Nine Circles of hell!: Friday, March 2, 2012 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – today’s nine most hellish news stories, including three bonus stories on Europe’s ‘Austerity War,’ an extra article on the Koran burnings, for Friday, March 2, 2012, are:

Judge finds cop eavesdropping prohibition unconstitutional

EU learning austerity doesn’t create jobs

UN wants NATO, ‘New Libya’ to look into civilian deaths

Red Cross calls Syria’s blocking access to Homs “unacceptable”

Amnesty protests Bahrain limits by canceling rights visit

US talks for long-term presence in Afghanistan failing

Six face disciplinary action in Koran burning at NATO base

Some of worst violence in months rocks northwest Pakistan

Vietnam revving up one of world’s most ambitious nuke programs

Judge finds cop eavesdropping prohibition unconstitutional
Chicago Tribune
(3/2/12)

Judge rules eavesdropping law unconstitutional

A Cook County judge today ruled the state’s controversial eavesdropping law unconstitutional.

The law makes it a felony offense to make audio recordings of police officers without their consent even when they’re performing their public duties.

Judge Stanley Sacks, who is assigned to the Criminal Courts Building, found the eavesdropping law unconstitutional because it potentially criminalizes “wholly innocent conduct.”

The decision came in the case of Christopher Drew, an artist who was arrested in December 2009 for selling art on a Loop street without a permit. Drew was charged with a felony violation of the eavesdropping law after he used an audio recorder in his pocket to capture his conversations with police during his arrest.

EU learning austerity doesn’t create jobs
The New York Times
(3/1/12)

European Leaders Challenged by Rise in Joblessness

At their first summit meeting in recent memory at which financial markets were not baying at the door, European leaders on Thursday sought to show they could confront the social cost of fighting the sovereign debt crisis, whose severity was underlined by new jobless figures that hit a euro-era high.

The infusion of some 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) into euro zone banks in recent months by the European Central Bank and a provisional agreement on a second package of loans for Greece have gone a long way toward easing fears of an imminent financial crisis or even the disintegration of the common currency itself.

Final agreement on the bailout, however, was delayed as finance ministers waited to see if a related restructuring of Greek debts to private investors succeeded and if Athens fulfilled all the conditions it had agreed to.

In the meantime, with more than one in 10 workers in Europe out of a job and government budget-cutting intensifying the economic slowdown, leaders were looking for ways to reconcile the urgent need to stimulate growth with the stepped-up budget discipline required under a new “fiscal compact,” which was expected to be approved Friday.

Yet that agreement, negotiated by 25 countries at the request of Germany, was under pressure even before it had been signed as evidence mounted that a recession forecast for the euro zone this year was already worsening public finances as well as increasing unemployment.

The jobless rate in the 17 euro zone countries rose in January to 10.7 percent, from 10.6 percent in December. It reached the highest level since 1999, when the euro was introduced, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency. Flagging economies like Italy and Greece were responsible for much of the increase. For all 27 European Union countries, the rate ticked up to 10.1 percent in January from 10.0 percent in December.

European countries nonetheless diverged widely: Spain again topped the list with a 23.3 percent jobless rate, followed by Greece, at 19.9 percent in November. That compared with 4 percent unemployment in Austria and 5 percent in the Netherlands.

Even the Netherlands, which has taken a hawkish stance on budget discipline, announced Thursday that it was losing ground. Next year’s budget shortfall will be 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, matching this year’s expected outcome, despite cuts already made that are intended to bring it down to the goal of 3 percent, according to the government planning agency.

The deficit figure, described as a “big setback” by the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, will prompt difficult negotiations within his coalition government on additional austerity measures. Amadeu Altafaj Tardio, a spokesman for the European Commission, said the Netherlands had been “very vocal in supporting the reinforcement of our fiscal surveillance rules.” He added, “It is absolutely normal to think that the Netherlands will apply this same approach to its own fiscal policies.”

Others, though, are in even worse shape. On Monday, the Spanish government said that its budget deficit in 2011 was 8.5 percent, well above its 6 percent goal, and asked for more time to bring the level down, something José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, said could not yet be considered.

