Britain Halts Flights To Sharm el-Sheikh Amid Fears Russian Jet Was Downed By Bomb

Britain Halts Flights To Sharm el-Sheikh Amid Fears Russian Jet Was Downed By Bomb

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LONDON — Citing concern that a Russian airliner “may well have been brought down by an explosive device,” the British government Wednesday canceled all flights to Britain from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, described the move as a “precautionary measure” while an investigation continued into what caused Metrojet Flight 9268 to apparently break up in midair and crash in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday. All 224 people aboard were killed.

Although analysts initially dismissed claims by an extremist group linked Islamic State that it shot down the plane — the aircraft’s cruising altitude of 31,000 feet is believed to have been out of reach of weapons that Islamic State possesses — the possibility of a bomb aboard the airliner has not been ruled out.

The Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that investigators are beginning to believe the crash was caused by an explosion, although they don’t know if it was triggered by a bomb, a fuel tank failure or some other cause. The report cited an unidentified Egyptian source close to the crash investigation.

Cameron’s spokesman said British aviation experts were en route to Sharm el-Sheikh, where they would evaluate the security arrangements at the airport and decide whether further action was warranted. The assessment was expected to be completed Wednesday evening, raising the possibility that flights from the resort to Britain could resume quite quickly.
Air service from Britain to Sharm el-Sheikh operated as usual Wednesday, and was over by the time that Downing Street issued its announcement.

Within hours of the crash on Saturday, multiple airlines announced that, as a cautionary measure, they would reroute their flights to avoid crossing over the Sinai desert.

The suspension of British flights came a day before Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was scheduled to arrive for a visit to Britain. Cameron called el-Sissi on Tuesday evening, and the two leaders agreed that while “it was important not to pre-judge the investigation,” tightening security measures would be wise, the spokesman said.

Cameron’s office did not indicate whether a specific piece of evidence had triggered the suspension of flights.

Russian officials say the Airbus A321-200, carrying mostly Russian vacationers home to St. Petersburg, broke up in the air 23 minutes after takeoff. But they have refrained from announcing the cause of the crash, citing the ongoing investigation.

Metrojet, the plane’s owner, and Russian authorities have offered conflicting theories of what happened, according to The Associated Press. Metrojet officials have insisted the crash was due to an “external impact,” not a technical malfunction or pilot error. Russian officials have said it’s too early to jump to that conclusion.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted Tuesday as saying there is no evidence that the plane was brought down by an act of terror. He added that it was inappropriate to link the crash to Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, as the Islamic State-linked group did on Saturday. Russia has been bombing Islamic State and other rebel groups seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“Hypothetic insinuations on that score are inappropriate,” Peskov said, according to the official Tass news agency.
Rescue teams in Egypt continued to search the Sinai desert Wednesday for more remains and parts of the plane’s fuselage, AP reported, as grief-stricken families in St. Petersburg faced an agonizing wait to bury their loved ones.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The Metrojet’s Airbus A-321 with registration number EI-ETJ that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, is seen in this picture taken in Antalya, Turkey September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Philipp Piskol

Hungary Begins Closing Its Border To Migrants Crossing From Serbia

Hungary Begins Closing Its Border To Migrants Crossing From Serbia

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LONDON — Hungarian authorities began choking off entry into their country Tuesday in a bid to stanch the enormous flow of refugees and migrants that has threatened to overwhelm even those European countries willing to take them in.

Crossings along the Hungary-Serbia border were closed, and the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency in two southern counties, a move that beefs up the powers of security forces, including the army, to patrol the frontier and crack down on those trying to enter Hungary illegally.

Throngs of migrants just outside the border erupted in noisy protest, shouting their desire to press northward via Hungary to nations such as Germany and Sweden, which have opened their doors to asylum seekers. Hundreds of people have been waiting or camping out in miserable conditions along the frontier to continue journeys that began weeks or even months before from violence-torn homelands such as Syria and Iraq.

But heavy gates, a row of police officers and a barrier of razor wire that now spans much of the nearly 110-mile line between Hungary and Serbia kept back the crowds.

The border shutdown was one of a number of restrictive measures in Hungary that came into effect Tuesday as Europe tries — so far unsuccessfully — to get a grip on its biggest mass influx of people since World War II.

A new law passed by the government in Budapest also makes destroying the barrier and illegally entering the country a serious crime punishable by imprisonment. Authorities reportedly arrested 60 people on suspicion of such offenses Tuesday.

Hungary’s harsh treatment of migrants — virtually none of whom intend to settle in Hungary itself — has drawn criticism from many of its neighbors. Tensions flared with Serbia, which warned that it could not deal with the bottleneck of people trying to enter Hungary.

An estimated 200,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Hungary this year. From there, they have hopped onto trains, paid smugglers to take them on board trucks and even trekked on foot to Austria, their gateway to hoped-for sanctuary in Germany or Scandinavia.

The surge of migrants has bitterly divided the European Union, whose members cannot agree on a response to the crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday called for an emergency summit of the leaders of all 28 nations next week.

Officials in Germany, France and other larger nations have demanded distribution of refugees according to mandatory quotas based on each country’s size and economic strength. But several Central and Eastern European states, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, have rejected the idea, noting that they have no tradition of absorbing outsiders and saying explicitly that they do not want Muslims living among them.

At a contentious meeting Monday, interior ministers from all 28 EU nations could only agree on the resettlement of 40,000 people, an almost absurd figure in light of the fact that Germany by itself has already taken in that many refugees this month alone.

The German government says it’s prepared to accept as many as 800,000 asylum seekers this year, or about 1 percent of its population. A senior official has suggested that the intake could hit 1 million, but Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told German television that the official forecast remained 800,000.

Berlin says it cannot, and should not, shoulder the entire burden alone.

De Maiziere said Tuesday he favored cutting EU funding to member nations that refused to share the task of sheltering those fleeing war and persecution.

Although a majority of Germans support their government’s decision to take in refugees, the sheer speed at which they are arriving has sent officials scrambling to find housing and other resources. Austrian officials, too, warn that they may soon run out of places to accommodate asylum seekers pouring in by the thousands every day.

The influx has prompted Germany and other nations to institute spot checks and other controls at borders, abandoning the free and seamless movement of goods and people across internal borders that is one of the EU’s most cherished principles.

Hungary’s announcement of tightened controls along its border with Serbia appears to have set off a mad dash by many people desperate to cross into Hungary before the measures kicked in Tuesday.

Even if the moves succeed in sealing off Hungary, human rights organizations say that the migrant trail will simply be displaced, with people trying to cross into the EU via Croatia or Slovenia instead of Serbia.

