Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nigeria: West Africa's economic powerhouse

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and the political and economic powerhouse of West Africa.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and the political and economic powerhouse of West Africa. Home to 150 million people, this is a land of extremes: it is the world's seventh largest exporter of oil, yet the oil wealth has not filtered down to the vast majority of the population, with 70 percent living below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office praises Nigeria's "active civil society and free and vibrant press", yet statistics for the health of its population make grim reading. The CIA World Factbook estimates that 170,000 Nigerians a year die from HIV/AIDS, the world's third highest number behind India and South Africa; life expectancy is the world's ninth lowest at less than 47 years; and infant mortality is 11th highest in the world, at 9.4 percent of all live births. As a country, Nigeria is a British colonial creation; formed in January 1914 by the amalgamation of three separate colonial territories. It gained independence from Britain 50 years ago on October 1, 1960. Since then the country has veered between civilian and military rule, with several coups, counter coups and one civil war (1967-1970). Nigeria has now had civilian rule since 1999, its longest period so far, although the most recent elections in April 2007 were heavily criticized by foreign and domestic observers for poor organization and large-scale rigging, according to the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

The election was won by Umaru Yar'Adua with 70 percent of the vote. He died in May 2010 after a long illness and was succeeded by his vice president Goodluck Jonathan. Elections are due to take place early next year. The largest state in the south is Lagos with some 18 million people, according to the Lagos State government website. It was previously Nigeria's capital before it was moved to Abuja in the center of the country. Lagos, however, is widely regarded as the country's economic capital. Half Nigeria's population is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian and 10 percent have indigenous beliefs, according to CIA World Factbook. Although other sources such as the Pew Forum on Religion, put the number at 50.5 percent Muslim and 48.2 percent Christian. The north of the country is largely Muslim, and the Christian population is centered in the south. Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups. Twelve largely Muslim states in the north of the country introduced Sharia law in 1999, sparking tensions between Muslims and Christians and outbreaks of violence that left thousands dead, according to the FCO. It said punishments, including amputations, carried out by Sharia courts have caused international disquiet.

Nigeria has a tropical climate, a 900km coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and boundaries with Cameroon, Niger, Benin and Chad. It has seven National Parks and two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove and Sukur Cultural Landscape, both listed for their cultural importance. Osun Sacred Grove is one of the last remaining primary high forests in southern Nigeria, regarded as the home of Osun, the goddess of fertility, to the Yoruba people. The area is dotted with sanctuaries, shrines, sculptures and art works dedicated to Osun and other gods. The Sukur Cultural Landscape has the palace of a Hidi, or chief, terraced fields and the remains of a former flourishing iron industry, according to UNESCO. Despite its scenic and historical attractions, beaches and abundant wildlife, Nigeria has remained largely off the tourist map. The World Travel Guide, which describes itself as the "bible" of the travel industry, writes: "Nigeria is blessed with hundreds of miles of coastline, national parks and fascinating ancient sites. However, it is a shame that the country is not currently able to entice visitors other than those seeking a slice of the oil dollar."

The Lonely Planet travel guide said: "We shouldn't beat about the bush: Nigeria has an image problem. It dominates West Africa economically and politically, and has produced music and literature whose influence spreads far beyond the continent. But for all this clout, mention the country's name to the person on the street and they're more likely to come up with a litany of woe: corruption, ethnic violence and email scams. As a travel destination, Nigeria seems more a place to avoid than to book a flight to." The government is trying to give its tourist industry a push. The Nigerian Sunday Observer reported this September that the tourism minister Alhaji Abubakar Mohammed had stressed the need to develop tourism to improve the economy and was in the process of drawing up a master plan for attracting foreign visitors. This could help wean the country off its reliance on oil to its economy. The CIA World Factbook said: "The government continues to face the daunting task of reforming a petroleum-based economy, whose revenues have been squandered through corruption and mismanagement, and institutionalizing democracy." Some Nigerians who have made their mark on the world stage include Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, Ben Okri, winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, Chinua Achebe, nominated for the 1987 Booker Prize, musicians King Sunny Ade, the late Fela Kuti and NBA basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon.

Sri Lanka jails former army chief Fonseka

Already stripped off his military rank and medals, former Sri Lankan Army
Already stripped off his military rank and medals, former Sri Lankan Army chief Sarath Fonseka, was on Friday held guilty of corruption charges by a second court martial, sentenced to a prison term of three years.  Now an opposition lawmaker, Fonseka, who led Sri Lankan Army's spectacular victory over the LTTE last year, was found guilty of corruption in defence deals at a hearing held on Friday, sources said. The second court martial has recommended to the President a three-year jail term for Fonseka, they said. The recommendations will be sent to the President, who has to approve them as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The punishment will be officially declared only after the President signs the order, the sources said. Fonseka had been charged with favouring an arms firm headed by his son-in-law in defence deals during his time as Army chief. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently travelling to the US, and is scheduled to return next week. The 59-year-old former Army Chief, who is now a parliamentarian, was convicted by a court martial last month for dabbling into politics while in active service. The court had ordered that Fonseka be stripped of his rank, pension and medals -- a decision that was ratified by Rajapaksa. The ex-general termed his dishonourable discharge as a "joke". Fonseka is in custody since his arrest in January after his loss to Rajapaksa in the presidential election. Fonseka, who was once close to the President, fell out with him in the last days of the war, and later challenged him in the presidential election. The opposition has called the targeting of Fonseka by the Rajapaksa government as political witch-hunting.


Sixth Suspect Arrested in U.K. Over Threat to Pope

"The pope is happy about this trip and is calm."

