Monthly Archives: January 2008

China sends in army to battle deep freeze snow chaos


Map of China showing provinces worst hit by heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures

AFP | Jan 29, 2008

BEIJING (AFP) — China dispatched the army Wednesday to help millions of people stranded by snowstorms that have caused transport gridlock, crippled power supplies and hindered relief efforts, state media reported.

At least 460,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army and paramilitary forces fanned out across parts of China where dozens of people have died amid the worst storms in 50 years.

“The People’s Liberation Army has ordered its troops to go all out to help those battling the heavy snow in the southern part of the country,” the China Daily said.

“The troops were ordered to give whatever assistance local governments required.”

The health ministry also deployed about 14,000 medical personnel to treat the sick and injured in hard-hit areas, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

China is intensifying its efforts to deal with the punishing weather, which has caused chaos on the roads and rails just as millions of people swamp the country’s transport system for the annual Lunar New Year travel exodus.

Xinhua said China was waging “all-out war” against the disaster as weather forecasters predicted still more blizzards and icy conditions into next week.

Army helicopters will try to reach those suffering from cold and lack of drinking water in areas cut off by the snows, state media reported.

One million police officers also have been deployed to maintain order on congested and icy highways where traffic has ground to a halt, reports said.

At least 50 deaths have been blamed on two weeks of icy weather and 78 million people across large parts of central, southern and eastern China have been affected, the government has said.

In a reflection of mounting government concern, Premier Wen Jiabao has gone on a public relations offensive rare for Chinese leaders, wading into crowds of marooned travellers in the southern provinces of Hunan and Guangdong.

“The weather has brought a lot of inconvenience to everyone and has led to time delays,” Wen was quoted as telling the crowd at the main train station in southern Guangzhou.

“This has been very hard on everyone. Currently every level of government is working on getting electricity restored, after that transport will resume,” he said through a bullhorn, according to a city government website.

However, signs emerged that the worst of the gridlock may be over.

More than a dozen major airports forced to close earlier in the week had all reopened by Wednesday, the Civil Affairs Ministry said.

Southern sections of a major north-south expressway also were set to reopen after ice-removal work finished Wednesday, said state television, which also showed long-distance buses streaming out of previously closed stations.

But travel remained an exercise in anguish for millions, and police reinforcements were sent to many train stations as tense crowds waited for rail services to resume.

“I’m not sure if I’ll get back (home),” said Xiao Zhou, a factory worker waiting at the train station in Guangzhou, hoping to head to his home province of Jiangsu far to the north.

“I’ve worked in Guangzhou for 10 years and I go home every year. I haven’t seen such a mess before.”

The China Daily newspaper warned in an editorial that many areas might not even receive basic necessities.

“With much of the transport web disrupted, it will be difficult to have relief materials delivered where they are most needed,” it said. “We will have to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”

The big freeze has sharply raised demand for coal while also crimping distribution.

The government has ordered a sharp increase in rail shipments of coal and power conservation measures to keep the lights and heat on.

But rolling blackouts continued in many areas as local electricity producers rationed supplies amid the coal shortage and numerous downed power lines, media reports said.


Kidneys ‘removed from poor Indians at gunpoint’

Independent | Jan 29, 2008

By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi

Police at India’s airports are on the alert for a doctor accused of masterminding an illegal organ transplant ring that harvested more than 500 kidneys from itinerant labourers for wealthy patients. Some donors say they were tricked into taking part and forced at gunpoint to have the operation.

Working from a house in a city near Delhi, the doctor is said to have taken kidneys from hundreds of labourers in the past nine years and transplanted them to high-paying recipients, many from overseas. Neighbours said they wondered what was happening when they saw blood running out of the gutters. Reports say transplant recipients paid up to £300,000 while the people who sold their organs received £625 if they were paid at all.

The perpetrators are said to have used a car fitted with medical equipment which travelled around the region and performed blood tests on prospective donors. If a match was found, the donor was offered a deal on the spot.

Last week police raided the three-storey house in the city of Gurgaon, one of India’s new IT and business centres, from which they say the ring operated. A doctor, his driver and three others described as “middlemen” were arrested while police also discovered five donors – three of whom had already undergone an operation and were recovering. They also discovered five patients, three non-resident Indians from the US and two Greek citizens, awaiting transplants.

