Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8100 on: Feb 27th, 2013, 09:43am »
Alexander Litvinenko evidence to remain secret
Sensitive evidence alleged to expose poisoned spy Alexander Litvinenko's ties to MI6 will be examined in secret, a coroner has ruled.
2:44PM GMT 27 Feb 2013
Lawyers for the former KGB agent's family believe the files may contain the key to his assassination in London in November 2006.
His widow Marina spoke of her disappointment that such material was still being shrouded in secrecy amid claims the Government planned to "suppress" evidence to protect relations with Russia.
Mr Litvinenko, 43, was poisoned with polonium-210 while drinking tea at the Millennium Hotel in London's Grosvenor Square.
His family believes he was working for MI6 at the time and was killed on the orders of the Kremlin.
They have urged the Government to reveal documents which they believe would support this theory.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague has argued the disclosure of certain files relating to the case could pose a risk to national security.
Coroner Sir Robert Owen told a pre-inquest review, at London's Royal Courts of Justice, he would consider a selection of that evidence in private, giving Mr Hague's application the "most stringent and critical examination".
He assured interested parties he would carry out a "full, fearless and open investigation into the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko's death".
Speaking after his ruling, Mrs Litvinenko said: "It isn't an ideal decision for us but it could have been worse".
She added: "I have to trust the coroner, I must trust him, I have no option. I believe he will do exactly what he says."
The nature of the evidence contained with files remains unclear but lawyers for the Litvinenko family claim the documents could point towards Russian state involvement.
Alex Goldfarb, a friend of the Litvinenko family, said: "Of course we are disappointed, not that much in his (the coroner's) decision but with the intention of the state to suppress the evidence which we believe is wrong and dictated by reasons which have nothing to with justice but have to do with trade and politics and international relations which is wrong.
"After all, it isn't regular economic crime or corruption, it's murder and a terrorist act and we will not stop until those killers, who we believe are sitting in the Kremlin, and those who are trying to appease them are exposed."
The inquest was due to formally open on May 1, more than six years after Mr Litvinenko, 43, was killed.
Former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun have been accused of his murder.
Prosecutors named Lugovoy as the main suspect in the case but Russia has refused to extradite him to the UK for questioning. Both men deny involvement.
A previous hearing was told Mr Litvinenko had been hired by MI6 for a number of years and was working with the Spanish secret service investigating the Russian mafia shortly before his death.
He was said to regularly meet with an MI6 handler, named only as Martin, in central London and was paid by both the British and Spanish secret services into a joint bank account he held with his wife.
The hearing was adjourned today ahead of a directions hearing on March 14.
The coroner gave no indication on when he would conduct the private hearing but told the pre-inquest review that he could reconvene proceedings relating to the files in public if he deemed it possible to do so.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8102 on: Feb 28th, 2013, 09:29am »
28 February 2013 Last updated at 09:13 ET
One rat brain 'talks' to another using electronic link By Jen Whyntie
BBC Radio Science Unit
Scientists have connected the brains of lab rats, allowing one to communicate directly to another via cables.
The wired brain implants allowed sensory and motor signals to be sent from one rat to another, creating the first ever brain-to-brain interface.
The scientists then tested whether the rat receiving the signal could correctly interpret the information.
As the ultimate test of their system, the team even linked the brains of rats that were thousands of miles apart.
Details of the work are outlined in the journal Scientific Reports.
Professor Miguel Nicolelis and his team at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina built on their previous work with brain-machine interfaces.
In a study published earlier this month, the researchers implanted electrodes in the part of the rat's brain that processes tactile information and attached these to infrared sensors - effectively allowing the rat to "touch" infrared light.
In their latest study, the scientists wanted to test whether the systems they had developed could be used to establish a new artificial communication channel between animals.
"Until recently we used to record this brain activity and send it to a computer... and the [computer] tells us what the animal is going to do," Prof Nicolelis told the BBC's Science in Action programme.
"So we reasoned, if we can do that with a computer, could another brain do that?"
The researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem - pressing the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, to obtain a water sip.
The researchers then placed the rodents in separate chambers and connected their brains using arrays of microelectrodes - each roughly one hundredth the diameter of a human hair - inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information.
One rat was designated as the "encoder". Once this rat pressed the correct lever, its brain activity was delivered as electrical stimulation into the brain of the second rat - designated the "decoder".
The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward.
In order to receive the reward, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface.
The team members then conducted trials to determine how well the decoder animal could decipher the brain input from the encoder rat to choose the correct lever. The decoder rat ultimately achieved a maximum success rate of about 70%.
Although the information was transmitted in real time, the learning process was not instantaneous.
"[It] takes about 45 days of training an hour a day," said Prof Nicolelis.
"There is a moment in time when... it clicks. Suddenly the [decoder] animal realises: 'Oops! The solution is in my head. It's coming to me' and he gets it right."
There was also a feedback system, denying the encoder rat an extra reward if the decoder rat did not press the correct lever.
The encoder rat's brain signals then became clearer, giving the decoder a greater chance of interpreting the message correctly, Prof Nicolelis noted.
He explained: "Basically [the second rat] is working as... a biological computer."
One replication of the experiment successfully linked a rat at Duke with one at the University of Natal in Brazil. Nicolelis foresees eventually extending the system to larger numbers of animals. "We are already building the setup... You could actually have millions of brains tackling the same problem and sharing a solution."
And he also thinks the idea could be extended to humans.
"We will have a way to exchange information across millions of people without using keyboards or voice recognition devices or the type of interfaces that we normally use today," he said.
"I truly believe that in a few decades… we will know what it is to communicate in that way."
But Prof Nicolelis is clear that this depends on the development of non-invasive techniques to share information between human brains.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8103 on: Feb 28th, 2013, 09:43am »
Woodward claims White House threatened him By Jonathan Easley 02/27/13 08:41 PM ET
Bob Woodward said Wednesday that a “very senior person” at the White House told the veteran journalist and author “you will regret” faulting the Obama administration for the present fight over sequestration.
“It was said very clearly: 'you will regret doing this,'” Woodward said on CNN’s "The Situation Room." “I’m not going to say [who], a very senior person. It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters you’re going to regret doing something you believe in.”
In an op-ed published over the weekend, Woodward accused the Obama administration first of inventing the sequester, and then of “moving the goal posts” by saying any deal had to include new revenue along with the agreed-upon spending cuts.
Democrats argue that the sequester was an last-ditch effort out from the 2011 debt-ceiling fight instigated by Republicans, and that because it was never meant to be implemented, it’s not moving the goal posts to try and replace it with spending cuts and additional revenue.
“I think if Barack Obama knew that was part of the communications strategy, let’s hope it’s not a strategy, but just a tactic he’s employing, he’d say, ‘look, we don’t go around trying to say to reporters if you in an honest way present something that we don’t like, you’re going to regret this,'” Woodward continued. “It’s Mickey Mouse.”
A White House official said Woodward misconstrued the exchange and that "no threat was intended."
"Of course no threat was intended," the aide said. "As Mr. Woodward noted, the email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's email in a friendly manner."
It’s the latest turn in the souring relationship between the White House and Woodward.
Earlier in the day, on MSNBC, Woodward called the president’s sequester strategy “madness,” saying a stronger leader would merely circumvent the Budget Control Act.
And at the height of the 2012 election, the White House was on the defensive after Republicans seized on Woodward’s book, The Price of Politics, as evidence President Obama was in over his head on the economy.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8104 on: Feb 28th, 2013, 09:45am »
Competition for Cots: Cities Struggle to Handle Rise in Homeless
By Fidelius Schmid and Andreas Ulrich February 28 2013
The doors won't open for another two hours, but Gerd doesn't want to take the risk of being turned away this time. "I was too late yesterday and didn't get a bed," the 57-year-old says. His thin, blond hair is sticking to his head, he has scabs on his forehead and chin, and his breath reeks of schnapps.
