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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

EUROPE'S MUSLIMS FEEL HEAT OF BACKLASH AFTER PARIS TERROR ATTACK


Firebombs and pig heads thrown into mosques. Veiled women subjected to insults in the street. The internet awash with threats against Muslims. Europe's Muslims are feeling the heat of a fierce backlash following last week's terror attack against French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

An official who keeps track of Islamophobic attacks in France said there were 60 incidents — attacks and threats — in the six days since that attack.

A climate of fear is taking hold in Europe, stoked by rightist rhetoric equating the millions of peaceful Muslims with the few plotting murder and mayhem.

Abdallah Zekri, head of the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, said that since last Wednesday's massacre at Charlie Hebdo, 26 places of worship around France were attacked by firebombs, gunshots or pig heads, with a mosque in Le Mans hit with four grenades. There were 34 insults and threats.

The three-day terror spree in Paris claimed the lives of 17 victims, and traumatized a continent already brimming with anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi — the al-Qaida-linked suspects in the magazine attack — were killed in a shootout at a printing plant north of Paris; their apparent accomplice Amedy Coulibaly was shot dead in a near-simultaneous raid at a Jewish market, where he had holed himself up with hostages, killing four. 

French authorities are warning the nation against linking French Muslims with terrorists.

"The terrorists' religion is not Islam, which they are betraying," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week. "It's barbarity."

To make the point stick, he said he doesn't want the word "Islamist" used to describe the killers.

"I call that terrorists," he said this week on iTele, explaining he doesn't want to link terrorists with those who practice their "religion of peace."

Concerns about a backlash against Muslims were discussed Monday during a counter-terrorism meeting at the Interior Ministry. "We said above all, pretty unanimously, that in France there are 5 or 6 million Muslims. These (terrorist) issues concern 1,000 individuals," said Socialist lawmaker Patrick Mennucci. "We should be careful not to stigmatize anyone."

Coulibaly's mother and daughters, presenting condolences to the victims, issued a plea in a statement delivered to the French press "that there will be no amalgam between these odious acts and the Muslim religion."

Yet Muslims and some experts said that it was inevitable that Muslims would fall under suspicion after the attacks, despite a unity march on Sunday — described as the largest in French history — in which throngs of Muslims participated.

The rising far-right in France and other European countries has been driven by an anti-immigration, anti-Islam message. National Front leader Marine Le Pen seized upon the Charlie Hebdo attack just hours after it happened, suggesting it was a vindication of her party's xenophobic stance. 

Extreme-right groups across Europe have increasingly been striking a chord with ordinary citizens voicing fears their culture is being uprooted by an alien civilization.

The fledgling German group that calls itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, drew its largest crowd ever Monday night — a reported 40,000 — at its weekly rally in Dresden, after organizers declared it a tribute to the victims of the French attacks. No anti-Islamic acts have been reported in Germany since the terror.

French Muslims were already facing a backlash triggered by terror acts by French radicals twisting their religion — particularly since the rampage in southern France in 2012 in which Mohamed Merah killed three children at a Jewish school, a rabbi and three paratroopers. 

Anti-Islam sentiment spread further after the killing of four people by a French Muslim at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May. 

Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish incidents rose throughout 2014 in France, which has Europe's largest communities of both religions.

"For Muslims, the shock is grave in this climate of Islamophobia, of aggressions against places of worship," read a statement by Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith and the most visible Muslim in France.

France's state of high alert after the Charlie Hebdo rampage — with 10,000 soldiers deployed in the streets — may deepen a sense of siege within the Muslim population.

French authorities have long warned that France is a preferred target of Islamic extremists. France routed al-Qaida from northern Mali — two years ago to the day before Coulibaly attacked the Jewish market — and is now carrying out airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State group. Both al-Qaida and IS have threatened France.

But the attacks have had an effect outside France, too. In the Netherlands, Muslim groups and the government met Friday and said they plan to register anti-Muslim incidents. A burning object was thrown at a mosque in Vlaardingen, on the outskirts of Rotterdam.

"Everyone has this uncomfortable feeling, a sense of being threatened — Muslims because they are afraid to be stigmatized and that they will be attacked too," said Imade Annouri, a Green parliamentarian of Belgium's regional legislature of Flanders and an expert on integration issues.

