Monday, June 30, 2008

US "preparing to strike Iran"

Seymour Hersh - "threat of military action against Iran is on the table"

Iran has been unusually silent following revelations in a story in the New Yorker which alleges the US are conducting secret operations in the country. The report which was also highlighted on CNN and al Jazeera today says the covert operations were part of the US preparation for a possible air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Seymour Hersh’s article, entitled "Preparing the Battlefield", has been dismissed as fantasy by the White House. Indeed the report is speculative, based on accounts from current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. However it is the latest in a string of articles that have suggested Bush is preparing for military action against Iran.
In 1981 Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak, and in September 2007, they bombed a facility in Syria that U.S. officials have said was a nuclear reactor being constructed with North Korean assistance. These actions has increased speculation that Israel may take unilateral action against such facilities in Iran. Such an air strike would turn the region into a “Ball of Fire” head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned at the weekend. Mohamed ElBaradei made his comments during an interview on an Arab television station.
Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, has warned military action against Iran would be met with resistance and "cost them heavily." [Fox News / BBC]

CNN goes green

As oil hits $143 per barrel the race is on to find new energy resources. Some of these efforts are driven by the wish to reduce environmental impacts. However many countries are only interested in seeking to provide for the ever growing demand for energy. Recently President George Bush proposed an initiative to start off shore drilling to solve the demand for oil and help bring down prices, but in California there is more than 900 million barrels waiting to be pumped from the ground. In California a number of drilling companies have made 4000 applications to start pumping this precious commodity, up from 3000 such applications last year. To drive around parts of Los Angeles it would be difficult to spot these oil drilling operations as many are hidden behind specially constructed buildings, some even disguised as works of art. In the north east of America along the Canadian coast there exists vast oil reserves in the form of bitumen. But processing costs are high and it takes more than 2 tonnes of bitumen saturated sand to obtain 1 barrel of oil. However, more than 1 million barrels of oil are produced every day and production is likely to increase.

CNN has this week started a new series of programmes looking into the worlds demand for energy and at the same time how the world might solve the associated environmental problems. Going Green launched with an insight into some of the efforts made by China to help reduce its carbon footprint, while at the same time providing much needed electricity to its growing economy. John Vause went to the north of the country to investigate the new wind farms springing up across inner Mongolia. The wind blows an almost constant 20 km/h making it an ideal location for such installations. Wang Yong, a local official from the Chayouzhongqi Wind Power Office, has helped to encourage energy companies into the area around Huitengxile. So far wind power only provides 1% of China’s electricity, but this may increase to more than 8% according to Qin Haiyan, secretary general of the Chinese Wind Energy Association.

China is investing heavily into other energy production methods including bio-fuels, solar power and nuclear energy. And according to Christopher Flavin president of the Worldwatch Institute, China’s economic future would be sacrificed if it doesn’t invest in renewable energy sources. But China is already taking steps to secure its economic future. Li Jinglu speaks excitedly of the efforts to produce energy from plants grown in the Mongolian desert. At the Madwasu Psammophile Thermoelectricity Company the burning of biomass is set to provide more than 200 million Kw/h electricity per year, enough for more than an average of 20,000 homes. CNN will be broadcasting special reports all this week with in depth reports on the 5th and 6th of July. Attempts to reduce carbon footprints and reduce the use of oil and coal isn’t pleasing everyone. A report released today suggests that British household could be paying more for their electricity if efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are implemented [BBC]. The EU wants other member states to cut carbon dioxide levels by 20% by the year 2020. At the same time it wishes to raise the proportion of renewable energy they use to 20%. But the report, called Costing the Earth, says UK households may not be able to pay for the higher energy bills. Wind farm initiatives are also under constant attack by some lobby groups who believe they are a ‘blot on the landscape’. But as oil becomes more expensive, governments may have to force through initiatives like wind farms in order to keep up with the constant energy demand.

US - Helicopters collide killing 7

Two helicopters have collided over Arizona killing a reported 7 people. The incident happened near the town of Flagstaff [BBC]. It is the second incident in Arizona this week that has involved medical helicopters. On Friday a medical helicopter crashed near to the town of Prescott. Three were injured in the crash [KPNX-12]. In July 2007 two media helicopters collided killing all four on board [BBC].
On Friday the Guatemalan interior minister Vinicio Gomez was killed when his helicopter went down near to the capital. There has been no explanation as to why the aircraft crashed [BBC].

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mugabe set to be declared 'winner'

Robert Mugabe looks set to win Friday’s run-off election in what has been a campaign of intimidation and violence against the opposition MDC. Even critical comments from other African leaders failed to influence Mugabe who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years. On Wednesday, Nelson Mandela made his first outspoken but brief comment on the Mugabe regime while in a visit to London. He said there had been a “tragic failure of leadership” in the country but his comments have been criticised for not going further. Nonetheless, hes successor, Thabo Mbeki has yet to make any substantial statement on the chaos that has surrounded the Zimbabwe elections [BBC]. Other African leaders have attempted to bring about discussions. Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa has attempted to bring about talks, the governments of Swaziland, Tanzania and Angola have said conditions would not permit a free and fair election, and Jacob Zuma, President of the African National Congress, has described the situation in Zimbabwe as being “out of control”. But in the main African voices have been mute over the continuing crisis [BBC].

Yesterday saw a low turn out across the country with few people on the streets, though the government claims the turn out was high. The few journalists in the country reported that some had been forced to attend polling stations and vote for Mugabe. Others attended voluntarily, but only to obtain the mark on their finger to indicate they had voted and prevent any retribution by Zanu-PF ‘thugs’.

The MDC has sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare and many ordinary Zimbabweans have also sought sanctuary in the relative safety of the South African Embassy in the capital. But for many others their is no sanctuary from the retribution met out for not supporting Robert Mugabe. In addition they live in a country with inflation racing out of control and with unemployment soaring.

There have been harsh words spoken by many world leaders, most notably Gordon Brown, President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But there have only been token actions implemented against the Mugabe government. On Wednesday Robert Mugabe was stripped of his honorary knighthood, but many have asked why it took so long. The honour was removed as a “mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for democracy” according to the Foreign Office [BBC]. And in another token effort to further isolate the Mugabe regime the England and Wales Cricket Board cancelled Zimbabwe's 2009 tour. But these measures are unlikely to affect the thinking, nor the behaviour of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF followers.

Gordon Brown has announced that further sanctions would be put in place, however many British companies have been the subject of criticism for their continued investment in the country. At least 130 Zanu-PF members are named on an EU travel ban, but there are omissions and there have been calls to extend the list further. Opposition leader David Cameron called for companies with investments in the country to “seriously examine their consciences” with regards to their continued trade with the despotic government.

WPP, Unilever, British American Tobacco, Standard Chartered, Old Mutual, Lonrho, Shell, BP and Barclays are just some of the Western companies heavily involved in Zimbabwe and the company Anglo-American is planning to build a platinum mine according to Channel Four News. But the Anglo-American have released a statement saying they will be “reviewing all options surrounding the development of the project”. And because Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he does not wish to further increase poverty in the country for ordinary Zimbabweans, it is unlikely these companies will face any sanctions themselves [al-Jazeera / CNN / Sky News].

