Tuesday, February 23, 2010

German Church leader Kaessmann admits drink-driving

The head of Germany's Protestant church has admitted drink-driving, after she was charged with passing a red light while three times over the legal limit.

Bishop Margot Kaessmann, appointed the church's first female leader last year, was arrested in Hanover at the weekend.

She told Germany's Bild newspaper: "I am shocked at myself that I could have made such a grave error."

Leaders of the 25 million-strong church are discussing how the incident affects the 51-year-old's official position.

Ms Kaessmann, who became the first bishop in Germany to divorce in 2007, allegedly drove her VW Phaeton through a red light in central Hanover on Saturday night while "completely unfit to drive".

The mother of four daughters told Bild: "I know how dangerous and irresponsible drink-driving is. I will of course assume the legal consequences."

Courted controversy

Ms Kaessmann faces a fine of a month's salary and a one-year driving ban.

The breast cancer survivor, who leads the Evangelical Church in Germany, became her country's youngest bishop in 1999.

This is not the first time Ms Kaessmann has made the headlines.

She irritated senior politicians by calling for the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, in a sermon on New Year's Day.

The Lutheran bishop has also criticised Catholic teachings on homosexuality, the ordination of women and celibacy.

The BBC's Oana Lungescu in Berlin says it is not just the Protestant church in Germany that faces controversy.

On Monday, the head of Germany's Catholic Church apologised for the growing number of sexual abuse cases that are coming to light at Jesuit high schools across the country.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Iraqi city of Ramadi rocked by deadly blast

Iraqi city of Ramadi rocked by deadly blast

The site of a suicide car bombing in Ramadi
Four policemen were among those killed, officials said

At least 11 people have been killed and 20 hurt in a suicide bombing in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, officials say.

The car bomb attack in the capital of Iraq's western Anbar province occurred at a checkpoint near government offices and courts, police said.

Hospital officials told AFP news agency that four policemen and a young girl were among those killed.

Elsewhere, in the northern city of Mosul a car bomb exploded near a police building, injuring over 20 people.

Security and medical officials told AFP that the injured included 15 police.

Violence has been rising as Iraq prepares for a March general election, with Ramadi targeted more than once.

In late December, twin suicide blasts in the city killed 25 people and severely injured regional governor Qassim Mohammed.

Three co-ordinated explosions last October left at least 22 people dead and many more injured.

They are trying to undermine the political process and prevent us from taking part in the election
Mohammed Dulaimi
Ramadi restaurant owner

A doctor at Ramadi general hospital told AFP that 10 bodies had been taken in so far following Thursday's bombing.

But the total number of casualties remained unclear, with security officials saying at least 11 people had died.

The owner of a restaurant badly damaged by the explosion told AFP the attackers wanted to deter people from voting on 7 March.

"They are trying to undermine the political process and prevent us from taking part in the election," Mohammed Dulaimi said.

Sectarian fears

Campaigning for the election began last week, amid a continuing row over a ban on scores of candidates that could increase tension between Shia and Sunni Iraqis.

Until 2007, the Sunni insurgency was strong in Anbar province.

Local Sunni tribes and their followers then turned against the militants and began co-operating with the Iraqi government and US forces.

But after a period of relative calm, the province is again suffering from mounting violence.

The US - which still has 100,000 troops in Iraq - fears that if the election lacks credibility among Sunni voters, the country could slide back into sectarian violence.

The US is preparing to withdraw large numbers of troops by the middle of this year.

Taliban ammunition 'running low'

Taliban militants battling coalition troops in Marjah, Afghanistan, are running out of ammunition, Nato officials say.

A BBC correspondent in Kandahar says that from eavesdropping on Taliban communications, Nato understands militants have called for support.

On Wednesday, an Afghan general said Taliban fighters were increasingly using civilians as "human shields".

The Afghan-Nato offensive in Helmand province is now in its sixth day.

Operation Moshtarak, meaning "together" in the Dari language, is the biggest coalition offensive since the Taliban fell in 2001.

Nato officers told BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner in Kandahar that the resistance they were currently encountering was coming from small, disjointed but determined groups of fighters.

Protecting Marjah

In the next few days, US Marines and Afghan government troops are due to push into south-west Marjah, which is believed to be an insurgent stronghold.