British police staged a pre-dawn raid at a London garbage depot Friday, arresting five street cleaners in a suspected terrorist plot against Pope Benedict XVI on the second day of his state visit to Britain. A sixth person was arrested later in the day. The Vatican said the pope was calm despite the arrests and planned no changes to his schedule. But the arrests overshadowed a major address by Benedict to British politicians, businessmen and cultural leaders about the need to restore faith and ethics to public policymaking. Acting on a tip, police detained the men, aged 26 to 50, under the Terrorism Act at a cleaning depot in central London after receiving information about a possible threat. The men were being questioned at a London police station and have not been charged. Police said an initial search of that business and other properties did not uncover any hazardous items. Police said the five were arrested "on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism." Police said a sixth man -- a 29-year-old -- was arrested later in the day at his home but no other details were immediately available. The pope's visit has divided opinion in officially Protestant, highly secular Britain. The trip has been overshadowed by disgust over the Catholic Church's clerical abuse scandal and opposition from secularists and those opposed to the pope's stances against homosexuality and using condoms to fight the virus that leads to AIDS.

The detained suspects worked for a contractor on behalf of Westminster Council, the authority responsible for much of central London. Benedict spent much of the afternoon in Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey; the depot were the men were arrested is responsible for cleaning another part of London that the pope is not due to visit, however, police said. Police confirmed that some of the suspects were thought to be from outside Britain but declined to comment on media reports they were of Algerian origin. One street sweeper at the depot, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said at least one of those arrested was Algerian, and that he believed all five arrested in the morning were from North Africa. Veolia Environmental Services, the cleaners' company, had no immediate comment on the arrests. At the scene of the arrests in Chiltern Street, close to London's Madame Tussauds' tourist attraction, police cordoned off part of the road, removing items from the Veolia depot and examining nearby garbage cans.

The pope's security on this trip has been visibly higher than on previous foreign trips, and Vatican officials have acknowledged that Britain represents a higher security threat than the other European countries Benedict has visited this year, including Portugal, Malta and Cyprus. News of the arrests came as the pope was meeting representatives of other religions, including Muslims and Jews, and stressing the need for mutual respect, tolerance and freedom. The Vatican said the pope was informed of the arrests and was pleased he could stick to his schedule. "We have complete trust in the police," Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters. "The police are taking the necessary measures. The situation is not particularly dangerous." "The pope is happy about this trip and is calm." Hours after the arrests, Benedict met with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, at his London residence. The meeting came amid new tensions following Benedict's unprecedented decision last year to make it easier for Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women bishops to convert to Catholicism.

Benedict and Williams greeted each other warmly. Benedict said flat-out he had no intention of speaking of difficulties "that are well known to everyone here." Rather, he stressed the need for Christians to work together and bring a greater sense of virtue into public discourse. Williams, who has not hidden his dismay over the Vatican's invitation to conservative Anglicans, also stressed the ongoing effort to bring the two churches back together, saying each side was "made less by the fact of our dividedness." He praised Benedict for his constant call to bring faith into public policy -- a theme Benedict explored further in a speech in Westminster Hall attended by former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who recently converted to Catholicism. enedict praised Britain's democracy as a model worldwide for valuing freedom of speech and respect for law. But he lamented that religion, particularly Christianity, was increasingly being marginalized from political decision-making, citing as an example the global financial crisis, which he has blamed on an absence of strong ethical foundations in economic policy.

"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," he said. "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none." "These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square." Benedict travels with his own security detail, headed by chief papal bodyguard Domenico Giani. Benedict's white, bulletproof Popemobile is flanked by eight to 10 dark-suited bodyguards who jog alongside, scanning crowds for potential threats. There have been no major known attempts against Benedict during his five-year papacy, although he was knocked down at Christmas Eve Mass in 2009 by a mentally unstable woman who jumped the security barricade inside St. Peter's Basilica. In 2007, a man jumped the barricade in St. Peter's Square and grabbed the pope's vehicle before being pushed to the ground by guards. Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981 in St. Peter's Square. Police in the Philippines also disrupted an alleged plot to assassinate John Paul in Manila in 1995.

Benedict was nearly 30 minutes late for his first event Friday morning; the Vatican attributed the delay at the time to logistical problems. It wasn't known if the arrests contributed to the delay. The pope was then given a boisterous welcome by thousands of cheering Catholic schoolchildren at St. Mary's University College in London, where he urged young people to ignore the shallow temptations of today's "celebrity culture." Benedict also told their teachers to make sure to provide the children with a trusting, safe environment -- the second time in as many days that he has referred to the church sex abuse scandal. On Thursday, the pope acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church had failed to act quickly or decisively enough to remove pedophile priests from ministry. "Our responsibility toward those entrusted to us for their Christian formation demands nothing less," Benedict said. "Indeed, the life of faith can only be effectively nurtured when the prevailing atmosphere is one of respectful and affectionate trust." Polls in Britain indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the way Benedict has handled the sex abuse scandal, with Catholics nearly as critical of him as the rest of the population. Outside the London university hall, some 4,000 young students, outfitted in prim school uniforms and waving small white-and-yellow Holy See flags, serenaded the pontiff Friday with gospel hymns and songs.

The students, from England, Scotland and Wales, gave Benedict a tie-dyed stole and three books tracing the history of the Catholic Church in Great Britain. The 83-year-old Benedict appeared relaxed and happy, gently greeting children and kissing them on the head. In a surprise move, Becky Gorrod, 39, who had been standing outside the gates of St. Mary's holding her 8-month-old daughter Alice, was ushered in to meet the pontiff as the crowd cheered. My husband's never going to believe me," Gorrod told journalists. "They opened the car door, and the pope got out. Then the (pacifier) fell out of Alice's mouth, and the pope bent down and picked it up! The pope! How mad is that?" She said the pope then kissed Alice on the forehead. A few blocks away, about 30 people protested, holding up inflated condoms and posters. "Condoms are not crimes," read one. Another read: "Science flies you to the moon: religion flies you into buildings." Michael Clark, 60, said he was protesting because he was gay and annoyed that the pope's visit was expected to cost British taxpayers 12 million pounds ($18.7 million) for security. "That means it's being supported by taxpayers and people who may not have the same ideas," Clark said. "Sexuality is not evil." Benedict began his four-day U.K. state visit on Thursday, greeted by Queen Elizabeth II at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland. He wraps it up Sunday in Birmingham when he beatifies the 19th century Anglican convert Cardinal John Henry Newman. Catholics are a minority in Britain at 10 percent, and until the early 19th century they endured harsh persecution and discrimination and were even killed for their faith. King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century after he was denied a marriage annulment.

