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Thailand’s red-shirted protesters and the embattled government on Saturday deliberated over the first steps towards a peaceful solution to their long-running deadlock.
The world community has urged both sides on Thailand’s political divide to find a compromise, after two bouts of clashes this month that have left 26 dead and hundreds injured including demonstrators and security forces.
As fears grew of a crackdown to close down a vast “Red Shirts” encampment in the heart of Bangkok, and end weeks of crippling street rallies, the army chief said Friday that the use of force was no solution to the crisis.

“The best thing is to create understanding among the people. The army’s job now is to take care of the people, and not allow Thais to attack each other,” General Anupong Paojinda told a meeting of military top brass.
The Reds, who had been seeking snap elections to replace a government they condemn as illegitimate, shortly after softened their demands and said they would accept a dissolution of parliament in 30 days.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court removed allies of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup, was noncommittal on the Reds’ offer.
“I am determined to solve the problem,” he told reporters late Friday, adding that a political solution could not be reached amid threats and intimidation.

Abhisit, who has been holed up in a military barracks since last month because of the protests, added: “I have a duty to solve the problem. If I can’t I should not be here.”
Red Shirt leaders on Saturday calmed their supporters, some of whom were angry over the concessions.
“The new proposal does not mean we are retreating, in political terms we are on the offensive because otherwise the international community will put pressure on us,” Jaran Ditsatapichai said.
“If we shut down the door for negotiation it will be bad for us,” he said, adding that foreign diplomats who met with the Reds on Friday had urged them to find a solution to avoid a looming crackdown.

Jaran said the military was reluctant to disperse the rally - a manoeuvre that would likely cause huge casualties - and that a crackdown would be shelved during the current negotiating phase.
Other Reds leaders were irritated over Abhisit’s response to their proposal, and said they would continue calling in supporters from their stronghold in the country’s impoverished and rural north.
“Don’t insult our Red Shirts’ olive branch, we offered a compromise to avoid further loss of people’s lives,” Kwanchai Praipana said at the protest camp that has paralysed Thailand’s main retail district for three weeks.
“We can fight for one more year, don’t underestimate us, we will have more people willing to come and join us at this rally site,” he said.

Abhisit condemned fresh violence on Thursday that saw a series of grenade blasts tear through a pro-government rally, saying the attacks, which left one dead and scores injured, “aimed to kill ordinary people”.
Tensions have been high since April 10 clashes, sparked by a failed attempt to dislodge protesters from their original rally base in Bangkok’s historic district, which triggered clashes that killed 25 and injured 800. - (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Battle to clear backlog as Europe airspace re-opens

Airports across Europe began reopening Wednesday, six days after ash from an Icelandic volcano forced the shutdown of airspace and stranded thousands of passengers around the world. The airspace over most of the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and Germany was open again, air traffic authorities said.
The airport in Helsinki, Finland, was briefly open on Wednesday but then closed again, airport officials said.

Second more powerful volcano to erupt soon

Despite grounding 100,000 flights across Europe, battering a beleaguered airline industry, stranding hundreds of thousands of travellers, disrupting schools and businesses, and giving homes under flight paths their first peace and quiet in decades, the current volcano eruption may be only a teaser of chaos to come.
A far bigger Icelandic volcano, Katla, is tipped to erupt in the coming months, potentially causing much more savage and sustained disruption to industry and society. Eyjafjallajokull erupted on April 14, forcing European governments to impose a no-fly zone. Each time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted in the past 2,000 years – in 920, in 1612 and between 1821 and 1823 – Katla has exploded within six months.
“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Katla erupted within the next year, but how much it affects Britain and northern Europe depends on what happens with the winds at the time,” the volcanologist Bill McGuire told The Independent.

Colourful but deadly protests in Thailand

By Thanapathi
Thailand has been gripped by dozens of protests in the last few weeks. It is quite literally a colourful affair. The anti-government protestors are called “Red Shirts” for the name implies the colour of the shirts they wear in protest. In contrast, the pro- government demonstrators who have now organised their own protest against the Red shirts are called “Yellow Shirts”. Adding some more colour to the protest are the “Rainbow Shirts”, a group of demonstrators who are protesting against both the Red and Yellow.

