Saturday, December 29, 2007

Al-Qaeda in Iraq 75% destroyed say US

Osama bin Laden returns in 'new tape'

Al Qaeda in Iraq has been virtually destroyed according to Iraqi authorities and the US Military. In statements released today it is claimed that up to 75% of the insurgent groups loyal to Osama bin Laden have been annihilated [BBC]. The news came on the day that a message purported to be Osama bin Laden emerged on an internet site connected to the terrorist organisation. Most of the message dealt with Iraq and contains much of the usual rhetoric. Phrases such as “Blood for blood” and “destruction for destruction” are peppered throughout the 56 minute recording [CNN]. But unusually, he sent a message to Israel saying, "We intend to liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the sea”. Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s no.2, has previously mentioned the Palestinian struggle in previous statements, but it is the first time bin Laden has made mention of the plight of the Palestinian people.

Pakistan - 40 dead in riots after Bhutto's death

Unknown assassin - a man appears to shoot Benazir Bhutto

Al-Qaeda has been blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, by the Pakistani authorities. But the Pakistani People’s Party has disputed this and instead partly blamed the authorities for failing to provide proper security [BBC]. The leader of a pro-Taleban group has also denied any involvement. Maulana Omar, a commander of a pro-Taleban group based in Pakistan said Baitullah Mehsud, an al-Qaeda leader identified by authorities, had nothing to do with the attack. Speaking to news agencies by phone on Saturday he said, "He [Mehsud] had no involvement in this attack. This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies."[Al Jazeera].

There has also been much dispute over the way in which Ms Bhutto died. Authorities have said she died not from gunshot wounds, but from a head wound after colliding with the side of the sunroof. The confusion of the facts surrounding the incident has led to further distrust of the current government with many saying there was a cover-up. Some have also called for her body to be exhumed in order to put the matter to rest [CNN / BBC].

Today, new pictures emerged that did at least confirm there was at least one assassin armed with a pistol. The still and video pictures show the man, wearing dark sunglasses, firing a number of shots just prior to an explosion [Sky News].

Violence on the streets of Pakistan has led to the deaths of at least 36 people, twice the number killed in Thursday’s attack, but security forces are beginning to crack down on the rioters [BBC]. There is a fear that the continuing violence may develop into a full scale civil war if it remains unchecked. The elections which were set for January 8th also remain in doubt.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Pakistan erupts as blame game starts

Seen as a beacon for democracy, Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest today amid a country in turmoil. She had returned to Pakistan in the hope to lead the Pakistan Peoples' Party to victory in elections. But whilst she had strong support across the country, she also had many enemies. She had studied politics at Harvard and at Oxford, but she was ill prepared for the violent politics that followed her as she set foot in Pakistan last October. Within hours her convoy bus was targeted by suicide bombers. At least 150 were killed including 50 of her own security. She survived that attack but said she was determined to continue her fight for democracy. By November the country was under martial law as President Musharraf attempted to fight Islamic militancy. Many criticized his imposed state of emergency saying it was in order to protect his own tenuous position. But soon after he lifted the state of emergency, violence returned to the streets with several suicide bombings targeting politicians. Yesterday’s attack which killed 28 people sparked riots in many towns and cities across the country. Further deaths and injuries were reported as a result of clashes between police and demonstrators [BBC]. The real fear is that the elections proposed for January 8th may be cancelled and martial law may again be imposed by President Musharraf.

Many of the papers today ran with front pages devoted to yesterday’s events [UK papers / Pakistan papers]. The Sun ran with the headline “The day democracy died” while others showed one of the last photographs of Benazir Bhutto and the headline “Seconds from death”. Many have already criticized her lack of judgement in putting herself in harms way. On leaving yesterday’s rally she had been photographed standing through the sunroof of her Toyota Land Cruiser whilst waving at supporters who were cheering her. It was then that a "thin man" on a motorcycle, carrying an AK-47 rifle, fired two shots, one into Bhutto's neck, and she collapsed, falling down into the vehicle. Bhutto was rushed to Rawalpindi General Hospital where she died at 18:16 local time (13:16 GMT). The gunshot to the neck was reported as the cause of death, according to the Pakistani Interior Ministry [CNN].

An al-Qaeda leader based in Afghanistan was reported to have claimed responsibility for the attack and CNN has quoted an Italian news agancy as having reported a claim of responsibilty from al-Qaeda [CNN]. But others have laid the blame at the door of the Musharraf regime. E-mails from Bhutto herself, and only made public on CNN’s the “Situation Room” yesterday, stated that the police security was poor and that the government had not done enough to protect her. The attack has also unsettled world financial markets with oil prices rising to $97 per barrel [BBC]. But it is on the streets of Pakistan where the trouble lies at present. There were even scuffles reported at the funeral when Benazir Bhutto was finally laid to rest. She was buried in her hometown in Larkana, Sind, beside her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's grave.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto killed by suicide bomber

Benazir Bhutto has been killed in a suicide attack during a rally in Pakistan. The former Prime Minister had been speaking at an election rally in Rawalpindi. Some reports suggest she had also been targeted by a gunman and received shots to her head and neck. The gunman is then said to have detonated explosives fatally injuring Bhutto and at least 15 others. All news channels are saturated with coverage of the incident which will further upset a fragile political situation in the country [CNN / BBC / Sky News].

