Friday, March 30, 2007

Iran and UK - hostage dispute continues

Confusion and disputes persist over where the sailors were captured

Seven days after fifteen British navy personnel were taken captive by Iranian authorities; Britain is no further forward in negotiating their release. Last week, according to initial reports, inflatable boats had been dispatched to investigate smuggling operations ‘in Iraqi waters’. A dispute occurred as to whether the navy personnel had breached Iranian waters and 15 British navy personnel were taken prisoner by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Since then there have been punctuated statements coming from Iran and Britain, each condemning the other. Over the week there have been strong denials by British authorities that the sailors breached Iranian waters. On Saturday the UN were discussing sanctions against Iran over their continued Uranium enrichment. Meanwhile reports indicated the captured servicemen had been moved to Tehran. Iran said the 14 men and one woman had admitted to straying into Iranian waters.

On Sunday, Tony Blair weighed in with a strong denial as to the veracity of Iranian claims. “There is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters, it is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters” the Prime Minister said.

On Monday the Iraqi foreign minister added to the diplomatic pressure, saying that the sailors were in Iraqi waters and should be released immediately. Meanwhile the British ambassador in Tehran waited for the most basic of information, such as their location and welfare. Des Browne MP, the Defence Secretary, speaking in Parliament said the government was “doing everything possible to secure their release”. The Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki speaking at the UN said there were “two options”. The first, he said would be “a diplomatic solution”, but he warned “the second option would be confrontation”.

Tuesday saw Britain’s Foreign Secretary in Ankara Turkey where she said she hoped to “see this matter resolved swiftly and peacefully, and I hope that can happen soon”. She said the Iranian government had not made clear where the sailors were being detained. Asked whether she feared they might be charged with spying Margaret Becket re-emphasized that the British naval personnel were operating in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate. Both Sky and the BBC showed Live coverage of her visit to the country, but while the BBC cut away during the question and answer session, Sky News continued with their extensive coverage. Besides a hope for a swift and peaceful resolving of the crisis, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had earlier suggested that ‘diplomacy’ may move into “a different phase” if the 14 men and 1 woman were not released soon. He spoke on a morning television news programme, GMTV.
The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister was later shown on CNN saying that the navy personnel were captured in Iranian waters and were being questioned. Mahdi Mustafavi said, “it needs to be established whether this aggression was calculated or unintentional, either way this was an act of aggression. They entered the designated area of our country”. The European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, meanwhile stood in support of Britain’s stance.

By Wednesday Sky News said the situation “was likely to intensify” with both sides in the dispute disagreeing as to where the navy personnel were at the time of their capture. While the EU and Iraq had already made statements protesting the service personnel’s detention, the United States were somewhat guarded. Senior US State Department Official, Ambassador Nicholas Burns was quoted as saying it would no be “useful for the United States to say much about this” and to leave the matter in the hands of the British Government. But Sky News hinted at where a ‘different phase’ might lead. The news channel showed the latest arrival of a US aircraft carrier fleet in the Gulf as part of the increased pressure over Iran’s nuclear policy. Tim Marshall, Sky’s International Affairs correspondent said “it serves as a reminder that if you go to a different phase, there are phases beyond that”.
Later in the day the British authorities stepped up the war on words. Margaret Beckett speaking in the House of Commons said the Iranians had supplied two sets of contradictory coordinates of where the capture took place. Neither were correct, she said, and the government had released their own data to show where the naval personnel had been operating. “I regret to say that the Iranian authorities have failed to meet any of our demands, or responded to our desire to resolve this issue quickly and quietly with behind-the-scenes diplomacy”, she said to a packed House. She said that the statement and data had been released in order to “set the record straight”. Earlier, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Vice Admiral Charles Style, CBE, made a statement in which he said the personnel from the HMS Cornwall were acting out their lawful duty in Iraqi waters and that the capture and detention was “unjustified and wrong”. The ‘different phase’ was emerging in the form of a freeze on business with Iran and a block on all new visas issued to officials.
Iran continued to insist that a border violation took place and that “geographical coordinates of the detention” had been provided to the British Government, “including GPS navigator systems, to indicate the penetration of British military personnel 0.5 km deep into Iranian waters”. The statement said that whilst the “investigation continued”, the captured sailors remained “in good health and they enjoy the welfare and Iranian hospitality”.

All the political manoeuvring did little to stop the British naval manoeuvres which continued in the area in an attempt to thwart the smuggling of weapons into Iraq where the insurgency continues. Wednesday in Iraq proved to be another deadly day with at least 30 dead in sectarian reprisal attacks in Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Shia gunmen were said to have attacked Sunnis in the city in retaliation for two truck bomb attacks the previous day. CNN said dozens were killed in those attacks.

This Week, the BBC flagship for political affairs, led with the Iranian hostage crisis and said that “what could have been just a minor diplomatic incident could now be in the process of becoming a much wider and more dangerous picture”. Former hostage and Middle East correspondent, Charles Glass, gave his perspective and experience of being captured and detained. He was captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1987. Glass said he and many others were “pawns in a game between Iran and the West” and the sailors currently being held in Tehran were in the same predicament. He pointed in particular to a stand-off between Iran and the US over the detention by a number of Iranian officials ‘captured’ in Erbil in northern Iraq. Iran has already suggested that a ‘swap’ may be part of any deal to release the hostages. But the US is unlikely to bend to any pressure to release the men they currently hold incommunicado. He said that events such as the current hostage crisis were “inevitable” because “they are a part of a much bigger strategic game”. He also suggested it “may be better to allow Iran to have the bomb than to go to war with Iran”. A war he said would alienate the Iranian people further from the West, as well as increasing Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. Additionally, he cited the position of Pakistan, which has been allowed to develop a nuclear weapon despite being “more unstable” than Iran.

In a studio debate, Charles Glass said the Iranians were particularly sensitive to reports that the US were conducting surveillance operations in Iranian waters in preparation for an American bombardment.

