Who Knows the way?


In "Obama's 'high horse': IS, the Crusades and moral equivalency"
 <http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-31156153> it is written:

"Perhaps a rational dialogue about religion extremism throughout the course of history is possible - but it's increasingly clear that it's not a conversation this president can start and that this US political environment will tolerate."

Personally, I thought it was obvious when Obama distanced himself from the Rev. Wright over his comment that 9/11 was merely America's chickens coming home to Roost -that there was no way a president could get elected if they faced up to America's problems in an honest way. A  terrible paradox -which must surely be fatal for any person or country that insists on remaining in denial.

So nothing but praise for Obama for finally attempting to take the bull by the horns. Better late than never -and perhaps the only time possible to say such things is on the way out.

However, this is not a purely American problem. The UK has been the American poodle for far too long.

So, surely the exciting question now is: Will the poodle follow its master and admit it has made a terrible mess in the living room -or will the poodle finally tear itself free in order to change itself into an ostrich?

Suddenly the news seems much less boring......

Perhaps "reality" is a powerful anti-dote to politics -which is perhaps why it so seldom plays a role.


Islamic State: Is the US-led coalition working six months on?



Six months ago the US-led coalition launched operations against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq, and later Syria. Its results are at best mixed.

While the progress of the jihadist movement has been halted in Iraq, there is a feeling close to despondency about results across the border.

One senior figure in the US-led coalition told me: "We are not going anywhere in Syria at the moment."

A series of recent setbacks underlines this point. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has quietly withdrawn from strike missions in Syria, with questions emerging about how far any country other than the US is now operating over it.

There have also been revelations about the CIA's failure to develop a reliable proxy force among the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

And the release of a video showing the murder of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh has demonstrated all too clearly that IS has created a safe haven where it can act with impunity.

Earlier this week Lt Gen Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, gave the US Congress an assessment that was regarded by many as surprisingly downbeat.

While some commanders have stated that coalition strikes have stopped IS in its tracks, Gen Stewart said the jihadist movement would this year "continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, while also fighting for territory outside those areas".

It is in Syria in particular that the political complexities and lack of clear objectives make the military's task harder.

Some coalition partners, such as Turkey and the Gulf states, believe nothing can be done until the US strategy embraces the removal of President Assad - but Iraq, central to the current US plan, supports the Syrian regime.

And when US strikes started in Syria last September, fears that IS might be about to enter Baghdad - and the fact that the government there had asked for foreign help - led the coalition to adopt an 'Iraq First' policy.

To date there have been more than 1,250 coalition strikes in Iraq, and many partners have joined in not just the air action, but the effort to retrain and re-equip the Iraqi army so that it can retake the ground lost last summer to the jihadists.

Having Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground has allowed for more effective targeting of strikes in Iraq, and in some places they have indeed won back some territory.

Air attacks have certainly killed many IS foot soldiers, with US Central Command recently assessing the figure at up to 6,000.

Daily reports of a few casualties here or there led one senior US Navy officer I spoke to recently to characterise their progress as working the target "a few bodies at a time".

Privately, though, US officials are downbeat about the chances of the army retaking the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul - as well as other big centres lost to IS last summer - believing the training effort is going on too slowly and Iraqi government forces are lacking in offensive spirit.

The 'Iraq First' idea aimed to deal with an urgent strategic threat - the existence of the state - and sidestepped the fact that formulating a coherent strategy for Syria seemed impossibly hard.

Now the Iraq front has stabilised, coalition disagreements over Syria have been laid bare. Erasing that frontier between the states is, after all, an important part of the jihadists' ideology and operations.

At first sight, the fact that more than 1,000 coalition strikes have been possible in Syria suggests a similar level of effect as in Iraq.

But many of those attacks were in the area of Kobane - the key Kurdish town bordering Turkey - where, effectively, the allies did have a ground force to assist with targeting. It's been much harder elsewhere.

It is also clear that such missions have dried up from countries outside the US-led coalition.

To date, these countries - all Arab - account for around 7% of the sorties that have used their weapons over Syria.

But only eight of the 81 attacks of this kind have taken place in the past month. So, effectively, having started enthusiastically last September, the Arab element of this coalition has almost shut down.

It has emerged this week that a fear of getting crews captured has played a part in this.

The UAE recently stopped bombing because the US would not move its pilot rescue force from Kuwait to a base in northern Iraq, far closer to IS territory.

That would cut down the response time if another jet went down, but it seems US political sensitivities over putting 'combat boots' into a base in northern Iraq have held them back.

A great many of the myriad problems faced by those running this campaign - from picking up downed pilots or mounting special forces raids, to cutting the number of foreign fighters getting to IS or supplying the Syrian opposition - would ease up if Turkey were cooperating more effectively.

Last autumn, the Turkish government effectively stated its condition for giving that help - US military backing in establishing a large buffer zone in northern Syria. This is a step that would place the allies on the path to confrontation with President Assad's government in Damascus.

The idea of tilting the coalition decisively against President Assad cuts to the heart of disagreements among its members.

Some senior military figures in the UK and France believe the US should actually be doing the opposite - recognising that the Syrian army is the most effective ground force in the country, and cooperating with it.

Iraq, and its ally Iran, have backed President Assad, and would be delighted at such a development.

US leaders, though, are not prepared to enter into any kind of formal alliance with President Assad, holding him primarily responsible for the slaughter in Syria's civil war.

They also know that dwindling cooperation from the Gulf Arab states is not just about pilot rescue.

They have received explicit messages - similar to Turkey's - from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, describing President Assad as the root cause of the Syrian situation and saying his removal must be part of the solution.

Faced with this dilemma, US policy makers are looking at some fresh options, the BBC has learned.

One, for a 'buffer zone lite', would exploit Turkish cooperation in order to secure bases in that country, as well as inserting special forces and rebel training camps in northern Syria.

It does not go as far as Turkey's proposal - which envisaged going up to 90 miles into Syria, taking major centres such as Aleppo and Idlib - but it could get their agreement.

"We have a 'strategy' to defeat IS and a 'policy' to deal with [President] Assad," a senior coalition figure told me, highlighting the mismatch between approaches on different sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

Until the White House resolves its stance on the Syrian leader it will be very hard for those tasked to apply its directive to degrade and destroy IS more effectively.

Newsnight is broadcast on BBC Two, weekdays from 22:30 GMT.


Obama's 'high horse': IS, the Crusades and moral equivalency



Behold the perils of invoking moral equivalency - even, or perhaps especially, when some of the events in question are separated by 800 years.

During a speech Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama leavened his condemnation of the Islamic State's recent atrocities with a word of warning to his fellow Christians who wish to conflate the militant group's actions with Islam as a whole.

"Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," the president said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Murderous extremism, he continued, "is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."

The comments prompted an angry reaction - bordering on apoplexy - from many on the right.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the president's comments "banal and offensive" and "adolescent stuff".

"Christianity no longer goes on Crusades," he said on Fox News. "The story of today, of our generation, is the fact that the overwhelming volume of the violence and the barbarism that we are seeing in the world from Nigeria to Paris all the way to Pakistan and even to the Philippines, the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, is coming from one source, and that's from inside Islam."

Others, such as conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, took issue with the president's contention that IS is not reflective of Islam as a whole. "Sharia law is the present day threat to individual and civil liberties all over the world," he said. "Sharia is not a narrow cult. Sharia law is Islam."

But what about the Crusaders? Since they aren't around to stick up for themselves, Powerline Blog's John Hinderaker comes to their defence.

"There was nothing wrong, in principle, with the Crusades," he writes. "They were an appropriate (if belated and badly managed) response to the conquest of the Holy Land by Islam. Did marauding 11th century armies inevitably commit outrages? They certainly did. In fact, that still happens today. But the most unfortunate thing about the Crusades is that they failed."