Monday, December 24, 2007

Pre-Christmas travel chaos on UK roads

Tragedy before Christmas as one woman dies on Britain's roads

Fog brought chaos for many Christmas travellers with roads gridlocked and air flights delayed. Several accidents closed a number of major routes and at least one person died on Britain’s roads. The A127 in Essex was closed for more than 12 hours after a woman in her forties was killed late Saturday night. Police believe that her car may have been targeted by vandals after several motorists reported their cars being hit by objects near the accident spot. Essex police have said they were dealing with a possible murder inquiry [Sky News / BBC]. The road closure forced last minute Christmas shoppers onto local roads and traffic tail-backed onto the M25 with further delays reported after minor accidents compounded problems. Two people had to be cut free by firefighters after their cars were involved in crashes. One hit a house in Grays, south Essex, and the female driver was trapped for over an hour before being released. In the west country a multi-car pile-up resulted in at least one woman being airlifted to hospital. The crash involving 15 cars and a coach shut the M5 near Bristol for several hours last night [BBC].

Airports also suffered greatly from the fog with many travellers facing major delays. Heathrow reported at least 86 flights cancelled while Gatwick cancelled 21 flights. London City airport cancelled more than 30 flights. Many people had to camp down in airport lounges waiting for the fog to lift [BBC].

Those that attempted to use trains were least affected by the weather, but travellers to London’s Liverpool Street had their journeys severely disrupted because of engineering works [BBC]. And anyone wanting to travel on Christmas Day will find themselves stranded with most bus and tube services suspended. Taxis are still running, but they will be charging more for their services.

Many were still using their own cars to travel about today, mainly to get to supermarkets for last minute presents and bargains as some shops cut prices to entice shoppers. Queues in many supermarkets were very long and car parks overflowed with shoppers’ vehicles [BBC]. The foggy weather is expected to ease over then next few days with rain sweeping across many parts of Britain. Temperatures are also expected to lift a little from the freezing conditions which have affected much of the country over the two weeks [BBC].

Saturday, December 22, 2007

From Omagh to Pakistan terrorism persists

Yesterday proved a bad day for the Crown Prosecution Service as well as the police after the failure of bringing a conviction against a suspect said to be part of the Omagh bombing in 1998. After criticism by the judge over the way DNA evidence was handled the repercussions were further felt today as a much used DNA test was abandoned [BBC]. Outrage and disbelief was expressed by families and friends of the 29 victims of the tragedy after non guilty verdicts were read out yesterday. Sean Hoey had been charged with a total of 58 offences including 29 counts of murder. Other charges included five counts of conspiracy to murder, four counts of conspiracy to cause an explosion, six counts of causing an explosion and 12 counts of possession of explosive devices. But after a trial lasting 56 days over a ten month period, he was found not guilt on all charges [BBC].

There were more victims of terrorism around the world giving a stark reminder of the continuing threat. In Iraq dozens died in several bomb attacks. To the east of Baghdad 15 were killed in one blast whilst several attacks in the south left at least a dozen dead and others injured. There has been a moderate downturn in violence over the last few months according to the US military. General Petraeus has said the fall was a “significant accomplishment” and claimed it was down to the “surge” as implemented earlier in the year, and supported by President Bush [BBC]. The number of civilians killed in Iraq has fallen in each of the past three months after hitting a six-month high in May, according to the latest estimates from Iraq Body Count. The preliminary October 2007 figure of 538 is the lowest since December 2003 [BBC]. But since February the US have lost in excess of 800 troops only a slight drop from 2006. The total losses now stand at 4203 dead of which 3896 were American servicemen. The British have lost 174 to date whilst other coalition countries have lost 133 []. The view of General Petraeus is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Lt Gen Ricard Sanchez. He was quoted earlier this year as saying Iraq was “like a nightmare with no end in sight.” [CNN]. He said the Iraq war plan from the start was "catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic," and the administration has not provided the resources necessary for victory, which he said the military could never achieve on its own. He painted a grim picture for the future adding that the U.S. cannot pull out of Iraq without causing chaos that would have global implications.

Pakistan, already reeling from a devastating rail crash which left 40 dead Wednesday [BBC] faced another crisis Friday after a suicide bomb blast [BBC]. At least 50 people died after the suicide bomber targeted a mosque during prayers. It came during the religious festival of Eid. The attack, which injured at least 100, comes a little over a week since President Pervez Musharraf lifted the State of Emergency which many called Martial Law. The much criticized leader may feel vindicated that his clampdown had quelled terrorist attacks for a month, but the renewed attacks may make him uneasy. The country is preparing for an election early next year and there have been three bomb attacks this week alone. The prospect for the next few weeks of campaigning looks increasingly worrying and uncertain. US defence secretary Robert Gates said in the wake of the latest bombing that al-Qaeda had begun to focus on attacking the Pakistani government. If true it further complicates the fight against al-Qaeda. The increased losses in Afghanistan, both for British as well as American troops, are making the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taleban difficult to sell to an already war-weary public. A war opening up on new fronts may bring new challenges for western governments too.

