Prayer zone for a better, empowering, inspiring, promoting, prospering, progressing and more successful life through Christ Jesus

Archive for December, 2012

Welcoming 2013 With Big Amusement Under The His Sanction Of Grace.

I wish all my families, friends, well-wishers, ministries and churches a happy prophetic empowering new year, i wish you all the very best from heaven and i pray for a divine automatic turn around in every areas of your life in the coming year in Jesus Mighty Name, i pray. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen and Amen.

In the coming year, in the Name of Jesus and by the power in the Blood of Jesus, i command every our enemies to become powerless, visionless, confused and they would become our servants in the Mighty Name of Jesus. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen and Amen.

In the Name of Jesus, i terminate every lack out of my life and your lives in the Name of Jesus. Amen and because we serve a God of all sufficiency, surplus and abundance, their is open heaven upon your lives today, receive grace with every bit of faith in you to wake, sleep, see, breath, walk, live, tarry, abide and dwell in His Heavenly abundance through the year 2013.

In the Name of Lord Jesus, i delete my name, names of members of my families, friends, well-wishers, ministries and churches from every evil list of failure and defeat and i pen down our names in heaven´s register of grace, anointing, success, promotion and victories and i decree that by the power in Thy Name of Jesus, in 2013, failure will be written all over our enemies and they shall wallow in frustration, defeat and misfortunes in every seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months of 2013, this i ask, pray, receive and claim over our lives in Jesus Name. Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen and Amen.

AP IMPACT: Al-Qaida carves out own country in Mali.

  • FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine leave after performing a public amputation, severing the hand of a young man found guilty of stealing rice, in Timbuktu, Mali. In recent months, al-Qaida and its allies have taken advantage of political instability within Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory which they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare for global jihad. And as 2012 draws to a close and the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area earlier this year are preparing for a war they boast will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/File)

    Enlarge PhotoAssociated Press/File – FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine leave after performing a public amputation, severing the hand of a young man found guilty of stealing …more 


MOPTI, Mali (AP) — Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic fightersare burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what has essentially become al-Qaida’s new country.

They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.

Northern Mali is now the biggest territory held by al-Qaida and its allies. And as the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area earlier this year are preparing for a war they boast will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.

“Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan,” said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida’s local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. “They do own northern Mali.”

Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. In recent months, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability within the country to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory which they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare for global jihad.

The catalyst for the Islamic fighters was a military coup nine months ago that transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today. On March 21, disgruntled soldiers invaded the presidential palace. The fall of the nation’s democratically elected government at the hands of junior officers destroyed the military’s command-and-control structure, creating the vacuum which allowed a mix of rebel groups to move in.

With no clear instructions from their higher-ups, the humiliated soldiers left to defend those towns tore off their uniforms, piled into trucks and beat a retreat as far as Mopti, roughly in the center of Mali. They abandoned everything north of this town to the advancing rebels, handing them an area that stretches over more than 620,000 square kilometers (240,000 square miles). It’s a territory larger than Texas or France — and it’s almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.

Turbaned fighters now control all the major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares like the Taliban did. Just as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.

The area under their rule is mostly desert and sparsely populated, but analysts say that due to its size and the hostile nature of the terrain, rooting out the extremists here could prove even more difficult than it did in Afghanistan. Mali’s former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a frontier twice the length of the border between the United States and Mexico.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, operates not just in Mali, but in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 7,000-kilometer (4,300-mile) long ribbon of land runs across the widest part of Africa, and includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.

“One could come up with a conceivable containment strategy for the Swat Valley,” said Africa expert Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military’s African command center, referring to the region of Pakistan where the Pakistan Taliban have been based. “There’s no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.”

Earlier this year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations. Earlier this month, the Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali’s military, which is accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup. Diplomats say the intervention will likely not happen before September of 2013.

In the meantime, the Islamists are getting ready, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day laborer hired by al-Qaida’s local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defenses. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have previously accused those who speak to reporters of espionage.

The al-Qaida affiliate, which became part of the terror network in 2006, is one of three Islamist groups in northern Mali. The others are the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, based in Gao, and Ansar Dine, based in Kidal. Analysts agree that there is considerable overlap between the groups, and that all three can be considered sympathizers, even extensions, of al-Qaida.

The Islamic fighters have stolen equipment from construction companies, including more than $11 million worth from a French company called SOGEA-SATOM, according to Elie Arama, who works with the European Development Fund. The company had been contracted to build a European Union-financed highway in the north between Timbuktu and the village of Goma Coura. An employee of SOGEA-SATOM in Bamako declined to comment.

The official from Kidal said his constituents have reported seeing Islamic fighters with construction equipment riding in convoys behind 4-by-4 trucks draped with their signature black flag. His contacts among the fighters, including friends from secondary school, have told him they have created two bases, around 200 to 300 kilometers (120 and 180 miles) north of Kidal, in the austere, rocky desert.

The first base is occupied by al-Qaida’s local fighters in the hills of Teghergharte, a region the official compared to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora.

“The Islamists have dug tunnels, made roads, they’ve brought in generators, and solar panels in order to have electricity,” he said. “They live inside the rocks.”

