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World News for World Changers

Sep 2

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South Korean Military to Press Homicide Charges Over Latest Death
(Reuters) South Korea’s military said on Tuesday it will upgrade charges against four soldiers to homicide for the abuse of a fellow conscript that lead to his death in a case that shocked the country over violence in the military.

British Parliament Says Rejects China’s Call to Halt Hong Kong Inquiry
(Reuters) The British parliament has rejected Chinese government calls to halt an inquiry into Britain’s relationship with Hong Kong, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday, as diplomatic tensions over the former UK colony worsened.

U.N. Refugee Agency Fears Mass Displacement in Ukraine
(Reuters) The number of people displaced in Ukraine by fighting has nearly doubled in the past three weeks to at least 260,000 and more are fleeing amid fears of mass displacement, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.

Scores Killed as Boko Haram Insurgents Overrun Nigerian Town
(Reuters) Islamist Boko Haram insurgents have overrun much of a northeastern Nigerian town after hours of fighting that has killed scores and displaced thousands of residents, several security sources said on Tuesday.

Afghan Turmoil Threatens NATO’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ Plans
(Reuters) NATO will declare “mission accomplished” this week as it winds down more than a decade of operations in Afghanistan but departing combat troops look likely to leave behind political turmoil and an emboldened insurgency.

Philippines Congress Dismisses Impeachment Motions Against Aquino
(Reuters) Lawmakers allied with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday threw out three impeachment motions in the House of Representatives, the first political challenge to the popular leader in four years.

Pakistan PM Chairs Joint Parliament Session as Crisis Deepens
(Reuters) Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a joint session of parliament on Tuesday as a deepening crisis over violent protests demanding his resignation prompted fears of an army intervention.

Ebola Threatens Food Security in West Africa: FAO
(Reuters) The world’s worst Ebola epidemic has put harvests at risk and sent food prices soaring in West Africa, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Tuesday, warning the problem would intensify in coming months.

Australia to Step Up Formal Partnership With NATO at Summit
(Reuters) Australia is set to step up its partnership with NATO, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, as the country pursues a bigger role in global crises from Iraq and Syria to Ukraine.

US military attacks al-Shabab in Somalia
MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP)—U.S. military forces attacked the extremist al-Shabab network in Somalia Monday, the Pentagon said, and a witness described ground-shaking explosions in a strike that reportedly targeted the group’s leader.

Syrian rebels issue demands for captive UN troops
BEIRUT (AP)—Al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels holding 45 Fijian peacekeepers hostage have issued a set of demands for their release, including the extremist group’s removal from a U.N. terrorist list and compensation for the killing of three of its fighters in a shootout with international forces.

Clashes between Islamists, rivals in Libya kill 31
CAIRO (AP)—Fierce clashes in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi between Islamist militiamen and rival forces loyal to a renegade general have killed 31 fighters on both sides, a security official said Tuesday.

Thought of the Day

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”—Teddy Roosevelt

To “take”

By Evan Morris, The Word Detective

Dear Word Detective: Can you enlighten me as to the origin of the phrase “it didn’t take?” What exactly did it not take? The cake? The bait? The day off?—KT.

That’s a darn good question, but a tricky one to answer. “It didn’t take” and similar uses have become standard idioms in English, and idioms are often hard to explain because they usually “mean” more than just the literal meanings of their parts. In this case, the sense of “take” in question is just one of dozens of senses of the verb “to take,” and the connection of many of them to the original meaning of the word is tenuous, convoluted, and possibly impossible to explain. In explaining a phrase such as “it didn’t take,” often the best we can do is to explain what the phrase means, not precisely how “take” itself came to mean what it means in that context. But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

“Take” first appeared in Old English as “tacan,” from the Old Norse “taka,” meaning “to grasp, seize, take hold of,” based on old Germanic roots meaning “touch.” This general sense of “grasp” evolved into two primary senses of “take,” that of “to grasp, seize, or appropriate something” and “to receive or accept something given.” The first sense gives us such uses as “take a bite of food,” “take a break,” “take a look” and so on. The second is found in “take punishment,” “take advice,” “take in” shocking news, and similar uses. These two categories are, however, only general and many uses of “take” are too idiomatic to make literal sense if analyzed closely. Such uses as “Your dog takes to me,” “We might take him by surprise,” or “Don’t take your anger out on that clerk” don’t have any simple explanation based on other meanings of “take.”

In speaking of something “taking” in such uses as “It didn’t take,” we generally mean that the thing, plan or act did not have the intended effect or had no lasting effect (“Bob was warned about being late several times, but it didn’t take and he was fired.”). This sense of “take” dates back to the early 17th century and has been in common use since then (“She was married…. The year she came out. But it didn’t take.” Budd Schulberg, 1941). So to say something “didn’t take” means that it didn’t work and won’t last.

