Friday, September 28, 2007

Myanmar - MEP calls for boycott on China Olympics

A shadow is beginning to loom over the Beijing Olympics

China is increasingly in the firing line over the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. In the latest development an MEP has called for a possible boycott of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. The vice president of the European Parliament Edward McMillan-Scott is to write to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the EU's Portuguese presidency asking them to discuss whether athletes should oppose the Beijing games. "The consensus around the European Parliament is that China is the key. China is the puppet master of Burma," McMillan-Scott told Reuters in a telephone interview. "The Olympics is the only real lever we have to make China act. The civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable." Besides China, several other countries have business and economic interests with Myanmar. India and France have strong economic ties. The UK and the US have small interests in the country, particularly with regards the export of hard woods [BBC]. China is being particularly singled out because of its arms trade with the military junta. Trade between the two countries rose to $1.46 billion in 2006, a 20% increase over the previous year. China has built bridges, power plants, stadiums and factories in the country which it also sees as important to its expanding search for energy supplies and raw materials as well as opening up a network of ports along the Indian Ocean.

But how strong is Beijing’s influence over the Myanmar government? Time Magazine quoted Zhai Kun, an expert on Southeast Asia at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, as saying, "I think China has very little influence; you can compare it to the influence China has over North Korea. The expectations from the West are that China has influence, but because Myanmar is a closed society, I don't think they listen to advice from the outside, including China."
China has made few public comments in relation to the current crisis, but on Thursday this week Jiang Yu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, "We hope all parties continue to exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue." The spokeswoman stopped short of condemning the killings and accused the western press of “exaggerating and hyperbolizing” allegations that China had not taken a more constructive role [CNN]

Myanmar - Govt troops kill journalist

Kenji Nagai is gunned down in Rangoon by government troops

“Good sirs, please leave the area or we will open fire in ten minutes”, this was the announcement from an army loud speaker yesterday [Thursday]. Moments later Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photojournalist, lay dying, shot at point blank range by troops loyal to General Than Shwe. The image of the 50 year old photographer lying on the ground epitomized the way in which the authorities were attempting to stifle free speech and the flow of information. Today as the photograph dominated front pages all over the world, the Myanmar authorities closed down the internet connection in a further attempt to prevent the world from watching the brutal crackdown of the protests.

The killing of Mr Nagai has shocked and angered Japan. Masahiko Komura, Japan’s Foreign Minister, said he held the Myanmar authorities responsible, while the new Prime Minister called for a full investigation.

It is still unclear how many civilians have died thus far. The Myanmar authorities claim that only 9 were killed yesterday and said the photojournalist was killed “accidentally”. Unofficial reports suggest the death toll may be as high as 200. However, because journalists are unable to operate freely in the country it is impossible to verify the true scale of the tragedy.

The White House has condemned the closing down of the internet and called on all civilised countries to act. Meanwhile the few reports that are emerging from Myanmar suggest that many of the protests have dwindled. Citizens are becoming ever more fearful as police and army troops raid houses, shoot protesters or beat them in the streets. Many have been arrested including hundreds of Buddhist monks who joined protests ten days ago. The demonstrations have gained in strength since August 19th when the government raised fuel prices.

The reporting on the protests have only reached the main headlines this week besides weeks of smaller demonstrations. But the scenes of thousands of Buddhist monks filling the streets gave the media the ever important pictures it requires to report a story. The increased army presence and the shooting of protesters and the beatings of monks has pushed the story to the front page. A few tabloids in the UK led with the Madeleine story. The name of the country is proving contentious and is providing some confusion. The name Myanmar is currently accepted by the United Nations, however since the name change was applied by the military junta, some prefer to call the country by its former name, Burma. Sky News, BBC and CNN have all referred to the country as Burma. Al Jazeera and CBS News have both used the name Myanmar in their reports. US newspapers also refer to Myanmar in their reports as does Japan.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Myanmar - 5 dead as troops shoot protesters

At least one person has been killed in the crackdown by authorities in Myanmar where pro-democracy demonstrations have continued throughout this week. Tear gas has also been fired upon the crowds. UK Ambassador Mark Canning, speaking to Sky News, said there had been “serious and disturbing violence against demonstrators”. Besides an attempt by the authorities to stop the dissemination of news filtering out from the country by shutting down mobile telephone networks and internet cafes, pictures have nonetheless arrived at news agencies around the world. Thousands of monks and members of the general population have been seen protesting on the streets and world leaders have called on the authorities to show restraint. On Tuesday, George W Bush took to the podium at the United Nations General Assembly and criticised the authorities in Myanmar, sometimes known as Burma, saying that they should show restraint in dealing with pro-democracy protests or face sanctions. This had earlier been echoed by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth, southern England. Mr Bush said “Americans were outraged at the situation” in the country “where a military hunter has imposed a nineteen year reign of fear”. Mr Bush said that “Basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship are severely affected, ethnic minorities are persecuted. Enforced child labour, human trafficking and rape are common”. He spoke too of the more than 1000 political prisoners held in detention, including Aung San Suu Kyi “whose party was elected overwhelmingly by the Burmese people in 1990”. She has reportedly been taken to a high security prison.

Today there are reports of 3 Buddhist monks killed by army troops, though some sources the death toll was as much as 5. Many others have been severely beaten. And there are also reports saying that at least 50 have been arrested.

There has been widespread condemnation from around the world. The White House today called the situation “troubling” while Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “The whole world is watching … and will hold Burma accountable”.

China and India both big trading partners with Myanmar, have been encouraged to exert diplomatic pressure on the Myanmar regime. However there is no sign that either country has been involved in discussions with the Myanmar government. Meanwhile a meeting at the UN later today is set to discuss sanctions against the country. Former Ambassador to Thailand was sceptical, saying that sanctions were unlikely to work. Derek Tonkin said that influence from China and India was more likely to achieve results.