Still further north, near Boghassa, is the second base, created by fighters from Ansar Dine. They too have used seized explosives, bulldozers and sledgehammers to make passages in the hills, he said.

In addition to creating defenses, the fighters are amassing supplies, experts said. A local who was taken by Islamists into a cave in the region of Kidal described an enormous room, where several cars were parked. Along the walls, he counted up to 100 barrels of gasoline, according to the man’s testimony to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In Timbuktu, the fighters are becoming more entrenched with each passing day, warned Mayor Ousmane Halle. Earlier in the year, he said, the Islamists left his city in a hurry after France called for an imminent military intervention. They returned when the U.N. released a report arguing for a more cautious approach.

“At first you could see that they were anxious,” said Halle by telephone. “The more the date is pushed back, the more reinforcements they are able to get, the more prepared they become.”

In the regional capital of Gao, a young man told The Associated Press that he and several others were offered 10,000 francs a day by al-Qaida’s local commanders (around $20), a rate several times the normal wage, to clear rocks and debris, and dig trenches. The youth said he saw Caterpillars and earth movers inside an Islamist camp at a former Malian military base 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Gao.

The fighters are piling mountains of sand from the ground along the dirt roads to force cars onto the pavement, where they have checkpoints everywhere, he said. In addition, they are modifying their all-terrain vehicles to mount them with arms.

“On the backs of their cars, it looks like they are mounting pipes,” he said, describing a shape he thinks might be a rocket or missile launcher. “They are preparing themselves. Everyone is scared.”

A university student from Gao confirmed seeing the modified cars. He said he also saw deep holes dug on the sides of the highway, possibly to give protection to fighters shooting at cars, along with cement barriers with small holes for guns.

In Gao, residents routinely see Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed emir of the al-Qaida-linked cell that grabbed Fowler in 2008. Belmoktar, a native Algerian, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and trained in Osama bin Laden’s camp in Jalalabad, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation. His lieutenant Oumar Ould Hamaha, whom Fowler identified as one of his captors, brushed off questions about the tunnels and caves but said the fighters are prepared.

“We consider this land our land. It’s an Islamic territory,” he said, reached by telephone in an undisclosed location. “Right now our field of operation is Mali. If they bomb us, we are going to hit back everywhere.”

He added that the threat of military intervention has helped recruit new fighters, including from Western countries.

In December, two U.S. citizens from Alabama were arrested on terrorism charges, accused of planning to fly to Morocco and travel by land to Mali to wage jihad, or holy war. Two French nationals have also been detained on suspicion of trying to travel to northern Mali to join the Islamists. Hamaha himself said he spent a month in France preaching his fundamentalist version of Islam in Parisian mosques after receiving a visa for all European Union countries in 2001.

Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed.

Those weapons include the SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, according to Hamaha, which can shoot down aircrafts. His claim could not be verified, but Rudolph Atallah, the former counterterrorism director for Africa in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said it makes sense.

“Gadhafi bought everything under the sun,” said Atallah, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, who has traveled extensively to Mali on defense missions. “His weapons depots were packed with all kinds of stuff, so it’s plausible that AQIM now has surface-to-air missiles.”

Depending on the model, these missiles can range far enough to bring down planes used by ill-equipped African air forces, although not those used by U.S. and other Western forces, he said. There is significant disagreement in the international community on whether Western countries will carry out the planned bombardments.

The Islamists’ recent advances draw on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s near decade of experience in Mali’s northern desert, where Fowler and his fellow U.N. colleague were held captive for four months in 2008, an experience he recounts in his recent book, “A Season in Hell.”

Originally from Algeria, the fighters fled across the border into Mali in 2003, after kidnapping 32 European tourists. Over the next decade, they used the country’s vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.

During this time, they also established relationships with local clans, nurturing the ties that now protect them. Several commanders have taken local wives, and Hamaha, whose family is from Kidal, confirmed that Belmoktar is married to his niece.

Fowler described being driven for days by jihadists who knew Mali’s featureless terrain by heart, navigating valleys of identical dunes with nothing more than the direction of the sun as their map. He saw them drive up to a thorn tree in the middle of nowhere to find barrels of diesel fuel. Elsewhere, he saw them dig a pit in the sand and bury a bag of boots, marking the spot on a GPS for future use.

In his four-month-long captivity, Fowler never saw his captors refill at a gas station, or shop in a market. Yet they never ran out of gas. And although their diet was meager, they never ran out of food, a testament to the extensive supply network which they set up and are now refining and expanding.

Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Fowler said, which is so hot that at times “it was difficult to draw breath.” A cable published by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako described how even the Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.

Yet Fowler said he saw al-Qaida fighters chant Quranic verses under the Sahara sun for hours, just one sign of their deep, ideological commitment.

“I have never seen a more focused group of young men,” said Fowler, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada. “No one is sneaking off for R&R. They have left their wives and children behind. They believe they are on their way to paradise.”


Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako and Mopti, Mali.


Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at

Baba Ahmed can be reached at


By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI | Associated Press

Desperate for weapons, Syrian rebels make their own, fix tanks.

ALEPPO PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – At a converted warehouse in the midst of a block of residential homes in a northern Syrian town, men are hard at work at giant lathes, shavings of metal gathering around them.

Sacks of potassium nitrate and sugar lie nearby.