He goes on to note that the body count from the Inquisition "would hardly make a good week's work for Boko Haram or IS" and that the anti-slavery movement in the US had a decidedly religious bent.

"Slavery might well be widespread today if it were not for Christianity," he says.

The National Review's Jonah Goldberg builds on this theme.

"There's a very important point to make here that transcends the scoring of easy, albeit deserved, points against Obama's approach to Islamic extremism (which he will not call Islamic)," he writes. "Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man."

It's difficult - almost impossible - to believe the president and his staff didn't anticipate the reaction his words would generate. The question, then, is why he picked this particular fight.

The president could just be poking the right-wing bear, says the Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier. More likely, he continues, he's trying to counter the view - held by Limbaugh and others - that the US is at war with Islam as a whole.

Instead, Grier says, the president - like George W Bush before him - wants to frame the conflict in terms of a fight against "individuals who use distorted versions of faith as a weapon".

But perhaps there's more than just the religious component at play here. As Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post points out, Thursday's speech is in keeping with Mr Obama's penchant for challenging what he sees as the US public's lack of self-reflection when it comes to their past sins and their place in the world.

"Obama's remarks spoke to his unsparing, sometimes controversial, view of the United States - where triumphalism is often overshadowed by a harsh assessment of where Americans must try harder to live up to their own self-image," she writes. "Only by admitting these shortcomings, he has argued, can we fix problems and move beyond them."

Chauncey DeVega, posting on the Daily Kos, goes even farther, drawing a direct comparison between IS's murder of Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh and the gruesome "spectacular lynchings" of the late 19th Century, which involved hanging, and burning, blacks accused of crimes.

"We cannot overlook how the United States has conducted master classes in violence and barbarism both before, during and since its founding … and yes, much of this violence was against people of colour whose labour, lives, land and freedom were stolen to create American empire," he writes.

Perhaps a rational dialogue about religion extremism throughout the course of history is possible - but it's increasingly clear that it's not a conversation this president can start and that this US political environment will tolerate.


Why Argentines mourned the death of a hateful fictional character



She was rude, fascist and utterly implacable, and yet her "death" stormed social media in Argentina.

Dr Alcira Pignata, a 64-year-old who on her profile looked incredibly similar to former US General Attorney Janet Reno - she always assured followers that it was her actual picture - announced her "death" after listening President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on national TV.

"That's it, I let myself die. I close the account. It is over. They win," was her final tweet.

Thousands tweeted her back, begging her not to "die". Many couldn't believe the news, while others decided sarcasm was the best answer. "Hashtags at half-staff if Pignata's death is confirmed," joked cartoonist Bernardo Erlich on his twitter account.

Dr Pignata was a fictional Twitter character created by an anonymous person in 2010 and over the years Argentineans have grown quite fond of her - she had more than 186,000 followers. Right-wingers liked her frank talk, and left-wingers liked to laugh at an exaggeration of an extreme conservative.

"The biggest banknote in our country is worth US$10. We are Mozambique," Dr Pignata tweeted. "It took three days to realise that there was another door into Nisman's apartment. We deserve a thousand years of Kirchnerism," she recently commented after the announcement of the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

Pignata fought tirelessly for the return of a dictatorship and she constantly railed against gays, Muslims, black people and liberals, not to mention Peronism, the working-class political movement based on the legacy of former president Juan Domingo Peron.

She tapped into a frustration with politicians and for many, she became an unofficial opposition after presidential speeches. "Where is Dr Pignata? There is a public broadcast and I need her tweets to stand it," one fan wrote.

"She represents the stereotype of a vast group of Argentineans," said Ingrid Beck, editor of satire magazine Barcelona. "She is the wealthy fascist that mistreats people. We laugh a lot, but many of the things she says you can hear in real life from elderly upper-class women."

Is it really comedy? "I'd rather take her as parody than as a statement, otherwise I would not laugh," Beck said.

"There is a story behind her - a script, with episodes delivered on Twitter," Beck added. "I'm sure she'll come back, this is just another chapter."

Blog by Gabriela Torres


Venezuela Maduro: State seizes supermarket chain


The Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, has ordered the takeover of a private supermarket chain by the state food agency.

Speaking on television, he accused Dia a Dia of hoarding food during huge shortages in the country.

This week, soldiers and government workers were sent to branches of a large supermarket and pharmacy chain to supervise sales.

Venezuela has been in economic crisis after the drop in oil prices.

Analysts say currency controls that restrict the availability of dollars for imports has played a key role in creating the scarcity of many items.

Directors and executives from both Dia a Dia and pharmacy chain Farmatodo were arrested on charges of destabilising the economy.

Speaking on television, President Maduro did not say that the takeover of the Dia a Dia chain would be permanent.

He said the chain "was waging war against the population" and the national food distribution agency would take over its running.

Mr Maduro has said many businessmen are conducting an "economic war", colluding with the political opposition to oust his government.

In late January, thousands of Venezuelans joined an opposition march in Caracas.

They voiced dissatisfaction with high inflation, crime and the shortage of many staple goods.


PwC promoted tax avoidance 'on industrial scale', say MPs


Accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has been accused of promoting tax avoidance "on an industrial scale", in a report by MPs.

It is said to have helped hundreds of clients cut their corporation tax bills by setting up bases in Luxembourg.

Earlier this week the Archbishop of Canterbury said companies should pay tax wherever they earned their profits.

PwC said it disagreed with the Public Accounts Committee report but added that the tax system was "too complex".

The report was based on an evidence session held in December, at which PwC gave evidence.

"We believe that PricewaterhouseCoopers's activities represent nothing short of the promotion of tax avoidance on an industrial scale," said Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

She said PwC had written more than 500 letters to the tax authorities in Luxembourg, on behalf of more than 300 international clients.

The tax avoidance schemes, which are legal, involve companies diverting profits to tax havens like Luxembourg via a series of loans between different parts of the business.

The profits are eventually taxed in that country, but often at tiny rates.

'Positive role'

Shire Pharmaceuticals - based in Basingstoke - was one company said by the MPs to have diverted profits to Luxembourg.

It paid just 0.0156% of its profits to the local tax authority, they said.

The main rate of corporation tax in the UK is 21%.

However Shire said it always complied with tax obligations in the jurisdictions in which it operates.

The MPs also accused PwC of misleading the committee at an earlier hearing.

"We consider that the evidence that PwC provided to us in January 2013 was misleading, in particular its assertions that 'we are not in the business of selling schemes', and 'we do not mass-market tax products, we do not produce tax products, we do not promote tax products'," said Ms Hodge.

In its defence, PwC said: "We stand by the evidence we gave the Public Accounts Committee and disagree with its conclusions about the work we do.

"But we recognise we need to do more to explain the positive role we play in the tax system and in helping businesses to operate successfully.

"We agree the tax system is too complex, as governments compete for investment and tax revenues.

"We take our responsibility to build trust in the tax system seriously and will continue to support reform."

Diverted Profit Tax

The PAC said it was now down to HM Customs and Revenue (HMRC) to challenge the advice given to multinational companies by accountancy firms.

Earlier this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the BBC there needed to be simplification of an "unbelievably complex tax system internationally."

"If you earn the money in a particular country, the revenue service of that country needs to get a fair share," he said.

The European Commission is currently investigating the internet giant Amazon, over its agreements with the Luxembourg tax authorities.

The UK government is also in the process of introducing the Diverted Profit Tax, announced by the chancellor, George Osborne in the Autumn Statement.

The tax aims to counter the use of "aggressive tax planning techniques" to divert profits from the UK to low tax jurisdictions.

Profits made after 1 April 2015, and diverted to other countries, will be taxed at 25%.


NHS reorganisation was disastrous, says King's Fund



Radical changes to the way the NHS in England is organised have been "disastrous" and "distracted" from patient care, leading analysts say.