CNN stressed the difficulty in obtaining information from Myanmar. The Democratic Voices of Burma, a non profit organisation, was providing some insight as to the events on the ground. With under cover reporters on the ground and using satellite TV broadcasts as well as short-wave radio transmissions, the media outlet was giving voice to protests that were virtually impossible in the past. In 1988 at least 3000 were killed during a crackdown by government troops. Coverage of those events was stifled and largely unseen due to the tight reign of the media by the military authorities. Burma has had a troubled history. The area now known as Myanmar has come together over several centuries. The country has seen invasions and immigration from all its surrounding borders. In the 13th century the Mongols invaded, led by Kublai Kahn. Internal struggles continued throughout the following 300 years with the gradual coming together of smaller states. In the 17th century the Portuguese occupied part of the country but was eventually defeated. The Chinese, French and British also attempted incursions and occupation of the country over the coming centuries. British occupation tied upper and lower Burma together by 1886. The occupation saw the British bring in workers from India and China, changing the ethnicity of the territory. The country also saw many protests against the British occupation. But it was not until after World War II that Britain rescinded ownership and declared independence of Burma. A Democratic Republic was formed, but in 1962 a military coup d'├ętat put General Ne Win into power. Anti-government protests were violently put down in 1974 and again in 1988. The first free elections brought a win for Aung San Suu Kyi, but the ruling party refused to stand down, declaring the results annulled. The fear amongst many is if the authorities will go as far in their brutal crackdown of pro-democracy protesters as they did in 1988 [8888 Uprising]. But Aye Chan Naing told CNN he did not expect a repeat of those events.

[BBC / CNN / Sky News]

Human rights dominate UN speeches

The rhetoric on the streets of New York was colourful as Iran’s president set foot on American soil. “He’s a modern day Hitler” said one of the hundreds of protesters. Others felt differently; “Bush is worse” one woman shouted in partial defence of the Iranian leader. The tabloids have been scathing of Mr Ahmadinejad ahead of his visit. The New York’s Daily News ran with the headline “Go to hell”.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had arrived not in Hell, but in New York where he was set to attend the United Nations General Assembly. He had also been invited to speak at Columbia University.

Prior to the address, the President of Columbia University, Lee C Bollinger, requested the release and free movement of journalists and other Iranian Americans who remain imprisoned in Iran. Dr Tajbakhsh should be allowed to leave the country, Mr Bollinger said. He asked why the persecution of intellectuals persists. He directed other criticism at the Iranian president particularly why in 2002 Ahmadinejad had denied the existence of the Holocaust. “Mr President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator, and so I ask you why have women, members of the Bahai Faith, homosexuals, and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?” Only Al Jazeera English covered the introductions Live. Sky News and ITV News broadcast short bulletins prior to the speech from the Iranian president, but it was only as Mr Ahmadinejad took the platform that the major networks joined the proceedings.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally took to the stage he criticized the rhetoric and insults from Lee Bollinger’s introduction, saying that it was “unfriendly treatment” after having been invited to the University. It would not be the way guests to his own country would be treated, he said. He complained that much of his allocated time had been taken up by the University president. CNN cut away from the president to give analysis of the event. When the coverage of the Live event continued, Ahmadinejad was speaking about the Holocaust. “Given that the holocaust happed why cannot there be further research to look at it with different perspectives?” the president said. Referring perhaps to David Irving [BBC] he said, “Right now there are intellectuals in prison in Europe in prison because they attempted to write about the holocaust or research the holocaust with a different perspective?” He asked why further research into science and other subjects continued and even encouraged, yet a historical event which was the “cause of many heavy catastrophes in the region in contemporary history” was not investigated further. “We need to investigate whether the Palestinian people should be paying for it or not. After all it happened in Europe. The Palestinian people had no role to play in it”. He went on to ask why he should be criticised for his right to express his views; “Why should an academic like myself face insults when asking a question like this? Is this what you call uphold freedom of thought?” He then went on to talk about his nuclear policy and insisted that his country was only pursuing peaceful nuclear ambitions. He said the IAEA had made inspection and were welcome to do so and had nothing to hide. And he said the Iranian people had paid a heavy price in funding the nuclear energy policy because of European countries backing down from helping Iran with its “peace nuclear policy”. The embargo had also affected the country in other ways, insisted the Iranian president. “Why has there been an embargo on fuel from you? You’ve not even given us spare parts for our civilian aircraft for 28 years under the name of embargo and sanctions”. He finished his first part of the address saying, “We are a peace loving nation. We love all nations”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then received both applause and jeering.

He was then asked if he sought destruction of Israel or the Jewish state. “We love all nations, we are friends with the Jewish people” he said. “There are many Jews living in Iran peacefully”. But he did not answer the question as to whether he wished to see the destruction of Israel, and deviated into suggesting that only a “referendum of Palestinian people” could decide the future of the region. He said that there was an imbalance in the way that the Palestinians were treated and other nations were being armed.

Asked whether his country sponsored terrorism Mr Ahmadinejad said his country was also a victim of terrorism. “We need to find the root causes of terrorism and eradicate them… we don’t need to support terrorism, we ourselves have been victims of terrorism” the president said.

He was asked about the freedom of women and the imposition of the death penalty in Iran. “Freedoms in Iran are genuine freedoms” the president said, “Women enjoy the highest level of those freedoms”. And he defended the use of the death penalty citing that drug dealers were, for example, a threat to society. He then asked a rhetorical question himself; “Don’t you too have the death penalty here in the United States?”
The Iranian president may have precipitated anger in New York, but he also created a few laughs after he suggested there were no homosexuals in his country. “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country”, Mr Ahmadinejad stated, “In Iran we don’t have this phenomenon, I don’t know who’s told you that we have it”.

The president then spoke about his proposed visit to ground zero, site of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. “Regretfully some groups had strong reactions, but what’s bad about someone showing sympathy to the victims of the tragic September 11th event?” Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said.

After nearly 60 minutes CNN cut away from Live coverage of the unprecedented event. But the speeches were set to continue well into the week.
On Tuesday, George W Bush took to the podium at the United Nations General Assembly. In his address the president criticised the authorities in Myanmar, sometimes known as Burma, saying that they should show restraint in dealing with pro-democracy protests or face sanctions. This had earlier been echoed by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth, southern England.

