View gallery U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he departs after a discussion about healthcare at the Clinton Global …By David Morgan HOUSTON (Reuters) – Behind the political battle lines on Obamacare, the three-story headquarters of Change Happens rises like a fortress in a blighted southeast Houston neighborhood of tiny wood-frame shacks, empty lots and crack houses.The Rev. Leslie Smith has been running the nonprofit that helps poor adults and children with Medicaid enrollment, homeless support and HIV prevention since 1989. Now he is planning how best to reach uninsured people in the communities he serves with the offer of new healthcare benefits under President Barack Obama’s landmark reform law.”Two weeks ago, there was a shootout at the corner that left over 200 shell casings on the ground,” Smith said, speaking in the parking lot as he noted a row of first-floor windows set high and narrow to protect against stray bullets from gunfights between rival gangs. „This is the bottom. This is crack alley. All the ills of the community are around us.”Even among „red” states, Texas has stood out in its fierce opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Republican Governor Rick Perry has long been an opponent, and Republican Senator Ted Cruz is leading a charge in Congress to eliminate funding for the healthcare law at the risk of shutting down the federal government.But in their backyard, one of the best-organized of red-state efforts to reach millions of America’s uninsured has taken root.Healthcare reform advocates like Smith believe the realities of life without health coverage will drive large numbers of young, healthy, low-income people to subsidized insurance premiums and other benefits that Obamacare will begin offering to the public starting on October 1.His organization is part of a loose confederation of nonprofits, charities, universities, religious groups, government agencies and private companies, known collectively as „navigators,” that is helping Americans sign up for coverage. It is a task Smith zealously embraces.”Something great is going to happen from this effort,” he says. „I believe this is history.”ORGANIZED IN TEXAS-Obamacare’s success or failure depends on how many healthy young adults enroll in health insurance that will be sold on new state exchanges, helping offset the cost of sicker beneficiaries. Administration officials hope they will account for about 40 percent of the 7 million people expected to sign up for private coverage in 2014.That calculation has put a premium on urban neighborhoods in places like Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, four metropolitan areas with a combined uninsured population of 4.8 million – many of them lower-income blacks and Latinos aged 18 to 35, according to U.S. Census figures.Organizers face special challenges in Texas and Florida, where Republican leaders rejected the opportunity to set up new insurance marketplaces and collect billions of dollars in government funds to expand Medicaid. Perry and other Texas Republicans are now pushing to impose regulations including fees, extra training and surety bond requirements on navigator groups.Conservatives in the state echo claims made by critics elsewhere, who say the navigator program has been put together too rapidly and requires too little training to safeguard the public. They also contend that Obamacare will raise healthcare costs overall and strap low-income beneficiaries with plans that restrict access to medical services.Meanwhile, they dismiss the network of volunteers and nonprofits lining up to promote Obamacare as overly optimistic about its value to the public.”It’s a touch naïve,” said John Davidson of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. „There’s a feeling that the law is half-baked and that the navigator program is half-baked.”Political opposition has created an atmosphere that makes it difficult even for Democrats to talk openly about the law.”I don’t want to talk about the Affordable Care Act on camera,” Dallas County Administrator Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and healthcare reform supporter, joked as local TV crews set up for a summer press conference with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. „I want to talk about the opportunity to get people covered,” he said.But it has also helped turn grassroots Obamacare advocates into a well-oiled network. In Texas, the effort was born of an intensive, but ultimately fruitless, months-long attempt to persuade Perry to expand Medicaid last spring.Change Happens is one of three navigator organizations that have received federal money to hire and train staff to help enroll people in Houston’s Harris County, home to nearly 20 percent of the state’s 5.8 million uninsured. The group has pledged to reach nearly 100,000 people by the time enrollment wraps up in March. Smith thinks the final number could be close to 300,000 with help from sister organizations across five southeast Texas counties.Houston’s Health and Human Services Department – an agency in a city government whose elected officials are largely Democratic – is also a navigator. It has organized outreach groups under a command structure developed to combat hurricanes. Its public-health database, which is normally used to track epidemics, will measure the enrollment effort’s penetration of neighborhoods with large uninsured populations. The city is also providing a consolidated „800” number for public queries, has set aside a „war room” for organizers and is encouraging other major cities to consider the same strategy.”We really have to bring some science into our approach,” said Stephen Williams, the department’s director. „This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”The Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a