No. 296, Sept. 16 - 22, 2004

To read an article, click on the headline.

US forces clash with protestors in W. Afghanistan

Hundreds of people rioted in the western city of Herat on Sept. 12, attacking UN offices (above) and shouting anti-American slogans to protest a powerful warlord's removal as provincial governor. Photo courtesy

Russian assault on press
during Beslan crisis

EU approves biotech seeds

Violence in Iraq casts doubt on elections

Ain't There Yet: Reflections on New York
Environmental impact of Hurricane Frances unknown

Bush team 'knew of abuse' at Guantanamo

US parents sue GSK over Paxil

'Abortion ship' heads back home after stand-off with Portugal

Syria, Lebanon reject foreign interference

Peace activist held as 'danger to Israel'

School atrocity may reignite conflict in Russian republics

Housing revolution attempted in Venezuela

Iran insists on 'peaceful' nuclear development

Mercenary Mann sentenced to seven years in jail over coup plot

US tries to cover up $10 million given to Venezuelan opposition

Colombia: Unions under attack, but fighting back

Bogota admits army killed union chiefs

Modified, a union bill still gives cause for concern

Wal-Mart challenge of union rejected by labor board

Warming trend will decimate Arctic peoples

Oil and gas drilling leases increase for sacred lands

Remembering Berlin, and looking at ourselves

Free to read, reading for free?

Ahleuchatistas: The Same and The Other

Derecha acaricia el gobierno, 31 anos despues del golpe

Chaves y oppositores a batalla territorial

Quote of the Week

"Well, I think, Margaret, that anybody that tries to put a good face on this situation--that they're desperate--I think that they're just whistling in the dark."

--Gen. Bernard Trainor, veteran of the first Gulf War, commenting on the current war to Margaret Warner on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, Sept. 7

Click here for an index of original Asheville Global Report political cartoons.



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No. 296, Sept. 16 - 22, 2004

US forces clash with protestors in W. Afghanistan

Compiled by Greg White

Sept. 15 (AGR) — At least seven supporters of a deposed Afghan governor have been killed in pitched battles with police and US forces in the streets of Herat in western Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, protests erupted in the provincial capital after President Hamid Karzai dismissed powerful local leader Ismail Khan as Herat governor.

On the night of Sept. 11, hundreds of protesters filled the streets to protest the dismissal, chanting “death to Karzai and the Americans.”

Several hundred of Khan’s backers on Sept. 12 ransacked the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Parts of both buildings were set ablaze.

The protesters broke into the UNAMA compound, where they hurled stones and set fire to at least one UN vehicle after chanting slogans outside for about half an hour, said UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida de Silva.

He said about 10 UN staff members were in the compound at the time, but he had no reports of injuries.

US soldiers were injured by rocks as they helped evacuate dozens of UN staff and relief workers to their small base in the city, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.

The office of a Danish aid group was burned down and protesters wrecked the local branch of the Afghan human rights commission.

Witnesses reported bursts of gunfire as smoke from burning cars and other wreckage rose over the center of Herat. A doctor at Heart’s central hospital said seven protesters’ bodies had been brought in on Sept. 12. Dozens were reported to have been wounded. One of the wounded told an Associated Press Television News reporter in the hospital that his leg and facial injuries were caused by shrapnel.

“I was standing in the street with a few others when national army and American troops were running along the street. Suddenly, one of them threw a hand-grenade at us,” said Bismillah, a 41-year-old man who goes by one name.

The US military claimed that there were no casualties. Interior Minister spokesman Latfullah Mashal also denied reports of the fatalities.

He claimed that soldiers fired warning shots into the air and killed no one.The inauguration ceremony for the man Karzai has appointed as his new governor, Mohammed Khair Khuwa, was punctuated by the sound of gunfire outside. Eyewitnesses said framed pictures of President Karzai were smashed in the street.

There was no suggestion that Khan had orchestrated the protests -- previous attempts to install new governors in other provinces have foundered in the face of violent protests.

Khan, the long-term governor of Herat, was dismissed by Karzai who named him as a minister in the central government instead. Khan, who controls an unknown number of soldiers in Herat city and province and is popular among the people, has said he will refuse to take up the post.

The so-called Lion of Herat had ruled the city and a swath of surrounding provinces as his personal fiefdom since 2001, making millions of dollars from the lucrative transit trade with Iran and dispensing justice from a court held in his palace.

The silver-haired and luxuriantly bearded self-styled emir has a long and dramatic record in Afghan politics, which began when he sparked an anti-Soviet uprising in Herat in which Red Army officers and their families were butchered. He then fought the Taliban, who jailed him for several years before his triumphant return to power in 2001.