The evaluation by the King's Fund think tank says the coalition government's changes had wasted three years, failed patients, caused financial distress and left a strategic vacuum.

Labour has called for a personal apology from David Cameron.

But Labour itself is accused of "crying wolf" over privatisation.

The government said the report showed its plans for the future were right.

The behind-the-scenes changes may not have been immediately apparent to patients in GP surgeries.

But they were described by NHS leaders as "so big you could see them from space".

The changes, which came into force in 2013, abolished large numbers of NHS organisations.

Purse strings

The aim was to shift the balance of power in the NHS to give GPs more say over the way budgets were spent.

It provoked uproar in sections of the medical profession, in part over the role of potential privatisation of some services.

King's Fund chief executive Chris Ham told the BBC: "People in the NHS focused on rearranging the deckchairs rather than the core business of improving patient care.

"That's contributed to the increasing waiting times and declining performance that patients are experiencing."

He described the reforms as simply "disastrous" and said that only in the past two years had the government got its focus right.

However Andrew Lansley, who was the health secretary behind the changes, said patient care had been improved, and patients "will continue to see the results" of the reforms.


During the reorganisation, all 151 primary care trusts - which provided services such as hospitals, dentists and opticians - and the 10 regional strategic health authorities were abolished.

New bodies called clinical commissioning groups were set up locally.

The report says: "A set of policies designed to streamline and simplify the organisation of the NHS ended up having the opposite effect."

It adds that the system is "bewildering in its complexity" and has left a "strategic vacuum" in some areas.

The King's Fund says that in the past two years, the focus has rightly shifted to improving patient safety and quality of care as well as treating more people at home rather than in hospital.

In a warning ahead of the election campaign the report said: "If there is one clear message from the experience of the past five years, it is that politicians of all parties should be wary of ever again embarking on top-down restructuring of the NHS."

There was also criticism of Labour, who, the King's Fund says, is "crying wolf" with "ill-founded" claims about the NHS being privatised.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "So now we know that every time patients wait longer for their test results, longer in A&E, longer to get an operation, the responsibility goes direct to David Cameron's door.

"And today he should personally apologise to the British people for having betrayed their trust, let them down and damaged our National Health Service."

A spokesman for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: "We welcome the King's Fund's recognition that the government's focus on patient safety and integrated care is right for the NHS's future.

"This independent assessment also puts paid to Ed Miliband's myth that the reforms were about privatisation, and highlights why both the public and the health sector should be wary of Labour's plans for upheaval and reorganisation."


Dr Mark Porter, head of the British Medical Association (BMA) said the changes were "opposed by patients, the public and NHS staff, but politicians pushed through the changes regardless".

He added: "This report highlights the damage that has been done to the health service and the major shortcomings of the Act, which distracted attention from rising pressure on services and cost billions to introduce.

"The damage done to the NHS has been profound and intense, but what is needed now is an honest and frank debate over how we can put right what has gone wrong without the need for another unnecessary and costly top-down reorganisation."

But Mr Lansley said: "The report is silent on the question of whether patient care has been improved, on which the evidence is clear.

"The NHS is now judged to be the best health service in the world. The number of administrators has fallen, doctors and nurses have risen, productivity has gone up, and waste has been cut by over £5bn a year.

"Public sector reform has never been a popularity contest, but these reforms will last."


Turkish FM quits Munich summit over Israeli presence


Turkey's foreign minister has withdrawn from a security conference in Munich after Israeli officials were invited.

Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters he had pulled out after an Israeli delegation was asked to attend a session on the Middle East at the last minute.

He said his decision was not linked to Turkey's relationship with Germany.

Ties between Israel and Turkey have been strained since a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish ship trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza.

Nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists were killed in clashes with Israeli commandos, who boarded the Mavi Marmara when the ship, which was leading a convoy carrying aid, refused to stop.

Israel has maintained a naval blockade of Gaza since 2007, part of what it says are necessary security measures against the militant Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking at a news conference in Berlin, Mr Cavusoglu said a collective decision had been taken to withdraw from the joint session.

"I was going to participate in the conference but we decided not to after they included the Israeli representatives in the Middle East session," he told reporters.


Relations between the Israeli and Turkish governments have been particularly fraught since the deadly raid on 31 May 2010.

Israeli soldiers boarded the Mavi Marmara, which was leading a flotilla containing five other vessels, in international waters, around 130km (80 miles) from Israel's coast. . Clashes ensued, leaving nine activists dead and 10 soldiers injured.

The then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel had committed a "bloody massacre" and withdrew his country's ambassador.

In 2009, Mr Erdogan stormed off the stage during a debate with then Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Last year, Mr Erdogan, now the Turkish president, said relations between the two countries would not improve as long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained in power.

While diplomatic ties between the two governments remain difficult, trade between Israel and Turkey has risen by almost 50% since 2009, and was worth more than $5.6bn (€4.9bn, £3.7bn) in 2014 according to official Turkish government figures.

Last July, Ehud Cohen, head of foreign trade at the Israeli economy ministry, said that trade between the two countries was "growing steadily", and that his government "aims to increase exports to Turkey and encourage Turkish investment in Israel."


The new Palestinian city that lacks only one thing


A Palestinian millionaire has built a totally new city from scratch in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, complete with a Roman amphitheatre and football stadium. But one thing is stopping people moving in - there's no water.

You know what they say about property: "Location, location, location."

What about building in the midst of one of the world's most intractable conflicts?

"It's the biggest ever project in Palestinian history," exclaims American-Palestinian multi-millionaire Bashar Masri, the driving force behind a new Palestinian city in the hills of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"There's nothing even close to this, not even half this," Masri enthuses. We're walking across what will be a grand Roman amphitheatre in the foothills of a jagged skyline of apartment blocks that, one day, 25,000 people may call home. There's also the promise of cinemas and shops, parks and playing fields, to complete the kind of middle class dream you'd see in a property development anywhere.

But build on controversial land, and controversy comes with the price.

Palestinian critics accuse him of "normalising the occupation", of making deals with Israel for private profit. Jewish settlers on nearby hills watch and worry as Rawabi rises from the ground.

"I am defying the occupation," insists the well-dressed and well-spoken Masri, who comes from an extended Palestinian family known for its financial success and political savvy.

His risk-taking real estate is a microcosm of the tumultuous process of Israel-Palestinian peace-making and the web of complex relationships in the occupied territories.

Over the past turbulent year, which has included the collapse of the peace process and eruption of another war, we have followed the fate of this audacious project.

Could this billion-dollar gamble possibly succeed?

"I can just see everything, in my mind, complete," Masri tells us on our first visit to Rawabi, in the spring of last year. A slim man in his fifties, he strides confidently across paving stones strewn with coils of wire and piles of stone.

"I see people here in the restaurants, I see people in the homes…" His voice trails off as he gazes across the dusty terrain which now consumes most of his time and a lot of his money.

Cranes draped with Palestinian flags soar above the concrete shells of homes, and trucks rumble past laden with cement.

By early 2014, more than 600 families have bought into his dream. Ayman and Suhad Ibrahim are among the first to visit a gleaming showroom set on a manicured lawn dotted with slender trees and graceful sculptures.

Like many Palestinian professionals, the Ibrahims are now living about 6 miles (10km) away in the city of Ramallah, which they describe as a crowded jumble with no outdoor space for their three children to play.

Rawabi promises gardens, trees, and quiet. Their plans are taking shape - a Bedouin-themed corner in the living room; pink and blue shades in the children's bedrooms.

And Rawabi is about more than a nice home.

"It's the first step to building a small model for a Palestinian state," says Suhad.

"It's creating a truth on the ground," Ayman explains. "First of all we want peace, we want to build our future. We have the ability, and it's our land."

