Thursday, November 30, 2006

Spy saga deepens - Ex-Russian PM 'poisoned'

The puzzling links of the spy saga increase concerns

Sky News has reported that Yegor Gaidar, former Prime Minister of Russia, has been poisoned [BBC]. It had been earlier reported that he had ran from the table where he had been eating on the 24th November clutching a bleeding nose. Russian doctors say his illness “may have been due to deliberate poisoning”. Alex Rossi, reporting from Moscow for Sky News, said he had been promoting his book in Ireland when he fell ill and that doctors were ‘convinced’ he had been poisoned. The Irish government has ordered the testing of all sites visited by the former PM. At least 95 Russian bankers have been assassinated in the last five years and the criticism for Putin may suggest he has created a situation where there is a lack of security in and outside of Russia. It is understood that Vladimir Putin had contacted Mr Gaidar and offered him a speedy recovery. But Putin’s concerns for Mr Gaidar and repeated denials of Russian involvement in Litvinenko’s death fail to convince many. Mr Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Alexander Litvinenko, remains convinced the Russian government was involved in the poisoning of the former KGB spy and other opponents of Putin’s regime.

In other developments today it has emerged that several planes are being investigated in the search for radioactive substances. A total of 4 British Airways aeroplaplanes were being investigated and at least two are said to show signs of radioactivity [Sky News]. Forensic activities have been completed and they are believed to have been cleared for handing back to BA. Over five thousand passengers have contacted BA and the HPA with their concerns. Some passengers have said they were not satisfied with the response from BA [BBC]. However John Reid, the Home Secretary, has stressed that the amounts of radioactivity involved were so small that they posed little if any risk to the passengers of those aircraft. As well as the aircraft, which have had an apparent connection to Russia in as much as they have made fights to Moscow, there are now a total of 24 other locations being searched in connection with Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning. At least 12 of these have said to have shown traces of radioactivity [BBC]. As the police investigation expands the cost to the British taxpayer is also increasing. According to Sky News over £250,000 has been eaten up in the investigation so far.

The risk to the general public is said to be low, however information resources drawn from the internet and elsewhere point to a slightly different view. It is true that Polonium 210 must be ingested, inhaled or administered by a wound in order to be fatal. But the amounts which pose a risk to health is extremely small. According to a US university website “Polonium-210 is very dangerous to handle in even milligram or microgram amounts, and special equipment and strict control is necessary. Damage arises from the complete absorption of the energy of the alpha particle into tissue.” In terms of the quantity required the site says, “The maximum permissible body burden for ingested polonium is only 0.03 microcuries, which represents a particle weighing only 6.8 x 10-12 g. Weight for weight it is about 2.5 x 1011 times as toxic as hydrocyanic acid. The maximum allowable concentration for soluble polonium compounds in air is about 2 x 10-11 microcuries/cm3. "[]

Polonium 210 has a half life of a little over 138 days. The half-life of a radioactive substance is the length of time it takes for half of a given amount of the substance to disintegrate due to radiation. For example, the half-life of radium-226 is 1590 years, so that if today you had 50 grams of radium-226, 1590 years from now there would only be 25 grams left, because half of the 50 grams would have disintegrated [link]

It has not yet been revealed what quantities of Polonium have been found in any of the 12 locations where radioactivity has been measured. And of the thousands who have contacted the Health Protection Agency only 18 have been referred for ‘special tests’, according to authorities. Meanwhile speculation is rife as to who might be able to acquire Polonium 210. An article in The Times and several other news sources have inferred that anyone might buy the radioactive substance over the internet for as little as $69. One specific site quoted is However, the company specifically states that it will not fulfil international orders. Also, with reference to the sensationalist headlines surrounding the issue of internet sales it says “With the recent news of Polonium-210 being used as a poison, so much incorrect information has been passed around about the material that it's important to get the facts correct. The general public is quite ignorant when it comes to knowledge about radioactive materials and radiation in general.”
The company goes on to say that “the amount of Polonium-210, and all the isotopes we sell is an 'exempt quantity' amount. These quantities of radioactive material are not hazardous - this is why they are permitted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to be sold to the general public without any sort of license.” Although United Nuclear admit the selling of Polonium 210, and other isotopes, the company states they do not actually stock them. All isotopes are “made to order at an NRC licensed reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” Their website states that “When the isotope is made, it is shipped directly to the customer from the reactor to insure the longest possible half-life.”
“The quantity of Polonium-210, or any of the radioactive isotopes sold by us or any scientific equipment supplier, is so small, it's essentially invisible to the human eye. In the case of needle sources, the radioactive material is electroplated on the inside of the eye of a needle. You would need about 15,000 of our Polonium-210 needle sources at a total cost of about $1 million - to have a toxic amount.” If correct, the amount of Polonium 210 concerned would amount to 4.53 x 10-16 g. This equates to 0.000,000,000,000,000,453 g, substantially less than the fatal dose of 0.000,000,000,006,8 g required.
Many conspiracy theories are beginning to surface as more details emerge. It has been suggested that Litvinenko was a ‘double-agent’. Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor at the Times of London, said the possible links between the Russian mafia, oligarchs and the KGB revealed “a very murky world”. The speculation has been fueled by the Times amongst other publications as to the the unusual events leading to the former spy’s death. A few weeks prior to his death, Mr Litvinenko is said to have passed a dossier, which detailed how the Kremlin took over the Russian energy giant Yukos, to Leonid Nevzlin, the former second-in-command at Yukos. Mr Nevzlin had fled to Tel Aviv because he feared for his life after Russia took over the company and sold it. Quoting unnamed investigators, The Times said Mr Litvinenko had uncovered "startling" evidence of what happened to those who opposed the forced break-up of Yukos. Several people linked to the company are reported to have disappeared, or died in mysterious circumstances, while others, such as its head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have been jailed. [The Times article has since been deleted from the online website but the Australian newspaper The Age reproduced part of the article]. Mr Litvinenko appears to have made enemies not just in the Kremlin and the KGB, but also amongst Russia’s so called oligarchs. He may also have conceerned others around the world with Russian interests. The poisoning of a former Russian PM does muddy the water substantially. A ‘murky world’ indeed.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Spy saga - Radiation found in more locations