But police have not found the man they believe was at the centre of the operation, a doctor called Amit Kumar who used an alias, Santosh Rameshwar Raut. Reports say Mr Kumar – using his alias – had been charged by police in Mumbai over a similar organ transplant racket in the early 1990s.

Local media reported that labourers who accepted offers of £2-a-day construction jobs in Gurgaon were taken to house where armed guards injected them with sedatives. When they woke up they were told that they had undergone an operation. Mohammad Shakeel, 28, told the Hindustan Times. “I woke up with a terrible pain behind my stomach. ‘Listen we have just taken one of your kidneys. You will live normally. Tell this to anyone and we will kill you,’ said a masked man.”

Police believe Mr Kumar may have travelled to Nepal and say they have uncovered six other properties in Gurgaon from which the scheme operated.

Detectives say that up to 20 nurses may also have been involved and that several hospitals in Delhi may have played a role, albeit unwittingly, by conducting pathology tests.

Last year, police in south India said they had uncovered evidence of illegal trade in kidneys sold by fishermen whose livelihoods were destroyed by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

24 die in worst Chinese blizzards for 50 years


Stranded passengers queue in snow at Wuhan in China’s Hubei province

The Guardian | Jan 29, 2008

Tania Branigan in Beijing

Blizzards stranded hundreds of thousands of travellers in China yesterday as forecasters warned that further severe snowstorms were on their way. At least 24 people have died in the harsh weather – said to be the worst for half a century in parts of the country – which has also destroyed homes and crops, shut major roads and rail lines, grounded flights and caused power blackouts.

According to state news agency Xinhua, Premier Wen Jiabao warned yesterday that lives were still at risk, adding: “The most difficult phase has not passed.”

Yesterday the China Meteorological Administration issued a red alert, the highest of its five ratings, warning central and eastern China to expect severe snow and icestorms.

Yang Guiming, chief forecaster, said extreme weather could continue to affect the central, southern and north-west regions for up to a week.

It has already wreaked havoc on a transport system facing its busiest time of the year with millions of workers preparing to return home for the new year’s spring festival. For many it is their only chance to see their families.

The civil affairs ministry reported that 67 million people have been affected by the weather. It estimated the total cost to the country at 18.2bn yuan (£1.3bn).

Officials said thousands of passengers have been stuck on electric trains, and warned of blackouts in 17 provinces, cities and autonomous regions, with serious damage to power grids in central China’s Hubei and Hunan provinces and south China’s Guizhou and Guangdong provinces.

In Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, hundreds of police and soldiers struggled to control around 200,000 travellers – mostly migrant factory workers – stranded by the weather last night.

Radio announcements warned passengers that most trains had been cancelled and tickets were not being sold until February 7, the start of Chinese new year.

Serbian hotel defends its popular Adolf Hitler suite

The Hitler-themed suite at the Mr. President hotel in Belgrade (AP)

Haaretz | Jan 29, 2008

The Anti-Defamation League said Tuesday it will press its effort to persuade a Belgrade, Serbia hotel owner to stop offering guests an Adolf Hitler-themed suite, after an exchange of letters in which the hotelier defended the suite as an appropriate reminder of an evil leader and noted that his father fought against the Nazis in World War II.

The Mr. President hotel features rooms highlighting current or past world leaders.

“Using this tyrannical dictator to promote a hotel is a gross marketing ploy and demonstrates a profound failure to understand the horror of the Holocaust,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor.

“Reports of high demand for the hotel suite are also deeply disturbing.”

Last week, the ADL wrote to hotel owner Dusan Zabunovic, demanding that he remove the portrait of Hitler and change the theme of the suite before International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

After Zabunovic responded with a defense of the concept of the suite, the ADL this week sent a second letter, again urged the removal of Hitler’s portrait from the hotel, saying that regardless of his intentions, the imagery was inappropriate and deeply offensive.

“Hitler orchestrated the mass murder of six million Jews, including tens of thousands of Serbian Jews, and others,” Foxman said.

“Promoting the opportunity to sleep under his portrait denigrates the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, who in Belgrade included Jews, Serbs and Roma.”

