

http://weaselzippers.us/2012/10/31/syrian-rebels-torch-church-kidnap-10-christians-in-aleppo/

After their Christian Church was destroyed by Muslims in an attack, these men gather to pray for the attackers….

Iran’s Persian Gulf Neighbors — “We will never trust them 100 percent.”

September 30, 2013

In this file photo taken Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani waves after swearing in at the parliament, in Tehran, Iran. As Iran’s diplomatic profile rises with attempts to recalibrate its dealings with Washington, the Gulf rulers will have to make adjustments, too, and that’s not such an easy thing for the monarchs and sheiks to swallow. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Lost in the blizzard of attention on Iran’s cautious openings to the U.S. was another bit of noteworthy outreach by President Hassan Rouhani: Sending greetings to Saudi Arabia’s king and appealing for more cooperation between the two regional rivals.

By Brian Murphy

Rouhani’s message last week also carried a subtext for Saudi Arabia and the other Western-allied Persian Gulf states. As Iran’s diplomatic profile rises with attempts to recalibrate its dealings with Washington, the Gulf rulers will have to make adjustments, too.

That’s not such an easy thing for the monarchs and sheiks to swallow.

Leaders such as Saudi King Abdullah are accustomed to having Washington’s undivided focus and a prominent voice in shaping policies over Iran, which Gulf officials routinely denounce for allegedly trying to undermine their rule through suspected proxies and spies.

The prospect of Iran and the U.S. becoming something less than arch foes – a flirtation at the U.N. General Assembly capped by President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking telephone call to Rouhani – pushes the Gulf states toward unfamiliar territory.

They certainly remain a pillar of U.S. diplomatic and military strategy in the region, with key bases and one of the State Department’s main Iran listening posts in Dubai. But a core reason for the cozy ties – beyond maintaining reliable oil supplies – has been mutual worries over Iran. That basis could now be chipped away slightly as Tehran and Washington explore possible direct talks over Iran’s nuclear program.

If nothing else, the Gulf’s Arab leaders may have to compete a bit harder for the White House’s ear.

“So much of the Gulf relationship with Washington has been built on the concerns over Iran: the U.S. bases, the huge Gulf arms purchases, the protection of oil shipments,” said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“All of a sudden, here’s the chance that the U.S. and Iran could start talking directly. That cuts the Gulf out of a loop somewhat,” he added.

Washington’s Gulf partners have already been feeling slightly under-appreciated.

When then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the region last year she heard a list of complaints that included worries about Obama’s perceived strategic emphasis on Asia and how Washington failed to stand by their common ally, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, during the Arab Spring uprisings.

And the Gulf leaders – strong backers of Syria’s rebel forces – could hardly contain their displeasure when the U.S. pulled back from possible military action against Bashar Assad’s regime in favor of a Russian plan seeking the dismantlement of Damascus’ chemical arsenal.

A former U.S. diplomat in the region said that a senior Saudi official grumbled to him recently: I wish the Americans stood by us like the Russians stand by Assad. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation recounted was private.

“There will no doubt be some tensions between the Obama administration and Gulf leaders” over Syria, said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London.

Iran, though, is an issue even closer to home.

The diplomatic energy lavished on Rouhani by Washington – particularly at last week’s U.N. General Assembly – is likely to leave Gulf leader questioning their place in the U.S. pecking order if there is a thaw in the 34-year diplomatic freeze between the U.S. and Iran.

Such a prospect may still seem distant. Iranian hard-liners have made it clear they are highly uneasy with the fast-paced overtures at the U.N.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi tried to address the worries even as his boss, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, stayed behind in the U.S. to continue his pitch for a quick resolution to the nuclear impasse – that would, Iran insists, include easing sanctions.

“Definitely, a history of high tensions between Tehran and Washington will not go back to normal relations due to a phone call, meeting or negotiation,” Araghchi was quoted as saying Sunday by the semiofficial Fars news agency.

He added: “We never trust America 100 percent. And, in the future, we will remain on the same path. We will never trust them 100 percent.”

In the Gulf, Sunni Arab leaders view Shiite power Iran with deep suspicion. In some ways, Gulf views on Iran are often more in line with Israel than other Arab states.

A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable described how Saudi’s King Abdullah urged in 2008 for a U.S.-led attack against Iran to “cut off the head of the snake” and cripple its nuclear weapons program, which Saudi officials and others fear could touch off a frightening nuclear arms race in the region.