Friday, December 21, 2007

New Zealand quake - Emergency declared

The North Island of New Zealand has been hit by a 6.4 earthquake with shocks felt as far as Wellington, 380 km to the South-West. The USGS put the epicentre near to Gisborne, a relatively sparsely populated area of the island [38.804S, 177.909E]. The large quake, which some news agencies reported as 6.8 on the Richter scale, struck at 20:55 [07:55 GMT] on Thursday. Although no deaths have yet been reported there has been substantial damage prompting a State of Emergency to be declared []. CNN has shown pictures of some of the damage, but the story is far from major news on most UK networks [BBC Video]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

BBC World Service - 75 years of broadcasting

BBC World Service is 75 years old. It has proved to be a lifeline for millions of people providing news and programming in 33 languages [BBC Video].

Using medium wave and more commonly short wave transmission the BBC has crossed borders of totalitarian states and upset authorities who would prefer their people be hidden from certain truths. It has also provided useful to expats and holiday goers.

[Daily Telegraph / Wikipedia]

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas losing its traditional gleam

Political correctness and new legislation is making this year’s Christmas celebrations somewhat different from how they were once enjoyed. Many are unaware that the scarcity of unshelled Brazil nuts is not due to deforestation or bad harvests, but instead EU regulations. The nuts are not banned per se, but due to fears of aflatoxins contaminating unshelled Brazil nuts, the EU imposed special conditions on these imports to ensure they do not exceed the regulatory limits [UK govt publication]. The regulations require each batch of unshelled Brazil nut shells to be tested for aflatoxins (a carcinogenic agent). As such importers are unwilling to incur costs arising from these tests and any subsequent destruction of affected nuts, so no longer import the nuts in shells. The restrictions began in late 2004 [BBC] but the European Commission has expanded and reinforced the border-control measures it has taken to protect consumers from aflatoxin contaminated products. Aflatoxins are formed by certain moulds on foodstuffs, particularly peanuts and edible nuts and products made from them. The moulds need warm, humid conditions to grow and are therefore mainly found in imports from hot countries. Peanuts and peanut products from China and Egypt, pistachios and pistachio products from Iran, dried figs, hazelnuts, pistachios and their products from Turkey and unshelled Brazil nuts from Brazil are now all covered by the regulations [ /].

As has been much discussed, the smoking ban in enclosed spaces has affected trade, especially for the local pub. Some have reported a 25% drop in trade since the ban which was imposed in June [BBC]. So a traditional cigar with a brandy, or nip of Drambuie, is of course off the menu.

Other Christmas traditions are also on the wane, even if not banned or impeded by government interference. The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that many festive traditions were disappearing. Few people place a traditional silver coin in their Christmas pudding, which itself is being displaced by other desserts. Nativity plays, once performed at schools across Britain is also in decline. In today’s multi-cultural Britain many are fearful of upsetting other religious faiths and less than 36% of schools are performing the story surround the birth of Jesus.

Even shops rarely show the nativity scene in shops, perhaps also driven by the same political correctness and not wishing to insult Islam. But few Muslims are offended by any of the Christmas traditions. In fact Lord Ahmed, himself a Muslim, describes such over sensitivity as “completely mad”.

Health & Safety is affecting how Christmassy towns look as councils become ever more fearful of being sued if anything goes wrong with displays. Christmas lights can cost up to £25,000 just to insure. Health and safety regulations dictate that workmen must be trained, and that displays must be installed by hydraulic crane because ladders are "unsafe". The increasing cost means that this year, in gloomy Bodmin in Cornwall, lights are too expensive. And in Sandwell, Worcestershire, the council has given up hanging Christmas lights across its roads in case cables break. Even a lollipop lady in Southampton has been told she can no longer dress in festive fancy dress due to safety concerns [Daily Echo]. And the Royal Bank of Scotland has banned decorations citing them as ‘dangerous’.

Christmas Crackers were also deemed too dangerous when being dispatched to troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan and were ‘defused’ prior to being sent [BBC]. There was a further blow for the Scots Guards Association which had its plans to include alcohol miniatures in the packages scuppered due to alcohol being forbidden in Islamic countries.

Not since the times of Oliver Cromwell has England seen such restrictions of Christmas celebrations which even saw the banning of holly as a decoration. But today’s restrictions are less to do with Puritanism than petty mindedness. There are a few real concerns though, as highlighted on Channel Four’s documentary Dispatches. Christmas toys should be a delight and joy for those fortunate enough to receive gifts this festive season, especially at a time of low spending. But with many fake and dangerous products being sold, some children may be the unfortunate victim of poisoning from lead paint, bacteria infested liquids and tiny powerful magnets which if ingested can cause illness or even death. Meanwhile, tvnewswatch wishes all readers a safe and happy Christmas.