This use of “take” seems to be a figurative derivative of the use of “take,” starting in the 15th century, to describe the process of a seed or planting putting down roots and beginning to grow, in a sense “grasping” the earth (“We planted a thousand cedars of Lebanon, with shoots 6 in. high, and we have no doubt that they will take well.” 1892). This seems about as close to the “grasp, seize” original meaning of “take” as we can get. “Take” has also been used, since the 19th century, to mean a successful skin or tissue graft or transplant (“The transplanted pieces of skin… were found to have ‘taken’ remarkably well.” Lancet, 1875).

Global warming is about to turn Sweden’s highest mountain into its second highest

Michael Silverberg, Quartz, August 29, 2014

The snow-capped southern peak of Lapland’s Kebnekaise, in the Scandinavian Mountains, reaches 2,097.5 meters (6,881.6 feet) above sea level, making it the highest point in Sweden. But not for long.

The 40-meter-thick glacier on top of it has been shrinking, on average, a meter a year for the past two decades. In 1901, when the southern peak was first measured, its elevation was 2,121 meters.

By next year, scientists at the University of Stockholm predict, Kebnekaise’s northern peak—which is solid rock—will likely become the tallest spot in the country.

The culprit? Climate change. A recent research paper that tracked 47 years of air-temperature records in Tarfala Valley, below the Kebnekaise glacier, found a significant warming trend. The period from 1995 to 2011 was 1.08°C warmer than the period from 1965 to 1994. Eight of the ten warmest years covered by the study occurred since 1999.

Gunhild Rosqvist, a professor at Stockholm University and the director of the Tarfala Research Center, says the shrinking of the mountain will be a blow to the tourist industry.

The changes are already having an impact on the mountain’s habitat. “It’s been unusually warm up there this summer, the reindeer calves are dying because their mothers aren’t getting enough water to make milk, and the herders are struggling,” Rosqvist said. “No one can remember it ever being this warm.”

Is Your Student Prepared for Life?

By Ben Carpenter, NY Times, Aug. 31, 2014

AS 16 million young adults set off for college this fall, they are looking at some frightening statistics. Despite the ever-rising cost of getting a degree, one number stands out like a person shouting in a campus library: According to a recent poll conducted by AfterCollege, an online entry-level job site, 83 percent of college seniors graduated without a job this spring. Even when these young people finally do get jobs, the positions are often part time, low wage or not related to their career interests. The problem isn’t the quality of higher education in the United States, so what’s missing?

Two years ago, in a full-blown panic, I asked myself this exact question when I realized that my eldest daughter, a recent college graduate, had no idea what the world was about to demand of her. She had gone to a good school and done well as a student, but had never thought about her future in a structured way, and I realized what she was missing—an education in career training.

While “career training” may sound vague, if done properly it is straightforward and teaches how to get, and succeed at, a job. At most colleges this training falls under the purview of Career Services; however, there is a major disconnect between many students and this department. Earlier this year, a consulting firm, Millennial Branding, surveyed over 4,000 students and found that 61 percent said Career Services was “never” or “rarely” effective in helping them land a job.

So what can be done to make certain these young adults are being prepared for life post-graduation? The answer is simple: Colleges need to create, and require for graduation, a course in career training that would begin freshman year and end senior year.

Career training must start early because getting students to decide what job they want—and teaching them how to thoroughly research that job, get internships and conduct a job search for a full-time position—is not a quick or easy task. This course would ask students to consider their skills and interests. What are they good at? What do they like to do? Then students would be taught how to thoroughly research the industries and jobs that utilize their talents. The best way to do this is by arranging dozens of one-on-one informational interviews with contacts generated from family, friends and their school’s alumni database.

In these interviews they would learn if the jobs they are pursuing are right for them, and they would make contacts to help them eventually land a good job.

One liberal arts school, Connecticut College, offers substantial financial incentives to students who participate in its career-training program, and most students participate. One year after graduation, 96 percent of all Connecticut College alumni report that they are employed or in graduate school. Not surprisingly, this program has become a major selling point for the school.

Back in the day, I received little career training in college and that was consistent with everyone I knew—regardless of where they went to school. However, the world today has become so competitive and global that we must provide our children with high-quality career training as a bridge from college to the work world.

Ben Carpenter is the vice chairman of CRT Capital Group and the author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals.”

Decaying Guantánamo Defies Closing Plans

By Charlie Savage, NY Times, Sept. 1, 2014

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba—One sweltering afternoon last month, a Boeing C-17 military transport plane arrived at the American naval base here. It had come to take six low-level detainees to new lives in Uruguay after 12 years of imprisonment.

