September 06, 2012

By MATTHEW DALY

Associated Press

 

In an election-year reminder that he ended the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama vowed last Friday to help soldiers, veterans and their families overcome economic and health care struggles as they return to the nation they have served.

Surrounded by a sea of men and women in fatigues, Obama saluted their service, but cautioned that a “tough fight” remains in Afghanistan even as the U.S. works to transfer security control to Afghan forces. He said the troops’ return home now presents different challenges.

“After fighting for America you shouldn’t have to fight for a job in America,” Obama said. “To you and all you serve, we need to be there for you just like you were there for us.”

Obama’s visit to the vast Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso came on the second anniversary of the end of combat operations in Iraq. While officially not a presidential campaign trip, the visit also served clear political aims by highlighting the end of one unpopular war and the wind-down of another and drawing attention to Obama's role as commander in chief.

Obama also visited Fort Bliss on Aug. 31, 2010, the day he announced the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq.

“You left Iraq with honor, your heads held high,” Obama said. “And today Iraq has a chance to forge its own destiny, and there are no American troops fighting and dying in Iraq.”

Fort Bliss soldiers participated in the Iraqi invasion in 2003 and were among the last to serve in combat roles there. The post endured significant losses during the Iraq war and its troops are now being deployed in Afghanistan.

Before his remarks, Obama held a private roundtable meeting with service members and military families, including “Gold Star” families who lost relatives overseas.

His message to them, Obama said: “Your loved ones live on in the soul of our nation.”

Obama acknowledged that for those who return, “coming home can be its own struggle.” He cited the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

He announced that he had, earlier, signed an executive order directing federal agencies to expand their efforts at addressing the mental health needs of veterans, service members and their families and to increase measures aimed at preventing suicide.

“I know that you join me in saying to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform, if you’re hurting it’s not a sign of weakness to seek help, it’s a sign of strength,” he said. “We are here to help you stay strong — Army strong.”

Among the steps spelled out in the order is an increase in the number of Department of Veterans Affairs’ counselors. It also orders the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services to undertake a mental health study aimed at improving prevention, diagnoses and treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

Obama also renewed a call on Congress to pass measures in Obama’s economic proposals specifically aimed at veterans, including one that provides tax credits to businesses that hire vets.

Veterans are a key voting bloc in the closely fought presidential race.

A Gallup tracking poll in August shows Republican Mitt Romney leads Obama, 55 percent to 38 percent among veterans. Exit polls conducted in 2008 showed voters who had served in the military preferred Republican John McCain over Obama by 10 percentage points.

At their party’s convention in Tampa, Fla., Romney and other Republicans made repeated references to veterans. Romney broke away from the convention to speak to the American Legion in Indianapolis.

Romney has attempted to blame Obama for threatened spending cuts in defense that will kick in if Congress doesn’t come up with a deficit reduction plan by year's end. The sharp reductions in Pentagon spending and in other domestic programs were part of a deal Obama struck with Republican leaders last year and was designed to force Congress to find other means of reducing the deficit.

Obama reiterated his demands for Congress to act.

“Here’s the thing, there’s no reason those cuts should happen because folks in Congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong,” he said.

Romney’s campaign, however, said Obama’s economic policies had made it more difficult for veterans and said more veterans would face unemployment if the defense cuts are enacted.

“As president, Mitt Romney will never play politics with our military’s strength and will enact pro-growth policies to get veterans — and all Americans — back to work,” said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

September 06, 2012

By Jon Gabrell

Associated Press

 

Nigeria’s navy retook an oil tanker on Wednesday September 5, hijacked off the country’s largest city, freeing 23 Indian sailors held hostage by pirates who fled as the navy arrived, a spokesman said.

None of the sailors was hurt in the hijacking of the MT Abu Dhabi Star, which happened off the coast of Lagos, said Pat Adamson, a spokesman for Dubai-based Pioneer Ship Management Services LLC. The Nigerian navy was providing an escort for the vessel Wednesday afternoon to make sure it arrived safely at Lagos’ busy port, Commodore Kabir Aliyu said.

The pirates who took over the vessel fled when they saw the Nigerian naval ship on the horizon, Adamson said. It was unclear whether they stole any of the ship's cargo, though the crew had begun an inspection of the ship, the spokesman said.

