Monthly Archives: December 2014

Essebsi sworn in as Tunisian president

Tunisia’s  Beji Caid Essebsi has been sworn in as president after landmark polls in the country. Essebsi won the race in December with 55.7% of the vote, against interim President Moncef Marzouki’s 44.3%.

Unlike in previous presidential elections where ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali persecuted his rivals, Tunisians this year were able to choose their favorite from a pool of 27 candidates.

“This is the first time we reach a second round,” political analyst Noureddine Mbarki told Al Arabiya News. “The margin was little in the first round, and even the second round, 10% is the margin that we see in developed democratic countries.”

Essebsi won 39.46% of the votes on the Nov. 23 election, followed by Marzouki with 33.43 %.

“We used to see 90% back in the day,” said Mbarki, referring to election results under the dictatorship of Ben Ali.

“Tunisians headed to voting polls three times in eight weeks. This is the first time it happens in Tunisia’s history.”

This year saw the first female presidential candidate, Judge Kalthoum Kannou. Analysts saw her candidacy as another milestone in the revolution.

International reaction

Hailing the presidential vote, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time: “Tunisia has provided a shining example to the region and the world of what can be achieved through dedication to democracy, consensus, and an inclusive political process.”

He added: “Tunisia’s achievements this year laid the groundwork for a more stable, prosperous, and democratic future for the country.”

The European Union also offered congratulations. “Tunisians have written a historic page in the country’s democratic transition,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

However, the revolution is far from complete, said political analyst Sadeq Belaid: “What has been achieved… is only one stage. The old state model failed and brought about a revolution. Now we need to build a new model stone by stone.”

He added: “It’s not enough to have democratic institutions. There’s a lot of work to be done because the transition took longer than anticipated. This will take five to 10 years.”

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Palestinian statehood bid fails at UN Security Council as US, Australia vote against

The UN Security Council has failed to adopt the Arab coalition’s bid calling for the creation of a Palestinian state and an end to Israeli “occupation”. The veto power US and Australia voted against the move with 5 abstentions.The draft resolution gathered only 8 votes in favour, so it was automatically defeated. The US however still used its veto power and voted against the resolution. Another veto power state, the UK, along with Lithuania, Nigeria, Korea and Rwanda have abstained from the vote.

“This resolution sets the stage for more division, not for compromise,” said US Ambassador Samantha Power, calling the draft a “staged confrontation.”

“The United kingdom supports much of the content of the draft resolution. It is therefore with deep regret that we abstained from it,” said UK ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant. “We are disappointed that the normal and necessary negotiation did not take place on this occasion.”

However, Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said that Moscow “cannot share the objections of those who believe that the draft resolution was undermining the prospects of the negotiating process.”

“Unfortunately last year revealed how this process has gone into a blind alley, with its monopolization by the United States and their pullback from the Quartet [US, EU, UN and Russia]. We believe this to be a strategic mistake,” said Churkin.

“This draft reflects just demands of Arab states, including the Palestinian people, and is in accord with the relevant UN resolutions, the ‘land for peace’ principle, the Arab peace initiative and middle-Eastern peace roadmap. And is also in accord with China’s consistent position. We express deep regret over the failure of the draft resolution to be adopted,” said Liu Jieyi, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

Israeli authorities said they are “satisfied” with the failure of the Palestinian statehood bid at UN Security Council.

An official bid for statehood was submitted to the Council Tuesday by a Jordan-led Arab coalition. The bid featured a revised draft resolution of a similar proposal submitted earlier this month. Delegates voted on the measure Tuesday afternoon.

Highly opposed by the US and Israel, the first version of the draft resolution was submitted “in blue” to the UN Security Council last Wednesday. The Council includes five permanent members who hold veto power and ten additional members who serve two-year terms.

The resolution gives 12 months for a “just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it regards as the creation of a “sovereign and viable” Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, as well as the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the occupied territory by 2017.

