"Am I therefore become your enemy,because I TELL YOU THE TRUTH...?"
(Galatians 4:16)

Monday, December 31, 2007

Israel taking Bin Laden's threats seriously

Israel is taking seriously a threat issued by the head of the Al-Qaeda network Osama Bin Laden in which he vowed the "liberation of Palestine," a government spokesman said on Monday."We take seriously the threats of Al-Qaeda just as we take seriously threats by all terrorist organisations," Mark Regev told AFP."We have observed Al-Qaeda activities near Israel, notably in Lebanon, Jordan and in the Sinai" peninsula of neighbouring Egypt, he said."We also have information on Al-Qaeda activities in the Palestinian territories.Under such circumstances it would be irresponsible not to take these threats seriously and not to be vigilant," he said.The mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported that Israeli intelligence services had information that Al-Qaeda was planning attacks against Israeli or American targets in Turkey.A Turkish cell of Al-Qaeda was held responsible for two twin truck bombings that targeted two synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003, and the British consulate and a British bank five days later.Bin Laden issued a new message on Saturday warning Muslims against supporting Iraq's US-backed government and said the liberation of Palestine would follow the Iraqi struggle.He said in an audiotape message that the mujahedeen would never recognise Israel nor any Palestinian government that does so and warned of "jihad from river to sea... blood for blood and destruction for destruction."
As in the days of Noah...

Ministry commits to relief work through local churches in Bangladesh

Bangladesh-"People forget about the need, and the need continues in most cases for years and years," said Norm Nelson of Compassion Radio concerning Cyclone Sidr. He recently returned from a trip there to assess the need."It's going to take probably a decade before there is pretty much complete recovery in the country," said Nelson. Compassion Radio has made a long-term commitment to help see that happen."Our assessment indicated that there are a number of things we can do in providing shelter and food and medical care and all of that," said Nelson. Compassion Radio will be working with the local churches to see their commitment through.The dense population makes working in the area difficult: 140 million people in a country the size of the state of Iowa with 125 rivers flowing through it. Still, many people are missing, and it is difficult to know whether they are alive somewhere or were taken out to sea by the storm. Cyclone Sidr also wiped out the harvest of rice which is the country's main food source.With so many people in a small area, problems already endemic to the country are exacerbated.The local churches they work with do more than relief work. "We are very picky about the churches we work with. We work with churches that proclaim the Gospel very clearly. We don't want any kind of side-bar Christianity being presented as the Gospel," said Nelson.With 95 percent of the population being Muslim, the work this Christian organization is doing is strategic. "The Christian church has developed a very positive relationship with that majority population, and because we work through the churches, a real effective witness to the needs of suffering people really honors Christ and gives credibility to the message of the Gospel as proclaimed by the churches."
As in the days of Noah....

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The profession of death

Much will be said about Benazir Bhutto's assassination; little will be understood about what it truly means. I'm not speaking here about Pakistan, of course, as important as that country is, but rather the lesson - as if we needed any more - for that broad Middle East which begins in Pakistan and ends on the Atlantic Ocean coast.The following is a true story. Back in 1946, an American diplomat asked an Iranian editor why his newspaper angrily criticized the United States but never the Soviet Union. The Iranian said it was obvious. "The Russians," he said, "they kill people."A dozen years earlier, in 1933, Iraqi official Sami Shawkat gave a talk which became one of the most famous texts of Arab nationalism. "There is something more important than money and learning for preserving the honor of a nation and for keeping humiliation at bay," he stated. "That is strength... strength, as I use the word here, means to excel in the Profession of Death."What, you might ask, was Shawkat's own profession? He was director-general of Iraq's Ministry of Education. This was how young people were to be taught and directed; this is where Saddam Hussein came from. Seventy-five years later, the subsequent history of Iraq and the rest of the Arab world shows just how well Shawkat did his job.September 11 in the United States; the Bali bombing for Australia; the tube bombing for Britain; the commuter train bombing for Spain, these were all merely byproducts of this pathology. The pathology in question is not Western policy toward the Middle East but rather Middle Eastern policy toward the Middle East.WHEN I read Shawkat's words as a student, the phrase "profession of death," which gave his article its title, struck me as a pun. On one hand, the word "profession" meant "career." To be a killer - note well that Shawkat was not talking specifically about soldiers, those who fight, but rather those who murder - was the highest calling of all. It was more important than being a teacher, who forms character; more important than being a businessperson, who enriches his country; more important than being a doctor who preserves the life of fellow-citizens.Destruction was a higher calling than construction. And, for sure, in the Arabic-speaking world what has been reaped is what has been sowed.But, also, the word "profession" here reminds me of "to profess," or "to preach." When the greatest value for an educator is to preach and glorify death, what kind of ideology, what kind of society, what kind of values, does such a priority produce? Look and see.LIKE CHILDREN playing with dynamite, Western intellectuals, journalists and diplomats fantasize that they are achieving results in the Middle East with their words, promises, apologies, money and concessions. Yet how can such innocents cope despite - or perhaps because of - all their good intentions with polities and societies whose basic ruling ethos is that of the serial killer?
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As in the days of Noah....

Roma bury their 'king' and crown a new one

"Hundreds of Roma paid their last respects to the self-proclaimed international king of the gypsies on Thursday in southern Romania, then crowned his son as successor. "
BUCHAREST-Amid chants of "Long live the king", Dan Stanescu placed the golden crown atop his own head after one of his subjects delivered it to him on a red velvet pillow, in a ceremony broadcast live on Realitatea TV.Stanescu's father, Ilie Badea Stanescu, 55, died Monday in Costesti in southern Romania from a heart attack."I want to accomplish what my father began," the new king said without providing details.His father was declared king in August 2003 during a controversial ceremony officiated by an Orthodox priest.The Church's patriarchy criticised participation in the ceremony held at the Curtea de Arges monastery, where several Romanian kings have been crowned and buried.There are officially 536,000 Roma in Romania, while community leaders claim between 1.5 and two million. There is also a second self-proclaimed king, Florin Cioaba, as well as an emperor, Iulian Radulescu.
As in the days of Noah....