The pirates targeted the ship as it was anchored off the coast Tuesday night, Aliyu said. The sailors onboard sent distress signals as the pirates boarded the Singapore-flagged ship, with their last message indicating they had locked themselves inside a panic room on the vessel, Aliyu said.

During the short hijacking, the ship's management received no ransom demands for the crew, Pioneer Ship Management Services said. That's not unusual, as pirates in the region increasingly target oil tankers for their cargos, holding control of the vessels only long enough to offload the fuel before escaping. That’s in contrast to pirates off the Somali coast, who typically hold sailors for months for ransom.

Pirate attacks are on the rise in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent's southward curve from Liberia to Gabon. Over the last year and a half, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts. Last year, London-based Lloyd's Market Association — an umbrella group of insurers — listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia, where two decades of war and anarchy have allowed piracy to flourish.

Pirates in West Africa have been more willing to use violence in their robberies, as they target the cargo, not the crew for ransom as is the case off Somalia. Experts say many of the pirates come from Nigeria, where corrupt law enforcement allows criminality to thrive.

Analysts believe the recent hijackings of tanker ships may well be the work of a single, sophisticated criminal gang with knowledge of the oil industry and oil tankers. Those involved in the hijackings may have gotten that experience in Nigeria’s southern Niger Delta, where thieves tap pipelines running through the swamps to steal hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 30, 2012

Associated Press

A magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled communities 100 miles east of San Diego on Monday night, despite observations from earthquake experts that a series of small to moderate earthquakes seemed to be slowing down and getting smaller in magnitude.

Earthquakes are unpredictable, according to U.S. Geological Survey Geophysicist Shengzao Chen, and prior to the 7 p.m. quake, a slowing seemed to be in effect with most of Monday's temblors under magnitude-2.5, and occurring in intervals of no greater than 30 minutes.

On Sunday, a swarm of earthquakes shook Imperial County and were felt in surrounding counties. Most were minor, but two registered at magnitude-5.5 and magnitude-5.3.

Scientists say the aftershocks and jolts could last for days.

No injuries were reported in the region, which has a long history of such earthquake swarms.

"The type of activity that we're seeing could possibly continue for several hours or even days," U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Robert Graves said.

The seismic activity is not unusual, but scientists have puzzled over the cause. The last significant swarm occurred in 2005, when a thousand quakes, the largest at magnitude-5.1, shook the south shore of the Salton Sea. In 1981, a cluster of quakes hit a region five miles to the northwest of Sunday's sequence, with the largest measuring a magnitude-5.8. The region was very active in the 1960s and 1970s.

"They seem to light up and turn off for reasons we don't understand," USGS seismologist Susan Hough said.

Despite the shaking, the swarms have not triggered any significant quake in the past, Hough said.

The quakes pushed 20 mobile homes at a trailer park off their foundations, rendering them uninhabitable, said Maria Peinado, a spokeswoman for the Imperial County Emergency Operations Center. A red-tile roof apparently collapsed and landed on a wooden fence.

Sporadic power outages, at one point affecting 2,500 Imperial Irrigation District customers, also prompted authorities to evacuate 49 patients from one of the county's two hospitals, Peinado said. Police also received numerous calls about gas leaks and water line breaks.

"It's not uncommon for us to have earthquakes out here, but at this frequency and at this magnitude it's fairly unusual," said George Nava, the mayor of Brawley, a town of 25,000.

"And the fact that the aftershocks keep coming are a little alarming," he said.

At the El Sol Market, food packages fell from shelves and littered the aisles.

"It felt like there was quake every 15 minutes. One after another. My kids are small and they're scared and don't want to come back inside," said Mike Patel, who manages Townhouse Inn & Suites.

A TV came crashing down and a few light fixtures broke inside the motel, Patel said.

The first quake, with a magnitude of 3.9, occurred at 10:02 a.m. on Sunday. The USGS said more than 300 aftershocks struck the same approximate epicenter.

Some shaking was felt along the San Diego County coast in Del Mar, some 120 miles from the epicenter, as well as in southwestern Arizona and parts of northern Mexico.

USGS seismologist Lucy Jones said earthquake swarms are characteristic of the region, known as the Brawley Seismic Zone.

"The area sees lots of events at once, with many close to the largest magnitude, rather than one main shock with several much smaller aftershocks," Jones said.

Sunday's quake cluster occurred in what scientists call a transition zone between the Imperial and San Andreas faults, so they weren't assigning the earthquakes to either fault, Graves said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 30, 2012

By CAIN BURDEAU |

Associated Press

 

With Isaac bearing down on New Orleans, the city finds itself at a delicate moment in its rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina struck seven years ago.

