Thursday, August 4, 2011

Clinton: more than 2,000 dead in Syrian crackdown

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday accused the Syrian government of killing more than 2,000 of its own citizens during its ongoing brutal crackdown against opposition protesters as the Obama administration moved to further isolate President Bashar Assad and his inner circle.
The administration is unhappy with Assad's

actions in trying to quell the five-month-old uprising.

"We think, to date, the government is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people of all ages," Clinton said, repeating the administration's position that "Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern the Syrian people."
She said the U.S. would "continue to support the Syrians themselves in their efforts to begin a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy" and renewed calls for the international community to unify behind steps to isolate Assad and his regime.
Clinton's comments, made at a news conference with visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, came just hours after White House press secretary Jay Carney said Assad is "on his way out" and the administration hit a prominent pro-regime businessman and his firm with sanctions.
"The actions that he has taken ... are reprehensible and appalling," Carney told reporters. "And we believe that country will be better off without him."
Earlier, the Treasury Department announced that it had slapped sanctions on Assad family confidante Muhammad Hamsho and his firm, Hamsho International Group, that freeze any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them.
The penalties did not target Syria's energy sector, something administration officials had repeatedly suggested was coming. Officials said those sanctions, which are expected to hit state-owned and state-affiliated oil and gas companies that are a leading revenue source for the government, are still in the works and could be unveiled in coming days.
Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen said Hamsho, who is also a member of Syria's parliament, had become wealthy through his connections to Assad and his brother, Mahir, and other members of the regime who have ordered the crackdown on the five-month-old uprising.
"Muhammad Hamsho earned his fortune through his connections to regime insiders, and during the current unrest, he has cast his lot with Bashar al-Asad, Mahir al-Asad and others responsible for the Syrian government's violence and intimidation against the Syrian people," Cohen said. "The sanctions we are applying today to Hamsho and his company are the direct consequence of his actions."
Hamsho's holding company has about 20 subsidiaries ranging from construction, civil engineering, telecommunications and hotels to carpets sales, horse trading and ice cream production.
In a statement, Treasury took several other shots at Hamsho, saying his commercial success was due to his regime connections "rather than his business acumen" and that he had "paid large sums of money to secure his seat" in parliament.
In May, the administration imposed sanctions on Assad and several senior Syrian officials to protest the deadly violence being used to quell demonstrations. But calls for additional steps have been growing since Sunday when the regime ordered troops into the restive city of Hama, where they have shelled buildings and shot indiscriminately at residents.
Rights groups say more than 100 people have been killed since the siege of Hama started on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The European Union imposed additional sanctions on Syria this week and on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the violence. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been demanding that the administration broaden its approach by slapping penalties on more regime members and target the energy sector.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday's announcement should not be seen as a one-time-only action and that further steps are coming.
"We're looking at ways to increase both political and financial pressure on Assad, and look at ways to put a squeeze on them, on his regime if you will, to constrain their revenue and to make it harder for them to carry out these kind of assaults," he told reporters. "What's important is that we continue to build the pressure."
Toner also said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was leaving on Thursday to return to Damascus. Ford had been in Washington since Sunday for consultations and to testify before Congress. Some lawmakers had urged the administration to recall Ford permanently as a further show of displeasure with the Assad regime. Italy this week recalled its ambassador and urged others to do the same. But Toner said the administration believes Ford should return.
"It's very important for him to get back on the ground where he can go back to his vital work to outreach to the Syrian opposition, as well as continue to press our concerns with the Syrian government," he said.



Free finally of the debt limit crisis, President Obama celebrated his 50th birthday with friends and raised campaign money in Chicago. Bill Plante reports on the president's mid-century blowout.

