Sunday, October 19, 2008

Philippines peace deal nixed

Philippine court ruling deals blow to peace agreement with Muslim militants

A deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to expand a Muslim autonomous area would have created an illegal partition, the Supreme Court ruled.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
October 16, 2008

The rejection of the Supreme Court of the Philippines of a government pact with Muslim militants has delivered another setback to efforts to end a four-decades long insurgency in the south.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said Wednesday it would now appeal to the international community before considering more talks with Manila. Commentators in the Philippines urged a continuation of the peace process, but some also characterized Tuesday's ruling as a victory for the rule of law.

The peace process was already in tatters after violence since August has left 100 dead and more than half a million people displaced.

On Aug. 4, the government inked a deal with the MILF that would expand the Muslim autonomous area in the south in return for peace. But Roman Catholic communities protested the inclusion of villages with significant Catholic populations in the planned area, and the Supreme Court quickly issued an injunction against the agreement.

That prompted MILF hard-liners to go on a killing spree targeting Catholic communities. The government froze talks with the MILF and backed out of the Aug. 4 deal, which the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unconstitutional.

The Associated Press (AP) quoted the top negotiator of MILF as saying that the court ruling had cast doubt on the government's reliability as a negotiating partner. He warned that MILF extremists might give up on the peace process altogether and step up violent attacks.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said the only option left for the rebels was to take the accord to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to seek their guarantees that if talks resume their outcome will be respected.

"We will bring it to a forum where the voices of the Moros will be heard," he said.

He criticized President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government for backing out of the deal after 11 years of negotiations, and said militants within the rebel ranks who are opposed to the peace process may stage fresh attacks.

"After long years, we came to a point that seemed to bolster what the anti-negotiation groups are saying: that the government could not be trusted," Iqbal said.

The Inquirer, a Filipino daily, quoted a military spokesman, Maj. Armand Rico, as saying government troops were now bracing for more attacks by "rogue" MILF members. He said the military was hunting down extremists responsible for atrocities against civilians.

"Our operations are not against the entire MILF organization but only against its rogue followers. We want to restore peace and order in the region," he said of the punitive actions against Ameril Ombra Kato.

Kato and another MILF leader, Abdullah Macapaar alias Commander Bravo, are accused of leading earlier attacks on civilians in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, respectively.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that one government soldier was killed Thursday in clashes with rebels.

That follows the wounding of eight soldiers Sunday, and the deaths of two soldiers, one policeman and two Muslim militants in fighting Saturday, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.

In its close, 8-to-7 decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Aug. 4 deal was unconstitutional both in content and process, the Inquirer reported. It would have created an illegal partition of the Muslim autonomous area, the court ruled, and was drafted without due consultation with affected communities. The report quoted from the ruling:

"The [deal] cannot be reconciled with the present Constitution and laws. Not only its specific provisions but the very concept underlying them....

The furtive process by which the [deal] was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise."

The Court said the government erred in promising constitutional amendments in order to put the deal into effect, the Manila Bulletin reported.

The Supreme Court also pointed out that the agreement usurped Congress's power to amend the Constitution by issuing guarantees that constitutional amendments would be made to put the illegal provisions of the agreement into effect.

The Supreme Court said not even the president can make such guarantees to amend the Constitution.

GMANews.TV, the website of GMA News and Public Affairs, reported that bishops in Mindanao – the violence-racked island where MILF is based – hailed the court's decision but also called for the peace process to continue.

In a commentary in the Business Mirror, Ernesto Hilario argued that the MILF had no choice but to come back to the negotiating table. The Aug. 4 deal was flawed from the start, Mr. Hilario wrote.

The MILF must face up to the reality that the [agreement], while the product of long and arduous negotiations with the other side, is not a "done deal" as it insists, but rather a deal doomed from the start because it would have established a state within a state.

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PC makers think small

In times of cutbacks, computer makers put hopes in small devices
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

TAIPEI: An upstart Taiwanese company blazed the trail. Now, the world's top three computer makers are hot on its heels. The prize: dominance of the emerging market for low-end, mini-laptop computers.

The big three — the American companies Hewlett-Packard and Dell, and Acer of Taiwan — are betting that such products will have broad appeal. They are offering these laptops, also known as netbooks, in the developing world as an affordable alternative to desktops and high-price laptops, and advertising them in the United States and other advanced markets as a second or third computer used mostly with the Internet.

And in belt-tightening times like now, they are hoping consumers in mature markets will also snatch them up as a more affordable option.

"It's a potentially exciting area, particularly when people worry about the U.S. economic outlook, in which people might want to cut spending," said Steven Tseng, an analyst at ABN AMRO in Taipei. "So it fits into the macro trends quite well."

There is no clear-cut definition for the segment, and analysts say the lines get blurry. But most of the new crop of minicomputers have screens that are less than 10 inches, or 25 centimeters, across diagonally and priced from about $300 to $600, but still have full operating systems like Windows XP or Linux that can support third-party applications.