Nick Clegg wins LibDem leadership contest

Nick Clegg has won the leadership contest for the Liberal Democrat Party. There was a low turnout for the vote, down by a third on that during the previous leadership battle that voted in Ming Campbell. There was also a thin margin between the two contenders. Winning by only 511 votes over Chris Huhne, the new leader made a short speech to assembled party members saying, “my election marks a new beginning of Britain’s Liberal future”. He also called on disillusioned voters to give the Lib Dems a hearing. To a room full of supporters and members of the press the new leader said, “we want to change politics and Britain”. He was critical of both the Labour and Conservative parties saying they had cast civil liberties aside and left families struggling to pay bills. “I’m a Liberal, by temperament, instinct and upbringing” he said, “and we’re a people wary of government interference”. He added that he had one simple ambition “to change Britain into the Liberal country I know people want it to be”.

After his speech Nick Clegg told Sky he had, “Set out themes of ambition" for the party as a whole.

Chris Huhne said he knew it was going to be close but added that Nick would be an excellent leader. “You win some you lose some” he told the BBC . Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of the party, told Sky News’s Adam Bolton, “that was the best leader’s acception speech I have ever heard” and added, “what matters in politics is what people stand for…and people are looking for something fresh”.

The votes were: Nick Clegg 20,988 [50.62%] , Chris Huhne 20,477 [49.38%].

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Low turnout for UK fuel protests

Police guard an Essex refinery

The promise of disruption to the UK’s fuel distribution by protesters failed to materialize yesterday. transaction-2007, which coordinated the action, said on their website “This action will be initiated at a refinery or storage depot somewhere near you. Anyone wishing to support action is requested to make your way there at the allotted time.” However, by midday very few protesters had gathered at any of the refineries or distribution centres across Britain. In Essex the turnout was particularly poor with only a lone pensioner arriving at Coryton to air her grievance at the ever rising price of fuel. After an hour she drove to the Esso distribution centre in Purfleet hoping to join fellow protesters. But the retired care assistant found only a gathering of police and journalists. "I've got nothing to do with the haulage industry, I'm just a pensioner who pays £57 to fill up a Peugeot 307,” said June Walker, 61, of Rainham, Essex. Across the rest of the country there were slightly larger displays of anger. In Southampton a total of 25 protesters arrived and at the Texaco refinery in Cardiff 8 people turned out to brave the cold. In many cases the police and media presence outnumbered the protesters, but David Handley, who helped lead a successful fuel-tax protest in 2000, insisted he was not disappointed with the turnout. "If the government don't sit down with us then we will be back after Christmas and it won't be as pleasant as it is now - if you put a rat up a drainpipe and he can't do anything to get out, what's he going to do?" Mr Handley said [BBC].

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Italy's fuel protests may spread

Italy has virtually ground to a halt after fuel protests brought chaos to the country’s roads. The third day of blockades by lorry drivers has resulted in shortages of petrol and diesel and a shortage of goods in supermarkets [BBC]. The protests are likely to spread across other parts of Europe as lorry drivers threaten to block refineries elsewhere. This week it was reported that British lorry drivers were threatening to blockade fuel depots in response to the increasing prices of diesel [The Times]. In the UK the average price of diesel stands at £1.08 per litre. If blockades do occur, it will be the first major action since 2000 when panic buying and dry forecourts nearly brought Britain to a standstill. Transaction-2007, which is coordinating the action, say on their website “A date of Saturday 15th December 2007 at 10:00 a.m has been decided for protest action. This date was decided by members as the best possible to enable those who would normally be working during the week to attend. This action will be initiated at a refinery or storage depot somewhere near you. Anyone wishing to support action is requested to make your way there at the allotted time. Transaction again wish to emphasise the importance of legal protesting.”

Space - China's success in Lunar mission

The Chinese have successfully sent their first Lunar pictures back to Earth from the Chang'e 1 mission. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao unveiled the picture at the weekend [CNN / BBC]. The picture marks a major achievement in China’s continuing exploration into space headed by the CNSA.

Meanwhile, America’s latest shuttle mission was put on hold by NASA on Sunday after a cut-off sensor designed to gauge the fuel level of the external liquid hydrogen tank failed another test. The space shuttle Atlantis had been scheduled for Thursday last week, but after the failure of 2 fuel sensors. It now puts the mission back until at least January [CNN / BBC].

Blasts hit Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq

Under fire: Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq have all seen increased violence

Yesterday’s bomb blast in Algeria seems to indicate a shift in focus and an increased rise in al-Qaeda activity. Calling themselves al-Qaeda in North Africa, the group admitted responsibility for the massive blast which killed at least 26 people. One of the targets was the UN office where 11 staff were killed. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, has called for a full security review after the attack [BBC]. There has been a gradual increase in al-Qaeda related attacks this year breaking ten years of relative peace in the former French colony [BBC]. Al-Qaeda in North Africa, or Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, has formed from a number of Islamic militant groups [BBC]. Its reported leader is Abdel Moussab Abdelwadoud, though he has rarely been seen.

