Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Interpol says suspected Anonymous hackers arrested

PARIS (AP) — Interpol said that 25 suspected members of the loose-knit Anonymous hacker movement have been arrested in a sweep across Europe and South America.
The international police agency said in a statement Tuesday that the arrests in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain were carried out by national law enforcement officers working under the support of Interpol's Latin American Working Group of Experts on Information Technology Crime.
The suspects, aged between 17 and 40, are suspected of planning coordinated cyberattacks against institutions including Colombia's defense ministry and presidential websites, Chile's Endesa electricity company and national library, as well as other targets.
The arrests followed an ongoing investigation begun in mid-February which also led to the seizure of 250 items of IT equipment and mobile phones in searches of 40 premises in 15 cities, Interpol said.
In Chile's capital, Subprefect Jamie Jara said at a news conference that authorities arrested five Chileans and a Colombian. Two of the Chileans are 17-year-old minors.
The case was being handled by prosecutor Marcos Mercado, who specializes in computer crime. He said the suspects were charged with altering websites, including that of Chile's National Library, and engaging in denial-of-service attacks on websites of the electricity companies Endesa and Hidroaysen. The charges carry a penalty of 541 days to five years in prison, he said.
Jara said the arrests resulted from a recently begun investigation and officials do not yet know if those arrested are tied to any "illicit group."
"For now, we have not established that they have had any special communications among themselves," he said.
Jara said authorities were continuing to investigate other avenues, but gave no details.
Gen. Carlos Mena, commander of Colombia's Judicial Police, said no one was arrested in Colombia, but he noted that some Colombians had been arrested elsewhere, including Chile. He said he hadn't confirmed a report that one of those arrested in Argentina may have been from Colombia.
Mena did hint that there might be arrests in Colombia. He said other nations have been providing information and Colombian authorities are looking into it, but so far haven't arrested any hackers.
"You have to leave them alone, so when we have all the evidence, and the prosecutor makes the decision, we will be all over it and capturing them," he said.
No official statements have been released yet in Argentina. An Argentine media website based its story on the Interpol statement, which it quotes as saying that 10 people were arrested in Argentina.
Earlier Tuesday, police in Spain announced the arrest of four suspected Anonymous hackers in connection with attacks on Spanish political party websites. These four were among the 25 announced by Interpol.
A National Police statement said two servers used by the group in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have been blocked.
It said the four included the alleged manager of Anonymous' computer operations in Spain and Latin America, who was identified only by his initials and the aliases "Thunder" and "Pacotron."
The four are suspected of defacing websites, carrying out denial-of-service attacks and publishing data on police assigned to the royal palace and the premier's office online.
Interpol is headquartered in Lyon, France. The organization has no powers of arrest or investigation but it helps police forces around the world work together, facilitating intelligence sharing.
Anonymous, whose genesis can be traced back to a popular U.S. image messaging board, has become increasingly politicized amid a global clampdown on music piracy and the international controversy over the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks, with which many of its supporters identify.
Authorities in Europe, North America and elsewhere have made dozens of arrests, and Anonymous has increasingly attacked law enforcement, military and intelligence-linked targets in retaliation.
One of Anonymous' most spectacular coups: Secretly recording a conference call between U.S. and British cyber investigators tasked with bringing the group to justice.
Anonymous has no real membership structure. Hackers, activists, and supporters can claim allegiance to its freewheeling principles at their convenience, so it's unclear what impact the arrests will have.
Some Internet chatter appeared to point to a revenge attack on Interpol's website, but the police organization's home page appeared to operating as normal late Tuesday.
One Twitter account purportedly associated with Anonymous' Brazilian wing said the sweep would fail.
"Interpol, you can't take Anonymous," the message read. "It's an idea."
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

France says U.N. working on Syria resolution

PARIS (Reuters) - France said that the United Nations Security Council would start work on Tuesday on a proposed resolution to halt the violence in Syria and enable humanitarian access to victims.
"Work is starting today at the Security Council on a proposed resolution on stopping the violence in Syria and on humanitarian access to the worst affected sites and people," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told a news briefing, adding that the focus was on the besieged city of Homs.
"We hope Russia and China will not oppose the proposed resolution," he said. "Given the emergency, it's time that all the council members, without exception, put a stop to this barbarity."
(Reporting Nick Vinocur and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Mysterious 'Dog-Headed Pig Monster' Terrorizes Africa