Ismail Khan ruled Herat city with an iron fist, and was accused of cracking down hard on his opponents. Although he has significant local support and ran Herat as the most efficient Afghan city, with rare services such as garbage collection, he was also reputed to be a religious fundamentalist with views similar to the Taliban.

Human rights groups complained that he subjected girls to so-called virginity tests. He has been at loggerheads with Kabul over his reluctance to remit taxes on an estimated monthly income of up to $9 million to the cash-strapped central government.

Furthermore, relations between Khan and Karzai have soured since Khan’s son, Civil Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq, was killed in a clash with government troops in March.

The move was also intended to solve a power struggle in western Afghanistan. Tank battles between private armies began last month when a rival commander nearly overran the city. Khan was only saved then by US intervention after his forces were pushed back almost to the city limits. One militiaman was skinned and several others beheaded in the worst fighting in 12 months, which saw almost 70 deaths.

Additionally, Ismail Khan’s replacement is being seen as an attempt by Karzai to strengthen his position ahead of the October elections. Hundreds of Afghan government troops were flown to Herat in US aircraft to bolster security ahead of the announcement.

In other news, on Sept. 15 three Americans were sentenced to up to 10 years in jail after being found guilty by an Afghan court on charges including torture, running a private prison, and illegal detention.

Jonathan “Jack” Idema, a former US Green Beret, was arrested in July along with another ex-serviceman, Brent Bennett, and documentary film-maker Edward Caraballo.

They had denied the charges and insisted they were in Afghanistan with US and Afghan government sanction to help track down al-Qaida and Taliban extremists.

Eight Afghans were found in a private jail apparently being run by Idema. One of those was Ghulam Sakhi, who claimed he had been tortured.

Idema claims that the Pentagon denied links with him because they feared being accused of more prisoner abuse in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq.

Sources: Agence France-Presse, Al-Jazeera, AP, BBC, Independent (UK), Reuters

Russian assault on press
during Beslan crisis

Compiled by Shawn Gaynor

Sept. 12 (AGR)— As the hostage crisis in Beslan unfolded several outspoken Russian journalists attempting to report on the story were interfered with by both state authorities and unknown assailants.

The incidents happened in the middle of last week as the panic-stricken Russian officials tried to play down the siege, claiming there were as few as 300 people in the school.

Anna Politkovskaya, one of the most outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin’s policy on Chechnya, was on her way to the siege in Beslan from Moscow when she collapsed mysteriously.

According to the Moscow Times, “Politkovskaya was flying from Vnukovo Airport to Rostov-on-Don and fainted on the plane. Immediately after landing, she was taken to a local hospital, where doctors found she had been poisoned, Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.”

Writing for the Guardian this week, Politkovskaya told how the nurse in the hospital she was taken to had told her she had been poisoned.

“The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was ‘almost hopeless.’ Then she whispers, ‘My dear, they tried to poison you.’ All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed -- on orders ‘from on high,’ say the doctors.”

Politkovskaya has written repeatedly about Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya, much to the fury of the Putin regime. She claims to have seen video footage that shows Chechen prisoners being treated the same way as those in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but says no Russian TV channel would show it. When her paper published pictures no other papers followed up the story.

Earlier this year she accused the rest of the Russian media of acting as black propaganda agencies.

Andrei Babitsky, of US sponsored Radio Liberty, was arrested at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on Sept. 3 and stopped from flying south as police searched his bag, claiming he might have explosives. After they had finished, two strangers came up and started a scuffle. They and Babitsky were detained and Babitsky was charged with hooliganism. The next day he was sentenced to five days in prison.

Politkovskaya and Babitsky, both award-winning reporters known for hard-hitting coverage of the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya, believe they were prevented by the Russian government from reaching the North Ossetian city near the border with Chechnya.

Press freedom organization Reporters without Borders also reported that two employees of the independent Georgian TV station Rustavi 2, Nana Lezhava and cameraman Levan Tetvadze, were held by the Beslan police.

According to RWB, the local authorities claimed Lezhava and Tetvadze did not have the required visas and accreditation.

But this was challenged by Rustavi 2 news editor Eka Khoperia, who said they were residents of Kazbegi, a town on the border between Georgia and the Russian republic of North Ossetia, and as such can enter Russia without a visa under an agreement between the two countries.

Nana Lezhava of Rustavi-2 said she had slept for 24 hours while in the custody of the Russian authorities after being given coffee in her cell, and felt ill when she woke up.

“On Monday evening I was offered coffee. I drunk it and woke up only at 8pm next day. I don’t remember how I was carried into the isolation ward of federal security service,” she said in the interview.