The day’s news also saw the release of footage showing one of the captured service personnel. Leading Seaman Faye Turney was shown on an Iranian satellite news channel in a so-called confession. In footage shown on Alalam she said, “Obviously we trespassed into their [the Iranian’s] waters” but she said they were being treated well. “They explained to us why we’ve been arrested; there was no harm, no aggression” she added. The video was sharply condemned by British government officials. A statement from the Foreign Office described the video as “completely unacceptable” and said it had “grave concerns”.
At the United Nations the Members of the Council also expressed “grave concern” but stopped short of any UN resolution. The UN said it could not “independently verify” the veracity of the claims of where the people were captured. In the demand for the hostages’ release the UN statement dropped the word ‘immediate’ after pressure from Russia who said it would not be ‘helpful’. Criticism was shown to be building from other neighbours close to Iran. On Sky News, a former Israeli security advisor, Uzi Dayan, said “Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has to be stopped one way or another”. He said a nuclear Iran would pose a threat “not only to Israel and the Middle East but also the free world.” Israel may also be pushed into taking action themselves against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In 1981 the Israeli airforce bombed and destroyed a nuclear power station in Osirak in Iraq. There may be further strains to the political situation in the region after the Saudi King spoke out against what he called an “illegitimate” occupation in Iraq. During the address at an Arab summit in Riyaad he said, “in our beloved Iraq our brothers’ blood is shed in the shadow of illegitimate foreign occupation, and the repulsive sectarianism threatens civil war”. Nicholas Burns, the US Under-secretary of State said he was “a little surprised to see those remarks”. The Saudi King also recently snubbed the US by cancelling a visit and angered them further by welcoming Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to the Saudi Kingdom.

As the propaganda war increased with letters written by Faye Turney [CNN]and a new video showing another captive making a confession [BBC], the British Government reacted angrily. In a brief statement said today, “I really don’t know why the Iranians keep doing this…and if the carry on they will face increased isolation”
However a swift resolving of the hostage crisis looked far from over today. Of the 15 people being held only a few have been named. They are Faye Turney, the only woman in the group, Nathan Thomas Summers, Adam Sperry, Danny Masterton, Paul Barton and Joe Tindell.

Friday, March 23, 2007

TV news criticized for 'dumbing down'

TV news is ‘dumbing down’ according to a number of reports in the British media. BBC London’s talk show ‘Vanessa’ was inundated with callers criticizing the banality and repetitive nature of TV news. One caller described looking at BBC 24 until 3am after the news broke about Bob Woolmer’s murder, saying that little information was imparted and that the coverage was repetitive. Much criticism revolved around the presentation of television news. Philip Norman, writing in the Daily Mail, spoke of the simplistic coverage of stories, “toy-town graphics and disco music” which dominate news media. Ever since Channel 5 in the UK had its presenter perched on a stool, other news media has employed a casual approach to presentation. A common feature in many programmes is the ping pong between a male and female presenter. This can be seen on Sky News, BBC 24, CNN and Al-Jazeera every day, and has often been satirized in news parodies. The ‘wandering presenter’ is another focus of criticism, as is the casual chat that follows stories. When it comes to rolling news, broadcasters have repeatedly been taken to task for speculation, but also for inaccuracy and repetitive coverage. At times, the viewers of 24 hour news stations are saturated with coverage of one leading story with little or no time being given over to other important stories. ‘In the field’ shots of reporters, standing outside the foreign office, in an empty field or outside parliament is another cause of annoyance for viewers and is cited as being pointless. These are issues that have been raised before and BBC journalist Michael Buerk has often criticised his own organisation as well as other TV news stations, which he has dismissed as "coarser, shallower, more trivial, more prurient, more inaccurate, more insensitive, with each passing year." [source]. A particular case in point was the Breaking News that Bob Woolmer, the captain of the Pakistan cricket team, had been strangled and did not die of natural causes. Although this was an important breakthrough into the investigations surrounding Mr Woolmer’s death, both Sky News and the BBC continued with saturation coverage until the early hours of Friday morning. The story was initially only covered by Sky who provided a Live link to a press conference in Jamaica. Minutes later the BBC’s midnight bulletin started with the main headlines, but after the beginning titles the continuing coverage about the Cricket manager’s death began. For several hours there was no mention on either of the two British news networks of other national or international news stories. The only escape from the repetitious and uninformative Breaking News was to switch to Al Jazeera, CNN, France 24, Russia Today or Euronews!
CCTV-9, in their World News Bulletin led with technical difficulties with the 6 party talks with North Korea. Money transfer issues equating up to $25 million had disrupted Thursday’s talks and threatened to destroy the deal made with the DPRK over its nuclear programme [BBC]. The dispute also threatened humanitarian aid from South Korea expected in the next few weeks as well as help to the country in fighting outbreaks of foot & mouth disease in cattle [BBC]. The news station, which broadcasts from Beijing in China, followed with Iran’s reaction to proposed tougher sanctions being placed on the country. It also talked about a series of naval manoeuvres and war games being conducted in the Persian Gulf [CCTV-9 / BBC]

CNN gave some coverage to the Bob Woolmer story, but did also give some time to the other major stories of the day. Three men had been arrested in connection with the suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005, but only the use of interactive services would provide BBC and Sky viewers with any details of these developments. Two men, aged 23 and 30, were arrested shortly before 1300 GMT at Manchester Airport when they were due to catch a flight to Pakistan. A third man, aged 26, was arrested at a house in Leeds shortly after 1600 GMT. The men were held on suspicion of the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism. Fifty-two people were killed by four bombers on 7 July. However even CNN gave scant coverage to this story. Developments in the 21/7 terror trial were also overlooked. New evidence presented at Woolwich Crown Court suggested that one of the alleged failed bombers had planned to ‘blow up a tower block’ [BBC]. Another story that was lost in the Woolmer coverage was the situation in Iraq. The new Secretary General perhaps wished he’d never taken up the post as he ducked for cover when a mortar bomb landed within 100 metres of a press conference in Baghdad. Ban-ki Moon looked visibly shocked as a loud explosion rocked the area [CNN].

