News & Current Affairs

June 26, 2009

Web slows after Jackson’s death

Filed under: Entertainment News, Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:35 am

Web slows after Jackson’s death

Google error page

The sheer number of queries concerned Google

The internet suffered a number of slowdowns as people the world over rushed to verify accounts of Michael Jackson’s death.

Search giant Google confirmed to the BBC that when the news first broke it feared it was under attack.

Millions of people who Googled the star’s name were greeted with an error page rather than a list of results.

It warned users “your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application”.

“It’s true that between approximately 2.40PM Pacific and 3.15PM Pacific, some Google News users experienced difficulty accessing search results for queries related to Michael Jackson and saw the error page,” said Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker.

It was around this time that the singer was officially pronounced dead.

Google’s trends page showed that searches for Michael Jackson had reached such a volume that in its so called “hotness” gauge the topic was rated “volcanic”.

Fail

Google was not the only company overwhelmed by the public’s clamour for information.

The microblogging service Twitter crashed with the sheer volume of people using the service.

Google user graph

Searches for topics related to Michael Jackson peaked at 3PM Pacific

Queries about the star soon rocketed to the top of its updates and searches. But the amount of traffic meant it suffered one of its well-known outages.

Before the company’s servers crashed, TweetVolume noted that “Michael Jackson” appeared in more than 66,500 Twitter updates.

According to initial data from Trendrr, a Web service that tracks activity on social media sites, the number of Twitter posts Thursday afternoon containing “Michael Jackson” totaled more than 100,000 per hour.

That put news of Jackson’s death at least on par with the Iran protests, as Twitter posts about Iran topped 100,000 per hour on June 16 and eventually climbed to 220,000 per hour.

Early reports of Mr Jackson’s death and the confusion surrounding it caused a rash of changes and corrections to be made on his Wikipedia page as editors tried to keep up with events and the number of people trying to update the page.

TMZ, the popular celebrity gossip site that broke the story following a tip-off that a paramedic had visited the singers home also crashed.

There was a domino effect as users then fled to other sites. Hollywood gossip writer Perez Hilton’s site was among those to flame out.

Keynote Systems reported that its monitoring showed performance problems for the web sites of AOL, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo.

Beginning at 2.30PM Pacific “the average speed for downloading news sites doubled from less than four seconds to almost nine seconds,” said Shawn White, Keynote’s director of external operations.

He told Data Center Knowledge that “during the same period, the average availability of sites on the index dropped from almost 100% to 86%”.

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June 22, 2009

Iran Guards vow protest crackdown

Iran Guards vow protest crackdown

Tear gas on the streets of Tehran (20 June)

Weekend violence has led many to abandon protest plans

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to crack down on any new street protests against the results of the country’s presidential election.

In a statement, the guards vowed to react in a “revolutionary” way to suppress unauthorised demonstrations.

The Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite security force, have close ties to the country’s supreme leader.

On Friday Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned protests, prompting street violence in which at least 10 people died.

The streets of Tehran were quieter on Sunday but new protests are planned for Monday.

Opposition supporters passing messages online said they planned to carry candles at a rally in Tehran in the evening in memory of those killed.

‘Revolutionary confrontation’

In a statement posted on their website, the Guards said their troops would break up street protests and force protesters from the streets.

“Be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij [pro-government militia] and other security forces and disciplinary forces,” the Associated Press news agency quoted the Guards as saying.

The clashes are getting bloodier every day
Behrooz, student, Tehran

The plain-clothed Basij militia was involved in quelling earlier protests during more than a week of demonstrations against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The weekend violence led many Iranians to abandon protest plans. One regular protester, a 20-year-old student called Behrooz contacted by the BBC several times in recent days, said he was concerned he would be attacked if he took part.

“My mother went to the demonstration on Saturday. She wasn’t hurt, but she saw guards attacking people and hitting them with batons,” he said.

“She is the bravest of us all, but I don’t think she will go out this afternoon (Sunday), because the clashes are getting bloodier every day.”