Former Los Alamos scientist indicted on nuclear charges

A former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear scientist and his wife were indicted on charges of trying to provide nuclear secrets to Venezuela, but U.S. officials stressed the Venezuelan government knew nothing about the plans. The officials said they have no information from the undercover operation that Hugo Chavez's government has any plans to try to build a nuclear weapon. Pedro Mascheroni, 75, and Roxby Mascheroni, 67, are U.S. citizens who worked as contractors at Los Alamos in New Mexico, officials said Friday. In 2008, Mascheroni, who had left the laboratory years earlier, had a series of conversations with an undercover FBI agent posing as an official of the Caracas government, according to the indictment. "Mascheroni allegedly said he could help Venezuela develop a nuclear bomb within 10 years and that under his program Venezuela would use a secret underground nuclear reactor to produce and enrich plutonium and an open, above-ground reactor to produce nuclear energy," the Justice Department said. According, to a U.S. Justice Department statement, Mascheroni allegedly asked about obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and described how he expected to be paid for his classified nuclear work for Venezuela. Mascheroni said his fee for producing certain information was $793,000, the indictment alleges. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzalez said the charges against the couple "are very serious." He said laws were designed to keep "restricted data" from getting to the wrong people.

Afghans vote in parliamentary poll amid Taliban threats

People in Afghanistan are voting in key parliamentary elections amid threats from the Taliban, who have vowed to disrupt the vote.

People in Afghanistan are voting in key parliamentary elections amid threats from the Taliban, who have vowed to disrupt the vote. Hours before the polls opened, central Kabul was hit by a rocket attack. No casualties have been reported. More than 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga. The poll is seen as a test of credibility for President Hamid Karzai, after fraud marred elections last year. On Friday US special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke said the vote was likely to be flawed, but it was significant that it was taking place at all. "We have had experience in our country with flawed elections, and not in the middle of a war. We are not looking for perfection here," Mr Holbrooke said. Washington is watching Saturday's poll closely, as US President Barack Obama prepares a strategy review in December that is expected to consider the scale of plans to start withdrawing American troops from next year. Afghan soldiers and police are guarding the polls, backed up by nearly 150,000 foreign troops. 

Nearly 6,000 polling stations in 34 provinces will stay open until 1600 local time (1130 GMT). About another 1,000 have not opened because of security fears. The rocket fired in Kabul early on Saturday landed outside Afghanistan's state-owned TV station, close to the presidential palace and the Nato headquarters, police said. Security officials told the BBC that two polling stations in Jalalabad had been attacked and security forces were involved in gun battles with militants in three areas of the city. There was no word on casualties. The Taliban have warned voters to boycott the poll and "stick to jihad". In what correspondents say is a thinly veiled threat, insurgents said they had "chalked out certain measures... to frustrate this American process and will implement them on the day when the illegitimate process of elections is conducted". The Taliban has already claimed responsibility for kidnapping two parliamentary candidates and 18 poll officials and campaign workers in the run-up to the elections. But some voters were out early despite the threats. Government worker Mohammad Husman, 50, was at the front of the queue at a polling station in a school in Kabul.

"I came here because I want prosperity for Afghanistan, [and] stability for Afghanistan," he said. "I am worried about security and fraud and I hope my vote goes to the person I picked to vote for," he added. After casting his vote in central Kabul, President Karzai said he hoped people would not be deterred by security threats. He said that by taking part in the election, Afghans would "take the country many steps forward into a better future". There are more than 10 million registered voters, but the UN says a turnout of five to seven million would be a success, given the difficulty of holding a poll in the middle of a war. Another major concern for election officials and international observers is that the polls will not be free or fair. US special envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke said on Friday that the vote was likely to be flawed, but it was significant that it was taking place at all. "We are not looking for perfection here," Mr Holbrooke said. President Karzai casts his vote Washington is watching Saturday's poll closely, as US President Barack Obama prepares a strategy review in December that is expected to consider the scale of plans to start withdrawing American troops from next year. Mr Karzai on Friday admitted that "under the circumstances we must expect that there will be irregularities, there will be problems and there will be allegations as well".

On Tuesday, officials from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) said 3,000 forged voter registration cards had been confiscated in the central province on Ghazni. However, IEC officials stressed that they had taken a number of measures - including the usage of an indelible ink to avoid double voting - to prevent fraud. Preliminary results are to be announced on 22 September, with the final results due on 31 October. The outcome is not expected to change the make-up of the government although President Karzai's credibility may be damaged if his preferred candidates are defeated, or if vote-rigging is suspected. Members of the Wolesi Jirga sit for a five-year term. Few candidates have declared party affiliations. Correspondents say political parties have little influence in Afghan politics, and ethnicity continues to be the main factor influencing alliances.

Security is tight across the country, with voters being searched by police at polling stations
But some voters were out early despite the threats.

  • Number of eligible voters: about 10.5 million
  • Number of seats: 249
  • Total number of candidates: 2,514, including 406 women
  • Total number of polling centres: 6,835
  • Polling centres closed because of security concerns: 1,019
  • Estimated cost: $150m (£95.5m), paid by international partners

Friday, September 17, 2010

Police: Wash. Acid Attack Self-Inflicted

Vancouver police chief Clifford Cook said Bethany Storro admitted under police questioning to fabricating a story about the attack, in which she suffered severe burns.