Mr. Barroso urged political leaders to take the opportunity to focus attention on measures that could create jobs, especially for young people, like reallocating European Union funds earmarked for development.

A draft of the summit meeting’s conclusions emphasized the need for “determined action to boost growth and jobs,” and for taking care when reducing spending. There was no talk of any fiscal stimulus to lift growth. Instead, the leaders looked set to reiterate their commitment to longer-term structural measures like deepening Europe’s 500 million-person single market to new areas like services and e-commerce.

“Sustainable growth and jobs cannot be built on deficits and excessive debt levels,” the draft conclusions stated. A final text was to be considered on Friday.

Greece, which has been struggling to come to grips with a crushing debt, had hoped to get final approval from euro zone finance ministers on its second bailout, worth 130 billion euros. In a flurry of legislative activity in recent days, Greek lawmakers have passed a series of measures to meet the conditions for the rescue. The latest went through in the early hours of Thursday morning, cutting state spending on pharmaceuticals.

  • Okay, so they’re learning it kinda slowly according to The Christian Science Monitor story, “EU leaders sign treaty to enforce fiscal discipline as Spain rebels“:
    The leaders of 25 European countries on Friday signed a new treaty designed to limit government overspending, but their good intentions were immediately put to the test when Spain said it would miss deficit targets this year.
    By signing of the new treaty, known as the fiscal compact, the leaders hope to achieve closer political and economic integration and longer-term confidence in Europe’s finances. But the economic reality in the region – record unemployment and a slide back into recession – suggests the leaders need to reconsider their focus on austerity and seek ways to boost growth.
    Hours after signing the new pact, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted his government’s deficit will be 5.8 percent of economic output this year instead of the 4.4 percent earlier promised to the EU to save his country’s economy from austerity overload.The EU’s executive, the European Commission, will be forced to either back off its demands for deficit cuts or sanction Madrid.
    The clash illustrates the bind Europe’s leaders are in – having to reduce the debts that created the crisis in the first place while at the same time needing to foster economic growth, without which debt reduction measures will be futile.
    “I did not consult other European leaders and I will inform the Commission in April,” Rajoy said. “This is a sovereign decision by Spain.”
    Rajoy said he still plans to cut the deficit to 3 percent in 2013, which would put the country back in line with EU rules, and insisted he was committed to austerity as the best way of getting the country back in shape.
    Still, Spain’s case will provide an indication of how strict European officials intend to be about enforcing debt reduction in a recession.
  • Not only are they learning that austerity doesn’t create jobs, but learning it slowly and painfully, but the process of privatizing everything hasn’t slowed according to The Guardian’s, “Revealed: government plans for police privatization“:
    Private companies could take responsibility for investigating crimes, patrolling neighbourhoods and even detaining suspects under a radical privatisation plan being put forward by two of the largest police forces in the country.
    West Midlands and Surrey have invited bids from G4S and other major security companies on behalf of all forces across England and Wales to take over the delivery of a wide range of services previously carried out by the police.
    The contract is the largest on police privatisation so far, with a potential value of £1.5bn over seven years, rising to a possible £3.5bn depending on how many other forces get involved.
    This scale dwarfs the recent £200m contract between Lincolnshire police and G4S, under which half the force’s civilian staff are to join the private security company, which will also build and run a police station for the first time.
    The home secretary, Theresa May, who has imposed a 20% cut in Whitehall grants on forces, has said frontline policing can be protected by using the private sector to transform services provided to the public, but this is the first clear indication of what that will mean in practice. May said on Thursday that she hoped the “business partnership” programme would be in place next spring.
    A 26-page “commercial in confidence” contract note seen by the Guardian has been sent to potential bidders to run all services that “can be legally delegated to the private sector”. They do not include those that involve the power of arrest and the other duties of a sworn constable.
  • But there’s still one more unreported tension taking place in the EU, and it’s being felt uncomfortably as reported in The Guardian story, “Greeks try to keep the peace with their dwindling German tourists“:
    In Rhodes old town, unseasonal gales are blowing chairs down the street. It takes some leap of the imagination to picture it as the sun-drenched tourist hotspot that hopes to welcome up to 2 million visitors this year.
    The big question for the hoteliers, bars and restaurants that generate 80% of the island’s income is whether north European holidaymakers – and Germans in particular – will stay away, fearful of a hostile reception as a result of the savage austerity imposed on Greece as a condition of its second EU bail-out.
    Tourism is vital: it accounts for a fifth of the €220bn (£183bn) Greek economy, so it is essential to keep the trippers coming in, whether they are heading for the Acropolis in Athens or the rather less complete Acropolis of Rhodes.
    Recent figures are not encouraging: data out last month showed there had been a marked downturn in the number of German tourists. In November – when the eurozone crisis was at its height – there was a 2.5% drop in tourist income compared to a year earlier.
    The Bank of Greece said visitors spent an average of €437 per trip, more than 5% down on from the same month in 2010. But most tellingly, receipts from German visitors – possibly anticipating a less than rapturous welcome – were down by more than 50%.
    In Rhodes, however, hoteliers and bar owners insist the Germans were very much welcome – even if Greek smiles might come through gritted teeth.
    Alexandria Chatzimichali, marketing manager at the Casino Rodos, says hotels are reporting a drop in demand for high-end accommodation, particularly from Germans.
    “They believe they will be hated and chased out,” she says. “You see it in Athens – there is hostility to Germans there. Rhodes is not there yet.” But, Chatzimichali warns: ” If something big happens, if we go officially bankrupt …”