Saudi Women.....No 'Spring'

In the midst of the Arab awakening, women fighting oppression—in Saudi or any other Muslim nation—is doomed to fade away into a dark night.
Earlier this year, the world watched with bated breath as Egyptian women took to the streets alongside men to protest Mubarak’s rule and demand democracy. Cynically, men encouraged women’s participation—only to betray them once Mubarak was removed. Merely a few months later, Egypt—formerly the more modern among Muslim nations—has regressed into gender apartheid the like of which the country has not been seen in decades, and “modesty squads” roam neighborhoods in search of errant women whose appearance or behavior defy the Extreme Islam’s dictates.
Does anyone believe that Saudi women will fare better in their quest for the right to drive? In 2010, the Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 129th out of 134 countries for gender parity (down from spot #114 in 2006.) Islamic patriarchal system has kept Saudi women not just from driving, but from traveling, working and even signing medical forms without the permission of a male guardian—any male relative, even their own minor child.
Gender apartheid is the basis for the entire Muslim social structure. The Arabic word “fitna” means both civil disorder and beautiful woman. In his 2004 article, “Female Desire and Islamic Trauma,” Islam scholar Daniel Pipes explains:
“The entire Muslim social structure… goes to great lengths to separate the sexes and reduce contact between them. This explains such customs as the covering of women's faces and the separation of women's residential quarters, or the harem. Many other institutions serve to reduce female power over men, such as her need for a male's permission to travel, work, marry, or divorce. Revealingly, a traditional Muslim wedding took place between two men – the groom and the bride's guardian.” The reason, Dr. Pipes explains, is rooted by the view that a woman’s sexual desire is so great, that believers are obsessed with the dangers posed by her presence. “So strong are her [sexual] needs …she represents the forces of unreason and disorder. …She must be contained, for her unbridled sexuality poses a direct danger to the social order.”
For that reason, in 2002, in Saudi Arabia, religious policemen prevented fourteen-year-old schoolgirls from leaving a burning school building because they were not wearing their headscarves and abayahs. Fifteen girls died.
The Quran was written long before automobiles were invented. Therefore, it did not specifically prohibit women from driving. It did not even forbid women from riding horses or camels. And in a society obsessed with the modesty of women’s dress, cars actually hide women better than any other methods of transportation. Saudi Arabia’s leaders’ explanation that women driving is unsafe and leads to sexual impropriety is entirely false, as women are routinely pinched and groped through the chadors when walking in the streets, and are often sexually harassed by taxi drivers—or even raped by their own chauffeurs.
On the other hand, driving women around has created a source of income for many Saudi men: there are hundreds of thousands of chauffeurs in Saudi Arabia. Removing the religious fatwa against women driving would deeply affect an entire profession.
Phyllis Chesler has written extensively that subjugating women is behind the brutal misogynistic Islamic practices such as female genital mutilation, stoning and immolation of women, beatings, forced marriages, child marriages and polygamy. Now that Muslim feminists are taking to the streets in protest for the right to drive, they are beaten by mobs, yet have no legal protection even in cases of barbaric assault or rape. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, commented at "… [Saudi] women's rights activists have very little [legal] protection for their physical well-being …This is the problem in a corrupt society…. Republics of fear oppress and repress their citizens by allowing criminals to do the dirty work of the government. It allows the government to keep [its] hands free."
Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from driving. But viewing the protesting women in context of the men’s dread of female power to cause civil disorder, it is clear that breaking any taboo carries the unthinkable threat of women seeking rights for representation in government, in marriage and divorce, or in property ownership.
In the midst of the Arab awakening, women fighting oppression—in Saudi or any other Muslim nation—is doomed to fade away into a dark night, because the power to relinquish control lies in the hands of their oppressors: men, government, and Islamic religious leadership.

Stocks Plunge on Fears of Global Turmoil

What began as a relatively weak day in the stock markets ended in the worst rout in more than two years, as investors dumped stocks amid anxiety that both Europe and the United States were failing to fix deepening economic problems.

With a steep decline of around 5 percent in the United States on Thursday, stocks have now fallen nearly 11 percent in two weeks, culminating in a frantic sell-off as investors sought safer investments — including Treasury bonds, which some had been avoiding during the debate over extending the nation’s debt ceiling.

Sparking the drop was an unsuccessful effort by the European Central Bank to reassure the markets, which instead ended up spooking investors. The bank intervened with a show of support to buy bonds of some smaller countries, but not Italy and Spain, whose mounting troubles have come into the spotlight. This was taken as a sign that the recent rescue packages put in place by Europe could soon be overwhelmed by the huge debt burdens in those two countries.

