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A new trial of the century

A little over a year after the election of Barack Obama change has indeed come to America, but soon may also follow the most reviled - and to an extent, feared - detainees to be held in U.S. prisons, as the president seeks to keep his promise of closing the controversial Guantanamo prison. Recently he conceded that his administration would miss the Jan. 22 deadline for closing the Cuba-based prison, but this may only be a short postponement following the earlier announcement, in a move rich in symbolism but also highly controversial, that five of the detainees would be tried in a New York courtroom for their involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

That leaves over 200 detainees, including Canadian Omar Khadr, to, barring the intervention of other countries, either face military commissions, or detention at a possible U.S. prison in the president’s own state of Illinois. The lack of countries willing to take some of the prisoners in, following a few Caribbean volunteers, as well as logistical and political matters revolving around the reflex of “not in my back yard” explained some of the reasons for the delay, Obama said, before addressing the fears associated with such transfers. "People, I think understandably, are fearful after a lot of years where they were told that Guantanamo was critical to keep terrorists out," he said during a trip in Asia.

Back in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the administration’s decision to try those now often referred-to as the “Gitmo Five” in New York, during a Senate Judiciary Committee appearance where there was no shortage of opponents. “We need not cower in the face of this enemy,” Holder said. “Our institutions are strong. Our infrastructure is sturdy. Our resolve is firm, and our people are ready,” he went on, adding the five would face the death penalty.

In a hearing attended by some families of the Sept.11 victims, Republicans and Democrats alike placed Holder on the hot seat. "I believe this decision is dangerous. I believe it's misguided. I believe it is unnecessary," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions "The correct way to try him is by military tribunal." Nor did Holder reassure many participants concerned about the possibility some of the defendants may ultimately be acquitted. "Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don’t expect that we will have a contrary result," he said, earning him an Iowa Senator’s remark: “It just seemed to me ludicrous, but I’m a farmer, not a lawyer."

For Obama himself, speaking about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-avowed mastermind of the terror attacks, only a single outcome was possible, and fears concerning the trial would disappear “when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.” He went on: “I have complete confidence in the American people and our legal traditions and the prosecutors.”

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani disagreed however, saying he thought holding the trial in New York would put residents at risk. While observers acknowledge such trials give the suspects, notably Mohammed, "an opportunity for political theater," they can also end up convicting themselves in the process, and convincing the jury of their guilt.

But beyond the symbolism of a New York trial, doubled by the fact it would take place in the Southern District of New York, where the twin towers once stood, is the fact that district attorneys probably have more experience dealing with terror cases there than any others in the country. The Southern District is where Omar Abdel Rahman was tried for the previous WTC bombing of 1993, two years after the attack, receiving a life sentence.

The next year Ramzi Yousef, Mohammed's nephew, and two co-conspirators were also sentenced to life in prison, followed by life sentences for the 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Africa, leading one Stratfor intelligence briefing to conclude “when it comes to prosecuting terror suspects, the Southern District of New York knows what it’s doing.”

It also notes that, countering fears such a landmark trial could make the city a greater target, previous trials had not led to revenge attacks, adding that New York has been successful disrupting at least nine terror plots against the city since Sept. 11, the most recent in May when four men were arrested for attempting to detonate explosives outside a synagogue in the Bronx, and in September when another was arrested for plotting to detonate explosives on trains.

You may have to forgive Americans for being on edge after all that and a killing spree at the largest base in the U.S., where would-be Islamist sympathizer Nidal Malik Hasan stands accused of gunning down 13 people shortly before he was to be deployed to Iraq. Officials there are still trying to determine how warnings about a man who is said to have repeatedly complained Muslims were being persecuted by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not heeded in the lead up to the tragedy. Authorities in the U.S. even suspect he was a follower of a radical Muslim cleric allegedly tied to a group planning attacks in Canada, the Toronto 18.

Separately last week the leader of a group which plotted to blow up the Sears Tower and FBI buildings was sentenced to 13.5 years in prison. Meanwhile the first detainee transferred to New York from Guantanamo Bay to face criminal charges in a civilian court is already in the Big Apple. Last week Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, charged with conspiring in the 1998 embassy attacks and an accused member of al-Qaida, found out he would not be represented by military lawyers, a U.S. district judge ruling that a decision by the Defense Department to reassign the military lawyers to other duties "does not violate Ghailani's rights."

With so much work remaining before definitely closing the base prison in Cuba and transferring its inmates, that word "rights", has at least entered the vocabulary of the U.S. justice system dealing with so-called enemy-combatants.

La pollution baisse, le temps du ralentissement

Difficile de trouver de côté positif à la crise économique actuelle mais une statistique fera sans doute sourire les verts : Les émissions mondiales de dioxyde de carbone devraient diminuer de 2,8% cette année sous l'effet de la crise financière, selon le rapport annuel de Global Carbon Project. Mais là encore, pollution allant de pair avec économie, la baisse risque de n’être que temporaire, puis à d’autres niveaux, la crise n’aura que diminué... l’augmentation des index de pollution, ces même auteurs rappellant que malgré le ralentissement déjà vécu depuis un certain temps, les chiffres étaient 2% à la hausse en 2008 et la production de carbone par habitant atteint des sommets alarmants de 1.3 tonne par habitant. (4.5 au Canada)

Rappel troublant à la veille d’une conférence climatique à Copenhague où plusieurs craignent déjà la déception : les chiffres font écho des statistiques alarmantes du passé, prévoyant des hausses de température mondiale entre 5 et 6 degrés d'ici 2100. Selon le climatologue Andrew Weaver de l’université de Victoria, la planête a dépassé le seuil où elle était capable de digérer les émissions de dioxyde de carbonne, un fait qu’il qualifie de «profondément troublant ».

Entre temps la disparition progressive de la calotte glaciaire s'accélère chez nos voisins du Groenland et contribue de plus en plus à l'élévation du niveau des mers, selon une autre étude. La diminution de la calotte pendant la période 2006-2008 représente l'équivalent d'une hausse de 0,75 mm par an du niveau des mers du globe. «La perte, en termes de masse, s'est accélérée», explique Michiel van den Broeke, de l'université d'Utrecht aux Pays-Bas, dans la revue Science. «Les années 2006-08, caractérisées par des étés chauds, ont connu une fonte impressionnante » dit-il. Si la totalité de la calotte glaciaire du Groenland fondait, le niveau des mers du globe monterait de sept mètres, scénario catastro- phique peut-être, mais entre temps, au total, le Groenland n'en a pas moins perdu 1.500 milliards de tonnes de glace de 2000 à 2008.

De manière générale, malgré les prédictions plutôt alarmantes à propos des glaces de l’Océan Arctique, qui selon un institut polaire américain s’enlignait vers une autre année de fontes catastrophiques, l’agence d’Environnement Canada surveillant les eaux du nord a constaté que plusieurs eaux complètement ouvertes à la navigation lors des deux années précédentes, étaient plus encombrées de glace cette année, sans signifier toutefois un recul sur l’échelle des fontes, qui font rêver certains armateurs de passages de navires dans le Grand Nord pendant une bonne partie de l’année, évitant les coûteux détours du canal de Panama. En fait, selon les observateurs, les difficultés sont causées par la circulation de glaces plus anciennes de la mer de Beaufort dans les canaux navigables, plutôt qu’un regel.

Puis, dans la course au grand nord pour couper court le voyage des cargos trans- atlantiques la compétition vient rappeler l’état des glaces de l’autre côté du Pôle. En effet deux navires allemands ont accompli l’impensable cet été en traversant le passage du nord-est, dans l’Arctique russe, d’habitude encore plus inaccessible que le passage du nord-ouest si contesté du côté nord-Américain. Le passage du nord-est, qui représente une solution encore périlleuse il faut le dire, tant les icebergs peuvent y être mobiles, a permis à la compagnie d’écourter son trajet de 5,000 kilomètres, une économie non-négligeable de 300,000$ par navire. Voyage unique ou indication alarmante des changements planétaires, ce passage polaire n’a pas été aussi dégagé depuis 5000 ans selon les scientifiques.

Aussi cette semaine une étude du magazine Nature Geoscience a conclu que la calotte glaciaire de la partie orientale du continent antarctique n'est plus épargnée par la fonte qui affectait déjà la partie ouest de ce continent. Et selon les experts ces fontes seront effectivement coûteuses. Selon un rapport de l'industrie de l'assurance cette semaine 200 milliards $ de biens sont en péril rien qu'au Canada à cause du réchauffement terrestre, mettant le Canada au 12e rang au niveau de la valeur des pertes.

Ukraine's tough medicine for flu

With universities, schools and theatres closed, public meetings banned and some border crossings also shut, as response to swine flu goes, few countries come close to the draconian measures seen in the Ukraine. Some have blamed it on the slow initial response of the country’s Soviet-era health system, others on over-reacting by political figures posturing for next year’s presidential election.

While polls-leading contender Viktor Yanukovich has blamed rival Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister, for using scare tactics to gather the electorate’s support, he has made his own promises in terms of protecting the country against disease. Meanwhile current president Viktor Yushchenko asked the WHO to carry out tests for what he called an epidemic unlike what other countries have had to deal with. Other countries have certainly been alarmed by the spread of a virus some feared could be more serious than H1N1, prompting Poland to call for action at the European Union level, while Ukraine’s neighbours, and countries beyond, launched health checks on Ukrainians entering their territory.

As soon as Tymoshenko confirmed the arrival of a swine flu epidemic on Oct. 30, she announced the government would impose some of the strictest measures against the virus in Europe. Since then, she has made daily television addresses to update the nation on the state of infection and criticized her political rivals for hindering her efforts to stop it. The emergency hasn’t hurt her as polls showed support for her party rising like a bad fever, to within a few points of Yanukovich, who has pledged to spend his own campaign fund on flu medicine and 20 million surgical masks to be handed out for free to provincial hospitals. The promise is not an insignificant one as face masks have sold out across the country and, like most flu medication, the subject of black-market profiteering.

While WHO officials say the million-strong infection count in the country of 46 million, including over 300 related deaths, was no different that what has been seen in other countries, some point to the weakness of the health system for making the crisis worse than it should be, notably by lagging on the vaccination front. Only this week was Ukraine looking into this.

Early findings indicate serious cases grew because the sick avoided hospitalization until their illness was dangerously advanced, stockpiles of anti-virals were locked in centralized locations and the supply of ventilators fell short, WHO’s David Mercer, told the New York Times. “It’s not like this caught us by surprise; we’ve known for months that this was coming,” said Mercer, who heads the office’s communicable disease unit. “We’ve been working very hard on plans, but sometimes the battle plan doesn’t survive the first contact with the enemy. We’ve had to change a lot of things on the fly.”

But some officials feared what has transpired in Ukraine is more complicated than the now widespread swine flu: rather a dangerous cocktail of three flu viruses mutating into a single pneumonic plague. “Unlike similar epidemics in other countries, three causes of serious viral infections came together simultaneously in Ukraine – two seasonal flus and the Californian flu,” Yushchenko said. “Virologists conclude that this combination of infections may produce an even more aggressive new virus as a result of mutation.”

The WHO however determined there was little unusual about the country's outbreak of swine flu, but by the time it had reached that conclusion prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, who holds the EU presidency, said EU action was immediately necessary to avoid the spread of what he said could be a more potent virus. European officials were this week more concerned about the spread of a drug-resistant strain of H1N1 in England however.

Meanwhile in the Ukraine Tymoshenko denies her response to the outbreak has been politically-motivated, although some observers said her racing to TV sets has made it the main issue in the campaign for January’s election. "There is a saying in Ukraine: the active idiot is better than the lazy philosopher. And it now looks like people will vote for Tymoshenko simply because she is taking action on this flu issue, which has completely dominated public discussion," political analyst Volodymyr Tsybulko told the AP. "The smaller candidates have been pushed out of the information sphere by this issue. It's now just Tymoshenko's show."

Meanwhile health officials have expressed concern that the highly-charged political discourse has caused unnecessary public panic, sending consumers rushing to pharmacies to hoard medication all the while packing overburdened hospitals as people rushed to emergency rooms at the first signs of a slight fever.

Europe: the divisions that remain

As world leaders gathered in Berlin this week at the Brandenburg gate to mark the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin wall, the central theme was understandably that of unity in a city where the barrier once divided a nation, a continent, and the world. While many of the divisions that existed then are now long gone, much of the unity fanfare may have tried to drown out the reality of gaps that remain between the former East and West, even among the tightly-knit European Union.

Economically, many former Warsaw Pact countries remain well below the Western standard of living, few having a GDP per capita more than half the EU average, while politically the old divisions made their unexpected reappearance during the Iraqi war, as Eastern European countries more eager to please Washington joined in to the coalition of the willing while many of their Western counterparts looked on. But more surprisingly, even within the more prosperous 27-nation EU, which has more than doubled in size since 1989 and gone through phases of expansion and deepening of institutions, much of the touted unity is left to be desired.

This was underlined just days earlier when the Czech Republic became the last country to sign the Lisbon treaty, the EU’s new constitution which paves the way for Europe, after decades of speaking with what seemed to be more voices than nations, to behave more like a federation; with a president and foreign minister with real powers.

The “Union” remains far from the United States of Europe envisioned by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, as nationalist resistance prevented on the political and foreign policy front the kind of unity seen on the economic and monetary front. The new treaty provides for a EU diplomatic service and a multi-billion-euro budget but member states will keep their veto over decisions on foreign and defense policy as well as taxation and the EU budget.

The treaty comes into force Dec. 1 as the continent seeks to move beyond the rejection of the EU constitution in two member states in 2005 and take a bold step to meet the challenges of the powers rising in Asia: China and India. But the euroskeptic leader’s reluctance to sign spoke volumes about the ambivalence tied to a deeper European integration. Vaclav Klaus signed the pact after the country's Constitutional Court had thrown out a complaint against it: "I had expected the court ruling and I respect it, although I fundamentally disagree with its content and justification," he said.

Nor was there any visible agreement on the choice of president, following a failed summit on the presidency. Once considered a leading candidate, former British prime minister Tony Blair was no longer considered a top pick as French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that the position should be filled by a country with the euro as its currency. A consensus was emerging about the need to pick a president from within the European People's Party, which holds the most seats.

The foreign minister would come from the second largest party, the Party of European Socialists. New favourites included Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy for president while former Italian prime minister Massimo D'Alema was being considered for foreign affairs. A decision is expected on both posts Nov. 19.  

The divisions are of course much steeper with countries on the other side of the old Iron Curtain, especially if you consider countries carved out of the old Soviet Union. While the Czech Republic, both a member of NATO and the EU, can consider itself blessed and closer to its Western counterparts, GDP per capita figures offer a stark reminder, leaving it more than 50% below the Western average.

If countries of the old Eastern bloc weren't scared to death by the shock therapies of the 1990s, they may have been spooked by the latest economic collapse, which have left some to wonder whether the removal of the wall should have meant the embrace of capitalism should have equalled that of democracy. A recent survey of nine eastern European countries showed sliding approval for democracy and capitalism, Ukraine and Bulgaria leading the way with their disappointment. Some in these parts even said things were actually worse off now than under communism.

"There's a feeling of frustration with how democracy is working," Richard Wike, associate director of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, told the Toronto Star. "Overwhelmingly, in the region, people say their countries are headed in the wrong direction." Hardest hit of all by the recent downturn were the Baltic states, which have seen their GDPs drop anywhere between 13 to 18% compared to last year. Even the Czech Republic slipped by 4%, still better than Romania (-8%) or Slovenia (-7.8%), considered the better off of the Eastern European lot.

Not to generalize however, Poland could emerge as the only EU country with actual growth at the end of the year, bolstered by strong public demand. Perhaps this is a result of its distance from the slumped EU zone, closer Eastern European countries having learned to rely too much on exports for growth. A measure of the East-West gap is the projected increase in outsourcing from Western to Eastern European countries, as the former look to cut costs and take advantage of the East's competitive advantage.

While the EU is divided on foreign policy, usually directed by the more potent countries according to their areas of interest, Europe's economic clout has been reflected by its surging euro, worth about $1.50 compared to below $1 soon after its introduction a decade ago. While the collapse of the Berlin wall was hard to predict, few could also say they saw the collapse of the greenback coming to the point of leading some to question its dominance in international finance. This week a paper by economists at the IMF acknowledged that the global crisis has reignited the debate about anchoring the world’s monetary system on one country’s currency.

While the euro is seen by some as a potential successor, others such as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have called for a supranational currency following the collapse of world markets a year ago. He even brought a sample coin to the G8 summit in Italy this summer. China has also called for a global reserve currency, an alarming suggestion considering the country holds much of America's debt. While the day it replaces the dollar as a world currency may still be some time away, the euro has grown into the most potent symbol of a unified Europe.

Largest immunization program not without glitches

After waiting most of the day inside a City of Ottawa tent, then in three separate waiting rooms after receiving a special wrist band, filling in three forms and registering with proper ID in hand, the hard work of convincing a young daughter of taking the H1N1 vaccine was only beginning for a middle-aged mom strained by the process of taking part in the largest immunization program in Canadian history.

While a nurse held her youngest child, still crying to the top of her lungs after the injection, which spooked her elder sister, the mother was using the last of her strength to level with her reluctant daughter. Tables away a father forcefully grabbed his youngest son and held him down with both arms and legs as the nurse stuck a needle in the child's arm.

These were the lucky ones. The high-risk groups of children between six months and five years, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions and front-line emergency workers that topped the list of H1N1 vaccine recipients. More than that, they had made it inside before the Ottawa clinic which officially started its immunization program at 2:30 p.m. closed its doors shortly after 3 p.m., leaving hundreds who had gathered in the rain outside out in the cold, to come back for another try on a much busier weekend day.

The first week of the H1N1 immunization program saw worried parents line up as early as 3 a.m. at some Calgary locations, while in Quebec thousands of kilometers away 1,200 people of the 2,000 who had gathered at one small town medical clinic were turned away because the centre had only received 800 dozes.

This may only herald what’s next to come as officials postpone vaccination of the general public as shortages of the vaccine, produced in a single Quebec City-area plant, grew with every alcohol-rubbed arm. Officials conceded what they are trying to do in Canada and in other countries right around the world is unprecedented.

"We're producing it, testing it, distributing it, giving it to people all at the same time," Canadian Chief Public Health Officer Dr. David Butler-Jones said of the vaccine. "It is something that nobody has ever actually had to deal with before in this kind of context. It's the largest immunization campaign in history."

The program barely launched, Alberta had to close all its clinics, citing shortages. This only made more controversial revelations that, soon after two NHL players contracted swine flu, news leaked that the Calgary Flames had jumped the immunization queue to obtain the precious vaccine. The shortages even threatened to add another chapter to the country's ongoing private-public health care debate as at least one private Toronto clinic said its 3,000 doses were enough to satisfy clients frustrated by the current situation, but for a steep fee.

While there had been initial fears many Canadians would not heed warnings about the danger of the H1N1 virus, as the number of related deaths worldwide jumped by 700 to over 5,000, the first week of introduction of the vaccine left medical facilities overwhelmed, leading to mounting frustrations among parents unnerved by the latest screaming headlines about the second round of the pandemic.

Earlier during the week two Ontario children 13 years old an under had died after contracting H1N1, as the number of Canadian flu-related deaths topped 100. Meanwhile schools in Quebec and Ottawa reported outbreaks of the swine flu, leaving classes largely empty as parents of healthy kids decided to keep them home by fear of becoming ill.

Earlier in the week the U.S. declated a state of emergency concering swine flu, after official there, where flu-related deaths (some 4,000) represent about 70% of the world’s 6,000 cases, reported possible delays and shortages introducing the vaccine as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the country has seen more hospitalizations in people under 65 with flu than what is normally seen in an entire flu season. In that country alone, the number of children deaths related to the flu were already over 100.

"In a usual flu season 90 per cent of the deaths are among people over the age of 65. In H1N1, 90 per cent of deaths are in people under the age of 65," stressed CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden. Concern about swine flu led to a drastic measure in Ukraine, where authorities shut down all schools across the country of 50 million to prevent the spread of the virus.

At least the young kids of the Ottawa clinic could console themselves with the thought that after that long walk back in the car under the rain there would be ice cream. Before the younger ones return for their follow-up shot three weeks later. Health officials hope by then the vaccine will be stocked in hospitals and medical clinics.

At last word, a second shot was said of not being necessary for all young children, and the situation was stabilizing at some clinics. But shortages have also shut down many others, leaving the vaccine out of reach for most Canadians, who as a result remain without protection as the second wave hits its peak.

Montréal: Que le nettoyage commence!

“Je vous ai compris.” Dans la ville où un certain chef d’état français avait fait un véritable tabac, on a entendu l’écho du général alors que le maire à nouveau ré-élu promettait de frotter à neuf une métropole conspuée à travers le pays, et même à l’étranger, à titre de « croulante honte mafieuse et corrompue ».

Il s’agissait bien de la couverture du magazine Macleans à la veille de l’élection municipale du 1er novembre à Montréal, dont la campagne avait été faite sur fond d’accusations et d’enquête de corruption dans l’octroi de contrats municipaux.

« Montréal doit être exemplaire à tous les égards, notamment en ce qui touche l'intégrité de ses institutions et de ses élus » a déclaré Gérald Tremblay lors d’un discours de victoire qui avait presque les allures de celui du camp perdant. Il n’y a aucun doute que les affaires de présumée corruption étaient tombées comme pluie en automne pendant la campagne de 44 jours, notament lors des derniers jours, lorsqu’un ancien membre de son équipe qui avait rejoint le camp adverse a perdu son nouveau poste et fait d'autres déclarations, éclaboussant les deux camps.

Selon Benoit  Labonté, qui était sur l’ancien exécutif de Tremblay, un système «mafieux » régnait dans l’obtention des contrats à l’hôtel de ville, les gagnants versant de lourds pots-de-vin aux élus municipaux, selon lui. Par ailleurs une enquête de Radio-Canada avait laissé entendre que la mafia montréalaise organisait le processus d’obtention des contrats de manière à contrôler les constructions routières, un domaine en effervescence étant donné les importants investissements en infrastructure depuis l’écroulement du viaduc de Laval en 2006.

Alors que lors de la campagne le maire aurait voulu parler de transport en commun, notamment le retour possible du tramway, et de développement économique, la corruption et l’étique sont presque devenus les seuls grands sujet de la campagne. Les affaires de corruption remontaient plus loin, et ont attiré l’œil plutôt sévère du magazine Economist vers Montréal lorsque la Sûreté du Québec s’est penchée sur les accusations de fraude ce printemps, notamment sur les transactions irrégulières à la Société d’habitation de Montréal, deux de ses cinq enquêtes impliquant d’anciens membres de l'équipe du maire.

Elles avaient beau épargner le maire lui-même, les accusations de fraude pénétraient l’hôtel de ville littéralement : un homme à contrat pour effectuer des travaux sur le toit de l’immeuble du vieux Montréal prétendant avoir été obligé de verser $40,000 à deux conseillers municipaux par le crime organisé. En septembre, le vérificateur Jacques Bergeron, qui avait déjà été sévère sur la société d'habitation, rajoutait au lot en déposant un nouveau rapport accablant, celui-là sur le plus riche contrat octroyé par la ville, celui des compteurs d’eau. Malgré tout, Tremblay parvenait à se sortir la tête de l’eau.

La rivale de Tremblay, l’ancienne péquiste Louise Harel, avait beau raconter à la rigolade qu’au lieu de passer avec le balais après le mandat de Tremblay, c’est un aspirateur qu’il fallait, le fait qu’elle n’ait pas été entièrement épargnée par toutes ces accusations, notamment par Labonté, elle qui venait tout juste de faire un saut au municipal, a entaché sa campagne de « Mme nette » aux yeux d’un électorat qui lors d’un sondage révélait qu’il aurait voulu un meilleur choix de candidats.

Conclusion d'un éditorialiste de La Presse, sous le titre de « victoire amère » : «Ce mandat qu'amorce Gérald Tremblay sera probablement son dernier. C'est l'occasion ou jamais pour lui de laisser un autre héritage que les scandales.» Moins de deux jours après l’élection, la SQ procédait à une dizaine d’arrestations dans le domaine de la construction dont certaines impliquant le crime organisé. Fait étonnant: c'était sans relation avec l'annonce, une semaine plus tôt, que Québec lançait une escouade de la SQ pour enquêter sur les accusations de corruption et d’infiltration du crime organisé.

Le nettoyage ne fait donc que commencer dans la ville qui durant les années de prohibition américaine a hébergé Charles Ponzi, un nom qui comme peu d’autres évoque la fraude financière.

New violence in Iraq

It would be unfair to say Sunday’s devastating suicide terror blasts in Baghdad undid years of efforts to bring peace to post-Saddam Iraq, but the twin bombing which killed 155 people - registering as the worst attack in two years - and which sent Iraqis screaming for more security, was certainly an unsettling event in view of plans to remove international troops from the country.

Barack Obama, for whom the attack threatens to disrupt plans to gradually bring GIs home, led condemnations for the blast, claimed by a group loosely tied to Al-Qaida. "These bombings serve no purpose other than the murder of innocent men, women and children, and they only reveal the hateful and destructive agenda of those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that they deserve," the U.S. president said.

The bombings were met with outrage by citizens expressing doubt about the government’s ability to defend them, having occurred in one of the safest areas of the city, close to the heavily fortified Green Zone. “(Prime minister Nouri) Al-Maliki always appears on TV bragging that the situation is stable and security is restored. Let him come and see this mass destruction," told the AP Ahmed Mahmoud, searching for remnants of family members lost in the attack which killed two dozen children and injured hundreds of others.

“These bombings just show that Maliki has failed in commanding the Iraqi armed forces,” agreed Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament from the northern province of Kirkuk. The concern is all the more acute in the run up to January’s elections, which the prime minister was hoping to take part in boasting his ability to bring on more peaceful times. Now these electoral efforts, like those al-Maliki had just completed during a recent U.S. trip to shore up investments in Iraq, seemed buried under the rubble of the blasts.

Al-Maliki's government didn’t hesitate to look beyond Iraq's borders for the culprit, calling for the creation of an international tribunal to investigate allegations that Syria is harboring militants from both Al-Qaida in Iraq and the Baath Party, which it blamed for the attacks. In reality, attacks are much less frequent now than two years ago, where they routinely killed dozens, but have increased as of late, as they did prior to the previous call to the polls.

"These cowardly terrorist attacks must not affect the determination of the Iraqi people to continue their struggle against the remnants of the dismantled regime and al-Qaida terrorists," Al-Maliki said. While the terror group’s guilt has yet to be authenticated, observers note the sophistication of the attack, and devastation in a zone considered secure, leaves little doubt a major group was behind the coordinated blast of two vehicles, one in a parking and another at a busy junction near the Justice Ministry and the provincial government headquarters, damaging three major government buildings. Both packed over 1,500 pounds of explosives.

“This is really big – to get two vehicles to this heavily guarded area, past any number of police checkpoints. It's bigger than an organization like the Baath (members of Saddam Hussein's former regime),” one analyst told the Globe & Mail, comparing the blast with the August attack on the country’s finance and foreign affairs ministries. “Same style, same value of targets, same degree of difficulty. But I don't think the Baathists have the capacity to carry out attacks such as these.”

The attacks, like those of August,  had been claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, a group linked with Al-Qaida in Iraq. After the August incident Iraqi officials claimed they had arrested the perpetrators, but they may not be so sure now. The bombs went off as the country’s politicians were meeting try to break the deadlock over a draft law that would enable elections to take place this winter.

The meeting, set up to avoid a possible delay in the parliamentary election that will choose the lawmakers expected to oversee the withdrawal of U.S forces, was to be headed by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. “The perpetrators of these treacherous and despicable acts are no longer hiding their objective but, to the contrary, they publicly declare that they are targeting the state … and aiming at blocking the political process, halting it and destroying what we have achieved in the last six years,” he said.

The following day the government made progress on the issue and pledged tighter security, despite the fact that to reach their prized targets the bombers would have had to encounter a number of checkpoints, an investigation showed. Authorities rushed to set up and tighten checkpoints in the capital, intelligence showing other targets could follow. Traffic restrictions in the targeted street had been eased six months before and blast walls repositioned, following what al-Maliki considered to be an improvement in the security situation, but at least this illusion has been shattered with the twin bombing.

"These types of attacks are more troubling because they are much harder to pull off,” noted Michael Hanna, from The New York-based Century Foundation. “So these really shake people's core beliefs about the competency of the government… These are highly symbolic actions that will undermine Maliki. There's no question about that."

Considering the twin impact of Sunday’s attack and the Aug. 19 blast of the ministries, which may have killed another 100 people, there is little doubt the apparatus of the state is being targeted as insurgents seek to undermine the government’s ability to function - all the while the U.S. military hopes to stick with plans to withdraw some 70,000 troops by August of next year, leaving less than that in a country where it once had a massive presence.

In the mean time, U.S. military officials were adamant the incident does not impact the timetable for the expected drawdown of forces. "We have said from the beginning there would be good days and bad days. This weekend we had a bad day," said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Shawn Turner. "But there is no indication we are shifting course in any way in regard to the drawdown." But as troops take to the streets to ensure security in visible numbers once more, Iraqis hope they can see the day lowering the security level doesn’t leave the capital, and leadership, open to attacks.

Ordinary Iraqis blame rival political factions for the attacks in the lead up to the election, stressing the importance, some say, of reaching an agreement on the organization of the January vote. "The terrorist attacks gave us a strong impetus to reach an agreement," one lawmaker told the Los Angeles Times. "So that the terrorists will be denied the opportunity to take advantage of political disputes and create more chaos."But there seemed little immediate sign of an agreement, as efforts to settle the electoral law dispute remained bogged down by divisions between ethnic groups.

More neighbours concerned about Pakistan

In the fight to control forces spilling out of Pakistan, the field is becoming more and more crowded. In addition to being targeted by internal Taleban forces still enjoying the sympathy of its own security apparatus and increasingly vengeful of this spring’s military offensive in the Swat valley, once more bringing violence to the country’s cities, Pakistani authorities stand helpless in the face of unmanned U.S. drones targeting its territory to fight al-Qaida insurgents spilling into Afghanistan, and more recently, faced the threat of Iranian intervention following a series of attacks Tehran partly blames on its eastern neighbour.

All the while the country’s southern neighbour and traditional rival keeps demanding answers about attacks in its territory perpetrated by terrorists who originated in Pakistan. It’s not an easy geography and Islamabad’s inability to control its security situation is causing diplomatic strains across the board.

While Pakistan can plead guilty to being the source of the attacks in India and Afghanistan, the new development in Iran, following a bombing on Oct. 18 in the remote southeastern province of Sistan- Baluchistan, killing 42 including five senior officers of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, is perhaps less obviously linked to Pakistan. While Pakistan’s infamous ISI security service has had contact with the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks, Jundallah or Soldiers of God, the ethnic Baluch group is an indigenous movement, and Pakistan’s last contact with its members usually ended in arrests.

Iran has also blamed the U.K. and Washington for the attacks, not out of force of habit but because of suspected American intelligence contacts with the group. During the Bush administration there were allegations that the CIA was supporting Iran's minorities to unsettle the regime. The attacks at least temporarily turned Tehran’s focus away from disagreements with the west over its nuclear programme and inwards, sparking fears of inter-Muslim clashes in the Shia theocracy.

But for many the incident is yet another illustration of Pakistan’s inability to control its borders and what evil can ooze out of it. Iran has threatened Pakistan with intervention as a result of the blast, the closest of the three countries it has held responsible for supporting the group.

As if Islamabad didn’t have enough to worry about since a string of attack on its cities that followed the Oct. 10 attack against the Pakistani army headquarters, what many analysts considered a warning shot about the military’s next offensive in South Waziristan to fight insurgents. Claims the military had killed dozens of insurgents in that offensive this week were answered by Wednesday's blast of a crowded market in Peshawar, killing over 90 people. U.S. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton had just arrived in the country in an effort to improve ties.

Yet some analysts fear the offensive will once more cause a large displacement of militants, spreading them from the region considered the epicenter of the insurgency to areas such as Balochistan, which borders both Iran and Afghanistan, and the infamous North-West Frontier Province, perhaps heralding more attacks on the busy Afghan side, where another Canadian soldier was killed this week and the U.S. recorded its bloodiest month in years. By some accounts some of these militants had ended up in Pakistan after being flushed out of Iraq by the U.S. troop surge.

In the mean time violence continues in the capital, after a Pakistani army brigadier and his driver were killed this week in an attack by gunmen, the latest in a wave of attacks on Pakistani cities which has killed nearly 300 people in October, and the second attack in the capital in three days after a blast that killed four at the International Islamic University.

In an effort to lower tensions with Iran at least, Pakistan promised Tehran to find the culprits of the attacks as Iran’s Interior Minister was expected to visit Islamabad. But these are the kinds of statements India has however heard only too often after Pakistan-based terror-groups targeted its cities. Tehran also accuses Sunni terror group al-Qaida of supporting the largely Sunni ethnic group in Baluchistan, a less verifiable claim. And one would think fighting a common enemy would help it soften its tone toward the U.S.

Un second tour en Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai espérait éviter un deuxième tour mais sous le poids d’une preuve de fraude accablante dut se résigner puis se plier aux appels à la tenue d'un nouveau scrutin, préparant un duel avec son rival, l’ancien ministre des affaires étrangères Abdullah Abdullah.

Quelques 210 bureaux de vote ont vu leurs dépouilles invalidées, une fraude contaminant jusqu’à 96% des votes dans ces secteurs. Ces révélations ont fait chuter sous la barre des 50% les votes accordés à Karzai, exigeant ainsi un second tour. Malgré une réticence évidente, le président s’est plié aux appels internationaux et accepté de faire tenir ce vote le 7 novembre. Mais en attendant un bon nettoyage sera effectué parmi les équipes électorales responsables du gênant fiasco du premier tour pour éviter une répétition du scandale qui a terni l’idée même d’une démocratie afghane.

Pour Karzai pourtant, l’organisation du prochain tour fait état «des progrès démocratiques » dans ce pays souvent envahi mais rarement vaincu et encore moins uni. Même écho du rival, pour qui le second tour va : «raffermir la foi des Afghans envers le processus démocratique ». Pendant ce temps, les Etats-Unis, qui s’apprêtent à envoyer plusieurs milliers de soldats supplémentaires en Afghanistan, et qui y vivent leur mois le plus sanglant depuis 2001, ont indiqué qu’ils attendaient une solution à la paralysie politique provoquée par le scandale avant de se décider sur ce nouveau parachutage de GIs.

Pourtant de nouveaux soldats auraient été bien utiles afin de protéger les bureaux de scrutin lors de ce nouvel épisode électoral, le premier n’ayant pas été épargné par les violences, et de toutes évidence, nombreuses fraudes et tentatives d’intimidation. Aussi les organisateurs, qui s’étaient initialement félicités du fait que le premier tour avait principalement été organisé par des Afghans, devront-ils tout reprendre dans un laps de temps réduit, notamment avec des conditions presque hivernales dans certaines régions.

L’annonce d'un second tour a d’elle-même initialement adouci le ton entre les deux rivaux, laissant certains spéculer que s’ils voulaient éviter l’énormité de la tâche d’organiser un autre vote, ils pourraient s’entendre sur un partage du pouvoir - une suggestion qu’Abdullah a aussitôt rejetée : « Pour ce qui est de ce second tour, mon désir profond est qu'il ait lieu en temps voulu et dans de bonnes circonstance ».

Entre temps les dirigeants internationaux ont salué la décision de Karzai, le président français Nicolas Sarkozy affirmant que : « la déclaration de M. Karzai démontre ses qualités d’homme d’état qui peut prendre des décisions sur ce qui est essentiel et dans le meilleur intérêt de son pays et de l’unité du peuple Afghan. » Mais d'autres sont à présent moins sûrs à propos du président, à présent incapable d'éliminer les doutes à son sujet, même s'il emporte le second tour.  Puis les rumeurs voulant que son frère Ahmed Wali Karzai ait participé au scandale électoral et ait été un agent de la CIA ne font rien pour rassurer les observateurs.

Avec un 28% des votes élevé à 32% suite aux modifications apportées par la révision des bulletins, Abdullah a cependant peu de chances de causer la surprise lors d’un second tour qui risque d’attirer encore moins de participants que le premier, dont les résultats de participation ont également été revus à la baisse par la correction électorale. Ce dernier a laissé savoir qu’il entend poser une série de conditions en vue de ce second tour.

En attendant l’ONU est à l’œuvre pour remplacer plus de la moité, rien de moins, des 380 coordinateurs électoraux de district, quelques 200 responsables ayant selon l’ONU fait l'objet « de plaintes déposées par des candidats et des observateurs». L’ONU estime qu’un second tour, malgré l’apparence de nouveau cauchemar logistique, ne sera pas si difficile à organiser puisque tout le matériel électoral est déjà en place. De plus les bureaux de vote à faible participation au premier tour en raison de l'insécurité, ou alors entachés par une importante fraude, ne seront pas ouverts au second tour,  ramenant le nombre de bureaux de 25000 à 16000.

Mais en attendant les Talibans promettent de semer à terreur lors de la campagne, après une attaque qui a tué neuf personnes dont cinq membres de l'ONU à Kaboul cette semaine. L'arrestation de 60 gardes de sécurité après cet attentat laisse les observateurs étonnés par le degré de corruption qui mine le gouvernement afghan.

Cet ancien rêve...

Il y a un peu plus d’un an certains pouvaient sourire avec un brin de nostalgie lors des championnats du monde de hockey à Québec à la vue de ces t-shirts promotionnels rappelant la vocation de Québec en tant que ville de hockey. En fait les habitants de la vieille capitale n’ont jamais cessé de rêver de la possibilité du retour des Nordiques dans la belle province, seulement il fallait faire quelquechose à propos de cet amphithéâtre de seconde catégorie que de Colisée Pepsi, à peine retapé pour l’organisation d’un tel événement d’envergure internationale.

Ainsi l’annonce d’un projet de nouvel aréna de $400 millions de calibre, quelques jours après une rencontre entre le maire de Québec Régis Labeaume, l’ancien propriétaire des Nordiques Marcel Aubut et le commissaire de la ligue nationale, à New York, a eu de quoi faire frissonner les citoyens de la capitale, même si les amateurs canadiens ont pu connaitre la déception suivant la saga de Hamilton, conclue avec l’acquisition des Coyotes par la ligue.

« Les gens de Québec veulent une équipe de la ligue nationale » affirmait le maire Labeaume le jour de l’annonce du projet d’aréna de 18000 places, ajoutant que bien qu’un tel amphithéâtre n’offre aucune garantie d’obtenir un club, l’état actuel des choses rendait tout rêve allant dans ce sens impossible. Le projet pourrait voir le jour en 2012, l’année des JOs d’été de Londres, et permettait de faire rêver à d’autres manifestations sportives, a-t-il laissé entendre, soit même  accueillir les jeux d’hiver.

De retour sur terre, un tel projet, qui selon ce candidat aux élections municipales de cet automne, représente «une priorité pour la population, pour son développement et son essor», coûterait $50 millions à la ville, si chaque pallier de gouvernement voudrait bien verser $175 millions de la facture. Ses opposants lui en ont voulu d’en faire presque un enjeu de la campagne, sans critiquer le projet toutefois. «La pire affaire aurait été de ne pas parler de ce projet, de se faire élire et d'en parler après» affirme le maire qui voudrait se faire ré-élire dans quelques semaines.

Québec et Ottawa ont affiché leur intérêt, mais en indiquant que leur implication était conditionnelle à celle d'un partenaire privé, une attitude pourtant contraire à celle qu’aurait préféré Labeaume, espérant qu’une implication du public puisse attirer le privé. Il a par ailleurs ouvert la porte à une certaine créativité sur le plan du financement, parlant d’établir une lotterie pour financer une partie du projet.

Aubut pour sa part estime qu’un tel projet annule les anciens arguments contre Québec : «Il y a 15 ans, nous avons perdu les Nordiques, car on n'avait pas de nouvel amphithéâtre. Si nous avons ce nouvel amphithéâtre, les arguments de 1995 n'existent plus, et le projet d'une franchise de la LNH devient réalisable», a-t-il déclaré. Bettman nous a fait savoir qu’avec un nouvel arena il n’y a pas de limite à ce que nous pouvons espérer ».

Plus tôt cette semaine le vice commissaire de la ligue, Bill Daly, estimait même qu’un tel projet placerait Québec «au haut de la liste » d’une éventuelle expansion de la ligue. Etant donné la construction d’un amphithéâtre plus petit à Winnipeg, et l’essoufflement des Etats-Unis sur le plan hockey, voilà qui n’est peut-être pas tout à fait faux. Mais pour l’ancien entraîneur Michel Bergeron, la question demeure si le public pourra, bon an mal an, rempli un tel aréna régulièrement tout au long de la saison « ça c’est une autre affaire » fait-il remarquer au réseau LCN.