While the country was still reeling from this attack further blasts have hit Iraq after a relative calm in recent weeks. Three car bombs hit the southern city of Amara killing at least 39 according to reports [BBC]. A further 100 people were injured in the blasts. There has been no claim of responsibility but it is likely to be inter-factional violence between Shia militants who are competing for power in the area.

Lebanon also saw violence return to its streets today with a bomb blast targeting its army chief. General Francois al-Hajj was killed in the attack which hit close to the capital Beirut [BBC]. There has been no claim of responsibility for the bomb attack.

Monday, December 10, 2007

No injuries after 7.6 Earthquake shakes Fiji

A 7.6 magnitude earthquake has struck sputh of the small Pacific island of Fiji. Acording to the USGS the earthquake hit at 07:28 GMT [19:28 local time] at 26.156S, 177.453W. The area is prone to earthquakes. On January 4, 2006 a powerful earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Fiji, and the previous year a 6.3 hit the same area on the 12th December. As with previous tremors the depth of the earthquake makes the possibility of a tsunami extremely unlikely. However the quake was felt many miles away according to early reports, though there are no indications of casualties or damage at this time [Radio Australia]. The UPI reported the tremors being felt as far away as New Zealand.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Data concerns in UK and US

Data losses have continued to create concern this week after further revelations emerged that the theft of laptop computers had compromised the privacy of more UK citizens. The latest in a series of blunders looks set to undermine the competence of the Brown government which has been hit by a number of problems over the last few weeks. Yesterday [Friday] it emerged that a laptop containing the data belonging to 60,000 individuals had been stolen from a car in Northern Ireland [BBC]. The information, which concerns people who had sought help from the Citizens Advice Bureau, contains the names, addresses, dates of birth, bank account details and national insurance numbers. But the CAB has downplayed the latest blunder saying that the data was unlikely to be accessed due to the level of encryption employed on the laptops.

Less than a week ago details emerged about further security failures after it was revealed an ex-contractor at the Work and Pensions Department had held several discs containing personal data for over a year. The person had apparently ‘forgot to return’ the discs, something the Conservative Party said was “disturbing” [BBC]. Another package of Pensions data, sent to various departments, was later found [BBC] but not until an intensive search had been initiated. The printed information was reported ‘missing’ at the end of November [BBC]. And only this week the DVL announced they had ‘inadvertently’ sent personal data of 100 individuals to the wrong addresses [BBC]. The continuing fiasco has prompted both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to call for a review on the way data is compiled and handled between departments. But it is not just data collected by the government that is of concern. This week the think tank DEMOS said the public were unaware of how many bodies possessed their personal data and that more needs to be done by government to protect them from data theft [BBC]. Citizens’ data is not only stored within government departments, but also within data bases of countless private companies. Store cards and loyalty cards compile extensive records of peoples’ purchase history. The Oyster card, as used to obtain cheaper travel around London’s transport network, logs all journeys made by the individual. It is possible to use the card anonymously, but most users register with their real name and address. Countless online retailers also contain vast records of their clients as do mobile telephone companies and internet service providers. The Demos report, entitled FYI: The New Politics of Personal Information, says people need to be able to trust the government and companies which hold their personal details.

While the loss of data of personal information is causing worry or millions of UK citizens, in the US questions are being asked as to how and why data relating to the interrogation of terror suspects was destroyed. Senator Edward Kennedy said that the apparent deliberate destruction of records amounted to a “cover up”.

The lost data contained information about so called “water-boarding” and other interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Speaking on CNN earlier today, Daniel Marcus said the 9/11 Commission would have wanted to have seen them and the information may have been relevant to their final conclusions. Meanwhile, George W Bush has said he had no recollection of the existence of such tapes, nor the plan to destroy them [BBC]. The Democrats are angry about the apparent deliberate destruction of ‘evidence of torture’ and are demanding a full investigation [BBC]. This is only the latest in a series of concerns about the way the US treats its detainees. In recent months the subject of rendition has caused controversy with the EU and the UK being embroiled in a war of words. Earlier this year the British security service said their concerns about rendition had been ignored by the US and it had serious implications for the future of intelligence relations [BBC]. But a spokesman for the CIA has told the BBC that "the CIA's counter-terror operations have been lawful, effective, closely reviewed, and of benefit to many people - including Europeans - by disrupting plots and saving lives".