grassroots advocacy group with nearly 20,000 low- to moderate-income members, many of them uninsured, has also been running Obamacare canvasses and workshops since May. Earlier this month it packed hundreds of uninsured people into a university auditorium for an Obamacare rally and information session.”We run the largest issue-driven grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign, and in 2012, we targeted roughly 200,000 voters. Their No. 1 issue, that we identified after talking to them door to door and over the phone, was healthcare,” said TOP Executive Director Ginny Goldman.Houston’s Erenea Perez has heard the message from TOP organizers.Perez, a single mother in her late 20s who says she is a U.S. resident from El Salvador, works two minimum-wage jobs but can’t afford insurance. She counts off the benefits she hopes to obtain with Obamacare subsidies: „Extended maternity services. Pediatric services. Coverage for exams or the ER. Medicine. In-patient services. Ambulatory services.”Many of her uninsured peers across the country are only now starting to pay attention. Local advertising is expected to begin in earnest across the country on October 1. Earlier this month volunteers in 10 states, including Texas, Florida, Illinois and Michigan, began canvassing campaigns.(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Douglas Royalty)
View gallery U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), denounces „Obamacare” as he speaks on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill …By Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican Senator Ted Cruz slogged into the second day of his marathon attack on Obamacare from the Senate floor on Wednesday, showing almost no signs of relenting after speaking for more than 17 hours.Standing in a nearly empty Senate chamber, Cruz made his case to deny funding to implement President Barack Obama’s landmark overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, arguing that it is hurting the economy.”I will confess, as we sit here a little bit before 7 a.m., I’m a little bit tired,” the Texas senator said in the waning hours of his effort on the Senate floor.But Cruz still found the energy to compare the healthcare law to the villain in the „Friday the 13th” horror films.”Obamacare is the biggest job-killer in this country and when Jason put on his hockey mask and swung that machete, boy there was carnage like nothing else,” Cruz said.On October 1, a major component of Obamacare goes into effect as individuals are allowed to begin signing up for health insurance under the government-backed program.October 1 also is the start of the government’s new fiscal year. Having failed to pass the 12 regular appropriations bills that fund government activities in fiscal 2014, Congress is now in the uncomfortable situation of either approving a temporary emergency spending bill or forcing widespread shutdowns of federal agencies.Cruz’s 45 Republican colleagues in the Senate also oppose Obamacare, arguing that burdensome requirements are encouraging employers to reduce their workforce. But most of them have shunned Cruz’s desire to hold up government funding – thus risking a shutdown of federal agencies next Tuesday – in an attempt to gut the law.Elected last November, the firebrand of the conservative Tea Party movement at times strides through the Capitol in cowboy boots. But on Wednesday morning, his feet were clad in tennis shoes. In black, they matched his suit.”Obamacare isn’t working,” the Texas Republican said in between stories about the struggles of his Cuban immigrant father and reciting Doctor Seuss verse. A professed carnivore, he recounted the tribulations of Christmas dinner with his future wife’s vegetarian family.’WHAT A SCOUNDREL I AM’-Only a dozen or so of the chamber’s 100 senators showed up for any of Cruz’s marathon, but the televised debate is sure to boost the profile of this likely 2016 presidential candidate.Cruz began talking at 2:41 p.m. (1841 GMT) on Tuesday. His performance had the look of a filibuster, a procedural hurdle used to block legislation. Except in this case, it won’t.Under Senate rules, Cruz must yield the floor by noon (1600 GMT) on Wednesday for a procedural vote that will start the Senate toward passage of the bill to keep government agencies funded through November 15 – including Obamacare money.In the early hours of Wednesday, Cruz was joined on the Senate floor only by Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who provided him with short breaks. Lee and Cruz spent the summer whipping up conservative anger against the healthcare law.As dawn approached, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, also a Tea Party conservative, took the lectern, giving Cruz a break, which he used to stretch with knee bends in the chamber.Polls show most Americans oppose the health care law despite its goals of providing healthcare coverage to millions of uninsured people, but even more oppose a government shutdown.Early in his effort on Tuesday, Cruz talked about his father „flippin’ pancakes,” making „green eggs and ham,” „the travesty of Obamacare,” and, proudly, about his unpopularity among many fellow Republicans.”I now pick up the newspaper to learn what a scoundrel I am” practically every day, he said.”He is using the floor to promote himself,” Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said Wednesday on MSNBC’s „Morning Joe.”The Republican-controlled House of Representatives last week passed a version of the spending measure that denied funds to Obamacare. Democrats plan to strip the Obamacare provision from the Senate version.With time running short, the House will have to decide whether to go along with the revised bill or find a compromise with the Senate.Republicans uniformly want to repeal Obamacare. But many see that as a political impossibility as long as Democrats control the Senate and hold the presidency.Once the battle over the government funding bill is resolved, Congress will grapple with another fiscal crisis – a possible federal government debt default unless it agrees to raise the $16.7 trillion U.S. borrowing authority next month or in early November.Republicans are expected to place demands on any bill to increase the debt limit, including one for a yearlong delay in implementing Obamacare, which is to take effect next month.(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by W Simon and Doina Chiacu)
