Monthly Archives: November 2010

Attack Hits Wikileaks Cable Site

A web attack has been launched against the Wikileaks site set up to host leaked US diplomatic cables. Wikileaks had made a trove of U.S. diplomatic documents available on Sunday. The deluge of data launched against the site managed to briefly make it unreachable around 1200 GMT on November 30. So far no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the so-called denial-of-service (DoS) attack. A similar attack was launched against the main Wikileaks site prior to the public release of the first cables on Sunday.

The cablegate site went live on Sunday night and soon after started to suffer occasional downtime. Sunday’s attack didn’t stop the publication of stories based on messages leaked from the U.S. State Department in several major newspapers. Wikileaks had given the media outlets prior access to the diplomatic cables to publish in conjunction with their Sunday release on its site. The cables, many of the classified, offer candid, sometimes unflattering assessments of foreign leaders, ranging from U.S. allies such as Germany and Italy to other nations like Libya, Iran and Afghanistan. The cables were sent by American diplomats between the end of 1966 and February 2010. The release prompted widespread condemnation from U.S. officials and a range of reaction from other governments.

On Tuesday, Wikileaks revealed that the separate cablegate website was suffering a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack via a message posted to its Twitter stream. A DDoS attack involves swamping a site with so many requests for access that it becomes overwhelmed. Data gathered by net monitoring firm Netcraft showed that the cablegate site was intermittently available around Tuesday lunchtime and early afternoon because of the attack.

Wikileaks said the malicious traffic was coming in at 10 gigabits per second on Tuesday, which would make it a relatively large effort. According to a study by Internet security company Arbor Networks, the average DoS attack over the past year was 349 megabits per second, 28 times slower than the stream Wikileaks reported.

Prior to the launch of the site, Wikileaks had taken the precaution of hosting it on three separate IP addresses to cope with any attack. “This does not appear to have prevented the current attack from succeeding,” wrote Paul Mutton, a security analyst at Netcraft, in a blog post. He told BBC that it was hard to work out what type of attack was underway. At the weekend before the cablegate site went live, a hacktivist known as The Jester threatened to attack Wikileaks claiming its leaks of cables would endanger US troops. Mr. Mutton said the latest attack was unlikely to be the work of The Jester as he has typically used Twitter to announce his targets. Something that was not done before the latest attack began. “The cablegate site has only released 281 of the 251,287 leaked cables, so these attacks are likely to be symbolic action more than anything else,” said Mr. Mutton. (BBC)

The site appears to have recovered from the attack with the help of Inc.’s U.S.-based server-for-rent service. Late Tuesday morning, web traffic to the site was handled by Amazon Web Services.

The site, which is devoted to releasing anonymously submitted documents, also came under attack Sunday, but Tuesday’s attack appeared to be more powerful. Calls to Seattle-based were not immediately returned. Bahnhof, a Swedish Internet company that has been involved in hosting Wikileaks, had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton landed Tuesday in Astana, Kazakhstan, to begin a four-day trip abroad. Taking questions at a town hall session titled “Empowering Civil Society for Central Asia’s Future,” Clinton called the release of the classified cables on the Internet “very irresponsible” and outlined how she plans to address the revelations when speaking with other diplomats during the trip. “I, of course, have been reaching to government and leaders around the world over the last week,” she said. “As I said before I left Washington, we consider it regrettable that information that was meant to be confidential has been made public, and I particularly worry about the human rights activists, the religious leaders, the critics of governments who speak to members of our embassy about abuses in their own country, whose name may either be in a reporting cable or who may be identifiable because of the description of the person,” Clinton said. (CNN)

In Kazakhstan, Clinton is scheduled to meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, both of whom are mentioned in a cable purportedly written by U.S. Embassy staff and published by Wikileaks about the “recreational habits of Kazakhstan’s leaders.”

“Kazakhstan’s political elites appear to enjoy typical hobbies – such as travel, horseback riding, and skiing. Not surprisingly, however, they are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates,” the cable says. (CNN) It describes John performing at a birthday party for Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and says singer Nelly Furtado performed at a birthday bash for his daughter. It also mentions Saudabayev’s skiing vacation in Europe with a Kazakhstani billionaire. Clinton expressed that the U.S. diplomatic efforts around the world will survive the leak of the documents.

Sarah Palin is demanding the world hunt down the director of Wikileaks “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.” (The Star) On her Facebook site, Palin described Julian Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” Assange, who created the non-profit, whistle-blowing site to expose government secrets, has made no appearances recently. “What steps were taken to stop Assange?” Palin asked. “Why haven’t NATO, the EU and anyone else been asked to disrupt Wikileaks? Shouldn’t they at least have their financial assets frozen?” (The Star) The blame, she said, lies with “the Obama administration’s incompetent handling of this whole fiasco.” (The Star)

Assange, 40, has refused to disclose the source of the leaked documents although it’s believed to be U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who has been in custody since May because of an earlier attack.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said “Wikileaks and people that disseminate information to people like this are criminals.” As for legal action, he said, “We are looking at a whole host of things and I wouldn’t rule anything out.” (The Star)

The Associated Press on Tuesday quoted an unnamed government official as saying U.S. lawyers were poring over legal manuals to see if Assange could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Justice Department and Pentagon are conducting “an active, ongoing criminal investigation.” (Washington Post) Others familiar with the probe said the FBI is examining everyone who came in possession of the documents, including those who gave the materials to Wikileaks and also the organization itself. No charges are imminent, the sources said, and it is unclear whether any will be brought. Former prosecutors cautioned that prosecutions involving the Espionage Act is a 1917 statute that preceded Supreme Court cases that expanded First Amendment protections. The government would also have to persuade another country to turn over Assange, who is outside of the United States. But the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is rapidly unfolding, said charges could be filed under the act. The U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria – which in 2005 brought Espionage Act charges, now dropped, against two former pro-Israel lobbyists – is involved in the effort, the sources said. (Washington Post)

Holder was asked Monday how the United States could prosecute Assange, who is an Australian citizen. “Let me be very clear,” he replied. “It is not saber rattling. To the extent there are gaps in our laws,” Holder continued, “we will move to close those gaps, which is not to say… that anybody at this point, because of their citizenship or their residence, is not a target or a subject of an investigation that’s ongoing.” (Washington Post) He did not indicate that Assange is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act.

Sweden, where Wikileaks is based, has been investigating Assange because of accusations of sexual assault that were dropped and then renewed. Sweden has also refused him of residency. On Tuesday, Ecuador offered residency to Assange, who is Australian. In an interview with Forbes magazine on Nov. 11, Assange said his next target will be international banking. The private sector, he said, covers about half of the documents sent clandestinely to Wikileaks but not yet published – over and above the current U.S. diplomatic cables. “It could take down a bank or two,” he told Forbes.

Earlier this year, Wikileaks revealed more than a half-million military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Haiti Cholera Crisis Continues to Spread

Pivotal elections will proceed as planned in Haiti despite the cholera outbreak that has now sickened more than 60,000 people and threatens to keep spreading. The death toll now stands at 1,415, the Ministry of Public Health and Population reported Wednesday, citing data collected as of November 20. More than 25,000 people have been hospitalized.

Some of the 19 presidential candidates have urged a postponement of Sunday’s vote. But Ken Marten, the United States ambassador to Haiti, said the election process was on track. He said 250,000 new voters were registered and more than 11,000 voting stations have been identified in the fifth presidential election since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship and the first key moment at the polls since the devastating earthquake in January. “We have a cholera problem here, which is something that the Haitians and we are all grappling with, which is a major public health challenge here,” Marten said at a news conference Tuesday. “And we have elections which should take place, need to take place, and we are here to support that effort.” (CNN)

Meanwhile, the Pan American Health Organization said it was planning to treat 400,000 cholera cases within the next year, up from a previous estimate of 270,000 over several years, as a result of the outbreak in Haiti. “We need to plan for up to half of those cases occurring in the next three months because of the explosive nature of this epidemic,” the organization’s deputy director, Dr. Jon Kim Andrus, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “We need more of everything,” he said. “More training for staff in Haiti, more doctors, more nurses, more treatment centers, more medications, more toilets, more clean water.” (CNN)

“We think that the rate of this infection will rise, but we can deal with this,” Valerie Amos, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told CBC News. “Cholera is terrible.” Amos is currently in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, for a two-day visit. “I will be calling on our partners – not just other governments but also NGO partners [and] UN agencies – to make sure that we get more resources. We desperately need more supplies as well.” (CBC)

Earlier this week, Nigel Fisher, the Canadian who is heading up the UN’s humanitarian efforts in Haiti, said bureaucracy and indecision on the part of Haitian officials is slowing down the aid response to the outbreak. He said local governments need to act faster to approve cholera treatment centers that and that designated burial sites for cholera victims must also be set up. Amos concurred. “We need decisions by government,” she said. “We need land to be given over which can be used for the burial of people, but we also need land so that we can build some of our treatment centres. This is absolutely critical. We are working with local authorities, because people are fearful sometimes about a treatment centre being put up in their area, because they think it’s bringing cholera.” (CBC)

“We have to control the outbreak and we have to bring down the percentage of people who are dying, and we have to do that as a matter of urgency,” Amos told Reuters. If untreated, cholera, a virulent diarrhea disease, can kill in hours, but if caught early enough can be easily treated through rehydration of the infected person. “I’m being told it hasn’t reached its peak yet, that it will get worse before it gets better,” Amos said. (Reuters)

Given the billions of dollars that had already been pledged for Haiti’s earthquake recovery, Amos said it was possible some members of the international community did not understand why separate additional funds were needed for the cholera response. “Let’s remember: we have fed 1.3 million people (made homeless by the quake), we have given them access to health care, we have given them access to education. Until the cholera outbreak, we hadn’t had a major outbreak of disease,” she said. “All this in a country devastated by an earthquake where you lost significant numbers of people who would have been part of working on the solution,” Amos added. (Reuters)

Much of Haiti’s health infrastructure was shattered by the January 12 earthquake, which killed more than 250,000 people, mostly in the capital Port-au-Prince, decimating the ranks of the government civil service. Amos said it would take time to solve Haiti’s huge problems, stressing that even before the earthquake and the cholera epidemic the country’s health and development levels were among the lowest in the world. “This kind of an assumption that when there is a disaster, you can fix it in two or three months, it just isn’t true,” she said. (Reuters)

Long-Standing Tensions Flare in Korea

A disputed maritime border. Long standing tensions. And Tuesday, a sharp escalation of hostilities. North and South Korea fired at each other for about an hour on an island that sits off a disputed border. The deadly skirmish raised fears of war between the two rival nations, once again spiking tension in the entire region. Plumes of smoke billowed from the island of 1,300 people but it was not immediately clear how much damage was incurred. Many residents were fleeing to the South Korean port of Incheon.

South Korea said North Korea fired artillery Tuesday toward the border between the two nations. Two South Korean marines were killed and 18 soldiers and civilians were wounded. South Korea had been conducting maritime drills, which the North called  “war maneuvers.” (CNN) The North accused the South of “reckless military provocation” for firing dozens of shells inside North Korean territory around the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. “The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island beginning at 1300,” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted it as saying.  The North will strike back if South Korea “dares to invade our territory by 0.001 mm,” it warned. (BBC)

“Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can’t see very well because of plumes of smoke,” a witness on the island told YTN Television before the shelling, which lasted about an hour before it ended. (Reuters) “I thought I would die,” said Lee Chun-OK, 54, an islander who said she was watching TV in her home when the shelling began. Suddenly, a wall and door collapsed. “I was really, really terrified,” she told The Associated Press after being evacuated to the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul, “and I’m still terrified.” (Toronto Star)

Tension has been running particularly high in the Korean peninsula after the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. Tuesday’s incident, however, is one of the most serious that has occurred in recent years. The hostilities come as North Korea is undergoing transition – the ailing and reclusive leader Kim Jong II is believed to be in the process of transferring power to his son Kim Jong Un. Some analysts believe upcoming internal changes have prompted North Korea to flex its military muscle in recent days. Tuesday’s violence was also preceded by the revelation of a North Korean uranium enrichment program.

Yeonpyeong Island has come under attack before. Last January, South Korea reported that the North had fired shells that fell in waters north of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border. North Korea wants that border redrawn farther south.

Over the past six decades, small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along both land and sea borders as each state aims to reunify the peninsula according to its own terms and system of government. Deadly naval clashes occurred along the demarcation line in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea became a divided nation, the capitalist South supported by the United States and its Western allies, and the  communist North an ally of the Soviet Union. Cold War tensions erupted into war 1950, devastating the peninsula and taking the lives of as many as 2 million people. The fighting ended with a truce, not a treaty, and settled little. Technically the two Koreas are still at war. Besides the border skirmishes, other incidents also have proven provocative. In 1968, North Korea dispatched commandos in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korea’s president. In 1983, a bombing linked to Pyongyang killed 17 high-level South Korean officials on a visit to Myanmar. In 1987, the North was accused of bombing a South Korean airliner.

South Korea said a North Korean torpedo last March sent the warship Cheonan to the bottom of the Yellow Sea off the Seoul-controlled island of Baengnyeong. The sinking, also in the border area, killed 46 South Korean sailors. South Korea was outraged by the incident. North Korea vehemently denied any responsibility, even after an internal investigating team blamed North Korea. The United Nations Security Council statement condemned the attack but stopped short of placing blame on the North.

South Korea put its military on high alert following Tuesday’s exchange of fire. But whether that will translate into further military action is impossible  to predict. Events in the past few months suggested a slight thawing of icy relations. North and South Korea had begun discussions on the possible resumption of reunions of family members separated by the Korean war and North Korea has requested military talks. In early September, the South offered food to the impoverished North for the first time in three years. Given the closed nature of North Korean politics, it’s hard to tell what changes the new leadership of Kim Jong Un will entail or whether re-engagement is on the table. Another wild card is the influence of China; some South Koreans fear a Chinese takeover in the event of a North Korean collapse. Some analysts viewed Tuesday’s exchange as North Korea flexing its military muscle in the light of its leadership transition. Others said it was related to the nuclear issue.

Washington accuses Pyongyang of running a secret uranium-based nuclear program. The United states, along with the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and China, have been involved in what is called the Six Party Talks. But those talks have been slow and arduous and in limbo since 2008. And after the revelation of the North Korean uranium enrichment facility a few days ago, the resumption of talks seemed in jeopardy. Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean denuclearization, said Tuesday’s hostilities will prove a further obstacle. (CNN)

Choi  Jin-wook, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, said the North is “frustrated with Washington’s response to their uranium program and they think that Washington has almost given up on negotiations with North Korea. I think they realize they can’t expect anything from Washington or Seoul for several months, so I think they made the provocation,” Choi said. (CNN) “It’s a sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration,” Mr. Choi continued. “Washington has turned a deaf ear to the Pyongyang and North Korea saying, ‘Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us.’” Mr. Choi said North Korea had become frustrated over the Obama administration’s refusal to remove a broad range of sanctions against the regime for its continuing nuclear efforts. “They see that they can’t pressure Washington,” he said, “so they’ve taken South Korea hostage again… They’re in a desperate situation, and they want food immediately, not next year.” (New York Times)

Korean stocks traded in New York fell 4 per cent, led lower by a sharp sell-off in shares of companies like Korea Electric Power and steel producer Posco. Overall, major US stock market indexes fell more than 1 per cent as the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula added to worries about global economic conditions. The US dollar was up one percent against a basket of currencies as investors sought the safety of the greenback. The South Korean central bank, after an emergency meeting, said it planned to cooperate with the government to take measures to stabilize markets if necessary. Many traders expect South Korea’s financial markets to fall further when trading opens on Wednesday.

President Lee held a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul. Afterwards he said he had ordered the military to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks “through action,” not just words, saying it is important to stop the communist regime from contemplating additional provocation. “The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory. In particular, indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter,” he said. (BBC) Lee said that “indiscriminate attack on civilians can never be tolerated.” (CBC)

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper strongly condemned the artillery attack, calling it “the latest in a series of aggressive and provocative actions by North Korea, which continue to represent a grave threat to international security in northeast Asia.” Harper extended his condolences to the families of the two South Korean military officers killed in the attack and urged North Korea “to refrain from further reckless and belligerent actions and to abide by the Korean Armistice Agreement.” (CBC)

Last month, Canada announced it would adopt a “controlled engagement policy,” terminating all official bilateral contacts with North Korea, with the exception of those necessary to address regional security concerns and human rights.

Speaking to reporters outside the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence

Cannon said the government is closely monitoring the situation. “This is the second time this year that the North Korean regime has recklessly caused loss of life in South Korea through aggressive military actions [which] continue to pose a grave threat to the region and to the entire world.” (CBC) Cannon said it would be appropriate for the United Nations Security Council to get active on the file. Cannon said his office was in touch with the Canadian Embassy in Seoul, adding that no Canadians were in harm’s way. He walked away shortly after a reporter asked, “how much of a problem is it that Canada is not on the security council?” “It’s not a problem at all,” he said before walking into the house. (Toronto Star) In the Commons, NDP Leader Jack Layton was applauded when he said he was sure he was speaking on behalf of all MP’s when he called for the two sides to “ensure that there is no further escalation.” He urged Harper to expend “strenuous” diplomatic efforts to quell the dispute. (Toronto Star)

US President Barack Obama called the incident an “outrageous, provocative act” by Pyongyang.” (BBC) He was speaking ahead of an expected telephone call to President Lee Myung-bak. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action,” adding that the US was “firmly committed” to South Korea’s defence. (BBC) “Everybody involved is stunned by North Korea’s provocative actions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing. “We are working again within an established framework with our partners so we have a deliberate approach to this. We are not going to respond willy nilly.” (Toronto Star)

Pentagon officials said none of the more than 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea were involved in the military drills. Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said US troops have participated in the annual exercise in the past, but an earlier plan to have US Marines participate in a landing maneuver with the South Koreans didn’t work out because of American scheduling issues.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and conveyed his concerns to the Security Council’s president. Ban called the attack “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War,” spokesman Martin Nesirky said. (CBC)

“It’s unbelievable,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University. “Today’s news proves that North Korea, under provoked conditions, shot these South Korean islands. It’s reckless provocation. They want to make a big bang and force the negotiations back into their favor. It’s the oldest trick.” (Reuters)

There was more condemnation of North Korea from Russia, EU and the UK, although China – the North’s main ally – refused to apportion blame. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said that both countries should “do more to contribute peace… What’s imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible,” Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing. (BBC) “We have hope the relevant parties will do more to contribute to the peace and stability of  the Korean peninsula… The situation needs to be verified,” Mr. Hong said, adding that “China is willing to stay in close communication with the relevant parties concerning the Korean nuclear issue.” (New York Times)

Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, said he had ordered ministers to prepare for any eventuality. “I ordered them to make preparations so that we can react firmly, should any unexpected event occur.” (BBC)

Russia’s foreign minister warned of a “colossal danger,” and said those behind the attack carried a huge responsibility. (BBC)

“It brings us one step closer to the brink of war,” said Peter Beck, a research fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, “because I don’t think the North would seek war by intention, but war by accident, something spiraling out of control has always been my fear.” (Toronto Star)

Cuban Crash Leaves No Survivors

Search crews combed through charred rubble in central Cuba early Friday after a fiery plane crash killed 68 people, state media reported. The AeroCaribbean plane was carrying 40 Cubans and 28 foreigners, the state-run website Cubadebate said. None of them survived the crash. Photos from the local newspaper Escambray posted on Cubadebate early Friday showed rescue crews using heavy machinery to comb through the debris. Flames still engulfed part of the plane.

The flight was traveling from the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba and heading to the country’s capital, Havana, Cubadebate reported. The twice-weekly flight had originated in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and stopped over in Santiago. The Civil Aviation Institute of Cuba said Flight 883 lost contact with air traffic controllers around 5:42 p.m. Thursday (4:42 p.m. ET Thursday), Cubadebate said. The plane crashed in a rural part of the central province of Sancti Spiritus, Cubadebate said. Residents in the area said the plane made several sudden movements before plunging to the ground.

Authorities were still trying to determine what caused the crash, state media said. The pilot reported an emergency before contact was lost. It is not clear if bad weather was a factor in the crash. A tropical storm warning had been issued in Santiago de Cuba province. “At the moment, aviation and regional authorities are gathering the facts and details and have created a commission to investigate such a regrettable accident,” the Civil Aviation Authority statement said. (BBC) Preliminary reports indicate that the plane crashed near the Zaza Reservoir, the largest reservoir  in Cuba, according to state media. Mexico sent members of its embassy staff in Havana to help with the identification of the crash’s seven Mexican victims, Mexico’s foreign ministry said.

All the doctors in Sancti Spiritus have been mobilized, according to a hospital worker who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media. The hospital worker said she saw the plane crash from 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) away. “When it hit the ground, it burst into flames,” she said. (CNN) Emergency crews and local residents had to use bulldozers to cut through thick vegetation to reach the crash scene, Cuban media say. They pulled bodies from the wreckage. One eyewitness described the crash site as “a ball of flame in the middle of the mountain.” (BBC)

“This is very sad,” Caridad de las Mercedes Gonzalez, who was manning an airport information desk, said before officials announced that everyone had been killed. “We are very worried. This has taken us by surprise.” (CBC)

“It passed very low over my house, pouring out smoke and fire, a loud noise,” said Kenia Diaz, who was buying bread when the plane passed over. “Everybody came out running. My mama shouted ‘the war has come’. It scared everyone,” she said. (Reuters)

Another resident, Mirelda Borroto, said she saw smoke coming from the plane, which was clearly in trouble. “The plane was coming as if it was losing power, it wasn’t stable. He (the pilot) tried to raise it up and it began to spew white smoke,” she said. After the crash, “we were afraid to get close to it because we didn’t know what could be on the plane,” Borroto said. (Reuters)

A list of victims posted on the Cubadebate site comprised of 40 Cubans, nine pepole from Argentina, seven people from Mexico, three people from the Netherlands, two people from Germany, two people from Austria and one person each from Spain, France, Italy, Japan and Venezuela.

Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner ordered a plane to Cuba to retrieve the bodies of the nine victims from her country, according to the state-run Telam news agency of Argentina. The Argentine Foreign Ministry also proved a phone number for relatives of the deceased to call to obtain more information.

Cuban media was quick to release the passenger manifest, but details on the crash itself were hard to come by in a country whose press is tightly controlled. The state television newscast hours after the crash led with the news of an American ballet company’s visit to Cuba, then reported on a Transportation Ministry decree that said travellers would be reimbursed or rescheduled if their trips were interrupted by tropical weather in eastern Cuba. The announcers made no mention of the crash until they read a short statement toward the end of the broadcast. Subsequent newscasts just after midnight and in the early morning gave no details other than to repeat the same statement. State media gave no details on what happened to the airliner, saying only that the cause of the crash was being investigated.

The flight would have been one of the last leaving Santiago de Cuba for Havana ahead of Tropical Storm Tomas, which was on track to pass between Cuba’s eastern end and the western coast of Haiti on Friday. Cuban media said earlier that flights and train service to Santiago were being suspended until the storm passed.

The last plane crash in Cuba occurred in March 2002, Cubadebate said, when a plane carrying tourists went down in the central province of Villa Clara. Sixteen people were killed in that crash. Friday morning’s crash is the deadliest in Cuba since September 3, 1989 when a Soviet-built Ilyushin-62 heading for Milan crashed after take-off from Havana killing all 126 people on board and 40 on the ground.

Iraq Defends Deadly Church Raid

The death toll from a hostage standoff at a Catholic church in Baghdad has risen to 58, police officials with the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Monday. Seventy-five others were wounded in the attack by armed gunmen Sunday, the officials said, adding that most of the casualties were women and children. Two priests were also among the dead as well as seventeen security officers and five gunmen. The hours-long standoff ended Sunday after Iraqi security forces stormed the Sayidat al-Nejat church. Eight suspects were arrested.

“All the marks point out that this incident carries the fingerprints of al-Qaeda,” Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi said on state television Sunday. (CNN) “We took a decision to launch a land offensive, and in addition an airdrop, because it was impossible to wait – the terrorists were planning to kill a large number of our brothers, the Christians who were at Mass,” Obeidi said. “So the operation was successfully done. All terrorists were killed. And we now have other suspects in detention.” (BBC) He said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off explosives inside the church. At least two of the attackers were wearing explosive vests, which they detonated just minutes before security forces raided the church, the police officials said. Karada is an area dotted with federal police checkpoints, local police patrols and political parties with security details, as well as security guards attached to the stock market and the church. Mr. Obeidi said, “It seems like there was negligence by the security forces, which we will investigate later.” (New York Times)

The Islamic State of Iraq later claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement posted on a radical Islamic website. The umbrella group includes a number of Sunni extremist organizations and has ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. “The Mujahedeens raised a filthy nest of the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarter for a war against the religion of Islam and they were able by the grace of God and His glory to capture those were gathered in and to take full control of all its entrances,” the group said on the website. (CNN)

Pope Benedict XVI said Monday that he was praying “for the victims of this absurd violence – all the more ferocious in that it hit defenseless people gathered in the house of the Lord, which is home to reconciliation and love.” (CNN) During a holiday blessing from his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Benedict called for new international and national efforts to end violence, and said he wanted to renew his solidarity with the Christian community in the Middle East and encourage the faithful there to “be strong and safe in hope… Faced with such brutal episodes of violence which continue to tear apart the people of the Middle East, I want to renew again my heartfelt appeal for peace,” Benedict said. (CBC) His appeal came just a week after he closed a two-week meeting of Mideast bishops dedicated to supporting the minority Christian flock in the large Muslim religion. During the meeting, Iraq’s bishops in particular denounced how their faithful were disproportionally targeted by violence.

Survivors of the ordeal said they were about to begin Sunday night services when the gunmen entered the church, according to Martin Chulov, a journalist for the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper who was on the scene. A priest ushered the congregants into a back room, Chulov reported that survivors said. At one point, one of the gunmen entered the room and threw an unidentified explosive device inside, causing casualties, Chulov said.

The U.S. military spokesman said that as many as 120 people were taken hostage.