UN wants NATO, ‘New Libya’ to look into civilian deaths
The New York Times
(3/2/12)

U.N. Report Faults NATO Over Civilian Deaths in Libya

NATO has not sufficiently investigated the air raids it conducted on Libya that killed at least 60 civilians and injured 55 more during the conflict there, according to a new United Nations report released Friday.

Nor has Libya’s interim government done enough to halt the disturbing violence perpetrated by revolutionary militias seeking to exact revenge on loyalists, real or perceived, to the regime of Col. Muammar el Qaddafi, the report concluded.

Published without publicity on the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Commission website, the report details the results of an investigation by a three-member commission of distinguished jurists. It paints a generally gloomy picture of the respect for human rights and international law in Libya, while acknowledging that the problem is a legacy of the long years of violent repression under Colonel Qaddafi.

While NATO air raids that killed civilians in Libya have been criticized by rights groups, and its refusal to acknowledge or investigate some of the deaths had been reported earlier, including an extensive account in The New York Times last December, the United Nations report represents the first time that NATO’s actions in Libya has been criticized by the organization that authorized the bombing campaign in the name of protecting civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

The report concluded, not unsurprisingly, that Qaddafi forces had perpetuated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and attacks on civilians using excessive force and rape.

But the armed anti-Qaddafi militia forces in Libya also “committed serious violations,” including war crimes and breaches of international rights law that continue today, the 220-page report said.

Militia members continued through January 2012 with the mass arrests of former soldiers, police officers, suspected mercenaries and others perceived to be Qaddafi loyalists, the report said. Certain revenge attacks have continued unabated, particularly the campaign by the militiamen of Misurata to wipe the neighboring town of Tawergha off the map, accusing its residents of collaborating with a government siege.

Such attacks have been documented before, but the report stressed that despite prior criticism the militiamen continue to hunt down the residents of the neighboring town no matter where they have fled across Libya. As recently as Feb. 6, militiamen from Misurata attacked a camp in Tripoli where residents of Tawergha had fled, killing an old man, a woman and three children, the report said.

The commission remains “deeply concerned” that no independent investigations nor prosecutions appear to have been instigated into killings by such militias, the report said.

“Libyan authorities can break with the Qaddafi legacy by enforcing the law equally, investigating all abuses — irrespective of the perpetrator,” the report said.