Des observateurs de la vieille capitale avouent qu’un vent d’optimisme survole le projet, plutôt bien reçu, même en période de ralentissement économique. Ils semblent partager une opinion selon laquelle un nouvel amphithéâtre, après le succès du 400ème, garderait la capitale sur la carte, sans oublier de rétablir une rivalité sans pareille au Québec. Selon l’état actuel des choses à Montréal, et le triste début du Canadien cette saison, rétablir la rivalité ne serait pas une mauvaise affaire selon un analyste sportif, qui estime que le retour d’une rivalité Montréal-Québec forcerait le Canadien à l’excellence. Comme si le 100ème qui s’achève n’avait pas suffi…

Image isn't everything, but it helps

As the first anniversary of his historic election nears, the U.S. president may be less popular at home following a summer of discontent and bitter divisions over major issues such as health care, and Barack Obama may be far from achieving many of the goals he set to accomplish in his busy mandate, but the U.S. has nevertheless started the long process of cleaning up its image internationally, and Obama now has a Nobel Peace prize to show for it.

In Washington’s divisive environment it didn’t take long for the critics to consider the award premature, questioning "his accomplishments". Obama himself said he thought he didn’t deserve to be “in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize” but accepted it with humility and viewed it as a call to arms to forge ahead with a foreign policy which - while it has seen few concrete successes so far - saw a dramatic transformation in tone over the previous administration.

First by seeking to engage with America’s traditional foes, suggesting talks be held on both Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, even if Tehran has shown its traditional resilience by recently admitting to a previously undisclosed nuclear facility and both Iran and North Korea proceeded with missile tests.

The Nobel committee was certainly wooed by the president’s Prague speech which expressed the hope of living in a “denuclearized” world, no matter how far off it might be. Obama was also praised for another speech, this one to the Arab world meant to foster a new dialogue but has been too distracted by other conflicts to seriously focus on Middle East peace, and while the withdrawal from Iraq is progressing, a car bomb detonating in Ramadi over the weekend, killing 22, and another Tuesday, killing 8, were but reminders of the tension that remains and the possibility of unrest when the GIs are gone.

Then there’s Afghanistan, one of two conflicts the chosen peacemaker of the year is engaged in, one he has determined to focus his attention on, which possibly means sending thousands of more troops in the weeks ahead as Kabul itself comes short demonstrating the survival of its nascent democracy, after the UN ruled recent elections unfair.

Former Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mairead Corrigan Maguire considered: "Giving this award to the leader of the most militarized country in the world, which has taken the human family against its will to war, will be rightly seen by many people around the world as a reward for his country's aggression and domination."

But in perhaps what could be the most dramatic example of the president’s outreach, news sources, days before the award was handed, spoke of a possible softening of the U.S. policy against the Taleban, leaving the possibility they may enjoy some political role in Afghanistan, while the U.S. and its allies seek the hard-core Al-Qaida insurgents.  A surprise some could have ranked along with giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize nine months into his mandate, a prize for which he would have been nominated days after his inauguration.

Unfortunately this circulated as the Taleban - who say Obama deserves a prize for violence - claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks in Pakistan continuing into this week. There may have been some truth in a comedian’s quip that he had been rewarded for “not being George W. Bush.”

While few awards are usually bestowed just for trying, this certainly seemed to be one of them: "It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve," the Nobel committee said. "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," it said in a statement. "His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

There might be some truth there. Days before the Oslo announcement a smaller less prestigious prize had just been awarded to the U.S. It had just climbed six ranks to N.1 in the international global index of public perception, and the new administration had everything to do with the rise. The annual Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index measures "the image and reputation" of 50 nations based on surveys with 21,000 respondents worldwide.

The U.S. benefited from "a significant lift in its image around the world following President Obama's election," states the report. “The United States has not only seen substantial improvement in its 'Governance' and 'People' dimensions, the general positive goodwill has also spilled over to the other dimensions including 'Culture' and 'Tourism'," the study found.

Of course image isn’t everything, and promises – like closing a Guantanamo Bay prison still open, and ending the army's don't ask don't tell policy on gays - are hard to keep. And on that score Obama admits he’s “got his work cut out.” But he's got lots of encouragement.

Gearing up for round 2

In Nepal travellers are greeted by immigration officials with a gun to the head, one that measures their temperature. In Delhi, new jet arrivals file in front of a table of masked nurses before making it to the passport check line while in Qatar even transit passengers must fill a questionnaire to determine if they have symptoms of the swine flu.

As the world prepares for a dreaded second round of the H1N1 influenza, concern is particularly high in North America as the traditional flu season gets into high gear in the region of the world considered ground zero for the pandemic. But as Quebec and France trade their two-cheek kisses for handshakes, or even polite nods, and churches across the country revise protocols for giving the sign of the peace, not everyone seems to be at the same level of preparedness to deal with the feared second wave of swine flu cases, which have been linked to over 4,500 deaths worldwide, including 80 in Canada. And the general public doesn’t always seem to share the concern of many public health officials.

While our neighbour to the south, which has recorded the most serious cases, with over 12,000 hospitalizations, and related deaths, with 1,500, is releasing tens of millions of doses of human swine-flu vaccine, Canadian officials, who have estimated a third of the population could become sick with H1N1, said the largest vaccination program in the nation’s history is not scheduled to begin before the first week of November, well into flu season. And then only will those facing the highest risk of serious illness, including adults under 65 with chronic health conditions and health-care workers involved in pandemic response, will be at the head of the line.

This all the while a Canadian study says a “striking” proportion of severe swine flu infections are occurring among young women and previously healthy teens and young adults in a pattern only previously seen with 1918 Spanish flu. Not helping in the lead up to the expected second outbreak is confusion about methods of dealing with the virus, some studies fearing an injection of the vaccine will only provoke H1N1 while the hand washing touted by Canadian authorities is being debunked by studies suggesting wearing a mask is a better protection against H1N1.

But Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq insisted 80 per cent of common infections, including influenza, can be spread by contaminated hands, and sought to downplay a study reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that argued the only interventions that have shown unequivocally to reduce the spread and impact of influenza are vaccines and antivirals.

In addition Canadian officials point out that the initial U.S. vaccine will not be able to help the more serious cases of the infection, stressing differences between the two countries were in fact minimal. In the U.S., critics also say the government has rushed trials for the vaccine, leaving it largely untested, a charge it rejects.  

H1N1 is expected to be the dominating circulating flu strain this fall and winter but generally while few Canadians will be immune to it, few of them seem worried. According to recent polls the proportion of them actually saying they will seek H1N1 protection came down from 45% to 30% in recent weeks, while a separate poll in Quebec City said 80% of the population didn’t see the coming flu season with alarm.

Health officials meanwhile are furiously scrambling to get the vaccines through trials this week while British Columbia officials feared, according to an internal document, that the westernmost province wasn’t ready for a full outbreak, dreading shortages of hospital beds and critical equipment such as ventilators, which are part of the treatment received by people seriously ill enough to be hospitalized by the flu.

Native communities meanwhile, which have been particularly hit by the first outbreak because of their isolation and lack of medical and other resources, urged the government to hold a promised virtual summit to address preparedness for the pandemic, as Health Canada was trying to downplay a PR fiasco which involved a shipment of supplies to Native communities containing a large number of body bags. Aglukkaq said no “ill will” was intended when the agency shipped a “disproportionately high” number of body bags to a remote First Nations reserve in Manitoba. Several northern reserves in the province were hit hard in the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.

Despite the current state of alarm at official levels, the WHO having declared H1N1 a pandemic earlier this year, polls indicate a dichotomy between officials and ordinary Canadians who don't believe this virus will have much impact on their lives, with only 11 per cent of people describing themselves as very concerned about H1N1, and 25 per cent  somewhat concerned. In fact in sharp contrast with circulating virological reports most Canadians found it more likely they would suffer from seasonal flu this year than H1N1. Only half of Canadians are considering getting any kind of flu shot this year, seasonal or H1N1, the proportion remaining generally unchanged from previous years.

Ottawa public health researcher Dr. Kumanan Wilson said the findings illustrate that the public is confused about the various viruses and the two vaccines. "This isn't easy to understand," he said."There's a lot of confusion about how worried they should be about both the seasonal flu and H1N1. And I think the message from this is that these are the questions that public health officials need to answer."

Sharing the concern of public officials are church officials who have revised their doctrine for the period. Archdioceses in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Gatineau, Quebec City and Edmonton have all issued flu guidelines, from encouraging parishioners with flu symptoms to stay at home, to emptying holy water fonts and avoiding sprinkling holy water on the faithful. Other temporary measures include asking parishioners to exchange the "sign of peace" without shaking hands, and encouraging priests to wash their hands regularly.

For those for whom sport is religion as well H1N1-fighting measures have been encouraged. The Edmonton Minor Soccer Association has stopped handshakes between players at the end of games during the indoor season, which runs from October to March. "Are we overdoing it? Maybe, but better safe than sorry. We've got to help the kids," said Mario Charpentier, president of the minor soccer association.

Particularly because schools are the breeding grounds where many of the dreaded cases are expected to surface early on. Some fear, the second outbreak has in fact already begun. "The early indications are that it's starting now and it's expected to last a couple of months," said Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Ontario director of surveillance and epidemiology. That was at the end of September. Meanwhile this week officials in B.C. were reporting outbreaks in several parts of the province.

Après la barbarie de Conakry

Il n’y a pas seulement ceux qui peuvent confondre les deux Guinées, mais bien toute l’Afrique entière, sous le choc après la barbarie qui a fait plus de 150 morts à la fin du mois de septembre lorsque des militaires ont ouvert le feu sur des manifestants de l’opposition regroupés dans un stade de la capitale Conakry.

Le geste du militaire Moussa Dadis Camara, un militaire pourtant accueilli à la fin de l’année 2008 avec acclamation par plusieurs qui espéraient voir là la fin du pénible chapitre des années du despote Lansana Conté, ne pouvait que mettre à l’évidence les différences avec Bissau, où l’intervention temporaire des militaires plus tôt cette année a laissé place aux élections de cet été, accueillies favorablement par les Nations unies. L’ONU a cependant été de ceux qui ont critiqué de vive voix la tuerie du 28 septembre dans un stade de la capitale où une manifestation d’opposants politiques avait lieu.

La crise a atteint un tel degré qu’on en est à mesurer les conséquences d’une possible et rare intervention militaire dans un pays qui n’est pas en guerre. Pourtant Camara était bien parti, promettant de mettre fin à la corruption, mais surtout s’excluant, à l’origine, de la liste de candidats potentiels lors d’élections qu’il promettait en 2010 après avoir paisiblement remis le pouvoir aux civils. Or lorsque l’opposition a eu vent de rumeurs voulant qu’il se présente aux élections, elle a organisé un rassemblement dénonçant "l'usurpation du pouvoir par les militaires" faisant appel à la démission immédiate de Camara, et c’est là où tout a tragiquement basculé.

"Soudain, des camions militaires sont entrés, écrasant des gens au passage, tirant à la kalachnikov, au hasard", expliquait au Monde Sorel Bangoura de l'Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée. En plus des 157 morts et quelques1000 blessés, la répression a vite été synonyme de barbarie infligée aux femmes mêlées à la foule, elles qui auraient eu le plus de mal à fuir les tirs et s’échapper, plusieurs témoignant avoir été violées par la suite. "Ils m'ont violée. Je suis sortie du stade nue", a témoigné une femme interviewée par France 24. Il y avait "cinq filles, cinq soldats. Ils les violaient", a également témoigné un homme au réseau français.

Alors que le ministre guinéen de la santé rapporte que les hôpitaux n'ont été saisis d'aucune plainte, plusieurs observateurs estiment que les victimes ont simplement trop peur, et pendant que des médecins lancent des appels afin d'inciter les victimes à venir recevoir des soins et effectuer le test de dépistage du Sida, plusieurs ONG ont lancé des enquêtes sur les viols. L'armée guinéenne, qui officiellement recensait à peine plus de 56 victimes de la tuerie, a été accusée par la suite d'avoir fait disparaître les corps de plusieurs victimes. Selon certains observateurs des informations font état de fosses communes à Conakry.

Camara estime que s'il y avait eu "carnage", c'était avant tout de "la faute des leaders" de l'opposition, tout en plaidant sur le caractère "incontrôlé" de ce qui s'est passé au stade. Pendant ce temps le ton a grimpé entre Conakry et Paris, dont le ministre des affaires étrangères Bernard Kouchner s'est dit favorable à une intervention militaire internationale en Guinée, ce qui lui a valu cette réplique de Camara: «La Guinée n'est pas une sous-préfecture de la France».

"Le danger de guerre inter-communautaire est immense. Il s'est passé cette chose effrayante et sauvage, nous ne pouvons pas l'accepter, estime Kouchner, il me semble qu'aujourd'hui, on ne peut plus travailler avec Dadis Camara, et qu'il faut qu'il y ait une intervention internationale". Kouchner ne se gène pas de comparer l’homme fort de Conakry au dictateur ougandais Idi Amin Dada.

Pendant ce temps le président du Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré tente une médiation qui selon l’opposition n’a qu’une seule condition préalable: la démission immédiate de Camara. C’est mal parti pour la médiation, et plusieurs capitales n’attendent que son échec pour pousser l’option de l’intervention militaire.

En attendant cette semaine les habitants de Conakry ont massivement suivi pendant deux jours l'appel des syndicats leur demandant de rester chez eux, à l'occasion d'une opération "ville morte" en mémoire des victimes du massacre du 28 septembre. Pendant ce temps, alors que Washington demande le retrait de la junte du pouvoir, le procureur de la Cour pénale internationale se penche sur les événements du 28 sept.

Le retour des socialistes en Grèce

Certaines choses ne changent jamais sous le bleu ciel grec : le reflet au soleil des temples de marbre parsemés à travers ce pays aux mille iles, et les dynasties qui se succèdent à la tête de la république hellénique. Ainsi lorsque Costas Karamanlis a perdu son pari en tenant des élections anticipées au début du mois, ce neveu d’ancien président et de fondateur du parti de Nouvelle Démocratie a cédé le pouvoir à un nom bien familier, celui du socialiste Georges Papandreou, fils et petit-fils de premiers ministres.

A 57 ans, Papandreou replace au pouvoir le parti qui avait pignon sur place Syntagma, la place du parlement, pendant presque vingt ans à partir du milieu des années 80, lorsqu’il était dirigé par son père, Andreas. Alors que le parlement précédent été maintenu par une poignée de sièges, la raison de l’appel prématuré aux urnes, Papandreou s’installe avec une confortable majorité de 160 sièges sur les 300 du parlement, après avoir remporté 43,9% des voix.

Pour les conservateurs, la défaite met fin à cinq années de pouvoir avec un score qui ferait souffrir l’oncle de Karamanlis, puisqu’avec 94 députés il s'agit du bilan le plus faible depuis la création du parti. Ainsi l’avenir du premier ministre sortant ne laissait aucun doute, l’homme de 53 ans annonçant son départ de la présidence du parti, qu'il dirigeait depuis 1997:  « J’assume la responsabilité des résultats et vais engager le processus d’élection du nouveau dirigeant du parti».

Le triomphe était en l’occurrence complet pour Papandreou : « Dès aujourd'hui nous entamons un grand effort national pour redresser le pays (...) libérer ses immenses capacités, étouffées par la corruption et le gaspillage, déclara l’élu de la soirée, rien ne sera facile, il faudra un dur travail ». Avec ce score l’électorat a de toute évidence préféré au programme d’austérité du gouvernment conservateur, les $3 milliards d’euros de fonds de relance économique, si populaires ailleurs, promis par les socialistes, qui ont également  fait campagne sur les thèmes de la bonne gouvernance et le «développement vert».

Une bonne dose d’assainissement des dépenses est cependant attendue à Bruxelles, qui réclame des réformes de fond alors que le poids des déficits (plus de 6 % du PIB) et de la dette (près des 100%) s’alourdissent considérablement. Pourtant ni les promesses d’injection de liquidités sur le marché ni les promesses de soutien des bas revenus et de l'emploi - les engagements des 100 premiers jours - ne permettent de penser que les caisses de l’état dérougiront lors des prochaines semaines.

Ainsi le premier ministre sortant, qui a déclenché des élections au milieu de son mandat en espérant diriger un gouvernement plus fort afin de prendre d’assaut les problèmes économiques liés à la crise, a perdu son pari. A part les problèmes liés à la crise son parti a été frappé par plusieurs scandales liés à la  corruption. Mais alors que le départ de Karamanlis met fin à son chapitre de la dynastie, le bipartisme persiste en Grèce, où le parti classé troisième, les communistes, a à peine récolté 7% des votes. Cette concentration des votes au sein des partis principaux n’a en fait rien d’encourageant puisque neuf Grecs sur 10 disent ne plus faire confiance aux deux partis principaux.

Pourtant les analystes ont bien accueilli la nouvelle : « Non pas parce qu’ils préfèrent un parti plutôt que l’autre, mais parce qu’un nouveau gouvernement majoritaire aura un nouveau mandat lui permettant de mettre en branle un programme tout neuf pendant quatre ans, » estime l’analyste Alexander Moraitakis.

Evidemment le pari une fois gagné, le défi reste de taille alors que la Grèce risque une année sans croissance économique, fait face à un taux de chômage grimpant et un mécontentement général, ressenti lors que manifestations violentes l’an dernier, chez les jeunes. Le régime d’immigration et de sécurité sociale est également un bon candidat pour des réformes attendues de longue date.

Gunning for the Tories

Governments in countries big and small, from Iceland to Japan, have paid the price for the economic crisis and recession, could Canada be next? That's what the Liberals of Michael Ignatieff are hoping as the Conservatives cling to a minority government the opposition party says it is done supporting in this new session of Parliament.

Back to school looked to mean back to the polls as Canadians saw political ads infiltrate their Labour Day long weekend, showing new liberal leader Ignatieff attack the Stephen Harper Tories for being “irresponsible” and “disconnected from reality” for initially denying the country was facing either recession or deficit and then later announcing an expected $50-billion deficit. “It is time to put Canada back on the path to prosperity,” the ad read.

Yet it came as the country has technically exited the recession, seeing a 0.1% growth in the last quarter and higher than expected employment gains, some 21,000 jobs in August, although Statistics Canada conceded many were part-time and figures this week showed the recovery may have stalled as the small GDP gain was followed by unchanged numbers. The country's consumer confidence index has however registered its highest level in two years.

The Harper government has already faced and survived two non-confidence motions, the first on Sept 18, since session opened last month, and faces more ahead as the opposition tries to determine whether the current minority Parliament can still work. The Liberals announced before Parliament resumed that they could no longer support the government and would force an election at the first opportunity, but the electorate has shown no appetite for a fifth election this decade, a third in four years, after already low 59 percent participation rates last fall.

A third budget update report this week provided the opposition the opportunity to once more put the Tories to the test after the Conservatives slammed attempts to force a return to the polls as wasteful and a threat to the recovery. This and internal party divisions didn’t get the Liberals, who need the support of all other parties to topple the government, to alter their defiant stance. “We have made it clear, we have no faith in this government, no confidence in this government," Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale said. "We will stand firmly and clearly and strongly on Liberal ideas and Liberal principles and we will not only advocate those things, we will vote in accordance with those beliefs and convictions."

But some observers say the inevitability of a fall vote felt weeks ago when the rumblings of a return to the polls echoed loudly, has given way to better odds the government could stay in power by working with opposition parties on a case-by-case issue, something the NDP said it had seen little evidence of. Yet Jack Layton's party has supported the government in the first no-confidence motion and abstained in the second, saving Harper.

Government House Leader Jay Hill told The Hill Times newspaper that he's "optimistic" cooperation will continue as the Tories roll out legislation such as Employment Insurance reforms and international trade agreements. While the Liberal stance is a threat to the Tories and the Bloc says it will vote on a case-by-case basis according to what is in the best interest of Quebec, the key NDP vote will remain hinging on whether it sees its concerns addressed by the Tories.

The party had previously voted consistently against the government in the past year and members say they have little confidence in the Conservatives, but NDP Whip Yvon Godin said his party is still trying to make Parliament work on a case-by-case basis and the NDP support in the earlier ways and means motion didn’t imply the NDP is "working with" the government. "We never had confidence in the government," Godin said.

The Tories, now leading the polls again, may well survive the latest onslaught. They wouldn't be the first to survive the recession, at least two governments offered evidence of this recently, as Portugal's socialists kept their government and Angela Merkel's party actually increased its score in Germany.

Division entre les pics

Pas facile de faire disparaitre une monarchie vieille de près de 250 ans. Un an après l'abdication du roi Gyanendra au Népal, à part quelques vieux billets de banque et des étiquettes de sécurité collées sur les valises à l’aéroport de Katmandou, il reste bien peu pour rappeler les années de la monarchie du royaume himalayen.

Pourtant si les Népalais restent plutôt divisés sur l’étendue des transformations qui ont eu lieu sur les pics et dans les vallées de ce pays de 23 millions d’habitants c’est notamment en raison du désordre politique qui a remplacé la permanence et la monotonie de l’ancien régime. Pourtant les dernières années du royaume n’avaient pas été de tout repos, le pays ayant été déchiré par les violences de la rébellion maoiste dont les acteurs sont à présent au pouvoir. Selon le tout dernier compte les violences ont fait plus de 16,000 victimes.

Les élections qui ont eu lieu en 2008 ont rappelé cette violence, explique Ram, un guide de 28 ans descendu des montagnes à 14 ans pour découvrir la capitale ainsi que tout un monde moderne où les déplacements ne se comptaient plus en journées de marche. “Les gens avaient leurs allégiances locales alors tous les mauvais coups étaient permis pour faire gagner le candidat choisi. Même les coups de poing.”

Le système politique, qui compte plus de deux douzaines de partis, a donné lieu à un chaos généralisé qui laisse la politique presque exclusivement l’affaire des politiciens alors que les gens préfèrent parler de foot, dit-il. La démission du premier ministre  maoiste en mai a laissé un vide politique d’autant plus alarmant en cette période de réconciliation dans cette jeune république. Voilà qui laisse moins optimiste cet homme, en attente de son premier enfant, qui comme tant d’autres avait plutôt bien accueilli la fin d’une monarchie à jamais transformée par la tuerie du palais royal, à présent devenu musée dans le centre de la capitale.

Lors de ce troublant chapitre en 2001, le prince Dipendra s’en est pris à sa propre famille, tuant entre autre son père, le roi Birendra, son frère et sept autres membres, avant de mourir à son tour. C’est ce bain de sang qui a transformé l’opinion des gens à propos de la monarchie, affirme Ram.

D’autres regrettent tout de même la disparition rapide du monarque qui régnait entre les pics. “C’est très mauvais ce qui s’est passé, estime Sundee un Népalais dans la quarantaine, c’était important cette tradition.” Les gens restent divisés, admet Ram, lui-même un peu sceptique à propos de l’avenir du pays, notamment à cause du nouvel ordre et de ses “politiques qui se marchandent à coup de roupis. L’argent, c’est tout ce qui importe à présent,” dit-il.

D’autres divisions se font même sentir jusque dans les temples de la capitale, où des forces de l’ordre ont dû intervenir récemment lorsque deux prêtres Indiens ont été attaqués par des manifestants au plus important site hindou au pays, le Pashupatinath, en bordure est de la ville près de l’aéroport.

Un fait non sans souligner la transition du pouvoir, les manifestants exigeaient le remplacement des prêtres par des Népalais. Les prêtres, qui venaient tout juste d'entamer leurs fonctions au Pashupatinath et dont certains ont été gravement blessés lors de l’incident, vont désormais être encadrés par les forces de l’ordre. Un périmètre de sécurité a été érigé autour du site, qui comporte des ghats où les gens viennent brûler leurs morts.

Pourtant on n’en était pas aux premiers prêtres Indiens au temple, où ils étaient d'ailleurs traditionnellement choisis parmi les brahims du sud de l’Inde, une tradition respectée par la monarchie mais que les nouveaux dirigeants politiques, notamment les maoistes qui ont fait campagne sur le thème de mettre fin au système des castes au Népal, préfèrent rejeter. La crise a même mis aux prises Katmandou avec Delhi, qui a critiqué le manque d’effort des autorités afin de protéger les prêtres.

Les maoistes estiment ne pas avoir dit leur dernier mot à propos des prêtres du Pashupatinath. Triste dénouement dans une vallée dont on dit qu’elle abrite plus de temples que de maisons, et plus de dieux que d’habitants. Aussi les maoistes promettent-ils de s'en prendre aux derniers vestiges de la monarchie, mettant dans leur mire plus récemment l'unique drapeau national à double fanion, qui comporte des symboles remontant aux anciennes dynasties dirigeantes.

Trouble stirs in dry India

Like the annual monsoon both disruptive and celebrated, water in India is both a blessing and a curse. It's a Ganges that's the lifeblood of the country and a place of holiness, but also a highly polluted body of water men and animals share side by side. It's warnings to travellers about water safety in a country baked by stifling heat where it is a cherished scarcity as industry and farms dry its wells to the last drop.

It's also the source of tensions not only between India and its neighbours but within the boundaries of the second most populated country on Earth as well, sparking bloody riots and making scarcity a national tragedy as well as a security issue. Therefore when this summer a Nasa study pointed to new water-related emergencies, especially in the country's North, as a weak monsoon (blamed on El Nino) only made an ongoing drought in parts of the country worse, the government knew it was dealing with a particularly alarming emergency.

While the country is increasingly diversified and industrialized, an overwhelming majority of its population lives in the country and relies on agriculture to survive. And while industry might seem removed from water concerns, it notably draws its electricity from hydro power, making any water shortages widely felt throughout this economy of over 1.2 billion people, leaving business to thirst for the precious blue gold like the rest. And poor agricultural results also mean less revenues, tighter budgets and restrained spending by rural consumers, affecting the economy as a whole.

Last month official data released by the Indian Meteorological Department showed more than three-fifths of the country's districts received deficient rainfall - meaning at least 20% under the long-term average - between June and Aug. 19. While a bad year of monsoon is tough enough, this is the latest in a string of dry years, leaving many to fear climate change is only making matters worse.

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a conference : "Climate change is threatening our ecosystems, water scarcity is becoming a way of life and pollution is a growing threat to our health and habitat." And if a bad year and a warming Earth aren’t enough, poor infrastructures are compounding the problem, even in the country’s richest cities. By some accounts as much as 40 per cent of the water carried in pipes in New Delhi is wasted. And the region that includes the national capital was particularly singled out in the Nasa report.

The Grace mission discovered that in the country's north-west - including Delhi and the Punjab - the water table is falling by about 4cm per year, mostly because of farming’s  over use of precious water. In the second most populated land mass on Earth, being able to feed the population is already quite a demand, but if anything the country’s much prized Green revolution in the 1960s played no small part in making the taps gradually run dry.

Following a series of famines in the mid XXth century India embraced agricultural techniques which gradually brought in the necessary yields, but proved demanding on the country’s already thin water reserves. New types of rice and wheat grown at the time provided strong harvests of resistant crops in record time but also sharply increased the demand of water, providing nourishment for a growing population but also setting the stage for today’s acute shortages. Other government policies such as providing free electricity to farmers lead to abuses as many run water pumps non-stop.

Now the Nasa report warns not only that shortages threaten crops and agriculture, but an industry already hit by the current recession. So don’t just blame the monsoon and rain levels generally unchanged, experts say. "We looked at the rainfall record and during this decade, it's relatively steady - there have been some up and down years but generally there's no drought situation, there's no major trend in rainfall," U.S. hydrologist Matt Rodell told the BBC. "So naturally we would expect the groundwater level to stay where it is unless there is an excessive stress due to people pumping too much water, which is what we believe is happening."

The country’s north-west is heavily irrigated, a fact which has increased crop yields considerably in some regions, but not without cost, both to local farmers and the country as a whole. In the breadbasket region of Punjab farmers are spending thousands of dollars to rent equipment that digs deeper and deeper every year in their desperate search for water. Raj Gupta, a scientist working for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center says this year’s drought will only make matters worse.

"Farmers receive no rains so they are pumping a lot more water than the government expected, so the water table will fall further," he said. He and other experts hope farmers would switch to crops demanding less water. When not possible, new techniques could certainly help reduce consumption, he tells the NPU in Delhi. “The new innovation such as pression laser-assisted land leveling of the fields can easily save 20-30% of the total irrigation water traditionally applied to crops.”

But not everyone can afford such technologies without government assistance. And in areas without irrigation, where people depend on rainwaters to plant their seeds, a year such as this one is simply devastating. Summer showers account for 80 percent of the country's annual rainfall but during this year’s crucial planting season, from June to mid-August, rains levels were down 29 percent according to India's meteorological department. In areas such as Uttar Pradesh, they were down more than 60 percent. Overall June was the most arid it’s been in the country in over 80 years.

The country’s population is aware how critical things are. According to recent polls, compared to other environmental issues, Indians consider water pollution and fresh water shortages to be the most serious, together with failed food crops because of weather, according to a recent study by GlobeScan and Circle of Blue. But there are limits to that awareness. While 86% of the country’s water use is agricultural, few people are blaming farmers for the shortages, but most are running to the government for help to insure a constant stream of safe water.

“The government is doing what it can but this year has really been hard on farmers, they just can’t grow anything,” laments a guide in Agra, a city made world famous by its sprawling Taj Mahal. Visitors often note no lack of water wells in public places in train stations and public squares around the country, sometimes used by locals to wash themselves. But what water there is is of alarming  quality.

A 2003 Indian government report found that in India’s four largest cities, barely 30 percent of wastewater is treated before disposal, most ending up in rivers, lakes and groundwater, and a more recent Scandinavian study showed rivers carried large amounts of pharmaceuticals as a result of widespread dumping by factories.

But any water will do for some desperate farmers who sometimes turn to violence when times get rough, as they did earlier this year in Madhya Pradesh, leaving a family dead. Water riots in the southwest in 1999 also lead to over a dozen deaths. But shortages and disputes have also pitted region against region rather than men against men, as Punjab’s dispute against the central government showed in the past. And the matter also occasionally became diplomatic between India and Bangladesh as well as rival Pakistan.

The stakes are high because it’s not just agriculture that is affected but industry as well and the country’s drive for development, hit by power shortages as bad monsoons reduce power production, hydropower providing a quarter of India's electricity. A 19 percent drop in monsoon water levels in 2002 made GDP growth slow from 5.8 percent to 3.8 percent.

As a result of this year’s deficient water levels many economists have shaved a percentage point off growth estimates for the year, and many have expressed concern about the output of expected winter crops, dependent on stored water rather than rain water. Because a bad monsoon affects cash availability and therefore spending habits in such a large sector of the economy, analysts fear the overall impact for the economy.

But not all are pessimistic. “Fears over the monsoons are exaggerated. Growth will depend more on global factors than domestic ones,” told one Indian news site economic experts Ruchir Sharma. “India is (now) a much more globalized economy, so even with the weak monsoon, 6-7% growth seems doable. There's a lot of untapped capacity in India.”

For all the missing water the government finally found evidence of the precious blue gold, but on the moon, and the space program success did nothing to help solve India's shortage.

A terror that threatens Canada

Swine flu, the economic crisis and a possible fall election may have removed terrorism from the headlines but the last week has offered a reminder that not only does it remains a major concern, with the anniversary of 9/11 looming, but that it has more than once sought to strike right here at home. And while suspects directly implicated in the Sept. 11 attacks have yet to be tried eight years after the fact, two series of convictions were handed out in the last days on plots targeting the great white north.

On Monday three men in Britain were found guilty of plotting to bomb at least seven trans-Atlantic airliners, including two headed for Canada, after two trials and the largest counterterrorism investigation in the U.K.’s history. The terror plot has had a lasting impact on the travel industry, still subject to restrictions concerning liquids, after the men plotted to smuggle liquid explosives on board in soft-drink bottles and detonate them.
The plot would have targeted planes from London for New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco as well as Montreal and Toronto. That wasn’t the only plot uncovered involving the country’s largest city in recent years. In fact just days earlier a 23-year-old Ontario man who confessed to being part of a homegrown terror plot aimed at blowing up buildings in downtown Toronto was sentenced to 14 years.

"Terrorist offences are a most vile form of criminal conduct...They attack the very fabric of Canada's democratic ideals," said Superior Court Justice Bruce Durno in Brampton when handing Saad Khalid his sentence, adding it should "send a clear message to those who would be tempted to 'sign-on' to the terrorist plans of the more fanatic."

Khalid was the second member of the so-called Toronto 18 to be convicted but his guilty plea in May was the first time a member of the group admitted the existence of a bomb plot targeting the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Front Street offices of Canada's spy agency and a military base near Highway 401. They were among the 14 adults and four youths arrested in June 2006 in a police sting operation involving the delivery of three tones of ammonium nitrate.

The group planned to obtain the explosive chemicals to pack U-Haul vans with fertilizer explosives. Charges have been stayed against three youths and four adults and one youth was sentenced to time served for the planned attacks, meant to dwarf London's 2005 subway bombings.

One year after those London tube attacks, which killed over 50 people, and months after the Toronto arrests, the British capital was stunned by the arrests and discovery at the plotters’ homes of documents, later entered in evidence, showing they planned to detonate the bombs with aircrafts operated by American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada in mid-air over the Atlantic.

Prosecutors said the plot could have killed at least 1,500 people aboard the targeted planes, making it the second bloodiest terror attack after Sept. 11, and again targeting people headed to the two cities hit by 9/11 in an effort to show the new security measures in place across the world weren’t enough to stop such acts from taking place.

“Apart from massive loss of life, these attacks would have had enormous worldwide economic and political significance,”observed Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief John McDowall after the verdicts. Britain itself remains terror-wary considering the ongoing diplomatic dispute with Libya following the triumphant return of the only man charged in the Lockerbie bombings, released by Scotland for humanitarian reasons because of his terminal illness.

In the follow-up of the diplomatic dust-up which has ensued, Britain said it would support the search for compensation by the families of victims of the IRA, whose loved ones were killed with Semtex supplied by Libya. This constituted an about-face for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who earlier chose not to personally intervene on their behalf.

While Canada seems rather removed from terrorism in comparison, it experienced the deadliest airline bombing in history, no less, in 1985 when an Air India flight from Vancouver that stopped in Toronto blew up off the coast of Ireland, killing 329; the subject of a commission of inquiry which will only hand in its report this fall after dragging on until last year.

By then another terror suspect, Momin Khawaja, was on trial in Ottawa where he was eventually sentenced to 10½ years in prison for financing and facilitating terrorism in a plot that sounded eerily familiar. In the first sentence handed down under the 2001 Anti-terrorism Act that was pushed through Parliament following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the 29-year-old Ottawa software developer was convicted to charges related to building a remote-control device to set off explosions in buildings. The Crown however failed to prove Khawaja knew his trigger would be used in a plot to detonate fertilizer bombs in yet another London plot.

British police and security forces broke up that plot before any bombs were planted and five men were convicted, getting life sentences with no parole for at least 17 years. But justice is rarely swift in many of these cases, as Air India goes to show. Last year, a first five-month trial failed to reach verdicts on the airliner-bombing charges against the London defendants, making this week’s decision all the more eagerly expected.

In the end the British jury found three men guilty of conspiring to kill passengers and crew members aboard the flights: Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, Tanvir Hussain, 28 and Assad Sarwar, 29. Four other men were acquitted of conspiring to bomb airliners, but admitted lesser charges, while an eighth man was cleared completely in a case involving agencies on both sides of the pond and estimated to have cost over $60 million.

The costs of the plan succeeding, officials however pointed out, would have been incalculable, as MI5 estimated as many of 18 flights may have been targeted, some hitting critical ground targets, while other officials voiced concern relations between Washington and New York would have also suffered considerably, coming just five years after Sept. 11.

But while the plotters targeted Canada because it was singled out by Al-Qaida, and Canada's involvement in Afghanistan is making it a target,  terror is far from being on Canadians' minds these days. A new nationwide poll of 4,393 Canadians living in nine cities and Newfoundland showed crime topped concerns, followed by health care, taxes, municipal spending, transportation and the economy.

Eclats après les élections au Gabon

L’opposition a crié au coup d’état au Gabon suivant la présidentielle de fin août qui a designé vainqueur le candidat favori au nom familier, Ali Bongo, fils de l’ancien président Omar qui tenait ce petit pays pétrolier d’Afrique de l’ouest avec une poignée de fer depuis plus de 40 ans, jusqu’à sa mort en juin.

Pourtant le petit pays coincé entre le Cameroun et le Congo semble avoir largement été épargné de ce genre d’incident depuis son indépendance en 1960. En fait le seul éclat qui ait véritablement caractère de putsch a eu lieu en 1964 lorsque le premier président du pays, Leon Mba, a dissous l’assemblée nationale, donnant lieu au geste précipité des militaires.

Leur tentative de coup d’état a cependant échoué, largement en raison de l’intervention de paras français, qui demeurent mais n’ont pas eu à sortir de leur caserne depuis. Les violences de la semaine dernière à la suite du résultat du vote on cependant exigé le déploiement de plusieurs d'entre eux après l’incendie du consulat français dans la seconde ville du pays, plutôt innocemment nommée Port Gentil, lorsque des manifestants de l’opposition accusant Paris d'ingérence ont pris la rue.

Des installations de Total ont également été prises pour cible par les partisans du camp d’André Mba et de Pierre Mamboundou, qui ont récolté environ 25% des suffrages tous les deux, bien moins que les 41% de l’ancien ministre de la défense et des affaires extérieures, et qui avait notamment organisé une visite de Michael Jackson en 1992.

Les candidats de l’opposition n’ont rien fait pour calmer les émotions : « C’est un coup d’état électoral, s’est exclamé Mba, je ne reconnais pas les résultats des élections. C’est moi qui ait gagné. » L’écart de la victoire évitait la nécessité d’organiser un second tour. Mamboundou pendant ce temps menait ses propres manifestations dans la capitale Libreville, événements lors desquels il a été blessé à la tête quand les manifestants se sont opposés aux forces de l'ordre. Les violences ont fait au moins trois morts et les tensions n'ont pas été dissipées par la confirmation des résultats par la cour constitutionnelle.

«Je suis et je serais toujours le président de tous les citoyens du Gabon, a déclaré Bongo le soir de la victoire, je suis et serais toujours au service de tous, sans exception ». « Le Gabon est un pays de droit et de démocratie. Le peuple s'est exprimé » a-t-il ajouté. Mais l’opposition accuse le régime d’avoir manipulé les listes électorales et d'avoir gonflé le taux de participation.

Ainsi l'appel à l’unité du président a vite été suivi de celui du couvre-feu alors que les autorités tentaient de mettre fin aux attaques contres les intérêts français de l’ancienne colonie. Cette semaine les autorités menaçaient d'imposer un état d'urgence qui y limiterait les déplacements non autorisés alors que l'opposition exigeait un recompte. Paris a demandé à ses 10,000 d’expatriés de rester chez eux lors de la crise.

Le brouillard électoral n'a pas empêché le chef de l'état français d'adresser ses "félicitations" et ses "voeux de succès" à Ali Bongo, citant l'annonce par la cour constitutionnelle des résultats de l'élection. Des observateurs de l’Union africaine ont estimé que le vote avait eu lieu dans des conditions plutôt paisibles, malgré des irrégularités et une certaine confusion à propos de la loi électorale. Des observateurs auraient parfois été absents lors du dépouillement du vote cependant, et certaines urnes auraient été mal scellées.

Les partisans de l’opposition, qui craignaient d’être déçus bien avant le dévoilement des résultats, s’en sont également pris aux prisons de Port Gentil, libérant plusieurs détenus, qui ont profité du chaos de l'heure pour se disperser. Le résultat du vote s’était fait attendre plusieurs jours, permettant aux trois candidats de se déclarer victorieux, rendant la déception de la défaite d’autant plus amère.

« La France appelle au calme et au respect des institutions jusqu'au bout. S'il doit y avoir des contestations, il faut que ça se fasse devant les institutions qui sont prévues pour ça », a de son côté déclaré Alain Joyandet, secrétaire français d'état à la coopération. Entre temps le lourd héritage colonial français dans la région, de la Côte d’Ivoire au Tchad, vient ainsi à nouveau hanter ses ressortissants français.

Le froid entre Stockholm et Tel Aviv

Il s'agit peut-être de l'esprit des Vikings voguant sur le drakkar de la liberté de la presse, mais bon sang qu'a donc la presse des pays Scandinaves à se mettre le Moyen orient sur le dos? Après la furie des caricatures de Mahomet en 2006 celle du peuple élu contre la Suède menace à présent les relations entre les deux pays.

A l’origine de la bisbille, qui a reporté la visite du ministre des affaires étrangères suédois Carl Bildt en Israël cette semaine, il faut retrouver l’article le mois dernier d’un autre quotidien de la presse nationale, l’Aftonbladet celui-là, dont le journaliste Donald Bostrom reprend d’anciennes rumeurs évoquant des allégations palestiniennes de trafic des organes de détenus morts en prison visant l’armée israélienne.
Le journal cite la mère d’un jeune Palestinien de 19 ans tué par des soldats israéliens en 1992 dont on « croit que les organes ont été volés ».

L’article a aussitôt créé un tollé en Israel dont le premier ministre a sommé le gouvernement d’intervenir : «Les déclarations dans la presse suédoise étaient insultantes, a déclaré Benjamin Netanyahou, Nous n’attendons pas d’excuses du gouvernement suédois (...) Nous attendons une condamnation».

