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Obama orders ‘review of spy operations’

Oct 292013
 

Obama orders 'review of spy operations' US President Barack Obama says he has ordered a review of the way US spy agencies gather intelligence. It follows a string of embarrassing revelations which include bugging millions of phone calls.France, Germany and Spain are some of the countries now seeking explanations.

Obama’s comments during an interview with Fusion, a cable network joint venture between ABC and Univision on Monday, he called for a review of the agency’s operations, “to make sure that what they’re able to do doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing.”

Obama said he is the “final user” of all intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies in the US and that the White House gives the NSA “policy direction”, but that “their capacities continue to develop and expand”.

His statements echoed, head of US Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, who earlier on Monday called for a “total review of all intelligence programmes” after reports that American spies eavesdropped on German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Feinstein said Obama was not informed either that Angela Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002.

“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies, including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Feinstein said in a statement.

“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” Feinstein said.

“The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort.”

Her statement follows reports based on new leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden indicating that the NSA listened to Merkel and 34 other leaders.

Damaged relations

The Spanish El Mundo newspaper on Monday reported the US had monitored 60 million phone calls in that country during one month. The report comes days after similar stories of NSA spying in France and Germany.

In response, German authorities on Monday cited last week’s non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-9/11 agreement allowing the US access to bank transfer data to track suspicious transactions.

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said on Monday she believed the US were using the information to gather economic intelligence.

“It really isn’t enough to be outraged,” she told a radio station. “This would be a signal that something can happen and make clear to the Americans that the (EU’s) policy is changing.”

Asked if the NSA spying had been used to boost economic interests, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose. We use it for security purposes.”

He added that the US may need “additional constraints” on its spying activities.

Saudi withdrawal stuns UN Security Council

Oct 192013
 

Saudi withdrawal stuns UN Security Council Saudi Arabia angrily rejected a UN Security Council seat on Friday, accusing the UN body of “double standards” over the Syria war and other trouble spots in an unprecedented diplomatic assault.

The Saudi move sparked disarray at the Security Council where it only won the seat on Thursday at a UN General Assembly election.

Russia criticized the Saudis’ “strange” decision, but the kingdom got a more understanding reaction from Western nations.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon said Saudi Arabia did not immediately send notification of its decision to reject the term, due to start on January 1.

Diplomats said it could be possible to persuade the Saudi government to reverse the decision.

“Work mechanisms and double-standards on the Security Council prevent it from carrying out its duties and assuming its responsibilities in keeping world peace,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Therefore, Saudi Arabia… has no other option but to turn down Security Council membership until it is reformed and given the means to accomplish its duties and assume its responsiblities in preserving the world’s peace and security,” it added.

Unprecedented move

The government said “allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill and burn its people” with chemical weapons is “irrefutable evidence and proof of the inability of the Security Council to carry out its duties and responsibilities.”

Saudi Arabia was one of five nations elected by the UN General Assembly on Thursday to start a two-year term on the Security Council. The others were Chad, Chile, Lithuania and Nigeria. All had stood unopposed.

No country has ever won a council seat and then refused to take it up.

Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador, Abdullah Al-Mouallimi, gave several press interviews hailing the election.

But the celebrations had barely finished when the Saudi foreign ministry announced the withdrawal.

Russia boycotted council meetings in 1950 in a dispute over who represents China. The council held meetings without them.

In 1980, Cuba and Colombia failed to get a required majority in repeat General Assembly votes. The Council met with 14 members for two weeks until Mexico was finally elected.

If Saudi Arabia maintains the threat, the Asia-Pacific group of nations would have to propose a new candidate for the General Assembly to vote on.

‘Strange’ behavior

Several envoys said that efforts would be made to persuade Saudi Arabia to take up its seat.

The Russian foreign ministry sharply criticized Saudi Arabia’s “strange” argument on the council’s record on Syria.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have a traditionally testy relationship, made worse by Russia’s support for Assad and Saudi’s for opposition rebels.

“The kingdom’s arguments arouse bewilderment, and the criticism of the UN Security Council in the context of the Syrian conflict is particularly strange,” the ministry said.

However, France said several countries share Saudi Arabia’s frustration.

“We think that Saudi Arabia would have brought a very positive contribution to the Security Council, but we do also understand the frustration of Saudi Arabia,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters.

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, shrugged off the Saudi move, calling it “a decision they have to make.”