A woman who gained sympathy worldwide after she claimed a random assailant threw acid on her face came forward Thursday with startling admission: She inflicted the attack on herself.  Vancouver police chief Clifford Cook said Bethany Storro admitted under police questioning to fabricating a story about the attack, in which she suffered severe burns. Cook said he did not know a motive for Storro's actions, but added she is "very remorseful." He said Storro was still being interviewed by detectives. The police chief said that "during the course of the investigation, several discrepancies began to emerge regarding the alleged attack," leading police to search her home earlier Thursday and interview her. "During the interview, Ms. Storro admitted the injuries were self-inflicted," Cook said. Police had been seeking a black woman with a ponytail after Storro described the Aug. 30 attack. She had said the woman asked her, "Hey, pretty girl, want something to drink?" then threw acid in her face. She recounted details of the alleged attack at a news conference, with her head wrapped in bandages and her parents by her side. She said she wanted to know why the unnamed assailant had attacked her. After the incident, Storro made several media appearances, but a planned interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was canceled. She said she had received correspondence from people around the world concerned for her well being.

Storro's story rocked Vancouver, a suburb of Portland, Ore., with about 165,000 residents near the Washington-Oregon border. Funds were set up for Storro at Umpquah and Riverview Community banks, which did not return requests for comment Thursday. Vancouver police Commander Marla Schuman said detectives were working on a way to return any money donated to Storro. Schuman said the alleged attack and the probe stretched the resources of Vancouver's small police department. "It's been hundreds of hours," Schuman said about the time invested in the investigation. "It really took a toll on the department and the resources that we have."  Cook said any decision to charge Storro with a crime would be left to the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment Thursday. "She is extremely upset," Schuman said. "In many ways, this got bigger than she expected." Schuman was asked whether Storro will face a charge of filing a false police report, to which she responded: "At this point, yes, that would certainly fit." A telephone number for Storro's parents, Joseph and Nancy Neuwelt, could not be located Thursday. The couple has called the alleged attack "an act of evil," but said the family would persevere. A burn surgeon who operated on Storro said the substance thrown on her face was an acid as strong as hydrochloric or sulfuric acid. Police said Thursday that they haven't yet identified the substance Storro used, nor did they find any evidence of acid in her home or car.

Ethiopia 'kills 123' ONLF rebels and surrounds 90 more

Ethiopian forces have killed 123 rebels in the eastern region of the country

Ethiopian forces have killed 123 rebels in the eastern region of the country, an official has told the BBC. The rebels are reportedly from the ONLF, fighting in Ethiopia's Somali region. They have been fighting Ethiopian control of the area since the 1970s. A further 90 rebels are surrounded, says Abdi Mohamoud Omar, president of the Somali region of Ethiopia, and unless they surrender, further measures will be taken against them. The force of around 200 rebels landed on the Red Sea coast on Saturday, the authorities in Somaliland said. They were then taken by truck to the Ethiopian border. Somaliland - which has declared independence from the rest of Somalia but has not been internationally recognised - has previously helped the Ethiopian government in its fight against the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front).

Mr Abdi says his forces encircled the ONLF rebels in the remote Maar Maar mountains, which form the porous border region between Somaliland, Ethiopia and Djibouti. A senior ONLF commander, known as Hassan Bossaso, was captured, Mr Abdi told the BBC. Ethiopia blames its regional arch-enemy, Eritrea, for supporting the ONLF - an accusation Eritrea denies. The ONLF wants self-determination for residents of Ethiopia's Somali region, which is also known as Ogaden. In recent months, the Ethiopian government has signed peace agreements with various ONLF factions, says the BBC World Service's Africa editor, Martin Plaut. However, Ethiopia has not ended its conflict with the group led by the former head of the Somali navy, Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman. This is the group reported to have mounted the latest attack, although our editor says it has now been all but eliminated as a rebel force.

The rebels are reportedly from the ONLF, fighting in Ethiopia's Somali region.

Chennai woman 1st to win best cadet award

her dream of becoming a military woman during her NCC days

Yet another glass ceiling has cracked. Year after year, a male cadet had received the 'Sword of Honour', the best all-round cadet award, at the passing out parade of the Officer's Training Academy (OTA), Chennai. This Saturday, for the first time in the history of the Indian Army, a lady cadet will receive the honour, from chief of army staff Gen V K Singh. A Divya(21) came up trumps over 157 men and 70 women who will be inducted into the Army, to bag the coveted title that is given to the cadet who excels on several parameters including physical agility. Daughter of a Chennai-based businessman, Divya took the baby steps towards her dream of becoming a military woman during her NCC days, traversing the rugged terrain of Kancheepuram, Madurai and Tiruchi where she attended camps. "My childhood ambition was to become an IAS officer. 

But once I started interacting with army officers in the NCC camps, I was clear about my career," said Divya, who has excelled in both academics and physical endurance. The hands that hold the guns are also adept at Bharatanatyam mudras. "I started learning Bharatanatyam when I was in Class II. But when I decided to become an army officer, I did not hesitate to crop my long hair," said Divya, who was adjudged the best NCC cadet and the best parade commander at the Republic Day Parade in 2008. "She has her dreams," said Divya's mother Dinah Ajith Kumar, "And we are solidly behind her." 

Promise of a better life leads to the nightmare of sexual slavery

Girl tricked into sexual slavery

Across Mexico, young girls dream of escaping their small towns for the big cities. They dream of a good job and a better life in the United States. That was the case of "Claudia," a name given to protect her identity. Her dream of a better life quickly evolved into a nightmare. When she was 15, she met a charming man at a party who would later become her boyfriend. "This individual would tell me a lot about the United States and would ask me to join him to go work at a clothes factory," she said. Claudia was eventually smuggled into the United States and taken to New York City. Once there, she soon realized her boyfriend was part of a prostitution ring. He forced her into prostitution. She says he would beat her up, burn her with lit cigarettes and tell her he would have her parents in Mexico killed if she tried to resist or escape. This is the first time Claudia is speaking about her experience. She's nervous, but says she wants to share her secret; a painful secret, she says, that the world needs to know about. Hers is a story of false promises, illegal immigration, verbal and physical abuse, drugs, forced prostitution and a risky escape. After being forced to work as a prostitute, Claudia says she started thinking about ways of escaping. 