Friday, December 07, 2007

High winds disrupt travel in Essex

The stranded train near Billericay station

Around 100 passengers were forced to walk on a live train track after a tree blaze. It is thought strong winds blew the tree against overhead cables between Billericay and Wickford stations. It caught light forcing a train to suspend its journey. Fire crews rushed to the scene and passengers on board were forced to get off and walk about two-and-a-half miles back to Billericay Station. The incident, which occurred at 08.30 GMT, forced the closure of the line and all trains between Southend and London were suspended [BBC]. Further disruption was caused near to Liverpool Street after a fire at a signal centre. Essex roads faired little better after a jack-knifed lorry resulted in the closure of the A12 at Kelvedon. High winds brought down trees in many parts of the county and one driver had a lucky escape after a tree fell on his Renault van. The incident occurred near Southend Airport at 07:15 GMT at the height of the morning rush hour [Basildon Echo]. The high winds are expected to return over the weekend.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

'Lyrical Terrorist' spared jail

A woman has been convicted for possessing terror manuals and pamphlets. Receiving a 9 month suspended sentence, Samina Malik, 23, was charged with possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist [BBC]. Amongst her collection of books and pamphlets were the Al-Qaeda Training Manual and The 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Technical Description and Service Manual. She had also posted inflammatory poetry on the internet under pseudonym of the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’. But although her views were abhorrent, some commentators are saying the case should never have been brought to court. Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammed Abdul Bari, told the London Times, "Many young people download objectionable material from the internet, but it seems if you are a Muslim then this could lead to criminal charges, even if you have absolutely no intention to do harm to anyone else. Samina's so-called poetry was certainly offensive but I don't believe this case should really have been a criminal matter." However, a Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said, "Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. Ms Malik was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. This information included terrorism and poison handbooks as well as military manuals and other material likely to be useful to someone planning terrorist activity."

The conviction brings up some contentious issues. Although the manuals in question could be useful to terrorists, it is becoming more difficult to prove one did not have intent to use such documents for malicious causes. Mere possession seems to be enough for police to bring a prosecution. This has many civil liberties campaigners very worried, some suggesting that it amounts to ‘thought crime’ as depicted in George Orwell’s book 1984.

Collecting such information could be legitimate, such as a journalistic investigation. But collecting such documents because of personal curiosity or interest, may not be a strong enough defence.
But how easy is it to acquire such information and how far does the law discriminate between specific ‘terror manuals’ and information contained in commonly owned publications? The Encyclopaedia Britannica could be just such a source of information ‘useful’ to a terrorist. And older versions of such books contain greater detail than current editions as to how explosives or poisons may be made. In fact, place in context, a whole number of otherwise innocuous publications could be proven to be useful to a terrorist. Maps in particular can be extremely useful to a person or persons intending to launch an attack. In today’s information age acquiring documents cited in this most recent case is extremely easy. One document, The 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Technical Description and Service manual, is easily available online as a 27 page PDF document. Even the Al Qaeda Training Manual has been made available in the US by the website Thesmokinggun. [N.B Links to these documents have not been provided due to possible contravention of the UK anti-terror laws]

But is possession likely to make one a terrorist? It is a difficult question for lawmakers and prosecutors alike. Does the mere possession of a knife make a person a potential killer? Does a botanist’s knowledge of poisonous plants make that person a potential murderer? By itself, possession of information should not be proof of guilt. But it is all too common for individuals to be convicted for being a terrorist, or a sympathiser, just for possessing such publications. So far most prosecutions have targeted ‘Islamic extremists’. But as laws, intended to protect Britain, become increasingly draconian, it may not be too long before others are caught in the tangle of confusing legislation. In the United States, the 1st Amendment is often cited in defence of free speech. Voltaire is often cited as saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." These were not his words but instead were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre), in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien HelvĂ©tius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Nonetheless, philosophically speaking, the point must be made that whilst efforts must be made to defend Britain from further terrorist attacks, this must not be at the expense of hard won freedoms.

Beside strong voices from the opposition, the Labour government is proposing to increase the length of time a suspected terrorist may be detained without charge. The current time stands at 28 days, but Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has asked that to be increased to 42 days. Civil rights groups have criticized the proposal saying it breaches fundamental human rights [BBC].
Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis said, “Not only is it a breach of fundamental liberties enjoyed for centuries by the British people, it is likely to prove counter-productive in the fight against terrorism”. But Jacqui Smith insists the change in the law was needed. "In order to ensure we prosecute people who want to cause murder and mayhem on our streets, we may well need to hold them longer to do that" she said. Ms Smith also said, "We need to legislate now for the exceptional circumstances that there might be in the future."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Iraq - Video of kidnapped Briton airs

A group calling itself the Islamic Shi’ite Resistance in Iraq has released a video showing one of five Britons kidnapped earlier this year. Although there is no direct threat to kill the hostages, the kidnappers have called for a British withdrawal within 10 days. The date on the tape was the 18th November. The men were taken from the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad in May, but little has been reported about them until today’s video release. The tape surfaced on the Arabic TV station al-Arabiya. [BBC]

Pubs lose trade as winter bites

Five months after the smoking ban in the UK became law, the effects are beginning to bite. The ban includes any public place which is enclosed; pubs, bars, restaurants and bingo halls. The ban as claimed by the government was to encourage more smokers to give up the habit and make establishments cleaner for employees. But whilst non smokers may be happier at smoke free bars and clubs, many others are far from happy. Many publicans say they have seen a drop in trade, and other businesses where smoking was commonplace has also seen a drop in custom.