Gerd would rather spend the afternoon standing in the rain than go away empty-handed again. Three Africans and seven Eastern Europeans are also standing in line. The Hamburg winter emergency shelter program, with its makeshift accommodations in a former office building near the city's central train station, offers 230 beds. Since it can't accommodate all comers on most evenings, some of Hamburg's homeless are forced to sleep on tables and chairs.
Munich, Stuttgart, Cologne and other German cities face a similar problem: There are more people seeking help than there is space in homeless and emergency shelters. The homeless population in Germany has grown sharply in recent years, partly because of a growing influx of destitute Romanians, Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans. Since their native countries joined the European Union in 2007, Bulgarians and Romanians have been able to enter Germany without visas or residence permits.
Some who have little money or skills, but wish to stay longer than three months, register a business, often a fictitious one, and then work illegally in construction for as little as €3 ($4) an hour. In 2011, the number of Bulgarians in Germany grew by more than 22,000, while that of Romanians went up by 36,000. Thousands of the new immigrants are college graduates, skilled workers or university students, but they also include day laborers and beggars. The poorest end up in homeless shelters, either because they have no money or abuse the emergency shelters as free hotels.
The German Association of Cities complains that municipalities are left to deal with the consequences of "poverty migration" from Eastern Europe, and that cities don't have enough resources to provide housing and medical care to all the new arrivals.
Abusing the System
Conditions in Germany's emergency shelters expose the flipside of the largess of an open Europe. The immigrants from the East are triggering a fight for survival on the margins of society among people who have almost nothing.
"Immigration is a problem that has been growing for years," and yet policymakers have been tight-lipped about it for just as long, says Thomas Specht, managing director of the German Federal Task Force on Homelessness (BAG). According to its figures, in 2011, more than 15 percent of the people in assistance programs for the homeless were foreigners. The actual, current percentage of immigrants in assistance programs "is probably higher," says Specht, especially in major cities and in winter emergency assistance programs, additional shelters set up to prevent homeless people from freezing to death during the cold months when extra capacity is often needed.
The latter are bare-bones emergency overnight shelters, where experts estimate that half of visitors are foreigners. In a shelter on Spaldingstrasse in Hamburg, about two-thirds are from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. On one occasion, a bus from Romania pulled up to the building and unloaded 12 day laborers. When customs officials recently checked the papers of shelter visitors, they discovered that eight allegedly homeless men had registered businesses and were presumably working as low-wage laborers. Economic migrants "abuse the winter emergency program and take away space from the homeless," says Detlef Scheele, responsible for the social portfolio for the city-state of Hamburg.
Worries about Making Things Too Attractive
Scheele, a Social Democrat, is presumably referring to people like Johnny, who knows how to work with sheetrock but would also work as a waiter. Or Claudio, who will take any job he can get, or Nello, a tractor driver. His wife and his youngest daughter are living in his son's studio apartment in Cologne, but there isn't enough space there for him.
All three are waiting outside the doors of the former veterinary office at Cologne's Eifelwall streetcar station, which opens at 7 p.m. There are about 30 people there, and the most common language being spoken is Romanian. Nello has been sleeping there for the last six months, but he hasn't found a job yet. "Going back isn't an option," he says. "There is nothing for me at home, only poverty."
The facility, which opened this winter, was set up to accommodate the overflow from the regular homeless shelter. It provides bed linens, towels, hot showers and sandwiches, which is more than some of the homeless have in Eastern Europe. In the emergency shelter, people sleep on cots without pillows, and food is not provided. But at least the heat works.
The spartan accommodations represent Cologne's effort to handle the influx. In nearby Dortmund, the city administration takes the position that homeless people from other EU countries "were not homeless in their native countries but, instead, deliberately made themselves homeless by traveling as EU citizens," and thus should not be entitled to stay in German homeless shelters. According to a city spokesman, those who still have no place to stay after 10:30 p.m., when it gets very cold, can spend the night in a holding area.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8107 on: Mar 1st, 2013, 09:45am »
Watch A Baby's Face Change Color With Her Tiny, Normally Invisible Pulse
MIT's image amplification system makes imperceptible movements and color changes visible.