In a neat row against the wall is the finished product, homemade mortars. Syrian rebels say they have been forced to make them because their calls for heavy weapons and ammunition to fight President Bashar al-Assad have gone unanswered.

“No one’s giving us any support. So we’re working on our own to strike Bashar,” said a bearded man spinning the metal to create the warhead.

Using the Internet, the workshop of about seven men work together to try and perfect the crude weapons. For explosives, they pick out TNT from unexploded rockets that Assad’s forces have fired towards them and repackage them into their own weapons. Each gave different estimates of the mortars’ range.

“We’re volunteers, we were workers, we were never soldiers. They’re locally made. They don’t have the strength of the regime’s rockets, but they are having good effects,” said Abu Mohammed, who said the mortars created a 3-1/2 meter crater.

Another worker said the mortars, which take about a day to make, could reach a distance of 6 km (almost 4 miles).

Although the rebels, who are mostly Sunni Muslim fighters, have made big gains in the northern and eastern parts of Syria in the 21-month conflict, they are outgunned by Assad’s forces.

Some rebel groups are receiving supplies from Gulf states, and Western countries say they are giving non-lethal aid. But many rebels say they have not received anything.

Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, who heads the rebels’ military council in Aleppo province, told Reuters last week that his forces are fighting without any help from the Western and Arab governments which want Assad removed from power.

“We aren’t able to get any weapons from abroad. We have nothing except for the rifle to fight with,” said another man at the workshop.


The success rate of the weapons is questionable. Two men said the mortars hit 80 to 90 percent of the targets, but there have been problems. Sometimes the mortars do not detonate, other times they explode prematurely.

“The more we practice, the more experience we get,” said one of the men, explaining how they discovered that if they let the propelling agent mixture set for too long it absorbed humidity, which in turn stopped the mortar from detonating.

At one of the Aleppo frontline positions, rebels fired the mortars from a homemade tube, fashioned from piping on a mount made from a car axle.

The rebels have also been working on refurbishing weaponry acquired during takeovers of Assad’s military bases.

Parked in a residential street, a group of men have been working on fixing a T-72 tank whose gear box was blown.

Abu Jumaa, one of the mechanics working on the 1970s tank, said fighters had taken it from an infantry college in north Syria that had recently fallen to rebel forces.

“We have no tanks, no planes, no artillery. All we have is what we get in spoils and we go to war against him (Assad) with what we get. That’s the reality. We’re forced to do this,” he told Reuters.

“These tanks are useless in the first place. It can’t be called a tank, It’s a lump of scrap iron,” he said gesturing at the chipped army green metal.

Rebel fighters on the frontline consistently complain of shortages of weapons and ammunition that have forced them to stop advances and focus on keeping the ground they have gained.

“We get 3,000 bullets a month. No anti-aircraft missiles … everything is from the military bases (we take over),” said one young rebel fighter from the Supporters of Mohammed Brigade, wearing a plaid yellow and black turban.

Even though the rebels have managed to seize large quantities of weapons from military bases, they struggle with a chronic shortage of ammunition and weapons to target Assad’s fighter jets.

“You see how the planes are striking all of us, not differentiating between old and young … God has helped us, we’ve made these rockets and we’re using them to hit back at them all over again,” said Abu Mohammed.

(Editing by Peter Graff and Robin Pomeroy)


By Yara Bayoumy | Reuters

Jordan arrests 4 Syrian soldiers near border.

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan’s security forces say the military has arrested four unarmed Syrian soldiers found in the zone between the two countries’ borders.

A security spokesman said the men were arrested on Monday and are being interrogated. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to make press statements

It was unclear whether the soldiers were trying to enter Jordan or were attempting to return to Syria.

The security spokesman could not provide further details as the probe is underway.

More than 1,000 senior Syrian army and police officers have defected to Jordan during the 21-month conflict.

 Source: YAHOO NEWS.
By DALE GAVLAK | Associated Press

Turkey accuses EU of bigotry, says its reforms are ignored.

  • Flags of Turkey and the European Union are fluttered by the wind side by side in Istanbul in this file photo taken September 25, 2005. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

    Enlarge PhotoReuters/Reuters – Flags of Turkey and the European Union are fluttered by the wind side by side in Istanbul in this file photo taken September 25, 2005. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey accused the European Union of bias and bigoted attitudes towards theEU candidate country on Monday and blamed it for undermining the Turkish public’s trust in the bloc.

Turkey criticized the European Commission‘s latest report on its progress towards EU membershipas it presented for the first time its own report highlighting its reforms over the last year.

Turkey began accession talks in 2005 but the process has ground to a halt due to an intractable dispute over Cyprus, the divided island state which Turkey does not recognize, and opposition from core EU members France and Germany.

Despite waning domestic support for joining the EU, Ankara has continued to push for full membership of the union and has said it wants to join before 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey.

“We observed that this year’s Turkey Progress Report was overshadowed by more subjective, biased, unwarranted and bigoted attitudes,” Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis said in a statement accompanying Turkey’s own 270-page report.

Bagis said it was unacceptable that the European Commission report released in October had ignored Turkey’s “courageous” reforms over the last year and that this undermined the EU’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the Turkish public.

