March 31, 2013

'The Bible' Crucifixion Scenes Brought 48 Snakes and a Life-Changing Experience for Diogo Morgado

'The Bible' Crucifixion Scenes Brought 48 Snakes and a Life-Changing Experience for Diogo Morgado

March 31, 2013

Yahoo TV! - The star who plays Jesus on the History's miniseries says, "I just saw my whole life in a flashback in front of my eyes" while filming.

Burnett and Morgado also talked to Yahoo! TV about what else viewers will see in the Sunday finale of the miniseries, why they think millions of viewers continue to tune in to "The Bible," and what projects they're tackling next.

Diogo, how did you approach the crucifixion scenes? Did you watch how the crucifixion was portrayed in other movies and TV shows before you started filming?

Morgado: No, I didn't watch anything else before we starting filming. Our goal was always to try to go into the emotional perspective more than the visual and graphical perspective. So in that scene specifically we tried to bring something different in terms of emotions … we try to establish the relationship between Mother Mary and Jesus Christ in that scene. Obviously it's painful, a really painful thing to watch, and hopefully it will touch people's hearts.

[Overall] I tried to bring out the humanity in Jesus … he knew who he was. He knew what he had to do, but he didn't know how or when it was going to happen. I would try to go to the source. … I tried to go to what would be the energy and the feeling that would come up with [the] words, you know? Sometimes I [thought it would] play more strongly in what I didn't say than what I did say, because for me, what Jesus said was a consequence of who he was. So the words don't define Jesus. It's Jesus that defines the words. 

Tackling the Bible in 10 hours is ambitious. Why go all the way through to the end of the book?

Burnett: Very few films or television series ever deal with what happens after the crucifixion. They just sort of nod to it. We have an entire hour on the resurrection, and I think nobody's ever seen someone do Pentecost the way we've done it, after Jesus ascends, and he tells the Apostles that the Holy Spirit will come to them. And they're waiting. And on the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes in to the disciples in the upper room and starts to speak in all different languages.

When you see this week, I mean, it's painful to watch. Seeing Diogo as Jesus and Roma as Mary … extremely difficult to watch this week, a mother watching her son brutally crucified. And it goes on then, and it goes into the resurrection and the ascension and right on into Revelation. It's a very, very powerful week of television.

The series has been a huge hit, obviously -- tens of millions of people have already watched the episodes going into the final two hours. What do you think is the main reason why people have been drawn to "The Bible"?

Burnett: Clearly there are a lot of people in the country in need of hope. No question about that, right? And I think ["The Bible"] has given people permission to openly talk about God and the Bible. Even if they're disagreeing, they're talking about it. I have three teenagers. One's in college, and some of his friends, who are really, really highly educated, one of them was saying, 'Who are Samson and Delilah?' And I thought he was kidding. I made sort of a joke. I said, 'Now, do you know the name of the child that Mary…' Everybody started laughing, because everyone knows that's Jesus. But I realized a lot of young, very educated people just don't know the stories. There are plenty of examples where people just don't know Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath … but you only would know it if you had been exposed to it. And that was one of the main reasons we released the series on iTunes. We hesitated about it at first, but a lot of people don't have access to cable, and they wanted to see the series.

It must be interesting to get a younger demographic feedback right in your own home -- what do your kids think of the miniseries?

Burnett: Our kids are teenagers, 15, 16, 19. They're used to all of the big movies like 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit,' and when we left for the production in Morocco, they said, 'Whatever you do, don't let the special effects be lame.' We laughed, and they said, 'No, we're serious.' We really focused on that, and it was gratifying when those same kids, the 15-year-old and the 16-year-old, took parts of the series into their high school and screened it for the entire high school.

The DVD and Blu-ray of "The Bible" will be released on April 2; do you have any other plans for the series? A "sequel" to tell some of the stories you had to leave out of this series, maybe?

Burnett: One thing we're talking to History about right now is, there's such a demand for this series, we're looking at going right back in, opening the entire series up and having experts like Bishop [T.D.] Jakes, [Rev.] Sam Rodriguez, and Rick Warren comment on the stories. Like, unlocking it, because it would expand it, and explain what's missing and what else there is. The History Channel is very used to that on their series; they normally would have people talking. We made this as a drama, but we were talking today about this. I think that will happen.

Diogo, have you and Mark and Roma talked about doing something else together? 

Morgado: Mark is like, he's a raging spirit. Just like … he's always, he's like a volcano. He's always thinking and projecting. So I know that he has a couple of things up his sleeve, and he mentioned something about me, but nothing is definitive yet.

You have a couple of movies -- "Red Butterfly" and "Born to Race: Fast Track" -- coming up, but where do you go after playing Jesus and earning such positive feedback for your performance? That's a tough role to top.

Morgado: I don't make plans in my life about what I'm going to do next. I just live day by day, grateful to be alive and doing what I love to do. I'm just enjoying the moment. And I mean, whatever comes, it will come. Probably in the next month I'm going to be learning Chinese for a Chinese production. But I've never … when I started acting when I was 15, I took six years to decide that acting was what I wanted to do with my life. So this can tell you what a nonplanning man I am (laughing).

Are you interested in doing more TV work? You've been in Los Angeles for pilot season. Do you hope to do a series?

Morgado: Actually, my first pilot season was when I got this role. I was in L.A. for two weeks, and in the second week I got this, so I didn't get to experience pilot season at all. And [during this pilot season] I'm spending more time promoting ["The Bible"] than I am auditioning. (Laughing) But what I hope is just to continue to do what I love to do. Obviously, the better stories we can tell, the more happy we will be. But I've spent half my life just working on television, movies, and theater, so I don't have any preference. I just love to work with people that love what they do. I've been in big-budget movies that [weren't] a really good experience, and I've been in low-budget movies where it was a really awesome experience. I learned from a really young age, don't create any expectations, and just enjoy and be grateful for what you have. And I'm happy to be here. 

The finale of "The Bible" airs on Sunday, 3/31 at 8 PM on the History Channel.

March 30, 2013

Healthcare Costs May Rise When Obamacare Is Implemented; Uninsured Americans Will Pay Fine Collected by the IRS; Taxpayers Give HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius $200,000 Annual Salary Plus Generous Retirement Package (Only 7% of Americans Have Personal Income of $100,000+ Per Year Yet 19% of Federal Workers Earn $100,000+ Per Year; Only Half of Americans Have a Retirement Annuity or Pension Yet Most Federal Employees Have Both an Annuity and Pension)

EX 01 

Source: Federal Employees Salary Database 2010

Thanks to politicians and bureaucrats like Sebelius, Americans will be forced to purchase government-controlled health insurance; and, if they don't, another federal agency, the tax collectors (IRS) will 'fine' them (charge them a tax penalty) 2.5% of income or $695 per person (when fully phased-in in 2016), whichever is greater (starting in 2017, the minimum tax per person will rise each year with inflation; and for children 18 and under, the minimum per-person tax is half of that for adults). Anyone remember the Roman Empire: senate and equestrian classes enjoyed great wealth from the purse of conquered peoples (the rulers kept conquered peoples from revolting and overthrowing the dominion by having a large army at their disposal for any would-be revolutionary movement against the Empire; for those who served in the Roman military, there were also great benefits that were relinquished by the emperor on their behalf, which promoted loyalty to the emperor beyond Rome). In the Roman Empire, taxation caused a great divide between the economic elite and the 97 percent of those in the Empire who lived in some degree of poverty.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius addresses the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