But President Bush did not stop at Burma. In his 20 minute address he criticised Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Iran calling them “brutal regimes denying their people fundamental rights enshrined in the universal declaration”. He singled out Burma saying that Americans were outraged at the situation. It was a country, he said, “Where a military hunter has imposed a nineteen year reign of fear”. As the camera showed the Myanmar delegation, Mr Bush said that “Basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship are severely affected, ethnic minorities are persecuted. Enforced child labour, human trafficking and rape are common”. He spoke too of the more than 1000 political prisoners held in detention, including Aung San Suu Kyi “whose party was elected overwhelmingly by the Burmese people in 1990”.
“The ruling hunter remains unyielding, yet the people’s desire for freedom is unmistakable” Mr Bush added

He then moved on to attack the Cuban regime. “In Cuba the long rule of a cruel dictator is near its end, the Cuban people are ready for their freedom and as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist upon free speech, free assembly and ultimately free and competitive elections”. Whilst he berated the small island of Cuba, the delegation took to their feet and all walked out in protest.

The next country in line for criticism was Zimbabwe where “citizens suffer under a tyrannical regime”. He said that the “behaviour of the Mugabe regime was an assault on its people and an affront to the principles of the universal declaration”. In his continuing list of countries came Sudan where many were “losing their lives through genocide”.

He spoke of human rights, and tackling long term threats of “murder and fear”. The threat of malaria, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance had to be solved. He soon shifted to the threat of terrorism, of “terrorists and extremists who kill the innocent” and asked that all nations help to eradicate the threat. “All nations must work together and share information on their networks” he said, “choking off their finances and bringing to justice their operatives”. But he said the way of ultimately defeating the extremists was to offer “a more hopeful vision” in order to “defeat their dark ideology”.

The General Assembly coverage continued later with an address from the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His speech, which was in excess of 40 minutes, covered much of what he had said during his address at Columbia University. He did however cover other issues. He spoke of mankind’s facing a number of challenges. There was a weakening of the institution of marriage he said. Moving on to human rights he said certain nations were responsible for widespread violations of human rights, terrorism and occupation. Seemingly pointing a finger at the United States he said been the “setting up secret prisons, abducting persons, trials and secret punishments without regard to due process, extensive tapping of telephone conversations, intercepting private mail have become common place and prevalent”. These had been carried out by those that espouse freedom he said.

He then moved onto talk on what he called the “illegal Zionist occupation” of Palestine. He inferred that ‘Israeli terrorists’ were supported by the big powers. Moving on to Iraq the president was again critical of the US. “Iraq was occupied under the pretext of overthrowing a dictator and the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the occupation continues under different excuses” the president said.

The problems of hunger and poverty were also covered in the speech. “Every day 800 Million people go to bed hungry”, Ahmadinejad said. “And 980 million suffer from absolute poverty with less than a $1 a day of spending power”. He said that environmental problems “created by a few big nations” also needed to be tackled.

He then went on to criticise “some big powers” who “continue to dominate after World War II” and who were “creating a new arms race”.

“The victors of the war drew the road map for global domination not on the basis of justice but for ensuring the interests of the victors over the vanquished nations”

He also suggested the credibility of the United Nations Security Council had been undermined and was ineffective.

He briefly spoke of his country’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. Iran has fulfilled its IAEA obligations, he insisted, and declared the matter closed.

At the end of his speech the president of Iran called for a “Return to the teachings of the define prophet” and to develop fraternity, monotheism respect for the dignity of humans and create a “coalition for peace”.

The next major speaker to be covered Live was the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He spoke of improvements having been made in his country but conceded that terrorism was still a daily threat. Opium production was also a threat not only to Afghanistan but to other countries. He went on to thank the international community for helping his country.

The international community is now focusing on the turmoil in Myanmar which for several days has seen thousands of Buddhist monks protesting on the streets. However it is unlikely that the proposed sanctions against the regime will prevent authorities crushing the pro-democracy movement. Already curfews have been imposed and there are reports of troops firing on demonstrators with live rounds and with volleys of tear gas.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

UK - Blue Tongue Disease found in cow

The first case of Blue tongue disease has been discovered in cattle within the UK. DEFRA have confirmed the disease was present in a cow at a farm in Ipswich, Suffolk. The disease, spread by midges, is rarely fatal and is not contagious. Humans are not affected by the virus. The outbreak will further concern Gordon Brown who has had to deal with a number of crises since coming to office [BBC]. The news will also increase concern within the farming community already suffering from restrictions resulting from the recent foot & mouth disease outbreaks.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Africa in crisis

Robert Mugabe has been subject to international criticism

Floods are hitting Africa hard with vast swathes of the continents being affected. Two hundred and fifty have been killed in the floods and more than half a million people have been displaced. Aid agencies and the UN have renewed calls for help in this latest humanitarian disaster to hit Africa [BBC]. At least 17 countries have been hit by the floods stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia and Kenya in the east. Some states have been under water for months [BBC].

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe has seen mounting international criticism as the economy spirals out of control and thousands try to escape by illegally crossing the border into neighbouring countries. Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for action saying that Zimbabwe faced a tragedy which, “requires the whole world to speak up and also to act”. Inflation in the country is at least 6000% and few products can be found in the shops. Water and petrol are equally difficult to find in Zimbabwe. Western governments say the land reforms in the country have brought about the current crisis, whilst the Zimbabwe regime blames international sanctions. Meanwhile the International Crisis Group says the African state is closer to collapse than ever before.