Masri leads us up an empty stairwell to inspect one of the finished showroom apartments. It's light and contemporary, with gleaming kitchens complete with fridge magnets from Paris, as well as stylish sofas, and a whiff of scented candles.

But the view from the windows of a modern oasis of calm is the age-old conflict of this neighbourhood.

Step on to the balcony and the hills are also alive with blue and white Israeli flags billowing on the next hilltop in the Jewish settlement of Ateret.

"We're not promising people here heaven, we're not promising anything less than we are still under occupation," insists Masri.

In a nod to his Palestinian critics, he adds: "This is not normalising and accepting the occupation and looking the other way."

For their part, the 800 Jewish settlers living in Ateret can see the line of Palestinian flags that flutter on the hills of Rawabi, including a giant one measuring 1,450 sq ft.

In the spring of 2014, we find Ateret residents suspicious, but already resigned to the new city's existence.

Families like Chanan and Avigail Damri express satisfaction that Palestinians will be able to live in a nice place, but they worry about what it means for traffic and security. Their kids travel to school by armoured bus, and there is frequent stone-throwing on the roads.

The Damris are softly spoken with a strong political message. "This state is our state. The Jewish nation needs a home so much. We need to always remember that it's our land and we are the landlords," explains Avigail as their young boys play games on the floor in their modest bungalow.

Like Israel's government, they reject the claim that settlements are illegal under international law.

If negotiations ever lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, settlements like Ateret are likely to fall within that state.

The Damris don't believe that will happen any time soon but suspect Rawabi is an effort to move toward it. "We can't let that happen," says Chanan.

From the nearby hill, Masri is equally defiant. "It's our land they're sitting on. I am 100% confident that [Ateret] will be a suburb of Rawabi one day - it's just a question of when."

He baulks at comparisons between Rawabi and Israeli settlements, but concedes his strategy is similar: building on the hilltops, creating Palestinian "facts on the ground". "If we did this 10 years ago, we wouldn't have seen the settlement boom that we saw today."

To build here, Masri has needed co-operation from Israeli officials every step of the way since plans first surfaced on paper seven years ago - even on where to build the city, and a temporary access road.

Rawabi is being built in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but access to a permanent road and a fixed pipeline goes through an area which an interim peace accord placed under Israeli jurisdiction.

About 60% of the West Bank, including settlements and their access roads, as well as military bases, is under direct Israeli administration.

"What did you want me to do, stop living?" Masri demands rhetorically, in response to his critics. "The water most Palestinians drink is from Israel, so is our electricity."

But a Palestinian activist we meet close to a nearby Israeli checkpoint, on a day when the death of a 21-year-old Palestinian has led to the eruption of clashes between soldiers and protesters, says Rawabi is "just a way for [Masri] to expand his wealth".

"That's not resistance," he adds.

Asked about Palestinians who want a better standard of living, he retorts: "Which nice life are they talking about? The way to Rawabi is full of checkpoints. The Israelis can block the road and prevent anyone from reaching the city. "

Masri's critics also accuse him of building for a privileged elite. A typical apartment in Rawabi costs $95,000 (£62,000) which is cheaper than in Ramallah, but well above what many Palestinians can afford. There's also a chronic shortage of affordable housing in the West Bank.

Masri insists Rawabi isn't just for the rich. He says the cost of apartments is within reach for many middle-class Palestinians. But he also blames the Palestinian Authority for not helping him finance low-income housing.

Masri is funding the $1bn project from his own considerable fortune, as well as with hundreds of millions from the real estate arm of the Qatar Investment Authority. The wealthy Gulf state has become a powerful player across the Middle East. Masri concedes that their backing is politically as well as commercially motivated, and, admits they requested a very big mosque.

Over the past year, we've seen how Rawabi is slowly but surely taking shape. The project's first phase is now almost complete, and nearly ready for residents to move in.

But, at this late stage, the politics of property has thrown up another major hurdle - Rawabi doesn't have water.

All new water infrastructure larger than a pipe 2in (5cm) in diameter has to be approved by the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee. But the JWC hasn't met for years.

Construction teams are using a village well but this new city needs a fixed pipeline.

There was a glimmer of hope when moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks finally resumed in the summer of 2013, under concerted international pressure and constant US mediation.

But, by early 2014, talks broke down.

And then came a summer of discontent: a wave of kidnapping and killings in the West Bank; a war in Gaza and rockets fired into Israel; rising political recrimination.

When we return to Rawabi at the end of 2014, even Masri's trademark optimism is beginning to falter.

"We are reaching a point where we are seeing a lot of the buyers raising questions. The word on the street is that we are in financial trouble. Well guess what, we are in financial trouble."

Despite repeated promises from Israel that water will be provided "in a few weeks", the JWC still hasn't met. And both Israeli and Palestinian officials are dragging their feet.

Masri suspects he's become a bargaining chip - that Israel will only agree to Rawabi's water if the Palestinians retrospectively approve water that's already installed in Jewish settlements.

That's a deal the Palestinians won't do.

Col Grisha Yakubovich of the military body which administers Israel's occupation in the West Bank, COGAT, is adamant that "there are no conditions". "Water will come in days, or weeks," he tells us.

Other sources corroborate the quid pro quo arrangement, including Middle-East envoy Tony Blair.

At his offices in east Jerusalem, Blair says the Palestinians have a point in refusing to agree to the water supplies provided for the Jewish settlements, whose existence are a key plank in negotiations.

"When there's an absence of a political process, what happens is that everything else becomes a casualty of that paralysis. There was a period of time when this went through the Joint Water Committee in a very non-political way," he says.

He's raised the water issue with Israeli officials. "Even President Obama has raised it," he adds, his voice rising with exasperation.

That's because a lot more than one big building project rests on the fate of Rawabi.

"It's going to be a lot tougher for us to bring in investment from people outside of Palestine if one of the leading Palestinian businessmen can't get his project to go ahead inside what would undoubtedly be a Palestinian state," Blair explains. He's responsible for overseeing a $4bn economic plan for Palestinian areas, announced last year as an effort to bolster a beleaguered peace process.

As Rawabi's water remains hostage to politics, its would-be residents are losing hope.

Some, including the Ibrahims, have pulled out. They tell us, over the telephone, that they still believe passionately in this project. But they need somewhere to live.

Israeli officials insist Rawabi will not fail. "Rawabi is supported by Israel," says COGAT's Grisha Yakubovich. "We want to see happy people at the end."

In this crisis, many Palestinians see another troubling omen.

"If Rawabi fails, it's a failure for the two-state solution. It's a failure for the peace process", argues Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

On our last visit to Rawabi, Masri leads us on to the majestic stage of his Roman amphitheatre, waving his arms with a flourish of pride to show an inviting stadium which is nearly complete. The honey-coloured columns, which lay in the dust on our first visit, now stand tall, framing the hills all around us.

"I would love to see [a peace deal] in a year's time, I would love to see it in my lifetime, I want to enjoy it. But if it doesn't happen in my lifetime, so be it, we will keep on working for it."

Does he regret building Rawabi?

"Not a single moment. Never ever."


Ukraine crisis: Russia tests new weapons


Eastern Ukraine has become a testing ground for Russia's new military capabilities.

When Russia last went to war, in Georgia in 2008, it looked like an easy victory. But Russia's generals were deeply concerned at how badly their forces performed in some key areas of modern warfare.

Russia has spent the seven years since then rearming, re-equipping, and retraining, in order to deal with those deficiencies, and to try to close the capability gap with modern Western armies.

Now the results can be seen in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have gained ground against Ukrainian government troops.

Hi-tech electronics

Ukraine's army has not gone through the same intensive modernisation process, and is suffering the effects, facing the newer weapons and systems supplied by Russia.

Two key examples are the use of UAVs (drones) for surveillance and targeting, and the use of electronic warfare.