Residents in northern Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa, have reported being terrorized by a bizarre dog-pig hybrid creature. The animal is said to be mostly white and unlike anything the villagers have ever seen, with a doglike head and the broad, round, nearly hairless back and shoulders of a giant pig. The beast was spotted chasing and attacking dogs, goats and other domestic animals in this arid region not far from the Kalahari desert.
As often happens when rumors of monsters spread in rural areas around the world, some locals have taken extra safety precautions, such as traveling in groups and arming themselves with weapons. In 1995 and 1996, some Puerto Ricans armed themselves against the vampire beast el chupacabra; last year, Malaysian residents patrolled the streets searching for the mysterious orang minyak, or "oily man" creature that had recently terrorized them.
What could this monster be? One Namibian official, regional councilor Andreas Mundjindi, was quoted in Informante newspaper as saying, "This is an alien animal that the people have not seen before. We don't have a forest here, only bushes. So, this must be black magic at play." Some people in the area trace the beast to one old man rumored to be a warlock or witch doctor, suggesting it's his pet (or, what witch-hunters hundreds of years ago would have called a "familiar").
The assumption that the beast has magical origins is not surprising. A 2010 Gallup poll found belief in magic widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with more than half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft and sorcery.
This is not the first time that unusual animals have been spotted in rural areas of Namibia; several other monsters have been reported over the years, including in July 2009, when unknown creatures reportedly sucked the blood out of livestock, including nearly two dozen goats. Though no one saw the monsters, they were said to have left footprints similar to those of a dog, but much larger. Police followed the footprints, but they mysteriously stopped in an open field, as if the creature suddenly took flight or vanished. At that time, locals were also convinced that the strange beast was the product of black magic — going so far as to accuse an old man and his sister of conjuring the creature.
It's not clear whether locals believe that the current dog-headed, pig-bodied animal is the same mystery creature that terrorized the region three years ago. Whether the reports are real or rumor, hopefully belief in these creatures won't be used as an excuse for mob attacks on elderly men and women suspected of witchcraft.
This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LivScience. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is

Clinton wary of declaring Assad a war criminal

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday an argument could be made for declaring President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal, but said such action could complicate a solution in Syria.
"Based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," Clinton told a Senate hearing on the State Department budget.
"People have been putting forth the argument," the chief US diplomat said.
"But I also think that from long experience that can complicate a resolution of a difficult, complex situation because it limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power," Clinton said.
The secretary appeared to be referring to Yemen, where the United States supported a deal that gave outgoing Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh "complete" immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down.
The United States defended that deal as a way to promote democracy in Yemen.
In Brussels on Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France wants to see the Syrian regime dragged before the International Criminal Court (ICC), saying he would plead for such action before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
He said he would say that he hopes to "see the international community reflect on the conditions of a referral to the ICC."
But he said that, as Syria was not a party to the Rome convention establishing the ICC, the tribunal could not initiate action itself and it would be up to the UN Security Council to refer the matter.

NASA Scientist Wins Free Space Trip on Rocket Plane

PALO ALTO, Calif. — A NASA scientist has won a free flight to suborbital space, but he may not be able to claim the prize.
Thomas Goodwin, a physiology and bioengineering researcher at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, won a suborbital flight on XCOR Aerospace's Lynx vehicle, a $95,000 value. Goodwin's name was randomly selected here Monday (Feb. 27) at the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC-2012).
"I'm not sure I can accept this," Goodwin said, referencing his status as a government employee, which may prevent him from using the prize. "I'm very surprised."
If government regulations and red tape prohibit Goodwin from claiming the award, a backup is ready to step up; XCOR officials drew an alternate name just in case. Conference attendees who registered in advance were entered in the drawing.
XCOR's Lynx is a two-person space plane designed to take off and land on a conventional airport runway. In addition to flights with paying passengers, the rocket-powered vehicle is being designed to carry research experiments to suborbital space.
XCOR officials have said the Lynx could be in flight-test operations by the end of 2012. The company plans to charge $95,000 per seat when the space plane is up and running. XCOR also announced Monday that it recently secured $5 million in equity funding that will help fund its work on the Lynx.
Whoever eventually goes up in the space plane will be in for a real treat, XCOR officials said.
"Hang onto your hat, because it's going to be one amazing ride," said former NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, XCOR's chief test pilot.
XCOR isn't the only company developing craft to take scientists, experiments and tourists up to suborbital space. Virgin Galactic, for example, is charging $200,000 for rides on its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which seats six passengers, along with two pilots.
NSRC-2012, which runs through Wednesday (Feb. 29), brings scientists and educators together to talk about how commercial suborbital spacecraft can help advance research in atmospheric science, physics, planetary science, biology and physiology, among other fields, according to conference organizers.
The meeting is jointly hosted by NASA, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute.
You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