Days before, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had called Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, pressing him to resettle the men. The foreign leader had offered to accept the detainees last January, but by the time the United States was ready for the transfer this summer, Mr. Mujica was worried that it would be politically risky to follow through because of coming elections in his country, according to Obama administration officials.

After four days of frantic negotiations between the two governments as the plane sat on the tarmac, the C-17 flew away without its intended passengers.

Although President Obama pledged last year to revive his efforts to close Guantánamo, his administration has managed to free just one low-level prisoner this year, leaving 79 who are approved for transfer to other countries. It has also not persuaded Congress to lift its ban on moving the remaining 70 higher-level detainees to a prison inside the United States.

“It’s a long way from being closed,” said Gen. John F. Kelly, the leader of the United States Southern Command, which oversees Joint Task Force Guantánamo. “Obviously the president is trying hard, he’s got people trying hard to get countries to take them, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take congressional action” to repeal the transfer ban.

More than 12 years after the Bush administration sent the first prisoners here, tensions are mounting over whether Mr. Obama can close the prison before leaving office, according to interviews with two dozen administration, congressional and military officials. A split is emerging between State Department officials, who appear eager to move toward Mr. Obama’s goal, and some Pentagon officials, who say they share that ambition but seem warier than their counterparts about releasing low-level detainees.

Legal pressures are also building as the war in Afghanistan approaches its official end, and the judiciary grows uncomfortable with the military’s practice of force-feeding hunger strikers. And military officials here, faced with decaying infrastructure and aging inmates, are taking steps they say are necessary to keep Guantánamo operating—but may also help institutionalize it.

Parts of the wartime penal colony, intended to keep detainees only temporarily, are fraying. The unit that houses the most notorious detainees is built on unstable ground—a floor is described as buckling—and will need replacement for any long-term use. In the kitchen building, temperatures soar to 110 degrees at midday, steel supports are corroded, and workers must cover dry goods with plastic tarps during storms because of a leaky roof. In the troops’ quarters, some guards are required to live six to a small shack, with poor ventilation and no attached bathrooms.

The quality of the medical facilities has also raised concerns because Congress has prohibited sending even critically ill detainees to the United States. After Latin American countries declined to take a detainee if an emergency arises, Pentagon lawyers concluded that it was lawful not to evacuate a prisoner for urgent medical treatment, according to an internal Pentagon document acquired by The New York Times in a Freedom of Information lawsuit.

To better prepare for a medical crisis, the military has instead ordered specialized doctors to be prepared on short notice to fly in with equipment. Still, there are limits to what medical personnel can do without quick access to sophisticated hospital resources.

Mr. Obama has argued that Guantánamo should be closed because of its high costs, nearly $3 million per detainee annually, and because it endangers national security; it has become an anti-American symbol of past torture and other detainee abuses. Extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who beheaded an American reporter in Syria last month, exploited those sentiments by forcing him to wear orange clothing like the garb worn by some Guantánamo’s detainees.

The prison facilities amid this harsh landscape of sun, scrub and dust have expanded, even as the detainee population has shrunk. In 2003, about 680 prisoners filled Camp Delta, a sprawling complex with three units of open-air cellblocks and another area of communal bunks.

Today, the remaining 149 detainees live in newer buildings, and Camp Delta sits empty. To the north, the original complex, Camp X-Ray—with kennel-like cages that were used for about four months in 2002 while Delta was built—is a ghost prison, overrun by vegetation and banana rats, tropical rodents the size of opossums.

In Camps 5 and 6, detainees are housed according to behavior, not whether they have been designated for release or continued imprisonment. Those who comply with prison rules may live communally, eating and praying together. Up to 20 live in each cellblock, where the cell doors remain open most of the day, allowing the prisoners to mingle around a metal table or outside in a recreation yard.

Communal detainees have minimal contact with guards, but are under constant surveillance through two-way glass and security cameras. During a recent visit by a reporter, several men with long beards and short hair, wearing white and brown prison garb, stood talking in an open space. Others napped in their cells, with mats tented over their heads to shield them from the lights.

A few men sat indoors on white plastic lawn chairs, watching a television and wearing wireless headphones. Some cellblocks are designated for those who want to watch Western television and DVDs, while others are for those who want to avoid seeing women who are not covered up. Later, several prisoners put mats on the floor and prayed in the direction of Mecca.

From the roof of Camp 6, visiting journalists could see two detainees in different recreation yards, conversing in the blazing sun. A handful of detainees are attempting to grow mint, tomatoes and beans in a horticulture class, taught by a contractor who stands beyond the fence. English and Spanish classes for Arabic and Pashto speakers are also available. A life-skills class that taught résumé writing was once offered, but not enough detainees were interested, so it was replaced by lessons on using Microsoft Office, according to an officer in charge of the program.