"Get ready to enroll in health care marketplace, starting in Oct. 2013. Here is a helpful checklist to get you started 4:07 PM" - Kathleen Sebelius @Sebelius, March 4, 2013, Twitter

Some healthcare costs may rise when "Obamacare" implemented: official

March 28, 2013

Reuters - President Barack Obama's top healthcare adviser acknowledged on Tuesday that costs could rise in the individual health insurance market, particularly for men and younger people, because of the landmark 2010 healthcare restructuring due to take effect next year.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said definitive data on costs will not be available until later this year when private health plans become authorized to sell federally subsidized coverage on new state-based online marketplaces, known as exchanges.
"Everything is speculation. I think there's likely to be some shifting in the markets," she told reporters at the White House.
The law, also known as "Obamacare," eliminates discriminatory market practices that have imposed higher rates on women and people with medical conditions.

It also limits how much insurers can charge older people. But while the changes are expected to lower costs for women, older beneficiaries and the sick, men and younger, healthier people will likely see higher rates as insurers try to hedge against continued risks.
"Women are going to see some lower costs, some men are going to see some higher costs. It's sort of a one to one shift ... some of the older customers may see a slight decline, and some of the younger ones are going to see a slight increase."
Insurance premiums could rise for some with individual plans, she said, as Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act enhances the level of coverage and either eliminates or reduces the rate of price discrimination against people who are older, female or have preexisting medical conditions.
"These folks will be moving into a really fully insured product for the first time, so there may be a higher cost associated with getting into that market," Sebelius said.
But those who qualify for federal subsidies through state healthcare exchanges would still get a better deal, she said.

Her remarks coincide with growing uneasiness about possible cost increases among lawmakers and executives in the $2.8 trillion U.S. healthcare industry.

A new study released on Tuesday by the nonpartisan Society of Actuaries estimates that insurance costs will rise 32 percent on average nationwide within three years, partly as a result of higher risk pools. Changes would vary by state, from an 80 percent hike in Wisconsin to a 14 percent reduction in New York.

Obama's healthcare restructuring, the signature domestic policy achievement of his first term, is expected to provide coverage to more than 30 million people beginning on January 1, 2014, both through the state exchanges and a planned expansion of the government-run Medicaid program for the poor.

Subsidies in the form of premium tax credits, available on a sliding scale according to income, are expected to mitigate higher costs for many new beneficiaries.

But the insurance industry, which is set to gain millions of new customers under the law, is warning of soaring premium costs next year because of new regulations that include the need to offer a broader scale of health benefits than some insurers do now.

That has raised concerns about people with individual policies not subject to subsidies and the potential for cost spillovers into the market for employer-sponsored plans, which according to U.S. Census data, cover about half of U.S. workers.


Sebelius dismissed the idea of significant change for employer plans, saying that market segment was "likely to see very little impact."

Separately, a Democratic U.S. senator on Tuesday said the federal government has limited scope to help millions of people likely to remain without affordable health insurance under the new law.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, released a report submitted to the panel by the administration that outlines an "employee choice" policy that would allow some employers to offer a wider range of coverage choices to their workers at reduced rates for 2014.

But Wyden said the approach would not help many of the nearly 4 million worker dependents who may have to forego subsidized private health coverage as a result of an IRS ruling.
"Even in the states that allow for employee choice, it will be limited to a small number of workers," Wyden said.
The law would have most people with employer insurance remain under their current plans. Workers can opt for subsidized coverage if their employer plan is unaffordable, but only according to a narrow definition of what is affordable.

The IRS ruled in January that the cost of insuring a worker's family will be considered unaffordable if the employee's contribution to an individual coverage plan exceeded 9.5 percent of that person's income. That rule ignores the fact that family coverage is far more expensive than individual coverage.

As a result, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 3.9 million family dependents could be left unable either to afford employer-sponsored family coverage or to obtain federally subsidized insurance through an exchange.

In its report to the Senate committee, Sebelius' department said some employers could claim a tax credit in 2014 to make coverage more affordable and offer workers a range of coverage plans through state-based exchanges.

Federal employees have stools with three legs made of solid mahogany. In the FERS, government employees contribute 0.8 percent of pay while their employing agencies [taxpayers] put in 11 percent of pay. On top of that, federal employees can contribute to a Thrift Savings Plan and get a 5 percent matching contribution from their employing agency [taxpayers]. This match is immediately vested to boot. According to the CRS report, "All participants in FERS are immediately vested in their own contributions and in government matching contributions to the TSP, as well as any investment earnings on these contributions." And the third leg for most federal employees is Social Security. If it gives you any comfort, they contribute to FICA to the same extent that everyone else does. [Going postal over federal pensions,, March 25, 2011]
In 2011, taxpayers paid roughly $19 billion to fund future federal pensions, while federal employees contributed only $1 billion. 
Top-notch retirement benefits are prolific in the public sector. A large majority of state and local government workers (84 percent) were offered a traditional pension in 2010, compared with just 20 percent of private industry workers. The public sector professions most likely to come with pensions include primary, secondary, and special education school teachers (96 percent), natural resources, construction, and maintenance jobs (87 percent), and the protective service (84 percent). State and local governments, some federal government employees, and the military are the primary areas where they remain strong. [7 Reasons You Don't Have a Pension, US News & World Report, February 7, 2011]

Iran, North Korea, Syria Block U.N. Arms Trade Treaty

Iran, North Korea, Syria block U.N. arms trade treaty

March 28, 2013

Reuters - Iran, Syria and North Korea on Friday prevented the adoption of the first international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global conventional arms trade, complaining that it was flawed and failed to ban weapons sales to rebel groups.

To get around the blockade, British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant sent the draft treaty to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and asked him on behalf of Mexico, Australia and a number of others to put it to a swift vote in the General Assembly.

U.N. diplomats said the 193-nation General Assembly could put the draft treaty to a vote as early as Tuesday.
"A good, strong treaty has been blocked," said Britain's chief delegate, Joanne Adamson. "Most people in the world want regulation and those are the voices that need to be heard."

"This is success deferred," she added.
The head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, told a group of reporters, "We look forward to this treaty being adopted very soon by the United Nations General Assembly." He declined to predict the result of a vote but said it would be a "substantial majority" in favor.

U.N. member states began meeting last week in a final push to end years of discussions and hammer out a binding international treaty to end the lack of regulation over cross-border conventional arms sales.

Arms control activists and human rights groups say a treaty is needed to halt the uncontrolled flow of arms and ammunition that they say fuels wars, atrocities and rights abuses.