Its text had already seen several amendments that concern East Jerusalem as capital of the future state of Palestine, Israeli settlement building, and Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee member Abu Yousef told Asharq Al-Awsatnewspaper.

According to the current draft, Jerusalem is regarded as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, but the role of East Jerusalem in a future Palestinian state is not specified. “International legitimacy is our ceiling on this issue, and we cannot drop below this ceiling,” Yousef told the paper.

“I think there is very little doubt that any resolution in the Security Council that actually created a Palestinian state or called for real statehood would be vetoed,” US activist and journalist Phyllis Bennis told RT. “I think there is a big question whether the drafts that are now circulating actually do that. The French amendments in particular significantly weaken the idea that this is something that would actually create the Palestinian state.”

Bennis explained that “there is no consequence named. The resolution is not taken under either Chapter 6 or Chapter 7, which are the coercive chapters of the UN charter.” These chapters imply the use of military force and putting pressure against the state, such as sanctions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday his administration would“no longer deal”with Israel in case of the resolution’s failure. “If the Arab-Palestinian initiative submitted to the Security Council to put an end to [Israeli] occupation doesn’t pass, we will be forced to take the necessary political and legal decisions,”the Algerian APS news agency quoted Abbas as saying.

Last Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called a UN bid for Palestinian statehood an “act of aggression.”

“Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is adopting measures whose sole aim is to attack Israel, with no benefit for the Palestinians,” Lieberman said in a statement.

This summer, tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank escalated, leading to the 50-day conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinians. Operation Protective Edge claimed over 2,200 lives – most of them Gaza civilians.

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Indonesia recovers 40 bodies at sea from missing AirAsia plane

An Indonesian search and rescue team prepares to search at sea on December 30.

An Indonesian search and rescue team prepares to search at sea on December 30.

More than 40 bodies have been reportedly found in the area where the missing AirAsia last made contact with air traffic controllers.

Sky News also reports that the “shadow” of a plane has been spotted on the seabed.

The bodies were found in the Java Sea six miles from Flight 8501’s last known contact. The plane disappeared Sunday with 162 people on board traveling from Surbaya, Indonesia to Singapore.

The three bodies were initially recovered by an Indonesian navy ship and were not wearing life jackets.

Family members watched the graphic details unfold on local television. Indonesian television showed a half-naked bloated body bobbing in the sea. Many screamed and another man fainted and was rushed from the room on a stretcher.

CEO of AirAsia offered his condolences in a message on his Twitter account.

Indonesia officials confirmed early Tuesday that ‘victims’ were spotted in the area where the plane disappeared. Officials also said they found a life jacket and an emergency door and were “95-percent” sure that the debris belonged to the doomed plane.

AirAsia Flight 8501, an Airbus A320-200, was carrying 162 people before it disappeared Sunday after seeking permission to divert its course due to impending severe weather.

Indonesia search-and-rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo speculated Monday that the plane was “at the bottom of the sea.”

New NSA leak reveals scope of agency’s war against crypto

The National Security Agency boasts the ability to compromise computer protocols meant to encrypt private internet data, leaked documents have revealed. But the NSA has fallen short of totally winning its war against crypto.

Classified NSA files taken by former contractor Edward Snowden and published for the first time by Der Spiegel on Sunday reveal that, while the United States’ intelligence agency is indeed adept at cracking encryption, its efforts are no match when it comes to some of the more popular protocols used to keep communications private.

The NSA – along with its Five Eyes partners in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK – spends millions of dollars annually to break encryption standards used to keep the web secure, Spiegel reported over the weekend. Yet while previous files published from the Snowden trove have already exposed to a degree the scope of the NSA’s efforts, the latest installment acknowledges for the first time that protocols including TSL/SSL, SSH, PPTP and Ipsec are exploited in order to give spies an intimate look at internet traffic intended to be kept secret.

Released concurrently with a presentation given at the 31st annual Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Germany by two of the article’s authors, the Spiegel piece explains that the NSA and its allies use a plethora of practices to compromise computer protocols, random number generators, and third-party software advertised as being supposedly secure in an effort to gather intelligence on alleged terrorists.

