Nine Circles of Hell!: Friday, February 10, 2012
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – today’s nine most hellish news stories, including a bonus story on the Greek bailout, for Friday, February 10, 2012, are:
IG has concerns over State Department handling of Keystone XL
TransCanada cleared of Keystone conflict by U.S. audit
TransCanada has been cleared of any undue influence in the U.S. State Department’s decision to hire Cardno Entrix, a client of TransCanada, to conduct an environmental impact review of the $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline project, an audit by the U.S. Inspector General has found.
In a 58-page special review of the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline permit process tabled in Congress Thursday, Inspector General Harold W. Geisel found “no evidence that TransCanada had improperly influenced” the department’s decision to hire Cardno Entrix to perform the environmental impact analysis of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project …
The Inspector General did find fault with the handling of some aspects of the pipeline permit process by the U.S. State Department itself.
For instance, Geisel acknowledged that the State Department’s process to hire a third-party contractor to perform an environmental impact statement “inherently gives the applicant some influence in the process.”
The process allows the applicant to decide which contractors receive the requests for proposal, review the proposals, and identify its preferred contractor, Geisel explained in the audit.
To that end, Geisel recommended that the State Department modify its third-party contracting process to “reduce the appearance of improper influence.”
Although Geisel did not find “an organizational conflict of interest” between Transcanada and Cardno Entrix, his audit found that the State Department did not request that information from the contractor but rather accepted it “at face value.”
Geisel said that omission could call a contractor’s “objectivity into question” and recommended the State Department’s screening process be “redesigned” and “improved.”
Finally, Geisel also had “some concerns’ with the way in which alternative routes for the proposed pipeline were considered and “not completely incorporated” in the department’s final environmental impact statement.
Geisel determined that the department’s “limited technical resources, expertise, and experience impacted the process,” and recommended that the department hire extra staff, something the department told Geisel it is currently in the process of doing.
Falklands, UK battle over British destroyer
The Associated Press
UN chief Ban Ki-moon weighs in on Falkland Islands dispute
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope that Argentina and Britain can avoid an escalation of their Falkland Islands dispute when he met Friday with the South American country’s foreign minister, Hector Timerman, the UN chief’s office said.
Ban “expressed concern about the increasingly strong exchanges” between the two governments and said the U.N. would be happy to help mediate the dispute if asked, according to a summary of the meeting by the secretary-general’s office.
Argentina and Britain fought a war over the islands in 1982, and tensions between the two countries have risen in recent weeks over the status of the territory off the Argentine coast in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The islands, which are a British dependency, are also claimed by Argentina, which refers to them as Las Malvinas.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has said her country will formally complain to the U.N. Security Council that Britain has created a serious security risk by sending one of its most modern warships to the region. The British government said it recently sent destroyer HMS Dauntless to replace another ship in a routine operation.
Britain’s Foreign Office has repeatedly ruled out negotiations unless the Falklands’ inhabitants say they want change.
Greek PM says bailout opposition “cannot remain in the government”
Greek PM says anti-bailout ministers must go
Greece must do whatever it takes to approve a bailout deal and avoid catastrophe, Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said on Friday, adding that cabinet members who disagree have no place in the government.
“We cannot allow Greece to go bankrupt,” Papademos told a cabinet meeting. “Our priority is to do whatever it takes to approve the new economic programme and proceed with the new loan agreement.”
“It goes without saying that whoever disagrees and does not vote for the new programme cannot remain in the government.”
- Bloomberg offers the latest on the bailout in, “Greek Bailout at Risk as Party Pushes Back“:
Greece’s bailout was at risk of unraveling as a governing coalition party pushed back against German demands for deeper budget cuts needed to prevent financial collapse.
Greek police used tear gas to counter demonstrators in Athens as Prime Minister Lucas Papademos called a meeting of his ministers this evening to discuss a bill detailing the austerity measures to be put to a parliamentary vote this weekend. The Cabinet was due to meet after one minister and three deputies from the Laos party as well as a Socialist minister said they were quitting in protest at the steps worked out for a rescue.
“What has particularly bothered me is the humiliation of the country,” George Karatzaferis, whose Laos party has 16 members in the 300-seat parliament, said in televised comments. “Clearly Greece can’t and shouldn’t do without the European Union but it could do without the German boot.”
