News & Current Affairs

September 8, 2008

Three guilty of bomb conspiracy

Three guilty of bomb conspiracy

Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar

Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar were found guilty

Three men have been found guilty of a massive terrorist conspiracy to murder involving home-made bombs.

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain’s convictions follow a huge terrorism inquiry, which led to sweeping airport restrictions.

The three, on trial with another five men, had pleaded guilty to plotting to cause an explosion. Seven admitted plotting to cause a public nuisance.

The eighth man, Mohammad Gulzar, was cleared at Woolwich Crown Court.

The group had been accused of plotting to bring down transatlantic airliners with home-made liquid explosives, disguised as soft drinks.

But after more than 50 hours of deliberations, the jury did not find any of the defendants guilty of conspiring to target aircraft.

The jury was also unable to reach verdicts against four of the men in the six-month trial, all of whom were accused of recording martyrdom videos.

‘Inspired by al-Qaeda’

The court heard prosecutors allege that the eight men were planning to carry liquid explosives on to planes at Heathrow, knowing the devices would evade airport security checks.

Police said the plot had been inspired by al-Qaeda in Pakistan – and the August 2006 arrests caused chaos at airports throughout the country.

The court heard that the alleged plot could have caused unprecedented casualties, with a global political impact similar to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

But in their defense, the seven men who had recorded videos denouncing Western foreign policy said they had only planned to cause a political spectacle and not to kill anyone at all.

The ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, of Walthamstow, east London, created home-made liquid explosives in a flat which prosecutors said were designed to evade airport security.

He and five of the others – Ibrahim Savant, 27, of Stoke Newington, north London, and, from east London, Umar Islam, 30, of Plaistow, Hussain, 27, of Leyton, and Waheed Zaman, 24, and Arafat Waheed Khan, 27, both of Walthamstow – had recorded what the prosecution alleged were “martyrdom videos” denouncing the West and urging Muslims to fight.

Prosecutors said the bombers would then have completed and detonated the devices during their flights once all the targeted planes had taken off.

‘Political spectacle’

Sarwar was said in court to be the quartermaster of the plot, buying supplies needed to make the bombs.

Prosecutors said that Mr Gulzar, cleared by the jury, had flown into the country to oversee the plot’s final stages – something he vehemently denied during the trial.

The plot came to light after the largest ever surveillance operation involving officers from both MI5, the Metropolitan Police and other forces around the country.

Ali, Sarwar and Hussain told the jury they had wanted to create a political spectacle in protest over foreign policy. It would have included fake suicide videos and devices that would frighten rather than kill the public.

Ali, Sarwar and Hussain, along with Savant, Islam, Khan, and Zaman, also admitted conspiring to cause a public nuisance by making videos threatening bombings.

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September 3, 2008

Thai army chief rules out coup

Thai army chief rules out coup

At least four of the dozens wounded were said to be in serious condition [EPA]

Thailand’s army chief has ruled out the possibility of a military coup, hours after Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the capital.

“There is no possibility of a coup. We must turn to the  parliamentary mechanism,” General Anupong Paojinda told reporters on Tuesday.

The army chief also vowed not to use force against protesters following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Samak’s government which they say is a proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Samak declared the emergency after one person was killed and dozens were injured in Bangkok as police and both pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight on Monday.

New crisis

Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government.

The election commission recommended that his People’s Power Party (PPP) be disbanded for alleged electoral fraud committed during the elections in December.

The commission forwarded its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether to submit the case to the constitutional court for a final ruling.

This process could take months.Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Selina Downes, reported many were saying that the unanimous vote by the five-member commission could be the beginning of the end of the PPP.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of the court dissolving of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party last year. The party later regrouped under the PPP flag.

Thai newspapers have reported that the PPP is preparing for the worst and is lining up a new “shell” party to admit all its MPs, who could try to cobble together another coalition government.

Kudeb Saikrachang, the PPP spokesman, told that party MPs already had another party in mind in case the PPP were to be dissolved.

Soldiers deployed

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” the announcement read.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the street battles in the worst violence since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its street campaign against the prime minister in May.

Kudeb told Al Jazeera that the PPP had “no part” in the violence.

“We don’t support violent means whatsoever,” he added.

By sunrise on Tuesday, General Jongrak Jutanond, Bangkok’s police chief, said “the situation is now under control”.