The new market reflects a broad shift toward mobile devices and away from desktop computers, and changing tastes in mature markets like the United States and Europe, analysts say.

"Three or four years ago, this kind of product couldn't have had such a big success, because people were still purchasing their first laptop," said Eszter Morvay, a researcher at the technology consulting company IDC in London. "Now, their needs are becoming more sophisticated — the consumer has evolved. They might just need an Internet device, or a second or third laptop for work, or for mom or the kids. So this is giving a boost to the market."

Until recently, the big computer makers paid scant attention to this niche. They had built mini-laptops — like Toshiba's Libretto — but they were either too expensive (the Libretto costs about $2,000) or poorly designed to catch on in the mass market.

Then, about a year ago, Asustek, a Taiwanese computer maker little known outside the country, introduced the Eee PC. Priced under $300, the first version featured a seven-inch screen and used the Linux operating system. The idea was simple: Consumers are increasingly using laptops for surfing the web, checking e-mail messages and viewing photographs, and do not need all the bells and whistles of a full-blown computer. The Eee PC was also an attempt to offer a commercial version of the XO laptop, the product of the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project, which aims to distribute computers in the developing world.

The Eee PC was a surprise success. Last year, it hit the top of the "most wished for" laptop list on That got the industry's attention. Now, the three leading computer makers have released mini-laptops.

In April, Hewlett-Packard, the world's No. 1 computer maker, introduced its Mini-Note with an 8.9-inch screen, with models starting at $499. Last month, Dell, the second-largest maker, began offering a mini-laptop, the Inspiron Mini 9 with a 9-inch screen, for $349.

Acer introduced its Aspire One mini-laptop, with an 8.9-inch screen, at the Computex trade show in Taipei in June, with models starting at $399. The company has high hopes for netbooks because of their appeal as portable Internet devices.

"Going on the Internet is now indispensable in people's daily lives, and this is a very convenient, useful Internet device," said Henry Wang, an Acer spokesman. "That's the main reason why we're so optimistic for the future."

Acer expects to sell more than five million Aspire One mini-laptops by the end of the year.

Asustek, which uses the brand name Asus, says it will ship five million units this year; it released in Taiwan a pricier version of the Eee PC that can run Windows XP as well as Linux. The company expects total worldwide shipments of netbooks to hit 10 million next year and a billion by 2018.

Intel has forecast that more than 50 million netbooks will be sold by 2011. The chip maker has a reason for following the trend: many mini-laptops use its Atom microprocessor, and Intel is also pushing its own low-cost Classmate PC in education markets around the world.

But not all are convinced. Tseng, of ABN AMRO, said that the market for mini-laptops was uncharted territory and that computer makers still were not sure how much functionality consumers would sacrifice for price.

If mini-laptops take off, the big beneficiaries will be contract makers in Taiwan who already have or will get orders from the top three computer brands, as well as from Asustek. These contract makers include Pegatron, which Asustek spun off last year; Quanta Computer; Inventec; and Compal.

Helen Chiang, a market researcher at IDC in Taipei, said that component supply problems could hamper growth in the short term, and that the market was too untested for companies to be confident of a long-term bonanza. The main component issue is batteries, because suppliers earn a lower profit from mini-laptop batteries, making them a lower priority.

A fire at the South Korean facility of LG, the leading supplier of laptop batteries, in March exacerbated the supply problems, highlighting the vulnerability of the supply chain to such disruptions.

Over the long term, Chiang said, the jury was still out on whether the mini-laptops would take a bigger piece of the market from more expensive products, or expand the size of the entire market.

"This year is the first important year to watch," Chiang said.

The mini-laptop boom is in line with broader industry trends. Researchers see the industry moving sharply away from desktops to portable options, especially in the United States. This is because laptops that offer the same functionality of desktop computers are now far less expensive than a few years ago.

Global sales of portable computers are expected to surpass sales of desktops and servers for the first time in 2010. Worldwide, shipments of portable computers are likely to see double-digit growth rates through 2012, while sales of desktops and servers, already a shrinking market in the United States, will slow to 3.1 percent growth annually by 2012 from 4.8 percent last year, according to an IDC forecast in March.

In addition, companies are eager to push their miniature computers. Beginning in 2005, computer makers shifted their emphasis to laptops and other portable devices, and began intense marketing campaigns, said Morvay, of IDC. The mini-laptop craze is a logical outgrowth of that trend.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Syria belittles buildup

Syria downplays troop buildup on Lebanese border

Damascus says it's merely beefing up border security. But the US issued Syria a strong warning, and Israeli troops are on alert.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, October 09, 2008
Terrorism and Security update

Syria this week continued to mass troops on its border with northern and eastern Lebanon. But officials from both countries dismissed US and Israeli concerns about the buildup as alarmist hype.

Damascus claims it is merely beefing up border security to prevent smuggling and the infiltration of Islamic extremists from northern Lebanon. But some fear Syria wants to use the threat of Sunni Islamic terrorism as a pretext for reentering Lebanon.

Syria withdrew its troops from its neighbor in 2005 under intense international pressure.