Investors were further unnerved by a candid remark by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who seemed to confirm fears about the sense of political paralysis. Rather than play down the problems, as European officials have done since the debt crisis began last year, he said, “Markets remain to be convinced that we are taking the appropriate steps to resolve the crisis.”

With investors in the United States already focusing anew on fragile economic growth and high unemployment, waves of selling of stocks began in Europe and continued throughout the day in the United States. Analysts said the market still might have further to fall, as investors reassess the dimming economic prospects. In the short run, attention will be focused on critical unemployment numbers for July to be released on Friday morning. And some in the markets are already questioning whether the Federal Reserve has done enough to mend the economy and whether it could soon take further steps to stimulate growth.

On Thursday, more than 14 billion shares changed hands, the heaviest selling in more than a year. In addition to being unnerved by weaker economic data reported in recent days, investors appeared to lose their optimism about the strength of corporate profits that had driven increases in the stock market in the first half of this year.

At the close, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was down 60.27 points, or 4.78 percent, to 1,200.07. The Dow Jones industrial average was off 512.76 points, or 4.31 percent, to 11,383.68, and the Nasdaq was down 136.68, or 5.08 percent, to 2,556.39.

The S.& P. 500 has now fallen 10.7 percent from 1,345 on July 22, underlining the new negative investment sentiment about the economy and about Europe.

“We are now in correction mode,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor’s. “We could have another couple of weeks to go before it bottoms.”

The last time the market was in a correction was last summer, when it fell 16 percent before recovering.

Analysts said credit markets were still healthy and the United States was now stronger than just a few years ago so that a repeat of the financial crisis was unlikely.

“There is a huge difference — during the financial crisis the banking sector broke down. Right now it’s a crisis of confidence based on weak economies but the banking sector is not broken,” said Reena Aggarwal, professor of finance at Georgetown University.

Washington’s reaction to the market’s tumble was muted. The Treasury Department said it did not plan to issue any statements or provide officials to comment.

“Markets go up and down,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. “We obviously are monitoring the situation in Europe closely.”

As the prospects for economic growth dimmed, several commodities, including oil, silver and palladium, fell by more than 5 percent, perhaps producing some good news for consumers.

With oil prices dropping below $87 a barrel, wiping out the rise caused by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa earlier in the year, drivers can expect sharply lower gasoline prices just in time for the Labor Day weekend and back-to-school shopping.

Agricultural crops and most industrial metals fell somewhat less drastically, with copper falling 1.9 percent, aluminum by 1.7 percent, corn by 1.9 percent, wheat by 3.4 percent and soybeans by 1.8 percent.

Taken together, the drops should mean lower input costs for manufacturers and give the Federal Reserve more policy options should the economy continue to slow.

A closely-watched survey of American investor attitudes provided by the American Association of Individual investors on Thursday showed the biggest increase in bearish sentiment for five years in the latest week. As investors fled assets like stocks, they piled into the perceived safety of United States Treasuries where 10-year interest rates fell to 2.64 percent, recording the biggest one day fall since March 2009.

Yields on one-month United States notes actually fell into negative territory before closing at zero.

Besides piling into treasuries, institutional investors are also seeking out the safety of cold, hard cash, pouring billions into commercial bank accounts backed up by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Investors had also been buying Swiss francs and Japanese yen. But earlier this week, Switzerland unexpectedly cut interest rates in an effort to weaken the franc. Japan on Thursday also intervened to weaken its currency, raising the specter that more nations could take similar steps to try to protect their economies.

Around the world, markets from Brazil to Turkey were battered.

In Britain, stocks closed down 3.43 percent. In Germany, the DAX index dropped 3.4 percent. In France, the CAC 40 closed down 3.9 percent.

“It really is Europe today,” said Barry Knapp, head of United States equity strategy at Barclays Capital. “The market feels that European leaders are on step behind, and they are.”

Asian markets quickly followed suit in trading lower. In morning trading on Friday, the Nikkei 225 in Japan was down 3.5 percent to 9,316.93 while the S&P/ASX 200 index in Australia fell 3.6 percent to 4,120.50.

With some warning signs that weaker European banks are struggling to fund themselves, the central bank moved to help weaker banks by expanding its lending to institutions in the euro zone. Bank stocks nevertheless fell sharply in Europe.