Photo: A Hungarian police officer stands in front of the new wired fence at the Hungarian border crossing of Roeszke, closing all activity, on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Hungarian authorities have closed the temporary small border crossing point in Horgos, Serbia, and directed refugees to no-mans land between Serbian and Hungary. Daniel Leal-Olivas/i-Images/Zuma Press/TNS

Greek Finance Minister Resigns After Anti-Austerity Vote

Greek Finance Minister Resigns After Anti-Austerity Vote

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

ATHENS — Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s flamboyant finance minister, abruptly resigned Monday morning despite a national referendum that delivered a rousing endorsement to his anti-austerity policies just hours earlier.

Varoufakis said on his website that he was stepping down with the encouragement of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who, though a close ally, had judged it “potentially helpful” to talks with Athens’ creditors if Varoufakis were not on the negotiating team.

The outspoken financial minister is a popular figure with many in Greece, and had become a media star with his leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding style and penchant for blunt, unfiltered statements.

But those qualities also poisoned Varoufakis’ relations with the rest of the “Eurogroup,” the club of finance ministers from Eurozone nations, some of whom did not hide their contempt for him. They found his repeated public accusations of “blackmail” and “terrorism” in their negotiations over a bailout package for Greece both arrogant and deeply offensive.

“I was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners,’ for my … ‘absence’ from its meetings,” Varoufakis said on his blog, in a post titled “Minister No More!”

“For this reason I am leaving the Ministry of Finance today,” wrote Varoufakis. “I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.”

Whether his resignation will help jump-start bailout talks between Greece and its European partners remains to be seen. Athens’ demands for less austerity and for some sort of debt relief, which other Eurozone nations have so far spurned, have not changed.

If anything, Tsipras’ government will press even harder on those points, emboldened by the results of Sunday’s referendum. Greek voters endorsed their anti-austerity approach by a resounding margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

Tsipras tapped Varoufakis, an economics professor, as finance minister after the radical-left Syriza party swept to power in elections last January promising to end the harsh austerity cuts that have helped drive the Greek economy into depression over the last five years.

Since those elections, Athens has been unable to reach agreement with its international lenders, most of them fellow Eurozone countries, which continue to demand public spending cuts and tax increases in exchange for billions of dollars in rescue loans.

There were widespread reports in recent months that Tsipras reined in Varoufakis during those negotiations because he had alienated the other Eurozone finance ministers.

The talks broke down completely a little more than a week ago when Tsipras shocked his European partners by saying he would put their latest bailout offer to a national referendum _ and would urge Greeks to vote “no.”

During the weeklong campaign, Varoufakis continued making fiery statements about his European counterparts. He pledged to resign if the “yes” side won.

On Sunday night, after the scale of the “no” victory was evident, Varoufakis said on national television that it was time for Europe to start “to heal its wounds, our wounds.”
Hours later, though, he was out of a job, the voters’ strong endorsement still ringing in his ears.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo via

In Landslide 61 Percent To 39 Percent Vote, Greece Says ‘No’ To Bailout Deal

In Landslide 61 Percent To 39 Percent Vote, Greece Says ‘No’ To Bailout Deal

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

ATHENS, Greece — The resounding rejection of an international bailout deal by voters in Greece raised fears Sunday of the collapse of the country’s banking system, a catastrophic government default, an eventual exit from the euro and potential social unrest.

In a surprising 61 percent to 39 percent result, Greeks said “no” in a referendum on a rescue package that would have kept their debt-ridden country afloat but subjected it to additional austerity measures.

The landslide delivered a sharp rebuke to European Union leaders who had warned that the plebiscite was, in effect, a vote on whether Greece wanted to remain a member of the eurozone, the group of 19 nations with the euro as their common currency.

The EU is now confronted with one of the gravest challenges to its mission of “ever closer union” between member states.

Jubilant crowds of “no” voters thronged Athens’ main square into the early hours of Monday to celebrate what they said was a chance for Greece to reassert itself and achieve a better deal from creditors. Motorists honked their horns, and triumphant chants of “Oxi! Oxi! Oxi!” — “No! No! No!” in Greek — rose in the balmy Mediterranean air.

But there were already signs of a backlash from angry European officials that could make any new bailout agreement even more difficult. If a deal is not struck quickly, Athens could find itself broke, forcing it to default on its debts and triggering a slide out of the Eurozone.

The left-wing government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which campaigned for a “no” victory, had “demolished the last bridge on which Europe and Greece could approach a compromise,” Sigmar Gabriel, the German economy minister, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the leader of the eurozone’s finance ministers, described the poll result as “very regrettable for the future of Greece. For recovery of the Greek economy, difficult measures and reforms are inevitable.”

An emergency summit of eurozone leaders is to be held Tuesday.

More urgently, officials at the European Central Bank are to meet Monday to review the emergency aid that has propped up Greece’s nearly depleted financial system for the last few months.

If the ECB decides to cut off that lifeline or make it costlier, Greek banks are likely to run out of cash within days. Business would grind to a halt, shops could run short of basic supplies and increasingly agitated residents could find it hard to buy fuel and medicine.

Greek banks have been closed since June 29 on order of the government, and customers limited to 60 euros (about $67) a day in ATM withdrawals. Officials insist that the banks will reopen Tuesday, but analysts doubt this can happen unless the ECB maintains or increases its assistance.

“Our immediate priority is the rapid restoration of the functioning of our banking system and the restoration of our economic stability,” Tsipras said in a nationally televised address Sunday night. “I am certain that the ECB fully understands not only the general economic situation but also the humanitarian dimension which the crisis has taken in the country.”

Tsipras also said the referendum result had given him a mandate to press international lenders — mostly other eurozone countries — for a “sustainable” bailout package for the Greek government that would address its staggering debt load and free the country “from the vicious cycle of austerity.”

The Greek economy has contracted by a breathtaking 25 percent since Athens began accepting emergency loans in exchange for brutal spending cuts in 2010. Tsipras’ radical-left Syriza party swept to power in January on an aggressive anti-austerity platform, setting up the current standoff with Greece’s creditors.

Tsipras said Athens was prepared to return to the negotiating table immediately. But with relations at an all-time low, it was unclear whether any of Greece’s European partners would show up and, even if so, whether an agreement could be hashed out before the Greek government runs out of money.

A major debt to the ECB falls due July 20. If Athens fails to pay — as it already did with a loan from the International Monetary Fund last week — and bank coffers are empty, Greece could be forced to introduce a parallel currency and eventually quit the eurozone.

Financial analysts say this is not a threat in the next few days, but warn that the probability of a “Grexit” down the line has increased dramatically because of Sunday’s vote.

Before the ballots were cast, a parade of European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, said they would interpret a win for the “no” side as an expression of Greece’s desire to quit using the euro.

But Tsipras insisted that the vote “did not answer the question ‘in or out of the euro.’ That question must be removed definitively from the discussion.”

Polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Greeks want their country to remain in the eurozone and, by extension, the 28-nation European Union.

