March 28, 2013

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI

 

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The president of the Central African Republic fled the country for Cameroon after rebels overran the capital of the impoverished nation long wracked by rebellions.

South Africa said Monday that 13 of its soldiers were killed in fighting with rebels, prompting criticism about why its forces had intervened in such a volatile conflict.

Ousted President Francois Bozize sought "'temporary" refuge on its territory, the Cameroonian government confirmed Monday.

Central African Republic's new leadership appeared fragmented, with a split emerging in the rebel coalition that seized the capital.

The African Union on Monday imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on seven leaders of the rebel coalition, known as Seleka, and said their advance had undermined prospects for a lasting solution to the crisis in the landlocked country. It urged African states to deny "any sanctuary and cooperation" to the rebel chiefs.

The United States is "deeply concerned about a serious deterioration in the security situation" in Central African Republic, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Sunday.

"We urgently call on the Seleka leadership which has taken control of Bangui to establish law and order in the city and to restore basic services of electricity and water," the statement said.

The rebel groups making up the Seleka alliance agreed they wanted Bozize out. Some of the rebels complained of broken promises of government jobs and other benefits. Others cited the deep impoverishment of the country's distant north despite the Central African Republic's considerable wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium.

Africa has a fraught history of foreign military missions, whether for humanitarian or political purposes, or some combination of the two, in times of conflict. The central part of the continent, repeatedly buffeted by interlocking rebellions, is particularly treacherous for countries with an activist foreign policy.

In addition to the South African troop deaths, another 27 soldiers were wounded in the country's worst loss in combat since nine soldiers died in Lesotho in 1998.

"I think South Africa realized right from the beginning that there will be casualties," said Johan Potgieter, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, in Pretoria, the South African capital. "If you want to be in peacekeeping, and you don't want body bags, you should get out of there."

South Africa's losses point to the challenges that the country faces as it tries to project continental leadership amid questions about the adequacy of its resources and the clarity of political direction from Pretoria. It has participated in peacekeeping in regions including Burundi and Darfur in Sudan.

South African troops served as trainers for the national army in the Central African Republic. But more troops were sent to protect those trainers as security deteriorated, and critics questioned the collaboration with Bozize, who came to power in a rebellion a decade ago and whose commitment to the terms of past peace deals was in doubt.

This week was meant to be triumphant for South Africa, which will host Brazil, Russia, India and China at the "BRICS" summit. South African President Jacob Zuma gave a speech on Monday that was supposed to celebrate the summit, but he devoted his first remarks to mourning for those killed in the battle in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

Some 200 South African soldiers were deployed at the Bangui base. Estimates of the size of the rebel force that attacked them ranged from at least five to 15 times bigger, raising questions about the security precautions and reconnaissance abilities of the South African contingent.

South African troops "fought a high-tempo battle for nine hours defending the South African military base, until the bandits raised a white flag and asked for a cease-fire," Zuma said. "Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties among the attacking bandit forces."

Gen. Solly Shoke, South Africa's military chief, said 3,000 rebels armed with mortars and heavy machine guns took part in the fighting. The bulk of the fighting occurred Saturday, though rebels contacted South African forces early Sunday to arrange and "uneasy truce," the military chief said.

South African authorities were working to identify a body, raising the possibility that the death toll would increase to 14 if it is determined the body is that of the missing serviceman.

The rebels' invasion of the capital came two months after they signed a peace agreement that would have let Bozize serve until 2016. That deal unraveled in recent days, prompting the insurgents' advance into Bangui, where French troops moved to secure the airport.

Defense analyst Helmoed Heitman said on South Africa's Radio 702 that the South African force in the Central African Republic was lightly equipped and had no aerial support. In the past, he said, South Africa turned down a deal for military transport helicopters because it could not afford them.

The Democratic Alliance, an opposition party in South Africa, said the government should explain why South African forces were deployed "in the middle of what amounted to a civil war, with so little military support."

The government of Cameroon said Bozize would be leaving for another unspecified country. There were reports of looting in Bangui amid the specter of continuing unrest.

Michel Djotodia, one of the leaders of the rebel coalition, said he considers himself to be the new head of state. Another rebel leader, Nelson N'Djadder, said he does not recognize Djotodia as president.

"We had agreed that we would push to Bangui in order to arrest Bozize and that we would then announce an 18-month transition, a transition that would be as fast as possible — and not one that would last three years," N'Djadder told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris. "I have enough soldiers loyal to me to attack Djotodia. I am planning to take the Wednesday flight to Bangui."

