News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Fugitive linked to Jakarta blasts

Fugitive linked to Jakarta blasts

Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta

Tributes are left for those killed in the hotel attacks

Indonesian officials say there are “strong indications” a key wanted fugitive was behind Friday’s deadly attacks on two hotels in Jakarta.

Noordin Mohamed Top is wanted for plotting the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and other Indonesian attacks.

Nine people, including two suicide bombers, died in the attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott.

At least four of Friday’s victims are said to be foreigners but have not all been formally identified.

Police in the Indonesian capital are studying DNA and other evidence to try to identify those behind the attacks.

The anti-terror chief, Ansyaad Mbai, has told the News he believes there are strong indications that Noordin was the mastermind behind the blasts.

NOORDIN MOHAMED TOP
Noordin Top (archive image)
Born in Malaysia, fled to Indonesia after 9/11
Wanted for planning bombings on Bali in 2002 and 2005 and other attacks
Said to have split from Jemaah Islamiah over strategy disagreements and set up new group
Main accomplice Azahari Husin killed by police in 2005
Escaped police raid in 2006 and continues to evade capture

Noordin was said to be a key financier for the Jemaah Islamiah militant group but is now thought to have set up his own splinter group.

Jemaah Islamiah has links to al-Qaeda and has a long track record of bomb attacks in Indonesia including the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

Friday’s bombs contained nails, ball bearings and bolts, identical to ones used by Jemaah Islamiah, police said.

Mr Mbai said he believed the aim of the attacks was to embarrass Indonesia’s government at a time when the country was enjoying a greater degree of stability than it had in the past.

The Indonesian people have been truly shocked by these attacks as they thought they had put events like this behind them.

Investigators on Friday recovered an unexploded bomb and other explosives material from what they said was the “control centre” for the attacks – room 1808 in the Marriott.

The attackers paid to stay at the hotel and smuggled in the explosives before detonating them in two restaurants on Friday.

CCTV footage showed one attacker wearing a cap pulling a bag on wheels into the Marriott restaurant, followed by a flash and smoke.

Security has been tightened across Indonesia in the wake of the attacks, with 500 troops put on standby to support police in the capital.

‘Shoulder to shoulder’

A New Zealander, businessman Tim Mackay, has been confirmed killed.

I strongly condemn the attacks that occurred… in Jakarta and extend my deepest condolences to all of the victims and their loved ones
Barack Obama

Indonesian police say Australians Nathan Verity and Garth McEvoy also died.

Their countryman, diplomat Craig Senger, was at the same breakfast meeting. He is missing and feared dead.

A health ministry report said a Singaporean and an Indonesian were also confirmed dead.

At least 17 foreigners were among the wounded, including eight Americans.

Other foreign nationals wounded included visitors from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and the UK.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono condemned the attacks as “cruel and inhuman”.

US President Barack Obama said: “I strongly condemn the attacks that occurred… in Jakarta and extend my deepest condolences to all of the victims and their loved ones.”

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is due to arrive in Jakarta on Saturday.

He said he wanted to stand “shoulder to shoulder with Indonesia at this terrible time”.

The Manchester United football team had been booked to stay in the Ritz-Carlton next week ahead of a game in Jakarta.

The team has cancelled the Indonesian leg of their tour.

The attacks come just weeks after the peaceful presidential elections.

The country of 240 million people has been praised in recent years for maintaining a pluralist democracy while finding and punishing radical Islamists responsible for the series of bombings more than five years ago.

Jakarta map

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


Have you been affected? Are you worried by the crisis?

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September 17, 2008

Norway joins fight to save Amazon

Norway joins fight to save Amazon

Carlito, a cattle rancher

Cattle ranching is blamed for up to 70% of current Amazon deforestation

Norway has pledged $1bn (£500m) to a new international fund to help Brazil protect the Amazon rainforest.

The donation is the first to the fund which Brazil hopes will raise $21bn to protect Amazon nature reserves.

Norway’s prime minister said the project was important in the fight to reduce global warming.

Brazil is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, with three-quarters of its total coming from the burning of trees in the Amazon.