Private and government investment is fueling the push to overhaul some of the city’s troubled but culturally rich neighborhoods near the French Quarter, where poor families are being replaced as wealthier ones move in. While the city’s in a boom and even gentrifying, some question whether it will wither the roots that grew the city’s distinctive identity.

“New Orleans is becoming a boutique city like San Francisco,” said Gary Clark, a politics professor at Dillard University. “You may see Black middle class moving in, but with gentrification there’s overwhelmingly White individuals of means who become the new urban pioneers.”

The number of Whites, although smaller than before Katrina, has grown as an overall percentage from 28 percent to 33 percent of the city’s population. The city has its first white mayor since the 1970s, while the City Council now has a majority of white members.

On the flip side, Blacks say there’s danger that their community will be diminished in a city that owes deep cultural and economic debts to its Afro-Caribbean roots. Since the storm the African-American community has shrunk by about 118,500 people, dropping from about 68 percent of the population to about 60 percent.

“(Blacks) don’t see themselves as being a part of the recovery economy and getting real opportunity,” said Nolan V. Rollins, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans president.

It’s not clear what effect Isaac could have on the city. On Tuesday afternoon, the storm had become a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph.

This winter the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to demolish the last of the New Deal-era public housing still standing in New Orleans — the 850-unit Iberville complex. It was erected over the slums of what was for a time the nation’s only legal red-light district, Storyville.

The demolition is part of a $31 million HUD “choice neighborhoods” project, a concept pushed by the Obama administration across the nation. HUD hopes that by starting the process of gentrification, private investment will follow and the communities will become desirable places for all races and classes to live in.

Linda Couch, a public housing expert at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said the new approach “has the elements of success.”

Meanwhile, another $4 billion in private and government investment has been pouring into the historic neighborhoods of Iberville and Treme, the hearth of the city’s African-American culture.

The 1.4 square miles where much of the redevelopment is occurring has long been known for gumbo, jazz, voodoo and civil rights pioneers. Immigrants from around the world lived side by side with Blacks in Treme and Iberville, where Louis Armstrong once walked the streets and delivered coal as a boy.

But the entire area fell on hard times after the 1960s, as Whites moved to the suburbs and bad urban planning took its toll. By the time Katrina hit, it was struggling and looked like an urban desert of blight, drugs and abandonment in many areas.

The plan for redeveloping the area could include the removal of a noisy concrete interstate expressway that runs through Treme with the hope of restoring what was one of the city’s main streets for Black commerce. Work is already underway to turn an unused rail corridor into a miles-long walking and bike path called the Lafitte Greenway, turning old schools into new charters and opening “fresh-food” supermarkets.

Taking down the Iberville housing complex is crucial, planners say, to connect Treme with the downtown’s theater and business district on Canal Street.

“I think we can retain the soul of New Orleans and in fact enhance it by going through this process,” said David Gilmore, a HUD housing expert leading the planning effort.

Many residents see a chance to save neighborhoods that have fallen prey to drugs, poverty and blight.

“We’re happy if someone moves down the street into a blighted property,” said Jennifer Jones, the self-styled “queen of the second-line” and member of a Treme family of musicians. “No one’s angry about Whites moving in. When we grew up, there was a lot of mixing going on,” Jones said.

But others are apprehensive.

“Maybe they’ve got their reason,” said Lionel Glenn, a 69-year-old retired laborer who ended up at Iberville after another project he was in was torn down after Katrina. “I’d like to stay, but I’ve got to move.”

A recent article in a Black ­community newspaper, The New Orleans Tribune, blared: “They’re here” in referring to Whites looking to buy up inner-city property. The headline read: “Gentrification: The New Segrega­tion.”

Unlike the other redevelopments after Katrina, HUD promises to find housing for all the 440 families at Iber­ville within about 1 mile of the project.

After Katrina, most of the city’s projects were torn down quickly and families were dispersed across the nation. Advocates charged that policy forced poor families out of New Orleans. Public housing units were cut in half at those complexes.

“What has happened is exactly what many people predicted would happen,” said Lance Hill, who runs the Southern Institute for Education and Research, a race relations center at Tulane University. “Blacks have ended up in apartments ringing the city.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu says there is no reason to fear the redevelopment.