By Shaunacy Ferro Posted 03.01.2013 at 10:05 am
Last summer, a group of MIT scientists debuted a new video amplification algorithm that exaggerates slight changes in movement or color, like a magnifying glass for moving images. Since then, they've made the open-source code available and started allowing anyone to upload videos and see the effect for themselves. The New York Times got inside the lab to see what they project is doing in this video.
Scientists at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT first presented "Eulerian video magnification" last year at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference. Originally, the system -- which lets you identify from afar if a person is breathing, how fast their heart is beating and where blood is traveling in their body -- was designed to monitor the vital signs of neonatal infants without having to touch them.
It measures the color intensity of pixels and then amplifies any changes in that intensity, registering the slight reddening of your face in conjunction with your pulse, for example. You can apply the system to videos retroactively, to a scene from your favorite Batman movie, perhaps.
The researchers posted their code online in August, making it available for anyone to use for non-commercial purposes, though running the program was somewhat complicated. Now you can upload your own videos to the website for Quanta Research Cambridge, a CSAIL sponsor, and see the system work its magic.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8108 on: Mar 1st, 2013, 09:58am »
Investigation after Harlem Shake on plane
The Federal Aviation Administration is trying to determine if Colorado College students violated any rules when they got out of their seats and performed a Harlem Shake dance during a flight from Colorado Springs to San Diego.
8:30AM GMT 01 Mar 2013
The electro track "Harlem Shake" by US artist Baauer, has inspired countless clips, in which one person, often in a mask, costume or helmet, dances alone, as those around them ignore them.
However, when the song breaks down, the videos jump to a scene of everyone dancing manically, with costume changes and props the norm.
In this video, airline passengers can be seen out of their seats doing the energetic dance on a flight from Colorado Springs to San Diego.
One of the passengers is dressed as a banana and others are in neon clothing.
Aviation authorities are now looking into what stage the flight was in when the dance took place in the aisles.
Frontier Airlines have said that the dance took place when the seatbelt sign was off.
Feb. 28, 2013 — New research from the University of Georgia has identified the neural pathways in an insect brain tied to eating for pleasure, a discovery that sheds light on mirror impulsive eating pathways in the human brain.
"We know when insects are hungry, they eat more, become aggressive and are willing to do more work to get the food," said Ping Shen, a UGA associate professor of cellular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "Little is known about the other half-the reward-driven feeding behavior-when the animal is not so hungry but they still get excited about food when they smell something great.
The fact that a relatively lower animal, a fly larva, actually does this impulsive feeding based on a rewarding cue was a surprise."
The research team led by Shen, who also is a member of the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute, found that presenting fed fruit fly larvae with appetizing odors caused impulsive feeding of sugar-rich foods. The findings, published Feb. 28 in Cell Press, suggest eating for pleasure is an ancient behavior and that fly larvae can be used in studying neurobiology and the evolution of olfactory reward-driven impulses.
To test reward-driven behaviors in flies, Shen introduced appetizing odors to groups of well-fed larvae. In every case, the fed larvae consumed about 30 percent more food when surrounded by the attractive odors.
But when the insects were offered a substandard meal, they refused to eat it.
"They have expectations," he said. "If we reduce the concentration of sugar below a threshold, they do not respond anymore. Similar to what you see in humans, if you approach a beautiful piece of cake and you taste it and determine it is old and horrible, you are no longer interested."
Shen's team also tried to further define this phenomenon-the connection between excitement and expectation. He found when the larvae were presented with a brief odor, the amount of time they were willing to act on the impulse was about 15 minutes.
"After 15 minutes, they revert back to normal. You get excited, but you can't stay excited forever, so there is a mechanism to shut it down," he said.