Merkel and other European leaders must now ponder whether to let Greece go bust and drop out of the eurozone or whether such a course would inflict irreparable damage to the credibility of the euro and to the project of greater European unity. The Greek debt crisis is the severest test the euro has faced since it was introduced more than a decade ago.
To try to entice his eurozone partners back to the bargaining table, Tsipras is apparently considering shuffling his negotiating team to include a broader spectrum of members. Several European officials have said openly that they no longer trust Tsipras or his Syriza party; a Greek delegation with some members drawn from other parties could be more palatable.

“That will show that Greece does not want a conflict,” said political commentator George Papageorgiou. “If there is a consensual approach from the Greek part, that could facilitate a consensual approach from the other part.”

Dijsselbloem, the eurozone finance ministers’ chief, said the first move was Athens’. “We will now wait for the initiatives of the Greek authorities,” he said.

The size of the victory for the “no” campaign came as a surprise both inside and outside Greece after a flurry of opinion polls showed voters to be split down the middle. Bitter disagreement over the significance and possible impact of the plebiscite cleaved living rooms and workplaces across the country.

Just over 62 percent of the country’s 9.9 million voters cast a ballot, easily surpassing the mandatory threshold of 40 percent for a referendum to be considered valid.

Surveys suggested that young people voted “no” in droves. Many agreed with Tsipras’ contention that the bailout proposals on offer from Greece’s lenders demanded too much austerity on top of years of brutal spending cuts and would hit the poor and elderly disproportionately hard.

“These measures would worsen the situation,” said teacher Paula Andriotaki, 33, after casting her vote in a local school on a bright and warm afternoon. “We try to see light, but we get worse and worse.”

“Yes” supporters had urged Greeks to join them in order to guarantee Athens’ continued place in the eurozone. They said that membership in the wider European Union could also be at risk and that Greece could not afford to be isolated.

A 40-year-old man named Giorgos, who declined to give his surname, blamed Tsipras for passing the buck.

“I would have preferred the referendum not to have happened,” he said. “I believe it is a political alibi. We are being asked to take a decision that should have been taken by someone else.”

The ballot paper was the subject of some criticism, because the question it asked was wordy and couched in jargon and the check box for “no” was above that for “yes.”

Moreover, the bailout deal referred to was technically moot. The offer from Greece’s creditors expired Tuesday night, after talks with Athens collapsed over Tsipras’ surprise decision to call a referendum. Creditors say that negotiations on a new agreement must start from scratch.

Because of the convoluted ballot question, and the conflicting claims of whether the real issue at stake was the future of Greece as a member of the Eurozone, many Greeks complained of confusion over just what was being asked of them.

“I don’t know what result I would like to see,” said a 19-year-old voter named Dimitris, who was still undecided as he prepared to enter a voting booth. “It would be a disaster to leave the euro, but it would also be disastrous to accept more austerity measures. ‘Yes’ is a bad choice, but ‘no’ is also suicidal.”

Sunday’s referendum was Greece’s first in 41 years. In 1974, Greeks were asked to decide whether their country should retain its monarchy.

The answer then: also a resounding “no.”

(Special correspondent Pavlos Zafiropoulos contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: TheLastMinute via Flickr

As Greece Closes Banks, Fear Spreads Of A Eurozone Implosion

As Greece Closes Banks, Fear Spreads Of A Eurozone Implosion

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LONDON — As the Greek debt drama hurtles toward a nail-biting climax, fears are mounting that the outcome could sink not just Greece but the euro and the idea of the European Union itself.

Athens is dangerously close to bankruptcy after days of fruitless negotiations with international lenders over a new bailout package to keep it afloat. A Greek collapse could leave European leaders scrambling to prevent turmoil from spreading to other vulnerable Eurozone countries such as Italy and Portugal.

On Sunday night, Greek officials announced that Greece’s ailing banks would be closed Monday, and perhaps as long as a week, to prevent a further hemorrhage of cash from the financial system, after the pullout of billions of euros by worried depositors in recent weeks. ATM withdrawals could be capped.

The turmoil caused the euro’s value to drop sharply in early trading in Asia on Monday.

In a brief television address — his second in less than 48 hours — Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras assured his compatriots that their savings and pensions were safe. But the extraordinary step, following an emergency Cabinet meeting, sent residents scurrying to join long lines at ATMs, some of which were empty.

Tsipras blamed the situation on Greece’s creditors for refusing to extend his country’s current bailout past its Tuesday deadline — the latest verbal volley in what has become a high-stakes game of chicken between Athens and fellow members of the 19-nation Eurozone.

Without a new funding deal in place, Greece will almost certainly fail to pay the $1.8 billion that is due the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday, becoming the first developed country in history to default on an IMF debt.

That could cause Greece to crash out of the Eurozone, an unprecedented step whose potential consequences have officials and investors on edge.

In such an event, the Greek economy would be thrown into chaos as the government imposed heavy capital controls, rushed to reintroduce the drachma and tried to placate angry citizens and businesses whose savings suddenly plummeted in value.

Finance officials are hopeful that they could contain the fallout and keep borrowing costs for bigger countries such as Spain from rising to unsustainable levels.

But even if they succeeded, the damage to the euro’s credibility as a safe currency — and to the EU’s cherished ideal of “ever closer union” on a continent torn apart by two world wars — could be irreparable.

“The objective of the euro was to deepen economic integration between member states, foster a closer common polity and European identity,” said Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. “It has not done any of those things. It has actually undermined all those things. Forcing Greece out will only exacerbate that damage.”

European leaders are eager to avoid a potential doomsday scenario. President Barack Obama has also weighed in: The White House said the president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call Sunday that “it was critically important to make every effort to return to a path that will allow Greece to resume reforms and growth within the Eurozone.”

But European officials have also expressed exasperation with Tsipras’ government, which abruptly walked out of bailout talks in Brussels on Friday. The two sides have been unable to agree on what Greece must do to raise revenue and cut spending if it wants to continue receiving aid from international lenders.

Tsipras stunned his Eurozone partners by announcing Saturday that he would put their bailout proposals to a public referendum next weekend. Moreover, he and his left-wing Syriza party plan to urge voters to reject those proposals, denouncing them as a recipe for more hardship, especially for the poor and elderly, in an economy decimated by years of forced austerity.

Athens has proposed higher taxes on the wealthy and big corporations instead, but creditors worry that that would hamper growth.

The other 18 Eurozone nations quickly closed ranks, warning that they would not extend Greece’s current bailout package past its expiration Tuesday. That means that Athens could run out of money and tumble into default well before voters even had a chance to cast their ballots in the plebiscite.

In a measure of how much trust has broken down, European officials took the unusual step Sunday of releasing their bailout proposals to show that they had made some concessions and were prepared to address other Greek demands, such as debt relief, when Athens’ negotiators abruptly pulled out.