Delegates to the treaty-drafting conference said on Wednesday they were close to a deal to approve the treaty, but cautioned that Iran and other countries might attempt to block it. Iran, Syria and North Korea did just that, blocking the required consensus for it to pass.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had told Iran's Press TV that Tehran supported the arms trade treaty. But Iranian U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee told the conference that he could not accept the treaty in its current form.
"The achievement of such a treaty has been rendered out of reach due to many legal flaws and loopholes," he said. "It is a matter of deep regret that genuine efforts of many countries for a robust, balanced and non-discriminatory treaty were ignored."
One of those flaws was its failure to ban sales of weapons to groups that commit "acts of aggression," ostensibly referring to rebel groups, he said. The current draft does not ban transfers to armed groups but says all arms transfers should be subjected to rigorous risk and human rights assessments first.


Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari echoed the Iranian concerns, saying he also objected to the fact that it does not prohibit weapons transfers to rebel groups.
"Unfortunately our national concerns were not taken into consideration," he said. "It can't be accepted by my country."
North Korea's delegate voiced similar complaints, suggesting it was a discriminatory treaty: "This (treaty) is not balanced."

Iran, which is under a U.N. arms embargo over its nuclear program, is eager to ensure its arms imports and exports are not curtailed, diplomats said. Syria is in a two-year-old civil war and hopes Russian and Iranian arms keep flowing in, they added.

North Korea is also under a U.N. arms embargo due to its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Russia and China made clear they would not have blocked it but voiced serious reservations about the text and its failure to get consensus. A Russian delegate told the conference that Moscow would have to think hard about signing it if it were approved. India, Pakistan and others complained that the treaty favors exporters and creates disadvantages for arms importers.

If adopted by the General Assembly, the pact will need to be signed and ratified by at least 50 states to enter into force.

Several diplomats and human rights groups that have lobbied hard in favor of the treaty complained that the requirement of consensus for the pact to pass was something that the United States insisted on years ago. That rule gave every U.N. member state the ability to veto the draft treaty.
"The world has been held hostage by three states," said Anna Macdonald, an arms control expert at humanitarian agency Oxfam. "We have known all along that the consensus process was deeply flawed and today we see it is actually dysfunctional."

"Countries such as Iran, Syria and DPRK (North Korea) should not be allowed to dictate to the rest of the world how the sale of weapons should be regulated," she added.
The point of an arms trade treaty is to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons. It would also create binding requirements for states to review all cross-border arms contracts to ensure arms will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism or violations of humanitarian law.

The main reason the arms trade talks took place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms exporter - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after President Barack Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support an arms treaty.

Washington demanded that the conference be run on the basis of consensus because it wanted to be able to block any treaty that undermined the U.S. constitutional right to bear arms, a sensitive political issue in the United States. Countryman said the draft treaty did not undermine U.S. rights.

The National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. pro-gun lobbying group, opposes the treaty and has vowed to fight to prevent its ratification if it reaches Washington. The NRA says the treaty would undermine domestic gun-ownership rights.

The American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobby group, has said that the treaty would not impact the right to bear arms.

IMF Mission to Visit Egypt in Early April for Loan Talks

IMF mission to visit Egypt in early April for loan talks

March 29, 2013

Reuters - The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday it would visit Egypt in the "first days of April" for talks with the government on a possible financing programme worth $4.8 billion.

More than two years of political upheaval have battered the Egyptian economy, leaving the country in dire need of IMF funding to relieve a currency and budget crisis. The deal would also unlock billions of dollars in further support for Egypt from other donors.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice confirmed the visit. In Cairo, government spokesman Alaa El Hadidi said the IMF would return "some time next week".

President Mohamed Mursi's government initialed a deal with the IMF last November but postponed final ratification in December in the face of unrest triggered by a political row over his powers.

Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, visited Cairo on March 17, saying the Fund would continue talks aimed at agreeing possible financial aid.

The government sees Egypt's budget deficit hitting 10.9 percent of GDP in the year to the end of June, assuming it carries out economic reforms to curb spending. Without such reforms, the government says the deficit will hit 12.3 percent of GDP.

Cairo has been reluctant to impose tough austerity measures which an IMF deal may require, for fear of igniting further unrest.

However, Egyptian Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby said last week that he expected Cairo to sign a deal with the IMF by the end of June and to have received the first tranche of a loan by then.

Cyprus Votes Down Bailout Deal That Would Have Raided Everyone's Savings to Prop Up Collapsing Banking Sector

Little Cyprus thumbs its nose at EU 'bullies'

March 30, 2013

AP - The moment word broke that Cypriot lawmakers in Parliament had voted down a bailout deal that would have raided everyone's savings to prop up a collapsing banking sector, a huge cheer rose up from hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside that echoed through the building's corridors.

Many relished it as a kind of David-against-Goliath moment — a country of barely a million people standing up to the will of Europe's behemoths who wanted it to swallow a very bitter pill to fix its broken-down economy.
"Shame on Europe for trying to snatch people's savings. It's a mistaken decision that will have repercussions on other economies and banking systems," said protester Panayiotis Violettis. "People have stopped trusting the EU which should be our protector."
Fighting back is not a new experience for Cypriots. From the 1950s guerrilla war against British rule to Greek Cypriots' defiant refusal in 2004 to accept a U.N.-backed peace plan to reunite the island, they are used to holding their own against big opponents.

Just as quickly as Cyprus' euro area partners decided that a deposit grab was the only way out, so Cypriots decided their tiny island was ground zero in Europe's new financial scorched earth policy and that it had to be resisted at all costs.
"Better die on your feet than live on your knees," one placard among the throngs of protesters read. Another said: "It starts with us, it ends with you" as a warning to other Europeans that their savings were no longer safe.
Politicians seized on the public mood.
"This is another form of colonization," Greens lawmaker Giorgos Perdikis spouted in Parliament. "We won't allow passage of something that essentially subjugates the Cypriot people for many, many generations.

"Unfortunately, instead of support and solidarity, our partners offered blackmail and bitterness," said Parliamentary Speaker Yiannakis Omirou. The indignant leader of the country's Orthodox Christian Church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, added: "This isn't the Europe that we believed in when we joined. We believed we would receive some kind of help, some support."
The country's foreign minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, even acknowledged that Cypriot negotiators had contemplated exiting the euro instead of accepting their euro area partners' terms.

In the end, Cyprus accepted a deal that would safeguard small savers but where depositors with more than 100,000 euros in the country's two most troubled banks would lose a big chunk of their money.

Nonetheless, Europe was stunned at the sheer brazenness. How could a pipsqueak country on Europe's fringes thumb its nose to continental juggernauts Germany and France and dare to turn down a deal meant to save it from economic chaos?

It's not the first time the country has pushed back in defiance, even against what many would consider as insurmountable odds. The island's majority Greek Cypriots fought former colonial ruler Britain to a draw in a four-year guerrilla campaign in the 1950s that aimed for union with Greece. That conflict ended in the country's independence in 1960.

Just 14 years later, a Turkish invasion prompted by an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece resulted in the island's division into an internationally recognized, Greek-speaking south and a breakaway, Turkish-speaking north.