Last month, Syria's president publicly warned that northern Lebanon had become a haven for Sunni militants who aim to destabilize his country. That warning came before back-to-back car bombings in Damascus (Sept. 27, blamed on Sunni extremists) and in northern Lebanon's Tripoli (Sept. 29) that killed at least 22.

Gulf News, a Dubai-based daily, reported Wednesday that the Lebanese foreign minister had downplayed concerns about the military ramp-up.

The deployment of thousands of Syrian troops along the Lebanese frontier isn't a threat to Beirut and the move should be seen in the context of Damascus's need to safeguard its interests, the Lebanese foreign minister said on Tuesday.

"The troop deployment doesn't constitute a source of concern for us as long as they [troops] remain within Syrian territory," Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallough told Gulf News.

Last month the Lebanese Army said Syria had massed nearly 10,000 troops on the border. Syria insists their deployment along the border numbers only in the hundreds.

Lebanon's The Daily Star cited a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP) that quoted a Syrian official defending the buildup.

"These measures are aimed to control the border, only from Syrian territory, and we have no other intentions," a Syrian official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Syria has in effect boosted its security measures with a few hundred [extra] soldiers, and the spy satellites know the truth," the official said.

"Our aim is to control the border, combat smuggling and stop saboteurs from crossing these borders," the official said, adding that the issue had been raised during Lebanese President Michel Sleiman's visit to Damascus in August.

On Monday, the US State Department expressed concern that Syria might have designs on Lebanon, and warned against any Syrian incursion. Reuters reported spokesman Robert Wood saying:

"The recent terrorist attacks that took place in Tripoli (Lebanon) and Damascus should not serve as a pretext for, you know, further Syrian military engagement or, should not be used to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs," Wood told reporters. ...

"Obviously we're concerned about this type of activity along the border and that it not lead to any further interference on the part of Syria into Lebanon's internal affairs," Wood said.

Those comments came as the US and Lebanon set up a joint military commission to improve defense ties, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The National Post, a Canadian daily, reported that Israeli officials are also nervous about Syrian intentions.

...Israel placed its armed forces in the Golan Heights on an increased alert on Tuesday and ordered the air force and emergency first aid teams on standby in case of attacks by Syria or Hezbollah.

The Israeli alerts came as the country prepared to shut down for 25 hours starting Wednesday afternoon to observe Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the most solemn and important of Jewish holidays.

The AP noted that Syria-Lebanon ties have actually warmed recently.

...Ties have improved considerably in recent months after Lebanon formed a unity government that includes Syria's ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Syria has agreed to establish formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon for the first time since the countries' creation in the 1940s and promised to officially delineate their borders, a longtime Lebanese demand.

Syria also views Lebanon's new president favorably and many doubt it would undermine him with a military incursion.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month on worsening sectarian violence in northern Lebanon. There, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists are pitted against a small Shiite group that's close to the Syrian government. Sunni jihadists that oppose the Syrian regime regularly pass between northern Lebanon and Syria, the report said.

Since May, Sunni militants in northern Lebanon have clashed with the small Alawite community, which has close links to the Syrian regime. A reconciliation agreement reached earlier this month has quelled fighting for now, but north Lebanon remains tense.

In a 2005 report, the International Crisis Group noted a reason Damascus would want to keep a hand in Lebanese affairs, despite its withdrawal:

Seen from the angle of Lebanon's fractious groups – whether in the opposition or loyal to Damascus – the end of Syria's presence means re-opening issues suppressed since the close of the civil war, from sectarian relations and the distribution of power through to Hizbollah and Palestinian refugees.

All these are combustible elements that disgruntled Lebanese and outside actors will be tempted to exploit. In a country awash with weapons, accustomed to being a theatre for proxy wars between Arabs, Palestinian[s] and Israelis, and on the verge of a major redistribution of power and resources, the means and motivations for violence abound.

Original site

Rebound reef

A coral reef endures against the odds

International Herald Tribune
October 6, 2008

KENTING NATIONAL PARK, Taiwan: At this seaside resort on Taiwan's southern tip, annual typhoons blast sludge and sediment onto fragile, shallow-water coral reefs. Hotels and villages sprinkle the reefs with sewage. A nuclear power plant boils them with discharged reactor-cooling water. Snorkelers and scuba divers trample on the reefs, sometimes breaking off chunks of coral as souvenirs.

And in 2001 a huge cargo ship sank off Kenting, destroying the coral it landed on and spewing more than 1,000 tons of fuel oil down the coastline.

As if all that were not enough, rising sea temperatures have increased the frequency of "coral bleaching," which can be fatal if it lasts much more than two to three weeks.

Yet in an age when such environmental stresses are killing off coral reefs worldwide, Kenting's reefs are doing surprisingly well. One scientist here said Taiwan might even turn out to be a "Noah's Ark" for corals.

"This is the era of global temperature change and ocean warming is a big problem for coral reefs," said Fan Tung-yung, a coral expert at Taiwan's National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium, in a telephone interview. "But Kenting is a refuge."

