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Clinton held talks with seven opponents of Assad (AFP/Pool, J. Scott Applewhite)

The United States and France sent their ambassadors back to Syria to champion protesters, demanding that the regime protect the envoys who had been pulled out due to safety fears.

US Ambassador Robert Ford and French Ambassador Eric Chevallier had faced harassment and threats as they shone a light on President Bashar al-Assad’s nine-month crackdown, in which more than 4,000 people are said to have died.

“We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people of Syria,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said as the two envoys flew back in.

Ford will seek to provide “reliable reporting on the situation on the ground” and engage “with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition,” Toner said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney demanded that Syria uphold international obligations to protect foreign diplomats and allow US officers “to conduct their work free of intimidation or obstacles.”

In Paris, deputy foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said that the concerns that led to Chevallier’s recall have not gone away but that “his work on the ground in Syria is important.”

“France is more than ever at the side of the Syrian people,” Nadal told AFP.

The US and French ambassadors had both traveled in Syria to document protests and show their support, amid official attempts to prevent international media and observers from witnessing the crackdown firsthand.

The United States announced on October 24 that Ford had been brought back to Washington because of “credible threats.” Assad supporters had pelted Ford and the embassy staff with tomatoes and damaged US vehicles as they visited an opposition leader in Damascus.

The French ambassador was recalled on November 16 after mobs loyal to Assad attacked France’s honorary consulate in the northern city of Latakia and the detached chancery in Aleppo.

Toner said the United States “felt there was a sense of urgency” in sending Ford back to Damascus but said that Washington would “keep a close eye” on what it viewed as threats to him, including articles in the state-run press.

In further pressure on Syria, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday held talks in Geneva with seven opponents of Assad. She called for the protection of women and minorities, a key concern for a future without Assad, as he comes from the minority Alawite sect.

read more -AFP

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Former Israel president Moshe Katsav speaks to journalists as he leaves his house in Kiryat Malachi. He accused Israel of "executing" an innocent man. Photograph: AP

The former Israeli president Moshe Katsav has entered a minimum security prison to begin a seven-year sentence for rape.

Katsav, 66, was convicted last December of assaulting a female former employee when he was a cabinet minister and sexually harassing two other women while president, from 2000 to 2007.

The Iranian-born politician, who has repeatedly declared his innocence, remained free while he appealed against his case, but the supreme court upheld the conviction last month and sent him to prison.

TV footage showed him entering the Maasiyahu jail in central Israel, where he became the highest-ranking Israeli official to be imprisoned.

Katsav looked agitated and overwhelmed as he addressed journalists before beginning his sentence. He accused authorities of ignoring evidence that could clear him and claimed “the truth will come to light”.

“The state of Israel is executing a man today on the basis of impressions, without real time testimony, without evidence,” Katsav said. “One day, consciences will prick and you will see that you buried a man alive.”

In the absence of forensic evidence, prosecutors built their case almost entirely on witness testimony. Legal experts said the similarities in the accounts of victims, who did not know one another, prompted the conviction.

Prison officials say Katsav has been placed in a section of the jail reserved for observant Jews and will share a cell with Shlomo Benizri, a former cabinet minister convicted of accepting bribes.

Security around the former president will be heightened – as part of a suicide watch placed on new prisoners and to prevent inmates from harming him. Katsav’s lawyers have expressed concern that the politician might try to injure himself.

The claims against Katsav came to light in 2006 after he told police one of his accusers was trying to extort money from him.

The twists and turns of the case have riveted and appalled the country. Shortly after the accusations came to light, Katsav held a news conference to accuse prosecutors and the media of plotting his demise because he did not belong to the country’s European-descended elite.

Katsav resigned from office two weeks before his term was due to expire under a plea bargain that would have allowed him to escape jail. Instead he rejected the plea bargain and vowed to prove his innocence in court.

He later said he did not regret that decision because it would have meant he confessed to a crime he did not commit.


Mr Clarke warned against "distractions" in the EU talks - BBC

Ken Clarke has warned Tory eurosceptics not to expect powers to be returned from the EU at this week’s summit.

The justice secretary said the prime minister should focus on resolving the eurozone crisis and talk of “wider structures” would be a distraction.

David Cameron has said he will not agree to any EU treaty change “that fails to protect our interests”.

Germany and France are pushing for treaty changes enshrining new budget rules for eurozone members by March.

Mr Clarke, the most pro-European Conservative cabinet minister said in an interview with the Financial Times it would be a distraction to open up discussions about the “wider structures of the union”.

“We’re not going to renegotiate any transfers of powers, in my opinion,” he said.

He said Britain should be prepared to accept “proper” financial regulation from Brussels but he rejected the idea of an EU “Tobin tax” on financial transactions.

“It’s the devil’s own job to collect,” he said, and added that New York and Hong Kong would not follow suit.

read more at BBC


Just 20 years ago, they seemed consigned to the dustbin of history. At Sunday’s parliamentary polls, Russia’s communists drew students, intellectuals, even some businessmen in forging an opposition to Vladimir Putin’s wounded United Russia party.

The Communist Party (CPRF) for most Russians evokes images of bemedalled war veterans and the elderly poor deprived of pensions and left behind in a “New Russia” of glitzy indulgence. Large swathes of society have appeared beyond the reach of the red flag and hammer and sickle.

Until Sunday.