His work also suggests the neuropeptides, or brain chemicals acting as signaling molecules triggering impulsive eating, are consistent between flies and humans. Neurons receive and convert stimuli into thoughts that are then relayed to the downstream mechanism telling the animals to act. These signaling molecules are required for this impulse, suggesting the molecular details of these functions are evolutionarily tied between flies and humans.
"There are hyper-rewarding cues that humans and flies have evolved to perceive, and they connect this perception with behavior performance," Shen said. "As long as this is activated, the animal will eat food. In this way, the brain is stupid: It does not know how it gets activated. In this case, the fly says 'I smell something, I want to do this.' This kind of connection has been established very early on, probably before the divergence of fly and human. That is why we both have it."
Impulsive and reward-driven behaviors are largely misunderstood, partially due to the complex systems at work in human brains. Fly larvae nervous systems, in terms of scheme and organization, are very similar to adult flies and to mammals, but with fewer neurons and less complex wirings.
"A particular function in the brain of mammals may require a large cluster of neurons," he said. "In flies, it may be only one or four. They are simpler in number but not principle."
In the fly model, four neurons are responsible for relaying signals from the olfactory center to the brain to stimulate action. Each odor and receptor translates the response slightly differently. Human triggers are obviously more diverse, but Shen thinks the mechanism to appreciate the combination is likely the same. He is now working with Tianming Liu, assistant professor of computer science at UGA and member of the Bioimaging Research Center and Institute of Bioinformatics, on a computer model to determine how these odors are interpreted as stimuli.
"Dieting is difficult, especially in the environment of these beautiful foods," Shen said. "It is very hard to control this impulsive urge. So, if we understand how this compulsive eating behavior comes about, we maybe can devise a way, at least for the behavioral aspect, to prevent it. We can modulate our behaviors better or use chemical interventions to calm down these cues."
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8110 on: Mar 1st, 2013, 10:05am »
Oz the Great and Powerful: Film Review
9:00 PM PST 2/28/2013 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
Oz ain't what it used to be.
Friday, March 8 (Disney)
A miscast James Franco and a lack of charm and humor doom Sam Raimi's prequel to the 1939 Hollywood classic.
Oz the Wimpy and Weak would be more like it.
A sadly unimaginative prequel to the 1939 perennial that remains one of the few Old Hollywood films that many modern kids continue to see, this long-in-the-works effects extravaganza feels stillborn from its opening minutes and never springs to life, even with the arrival of the witches and the flying monkeys. Fatally miscast as the con man wizard, James Franco possesses none of the charm and humor necessary to carry Oz the Great and Powerful. All the same, eager children undoubtedly will go along for the ride and probably be fine with it, meaning that Disney -- with the help of a relentless promotional campaign, built-in interest and general anticipation -- might attract a big enough portion of its billion-dollar Alice in Wonderland audience from the same release date three years ago to succeed in spite of the deficiencies of what's onscreen.
“I'm just not the man you wanted me to be,” Franco's Kansas conjurer confesses well into his attempt to transform himself into a wizard come to rescue Oz from the torments of the witch, and this is certainly not the film many longtime L. Frank Baum fans will have wanted to see. Just as dispiriting as Walter Murch's 1985 revisitation, Return to Oz, Sam Raimi's oddly stilted production is, both in structure and some specifics, a vague rehash of Victor Fleming's beloved classic, only with the wizard character, rather than Dorothy, being introduced to the wonders and terrors of Oz.
Instead of soaring off into some exciting, unexplored territory, the script by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Robots) ties itself too closely to its progenitor, mirroring some scenes in action (a tornado blowing the title character from Kansas to Oz, the wizard bestowing parting gifts on minions) and even dialogue (the wizard's repeated use of the phrase, “Where I come from,” among others) without ever coming up with anything sparklingly original of its own. This is a rehash and a hodgepodge of the original, minus the ruby slippers and glorious songs.
