Monthly Archives: April 2010

China Hit with Multiple Student Attacks

China’s kindergarten and preschools increased security after another violent attack on children and teachers Friday. The execution of a former doctor who stabbed eight children to death and wounded five others at an elementary school in eastern China last month failed to deter what police say are copycat attacks, state media reported.

“Chinese society has generated enormous pressure on individuals and some of those individuals have perhaps had emotional and psychological problems,” sociologist Ding Xueliang said. (CNN) “They want to cause general attention from the population and attacking kids is perhaps the best way from their perspective of achieving this objective.” (CNN)

The last attack came Friday at 7:40 a.m., when an armed man with a hammer injured five preschool children in east China before setting himself on fire in a classroom suicide, a government spokesman told Xinhua news agency. Wang Yonglai used a motorcycle to break down the gate of the Shangzhuang Primary School in the city of Weifang City, Shandong province, and struck a teacher who tried to block him before hitting students with a hammer, Xinhua said. The attacker had two children in his arms as he poured gasoline over himself, the spokesman said. Teachers pulled the children away as the man died, the spokesman said. All five victims from the attack were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening, he said. The attack was confirmed by an employee at the Weifang Public Security information office. Wang’s motive was unclear. Xinhua described him only as a farmer.

The incident followed at least three other attacks in China in recent weeks in which assailants have killed our wounded students. This is unusual in a country where extreme violence is comparatively rare and strict controls keep most people from owning guns. On Thursday, at least 29 children were injured when a man with an eight-inch (20-centimeter) knife attacked a kindergarten in Taixing city in Jiangsu province, state media said. Most of the victims were 4- or 5-year-olds and five of the children were in critical condition. The victims also included two teachers and a security guard. Police have arrested a 47-year-old suspect identified as Xu Yuyuan, a former insurance agent.

On Wednesday, a 33-year-old former teacher identified as Chen Kangbing, broke into a primary school in the southern city of Leizhou and wounded 15 students and a teacher with a knife. The attacker had been on sick leave from another school since 2006 for mental health problems.

This week’s attacks came despite the execution of Zheng Minsheng, 42, a former community doctor convicted for the March 23 attack. In the attack, Zheng killed eight children outside their elementary school as they waited with their parents for classes to start. Zheng, executed by a firing squad in Nanping City on Wednesday, told investigators he carried out the attack because he was frustrated by “failures in his romantic life and in society,” according to Xinhua. Zheng reportedly wanted revenge on “rich” and “powerful officials” in Nanping, where he lived, Xinhua said, quoting his neighbors.

China Daily newspaper quoted Nanjing University sociology professor Zhu Li saying Zheng’s attack inspired copycats. “Some people may not have thought about stabbing school children, but due to the media’s coverage of such a case, they got the idea,” Zhu said. (CNN)

State media reports have largely shied away from why students have been targets. Experts say outbursts against defenseless children can be due to social pressures in a rapidly changing society. The attacks have been particularly shocking because most urban families in China have only one child due to government population control policies. “Children are the ones people care about the most, and they are the most innocent,” said Ma Ai, a sociology professor at the China University of Political Sciences and Law in Beijing. Targeting children is “beyond the bottom line of human morals,” he said. (The Associated Press)

State media either ignored or played down Friday’s attack. It wasn’t mentioned on the evening news in the eastern province of Shandong, where it occurred, and Xinhua didn’t release a Chinese-language story on its website. Experts have worried openly about copycats, but authorities may also have wanted to avoid overshadowing Friday’s opening of the World Expo in Shanghai, a pet government project. “In circumstances like this, where it appears quite possible that there’s a copycat element, it’s responsible for agencies to limit both the volume and the type of publicity,” said Michael Phillips, the Shanghai-based co-author of a mental health survey in China published in the medical journal The Lancet in June. (The Associated Press)

A group of parents marched Friday night outside the Taixing People’s Hospital, demanding a better government response and proper care for their children. Video posted online showed them holding signs that read “Baby come home,” and chanting “We want the truth!” (The Associated Press) Two witnesses, including a parent, confirmed the protest by phone and said police were at the scene. A photo posted online showed what looked like hundreds of people outside the hospital. Another showed broken glass on a sidewalk, describing it as the hospital entrance. The same Twitter feed later showed a photo of city leaders meeting with parents and said they told the crowd that four people remain in grave condition.

Chinese authorities have begun teaching safety awareness in school curriculums, China Daily reported. Officials have also tightened security in schools by hiring extra guards to escort students to and from class. In the capital, the Beijing Education Commission ordered armed tactical police to begin patrolling around nursery, primary and secondary schools starting May 4, the first day back to school after the May Day holiday. Police will be on site when classes begin and end. According to news reports, guards will be armed with police batons and pepper spray in a district of the eastern city of Nanjing, and guards at kindergarten, elementary and middle schools in one Beijing district have been given long-handled metal restraint poles with a hook on the end. In Jinan, the capital of the province where Friday’s attack occurred, police posts are being built on elementary and middle school campuses.

