Saturday, March 28, 2009

Terrorism and protests threaten G20

More than 30,000 protesters took to London’s streets on Saturday ahead of the G20 Summit scheduled for next week. Numbers were far fewer than expected with many being put off by cold, wet and windy conditions. Those that did join the procession were vocal in their protest which took them past Parliament to a rally in Hyde Park.
Dozens of different groups were represented under the banner of “Put People First”. Environmental groups were joined by anti-capitalists and anarchists. There were also church groups and those opposed to nuclear proliferation. The mixed messages were reflected by the sea of differing placards suggesting that “capitalism isn’t working” to a call for “Jobs not Bombs”.
The protest was the top story on both the BBC and Sky News though coverage remained scant. Policing was low profile and there was no sign of violence which some media reports suggested might occur.

The picture may well change next week when hundreds of anti-capitalist protestors are expected to descend on the City. With calls to “storm the banks” and “eat the bankers” anarchists and other groups are expected to try and create widespread disruption. However, some anarchists have claimed that while they want to disrupt the G20 Summit and the workings of the City, it was not their intention to be violent. Daisy, 19, an anarchist behind some of the literature told the Guardian, "This is politics. We're using symbols of oppression in an artistic way. It doesn't make us terrorists."

But the police are treating the threats of violence far more seriously. City workers have been told to “dress down” and even to leave expensive cars at home [Daily Mail / City of London Police]. The Metropolitan Police are also well prepared. Plans have been drawn up, police overtime has been cancelled and 3,000 extra police have been drafted in from other forces. All this is costing the British tax payer an estimated £7 million [Guardian].

Most of the concern in the build up to the G20 surrounds the potentially violent protests. There has been little or no discussion as to a potential terrorist attack. According to the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, there is no specific terrorist threat aimed at disrupting the G20 Summit. However, the terror threat remains “severe” and she has conceded that the Summit would be a prime target for terrorists. Large scale demonstrations would act as perfect cover for a terrorist intending to launch a much talked about Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear attack. Such an incident would also create a logistical nightmare for the authorities and security services [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UK terror threat growing, govt says

"The threat of a serious terrorist attack on Britain has grown"

British Home Secretary has put forward plans to train workers in hotels, airports and supermarkets as part of its ongoing anti-terrorism strategy. During a debate in parliament on Wednesday, Jacqui Smith thanked the hard work already done by the security services in helping to keep Britain safe, “We’ve disrupted more than a dozen terrorist plots in the UK” Jacqui Smith, British Home Secretary, told MPs as she laid out plans to increase the annual anti-terrorism budget to more than £3.5 Billion by 2011. She said the key strategy in fighting terrorism was to Pursue, Prevent, Protect & Prepare. But she insisted that while the government was making every effort to thwart the terrorists, the UK government was “against torture and extra-ordinary rendition”.

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, was supportive of the general effort to battle terrorism but was critical of the implementation of the government’s initiative. He said that anti-terror training of shopping centre staff as part of Project Argus amounted to a 3 hour seminar including a coffee break. The Conservative MP said that some stores he his office had contacted knew nothing about plan except for reports in papers [BBC].

Jacqui Smith was defensive of the project and insisted that 700 programs had been carried out and more than 30,000 individuals had been trained.

She also came under fire for failing to compensate those injured in terrorist attacks abroad. Ian McCartney, a Labour MP, talked of some 200 British citizens who had been killed abroad and more than 150 maimed. Asking why there was no specific compensation for such victims, Jacqui Smith said she understood his impassioned statement and added, “I will talk to colleagues about that”.

The risk from terrorism exists not only abroad, but much is exported back to Britain. Sky News today reported that some 20 extremists had returned to the UK after being trained in Pakistan. Sky said that many more radicalised individuals, possibly hundreds, could be following them. It has prompted US authorities to carry out surveillance on British Muslims living in the UK [Sky News].

The types of attacks that might be perpetrated was mainly focused on CBRNE, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear & Explosive [BBC / Sky News / CNN]. But former Home Secretary David Blunkett raised the risk of a potential cyber-attack. He said that such attacks, seen recently in places like Estonia, could even threaten lives as well as the financial stability of Britain. Jacqui Smith said that the cyber-security was a concern and that there was “work going on in government”.

“We must ensure we are safe in the virtual world as we are in the real world” the Home Secretary added.