Face à cette crise l’ambassadrice suédoise à Tel-Aviv a cru bien faire en s’excusant au nom de son gouvernement pour l'article, mais le geste a cependant été bien mal reçu à Stockholm cette fois, où Bildt et le premier ministre Fredrik Reinfeldt ont plutôt refusé toute intervention et rappelé les principes de la liberté de la presse.

C’est alors que deux pays plutôt bien réunis au courant de la seconde guerre mondiale par l’exploit de Raoul Wallenberg, un diplomate qui a risqué sa vie pour sauver des milliers de juifs des camps de la mort, semblaient entrer dans une phase plutôt triste de leurs relations. Pour l’homologue de Bildt, Avigdor Lieberman, un colon juif d’extrême droite, il s’agissait ni plus ni moins d’une  nouvelle affaire Dreyfus, cet officier français condamné pour meurtre sur fond d’antisémitisme, il y a plus d’un siècle. «Ce qui nous met en colère, c’est que le gouvernement suédois n’a pas condamné ça mais s’est empressé de réprimander l’ambassadeur qui avait trouvé juste de condamner cette calomnie rappelant l’affaire Dreyfus», a-t-il déclaré à la radio de l’armée.

Du coup, alors que le ministère israélien de l’intérieur a décidé de "geler" l’examen des demandes de visa pour les journalistes suédois, des milliers d'Israéliens signaient une pétition appelant au boycott de produits suédois, des meubles Ikea à la marque d’automobile Volvo. En Suède pendant ce temps, la presse estimait les réactions du gouvernement israélien de « très exagérées », notamment la rédactrice en chef du journal à la source de la crise, Helle Klein , qui signa un éditorial sous le titre de: «Sauvez Israël de son gouvernement ». Pour le rival, le Dagens Nyheter, la réaction israélienne permettait au pays de mobiliser l'opinion publique au moment où le nouveau gouvernement conservateur est exposé à la critique internationale.

Triste absence de dialogue à l’occasion de cet incident, qui suit un exposé plutôt laid entachant le domaine sportif à Malmo plus tôt cette année. En effet en mars des manifestants anti-Israel s’en sont pris aux forces de l’ordre lors d’un match de tennis de la Coupe Davis entre les deux pays dans la ville du sud du pays. Les manifestants chantaient des slogans condamnant une offensive israélienne à Gaza. De son côté Israël soutient ne pas comprendre qu'une critique du gouvernement suédois envers la presse puisse constituer une atteinte à la liberté de la presse, Copenhague ayant précédem- ment adressé des mots de reproche à ses journalistes à propos de l'affaire des caricatures.

Tsunami ushers in new Japan politics

As political tsunamis come, one like this had rarely stricken the land of the rising sun. While Japan’s recession technically ended last month, it was too little too late to save the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which after running the country for all but 11 months in the postwar era was swept away by a landslide that ushered in the Democratic Party of Japan.

Analysts argued that the electorate was more intent on punishing the party in power than electing the more liberal party, which garnered 308 of the Diet’s 480 seats. This wasn’t lost on the humble incoming leader. “The nation is very angry with the ruling party, and we are grateful for their deep support,” the Democratic Party's leader, Yukio Hatoyama, said after the polls closed. “We will not be arrogant and we will listen to the people.”

In addition to being rocked by the worst post-war recession in the country, the pro-business LDP has lost face following a series of political and corruption scandals, while seeing four prime ministers take the helm in as many years. The party probably couldn’t have found a better combination to make political hara-kiri. “These results are very severe,” conceded outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso. “There has been a deep dissatisfaction with our party.”

This was deeply felt by the young generation of LDPers ushered in when Junichiro Koizumi was elected in 2005 as the party tried to rejunevate itself. Of the 73 elected then who sought re-election, only 10 passed the test. Meanwhile almost half of those elected for the DPJ were first-time candidates.

But the writing was on the wall as the results, despite their historic implications, were largely expected. While the country has technically moved away from recession, unemployment is nearing record levels for Japan, a full 5.7 percent others would surely envy. Participation rates were also enviable, a record number of registered voters voting either early or on election day in the nationwide effort to usher in change.

With that comes pressure on a party which had largely pledged to improve social programs and income subsidies for farmers to solve the country’s many economic problems. But one of them being growing debt, reaching some 200% of one of the world's largest GDPs, there's fear ushering in a left-wing party could only make matters worse unless spending is kept under control. A certain measure of it is nonetheless necessary in order to prop up the economy, some would argue, leaving the incoming administration with a dilemma of sumo-like proportions.

The LDP was also criticized for failing to deal with soaring social security costs tied to the population’s high rate of ageing. More than a quarter of Japanese will be 65 or older by 2015. "This is about the end of the post-war political system in Japan," noted Gerry Curtis, a Japanese expert at Columbia University. "It marks the end of one long era, and the beginning of another one about which there is a lot of uncertainty."

Part of that uncertainty is being felt in Washington, where some fear relations with Tokyo will be different now that a party which seeks more independence from the United States, notably on trade, looks to its more immediate region with greater interest. While there has previously been talk of distancing the country from Washington, the incoming party has been toning down the rhetoric lately. Hatoyama has told Obama relations with the U.S. are the foundation of the country's diplomacy.

Just to bring simple change to the country's perennial ways, notably the undoing of the troika of party, business and bureaucracy that has been the modus operandi since in post-war era and was initially credited for the country's economic miracle. Toughest perhaps will be taming a bureaucracy unchanged in that time, the task of changing dinosaur-like institutions as challenging as confronting godzilla. But the new party won't just slay the green giant, considering the assistance from bureaucrats it needs to usher in much-needed reforms.

Un accueil chaleureux...

Qui aurait parié qu’un geste de sympathie du gouvernement écossais envers un condamné mourant parviendrait à générer autant de tensions diplomatiques, tout en rappelant pour certains les années noires du terrorisme libyen? Alors que Tripoli a depuis plusieurs années renoncé au soutien du terrorisme, rayant son nom du fait de la liste des parias de Washington, la déception de l’administration américaine suite à l’accueil triomphal réservé à Abdelbaset al-Megrahi en Libye n’avait d’égale que celle du pays où le Pan Am qu’il avait fait exploser s’est écrasé.

Seul homme condamné pour l'attentat de Lockerbie qui a fait 270 morts en 1988, l’homme de 57 ans atteint d'un cancer de la prostate en phase terminale et qui n'aurait plus que trois mois à vivre, a été remis en liberté par l'Ecosse pour raisons de santé. Arrivé à Tripoli, Megrahi a été assailli par des centaines de supporters, plusieurs brandissant des drapeaux, avant d’être conduit chez le président Mouammar Kadhafi, réuni avec sa famille ainsi qu'un grand nombre de ses proches.

«Je n'ai jamais imaginé que je pourrais un jour rentrer en Libye, a indiqué Megrahi dans une brève déclaration à la télévision libyenne, j'ai attendu longtemps ce moment. On ne peut que remercier Dieu». Le leader libyen a de son côté salué le "courage" et "l'indépendance" des autorités écossaises, mais ces louanges sont loin d’avoir calmé la controverse en Grande-Bretagne, où l’incident menace de faire reporter une visite en Libye du prince Andrew.

Le ministre des affaires étrangères David Miliband a qualifié la réception de «profondément affligeante» et le premier ministre Gordon Brown a avoué sa «colère» alors que la Maison Blanche a jugé l’accueil «scandaleux et dégoûtant». «Nous avons dit au gouvernement libyen que nous continuons à observer la façon dont il va traiter (Megrahi) dans les jours suivants, a indiqué un porte-parole. Nous lui avons également indiqué que nous trouvions ces images insultantes pour les familles des victimes qui ont péri».

189 des victimes étaient Américaines, et la controverse a fait brandir la menace d'un boycott américain de l'Ecosse ou du Royaume- Uni. Le directeur de la FBI Robert Mueller était de ceux qui n'avaient pas de mots tendres envers l'Ecosse: «J'ai pour habitude de ne pas commenter les décisions des autres procureurs, dit-il, (mais) votre décision de libérer Megrahi est inexplicable et porte tort à la justice».

Le premier ministre écossais minoritaire Alex Salmon a tenté de calmer le jeu, reconnaissant: «Il y a beaucoup de déception chez de nombreuses personnes aux Etats-Unis à propos de la décision de libérer le condamné de l'attentat de Lockerbie... mais la relation entre l'Ecosse et les Etats-Unis est forte et profonde.» Plusieurs politiciens écossais ont cependant fait appel à la démission de son ministre de la justice.

Le dossier avait doublement de quoi préoccuper Miliband, qui a aussitôt démenti que la libération de Megrahi soit liée à des contrats commerciaux avec la Libye, une version des faits avancée dans un entretien télévisé par Seïf al-Islam, fils du colonel Kadhafi, qui avait parlé de lien avec l'intérêt britannique pour les réserves libyennes de gaz et de pétrole.

«Toutes les décisions relatives au cas Megrahi ont été exclusivement du ressort de ministres écossais, a indiqué un porte-parole du ministère britannique, aucun marché n'a été passé entre le gouvernement du Royaume uni et la Libye concernant le cas Megrahi et les intérêts commerciaux dans ce pays». Cette version des faits reste-t-elle à vérifier ?

Entre temps Megrahi soutient que son propre rôle dans les événements de Lockerbie reste à être élucidé, réitérant son innocence au Times de Londres et insistant qu'il avait des preuves démontrant qu'il a été victime d'une erreur judiciaire: « S'il y avait une justice au Royaume Uni, j'aurais été acquitté ou le verdict aurait été annulé, car il était irrégulier. C'était une erreur judiciaire », a affirmé le Libyen.

Mais à la lumière de la controverse entourant son retour triomphal, certains semblent en vouloir beaucoup moins à ce petit individu souffrant qu’au régime de Khadafi (qui fête ses 40 ans au pouvoir en septembre) replongé n’est-ce que pour quelques jours, dans l’ombre des années 80. Voilà qui est plutôt triste puisque la Libye, en renonçant à la fois à son programme nucléaire et au terrorisme en 2003, devait représenter l'exemple à suivre dans la région, notamment pour l'Iran.

Afghanistan: better than nothing?

It wasn’t the smoothest election day, but for a country with decades of war and instability it would have to do. Despite the death of over 20 people on polling day and suspicions of voter fraud, Afghan officials declared the Aug. 20 vote, the second presidential election since the fall of the Taleban, a success while proclaiming the insurgency had failed in its bid to intimidate voters and undo the democratic process.

The vote was held after days of attacks by the Taleban killed over 20 people and insurgents vowed to unleash terror across the country on voting day, especially in the capital. But incumbent candidate Hamid Karzai hailed his countrymen for braving Taliban "bombs and intimidations" while the head of the UN mission in Kabul, Kai Eide, said that overall, the security situation had been "better than we feared" and had "allowed people to take part in the elections".

"The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidations," Karzai told reporters. "We'll see what the turnout was. But they came out to vote. That's great." Karzai was favoured to win the election although it was uncertain he would manage to garner the 50%+1 votes necessary to avoid a runoff. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was most likely to compete with him in a second round, but results weren’t expected for weeks due to logistics only matched in their complexity by the country’s rugged terrain. The day following the election both campaigns claimed victory, citing their own internal numbers.

For many it was a miracle the vote was held at all, after being delayed from the spring because of violence. Early signs pointed to lower participation rates in the insurgency-wracked south, around Kandahar, where Canadian troops are stationed, but Canadian officials there said although there had been skirmishes with Taleban fighters, the latter had "failed miserably" to make good on their boast to destroy the electoral process. "There was not one single suicide attack today in Kandahar province on a day where suicide attacks were threatened on a massive scale by the insurgency," said Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance, who commands Canada's 2,800 troops in South Asia.

Overall some 73 attacks were reported in 15 provinces, including the storming of a town in usually quiet northern Afghanistan, preventing polling stations from opening, but ending with the death of 8 militants. The insurgency also targeted a bus connecting Kabul to Kandahar and killed a district police chief in Baghlan province.

Despite these incidents, rampant speculation that some voters had obtained multiple voting cards and that bribes were being paid to get certain tribes to support certain candidates, there was no turning away some voters showing up at some 6,200 polls across the country to choose among 41 candidates for the presidency and about 3,000 candidates for about 400 provincial council seats. Among them Afghan women living in Pakistan crossed the dangerous and porous border to vote — a great show of courage in one of Afghanistan's most conservative provinces.

“I was scared of bombs and suicide bombers when I walked on the street to the polling site, but I had to take the risk and participate in the election," said Sharin Bano, 28. "As women, we should use our vote to get change and peace. There are threats and warnings for us to stay in our homes, but if we stay home how can we expect any changes that will lead to peace?"

Not all however praised the election, the first organised primarily by Afghans themselves. Candidate and ex-World Bank official Ramazan Bashardost claimed: "This is not an election, this is a comedy." Some analysts doubted the vote would provide any lasting democratic gains.

“With the growing level of violence, mounting allegations of bribery and vote rigging, the Taleban insurgency now extending over almost half the country, and almost three-quarters of the electorate casting their ballots in remote, largely inaccessible rural areas, it is difficult to conceive how the presidential election will be construed as either free or fair,” said Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Some observers noted that for so many doubts to remain five years since the previous election, while in some areas conditions in fact worsened, hardly makes the point the country is either safer or on the road to democracy: “It was much different in Kandahar City during the first presidential election in 2004... This time, people came, went inside quickly to cast their votes and then got out and disappeared very quickly. The streets were deserted,” one observer said.

Amnesty International raised concerns about the transparency of the vote, citing pre-vote instructions by the Afghan government for the foreign press not to cover reports of violence on election day by fear of scaring away voters. That violence was hard to avoid. As results trickled in this week over 40 people were killed in Kandadar car bombs, and the death of four U.S. soldiers already made it the deadliest year for coalition troops.

Russian swaggering in the North

With Russian Paratroo- pers set to land at the North Pole, red-starred submarines circulating near our waters and Soviet-built long-range bombers blowing by Canadian airspace, it may not be the old Cold War, but there’s no lack of posturing as the stakes rise up North.

Last week the Canadian military dispatched a surveillance plane to monitor a pair of nuclear-powered Russian submarines cruising off the East Coast, in international waters but under the glare of U.S. and Canadian officials nevertheless, previously alarmed by another pair of subs that went through ice near the North Pole and test-fired two long-range missiles.

Canadian and U.S. officials have been noting that some of the recent activity is "part of a pattern of Russia flexing its muscles" that has not been seen in many years. And it is doing this as half a dozen northern countries are reviewing maps of the Arctic, made increasingly interesting because its potential riches are more easily accessible due to global warming, leading seabed boundaries to being formally drawn under a UN treaty.

At roughly the same time Canada was conducting "anti-submarine warfare" exercises as part of its annual Arctic sovereignty operations, near Baffin Island. The three-week "Nanook 09" operation involves some 700 personnel featuring a simulated security emergency involving a "suspected downed aerial vehicle."

In his annual tour of the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed last week to provide the military with more resources to safeguard Canada's sovereignty north of 60. "We understand the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it," Harper told about 150 sailors on board HMCS Toronto.

It may be the great empty white North, but it sometimes seems like you can’t throw a snowball without hitting a Russian military operation. In a planned mission that echoes Russia's controversial 2007 flag-planting on the seabed at the North Pole, a team of Russian paratroopers is reportedly preparing for a symbolic landing there next spring to mark the 60th anniversary of a Cold War achievement by two Soviet scientists.

News of this was met rather harshly by Ottawa, which warned it would scramble fighter jets to meet any Russian aircraft approaching Canada's airspace, while watchers of the North considered the significance of such a drop. Russian Gen. Vladimir Shamanov was quoted as saying Russians "do not intend to engage in (sabre-) rattling, we only intend to make a peaceful visit to the North Pole," but a leading Canadian expert on polar geopolitics expressed astonishment at the idea of such a drop at a time countries including Canada, Russia and Denmark are gathering geological data to determine ownership of the seabed around the Pole.

“The political sensitivity of sending a paratrooper drop at the North Pole?" said University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert. "(Consider) the political symbolism and the military capability that that shows — it's clear the Russians are very much increasing their assertiveness, and I'd say starting to border on aggressiveness, in terms of their intent to show their ability to have control of the Arctic region."

University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers however downplayed the announcement. "The North Pole is part of the high seas, and militaries conduct operations on the high seas all the time," he said.

Canada has earmarked billions in recent years to bolster its northern capabilities, to refurbish and build new ships and bases in the North, but by some accounts recent Russian submarine and aerial patrols in our parts may only be taking place to avoid being dismissed by other militaries, considering the embarrassing failures of Russia's naval operations in recent years, highlighted by the Kursk tragedy.

“The Russian navy might be seeking to bolster its credentials through some low-cost flaunting of its capabilities, in this case highlighting its global reach,” as well as possibly seeking to strengthen interest in the purchase of Russian military technology, argued Richard Weitz in the World Politics Review. “Perhaps most importantly, Russia's political and military leaders might see the long-range deployments as further substantiating Russia's status as a global military power.”

The swaggering has included restarting regular air patrols of strategic bombers two years ago, and the more recent deployment of Russian ships to ward off pirates off Somalia. In the North, there is a dual purpose, as countries vie for larger slices of the Arctic riches pie. In the Arctic Canada faces potential conflicts with Russia, the U.S. and Denmark as new seabed boundaries are established by 2013, one of the flashpoints possibly being the ownership of the Lomonosov and Alpha ridges — undersea mountain chains that run past the North Pole between North America and Siberia.

While Canadians and Russians like their rivalries disputed on the ice, the stakes up North extend well beyond hockey arenas. But many Russian and Canadian observers alike say the rivalry is little more than political grandstanding, with little true substance. Meanwhile Canadian politicians in the North say the money the government is putting into this would better be served helping solve local social crises.

Local politicians in Nunavut told reporters prior to Harper's visit that while they appreciated the prime minister's enthusiasm for the North, they remain hopeful federal funding will materialize for projects such as drug and alcohol abuse treatment centres in the territory. As Harper was visiting the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, the town became outraged over a published picture of two young boys sleeping on the street outside a local grocery store, casting a light on the social problems facing northern communities.

"We know that the needs here — social, economic and environment — are acute. (But) the investments we're making here . . . on a per-capita basis, vastly exceed what we're doing in the southern part of the country," Harper said following an announcement allocating $100 million in federal funds for new highways, a harbour, and skills training. "This is a series of investments and actions without precedent."

L'ETA fête 50 ans...

Reprise des attaques sanglantes ou derniers spasmes avant la mort du mouvement? A première vue on semble avoir eu tort de faire les obsèques du violent séparatisme basque de L’ETA. Cette fin de semaine trois bombes ont explosé à Majorque alors même que le groupe revendiquait plusieurs attentats survenus depuis le mois de juin.

Alors que les dernières explosions, dans deux restaurants et une place publique, n’ont pas fait de victime, une attaque le 30 juillet également sur l’île de Majorque a coûté la vie à deux gardes civils. Comme le prescrit le manuel de l’organisation basque les dernières explosions avaient été précédées d’appels téléphoniques, mais alors que certains craignent une reprise des attentats séparatistes de grande envergure, d’autres y voient les derniers spasmes d’un groupe mourant. Des attaques sanglantes en Irlande du Nord plus tôt cette année, faisant les premières victimes parmi les forces de l’ordre en 11 ans, n’étaient-elles pas également restées sans lendemain ?

Mais si les attaques récentes avaient l’intention de souligner les 50 ans du groupe, né de l’antifranquisme en 1959, l’anniversaire s’est soldé par un échec selon certains qui soulignent que le nombre de victimes n’a jamais été si bas depuis quarante ans, notamment en raison des opérations policières qui ont porté un dur coup au groupe des deux côtés de la frontière ibéro-française, mettant quelques 750 militants derrière les barreaux dont, en avril, Jurdan Martitegi, une des têtes dirigeantes. Plus récemment, la semaine dernière, la police a arrêté Juan Manuel Inciarte Gallardo, accusé de meurtres perpétrés lors des sanglantes années 80.

En fait les derrières attaques auraient eu pour but de montrer que, alors même que le but d’indépendance basque est de moins en moins recherché par une population plutôt heureuse de jouir d’une plus grande autonomie au sein de l’état espagnol, le groupe garde toujours une certaine force de frappe. Or on est bien loin des années 80 où le groupe pouvait faire presque 100 victimes par année, même si une recrudescence des attaques a suivi les négociations avortées avec le gouvernement socialiste de Zapatero et ETA a repris ses attentats à la mi-2007, après une trêve de 15 mois.

A travers les années, depuis sa fondation le 31 juillet 1959, ETA aurait été responsable de plus de 800 morts et promet de poursuivre sa campagne de violence, catégorisant les efforts des forces de l’ordre de « futiles ».

En frappant Palma de Majorque, le groupe a repris ses habitudes de cibler des sites touristiques afin de tenter de porter un coup à la fois à l’économie du pays et à la quiétude des visiteurs. Selon les autorités, un même commando serait responsable des attentats dans l’ile : « Tout indique qu'il y a un commando de l'ETA à Majorque », a déclaré le procureur du Tribunal supérieur de justice des Baléares.

Alors que le gouvernment Zapatero a plusieurs fois déclaré qu’il n’y aurait aucune négociation avec l’ETA, le groupe, dans un communiqué envoyé au journal indépendantiste basque Gara, affirmait « Ce qu'ETA cherche depuis de longues décennies est une solution politique et un dialogue. » Drôle d’appel au dialogue.

Mais si les attaques n’ont pas provoqué un mouvement de ferveur nationaliste, loin de là, elles ont bien soulevé l’indignation des gardes civils, qui ont perdu deux de leurs membres le mois dernier. L'Association unifiée de gardes civils a depuis dénoncé ce qu'elle considère comme de «graves déficiences de sécurité» suite aux attentats, menaçant même le gouvernement espagnol de mobilisations. Il faut dire que plus de 200 des victimes de l’ETA proviennent des rangs de la garde civile. Le 30 juillet, la veille de l’attaque meurtrière d’un véhicule de la garde civile, l’attentat contre une caserne de Burgos avait fait plusieurs blessés légers, dont des enfants.

Pourtant ETA n’a jamais été si faible selon les dires des autorités, qui admettent cependant, qu’il n’est pas sans représenter de menace. Les portraits de six suspects recherchés après les dernières attaques en disaient bien quelquechose : il s’agissait de six jeunes personnes, la plus récente génération du groupe militant.

Pourtant, fait remarquer un rédacteur du magazine Foreign Policy, l'attaque de la gare de Madrid par une cellule islamiste en 2004 a fait bien plus pour transformer les politiques espagnoles "que 50 ans d'attaques de l'ETA." L'auteur a du coup trouvé justifié de baptiser les terroristes de l'ETA, ainsi que ceux qui peuvent rester de L'IRA et d'autres groupes semblables des années 1970-80, de "rétro-terroristes".

Small island, big debate

Organizers had hoped more people would show up in Hamilton's botanical gardens on Aug. 1 to mark the 175th anniversary of "emancipation day", when Bermuda ended slavery. Of course there was a cricket tournament going on, it was hot, and this was perhaps just the latest celebration among many in a momentous year the British territory in the middle of the Atlantic was marking its 400th anniversary. But critics wonder if the divisive politics of the ruling Progressive Labour Party and its premier, Ewart Brown, aren't dousing the spirit of the occasion.

Political clashes have certainly given many reason for pause on this 21-square- mile archipelago where two-thirds of the 65,000 sun-kissed people that make up the territory better known for paradise getaways and rather troubling tales of the sea are blacks and the remaining third are white. Critics say there's trouble as racial tensions have been inching up in paradise, with, some would argue, whites on the receiving end of a government playing the race card when facing criticism and possibly treating its whites as they once would mistreat blacks.

"Everything is based on race. We haven't moved beyond the politics of race because we refuse to,"observed former party cabinet member Renee Webb in a recent Royal Gazette feature article on race relations. "When backed into a corner the premier uses race." Race politics in fact reflect racials tensions across the island, she says. "It's thoroughly embedded in the psyche in Bermuda to the extent that people don't realize they are being racial."

The poisonous atmosphere on the island has in fact prompted Human Rights Commission chair Venous Menari to express concern about the "increasingly vitriolic comments" driving a wedge between the communities. Webb stresses what the country lacks, so long after emancipation and over a decade after the election of an all-black party, is a uniter, or an Obama.

As his popularity slips back home, the 44th U.S. president remains highly popular on the island, his photo splashed on walls, and a t-shirt proudly worn by an information clerk in St. George, on the east end of the crescent-shaped island. Coincidently, the issues arises as Barack Obama is trying to play down his own charges of playing the race card as he hosted the "suds summit" uniting over a beer himself, vice-president Joe Biden, as well as Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley, the police officer who arrested Gates when he was trying to get into his own house without a key, relaunching the ever-present race debate in the U.S.

While Bermuda has its own history of slavery and racial tensions, divisions certainly aren't easily visible to visitors rather pleased to see locals mingling with them enjoying the island's many splendid sites, in contrast to the segregation often felt in many Caribbean nations further south. But to some, these nations have in fact already lived what Bermuda is experiencing in terms of new relations between their communities.

"White Bermudians are now beginning to experience the type of transition that their counterparts to the south of us experienced then," notes Rolfe Commissiong, race relations adviser to premier Brown, pointing to the emergence of black rule in the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s which in turn politically sidetracked whites. "As a result the same level of anxieties and irrational fears... are beginning to take shape or becoming more acute."

But there's nothing irrational about interpreting what the government is doing as playing the race card, says former independent MP Stuart Hayward, who explains Bermudian politics are alienating whites who dare to speak up. "Any criticism of government policies tends to be taken as a criticism against blacks... rather than a legitimate criticism," he says, stressing Brown is out to settle old scores. "This divisive tactic has worked to keep the current leaders in power and will likely be continued as long as it works," diverting people's attention from the real issues, he argues.

"As long as the race card segregates voters there will be no harmony." Which in turn may be putting a damper on celebrations in the meantime. "If we only manage to turn the tables, subjecting whites to the prejudices and injustices some of their ancestors visited on blacks, then we have learned nothing."

Exposés des tensions au Nigéria

Pour le gouvernement nigérian il n'y avait aucun doute, l'affaire pouvait être classée à titre de violence reliée à une secte extrémiste dont le dirigeant est mort à la suite d'une fusillade avec les autorités. Mais l'éclat qui a fait plus de 700 morts dans cette région du nord du pays réputée pour son militantisme islamiste permettait plusieurs interprétations, dont celle de la montée des revendications extrémistes dans cette partie souvent militante et majoritairement musulmane du pays.

D'ailleurs les attaques des fondamentalistes du mouvement Bako Haram (ou "l'éducation occidentale est un péché") , qui se revendiquent des talibans afghans, principalement contre les institutions gouvernementales et les postes de police ont donné lieu au déclenchement d'une "alerte totale" à travers le pays par le président Umaru Yar’adua, lui-même de la région, suite aux attaques "coordonnées". Ces "talibans d'Afrique" rejettent entre autre l'occidentalisation des politiques nationales, surtout au niveau de l'éducation, et voudraient que la loi charia, présente dans plusieurs régions du nord, soit étendue à la grandeur du pays.

Victoire contre le banditisme sectaire ou triste exposé des ratés de ce pays d'Afrique de l'ouest pourtant doté d'importantes richesses pétrolières? Certains analysent ainsi les raisons sous-jacentes de ce genre de violence, la turie de Maiduguri venant à queques jours de la plus récente attaque du réseau pétrolier par des militants. Celle-ci coincidait avec le rapt de six travailleurs pétroliers étrangers, qui selon le Mouvement d'émancipation du Delta du Niger avaient ignoré les avertissements adressés aux travailleurs du secteur pétrolier de gazier de la région du Delta.

Le groupe a déclaré "une guerre totale" contre les autorités, exigeant une meilleure distribution des richesses pétrolières plutôt que l'utilisation de fonds pour remplir les poches de dirigeants corrumpus. Quelques jours plus tard cependant le mouvement décrétait un cessez-le-feu de 60 jours, tandis que certains rebelles acceptaient le programme d'amnistie du gouvernement. Cet été Amnistie Internationale a condamné la pollution et les autres effets environnementaux reliés à l'exploitation pétrolière, estimant qu'elle crée une "tragédie humanitaire" dans la région du Delta.

Alors que certains redoutent que les militants de Bako Haram soient reliés à quelque intérêt afghan ou al-Qaida, la marque de commerce du groupe de Ben Laden connait des succès dans le nord du continent, où on y épouse ses tactiques militantes. Mais l'offensive du groupe du chef spirituel Mohammed Yusuf a semé la crainte au sein du gouvernement, et certains pointent du doigt les circonstances encore par très nettes de la mort de celui-ci alors qu'il était entre les mains des policiers. Plusieurs groupes internationaux dont Human Watch Now exigent une enquête approfondie sur la mort de Yusuf, dont le corps a été trouvé criblé de balles.

"Sa mort extra judiciaire représente un exemple parfait de l'insouciance de la police envers les lois du pays", estimait pour sa part Eric Guttschuss, de HRW. Les versions officielles même de cette mort sont discordantes, la première voulant que Yusuf soit mort lors d'une fusillade, alors qu'une autre soulignait qu'il avait tenté de s'échapper des policiers. De manière générale la réputation des forces de l'ordre, préférant la gachette au dialogue, laisse à désirer, notamment lorsqu'il s'agit d'un agitateur qui inspirait les foules.

En tout quatre états du nord du pays ont été impliqués. Alors que le pays ne connait pas les déchirements sectaires réguliers et meurtriers ayant lieu ailleurs, des éclats n'y sont pas si rares. En 2004 des affrontements entre mulsumans et chrétiens ont fait 600 morts dans l'état du Plateau, une faille bien connue séparant musulmans du nord et chrétiens du sud, point de chocs inter-ethniques depuis plusieurs années. En 2001 on a compté par centaines les victimes d'une série d'affrontements qui avait oblitéré mosquées, églises et autres édifices religieux. Les tensions qui peuvent animer la cohabitation des deux solitudes religieuses ont été exacerbées en 2000 lorsque les douze états musulmans du nord ont instauré la loi islamique.

Fin donc d'un chapitre, mais alors juste du plus récent chapitre de cette division nationale qui laisse les nordistes musulmans avec le sentiment d'être démunis par rapport aux sudistes.

Pop the champagne?

Let’s face it, not only has the rain not let up, it’s been pouring on Canadians. Not only has the economy been shedding jobs, they were jobs, in the auto and other sectors, not likely to reappear in the future. On top of that the country is in the throes of a swine flu pandemic which, like the economic slump, hadn’t been seen in years, with over 60 deaths related to swine flu in Canada alone and authorities saying people should brace for a difficult flu season in the fall.

Meanwhile labour strikes whipped unsuspecting tax-payers and customers from coast to coast, spoiling vacation plans as trains came to a halt, albeit for two days, and leaving Torontonians at the mercy of non-Toronto Canadians proclaiming with little sense of true wit “Toronto strinks.” Then there was the rain, which only made the garbage strike in the mega-city that much less unbearable but flooded cars in Montreal, created sink holes in Toronto and basically washed away plans of outdoor summer fun.

And suddenly something unlikely happened like a break in the clouds: the Bank of Canada said the country’s most short-lived big recession had come to an end. Maybe after all that Canadians did need a laugh. But seriously the federal institution made the call on July 23, citing improved credit markets and higher levels of consumer confidence. The bank was in fact expecting the country’s first recession in nearly 20 years to give way to return to growth in the coming months as that business and consumer confidence recovers.

While a number of skeptics remained unconvinced, at least the boisterous stock market, continuing a rally above 11,000 points in Toronto for the first time in 10 months, and a dollar analysts said would soon flirt with parity once more, seemed to concur: Something was looking up in the Canadian economy sideswiped by bad news in everything from the manufacturing to the media and retail sectors.

"We believe the economy will grow this quarter," bank governor Mark Carney said. "The rate of growth will pick up to the end of the year and into 2010." Before then, the forecast called for economic growth of 1.3 per cent for the current quarter ending Sept. 30, instead of previous forecasts anticipating a one per cent drop, followed by a healthy three per cent gain for the final three months of 2009. "It is there in black and white, that the recovery has effectively begun," echoed Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. "I think it is astonishing how quickly the economy turned to the good in the last four or five months."

Indeed, many are left wondering what happened to the "worst economic times since the Great Depression", a reality some say may apply to other countries but not the true north strong and free. In fact numbers show the economic downturn may only have been the worst in Canada since the early 1990s. Incidently that’s what many are saying about a summer in the eastern half of the country which hasn’t been as wet and cold in 17 years.

While the economy initially shed jobs at an alarming pace compared to recent downturns, its 350,000 losses in the first five months twice that of the 1990s recession and five times that of the 1980s, if the economy is on the road back, it will have shrunk by 3%, less than in the 1990s (3,5%) and the 1980s (5%) its 9 months of downturn shorter than the 16-month 80s downturn, and the 25 months endured in the 1990s, according to numbers compiled by the National Post. Remarkably, the paper goes on, Canada would have accomplished this with most of its stimulus money largely unspent. If, that is, you buy into the “we’re out of the woodworks” proclamation, which is yet to gather unanimity.  

"Don't break out the champagne yet," cautioned Patricia Croft, chief economist of RBC Global Asset Management. For many Canadians, "it's not a recovery until they start getting their jobs back. And on that score, we could still be in for a long wait," stressed Avery Shenfeld, a CIBC economist noting Carney did not expect unemployment to ease right away.

A reminder of this stark economic reality came the following week when Statistics Canada reported that the number of people receiving regular employment insurance benefits jumped to the highest level on record in May, with Alberta and Ontario showing the biggest increases. EI beneficiaries were up 9.2 per cent to 778,700 during the month, "the highest since comparable data became available in 1997," the agency said. Last week Canada reported another 45,000 jobs lost across the country, slightly more than expected.

The week the bank's report came out dreaded "deflation" was on the lips of a number of economists as both Canada and the United States reported that consumer prices slipped into reverse in June. The 0.3 per cent decline in Canada’s consumer prices was the biggest since the 1950s, though some were quick to point out lower energy and gas prices, which had spiked previously, were largely responsible for this.

Even a cabinet minister urged caution on the positive spin of the bank. "No," replied Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, when asked whether he was ready to declare the end of the recession. "There are good signs that the economy has stabilized, and there are the beginnings of a recovery. And I wouldn't put it any stronger than that." The statement made him in fact contradict that of another cabinet minister, Stockwell Day, who had had a more cheerful outlook of the days ahead, in turn prompting the opposition to slam the contradiction in messages coming from the top.

On Monday Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman told an international business forum in Malaysia the world has avoided a second Great Depression but it will take at least two years to recover from the present recession. Meanwhile analysts cautioned the stock market rally may not have the fundamentals to sustain itself.

Still, nearly coinciding with the release of the bank report, Statistics Canada said retail sales rose a better-than-expected 1.2 per cent in May, led by a 2.4 per cent increase in automotive products. There seemed to be good news for Canada’s biggest partner as well, the U.S., the Conference Board of Canada saying growth was in sight south of the border as well, where the economy was expected to begin to grow again in the second half of the year, albeit it warned the recovery would be a slow one, leaving Canada to “post a comparatively stronger rebound in 2010.”

Days later President Barack Obama said the United States may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. "Here is what's true: we have stopped the freefall. The market is up and the financial system is no longer on the verge of collapse," Obama said. "So there is no doubt that things have gotten better. We may be seeing the beginning of the end of the recession."

Perhaps heradling the return to better times was the apparent turnaround in the critical and downsized car industry, GM gradually inching out of bankruptcy while Ford posted a return to profitablity. Meanwhile not only did the bank's rosy outlook give the stocks and loonies another boost, it seemed to generate enough positive energy to prepare good news on the labour front, with the Toronto and rail strikes either going to arbitration or yielding tentative deals days later.

Of course it may all have been a coincidence. As for the rain it can at least be credited for avoiding in the east the devastation of large forest fires seen in the west.

Odyssée de l'espace toute canadienne

C’est une odyssée de l’espace toute canadienne qui a eu lieu à 400 kilomètres du sol lors de l’accolade entre Robert Thirsk et de Julie Payette la semaine dernière. Lui, l’astronaute de Colombie britannique qui a franchi la noirceur de l’espace dans une capsule Soyouz pour participer à une mission marathon de six mois sur la station internationale; elle, la Québécoise montée avec la navette de la NASA lors de sa deuxième mission chez les étoiles.

Le moment était d’autant plus rare et unique que les missions des navettes américaines tirent à leur fin, laissant presque avec le monopole humain de l’espace les premiers conquérants terriens des constellations. Cette date du 17 juillet étant d’autant plus spéciale qu’elle coincidait quelques jours plus tard, avec le 40ème anniversaire des premiers pas sur la lune.

Ce grand moment canadien s’est pourtant fait attendre de manière à craindre qu’il n’ait jamais lieu puisqu’il suivait cinq tentatives de décollage annulées à Cap Canaveral. Seuls les Etats-Unis, la Russie, la Chine, l’Italie et l’Allemagne ont connu un moment semblable en réunissant leurs astronautes dans l’espace.

«C’est vraiment un moment historique que l’on vit. Ça m’inspire beaucoup, estime l’ancien astronaute et président de l’Agence spatiale canadienne, Steve MacLean. Nous entrons dans une nouvelle ère d'exploration spatiale et tous les Canadiens sont fiers». La mission de Payette est la 15ième pour un Canadien depuis les 16 dernières années. « Il y a lieu d’être fier que le Canada fasse partie du programme de vol spatial, a rajouté Benoit Marcotte, un porte parole de l’agence spatiale installée sur la rive sud de Montréal, on montre ainsi que nous sommes un pays à haute technologie».

Ayant assez de cette technologie dans l’habitacle de la station internationale, Payette avait des produits plutôt familiers du terroir biens canadiens à proposer aux astronautes prenant part à la mission, dont du syrop et du beurre d’érable et du boeuf déséché de l'Alberta. «Aujourd'hui, vingt-cinq ans après la première mission d'un Canadien dans l'espace, le Canada demeure un chef de file en exploration spatiale, a déclaré à son tour Tony Clement, ministre de l’Industrie et ministre responsable de l'Agence spatiale canadienne. Le fait que deux astronautes canadiens se retrouvent dans l'espace en même temps est sans contredit un jalon marquant de l'histoire spatiale canadienne. »

Sinon le calendrier des astronautes s'annonçait plutôt chargé lors des 16 jours de visite de l’équipage de la navette Endeavour. Celui-ci s'est d'ailleurs empressé d'assembler un module du laboratoire japonais Kibo. Thirsk est d’ailleurs responsable de tous les modules japonais.

Puis la navette elle-même devait être inspectée suite aux images d’une caméra externe de la navette qui ont montré, lors du décollage, que des pièces s'étaient détachées du réservoir, heurtant le bouclier thermique de la navette. Ces images rappelant la tragédie de la navette Columbia, qui s’était dés- intégrée lors de son retour dans l’atmosphère en 2003, une équipe devait déterminer si le véhicule a subi des dommages importants, ce qui avait tragiquement été le cas six ans plus tôt.

Etant une experte en bras robotique – un autre doublé canadien dans l'espace avec Canadarm at Canadarm2 - à bord d'Endeavour, Payette avait un rôle déterminant lors de cette inspection, complétée en fixant un membre de l’équipage au bout du bras robotique ensuite transporté sous la navette afin de vérifier son état.

Dimanche les deux Canadiens participaient à une entrevue télévisée en direct, un unifolié servant de toile de fond de cabine: «Nous sommes très heureux de faire partie de cette superbe communauté internationale», a commenté Payette, en faisant des culbutes auprès de Thirsk, même si de son propre aveu elle n'est pas aussi bonne que son coéquipier pour flotter dans l'espace puisqu'il s'y trouve depuis plus longtemps.

«Apprendre à être productif, apprendre à être efficace, apprendre à ne pas perdre mes choses, c'est vraiment une épreuve quotidienne pour moi, c'est quelque chose qui prend beaucoup de temps», a affirmé Thirsk à son tour, à moitié à la rigolade.

Moins drôle peut-être, ce nombre record d'astronautes à visiter la station en même temps, 13, devait composer dans l'immédiat avec un WC défecteux, une situation plutôt problématique en apparence, à plusieurs centaines de kilomètres des plombiers...

Exercices entre ennemis?

Fallait-il s’étonner que l’hélicoptère cubain poursuive sa trajectoire au-dessus de la base américaine de Guantanamo Bay en juillet ? Peut-être un peu mais sans s’affoler affirment les militaires américains, qui font remarquer qu’il s’agissait de simple exercices militaires conjoints. Faut-il alors en faire tout un plat au niveau des relations cubano- américaines ? Peut-être, selon certains observateurs, qui doutent que de tels exercices aient eu lieu sous Fidel Castro.