US - controversy amid Iran's presidential visit

New York tabloids anger at Amhadinejad's visit

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is set to arrive in New York and has already caused controversy after asking permission to visit the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks. His request was rejected by New York officials, something the President says he will abide by [CNN]. Speaking exclusively to CBS News, the President spoke of why he wanted to attend the scene. “Many innocent people were killed there. Some of those people were American citizens obviously. We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations. Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And-- also to perhaps to air your views about the root causes of such incidents. I think that when I do that, I will be paying, as I said earlier, my respect to the American nation” he said. However, the visit has drawn criticism from many and prompted strongly worded headlines in New York tabloids. President Bush said he understood the rejection of allowing the Iranian president to visit Ground Zero calling the leader a “State sponsor of terrorism”. Mr Ahmadinejad is set to speak at Columbia University later in the week. Iran has seen continued criticism for its nuclear policy with one French minister, Bernard Kouchner, saying, “we must prepare for the worst and the worst is war”. The French leader President Nicolas Sarkosy was more measured saying he wanted stronger sanctions if current talks and sanctions failed [Guardian].

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

US - OJ granted bail of $125,000

O.J Simpson has appeared in court following his arrest last week for an alleged robbery. The incident occurred in a Las Vegas hotel and is said to have involved firearms. Mr Simpson and at least one accomplice entered a hotel room to demand the return of memorabilia which the former American football star says belonged to him. O.J Simpson faced 11 charges including robbery and kidnapping as he appeared in court today [BBC / CNN]. CNN international did not cover initial proceedings due to the Breaking News of the bomb blast in the Lebanon. Sky News covered the event extensively. One reporter described it as being like the film Groundhog Day, in which events continually repeat themselves. The timing of the incident occurred on the same day as the release of a book ‘If I Did It’. The book, in which Mr Simpson describes how he would have killed his ex-wife and her friend, was published in the US on Thursday by Beaufort Books. In July, the rights to Mr Simpson's book were awarded to Mr Goldman's family to help cover the judgement.

Mr Simpson entered the court at around 08:25 local time [15:25 GMT] and had the charges read to him by the judge and asked if he understood them. Bail was set at $125,000 and a condition that his passport be surrendered and that he should not contact any persons involved in the case. He is set to come before the court again on the 22nd October. In the meantime a media circus will continue to follow every move of O.J Simpson.

In another high profile trial the jury has been unable to reach a verdict on murder charges filed against Phil Spector [CNN].

Lebanon - MP targeted in car bombing

Four people have died and at least 20 have been injured in a car bomb attack in Beirut. One witness has claimed that the licence plate on one vehicle belonged to a government member increasing speculation that the attack may have been an attempted political assassination. Anti-Syrian Christian MP Antoine Ghanem has been killed in the attack according to Sky News quoting security sources.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

87 killed in Thai plane crash

A plane has crashed at Phuket airport in Thailand, killing at least 87 people on board. The One-Two-Go plane, Flight 269 flying from Bangkok to Phuket, skidded off the runway in heavy rain and crashed into an embankment. A fire then broke out inside the aircraft and some of the survivors are said to have been burnt.

Many of the 128 on board are said to be foreign tourists. At least 43 have survived, according to authorities, and are being treated at a nearby hospital. Nationalities of those being treated include 1 Australian, 1 Austrian, 8 Britons, 4 Germans, 1 Italian and 7 Thais [CNN].

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Key ally killed as Bush prepares keynote speech

The 6th anniversary of 9/11 brought with it not only the annual memorial services [BBC], but a controversial but much awaited report on the progress in Iraq. The day also saw the return of what was purported to be another video of Osama bin Laden. First came the report from General David Petraeus, dubbed as being an expert in counterinsurgency by President Bush, and his assessment on whether there had been any achievement in the last few months. But before he delivered his report Chairman Mr Lantos, a Democrat, issued a savage attack on the current strategy in Iraq. The “cost of this war will pass to our grand children and beyond”, he said, “It is time to go and go now”. Republican, Duncan Hunter, who is running for President, stood in defence of Gen David Petraeus. He then went on to berate the Democrats for an article on depicting the General as “General Betrayus” which he called scandalous. Then came the voice of silence from General Petraeus. The General was unable to deliver his address because his microphone did not work. He attempted to use the microphone adjacent to him, but that too had failed. The speaker then called for a recess leaving the BBC, Sky News, CNN and al Jazeera a large space to fill with analysis of a speech that hadn’t yet been delivered. When he finally did get to deliver his assessment, he was interrupted but this time by anti-war protesters who heckled from the rear of the room. His report was generally upbeat. He said the insurgency had diminished and that fewer civilians had died in the last few months [Full text PDF]. But he has not increased the confidence of Americans with the way the war is progressing [BBC]. Iraqi government officials were more supportive however. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie praised the US' "enormous sacrifice" and predicted a reduced combat role for US troops [BBC]. But the feeling at home was one of disinterest, and of being under whelmed by the whole affair [BBC].

President Bush will make his first major public address since the Petraeus report on Friday at 01:00 GMT [CNN]. In it he is expected to praise the efforts made by General Petraeus. However he has little to celebate as his ratings drop and each day brings more US casualties. Today one of his few key allies amongst the Iraqi people was killed by an IED. The Sunni, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha, was assassinated as his convoy travelled through Anbar province. His bodyguards were also killed in the roadside bomb blast. A White House spokesman said, “Despite the loss, he ignited a movement that will outlive”. But CNN’s Michael Ware described him as a “largely irrelevant tribe leader”. The sheik had met George Bush ten days ago during the President’s surprise visit to the country. The BBC’s Hugh Sykes described the loss as a “severe blow to the Anbar Awakening” The Anbar Awking was the name given to a recently formed alliance of Sunni Arab tribes that rose up against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Also in Iraq today more evidence pointing at Iranian involvement in the conflict. An Iranian built missile landed on US base. It was some 15 times larger than previous missiles with a 15 kg warhead. There is also increased use of Iranian RPG-29s in the country, weapons that make tanks and armoured vehicles more vulnerable to attack.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad continues to deny any involvement in supplying arms. Speaking on Channel Four News he told John Snow he had not sold arms to insurgents [Full text].”The nation of Iraq is a courageous nation, a great nation that is against occupations and will not tolerate occupation. The Iraqi people do no need the Iranians in order to defend themselves they are able to defend themselves,” the Iranian leader said. Grinning through much of the 20 minute Live interview, the President also denied having aspirations for building a nuclear weapon. “We don't need a bomb, we are fundamentally opposed to the bomb for various reasons. The main reason is we are ideologically against bombs and politically it is not beneficial,” the Iranian president responded.