“Did you know that ubiquitous encryption on the Internet is a major threat to NSA’s ability to prosecute digital-network intelligence (DNI) traffic or defeat adversary malware?” reads an excerpt from one of dozens of classified government documents published by the German paper.

“For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies,” reads another.

Jacob Appelbaum, a co-author of the Spiegel piece, said during Sunday’s event that the NSA’s efforts could best be understood as being “a kind of neocolonialism” taking place in the digital era, in which the US has invested billions over the last few decades to tackle the tools that allow private communications to occur over the web – but in secret.

“Wherein the colonies, [the] networks they do not have through coercion of the state or through other surveillance practices, they have to be compromised,” said Appelbaum. “And those [become] targets and they become legitimate targets, in theory, and in actuality, because of its usefulness, because of the leverage that it provides against a speculative target someday in the future.”

“That is, these networks become compromised in service of being able to compromise future networks and other people, just because they can. They set out to do that.”

Indeed, past Snowden leaks have revealed that major US-based tech companies – including Skype, Yahoo and Facebook – participate in an NSA program dubbed “PRISM,” in which they allow government intelligence collectors to soak up data transmissions on the fly. One of the just released documents says explicitly that the fact the NSA “obtains cryptographic details of commercial cryptographic information security systems through industry relationships” must be kept top secret.

The latest Spiegel article notes that, with regards to Skype, audio and video data is routinely taken into possession by the NSA when an alleged suspect is on at least one end of the conversation. In instances where companies won’t voluntarily be complicit, however, agencies like the NSA are driven to exploiting those systems – like the PPTP and Ipsec mechanisms used by Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), or TSL/SSL protocol meant to secure web traffic (by whatever means necessary).

That isn’t to say, though, that all is lost. According to the Snowden docs, codebreakers at the NSA may have met their match when it comes to certain software standards, even for the more inexperienced online privacy proponents. The stand-alone anonymity-centric operating system known as TAILS, and one of its major components – Tor – pose major problems when it comes to eavesdropping, the documents reveal, as does the TrueCrypt software that aims to secure files and documents shared among persons or stored in secret on hard drives and OTR – a protocol that offers end-to-end encryption for instant messaging chats.

“For surveillance experts, it becomes very difficult to trace the whereabouts of a person who visits a particular website or to attack a specific person while they are using Tor to surf the Web,” the Spiegel journalists reported. When used in concert with OTR, TAILS, and other options, communications seem close to impossible to crack, the report suggests.

As quoted by Spiegel, the source of the documents, Snowden said more than a year ago that, indeed, encryption used correctly may be the best option available for foiling efforts from the NSA to eavesdrop on digital communications.

“Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on,” Snowden said in June 2013.

Islamist with $3 million U.S. bounty surrenders to Somali authorities

A file photo taken on March 5, 2012 shows Al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab recruits walking down a street in Mogadishu. A top leader of al-Shebab rebels has surrendered to government and African Union forces and is now in custody, officials said

A file photo taken on March 5, 2012 shows Al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab recruits walking down a street in Mogadishu. A top leader of al-Shebab rebels has surrendered to government and African Union forces and is now in custody, officials said

A leader with the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab, who the United States offered $3 million for his capture, surrendered in Somalia, a Somali intelligence official said Saturday.

Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi surrendered to Somali police in the Gedo region, said the intelligence officer, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Hersi’s surrender would be the second major blow to al Shabaab’s leadership in just a few months. In September the group’s main leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed by a U.S. drone strike. Hersi may have surrendered because he fell out with those loyal to Godane, the intelligence officer said.

State radio Web site Radio Muqdisho described Hersi as “the general secretary of al-Shabaab’s finance (department).” It did not give reasons for his surrender. But a senior member of al-Shabab’s media team told Reuters that Hersi left the Islamist group two years ago. “(Hersi) cannot have impact on al-Shabaab because he is not a member,” the al-Shabab member said.

