Monthly Archives: March 2010

International Donor Conference Raises Billions for Haiti Reconstruction

“What we envision today is wholesale national renewal,” United Nations SEcretary General Ban Ki-moon said, opening a one-day conference of some 120 countries, international organizations and aid agencies. (Reuters)

Ban called for quick donations in response to a U.N. request for $1.4 billion in immediate humanitarian assistance for Haiti, which even before the January 12 earthquake was the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Ban described the plan as “concrete, specific and ambitious” and said he hoped it would build a “better future” for Haiti. (BBC) “Our goal is not just to rebuild, it is to build back better,” Ban added. (CBC)

So far, the request has only been half funded, fueling fears that the rainy season will compound the disaster for some 1.2 million Haitians left homeless by the disaster.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, co-host of Wednesday’s meeting, said the United States would pledge $1.15 billion for long-term recovery, which she said must be planned and executed by Haiti’s government. “We also have to pledge our best efforts to do better ourselves, to offer support in a smarter way, a more effective way that produces real results for the people of Haiti,” Clinton said. (Reuters)

“It will be tempting to fall back on old habits, to work around the government, rather than work with them [in] making the deeper, long-term investments that Haiti needs,” Clinton added. “But we cannot retreat to failed strategies… we have to follow through.” (CBC)

Clinton was joined on the dais by her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti who will coordinate relief efforts for the country. Mr. Clinton sat down with non-government organizations a few days ago. Clinton asked them to help create such a radically new Haiti that the country would no longer need the thousands of NGOs that operate there. “In short, are we serious about working ourselves out of a job?” he said. (CBC)

The Haitian president also welcomed Gov. Gen. Michëlle Jean, who was born in Haiti, and attended the conference as an observer.

The U.N. meeting seeks to raise funds for a Haitian government recovery plan that includes decentralizing the economy to create jobs and wealth outside Port-au-Prince, the capital of some 4 million people.

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said his government, which saw all but one of its ministries destroyed, had a vision for Haiti’s future but needed help. “The resources must be available. That’s why we ask in our plan for budgetary support of $350 million for the next six months so we can face up to our responsibilities,” he said. (Reuters)

Haitian President Rene Preval thanked the countries that have already contributed to relief efforts since the quake, and paid tribut to the actions of Haitians, both at home and abroad.

Mr. Preval said he wanted to make education the focus of a new Haiti. “I call on Haitians, both at home and abroad, to add their resources to those of our friends from the international community in order to transform Haiti to a place of knowledge,” he said. (BBC)

“Let us dream of a new Haiti whose fate lives in a new project,” he added. (CBC)

Aid agencies say the task is huge. Haiti suffered as many as 300,000 people killed in the 7.0 earthquake, which crippled the government and caused damage estimated at between $8 and $14 billion.

Earlier, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said it was crucial to get the first step in reconstruction right. “There should be a clear plan of action and a clear vision of how Haiti is going to be reconstructed which is endorsed by the international community,” he said. “The pledging of those funds for the immediate future is very important as a sign of the willingness of the international community to actually do that.” (BBC)

Already in Haiti, unemployment and illiteracy were high among its nine million population, with about 80% living on less than $2 a day.

In the crowded, squalid quake survivors’ camps of Port-au-Prince, thousands clamoured on Wednesday for basic necessities. Overnight rains have soaked fragile shelters and turned dusty alleyways to mud.

“We need water, food, toilets, healthcare, light and tents – shelter,” said Silverin Nono, elected leader of a camp that has mushroomed into being on a barren, refuse-strewn hillside called Bas-Canaan north of the city. (Reuters)

Ban said the new Haitian Recovery Commission would aim to channel $3.9 billion into programs in the next 18 months, launching a border project to improve basic health, sanitation, education and housing services.

Edmond Mulet, the acting head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, said the international community was “co-responsible” for the weakness of Haitian institutions. “We’ve always worked not with the government or through the government, because it has been too corrupt, too weak,” he said. “But if we don’t address the situation we will have a peacekeeping mission in Haiti for the next 200 years.” (BBC)

The World Bank group, which will manage reconstruction funds, said it would make $79 million available through June 2011, including the total cancellation of Haiti’s remaining World Bank debt. World Bank President Robert Zoellick said it was crucial that donors coordinate efforts to avoid producing “islands of development in a sea of deprivation.” (Reuters)

“The budget support is fundamental,” Zoellick added, noting that many donors had resisted this kind of assistance in the past out of concerns over corruption and the government’s ability to carry out projects. (New York Times)

Major international donors and the Haitian government itself have said that the rebuilding presented an opportunity to try to break the traditional cycle in which donors finance projects through non-governmental organizations, bypassing the government.

