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Friday, March 20, 2009

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Friday March 20 2009 - (813)

Friday March 20 2009 edition
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Afghanistan War - 'In Real Terms, NATO Is Losing'
2009-03-19 21:42:00
It has been more than seven years since NATO forces invaded Afghanistan. Yet there's no end in sight for the conflict - and vast tracks of the country remain no-go areas for foreign troops.

Most days, weather permitting, a couple of U.S. Black Hawk helicopters take off from Bagram air base and do the rounds of NATO bases in Afghanistan's eastern provinces. They serve as taxis, couriers and delivery vans and hop from one fortified lily pad to the next, crossing mountain ranges and dusty mudbrick towns over which the alliance and the government it supports have little, if any, control.

The helicopter traffic provides an umbilical connection between the provincial outposts of the NATO-led force in this part of the country - the French in Kapisa province, the Poles in Ghazni and the vast U.S.-run hub at Bagram air-base, north of Kabul. This is the Afghanistan that most senior officers, diplomats and visiting journalists get to see - brave soldiers and well-run, well-meaning development projects.

It is in the vast tracts of land in between these outposts where the country's future is being determined each day, and where the outcome in the struggle between chaos and order, backwardness and development has yet to be resolved.

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Leading Climate Scientist: Democratic Process Isn't Working On Global Warming
2009-03-19 21:41:03

Protest and direct action could be the only way to tackle soaring carbon emissions, said a leading U.S. climate scientist.

NASA's chief climate scientist James Hansen told the Guardian Wednesday that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. "The democratic process doesn't quite seem to be working," he said.

Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, England, Hansen said: "The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

"The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I'm not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we're running out of time."

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Israel Arrests 10 Hamas Leaders
2009-03-19 21:37:15
Israel arrested 10 Hamas leaders in the West Bank late Wednesday and early Thursday, including four legislators, in what Hamas said was an attempt to put pressure on the organization after the collapse of negotiations for the release of a captive Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

The Israeli military described the men who were detained as “leaders of the ongoing efforts to restore the administrative branch of the Hamas terror organization in the region.” A spokesman would not comment on any possible link to the Shalit affair.

Israel’s departing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had hoped to secure Corporal Shalit’s release before leaving office. Olmert is to be succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud Party, who has until early April to form a new governing coalition.

In return for Corporal Shalit, who was seized by Hamas and other Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid and taken into Gaza in 2006, Hamas demands the release of 450 Palestinians in Israeli jails, including many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis. But intensive talks held through Egyptian mediators ended this week without an agreement, and  Olmert said Tuesday that his government would not accede to all of Hamas’ demands.

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13 Recipients Of TARP Funds Owe $220 Million In Back Taxes
2009-03-19 18:13:14

A U.S. House of Representatives panel looking into a federal bailout program has found that 13 recipients of government funds owe more than $220 million in unpaid federal taxes, a lawmaker said Thursday.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, told a hearing on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that the panel looked at the top 23 private recipients of taxpayer-funded bailouts under the $700 billion program enacted last year.

"We found that 13 of them owed more than $220 million in unpaid federal taxes," Lewis said in an opening statement. "Two companies owe over $100 million each. How can this be? If we looked at all 470 recipients, how much would they owe?"

Under the program, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October, the U.S. Treasury has doled out more than $300 billion to banks and private companies so far. Shortly after enactment, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., revised the program, which was originally intended to allow the government to buy up toxic assets from insolvent banks and auction the assets off to investors. Instead, Paulson and the Bush administration opted to pour capital into the banks and companies in hopes of cleaning up their balance sheets, thawing frozen credit markets and spurring renewed lending.

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Several U.S. Bird Populations Plummet Due To Habitat Loss
2009-03-19 18:12:49

Several major bird populations have plummeted over the past four decades across the United States as development transformed the nation's landscape, according to a comprehensive survey released today by the Interior Department and outside experts, but conservation efforts have managed to stave off potential extinctions of others.

"The State of the Birds" report, a sweeping analysis of data compiled through scientific and citizen surveys over the past 40 years, shows that some species have made significant gains even as others have suffered. Hunted waterfowl and iconic species such as the bald eagle have expanded in number, the report found, as birds along the nation's coasts and in its arid areas and grasslands have declined sharply.

"Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells."