Some schools were shut in Bangkok on Tuesday, but morning rush-hour traffic was flowing as normal and the airport, the main gateway for foreign tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

‘Soft option’

Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm.

In a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, he gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over “moderately quickly”.

The protesters have vowed to force out Samak’s government [EPA]

The prime minister had said last week that he had hoped to avoid declaring an emergency, but said he was left with little choice after violence erupted.”I did it to solve the problems of the country,” he said. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”

Correspondent Downes said the emergency law gave the prime minister absolute control over the situation, as he had made himself defense minister when he was elected in January and was therefore in charge of the military.

Under a state of emergency, Samak has special powers outside of the constitution to deploy police and soldiers on the streets to quell protests.

Our correspondent said there had been mounting pressure on the government to get a handle on the increasingly chaotic situation.

The PAD had been in the driving seat after storming and occupying the Government House compound a week ago.

Many analysts said there appeared no other way out of the situation.

Strike threat

On Monday, the PAD had announced that its supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a “general strike” set for Wednesday.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into”

Chamlong Srimuang, anti-government protest leader

Alliance supporters said they also would delay departures of flights of the national airline.They were already disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation as well.

Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.

Leaders of the anti-government protest movement that has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past week said they would not budge.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the PAD that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound camped in behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

Samak’s announcement blamed unnamed people for “wreaking havoc” and undermining the economy and national unity.

Thais Al Jazeera spoke to were angry and frustrated that they were “back to square one” two years after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup after weeks of street protests against the then prime minister.

September 1, 2008

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

Soldiers at Trooping the Colour

Bearskin-hatted guardsmen at this year’s Trooping the Colour

The Ministry of Defense is to meet an animal rights group to discuss alternatives to the bearskin hats worn by guards at Buckingham Palace.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has approached Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney to design a new shape for the 18in hat.

The charity has previously called for fake fur to be used, but said the MoD was not happy with prototype designs.

Baroness Taylor, minister for defense procurement, will meet Peta on Tuesday.

Tourist sight

The MoD says it is open to alternatives to real bearskin, but that previous attempts to replace it with synthetic fur have failed because the material has not been durable or weatherproof enough.

The ministry also wants to avoid if possible any change in the look of the red-coated sentries guarding Buckingham Palace, whose uniforms have long been one of the top tourist sights in London.

However, Peta is proposing a new hat shape and has also approached designer Marc Bouwer as well as McCartney and Westwood.

Robbie LeBlanc, Peta’s director for Europe, said that although the group was proposing a different shape for the hats it did not mean the new design could not become “iconic”.

“Most people think it’s fake fur and when they find out it’s real and it takes one bear to make a hat, they are appalled,” he said.

‘Inexcusable’

The meeting is the culmination of a media campaign by Peta that has included a naked protest outside Buckingham Palace.

More recently, comedian Ricky Gervais sent an open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, calling the continued use of real fur inexcusable.

“I understand and appreciate the importance of uniforms, but continuing to use real fur in the 21st century is inexcusable, regardless of ‘tradition’,” the letter said.

“The public are relying on you to bring about a humane changing of the guards.”

August 28, 2008

Putin blames US for Georgia role

Putin blames US for Georgia role

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Mr Putin said US citizens were in the area during the conflict

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused the US of provoking the conflict in Georgia, possibly for domestic election purposes.

Mr Putin told CNN US citizens were “in the area” during the conflict over South Ossetia and were “taking direct orders from their leaders”.

He said his defense officials had told him the provocation was to benefit one of the US presidential candidates.

The White House dismissed the allegations as “not rational”.

Georgia tried to retake the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia this month by force after a series of clashes.

Russian forces subsequently launched a counter-attack and the conflict ended with the ejection of Georgian troops from both South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, and an EU-brokered ceasefire.

Diplomatic wrangling

Mr Putin said in the interview: “The fact is that US citizens were indeed in the area in conflict during the hostilities.

“It should be admitted that they would do so only following direct orders from their leaders.”

Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defence officials who said they believed this to be true are giving him really bad advice
Dana Perino,
White House spokeswoman

Mr Putin added: “The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.

“Why… seek a difficult compromise solution in the peacekeeping process? It is easier to arm one of the sides and provoke it into killing another side. And the job is done.

“The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino rejected the allegation.

“To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate – it sounds not rational,” she said.

“Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defense officials who said they believed this to be true are giving him really bad advice.”

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

Diplomatic wrangling over Russia’s actions in Georgia continued on Thursday with the Georgian parliament urging its government to cut diplomatic ties with Moscow.

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested some EU countries were considering sanctions against Russia.

Mr Kouchner insisted France had made no proposals for sanctions itself but, as current president of the EU, would aim to get consensus among all 27 countries of the bloc if sanctions were envisaged.

France has called an emergency EU summit on Monday to reassess relations with Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described talk of sanctions as the working of “a sick imagination”.

Such talk was an emotional response that demonstrated Western confusion over the situation, he said.

The US has said it is now considering scrapping a US-Russia civilian nuclear co-operation pact in response to the conflict.

“I don’t think there’s anything to announce yet, but I know that that is under discussion,” Mr Perino said.

The White House has also announced that up to $5.75m (£3.1m) will be freed to help Georgia meet “unexpected and urgent refugee and migration needs”.

Rocket test

Earlier on Thursday Russia failed to get strong backing from its Asian allies over the Georgia conflict.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), comprising Russia, China and Central Asian nations, met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and spoke of its deep concern.

The group did not follow Russia in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev insisted he had the backing of the nations over Moscow’s actions.

Amid the rising tension, Russia announced on Thursday it had successfully tested its long-range Topol ballistic missile from a launch site in Kamchatka in the far east of the country.

Russia says the rocket is capable of penetrating the proposed US missile defence.

August 7, 2008

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Beijing air ‘safe for athletes’

Security personnel stand in front of a Bird's Nest stadium hidden by haze on 7 August 2008

Concerns over air quality have persisted in the run-up to the Games

Beijing’s air quality poses no risk to athletes’ health, Jacques  Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has told reporters.

Mr Rogge said checks were in place to protect competitors amid persistent concerns about poor air quality.

He was speaking as dignitaries from around the world gathered in China’s capital for Friday’s opening ceremony.

Among them is US President George Bush, who earlier expressed “deep concerns” about Beijing’s human rights record.

Speaking in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before travelling to the Games, Mr Bush praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realize its full potential.

China later rejected Mr Bush’s criticisms as “interference” in its internal affairs.

Air target missed

A day before the Games, a BBC reading suggested Beijing’s air quality was far below World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.

It put levels of particulate matter (PM10) at 191 micrograms per cubic metre. This far exceeds the WHO target of 50 micrograms/cubic metre, and also exceeds the WHO target for developing countries of 150 micrograms/cubic metre.

Graph

But Mr Rogge insisted there was no threat to Olympic competitors.

“Of course we prefer clear skies, but the most important thing is that the health of the athletes is protected,” Mr Rogge said in the news conference.

He said there was “absolutely no danger” to the health of athletes taking part in events that last less than one hour. But he said if the pollution was bad, events which lasted more than that could be shifted or postponed.

Mr Rogge urged reporters to distinguish between fog and pollution – a point, correspondents say, often made by Chinese authorities.

“The fog, you see, is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean that this fog is the same as pollution,” he said.

And he praised China’s efforts to clean up the air around Beijing – efforts, he said, which would “continue and have a lasting influence on the climate of Beijing”.

Separately, Mr Rogge said athletes would be prevented from making any political statement or protest in official venues – in accordance with Rule 51 of the Olympic charter, which forbids athletes from making political, religious, commercial or racial propaganda.

But he said they were free to do this in protest areas provided by Chinese authorities, and that “common sense” would be used to judge violations.

China defense

Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch began making its last stops on a journey that has seen it pass through five continents.

America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists
President Bush

Patriotic crowds lined the mist-shrouded Great Wall waving fans and cheering, while streams of confetti shot into the air as the torch was lit from the Olympic flame.

The torch, while welcomed in many nations, has also been a magnet for protesters critical of China’s respect for rights.

Mr Bush hit out at China’s “detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists” before he arrived in China for the opening ceremony.

But China offered a robust defence of its record in response, insisting it “put its people first”.

In other developments:

  • The two Koreas said they would not march together at the opening ceremony, a reversal on the last two Olympic Games
  • Tibetan groups have held large protests in both India and Nepal on the eve of the Games
  • China has selected basketball star Yao Ming to carry the national flag in the opening ceremony.

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