The invasion and its fallout remains an existential matter in the minds of Cypriots and it still informs many of the political and economic decisions the country and its people make.
"Greek Cypriots lost nearly everything during the 1974 invasion," said University of Cyprus History Professor Petros Papapolyviou. "So they reason, what else do we have to lose? Why accept another injustice?"
In 2004, Greek Cypriots again defied international expectations when they voted down a United Nations-backed reunification plan they believed was unfairly weighted against them.

A few days later, the island joined the European Union and some EU leaders were left fuming at what they saw as Greek Cypriot deceit for promising to sign up to a peace deal in exchange for EU membership.

Nearly a decade later and European acrimony at the Cypriot "no" hasn't entirely dissipated. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble told the Sunday edition of German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that "Cyprus was admitted to the EU in hopes that the plan of then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to overcome the (island's) divide would be honored."
"I interpret (that) as indicating a sense of vindictiveness rather than rational, result-oriented thinking." said University of Cyprus Associate Professor Yiannis Papadakis.
Were the tough bailout terms some sort of belated punishment? Whether that's true or not, such notions only feed a Cypriot proclivity for conspiracy theories. As in other small, insular societies, threats — real or imagined — sharpen a sense of collective victimhood.

Papadakis said Cypriots see their political culture as underpinned by personal relationships. Hence their reference to "friends" instead of "allies," which implies a more pragmatic relationship.
"That's why Greek Cypriots often complain of a 'betrayal from our friends'," he said. But it's wrong for the EU to foist all the blame on Cypriots when things go awry, Papadakis added.

"I believe that the rest of the EU has made a large share of mistakes during this arduous process."

March 29, 2013

North Korea Puts Its Missile Units on Standby to Attack U.S. Military Bases in South Korea and the Pacific

N.Korea readies missiles after U.S. stealth bombers fly over South

March 29, 2013

Reuters - North Korea put its missile units on standby on Friday to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, after the United States flew two nuclear-capable stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula in a rare show of force.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed off on the order at a midnight meeting of top generals and "judged the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation", the official KCNA news agency said.

KCNA said North Korea and the United States could only settle their differences by "physical means". The North has an arsenal of Soviet-era short-range Scud missiles that can hit South Korea but its longer-range Nodong and Musudan missiles, which could in theory hit U.S. Pacific bases, are untested.

China, the North's sole major ally, repeated its calls for restraint on the Korean peninsula at a regular Foreign Ministry briefing and made no criticism of the U.S flights.

"We hope that relevant parties will work together in pushing for a turnaround of the tense situation," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.
Tension has been high since North Korea conducted a third nuclear weapons test in February in breach of U.N. sanctions and despite warnings from China for it not to do so.

Russia's foreign minister implicitly criticised the U.S. bomber flights.

"We are concerned that alongside the adequate, collective reaction of the U.N. Security Council, unilateral action is being taken around North Korea that is increasing military activity," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
"The situation could simply get out of control, it is slipping toward the spiral of a vicious cycle," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow when asked about the situation.
He called for efforts to get stalled six-party talks on North Korea going again. The talks have involved the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, China and Japan.


On Thursday, the United States flew two radar-evading B-2 Spirit bombers on practice runs over South Korea, responding to a series of North Korean threats. They flew from the United States and back in what appeared to be the first exercise of its kind, designed to show America's ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes "quickly and at will", the U.S. military said.

The news of Kim's response was unusually swift.

"He finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets of the KPA (Korean People's Army), ordering them to be on standby for fire so that they may strike any time the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theatres in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea," KCNA said.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported there had been additional troop and vehicle movements at the North's mid- and long-range missile sites, indicating they may be ready to fire.

It was impossible to verify the report which did not specify a time frame. South Korea's Defense Ministry said it was watching shorter-range Scud missile sites closely as well as Nodong and Musudan missile batteries.

The North has launched a daily barrage of threats since early this month when the United States and the South, allies in the 1950-53 Korean War, began regular military drills.

The South and the United States have said the drills are purely defensive and that no incident has taken place in the decades they have been conducted in various forms.

The United States also flew B-52 bombers over South Korea earlier this week.

The North has put its military on highest readiness to fight what it says are hostile forces conducting war drills. Its young leader has previously given "final orders" for its military to wage revolutionary war with the South.

Despite the hostile rhetoric from the North, it has kept open a joint economic zone with the South which generates $2 billion a year in trade - money the impoverished state can ill-afford to lose.


North Korea has cancelled an armistice agreement with the United States that ended the Korean War and cut all communications hotlines with U.S. forces, the United Nations and South Korea.

"The North Koreans have to understand that what they're doing is very dangerous," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
 "We must make clear that these provocations by the North are taken by us very seriously and we'll respond to that."
The U.S. military said that its B-2 bombers had flown more than 6,500 miles (10,461 km) to stage a trial bombing raid from their bases in Missouri as part of the Foal Eagle war drills being held with South Korea.

The bombers dropped inert munitions on the Jik Do Range, in South Korea, and then returned to the continental United States in a single, continuous mission, the military said.

It was the first time B-2s flew round-trip from the mainland United States over South Korea and dropped inert munitions, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the drill fitted within the context of ramped-up efforts by the Pentagon to deter the North from acting upon any of its threats.

Asked whether he thought the latest moves could further aggravate tension, Cha, a former White House official, said: 

"I don't think the situation can get any more aggravated than it already is."
South Korea denied suggestions that the bomber drills contained an implicit threat of attack on the North.
"There is no entity on the earth who will strike an attack on North Korea or expressed their wishes to do so," said a spokesman for the South's Unification Ministry, which deals with North Korea.
Few believe North Korea will risk starting a full-out war.

Still, Hagel, who on March 15 announced he was bolstering missile defenses over the growing North Korea threat, said all of the actions by the North had to be taken seriously.

"Their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger and we have to understand that reality," Hagel said, renewing a warning that the U.S. military was ready for "any eventuality" on the peninsula.

March 27, 2013

Obamacare to Raise Claims Cost 32 Percent

Study: Health law to raise claims cost 32 percent

March 26, 2013

AP - A new study finds that insurance companies will have to pay out an average of 32 percent more for medical claims under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

What does that mean for you?

It could increase premiums for at least some Americans.

If you are uninsured, or you buy your policy directly from an insurance company, you should pay attention.

But if you have an employer plan, like most workers and their families, odds are you don't have much to worry about.

The estimates from the Society of Map shows projected change in medical claim costs byActuaries could turn into a political headache for the Obama administration at a time when much of the country remains skeptical of the Affordable Care Act.

The administration is questioning the study, saying it doesn't give a full picture — and costs will go down.

Actuaries are financial risk professionals who conduct long-range cost estimates for pension plans, insurance companies and government programs.

The study says claims costs will go up largely because sicker people will join the insurance pool. That's because the law forbids insurers from turning down those with pre-existing medical problems, effective Jan. 1. Everyone gets sick sooner or later, but sicker people also use more health care services.
"Claims cost is the most important driver of health care premiums," said Kristi Bohn, an actuary who worked on the study.
Spending on sicker people and other high-cost groups will overwhelm an influx of younger, healthier people into the program, said the report.