Four central London locations are now being investigated

In a sinister twist it has been found that traces of radioactivity have been found at the offices of Boris Berezovsky in Down Street, Mayfair. It brings the total number of sites now under investigation to five [BBC]. The Russian billionaire and critic of the Kremlin has so far made no comment. It has been reported that Mr Litvinenko arrived in London to assassinate Mr Berezovsky in 2000 but the former KGB spy decided instead to warn the businessman and abandon his mission. As has been reported here, this has similarities to a case in the 1950s when Nikolai Khokhlov was sent to West Germany to kill Georgi Okolovich, a prominent dissident Russian émigré. After converting to Christianity Khokholov abandoned his mission and warned the Russian dissident. Khokhlov was then targeted by the KGB and poisoned by radioactive Thallium. He survived after intensive treatment. Another location which has been locked down by authorities is the fourth floor of 25 Grosvenor Street, headquarters of security and risk management company Erinys.
A Mirror reporter is said to have had tests along with 3 others connected with the sushi bar and hotel where Alexander Litvinenko had frequented. The Daily Mirror journalist is said to have undergone radiological tests following a visit to Italy where he had met Mario Scaramello in Italy. Mr Scaramella had met with Mr Litvinenko in London on the 1st November to inform him they were both on a ‘hit list’ [Channel 4 News]. In an ‘Exclusive’ story, the Daily Mail stated that Mario Scaramella was a ‘security consultant’ who ‘headed an organisation which tracked down nuclear waste including soviet nuclear missiles left over from the cold war.’ His credentials in this area have been well documented. Earlier this year he aided Italian authorities in capturing a number of people involved in the smuggling of Uranium. The Daily Mail quoted him as saying,"I was also looking into the trafficking of arms from the former Soviet Union and possible links with Italian terrorist groups. During this I was passed a document that said there were former KGB men in San Marino looking at selling nuclear military material.” He told the police that 10kg of uranium was hidden in a suitcase and on its way to Italy on June 2. Four arrests were made and the uranium found. It was enriched uranium 90 per cent capable of making a small atomic bomb. Also an electronic target device was seized. The uranium plot came a year after Professor Scaramella had announced he possessed information about 20 nuclear warheads ‘lost’ by a Soviet submarine in the Bay of Naples. The missiles were part of the arsenal of a K-8 submarine which sunk in April 1970 after a fire with a loss of 52 lives. Of the 24 missiles on board, only 4 were ever recovered [Soviet submarine incident]. It has also been announced that Mr Scaramella is also undergoing tests for radiation poisoning. This brings the total number of people under observation to five. It is believed the nuclear expert is also in protective police custody in London after arriving in the UK early Thursday morning.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Home Office makes statement on Litvinenko case

Closed - The Itsu sushi bar and several other London premises

As the British media interest in the poisoning of ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko continues, questions were raised today in Parliament. John Reid, the Home Secretary, said, “Tests are continuing at a number of locations” and that, “police are attempting to identify a number of people he [Litvinenko] may have met.” The HPA [Health Protection Agency] has requested that anyone who was at the Itsu or the Millennium Hotel on the 1st of November to contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647 [At the time of publication their website was experiencing server problems. A message instead read: We’re sorry, but our server has experienced an unexpected error that prevents it from loading the page you’ve requested. We are aware of the problem, and we’re trying to fix it as soon as we can. Please try again later…]
He went on to say that the NHS Direct had received 500 calls and the Itsu sushi bar, the Millennium Hotel bar and a number of rooms had been closed to the public. He also indicated that a number of other premises had been identified where traces of radioactivity had been found. The Home Secretary said there were a small number of people who had described symptoms which merited further tests adding that the number was less than 5 – the BBC has said that 3 people had been admitted for tests. According the Home Secretary, the Russian Ambassador had been called to the Home Office on the 24th November, but during questions in the open session he refused to be drawn into whether the Russian Federation, nor their secret services, might be involved and emphasised that the Police has said that as yet they were only investigating a ‘suspicious death’. However, David Davis said that if the Russian State Secret Service were not involved “then it raises the issue of availability of Polonium 210 to other criminals.” The Home Secretary did not answer the question directly, but said, “COBRA was convened due to the concerns of public health and security.” COBRA is an acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, a government body which was established to deal with national or regional emergencies.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Litvinenko poisoned with Polonium 210

Two ex-KGB agents poisoned -
but is Russia's secret service to blame?