"It was a very traumatic experience," she said. "The first day I started working was very hard because I had to sleep with 20 men in rapid sequence." For several months she saved up tips, just a few dollars at a time, that she would hide in a refrigerator. She discreetly would ask older women, who were also forced into prostitution, about directions to the nearest bus station and streets around the area. When she felt she had enough for a bus trip, she ran away to the bus station and bought a ticket to a city she didn't know. She has been a free woman for several years now, but she says she still suffers from nightmares and says her life has been scarred. Many people associate prostitution with women walking the streets in shady areas and being picked up by johns. But Claudia says the prostitution ring for which she was forced to work had a long list of clients who knew the price they had to pay, who to call and where to go. It's a well-organized and lucrative underground industry. Luis CdeBaca monitors human trafficking at the U.S. State Department. He says there are no reliable figures on the scale of the problem, but forced prostitution from Mexico and Central America is a big part of it. 

"They know that their victims are not going to go to law enforcement," said CdeBaca. "They know that their victims are afraid. In fact, sometimes one of their threats is to turn people over to the immigration service." Claudia was 15 when she was forced to become a prostitute, but there are younger victims, as CdeBaca found out when he worked as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Justice Department. "I ended up seeing cases with girls as young as 13 and women in their 40s and everything in between," he said.

Hurricane Karl forms in Gulf of Mexico

A hurricane warning was issued Thursday for Mexico's coast from Palma Sola to Cabo Rojo.
Karl has become a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico after dumping heavy rains on the Yucatan Peninsula as a tropical storm.  A hurricane warning was issued Thursday for Mexico's coast from Palma Sola to Cabo Rojo. Also, a tropical storm warning has been issued for the coast for north of Cabo Rojo to La Cruz and for the area south of Palma Sola to Veracruz. Karl's maximum sustained winds are near 75 mph (120 kph). The National Hurricane Center in Miami says additional strengthening is possible and Karl could approach major hurricane strength before reaching Mexico's coast. Karl is located about 310 miles (500 kilometers) east-southeast of Tuxpan, Mexico, and is moving west near 12 mph (19 kph). Tropical Storm Karl had re-entered the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened again Thursday after dumping heavy rains on the Yucatan Peninsula, threatening to build into a Category 2 hurricane and hit near a port and an oil hub on the Mexican Gulf coast. Karl could make landfall by late Friday with winds of as much as 100 mph (160 kph) near the oil hub of Poza Rica, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

The storm had weakened as it moved over the Yucatan, downing tree limbs and causing power outages, but once over the Gulf water its winds built back up to about 65 mph (100 kph), and it was expected to quickly reach hurricane strength. By early Thursday, Karl was about 110 miles (180 kms) off the Yucatan peninsula, about 350 miles (560 kms) east of Tuxpan. But it was heading west at a rapid clip of about 9 mph (15 kph). Poza Rica, while slightly inland, houses important pipelines, and gas and oil-processing plants operated by the state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. The company said it had no immediate plans to halt production at the plants because of the oncoming storm. Tuxpan is an old port city of about 135,000 located on a river near the coast.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

France faces showdown on Roma at European Union summit

Other countries have also deported Roma - but less publicly than France

A row over France's crackdown on Roma (Gypsy) migrants from Romania and Bulgaria looks set to dominate a summit of EU leaders in Brussels. President Nicolas Sarkozy was furious after an EU official compared France's removal of Roma with the deportation of gypsies during World War II. EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding also threatened legal action against France. The EU leaders will also discuss ways to prevent a new financial crisis. And they will seek to co-ordinate their approach towards emerging powers like China and India. This was not meant to be a summit about the Roma, but Mr Sarkozy seems determined to go on the offensive in Brussels to defend France's reputation as the home of human rights. He is said to be scandalised by Ms Reding's criticism, mockingly suggesting the Roma should go to her country, Luxembourg. With tension rising to an unprecedented level, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso distanced himself from Ms Reding's comparison with World War II deportations. "One or other of the expressions used in the heat of the moment may have given rise to misunderstandings," Mr Barroso said. "Vice-President Reding did not want to establish any parallelism between what happened in the Second World War and the present."

Mr Barroso called for more dialogue. Romania and Bulgaria will want their say, and so will Italy and other nations that have expelled Roma less publicly than France. What seems to have angered France most is Ms Reding's apparent comparison between the persecution of Jews and gypsies in Nazi-occupied France, and the current wave of expulsions of the Roma. "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said. France's Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche responded that a plane ticket back to Romania or Bulgaria is not the same thing as death trains and gas chambers.

Mr Sarkozy meanwhile insists his policy is right and irreproachable.

Virginity for sale: Sex gang busted in Britain

Three women and a man were nabbed after a luxury hotel staff tipped off the police.

A gang that offered to sell the virginity of girls to the wealthy has been busted in Britain by the Scotland Yard. An undercover officer was told that the girls were virgins and could be 'broken' by a client he was pretending to represent. Daily Mail reported Tuesday that the sex trafficking gang was offering the virginity of underage girls to wealthy businessmen for up to 150,000 pounds. Three women and a man were nabbed after a luxury hotel staff tipped off the police. One of the women had offered the gang's services in a handwritten letter to the owner of the Jumeirah Carlton Hotel in Knightsbridge, central London last year. The note said: "I have 12 girls ready from the age 14-20 years living all over the UK, I have spent money on the preparation of this event such as a rented house for the girls and also all expenses needed." The police traced the telephone number given in the letter to an address in Wigan where Fatima Hagnegat was staying with her husband, Rassoul Gholampour. Sleuths established contact with the gang under the guise of potential clients. The media report said that an undercover officer called up the mobile number provided in the letter and sought to hire girls for a client.