A research paper by John Bruno and Elizabeth Selig, published last year in the scientific journal PLoS One, comparing reefs throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans found that average coral cover (the amount of sea floor covered by live coral) was about 22 percent, whereas Fan said coverage off Kenting was 40 percent. Last year, when a coral bleaching spell wiped out many other reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, Kenting's survived - and bounced back quickly.

The reefs' relative stamina has drawn interest from marine biologists worldwide. Now, American and Taiwan scientists hope to make Kenting part of a U.S.-led global "early warning system" for coral reef monitoring.

Such a system would help Taiwan's scientists and officials better protect their reefs. It would also allow scientists to gather data to explain why some reefs - like Kenting's - are so robust, while others are languishing.

"The reefs of Kenting are very impressive in terms of their overall coral cover and coral diversity," Peter Edmunds, a coral expert at California State University at Northridge who has inspected Taiwan's reefs, wrote in an e-mail. "They offer a unique and very important opportunity to understand the reasons why some reefs seem to be surviving better than others throughout the world."

Scientists already have several hypotheses. Kenting's reefs are fortunate to be replenished by a steady supply of what scientists call "recruits" - new coral, in this case brought north from waters near the Philippines. That means that even when some coral is destroyed, new coral rushes in to take its place.

More important, though, are the tide-driven currents that regularly push up deeper, colder water to the shallow waters off Taiwan's southern tip. This type of "upwelling," says Fan, is very rare.

Edmunds and Fan believe the Kenting reefs' tenacity is related to their natural exposure to sharp variations in seawater temperature (as much as 9 degrees Celsius, or 16 Fahrenheit, over a single day) caused by these tidal patterns.

"It's possible that such thermal stresses somehow provide the corals with the ability to resist subsequent stress," said Edmunds. Toughened by the daily battering of such temperature swings, Kenting's reefs may simply shrug off hotter ocean waters that are so damaging to other reefs.

Oddly, the nuclear power plant may have also helped toughen the reefs, says Fan. The coral reefs in the area have had 30 years to adapt to higher temperatures (2 to 4 degrees Celsius higher) close to the outflow of cooling water from Taiwan's Third Nuclear Power Plant on Nanwan Bay - which also happens to be the site of a popular recreational beach.

To be sure, Kenting's reefs are faring well only in comparison with others around the world.

Dai Chang-feng, a coral expert at National Taiwan University's Institute of Oceanography, said in an interview that three decades ago, Kenting's coral reef coverage was as high as 75 percent to 80 percent, almost twice what it is now.

Models predict that by 2050, "most of the coral species in Kenting will disappear," Dai said. Specifically, his models predict that fewer than 50 of Kenting's 300 species will survive by 2050, with few or none left alive by 2100.

To help them avoid that fate, scientists and government officials first need better data on what exactly kills off corals and why some like Kenting's are hardier.

Enter the U.S.-led Integrated Coral Observing Network. Scientists in Taiwan and officials of Kenting National Park (which has jurisdiction over the reefs) have been meeting with U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists to discuss Taiwan's inclusion in the network. Kenting could be incorporated next year, said Fan and others involved in the project.

The ambitious network aims to provide a global picture of the health of coral reefs, both for research purposes and as an "early warning system" when coral reefs are threatened. Already active in the Bahamas, it uses underwater sensors that gather water temperature and other data and beam it to satellites. That data is then linked to a network that allows for real-time monitoring of reefs worldwide.

"The purpose of the sensors is to study how global warming affects corals and to know what to watch for," said Keryea Soong, a coral expert at National Sun Yat-sen University's Institute of Marine Biology in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. "We can design experiments to better understand 'bleaching.' Satellites can give you a picture of a wider area, but with the sensors, we can know the temperatures on a much smaller scale, such as in Kenting."

Bleaching, one of the key threats to coral reefs, occurs when coral loses its symbiotic algae due to stresses such as high water temperatures. That removes reefs' coloration and their main source of nutrients.

When the monitoring network's sensors show a reef under threat, scientists and Kenting National Park officials will be able to take immediate steps - for example, temporarily banning water activities such as snorkeling or boating in the area.

"The whole world is worried about the health of coral reefs," said Shih Chin-fang, former director of Kenting National Park, in an interview. "So a group of experts is working very hard all over the world to link up this monitoring system to the Internet."

Ultimately, those are stopgap measures, which do not address the long-term threat to Earth's coral reefs posed by global warming. Edmunds worries that Kenting's reefs, while appearing tough, may just be "lagging" deteriorating reefs elsewhere - and that their decline is "just around the corner."

Said Edmunds: "I've seen similar effects in the Caribbean - one reef that was doing great for 20 years, while others around it were declining, in 2005 suddenly started to die off at an alarming rate."

For now, he and other scientists are hoping that Kenting's reefs really are exceptional. And soon they hope to know why.