Police are searching “a number of locations” as they search for traces of radioactive substances following the death of ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko. One area believed to be under scrutiny is a property in Muswell Hill in north London, the home of the former spy. The Home Office have said in a brief statement that a radioactive substance was probably involved in the poisoning of the former Russian spy and the BBC has reported that COBRA met late last night. Professor Alan Perkins, a medical expert, told Sky News he thought the Home Office statement was “puzzling”. He also said he was surprised the hospital was unable to identify the presence of a radioactive substance in Mr Litvinenko.
Mr Vladimir Putin, speaking in Helsinki, said, “I extend my condolences, and as I understand this was not a violent death…and I hope that British authorities would not perpetuate rumours of political involvement”. There have been repeated denials of Russian involvement in Mr Litvinenko’s death and a spokesperson for Mr Putin had had already described the death as “tragic”.
But whilst the Kremlin continue denials of any involvement a family member pointed the finger firmly at the Putin government. Outside the hospital a family member said in a statement, “You have shown yourself to be as ruthless as your critics have claimed.”
Orgev Gordievsky said the use of a radioactive substance had all the hallmarks of a KGB assassination. He told the BBC, “This was an execution by a foreign power.” Mr Livinenko had certainly made enemies within the FSB, formerly the KGB. After his defection from Russia he continued to make allegations about the FSB. As well as accusations of having orchestrated the bombing of apartment bombings in Moscow and Volbodosk, which killed 300 people in 1999, he had claimed that Ayman Al Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s no 2, had been a former KGB agent. He also alleged that he had been sent to London to dispatch a businessman Mr Berezovsky. The Guardian in an article published in January 2004 alleged that Litvinenko had been recruited by the British secret service [ / Chechen Times]. The Russian secret service has been involved in the death of former spies before and it will be difficult for the Russian authorities to shift the focus of blame from themselves. In the 1950s Georgi Okolovich was a prominent dissident Russian emigre. He was an official in the Popular Labor Alliance of Russian Solidarists, an anti-Soviet group based in West Germany. The KGB marked him for death. In 1954, Soviet assassin Nicolai Khokhlov was sent to West Germany to kill him. But the plot hit an unusual snag: before accomplishing his mission, the assassin converted to Christianity and rejected his murderous profession. Upon his arrival in West Germany he defected and warned Okolovich about the plots against him.
By saving Okolovich's life, however, Khokhlov became a marked man himself: in 1957 the KGB poisoned him with radioactive thallium. Hospitalized and given massive blood transfusions and a variety of antitoxins, he survived [CNN].
The apparent similarities will only serve to reinforce the opinions of those who believe the Russian secret service had a hand in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

At 15:00 the Health Protection Agency held a press briefing at Westminster. Pat Troop described the use of a radioactive substance to poison an individual in the UK as unprecedented. Professor Roger Cox said that at 18:00 yesterday the HPA was informed that a large quantity of alpha radiation had been detected in Mr Litvinenko’s urine. Throughout the press conference there was no explanation as to why this had not been previously detected throughout Mr Litvinenko’s stay in hospital. He said that the substance concerned was Polonium 210.
He said that there would be no risk to those in contact with Mr Litvinenko and there was a continuing assessment being made of what risk there might be to the general public. In summary, the professor said the substance had to have been ingested, inhaled or through a wound. The two experts were unable to provide any specific figures both in regards levels of radiation detected, nor of any amounts of Polonium 210 detected. And in the Latest developments the BBC has learned that the Metropolitan Polic have discovered traces of radioactivity at the Itsu sushi bar where Litvinenko had eaten in early November [BBC].

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Exclusive - Pelosi tackles China on climate change

Pelosi wants to "build partnership" with China to tackle issues of climate change