Due homage is paid by presenting the initial 20 minutes in black-and-white and the old standard 1.33 Academy ratio. Instead of meeting an old charlatan, we encounter the fast-talking young Oscar Diggs (Franco) hustling both his customers and co-workers at the Baum Family Circus in 1905 Kansas. A lovely local girl (Michelle Williams) is clearly besotted with him, but he tells her to marry someone else, saying it's his ambition to be not a good man but a great one, like his heroes Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison.
Very quickly, the disappointments begin accumulating. The tornado ride to Oz, far from being enhanced by modern special effects, amounts to nothing compared to the wondrous one offered to audiences 74 years ago. Instead of finding an equivalent to the great coup de cinema in the original of opening a black-and-white door onto a color world, in the new film color just innocuously seeps in once the imposter arrives in Oz (and he doesn't even get to land on a witch). Little about this Midwestern fraud could make even a child believe that he's a real wizard and, indeed, he disavows the role at first. But his arrival fulfills a local prophecy that a great wizard will arrive and liberate the population from the broom-riding old crone, and the promise of great riches inspires him to give it a try.
The main story, then, becomes one of an unprepared man having greatness thrust upon him, a process fostered by his growing relationship with Glinda the Good Witch (Williams again). As before, some Kansas characters receive Oz-dwelling counterparts, so also joining in his quest are tiny flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff), his assistant at the circus, and a broken miniature China doll (Joey King), a girl in a wheelchair in Kansas. Unfortunately, these boringly one-note characters can't begin to compare with their equivalents in the original -- Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion -- so the burden rests entirely upon Franco and Williams, whose dialogue exchanges are repetitive and feel tentative.
That leaves it for the evil side to take up the slack, and, no matter their talent and allure, even the combined force of Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis can't begin to equal Margaret Hamilton when it comes to raising shivers and relishing nefarious power. Weisz is Evanora, an official royal adviser whose true nature is hidden at first, while Kunis plays her good-girl younger sister Theodora (who, unlike her British-accented sibling, speaks Americanese). Theodora is manipulated by both Evanora and Oscar, who is obliged to prove himself, much like Dorothy, by destroying the wand of the Wicked Witch.
The journey of Oscar and his dull companions provides a bounty of opportunities for visual splendor -- on the ground, as in the Dark Forest, and in the air, when they travel via large transparent bubbles. As professional and accomplished as the effects appear in 3D, however, there is something almost cartoon-like about most of the scenery and backdrops, which are mostly placid and benign rather than spooky or threatening. Even the nasty flying monkeys (or baboons, as they seem to be here) possess none of the eerie malevolence that they did in all their wired splendor in the original film; here, they're mainly used for momentary 3D shock effects as they bare their fangs coming right at the camera.
But even if the script, atmosphere and supporting characterizations were more inspired, one would still be stuck with a central role and performance that leave a great deal to be desired. Oscar/Oz needed to have been played by someone with a slippery, shape-changing personality, a beguiling gift for gab and the suggestion of untapped inner resources, a young Kevin Kline or Steve Martin or, as originally cast, Robert Downey Jr.
As he prattles on with his hesitations and demurrals about his candidacy for wizardom and later devises methods for combating evil with old inventors called the Tinkers, Franco's wizard simply does not inspire interest, confidence or amusement. The actors seem like an understudy filling in for a big star in a role that demanded one. There's no delight in Oz's deceptions, no sense that this guy could sell anything to anybody. His vocal readings have a sameness to them that is lulling.
Among the main actors, Weisz gives it the best shot, and it's a fair bet she could have excelled with better lines and a tinge of camp -- an element the film is completely without and sorely misses (a contemporary Oz of one's dreams might have included Weisz and Penelope Cruz as witches directed by Pedro Almodovar). As her sister, Kunis never seems to get on the same wavelength; her character long remains in a sort of limbo, a status reflected in her uncertain performance. Williams introduces what little warmth there is here, while most of the supporting actors have been directed to express nothing but bland sincerity and hope with pleading eyes.