British Navy personnel seized by Iran

Fifteen British Navy personnel have been taken captive by Iranian authorities. CNN broke the news at 12:18 GMT shortly after the BBC had brought a Live broadcast from the HMS Cornwall which was involved in the incident. According to reports, inflatable boats had been dispatched to investigate smuggling operations ‘in Iraqi waters’. A dispute occurred as to whether the navy personnel had breached Iranian waters and 15 British Navy personnel were taken prisoner by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The incident is said to have occurred near the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and comes on the back of war games being conducted by the Iranian Navy in the Persian Gulf [CCTV-9]. Only yesterday tougher sanctions were being sought against the Iranian regime over the country’s nuclear policy [BBC]. A BBC correspondent speaking from the HMS Cornwall said the Royal Navy were insisting they were operating in international waters. Meanwhile the Iranian Ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

UK - Budget 2007

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, today delivered his 11th Budget since Labour came to power in 1997. He claimed that UK had grown faster than other countries in the Eurozone. Britain he said, has the G7’s fastest growing business investment. Investment was likely to rise by 7% in the coming year. With regards to inflation he said it was on target for 2008-2009. Economic growth would rise around 2.5% to 3% over the same period. And employment was up 220,000 over 2006.

So came the yearly budget, which the general public wait to see how much their taxes are likely to rise. Sky News and BBC 24 as well as BBC parliament all covered the Budget Live. Even terrestrial television had special Live coverage on BBC2.

After the series of figures he said showed the strength of Britain’s economy, Gordon Brown set out his long list for spending, tax hikes and tax cuts. Spending overall was up for education, defence and healthcare. Smokers, drinkers and drivers were all set to see price rises for their habits. But there were a few positive proposals.

He promised an extra £400 million to be made available to the army and a rise of spending on counter-terrorism by £86 million. A further £2.25 billion was also set aside for the intelligence services. This comes on the back of increased terror threats to the UK as well as an overstretched army which patrol Iraq and Afghanistan in the continuing War on Terror.

Healthcare would increase with the NHS being promised a further £8 billion. Investment in science would increase to £6.3 billion by 2010 and education spending would increase to £74 billion in 2010.

Corporation tax would be cut from 30p to 28p in April 2008. Small companies’ tax rate would go up from 20p to 22p in 2009.

The Chancellor said it was “right today to proceed with major reforms”. And one of the major changes was taxation and spending with respect to the environment.
Gordon Brown said he would announce a competition for ‘carbon capture & storage’. He set aside £800 million for an “environmental transformation fund”. He said that homes were responsible for a quarter of Britain’s carbon footprint and set out a number of initiatives to decrease this. He proposed budgets of £4,000 for pensioners to insulate their homes. There would also be no stamp duty on zero-carbon homes. He also proposed to reduce VAT to 5% on energy saving products and £240 million environmental incentives for firms. With regards transport, the Chancellor said he was aiming for new cars reducing their emissions to 100 grams per km. Bio-fuel use should also be increased to 5% in 2010 to 10% in 2020, with a Bio-fuel duty differential of 20p extended to 2010. In addition he said that car tax band differentials would be widened. Fuel duty would rise by 2p per litre over next 2 years, but this years increase would be deferred until October. Car tax for some vehicles would rise to £300 per annum. In 2008 this would rise to £400. Least polluting cars would have car tax reduced by up to £50. Rain forest destruction would be tackled by an allocation of a £50 million spend. However he did not put VAT on flights, something which many expected.

Drinkers and smokers saw increases with beer, cider, wine and cigarettes all seeing tax rises. From Sunday, beer would see an increase of 1p per pint [568ml] while cider would increase by 1p a litre. Wine and sparkling wine would also see an increase of 5p and 7p per bottle respectively. Smokers would be paying more for a packet of 20 cigarettes. Eleven pence would be added to a packet, but said that as an incentive to help people quit smoking he proposed a 5% VAT reduction on nicotine replacement products. For gin and whiskey drinkers there was small celebration with no tax rise for the 10th budget in a row.

Homeowners were given a tax break with property inheritance tax thresholds rising from £285,000 to £350,000 by 2010. There would also be extra help for first time buyers. Child benefit would increase by £20 per week in order to help “lift 200,000 children out of poverty”. Pensioners’ tax free allowance would increase to £9,770. The top tax threshold would also increase to £43,000 p/a.
“This is a budget for Britain’s families; this is a budget for the future”, the Chancellor said before announcing an income tax reduction. As he left the podium he announced a drop in the basic rate of income tax from next April by 2p – from 22p to 20p.

The leader of the Conservative Party accused Brown of being an “out of date politician” and demanded to know “where has the money gone?” David Cameron said Gordon Brown was a “Chancellor who has taken one tax down but put 99 taxes up”.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Wen - will China be democratic?

Wen Jiabao - China is developing a 'socialist democracy'

China may be moving towards democracy. In the National People’s Congress which took place last week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao uttered a word which has often drawn condemnation and if uttered might have even resulted in being jailed. As Mr Wen spoke he talked of building towards democracy. But what type of democracy and how soon might one see changes to China’s political system.

“By developing socialist democracy we mean we must make people the masters of their own house, to do this we must ensure the people are entitled to the right to democratic election, decision making management and oversight”, Wen was translated as saying by Channel Four News in the UK.

Reporter Lindsey Hilsum had this to say on the comments coming from the statements made at the National Peoples Congress, “Rarely has the gap between theory and practice been more evident.”

She said that despite Mr Wen’s claim that people should have oversight to corrupt officials and be able to criticize the government this was in contrast to the large police presence in Tiananmen Square preventing any protests from taking place.