Certes certains petits changements ont bien eu lieu sur l’ile interdite à 90 kilomètres de Key West depuis la transition du pouvoir l’an dernier, mais organiser des exercices américano-cubains autour de cette très controversée base du sud-ouest du pays dépasse toutes les attentes, selon des observateurs cubains: « Si sous Castro (Fidel) les gens avaient appris qu’on organisait des exercices communs, comment soutenir l’argument selon lequel les Etats-Unis représentent un géant menaçant d’envahir Cuba ? estime un exilé cubain travaillant pour le gouvernement américains qui souhaite garder l'anonymat. C’était la ligne de démarcation de Fidel pendant des années. Pas question de laisser les Américains passer de l’autre côté de la clôture lors d’exercices militaires.»

Ceux-ci prévoyaient également l’installation d’une station de triage en territoire cubain. En fait le général des Marines à la retraite Jack Sheehan, prétend avoir instauré cette pratique lors des années 90, un exercice de rapprochement supposément gardé secret jusqu’à maintenant. Certains estiment donc que la théorie du rapprochement diplomatique n’est pas tout à fait fausse, puisque la révélation de détails supplémentaires sous la nouvelle administration Obama, qui a déjà braqué les projecteurs sur les pratiques secrètes de l’administration précédente, serait en elle-même un ballon d’essai visant à rapprocher l’ile du continent Yankee.

Le plus étonnant, sans doute: qu’aucun mot sur l'exercice n'ait circulé alors qu’il avait lieu, malgré la présence de deux douzaines de journalistes déplacés pour couvrir les tribunaux militaires controversés des détenus reliés à Al-Qaida, dont le Canadien Omar Khadr, malgré l’appel de Washington à la suspension des tribunaux. Les exercices constituent des préparatives d’urgence en cas de désastre naturel, selon les porte-paroles de la base.

Alors que les Etats-Unis ont assoupli leurs règlements permettant le déplacement de cubano-américains sur l’île, et que sous Raul certaines lois sur la téléphonie et l’usage d’ordinateurs ont également été allégées pour les Cubains, les quelques informations révélées sur l’exercice constituent selon Sheehan « un procédé en étape » destiné à ouvrir la voie aux relations militaires autour de la base de Guantanamo.

Ironiquement, certains militaires américains affirment que le transfert des terroristes d’Al-Qaida avait donné lieu à un autre geste de rapprochement puisque les Etats-Unis avaient averti la Havane de leur arrivée en 2002. « Nous n'en avons jamais fait l’annonce puisque c’était très contreversé » expliquait Sheehan au Miami Herald, à propos des exercices militaires.

Back to years of living dangerously?

It had been years since a major terrorist attack had struck Indonesia, but those hoping a massive crackdown on terror group Jemaah Islamiyah and peace settlements over the separatist area of Aceh would bring peace to the world’s largest muslim country were disappointed July 17 when bomb attacks minutes apart against two major Jakarta hotels favoured by foreigners, one of them struck in a previous attack six years before, appeared to return a country which had just completed peaceful elections to the years of living dangerously.
Nine people were killed and over four dozens injured in the blast of the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels which ripped the façade off the Ritz, blew out windows and instilled fear among locals and foreigners alike, wary of seeing plumes of smoke rise anew in the heart of the capital of millions. The toll was under that of the 2003 attack on the Marriott but a reminder nevertheless of the perils that lurk still as president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono begins his new mandate after being successfully re-elected in the July 8 vote.
Yudhoyono avoided a runoff by taking a comfortable 60% of the vote compared to the 27% of predecessor Megawati Sukar- noputri. “This is a black day in our history,” Yudhoyono said in his address to the nation after a closed-door meeting with top security officials. “This act of terrorism was carried out by a group of terrorists who may not be from the network we currently know of.” “I swear in the name of the Indonesia people that the government will take firm, appropriate and correct action,” he added.
One of the reasons for the success of the man who became the first Indonesian president to be directly elected, in 2004, is the relative stability the country has enjoyed since, even allowing for moderate economic growth this year, despite the fact he will still have to rule in a coalition government. It had been years since an attack had shakened the archipelago of countless islands, a 2005 blast killing 19 in Bali having been a chilling reminder of the devastating 2002 blast, also on the picturesque island of temples and Buddhism, which had killed 202 people including two Canadians.
Three of the culprits for that slaughter were executed last November, prompting fears of revenge attacks. Countries rushed to condemn the early-morning Jakarta attack, as investigators cordoned-off the sites to try to reconstruct the incident, looking for clues that could lead to the culprit, while a strong military presence remained displayed in the capital and other cities in the following days.
The first elements of the investigation prompted Indonesian officials to say there were “strong indications” a wanted fugitive behind a familiar name, Jemaah Islamiyah, was behind the attacks. Noordin Mohamed Top is wanted for plotting both Bali bombings as well as attacks elsewhere, suspected of being a key financier for the group, now believed to have set up his own terror organization. Investigators also pointed to similarities with previous JI attacks, the bombs targeting the hotels in Jakarta consisting of nails, ball bearings and bolts, very much like the ones used by terror group.
Certainly the organization remains active in the region, a number of cities of the southern Philippines having recently suffered a fatal series of bombings that bore Jemaah Islamiya’s hallmarks. The opposition criticized Yudhoyono for tying the attack to the election, but some analysts say the organization of the vote may have distracted police enough to set up the attack.
While few expect a full return to the terror and associated fears of the last decade, the damage has been done to the country’s reputation. Manchester United had been scheduled to stay at the Ritz-Carlton for a friendly game in Jakarta, but the team has since cancelled the Indonesian leg of their tour. Perhaps at a time when Indonesians needed entertainment and signs of normality more than ever.

Obama trip turns focus on Africa

As the last G8 meeting to be held in Canada neared, then prime minister Jean Chretien swore Africa would remain high on the agenda, as scheduled, even as the Middle East once more seemed to be commanding international attention. As the latest G8 wrapped up in Italy, current PM Stephen Harper said the poor continent would not be forgotten by industrialized countries at next year’s summit in Ontario, leaders from Dakar to Nairobi no doubt stunned the richest economies were willing to pour billions into their financial bottomless pits during the crisis while fractions of that amount could surely do a long-lasting good in their countries.

The leaders of the G8 ended their three-day summit in quake-stricken L’Aquila this month pledging $20 billion in farm aid to developing countries facing a food crisis. A good start but hardly enough for African leaders who called on the richest to fulfill past pledges of developmental aid to developing countries in Africa and other parts of the world. U.S. President Barack Obama reminded his counterparts the funds would work far beyond the immediate points of impact. “Wealthier nations have a moral obligation as well as national security interest in providing assistance and we have got to meet those responsibilities,” he said.

Still others considered the G8’s funds announcement, a highlight of the summit, as a step backward. “The G8 in 2005 promised $25 billion extra for Africa by 2010 which is next year,” noted Max Lawson of Oxfam. “About 12 months to go we have seen none of that money, which is not what they promised. We think this summit has been a complete shambles.” Other leaders voiced concern previous pledges had not in fact been fulfilled. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization last year said about $30 billion was needed for food security.

But perhaps no other leader could draw attention to a continent only too often associated with crisis, poverty and famine, as Obama, who followed the G8 summit by a visit to the continent of his father’s native land. Certainly he was aware that Africa had largely benefited from the attention of his predecessor, George W. Bush having heavily contributed to projects such those targeting AIDS and rewarding countries for their good governance.

Bush’s initiatives on AIDS pumped $18 billion to fight the virus, mostly in Africa, where a few years later 1.3 million Africans were on medication, instead of a mere 50,000 before. Bush supported cancelling $34 bil. worth of debt for 27 African states, launched major anti-Malaria initiatives and, of all things, won the praise of aid activist Bob Geldof, who once said the U.S. president “saved millions of lives.”

As he began his first visit of sub-Saharan Africa since taking office however, Obama stressed the continent and its leaders had to look beyond hand-outs to a time it could take charge of its own destiny. During his stop in Ghana, Obama vowed that the U.S. would help the continent but stressed “Africa’s future is up to Africans.” While he noted the legacy of colonialism had helped breed conflict on the continent, he stressed it shouldn’t be blamed for every crisis in the region. “The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants,” he noted.

The U.S. was however indirectly involving itself in at least one African conflict at the time, obtaining the green light from the U.N. to ship arms to Somalia, a country which bears echoes of American failure on the continent (which some claim later explained its lack of initiative during the Great Lakes genocide), in order to support the government as the capital was being overrun by Islamist insurgents threatening the lawless country.

“Development depends upon good governance,” Obama told Ghana’s parliament. “That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans." The lack of good, or some could claim even legitimate governance in Kenya, his father’s homeland, following elections last year opponents say were rigged, was probably the reason why the great symbolic photo-op of an Obama visit to Kenya was not included this time, replaced by the visit of a preferable model-country, albeit a small lesser-known nation of the west coast of Africa.

“Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war,” Obama added, stressing “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”  The statement resonated loudly as former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, the first African leader to be tried for war crimes, was taking the stand in The Hague, to answer accusations that he armed and commanded rebel groups to bolster his influence in West Africa, groups held responsible for atrocities between 1996 and 2002.

Taylor’s testimony however seemed to throw new allegations of backdoor U.S. involvement in African affairs, as the former strongman claimed he was “100% sure” the CIA helped him break out of a U.S. prison in the mid-1980s so he could return home to Liberia to join a military leader plotting a coup against President Samuel Doe.

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” Obama said in Ghana, before ending with his trademark “Yes you can.”

But the continent still heavily relies on handouts, and for all the encouragement and the support of the U.S. administration in the fight against AIDS and HIV in Africa, a conference this weekend reminded participants of the long road ahead. Scientists warned of a looming health catastrophe, in part blaming the “criminal” silence of world leaders on their faltering HIV-AIDS promises.

“The silence of the G8 leaders is not just pathetic, it is criminal,” Canadian Dr. Julio Montaner told the opening of the AIDS-society conference in South Africa. He and other critics came down on the G8 participants for not mentioning AIDS despite pledging to fight for universal access to AIDS treatment by 2010 at the 2005 summit. “When the G8 won't renew its 2005 commitment to universal access, when the G8 cynically uses the financial crisis to threaten cutbacks to AIDS funding … then it's time for science to speak with one powerful voice of accusation,” said Canadian Michael Lewis.

Doctors Without Borders warned that disruptions in the supply of AIDS medicine are threatening the lives of HIV patients in at least six African countries while Oxford University researchers reported that HIV rates among gay men in some African countries are 10 times higher than among the general male population, saying prejudice towards gay people was leading to isolation and harassment. Another indication some problems would have to be solved by Africans themselves.

China sees worst unrest since TianAnMen

When clashes in Tibet sparked international protests last year, following the Olympic flame at every stage of its world tour and dogging the lead up to the Beijing Games, officials put the death toll at around 20 people, while Tibetan representatives claimed the number was over 100. But this week a single incident in the restive Xinjiang region claimed at least 150 lives and injured 1,000 in the worst ethnic violence to rock China in more than 40 years.

Beijing blames separatist Muslim Uighurs for the violence, but exiled Uighurs say police violently cracked down against students demanding justice after the death of Uighurs last month as officials announced some 1,400 arrests tied to the disturbance. The World Uighur Congress said that “scores of Uighur protesters were killed and dozens were injured after security forces used lethal force to disperse the peaceful protesters and to stop the spread of this peaceful protest.”

But a Chinese embassy official in London told the BBC “the local government in Xinjiang has evidence that extremist forces inside and outside of China communicated with each other intensively before the incident erupted on Sunday.” In return the Uighurs say it’s an old trick to blame expats of fomenting trouble in China. “It is a common practice of the Chinese to accuse me for any unrest in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and his Holiness the Dalai Lama for any unrest in Tibet,” said Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uighur Congress.

"I think the stirring up from outside does occur, but to put it all on that, to overlook the very genuine tensions that exist in Xinjiang is very misguided,” told Voice of America China specialist Colin MacKerras, who was written extensively about the region.

At the source of the protest, which according to video footage degenerated when protesters started rioting, overturning cars, setting fires and attacking pedestrians, was an incident in southern China late in June where at least two Uighurs were killed during a brawl in the toy factory where they worked. According to some Uighur websites a wider ethnic clash was behind the incident, which some claim resulted in the death of two dozen Uighurs.

The riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, were the worst ethnic trouble in the region home to many of China’s eight million Muslim Uighurs since 1997 when several weeks of clashes spurred by nationalist sentiment left dozens of people dead, but far fewer than this week’s. By some accounts, the number of people killed was the highest since the TianAnMen square massacre in 1989. Tensions took no time to spread as a protest by 200 people was broken up in a second city, Kashgar, and police said they had evidence that demonstrators were trying to organize more unrest in other regional cities such as Yili and Aksu despite their best efforts to rush security forces and interrupt Internet and cellphone communications.

Tensions have been simmering. In the lead up to the Beijing Games Chinese authorities said the greatest threats to the event came from Muslim militants from Xinjiang after a group called the Turkestan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for blowing up buses in Shanghai and Yunnan previously. A bomb attack killed 16 policemen four days before the opening ceremonies in the western province, Chinese state media saying two Uighurs were responsible for the attack and were quickly arrested.

Uighurs activists said the "repression" they faced may have led some to take more drastic action to stand up to Beijing. Like Tibetans, the Uighur resent Chinese interference in the practice of their faith and authorities usually insist Han Chinese influences are doing wonders to modernize the regions, but Muslim groups felt particularly victimized as Chinese authorities used the Sept. 11 attacks as excuse to crack down against what they considered Muslim terrorism. Beijing likes to point out that 22 Uighurs were among the terror suspects caught by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Continued examples of communal violence later this week, as Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese roamed the streets and beat passers-by in Urumqi, prompted officials to impose a curfew over the entire restless region. The violence is a slap in the face, as Beijing prepared the 60th anniversary of communist rule in October - calling for the creation of a “harmonious society” to celebrate - and forced an embarrassed President Hu Jintao to cut short his presence at the G8.

To try to establish some of this harmony the government addressed the source of the latest flare-up by arresting 13 people over the factory fight, and two more for spreading false rumours about the incident on the Internet. It may not be a cure, but could prove a much-needed band-aid for now.

Célébrations à Bagdad

Un peu plus de six ans plus tard c’était aux troupes irakiennes d’entrer dans Bagdad triomphantes et sous les applaudissements, mais comme on pouvait s’y attendre le retrait des troupes américaines des principales villes du pays ne s’est pas fait sans heurts. Une bombe a explosé dans la ville du nord irakien de Kirkouk, faisant plus de 30 victimes et une centaine de blessés, alors qu’une semaine plus tôt l’attaque d’un marché dans la capitale a fait plus de 70 morts. Environ 250 personnes sont décédées suite aux violences lors des deux semaines précédentes.

L’avertissement des djihadistes était clair et virulent, mais pour plusieurs irakiens, le 30 juin, décrété « jour de la souveraineté nationale », marquait une page tournante de l’ère de l’après-Saddam. Le défilé militaire des forces irakiennes qui a eu lieu à Bagdad n’avait rien de l’exposition des missiles de l’ancien dictateur, des véhicules de police décorés de fleurs et de drapeaux irakiens y prenant part alors que retentissaient des chants patriotiques crachés par les haut-parleurs.

Si la semaine précédente des irakiens exprimaient leur inquiétude après la bombe meutrière du quartier Sadr, la plus récente, la prise en charge du demi-million de policiers et du quart de million de militaires irakiens s’est voulue rassurante, même si 130,000 GIs restent cantonnés dans des camps hors des villes, prêts à intervenir, attendant leur retrait définitif d’ici la fin 2011.

Autant dire que la date du 30 était tout aussi importante à Washington, qui poursuit son désengagement de la région en parallèle avec sa politique d’ouverture envers le monde arabe. Le secrétaire général de la Ligue arabe, Amr Moussa, a également qualifié l'étape d'importante vers le rétablissement de la souveraineté nationale de l'Irak tout en appelant au peuple irakien à s'unir lors de cette délicate phase et promettant que les forces de sécurité pouvaient jouir du soutien continu des pays arabes.

Alors que le premier ministre Nouri al-Maliki décrétait le 30 juin jour férié, le président américain Barack Obama applaudissait la prise en charge, notant que l'avenir du pays est désormais « entre les mains de son peuple», mais non sans ajouter « ne vous y trompez pas: il y aura encore des jours difficiles ».

En effet, puisque selon les autorités le véhicule bourré d'explosifs qui a pris Kirkouk pour cible a sauté à proximité d'un marché très fréquenté afin d’y faire, comme à Bagdad, le maximum de victimes. Cette semaine encore un attentat à Mossoul, dans le nord également, faisait 12 victimes tandis que le chapitre local d'Al-Qaida promettait plus d'attaques.

En fait certains sont à se demander si Washington ne fait pas la même erreur commise en Afghanistan, que la nouvelle administration tente de corriger en y dépêchant de nouvelles troupes et en tissant de nouveaux liens avec Moscou cette semaine afin de faciliter le transfert de soldats et matériel en passant par la Russie.

En effet, alors que le vice-président Joe Biden effectuait une visite éclair en Irak récemment, quelques jours après le transfert des troupes hors des villes, certains commentateurs irakiens comme américains se demandaient si les Etats-Unis ne tentaient pas trop abruptement de tourner la page du pénible chapitre irakien, tout en portant de plus en plus d'attention aux développements en Afghanistan, où 124 soldats canadiens ont connu la mort depuis leur déploiement en 2002.

"Barack Obama ne peut pas se permettre de perdre l'Irak," estime pour sa part Kenneth Pollack du Brookings Institution de Washington, qui craint que la nouvelle administration n'ait pas une politique irakienne assez bien définie maintenant que l'Afghanistan est devenue, en quelque sorte "La guerre d'Obama".

Mais à Bagdad du moins, les jours des GIs sont comptés selon les autorités, Maliki estimant que Biden, à présent en charge du dossier de la transition en Irak, doit "transmettre à son président le désir commun des Irakiens de vouloir régler leurs affaires entre eux". Pas d'ingérence, en quelque sorte. Après six ans de guerre, le message fait presque sourire.

Latinos et Washington unis sur le Honduras

Les militaires avaient beau avoir la bénédiction du Congrès et de la Cour Suprême, même apparemment, d’une grande partie de la population, le coup d’état qui a forcé le président du Honduras Manuel Zelaya à connaitre l’exil a été aussitôt condamné sur la scène internationale.
Quelques jours plus tard l'Assemblée générale de l'ONU a demandé le retour "immédiat et sans condition" du président pour que rentre à l’ordre le premier pays d’Amérique centrale à renouveler avec son passé richement putschiste depuis une quizaine d’années. Le dernier pays à vivre une telle émotion, en 1993, était le Guatemala, si l’on exclut un coup d’état loupé au Venezuela en 2002.
Une résolution adoptée par acclamation a condamné "le coup d'état dans la République du Honduras, qui a interrompu l'ordre démocratique et constitutionnel", l'ONU exigeant dans sa résolution "le retour immédiat et sans condition du gouvernement légitime du président de la République, Manuel Zelaya, et de l'autorité établie légalement en Honduras".
De son côté l'Organisation des Etats d'Amérique a suspendu le Honduras après que les appels au retour de Zelaya soient restés sans réponse. Le président Venezuelien était d’ailleurs en première ligne, tentant de défendre son homologue gauchiste, alors que la classe politique hondurienne tentait tant bien que mal de justifier la destitution du président le jour où il avait prévu un plebiscite constitutionnel ouvrant la porte à un amendement lui permettant de briguer un nouveau mandat; le chef de l’état étant limité à un seul mandat non-renouvelable de quatre ans.
Devant l'ONU cependant Zelaya s'est montré prêt à changer de cap, assurant qu'il refuserait d'assumer un second mandat dans son pays. Mais lorsqu'il a tenté de rentrer au pays cette fin de semaine, et ce malgré les avertissements voulant qu'il soit arrêté sur le champ, des troupes avaient été mobilisées sur les pistes de l'aéroport de la capitale, empêchant son aéronef d'atterrir et l'obligeant à un nouvel exil, au Nicaragua. Un manifestant a d'ailleur été tué lors d'affrontements avec les militaires, faisant grimper le ton de partisans de Zelaya jusque là restés plutôt muets.
On a assité au Honduras, selon La Prensa, journal principal du Nicaragua, à "coup d'état d'un genre nouveau … pas d'un coup d'état militaire classique du siècle précédent où les militaires destituaient un gouvernement démocratique, prenaient tous les leviers du pouvoir, supprimaient les garanties constitutionnelles et imposaient une dictature sanguinaire".
En fin de compte un coup d’état presque entre amis, puisqu’un collègue du parti de Zelaya, le parti libéral, Roberto Micheletti, assure la présidence par intérim jusqu’en janvier, soit l’échéance du mandat de Zelaya. Estimant que l’armée avait agi en respectant l'esprit des lois et de la constitution, Micheletti prétend que la transition s’est faite de manière «absolument legitime ».
Mais le Honduras se retrouve isolé sur la question : «Et nous qui pensions que la longue nuit des dictatures militaires en Amérique centrale était terminée » soupira le président Oscar Arias du Costa Rica, où le chef d’état destitué s’est retrouvé en pyjama au beau milieu de la nuit. Pour une fois, certains ont noté qu’une Amérique latine largement gauchiste et Washington ont dénoncé le coup d’état d’une seule et même voix: « Nous n'autoriserons pas un retour au passé », a déclaré Hugo Chavez qui a placé les troupes vénézuéliennes en état d'alerte.
Pendant ce temps des manifestations et contre-manifestations avaient lieu dans les rues de la capitale, menant parfois à certains heurts. Depuis le début des événements des affrontements entre partisans des deux camps ont fait plusieurs blessés devant le palais présidentiel, dont "quinze soldats et trois officiers" lors des premiers accrochages selon l'armée, puis 276 blessés "dont 11 par balle" et 180 arrestations parmi les manifestants, selon les manifestants.
Certains hésitent cependant de qualifier l'explusion de coup d'état: "L'armée a déposé un président constitutionnellement-élu afin de rétablir le système démocratique de gouvernement, estime Chet Thomas de l'organisme de charité Project Global Village, on peut difficilement cataloguer ce qui s'est passé de coup d'état."
Pourtant il s'est bien passé quelquechose en Amérique centrale, où ce pays jadis plutôt tranquille et paisible est à présent profondément divisé politiquement, et de l'extérieur, de plus en plus isolé. Une sanction sévère pour ce pays pauvre.
Cette semaine semblait prometteuse lorsque le gouvernement du Honduras a permis à Arias de servir de médiateur. Mais Zelaya et Micheletti ont initialement préféré s'injurier que parler.

Questions abound about Jackson's death

Even stranger than the man’s transformation from a musical child prodigy who dazzled the world with his dancing and electrifying performances to that of a recluse dogged by sexual abuse charges was the very passing away of the "King of Pop." Two days after appearing apparently healthy at a rehearsal that was preparing a 50-date farewell tour and soon after obtaining a clean bill of health from doctors, surprisingly put on the payroll by promoters for the duration of the tour, Michael Jackson was pronounced dead after collapsing from cardiac arrest.

Unsatisfied by a first coroner’s report which failed to determine what specifically killed the 50-year-old entertainer, pending toxicology tests expected to take weeks, and questioning the role of a doctor present the day of his death, Jackson’s family called for a second opinion while people were massing at makeshift memorials from Los Angeles to New York and Paris in honour of the man that defined a generation despite his at times outrageous antics.

Thousands attented a memorial service in Los Angeles this week and millions of others across the world watched on television as live performances and eulogies paid tribute to the star whose death is so far proving as unusual as his childhood.

A lawyer for the physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, said his client was cooperating with officials as the investigation over the death widened to include federal authorities last week. "Investigators say the doctor is in no way a suspect and remains a witness to this tragedy," a spokeswoman for the law firm representing Murray said. The lawyer said Jackson still had a faint pulse and his body was warm when the doctor found him in bed and not breathing, and a 911 recording of the call revealed the physician was performing CPR when paramedics were called to the mansion.

“This thing has gone from inquiry to investigation,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been acting as a spokesman for the family. “Right now there is no peace. We don’t know what happened and we need to know. Michael was not sick before. He was not frail.”

Some acquaintances of the singer said they had their suspicions what could have triggered the cardiac arrest, a condition much more serious than a heart attack and isn't always recovered from despite immediate medical attention. Among them spiritual teacher and medical doctor Deepak Chopra said he had been concerned for years about Jackson’s use of painkillers, saying he raised the matter with him six months ago, suspecting the pop star was abusing them in the lead up to a major tour the singer hoped would relieve some of his financial problems. The Wall Street Journal reports Jackson’s debt reached half a billion dollars. Two years ago Jackson was reportedly worth half that.

Chopra said Jackson asked him for painkillers in 2005 when he was staying with him after his trial on sexual abuse charges, a request that he refused. Since however he says he’s heard the singer had repeated drug use problems and had called on a battery of doctors to visit his home. Rev. Jackson said he had a few questions for Murray of his own. But the LA Times reported that a second interview by police of the doctor yielded no information suggesting the physician committed a crime.

Some however say the performer's upcoming grueling schedule of 50 concerts in Britain could not be kept separate from the incident, leaving one British tourist with an eerie premonition. "We had tickets for the 12th (show), but I didn't think he was going to make it that far," said Neil Turner, visiting the U.S. "I always thought that he might die."

Quebec author Ian Halperin wrote in London's Daily Mail the pressure of packing so many shows was too much for the singer, who he claims thought he had agreed to 10, not 50 shows, had become too frail to dance, and even sing, and was feeling suicidal. His biography, The Last Days, was hastily rewritten at the last minute for next week's launch, and was supposed to coincide with the new shows. Instead it will become the first new book about the star to be published. But in an interview that aired on Fox News, Jackson's father said he does not believe stress over the intense series of concerts led to his death. "Michael was the biggest superstar in the world and in history," Joe Jackson said. "He was loved by everybody, whether poor or wealthy or whatever may be.''

Reports the singer abused a number of prescription sedatives last week, including an intravenous anesthetic reserved for hospital use, however brought the investigation into a whole new phase when the Drug Enforcement Agency confirmed it was getting involved.

Meanwhile the tributes continued pouring in when Black Entertainment Televisions's awards show was reworked to honour the star, with singers paying hommage to Jackson. A Jackson 5 medley was performed and host Jamie Foxx attempted the Moonwalk. "We all know none of us in this in this room wouldn't be here for Michael Jackson," said Lil Wayne, named best male hip-hop star. Late in the show Jackson's sister Janet took the stage to thank fans for their support: "My entire family wanted to be here tonight, but it was just too painful, so they elected me to be here," she said.

This Tuesday they were reunited as the tributes reached their high point when the Los Angeles Staples Center hosted a star-studded memorial featuring eulogies from stars such as Magic Johnson, who praised Jackson's shattering of colour barriers, Stevie Wonder and other personalities, including Smokey Robinson  who read a tribute written by Nelson Mandela, as Jackson's casket lied in centre-stage surrounded by flowers.

Toward the end of the ceremony, beamed across the world, Jackson’s 11-year-old daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson addressed the crowd in a first public appearance by one of Jackson’s three children, usually kept from the public eye. “Ever since I was born daddy has been the best father you can ever imagine,” she said, crying and holding on to her aunt, Janet Jackson. “And I just wanted to say I love him so much.” Custody of the children is an ongoing saga as it is temporarily in the hands of Jackson's mother Katherine, but his ex-wife Debbie Rowe may be seeking custody herself.

Fans around the world haven't been getting enough of Jackson, as demand for his music surged since his death, dominating sales at music retailers and download sites across the world. But not everyone eulogized the pop star whose last years were tainted by scandal. One TV commentator suggested saying Jackson was a good performer was "like saying O.J. Simpson was a great football player" while Congressman Peter King lashed out at the level of attention being given to the death of the star, saying people were idolizing a "pervert" and a "low-life." Faced with such conflicting views, Democrats found it wise to nix a resolution in Congress to honour Jackson.

But the critics were usually drowned out by adoring fans who put Jackson back at the top of the charts one last time. The weekend following his death his songs topped Apple's iTunes download charts in most countries while in Britain Jackson scored a posthumous number one album with greatest hits compilation Number Ones, and four other albums reappearing in the top 20. In the singles chart, 43 out of the top 200 singles featured the singer, with Jackson hits accounting for all but one of the new entries in the top 40. This week Jackson had three of the five best-selling albums in the U.S. for the second week in a row.

“This is it, this really is it,” announced Jackson in his last official public appearance in London on March 5 to promote his final tour. As it turned out, it tragically really was.

Encore des manifestations en Iran

En bout de ligne, les deux candidats principaux ayant l’aval des chefs religieux qui dirigent la république islamique, il est fort à parier qu’un choix plutôt qu’un autre n’aurait pas radicalement boulversé la politique iranienne. Mais des manifestants majoritairement jeunes ont plutôt mal accueilli la ré-élection du président Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aux élections présidentielles, descendant dans les rues en grand nombre pour condamner des résultats donnant environ 63 pourcent des intentions de vote au dirigeant conservateur provocateur, intraitable tant sur le dossier nucléaire que sur ses positions extrême envers Israel.

Pourtant les chefs religieux avaient prévu un exercice électoral plutôt terne qu’autre chose, ayant approuvé des candidats posant peu de souci au favori du régime. Or les esprits se sont échauffés lors de la campagne, qui a gagné une ampleur inattendue à la suite d'éclats parfois fougueux, qui ont électrisé les foules du rival plutôt réformiste du président, l’ancien premier ministre Mirhossein Moussavi, lançant une vague verte qui n’espérait rien de moins que la victoire. Parfois derrières ces propos, du jamais vu, l'épouse de Moussavi, Zahra Rahnavard, qui a fait campagne en ne se gênant pas de traiter Ahmadinejad de menteur et de mysogyne!

L’écart de la défaite, donnant presque le double du pourcentage des votes à Ahmadinejad, a donné lieu aux pires affrontements depuis la révolution de 1979 en Iran, les forces de l’ordre ne lésinant par sur les moyens pour tenter de ramener le calme à Téhéran et dans plusieurs autres villes du pays. Des rassemblements de l'opposition, parfois organisés sans l'aval de Moussavi, ont viré au drame lorsqu'une demi douzaine de participants sont tombés sous les balles des milices du régime.

La veille l’opposition avait porté le tout en appel aux instances religieuses après un épisode qui selon un membre de l’opposition a transformé la joie de l’exercice électoral en drame national. Malgré la place d'Ahmadinejad dans le camp des favoris des religieux, le guide suprême de la révolution islamique, Ali Khamenei, en a surpris plus d'un en annonçant qu'il exigeait une enquête sur les allégations de fraude. Cette semaine on ordonna de recompter les votes dans certaines régions, même si certains analystes estiment que ceci ne risque pas de renverser les résultats.

Ahmadinejad s’est de son côté réjoui des résultats et moqué des appels à la fraude électorale de l’opposition, estimant que les manifestants - dont 170 ont été arrêtés dimanche lors d’éclats où les autorités ont fait usage de gaz lacrymogène et de tirs avertisseurs - ont agi comme «des supporteurs de match de football dont l’équipe a perdu».

Une version des faits que ne partageait pas nombre d’observateurs internationaux: « Vu la façon dont ils répriment la liberté d’expression, la façon dont ils répriment la foule, la manière dont les gens sont traités, il y a de vrais doutes » sur la légitimité de la réélection de Ahmadinejad, estimait le vice président américain Joe Biden. Lundi c'était au tour de Barack Obama de se déclarer inquiet des événements, mais sans plus puisqu'il préconise un retour au dialogue avec Téhéran. L'Union européenne a demandé une enquête sur les accusations de fraude électorale tandis que plusieurs pays dont la France convoquaient leur ambassadeur iranien.

Dans les jours qui ont suivi l'élection contestée, alors que la rue traitait en partie Ahmadinejad de « dictateur », Moussavi estimait que les résultats laissaient le pays au bord de la « tyrannie », tout en tentant de calmer les ardeurs de ses partisans : « Les violations lors de cette élection sont très sérieuses et vous avez raison de vous sentir profondément blessés, annonçait-il sur son site web, mais ... ne perdez pas votre calme et votre retenue. » Il a demandé aux manifestants de porter du noir jeudi, qu'il a consacré jour de deuil pour les victimes de tirs et deuil électoral.

Ahmadinejad de son côté ne s'est pas gêné de fêter sa victoire devant des milliers de partisans, estimant «l’élection complètement libre, c’est une grande victoire» alors que des postes de télévision étaient retirés des ondes, des dissidents arrêtés et plusieurs réseaux de téléphone cellulaires, de sites et de blogues - utilisés par les organisateurs rivaux pour prévoir des rassemblements - tout simplement bloqués. Peu ému par les manifs et contre-manifs de la rue, il a quitté le pays cette semaine pour participer à un sommet d'où il a critiqué les Etats-Unis.

Etrange dialogue israélo-palestinien

En quelques mois ces deux pays intimement liés ont changé de dirigeant, ainsi les premiers discours d’envergure de Barack Obama et de Benjamin Netanyahu sur l’éternelle question de la paix au Moyen-orient était attendus à titre de rencontre ou de dialogue entre les Etats-Unis et Israel.

L’arrivée du président démocrate a vite fait craindre au sein du pays hébreu, notamment chez la droite politique, la fin de liens privilégiés, d’autant plus que la volonté de réparer des années d’usure entre Washington et le monde musulman ne réservait aucune surprise.

« Qu’il n’y ait aucun doute, la situation du peuple palestinien est intolérable, a entonné Obama le 4 juin. L’Amérique ne tournera pas le dos à l’aspiration légitime des Palestiniens à la dignité, et à disposer de leur propre Etat». Ainsi l’appel d’Obama, lors de ce discours au Caire, au respect du principe de « deux Etats pour deux peuples » ainsi qu’au gel de la colonisation n’a pas créé plus de surprise que le rejet de son homolgue dix jours plus tard sur le second thème.

Netanyahu a cependant accepté, sous de strictes conditions, le principe de la création d'un Etat palestinien, un geste plutôt bien reçu à Washington, qui n’a pas voulu commenter sur la question de la colonisation. Car si Netanyahu est d’accord pour que cesse la création de nouvelles colonies en Cisjordanie, il refuse d’entraver le développement "naturel" de colonies existantes. Cependant l’Etat palestinien imaginé par Netanyahu devra être démilitarisé et n’existerait que si Israel était alors reconnu comme l'Etat du peuple juif avec Jérusalem comme capitale indivisible. Aussi les Palestiniens doivent-ils renoncer au droit au retour des réfugiés et à leur réinstallation à l'intérieur des actuelles frontières d'Israel, selon Netanyahu.

Alors qu’au sein du dialogue entre les Etats-Unis et Israel le discours de Netanyahu était accueilli à titre de « pas important en avant » par la Maison blanche, sur la question des deux Etats, les principaux intéressés, les Palestiniens, n’y voyaient que du feu. Du moins le mouvement islamiste Hamas qui contrôle Gaza a-t-il dénoncé «l'idéologie raciste et extrémiste » de Netanyahu, estimant que ce dernier a «fait fi de tous les droits du peuple palestinien » en campant sur ses positions de toujours.

La réaction n'était guère plus enthousiaste en Cisjordanie, domaine du Fatah du président Mahmoud Abbas, qui y a vu « la paralysie des efforts accomplis ». Selon le spécialiste du Proche-Orient Steven Cook, Abbas se retrouve fragilisé par les conditions posées par le premier ministre israélien dans son combat contre les militants islamistes du Hamas : « Il a effectivement parlé d'un Etat palestinien, ce qui est plutôt une rupture pour un dirigeant du Likoud, a-t-il expliqué au journal Le Monde, mais il a répété le même type de conditions qu'il a déjà posées et reposées. Démilitarisation. Pas de contrôle de son espace aérien, en gros Israël peut contrôler ses frontières. »

A Ramallah, les réactions initiale ont été peu encourageantes: « C’est comme un voleur qui veut que vous acceptiez tout ce qu’il vous a volé, sans rien en retour… C’est comme ça, il n’y a de loi dans le monde que pour les plus forts » déclarait un citoyen de cette ville de Cisjordanie à Euronews. «On refuse son discours, ajoute une Palestinienne, il ne nous donne pas ce qu’on veut, on veut le retour des réfugiés, leur droit au retour, et que Jérusalem nous soit rendu. »

Pourtant le peu qui semble avoir été concédé a été obtenu à fort prix, Netanyahu ayant été, à la veille de son discours, soumis à des pressions de la droite sur la question des deux Etats, lui qui tient à peine ensemble un fragile gouvernement de coalition. Au moins reste-t-il intraitable sur les colonies.

Plusieurs estiment que sa déclaration permet tout juste aux Etats-Unis et Israel de poursuivre leurs pénibles efforts sur le processus de paix. Un spectacle que suivent les Palestiniens des deux territoires avec un air peu convaincu, se sentant exclus d'un dialogue où ils représentent une partie pourtant essentielle.

A pandemic, it's official

In the end the World Health Organization’s announcement the swine flu virus had attained pandemic proportions may not have been a surprise due to a steady rise in cases of infection worldwide, the great majority mild, but was a first for the 21st century nevertheless, and became the first world pandemic in over four decades.

By June 11, the day WHO raised its worldwide alert level from 5 to 6, some 30,000 people had been infected worldwide, the virus being tied to 144 deaths. Experts however noted that the technical definition of pandemic had been reached weeks earlier, as WHO officials were trying to decide whether to trigger the alert, and fear that the numbers may only be the tip of the iceberg, with possibly hundreds of thousands or millions of people actually infected.

In Canada some 3,000 had been infected, just over 100 of them hospitalized, and four died (now 12), though often not without suffering from other health problems as well. Days before the worldwide pandemic was proclaimed, signs of a new level of alert were growing evident in Canada, where some 484 new cases of the virus were confirmed by laboratory in Ontario alone, and the first Quebec death related to the virus (which now has seven) was not related to travel from what was considered ground zero of the pandemic: Mexico. In the nation’s capital alone some 50 schools were reporting some degree of infection.

An indication of the spread of the virus, by then Mexico had largely been surpassed by the U.S. in the number of cases, though cases there were generally milder. By the time the pandemic was official however, it was generally accepted the virus was relatively mild, prompting officials to clarify that the new level of alert did not indicate a new level of severity but rather a greater geographic spread and therefore the need for domestic health officials, with over 74 countries affected, to step up vaccination and other efforts to deal with the disease.

“Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of WHO. But officials warned the disease could develop new, more dangerous strains, the alert wanting in part to avoid complacency. Chan said that rich countries should, in addition to taking appropriate measures on their own soil, help developing nations deal with the disease, which could spread in more severe forms there because of the inadequacy of health systems or general weakness of populations more likely to be malnourished or suffering from other diseases such as AIDS.

In countries quickly affected by the virus because of their proximity and frequent travels to Mexico, initially associated with the spread of the H1N1 virus, authorities considered WHO’s move as a mostly technical one since health officials in Washington and Ottawa had been acting for weeks at an increased level of alert. "Within our borders the virus continues to behave like a seasonal flu," said Canada's chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones. "We are working toward actually having a vaccine ready sometime in the fall — well before the worst of the potential winter flu season."

The H1N1 vaccine would be a separate vaccine from the regular annual flu shot and Canadians were being urged to get both when they are available, possibly in late October. By the high virus season of the holidays health officials hoped most Canadians would have been immunized against the swine flu, a virus which has had the distinction of targeting the young in particular, most healthy, as opposed to the very young and elderly, as is usually the case. The fall is a particularly critical period at it is suitable to the spread of influenza.

By the time WHO changed its alert level, every province and territory save Newfoundland and Labrador had been infected, though officials confirmed their first case there days later. Of particular concern in the Prairies were reports of severe cases in some First Nations communities of Manitoba. The spread of cases in two native communities in particular was considered alarming because local leaders said they didn’t have the basic medical resources to deal with the outbreak, leaving provincial officials struggling to find a doctor. A similar outbreak took place in nine Ontario native reserves days later.

Officials note it is in such frail communities around the world where the virus might do the most damage. In the past flu pandemics have infected up to a third of the world’s population, spreading worldwide well before air travel made transmission so easily possible. The previous global flu pandemic, the Hong Kong flu of 1968, was responsible for more than 700,000 deaths worldwide.

Fighting Buy American

Maybe it’s pure coincidence that it’s happening at a time the industry which ushered in North-American free-trade is facing tremendous challenges, but there’s no denying trade frictions are gripping the world’s greatest trade partners. The auto pact between Canada and the U.S. began in 1965 the gradual integration of the two economies, and while Detroit and its satellite auto instal- lations across the water have seen better days, so has the free flow of some goods and services, and even the goodwill between communities on both sides of the 49th.

Triggering the tension were “Buy American” clauses of America’s $787 billion stimulus bill which have seen some Canadian contractors shut out of U.S. infrastructure projects, which in retaliation prompted Canadian communities to penalize American partners, precisely the kind of tit-for-tat cross-border restrictions and protectionist measures G20 countries pledged against earlier this year on Barack Obama’s first overseas trip as U.S. president.