The minister previously voiced his disappointment with the report in October, saying it failed to be objective, ignored the expansion of rights for religious minorities and had criticized the judiciary too sweepingly.

A recent survey by the German Marshall Fund think-tank found a majority of Turks view the EU negatively, illustrating the declining enthusiasm for EU membership.

Ankara has completed only one of the 35 policy “chapters” every candidate must conclude to join the EU. All but 13 of those chapters are blocked by France, Cyprus and the European Commission.

Talks have also been blocked by the Commission which says Turkey does not yet meet required standards on human rights, freedom of speech and religion.

“Today there is no government in Europe which is more reformist than our government,” Bagis said.

“While EU countries are struggling in crisis, our country is experiencing the most democratic, prosperous, modern and transparent period in its history,” he said.

“The ‘sick man’ of yesterday has got up and summoned the strength to prescribe medication for today’s Europe … and to share the EU’s burden rather than being a burden to it,” he said.

The progress report prepared by Turkey, released on the website of its EU Affairs Ministry, cited the passage of reforms in the areas of the judiciary, education and workers rights as examples of progress over the year.

Bagis told Reuters in Dublin earlier this month Turkey was hopeful France will unblock talks over EU membership on at least two policy chapters in the coming months ahead of a visit by President Francois Hollande.

While Hollande has stopped short of endorsing Turkey’s EU candidacy, he has said it should be judged on political and economic criteria – a contrast to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy‘s position that Turkey did not form part of Europe.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on December 21 the current standstill in negotiations over Turkey’s membership bid was unsatisfactory and the new year offered an opportunity to tackle outstanding issues with renewed vigor.

(Editing by Stephen Nisbet)


By Daren Butler | Reuters

Asia-Pacific nations greeting 2013 eagerly; Myanmar celebrating with first public countdown.

CANBERRA, Australia – Sydney’s skyline erupted with tons of exploding fireworks as revelers cheered in the new year from the city’s crammed harbour in the world’s first major celebration for 2013.

The enthusiastic welcome to 2013 was continuing on a grand scale across Asia, with extravagant firework displays lighting up the skies in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Increasingly democraticMyanmar, ruled for almost five decades by military regimes that discouraged or banned big public gatherings, was preparing for a public countdown for the first time. Jakarta planned a huge street party befitting Indonesia’s powering economy.

The buoyant economies of the Asia-Pacific were partying with renewed optimism despite the so-called fiscal cliff threatening to reverberate globally from the United States and the tattered economies of Europe.

Celebrations were planned around the world, with hundreds of thousands expected to fill Times Square in New York City to watch the drop of a Waterford crystal-studded ball.

In austerity-hit Europe, many cities will be burning off part of their battered budgets in spectacular fireworks displays, although some municipalities — including the Cypriot capital, Nicosia — cancelled their celebrations in light of the economic crisis. Nicosia said 16,000 euros ($21,000) saved from the cancelled event will be given to some 320 needy schoolchildren.

Scotland’s Edinburgh traditionally hosts one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in Europe, and belt-tightening hasn’t blighted the mood there. Organizers say that some 75,000 people are expected for the Scottish capital’s Hogmanay — or year-end — celebrations.

Sydney’s balmy summer night was split by 7 tons of fireworks fired from roof tops and barges, many cascading from the Sydney Harbor Bridge, in a 6.6 million Australian dollar ($6.9 million) pyrotechnic extravaganza billed by organizers as the world’s largest.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people lined the Victoria Harbor to view this year’s 12.5 millionHong Kong dollar ($1.6 million) fireworks display, said to be the biggest ever in the southern Chinese city.

One day after dancing in the snow to celebrate the first anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s ascension to supreme commander, North Koreans marked the arrival of the new year, marked as “Juche 102” on North Korean calendars. Juche means self-reliance, the North Korean ideology of independence promoted by national founder Kim Il Sung, who was born 102 years ago. His grandson now rules North Korea.

In a field in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, about 72,000 people gathered two hours ahead of midnight for the first public New Year countdown in the country.

Hundreds of people danced and swayed to musical performances on a huge colorfully lit stage, while other revelers — both young and old — sat on mats they brought with them or perused food stalls as fireworks burst above.

“This is very exciting and also our first experience in celebrating the New Year at a big countdown gathering. We feel like we are in a different world,” said Yu Thawda, a university student who came with three of her friends.

In New Delhi, the festive mood was marred by the death Saturday of a young rape victim.

Hotels, clubs and residents’ associations in the Indian capital decided to cancel planned festivities and asked people to light candles to express their solidarity with the victim whose plight sparked public rallies for women’s safety.

“Let there be no New Year celebrations across the country. It will be a major tribute to the departed soul,” said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary-general of the Confederation of All India Traders, an umbrella group of operators of shops and businesses across the country.

Jakarta’s street party centres on a 7-kilometre (4-mile) thoroughfare closed to all traffic from nightfall until after midnight. Workers erected 16 large stages along the normally car-clogged, eight-lane highway through the heart of the city. Indonesia’s booming economy is a rare bright spot amid global gloom and is bringing prosperity — or the hope of it — to Indonesians.

Spirits in the capital have been further raised by the election of a new, populist governor who is pledging to tackle the city’s massive infrastructure problems.