Red Cross calls Syria’s blocking access to Homs “unacceptable”
The Guardian
(3/2/12)

Syria army stops Red Cross entering Baba Amr to deliver aid

Past This is Hell! guest Peter Beaumont writes …

Syrian authorities have blocked the Red Cross from entering the Baba Amr district of the city of Homs, where civilians have endured days of fierce fighting, amid reports that soldiers and armed gangs have been carrying out atrocities in the suburb since it fell to the government on Thursday.

Despite receiving permission from the government to send a convoy with seven truckloads of aid into Baba Amr, the Red Cross was prevented from entering the neighbourhood, an action it described as “unacceptable”.

The refusal to allow the convoy in to treat and evacuate the wounded came as the organisation announced that the Syrian authorities had handed over the bodies of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who were killed in an attack on a press centre in Baba Amr over a week ago.

“We have the bodies of two journalists, Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. They are being taken by ambulance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, accompanied by the ICRC, and are heading to Damascus,” chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad told Reuters in Geneva. “They were handed over in Homs by the Syrian authorities.”

The French journalist Edith Bouvier, who was badly wounded in the same attack, arrived back in France on Friday with her colleague William Daniels.

The Commenting on the halting of the convoy, Red Cross president, Jakob Kellenberger, said: “It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help.

“We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amr in the very near future. In addition, many families have fled Baba Amr, and we will help them as soon as we possibly can.

“We reiterate the appeal we made several days ago, for a daily two-hour halt in the fighting to allow humanitarian assistance,” added Kellenberger. “The humanitarian situation was very serious then and it is worse now.”

The Red Cross had hoped to bring urgent medical and food aid to civilians trapped in Baba Amr after fighters with the Free Syrian Army announced on Thursday that they were withdrawing from their positions.

Amnesty protests Bahrain limits by canceling rights visit
SAPA
(3/2/12)

Amnesty cancels Bahrain visit over rights

Amnesty International said on Friday it has cancelled a visit to Bahrain over restrictions imposed on rights groups monitoring the situation there, one year after an uprising was crushed.

“Regrettably we have cancelled the fact-finding visit to Bahrain… as the new five day limit imposed by the Bahraini authorities for visits by international human rights organisations is a serious impediment to their ability to do their human rights work,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The London-based rights watchdog said that, in addition to limiting their visits to five working days, Bahrain’s human rights ministry had informed Amnesty and other NGOs that “they would need to be sponsored to obtain a visa.”

“The Bahraini authorities have repeatedly stated their commitment to undertake human rights reform and to cooperate with international human rights organizations. These new restrictions contradict such commitment,” Sahraoui added.

Bahraini security forces, boosted by Gulf troops that rolled in from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, quelled the month-long protest that erupted in February 2011, triggering international pressure on the ruling Sunni dynasty.

Last month, Amnesty said Bahrain had failed to implement human rights reforms demanded by an independent commission which investigated the deadly crackdown.

It said the government was still “far from delivering the human rights changes” recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

The BICI report, commissioned by the king last June, found that 35 people died in last year’s unrest, including five security personnel and five detainees tortured to death while in custody.

“If the Bahraini authorities are truly committed to human rights and co-operation with international NGOs they should do away with these new, unjustified obstacles,” Amnesty said.

US talks for long-term presence in Afghanistan failing
The Guardian
(3/2/12)

US-Afghanistan deal in danger as Hamid Karzai holds firm on demands

Hopes that the US can fix conditions for a long-term military presence in Afghanistan before an unofficial May deadline are fading because Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is not prepared to compromise on two demands that have stalled negotiations for months.

Washington and its allies want to have the US-Afghan strategic partnership agreed before May, when a Nato conference in Chicago is expected to pledge long-term help to Kabul with finances and military training.

But negotiations have dragged on for over a year and Karzai is adamant he will not give ground on his two main demands – for Afghan control of jails and an end to night-time raids on Afghan homes.

Western officials say the first is not practical and the second would compromise the military effort.

“If they don’t change their position there will be no strategic partnership before Chicago,” said a senior Afghan official familiar with the negotiations. “We are not willing to compromise when it comes to sovereignty.”