The debate on the War on Terror and the War in Iraq is played out in a series of films to be played at the London Film Festival. Many are highly critical of the war and some are scathing of US actions. Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha and Brian De Palma's Redacted both deal with reported real-life atrocities involving US marines in Iraq [BBC]

The atrocities are occurring on all sides and many of the victims are the young and innocent. But there was a little good news today for one small child who was horribly injured in an attack by masked gunmen in Baghdad. According to his father, Youssif was grabbed outside their home on January 15, doused in gasoline and set on fire. The story broadcast on CNN [CNN in August [23/08/07], spawned an outpouring of sympathy from viewers with donations of money and offers of medical help. This week, only a few weeks since the story aired, Youssif arrived in Los Angeles where he is set to receive treatment from the Grossman Burn Center. Dr Peter Grossman, a plastic surgeon and director of the facility told CNN that the boy would endure up to 8 operations over several months. But he added the surgery involved would not completely eliminate the injuries. He said Youssif would however, ‘look better and function better’ adding that he was ‘a child who deserves a chance in life’ [CNN]. Many children will not as be as fortunate as Youssif in receiving professional medical treatment. Thousands of children have been maimed or killed in the conflict, and most will suffer their injuries without help from sympathetic viewers, most of whom never have their stories reported. Some lucky ones get to be treated at a US army field hospital in Balad. For some there is a glimmer of hope for the future.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

bin Laden appearance overshadows APEC

Changing faces of Osama bin Laden - 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007

A tape purporting to be Osama bin Laden surfaced on Friday [BBC] only day's before the 6th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The blurred image of a man who resembled America’s most wanted terrorist read a long rambling speech containing all the familiar threats and rhetoric. The man pictured in the video had a much darker beard than in the last known appearance prompting The Times to comment; “he’s had a makeover”. The paper also linked recent events to the release of the video to emphasize the increasing threat of Islamic terrorism. Terror arrests in Germany and Denmark, extremists overtaking Britain’s mosques and the terrorist attack on Glasgow’s airport were all highlighted to show the threat the country faces. Discussing the morning papers on Sky News, one studio guest said, “People need a reminder that this stuff is for real”, adding that “People don’t take this as seriously as they should.”
George Bush took the new bin Laden statement seriously enough to comment. “He mentioned Iraq” he said, “And that’s why it’s important for us to remain” and defeat the terrorists. In the 30 minute tape, bin Laden is heard saying, “You permitted Bush to complete his first term, and stranger still, chose him for a second term, which gave him a clear mandate from you... to continue to murder our people in Iraq and Afghanistan" [BBC / full transcript PDF]. While officials in the US said the voice was that of Osama bin Laden, others were less convinced. Al Jazeera spoke to one ‘expert’ who suggested the nose was too big and that the voice could be faked electronically. He also questioned as to why al Qaeda couldn’t afford a decent camera.

Bin Laden had already interrupted the APEC summit earlier in the week, or rather an Osama look-alike. A fake cavalcade, complete with armoured vehicles, motorcycle outriders and security guards, came with thirty metres of the hotel where President Bush was staying. However when the entourage came to a halt it became apparent to the real security forces that there had been a serious security breach as a man dressed as Osama bin Laden alighted from one of the cars. It had all been part of a stunt by a TV comedy show. A statement from TV company ABC said the Chaser team members were wearing mock "insecurity" passes, which expressly stated it was a joke. But the police and Australia’s security services were not amused saying the 11 arrested could have been shot [CNN / BBC].

President Bush had everyone laughing with his mispronunciations and faux pas. He praised the “Austrian troops” in Iraq, and thanked Mr Howard for inviting him to Australia for the OPEC summit rather than the APEC summit. He then joked that Mr Howard had invited him to the OPEC summit next year (an impossibility since neither Australia nor the US are members of the oil exporting cartel). He went on to voice his abhorrence of terrorist groups operating in the Asia-Pacific region, including the evil "Jenna Islaaanah Nia". He meant to say Jemaah Islamiyah. Finally, as he began to leave the stage he set off in direction of a several metre vertical precipice. Fortunately for Mr Bush he was beckoned back and shown the stairs at the front of the stage [Herald Sun / Guardian].

The coverage of the APEC has been scant in general. CCTV-9 had the most in-depth coverage in their programme ‘Dialogue’. Lasting some thirty minutes, it brought viewers debate and analysis of the APEC summit from a Sino-Australian perspective. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister John Howard were said to have “reviewed rapid progress of cooperation” according to the Chinese International broadcaster, as well as building “stronger ties and peace and prosperity initiatives on climate change.”
Running with the strap ‘Beijing & Canberra seek closer ties’, the two studio guests gave their views on the “relevance for China” at the 15th APEC meeting.
Trade was one of the most discussed topics. Last year there were in excess of $45 billion of deals with Australia. China buys more Australian wool than any other country. Michael Johnson MP and Federal Member for Ryan, Australia, said, “China has much to be proud of” and said he was pleased to develop bi-lateral ties.
Asked on his views about the environment Mr Johnson said, “Climate change is seen by many Australians as the number one threat” but added that “energy and education were two important aspects of how China and Australia could benefit” mutually.

Australia and China were in talks to discuss greater transparency and the Australian MP said he would resist any efforts to prevent the re-emergence or rise of China. And he said Japanese and US actions shouldn’t be interpreted as an attempt to contain China.

The Taiwan issue became the next topic. China has said it would not tolerate the cessation of Taiwan, but George Bush said he would not tolerate a change in the status quo. The Australian government, however, recognises China’s ‘one China policy’, the Australian correspondent Rowan Callick said.

And so to the worry of Chinese products. Asked whether Australia was panicked by safety and food concerns, Rowan Callick said, “naturally we are worried but not panicked”.