“We need to remind the Americans that we’ve got a multibillion-dollar municipal and provincial procurement market in this country,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said last week. “Americans have unfettered access to it right now, but if they shut down their markets, there will be consequences.” Ignatieff spoke one day after Federation of Canadian Municipalities delegates narrowly passed a resolution that could see Canadian communities impose similar restrictions on U.S.-sourced procurement, barring changes to the contentious clauses within 120 days. Some communities in Ontario and other provinces had by then already taken the initiative to cut out U.S. companies from potentially lucrative infrastructure business.

Trade and diplomatic frictions threatened to make Buy American, at a time the U.S. heavily relies on foreign sourcing and materials “counterproductive”, noted a New York Times editorial, possibly costing American jobs. It noted an analysis by the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics that estimated that “Buy American provisions could ‘save’ 9,000 American jobs — a tiny number compared with the 650,000 jobs supported by foreign government procurement of American exports,” which made Buy American “a terrible idea. One that could make the global recession worse.”

U.S. companies supposed to benefit, in fact were becoming critical that confusion over the rules were delaying billions of dollars in spending and putting U.S. jobs at risk. “It is causing utter frustration for U.S. companies,” stressed Dawn Champney, president of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association. “The Buy American clause has just put the market at a halt while these rules are being implemented, guidance is being issued and people are trying to make legal sense of it.”

Champney's industry was particularly affected, being highly integrated with Canadian companies, with exports to Canada in 2008 worth $6.2 billion and imports worth $4 billion, making people like Champney a Canadian ally in what is becoming a growing dispute. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that retaliation by Canadian municipalities could cost American water equipment companies an estimated $3 billion in lost business.

Buy American mandates that only U.S.-produced steel, iron and manufactured goods be used in projects receiving U.S. stimulus money. While the law requires the U.S. to adhere to its international trade obligations, as much as $280 billion is headed for U.S. municipalities not bound by NAFTA or World Trade Organization agreements. Canadian premiers have sought a broad, reciprocal procurement liberalization agreement to exempt Canada from Buy American.

And Canada is hardly alone. America’s many trade partners, from the European Union to Mexico, Australia, Japan and Brazil are all looking into how to respond to the provocative clause.

At a meeting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. Boundary Waters Treaty over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was willing to address Canada’s concerns over trade restrictions but also defended Buy American. “The provision is not being enforced in any way that is inconsistent with our international trade obligations and we take that very seriously,” she told reporters, adding: “We want to take a hard look as to what more we can do to ensure that the free flow of trade continues. We consider it to be in the interests of both our countries and our people.”

In the mean time Canada's Prairie premiers were taking a stand at the Western Governors' Association annual conference in Utah, vowing to press for changes with their U.S. counterparts to the "Buy American'' provisions. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, Saskatchewan's Brad Wall and Manitoba's Gary Doer said they would voice their disapproval during meetings with their American counterparts, including a handful of Obama's cabinet members. Worried the policy could cost jobs north of the border and isolate Canadian companies from lucrative contracts, the premiers hope discussions with U.S. governors, who have influence at the state level in how stimulus dollars are allocated, will help them cut through some of the restrictions.

Meanwhile the head of the World Bank delivered a veiled rebuke to governors and cabinet members from the Obama administration about the Buy American provisions, predicting it could take at least another year for the world economy to recover. Speaking at the Utah meeting, Robert Zoellick said the global economy will shrink about three per cent in 2009, with some possibility of picking up late this year or more likely in 2010. Nursing the economy back to health could be slow and painful, and protectionism only threatens the global economy, he stressed.

These fears were underlined this week as China, a critic of Buy American, imposed its own "Buy Chinese" domestic requirements involving Beijing's estimated $586 billion in stimulus projects.

Un peu plus étranger...

Les sourires et les deux ou trois mots échangés avec routine ne suffisent plus depuis un certain septembre 2001, mais la documentation plus sévère rend un peu plus étranger ce pays au sud de la frontière depuis le début du mois de juin. Les agents frontaliers promettent une période d’adaptation alors qu’entrent en vigueur les nouveaux réglements sur l’obligation de présenter un passeport ou un document spécialisé pour visiter les Etats-Unis par voie maritime ou routière, mais là ne sont pas les seuls changements qui transforment cette frontière sinon plutôt paisible au 49ème parallèle.

Comme les Indiens du Chiapas accueillant bruyamment la nouvelle donne continentale lors de l’élargissement du libre-échange en 1993, les autochtones de la réserve Akwesasne voyaient plutôt d’un mauvais œil la nouvelle réalité à la frontière, qui traverse leur territoire près de Cornwall. Ces derniers sont opposés au projet d'armer les douaniers du poste frontalier local, alors que les agents de leur côté attendaient avec impatience la date butoir du 1er juin, estimant opérer dans une zone particulièrement dangereuse car proie au trafic clandestin que certains décrivent comme étant «un des endroits les plus dangereux à travailler au Canada ».

Selon les autochtones, armer les douaniers constitue une atteinte à leur souveraineté, leur territoire étant partiellement en Ontario, au Québec et dans l’Etat de New York, et représente un risque puisque le poste se retrouve dans une zone résidentielle. Le premier argument est cependant celui que le chef Mohawk Larry King semble le plus tenir à coeur. « L’agence douanière est une force étrangère oppressante qui occupe notre territoire. Ils ne sont pas les bienvenus et en plus ils veulent porter des armes, dit-il, il s’agit ni plus ni moins d'un acte de guerre, nous ne sommes pas responsables de ce qui pourrait en résulter, il pourrait y avoir des troubles ».

Du côté du syndicat des agents douaniers, on accueille la nouvelle règlementation plutôt favorablement: « Si l'on se fie au nombre d'événements qui ont eu lieu là - il y a eu une prise d'otages, le bureau s'est fait tirer dessus -, ce n'est pas une place de tout repos », expliquait à Radio-Canada Ron Morand, président du syndicat.

Mais le risque de violence à minuit moins quart le 31 a suffi pour faire boucler la frontière lorsque les agents ont quitté leur poste.  L’armement des agents se produit sur fond de raffermissement de la frontière, alors que la nouvelle documentation vient en vigueur et alors que la nouvelle administration américaine analyse les "faiblesses" au long du 49ème, qu’elle survole dorénavant avec un appareil de détection.

Au Québec, région jugée un peu comme le maillon faible de la frontière, une nouvelle patrouille comprenant des agents frontaliers accompagnés d’agents de la GRC tâche également de remplir les trous entre les postes lors d’un projet pilote qui a toute les apparences d’un border patrol à la canadienne.

Mais autant dire que même dans les alentours des postes frontaliers, notamment à Stanstead, une communauté canado-américaine qui partage la même bibliothèque municipale et plusieurs rues, les nouveaux changements ne laissent pas indifférents. La trésorière de Derby Line, la communauté côté américain accouplée à Stanstead, explique qu’on assiste à l’érection d’une « nouvelle frontière » qui n’est plus celle qu’elle pouvait traverser autrefois avec nonchalance pour enseigner des cours religieux du côté canadien.

Certains groupes, comme l’équipe lycéenne de hockey, qui fait ses pratiques à Stanstead, devront s’assurer d’avoir toute la documentation nécessaire : « Le passeport devra se joindre à leur équipement, dit-elle, ça ne va pas être gratuit, ce n’est pas pour tout le monde. »

Alors qu’on entre dans une période de transition, les agents promettent d’être tolérants au départ, mais estiment que la date butoir a déjà souvent été repoussée. Du coup celle de l'entrée en fonction des agents armés à Akwesasne a également été repoussée, le gouvernement refusant de rouvrir le poste aussi longtemps qu'une entente ne sera pas conclue avec la communauté autochtone. John Thompson, du Mackenzie Institute de Toronto doute que les autochtones seraient passé à l'acte, notant la présence d'armes chez les agents opérant du côté américain.

The more North Korea changes...

More of the same rogue nation nose-thumbing by the hermit kingdom or a new level of strategic alert? North Korea’ second nuclear test on May 25, followed by the launch of a series of short-range missiles, has sparked near unanimous international condemnation involving even once reluctant critics of the regime, but Pyongyang has served notice its neighbour’s decision to join an inspection control program in response could spark military action on the tense peninsula.

On Thursday South Korean and U.S. troops boosted their alert level as a result, registering its highest category since 2006, after the communist regime threatened military strikes as tensions escalated following a previous nuclear test.

A day earlier the regime in effect declared a renewed state of war with Seoul over its decision to join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which involves stopping and searching ships suspected of illegally carrying weapons of mass destruction, by saying it was tearing up the 1953 armistice.

The dramatic statement came as reaction to North Korea’s latest tantrum - its most serious since a 2007 agreement which sought, in vain, to bring it to the fold after its 2006 nuclear test – drew unprecedented condemnation including Russia’s, which usually balked at sanctions aimed at Pyongyang. The regime said that Seoul’s decision to look into intercepting ships was tantamount to declaring war.

Less than two months after President Barack Obama’s “denuclearization speech in Prague”, rudely welcomed by a rocket firing from North Korea, that vision of the world seems as elusive as peace on the peninsula. A statement by the regime said South Korea’s move came as “the state of military confrontation is growing acute and there is constant danger of military conflict.” Seoul had previously resisted joining the inspection program, choosing a more conciliatory approach toward a country where some of its citizens have relatives, their ties severed by the demilitarized zone that separates North and South.

South Korea was also in the midst of mourning its former President Roh, jumped off a cliff days before as he faced allegations of bribery, which he denied. Some believe Roh was investigated for political reasons.

Obama called the underground nuclear test a “blatant violation” of international law, as the blast became the subject of a meeting of the UN Security Council to determine how to punish what is already one of the world’s most isolated countries. Europe and Japan have called for strong measures. Joining the UNSC’s unanimous condemnation earlier was China, a key interlocutor which is showing a shrinking tolerance for North Korea’s repeated antics, especially as it conducted tests close to its border.

Pyongyang said that ships patrolling its vast coastline, not only South Korean but American as well, could be fair game for the North’s “tremendous military muscle,” threatening “unimaginable and merciless punishment.” This week North Korea prepared to test-fire more longer-ranged missiles, the type capable of reaching the U.S., while it reinforced defenses and conducted military exercises along its coast for what South Korean media reports suggested was possible preparations for skirmishes at sea. South Korea deployed a guided-missile, high-speed boat to the area to stamp out any provocations, the navy said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Kim Jong Il’s regime must face consequences for its “belligerent and provocative behaviour” following its recent actions and threats, while stressing Washington takes “very seriously” its commitments to defend South Korea and Japan. But America’s top diplomat said there remained room for diplomacy, calling on North Korea to return to the so- called six party talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear arms program.

Also appealing for calm was South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who ordered his government to take “calm” measures in the face of the threats. The White House says the country’s latest threats “won’t get North Korea the attention it craves,” but the latest flare-up did not fail to make headlines around the world and put diplomats in crisis mode.

“This rapid-fire provocation indicates a more aggressive shift in the Kim Jong Il regime,” said Ryoo Kihl Jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “Kim is obviously using a strategy of maximum force.”

Some analysts say that apart from trying to get the attention of the new U.S. administration, the moves seek to rally the country around the prospect of an outside threat at a time of uncertainty about Kim’s health and successorship. South Korean media reported that a succession announcement went out after the May 25 underground nuclear test to North Korean officials, and Pyongyang was hailing Kim's 26-year-old son, Jong Un, as “our Commander Kim” in a new song being taught to the people.

In addition there were reports North Korea may be preparing to reprocess spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, one which was supposed to be dismantled under a 2007 agreement, in exchange for aid. The deal has now all the appearance of a fantasy, as is the once pondered notion North Korea could one day rejoin the international community.

As the U.S. and other countries considered their response to Pyongyang’s actions, Obama’s national security adviser noted that a growing consensus was being forged internationally in the world in that neither North Korea nor Iran should be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. In addition retired Gen. James Jones stressed that while North Korea was still a long way from developing the know-how to make a nuclear weapon and placing it on a missile, the threat was that it could sell nuclear weapons technology to others.

But any new tests puts the country closer to having a working atomic bomb and plans for more rocket launches are keeping the region on edge juding by this week's reports North Korea could test-fire long-range missiles this month and may be gearing up for skirmishes with its neighbour around their disputed sea border.

This week UN officials were still debating the wording of a tough Security Council resolution to respond to the tests. There were reports discussions touched on travel and visa bans on certain members of the regime and tougher trade and economic sanctions. Doing nothing to ease tensions, the communist regime was putting on trial this week two U.S. journalists it took into custody along its border with China several months ago after charging them with "hostile acts."

It's the economy, and so much more

As is usually the case when Amnesty International releases its annual report, few countries are spared, even Canada, criticized for its treatment of natives or Afghan detainees. But globally, the economic recession has dealt a blow to rights around the world, the organization notes, distracting attention from abuses and fomenting more as protests over issues such as food prices or shortages have been met with repression.

The 400-page 2009 report said the pursuit of economic recovery has relegated human rights to the back seat and millions of the world's poorest people were bearing the brunt of the economic downturn.

"The underlying global economic crisis is an explosive human rights crisis: a combination of social, economic and political problems has created a time-bomb of human rights abuses," said Amnesty's Secretary General, Irene Khan. "Billions of people are suffering from insecurity, injustice and indignity. We are sitting on a powder keg of inequality, injustice and security, and it is about to explode.”

In Africa Amnesty deplored major conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan, but few countries escaped criticism as even relatively peaceful Cameroon was slammed for its repression of food protests, leading to some 100 deaths last year. But there was plenty of blame to go around across the continents.

AI strongly criticised the Indian government for violence against Christians in the states of Orissa and Karnataka and blamed Serbia more foot dragging in war crimes cases. It pointed its finger at Russia for the murder of reporters and the torture of detainees but also slammed Italy for racism and its failure to respect the rights of migrants. None of the 157 countries listed are spared.

If anything, the report is a sad reminder of the persistence of suffering, from China’s Xijiang Muslim region to that of the Burmese opposition, as Aung San Suu Kyi faces her latest trial, conveniently held during an election year. It is perhaps no small measure of the group’s thoroughness that in addition to mentioning the obvious in terms of regimes where women’s rights have been undermined, such as Muslim theocracies like Iran, AI also targets Finland, usually among the Nordic models of equality, because less than 10% of rapes there are reported to police, and even fewer prosecuted.

But it is those at the bottom of the economic pyramid that are suffering the most, Khan says, as cash-strapped countries crack down on people protesting against rising poverty and unemployment. “There is a kind of domino effect ... and those at the most vulnerable end of the chain are feeling the brunt."

The slowing economy has been especially felt by the masses in China, where millions of migrant workers drawn from the countryside have lost their jobs as demand and exports crashed. Worsening economic circumstances were particularly difficult on African countries such as Mali, Cameroon, Tunisia, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

As aid is sacrificed at the altar of economic recovery, Khan stresses forgetting human rights in the scramble to reverse the downturn would leave any future economic recovery incomplete. "Economic recovery will be neither sustainable nor equitable if governments fail to tackle abuses that drive and deepen poverty, or armed conflicts that generate new violations."

And this is on top of the usual bloodbath of open conflict that occur annually.

"From Gaza to Darfur and from eastern DRC to northern Sri Lanka, the human toll of conflict has been horrendous, and the lukewarm response of the international community shocking," the report states.

La Somalie s'effrite

Inutile de faire remarquer que le président somalien Sharif Sheikh Ahmed ait perdu le contrôle de ses côtes, elles n’ont jamais été tout à fait patrouillées. La même remarque peut s’appliquer à la grandeur du pays de la corne d’Afrique qui depuis 1991 est plongé dans une guerre civile. Mais la prise récente de la ville stratégique de Jowhar, située à 90 km au nord de Mogadiscio, par les islamistes radicaux, laisse présager encore pire pour la jeune présidence de cet islamiste modéré élu en janvier, alors que les affrontements avec les troupes gouvernementales continuent à pousser les habitants de la capitale à fuir.

« Les combattants des shebab ont attaqué la ville et les combats ont lieu sur deux fronts maintenant, mais je peux vous dire qu’ils ne gagneront pas leur sale guerre », déclarait alors Ahmed Mohamed Moalim, un commandant pro-gouvernemental, faisant état des affrontements depuis le lancement le 7 mai d’une offensive menée par le chef islamiste radical cheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys visant à faire tomber le pourvoir.

Déjà le gouvernement de transition somalien ne contrôle plus que le centre du pays et quelques secteurs de la capitale. Aweys a appelé son ancien allié à démissionner pour éviter un nouveau bain de sang à Mogadiscio, qui n'en serait pas à sa première catastrophe. Le gouvernement dénombrait déjà plus de 100 morts, 420 blessés et 40000 déplacés à Mogadiscio lors des premiers jours de l’offensive.

Le président jouit de l’appui de l’Union africaine, de l’ONU, de l’Union Européenne et des Etats-Unis, mais cette fin de semaine une délégation du Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU rappelait que les conditions “n’étaient pas encore réunies” pour qu’une force onusienne remplace la mission de paix africaine en Somalie (Amisom) déployée à Mogadiscio, un geste pourtant jugé nécessaire. Les envoyés notent surtout le manque d'enthousiasme des autres pays africains à fournir des troupes pour renforcer les quelques 4300 soldats mal équippés, notamment Ougandais et Burundais, qui peinent à protéger le palais présidentiel des insurgés.

La prise de Jowhar pose un problème stratégique puisque les extrémistes se trouvent à couper une route reliant les forces gouvernementales stationnées à Mogadiscio et leurs alliés du centre du pays. Le lendemain une milice locale a abandonné la ville de Mahaday, 110 km au nord de Mogadiscio, à l’approche des insurgés. Un porte-parole du gouvernement parlait cependant de repli stratégique: «Nous nous sommes retirés pour des raisons de tactique militaire et reviendrons quand nous le voudrons».

En attendant, les appels du président, lui-même ancien guérillero islamiste, à rassembler les partis autour d’une table de négociations et d’instaurer la charia, pour tenter d’amadouer ses anciens alliés des Tribunaux islamiques, sont tombés sur des oreilles de sourds. Une lueur d’espoir peut-être: certains groupes insurgés ne seraient pas insensibles aux offres du président.

Mais les pays voisins craignent un morcellement encore plus marqué en Somalie, où certaines régions du nord, dont Somaliland et le Puntland, lieu de départ des pirates prenant d’assaut les navires ôsant s’approcher des côtes, sont quasi-autonomes. Une intervention étrangère, celle de l’Ethiopie, avait d’ailleurs été nécessaire afin de faire évincer les Tribunaux qui contrôlaient le pays en 2006. Cette semaine l’Ethiopie niait des rumeurs selon lesquelles certaines de ses troupes auraient retraversé la frontière.

Par ailleurs le directeur de la CIA Leon Panetta trouve la situation en Somalie particulièrement troublante, puisqu’il estime que l’état de non-droit est proprice à la fuite de membres d’Al-Qaida du Pakistan cherchant refuge, en Somalie, où au Yémen.

L’Ethiopie n’est pas seule à redouter la crise en Somalie. Cet autre pays voisin, le Kenya, recevait encore cette semaine des hordes de réfugiés fuyant les violences, certains entassés dans des camps qui selon les groupes humanitaires connaissent d’importantes pénuries d’eau et de nourriture. Un seul camp du Kenya accueillerait à lui seul 272 000 réfugiés, pour la plupart des Somaliens, soit trois fois plus que ce que le complexe était censé en accueillir au départ.

Le mois prochain l'International Crisis Group organise une conférence à Rome pour analyser la crise. Mais sera-t-il déjà trop tard?

It's Congress, by a margin

Winning the most votes in the world’s largest democracy is usually half the battle, a fact reminded as the Congress party that has produced three prime ministers for the Nehru-Gandhi family begins, under the continued leadership of Manmohan Singh, the process of securing the coalition needed to steer a country of over a billion people.

But the 260-seat victory of the Congress alliance confounded observers who had been predicting an unstable government weakened by the rise of third parties massed in a so-called “third force”. As it turned out they fared poorly while Singh became the first leader since the country’s founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to finish a five-year term and return to office following a victory Congress leaders called a “massive mandate”.

“I express my deep sense of gratitude to the people for giving us this massive mandate, for having reposed their faith in the party,” Singh said. Party president Sonia Gandhi said voters had made the “right choice” by returning the perennial party of Indian politics to power as the country sees its lowest growth in half a dozen years and keeps watch on the border where its neighbour and rival confronts domestic terrorism, which has recently spilled into India’s cities.

India also faces other challenges ahead, among them dealing with the insurgency of Maoist guerrillas, known as Naxalites, in its most impoverished states, and managing a persistent water crisis.

The election results were equally good news for Gandhi’s son, Rahul, 38, groomed to carry the famous family name forward and who during the campaign emerged as a key strategist and became the public face of the party. After Sonia took the helm of the party, this signals the latest rise on the political stage of a scion of India’s most powerful family — being the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. Singh asked the rising star to join the cabinet, a move some say prepares him to one day take over his job.

While over 400 million voters have done their part during the month-long ballot casting at 830,000 polling stations, Congress must still gather the required 272 seats by establishing the alliances it needs to steer parliament and implement reforms, but the new numbers have made this easier than predicted. With about 157 seats, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, unseated in 2004, was the clear loser of the vote, its leaders LK Advani facing certain removal as the party conceded defeat and began a period of brainstorming to determine what went so wrong.

The “third force” of communist and other parties expected to become the new contenders disappointed with some 60 seats, while characters hoping to become kingmakers fared more poorly than predicted.  This included Mayawati, whose bid to aggressively build a national base with the support of those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, known as dalits, has as much inspired some observers as it has disgusted traditionalists, especially among the higher casts. Over the past 20 years Mayawati and mentor Kanshi Ram have built a national force by appealing to the lower castes, which make 60 percent of India’s voters, notably keeping a lock on the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, but over the weekend this grip was slipping.

Congress meanwhile says it’s the only party of true unity in the country of over a billion souls. “The people of India have spoken and spoken with great clarity,” said Singh. “I want to invite all allies and ask them to come together forgetting their old disputes. I also welcome the opposition to show the world that we are a united nation.”

“Congress believes it won the election by focusing on the rural poor - raising support prices for crops, waiving repayment of bank loans by small farmers, improving rural infrastructure and providing massive subsidies for food and agricultural inputs,” Cato research fellow Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiya told Forbes.

“This produced rural prosperity in a country where 70% of the population is still rural, and where trade controls insulate rural India from the gyrations of global markets. This explains why Congress won handsomely: The rural masses were not touched by the global recession. Congress will now aim to strengthen this populist approach."

Fear Pakistan more this spring?

As the spring months herald an expected surge in militant operations in Afghanistan, attention is increasingly focused on the warntorn country’s much larger and influential neighbour. For years the persistance of the insurgency in Afghanistan – sometimes not unreminiscent of the resistance of the mujahedeen - has sparked fears of a return to the pre 911-days of Taleban rule.
But observers increasingly fear something much worse: the fall to Islamic extremists of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country often blamed for not doing enough to fight terrorism – or uproot al-Qaida sanctuaries there - and now struggling with an insurgency that came a mere 100 kilometres away from the capital Islamabad despite a February peace deal.
According to top U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus this doesn’t only pose a risk to the region but other areas around the world, as he notes senior al-Qaida leaders use the country’s lawless frontier regions to plan new terror attacks and funnel money for militant groups around the world. The country has become the nerve center of al-Qaida’s global operations, according an interview the general gave the Wall St Journal, underscoring a growing belief in Washington, that Pakistan has displaced Afghanistan as the main stronghold for “the base”.
While this is hardly news-breaking for longtime observers of the region, the fact that the country is increasingly under strain, and wields nuclear weapons, adds new alarming parameters to the equation. In addition Washington is increasingly concerned the billions of dollars it has given Pakistan to fund its war on terror may have been used to build new atomic weapons at a time the U.S. is worried about the security of Pakistan’s 80 to 100 weapons, fearing they could fall into the hands of Islamic militants.
The February deal Pakistan struck with militants was supposed to bring peace by, in part, allowing sharia law to be adopted in the Swat district, but Taleban forces only took their attacks to the adjacent district of Buner instead. In late March, this caused U.S. President Barack Obama to say that Pakistan’s lawless border region had “become the most dangerous place in the world” for Americans, prompting a mini summit in Washington in early May where Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari pledged to “stand with our brother Karzai and the people of Afghanistan against this common threat, this menace, which I have called a cancer.”
From a military standpoint the Pakistani crisis is more troublesome not only because it involves a larger player but because the solution used in Afghanistan to combat the insurgents, sending international troops, is not an option. Officials in Islamabad however blamed a US drone of killing 10 people, including women and children, over the weekend in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region.
While the U.S. has been funding Pakistan’s military efforts for years, Pakistani troops have proven largely unwilling to venture deep into al-Qaida territory. Under pressure to reverse the infiltration of insurgents, the army finally launched operations in the Swat district last week to, in the words of the country’s prime minister, “fight for the survival of the country”.
Some 15,000 troops in all were deployed there and neighbouring areas to take on some 5,000 militants. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani said recently Pakistan was “at the crossroads of its history” and added the massive army operation, expected to end in a month in Swat, could not be a “permanent solution”.
About 45% of Pakistanis support the offensive, which was largely backed by members of the National Assembly. This week the government convened a meeting of nearly all of the country's political parties, in an effort to consolidate broad national support for its military operation. It seemed to have the critical support of Muslim clerics who issued a unanimous declaration that denounced the militants' violent tactics. "Suicide attacks and beheading is haram, (forbidden)" the resolution said.
For some including Petraeus this signals a “degree of unanimity” to finally confront the Taleban after years of half-hearted attempts usually ended by ineffective peace deals. But some still questioned the military's will to go the distance. "My biggest question about these operations is their ability to sustain them over time," Adm. Mike Mullen told a U.S. Senate committee last week. "Historically, they haven't done that."
Pakistan was preparing to launch a heavy ground attack after the initial bombing. It reported some 700 militants killed over the initial week in Swat, while clashes were also reported in the nearby districts of Dir and Buner. The violence has caused thousands to flee the area after finding themselves caught in a crossfire between government troops and Taleban militants, leading Gilani to describe the situation as the country’s worst refugee crisis since the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 at the end of colonial rule.
As then, humanitarian observers fear conflict may rise from the displacement. Certainly those displaced have been critical of an offensive some say relies too heavily on large guns and air power, and end up killing civilians in the process of fighting militants. Waiting to greet the disgruntled are illegal charities set up in some relief camps, some of them acting as front for terrorists groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. Adding pressure on Pakistan to beat the insurgents quickly are fears the separate militant groups may unite to fight the government.
As the U.S. welcomed Pakistan’s latest offensive, Zardari was trying to reassure worried observers in a TV interview the country was not facing imminent collapse. “Is the state of Pakistan going to collapse?” he told NBC after the White House talks. “No. We are 180 million people. There the population is much, much more than the insurgents are.”
While Pakistan is claiming victory and seems for now to have stopped the tide on the security front, some observers say that at the very least a humanitarian catastrophe is in the making as the mass of civilians fleeing the Swat Valley crowd under-equipped refugee camps and hospitals. The UN estimated that by the end of the first week, as many as a million people fled the area, joining as many who had fled previous fighting, and leaving some to fear even worse conditions ahead. World Vision said its workers find the conditions at some relief camps to be “intolerable” due to overcrowding, stifling heat, poor facilities and a lack of electricity.
Human Rights Watch meanwhile laid the blame on civilian casualties on both sides, quoting residents as saying that the Taliban had mined roads and prevented many civilians from fleeing, using them as 'human shields' but adding that Pakistani forces "appeared to have taken insufficient precautionary measures in aerial and artillery attacks that have caused a high loss of civilian life".

Bucking the Latin trend

Latin America’s leftist string of electoral victories had to stop one day, and it did when polls in the country that links the Americas elected a supermarket tycoon for president instead of returning the leftist ruling party to power.

Conservative Ricardo Martinelli took Panama’s presidential polls with a stunning 61% over the weekend, leaving the 57-year-old millionaire businessman to steer the country through the economic crisis and in charge of overseeing the expansion of the canal all the while promising to finalize a free-trade deal with the United States.

"Tomorrow we will all be Panamanians and we will change this country so that it has a good health system, good education, good transportation and good security," he said in his victory speech. "We can't continue to have a country where 40% of Panamanians are poor."

The tone could have come from leftist counterparts who took earlier elections in Ecuador and El Salvador. Rafael Correa was re-elected in the South American country with 51% of the vote, 23 points ahead of main rival Lucio Gutierrez, a former president who claimed the polls were flawed - a charge rejected by international observers.

Correa first took office in January 2007 and maintained his popularity by boosting social spending but has come under criticism for backing a new constitution increasing state controls, more in line with nearby Venezuela. Correa’s win continued a streak of now well-documented Latin American leftist wins, one of the more particular involving a former CNN correspondent, who took El Savador’s polls in March.

Mauricio Funes, the leader of the FMLN, formerly an umbrella group for five leftist groups fighting a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, has gone out of his way to dismiss opponents' claims he would lead the country into close alignment with Hugo Chavez. Funes' victory ended a 20-year hold on the presidency by the right-leaning ARENA.

"Now the ARENA party passes into opposition," Funes said. "ARENA ... can be assured that it will be listened to and respected." With an FMLN victory, El Salvador joined other Latin American countries that have elected leftist leaders in recent years such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil.

But Panama bucked the trend, when Martinelli, of the conservative Democratic Change party, defeated his leftist opponent Balbina Herrera. The pro-business owner of the Super 99 supermarket chain was seen as the best candidate to keep the country's rather robust economy going, as the usual 10% annual growth rate envied by neighbours shows signs of slowing near 3%.

With a dollarized economy fueled by U.S.-Asia trade through the canal, Martinelli's pro-trade, pro-foreign investment agenda was considered favourably as the government launches an ambitious $5.25-billion expansion of the canal. About $2.3 billion of that is being financed by international financing, and Martinelli was clearly marked as a preferred choice by foreign investors.

That puts him in quite a different league as other Latin American leaders who usually poll well for standing up to foreign investors, like Correa. Not that the 5,000 jobs the project is estimated to create isn't fostering excitement at home for the U.S.-educated leader.

“He has had great success as a businessman and now I hope he can do a good job in government,” commented one taxi driver. "Starting on July 1, a change is coming to Panama," Martinelli told supporters after his victory. And this applies to at least a small section of the largely leftist continent.

World gripped by fear of flu pandemic

Few things can grind to a halt one of the world’s largest cities, one famously chaotic, or for that matter bring together with common concern nations of the world, sometimes with a dash of hysteria, like the fear of a global flu pandemic. Mexico cancelled school, nationwide, and restaurants in the capital were take out only as millions stayed at home, particularly in the metropolis of 20 million, as a new swine flu - renamed influenza A (H1N1) - strain further shook a country already in the midst of an economic crisis and a bloody war on drugs. To make matters worse, Mexico registered a 5.6 quake last week.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon told his people to stay home for a five-day partial shutdown of the economy as the World Health Organization warned a swine flu pandemic was imminent, but not inevitable. While what is considered ground zero of the international swine flu scare reported improvements this week, concern rose at the other end of the planet as Asia's first case of the virus put 300 people at a Hong Kong hotel under quarantine after a Mexican guest tested positive for swine flu. Two dozen Montreal students were also quarantined in China, though none of them showed symptons of the virus.

Last week WHO raised its swine flu alert level a notch, one shy of declaring a pandemic, as the number of people suspected to have died from it in Mexico rose and more international cases emerged in the U.S. and overseas. The organization had earlier declared a “public health emergency of international concern” as the new flu strain, a mixture of various swine, bird and human viruses, poses the biggest risk of a large-scale pandemic since avian flu surfaced in 1997, killing hundreds.

That scare had however never attained the current level of pandemic alarm. Barely had the world body triggered the alarm that officials in a number of countries including the U.S. and Canada were recording their first cases, while Mexico said that hundreds of people had contracted the virus, killing dozens. The outlook was less grim in other countries where a milder form of the strain had emerged through travelling passengers. Few in fact needed to be hospitalized, but officials who had gone through comparable worries with the spread of SARS and the avian flu, sprang into action by mobilizing domestic resources and installing scanners at airports.

The U.S., where over 900 cases were confirmed by lab, declared a public health emergency, a measure in part meant to make available dozes of medication from a federal stockpile where states can quickly get necessary supplies. The U.S. registered the only swine flu-related deaths outside of Mexico, both close to its border. The Obama administration said early on it was responding aggressively as if the outbreak would spread into a full pandemic. Officials urged Americans against most travel to Mexico, but some reasoned it was already too late to impose travel bans.

Despite raising the alert level to its highest since WHO created the system in 2005, health officials cautioned a flu pandemic is not "inevitable." The alert level sits at five, on a scale from one to six, where the latter represents a pandemic. At level five, there is enough evidence that the virus is spreading from human to human in at least two countries.

Officials in Canada, where over 200 cases were confirmed by lab, said they were working on a vaccine but warned that while most cases there were mild, more could arise in following days, possibly leading to deaths. Because the outbreak is at an early stage “there’s a lot more unknowns than is known” said Frank Plummer of the Public Health Agency of Canada as the first cases were made public. “We’ll learn a lot more as we do further epidemiological analysis and research.”

But earlier this week a team of Canadian scientists completed the first complete genetic sequencing of the human swine flu, a step toward reducing the unknowns. Meanwhile Canadian officials considered an "overreaction" countries cautioning against travel to destinations where cases have been confirmed, including Canada. On the other hand Alberta schools recalled student trips in California and even British Columbia as a result of the heightenend WHO alert, a move Alberta health officials called exaggerated.

The term certainly seemed to apply to a healthy Montreal student sent home for no other reason than having been to Mexico recently, while health officials in the B.C. city of Vernon said one elementary school would be closed for a week after a young student tested positive for the swine flu.

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden came under fire for unnerving the public by saying he wouldn't travel in planes or subways because of swine flu. But at least one Canadian expert on the airborne movement of germs says Biden has a point. "He's right, but I'm not sure it's the role of the politician to necessarily say anything that makes people panic in this," said Dr. James Scott, a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. "If you're sitting adjacent or in proximity to someone who is shedding virus in that enclosed indoor environment, the potential to be exposed to stuff is much greater than it is outdoors."

World travel had facilitated the spread of the disease, notably among schoolchildren in New York who had contracted the virus during a trip to Mexico, where a dozen students reporting flu-like symptoms in New Zealand, most of Canada’s as well as suspect cases in other countries, had been travelling. In all over 20 countries were touched, but gradually cases began spreading to people who had not travelled to Mexico. Among them, Canada's first severe case of swine flu, a girl hospitalized in Alberta. Officials expressed concern this week that some "community-based spread" not related to Mexican travel was perhaps beginning, keeping authorities on high alert.

WHO officials said recent encouraging signs were no reason for complacency, as officials remained concerned the strain was contageous and could mutate into something more dangerous, but added the international community was better prepared than ever to deal with the spread of such a virus. A pandemic however could spread the virus to a third of the world, WHO said.

The unpredictability of this new virus, and concern it could mutate quickly and was making healthy young people ill, was reason for alarm. Top UN official said years of preparing for bird flu had boosted world stocks of anti-virals as WHO said researchers had cleared the first step toward a swine-flu vaccine, and drug manufacturers would likely agree to enter production if the outbreak doesn't abate soon.

But in tough economic times there were added concerns the swine flu crisis could delay a possible recovery, in part by affecting trade. Early on Ukraine banned imports of live pigs and pork meat from countries where cases of swine flu have been recorded, including all North America. Egypt's lower house of parliament meanwhile called for the nation's 250,000 pigs to be killed immediately, which triggered clashes with farmers.

Such moves prompted WHO to rename the virus other than "swine flu",with the approval of pork producers worldwide deploring the label, fearing further trade bans. But days later pigs were back in the picture, showing another vicious side of the virus, on an Alberta farm where more than 200 pigs were found to have been infected, possibly after contracting the flu from a worker who returned from Mexico. Countries such as China quickly slapped a ban on Canadian pork products.

Meanwhile back in Mexico authorities were increasingly facing criticism that weeks after the first known related deaths, they still hadn't given medicine to the families of the dead or determined where the outbreak began or how it spread. Many were critical that swine flu cases there were proving much more lethal than elsewhere because of deficiencies in a health care system too overwhelmed to cope with the crisis.

Adding to the political pressure is the economic impact of the crisis, shutting down businesses and keeping customers away for days at a time, cutting the country from the rest of the world and costing millions every day in the capital, which accounts for roughly a fifth of the GDP.

The country's cash-cow tourism industry quickly reelled as airlines and travel operators from around the world cut flights, including from Canada. As Mexicans emerged from five days of being shuttered this week, they, as the rest of the world, hoped the worst had come to pass.

La cerise sur le gâteau

Après une 100ème saison de misère du Canadien, il ne fallait pas s’attendre à ce qu’un juge de la Cour du Québec remonte le moral des partisans au moment de livrer son verdict sur Guy Lafleur, accusé d’avoir livré des témoignages contradictoires lors du procès de son fils Mark. S'agissait-il en l'occurrence de poser la cerise sur le gâteau?

Le 1er mai le juge Claude Parent a statué que le Démond blond avait volontairement induit en erreur en 2007 lors de l’enquête de mise en liberté de son fils, absent lors du procès de son père car il purge sa peine d'emprisonnement avec sursis: « La Cour ne croit pas l'accusé lorsqu'il dit avoir oublié de mentionner au juge les escapades de son fils Mark, et sa version des faits ne soulève pas de doute raisonnable quant à son intention de tromper la cour », a conclu le juge.

Lafleur connaitra sa sentence, allant jusqu’à une peine maximale de 14 ans, le 18 juin, mais en attendant « cette situation n'affectera pas son statut d'ambassadeur avec l'organisation des Canadiens », estime le vice-président aux communications Donald Beauchamp. Bien triste nouvelle à communiquer tout de même et triste sort quand même pour l’ancienne vedette dont une statue vient d’être fraichement inaugurée du l’esplanade du centenaire à l’extérieur du Centre Bell.

L’année tant célébrée se sera assez mal soldée pour un club qui a connu son meilleur départ en 20 ans, pour finir éliminé par ses rivaux de toujours, les Bruins de Boston, en 4 matches de première ronde. Evidemment entre le congédiement de l’entraineur Guy Carbonneau et les rumeurs de changement de propriétaire, la saison n’a pas offert les distractions désirées pour faire oublier le malaise économique qui a saisi la belle province.

L’écroulement du Canadien, qui termine la première décennie complète de son histoire sans titre, rappelait tristement les autres déceptions des clubs de ballon rond et ovale de la ville. En novembre dernier, après une saison au succès plutôt inattendu, les Alouettes disputaient une première demie de la coupe Grey à domicile plutôt satisfaisante, avant l’hécatombe qui saisit en fin de rencontre, laissant le titre aux Stampeders.

Quelques mois plus tard l’Impact était à quelques minutes d’accomplir un des exploits les plus étonnants du soccer canadien depuis des décennies, avant d’être éliminé de manière foudroyante lors d’un match disputé au Mexique à l’occasion du championnat des champions de la CONCACAF.

Est-il correct d'estimer que la ville accumule les déceptions depuis l'annulation du Grand Prix de Formule 1, et des rumeurs non fondées voulant que la grande course soit de retour plus tard cette année pour remplacer une étape du Golfe persique, au statut plutôt douteux?

Pas de quoi remonter le moral des Montréalais durant cette crise économique. En attendant les transactions peut-être furieuses de l'après-saison au hockey, les rumeurs de vente imminente du club persistent.

En manque de liquidités, le propriétaire George Gillett aurait hypothéqué non seulement le Centre Bell mais aussi le Canadien de Montréal à hauteur d'au moins 50 millions, selon La Presse.

Nouvelle saison pour les clandestins

On ne compte plus les attaques de pirates somaliens contres les bateaux osant naviguer les eaux du Golfe d’Aden, mais la grande tragédie des derniers mois au large de l’Afrique n’avait rien à voir avec ce phénomène relativement nouveau, mais rappelait les risques saisonniers de milliers qui tentent tant bien que mal de fuir la misère.

Le mois dernier c’est, comme tant d’autres, en tentant de fuir le continent africain sur une embarcation douteuse que plus d’une trentaine d’Africains ont trouvé la mort, noyés au large du Yémen lors d’un naufrage impliquant plus de cent passagers en tout. «C'est l'un des pires accidents dans le Golfe d'Aden ces derniers mois, a déclaré Leila Nassif, responsable du Haut-Commissariat aux Réfugiés à Aden. De plus en plus de gens sont si désespérés dans leur pays d'origine qu'ils sont prêts à mettre leur vie en danger pour changer la situation. »

En effet pendant ce temps une autre embarcation transportant une centaine de personnes aurait gagné la côte du Yémen sans encombre. Comme chaque année lorsque le printemps amène des climats et des eaux en théorie plus favorables, les voyages du genre, chèrement payés en argent mais parfois en vies, se multiplie depuis le continent africain. Depuis le début de l'année environ 400 bateaux et 20 000 personnes sont arrivés au Yémen seulement, lieu de débarcation vers l’Europe, le Moyen-orient ou l’Asie, tandis que plus de 130 sont morts, et au moins 66 portés disparus.

