Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Five held for plotting attack on Danish paper

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Police arrested five people on Wednesday suspected of planning a Mumbai-style attack to kill as many people as possible in a building housing a Danish paper that outraged Muslims in 2005 with cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.
Denmark's PET security police said the suspects had planned to enter a Copenhagen office block housing several newspapers including offices of the daily Jyllands-Posten to "kill as many as possible of those around."
PET chief Jakob Scharf said the plot was probably meant to be like a deadly 2008 assault in the Indian city of Mumbai.
"It is our assessment, based on our investigation, that the plans were to try to get access to the location where the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten is situated in Copenhagen and try to carry out a Mumbai-style attack on that location," Scharf said.
"It is our assessment that this is a militant Islamist group and they have links to international terrorist networks," he told a news conference.
Many foreigners, some of India's wealthy business elite as well as poor commuters, were among the 166 people killed by 10 Pakistani gunmen in a three-day coordinated attack through some of Mumbai's landmarks, including two hotels and a Jewish center.
Scharf said authorities could not rule out the possibility that the plotters may be linked to David Headley, a Chicago man who was arrested in October 2009 and pleaded guilty in March this year to scouting targets for the Mumbai attack.
Four of the five suspects were detained at flats in two Copenhagen suburbs, and one in Stockholm, PET said.
In connection with the arrests in Denmark, police found a machine gun with a silencer, ammunition and plastic strips that could be used as handcuffs, PET said. Scharf said that the attack was planned to be carried out by January 1.
Jyllands-Posten was the newspaper that first published the Mohammad cartoons, provoking protests against Danish and European interests in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in which at least 50 people died.
Danish Justice Minister Lars Barfoed said those detained had a "militant Islamic background" and called the plan the most serious such attempt in Denmark so far.
Danish police detained a 44-year-old Tunisian national, a 29-year-old Swedish citizen, born in Lebanon, and a 30-year-old Swedish national, whose country of origin was unknown and a 26-year-old Iraqi asylum applicant, the PET said.
Simultaneously, Swedish authorities in Stockholm detained a 37-year-old Swedish citizen of Tunisian origin, all but the Iraqi were Swedish residents, it said. The suspects will be charged with attempted terrorism, PET said.
The head of Swedish security police SAPO, Anders Danielsson, told the news conference that the Denmark plot did not have any known links to December 11 bomb blasts in Stockholm.
"We have known for ... years that Sweden and the Scandinavian countries have not been safe havens, but countries where we know people have stayed and planned to commit terrorist crimes in other countries," Danielsson told Reuters.
The Nordic region, especially Denmark, attracted the rage of militant Islamists around the world after the 2005 cartoons.
Sketches of the Prophet by Swedish artist Lars Vilks in 2007 sparked similar outrage, but did not prompt immediate violence. Vilks has faced numerous death threats as well as an attempted arson attack on his home.
In Stockholm two weeks ago, a man blew himself up as he was preparing to set off bombs, possibly at a train station or a department store, according to police.
In that case an email -- thought to have come from the bomber -- was sent just before the attack, protesting against Vilks's sketches and Sweden's military presence in Afghanistan.
Both Denmark and Sweden have committed troops to U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, while Danish soldiers were also stationed in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.
Police uncovered a plot last year to attack Jyllands-Posten, and in January the creator of the most controversial cartoon escaped an axe attack by a man with al Qaeda links.
Last September, a man who was later found to have a map with the address of Jyllands-Posten's headquarters in the city of Aarhus set off a small explosion in a Copenhagen hotel.
(Writing by Adam Cox and Niklas Pollard; additional reporting by Teis Jensen in Copenhagen, Elinor Schang Olof Swahnberg and Johan Sennero; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Bombs, shootings hit Nigeria before election year