For his part, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s outspoken finance minister, publicized remarks he made to his Eurozone counterparts at a closed-door meeting Saturday. He complained that the Greek government’s counterproposals were “never taken seriously,” and that “common ground was thus sacrificed in favor of imposing upon our government a humiliating retreat.”

In many ways, Tsipras’ administration is caught in a bind of its own making. He swept to power after elections in January on the strength of campaign promises that many critics warned were irreconcilable.

“They’ve developed a narrative of ‘We can have our cake and eat it. We can be in the Eurozone and end austerity,’ ” said Kevin Featherstone, an expert on Greece at the London School of Economics.

Those goals are essentially mutually exclusive in the present climate. Led by Germany, Greece’s creditors have shown virtually no willingness to deviate from their prescription of heavy public-spending cuts in exchange for bailout funds.

There were a few signs Sunday that Greece’s creditors were trying to coax it back to the bargaining table.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s top economic official, said via Twitter that Greece “should stay in (the) euro. … The door is still open for negotiations.”

But it is unclear whether the Greek government has responded.

(Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A man walks past a graffitti with a EU flag reading in German, “NO” concerning Greece’s referendum on the latest offer of a debt deal by the country’s EU-IMF creditors, in Athens on June 28, 2015. (AFP / Aris Messinis)

European Diplomats Weigh Harsher Sanctions On Russia

European Diplomats Weigh Harsher Sanctions On Russia

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — Europe’s top diplomats huddled behind closed doors Tuesday to try to agree on tougher action against Russia after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a suspected Russian missile.

Consensus on increased sanctions against Moscow could prove elusive given many European countries’ trading ties with Russia and the region’s fragile economy.

Britain is leading the charge for stiffer penalties, saying that Moscow needs to suffer consequences for fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine that resulted in pro-Russian separatists allegedly shooting down the airliner, killing all 298 people aboard.

“This terrible incident happened in the first place because of Russia’s support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, because of the flow of heavy weapons from Russia into eastern Ukraine,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in Brussels, before a meeting of foreign ministers from the European Union’s 28 member states.

“I shall be urging my colleagues and our partners to send a very clear and strong signal to Russia today,” Hammond said, adding: “Everybody wants to see a balanced set of measures as we go forward, but the world has changed” in the last few days.

Other European nations such as Italy and Germany have been reluctant to crack down too harshly on Moscow for fear of damaging their economies or jeopardizing their imports of Russian gas.
Signs of greater cooperation by pro-Russia separatists with the international investigation into the jetliner crash and with the repatriation of victims’ bodies could also sap European will to impose tougher sanctions against Russia.

So far, the EU has issued financial freezes and travel restrictions against dozens of Russian and Crimean political and military officials, but has stopped short of the broader measures that the United States has taken against Russian financial institutions and companies. Washington has urged the EU to show more resolve in sanctioning Russia.

European officials who champion tougher measures say an embargo on sales of military goods to Russia would be a sensible step. But others balk at the idea, including France, which does not want to cancel its $1.6-billion contract to supply two advanced warships to Russia.

“We should’ve had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

The outcome of Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels could hinge on the wishes of the Netherlands, which lost more of its citizens — nearly 200 — on the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight than any other nation. The Dutch government has not indicated exactly what it wants to see done regarding Russia, except to say that “all political, economic, and financial options are on the table.”

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top diplomat, will chair the gathering of foreign ministers and said the Dutch minister would be given the chance to speak first at the meeting.

AFP Photo / Maxim Shipenkov

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Europe May Face Pressure To Impose Tougher Sanctions, Experts Say

Europe May Face Pressure To Impose Tougher Sanctions, Experts Say

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — After being half a step behind the United States for months, Europe is likely to come under heavy pressure to impose stronger sanctions on Moscow if convincing evidence emerges of a Russian link to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner.

Earlier this year, the European Union joined the U.S. in slapping financial and travel restrictions on selected Russian officials and companies after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. But Washington’s sanctions, including new ones unveiled this week, have gone further than those of the EU, which has struggled to maintain a tough line against Moscow because of some member countries’ close trading ties with Russia.

But proof of what some Western officials are alleging — that either pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine or the Russian military itself was involved in the missile strike on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 — would be a potential game-changer. At that point, reluctant European countries such as Italy and Spain would be hard-pressed to argue against adopting more punitive measures against Moscow.

“There’s really been no repercussions so far for Russia apart from the U.S. stepping up sanctions. The urgency will go up significantly for Europe after this event,” said Sarah Lain, an expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank.

If the EU fails to issue a strong response in the face of evidence implicating Russia in the plane crash, “it’ll damage Europe’s reputation internationally, because it’ll come off as completely weak and ineffectual,” Lain said. “At the same time, it’s a very complex issue, because each European country has different economic things at stake in terms of dealing with Russia.”

Italy, for example, enjoys warm relations with Moscow and has resisted imposing stiffer penalties. France has gone ahead with a $1.6 billion deal to sell Russia two advanced warships, an agreement that critics are urging Paris to rethink.

Business leaders in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, have lobbied the German government not to adopt tougher sanctions on Moscow. Some European nations are heavily dependent on Russian gas.

On Friday, several European leaders expressed outrage over the downing of the Malaysian airliner but have so far refrained from blaming Russia outright, calling for a full and independent investigation into the catastrophe.

“We will turn every stone, and if it becomes clear that this was an attack, I will be personally responsible for guaranteeing that the people responsible will be determined. That’s what we owe the innocent victims and their families,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands told reporters at The Hague. The majority of the 298 victims aboard the doomed plane were Dutch.

Rutte said Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured him in a phone call that Moscow backed an international investigation into the crash.

Britain and some Eastern European nations such as Poland have been among the EU’s 28 members pressing for tougher action against Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government in Kiev and pro-Russia separatists.

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, came close to accusing Moscow of complicity in the jetliner crash in a forceful statement at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday.

“This is a dark moment for the international community. The senseless violence unleashed by armed separatists in eastern Ukraine has reached monstrous proportions,” Lyall Grant said.

He noted that pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine had previously “claimed responsibility for, indeed gloated publicly over” having shot down Ukrainian military aircraft in the same area.

“We know that weapons, equipment and logistical support have been systematically provided to armed separatist groups by Russia,” Lyall Grant said. “The United Kingdom urges Russia to reflect carefully on the situation they have created … Let us hear today clear and unequivocal condemnation from Russia of the actions of these armed groups.”

AFP Photo / Dominique Faget

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Dutch Go Into Mourning For Victims Of Malaysia Jet Downing

Dutch Go Into Mourning For Victims Of Malaysia Jet Downing

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — The Netherlands went into national mourning Friday over the scores of Dutch victims in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, which took off from Amsterdam but never reached its destination.