Original site

Hello to arms

Taiwan arms deal sours U.S.-China relations

In a foreign military sales program, the US has sold Taiwan $18.3 billion worth of weapons between 1950 and 2006.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 6, 2008
Terrorism and security update

Washington's approval of nearly $6.5 billion in arms sales to Taiwan Friday drew a relieved "thank you" from the self-governed island nation, but sharp rebukes from Beijing.

The Bush administration on Friday notified Congress of the deal, after an unusually long delay that had led some to question the strength of the US security commitment to Taiwan.

Taiwan has not yet purchased the weapons. But a Congressional notification is the point in the arms sales process that triggers a storm of official Chinese diplomatic protests, said Mark Stokes, a former top Pentagon official dealing with China and Taiwan, in a talk to the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club earlier this year.

China typically summons top US diplomats in Beijing and elsewhere for a sharp dressing-down immediately after such notifications, Mr. Stokes said.

According to Xinhua, China's state-controlled news agency, the foreign ministry this time summoned the US embassy's charge d'affaires in Beijing. The report cited a statement on China's foreign ministry website.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the Chinese government and people firmly opposed this action which seriously damaged China's interests and the Sino-US relations. ...

"It is only natural that this move would stir up strong indignation of the Chinese government and people," he said.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Taipei welcomed the news. Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, took power in May on a platform of improved commercial ties with China. But he also wants to maintain a robust defense in order to counter China's military buildup across the Taiwan Strait.

On Saturday, Taiwan's Presidential Office spokesman Wang Yu-chi thanked the U.S. and said the government wants to maintain a strong defense against any threat from China while seeking improvement in cross-strait relations.

"President Ma Ying-jeou would like to express gratitude to the U.S. for the arms package," said Wang. "A strong defense and peace in the Taiwan Strait are necessary for Taiwan's prosperity."

China views Taiwan as rebel territory and vehemently opposes any US arms sales to the island. The US is bound by domestic law to make available to Taiwan sufficient weapons for its self-defense.

Further complicating the issue, Taiwanese themselves cannot agree on the nature and extent of the threat from China. Their bickering held up Taipei's arms request for several years, amid legislative gridlock.

Some of the arms approved for sale Friday were initially offered by the Bush administration in 2001. Taiwan purchased and received several of those systems, notably four Kidd-class destroyers.

The approved weapons are only about half of what Taiwan requested, in dollar terms.

Washington gave the green light Friday to sales of Apache attack helicopters, Patriot missile batteries and other air defense systems, and fighter jet spare parts. But it reduced the number of Patriot batteries and missiles offered, and continues to sit on a request for Black Hawk helicopters and a submarine feasibility study.

The US also continues to ignore a separate request by Taiwan for 66 advanced F-16 fighter jets. Security analysts say Taiwan urgently needs those jets in order to maintain a balance of air power over the Taiwan Strait. One such analyst was quoted by Singapore's Straits Times in July:

Professor Lin Chong-pin of Tamkang University, who was formerly Taiwan's vice-defence minister, told The Straits Times that with the rapid modernisation of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), 'Taiwan's last remaining edge in air supremacy would be gone if the F-16s are not coming'.

The weapons cleared for sale Friday represent a massive layout, even if they fell short of Taiwan's wish list. Citing US government statistics, Bloomberg noted that Taiwan received $18.3 billion in weapons under the US Foreign Military Sales program in the entire period of 1950 to 2006.

The arms deal is likely to draw far more attention in China than in the US. Last year, a survey on public attitudes toward US-China relations found that Taiwan was the No. 1 concern for the Chinese public. For Americans, however, the top worry was job losses to China – showing the gap in priorities and perceptions between the two big powers.

Chinese Communist Party propaganda has reinforced popular sentiment that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that must one day be returned to the "motherland," by force if need be. That reunification is seen as a last bit of unfinished business in China's transformation from humiliated victim of colonial predations to global power.

Meanwhile, Taiwan continues to consolidate its young democracy under the shadow of China's military threat. Numerous polls, including those published by the Election Study Center at Taipei's National Chengchi University show that a solid majority of Taiwanese want to maintain the island's political autonomy.

In August, an opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the high stakes of preserving healthy US-China ties, calling the relationship "the most important bilateral one of our time."

Original site

Pirates v. Warships

Pirates, warships continue tense standoff near Somali coast

The US and Russia fear that on-board weapons could reach Al Qaeda

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, October 02, 2008

Terrorism and Security update

A battle of nerves continued off Somalia's coast today, as the US and Russia turned up the heat on a group of vastly outgunned Somali pirates aboard a hijacked cargo vessel.

Several US warships kept their vigil and blockade of the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina. A Russian missile frigate steamed toward Somalia to add its muscle to the standoff. And on Wednesday, the Somali government authorized foreign use of force against the pirates.

That was a formality, since Somalia's weak central government holds little sway over much of its territory, or its pirate-infested waters.

The Washington Post reported that Somalia's president Abdullahi Yusuf on Wednesday urged action against the pirates.

... Yusuf urged Somalis to turn against the pirate gangs.

"I also call on the international community to act quickly on what is happening in Somali waters as well as onshore," he told reporters in the capital, Mogadishu. "We must do everything we can to stop piracy off the coast of Somalia."