The money will be released over seven years to promote alternatives to forest-clearing for people living in the Amazon, and support conservation and sustainable development.

The Amazon rainforest
Amazon map
Largest continuous tropical forest
Shared by nine countries
65% Brazilian territory
Covers 6.6m sq km in total
Pop: 30m – 23.5m are in Brazil

Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said: “Efforts against deforestation may give us the largest, quickest and cheapest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Brazilian efforts against deforestation are therefore of vital importance if we shall succeed in our campaign against global warming,” he added.

The Brazilian government wants to raise $21bn through foreign donors by 2021, although President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has insisted that the Amazon’s preservation is Brazil’s responsibility.

He welcomed Norway’s pledge, saying: “The day that every developed country has the same attitude as Norway, we’ll certainly begin to trust that global warming can be diminished.”

Japan, Sweden, Germany, South Korea and Switzerland are said to be considering donating to the fund, which was launched last month.

September 13, 2008

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Whalemeat hung out to dry in Uummannaq, Greenland

Whales and other marine mammals are traditional foods in Greenland

Greenland is attempting to remove its whale hunt from the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Its whalers are angry that the IWC has twice declined to permit the addition of humpback whales to its annual quota.

The move could eventually make Greenland the only state outside the commission to hunt the “great whales”.

The news comes on the eve of a Florida meeting aimed at finding compromise within the fractured IWC.

The meeting is the latest stage in a “peace process” which began more than a year ago.

But documents sent in by governments’ delegations – seen by BBC News – suggest fundamental divisions remain.

Divided rule

Greenland’s Inuit communities catch minke, fin and bowhead whales under regulations permitting hunting where there is a “nutritional and cultural need”.

At the 2007 and 2008 IWC meetings, Greenland – represented by Denmark, its former colonial ruler – requested adding an annual quota of 10 humpback whales.

The requests were turned down owing to concerns that Greenland had not demonstrated a real need for the meat, and that its existing hunting was too commercial in character.

WSPA

Now, a letter has gone from the fisheries ministry of the territory’s home-rule administration, based in Nuuk, to Denmark’s foreign ministry, asking that Greenland withdraw from the IWC.

It is not clear whether Greenland is asking for Denmark to leave the organization, or to stop representing it, or to re-draw the areas of responsibility of the Copenhagen and Nuuk administrations to make whaling a completely home-rule issue.

Danish officials declined to elaborate, and Greenlandic fisheries officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

The issue is expected to take several months to resolve.

Separate lives

A withdrawal by Greenland would have serious implications, because outside the IWC, its hunts would be able to expand without international oversight.

But there is resentment in several Arctic countries over what is seen as the imposition of “western cultural values” on communities that take most of their food from the sea.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s government represents Greenlanders in the IWC

Some ask the question, too, of why whaling is regulated globally when fisheries are managed through regional bodies.

The establishment of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (Nammco) in 1992 by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands is an indication that some northern countries are looking for a different way to manage what they regard as their marine resources.

In its annual meeting earlier this month, Nammco concluded that Greenlanders should have an annual quota of no more than 10 humpbacks.

For the moment, Greenland is adhering to the IWC ruling rather than Nammco’s recommendation; but given its latest move, that cannot be guaranteed to endure.

The establishment of a similar body to Nammco for the North Pacific is one of the options mooted by Japanese officials if the IWC becomes, in their view, beyond redemption.

Bridging the gap

With a view to healing the fissures within the IWC, chairman William Hogarth embarked more than a year ago on talks to explore whether some meeting of minds was possible.

Some anti-whaling activists decry the process because it could open the door to a limited lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting.

But others believe it is the only viable way to reduce the annual global kill, which – if quotas are fulfilled – stands at more than 2,000.

A working group of 28 countries – not including the UK – will now meet in Florida, Dr Hogarth’s home patch, to debate the issues that divide the organisation.

Thirteen countries have sent in statements of position, or comments, on the 33 issues that were agreed at the IWC plenary as needing attention.

Japan, as it has done regularly, says its traditional whaling communities should be permitted annual quotas.

THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
Objection – A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific – A nation issues unilateral ‘scientific permits’; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal – IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

It envisages that such whaling would have a large element of international oversight, and that the number of whales caught would be deducted from the annual scientific hunt in coastal waters.

But it makes no mention of its annual Antarctic catch, the major bone of contention for anti-whaling nations.

Some anti-whaling countries indicate a willingness to compromise on fundamental issues.

Argentina, for example, says that “issues such as scientific whaling and (Japanese) small-scale coastal whaling should be re-examined in the light of a spirit of commitment and within the framework of a dialogue which will allow us to leave aside the winner/loser rationale which has lately prevailed at IWC”.

But other anti-whaling countries, such as the Netherlands, are adamant that the commercial whaling moratorium should stay; that scientific hunting, which is presently in the gift of individual governments. must be brought under IWC control; and that no countries beyond Iceland, Japan and Norway should be permitted to start whaling.

South Korea, meanwhile, appears to suggest that it might ask for a quota if the moratorium were to be lifted, saying that some of its communities have a whaling culture dating back thousands of years, and that “the ever-lasting whaling moratorium is destined to give rise to continuing socio-economic hardships to the communities concerned.”

And Norway has weighed in to the Greenlandic humpback issue, saying that the IWC’s refusal of a quota showed “an appallingly patronizing attitude vis-a-vis the needs of indigenous communities”.

Dr Hogarth’s aim is to have a package of measures agreed before the next IWC plenary in mid-2009. The indications are that much hard bargaining lies ahead if his wish is to be fulfilled.

September 5, 2008

Easyjet’s passenger numbers rise

Easyjet’s passenger numbers rise

easyjet plane

Eayjet’s passenger traffic is up despite difficult market conditions

Easyjet has said that the number of passengers it flew in August this year rose 24% on the same month last year.

Europe’s second-largest budget airline said it transported some 4.6 million passengers in August 2008, compared to 3.7 million in August 2007.

Aer Lingus also saw an increase, flying 8.8% more passengers this August than in August 2007.

On a rolling 12-month basis to August 2008, Easyjet increased passenger numbers by 16.6%.

The number of seats filled also increased to 91.3% from 87.4% last August.

At Aer Lingus the load factor was 80.5% in August, a slight dip on 81.7% a year ago.

Easyjet shares were down 2% at 1005 BST, while Aer Lingus shares were down 0.9%.

Industry turbulence

The figures for Easyjet and Aer Lingus are relatively strong compared with those released on Friday by Scandinavian airline SAS.

SAS, which is partly owned by the governments of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, said traffic for August measured in revenue passenger kilometres, fell 0.7% and demand was weakening further.

Airlines worldwide have been effected by the economic deceleration and several airlines, including business airlines Silverjet, Maxjet and Eon and budget airline Zoom, have folded.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global airlines will post losses in the region of $5.2bn (£2.96bn) this year and $4.1bn in 2009.

August 30, 2008

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Amid frantic newspaper headlines about the possibility of a new Cold War, more and more governments around Europe are talking about their need for “energy security”.

What most of them actually mean is that they are not sure whether or not to trust the Russians.

A gas platform off the coast of Norway

Norway remains one of only two major fossil fuel exporters in Europe

There are only two big exporters of fossil fuels in Europe: Russia and Norway, so the choice – for countries without energy reserves of their own or fast depleting them – is limited.

And, undiplomatic as it is to admit it, the Norwegians stand to do very well out of the current political situation.

Officially, a healthy and productive competition exists between the two countries who share a border well above the Arctic Circle.

“We are also partners,” says Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, “because both Russia and Norway have an interest in the development of the European oil and gas market.

“And we welcome them into the market, because the market will be bigger if there are several suppliers.”

Mr Stoltenberg was speaking at the opening of an international conference about offshore energy in Stavanger, southern Norway.

Transparency

And, alongside the reassurances to his Russian neighbours, he did hint at his country’s trump card, when asked why the rest of Europe should take Norway as its energy supplier of choice.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Norway offers a reliable energy supply and a stable democracy

“We are a reliable supplier. And we have proved that over many years. And we have a very transparent, open energy sector.”