News PipeLine LPPNEWS

Russia 'thwarts plot' to assassinate Putin

Russia said on Monday its secret services had thwarted a plot hatched in a Ukrainian port city by suspected militants from Chechnya to assassinate Vladimir Putin after next weekend's presidential vote.
State television showed the two men confessing to conspiring to kill the Russian strongman in a bombing attack that was revealed to the public less than a week before Putin's likely victory in Sunday's election.
The plot was confirmed by Putin's spokesman as well as the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and its Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) counterpart, who worked jointly to break up the conspiracy.
The purported confessions showed the two men saying they acted on the orders of Chechen Islamist militant Doku Umarov -- the warlord who has claimed Moscow's deadliest airport and metro bombings in the past two years.
Officials said the pair, along with a third man who died while trying to prepare a bomb, were both ethnic Chechens and were detained in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa in January and early February.
It was not clear why the authorities had waited until just days were left before the March 4 poll to make their announcement.
"It just seems like an incredible coincidence that these monsters were discovered today," independent military analyst Alexander Golts told AFP.
But Prime Minister Putin's official spokesman Dmitry Peskov called such suggestions "blasphemous".
Channel One said the three plotters went to Ukraine from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey with "clear instructions from representatives of Doku Umarov".
"They told us that first you come to Odessa and learn how to make bombs," Channel One showed a man a man identified as Ilya Pyanzin as saying.
"And then later, in Moscow, you will stage attacks against commercial objects, with the subsequent assassination attempt against Putin," the man said.
The state television footage showed a video of Putin getting into his car being played on the laptop computer belonging to second suspect Adam Osmayev, a man the report said had lived and studied at university in London.
The hidden-camera footage of the Russian prime minister's movements was shot "so that we had an understanding of how he was protected," Osmayev said.
Osmayev had bruises and cuts across his face in the Channel One video and was later led away to his cells by hooded agents from Ukraine's SBU.
An SBU official told Interfax that the two men's fate was uncertain because Russian prosecutors had still not requested their extradition.
Osmayev was shown telling investigators that some explosives had already been hidden near the Kutuzovsky Prospekt avenue that Putin passes daily to reach the government White House.
Channel One also quoted an unidentified Russian FSB official as saying that the blast would have been "powerful enough to tear apart a truck".
Putin's spokesman Peskov said the Russian premier had no plans to alter his schedule because of the threat and hit out at suggestions that the report was planted in the media to benefit his election campaign.
"The fact that the information was published now is easily explained by the fact that the preparations were being made not only in Moscow but also in Ukraine," he told Interfax.
The Channel One news director said his station received the first details about the plot from Russia's FSB on February 17 and dismissed speculation about the report's benefits to Putin's election campaign.
"This is a very serious group (of plotters) who had funding and real bombs," Channel One news director Kirill Kleimenov told RIA Novosti.
An FSB official told RIA Novosti that the suspected plotters were all Chechens who belonged to one of Umarov's armed groups.
But the news site that Umarov regularly uses to air his views cast doubt on the validity of the Channel One report and carried no claim of responsibility for the plot.


Visit to Cuba is permissible, and fairly easy to do 

Cuba Cigar Sales Rise 9%

Castro Wants Tourists, Period. 

Despite most recent arrest, Cuba independent journalist Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia vows to stay on the job