Restrictions do exist on protests outside Government buildings in Beijing, but this is true also in London where protests are banned within a mile of parliament, unless permission is sought well in advance.

The Channel Four News report highlighted the fate of one citizen who had attempted to petition the government. Zheng Dajing’s home had been demolished by ‘thugs employed by local corrupt officials’. Mr Zheng said he, along with his young daughter, were held captive by the men. The report also claimed that Mr Zheng was one of 700 arrested during the NPC. Channel Four News found the man held in a room at the back of the Yuan Hotel in Beijing. Being held in a room without access to a toilet, Mr Zheng claimed that he had been threatened with being sent to a labour camp. On tackling an official, Channel Four were told that it was their job to return petitioners home but did not elaborate on reasons why. Meanwhile Mr Zheng’s family remained homeless and his wife did not know when she might be reunited with her husband. “We petition according to the law” she said, “we are not looking for trouble [but] we have no home now. The government hunt us like fugitives. What law did we break. They break all the laws and get away with it.” [Channel Four News]

It was precisely issues such as these that Wen Jiaboa covered in his speech at the National People’s Congress. The Prime Minister was asked, by a CCTV correspondent, how he proposed to deal with corruption. He acknowledged that as the market economy developed corruption had become more serious and widespread, even to the extent of affecting high ranking officials in the country. As well as acknowledging the people’s complaints, punitive measures needed to be employed against corrupt officials, the Prime Minister said. “No matter who the official is or how high ranking, they should be brought to justice”, Mr Wen reiterated.

CCTV9 provided significant coverage of Wen Jiabao’s speech. Leading with the strap ‘Premier Wen Meets the Press’ the Prime Minister entered a large hall filled with hundreds of journalists, photographers and TV news organisations.

“This will be my last press conference serving in this government” he said in his opening remarks. It was to be a wide ranging speech covering issues that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

He talked about ‘netizens’ who had been given the opportunity to make representations via the internet [BBC]. He said that 26,000 had logged on the relevant websites to put questions to the Chinese Premier. He said that he had browsed some of these websites and noticed one comment from a primary school student. He said that he responded to the young girl “using traditional Chinese writing methods and took out a brush to write a letter “. In his letter to the child, Premier Wen said he had encouraged the student “to grow in an all round and sound manner”. He said he had seen demands for better healthcare for children, something he said he took very seriously. “This government as been serving the people for four years, and in that time I have learned that we must be guided by one principle. All the power of the government is bestowed on us by the people, all the power belongs to the people, everything we do should be for the people, we must rely on the people for all our endeavours, and we need to attribute all we have achieved to the people’s power,” Mr Wen said. “We must uphold the honourable conduct of public servant, government officials should be good public servants and not have any privileges and we must remain in the conviction that as long as we free our minds, keep paces with the advance of times, pursue truth, continue reform and opening up, pursue scientific harmonious peaceful development, we will surely turn China into prosperous democratic culturally advanced harmonious and modernized country.”

He then opened the floor to questions. The Wall Street Journal was the first correspondent to put a question to the Prime Minister. She asked whether the Chinese stock market needed further controls. He responded in saying that he “paid much attention to the stock market” in China, “but more importantly I pay attention to the health of this market”. He said, “Our goal is to build a mature capital market”. This would be achieved by “improving the quality of listed companies, and put in place an open and transparent market system” and also by “strengthening the oversight of the capital market to further improve the legal system”. Perhaps with reference to the recent crash on world stock markets he said that education about the stock market was important. “We need to do a good job in the timely disclosure of information in the stock market and to increase the awareness of the ordinary individual investors of the risks,” the Premier said.

In response to a question put to him by a China Daily journalist over the well being of the people, Prime Minister Wen said it was important to, “Improve clothing, transport and housing and also to improve equal opportunities in education and pursue a proactive employment policy”. With reference to the increasing gap between rich and poor in China, Mr Wen said he wished to, “Reduce the gap in terms of income distribution and put in place a rural and urban social security system that covers all people.”

“Issues concerning the people’s well-being, we pay attention to the most vulnerable groups,” he said, “the population in the rural and urban areas most vulnerable groups account for a large proportion of the total population, particularly the farmers.” He added that China’s development could only succeed if “vulnerable people’s lives were improved.”

Japan and Taiwan

Other issues raised concerned Sino-Japan relations and issues pertaining to Taiwan. With regards to Japan, Prime Minister when said it was important to strengthen ties with its neighbour. Although he had sympathy for Japan’s citizens held captive in North Korea, he said it was a matter for Japan to negotiate with the DPRK. As regards to the difficult relationship with Taiwan, Wen said “peace and stability” was important. He reiterated China’s stance on the issue of independence saying, “We are strongly opposed to any secessionist activities”. He insisted that Taiwan had been a part of China “since ancient times”.


Asked by Le Monde what he meant by his much quoted “China will be socialist for another 100 years”, another factor in the recent slump in stocks, Mr Wen said, “My view that democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, equality and fraternity are not something peculiar to capitalism, rather these are the common achievements made in the long course of history of evolution of civilisations in this world. They are also the common values, that we as human beings, pursue.”

“By socialist democracy we mean to make people the masters of their own house. To do this we need to ensure our people are entitled to the right of democratic election, decision making, management and oversight”

“To do this we need to create the necessary conditions and better enable our people to oversee and criticize the government.”

He said that the Chinese government and its people lacked the experience to develop towards democracy, but that “we need to open our minds”. He said that his quote with regards to ‘100 years of socialism’ was misunderstood. “What I meant was that it may take a long historical period for the immature underdeveloped socialism and socialist democracy to gradually develop into mature full fledged developed system,” Mr Wen explained.

Environment & Pollution

With regards the environment and ‘green-house gas’ emissions the Premier said he would take measures to curb such pollution adding that China endorsed the Kyoto protocol.