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Entwistle sentenced to life imprisonment

Neil Entwistle, found guilty yesterday of murdering his 27 year old wife Rachel and 9 month old daughter Lillian, has been handed a life sentence. Rachel’s step father, Joe Matterazzo, her mother Priscilla and Jerome Souza, Rachel’s brother, all read short statements before the sentence was delivered. All spoke of their loss. The judge told Entwistle he had been found guilty of 1st degree murder and described the crime as “incomprehensible”. She also spoke of the “magnitude of the loss” to the family.
Neil Entwistle sat impassively as the judge read out the two life sentences without possibility of parole. Although the family had asked for consecutive sentences, the judge said this would be only symbolic and instead declared the sentences would run concurrently. Nonetheless, Entwistle will never be released unless any appeal becomes successful [BBC / Sky News]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is China exploiting Africa?

Looking for work at the NFC African Mining company in Zambia

As China continues to invest in the vast African continent there are often questions over whether its role over exploits the people and draws too heavily on the rich resources. But while it is true that China does exploit the continent, the West is also guilty of similar tactics. On the Riz Khan show on al-Jazeera several authors who have written books on the subject gathered to discuss the issues. Between 1998 and 2006 China’s increase in exports from Africa rose by 2126%. And during that time low price goods have been dumped on the continent and, some say, there has been a disregard of human rights and an exploitation of the African workforce. Richard Behar, author of China Storms Africa, has called China’s involvement on the continent as being parasitic. But he says China has copied a business model once the stay of Western countries. He says the West also has to “look in the mirror” when placing any criticism on the communist country. John Afele, author of Digital Bridges, says that one also has to see that Africa has invited China. “China has not invaded with arms” he says. When it comes to natural resources David Shinn pointed out that the US buys more oil from Africa than China. The former US ambassador to Ethiopia said that while China buys more timber and minerals, there was investment and exploitation taking place on both sides. One caller to the programme said that the ‘demonization of China’ was unwarranted given that the West had exploited the continent for many years.

But Richard Behar said while China’s investment “could be the best thing to happen to Africa, it could also be the worst thing to happen to Africa”. He added that China very often did not play the rules on the international playing field. When it comes to intellectual property rights and fake goods, Behar said China ignored international law and added that many of these goods flow through the continent. As a whole China’s trade with Africa is still quite small according to David Shinn. Only 3% of trade is conducted with Africa while the US conduct only 1% of trade with the continent. But he saw the only conflict between the two superpowers in the future would be over oil reserves. When it comes to foreign exchange reserves, China certainly holds all the cards with more than $1.65 trillion at its disposal compared to the reserve of $62 billion from the US.
Behar was highly critical of the environmental impact that China was having on the continent. While it was true that some resources were being harvested by the West, China, he said was taking timber and copper at such a rate that little will be left in five years time. For China, Behar says these extractions of materials were important to “feed the machine” of China’s growing economy and keep unemployment low.

There are also questions over investment in countries with dubious regimes. Zimbabwe and Sudan are two countries are of particular focus. But while China may be criticised with regards investment in these countries, there are many Western companies also operating and investing in the very same territories. On the plus side, China has provided much needed work for many Africans. In Zambia, where many Chinese mining companies excavate for the rich copper supplies, workers can be seen queuing outside the installations every day with the hope of securing work. China is also helping to build roads across the country, putting down miles of tarmac replacing what were once little more than dirt tracks. But despite the investment, there is still criticism. Accidents and industrial pollution has angered many and there have even been riots at some mining companies in disputes over pay and conditions. Some miners at the NFC African Mining company at Chambishi are paid only $100 a month, and many have complained of 'slave labour'. The mine's deputy chief executive, Xu Ruiyong, speaks of "local friends" and says there is a cultural gap [BBC]. It is a gap that may widen if China fails to address some of the issues over which it is often criticised.

Entwistle guilty of murdering wife & child

Neil Entwistle has been found guilty of murdering his wife and daughter. Speaking after the trial District Attorney Gerry Leone condemned Entwistle for the murder which he described as “unspeakable” and “unforgivable”. He went on to praise the trial team who had brought “a fair and just verdict”. He went on to thank the Massachusetts police for their investigation. Joseph Flaherty the family spokesman also thanked everyone who had helped in the trial. Joseph Manterazzo, Rachel’s step-father, thanked the hundreds of well wishers, both in the UK and in the US for their support.
Michael Fabbri, the chief prosecutor in the case, said he and his team had successfully anticipated the defence case but he said the best evidence against Entwistle was the suspect himself.

Entwistle had fled to England after killing his 27 year old wife Rachel and 9 month old daughter Lillian but was subsequently extradited to the US to face trial. In the trial the jury heard how a .22-caliber gun was used to shoot the victims before he left the scene and fled to London. But shortly after his arrival in the UK he was arrested and returned to the US. He now faces a life sentence in a high security prison [Sky News / BBC / CNN / Fox News / Wikipedia] .

China - tourists return to Tibet

Foreign tourists are being allowed to return to Tibet, it was announced today. Tibet Tourism Bureau spokesman, Liao Lisheng told reporters "Tibet is open now to all travellers from home and abroad". On Wednesday the first group of foreign tourists arrived at Lhasa airport, the first such visit since riots swept through the Tibetan capital in March. The relaxing of rules applied to foreign visitors comes nearly three months after local Secretary of the CPC in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, made an announcement that people from all over the world were welcome in the province [BBC / CNN]. Journalists still face restrictions in the province but the Foreign Ministry spokesman,Liu Jianchao said he hoped "reporting trips to Tibet will be arranged as soon as possible when the situation in Tibet further returns to normal".
It is far from normal in the south of the country as tropical storm Fengshen sweeps its way north through Hong Kong and into Guangdong and Jianxi province. The storm, remnants of a cyclone which killed hundreds as it swept through the Philippines, is expected to dissipate over the next 24 hours [CNN / Xinhua].

China is in constant focus by Western media and today the village of Nanjie was the highlight of a report by al-Jazeera. The so-called ‘last communist village in China’ has been the focus of reports before. In 2002 the BBC reported from the small village in Henan province where “Mao's slogan 'to serve the people' is really put into practice here. It's not just empty rhetoric," according to one woman tourist from Chairman Mao's home province of Hunan. But a Communist Party official told Al-Jazeera that corruption was becoming a problem in the idealistic village where residents benefit from free food and healthcare. Wang Hongbin told al-Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, “Corruption is a socialist problem as well as a historical problem, it exists in a capitalist country as well as a socialist country. Whether you use Mao‘s ideology to guide a country‘s people, corruption is inevitable” [video].

In neighbouring Shaanxi province the Olympic torch relay continued its journey towards Beijing. It followed a 9.8 km route through Yuncheng city before heading to Pingyao [Xinhua]. Meanwhile hundreds of TV broadcasters are already beginning to arrive ahead of the August games set to take place in 42 days time [Olympics].