Obama gains with women: Jobs, social issues help

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's looking like President Barack Obama may be back in the good graces of women.
His support dropped among this critical constituency just before the new year began and the presidential campaign got under way in earnest. But his standing with female voters is strengthening, polls show, as the economy improves and social issues, including birth control, become a bigger part of the nation's political discourse.
"Republicans are making a big mistake with this contraception talk, and I'm pretty sure that they are giving (the election) to Obama," says Patricia Speyerer, 87, of McComb, Miss., a GOP-leaning independent. "It's a stupid thing."
The recent furor over whether religious employers should be forced to pay for their workers' contraception is certainly a factor but hardly the only reason for women warming up to Obama again after turning away from him late last year.
An Associated Press-GfK poll suggests women also are giving the president more credit than men are for the country's economic turnaround.
Among women, his approval ratings on handling the economy and unemployment have jumped by 10 percentage points since December. Back then, a wide swath of Americans expressed anxiety over the nation's slow climb out of recession and anger at a government that couldn't agree on steps to speed things up.
Since then, the unemployment rate has kept declining, and Obama hasn't been shy about trumpeting it, and analysts say that drop may have resonated particularly with women.
For Obama, there is no more crucial constituency than women. They make up a majority of voters in presidential elections, and a bit more of them identify with his party. He would not be president today without topping Republican John McCain in that group in 2008. And Republicans would need to win a sizable share — more than about 40 percent — of female voters to beat him.
Though the economy remains the top concern among both women and men, an array of social issues — gay marriage, access to birth control and whether cancer research should be kept separate from the issue of abortion— have returned to the nation's political conversation since December. And both parties have snapped up those issues to awaken their staunchest supporters.
Republicans from Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign trail focused particularly on a requirement in Obama's health care law for some religious employers to pay for birth control. Obama then adjusted that policy by instead directing insurance companies to pay for birth control — and Democrats are running with a message that Republicans want to upend long-established rights for women.
"Women are used to making decisions and running their lives," said Linda Young, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, which favors abortion rights. "To hear their right to contraception questioned in 2012 is shocking, and it's gotten a lot of people's attention."
Republicans say the economy will again overtake that discussion and it will be clear the GOP offers families more once Republicans choose a nominee, turn their fire from each other to Obama and make their case on issues such as gas prices and the deficit.
"The economic indicators, we have to admit, are very slowly improving, and that is something that has always affected the female vote," said Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women. "Until we get a candidate I don't think the full story can be told."
"People in both political parties are keeping this (cultural narrative) alive because they're trying to excite their bases," said Republican Brian Flaherty, who served as a Connecticut legislator for 15 years. "You can afford to have this attention in February on" reproductive issues.
An AP-GfK poll conducted Feb. 16-20 showed that on overall approval Obama has gained 10 percentage points among women since December, from 43 percent to 53 percent, even though his administration seemed to stumble over whether religious employers should be forced to pay for contraception.
Women also are the reason behind Obama's lead over Republican hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum: In one-on-one matchups, Obama beats Romney 54 percent to 41 percent and tops Santorum 56 percent to 40 percent among women, but virtually ties each Republican among men. Women are Obama's to lose: They are more apt to identify with Democrats and give that party higher favorability than are men.
Over time, there hasn't been much shift in women's views of the Democratic Party, but views of the GOP have become more polarized since the AP last asked about the issue in January 2011. Thirty-nine percent of Republican women hold a "very favorable" view of the party, compared with 27 percent a year ago. At the same time, 57 percent of Democratic women now give the GOP a deeply unfavorable rating, the first time that figure has topped 50 percent.
Republicans insist their objections to Obama's policy on birth control coverage are about government infringing on the freedom of religion, not about contraception, which is supported by a broad majority of Americans.
But Santorum also says, as he has for years, that contraception conflicts with his Roman Catholic beliefs.
"Well, I'm a Roman Catholic, too," said Speyerer. She recalls that in 1940s New Orleans, where she was born and married, it was illegal to publish anything about birth control, "and I don't want to see that happen again."
Democrats already have sought to capitalize on that sentiment, holding a faux hearing last week with a single woman denied the chance to testify about contraception to a Republican-controlled House committee.
There will be more of that this week. Senate Democrats have agreed to debate a measure by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would allow health plans to deny coverage for any service that violates the sponsor's beliefs. And on Thursday, a coalition of women's groups called HERvotes is holding a news conference in Washington to protest the renewed questioning of long-established rights for women.
The AP-GfK poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults, including 485 women. Results from the full sample have a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points. Among women, the margin of error is 6 points.

Monday, February 27, 2012

White House wants nothing to do with NYPD’s spying on American Muslims

The White House is distancing itself from a sweeping New York Police Department surveillance program of American Muslims that reportedly includes spying on entire neighborhoods and infiltrating Muslim student groups at area universities.
"This is not an administration program or a White House program; this is the New York Police Department," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the NYPD program relied in part on assets paid for by federal funds granted to the department through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, known as HIDTA.

Carney told reporters that the White House does not have a position on how the money was spent, but he took pains to distance the administration from the NYPD program.
"I would simply point you to the concerted efforts that this administration has made in reaching out to the Muslim community; the fact that we make very clear that we consider Muslim Americans partners in the effort to combat, you know, radical extremism. I think we've made that clear again and again, and that continues to be our position," he said.