Arms spending

An Associated Press reporter asked whether China’s perceived military build up, and specifically the recent ‘space weapons test’, was contrary to China’s stated peaceful aims. Wen Jiabao said that, “By conducting this test China has not breached any international treaties. China has always advocated for the peaceful use of outer space and we are opposed to an arms race in outer space.” He added that China’s level of military expenditure was much lower than that of many other smaller and developing countries and insisted that China had a “defence policy that is defensive in nature”.

Channel Four’s report on the plight of displaced peasants was sceptical of Wen Jiabao’s proposed reforms. Lindsey Hilsum ended her report with a certain amount of cynicism and a little sarcasm. Prime Minister Wen, she said, had promised to “improve the legal system”.
“Maybe one day the Chinese people won’t have to petition the Communist government as they petitioned the Emperor in ancient times. But Mr Wen did say that to achieve a true socialist democracy will take a long time.” Too long for western critics as well as those caught in unfortunate circumstances like Mr Zheng.

In Mao Zedong’s famous Little Red Book, or more correctly Quotations from Chairman Mao, there are tracts that refer to the importance of representations to the Communist Party. In the Chapter “Criticism and Self-Criticism”, Mao is quoted as saying, “The Communist Party does not fear criticism”. He emphasises that Chinese Communists should base their actions on the “highest interests of the broadest masses of the Chinese people”. He is pragmatic in recognising that “it is hard for any political party or person to avoid mistakes” but says “once a mistake is made, we should correct it, and the more quickly and thoroughly the better”. Modern China must look to its past as well as its future in resolving some very difficult problems.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Kidnappings - BBC man missing, Italian released

Daniele Mastrogiacomo was shown in a Taleban video
saying he had only two days to live

A week after BBC journalist Alan Johnson went missing in Gaza there has still been no communication from his kidnappers. Protests have been held outside the BBC in London and in Gaza demanded his release. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, an Italian journalist, kidnapped by the Taleban, has been released. Daniele Mastrogiacomo was said to be in good health after his two week ordeal [BBC].

Bush - "mission can be won" in Iraq

George W. Bush: "There will be good days and bad days
... but the mission can be won"

On the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, George Bush made an address from the White House. He spoke to the nation shortly after speaking to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and General Petraeus, who is in charge of the new US led offensive. In his address which lasted less than ten minutes, President Bush said that the 2003 invasion has eliminated the threat of Saddam, a “tyrant” who had posed a threat “to the Middle East and the world”. His mission now was to continue “working to build a free society … that will be an ally in the war on terror”. His “aggressive plan to secure Baghdad” would, however “take months, not weeks or days “. But he said there were “signs of success”. The President said that “joint security stations are helping Iraqis reclaim their neighbourhoods”. He said that the security operation had also destroyed two major car bomb factories on outskirts of Baghdad, but that more time was needed for the mission to take effect. “There will be good days and bad days as the mission unfolds” the President said.

He also spoke about the rich resources the country possesses. He said that new legislation would seek to “share oil revenues amongst the Iraqi people”.

He sought support for more “emergency war spending bill to provide what our troops need”. He warned about the risks of pulling out. “It is easy to suggest we ‘pack up and go home’, but the consequences for American security would be devastating”, he said. If America pulled their troops out, “the terrorists would emerge and use Iraq as a safe haven”. And although General Petraeus has described the Baghdad offensive as being the ‘most challenging operation’ in his career, George W Bush said, “it is a difficult mission but it can be won” [CNN].

Prior to his speech the BBC released the results of a poll conducted by ABC and the BBC, which showed Iraqis felt less safe than ever before. Less than 40% of those polled said things were good in their lives, compared to 71% two years ago.
However, a majority of those questioned said that, despite daily violence, they did not believe Iraq was in a state of civil war [BBC]. Despite this more than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country in the last four years and according to UN figure another 2 million have been displaced internally. The UN also say that a further 100,000 are leaving their homes every month.
The weekend brought further carnage with chemical truck bombs injuring hundreds [BBC]. The Chlorine gas attacks hit two targets in Falluja and another in Baghdad. Chlorine gas can cause severe burns to the throat and lungs and can kill after only a few breaths. Six coalition troops were said to amongst the injured. There were at least three such attacks in Iraq in February. Today, fourteen were killed in a series of bomb blasts in the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk [BBC].

CNN polls show a drop in support for the war over the years. In 2003 there was a 72% showing of support. Within a year that dropped to 48% with a further drop to 40% by 2006. The support amongst the American public now stands at 30%.

Friday, March 16, 2007

War on Terror - Inquests, trials and escapes

Friendly Fire incident 'unlawful'

A coroner has delivered a verdict of “unlawful death” after a lengthy inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull. The so called ‘friendly fire’ incident was also described as “entirely avoidable”. His widow, Susan Hull, told a large media presence that “it was the right verdict”. She also said she felt a “great sense of relief that it’s over”. But she had reservations, “what that (verdict) means is that it was entirely avoidable”

The coroner, Andrew Walker, has described the American authorities as not being as forthcoming as they might be. Vital pieces of evidence were withheld from the Coroners court in Oxford. Documents that were supplied had large tracts blacked out. The cockpit video from one of the planes involved in the incident was also withheld and originally its existence denied. However following the leak of the video by The Sun newspaper, the US authorities relented to allowing portions of the video to be shown. The BBC described the exchange between the two pilots who engaged the British convoy as “chilling” whilst Sky news described the footage as 'dramatic' [BBC].

21/7 Terror Trial hears from alleged would-be bomber

One of the 6 men standing trial for the failed 21/7 terror attacks in London has given evidence. Muktar Ibrahim told the court he admitted constructing the ‘devices’ but that it was not his intention for them to explode. Being questioned by George Carter Stevenson QC, defending, he described the incident as a protest and said his reasoning was “the plight of Muslims everywhere and especially in Iraq.” Ibrahim said he was on the bus but denied he was a suicide bomber. He also denied taking part in terror training during a visit to Africa [BBC].