MAIDUGURI/YENEGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Bombs hit a political rally in a southern Nigerian city on Wednesday, a day after three people were shot dead in the north of the country, as tensions rise before a series of elections next year.
The two bombs exploded in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa's largest oil and gas industry.
Beemo Seiff, a ruling party candidate running in Bayelsa state governorship elections, was holding a rally in the state capital Yenegoa when the first blast went off.
Baylesa state police commissioner Aliyu Musa said no one had been killed but a number of people had been taken to hospital with injuries.
"It was dynamite explosives planted at the venue earlier by people who are still at large. We are investigating," said Musa. "The aim of the people responsible was to stop the rally."
Nigeria can ill-afford a security crisis before presidential, parliamentary and governorship elections next April. Some politicians and members of the police have said recent attacks are aimed at disrupting election plans.
Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect which has claimed responsibility for bombings and church attacks on December 24, was believed to be behind the killing of three more people at a hospital on Tuesday, the police said.
The three victims, including a senior police officer, were killed when men fired shots in a teaching hospital in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
On Christmas Eve, bombings in central Nigeria and ensuing violence between Christian and Muslim youths led to the deaths of at least 80 people, while attacks on churches in the north of the country took the lives of six more.
Boko Haram said on its website on Tuesday it was behind the Christmas Eve bombings in the central city of Jos and attacks on churches in Maiduguri the same evening.
The group, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the Hausa language spoken across northern Nigeria, is loosely modeled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. It demands the introduction of Islamic law across Nigeria.
Maiduguri sits in one of Nigeria's poorest regions near its northeastern borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Nigeria, a vast nation with more than 140 million people, is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Boko Haram's views are not espoused by most Nigerian Muslims.
President Goodluck Jonathan has promised to track down those responsible for the bombings and will want to ease the country's concerns over security before his controversial bid in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) primaries on January 13.
A ruling party pact says that power within the PDP should rotate between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms.
Jonathan is a southerner who inherited the office when President Umaru Yar'Adua, a northerner, died during his first term this year and some northern factions in the ruling party are opposed to his candidacy.
Jonathan faces a challenge from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a northerner, for the ruling party nomination, and some fear any unrest in Africa's most populous nation will be exploited by rivals during campaigning.
The governor of Plateau state has said the Christmas Eve bombings were politically motivated terrorism, aimed at pitting Christians against Muslims to start another round of violence before the elections.
Nigeria was shaken by car bomb attacks in the capital Abuja in October, claimed by a rebel group in the oil-producing Niger Delta, a region where violence has also flared up in the last month.
(Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by David Stamp)

Vatican to announce new money laundering rules

ROME (Reuters) – The Vatican will announce new rules to combat financial crime Thursday as it continues to deal with a money laundering probe that has seen 23 million euros ($30.23 million) sequestered from its banking institution.
The Vatican said in a statement Wednesday that Pope Benedict would issue a so-called apostolic letter on combating financial crime, money laundering and the funding of terrorism. The Holy See would create a financial information authority.
The Vatican bank, formally known as the Institution for Religious Works (IOR), has been under investigation for suspected violations of European Union money laundering rules since September. It denies any wrongdoing.
The IOR primarily manages funds for the Vatican and institutions around the world such as charity organizations and religious orders of priests and nuns.
Finance police have frozen 23 million euros of the IOR's funds held in an account in an Italian bank in Rome after authorities deemed that two transactions were suspicious.
One was a transfer of 20 million euros to a German branch of a U.S. bank and the other was 3 million euros transferred to an Italian bank.
The Vatican said it had simply transferred its own money between its own accounts and denied any wrongdoing.
Under Bank of Italy money laundering rules, foreign banks operating in Italy, including the IOR, must provide detailed information about the origins of funds they transfer.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Ralph Boulton)

South Korea's Lee says talks the answer to nuclear crisis

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea's president has urged negotiations to tackle the peninsula's nuclear crisis but analysts say chances of international talks are slim because of deep divisions and a lack of pressure on the emboldened North.
Lee Myung-bak, who has vowed a tough stance against any further attack by the North, also called on Wednesday for fresh dialogue between the rival Koreas, saying a hardline military policy alone by the South would not ease tension.
Six-party talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear work, which the North walked out of two years ago, were the only forum to end the programme in return for aid and diplomatic recognition, Lee said at a Foreign Ministry policy briefing.
"I think removal of the North Korea nuclear programmes should be achieved through six-party talks next year," he said.
But analysts say they doubt that can be done, given that the North has no reason to make big concessions.
There may be meetings between countries involved in the six-way talks, but for North Korea "denuclearization" -- the original purpose of talks involving the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan -- is out of the question, they say.
"There could be some sort of alternative process in 2011 but it is hard to say. There is a lot of pessimism about North Korea right now," said Scott Snyder, an expert on U.S-Korea relations at the Asia Foundation.
A meeting between North and South Korea, backed by the United States, could be an option to kick off a diplomatic process although chances of success were low, he said.
Like the United States, South Korea has signaled that it is loath to restart the diplomatic process unless its reclusive neighbor shows steps toward dismantling its nuclear programme.
The United States will not be keen for involvement in talks aimed at sending in nuclear inspectors as it wants the removal, not the monitoring, of North Korea's atomic work.
It also wants China, the North's main ally and economic backer, to do more to rein in Pyongyang, but China has called for a restart of the six-party talks without preconditions.
Uranium enrichment work revealed last month could give North Korea, which conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, a second route to an atomic bomb, in addition to its plutonium programme.
Washington is expected to voice such concerns when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the United States on January 19.
North Korea attacked the southern island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, killing four people. The United States and South Korea also blamed it for sinking a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors.
The North has increased air force drills by 150 percent in December compared with last year, despite fuel shortages, in response to the heightened tension, JoongAng Daily reported on Wednesday, citing a South Korean military source.
Another analyst said the North's recent hostile acts were aimed at pushing countries back into talks at which it could win aid.
"They are willing to talk about restrictions of their nuclear programme, and they might be willing to accept certain restrictions if the rewards are sufficiently high," said Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Others say the aggression is motivated by issues related to the North's leadership succession.
"I see things being internally driven, not from vulnerability but in terms of making Kim Jong-un earn his stars, of smoothing the succession," said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
He said preparation for the succession appeared essential ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il-sung, the young heir's grandfather.
North Korea has said it wants to build a "great and prosperous nation" by then and the nuclear programme would be a key element of that vision.
"This is part of their identity, one of their few accomplishments in recent years. They attach far too much value to the programme to bargain it away right now," Beck said.
While urging negotiations, Lee also said South Korea must not let down its military guard.
"Ensuring peace on the Korea peninsula is an important task going forward but this can't be done with diplomacy only," he said.
Lee has come under pressure domestically for what was seen as a weak response to the attack on Yeonpyeong island.
Last week, he vowed "a merciless counterattack" against any new North Korean assault as the South Korean army held rare large-scale military drills near the border in a demonstration of military might. (Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel)