In other news emerging from China two jet fighters have crashed in the north of the country [BBC]. The Jian-8 fighters collided above the suburbs of Hohhot city in Inner Mongolia during a training mission but both pilots are said to have ejected safely according to the BBC which reported the story on its website today [25/06/2008]. It is the second plane crash in the region this month. On Wednesday last week Xinhua reported that 3 people died when a small plane crashed into a hillside. The eight-seat plane, owned by China Flying Dragon Special Aviation Company, was on a mine exploring mission according to the state run news agency.

Tsvangirai seeks talks with Mugabe

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai returned home briefly today after seeking refuge in Dutch embassy since Sunday. But after holding a press conference at his home in Harare he quickly returned to the embassy. During the press briefing he called for UN intervention in Zimbabwe and dismissed the Friday run-off election as a sham. In Britain meanwhile, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been under pressure to increase sanctions against the country. And today critics of the Mugabe regime were handed a small victory of sorts as the government announced Zimbabwe’s cricket team would be barred from playing in England as part of the 2009 tour. The Prime Minister’s spokesman was quoted as saying, "Under the current circumstances it is the Government's view that the tour would clearly be unwelcome." [Sky News / BBC / CNN].

Back in Harare, the MDC leader said he was willing to talk with Robert Mugabe but laid down a number of preconditions. “This country is burning and the only thing to do is to sit down and talk about it” Morgan Tsvangirai said. He said that all the violence must stop and road blocks throughout the country should be removed. He also called on the government to allow humanitarian aid workers to continue their efforts asked that political prisoners be released. Asked if he feared for his own safety, he told al-Jazeera that “everyone was exposed to risk”. The risks were high enough for the MDC leader to return to his refuge at the Dutch embassy.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bloggers under attack from AP

Bloggers are under fire by some news organisations over the use of material gleaned from their websites. Recently the news organisation AP sent a legal notice to Drudge Retort over the use of its stories on the site. On his personal blog, Cadenhead said the issue had been resolved, but the issue has concerned many in the blogosphere over what constitutes fair use [Washington Post]. Tonight the issue was raised on BBC radio four’s flagship programme PM.
The discussion, which has angered many, prompted AP to issue a statement to the BBC. “In response to questions about the use of Associated Press content on the Drudge Retort web site, the AP was able to provide additional information to the operator of the site, Rogers Cadenhead, on Thursday. That information was aimed at enabling Mr Cadenhead to bring the contributed content on his site into conformance with the policy he earlier set for his contributors.
Both parties consider the matter closed. In addition, the AP has had a constructive exchange of views this week with a number of interested parties in the blogging community about the relationship between news providers and bloggers and that dialogue will continue.”

Many have criticized AP for their overzealous attitude to bloggers. The bloggers may often plagiarize journalists, but the relationship between bloggers and journalists is often a symbiotic one, with many reporters turning to the blogs for stories themselves. Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post website says the move by AP is a big mistake. She says the blogosphere is an aggregator of traditional news sources and calls the AP decision "a misreading of the way the blogosphere works". Jeff Jarvis of the Guardian also stood in defence of the bloggers and talked of the democratisation of the internet and the dissemination of truth. But Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said the use of material published by media organisations, even by way of links amounted to the stealing of stories.
But there is an issue of honesty too. One comment left on the BBC website by Tim Grant of Aston University writes about two central issues, one of honesty and the other of ownership. “Writers in the blogosphere, where there are a very large number of writers writing material of relatively little value, tend to place an emphasis on the former. One of the interests of reading blogs is the cross-referencing to sources and other writers with hat-tips etc? They tend however to take little notice of the financial issues associated with writing”. But he says, “For traditional journalism the finances become more important as news acquisition is costly, yet there is relatively little information in news reports as to where information came from ? the ?churnalism? of reproducing press releases as news reports is just one example?” This is very clear when one compares the output of many US websites reporting on foreign stories. There is often little reporting from the ground and many rely on a press agency report released by AP, Reuters or Xinhua. Television reports in contrast give a far different and varied account of the situation in many parts of the world. Aspects of a story that may be reported by Sky News may not be reported by the BBC, and vice versa.
Some bloggers have cynically called for a boycott of AP stories. But the issue is far more serious; 1) The original AP requests are disturbing for anyone who blogs. It should also be a concern for educators who frequently use excerpts from online resources. Sure, there's a different Fair Use line for educators and journalists, but its important to both groups. 2) The AP has been doing this with others before (like Digg) so this exposure is important. 3) The quick retreat by the AP can be seen as a kind of victory for bloggers, and 4) if the AP creates clear guidelines that might be useful. Might. Who said the AP gets to make the rules? 5) Quoting passages from online sources and linking to the original source is key to most blogs. Some blogs are entirely made up of selected items pulled from other sources. If this comes into serious legal question, it changes the fundamentals of blogging [Serendipity]. But some still feel that AP made the right decision [] even if it has initiated a fight from the bloggers themselves [].

UN, UK & US speak out against Mugabe

Following his announcement to pull out from Friday’s run-off election, Morgan Tsvangirai has sought refuge at the Dutch Embassy in Harare. But the Zimbabwe police chief has issued a statement saying the MDC leader was not under any threat despite dozens of arrests at the MDC headquarters and even charges of treason made against prominent leaders [Sky News]. The decision by Tsvangirai effectively hands President Mugabe victory, though his standing down has brought support from many world leaders. Today UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon called the decision by Mr Tsvangirai “understandable” and agreed with many world leaders that the election on Friday would “not be credible”. He said the people of Zimbabwe had a right to live without fear.

“This has implications beyond Zimbabwe’s borders” the UN Secretary General said [BBC]. He asked for other African leaders to make a stand against the regime which have been accused of widespread intimidation, beatings and arrests. Earlier on Monday Condoleezza Rice also spoke out against the Mugabe as did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who said “The whole world sees the regime for what it is”. Jendayi Frazer, the US Assistant Secretary of State, told
CNN that “the world community has to speak with one voice and very loudly”. But despite the rhetoric there has been little firm action stated.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zimbabwe - MDC hand Mugabe election 'victory'

Morgan Tsvangirai has pulled out of the Zimbabwe run-off elections due to take place later this week. The MDC leader said there was no point running when elections would not be free and fair and "the outcome is determined by... Mugabe himself". He also called on the global community to step in to prevent "genocide". But the ruling Zanu-PF said Mr Tsvangirai had taken the decision to avoid "humiliation" in the poll. Following the announcement David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, told Sky News he would be raising the issue with the United Nations on Monday [BBC / CNN / Al Jazeera].

Thousands celebrate solstice at Stonehenge

Up to 30,000 people gathered at Stonehenge in Wiltshire on Saturday to celebrate the summer solstice. Druids, hippies and sun-worshippers were among those who gathered to watch the sun rise at the ancient stone circle at 03:58 GMT [04:58 local time] on the longest day of the year. The rainy conditions obscured the sunrise but it failed to dampen spirits. The turnout was still the highest in five years and despite 17 arrests overnight for public order offences, police said the event was largely peaceful. However there has been criticism following the large amount of rubbish left surrounding the ancient monument [BBC / pictures / Sky News / ITN / CNN / Green & Garden].