The Obama administration challenged the design of the study, saying it focused only on one piece of the puzzle and ignored cost relief strategies in the law, such as tax credits to help people afford premiums and special payments to insurers who attract an outsize share of the sick.

The study also doesn't take into account the potential price-cutting effect of competition in new state insurance markets that will go live Oct. 1, administration officials said.

At a White House briefing Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said some of what passes for health insurance today is so skimpy it can't be compared to the comprehensive coverage available under the law.
"Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don't pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus," she said. "They're really mortgage protection, not health insurance."
Sebelius said the picture on premiums won't start coming into focus until insurers submit their bids. Those results may not be publicly known until late summer.

Another striking finding of the report was a wide disparity in cost impact among the states.

While some states will see medical claims costs per person decline, the report concluded that the overwhelming majority will see double-digit increases in their individual health insurance markets, where people purchase coverage directly from insurers.

The differences are big. By 2017, the estimated increase would be 62 percent for California, about 80 percent for Ohio, more than 20 percent for Florida and 67 percent for Maryland. Much of the reason for the higher claims costs is that sicker people are expected to join the pool, the report said.

Part of the reason for the wide disparities is that states have different populations and insurance rules. In the relatively small number of states where insurers were already restricted from charging higher rates to older, sicker people, the cost impact is less.

The report did not make similar estimates for employer plans that most workers and families rely on. That's because the primary impact of Obama's law is on people who don't have coverage through their jobs.

A prominent national expert, recently retired Medicare chief actuary Rick Foster, said the report does "a credible job" of estimating potential enrollment and costs under the law, "without trying to tilt the answers in any particular direction."
"Having said that," Foster added, "actuaries tend to be financially conservative, so the various assumptions might be more inclined to consider what might go wrong than to anticipate that everything will work beautifully." 
Actuaries use statistics and economic theory to make long-range cost projections for insurance and pension programs sponsored by businesses and government. The society is headquartered near Chicago.

Bohn, the actuary who worked on the study, acknowledged it did not attempt to estimate the effect of subsidies, insurer competition and other factors that could offset cost increases. She said the goal was to look at the underlying cost of medical care.
"We don't see ourselves as a political organization," Bohn added. "We are trying to figure out what the situation at hand is."
On the plus side, the report found the law will cover more than 32 million currently uninsured Americans when fully phased in. And some states — including New York and Massachusetts — will see double-digit declines in costs for claims in the individual market.

Uncertainty over costs has been a major issue since the law passed three years ago, and remains so just months before a big push to cover the uninsured gets rolling Oct. 1. Middle-class households will be able to purchase subsidized private insurance in new marketplaces, while low-income people will be steered to Medicaid and other safety net programs. States are free to accept or reject a Medicaid expansion also offered under the law.

March 25, 2013

Flashback: Puerto Rico Obliterates Posse Comitatus and Establishes the Precedent of Using the Military in Police Actions

The 51st Police State: U.S. National Guard Being Used to ‘Fight Crime’ in Puerto Rico

Establishing the precedent of using the military in police actions as Puerto Rico slowly transforms into a U.S. state will allow the practice to carryover once the transition is completed.

June 14, 2010

America 20xy - Earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2499, which put Puerto Rico on the path to statehood. The resolution would offer Puerto Ricans a two step vote, first asking them if they would like to remain a commonwealth of the U.S. Then if not, they would vote on whether to become the 51st state.

Most Puerto Ricans, it’s believed, would vote yes if given the choice.

With Puerto Rico on the fast track to becoming a U.S. state, the U.S. National Guard has wasted no time in training its people that if and when they join the union, Posse Comitatus will not be offered as part of the package deal.

An AP article from June 13th, 2010 reveals that the National Guard is being used to help police the island territory and fight drug gangs there. According to the article, U.S. soldiers have been dispatched to the capital city of San Juan as well as to other cities and mountainous areas to assist police actions. They are also taking part in police checkpoints, which were commented on in the article by one soldier who had also participated in similar checkpoints in Iraq:

“In Iraq, your enemy is going to try to kill you, but when you catch them they’re cooperative. Here in Puerto Rico, if you have to detain somebody for any reason, they are not very cooperative. They insult you and everything else.”

The Posse Comitatus Act was passed in 1878. It prohibits federal military personnel and units of the National Guard under federal authority from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States. Puerto Rico is still not legally part of the United States; therefore, the use of the National Guard as police there—though outside the once traditional duties of U.S. soldiers whose job it is to win wars and come home—is questionable. If these actions continued after Puerto Rico obtained statehood then the use of the military in policeman roles against its citizens would be a violation of the act.

And it wouldn’t be the first violation, either. In recent years, Posse Comitatus has been ignored more and more as the military has been used to police Americans right here on the mainland…all part of the military’s boiling frog strategy of incrementally normalizing the practice and quietly solidifying the formation of a police state in America.

In April of 2009, Infowars revealed that Tennessee Representative Johhny Shaw and Governor Phil Bredesen were unaware until afterwards that the DHS and military collaborated directly with local police to conduct a massive seat belt checkpoint in Shaw’s district.

In February of 2010, guardsmen were used to patrol the city of Pittsburgh, PA in Humvees and assist police in the aftermath of a snowstorm. The same guardsmen were used months before during the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh to terrorize peaceful protesters and even kidnap them off the streets.

In December of 2008, the military and police conducted a joint DUI checkpoint in San Bernandino County, CA.
In September of 2009, National Guardsmen were filmed directing traffic and providing security in Kingman, AZ. Also that same month the military was caught by We Are Change Ohio conducting checkpoints in Newport, KY.

In March of 2009 soldiers from nearby Fort Rucker were deployed to the streets of Samson, AL after a murder spree took place there.

These are just a few examples among many.

Establishing the precedent of using the military in police actions, as Puerto Rico slowly transforms into a U.S. state, will allow the practice to carryover once the transition is completed. Such a precedent could then be used as justification for further violations the Posse Comitatus Act here on the mainland. By making Puerto Rico a state and its people U.S. citizens while the military fights a war against them, the politicians and the military are introducing a scenario in which pitting the Army against its own people can be sold as an acceptable practice. And such acceptance could then be used to cast Posse Comitatus to the dustbin of U.S. history, resulting in its ultimate repeal—either officially through legislation or unofficially, as has already started to happen through open and disdainful neglect of its adherence.

Syrian Rebel Mortar Fire Hits Damascus, Military Retaliates

Rebel mortar fire hits Damascus, army gunners retaliate

March 25, 2013

Reuters - Syrian rebels lobbed mortar rounds into central Damascus on Monday, killing at least two people and drawing a fierce army response as bombardments shook the heart of the capital.

The state news agency said mortar bombs fired by "terrorists" had killed two people and wounded others near the Opera House on Ummayad Square, where Baath Party headquarters, Air Force Intelligence and state television are also located.