Hersi was one of seven top al-Shabab officials whom the Obama administration offered a total $33 million in rewards for information leading to their capture in 2012. It is not clear whether the reward will be paid out for Hersi because he surrendered.

Despite major setbacks in 2014, al-Shabab remains a threat in Somalia and the East African region. The group has carried out many terror attacks in Somalia and some in neighboring countries including Kenya, whose armies are part of the African Union troops bolstering Somalia’s weak U.N.- backed government.

On Christmas Day, al-Shabab launched an attack at the African Union base in Mogadishu. Nine people died, including three African Union soldiers, in the attack on the complex, which also houses U.N. offices and Western embassies. Al-Shabab said the attack was aimed at a Christmas party and was in retaliation for the killing of the group’s leader Godane.

Al-Shabab is waging an Islamic insurgency against Somalia’s government that is attempting to rebuild the country after decades of conflict. Al-Shabab controlled much of Mogadishu during 2007 to 2011, but was pushed out of Somalia’s capital and other major cities by African Union forces.

The United States and the United Nations warn that political infighting in Somalia is putting the security gains at risk. The federal government remains weak and wields little power outside the capital Mogadishu.

Evacuation as ferry with 400+ on board catches fire en route from Greece to Italy

466 passengers and crew are being evacuated from an Italian car ferry that caught fire near a Greek island on Sunday morning. The evacuation is being complicated by strong winds and lack of places in lifeboats, according to the media.

Fire broke out on an Italian Norman Atlantic car ferry traveling from western Greece to eastern Italy at around 6.00 am local time (0400 GMT), coast guard officials said on Sunday.

“The captain has requested the evacuation of the ship, according to initial information,” spokesman Nikos Lagkadianos said.

The international evacuation effort including Italian and Albanian forces is complicated by dangerous weather conditions with strong winds blowing in the area northwest of Corfu.

The ferry has 411 passengers and 55 crew on board, as well as 222 vehicles. An official told Reuters that within the framework of the rescue operation 130 people had already been transferred from a lifeboat to a container ship that had been sailing nearby.

A Greek TV station got comments of some passengers, who dramatically described the evacuation.

They tried to lower some boats, but not all of us could get in. There is no coordination,” one said, as cited by Reuters. “It’s dark, the bottom of the vessel is on fire. We are on the bridge, we can see a boat approaching… we opened some boxes and got some life vests, we are trying to save ourselves.

Several people reportedly jumped into the water, but it is unclear whether there are any casualties. However, cold winter temperatures will lessen their chances of survival if this is the case.

Rescue helicopters and a C-130 search-and-rescue support aircraft have been sent to the scene. Seven nearby ships havebeen instructed to take passengers and crew members from the ferry, said Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, according to AP

 

AirAsia flight from Indonesia to Singapore confirmed missing

AirAsia flight number QZ8501, bound from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, has lost contact with air traffic control, the airline has confirmed. The missing flight is an Airbus A320-200 with up to 161 people on board.

Indonesia air transport authorities have provided details of the plane’s last position.

“We are coordinating with the rescue team and looking for its position. We believe it is somewhere between Tanjung Pandan, a town on Belitung island, and Kalimantan,” Indonesia’s air transportation director-general Djoko Murjatmodjo stated, as cited by AFP.

Also, air force spokesman Marsma Hadi Tjahjanto confirmed that the Air Force was using the last point of contact to conduct an air search.

AirAsia has stated that there were 162 passengers on board: 156 Indonesians, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one French, and three South Koreans

The flight was due to land in Singapore at 8:30 a.m. local time (00:30 GMT) and was listed as “delayed.

AirAsia has confirmed the plane has gone missing in a statement

“At the present time we unfortunately have no further information regarding the status of the passengers and crew members on board, but we will keep all parties informed as more information becomes available,” the company said.