Gela Lezhava, the head of the oversight board at a Georgian drug research institute, told a news conference that urine samples taken from the reporter showed traces of tranquillisers. He said he suspected that the journalist was drugged by the Russian authorities.

Both Rustavi-2 journalists were released on Sept. 8 after the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, personally contacted Russia leader Vladimir Putin. No charges have been brought against them and their employers claim their detention was a “gross violation” of their human rights.

Russian authorities detained the Moscow bureau chief of the satellite TV channel al-Arabiya Sept. 7 on his way to Moscow from Beslan, where he was covering the hostage crisis.

Amro Abdel Hamid, an Egyptian who holds Russian citizenship, was stopped at the airport in the southern Russian city of Mineralniye Vody, according to reports.

Al-Arabiya was informed the journalist would be held for two days, but was not told why he was being detained.

The events were followed by the apparent sacking of Izvestia’s editor, Raf Shakirov, in the wake of graphic accounts of the disaster in the newspaper.

The Sept. 4 issue of privately-owned Izvestia featured shocking pictures of wounded and dead children and other victims of the hostage crisis.

Izvestia was one of the first Russian media outlets to cast doubt on the government’s now disproved claim that only about 350 hostages were being held captive in the school -- less than a third of the actual number.

Now it seems Shakirov may have lost his job over the line his paper took.

Raf Shakirov lost his job after the paper questioned the fact that officials claimed the number of hostages was only 350, reported that parents of the hostages were the first to enter the school ahead of the security forces, and published a powerful column denouncing the censored coverage of the events by state TV.

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Shakirov, credited with building the former government newspaper into one of the country’s most outspoken publications, said he had been forced by the newspaper’s owner to resign for what he called his “emotional” coverage of the siege.

Commenting on Shakirov’s dismissal, Viktor Loshak, the editor of the popular magazine Ogonyok, told the radio station: “This scares me because we are moving far away from the country that we had been trying to build for the past 10 years.”

Research released this week showed that just 13 percent of Russians trust media reports about the tragedy, in which at least 335 people died.

Eighty-five percent of respondents expressed disbelief in the reports, according to the poll conducted across Russia by the St. Petersburg-based Independent Analytical Center last weekend.

Since Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he has muzzled all four major television channels, turning daily TV news programs into a parade of positive stories about the government and his daily agenda, critics say. The printed press, on the other hand, has been freer to criticize the government.

Some analysts fear the Russian government may further tighten its grip following the school siege and other attacks in recent days blamed on Chechen separatists.

“The fear of the Russian population will be used to justify further restrictions on the media,” said Luitgard Hammerer, of Article 19, a London-based free speech group.

“This creates an atmosphere in which journalists don’t feel free to report critically any more, so it has a strong chilling effect on the media,” she said.

Sources: Guardian (UK), San Francisco Chronicle, Sydney Morning Herald

EU approves biotech seeds

Compiled by Liz Allen

Sept. 15 (AGR) — The European Union approved on Sept. 8 the first biotech seeds for planting and sale across EU territory, flying in the face of widespread consumer resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops and foods.

The European Commission also dropped a proposal on how much GM material may be tolerated without labeling in batches of conventional seed — a controversial law that has bounced between the Commission’s various departments for over a year.

The commission authorized 17 different seed strains of maize engineered by US biotech giant Monsanto from a parent crop that won approval for growing just before the EU began its biotech ban in 1998 that lasted nearly six years. The seeds will now be entered into what is called the Common Catalogue, the EU’s overall seed directory that compiles all national seed catalogues. The parent maize seed, known as MON 810, has been engineered to resist certain insects.

Adrian Bebb, who campaigns against genetically altered food for the environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE) said the decision to list the 17 varieties in the common European catalog of varieties of agricultural plants was unwise because most member countries have not yet passed rules on how genetically modified crops and conventional crops should co-exist.

Denmark is the only country to have passed such a law. Germany is debating one. Other countries have not even begun drafting such rules.

Before the Sept. 8 decision six varieties of Monsanto’s MON 810 corn were already listed in French agriculture ministry catalogs. None of them, however, are being grown in France at present, according to FoE. The remaining 11 varieties are registered for use in Spain.

The EU’s ban meant that only farmers in those countries could buy and plant them.

“The maize has been thoroughly assessed to be safe for human health and environment,” Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said in a statement.

“It has been grown in Spain for years without any known problems,” he said, adding that it would be clearly labeled as GMO maize to give farmers a choice.