Fertilizer bomb plot Terror Trial - Jury considers verdict

Meanwhile the jury has retired to consider its verdict in another terror trial. All six men deny all charges relating to an alleged plot. The evidence presented to the court includes 500 Kg of fertilizer which the prosecution allege was to form part of a bombing campaign. Omar Khyam, 25, his brother Shujah Mahmood, 20, Waheed Mahmood, 34, and Jawad Akbar, 23, all from Crawley, West Sussex; Anthony Garcia, 25, of Barkingside, east London; Nabeel Hussain, 21, of Horley, Surrey; and Salahuddin Amin, 31, of Luton, Bedfordshire, deny conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life between January 1 2003 and March 31 2004 [BBC].

Iraq is 'obviously a Civil War' says John Bolton

John Bolton, the former UN Ambassador to the United States, talking about Iraq has said, “It’s obviously a civil war” [IHT]. He also blamed the insurgency and sectarian violence as having less to do with the presence of US troops than the “historical roots” of sectarianism within the country. James Rubin, a former Presidential assistant and the current Sky News World Affairs Commentator, described Bolton’s comments as being “a little late in saying he knew it all the time that the risk of civil war was possible.” He said that the situation was a “factional war in a civil war rather than a civil war.” He said the comments from John Bolton epitomized the ‘neo con revisionism’ which was brewing in the US.

Meanwhile Sky News finished their in depth coverage on Iraq today [Inside Iraq]. The five days of special reports have brought viewers a deep insight into the lives of ordinary Iraqis as well as the continuing violence. Today’s reported deaths were less than in previous days. Five civilians were reported killed, and two Iraqi police and two coalition troops were also killed. Over the last five days 192 civilians have died. In the same period Sky News said 32 Iraqi police and 14 coalition troops had been killed. The insurgents were said to have lost 17 fighters.

Iraqi prison escape

Their numbers may be made up after a number of detainees escaped from a Basra prison facility in southern Iraq. Major David Gell told the BBC the army “became aware yesterday” that 11 prisoners “could not be accounted for.” He described the incident as a “coordinated escape” in which prisoners had exchanged clothes with visitors. Saying that the escape would be “looked into” he said it was a “regrettable incident” but that all efforts would be made to recapture those who had escaped [BBC].
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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hostages released - others remain in captivity

Five embassy staff kidnapped in Ethiopia twelve days ago have arrived at Brize Norton RAF base in London. The three Britons, an Italian and French national were all said to be well. But whilst the embassy staff returned home, they leave behind eight Ethiopians who remain in the hands of their kidnappers. According to reports they were fed raw camel meat, but were otherwise well treated. As the plane touched down on British soil, Sky News and the BBC brought Live pictures of the event. The BBC cut away for a short period as Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, spoke about her increased budget put aside for the 2012 Olympics. CNN broke into their programming to show viewers the embassy staff and their families descending the stairs and walking across the tarmac. France 24 continued with a discussion programme whilst Al Jazeera English reported on another kidnapped European held in Afghanistan. The Italian newspaper editor, Daniel Mastrogiacomo, was taken hostage by Taleban fighters on the 6th March [BBC].

CNN reported earlier today of two Italians released by their Nigerian kidnappers. The two had been held since December 2006. Nigeria has seen dozens of kidnappings of oil workers as rebels fight for profits to be invested in the country. Earlier this week a Montenegrin and two Croations were rescued by the Nigerian Army [BBC]. Kidnappings of foreign oil workers, mostly for ransoms, multiplied in the delta in January and February although most hostages have now been released. The only expatriate still in captivity is a French contractor for oil company Total who was abducted by suspected ransom-seekers on February 7.
The fate of a German national and his mother still hangs in the balance after Iraqi kidnappers released a video saying they would be killed ‘in ten days’ from the release of the message if their demands were not met [BBC]. Alan Johnson, a BBC correspondent, kidnapped in Gaza also remains in the hands of his kidnappers. No word has yet been heard from the people who abducted the journalist on the 12th March [BBC].

Top al-Qaeda suspect 'admits terror plots'

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of three top al-Qaeda operatives held at Guantanamo Bay, has admitted being party to a series of terror attacks on the United States of America. Described as a ‘chilling confession’ by CNN, Mohammed, who was arrested in 2003, admitted to having plotted 29 attacks. According to the transcript [PDF] released by the Pentagon, he is also said have compared himself to George Washington. In the statement, read by a military spokesman, Mohammed says, "I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z." He also claimed responsibility for the Richard Reid shoe bomber attempt to blow up an airliner over the Atlantic Ocean, the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia, and the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Critics have suggested the confession suggests possible torture. There are certainly apparent ‘delusions of grandeur’ in Mohammed’s claims. With regards the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman is considered to be the mastermind behind the group responsible.

Mohammed claims he had also surveyed the Panama Canal for an attack to destroy it as well as suspension bridges and high-rises in New York and Chicago, Illinois. He is also said to have planned for assassination attempts against Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The terror suspect is also said to be partially responsible for an assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II while he was visiting the Philippines in 1995 [Operation Bojinka].

The transcripts of interviews conducted with two other suspects, Abu Faraj al-Libi [PDF] and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh [PDF], were also released by the Pentagon, but the media has concentrated on the revelations revealed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confession.