Both technologies were identified as areas of weakness in the Russian forces in 2008, and both have been intensively developed since. Now, they are in widespread use in eastern Ukraine, placing Ukrainian government forces at a strong disadvantage.

Ukrainian forces are short of secure communications systems. The result is that their communications are both subject to jamming, and often also show their location to Russian direction-finding equipment. This can lead to being swiftly targeted by Russian artillery, including Grad and other, more powerful, rocket systems.

As part of the non-lethal aid provided by the US, Ukraine has received special radar to try to pinpoint the source of incoming mortar fire. But their use is limited by the difficulty in communicating the results to other forces.

And, for the time being, Ukraine has not received the more sophisticated systems that would pinpoint the source of fire from longer-range artillery systems.

Tanks and missiles

Ukrainian forces are also outclassed by the tanks arriving from Russia. Not only are these more modern than Ukrainian models, but Ukraine is also short of effective anti-armour weapons in working order.

All of these systems, plus medical support and field hospital equipment, are on the list of Ukrainian requests for support, to increase the survivability of their forces when confronting new Russian military equipment.

Losses of Ukrainian aircraft over the conflict zone show how well-equipped the Russian-backed separatists are for air defence. This includes not just the Buk missile system - blamed for downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 - but also others like Strela for use at lower altitudes and shorter ranges, and a wide range of lighter, shoulder-launched missiles.

Independent experts, as well as Nato, Western leaders and the Kiev government, say there is clear evidence of direct Russian military involvement, despite Russian denials.

As part of its military transformation process, Russia has been practising for conflict with an intensive programme of exercises and manoeuvres, involving tens of thousands of servicemen across the country.

These exercises have been increasing in size and complexity, and often have a storyline which is directly hostile to the West.

Now, in addition, Russia has the benefit of a live testing ground in eastern Ukraine, where it can try out its new weapons, systems and tactics. The results - especially if all of these are tested against any potential new US defensive systems supplied to Ukraine - will help Russia assess how its forces would fare in a direct confrontation with Nato.

Keir Giles is an analyst with the Conflict Studies Research Centre in Oxford, and an Associate Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House in London.


Julian Assange: Costs of policing Wikileaks founder reach £10m


Scotland Yard has spent about £10m providing a 24-hour guard at the Ecuadorean embassy in London since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange claimed asylum there, figures show.

Mr Assange, who denies allegations he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden, faces arrest if he leaves the embassy.

A Wikileaks spokesman said the policing costs were "embarrassing".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Mr Assange should go to Sweden and "face justice".

Between June 2012 and October 2014, direct policing costs were £7.3m, with £1.8m spent on overtime, police said.

Scotland Yard confirmed the cost of the operation to UK taxpayers in the first 28 months, until 31 October last year, had reached £9m.

The Metropolitan Police said the costs were covered by the budget for diplomatic protection, which provides policing for embassies in the UK.

'Indefinite detention'

The cost of a further three months policing is now expected to have taken the total bill to about £10m.

The figures - which equate to more than £10,000 a day - were obtained by LBC radio under the Freedom of Information Act.

"It is embarrassing to see the UK government spending more on surveillance and detaining an uncharged political refugee than on its investigation into the Iraq war, which killed hundreds of thousands," WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said.

Speaking on the "Call Clegg" show on LBC radio on Thursday, Nick Clegg said it was a "frustrating" situation, both for the British taxpayer and the Swedish government.

"[Sweden] is a country of impeccable democratic credentials with a well-respected judicial system that says [Julian Assange] should go to Sweden to face very serious allegations and charges of potential rape," he said.

"Of course the right thing for him to do is to do that, is to face justice."

Mr Assange has attacked Sweden, saying the country had "imported Guantanamo's most shameful legal practice - indefinite detention without charge."

In August last year, Mr Assange indicated he would "soon" leave the embassy, where he has now been for more than 950 days, but he remains inside.

Swedish authorities want to question Mr Assange over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women while he was in Stockholm to give a lecture in 2010.

A Swedish appeal court upheld an arrest warrant against Mr Assange in November last year.

UK courts have repeatedly ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning.

But Mr Assange fears he could be extradited to the US to face charges over the release of top-secret documents by Wikileaks.

He entered the embassy after the UK's Supreme Court dismissed his bid to reopen his appeal against extradition.

He was then granted asylum by Ecuador in August 2012

He has been warned he will be arrested if he leaves the embassy, prompting the 24-hour guard by Metropolitan Police officers.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was committed to reaching a diplomatic solution.

"We are clear that our laws must be followed and Mr Assange should be extradited to Sweden. As ever we look to Ecuador to help bring this difficult, and costly, situation to an end," a spokesman said.


Non-EU migrants cross Hungary's 'wide open' border



They come in dribs and drabs, in small groups and large, at all hours of the day and night, but especially at dawn and dusk.

They are among the growing number of illegal migrants crossing from Serbia into Hungary.

Hungarian police registered 10,000 people illegally going over the border in January alone. Police sources say privately that they only find about 20% per cent - the others just disappear through the woods on their way to Austria and Germany.

In Asotthalom, the border village in Hungary where most cross, the migrants trudge through the woodlands.

They ford the border ditch with tree trunks, don't like to be photographed, and are reluctant to talk to reporters. At best you can walk along beside them, in search of someone who speaks a few words of English.

Many carry small children. All are pale and determined. "Germania" they mutter, when you ask where they are going. Or "Deutschland".

Almost all are Kosovo Albanians, in their 20s and 30s, but there are also many small children, some only a few weeks old.

They remind me of the hundreds and thousands of their compatriots who fled through the snows of the Dinaric Alps into Albania in the winter of 1998-9. Then they were fleeing the Serbian military. Now they are trying to escape what they call the economic catastrophe of their own country. They also tell the names of the towns they left behind: Mitrovica, Peje, Vushtrri, Gjilan.

"It started last summer as several dozen a day. Now it is several thousand a day," says Laszlo Torockai, mayor of Asotthalom, a village of 4,000 people.

"We sympathise with those fleeing war zones - the Syrians and Iraqis - but less so with those fleeing poverty. Many have smart phones and follow their progress by GPS. Few of my constituents, whose doors they knock on in the middle of the night, can afford phones like those.

"I cannot understand why in mid-winter they set out to walk tens of kilometres in freezing conditions. Every week we have to call the ambulances to fight for the lives of babies with hypothermia."

No border guards

The constant barking of dogs keeps locals, many of whom live in outlying farmsteads, awake at night. Reactions vary. Some feed the weary, others ignore the knocks on the door, or call the mayor's office if people climb the fences into their yards.

Hungary has no border guards, as such, since the service was merged into the police force.

Mr Torockai has three field rangers, in uniforms, with jeeps, and 18 other volunteers for his neighbourhood watch. They respond to calls from the public, but can do little more than direct the migrants towards the nearest town.

"The police are little more than a taxi service. They take them to the refugee centre in Szeged, fingerprint them, then let them go, to continue their journeys," says the mayor.

Drita is 23, from Mitrovica. He's going with his brother to Germany, he says.

"The mafia controls everything in Mitrovica," he says. He's had enough, quit his studies, and wants a new life. He wants to send money home, he says, to his mother and younger brothers.

Arafat is 37, carrying his seven-month-old son. Three other children - aged 11, 10, and seven - stride ahead along the roadside, while his wife pushes a two-year-old in a pram. Arafat's from Vushtrri, and has no profession, he says, "but I can do anything, any kind of work".

The reason for leaving now, according to many of the migrants, is an easing of the travel restrictions, which used to prevent them leaving Kosovo, and travelling across Serbia.

Once they are in Hungary, they are inside the EU's Schengen zone, where passport-free travel means it is easier for migrants to move further west.

In the litter beside the open border I find many papers torn up in the grass - their permits for crossing Serbia.