This week thousands of anti-government protesters once again brought Thailand’s capital Bangkok to a standstill, as they sought to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who they say is illegitimate and undemocratic. The Red Shits support Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, before he was ousted in a bloodless coup. After his removal, he continued to play a role in Thai politics - even from outside of the Southeast Asian nation.

A deadly turn
Anti-government demonstrators offered to call off protests that have crippled the Thai holding out the prospect of a peaceful solution to the country’s protracted crisis. Red Shirt leader Veera Musikapong has stated that, if the government dissolves parliament in 30 days and calls elections 60 days after that, the protesters will go home. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency on April 7, hours after anti-government demonstrators stormed the country’s parliament. On April 10 the clashes between the Red Shirts and the military took a deadly turn which led to the deaths of more than two dozen demonstrators and military forces.

Veera Musikapong demands that the government set up an independent committee to investigate the killings on April 10 and stop all aggressive actions against the Red Shirts.
The coloured shirts revolution, if it maybe called that, started with the Yellow Shirts who had been protesting against Prime Misniter Thaksin Shinawatra ever since a government that was considered loyal to him came to power in 2006. Those protesters donned yellow shirts (the colour of the king) and occupied the two main airports in Bangkok, until finally the pro-Thaksin government was brought down by a court ruling. In revenge, Thaksin’s supporters copied the yellow shirt tactics and took to the streets in red shirts. Thai Yellow-Shirt protesters have given the government a week to end a political crisis or face mass action. The Yellow-Shirts, or Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are a loose grouping of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class. They oppose the pro-Thaksin, mainly poor and rural, red-shirt protesters. The yellow-shirts have been largely low-profile since the latest red-shirt protests began but in 2008 they staged a week-long blockade of airports that stranded hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Looming civil war
Some diplomatic and media and analysts fear that a civil war may be looming in Thailand, with another group called the “multi-coloured shirts” also known as the Rainbow Shirts joining the fray. They are displeased with the disruption caused by the red shirt protests. They are generally middle-class city dwellers. They are not pro- or anti-government, they simply want the government to shut down the Reds to end the violence and interruptions to daily life. The Red and multi-coloured shirts have clashed in Silom Road, Bangkok’s business and financial district.

There have been serious implications due to weeks of protests in the capital Bangkok. Thailand’s vital tourists industry seems not to have suffered a devastating effect but if the protests continue it will no doubt deter the 3 million plus tourists that visit the country. Hotel occupancy rates in the Thai capital have fallen to 40 to 50 percent. However, business associations said hotel occupancy rates elsewhere in the country, in Phuket and Pattaya for instance are at around 90 percent due to tourists diverting to other locations. Other businesses have taken a direct hit due to the instability in the country. The closure of four popular shopping malls in central Bangkok due to the ongoing political unrest in the city may cost businesses there some US$30 million in losses a day. The stock market has also shown strains due to the uncertainty prevailing.

Crisis needs a political solution
Thailand is not a country that is unfamiliar with military coups. The country has had 18 coups in the past 77 years. This time around the army may not be hasty to intervene in the political turmoil, since it prefers to keep the current prime minister in power. Despite potentially dangerous splits within the military’s ranks, and a bloody but futile attempt to put down a stubborn and provocative anti-government movement, most analysts say a coup is not on the horizon, at least not yet. They say the army might be lukewarm about Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December 2008 after the army brokered a deal in parliament, but as long as he stands firm against the red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a coup will not be necessary. The military itself has been split by the protesters making it complicated to assume where their true loyalty lies. Analysts say that large numbers of soldiers of lower ranks and some senior officers have long sympathised with the mostly rural and working-class “Red Shirt” while a greater number of the military’s top brass are at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with royalists, business elites and the urban middle classes who wear yellow at counter-protests and broadly back the 16-month-old government. Thai media reported that army and government sources as saying that the Red Shirts had received arms and support last week from a rogue military faction that includes retired officers allied to former premier Shinawatra. Army chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda, a moderate who retires in September, said on Monday the crisis needs a political solution and called for the dissolution of parliament to clear the way for elections. But royalists in the army are not ruling out a coup. In the midst of the chaos Thailand’s 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been in hospital since September, adding another element of uncertainty. The revered monarch would have or else been an arbiter in the dispute.