Media ‘vandalism’

Results showed Mr Ahmadinejad won the 12 June election by a landslide, taking 63% of the vote, almost double that of Mir Hossein Mousavi, his nearest rival.

Following complaints, the powerful Guardian Council, which oversees the electoral process, now says it has found evidence that more votes were cast in some constituencies than there were registered voters.

But the number had “no effect on the result of the elections”, a council spokesman said on Monday.

Speaking at a news conference, foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi accused Western governments of explicitly backing violent protests aimed at undermining the stability of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

“Spreading anarchy and vandalism by Western powers and also Western media… these are not at all accepted,” he said.

The BBC and other foreign media have been reporting from Iran under severe restrictions for the past week. The BBC’s permanent correspondent in Iran, Jon Leyne, was asked to leave the country on Sunday.

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

A protester throws an object towards police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

Saturday saw some of the worst violence since the election

Iranian authorities have deployed thousands of security officers on the streets of Tehran, after a week of mass protests over a disputed election.

Witnesses said there were no rallies in the capital on Sunday, a day after 10 people were reported killed in clashes between police and protesters.

State media said 457 people had been detained over Saturday’s violence.

The authorities have also continued a crackdown on foreign media – expelling the BBC’s Tehran correspondent.

The corporation confirmed Jon Leyne had been asked to leave the country, but said the BBC office in Tehran would remain open.

Campaign group Reporters Without Borders says 23 local journalists and bloggers have been arrested over the past week.

Roof-top chanting

The protests were sparked by the presidential election on 12 June, which officials said incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide.

Supporters of his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, believe the election was rigged and have demonstrated since the results were announced.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed Mr Ahmadinejad and made it clear in a speech on Friday that no further protests would be tolerated.

Some analysts interpreted the ayatollah’s speech as giving a green light for security forces to use live ammunition.

Iranian state TV reported that 10 people had died and 100 were injured when protesters and police clashed on Saturday.

On Sunday, thousands of security officers were out on the streets but protesters stayed away.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, in Tehran, says many residents of northern Tehran could be heard shouting from the rooftops “death to the dictator” and “Allahu akbar” on Sunday evening.

The chants have become a popular form of protest, and our correspondents says men, women and children joined in and Sunday’s chanting was much louder than on previous days.

Mousavi’s plea

Security forces continued to round up protesters on Saturday – with state media saying 457 people had been arrested.

Among the detained were several family members of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a powerful opponent of Mr Ahmadinejad.

Analysts said the arrests came as a surprise because Mr Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts – a cleric run group which has the power to remove the supreme leader.

All of Mr Rafsanjani’s relatives were reported to have been freed by Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Mr Mousavi, whose supporters make up most of the protesting crowds, urged them to continue their rallies.

“Protesting against lies and fraud is your right. In your protests continue to show restraint,” a statement on his website said.

Analysts say Mr Mousavi’s statements and the street protests his supporters have organised represent the biggest challenge to the state in the Islamic republic’s 30-year history.


Are you in Iran? What do you think of the current situation? Are you taking part in the demonstrations?

If you have any information you would like to share us!

September 17, 2008

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Hopes ride high on Zimbabwe deal

Woman carries shopping in Harare

Morgan Tsvangirai may have persuaded Robert Mugabe to sign over some of his executive powers but Zimbabwe’s prime minister-designate now has a very short honeymoon period to prove himself.

The BBC is still operating under restrictions in Zimbabwe, but what reactions we have been able to gather show that large numbers of people believe Mr Tsvangarai can deliver and start the process of re-building a shattered economy.

It stands in stark contrast to the more sceptical assessment of many in the diplomatic community.

We want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye
James McGee
US ambassador to Zimbabwe

They want this deal to work, but the “vintage Mugabe” who blamed his country’s ills on former colonial powers during his post-deal speech, suggests a man locked in the past and unwilling to face up to the future.

As one diplomat said, the challenge will be to “turn what could be a trap for Morgan into an ambush for Mugabe” – a sentiment revealing deep concerns about just how committed the man who has run Zimbabwe for nearly three decades is to power-sharing.