Less than two weeks after becoming the first woman speaker in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi is already making representations to China over its environmental policy tvnewswatch can exclusively reveal. In her first letter addressed to President Hu Jintao she proposes a ‘New Shanghai Communiqué”. Pelosi has been a strong critic of China’s human rights record and in her first contact with China’s leader she softens he stance. “Those issues still animate my party. But I'm convinced that we have a better chance of making progress on them if we can first build a partnership to address the urgent issues of energy and climate change,” she says in the opening lines of her letter. She goes onto criticize the US president’s efforts in curbing environmental emissions. “President Bush promised the world when he spurned the Kyoto Protocols that he would offer an alternative. He never did.”
Her ‘New Shanghai Communiqué’ would “defuse the most destabilizing issue of our day: the world's unsustainable appetite for energy.” She praises China’s commitment to a 20 percent reduction in energy consumption for every 1percent of G.D.P. growth by 2010 and points out that President Bush has failed to make the same promises. “I am going to propose that the U.S. as a whole match the 4 percent annual improvement in energy efficiency already undertaken by California. That would mean at least a 25 percent improvement by 2012.”
China has recently set targets for generating 10 percent of its energy fromrenewables, wind, hydro, solar power and biofuels, by 2020. And Pelosi sets out her vision for the same in the US - “I want to require our power grid operators to purchase 20 percent of their energy from environmentally sound renewables by 2020.” She suggests that should these targets be achieved it would it create a “sustainable growth path and set an example that would change the world” and “create less dependence on despotic oil states.” She also wants to “lead an effort to help China invest in factories devoted to clean power technologies.”
Whilst she praises some of China’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, Pelosi also throws some criticism at China’s vision of a green future. “Too many of your local officials think green is a luxury you can't afford. You will never break out of your cycle of environmental degradation until those officials understand that pollution is wasted energy and wasted money,” she says in her 700 word letter.
But her approach to helping China overcome some of its environmental concerns may be seen as somewhat patronizing. In her continuing letter she says, “President Hu, we both know that the millions of cars now choking your streets are only the beginning. Your biggest concern is the 800 million Chinese living in the countryside, who need transportation to better their lives but who can't afford even the cheapest car.” The result, “Every year they buy more than 30 million motorcycles and farm vehicles, which have the advantage of being cheap but which use the most rudimentary, polluting motors — blackening your skies.”
Her proposal is to send US engineers “who know how to clean up small engines” and “together with your manufacturers, who know how to mass produce them cheaply, to forge companies that will not only clean up the air in developing countries but make money for both of us.”
Beijing has watched the US mid-term elections with some interest and Nancy Pelosi’s role as the speaker of the House of Representatives with certainly worry some in the Chinese government. She has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government for many years and has herself been involved in scuffles with police during protests in Tiananmen Square. She has also been quoted as saying the US trade relationship with China was “a disaster”. So what will Beijing make of Pelosi’s change of tack. No doubt, as is often seen in Chinese politics, their approach to Pelosi’s comments with be cautious. Even as House speaker she has no real power and it is still a long way off from a possible Democratic victory at the next national election. The Wall Street Journal in its lead article dated 16th November says China may find congress a chillier place following Pelosi’s win. But the debate is now beginning to warm up along with the global environment.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Lebanese minister assassinated

Pierre Ishmail Gemayel, Lebanon’s Christian Industry Minister, has been assassinated. His convoy was intercepted by gunmen as it made its way through the capital Beirut. Pictures shown on Al-Jazeera and CNN showed the car, in which he was traveling, riddled with bullets. Gemayel had already survived previous attempts on his life. But today the assassin's bullet made its mark. Blame has been attributed to Syria. Reaction from world leaders and politicians has been swift. The British PM Tony Blair said he “condemned this murder utterly” and said everything must be done to protect Fouad Siniora’s government and democracy in Lebanon. The French Foreign Minister said the killing was an attempt to “an attempt to destabilise the country” whilst the US Secretary of State described the killing as a “terrorist act”. Russia, already in the news in connection with an assassination attempt in London, said it condemned the “resumption of political assassinations” in Lebanon. Hezbollah has also condemned the attack, though their view will be looked at somewhat cynically by many.
The killing is a further blow to the Lebanese government which has already seen resignations in recent days. Lebanon has seen assassinations before. Less than two years ago former PM Rafik Al Hariri was killed by a truck bomb. That assassination was attributed to the Syrian regime by the UN. Syria has denied this and has already condemned this latest attack on the Lebanese government. Other reports from Al Arabiya said there had been shots aimed at another minister’s office in the capital, but as yet these reports are unconfirmed. [Other reports: Sky / BBC / CNN / Al-Jazeera] .

Assassination plot - KGB maybe 'prime-suspect'

Litvinenko - hospitalised by a poison favoured by the KGB

In the same week as a new James Bond film hit cinemas, Britain has seen a real spy game acted out on its streets. The victim of an assassination attempt, Alexander Litvinenko [Profile: BBC] found himself hospitalised after being poisoned with what was believed to be Thallium. News of the poisoning only emerged on Sunday 19th November, nearly 20 days after he had dined with his family at the Itsu sushi bar in central London. He had already told the BBC that he had “felt ill” following a meeting at the restaurant. He had arranged to meet someone in connection with his investigation into the death of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya [BBC]. "He gave me some papers which contained some names on it - perhaps names of those who may have been involved in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, and several hours after the meeting I started to feel sick," he said. Two weeks later he was admitted to a specialist unit at the University College Hospital. His situation had deteriorated rapidly. His hair had fallen out and inflammation in his throat had forced doctors to administer food intravenously. Clinical toxicologist John Henry, who examined Mr Litvinenko on Saturday, told the BBC the former KGB spy’s condition was serious. "I can tell you he's ill. He is quite seriously sick. There's no doubt that he's been poisoned by thallium, and it probably dates back to 1 November, when he first started to get ill," he said on Sunday [BBC]. There was scant coverage on TV news channels on Sunday and newspaper coverage in Monday’s newspapers pushed the story towards the world news sections. By Today [Tuesday] it was the front page lead of most British newspapers with headlines such as “From Russia with Loathe” in the Daily Mirror and “From Russia with Lunch” in The Sun, both references to the James Bond title “From Russia with Love”. Described in the Sun as being like a ‘James Bond style plot’, and by the Independent as ‘a reminder of the Soviet past’, many papers put the blame firmly in the Kremlin’s court. The Kremlin has firmly denied any link to Litvinenko’s assassination attempt. However, the former spy, who arrived in Britain in 2000 has not made many friends with his former employer [BBC]. In 2003 he claimed that Al-Qaeda’s number 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was a former KGB agent. In his book, FSB Blows Up Russia, he also alleged the Federal Security Service were involved in apartment bombings in Moscow and Volbodosk which killed 300 people in 1999. The FSB denied any involvement and blame for the explosions has been attributed to Chechen terrorists [BBC]. Sky News said last night that Litvinenko may have made other enemies outside Russia’s establishment. There are many in the Russian mafia that would like to see him dead said one expert. There is also the possibility that exiled oligarchs and others may be involved as they would benefit from the discrediting of the Putin government. Litvinenko may also have been recruited by Britain’s security service MI5 according to an article published in the Guardian in January 2004 [ / Chechen Times].
As police and Britain’s security services investigate the poisoning, doctors today revealed that Mr Litvinenko may have ingested a radioactive substance [BBC]. They have also described his condition as serious and have given him a 50/50 chance of survival. Security services remain tightlipped as to where their investigations are focused. A statement released by Scotland Yard read, "We await the results of the toxicology tests and we are therefore not speculating as to the possible cause of his condition at this stage." Radioactive Thallium has been used in the past to dispatch the KGB’s enemies. In 1957 a former KGB assassin Nicolai Khokholov was the subject of an attempted assassination by the KGB with radioactive Thalium following his defection to the west [CNN]. He survived only after intensive treatment including blood transfusions and a variety of anti-toxins.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Council workers face smoking ban