Some MPs were concerned as to how the terrorist initiatives were affecting the lives of ordinary people. While Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne applauded efforts to thwart terrorism, he asked why citizens were being continually intimidated by police for otherwise law-abiding activities.

Kerry McCarthy, Labour Bristol East, also criticised the arbitrary use of such powers. Smith insisted that “guidance was given to police”. But there is growing anger amongst some members of the public who are seeing their rights eroded. A trainspotter was recently banned from Macclesfield station in Cheshire after Virgin Trains deemed him a security risk [BBC]. Natioanl Express have also put plans in place to ban trainspotters from its East Coast line, again citing security concerns. One disgruntled man told a London paper, "Trainspotters may be seen as a bit odd but we are friends of the railways. We don't smash it up, steal cables or blow ourselves to bits - so why are they picking on us?" [This is London].

The irony is that many such individual may serve as the front line in surveillance. Trainspotters may well be able to give authorities first hand information of suspicious behaviour on the rail network.

The threat comes not only from Pakistan’s training camps but also from terrorist websites. Stewart Jackson, a Conservative MP, questioned the Home Secretary why not one terror website had been shut down despite pledges to do so. Powers outlined in the 2006 anti-terrorism act aimed to shut down such sites. However the Daily Telegraph revealed this week that the government had failed to make any headway in this effort. It remains to be seen what effects the news proposals announced by the government will have in pursuing and preventing those intent on perpetrating such acts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Plane crashes in Japan & US

A plane has crashed at Tokyo's Narita airport an burst into flames. The McDonnell Douglas cargo aircraft came into land in high winds and appeared to bounce before exploding into flames. The resulting fire has almost completely destroyed the Fed-Ex cargo plane which had just completed a flight from Guangzhou in China. The fate of the two pilots on board the plane is as yet unknown [CNN].

In another incident a single propeller aircraft crashed in the town of Butte in the state of Montana, USA. At least 17 people have been confirmed dead and reports suggest many children were on board the plane. The crash happened at 15:27 local time [21:27 GMT] as the Pilatis PC-12 Swiss-made turboprop came into land [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

'Bomb alert' at Gatwick airport was hoax

Passengers have been evacuated from an Emirates plane as police investigate a suspect package. Details are sketchy but Sussex police have told news agencies that they are investigating reports of a suspect package on the plane at London’s Gatwick airport. Reports emerged at around 11:00 GMT, though news channels have been primarily focused on the death of reality TV star Jade Goody. CNN reports that the plane landed at 06.48 GMT following a flight from Dubai and is currently in a holding area.

Update: Police investigating the suspicious package later said the incident was a "hoax". A man in his 20s was arrested following the alert which resulted in 184 passengers being evacuated. The search for a device was instigated after a passenger found a note and alerted authorities [BBC].

Reality TV star Jade Goody dies

Jade Goody pictured last October

The reality television star Jade Goody has died at her Essex home after a long battle with cancer. The 27 year old who came to fame after appearing on Big Brother, a reality TV show on Channel 4, passed away at 03:55 according to her mother Jakkiey Budden who spoke to reporters early this morning. Jade courted much controversy especially after she made disparaging and perceived racist comments toward Shilpa Shetty, an Indian actress who appeared alongside her in Big Brother. She also revelled in the publicity surrounding her and refused to push the press away even as she became critically ill. The media circus will continue to follow the story until Jade is buried. Her funeral will be held near to he family home. It remains to be seen whether Jack Tweed, her newly wed husband will be able to attend. He is due to be sentenced for assault this week, the second such offence for which he’s been convicted. Last year he was jailed for assault a teenager with a golf club and is currently out on licence. Jade Goody departure leaves him a widower and her two young sons without a mother [BBC / Sky News].