Karatzaferis spoke hours after German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told lawmakers in Berlin that Greece was missing deficit goals and had to do more to meet the targets in the 130 billion-euro ($172 billion) bailout being negotiated.
With Greece’s second rescue package in the balance, the parties that support Papademos’s interim government are meeting ahead of parliamentary votes on the new measures. Lawmakers from both the Socialist Pasok party and the New Democracy party that leads in opinion polls before elections due as soon as April will meet to discuss the steps tomorrow.
Global stocks fell for the first time in four days and the euro weakened from yesterday’s two-month high against the dollar as the plan for Greece ran into turbulence.
Underscoring the mood in Athens, police scuffled with protesters as Greek unions held the first day of a 48-hour strike against the austerity measures demanded by the so-called troika of international creditors who monitor progress made by Greece.
Schaeuble, briefing lawmakers on troika estimates relayed to euro-area finance ministers in Brussels yesterday, said that current plans would leave Greece’s debt as high as 136 percent of gross domestic product by 2020, according to two people in the meeting in Berlin. That compares with the 120 percent foreseen in the country’s second bailout. Debt was about 160 percent of GDP last year.
“The Greek offer is not sufficient and they have to go away to come up with a revised plan,” Bertrand Benoit, a spokesman for the German Finance Ministry, said by telephone.
Nobody’s taking credit for Syria’s twin suicide bombings
Agence France Presse
Twin car bombs rock Syria’s Aleppo, kill 28
Twin car bombs targeting security posts in Syria’s second city of Aleppo killed at least 28 people on Friday, state media said, as rebels accused the regime of carrying out the attacks as a diversion.
The explosions came as tank-backed troops advanced on pockets of resistance in the battered protest hub of Homs, and as heavy security deployments nationwide thwarted planned protests against key regime ally Russia.
The powerful mid-morning blasts ripped through the northern commercial hub, also wounding 235 people, said state television, which broadcast gruesome footage.
Mangled bodies were shown in pools of blood outside rows of shattered buildings and piles of rubble strewn across a broad avenue.
State television called the bombings, the first in Aleppo since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted almost a year ago, the work of “armed terrorist gangs.”
It said a “suicide bomber in a car packed with explosives” attacked a police station, flattening a nearby food distribution centre. The second bomb targeted an intelligence base.
But the rebel Free Syrian Army said the government itself was behind the attacks, hoping to divert attention from its military operations against civilians in the besieged protest city of Homs.
“This criminal regime is… carrying out bomb attacks in Aleppo to steer attention away from what it is doing in Homs, Zabadani and elsewhere,” its spokesman, Colonel Maher Nouaimi, told AFP in a telephone interview.
State television showed emergency workers holding up body parts, including hands, feet and a torso. Soldiers were among the casualties, it said.
“The number of casualties from the two car bombs in Aleppo has risen to 28 dead and 235 wounded,” said the health ministry. Among the dead were soldiers and civilians, including children.
“In addition, there were four bags full of body parts of other victims,” it said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 people were killed in the Aleppo blasts.
Several people interviewed on television denounced Turkey and Qatar for not standing by the regime as it seeks to put down the revolt.
“Is this the freedom they want?” asked one angry-looking man, holding up a severed arm and referring to those leading the protest movement.
Syria blamed the blasts on “terrorists” backed by Arab and Western nations, in a letter sent to the UN secretary general, the UN Security Council, the Arab League and other organisations.
Ethiopia silences, prosecutes opposition – with West’s blessing
The Christian Science Monitor
Why Ethiopia’s authoritarian style gets a Western nod
Ethiopia’s recent prosecution of opponents under an antiterror law has attracted widespread condemnation. But with its regional role as crucial as ever and donors still impressed by the government’s antipoverty measures, the criticism is unlikely to result in significant changes.
Despite its status as a donor darling, Ethiopia’s government is, once again, doing little to encourage the attentions of its Western suitors.
Often using a 2009 antiterrorism law, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s administration has prosecuted scores of opposition figures and a handful of journalists over the past year. Most are accused of links with banned groups, such as the US-based Ginbot 7, whose leaders gave up hopes of unseating Mr. Meles at the ballot box after the disastrous fallout from a 2005 poll.