But the head of the council for tribal elders in Helmand told BBC Pashto that the long-term security of the area depended on locals being involved in policing.

"As long as you don't get local people involved in the security, you will not be able to protect this area," Haji Abdurahman Sabir said.

"If police were from local people I am sure Marjah would have fallen within two days," he said.

He added that the people of Helmand felt isolated from Afghanistan's central government.

During fighting on Wednesday, US Marines had to call in air support as they came under heavy fire from fighters hiding in bunkers and in buildings including homes and mosques.

Afghan commander Gen Mohiudin Ghori said his soldiers had seen Taliban fighters placing women and children on the roofs of buildings and firing from behind them.

Afghan troops raise flag in Marjah, 17 Feb

Day-by-day report and map
Civilians die in Kandahar strike

He told the AP news agency: "Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window."

Nato has stressed the safety of civilians in the areas targeted during Operation Moshtarak is its highest priority.

One villager who had fled to Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, told BBC Pashto that relatives could not leave Marjah because the area was heavily mined.

"They say they can't get out of their home. If anyone takes a look outside they are fired upon by the Nato troops - they have no food left and can't go out to shop.

"The Taliban left some places but are now resisting very strongly."

On Wednesday, Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, visited Marjah and later travelled to Camp Bastion to visit injured civilians from the area.

Afghan farmers and their children watch an unseen US marine  platoon with 1/3 marine Charlie Company patrol in Trikh Nawar - 18 Feb  2010
A number of Afghan civilians remain in Marjah

Nato reports that he held a shura - a council meeting - with local tribal elders and officials to discuss security in Nad Ali.

British and Afghan troops are reported to be advancing more swiftly in the nearby district of Nad Ali than are their US and Afghan counterparts in Marjah.

Afghan officials say that more than 1,200 families have been displaced and evacuated from Marjah and all are receiving aid in Lashkar Gah.

Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that three days of previously undisclosed talks took place last month between Afghan parliamentarians and Taliban representatives.

The Afghan and Maldives governments said the meeting took place in the Maldives but were not brokered by local officials or any other third party.

Yvo de Boer resigns as top UN climate official

Yvo de Boer (Getty Images)
Mr de Boer is now set to become a consultant

Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate change official, says he will resign after nearly four years in the post.

His departure takes effect from 1 July, five months before 193 countries are due to reconvene in Mexico for another attempt at a global deal on climate.

Nations failed to reach a binding deal at the Copenhagen meeting in December.

Mr de Boer said he was announcing his departure now so that a successor could be found well before the Mexico meeting later this year.

The former Dutch civil servant was appointed as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2006. As the UN's climate negotiator, he was widely credited with raising the profile of climate change issues.

We were about an inch away from a formal agreement. It was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen... so that was a pity
Yvo de Boer

But suspicion and distrust between developing and industrial countries barred the way to a binding accord at the UN's climate change summit in Copenhagen in December.

In a statement, Mr de Boer said: "It was a difficult decision to make, but I believe the time is ripe for me to take on a new challenge."

Mr De Boer said he would become a consultant on climate and sustainability issues for KPMG, a global accounting firm, and would be associated with several universities.

'Deeply disappointed'

Mr de Boer is said to be deeply disappointed with outcome of the last summit in Copenhagen, which drew 120 world leaders but failed to reach a binding global accord.

But he said the failure to secure a treaty at Copenhagen was unrelated to his decision to quit, and that he had begun looking for a new job last year, before the summit.

He told the Associated Press news agency that he believed talks were "on track", although it was uncertain whether a full treaty could be finalised at the next high-level conference which starts in November.

Mr de Boer said the accord reached in Copenhagen, brokered by US President Barack Obama, "was very significant".

But he acknowledged frustration that the deal fell short of the consensus and was merely "noted" rather than formally adopted by all countries.

"We were about an inch away from a formal agreement. It was basically in our grasp, but it didn't happen... so that was a pity," he said.

Fifty-five countries submitted pledges for curbing greenhouse gas emissions by the 31 January deadline in the "Copenhagen Accord", the document produced at the UN climate summit in the Danish capital.

