U.S. citizens among hostages seized in Algeria as France battles Islamists in neighboring Mali

January 16, 2013

Washington Post
 Edward Cody, Debbi Wilgoren and Craig Whitlock,

PARIS — Islamist guerrillas seized a number of hostages, including Americans, in a brazen attack early Wednesday on a remote gas-production facility in Algeria, and the United States vowed to take all necessary steps to deal with what it called a “terrorist act.”

Algeria’s official news agency said two people were killed, including a British national, and six were wounded, two of them foreigners, in the attack by what authorities described as a homegrown Algerian terrorist group. There were conflicting accounts of the number of people taken hostage. The agency, Algerie Presse Service, said Algerian troops quickly surrounded the site.

In Rome, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said U.S. officials believe that Americans are among the hostages in Algeria but that they are still trying to determine how many.

“By all indications, this is a terrorist act,” he told reporters after meeting with Italian leaders Wednesday as part of a week-long European trip. “It is a very serious matter when Americans are taken hostage along with others…. I want to assure the American people that the United States will take all necessary and proper steps that are required to deal with this situation.”

Panetta said it remained unclear whether the hostage-takers are connected to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that France is fighting in northern Mali.

“I do know that terrorists are terrorists, and terrorists take these kinds of actions,” he added. “We’ve witnessed their behavior in a number of occasions where they have total disregard for innocent men and women. This appears to be that kind of situation.”

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack and said 41 hostages were seized, seven of them Americans.

However, Algerie Presse Service (APS) said “a little more than 20 foreign nationals” were captured. It said the hostages were from Norway, Britain, the United States, France and Japan. The captors released Algerian workers in small groups, the agency said.

The assailants arrived in three vehicles and first attacked a bus that was taking foreign workers from the gas-production facility to a local airport, APS said. One foreigner was killed in that attack, and the militants then took over part of the facility and seized hostages, it said.

Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said the attackers were Algerian “terrorists” and vowed that authorities would not negotiate with them.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said the attack was in retaliation for Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace to send warplanes to neighboring Mali, where French forces have been conducting airstrikes and support operations since last week to aid Malian troops in their battle against Islamist insurgents.

“Algeria’s participation in the war on the side of France betrays the blood of the Algerian martyrs who fell in the fight against the French occupation,” a spokesman for the Masked Brigade, an arm of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, told Mauritania’s Nouakchott News Agency.

Euro Gypsies: ‘The Right to Roam’

January 16, 2013

Unwanted, marginalised, defiant – the Roma people have become the target of governments across Europe.

In France and Italy they have been thrown out in their thousands – accused of illegally overstaying their welcome and blamed for increases in crime.

They say that in their countries of origin they are victims of discrimination – a minority with few opportunities.

They are now taking advantage of European Union laws that allow freedom of travel to all European citizens – looking West to find a better life, yet reluctant to adapt to Western ways.

The Roma issue has now been forced on EU policy makers – they have to find a balance between the growing hostility and the rights of the Roma.

Nuclear Power Play: Iran sanctions rally public behind govt

January 16, 2013

The UN’s atomic agency experts are back in Iran for the second time in a little more than a month – with Tehran hopeful for clear progress this time. Meanwhile more sanctions are piled on the country. But as Maria Finoshina found out, they often only have the opposite effect to what was intended…

As Syria Continues To Simmer, Lebanon Remains in Limbo

January 16, 2013

Pat_BeirPatrick Henningsen
21stCentury Wire
Jan 16, 2012

BEIRUT – On arrival to Lebanon’s capital city, all seems very functional and normal on the surface, as the city runs business as usual.

Below the surface however, there is a feeling of trepidation, an unspoken collective worry that a city and country who has gradually managed to pick up the pieces from the decades-long conflict which stretched through the 70’s and 80’s, an Israeli occupation of its south, followed by a brief, albeit destructive, ‘33 Day War’ with Israel in 2006 – might once again be dragged into another sub-regional conflict. It goes without saying that police and security services in Lebanon are on high alert.

Tourism Hit Hard

The neighboring conflict has also had a very negative impact on Lebanon’s tourism, keeping away the much-needed outside currency for which many jobs, independent hotels and other SMEs are dependent for their economic survival. But despite the recent problems, Beirut is still moving ahead, still attracting some foreign investment made visible by the hundreds of new building projects springing up all over the city. And as expected, the restaurants seem busy and the cafes are still buzzing.