Too many donors decide what Haiti needs and then find someone to make it happen, Haitian officials said. “In the end, the government has nothing to do with it,” said Gabriel Verret, a senior economic adviser to Mr. Preval. “That is the frustration.” (New York Times)

The European Union and a coalition of U.S.-based humanitarian groups have indicated they would pledge more than $2.7 billion, while governments around the world also started announcing pledges.

“We want to work with the government of Haiti. This is their plan; they have to own it, we have to help,” said Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said that if the world community fulfills its pledges, Haiti’s economy could grow at an average of 8 percent in coming years – almost 50 percent faster than under previous IMF forecasts. “That’s possible, but condition one is to have the Haitian authorities really in the driver’s seat,” he told reporters. (Reuters)

Canada is pledging an additional $400 million in aid and debt relief for Haiti over the next two years, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said Wednesday. Oda said Canada’s new pledge includes $110 million that represents half of the money the government promised in matching funds for the $220 million that Canadians donated privately. “The other half of the matching funds will be used to support the continuing work of humanitarian development [non-governmental organizations] and institutions in their efforts,” Oda told reporters. (CBC)

Canada had previously pledged $85 million in Haitian relief aid. Haiti is already the second-largest recipient of direct Canadian aid, after Afghanistan, with $555 million earmarked for the country between 2006 and 2011.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, co-chairman of the donors conference, said change in Haiti will require long-term commitment and collaboration among donor countries. “In the face of tragedy, we are presented with opportunity,” Cannon told the conference in New York. “Canada is prepared to accompany Haiti for as long as it needs us,” he said. (CBC)

With the latest effort to raise reconstruction funds from the international community, Haiti’s government will not have direct control over much of anything. Instead, a new international commission will be created to help oversee the billions of dollars in assistance. The commission will include representatives from donor countries, the Haitian government, the Organization of American States, the 15-country Caribbean bloc known as CARICOM, plus non-governmental organizations and international institutions. Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive will co-chair the commission.

“We will monitor very closely how this money will be spent,” Ban told reporters. “We expect the Haitian government should show strong sense of accountability.” (CBC)


Suicide Blasts Rock Moscow Subway Stations, Killing Dozens

Female suicide bombers set off huge explosions in two subway stations in central Moscow during the Monday morning rush hour, Russian officials said, killing more than three dozen people and raising fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia was once again being brought to the country’s heart.

The first attack occurred as commuters were exiting a packed train at a station near the headquarters of the F.S.B., the successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B. Officials said they suspected that the attack there was intended as a message to the security services, which have helped lead the crackdown on Islamic extremism in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus region in southern Russia.

Officials said the first explosion occurred at 7:57 a.m. in the second car of a train at the Lubyanka station, killing people on the platform and inside the train.

The authorities closed off the station and the surrounding Lubyanka Square, formerly the site of the notorious Lubyanka prison, which was connected to the headquarters of the K.G.B.

The second attack took place at 8:36 a.m., in the third car of a train at the Park Kultury station, officials said.

The two explosions spread panic throughout the capital as people searched for missing relatives and friends, and the authorities tried to determine whether more attacks were planned. The subway system is one of the world’s most extensive and well-managed, and it serves as a vital artery for Moscow commuters, carrying as many as 10 million people a day.

Mr. Luzhkov said 23 people were killed in the first explosion, at the Lubyanka station, and 12 people were killed about 40 minutes later at the Park Kultury station. At least two others died later. More than 100 people were injured.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility.

“The terrorist acts were carried out by two female terrorist bombers,” said Moscow’s mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov. “They happened at a time when there would be the maximum number of victims.” (New York Times)

“Our preliminary assessment is that this act of terror was committed by a terrorist group from the North Caucasus region,” Alexander Bortnikov of the Federal Security Service said of the investigation at one of the blast sites. “We consider this the most likely scenario, based on investigations conducted at the site of the blast,” he said. “Fragments of the suicide bombers’ body found at the blast, according to preliminary findings, indicate that the bombers were from the North Caucasus region.” (CNN)

Yuri Syomin, the Moscow city prosecutor, said investigators believe that both explosions were set off by female suicide bombers wearing belts packed with explosives.

The devices – believed to have been made with the powerful explosive, hexogen, which is more commonly known as RDX – were filled with chipped iron rods and screws for shrapnel.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the country’s paramount leader, cut short a trip to Siberia, returning to Moscow to oversee the federal response. Mr. Putin built his reputation in part on his success at suppressing terrorism, so the attacks could be considered a challenge to his stature. Mr. Putin vowed that “the terrorists will be destroyed.” (New York Times)

“We are providing Moscow metro with additional CCTV cameras. Today’s events show we should not only continue this work but to make it more effective. Changes in legislation may be necessary.” (CNN)

President Dmitri A. Medvedev, Mr. Putin’s protégé, was in Moscow and was briefed on the blasts by top law enforcement and security advisers. Mr. Medvedev echoed the Prime Minister’s words after laying a wreath at the site of one of the attacks, saying: “They are animals. I have no doubt that we will find and destroy them all.” (BBC)

President Medvedev asked officials to increase security on the public transport system nationwide. “What was being done needs to be substantially strengthened,” he said. “Look at this problem on the scale of the state, not only as it applies to a particular type of transport and a particular city.” (BBC)

Photographs showed scenes of devastation, with bodies strewn across subway cars and station platforms.

Pavel Y. Novikov, 25, an electrician, said he was evacuated from the Park Kultury station about 15 minutes after the explosion. “It smelled like burned rubber,” he said. “I saw blood, and I saw bloody clothes on the ground. It was so horrible.” (New York Times)

“It’s disgusting,” one witness said. “I don’t know who did it and what they wanted. Life is so short. How could people commit such terrible acts?” (CNN)

Kirill Gribov, 20, a university student, said he was on a train that arrived at the Park Kultury station just as the suicide bomber detonated her explosive belt on the train across the platform. “The explosion was so loud that we all were deafened,” Mr. Gribov said. “Then I remember a cloud of gas coming from the wrecked train in front of us, coloured in pink, maybe because of blood. Some people were in panic, some stood still, but all of us somehow found our way outside the station. It was only on the street when I realized what had just happened. Mobile service was blocked, I couldn’t even call my parents, and I had to walk several kilometres because of the traffic.” (New York Times)

“I was moving up on the escalator when I heard a loud bang, a blast,” an eyewitness named Alexei told Rossiya 24 TV channel. “A door near the passageway arched, was ripped out and a cloud of dust came down on the escalator. People started running, panicking, falling on each other.” (BBC)

Yulia Shapovalova of Russia Today TV was at the second station at the time of the blast. “The staff members started urgently evacuating people, so that meant they probably knew about the first blast at the Lubyanka station,” she said. “All the people – a huge crowd of people – slowly started to move… As soon as I got upstairs, I heard the blast.” (CNN)

“The whole city is a mess, people are calling each other, the operators can’t cope with such a huge number of calls at one time,” said Olga, a BBC News website reader in Moscow. “Those who witnessed the tragedy can’t get over the shock.” (BBC)

Both stations reopened at about 5 p.m. local time, according to Veronica Molskaya from the Press Service of the Russian Emergency Ministry. In St. Petersburg, three metro stations were shut as a result of the bomb scare.

Millions of commuters use the metro system every day. An estimated 500,000 people were riding throughout the capital at the time of the attacks. It was unclear when the system would return to normal service.

“I feel scared,” one woman said on TV. “I have to walk to get to work, because there is no way I’m going by Metro.” (CNN)

The attacks reverberated around the globe. U.S. President Obama condemned the “outrageous acts” and passed along his condolences. “The American people stand united with the people of Russia in opposition to violent extremism and heinous terrorist attacks that demonstrate such disregard for human life,” Obama said. (CNN)

New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said police are stepping up security in the New York City subway system.

In Washington, Metro, the operator of the city’s transit system, said it is expanding security in light of the Moscow attacks. Coincidentally, it had a terror drill this past weekend and is holding another one Monday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “appalled” by the incident and sent condolences to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, according to Britain’s Press Association.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and said he “is confident that the Russian authorities will bring to justice the perpetrators of this heinous terrorist attack.” (CNN)

Interpol, the international police agency, condemned the attacks and offered help to Russian authorities in the investigation. Interpol’s executive director of police services, Jean-Michel Louboutin, called the actions “despicable and senseless attacks targeting the public.” (CNN)

In the early part of the last decade the subway system suffered several attacks related to the separatist war in Chechnya. With the explosions on Monday, Muscovites expressed renewed concerns that they might again become targets.

The earlier raft of attacks had repercussions far beyond the security station in the Caucasus and the rest of the country. In 2004, Mr. Putin, the president at the time, responded by greatly tightening control over the government, saying that the country had to be united against terrorism. He pushed through laws that eliminated the election of regional governors, turning them into appointees of the president, and that made it harder for independents to be elected to Parliament.

In February, at least 20 insurgents were killed in an operation by troops in Ingushetia. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov warned in February that “the zone of military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia… the war is coming to their cities.” (BBC)

Last November, he said his Caucasian Majuhadeen had carried out a bombing that killed 26 people on board an express train traveling from Moscow to Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg.

The attack came six months after President Medvedev declared an end to Russia’s “counter-terrorism operations” in Chechnya, in a bid to “further normalize the situation” after 15 years of conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives and left it in ruins.

Despite this, the mainly Muslim republic continues to be plagued by violence, and over the past two years Islamist militants have stepped up attacks in neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan.


U.S., Russia Sign Nuclear Arms Pact

Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sealed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty during a phone call this morning, committing the two nations to a significant new reduction of the strategic missiles each side has deployed, U.S. officials announced Friday.

Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama announced the agreement to reporters at the White House, calling it a historic step toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama called nuclear weapons “the darkest days of the Cold War, and the most troubling threats of our time.” He hailed the treaty as the start of a new effort to rid the world of that threat. “With this agreement, the United States and Russia — the two largest nuclear powers in the world — also send a clear signal that we intend to lead,” he said. (Washington Post)

After speaking with Medvedev, Obama said he will travel to Prague on April 8 to sign the treaty with the Russian leader, noting that the historic event will come just a week before he hosts a summit in Washington on how to control the spread of nuclear material around the world.

He also praised what he said was an improving relationship with Russia. “We have turned words into action. We have made progress that is clear and concrete,” Obama said. “And we have demonstrated the importance of American leadership — and American partnership — on behalf of our own security, and the world’s.” (Washington Post)

The White House is hailing the treaty as a “landmark agreement [that] advances the security of both nations and reaffirms American and Russian leadership on behalf of nuclear security and global non-proliferation.” (CBC) It will also “reset” relations between the two countries, a focus of Obama since he took office in 2009.

“When the United States and Russia can co-operate effectively, it advances the mutual interests of our two nations, and the security and prosperity of the wider world,” Obama said Friday. (CBC)

In Russia, Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, told the Interfax news agency, “This treaty reflects the balance of interests of both nations.”

Details of the Treaty

The treaty, which must be ratified by the U.S. Senate and Russia’s legislature, would replace a 19-year-old pact that called for both countries to draw down their dangerous arsenals of thousands of long-range nuclear weapons.

The new deal took shape after months of negotiations that stretched on far longer than officials had expected. The 1991 START treaty expired in early December of last year, forcing the presidents of both countries to pledge they would abide by its parameters until a new treaty could be forged.

The treaty calls for both sides to reduce the stockpiles of their most dangerous weapons — those already deployed and ready to launch at long-range targets — by about 30 percent, allowing each side to retain about 1,550 such warheads.

It also limits deployed and non-deployed missile launchers and heavy bombers to 800 and says that each side may only have 700 of such equipment already deployed — a cut in half from the limits in the previous treaty.

The White House said the treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned missile defences. The U.S. has a missile defence system based mainly in the U.S., and it is planning one in Europe.

The treaty also does not impose limits on planned U.S. long-range non-nuclear missiles, the White House said.

Administration officials described the achievement as a hard-fought victory in Obama’s efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. In a speech in Prague last year, Obama pledged that the United States would lead by negotiating the new treaty with Russia.