There has also been an increase in the spiking of drinks according to a Scarborough based charity. The charity said it had seen an increase in reports of drink spiking cases where theft, rather than a sex attack, was the motive. And women aged between 30 and 50 were most at risk, a spokesman for the charity has said. Graham Rhodes said that previously the charity had no calls about drink spiking thefts, but since the ban came into force the helpline had received between 200 and 300 calls. "We are getting more and more reports of people who have been drink-spiked in pubs” Mr Rhodes told the BBC. "They have thrown up, they have been ill - in some cases passed out - and when they have woken up, their mobile phone's gone, credit cards, cash, anything [thieves] can get their hands on."

Litter has increased too according to some reports with cigarette butts being discarded outside establishments. The BBC reported that Northampton had seen a 43% increase in litter in the 4 months following the ban forcing councils to install street ashtrays. These new ashtrays are costing councils thousands of pounds to install and have far outweighed the amounts collected in fines for littering of the flouting of the ban.

One man in Wales, where the ban was implemented in April, was fined for smoking in his lorry cab [BBC]. A dog warden spotted Leonard King smoking and flicking the stub out of the lorry's window. He also received a fine for depositing litter with the stub. Magistrates were told that the council warden took the number of the lorry, on Colwyn Bay promenade, and it was traced to a carrier firm, who confirmed their vehicles had no-smoking notices. King was fined £260. The lorry driver, who smokes 20 roll-ups a day, said the smoking ban was interfering with people's civil liberties. "Dog fouling is a more annoying offence than discarding one little cigarette butt which will get blown away in the wind. I was alone in the cab, not harming anyone else and stationary at the time."

Anti-social behaviour is also becoming an increasing concern. Publicans in South Devon told the Morning Advertiser that there had been more problems in the last 5 months than the previous eight years. Kelly Townsend, publican of the Old Coaching Inn, said "In the last six months we have had to call the police three or four times and we have had to break up a lot of fights. It happens at least once a week and all the trouble starts out the back in the smoking area.”
"Because all smokers now have to share the same area to smoke in, we are seeing higher levels of aggression from groups of people who would not normally have anything to do with each other, but now have to sit together for a smoke."

Other pubs are suffering increased problems with noise as smokers gather outside.
But it is the loss of profits that is causing the most concern. The Telegraph and Argus reported that a drop in custom at some city pubs in Bradford had forced closures. One publican, Mr Haigh, said “The smoking ban has got a lot to do with it. We don't know a pub that has not suffered since the ban was introduced. Now they are looking to crucify us even more with a large tax increase in the next budget.” Richard Cobb, licensee of the Old Bank, said “If this no smoking rule was supposed to make room for non-smokers, then where are they all? Why aren't we bursting out of the door with non-smokers and families?”
“I used to have a lot of older customers - in their late 80s - who have stopped coming because they can't be expected to go outside and smoke in the freezing cold. The ban was introduced in summer, but it's really starting to bite now it's winter" he said. And with the drop in sales, so too have the share prices of the major breweries fallen. Enterprise Inns valued at 690p in June, dropped to 531p in November. Greene King fell from 992p to 810p. JD Wetherspoon saw their share price fall from 544.5p to 395p and Young & Co saw a massive fall from 3030p to 2163p in the same period.

An increase in pub meals was supposed to have been a benefit of the smoking ban, but according to one recent report this has failed to materialise [Sky News]. A third of respondents to The Publican's questionnaire said their food sales had gone up following the ban - but more than one in five complained that their overall sales of food and drink had gone down. Threats to staff have also increased with some smokers attacking catering staff attempting to enforce the ban [Sky News]. According to, one in ten staff has said they had been a victim of violence.
Meanwhile the smoker who does brave the cold outside may be increase pressure on the NHS. The Sun reported in November that smokers standing in the harsh winter cold may damage their health. “Huddled together in freezing conditions, often in inadequate clothing, smokers face risks beyond the damage from tobacco. Research shows that regular exposure to cold weather increases the risk of dangerous blood clots, triggers breathing problems and brings on dehydration. Meanwhile, toxic air pollution increases the strain on the heart and can even damage sperm” the report read.

And while the anti-smoker and non-smokers are raising their glass in victory, bulletin boards are full of discussions by non-smokers calling for a change in the law [Gazette]. Most speak of empty pubs, a lack of atmosphere and the closing of rural establishments. Others have set up campaigns such as smokingbanstinks and freedom2choose.

Gillian Gibbons home from Sudan

Home: Gillian with her son, John, and daughter, Jessica, at Heathrow

Gillian Gibbons, the 54 year old teacher, who was embroiled in the controversy of the naming of toy bear Mohammed, has arrived back in the UK. Her plane touched down at London’s Heathrow airport at 07:00 GMT and she later spoke to the large media presence who had awaited her return [CNN / BBC / Sky News].
“I’m very glad to be back and I’m a little shocked at all the media attention” she said. She was not bitter after her ordeal and went on to say, “The Sudanese people I found to be extremely kind. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be put off in going there”. Her return will leave the school at the centre of the row without an English teacher and she mentioned the need to fill that vacancy. She went on to thank those that had helped secure her release, and specifically named Baroness Warsi and Baron Ahmed who had traveled to Khartoum. She said she was very sad to have left Sudan which she described as a beautiful place.