“We’re building it back better than it ever was before and the way it always should have been.”

In Treme, there are about 200 more white households than before Katrina, Census data shows. Newcomers and old-timers have clashed, even at times over the noise from the impromptu second-lines, the cherished musical parades, which routinely break out. Also, longtime residents worry about the closing of neighborhood bars.

“They are looking for a French Quarter look-a-alike but with a bedroom community feel,” said Al Jackson, a Treme resident and historian.

One newcomer is David Williams, a 49-year-old school administrator. He bought an historic home that for now he rents out. The last batch he rented to was a group of young people with Americorps.

Once their son leaves home, he and his wife have talked about moving into the city and living in the house they’ve bought.

“In 10 years (this neighborhood) is going to look like Treme does a block away from the French Quarter,” he said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 30, 2012

 

By MATTHEW BARAKAT Associated Press

 

 

 

A U.S. judge on Tuesday awarded $21 million to seven people who sued a former prime minister of Somalia now living in Virginia, claiming he tortured and killed his own people more than two decades ago.

 

The judgment against Mohamed Ali Samantar, 76, of Fairfax comes at the end of an eight-year legal battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Seven Somali natives filed the lawsuit in 2004 in federal court in Alexandria against Samantar, who served as vice president, defense minister and prime minister throughout the 1980s under dictator Siad Barre, until the months before the regime collapsed in 1991.

 

The suit claimed Samantar personally ordered the killings and torture of members of the minority Isaaq clan.

 

Samantar denied the accusations and claimed immunity from the lawsuit. On the day the trial was to begin, he entered a default judgment. While he accepted legal liability for the killings, he denied wrongdoing.

 

One of the plaintiffs, Aziz Deria of Bellevue, Wash., said that the ruling vindicates efforts to hold Samantar accountable.

 

"The case was never about money," said Deria, who has little expectation of recovering his $3 million share of the judgment against Samantar, who is bankrupt. "This case was about having an opportunity to be in court with Samantar and prove he was in charge of what was happening."

 

Samantar's lawyer, Joseph Peter Drennan, said he will appeal the ruling. In fact, the case is already on appeal. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether Samantar was properly denied immunity.

 

The case, first filed in 2004, has had a tortuous path through the courts. At first, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the case, ruling that Samantar enjoyed legal immunity as a former foreign official. But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that argument. Eventually, the State Department argued in a legal filing that Samantar could not claim immunity because Somalia had no central government that could claim immunity on his behalf.

 

Brinkema then allowed the case to go to trial. Samantar's lawyer objected, saying the judge was granting excessive deference to the State Department — Brinkema had said she would have dismissed the case if the agency determined it could harm international relations.

 

After Samantar defaulted at the outset of the trial in February, the trial proceeded without him.

 

During the shortened trial, the plaintiffs presented evidence including a 1989 BBC interview in which Samantar acknowledged a leadership role in the bombing of Hargeisa, a city in the northern part of the country. Hargeisa was home to a large Isaaq population and a stronghold of a regional movement to break off from Somalia.

 

The evidence also included testimony from an army colonel who said he overheard a series of radio communications in which Barre was urging moderation in a bombing campaign, while Samantar advocated a harsher attack.

 

Several plaintiffs — some who live in the U.S. like Deria and others who still live in Somalia — told chilling stories of narrowly escaping summary execution, suffering beatings and spending years in solitary confinement in jail. Deria sued on behalf of his brother and father, who were killed.

 

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which represented the plaintiffs, said Brinkema's ruling is the first anywhere in the world to hold a leader in the Barre regime responsible for the crimes it perpetrated.

 

"This is a remarkable result for our clients, who faced down one of the most powerful men in their country's history and forced him to concede liability for his crimes," said Steven Schulman, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.

 

But Drennan said Samantar continues to deny wrongdoing, and believes that efforts to hash out these claims in a U.S. court are counterproductive to the efforts to promote reconciliation and a cohesive national government in Somalia.

 

The lawsuit "needs to be seen for what it is — politics and clan warfare in the courtroom," Drennan said.

 

Deria, on the other hand, said holding Samantar formally accountable for atrocities in Somalia's civil war is the best way for Somalia to move forward. He said that clan retribution can be set aside when people can be assured of justice through the legal system and that he hopes the case can highlight to the Somali people that justice is attainable.

 

"This is the civilized way of dealing with criminals," he said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

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