"There is increasing debate in Europe about the links between unrestricted migration and terrorism," says the mayor, Laszlo Toroczkai.

"This border is wide open, you could bring in guns, rocket launchers, even a tank, and no-one would notice."

His solution would be a fence, with night vision cameras, and a proper border-control service. The Hungarian parliament is due to debate this, and other suggestions, in the coming weeks.


India election: Delhi votes in first real test for Modi


Polling stations have opened in Delhi for state elections billed as the first real test of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity.

Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded former policewoman Kiran Bedi as its pick for chief minister.

But polls suggest she is likely to lose to Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-corruption activist who heads his own party.

Mr Modi won convincingly in last summer's general election, and has ridden a wave of popularity ever since.

Over 13 million people are eligible to vote at 12,000 polling centres in the state assembly elections.

Security is tight and more than 55,000 police and paramilitary have been deployed.

Official results for the 70-member state assembly are due on Tuesday.

Chief minister contenders: Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi
  • Both Mr Kejriwal and Ms Bedi are former civil servants - he worked in the revenue department while she was India's first woman police officer
  • Both won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award - Mr Kejriwal for fighting corruption and Ms Bedi for prison reform
  • Both campaigned with anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare during his 2011 protest

In recent months, the BJP won a string of state assembly elections.

But correspondents say a tough fight awaits them in Delhi, where several surveys have put Mr Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ahead of the others.

The Congress party, which ran the Indian capital for 15 years until 2013, is predicted to come a distant third.

Delhi has been without a government since Mr Kejriwal, the former chief minister, resigned last February, angered that his anti-corruption bill was blocked.

Since then the state has been governed directly by the federal authorities.

Ms Bedi and Mr Kejriwal worked together during the anti-corruption campaign, led by social activist Anna Hazare, but the two have since developed an intense rivalry.

During weeks of hectic campaigning in Delhi, both candidates promised to bring in good governance, end corruption and make Delhi safe for women.

In the previous Delhi election held in December 2013, the BJP won the most seats but fell short of a majority, leaving the AAP - which came second - to form a coalition with the Congress party.

Mr Kejriwal resigned on 14 February after 49 days in office, however, after opposition politicians blocked a bill that would have created an independent body with the power to investigate politicians and civil servants suspected of corruption.

Delhi election in numbers
  • 13.3 million voters; 12,083 polling stations
  • 70 seats; 673 candidates, 63 of whom are women
  • 65,791 election workers on duty

The untold story of the Maidan massacre



A day of bloodshed on Kiev's main square, nearly a year ago, marked the end of a winter of protest against the government of president Viktor Yanukovych, who soon afterwards fled the country. More than 50 protesters and three policemen died. But how did the shooting begin? Protest organisers have always denied any involvement - but one man told the BBC a different story.

It's early in the morning, 20 February, 2014. Kiev's Maidan square is divided - on one side the riot police, the protesters on the other.

This has been going on for more than two months now. But events are about to come to a head. By the end of the day, more than 50 people will be dead, many of them gunned down in the street by security forces.

The violence will lead to the downfall of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Moscow will call 20 February an armed coup, and use it to justify the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

The protest leaders, some of whom now hold positions of power in the new Ukraine, insist full responsibility for the shootings lies with the security forces, acting on behalf of the previous government.

But one year on, some witnesses are beginning to paint a different picture.

"I was shooting downwards at their feet," says a man we will call Sergei, who tells me he took up position in the Kiev Conservatory, a music academy on the south-west corner of the square.

"Of course, I could have hit them in the arm or anywhere. But I didn't shoot to kill."

Sergei says he had been a regular protester on the Maidan for more than a month, and that his shots at police on the square and on the roof of an underground shopping mall, caused them to retreat.

There had been shooting two days earlier, on 18 February. The 19th, a Wednesday, had been quieter, but in the evening, Sergei says, he was put in contact with a man who offered him two guns: one a 12-gauge shotgun, the other a hunting rifle, a Saiga that fired high-velocity rounds.

He chose the latter, he says, and stashed it in the Post Office building, a few yards from the Conservatory. Both buildings were under the control of the protesters.

How events unfolded on 20 February 2014

Under attack, the police retreated from their position near the front line in the square, falling back along the street on the north side of Hotel Ukraine.

Protesters then advanced towards the police, where they were shot by retreating security forces and snipers from surrounding buildings.

More than 50 people were killed, the heaviest death toll of the clashes between protesters and security forces in the Maidan.

When the shooting started early on the morning of the 20th, Sergei says, he was escorted to the Conservatory, and spent some 20 minutes before 07:00 firing on police, alongside a second gunman.

His account is partially corroborated by other witnesses. That morning, Andriy Shevchenko, then an opposition MP and part of the Maidan movement, had received a phone call from the head of the riot police on the square.

"He calls me and says, 'Andrei, somebody is shooting at my guys.' And he said that the shooting was from the Conservatory."

Shevchenko contacted the man in charge of security for the protesters, Andriy Parubiy, known as the Commandant of the Maidan.

"I sent a group of my best men to go through the entire Conservatory building and determine whether there were any firing positions," Parubiy says.

Meanwhile the MP, Andriy Shevchenko, was getting increasingly panicked phone calls.

"I kept getting calls from the police officer, who said: 'I have three people wounded, I have five people wounded, I have one person dead.' And at some point he says, 'I am pulling out.' And he says, 'Andrei I do not know what will be next.' But I clearly felt that something really bad was about to happen."

Andriy Parubiy, now deputy speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, says his men found no gunmen in the Conservatory building.

But a photographer who gained access to the Conservatory later in the morning - shortly after 08:00 - took pictures there of men with guns, although he did not see them fire.

What happened in Maidan Square: A photographer's story

Sergei's account also differs from Parubiy's.

"I was just reloading," he told me. "They ran up to me and one put his foot on top of me, and said, 'They want a word with you, everything is OK, but stop doing what you're doing.'"

Sergei says he is convinced the men who dragged him away were from Parubiy's security unit, though he didn't recognise their faces. He was escorted out of the Conservatory building, taken out of Kiev by car, and left to make his own way home.

By that time three policemen had been fatally wounded and the mass killings of protesters had begun.

Kiev's official investigation has focused on what happened afterwards - after the riot police began to retreat from the square. In video footage, they are clearly seen firing towards protesters as they pull back.

Only three people have been arrested, all of them members of a special unit of riot police. And of these three, only two - the lower-ranking officers - remain in custody. The unit's commanding officer, Dmitry Sadovnik, was granted bail and has now disappeared.

The three policemen are accused of causing 39 deaths. But at least a further dozen protestors were killed - and the three policemen who died of their wounds.

Some of the dead were almost certainly shot by snipers, who seemed to be shooting from some of the taller buildings surrounding the square.

Lawyers for the victims and sources in the general prosecutor's office have told the BBC that when it comes to investigating deaths that could not have been caused by the riot police, they have found their efforts blocked by the courts.

"If you think of Yanukovych's time, it was like a Bermuda triangle: the prosecutor's office, the police and the courts," says Andriy Shevchenko. "Everyone knew that they co-operated, they covered each other and that was the basis of the massive corruption in the country. Those connections still exists."

Ukraine's Prosecutor General, Vitaly Yarema, was dismissed this week, amid harsh criticism of his handling of the investigation.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories flourish.

"I'm certain that the shootings of the 20th were carried out by snipers who arrived from Russia and who were controlled by Russia," says Andriy Parubiy, the former Commandant of the Maidan.

"The shooters were aiming to orchestrate a bloodbath on Maidan."

This is a widely-held belief in Ukraine. In Russia, many believe the opposite - that the revolt on Maidan was a Western conspiracy, a CIA-inspired coup designed to pull Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit. Neither side offers convincing evidence for its assertion.