Students, teachers and parents are receiving counseling to help deal with the trauma, according to authorities.

In an editorial Friday, the English-language China Daily said security should be tightened at schools nationwide, but it stressed the need to prevent attacks in the first place. China likely has about 173 million adults with mental health disorders, and 158 million of them have never had professional help, according to a survey in four provinces published in The Lancet in June. Mental illness remains a closeted topic in modern China, and neither medication nor modern psychiatric treatment is widely used.

Some experts like Mr. He said that beyond mental illness, rising strains in China’s fast-changing society might have a role in the growing number of violent crimes. Most school assaults have occurred on the east coast, where both the cost of living and income inequality are high.

“It can be easy to put killers on trial and execute them, but it is far more difficult to find out the deep-seated causes behind such horrifying acts,” the China Daily editorial said. “Our efforts should be focused on preventing these from happening. We should find out what propelled them to such extremes. What problems do they have? Could anyone have helped, especially the authorities?”


New Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico Proves Situation More Dire than Originally Thought

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Thursday as winds drove a massive oil spill toward the state’s coast and authorities scrambled to mitigate its environmental effects. The slick was some 16 miles off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of last week’s oil rig explosion, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Authorities said the slick could begin affecting some coastal areas by Thursday evening, with the bulk expected Friday.

The slick covered some 600 square miles of water Thursday, state officials estimated. Ten wildlife refuges or management areas in Mississippi and Louisiana are in the oil’s likely path; the first likely to be affected is the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area at the tip of the Mississippi River.

“We’re sitting here half praying and half with our fingers, toes and everything else crossed,” said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association in Pointe-La-Hache, who lost five boats when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. (Reuters) Louisiana’s coast contains some 40% of the nation’s wetlands and spawning grounds for countries fish and birds.

“This brings home the issue that drilling despite all the advancements in technology is still a risky business,” said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. (Reuters) AFP news agency reports that two Louisiana shrimpers have filed a lawsuit accusing the operators of the rig of negligence, and seeking at least $5 million in damages plus undetermined punitive damages. Under U.S. law, BP will be expected to meet all the costs of the spill clean-up operation.

The U.S. government has designated the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill as an “incident of national significance”. (BBC) Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters that this move would allow resources to be ordered in from other areas of the U.S. Ms. Napolitano is to go to the area to oversee operations.The U.S. military has joined efforts to stem oil leaking from the well beneath where a rig exploded and sank last week, as fears rise about its scale.

At the White House, President Obama said the federal government will use “every single resource at our disposal” to help contain the oil spill. (CNN) Obama has called the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to discuss the spill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. (CNN)

A command center already is open in Robert, Louisiana. A second will be opened in Mobile, Alabama, Napolitano said.

The government has reached out to the Department of Defence and asked whether it could provide expertise or assets in addition to the other tactics being deployed, Napolitano said.

Rear Admiral Mary Landry said 5,000 barrels a day – five times more than initially thought – were believed to be gushing into the sea off Louisiana. “This is not an exact science when you estimate the amount of oil,” Landry said, noting there are a lot of variables in calculating the rate of the spill. (CNN) “However, NOAA is telling me now that they prefer we use the 5,000 barrels a day as an estimate of what has actually leaked from this well and will continue to leak until BP secures the source.” (CNN)

Meanwhile, the government had ordered inspections of all deep-water oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico to see if anti-spill regulations are being followed.

If the coastguard estimate is correct, within two months the spill could match the 11 million gallons spilt from the Exxon Valdez tanker off Alaska in 1989.

BP is the owner of the well, while Transocean Ltd. owns and operates the rig. BP’s chief operating officer of exploration and production, Doug Suttles, welcomed the U.S. military’s offer to help. He said the company was using remote operative vehicles (ROVs) to try to find out how much oil was leaking into the sea. “I do not disagree with the admiral’s estimate that it could be 5,000 barrels a day – it’s clearly within the range of uncertainty,” said Mr. Suttles. (CNN) “This is very, very difficult to estimate,” Mr. Suttles told reporters. “Down below the surface we actually can’t meter this oil so we can just observe it… what our ROV pictures show to us on the sea floor hasn’t changed since we first saw the leak… but what we can say based on what we’re picking up on the surface it looks like it is more.” (BBC) Mr. Suttles estimated something between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels a day was leaking. “We’ll take help from anyone, I mean we welcome the offer from the Department of Defence, we’re working with the experts across the industry,” he said. “We’re not interested in where the idea comes from, what we’re interested in is how do we stop this flow and how do we stop it now?” (Reuters)