By Richard Lough and Matthew Mpoke Bigg NAIROBI (Reuters) – Bomb disposal experts and investigators searched through the wreckage of a Kenyan shopping mall on Wednesday after a four-day attack by Islamist militants that killed at least 72 people.President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of mourning after troops defeated the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group that targeted the upscale shopping center popular with prosperous Kenyans and foreigners.The militants stormed the mall, known for its Western shops selling iPads and Nike shoes, in a hail of gunfire and grenades on Saturday lunchtime. The attack ended on Tuesday when Kenyan troops set off a series of explosions inside the building.Kenyatta said five militants and six security personnel were killed and 61 civilians had so far been confirmed dead but an unknown number of corpses are buried under the masonry.Three floors collapsed after the blasts and a separate fire weakened the structure of the vaulted, marble-tiled building. Officials said the blaze was due to militants lighting mattresses as a decoy.”Forensic investigators are on the site now,” said a senior official from the National Disaster Operations Centre, speaking near the mall and adding that foreign agents were on the scene. He did not identify the agents.Al Shabaab, which said it launched the assault to demand Kenya withdraw its troops fighting with African peacekeepers in Somalia, said hostages were killed when Kenyan troops used gas to clear to the mall. Officials dismissed this as „propaganda”.Kenyatta has said Kenyan forces would not quit Somalia.”We have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday.Israel has sent advisers to help the search, according to an Israeli source. The United States also has Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel on the ground. Others countries including Britain have offered help. Several foreigners have been listed among the dead.The attack has highlighted the reach of the Somali group and the capabilities of its crack unit believed to be behind the attack, confirming Western and regional fears that as long as Somalia remains in turmoil it will be a recruiting and training ground for militant Islam.IDENTIFICATION-„The bodies are still lying there in the rubble. We don’t know how many exactly,” said the NDOC official.”The investigators will be looking to see what information they can extract to identify the terrorists and their nationalities, including DNA tests,” he said, after Kenyan officials said the attack was a „multinational” operation.Eleven people suspected of involvement with the well-planned assault were in custody but he did not say how many, if any, were gunmen taken alive and how many may have been people arrested elsewhere.A British citizen of Somali origin was detained at Nairobi airport, a Kenyan security source said. A British newspaper said he was a 35-year-old, trying to leave on Turkish Airlines.It was unclear whether intelligence reports of American or British gunmen would be confirmed. Al Shabaab denied that any women took part, after British sources said the fugitive widow of one of the 2005 London suicide bombers might have some role.Smoke still rose into the damp air on Wednesday morning above the Israeli-built mall that had been a symbol of Africa’s economic rise that has drawn in foreign investors.View gallery.”Kenya Defence Forces soldiers take their position at the Westgate shopping centre, on the fourth day …Faster growth has also created wider wealth gaps, adding to grievances tapped by several violent Islamist groups from Mali to Algeria and Nigeria to Kenya. All have espoused an anti-Western, anti-Christian creed.President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, said he believed the country – scene of one of al Qaeda’s first big attacks, in 1998, when a bomb devastated the U.S. embassy in Nairobi – would continue to be a regional pillar of stability.Al Shabaab, which taunted Kenya when militants were battling inside the mall, said action by Kenyan troops using gas were responsible for the „lives of the 137 hostages who were being held by the mujahideen (fighters).””After 4 days of exposing the vulnerability of their nation, the Kenyan govt ended the siege in a morally reprehensible manner #Westgate,” the group said on its Twitter account @HSM_PRMILITANTS-Kenyatta said he could not confirm intelligence reports of British and American militants. One minister denied speculation that women were among the guerrillas, but said some had been dressed as women, a possible ploy to get weapons past the unarmed private security guards who normally checked entrances.It is unusual, if not unknown, for Islamist militants to use female fighters: „We have an adequate number of young men who are fully committed & we do not employ our sisters in such military operations #Westgate,” al Shabaab said on Twitter.The group dismissed comments by one Kenyan minister that two or three of the militants were young Somali or Arab Americans.A British security source said it was possible Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the London suicide bombers of July 7 2005, was involved in the Nairobi siege. „It is a possibility. But nothing definitive or conclusive yet,” the source said.Lewthwaite is wanted in connection with an alleged plot to attack expensive hotels and restaurants in Kenya.Kenyatta thanked other leaders, including Obama, for their support and used his address to praise the response of the Kenyan people and call for national unity, six months after his election was marked by ethnic tensions.”Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed,” he said.Many Kenyans agree that the bloodshed has helped foster a greater sense of national unity.”We are all talking about it. The one good thing is that the whole of Kenya has become one, except for al Shabaab,” said Vipool Shah, who helped pull bodies out of the mall.Kenyatta’s focus on Kenya’s troubles, and of his role in a global campaign against terrorism, was a reminder that he faces trial at The Hague in a few weeks time for crimes against humanity over violence that followed a 2007 election.The International Criminal Court adjourned the trial of his vice president this week because of the Westgate attack.Kenyatta and his government have urged the ICC to drop the case and warm words for the Kenyan leadership from Western allies during the siege may have boosted their hopes that the court might be pressed to shelve proceedings in the interests of shoring up an important partner in the fight against al Qaeda.Al Shabaab had threatened revenge since Kenyan troops joined the war against Islamists in its northern neighbor two years ago. The group created funding, recruiting and training networks in Kenya.(Reporting by James Macharia, Duncan Miriri, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Pascal Fletcher in Nairobi; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Anna Willard)
U.S., UK, Israel helping Kenya in mall raid inquiry: minister38 minutes ago Israel
View galleryA cemetery worker walks near the fresh graves (L) of Selima Merali, 41, and her daughter Nuriana Merali, …NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya has begun a forensic investigation into the weekend attack on a Nairobi shopping mall with the help of the United States, Israel, Britain and others, the interior minister told a news briefing on Wednesday.”We have moved to the next phase,” Joseph ole Lenku said, adding agencies from Germany and Canada as well as the police agency Interpol were also assisting. He said he did not expect the death toll, now at 72, to rise significantly and only expected to find more bodies of slain assailants.(Reporting by James Macharia and Kevin Mwanza; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)
Iranian leader’s smooth diplomacy poses new challenge for Israel
Harsh treatment of Roma in France draws scrutinyView gallery LORI HINNANT 38 minutes ago PoliticsSocietyFrance PARIS (AP) — France’s treatment of thousands of Roma migrants who have been expelled to Eastern Europe came under new scrutiny on Wednesday from the European Commission and a leading rights group, after France’s top security official said the migrants had a „duty to return to their homeland.”Amnesty International said more than 10,000 Roma, also known as Gypsies, had been evicted from French squatter camps from January through August, with many forced to return home to Romania and Bulgaria, despite European Union rules requiring free movement for all EU citizens.Many Roma in France live in makeshift camps set up on vacant lots, lacking running water or electricity. Without regular documentation of their residence, they have a hard time enrolling children into school, applying for subsidized housing, getting health care through the national system or finding permanent work.Amnesty said those problems are compounded with each forced evacuation, pushing the Roma further out to society’s margins. In releasing its tally of evictions — including one as recent as Sept. 18 — Amnesty brought together a doctor and a teacher who had both cared for Roma from families they said wanted to join French society, contrary to the image of Roma as resistant to integration.”What we see on the ground is a break with the stereotypes of social and sanitary problems, and other clichés that are being invoked now,” said Jean-Francois Corty, a doctor with Medecins du Monde. „Most of the people we see want to integrate, want work, want their children in schools and want the benefits of modern medicine.”Roma started arriving in Europe from India in the 14th century and there are an estimated 8 million in Europe, with the largest population in Romania. Facing discrimination and bleak prospects in Romania, many head west to France and other richer European countries.View gallery.”FILE – This Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, file photo shows a Roma immigrant resting on the pavement near t …There are an estimated 20,000 Roma in France, a population that has remained stable over several years despite repeated attempts by both Socialist and conservative governments to persuade them — sometimes forcibly — to return home.Many French blame the Roma for a rise in petty crime and an influx of street beggars, especially in tourist areas of Paris, where crime rings involving children have been broken up, and where subway announcements warn every few minutes against pickpockets.In Sweden, police this week acknowledged compiling a secret, illegal registry of more than 4,000 Roma, including children, coming under criticism from politicians who said it was unconstitutional to register people by ethnicity.French Interior Minister Manuel Valls provoked anger Tuesday for saying the Roma migrants had a „duty to return to their homeland” — and despite a wave of criticism, refused