The pirates had imposed an "embargo" against Somalia and other countries by preventing trade and food deliveries, he said.

Hijackings by pirates are a near daily occurrence off Somalia, and the international community has to date done little to stop them.

But this ship has garnered more attention. In addition to its 20-member crew, it's carrying 33 Russian-made tanks and ammunition, reportedly bound for southern Sudan via Kenya.

Now, the US fears those tanks could instead end up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants in Somalia. The militants, particularly al Shabaab, are fighting to wrest control of the country from a weak, US-backed government in Mogadishu.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that those militants have urged the pirates to destroy the ship and its cargo if they do not get the $20 million ransom they are demanding for the release of the cargo and crew.

A spokesman for the militants told AFP they had no links to the pirates, but would gladly use the tanks in their "holy war" against the Somali government if given the chance.

"It is a crime to take commercial ships but hijacking vessels that carry arms for the enemy of Allah is a different matter," added Robow [spokesman for Shabaab], whose movement nearly stamped out piracy when it controlled southern Somalia last year....

"The Ukrainian ship is loaded with military hardware that is very important for our holy war against the enemy of Allah and it would have changed the war in Somalia if that military shipment falls in our hands," he said.

Russia's relations with Washington have turned icy in recent months over its invasion of Georgia and other issues. But Moscow is standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in this fight.

That's undoubtedly far more international attention than this group of Somali pirates bargained for. Such pirates are typically a ragtag bunch – speedboat-borne thugs armed with a few rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, hardly a match for a modern navy with advanced weaponry.

Meanwhile, the Voice of America (VOA) reported that the 60 pirates onboard the hijacked vessel were squabbling among themselves over how to proceed. It quoted a Mombasa-based maritime official, Andrew Mwangura, who said the tension had erupted into deadly on-board shootouts pitting pirate against pirate.

One reason for the bad blood, says VOA: this pirate group includes members of two rival sub-clans.

"There was a shootout yesterday and the day before yesterday, there was a shootout aboard the ship, whereupon three gunmen were shot dead by their own comrades because this ship is being held captive by two different clans."...

Andrew Mwangura says the enormous ransoms being paid to free captured vessels have prompted many Somali clans to set aside their differences and cooperate in pirate activities.

Somali pirate attacks have more than doubled this year amid a lucrative ransom business, with several pirate dens springing up on the Somali coast to support the industry.

The US Navy already leads a multinational force that patrols international waters off Somalia. But that force has proven impotent against this year's pirate onslaught.

The AP reported that European countries on Wednesday offered to form a maritime security force to better police the area.

Roger Middleton, an Africa researcher at Britain's Chatham House think tank, said Europeans have been planning a maritime security force for some time, but the seizure of heavy weaponry off Somalia's coast "helped move it up their agenda."

A report by Mr. Middleton released Thursday described the Somali piracy surge as a threat to world trade. It warned the international community to act against the pirates before they grow stronger and possibly link up with terrorists.

The international community must be aware of the danger that Somali pirates could become agents of international terrorist networks. Already money from ransoms is helping to pay for the war in Somalia, including funds to the US terror-listed Al-Shabaab.

Original site

Tightening the noose

Sri Lanka claims it's closing in on Tamil Tiger stronghold

Amid fierce fighting in recent days, the military says it will soon take the rebel base and, within months, end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 29, 2008

Terrorism and Security Update

The Sri Lankan government claims it is on the verge of wiping out the Tamil Tigers' last rebel stronghold. If it's right, Sri Lanka could at last see the end of a long-running conflict that has left some 70,000 people dead.

The claims come amid fierce fighting in and near the Tigers' base in Kilinochchi on the northern tip of the island, where government airplanes are pounding rebel positions as ground troops slowly tighten the noose.

Numerous media noted that the military's claims could not be independently verified. Both the government and the rebels often make exaggerated claims, the Associated Press (AP) noted.

A top Sri Lankan military official told the BBC Friday the government had won ground, sea, and air superiority over the rebels, and that victory was at hand.

Said Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa:

"Our numbers are very much greater than theirs, our firepower is much greater. We are very confident we can win and we want to finish this very soon."...

After a ceasefire fighting resumed in earnest in mid-2006 and Sri Lanka's military ejected the Tigers from the East.

Attention then turned to territory controlled in the north by the rebels, who want a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority.

In recent months troops have advanced rapidly, and Mr Rajapaksa, who is the brother of Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said they are now 4.5km (2.8 miles) from the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.

The Tigers administer areas under their control from the town.

The government bars most journalists from areas where the fighting is taking place and the military's accounts cannot be independently verified.

The Colombo Page, a Sri Lankan daily, reported that government forces had seized a key road in Kilinochchi after a fierce, seven-hour gun battle. Eighteen Tamil Tigers were killed there and in other fighting Sunday, with many more injured, the paper said.

The paper also reported that Sunday marked the government-set deadline for international relief groups to leave the conflict zone.