Partis des Canaries plus à l’ouest ou des côtes de la Somalie ou de l'Ethiopie, les départs se font plus fréquents et les décès plus nombreux. Destination prisée des immigrants clandestins, l’Europe a estimé en avril que ses gouvernements devaient montrer davantage de solidarité pour aider ses états membres les plus exposés, comme l'Italie et Malte, faire face aux flux d'immigrants.

C’était alors que 144 immigrés clandestins bloqués en mer sur un navire turc depuis plusieurs jours - en raison d'un bras de fer entre Malte et l'Italie - ont finalement été débarqués dans un port sicilien. Rome avait fait ce geste "pour des raisons d'urgence humanitaire" et "devant le refus persistant du gouvernement maltais (de se charger des réfugiés)", selon un communiqué du gouvernement.

Mais Silvio Berlusconi s'est engagé à déployer l'armée dans les villes italiennes cette année pour ramasser les illégaux. En Grèce, à l'est, comme en France, à l'ouest, également ce même ras-le-bol envers ce flux sans limite.

A l’autre bout du monde, les saisons ont beau être à l’envers, et les clandestins ont beau venir du nord, la crise était plutôt familière alors que l’Australie faisait face à l’arrivée d’immigrants par la mer, y laissant parfois leur vie et mettant à l’épreuve la tolérance de cet ancien peuple de bagnards.

Au milieu du mois d’avril une embarcation transportant 47 immigrants clandestins, dont la plupart des Afghans, a explosé aux large des côtes du nord-ouest du pays, causant la mort de trois personnes et la disparition de deux autres. L’incident a mis à l’épreuve l’engagement du premier ministre Kevin Rudd d’adopter une approche plus humaine au problème récurrent des immigrants clandestins, jadis envoyés dans des camps des iles du Pacifique en attendant de traiter de leurs cas.

Depuis le changement de politique les arrivées se sont multipliées : 14 bareaux pour 2008-9 contre trois l’année précédente. Rien à voir avec les chiffres européens mais ce même dilemme sur les problèmes de l’immigration clandestine et ces mêmes questions sur les limites de l’accueil. En même temps, Rudd promet de s’en prendre plus sérieusement aux passeurs, qu’il considère de l'espèce la plus exécrable. Il espère dans ce but obtenir le transfert d’un Indonésien accusé d’avoir organisé le passage de 900 personnes en 2001. Cette année là plus de 350 personnes avaient péri sur un seul bateau tentant le périple.

Les passeurs du Golfe d’Aden ne sont pas moins condamnés par les autorités européennes, 14 immigrants clandestins africains ayant été soit noyés soit portés disparus lorsque les passeurs les ont obligés à sauter à l'eau le mois dernier. L’an dernier 50000 personnes, principalement des ressortissants somaliens et éthiopiens, ont tenté de gagner clandestinement le Yémen. Des chiffres qu'il ne serait pas surprenant de retrouver cette année.

A busy first 100 days

Few could argue the first 100 days of the Obama administration haven’t seen the element of change so trumpeted during the 2008 election campaign, especially on foreign policy. Hours into the job Barack Obama was setting his sights on the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, and later eventually revealed and outlawed the previous administration’s CIA torture tactics. It didn’t take long before trading troops presence in Irak for a greater presence in Afghanistan rose high on the White House agenda.

In the race to undo the policies of the previous administration there was also a clear change of style, made plain during the president’s whirlwind tour of Europe during which countries rallied around him to try to tackle the economic crisis, before he travelled to France and Germany to reaffirm NATO ties and later on to Turkey to try to allay the fears of the Muslim world steadily growing in the post-9/11 era.

But it slowly became apparent that a president whose election alone was historic wasn’t only out to undo eight years of republican policies but decades of U.S. foreign policy stance, as he stood in Prague in front of adoring masses calling for global denuclearization, and later set to transform America’s well-entrenched and often-criticized policies on global warming and Cuba.

Criticized by some of taking on too much at once, by others for showing naivete - they noted for instance North Korea chose to launch a missile test on the day of the Prague announcement – or simply of dividing the country like few perhaps expected so soon, the succession of dramatic announcements - even though many had been made clear during his campaign - did not fail to stun both friends and foe.

According to a PEW opinion poll, Obama recorded the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades, stressing a 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama’s job performance (88% approval among Democrats versus 27% for Republicans), surpassing even Bush’s 51%. (On the other hand 64% of Americans say he's doing a good job as president and 48% of Americans think the country is on the right track, compared to 17% last fall)

The change of stance wasn’t only criticized by the right but at times the subject of ridicule by foreign leaders, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, who called Obama’s stance on Iran “utterly immature.” Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez also announced before Trinidad’s Summit of the Americas had even begun that he would vote against the gathering’s declaration as a gesture of protest, claiming that behind the grin and mulatto appearance of the new man in Washington lays the same U.S. strategy that has threatened the continent for decades.

The new approach hasn’t always automatically yielded the desired effects either, NATO members choosing at their recent summit to limit extra troop contributions to 5,000 during the coming election rather than making long-term commitments to the violence-wracked south, where Canada lost a 118th soldier recently. The resistance to changes at Guantanamo, such as scrapping - currently suspended - trials of inmates such as Canada’s Omar Khadr, have been enough to discourage some observers as well.

Obama’s announcement the U.S. would allow its telecommunications firms to start providing service for Cubans and lift restrictions on family ties to the island, letting Cuban-Americans travel without restrictions and send more cash to relatives in the island nation, was strictly stricking to the script of the 2008 election - by not getting rid of the embargo altogether - but the overture was enough to set much more in motion.

The move came not long after enquiries by the old commandante himself, Fidel Castro, who had recently asked visiting U.S. lawmakers how Cuba’s leadership could help Obama move to normalize relations between the two countries, itself a promising opening, even though during last year’s U.S. election campaign Castro had made clear he considered Obama’s intention to maintain the embargo “a formula for hunger for the country.”

As Obama headed to Summit of the Americas, despite his international experience, his first trip to Latin America after Mexico, Fidel’s successor, his brother Raul Castro, said he was willing to talk to Washington about everything, including human rights, political prisoners and press freedom.

This only prepared another more dramatic admission, the latest by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had earlier stated the U.S. had its share of responsibility in Mexico’s drug war, who now was admitting U.S. policy toward the island nation “failed.” Just short of withdrawing the embargo, it was reversing half a century of U.S. enmity toward its communist neighbour 90 miles south of Miami.

Perhaps intended to pre-empt what was expected to be a summit where Washington would face pressure to invite Cuba to the club of 34 nations of the hemisphere, or further outbursts such as Chavez’s, the announcement came as Obama penned an op-ed printed in a number of Latin-American newspapers where the U.S. president signalled his administration “is committed to the promise of a new day” by launching “a new beginning” in the hemisphere, notably by prompting “friends in the hemisphere to join together in supporting liberty, equality, and human rights for all Cubans” so that “every country in the hemisphere can take its seat at the table consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

"I've already changed a Cuba policy that I believe has failed to advance liberty or opportunity for the Cuban people," Obama said as the summit opened. This latest policy reversal made some wonder whether there could be room for true leadership amid all the apologies. "Thus far, the Obama administration seems more interested in continuing its global apology tour, Latin edition, during this weekend's Fifth Summit of the Americas than he is in leading," editorialized the Investor's Business Daily, which said it was left to Canada to push a free-trade agenda in the region.

There was little doubt U.S. officials hoped the new measures would encourage Cuba’s one-party state to implement democratic reforms, but observers noted they could be a first step toward restoring relations, a year after small incremental reforms followed the transition in Havana.

Perhaps more surprises are in store, as the Venezuelan media described a photograph showing Obama and Chavez at the summit exchanging a friendly hand-shake as a possible overture toward Caracas. “With this same hand, I greeted Bush eight years ago,” Chavez told Obama. “I want to be your friend.” Chavez later said he would restore an ambassador to Washington. Then again some caution Cuban-American relations still have a long way to go, as Raul reminded when he said Cuba's overture didn't mean it would release political prisoners.

While the U.S. president acknowledged the sentiment that the Americans have meddled in Latin American affairs, Obama called for regional leaders to stop blaming the U.S. “for every problem that arises in the hemisphere.” “That’s part of the bargain,” Obama said. “That’s the old way and we need a new way.” Who knows what other relationships Obama had in mind when he uttered these words.

Ré-élection facile du Congrès

Démocratique peut-être, mais trop jeune pour connaitre une véritable alternance politique, l’Afrique du sud a donné une nouvelle majorité au Congrès national africain, comme lors de toutes les élections depuis la fin de l’apartheid.
La veille du scrutin, le controversé Jacob Zuma, dirigeant du parti et président en attente, assurait déjà qu'il utiliserait «avec responsabilité » la majorité qui ne pouvait que lui être acquise, promettant de « rendre des comptes » et de respecter « les droits des citoyens ». « Nous utiliserons notre majorité avec responsabilité et nous ne foulerons pas aux pieds les droits des citoyens, ni n'obligerons les autres parties à se soumettre», dit celui dont la victoire semblait acquise malgré ses démêlés avec la justice.
Alors que certains observateurs notent que le parti longtemps associé avec la lutte contre l’apartheid et le grand Mandiba est en perte de vitesse et connait ses propres divisions internes, il reste encore trop fort pour être détrôné malgré la création de nouveaux partis dont le Congrès du peuple, formé d’anciens de l’ANC.
Plusieurs partis ont fait appel à une mobilisation afin de détrôner le parti vainqueur de toutes les élections depuis 1994, parfois craignant le pire s’il était ré-élu avec une forte majorité dans un pays où il n’a pas su maîtriser les problèmes de criminalité et d’écarts de richesse: « Si l'ANC obtient deux tiers des suffrages et Zuma devient président, les conséquences seront graves », a déclaré Helen Zille de l'Alliance démocratique, principal parti d'opposition.
Alors que le parti n’était pas sûr de remporter les 66% nécessaires lui permettant d'amender la constitution, rien ne pouvait empêcher le dirigeant zoulou populiste et polygame de saisir la présidence, malgré des années passées dans les tribunaux pour faire face à des accusations tantôt de viol, tantôt de corruption.
Pourtant ce n’est pas le choix qui manquait lors de ces élections pour faire remplir les 400 sièges de l’assemblée nationale, 26 partis étant dans la course, sans l’être vraiment. Mais comme ses prédécesseurs Zuma incarne la lutte contre le régime raciste blanc, ayant été à la tête des renseignements de l’aile militante du parti, dont il a rejoint les rangs à l’âge de 17 ans il y a un demi-siècle, et ayant fait des années de taule à Robben Island, avec Mandela, avant de connaître l’exil.
Il accède cependant à la présidence sans l’appui d’une autre figure emblématique de la lute contre l’apartheid, l’archévêque Desmond Tutu, qui l’a estimé «indigne à la présidence » après un procès sans lendemain où Zuma était accusé du viol de la fille d’un vieil ami.
Les défis qui guettent le nouvel homme fort du continent sont nombreux, et parmi les grandes décisions de première heure seront le choix de première dame, puisque Zuma devra trancher entre ses deux femmes, lui qui a été marié à quatre reprises. Zuma, dont les origines sont plutôt modestes - il a passé sa jeunesse à garder des vaches dans la banlieue de Durban - s'est notamment engagé à changer le sort des plus pauvres strates de la société.
«Parfois, dans ses propos homophobes ou sur l’indépendance de la justice, il m’inquiète», confie Marianne Séverin, chercheuse au Centre d’études d’Afrique noire de Bordeaux, à la Tribune de Genêve. Mais pour elle: «si Jacob Zuma est populiste dans les mots, il ne l’est pas forcément dans les faits».

Thailand clashes halted... for now

Volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets replaced firecrackers as Bangkok residents ushered in the Thai New Year. The city cancelled all its festivities as the latest anti-government riots shook the land of smiles once more. When pro-government forces saw Thailand’s judiciary force the nation’s prime minister from office last year, citing electoral irregularities, they promised to fight the decision which they called “a judiciary coup d’Etat.”

And so they have, launching rounds of street battles against troops in the capital and clashing with opponents, leaving two dead. This time it is the “red shirts” loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself ousted in 2006, who massed on the grounds of Government House, mimicking last year’s protests by their yellow-shirted opponents made of a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who oppose the former leader.

Successors of Thaksin have been seen as either too close or too different from the former leader since the bloodless 2006 military takeover which ousted him from power amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power, sending him out of the country. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva praised the efforts of the security forces for using “soft means” to control the situation, but it remained far from under control as clashes gripped several parts of the capital, hurting over 100 people and putting the popular tourist destination on the watch list of many countries including Canada.

Thaksin said officials were hiding the truth about the clashes, claiming many more were killed. “Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution. And when it is necessary, I will come back to the country,” he said in a telephone message played to the crowds.

The red shirts, now opposed to a government they say is run by an elite interfering in politics, took to the streets in droves, drawing 100,000 in one protest, defying a government-imposed state-of-emergency that bans gatherings of more than five people. Some 5,000 of them camped outside the prime minister’s offices since March 26. Protesters torched public buses, set tires and vehicles on fire to keep soldiers at bay and targeted the army headquarters compound as well as a building in the Education Ministry compound.

The long-simmering protests gathered international attention earlier when a 16-nation Asian summit was cancelled after demonstrators stormed the venue. As protesters abuptly ended their stand outside Government House and called for a halt to the demonstrations police issued arrest warrants for 14 of their leaders, including Thaksin, while observers noted this was by no means and end to the political standoff.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent historian, said the underlying tensions between the rural poor and urban elite highlighted during the demonstrations remain. “The government has underestimated the wrath of rural and marginalized people and that is partly why they have not made enough effort to reach out to heal the rift. Without addressing that, this is not going to be the last riot,” he said.

Thailand’s tourism industry meanwhile is counting its losses, already made worse by previous protests that shut down the country’s airport, and the economic slowdown. One official said the country’s tourism revenue could be slashed by a third this year, or over $5 billion.

“This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group,” Abhisit said in a televised address. “If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned.” Once again the red shirts marched off the streets defeated, but once again some of them proclaimed more protest actions would follow. And there was little reason to doubt them.

A few days later the leader of the yellow shirt protest movement which brought down Thaksin was shot and injured in Bangkok. Shots were fired at the car of Sondhi Limthongkul’s of the People’s Alliance of Democracy and he suffered minor injuries. Yet not all is hopeless. Special parliamentary talks this week led to announcements a commission would amend the constitution in an effort to resolve a long-running political crisis, while lawmakers lifted the two-week state of emergency.

Recomptage en Moldavie

Vingt ans presque après l’écroulement du mur de Berlin les émeutes qui tentèrent de s’en prendre au dernier gouvernement communiste d’Europe après des élections contestées ont été organisées par les méthodes technologiques les plus récentes - les textos par cellulaire ou messages internet sur Facebook ou Twitter - des armes qui néamoins n’ont pu faire le poids face à la force brute employée par un gouvernement d’autant plus critiqué qu’il espère se maintenir sur la liste des prochains candidats de L’UE.

Des centaines de manifestants ont été arrêtés en Moldavie après l’émeute du 7 avril, après s’être pris aux immeubles du parlement dans la capitale Chisinau suite à une élection qui retournait au pouvoir avec 50% des votes le gouvernment de l’heure. Alors que la victoire des communistes du président Vladimir Voronin était plutôt anticipée, l’écart du résultat a créé la consternation.

Les trois partis de l’opposition ont dénoncé l’exercice de fraude électorale - malgré le fait que les observateurs internationaux s’estimaient initialement plus ou moins satisfaits des résultats - appuyant les manifestants sans cependant approuver des actes de violence.

Mais plusieurs estiment que la répression policière qui a suivi était sans justification, même dans cet état largement sous le joug communiste (à tendance cependant plus de droite que de gauche) dont une région, la Transdniestrie, reste sous l’emprise de séparatistes russophones; non sans rappeler cet autre voisin troublé de l’ancienne zone soviétique, la Géorgie. La Transdniestrie, quasi-indépendante depuis 2001, abrite des soldats russes depuis 1992, ce qui ne garantit en rien le maintien de l’ordre; l’UE ayant déjà estimé son président directement responsable de l’absence Etat de droit dans l’enclave séparant la Moldavie propre de l’Ukraine ainsi que de l’existence d’un système de type mafieux.

Mais, guère mieux, certains craignent voir en Voronin un Lukashenko plutôt qu’un Saakashvili, constatant de l’emprise presque totale du pouvoir communiste sur les médias et de l’appareil de la répression de l’Etat, qui espère néanmoins un jour prendre place à la table européenne.

Face à cet autre éclat à l’extrémité est de ses frontières, l’Union n’a encore une fois pu que rappeler sa désapprobation et le besoin, afin de raffermir les liens communautaires, d’agir « en accord avec les valeurs et principes européens » dans le pays le plus pauvre d’Europe.

La crise intervient notamment à quelques semaines du lancement officiel à Prague d’une nouvelle initiative de l’UE à l’égard des pays – comprenant la Moldavie - de l’ancienne sphère soviétique, nommée partenariat oriental. Les trois formations d’oppo- sition, le Parti libéral, le Parti libéral- démocrate et l’Alliance Notre Moldavie, forment un front uni pour condamner les irrégularités, dénonçant par ailleurs des violations des droits de l’homme, ayant porté leur grief en cour constitutionnelle. Leurs dirigeants appellent par ailleurs l’UE à dépêcher une commission d’enquête internationale pour faire toute la lumière sur les émeutes et la répression qui a suivi, faisant deux morts.

La Commission européenne rappelait d’ailleurs en décembre que les réformes en cours dans ces pays (Arménie, Azerbaïdjan, Biélorussie, Géorgie, République de Moldavie et Ukraine) « exigent également une participation plus importante de la société civile afin de renforcer le contrôle du service public et la confiance du public à leur égard ».

Cette participation était plutôt explosive à Chisinau, où certains qui attendaient avec anticipation le recomptage entrepris par la commission électorale ont été déçus. Celui-ci a en effet confirmé le partage de sièges précédent, laissant 60 des 101 sièges de l’assemblée aux communistes. En plus de semer des tensions internes, la crise a rongé certains liens diplomatiques d’habitude serrés avec la Roumanie, que le pouvoir moldave soupçonne derrière les manifestations.

Can piracy get any worse?

Days after gunmen hijacked two European-owned chemical tankers off the coast of Somalia in 24 hours at the end of March, a second fleet of Chinese escort ships was setting sail for the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden. After an 11.4% rise in ship attacks last year, reaching nearly 300 worldwide, some 50 attacks have already been registered off Somalia by the International Maritime bureau this year (versus 130 all last year), and some fear the economic crisis will only make the attacks more popular, not only in the Gulf area but in other corners of the world.

Late last year China conducted its first overseas military mission since 1949 when it sent ships to the region, and as the fresh new flotilla and 800 crew travel 4,600 nautical miles to the Horn of Africa, joining in the 40-nation effort to secure the waters used by thousands of commercial vessels every year, it will travel through an area which had been the main staging ground for these attacks until a few years ago, the Strait of Malacca. Attacks in this other major maritime shipping zone started climbing down in 2004 when patrolling was increased in coastal states, sometimes with the help of Washington, concerned about possible terrorism, bringing attacks down from 126 in 2003 to 26 in 2008.

But some  fear that the economic crisis may send desperate boat owners back on the lucrative hunt, as they had done during the last Asian economic crisis, when piracy incidents rose from two in 1999 to 75 the following year. "The Thai-Malay border area has been a piracy stronghold for some years, although the authorities have tried to stamp down on the pirates," a spokesman from the Chamber of Shipping told the Telegraph. "But it has long been recognised by seafarers that venturing out into these seas was a risk." Last year 96 of the attacks took place in Asian waters, an indication there was no return to the low numbers of earlier decades.

Concerns such tactics could fuel terrorism cannot easily be dismissed either, as by some accounts Somali pirates made some $50 million from ransom demands last year. Local authorities in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of largely ungoverned Somalia have criticized shipping companies for paying the sums, accusing them of only fueling the crisis, and regret that they have not received help from the international community to lead its own fight against the pirates.

Michael Howlett of the IMB points out effective support of coastal patrols have done wonders in the Strait of Malacca, but worries about another area worthy of consideration, which he says has been completely under-reported despite the fact it lies in possible alternative routes for ships choosing to bypass the Horn of Africa altogether. Ships choosing the long route, adding about a week to their travel, on Africa's West Coast usually end up passing by the Nigerian coast and the Gulf of Guinea, an area the IMB says is possibly just as targeted by pirates as is the Somali coast.

While there were 40 attacks reported in Nigerian waters in 2008, Howlett told a London Metropolitan University seminar that the actual figure was closer to 150 or 200. “We need owners to come forward,” he said. Shipping officials however sometimes have a difficult time compiling statistics as some captains can be reluctant to report the incidents, or are not able to distinguish acts of piracy from robbery incidents in territorial waters. “One should be aware that some of these activities are carried out by militants,” the security chief of BIMCO, the world’s largest private shipping organization, told the maritime news portal Lloyd’s List. Among them he included guerilla groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

Intervention by coastal patrols in the Strait of Malacca and in the Gulf of Aden by the current international fleet, have brought the number of incidents down generally, but little security exists off the West Coast of Africa, shipping officials warn. In the meantime, while 11 ships were released from their captors since the New Year, another half dozen were effectively hijacked and as many remain at the hands of pirates.


Les manifs sont de retour!

Elles avaient plutôt disparu du paysage depuis quelque années mais les manifestations accompagnant les grands sommets internationaux sont de retour avec la crise économique, celle du G20 à Londres ayant fait un mort, victime d’un malaise. Quelques jours plus tard des manifestants cagoulés ont brûlé un hôtel et un poste de police tandis que 300 participants étaient écroués au sommet de L’OTAN.

Voilà qui promet… à un an d’une année chargée où le Canada va accueillir le G8 et le sommet des Trois Amigos. Alors que les Etats-Unis, dont le président est populaire, sont moins isolés lors de ces éclats, la richesse et le capitalisme y sont les grandes cibles alors que le vieux continent fait face à des manifestations régulières contre la gestion de la crise économique. Celle-ci a fait tomber un nouveau dirigeant européen lors des dernières semaines, un fait plutôt embarrassant pour la République tchèque dont le premier ministre démissionnaire, Mirek Topolanek, accueille Obama  lors d’un sommet UE-Etats-Unis puisque le pays détient la présidence de l’Union.

Au sein des réunions de Londres et de Strasbourg les divisions étaient moins violentes mais palpables alors que les dirigeants des 20 pays les plus riches tentaient de trouver des solutions à la crise, laissant une réforme de fond du système capitaliste, souhaitée par certains, pour plus tard, mais injectant 1.1 milliard $ pour repartir l’économie  tout en mettant en place un système de surveillance des marchés pour éviter une répétition du phénomène.

Les membres de l’OTAN pendant ce temps, divisés sur la participation à la mission en Afghanistan et la sélection d’un secrétaire-général, se sont entendus pour envoyer 5,000 troupes additionnelles alors qu’une entente a finalement eu lieu sur la sélection du premier ministre danois, Anders Rasmussen ; les alliés ayant pu rassurer la Turquie, un pays musulman qui acceptait encore mal le dirigeant du pays qui avait été à l’origine de la crise des caricatures il y a quatre ans. Le choix de Rasmussen laisse à nouveau un Européen à la tête de l’alliance, qui pendant un temps avait vu en Peter Mackay, le ministre de la défense, un choix de compromis.

Difficile de prévoir l’effet à long terme des décisions prises la semaine dernière sur les deux cibles des sommets, la crise économique et la tenacité des Talibans en Afghanistan, deux priorités de l’administration Obama à Washington. Alors que les marchés ont plutôt bien réagi aux décisions du G20, les nouveaux chiffres économiques américains montrent la pente à gravir, annonçant 663,000 nouvelles pertes d’emploi le mois dernier.

Le printemps en Afghanistan pendant ce temps annonce une reprise des hostilités qui ont jusqu’à maintenant fait 116 victimes militaires canadiennes, mais la voie du président Hamid Karzai laisse également les pays alliés perplexes, ce dernier disant qu’il allait revoir un projet de loi qui prévoyait initialement qu' « il est de la responsabilité de l'épouse d'être prête à satisfaire sexuellement son mari et de ne pas quitter la maison sans autorisation, sauf en cas de besoin ou de difficulté ».

America's imperiled borders

Canadians have been concerned by the incoming U.S. administration's review of security along the U.S.-Canada border, adding technology used further south such as predator drones and camera towers to monitor the 49th parallel, but recent measures to prevent drug-related violence in Mexico from spilling into the U.S. reminded Washington where its real border crisis remains.

U.S. politicians from southern states remain cautious to ask for a sense of balance on the border issues, to make sure the northern border is not taken any less seriously than the one along the Rio Grande, but the fierce drug war is leaving no doubt where America’s most pressing border issues lay. Last month Washington announced that while it was reviewing security measures on the northern border it was preparing to redeploy more than 500 federal agents to border posts and the Mexican interior.

The Obama administration has redirected $200 million to combat smuggling of illegal drugs, money and weapons while U.S. officials said it would take weeks to complete a contingency plan for sending U.S. National Guard troops to border areas. While the military option is one of last resort in the U.S., it has proven to be effective in local chapters of the war against drugs in Mexico. But this of course is only a reflection of how bad things have become.

Some 9,500 soldiers were dispatched to one of the more violent border towns, Ciudad Juarez, where some 10 killings a day were taking place, and cutting that number practically down to zero. Sending in the soldiers was a last resort because of the corruption of local and even federal police officers previously dispatched. The violent drug wars killed 6,000 people in Mexico last year, and 1,000 so far this year, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to declare the violence has "gotten out of hand" and John Culberson, a Republican congressman from Texas, to tell a congressional hearing that “Mexico is more dangerous than Iraq ... There were more deaths in Mexico than there were in Iraq.”

This is especially true in border areas where smuggling into the U.S. takes place, and the administration was accepting America’s share of responsibility in the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted her country’s "insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade" adding “our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians … I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility." Mexico agrees American guns are fuelling the violence, something heard further north as well where U.S. weapons are blamed for the carnage of B.C.’s bloody gang war, which the RCMP says has been exacerbated this year because of the drug price fluctuations caused by the trouble in Mexico.

The violence in Mexico is making even worse the influx of illegal aliens into the U.S. but the pattern is also being noticed in Ottawa as Mexico is the country of origin of the most refugee claimants in Canada, a trend that has been continuing in the last four years. Mexicans represent about a third of Canada’s 36,900 refugee claimants, the Canada Border Services Agency reporting that most of them cite the country’s drug war in their claim. These claims however are the least likely to be accepted, as Canada considers its NAFTA partner a democracy with a strong economy.

“The problem in Mexico is less government (persecution) than the government’s inability to protect people from gang warfare and drug cartels,” said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who pointed out 90 percent of Mexican claims were rejected and said the large increase of refugee claims in Canada more likely reflected an attempt to abuse a generous immigration system than geopolitical reality. “People may also feel safer in Canada, since anyone being pursued by gangsters would be more susceptible if they were just across the border.”

But for all the concern centred on the southern U.S. border, new Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano is resisting efforts by northern border state lawmakers to once again push back this year’s June 1 deadline for requiring passports to enter the U.S. by land, saying that any further delay would make a mockery of the process and that a degree of “parity” had to be respected on border issues. "We shouldn't go light on one and heavy on the other," she said of the Canadian and Mexican borders. "This is one NAFTA, one area, one continent, and there should be parity there.”

But there is little comparison between the long quiet northern border, for the first time patrolled by a single predator drone, and the violent-wracked U.S.-Mexico border, where authorities rushing to halt the flow of guns one way and drugs the other have noticed a sharp increase in violence and kidnappings on the U.S. side. The violence was responsible for as many as 300 abductions in Phoenix. In fact earlier this year, a study by the U.S. Department of Defence warned that Mexico was in danger of becoming a failed state because of the drug gangs, while an Economist Intelligence Unit ranking of world nations put Canada 3rd least likely to be destabilized by crisis in the near future, easily surpassing even the U.S. in terms of political stability.

Meanwhile Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, whose government stands to receive U.S. helicopters in Washington’s southern border initiative, has said that America’s support so far is not enough to make a difference in a war against drug gangs which has even spilled into heavily defended tourist-rich areas. Calderon told the Financial Times that it would take tens of billions of dollars in additional funds to make a difference in the conflict. "The help should be equivalent to the flow of money that American consumers give to the criminals," he said in reference to U.S. consumption of drugs supplied his country's cartels, estimating figures "Between $10 and $35 billions - the truth is that nobody knows."

In effect, a bailout for NAFTA’s most imperiled border, which isn't far from reality since the recently passed omnibus spending bill included $300 million to supply Mexico with helicopters, police training and other tools to wage war against the cartels. “The 6,000 homicides already noted in the northern states of Mexico is a huge number,” Napolitano said. “But the fact that over 550 of them were assassinations of law enforcement and public official personnel is itself chilling. And that indicates itself the seriousness with which this battle must be waged.” And where Washington's true border concerns primarily remain.

C'est reparti avec St-Pierre

Il y a vingt ans c’était la pêche, mais à présent les ressources naturelles du sous-sol marin seraient à l’origine d’une bisbille entre Paris et Ottawa rappelant la présence française de St-Pierre et Miquelon près de nos côtes. A la fin mars le gouvernement français a annoncé qu'il déposerait une lettre d'intention aux Nations unies pour revendiquer un plus grand accès aux sous-sols de l'océan Atlantique autour du territoire d’outre-mer, le plus vieux de la métropole, au large de Terre-Neuve.

La réponse d’Ottawa n'a pas tardé, le ministre des Affaires étrangères Lawrence Cannon se disant déçu de la décision de rouvrir la question de la  «zone du plateau continental»: « La délimitation maritime entre le Canada et la France a été réglée de manière définitive par la sentence arbitrale rendue le 10 juin 1992 par le tribunal d'arbitrage, institué par le compromis du 30 mars 1989, dans l'affaire de la délimitation des espaces maritimes entre le Canada et la France, a-t-il dit. Le Canada prendra toutes les mesures nécessaires pour défendre et protéger ses droits sur le plateau continental canadien. »

La députée de Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Annick Girardin, s'était déplacée à Paris pour faire campagne sur la question et affirme que le dépôt de la lettre a pour but de parvenir à un accord de répartition des richesses entre les deux pays dans cette zone qui regorgerait de ressources pétrolières et gazières.

L’initiative vient également à moins de deux mois de l’échéancier du 13 mai avant lequel la France peut demander à l'ONU d'étendre son plateau continental au-delà des 200 milles, étant un pays avec zone côtière. Tous les Etats signataires de la convention internationale du droit de la mer ont une période maximum de dix ans suivant la ratification de ce traité établissant les frontières maritimes pour faire valoir leur revendications au niveau des plateaux continentaux.

Le Canada, qui est surtout concerné par les différends avec ses voisins polaires sur la question de l’Arctique, a jusqu’en 2013 pour faire connaitre ses revendications. Un vice-admiral russe a récemment semé la consternation en faisant savoir que la Russie pourrait faire usage de sous-marins afin de défendre les intérêts de Moscou, qui a de nombreuses revendications, dans la région polaire. Quelques jours plus tard Cannon est revenu à la charge en déclarant le Canada "intraitable" dans la défense de sa souveraineté dans l'Arctique, se disant regretter tout effort de militariser la région. Il a rappelé que "la question de la souveraineté" était l'un des piliers de la politique cana- dienne dans l'Arctique. L'ambassadeur russe a lors d'une entrevue fait savoir qu'il n'était pas question de faire la guerre au Canada, le même refrain entonné à St-Pierre.

C'est d'ailleurs sous pression des habitants de l’archipel que la ministre française de l'Intérieur, Michèle Alliot-Marie, avait annoncé l’initiative française devant l'Assemblée Nationale afin de "préserver les droits de la France" sur le plateau continental de Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. La situation économique stagnante sur l’île serait notamment à l’origine de l’initiative, l’écrasement de l’industrie de la pêche ayant été lourdement ressenti dans la communauté d’environ 6500 habitants alors que des gisements de pétrole étaient découverts au large de la province canadienne.

"Du gaz a été découvert au large de la Nouvelle-Ecosse, du pétrole a été découvert l'année dernière au large de Terre-Neuve... donc ce n'est pas impossible qu'il y en ait au large de Saint-Pierre et Miquelon", estime Frédéric Lasserre, géographe à l'Université Laval. L’archipel est devenu lourdement dépendant de l’Etat français qui y dépense le plus par habitant. Mais selon Mme Girardin, une meilleure entente avec le Canada pourrait lui ouvrir certaines portes du marché européen.  «Ce ne sont pas 6500 habitants qui vont ruiner l'économie canadienne, alors faites-nous une petite place», dit-elle. Paris est d’autant plus attentif aux revendications d’outre-mer suite aux troubles en Martinique et en Guadeloupe après une grève générale de 38 jours donnant lieu à des manifestations d’une rare violence dans ces départements des Antilles.

Mais les autorités françaises ne s'en prennent pas seulement au Canada, mais à la province de cet adversaire de taille, Danny Williams, le fougueux premier ministre de Terre-Neuve qui s'est attaqué à Stephen Harper avec virulence sur le dossier de la péréquation. Du coup, l'initiative de Paris semble avoir formé ses alliés de circonstance. "Je peux vous assurer que cette province se défendra pour protéger ses limites territoriales internationalement reconnues et protêgées par la Constitution," déclara Williams, allant jusqu'à ajouter qu'il comptait sur l'appui sans équivoque d'Ottawa - loin d'être un allié du gouvernement provincial.

Autre ironie, les cousins abrités près de nos côtes apprécient beaucoup la témérité de Williams, alors qu'ils accusent leurs propres élus de ne pas en faire autant pour leurs citoyens. Les fenêtres de la préfecture de l'ile sont d'ailleurs couvertes de pancartes exigeant Paris de "respecter" les habitants de St. Pierre, ou encore accusant la métropole de mettre les iles "à vendre". "Nous ne voulons pas faire la guerre au Canada, seulement des discussions de partage des ressources" affirme Xavier Bowring, qui pour plusieurs est à l'origine de la campagne sur l'ile. Mais Ottawa, parait-il,  n'est pas à veille de se mettre à table.

La transition au Madagascar

Ile au large de l’Afrique plus connue pour son rare étalage de flore et de faune spectaculaire, le Madagascar se remet ces jours-ci d'une des périodes les plus troublées de son existence, marquée par une sanglante violence mettant aux prises deux rivaux politiques. Après plusieurs semaines de tensions, le président Marc Ravalomanana a annoncé qu'il quittait le pouvoir cette semaine, mettant fin au drame politique qui a atteint son paroxysme lors des derniers jours.

La semaine dernière le passage de plusieurs militaires dans le camp du chef de l’opposition Andry Rajoelina, le maire de la capitale Antananarivo évincé le mois dernier, et les manifestations organisées contre le président, avaient suffi pour pencher la balance et faire fuir plusieurs diplomates étrangers. Selon l’ambassadeur américain, ce pays parfois divisé géographiquement par ses rivalités politiques depuis quelques années était au bord de la guerre civile après les éclats qui depuis janvier ont fait plus de 130 victimes.

Malgré le rôle-clé joué par l'armée, celle-ci a résisté à la tentation de prendre le pouvoir, le remettant à Rajoelina, qui a promis des élections et des changements constitutionnels d'ici deux ans. Mais selon l'Union Africaine et l'UE, la transition malgache garde tous les aspects d'un bon vieux coups d'Etat.

Cette semaine la crise a atteint un nouveau plateau lorsque des militaires ont occupé un des palais de la présidence dans le centre de la capitale, défonçant la porte avec l'aide de deux blindés. Mais alors que le chef d’état-major, André Andriarijaona assurait que l'objectif était de «précipiter le départ de Ravalomanana», ce dernier, retranché dans un autre palais à 12 kilomètres du centre-ville sous la protection de la garde présidentielle, refusait tout geste allant en ce sens.

Ravalomanana avait de son côté fait appel à un soutien du public autour du palais-refuge afin de «défendre la démocratie», après un changement militaire que certains qualifiaient de « mini coups-d’état » dans un pays où le putsch ne fait pourtant pas partie du paysage comme sur le continent. Mais la maigre foule de quelques centaines rassemblée semblait confirmer son isolation.

Le président a par la suite proposé de tenir un référendum sur son mandat, une solution rejetée par l'ancien maire, exigeant que l'armée procède à l'arrestation du chef de l'Etat pour "haute trahison".Rajoelina estime qu'il a reçu le mandat de gouverner pendant la période de transition en attendant les prochaines élections. "J'ai le mandat de plus de 60 partis au Madagascar de diriger cette transition, a-t-il dit. Il ne s'agit pas d'un coups d'Etat du tout."

Les manifestations des derniers jours ont coupé court les efforts de pourparlers entre les deux rivaux, alors que Rajoelina tentait de former un gouvernement parallèle au pouvoir officiel. Cette féroce rivalité remonte à l’élection de Rajoelina dans la capitale en décembre 2007, mal digérée par le pouvoir qui a aussitôt fait fermer le canal de télévision du jeune maire de 34 ans.

Outré par les pressions du régime, Rajoelina a organisé des manifestations qui ont fait appel à la démission du président. « Le rapport de force joue désormais clairement en faveur d'Andry Rajoelina », a aussitôt fait remarquer au journal Le Monde le père jésuite Sylvain Urfer, qui a fondé l'Observatoire de la vie publique à Antananarivo après avoir été renvoyé du pays, selon lui, pour des raisons politiques.

Les événements de l’actualité sont plutôt familiers, fait remarquer Urfer: « Des événements similaires se sont produits en 1972, 1991 et plus récemment après les élections présidentielles de 2001 qui ont permis à Marc Ravalomanana d'arriver au pouvoir, dit-il. Alors qu'il n'avait obtenu que 48% des suffrages, Ravalomanana a décrété unilatéralement qu'il avait été élu au premier tour. A l'époque, il était maire d'Antananarivo. La population l'a soutenu pour se débarrasser de l'ancien président Didier Ratsiraka.»

À l’époque les sympathisants de Ravalomanana avaient manifesté pendant deux mois dans la capitale après l'élection contestée. Comme tout récemment, Ratsiraka avait alors quitté Antananarivo pour créer un gouvernement rival à Toamasina, jusqu’au recomptage électoral qui a reconnu Ravalomanana vainqueur. Mais la crise n’a touché son terme que lorsque l’armée est intervenue pour remettre à l’ordre quatre provinces qui s’étaient ralliées à Ratsiraka en déclarant leur indépendance de la capitale.

Pourquoi revivre ces scénarios? « Tout est fait pour que le pouvoir reste entre les mains de celui qui s'en est emparé. Il n'y a aucune alternative légale ou constitutionnelle à ce verrouillage, explique Urfer. La seule solution, c'est l'explosion populaire et c'est précisément ce qui se passe aujourd'hui. »

La situation laisse plusieurs pays perplexes, la Communauté de développement de l'Afrique australe et les Etats-Unis refusant de reconnaitre le nouveau régime qui 48 heures après la transition s'est empressé de suspendre le parlement, largement dominé par les partisans de Ravalomanana.

Africa's concerns about economic crisis
While encouraging words have finally been uttered about the outlook of the economic crisis and Southern African banks have largely been spared by the global financial meltdown, a new report is stressing that the continent, recently struck by high food and energy prices, may reel yet again as the slowdown continues, increasing the likelihood of conflict.

While European countries have been rocked by protests as demonstrators have poured into the streets of the old continent to denounce their government's management of the crisis, African officials have warned Western counterparts, ahead of a G20 summit next month, that the scale of the crisis in Africa is only now becoming apparent and is quickly creating an "emergency," according to Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank.

An ActionAid report says Africa will suffer a huge drop in income due to the global financial crisis, the worst countries possibly seeing a decline in income of up to 50 percent. "We've calculated that just by the end of this year, Africa's income stands to fall by $50 billion. And that's equivalent to a pay cut of more than 10 percent for the continent," said Claire Melamed, head of policy for the anti-poverty group.

Melamed said she disputes reports claiming Africa would be spared many of the slowdown's effects because it was not as interwoven into the international financial markets. But this seemed to be the message of the chief economist of South Africa's Reserve Bank, Monde Mnyande, who told a group of bankers that at least in the south of the continent, countries had been spared the worst.

He stressed however banking improvements were necessary to avoid the painful lessons of the West. "The issue of crisis readiness and the strengthening of financial stability mechanisms are high on the list of priorities among central banks in the region, even though we may have escaped the worst of the direct effects of the global financial crisis, so far," Mnyande said. "There is a lot that needs to be studied from the mess-up of the others," he added.

He may have been buoyed by International Monetary Fund estimates that Sub-Saharan Africa may avoid recession altogether this year, with economic growth in the region forecast at about 3.3 percent. The ActionAid report seemed to be reading from a different page altogether on the other hand, with South Africa, a major economic engine on the continent, seen as one of the worst affected countries.

African countries from all regions of the continent have been "tied in to the rest of the world for many, many years," Melamed said. "What this crisis does is just shows the depth of global integration and the way in which we're all inter-connected now whether we like it or not." She said South Africa was in fact a "cautionary tale about engaging enthusiastically with the global financial markets," something others have used to describe tiny, over-exposed, and practically bankrupt Iceland, a country where popular protest have ousted the leadership.