There's neither subversive nor even a gleeful bone in this film's body, which means there can be no fun in the evil or in villains being vanquished. Similarly missing is any zest to the storytelling. Quite the opposite of the great earlier film, the Oz here is a dull place to be. Given the choice, you might even consider going back to Kansas.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8113 on: Mar 3rd, 2013, 09:03am »
Chad says it killed Algeria hostage mastermind in Mali
By Madjiasra Nako
Sun Mar 3, 2013 3:37am EST
N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - Chadian soldiers in Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander who masterminded a bloody hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, Chad's military said on Saturday.
The death of one of the world's most wanted jihadists would be a major blow to al Qaeda in the region and to Islamist rebels already forced to flee towns they had seized in northern Mali by an offensive by French and African troops.
"On Saturday, March 2, at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base. ... The toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar," Chad's armed forces said in a statement read on national television.
On Friday, Chad's president, Idriss Deby, said his soldiers had killed another al Qaeda commander, Adelhamid Abou Zeid, among 40 militants who died in an operation in the same area as Saturday's assault - Mali's Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border.
France - which has used jet strikes against the militants' mountain hideouts - has declined to confirm the killing of either Abou Zeid or Belmokhtar.
In Washington, an Obama administration said the White House could not confirm the killing of Belmokhtar.
Analysts said the death of two of al Qaeda's most feared commanders in the Sahara desert would mark a significant blow to Mali's Islamist rebellion.
"Both men have extensive knowledge of northern Mali and parts of the broader Sahel and deep social and other connections in northern Mali, and the death of both in such a short amount of time will likely have an impact on militant operations," said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who follows al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Anne Giudicelli, managing director of security consultancy Terrorisc, said the al Qaeda commanders' deaths - if confirmed - would temporarily disrupt the Islamist rebel network but would also raise concern over the fate of seven French hostages believed to be held by Islamists in northern Mali.
Chad is one of several African nations that have contributed forces to a French-led military intervention in Mali aimed at ridding its vast northern desert of Islamist rebels who seized the area nearly a year ago following a coup in the capital.
Western and African countries are worried that al Qaeda could use the zone to launch international attacks and strengthen ties with African Islamist groups like al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Belmokhtar, 40, who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, claimed responsibility for the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which more than 60 people were killed.
That attack put Algeria back on the map of global jihad, 20 years after its civil war, a bloody Islamist struggle for power. It also burnished Belmokhtar's jihadi credentials by showing that al Qaeda remained a potent threat to Western interests despite U.S. forces killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Before In Amenas, some intelligence experts had assumed Algerian-born Belmokhtar had drifted away from jihad in favor of kidnapping and smuggling weapons and cigarettes in the Sahara where he earned the nickname "Marlboro Man".
In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late 2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahri. He cited al Qaeda's traditional global preoccupations, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of the Palestinians, and stressed the need to "attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests".
He shared command of field operations for AQIM - al Qaeda's North African franchise - with Abou Zeid, although there was talk the two did not get along and were competing for power.
A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia, Islamic law, in the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.
Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat held hostage by Belmokhtar from 2008 to 2009, told Reuters, "While I cannot consider reports of the death of both Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar as anything but good news ... I must temper my enthusiasm by the fact that this is by no means the first time Belmokhtar's death has been reported."
President Francois Hollande said on Friday that the assault to retake Mali's vast desert north from AQIM and other Islamist rebels that began on January 11 was in its final stage and so could not confirm Abou Zeid's death.
A U.S. official and a Western diplomat said, however, the reports about Abou Zeid's death appeared to be credible.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the killing of Belmokhtar "would be a hard blow to the collection of jihadists operating across the region that are targeting American diplomats and energy workers."
Washington has said it believes Islamists operating in Mali were involved in the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi in September.
After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali's towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.
Chad was among the quickest to respond to Mali's appeals for help alongside the French, rushing in hundreds of troops experienced in desert warfare, led by Deby's son, General Mahamat Deby.
The country's president may be hoping to polish his regional and international credentials by assisting in this war, while bolstering his own position in power in Chad, which has been threatened in the past by eastern neighbor Sudan.