United Press International (UPI) reported that the Sri Lankan military claimed it had killed a total of 62 militants and lost three of its own in the weekend's ground battles and airstrikes.

The National Post interviewed Sri Lankan military officials on the front lines of the conflict, who said the Tigers’ days as a serious military threat are numbered.

The Sri Lankan conflict is one of the world's longest-running insurgencies. An entire generation has never lived in times of peace. Newspaper articles about the latest bombings no longer even make the front pages of the country's dailies. "We have to somehow or other sort out this problem," says the general, who has slicked-down black hair, a moustache and three rows of ribbons on his uniform. "That is our aim. We want to finish it altogether."

Another military official interviewed in the article said he expected the Tamil Tigers to be wiped out within a year. However, the official, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, acknowledged that the going would be tough, and that de-mining Tiger-held areas could take decades.

The guerrillas' central problem is manpower, he says. During the current phase of the civil war, the Sri Lankan forces have killed 8,000 rebel fighters in the north and 2,000 in the East, while another 1,000 have been killed in air strikes, he says.

According to the army's calculations, that leaves the Tigers with no more than 4,000 remaining cadres, while the Sri Lankan forces have 250,000 men and women, and plenty of weaponry.

"So it's a matter of time," Lt.-Gen. Fonseka says.

But the Tigers are well-armed; they have ammunition, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, multi-barreled rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and mines. "Every inch is booby-trapped in the jungle. De-mining those areas will take minimum 20 years," he says.

Suicide bombings – a feature of the Tamil insurgency since its start – also continue. The AP reported that a suspected suicide bomber killed one civilian and wounded eight others in an attack on a police vehicle in a northern Sri Lankan town Sunday.

Rebel officials could not be reached for comment, but the insurgents have made suicide bombings a hallmark of their 25-year struggle against the government to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils.

The rebels, banned as a terrorist group in the United States and European Union, are said to have carried out more than 240 suicide bombings against military, political, and economic targets.

In its last report on the conflict in February, the International Crisis Group accused both sides of increasing human rights abuses, warned of a looming humanitarian disaster, and questioned whether the Sri Lankan government could solve the problem of Tamil militancy through military means alone.

Even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil] domination for a decade or more....

The much touted "liberation" of the Eastern Province has failed to bring development or democracy; instead it has been characterised by military rule and rising ethnic tensions.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

France urges pirate cleanup

France leads calls to counter Somali piracy surge

Increasingly brazen attacks jeopardize the delivery of humanitarian aid and inspire calls for tough action.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and security update
September 23, 2008

The French government is leading calls for more aggressive international action against Somali pirates, amid an alarming surge in hijackings at sea.

Those calls gained more urgency after the latest attack Sunday, when armed bandits in speedboats hijacked a Greek cargo ship and its 19-member crew. That brought the number of such attacks since January to 59, with more than 300 crew and 13 ships remaining in pirates' hands, according to an Associated Press report.

The US Navy leads a coalition whose warships patrol international waters off Somalia. But that force has not been sufficient to deter the pirates, who are carrying out increasingly brazen and frequent hijackings and raking in huge profits from ransom money.

The pirates are threatening maritime trade along key shipping routes in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia's southern coast. That's caused insurance fees to spike dramatically. It is also complicating the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, a failed state that can neither feed its own people nor assert its authority over rampant thuggery and Islamic insurgents.

The Inquirer, a Filipino daily, reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for punitive action against the pirates.

"The number of acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast has literally exploded since the beginning of 2008 ... The world can't tolerate this." ...

Sarkozy said the 48,000 ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden every year were 'all potential targets for these pirates who are striking further and further away from the coast.'

The piracy epidemic is of particular concern to the Philippines, which is the largest supplier of seafarers by country. Some 250,000 Filipinos are at sea at any given time, The Inquirer noted. Many Filipino crewmen – including 17 of the 19 crew members on the Greek cargo ship hijacked Sunday – have become hostages in the recent piracy surge.

France has taken the most dramatic action to date against the pirates.

In a daring operation in April, French commandos freed 30 French luxury yacht crew members who were being held in a northeast Somali village. According to TheDaily Telegraph, a British paper, a French sniper in one helicopter blew out the engine of the pirates' vehicle, and three commandos leapt out of another helicopter to capture six of the pirates.

Earlier this month, elite French frogmen stormed a hijacked French luxury yacht to free its two French passengers, killing one pirate and capturing six more, according to TheTimes of London.

The Voice of America (VOA) reported Monday that Somali pirates are threatening to behead any European they capture if France does not immediately release their six comrades captured in that recent operation.

The VOA interviewed by telephone a man who identified himself only as "Bileh," and claimed to speak for a pirate group based in the northern Somali town of Eyl – now a notorious pirate haven. According to the VOA, this group has made $30 million this year in ransom payments.

Bileh insists the money ship owners are paying to free to their vessels and crew is not ransom, but fines and taxes being collected on behalf of the Somali people.