In the United States, as the stock market fell, it broke through important support levels, triggering further selling by traders as they rushed to reduce their exposure to plummeting prices. That included computerized program traders, one analyst said.

Karachi: elusive peace


Last month, almost 300 people lost their lives in Karachi due to a turf war between rival political parties. There were hopes that during the holy month of Ramzan, violence may abate. Unfortunately, the bloodthirsty armed gangs of rival political factions have no regard for human life or any sacred month. President Zardari held three back to back meetings on Wednesday in order to resolve the Karachi situation. “We believe in taking along all political forces on the issues of national importance, and will continue to do so in future as well. We have to resolve this issue ourselves and at the earliest, keeping in view the importance of this city and its role in the economy of the country,” said the president. On the one hand the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is trying to resolve the situation but on the other we see Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain’s provocative statements. Mr Hussain said that since the government has failed to stop the ongoing violence, the army and Rangers should come forward to protect the lives of innocent people. “What should the Muhajirs do now? Should they go back [to India]? If a 1992-like operation is started again, will the Indian leaders provide accommodation to 50 million Muhajirs of Pakistan?” asked the MQM chief. He had also asked the citizens of Karachi to store one month’s rations. On Thursday, the MQM chief realised his folly and apologised to the people of Sindh for his remarks and appealed to the people of Karachi to remain calm. The Awami National Party (ANP) has also been asking for a military operation. Interior Minister Rehman Malik ruled out a military operation. “Action will focus on those involved in targeted killings and terrorists. This fight will continue till normalcy is restored in the cosmopolitan city,” Mr Malik stated.

It is extremely sad to see that all political parties in Karachi have been playing politics instead of doing anything concrete to bring back normalcy to the metropolis. The issue at hand is that of turf wars and control of the city’s administrative apparatus. The PPP made a coalition government with the MQM and the ANP in order to keep all political forces on board. But the MQM’s ‘quit/rejoin/quit/rejoin’ mantra has exasperated its coalition partners. The MQM is loathe to lose its political power in the city. Even though the MQM claims to be an inclusive party, it is guilty of dividing people along ethnic lines. This is not to say that the MQM alone is responsible for everything that goes wrong in Karachi but a large chunk of the blame still lies at its doorstep. The PPP’s manoeuvres of restoring the commissionerate system and unleashing Zulfiqar Mirza backfired. MQM-Haqiqi’s re-entry in this violence-ridden city made matters worse. The city of lights is now full of darkness and gloom, all because of the highhandedness of the political parties.

What is needed right now is requisite political will to resolve the situation and end the violence once and for all. A military operation is no solution and will only add to the woes of the people of Karachi. The police needs to be strengthened in order to curb violence. If the armed gangs have the patronage of any political party, action must be taken against the perpetrators and their mentors. Karachi has seen more than its share of violence over the decades. It is time to stop this madness and take strict action against all culprits disturbing the peace of the city. *

US rules out strategic talks with Pakistan

US State Department has said they have contact with Pakistan but no possibility of strategic talks. The issue of US envoys’ movement in Pakistan would be settled properly and reciprocity is an option to deal with such matters. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said US envoy Mark Grassman’s tri-partite dialogues and discussion with Pak and Afghan leadership proved positive. Pakistan and the US have agreed to work jointly on important issues, he said.
He repeated that there was no gap of communication between the two countries but as far strategic dialogues are concerned, there was no possibility.
The United States has earlier warned the Pakistani government that its diplomats in the US could be hit with travel restrictions similar to those recently imposed on American diplomats in Pakistan unless Pakistan lifts its restrictions.
The State Department said the US and Pakistan were working to end the spat, the latest irritant in already strained ties, and it was confident the dispute would be resolved quickly.
But US officials said Pakistan had been told the Obama administration would consider reciprocal steps to retaliate for the restrictions set down last month by Pakistan s foreign ministry if they are not rescinded.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the warning but said "reciprocity is always a consideration" when dealing with such matters.
"We are working cooperatively with the government of Pakistan to resolve the issue," Toner told reporters. "We ve met with Pakistani officials on this matter both in Washington and in Islamabad, and we believe it can be resolved. The issue is the right of our diplomats to freely travel."