Tibet - High security follows Olympic torch

High security followed the torch relay in Lhasa

The Olympic torch made its way through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Saturday but most local residents were kept away. The few people that did watch had been carefully vetted by authorities. The Olympic torch relay followed a 9.3 km route from Norbulingka, originally known as the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, to the Potala Palace, formerly the chief residence of the Dalai Lama. Australian journalist Stephen McDonell said "it was quite bizarre" to watch a controlled crowd smile and wave as the flame arrived at the palace. McDonell said it was obvious that ordinary Tibetans were not allowed to attend. Some Lhasa residents told McDonell they were warned to stay in their homes until the relay ended. Nonetheless the ceremony was colourful and spectacular, McDonell added. The BBC's James Reynolds said there was a staggering security presence in the city, three months after violent protests broke out.

The local general secretary of the Communist party used the event to make a pro-China political statement against the Dalai Lama's government in exile. And one official was quoted as saying,
"the stars of China will forever fly over Tibet and we can smash the Dalai clique." Beijing Olympic officials said 75 of the 156 torchbearers carrying the flame through Lhasa were ethnic Tibetans.

The earthquake that devastated China's Sichuan province last month forced a change in the torch relay schedule, including a reduction from three to just one day the flame's trip through Tibet. The BBC's James Reynolds says there was a staggering security presence in the city, three months after violent protests broke out. Reporters representing about 30 international news organisations have been allowed into the city in a closely monitored group to cover the torch relay which had been delayed following the May 12th earthquake in Sichuan. The offshoot of the Olympic flame that was carried to the peak of Mount Everest last month was reunited with the main flame during Saturday's Lhasa relay [CNN / torch relay map / pictures]. There was similar scenes of high security in Xinjiang only a few days before with many Muslim Uighers apparently told to stay in their homes to watch the procession on their televisions.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Canada - Mystery of feet washed ashore

Police in Canada are puzzled over a number of human feet being washed up on a stretch of beach in Vancouver. Officials have speculated over who the feet may belong to but so far there is no clue as to why there is an increase of feet being washed up. In the past year 6 feet, all in trainers or running shoes, have been washed up, but there have been 4 such discoveries since February this year. This last week alone 2 feet have been found and there are various theories being discussed as to how so many feet have come to be washed up. One theory suggests the feet may have belonged to victims of a plane crash a few years back. Five men were killed in a plane crash off Quadra Island in February 2005 but with six feet now being found this theory has been discounted.

Another hypothesis is the victims may simply be unreported deaths at sea. Other believe the feet may belong to murder victims. Some have also suggested the feet belonged to victims of the 2004 tsunami which struck south Asia. But police and officials are still puzzled and even DNA testing of the human remains have revealed little. Forensic experts say it is not unusual for body parts to become separated after they have been in the water for a long time. Running shoes help to preserve the remains and because the soles are buoyant, the feet are brought to the surface [BBC / Fox 13 / Vancouver Sun / The Province]. Late Thursday there was another twist in the story after police revealed that the latest shoe was a 'hoax' [CNN]. It was in fact a "skeletonized animal paw" which had been placed in a sock and athletic shoe that was packed with dried seaweed, the British Columbia Coroners Service announced.

Floods in China & US destroy staple crops

A world food crisis maybe developing as thousands of acres of staple crops are destroyed by heavy rain. In the midwest of the US, corn and soybean crops have been decimated by torrential rain and flooding that has swept across several states. The US supplies around 52% of the worlds maize, not only as a staple in the human diet, but also for animal feed and more recently as a source of bio-fuel. In China, heavy rain and flooding is also damaging food crops with rice being the worst affected. Earlier in the year heavy snow destroyed tonnes of food crops and recent flooding, affecting many provinces, has compounded the problem. Up to 23,000 square km of crops have been ruined in the key sugar cane and rice growing regions, causing economic losses of 27.7 billion yuan ($4 billion), and have pushed up local food prices.

The price of corn has soared in recent weeks and analysts believe the price may rise further as next years crops may also be affected [BBC]. "There's a lot of wheat fields down here just about ready to be harvested, and they're going to lose all that," Hancock County Sheriff John Jefferson said. "The corn crop, the bean crop that's up, is all going to be lost. And the real work's going to come after the flood recedes. It'll take years to get this ground back into shape to farm it" he added [CNN / Bloomberg].

The UN has already has put forward plans to increase world food supplies [BBC]. Recent reports suggest prices for other staples such as wheat and oil seed may rise significantly over the next few years and the cost of meat will also increase as animal feed becomes more expensive [BBC / CNN money]. Flooding has also hit India with the monsoon season hitting the continent earlier than usual [IHT]. But in contrast to the devastation caused elsewhere, the heavy rain is believed to help boost the harvest of crops such as soy and oilseed [Reuters].

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Drinking coffee "extends life" study says

Coffee drinkers may be rejoicing after newly released research suggested the popular beverage may extend life. The research suggests that drinking coffee, even in large amounts, might help you live longer. Coffee drinkers in the study had slightly lower death rates than non-coffee drinkers over time, whether their drink of choice had caffeine or not. However, the findings do not prove that coffee is protective, but they strongly suggest that drinking coffee in large amounts is not harmful if you are healthy, researcher Esther Lopez-Garcia, Ph.D., of the University of Madrid, told WebMD.Among women, drinking two to three cups of coffee a day was associated with an 18 percent reduction in death from all causes, while drinking four to five cups was associated with a 26 percent reduction in risk. The risk reduction in men was smaller and could have been due to chance.
"We can't say from this one study that coffee extends your life, but it does appear that it doesn't increase the risk for death for people who are healthy," she said.There have been several studies on the health benefits for coffee with some linking regular consumption to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even health conditions like Parkinson's disease and colon cancer. But there are others who suggest drinking caffeinated coffee increased risk for heart attack and stroke in people who already have heart disease. The American Heart Association says much of the evidence is conflicting. Coffee appears to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, cirrhosis of the liver and gout, but increases the risk of acid reflux and associated diseases. Other studies have linked the drinking of coffee with higher cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, though these risks are more associated with the caffeine content [Coffee and health / CBS].

Shell drivers get inflation busting pay rise

The director of Hoyer, Bernie Holloway, has said he struck a 14% deal over 2 years with tanker drivers [Sky News]. The pay deal ended the threat of further strike action by tanker drivers who deliver fuel for the Shell oil company. The deal came at a time of the worst banking crisis in living memory and as inflation rose towards 4% [BBC]. Speaking a day after consumer inflation jumped to the highest level in 10 years Chancellor Alistair Darling said that there is "no doubt" the UK economy is slowing and has warned it will be a "difficult year" ahead. Rising food and fuel prices were also hitting consumers, he told the BBC. The pay deal offered to the tanker drivers have increased fears that other unions may demand pay increases for their members. The four day strike brought widespread fuel shortages across the country with many motorists ignoring government advice not to panic buy.

Afghanistan - 4 British soldiers killed

Four British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan after a roadside bomb hit their convoy. One other soldier was injured in the explosion and is believed to be in a stable condition. It brings the total number of British dead in the Afghan war to 106. Earlier this week British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the troops serving in Afghanistan. He also spoke of increasing the numbers of troops in the country to fight in the continuing battle against the Taleban. The Prime Minister also commended those who had died recently in the country talking of their "bravery, dedication and professionalism". After the latest deaths, Gordon Brown released a statement saying "I would like to express my deepest condolences to the families of the four brave British soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and will be deeply mourned. They were in the most dangerous of jobs in the most difficult of circumstances. I salute, not just their bravery, dedication and professionalism, but that of all our armed forces. Our troops are the best in the world and fighting for the noblest of causes."