The overwhelming majority of the protesters on Maidan were peaceful, unarmed citizens, who braved months of bitter cold to demand a change to their corrupt government. As far as is known, all the protesters killed on 20 February were unarmed.

The leaders of the Maidan have always maintained they did their best to keep guns away from the square.

"We knew that our strength was not to use force, and our weakness would be if we start shooting," says Andriy Shevchenko.

Parubiy says it is possible that a handful of protesters with weapons may have come to the Maidan as part of a spontaneous, unorganised response to violence from the security forces in the days running up to 20 February.

"I did hear that, after the shootings on 18 February, there were guys who came to Maidan with hunting rifles. I was told that sometimes they were the relatives or parents of those people who were killed on the 18th. So I concede that it's possible there were people with hunting rifles on Maidan. When the snipers began to kill our guys, one after another, I can imagine that those with the hunting rifles returned fire."

I have nothing to be proud of. It’s easy to shoot. Living afterwards, that’s the hard thing. But you have to protect your country.

Sergei, one of the Conservatory gunmen who spoke to the BBC on the condition of anonymity

Sergei, again, tells a different story. He says he was recruited as a potential shooter in late-January, by a man he describes only as a retired military officer. Sergei himself was a former soldier.

"We got chatting, and he took me under his wing. He saw something in me that he liked. Officers are like psychologists, they can see who is capable. He kept me close."

The former officer dissuaded him from joining any of the more militant groups active on the Maidan.

"'Your time will come,' he said."

Was he being prepared, psychologically, to take up arms?

"Not that we sat down and worked out a plan. But we talked about it privately and he prepared me for it."

It is not clear who the man who apparently recruited Sergei was, or whether he belonged to any of the recognised groups active on the Maidan.

And there is much else that we still do not know, such as who fired the first shots on 20 February.

As for conspiracy theories, it is possible that Sergei was manipulated, played like a pawn in a bigger game. But that is not the way he sees it. He was a simple protester, he says, who took up arms in self-defence.

"I didn't want to shoot anyone or kill anyone. But that was the situation. I don't feel like some kind of hero. The opposite: I have trouble sleeping, bad premonitions. I'm trying to control myself. But I just get nervous all the time. I have nothing to be proud of. It's easy to shoot. Living afterwards, that's the hard thing. But you have to defend your country."


Is Thailand's post-coup 'phoney war' over?



The past eight months in Thailand have been something like a phoney war.

For all the talk of violence after the coup, of a "red-shirt" uprising, nothing of the sort has happened. Red-shirt leaders were rounded up in the first days of the coup but then quietly released, having signed promises not to engage in politics.

They have stuck to those promises. A few weapons stashes have been displayed by the military, a few alleged ringleaders of armed groups arrested, but nothing else.

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was also quickly released and allowed to travel abroad.

It seemed that a deal had been done; supporters of the ousted government would not disrupt the efforts of coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha to impose order on the country. In return, they were left in peace, quietly maintaining their networks of supporters in preparation for a return to democratic politics, when they expected their party to succeed at the ballot box, as it has for the past 14 years.

Shifting electoral maths

That deal must now be presumed to be off. The National Legislative Assembly's vote to impeach Ms Yingluck and impose a five-year ban from politics, along with a criminal charge that carries a 10-year jail sentence, presents her with the bleak prospect of ending up in exile like her brother Thaksin.

This would deprive her party of a proven vote-winner, and her brother, who is still the party's main funder, of a trusted lieutenant.

The red-shirts also know that the military is drafting a new constitution which will at the very least shift the electoral arithmetic in favour of other parties, and enhance the powers of staunchly anti-Shinawatra bodies like the Constitutional Court and Anti-Corruption Commission. Under these conditions, a repeat of their last four election victories will be much harder, if not impossible.

The argument put by the military, that it was not involved in the impeachment verdict, holds little water.

As does the claim that it was only about corruption in Ms Yingluck's rice subsidy scheme.

The NLA is a rubber-stamp parliament whose 220 members were selected with military approval; indeed half of them are serving or former military officers. Its verdict, so decisively against Ms Yingluck, must have had General Prayuth's prior consent.

Yes, the rice scheme proved to be very expensive and there were worrying indications of corruption. But no proper inquiry has yet been conducted into abuses; no-one has yet been tried or convicted. Those investigations of the scheme that have published findings have been conducted by bodies now hopelessly tarnished in the eyes of many Thais by their perceived partisan stance.

Not about corruption

Opponents of the Shinawatra family often state that their governments were the most corrupt Thailand has ever had. This is impossible to measure in a country which has long been plagued by corruption at every level of officialdom, and where the criminal justice system barely functions.

There are plenty of examples of large-scale corruption in non-Shinawatra governments. Some of the key players in today's military government are tainted by it.

So if Ms Yingluck's impeachment was not about corruption, why did it happen?

Those on the yellow-shirt side who drove the protest campaign against her last year were open about their wish to see the Shinawatras and their party purged from politics. Some of them now sit in the NLA.

But the military took a more nuanced view, presenting itself as a mediator between the two sides. Regional army commanders even held reconciliation meetings between the two sides, and ran a "Return Happiness To The People" campaign, complete with singing soldiers and dancing girls.

Eight months on, though, General Prayuth is floundering. The economy, which he promised to revive, taking over key positions like chairing the Board of Investment, is barely growing. There have been signs, too, of infighting between different military factions. The debates over the new constitution have so far been heated and inconclusive.


The government has become vulnerable to criticism, not from the red-shirt side, which has kept quiet, but from the yellow-shirt side, which had initially cheered the coup but now fears being excluded from the redesign of the country's political institutions.

There has been sniping from politicians and commentators on the yellow side about the military's lacklustre performance, but also about the rumours of a possible deal between the military and Thaksin Shinawatra.

This sniping may have been encouraged by powerful figures close to the royalist establishment. So it is likely that General Prayuth has decided to throw his lot in with them, to get them off his back.

Yingluck Shinawatra, who has said little in public since the coup, came out angrily against her impeachment, denouncing what she called a move to destroy democracy and the rule of law in Thailand.

Beyond that, though, it is not clear what she will do. Her lawyer is already talking about negotiating an eventual amnesty from the military. That suggests she will not offer herself as a political martyr for her movement.

So far there are few signs of anyone on the red side protesting against Ms Yingluck's impeachment.

Martial law is still in place, and the military will move swiftly to put down any shows of defiance. But the movement's leaders will have to decide what their strategy should be from now - whether to rally round Yingluck, following her family's lead, or whether to chart a new course.

The red-shirt movement has evolved a great deal since its beginnings in 2008. It is made up of hundreds of local networks, in the red heartlands of the north and north-east, but also in poorer districts of the capital Bangkok.

Through them, many Thais in these areas have become intensely interested in politics for the first time, with a strong sense of what elections and central governments can deliver for them.

Many of their activists are not particularly loyal to the Shinawatra family, and some believe the movement needs to cut its dependence on them. There are some radicals in the movement who advocate a wholesale shake-up of Thailand's traditional hierarchy.

The times are not conducive to political experiments, under a fumbling, conservative military government primarily concerned with managing a sensitive royal succession. But lying low, and simply waiting to win the next election, is no longer a viable strategy.

Thailand's troubles
    • September 2006: Army ousts Thaksin Shinawatra
    • December 2007: Pro-Thaksin party wins election
    • August 2008: Mr Thaksin flees Thailand
    • December 2008: Huge anti-Thaksin protests; court bans ruling party; Democrat's Abhisit Vejjajiva comes to power
    • March-May 2010: Huge pro-Thaksin protests; dozens killed in army crackdown
    • July 2011: Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Mr Thaksin, elected PM
    • November 2013: Anti-government protests begin
    • May 2014: Ms Yingluck removed from office; military launches coup
    • August 2014: Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha named PM by legislature hand-picked by military.