The fact that concerted conservation efforts have saved birds such as the peregrine falcon and allowed various wetland birds to flourish, scientists said, shows that other species can reverse their declines with sufficient support from federal agencies and private groups.

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Reports: Two U.S. Journalists Detained By North Korea
2009-03-19 18:11:56
Two American journalists and their guide were taken into North Korean custody after straying too close to the sensitive border region while on a reporting trip in China, an activist helping them said today.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were on assignment with San Francisco-based Current TV when they were seized on Tuesday. The guide, whose name was not released, is a Chinese citizen.

"It is certain that the North Koreans have them," said the activist, Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor who spoke to the journalists by mobile telephone about 6 a.m. Tuesday. They were in the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji, about 16 miles from the North Korean border, at the time but were heading closer to the frontier in order to interview people who trade at the border.

"They must have gone in too close, where it was dangerous. I don't think the North Koreans would have dared to come out into China to kidnap Americans," said Chun.

Mitch Koss, an executive producer with Current TV who was with them, was able to escape and notify American officials of what had happened, according to Chun.

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U.S. Senate Approves Contested Alaska Road Project
2009-03-19 18:11:33

A controversial road project through a prized wildlife refuge in Alaska, tucked into a sweeping bipartisan lands package, appears poised to make it into law.

With Senate passage Wednesday of legislation protecting more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, the proposal to build a road traversing Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a step closer to fruition after a decade-long battle. The 800 residents of King Cove - a fishing village that abuts the refuge - argue they need a one-lane road to connect them to the nearest all-weather airport in Cold Bay.

Environmentalists objected that the project will undermine Izembek's pristine landscape and that taxpayers have already paid to construct a terminal and supply the hovercraft that now ferries residents across the bay.

"It is, in our view, a world-class boondoggle," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, noting that the refuge supports migratory birds such as the Pacific black brandt as well as caribou and the Alaskan brown bear. "Izembek is a sacrificial lamb in the public lands bill."

A broad coalition of environmental, outdoor recreation and business organizations, along with local, state and federal officials, have been pushing for years to expand wilderness areas in the U.S. These groups hailed the passage of the massive package, now headed for the House, which would provide the highest level of federal protection to areas such as Oregon's Mount Hood and part of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest, along with other sites in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia.

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New Whistleblower Claims Over $1.4 Billion In Barclays Tax Avoidance Schemes
2009-03-19 21:41:47
Further detailed allegations about tax avoidance schemes set up by Barclays Bank emerged Thursday night from whistleblowers who said the bank made close to £1 billion (about $1.4 billion) profit a year from a series of elaborate deals.

The schemes are similar to those detailed in documents published by the Guardian newspaper this week which have been the center of a three-day hearing at Britain's high court, and are the subject of a gagging order.

The internal Barclays memos were leaked by a mole to the Liberal Democrats. The new allegations reiterate claims that the bank's main purpose in entering into these schemes was to make profit from tax avoidance through an intricate circuit of offshore Cayman Islands and Luxembourg companies. The profits are said to be enormous and the deals so complex that HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) struggles to unravel them.

Barclays has vigorously denied the claims and earlier this week won an emergency injunction forcing the Guardian to remove internal bank documents from its website. Earlier Thursday a judge confirmed the ban, saying the documents contained confidential commercial information and legal advice. The Guardian is also banned from giving information about other publicly accessible sources of copies of the documents.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said of the ruling: "This is a sad day for democracy. British taxpayers are being asked to underwrite Barclays' loans. I believe full disclosure of these documents, showing how Barclays use tax havens for tax avoidance, would be in the public interest. Banks use the finest legal brains money can buy to avoid tax, but HM Revenue & Customs is underpaid and overstretched, so it is far from a level playing field."

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Israeli Troops Describe Shooting Gaza Civilians
2009-03-19 21:37:35

Striking testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers involved in the recent Gaza war, in which they describe shooting unarmed civilians, sometimes under orders from their officers.

One soldier described how an Israeli sniper shot dead a Palestinian mother and her children, adding that troops believed Palestinian lives were "very, very, less important than the lives of our soldiers".

The accounts, published in two Israeli newspapers Thursday, gives rare insight into how the soldiers acted. It reinforces Palestinian accounts of disproportionate Israeli force and contradicts the Israeli military's official version of events.

The accounts come from unnamed soldiers who were graduates of a pre-military course at Oranim Academic college, in Tivon, near Haifa. Their testimony was given in mid-February, and the transcript of the session was published this week.