Some fear worst could happen in Africa. In the lead up to the G20 meeting, African leaders have warned tales of disruption from across the continent, from half a million thrown out of work in copper mines in Zambia, to farmers losing jobs in Tanzania, and foreign receipts down everywhere because of cuts in tourism and investment, are preparing a perfect storm that could lead to chaos, especially as aid has often been the first to be sacrificed by wealthy countries dealing with their own economic issues.

Some stressed it was simply cheaper to invest or pour aid into Africa, rather than finance expensive peacekeeping missions that may prove necessary in the future to keep possible conflicts from erupting as stability is threatened by the downturn. If recent progress was threatened then some countries "could go under and that would mean total chaos and violence," warned Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. This was echoed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who warned about the possible instability in her fragile post-conflict country, at peace now after years of bloody civil war.

Africa's concern is reflected in an Economist Intelligence Unity study which puts African countries the most at risk of serious instabilities because of the economic crisis. Among the 12 most unstable, 7 are from Africa, with Zimbabwe leading the way, and Chad and Congo right behind.

The crisis has meant that years of recent progress, as China stepped in to provide important investment and cheap anti-retroviral drugs have become available, could turn to more desperate times. Zenawi said the richest countries should still invest in Africa, if only for their own self-interest, claiming investments in Africa went further. "The global stimulus impact of every dollar spent in Africa is higher than if it is spent in the US or the UK," said Zenawi.

All the gloom is however being tempered with at least one positive assessment by the head of the Federal Reserve. In the first TV interview by the man holding the job in 20 years, Ben Bernanke told 60 Minutes that the economic decline that cost millions of jobs around the world will soon "begin to moderate and we'll begin to see a levelling off."

With some stock markets giving recent signs of picking up this may well be so, but before a recovery occurs some are fearing worse times ahead. The World Bank is warning that something that could strike African economies hard, protectionism, has been on the rise across the globe despite government promises to avoid moves that restrict global trade.

The bank said it had identified 47 national measures that restrict trade since the financial crisis exploded last fall. Among those restricting trade were 17 members of the well-off G20, the bloc of advanced and major developing economies that vowed not to cut trade during an emergency summit in November. Countries include major movers and shakers such as the United States, China, India and the European Union. The development lender also has been predicting that world trade was headed for its steepest decline in 80 years.

Crise désamorcée au Pakistan

Loin d’avoir mis un terme aux crises qui guettent un des pays les plus instables de la région ou diminué l'influence de l'armée, le départ du président du Pakistan Pervez Musharraf l’an dernier semble plutôt avoir creusé certaines rivalités, tout en rappelant le travail manquant à la transition. Mais la plus récente crise guettant le régime à Islamabad, la plus sérieuse depuis l'arrivée au pouvoir en septembre du président Asif Ali Zardari, semble avoir été désamorcée après un important geste de repli du pouvoir pakistanais.

Cette semaine le premier ministre Yousouf Gilani a annoncé la réintégration dans leur fonction des juges de la Cour suprême, dont Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, l'ancien président de la haute cour jusqu’à sa destitution par l’ancien régime en 2007; faisant de lui le véritable symbole d’une lutte pour la justice qui a fait des avocats des réguliers de la rue pakistanaise.

Ces derniers y sont d'ailleurs redescendus en grand nombre avec une humeur nettement améliorée,  dansant et distribuant des bonbons. Célébrant à sa manière: Nawaz Sharif, dirigeant de la Ligue musulmane du Pakistan, un champion de la cause des juges qui avait regretté ne pas avoir obtenu gain de cause sur la question lors des infructueuses négociations de partage du pouvoir l’an dernier.

Sharif, qui s’était allié avec Zardari pour obtenir le départ de Musharraf, n’avait pas abandonné sa mission, loin de là, en défiant très publiquement le régime après avoir été exclu de toute fonction publique par la Cour suprême, puis assigné à résidence. Au contraire Sharif a aussitôt commencé à entamer une «longue marche » en prenant la route de Lahore à Islamabad, accompagné d’une caravane de véhicules.

Le geste du premier ministre marquait, selon Sharif "un jour historique qui va changer la destinée du pays"."Très bientôt, a-t-il ajouté, nous jouerons notre rôle dans la mise en oeuvre d'une véritable démocratie dans ce pays."

Le ton semblait avoir été donné puisque le gouvernement a également laissé entendre que le rétablissement des juges serait accompagné par "un ensemble de mesures constitutionnelles" prévoyant entre autre une " charte de la démocratie". Cette dernière permettrait notamment de réexaminer les directives de la Cour suprême visant Sharif ainsi que son frère, gouverneur du Pendjab. Du coup une enquête contre Zardari, restée sans suite, pourrait également être revisitée. Voilà donc qui expliquait les réticences du pouvoir.

Jamais loin de changements aussi importants au Pakistan, l’armée semble avoir été influente sur le dossier des juges, laissant par ailleurs craindre l’affaiblissement du pouvoir - régulièrement mis à l’épreuve par la menace des insurgés talibans et les relations tendues avec l'Inde.
Politicians stand up to N.Ireland violence
Recent acts of violence in Northern Ireland meant to rekindle old hartreds plainly failed to do so, leading to rare displays of unity unfathomable not so long ago.

The first killings of members of security forces since 1998 by suspected Irish Republican Army dissidents, not only brought shoulder to shoulder Sinn Fein member and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and Protestant First Minister Peter Robinson, but the former militant who once saw killing officers as a solution to uniting Ireland said he would give police information on the killers if he was aware of any. "I have to keep my nerve, and to appeal to my community to assist the police services north and south to defeat these people," McGuinness said.

While governance in Stormont remains imperfect and riddled with political rivalries and age-old tensions, political leaders indicated they would not let the three killings, on two consecutive days at the beginning of March, undermine the spirit of the 1998 Good Friday Agreements that have made peace possible where there was once three decades of  "Troubles."

The voices of the outraged followed moments of silence in the Northern Ireland Assembly as political rivals and former enemies paid their respects to British soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, killed in what was described as a drive-by shooting outside the Massereene army base, and Stephen Carroll, a police officer less than two years away from retirement.

Claiming responsibility were splinter groups of the Irish resistance movement that have accused Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, of selling out by ending its arm struggle to free the island of "British occupation." The Real IRA, notorious for the Omagh bombing in 1998, claimed responsibility for killing the soldiers, while The Continuity IRA said it had murdered Carroll.

Intelligence experts fear that while their numbers hardly rise above a few hundred, they are hard-core opponents of the peace process who are not about to drop the armed struggle, perhaps only bolstered by claiming victims after a number of previous failed terror attacks. Officials admitted that it was perhaps only a matter of time before the groups claimed lives, after over 20 dissident attacks against security forces since Nov. 2007, previously resulting in little more than half a dozen injured.

But joining thousands in marches protesting the new flash of violence, politicians of all stripes said their resolve of maintaining the peace would not be shattered. McGuinness called the IRA splinter groups "traitors to the island of Ireland. They have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island, and they don't deserve to be supported by anyone."

But the investigation into the deaths were not entirely non-violent. Over the weekend police were attacked by masked youths after they arrested high-profile republican Colin Duffy, 41, in connection with the murder of the two soldiers. A police officer was injured when he was struck on the shoulder with a brick. Then there were disturbances the following day when youths set fire to two cars near the front of the nationalist Drumbeg estate.On Monday police arrested two more people in the killing of one of their officers, individuals 31 and 27 years old, adding to another four men and one woman arrested in connection with the killing.

Northern Ireland's police chief Hugh Orde said members of the splinter groups numbered around 300, describing them as "disrupted, infiltrated and disorganised." But it doesn't take that many to spark fears of new violences.

Propos mal digérés, alors que les victimes tombent

La mort de trois soldats canadiens en Afghanistan cette semaine, faisant grimper à 111 le compte des morts au sein des Forces armées depuis 2002, était doublement tragique pour certains qui ont mal digéré les propos du premier ministre sur le conflit afghan, notamment les parents de victimes précédentes.

En effet les propos de Stephen Harper sur l'impossibilité de vaincre les insurgés en Afghanistan, lors d’une entrevue à la télévision américaine le weekend dernier, ont plutôt été mal accueillis par deux pères de soldats tués en Afghanistan.

A la lumière de ces propos, Guy Roberge, le père de l'adjudant-chef Gaétan Roberge, décédé en décembre dernier aux côtés d’un autre soldat canadien, estime pour sa part que son fils aura donné sa vie « en vain ».

«Nous ne remporterons pas cette guerre seulement en restant là (...) Jamais nous ne battrons les insurgés,» avait fait savoir le premier ministre au réseau CNN.

Roberge estime que parce que cette guerre est à présent considérée « pas gagnable», tout soldat canadien tombé au front aura donné sa vie « pour rien ».

Des propos plutôt difficiles à accepter pour trois nouvelles familles en deuil, le lendemain, alors que l’Adjudant Dennis Raymond Brown, du Lincoln and Welland Regiment de St. Catharines (Ont.), le Caporal Dany Olivier Fortin, du 425e Escadron d’appui tactique de la 3e Escadre Bagotville (Qc), et le Caporal Kenneth Chad O’Quinn, du 2e Groupe-brigade mécanisé du Canada, basé à la Petawawa (Ont.), tombaient au front.

« Harper a le sang de nos enfants sur les mains » estime Roberge, qui a toujours été contre la guerre et se demande ce que perd Harper à rapatrier les troupes au pays : « C’est comme envoyer le chien à l’abattoir ». Fier de la contribution canadienne en Afghanistan pour sa part, Jim Davis, dont le fils Paul est mort le 2 mars 2006 en Afghanistan, croit au contraire que la mission doit se poursuivre, mais n’a pas pu cacher son regret suite aux propos, selon lui affichant une «attitude défaitiste», du premier ministre.

Déception également sur le site du prestigieux magazine américain Foreign Policy, estimant « pessimiste » le message de Harper, qui n’était en fait que l’écho de pareilles remarques de la part de stratèges britanniques et même, selon le magazine, ceux de Henry Kissinger.

Masood Aziz, ancient conseiller à l’ambassade afghane à Washington, estime que « ceux qui disent que la guerre ne peut pas être gagnée ignorent le fait que les Etats-Unis n’ont jamais vraiment essayé de le faire ». Le président américain a prévu de concentrer ses efforts sur la région, tout en retirant progressivement ses troupes d’Irak.

Selon le directeur du Centre for Military and Strategic Studies de l'Université de Calgary, David Bercuson, le message du premier ministre – mal reçu par plusieurs par ici - était plutôt destiné au président Hamid Karzaï, afin que le gouvernement et la population afghane s'engagent davantage dans la stabilisation et le développement du pays.

«Lorsque le rapport Manley a été remis au premier ministre, les médias se sont concentrés sur le fait qu'on réclamait plus de troupes, d'hélicoptères et de drones. Mais dans le reste du rapport, on s'inquiétait du manque d'efforts du côté afghan», dit-il.
Pour d’autres il s’agissait de sauver la face lorsque le Canada retirera ses troupes en 2011, pour qu’il ne semble pas avoir « perdu » la guerre.

Wanted for war crimes

When the International Criminal Court considered its chief prosecutor’s charges against Sudan's president after weighing possible disruptive reactions and came back by issuing an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, it charged him for war crimes and crimes against humanity but stopped short of accusing him of genocide. Still the decision was a first by the court for a sitting head of state and met resistance from a number of countries, in and out of Africa.

As with the original accusations, Bashir met the charges dismissively, calling them worthless, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of  Khartoum, in protest. The decision came after ruling by a panel of three judges, ICC spokesman Laurence Blairon saying the strongman was suspected of being criminally responsible for "intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians and pillaging their property".

He said violence in Darfur, where some 300,000 are reported to have been killed over the years, was the result of a common plan organized at the highest level of the Sudanese government, and while there was no charge of genocide due to lack of evidence, the charge could be added if evidence eventually emerges.

Sudanese officials said the ICC judges were biased and warned against people cooperating with the court. "This decision is exactly what we have been expecting from the court, which was created to target Sudan and to be part of the new mechanism of neo-colonialism," Mustafa Othman Ismail told Sudanese TV, while Bashir, in anticipation for the decision, said it would "not be worth the ink it is written on."

"The armed forces will firmly deal with whoever co-operates with the so-called International Criminal Court, and uses it as a platform for political blackmail and for destabilizing the security and stability of the country," told another radio station spokesman Osman al-Aghbash.

While some experts said Sudanese officials could safely shake their fists at the "pretty toothless" indictment, another warned that rather than pressure Bashir to change his ways or leave office, the move could spark a harsh response by the regime and result in civil war. "We could end up with another Rwanda or Somalia or Democratic Republic of Congo in which hundreds of thousands of people could be killed," warned former American envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios.

Other countries urging the ICC to reconsider were warning the move could jeopardize the country’s peace process. African Union spokesman Jean Ping said that while member countries “support the fight against impunity… we say that peace and justice should not collide, that the need for justice should not override the need for peace." Russia called the warrant a "dangerous precedent," and China, a close partner of Sudan and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to suspend International Criminal Court actions, said Beijing “opposes any acts that might interfere the peaceful overall situation of Darfur and Sudan.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said "We hope that the Security Council will respect and heed the calls from the African Union, Arab League and non-aligned movement, adopt the necessary actions ... and request that the International Criminal Court suspend trying this case." Egypt, which said it was "greatly disturbed" by the ICC's decision, also called for a meeting of the UN Security Council to defer implementation of the warrant.

The United States, which is not a party to the ICC, on the other hand saw an opening for peace, saying the prosecution of the Sudanese leader could be a "helpful step" in bringing peace to war-torn Darfur and warned that any violence against civilians or foreign interests as a result of the unprecedented warrant would not be tolerated. "The White House believes those that have committed atrocities should be held accountable," a spokesman told reporters.

But Medecins Sans Frontieres didn’t take any chances, withdrawing foreign staff from Darfur right before the announcement. Sudanese authorities ordered out nearly a dozen aid groups, accusing them of feeding information to the ICC. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the expulsion would cause "irrevocable damage" to aid operations.The unprecedented indictment leaves open the question what comes next. But if previous cases are an indication, perhaps very little.The ICC had after all issued arrest warrants against two other Sudanese men for war crimes in Darfur who are still free.

Confusion après l'éclat en Guinée-Bissau

Rare pays d'Afrique occidentale à avoir remporté son indépendance par la force, la Guinée-Bissau a malheureusement cette autre caractéristique d’avoir été dominée par cette tradition martiale lors d’une histoire marquée par plusieurs coups d’état. Cependant l’armée a immédiatement fait savoir que l’assassinat du président Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, lundi par des militaires, et ce quelques heures à peine après la mort du chef d'état-major, n’était pas le plus récent putsch de cet imposant palmarès mais plutôt l’œuvre d’un groupe "isolé" de soldats.

Certains sont d’ailleurs à se demander si la drogue, le pays étant à ce propos un important couloir de transit, n’est pas derrière ce chapitre pour le moins troublant de cette petite nation d’à peine 1.5 million d’habitants, responsable en partie de l’insécurité régnante dans la région. La crise était assez importante pour faire accourir plusieurs ministres des affaires étrangères inquiets de la région, alors que l’armée assurait pourtant vouloir respecter la Constitution, qui prévoit la prise du pouvoir par le président du parlement, Raimundo Pereira. Celui-ci remplace effectivement Vieira par intérim, en attendant de futures élections.

Rare mode de transition. Car il ne fallait pourtant par remonter bien loin, à novembre dernier, pour se souvenir de la plus récente des trois tentatives de coups d’état depuis l’arrivée de Vieira au pouvoir en 1980. Des soldats mutins avaient alors attaqué la résidence du président qui a dirigé le pays pendant 23 des 29 dernières années, avant d'être refoulés. Cette semaine l’armée a réaffirmé son "intention de respecter le pouvoir démocratiquement élu et la Constitution de la république. "Les gens qui ont tué le président Vieira n'ont pas été arrêtés mais nous les recherchons, a-t-on fait savoir, en ajoutant que la situation est sous contrôle".

Ce «contrôle » est d’ailleurs problématique selon certains analystes pour qui ce petit pays d’Afrique de l’ouest voisin du Sénégal est sous l’emprise des militaires: «D'urgentes réformes militaires sont nécessaires afin de libérer le système politique de toute interférence militaire», estimait l’International Crisis Group il y a huit mois à peine.

Selon Idrissa Diallo, le dirigeant du Parti de l'unité nationale (PUN), une formation d'opposition, le pays est depuis longtemps confronté « à une guerre permanente pour le contrôle du pouvoir ». Pays «structurellement plongé dans l'instabilité », la Guinée-Bissau souffre de la fragilité de ses institutions, d'une corruption endémique de ses classes dirigeantes et de l'emprise du narco-trafic sur son économie.

En effet selon l’ONU le pays est un important point de transit du trafic de cocaine entre l'Amérique latine et l'Europe, un fait aidé par sa géographie constituée de plus de cent petites iles au large de ses côtes, prisées par les passeurs. Lors des élections législatives l’an dernier l’ancien président Kumba Yala avait d’ailleurs accusé Vieira d'être le premier trafiquant du pays. Alors que militaires comme politiciens ont souvent été pris par des affaires de drogue, certains analystes ne sont pas prêts à y voir un lien avec la crise actuelle.

Des proches du général Batiste Tagmé na Waié, tué par l'explosion d'une bombe dans son quartier général plus tôt, ont évoqué une possible implication du président Vieira. Il faut dire qu’une profonde rivalité, politique et ethnique, opposait les deux hommes. Le chef d'état-major, membre de l'ethnie balanta, ayant été un des officiers visés par une série de purges au sein de l'armée lancées dans les années 80 par Vieira, lui-même issu de l'ethnie papel.

Il faut dire qu’une certaine confusion s’est emparée du pays après ces tragiques événements, le principal porte-parole de l'armée, José Zamora Induta, affirmant dans un premier temps que « le président Vieira (avait) été tué par l'armée », l'accusant d'être «l'un des principaux responsables de la mort de Tagmé » avant de changer de version. Pour le moment le Premier ministre Carlos Gomes Jr s'est félicité que l'armée ait "montré son patriotisme en ne prenant pas le pouvoir".

Mais à l’étranger, notamment dans l’ancienne métropole portuguaise, qui s'est par ailleurs dite «disponible pour aider les autorités » de Guinée à «maintenir l'ordre et la tranquilité », la condamnation générale était de rigueur, sans parler d’une certaine confusion:  « On ignore si ces assassinats font partie d'une tentative de  coup d'Etat » estimait un porte-parole de la Maison blanche, ajoutant que les Etats-Unis faisaient appel à «une  cessation des violences et à la gestion du gouvernement par moyen pacifique ».

Defending the Games

When the Canadian Security Intelligence Service made a threat assessment for the Vancouver Games everything from the threat of terrorism to foreign spies, as well as unrest caused by disgruntled local groups representing everything from native protesters to social housing groups were featured prominently.

But Vancouver’s recent steady diet of bloody gang warfare, less than a year before the opening ceremonies, is something few were counting on to spoil the countdown to the Games. Recently officials have had to justify how a security budget of $175 million ballooned to $900 million, so far, to secure the Games of Winter, not necessarily to prepare a “doomsday” scenario, but a “medium threat level.”

Security calls for 7,000 RCMP and municipal police officers from across Canada and about 4,000 private security guards, as well as military personnel. But included in the budget is $20 million for "urban domain" policing, with $10 million earmarked for the Vancouver Police Department to cover extra work they have to do because of the Games.

But that work seems to have begun early as Vancouver and the Lower Mainland are reeling from a series of attacks related to gang-land violence which has sent citizens to the streets calling for tougher legislative measures so as to, according to the province’s solicitor general “reclaim the streets,” a formula usually reserved for U.S. inner cities. A point made when Maclean's called a Vancouver suburb "Detroit North".

With months to go before the games, the recurring shootings have made Canada’s Pacific metropolis the country's most violent city, surpassing much-larger Toronto’s toll of homicides (12 to 8), while the second largest city, Montreal, comes off a year during which it recorded its fewest homicides in decades. There have been some 30 shootings in the Vancouver area this year already, most of which police say are linked to the drug trade. In one case, a woman was killed while sitting in her car with her young son.

It was no surprise Stephen Harper travelled to Vancouver to make his recent gang legislation announcement. "We got elected because we know the people of Canada want us to take a tougher stand on crime, want us to deal toughly with those who perpetrate these crimes," Harper said. Vancouver, where authorities want to put together “the safest, most secure games ever” next year is one city but there are an estimated 900 organized criminal groups operating across the country, accounting for 20 percent of homicides in the country, according to the Justice Department, which said the number of slayings is on the rise.

So the security-minded Conservative government announced a new bill to toughen punishment for gang-related crimes which, despite the new year political drama, should have no trouble sailing through the minority Parliament since opposition parties said they would support it, even calling on the Harper government to do more to fight organized crime. "We have all heard about the numerous shootings on the streets in and around the Vancouver area lately. Similar activity in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg is gripping those cities," said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. "We know all too well how these events have made residents fearful in neighbourhoods that used to be considered safe."

The bill would impose first-degree murder charges for gang-related killings, which, upon conviction, would mean a life sentence with almost no chance of parole for 25 years. There would be a new offence for drive-by shootings, carrying an automatic minimum jail term of four years, and a maximum of 14. The bill also creates new offences for attacks on police officers, carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years if the assault is committed by an unarmed person, and 14 years if a weapon is involved.

That wasn’t enough for some B.C.-based officials however. "I must say that I am disappointed," said B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal. "Our situation is critical. We made that quite clear to the minister. He's on side, but he gave no commitment to telling us exactly when these changes would come." Some lawyers point out making sentences harsher is easy, the hard part is providing more cops to arrest gang members. Just earlier the B.C. government had named a senior bureaucrat as the province's first crime czar to lead the fight against gang- and gun-related crime. B.C. Solicitor General John van Dongen said Jessica McDonald's role will be to oversee all elements of the province's response to gang violence, and specifically to "deliver on the guns-and-gangs strategy the premier announced on Feb. 13."

As expected the violence didn't immediately come to a halt. A few days later homicide investigators in Burnaby and Vancouver were poring over more crime scenes searching for clues in the region’s two latest shooting deaths while Surrey RCMP were investigating no less than three additional shootings that left four wounded, all within hours of each other in another round of gun violence across Metro Vancouver. In the two-day period no less than seven shootings were under investigation.

The latest incidents undermined the PR coup police had hoped for after van Dongen stood proudly beside eight high-ranking officers at a news conference to declare the arrest of gang boss Barzan Tilli-Choli had made B.C. a safer place. "The timing is odd," conceded Cpl. Dale Carr of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, the point man for many of the Lower Mainland shootings. "We still believe that with Mr. Tilli-Choli in jail, the streets are safer. He was a brazen individual, and he had total disregard for public safety."

Meanwhile security officials planning the Winter Games said the nearly $1 billion price-tag was far from overkill to defend the Olympic venues. "I wonder if that's what Munich said in 1972," said Assistant commissioner Bud Mercer, who heads the RCMP's Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit. "There's been other incidents. There's been a bombing in Atlanta. You don't plan for a doomsday event but you have to plan responsibly and you have to plan taking into consideration everything that's going on in the world."

Interestingly, while the effort will be about keeping Canada's borders safe for the Games, roughly half of the guns fuelling the gang war in British Columbia's Lower Mainland come from our friendly southern neighbours according to the Mounties, highlighting the difficult challenge of stopping the flow of weapons into the great White North. Last year, police confiscated 191 guns at the B.C.-Washington border, but they say it’s impossible to say how many others found their way into Canada. “We know that they have been smuggled when we find them in the hands of criminals, being used in a drive-by shooting or a homicide,” RCMP Sgt. Tim Shields told CTV News. “But we have a very long border. In places, it’s easy to smuggle contraband over.”

Bibi gets first crack at government

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite kosher for Israel’s latest elections to yield clear-cut results avoiding the lengthy coalition-building and haggling session so familiar to the Jewish state’s fractured politics. And so it was that on the evening of Feb. 10 both the centrist Kadima of Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud claimed victory, a single seat separating the two top contenders to lead the 120-seat Knesset as prime minister.

"Today the people have chosen Kadima," Livni told party supporters in Tel Aviv as she vowed to become Israel's second female prime minister. "Israel does not belong to the right in the same way that peace does not belong to the left." But Netanyahu also claimed victory, telling a cheering crowd of supporters that "the people want to be led in a different way... The national camp led by the Likud has won an unambiguous majority," he said in Tel Aviv.

Truth be told, Likud supporters were dismayed that campaign-long polls showing the former prime minister leading did not translate into as many seats on election night. Likud scored 27 while Kadima surprised observers by getting one more. Netanyahu however knew that he could count on a stronger right-wing element in the new Knesset, notably apparent kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman and his extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, which came in third with 15 seats, while the once imposing Labour party of Ehud Barak fared poorly, with 13.

Lieberman's endorsement of Netanyahu this week gave the Likud leader a first stab at forming the next government. To some observers, Israel's move to the right, giving it 65 of the assembly's 120 seats, was a rejection of the country's peace overtures, cut short by the latest clash over Gaza. "The outcome of the election is that the way of the left has failed. The public has realized it was leading us to destruction," told the Washington Post Hanan Porat, a rabbi who has helped lead efforts to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank for more than three decades. "The Qassam rockets that have been falling are more convincing than all the speeches about peace."

Israel’s right wing however remains divided, as shown by Lieberman’s initial willingness to consider either Kadima or Likud as partner in an eventual coalition government. While Yisrael Beiteinu and its leader have just now hit the national stage, having previously circulated the idea of forcing the one million so-called Arab Israelis to take an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state, and being notoriously hard on Hamas, it shares Livni’s two-state solution on Palestine.

With a few lesser seats, the ultra-orthodox Shas party is also being considered in light of feverish coalition-building arithmetics, its own devout membership no doubt probably surprised by the 11 seats it garnered on election night. But uniting these two in a Likud coalition could be such a stretch that some are not counting out the possibility Kadima and Likud may share power. It could be a way, observers say, for Netanyahu's leadership to avoid clashing with Washington over the peace process.

It seemed to be Lieberman's wish as well, saying he preferred Netanyahu's government to include Livni and members of her party in what would be a grand coalition of right and centre. "Netanyahu will be prime minister, but it will be a Bibi-Livni government," Lieberman said. Upon getting the first crack at forming government, Netanyahu said this was his wish as well, calling for political rivals to form a "broad national unity government for the good of the people and the state". "I call on Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Labour Party chairman Ehud Barak and I say to them - let's unite to secure the future of the State of Israel."

Livni however hinted she would rather sit in the opposition ranks than join a Netanyahu government, ruling out Kadima's participation in a grand coalition unless it was committed to continuing the peace talks she has led as foreign minister, something which Netanyahu has opposed. Otherwise Livni had hoped that Netanyahu might be forced to agree to a rotating government, with both serving two years as prime minister, but this was highly unlikely.

It was for President Shimon Peres to decide who gets a first crack at government building, an honour usually reserved to the leader of the party with the most seats, but was sidestepped as Peres found it more likely that Netanyahu could achieve a coalition rather than his rival. To some observers, this bodes ill for the future of Israeli politics. "The very fact that the president may face this kind of dilemma underlines the unworkability of the Israeli electoral system," wrote the Jerusalem Post.

Others meanwhile lamented the lower participation rate, at 54 percent, of the Israeli Arab vote. Livni’s inability to form a coalition last year has made the need to hold new elections necessary. She would become the first election winner to be denied the opportunity to form a government. Quite humbling for the former intelligence agent who sought to become Israel's second female prime minister.

While talks in Jerusalem between Peres and representatives of 10 of the 12 parties that won seats in the election got underway this week, Israel and Hamas were still clashing over the terms of a long-term ceasefire following the three week war that ended on Jan. 17. This week Hamas said Israel wanted to torpedo the talks, charging that Israel changed its position by making a ceasefire contingent upon the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit captured in 2006, before a first clash between Israel and its neighbours.

"It would be unthinkable for anybody to reach an accord with Hamas, whether through Egypt or not, without the release of Gilad Shalit," said Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit. Shalit's freedom has suddenly become a rallying cry for many Israelis. A ceasefire would see Israel gradually ease its border blockade of the Palestinian enclave in exchange for a halt to weapons smuggling and attacks by militants.

But even as the discussions were under way Israeli jets bombed a tunnel linking Gaza to Egypt reportedly in retaliation for mortar fired by Palestinian militants into Israel. Some fear no matter who heads Israel in the months ahead, the future of the peace process now lies in doubt. "Hamas has set this thing back for a long time. Even if Livni forms the government, I do not see any Israeli government that could do a grand deal on the Palestinian issue," David Makovsky, Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Voice of America.

But as Iran announced this week it had built an unmanned aircraft with a range of over 600 miles and the UN estimated that Tehran had built up a stockpile of enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb, many analysts were quick to point to Iran as Israel's most serious threat in the long term, and therefore the object of its attention. As he accepted the difficult task of forming the country's next government, Netanyahu returned to a favourite campaign theme, calling the Islamic Republic Israel's greatest security threat for seeking nuclear weapons and sponsoring terror groups.

Une visite différente

Deux ans plus tôt ils étaient quelques milliers à manifester contre la visite de George W. Bush lors d'un sommet des Trois amigos à Montebello sur fond de rangée d'escouade anti-émeute parfumée au gaz lacrymogène. Cette fois la foule rassemblée pour accueillir le président américain était d'une toute autre humeur, encore bercée dans l'Obamanie générale qui fait du président américain le politicien le plus populaire au Canada.

Dans les rues de la capitale, où un dispositif de sécurité encadrait rigoureusement une foule rassemblée pour tenter d'apercevoir celui que la police locale désignait de "super-star", les marchands de l'histoire s'affairaient à vendre divers souvenir commémoratifs de la visite présidentielle. Même les manifestants écolos escaladant un pont local pour y installer une bannière étaient polis: "Bienvenue Président Obama", lisait une première banderole, une autre l'invitant à "ne pas acheter le pétrole sale des sables bitumineux".

Fait étonnant, ce changement de mise en scène était accompagné d'un changement de ton, et presque de langage. D'une part le message écologiste semblait passer entre ce premier ministre d'une circonscription albertaine et un président qui la veille de sa visite de quelques heures avait fait part de son désir de voir les deux pays adopter une approche conjointe en matière de lutte contre les changements climatiques.

Signalant presque un changement de philosophie, les deux dirigeants ont profité de leur conférence de presse pour annoncer une entente afin d'explorer les moyens de produire de l'énergie propre afin de diminuer les émissions de gaz à effet de serre. L'entente ouvrirait la voie à l'établis- sement de cibles communes sur le continent en matière de diminution des gaz à effet de serre. Mais selon Stephen Harper: «Il est vraiment prématuré de parler d'harmonisation tant que les États-Unis n'ont pas eu un dialogue national sur leur propre approche en la matière».

Obama n'a pas exclu de donner une touche de vert au traité de libre-échange nord-américain, mais sans boulverser «les relations commerciales extra-ordinairement importantes entre les Etats-Unis et le Canada ». Le président s'est d'ailleurs fait rassurant au sujet de l'ALENA, se disant vouloir accroître et non diminuer le commerce entre les deux pays.

De manière générale les deux dirigeants ont convenu de prendre des mesures pour renforcer le système financier international, tout en évitant les tendances protectionnistes. Selon le président ils auraient entre autre discuté comment utiliser leurs investissements en infrastructure afin de réduire les embouteillages à la frontière.

Par ailleurs, alors que les deux pays sont engagés dans des voies opposées sur l'Afghanistan, que veut quitter le Canada en 2011 et où Washington s'engage à dépêcher 17,000 troupes additionnelles, Obama a assuré qu'il n'avait pas fait pression pour qu'Ottawa prolonge sa présence militaire: «Ce que j'ai fait, c'est féliciter le Canada non seulement pour les troupes qui sont sur place, les 108 soldats qui sont tombés du fait du conflit, mais aussi parce que le Canada est le premier contributeur d'aide étrangère à l'Afghanistan», a déclaré le président américain. La gouverneure-générale Michaelle Jean a d'ailleurs, lors de son accueil et de leur entretien animé à l'aéroport d'Ottawa, remercié Obama pour son salut des sacrifices militaires canadiens en Afghanistan, exprimés plus tôt.

Lors de sa visite-éclair, Obama aura tout de même trouvé le temps de faire plaisir aux foules rassemblées pour le voir sur la colline parlementaire, faisant deux apparitions devant une vitre pare-balle: « J'aime ce pays et je pense que nous ne pourrions avoir de meilleur ami et allié» tout en promettant, à la rigolade, de revenir dès qu'il fera «plus chaud». Il ne sera pas parti les mains vides, ravissant la foule du marché Byward en y faisant une visite éclair pour s'approvisionner en biscuits et en queue de castor. Puis ce n'est qu'un au revoir puisque le président a au moins deux rendez-vous prévus au Canada l'an prochain, lors du G8 et du sommet des Trois amigos.

Sharing power with Mugabe

As soon as a once unlikely power-sharing deal with Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe made prime minister his long-standing rival Morgan Tsvangirai, there was concern by some observers the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change who vowed to stabilize the country's shattered economy and end political violence was setting himself up to become Harare’s fall guy.

A country so riddled with inflation it had just removed 12 zeroes from its currency, all the while dealing with a cholera epidemic which had claimed over 3,400 lives and spilled into neighbouring countries, is what was inheriting the man who won the first round of last year’s presidential vote but avoided a run-off he feared would be rigged and cause further violence.

"The first priority is to stabilize the economy," Tsvangirai said upon taking office. "The economic collapse has forced millions of our most able to flee the country. This must end today." He added the government would make food "available and affordable." "The most important issue is that we are opening a new chapter for our country, there can be no turning back on the political agreement which each party has signed," the new prime minister said. "We have to find a solution to the country's crisis," Tsvangirai told the BBC. "Mugabe may be part of the problem, but he's also part of the solution. I am sure the reverse will also apply to me from their side.”

Mugabe administered the oath of office to the new prime minister and promised to co-operate in the unity government, but the old political tensions were rekindled anew when the swearing-in of Zimbabwe's new power-sharing cabinet days later was marred by the arrest of one MDC member.

Roy Bennett, the patry's choice to become deputy agriculture minister was arrested near a small Harare airport just before the ceremony. The post in store for him wasn’t insignificant as Bennett, a white farmer, lost his property under Mugabe's land reform programme, which was condemned internationally, and was sent to prison from October 2004 to June 2005. Bennett had only recently returned to Zimbabwe after more than two years in South Africa, fleeing police accusing him of plotting against Mugabe. He was initially charged with treason and the MDC described the charges against him as "scandalous" and "politically motivated". The charge was later dropped but a magistrate determined there was enough to try him for terrorism.

Also the power-sharing agreement gives Mugabe's Zanu-PF 15 posts and the two factions of the MDC 16. But seven extra Zanu-PF members turned up to be sworn into office, the issue had to be cleared up behind closed doors. Calling for an end to political violence, Tsvangirai said Zimbabwe could "no longer afford brother against brother, because one happened to have a different political opinion".

The MDC says more than 30 political prisoners are still being held after being abducted and illegally detained. On his first day in office the prime minister visited over a dozen political prisoners, all charged with trying to overthrow Mugabe, as Amnesty International called on the unity government to release all political prisoners. While he could not make any guarantees they would be released Tsvangirai told them their cases would be processed more quickly.

While South African President Kgalema Motlanthe called Tsvangirai's swearing in "a vindication that our approach to the crisis of Zimbabwe all along has been correct, despite scepticism in certain quarters" and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed the inauguration as a "step forward", the latter also voiced concern that Mugabe remained as president. The U.S. State Department congratulated Tsvangirai but added sanctions would stay until President Mugabe showed he was sharing power.

A un an des Jeux

"A nous le podium?" Pourquoi pas! En effet à un an du coup d’envoi des Jeux de Vancouver 87 pourcent des Canadiens croient que cette devise du Comité olympique canadien peut devenir réalité. 50 pourcent croient que l’objectif de finir premier au classement des médailles peut être atteint, même si le Canada n’a jamais terminé mieux que 3e, à Turin il y a trois ans, avec 24 médailles au total.

Evidemment cette proximité est bon signe pour le gouvernement qui y a versé 120 millions $ de son argent au courant des cinq dernières années. Et à moins de douze mois du coup d’envoi, les signes sont excellents.

D’abord John Kucera est devenu le premier skieur de descente canadien masculine à remporter un titre mondial alpin, tout récemment, à Val d'Isère. Puis Jennifer Heil and Steve Omischl ont été couronnés champions de ski acrobatique à Cypress Mountain, près de Vancouver, futur site olympique.

Lors d’un certain weekend magique de février le Canada a récolté 30 médailles podiums de coupe du monde, laissant sa trace autant sur l’ovale de patinage de vitesse qui a servi aux Jeux d’hiver le Lillehammer, qu’au Colisée PNE où seront disputées d'autres disciplines olympiques en 2010.

«C’est super d’avoir eu un weekend comme ça pour le Canada, estimait Alex Bilodeau, arrivé premier aux bosses, alors que Jenn Heil, la championne olympique en faisait de même chez les dames. Il y a eu de la controverse, certains ont dit ‘on a versé beaucoup d’argent pour nos athlètes’ mais les Canadiens doivent être excités par toutes les médailles remportées, en ski, en bobsleigh, ce weekend, en patinage artistique… c’est comme ça dans tous les sports. »

Même son de cloche pour Aleisha Cline au ski de fond et Jon Montgomery au skeleton, sans oublier les médailles d’or grâce au coup de patin de Jessica Gregg au 500m et François-Louis Tremblay au 1000m.

Evidemment il y a une discipline que les Canadiens tiennent à cœur et qu’il seraient déçus de ne pas remporter, en faisant par exemple la première médaille d’or olympique en sol canadien, et là-dessus, Jarome Iginla des Flames de Calgary a eu son mot à dire. Le Canada pourrait-il se remettre du fiasco de 2006 au hockey et prendre l’or à Vancouver?

«Absolument, j’y crois, a-t-il déclaré lors d’une récente période d’entrainement des Flames. Je crois que le hockey canadien sera à la hauteur, affirme celui qui pourrait être le capitaine de la sélection. Les gars auront sûrement de la pression sur les épaules ».

D'autant plus que la ligue nationale pourrait cesser d'envoyer les pros de la LNH aux Jeux d'hiver. Pression, sans doute, et pour tout le monde, mais l’appât du gain financier à la ligne d’arrivée pour tout médaillé, surtout pour les amateurs,  a peut-être de quoi en faire les meilleurs JOs du Canada. L’objectif est déjà loin des 5 médailles remportées à Calgary.

Lendemain de scrutin paisible en Irak
Alors que les Etats-Unis envisagent un retrait progressif des troupes en Irak, notamment pour augmenter les effectifs en Afghanistan, seule une amélioration de la stabilité en Mésopotamie peut donner un air raisonnable au calendrier américain. Or l’organisation sans incident violent du dernier scrutin dans 14 des 18 provinces du pays le weekend dernier a donné beaucoup d’espoir aux stratèges ainsi qu’à ce peuple tourmenté par la guerre ou la répression depuis plusieurs décennies.

Aussi les gains de la minorité arabe sunnite et le retrait relatif des partis religieux islamiques laissent-ils permettre de croire à un pas important lors du vote du 31 janvier en vue de rétablir une certaine normalisation à travers le pays. Alors que le premier ministre Nouri Al-Maliki, dont la liste arrivait,  selon les premières estimations, en tête des suffrages dans plusieurs régions, se félicitait de "cette grande victoire pour le peuple irakien", le président américain Barack Obama estimait que « les Irakiens viennent de connaître un scrutin pacifique, avec une réduction significative de la violence sur place, et nous sommes en position de commencer à (leur) laisser plus de responsabilités ».

Le scrutin a d’ailleurs permis aux GIs de baisser leur garde habituelle, ayant été largement absents dans plusieurs régions alors que quelques 600 000 membres de sécurité irakiens se chargeaient de faire régner la paix dans les bureaux de scrutin.

«L’un des enseignements le plus significatif de ces élections réside dans le retour de la communauté arabe sunnite dans le jeu politique irakien alors qu’elle en fut relativement absente jusqu’à aujourd’hui, estime Karim Pakzad, chercheur associé à l’IRIS. On a assisté à une certaine stabilisation de la sécurité dans ces régions, non pas tant du fait des actions militaires américaines mais davantage par le rejet d’al-Qaida et de ses militants extrémistes, étrangers aux traditions et coutumes tribales des arabes sunnites irakiens. »

La prédominance des Chiites et des Kurdes au sein du pouvoir irakien avait, selon lui, été l’un des éléments de mécontentement des pays arabes inquiets de l’influence de l’Iran en Irak. Ainsi « le retour des arabes sunnites pourrait les satisfaire et contribuer ainsi à plus de normalisation des relations entre l’Irak et ses voisins arabes ».