The officer spoke to Hagnegat's aunt, Marohkh Jamali, who said that she could provide girls from Iran, Britain and Eastern Europe aged 14 and 20. The officer then arranged to meet Jamali who assured him that some of her girls were virgins and could be 'broken' by his client. She said she would bring up to five girls, including two 13-year-olds, and would expect 50,000 to 150,000 pounds for each. The next day Jamali went to another London hotel. She was accompanied by Hagnegat and six girls, two of whom were aged 14 and 17. Officers arrested Jamali and Hagnegat. The girls have told investigators that they had travelled with Hagnegat on the understanding that they would be able to earn some money 'dancing' for a party of rich men. It was only later they were told they may be asked to have sex with the men. The gang members pleaded guilty to trafficking and prostitution offences at Harrow Crown Court Monday. 

'Adult services' closed, Craigslist says

hearing on sex trafficking of minors

Craigslist said on Wednesday that it had permanently closed the section of its sites in the United States that carried sex-related advertising, but it defended its right to carry such advertisements as well as its efforts to fight sex trafficking. The company abruptly removed links to the ads for sexual services earlier this month and replaced them with a black label bearing the word "censored." Until Wednesday it had not explained its move. William Clinton Powell, director of customer and law enforcement relations at Craigslist, and Elizabeth L. McDougall, a partner at Perkins Coie, Craigslist's law firm, discussed the change in testimony at a hearing on sex trafficking of minors before the House Judiciary Committee in Washington. 

"Craigslist discontinued its adult services section on Sept. 3, 2010, and there are no plans to reinstate the category," Mr. Powell said. "Those who formerly posted ads in the adult services category will now have to advertise elsewhere, and in fact there is evidence that this process began immediately." The hearing, held by the House subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, came after days of speculation about the motives of Craigslist. Though federal law protects Craigslist against liability for what its users post, it has been criticized by state attorneys general and advocacy groups who say the site has the responsibility to fight sex trafficking and other sex crimes. On Aug. 24, 17 attorneys general sent Craigslist a letter demanding that it close the sex-related section.

The sex ads cost $10 and were on track to bring in $44 million in revenue this year, according to the AIM Group, a consulting firm that closely monitors the company. Craigslist also charges for some real estate and job ads, but most listings are free.

Free speech advocates and some people who work to help victims of sex crimes have questioned the removal of the sex-ad section. They said that blocking the ads threatened free speech and that the site helped law enforcement track criminals.

But state attorneys general and other groups fighting sex crimes applauded Craigslist's decision to remove the section and demanded that it also block the ads from other areas of the site where they have been popping up, like casual encounters and therapeutic services, and from international Craigslist sites.

Ms. McDougall said Wednesday that it was overly idealistic to believe that sex crimes would end if the sex-oriented advertising were shut down.

Craigslist had adopted a more practical approach, she said, by containing the ads in one place on the site and assisting law enforcement in investigating crimes.

Mr. Powell outlined the many steps he said Craigslist had taken to fight sex trafficking and work with law enforcement and advocacy groups, including manually reviewing all ads before posting, requiring credit card and phone numbers, reporting suspicious ads to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and responding to law enforcement requests within a day.

Now that Craigslist has ended the adult ads, it will be harder for the site to assist law enforcement because the ads have migrated to other sites, Ms. McDougall said.

Traffic to, a classifieds site run by Village Voice Media, has sharply spiked this month, according to reports from two firms that measure Web traffic, Alexa and Compete, that Ms. McDougall provided to the committee.

"Consequently, Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished," she said.

Ernie Allen, chief executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, dismissed that notion in his testimony. "We recognize that if we crack down in one area, some of this problem will migrate to other areas, but frankly that's progress," he said. "We follow the money. The goal is to destroy the business model of those who sell children for sex on the Internet."

Carl Ferrer, vice president of sales and marketing at Backpage, did not respond to a request for comment but has previously said that the site uses moderation, automated filters and user reports to remove inappropriate posts.

Backpage and the many other sites that post prostitution ads, often disguised as body rubs or escort services, are maneuvering to get a bigger share of the business now that Craigslist is out of the game, said Peter M. Zollman, founding principal of the AIM Group.

Advocacy groups and attorneys general have said they focused on Craigslist because it is widely known and has a big business in sex ads, but will now go after other sites as well. "We must broaden the focus beyond Craigslist and urge every online classified site to take action," Mr. Allen said.

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Papal visit: Pope to begin historic UK trip

Downing Street says the visit will be "very special" for people of all faiths

The first state visit by a Pope to the UK gets under way later when Benedict XVI flies into Edinburgh. He will meet the Queen at Holyrood House and parade through the city before an open-air Mass in Glasgow. Tens of thousands of people are expected to line the streets to catch a glimpse of the Roman Catholic leader. Some ticketed events during the four-day trip have not sold out and protests are planned over Vatican policies on birth control, gay rights and abortion. The visit is the first to the UK by a Pontiff since John Paul II in 1982. Vatican officials say Pope Benedict will highlight the importance of the role of faith for everyone in contemporary Britain, not just Catholics and Anglicans. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said the visit was eagerly anticipated. "The Catholic tradition in this country is one of actually very profound loyalty to the person of the Holy Father," he said. Prime Minister David Cameron has said it will be "a very special four days, not just for our six million Catholics, but for many people of faith right across Britain". 