‘We have to believe’

In a squatter camp on the edge of Harare, a man in his 20s who lost his job as a gardener when the money to pay him ran out, said they had no other choice but to have faith in this new beginning.

Hospital in Harare

Zimbabwe’s hospitals are suffering because of the economic crisis

He is pinning his hopes on the new unity government delivering food, and a stable economic environment which would improve his chances of getting a job and restoring his dignity.

And young professionals, who spoke in secret locations away from the prying eyes of intelligence operatives, said they believed Mr Tsvangirai had the capacity to hold his ground against his former political foe.

Articulate and measured, young men from Zimbabwe’s Christian Student Association said Zimbabweans need the watchful eyes of the international community to monitor events in the coming months.

One implored potential donors to “believe in a deal which we have to believe in” if there is to be any hope of rehabilitating this once prosperous nation.

Culture of intimidation

We’ve only gleaned a partial picture.

With the security situation still precarious, it has been hard to gauge reaction in rural areas where Mr Mugabe has drawn much of his support.

MDC supporters in Harare

MDC supporters believe their leader can deliver a stable economy

But there are without doubt people who are smarting. People who were in the pay of the party, whose lifestyle of political patronage is now under threat.

Intelligence and security chiefs were absent from Monday’s historic signing in ceremony.

Whether their boycott signals plans to undermine the deal is impossible to know at this early stage, but diplomats are monitoring the environment carefully.

Tangible signs that the culture of intimidation is being reversed will be one of the benchmarks they will use to determine if, and when, to deliver billions of dollars of life-saving aid.

As James McGee, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, put it: “When we talk about respect for human rights we want to see people no longer afraid to walk down the street with an MDC T-shirt – no longer afraid to look a policeman in the eye… those are the little things that show there has been a change in attitude.”

Expectations high

Driving around the streets of Harare gives the impression of a benign capital, a place where the streets are paved and the buildings stand tall. But it is a facade.

Inside the hospitals there are shortages of medicine – many people have died from cholera recently, deprived of drugs.

Zimbabwe's capital Harare

Behind the facade of modern Harare there are acute shortages

And the banks are stuffed with worthless cash. It is not unusual to see plastic bags stuffed with notes that have no value, discarded on the street.

Expectations that this deal will begin to reverse some of this economic chaos are riding high.

Mr Tsvangirai’s first test will be his ability to secure key cabinet posts.

In particular in the finance portfolio, giving the MDC greater leverage over the economy, allowing the government to shape policies that restore property rights and market mechanisms back to Zimbabwe.

The next test will be getting food out to the desperate people who need it and clearing the red tape that prevents humanitarian agencies from distributing aid.

Food has been used by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party as a political cattle-prod – they’ve ensured it reaches friends, but withheld it from foes.

If the new prime minister can make real headway in distributing food to a country facing the threat of starvation, then he could reap a huge moral dividend which the international community may be willing to reward.

Like the power sharing deal in Kenya, this is a huge political experiment dependent on the personalities of the key players and the political will to change.

There is the potential for the whole thing to combust, a scenario which would see the end of Morgan Tsvangirai’s political career.

But optimists believe that Zimbabwe’s landmark pact, will be the catalyst that breathes new life into a broken country.

August 13, 2008

Georgia and Russia agree on truce

Georgia and Russia agree on truce

Russian military convoy in Abkhazia, 12/08

Russian troops have pulled back through Abkhazia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed an outline plan with Russia and Georgia to try to resolve their crisis.

A key element calls for all forces to return to the areas where they were before fighting broke out last week.

EU foreign ministers in Brussels are discussing the plan at an emergency meeting on the crisis.

Some 100,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict, which has created huge tensions in international relations.

Fighting in the South Ossetia region does now seem to have ended.

On Tuesday, Russia announced its military activity in the area was completed and witnesses saw troops pulling out.

However on Wednesday, journalists and eyewitnesses reported seeing Russian tanks patrolling the streets of Gori, the nearest major Georgian town to the South Ossetian border.