Bileh says the ships are being fined and taxed because they are trespassing on Somali territorial waters. He says in the absence of a functioning central government in Somalia, his group is working hard to collect enough money to form a navy strong enough to protect the Somali coast from foreign exploitation.

Eyewitness reports from Eyl suggest that pirates are using their share of the money to build palatial homes and to buy expensive cars. They are also believed to be purchasing increasingly sophisticated weapons and boats.

A BBC report last week described Eyl as a coastal boomtown enriched by piracy, with an entire local industry geared toward tending to hostages, negotiating ransom payments, and planning and preparing more attacks.

Bloomberg reported last week that international shipowners and a seamen's union had called on the United Nations to take "urgent steps" to improve security in the region's waters, which are among the world's most dangerous.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the piracy epidemic is also jeopardizing food aid shipments from the World Food Program.

With marauding pirates on an unprecedented rampage, delivering much-needed food aid to war-torn Somalia has become impossible without a navy escort.

A Canadian frigate shepherded a World Food Programme cargo ship carrying 4,000 tonnes of basic food goods into Mogadishu port on Thursday.

Other European countries are contributing to antipiracy efforts. According to reports from GMANews.TV, a Filipino news website, Norway dispatched a warship. Reuters reports that Spain has contributed a patrol aircraft.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that proceeds from piracy are helping fuel conflict inside Somalia, which hasn't had a fully functioning central government since 1991.

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Mauritania hunts militants

Mauritania hunts Al Qaeda militants

After seizing power in August, the west African country's military government faces its first big security test.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security update
September 19, 2008

The Mauritanian government is on the hunt for militants who attacked a military convoy Monday, hoping to catch them before they sneak across the border into Algeria or Mali.

The cat-and-mouse game across the West African nation's vast desert areas is the first big security test for Mauritania's new military government, which seized power in an Aug. 6 coup that overthrew the country's first democratically elected president.

The Algeria-based Al Qaeda franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for Monday's attack, in which militants ambushed soldiers, seizing 12.

The US has offered funds and training to Mauritania to help it fight the Al Qaeda-linked group, but cut such aid after the coup.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted a Mauritanian lawmaker as saying the military was confident it would catch the attackers by blocking desert transit points and using air reconnaissance.

While Mauritanian security sources originally said 12 soldiers had been killed in the ambush, they now say the men are likely hostages, AFP reported the lawmaker as saying:

"The 12 men, including a captain, are in the hands of the criminals who would undoubtedly try to use them as cover in their escape and for possible ransom demands," [the lawmaker] said.

Experts say the attackers are likely only to be able to travel at night and would have needed at least five days to reach the border with Algeria or Mali.

If that's correct, the militants would not be able to reach the border until Saturday at the earliest.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for killing 15 Mauritanian soldiers in a 2005 raid, killing four soldiers and four French tourists in December 2007, and attacking the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania last February.

After the Aug. 6 coup, the group called for a full-scale "holy war" to turn Mauritania – seen as a US ally in the global war on terror – into an Islamic state.

Reuters reported that Monday's attack has renewed concerns that the militants could destabilize the region.

The latest ambush has revived fears that Al Qaeda's North Africa branch, which has carried out bloody bomb attacks in the Maghreb, may be extending its operations further southwards into sub-Saharan Africa, which is a source of crude oil to the West.

Western donors like the United States and Europe, which have condemned the coup against Abdallahi, had been supporting the civilian official Mauritanian president in his efforts to tackle what appeared to be a growing threat of Islamic extremist violence.

IRIN, a United Nations information network, reported that the European Union, US government, and The World Bank has cut off or threatened to stop US$500 million in non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania in protest of the Aug. 6 military coup. Some of those funds were earmarked for counterterrorism and military training to help Mauritania fight the militants.

In a commentary in the Middle East Times, Olivier Guitta noted that in Mauritania, American efforts to promote democracy are now at odds with its goal of rolling back Islamic terrorism.

Mr. Guitta argued that the Mauritanian military ousted the country's president, Sheikh Sidi Ould Abdallahi, in part because they saw him as too soft on Islamic terrorists. He wrote that many Mauritanians blamed Abdallahi for allowing the country's security situation to deteriorate from "bad to worse."

One example of Abdallahi's misguided policies: releasing Islamic militants from prison. According to Guitta, several well-known militants freed by Abdallahi were later linked to the December 2007 killings of the four French tourists.

Guitta observed that the US and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb both condemned the August coup, but for sharply different reasons.

Weirdly enough, at about the same time, the U.S. and France both forcefully condemned the coup, calling the new regime illegitimate and suspended their non-humanitarian help, which actually included financial support to fight the war against radical Islam.

The fact that al-Qaida and some Western nations agree over the new Mauritanian regime should make the U.S. and French diplomacy review their troubling assessment of the situation. This all the more so that North Africa has become a very important battlefield for al-Qaida and that Mauritania, a vast and sparsely populated (three million), has always been the soft underbelly of the region.

In a commentary in TheChristian Science Monitor, Caroline Baxter argued that the US had not given the country's emerging democratic regime enough support.

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