TellMAMA, a British group that tracks anti-Muslim attacks, reported 50-60 cases of specific online threats to individuals over the weekend.

"The sheer volume is unbelievable," said the organization's director, Fiyaz Mughal, who fears virtual assaults could spur real ones in the street. 

Mughal said that after the slaying of British soldier Lee Rigby in London, the group was able to gauge how threats made on Twitter and Facebook translated directly into attacks on individuals or mosques.

Mohamed Ali Adraoui, a fellow at the European University Institute, suggested that hatred of Islam could morph into an assault on a mosque, in France or elsewhere.

"If you can do that in Charlie Hebdo offices, you can do it in a mosque," he said.

JAPAN APPROVES BIGGEST-EVER DEFENCE BUDGET WITH EYE ON CHINA


Japan's Cabinet approved the country's largest ever defence budget on Wednesday, including plans to buy surveillance aircraft, drones and F-35 fighter jets to help counter China's rising assertiveness in the region.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet endorsed a nearly 5 trillion yen ($42 billion) defence budget for the year beginning in April as part of a record 96.3 trillion yen ($814 billion) total budget.

The budget must still be approved by parliament, but Abe's coalition holds majorities in both houses.

The 2 percent rise in defence spending is the third annual increase under Abe, who took office in December 2012 and ended 11 straight years of defence budget cuts.

The increase mainly covers new equipment, including P-1 surveillance aircraft, F-35 fighter jets and amphibious vehicles for a new unit similar to the US Marine Corps. The aim is to boost Japan's capacity to defend uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that it controls but which are also claimed by China.

(Japan plans to buy F-35 jet fighters from the US to counter China's rising assertiveness in the region.)

The 2015 budget also covers the cost of purchasing parts of "Global Hawk" drones, planned for deployment in 2019, two Aegis radar-equipped destroyers and missile defence system development with Washington.

Abe favors a stronger role for Japan's military, despite a commitment to pacifism enshrined in the US-inspired constitution drawn up after the country's defeat in World War II. Japan's defence guidelines were revised in December 2013 as tensions rose over the East China Sea islands.

Chinese patrol boats often visit waters near the islands, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan and as the Diaoyu islands in China.

The defence budget is designed to achieve "seamless and mobile" defence capability that can respond to various contingencies, the ministry said in the Cabinet-approved budget plan. It will provide effective deterrence and contribute to stability in the Asia-Pacific region and improvement of the global security environment, the ministry said.

Abe's government must tread a fine line between spending enough to support economic growth and defence and slowing the rise in Japan's debt, which is the highest, proportionately, among industrialized countries.

As Japan's population quickly ages, welfare costs are soaring. Social security spending will account for about a third of the budget. The economy is in recession but the government has forecast growth at 1.5 percent this year, after an estimated 0.5 percent contraction in 2014.

To balance his conflicting priorities, Abe is increasing outlays targeting families and other households that are struggling as wages lag behind price increases. But he also intends to cut corporate income taxes by 2.5 percentage points in the fiscal year that begins April 1, to 32.11 percent. Further cuts are planned.

The government is also tweaking tax rules to encourage elderly Japanese, who hold about 60 percent of the country's 1.6 quadrillion yen ($13.6 trillion) in private savings, to spend more on their children and grandchildren.

POLL 'UNLIKELY' IN BOKO HARAM-HELD AREAS: NIGERIA'S ELECTION BODY


Nigeria's electoral agency said on Tuesday that next month's elections will go ahead in three northeastern states worst hit by Boko Haram violence but there was little prospect of voting in militant-held areas.

"INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) has always said that it is preparing to conduct elections in all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, including the three northeast states experiencing the challenge of insurgency," said the body's chairman, Attahiru Jega.

But he added: "There are areas that are occupied by insurgents and obviously it stands to reason that elections are unlikely to take place in these areas."

Boko Haram has seized dozens of towns and villages in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa states in the last six months as part of its quest to establish a hardline Islamic state in the region.

It now reportedly controls the border areas of Borno state with Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

The territorial gains have led to fears of a total loss of government control in the remote region, with hundreds of thousands of people made homeless within Nigeria by a relentless wave of attacks.

The country's main opposition has said that those people risked being disenfranchised, which could call into question the overall election result.

But Jega said efforts were under way to enable internally displaced persons to cast their ballots, he stated.