Thursday, March 19, 2009

6th anniversary of Iraq war passes silently

How the war began six years ago today

Today is the sixth anniversary marking the beginning of the Iraq war. It is a war that has left an estimated 90,000 Iraqis dead and countless others maimed or injured. More than 4,500 coalition troops have died and tens of thousand have been wounded. But according to several reports Iraq is “on the mend”. CNN’s Nic Robertson says that although the situation is getting better, Security is still a concern for many Iraqis. The International Correspondent for the global new channel said today that many Iraqis “have the sense that people have forgotten about them.” Although the numbers of attacks have decreased, they still occur. However, many go unreported unless there is a significantly high death toll. In the second week of March, nearly 70 people were killed in two suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad, but such incidents barely get a mention on news channels or in national newspapers. Thirty nine coalition troops have been killed so far this year, amongst them one Briton. Although it shows a decline, the numbers are still significant, and for the families who have lost their sons or daughters it is devastating.
Troops may be pulling out but there are some doubts as to what vacuum they will leave behind. “Iraqis have still got to live with what’s going on,” Robertson told viewers. And viewers were asked whether, after six years, the war was “worth it”? According to Jim Clancy, who hosts Your World Today, the majority of respondents thought the war was not worth it. “Surely you jest?” one viewer wrote, as she listed her reasons why. Views cited the millions of dollars wasted, the WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction] that were never found, the thousands of lives lost and others injured as well as the damage to infrastructure and the continuing fraught security situation.

It is a war that, while having removed a despotic leader and moved the country towards a form of democracy, has left the region in chaos. It has also affected reputations. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair will be more remembered as ‘Bush’s poodle’ and for his sanctioning what many have called an ‘illegal war’. George Bush has been lambasted by critics for his decision to invade, and America’s standing in the world has also been affected.

It may also be argued that the War on Terror took the politicians’ eyes off the economy and let the seeds of recession develop unhindered. The war has also added to the significant debts of both the US and the UK, money that will never be recovered.

Even before the war was waged there were warning that the conflict could plunge the world into a deep recession. In an article published in the Independent newspaper in Britain one academic expressed his view the economic effects could be devastating. William Nordhaus, a Sterling professor of Economics at Yale University, speaking several months before hostilities began, said that a war against Iraq could cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars, play havoc with an already depressed domestic economy and tip the world into recession because of the adverse effect on oil prices, inflation and interest rates. Some of the professor’s predictions such as the destruction of oilfields and use of chemical and biological weapons never happened. But his belief that a protracted conflict involving urban guerrilla fighting did manifest itself. "The Bush administration has not prepared the public for the cost or the financing of what could prove to be an expensive venture,'' Professor Nordhaus said in November 2002. "Perhaps the administration is fearful that a candid discussion of wartime economics will give ammunition to sceptics of the war; perhaps it worries acknowledging the costs will endanger the large future tax cuts, which are the centrepiece of its domestic policy. Nonetheless, the price must be paid, by raising taxes, by cutting expenditures, or by forcing the Federal Reserve do the job by raising interest rates. One way or another, Americans will pay for the war,'' the professor warned.
The report also highlighted the risk to oil supplies and a rise in fuel prices. George Perry, an analyst with the Brookings Institute in Washington, drew up three scenarios, one of which suggested a tripling of prices to $75 a barrel. That, he suggested, would almost certainly push the world into recession. Little could he have foreseen the oil price breaking beyond the $100 mark [link].

The financial cost of the war is still disputed. Last year estimates were running as high as $200 billion [CNN]. Even Norhaus was conservative with his estimated cost put at around $120 billion. It may look small now compared to the $750 billion bail-outs seen in recent months, but the critics would argue that none of it needed to happen. In fact the cost of the Iraq war is now judged to exceed more than $800 billion. However, most of those critics of the war were shouted down or ignored. Vince Cable, a leading British politician in the Liberal Democratic Party, echoed the views of Nordhaus. Writing in the Guardian a little over a month before the war began, Cable also suggested that military action could bring about a create global recession. Oil price hikes would in turn affect the GDP of industrialised countries, Cable suggested. The former Chief economist of the Shell said that funding of a costly and prolonged war could very easily precipitate a collapse of external and internal confidence in the US economy. Not all these predictions have come to pass. But the long war is adding to the financial woes of the US and the world.

CNN was the only channel to look back on the six year conflict today. The BBC and Sky were more fixated with the conviction of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who held his daughter captive for 21 years. Even the release of a new audio tape purported to be that of Osama bin Laden went virtually unnoticed [CNN].

Dick Cheney speaking on CNN insisted that the war was worth it. Violence levels were down 90% he said and he added that it was the first proper democracy in the Middle East something he regarded as a “big deal”. But according to a CNN poll, around 70% of Americans are supportive of Barack Obama’s plan to pullout troops. Support for a long campaign is dwindling as the cost rises ever higher. That cost is now estimated as being in excess of $800 billion

Monday, March 16, 2009

Space shuttle Discovery lifts off safely

Space shuttle Discovery has made a successful launch from the Florida space centre en-route to the International Space Station. The launch had been delayed after a leak was discovered BBC]. The launch to deliver supplies and expand the ISS crew to six lifted off at 19:43 local time [23:43 GMT]. The mission will also include the fixing of solar arrays to the space station [CNN].