Russia has held all the cards in this conflict and looks set to end up with both a diplomatic and a military victory.

It has shown its power within the region and the weakness of the West, which has been unable and unwilling to come to Georgia’s aid with anything other than words of support, our correspondent adds.

Fiery rhetoric

Despite the diplomacy and apparent withdrawal, rhetoric on both sides remained fiery and analysts were predicting a long road to peace.

On Wednesday, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia of violating the ceasefire with troop movements around the country, while asserting that the ceasefire on the Georgian side was always in force.

FIVE-POINT PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops return to pre-conflict positions

“They went through our towns and they are rampaging and they are also shooting,” he said at a news conference in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

He also said he had been getting reports of large-scale violations of human rights by Russian forces: “What we are seeing is classic Balkan-type and WWII-type ethnic cleansing and purification campaigns,” he said, speaking of a Russian “rampage” through Georgian-controlled villages in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia.

A BBC correspondent in Tbilisi says there have been reports of extensive looting and kidnappings by gunmen around the town of Gori.

Shortly after the Georgian president spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the actions of the Georgian leadership in South Ossetia.

“Georgia – of course, not Georgia, but the Georgian leadership – gave an order which led to an act of genocide, which resulted in war crimes, ethnic cleansing. And this, of course, cannot go unanswered.”

Russian troop reinforcements would be withdrawn from South Ossetia, depending on the extent to which Georgian troops did the same, he added. Mr Lavrov also said that Russian peacekeepers would remain in South Ossetia.

Aid agencies on the ground say they have not come across any evidence of human rights violations.

“It is clear that both sides are exaggerating, and that figures are inflated,” Giorgi Gogia of Human Rights Watch told the BBC News website from Tbilisi.

EU meeting

France – which currently holds the EU presidency – wants Wednesday’s meeting to endorse its peace initiative before it is submitted to the UN Security Council.

The ministers are to consider sending peacekeepers to secure a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia, and protect humanitarian supplies.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said Russian troops in Georgia should withdraw to pre-7 August positions and criticised the country’s “19th-Century way” of doing politics.

Mr Sarkozy, in his current role as EU president, held talks with President Medvedev in Moscow for most of Tuesday before flying to Tbilisi, where his arrival was greeted by emotional displays.

He held news conferences with both Mr Medvedev and Mr Saakashvili – with all three leaders saying they had agreed in principle to a five-point plan.

A sixth point in the plan, about holding international discussions on the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, had been deleted with the agreement of Mr Medvedev, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Saakashvili said.

“The territorial integrity and belonging of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgia can never be put under doubt,” the Georgian leader said.

On Wednesday, the Russian army said 74 of its soldiers were killed, 171 were wounded and 19 were missing, the AFP news agency reports.

In Abkhazia, Georgia said its troops had withdrawn from the only area of the breakaway province they still occupied following a Russian offensive there, the Kodori Gorge.

The self-styled president of Abkhazia said it was in control of the disputed upper reaches of the gorge and that its forces had pushed Georgian troops out of the area a day earlier.

National mourning

The US has meanwhile said it is cancelling an annual joint naval exercise with Russia, scheduled for the end of this week in the Sea of Japan.

A US official told news agencies there was no way Washington could “proceed with this joint exercise at this time”.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that Russia was “frankly… doing great damage” to its prospects for integrating into international organisations.

In a reference to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, she said Moscow’s behaviour belonged to “another time”.

“We are not in 1968 and the message has been very clear to Russia that it cannot operate that way,” she told the US channel ABC News.

Making Wednesday a day of national mourning in Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev accused Georgia of mounting a “genocide of the South Ossetian people”.

In his decree on national mourning, Mr Medvedev, who on Tuesday called Georgian troops “thugs” [Russian: otmorozki], did not give figures for civilian casualties in South Ossetia, but said they were “numerous”.

Russia moved in forcefully, sending troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway province. Georgian towns away from the two regions were also bombed.

Fighting flared last Thursday night when Georgia sent its army to regain control of South Ossetia – a region nominally part of Georgia, but with de facto independence and where a majority of people hold Russian passports.