The head of the conference, ONS Director Kjell Ursin-Smith, was prepared to go even further.

“The situation is very interesting for Norway, of course. We are looked upon as a stable nation, whereas Russia still has a tainted reputation in that respect. So I think we will try to prove that we are a stable producer of oil and gas for Europe.”

The proof of the UK’s commitment to Norway as a gas provider of the future is a massive new pipeline – the biggest engineering project of its kind in the world – known as Ormen Lange.

The pipeline, whose name means “giant serpent” in old Norse will stretch from the Norwegian North Sea fields to Easington on the East Yorkshire coast.

Further afield

Some 745 miles of steel tubing have been painstaking laid up and down the canyons of the seabed, designed to deliver about 20% of the UK’s domestic gas needs for the next 50 years. It came on stream late last year.

The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.
Malcolm Wicks, UK energy minister

The days when Britain could rely on its own reserves to be self-sufficient in oil and gas are long gone – with a current annual depletion rate of about 8% a year – so there is no choice but to look abroad.

Britain has always made a virtue of its lack of political interference in the energy market, preferring to make deciding on a supplier a matter of pure economics and stress the need for “diversity of supply”.

But things might be changing.

“We’re aware of what’s going on now”, says the UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks.

He still stresses the need to source from more than one country, more than one route.

High stakes

But, he adds, referring to the incident in 2006 when Russia turned off gas supplies to its neighbor in order to force higher prices: “The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.

Map

“I think we have to be – how can I put it? – streetwise, when it comes to issues around energy security. Norway is a great partner to have. It’s a very sophisticated democracy with a great record when it comes to human rights. So the new pipeline is a good piece of democratic politics.”

The proportion of its energy western Europe has to import is likely to rise to about 70% in the coming decades, so the market is guaranteed and the stakes are high.

It remains to be seen whether the big two suppliers – Norway and Russia – will clash or co-operate when it comes to developing what is a potential El Dorado of the North – vast swathes of Arctic territory, largely in the Barents Sea, which new technology is opening up to oil and gas exploitation for the first time.

The disputes have already begun as to who owns what territory. Vast amounts of money are to be made.

Norway has known great wealth for nearly 40 years now, mostly thanks to its fossil fuel resources.

Russia, with an average per capita income still about a tenth the size of that of its tiny Scandinavian neighbor, has not.

And in these days of ‘new’ Russia rediscovering its confidence, reasserting its power in the world, observers of geo-politics can almost certainly expect fireworks.

August 21, 2008

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Pro-independence rally in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 21 Aug 08

Russian TV showed a huge crowd at the rally in Abkhazia

The separatist leaders of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have urged Russia to recognize their independence, at mass rallies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s response to their pleas would depend on the conduct of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it will keep troops in a security zone around South Ossetia.

The zone will stretch several km into Georgia proper. Russia also plans to reinforce its South Ossetia force.

“Tomorrow, eight checkpoints will be established in the security zone in which 500 peacekeepers will be deployed, no more than that,” said Mr Lavrov, quoted by Reuters news agency.

It is still not clear to what extent Russian military forces have withdrawn from Georgia, despite Moscow’s promise to pull out most of its troops by the end of Friday.

Russian troops on Abkhazia/Georgia border

Russian troops moved far into Georgia from the breakaway regions

Russian news agencies say an armored column, consisting of more than 40 vehicles, has passed through South Ossetia, on its way to the Russian border.

A correspondent in the Georgian village of Igoeti, just 35km (21 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, said he saw the Russian military pulling back towards South Ossetia early on Thursday afternoon. Russian forces were also reported still to be dug in around Georgia’s main Black Sea port of Poti.

Russia poured troops into Georgia after Georgian forces tried to retake South Ossetia on 7 August. Russian-led peacekeeping troops had been deployed there since a war in the early 1990s.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiyev – himself an Ossetian – plans to give a concert in South Ossetia with his St Petersburg orchestra on Thursday.