to back down Wednesday.Valls said the Roma had failed to integrate and that France had no responsibility to them.”We don’t have the obligation to welcome these populations, we need to say it clearly and calmly. It is not about stigmatizing a population, but facing the truth,” he said.View gallery.”French interior minister Manuel Valls leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting …John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia program director, offered a different interpretation.”The Roma have a duty to live in misery. That’s how the comments of the interior minister should be translated,” Dalhuisen said.The EU justice chief, Viviane Reding, shot back Wednesday at the French government, accusing it of holding Romania and Bulgaria hostage to domestic French politics. Immigration is a sensitive issue amid campaigning for upcoming municipal elections across France. Reding accused the French government of using tensions over the Roma to distract voters from more serious economic problems.”There’s an election in the air in France,” Reding said on France-Info radio. „Every time they don’t want to talk about important things like the budget or debts, they find the Roma.”___Raf Casert and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.___Follow Lori Hinnant at: https://twitter.com/lhinnan
US signs treaty that regulates global arms tradingView gallery U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Arms Trade Treaty as Under Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel Serpa Soares looks on during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)MATTHEW LEE 19 minutes ago PoliticsJohn KerryUnited Nations UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States has joined more than 90 other nations in signing a treaty that regulates global arms trading. But there’s strong resistance in the U.S. Senate, which must ratify the accord.The U.S. is the world’s largest arms dealer, and its signing is seen as critical to the success of the Arms Trade Treaty. But many of the other top arms exporters have yet to sign.Secretary of State John Kerry signed the pact Wednesday, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. He says it’s a „significant step” in keeping the world safe.Some senators who oppose the treaty contend it could infringe on Americans’ rights to bear arms.Kerry notes that the treaty does not regulate domestic weapons sales.
Syria rebels reject opposition coalition, call for Islamic leadershipView gallery Free Syrian Army fighters man an anti-aircraft gun on a truck in the village of Aziza, in the southern countryside of Aleppo September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib (SYRIA – Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT MILITARY) Erika Solomon 6 minutes ago By Erika Solomon BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrian rebels have broken with the Western-backed coalition to form a new Islamist force that may pressure President Bashar al-Assad but also undermine the West’s hopes of putting its friends in his place.Ever more divided on a battlefield where Assad’s better armed troops have been gaining ground, allies of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were among 13 disparate rebel factions to disown the exile leadership and support an Islamic alliance that includes the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, commanders said on Tuesday.Details of the numbers of fighters involved and of how they would cooperate remained unclear. But, in an online video, a leader of the Islamist Tawheed Brigade said the bloc rejected the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the Western- and Saudi-backed exile administration of Ahmad Tumeh.It is a setback for foreign leaders trying to bolster more secular rebel groups and to reassure voters skeptical of deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war. Some may think again about help for the fighters, which ranges from weaponry from the Gulf to non-lethal aid from Europe and the United States.For Assad, already cheered by Russian diplomatic assistance that undermined U.S. plans to bomb his forces following a poison gas attack, any more powerful rebel coalition could challenge his army’s resurgence in the field. But that could be more than offset by a weakening of international backing for his enemies.Though some moderate Islamist fighters denied the move meant a more radical, sectarian approach, a more visible role for Islamist radicals at the expense of the SNC may bolster Assad’s argument that the alternative to his rule, based on his father’s military takeover four decades ago, is a Syria run by al Qaeda.The most hardline Islamist militant faction, al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has brought growing numbers of foreign jihadists into Syria, was not a signatory to the new pact. It was unclear, however, whether it had rejected involvement or had not been invited to join.The 13 groups signed a statement calling for the opposition to Assad to be reorganized under an Islamic framework and to be run only by groups fighting inside Syria. Signatories range from hardliners like the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham to more moderate groups such as the Tawheed Brigade and Islam Brigade.”These forces feel that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country do not represent them, so the forces will not recognize them,” said the statement read online by Abdulaziz Salameh, the political leader of the Tawheed Brigade.”Therefore the National Coalition and its supposed government led by Ahmad Tumeh do not represent them and will not be recognized,” he said.Analyst Aron Lund wrote on the blog Syria Comment: „If the statement proves to accurately represent the groups mentioned and they do