Meanwhile, a firefighting expert said the disaster may become the biggest oil spill ever. Mike Miller, head of Canadian oil well firefighting company Safety Boss, told the BBC World Service: “Probably the only thing comparable to this is the Kuwait fires [following the Gulf War in 1991]. The Exxon Valdez is going to pale in comparison to this as it goes on.” (BBC) Scientists say only a quarter of local marine wildlife survived the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The scale of the operation to contain the oil spill and protect both the U.S. coastline and wildlife is unprecedented, with the military and other government agencies collaborating with BP – which had hired the sunken rig – and industry leaders. Efforts to stem the flow are being complicated by the depth of the leak at the underwater well, which is about 5,000 ft (1,525 m) beneath the surface.

A coastguard crew has set fire to part of the oil slick in an attempt to save environmentally-fragile wetlands. A “controlled burn” of surface oil took place in the area about 30 miles (50 km) east of the Mississippi River delta.

Mr. Miller warned that burning off leaking oil was not a long-term solution. “The object of this game is to shut off the flow,” he said. (BBC)

The Coast Guard had hoped to conduct another controlled burn of the oil slick Thursday, but sea and wind conditions were preventing it, Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara told reporters. “As soon as there is an appropriate window, we will continue the controlled burn activity,” she said. (CNN)

The military could be enlisted to drop or spray more dispersants on the oil, although specifics are still being developed, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Erik Swanson said.

Top operations planners briefed Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday morning in anticipation of the possible request for assistance from the Coast Guard, said spokesman Capt. John Kirby. Mullen was told the weather is worsening, and the oil is set to reach the Louisiana coast Friday, Kirby said. Wind patterns out of the Southeast over the next few hours are increasing the likelihood the oil will come ashore. “This is just prudent military planning,” Kirby said. “This thing is not getting better.” (CNN)

Engineers are working on a dome-like device to cover oil rising to the surface and pump it to container vessels, but it may be weeks before this is in place. It is feared that work on sealing the leak well using robotic sumbersibles might take months. BP is also working on a “relief well” to intersect the original well, but this is experimental and could take two to three months to stop the flow.

Seventy vessels – oil skimmers, tugboats barges and special recovery boats that separate oil from water – as well as five airplanes, were working to spray dispersants and round up oil, BP said.

The cause of the explosion remains under investigation. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead after the worst oil rig disaster in almost a decade. Search efforts for the eleven have been halted due to the increase danger on the coastline.

Update: Greek Debt Crisis Shows Europe’s Clash of Cultures

Global stock markets sagged Wednesday, held back by a nagging crisis in Greece as concerns mount over debt loads across Europe.

Markets were looking for reassurance from a meeting Wednesday between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet about whether Germany will live up to its pledge to bail out its European neighbour.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said that every day lost in resolving Greece’s problems risks spreading the impact “far away”. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was speaking at a news conference in Berlin after trying to persuade reluctant German politicians to back the terms of a rescue deal.
Greece has said it can’t pay debts coming due May 19 without billions in bailout loans from the countries that use the euro, as well as the IMF. The IMF has pledged 10 billion euros in aid, but that is well short of the total 45-billion-euro ($60.2-billion Cdn) Greek debt load.

Germany, which would be the biggest single contributor to the bailout package, has delayed approving its eight-billion-euro share, calling for strict conditions and parliamentary approval that could take time.

That raised fears Greece might not get the money it needs to stave off collapse.

Last week, the yield on two-year Greek bonds sat at 10 per cent. That jumped to 16 per cent on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the bonds were trading hands with a 25 per cent yield, suggesting investors are quickly losing faith that Greece will ever be able to pay back its debts.

The catalyst appears to be Tuesday’s downgrade of Greek bonds to “junk” status by the Standard & Poor’s ratings agency. The agency also lowered Portugal’s credit-worthiness by two notches, stroking fears that Greece’s problems will spread to other countries with troubled finances such as Spain and Italy that are too large to be bailed out.

Late Wednesday morning, S & P did just that, moving Spain’s ratings down a notch to AA.

The agency said Spain’s growth prospects were weak after the collapse of a credit-fuelled housing and construction bubble.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s comments foreshadowed S&P’s news. “What is at stake today is the economic situation of Greece. But it’s more than that. We also need to restore confidence… I’m confident that the problem will be fixed. But if we don’t fix it in Greece, it may have a lot of consequences on the European union.” (BBC)

The downgrade “has sent the bond markets into meltdown and equity investors toward the exits,” said Michael Hewson, an analyst with CMC Markets in London. (CBC)

Spain’s deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa de la Vega, appealed for market claim, telling reporters: “We have a very serious plan of… deficit reduction. We have adopted an austerity program. We are adopting all the measures needed to meet our commitments. So I want to send a message of confidence to the population and of calm to the markets,” she said. (BBC)

“This is like Ebola,” OECD secretary general Angel Gurria told Bloomberg on Wednesday regarding Europe’s debt contagion. “When you realize you have it, you have to cut your leg off in order to survive.”