More than half of the 298 people who died were Dutch. The tally reached 173 on Friday, up from the 154 identified earlier.

Flags throughout the Netherlands flew at half staff. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who rushed home from vacation to deal with the crisis, called the crash a deep tragedy for his country and demanded a full investigation.

Other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also pressed for a complete investigation into how the jetliner was struck by a missile Thursday over eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.

The plane was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where many anguished relatives of passengers gathered and received confirmation of the crash. The airport is one of Europe’s busiest.

“It is an absolutely appalling, shocking, horrific incident that has taken place, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of what happened and how this happened,” Cameron said. “If, as seems possible, this was brought down, then those responsible must be held to account, and we must lose no time in doing that.”

For the Netherlands, it’s the worst aviation disaster in years involving Dutch citizens. In 1992, an El Al cargo jet slammed into an apartment building near Schiphol, killing 43 people.

AFP Photo / Dominique Faget

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Britain Arrests Hundreds Of Suspected Pedophiles

Britain Arrests Hundreds Of Suspected Pedophiles

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — In a massive national dragnet, British police have arrested more than 600 suspected pedophiles who allegedly accessed pornographic images of children on the Internet, authorities said Wednesday.

The sweep comes at a time of heightened sensitivity over pedophilia in a country where sensational stories of the sexual abuse of minors regularly headline the tabloids, which some critics accuse of whipping up public hysteria over the issue.

Those arrested include doctors, lawyers, caregivers, and former police officers, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. Of the 660 suspects, 39 were known sex offenders.

The arrests culminated a six-month investigation involving 45 different law-enforcement agencies across Britain. The National Crime Agency, which normally combats organized crime, declined to elaborate how detectives traced the suspects from their online activities but said that all the suspects had used the Internet to look at indecent images of children.

The sting operation comes against a backdrop of several high-profile figures accused of molesting minors in cases that often occurred decades ago.

One extremely popular children’s entertainer on the BBC, the late Jimmy Savile, is now believed to have abused more than 1,000 people, many of them minors, by using his celebrity and his charity work in hospitals to get access to victims. Revelations of the extent of Savile’s misdeeds helped force the resignation in 2012 of the head of the BBC after he was on the job for just a few weeks.

Last month, Rolf Harris, for years a beloved figure on British television, was convicted of sexually assaulting four girls in attacks dating as far back as the 1960s.

Other accused child molesters in recent years have included various TV stars, a member of Parliament, a well-known disc jockey, a pop singer, and a celebrity publicist who is almost as famous as some of his clients. Some have been convicted in court, others exonerated.

All have been caught up in a public furor over pedophilia that at times borders on hysteria.

Spurred by constant coverage of abuse in the tabloids, Britons reserve a special level of odium for pedophiles, with some people calling for the death penalty for offenders, even though the country has not practiced capital punishment for decades. In 2000, a doctor was driven from her home in Wales by vandals who sprayed graffiti on her house after confusing her job title, “pediatrician,” with “pedophile.”

The latest scandal over suspected child molesters reaches into the highest levels of government. Britain’s Home Office has come under fire for having apparently destroyed part or all of a dossier in the 1980s that purportedly detailed a ring of pedophiles in government positions.

The wave of arrests announced Wednesday has already resulted in some charges being brought, ranging from possession of child pornography to sexual assault.

“Some of the people who start by accessing indecent images online go on to abuse children directly,” Phil Gormley, the deputy director of the National Crime Agency, said in a statement. “So the operation is not only about catching people who have already offended. It is about influencing potential offenders before they cross that line.”

Some of the suspects had “unsupervised access” to minors as part of their jobs, the agency said. The sting operation had helped protect 400 children across the country, the agency said.

Photo via WikiCommons

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Former Aide To British Prime Minister To Be Retried On Bribery Charge

Former Aide To British Prime Minister To Be Retried On Bribery Charge

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — A former top aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, already convicted of conspiring to hack into private cellphones, is to be retried on bribery charges, prosecutors said Monday.
Andy Coulson will face a jury again to defend himself from allegations that, as editor of one of Britain’s most notorious tabloids, he and a reporter paid police officers for a phone directory of the royal household. The first jury was unable to agree on a verdict on those charges last week, resulting in a mistrial.

But the panel did find Coulson guilty of conspiring to tap into private cellphone messages. Investigators say that journalists at the News of the World, before and during Coulson’s tenure as editor, hacked into the phones of hundreds of people in order to land scoops and discover details of the private lives of celebrities, politicians, and even crime victims.

Coulson, 46, faces sentencing for that conviction later this week. He could spend up to two years in prison.

He was the only person convicted in a months-long trial of seven people accused of wrongdoing in the phone-hacking scandal. The defendants were variously accused of intercepting voicemail messages, paying public officials for information, and trying to thwart the police investigation into the allegations.

The most prominent of the seven on trial, Rebekah Brooks, Coulson’s predecessor as editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, was acquitted of all charges. Brooks, a close confidante of Murdoch’s, was forced to resign as head of his British newspaper empire when the scandal erupted three years ago upon revelations that the hacking victims included a 13-year-old kidnapped girl.

Coulson’s conviction is a major embarrassment for Cameron, the prime minister, who hired Coulson as his chief spin doctor. Cameron has apologized in Parliament for what he acknowledges was a bad decision, but insists that Coulson misled him about his record as editor of News of the World.

Cameron’s political foes have criticized him for bringing a criminal into the heart of 10 Downing St.

Coulson is to be retried on the bribery charge along with former reporter Clive Goodman, who has already served a prison term for hacking into the cellphones of aides to the royal family.
During the trial, Goodman admitted on the witness stand that he had hacked into the phones of Prince William and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, nearly 200 times.

AFP Photo / Justin Tallis

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Britain’s Phone-Hacking Trial Ends With Just One Conviction

Britain’s Phone-Hacking Trial Ends With Just One Conviction

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — A jury failed to reach a verdict Wednesday on the remaining counts against two defendants in Britain’s phone-hacking trial, bringing to a close one of the longest court proceedings in British history in a case that lifted the lid on the sometimes unsavory nexus of media, celebrity and politics.

Jurors deadlocked on whether former tabloid editor Andy Coulson and reporter Clive Goodman bribed someone on the British royal family’s security detail for a phone directory of the royal household. A judge at London’s Old Bailey courthouse thanked the panel members for their service and dismissed them; a decision on whether to order a retrial is expected Monday.

The hung jury means that the high-profile, eight-month trial ended with just a single conviction among the seven co-defendants variously accused of phone hacking, corruption and obstruction of justice. Coulson, 46, was found guilty Tuesday of conspiracy to commit phone hacking and faces up to two years in prison.

But the political reverberations of that lone conviction continued Wednesday with Prime Minister David Cameron defending himself in Parliament over having hired Coulson as his chief spin doctor.