"We are doing everything possible to ensure that elections are conducted in these three states," Jega said.

INEC on Tuesday published a list of the 68,833,476 registered voters for the February general elections.

The two main contenders in the February 14 presidential election are incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler.

There are a total of 14 presidential candidates, including one woman. Parliamentary elections are being held on the same date. Two weeks later, voters choose new governors and assemblies in 29 out of Nigeria's 36 states.

FLOODING IN MALAWI KILLS 48, LEAVES THOUSANDS DISPLACED



Heavy flooding in Malawi has killed 48 people, and left another 23,000 displaced, the country's president said on Tuesday. President Peter Mutharika declared 10 out of 28 districts in the country disaster zones.

Some of the victims died when villages were flooded in the southern Mangoche district, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the commercial capital, Blantyre, according to Grey Mkwanda, a district planning officer. 

Livestock, crops and homes were swept away by floodwaters, with some homes completely submerged.

"People have fled into schools and churches on the higher ground, others are in the open because there is not enough space,'' Mkwanda said.

Others died in Blantyre when their homes collapsed, according to Mkwanda.

"In some cases you cannot believe there was a house here," said Allan Ngumya, a member of parliament who represents the area.

Police are also looking for two children who went missing in Blantyre, police spokesman Elizabeth Divala said. Mutharika has appealed to the international community for assistance for the impoverished country.

"Government alone cannot afford to help so I appeal to the international community for urgent assistance," he said.

Officials were unable to visit the affected areas because of continuing poor weather.

Flooding began last month and heavy rain is expected to continue, especially in the north and central parts of the country, according to Elina Kululanga, the director of meteorological services and climate change.

AIRASIA JET'S 2nd BLACK BOX RETRIEVED, TO BE ANALYZED FOR LEADS


Divers on Tuesday retrieved the cockpit voice recorder and may have located the fuselage of the crashed AirAsia jet in the Java Sea as experts will now use data from the two crucial black box devices to determine the sequence of events that brought the flight down.

The cockpit voice recorder, that possesses the last two hours of conversation between the pilots and with air traffic controllers, was found close to where the flight data recorder was recovered from the bottom of the choppy waters on Monday.

It was freed from beneath the heavy ruins of a wing early in the morning from a depth of about 30 metres, said Tonny Budiono, sea navigation director at Indonesia's transportation ministry.

This comes as a major potential breakthrough to solve the mystery of the Airbus A320-200's fatal crash on December 28 that killed all 162 people on board, after days of multi-national efforts to scour the seabed were hampered by bad weather.

Divers took advantage of calmer mornings yesterday and today to retrieve the black box — designed to survive extreme heat and pressure — usually inside the tail section but found missing from the wreckage when it was pulled out.

Earlier, an official said the cockpit voice recorder — part of two recorders that make up the black box — was on an Indonesian navy ship and and will be flown to Jakarta to be downloaded and analyzed with the flight data recorder.

"This is good news for investigators to reveal the cause of the plane crash," said Tonny Budiono, sea navigation director at the transportation ministry.

"Today we have completed searching for the main things that we have been looking for," Rear Admiral Widodo, the commander of the navy's western fleet, told reporters.

"But the team will still try to find the body of the plane in case there are still bodies inside," he said.

Only 48 bodies, including at least two strapped to their seats, have been found in the choppy waters so far despite over two weeks of search operations.

The black box recorders, which are actually orange, are expected to shed new light on the mysterious crash that claimed all 162 lives on board the ill-fated AirAsia Flight QZ8501, en route from Indonesia's Surabaya city to Singapore.

Investigators may need up to a month to get a complete reading of the data to determine what caused the AirAsia group's first fatal accident half way into a two-hour flight.

Since the device records in a two-hour loop, all discussions between the captain and co-pilot should be available.

In another crucial development on Tuesday, divers may have found one of the plane's engines that has a control unit to record data about performance, said Nurcahyo Utomo from the transport committee.

"If something is wrong with the engine, or weird, it will be recorded," he said.

The suspected location of the Airbus A320-200 engine could not be immediately confirmed, Channel NewsAsia reported, citing an investigator.

Search teams have also possibly identified the locations of the plane's main fuselage and stabilizer, with divers reported to have marked out the spot the fuselage is believed to lie, 30 metres deep, the report said.