Friday, March 13, 2009

British 'mini-Madoff' living in fear

Alleged rogue trader Terry Freeman's house has been vandalized

Yesterday Bernard Madoff arrived in a bullet proof vest as he arrived at a New York court accused of running a massive Ponzi scheme which lost investors billions of dollars. He is yet to be sentenced and remains in custody until June.

Madoff’s arrival in a bullet proof vest indicates the building anger towards rogue traders who have lost investors’ money. Although not on the same scale as Madoff, a British trader is also said to be in fear for his own safety following his arrest in February [BBC].
Terry Freeman, 60, was arrested by City of London police who would only say that their Economic Crime Department had begun an investigation into GFX Capital Markets Ltd., a licensed, but separate, affiliate firm of the Swiss-based GFX Capital.

The Swiss firm grants clients like Freeman limited power of attorney, enabling them to act as effective “money managers” and solicit their own clients to trade on the GFX platform. Investors in Freeman business gave him the power to place trades, disburse money and pay fees in their name, though “critical account functions”, such as cash withdrawals, were supposed to remain with the investors.

GFX’s trading platform is run by Saxo bank, a Danish bank specialising in providing currency speculation services for retail clients across Europe. According to a Saxo bank spokesman, GFX Capital were an “institutional partner”. Saxo and GFX clients may prove to be big losers in the affair and Saxo’s lawyers are said to be looking into the case as a matter of urgency.
Speculation over disappearance
The tangled nature of Freeman’s affairs may take some time for authorities to unravel. However, the alleged fraud is already estimated to be in excess of £40 Million. Dubbed a ‘mini-Madoff’, Terry Freeman disappeared from his home on the outskirts of London. Speculation grew on internet forums as to where the trader had gone. Some suggested he may have fled to an apartment in Cyprus, said to be owned by Freeman.
The property is described as a “luxury resort apartment” close to the beach and town centre. The property which has a large living area, a balcony with sea views and access to a communal pool area, is a 5 minute walk to Paphos beaches and World Heritage Sites according to the property rental website Owners Direct. The website has been removed since Freeman‘s arrest.
Anger amongst investors
Since it was revealed Freeman had changed his name and continued trading despite being a disqualified director, anger has grown amongst those who have lost thousands in his so-called Ponzi scheme.

In mid-February, a week after his arrest, the Financial Times said Freeman had changed his name from Terry Sparks and that he had been authorised to act as a director by the Financial Services Authority more than two years ago. This in spite of being barred from taking such a role in companies until 2012.

The revelation has gathered investors together with many now seeking compensation from the FSA [Times]. The multimillion-pound compensation claim is the latest in a series of problems facing the regulatory body. In recent months they have been accused of being negligent in its monitoring of Northern Rock, the financial institution which ran into trouble last year.
“Living in fear”
Terry Freeman has not personally updated his blog since late January. However updates are still being posted.

Meanwhile Terry Freeman continues to protest his innocence. In a letter to his clients Freeman talks about how he has been continually libelled and slandered. “My right to a fair trial is constantly being compromised,” Freeman says. He also talks about how he has been living in fear. “My life and those of my family have been threatened continually, to the extent that I am effectively being forced to live a hand to mouth existence, under constant and real threat, unable to return to our home address,” Terry Freeman says. He also insists that he has not absconded and will defend himself vigorously in court. “I have not ‘disappeared’ and I am not living in a villa in the Cayman Islands,” Freeman tells his investors. “The reported ‘losses’ are obscenely exaggerated...and I expect to contest any allegations and charges and to be completely vindicated.”

The trader has much to fear. The anger amongst his clients has already spilled over with his house being vandalised. Obscene graffiti has been daubed on the property and white paint has been splashed on his windows. Police have said they are concerned but have yet to increase security around the former trader [Times / Daily Telegrapg]. It is not yet clear when any action by investors will start against the FSA, nor if any charges will be made against Freeman himself. It may be months before the true facts are exposed.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Germany - school shooting leaves 17 dead

Germany has been rocked following a school shooting which left at least 17 dead. Police were called to Albertville-Realschule in Winnenden after a former student dressing in black combat clothing opened fire on staff on pupils. The 17 year old named by police as Tim Kretschmer escaped from the school and hijacked a car. The man was believed to have been shot dead after barricading himself at a car showroom around 40 km from the school.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a “day of sadness for all Germany”. She said it was “completely incomprehensible that within seconds students and teachers were shot and lost their lives.”