Not that the Communist Party’s doubling of its vote to about 20 percent presages any imminent assault on power. The memories of repression in the old communist Soviet Union, the labor camps and the regimentation are still too fresh for many. But vote for the Party they did, if perhaps with gritted teeth.

“With sadness I remember how I passionately vowed to my grandfather I would never vote for the Communists,” Yulia Serpikova, 27, a freelance location manager in the film industry, told Reuters. “It’s sad that with the ballot in hand I had to tick the box for them to vote against it all.”

For many Russians disillusioned by rampant corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor, the communists represented the only credible opposition to Putin’s United Russia.

Through all the turmoil of the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, the party kept a strong national organization based on regions and workplace. With access to official media limited for the opposition, this has been a huge advantage.

Also the communists, ironically, benefited from the votes of some pro-Western liberals who saw little or no hope of kindred parties such as economist Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko clearing the seven percent threshold to enter parliament. Yabloko doubled their vote to 3.3 percent.

The vote for the communists, commanding a support base that guaranteed seats, would reliably count against United Russia. Votes cast for Yabloko, failing at the threshold, would be redistributed to the successful parties, most gallingly United Russia.

“Many people (40 percent) didn’t vote, simply saying there’s no-one to vote for and it’s all decided ahead of time,” said veteran commentator Vladimir Pozner said. “That’s a shame because if more had voted, Yabloko might have got in.”

In the end though Yabloko is too closely associated in the minds of many with the economic and social chaos of the 1990s.


The whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has begun releasing sensational information on the multi billion dollar global spying industry. The database contains hundreds of documents shining a light on the methods being used by secret services all over the world. Here’s the video of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaking to journalists and students at a press conference at City University London in central London on December 1, 2011. Along with a number of other guest speakers, Mr Assange spoke of the Wikileaks ongoing investigation of surveillance software companies and their alleged use by governments around the world.


The U.S. unemployment rate fell to a 2-1/2 year low in November, even though the pace of hiring remained too slow to suggest a significant quickening of the recovery.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 120,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department said on Friday, and the jobless rate dropped to 8.6 percent, the lowest since March 2009, from 9.0 percent in October.

It was the biggest monthly decline since January. While part of the decrease was due to people leaving the labor force, the household survey from which the department calculates the unemployment rate also showed solid gains in employment.

“The economy is continuing to head in the right direction,” said Millan Mulraine, senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York. “However, the ultimate test of the sustainability of the recovery is for the economy to create a sufficient number of jobs to sustain a consumer-led rebound in activity.”

“On this measure, this report falls short,” he said.

Although the gain in the number of jobs created as measured by the survey of employers was relatively modest, it marked a pickup from October’s upwardly revised 100,000 increase.

In all, 72,000 more jobs were created in October and September than previously reported.

The retail sector accounted for more than a third all new private sector jobs in November as shops geared up for a busy holiday season, but average earnings fell two cents.

Data ranging from manufacturing to retail sales suggest the U.S. economy’s growth pace could top 3 percent in the fourth quarter, an acceleration from the third quarter. In contrast, much of the rest of the world is slowing and the euro zone appears to have already fallen into recession.

Stocks on Wall Street opened higher on both the employment report and growing optimism of a solution to the European debt crisis, while prices for U.S. government debt fell. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies.

The report could temper the appetite among some Federal Reserve officials to ease monetary policy further.

In forecasts released earlier this month, the Fed said the jobless rate would likely average 9 percent to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter. It did not expect it to drop to an 8.5 percent to 8.7 percent range until late next year.

via reuters


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embraces Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after their meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon. (Associated Press, Saul Loeb / December 2, 2011)

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomes U.S. support, but she also underscores the importance of China to her country’s future.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged on Friday to work together to bring democracy in the country.

Wrapping up a historic three-day visit to Myanmar, Ms. Clinton held hands with Ms. Suu Kyi on the porch of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s lakeside home where she spent much of the past two decades under house arrest and thanked her for her “steadfast and very clear leadership.” The meeting was the second in as many days for the pair, after a private one-on-one dinner in Yangon on Thursday.

“You have been an inspiration but I know that you feel you are standing for all the people of your country who deserve the same rights and freedoms as people everywhere,” Ms. Clinton told Ms. Suu Kyi. “The people have been courageous and strong in the face of great difficulty over too many years. We want to see this country take its rightful place in the world.”

Ms. Suu Kyi has welcomed Ms. Clinton’s visit and tentatively embraced reforms enacted by Myanmar’s new civilian government. She thanked the secretary and U.S. President Barack Obama for their “careful and calibrated” engagement that has seen the U.S. take some modest steps to improve ties.

“We are happy with the way in which the United States is engaging with us,” she said. “It is through engagement that we hope to promote the process of democratization. Because of this engagement, I think our way ahead will be clearer and we will be able to trust that the process of democratization will go forward.”

As she did in the capital of Naypyidaw on Thursday, Clinton said more significant incentives will be offered but only if the government releases all political prisoners, ends brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, respects the rule of law and improves human rights conditions.

Ms. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won 1990 elections that were ignored by the then-military junta but now plans to run in upcoming parliamentary elections, endorsed that approach and called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and cease-fires to end the ethnic conflicts.

“If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy,” Ms. Suu Kyi said, referring to her party, the government, the United States and other countries. “We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends.”

Ms. Suu Kyi, a heroine for pro-democracy advocates around the world, said Ms. Clinton’s visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state to Myanmar in more than half a century, represented “a historical moment for both our countries.”


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