“I understand different countries will have different responses, but we’ll continue to work with them on issues that we share of mutual concern,” she said.

Monster Truck show in Mexico turns deadly

Oct 072013
 

Monster Truck show in Mexico turns deadlyAn out-of-control monster truck shot into a crowd of spectators at a Mexican air show, killing eight people and hurting 79, officials have said.

The driver was detained on Sunday on suspicion of manslaughter and officials said they were investigating possible safety violations in the setup of the show.

Carlos Gonzalez, spokesman for the Chihuahua state prosecutors’ office, said driver Francisco Velazquez appeared to lose control of the truck after leaping over cars it was crushing during a demonstration at the “Extreme Aeroshow” on Saturday.

Video taken from the stands by spectator Krizthall Martinez and provided to The Associated Press news agency shows the truck making an initial pass over two cars.

It then makes a second pass at higher speed, coming down sharply nose first and bouncing violently before piling straight into the crowd, which stood directly in the path of the monster truck unprotected by any wall or barrier.

The three-day show, which included performances by aeroplanes, the monster truck acts and other events, was cancelled after the accident on its second day in a park on the outskirts of Chihuahua, the capital of Chihuahua state.

On Sunday, two armed men threw a firebomb at monster trucks and other vehicles parked at a hotel that were part of an unrelated monster truck production at the air show.

Chihuahua Gov Cesar Duarte Juarez said his administration, which was listed as a sponsor of the air show, was investigating whether Civil Protection authorities had correctly enforced safety regulations.

He and other officials did not say if those regulations required any protective barrier for spectators.

Helmet came off

Some witnesses said the driver appeared to have hit his head on the interior of the truck, which is nicknamed “Big Show,” as he drove over the old cars.

At least two reporting seeing the driver’s helmet come off before the huge vehicle drove into the crowd of terrified spectators, who tried to flee.

“I fell over, and when I turned around I saw the tire very close. It hit me and threw me to the other side,” Jesus Manuel Ibarra, 41, said as he was treated for injuries to his arm and hip.

Chihuahua Mayor Marco Quezada said 79 people had been hurt. Twelve remained in intensive care, with four in critical condition, he said.

The governor declared three days of mourning.

Gonzalez, the prosecutors’ spokesman, said investigators were looking into the possibility of a mechanical failure that left Velazquez unable to release the gas pedal.

Several witnesses said, however, that the driver appeared to have become incapacitated after striking his head as he bounced over small cars at high speed, crushing their roofs.

Spectator Daniel Dominguez, 18, said he was happily watching the show with a group of relatives when the truck came down hard in the middle of the cars.

“The driver hit his head and his helmet flew off,” Dominguez said. “The truck came directly at where we were.”

His 11-year-old sister was in surgery for injuries to her legs, and his mother was treated for minor contusions.

The governor said the driver had been given a breath alcohol test.

BP accused at trial of lying about oil spill

Oct 012013
 

BP accused at trial of lying about oil spill In the frantic days after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP lied about how much oil was leaking from its Macondo well and took too long to cap it, plaintiffs’ lawyers have said at the opening of the second phase of the company’s trial.

A lawyer for BP told the US District Court in New Orleans on Monday that the company did not misrepresent the oil flow and followed US standards before and after the spill, the worst marine pollution disaster in the United States.

The British oil company is fighting to hold down fines that could hit $18bn at the trial, which will determine damages. BP’s annualized earnings, based on last quarter, are running at about $17bn.

“BP refused to spend any time or money preparing to stop a deepwater blowout at its source,” said Brian Barr, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, which include people affected by the spill, the US government and Gulf states, and BP’s former contractors.

“BP then made the situation worse,” Barr said. “By lying about the amount of flow from the well.”

The second phase of the trial, expected to last a month, is focused on how much oil spewed from the well and whether efforts to plug it were adequate.

“BP had a response plan that was fully consistent with US standards for spill preparedness,” said a BP lawyer, Mike Brock. ”BP did not misrepresent the flow rate in a way that caused a delay in the shut in of the well. It made reasonable decisions based on what was known at each step along the way.”

Fines could reach $17.6bn

Internal company emails presented at the trial on Monday showed BP saying publicly after the spill in April 2010 that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking into the ocean when it knew up to 100,000 barrels a day could have been leaking.