The military retaliated with artillery fire from Mount Qasioun, overlooking the city.
"I've heard dozens of regime shells so far, pounding rebels," one resident said.
Photos posted by opposition activists showed black smoke rising from the square during what residents said was one of the heaviest bombardments in central Damascus since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad erupted two years ago.
"The city is under attack," said one bewildered resident, adding that the explosions had begun at 6:30 a.m. (12.30 a.m. EDT).
The conflict in Syria has killed 70,000 people and forced a million to flee the country, the United Nations says. Sustained fighting in Damascus could send thousands more into neighboring states, especially Lebanon, which already hosts 370,000 of them.

There were no immediate reports that the rebels, who have pushed into the Kfar Souseh district, a few hundred meters (yards) from Ummayad Square, were trying to advance further.

Assad's forces have retained control of central Damascus and most other Syrian cities, while losing swathes of territory to insurgents elsewhere, especially in the north and east.

Colonel Riad al-Asaad, founder of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), lost a leg in an overnight blast caused by a bomb placed beneath his car in the opposition-held eastern town of al-Mayadin, his deputy said. A Turkish official said Asaad was now being treated in Turkey and that his life was not in danger.

Asaad, who formed the FSA in 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad turned into an armed rebellion, was one of the first senior officers to defect from the Syrian military, but was sidelined last year from a new Western-backed FSA command.

Asaad's deputy, Malik al-Kurdi, told Al Jazeera television he believed the Syrian government had tried to assassinate the FSA founder with a bomb planted directly below his car seat. He said Asaad had also suffered face wounds.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.


Various rebel units fight under the banner of the FSA, which has struggled to find weapons supplies and build a disciplined command and control structure. It does not include some Islamist militants such as the powerful al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Moaz Alkhatib, who resigned on Sunday as head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said the attack on Asaad was part of a drive to "assassinate the free leaders of Syria".

Despite stepping down, Alkhatib said he would address an Arab League summit in Qatar this week. "I have decided to give a speech in the name of the Syrian people at the Doha conference," he wrote on his Twitter account on Monday.

Alkhatib, named leader of the coalition formed in November, is a Sunni Muslim cleric who had been seen as a moderate bulwark against the influence of al Qaeda-linked jihadist forces.

He resigned after the coalition berated him for offering Assad a negotiated deal and after the group went ahead, despite his objections, with steps to form a provisional government that would have diminished his authority.

The coalition is backed by Western powers and many Arab states, but Russia and China are critical of its insistence that Assad quit as a precondition for negotiations.

A senior Russian diplomat said on Monday his country wanted Russian and Chinese experts to take part in a U.N. investigation into charges that chemical arms were used in Syria on March 19.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the inquiry on Thursday and made clear it would focus on a rocket attack that killed 26 people near Aleppo. Syria's government and opponents accused each other of firing a missile laden with chemicals.

Opposition activists said Syrian forces had used phosphorus on Monday when they fired multiple rocket launchers at fighters besieging an army base in Adra, a town near Damascus. Two rebels were killed and 23 wounded. The activists described it as another chemical attack. There was no independent confirmation.

U.S. and European officials say they have no evidence yet of any chemical attack. If one is confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons by either side in the Syrian conflict.

Damascus has not confirmed it possesses chemical weapons, but says if it had them it would not use them on its own people.

Major General Yair Golan, head of Israel's Northern Command, told the Israel Hayom newspaper that Syria's chemical arsenal was "100 percent" under the control of the Damascus government.

Israel Says Syria is Reason for Restoring Turkey Ties

Israel says Syria reason for restoring Turkey ties

March 23, 2013
AP - Concerns that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could reach militant groups bordering Israel and Turkey was the motivating factor in restoring relations with Ankara after a three year rift, Israel's prime minister said.

Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that Israel and Turkey, which border Syria, need to communicate with each other over the Syrian crisis.
"The fact that the crisis in Syria intensifies from moment to moment was the main consideration in my view," Netanyahu wrote.
Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart Friday and apologized for a botched raid on a Gaza bound flotilla in 2010 that left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead. Turkey demanded an apology as a condition for restoring ties. Netanyahu had until now refused to apologize, saying Israeli soldiers acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists.

Turkey and Israel were once strong allies but relations began decline after Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey's Islamist movement, became prime minister in 2003. Erdogan has embarked on a campaign to make Turkey a regional powerhouse in an attempt to become the leading voice in the Muslim world, distanced from Israel.

Animosity increased after the flotilla incident and ambassadors were later withdrawn.

Spillover from fighting in Syria's civil war reaches Israeli communities in the Golan Heights from time to time. Errant mortar shells and machine gun fire have caused damage, sparked fires and spread panic but lead to no injuries so far.

Israel has expressed concern that Syria's chemical arsenal could fall into the hands of militants like Lebanon's Hezbollah, an Assad ally, or an al-Qaida-linked group fighting with the rebels.

Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, said the timing was right for reconciling with Turkey.
"Between us and Turkey is a country that is falling apart and that has chemical weapons," he said.
Last week, Syrian rebels and Assad's government blamed each other for a chemical attack on a village. The U.S. said there was no evidence chemical weapons were used.

The use of such weapons would be a nightmare scenario in the two-year-old conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people.

President Barack Obama helped broker the Israeli apology to Turkey. Obama has declared the use, deployment or transfer of the weapons a "red line" for possible military intervention by the U.S. in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey and Iran: The Road Through Damascus and the Nuclear Issue

April 14, 2012

Turkish Weekly - Tehran's last minute decision on Istanbul as the venue for the first round of nuclear talks scheduled for Saturday (April 14th) adds to Turkey's sought after position as a mediator, but disagreement over Syria's future raises doubts over its sustainability.

Turkey and Iran have mostly reacted to the recent developments in the Arab world in a similar fashion. Despite a brief split over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks in Egypt stressing secularism, both governments have expressed support for the popular protests in the Arab world, albeit for different reasons.

The rhetoric, however, took a sharp turn as events in Syria unfolded.

After pressing for an end to violence and reform last summer, Turkey took a hard stance against Syria, becoming one of the regime's harshest critics while supporting the Syrian opposition and organising an international response to the crisis. Iran meanwhile continues to express support for its long-standing regional ally Syria and vests hope in political reforms under Assad's leadership.

Despite this divergence, Turkey has continued its mediation efforts between Iran and the 5+1 (Britain, France, the US, China and Russia plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear issue, as both countries sped up the process through a series of diplomatic visits since early 2012.

However, Erdogan's last visit on March 28th sparked the most controversy. Despite the positive atmosphere of the visit and a preliminary agreement on Istanbul as the venue for nuclear talks, Iran changed its initial preference to Damascus or Baghdad.

Erdogan's remarks on the "insincerity" of Iranian diplomacy was criticised by several top Iranian officials, including the head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who hinted at Ankara's policy on Syria behind Tehran's decision.

Indeed, on April 1st the Turkish government hosted in Istanbul the Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, a group of 82 countries that recognised the opposition Syrian National Council as a "legitimate representative" of all Syrians.

Top Iranian officials such as Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani were quick to dismiss the conference as "enemies of the Syrian people", further straining relations. Last week both countries' ambassadors worked to calm the atmosphere.

It was under these developments that Tehran opted for the Istanbul meeting on April 14th, while the second round, conditional on the conference's success, will be held in Baghdad in the coming months.