The Sydney crowds were undiminished by Australian government warnings that the Washington deadlock on the U.S. debt crisis was partly to blame for a slowing Australian economy.

Florida tourist Melissa Sjostedt was among the thousands gathered near a southern pylon of the bridge for the countdown, hosted by pop star Kylie Minogue. Sjostedt said that seeing the fireworks would fulfil an ambition that began a decade ago when she read about them in National Geographic magazine.

“Ever since that, I’ve always wanted to see this for real, live, in person,” she said.

Despite a sombre mood in the Philippines due to devastation from a recent typhoon, a key problem for authorities remained how to prevent revelers from setting off huge illegal firecrackers — including some nicknamed “Goodbye Philippines” and “Bin Laden” — that maim and injure hundreds of Filipinos each year, including many children.

A government scare tactic involving doctors displaying brutal-looking scalpels used for amputations for firecracker victims has not fully worked in the past so health officials came up with a novel idea: Go Gangnam style.

A government health official, Eric Tayag, donned the splashy outfit of South Korean star PSY and danced to his Youtube hit “Gangnam Style” video while preaching against the use of illegal firecrackers on TV, in schools and in public arenas.

“The campaign has become viral,” Tayag said. “We’ve asked kids and adults to stay away from big firecrackers and just dance the Gangnam and they’re doing it.”

Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo predicted 2013 would be less turbulent than 2012 because the Chinese New Year in February will usher in the year of the snake, bringing an end to the year of the dragon, which was associated with water. Water is one of the five elements in feng shui theory, the Chinese practice of arranging objects and choosing dates to improve luck.

“Water is fear. So that’s why we have had so much turbulence especially in the winter months,” such as doomsday prophecies, school shootings and concerns about the fiscal cliff, said Lo.

“But the good news is that the coming year of the snake is the first time that fire has come back since 2007. Fire actually is the opposite to water, fire is happiness. So therefore the year of the snake is a much more optimistic year. So you can see signs of economic recovery now,” he added.


Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar; Jean Lee in Pyongyang, North Korea; Chris Brummitt in Jakarta, Indonesia; Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong; Ashok Sharma in New Delhi; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; and Sylvia Hui and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.


By Rod McGuirk, The Associated Press | Associated Press

Assad’s forces battle to retake Damascus suburb.

AMMAN (Reuters) – Elite Syrian government troops backed by tanks battled on Monday to recapture a strategic Damascus suburb from rebels who have advanced within striking distance of the center of Syria‘s capital.

Five people, including a child, died from army rocket fire that hit the Daraya suburb during the fighting, opposition activists said. Daraya is part of a semi-circle of Sunni Muslim suburbs south of the capital that have been at the forefront of the 21-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

“This is the biggest attack on Daraya in two months. An armored column is trying to advance but it is being held (back) by the Free Syrian Army,” said Abu Kinan, an opposition activist in the area, referring to a rebel group.

Clashes were also reported near the airport in Aleppo, Syria‘s largest city, which is in the north. Insurgents have made that airport a target in the hope of limiting government access to Aleppo, which is largely under rebel control.

Rebels have taken much of the north and east of Syria over the past six months, but government forces still hold most of the densely populated southwest around the capital, the main north-south highway and the Mediterranean coast.

Government forces scored a victory on Saturday, pushing rebels out of Deir Baalbeh, a district in Homs, an important central city that straddles the highway linking Damascus with the north and the Mediterranean.

Some opposition activists have said scores or even hundreds of people were executed in Deir Baalbeh by troops that seized it after several days of fighting. However, reports of killings there on a large scale could not be verified.

More than 45,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 21-month war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago. Mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are fighting to topple Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect whose family has ruled Syria since his father seized power 42 years ago in a coup.

The opposition refuses to hold peace talks unless Assad relinquishes power, and military successes over the last six months have reinforced its belief it can drive him out by force.

However, government troops still heavily outgun the fighters and maintain air bases scattered across the country.

The Damascus suburbs have become one of the major fronts of the war, with the rebels hoping to finally bring their uprising to the capital, heart of Assad’s power.

Activist Abu Kinan said that tens of thousands of civilians had fled Daraya during weeks of government assault on the suburb, but that 5,000 remained, along with hundreds of rebels. Daraya is located near the main southern highway connecting Damascus to the Jordanian border 85 km (50 miles) to the south.

Activists said Republican Guard forces are trying to push back rebels who have been slowly advancing from the outskirts of Damascus to within striking distance of government targets and central districts inhabited by Assad’s Alawite minority sect.

Assad’s forces have mostly relied on aerial and artillery bombardment, rather than infantry. Rebels have been able take outlying towns and have clashed with government troops near Damascus International Airport, halting flights by foreign airlines.

Another activist in Damascus with links to rebels, who did not want to be named, said Daraya has been a firing position for rebels using mortars and homemade rockets. From it, they have been able to hit a huge presidential complex located on a hilltop overlooking Damascus and target pro-Assad shabbiha militia in an Alawite enclave nearby known as Mezze 86.

“So far they have missed the palace but they are getting better. I think the regime has realized that it no longer can afford to have such a threat so close by, but it has failed to overrun Daraya before,” he said.