Blair justifies war in Iraq

Blair - Invasion of Iraq was "necessary and just"

Sky continued with its Inside Iraq coverage today with an exclusive interview with Tony Blair. Speaking on Sky News the British Prime Minister has denied that there is a Civil War ongoing in Iraq. In the interview with Adam Bolton, he insisted, “It was right to get rid of Saddam and to stand by the Iraqi people” but added, “I don’t think anyone foresaw the extent of violence.”
“The warning that was given to me was that Sunni and Shia wanted to go to war with each other, these two peoples don’t want to be at war with each other,” he said. “The latest report I got from Baghdad today … does show some significant improvement.” From Sky’s continuing reporting of the war, it is hard to see where these improvements are. This week alone there were 175 reported civilian deaths. On Wednesday CNN reported that at least 12 died in a market bombing near Kirkuk. Today the reported death toll stands at 37 including the death of another US troop. In total there have been 8 coalition troops reported killed this week, plus 18 Iraqi forces. The numbers of insurgents killed was said to be 8 according to Sky News. But there were signs of a drop in attacks. According to the Iraqi military, there has been a 30% drop in car bomb attacks since the new US-led offensive in Baghdad was launched. Figures also showed an 80% drop in civilian casualties. But Major General William Caldwell, for the Multinational Force in Iraq, confirmed that there had been a drop in attacks and that he expected a further reduction in attacks in the coming days. However both he and other military leaders were still cautious saying that it may be “too early to tell if the changes will hold”. Indeed the militia may just have “gone to ground” only to resurface later.

Continuing with the interview the Prime Minister was asked whether the invasion had made the UK less safe. On the threat to Britain he said, “Of course these people will use what happened in Iraq to do what they do … We get rid of the Taleban and Saddam and these people use this as an excuse to blow up innocent people in London.” And he insisted that what was happening in Iraq and elsewhere should be a ‘wake-up call’. “In the early 20th Century the world is interdependent … and we need to take the threat of terrorism seriously.” And of the extremists he said, “The world is at a fundamental conflict with these people.”

After the 30 minute interview came the analysis. Tim Marshall, Sky’s Foreign Affairs Editor, said the planning for the repercussions was not implemented. He disputed the Prime Minister’s claim that the election was not split along sectarian lines. He also said that reports from the army contradict Tony Blair’s claim that the armed forces were supplied with all they need.

Tim Marshall summarized the performance saying Mr Blair was a “conviction politician”. If Iraq pulled through it would serve as a “model of democracy” – but ”If Iraq collapses it will be his legacy.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Iraq - Four years of war, no sign of peace

Four years after the invasion of Iraq and the violence is still continuing. Suicide bombings and other attacks occur daily, killing hundreds every week. But there have been successes in battling the continuing insurgency. Last Friday the US military said it had captured 16 suspected insurgents and a possible top al-Qaeda leader [BBC]. And on Monday it was announced that three top al-Qaeda suspects were to be the subject of hearings to determine if they should be subject to military trials [CNN]. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected 9/11 mastermind, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another key 9/11 planner, and Abu Faraz al-Libby, a top al Qaeda planner, separately appeared before three-judge panels last week, the Pentagon said.

At least 75 have died in Iraq in the last week. Wednesday saw a bomb attack at a Baghdad cafĂ© killing at least 26 and injuring 29 others [BBC]. There were also attacks on the long convoy of Shi’ite Muslims making their religious pilgrimage to Karbala. At least 9 were killed in a series of separate attacks [BBC]. On Saturday reports emerged of the kidnapping of two German nationals [BBC]. The militant group, which calls itself the Arrows of Righteousness, said on a video released via the internet, "We give the German government 10 days from the date of this statement to announce and start the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan." The video shoed a woman and a man said to be her son.

Sunday brought further devastating attacks. More than 40 were killed in a series of car bombs in Baghdad [BBC]. And in Mosul three guards were killed after insurgents attacked the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

UK and US soldiers’ health treatment following their return from the battlefield has been in the spotlight over the last few weeks. In the US one hospital was said to be overrun with rats and cockroaches. Black mould also covered walls of many rooms in which injured soldiers, returning from Iraq, were being treated. Following the reports about the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the US Army’s Lt. General Kevin Riley has resigned [BBC].He is the third top official to resign over the scandal which was highlight by the Washington Post.

The row over soldiers’ treatment crossed to Britain this week with allegations of maltreatment. The Observer newspaper described the conditions at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham as “a shocking picture of neglect”. In the article published on Sunday the paper said how one soldier was not administered adequate pain relief. It was also alleged that his colostomy bag overflowed and that he contracted MRSA twice. A military spokesman described the reportage as “unhelpful”. The hospital, which has treated 150-200 soldiers since 2001, said many of the allegations were unfounded [BBC]. Criticism was not only confined to the healthcare received by injured combatants. In an exclusive interview with Hans Blix, Sky News revealed how the former UN weapons’ inspector considered the Iraq war to be illegal. He also said that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair had used ‘excessive spin’ to justify the case for war and that the US had implemented a “witch hunt” in the lead up to the invasion [Sky News]. He added that the war had been a tragedy. “I think everything in Iraq after the invasion has been a tragedy. The only positive thing I think is the disappearance of Saddam Hussein,” he told Sky News reporter Anna Botting. And he held little hope for the future for the country saying that the US were “unlikely to succeed” in making a peaceful and safe Iraq. The interview was part of a series of in depth reports that Sky News has broadcast as part of its Inside Iraq week.
The gloomy picture painted by Generals, commentators and the media have all served to increase the demands for a withdrawal from a war weary public. In the US a recent poll suggests 58% of the American public want a speedy withdrawal of troops [CNN]. The CNN poll suggested that as much as 21% percent wanted an immediate pull-out. But their was a sense of support in allowing George Bush’s new initiative a chance to work with 58% of those polled saying that a withdrawal should be made by 2008.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Taiwan provokes Beijing in independence row

Chen Shui-bian - Taiwan is a "sovereign independent country"