Map of region


Are you in one of the affected areas of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Tell us what is happening Send us your experiences

August 9, 2008

US tourist dies in Beijing attack

US tourist dies in Beijing attack

Police and foreign officials at the Drum Tower in Beijing, China

Police were soon at the scene of the crime

A US tourist has been stabbed to death by a Chinese man in central Beijing, officials have said.

A second tourist was badly hurt in the attack at the Drum Tower monument. The pair are relatives of a US Olympic volleyball team coach.

The assailant then committed suicide by jumping from the 13th Century landmark, officials say. The motive is not known.

The BBC’s Quentin Somerville says murders, especially targeting foreigners, are very rare in China.

The attack happened despite high security across the capital on the first full day of Olympic competition, with more than 150,000 police and other personnel on patrol.

Officials named the Chinese man as 47-year-old Tang Yongming, from the eastern town of Hangzhou, but said they had no idea what had motivated his attack or suicide.

“While at the Drum Tower in central Beijing, the two family members were stabbed during an attack by what local law enforcement authorities have indicated was a lone assailant,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement.

Reports say the tourists’ guide was also hurt.

On the scene

The attack happened at the popular tourist attraction some three miles (5km) from the main Olympics site, at around midday local time.

An estimated 450,000 foreign tourists are expected to be in Beijing for the Games, which opened with a lavish ceremony on Friday evening.

The attack happened the day before US President George W Bush – in Beijing to attend the Games – is due to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao.

A US embassy spokesman said he was aware of the reports of the attack.

“I can tell you that we are working with the family and the Chinese authorities as we speak,” Richard Buangan told AFP news agency.

US embassy officials have been despatched to the hospital where the two injured attack survivors have been sent.

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Fannie Mae unveils loss of $2.3bn

Courtesy BBC

Problems in the US housing market have pushed mortgage finance company Fannie Mae into the red.

The group sank to a net loss of $2.3bn in the three months to 30 June, against a profit of $1.97bn last year.

It comes days after its sister company Freddie Mac posted worse-than-expected results and its top executive warned house price falls are not over yet.

Both government sponsored firms own, or guarantee, nearly half of the nation’s mortgage debt.

Shares in Fannie Mae sank in the wake of the announcement, falling 9.8% to $8.98.

Difficult market

As mortgage guarantors, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, must pay out when people default on their loans.

But as a result of recent woes in the US housing market and subsequent sub-prime crisis the pair have run into severe difficulty.

Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day
John Raines,
Exclusive Analysis

Fannie Mae said that the current housing crisis had added to its woes to the tune of $5.3bn in credit expenses.

The latest losses at the firm – which came in at more than three times analysts’ estimates – followed a $2.2bn loss for the first three months of the year.

“Our second-quarter results reflect challenging conditions in the housing and mortgage markets that began in 2006 and have deepened through 2007 and 2008,” said Daniel H Mudd, president and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae.

Cost cutting

He added that the firm had also taken steps to raise an additional $7bn to help it tackle the “most difficult US housing market in more than 70 years”.

As part of the plan Fannie Mae is slashing its dividend by more than 85% to 0.05 cents, raising its fees and has taken steps to cut its costs by 10%.

The group also said it would stop purchasing ‘Alt-A’ loans – loans made to borrowers with good credit but little proof of their income, or people who either put down a small deposit, or no deposit, for their loan.

But there was little to offer hope in near-term future with Fannie Mae warning that increased volatility in capital markets and deteriorating credit conditions meant that it would face more losses.

Bail-out

Last month, the federal government offered a financial lifeline to the two beleaguered companies offering to extend their line of credit.

However, the financial aid may leave the taxpayer facing a bill of $25bn over the next two years.

“The taxpayer is stuck if they have to be bailed out,” John Raines, deputy director of political risk for Exclusive Analysis told the BBC.

He added that reports had suggested the actual cost could end up being anywhere in the region of between $10bn to $100bn.