More talks needed in Ivory Coast crisis: envoys

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – A delegation of three West African presidents who met incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum to step down or face force left saying more meetings were needed.
Gbagbo's government, meanwhile, remained defiant in the face of international pressure to cede power, saying it would sever ties with any country that recognized envoys named by rival presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara.
"The government would like to make it known that, in the light of such decisions, it reserves the right to apply reciprocity in ending the missions of their ambassadors in Ivory Coast," the government's spokesman said in a statement on national television on Tuesday.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie had said France would accredit a new Ivorian ambassador at the request of the government headed by Ouattara, whom it recognizes as the winner of last month's contested election.
Three west African presidents -- Benin's Thomas Boni Yayi, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma and Cape Verde's Pedro Pires -- met Gbagbo to deliver an ultimatum from the ECOWAS regional bloc to step down as leader of the world's top cocoa grower or be removed by force.
The delegation planned to travel to Nigeria to report back to the bloc's chairman, President Goodluck Jonathan.
"The chairman will negotiate a date for our return, but it would be soon," Cape Verde's president said.
The foreign minister of Gbagbo's government, Alcide Djedje, said the next meeting would be "around January 2."
Gbagbo's government has signaled he is unlikely to agree to bow to international pressure and cede power to Ouattara, considered by regional and world powers to be the legitimate winner of last month's presidential election.
The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power.
Gbagbo's camp originally said it would welcome the visiting leaders "as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey." But shortly before the meeting, his government warned it would not tolerate any meddling in its affairs.
"Let's avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a president in a sovereign state," government spokesman Ahoua Don Melo told the BBC when asked if Gbagbo would leave.
Post-election violence has killed more than 170 people and threatens to tip the country back into civil war.
In a sign of mounting tensions, a crowd attacked a United Nations convoy on Tuesday, wounding one peacekeeper with a machete and setting fire to a vehicle, according to a statement issued by the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast.
Provisional election results showed Ouattara winning by 8 percentage points. But the nation's top court, run by a Gbagbo ally, overturned the results amid allegations of fraud.
The standoff turned violent this month after Ouattara supporters tried to seize the state broadcaster's building and clashed with security forces. At least 20 people were killed.
After several days of calm, sporadic gunfire was heard on Tuesday morning in the Abidjan neighborhood of Abobo, a stronghold of Ouattara supporters. A Reuters witness said police were chasing youths trying to set up barricades with burning tires. It was not known if there were any casualties.
But the diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis appeared to be calming tensions, for now at least.
A mass rally planned for Wednesday by the powerful pro-Gbagbo "Young Patriot" movement, led by firebrand Charles Ble Goude, who is Gbagbo's youth minister, was postponed.
"Let's allow for diplomacy to run its course, that's why I'm going to cancel the rally tomorrow at Place de la Republique," Ble Goude told Reuters.
The turmoil has pushed cocoa futures to four-month highs amid fears it could eventually disrupt exports. Ivory Coast's eurobond, meanwhile, hit a record low last week on concern that the country would not meet an interest payment of nearly $30 million due on December 31.
Creditors will try to start negotiations with Ivory Coast in January if it fails to pay on time, a senior debt negotiator said on Tuesday in an interview with Reuters.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Iran hangs man convicted of spying for Mossad: IRNA