The strategic partnership deal would allow US forces to stay in some current large bases in Afghanistan, to help train Afghan soldiers and police. The bases could also be used for drone strikes on militant areas in Pakistan.

The deal would give western leaders a security rationale for spending money in Afghanistan after combat troops are withdrawn in 2014, and also aims to reassure Afghans the west will not cut and run.

A string of top diplomats and politicians have urged Karzai to sign.

“The Afghan government, especially the Afghan president, is under a lot of pressure from all sides – there are some indirect threats being made as well,” said the Afghan official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

But Karzai has long said that for a deal to go ahead the US must hand over all jails on Afghan soil to his government’s control and end controversial night-time hunts for insurgents and their supporters.

He repeated that position in a phone call earlier this week with the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was urging Karzai to sign the deal ahead of the Chicago summit, according to the presidential palace.

“Before the US-Afghan strategic partnership document can be signed, the foreigners have to respect the national sovereignty of Afghanistan,” a palace statement, released late on Wednesday, quoted Karzai telling Rasmussen.

“No Afghan [prisoners] should be in the hands of foreigners, and foreign troops should hand over all the jails they have now to the Afghan government, and stop the night raids.”

US officials had suggested resolving the impasse by hiving off the two most controversial points into a separate document and agreeing to hash them out later, but Karzai has rejected that as a compromise of Afghan sovereignty.

“The US idea is not accepted at all, we have to reach an agreement on these two points before signing any strategic partnership document,” the official said.

Six face disciplinary action in Koran burning at NATO base
The New York Times
(3/2/12)

Soldiers Are Said to Face Punishment in Koran Burnings

Five American service members and an Afghan-American linguist may face disciplinary action in the burning of Korans at a NATO base, an event a week ago that plunged Afghanistan into days of violent protests, according to the preliminary conclusions of a joint military investigation.

“All six will be referred to the proper U.S. authorities for further action,” said an official familiar with the joint Afghan-American investigation into the Koran burnings, who was not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Significantly, the five service members include military “leaders,” according to the report. While it was unclear whether that meant any senior officers would be held to account, it was taken as a sign here that the investigation was focusing more on decision-making along the chain of command rather than simply focusing on soldiers who may have been carrying out orders with little understanding of their potential impact.

The preeminent religious authority in Afghanistan, the Ulema Council, said Friday that those responsible for the burning of the Korans and other religious texts should be put on trial and punished. And it called for the American-led coalition to respond by handing over all Afghan prisoners in its custody and ceding control of its prisons.

The Ulema Council, which is made up of scholarly mullahs, made its recommendations following its own investigation into the Koran burning incident last week in a statement released through President Hamid Karzai’s office late on Friday evening.

The burning of the Korans and other religious texts, seized from Afghan prisoners at an American-run detention center, triggered days of deadly protests. At least 29 Afghans have been killed in the violence, and the outpouring of popular fury coincided with the shooting deaths of six American soldiers.

Gen. John R. Allen, the NATO commanding general in Afghanistan, and President Obama both apologized in the wake of the demonstrations.

But in its statement Friday, the Ulema Council condemned the burning, said no apology would be enough to forgive the desecrations of the Koran and asked for guarantees that religious texts would never be dishonored again.

“The council strongly condemns this inhuman, bad and barbaric act by American forces based at Bagram Military Base and emphasizes that this devilish action cannot be forgiven by apologizing,” Maulawi Mohammad Said, a member of the council, said in a statement read to Mr. Karzai, according to the palace. “The perpetrators of this crime should be put on a public trial as soon as possible and be punished, and both NATO and the United States should guarantee that in the future no one will dare to desecrate Muslim religious materials.”

The council’s recommendations largely repeat demands it made last week immediately after the incident — although in fierier language this time — when it also called for a trial and justice for those responsible.

But on Friday the council also said it had concluded that the root cause of the burnings was what it called the illegal administration of the prison and said the remedy was to close down all foreign prisons and hand them over to Afghan control.

Those findings offered support for Mr. Karzai in his long-running dispute with the coalition over control of prisons in Afghanistan.