not immediately fall apart again, it is a very big deal.”It represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream FSA’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces.”MODERATE ISLAMISTS-Since the 2-1/2-year-old revolt against Assad began, Syria’s opposition forces have been riven with factionalism and rivalries. There have also been tensions between Islamist groups and those that support a secular vision for a post-Assad Syria.Assad, and his Russian allies, have highlighted how a revolt that began in 2011 with demands for democracy has seen the rise of sectarian hatreds between the Sunni Muslim majority and Assad’s Alawite sect. That also worries other minorities in Syria’s complex society, including Christians and ethnic Kurds.Gulf Arab support for the rebels has highlighted the war’s role in a broader regional confrontation between Sunnis and Shi’ite Iran, which backs Assad and Shi’ite Arab movements.Rebel fighters and opposition activists rejected the portrayal of the statement as a blow to moderate forces. They saw it rather as a unification of rebels on the ground while sidelining the small but powerful ISIL.”There is a lot of distortion of the rebel movement … This is not a blow to the moderates,” said a fighter from the Islam Brigade, who did not want to be named when criticizing al Qaeda.”The front is divided between the radical groups who follow ISIL and the others who are Islamist but accept minorities and want to follow a more moderate Islamist interpretation for the country. This does not change that.”The anti-FSA shift may also be territorial – most of those who signed up to the new bloc are from brigades in northern Syria, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory.There seemed to be no major forces from eastern and southern Syria which signed the deal. Deraa, on the southern border with Jordan, is the main transit point for supplies and arms from Western and Gulf countries. The presence of hardline Islamists there is much weaker.A figure in the Free Syrian Army’s command said the announcement had taken its leadership by surprise.”I don’t even know what to say,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. „There were some very important factions who joined. And from my perspective, they gave no warning.”He said FSA commanders were meeting to discuss the statement and may try to negotiate with their former partners.Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre said the three moderate Islamist groups which signed the statement – the Tawheed Brigade, the Islam Brigade and Suqor al-Sham – had represented SNC’s main rebel presence on the ground.”It is likely that the moderate Islamist coalition has ceased to exist as a single organization structure,” he said.SAUDI MOVE-Islamist forces grew in power as the Syrian conflict changed from peaceful protests into an armed insurgency after a fierce crackdown by Assad’s forces. Militant groups, some linked to al Qaeda, have become even stronger in the ensuing civil war.”These forces call on military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation,” the statement said.Whatever their ideological background, many opposition groups inside Syria are skeptical and resentful of the SNC.Critics accuse it of not being transparent with funding and in its political processes. They say it is out of touch with people in Syria, where more than 100,000 have been killed and swathes of territory have been destroyed by combat and shelling.Some Nusra Front fighters and supporters who spoke to Reuters said Nusra and its allies had been courting moderate rebels as they watched their relationship sour with the SNC.Saudi Arabia, which had taken over as the main foreign player and financier of the SNC, had been trying to sideline Islamists in favor of bolstering secular forces.”Our brigades are tired of the SNC strategy, it is acting on the exterior and ignoring the interior. And a lot of the moderate Islamists were shoved aside when Qatar’s role was overtaken by Saudi Arabia,” one Nusra supporter said. „Saudi started aggressively supporting the secular groups.”(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Alastair Macdonald)
Benedict defends abuse record in letter to atheistView galleryNICOLE WINFIELD 17 hours ago ReligionSociety VATICAN CITY (AP) — Seven months after leaving the papacy, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI broke his self-imposed silence Tuesday by releasing a letter to one of Italy’s best-known atheists in which he denied covering up for sexually abusive priests and defended Christianity to non-believers.It was the first work published by Benedict since he retired and his first-ever denial of personal responsibility for the sex scandal. But what made the letter published in La Repubblica more remarkable was that it appeared just two weeks after Pope Francis penned a similar letter to the newspaper’s atheist editor.The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the appearance of the letters was pure coincidence. But they provide evidence that the two men in white, who live across the Vatican gardens from one another, are of the same mind about the need for such dialogue and may even be collaborating on it.Benedict wrote his letter to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian atheist and mathematician who in 2011 wrote a book titled „Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You.” The book was Odifreddi’s reaction to Benedict’s classic „Introduction to Christianity,” perhaps his best-known work.In his book, Odifreddi posed a series of polemical arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church’s sex abuse scandal.For nearly a quarter-century, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for handling abuse cases. He was prefect when the