Jerusalem & Babylon:Despite benefits, few Iranian Jews want to live here

It should have been a fantastic public relations coup for the Jewish Agency. Dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews were on hand to chronicle their latest operation, easily outnumbering the 40 new immigrants from Iran and the family members awaiting them. So eager were the assembled forces of the media for this story that no one was even thinking of arguing with the censorship over the restrictions, don't show their faces, no full names and all details about their route from Persia to Zion to be left out. And still, for at least one senior agency official, this was a hollow victory. When it was all over, and the Iranians were being bundled off to the buses about to take them to an absorption center in Be'er Sheva, he smiled bitterly and said, "we offered them everything possible and still we got such a pitiful number." The official press release, of course, told a different story. "Immigration from Iran tripled this year," was the message, statistically correct, since in 2006 only 65 arrived and this year we're up to a couple of hundred. But how can that compare to the estimated 28,000 Jews still living in Iran? It would be more accurate to say that over 99 percent of Persian Jews still prefer to remain under the rule of the Ayatollahs and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than to come to live in the democratic Jewish homeland. Surprisingly enough, there are few real restrictions on immigration from Iran. It's relatively simple, traveling through a third country. And to make it even easier, the agency pays for potential Iranian immigrants to come to Israel and see it for themselves before taking the plunge. If that's not enough, three foundations stumped up enough money to give each $10,000. Which means that, together with the absorption basket of government benefits given to all new immigrants, a family of six can arrive here from Iran with a sizable sum to start off their new lives. So why aren't they coming? The answers you hear vary. There's the financial aspect of course. Most of the Jews living in Iran are middle-class, shopowners and businessmen, with relatively comfortable and stable lives. But those who choose to leave have trouble selling their property and, even if they succeed, the weakness of the Rial means that even those who are wealthy manage to leave with less than $50,000. Their chances of reaching a similar level of affluence in Israel are low. Not that life in the Islamic Republic is a picnic for anyone, especially not Jews. Jewish schools are forbidden, teaching Hebrew is prohibited, Jewish women are subjected to the same draconian modesty laws forced on their Muslim counterparts, while Jewish conscripts to the army are routinely humiliated and trusted only with lowly, menial tasks. Persecution is usually low-key. Yes, they do live under the fear of reprisals and pogroms, but what we so easily forget is that this is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, existing for almost three millennia, since the time of the First Temple. Khomeini's revolution took place only 28 years ago, and there is always the hope that things might get better in the next few years. The older generation still have very clear memories of the time when 100,000 Jews lived under the rather benign despotism of the Shah. The prospect of good times just around the corner is enough for most of them to prefer the current precarious situation to a journey into the unknown. Besides, all these years of incessant virulent anti-Israel propaganda have taken their toll, even on the Jews; they might not see the state as the "little Satan" (the U.S. is, of course, the "big Satan"), but they still view Israel with a great degree of suspicion. The dirty secret is, that, given the choice, many of those prepared to consider leaving wouldn't come to Israel since the thriving Iranian community in Los Angeles is much more attractive. Dozens of Iranian Jews are currently waiting in Vienna for green cards, or better than that, official UN refugee status, allowing them to live wherever they wish in the West. It might seem crazy to us, their living like this, on the edge of a volcano about to explode. With the imminent threat of military confrontation with the U.S. or Israel, perhaps even a nuclear war, the situation is reminiscent of the Jews of Germany in the 1930s, but to Iran's Jews, Israel seems just as much a dangerous war zone, if not more so. And who can blame them? Our incredulity over the willingness of the Jews of Iran to remain there has no place, as it is Israel that seems to be losing its appeal to the Jews. Of an estimated 7 or 8 million Jews living outside Israel, only about a quarter of a percent immigrated in 2007. Jews still remain a mobile nation, but chances are that if they're planning a move, it will be to another Diaspora outpost. The vast majority of Jews who left South Africa in the 13 years since the African National Congress came to power hopped over to Australia, one of the few major communities growing in the last decade. Predictions of a major wave of immigration from France, in the wake of Islamist anti-Semitism, have largely failed to materialize. So actually, the Iranians have a higher proportion of immigration to Israel than most Diaspora communities. There isn't one clear reason. Immigration figures are going down despite a thriving Israeli economy which has never been stronger. And it's pointless blaming the Second Lebanon War, as the downward trend started long before it broke out. Practically, the only country from which immigration is still strong is Ethiopia, where the Falashmura are fighting the government's decision to stop bringing them in six months. Almost all Jews in just about every country outside the third-world seem to think that life in the Promised Land is simply too difficult to contemplate seriously. Israel's real image problem is not with the international media, but with the world's Jews, who just seem to prefer loving it from afar.

As in the days of Noah....

Aksa Martyrs Brigades calls for Fayad's assassination

Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, on Sunday called for the murder of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad for "collaboration" with Israel and the US. This was the first time the group has openly called for Fayad's assassination. In the past, the group distributed leaflets strongly condemning Fayad and calling for his dismissal.Fayad has been under heavy criticism from some Fatah leaders and activists, who accuse him of denying them public funds and plotting to undermine Fatah's grip on power. Other Fatah leaders have also accused Fayad of seeking to consolidate his power with the hope of replacing Mahmoud Abbas as PA president.The threat was made in a leaflet distributed by the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the Gaza Strip. Some Fatah officials in Ramallah sought to distance themselves from the threat, claiming that the leaflet had been forged. They even went as far as accusing Hamas of being behind it."The command of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the Gaza Strip calls on all its elements and striking forces in the West Bank to immediately eliminate the so-called Salaam Fayad," the leaflet said. It claimed that Fayad's Ramallah-based government was working for Israel and the US.Calling on Abbas to fire the Fayad government, the leaflet criticized Fayad for cutting off the salaries of many Fatah supporters in the Gaza Strip. It also attacked him for allowing the PA security forces in Bethlehem to hand over to Israel three Israelis who had entered the city on Saturday. "We call on all our members and the policemen in the West Bank not to obey orders from the Fayad government, because it's serving an American agenda and helping Israel eliminate the Aksa Martyrs Brigades," the group continued. It also called to fire PA Interior Minister Abdel Razzak al-Yahya for announcing that the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank had been dismantled.Meanwhile, the PA claimed that Friday's attack near Hebron, in which two Israelis were killed, was "criminally motivated." PA Information Minister Riad al-Malki told reporters in Ramallah that he was not ruling out the possibility that the attack was the result of a "dispute" between arms dealers, hinting that the victims had come to sell weapons to their assailants.PA security officials in Hebron repeated the claim, arguing that there was no evidence that the attack had been carried out for other reasons. At least three groups have claimed responsibility for the attack - Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.Over the weekend, the IDF arrested a number of Fatah members in Hebron on suspicion of involvement in the attack.

As in the days of Noah....

Bhutto Murder Closes Anti-Terror War Cycle Bush Launched after 9/11

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Washington’s chosen linchpin-to-be in Islamabad, was an unmitigated disaster for America’s war on al Qaeda and its jihadist allies in the key Pakistan-Afghan arena. The 27/12 murder closed a cycle sent spinning by al Qaeda’s 9/11 assault on America in the early days of President George W. Bush’s first term. It has left him clutching at thin air.This single act of violence hit the West as US-led NATO forces suffer one setback after another in Afghanistan and Taliban and a Qaeda are in control of more than 75 percent of the country. It has done more harm than all the evil wrought against US forces by al Qaeda’s ace commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the two years before he was slain.Al Qaeda left its fingerprints – but typically no trace of the perpetrators. To this day, the master plotters who launched 19 suicide killers against America on Sept. 19, have not been caught, any more than those who engineered the 2004 Madrid rail bombers or the 2005 London transport attacks. The string-pullers of the Bhutto assassination may never come to light.For now, Western counter-terror agencies are on tenterhooks for a Osama bin Laden message promised in the next 24-48 hours, in which al Qaeda promises he will divulge its steps for salvaging “Iraq’s Muslim Caliphate,” an oblique reference to US military gains.Bin Laden is expected to make some reference to Pakistan as well, since al Qaeda’s strategists do not see their jihad in terms of separate fronts, but as a single interlinked arena stretching across several regions.Furthermore, they try never to gamble on a chancy target. Their spadework is lengthy and thorough, consisting of long surveillance to seek out chinks in Western armor, the exploitation of its blunders, advance intelligence-gathering and a strike that leaves no tracks.Benazir Bhutto was easy prey. Pakistan’s army and Inter-Service Intelligence are rife with Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers. For more than a year, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice bargained with President Pervez Musharraf on terms for a power-sharing deal that would bring the opposition leader back from her eight-year exile into heart of Islamabad politics.No great strategic brain was needed to spot the glaring weakness in putting all of America’s eggs for reforming Pakistan’s political and military shortcomings into one basket. The same fallacy mars Rice’s Palestinian strategy: if Mahmoud Abbas is disposed of like Bhutto, US plans for the Eastern Mediterranean go up in smoke like its Asian arena.Ahead of the Bhutto assassination, al Qaeda prepared follow-up actions in Iraq and Gaza.Two major steps are revealed here by DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources:
1. The Fatah al-Islam commander Shaker al-Abessi was transferred to Iraq to spearhead a new offensive. Al Abessi commanded the four-month Fatah al-Islam confrontation with the Lebanese army from the Badr al-Nahr camp near Tripoli in the summer of 2007. The Lebanese army saved the day and the northern provinces from falling into the hands of this al Qaeda offshoot, only after the US stepped in with assistance and an infusion of weapons. Even then, it took a battle of wits between Adm. William Fallon, chief of US Central Command, and al-Abessi to beat him.Even then, al Qaeda had the last word: On Dec. 12, Brig. Gen. Francois el-Hajj, the Lebanese officer who worked with Adm. Fallon, was assassinated.Meanwhile, al Qaeda, hoping to build al-Abessi into a second al-Zarqawi, has sent him to establish the “Iraq Front,” a new body for recouping the organization’s trounced forces and turning the tables on the US army. His plan to transit the Syrian-Iraqi border with his top men shows how fragile and uncertain are Washington’s gains in securing joint Syrian-US control of the border.
2. A large body of the Fatah al-Islam rank and file was transferred from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, apparently by sea. This week, they were in the thick of the Hamas-Jihad Islami missile and mortar offensive against Israel.By these two steps, al Qaeda established support structures for its next two offensives in a region ranging from Afghanistan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west.Osama bin Laden’s momentum after Benazir Bhutto was murdered might have been slowed had the Americans reacted rapidly with a combined US-Pakistan military assault on al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan, on a scale comparable to the post-9/11 campaign. But neither army was ready. The day before the murder, Washington laid plans to boost its special forces presence in Pakistan in the course of 2008.In an interview to the Voice of America, Adm. Fallon said: “What we’ve seen in the last several months is more of a willingness to use their regular army units along the Afghan border.” He added: …”and this is where I think we can help a lot in providing the kind of training and assistance and mentoring based on our experience with insurgencies recently and with the terrorist problem in Iraq and Afghanistan.”This belated plan will have to be re-examined in the anti-Musharraf, anti-US climate prevailing in Pakistan after the Benazir Bhutto tragedy.By pushing for elections to be held on Jan. 8 as scheduled, Secretary Rice is making the same mistake as before, when her democratic urge raised up the terrorist Hamas in a Palestinian election two years ago.Musharraf his holding his horses, waiting for Bhutto’s party to meet Sunday, Dec. 30, and decide whether to run or join the boycott declared by the rival Nawaf Sharif. Monday, the election commission convenes for its decision. This process cannot be foisted on Islamabad without risking increased violence directed against the president as an “American puppet.”Musharraf was already on a downward slope before Bhutto’s death and his army was falling back in the war on Islamist extremists. DEBKAfile’s sources foresee this process accelerating and opening the way to the takeover by Taleban and al Qaeda of more parts of Pakistan.Given this prospect, anxiety over the fate of Pakistan’s estimated 50-60 nuclear warheads is more acute. The Pentagon’s assurance Friday that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is secure under the control of the military would become meaningless if that military turns against the United States. An American operation to pluck that arsenal from terrorist clutches might be fought off by that same military. In these circumstances, however badly they are needed for the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, US special forces will need to be permanently deployed within speedy reach of Pakistan’s nuclear stocks. A single bullet (or blast) has switched the spotlight on the world’s most dangerous nuclear threat from Iran to Pakistan.
As in the days of Noah....