Workers face the sack if they fail to stub out their habit.

A smoking ban for employees during work time has triggered a row between the pro-smoking and anti-smoking lobby. Council Workers in Lancashire face the queues of the unemployed if they take fag breaks.

Sky News highlighted the 'thin end of the wedge' as employers govern the 'free time' of its employees. In the US pupils have had their visits to the the toilet curtailed [BBC] and one pro-smoking spokesperson asked how much further employers would interfere with the rights of their workforce - “Are we to see a restriction of the kind of food employees should eat?” Forest described the move as a ‘complete overreaction’ [BBC].

Japan - Tsunamis fail to materialize

A series of massive earthquakes fail to produce predicted tsunamis

Besides a series of aftershocks following a massive 8.1 quake off the coast of Japan, a tsunami has failed to materialize. Several warnings were issued after the 8.1 earthquake hit at 11:14 GMT [22:14 local time]. Its depth was measured at 27 km and the USGS has since reported at least 5 aftershocks. Thousands fled parts of north-east Hokkaido, but after more than two hours it was clear that there was little threat to the coastal areas. The BBC / Sky News and CNN all covered the story with some depth whilst the newest broadcaster on the block, Al Jazeera English, only glanced over the story. In December 2004 a massive tsunami, triggered by a 7.8 earthquake near Indonesia, killed more than 250,000 throughout southern Asia and as far as Africa [Wikipedia - Indian Ocean earthquake 2004] .

Al-Jazeera in English launched

Al Jazeera English went live today [Sky EPG 514]. The leading story on other networks was the Japanese earthquake and possible tsunami. As Al Jazeera English launched it led with a story about a Palestinian missile attack which killed an Israeli woman. “A Palestinian missile kills an Israeli woman, Israel vows revenge”. The story swiftly moved on to a report by veteran reporter David Chater - “The agony of Gaza” in a “disintegrating economy”. Their second report was the Japanese earthquake, but was dealt with only in brief. The third headline moved on to Darfur, Sudan, with a report from Andrew Simmons backed up with a live report from Haru Marasa. Then to a commercial break. Much of the break was filled with trailers for Al Jazeera’s own programming. The ‘bias’ becomes clear after twenty minutes viewing. One sting showed a comparison of nuclear weapons held by various countries ending with Iran and the US as a comparison. Another dealt with a comparison of CO2 emissions. Each 30 second sting ending with ‘Al-Jazeera - Setting the News Agenda’ [Fox News / Guardian]

After the break Ferai Zevenzo reported from Zimbabwe, a country which is suffering from massive inflation and unemployment. Pictures showed dozens waiting in line for petrol. Some had waited more than seven days. Describing Zimbabwe as “Inflation country”, Ferai reeled off a string of depressing statistics. Inflation was running at 1200%, 1 US dollar can buy 2000 Zimbabwe dollars. A country where there is 80% unemployment but where “5% are extremely wealthy”. Ending his report Ferai Zevenzo said many ordinary lives had not been improved. Al Jazeera is the first TV network to broadcast Live from Zimbabwe in several years. The next story dealt with the diplomatic issues surrounding Iran and the continuing turmoil in Iraq. Ex-BBC correspondent Rageh Omaar reported from Tehran, Iran's capital, and discussed new US/UK talks which have taken place over the last 24 hours. Other headlines were skirted over including a brief visit by President Bush to Moscow en-route to Indonesia and the possible re-initiation of 6 party talks with North Korea.
The ‘And finally story’ came from Beijing where illegal racers speed around the city ring roads. One racer completed Beijing’s 2nd ring road in little over 13 minutes, averaging 150 km/h. The man behind the wheel speaks of “the thrill of the speed on a racing circuit” but said it was “more exiting on the open road”. More than 100 cars hit China’s roads every day and it is a massive task for the police to control the traffic. They have little time nor resources to chase speeding motorists. What was not mentioned is the resulting accidents left in the wake of such activities. The half hour news broadcast ended with, “And that’s it for now, a weather update next”.