Already there is a tangible presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and in the capital Beirut, who have fled from the fighting and breakdown of society currently unfolding next door. The impact of the Syrian conflict on its neighbor Lebanon in such a short space of time is substantial.

Latest reports put the number of Syrian refugees recently accumulated in Lebanon at 300,000. This figure is contrasted by the number of Palestinian refugees whose ancestors fled Israel’s ethnic cleanings in 1947-48, still housed in Lebanon today – which is currently estimated at 500,000.

The Issue of Sectarianism

Lebanon is, more than ever, a demonstration of sectarianism par excellence. In of country of 4 million, there is differentiation within the Christian community – Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic, as well as within and the Muslim community – Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Druze.  In addition to this, there is a substantial Armenian community, a large community of foreign nationals from the US and Europe, Asian and African migrant workers, and a small Jewish community. One might also note that the internal rifts between Christian and Muslim factions are almost as great as the polarity separating Christians and Muslim as a whole.

That said, it is also the only society in the region where contrasting religions and cultures are completely intermingled and where tolerance has evolved into a virtue.

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Co-existance: A scene from a recent Christmas illustrates the country’s diversity (PHOTO: Mary Henningsen)

In its totality, Lebanon consists of some of 19 religions and dozens more ethnic , groups. Many a thesis and book have sought to chronicle (and will continue to argue no doubt) this strive towards cultural détente in the Levant. One such writer is Lebanese-American Professor Walid Phares, who sums up the country’s current alignment as follows:

“Although multi-ethic and multi-religious, Lebanon was viewed by the political establishment as a unitary republic which can only have a majority and a minority. Therefore, and without a mechanism of decentralization, Federation or simply pluralism, that establishment was vying over who really represents the “majority” of all Lebanese, and who reduced to a “minority.” The debate was then about numbers, census, demographic changes, communities who have allegedly increased in numbers because of poverty versus communities who have decreased in numbers because of emigration. But that was a false problem.”

Much of the country’s political energy has been expended over the course of the last half century in determining who is the majority and who is the minority, and although the intention was to present a fair solution to representation in its central government, it has also been the source of internal power-politics, which some believe laid down a fertile soil for the sharp upheaval Lebanon experienced from 1975 onward.

Nowhere is the nation’s simmering ‘political ratio’ reflected more than in its own constitution – a document which goes to extraordinary lengths to secure some form of socio-religious balance. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the office President should be held by a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the House held by a Shi’ite Muslim, and the post of Prime Minister held by a Sunni Muslim.

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Beirut shoulders a diverse collection of ethnic groups, along with their corresponding political issues (PHOTO: Patrick Henningsen)

Many academics such as Phares, feel that the future would be brighter if Lebanon would embrace its multicultural reality and take a feather out of Belgium’s or Canada’s cap, and consider phasing out its historical obsession with ethnic and religious minorities and majorities. In other words, if Lebanon could embrace ‘multiculturalism’, it wouldn’t need the old system. This idea is easier said than done, as vested political interests and blood spilled over decades has, to a large degree, cemented traditional political and social paradigms into place.

Syria Simmering Next Door

What’s foremost on the minds of Lebanese in 2013 is what will happen with Syria, and will Lebanon we dragged to their war. Alongside this, many are left questioning whether or not Lebanon will ever achieve some form of long-term peace with its southern neighbor Israel. The former is the key to its short-term prosperity, while the latter is the key to healing wounds still festering from the wars, as well as the influx of Palestinians it has had to shoulder since 1948.

The situation in Syria is made even more complex by the fact that a number of foreign powers with vested interests in Damascus regime change are supplying fighters, arms, logistics, money and mass media support – which has always been a recipe for chaos throughout history. Among these foreign actors vying for position in Syria are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, US, UK and France (somehow, it’s all beginning to look more and more like pre-WWI power-politics).

Syria has long played an overshadowing role in the stability – and destiny of its smaller neighbor Lebanon. The scares still run deep from Syria’s obtuse and often disjointed alliances with different factions over the course of Lebanon’s Civil Wars in the 70’s and 1980’s. The result of Syria’s hand in those affairs has been a dysfunctional, and often times confusing relationship between Damascus and Beirut, as well as the cause for political dysfunction within Beirut itself.