Search and rescue agency coordinator S B Supriyadi said the fuselage is believed to have been found northeast of where the tail section was previously spotted by a ship scanning for wreckage, CNN reported.

The discovery of the fuselage would be a significant development, as officials believe it contains the remaining bodies of victims.

Officials on Monday gave new dramatic details of the accident, with Supriyadi saying an initial analysis of the wreckage recovered so far indicated the plane exploded on impact with the water due to a rapid change in pressure.

Meanwhile, chief of Indonesia's search and rescue agency BASARNAS Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo on Tuesday said the legal timeframe for retrieving bodies is seven days.

Though focus of the operation shifted on the 11th day when the black box was found, the search for bodies continued, he told a parliamentary hearing in Jakarta.

"Our main task is to find the victims. "Even if both (black boxes) are found, it doesn't mean that our operation is over," he told reporters before heading to Surabaya to meet the victims' families.

He said BASARNAS was focused on finding the bodies while the armed forces were focused on finding the fuselage, that officials initially believed to contain the remaining bodies. However, all 48 bodies recovered so far were found spread out in the sea.

Soelistyo promised families that he will try his best to find all the passengers that were on board the AirAsia flight.

Meanwhile, the airline's flamboyant boss Tony Fernandes issued a message to customers, saying "the past few weeks have been the most difficult weeks of my life since starting AirAsia 13 years ago".

"We will continue to provide updates as the investigation goes on," the AirAsia head said as he vowed to overcome the crisis: "Even in our toughest times, we will continue to be the world's best and be better for you."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT SAYS OPEN TO SUMMIT WITH NORTH'S KIM, NO PRE-CONDITION


South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Monday she was willing to hold a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without any pre-condition but maintained the country still needed an anti-North security law.

An end to North Korea's nuclear program should be an important part of discussions for peace on the Korean peninsula but it was not a pre-condition to having a summit meeting, Park told a televised news conference.

"My position is that to ease the pain of division and to accomplish peaceful unification, I am willing to meet with anyone," Park said. "If it is helpful, I am up for a summit meeting with the North. There is no pre-condition."

There is no sign of any concrete plan for a meeting between the two leaders. North and South Korean presidents have met only two times since the peninsula was divided at the end of World War Two.

The two sides are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended only in a truce and not a peace treaty. More than 1.8 million troops are deployed on both sides of their border, one of the most heavily fortified in the world.

Park also told the news conference that an anti-North law, the National Security Law, continued to remain necessary in the South.

"We need the very minimum of law to ensure security in this country as we remain in a standoff with the North, and the law is enforced according to that," she said.

Shin Eun-mi, a South Korea-born American who came to the South last year as a tourist, was deported to the United States under the law on Saturday for making positive comments about the North.

The first summit in 2000 between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il led to a period of rapidly expanding ties including the opening of a factory park in the North run by South Korean businesses and a tourism project.

South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun met Kim seven years later and the two pledged greater cooperation but most of the ambitious projects discussed at the time remain on the drawing board and instead a period of tension followed under Roh's successor, Lee Myung-bak.

A South Korean navy ship was torpedoed in 2010 killing 46 sailors, which Seoul blamed on the North although Pyongyang denied the accusation. The North shelled a South Korean island in the same year, killing four people.

The attacks led to sweeping sanctions by the South that suspended most ties.

Park's comments come after the North's leader Kim said in a New Year's address: "If the atmosphere and environment is there, there is no reason not to hold a high-level summit."

However, Pyongyang repeatedly sends out contradictory signals.

On Friday, North Korea rejected a call by South Korea's parliament for a resumption of negotiations on various issues including North Korea's human rights, and families still separated by the Korean War.

It has not responded to the South's call for separate meetings by government officials, despite pledging during a surprise visit by senior aides of Kim Jong Un in October to the South Korean city of Incheon to reopen talks.

Park repeated the offer on Monday. "North Korea should respond to dialogue without hesitation," she said.

AIRASIA QZ8501: DIVERS RETRIEVE 1 OF 2 BLACK BOXES FROM CRASHED JET


A team of Indonesian navy divers on Monday retrieved one of the two black boxes from an AirAsia airliner that crashed two weeks ago, killing all 162 people on board, a government official said.