A smaller group of detainees who break the rules have fewer options for passing the time. Some are aggressive, threatening guards or trying to splash them with their urine and feces. Others protest passively, participating in a hunger strike or refusing to obey orders. These men are housed in single cells in Camp 5, where young enlisted troops peer into the windows every few minutes, 24 hours a day.

One specialist, selected by his supervisor to be interviewed, works the night shift. He is 21 years old and from Ohio; he was a third grader on Sept. 11, 2001. Asked what he thinks of Guantánamo, he said it is a place where “people who were doing the wrong thing, killing Americans, running operations” are held.

In fact, the detainees vary widely. A few, like Mr. Mohammed, are indeed senior operational Qaeda leaders tied to killing Americans. He and 14 other “high-value” detainees—who were sent to Guantánamo in 2006 from C.I.A. “black-site” prisons where some were tortured—live in Camp 7.

Much about Camp 7, which is off limits to reporters, is secret. But a 2009 military report described it: The walls of the 86-square-foot cells were designed to prevent conversation or contact with neighbors, and detainees cannot make phone calls or join classes.

But about half of the inmates who are detained, according to a 2010 interagency review group report, were probably just foot soldiers helping the Taliban fight the Northern Afghan militias. The report said they “lacked a significant leadership or other specialized role,” were “uneducated and unskilled” and “typically received limited weapons training.”

This group violated no law and make up the bulk of the 79 recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met. But they generally come from countries too unstable for Congress’s transfer restrictions. Fifty-eight are Yemenis. Although the United States last month repatriated two Yemeni detainees who had been held in Afghanistan, where the restrictions do not apply, officials are talking with other countries about resettling their Guantánamo counterparts.

This summer, a new warden, Col. David Heath, took over the guard force here. He gave detainees who were relatively well behaved but not yet eligible for communal conditions—it takes 90 straight days of compliance—eight hours of recreation time a day, up from two.

Taxpayers are spending about $443 million on the prison in 2014, including the cost of flying legal teams here for every commission hearing. Housing a federal inmate in a domestic maximum-security prison costs far less, $30,280 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Prisons, although that does not include court costs.

Why are Nicaraguan youths staying put while neighbors migrate north?

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy, September 1, 2014

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA—Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and, like its Central American neighbors, a transhipment point for cocaine headed to the United States.

But unlike El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the north, Nicaragua hasn’t sent a wave of children and teenagers fleeing north. Of the 62,998 unaccompanied children who’ve been detained at the US border between Oct. 1 and the end of July, only 194 have been Nicaraguan, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures.

The reason? In part, it’s because while Nicaragua is poor, it’s also the safest country in Central America. Nicaragua’s homicide rate is slightly lower than neighboring Costa Rica, a nation known as the Switzerland of Central America. Vicious transnational street gangs that have overwhelmed police forces elsewhere have no presence in Nicaragua.

Experts looking for why point to a national police force widely seen as more engaged with the citizenry than its counterparts elsewhere. They also point to a migration pattern different from that found in countries to the north. While Nicaraguans fled their homeland for the US during the 1979-1990 Sandinista Revolution, they primarily settled in South Florida, where they were embraced by that region’s Cuban Americans, who saw them as kindred refugees from communism, and where gangs such Los Angeles’ notorious 18th Street weren’t active.

Today Nicaraguans seeking opportunity are more likely to travel south, toward Costa Rica and Panama, than to make the dangerous and expensive journey north.

Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist revolutionary who now leads an authoritarian pro-business government, takes pride in the low crime.

“We have the satisfaction, the blessing, the privilege of being one of the safest countries—I dare say—in the world,” President Ortega’s wife and spokeswoman, Rosario Murillo, told the nation in a talk April 9.

There’s virtually no extortion in Nicaragua from criminal gangs of the kind rampant in the Central American nations to the north, and crime syndicates have failed to permeate law enforcement and the military. According to the State Department’s 2014 drug enforcement report, the amount of cocaine transiting Nicaragua fell last year, from 9.7 tons seized in 2011 and 10.2 tons seized in 2012 to 3.3 tons in 2013.

Visiting industrialists from the Northern Triangle, as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are known, seem to breathe easier in Nicaragua.

“They come here driving their own cars. In their countries, they go around in armored cars and with guards. Here, they feel free. They feel they are in a different world,” says Jose Adan Aguerri, head of the Private Enterprise Council, or COSEP, Nicaragua’s umbrella association of business chambers.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Development Program reported that Nicaragua’s homicide rate had dropped to 8.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, below the 10.3 rate in Costa Rica, a nation that abolished its army in 1948 and has become a beacon of neutrality. Honduras, which tallies 92 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, has the highest murder rate in the world. El Salvador’s is 69 per 100,000 residents and Guatemala’s 39 per 100,000.