Mais certains Kurdes redoutent ce retour sunnite, Massoud Barzani, du Parti Démocratique du Kurdistan, voyant en Maliki la volonté de «restaurer la dictature » en Irak. Car les divisions persistent, et même si l’organisation du scrutin n’a pas été effectuée à l’ombre des chars, certains redoutent l’euphorie comme celle qui avait accompagné vote de 2005, alors qu’un an plus tard à peine ne pays était au bord de la guerre civile.

Certains chefs tribaux accusent d’ailleurs un parti sunnite proche du pouvoir d’avoir volé l’élection dans l’ouest du pays. Puis les chiffres de participation, 51 pourcent, affichent déjà une apathie très occidentale.

« Qu'attend le citoyen irakien de l’Etat aujourd'hui ? La sécurité et les services, explique à Falloujah Adib Hadi, qui travaille au service de renseignement de la police irakienne. Et il est en passe de les acquérir. » Aussi les chiffres de participation de 40% dans cette ville symbole de l’insurrection sunnite, contre 0,5% il y a quatre ans, donnait-elle lieu d’espérer une nette amélioration du quotidien.

« Chacun de nous a voté pour un candidat de son choix. S’il voit qu’à l’avenir rien ne s’est amélioré dans l’économie et dans l’infrastructure, il fera un autre choix pour améliorer la situation, explique à France 24 Abdel Wahab El-Kebir, commerçant de Falloujah. Même si c’est médiocre cette fois-ci, ce sera mieux la prochaine fois. Et, inch’allah, ce ne sera pas médiocre. »

Dans le camp des pessimiste persiste en signe pourtant l'ancien envoyé spécial de la Ligue arabe en Irak, Mokhtar Lamani, qui s’avoue pas aussi enthousiaste. « Selon le président de la Commission centrale des élections, le taux final de participation est de 51%. Aux élections précédentes, le taux de participation était de 55,7%. À voir ces chiffres officiels, je ne peux pas dire que c'est un grand gain pour le peuple irakien. »

Selon lui, le manque de violence se doit moins à une harmonie généralisée qu’aux « blocs de béton armé qui partagent tous les quartiers. » « Il y a eu une division ethnique et sectaire des gens. C'est tout à fait normal que ce béton armé ait eu un impact sur la sécurité. Mais il n'y a pas de projet national commun pour la population, » dit-il.

A little tiff at the border?

As Barack Obama prepared to travel to Canada for his first foreign visit as U.S. president on Feb. 19, a tradition abandoned by the former occupant of the White House, he had to dispel notions that all sorts of barriers were being raised along the longest undefended border in the world.

While presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week the White House was reviewing a "Buy American" provision of America’s $819 billion stimulus package condemned as protectionist by neighbours and other trade partners, some analysts observed that the final say on the matter would be left to Congress.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper protested the requirement that only U.S.-made iron and steel be used for the billions of dollars of infrastructure projects contained in the package went against America’s "international obligations." "This is obviously a serious matter and a serious concern to us," he told the House of Commons. “I know that countries around the world are expressing grave concern about some of these measures, that go against not just the obligations of the United States, but frankly, the spirit of our G20 discussions.”

One of these countries was Britain, whose prime minister, Gordon Brown, told the Davos World Economic Forum. “This is a time not just for individual, national measures to deal with the global financial crisis. This is the time ... for the world to come together as one,” he said. “This financial mercantilism - which is foreign banks retreating to their home base - will, if we do nothing, lead to a new form of protectionism. Indeed, a deglobalisation which would lead to a reduction in trade and cross-border business activity, which would be followed by the old trade protectionism of the past."

The concern was obviously exacerbated for Washington’s closest economic partner, and largest provider of oil, some opposition politicians not hesitating to remind America of its dependence on foreign energy. "We don't need to talk about threats, but they need to understand, and this will be a message I will pass to the president, that we're a force to be reckoned with," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in a TV interview. "We're the United States' largest energy supplier, not just oil, but also hydro; and they've got to understand that, if they want energy security, they shouldn't start putting up barriers to our goods and services, and that quid pro quo has to be clearly understood by the incoming administration."

While Obama’s election was generally well received around the world, especially in Canada, whether his administration would be good for Canada’s interests surfaced as an issue during the campaign when both he and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton suggested they would review NAFTA. A leak hinting it may only have been a political strategy in the Obama camp caused some embarrassment at the time.

By the beginning of this week however, Obama himself was saying he wanted Congress to make changes to the controversial "Buy American" provision, warning it would be a "mistake" for the United States to put up new barriers when global trade was already suffering. "I agree that we can't send a protectionist message," Obama said in a televised interview with Fox News. Eventually Wednesday senators approved an amendment requiring that provisions in the bill comply with international trade agreements with Canada and the EU.

Meanwhile barriers of another type were feared at the border as the U.S. prepared to send unmanned and unarmed drones to patrol the U.S.-Canada border for the first time and Washington’s new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano singled out the border in one of her first action directives.

"The northern border of the United States has become, since 9/11, important to our national security," says the department's directive, which was issued days into her new role and days after Obama’s inauguration and calls for a review of border vulnerabilities by Feb. 16, days before Obama’s arrival in Ottawa.

Colin Robertson, director of the Canada-U.S. Project at Carleton University and a former senior Canadian envoy in Washington says the two matters are linked. "In many ways, we are part of the answer to his first priority, which is creation of jobs. That's what the whole economic-stimulus package is all about. The biggest source of foreign export jobs in the United States is Canada. We're the biggest export market, and if they can't get goods across the border, then those jobs are at risk, which is why the idea of drawing a (security) perimeter around North America would contain us," he told the Ottawa Citizen. “That's something that I'm sure the prime minister will be discussing with him; that we're critical to American prosperity."

In Europe crisis taken to the streets
While Jan. 20 is best remembered as the day millions gathered in Washington and millions more around TV sets to witness the inauguration of America's first black president, the day may well be remembered in another country as the day crowds gathered in protest to bring down the first government because of the economic crisis.

Protesters had been gathering regularly since last fall in the streets of Reykjavik to demand action over the economic crisis which has rattled the tiny Nordic country like few others due to its tremendous exposure to the financial meltdown. On the day members of the Icelandic parliament gathered for the first session of the new year however, there was something more potent in the air.

Many of the 2,000 gathered, a large crowd for this country of 320,000, called for the government to step down and lit a large bonfire. Police soon stepped in, arresting 13 and making use of pepper spray for the first time since large anti-Nato protests going back some sixty years. Days later, after months of resisting pressure to quit Prime Minister Geir Haarde announced that he was stepping down and that he wanted an early election to be held on May 9, turning him into the first political casualty of the global crisis. An election wasn't normally due for another two years.

The nation's sidewipped economy is expected to shrink 10 percent in 2009 and unemployment is on the rise as the financial sector collapses. To stay afloat Iceland has had to negotiate a $10-billion aid package set up by the International Monetary Fund and effectively froze trade in its currency. Iceland is hardly alone as growing protests across Europe into the new year are sparking worries that other European leaders may come under similar pressure as well.

Protests have become the norm in peripheral countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria while a plunge in consumer spending in France, falling factory orders in the U.K. and a sluggish German economic motor have left the old continent in a glum state of affairs. The protests, some disruptive others even violent, are such a concern that Europe's top politicians called for an emergency summit in March to deal with the growing crisis.

In Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, protests against a government austerity plan degenerated into violence as thousands of demonstrators surged toward the parliament building, hurling eggs and rocks. Some 80 people were arrested in one of them and a dozen injured. "The riot will not scare us," said a defiant Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, who just took office last month and remained determined to stay the course.

The country's northern neighbor Latvia has also been stirring, political parties of the ruling coalition calling for early parliamentary elections after a massive demonstration there. Like Iceland, fast-growing Latvia had to seek loans last year from the International Monetary Fund while the government has dramatically cut social spending. In Riga a protest for early elections led to riots and looting and was broken up when 100 were arrested as youth pelted store windows with stones. Latvia's embattled government barely survived this week as parliament rejected a no-confidence motion.

It's quite a change of scenery for a part of Europe which had remained relatively peaceful and quiet since the end of Soviet rule nearly two decades ago. Protesters also rioted outside Bulgaria's parliament building while at least 100 were arrested in Russia, where protests are usually the subject of a violent crackdown. Riot police broke up an unsanctioned rally organized against import duties on new and used cars. Later activists stormed an office of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's political party in St Petersburg saying he ignored the plight of ordinary people in the economic slowdown. The protesters handcuffed themselves to a radiator and set off fireworks as they demanded the government stop spending billions of dollars to bail out "banks and oligarchs" and instead freeze tariffs for electricity and public transport.

While calling for the European summit French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that Europe could face the kind of demonstrations that paralyzed several capitals in the spring of 1968. Certainly the popularity of rocks and eggs as projectiles are a flashback to those unsettling days of social protest in Europe. He was right to be concerned as days later unions put at 2.5 million the number of workers rallying across France in demonstrations to demand action to protect wages and jobs, criticizing the government's reaction to the crisis.

But one analyst warned it could get much worse, because the collapse has taken a rapid and unprecedented toll on some Europeans. "Ordinary people have seen a sharp fall in their living standards. Savings and wealth for the middle classes have been wiped out," said Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy. "Iceland's crash in 2008 will go down in history as one of the fastest declines in wealth the world has ever seen. Few things trigger radical change and revolution as people losing wealth in a way which is felt to be deeply unfair."

European Commission forecasts suggest the continent may see its worst year since the 1970s, while longer forecasts say countries such as France could see unemployment top 10% by 2010. In nearby Spain tens of thousands demonstrated in Zaragoza recently to protest the slipping economy in a country which is home to the highest unemployment rate in Europe. The government expects unemployment to rise from 13% to 16% in 2009, but some see this rate top 20%. Zaragoza's region has, like Latvia and Iceland, gone from boom to bust over a brief period. "Now we are among the regions destroying jobs fastest," Julian Buey, a local union leader, told the Economist. "That is because we created low-skilled work in construction but did not invest in technology."

But Labour unions warn the protests won't be limited to the old continent. Guy Ryder, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, told the London Times that the turmoil has triggered a social time bomb that would lead to deepening civil unrest. “We are on the road to serious social instability, which could be extremely dangerous in some countries to democracy itself,” he said. The union meanwhile warned that around the world more than 50 million jobs could be lost this year and that more than 200 million people would be driven into absolute poverty.

Separate International Labour Organisation figures showed that global unemployment would rise to 230 million this year, or 7.1 per cent of the world’s workforce.

Halfway around the world meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argued in a letter that the great capitalism experience of the last decades is coming to an end. "The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes," he wrote. "Neo-liberalism and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy. And, ironically, it now falls to social democracy to prevent liberal capitalism from cannibalising itself." Sometimes eating its political leaders as well.

Morales remporte un autre référendum

Le "oui" l’emportant avec 60 pourcent des votes lors du référendum portant sur une nouvelle Constitution - prévoyant entre autre une meilleure représentation indigène au Congrès bolivien - il fallait s’attendre à ce que les résultats ne plaisent pas à tout le monde, notamment les descendants des colons européens ou métis, l’élite traditionnellement à la tête du pouvoir.

Alors qu’il y avait raison de se réjouir selon le premier président indigène du pays, Evo Morales, qui célébrait son deuxième succès référendaire en quelques mois, et proclamait haut et fort la « décolonisation » de cette nation andine, l’opposition estimait que « le vote 'non' a réussi à freiner les fous qui voulaient détruire notre pays » en réduisant l’écart de la victoire, après le plebiscite qui avait confirmé la présidence Morales l’an dernier, avec 67 pourcent des voix.

Le non a après tout retenti dans quatre des neuf provinces du pays, rappelant à nouveau la division qui déchire la Bolivie depuis l’élection de Morales et la mise en place de ses politiques socialistes au détriment de l’ancienne élite de droite établie dans l’est du pays. La nouvelle charte prévoit tout de même tout un boulversement, en augmentant davantage la place de l’Etat dans le milieu des ressources naturelles, limitant la taille des nouvelles exploitations et mettant fin au catholicisme en tant que religion officielle.

« Maintenant, les exclus, ceux qui sont tenus à l'écart ont les mêmes droits que le reste de la population », a déclaré Morales radieux après le dévoilement des résultats à La Paz. Mais l’opposition entend bloquer la mise en application de certaines réformes, elle qui avait bataillé afin que soient exclus des règlements limitant à 5.000 hectares la taille des exploitations les propriétés existantes.

Ces nouvelles mesures ne sont pas sans rappeler celles qui ont été mises en place au Venezuela et en Equateur, leurs dirigeants ayant également engagé des politiques de gauche prévoyant le contrôle des ressources naturelles. Mais alors que Morales estime que ces nouvelles mesures parviendront à corriger des inégalités de longue date en Bolivie, les opposants crient au « racisme » , craignant devenir des « citoyens de deuxième classe », et promettent de farouchement défendre leurs intérêts. «Nous devrions faire partie de ce changement » estime le gouverneur de l’état de Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas.

Les politiques déjà en place n’ont d’ailleurs pas été instaurées sans heurts, une trentaine de fermiers ayant été tués en revenant d’une manifestation pro-gouvernementale dans le nord du pays en septembre. Puis le référendum n’a été accepté par le Congrès seulement après des concessions de la part du président, notamment celle de ne briguer qu’un autre mandat de cinq ans.

Les nouvelles garanties réservées aux Indiens, ne sont rien de moins que révolutionnaires dans ce pays où ils n’avaient pas le droit de vote avant 1952. Les nouvelles mesures tenteront un retour aux valeurs pré-coloniales, selon Morales. D’une part les indigènes auront une plus grandes autonomie sur leurs terres ancestrales et la priorité d’y exploiter les ressources qui s’y trouvent, même si les richesses sont particulièrement situées dans l’est du pays.

Puis les pratiques spirituelles des Indiens seront dorénavant protégées par la loi, leurs communautés ayant le droit de poursuivre les criminels conformément aux traditions pré-colombiennes. Certains responsables politiques devront également parler le dialecte indigène. La Constitution consacre par ailleurs le code moral des Aymara - communauté dont est issu Morales -, et devient le principe éthique du pays : « Ne soit pas fainéant, ne ment pas, ne vole pas ».

Mais alors que la minorité blanche rejette la nouvelle Constitution, Morales doit également se buter à une gauche qui estime que le président n’est pas allé assez loin dans son projet de réforme. Par ailleurs l’ancien président Carlos Mesa, qui n’a pas exclu un retour à la tête du pays, estime que la nouvelle charte ne va en fin de compte que creuser les divisions : «le pays va être encore plus chaotique, polarisé et divisé ».

Closing Gitmo first order of business

On the day Barack Obama took the oath of office U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo Base prison brought down the portrait of George W. Bush and put up the grinning face of the new commander in chief while a judge adjourned the war crimes proceedings of a Canadian terror suspect by leaving open the possibility that the hearings might not resume.

The uncertainty didn't last long. Late inauguration day Obama suspended the cases of Omar Khadr and five accused 9/11 conspirators as an executive order shutting down the detention centre within a year was being drafted. Critics have long argued the military trials there fell short of international standards of fairness and said interrogation methods amounted to torture. On Thursday that order was signed.

America’s 44th president barely in place, the U.S. was bracing for the sea of change expected to take hold after eight years of Republican rule. The incoming administration planned to close the controversial prison and end the war in Iraq all the while steering the country out of arguably its deepest economic slump since the Depression.

Leading the change would be the country’s first black president, a person not unfamiliar with adversity, taking his oath of office outside a Capitol building built by slaves. “It’s been a long time coming,” said paratrooper Ernie Dwight, among the black servicemen who applauded the ceremony at Guantanamo. “Others out there now can look at him and say, ‘I can be president.’”

The significance of the moment was lost on no one, least of all that the son of “a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Nor was it lost to the two million people forming a sea of humanity on the National Mall, who cheered when Pastor Rick Warren said in opening prayers: “We know today that Dr. King and a great crowd of witnesses are shouting in heaven.” After Obama’s inauguration speech, an American poet intoned: ”Many have died for this day."

But Obama’s inauguration speech, a message of hope but with sobering overtones, was meant to prepare Americans for the difficult realities of governing in challenging times. “I stand here today humbled by the task before us,” America’s new president said. “That we are in a midst of crisis is now understood,” he said, mentioning the war overseas and economic crisis. “The challenges we face are many... but they will be met.”

In trying to meet these challenges the incoming administration has wasted little time, sometimes leaving the impression that in the dying days of the Bush White House, two administrations led the country, the president-elect sometimes sending signals to the outgoing Republicans to act with urgency on the economy before the transition, or announcing plans for a massive overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure.

Closing Guantanamo's detention centre has become as urgent an issue as ending the war in Iraq, in effect a rush to overturn the work of the previous administration. Unlike his predecessor Alberto Gonzales, Obama’s nominee for attorney general has said the so-called military commissions into war crimes lack sufficient legal protections for defendants.

Despite the imminence of a shutdown military judges decided to press on with this week’s session of pretrial hearings in the case of Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15. In light of the suspension, Canada said it may have to reassess its decision not to repatriate the Canadian, now 22.

Obama made no secret of his disapproval with the outgoing president on the base, even as he delivered his inauguration speech a few feet away, and in effect made it plain he would try to undo years of controversial Bush administration decisions. “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… Our security emanates from the justness of our cause,” Obama said. "America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."

From the need to repair health care and emphasize the need for better education at all levels to promoting the areas of science and technology, clean energy and the notion markets need a “watchful eye,” many of the points raised during the speech could have been pages out of his platform-setting book “The audacity of hope” as Obama issued the call of “remaking America.” Though the speech was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to stressing the legal controversies involving the Bush administration, which in print had led to questioning “whether those in power were bound by any rules of law at all.”

Problems with the nation however could also be traced not only to the previous occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania avenue but “our collective failure to make hard choices,” Obama said, calling for “a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” Later in the day, Obama would make his first proclamation as president, declaring January 20, 2009, a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, and calling "upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this
Nation for our new century."

The following day he summoned advisers to begin dealing with war and recession while ordering new ethics rules for "a clean break from business as usual" that included limits to the influence of lobbyists. Obama also froze salaries for top White House staff, placed calls to Mideast leaders and had aides circulate a draft executive order that would close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year. Closing the prison "would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice," read the draft.

Embracing their new president, Americans seemed to be willing to give him the latitude to steer the course in the difficult months ahead, months during which Obama himself had once warned would get worse before they get better. He enters the presidency with a 80% favourable rating, and the understanding by two-thirds of Americans, according to one poll, that do not expect to see much progress in the economy over the next two years.

More than half doubt there will be much progress on health-care reform, or an end to the war in Iraq, in that time, despite Obama’s promise to have all the troops home within 16 months, a timetable he has indicated is flexible and depends on the situation on the ground in a war which was largely absent from the campaign. In the long run however 61% of Americans expect the country to be in better shape in five years’ time, suggesting an extended honeymoon period according to the Economist, and perhaps carte blanche to a second presidential term.

The transition phase has been active but, like the swearing in, not without its stumbles, including the withdrawal of Governor Bill Richardson from his attempt to become commerce secretary, the appointment of the new CIA head and the tax affairs of the treasury secretary-designate. The incoming team has its work cut out. The need to look at long-term fixes was made evident during a just as sobering election night speech during which Obama declared: “We may not get there in one year or even one term, but ... I promise you - we as a people will get there.” At least, that’s the hope.

Is El Salvador next?
Can a Latin American country elect a leftist government and remain friends with the U.S., even if the party was once an umbrella of guerilla rebels? The question resonates in El Salvador, a notorious ally of Washington in the proxy wars of the 1980s, which just saw a left-wing party make major gains in legislative elections that could herald a first leftist presidency there since the end of the civil war in 1992.

While the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) scored more seats than the governing conservative party Arena, a party with a monopoly of power since 1992, it fell short of securing the overall majority in the national assembly, and suffered a setback in municipal voting, losing the capital San Salvador.

But if the voting is any indication of the results to come in this year's presidential poll, Arena must certainly fear the country will join Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia which fell to the left in recent years. With analysts projecting a change in the March 15 presidential election, the leader of the FMLN, formerly an umbrella group for five leftist groups fighting a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, has gone out of his way to dismiss opponents' claims he would lead the country into close alignment with Hugo Chavez.

Mauricio Funes is after all a former CNN journalist, a moderate seeking to position FMLN as a centre-left party willing to work with Washington rather than scream anti-gringo rhetoric. This may help finally tip the balance for the guerrilla group turned political party which laid town its arms in 1992 but has struggled to win over Salvadorans politically since peace accords which ended a bloody civil war suspected to have killed some 75,000 people.

Overcoming this radical rebel image is one thing, but high gas prices and soaring food costs also seem to have taken a toll on President Tony Saca's approval ratings. "It looks pretty clear from looking at the trends at the polls, from the economic conditions and from voter fatigue with the (ruling) Arena Party, the FMLN looks very well-placed to do well," Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst with Eurasia Group, told CNN.

While the FMLN fell short of scoring a majority in the national assembly, the legislative wins promised enough support and conviction to win the big prize. "They now have a real shot at the presidency," said Bernard Aronson, who was President George H.W. Bush's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989-93. Polls indicated Funes led Arena candidate Rodrigo Avila by up to 14 percent, the ruling party having also come under criticism for failing to crack down on crime.

According to some analysts Salvadorans have at least in part been keeping the conservative Arena in power because of fear of how voting for leftists would be seen in Washington, but others stress that El Salvador is not likely to join a coalition of Latin countries aligned against Washington. Aronson sees two types of leftist governments in Latin America: "institutional" governments like Brazil's that "have made peace with the free market" while still championing social programs and populist, more-radical governments like Venezuela's.

"We shouldn't exaggerate like it's some tide sweeping the region, because it's not," he said. But for El Salvador it would still mean sweeping change after 17 years of Arena rule.

Fin de la rébellion au Sri Lanka?

Après un quart de siècle de guerre au Sri Lanka, les forces séparatistes tamoules sont-elles au bout du rouleau ? C’est ce qu’affirment les responsables du  gouvernement qui multiplient les succès stratégiques ces derniers temps, capturant la grande majorité de la péninsule septentrionale de Jaffna.

Selon Colombo l’armée « est désormais prête à porter un coup décisif aux derniers bastions » après avoir fait tomber Kilinochchi, la capitale politique des Tigres, puis après avoir saisi le passage stratégique nommé Passe de l’Elephant reliant l’île du Sri Lanka à Jaffna. Le président Mahinda  Rajapaksa  a qualifié la prise d’ « historique » tandis que la nouvelle a provoqué des éclats de joie dans les rues de Colombo.

Mais alors que l’armée prétend que le dirigeant rebelle Velupillai  Prabhakaran a fui le pays à l’approche des troupes sri lankaises dans les derniers bastions de la résistance, Mullaitivu, les Tigres n’hésitent pas à se servir de ce qui peut leur rester de griffes pour faire grimper davantage le compte des victimes en uniforme, estimant avoir tué 51 soldats, près de Dharmapuram. L’armée nie un tel massacre, prétendant plutôt avoir fait 20 victimes chez les rebelles lors de cette offensive. Les rebelles ont également fait exploser trois bombes à Colombo.

Quelque soit la version employée, il n’y a nul doute que le conflit qui perdure, et selon Colombo touche à sa fin, malgré les tentatives de pacification de 2002, a fait plusieurs milliers de victimes (environ 70,000, l’armée prétend que 8,000 Tigres ont perdu la vie l’an dernier) et l’armée est plutôt muette quand vient le temps de rendre des compte rendus précis des dernières pertes sur le champ de bataille. Alors que le lieutenant-général Sarath Fonseka ne manque pas de verve quand il faut parler de la déroute rebelle, les Tigres étant coincés selon lui dans un territoire ne dépassant pas 30 par 15 kilomètres, il est plus timide quand il faut parler des pertes.

Même hésitation chez le premier ministre Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, qui sinon n’hésite pas de parler de «phase finale de l’éradication du terrorisme ». Mais plusieurs analystes acceptent désormais le calendrier gouvernemental, selon lequel la guérilla vit ses derniers mois. Si Prabhakaran a fui, il pourrait avoir de la difficulté à trouver des terres de refuge, étant sur la liste terroriste de nombreux pays européens puis du Canada et des Etats-Unis, et étant recherché par Interpol ainsi que les autorités indiennes pour l’assassinat de Rajiv Gandhi en 1991.

Le fondateur des rebelles est loin d’être le seul à fuir. Selon des groupes humanitaires près d’un quart de million de réfugiés sont sans domicile fixe dans la zone de conflit.

Il n’y a rien comme le parfum de la victoire pour faire oublier les accusations de corruption et de mauvaise gestion qui pèsent contre le gouvernement, dont la coalition pourrait enregistrer des gains lors d’élections régionales le mois prochain. C’est ce que prétendait Lasantha Wickrematunga, un journaliste du Sunday Leader qui ne mâchait pas ses mots en critiquant le gouvernement ouvertement, avant qu’il ne soit assassiné au début du mois, le troisième journaliste sri lankais à perdre la vie en janvier.

Cette mort fut condamnée mondialement, notamment par le dirigeant de l’UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura, estimant que : « Même si ses écrits étaient polémiques ou controversés, Lasantha Wickrematunga devait pouvoir jouir du droit de l’homme fondamental qu’est la liberté d’expression … J’espère que les coupables de ce crime seront découverts et traduits en justice afin de garantir que le Sri Lanka continuera de profiter des avantages d’une presse libre».

Wickrematunga, journaliste réputé et souvent controversé, avait fait l’objet de plusieurs tentatives d’intimidation et de procès en diffamation. Son dernier éditorial accusait d’ailleurs le président de vouloir prolonger son règne en intensifiant la guerre contre les Tigres. « Remporter la guerre ? Il doit y avoir une élection au prochain tournant car ce n'est plus un secret que la guerre est devenue la recette électorale du président » lit l’édito.

Des élections parlementaires pourraient être annoncées d’ici avril et certains groupes redoutent autant l’état de la démocratie et de la liberté de la presse au Sri Lanka que les dommages causés par le long conflit. Reporters sans frontières organisait récemment des manifestations « en mémoire du journaliste assassiné, pour condamner la répression et la situation critique des journalistes au Sri Lanka ».

RSF rappelle que dans son dernier éditorial, qui a été publié le 11 janvier à titre posthume, le journaliste assassiné déclarait qu’il savait qu’il était pris pour cible par le gouvernement. « Quand finalement je serai tué, c’est le gouvernement qui m’aura tué ».

Resolution on Gaza ignored

So soon after the world embraced peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, even in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, hopes of a peaceful new year were shattered by an escalation of tensions in the Middle East.

The constant shelling of the Gaza Strip initiated by the Israeli Defence Forces in order to put an end to intensifying rocket firing from the Palestinian enclave into Israeli communities stopped only briefly this week to give safe passage to much-needed humanitarian aid. Hopes of a more definitive lull came as Israel gave its tentative approval to parts of a Franco-Egyptian ceasefire proposal Wednesday as it unilaterally called a three- hour lull in the fighting with Hamas to allow trucks of aid and some fuel into Gaza.

Hundreds of embattled Palestinians ventured outside to shop for food on during the 1 p.m.-4 p.m. truce, a brief but important first cessation of fire some saw as a step toward a silencing of the rocket fire being considered by Hamas and Israel that won immediate backing from the United States and Europe.

But hopes of a rapid resolution were dashed Thursday as rockets were fired from Lebanon into communities of northern Israel Thursday, possibly opening a second front against the Jewish state. This echoed attacks of the Hezbollah which initiated a bloody clash with Israel over Lebanon in 2006, but the Iran-backed group, which had earlier said it would stay out of the conflict, denied any involvement.

The food convoys meanwhile were in peril as the UN had to suspend desperately-needed humanitarian aid deliveries in Gaza after one of its soldiers was shot and killed by Israeli forces as they moved in near the Erez Crossing, making a difficult humanitarian situation even more tragic.

Meanwhile both Israel and Hamas ignored a UN Security Council resolution calling for an "immediate, durable" ceasefire in the Gaza Strip leading to the "full withdrawal" of Israeli forces. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the latest firing of rockets into Israel showed the resolution was "unworkable". Hamas also dismissed the UN ceasefire call because it was not consulted.

The desperate drive for a resolution to the crisis started hours after Israeli shells killed over 30 Palestinians at a U.N. school. The incident was the latest in the course of the two-week operation during which Israel says it neutralized over 140 Hamas fighters it blames for sending a barrage of rockets into nearby Jewish communities. Over a dozen Israeli soldiers were also killed in the fighting.

After eight days of air strikes the first Israeli troops entered Gaza, the air force having proven unable to end rocket fire out of Gaza alone despite repeated strikes. Some of the strikes were controversial as Israeli jets hit mosques and a university officials said were used by militants. IDF troops circled the main city and divided the Palestinian enclave as they started the ground campaign but militants managed to keep sending rockets into nearby Israeli communities.

Over 700 Palestinians have been killed, many civilians and according to Hamas, children, since Israel first sent jets over Gaza on Dec. 27, dropping over 100 tons of bombs on what it called security installations in retaliation for the growing number of rocket attacks against Israeli towns in December.

In the course of the operations the air strikes killed senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, widely regarded as one of Hamas's most hardline political leaders, who had advocated renewing suicide bombings inside Israel. It was its first deadly blow against the top ranks of the Islamist group in the Gaza offensive. One Israel had warned was coming.

Israeli officials said some 300 rockets were fired from Gaza in the days prior to the launch of its air raids, causing few injuries but traumatizing Jewish communities in the area. As the air strikes first started Israeli media reported troops massing for the expected "second round" ground incursion into Gaza to end the rocket attacks, while Arab countries condemned the air strike as "disproportionate" and other nations appealed for calm.

An EU diplomatic push sought to stop the crisis in the first days but its chances of succeeding seemed slim as the UN Security Council initially failed to agree on a resolution to end the fighting. When it succeeded, its calls went largely unheeded.

Meanwhile Hamas vowed revenge including suicide bomb attacks in the "cafes and streets" of Israel, which put the Jewish state on high alert, adding security and roadblocks on the streets of Israeli cities, including more distant Jerusalem. The shelling of Gaza did not stop the rocket fire into neighbouring Israeli communities, making a ground assault more likely as the days went by. If anything there were indications that the rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip were greater in range, leading some to suspect success by Hamas militants smuggling in better weapons. Any ceasefire would seek to put an end to such smuggling operations widely suspected to be carried out from Gaza's border with Egypt.

The air strikes began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired, marking a collapse of the latest of many rounds of the Middle-East peace process. The rhetoric by both sides indicated the region was going to see a resurgence of violence into the new year, one during which Israel is heading to the polls and few Israeli politicians, let alone candidates, were willing to look weak on security issues in the lead up to the vote.

"There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting," declared Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who will be a candidate in the election. "For us to be asked to have a ceasefire with Hamas is like asking you to have a ceasefire with al-Qaida," he told a U.S. network. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, another candidate, warned early on Hamas' political leaders would be targeted. "Hamas is a terrorist organization and nobody is immune," she declared. Livni called for international support against "an extremist Islamist organisation ... that is being supported by Iran." She said Israel did not plan to reoccupy Gaza but wanted to put an end to the rocket firing.

In a speech broadcast on local Gaza television, Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, declared his movement would not be cowed. "We are stronger, and more determined, and have more will, and we will hold onto our rights even more than before," Haniyeh said. "Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre" he said while in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for a new Palestinian peoples' uprising against Israel. "I call upon you to carry out a third intifada (uprising)," he said on Al-Jazeera television.

The first day's death toll of over 100 was the highest for a single day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948, when the Jewish state was established. Israeli troops left Gaza in 2005 after ending the Second Intifada but keep control of its borders. Two years ago Israel was drawn into a war in Lebanon after Hezbollah militants targeted town in northern Israel by similar rocket fire. That year elections in Gaza stunned the world by bringing Hamas, considered a terror organization in the West, into power.

Soon after the December 2008 air raids began so did the condemnation from Arab capitals, and protests in streets of the Middle-East but also Europe, Asia and North America, some turning violent. In the occupied West Bank, demonstrators were killed in clashes with police in incidents which measured rock-throwing protesters against police in riot gear. In Syria and Jordan protesters burned Israeli and American flags as thousands demonstrated in the capitals.

Protests were carried out in a number of Canadian cities as well including Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, where the temporary occupation of the Israeli consulate led to the arrest of eight demonstrators. Venezuela meanwhile took more drastic diplomatic measures by expelling its Israeli envoy.

La résistace des Touaregs

Les hommes bleus du désert ont beau être unis par leur mépris des frontières tracées par des dirigeants qu’ils n’ont jamais reconnus, leur approche était loin d’être universelle en ce début d’année qui pour certains marque un demi-siècle de rébellion, et pour d’autres une nouvelle ère de réconciliation avec les dirigeants des nations qui divisent leur territoire de sable.

Car si au Niger, pour le Front des forces de redressement, décembre marquait « 50 ans de parcours du combattant pour une république née du désir d’indépendance de cette ancienne colonie  Française », ce mois-ci devait donner lieu à l’intégration d'environ 300 rebelles touareg au long processus de paix malien.

Pourtant les deux pays, que traversent sans se soucier ces chevaliers du désert dont le territoire s’étend également en Algérie puis en Libye, sont loin de résoudre la crise autour de ce nomadisme légendaire qui a versé beaucoup de sang à travers les années. Au Mali, alors qu’on tente d’entériner depuis plus de deux ans un accord de paix signé à Alger avec le gouvernement, le 20 décembre dernier une vingtaine de personnes étaient tuées et plusieurs autres prises en otage lors d’un raid de Touaregs contre une base militaire du nord du pays, à Nampala, le premier raid depuis un nouveau traité de paix signé en juillet.

Dans les deux pays divers groupes rebelles contestent les autorités gouvernementales, exigeant une plus grande autonomie sur des terres riches en ressources naturelles qui permettent aux gouvernements de faire des affaires en or. D'ailleurs l’exploitation aurifère ainsi que celle de l’uranium au Niger sont notamment à l'origine de la contestation des rebelles, dont le FFR et le Mouvement des nigériens pour la justice.

Ces deux groupes ayant déjà procédé à des prises d’otage pour faire avancer leur cause, ont nié toute implication dans la disparition en décembre d’un diplomate canadien de l’ONU, Robert Fowler, un envoyé spécial notamment chargé du délicat dossier au Niger. Le MNJ estimait en ce début d'année que «la lumière doit être faite sur cette disparition, on ne peut plus rocambolesque » pointant un doigt accusateur vers le régime en place à Niamey.

Les groupes rebelles, dont le FFR, ne sont pourtant pas sans dénoncer «ces pays (Chine, France, Canada…), assoiffés de mettre la main sur les ressources minières - Uranium, Or, Pétrole…- (qui) feront fi des droits de l’Homme, et soutiendront (le président Mamadou) Tandja et son armée, dans sa croisade contre les populations autochtones » accusant par ailleurs l’armée de se livrer « impunément à des massacres sanglants de civils. »

Lors de son séjour, selon les autorités nigériennes, “de nature personnelle”, Fowler a brièvement visité une mine dans la region de Samira, en partie opérée par la compagnie Montréalaise Semafo. Alors que l’on ignore toujours un mois après la disparition de Fowler, qui devait trouver un débouché vers la réconciliation, si son absence est liée à la crise touareg, la question de l’exploitation des ressources est bel et bien au cœur de la rébellion.

Ce fait était rappelé par de récentes manifestations devant le siège du géant nucléaire français Areva à Paris afin de protester de manière générale contre "la dépossession" dont les Touaregs seraient victimes, mais plus précisément contre la déclaration récente d’un de ses représentants. En octobre lors d’un colloque, le responsable de la sécurité d'Areva Niger Thierry d’Arbonneau aurait déclaré : « L'État français ferait mieux (...) de donner aux autorités nigériennes les moyens de mater la rébellion des Touaregs » en présence de Michèle Alliot-Marie, ministre de l'Intérieur.

La signature en ce début d’année d’une convention minière attribuant au groupe nucléaire français le permis d'exploitation du gisement minier d'uranium d'Imouraren, au Niger, ne risque en rien de calmer les ardeurs de la rébellion. Même inquiétude au Mali où la cérémonie de "retour à la paix" a été reportée sine-die en raison de problèmes persistants liés à la sécurité. Puis un des  groupe rebelles, contre lequel l'armée malienne affirme avoir récemment lancé une brève "offensive" dans le nord du pays, ne participe pas au processus de paix.

La transition en Guinée

Voilà des années que l’opposition en Guinée ne cachait plus son désir de voir l’armée organiser une «transition » afin de mettre un terme au long et pénible règne du général- président Lansana Conté, mais il aura en fin de compte fallu attendre la mort de celui-ci avant que le « bruit de bottes » ne soit entendu dans les rues de la capitale Conakry.

A deux jours de Noel, peu après la mort de l’homme qui aura tenu le pays depuis 1984 mais dont l’état de santé se déteriorait depuis des années, des militaires putschistes se sont emparés de ce pays pauvre d’Afrique occidentale, nommant comme dirigeant le capitaine Moussa Dadis Camara. La junte a aussitôt tenté de rassurer en fixant un terme à la « transition », promettant des élections en 2010, l’échéance du dernier mandat de Conté.

"Peuple de Guinée, la prise du pouvoir par ton armée est un acte de civisme qui répond à la volonté de sauver un peuple en détresse. Fier d'avoir accompli cette mission, le Conseil (junte) n'a aucune ambition de s'éterniser au pouvoir", ont indiqué les militaires dans un communiqué. La junte a par la suite nommé un civil, le banquier Kabiné Komara, comme Premier ministre, tout en poursuivant son offensive de charme à l'égard de la communauté internationale, dont elle a réclamé le soutien actif et la "compréhension".

Car alors que le coup d’état était accueilli plutôt favorablement dans les villes de Guinée, après un quart de siècle de gouvernement miné par la corruption, la communauté internationale a condamné la prise du pouvoir de la junte, l'Union africaine ayant entre autre suspendu l'appartenance de la Guinée. L'UA avait réaffirmé "sa détermination à prendre, en temps utile, toutes les autres mesures prévues par la déclaration de Lomé pour hâter le retour à l'ordre constitutionnel".

Faisant face à la menace de sanctions, les putschistes se sont empressés de rencontrer des émissaires de la communauté internationale, notamment les ambassadeurs des pays du G8, des représentants de l'ONU, du Fonds monétaire international et de la Banque mondiale, tout en laissant entendre que des mesures contre Conakry ne sauraient améliorer le sort des citoyens. « Les sanctions internationales ou isolement de tout ordre ne sauraient être la solution aux problèmes actuels de la Guinée, estimait Camara. On a pris le pouvoir sans effusion de sang, vous devriez nous remercier pour cela ».

Mais alors que certains pays voisins, dont le Sénégal, ont applaudi la prise du pouvoir à Conakry, d’autres auraient préféré une transition de l’ordre de celle qui avait lieu au Ghana, où le processus électoral allait pour une troisième fois depuis 1992 désigner le président - le successeur de John Kufuor, qui a tiré sa révérence après deux mandats de quatre ans.

L’élection n’a pas été sans anicroche, laissant soupçonner plusieurs irrégularités ainsi que certains actes de violence et d'intimidation contre des observateurs électoraux. Néanmoins la présidentielle au Ghana a généralement été louée comme modèle de transparence et d'ordre dans un continent coutumier d'élections violentes et frauduleuses. Le dirigeant de l'opposition, John Atta, a éventuellement été couronné président. Pour le ministre des affaires étrangères canadien Lawrence Cannon, le scrutin faisait du Ghana un pays modèle dans une région qui en a besoin.

«Avec ce 5e scrutin consécutif depuis l'adoption de la Constitution du Ghana en 1992, les Ghanéens démontrent que la démocratie et la primauté du droit sont bien enracinées dans leur culture politique, a-t-il dit. Ces élections sont importantes à la fois pour le Ghana et pour le reste de l'Afrique. Les Ghanéens ont mis à profit cette occasion pour montrer encore une fois que leur pays est un modèle de démocratie pour tous les autres pays africains. »

«Nous félicitons le nouveau président élu, M. John Atta Mills, de sa victoire, et son adversaire, M. Nana Akufo Addo, pour la façon dont il a répondu aux résultats. En outre, nous tenons à louer le président John Agyekum Kufuor, qui quitte ses fonctions, conformément aux dispositions de la Constitution, et qui laisse à la population un pays plus libre et plus prospère », a ajouté le ministre.

A Conakry, Camara a voulu répondre aux critiques internationales qui estiment que le délai de 2010 est trop long afin de préparer les prochaines élections en précisant que cette date n'était "pas absolue". "Cela peut être dans six mois, huit mois, dix mois et au-delà. Ca dépendra du peuple de Guinée".

En attendant Komara, dont le nom avait déjà été proposé pour le poste de Premier ministre par des syndicats à l'origine de grandes manifestations hostiles à Conté l’an dernier, a déclaré qu'il adhérait aux "idéaux" des putschistes. La tâche qui attend le chef du gouvernement n’est pas simple, puisqu’il doit composer avec une population de 10 millions dont plus de la moitié vit sous le seuil de pauvreté malgré les immenses richesses du sous-sol.