Flight QZ8501 lost contact with air traffic control in bad weather on December 28, less than halfway into a two-hour flight from Indonesia's second-biggest city of Surabaya to Singapore.

"At 7:11, we succeeded in lifting the part of the black box known as the flight data recorder," Fransiskus Bambang Soelistyo, the head of the National Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters at a news conference.

"We are still trying to find the cockpit voice recorder."

Officials hope the black box, which was found under the wrecked wing of the plane, will reveal the cause of the crash. The national weather bureau has said seasonal storms were likely a factor.

Investigators have said the recorder would most likely be taken to the capital, Jakarta, for analysis and that it could take up to two weeks to download the data.

However, the information could be accessed in as little as two days if the devices are not badly damaged.

Soelistyo did not provide any details of the condition of the flight data recorder.

Over the weekend, three vessels detected "pings" that were believed to be from the black boxes' emergency locator transmitter. But strong winds, powerful currents and high waves hampered search efforts.

Indonesian navy divers took advantage of calmer weather in the Java Sea on Monday to retrieve the flight recorder and search for the fuselage of the Airbus A320-200.

Forty-eight bodies have been retrieved from the Java Sea and searchers believe more will be found in the plane's fuselage.

Relatives of the victims have urged authorities to make finding the remains of their loved ones the priority.

"All the ships, including the ships from our friends, will be deployed with the main task of searching for bodies that are still or suspected to still be trapped underwater," Soelistyo said, referring the multinational force helping with the search and recovery effort.

Indonesia AirAsia, 49 percent owned by the Malaysia-based AirAsia budget group, has come under pressure from authorities in Jakarta since the crash.

The transport ministry has suspended the carrier's Surabaya-Singapore licence for flying on a Sunday, for which it did not have permission. However, the ministry has said this had no bearing on the crash of Flight QZ8501.

President Joko Widodo said the crash exposed widespread problems in the management of air travel in Indonesia.

Separately on Sunday, a DHC-6 Twin Otter operated by Indonesia's Trigana Air crashed on landing at Enarotali Airport in Paniai, Papua.

Strong winds caused the aircraft to roll over, domestic news website Detik.com reported, with no injuries to the three crew members on board. The plane was not carrying any passengers.

2 SUSPECTED CHILD SUICIDE BOMBERS HIT NORTH NIGERIA TOWN



2 suspected child suicide bombers blew themselves up in a market in northeast Nigeria on Sunday, witnesses said, killing three people in the second apparent attack in two days using young girls strapped with explosives.

The blasts struck around mid-afternoon at an open market selling mobile handsets in the town of Potiskum in Yobe state, which has frequently been attacked by the Sunni Muslim jihadist group Boko Haram.

A trader at the market, Sani Abdu Potiskum, said the bombers were about 10 years old. "I saw their dead bodies. They are two young girls of about 10 years of age ... you only see the plaited hair and part of the upper torso," the trader said.

A source at the Potiskum general hospital said three people had been killed, excluding the bombers, while 46 were injured.

The town was hit by a suicide bomber in November when at least 48 people, mainly students, were killed during a school assembly. On Saturday, a bomb exploded at a police station in Potiskum.

Sunday's explosions came a day after a bomb strapped to a girl aged around 10 years old exploded in a busy market place in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 20, security sources said.

Boko Haram has been waging a five year insurgency to establish an Islamic state in the northeast of the country and the army's inability to quash the movement is a headache for President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election in February.

Last year more than 10,000 people died in the violence, according to an estimate by the Council on Foreign Relations

The military lost ground in worst-hit Borno state last weekend after insurgents took over the town of Baga and nearby army base, killing over 100 people and forcing thousands to flee. The defence headquarters said on Saturday that the army was regrouping to retake the area.

In the city of Jos in Plateau state, Jonathan's campaign team was hit by two days of violence.

The driver of a campaign vehicle was killed on Sunday by youths who also set fire to a police station, police spokesman Abu Sunday Emmanuel said. On Saturday, two other campaign vehicles were burnt.

"The youths were chanting no PDP, no to Jonathan Badluck," a witness said, referring to the ruling People's Democratic Party.

PDP spokesman Olisa Metuh said in an emailed statement that the government "decried last Saturday's unprovoked attack on President Goodluck Jonathan's campaign vehicles in Jos.