WikiLeaks publishes intelligence firm Stratfor’s hacked emails, but analysts question their value

| The Envoy – 
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrved at UK Supreme Court Feb. 3, 2012 to appeal his extradition to Sweden to …On Monday, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks began to publish some five million alleged emails and internal documents obtained from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. Hackers supposedly seized the firm's internal emails  in December.
But despite WikiLeaks' breathless announcement of its latest data dump, many analysts question why the private firm's internal emails were of much value or interest anyway, since the firm examined mostly open-source information widely available in newspaper reports, think tank discussions and university political science departments.
The released Stratfor emails, dating from July 2004 through December 2011, "reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations..." WikiLeaks wrote on its website. It named the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in addition to some large Fortune 500 companies as places Stratfor serviced. "The emails show Stratfor's web of informers, pay-off structure, payment laundering techniques and psychological methods," wrote WikiLeaks.
Stratfor said in a statement Monday that some of the leaked documents and emails "may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic," Reuters reported. (Among the phoney emails released was one alleging that Stratfor's founder and CEO George Friedman had resigned, the firm's statement said. He has not.)
While difficult to evaluate, some of the contentions in other released emails appeared questionable.
For instance, one WikiLeaks released email is from a Stratfor analyst named Fred Burton, who responded to a 2010 New York Observer article on the Cordoba Initiative, the group behind the proposed ground zero mosque. The article alleged that some members of the group's board had ties to the CIA.
"The Imam is an operational asset of the FBI," Burton allegedly wrote in the email to other Stratfor counter-terrorism analysts on Sept. 13, 2010.
But a spokeswoman for the Cordoba Initiative told Yahoo News on Monday the claim is "grossly inaccurate" and reiterated "there is no validity to the statement."
Imam Faisal Abdul Reuf "was asked by the director of the FBI New York office to train New York FBI agents on Islam," the statement continued. "There has been no involvement since then."
A spokeswoman with the FBI's cyber crimes division, contacted by Yahoo News, declined to comment on the allegation Monday. A spokesman for Stratfor didn't indicate whether the specific email in question was authentic.
Another group of leaked emails from November 2011 shows Stratfor analysts expressing open skepticism about a contention from an Israeli source that Israel had already destroyed much of Iran's nuclear program:
On 11/7/11 7:54 AM, Benjamin Preisler wrote:
...Publication: for background
Attribution: none
Source Description - Confirmed Israeli Intelligence Agent
Source reliability: Still testing
Item credibility: untested...
Source was asked what he thought of reports that the Israelis
were preparing a military offensive against Iran. Response:
I think this is a diversion. The Israelis already destroyed
all the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on the ground weeks
ago. The current "let's bomb Iran" campaign was ordered by the
EU leaders to divert the public attention from their at home
financial problems. ...
But another Stratfor analyst responds with open incredulity and mocks the above claim as patently ridiculous:
On 11/7/11 8:09 AM, Chris Farnham wrote: Ah, what? Israel has
already destroyed the Iranian prog/infra and this is all being
engineered by Europeans so people forget about the economy
How and when did the Israelis destroy the infra on the ground? [...]
Do we attribute any credibility to this item at all? ...
A FAQ on Stratfor's website said the firm is cooperating with an FBI investigation into the alleged data breach that it said it suffered in early December. The FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigation.

Koran-Burning: Can U.S. and Afghan Soldiers Work Together?