N'Djadder said rebels —not those under his command — had pillaged homes in Bangui, including those of French expatriates.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned about the security situation and urged the Seleka leadership to establish order and restore electricity and water.

The rebel success in the nation of 4.5 million suggests the possible backing of neighboring nations. There has been speculation that either Chad or Sudan or Gabon had provided the rebels with arms and logistical support. Djotodia rejected that claim.

The overthrow of Bozize could affect the hunt for Joseph Kony, said the commander of African troops tracking the fugitive warlord. Bozize was a strong supporter of African efforts to dismantle Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.

Ugandan Brig. Dick Olum, speaking from his South Sudanese military base in Nzara, said Monday he is concerned by past rebel statements that all foreign troops must leave the country. Some 3,350 African troops are currently deployed against the LRA in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The U.S. also has anti-Kony military advisers in the Central African Republic.

Central African Republic has suffered instability since obtaining independence from France in 1960, including at least three coup plots in 2012, according to a December analysis by Alex Vines of the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs. He said the European Union had spent more than 100 million euros on peace missions there since 2004.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 28, 2013

By MIKE HOUSEHOLDER

Associated Press

 

DETROIT (AP) — A former tennis pro accused of fraudulently bringing four children from the African nation of Togo to the U.S. and forcing them to work as slaves in his Michigan home was sentenced Monday to more than 11 years in federal prison.

Jean-Claude Toviave, who didn't apologize when provided the opportunity to speak at his sentencing hearing in Detroit, also was ordered to pay two of the children $60,000 each.

Prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow to sentence Toviave to the maximum sentence within the guidelines, and he did, handing down a 135-month sentence, with credit for about two years of time served.

"I can't get a read on you," Tarnow told Toviave. "I can't tell if you understand what you did was really wrong."

The four children emigrated from Togo in 2006 with fraudulent immigration paperwork that listed them as being Toviave's biological children, which they are not. He enrolled some of them in middle school when they arrived. They now range in age from teenagers to young adults.

The victims said Toviave beat them with toilet plungers, broomsticks and electrical cords and starved them if they didn't follow his orders. They were forced to vacuum, iron, cook, clean and shine shoes at the home in Ypsilanti, near Ann Arbor, for nearly five years until January 2011.

In a court filing, prosecutors said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Toviave, who was a tennis pro in Togo until 1990, "savagely" beat the children if their chores weren't finished or completed to his satisfaction.

One victim said he suffered permanent damage to his vision and persistent headaches tied to an episode in which Toviave kicked him and punched him in the face.

Two of the victims were in the courtroom during sentencing, but declined to speak.

Victim statements were entered into the record, however, and one was read aloud by a representative.

"The physical torture, beating me and starving me, you inflicted was so painful that I prayed at night that God would either help me to be free or allow your assaults to kill me," wrote the unnamed victim. "The pain is something I will never forget. In the midst of your verbal and physical assaults, you worked the four of us to death."

The victim wrote that although Toviave's actions made it so that he "can no longer trust anyone" and he wakes "from nightmares on a regular basis that involve me being back under your care," he participates in several sports at his school, is president of the student council and has vowed to become a doctor one day.

"My future is very exciting," the victim wrote.

When given the chance to speak before sentencing, Toviave recounted traveling to Ghana in 2007 to visit his sick mother. After the hearing had ended, Toviave asked Tarnow if he could say something else. Tarnow said OK, but Toviave then decided against it.A jury convicted Toviave of four counts of forced labor in October. He previously pleaded guilty to fraud and misuse of visas, mail fraud and harboring aliens.

Along with restitution, Tarnow ordered Toviave to pay $7,200 to two victims to be used toward counseling, but both the judge and defense lawyer Randall Roberts, who called his client "penniless," said it seemed unlikely Toviave would be able to come up with the money.

Roberts, who asked Tarnow to sentence Toviave to four years, said the judge's sentence "was as tough as it comes."

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 21, 2013

By Julie Pace and

Matthew Lee

Associated Press

 

Eager to reassure an anxious ally, President Barack Obama on Wednesday affirmed Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself from any threat and vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He said containment of a nuclear-armed Iran was not an option and said the United States would do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from getting “the world’s worst weapons.”

Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his first visit to the Jewish state as president, Obama offered his personal commitment that the U.S. would stand by Israel in any circumstances that required it to act to protect its people. He said the U.S. and Israel would start talks soon on a new, 10-year security cooperation package to replace one that expires in 2017.