The onetime editor had already been associated with illegal phone hacking when Cameron brought him into his inner circle; one of Coulson’s reporters was sent to jail in 2007 for illegally intercepting private voicemail messages. But the prime minister said he believed Coulson’s reassurances of having personally done nothing wrong.

“I always said if those assurances turned out to be wrong, I would apologize fully and frankly to this House of Commons, and I do so again today,” Cameron told lawmakers, repeating an apology he made Tuesday after the guilty verdict against Coulson was delivered. “I am sorry. This was the wrong decision.”

Opposition leader Ed Miliband blamed Cameron for an inexcusable lapse in judgment and for “willful negligence” in ignoring warnings from others about Coulson, the former editor of the now-defunct News of the World. Coulson was seen as someone able to help the Oxford-educated, upper-class Cameron connect with the millions of Britons who read the country’s popular scandal sheets.

“When it came to Andy Coulson, he just didn’t want to know the evidence,” Miliband said of Cameron. “The prime minister will always be remembered as being the first-ever occupant of his office who brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street.”

Cameron faced another headache Wednesday when the judge in the phone-hacking trial rebuked him for speaking out about Coulson’s conviction and issuing his first apology the day before. The judge said that those comments might have unfairly swayed jury members before they reassembled Wednesday morning to try to reach agreement on the outstanding charges against Coulson and Goodman.

But there was relief among Cameron’s team that the most prominent of the seven co-defendants, Rebekah Brooks, had been acquitted of all charges against her. Brooks, 46, was head of media baron Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers, which made her one of the country’s most influential figures.

She and her husband, Charlie, who was also acquitted Tuesday, are friends of Cameron and his wife, Samantha. The two couples belong to an upper-crust, powerfully connected social set that goes horseback riding together, owns country homes and throws lavish parties.

Cameron has distanced himself from the Brookses since the phone-hacking scandal erupted three years ago. Public outrage followed revelations that, in 2002, the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail account of a missing teenage girl who was later found slain.

The incident occurred when Rebekah Brooks was the paper’s editor. but she testified in court that she was not aware of it and that she did not know her reporters were engaged in phone hacking on a sweeping scale in their pursuit of sensational scoops. Police say hundreds of actors, politicians, athletes and even crime victims had their cellphones hacked.

Three senior journalists at the News of the World have pleaded guilty to phone hacking and await sentencing.

Asst. Commissioner Cressida Dick of Scotland Yard, which has assigned dozens of officers to the ongoing investigation into phone hacking and bribery by journalists, said that “those found not guilty have been exonerated after a thorough police investigation and a fair trial. It was right that the issues were aired in a court of law.”

She added that the police have been “acutely conscious of the sensitivities of investigating a newspaper and people employed by a newspaper …. This investigation has never been about an attack on press freedom but rather establishing who may have committed criminal offenses.”


Ex-Tabloid Editor Rebekah Brooks Acquitted In Phone-Hacking Trial

Ex-Tabloid Editor Rebekah Brooks Acquitted In Phone-Hacking Trial

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — Former tabloid editor Rebekah Brooks, a close confidante of Rupert Murdoch and once one of Britain’s most influential women, was acquitted Tuesday of phone hacking, corruption and obstruction of justice in a case that shook this country to its core and exposed the uncomfortably close ties between politicians, police and the press.

But Brooks’ former deputy, Andy Coulson, was found guilty of hacking into cellphones and accessing private voicemail messages when he worked at the now-defunct News of the World. Coulson went on to become the top communications aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, who is likely to face uncomfortable questions about his judgment in hiring a man who is now a convicted criminal.

The jury also cleared Brooks’ husband, Charlie Brooks; her former personal assistant, Cheryl Carter; and the director of security at Murdoch’s News International, Mark Hanna, of charges that they tried to cover up wrongdoing and conceal evidence as police launched an investigation into widespread phone hacking.

Authorities believe that the News of the World tapped into the voicemail boxes of hundreds of people, including famous actors, politicians and sports figures. The scandal exploded in July 2011 with revelations that the paper had even accessed messages left on the cellphone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl who was later found killed.

Amid the public revulsion that followed, Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old tabloid, and Brooks, 46, resigned as chief of his British newspapers. The head of Scotland Yard stepped down over accusations of too-cozy relations between police and the media, and a controversial bid by Murdoch to expand his broadcast holdings in Britain sank into oblivion.

Tuesday’s verdicts came after a week of jury deliberation in one of the longest criminal trials in British history. Over seven months, the panel heard from dozens of witnesses, examined thousands of documents and listened to salacious details of the defendants’ personal lives that were worthy of the tabloids under scrutiny.

Besides the Brooks, Carpenter and Hanna, another former senior editor, Stuart Kuttner, was acquitted of phone hacking.

Verdicts are still outstanding on charges against former reporter Clive Goodman, who admitted on the witness stand that he had hacked into the cellphones of Prince William and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, nearly 200 times.

Coulson, too, is still awaiting a verdict on charges that he paid public officials for information.

Photo: JonJon2k8 via Flickr

Pressure Builds Against France’s Ban On Fracking

Pressure Builds Against France’s Ban On Fracking

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

PARIS — Deep beneath the City of Light lies what some believe to be an energy bonanza ripe for harvest.

If the rosy forecasts are correct, France is sitting on one of the biggest deposits of shale gas in Western Europe, enough to supply the country for decades and even some neighboring ones as well. French companies such as energy giant Total already boast the know-how for conducting the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, needed to extract the natural gas.

There’s just one hitch: Fracking is forbidden in France. And the current government has pledged to keep it that way.

French officials side with those who consider fracking dangerous and environmentally damaging because of its deep-bore drilling and use of high-pressured, chemically treated water to blast apart rock to release the gas trapped inside. Backers of the ban say that estimates of French shale gas reserves are wildly optimistic and that the focus should be on reining in fossil fuel consumption, not encouraging it.

But the energy industry warns that France is making a big, and costly, mistake.

At a time when Europe is talking urgently of the need to decrease its reliance on imported gas from a newly muscular Russia, to ignore a possible major source of energy here at home is inexplicable, critics say. The French government has outlawed not just exploitation but even exploration of potential shale gas reserves, making an informed debate on what’s out there and what to do with it impossible, energy executives complain.

“The fact that fracking is banned puts a lid on everything,” said Jean-Louis Schilansky, president of the French Union of Petroleum Industries. “France is at a standstill, which could be, in the long term, a real problem.”

France is the only one of the European Union’s 28 nations besides Bulgaria to ban fracking for shale gas, although some other countries have adopted a cautious wait-and-see attitude. By contrast, across the English Channel, the British government has announced enthusiastically that it is going “all out for shale” and issued numerous permits for prospecting.

This has given rise to what Schilansky calls a “strange state of affairs,” in which French energy companies have invested millions of dollars in other countries such as Britain in pursuit of an activity they’re prohibited from undertaking in their own.