Authorities in Athens halted short-selling of stocks for two months as the Athens stock exchange continued a six-day losing streak Wednesday. The ban on betting that shares will go down will remain in force until June 28.

Across europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares fared comparatively well, moving up 13.18 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 5,616.7. Frankfurt’s DAX exchange lost 33.3 points, or 0.5 per cent, to 3,813.81.

In Lisbon, the PSI 20 index was up 0.8 per cent at 7,211.94 after earlier having dropped by as much as six per cent.

The euro hit a 12-month low on Wednesday, trading at $1.3134 US, down 0.0036 cents.

In North America, markets were essentially flat with the S&P/TSX Composite Index in Toronto down 68.2 points in 12.078.6. In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 11.5 points to 10,980.

Many Germans oppose the Greek bailout. A poll by Dimap, for German newspaper Die Welt and French broadcaster France 24, showed that 57 per cent of Germans thought that aid was a bad decision while just 33 per cent favoured such a move. The survey was conducted earlier this month and surveyed 1,009 people. No margin of error was given.

Underscoring the German debate is an important election in Germany’s most populous state on May 9. Merkel is also coming under pressure from within her own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, over her handling of the Greek issue.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble stressed an interview with the Handelsblatt daily that Germany is committed to helping Greece. “The German government is not riding the brakes,” Schaeuble said. “We are pushing for a quick decision.” (CBC)

A government spokesman, who refused to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Finance Ministry had already prepared draft legislation for parliament to approve the loan guarantees – a critical and necessary step for the German contribution to go through.

“They apparently treated their capital like waste,” said Ilona Reichelt, a German retiree standing Wednesday near the Brandenburg gate, the Berlin landmark. “It’s not like they’ve suffered an earthquake or a natural disaster. It’s a man-made disaster.” (The Associated Press)

In trying to explain how Greeks think, some point to Zorba the Greek, the fictional, free-spirited figure of dance. He’s not the type to get his finances in order. “I wouldn’t say that all Greeks are Zorba, but part of every Greek is this love of life and this love of enjoyment,” said Nikos Dimou, a 75-year-old Greek author who studied in Germany and has been most industrious – producing 60 titles in all. “The Greeks have a rather negative view about the Germans because they work too much.” (The Associated Press)

Dimou attributes the differences between southern and northern Europe to the lack of a “Protestant work ethic” in the south – as well as the sun-splashed Mediterranean climate, which slows the pace and encourages corner-cutting. By contrast, Nordic countries have robust public finances, though Iceland’s economy spiral in 2008 puts the weather theory to the test. (The Associated Press)

In the meantime, stocks sagged and markets sold off Greek bonds with a vengeance. Investors appeared to anticipate Athens would eventually have to default or restructure its debt payments at some point even if the bailout gets it past May 19, when it has debt coming due.

A key indicator of risk – the interest rate gap, or spread between Greek 10-year bonds and the benchmark German equivalent – hit an astonishing 9.63 points, a massive jump from around 6.4 points on Tuesday.

It translates into borrowing costs at the moment of nearly 13 per cent for a 10-year bond, four times what Germany pays to borrow.

Chaos Reigns as Ukraine Approves Russian Naval Base Extension

Opposition lawmakers hurled eggs and smoke bombs inside Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday as the chamber approved an agreement allowing the Russian Navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.

Crowds of spectators and opponents scuffled outside the parliament building as deputies from newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich’s coalition approved a 25-year extension to the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea.

“Today will go down as a black page in the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament,” former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, now in opposition, told journalists inside the parliament. (The Globe & Mail)

“Parliament ratified this agreement on a treacherous path. We will change it as soon as we return to power,” she added. (CBC)

“Ukraine has begun to lose its independence,” she added. (New York Times)

The chamber filled with smoke as the smoke bombs were released and Speaker Volodymyr Litvyn took shelter under umbrellas provided by bodyguards as eggs rained down on him. Some protesting deputies unfurled Ukrainian flags across the benches. Others were seen throwing punches on the floor of the chamber, and covering their faces with handkerchiefs to protect themselves from the smoke.

The protests galvanized various opposition parties against Mr. Yanukovich for the first time since he was elected in February and they may yet prove a defining moment in the forming of a united opposition front.