It added that “search and rescue operations are in progress and AirAsia is cooperating fully and assisting the rescue service.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said that services have been “activated” to help Indonesia search for the missing flight

An Emergency Call Center with the number +622129850801 has been established for family and friends of those who may have been on board the flight.

Malaysian low-cost airline AirAsia is believed to be one of the safest air carriers in the world. Until today there have been only two incidents with its aircraft. In both cases they overran runways. One took place in November 7, 2004, at Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu airport (Flight 104, Boeing 737). Another incident with Flight 5218 (Airbus A320-200) occurred in Malaysia’s Kuching on January 10, 2011.

‘Mobile bomb’: Iranian army tests suicide drone in massive drills

A picture made available on December 25, 2014 by Iranian Jamejam newspaper's website (Jamejam online) shows Iranian Army ground forces launching an Iranian made drone during the "Mohammad Rasoul Allah" military drill in the Oman Sea port city of Bandar Jask in southern Iran

A picture made available on December 25, 2014 by Iranian Jamejam newspaper’s website (Jamejam online) shows Iranian Army ground forces launching an Iranian made drone during the “Mohammad Rasoul Allah” military drill in the Oman Sea port city of Bandar Jask in southern Iran

For the first time Iran’s army has tested a suicide drone able to hit aerial and ground targets, as well as ships, said the army’s chief commander of ground forces amid the third day of massive drills at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

The unmanned aircraft is “a mobile bomb” that can be used for “hitting aerial and ground targets and can carry out an attack when it identifies a suspicious target,” commander Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan told journalists on Saturday.

Local media reports indicated that the drone is called Yasir. It’s a domestically produced combat drone that was unveiled in September.

Yasir is equipped with state-of-art, light cameras for reconnaissance. It can fly for eight hours with a range of 200 kilometers and reach an altitude of 4,500 meters.

The drone was tested as part of a six-day exercise code-named Mohammad Rasoulallah (Mohammad, the Messenger of God) that started on Thursday, involving all branches of Iran’s military.

The second stage of the maneuvers launched in southeast Iran on Friday was led by ground forces and involved the military’s land, air and naval forces.

A picture made available on December 25, 2014 by Iranian Jamejam newspaper’s website (Jamejam online) shows Iranian Army ground forces moving an Iranian made drone during the “Mohammad Rasoul Allah” military drill in the Oman Sea port city of Bandar Jask in southern Iran.

Reports indicated that tanks, F-4 Phantom and Mirage fighter jets, helicopters, missiles and artillery units were deployed in the war games.

The massive drills are part of boosting military capabilities and combat readiness, said Air Force spokesman Brigadier General Hossein Chitforoush.

“In these drills, Iran is putting to the test and drawing on the experience it gained during the eight-year [Iraqi imposed] war,” the top commander told Iranian news television Press TV on Saturday.

The drills mark the first time Iran has organized military maneuvers so far from its coastline, according to the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper. The exercises reportedly cover 2.2 million square kilometers – stretching from the eastern part of the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, and also include the southeastern provinces of Hormozgan and Sistan-Baluchistan.

 

 

Crude price drop triggers major layoffs in US oil industry

Thousands of recently highly paid workers have been laid off after the oil price plummeted 50 percent in 2014. At least four American oil-producing states are already facing budget problems due to decreasing oil revenues.The price plunge has affected petroleum production in all oil-extracting countries, including the US.

READ MORE: Putin says US and key oil producers may be equally interested in lower oil

Currently cheap fuel is still believed to be providing an overall boost to the US economy, as consumers can spend less on gasoline and more on shopping and services. But for the American energy sector the future looks less bright. It’s effecting places like Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the New York Times reports.

US oil experts recall the 1980s oil price downturn, accompanied by economic disasters around the globe and arguably becoming one of the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union. Some experts are positive and say America’s oil-producing states won’t suffer too much because they “diversified their economies.”