In 2013, however, the alignments are markedly different from previous decades. For starters, Syria, itself, is now a major piece on the global chessboard, not least of all because of its three major allies, all of whom seem to run contrary tocentral planning in the West – namely, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and now Russia. All interested parties see Syria as the key domino, and this, rightly so, is the cause for much worry right now.

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Stunning countryside: Sunset over the historic Chouf mountain range in southern Lebanon (PHOTO: Patrick Henningsen)

Lebanon has a number of internal issues I’m sure it would prefer to sort out first before being dragged into another sub-regional conflagration – like it’s own central government, its economy, its potentially massive tourism trade, and of course, the Palestinian refugee issue.

Yesterday, I was able to travel south the ancient city of Tyre, some 16km from the the Israeli border. The ruins are stunning, but so are the Palestinian refugee camp which runs alongside it. It’s was a little tragic, if not amusing to discover there that some Palestinians in need of rock for building their homes had permanently borrowed some of the antiquity ruins next door. In a certain way, some five millennia of history puts the current protracted upheaval into some perspective.

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Ancient city of Tyre in Lebanon (PHOTO: Patrick Henningsen)

The recent past certainly has pulled Lebanon down in a spiral of social tension and extreme economic strife, but set against the larger backdrop of successive empires and cultures who have been overlaid on to this small, but historically pivotal region, it’s merely the latest chapter in a much larger epic novel. Many people outside of Lebanon – academics, archeologists, tourists – all long to see Lebanon achieve stability and one day showcase its incredible cultural and historical wealth to the world.

In essence, making the difficult transition from a fractured state, to one of stability and eventual prosperity. I talked about this to one long-term Beirut resident, named Jamal, who put it simply, “To do all this, first we need to have peace.”

It’s that simple. On paper anyway.

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Writer Patrick Henningsen is a roving correspondent for the UK Column, as well as host of 21st Century Wire TV programme airing Thursdays at 6pm on PSTV SKY channel 191 in the UK.

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BREAKING: 7 foreigners kidnapped in Algeria

January 16, 2013

The Independant
LAMINE CHIKHI
Jan 16, 2013

Islamist militants attacked a gas production field in southern Algeria today, kidnapping at least seven foreigners and killing a French national, local and company officials said.

An al-Qa’ida-linked group operating in the Sahara said it had carried out the raid on the In Amenas facility, Mauritania’s ANI news agency reported.

The field, located close to the border with Libya, is operated by a joint venture including BP, Norwegian oil firm Statoil and Algerian state company Sonatrach.

Five Japanese nationals working for the Japanese engineering firm JCG Corp were kidnapped as well as a French national, local officials said. An Irishman was also seized, the Irish government said.

A French national was killed in the attack, a local source said, but it was unclear if the victim was the same person who had been kidnapped.

The foreigners were taken from In Amenas in the morning. Algerian troops had mounted an operation to rescue the hostages and had also surrounded the workers’ camp at Tiguentourine, a local source said.

Algeria has allowed France to use its air space during its military intervention against al-Qa’ida-linked Islamist rebels in Mali, although officials have yet to make a link between today’s attack and the conflict in Algeria’s southern neighbour.

ANI, which has regular direct contact with Islamists, said that fighters under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar were holding the foreigners seized from the gas field.

Belmokhtar for years commanded al-Qa’ida fighters in the Sahara before setting up his own armed Islamist group late last year after an apparent fallout with other militant leaders.

BP confirmed there had been a “security incident” at the In Amenas field but could give no more details.

Statoil, a minority shareholder in the venture, said it was notified of the incident this morning but could not say if any of its fewer than 20 employees were affected.

Statoil described the incident as serious and called it an emergency situation.

BP said the field was approximately 825 miles from the capital, Algiers.

The five Japanese work for the engineering firm JGC Corporation, Jiji news agency reported, quoting company officials. JGC has a deal with Sonatrach-BP-Statoil Association for work in gas production at In Amenas.

In Tokyo, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said it was gathering information on the situation but could not comment. French Foreign Ministry officials also said they had no immediate comment and were trying to verify the reports.