Egypt and Israel step up cooperation to eradicate terrorist smuggling tunnels

Our military sources report that under the new arrangements the Israeli and Egyptian armies will work together. Their security teams meet at Nitzana on the Gaza border Sunday, Dec. 30, to establish a combined staff center for eradicating tunnel traffic from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. This was one of the agreements reached by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in their talks last week. A joint team will deal with each active tunnel separately. Most of the estimated 80 and 90 tunnels, some heavily fortified, run through the Philadelphi border strip. Each team will be responsible for blowing up a tunnel and rendering it unusable.Until now, the Egyptians, when they discovered a tunnel, blew up the opening on their side of the border, while the exit on the Gazan side under Hamas rule was left untouched. The agreement reached with Mubarak is taken to leave Israel free to go into Gaza and destroy the tunnel exits as determined by the joint military teams.If this scheme works, it will be the most important Egyptian-Israeli security partnership ever undertaken.Our counter-terror sources link it to the hostage situation in the Red Sea opposite the Sinai coastal town of Nuweiba now in its second day. Egypt is preventing two passenger ferries from disembarking until the hundreds of Hamas operatives aboard, who are carrying $150m collected at the Mecca hajj, agree to enter Gaza through Nitzana or Kerem Shalom and submit to Israeli search. More than 1,700 passengers are trapped as hostages on the two ferries. Hamas, seeing Egypt tighten the siege against the Gaza Strip under its rule, threaten to fire and scuttle the ships rather than yield to the Egyptian demand. They are determined to break Cairo’s resolve and disrupt its willingness to cooperate with Israel.Insider sources also disclosed to DEBKAfile that not only Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert appealed to the Egyptian government to hold up delivery of the Hamas stash to Gaza by shutting the Rafah terminal against the Hamas’ leaders return, but also the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.While Egypt is responsible for Rafah security, the Palestinian Authority is formally in charge of the crossing’s administration.The joint Palestinian-Israeli appeal, which is unprecedented, therefore gave Egypt legal grounds to deny the Hamas group permission to land at Nuweiba and enter Gaza through Sinai with the cash.
As in the days of Noah...

France to boycott Syria over Lebanon crisis

CAIRO-France will have no more contact with Syria until Damascus shows willingness to let Lebanon end its long-running political crisis and find a new president, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Sunday.France "will have no more contact with Syria... until we have proof of Syrian willingness to let Lebanon appoint a president by consensus," Sarkozy told journalists after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak covering thorny regional issues.The French president was on his first official trip to the Middle East since taking office in May and his Cairo talks followed a private Egyptian holiday with his new girlfriend ex-model Carla Bruni and a swarm of paparazzi.Former colonial power France "wants a president for Lebanon," Sarkozy said. "It's time to provide proof (of goodwill), it's time for Syria to show it."
Keen to stress a continuation of his predecessor Jacques Chirac's Arab-friendly policies, Sarkozy called on Israel to make gestures to show its commitment to peace with the Palestinians."I've said several times... that it's time for Israel to make gestures which would show that peace is possible, including ending settlements," in the occupied West Bank, Sarkozy said."Our position (toward Israel) is unchanging, being a friend doesn't mean being complacent," Sarkozy said,Sarkozy has ruffled Arab feathers by showing friendship for Israel and rejecting anti-Americanism, with sections of the Egyptian press deriding him as President George W. Bush's new poodle, replacing British ex-premier Tony Blair.While the US remains Israel's key ally, France is seen by many as the Western power most able to end Lebanon's political impasse."It's time for Syria to prove with facts what it has not stopped saying in speeches," Sarkozy said. "We are now waiting for acts on Syria's part and not speeches."Only last month, Sarkozy called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reopening top-level contacts after a three-year break in a bid to end Lebanon's political crisis, Syrian media reported at the time.Mubarak described the political deadlock in Lebanon as "dangerous" and appealed to Syria to "use its influence in Lebanon to work towards reconciliation so that the parliament elects a president".Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005 after a nearly 30-year presence in the face of strong international and domestic pressure but continues to be accused of meddling in Lebanese affairs.Lebanon has been without a president since November 23 when Syrian-backed incumbent Emile Lahoud ended his term with rival parties unable to agree on a successor.A parliamentary vote to elect a president has been postponed 11 times amid sharp divisions between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.A Lebanese pro-government MP hailed the new tougher line from Paris."These comments express the disillusionment of the Arab world and the international community about the chances of agreeing anything positive with the Syrian regime," said Wael Bou Faour.Earlier this month, US President George W. Bush also ruled out direct talks with the Syrian leader, saying: "My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago."On Sunday, Sarkozy also said France would free up funds for a planned international tribunal intended to try those behind a series of assassinations in Lebanon that began with the murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
UN investigators probing Hariri's murder have identified several people who they say may have been involved in the slaying, but no one has been charged.Many in Lebanon blame Syria for the attacks, charges denied by Damascus.The French president refused to take any questions about the political furore at home about his use of a billionaire businessman friend's private jet for his Christmas holiday with his new girlfriend.French opposition parties have accused the president of compromising his office and asked what plastics-to-media magnate Vincent Bollore can expect in return for his generosity.But Sarkozy insisted that he had "nothing" to say on the controversy before his return to Paris.