READ MORE: Oil producers to lose $1tn if price below $60 – Goldman Sachs

READ MORE: OPEC decision will keep oil prices low & hit Russia, Iran, US – experts

This doesn’t apply to the state of Alaska. According to the NYT, approximately 90 percent of state’s budget is formed from oil revenues. Alaska’s government is considering a 50 percent capital-spending cut for bridges and roads in the face of the oil price drop, with Moody’s, the credit rating service, lowering Alaska’s credit outlook from stable to negative.

The state of Louisiana’s 2015-16 budget is going to be $1.4 billion short, with 162 state government positions already eliminated and more to be discontinued starting from January. Contracts and projects are being either reduced or frozen in state agencies. According to the state’s chief economist Greg Albrecht, for every $1 fall in price of an annual average barrel of oil, Louisiana loses $12 million.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia braces for $39bn deficit, to cut wages due to low oil prices

For Texas, which has a far larger and more diversified economy than Louisiana, the oil price downturn is no good either. In just October and November Texas lost 2,300 oil and gas jobs, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week. Through the last half a year the state has been losing $83 million in potential revenue every day, the Greater Houston Partnership recently reported. They blamed this on crashing price of its West Texas Intermediate crude oil, which has depreciated to $54.73 per barrel this week, from more than $100 six months ago.

READ MORE: $20 oil wouldn’t force production cut – Saudi oil minister

The situation in other oil-extracting states could be even worse. In a study published last year, the Council on Foreign Relations warned the largest job losses caused by sharp decline in oil prices are going to take place in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming, where the number of drilling rigs is decreasing.

READ MORE: Obama: Keystone XL pipeline does not benefit Americans

The US oil industry has showed 50 percent employment growth since the recession officially ended in mid-2009, giving jobs to over 779,000 people as of October 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported. A total of 10 million jobs have been associated with the US oil and gas industry, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, estimated.

Now according to Tom Runiewicz, a US industry economist at IHS Global Insight, if oil stays around $56 a barrel till the middle of the next year, companies providing services to oil and gas industry could lose 40,000 jobs by the end of 2015, while oil and gas equipment manufacturers could slash up to 6,000 jobs.

READ MORE: Richard Branson: S. Arabia attacking renewable energy with cheaper oil

These workers can earn more than $1,700 a week, much higher than the average $848 a week payment for other workers, the WSJ reported. When experienced workers lose their highly paid jobs, they stop paying their bills.

There are also fears of a house-price slump. Fitch Ratings has already warned that with the price of oil continuing to plummet, home prices in Texas “may be unsustainable.”

 

FBI mishandled evidence throughout United States, report says

FBI agents all over the United States have mishandled, wrongly labeled and even lost evidence pertaining to criminal investigations, a critical internal review has found. The Bureau is even storing more weapons and drugs than it has documented.

According to the internal report, obtained and first reported on by theNew York Times, many of the problems could be traced back to the transition to a computer storage system dubbed Sentinel. When that system went online in 2012, it was meant to make searching through evidence much more efficient – particularly compared to sifting through paper files – but problems with the technology have caused setbacks.

More seriously, however, were issues concerning missing evidence. In fact, some 1,600 pieces of evidence have been signed out for four months or more before they were returned. In one case, a piece of evidence has been out since 2003.

“A majority of the errors identified were due in large part to human error, attributable to a lack of training and program management oversight,” the report reads, as quoted by the Times.

Out of the 41,000 pieces of evidence reviewed by auditors, there were errors with almost half of them. This could potentially have a big impact on future criminal cases, the newspaper reported, since “lawyers can use even minor record-keeping discrepancies to get evidence thrown out of court.”

Already, the FBI is telling prosecutors across the US that defendants might need to know about the errors detailed in the review.

Among these mistakes, the review stated that the FBI was holding on to more weapons than previously believed, as well as two tons of drugs more than records stated.

“The FBI identified issues primarily related to the migration of its earlier record-keeping process to its updated case management system,” said FBI spokesman Michael Kortan to the Times. “The bureau is now strengthening procedures in field offices across the country to improve administrative consistency and record-keeping.”