They also highlighted the deep division in the ex-Soviet republic of 46 million. Mr. Yanukovich enjoys support mainly from Russian-speakers in the east and south, including Crimea, who lean more towards Moscow.

Ukrainian nationalists from the west and centre, led by Ms. Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yuschenko, regard the base as a betrayal of national interests. They wanted to remove it when the existing lease runs out in 2017.

Deputies brawled and the chamber resounded to cries of “impeachment!”, “coup!”, and “betrayal” as passions ran high. (The Globe & Mail)

But, with the air still hazy from the smoke bombs, parliament ratified the lease extension by 236 votes – 10 more than the minimum required for it to pass – and then promptly adopted the 2010 state budget which is key for securing $12-billion (U.S.) in credit from the International Monetary Fund.

Parliament bypassed normal procedure and rushed through adoption of the budget without discussion because of the mayhem.

Mr. Yanukovich agreed the navy base deal with Russian leader Dmitry Mededev on April 21 in exchange for a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas – a boon to Kiev’s struggling economy.

“There is no alternative to this decision – because ratification means a lower price for gas and a lower price for gas means the budget,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said. “The budget means agreement with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the possibility of getting investments. It is a program of development for Ukraine in the future.” (The Globe & Mail)

Ms. Tymoshenko, speaking to a rally, said: “We have one slogan: Ukraine is not for sale. We must build a powerful system for the defence of Ukraine.” (The Globe & Mail)

Former parliament Speaker Arsenly Yatensyuk, who also ran for president, called for early parliamentary elections.

Mr. Yanukovich, speaking to journalists in Strasbourg where he attended a session of the Council of Europe, dismissed the disturbances, according to Interfax Ukraine news agency, saying: “Nothing unexpected took place in the Ukraine parliament.” (The Globe & Mail)

Mr. Yanukovich said the new deal added a “concrete and pragmatic dimension” to centuries of relations between Ukrainians and Russians. (CNN)

Besides addressing the lease on the naval base, Mr. Yanukovich took another step on Tuesday toward soothing tensions with Russia by disavowing his predecessor’s stance on the famine in the early 1930’s that killed millions of people in Ukraine.

Mr. Yuschenko, who was a strident critic of Moscow, had labeled the deaths a genocide against the Ukrainian people that was authorized by Stalin in an effort to weaken Ukraine and ensure that it would remain under Soviet authority. Russia has assailed that view, saying that people across the Soviet Union died in the famine, not only those in Ukraine.

In comments on Tuesday, Mr. Yanukovich said he did not believe that the famine was a genocide against the Ukrainian people.

“The famine occurred in Ukraine, in Russia, in Belarus, Kazakhstan – it was a consequence of the Stalinist totalitarian regime,” Mr. Yanukovich said. “But to recognize the famine as a fact of a genocide in relation to one or another nation, we consider that incorrect and unfair.” (New York Times)

The Kremlin has presented the base deal as a diplomatic coup and Russia’s lower house of parliament approved it with 410 of the 450 lawmakers voting for the deal under an hour after the Ukrainian parliament voted.

“The Black Sea fleet acts as a guarantor of security both in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea,” Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after the two votes. (The Globe & Mail)

The Russian fleet has been based in Sevastopol since the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. But, under an accord after Ukraine gained independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the fleet would have had to leave in 2017.

Mr. Yushchenko, Mr. Yanukovich’s pro-Western predecessor who favoured Ukrainian membership of NATO, pushed hard when he was in office for the fleet to be withdrawn.

But Mr. Yanukovich wants to improve ties with Ukraine’s former Soviet master. He says the Black Sea fleet does not endanger Ukraine’s national interests and enhances European security.

Mr. Yanukovich’s opponents say he is acting against the constitution. But the constitution is ambiguous, containing two contradictory articles on foreign military bases in the country.

Nina Matviychuk, a 60-year-old pensioner, welcomed the move. “The Russian ships in Sevastopol are in a bad state and need repairing, building. It probably means more money for our factories. It will be work for us,” she said in Kiev. (The Globe & Mail)

Miroslav, a 48-year-old who did not want to give his surname, thought differently. “We Ukrainian patriots are against gas being reduced for 10 years and Crimea being given away for 25 years. I’d like the price of beer to come down, but so what?” (The Globe & Mail)

Another protester outside the parliament, Igor Derevyanko, accused Russia of “financing anti-Ukrainian projects.” He was quoted as saying, “This is a permanent threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity because the Black Sea fleet is the outpost of the Russian state in Ukraine.” (BBC)

The Russian fleet in Sevastopol comprises 16,200 serviceman, a rocket cruiser, a large destroyer and about 40 other vessels.

Proponents point out that the Crimea was part of Russia until then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in the 1950s. The region retains a Russian-leading population.