As the anger over the Koran-burning controversy continued to convulse Afghanistan, another violent incident disrupted how the Kabul government interacts with its Western allies. On Saturday afternoon, a member of the Afghan Interior Ministry opened fire on two U.S. advisers -- a lieutenant colonel and a major -- at the ministry's command-and-control center in the capital. The Americans were shot in the back of their heads as they sat at their desks, news reports said. "A countrywide manhunt is underway for the fugitive," Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi told TIME. Since the news broke, speculation has raged over whether the killer was an insurgent infiltrator or simply motivated by the Koran burnings at the Bagram Airbase earlier this week. Sediqi denied the idea of infiltration, saying it is "clear that insurgent groups are not able to have such connections as this. The ministry is very secure, and we have not had any such incidents in the past. It cannot be suggested that he has links with some groups. But we will have to investigate."
After reading the initial reports, one Afghanistan-based security expert does not believe the killer was a Taliban plant -- as the militant group has claimed. However, Paddy Smith, a security analyst and former British soldier, says, "Given the nature of where the killer was, it is definitely interesting that he was able to holster his weapon and walk away. It is an indication of either confusion or collusion. That's some feat -- unless some other people knew about it -- to just walk into the control center and head-chop them." But Smith also says the attack underlines huge structural problems facing foreign forces in training a viable Afghan army and security force large enough and strong enough to defend the country from internal and external enemies -- one of the requirements the U.S. and NATO have set in order to withdraw by 2014 and still be able to declare a kind of victory.
(PHOTOS: Afghans Protest Against Alleged Koran Desecration)
The growing divide between Afghan soldiers and their mentors has already been stretched to the breaking point after six days of violent and deadly protests over the Koran burning that have left around 30 dead, including four U.S. soldiers previously killed by Afghan soldiers or men in Afghan-security-force uniforms. The burning of Korans by foreign soldiers on one side and the killing of foreign soldiers by Afghan soldiers on the other have pushed the level of alienation between the two sides to what could be an all-time high.
The Saturday murders were only the latest of at least 22 similar killings that have occurred since April last year. Smith says there have been at least 35 in the past 12 months, though NATO spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson refused to confirm that number. The Wall Street Journal reports that at least 77 coalition soldiers have been killed in the past five years in "green on blue" incidents, with around 57 of those having taken place since early 2010. Smith is not sanguine about improving the situation, even as the allies pour more money and effort into training ever more locals. Says he: "You only ever rent an Afghan, you can't buy one."
(VIDEO: A New Season of Fighting in Afghanistan)
"Language and culture barriers always remain," says Smith. "These Americans [killed on Saturday] probably didn't have the first clue of what was about to hit them. Even if the Afghans had been sitting around talking about the murder in Dari [a local language], these guys wouldn't have known about it. Very seldom do we actually connect with each other," Smith says, adding, "These guys are loyal because we pay them. You only start to develop a bond over months and years, and British soldiers only have six months before they go home."
PHOTOS: Presidential Election in Afghanistan
Smith says that NATO soldiers "get on a plane at a NATO base in the U.S. or Europe and fly to a NATO base in Afghanistan, and they never really engage with the Afghan population. Also -- and this is the chicken-and-the-egg question -- because of force-protection measures, soldiers can't get out there and win hearts and minds, and because of this, more soldiers die, and the more that soldiers die, the more force-protection measures there are -- and they interact even less. We've just driven a wedge between ourselves," Smith says, echoing feelings and observations expressed in numerous conversations TIME has had with analysts, observers, soldiers, officers and security contractors over more than two years in Afghanistan.
The Saturday attacks seem to verify the findings of a declassified -- then reclassified -- U.S. Army study entitled "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," which was released in May 2011. Through hundreds of interviews with both Afghan and American soldiers, it found that the murders of NATO soldiers by Afghan soldiers "do not represent 'rare and isolated events' as [is] currently being proclaimed." Afghan soldiers cited night raids and home searches by foreign soldiers, the lack of respect for women, indiscriminate shooting, constant cursing and arrogance as top complaints against their foreign "partners." They also said failure to prosecute foreign soldiers for war crimes, disrespect for Afghan soldiers, poor logistical support and a failure to share information led to divisions between the two forces -- among numerous other complaints that included entering mosques, eating in front of fasting Afghan soldiers during Ramadan and other episodes of the desecration of the Koran.
(PHOTOS: Afghanistan's Dangerous Korengal Valley)
At the same time, the report noted that U.S. soldiers have an extremely low regard for their Afghan counterparts. The soldiers' top complaints were that the Afghans were drug abusers, thieves, traitorous, unstable, incompetent and had poor officers and noncommissioned officers. The soldiers also said Afghan recruits lacked discipline, were dangerous in firefights, were cowardly, lazy and had poor hygiene.
The report concludes that "the rapidly growing fratricide-murder trend committed by Afghan national security force [ANSF] personnel against NATO members" confirms the "ineffectiveness [of] our efforts in stabilizing Afghanistan, developing a legitimate and effective government, battling the insurgency, gaining the loyalty, respect and friendship of the Afghans [and] building the ANSFs into legitimate and functional organizations." The report says that these complaints and murders challenge the usefulness of the "partnering" concept. "This is all the more a paradox given [NATO's] assumption of and planned reliance [on] the [ANSF] to be able to take over the security burden before it can disengage from this grossly prolonged conflict."
Despite that, the U.S. and NATO have always painted the partnership in positive terms. In a message issued on Saturday, NATO commander in Afghanistan General John Allen thanked the Afghan military "for the sacrifices they have made this week to minimize violence throughout the country," and added that "for many years, these brave ANSF soldiers and policemen have stood together alongside us, shoulder to shoulder, shohna ba shohna, in dutifully seeking to protect the Afghan population from a merciless insurgency." That message was released before the two U.S. soldiers were killed. On Saturday NATO pulled back all of its soldiers from their mentoring roles in Afghan government ministries, a significant move NATO spokesman Brigadier General Jacobson described to TIME as "temporary" -- but one that is bound to have far-reaching ramifications over the coming year.
PHOTOS: Suicides in the Recruiters' Ranks
VIDEO: The Challenge on the Ground in Afghanistan