“This decision will make it possible for these varieties of GM corn to spread across the union, but it is unlikely to happen immediately,” a commission spokeswoman, Beate Gminder, said.

So far, the Commission has insisted that EU states should be responsible for how their farmers segregate the three farming types: an issue known in EU jargon as coexistence.

The move angered greens, who say it is irresponsible to allow the widespread use of GMO seeds while many EU countries have no laws on how farmers should separate organic, GMO and conventional crops to minimize cross-contamination.

Friends of the Earth described the decision as “a recipe for disaster,” saying it would cause widespread contamination of Europe’s food, farming and environment and remove consumers’ ability to avoid GMOs.

Polls show that more than 70 percent of European consumers oppose biotech foods because of health and environment worries.

“European member states must step in where the Commission has failed and ban these GM seeds,” said FoE’s GMO campaigner Geert Ritsema in a statement.

“And without coexistence rules, the widespread contamination of conventional crops is highly likely, posing a massive threat to Europe’s food, farming and environment,” he said.

The Commission said it had failed to reach consensus on the purity of seed batches containing GMOs and the issue will be passed on to the new commission in November.

The commission was expected to agree upon a new rule that would allow a batch of 1,000 conventional seeds containing three or less genetically modified seeds to be sold without informing food manufacturers and consumers of the presence of the organisms. Ten of the 25 commissioners, however, opposed that move at a meeting in Brussels, including Romano Prodi, the president, and 5 commissioners were undecided. Spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said a more detailed economic impact assessment was needed as well.

Leaving the decision to the incoming commission “is a golden opportunity for a new commission to get into line with public opinion, which is distrustful of GM food,” said Bebb.

Friends of the Earth Europe wants just one seed in 1,000 to be the cut-off point for declaring the presence of genetically modified organisms. Bebb said that he hoped to have an ally in the incoming agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel of Denmark..

Lobbyists on behalf of the genetically altered food industry were disappointed by the commission’s failure to make a decision on Sept. 8.

In April the commission lifted a six-year long moratorium on the importing of genetically modified foods, after its scientists concluded that they do not pose a threat to human health, and after it passed strict laws ensuring that foods containing genetically altered organisms be clearly labeled as such.

Since then, several genetically altered products have been approved for import. In each case, however, national governments in Brussels have been unable to agree, because of fears of losing support from their voters, and have left the final approval each time to the commission on a case by case basis. So far, all the altered foods have been approved.

The United States government has complained to the World Trade Organization in Geneva about the moratorium, arguing that it is a protectionist measure that harms US farmers who export genetically modified foods.

Gminder denied that the commission is out of touch with consumers and national governments.

Sources: International Herald Tribune, New York Times, Reuters

Violence in Iraq casts doubt on elections

Compiled by Josh Ferguson

Sept. 15 (AGR) -- In a renewed surge of violence in Iraq, over 200 people have been killed in the past week of violence between Iraqi insurgents and US military forces.

As international questions arise as to the plausibility of a scheduled January election, increasing violence on both sides shows few signs of progress towards a stable Iraq by the end of the year.

On Sept. 9, US and Iraqi military forces penetrated the northern city of Samarrah for the first time in a month in an attempt to recapture territory that has slipped out of coalition control in recent weeks.

The operation was part of a three-pronged assault on insurgent strongholds including aerial bombardment of targets in Fallujah and Tal Afar, a city on the border with Syria taken over by insurgents.

US and Iraqi authorities lost control of Fallujah after US Marines ended three-week siege five months ago and turned the city over to a US-sanctioned force, the Fallujah Brigade. The Brigade has since disbanded after months of general inefficiency and, in some cases, cooperation with the insurgents.

The bombardment of Fallujah, where US patrols have been unable to operate for three weeks, was an attempt at a “precision strike” at a building reportedly occupied by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described by the US military as a leader of the Iraqi resistance.

“The target was a building frequently used by terrorists at the time of the strike,” a US statement said. “Three Zarqawi associates were reported to be in the area. No other individuals were present at the time of the strike.”

As with many other US air strikes described as precisely targeting terrorists, local doctors disagreed. Dr. Rafi Hayad said eight people were killed by the air attacks, four of them children and two women.

Reuters pictures showed several children, heavily bandaged and covered in blood, being treated in Fallujah hospital. But a US statement said “initial assessments” indicated that there had been no non-combatant casualties.

The US air assault on Tal Afar, a northern city east of Mosul, killed 57 insurgents, US military sources said. But Rabie Yassin, the provincial health chief, said 27 civilians had been killed and 70 wounded. In addition, blockades preventing traffic into Tal Afar have delayed ambulances and supply trucks from getting through to the city.