The opposition is backed by most Western and Arab states, while Assad has enjoyed the diplomatic protection of Moscow, which sells arms to his government and maintains a naval base in one of his ports.

Western countries have been searching for signs that Moscow is lifting its protection of Assad, hoping that would bring him down much as Russia’s withdrawal of support heralded the fall of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic 12 years ago.

Moscow said on Saturday that it has no power to make Assad leave office, and accused the rebels of prolonging the bloodshed by refusing to negotiate with him.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has called on outside powers to push all sides to talk, arguing that Syria faces a choice of “hell or the political process”.

Brahimi is touting a peace plan agreed to in principle by international powers six months ago, but the plan does not explicitly call for Assad to be excluded from power, which the opposition regards as a precondition to any talks.

The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that rebels clashed with government troops near Aleppo’s international airport. Rami Abdelrahman, the British-based Observatory’s director, told Reuters by phone that fighting flared on Sunday night and continued into Monday morning.

He said no flights were departing or arriving from the airport. Syria’s state airline canceled at least one flight there over the weekend.

Nevertheless, the government’s seizure of Deir Baalbeh in Homs is a reminder that its forces are still capable of recapturing territory from the lightly armed rebels. Syria’s state news agency SANA said government forces seized a large cache of weapons and ammunition after capturing the district.

(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Oliver Holmes and Mark Heinrich)


By Khaled Yacoub Oweis | Reuters

Nigeria president likens nation’s unrest to Syria.

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has likened attacks by a radical Islamist sect in his West African nation to the ongoing civil war in Syria, an unlikely acknowledgment from the seat of power about the violent unrest gripping the country.

Jonathan’s comments Sunday are widely viewed here as hyperbole because the estimated 45,000 people killed in the Syrian uprising is far more than those killed by Nigeria’s extremist sect. But Jonathan’s remarks offer a glimpse into the worried leader’s mind as his weak government remains unable to stop attacks by the sect known as Boko Haram. Though government and security officials have sought to downplay the sect’s guerrilla campaign of shootings and bombings, the group is blamed for killing at least 792 people in 2012 alone, according to an Associated Press count, the worst year of violence yet.

And with Jonathan also referencing the apocalypse before parishioners at a church in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, it offers a bleak assessment of Nigeria heading into the New Year.

“We have challenges, no doubt, especially the recent terrorist attacks on all of us and the church is one of the main targets,” Jonathan said. When the preacher “was making reference to the bombings … I was just wondering, could this be a clear way of telling us that the end times are so close?”

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, continues to attack civilians and government forces at will, despite a heavy presence of soldiers and police officers there. The sect wants the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people to enact strict Shariah law and release its imprisoned members. It also has loose connections with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s al-Shabab, according to Western military officials and diplomats.

Just in the last few days, gunmen suspected to belong to Boko Haram attacked a village in Nigeria’s arid northeast, rounding up men, women and children and killing at least 15 by cutting their throats.

Speaking Sunday before an EYN church in Abuja, Jonathan acknowledged the sect killed people this holiday, but said his government had stopped the group from committing more killings.

However, his speech offered stark comparisons to the situation in his country, comparing it to Syria and the Central African Republic, which now faces rebel attacks that threaten the nation’s stability.

The CAR rebels “were quite close to taking over the capital city just as Boko Haram is taking over Abuja (and wanting) for me and those working in government to run and hide somewhere else,” Jonathan said. “Let me agree with you that we have challenges. … No part of the country is free.”

This isn’t the first time Jonathan, who sometimes fumbles through public speeches, has made dire pronouncements about security in Nigeria. On Jan. 8, 2012, speaking before another church service, Jonathan said the threat of Boko Haram was worse than the nation’s 1960s civil war, which killed 1 million people. The president also suggested Boko Haram had infiltrated the government and the nation’s security forces.

“Some continue to dip their hands and eat with you and you won’t even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house,” Jonathan said at the time.

Jonathan never elaborated on his comments, though a high-ranking senator was later arrested for alleged ties to the sect. Nigeria’s dysfunctional intelligence community also has freed suspected radical Islamist terrorists out of religious sympathies in the past, including one later implicated in Boko Haram’s August 2011 suicide car bomb attack on the United Nations headquarters in the nation’s capital that killed 25 and wounded more than 100 others.

As the attacks continue, soldiers have killed civilians and the government faces growing criticism from human rights groups over alleged indefinite detention, beatings and killings of Boko Haram suspects in custody. However, Jonathan promised Sunday that the government ultimately would stop the sect.

“If the idea of Boko Haram is to stop Nigerians from worshipping God, they will not succeed. If the idea of Boko Haram is to stop government from providing the dividend of democracy they will not succeed,” Jonathan told those at the church. “God willing and with our commitment, the excesses of Boko Haram and other criminal organizations will be brought to a reasonable control.”


Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at .


By BASHIR ADIGUN and JON GAMBRELL | Associated Press

Egypt’s leader sees currency stabilising “within days”.

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s pound fell to a record low on Monday as the president signalled his government would allow it to depreciate slowly for several more days to stop a drain on foreign reserves that has driven the economy into crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Hit by a new bout of political turmoil in the last month, the pound had weakened to a record low on Sunday at a new dollar auction brought in by the central bank. It fell further at a second auction on Monday, last trading at 6.37 to the dollar on the interbank market.