John Wilson, a professor at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who was called to testify against the company, said BP’s reliance on unsubstantiated estimates of the size of the leak contributed to poor decisions on how to plug the well.

BP took 87 days and several attempts to cap it.

In the costliest scenario the fines under the Clean Water Act could reach $17.6bn – an amount well beyond the $42bn BP has so far set aside for clean-up, compensation and damages.

The US government says 4.9m barrels were spilled in the worst offshore disaster in US history. BP says 3.26m barrels leaked from the well during the nearly three months it took to cap the blowout at the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Both those totals include 810,000 barrels that were collected during clean-up that the judge has agreed to exclude.

Scores remain missing in Mexico landslide

Sep 232013
 

Scores remain missing in Mexico landslide Sixty-eight people are missing after a mudslide caused by torrential rains that have already killed more than 100 people across Mexico buried a mountain village.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said there was little hope any had survived.

At least three crew members died when a Black Hawk rescue helicopter crashed on a hillside near the stricken village of La Pintada early on Saturday. Police said it was unclear if the helicopter had been carrying any villagers when it crashed.

The government said 68 people were missing after the mudslide in La Pintada, which is about 64km northwest of the Pacific resort of Acapulco.

“Due to the amount of mud that practically buried more than 40 homes in this community it’s very difficult to hold on to any hope that they will be found alive,” Pena Nieto said in Acapulco, speaking to the city’s hospitality industry.

Helicopter crash

A police rescue helicopter missing since Thursday also was found to have crashed, with no survivors, the Interior Ministry said. Five policemen were killed, the ministry said in a statement.

Press reports earlier had said the aircraft, which had been set to deliver relief goods to and evacuate people from La Pintada, was carrying three.

Guerrero state, home to Acapulco, has been the hardest hit by heavy rains unleashed by Hurricane Manuel last week.

In Guerrero alone, the preliminary damage estimate is $380m, according to state Governor Angel Aguirre.

Mudslides and flooding have already killed more than 100 people across the country since last weekend when torrential rains first struck about two-thirds of the country.

Rescue efforts continued across several states in the wake of two destructive storms that have flooded vast swaths of the country.

Tropical storm Ingrid drenched Mexico’s Gulf coast last week while Hurricane Manuel did the same to the country’s Pacific coast.

Tens of thousands of tourists have made their way out of heavily flooded Acapulco, either by special airlift planes or via the city’s main highway, which reopened on Friday.

An estimated 200,000 people were left homeless and nearly 60,000 were evacuated because of the flooding and landslides in the wake of the storms that socked this country of 112 million.

A cold front moving into the country’s eastern states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz along the Gulf coast was expected to bring more rains across the country over the weekend.

Tourists finally exit storm-stricken Acapulco

Sep 212013
 

Thousands of Mexicans have lined up for food and shelter following deadly storms, as many tourists finally left flood-stricken Acapulco by road after being stranded for days.

Rescuers continued to search for survivors of a deadly mudslide in mountains near the holiday resort, as tourists trapped in the city for almost a week packed into cars and buses after authorities reopened the road link to Mexico City on Friday.

The highway department told travellers that the trip north on the Sun Highway, which usually takes about four hours, would last nine to 10 hours, with only a single lane open in some stretches.

Two tropical storms, Ingrid and  Manuel, have left a trail of destruction across the country, damaging 35,000 homes, flooding cities and killing about 100 people.

After regenerating into a hurricane and hitting the northwestern state of  Sinaloa late on Thursday, affecting 100,000 people and killing three, Manuel  finally dissipated over the mountains.

The government said on Friday at least 165 people were dead or missing across the country.

The southwestern state of Guerrero was the hardest hit, with at least 65 deaths.

While rescuers dug through mud in La Pintada, authorities were searching for a police helicopter that disappeared while conducting relief missions in the same mountain region of Guerrero.

Authorities said 68 people had been reported missing and two bodies were pulled out for now, but villagers fear that scores have perished.

Local farmer Diego Zeron said many were believed to be dead.

“A lot of my relatives died, they’re buried and we can’t do anything,” he said.

Villagers evacuated

The mud collapsed on the village of 400 people during independence day celebrations on Monday, swallowing homes, the school and church before crashing into the river.

Soldiers and civil protection workers, many wearing surgical masks, removed pieces of broken homes and chopped up fallen trees with machetes.