“Right now, Fannie Mae says it has the capital to weather the storm, but its looking more and more stormy by the day.”

August 8, 2008

Russian tanks enter South Ossetia

Russian tanks enter South Ossetia

Courtesy BBC

Footage reportedly shows Russian tanks entering South Ossetia

Russian tanks have entered Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, says Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Georgia has been fighting separatists with ties to Russia in order to regain control of the province, which has had de facto independence since the 1990s.

Georgia is reported to have said any involvement of Russian forces in the conflict will result in a state of war.

Amid international calls for restraint, Russia’s president promised to defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia.

Moscow’s defence ministry said more than 10 of its peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia had been killed and 30 wounded in the Georgian offensive. At least 15 civilians are also reported dead.

‘Clear intrusion’

Georgia’s president said 150 Russian tanks and other vehicles had entered South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says he is willing to agree an immediate ceasefire

He told CNN: “Russia is fighting a war with us in our own territory.”

Mr Saakashvili, who has called on reservists to sign up for duty, said: “This is a clear intrusion on another country’s territory.

“We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight,” Reuters new agency quoted him as saying.

Later, Moscow’s foreign ministry told media that Russian tanks had reached the northern outskirts of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

The Georgian interior ministry said Russian jets had killed three Georgian soldiers at an airbase outside the capital, Tbilisi, during a bombing raid on Friday, Reuters news agency reported.

I must protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are. We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished
Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President

Russia denied any of its fighters had entered its neighbour’s airspace.

Moscow’s defence ministry said reinforcements for Russian peacekeepers had been sent to South Ossetia “to help end bloodshed”.

Amid reports of Russian deaths, President Dmitry Medvedev said: “I must protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are,” Interfax news agency reported.

“We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished. Those responsible will receive a deserved punishment.”

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was receiving reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Mr Lavrov added in televised remarks: “The number of refugees is growing. A humanitarian crisis is looming.”

Russia said it would cut all air links with Georgia from midnight on Friday.

Meanwhile Interfax quoted South Ossetian rebel leader Eduard Kokoity as saying there were “hundreds of dead civilians” in Tskhinvali.

Witnesses said the regional capital was devastated.

Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, told AP news agency: “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

SOUTH OSSETIA TIMELINE
 Georgia and its breakaway regions
1991-92 S Ossetia fights war to break away from newly independent Georgia; Russia enforces truce
2004 Mikhail Saakashvili elected Georgian president, promising to recover lost territories
2006 S Ossetians vote for independence in unofficial referendum
April 2008 Russia steps up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia
July 2008 Russia admits flying jets over S Ossetia; Russia and Georgia accuse each other of military build-up
7 August 2008 After escalating Georgian-Ossetian clashes, sides agree to ceasefire
8 August 2008 Heavy fighting erupts overnight, Georgian forces close on Tskhinvali

US President George W Bush spoke with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the crisis while they attended the Beijing Olympics.

Later, the US voiced support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and its state department said it would send an envoy to the region.

Nato said it was seriously concerned about the situation, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on all sides to show restraint.

The European security organisation, the OSCE, warned that the fighting risked escalating into a full-scale war.

Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili told the BBC it wanted to ensure that any civilians who wanted to leave the conflict zone could do so safely.

International Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson said it had received reports that hospitals in Tskhinvali were having trouble coping with the influx of casualties and ambulances were having trouble reaching the injured.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Georgia had simply run out of patience with attacks by separatist militias in recent days and had had to move in to restore peace in South Ossetia.

Truce plea

Georgia accuses Russia of arming the separatists. Moscow denies the claim.

Russia earlier called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to respond to the crisis, but members failed to agree on a Russian statement calling on both sides to renounce the use of force.

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow says Russia has always said it supports the territorial integrity of Georgia but also that it would defend its citizens. Many South Ossetians hold Russian passports.

Hundreds of fighters from Russia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia were reportedly heading to aid the separatist troops.