China, Russia discuss military cooperation

The chief of the Chinese army's General Staff Chen Bingde discussed military cooperation with Russian Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov on Thursday.

During their talks, Chen, chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), said bilateral military relations were in good shape and there had been dramatic progress in recent years.

China stood ready to work with Russia to further advance their military ties, which would help promote the China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership and was conducive to peace and stability in the region and the world, Chen said.

Serdyukov lauded the relationship between the two countries and the two militaries.

The two sides also conducted an in-depth exchange of views on contacts and cooperation between defense departments and the two militaries and reached broad consensus.

Chen arrived here Wednesday for an official good-will visit.

Russia is the first leg of his three-nation tour, which will also take him to Ukraine and Israel.

China, Russia discuss military cooperation

Balochistan is of importance to US: Munter

US Ambassador Cameron Munter said Pakistan and specially Balochistan is of importance to them and US would continue to work for strengthening democracy in the country, Geo News reported.

He was talking to media after a meeting with Balochistan Assembly Speaker Mohammad Aslam Bhootani here today. Munter noted that we US would always be there whenever needed.

'People of Balochiatan are very hospitable and I have always receive respect by them.' He told journalists that US would cooperate in Balochistan's water and energy projects.

In meeting with Speaker Aslam Bhootani, they discussed matters of mutual interests.

Barack Obama: Happy 50th birthday, Mr President

No let-up in Karachi violence

There has been more violence in the Pakistani city of Karachi, where at least 42 people have been killed since Monday.

Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister warned on Tuesday of stern action against those involved in the latest round of violence in the country's commercial capital, blaming "criminals and militants" for the unrest.

The Pakistani interior minister said at least 18 of the killings targeted political activists, and that the government had prepared a plan to tackle the deteriorating law and order situation in the city.

"We will take every possible action to restore peace in Karachi," he said, adding that results of the government's action will be visible soon.

Al Jazeera's Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Karachi, said: "As this violence is still going on, people aren't listening."

The latest round of violence has been attributed to a fight for political influence in the city between Karachi's main parties, Tyab said.

The embattled city, where police say about 200 people were killed in last month alone, is home to Pakistan's main port, stock exchange and central bank. It has not seen a month as deadly as July in almost 20 years.

Local media put the toll even higher, with the Dawn newspaper reporting that 318 people were killed during the month.

Burnt vehicles

After violence erupted last month, hundreds of extra police and paramilitary troops were deployed in Orangi, Karachi's largest and one of its poorest slums.

More than 100 people were killed during three days of violence in the slum at that time.

The Rangers, an internal security force, took control of the area, but violence has since spread to other parts of the city of more than 18 million.

Calls for peace by the government and other political parties have also failed.

On Monday, at least 90 vehicles were set ablaze in different parts of the city.

In one incident, at least 80 motorcycles were burnt when dozens of people stormed a textile factory late on Monday and set fire to the vehicles parked outside the industrial unit.

Political 'turf war'

Over the years, criminal gangs have been used by political parties in a city-wide war for influence in Karachi, which contributes about two-third of Pakistan's tax revenue.

On Monday, the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) attributed much of the violence to these political parties, though it also said that criminal elements were "exploit[ing] the breakdown of law and order".

"While gangs of land-grabbers and mafias have tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order, they do not appear to be the main directors of the horrible game of death and destruction; that distinction belongs to more powerful political groups and it is they who hold the key to peace," it said.

Tyab said that the battles between smaller and local groups happen as a result of a politically motivated "turf war".

"What we understand is that the political parties in Pakistan have been exploiting the divisions that exist in this city ... and often they will turn to the underworld, the criminals, to carry out their dirty work," he said.

The HRCP had previously said that 1,138 people were killed in Karachi in the first six months of 2011, of whom 490 were victims of political, ethnic and sectarian violence.