It has taken ten years since their launch in 1996 to get to the point of being a nearly global English speaking broadcaster. Nearly global, since at the last minute Variety reported that a deal between AJI and Comcast, one of America's biggest cable operators, fell through after AJI held out for nationwide coverage when Comcast wanted to make the channel tentatively available in Detroit, which houses a large Arab-American population. Their success in the news environment will depend on their impartiality and quality of coverage. Many might be surprised by some of their programming whilst others will be put off by their apparent bias. Most will only have seen the Arabic version of the channel [Wikipedia - Al Jazeera], which has incidently disappeared from the Sky EPG[ electronic programme guide].

Tsunami alert in Japan after 8.1 quake

An 8.1 earthquake has hit near Japan triggering a tsunami alert in Japan. The initial reports were that the tsunami, if there were one, would hit the coast between 12:10 GMT. As yet there have been no signs of a tsunami but the tide has dropped 20 – 30 cm on some coastal areas. As this story develops 12:54 there were reports of a 0.5 metre high wave hitting the fishing town of Nemuro. The earthquake hit near the Kuril islands [46.683N, 153.223E] north of Japan at around 11:15 GMT [22:14 local time].

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Iraq - 150 kidnapped as UK/US talks start

Another week in Iraq started with yet more bombings and attacks. Today [Tuesday] up to 150 people were kidnapped by insurgents. They were taken from a research institute belonging to the Iraqi Ministry in the Karradah district of Baghdad. Latest reports suggested that 3 people had already been released [CNN/BBC]. It is said to have been the largest mass kidnapping seen in the country. Witnesses said the street filled with pick-up trucks carrying insurgents dressed as police.
There has been a continued rise in attacks from the Iraqi insurgency. Each month brings with it a greater number of attacks with little respite. On Monday this week at least 11 were killed in a suicide attack [BBC] and on Sunday two suicide bombing killed thirty five. Civilians are the main victim in this dirty war, but highly protected troops are still taking losses. On Sunday a boat carrying British personnel was targeted with an IED or ‘improvised explosive device’ the MoD confirmed. Today they were named as Warrant Officer Lee Hopkins, Royal Corps of Signals, and Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott of the Intelligence Corps. Also killed in the attack were Corporal Ben Nowak of 45 Commando Royal Marines and Marine Jason Hylton of 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines [BBC]. The attack brings the coalition dead to 3099, 125 of them British.
The political fallout has not affected Washington’s stance and last night PM Blair of Great Britain blamed both Iran and Syria for helping the insurgency [CNN].
Michael Cox, Royal Institute of Affairs, speaking on CNN said there was a difficulty with engaging Iran and Syria after the disaster in Iraq. On Iraq he said, “The situation there is very bad and getting worse by the day” and it was difficult for America as to “how to withdraw without making it look like defeat”. Whether Tony Blair can motivate US representatives in finding a way forward in the push for peace in the Middle East can only be guessed [BBC]. Speaking via a video link he told the US inquiry into future policy options that resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is crucial to the future of Iraq. The ISG is expected to report its findings to President Bush within weeks. Posted by Picasa

China pressured to stop piracy

US Commerce Secretary, Carlos Gutierrez has pressured Chinese authorities to clampdown on pirated DVDs in an effort to reduce effects of intellectual property rights infringement. Gutierrez praised the Chinese leadership for tackling the problem adding that it was “a large problem for all parties”. $2.4 billion per year is lost by US companies due to piracy in China, according to a report on CNN today. It is an issue which has been brewing for a long time and prompted some companies to take actions themselves. Warner Brothers are set to release a Mandarin version of the new Superman film on DVD in China ahead of the rest of the world [BBC]. Fox has also made attempts to thwart the pirates by releasing cheaper DVDs [English Peoples Daily]. According to the agreement, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will distribute its products through Zoke's extensive national network, and supply China's growing home entertainment market with recent releases as well as celebrated films from the studio's vast library. But the efforts may well fall flat on Chinese consumers. A Chinese worker often earns less than $200 a month and pirate DVDs offer value for money at less than the equivalent of $2 each. Beijing is said to be clamping down on ‘serious violators’ but according to CNN, this move is only forcing many vendors underground. Liu Binjie, Press and Publication ADM, said that there needed to be more education in schools about intellectual property rights. “We will also educate the general public to help them realize that buying pirated goods is wrong”. Frank Hawke highlighted the danger that pirated goods could pose to the public. “They will move from luxury goods and DVDs and CDs into pharmaceuticals, chemical intermediates, food additives electronics, electric products and these are products where you have serious safety issues.”
The risk to China’s economy is very real. According to Carlos Gutierrez, “China is evolving and moving towards an innovation economy, and I know there is a vision President Hu [Jintao] has laid out for an innovation society, and you can’t be an innovation society if you can’t have an innovation society when you can have of intellectual property rights protected”.
But it will be an uphill struggle to see off the vendors of pirate DVDs. And whilst Beijing is seeing a clampdown, in other provinces DVDs are sold openly in shops and on the streets. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 09, 2006