Defence Secretary Des Brown also released a statement after the latest losses. "We've had a very difficult time over the last 10 days. We've lost nine soldiers altogether in three separate incidents" he said. But he insisted the Taleban were being defeated. "The Taleban are losing in Afghanistan, I know it may not appear like that at the moment, but we are enjoying a degree of success" he said. Amongst those killed on Tuesday afternoon was the first woman to die in the war which has been raging for nearly 7 years [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

Iraq has also seen a recent upsurge in violence. Yesterday a car bombing killed at least 51 and injured 75 in the north west of the capital Baghdad [CNN]. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed it on "the defeated remnants of terrorism" and called it an attempt to revive the sectarian warfare that wracked the country for more than a year. The US military blamed the blast on rogue Shia Muslim militia. US spokesman Lt Col Steve Stover said the attack was carried out by a "special group" led by Haydar Mehdi Khadum al-Fawadi.

Despite Prime Minister Maliki downplaying the bombing, attacks continue throughout the country almost daily. However, incidents are rarely reported unless they are of particular significance. On Tuesday there were several other attacks but none were reported on television news reports. In Mosul gunmen killed Iraqi journalist Muhieddin Abdul Hamid, an anchor for state TV's Nineveh channel. He was shot in a drive-by shooting outside his house. And in Baquba at least 18 people were wounded when a car bomb detonated near a police checkpoint. But there were also unreported successes. Four "suspected terrorists" were killed in an American-led coalition raid aimed at breaking up an al Qaeda in Iraq bombing network. Coalition troops approached a building in Mosul and ordered people there to surrender. The four militants were killed when they refused, according to the US military.
The numbers killed across the country also showed signs of optimism. Some 500 Iraqis were killed in May, compared with more than 1,000 in April. Coalition losses also dropped with only 19 US soldiers killed in May, the lowest monthly figure since the conflict began [BBC]. Nonetheless the casualty figures for the five year war still make grim reading. The US have lost 4,101 while the British have lost 176 in the conflict. Other coalition members have collectively lost 137 in the country[]. In Afghanistan the figures are not so high but are still sobering. While the US has lost the most number of troops, now standing at 521, the British have also paid a high price as have some other coalition countries. As British losses exceed one hundred, Canada is also mourning the death of 85 of its troops [].

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More data losses as minister's laptop is stolen

In a week that has already seen the misplacing of top secret documents on a train the British government has come under fire after it was revealed that a laptop containing sensitive information was stolen from the constituency office of Hazel Blears [BBC ]. According to the BBC there were documents relating to defence and extremism on the computer and an inquiry has been launched.
On Sunday the Independent newspaper revealed that documents had been handed to them which revealed highly sensitive information about the government’s war on terror [BBC / CNN / Sky News]. The revelation came within a week that the BBC was handed documents of a similar nature that had also been left on the same train. Besides the civil servant being suspended and previous assurances by the government that it would tighten rules over classified information, there are repeated examples that these measures are not working. In April it was revealed that an MoD laptop was stolen from an army captain while he was eating in a McDonalds restaurant [BBC] and in January the Defence Secretary Des Brown told an astonished House of Commons that there had been two MoD laptops stolen between 2005 and 2008 [BBC]. Last year several CD ROM discs went missing in the post with the loss of details of 25 million British citizens.
Last week David Davis stood down from his position as Shadow Home Secretary to force a debate on the governments erosion of civil liberties and the promotion of a data base state. In part he was prompted by the governments inability to safeguard the information they already retain about the population. But for governments who share intelligence information with Britain there will be heightened concerns over how securely it is being kept. Surprisingly the issue was not brought up in Monday’s press conference when George W Bush and Gordon Brown stood side by side resolute in their committment in fighting the ongoing war on terror. Meanwhile a top terror suspect, Abu Qatada, often seen as al Qaeda’s representative in Europe, is to be released on bail within the next 24 hours [BBC].

More than 100 dead in China floods

China is suffering from yet another natural disaster in a year that was supposed to have brought good luck. Amongst many Chinese the number 8 is supposed to bring luck and good fortune, but 2008 has only brought misery to millions. In a year that has stranded millions of migrant workers in snow, brought riots in several provinces, a troubled Olympic torch relay and a devastating earthquake which killed near to 100,000 people, China is now struggling to deal with torrential rain and flooding. At least 20 provinces have been hit by the heavy downpours and more than 67,000 homes have been destroyed. Sichuan province, which has already suffered from a massive earthquake, is now seeing widespread flooding and in Guangdong more than 20 are reported dead with at least 100 reported killed across the rest of the country. More than a million have been displaced since the heavy rain began a week ago and more rain is forecast [CNN / BBC / Xinhua].

Bush returns to US after UK visit

George Bush has flown back to the US after his last European tour as president [BBC]. On his last stop in Northern Ireland he spoke to members of the Irish assembly including Sinn Fein representative Martin McGuinness, once considered a terrorist and member of the IRA. But there were broad smiles as Bush stepped out for an impromptu statement to waiting reporters. President Bush said they had talked about efforts made towards devolution and investment in the country. “Northern Ireland is a success story, but there is obviously a lot more work to be done” he said. But the president was generally upbeat saying, "This is a good place for investment. Ultimately investment will help NI reach its full potential". Peter_Robinson and Martin McGuinness also thanked President Bush and the United States for helping to promote investment in Northern Ireland. Martin McGuinness said the Economic Investment Conference would help increase investment and with it reduce unemployment within Northern Ireland.

Before the president arrived in Northern Ireland he had a long discussion with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at Downing Street. In a press conference following that meeting at the Foreign Office, Gordon Brown spoke once again of the “shared values” that existed between the two countries, referring to it as what Churchill called the “joint inheritance of an English speaking world”. He went on to thank George W Bush as being a true friend of Britain and for the United States’ partnership in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also thanked President Bush and the United States for the “huge role” they had played in the Northern Ireland peace process. Iran’s nuclear ambitions had also been one of the main topics of conversation during talks between the two leaders. But the issue of promoting democracy was also high on the agenda. They talked at length about the continuing problems in Zimbabwe and also of Myanmar, referred to by its colonial name Burma by the Prime Minister. But while no action was suggested over solving problems in Zimbabwe and Myanmar, Gordon Brown said he would send more troops to Afghanistan to help the fight against the Taleban. With regards Iran, the Prime Minister spoke of increasing the pressure on the country including the freezing of assets and imposing gas and fuel sanctions [BBC].