George Bush also met the Chinese Premier and apparently had “quite articulate” talks over product safety [BBC]. However, there was no mention as to whether he raised the issue of spying and the hacking of Pentagon computers. Sitting with the South Korean Prime Minister, he was asked if he would declare an end to the Korean War. He said he would do so if the North Korean leader “gets rid of his Nuclear weapons programmes and we can get the peace we all long for” [CNN]. The hostilities between the North and South ended in 1953 but a peace treaty was never signed. Meanwhile the DPRK has invited nuclear experts to the country to inspect the nuclear facilities and help set procedures for dismantlement.

The APEC summit ended with a few promises to save the environment [BBC / CNN]. But with increased free trade, it may in the minds of many environmentalists be difficult to reconcile. As the summit came to a close protesters clashed with the police resulting in at least 25 arrests and a number of injuries on both sides. The protests up to now had been peaceful [CNN] but clashes occurred late Saturday.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Both of Madeleine's parents made suspects

At 23:45 UK time, 0:45 in Portugal, a police car pulled up outside the police station where Gerry McCann had been questioned for some 9 hours. Earlier his wife had left after several hours of questioning but was not charged with any offence. The weekend papers were already set to lead with much the same headlines as yesterday. The Sun was perhaps the strongest headline”Confess and your out in one year”. The studio guests during Sky’s paper review, equally agreed that the papers were being over sensationalist. The Mail leads on Saturday with some of the questions posed to her during her ordeal of police questioning. “Why was her [Madeleine’s] blood in your car? Did you drug her that night? Confess and you’ll get two years?” read some of the headline under the banner “ACCUSSED”. The Daily Express inferred that evidence had been found on a Bible. “Death on mum’s bible” is the headline there. The discussion in the studio dismissed some of the press speculation as incredulous and said there was a sense of ‘mob mentality’. Some of the headlines are based on the assertion that police told Kate McCann, “Confess and you’ll be jailed for two years”. Meanwhile, the McCann spokeswoman, Justine McGuiness, said it was “ludicrous” to suggest blood belonging to Madeleine had been found in a car hired by the parents.

Before arriving at the police station to take his turn in being interrogated by the Portuguese police, Gerry McCann posted a comment on his blog protesting his wife’s innocence and declaring the allegations as being “ludicrous”. He added; “We will fight this all the way and keep looking for Madeleine”

As the media waited for Gerry McCann to emerge from the police station, Sky’s Ian woods said he had no indication whether he was to become ‘Arguido’ or an official suspect in the case [BBC]. Then Mr McCann emerged from the station accompanied by his lawyer. He then read a short statement in Portuguese and English. “Both Kate and Gerry McCann have been declared Arguido” he said. He added that no bail conditions had been set and no charges had yet been brought.
Bizarrely, at the same time CNN told their viewers that Gerry had not been declared a suspect during a Breaking News item and would bring viewers an update when Gerry McCann left the police station. It took another few minutes before CNN brought taped pictures of Gerry McCann leaving the station and told viewers that both parents had been declared as suspects. Paula Hancocks told viewers that the spokeswoman for the McCanns had said the allegations were ‘ludicrous’. She also said the Portuguese police were also on trial. “They don’t want to mess this up when the whole world is watching”. Certainly the whole world was watching. But it is the lead item only in British and Portuguese papers. It also made little major prominence on Russia Today, CCTV-9 or Al-Jazeera.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Police quiz McCanns but no charges made

Gerry McCann arrives at the police station on Friday afternoon

After a further 3 hours of questioning today, Kate McCann, mother of missing Madeleine McCann, has been made an official suspect but has not as yet been charged with any offence [BBC]. Sources close to the family have indicated she may be charged with the accidental death of her daughter who has disappeared 127 days ago [Sky News]. Gerry McCann, Kate’s husband has described allegations made against his wife as “ludicrous”. He too is expected to undergo intense questioning by Portuguese authorities after arriving at the police station in Portimao shortly before 17:00 local time. The rest of the family have expressed their shock over recent developments in the investigation. There have been reports that blood was found in the boot of the car hired by the McCanns three weeks after the girl’s disappearance. However, information coming out has only been conveyed by members of the McCann family, their lawyers and spokesmen. Police have not made official statements. Meanwhile both the BBC and Sky News continue to bring saturation coverage to this long running story.

UK - Tensions with Russia rise

A Typhoon shadows a Russian Bear-H in August

Tensions amongst British military experts have heightened after Russian planes came close to UK airspace for the third time this year. Four RAF Tornado jets were scrambled this week to intercept the formation of eight military planes. Earlier in the day, Norwegian F16s had been scrambled after the planes had come close to their airspace [BBC]. On Friday the 17th August this year, newly delivered Typhoon Eurofighters were scrambled after a Russian bomber flew close to British airspace over the North Atlantic Ocean [MoD / BBC]. Tensions have increased between the two countries over the last few months after Britain demanded the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi in connection with the death of Alexander Litvinenko last year [BBC]. He was poisoned with Polonium 210 in what was seen as a James Bond style assassination. Speaking on Sky News yesterday, Tim Marshall said the Russian bear had been woken a few years ago but now the “bear is beginning to growl”.