What started as spontaneous anti-government protests have now turned deadly and even threaten a civil conflict between many antagonists. The Thai economy will also suffer in the short to medium-term if the conflict is not resolved soon. With a military coup not being ruled out uncertainty is sure to continue plunging this nation further into crisis.

News in brief

At least 61 dead in Iraq bombings
A wave of bombings targeting Shiites, a market in Baghdad and a neighbourhood in Anbar province killed at least 61 people and wounded more than 100 others Friday, police said.
The strikes conjured memories of the bloodshed that once engulfed both the capital city and the vast province every day.
No one has claimed responsibility for the string of attacks, but authorities believe that such coordinated bombings bear the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The bombings come days after Iraqi and U.S. officials announced that they had killed the two most wanted al Qaeda leaders in the country. Although the deaths hurt the insurgents, military officials don’t discount insurgents’ continued ability to carry out attacks. (CNN)

Mumbai’s Oberoi hotel reopens after 2008 attack
The Oberoi hotel, one of the best-known landmarks in Mumbai, is due to reopen - 18 months after being badly damaged when militants stormed the Indian city.
Nearly 170 people died in the attack, more than 30 of them Oberoi staff and guests of the luxury hotel.
Every room was destroyed as the gunmen rampaged through the hotel, firing indiscriminately and setting off explosions.
The hotel has now been refurbished at a cost of $35m (£23m). In the Oberoi hotel, the finishing touches are now being put, the BBC’s Ben Richardson in Mumbai says. . - (BBC News)

Vatican rejects US lawsuit against Pope
The Vatican says a lawsuit brought against Pope Benedict and two Church officials by a US man who says he was abused by a priest is “without merit”.
Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena said the lawsuit, filed in a Milwaukee court, “rehashes old theories already rejected by US courts”.
Lawyers for the alleged victim want the Church to release any files it has on sexual abuse cases involving priests. - (BBC News)

Search for missing calls off in oil rig fire in Gulf of Mexico
The Coast Guard on Friday called off its search for 11 workers missing since an explosion on an oil rig this week off the Louisiana coast.
Rear Adm. Mary Landry said crews had spent three days searching a large area surrounding the rig but could not find the missing workers.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) called Friday for a congressional investigation of safety practices at offshore oil rigs, saying the Tuesday explosion “shows we need to be asking a lot more tough questions of big oil.” Nelson has led opposition in the Senate to offshore drilling.
A federal agency that oversees offshore oil drilling has grown so concerned about the number of related deaths and injuries that it was moving to impose new safety rules even before the explosion. A Minerals Management Service review published last year found 41 deaths and 302 injuries in 1,443 accidents, the majority caused by human error and operational and maintenance problems. (Washington Post)


Is the Earth striking back?

Alan Weisman is the author of “The World Without Us,” an international bestseller now in 33 languages. It was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 2007 by both Time magazine and Entertainment Weekly, the No.1 Nonfiction Audiobook of 2007 by iTunes, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction
One endless June afternoon a decade ago, I drove along southern Iceland’s Highway One, past the weak spot in the planetary crust whose rupture recently brought air traffic in Europe to an ashen standstill.
It was summer solstice, a day when the sun lolled at the horizon but never set, turning to crimson the basalt cliffs that face the Atlantic. From countless crags along their length gushed great arcs of water, pressured from above by a weight draped over a hundred square kilometres like a huge slab of white cake frosting: the 200-metre-thick Eyjafjallajokull glacier.

Between the coastal cliffs and the ice lay a band of green slopes, five kilometers wide, interspersed with fjords and valleys that held clusters of farmhouses and barns with red metal roofs, their shining silos and occasional church steeples pointed toward the immense glacier hovering overhead.
The air, brilliantly clear, resounded with terns, orange-billed oystercatchers, petrels, whimbrels and musical wagtails. At 8 in the evening, farmers in overalls were still out haying, their pale hair aflame in the suspended daylight. I saw a string of 10 riders on buckskin and dun mounts, forelegs lifted in the extra-high gait unique to Icelandic horses, making them appear to be swimming through the deep green ribbon at the glacier’s edge.