“The situation is critical,” Dr. Yassin added. “Ambulances and medical supplies cannot get to Tal Afar because of the ongoing military operations.”

On Sept. 12, at about 2am, US military vehicles entered Haifa street in the center of Baghdad, firing stun grenades into the street. A US armoured vehicle was set ablaze, and as a group of Iraqi men gathered around the burning vehicle, US helicopters swooped in and fired machine guns and missiles at the crowd, killing 12 Iraqis and injuring 61 others. Journalists present at the time reported all casualties to be civilians. A number of residential buildings were also damaged and US helicopters have continued to hover over the area, opening fire repeatedly.

Meanwhile, as US-led forces continue to bombard Baghdad and the Al-Anbar province (the province which includes Fallujah and Tal Afar), insurgents have continued their campaign of car-bombings and attacks on Iraqi police and US military forces.

In Baghdad a car bomb close to an Iraqi police station killed 47 people and injured 100 others on Sept. 14. It was the deadliest such attack in Iraq since July, when 68 people were killed by a car bomb outside a police station in Baquba.

Hours after the Baghdad explosion, gunmen opened fire on a police minibus in Baquba killing 12 policemen and one civilian.

Dozens of smaller attacks have been carried out as well, targeting mostly Iraqi police vehicles and buildings.

Secretary of state Colin Powell told NBC’s Meet The Press that the insurgency ‘’will be brought under control … it’s not an impossible task.’’

However, questions remain as to the possibility of elections by January.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that “The timetable really depends at the end of the day on the security situation.” However, he then added that “we are going in this direction [of national elections] without hesitation.’’

US military forces, however, are not so optimistic.

Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, operations chief of more than 150,000 mostly US troops in Iraq, said anti-US militancy in places such as Fallujah would not derail the national elections. A contingency plan, Metz said, is to bypass Fallujah, and perhaps other violent enclaves, and concentrate on ensuring electoral security in Baghdad and other population centers where the hostility is lower.

“We’d have [partial] elections before we let one place like Fallujah stop elections,” said Metz, the number two US military official in Iraq. “The rest of the country can go on about a process that heads right for an election.”

Still, Metz cautioned that the participation of Iraq’s three largest cities — Baghdad, Mosul in the north, and Basra in the south — was essential to any election.

Metz’s statements are among the strongest to date by US or Iraqi officials conceding that the security situation is so perilous that some areas may not be pacified in time for elections. While bypassing some cities could allow officials to stick to their timetable, doing so could detract from the election’s credibility, foment discontent in Iraq, and leave other countries reluctant to acknowledge any government chosen in the vote.

The elections scheduled for January are the next major milestone for Iraq as the nation follows a US- and UN-backed plan for its transition to democracy. The country became sovereign under a US-backed interim government on June 28, almost 15 months after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell.

How to provide security at some 9,000 projected polling places is among the challenges facing Iraqi and Western officials trying to craft an election blueprint for the nation of 24 million.

“There’s no scenario being ruled out,” said one US official in Baghdad. The idea is that people in one or two cities cannot be allowed to veto an election.”

Excluding polling booths from an entire city or cities, though, might be perilous. The plan would probably alienate those who are excluded from voting — most likely minority Sunni Muslims, who have spearheaded the insurgency in several Iraqi cities. It could also detract from the international legitimacy of the critical vote.

In other news, senior US army generals said last week that the United States may have secretly held dozens of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The army generals, however, said that they don’t know the exact number of so-called “ghost detainees” being held, accusing the CIA of not providing needed information and not cooperating with their investigation into abuses.

“The situation with the CIA and ghost [detainees] is beginning to look like a bad movie,” said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.

The presence of ghost detainees held by the CIA without registration was a key finding of the Army generals’ investigation, completed last month. Failure to register prisoners with the International Committee of the Red Cross is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

One of the generals said that up to 100 ghost detainees were being held; another said that there are only several dozen.

Also released recently, as of Sept. 14, 1,018 members of the US military have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department. Of those, 768 died as a result of hostile action and 250 died of non-hostile causes. The figures include three military civilians.

Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 877 US military members have died -- 656 as a result of hostile action and 221 of non-hostile causes, according to the military’s latest numbers. Since the start of US military operations in Iraq, 7,245 US service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Defense Department’s weekly tally.

Although US prohibitions on Iraqi death counts make a tally of such deaths difficult, private estimates project between 15,000 to 30,000 Iraqi deaths since the conflict officially started in 2003.

Sources: Al-Jazeera, AFP, AP, BBC, Democracy Now!, Independent Digital (UK), LA Times, NY Times, Reuters