Russia had sought to include limits on current and planned U.S. missile defences in the treaty.

Reactions to the Treaty

But the deal faces skepticism in the Senate, where it will need Republican support to get the 67 votes required for ratification. Several key GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have recently expressed concerns about the treaty’s impact on the U.S. missile defenses program.

In a statement, McConnell said GOP senators would be looking to see if the new agreement is verifiable, whether it reduces the U.S.’s ability to defend itself and whether the U.S. will be able to continue to rely on launching nuclear weapons from the air, sea and land.

Clinton and other top officials expressed confidence that the Senate will ratify the treaty despite the highly charged, partisan environment in the wake of the health-care debate. “I don’t believe that this ratification effort will be affected by anything other than individual senators’ assessment of whether this is in the national security interests of the United States,” Clinton told reporters after Obama’s remarks. Clinton said that she and Gates have begun briefing lawmakers and will testify before Congress in the coming days. She said the issue is “way beyond politics” for the country. (Washington Post)

Ratification of the treaty will require 67 votes, or two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. Clinton, when later asked whether such a margin could be achieved given the recent fierce partisan battles and close votes over health care, said it could. “National security has always produced large bipartisan majorities, and I see no reason why this should be any different,” she said. “The vast majority of senators will see that this is about America’s national interest, it’s not about politics.” (CBC)

She acknowledged that Medvedev will have to get his Duma to ratify the treaty as well and joked that Obama had offered to send his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to Russia to help secure passage. “We all immediately endorsed that offer,” Clinton said of the famously rough-hewn Emanuel, prompting laughter in the room, which was filled with State Department, White House and National Security officials. (Washington Post)

In Moscow, the Kremlin, the government of the Soviet Union, hailed the accord. “The presidents agreed that the new treaty marks a higher level of cooperation between Russia and the United States in the development of new strategic relations,” a Kremlin statement said. (New York Times)

The Kremlin statement on Friday suggested that Russia would continue to push for a formal missile defence treaty. “The status of the interconnection between strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons will be registered in a legally binding form, as well as the growing significance of this relationship in the process of reducing strategic nuclear weapons,” it said. (New York Times)

Nikolai Sokov, a former Soviet arms negotiator now at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies in California, said the new pact was “both modest and essential” to more lasting accomplishments. “So much effort has been spent in the last several months that there is a tendency to see it as a major step forward,” he said. “I think 10 years from now, we will see it for what it is – a small bridge treaty, without which subsequent, much bigger achievements would not have been possible.” (New York Times)

Still, the fact that they were able to reach an agreement was a step forward for both countries. When the two presidents spoke on the phone Friday, according to an official briefed on the call, they congratulated themselves on breaking through the mistrust. “If you want something done right…” Mr. Medvedev said in English. Mr. Obama finished his thought: “You do it yourself.” (New York Times)


Bin Laden Derides Obama and Threatens Americans in New Tape

Osama bin Laden threatened in a new message released Thursday to kill any Americans al-Qaeda  captures if the U.S. executes the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks or other al-Qaeda suspects.

In the 74-second audiotape aired on Al-Jazeera television, the al-Qaeda leader explicitly mentions Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003. He is the most senior al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody and is currently detained at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In 2008, the U.S. charged Mohammed with with murder and war crimes in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Pentagon officials have said they will seek the death penalty for him. Four of his fellow plotters are also in custody.

“The White House has expressed its desire to execute them. The day America makes that decision will be the day it has issued a death sentence for any one of you that is taken captive,” Mr. bin Laden said, addressing Americans. (The Globe & Mail)

Mr. bin Laden also said U.S. President Barack Obama is following in the footsteps of his predecessor George W. Bush by escalating the war in Afghanistan, being “unjust” to al-Qaeda prisoners and supporting Israel in its occupation of Palestinian land. “The politicians of the White house were and still are wronging us, especially by supporting Israel and occupying our land in Palestine.” (The Globe & Mail)

“And the United States, across the oceans is protected from the rage of the oppressed until our reaction was loudly heard at your home on the 9/11 with God’s help.” (The New York Times)

“Equal treatment is only fair. War is a back-and-forth,” he added. (The Globe & Mail)

The White House had no immediate comment.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said it is absurd for al-Qaeda to suggest it is going to start treating captives badly. “They may have forgotten Danny Pearl and all the others they’ve slaughtered, but we haven’t,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified information. The official did not confirm that the tape was authentic. (The Globe & Mail)

After his March 2003 capture in Pakistan, Mohammed described himself as the architect of numerous terrorism plots and even claimed that “with my blessed right hand,” he had decapitated the Wall Street Journal reporter. He was found beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. (The Globe & Mail)

The U.S. is still considering whether to put Mohammed and the four fellow plotters on military tribunal. The Obama administration is also looking into recommendations for civil trials, and is expected to announce a decision soon.