UK report - Food additives linked to ADHD

Reports in the British press on Thursday have linked food additives to hyperactivity in children. In a study, published in the Lancet, children given so called E numbers were found to react adversely. The results of those tests have prompted many to call for a ban on some food additives which have concerned food experts for many years. However the Food Standards Agency have resisted a ban, instead advising parents to avoid the chemicals if “a child shows signs of hyperactivity or ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]”. The chemicals under scrutiny include food colourings Sunset Yellow (E110), Tartrazine (E102), Carmoiosine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red (E129), Quinoline Yellow (E104) and the food preservative Sodium Benzoate (E211). The findings were of no surprise to many parents, some of whom called radio stations to say they had observed adverse effects of food additives for many years. LBC radio in London received some calls from listeners calling for a wider ban. Aspartime and other artificial sweeteners are of particular concern for many. Others suggested the junk food diet, often loaded with a cocktail of food additives, might be a partial cause of the increased ‘yob culture’ sweeping the UK. There is of course no real evidence for this view. However, many of the chemical cited in the recent tests are banned in some European countries as well as the US and Australia. Tartrazine is banned in Norway and was banned in Austria and Germany before being lifted by an EC directive. Although intolerance to E102 is said to affect less than 1% of the population, reactions can include anxiety, migraines, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance. Sunset Yellow is particularly singled out as having links to increased ADHD but nowhere is the use in food restricted. E122 or Carmoisine is banned in Japan, Norway and the US, but is widely used in the UK. It again is strongly linked with ADHD. Poneau 4R or E124 has been identified as a carcinogen by the Food and Drug Administration in the US and like many of the above additives it has been suggested it may intensify symptoms of asthema. Besides the health concerns, it remains in wide use within the UK. E129 or Allura Red, is the most widley banned food colourant. It is illegal to add to food products in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria. It was also banned in Norway from 1978 until 2001, but this ban has since been lifted. E104, banned in Japan and the US, has been linked to ADHD and identified as a possible cause of contact dermatitus. It remains legal in the UK and in Australia since 2003 where it had previously been banned. Whilst E211 has no direct adverse health effects it may react with ascorbic acid [vitamin C] and release benzene, a known carcinogen. E211 or Sodium Benzoate is widely used as a preservative but can be found naturally in cranberries, prunes, greengage plums, cinnamon, ripe cloves, and apples. Whilst Aspartame, Saccharin and other artificial sweeteners have not been implicated in this recent study, there is a long running debate concerning their safety. The FSA which funded the three year study have rejected calls for a ban, besides the strong links with ADHD and other adverse health effects. It therefore remains a decission for the consumer whether or not they consume such products. There is no expectation that any form of health warning is to be printed on affected products, such as been seen on cigarettes for many years. Nut allergies and instances of children choking on peanuts, have resulted in many products declaring that a “product may contain nuts” and a warning that “small children may choke on nuts”. It may be argued that the consumer has a choice when making a decision to buy products containing additives. However, this becomes all the more difficult when eating at restaurants where food labeling is absent. Only a ban on possibly dangerous food additives would give consumers peace of mind [BBC]

Madeleine's mother quized by Portuguese police

Under fire: Press coverage is beginning to turn against the McCanns

After more than 11 hours being questioned by Portuguese police, Kate McCann, mother of missing four-year-old Madeleine, has emerged from a police station into a street full of waiting press and members of the public. Headlines in Friday’s papers were already running with sensationalist headlines after Mrs McCann earlier said she believed she and her husband, Gerry, were being treated as suspects in connection with their daughter’s disappearance. Yesterday it was revealed that forensic tests had been completed on substances found in the flat where Madeleine was last seen. However Gerry and Kate McCann only learned of the developments from newspaper reports. Details of what the tests revealed have not yet been made public.

There have been many twists and turns in the way the story has been reported over the four months that has followed Madeleine’s disappearance. In the early weeks the parents led a massive publicity campaign and met with the Pope in order to bring attention to their missing daughter. Posters were distributed to airports and printed in newspapers throughout Europe. But after weeks of saturation coverage, Portuguese media outlets began to ask more difficult and accusatory questions. This culminated in Gerry McCann storming out of a television interview when asked if he was the last person to see his daughter alive and what he felt after British forensic experts found spots of blood in the flat. Later, reports emerged that a syringe or hypodermic needle had been found in a cupboard [Daily Express]. The implication was that the parents may have sedated the young girl. Friday’s Sun newspaper, which will hit news stands later today, leads with the headline “Did you sedate her?”. Friday’s Mirror runs with a headline taken from a quote attributed to Kate McCann which had earlier been conveyed by her lawyer. It ended with the line “… now we fear we are SUSPECTS” emblazoned across its front page. The Express was set to run “Mum: Now we fear we are suspects”. The British tabloids changing angle on the reporting of this developing story comes on the back of reports in a Portuguese tabloid which said the McCanns were being treated as suspects and may have killed 4 year old Madeleine. The story hinged upon unnamed police sources, however the Portuguese authorities swiftly reputed the allegations and the McCanns started legal proceedings against the paper, Tal & Qual [BBC].

In the early hours of Friday media coverage on Sky News showed large throngs of media mixed with crowds of curious sightseers. Martin Brunt, reporting from the scene in Portimao, said that Kate McCann had been interviewed sice 15:00 local time [13:00 GMT]. At 01:30 local time [11:20 GMT] police began to create a cordon near the exit to the police station with press photographers, journalists and tv crews jostling for position. It was some time before anyone emerged from the wooden door, bout Sky News gave a constant update to the lack of events occurring at the police station. From 23:30 local time Sky showed a split screen and returned on occasion for updates from Martin Brunt who could only repeat that an expected departure of Kate McCann had been delayed. At 23:50 GMT BBC News 24 showed a brief shot of the assembled media and as she and her lawyer exited the building. Her lawyer gave a short statement in Portuguese as Kate McCann stood beside him. Mrs McCann looked visibly exhausted as her lawyer said Mrs McCann was still being treated as a witness but could not say anymore due to secrecy laws. The two then made their way to a waiting car, pursued by photographers and TV crews whilst police tried to keep them back. As they sped into the night, there was little more to report than had already been discussed in the media. The whirl of media attention surrounding this storyis likely to continue for some time to come [Sky / BBC].

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Germany & Denmark - Terror arrests thwart attacks

A suspect is taken to court in Germany

German and Danish authorities have made a significant number of arrests and thwarted possible terror attacks leading up to the 6th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the USA on September 11th 2001. Police in Germany recovered 680 kg of explosive materials and arrested three individuals. Authorities said those arrested had been planning “massive” and “imminent” attacks targeted against American interests in Germany [CNN / BBC]. Meanwhile, Danish authorities have arrested eight individuals said to have links to al Qaeda [BBC / CNN].