On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Kiev, where he announced offers for wide range co-operation on aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding and the generation of nuclear power.

“We are talking about creating a large holding which would bring together joint power generation, joint power station construction and the fuel cycle,” he was quoted as saying. He said the controversy over the base deal was “to be honest, unexpected.” (BBC)

The price Ukraine had asked was “beyond all reasonable limits,” he said, and the gas subsidies would cost Russia $40-45 billion over 10 years. But he added that the deal was “not just a question of money.” (BBC)

“Military co-operation, without a doubt, increases trust between two countries, gives us an opportunity to do work full of trust in the economic and social and political spheres,” he said. “This is in fact the main thing.” (BBC)

Update: Thailand’s King Speaks Amidst Growing Tension

Words From A Hospital Room Seem Non-Committal

Thailand’s ailing king spoke publicly Monday for the first time since his country descended into political chaos, but the man seen by many as the best hope for securing a peaceful resolution failed to address the deadly crisis that has shut down parts of the capital.

Speaking at the hospital where he has been for more than seven months, King Bhumibol Adulyadej told newly appointed judges that they should faithfully carry out their duties and help keep the country stable.

“In the country, there might be people who reject their duties, but you can set an example that there are those who perform their duties strictly and honestly,” the 82-year-old king said. (The Associated Press)

“I would like all you to preserve honesty,” he said, adding that “it will be a way to help the country to be progressing and stabilized at the same time.” (CNN)

The king added that in performing their duties, the judges “would help to uphold justice and order of the country, and this is very important. If you do follow your oath strictly, it will bring order to the country, certainly.” (CNN)

“It will show that there are officials in the country who perform their duties with strong, clear will and are determined to maintain stability in the country,” he said. “This will give people the determination to perform their own duties as well.” (CBC)

At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since anti-government protesters known as the Red Shirts began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, closing five-star hotels and shopping malls and devestating the country’s vital tourism industry.

“The king’s words will be interpreted by some as a statement of support for those who have been arguing that the police and military have been failing in their duties to maintain peace, law and order,” said Prof. Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies specialist at the University of North Carolina. “But as is often the case in recent times, his words can be interpreted in multiple ways.” (The Associated Press)

The king’s lack of clear statement signaled he was not prepared to take a public role in resolving the crisis, as he did in 1973 when he stopped the bloodshed during a student uprising and again in 1992 during antimilitary street protests. As a constitutional monarch, he has no formal political power, but the respect he commands makes him one of the country’s few credible mediators.

The U.S.-born Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, has been hospitalized since Sept. 19,  when he was admitted with fatigue and loss of appetite. The palace has said he is recovering from a lung inflammation, but has not explained why he has been hospitalized for so long.

“For many, what may be more significant is yet another display of a king in declining health and the specter of succession adding to the politically chaotic times that seem set to drag on for some time,” said Hewison, referring to unease about whether the king’s heir-apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkom, can keep the monarchy in its same exalted position. (The Associated Press)

The government said Monday it hopes to resolve the problem peacefully, despite a breakdown in negotiations, but added it could not allow the protests to go on indefinitely.

“We’re required to keep peace and return the area to normalcy,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagom said. (The Associated Press)

Red Shirts vs. Yellow Shirts

The Red Shirts consist largely of poor, rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the Minister Thaksin Shinawartra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 on corruption allegations. The group – formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – believes that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajva’s government – backed by the urban elite – is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country’s powerful military.

The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, and a pro-establishment group known as the Yellow Shirts has demanded that authorities crack down on the demonstrators – even implying they might take matters into their own hands.

“The government has the responsibility to protect the people, but instead shows its weakness and inability to enforce the law,” Suriyasai Katasila, a leader of the Yellow Shirts, said Monday. (The Associated Press)

The Yellow Shirts, formally known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, in 2008 took over the prime minister’s office for three months and Bangkok’s two airports for a week to try to force two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office. Their self-appointed mission is to keep Thaksin from returning to power.

The Yellow Shirts had given the government a deadline of April 25 to deal with the protesters. “There should be an announcement of martial law,” said Katasila. “If the situation does not improve, PAD will consider intensifying its measures.” (BBC)

Protests Continue as Protesters Set Up Checkpoints to Hinder Police

Many Red Shirt supporters around and outside the capital tried Monday to prevent police reinforcements from moving into Bangkok.

In at least six places around the country, Red Shirt supporters scattered nails along roads, set up checkpoints and searched vans and buses for police officers headed to the capital.

“Reds everywhere will stop police and army from coming to Bangkok,” said Nattawut Saikuar, a red leader. “We will step up our peaceful measures to stop the reinforcement. Our people will ask the police and army to return to their barracks.” (BBC)

Some police heading to Bankok were forced to return to their bases, while police in the central province of Phitsanulok, impatient after a five-hour standoff with the Red Shirts, broke through a cordon of protesters who hurled rocks and wooden sticks at them, Thai media reported.