  • But the single best story of the Oran burning so far has to be the Reuters article, “Anti-U.S. emotions run high at Afghan dogfighting ring“:
    Protests over the burning of Korans at a NATO base may have faded but some Afghans are still venting their rage over the incident — at a bloody Kabul dogfighting ring.
    If emotions here are any indication, desecration of copies of the Muslim holy book did lasting damage to the image of the United States, which is struggling to pacify the country before NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
    “We call the dogs who lose Americans. We are furious about the Korans,” said Mirwais Haji, 28, as a defeated canine limped off the snow-covered dirt ring on the edge of the capital.
    “We want the Afghan government to bring the people who did this to us. We will kill them ourselves.”
    The burning of the Korans last month triggered widespread protests and a string of fatal attacks by Afghan security forces on NATO soldiers.
    The killing of two U.S. officers by an Afghan policeman in the Interior Ministry stunned NATO and cast doubt on its strategy of replacing large combat units with advisers as the alliance tries to wind down the war, now in its eleventh year.
    An apology by U.S. President Barack Obama has failed to ease the anger over an incident that has hurt a U.S. campaign to win hearts and minds to gain an edge over the Taliban and force them to negotiate peace.
    The Koran burning incident underscored how U.S.-led NATO troops still fail to grasp Afghanistan’s religious and cultural sensitivities despite their long presence in the country.
    That insensitivity could have far-reaching consequences for U.S. policy.
    Thousands of people gather in a circle each Friday to watch large Afghan fighting dogs, known as Kuchis, attack each other in 30-second contests below mountains on the edge of Kabul.
    Some do it for entertainment, betting up to $4,000 on a single fight, as vendors sell peanuts, tangerines and potatoes.
    For others, it’s an escape from frustrations over everything from unemployment, to the war to rampant government corruption.
    This Friday, several people were still riveted by the Koran burnings, which NATO called a tragic blunder. Gripped by anti-American sentiment, they cheered on dogs who growled, stood on their hind legs and tore at each other’s throats.
    “We are tired of the Americans and what they do with the Korans and other incidents,” said Akmal Bahadoor, 18, an airport employee, as some of the dogs were held down by two men because they are so powerful and edgy.
    “When we watch these dogs it’s a way of expressing our anger against the Americans. We think the Americans are being attacked.”
    NATO is investigating the Koran burnings.
    Western officials are hoping the outcry will soon pass so they can focus on other huge challenges before 2014. But there are no signs of that happening any time soon.
    As young boys ran to get out of the way of a crazed dog that ran through the crowd, a few Afghan soldiers watched other canines charge each other.
    “Even if the people who did this are prosecuted. The anger will never, ever go away. It will always be stuck in my heart,” said one of them, 30-year-old Khalil Bazar.

Some of worst violence in months rocks northwest Pakistan
The New York Times
(3/2/12)

Scores Are Killed as Pakistan Battles Militant Groups

Gunfights, military airstrikes and a large suicide bombing on Friday killed as many as 70 people in the tribal agencies bordering Peshawar, the provincial capital of northwestern Pakistan, in some of the worst violence in months in a strategic corner of the country.

In Khyber Agency, along the border with Afghanistan, a suicide bomber set off an explosion at the gates of a militant base, killing 23 people and wounding at least three others, said the local administrator, Mutahirzeb Khan. Many of those killed belonged to Lashkar-e-Islam, a local militant group that has imposed Taliban-style strictures on the local population.

Lashkar-e-Islam itself had been on the offensive only hours earlier, with a pre-dawn assault by dozens of fighters on a Pakistani military post, Mr. Khan said. That attack killed ten soldiers and wounded three, he said.

A senior security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said that 23 militants were also killed in the fighting, but that could not be independently confirmed.

Fighting also raged in the Orakzai tribal agency, to the west of Peshawar, where military fighter jets attacked two suspected bases of the main Pakistani Taliban group. The security official said 15 militants died in the attack.