China attacked over products and spying

Robert Gates - "precautions employed" to prevent further attacks

China is back in the headlines again after yet another safety recall. Mattel, the biggest toy manufacturer in the USA, has ordered the recall of a number of Barbie doll accessories found to contain excessive quantities of lead. It is the third such recall implemented by the toy firm and has resulted in the removal of more than 20 million products from the shelves of outlets worldwide [BBC]. Although criticism has been targeted at China over lax quality control, some have said Mattel should have taken more care in its oversight of the manufacturing process. Christopher Devereux, managing director of ChinaSavvy, told the BBC "There's no excuse to let so many products go through with lead in the paint. They should be testing. It's not difficult. There are hundreds of quality control laboratories in China."

There was some good news regards a report two weeks ago which inferred that textile products exported to New Zealand had excessive quantities of formaldehyde present. However after further tests the children’s clothes under suspicion were found to contain formaldehyde within permitted levels. Formaldehyde is used in the textile industry to prevent the development of mildew, but excessive amounts can cause skin irritation and even cancer. The International Herald Tribune [IHT] reported this week that a television company had employed ‘flawed tests’ for the chemical. “All independent tests carried out to date show that clothes sold in New Zealand are within international standards for levels of formaldehyde and ... claims made on TV3's Target show are quite simply false," New Zealand's retailers' association CEO told National Radio. John Albertson said that fresh tests at AgResearch in New Zealand, the SGS Textile testing center in Shanghai and Intertek in Hong Kong all confirmed that formaldehyde was not at dangerous levels in tested garments.

But whilst recalls and accusations of bad manufacturing processes attain front page news, when the all clear is given there is rarely the same high profile reporting.
The continued bad publicity is also doing no good for the ‘Made in China’ label. Many factories are under threat of closing and hundreds of Chinese workers have already lost their jobs in the wake of the recalls [BBC].
Chinese security services were also at the receiving end of criticism Tuesday after it was alleged China had hacked government computers in the US, the UK and in Germany. The Guardian ran with a front page story on Wednesday and said the People’s Liberation Army were believed to be involved in attacking computers at the Foreign Office and other government departments. The MoD has declined to comment on whether their data bases were compromised. The front page lead came on the back of reports that the Pentagon in the US was attacked by Chinese hackers [CNN]. According to the Financial Times in London, the hackers had crashed part of the Secretary of Defence’s computer system. One US official was quoted by the paper as saying there was a "high level of confidence" that the People's Liberation Army was responsible. But China has denied the attacks and released a statement saying the accusations “reflected a Cold War mentality” [BBC]. Last week it was reported that German government computers had been compromised.

In June this year the Pentagon was said to have been attacked by Chinese hackers bringing the e-mail system crashing [BBC]. Robert Gates, US Defense Secretary, said that a variety of precautions were being employed to prevent further such attacks. However, this recent instance of computer hacking will increase concerns in US security circles. George Bush is set to meet Hu Jintao during his attendance at the APEC meeting in Australia, but it is not yet known whether he will raise the issue with his Chinese counterpart. However, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has already raised issue with Beijing after Chinese attacks on government computers. Der Spiegel, a German weekly publication, said that computers at the Chancellory and other government ministries had been infected with Trojan viruses or spy programs.

The only comment President Bush has so far made on the matter is less inflammatory. "I'm very aware that a lot of our systems are vulnerable to cyber attack from a variety of places," George Bush said at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. "In terms of whether or not I'll bring this up to countries that we suspect may -- from which there may have been an attack, I may."
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Monday, September 03, 2007

Iraq - Surprise visit by Bush as British troops 'pullout'

British troops have moved from Basra Palace in Baghdad to the nearby airport in what is being seen as the beginning of the end of the British presence in Iraq [BBC]. Over 500 troops have relocated to Basra airport and will join 5000 troops already stationed there. There has been no official statement or reaction from US officials but it is likely to increase perceived tensions between the US and the British command over the strategy in Iraq. One general expressed this tension in a comment to CNN. "There can be disagreements amongst professionals about certain ways of how you handle strategy and tactics," said Rear Admiral Mark Fox. There has been much criticism over recent days of the US strategy in the war torn country from ex-members of the British army. Major General Tim Cross, the most senior British officer involved in postwar planning, has criticized former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the Sunday Mirror for ignoring warnings that Iraq would descend into chaos [BBC / CNN]. "Right from the very beginning we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the postwar plan, and there is no doubt that Rumsfeld was at the heart of that process," Cross said in the Sunday newspaper. He was not alone in his criticism of US policy. Only a day before, retired General Sir Michael Jackson described the US strategy in Iraq as being “intellectually bancrupt” [BBC].
The pull-out from Basra Place, due to be completed by Monday, was described by the MoD as a long stated aim of the British military. "Handing over Basra Palace to the Iraqi authorities has long been our intention, as we have stated publicly on numerous occasions", the MoD said in a press release.

As the relocation was completed, President George W Bush arrived in Iraq on a surprise visit. Sky News speculated he would meet with General Petraeus and Iraq’s President Maliki before flying to Australia for the Economic Summit. President Bush was reported to have arrived in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, along with his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The visit comes a week to the day that a much awaited report on the situation in Iraq is published. Fox News Reporter Courtney Kealy, speaking Live from Baghdad, described the visit as a ‘complete surprise’. She said Mr Bush had arrived at Al Asad airbase in Anbar Province. Details are a little confused as the story develops with early reports suggesting Robert Gates was traveling with the entourage. There is also confusion as to whether the President had indeed visited Baghdad’s Green Zone. The BBC and Sky News both reported that he was accompanied by the US National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley.

UK - Tube strike set to create chaos

A three day strike starts on London’s Underground tonight and is likely to bring chaos for the millions of commuters who use the transport network daily. The strike by maintenance workers over concern of job losses will result in a gradual shut down at 16:30 today [Monday]. TfL [Transport for London] say that only three lines will be affected, the Central, Victoria and Bakerloo lines, however since these links provide vital connections, many commuters will find themselves stranded or suffering long and crowded bus journeys. Many of London’s work force will opt to work from home, wherever possible, but the loss to the capital’s business could run into millions of pounds [BBC].