Rights groups are unanimous in their condemnation. “There is no evidence that they are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” Amnesty International said about a group including three Ethiopian journalists jailed for plotting terror acts last month. “We believe that they are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate criticism of the government.”
While Amnesty and Human Rights Watch consistently slam the government, others have only recently joined the fray. Five United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed “their dismay at the continuing abuse of antiterrorism legislation to curb freedom of expression.”
The world’s media have also tuned in. A HRW report detailing coercion and abuse in the resettlement of tens of thousands in the nation’s west was widely reported, and Nicholas D. Kristof dedicated a recent column in The New York Times to Ethiopia’s treatment of two Swedish journalists caught embedded with a rebel group. “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s increasingly tyrannical ruler, seemed to be sending a signal to the world’s journalists: Don’t you dare mess with me!” he wrote.
However, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Ethiopia’s Western partners.
On the first day of the Swedes’ trial, which resulted in 11-year sentences for entering the country illegally and supporting a terrorist organization, the US ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, attended, but such provocative gestures are rare from Ethiopia’s biggest benefactor.
The reason for the deference is largely geographic. At the end of January, US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns dropped into Addis Ababa. Although concerns over the antiterror law were expressed, his mission was to “emphasize the strategic importance of that country to countering violent extremism in the greater Horn of Africa region.”
Not only is Ethiopia neighbor to the two Sudanese nations teetering on the brink of conflict and wartorn Somalia, but its role is vital: Its troops are patrolling the flashpoint border district of Abyei and also backing up forces allied against the terror group al-Shabaab; Meles was also the key mediator in a recent attempt to broker an agreement over the oil-transit fees Juba, in South Sudan, should pay Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city.
“From the point of view of Western and especially US geopolitical considerations, it would be a monumental disservice to national interests to do anything to undermine engagement with Ethiopia,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Boko Haram insurgency hitting Nigeria’s bottom line
Nigeria insurgency beginning to take toll on economy
An increasingly violent insurgency by Islamist sect Boko Haram in Nigeria’s economically stagnant north has begun pressuring the country’s finances by forcing extra spending on security.
It is diverting money away from needed infrastructure spending and could be costing as much as 2 percent of the country’s economic output.
Boko Haram, which wants Islamic sharia law more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation, has been waging a low level insurgency against the government and security forces since 2009.
The severity of its attacks has leapt in the last six months with its strikes have been largely confined to the Muslim north, hundreds of kilometers from the commercial hubs of Lagos and the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil industry.
This means that foreign investors have not been unduly rattled in a broad sense.
“The northeast is not all that important economically, so unless they start blowing up stuff in Lagos or they can find a way to disrupt business on a larger scale, I think foreign investors are prepared to live with the threat,” said Alan Cameron, analyst at London-based Investment firm CSL.
Foreign direct investors and portfolio managers are, however, concerned about the progress of structural reforms in one of the continent’s most inefficient and wasteful economies – and about the government’s ability to keep a lid on spending.
On that latter point, the Boko Haram insurgency is having a bigger impact.
Nigeria’s security bill has risen to 20 percent of spending in the 2012 budget from 16 percent in 2010, leaving less money for much-needed infrastructure projects and for work on reforms to the power and other social and industrial sectors.
The 2011 budget did not give a breakdown for security costs.
“It implies less spending on power infrastructure, education and healthcare, which combined have been allocated a smaller budget than security in 2012,” Renaissance Capital economist Yvonne Mhango said in a note.
The direct cost of security is at least 2 percent of Nigeria’s $250 billion economy, measured by the share of spending-to-Gross Domestic Product in 2012, Mhango said.
High government spending is also putting pressure on the naira currency. Central bank governor Lamido Sanusi was forced into a controlled depreciation of the naira last year and although it has stabilized, trading is volatile.
Sanusi has urged the government to control public spending to prevent further weakening, which would bite directly into potential investment returns for foreigners.
Boko Haram killed more than 250 people in a series of attacks in January, according to Human Rights Watch, and security experts believe it has growing ties with outside Islamist groups, including al Qaeda’s north African wing.