Some of the violence follows Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas adjacent to Peshawar. In recent weeks the army has initiated major operations in both Khyber and Orakzai Agencies. The army has been quiet in South and North Waziristan, to the west, where most American drone strikes are carried out.

Although the military drive is intended, at least partly, to reduce attacks in Peshawar, the response by militants has been felt most keenly inside the city.

On Feb. 23, a car bomb set off at a busy bus terminal in the city center killed 15 people and wounded at least 35. Then on Tuesday, a Chinese woman and a male Pakistani companion were shot dead as they walked through a bustling bazaar.

On Friday, a Taliban faction claimed responsibility for the shooting, telling Reuters that it was in retaliation for Chinese government attacks on Muslim separatists in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

If confirmed, the assertion would alarm Pakistani officials, who value China as a major regional ally, and Western aid workers, who have long feared indiscriminate attacks on vulnerable foreigners.

But the Taliban also has a history of falsely claiming high-profile attacks for propaganda purposes. A senior police official in Peshawar, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of an investigation was continuing, described as “doubtful” the Taliban claim of responsibility.

The police official said that the Chinese woman had arrived in Pakistan in October, and come to Peshawar on Sunday, only two days before the attack; this would generally not be sufficient time for Taliban assassins to identify, track and kill her, he said.

A second Chinese woman, who had been travelling with the woman who was shot, is being questioned, he added. “It is still an open case,” he said. “We are looking into all aspects.”

Pakistan’s security forces are trying to drive militants from Khyber Agency because of its proximity to Peshawar, and the region’s strategic location along the main highway linking Pakistan to Afghanistan. Khyber is at the center of the main NATO supply line to troops in Afghanistan, which has been frozen since American warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border strike in November.

Vietnam revving up one of world’s most ambitious nuke programs
The New York Times
(3/1/12)

Vietnam’s Nuclear Dreams Blossom Despite Doubts

Inside an unheated classroom at the Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology here about 20 young government technicians from Vietnam’s incipient nuclear power industry kept on their winter jackets on the first morning of a 10-day workshop on radiation.

The workshop, sponsored by the semigovernmental Japan Atomic Energy Agency, started with Radiation Physics 101. The students then collected radiation samples with the help of Japanese specialists and analyzed them in a lab built by Japan.

“Nuclear power is important for Vietnam’s energy security, but, like fire, it has two sides,” said one of the students, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, 27. “We have to learn how to take advantage of its good side.”

As Vietnam prepares to begin one of the world’s most ambitious nuclear power programs, it is scrambling to raise from scratch a field of experts needed to operate and regulate nuclear power plants. The government, which is beefing up nuclear engineering programs at its universities and sending increasing numbers of young technicians abroad, says Vietnam will have enough qualified experts to safely manage an industry that is scheduled to grow from one nuclear reactor in 2020 to 10 reactors by 2030.

But some Vietnamese and foreign experts said that was too little time to establish a credible regulatory body, especially in a country with widespread corruption, poor safety standards and a lack of transparency. They said the overly ambitious timetable could lead to the kind of weak regulation, as well as collusive ties between regulators and operators, that contributed to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan last year.

Hien Pham Duy, one of Vietnam’s most senior nuclear scientists and an adviser to government agencies overseeing nuclear power, said it had been his “dream for many years” to bring nuclear power to Vietnam. But he said the government’s plans were based on a “lack of vigorous assessment of the inherent problems of nuclear power, especially those arising in less developed countries.”

Like many Vietnamese, Mr. Hien, a former director of the Dalat Nuclear Research Institute, which houses Vietnam’s nuclear research reactor, pointed to the high rates of accidents on Vietnam’s roads as the most visible example of a “bad safety culture” that pervaded “every field of activity in the country.”

Tran Dai Phuc, a Vietnamese-French nuclear engineer who worked in the French nuclear industry for four decades and is now an adviser to Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the ministry in charge of nuclear power, said potential problems were not related to the reactors’ technology but to the lack of “democracy as well as the responsibility of personnel, a culture of quality assurance and general safety regarding installation and impact on the environment.”

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Nine Circles of hell!: Friday, March 2, 2012
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