Source: Al Jazeera

President Bashar al-Assad decrees Syria reform

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued a decree authorising a multi-party political system, state media reported Thursday, a day after the U.N. Security Council condemned the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters.
The decree issued by Assad may have the power to bring to an end decades of single-party rule by the Baath Party in Syria, although it remains unclear how the new law will be implemented.
The draft law was earlier passed by Syrian lawmakers, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported, and grants citizens the right to establish political parties with the aim of contributing to political life "through peaceful and democratic means."
However, the Syrian opposition has argued the decrees are simply for show and will not bring about real change.Assad's move comes as reports of violence continue to prompt international outrage. Security forces killed four people after evening prayers on Wednesday, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, one in the southwestern town of Nawa, in Daraa province, one in the central city of Palmyra, and two in Damascus.
The observatory said communications remained cut off Thursday in the western city of Hama, a center of discontent and bastion of anti-government protest. The group is concerned that many civilians may have died, as the military remains in the city.
The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday issued a presidential statement condemning the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters and calling for an immediate end to violence by all parties.

"The Security Council condemns the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities," the eight-paragraph statement says.
It calls for "all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions."
The statement says those responsible for the violence should be held accountable but offers no suggestion that foreign intervention is being considered.
"The Security Council reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria," it says.
"It stresses that the only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population which will allow the full exercise of fundamental freedoms for its entire population, including that of expression and peaceful assembly."
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is to update the council on the situation in Syria within a week, welcomed the statement.
"The world has watched the deteriorating situation in Syria with the most profound concern, but the events of the past few days have been brutally shocking," he told reporters.
"Once again, I call on President (Bashar al-) Assad and the Syrian authorities to immediately cease all violence against their people, to fully respect human rights and implement reforms that they have already announced."
He urged Damascus to comply with the Security Council's demand that international humanitarian organizations be granted unimpeded access to affected areas. "Those responsible should be held to account," he said.
He praised the 15-nation Security Council for speaking out "with one voice and condemning all this violence and asking them to take necessary measures" after long discussions on the matter.
But Lebanon's ambassador, Caroline Ziade, said her country, which is Syria's neighbor, dissociated itself from the statement. However, Lebanon chose not to block the measure, as it could have done.
Resolutions usually carry with them some sort of action. Presidential statements are simply unanimous on-the-record positions.
Though a resolution would have been more significant than the presidential statement, U.S. diplomats said they were glad the United Nations had taken a stance.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called the statement "long overdue." She added that she hoped Damascus will "be chastened by the strength and the unity of the condemnation."
The statement came on the third consecutive day of talks in New York to address the crisis, which a White House spokesman called "grotesque and appalling."
Witnesses said Wednesday that security forces were brazenly advancing into the heart of Hama.
Hama, which has seen massive demonstrations by anti-government protesters in Friday demonstrations, was the site of the 1982 bloody crackdown by the Alawite-dominated government against a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.
The city is under siege by security forces amid a military offensive, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and witnesses say communications have been closed down amid the military push.
Rami Abdul-Rahman of the observatory told CNN Thursday that 1,000 families had fled west to surrounding villages and 500 families eastwards, leaving a city where violence has persisted for days.
His group monitors the unrest in Syria through many contacts on the ground, and his sources have reported hearing explosions and seeing plumes of smoke. "There are great concerns of a massacre in the city," he said Wednesday.
"The human situation is very bad," said a witness from an opposition movement who said he was in the center of Hama and asked not to be named for security reasons.
Corpses were seen on the ground after tanks occupied parts of central Hama amid heavy shelling, said a resident who fled the city.
Dozens more people have been killed in Hama and other Syrian cities in recent days, rights groups have said.
Residents said the city is running short on food. Power and water are scarce and residents said they fear a humanitarian crisis. Across Hama, intermittent gunfire and shelling rang out, helicopters whirled overhead and government snipers took positions, making it difficult for people to venture out, residents said.
Security forces also launched a series of raids and detentions in the Khaldiyeh neighborhood of Homs, another western city, and dozens of people have been detained in the area, the scene of marches by anti-government protesters.
Syria's parliament plans to meet Sunday to discuss "issues related to the homeland and citizens' interests," SANA reported Wednesday.
CNN is unable to independently confirm death tolls or events in Syria, which has restricted access to the country by international journalists, including CNN's.
Since mid-March, anti-government protesters have taken to the streets across the whole country to demand reforms from or an end to the al-Assad's regime.
The death toll in Syria since its uprising began in mid-March has reached 2,003, the observatory's Abdul-Rahman said. The dead include 1,629 civilians and 374 Syrian security forces.
The figure doesn't include tolls from the Wednesday unrest in the city of Hama, where it is difficult confirming information because of the ongoing military offensive there.
Activists blame the deaths of demonstrators on security forces, but the government has consistently attributed the violence to "armed groups."