At the time, Mr de Boer said the pledges would invigorate the UN process, but several environment groups said they did not go far enough. In some cases the pledges were weaker than those made before the summit.

Track record

According to AP, people who know Mr de Boer said he was more disheartened by the slow pace of negotiations than he was ready to admit.

"I saw him at the airport after Copenhagen," said Jake Schmidt, a climate expert for the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, "He was tired, worn out."

Mr Schmidt said that the summit "clearly took a toll on him."

In 2007, during exhausting negotiations at the Bali conference, Mr de Boer left the stage in tears after being accused by China of procedural irregularities.

Before he took up his post with the UNFCCC, Mr de Boer was involved in European Union environmental policy in his role with the Dutch Environment Ministry. He also served as vice-chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

A different UN climate body - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reviews climate science - has come under fire in recent months for a mistake on the melting of Himalayan glaciers and for referencing "grey literature" - a WWF report which had not been peer-reviewed.

The head of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, has rejected calls for his resignation.

In November, hundreds of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, UK, appeared on the web.

CRU maintains one of the world's most important datasets on how global temperatures have changed.

An inquiry is underway to consider whether the e-mail exchanges between researchers show an attempt to manipulate or suppress data "at odds" with scientific practice.

Pakistan avalanche kills at least 35

Map of Kohistan in north-west Pakistan

At least 35 people are dead and 30 others are missing after an avalanche buried an entire village in north-west Pakistan.

The avalanche hit a remote village in Kohistan district, about 200km (124 miles) north of Islamabad.

The regional police chief said roads had been blocked by landslides and several feet of snow.

"Rescue workers are facing a lot of problems," a local police official was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

"We fear that some women and children were also trapped," Mohammad Sadiq told AFP.

Increased risk

Avalanches are common in the mountains of Pakistan.

The village of Bagaro Serai in the Kandia Valley is so remote that it took hours for news to get out, the BBC's Aleem Maqbool in Islamabad says.

Rescuers are trying to find survivors, but conditions are poor. Currently the area can be reached only by helicopter, our correspondent adds.

Heavy snow over the past two weeks has meant an increased risk of avalanches across northern Pakistan.

On Monday, a mass of snow killed seven people about 150km from Bagaro Serai, local police said.

Niger leader Mamadou Tandja 'held by soldiers'

President Mamadou Tandja
President Tandja was first voted into office in 1999

Niger President Mamadou Tandja and his cabinet are being held by soldiers after gun battles in the capital, a government source has told the BBC.

Gunfire broke out around the presidential palace at about 1300 (1200 GMT) and continued for 30 minutes, says the BBC's Idy Baraou in Niamey.

Our correspondent says tanks are on the streets and witnesses report seeing injured people being taken to hospital.

An unnamed senior French official told AFP a coup attempt was under way.

"All I can say is that it would appear that Tandja is not in a good position," he told the news agency on condition of anonymity.

Long-term tensions

Soldiers captured Mr Tandja while he was chairing his weekly cabinet meeting, the government source said.

Idy Baraou
Idy Baraou
BBC News, Niamey

The exchange of gunfire has been between soldiers but it is confusing and one cannot tell one side from another. I saw tanks being fired and soldiers on the streets using machine guns.

The area near the presidential palace is where the business of government takes place and at least four military barracks are based there.

People have fled the area and some civil servants have locked themselves inside their offices.

Earlier, smoke could be seen from the roof of the office where President Mamadou Tandja was holding his cabinet meeting.

But Reuters news agency spoke to other people inside the palace who said things were "all right".

"We can hear gunshots from time to time but... the president is in his office," a security source told Reuters by telephone.

Our correspondent says sporadic shooting can still be heard.

A witness told AFP that the bodies of three soldiers had been taken to a military mortuary.

But the situation in Niamey remains unclear, with radio stations continuing their programmes as normal and apparently there has been no large-scale deployment of military personnel.

Political tensions have been growing in the West African nation since Mr Tandja changed the constitution last year to allow him to stand for a third term.

The government and opposition have been holding on-off talks - mediated by the regional body Ecowas - to try to resolve the country's political crisis.

Mr Tandja, a former army officer, was first voted into office in 1999 and was returned to power in an election in 2004.