Obama also pledged to investigate whether chemical weapons were used this week in neighboring Syria's 2-year-old civil war, something he said would be a “game-changer” for current U.S. policy. In addition, he said he would continue to urge Israel and the Palestinians to re-launch the moribund peace process.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Obama and Netanyahu, who have sparred on numerous occasions in the past, presented a united front on Iran.

They stressed repeatedly that all options — including military ones — are on the table to keep Iran from acquiring an atomic weapon if the diplomatic track fails. And they brushed aside apparent differences over when the Iranian nuclear program might reach the point that military action is required.

“We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining the world’s worst weapons,” Obama said, calling a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to Israel, the greater Middle East and the world.

Although Obama did not promise that the United States would act militarily against Iran if Israel decided that must be done, he offered an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it deems necessary to guard against the threat.

“Each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action and Israel is differently situated than the United States,” he said. “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any another country any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.”

Netanyahu seized on the remarks, saying they were an important demonstration of America’s steadfast alliance with Israel and part of making the carrot-and-stick approach a credible option to avoid the use of force.

“I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” he said. “I appreciate that. I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel’s right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

Netanyahu said the carrot-and-stick approach now being employed to cajole Iran into proving that’s its nuclear intentions are peaceful had to be bolstered by “a clear and credible threat of military action.” Obama’s recognition of Israel's right to act alone appeared to satisfy him on that score, and the prime minister beamed with delight in response to the new security pact talks.

On another issue of critical importance to Israel’s security, Obama said the U.S. is investigating whether chemical weapons were deployed in Syria earlier this week. He said he was “deeply skeptical” of contentions by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government that rebel forces were behind any such attack.

Both the Assad government and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday.

Obama said the U.S. policy not to intervene militarily or arm Syrian rebels thus far is based on his desire to solve the problem with world partners. He rejected as “inaccurate” suggestions that the United States had done nothing to stop two years of bloodshed that has claimed more than 70,000 lives.

“It’s a world problem when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children,” Obama said.

Obama’s three-day visit to Israel, from its start earlier Wednesday, is designed to send a message of reassurance to a key ally.

At an extravagant welcoming ceremony, Obama declared that “peace must come to the Holy Land” and not at Israel’s expense. U.S. backing for Israel will be a constant as the Middle East roils with revolution and Iran continues work on its nuclear program, he said.

“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” Obama said after landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

“Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril,” he said, calling his visit “an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.”

Seeking to alter a perception among many Israelis that his government has been less supportive of Israel than previous U.S. administrations, Obama declared the U.S.-Israeli alliance “eternal.”

“It is forever,” he said to applause as Israeli and U.S. flags fluttered in a steady breeze under clear, sunny skies.

Before leaving the airport for Jerusalem, Obama offered a vivid display of the U.S. commitment to Israeli security by visiting a missile battery that is part of Israel’s Iron Dome defense from militant rocket attacks. The United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the system with Israel.

Obama and Netanyahu toured the battery, which Israel relocated to the airport for the occasion. They met and chatted with soldiers who operate the system that Israel credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.

In his comments to reporters with Netanyahu, Obama also took note of the difficult way forward in the broader quest for Mideast peace, acknowledging that in recent years “we haven't gone forward, we haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see.”

The president said he came to the region principally to listen, and hoped to return home with a better understanding of the constraints and “how the U.S. can play a constructive role.”

Netanyahu, for his part, said he was willing to set aside preconditions in future talks with the Palestinians, adding that it was time to “turn a page in our relations.”

Obama is to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank this week to assure him that an independent Palestinian state remains a U.S. foreign policy and national security priority — even though he is bringing no new plan to restart negotiations with Israel.

Although many Israelis warmly greeted Obama, Palestinians held several small protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Demonstrators in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip burned posters of Obama and U.S. flags, accusing the U.S. of being biased toward Israel.

In the West Bank, about 200 activists erected about a dozen tents in an area just outside of Jerusalem to draw attention to Israel’s policy of building settlements. The tents were pitched in E1, a strategically located area where Israel has said it plans on building thousands of homes. The U.S. has harshly criticized the plan.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 28, 2013

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Presi­dent Barack Obama challenged Congress Monday to “finish the job” of finalizing legislation aimed at overhauling the nation’s immigration system.

With members of the House and Senate away on spring break, Obama made his most substantive remarks on the difficult issue in more than a month, saying he expects lawmakers to take up debate on a measure quickly and that he hopes to sign it into law as soon as possible.

“We’ve known for years that our immigration system is broken,” the president said at a citizenship ceremony at the White House. “After avoiding the problem for years, the time has come to fix it once and for all.”