Pakistan's High food inflation

The Frontier Post
Food inflation in Pakistan is picking up as food prices up by over 17.58 per cent in July making eatables dearer for consumers, heaping more economic misery on the people.This is the highest food inflation in South Asia region; rather the world, and is because of frequent increase in the prices of petroleum goods and electricity tariff in addition to the government’s failure in checking the spiral in the prices of all essential commodities. This happened before and during the holy month of Ramadan and at the same time, the government itself added to the economic misery of the hapless teeming millions. First the sharp rise of petroleum products and now a repressive hike in electricity tariff by Rs1.04 a unit which comes to around 20 per cent of fuel cost being incurred by WAPDA’s nine distribution companies and consumers will have to bear additional cost during the current billing month. The National Electricity Regulatory Authority allowed the increase on all generations including hydropower resources whose production cost is about 17 paisa a unit. The latest Federal Bureau of Statistics report says the current exorbitant food inflation is driven by oil prices, the headline inflation, based on consumer price index, rose by 13.77 per cent in July alone with an overall impact of 17.58 per cent since the beginning of the new fiscal year. This means that food inflation went up by about another 4 per cent only in the first three days of August; this is atrocious and speaks volumes of the country’s inept economic managers who have time and again said they want the inflation to come down to a single digit level. The government has projected an inflation target of 12 per cent for the current fiscal year which seems to be missed because of rising food and fuel prices. A major factor in the hyper inflation in the country is the failure of provincial governments to ensure an improved supply of food to small towns and villages. Likewise, provinces have not so far established committees to review food prices. In the past such committees were headed by chief ministers under a law which still exists on statute books only to be ignored. Now that the devolution plan has seen the transfer of the subjects for provinces to govern, it now appears that they were and still not prepared to take up the responsibility. One glaring example of the lack of preparedness is that except for Sindh, no other province has demonstrated the ability and will to collect taxes and add to provincial revenues. On the other hand, the central bank has decreased its discount rate to 13.5 per cent from 14 per cent assuming that headline inflation would not exceed 12pc and second, government would restrict its domestic borrowings for financing fiscal deficit. But contrary to this, the non-food and non-energy core inflation entered a double digit to 10.7 per cent in July from 10.3 per cent last year making it harder for the central bank to further bring down the interest rate in the next monetary policy review.The surge in food prices could possibly lead to social unrest in case government did not take corrective measures to arrest the perpetual rise in prices.

Strengthening the federation

According to reports, the government “is considering making an announcement for a separate Seraiki province by the end of this month” or on August 14th. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has made this move in order to truncate the influence of its archrival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Not to be outdone by the PPP, Mian Nawaz Sharif has also formed a party committee related to the demand for new provinces. While this may be a political gimmick for the two mainstream political parties, the truth is that the idea of more provinces in Pakistan is indeed a good one. The PML-N has ‘threatened’ to ask for the division of Sindh along the lines of the Seraiki province but instead of threatening the government with such veiled remarks, they should think about the ground realities and how the creation of further provinces will help strengthen the federation.

Most politicians think that the idea of a Seraiki province is good for administrative purposes while missing the complete picture. There is an ethnic and linguistic issue at hand as well. Administratively, it makes perfect sense for a Seraiki province given the grievances of southern Punjab because of ‘Takht Lahore’. It is a longstanding complaint of south Punjab that the Lahore-based Punjab government does not do justice to their region. The formation of a Seraiki province will inevitably lead to a demand for more provinces. Already there is a movement for the restoration of the Bahawalpur state. The division of Punjab makes perfect sense. When one province houses over 60 percent of the country’s total population, there is an inevitable imbalance in the federation and the division of its resources because of this. It is because of the Punjab-dominated ruling elite that the other three provinces have not been able to get their just rights for decades.