(Additional reporting by John Irish and David Lewis in Dakar, Gus Trompiz in Paris, and Mark Hosenball and Mark Felsenthal in Washington; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Cooney)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #8114 on: Mar 3rd, 2013, 09:06am »
Originally published Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 4:05 PM
Arkansas police photograph license plates, store data
Police cars using electronic surveillance to track license plates in Little Rock, Ark., raise concerns about privacy.
By JEANNIE NUSS The Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Little Rock may not be a likely terrorism target or a gang crime hot spot, but the Arkansas capital has decided to follow the example of high-security cities by expanding electronic surveillance of its streets.
A police car with a device that photographs license plates moves through the city and scans the traffic on the streets, relaying the data it collects to a computer for sifting. Police say the surveillance helps identify stolen cars and drivers with outstanding arrest warrants.
It also allows authorities to monitor where average citizens might be at any particular time. That bothers some residents, as well as groups that oppose public intrusions into individual privacy. The groups are becoming more alarmed about license plate tracking as a growing number of police departments acquire the technology.
Though authorities in Washington, D.C., London and Chicago conduct extensive electronic surveillance of public areas to detect security threats or deter gang crime, “today, increasingly, even towns without stoplights have license plate readers,” said Catherine Crump, a New York-based staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Little Rock, even some city officials wonder about keeping data on drivers’ movements.
“It bothered me particularly if someone wasn’t guilty of a crime or didn’t have any active warrants or hadn’t committed a crime,” city director Ken Richardson said.
However, Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas said the law-enforcement benefits outweigh any concerns about possible abuse of the information, which, as a public record, is legally available for anyone to see. He said the department may get more of the devices.
“Should that potential of misuse therefore eliminate the capacity of law enforcement to collect data which has a legitimate purpose for the safety of our officers or the appropriateness of enforcement actions? I don’t think so,” he said.
Little Rock police bought the tracker last year for about $14,000, as interest in the technology began spreading in law-enforcement circles. The purchase didn’t require City Council approval and didn’t attract much attention in town.
“There was no public notice or anything,” police spokeswoman Sgt. Cassandra Davis said.
Richardson said he didn’t hear about the device until after it had been collecting data for months. He said he hasn’t heard many complaints.
“It’s hard for you to have a problem with something if you don’t know it’s going on,” he said.
Many Little Rock residents apparently still haven’t heard about the surveillance. Angel Weston, 45, said she’s glad to hear that police are looking for stolen cars and people with warrants but wondered about keeping logs of citizens’ movements.
“I don’t feel like they should keep the data for six or 12 months,” Weston said.
Lawmakers in several states, including Minnesota and Utah, have suggested setting a time limit for their departments, but Little Rock has no policy yet. The department now has a growing archive of license plate photos, along with time stamps and the locations, showing where motorists were at certain times.
Privacy advocates worry about the potential uses for such outside law enforcement, from snooping by stalkers and private investigators to businesses that sell personal data.
“Given how few rules are currently on the books to protect our privacy, it’s plausible that private investigators and data-mining companies could acquire this location data,” Crump said. So far, the organization has requested more information from government agencies, but hasn’t filed any lawsuits, Crump said.
Little Rock’s license plate reader is mounted in Officer Grant Humphries’ patrol car. He said it has led to dozens of arrests and the recovery of a number of stolen vehicles, although the exact number isn’t known.
As Humphries drives around town, a laptop processes the license plate numbers being photographed and emits a sound and flashes red when it finds a match.
On a recent drive, Humphries fell in behind an SUV and pulled it over after the laptop went off.
Moments later, he and another officer arrested passenger Montague Martin, who was wanted on outstanding warrants.
As he sat handcuffed in the back of the patrol car, Martin said he thought the license plate reader was a good idea.
“I’m not mad at what they’re doing,” Martin said before Humphries drove him to jail. “They’re doing their job. I just didn’t pay my ticket on time.”