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Kosovo lives: Not gone with the wind

Courtesy BBC

Sani, Lili and Dani Nikolic in their room at the Greek K-For camp

The three women thought they would be left alone in Urosevac after the war because there were no men in their house

In the fifth and final piece by BBC journalists on life in Kosovo today, Patrick Jackson meets three Slovenian-Serb women who intend to be the bane of K-For’s life until they regain their ancestral home.

Their great-grandfather built Urosevac, the Nikolic daughters like to say, so how can they leave it now?

Sani (Santipa), the very image of mildness and physical slightness, beams mischievously at the memory of how she floored a US soldier with her karate skills, the day K-For came to evacuate her family.

I am not saying she is over 60, because her disabled younger sister Lili (Liljana) reminded me, when I inquired, that you must never ask a lady her age. A smile of assent crossed the mask-like face of their blind mother Dani (Daniela).

However, the soldier’s commanding officer was certainly impressed by Sani’s resilience, telling her she was “as tough as a Texan lady”, according to Lili.

The Americans evacuated them from Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) on 18 March 2004, to save them from Albanian rioters, who then destroyed the house.

But the Nikolic women have refused to join the thousands of other non-Albanians who fled (most of them in June 1999).

They argue that K-For failed to defend their property and removed them against their will, so it should take them back.

And that is how they come to be living today inside a Greek army base outside Urosevac.

Sickbay

The sole civilians to live on a base in K-For’s eastern sector have a medical ward to themselves at Camp Rigas Fereos.

The Nikolic family's cooking arrangements in the camp

The facilities in the room meet the family’s basic needs

It is a large, spotlessly clean room equipped with the bare essentials such as a fridge and a microwave oven, but no television set or radio.

From the window they can see only the camp and the mountains in the distance. Some paper religious icons are stuck to the blank white walls.

What personal effects they have seem all to come from charity.

Asked what she misses most from her home, Daniela says her family photographs and her jewellery, including her wedding ring from her husband who died before the war (she had taken it off to wash her hands the morning they were evacuated).

There is also the antique furniture, her library of 1,800 “beautiful books in five languages” and her paintings, especially a 17th-Century Italian Madonna she brought with her from her native Slovenia when she married her Serb husband.

Theirs was a wealthy family in its time, Lili explains. Their great-grandfather helped found Urosevac, a late 19th-Century town that arose around the new Belgrade-Thessaloniki railway, after he persuaded the Turkish authorities to let him build there.

Thessaloniki played a new role in the Nikolic family’s history in 2004, when Greek K-For, having sheltered the evacuees at Camp Rigas Fereos for four months, transferred them to its military hospital.

All three women needed specialised medical help.

A military ambulance parked outside the family's room

Life for the women at the base is punctuated by bugle calls

During the evacuation, Lili, paralysed in one leg since a car crash in her youth, was struck by a rioter’s stone, which broke her bad knee.

Daniela was already going blind and Sani suffered from arthritis.

Nearly five years of constant stress had also taken its toll.

Their house was placed under 24-hour K-For guard in the summer of 1999 after intruders robbed and beat them.

The last time Sani had left the building was in October 2000, when she slipped past the guards to go to the nearby market.

Some teenage boys recognised her as a Serb and started to beat her. She fought back with her karate, but she says she “did not want to hurt them”. She returned home covered in blood.

The boys told the police she had fired a gun at them, she adds, and an Albanian policeman turned up at the house. But when he saw the K-For guards, he just said “no problem” and left, Sani says.

In November last year, the women left the hospital in Thessaloniki and returned to Camp Rigas Fereos at their own request.

Private property

While they were in Greece, new buildings were erected illegally on the site of their property, a prime location in the centre of Urosevac.

Sani Nikolic in her room at the Greek K-For camp
We have just this one card left to play, and we are playing it now. We have nothing else to lose
Sani Nikolic

Sani says she was phoned by an Albanian when she was still in Thessaloniki, and advised not to try to come back because there was “no room” in the town for her family now.

“I said to him: ‘You Albanians want to join the EU and from what I know, the English and the Americans respect private property very much. I don’t want yours, I just want my own back. And nobody can deny me that’.”