Al-Qaeda is not known to be holding any Americans captive right now. But the Haqqani group – the Pakistan-based Taliban faction closest to al-Qaeda – is holding American soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahi who was captured in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. It released a video of him in December.

Mr. bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere in the rugged, lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The prospect of giving Mohammed and the four fellow plotters a civilian trial in New York City has led to protests by residents and relatives of Sept. 11 victims who fear that such a move could again make the city a terrorism target and that they should instead face a military trial.

Earlier this month, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said that if Mr. Obama agrees to try the five in military tribunals, he will press fellow Republicans to vote to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. When Obama took office in January 2009, he set a one-year deadline to close the Guantanamo facility but political and diplomatic complications have forced a delay.

Mr. Graham told CBS television’s Face the Nation March 7 that reversing Attorney-General Eric Holder’s plan to try the suspected terrorists in a civilian court in New York City would be seen as an act of leadership by the public. The White House is reviewing Mr. Holder’s plan and no new recommendation has been presented to the president. A decision is not expected for several weeks.

The threat could signal an increased kidnapping risk targeting U.S. citizens that could last throughout the trial in the United States, the U.S.-based IntelCenter, which monitors jihadist propaganda, said in a note. “The threat of kidnappings will increase further as the trial begins. Attempts to kidnap Americans would not be limited to core al-Qaeda,” the note said. “The group’s regional arms such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which has been aggressively targeting Westerners for kidnapping in North America, may follow through on bin Laden’s threat,” it added. (Reuters)

Purported bin Laden messages last surfaced in late January. In one of them, the al-Qaeda leader condemned the Untied States and other industrial nations for causing climate change. The message criticized former U.S. President George W. Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and the speaker condemned international corporations.

In another, bin Laden claimed responsibility for the alleged Christmas day attempt by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Adulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane as it approached Detroit, Michigan, from Amsterdam, Netherlands. Bin Laden also warned the United States of more attacks.


Pirate Killed in Failed Hijacking off Somalia

A suspected Somali pirate was killed during shooting between pirates and armed guards on board a Panamanian-flagged ship, a maritime official and EU anti-piracy taskforce said on Wednesday. Pirates on Tuesday seized a Turkish ship with its crew of 21 and a Bermuda-flagged reefer with a crew of 25.

The private guards protecting the MV Almezaan returned fire as they beat back two attacks by the same gang off the coast of lawless Somalia on Tuesday. Some reports have suggested the shooting marks the first time since the upsurge in pirate attacks in recent years that private contractors have killed to defend cargo shipping.

A Spanish warship patrolling the waters deployed a helicopter that fired warning shots to stop the pirates as they fled the area. Spanish troops seized six individuals, recovered one body and destroyed three pirate vessels.

“The body has been transferred to NAVARRA,” EU NAVFOR said in a statement on its website, referring to the Spanish frigate. “An investigation indicated that the individual had died from small callibre gunshot wounds,” it added. (The Globe & Mail)

The MV Almezaan was en route to the Somali capital Mogadishu, the statement said. Kenyan maritime official Andrew Mwangura confirmed the incident by telephone from the port city of Mombasa.

Marauding sea gangs have attacked ships in the busy lanes of the Gulf of Aden that link Europe and Asia for several years, earning ransoms worth millions of dollars from vessels captured. A fleet of foreign navies are patrolling the waters, operating convoys and offering safe transit corridors. But they have found themselves increasingly stretched as the pirates roam further out into the Indian Ocean.

Pirates are known to use fire-arms and rocket-propelled grenades in their attacks on ships but rarely harm the crew of vessels they capture. Several organizations, including the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), have expressed concern that the use of armed security contractors could encourage pirates to be more violent when taking a ship.