It has become President Goodluck Jonathan’s biggest headache and is threatening to divert the government’s attention from the pressing but thorny issue of weaning the economy away from its reliance on crude oil exports.
“You can draw parallels with Japan, which experienced a nuclear crisis last year. The government was distracted by the disaster to the detriment of the economy,” one European investor in Africa told Reuters.
Sudan opposition leader expects “full-fledged” civil war
The New York Times
Two Sudans Edge Closer to Brink in Oil Dispute
Sudan and the breakaway nation of South Sudan are locked in an exceedingly dangerous game of brinkmanship over billions of gallons of oil, seizing tankers, shutting down wells and imperiling the tenuous, American-backed peace that has held — just barely — between the two countries after decades of war.
Not for years have north-south relations been so poisonous, aggravated by spreading rebellions on both sides of the border and a proxy war between the two nations that has already flared into direct Sudan-South Sudan clashes. The jagged, disputed border separating Sudan from its newly independent neighbor is now probably the most combustible fault line in Africa, with big armies that fought each other for generations massing on either side.
“I, personally, expect full-fledged war,” said Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, a leading opposition politician in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. “This is like the previews before a film.”
Both sides desperately need the oil to run their governments, feed their people and stamp out insurrections. And theoretically, both sides need each other. The conundrum of the two Sudans is that 75 percent of the oil lies in the south, but the pipeline to export it runs through the north. Because of this, oil was once thought to be the glue that would hold the two nations together and prevent a conflict. Now, it seems, oil is becoming the fuse.
The African Union, the United States and China, which is a major oil partner for both Sudans, are pressing the two nations to move beyond the language and tactics of mutual destruction. Oil negotiations have been scheduled to resume this weekend, and though the two sides have stepped back from the brink many times before, few analysts are optimistic that a compromise will be reached easily.
When South Sudan broke off from Sudan last year, after years of guerrilla struggle, its independence was heralded as the triumphal capstone ending one of Africa’s deadliest civil wars. But the question of how exactly the two sides would share oil profits loomed ominously over the separation, unresolved. Now that both nations are struggling to make it on their own, the issue has proved to be as prickly — and perilous — as many had feared.
It was South Sudanese oil that drove Sudan’s economic boom of the past decade and made the repression by Sudan’s Islamist government (which is still heavily penalized by the United States) tolerable to many Sudanese. When South Sudan declared independence, it took billions of dollars’ worth of oil with it, gutting Sudan’s economy and creating one of the deepest crises that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has faced in his more than 20 years in power.
Mr. Bashir is now battling high inflation, a shrinking economy, student protests and several simultaneous rebellions — in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State — as well as genocide charges related to the massacres several years ago in Darfur.
At the same time, South Sudan, one of the poorest countries on earth, is facing a major food crisis and heavily-armed ethnically-based militias that have been sweeping parts of the countryside, killing hundreds and making a mockery of the South Sudanese security forces.
Stoking the tensions, Sudan and South Sudan are covertly backing rebels in each other’s backyards, leading to border clashes and relentless aerial bombings. The more than 1,000-mile border between them is now effectively closed, with millions of pounds of emergency food and just about all trade held up in a two-way stranglehold.
In the current fight over oil, the south has refused to turn over royalties for using Sudan’s pipelines. Sudan upped the ante in late December by seizing oil tankers filled with South Sudanese crude. Then, the south took the drastic and possibly self-destructive step of abruptly shutting down all of its oil wells, which could quickly bring the economies of both north and south to their knees. Southern Sudanese officials openly admit that they are now using their oil to squeeze Khartoum to make concessions on all sorts of issues, including the disputed area of Abyei, insisting that oil production will resume only after “ all the deals are signed.”
The south is even threatening to sit on its oil for years while it builds an alternative pipeline through Kenya. But it is not clear how the new country would survive that long; oil provides about 98 percent of government revenue. Experts question whether the Kenya pipeline is even feasible. It would have to run uphill, requiring many expensive pumping stations, and most likely slice across Jonglei, a South Sudanese state that, with all its marauding militias, is essentially a war zone these days.