According to Mustafa Ellabbad, director of Cairo-based Al Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies,
"The dynamics in and over Syria, and the higher stakes adopted by Turkey there means that the period of mediation with minimal costs is over."

"Turkey is entering a period of clear competition with Iran and not mediation anymore," he says, adding that "Iran will not give Turkey a reward for its stance towards Syria."
However, there are experts who disagree with Ellabbad, pointing out that Iran has limited opportunities to deal with its nuclear problems as sanctions and military threats mount.

One of them, Bahram Amirahmadian, an Iranian analyst of Turkey, told SES Türkiye that "Iran is going to be more realistic than before, so Iran and Turkey should employ their capacities to co-operate."

Turkish foreign policy experts like Mensur Akgun, the TESEV think-tank foreign policy programme adviser, also argue that Turkey and Iran will find ways to work together on issues of mutual interest.
"It seems that Iran will distinguish the Syrian and the nuclear issues. The fact that the nuclear talks will be held in Istanbul in the following days is a sign of that," he said.
In May 2010, Turkey, Brazil and Iran signed a nuclear fuel swap deal, which was not endorsed by the 5+1. In January 2011, Turkey hosted a conference between Iran and the 5+1 on the Iranian nuclear issue. The recent attempt has been on table since October 2011.

North Korea Video Shows 'Defeat' of U.S. Troops

New North Korea video shows ‘defeat’ of U.S. troops

March 25, 2013

The Lookout - North Korea has submitted yet another entry to its ongoing propaganda film festival. This time, it has released a video that threatens an attack on U.S. forces using "powerful weapons of mass destruction" and depicts an invasion of Seoul in which 150,000 American citizens are taken hostage.

Posted on North Korea's official Uriminzokkiri website and YouTube channel, the video comes less than a week after one showing the White House in its crosshairs and the explosion of the U.S. Capitol building.

The film, titled "A Short, Three-Day War," opens with rockets firing into South Korea from the north followed by thousands of North Korean troops crossing the border.
"The crack storm troops will occupy Seoul and other cities and take 150,000 U.S. citizens as hostages," a narrator says in a voice-over, according to a translation by the Telegraph.
Last month, North Korea produced a bizarre video of a dream sequence that imagined a U.S. city resembling New York under an apparent missile attack and the Empire State Building shown in flames. The soundtrack to that three-and-a-half-minute video was an instrumental version of "We Are the World," and the attack footage appeared to have been taken from the video game "Modern Warfare 3." It was eventually removed from YouTube.

Watch North Korea's latest propaganda video:

Cyprus Reaches Last-minute Deal on 10 Billion Euro Bailout

Detail of EU/IMF bailout agreement with Cyprus

March 25, 2013

Reuters - Cyprus clinched a last-ditch deal with international lenders on Monday for a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) bailout that will shut down its second largest bank and inflict heavy losses on uninsured depositors.

Following is the detail of the deal in a statement from euro zone finance ministers.

1.Laiki will be resolved immediately - with full contribution of equity shareholders, bond holders and uninsured depositors - based on a decision by the Central Bank of Cyprus, using the newly adopted Bank Resolution Framework.

2. Laiki will be split into a good bank and a bad bank. The bad bank will be run down over time.

3. The good bank will be folded into Bank of Cyprus (BoC), using the Bank Resolution Framework, after having heard the Boards of Directors of BoC and Laiki. It will take 9 billion Euros of ELA with it. Only uninsured deposits in BoC will remain frozen until recapitalization has been effected, and may subsequently be subject to appropriate conditions.

4. The Governing Council of the ECB will provide liquidity to the BoC in line with applicable rules.

5. BoC will be recapitalized through a deposit/equity conversion of uninsured deposits with full contribution of equity shareholders and bond holders.

6. The conversion will be such that a capital ratio of 9% is secured by the end of the program.

7. All insured depositors in all banks will be fully protected in accordance with the relevant EU legislation.

8. The program money (up to 10 billion Euros) will not be used to recapitalize Laiki and Bank of Cyprus.

Moscow Insists That Russia and China Must Be Part of Syria Chemical Arms Inquiry

Russia, China must be part of Syria chemical arms inquiry: Moscow

March 25, 2013

Reuters - Moscow will insist that Russian and Chinese representatives join a United Nations investigation into allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria last week, a senior Russian diplomat said on Monday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the inquiry on Thursday and made clear it would focus on a rocket attack that killed 26 people near Aleppo. Syria's government and opponents accused each other of firing a missile laden with chemicals.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the investigation could only be objective if it is conducted by a "balanced group of international experts".

The group "must without fail include representatives of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, including Russian and Chinese chemical specialists", he said on Twitter.

Ban's announcement followed a dispute between Russia and Western council members over the scope of the investigation.

After France and Britain wrote to Ban to draw his attention to a second alleged attack near Damascus and one in Homs in December, both of which rebels blame on the government, Russia accused them of trying to delay the inquiry.

U.S. and European officials say there is no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. If one is confirmed, it would be the first use of such weapons in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, which the United Nations says has cost 70,000 lives.

Moscow initially accused rebels of using chemical weapons in the Aleppo incident, echoing the Syrian government version, but Gatilov later said there was no "unequivocal evidence" of this.

Russia has criticized Western and Arab calls for Assad to leave power and, together with China, has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure him to end violence. It has also differed with the West over which side was to blame for alleged massacres and other atrocities in Syria.

Damascus has not confirmed that it has chemical weapons, but says if it had them it would not use them on its own people.

Israeli Major General Yair Golan, who commands forces along the Syrian and Lebanese fronts has said Syria's chemical arsenal is still under the control of the Damascus government.
"(Syria's) chemical weapons today are 100 percent under control. We can say this is good news for now, if you can call it good news," the head of Israel's northern command told the Israel Hayom newspaper in an interview published on Monday.
Israel, which occupies Syria's Golan Heights, has been on alert for spillover from the conflict next door. It said its forces had fired into Syria on Sunday, destroying a machinegun position that had shot at Israeli soldiers.

Israel Fires into Syria as the Capital Damascus - in Syria's South - Comes into Play

Syrian rebels take towns near ceasefire line with Israel

March 21, 2013

Reuters - Syrian rebels have overrun several towns near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past 24 hours, rebels and a monitoring group said on Thursday, fuelling tensions in the sensitive military zone.
"We have been attacking government positions as the army has been shelling civilians, and plan to take more towns," said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the "Martyrs of Yarmouk", a rebel brigade operating in the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group monitoring the conflict in Syria, said rebels had taken several towns near the Golan plateau, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed.

It said that on Wednesday night rebels had captured Khan Arnabeh, which sits on the Israeli-Syrian disengagement line and straddles a main road leading into Israeli-held territory.

Rebels also took Mashati al-Khadar and Seritan Lahawan, two villages near the ceasefire line, it said.
U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the line halted patrols this month after rebels held 21 Filipino observers for three days.

The armed struggle between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has posed increasing difficulties for the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

There is growing concern in Israel that Islamist rebels may be emboldened to end the quiet maintained by Assad and his father before him on the Golan front since 1974.