But for many inhabitants of the country, it is far from beautiful. Parts of the country are caught in turmoil after years of civil war. Sudan has seen a turbulent history over many years, but in the last 4 years it has been the Darfur conflict which has made headlines. Nearly half a million people are estimated to have died and more than 2 million have been forced into refugee status. But the teddy bear controversy has shifted attention from the embattled region. On Thursday four aid workers were killed at a hospital and in recent weeks dozens of UN vehicles have been targeted by hijackers. Medecins San Frontiers say they were outraged by the killings and that their work in the country is becoming ever more difficult [CNN]. Efforts to end the conflict are making little progress despite plans to deploy a 26,000 strong joint African Union and United Nations peace keeping force. Delays have put operations back until January and further talks are planned for later in December [BBC]. However, few observers are optimistic for the future, especially as rebel groups have failed to participate in negotiations.

Monday, December 03, 2007

'Blasphemous' school teacher released

Gillian Gibbons, who was jailed last week for allowing a toy bear to be called Mohammed, is to be allowed to fly home [BBC / CNN]. The school teacher caused controversy in Sudan after authorities learnt she had let children in her class name the bear after a popular boy, who by coincidence was called Mohammed. The practice of naming a bear or other effigy is discouraged or prohibited in Islamic teachings. But Muslims in Britain have said the reaction by Sudanese authorities was too draconian. Dr Imad Hassan, 45, a Sudanese doctor and writer who lives in Britain, said, "I feel insulted as a Muslim by the government of Sudan, not by Mrs Gibbons," he told the BBC. "Describing the lovely children's toy with the name of Muhammad is a compliment, it is not an insult”.

Speaking at the Foreign Office this afternoon, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband said Ms Gibbons was “a little overwhelmed by the coverage generated by the story but is elated to be freed”. He described the discussions and diplomatic efforts made in the last week as “a team effort from a number of parties”. But he said the visit by two Muslim peers, Nazir Ahmed and Sayeeda Warsi, was “an independent but helpful effort” to help secure Ms Gibbons release. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “common sense has prevailed” following the news the school teacher was to be released.

Gillian Gibbons has said she did not wish to see any retaliation towards Muslims following her ordeal. But the issue is likely to sour relations between Britain and Sudan. Over £400,000 is given to the country in aid by Britain every year. The rhetoric and comment on radio chat shows and internet forums indicates strengthening attitudes against Islam. The Vanessa show on BBC London last week attracted dozens of calls from angry listeners. LBC also drew a strong response from the public. In the NY Daily News one comment brought together many of the sentiments widely expressed on the phone-ins. “There they go again. Like the avengers who vowed death to novelist Salman Rushdie for his affront to Islam, like those who slew Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for his, like the mobs who ran mindless riot across Europe in protest of cartoons they deemed offensive to their prophet, now tens of thousands of Sudanese Muslims are demanding the execution by firing squad of British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who made the mistake of letting her 7-year-old charges name a teddy bear Muhammed. Here is evidence afresh that at the heart of radical Islam there is tinder - so easily ignited...” the writer said. The issue has even spawned products with one online trader selling 'Mohammed the Bear' soft toys. Others have taken to exploiting the issue for their own religious ends. One YouTube user has posted a video of ‘Mohammed the Pig’ on the popular website. The video was posted by someone claiming to be Bill Keller, a US evangelist, and describes the pig’s conversion to Christianity after discovering that “the Koran was nothing more than a series of fairy tales”.

Have I Got News For You, the BBC satirical news quiz show, made light of the news surrounding the soft toy. Describing the situation as delicate, Clive James, this week’s host of the programme, said, “We have to be careful what we say about the vindictive ranting nutters”. Speaking in jest, he added that “one moderate cleric suggested the bear be named Winnie the Pooh, but when it was revealed Pooh had a friend called Piglet, he was promptly stoned to death”.

People on the streets of Sudan did not see a funny side to the naming of the bear after the Muslim prophet. The anger was visible on the streets of Khartoum following Gillian Gibbons’ sentence and after her subsequent pardon. Men brandishing swords and burning pictures of the school teacher were shown on several news channels over the week. Some of the protesters called the sentence too lenient and demanded she even be put to death.

Fortunately for Ms Gibbons, she will soon be returning to Britain. John Gibbons, her son, revealed the good news to reporters earlier today. But it will have been a harrowing 9 days for the school teacher who has been described as timid. According to CNN the whole issue was brought to attention of authorities by a disgruntled former employee of the school. The person had hoped the issue would result in the closure of the school but instead it has only enflamed feelings between Islam and the West.