Helicopters evacuated more than 330 villagers to Acapulco, but a few families decided to stay back, waiting for news on the missing.

Traffic piled up in Acapulco as police allowed cars to leave in groups of 50 to avoid huge backups on the Sun Highway.

Waiting to board a bus, Alejandro Tubias, a Mexico City resident, said it was high time to leave after his wife contracted a stomach bug that they blamed on the lack of drinking water.

“We are more than happy. We are in a hurry to go because my wife is sick and because we don’t have any money to pay the hotel room,” he said.

Mexico rescuers search for mudslide survivors

Sep 202013
 

Mexico rescuers search for mudslide survivors The death toll in Mexico from devastating storms and flooding has risen to 97, after the harsh weather wrecked roads, destroyed bridges and triggered landslides that buried homes and their occupants.

In the Pacific resort of Acapulco, around 40,000 tourists found themselves stranded after the airport terminal was flooded, while dozens of people from a nearby village are missing after a deadly mudslide.

As 100 soldiers and police removed rubble with their hands in the village of La Pintada, Hurricane Manuel pounded the northwest state of Sinaloa, bringing more rain to the flood-stricken nation before weakening back to tropical storm strength.

Luis Felipe Puente, the national civil protection co-ordinator, said the death toll from days of floods and landslides had jumped to 97 from 81, with 65 of them registered in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

Civil Protection officials said close to 35,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed in the floods.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the number of people reported missing from La Pintada, which lies west of the Pacific resort of Acapulco in Guerrero, had risen to 68 from 58.

“The biggest effects from Manuel and Ingrid are in La Pintada,” he told Formula radio.

A mudslide swamped the coffee-growing village on Monday as many people were having lunch during independence day celebrations.

However, news of the tragedy only emerged two days later after a survivor was able to radio a neighbouring village.

 

The mud cascaded down a hill and covered much of the village, burying homes, the school and church before crashing into a river. The church’s steeple was toppled, its cross broken off.

“People were in the church asking God to stop the rain,” said Roberto Catalan, a 56-year-old farmer.”The earth had been bubbling. When we heard a bang, we ran out.”

Mudslides and collapsed bridges have been reported on key highways, including the Highway of the Sun, a major four-lane expressway that links Acapulco to Mexico City.

As the main arteries to Acapulco remained closed on Friday, hundreds of exhausted and hungry tourists and residents lined up for a chance to secure food or a way out of the city.

The Mexican armed forces loaded boxes of aid onto rescue helicopters destined for stranded people in isolated areas.

Deadly Mexico storms leave thousands stranded

Sep 192013
 

Deadly Mexico storms leave thousands stranded The death toll from storms that have swept across Mexico has risen to 80, a civil protection official has said.

Ricardo de la Cruz, national civil protection director general, said on Wednesday the fatalities had occurred across a dozen states.

Tens of thousands of people have been trapped in the aftermath of two tropical storms that hammered vast swathes of Mexico. More than one million people have been affected.

Looting broke out in Acapulco on Wednesday, as thousands of tourists lined up in the hope of getting on emergency aircraft, after resort’s airport terminal was submerged by water.

Shops were plundered in the city’s upscale neighborhood of Diamante, home to luxury hotels and plush apartments, where dozens of cars were ruined by muddy brown floodwaters.

Marines were posted outside stores to prevent further theft.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t looting from need of food. It was stealing for stealing’s sake,” said Mariberta Medina, head of a local hoteliers’ association.

“They even stole Halloween and Christmas decorations and an outboard motor.”

Food and bottled water were scarce, and cash was hard to come by after power outages knocked out bank machines.

Fresh storm threat

Northwest of Acapulco in the village of La Pintada, rescue workers recovered the bodies of 18 people killed after a landslide buried their homes, the town’s mayor said.

That death toll could rise because more than 60 people in the area have disappeared.

Torrential rains were spawned by the two tropical storms, Ingrid and Manuel, which converged on Mexico from the Gulf and the Pacific over the weekend, triggering the flash floods.

Manuel strengthened to a tropical storm again on the Pacific coast on Wednesday, moving northwest towards the Baja California peninsula, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.

Rescue workers in the state of Baja California Sur, home to the resorts of Los Cabos, prepared to evacuate people from flood-prone areas.

The storm was expected to hit Baja on Friday, at which time Manuel could be close to hurricane strength, the NHC said.