Nicaraguan officials credit a community-oriented style of policing that puts officers on beats across the country, talking constantly with the citizenry.

With their sky-blue uniforms, police are a common sight knocking on doors of private homes. Fully 43 percent of the force is female, says Juan Pablo Gordillo, a citizen security specialist with the UN Development Program.

“You see it day by day. One or two police officers going door to door just to visit, asking about the situation in the neighborhood,” Mr. Gordillo says.

The questions are friendly but inquisitive, with an eye out for youngsters.

“We ask how children are doing in school. When we see that kids are there during school hours, we follow up,” says Sergio Rivas Baquedano, a police inspector in Managua’s Hialeah district. “We police are seen as part of the community.”

Police work closely with Citizens Power Councils, neighborhood watchdog groups created by the Sandinista Front and often used for political purposes, he said. The councils channel government assistance to residents.

Gordillo says surveys show that seven out of 10 minors at risk of falling into crime or drug abuse in Nicaragua are pulled into government programs for sports, vocational training, or music, thwarting a move toward gang activity.

Another reason Nicaraguans, both children and adults, are not heading in great numbers toward the United States is that they are more inclined to look south.

Nicaragua’s per capita economic output is $1,831 annually, compared with Costa Rica’s $10,528, according to Nicaragua’s central bank, meaning standards of living are five times higher across the southern border. Nicaragua is considered the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

On any given day, far more would-be emigrants are crowded outside the Costa Rican consulate in Managua than the US consulate.

“There are always huge lines here,” says Jose Alberto Fernandez, a vendor of bus tickets to would-be immigrants emerging from the Costa Rican consulate. “People come here on Sunday nights and spend the night” to be first in line on Mondays.

Nicaraguans make up 12 percent of Costa Rica’s workforce, according to that nation’s census institute, mostly in agriculture, construction, and services. At times of coffee and sugar cane harvesting, the official estimate of resident Nicaraguans at 287,766 is widely considered to swell to half a million.

“Costa Rica is like the United States to Nicaraguans. Our very own ‘American dream’ right there, right next door,” acclaimed writer Sergio Ramirez, who served as vice president under Ortega from 1985 to 1990, wrote recently in a Huffington Post essay.

To understand why so few Nicaraguan children reach the US border, Mr. Ramirez wrote, one must first see that “their parents are not in Chicago, Newark or Los Angeles…. They are in Costa Rica.”

Poland Loses a Premier, but Gains a Voice in Europe

By Rick Lyman, NY Times, Aug. 31, 2014

WARSAW—The election of Donald Tusk, the veteran Polish prime minister with deft political skills, a shaky command of the English language and no French, as president of the European Council is both an acknowledgment of Poland’s rising profile and yet another sign that the old distinctions between Eastern and Western Europe are rapidly crumbling.

“Poland has arrived in the West, you might say,” Janusz Reiter, a former ambassador and the founder of the Center for International Relations, a research group in Warsaw, said Sunday. “His election in Brussels shows that we must redefine what we mean by the West to include the experiences of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.”

The former Eastern bloc nations, which shared a common drive to escape Soviet shackles a quarter-century ago, speak with less unanimity these days. Even on an issue as crucial as the conflict in Ukraine, the hard-line position of Poland and the Baltic States is not shared by other nations in the region like Slovakia and Hungary.

And the notion of a prosperous West and a poor, struggling East has been largely erased in recent years, with countries like Spain and Italy struggling while Poland is the only European nation to experience economic growth in every quarter since the recession hit in 2008.

“The economic crisis has shaken the traditional ranking list in Europe,” Mr. Reiter said. “This image of Central Europe and Poland being poor cousins is badly out of date.”

At the university in his hometown, Gdansk, Mr. Tusk, 57, was active in organizing support of Solidarity, the trade-union movement that led the fight to topple Communism in the 1980s.

He was elected to Parliament in 1991, representing a party that he co-founded, and served in that body for most of the next two decades. In 2001, he was one of the founders of the Civic Platform party and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005, pushing a program of free-market capitalism and a larger international role for Poland.

Two years later, Civic Platform won parliamentary elections, and Mr. Tusk has been prime minister ever since, forging a particularly strong relationship with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Although Mr. Tusk’s relations with France have not always been so close, he has built a bond with President François Hollande, who did not move to block his election on Saturday.

Aleksander Smolar, who divides his time between Warsaw and Paris as president of the Batory Foundation, which promotes democracy and civic issues, said he had seen a palpable shift in the last half-dozen years in the way Western European leaders thought about Poland.

“Not so long ago, when European politics was discussed in Paris and Brussels, none of the countries of the so-called New Europe were even mentioned,” Mr. Smolar said. “It was always about Old Europe, about Germany, France, Britain, Italy.