But the Pope's visit is controversial among campaigners who say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests as children. They have accused Church authorities of a culture of secrecy and of not taking strong enough steps against abusive priests. The head of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission said he was confident a meeting between the Pope and victims would go ahead during the trip. Bill Kilgallon said he expected a group of less than 10 to meet the Pontiff without anyone else present, and with no restrictions on what was said before or after. In Edinburgh, Presbyterians, secularists, and other groups are planning to protest, but police have said they do not expect large-scale demonstrations. On Wednesday, more than 50 public figures added their names to a letter in a newspaper saying the Pope should not be given the "honour" of a UK state visit. The signatories to the letter in the Guardian include Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and Stephen Fry. Meanwhile, one of the Pope's senior advisers - Cardinal Walter Kasper - has pulled out of the visit after reports in a German magazine that he said arriving at Heathrow airport was like landing in a "Third World country". He went on to say the UK was marked by "a new and aggressive atheism".

Honor 'bittersweet' for rare living Medal of Honor recipient

Rare Medal of Honor 'bittersweet'
The first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War says his receiving the prestigious award is bittersweet. "All of this is great," U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta said during a teleconference Wednesday. "But it does bring back a lot of memories of people that I would love to share this moment with. And I am just not going to have this opportunity because they are no longer with us." Giunta said the day his unit came under attack was quiet and started out like any other day in Afghanistan. "We are all soldiers and we are all out on a mission," he said. Giunta, 25, was a specialist serving with the Airborne 503 Infantry Regiment on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when his unit was attacked on the night of October 25, 2007. He recalls himself as an average soldier, saying he didn't do anything that someone else wouldn't have done. According to Defense Department documents seen by CNN, Giunta and his fellow soldiers were walking back to base along the top of a mountain ridge when the enemy attacked from their front and their left. Taliban fighters barraged the Americans with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and Soviet era large machine guns.  

Giunta saw several of his fellow soldiers go down. He ran forward throwing grenades and returning enemy fire to help one soldier who had been shot but was still fighting. Then he noticed one of the wounded soldiers was missing. He ran over a hill where moments before Taliban fighters were shooting at him to find his wounded friend, Sgt. Josh Brennan. But now he was alone, out of sight of his fellow soldiers, in an area that the Taliban had controlled just moments before. Giunta saw two Taliban fighters dragging Brennan away. He ran after them, killing one Taliban and wounding the other, who ran away. He instantly started providing first aid to Brennan, who had been shot at least six times. Brennan was later evacuated by a helicopter to a hospital, but he died of his wounds. Giunta himself was shot twice in the incident, with one round hitting his body armor and the second destroying a weapon slung over his back. He was not seriously hurt. His quick response to the Taliban attack helped his unit repulse the enemy fighters before they could cause more casualties, the Defense Department documents note.

Giunta said his actions were not something he thought about but something he was trained to do. "After the medevac bird comes in and starts picking people up, it's not over, you're not out of Afghanistan, you're not off the side of the mountain, you're just minus some buddies and there's no time to talk, you still have to complete the mission," he said. Giunta's wife, Jenny, sat beside him during the teleconference from the base Giunta is stationed at in Vicenza, Italy. She said she is proud of her husband. The two married last November and are unsure about what the future will bring. Jenny Giunta said she hopes her husband does not deploy again. "Having your husband ... your loved one get deployed and knowing that they're going to be somewhere that's dangerous .... It's an awful feeling," she said.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

PM's opening remarks to the all-party meeting on Kashmir

opening remarks to the all-party meeting on Kashmir

Here's the full text of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's opening remarks to the all-party meeting on Kashmir:  I welcome you all to this meeting of leaders of political parties.  Before I invite the participants to offer their valuable suggestions on various vexed issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir, let us offer our prayers for all those who have lost their lives in the recent violence in the State.  Let us also wish early recovery to those who have suffered injury.  I propose that we rise and observe a minute's silence as a mark of our respect to the departed souls. Friends, we meet in sadness.  Sadness over the loss of lives, sadness over the injuries suffered by the people, the police and the security personnel. Sadness over the huge disruption in the daily lives of the common man and the financial losses suffered by hardworking ordinary people like tour operators, apple farmers, daily wage earners and houseboat owners.  I am sure all of us share a deep sense of distress over the unfortunate sequence of events, during and after Eid, particularly in the context of a reported act by a misguided person thousands of miles away.

I have said this earlier and I say it again - the only path for lasting peace and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir is that of dialogue and discussion.  It is indeed tragic that some of our people have forsaken this path during the recent days. I was shocked and distressed to see young men and women- even children- joining the protests on the streets. While some of these protests may have been impulsive or spontaneous, it cannot be denied that some incidents were orchestrated by certain groups. What we have seen over the past three months must persuade us to reflect and deliberate on the way forward. We have to talk to each other.  And those who have grievances against the Government have to talk to the administration.  But it is also true that meaningful dialogue can happen only in an atmosphere free from violence and confrontation.  Discussions can take place only if we have calm and public order.  The Central and State Governments have already appealed to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially the youth, to eschew violence.  I reiterate that appeal.  We are ready for dialogue with anybody or any group that does not espouse or practice violence.  We have also told the State Government to restore peace and public order in order to create conditions congenial to a dialogue process.  The Central Government will provide all possible assistance in this task.

Over the past few months and weeks, several leaders, from across the political spectrum, have spoken or written to me, on issues concerning Jammu and Kashmir, giving many useful suggestions.  We also had an all-party delegation from Jammu and Kashmir that shared its views with me and my senior cabinet colleagues.  As a part of this ongoing process of consultation that our Government has been following, we thought it would be in the fitness of things to also seek guidance from various political parties represented in Parliament on the complex issues that we face in Jammu and Kashmir today.  I look forward to benefitting from your wisdom, knowledge and experience as we begin the proceedings.