Sunday, February 26, 2012

American officers killed in Afghan Interior Ministry

KABUL (Reuters) - Two American officers were shot dead at close range in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry on Saturday, a U.S. official said, as rage gripped the country for a fifth day over the burning of the Muslim holy book at a NATO base.
NATO recalled all staff working at ministries in the Afghan capital, Kabul, following the attack, with its top commander in Afghanistan calling the killer a coward.
"For obvious force protection reasons, I have also taken immediate measures to recall all other ISAF (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) personnel working in ministries in and around Kabul," said General John Allen, adding that the attacker's actions "will not go unanswered."
The two American officers, advisers to the ministry, were fired on at close range, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they did not know the identity of the shooter and that there was no known witness to the crime.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the shootings, which it said were in retaliation for the desecration of copies of the Koran by foreign troops at NATO's Bagram air base. Afghan security sources said the two dead were a U.S. colonel and major with NATO forces.
U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a letter to his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, apologizing for what Washington says was the unintentional burning of the Korans, after Afghan laborers found charred copies while collecting rubbish.
The Koran burnings ignited anti-Western fury. Thousands have taken to the streets and at least 27 people have been killed in the protests. Two American soldiers were shot to death on Thursday by an Afghan national army soldier who joined the rallies.
Obama spoke with Allen after Saturday's shootings and the White House said the president supported the steps taken to protect U.S. service members in Afghanistan.
"We welcome President Karzai's statement this morning encouraging peaceful expressions and his call for dialogue and calm," the White House said in a statement. "The United States remains committed to a partnership with the government and people of Afghanistan."
An Afghan security source said the American officers killed on Saturday had been found dead with gunshot wounds deep inside the heavily fortified Interior Ministry.
"There is CCTV (closed-circuit television) there and special locks. The killer would have had to have the highest security (clearance) to get to the room where they were killed," the source told Reuters.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on the Afghan government on Saturday to take decisive action to protect NATO forces and the curtail violence sweeping the country.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, in a phone call with Panetta, apologized and said Karzai was assembling religious leaders, parliamentarians, justices of the Supreme Court, and others in an effort to curb violence, according to a Pentagon description of the conversation.
In Kabul, Allen met with Afghan Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi, who pledged his complete cooperation with the investigation, the Pentagon said.
ISAF declined to say if the shooter was a member of the Afghan security forces.
If the shootings are linked to Afghan forces, new questions will arise about Taliban infiltration as well as their ability to secure Afghanistan once NATO combat forces withdraw in 2014.
NATO is supposed to be moving away from a combat role to an advise-and-assist mission as early as next year. That will require NATO to place more staff in ministries.
"The fact that NATO is recalling staff from ministries suggests they are worried about a deep malaise in the Afghan security forces, that they expect more of these attacks," said Kamran Bokhari at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.
The Koran burnings have underscored the deep cultural mistrust between Afghans and the foreign troops who invaded a decade ago to oust the Taliban from power.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement four high-ranking Americans had been killed. The Islamist group often exaggerates and inflates claims of casualties.
"The attack came from the mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate in revenge for the American soldiers' repeated desecration of our religion, especially the latest intentional incident in the Bagram airfield which they burnt Korans," Mujahid said, using another name the group calls itself.
An Afghan security source said the shooting of the two Americans in the Interior Ministry could be connected to the burning of the Korans.
Muslims consider the Koran to be the literal word of God and treat each copy with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.
Hundreds of people tried to overrun a compound in the northern Kunduz province housing workers from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, but were held back by police, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
In April last year, protesters angry about the burning of Korans by an obscure pastor in the United States stormed a U.N. compound in northern Balkh province, killing seven people.
The protests could dent plans for a strategic pact that Washington is considering with Kabul that would allow a sharply reduced number of Western troops to stay in the country well beyond their combat exit deadline.
There have been several instances of Afghan troops and forces turning on NATO troops. NATO servicemen and staff live and work primarily at their bases but also frequent the barricaded Afghan ministries dotted around Kabul on official business.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Michael Georgy and Bill Trott)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Iran has expanded sensitive nuclear work: U.N. agency