‘Patriot’ group looks to create armed community in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming

January 16, 2013

Billings Gazzette
Martin Kidston Missoulian

MISSOULA — A group bound by the Second Amendment, patriotism and pride in “American exceptionalism” is looking to purchase several thousand acres of land in northern Idaho or Western Montana to establish a gated community of like-minded residents.

According to the project description, The Citadel would house between 3,500 and 7,000 patriotic American families who believe in emergency preparedness, and who can show efficiency with the “American icon of liberty – the Rifle.”

Advertisements on the group’s website urge visitors to “Get an AR … before it’s too late,” referring to the controversial AR-15 assault rifle.

The group says it’s looking to break ground on its community this year. It’s eyeing Benewah County, Idaho, outside of Coeur d’Alene, though it said Montana could be considered as well.

“While every effort and intention is to build in Benewah County, the Citadel Project reserves the right to select a final location with similar terrain in other Idaho counties or, if necessary, in Montana, Wyoming or elsewhere in the American Redoubt,” the website says.

The group describes itself as a nonprofit, liberty-driven group that believes in Thomas Jefferson’s Rightful Liberty. Marxists, socialists, liberals and establishment Republicans need not apply, the group says, as they would find life in the community “incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles.”

The group’s blog says its spokesman, who isn’t identified, is not yet willing to give interviews, and media requests were referred back to the group’s website, iiicitadel.com.

The Southern Poverty Law Center dismissed The Citidel concept as an “idle fantasy,” while the Montana Human Rights Network plans to keep tabs on the group’s progress.

“Their talking points fit into the general anti-government survivalist movement,” said Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director Human Rights Network. “They’re more explicit on their requirements for guns than some groups have been in the past.”

Carroll Rivas said her group has seen greater political engagement over the past four years by groups on the far right, including those interested in the survivalist concept.

Frustrated by the outcome of recent elections, however, they’ve begun to withdraw from the political process due to a sense of defeat. The process follows trends in recent history, including that in the 1990s, which saw the rise of groups in Montana like the Freemen during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“When you don’t get what you want, you pull away, and it’s not surprising that some people would go this route,” Carroll Rivas said. “History has shown there’s an interest in our region.”

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To win residency to The Citadel, applicants would have to agree to a list of conditions, such as following the U.S. Constitution, and being able to shoot a man-sized steel target at various distances with a handgun and rifle.

Read more

Helicopter Crash In South London

January 16, 2013

Huffington Post
Robert Barr

LONDON — Police say two people were killed when a helicopter crashed Wednesday during rush hour in central London after apparently hitting a construction crane on top of a building.

Two people were taken to a nearby hospital with “minor injuries,” London Ambulance Service said.

The helicopter crashed just south of the River Thames near the Underground and mainline train station at Vauxhall, and the British spy agency MI6.

Video on Sky News showed wreckage burning in a street, and a large plume of black smoke rose in the area. The video from the crash scene showed a line of flaming fuel and debris.

Witness reports that the helicopter hit a crane atop a 50-story residential building, the St. George Wharf Tower, were not immediately confirmed.

The Ministry of Defense said it was not a military helicopter, and a British security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press said the incident was not terror-related.

London Fire Brigade said it was called at 8 a.m. to a report of a crash on Wandsworth Road on the south bank of the Thames.

“There was a flash and the helicopter plunged to the ground. It exploded and you can imagine the smoke coming out of it,” Paul Ferguson, an office worker near the scene, told BBC News.

“The top of the crane was actually obscured by fog so I didn’t see the impact,” Michael Gavin told the BBC. “But I heard a bang and saw the body of the helicopter falling to the ground along with pieces of the crane and then a large plume of smoke afterwards.”

Erin Rogers, who was waiting at a bus stop near Vauxhall Station, said she “heard a bang and saw bits of crane debris falling to the floor.”

“Then the helicopter was in flames. The rest of the people at the bus station were looking on going, `What was that?'”

Police said the helicopter appeared to have hit a crane.

Early reports indicated the crane was at St. George’s Wharf, a high rise apartment complex with apartments that offer sweeping river and city views.

The area, roughly 10 blocks from the major Waterloo train and Underground station, is extremely congested during the morning rush hour. Many commuters arrive at the main line stations from London’s southern suburbs and transfer to buses or trains there.