“Now, it is quite different,” he added. “The Polish position on many issues, especially regarding Russia and the East, is always mentioned and taken seriously.”

Mr. Tusk has ascended to the top of the European Council—from which he will direct the agendas for the regular gatherings of European leaders and act as a kind of spokesman for the Continent internationally—after years of lobbying by Poland to include the former Soviet bloc nations in the leadership.

As a politician, Mr. Tusk has a reputation for compromise and shrewd parliamentary maneuvering. The latter skill was on display this year when he managed to preserve his government after a scandal in which top officials were caught on wiretaps making unsavory comments, including calling for a parliamentary vote of confidence before the opposition expected one.

Linguistically, Mr. Tusk’s election can also be seen as an indicator of changing attitudes in Western European capitals toward Poland and the East. Though his second language is German, his skills in English are modest (he conducted his opening news conference in Brussels in Polish), and he speaks no French, a language once seen as a prerequisite for such a high position.

“I hope and think that Tusk will not pretend to be one of the Western European boys, that he will not just join their club,” said Mr. Reiter, the former diplomat. “Poland is never going to be another Belgium or France. But it, too, is a part of Europe, and now its experiences are getting equal weight, not worse or better than the German or Italian experience.”

Spaniards still holding on to almost €1.7bn worth of pesetas

Stephen Burgen in Barcelona, The Guardian, 31 August 2014

Whether they are under the mattress or in the coffee jar, Spaniards are holding on to €1.7bn worth of pesetas, the currency that disappeared when the euro was introduced 12 years ago.

According to the Bank of Spain there are €864m (£683m) in notes and €805m in coins that have yet to be cashed in. Last year the bank exchanged 2.5bn pesetas for €15m, about €12m of it in notes and the rest in coins.

When the euro was introduced on 1 January 2002, the Spanish government allowed both currencies to circulate for three months, after which pesetas could be exchanged for euros at any bank up until the end of June of that year. Thereafter, the exchange could only be made via the central bank.

In a country with a large parallel economy where many transactions are done off the book, the advent of the euro proved a bit of a headache for many Spaniards as they had only six months to change hundreds of millions of pesetas into euros without attracting too much attention.

The central bank estimates that about 45% of the €1.7bn worth of pesetas in the public’s hands will never be exchanged. It believes they are being kept by collectors, have been lost, or have left Spain in the pockets of the millions of tourists who visit each year. People have until the end of 2020 to cash them in, after which the bank will cease to exchange them.

In common with other countries with low-value currencies, where people are accustomed to paying in units of hundreds and thousands, the introduction of the euro, which was valued at 166 pesetas, led to stealthy but rapid inflation. Within a year a cup of coffee that in most bars cost 100 pesetas was priced at €1 while the cost of a 1,000-peseta three-course lunch leapt to €10—a 66% increase.

As Ukraine Talks Resume, Putin and Poroshenko Trade Barbs

By Neil MacFarquhar, NY Times, Sept. 1, 2014

MOSCOW—The presidents of Russia and Ukraine traded indirect barbs on Monday about the possibility of a peace settlement in the contested southeastern provinces of Ukraine, as mediators began a renewed effort to hammer out a deal.

President Vladimir V. Putin accused Kiev of seeking to avoid talks that could lead to some degree of autonomy for southeastern Ukraine, and again defended the region’s separatists, who are widely considered to be proxies fighting for Moscow’s interests.

“The current Kiev authorities don’t want to hold a substantive political dialogue with the east of their country,” Mr. Putin told the BBC during a visit to Siberia.

For the second time in three days, Mr. Putin endorsed the work of the militias fighting against the Ukrainian military. He said they were trying to push the military away from population centers in the east to prevent the shelling of residential districts. In addition, he accused European nations, among others, of ignoring the fact that Ukrainian government forces were shelling civilians.

Yet Mr. Putin also called the resumption of settlement talks in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday, a “very important process.”

A peace plan outlined by President Petro O. Poroshenko in discussions with Mr. Putin last week would start with a cease-fire and include the release of all detainees, the withdrawal of all Russian arms and soldiers and joint patrols along the border. The patrols would include peacekeepers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is participating in the Minsk talks.

Despite professing to want to work with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Putin adopted a much harder public stance against Ukraine beginning on Friday. On Sunday, he used an ambiguous reference to “statehood” for the southeast, intimating that the region might become independent, although his spokesman said the president meant autonomy within a unified Ukraine.

In Kiev on Monday, Mr. Poroshenko implicitly accused Russia of undertaking a direct assault on his country that caused a critical shift in the fighting in the southeast.

“Direct, unconcealed aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighboring country,” he said in a speech at the military academy in Kiev, according to a summary posted on the presidential website. “It radically changes the situation in the conflict area.” Government forces suffered major setbacks against the separatists as a result, he said.