That extended, gilded moment was as perfect a definition of beauty on Earth as I have known. It remains indelible, even though over the past week, much of what I saw was swept away as Eyjafjallajokull’s erupting volcano melted a gaping hole in its ice cap, flooding what lay below.
A big clue as to why that happened can be found an hour’s drive to the west, halfway between Eyjafjallajokull and Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, in a broad valley with a sharp cleft down its middle. That place, Thingvellir, is so famous in Icelandic history that practically no signs announce it, because everyone knows what and where it is.

In A.D. 930, more than a thousand years after the decline of ancient Greece, Thingvellir was where Western democracy was reborn. By coincidence - or maybe not -- the spot where the Norsk settlers who made up the island’s infant society chose to convene their first parliament is one of the few places on the Earth’s surface where thegeologic action that defines our planet’s land and seas is visible.
Here, astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the North American and Eurasian plates pull away from each other. Perhaps 20 million years ago, this wrenching forced an upwelling of hot rock to rise through the ocean, and Iceland was formed.

Thingvellir’s rift valley floor is scored with cracks and fissures; at one point, a lava escarpment that is the eastern edge of North America towers 30 meters higher than the western edge of Europe. The continents are currently recoiling from each other at a clip of two centimetres per year, a process that daily releases clouds of geothermic steam and sends geysers skyward - and, sometimes, molten magma and volcanic ash.
Of course, the farmers who gathered in this shattered young landscape more than a millennium ago to lay down terms for civilisation had no inkling that to the west lay an entire New World, where their democratic example would one day be magnified until it forged the philosophical basis for the most powerful country the planet has ever seen.

Both Iceland and the United States exalt democracy as a social achievement worthy of lasting an eternity. Yet the latter’s unprecedented strength has derived not just from enlightened government, but from the release of its own hot clouds: exhaust from its vast industries, fleets and mechanised agriculture.
As we have learned, these gases form an invisible barrier that, like a greenhouse’s glass ceiling, keeps reflected heat of the sun from escaping our atmosphere. The denser that gaseous barrier grows, the hotter things get and the faster glaciers melt.

As they flow off the land, we are warned, seas rise. Yet something else is lately worrying geologists: the likelihood that the Earth’s crust, relieved of so much formidable weight of ice borne for many thousands of years, has begun to stretch and rebound.
As it does, a volcano awakens in Iceland (with another, larger and adjacent to still-erupting Eyjafjallajokull, threatening to detonate next). The Earth shudders in Haiti. Then Chile. Then western China. Mexicali-Calexico. The Solomon Islands. Spain. New Guinea. And those are just the big ones, 6+ on the Richter scale, and just in 2010. And it’s only April.

It’s looking like this may be a long decade. And if we don’t pull carbon out of the way we energise our lives soon, a small clump of our not-too-distant surviving descendants may find themselves, as Gaia scientist James Lovelock has direly predicted, like the first Icelanders: gathered on some near-barren hunk of rock near one of the still-habitable poles, trying yet anew to eke out a plan for human civilisation. - (CNN)

Barak urges end to occupation

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, has said that his country must recognise that the world will not put up with decades more of Israeli rule over the Palestinian people.
Speaking to Israel Radio on Israel’s Memorial Day on Monday, Barak acknowledged that there was no way forward in negotiations with the Palestinians other than to meet their aspirations for a state of their own.
“The world is not willing to accept - and we will not change that in 2010 - the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more,” he said.

“It is something that does not exist anywhere else in the world.
“There is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let the Palestinians rule themselves.”
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since Israeli forces launched a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
Barak heads the Labour Party, the most moderate member of the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and it was not clear if his remarks were his personal opinion or reflecting a changing attitude within the government.

He said that Netanyahu’s government had “done things that did not come naturally to it”, such as adopting the vision of two states for two peoples and curtailing settlement construction.
“But we also should not delude ourselves. The growing alienation between us and the United States is not good for the state of Israel,” he said.
Washington and its long-time ally have been at odds in recent months over Israel’s continuing settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Barack Obama, the US president, recently issued a pessimistic assessment of peacemaking prospects, saying that his country could not force its will on the Israelis and Palestinians if they were not interested in making compromises.