Niger has experienced long periods of military rule since independence from France in 1960.

Interpol puts Dubai killing suspects on wanted list

Top row, from left: The suspects named as James Leonard Clarke,  Jonathan Louis Graham, Paul John Keeley. Bottom row, from left: Those  named as Michael Lawrence Barney, Melvyn Adam Mildiner, Stephen Daniel  Hodes
Six British-Israelis say they are not the men pictured in the suspects' passports

The international police organisation Interpol has placed on its wanted list 11 people suspected of killing a Hamas commander in Dubai.

Interpol has posted the photographs and names it suspects the individuals fraudulently used in the case.

Dubai's police chief says he is 99% sure Israeli agents were involved in Mahmoud al-Mabhouh's death, but Israel says there is no proof.

The UK has expressed "outrage" that six British passports were used.

Interpol has issued Red Notices for the suspects. Although not an international arrest warrant, a Red Notice requests that the suspects be arrested pending extradition.

Interpol said it believed the suspects had stolen the identities of real people and the names were used as aliases.

It said it was posting the photos and names "in order to limit the ability of accused murderers from travelling freely using the same false passports".

Interpol Secretary General Ronald K Noble said: "[We do] not believe that we know the true identities of these wanted persons."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

nowstorm paralyses Washington DC and eastern US

An "extremely dangerous" storm has dumped large amounts of snow in the eastern US, killing at least two people and paralysing parts of the region.

About 10in (25cm) of snow had fallen by 0100 (0600 GMT) in Washington, with forecasters predicting the heaviest snowfall to hit the area in 90 years.

Museums closed, transport was widely disrupted, and residents were told to prepare for up to five days indoors.

A rare blizzard warning is in effect for the Washington-Baltimore area.

The storm - dubbed "snowpocalypse" and "snowmageddon" by the local media - is expected to stretch from Indiana to Pennsylvania and into parts of New York and North Carolina.

Parts of Maryland and West Virginia are already buried under more than 20in (51 cm) of snow.

And forecasters say that snowfall rates are likely to increase - up to 2in (5cm) an hour - early in the day.

It comes less than two months after a December storm dumped more than 16in (41cm) of snow in Washington.

It forecast up to 30in (76cm) of snow in the capital, which would shatter Washington's record snowfall of 28in in 1922.

Late on Friday, Washington was left without a bus service after roads were deemed "impassable" and the metro stopped all but its underground service.

The storm has been blamed for at least two deaths - a father and son who were hit by a tractor-trailer on a road in Virginia when they stopped to help a stranded motorist, local media reported.

All flights were cancelled at Washington's Reagan National airport, and only some international flights were operating at Dulles International.

Flights from international destinations, including the UK were also disrupted.

In London, British Airways cancelled one flight to Washington and one to Baltimore. Its flights from Philadelphia and Washington to Heathrow were stuck overnight in the US.

Residents were urged to keep off the roads, and to be prepared to stay inside for up to five days.

One Washington resident described the scene at her local supermarket.

"I got there at 0700 [on Friday] and there were really long queues, Jane Bate, 41, told the AFP news agency. "The place looked like it had been ransacked."

The governors of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have declared states of emergency, a move that puts the National Guard on alert.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, 94% of the state's snow removal budget had already been spent during the December blizzard.

Officials said they would have to use emergency funds to pay for snow removal after this latest storm.

West greets Iran nuclear claim with scepticism

Western powers have responded with scepticism to a claim by Iran that a deal to swap enriched uranium for nuclear fuel could now be close.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told a security conference in Germany that an agreement could be reached in a "not too distant future". Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki

But the US and European Union said they were unconvinced and Iran must make a meaningful offer or face new sanctions.

China, which opposes further sanctions, said talks were at a "crucial stage".

The US and its allies fear Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful in purpose.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in Ankara, cast doubt on Iran's talk of an imminent deal, telling reporters: "I don't have the sense that we're close to an agreement.

If Iran was prepared to take up the proposal put forward by the so-called P5+1 - the US, Russia, China, UK and France plus Germany - on handing over its low-enriched uranium then it should take that message to the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, he said.

He suggested that Western powers needed to think about whether it was now time to take a "different tack" on Iran.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told the annual Munich security conference: "Our hand is still reaching out towards them [Iran]. But so far it's reaching out into nothingness.