China has criticized Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's talk of independence with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabiao calling the Taiwanese leader’s comments a "deliberate provocation" and "a dangerous step" [CNN]. Taiwan has made a number of changes in recent months that will also be seen as provocative by Beijing. Only last month the word ‘China’ was replaced with ‘Taiwan’ on postage stamps. And last week the Chinese Petroleum Corporation became CPC Corporation, Taiwan, while China Shipbuilding Corp is set to change its name to CSBC Corporation, Taiwan. But this latest series of comments is sure to upset the apple-cart in Chinese military circles. China Daily reported that the US State Department "does not support independence for Taiwan". However they failed tell readers that should China use force in asserting its claim to the island, the US would defend Taiwan. It is true to say that the US prefer the continuing status-quo. The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, recognizing "one China," but is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.
The PM of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, said 'independence will be realised' during his address. He declared that Taiwan was “a sovereign independent country outside of the People’s Republic of China.” He also said that independence was the “common and long held ideal of the Taiwanese people” [Chosun Ilbo]. The declaration came as it was revealed Taiwan had recently tested missiles which could reach Hong Kong or Shanghai [Australian News]. Responses from the Chinese Military echoed that of the Prime Minister. General Guo Boxiong said the People's Liberation Army would respond to a declaration of independence and "effectively perform our glorious mission of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with the will of the motherland and the wishes of the people," the Xinhua News Agency reported [Guardian]. The escalating tensions between China and Taiwan threaten to cast a dark shadow on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

UK - Tesco apologise for sub-standard fuel

Fuel is beginning to be return to supermarket forecourts

Tesco and Morrisons have promised to pay customers compensation for damage incurred to their vehicles after filling them with sub-standard fuel. Last week reports began to emerge which seemed to indicate that hundreds of motorists had suffered problems with their cars after filling up at supermarket petrol stations in the south-east of England. But as media organisations reported on the issue, it soon became clear that thousands of motorists had been affected. Problems also appeared to have spread beyond the south-east with motorists as far north as the Midlands saying their cars had suffered problems after filling up with supermarket fuel. The main focus was Tesco and Morrisons petrol stations, though a few other independent retailers were also singled out. All denied there was any contamination with their fuel, but late Friday government inspectors in Cambridgeshire found the first sign of contamination. At around 16:00 GMT the news broke that Silicon had been found in the fuel of a number of cars damaged by the problem fuel. This was the first major clue in identifying where the contaminant had entered the supply chain. Silicon is normally added to diesel as an anti-foaming agent, but its presence in unleaded petrol was creating chaos as thousand of motorists found themselves at a standstill. By Saturday an oil depot in Essex had been identified as the source of the contaminated petrol. The companies based there insisted that the reason the fuel had reached filling stations with the Silicon contaminant was that there was no routine test for the substance. Harvest Energy admitted that four tanks at the Vopak fuel distribution depot had been contaminated by the substance. The fuel had then been supplied by Greenergy to Tesco and Morrisons supermarket forecourts. Throughout the weekend fuel tankers continued to flow in and out of the oil depot. Meanwhile motorist sat in limbo wondering if they would get compensation for their damaged vehicles. Sunday saw many supermarket forecourts emptying their tanks “as a precaution”. In full page advertisements taken out in several national newspapers, Tesco said “It’s back to normal and we’re sorry”. But it was far from normal for many motorists. There are reports of panic buying as many forecourts at Morrisons and other supermarkets still remain empty. Other companies were accused of profiteering from the crisis as prices rose at some petrol stations brought on by the fuel shortage. As to how the Silicon entered the fuel tanks at Vopak is still unclear, but Harvest Energy say they have ruled out sabotage [BBC].

Thursday, March 01, 2007

UK - Motorists stranded by sub-standard fuel

Risky business - many drivers are worried about filling their car

Fuel investigations are underway with Trading Standards Officers testing fuel at filling stations after cars all over Britain were said to be damaged by substandard petrol. BBC News 24 reported on some cases going as far back as 19th February. But it was only yesterday that first reports started to emerge. BBC Essex radio reported that some motorists had been affected after filling up at Tesco and Morrisons filling stations, but even at that time there was no mention of any wider concern. By 22:30 GMT Wednesday, the seriousness of the problem was becoming more evident. ITN’s report on ITV said that motorists were experiencing problems up to seven days ago. And it appeared the problem was not confined to the South East of England [Basildon Echo], as early reports had suggested. E-mails received by ITN revealed that motorists from as far a field as Dundee to Swindon had suffered problems with their vehicles. One motorist from Coventry described her vehicle as having “wind” before misfiring and coming to a standstill. Another driver from Malden told how their family was stranded after their car came to a halt, whilst another described how their vehicle showed symptoms of “juddering and back firing” before stalling.

According to news reports, the affected part is an Oxygen sensor, part of a fuel management system in many modern cars. Repairs was costing motorists around £200, but where there were delays in seeking help many faced further costs with damage being done to the catalytic converter. One Mercedes driver from Tunbridge Wells described having spent in excess of £1,100 in repairs. He specifically blamed a filling station at Morrisons in Crowborough, Kent, where he had filled his car for the last month. Other drivers talked of having spent £800 in repairs as well as having wasted £35 on a full tank of fuel. And it’s the disposal of the supposed contaminated fuel that is creating a problem for car repair workshops. Many do not have the facility to store or dispose of the huge quantities that are being left in their hands. The issue over compensation is beginning to worry many motorists. The general advice was to keep samples of the fuel and retain receipts. But it will be consequential loss that may be harder to claim. Use of alternative transport, hiring of taxis or public transport may have to be fought in a County Court according to one motoring expert.

And as hundreds of motorists ground to a halt the mystery deepened as to what might be causing the problem. Trading Standards Officers have been unable to find anomalies in fuel supplies, nor contamination in any petrol sold on forecourts. It may be too late if the supposed contaminated or substandard fuel has already passed through the system. The fact that the danger may have passed is of little comfort to thousands of motorists who have increased call levels to motoring organisations and help lines. The Automobile Association say they have seen a 145% increase in calls received. Though many reports did not make it clear, the only fuel affected is unleaded petrol. Drivers of gas guzzling diesel 4x4 SUVs are apparently unaffected by the crisis.