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No Brussels fireworks amid terror threat

BRUSSELS, Belgium-Traditional New Year's Eve fireworks in central Brussels have been canceled due to a continuing terror threat in the Belgian capital, officials said Sunday.The popular downtown Christmas market will close early, at 6 p.m., on Dec. 31 rather than staying open all night, and the adjacent skating rink will shut at 8 p.m.Authorities warned of an increased risk of attack after police last week detained 14 people suspected of plotting to help an accused al-Qaida militant break out of jail.The inmate, Nizar Trabelsi, 37, is a Tunisian ex-professional soccer player who is serving 10 years for plotting to drive a car bomb into the cafeteria of a Belgian air force base housing about 100 U.S. military personnel.However, in a letter published by the daily newspaper La Derniere Heure, Trabelsi denied that his supporters were plotting his jailbreak or any terror attack.A judge ordered his supporters' release for lack of evidence, and all suspects have maintained their innocence.Authorities said the city would maintain heightened security measures until at least Jan. 3."We've reviewed the situation and the conclusion is that there is no reason to scale back the current level of (terror) alert," said Jaak Raes, director general of the government's Crisis Center. "The aim is not to create panic ... but to avoid unnecessary risks."The government said last week it had information that the suspects were plotting to use explosives and other weapons to free Trabelsi, who was arrested in Brussels in 2001, two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and convicted two years later.Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt warned that the suspects also could have other targets in mind, and ordered police to step up security at the airport, in subway stations and at the Christmas market.During his trial, Trabelsi admitted plotting to kill U.S. soldiers based in northeastern Belgium, saying he had met al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and asked to become a suicide bomber.Trabelsi came to Europe to play professional soccer in 1989. Over the next few years, he bounced from team to team in the minor leagues, acquiring a cocaine habit and a criminal record.Eventually, he made his way to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, where evidence presented at his trial showed he placed himself on a "list of martyrs" ready to commit suicide attacks.
As in the days of Noah...

State Governor Wants Crackdown on 'Criminal Young Foreigners'

"A senior politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel's party says Germany has too many "criminal young foreigners" and that immigrants must accept the country's Christian culture. Critics say he is adopting populist rhetoric to boost his chances in a regional election in January."
A top member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives has said Germany has too many criminal young foreigners and that immigrants must stick to the rules of Germany's "Christian-Occidental" culture, in remarks that echo the rhetoric of Germany's far right. The Social Democrats and Green Party have accused him of cheap campaign rhetoric.Roland Koch, facing a tough re-election battle as governor of the western state of Hesse in January, told mass circulation newspaper Bild Zeitung: "How much are we prepared to take from a small proportion of violent youths, who frequently have a foreign background?"Koch was responding to the brutal assault on a 76-year-old German man by two young men, one Greek and one Turkish, in Munich on December 20. The pensioner had asked them to stop smoking on a subway train, where smoking is prohibited.They called him a "Shit German" and spat at him, then followed him out onto the platform and beat him up, kicking him in the head. He was taken to hospital with a fractured skull and internal bleeding in his brain but is now recovering. A number of people witnessed the attack but did not intervene. The incident was filmed on security cameras and led to a nationwide outcry during Christmas, with calls for tougher sentencing for young offenders and the expulsion of foreign criminals. The 17-year-old Greek man and the 20-year-old Turk, who both live in Munich, have since been arrested and both have a long list of prior offences. The 20-year-old man is a Turkish citizen who was born in Munich while the Greek man immigrated to Germany six years ago.The case has re-opened a decades-old debate about immigration in Germany, which has some 15 million people with an immigrant background, around 18 percent of the population.Support for Koch's Christian Democrats has been declining and recent opinion polls show they may lose their absolute majority in the January 27 state election. Koch may end up having to govern in a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats or he may even lose to the opposition Social Democrats, who are currently in a coalition government with Christian Democrats in Berlin....
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JIHAD WATCH:Turkey arrests five for al Qaeda links

ANKARA-Turkey has detained five people for links with al Qaeda after police operations in four cities including the capital Ankara, Turkish TV reported on Sunday.The arrests follow the detention at the weekend of 19 people for suspected links to the Islamist militant group, which had claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks against the British Consulate, two synagogues and an HSBC bank in Istanbul killing more than 60 people in November 2003.The court ordered five of the suspects to be held for possible trial.Turkish media said one of the suspects was a Turk who taught English language in the country's central city of Aksaray.
Authorities have stepped up security in main cities ahead of the New Year Holiday, fearing bombings. Istanbul municipality cancelled a traditional New Year's Night party in the city's main square.A Turkish woman died in a bomb blast in Istanbul on Tuesday

As in the days of Noah....

PESTILENCE WATCH:Infection Hits a California Prison Hard

COALINGA, Calif.-When any of the 5,300 inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison begin coughing and running a fever, doctors do not think flu, bronchitis or even the common cold.They think valley fever; and, more often than they would like, they are right.In the past three years, more than 900 inmates at the prison have contracted the fever, a fungal infection that has been both widespread and lethal. At least a dozen inmates here in Central California have died from the disease, which is on the rise in other Western states, including Arizona, where the health department declared an epidemic after more than 5,500 cases were reported in 2006, including 33 deaths.Endemic to parts of the Southwest, valley fever has been reported in recent years in a widening belt from South Texas to Northern California. The disease has infected archaeologists digging at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and dogs that have inhaled the spores while sniffing for illegal drugs along the Mexican border.In most cases, the infection starts in the lungs and is usually handled by the body without permanent damage. But serious complications can arise, including meningitis; and, at Pleasant Valley, the scope of the outbreak has left some inmates permanently disabled, confined to wheelchairs and interned in expensive long-term hospital stays.About 80 prison employees have also contracted the fever, Pleasant Valley officials say, including a corrections officer who died of the disease in 2005.What makes the disease all the more troubling is that its cause is literally underfoot: the spores that cause the infection reside in the region’s soil. When that soil is disturbed, something that happens regularly where houses are being built, crops are being sown and a steady wind churns, those spores are inhaled. The spores can also be kicked up by Mother Nature including earthquakes and dust storms.“It doesn’t matter whether you’re custody staff, it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or an electrician,” said James A. Yates, the warden at Pleasant Valley. “You breathe the same air as you walk around out there.”

As in the days of Noah....

Sudan accuses Chad of bombing Darfur

KHARTOUM-Sudan has accused Chadian aircraft of bombing its western Darfur region in what it called "repeated aggressions" by its western neighbor.Relations between the two African oil producers have been touchy in recent years as both try to quell insurgencies close to their long and porous border. They accuse each other of backing rebels trying to overthrow their respective governments."In an unprecedented escalation, Chadian forces have violated the joint border as three Chadian war planes bombed two areas...in West Darfur ... on December 28," said a Sudanese foreign ministry statement seen by Reuters on Sunday.Darfur rebels have bases in N'Djamena and a Reuters witness has seen Chadian rebel camps along the Sudan-Chad border. Chadian army deserters have told Reuters that they supported Darfur rebels in 2003, when mostly non-Arab insurgents took up arms accusing Khartoum of neglecting the remote region. Sudan has rejected Chad's accusations that it was helping Chadian rebels, and accused the Chadian government of supporting the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in a recent meeting on Chadian territory in the area of Bahai.A European force is due to deploy to eastern Chad to support a large U.N.-AU peacekeeping force in neighboring Darfur and stem the violence there, which has crossed the border.International experts estimate some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes in Darfur's rebellion.In eastern Chad militia attacks on villages continue and thousands of desperate Chadians have sought refuge in Darfur. The violence has also spread to the neighboring Central African Republic.

As in the days of Noah...