Mexico's top immigration official resigns

Senators condemned the massacre of the 58 men and 14 women from South and Central America

Mexico's top immigration official has resigned, less than a month after the murder by suspected drug traffickers of 72 migrants in the country's north. Cecilia Romero stepped down as head of the National Institute of Migration, a post she had held since 2006. The interior ministry did not give a reason for Ms Romero's departure. But the Senate had summoned her to testify on what measures the National Institute of Migration had taken to protect migrants moving through Mexico. Senators condemned the massacre in late August of the 58 men and 14 women from South and Central America, who had been trying to reach the US. They acknowledged that Mexico could not "demand respect for its nationals in the United States" when it "does not assure the dignified treatment" of foreign migrants on its own territory. Ms Romero, a former congresswoman from the ruling National Action Party, revamped migrant holding centres and ensured that immigration agents were trained in human rights, the interior ministry said. An unnamed official told the Associated Press that the government was looking for someone with more security experience because of the increasing involvement of drug cartels in illegal migration. Prosecutors say evidence suggests "very strongly" that members of the Los Zetas cartel had killed the 72 migrants, whose bullet-ridden bodies were found at a ranch in the state of Tamaulipas on 24 August.

Iran frees American woman hiker: Press TV

Shourd was detained along the Iraqi border on July 31, 2009
Iran's English language state television reported Tuesday that American Sarah Shourd has been released after more than a year in prison. Iran has released US national Sarah Shourd,'' flashed the red colored urgent banner on Press TV Tuesday. Iran's judiciary granted $500,000 bail for Shourd on Sunday for health reasons, though family had said they could not afford it and U.S. said it would not pay it. Shourd's mother said her daughter has been denied treatment for serious health problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells. Shourd was detained along the Iraqi border on July 31, 2009 along with two American friends, both men. Iran indicted all three on spy-related charges on Sunday which could mean trials for the two men and proceedings in absentia for Shourd if she is freed. The detainees' families say they were hiking in Iraq's scenic north when they were detained, and that if they crossed the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.

Moves to release Shourd have been accompanied by political jockeying in Iran as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative rivals criticized his attempts to release Shourd on humanitarian grounds after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Ahmadinejad, who first tried to shepherd the release of Shourd last week, was rebuked by the courts, which insisted that any release had to be on their terms, including a sizeable bail. 

French Senate bans wearing of Muslim veil

The proposer of the law - Senator Francios-Noel Buffet - says it is the right move.

The French senate has overwhelmingly given the green light to a new law banning face veils in public places. They voted 246 to 1 in favour of the bill, already passed in the lower chamber. The proposer of the law - Senator Francios-Noel Buffet - says it is the right move. The subject is a controversial one. Muslim leaders have voiced concern that the law will stigmatise the French Muslim population, which at an estimated 5 million is the largest in western Europe. 31-year-old French woman Kenza Drider - defiantly wearing the niqab - says the law won't stop her from wearing it. Kenza - who was born in France to Moroccan immigrant parents - is one of less than two thousand who chose to wear a niqab that covers everything except the eyes. She says if she is arrested she will take her case to the European court of human rights. The penalty for women who break the new law is a fine of 150 euros while husbands who are found guilty of forcing their wives to wear the veil face a 30-thousand euro fine and a one-year jail term.

11 children die in Brazil boat accident

The incident happened at a Sobradinho Lake in Bahia state, in eastern Brazil.

Eleven children from the same extended family died over the weekend in a lake in Brazil after the boat they were in overturned, police said. The accident Sunday took the lives of one 16-year-old, and 10 children ages 1 to 11, Ailton Martins Campos of the military police told CNN. The incident happened at a Sobradinho Lake in Bahia state, in eastern Brazil. Sixteen members of the same extended family plus two guides boarded a motorboat for a trip on the lake, Martins Campos said. The boat overturned about a half-mile (1 km) from shore, near the town of Pilao Arcado, he said. The military police would not comment on the cause of the accident, but local media reported that the area is known for strong winds. Other media outlets reported that the boat was designed to only hold three to six people, not the 18 that were aboard that day. Only the adults on the boat, who were able to swim to shore, survived, Martins Campos said. According to local reports, more than 20 police, soldiers and civilians worked in the water Sunday night to try to recover the bodies. The last of the bodies was found Tuesday. Funeral services for nine of the victims will be Wednesday in Pilao Arcado.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Belgian Church pledges to focus on abuse victims

Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard: "The suffering and the testimonies we have heard make us shiver"

The new head of Belgium's Catholic Church has pledged to focus on the victims of alleged sexual abuse in a first attempt to rebuild public trust. Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard said that although the Church would not be able to offer immediate solutions, it would set up a victims' support centre. An independent commission said abuse occurred in every diocese over decades and that some victims were infants. Pope Benedict XVI's spokesman said the findings had caused him "much pain". "The Pope is following very closely what is happening in the Belgian Catholic Church," Fr Federico Lombardi told RTL television, according to the AFP news agency. "Like everybody, he feels much pain after the publication of the report, which again reveals the huge suffering of victims and gives us an even more vivid sense of the gravity of the crimes."  At a news conference in Brussels earlier on Monday, Archbishop Leonard said the Roman Catholic Church would offer "maximum availability" to the victims of sexual abuse.

"We have to listen to their questions, to re-establish their dignity and help to heal the suffering they have endured," he said. "We want to learn the lessons of the errors of the past. The reflections and conclusions contained in the report [on sexual abuse in the church] will be taken on board," he added. He said the Church wanted to create a centre for "recognition, reconciliation and healing", but that given the scale of the challenge, it would not be ready before the end of the year. He added the Church wanted to co-operate more closely with police investigating allegations of abuse, but he gave no details of how it would do so.
He also warned those responsible that they will face the sanctions of canon law, including lifelong exclusion from the Church. One victims' group said the setting up of a centre controlled by the Church was not enough. "There cannot be an investigation commission on crimes committed within an institution controlled by this institution itself," said a spokeswoman for the Droits de l'Homme dans l'Eglise. This attempt to find a solution to the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium provides more questions than answers, says the BBC's Jonty Bloom in Brussels. If the Church hopes to draw a line under this affair today, it is likely to be disappointed, our correspondent adds.