Some shippers have already started to avoid the Gulf of Aden, opting to go around the Cape of Good Hope, raising transport costs, while others have chosen to carry private guards.

Somalia has not had a functioning government for nearly two decades and analysts believe that the attacks on shipping will continue as long as there is no central government capable of taking on the pirate gangs.


China vs. Google: The Chess Game Continues…

In the chess game between Beijing and Google, Google has redirected all search traffic from mainland China to Google’s Hong Kong site, google.com.hk rather than pulling out of China. Although Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed over to Beijing in 1997, the region operates with some autonomy and has a free press.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighed in on Tuesday, saying Google’s moves won’t impact Sino-U.S. relations – despite a raft of editorials in state media over the weekend chastising Google and accusing the company of having close ties to the Obama administration.

“The Google incident is just an individual action taken by one company – I can’t see its impact on Sino-U.S. relations unless someone wants to politicize it,” said Qin Gang, ministry spokesperson. “I cannot see its impact on China’s international image unless someone wants to make an issue of it,” Qin added. “It is not China that has undermined its image but rather it is the Google company itself.” (CNN)

China state media said Google’s decision to quit censoring its China Web site “violated its written promise” and was “totally wrong.” (CNN)

“We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a statement posted on the company’s official blog.

As of 9:30 p.m. ET, Google users in China could still access Google.cn but results on politically sensitive search teams, such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” or the outlawed religious group “Falun Gong,” were blocked when searched from Beijing – suggesting that although Google is no longer self censoring, China state sensors of “the Great Firewall” may be.

A similar search in Hong Kong, however, successfully loads searches for controversial terms. Google indicated yesterday in a blog post that using the Hong Kong site could be patchy or slow due to so much traffic being redirected to its servers there.

Google made an announcement on its Web site at 3:03 a.m. local Beijing time (3:03 p.m. ET). China Daily, a state-run media organization, responded with a story four hours later quoting an unnamed official from the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office.

“Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks,” said the official. “This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts,” the official added. (CNN)

Chen Yafei, a Chinese informant technology specialist, told Reuters that Google should have accepted Chinese regulation if it wanted to operate in the country. “Any company entering China should abide by Chinese laws,” he said. “Chinese Internet users will have no regrets if Google withdraws.” (BBC)

Edward U, chief executive of Analysys International, a Beijing-based research firm specializing in technology issues, said he did not believe Google’s rerouting was sustainable. “The thing that makes the government unhappy is this kind of gesture,” he said. “They may set up barriers against Google.” (BBC)

Instead of shuttering its operations in China, Google plans to continue operating there. “We intend to continue R&D work in China and also maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk,” wrote Drummond of Google. (CNN)

The company said it would maintain a research and development and sales presence in China, where about 700 of its 20,000 employees are based.

The company on Monday also launched a dashboard page, which it promises to update regularly each day, that will show which Google services are available in China. According to the page, YouTube, Google Sites and Google’s Blogger apps were blocked, with some others partially blocked, such as Picasa.

The government wouldn’t comment whether Google’s actions were legal or if the government planned further action.

In Beijing, some passers-by laid flowers outside Google’s offices to thank the company for standing up for its principles.

International human rights groups praised Google’s move, with the New York-based Human Rights in China saying Google had put the ball in Beijing’s court – China promised to respect freedoms in Hong Kong when it regained the territory in 1997.

Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the CPJ hoped it would “ramp up pressure on the Chinese government to allow its citizens to access the news and information they need.” (BBC)

A Paris-based rights group, Reporters Without Borders, called Google’s decision a bold move which other Internet companies should follow. Foreign Internet companies have to comply with China’s stringent censorship rules before being allowed to operate in the country.


China Sandstorms Prompt Health Warnings

Sandstorms whipping across China shrouded cities in an unhealthy cloud of sand and grit Monday, with winds carrying the pollution outside the mainland as far as the island of Taiwan.

Overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought have expanded deserts in the country’s north and west. The shifting sands have gradually encroached onto populated areas and worsened sandstorms that strike cities, particularly in the spring.

Winds blowing from the northwest have been sweeping sand across the country since Saturday, affecting Xinjiang in the far west all the way to Beijing in the country’s east. The sand and dust were carried to parts of southern China and even to cities in Taiwan.