Chill in NATO-Russia ties

Meanwhile, Russia says it is reviewing its co-operation with NATO, which has insisted that Moscow pull its troops out of Georgia, in line with a French-brokered ceasefire agreement.

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 to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Nato said on Tuesday there could be no “business as usual” with Moscow.

At an emergency meeting, NATO suspended formal contacts with Russia because of the Russian military presence in Georgia.

“Relations with NATO will be reviewed,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency on Thursday.

“This will apply to the military co-operation programme,” he said.

Nato has accused Russia of failing to respect the truce, which requires both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to the positions they held before heavy fighting erupted in South Ossetia.

On Wednesday, Norway’s defence ministry said Russia had informed Norwegian diplomats that it was planning to freeze co-operation with Nato.

Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper said Oslo was trying to establish exactly what impact the Russian decision would have on existing co-operation, such as joint rescue operations and border controls. Norway shares a border with Russia in the Arctic.

A statement from the Norwegian defence ministry said: “Norway notes that Russia has decided that for now it is ‘freezing’ all military co-operation with Nato and allied countries.

“We expect that this will not affect planned activities in the areas of coastguard operations, search and rescue and resource management, because on the Russian side these are handled by civilian authorities.”

Russia has not yet given Norway formal written notification about its suspension of co-operation, a ministry spokesperson said.

Russia’s permanent envoy at Nato headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, has been recalled to Moscow for consultations, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports.

He said that in light of Nato’s position on the Georgia conflict, relations with Nato “really cannot remain as before”, but he added that “there will not be a cold war”.

A state secretary in Norway’s defence ministry, Espen Barth Eide, said “there’s no doubt that our relationship to Russia has now chilled”.

Georgia map

August 14, 2008

BA seals alliance with American

BA seals alliance with American

British Airways says it has sealed an alliance with American Airlines that will allow the two carriers to agree fares, routes and schedules together.

The move will also include Spain’s Iberia, which is merging with BA.

With aviation fuel prices near record levels and spending on air travel slowing, airlines are looking at ways to cut costs.

But the carriers will have to persuade the US that the deal does not break US rules on foreign ownership of airlines.

Challenges

Under the business agreement, the three airlines will co-operate on flights between the US, Mexico and Canada and the EU, Switzerland and Norway.

“We believe our proposed co-operation is an important step towards ensuring that we can compete effectively with rival alliances and manage through the challenges of record fuel prices and growing economic concerns,” said Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines.

However, BA’s rival Virgin Atlantic, owned by Sir Richard Branson, said the plan would reduce competition in the airline industry.

“What they’re proposing is to create the world’s biggest airline with American Airlines,” said Virgin’s Paul Charles.

“But we know what dominant players do – they snuff out competition, they raise prices and they become even more dominant.”

Competition

Peter Morris, an aviation analyst from Ascend, told that it was unlikely that the deal would be anti-competitive.

“I think BA would argue that it will reduce its cost structure, which it can then pass on, to a degree, to passengers.

“BA is far less dominant than any of Air France, KLM or Lufthansa are out of their hubs.”

AA and BA tailfins

The airlines hope the alliance will help them to cut costs

Mark Pritchard MP, a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, also saw the decision as “good news” for both UK and US consumers.

“With tougher trading conditions for most airlines – coupled with the need to support the spirit of the Open Skies Agreement, Congress has no real excuse to delay the deal unnecessarily,” he said.

The airlines said they planned to apply to the US Department of Transportation for immunity from US anti-competition rules and they would also notify European regulators.

They have previously failed to win an exemption from these laws because of their dominance at Heathrow, where BA and AA control nearly half of all the landing and take-off slots to the US from the airport.

‘Good news’

However, BA chief executive Willie Walsh said the relationship would strengthen competition by providing consumers with easier journeys to more destinations.

“This may not be good news for Richard Branson but it is good news for consumers,” Mr Walsh told.

Earlier this week, Sir Richard said he had written to presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain to warn that the proposed alliance between BA and American Airlines would severely damage competition on transatlantic routes.

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