On his website Kretschmer describes his interests as “violence” and “Killerspiele”. The term Killerspeile is used in Germany as a description for a computer application in which the killing of opponents in a fictional game world is an essential part of the play action and with a connection to the portrayal of violence.

During a press conference police said they had no clear motive for the attack. One parent said told news crews that Kretschmer had been expelled the previous year. Police said his father was a member of a gun club and legal owner of 15 guns, one of which had failed to be locked up.
According to police Kretschmer entered the school at around 9:30 am and began to open fire almost as soon as he arrived. The first victims died in a Physics classroom, all of them shot in the head. Two other students were killed in another classroom and a teacher also sustained fatal injuries. Despite a rapid response by police, the gunmen shot two more teachers dead and another two students who died before they reached hospital.

The gunman killed one further person before apparently leaving the school. He then hijacked a car forcing the driver to take him to a nearby town. However the car crashed off the road. Kretschmer ran from the scene leaving the driver free to call police. The gunman ran into a shopping area shooting the owner of a car show room and a customer.

As police arrived on the scene shots were exchanged and Kretschmer was hit by police marksmen as he attempted to escape. He was later found dead by police though it remains unclear whether he died from self inflicted wounds.

Police said Kretschmer was said to be “withdrawn” but was involved in sports activities. The spokesman said it was too early to say if the 17 year old was into computer games. Of those killed he said 8 students were female along with two female staff. Seven of those injured and in hospital were also female, though he said it was as yet unclear if the high number of female casualties was a coincidence or not. [BBC / Sky News / CNN / wikipedia].

Germany has seen several school shootings and attcks in the last few years. Seventeen people were left dead in East Germany in April 2002 after a former pupil went on the rampage. The 19 year old Robert Steinhäuser, shot and killed sixteen people; comprising 13 faculty members, 2 students, and one police officer,before killing himself [BBC / wikipedia]. In February of the same year a former pupil killed his headmaster and set off pipe bombs in the technical school he had recently been expelled from in Freising near Munich. The man also shot dead his boss and a foreman at the company he worked for before turning the gun on himself. Another teacher was shot in the face, but survived.

In March 2000 a 16 year old pupil at a private boarding school in the Bavarian town of Branneburg, shot a 57 year old teacher, who later died from injuries. The teenager, who also shot himself, was facing expulsion from school after failing a cannabis test.
And in 1999 a 15 year old student in Meissen, eastern Germany, stabbed his teacher to death after taking bets from classmates he would dare commit the crime. He was later jailed for seven years.

The incident in Germany comes within hours of another shooting tragedy in Alabama in the United States which left 10 dead. Michael McLendon is said to have killed half the members of his family including his mother, grand mother, grand father, aunt and uncle [CNN]. And on Sunday a pastor was left dead after a churchgoer shot him. He was tackled by other worshippers as his gun jammed. Two were stabbed as was the gunman who was taken to hospital in a serious condition [CNN].
[updated - 17:37 GMT]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Northern Ireland peace process at risk

The return of violence to the streets of Northern Ireland has run the risk of derailing the peace process. On Saturday a number of soldiers were shot in what was described as an ambush by members of the Real IRA, a dissident group that split from the Provisional IRA in 1997 [BBC]. The Real IRA, or Óglaigh na hÉireann, have been responsible for one of the deadliest attacks perpetrated by Irish Republican terrorists. In 1998 the Real IRA admitted responsibility for the Omagh bombing in 1998 which left 29 dead and over 200 injured. Most of their attacks on the mainland have been relatively minor, though the actions brought them much publicity. Amongst the most prominent attacks was the blast at the BBC in west London .

There have been several attacks in Northern Ireland since 2000, but it was the shooting dead of two soldiers outside the Masereene Barracks in County Antrim that brought the group the publicity they had sought [BBC / Sky News].

The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the attacks and later met with members of the Northern Irish assembly. All sides of the political spectrum, including leading figures in Sinn Féin, have condemned the actions of the Real IRA.