The storms are a product of worsening desertification in Inner Mongolia and other Gobi Desert regions hundreds of miles to the north and west of Beijing. Strong winds pick up the loose dust and dirt, mixing them with industrial pollution.

Beijing’s air quality index was set at Level 4, one grade better than the most serious Level 5 that was reached Saturday as the mixture of sand, dust and pollution blasted the capital. City meteorologists said conditions would improve, but warned the sand would linger through midweek.

Beijing residents hunkered indoors as the fine dust worked its way into homes and offices, cutting visibility to around 1,000 metres. Outside, people scurried along sand-strewn sidewalks, covering their faces with gauzy handkerchiefs or donning surgical masks. There were no immediate reports of illnesses connected to the dust.

“It gets in your throat, under your clothes, in your bed,” said Beijing street sweeper Xue Yuan. “I hate it, but there’s really nothing you can do.” (Washington Post)

“What has lead to the floating dust in Beijing is what we call a ‘Mongolian cyclone’, a whirlwind caused by low atomspheric pressure,” says Zhang Mingying, a senior engineer at the Beijing Meteorology Bureau. “The centre of the Mongolian cyclone is usually 800 to 1,000 kilometres to the northwest of Beijing, a vast desert region covering southern Mongolia and northwestern Inner Mongolia. The cyclone draws sand and dust particles into high altitudes and together with a strong north wind, it brings sand grains to nearby areas, and smaller dust particles further south.” (Time)

Guo Hu, head of Beijing’s Meteorological agency, said the storms have become less frequent in recent years. “The situation improved tremendously after [the 2006 storm],” he told Xinhua. “Thanks to the mild climate and conservation efforts, Beijing had only one sandstorm last year.” (BBC)

The sandstorm in Taiwan, 160 kilometres from the mainland, forced people to cover their faces to avoid breathing in the grit that can cause chest discomfort and respiratory problems even in healthy people. Drivers complained their cars were covered in a layer of black soot in just 10 minutes.

The airport on the Taiwanese-controlled islet of Matsu, just off the mainland coast, suspended services Sunday due to poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.

In Hong Kong, environmental protection officials said pollution levels were climbing as the sandstorm moved south. Twenty elderly people sought medical assistance for shortness of breath, Hong Kong’s radio RTHK reported. The Hong Kong government urged people to stay indoors and encouraged schools to cancel sports events.

Across the 160-kilometre -wide Taiwan Strait, island residents covered their mouths to avoid breathing the grit. Some flights were canceled due to poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.

Li Dongping, a tourist visiting Tiananmen Square from southern China, said more needs to be done to boost environmental protection and public awareness. “We need to improve our environment, we should plant more trees and improve the soil infrastructure, and also we should raise our sense of environmental protection,” Li said. (Washington Post)

Grit from Chinese sandstorms has been found to travel as far as South Korea, Japan and even the western United States. The sand that covered the city of Taipei on Sunday had mostly moved to the island’s south by Monday, and was expected to dissipate by Tuesday.

The Central Meteorological Station urged people to close doors and windows, and cover their faces with masks or scarves when going outside. Sensitive electronic and mechanical equipment should be sealed off, the station said in a warning posted Monday on its website.

China Central Television told viewers to clean out their noses with salt water and remove grit from ears with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol.

State television’s noon newscast showed the tourist city of Hangzhou on the eastern coast, where graceful bridges and waterside pagodas were hidden in a mix of sand and other pollution.

In Beijing, residents and tourists with faces covered scurried along sidewalks to minimize exposure to the pollution.

Over the weekend China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, visited the region and called for united efforts to combat what he called an “extraordinary disaster”. (Al Jazeera.net)

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing warned that particulate matter in the air made conditions “hazardous”, though high winds dispersed some of the pollution and the air quality was later upgraded to “very unhealthy”. (CBC)

Duan Li, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Meteorological Station, said conditions in the city seemed more severe because a sandstorm on Saturday deposited grit on rooftops, sidewalks and trees. The winds Monday carried in even more sand and stirred up what was already there.

The latest sandstorms were the most severe in China in several years. A massive sandstorm hit Beijing in 2006, when winds dumped about 300,000 tons of sand on the capital.