. . .


Germany still wrestles with Adolf Hitler’s legacy

Mukasey won’t comment on waterboarding

Associated Press | Jan 28, 2008


WASHINGTON – Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday he will refuse to publicly say whether the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding is illegal, digging in against critics who want the Bush administration to define it as torture.

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, Mukasey said he has finished a review of Justice Department memos about the CIA’s current methods of interrogating terror suspects and finds them to be lawful. He said waterboarding currently is not used by the spy agency.

Since waterboarding is not part of what Mukasey described as a “limited set of methods” used by interrogators now, the attorney general said he would not rule on whether it is illegal.

“I understand that you and some other members of the (Judiciary) Committee may feel that I should go further in my review, and answer questions concerning the legality of waterboarding under current law,” Mukasey wrote in his three-page letter to Leahy, D-Vt. “I understand the strong interest in this question, but I do not think it would be responsible for me, as attorney general, to provide an answer.”

The attorney general added: “If this were an easy question, I would not be reluctant to offer my views on this subject. But, with respect, I believe it is not an easy question. There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question.”

The letter does not elaborate on what the other circumstances are.

Mukasey’s letter was sent on the eve of his appearance at a Justice Department oversight hearing chaired by Leahy. It is Mukasey’s first appearance before the committee since he took office Nov. 9.

In a terse statement released minutes after Mukasey’s letter surfaced, Leahy called the attorney general’s position a “last minute response” that merely parrots the Bush administration’s longtime dodge on whether waterboarding is legal.

“It does not, however, answer the critical questions we have been asking about its legality,” Leahy said in the statement. “Attorney General Mukasey knows that this will not end the matter and expects to be asked serious questions at the hearing tomorrow.”

Waterboarding is an interrogation tactic that involves strapping down a person and pouring water over his cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. The practice was banned by the CIA and the Pentagon in 2006.

Mukasey wrote that he would not publicly conclude that waterboarding is illegal because doing so could reveal too many “limits and contours” about the highly classified interrogation program to terrorists or other adversaries. He also noted that some senators resisted specifically banning waterboarding in 2006, when Congress passed the Military Commissions Act.

Congress has prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of terror suspects. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a key sponsor of the 2006 bill, has said he was personally assured by administration officials that waterboarding was prohibited under the new law.

The issue of waterboarding briefly snarled Mukasey’s confirmation hearings by the same Senate committee last October. At the time, Mukasey refused to define waterboarding as torture because he was unfamiliar with the classified Justice Department memos describing the process and legal arguments surrounding it.

He promised then, however, to review the memos if confirmed and return an answer to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Tuesday’s letter represents that response.

Waterboarding also is at the heart of a Justice Department criminal investigation over whether the CIA illegally or otherwise improperly destroyed videotapes in 2005 of two terror suspects being interrogated. The tapes showed harsh interrogations, including possible waterboarding, of suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2002, when both suspects were held in secret CIA prisons overseas. They were destroyed as intelligence officials debated whether waterboarding should be declared illegal.

Critics want the Justice Department to join other nations and outlaw waterboarding as illegal. But U.S. intelligence officials fear that doing so could make government interrogators — including those from the CIA — vulnerable to retroactive criminal charges or civil lawsuits.

Ten senators demanded last week that Mukasey immediately clarify his stand on waterboarding. His non-answer Tuesday infuriated Democrats, who said he appeared unable to address what they called a simple legal question.

Mukasey “seems constitutionally incapable of rendering judgment on a simple and straightforward legal question,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in a statement.

But the attorney general said the matter was far too complicated to easily resolve.

“Reasonable people can disagree, and have disagreed, about these matters,” Mukasey wrote Tuesday. “It is precisely because the issue is so important, and the questions so difficult, that I, as the attorney general, should not provide answers absent a set of circumstances that call for those answers. Those circumstances do not present themselves today, and may never prevent themselves in the future.”

DARPA seeks $750m for hypersonic roboplane testbed


If the legendary “Aurora” really exists, Blackswift is shaping up to be the most expensive and elaborate disinformation ploy ever.