Now rain might save Atlanta from record

ATLANTA-Rain fell in the city for a fourth consecutive day Sunday and meteorologists decided it probably would be enough to save 2007 from going down as the drought-stricken Atlanta area's driest year on record.The most arid year ever recorded for Atlanta was 1954, when only 31.80 inches of rain fell.Meteorologists had said it appeared that this year would have even less rain than that, saying rain falling Sunday morning would taper off and quit. However, showers continued and by 2:50 p.m. Sunday the 2007 cumulative rainfall was up to 31.56 inches-with a band of moderate rain moving in from Alabama."It's likely" the 1954 record will stay intact, said Mike Leary, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.Dry weather was forecast for Monday.More than one-third of the Southeast is in an "exceptional" drought-the worst drought category. The Atlanta area, with a population of 5 million, is smack in the middle of the affected region, which includes most of Tennessee, Alabama, North and South Carolina, as well as parts of Kentucky and Virginia.There had been hope that Atlanta would escape a record book entry this year, as a parade of rainstorms began the week before Christmas. Atlanta got rain on 10 out of the last 12 days.On Saturday morning, the 2007 cumulative rainfall total hit about 30.5 inches, and an overnight soaking was on the way, fed by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.On Sunday morning, the weather service said it didn't look like enough would fall during the day to match the 1954 level, seeming to guarantee a new record. But by 3 p.m. Sunday, more than an inch had accumulated for the day."It's just a wait and see," said Stephen Konarik, another weather service meteorologist.Rainfall is measured at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, just south of the city.Rain has also been unusually sparse in other Georgia cities this year, including Athens, Columbia and Macon. However, each of those cities has seen worse years than 2007, Konarik said.Athens got 0.92 of an inch by mid-afternoon Sunday, Columbus got 1.12 inches, Augusta got 2 inches and Macon more than 2.5 inches, Leary said.The latest rain had only a small effect on the metropolitan area's main source of drinking water, Lake Lanier, where the receding water is exposing roads and the foundations of buildings submerged since the reservoir was created in the 1950s.The water level in the reservoir stood at an all-time low of 1,050.79 inches on Wednesday, and by 6 a.m. Sunday it had risen to only 1,051.05 inches. "What's falling now won't show up until tomorrow or the next day," said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir."Anything that stops the level from falling is a good thing," he added. "But we'd like to get a whole lot more."The lack of rainfall across the region has set off intense fighting between Georgia, Florida and Alabama over the federal government's management of water in the region.Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has asked the federal government to release less water from its reservoirs, such as Lanier, but Alabama and Florida are concerned about how that would affect their supplies.Last month, Perdue held a public prayer vigil for rain on the steps of the Capitol.

As in the days of Noah....

Iran says its first atom plant to start in mid-2008

TEHRAN-Iran's first atomic plant will start operating in mid-2008, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Sunday, two days after the country received a second delivery of nuclear fuel from Russia. Mottaki also told Iranian media that Tehran wants assurances that the United States will accept the results of the talks before holding a new meeting about ways to end violence in Iraq.U.S. and Iraqi officials have held three rounds of talks since May on the security situation in Iraq, easing a diplomatic freeze that lasted almost three decades, but Mottaki's remarks suggested Tehran was not satisfied with the outcome so far."These negotiations should have a clear agenda and reach clear results, different from before," he said.Iran and the United States are at odds over who is to blame for the bloodshed in Iraq and are also embroiled in a dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Washington suspects Iran wants to build a bomb, a charge the Islamic state denies.In a move both Moscow and Washington said should convince Tehran to shut down its disputed uranium enrichment program, Russia delivered the first batch of about 80 tonnes of uranium fuel rods to Iran's Bushehr plant on December 17.A second delivery arrived 11 days later, Iranian media said.The head of the Russian company building Bushehr, state-run Atomstroiexport, has been quoted as saying the facility would not be operational until at least the end of next year.But Mottaki said: "Half of the capacity of the Bushehr nuclear power plant will be inaugurated next summer."Iran says it still needs to produce nuclear fuel domestically as it wants to build other power plants as part of a planned network with a capacity of 20,000 megawatt by 2020 to satisfy soaring electricity demands.It says it has started to construct a 360 MW plant in the southwestern Khuzestan province. Enriched uranium can be used for making nuclear fuel and also, if refined much further, provide material for bombs.Turning to Iraq, Mottaki said Iran had agreed in principle to hold a fourth meeting with U.S. officials. His ministry earlier this month suggested they may be held in early January.But, Iran "has concerns about the way the other side would cooperate in these talks and also the commitment of the other side to the results," Mottaki said.Iran had conveyed this to the United States via Iraqi officials and was now waiting for a response."The negotiations should take place after the other side (makes a commitment) to accept the results of talks," he said, without elaborating. Washington accuses Iran of arming and training Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq. But U.S. officials have recently softened their rhetoric towards Iran, saying Tehran appears to have cut back its supply of roadside bombs to the militias.Tehran blames the sectarian violence on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 and have repeatedly called on Washington to pull out its troops.

As in the days of Noah....

BIG BROTHER WATCH:Individual privacy under threat in Europe and U.S., report says

LONDON-Individual privacy is under threat in the United States and across the European Union as governments introduce sweeping surveillance and information-gathering measures in the name of security and controlling borders, an international rights group has said in a report.Greece, Romania and Canada had the best privacy records of 47 countries surveyed by Privacy International, which is based in London. Malaysia, Russia and China were ranked worst.Both Britain and the United States fell into the lowest-performing group of "endemic surveillance societies.""The general trend is that privacy is being extinguished in country after country," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. "Even those countries where we expected ongoing strong privacy protection, like Germany and Canada, are sinking into the mire."In the United States, the administration of President George W. Bush has come under fire from civil liberties groups for its domestic wiretapping program, which allows monitoring, without a warrant, of international phone calls and e-mail messages involving people suspected of having terrorist links."The last five years has seen a litany of surveillance initiatives," Davies said.
He said little had changed since the Democrats took control of Congress a year ago."We would expect the cancellation of some programs, the review of others, but this hasn't occurred," Davies said.Britain was criticized for its plans for national identity cards, a lack of government accountability and the world's largest network of surveillance cameras.Davies said the loss earlier this year of computer disks containing personal information and bank details on 25 million people in Britain highlighted the risks of centralizing information on huge government databases.The report, released Saturday, said privacy protection was worsening across Western Europe, although it was improving in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe.It said concern about terrorism, immigration and border security was driving the spread of identity and fingerprinting systems, often without regard to individual privacy.The report said the trends had been fueled by the emergence "of a profitable surveillance industry dominated by global IT companies and the creation of numerous international treaties that frequently operate outside judicial or democratic processes."The survey considers a range of factors, including legal protection of privacy, enforcement, data sharing, the use of biometrics and the prevalence of closed circuit TV cameras."People shouldn't feel despondent about the results," Davies said. "Our view is that privacy-friendly systems will emerge in coming years and that consumers will soon begin to see privacy as a political issue."
As in the days of Noah....