Within 48 hours another dissident group known as the Continuity IRA carried out an attack on a police officer shooting him in the head. The officer, named as Stephen Paul Carroll from County Down, was killed as he responded to a call about a broken window. Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde said it was a “Sad day for Northern Ireland” but insisted the death would not stop his officers from serving the community [BBC / Sky News / CNN].

Speaking shortly after the killing, Gordon Brown once again condemned the attack but insisted the road to peace would continue. Of the people of Northern Ireland he said, “They want the political process to move forward, they do not want violence returning to the streets.”

The Continuity IRA claim to be a legitimate continuation of the Irish Republican Army or Óglaigh na hÉireann, a claim also made by the Provisional IRA. However while the Provisional IRA gave up their 25 year campaign in 2005, the Continuity IRA have persisted in their armed campaign. In a statement released today [Tuesday] the group said, “As long as there is British involvement in Northern Ireland our struggle will continue”.

Although the numbers within the Continuity IRA and Real IRA are relatively small, the damage they might inflict could be considerable. Both organisations are believed to only have around 150 members. This compares with thousands involved in the Provisionals. The groups also lack support on the ground. But the scattered nature of the two groups will make it all the more difficult for MI5 and other security services to find and locate the perpetrators.
Several other splinter groups are also of concern in the security services. Amongst them is the INLA [Irish National Liberation Army] though many of these groups are considered more ‘criminal’ than ‘political’.

The damage that all the groups might inflict on the peaceful political process is nonetheless extremely worrisome.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Brown & Obama - an awkward relationship

The British press have ridiculed Gordon Brown's US visit

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in the United States on Tuesday with the hope of discussing a “global new deal”. But his effort to gather support to kick-start the world economy seemed to be getting a cold reception before it had even begun.

Snubs and criticism

Besides it being his first visit to the U.S. since Barack Obama became president, the Prime Minister’s itinerary was being downsized and rescheduled. Hopes of a joint press conference in the Rose Garden evaporated due to the heavy snow in Washington, though officials did not explain why the event was not moved inside. Some saw the move as a snub to the Prime Minister who has been particularly critical of the U.S. financial regulatory system.
During his monthly press conference last month [Feb 18th], Gordon Brown called for “an international system of regulation”, something he said was “absolutely essential”.
But his attempts of persuading others to join his plan have so far fallen on deaf ears. And it has not been helped by continued criticism of other countries. In his February statement he said there was a “failure in the American regulatory system.”

“If you take the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States of America, sub-prime mortgages, half of them were sold to Europe. So they were sold on by providers in the United States of America to Europe. But they were regulated by the American system and they were called Triple A. So the people who were buying these investments from America were buying what they were told was the most worthy investment of them all, Triple A rated, and there was a failure in the American regulatory system.”

However, while he said Britain was more tightly regulated, he conceded there was still room for improvement. “Our regulatory system has been a better system but it is still not good enough to meet the changing challenges of the times,” Gordon Brown said.

Despite his criticism of America, the Prime Minister has also praised Obama for his efforts in tackling the financial crisis saying they were doing “similar things” to what Britain was doing.
The atmosphere of Brown’s visit has already been soured by what some see as pointed gestures about the state of Britain’s so called “special relationship”. Barack Obama has already removed a bust of Winston Churchill that once sat in the Oval Office. And in what might be seen as another snub, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was invited to the national prayer breakfast in Washington last month and referred to by Obama as a “good friend”.

The White House insisted that a special relationship still existed between Britain in an attempt to brush off speculation. On his arrival at Andrews Airforce base the Prime Minister did receive a rather frosty reception in the form of extremely cold temperatures reportedly as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius.

'The special relationship'

His meeting with Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation was somewhat warmer. During the visit Brown insisted the downturn could “only be resolved by people working together”. The Rabbi gave him a pot of honey in the shape of an apple in recognition of Britain’s work in tackling world poverty. But the Prime Minister will need more than a pot of honey to help him save global markets which have crashed to all time lows in recent days.
In an earlier interview with National Public Radio [NPR] he said that the priority was to “clean up the banking system”. But most of his discussions with Barack Obama were held behind closed doors. In a short question and answer session after the meeting Obama reaffirmed his belief in the special relationship between the U.S and Britain. “Rest assured it is not only strong but will get stronger as time goes on,” Obama said. He added that the relationship was important to the U.S and Great Britain. “It’s not just important to me but also the American people,” he emphasized.