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran has sharply stepped up its controversial uranium enrichment drive, the U.N. nuclear agency said on Friday in a report that will further inflame Israeli fears the Islamic Republic is pushing ahead with atomic bomb plans.
The nuclear watchdog also gave details of its mission to Tehran this week where Iran failed to respond to allegations of research relevant to developing nuclear arms - a blow to the possible resumption of diplomatic talks that could help calm worries about a new war in the Middle East.
"The Agency continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a quarterly report about Iran issued to member states.
Iran's increase of work that can have both civilian and military purposes underlines that it has no intention of backing down in a long-running dispute with the West that has sparked fears of war.
U.S. crude futures extended a rally on the IAEA's findings, which added to concerns that Iran's tensions with the West would escalate. It gained more than $2 to hit the highest intraday price in nine months.
The White House said the IAEA report confirmed that Iran was violating U.N. Security Council resolutions with its nuclear enrichment program.
"When combined with its continued stonewalling of international inspectors, Iran's actions demonstrate why Iran has failed to convince the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful," White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
In what would be a big expansion, Iran has increased the number of centrifuge machines enriching uranium - material that can be used to make atomic bombs if refined much further - by well over a third since late last year, the report indicated.
Preparatory work to install thousands more centrifuges is under way, potentially shortening the time needed to make high-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.
Tehran says its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, but its refusal to curb enrichment has drawn increasingly tough sanctions on its oil exports.
Iran's ambassador to the IAEA said the report had vindicated its position and insisted Tehran had no intention of giving up its nuclear march.
"The IAEA report indicated that all Iran's nuclear activities are under the supervision of the agency," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Ali Asghar Soltanieh as saying.
"It shows again that Iran's nuclear activity is peaceful."
Israel, which has threatened Iran with pre-emptive strikes on its nuclear sites, had no immediate comment.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned that the Islamic state's nuclear research could soon pass into what he called a "zone of immunity," protected from outside disruption.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the IAEA report increased concerns over the real purpose of Iran's nuclear program.
Ashton, who represents the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain in stalled talks with Iran, also urged Tehran to cooperate fully with the IAEA.
"The findings of this new IAEA report contribute to further increased concerns on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program," Ashton's spokeswoman said.
"Iran has to address all existing concerns and to build confidence in the nature of its nuclear program."
The confidential IAEA report showed that Iran since last November had tripled monthly output of uranium refined to a level that brings it significantly closer to potential bomb material, an official familiar with the agency's probe said.
"The concern is that they are trying to give the impression that they are putting in the capability that could much more quickly make weapon-grade uranium," nuclear proliferation expert David Albright said.
"This could all be posturing to show further defiance, but unfortunately it does concern many countries about what is Iran planning." Albright added that Iran seemed to have problems developing newer and more efficient centrifuges.
The failure of the two-day IAEA visit to Tehran this week could hamper any resumption of wider nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six world powers as the sense grows that Tehran feels it is being backed into a corner.
The IAEA team sought answers from Iran raised by a previous agency report in November that suggested it had pursued military nuclear technology. Those findings helped to precipitate the latest sanctions by the EU and United States.
Making clear the two sides had been far apart, the IAEA report said there were major differences on how to tackle the issue and that Iran had dismissed the U.N. agency's concerns as "unfounded." No further meetings are planned.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano urged Iran in the report to provide "early access" to Parchin, a military site near Tehran seen as central to the agency's investigations into possible military aspects of Iran's nuclear work.
His agency's report showed Iran had carried out an expansion of activities both at its main enrichment plant near the central city of Natanz and at the Fordow underground site.
Enriched uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants, which is Iran's stated aim, or provide material for bombs if refined much further, which the West suspects is Tehran's ultimate plan.
At Natanz, the IAEA report said Iran had declared that 52 cascades - each containing about 170 centrifuges - were now operating, up from 37 in November. At Fordow, about 700 centrifuges are now refining uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent and preparations are under way to install more.
Fordow is of particular concern for the West and Israel as Iran is shifting the most sensitive aspect of its nuclear work, 20 percent enrichment, to the site.
Estimated to be buried beneath 80 meters (265 feet) of rock and soil, it gives Iran better protection against any Israeli or U.S. military strikes.
Nuclear bombs require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but Western experts say much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20 percent concentration, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons "break-out."
The IAEA said Iran had now produced nearly 110 kg (240 pounds) of uranium enriched to 20 percent since early 2010. Western experts say about 250 kg (550 pounds) are needed for a nuclear weapon, although it would need to be enriched much further.
(Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri in Tehran, Tabassum Zakaria, Missy Ryan and Caren Bohan in Washington and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Cooney)

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