LAND FULL of VIOLENCE:LA gang F13 accused of targeting blacks

LOS ANGELES - In a murderous quest aimed at "cleansing" their turf of snitches and rival gangsters, members of one of Los Angeles County's most vicious Latino gangs sometimes killed people just because of their race, an investigation found.There were even instances in which Florencia 13 leaders ordered killings of black gangsters and then, when the intended victim couldn't be located, said "Well, shoot any black you see," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said."In certain cases some murders were just purely motivated on killing a black person," Baca said.Authorities say there were 20 murders among more than 80 shootings documented during the gang's rampage in the hardscrabble Florence-Firestone neighborhood, exceptional even in an area where gang violence has been commonplace for decades. They don't specify the time frame or how many of the killings were racial.Los Angeles has struggled with gang violence for years, especially during the wars in the late 1980s and early '90s between the Crips and the Bloods-both black gangs. Latino gangs have gained influence since then as the Hispanic population surged.Evidence of Florencia 13, or F13, is easy to find in Florence-Firestone. Arrows spray-painted on the wall of a liquor store mark the gang's boundary and graffiti warns rivals to steer clear.The gang's name comes from the neighborhood that is its stronghold and the 13th letter of the alphabet-M-representing the gang's ties to the Mexican Mafia.Federal, state and local officials worked together to charge 102 men linked to F13 with racketeering, conspiracy to murder, weapons possession, drug dealing and other crimes. In terms of people charged, it's the largest-ever federal case involving a Southern California gang, prosecutors say. More than 80 of those indicted are in custody.But eliminating the gang won't be easy. It's survived for decades and is believed to have about 2,000 members. Its reach extends to Nevada, Arizona and into prisons, where prosecutors say incarcerated gang leaders were able to order hits on black gangsters.According to the indictment, F13's leader, Arturo Castellanos, sent word in 2004 from California's fortress-like Pelican Bay State Prison that he wanted his street soldiers to begin "cleansing" Florence-Firestone of black gangsters, notably the East Coast Crips, and snitches.
His followers eagerly obeyed, according to federal prosecutors.In one case, F13 members came across a black man at a bus stop, shouted "Cheese toast!" and fired. "Cheese toast" is a derogatory name for East Coast Crips, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin S. Rosenberg said.The victim, apparently targeted only because of his skin color, survived being shot several times, Rosenberg said.F13 isn't the only Latino gang linked to racial killings.Last year, four members of The Avenues, a gang from the Highland Park area east of downtown Los Angeles, were convicted of hate crimes for killing a black man in what prosecutors called a campaign to drive blacks from that neighborhood. And last January, authorities announced a crackdown on the 204th Street gang following the killing of a 14-year-old black girl.The violence goes both ways, said Adam Torres, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department gang detective whose beat includes Florence-Firestone.During a recent patrol on the east side of the neighborhood, he pointed to a cinderblock wall peppered with bullet holes. Torres said the Crips still control that area and any Hispanic there is at risk of being shot.Despite the wave of violence, George Tita, a criminologist with the University of California, Irvine, said racially motivated gang killings are an exception. Latinos and blacks are far more likely to be murdered by one of their own."You don't see these major black-brown wars, either within the context of gangs or outside the context of gangs," Tita said.Residents of Florence-Firestone are loath to discuss gangs, fearful they might end up as targets, but there are signs of change. Murders in the neighborhood dropped from 43 in 2005 to 19 in 2006, Baca said. For 2007, there were 19 murders as of Dec. 24.Jose Garcia sees the difference. The security doors on the store where he works aren't covered with graffiti as often and he hasn't heard a gunshot in two months."It used to be at least once or twice a week," he said.

SIGN of the TIMES:World outsources pregnancies to India

ANAND, India-Every night in this quiet western Indian city, 15 pregnant women prepare for sleep in the spacious house they share, ascending the stairs in a procession of ballooned bellies, to bedrooms that become a landscape of soft hills.A team of maids, cooks and doctors looks after the women, whose pregnancies would be unusual anywhere else but are common here.The young mothers of Anand, a place famous for its milk, are pregnant with the children of infertile couples from around the world.The small clinic at Kaival Hospital matches infertile couples with local women, cares for the women during pregnancy and delivery, and counsels them afterward. Anand's surrogate mothers, pioneers in the growing field of outsourced pregnancies, have given birth to roughly 40 babies.More than 50 women in this city are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan, Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.Dr. Nayna Patel, the woman behind Anand's baby boom, defends her work as meaningful for everyone involved."There is this one woman who desperately needs a baby and cannot have her own child without the help of a surrogate. And at the other end there is this woman who badly wants to help her (own) family," Patel said. "If this female wants to help the other one ... why not allow that? ... It's not for any bad cause. They're helping one another to have a new life in this world."Experts say commercial surrogacy-or what has been called "wombs for rent"-is growing in India. While no reliable numbers track such pregnancies nationwide, doctors work with surrogates in virtually every major city. The women are impregnated in-vitro with the egg and sperm of couples unable to conceive on their own.Commercial surrogacy has been legal in India since 2002, as it is in many other countries, including the United States. But India is the leader in making it a viable industry rather than a rare fertility treatment. Experts say it could take off for the same reasons outsourcing in other industries has been successful: a wide labor pool working for relatively low rates.Critics say the couples are exploiting poor women in India-a country with an alarmingly high maternal death rate-by hiring them at a cut-rate cost to undergo the hardship, pain and risks of labor."It raises the factor of baby farms in developing countries," said Dr. John Lantos of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo. "It comes down to questions of voluntariness and risk."Patel's surrogates are aware of the risks because they've watched others go through them. Many of the mothers know one another, or are even related. Three sisters have all borne strangers' children, and their sister-in-law is pregnant with a second surrogate baby. Nearly half the babies have been born to foreign couples while the rest have gone to Indians.Ritu Sodhi, a furniture importer from Los Angeles who was born in India, spent $200,000 trying to get pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, and was considering spending another $80,000 to hire a surrogate mother in the United States."We were so desperate," she said. "It was emotionally and financially exhausting."Then, on the Internet, Sodhi found Patel's clinic.After spending about $20,000-more than many couples because it took the surrogate mother several cycles to conceive-Sodhi and her husband are now back home with their 4-month-old baby, Neel.They plan to return to Anand for a second child."Even if it cost $1 million, the joy that they had delivered to me is so much more than any money that I have given them," said Sodhi. "They're godsends to deliver something so special."Patel's center is believed to be unique in offering one-stop service. Other clinics may request that the couple bring in their own surrogate, often a family member or friend, and some place classified ads. But in Anand the couple just provides the egg and sperm and the clinic does the rest, drawing from a waiting list of tested and ready surrogates.Young women are flocking to the clinic to sign up for the list.
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As in the days of Noah.....

Bhutto's son, husband to succeed her

NAUDERO, Pakistan-Benazir Bhutto's 19-year-old son-a student with no political experience-was named symbolic leader of her party Sunday, while her husband took effective control, extending Pakistan's most enduring political dynasty.The major parties appeared to agree that the elections should take place as scheduled on Jan. 8 despite street violence and political turmoil triggered by the assassination of Bhutto. The Election Commission is to discuss the timing of the polls Monday.A successful vote would bolster U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nuclear-armed country as it battles rising Islamic extremism.Rioting subsided Sunday after destruction that left at least 44 dead and caused ten of millions of dollars in damage, but bitterness remained over the government's response to the gun and suicide attack that killed Bhutto.The appointment of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was not without its own complications. A former Cabinet minister who spent eight years in prison on corruption accusations, he is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly taking kickbacks and is viewed with suspicion by many Pakistanis.At a news conference on Sunday, Zardari said the opposition party-Pakistan's largest-had no confidence in the government's ability to bring the killers to justice and urged the United Nations to establish a committee like the one investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.The decisions on the future of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party were made at a closed-door meeting in the sprawling family estate in the south of the country where the two-time former prime minister grew up.The eldest of Bhutto's three children, Bilawal Zardari, accepted the party's leadership, but said he would remain at Oxford University.He said his father, who was officially designated co-chairman, would be the effective party leader."The party's long struggle for democracy will continue with renewed vigor," Bilawal told a news conference that was repeatedly interrupted by emotional chants from Bhutto's supporters."My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."Bhutto's grandfather was a senior figure in the movement that helped Pakistan split from India and lead it to independence in 1947. Her father-Pakistan's first elected prime minister-founded the Pakistan Peoples Party in 1967 and its electoral success since then has largely depended on the Bhutto name.Bilawal said that Zardari would "take care" of the party while he continued his studies. Zardari then told reporters to direct questions at him, saying his son was at a "tender age."Zardari, who spent eight years under detention on corruption charges in Pakistan before his release in late 2004, is a power broker who served as investment minister in Bhutto's second government.He has denied the graft charges.He immediately announced the party's participation in the elections, perhaps sensing sympathy for Bhutto and her family could translate into a strong performance in the polls, but said another party leader, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, would likely be their candidate for prime minister if they won.He also appealed to the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to reverse an earlier decision to boycott the polls. Sharif's party later agreed."It is up to the political parties in Pakistan to choose their leaders," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said from Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is vacationing."We believe it is important for Pakistan to confront extremists and continue on the path to democracy by holding free and fair elections," he said. "The timing of those elections will be up to the Pakistanis."Tariq Azim, a spokesman for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, congratulated the decision to against seeking a delay in the vote."We welcome it, and we are also ready for the contest on Jan. 8," he said after earlier predicting the election may be delayed up to four months.The British and U.S. governments had been pushing Bhutto, a moderate Muslim seen as friendly to the West, to form a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf after the election-a combination seen as the most effective in the fight against al-Qaida, which is believed to be regrouping in the country's lawless tribal areas.But many of her supporters have alleged that political allies of Musharraf were behind her killing, which the government has blamed on Islamic militants with links to al-Qaida.A statement from the British government said Musharraf had agreed to consider "potential international support" to the Pakistani investigation into the assassination, but gave no more details. It also urged Pakistan to go ahead with elections without any "significant delay."Zardari rejected as "lies" the government's account of how his wife died, amid a dispute over whether she sustained fatal gunshot wounds or was killed by the force of the suicide blast that struck her vehicle as she left a campaign rally on Thursday.At Zardari's insistence, Bhutto was buried without an autopsy and the debate over her cause of death has undermined confidence in the government and further angered her followers.No fresh rioting was reported Sunday and Zardari urged supporters to show restraint.
"God willing, when it is the Peoples Party's reign, when the Peoples Party government is formed, then we would have taken revenge for Bibi's blood and that blood would not have gone waste," Zardari said, referring to his late wife by her nickname.