scandal first exploded in the U.S. in 2002 and was pope when it erupted on a global scale in 2010 with revelations of thousands of victims in Europe and beyond, of bishops who covered up for pedophile priests and of Vatican officials who turned a blind eye to the crimes and in some cases actively interfered with bishops trying to report pedophiles to police.In his letter, Benedict denies personal responsibility. „I never tried to cover these things up,” he wrote.”That the power of evil penetrated so far into the interior world of the faith is a suffering that we must bear, but at the same time, we must do everything to prevent it from repeating,” he wrote, according to Repubblica. „Neither is it comforting to know that, according to research, the percentage of priests who commit these crimes isn’t any higher than the percentage of other similar professions. Regardless, one shouldn’t present this deviation as if it were something specific to Catholicism.”As prefect, Ratzinger in 2001 compelled bishops around the world to send all credible cases of abuse to his office for review. He took the move because it had become clear to him that bishops were merely shuffling abusive priests around, rather than subjecting them to church trials.Ratzinger actually tried in 1988 to get around the cumbersome church trials, asking the Vatican’s legal office for quicker ways to permanently remove priests who raped and molested children. But he was rebuffed, with the legal office saying that doing so would compromise the priests’ ability to defend themselves.Ratzinger was hamstrung by Pope John Paul II’s unspoken policy against letting young men leave the priesthood and his overriding concern with preserving the rights of accused clerics, often at the expense of victims — a concern formed in part by his experiences in communist-controlled Poland, where priests were often accused of trumped-up charges.Eventually, a year after the abuse scandal exploded in the U.S., Ratzinger pushed through administrative changes in 2003 and 2004 that enabled his office to permanently remove abusers without going through a church trial. But that decision came decades after his office began receiving a steady stream of documentation about the scale of abuse in the U.S. — far too late, according to victims.”In the church’s entire history, no one knew more but did less to protect kids than Benedict,” said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the U.S.-based victims’ advocacy group SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. „As head of CDF, thousands of cases of predator priests crossed his desk. Did he choose to warn families or call police about even one of those dangerous clerics? No. That, by definition, is a cover-up.”After the 2010 explosion of abuse cases, the Vatican issued informal guidelines ordering bishops to report suspected abusers to police in countries where it is required. But the Vatican has yet to remove or sanction any bishop who covered up for an abuser.View gallery.”In this Saturday, March 23, 2013 photo provided by the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Fran …Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign when he retired Feb. 28, setting the stage for the election of Francis two weeks later. Benedict said at the time that he would spend his final years „hidden from the world,” living in a converted monastery tucked behind St. Peter’s Basilica, reading and praying.Benedict’s decision to cloister himself was in part due to his own shy, bookish nature, but also to make clear that he was no longer pope and that his successor was in charge.Benedict has been seen only a handful of times since his retirement and only once with Francis, at an official Vatican ceremony in July. A prolific writer, he has published nothing since retiring except for the encyclical „The Light of Faith,” which was signed by Francis but was actually written almost entirely by Benedict.Francis responded in the same pages to a series of questions posed to him by Repubblica’s atheist editor in editorials this summer.Francis’ letter was clearly not penned by his own hand: It involved language that is much closer to Benedict’s style, including arcane references to early church fathers like Tertullian whom only Benedict and a few others at the Vatican have ever cited. But Lombardi denied the two had collaborated on it.”They are autonomous and distinct initiatives,” Lombardi told The Associated Press.In Benedict’s letter, he takes Odifreddi to task for what he said was the „aggressiveness” of his book, and responds to many of the arguments with piqued criticism himself.”What you say about the figure of Jesus isn’t worthy of your scientific standing,” wrote Benedict, who authored a highly praised, three-volume work on the Jesus Christ during his pontificate.He similarly criticizes Odifreddi’s „religion of mathematics” as „empty” since it doesn’t even consider three fundamental themes for humanity: freedom, love and evil.On evolution, he wrote: „If you want to substitute God with Nature, the question remains: What does this Nature consist of? Nowhere do you define it and it appears rather like an irrational divinity that doesn’t explain anything.”Odifreddi, for his part, wrote in an accompanying piece Tuesday that he was stunned to have received the letter, though he said he wrote the book precisely in hopes Benedict might read it. He said he sought, and obtained, Benedict’s permission to publish the letter.He planned to re-issue his book with Benedict’s letter included, calling the exchange „an unprecedented dialogue between a theologian pope and an atheist mathematician, divided in most everything but drawn together by at least one objective: the search for Truth.”___Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield .
Canada keen on boosting energy exports to JapanView galleryCanada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) shakes hands with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe during a meeting in Harper’s office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada on September 24, 2013. (AFP Photo/Chris Wattie)Michel Comte 19 hours ago NaturePoliticsJapanCanadaOTTAWA (AFP) – Canada should boost energy exports to Japan as the resource-poor Asian country looks to diversify its fuel sources, their prime ministers said Tuesday.They spoke after meeting with Canadian business leaders.There are lots of areas for growth in Canadian-Japanese trade and investment ties but „one that came up most frequently is obviously energy,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.”Canada has considerable natural gas and it is the only country in the world that is a stable market-oriented producer of energy whose energy industry is also growing,” he said.”And Japan is the largest importer of energy in the world.”Harper spoke at a joint press conference with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, who was in Ottawa at the start of a five-day trip to North America.Japan’s national broadcaster earlier said Tokyo would consider giving assistance in the construction of pipelines and infrastructure to encourage the early export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Japan.Those exports are likely to start around 2020, according to Kyodo News, while the Nikkei newspaper said they might begin in late 2018.Japan, the world’s third largest economy, is the world’s biggest LNG consumer. But it pays a higher price for LNG than that charged in Europe and North America because Asian contracts are often long-term and linked to oil prices.The trend has remained despite increasing global production of LNG, particularly in light of the US shale gas revolution, Japanese officials have said.Hefty prices for LNG have hit Japanese utilities, which are now entirely without working atomic reactors because of a public backlash in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant.LNG-powered thermal plants used to provide about a third of Japan’s electricity before the tsunami-sparked crisis. They now account for about a half.A gas trade deal with Canada would follow an earlier agreement by the United States to ship shale gas to Japan from around 2017.In Ottawa, Abe affirmed that Japan is looking to „secure a stable supply of LNG at competitive prices” and said Canada’s energy supplies and Japan’s energy demands are „mutually complimentary.”But no firm energy deal was announced.Rather, the pair touted an agreement in principle allowing their respective militaries to share basic goods and services, such as fuel, water and facilities wherever both forces are deployed — whether for training exercises, peacekeeping missions or humanitarian assistance operations.They also called for boosting bilateral trade through an economic partnership agreement (EPA), soon to enter a fourth round of negotiations, and the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.”I’m told we are making good progress” on the EPA, said Harper, adding: „Such an agreement would be a historic step in our relationship and will create jobs and long-term growth for both countries.”
Britain’s Labour rules out EU membership vote for nowPeter Griffiths 21 hours ago PoliticsElectionsDavid CameronView galleryBritain’s Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister’s Questions …By Peter Griffiths BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) – Britain’s Labour Party said on Tuesday it won’t match Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of a vote on its European Union membership for now, ending high-level debate over changing its stance to wrong-foot the Conservatives before the election.The decision leaves Cameron’s Conservatives, who trail Labour in the polls, as the only big party currently committed to an in/out vote, provided they are returned to power in 2015.Labour leader Ed Miliband, who made no mention of Europe in an hour-long speech to his party’s conference, has resisted calls from a Labour minority to support an in/out vote.”(We) are very, very committed to the position we have,” Labour’s Europe spokeswoman Emma Reynolds told a conference meeting about Britain’s EU future.”If we were to change, it would look incredibly cynical at this stage. It would look weak because it would look like we were being pushed into it,” she said.Under pressure from Conservative eurosceptics and anti-EU rivals, Cameron said in January he would seek a new EU deal for Britain and hold a membership referendum by the end of 2017.If it wins the 2015 election, Labour has already said it will keep an existing British law that requires a referendum to authorize any big power transfer caused by EU treaty changes.Before the conference, reports in London and Brussels citing unnamed Labour sources had said the party was considering an early in/out poll to upset Cameron’s plans and avoid accusations it doesn’t trust voters to have their say.A senior Labour source confirmed there had been no policy change. Labour, split over Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, is now broadly pro-European.Polls suggest Britons would vote to leave the EU by a narrow margin if a referendum were held now. Critics say the bloc has become too powerful since Britain joined in 1973 and now threatens their sovereignty.Labour foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander said there had been discussion of a referendum at a senior level, but the leadership favors EU reform from the inside rather than talk of leaving the bloc.”The luxury of discussion is different from the responsibility of decision,” he told a conference meeting.”Those people within Labour who’ve argued for a referendum overwhelmingly see it as a means of refreshing consent rather than securing an exit. That’s pretty different from the Conservative Party.”Miliband’s focus on the economy rather than Europe could store up tactical problems for the future, analysts said.”For all of Cameron’s leadership problems, the Conservatives look like they are leading on the Europe issue, while Labour looks like it is simply dodging it,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a director at Eurasia Group, a research company.(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)