While there was no violence in the central Bangkok shopping area where protesters remained camped for a 24th day, an explosion injured eight people late Sunday near the home of former Prime Minister Benham Silapa-archa, who is allied with the ruling coalition.

Thaksin, who fled Thailand ahead of a conviction on corruption charges, said Monday that he is in contact with the protesters and defended their cause.

“We just fight for democracy. Let them fight for democracy and justice,” he said in Montenegro, one of several countries that have offered him passports, generally in return for investments by the telecommunications billionaire. His appearance belied rumors in Bangkok that he was dead or critically ill. (The Associated Press)

Is There Any Way Out?

The government appears to have left itself few immediate ways out of the crisis.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Abhisit rejected a softened deadline for Parliament’s dissolution by the Red Shirts, dashing hopes for a peaceful end to the standoff. He said the priority is stopping “terrorists” whom the government hold responsible for violence associated with the protesters.

He promised that Bangkok’s commercial district would be cleared of protesters but said “the process, the measures, how and when it will be done we cannot disclose because it depends on several things.” (BBC)

“There will be no negotiations until shadowy elements are contained,” he said. (CBC)

Spokesman Pantitan Wattanayagorn told CNN Saturday that there was no counter-proposal to get the negotiations back on track. “We need to make sure negotiations take place under a conducive environment,” Panitan said, explaining that previous attempts to talk to opposition leaders had been derailed due to threats against government officials.

Other conditions that must be met before any negotiations could take place include having protest leaders make sure there will be no further expansion of demonstrations into other districts and no threats to government officers, the government spokesman said.

“These conditions are very critical for peaceful negotiations,” Panitan explained. “Negotiation is the only way out in the end, but… we need to stabilize the situation first.” (CNN)

There remains the possibility that the courts could force a resolution. The Election Commission has ruled that Abhisit’s Democrat Party violated the electoral law in two 2005 cases, and it could be dissolved if the Constitutional Court concurs it is guilty. One of the two cases was submitted to the court on Monday.

NATO Promises Transition of Control to Afghans Beginning this Year

NATO’s top official expressed optimism Friday that Afghan troops could be taking responsibility for security in their country this year, but he said more foreign military trainers were needed to ease the transition.

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke after a meeting with NATO foreign ministers about setting the conditions that will allow Afghan troops to take the lead. “As of today, we have a road map which will lead towards a transition to Afghan leadership starting this year, at which point our publics will start to see the progress for which they quite rightly have been asking,” Rasmussen told reporters at a news conference. (Washington Post)

Rasmussen is seeking 450 more military and police trainers to work with Afghan forces as U.S. and NATO troops seek to move into more of a support role. “It will not be a pull-out; it will not be a run for the exit,” Mr. Rasmussen added. “Afghan soldiers will need our support for quite some time. It will be a gradual process.” (New York Times)

Turning over control to the Afghan forces is key to President Obama’s war strategy, which calls for some of the 90,000 U.S. troops currently in the ravaged country to start returning home in July 2011.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Rasmussen’s upbeat tone, saying she was seeing the results of improved international corporation on Afghanistan. Clinton has also lavished praise on the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, signaling the end to a public spat over his performance in fighting corruption and establishing democratic governance.

“The success of the Karzai administration and the Afghan government are rarely talked about. There is a tremendous set of achievements, whether it’s the number of people going to school or getting health care or farmers producing a bumper wheat crop last year. There’s just so many positive developments that rarely get much attention,” Clinton said. (Washington Post)

She added that she and Obama “look forward to welcoming” Karzai to Washington for a visit next month.

Clinton said she was “convinced we will get that filled.” She said U.S. allies had contributed 10,000 troops to the Obama administration’s “surge” into Afghanistan, which was announced last year. There are now about 40,000 foreign troops in the country, in addition to U.S. forces. “For me, the glass is way more than half-full” in terms of commitments the Obama administration received from its allies, Clinton said. (Washington Post)

Warning against what she called unfair expectations about the security situation in Afghanistan, Mrs. Clinton said it would face threats from insurgents for years to come, and likened the situation to the chronic battle between soldiers and Taliban insurgents in neighbouring Pakistan.

“We believe that with sufficient attention, training and mentoring, the Afghans themselves are perfectly capable of defending themselves against insurgents,” she told a news conference at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia. “Does that mean it will be smooth sailing? I don’t think so. Look at Iraq.” (CBC)

Although Afghanistan is by far NATO’s largest and most complex operation, it drew relatively little attention at a meeting dominated by discussion about the strategic future of the 61-year-old alliance, and by how NATO members will confront nuclear weapons on European soil.