US - One door shuts another gate opens

The last 48 hours have brought little comfort for the Republican Party. “I thought we’d do better,” said President Bush to a packed press room, “But what do I know?”
At that point all he knew was that his party had lost control of the House of Representatives. There were still some known unknowns to come. And the news hit news networks like a bombshell. Donald Rumsfeld had resigned as Defence Secretary. President Bush announced the departure of his loyal aid as his replacement stood aside him. ITN’s John Irvine [UK’s Independent Television News] described Rumsfeld as “standing there like a criminal” as George W Bush introduced his successor, Robert Gates.
The report was generally scathing of Rumsfeld and his legacy. “Last week Bush said Rumsfeld wasn’t going anywhere” the report started as saying, “but following the disastrous mid-term election results the Republican Party was, it seems looking for a new strategy.”
Rumsfeld had already offered to resign twice in the past, but the pressure was on Bush to make changes. The “face of the Iraq war” who had been the “hawk at the President’s side, and a thorn in the side of others” had himself become a casualty of the political war. “You go with the army you have”, Rumsfeld had said, when questioned over troop numbers and equipment deployed in Iraq. But numbers of troops on the ground were lacking and an insurgency soon enveloped the country. “Stuff happens” was Rumsfeld’s response to the various pitfalls that befell the US troops. ITN’s Juliet Manyon said “the real dilemma for America is they can’t leave Iraq, but they can’t stay either.” Of Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation he said, “it may be seen by the insurgents that their war of attrition is beginning to work.”
As Donald Rumsfeld bowed out he said, “I must say its been its been the highest honour in my life to serve with the men & women in the Department of Defence,” George Bush paid tribute to Rumsfeld’s service saying that “America is safer and the world is more secure because of the service and leadership of Donald Rumsfeld.”
The third bombshell of the day came when the last result came in shortly after midnight [GMT] a result which would decide who controlled the Senate. It all hinged on Virginia where Democrat candidate Jim Webb said in the early part of the day, “The votes are in and we have won.” But Republican Allen was still optimistic. ABC also reported on a problem in Montana where Duane Winslow, the County Election Administrator, ‘pressed the wrong button’ and deleted the already counted results. The counting of the votes had to be recounted with the whole country waiting for news as to who would control the Senate. US networks later reported that Jim Webb had won in the State of Virginia, putting the Democrats in control of the Senate for the first time since 1994 [BBC].
Rumsfeld is perhaps best known for his quote made at a news briefing in which he said, “there are known knowns, there are things we know that we know, there are known unknowns, that is to say there are things that we now know, we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, there are things we do not know we don't know. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.” Whether he knew he’d be ousted as soon as he was can only be speculated. Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 06, 2006

War on Terror - UK terror trial highlights threat

A court in Woolwich heard today that Dhiren Barot planned to use a ‘dirty bomb’ and initiate a series of massive explosions to kill thousands in UK and US. Barot was arrested in 2004. According to the prosecution he had threatened the use of a ‘dirty bomb’. Other uncovered plots were said to have been hatched as far back as 2000. One plot was to explode a bomb on a tube train travelling under the Thames River in London. Another series of targets included the NYSE in New York, but, it is alleged the plans were shelved after the success of the 9/11 attacks. Dhiren Barot has admitted the charges [BBC].

This trial comes on the back of a recent report on the BBC website that Britain has become the number 1 al-Qaeda target [BBC]. Security sources told the BBC that “The situation has never been so grim”.

But as a heightened security threat persists, airline travel restrictions were once again relaxed today. From today ‘small amounts’ of liquids and gels may be carried in hand luggage. But the items must be X-rayed separately and may only be taken on European flights [BBC]. Restrictions remain in force on other flights including the US which only serves to add to the confusion of many passengers.
There were reported delays at Heathrow as the new rules came into force today with many not following the guidelines properly. The restrictions placed on passengers were implemented after an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights was uncovered [BBC].

The War on Terror abroad, and besides worries over the back-clash following Saddam’s death sentence, there have been few reports of any violence. There was one report of a military helicopter crash in northern Iraq killing 2 US troops, but it is not believed to have been as a result of hostile action [BBC]. A curfew remains in place throughout many parts of the country, though it was ignored by many as Shi’ites celebrated and Sunnis protested Saddam’s sentencing [BBC]. The curfew is expected to be relaxed on Tuesday. The international press reaction was measured after the former leader’s sentence [BBC]. Many were of the opinion that the hanging of Saddam would do little to curb the violence enveloping the country. Al-Hayat said, “There is no reason to celebrate as Iraq was condemned to death before Saddam Hussein. We are witnessing the crumbling of Iraq” whilst the Iran’s E’temad-E Melli said, “Saddam's death sentence will make the current difficulties in Iraq more complicated” and warned of “increased tensions between the Shias and the Sunnis”. Israel’s Ha’aretz was also pessimistic. In its editorial the paper said, “It can neither close a chapter nor open a new era. It is just another death sentence - one of the dozens that Iraqi militias carry out each day against civilians from rival communities. For this reason, the verdict will also have no real impact on what is happening on the streets of Baghdad and Mosul.” Other papers were far more critical of the sentence and blamed the west and more specifically the US. Pakistan’s Nawa-I Waqt was one of the most critical leading with this statement in its editorial, “We say the death sentence for Saddam is a continuation of the inhuman and wild actions started by the US after 9/11. The use of the death sentence to win victory in mid-term polls is the worst game to play. We think the US President Bush, Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice have committed far more crimes than Saddam”. Western papers varied with their opinion. The Sun in the UK was far more scathing of the ‘liberal hand-wringing’ and went on to say that although “The death penalty may no longer be the British way” it was up to Iraq as to how they applied their justice system. “Let’s hear no more about Saddam having greater influence as a dead martyr than a live prisoner. Locked up, he would be a potent figurehead for Iraq’s insurgents” the Sun went on to say. The New York Times highlighted the fact that Saddam Hussein “got a fairer trial than he ever would have allowed in his courts. But Iraq got neither the full justice nor the full fairness it deserved”. It is likely that Saddam with not be judged on many other charges including the massacre of over 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Saddam sentenced to death