The drop means the central bank has allowed the pound to slide by almost 3 percent over the last two days after limiting its decline to only 6 percent since the uprising that removed Mubarak from power almost two years ago.

The pound’s fall, which is certain to increase the price of imported staples such as tea and sugar, underlines the economic crisis facing President Mohamed Mursi as his administration tries to contain the political fall-out of his move to fast-track a contentious new constitution passed into law last week.

Egyptians panicked by street clashes between Mursi’s Islamist backers and his more secular-minded opponents on the streets of Cairo and other cities have rushed to change their pounds into dollars in recent weeks, fearing it would be devalued further.

“The market will return to stability,” Mursi told Arab journalists on Sunday evening, the state news agency MENA reported.

The pound’s fall “does not worry or scare us, and within days matters will balance out,” he said.

Having just sold their last dollar bills, dealers at one Cairo foreign exchange bureau did not bother changing their price board when the new low appeared on their trading screens.

“He took our last dollars,” said one of the traders, pointing to a man walking out of the door.

Outside, another man told a friend his dollar hunt had failed. “They have no dollars. What can I do?” he said by mobile phone. “I went to many dealers and could not find dollars.”

The fall has been driven mainly by ordinary citizens who have been trying to turn their savings intoforeign currency, worried that the pound will weaken further because of the latest political turmoil.

The crisis wiped 10 percent off the value of Egyptian stocks when it erupted in late November. But the main index has mostly recovered since then, climbing in the two sessions since the introduction of the new foreign currency system.

Market participants attribute the rise to buying by Arab and international investors using the cheaper pound to bargain hunt.


The auctions are part of a shift announced on Saturday and designed to conserve foreign reserves, which the bank says are now at “critical” levels that cover just three months of the food, fuel and other goods Egypt imports.

Bankers have described the new system as a move towards establishing a free market value for the pound, which has been tightly controlled since a managed devaluation which ended in 2004.

The head of the Egyptian banking federation said the new system was an “important first step” towards a free float.

In remarks to MENA, Tarek Amer, who is also chairman of Egypt’s largest bank, state-ownedNational Bank of Egypt, said the new system was a success on its first day and had “significantly reduced” demand for dollars.

The central bank has sold about $75 million at each of Sunday’s and Monday’s auctions.

The run on the pound prompted officials last week to impose controls on how much cash could be physically carried out of the country. Security men at one Cairo bank branch had to remove one customer angered by a $10,000 limit on how much currency he could withdraw, witnesses said.

The changes announced on Saturday include regular foreign currency auctions and also limit how much foreign currency companies can withdraw at a time.

The central bank had spent more than $20 billion – or more than half of its reserves – over the past two years to defend the currency. The reserves fell by a further $448 million in November to about $15 billion.

Prices of imports have already started to rise. Pyramid Oil Field, a firm that imports chemicals for use in water treatment and oil fields, had put up its prices by 10 to 15 percent last week, fearing a further weakening of the pound.

“This instability obliges you to increase the price, to have a safety factor,” said Ashraf el-Gamal, president and managing director of the company, told Reuters. “From now on, the contracts will be of a very short validity.”

To be on the safe side, he was projecting that the pound would weaken to stand at 9 against the euro, compared to a previous level of 8.


Prime Minister Hisham Kandil said on Sunday that the economy was in “a very difficult and fragile” situation, adding that he expected talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $4.8 billion loan to resume in January.

Egypt won preliminary approval in November from the IMF for the loan, but delayed seeking final approval until January after it suspended a series of tax increases to allow more time to explain a heavily criticized package of economic austerity measures to the public.

Kandil’s efforts to revive the economy have been hit by the latest turmoil, which scared off tourists who had begun to return. On the eve of the anti-Mubarak revolt, Egypt’s tourism industry accounted for one in eight jobs.

Mursi hoped that the passage of a new constitution would stabilise Egypt’s politics, giving him space to implement economic reforms and attract investment. The constitution, written by Mursi’s Islamist allies, was approved in a popular referendum in December.

But it remains the focus of controversy, and the opposition is likely to seize upon austerity measures demanded under an IMF deal as a stick to beat the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of a parliamentary vote expected in early 2013.

Two-fifths of Egypt’s 84 million population live around the poverty line and depend on subsidies that are straining the treasury.

Gamal of Pyramid Oil Field said he knew of at least three foreign companies that were hesitant to make large investments in the country because of the instability.

“They are feeling insecure because of everything that is happening,” he said. “One is looking to invest billions.”


By Patrick Werr and Yasmine Saleh | Reuters

Monti’s reform path faces test beyond Italy elections.

ROME (Reuters) – Mario Monti declared “mission accomplished” when he resigned as Italy’s prime minister, having seen off the debt crisis that loomed as he took office just over a year ago but 2013 will test whether he has laid the foundations for lasting economic change.

Elections on February 24-25 will give Italian voters their first chance to decide whether they want to stick to the broad course he has set or turn to a growing chorus of politicians who have attacked his austerity medicine.

Monti’s decision to enter the race himself has put his reform agenda at the heart of the campaign and will have effects far outside Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy, which took the single currency to the brink of collapse last year.