President Bush was far more relaxed in his address to the assembled media. After the preamble of gratuities and thanks, George Bush went on to thank Gordon Brown’s tough policy on terrorism. He insisted the threat had not gone and appreciated the ongoing focus by the British PM. The continuing fight in Afghanistan and Iraq was “necessary for the sake of peace and our security” the President said. He went on to the subject of HIV and malaria in Africa and criticised other G8 member states for not fulfilling their commitments. On the subject of climate change, George Bush once again called on China and India to increase their efforts to curb output of greenhouse gases. But back home the supposed effects of climate change were being strongly felt in many parts of the US where flooding and heavy rainfall has devastated many areas.
[BBC / CNN]. And the flooding is also affecting world markets as corn crops are destroyed. Not only do the crops provide the food industry, but there is now an increased reliance on maize for bio fuels and for animal feed. The destruction of millions of acres of corn has put the price up by more than 90% over the year. The US supplies more than 54% of the world’s maize and the losses will only add to the food crisis already developing world wide [BBC].

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bush has tea with Queen & beef with PM

George Bush visited Britain today in as part of his last European tour as president. Arriving at Heathrow he and his wife Laura stepped from Air Force One waving to the assembled media. The President and his wife, who wearing a bright turquoise outfit, was then flown by Marine One to Windsor Castle to meet with Queen Elizabeth II. After tea with the Queen the party was back in the air back to central London where he was due to meet with Gordon Brown.
His visit brought out around 3,000 anti-war protesters under the umbrella of the ‘Stop the War Coalition’. However many groups used the opportunity to air their differing causes.
There were a few clashes between protesters but the protest passed of generally peacefully though 13 arrests were made. Sky News and the BBC both broadcast Live pictures from the front line of the protest group which was kept well back from Downing Street. Lines of police backed up by riot police and van stretched across the entire width of Whitehall. One protester told Sky’s Ashish Joshi that it was important for people to come out and protest whilst they still could and spoke of her “fear of a police state developing in this country”. Another demonstrator meanwhile held a banner in camera shot which read 'google Architects and Engineers for 9/11'. But as George Bush and Laura, now wearing a peach outfit, stepped from their cavalcade into Downing Street they saw little of the protests. After posing for photographs with Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah they entered No. 10 where they dined tonight. Bush looked relaxed as he jostled a rather wooden Gordon Brown into position for the photographers.
Formal talks will start on Monday [BBC], but he has already given an Exclusive interview with Sky News where he spoke about the War on Terror and the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was asked by Adam Bolton whether he’d make a special effort to catch Osama bin Laden. He evaded the main thrust of the question but said he would like to see him caught. He added that hr regretted saying he wanted Osama “dead or alive” early on in his ingoing War on Terror. “It makes it look like I like war which I don’t”, he said, but excused himself due to its being unscripted. “I was just speaking my mind, but I shouldn’t of said it” he added. He insisted he had “not sacrificed his core principles” in order to obtain popularity throughout his presidency. After feasting on smoked salmon followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the President and the first lady left Downing Street shortly before 10 pm still well out of sight of the few remaining demonstrators.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

At least 6 die in Japan quake

At least six people have died in the earthquake that struck northern Japan early Saturday morning. The earthquake was initially measured at 6.9 by the USGS but later upgraded to 7.2 on the Richter scale. A further after shock measuring 5.5 also struck the area less than an hour after the initial tremor which triggered landslides in the rural mountainous region of Honshu. Military helicopters have ferried the inured to hospitals and officials are checking a nuclear power station for damage after a small amount of radioactive water leaked from the facility at Fukushima. An earthquake last year in central Japan caused a small radioactive leak from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said, "Our most important task is to save as many lives as possible, and we are doing the best we can." At least 140 have been injured in the earthquake and rescuers are continuing to pull others from rubble of fallen buildings and landslides [BBC / CNN].

Space Shuttle Discovery lands safely

The Space Shuttle Discovery has made a safe landing at Kennedy Space Center despite losing a clip which had been attached to the rudder. On Friday, Discovery's astronauts spotted something floating away from their spaceship that turned out to be a small metal clip which broke off the spacecraft. But engineers decided within four hours that its absence posed no danger for re-entry. During the shuttle's mission, it installed a $1bn-Japanese-built laboratory, which is now the space station's biggest room and most sophisticated science workshop. A new pump was also delivered to fix the only toilet on board the ISS [BBC].

Japan hit by 6.9 magnitude quake

The earthquake was 390 km north of Tokyo [39.106N, 140.608E]

A large earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale has struck northern Japan. The tremor hit the island at 08:43 local time on Saturday [23:43 GMT]. There have been no immediate reports of damage or injuries, however authorities have shut down high-speed rail links and some highways have also been closed [CNN / BBC]. There has been at least one major aftershock striking within 20 km of the first earthquake. The area is relatively rural though populated areas are only 3 km from the epicentre.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fuel tanker strike starts in UK

A picket at Shell Haven in Essex

Motorists face a difficult week after tanker drivers transporting fuel for Shell walked out in a dispute over pay. Tanker drivers had threatened industrial action earlier this week and demanded a 13% pay rise which would take their current average wage from £32,000 to nearly £39,000 per annum. But talks between management at Hoyer UK, the tanker firm, and the unions failed resulting in a four day stoppage. While only 600 tanker drivers have walked out and only 1 in 10 petrol stations would be directly affected there have already been signs of panic buying by motorists. Shell stations are already seeing the effects as some pumps run dry. At some distribution centres pickets have successfully dissuaded other tanker drivers from picking up fuel. And to compound things further there is talk of a repeat of strike action next Friday if the drivers’ demands are not met. Suggestions that the tanker drivers are greedy in asking for such a large pay increase are dismissed by the drivers themselves who say they do a dangerous job. The strike is set to end on Tuesday morning [BBC / Sky News].

Thursday, June 12, 2008

China imposes reporting restrictions in quake zone

Reporting bad news is becoming very difficult in China

Britain may be concerned over its freedoms but half way round the world in China there are increased concerns that the country is flouting regulations set out by the International Olympic Committee. Rules set out in the charter say that China must allow the free movement of journalists and allow them to interview anyone who consents. But as tears melt away into anger on the ground in Sichuan province, authorities are taking a hard stance against foreign reporters attempting to cover increased numbers of protests. Many of the protests, initiated by parents who have lost their only child, centre on the the allegation that school buildings were sub-standard in their construction and that corruption had a part to play. Some have organised petitions and attempted to force courts to take on their concerns. But as reporters attempt to cover the story, police and army troops have been accused of violence, destroying journalistic materials, detaining reporters, harassing sources and staff, intercepting communications and denying access to public areas. Shortly after the earthquake many Western journalists descended on the area hit by the magnitude 8.0 tremor and were largely unimpeded. But in the last few weeks foreign correspondents have voiced concerns over heavy handed tactics employed by the police.
On June 5th police barred filming, then detained a three-person crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for three hours after the journalists attempted to report from outside the barricaded grounds of the Juyuan middle school, where many students died in the May 12 earthquake. A journalist, cameraman and local producer were attempting to film outside the school when police, who were blocking access to the school, told them to stop filming and asked for their passports. The group was not carrying their passports and had been unable to get new press credentials issued by Sichuan provincial authorities for the earthquake zone. They were told to wait for a superior officer at the scene, and when they attempted to leave the school after about an hour, were taken to the local police station for questioning. ABC journalist Stephen McDonell said the police rejected their assertions about the new Olympics reporting rules, telling the journalists that those were "legislative rules" from Beijing, but that the Communist Party offices in Chengdu had to issue separate press cards for earthquake areas. The Chengdu office, McDonell said, told ABC that June press cards were not yet available. The team was also warned not to try and enter so-called "traffic control" areas, which, they were told, apply not only to cars but also to unsanctioned parties travelling by foot or other means. After writing a ‘self-criticism’ and promising to follow the rules, the team was released.