But environmentalists note that popular opinion in France is strongly against fracking — as high as 80 percent. That’s greater than the opposition to nuclear energy, which provides most of France’s electricity.

Both sides of the debate agree that public sentiment has been heavily influenced by the controversial 2010 documentary Gasland, which blamed fracking for polluting groundwater in the United States. The Oscar-nominated film, which famously shows a Pennsylvania man lighting the water from his tap on fire, struck a chord with the French, who cherish their tracts of unspoiled countryside and pride themselves on having given Evian and Perrier to the world.

“The costs are a thousand times worse than the benefits,” said Benoit Hartmann, spokesman for France Nature Environment, an umbrella organization of environmental groups. “In Texas, you do digging, and it’s culturally accepted. But here it’s not like this. People say, ‘It’s our land; it’s our richness.'”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there could be nearly 4 trillion cubic meters of gas, about 80 times France’s current annual consumption of roughly 50 billion cubic meters. Most of the reserves are believed to lie beneath the Paris Basin, in northern France.

But critics say that the figure is little more than a guess since no comprehensive study has been conducted and that, in any case, not all the trapped gas would be extractable. They cite the example of Poland — the only EU country thought to harbor a larger shale gas supply than France — where colossally high estimates have been consistently revised downward. Some energy companies that rushed to lay their hands on prospecting licenses in Poland have begun pulling out in disappointment.

The energy industry argues that France should at least allow an assessment to be performed to lend context to public debate.

“The key is to evaluate how much there is,” Schilansky said. “As long as we’re not doing that, it’s (just) throwing arguments about, like philosophy.”

What’s not in dispute is the fact that, at present, France relies on other countries for almost all its natural gas, importing it from Norway, the Netherlands, and northern Africa.

Though it also receives some from Russia, France is less dependent on Russian supplies than other European countries such as Germany and Italy. That may have fostered a lesser sense of urgency here than elsewhere in Europe of the need to develop domestic sources.

Yet as a leading member of the EU, which has made weaning itself from Russian gas a priority since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, France is under pressure to be part of the solution. An EU energy strategy report released last month emphasized the need to pursue alternative, homegrown sources of gas.

“If we don’t want to be overdependent (on Russia), then we will have to do anything we can to meet our own energy needs,” said Thierry Bros, senior European gas analyst for Societe Generale in Paris. “We have no silver bullet ready to fire today. It’s going to be a very lengthy and possibly costly process.”

Advocates of shale gas say it offers a good transition for countries trying to reduce oil consumption and to increase cleaner fuel sources such as solar and wind, which currently account for a negligible, and usually quite expensive, portion of most nations’ energy supplies. Currently, 75 percent of France’s energy comes from nuclear power — the most of any advanced nation. About 15 percent is derived from renewable sources and the rest from fossil fuels.

Photo: danielfoster437 via Flickr

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Cab Drivers In Europe Protest Against Uber, Other Ride-Share Services

Cab Drivers In Europe Protest Against Uber, Other Ride-Share Services

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — A smartphone app designed to keep people on the go brought parts of Europe to a standstill as cabbies protested Wednesday against what they view as an unfair, unsafe threat to their livelihoods.

Uber, a California-pioneered app that allows users to hail rides from participating drivers at the touch of a button, has run into vociferous opposition on both sides of the Atlantic from taxi companies resentful of the invasion of their patch.

Here in London, drivers of the city’s iconic black cabs vented their anger by converging on Trafalgar Square by the hundreds early Wednesday afternoon. They slowed to a halt, honked their horns and blocked traffic on streets leading to government offices, the Thames and the West End during the busy lunch hour on one of the warmest days of the year so far.

“It’ll decimate the industry,” Grant Davis, 50, who has driven a black cab for more than half his life, said of Uber. “This is the dollar coming from Silicon Valley and saying to our mayor, Boris Johnson: ‘We’re coming in and we’re going to operate private-hire vehicles, and you’re not going to complain about it.’ ”

Similar demonstrations hit Berlin and Madrid. In Paris, arteries feeding into the French capital were choked by taxis that deliberately slowed to a crawl.

At least one European city has already put the brakes on Uber, which began in San Francisco and has quickly spread to other parts of the United States, as well as overseas. In April, a court in Brussels banned Uber from operating there, calling the app unfair competition and ordering a $13,500 fine for Uber drivers for every fare they pick up. A European Union official slammed the ruling as a ridiculous move to “protect a taxi cartel.”

Uber’s opponents say the app offers an inferior, unregulated and potentially dangerous service.

In London, for example, aspiring cabbies are famously tested on their mastery of “the Knowledge” — their familiarity with the city’s crazy web of streets and alleys, popular destinations and shortcuts — and must meet safety and other standards to earn their medallions. Uber’s fleet of freelance chauffeurs won’t be subject to the same level of scrutiny.

“Licensed taxi drivers … go through a rigorous regime to get their license and the right to be publicly hired,” said Mick Bailey, chairman of the London branch of a union representing transport workers. “That licensing has been in place for 300 years” — its roots hark back to horse-and-buggy days — “and we don’t intend to give it up.”

London is home to about 25,000 black cabs; the average cabbie makes about $40,000 a year. Tens of thousands of minicabs, which operate on fixed fares rather than meters, also ply the roads.

Uber insists it’s just one more option on the transportation menu.

The app “offers another choice to customers and for drivers. It increases competition, which is good for all of us,” Jo Bertram, Uber’s general manager in Britain, told the BBC.

Whether Wednesday’s protest will succeed in throwing Uber into reverse in London remains to be seen. Both sides are awaiting a court ruling on whether Uber fixes its fares on a mileage basis that too closely approximates a taxi meter, which only licensed cabs are allowed to use.

In Madrid, about 1,000 cabbies marched down the city’s main thoroughfare, tying up traffic as they rallied in front of a government building.

“I love this job, and I don’t want other people out there to ruin it for us,” declared Maria Eugenia Hernaz, 37. Hernaz said she paid $185,000 for her taxi license — “more than my house.”

“It’s amazing that taxis without insurance or taxes can do this,” she said. “And also the people, how can they feel safe getting into those other cars? I’m sad, very sad.”

Photo via Flickr

Britain Hails Conviction Of Radical Muslim Preacher In Manhattan

Britain Hails Conviction Of Radical Muslim Preacher In Manhattan

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — The British government Tuesday praised the terrorism conviction in New York of a radical Muslim cleric it spent a decade trying to expel to the U.S. for prosecution and vowed to prevent such drawn-out extraditions from happening again.

Abu Hamza al-Masri faces life in prison after being found guilty Monday by a Manhattan jury of 11 terrorism-related counts, including charges stemming from the deaths of four Western tourists kidnapped in Yemen and an attempt to set up a training camp in Oregon for would-be Afghan insurgents.