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran on Tuesday hanged an Iranian convicted of spying for the Islamic Republic's arch foe Israel, the official IRNA news agency quoted a statement from the judiciary as saying.
Ali Akbar Siadat was found guilty of relaying sensitive data to Mossad, having worked for the Israeli intelligence agency since 2004. He was arrested four years later when he tried to leave Iran with his wife.
Iran and Israel have been enemies since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and Tehran periodically announces the arrest of people suspected of spying for Israel, which Iran refuses to recognize.
"Ali Akbar Siadat, who spied for Israel's Mossad, was hanged inside the Evin prison (in Tehran) this morning," IRNA said.
"He was convicted of corruption on Earth, confronting the Islamic Republic and strengthening the Zionist regime (Israel)."
"Siadat confessed receiving $60,000 for transferring classified information to Mossad on Iran's military activities," IRNA said. The statement said he had been given "special equipment including a laptop" to contact Mossad.
IRNA said Siadat met Israeli agents in Turkey, Thailand and the Netherlands among other countries. He gave them information on Iran's military drills, military bases, military aircraft as well as missile systems operated by the Revolutionary Guards, the news agency said.
A convicted Iranian, Ali Ashtari, was hanged in Iran in 2008 for working with Mossad. Israel denied any links with the case.
Iran often accuses Israel and the United States of trying to destabilize the Islamic Republic.
Israel, believed to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, sides with the United States and its allies in accusing Iran of seeking to build atomic weapons of its own.
Iran denies this, saying it wants to use nuclear power to generate electricity.
Israel has not ruled out military strikes on Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the stand off over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Iran has vowed to retaliate to any strikes with missile salvoes on Israel and U.S. targets in the Gulf.
IRNA also said Ali Saremi, a member of the exiled opposition group the Mujahideen Khalq Organization, was hanged for various offences, including "moharebe" or waging war against God.
Under Iran's penal code, imposed since its 1979 Islamic revolution, espionage and waging war against God can carry the death penalty.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)

UAE considered keeping Hamas hit under wraps: WikiLeaks

DUBAI (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates chose to release details of a Hamas leader's assassination in Dubai nearly a year ago, after deciding silence would be seen as siding with Israel, U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks showed.
The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in an hotel room -- which UAE police said was very likely the work of Israel's Mossad spy agency -- was carried out in January by a team using forged passports and disguises.
"The two options discussed were to say nothing at all, or to reveal more or less the full extent of the UAE's investigations," U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson wrote in a diplomatic cable, citing a conversation with a UAE government media adviser.
Saying nothing "would have been perceived as protecting the Israelis," the ambassador wrote. The cables released on the WikiLeaks website show the hit was discussed for nine days at the highest levels before being released to the public.
"The statement was carefully drafted not to point any fingers, but the reference ... to a gang with Western passports will be read locally as referring to the Mossad," Olson wrote.
Israel has said there was no proof that its intelligence agency was behind the murder, which eliminated a Hamas leader suspected of smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip.
Dubai officials were not immediately available for comment on the cables.
As Dubai splashed details of the hit, complete with surveillance camera footage and passport scans, a diplomatic row erupted since many of the suspected assassins were traveling on forged European passports.
The cables, written soon after the assassination, do not reveal the identities of the agents. But Dubai's police chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim had said he expected they would show that Mossad was involved in the murder.
"The documents will surely prove to those who doubted us," Tamim said, Gulf News quoted him as saying in a report last Friday.
(Reporting by Martina Fuchs; editing by David Stamp)