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Mugabe An Obstacle To More Donor Aid For Zimbabwe
2009-03-19 21:37:02
On his first day as education minister in a government so broke that most schools were closed and millions of children idle, David Coltart said he got a startling invitation.

“Come and get your brand new white Mercedes!” an official told Coltart, a veteran opposition politician, as President Robert Mugabe peered down from a portrait on his office wall.

The offer of an E-Class Mercedes to every minister in the month-old power-sharing government was vintage Mugabe, an effort to seduce his political enemies with the lavish perks he has long bestowed on loyalists.

Coltart said no thanks.

Opposition members like Coltart who joined Mugabe in office last month have already achieved some successes, like getting teachers back to work and winning the release of some political prisoners; but many of them warned in interviews that the progress would be short-lived if Western nations, meeting Friday in Washington, D.C., to discuss expanding assistance, do not extend billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Zimbabwe.

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Over A Million French Workers Stage Strike In Massive Economic Protest
2009-03-19 18:13:04
More than a million French workers staged a general strike and marched in demonstrations across the country Thursday in a second round of protests against the government's handling of the world economic crisis.

The protests, which drew substantially more people than a similar outpouring Jan. 29, were depicted by union leaders as part of a campaign to pressure President Nicolas Sarkozy to do more to defend the French against the global economic upheaval. In particular, they called on him to raise low-end wages and unemployment benefits and to make it harder for business leaders to fire employees when profits sink.

"I cannot believe the government will stay immobile in the face of a phenomenon of this size," said Bernard Thibault of the General Labor Confederation on the government's France 2 television. He added later, "Workers don't want to be the victims any more of a crisis for which they are not responsible."

More than 90,000 French workers joined the ranks of the unemployed in January, pushing the total to 2.2 million and leading economists to estimate the unemployment rate at around 8 percent of the workforce. In addition, an increasing number of factories, particularly in the auto industry, have put workers on part-time schedules, drastically reducing their take-home pay and increasing fears of more layoffs.

In reaction, Sarkozy's government last month announced $3.2 billion worth of aid, including extended unemployment benefits, tax breaks for the poor and a one-time payment of $650 to unemployed youths who were not on the job long enough to qualify for unemployment checks; but the bulk of his $33 billion in anti-crisis spending has gone to buttress the finances of threatened banks and stimulate the flow of credit to needy businesses.

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Stocks Fall As Investors Cool Off After Rally
2009-03-19 18:12:19

Concern that the Federal Reserve's proposed interventions could increase inflation and a poor showing for shares of financial companies dragged Wall Street into the red Thursday.

It was only the second time in eight days that stocks closed lower as U.S. investors failed to build on a mid-week rally that was sparked by the Federal Reserve's announcement Wednesday that it could pour more than a trillion dollars into efforts to rescue the financial system.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 1.2 percent, or 86 points, to close at 7401, while the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index closed down 1.3 percent, or 10 points, to 784. The tech-heavy Nasdaq closed down 0.5 percent, or 8 points to 1483.

"While there was a bit of euphoria by some on the actions that were taken yesterday by the Fed, now a group is saying that for all practical purposes all that they are doing is printing money," Stanley Nabi, vice chairman of Silvercrest Asset Management, said. "I happen to agree - three or four years from now, when we face reality, we are going to have to pay that back."

Stocks surged Wednesday after the Federal Reserve said it would deploy up to an additional $1.2 trillion in a massive effort to stimulate the economy and lower interest rates. The Fed said it would increase its purchases of mortgage-related securities by $750 billion, would boost its purchases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt and would buy $300 billion in long-term Treasury bonds.

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7.9 Earthquake Rattles Tonga Islands Region
2009-03-19 18:11:44

A major 7.9-magnitude earthquake has struck off the Tonga Islands, seismologists say, issuing a tsunami warning for Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

The quake, which hit at 6.17am local time on Friday, was centered 210km south-southeast of the Tongan capital Nuku'Alofa and 480 kilometers east-southeast of Ndoi Island, Fiji.

It struck at a depth of 10 kilometers, said the U.S. Geological Survey.

A tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for Tonga, Niue, Kermadec Islands, American Samoa, Samoa and Fiji.

The center said it did not yet know if a tsunami had been generated by the quake.

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