The argument for more provinces on linguistic, ethnic and administrative lines is something that should be given a chance. Small provinces should be made due to the argument against Punjab’s domination. When people’s complaints and demands are met, Pakistan will be strengthened. When the name of NWFP was changed to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there was a demand for a Hazara province. Instead of quashing such demands, the government should hold a referendum in areas where we see such movements. If the people want new provinces, they should get them. It is in the realm of real democracy. Soliciting opinion has always strengthened democracy instead of undermining it. Our politicians should not be afraid of this process. There will be hurdles in the way of making new provinces but that should not deter them from making decisions that will, in the long run, help Pakistan.

That said, the demand for a Seraiki province should not be turned into a political ping pong game. This is not a zero-sum game either. Constitutional amendments will have to be made when the federation carves out new provinces. By adopting a tit-for-tat policy vis-à-vis Sindh, the PML-N is trying to make a mockery of an issue that is very serious and requires sober reflection and discussion. In the past, Pakistan negated the linguistic and ethnic realities when One Unit was promulgated. We should not make the same mistake again by denying the people of Pakistan their just rights.

Budweiser updates packaging graphics with new "bowtie" design


the iconic global beer brand, has unveiled a new design, seen in its can and secondary packaging, that will roll out of U.S. breweries and into the hands of American beer drinkers this summer, before debuting in markets around the world later this year.

The new can design is Budweiser's 12th since Anheuser-Busch began offering its flagship brand in cans in 1936. The focal point of the design is Budweiser's iconic bowtie, complemented by the time-honored Budweiser creed and Anheuser-Busch medallion.

"Budweiser's success is rooted in aspects of the beer that will never change—a crisp, refreshing taste, an unwavering commitment to quality and the enormous pride we take in each batch," says Rob McCarthy, vp, Budweiser. "Our refreshed packaging design gives Budweiser an updated look, which dramatizes the iconic Budweiser bowtie and incorporates the brand hallmarks that loyal Budweiser drinkers will recognize and appreciate."

Budweiser's new "bowtie" can and secondary packaging designs will be the global standard as the brand continues to expand internationally.

"This new visual identity is one of many steps in our quest to reinforce Budweiser's role as a true global beer brand. Together with our unifying global creative idea, the new global packaging look and feel will reinforce Budweiser's bond with consumers around the world," says Frank Abenante, vp, brands, AB InBev.

Using the same design principles as the newly designed can, the redesigned secondary packaging will be used for all package configurations and emphasizes the Budweiser creed, which highlights the beer's unique Beechwood Aging process and 135-year long commitment to quality. The packaging will also feature a quick-response (QR) code that will better enable Budweiser to regularly communicate with consumers.

Obama celebrates 50th birthday

President Barack Obama celebrates his 50th birthday on Thursday just days after reaching a deal with Republicans to avert a calamitous government default.

While the mood around the White House hasn't exactly been festive since the deal was reached - Obama didn't get much of what he wanted - there will be plenty of celebration for the milestone.

Senior members of Obama's staff will toast the president in the Blue Room of the White House on Thursday afternoon. At night, he'll celebrate with family and friends, including some coming in from his hometown of Chicago, then cap the festivities with a weekend trip to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

For the sake of his re-election campaign, the celebrations started a bit early for the president. He headlined birthday-themed fundraisers in Chicago on Wednesday night to rake in money for his campaign and spoke via video conference to supporters holding their own presidential birthday events around the US.

With the cloud of uncertainty that surrounded the debt debate now lifted, Obama had a wide smile on his face for much of the night. He got another birthday serenade from musicians Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock and the band OK Go, along with the crowd of about 2 400 gathered at Chicago's historic Aragon Ballroom.

At a small dinner for high-dollar donors later in the night, Obama said there would be one very important present waiting for him in back in Washington on Thursday. His oldest daughter, Malia, was coming home from camp to celebrate his father's birthday.

Obama was born on August 4 1961, near the end of the baby boom years of 1946-64. He's the third US president who belongs to the baby boom generation, a population of more than 76 million. Bill Clinton was the first, followed by George W Bush.