Russia accuses West of meddling in Khodorkovsky trial

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused the United States and Europe on Tuesday of trying to influence the trial of jailed former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling such efforts unacceptable and warning the West to mind its own business.
Moscow's angry message came as Khodorkovsky, whose imprisonment has been a bone of contention between Russia and the West for years, awaited a new sentence that could keep him in jail until 2017 after being found guilty of theft.
Prosecutors are seeking an additional six-year prison term for Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil company CEO who is 10 months from the end of an eight-year sentence imposed after a previous trial during Vladimir Putin's presidency.
"Attempts to apply pressure on the court are unacceptable," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, responding to U.S. and EU criticism aired on Monday after Khodorkovsky was found guilty of multi-billion-dollar theft and money laundering.
"We are counting on everyone to mind his own business -- both at home and in the international arena," it said.
In the second trial, prosecutors said Khodorkovsky stole $27 billion in oil from Yukos subsidiaries through pricing schemes and laundered some of the money, charges he called absurd.
Western officials said the guilty verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin's commitment to the rule of law and human rights, and warned they were closely watching the case.
The Russian ministry said the trial was a matter for Russia's courts and rejected U.S. suggestions that the verdict resulted from selective justice as "groundless."
The warning suggested the outcome of Khodorkovsky's second trial could cause friction with Europe and strain the "reset" that has improved ties between the United States and Russia.
It echoed accusations of Western meddling during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency, when Russia bristled at frequent U.S. and EU criticism.
Trial judge Viktor Danilkin edged toward sentencing Khodorkovsky, who has been in jail since 2003, plowing through a lengthy guilty verdict against the tycoon and his business partner Platon Lebedev.
Danilkin is expected to hand down the sentence sometime this week when he finishes reading out the verdict.
Khodorkovsky's defense team has alleged government pressure on the judge and vowed to appeal.
One of the young tycoons who built fortunes after the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin's Kremlin after airing corruption allegations, challenging state control over oil exports and funding opposition parties.
Putin is now prime minister but remains Russia's most powerful man. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has made freeing Russia's courts of political influence and corruption, along with modernizing the economy, two of the top goals of his presidency.
Police blocked the streets within 100 meters of Moscow's Khamovnichesky court on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of protesters gathered outside, calling for Khodorkovsky's release and shouting "Shame!." Police detained about 30 demonstrators.
A harsh sentence in Khodorkovsky's second trial would draw further criticism of Medvedev, the protege Putin steered into the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against a constitutional limit of two straight Kremlin terms.
Medvedev has courted U.S. and EU support for modernization, putting on a more pleasant face than Putin often showed to foreign powers in his presidency and traveling to California's Silicon Valley in search of ideas for innovation.
He signed a major nuclear arms limitation treaty with President Barack Obama in April, the centerpiece of a drive to improve ties between the Cold War foes.
Reacting on Monday to a verdict she said raised serious concerns about "the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said independent courts were necessary for modernization.
"We welcome President Medvedev's modernization plans, but their fulfillment requires the development of a climate where due process and judicial independence are respected," Clinton said.
The EU expressed concern, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the developments "highly alarming and a step backward for the country on its road toward modernization."
Medvedev is struggling to show significant results on his reform initiatives as a 2012 presidential election approaches.
Putin has said he and Medvedev will decide together on a Kremlin candidate for the vote, but many Russians believe Putin will ultimately make the choice.
The two leaders set conflicting tones in the days before the verdict's delivery, with Putin telling the nation Khodorkovsky had blood on his hands and Medvedev stressing that no official should comment in advance of the verdict.
After Khodorkovsky's 2003 arrest, Yukos was bankrupted by back-tax claims and its top assets sold to the state, deepening Western concerns over property rights and the rule of law.
(Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski and Alissa de Carbonnel; writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by David Stamp)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