The day before, two Dutch reporters from Radio Netherlands were prevented from entering Dujiangyan. Police told the reporters they could not enter the city because “the situation was very fierce.” A reporter and photographer from Kyodo News were also confronted on June 3rd as they were covering a story on parents who were trying to file a lawsuit over the deaths of students at a collapsed school. About ten policemen surrounded the photographer, grabbed him by his arms, and took him into a courthouse. Several minutes later authorities pulled the reporter away from the crowd and took him into the courthouse. A local government official told the journalists they were not under arrest, but were being taken inside the courthouse for their own safety. They were later released. The same day police detained a reporter and photographer from Associated Press and told them not to cover protests by parents who lost children in the May 12 earthquake. Reporter Cara Anna and photographer Ng Han Guan arrived around 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse in Dujiangyan, where parents were protesting shoddy school construction. Police grabbed their arms and pulled them up the stairs of the courthouse. They were taken to the lobby to wait for officials from the local government's Foreign Affairs Office. The official arrived and lectured the journalists not to cover such protests. And at a meeting of bereaved parents police forcibly removed a Christian Science Monitor correspondent and his Chinese assistant. Several riot police, one regular police officer and a man in plain clothes pushed and shoved correspondent Peter Ford and his assistant out of the meeting which took place on June 2nd. They were told it was a “special moment” and had to leave "for their own safety". The reporting team re-entered the meeting 20 minutes later. But soon after police returned and told Ford, “This area is under police control, you must leave immediately.”

There have also been a few reports of journalists being intimidated soon after the earthquake. On May 15th Jonathan Watts of Britain's Guardian newspaper said military personnel working in Niufei Village, Pingwu County,told his reporting team they were not allowed to video the soldiers en-route to a school buried in a landslide. "I told them they should be proud of what they are doing, and they should let the people know," Watts said, "But they confiscated a video tape, deleted some photographs, and told us to leave." In Mianyang the next day, Watts was obstructed by police from entering a refugee camp, although he said domestic journalists appeared to have unfettered access. And two days later, he was held up at a checkpoint near Zipingpu dam by a soldier who claimed he was under orders to prevent foreigners from entering "because spies had infiltrated the area." On other occasions Watts said he received unprecedented cooperation from security personnel, including rides in trucks and on speedboats. "It was a mixture. In a single day you could experience refreshing openness and a feeling of shared humanity. Then, straight after, the same old frustrating restrictions and suspicion of foreigners that was normal in the past," he said. "Overall, my encounters with police and troops were more positive than at any time before. But it seemed to depend on the individual rather than the result of any change of policy."

Nonetheless, it is clear that while China is beginning to open up in a way that would have been unheard of 20 or even 10 years ago, the paranoia existing amongst officials over the reporting of bad news stories still exists. It is clear that while reporting from China is far less difficult than in the past, there is a broad rather than a thin red line that reporters should not cross. Obtaining a J visa, issued only to accredited journalists working for officially recognised companies, is difficult enough. Obtaining permission to travel outside of Beijing is even more difficult. Sometimes journalists working for large organisations take the risk and set off to where the story is. But the news is stifled by the rigorous intervention of the state which continues to prevent free movement of the press [FCC China].

David Davis resigns in protest of eroded freedoms

David Davis standing in defence of freedom

It is less than 24 hours since the Labour government won a victory in passing new anti-terror laws, but the fall out has already begun. As the votes were being cast it emerged that highly sensitive documents were mislaid on a train by a civil servant. The papers related to top secret intelligence information on al Qaeda. After being found by a passenger they were handed to the BBC and they in turn passed them to police. But despite the official being suspended from his post there are increased concerns over the ability of the government to protect sensitive information [BBC].

As ministers were reeling from this news, David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary handed in his resignation in protest of the new 42 detention rules for terror suspects. Speaking outside parliament he said the Labour government had blatantly and consistently eroded the civil liberties of British citizens. “This Sunday is the anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document which guarantees that most fundamental of British freedoms; Habeas Corpus, the right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason” he said, “But yesterday the House decided to allow the state to lock up potentially innocent people for up to 6 weeks without charge”. This, he said “represented a slow strangulation of fundamental freedoms”. Along with the intrusive use of CCTV, proposals of a DNA database, ID cards, assaults on the jury trial system, David Davis said the new laws further added to the database state. He also criticised the way such information was handled saying that there were risks of the information leaking via “careless civil servants and computer hackers”. He finished by saying that he would resign from the House and force a by-election in protest against the “slow strangulation of fundamental freedoms by this government and the ever intrusive power of the state into our lives”. While the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, said the decision by Mr Davis was a personal one, he said it was a “brave and courageous one”. He added that he agreed that with Mr Davis on the principals of freedom within Great Britain [BBC / Sky News].

Meanwhile three people who had stood trial for withholding information connected with the 21/7 terror attacks in 2005 have been sentenced to a total of 35 years in prison. The wife of attempted bomber Hussain Osman was jailed for 15 years for failing to tell police about his plot to attack London. The Old Bailey heard that Yeshi Girma, 32, of Stockwell, south London, knew of Osman's plan to set off a bomb at Shepherd's Bush Tube station. She had also helped Osman flee from London. Her brother Esayas Girma, 22, and sister Mulu Girma, 24, who also aided Osman, were jailed for 10 years [BBC].

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Govt wins 42 day terror detention

The new powers will add to already controversial stop & search powers

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has narrowly won a House of Commons vote on extending the maximum time police can hold terror suspects to 42 days. Some 37 Labour MPs joined forces with Conservative and Liberal Democrats to vote against the proposals. However, it was not enough to defeat the plan which proponents of the bill claim is needed to deal with complex terror plots. It was passed by 315 MPs to 306 votes [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

UK Govt seeks 42 day terror detention

An almost empty parliament today discussed a proposed increase of detention of terrorist suspects. The highly controversial bill aims to increase the current 28 day detention of terror suspects to 42 days. The detainment would result in suspects being held without charge and without access to what evidence has been made against the individuals concerned. The Conservative Party has been critical of the bill and safeguards contained within the bill. But Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, rebuffed these criticisms saying, “the safeguards that have been put forward are sufficient”. While he conceded there was “no evidence to support a permanent extension to 42 days” he said the committee had voted by 11 to 1 that in the future there may be a need to extend the length of detention given extenuating circumstances, such as a state of emergency. However, Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, said that the definition of a state of emergency was “extremely vague”. There was also strong opposition to the bill from the Labour ranks too. Hackney North MP Diane Abbott said the bill would further divide the Muslim community while Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s Islington North MP, suggested that the 42 day extension would lead to further extensions being called for in the future.