Obama echoed the words of the British Prime Minister saying a “global new deal” was important. But he said the US banking sector had been dealt a heavy blow and economic recovery would not happen overnight.

Brown thanked Obama referring to their “partnership of purpose” which was founded on shared values and a need to solve world economic problems. He said that a “Big regulatory change” was needed. He was nonetheless positive saying, “There is a possibility of a global new deal in the next few months”.

Both leaders emphasized the need to work together with Obama declaring, “In this world we need to build alliances and not act unilaterally”. It was also important that all major G20 countries worked together with a common set of principles he said [BBC].

Despite much press speculation it appeared, that at least publicly, the two leaders were affirming their strong alliance.

'Weird and sinister'

However, Brown is certainly not running in the footsteps of his predecessor who was much admired in the US. Although he was welcomed by strong applause during his speech to congress, it was not in league to that seen in Tony Blair’s day.

The BBC’s Nick Robertson talked of 17 standing ovations, two less than that received by Prime Minister Blair. However not all pundits saw the reception as being so rapturous. Sky’s Adam Boulton described the so-called standing ovations as merely “seventeen bursts of applause”.
Blair was often described as Bush‘s poodle and recent cartoons have depicted Gordon Brown similarly as a dog sniffing at the butt of America. One could even descibe his speech as somewhat sycophantic. But his apparent obsequiousness did not go down well in the UK. Indeed his performance was even described as “dysfunctional” by one politician on the BBC’s Question Time. Shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said the interviews in the Oval Office were “rather dysfunctional and rather needy”, though he thought that the Prime Minister’s call to avoid protectionism was important. Writer and feminist Germaine Greer was less than impressed by Gordon Brown’s delivery at Congress saying it was “Weird and sinister”. She said the speech was full of clichés and described it as “over the top”.

Indeed, he had barely begun his address before the praise for America drooled from his lips. "The US is and always will be an inspiration to me and the whole world," Brown said in his opening remarks. And the praise didn’t stop there. “America is an irrepressible nation" he said. "America is a nation with the vision to protect & preserve our planet Earth", a nation whose “spirit” would not be destroyed by terrorists, Brown declared. And of course there was the obligatory tribute to the "sacrifice of American soldiers who have given their lives" in two world wars, as well as Afghanistan & Iraq.

After the praise, and the announcement that Senator Edward Kennedy had been awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen, Brown then launched into his bidding.

'Building for the future'

He said it was a "time for renewal“ and “ building for the future". "Let us agree rules and standards of accountability and transparency," he said and called on America to “renew our special relationship” and get “every continent playing their part for a global new deal”.
He may well find it an uphill struggle to get the full support of America despite his stated optimism. "I have never before seen a world willing to come together so much," Brown said, while insisting that it was time to “seize this moment” and “build tomorrow, today” [Full speech]

'Saving the world..'

While the reception was generally warm there were moments when some members abstained from applauding the British leader. In fact he received only half-hearted applause when he called for agreement on overhauling the world of international finance at the G20 talks in April.
It should perhaps also be noted that several dozen members of Congress failed to attend the speech. Their seats in the chamber were taken by House and Senate staff and other guests.
In December as the world recession was just beginning to bite, Brown was mocked for his slip-up in Parliament when he said, “The first point of recapitalization was to save the banks that would have otherwise collapsed. And we not only saved the world...”. His attempts to correct himself by saying “save the banks” were drowned out with laughter. The faux pas was then capitalized upon by opposition leader David Cameron who exclaimed, “Well, it's now on the record. He is so busy talking about saving the world, he has forgotten about the businesses of this country.”
There are many who now feel he forgot about “this country” as he fawned for America and its new charismatic, but seemingly disinterested, leader.

'printing money'

Back home the Bank of England announced another interest rate cut and a plan to inject billions of pounds into the economy in the form of “quantitative easing”. It was not met with huge enthusiasm except perhaps by politicians. Twitter, the micro-blogging service, was alive with comments suggesting the proposal to effectively print money could lead to rampant inflation and risked a Zimbabwe style economy developing. The interest rate cut, which was halved to 0.5%, has also created consternation amongst many Britons. Savers will see little point in putting money into banks which give so little return on their investment.