Saddam Hussein, the former President of Iraq, has been found guilty for his part in the massacre in Dujail in 1982. The judge in the case then handed him a death sentence which may be carried out within two weeks [CNN]. However an automatic appeal may delay proceedings. As the judge read the verdict, Saddam shouted “down with the invaders, we are the people of this land, I curse the agents, God is Great, you are a mouthpiece of colonialism… “. After several minutes the judge ordered he be removed from the court. “Take him out” he said. The cameras did not show his removal, but Saddam was heard to shout “long live Iraq, long live the nation”. Then he left with a smile on his face [BBC]

Outside the court the US and Iraqi military are braced for any back-clash. But initial scenes on the streets of Baghdad were ones of jubilation. Saddam’s demise leaves little comfort for a country in turmoil since Operation Iraqi Freedom was initiated.
Nuri al Maliki, the new Iraqi Prime Minister said the “Saddam era is over” and continued by saying, “There will be no more mass graves”. However thousands lie in unmarked graves since Saddam was deposed. Militia on both sides have left thousands dead in kidnappings, executions, shootings, and suicide bombings. Others have been killed and maimed by coalition attacks. Others are said to be suffering effects of Depleted Uranium poisoning. D.U is used for armour piercing shells by some coalition forces [The MoD denies D.U has any health risks]. Security is almost non existence since the invasion and life for the average Iraqi is uncertain.
Over 2000 took to the streets in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, firing guns in the air and carrying pictures in support of their former leader.

World reaction was general in full support of the verdict and sentence. Iran said it supported the judgement. The White House called the judgement “a good day for the Iraqi people” [Sky News / BBC]. But the country slides further and further towards civil war with no end in sight. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Iraq - debates continue as death toll rises

An intense debate in the UK parliament failed to convince the majority of MPs to vote for an inquiry into the Iraq war [BBC]. Many members of the house urged a review of mistakes made and what might be done for the future, but after more than four hours of debate 298 MPs voted against the proposal, a majority of 25.
Meanwhile Democrat John Kerry was stirring controversy in the US with a ‘joke’ he made during campaign trail. He has since apologized, but he has been ostracised from other Democratic meetings. “I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted”, Kerry said late yesterday. But many will not let his comments go. He had urged students to study hard and pass their exams and ended with the line, “If you don’t do well, you may well get stuck in Iraq”. Many have interpreted this as a slur on the intelligence of the average marine fighting in Iraq but Kerry insisted it was intended to be an attack of Bush’s recruitment policy. Bush said last night that “anybody in a position to rule country ought to understand the consequences of words”.

However many Democrats were urging the debate be moved on. One said “forget what he [Kerry] said about Iraq, look at the actions of what Bush has done in Iraq” [CNN].

Meanwhile the situation in Iraq continues to spin out of control [CNN]. On Monday, 30 died and 60 were injured in a blast in Sadr city, in north east Baghdad. At least 50 others were killed around the country [BBC]. Tuesday brought further attacks. In one incident 15 were killed and at least 19 were injured when a bomb ripped through a wedding party on the outskirts of Sadr city [BBC]. Violence on Wednesday took at least 27 victims. A police officer was one of three shot dead in the northern town of Mosul, and at least three bombs in Baghdad killed four. And as October drew to a close, another US soldier was killed. He was the 105th US soldier to die in October and the 2,819th US troop to die since the conflict begun in March 2003. In total 3,058 coalition troops have died in the 1,323 days of conflict []. A conflict that is likely to continue for many months to come. The US military says it may be more than 18 months before the Iraqi forces can take over fully from the coalition forces. Many Iraqi forces have been infiltrated by insurgents and there are estimates that connections to such militias can be as high as 70%.

In Afghanistan the situation is little better. Battles continue against the Taleban daily. But the US forces are stretched thin. There are less than three soldiers for every mile of the Pakistani border which stretches some 400 miles. Five hundred and three coalition troops have died in Afghanistan since November 2001, with seventeen killed in October. The highest death toll this year was September when 38 troops were killed, six of them from the US. The major turning point was February when casualty numbers jumped from 1 in January to 17. Only April saw a major drop in the number of troops killed with only 5 reported deaths. 2005 also saw a high casualty rate, topping 130 in 12 months. But there were lulls in the fighting with only 5 months showing casualty rates in double figures. Total casualty figures for 2002, 2003 and 2004 reached only as high as 68. The total for the first three years of conflict totalling 195, including 12 that died in less than two months of conflict at the end of 2001. Posted by Picasa