The UN refugee agency has offered them a new home in a village enclave near Urosevac but they are refusing.

“What would I do in a village?” asks Sani, an architect by profession.

“I have never lived in a village. I know nothing about agriculture. I am ill.

“If we agreed to be relocated to a village enclave somewhere, we know that we, like the other IDPs [internally displaced persons], would never get our home back.”

The newly elected mayor of Urosevac has taken an interest in their case and visited them at the camp this June. They gave him a file of property deeds.

The mayor pledged to ensure their information was processed through the legal system, K-For says.

Last card

K-For also says the Nikolic family cannot stay on the base indefinitely.

After all the family has suffered, and given their ill-health, age and isolation from other Serbs, I ask the women if it is not better to yield and accept a peaceful existence somewhere other than Urosevac – perhaps in Greece, which has they say, offered them asylum.

How can these three women, so proud and outspoken about their Serbian identity, even think of living again in a town that war turned against them?

They admit themselves that they feel uncomfortable in the camp, ever grateful to the Greek army for its hospitality and ever embarrassed about getting in the soldiers’ way.

Sani accepts the difficulty of returning now but her sense of grievance is greater.

“I will be frank,” she says.

“We know that we are like a thorn in the side for the Greek camp because as long as we are here, we are a problem they have to resolve.

“But this is the last card we have to play. We have nothing else to lose.”

Bin Laden driver given 66 months

Bin Laden driver given 66 months

Sketch of Salim Hamdan by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the US Military

This was the first US war crimes trial since World War II

Osama Bin Laden’s former driver has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison at the first US military trial in Guantanamo Bay.

Salim Hamdan was convicted on Wednesday of supporting terrorism, but acquitted of conspiracy to murder.

Prosecutors had demanded a sentence of not less than 30 years.

On time served Hamdan could be released in five months but the Pentagon has said he will still be retained as an “enemy combatant”.

The US has always argued it can detain such people indefinitely, as long as its so-called war on terror continues.

The Pentagon said Hamdan would serve his sentence and then be eligible for review.

Regret

The BBC’s Kim Ghattas at the trial says the sentence is a dramatic snub to the Bush administration and came after just one-and-a-half hours of deliberation.

The jury of six US military officers, not the judge, imposed the sentence under the tribunal rules.

“It is my duty as president [of the jury] to inform you that this military commission sentences you to be confined for 66 months,” a juror told Hamdan.

HAMDAN CHARGES
Conspiracy: Not guilty of two counts of conspiring with al-Qaeda to attack civilians, destroy property and commit murder
Providing support for terrorism: Guilty on five counts, including being the driver and bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden, a man he knew to be the leader of a terrorist group. Not guilty on three other counts

Our correspondent says Hamdan looked nervous as he walked in for sentencing but after hearing it, he told jurors: “I would like to apologise one more time to all the members and I would like to thank you for what you have done for me.”

The judge, Navy Capt Keith Allred, told Hamdan: “I hope the day comes when you return to your wife and your daughters and your country.”

Hamdan, who is aged about 40, smiled as he left court and said thank you to those in the room.

After the sentencing, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said: “He will serve out the rest of his sentence. At that time he will still be considered an enemy combatant.

“But he will be eligible for review by an Administrative Review Board.”

The boards decide annually on the threat posed by detainees and the possibility of their transfer or release.

The White House had earlier said the trial was “fair”.

The defence is still likely to go ahead with the appeal it announced on Wednesday.

Rights groups have condemned the tribunal system. Amnesty International said it was “fundamentally flawed” and should be abandoned.

‘Worked for wages’

In his earlier plea for leniency to the jury, Hamdan said in a prepared statement: “It’s true there are work opportunities in Yemen, but not at the level I needed after I got married and not to the level of ambitions that I had in my future.”

He said he regretted the loss of “innocent lives”.

Hamdan had admitted working for Bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001 for $200 (£99) a month, but said he worked for wages, not to wage war on the US.

About 270 suspects remain in detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Among the dozens of other inmates due to be tried there in the coming months are men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

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