The gunmen seized the hostages after attacking the Baghdad Stock Market in the central part of the Iraqi capital earlier Sunday, police said. Four armed men entered the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church after clashing with Iraqi security forces trying to repel the stock market attack. Iraq’s Interior Ministry told CNN that gunmen attacked the stock market to distract Iraqi security forces who were outside the church to protect it. The gunmen were demanding that the Iraqi government release a number of detainees and prisoners inside Iraqi prisons, saying the Christian hostages would be freed in return, according to the police officials. Iraq’s defence minister later said on state television that the kidnappers had demanded the release of a number of prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt.

Iraqi security forces sealed off the area surrounding the church, the officials said, and buildings were evacuated of civilians as a precautionary measure. At least 13 hostages, including two children, managed to escape ahead of the rescue operation, police said.

The Iraqi authorities ordered the attackers to release the hostages and to turn themselves in, warning that they would storm the church if they do not comply. A few hours passed quietly as military units took up positions outside the church, including several American units, said Chulov. “Then all hell broke loose,” he said. A firfight erupted, and Chulov said he heard three to four large explosions. Later, he saw about 20 ambulances race away from the scene. (CNN)

Throughout Monday, mourners carried coffins from the church, loading them onto vehicles bound for the morgue ahead of funerals on Tuesday. Raed Hadi, who tied the coffin of his cousin to the roof of a car, said the raid had resulted in a “massacre”. “We Christians don’t have enough protection,” he said. “What shall I do now? Leave and ask for asylum?” (BBC)

Younadim Kanna, a Christian Iraqi MP, said the government had failed to protect its citizens, but added that the Christian community would not be intimidated by violence. “Despite all of these terrorist attacks against the Christians, we are determined not to leave our country,” he said. (BBC) Kanna described the Iraqi rescue operation as “not professional,” saying “it was a hasty action that prompted the terrorists to kill the worshipers… We have no clear picture yet whether the worshippers were killed by the security forces’ bullets or by terrorists, but what we know is that most of them were killed when the security forces started to storm the church.” (CBC)

“There’s no future for us here,” said Stephen Karomi, a 24-year-old Christian from the northern town of Karakosh. “Everything is really foggy.” (New York Times)

Al-Baghdadia, the TV station in Baghdad that said it was contacted by gunmen during Sunday’s church hostage drama, has been taken off air. It stopped transmitting shortly after its building was taken over, reportedly by a large number of government troops. Earlier, its director and a switchboard operator were arrested, apparently on charges of contacting terrorists.

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) said religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq faced unprecedented levels of violence. “The security situation for Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq has become critical,” said executive director Mark Lattimer. “The safety of minorities must now become an urgent priority for the Iraqi government, with security measures planned in full co-operation with community leaders.” (BBC)

Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael, a Christian, said at the scene of the Baghdad attack: “What happened was more than a catastrophic and tragic event. In my opinion, it is an attempt to force Iraqi Christians to leave Iraq and to empty Iraq of Christians.” (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq would not allow the attack to succeed in “creating chaos and driving Iraqis from their homeland.” (Reuters)

The American military spokesman minimized the role that U.S. troops played in the operation. “The U.S. only provided UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] support with video imagery. As always we have advisers with the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] command teams,” the spokesman  said. (CNN)

While the U.S. combat mission in Iraq officially ended earlier this year, some 50,000 American troops are expected to remain in the country until the end of 2011 to train, assist and advise Iraqi troops. Many churches have been bombed in recent years – including Our Lady of Salvation in August 2004 – and priests kidnapped and killed, but there has never been a prolonged hostage situation like this before, a BBC correspondent reported. Christians – many from ancient denominations – have been leaving Iraq in droves since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. About 600,000 remain.

The church from Monday’s attack, with a huge cross visible from hundreds of yards away, was already surrounded with concrete bollards and razor wire, and church leaders have been fearful attack since the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Jones decided in the end however not to burn the Koran.

Sunday’s attack followed the bombing of a cafe in Diyala province on Friday in which 22 people died, interrupting a relatively long period without a major assault by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents. The previous high-profile suicide bombing took place on September 5 when insurgents stormed an army base in Baghdad.