Former European Commissioner Monti, favored by the markets, the business establishment and even the Catholic church, has insisted that the election must be about creating agreement on policy rather than on any individual.

In that sense, the true test of his success may be not whether he wins a second term but whether he has succeeded in convincing the other parties and the country as a whole to stay with the liberalizing agenda he has laid out.

That remains uncertain, despite the plaudits he earned abroad for his handling of the crisis, as ordinary Italians have seen their living standards fall and unemployment rise relentlessly.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the favorites to win the election, have supported Monti in parliament and say they will maintain the broad course he has set, while putting more emphasis on growth and helping workers and the poor.

But some on the left of the party and among its trade union allies say inequality has risen under Monti.

On the right, Silvio Berlusconi accuses Monti of taking orders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and penalizing middle class Italians for the benefit of German banks. He has called for sweeping tax cuts to stimulate growth.

The runaway success of the anti-establishment comic Beppe Grillo and his 5-Star Movement, which wants to hold a referendum to decide whether to leave the euro, has also underlined the widespread mood of disillusion now deeply anchored in Italy.

“I don’t have any confidence in my country, absolutely not,” said Rosaria Resciniti, one of thousands of young people lining up to enter a competition for a job as primary school teacher in Rome.

“It is a country for old people. We should all leave and leave the country to the pensioners,” she said.


Monti himself acknowledged the disaffection on Friday when he confirmed that he would be joining the election campaign as head of a centrist alliance committed to continuing his reforms.

“Fortunately, it seems that the financial emergency is over, but there is another emergency which is just as serious or even more so, which is the unemployment emergency, especially as regards youth unemployment and the lack of growth,” he said.

Helped by the promise of European Central Bank support, the main gauge of investor confidence, the spread between yields on Italian 10 year government bonds and safer German Bunds has narrowed from the crisis levels of more than 550 basis points hit when Monti took office to about 320 points.

But the broader indicators of economic health have got worse, a fact constantly pointed out by critics such as Berlusconi and Grillo, who say the tax hikes and spending cuts imposed to calm the markets have dragged Italy into a recessionary spiral.

The economy has contracted for five consecutive quarters and is estimated to have shrunk by 2.4 percent in 2012. Public debt has topped the symbolic 2 trillion euro level, corruption and waste are still rampant, and youth unemployment is over 36 percent.

Italy has had the euro zone’s most sluggish economy for more than a decade, and whether any of the leaders fighting the election can turn that around quickly is doubtful, as one of the possible ministers in a centre-left government acknowledged.

“This crisis will last throughout the whole of the next parliament at least,” deputy PD leader Enrico Letta told Reuters last month.

The task will be greatly complicated if market sentiment turns against Italy as it did in 2011, when tensions in the Berlusconi government raised doubts about its commitment to budget discipline.

Monti, seen outside Italy at least as a guarantor of stability, has said he was “not a man sent by Providence”, but whether he himself will be involved in the next government has been one of the main questions hanging over the race.

His sober, professorial style came as a welcome relief to international investors and European partners unnerved by the turmoil and scandal surrounding Berlusconi as bond markets crashed in the summer of 2011.

But if opinion polls are confirmed on election day, it is difficult to see how he could become prime minister without resorting to the kind of backroom deals that characterized the shaky coalitions of the postwar period, when governments often survived no more than months or even weeks.

The most recent opinion poll gave centre-left PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani support of 36 percent, with Monti on 23.3 percent, ahead of both Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) and Grillo’s 5-Star Movement.

Monti’s involvement in the election has ruled him out as a candidate for president of the Republic, a post that would have given him significant behind-the-scenes influence.

That leaves the possibility of becoming finance minister in a Bersani government, though there has been little sign of enthusiasm either from his side or from the PD, which has maintained a respectful tone towards Monti but now clearly sees him as a political adversary.


Beyond the issue of personalities, the deep-rooted problems afflicting the Italian economy will be a formidable challenge to any new government.

“The situation in Italy is not easy, there are too many centres of power where everybody blocks everything. Our infrastructure isn’t working and we’ve got corruption all over,” said Renzo Rosso, head of the group behind Diesel jeans, one of the Italian companies that has managed to find a way past the obstacles in its home market to create a global success.

All the main parties in the race have called for more emphasis on creating growth, which along with its towering public debt has long been Italy’s Achilles heel.

Monti’s own 25-page agenda lays out a range of answers, such as taxing consumption and large fortunes more than companies and workers, and opening up markets to more competition and breaking down the suffocating power of special interest groups.

Turning such ideas into practice and convincing the public to go along with them is another matter.

Reflecting on her time in office, Elsa Fornero, an academic expert recruited into Monti’s technocrat government whose labor reform plans were largely stymied by resistance from both unions and employers, said she had learned the difference the hard way.

“In this period of almost a year now, I have been able to measure the distance between being a professor and being a minister,” she told foreign reporters last month.

“It’s something completely different. I have been more used to formulating rational solutions, but the rationality of a solution is not enough because society is more differentiated and doesn’t just live on rationality.”

(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala, Cristiano Corvino and Antonella Ciancio; Editing by Will Waterman)


By James Mackenzie | Reuters

Tag Cloud