As in the days of Noah....

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Atheism advances

DALLAS-Early in December, I visited my daughter at college. Spread across her floor was a project she was working on for an elementary education class. The assignment was to prepare a holiday unit for the public school classroom. The project was supposed to include room decorations, a game, songs and stories. And in order to "fit into" the public school requirements, religious references-including references to Christmas-were forbidden. I was proud of her exquisite, sparkling work, featuring snowflakes and icicles in shades of silver, white and blue. But there was something very sad about it. It seemed cold and empty compared to the cheery reds, greens and golds of Christmas. The songs were unfamiliar to me. Even "Frosty the Snowman" was taboo-I guess because it mentions Christmas. Perhaps I should not be surprised at the way things have progressed. The religious aspects of Christmas have been taboo for awhile. Now even the childhood fun of the Christmas celebration is being stripped from the nation's public schools.Yes, Christmas is over. But it's worth one last look at what has become an annual legal and political battle against Christianity that actually takes place throughout the year. Legally, the acknowledgement and discussion of Christmas is not forbidden in schools or the public square. But city officials and school administrators across the country downplayed it for fear of being sued by the ACLU and their "offended" clients. Christmas vacation is now universally referred to as "winter break." The Christmas program is now the "winter concert." The courts pretty much agree that, in public schools and on government property, manger scenes are required to be combined with secular symbols like reindeer and Christmas trees, or Santas and Frostys. Christians have kind of come to grips with that. But the secularizers are not satisfied. In recent years, even the non-religious but traditional aspects of Christmas are being challenged.Town officials are finding themselves in the peculiar position of having to decide whether Christmas-I mean "holiday"-parades can include the presence of Santa Claus. This year, in Fort Collins, Colo., there was a fight over red and green Christmas lights. A city-appointed task force, which included a member of the Northern Colorado ACLU, proposed the colors be banned. (An overwhelming outcry by citizens convinced the city council not to "mess with tradition.") This year, the Seattle airport took its Christmas trees down, and, after a chorus of disapproval, put the trees back up. In the name of inclusiveness, symbols that have nothing to do with the Christian aspects of Christmas are banned from the public square. You have to wonder, do people other than ACLU lawyers really want these changes? The answer to that question appeared last month in the form of a survey released by Rasmussen Reports. One thousand adults were polled and 67 percent said they preferred that retailers use the words "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" in their seasonal advertising. Most people are weary of this politically correct nonsense.As if it were not depressing enough to observe the secularization of Christmas, we also get to live through another attempt by atheist Michael Newdow to strip God from the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow was back in federal court in early December, demanding "under God" be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and the currency. The case is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that affirmed Newdow's challenge to the pledge in 2002.Hollywood is cooperating with the outright promotion of atheism to kids. Just in time for the Christmas movie-going season was the epic fantasy film, "The Golden Compass." The film has the look of the Chronicles of Narnia movie that was so successful a couple of years ago. But it's the anti-Narnia. The Golden Compass is based on the first in the "His Dark Materials" book trilogy written by British atheist Philip Pullman. At the end of the trilogy, God dies.Several recent bestselling books by atheists have become weapons in this secular war on Christians and their beliefs. Conservative author Dinesh D'Souza describes the struggle and counters their arguments in his new book, "What's So Great About Christianity?" He argues that atheists have developed a strategy to win the minds of the next generation. Involved, believing parents are the counter to this and the atheists know it. Atheist Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," calls faith a mental illness, and raises the question as to whether or not parents should "be free to impose their beliefs on their children." Atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great," asks. "How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?" Free nations should welcome religion, specifically Christianity, because it preserves freedom. Totalitarian regimes benefit when the culture is stripped of religion, or religious celebrations. In the former Soviet Union, Communists feared Christianity and gradually secularized the Christmas holiday. They wrote Jesus out of Christmas carols, banned St. Nicholas, and banned Christmas trees. Not willing to let go, the people moved these traditions to New Years. Our nation is still overwhelmingly Christian. We pride ourselves on our tolerance of all religions-or no religion. But Christians should remain vigilant and winsomely seek to remain the primary drivers and influencers of culture in America.
By Penna Dexter
As in the days of Noah.....

BIG BROTHER WATCH:Australia's controversial national ID program hits the dumpster

Opponents of Australia's controversial Access Card received an early Christmas present earlier this month when the incoming Rudd Labor Government finally axed the controversial ID program. Had it been implemented, the Access Card program would have required Australians to present the smart card anytime they dealt with certain federal departments, including Medicare, Centrelink, the Child Support Agency, or Veterans' Affairs.For reference, Medicare is the government agency responsible for the maintenance of Australia's universal health care system, Centrelink is responsible for the dispersement of social security payments, the Child Support Agency is responsible for the collection of child support from each parent in the event of a separation or divorce. Veterans' Affairs appears to be at least somewhat analogous to its US counterpart, minus the provisions for medical treatment.Although the Australian government attempted to paint the Access Card system as a "Human Services Access Card," there's little doubt that it would've doubled as an effective national ID system. Information printed on the card was to include one's name, photo, signature, card, and DVA entitlements.Those particular requirements aren't any more onerous than what the US requires for a driver's license, but the Access Card didn't stop there. Each card would have been tied to an individual user via a specific card number and a corresponding PIN required to access the card's more detailed information .
Encrypted information contained within the card's RFID chip would have included a person's legal name, date of birth, gender, address, signature, card number, card expiration date, and Medicare number. Provisions were also included that would allow additional information deemed to be necessary for either "the administration or purposes of the Act."Australians were unhappy about being forced to carry a unique ID card merely for the purpose of interacting with basic human and health services, and the proposal faced opposition from its very inception. The defeat of John Howard in the Australian polls was the last gasp of the Access Card program, which was killed off as one of the very first acts of the new Labor government, lead by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Australia's battle against the Access Card system echoes the active opposition in America to the REAL ID act. Although the two plans differ substantially in scope and implementation, critics of both argued against them on the same privacy- and civil-liberties-oriented grounds.
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Kingdom of Bhutan gets first vote as royal rule ends