The Register | Jan 29, 2008

By Lewis Page

DARPA, the Pentagon research hothouse where only the most exotic notions bloom on a rich mulch of taxpayer greenbacks, is bidding for a cool three-quarter-billion in funds to build a hypersonic plane.

Reports of the “Blackswift” project – a refinement of the HTV-3X demonstrator plan mooted under DARPA’s Falcon scheme – emerged last year. Now, according to reports, 2009 funding requests going before American legislators contain an item of $0.75bn for DARPA to take the project forward. If all goes well, the US air force will take it over in time.

The plans call for a fighter-sized, probably unmanned testbed aircraft which is thought likely to burn fairly ordinary hydrocarbon fuel in turbo/ram jets based on the same kind of technology as the late, great Mach-3.5 SR71 “Blackbird” spyplane of Cold War fame. Reliable sources suggest that speeds of Mach 6 plus could be on the cards this time. That would normally be into hydrogen scramjet territory, but some researchers think that heavier fuel can be burnt practically in a supersonic airflow. Others reckon that intake air could be slowed using magnetohydrodynamics, and the energy put back in downstream of the combustion chamber.

The funding figures were reported by Inside Defense (subscription only). Wired magazine, which originally confirmed the Blackswift plans, has details too.

Bad news, this, for those who contend that America has been operating a top-secret hypersonic SR71 replacement all along. If the legendary “Aurora” really exists, Blackswift is shaping up to be the most expensive and elaborate disinformation ploy ever.

Poor Haitians resort to eating dirt

The hand of a woman is covered in mud as she makes mud cookies on the roof of Fort Dimanche, once a prison, in Port-au-Prince, Friday, Nov. 30, 2007. Rising prices and food shortages threaten the nation’s fragile stability, and the mud cookies, made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening, are one of very few options the poorest people have to stave off hunger. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Associated Press | Jan 29, 2008


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It was lunchtime in one of Haiti’s worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti’s poorest can’t afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies. Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country’s central plateau.

The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.

“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.

Though she likes their buttery, salty taste, Charlene said the cookies also give her stomach pains. “When I nurse, the baby sometimes seems colicky too,” she said.

Food prices around the world have spiked because of higher oil prices, needed for fertilizer, irrigation and transportation. Prices for basic ingredients such as corn and wheat are also up sharply, and the increasing global demand for biofuels is pressuring food markets as well.

The problem is particularly dire in the Caribbean, where island nations depend on imports and food prices are up 40 percent in places.

The global price hikes, together with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season, prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency to declare states of emergency in Haiti and several other Caribbean countries. Caribbean leaders held an emergency summit in December to discuss cutting food taxes and creating large regional farms to reduce dependence on imports.

At the market in the La Saline slum, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 10 cents from December and 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk and fruit have gone up at a similar rate, and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50. Dirt to make 100 cookies now costs $5, the cookie makers say.

Still, at about 5 cents apiece, the cookies are a bargain compared to food staples. About 80 percent of people in Haiti live on less than $2 a day and a tiny elite controls the economy.

Merchants truck the dirt from the central town of Hinche to the La Saline market, a maze of tables of vegetables and meat swarming with flies. Women buy the dirt, then process it into mud cookies in places such as Fort Dimanche, a nearby shanty town.

Carrying buckets of dirt and water up ladders to the roof of the former prison for which the slum is named, they strain out rocks and clumps on a sheet, and stir in shortening and salt. Then they pat the mixture into mud cookies and leave them to dry under the scorching sun.

The finished cookies are carried in buckets to markets or sold on the streets.

A reporter sampling a cookie found that it had a smooth consistency and sucked all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as it touched the tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered.

Assessments of the health effects are mixed. Dirt can contain deadly parasites or toxins, but can also strengthen the immunity of fetuses in the womb to certain diseases, said Gerald N. Callahan, an immunology professor at Colorado State University who has studied geophagy, the scientific name for dirt-eating.

Haitian doctors say depending on the cookies for sustenance risks malnutrition.

“Trust me, if I see someone eating those cookies, I will discourage it,” said Dr. Gabriel Thimothee, executive director of Haiti’s health ministry.

Marie Noel, 40, sells the cookies in a market to provide for her seven children. Her family also eats them.

“I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”