The strategic southern city of Mariupol has been bracing for an attack by the separatists since they opened a new southern front last week, designed to relieve pressure on rebel holdouts in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The last attempt to establish a cease-fire failed, but the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said that such an agreement was the priority for the meeting in Minsk on Monday. “I expect that the talks scheduled for today will be, first of all, focused on the arrangement of an immediate, unconditional cease-fire,” he said in an address to students on Monday.

Andrei Purgin, a representative for the Russian-backed separatists, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that their main goal was to seek recognition of an independent state in eastern Ukraine. They would also be ready to discuss a cease-fire, at least a temporary one, and the exchange of prisoners, he said.

In Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said on Sunday that an initial exchange of captives over the weekend, involving nine Russian commandos and 63 Ukrainian soldiers, was a step toward easing tensions before the talks.

Colonel Lysenko also confirmed on Monday that the first sea battle with the separatists had erupted on Sunday, with separatists firing artillery at a Ukrainian ship in the Azov Sea. One cutter was sunk, he said, but another cutter rescued the crew.

Russia has repeatedly denied deploying arms or troops into Ukraine, claiming that any soldiers who ended up there strayed over the border accidentally. It also denies arming the separatists and says it is merely defending the interests of the area’s substantial Russian-speaking population. A senior local commander has said that up to 4,000 Russian “volunteers” had fought alongside the separatists.

Beijing’s Stance Has Democrats in Hong Kong Facing Tough Choices

By Michael Forsythe and Chris Buckley, NY Times, Sept. 1, 2014

HONG KONG—For more than a year, democrats in Hong Kong have threatened to disrupt the heart of Asia’s most important financial center with a sit-in protest if the central government in Beijing put onerous restrictions on a voting plan here.

China’s Communist Party-controlled legislature did just that on Sunday, so now the democracy movement must decide whether and how to carry out its threat, even while the defeat of its immediate demand seems certain.

Students and organizers will hold meetings in coming days to map out a plan of protracted protests, including student strikes, legislative obstruction and a sit-in in the city’s Central financial district, the tactic that gave a name to the main grass-roots opposition group, Occupy Central. They face almost certain arrest by blocking major thoroughfares in the heart of Hong Kong, studded with gleaming skyscrapers bearing the names of such financial titans as the British bank HSBC, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan.

Moreover, Beijing has left no room for compromise: The Hong Kong legislature must now adopt a voting plan for the city’s leader based on Beijing’s directive or leave in place the current system in which the position is not popularly elected.

In the near future, the protests will achieve nothing, said Brian Fong Chi-hang, a political science scholar at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and a supporter of the democracy movement.

“The most important challenge is that even if they succeed in mobilizing a large-scale Occupy Central movement in a peaceful and orderly manner, they will finally get nothing,” he said. “We cannot change anything.”

But leaders of the movement expect to wage a protracted struggle nonetheless.

“This is a long, long cause,” said Chan Kin-man, an associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of the movement, known in full as Occupy Central With Love and Peace. “Civil disobedience is the starting point. Look at what happened in Martin Luther King’s case.”

The Hong Kong democrats count the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mohandas K. Gandhi as inspirations for their nonviolent protest. These men took decades to achieve their goals, enduring imprisonment and scorn. In the end they changed the nature of their governments—in the United States, South Africa and India—in part through the force of their moral arguments.

But China’s Communist government is no fan of Western democratic values, not prone to compromise and not known to be easily swayed by moral arguments.

Islamic State group becomes target of Arab satire

By Vivian Salama, AP, Sep 1, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP)—The bumbling young militant first drops the rocket launcher on the toes of his boss before taking aim and firing toward a military checkpoint outside of an Iraqi town—not realizing he’s fired it backward at his leader.

The “Looney Tunes”-style cartoon targeting the Islamic State group comes after its militants have swept across large swaths of Syria and Iraq, declaring their own self-styled caliphate while conducting mass shootings of their prisoners. The group cheers its advances and beheadings in slickly produced Internet videos.

In response, television networks across the Middle East have begun airing cartoons and comedy programs using satire to criticize the group and its claims of representing Islam. And while not directly confronting the group’s battlefield gains, the shows challenge the legitimacy of its claims and chip away at the fear some have that the Islamic militants are unstoppable.

Satire has long been a force in Arab culture, beginning first with its ancient poetry. Indirect criticism once cloaked in self-censorship exploded out into the open during Arab Spring revolts. Even in the midst of Syria’s bloody civil war, the country’s renowned black, satirical humor has continued.

The Islamic State group, born out the Syrian war, now finds itself challenged in a cultural war after its gains. The top Islamic authority in Egypt recently began an online campaign asking journalists not to call the group an “Islamic State.” Comedians have followed suit.