British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the verdict, which came more than a year and a half after the 56-year-old preacher was sent from London to the United States at the end of a protracted legal battle.

“It’s good that he has faced justice and justice has been done,” Cameron said in a radio interview Tuesday.

But, he added, “we should reflect on whether we can extradite faster … If someone threatens our country, we should be able to deport them if they have no right to be here, and that is absolutely essential that we restore that.”

Born in Egypt as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, al-Masri had been a thorn in the side of British authorities for years before his extradition. He was naturalized as a British citizen but drew widespread condemnation in his adopted country for fiery sermons that lauded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, demanded the death of nonbelievers and called for the stoning of gay people. The North London mosque where he preached became a magnet for Islamic extremists.

In addition to his militant rhetoric, al-Masri was an instantly recognizable figure for his distinctive physical appearance. He has one eye and uses metal hooks in place of his hands, which he testified that he lost in Pakistan in an accident with liquid explosives.

In 2004, the U.S. launched extradition proceedings against him. Two years later, with that process still underway, al-Masri was sent to prison in London for inciting murder and racial hatred.

He appealed to Europe’s highest court to block his extradition across the Atlantic, contending that he would face degrading and inhumane treatment in a so-called supermax prison in Colorado, where many terrorism convicts are serving time. But the court denied his appeal, heading off a diplomatic contretemps between the U.S. and Europe.

“He used every opportunity, over many years, to frustrate and delay the extradition process,” British Home Secretary Theresa May said, adding that she was pleased by al-Masri’s conviction.

Cameron said Britain would look for ways to speed up the appeals process in such cases.

During four days on the witness stand, al-Masri professed his love for Osama bin Laden and wept over the massacre of Muslims during the Balkan wars. His lawyers argued that al-Masri had worked with British authorities to defuse religious tension, not sow it.

The jury took less than a day to find him guilty. It was the second major terrorism-related conviction in a New York federal court in two months.

© / Odd Andersen

Portugal Set To Exit Eurozone Bailout

Portugal Set To Exit Eurozone Bailout

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — Three years after it was forced to seek a humiliating international rescue, Portugal is set to become the latest eurozone country Saturday to exit its bailout program and regain control of its finances amid a halting economic recovery.

At the order of the foreign lenders who granted it a $107 billion rescue package in 2011, Portugal has imposed a series of harsh austerity measures that have boosted unemployment and shrunk its economy. But the government insists that it has succeeded in the drive to get its house back in order and that Portugal’s modest economic growth of the last year heralds a return to health.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is expected to convene a special Cabinet meeting Saturday to mark the end of Lisbon’s dependence on emergency loans and of its submission to outside monitoring of its finances.

Other European leaders are also eager to characterize the event as an important milestone in their struggle to come through the debt crisis that brought the euro currency union to the brink of extinction two years ago and triggered a prolonged recession. Last December, Ireland became the first country to exit its bailout program, followed a month later by Spain, which had borrowed money to shore up its tottering banks.

But analysts say the economic picture remains mixed for Portugal and for Europe as a whole. Disappointing figures released earlier this week showed that the 18-nation eurozone registered growth of just 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014, primarily on the back of a strong performance by powerhouse Germany.

France, the zone’s second-largest economy, was static. After a few promising quarters, Portugal — already Western Europe’s poorest country — slipped back slightly.

And though Lisbon has made strides in slashing its large budget deficit, its pile of debt has swollen to more than twice the level that European rules say it should be.

“This is a highly indebted economy, both on the public and private side. Public-sector debt was at nearly 129 percent of GDP by the end of last year,” said Antonio Garcia Pascual of Barclays Capital Research. “The recovery will be soft. That’s the nature of recoveries with a lot of debt.”

Garcia Pascual cited progress for Portugal’s exports, its competitiveness and its political situation, with Passos Coelho’s government appearing more stable than it was a year ago.

But experts warn Lisbon against relaxing its guard. More reforms are necessary to lower labor costs and make Portugal more competitive, and further spending cutbacks will be hard to avoid to bring the budget deficit down to acceptable levels. Whether the government will persevere with such unpopular measures is unclear, particularly without the prodding of the “troika” of bailout monitors — the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission.

“The troika is on its way out, but the structural crisis is far from being resolved,” Bruno Proenca, executive director of Portugal’s Diario Economico newspaper, wrote Friday. “Economic growth is still anemic and fragile. … Unemployment is very high, triggering a social earthquake.”

AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki

EU Adds 15, Including Key Russia Leaders, To Ukraine Sanctions List

EU Adds 15, Including Key Russia Leaders, To Ukraine Sanctions List

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — The European Union on Tuesday named Russia’s military chief of staff, deputy prime minister and other members of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle as new targets of sanctions in response to the worsening political tumult and security crisis in Ukraine.

Also added to the EU’s blacklist were two deputy chairmen of the parliament in Moscow, the head of military intelligence and pro-Russian separatists accused of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, where militants have seized government buildings, detained official international monitors, threatened journalists and shot a mayor in the back.

Foreign ministers from the EU’s 28 member states had agreed Monday to slap sanctions on 15 more individuals but did not publicly identify them until Tuesday. The move came after the United States also expanded its list of high-profile Russians under sanction.

But unlike the U.S., which has gone after oligarchs and leaders of Russia’s economy, Europe has confined its restrictive measures to political and military figures. The EU relies heavily on Russian energy and trade, and is divided over stronger action against Moscow that might hurt Europe’s own economic prospects.

Still, EU leaders have been alarmed by the escalating breakdown of law and order in eastern Ukraine as well as Russia’s alleged abetting of the destabilizing forces there in defiance of an international agreement, to which Moscow is party, to defuse the tension.

“The downward spiral of violence and intimidation undermines the normal functioning of the legitimate state institutions” in eastern Ukraine, said Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top diplomat. “A number of people have been killed, wounded, tortured or kidnapped in the last few days.”

She called on Russia to abide by the diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva earlier this month to try to restore calm in the region, which includes the disarming of militant groups.

Many analysts say that although Moscow is probably not contemplating a full-scale invasion or annexation of eastern Ukraine, as happened with Crimea in the south, it has an interest in stoking tensions there to keep the Ukrainian government in Kiev off-balance and to maintain influence over its neighbor.

The EU has repeatedly warned that it will move on to broader economic sanctions against Russia if the situation does not improve. But officials have refused to specify exactly what actions on Moscow’s part or developments on the ground in Ukraine would trigger such a step.

Among those placed under sanction Tuesday were Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak; Ludmila Shvetsova and Sergei Neverov, deputy chairs of the Russian parliament who initiated the legislation to annex Crimea; Valery Gerasimov, the military chief of staff, who has overseen the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine; and Igor Sergun, head of Russia’s main intelligence directorate.

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT