Monday, October 21, 2013

Confusion over long-delayed Syria conference

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke billows amid buildings at a bomb explosion in Daraya, a countryside of Damscus, Syria, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Syrian warplanes bombed several rebel-held areas Tuesday and opposition fighters fired mortar rounds and homemade rockets at Damascus on the first day of a major Muslim holiday, activists said. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP Video) 
 
Reflecting confusion in efforts to convene an international conference to end Syria's civil war, the Arab League chief announced on Sunday that talks will take place next month in Geneva, only to have the U.N. envoy flatly deny a date has been set.The bizarre diplomatic two-step between Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and the U.N. envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, at a joint news conference added to the uncertainty surrounding the proposed peace talks. A decision over whether the long-delayed negotiations will happen at all could come at a meeting of the Syrian opposition early next month that will focus on whether to sit down with President Bashar Assad's regime.
The United States and Russia, who support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Damascus government and Syria's divided opposition to the table for a peace conference. But with the war deadlocked, neither the regime nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.
Even now, it remains unclear whether either side is willing to negotiate.
The main Western-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is scheduled to meet Nov. 1-2 in Istanbul to decide whether to take part in the proposed Geneva conference. One of the most prominent factions within the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, has said it has no faith in talks with Assad's regime and won't attend any Geneva negotiations.
But the Coalition's ability to speak for the broader rebellion has long been in dispute, and fighters inside Syria — many of whom reject negotiations with the regime — have accused the opposition leaders in exile of being out of touch with reality on the ground. The Coalition's credibility, already strained, took a major hit last month when nearly a dozen prominent rebel groups publicly broke with the opposition umbrella group. More rebel brigades have since followed suit.
The government, meanwhile, has kept its options via Geneva open. Some officials have said all opposition groups should be represented in the talks, while others have refused to deal with the Coalition. Assad, however, has stuck to one point throughout: a refusal to talk with "terrorists," the term the government uses for those trying to topple the president by force.
With questions over who will attend lingering, Elaraby announced after meeting with Brahimi at Arab League headquarters in Cairo that the Geneva conference would be held Nov. 23. Elaraby acknowledged that "many difficulties" remain, but said "it's time that the killings and the bloodshed stopped."
But standing next to him, Brahimi then denied the timing of the proposed peace talks had been finalized. He said he must first visit Qatar and Turkey — two key supporters of the rebellion — and then meet with U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva before a formal date will be announced.
In a nod to the key issue of who will take part in the talks, Brahimi said the negotiations "will not be held without a credible opposition, representing an important part of opposition within (the) Syrian people."
For the opposition, Elaraby's talk of a Geneva conference in November was premature.
"As Brahimi said, it's not certain, it's not set," said Coalition member Michel Kilo. "The coalition has not decided yet to go to Geneva."
One of the issues that has delayed the talks is Assad's fate.
In the past, the Coalition has said that it will only negotiate if it is agreed from the start that Assad will leave power before the transition period can begin. The government has rejected demands that Assad leave, saying the president will stay at least until the end of his term in mid-2014, and will then decide whether to seek re-election.
While the international community has tried to convene peace talks, the fighting on the ground has shown no sign of abating.
On Sunday, rebels drove a truck laden with more than a ton of explosives into a government checkpoint on the outskirts of the central city of Hama, the state news agency SANA said. A nearby truck carrying gasoline cylinders was caught up in the explosion, prompting a series of other blasts. Footage aired on Syrian television showed rubble, fires, and bodies on the ground.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra carried out the attack. SANA put the death toll at 37, while the Observatory placed it at 43.
It was the second deadly assault on a government post in two days. On Saturday, rebels led by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra set off a car bomb while assaulting a checkpoint near Damascus, killing 16 soldiers.
The high-profile role played by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-linked militants, who have become some of the most powerful rebel factions and do not acknowledge the Western-backed Coalition, underscores the challenges of negotiating an end to the fighting.
 

Kennedy's vision for mental health never realized

FILE - In this Oct. 31, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy signs a bill authorizing $329 million for mental health programs at the White House in Washington. The Community Mental Health Act, the last legislation that Kennedy signed, aimed to build 1,500 mental health centers so those with mental illnesses could be treated while living at home, rather than being kept in state institutions. It brought positive changes, but was never fully funded. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy will host a conference on Oct. 24, 2013 in Boston, to mark the 50th anniversary of the act, and formulate an agenda to continue improving mental health care. (AP Photo/Bill Allen, File) 
 
The last piece of legislation President John F. Kennedy signed turns 50 this month: the Community Mental Health Act, which helped transform the way people with mental illness are treated and cared for in the United States.
Signed on Oct. 31, 1963, weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, the legislation aimed to build mental health centers accessible to all Americans so that those with mental illnesses could be treated while working and living at home, rather than being kept in neglectful and often abusive state institutions, sometimes for years on end.
Kennedy said when he signed the bill that the legislation to build 1,500 centers would mean the population of those living in state mental hospitals — at that time more than 500,000 people — could be cut in half. In a special message to Congress earlier that year, he said the idea was to successfully and quickly treat patients in their own communities and then return them to "a useful place in society."
Recent deadly mass shootings, including at the Washington Navy Yard and a Colorado movie theater, have been perpetrated by men who were apparently not being adequately treated for serious mental illnesses. Those tragedies have focused public attention on the mental health system and made clear that Kennedy's vision was never fully realized.
The legislation did help to usher in positive life-altering changes for people with serious illnesses such as schizophrenia, many of whom now live normal, productive lives with jobs and families. In 1963, the average stay in a state institution for someone with schizophrenia was 11 years. But only half of the proposed centers were ever built, and those were never fully funded.
Meanwhile, about 90 percent of beds have been cut at state hospitals, according to Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and expert in how the law affects the practice of medicine. In many cases, several mental health experts said, that has left nowhere for the sickest people to turn, so they end up homeless, abusing substances or in prison. The three largest mental health providers in the nation today are jails: Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles County and Rikers Island in New York.
"The rhetoric was very highfalutin. The reality was a little more complicated, and the funds that were provided were not adequate to the task," said Steven Sharfstein, president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System, a nonprofit behavioral health organization in Baltimore.
"The goals of deinstitutionalization were perverted. People who did need institutional care got thrown out, and there weren't the programs in place to keep them supported," said former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the president's nephew. "We don't have an alternate policy to address the needs of the severely mentally ill."
He is gathering advocates in Boston this week for the Kennedy Forum, a meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of his uncle's legislation and an attempt to come up with an agenda for improving mental health care.
The 1963 legislation came amid other changes in treatments for the mentally ill and health care policy in general, Appelbaum said. Chlorpromazine or Thorazine, the first effective antipsychotic medicine, was released in the 1950s. That allowed many people who were mentally ill to leave institutions and live at home.
In 1965, with the adoption of Medicaid, deinstitutionalization accelerated, experts said, because states now had an incentive to move patients out of state hospitals, where they shouldered the entire cost of their care, and into communities where the federal government would pick up part of the tab.
Later, a movement grew to guarantee rights to people with mental illness. Laws were changed in every state to limit involuntary hospitalization so people can't be committed without their consent, unless there is a danger of hurting themselves or others.
Kennedy's legislation provided for $329 million to build mental health centers that were supposed to provide services to people who had formerly been in institutions, as well as to reach into communities to try to prevent the occurrence of new mental disorders. Had the act been fully implemented, there would have been a single place in every community for people to go for mental health services.
But one problem with the legislation was that it didn't provide money to operate the centers long-term.
"Having gotten them off the ground, the federal government left it to states and localities to support," Appelbaum said. "That support by and large never came through."
Later, during the Reagan administration, the remaining funding for the act was converted into a mental health block grant for states, allowing them to spend it however they chose. Appelbaum called it a death knell because it left the community health centers that did exist on their own for funding.
Robert Drake, a professor of psychiatry and community and family medicine at Dartmouth College, said some states have tried to provide good community mental health care.
"But it's been very hard for them to sustain that because when state budget crunches come, it's always easiest to defund mental health programs because the state legislature gets relatively little pushback," he said. "Services are at a very low level right now. It's really kind of a disaster situation in most states."
Sharfstein points out that most mentally ill people are at a very low risk of becoming violent. He said it's unthinkable we would go back to the era when people were housed in "nightmare" conditions at overcrowded, understaffed and sometimes dangerous state hospitals.
"The opportunity to recover is much greater now than it was in 1963," he said.
But for those who do not take their medication, don't recover from their first episode of illness and don't seek treatment and support from professionals, they are vulnerable to homelessness, incarceration and death, he said.
Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, counts among its 2,100 member organizations many of the original community mental health centers that were built under the 1963 legislation.
"Whenever you pass a piece of legislation, people would like to think that you've solved the problem," she said. "It did some very important things. It laid some ground work. It's up to us now to move forward."


 

Communists seek jail terms for those who call for Russia’s breakup

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, attends the plenary meeting of the party's Central Committee in the town of Moskovsky. (RIA Novosti/Evgeny Biyatov)
Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, attends the plenary meeting of the party's Central Committee in the town of Moskovsky. (RIA Novosti/Evgeny Biyatov)
 
 
The leader of Russian Communists has said that calls for breakup of the Russian Federation are inspired by the ‘Imperial West’ and should be punished by a jail term.
We, our MPs, must submit a suggestion that even verbal calls for dividing the single and indivisible Russia are punished by prison sentence,” Gennady Zyuganov told the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) plenum that took place over the weekend in suburban Moscow.
Zyuganov also told his colleagues that the new stage of Russia’s colonization has already started and the attempts to cause strife between Russia’s numerous peoples and ethnic groups were a part of the major plan.
The imperial West continues its Cold War against us. Its strategists consider the fact that Russia is a multi-ethnic state. In order to weaken the country they use both the nationalism of bourgeoisie in national regions and the Russian nationalism that is capable of undermining the strength of the nation-forming ethnos. Both threats can destroy the country’s integrity. This is what the world capital is after when they support the growth of nationalist separatism in Russia,” Zyuganov noted.
The methodology of instigating interethnic wars had been tested long before the so-called Arab Spring. The provocateurs’ methods are working for the western expansion to this time,” he added.
Zyuganov said that the now famous anti-corruption blogger-turned-opposition politician Aleksey Navalny was a typical example of how nationalist rhetoric is used by pro-Western liberals.
Although they pretend that cannot stand each other the liberals and Russian nationalists were standing side to side during the Bolotnaya and Sakharova rallies,” Zyuganov said referring to the most numerous opposition marches of recent years.
Navalny is a direct offspring of their union. The Yale University graduate, the advocate of democracy and Human Rights is willingly digging into the nationalist field,” the head of the Russian Communists added. It should be noted that Navalny only spent six months at Yale in 2010 on the Yale World Fellowship program.
Speaking of Russian nationalism, Zyuganov directed the audience’s attention to the fact that many regional programs were sponsored and supported from abroad and this could only raise questions.
The legitimization of separatism is often being held under the slogans of reviving some exceptional regional identity. In Rostov-on-Don they have already had a conference on the problems of forming the Southern Russian identity. The United States sponsored this event and reporters from Ukraine and Poland discussed different ways of splitting Russians’ national identity. There are groups in Siberia that directly state that as a colony this region has the right for self-determination,” Zyuganov reported.
He then suggested the traditional Communist remedy against nationalist moods – the development of class conscience and switching from ethnic conflicts to class struggle.
In order to find its fatherland the proletariat must win the political poser and emerge as a national class. To achieve this, the idea of destroying the capitalist property and freeing the labor force must become a common idea of the nation,” Zyuganov concluded.  


Bus explosion killing 4, injuring 7 in Volgrad proves accidental

 
An unknown explosive device has detonated in a bus in Volgograd, central Russia, killing at least five people and injuring 20. A terrorist attack is now viewed as the cause of the blast.
A terrorist act has been confirmed by the National Anti-terrorist Committee.
“Today at 14.05 Moscow time [10:05 GMT] in Volgograd inside a bus, as a result of an unknown explosive device going off, a blast happened, leading to casualties,” a national Anti-terrorist Committee representative told  Itar-TASS.
“Control headquarters is coordinating fast response services, as well as security forces, to prevent more explosions from happening,” he said.
Twenty people were injured in the blast, seven of them are in critical condition.
Forty passengers were on the bus. 
Russia’s Emergency Ministry is ready to send a plane to Volgograd to evacuate the injured to Moscow, according to the official representative of the  Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius.
A murder case has been opened. 
Volgograd is situated 1,000km to the south-east of Moscow.
DETAILS TO FOLLOW 




Indian PM in Moscow to strike deals, talk Afghanistan, Syria

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh walks past a honor guard formation upon arrival to Moscow's Vnukovo airport. (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh walks past a honor guard formation upon arrival to Moscow's Vnukovo airport. (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)
 
 
India’s prime minister is in Moscow to sign multi-million cooperation contracts and to discuss Afghanistan and Syria. The visit comes as BRICS economies seek ways of challenging US hegemony in world affairs.
Manmohan Singh has arrived in Moscow as part of his four-day trip to Russia and China. The tour comes in the wake of the last week’s US debt ceiling crisis, which provoked an anti-Washington outcry from Beijing. It appeared in the form of the now much-cited call for “de-Americanization” in a Xinhua editorial, which blamed Washington for abusing “its superpower status” and “introducing even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas.”

The BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have already put some effort into shifting the global economy from the dominance of the US dollar and “establishing new architecture of multi-polar world order,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Much of the trade inside the BRICS nations is done using local currencies and the countries have decided upon their own $100 billion development bank, which would challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the IMF.

Singh’s tour is seen by analysts as something which could contribute to the BRICS nations’ efforts to move away from the US dollar’s dominance.

As far as the Russian part of the Indian PM’s trip is concerned, it’s mostly about further boosting trade relations which have already been upscale. Russia Indian bilateral trade amounted to $11 billion in 2012, that’s 24 percent up from a year earlier.

India has long been Russia's chief weapons buyer. Singh’s visit is just ahead of the November handover of the  Vikramaditya aircraft carrier to India.

Vikramaditya aircraft carrier (Photo from wikipedia.org)
Vikramaditya aircraft carrier (Photo from wikipedia.org)
Joint projects on the development of a fifth-generation fighter jet, a multi-purpose transport aircraft and BrahMos cruise missiles are being implemented successfully,” the Kremlin said as cited by RIA Novosti.

Energy is another vital aspect of cooperation. India’s mass media anticipate the Moscow talks to culminate in striking a deal on acquisition of a third and fourth reactors for the Russian-designed Kudankulam nuclear power plant.

The countries are also to discuss cooperation in exploring Russia’s vast reserves of hydro-carbons. Indian firms already have their investments in the Sakhalin oil fields and in Tomsk and they are looking into a possibility of partnership in projects for oil and gas exploration in Russia’s Far East and the Arctic.

As for the political agenda of the Singh and Putin meeting it will be dominated by the issue of Afghanistan. The withdrawal of international security forces from the country next year are an acute issue for both India and Russia, fearing it would mean the rise of drug trafficking and terrorism in the region. Joint efforts to counter the threats will thus be discussed.
 
The latest developments in Syria are expected to be touched upon as well, according to what Singh told journalists before leaving for Russia. The PM believes there can be co military solution to the conflict and praises Russia for its role in an attempted political settlement.

I applaud the efforts of President Putin and the Russian government in promoting a political settlement to the conflict and fully support the framework that Russia has worked out with the United States for a time-bound elimination of chemical weapons in Syria,” Singh said.

The prime minister urged for an earlier Geneva-II peace conference and warned that conflict in Syria threatened “the stability and security of the region” and could have “broader economic and security consequences beyond the region.” 

Space after all: NASA lifts conference ban for Chinese scientists after massive uproar

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Reuters/Carlos Barria
 
 
 NASA has reversed the decision to bar six Chinese scientists from a space conference after US astronomers pledged to boycott the event, fighting for academic freedom.
The meeting is due to take place in California in early November, and is set to focus on exoplanets - bodies outside the solar system.
The Chinese scientists were banned from participating, with NASA saying the decision had been made because of their nationality and security issues, AFP reported.
However, the move triggered a wave of outrage among prominent US astronomers.
"The meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications," Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out in an email to the organizers.
China's Foreign Ministry also blasted NASA's denial of the researchers' applications as discriminatory, arguing that politics should have no place at academic meetings.
After a few days, NASA wrote a letter to the Chinese scientists, saying they had looked into the law and found no obstacles to the six attending.
"We have since been able to clarify the intent of the referenced legislation and are pleased to inform you that this decision has been reversed and your paperwork is being reviewed for clearance," Xinhua quoted the letter as saying on Monday.
However, it isn’t clear yet if the move will work: the necessary security checks can take several weeks. Plus, the relevant government offices may still be closed after the US government shutdown.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden responded earlier this month by pledging to review the committee's decision, which he blamed on "mid-level managers" at the agency's Ames Research Center, which is hosting the event.
The confusion was apparently caused by a US law passed in 2011 that prevents NASA funds from being used to collaborate with China.
The organization wasn’t immediately available for comment after the latest news, though.
NASA went through some hard times earlier this month: due to the partial government shutdown and the failure to pass the budget on time, 97 percent of their employees received no salaries in October. Due to that fact, the organization didn’t manage to release an official statement.

Putin approved of Navalny’s candidacy in Moscow poll – mayor

Russia's opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)
Russia's opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)
 
 Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has said that top Kremlin officials, including President Putin, had approved his assistance to contender Aleksey Navalny in the September mayoral elections.
Sobyanin, who is a longtime and high-ranking member of the parliamentary majority United Russia party, told Kommersant-Vlast weekly that he consulted both President Vladimir Putin and first deputy chief of the presidential administration Vyacheslav Volodin before asking the city legislature to grant support to Navalny, a popular anti-corruption blogger and one of the leaders of the street opposition.
They had a positive attitude to my opinion that Navalny must participate in elections. I did not feel that they had any other position,” the mayor said.
The official referred to the situation when he asked the deputies of the Moscow city legislature to submit signatures in support of candidate Navalny. According to Russian law, all candidates in the poll had to ensure the support of at least 6 percent of city parliamentarians (or at least 110 signatures from deputies of district legislatures).
United Russia has quite a strong influence over municipal deputies in Moscow. Fifty-four percent of all deputies represent United Russia. I supposed that our opponents from other parties could fail to collect enough signatures to pass the municipal filter and therefore I did everything possible to ensure that they collected them,” the mayor told reporters.
Sobyanin, who himself was running as an independent, had earlier explained this move as an attempt to boost competition and ensure democracy. Of about 40 registered candidates, only six managed to pass the ‘municipal filter’. After Sobyanin’s repeated calls to support the opposition, the city deputies offered 110 signatures to Navalny, but activists from the candidate’s elections HQ only accepted 49 of them and collected the rest by themselves.
Sobyanin won the September election in the first round, collecting over 51 percent of votes. Navalny came second with an unexpectedly high result of over 27 percent.
Navalny refused to recognize the incumbent’s victory in the first round and contested it in court, however his lawsuit was rejected in late September.
 

France, China to invest $26bn into next generation of UK nuclear power

Britain has embarked on its first nuclear power station in 20 years, which will start delivering energy to 7 million homes from 2023. The deal agreed by UK, France and China will also cut consumer fuel bills by more than 75 pounds a year from 2030.
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station (Photo from wikipedia.org)
Hinkley Point C nuclear power station (Photo from wikipedia.org)
 
 

China will team up with Electrcite de France SA (EDF) to build two nuclear reactors at the Hinkley Point site in southwest England, the Paris-based utility said in a statement released Monday. This will mark the first nuclear construction since Japan’s Fukushima disaster and the first in Great Britain since the Sizewell B power station opened in 1995.
EDF will hold a 45 to 50 percent stake in the pressurized water reactors that will have the capacity to produce 7 percent of UK electricity and power up to 7 million homes. “This also marks the next generation of nuclear power in Britain,” Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted in the statement.
Under the 35 year contract, the consortium could build a second plant to the Sizewell site in Suffolk. The UK government will provide loan guarantees for 65 percent of the construction financing.
“This deal means 16 billion pounds [$26 billion] of investment coming into the country and the creation of 25,000 jobs,” Cameron said, stressing the important role the project will play in helping the UK meet energy needs.
China General Nuclear Corporation (CGN) and China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) will hold a 30 to 40 percent combined share and Paris- based Areva, will consult on the technology and design and have a 10 percent stake. Up to 15 percent in equity remains up for grabs, and there is a shortlist of candidates which are currently being discussed.
The statement says the project will offer a “fair price for consumers”. It is a timely victory for Cameron as his coalition has come under scrutiny over rising electricity bills and the rising risk of blackouts. The deal is Cameron’s first in an attempt to attract 110 billion pounds of investment into Britain’s outdated electricity industry by 2020.
Electricity prices will be set at 92.5 pounds [$150] per megawatt hour, and lowered to 89.5 pounds [$145.9] if the second Sizewell plant is realized.
Before final contracts are drawn up, EDF is waiting on state-funding from the European Union.
On the last day of his week-long trip to China, British Chancellor George Osborne hinted Chinese investors could grab up to a 100 percent stake in the venture.
Recently China agreed to heavily invest into  the first airport city project in Manchester, estimated at 800 million pounds, and the UK agreed to reform visa applications for Chinese residents.

‘Unacceptable and shocking’: France demands explanation for NSA spying

France has called for an explanation for the “unacceptable” and “shocking” reports of NSA spying on French citizens. Leaked documents revealed the spy agency records millions of phone calls and monitors politicians and high-profile business people.
The US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin was summoned by the French Foreign Ministry to account for the espionage allegations on Monday morning.

"I have immediately summoned the US ambassador and he will be received this morning at the Quai d'Orsay [the French Foreign Ministry],"
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told press. He added that “we must quickly assure that these practices aren't repeated.”

In addition, citing the report on French publication Le Monde, Interior Minister Manuel Valls spoke out on national television against US spy practices.

“The revelations on Le Monde are shocking and demand adequate explanations from the American authorities in the coming hours,” said Valls on television channel Europe 1.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls (Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls (Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)
He went on to say that it is totally unacceptable for an allied country to spy on France.  
Ambassador Rivkin refrained from commenting on the spy allegations on Monday morning and told Reuters that French-US ties are the “best they have been for a generation.”

Le Monde revealed in a report based on the security leaks of former CIA worker Edward Snowden that the NSA recorded 70.3 million phone calls between December 10, 2012, and January 8, 2013.

The NSA reportedly carries out its espionage in France using a program called ‘US-985D’ which is able to listen in on specific telephone calls and pick up on text messages according to key words used.

Moreover, Le Monde also wrote that it had reason to believe that the spying was not just limited to citizens suspected of being involved in terrorism. According to the data released by Snowden the NSA also eavesdropped on politicians and prominent business figures.  
The newspaper did not give any indications as to the identity of the high-profile people.
France is not the only EU nation to be targeted by NSA surveillance. Germany took issue with the US government after it was revealed the NSA was tapping phone lines and recording electronic data in the country.
The EU will take steps to curtail US data mining on Monday in a vote to change data protection rules. The European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties is expected to decide on the issue that would authorize fines for violation of EU data protection.
The US maintains that its spying activities are in the interests of national security and protect against terrorism. However, Snowden leaks released by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald showed the NSA had monitored Brazilian state-owned oil giant Petrobras and infiltrated the electronic communications of the Brazilian and Mexican presidents.

‘Investment benefits’

Mexico has also demanded an explanation for reports released by Der Spiegel on extensive spying on Mexican top officials and politicians.
Der Spiegal revealed that former President Felipe Calderon had also been a target for NSA espionage. Citing a classified internal report, it said the US monitors "diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico's political system and internal stability."

Rio deploys troops, navy ships ahead of hotly contested oil field auction

Over 1000 troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro ahead of a major oil rights auction. The move to partially sell off Brazil’s most promising oil reserves has been met with opposition, triggering mass strikes and disruption to oil production.
A spokesperson from the Brazilian army said that around 1,100 troops are being deployed around the Hotel Windsor in West Rio where the auction will be staged. Two naval ships will also be anchored in front of the hotel. Officers will be equipped with non-lethal weapons and riot armor.
“Intelligence officers and security cameras will be monitoring the areas around the hotel to warn of possible protest, guaranteeing the security of the public,” a spokesperson told Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Security sources told the news website G1 that the area around the hotel will be cordoned off during the auction.
The increase in security was ordered by Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, in the wake of last week’s violent protest again the oil auction. Moreover, the auction’s organizers fear the event could be further disrupted by disgruntled oil workers who have been on strike for the last 4 days.
A group of strikers has camped out next to state-owned oil company Petrobras, waving placards saying “No to privatization.”
Furthermore, workers at over 40 oil platforms are striking against what they view as a step towards privatizing Brazil’s massive oil wealth. However, analysts say the workers’ strike may have more to do with a wage dispute.
“The strike . . . has more to do with wage negotiations than opposition to the Libra pre-salt auction itself, even though the latter is important for the more radical elements of the trade unions,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst with Eurasia Group to the Financial Times. 

Brazilian oil industry workers on strike demonstrate against the auction of Libra oil field in Sao Paulo, Brazil on October 17, 2013. (AFP Photo/Nelson Almeida)
Brazilian oil industry workers on strike demonstrate against the auction of Libra oil field in Sao Paulo, Brazil on October 17, 2013. (AFP Photo/Nelson Almeida)
The Libra oil field, which is up for auction, is believed to hold Brazil’s largest pre-salt oil reserves. Current estimates say it could hold up to 12 billion barrels of crude, attracting over $180 billion in investment over the next 35 years.
In spite of protests criticizing the Brazilian government for selling off the nation’s wealth to the highest bidder, officials maintain that this is not a step towards privatization.
Minister of Mines and Energy Edison Lobao said Brazil was doing quite the opposite and “exploiting the immense wealth in the ground under the sea.”
According to the current conditions placed on the auction, Brazilian state-run oil giant Petrobras will have sole operator status at the oil field and a minimum of 41.6 per cent of oil produced will go to the Brazilian state.
“We don’t know how many organizations are going to participate in this auction. The important thing is that there are participants,” Lobao told O Globo.
Among the 11 companies expected to take part in the bidding are some of the world’s oil heavyweights, including the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Spain’s Repsol, Colombia's Ecopetrol and China’s Sinopec.
The US oil giants have shied away from the auction, discouraged by the conditions imposed on the auction by the Brazilian government.  
The Libra oil field was discovered by Brazil in 2010 and effectively doubled Brazil’s oil reserves.

Gunmen kill 3 in shooting spree at Egyptian Coptic church


At least three people were killed, including an eight-year-old girl, and around 12 others wounded after unknown gunmen opened fire on wedding guests outside a Coptic Christian church in a suburb of the Egyptian capital on Sunday night.
"There were two men on a motorbike and one of them opened fire," said Egypt's interior ministry.
Coptic priest Thomas Daoud Ibrahim told Reuters he rushed outside the temple after he heard gunfire and discovered a dead man, a dead woman, and "many injured.” 
The interior ministry confirmed that a man, a woman and an eight-year-old girl were killed in the assault in Warraq neighborhood.
Security sources added that it was not immediately clear whether the dead were Christians. 
Egypt has seen a rise in religious tensions since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, with violent attacks taking place against the country’s Coptic Christian minority.  

Egyptians gather around blood stains at the entrance of the Virgin Mary Coptic Christian church in Cairo after gunmen on a motorbike shot dead three people late on October 20, 2013, including an eight-year-old girl, in a shooting attack on a group standing outside the church in the Egyptian capital's Al-Warak neighbourhood following a wedding ceremony. (AFP Photo)
Egyptians gather around blood stains at the entrance of the Virgin Mary Coptic Christian church in Cairo after gunmen on a motorbike shot dead three people late on October 20, 2013, including an eight-year-old girl, in a shooting attack on a group standing outside the church in the Egyptian capital's Al-Warak neighbourhood following a wedding ceremony. (AFP Photo)
A report released by the human rights organization Amnesty International on October 9 outlines “an unprecedented wave of sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians” which began on 14 August 2013 “as the security forces violently dispersed protest camps set-up by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.”
The minority group has suffered mob violence and attacks on religious buildings.
“More than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked and 43 churches were seriously damaged across the country in the aftermath of events on 14 August,” stated Amnesty.
“It is deeply disturbing that the Christian community across Egypt was singled out for revenge attacks over the events in Cairo by some supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Copts make up 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million population and are one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. They have generally coexisted peacefully with Sunni Muslims for centuries.  

 Egyptian women, some in tears, gather inside the Virgin Mary Coptic Christian church in Cairo after gunmen on a motorbike shot dead three people late on October 20, 2013, including an eight-year-old girl, in a shooting attack on a group standing outside the church in the Egyptian capital's Al-Warak neighbourhood following a wedding ceremony. (AFP Photo)
Egyptian women, some in tears, gather inside the Virgin Mary Coptic Christian church in Cairo after gunmen on a motorbike shot dead three people late on October 20, 2013, including an eight-year-old girl, in a shooting attack on a group standing outside the church in the Egyptian capital's Al-Warak neighbourhood following a wedding ceremony. (AFP Photo)


Heavy rains overflow barriers surrounding Fukushima water tanks

AFP Photo / TEPCO


Water has overflowed at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is attempting to discern the quality of the water and possible radioactive substances which could have been spilled.
TEPCO announced on Monday that the water overflowed in 12 areas of the plant.
Heavy rains caused water to flow over the barriers of an artificial embankment which surrounds a dozen tanks of radioactive water at the plant. TEPCO reported that liquid containing a source of beta radiation was found beyond the levees.

The company said the incident was “due to heavy rain in the Tohoku region.” Company specialists are attempting to identify the amount of leaked water and the radiation levels present in the liquid.

Radioactivity levels in a well near a storage tank at the Fukushima nuclear power plant have risen immensely, the plant’s operator earlier reported, fueling ongoing concern about the impact of radiation on the surrounding environment.

Last Wednesday, heavy rains brought with Typhoon Wipha caused reservoirs for collecting rainwater to overflow. The natural disaster was described by weather forecasters as the strongest in a decade, leaving at least 17 people dead and 50 others missing in its wake.

Workers at the Fukushima plant had to pump rainwater out of protective containers surrounding approximately 1,000 tanks holding radioactive water. It is thought that the heavy rains lifted contaminated soil.

Shortly afterwards, radiation levels were found to have skyrocketed. TEPCO officials said Friday that they detected 400,000 becquerels per liter of beta ray-emitting radioactive substances - including strontium - at the site of a well near a storage tank. The level was 6,500 times higher than readings taken Wednesday, according to NHK World.

The news showed that radioactive substances like strontium have reached the groundwater, according to the officials. In August, the same storage tank leaked over 300 tons of contaminated water.

Earlier this month, TEPCO announced that 430 liters of polluted water had spilled from a tank as the company’s employees tried to remove rainwater dumped at the plant by recent typhoons. The contaminated water may well have flowed into the sea, TEPCO said.

However, estimates still may be unreliable. The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) raised doubts at the beginning of the month. A preliminary report published in the Japanese press concluded that estimates of radioactive substances discharged at the plant provided by the Japanese authorities, TEPCO, and other entities may have underestimated the impact of the disaster.

The power plant was disrupted in March 2011 by a massive earthquake and tsunami which wreaked havoc at Fukushima and sparked a nuclear crisis in which meltdowns occurred in three reactors.  It was considered to be the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

In September, a senior utility expert at Fukushima, Kazuhiko Yamashita, said that the plant was “not under control.” TEPCO downplayed his comments, saying that he had only been talking about the plant’s waste water problem – not the facility as a whole. 


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