"And I've seen nothing since yesterday [Friday] that makes me want to change that view."

The US National Security Adviser, General James Jones, warned of tighter sanctions and deeper international isolation for Iran.

And EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told the conference that Iran must respond to the head of the IAEA over its nuclear programme.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Iran's Mousavi says he will continue fight for reform

Iran's Mousavi says he will continue fight for reform

Mir Hossein Mousavi
Mr Mousavi said the revolution had failed to achieve its goals

Iran's opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has said he will continue his struggle against the government.

In a statement posted on his website, Mr Mousavi said the 1979 Islamic revolution had failed to achieve most of its goals.

He said politically motivated arrests of protesters were illegal and more should be done to secure people's rights.

His comments constitute one of his strongest challenges to the government.

They also come at a particularly sensitive time. Iran will mark the 31st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic on 11 February.

As one of the key players in the founding of the Islamic Republic, his comments have extra resonance.

Jon Leyne, the BBC's Tehran correspondent who is reporting from London, says Mr Mousavi's comments will outrage hard-line supporters of the government. He is now pushing to the very limit of what he can say without being arrested.

Avatar and The Hurt Locker lead Oscar nods


Science fiction film Avatar and war movie The Hurt Locker lead the way at this year's Academy Award with nine nominations each.

The battle will see Avatar's James Cameron go head-to-head with his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who made The Hurt Locker, in the best director category.

Other films featured in the best film category include Up in the Air, The Blind Side, Precious and District 9.

British nominees include Colin Firth, Dame Helen Mirren and Carey Mulligan.

For the first time since 1944, the Oscars feature 10 best-picture contenders instead of the usual five.

The list also included animated movie Up, A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds and An Education.

Firth is up for his first Oscar for his role as a gay academic mourning the death of his partner in fashion designer Tom Ford's debut feature film A Single Man.

The star will go up against George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Renner.

Iraq inquiry: Short says cabinet misled on war legality

Tony Blair's cabinet was "misled" into thinking the war with Iraq was legal, ex-International Development Secretary Clare Short has told the UK's inquiry.

She said Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had been "leaned on" to change his advice before the invasion.

Mr Blair "and his mates" decided war was necessary, and "everything was done on a wing and a prayer", Ms Short said.

She quit the cabinet two months after the March 2003 invasion, in protest at planning for the war's aftermath.

In her evidence to the Iraq inquiry, during which she was highly critical of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, she said the cabinet had not been a "decision-making body" and called Parliament a "rubber stamp".

Ms Short, who was given a round of applause after her three-hour appearance, added that she had been "conned" into staying on as a minister until May 2003, despite her misgivings about the war.

'Want to be loyal'

The attorney general provisionally advised Mr Blair in January that year that it would be unlawful to invade Iraq without a further United Nations Security Council resolution.

But he changed his mind a month later after being persuaded to talk to senior US government lawyers and Britain's ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

A definitive statement circulated at cabinet on 17 March 2003, three days before the war began.

Ms Short said there was no suggestion given that he had had any legal doubts, and said that any discussion of the legal advice was halted at that pre-war cabinet meeting.

France Concorde crash trial begins outside Paris

The Concorde caught fire on take-off from Charles de Gaulle airport

US airline Continental and five individuals have gone on trial in France over the crash of an Air France Concorde nearly 10 years ago.

The jet took off in flames from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and crashed minutes later, killing 113 people.

An official report said Concorde had hit a metal strip from a Continental plane that had taken off earlier.

But Continental's lawyers say they can prove the supersonic jet caught fire before it struck the titanium strip.

"I am here to prove that Continental Airlines is not responsible," the airline's lawyer Olivier Metzner said as he arrived at the courtroom in Pontoise, west of Paris.

The stricken Concorde flight 4590 crashed in the town of Gonesse in July 2000, hitting a hotel and killing four people there as well as all 109 on board.

Most of the passengers were German tourists heading to New York to join a luxury cruise to the Caribbean. Nine French crew members also died.

The entire fleet of Concordes was grounded until an inquiry established that one of the plane's tyres had burst, causing debris to shoot out and rupture a fuel tank.