Rebel sources say the Syrian army intensified shelling of villages in the area of Saham al-Golan at dawn on Thursday.

They said that rebels in the Quneitra region, next to the Golan, were stepping up attacks on roadblocks to gain more territory but added that the strategic town of Quneitra - which was largely destroyed and abandoned during Israeli-Syrian clashes in 1974 - was still in Syrian government hands.

Israel fires into Syria after Golan attack on troops

March 24, 2013

Reuters - Israel said it fired into Syria on Sunday and destroyed a machine-gun position in the Golan Heights from where shots had been fired at Israeli soldiers in a further spillover of the Syrian civil war along a tense front.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel held Syrian troops or rebels responsible for what a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said had been a deliberate attack on Israeli patrols in the occupied territory.
Israeli forces "destroyed a Syrian machine gun nest that fired twice in the last 24 hours on Israeli patrols operating to safeguard the border," the spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, said on his Twitter page.
Shells have fallen several times inside Israeli-controlled territory during Syria's civil war. Some of the incidents have drawn Israeli return fire.

Syria's southern provinces bordering Jordan and Israel have become an increasingly significant battleground as the capital Damascus - in Syria's south - comes into play and President Bashar al-Assad's forces fight hard to prevent rebel advances.

The Israeli military said one of its vehicles was hit late on Saturday by shooting from across the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the Golan Heights, but no one was hurt.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, said, "Our understanding is that it wasn't stray fire."
After a second incident on Sunday, Israeli soldiers "responded with accurate fire toward the Syrian post from which they were fired on", the military said.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement that Israel viewed shooting from Syria "with severity" and would not allow "the Syrian army or any other element to violate Israeli sovereignty by firing at our territory".
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the strategic plateau in 1981 in a move that has not won international recognition.
"Any ... fire from the Syrian side will be answered immediately by silencing the sources of fire when we identify them," Yaalon said.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defence Ministry official, said battles between Syrian government forces and Syrian rebels sometimes take place just a short distance from Israeli lines.
"At times, shells or bullets are fired at Israel. Usually the shooting (from Syria) is not deliberate, but it doesn't matter," he told Army Radio.

"Israel should not be the target of any attack, whether intentional or unintentional - because after all, if you accept something that was unintentional, that could lead to something intentional in the end," Gilad said.
Israel has said for months that it expects Assad's government to fall and has voiced concern that its chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and al Qaeda.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has called for Assad to step down.

Washington's road to Iran goes through Syria (Op-Ed)

Syria is but a chess piece being used as a platform by larger powers. In a speech given to the Commonwealth Club of California in 2007 retired US Military General Wesley Clark speaks of a policy coup initiated by members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Clark cites a confidential document handed down from the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2001 stipulating the entire restructuring of the Middle East and North Africa. Portentously, the document allegedly revealed campaigns to systematically destabilize the governments of Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.Under the familiar scenario of an authoritarian regime systematically suppressing peaceful dissent and purging large swaths of its population, the mechanisms of geopolitical stratagem have freely taken course. [Source]

July 2, 2012 OpEd - The results of the Geneva talks on Syria depend on whom you ask.

­­US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that the principle of “mutual consent” on which a “transitional government” in Syria would be based, means President Assad has to go. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on the contrary, insists the formation of a “transitional government” will be made on inclusive basis.

Before discussing what it means, let’s stop for a second to grasp the sheer fact: five foreign powers gathered to decide the fate of a country, in the absence of its leader and its people, who never asked them to do anything of the kind, let alone gave any mandate. This is an outrageous breach of international law. And what is even more outrageous is that nobody is concerned or even talking about it.

Now, the wording of the final communiqué, at Russian insistence, does not explicitly call for Assad's ousting but instead says the new government "shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent." Russia and China understand this formula to mean, according to the countries’ officials, that President Assad is part of the process.

But listen how the author of the new plan, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan interprets it:  
"The government will have to re-form by discussion, negotiation and by mutual consent, and I will doubt that the Syrians who have fought so hard for their independence, … will select people with blood on their hands to lead them." French Foreign Minister Fabius, in a surprising continuation of Sarkozy’s allegiance to Washington, spells it out even clearer: "Even if they [Russia and China] say the opposite, the fact is that text … means it won't be Bashar al-Assad. The opposition will never agree to him, so it signals implicitly that Assad must go and that he is finished," Fabius told television station TF1.
It sounds as though Washington found the final solution for Bashar Al-Assad. “Transitional government” based on “mutual consent” will be to Syria what the “no-fly zone” was to Libya. While a normal person understood the term “no-fly zone” as an area over which aircraft are not permitted to fly, Washington defined the term to mean more than 30,000 sorties of NATO fighter-bombers and reconnaissance flights.

In Syria’s case, by the Geneva agreement Washington has launched the final phase of President Assad’s removal. And again as with Libya, “regime” change will be carried out with the full agreement of UN Security Council’s permanent members!

The most appalling element here is that Russia seems to have fallen again into the Washington’s trap. Notwithstanding all the right declarations and efforts, at the end of the day Russia nevertheless signed a tacit agreement to abandon Syria, similar to the abstention vote on “no-fly zone” for Libya that allowed Washington to launch strikes.

A few words need to be said about Kofi Annan’s role in the process, which uncovered one more tactical approach in the “regime” change business of America. Compared to the “bad cop” behavior of the US administration, the silken-voiced elegantly-attired originally Kenyan diplomat served as a perfect peace-loving “good cop” figure.

In February 2012, just as the Syrian government was about to neutralize the armed insurrection within its country by terrorists illegally armed and trained by America and its allies, Annan comes up with a “6-point peace plan” that required government troops to “immediately” return to their barracks while the terrorists had to only “commit to stop the fighting.” In fact, Annan’s plan gave time to arm and train insurgents, to build up their terrorist capabilities, while gearing up western public support to war.

In preparation for Geneva talks, Kofi Annan pulls out one more “peace plan” that promotes the next stage of subverting President Al-Assad: a “government of national unity” must be created, which “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups” with the exception of “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”. Thus, in the Annan/US vision, the murderers who perpetrated the Houla massacre are entitled to be part of the government, but the only democratically elected leader of the country is not.

As if that were not enough, Annan’s “peace plan” № 2 requires prompt “free and fair multiparty elections” – which as “color revolution” methodology proved is the most practical environment to overthrow a government and solidify “opposition’s gains.

US immediate goal in destabilizing Syria is to move forward the front against Iran. In this direction, operations in Syria are proceeding in tandem with gearing-up of Azerbaijan on Iran’s northern border.

For Russia, once again falling into Washington’s trap will have dire consequences. On the international arena, Moscow loses precious credibility with its strategic allies, with Iran in particular. Geopolitically, Syria’s fall will speed up American’s relentless push across the Middle East into the Caucasus and Central Asia, consolidating its infrastructure on Russia’s southern military front and putting a definitive end to the prospects of the Eurasian Union.

These losses will hardly, if ever, be recoverable.

­Veronika Krasheninnikova, Director General of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives in Moscow, for RT 

­The statements, views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.