In one skit produced by the “Ktir Salbe Show,” a taxi driver picks up a jihadi who rejects listening to radio because it didn’t exist in the earliest days of Islam, a knock on the Islamic State group’s literal take on the Quran. The driver offers to turn on the air conditioning, but that too is rejected. The jihadi finally criticizes him for answering a mobile phone.

Fed up, the driver asks: “Were there taxi cabs in the earliest days?”

“No, 1,000 times no!” the passenger answers. The driver responds by kicking out the jihadi and telling him to wait for a camel instead.

In Syria, comedic news programs also target the Islamic State group, with its presenters disguising themselves out of fears of retaliation. In Iraq, an animated program on state television depicted a slew of characters on the run from the Iraqi military, including young Islamic State militants and old Saddam Hussein-era officials.

“We are all against these terrorist organizations,” said Alaa al-Majedi of the state-run al-Iraqiya channel. “Comedy is one way to raise awareness.”

But among those depicted in the cartoon is Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, an accusation that the Sunni kingdom supports the Sunni Islamic State militants, something Saudi officials have denied. Saudi Arabia backs the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Even the dark videos of mass shootings conducted by the Islamic State group have become comedic fodder. Palestinian television channel al-Falastiniya aired a skit showing two militants shoot Muslim civilians for their lack of knowledge on the number of times to kneel during prayers, all the while reminiscing over the beautiful women and best party neighborhoods they’d visited in Beirut.

When a Jordanian Christian approaches, the two militants begin fighting each other over who gets to shoot him—each wanting the “blessing” for himself. Terrified, the man suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving the militants devastated.

Israel Claims Nearly 1,000 Acres of West Bank Land Near Bethlehem

By Isabel Kershner, NY Times, Aug. 31, 2014

JERUSALEM—Israel laid claim on Sunday to nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land in a Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem—a step that could herald significant Israeli construction in the area—defying Palestinian demands for a halt in settlement expansion and challenging world opinion.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the construction of settlements in the West Bank, said that the action on Sunday might be the largest single appropriation of West Bank land in decades and that it could “dramatically change the reality” in the area.

Palestinians aspire to form a state in the lands that Israel conquered in 1967.

Israeli officials said the political directive to expedite a survey of the status of the land came after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June while hitchhiking in that area. In July, the Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian who was accused of being the prime mover in the kidnapping and killing of the teenagers. The timing of the land appropriation suggested that it was meant as a kind of compensation for the settlers and punishment for the Palestinians.

The land, which is near the small Jewish settlement of Gvaot in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, has now officially been declared “state land,” as opposed to land privately owned by Palestinians, clearing the way for the potential approval of Israeli building plans there.

But the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Surif, Ahmad Lafi, said the land belonged to Palestinian families. He told the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that Israeli Army forces and personnel posted orders early Sunday announcing the seizure of land that was planted with olive and forest trees in Surif and the nearby villages of Al-Jaba’a and Wadi Fukin.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements to be a violation of international law. The continued construction has also been a constant source of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its most important Western allies.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the United States urged Israel to reverse its decision, calling it “counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.”

Affiliate of Al Qaeda Confirms Capture of U.N. Peacekeepers in Syria

By Ben Hubbard, NY Times, Aug. 31, 2014

ISTANBUL—The Syrian branch of Al Qaeda has acknowledged that it captured 45 United Nations peacekeepers in southern Syria, saying they were being held in retaliation for what the group called the United Nations’ failure to help the people of Syria during the country’s civil war.

The group, the Nusra Front, also accused the peacekeeping force, which has monitored the demarcation line between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since 1974, of protecting Israeli-controlled territory while doing nothing to stop the killing on the Syrian side.

The statement, released late Saturday, contained a group photo of the captured peacekeepers, who are from Fiji, as well as a photograph of their identification cards. The statement said they were being treated well and were given food and medical care, but it issued no demands for their release.

The statement was the first confirmation from the Nusra Front, one of the many groups fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, that it was holding the peacekeepers. They were captured on Thursday, one day after rebels seized a crossing point on the demarcation line from Syrian forces.

Other rebels in the area had condemned the Nusra Front for capturing the peacekeepers and called for their release.

The statement followed attacks by rebels believed to be from the Nusra Front on two other bases used by 72 peacekeepers from the Philippines on Saturday. One group of 32 Philippine soldiers managed to flee to the Israeli side of the frontier after receiving backup from the peacekeeping mission’s “reaction force,” the United Nations said.

On Sunday, the United Nations said in a statement that the other group of 40 Philippine soldiers had left their post at night during a cease-fire between them and “the armed elements” and reached a safe location an hour later.

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