Maldives ex-president: “We are losing a country as we speak”
Maldives ex-president demands election, warns of protests
The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, demanded on Friday fresh elections and said he would organise street protests in the Indian Ocean archipelago best known as a luxury beach getaway if polls were not called.
Nasheed was free despite an arrest warrant against him as diplomats including a U.N. envoy worked to forestall renewed violence after his removal this week, which he said happened at gunpoint in circumstances he described as a coup.
“Fresh elections are our bottom line and we are not relying on the international community for that, we are relying on the people of the Maldives,” Nasheed told reporters.
“In absence of (elections) we would have to go out on the streets.”
Rain and cooler weather appeared to ease tension a day after the new government issued a warrant against Nasheed, who quickly returned to his roots as a street activist and dared police to arrest him.
But Nasheed said police and military were ransacking Addu atoll, a bastion of his supporters, and were dragging people out of their homes and beating those who belonged to his party.
“We are losing a country as we speak.” Earlier, Nasheed, speaking to Reuters in front of his family home in central Male, capital of the 1,200-island archipelago of 330,000 Sunni Muslims, said there had been no clarification on the status of his arrest warrant.
Security forces, a group of whom Nasheed accused of conspiring with political rivals to usurp him under the guise of a constitutional handover to his vice president, took no chances during Friday prayers.
About 50 troops and police wearing helmets and riot gear stood guard in Republic Square, site of the Grand Mosque and two days of violence that first saw Nasheed unseated and then roughed up along with supporters as they protested his ouster.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco met new President Mohamed Waheed Hussain Manik at the start of his three-day visit to urge both sides to negotiate and avoid violence.
Fernandez-Taranco was among several teams of diplomats, including ones from India, Britain, the United States and European Union, who were either in Male or soon to arrive. A Commonwealth delegation was meeting all political parties.
“We told the president that at this time, it is very important to ensure the police and military operate on an entirely constitutional level to cool the temperatures,” Akbar Khan, the Commonwealth delegation head, told Reuters.
“The fragility of the democratic transition here was clearly demonstrated by recent events.”
Informant allegedly meant to mislead French, airstrike kills eights kids
The New York Times
Afghans Say Informant Misled NATO, Leading to Airstrike on Children
Afghan government officials who traveled to the snowbound village where eight children reportedly were killed in a NATO airstrike this week said that villagers reported the bombing was based on bad information from an informant.
The officials said locals told them that an informant had been seeking to mislead the French troops who control the area.
The incident took place on Wednesday in Geyaba Village in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Among the dead were seven boys under 14 and an older boy, named Allah Gul, who was 18 and suffered from cognitive impairment, according to Abdul Mubin Safi, the administrative director of Kapisa province. They were herding sheep less than half a mile from their homes when the bombing happened.
NATO representatives were part of the delegation that traveled to the area by helicopter to investigate the incident and returned Friday, said Major Jason Waggoner, a NATO spokesman. He said there was no word yet from NATO officials on the joint Afghan-NATO team’s findings.
One member of the team, Mohammad Hussain Khan Sanjani, the chairman of the provincial council, who was reached by phone in Kapisa, said that after talking with the people in the village it seemed that there had been misinformation.
“These people are involved in animal husbandry, they own sheep and goats and their children went out to feed the animals behind their village under some oak trees,” he said.
“The French troops had a secret report from one of their agents who told them that in that area there were armed men preparing to attack the government and the French soldiers in Kapisa,” he said. “We talked to locals and found that the intelligence was wrong and they targeted civilians.”
The French soldiers, who are largely responsible for Kapisa Province, have had a stiff fight from the insurgents there and in Sarobi District of neighboring Kabul Province. Eighty two French soldiers have been killed in combat, mostly in those two areas.
Kapisa Province is divided ethnically with some areas heavily Tajik and others Pashtun. The Pashtun areas have had a strong insurgent presence that includes both Taliban and fighters loyal to Gulbiddin Hekmatyr. However Najrab District is mixed with Tajiks, Pashtuns and Pashai, a distinct ethnic group. Local government officials there said that unlike the predominantly Pashtun areas of the province, Najrab was not held by insurgents.
“The area is not influenced by the Taliban but there was some sort of illegal weapon smuggling,” said Abdul Saboor Wafa, the chief of staff to the Kapisa governor.