It remains to be seen if Brown’s global new deal and other initiatives will have any effect on the economy, or if he can pull nations together in fighting the global recession.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pakistan - terrorists target cricket team

At least 7 members of the Sri Lankan cricket team have been injured in a terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan. Twelve armed terrorists carried out the coordinated attack as the convoy of vehicles carrying the team approached the Gaddafi stadium. As well as automatic weapons, a rocket launcher was also used in the attack. However the missile failed to reach its intended target, that of the coach carrying the team which was within a kilometre of the stadium.
Amongst the injured were the assistant coach, Paul Farbrace, and players Thilan Samaraweera, Tharanga Paranavitana, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Ajantha Mendis, Suranka Lakmal and Chaminda Vaas. Samaraweera and Paranavitana are said to have been seriously injured and were conveyed to hospital. Five policemen and a driver were killed. The tour was immediately cancelled and the team was quickly conveyed to the Gaddafi stadium where a waiting helicopter ferried them out of the country.

The attack took place at around 08:30 local time and continued for thirty minutes. A police spokesman said the terrorists were armed with Kalashnikovs, hand grenades and rocket launchers. Following the incident all the terrorists managed to slip away, though the police spokesman insisted they would be captured or killed.

However, the attack has shown that the Pakistani authorities are not prepared and ill equipped to cope with such attacks. “You cannot guarantee safety in Pakistan,” Tim Marshall, Sky’s International Correspondent said. He described the Pakistani authorities and being ineffective. They were “Out manoeuvred, out gunned and out foxed” he added. The country is becoming increasingly unstable, especially in the north of the country and this high profile incident will do nothing to improve Pakistan’s image abroad. The incident will also create some concern around the world. “I don’t think any team will want to go to Pakistan in the next few years,” Tim Marshall said. But there’s not just the sporting world that will be rattled by these events. Pakistan is a nuclear power, and there has long been a concern in the West that the weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists or an extremist government. The war in Afghanistan is slowly but surely spreading across the borders into its neighbour. This will raise more concerns in Washington as Barack Obama refocuses his war on terror [BBC / Sky News / CNN / al Jazeera].

Monday, March 02, 2009

Buyer won't pay for China's looted relics

The old Summer Palace which was plundered in 1860

A man who won the bid for two controversial bronze animal heads at a Paris auction has refused to pay as an act of “patriotism”. The Chinese man won the bid for the two animal heads, a Rat and Rabbit, earlier this week. But in show of loyalty to his country of origin, Cai Mingchao said he would not pay the €30 million bid for the two antiques.
Plundered antiquities

The objects were stolen by British and French troops from the imperial Summer Palace in October 1860, towards the end of the Second Opium War. Originally a set of 12 heads representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac they once adorned a fountain built for the Emperor Qianglong. The palace, Yuanmingyuan, was burned down and the bronze heads disappeared. To date 5 heads have been returned to China. The Ox, Tiger and Monkey were returned in 2000 and the Pig and Horse were repatriated to the homeland in 2003 and 2007 respectively. The whereabouts of the other five, a Dragon, Snake, Sheep, Rooster and Dog, remains unknown and some believe they may have been destroyed. It has also been suggested the missing heads may be secretly stored at the Louvre and British Museum [BBC / CNN / Xinhua].

The French courts allowed the sale to go ahead despite strong protestations from China [BBC]. The incident has further soured relations between China and France. Even Victor Hugo, the French novelist, could see the issue blowing up in years to come as he referred to the plundering of Beijing in his writings. "Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain," Hugo wrote in his 1861 book Expédition de Chine.

“I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was simply fulfilling my responsibilities. What I really want to stress is that this money cannot be paid” Cai told reporters. Cai Mingchao is a collection advisor of National Treasure Funds of China (NTFC) a body set up to repatriate stolen Chinese artefacts. He and others have helped repatriate dozens of other artefacts. But this particular sale has struck a nerve in China and for its people.

China is not alone in seeking the return of stolen antiquities. Greece continues to demand the return treasures stolen by archaeologists including the infamous Elgin Marbles currently on display in the British Museum. Thomas Bruce the 7th Earl of Elgin is well known for his plundering not only the Elgin marbles but many other Greek antiquities. Less well known is that his son, James Bruce the 8th Earl of Elgin was responsible for ordering the destruction of the Summer Palace. Another sorry chapter of Britain’s colonial past that continues to haunt her.

As for Christies, the auction house has yet to make any statement on the matter. However it looks certain Mr Cai will not be bidding for other Chinese relics.