After the Strike, Spain's Air-Traffic Controllers Face a Backlash

At the behest of Prime Minister JosÉ Luis RodrÍguez Zapatero, Spain's congress last Thursday extended until Jan. 15 the "state of alarm" that has kept the Air Force in charge of the country's airspace ever since an air-traffic control strike paralyzed airports in early December. If that seems like an unusually militaristic step for a Socialist to take, chalk it up to hard times: the Zapatero government has learned that cracking down on air-traffic controllers is a good way to garner support.
The lesson began on Dec. 3, when the government declared that air-traffic controllers would each be responsible for working 1,670 hours a year rather than the 1,200 previously agreed upon. For the controllers, who had spent the past year in fractious contract negotiations with the publicly owned airport authority AENA, the imposed increase was the last demoralizing straw: a majority of the 420 or so who showed up for the 5 p.m. shift that evening stated that they were too mentally distressed to work - and had the medical certificates to back them up. Within hours, air traffic through the country had ground to a halt, and AENA was forced to closed Spanish airspace.
"What [the air-traffic controllers] did was a crime," says JesÚs Cruz VillalÓn, professor of labor law at the University of Sevilla. "They have the right to strike, but they have to do it legally, by notifying the proper institutions, and guaranteeing minimum services. And they didn't do that, because the government would have demanded a high level of minimal services that would have diluted the impact of the walkout."
The controllers have apologized for their actions, but assert that the government's decision made them feel cornered. "It was a mistake," says CÉsar Cabo, spokesperson for the Syndicated Union of Air Controllers (USCA) of the wildcat strike. "But it was a desperate cry from a collective that didn't see any alternative, that felt itself under attack."
The controllers' desperation was soon matched by that of some 650,000 passengers, as thousands of flights were disrupted just as a five-day holiday weekend was getting underway. As the strike neared its second day, Zapatero intervened, declaring a state of alarm for the first time in the history of modern Spanish democracy. That permitted the government to militarize the country's air towers, and oblige the controllers to return to work. "We had to take unprecedented measures to re-establish normalcy," said Development Minister JosÉ Blanco at the time. "Because [the strike] was an unacceptable attempt at blackmail that we've never seen before."
The prime minister's decision also made a government that has struggled to appear effective in the face of a dire economic situation look suddenly forceful. Despite the fact that 85% of the nation's air-traffic controllers have signed a statement promising not to strike if the state of alarm were lifted, last Thursday Blanco again took a hard line, scoffing, "To suggest that some signatures should determine the action of a government is to return to sabotage and blackmail."
And with public opinion on its side for the first time since the economy began its freefall, the government isn't stopping at extending the state of alarm. Recently, Spain's attorney general CÁndido Conde-Pumpido brought charges against the controllers for sedition; if the court finds them guilty, they could be sentenced to up to eight years in prison. And the state is also investigating whether the controllers can be fired for their participation in the strike - a tactic that Ronald Reagan adopted when U.S. controllers staged a massive strike in 1981.
Meanwhile, a group of affected passengers, which now numbers over 5,500, plans to file a civil suit before the end of the year demanding 10,000 euros per passenger in "moral damages." "One boy in the Canary Islands was supposed to fly to Madrid for heart surgery," says David GÓmez, one of the lawyers at Cremades and Calvo-Sotelo, the firm that is representing the group (and which, not incidentally, also represented Spanish claimants against Bernie Madoff). "They had to cancel the operation. Shouldn't those who decided to abandon their posts have to compensate him?"
Union members suggest that, in fact, the government's unilateral decision to increase work hours was a trap, designed to direct the public's attention away from the country's financial woes and AENA's misguided policies. "They counted on us overreacting to cover up the problems with their own mismanagement," says Cabo. "And we fell into it."
JesÚs Lehera, professor of labor law at Madrid's Complutense University, thinks there could be some truth to that. "The government may have acted illegally by breaching the collective agreement and increasing the number of [work] hours. But by doing what they did, the controllers have lost their legitimacy," he says. "And they've only strengthened the government's hand."

Iraqi churches cancel Christmas festivities

KIRKUK, Iraq – Iraqi Christians on Wednesday called off Christmas festivities across the country as al-Qaida insurgents threatened more attacks on a beleaguered community still terrified from a bloody siege at a Baghdad church two months earlier.
A council representing Christian denominations across Iraq advised its followers to cancel public Christmas celebrations out of concern over new terror attacks and as a show of mourning for the victims of the church siege and other violence.
Church officials in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the southern city of Basra and in the capital confirmed they will not put up Christmas decorations or hold evening Mass and have urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes. Even an appearance by Santa Claus was called off.
"Nobody can ignore the threats of al-Qaida against Iraqi Christians," said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako in Kirkuk. "We cannot find a single source of joy that makes us celebrate. The situation of the Christians is bleak."
Christians across Iraq have been living in fear since a Baghdad church attack in October that left 68 people dead. Days later insurgents targeted Christian homes and neighborhoods across the capital with a series of bombs.
An al-Qaida front group that claimed responsibility for the church siege vowed at the time to carry out a reign of terror against Christians.
The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its threats in a message posted late Tuesday on a website frequented by Islamic extremists. The group said it wants the release of two women it claims are being held captive by Egypt's Coptic Church.
Muslim extremists in Egypt say the church has detained the women for allegedly converting to Islam. The church denies the allegations but extremists in Iraq have latched onto the issue. The message Tuesday was addressed to Iraq's Christian community and said it was designed to "pressure" Egypt.
Sunni Muslim extremists that make up groups like al-Qaida perceive Christians to be nonbelievers aligned with Western countries such as the U.S.
Few reliable statistics exist on the number of Christians in this nation of 29 million. A recent State Department report says Christian leaders estimate 400,000 to 600,000 remain, down from a prewar level as high as 1.4 million by some estimates.
Since the deadly church siege, the U.N. estimates some 1,000 Christian families have fled to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq which is generally much safer.
For those who remain, this Christmas will be a somber affair.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Sako said church officials will not put up Christmas decorations outside the church and urged worshippers to refrain from decorating their homes.
A traditional Santa Claus appearance outside one of the city's churches has also been called off, he said. Money usually used on celebrations or gifts will instead go to help Christian refugees, he said.
Ashour Binyamin, a 55-year-old Christian from Kirkuk said he and his family would not go to church on Christmas but instead would celebrate at home.
At Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church where more than 120 parishioners were held hostage by gunmen on Oct. 31, there will be no Christmas tree and Mass on both Christmas Eve and Christmas day has been canceled. Only a modest manger display representing the birth of Jesus Christ will mark the occasion.
"We have canceled all celebrations in the church," said Father Mukhlis. "We are still in deep sorrow over the innocent victims who fell during the evil attack."
In the Karradah neighborhood, where many of the city's remaining Christians live, a number of churches were guarded by security forces Wednesday and surrounded by razor wire. Shop owners in the neighborhood said few people were buying the Christmas trees and Santa Claus toys on sale.
One Christian woman vowed to go to church on Christmas Day, despite what she described as the failure of the government to protect her small minority. But she would not be visiting any friends during the holiday season because all of them have already fled the city.
"We did not put any decorations inside or outside our house this year," said Ikhlas Bahnam. "We see no reason to celebrate."
In Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Syrian Orthodox priest Faiz Wadee said there will be no public Christmas celebrations either.
Christians in Iraq's second-largest city of Basra, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad decided to cancel all celebrations as well. Saad Matti, a Christian legislator on the Basra provincial council, said the decision was made out of respect for the victims of the church siege and because of the al-Qaida threats.
"There will be only a small Mass in one church in Basra without any signs of joy or decoration and under the protection of Iraqi security forces," he said. "We are fully aware of al-Qaida threats."
Matti said Christians would also tone down their celebrations out of respect for a Shiite holiday going on at the same time. The majority of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, especially in the south.
Even among Iraqi Christians who've managed to escape the violence here, the mood was subdued.
Maher Murqous, an Iraqi Christian from Mosul who fled to neighboring Syria after being threatened by militants, said his relatives are still at risk in Iraq. Since they cannot celebrate, neither will he.
"We will pray for the sake of Iraq. That's all we can do," he said.
Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan; Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Rebecca Santana in Baghdad and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