More recently, arrests of alleged Iranian espionage rings have been announced in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In Bahrain – where the Western-backed government accused Iran of encouraging a Shiite-led uprising since 2011 – a court Sunday sentenced 50 people to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years on charges that include spying for Iran.

“Arab countries in the region are watching the talks between Iran and the U.S. with concern in their hearts,” said Mahdi Motaharnia, a professor of international politics in Qom Azad University in Iran. “They fear that many concessions they were receiving from the West because of tensions between Iran and the U.S. could be in jeopardy.”

Clearly, the overall U.S. ties with the Gulf are too extensive and strategic to suffer any major blows. The Pentagon’s footholds include air bases, thousands of ground troops in Kuwait and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Gulf nations spend billions on the latest U.S. weapons.

It’s more about the Gulf perceptions that Washington’s policies are no longer closely overlaid with their own, said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and a security adviser to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

“The Gulf states once believed they always had American in their corner,” said al-Faraj. “Syria changed that. What’s happening in Iran may change it even more.”

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Terhan, Iran, and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.

Pope Francis Announces Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII to become saints

September 30, 2013

Pope Francis announces decision to canonise two predecessors after second miracle is attributed to John Paul

By and

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II in 2005: the Polish pontiff led the Catholic church for 27 years. Photograph: Plinio  Lepri/AP

Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who called the landmark Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul II, who crisscrossed the globe during his 26 years as leader of the Roman Catholic church, will be declared saints next spring, Pope Francis has announced.

The decision to canonise the pair had been expected since July, when Francis approved a second miracle attributed to John Paul, clearing the path for the fastest canonisation in modern times.

During a meeting with cardinals inside the Apostolic palace on Monday, the pope revealed that the canonisations would take place on 27 April next year.

When his predecessor, Benedict XVI, began John Paul’s beatification process a month after the Polish pontiff died in 2005, the Vatican said the usual five-year waiting period was to be waived because of “exceptional circumstances”.

Floribeth Mora, la mujer costarricense que recibió milagro de Juan Pablo II

In 2011, after a first miracle had been attributed to John Paul, he was beatified by Benedict in a ceremony attended by several hundred thousand people in St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets.

According to the Vatican, that first miracle concerned the inexplicable recovery of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who was apparently dying of Parkinson’s disease but was cured after she and her fellow nuns prayed for the intercession of the late pope. He himself died of the disease in April 2005.

Three months ago, Francis approved a second miracle – the case of Floribeth Mora, a 50-year-old Costa Rican woman who said she was cured of a brain aneurysm after a photograph of John Paul appeared to speak to her during his beatification. Her doctor told reporters that the aneurysm disappeared for no apparent reason.

Although loved and admired by many Catholics for energising the church, promoting inter-faith dialogue and helping to hasten the demise of communism, John Paul II has been accused by critics of failing to tackle the sex abuse allegations against priests that emerged during his papacy. Others feel that it is simply too soon to make him a saint.

Francis’s decision to canonise John XXIII even though the Italian pope has been credited with only one miracle since his death in 1963 is also unusual.

Pope  John XXIII

However, observers have noted that Francis – whose young papacy has been characterised by its warmth and informality – has much in common with the pontiff fondly nicknamed “Good Pope John”. John XXIII was also fond of late-night strolls around Rome and pastoral visits to sick children and prison inmates.

And, in an interview with a US Jesuit magazine earlier this month, Francis said he intended to follow John XXIII’s motto when it came to governing the church: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”

He also reflected on the legacy of the reforming Second Vatican Council, which his predecessor convened in 1962.

“Vatican II was a re-reading of the gospel in light of contemporary culture,” he said. “Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the gospel from a concrete historical situation.”

Loris Capovilla, an Italian prelate who was John XXIII’s long-time secretary, said that when Pope Francis told him of his intention to canonise the pontiff, he was struck that the move was coming from “the successor most similar to him”.

“I was so emotional that I couldn’t utter a word,” he told La Stampa. “He reminds me in every way of John XXIII: in his gestures, in his attention to the poor … He has the same humility and mildness of heart as John XXIII, who was a wise and enlightened father who spoke to the human family that is torn apart by opposing interests and by senseless and sometimes implacable dislikes.”

Floribeth Mora, a 50-year-old Costa Rican woman, said she was cured of a brain aneurysm after a photograph of John Paul appeared to speak to her during his beatification.

Pope John XXIII

Pope John Paul II

Vatican City — Prelates and religious dignitaries from around the world fill St. Peter’s Basilica as a concelebrated Mass opens the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962.  Credit:  RNS file photo

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