The Israeli defence minister said that the way to narrow the gap with the US was to embark on a diplomatic initiative “that does not shy from dealing with all the core issues” dividing Israelis and Palestinians.
Chief among these are the status of Jerusalem, final borders and a solution for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Middle East war.

Meanwhile, in an interview Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America”, Netanyahu sound to minimise differences with the US and said he would not accept Palestinian demands that Israel stop building in predominantly-Arab East Jerusalem.
He said that the US and Israel “have some outstanding issues. We are trying to resolve them through diplomatic channels in the best way that we can”.
Later on Monday, Netanyahu told the audience at the national cemetery that Israel is eager for peace, but is ready to confront its enemies.

“We extend one hand in peace to all our neighbours who wish for peace. Our other hand grasps the sword of David in order to defend our people against those who seek to kill us,” he said.
Israel’s Memorial Day, which is dedicated to the nearly 23,000 fallen soldiers and civilian victims of attacks, is observed with a two-minute nationwide siren when people stand at attention, traffic is halted and everyday activities come briefly to a standstill.
At sundown on Monday, the sombre Memorial Day will switch to Israel’s 62nd Independence Day celebrations. - (Al-Jazeera)

Belgium considers ban on burqa

The latest round in the battle of the burqa kicks off Thursday in Belgium, which could become the first country in Europe to ban face coverings worn by observant Muslim women.
Lawmakers are considering a ban in all public places on niqabs, veils that cover the face, as well as burqas, which cover the face and everything else from head to toe.
They’re motivated both by security and morality, they say.
“We think all people in public places must show their face,” says Denis Ducarme. And, he says, “We must defend our values in the question of the freedom and the dignity of the woman.”
His liberal Reformist Movement drafted the legislation, and claims broad cross-party support.
Ducarme denies that Islam requires women to wear burqas or niqabs.
“The majority of Muslims in Belgium and Europe don’t accept the burqa, don’t accept the niqab. It’s only 10 percent who are radical,” he says, blaming trends from Pakistan and Afghanistan for encouraging facial covering.

And he rejects the suggestion that the proposed ban smacks of intolerance, saying it is the burqa - and the Islamist movement - that are truly intolerant and dangerous.
He estimates that 300 to 400 women in the country wear the niqab or the burqa.
Belgium is home to about 281,000 Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates. That would make the country about 3 percent Muslim.
Abdullah Bastin, a Muslim political leader in Belgium, warns that the legislation could have an effect exactly opposite from what it intends. Today only a few women wear the burqa, he says, but if the law is enacted, thousands will wear it as an angry reaction.
He dismisses the idea that the law is designed to protect women’s rights. This isn’t protecting their dignity, it’s colonialism, he argues.

One town in Belgium banned the burqa six years ago.
Jan Creemers, the mayor of the tiny picture-postcard city of Maaseik, says it was no problem to enforce the ban: “I had always the support of the Moroccan community here in Maaseik.”
Some fines were handed out, he says. None were paid, but no one wears a veil in Maaseik today, he says.
Amnesty International warned Wednesday that the bill would break international law.
“A general ban on the wearing of full face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way,” said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International’s interim secretary general.

“Women must not be compelled to wear a headscarf or veil, either by the state or by individuals; and it is wrong for them to be prohibited by law from wearing it,” Cordone said in a written statement.
Belgium is not the only country considering banning the burqa. France said Tuesday that it would shortly be putting a similar draft law before Parliament.
“Face-covering veils must be totally forbidden in the whole public space because women’s dignity is not divisible,” said Luc Chatel, a spokesman for the French government. “The second principle, of course, everything must be done so that no one feels stigmatised because of one’s faith and religion. The president of the republic and the prime minister have asked the members of government to work hard on this point.”
He said the government will seek to avoid a partisan approach to the legislation, and will consult with all political groups “and of course, moral and religious authorities.”
A panel of French lawmakers recommended a ban in January.
France denied citizenship to a man a week later because he made his wife wear a veil, and denied a woman citizenship in 2008 because she wore a burqa. The country’s constitution fiercely guards the secularity of the state. - (CNN)