Obama signs 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama signed a landmark law Wednesday repealing the ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military, fulfilling one of his major campaign pledges and casting the issue as a matter of civil rights long denied.
"No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love," Obama said.
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A beaming Obama signed the bill at the Interior Department, a location chosen to accommodate a larger than normal audience that cheered, chanted and applauded throughout the ceremony.
"This is a good day," Obama told the crowd. "This is a very good day."
The new law ends the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy that forced gays to hide their sexual orientation or face dismissal. More than 13,500 people were discharged under the policy. Its repeal comes as the American public has become more tolerant on such issues as gay marriage and gay rights in general.
"I say to all Americans, gay or straight, who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform, your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known," Obama said.
Pentagon officials must first complete implementation plans before lifting the old policy — and the president, defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs must certify to lawmakers that it won't damage combat readiness, as critics charge. But Obama said: "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."
The signing ceremony was a breakthrough moment for the nation's gay community, the military and for Obama himself. The president vowed during his 2008 campaign to repeal the law and faced pressure from liberals who complained he was not acting swiftly enough.
For Obama, it was the second high-profile bill signing ceremony within a week. On Friday, he signed into a law a tax package he negotiated with Republicans that extended Bush-era tax rates for two more years, cut payroll taxes and ensured jobless benefits to the unemployed for another year.
The two events, however, could not have been more different in tone.
The tax deal divided Democrats and forced Obama to accept extensions of tax cuts for the wealthiest, a step he had promised to not take. With Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at his side during that bill signing, Obama seemed dutiful and subdued.
By contrast, the emotion of Wednesday's ceremony defined it; even the president himself said he was "overwhelmed" by the moment. The gay activists and supporters packed in the room hooted, applauded and shouted in joy at the president, shedding any sense of a contained, formal event.
As Obama signed the bill into law, someone in the back of the room yelled: "We're here, Mr. President. Enlist us now!"
"I couldn't be prouder," Obama said.
Obama hailed the "courage and vision" of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and praised Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who advocated changing the law.
Among those in attendance at the ceremony was the son of a World War II veteran who was saved by a gay comrade during the Battle of the Bulge. Also present was Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first American wounded in the war in Iraq who has spoken out against the Pentagon policy.
The Pentagon now must address the practical consequences of the law. Guidelines must be completed that cover a host of questions, from how to educate troops to how sexual orientation should be handled in making barracks assignments.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama thinks actual implementation of the new law will be "a matter of months."
Military officials and gay rights groups have been warning gay troops not to come out yet, as the law will not go into effect until certification — and after that, a 60-day waiting period.
The new law is the second of three expected victories in what's turned out to be a surprisingly productive lame-duck Congress for Obama . Weeks after his self-described "shellacking" in the midterm vote, he's won lopsided approval of a tax cut compromise, and the Senate is poised to deliver his top foreign policy goal: ratification of a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Born 17 years ago as a compromise between President Bill Clinton and a resistant Pentagon, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy became for gay rights campaigners a notorious roadblock on the way to full acceptance.
Yet he has also faced rising discontent among gay activists who believed he hadn't moved forcefully enough. He's been heckled at campaign appearances over AIDS funding and the failure to end the military service ban.
Obama countered that as commander in chief, he had to ensure the ban's end is carefully prepared for.
That's just what the bill from Congress mandates.
"The implementation and certification process will not happen immediately; it will take time," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz warned in an e-mail that went out right after Saturday's Senate vote. "Meanwhile, the current law remains in effect. All Air Force members should conduct themselves accordingly."
Military and administration officials are wrestling with numerous legal questions raised by the end of the ban — knowing that courts are waiting in the wings. They include what to do about pending expulsion proceedings, and when those ousted under the old policy might apply to rejoin the armed forces.
Associated Press writers Mark S. Smith and Ben Feller contributed to this report.

US poised to approve nuclear arms pact with Russia

Reuters – Democratic Senator John Kerry (C) makes a statement after a closed session about the new START treaty
WASHINGTON – The Senate is poised to approve on Wednesday a major nuclear arms pact with Russia, handing President Barack Obama a huge victory on his top foreign policy priority.
Passage of the New START treaty appeared assured after 11 Republicans joined Democrats in a vote Tuesday to end debate on the pact. That signaled that Obama should have the two-thirds majority he needs when the Senate votes on final approval later Wednesday.
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The approval would mark a big comeback for Obama's arm controls efforts after the treaty appeared all but dead just weeks ago. It also would allow Obama to continue efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Ratification would mark a third recent major political victory for Obama, even though his Democratic party was trounced in last month's congressional elections. In recent days he won passage of a bipartisan tax deal and a vote ending the ban on gays openly serving in the military.
"We are on the brink of writing the next chapter in the 40-year history of wrestling with the threat of nuclear weapons," said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass.
The White House said Obama hoped to have a press conference Wednesday.
The treaty would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended last year with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
The administration was adamant that it be ratified this year because the Democrats' majority in the Senate is set to shrink by five in January and waiting could have meant months of delay or defeat.
Republicans accused Democrats of rushing approval of the treaty for political reasons. They have asserted it would limit U.S. missile defense options and argued it has insufficient procedures to verify Russia's adherence.
When Jon Kyl of Arizona, the leading Republican on negotiations over the treaty, suggested a delay last month, Obama appeared unlikely to find the nine Republican votes needed for passage.
But he and top members of his administration lobbied intensely, with Obama postponing his Christmas vacation in Hawaii. They enlisted support from top military officials and big-name Republicans from past administrations who argued the treaty was essential for U.S. national security.
In the end, they persuaded enough Republicans to defy the party's top two leaders in the Senate and support the pact.
"We know when we've been beaten," Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told reporters hours before Tuesday's vote.
Even the Senate's No. 3 Republican, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, endorsed the accord, saying he was assured U.S. defenses would not be weakened.
The treaty will leave the United States "with enough nuclear warheads to blow any attacker to kingdom come," Alexander said on the Senate floor.
Republicans had tried to kill the treaty by forcing changes in its language that would have sent it back for negotiations with Moscow. Democrats sought to appease some Republican senators by letting them raise these issues in legislation accompanying the treaty that would not directly affect the pact.
On Wednesday, two such amendments, one on missile defense and one on funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, passed with support from both parties.
McCain, who sponsored the missile defense amendment, has not indicated whether he will support the treaty, but said passage was likely.
"I know what the votes are going to be on this treaty," he said.
But most Republicans remained opposed.
"The administration did not negotiate a good treaty," Kyl said. "They went into the negotiations it seems to me with the attitude with the Russians just like the guy who goes into the car dealership and says, `I'm not leaving here until I buy a car.'"
Though Kyl looks likely to vote on the losing side of the debate over the treaty, in his negotiations with the administration he did win Obama's commitment to modernize the remaining nuclear arsenal with projected spending of $85 billion over 10 years.
Some of that money is now in the pipeline, contained in a stopgap government funding bill that cleared Congress on Tuesday. The measure would finance the government, mostly at current levels, through March 4.
It makes an exception for nuclear security programs, allowing the government to spend money to modernize the United States' nuclear arsenal at a rate equal to Obama's $624 million request.