Mr. Rasmussen announced that NATO would grant Bosnia-Herzegovina’s request for a formal procedure to join the alliance, known as a membership action plan. But the clock will not start ticking, he said, until Bosnia’s leaders agree to sell off old military bases and barracks.

Several European countries have been agitating for the United States to begin withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons from their countries, now that President Obama had concluded a new strategic nuclear arms deal with Russia. But Mr. Rasmussen stressed that NATO would act with deliberation, and only after all 28 of its members come to an agreement.

“Decisions on our nuclear policy will be made by the alliance together,” he said. “Our unity on this will remain absolutely solid.” (New York Times)

Mr. Rasmussen said the 28-nation alliance is on track with its new strategy for winding down the war in Afghanistan, despite security setbacks and a continuing shortage of foreign trainers for the fledgling Afghan police and army.

“Our aims in 2010 are clear: to take the initiative against the insurgents, to help the Afghan government exercise its sovereignty, and to start handing over responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans this year,” he said. (CBC)

He said the NATO foreign ministers agreed on what it will take to create conditions enabling Afghans to assume control of their country. He was not specific about what those conditions would be, but said progress is important to avoid further erosion of public support for the war effort.

“Where it occurs, the transition must be not just sustainable but irreverible,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters at the conclusion of the two-day meeting. (CBC)

Mysterious Rocket Hits Jordan

A rocket launched from outside Jordan struck a refrigerated warehouse in the country’s Red Sea port city of Aqaba, officials said Thursday.

After an investigation, the cause of the explosion was the fall of a (Soviet-made) Grad rocket from outside Jordanian territory. The rocket was not launched from Jordanian territory,” Nabil Sharif, minister of state for information, told Reuters, without giving further details.

Witnesses and a Jordanian security source officer said two rockets were fired from the Jordanian port of Aqaba, just east of Israel’s resort city of Eilat, but it landed on the empty warehouse. The minister did not mention a second rocket.

Al-Sharif, who is also a government spokesman, told The Associated Press the rocket damaged a refrigerated warehouse on Aqaba’s northern outskirts. No deaths or injuries were reported.

Aqaba residents reported hearing at least two early morning explosions in the city. The damaged warehouse was at an industrial complex at the entrance of Aqaba, 210 miles (350 kilometres) south of the Jordanian capital, Amman.

“We saw a ball of fire that struck a warehouse at an entrance of the city,” said one witness who was performing dawn prayers at a mosque in the early morning. (Reuters)

Another said he heard an explosion minutes after he saw what resembled a rocket hit a warehouse. “There was a strong explosion but we couldn’t see anything beyond that.” (Reuters)

Israeli media also reported that two rockets hit Aqaba and Israel’s nearby port of Eilat. The Israeli army said it searched the Eilat area after the reports surfaced but found no evidence of anything landing in Israel.

Earlier Thursday, police said they found remains of what they thought was a Katyusha rocket. They said they were trying to determine the launch site and who might have been behind the attack.

Egyptian sources denied that the rockets were fired from Sinai. An Egyptian security source in north Sinai said on condition of anonymity that security patrols along the Egypt-Israel border had detected no rocket launchers toward Israel from the north or central Sinai.

Abdul Fadheel Shousha, governor of South Sinai province, said it would be virtually impossible to fire rockets into Israel from southern Sinai into Israel for technical reasons.

Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979.

The incident occurred as jitters were high a week after Israel issued an “urgent” warning to its citizens to leave Egypt’s nearby Sinai Peninsula immediately, citing “concrete evidence of an expected terrorist attempt to kidnap Israelis in Sinai.” (The Associated Press)

Jordan’s King Abdullah II was in neighbouring Egypt on Thursday for talks with President Hosni Mubarak. It was not immediately clear whether the leaders would discuss the attack.

“We are 100% sure that the rocket which hit a warehouse in Aqaba was not fired from Jordanian territory, but from beyond our borders,” Prime MInister Samir Rifai told AFP news agency. (BBC)

In 2005, al-Qaeda terrorists used the area to fire Katyusha rockets at a U.S. warship docked in the port there. The rockets missed the ship but hit a Jordanian army warehouse, killing a Jordanian soldier. Eight al-Qaeda terrorists were arrested and later received prison terms from seven years to death sentences.

In 2007, a Palestinian suicide bomber infiltrated through the Sinai and killed three people at an Eilat bakery.

Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994, is one of a handful of Arab countries to have diplomatic ties with Israel. Those ties were frayed by Israel’s crackdown in 2000 on a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel’s anti-terror office issued a warning last week and maintains a standing travel advisory telling Israelis to stay out of the Sinai desert because of the threat of terror attacks.