Panetta: Pentagon may provide ‘limited logistical support’ to French in Mali

January 15, 2013

Washington Post
Craig Whitlock
Jan 16, 2013

LISBON – The Pentagon may become involved in military operations against Islamist rebels in the West African country of Mali by providing airlift and “limited logistical support” to French troops fighting there, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
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“We have a responsibility to go after al-Qaeda wherever they are,” Panetta told reporters as he began a weeklong trip to Europe. “We’re going after them in Yemen and Somalia, and we have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa, in Mali.”U.S. defense officials said they were reviewing requests for assistance from France, which sent troops to Mali on Friday in an urgent attempt to prevent Islamist rebels and other guerrillas from overrunning the ragtag Malian army. Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels have gained control of the northern half of the country over the past year, enabling al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa to function unimpeded in a swath of territory the size of Texas.Panetta declined to provide further details about what kind of military assistance the Pentagon might bring to the conflict, but said one option under consideration would be to deploy transport aircraft that move French troops or equipment.The Obama administration has previously ruled out placing “U.S. boots on the ground” in Mali. Officials traveling with Panetta declined to comment when asked if U.S. transport aircraft might actually land in Mali to help the French, or if the territory remained off limits.The United States, France, the United Nations Security Council and several African countries have been working for months on a joint plan to intervene militarily in Mali, one of the poorest and most remote countries in the world.

The planning, however, has been undermined by strategic disagreements, a lack of firm commitments to send troops and Mali’s internal political dysfunctions. The country’s democratically elected president was toppled last March in a coup led by a rogue Army captain who had received military training in the United States. Factionalism has worsened since then as Islamist fighters have tightened their grip on the northern half of the country.

Another complication is that the United States is prohibited by law from providing direct military assistance to the Malian government because of the coup. The Pentagon had to shut down training and aid programs in Mali last year and remove virtually all military personnel.

The U.S. military already has been sharing intelligence about the Mali rebels with France, an exchange that will continue, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. The official said the Pentagon was also considering whether to deploy tanker aircraft to Africa to provide mid-air refueling for French warplanes.

The United States has conducted surveillance over Mali for years with satellites, high-altitude Global Hawk drones based in Europe and small PC-12 turboprop planes based in Burkina Faso, on Mali’s southern border.

Flying armed Reaper or Predator drones over Mali is not an immediate option, however; the Pentagon lacks a base in the region for those aircraft.

The turmoil in Mali was triggered, in part, by a flood of fighters and weaponry arriving from Libya after that country’s civil war erupted. When Libyan ruler Col. Moammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011 – thanks largely to a NATO-led military intervention — many mercenaries and Tuareg rebels who had supported him crossed the Sahara to return to Mali, further stressing the already weak government there.

Asked if the NATO’s involvement in Libya was partly to blame for the unrest in Mali, Panetta did not answer directly but said that al-Qaeda factions have demonstrated an ability to adapt by moving to new regions.

“With the turmoil in Mali, they found it convenient to use that situation to gain some traction there,” he told reporters on his plane while flying to Europe. “There’s no question as you confront them in Yemen, in Somalia, in Libya that they’ll ultimately try to relocate. The fact is, we’ve made a commitment that al-Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide.”

Panetta is scheduled to meet with NATO allies this week in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Britain in what he said is “likely” is last international trip as defense secretary. President Obama has nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed him.

RELATED: La Folie Solami: Black Hawk Down… Part Deux

New Hi-Tech Clothing Line Makes You ‘Invisible to Drones’

January 15, 2013

In February of last year, Congress approved a bill that will allow as many as 30,000 unmanned vehicles to tour the US sky by 2020. The Federal Aviation Administration plans to open up national airspace to drones by the year 2015,but one New York artist is launching a clothing line that will keep you invisible to the robotic aircraft. RT’s Liz Wahl brings us more…

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Mali Mayhem: ‘French post-colonial ambition to spark African anger’

January 15, 2013

Northern Mali was captured by Islamist militants nine months ago; the international community has been debating since then over what action should be taken. The conflict escalated last week when France launched its air assault to “maintain stability in the region.” Eric Margolis, an award-winning columnist who’s extensively covered conflicts in Africa, believes president Hollande is sensitive to France’s role as a former colonial power in Mali.