Another area of low pressure over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone by Saturday.

It is likely to dump more heavy rains across an area already hit by floods and mudslides.

Alligators in streets

President Enrique Pena Nieto pledged to repair the damage quickly and was due to conduct a flyover of affected areas on the Gulf coast of Mexico on Wednesday.

The rains pummeled several states, with Veracruz, Guerrero, Puebla, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Oaxaca among the hardest hit.

Landslides buried homes and a bus in Veracruz on Mexico’s eastern seaboard. Thousands were evacuated from flooded areas, some by helicopter, and taken to shelters.

Dozens of homes in Tampico, one of the main Gulf ports north of Veracruz, were waterlogged when the Panuco River burst its banks, forcing evacuations.

Alligators swam into the streets of Tampico.

Mexico teachers clash with police

Sep 122013
 

Mexico teachers clash with police Thousands of teachers demonstrated in Mexico City and some scuffled with police keeping them away from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s residence, a day after he signed a controversial education reform.

Anti-riot police fortified the area around the Los Pinos residence on Wednesday to keep protesters at bay, with police saying about 12,000 teachers caused huge traffic jams as they marched across the city. Police fired teargas as clashes erupted around the residence.

Some 80 officers used their shields to block advancing protesters, raising tensions with both sides pushing one another and coming to blows. Protesters had largely dispersed by the early hours of Thursday.

A delegation from a dissident teachers’ union was allowed to go into the resident but came out disappointed after they were received by low-level officials.

Striking teachers have camped out in the central Zocalo square for the past three weeks and held several protests that have angered residents frustrated by the traffic jams.

But the teachers failed to stop Congress from passing the reforms, which he signed into law on Tuesday.

The law strips the power of unions over education and requires teachers to undergo mandatory performance evaluations to get jobs and promotions.

The teachers argue that the national test fails to take into account indigenous students, who learn native languages before Spanish.

Juan Garcia, a leader of the National Education Workers Coordinator (CNTE) union, said the teachers want “the population to join the struggle” against the reform.

The union has not indicated whether it would vacate the Zocalo before Mexico’s independence day celebration this weekend. City authorities have refrained from using force to remove the teachers.

The president traditionally delivers the “Cry of Independence” on the night of September 15 from the balcony of the National Palace, facing the Zocalo. A military parade is held at the square the next day.

Thousands rally against Mexico oil reforms

Sep 092013
 

 Thousands rally against Mexico oil reformsTens of thousands of people have rallied against President Enrique Pena Nieto’s economic reforms in Mexico’s capital, with leftist leader calling for peaceful resistance.

Mexico City police said more than 40,000 people gathered in a park on Sunday’s demonstration to reject plans to overhaul the tax system and open the country’s state-controlled oil industry to foreign investors.

“We can prevent the privatisation of the energy sector and the tax increases through peaceful citizen mobilization,” said opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who never recognised his defeat to Pena Nieto in the 2012 presidential election after claiming fraud.

“These energy and tax reforms were prepared abroad for the benefit of foreign companies, a commitment that Pena Nieto made with foreign companies in the United States and Britain,” he said.

He called the oil reform a “vile and shameful robbery”.

Lopez Obrador made his plea as Pena Nieto prepared to present a revamp of the tax system to increase the government’s revenue stream amid reports that he may propose a controversial sales tax for food and medicine.

President backs reforms

The Mexican president, who took office in December last year, has struck a pact with rival leftist and conservative parties that have secured telecommunications and education reforms despite protests by teachers.

Last Monday, he defended his reforms and urged Mexicans to back the “grand transformation” of the country, stressing that the overhaul was necessary to improve education, create jobs and improve a slowing economy.

Pena Nieto says the energy shifts aim to allow private firms to enter into profit-sharing agreements with state-run giant Pemex to modernise the company, but he denies plans to privatise an industry that was nationalised 75 years ago.

“They want to sell it, but the government is our employee. We, the Mexican people, are the owners,” said Alberto Castro Gonzalez, a 45-year-old teacher who attended the demonstration.

With Pena Nieto having a deal with rival parties to pass the reforms in Congress, Lopez Obrador said: “The only thing that can stop these measures, which are contrary to the nation’s interests, is citizens mobilising.”

But despite holding several protests that have disrupted life in the metropolis of 20 million people in the past three weeks, the teachers ultimately failed to block Pena Nieto’s education reform.