Chris Huhne the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesman, described the safeguards as “feeble” and said the bill would act as “a recruiting sergeant for extremists”. Aside of this the Liberal Democrat MP said the detention of suspects which turned out to be innocent would result in many ruined lives. If you were picked up by the police under this act, “What would your employer think? What would your family think?” he said. Many might think, “There is no smoke without fire!”

Many have specifically criticised the Civil Contingencies Act saying that safeguards did not go far enough to protect an individuals rights. And while it was only an “emergency temporary provision” Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis said “we do not defend our liberty by sacrificing our liberties”.

But Keith Vaz was insistent that the new powers were needed and did not specifically target certain groups in society. “I would not be voting for this if I felt they [the ethnic minority population] were going to be disproportionately affected” the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said.

Police have claimed that, under the existing law allowing 28 days' detention before charge, they almost ran out of time to investigate two suspects over the failed plane plot at Heathrow in August 2006. But the pressure group Liberty told the BBC it had learned that the evidence used to charge the suspects had been obtained at four and 12 days respectively. Parliament is set to vote on the matter later today [BBC / Sky News].

123 survive Sudan plane crash

Officials have said 28 people died in yesterday’s plane crash at Khartoum airport. However 53 people are still unaccounted for following the disaster which happened as the Airbus A310 came into land in bad weather. Despite the severity of the crash 123 people are known to have survived. The Sudan Airways flight had flown from Jordan's capital Amman via Damascus, landing in Khartoum at around 20:00 [17:00 GMT]. TV footage showed the wreckage consumed by flames as emergency crews tried to fight the fire in the darkness. The cause of the incident is still unknown and investigations are continuing [BBC / CNN]

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Plane crashes in Sudan killing 100

A Sudan airways plane has crashed and burst into flames killing up to 100 people at Khartoum airport. The aircraft was carrying 203 people plus 14 crew and exploded as it came into land overshooting the runway. Most were believed to be Sudanese nationals. John Ukec, the Sudanese Ambassador to the US, said it was unclear what the cause of the crash was. The plane came into land in bad weather which may have been contributory cause. According to some reports 13 of the 14 crew survived the disaster [CNN]. Earlier today a light aircraft also crashed in Kenya killing four including a Cabinet minister and an assistant minister [CNN].

Monday, June 09, 2008

China increases security & visa rules

Keeping a watchful eye: Foreigners have been warned

Anyone who has recently applied for a Chinese visa recently will have noticed more complex forms and red tape getting in their way to obtaining permission to visit China. Everyday hundreds can be seen queuing outside Chinese Embassies attempting to obtain their visa. But recently new forms and regulations have further complicated the procedure and created delays and frustrations for thousands. In addition, BOCOG, the Beijing Olympic organising committee, have issued a nine page document outlining security measures and restrictions on the movements and behaviour of foreigners.

In order to obtain a visa each applicant must provide confirmation of hotel bookings and flights. Further problems exist if staying with friends or relatives with letters and copies of ID cards being required. But after arrival in Beijing, foreigners are warned to watch their step. In the 57 page document which surfaced on the official website, details are laid out which cover everything from protests to a list of restricted items. The rules and regulations entitled "A guide to Chinese law for Foreigners coming to, leaving or staying in China during the Olympics" only appears on the Chinese version of the site. There was no equivalent version on the English side of the site.
The guide says Olympic ticket holders "still need to visit China embassies and consulates and apply for visas according to the related rules." The authorities also hope to keep out protesters and state, "In order to hold any public gathering, parade or protest the organizer must apply with the local police authorities. No such activity can be held unless a permit is given. ... Any illegal gatherings, parades and protests and refusal to comply are subject to administrative punishments or criminal prosecution." The document also warns against the display of insulting slogans or banners at any sports venue. The guidelines seem to clash with a pledge made two month ago by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who said athletes could exercise freedom of speech in China. He asked only that athletes refrain from making political statements at certain official Olympics venues. "Freedom of expression is something that is absolute," Rogge said in Beijing in April. "It's a human right. Athletes have it" [CNN].

The rules published Monday say entry will be denied to those "who might conduct acts of terrorism, violence and government subversion ... and those who might engage in activities endangering China's national security and national interest." Foreigners staying with Chinese residents in urban areas must register at a local police station within 24 hours of arriving. The limit in rural areas is 72 hours. And a warning to anyone thinking of setting a Chinese flag alight. The guide also threatens criminal prosecution against anyone "who burns, defaces ... insults or tramps on the national flag or insignia." [Google translation]

Evacuations follow Greek earthquake

Authorities have evacuated three villages in south west Greece following Sunday’s earthquake which killed at least 2 people and injured more than 200 [CNN]. On Monday seismologists warned a strong aftershock was expected. Yesterday’s earthquake measured at 6.5 on the Richter scale and struck around midday near to the port of Patras, 200 km from Athens [BBC]. More than 200 houses were damaged or entirely flattened in the tremor. Dozens of aftershocks have been reported but so far nothing on the scale of yesterday’s quake. The major archaeological site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, was undamaged. The government has said it will pay for the reconstruction of destroyed homes and pledged up to €13,000 ($20,000) to those whose homes suffered severe damage. Many of the affected areas were at the heart of last August's devastating forest fires, which killed 66 people and burnt hundreds of homes.

Meanwhile troops in China are continuing to battle against time as water levels rise in one of the so called quake lakes. By early Monday, the water level was more than 2 metres higher than the man-made channel created to ease the problem. Soldiers are using anti-tank weapons to blast away rocks and mud to prevent the water from getting to the channel. Experts have warned that the lake could burst at any time, flooding the homes of more than one million people. Already over a quarter of a million people have been evacuated from the path of potential floods. Latest government figures put the quake death toll at 69,136 with another 17,686 people missing [BBC / CNN].

UK death toll hits 100 in Afghan war

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has paid tribute to the courage of British troops in Afghanistan, as the death toll rose to 100. "They have paid the ultimate price, but they have achieved something of lasting value" the PM said. Yesterday three soldiers on foot patrol were killed in a suicide attack in Helmand province. The men were serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. Of the 100 personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001, 74 have died as a result of hostile action [BBC / Sky News].

Japan reels after knife man kills 7

Tomohiro Kato is arrested by police

Japan is reeling over an attack by a man who was “fed up with life” and left 7 dead. Twenty-five year-old Tomohiro Kato drove into a crowd of people at a busy intersection before leaping from the hired truck and stabbing a number of others. Aside of the seven dead at least ten others were injured in the attack which came on the anniversary of a similar incident in an Osaka school in 2001. Japan is often considered to be one of the safest countries in the world when it comes to violent crime, but over the past few years there have been several instances where individuals have ‘snapped’ and targeted innocent members of the public. In January this year, a 16 year old school boy armed with two kitchen knives injured several people on a crowded shopping street in Tokyo's Shinagawa district. The latest attack has prompted calls for tighter legislation on the sales and possession of knives. At a news conference on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said the government was considering tightening restrictions on large-bladed knifes in response to the attack. "We need to think of the possibility of discussing tightening the control of guns and knives," he told reporters. Sunday’s attack occurred in Tokyo's Akihabara shopping district which is popular with tourists. It is known for its shops specializing in comics and electronic products [BBC / CNN / Japan Today].