THE Himalayan outpost of Bhutan stages its first parliamentary polls this week as the kingdom steers away from royal rule, but officials worry many voters will stay away.The December 31 elections represent a dramatic shift of power in Bhutan orchestrated by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck to end absolute royal authority for a more ceremonial role.The monarch abdicated in December 2006 in favour of Oxford-educated son King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as part of plans to introduce a constitution and hold direct elections – a direct break with 100-year-old royal rule.But many Bhutanese view the looming changes with trepidation, as seen in practice polls in April and May which saw about 40 percent turnout.Kuensel, the nation's official newspaper, reported that many potential voters in the capital Thimphu have been reluctant to head back to villages as demanded and had not received or applied for postal ballots.Some federal government workers from outside Thimphu "and many other organisations in the capital did not receive postal ballots," Kuensel reported.According to an online poll of 1310 people carried out by the weekly, only 40 percent expect to vote for the upper house National Council of parliament.There are nearly 313,000 registered voters in the isolated kingdom of 600,000 sandwiched between India and China.To quell voter fears of corruption in particular by the new political class, Election Commission guidelines for prospective candidates include a high-school diploma, income and criminal background checks and bans on offering or accepting money.The upper house has 20 seats up for direct election with another five to be selected by the new king. The body is intended as a check to the National Assembly or lower house, which will be directly elected for the first time likely in February or March 2008.Only 15 of the seats will hold polls on December 31, five will be held on January 29 and the remaining seat filled sometime after lower house polls are held, the election commission said in an email.Electronic voting will be used for all seats and results are expected shortly after polls close at 4pm.Candidates for the upper house cannot have political party affiliation.The 47-seat lower house will see at least two main parties-the Virtuous Bhutan Party, an alliance headed by former home minister Jigme Yehse Thinley, and the People's Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Sangay Ngedup. Bhutan, about the size of Switzerland, is widely known for a motto coined by the former king as aiming for "gross national happiness" over gross domestic product.However the one-time Shangri-la also faces serious problems including the wrath of Indian militant groups based on its 275k southern border with Assam state.Last week, Bhutan sealed the border with Assam over fears that the militants might take revenge for a 2003 military crackdown with the help of India that evicted three separatist groups – two from Assam and one from West Bengal."We are worried that militants from Assam might try and create problems during the elections," said Sangey Thinley, district magistrate of Sarpang district of Bhutan.Bhutan also evicted ethnic Nepalese Hindus as part of a campaign by the former king in the 1990s to forge "national identity", which consists of traditional dress and wider use of the Bhutanese language.The refugees, now living in UN camps in Nepal, have demanded the right-of-return but have been rebuffed by Bhutan.Earlier this year, the United States said it may accept at least 60,000 of the refugees and Canada offered to allow 5000 people in, but many who lost property have refused to go and oppose the elections."We do not recognise the elections in Bhutan as the polls are still being held under a dictatorial rule of the king," Anil Gurung, a Nepali refugee leader of Bhutanese origin, said from Siliguri in India's West Bengal state.

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Explosives found in EU Mideast aid bags

ISRAEL says it has seized a truck carrying chemicals used to make explosives hidden in bags marked as EU aid for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.The army said 6.5 tonnes of potassium nitrate were in bags marked as sugar from the European Union for Palestinians in the coastal enclave.EU officials in Jerusalem had no immediate comment.The cargo in a Palestinian truck was travelling in the occupied West Bank and seized several weeks ago at an Israeli checkpoint, the army said.The EU is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Israel tightened its military and economic cordon of the Gaza Strip after Islamist Hamas seized the territory in a June war with secular Fatah.
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LAND FULL of VIOLENCE:At least 500 youths murdered in '07: rights group

MORE than 500 children and youths were murdered in Honduras in 2007, a fifth more than last year, victims of gang violence, death squads, drug hit men and even police shootings, a rights group said today.Almost 4,000 children and youths under 22 have been murdered in the poor Central American country over the past decade, said rights group Casa Alianza, which works to protect minors in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru."Hit men, death squads and even police officers are killing the children and young people. State security forces are incapable of stopping these murders,'' said Casa Alianza's Honduran representative, Manuel Capellin.
Many murdered youths, some as young as 12, are members of Honduras' violent gangs and are caught up in rival killings.Some police officers are accused of killing youths after gangs attacked officers, Casa Alianza and other rights groups say.Honduran police deny the charges.Some 40 per cent of the 7.5 million people in Honduras are 14 or younger.

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Cyclones set to hit both coasts

PARKS and wildlife rangers have begun evacuating holidaymakers from Fraser Island as an intense low pressure system packing gale-force winds headed for the popular tourist destination north of Queensland's Sunshine Coast.As the volatile system headed slowly south, threatening to bring huge waves and high winds to much of the Queensland coast, the Bureau of Meteorology said there was a significant risk of a severe tropical cyclone developing on the other side of the country, off Western Australia's northwest coast.Senior forecaster Andrew Burton said people between Exmouth and Broome could be at risk over the next 48 hours, with the low expected to develop into a tropical cyclone overnight.Forecasters are also monitoring a low in the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is expected to develop into a cyclone early next week.As many as 3000 people have been camping on Fraser Island this holiday season, but rangers yesterday began ordering them to leave.Queensland Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts said residents and tourists staying at resorts could remain on the island, but all campers should leave as soon as possible.The low, described by one forecaster as akin to a Sydney-Hobart yacht race storm, was already bringing big waves to the east coast of Fraser Island yesterday, but its full force is not expected until tomorrow.Big waves and gale-force winds are also expected on the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast this weekend. The low, which was centred about 250km northeast of Gladstone last night, battered the central Queensland coast yesterday with strong winds and high seas, forcing the closure of the state's largest coal terminal at Dalrymple Bay, south of Mackay.More than 40 coal ships are anchored off the coast but none was allowed to dock. Terminal spokeswoman Cathy Kelly said the order for the ships to stay at sea was a precautionary measure."These ships can go on oceans around the world, so they're suited to this weather, they can handle this weather," Ms Kelly told ABC radio."It's when they come alongside that high seas can cause them to be buffeted up against the wharf and damage either themselves or the wharf, so it's best that they wait at anchor until the seas calm down a little."
The low off the west coast has developed in the Indian Ocean about 600km northwest of Broome and is due to follow the coast southwards in coming days."There is certainly a significant risk it could develop into a severe tropical cyclone impacting the coast," Mr Burton said.
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Australia frees Guantanamo convict

ADELAIDE, Australia-David Hicks, the only person convicted of terrorism charges at a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, walked free Saturday and said he did not want to do "anything that might result in my return" to the prison in Cuba.The 32-year-old was released from prison in his home town of Adelaide in southern Australia after completing a nine-month sentence struck under a plea deal that followed more than five years' detention without a trial at Guantanamo.Hicks smiled briefly as he was led by guards toward the gate of the Yatala Labor Prison, but did not speak to reporters.In a statement released by his lawyer he thanked supporters including rights activists and anti-torture groups who helped get him out of Guantanamo Bay.
"First and foremost I would like to recognize the huge debt of gratitude that I owe the Australian public for getting me home," Hicks said in the statement."I will not forget, or let you down."Last week, a federal magistrate ruled that Hicks was a security risk because of the training he acknowledged receiving in terrorist camps in Afghanistan.The court was told he met al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at least 20 times, describing him as a "lovely brother" in letters home.The magistrate ordered Hicks to report to police three times a week and obey a curfew by staying indoors at premises to be agreed on by police.The former Muslim convert-he has renounced the faith while in detention-was caught on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan in December 2001 by U.S.-backed local forces and handed to American authorities.During his incarceration at Guantanamo, Hicks became a cause celebre in Australia, where many activists and politicians criticized then-Prime Minister John Howard for allowing an Australian to languish for years in a foreign jail without trial.Howard was defeated by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in elections last month.Under increasing pressure as a tough election battle approached, Howard raised the issue of Hicks with Vice President Dick Cheney during a visit to Sydney earlier this year, and the tribunal proceedings against Hicks started soon afterward. Hicks became the first person convicted under the military tribunals system set up by President Bush to try terror suspects when he pleaded guilty in March to providing material support to a terrorist organization.He was sentenced to seven years in prison, though all but nine months' prison time was suspended.Under the plea deal, Hicks was returned to Australia to serve out his time, agreed to remain silent about his treatment in custody and forfeited any right to appeal his conviction.He also agreed not to speak with media until March next year.After earlier suggesting Hicks would apologize for his past actions, his father, Terry, said Saturday his son believed there was no need."You've got to realize David's done five and a half years pretty tough," Terry Hicks told reporters. "I think he's done his time for whatever. Nothing's been proved of what he's supposedly done. He's done his time and it's time for him to settle down."
Opposition leader Brendan Nelson said Hicks should make "nothing less than an unqualified apology" for his admissions.In his statement, Hicks pleaded for privacy to allow him to readjust to life outside prison and get "medical care for the consequences of 51/2 years at Guantanamo Bay."He did not elaborate, but his family has said he suffered deep depression and anxiety while in custody.

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QUAKEWATCH:Earthquake shakes NZ Island...

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