The president spoke at a ceremony for 28 people from more than two dozen countries, including Afghan­istan, China and Mexico. Thirteen of the new citizens are active duty service members in the U.S. military. The oath of allegiance was administered by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

While Obama has hosted citizenship ceremonies in previous years, Monday's event was laced with politics, given the ongoing debate over immigration reform on Capitol Hill. A bipartisan group of eight senators is close to finishing draft work on a bill that would dramatically reshape the U.S. immigration and employment landscape, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. The measure also would allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country.

The president applauded the congressional effort so far, but pressed lawmakers to wrap up their discussions quickly.

“We’ve got a lot of white papers and studies,” Obama said. “We’ve just got to, at this point, work up the political courage to do what’s required.”

Immigration shot to the forefront of Obama's domestic agenda following the November election. Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate and overwhelmingly backed Obama, in part because of the tough stance on immigration that Republicans took during the campaign.

The election results spurred Republicans to tackle immigration reform for the first time since 2007 in an effort to increase the party’s appeal to Hispanics and keep the GOP competitive in national elections.

Obama and the bipartisan Senate group are in lockstep on some key principles of a potential immigration bill, including the need for a pathway to citizenship, strengthening the legal immigration system, and cracking down on businesses that employ illegal immigrants. But they’re at odds on other important areas, including whether to link border security with starting the citizenship pathway, which the Senate supports.

The White House has largely backed the Senate process, but says it has its own immigration bill ready if the debate on Capitol Hill stalls.

Obama touted the benefits of immigration at Monday’s ceremony, saying it keeps the U.S. vibrant and prosperous.

“It is part of what makes this such a dynamic country,” he said at the event in the White House East Room.

Among those being sworn in as a new citizen was Nikita Kirichenko, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine at age 11 and later joined the Air Force. The president also singled out Kingsley Elebo, who pursued a master's degree in information technology after coming to the U.S. from Nigeria at age 35. Elebo is now studying for his doctorate.

The president then read a quote from Elebo about what it means to become a citizen.

“What Kingsley said is, ‘What makes this country great is that if you’re a citizen you’re part of something bigger than yourself’,” Obama said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 21, 2013

By JOHN ROGERS Associated Press

 

Five former elected officials in a small, blue-collar California city who became a national symbol of municipal greed were convicted Wednesday of stealing taxpayer money by serving on a panel that evidence showed was created only to boost their annual salaries to nearly $100,000.

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and onetime City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were all convicted of misappropriating public funds.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."

After the four-week trial, the other defendants were convicted of illegally taking money for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.

Records showed it met only one time between 2006 and 2010.

After the verdicts were read, Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted there were 10 deadlocked counts and asked the foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to reach decisions.

He said that was correct, explaining the jury had split 9-3 on each of those counts. He did not reveal if the panel favored conviction.

Kennedy polled all 12 jurors, and four said they believed a verdict could be reached if they received more direction. Kennedy ordered them to resume deliberations then sent them home later in the day. The panel will return to court on this week.

At the heart of the case was whether the six officials broke the law by paying themselves annual salaries of up to $100,000 to govern only part-time in the city of 36,000 people where one in four residents live below the poverty line.

An audit by the state controller's office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid, which for a time put Bell in danger of filing for bankruptcy.

The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. Their lawyers blamed Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, for creating the fiscal mess.Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are expected to face trial later this year on similar charges.

City records have revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.

His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.

To fund salaries of officials, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot Bell's treasury of $5.5 million, prosecutors said.

Witnesses at the trial of the former council members depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who convinced the city's elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.

He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.

After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.

Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.

"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.

Hernandez, whose family members wept after the verdicts, was convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds, as were Jacobo and Mirabal. Bello was convicted of four of the same charges and Cole of two.

Prosecutors declined to comment on possible sentences for the defendants until all the charges have been resolved.

Prosecutors brought an extensive, complicated case against all six defendants that totaled about 100 counts.

The jury had deliberated since Feb. 28 after one member of a previous panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group of 12 to start over.

The trial was the first court proceeding following disclosures of massive corruption in the hardscrabble town of modest homes and few businesses.

The defendants' lawyers told jurors their clients had no idea what Rizzo was doing or that what they were doing was illegal.

Jacobo testified that when Rizzo told her that he was increasing her salary enough that she could quit her job selling real estate, she asked the former city attorney if that was legal and he assured her it was.

Hernandez's lawyer said the once popular mayor, who ran a small grocery store in Bell, was unschooled and not one who understood the city's finances.

"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," attorney Stanley Friedman had told jurors.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

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