Mummified monk in Mongolia 'not dead', say Buddhists


A mummified monk found preserved in Mongolia last week has been baffling and astounding those who uncovered him.

Senior Buddhists say the monk, found sitting in the lotus position, is in a deep meditative trance and not dead.

Forensic examinations are under way on the remains, found wrapped in cattle skins in north-central Mongolia.

Scientists have yet to determine how the monk is so well preserved, though some think Mongolia's cold weather could be the reason.

But Dr Barry Kerzin, a physician to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, told the Siberian Times that the monk was in a rare state of meditation called "tukdam".

"If the meditator can continue to stay in this meditative state, he can become a Buddha," Dr Kerzin said.

The monk was discovered after being stolen by a man hoping to sell him on the black market.

Mongolian police have arrested the culprit and the monk is now being guarded at the National Centre of Forensic Expertise.

Worship for eternity

The identity of the monk is unclear, though there is speculation that he is the teacher of Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, who was also found mummified.

In 1927, Itigilov - from neighbouring Buryatia in the then Soviet Union - supposedly told his students he was going to die and that they should exhume his body in 30 years.

The lama sat in the lotus position, began meditating and died.

When he was dug up, legend has it that his body was still preserved.

Fearing interference by the Soviet authorities, his followers reburied him and he remained at rest until 2002 when he was again dug up to great fanfare and found still well preserved.

The lama was then placed in a Buddhist temple to be worshipped for eternity.


'World's oldest calendar' discovered in Scottish field


Archaeologists believe they have discovered the world's oldest lunar "calendar" in an Aberdeenshire field.

Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months.

A team led by the University of Birmingham suggests the ancient monument was created by hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago.

The pit alignment, at Warren Field, was first excavated in 2004.

The experts who analysed the pits said they may have contained a wooden post.

The Mesolithic "calendar" is thousands of years older than previous known formal time-measuring monuments created in Mesopotamia.

The analysis has been published in the journal, Internet Archaeology.

The pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise to provided the hunter-gatherers with an annual "astronomic correction" in order to better follow the passage of time and changing seasons.

Vince Gaffney, Professor of Landscape Archaeology at Birmingham, led the analysis project.

He said: "The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East.

"In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself."

The universities of St Andrews, Leicester and Bradford were also involved.

Dr Richard Bates, of the University of St Andrews, said the discovery provided "exciting new evidence" of the early Mesolithic Scotland.

He added: "This is the earliest example of such a structure and there is no known comparable site in Britain or Europe for several thousands of years after the monument at Warren Field was constructed."

The Warren Field site was first discovered as unusual crop marks spotted from the air by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS).

Dave Cowley, aerial survey projects manager at RCAHMS, said: "We have been taking photographs of the Scottish landscape for nearly 40 years, recording thousands of archaeological sites that would never have been detected from the ground.

"Warren Field stands out as something special, however. It is remarkable to think that our aerial survey may have helped to find the place where time itself was invented."

Crathes Castle and its estate is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

From 2004 to 2006, trust staff and Murray Archaeological Services excavated the site.

NTS archaeologist Dr Shannon Fraser said: "This is a remarkable monument, which is so far unique in Britain.

"Our excavations revealed a fascinating glimpse into the cultural lives of people some 10,000 years ago - and now this latest discovery further enriches our understanding of their relationship with time and the heavens."


Cadbury in the US: Fans stockpile sweets


In this globalised world, it's increasingly easy for British expats to buy the creature comforts of home - English tea, Irn-Bru or that most beloved British staple, Cadbury chocolate.

But in the United States, consumers will soon have trouble finding the "proper" Cadbury chocolate made with the British recipe.

Chocolate giant Hershey Inc has successfully blocked the import of many British sweets because, it says, it creates "brand confusion" with Hershey's products.

"I wouldn't give it to my worst enemy," Dympna Madeley, manager of the British Gift Shoppe at the Ye Olde King's Head Pub in Santa Monica, California, said when asked why she doesn't just sell the American version of the chocolate.

"American Cadbury chocolate is definitely not the same quality, not the same taste as English Cadbury chocolate - it's not the same quality, same consistency, it doesn't have the same shelf life - it's an inferior product to the English one for sure."

Ms Madeley urged customers to join a boycott of Hershey and to sign online petitions persuading the company to change their minds.

Cadbury chocolate varies around the world. In the UK, the first ingredient in a classic Dairy Milk bar is milk. In the United States, where Hershey has the license to make and sell all Cadbury products, the first ingredient is sugar. Ms Madeley says her customers wouldn't buy the US kind even if she stocked it.

Thousands of fans in small shops across the United States and on social media have been urging Hershey to allow them legal access to their favourite British creamy treats. Some have even called for a Boston Tea Party-like protest with plots to throw "inferior" chocolates into the nearest body of water.

Soon the US recipe may be their only choice. Hershey sued LBB Imports, which used to be known as Lets Buy British Imports, for trademark infringement and dilution, arguing that Toffee Crisp's orange packaging was too similar to Reese's peanut butter cups and that Yorkie bars were too confusing to people looking for York Peppermint Patties.

Hershey has the rights in the United States to sell York, Cadbury, Kit Kat and Rolo trademarks as well as Maltesers (so British Maltesers are out too).

The lawsuit was settled after LBB Imports agreed to stop importing the disputed products. LBB Imports President Nathan Dulley says he estimates that about $50m worth of British chocolate is sold in the United States each year - a Hershey's Kiss sized drop in the grand scheme of American chocolate sales.

While Mr Dulley says Hershey's case has merit, he thinks it's petty and that Pennsylvania-based Hershey should have allowed the small amount of imports for the niche expatriate market.

"We did attempt to make an agreement. Ultimately, these decisions do affect small businesses across the country," Dulley says. "At end of the day you're talking about a $6bn (£4bn) behemoth - both businesses should be able to coexist."

Hershey executives have said they want to protect their intellectual property and that they'd asked LBB repeatedly to stop importing the disputed chocolates. They have not commented on the social media call #BoycottHershey or the online petitions, including one posted on the White House website.

More than 30,000 people have signed the online petitions in protest and on Twitter chocolate lovers are milking the spat to condemn what they feel are chemical-laden, inferior Hershey products.

"Shame on you Hershey. Give the people what they want! #boycotthershey Good ingredients trump crap every time," read one tweet.

And in stores across the United States, shoppers are buying as much of the so-called proper chocolate they can afford or carry.

Allen Roberts, who moved from Manchester to California in 1959, was furious at the news and stocking up on chocolates at the Ye Olde King's Head. He reminisced about the Cadbury bars he received as a boy in ration packs during World War II.

"Even though Hitler bombed the place up to heck we still got that Cadburys and here we are now, we're not going to get it? That doesn't make sense, does it? Isn't that terrible?"

Jessica Bailey, a Briton stocking up on chocolates with her husband and son, said she would boycott all Hershey products.

"I'm kind of a bit anti-Hershey now and I probably won't buy anything that they make," she said. Her husband said if they had a truck they would buy everything in the store.

Patricia Jane, who moved to Los Angeles from Texas last week, says her British wife is very upset about the ban.

Ms Jane was stocking up on chocolates and said her wife planned to have family in the UK post her chocolates in the future, rather than eat the American kind.

As an American, which does Ms Jane prefer?

"I like the American kind. It's how I was raised, but she deserves her chocolates too."

For small businesses like Ye Olde King's Head British Gift Shoppe, Ms Madeley says it will really hurt business, especially during Christmas and Easter.

"There will be no real Cadbury chocolates in the Easter baskets," she said. "Children will be crying in the streets."


Who Owns the World?
 Who Owns the Debt?
 Who is a Migrant?
 Who's Dream?
 Who Cleans Up After?


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Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2015