TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Officials Say Suicide Bomber Kills Some 45

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Afghan officials say that a suicide bomber has killed “at least 45″ people in an attack on a volleyball tournament in the country’s east.

Mokhis Afghan, spokesman for the provincial governor of Paktika province, bordering Pakistan, says the attack happened during an inter-district tournament attended by a large crowed in the Yahyakhail district late Sunday afternoon.

The suicide bomber was on foot in the crowd, he says.

TIME

Iranians Ponder Economic Future as Nuclear Talks Near Deadline

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is surrounded by security as he leaves after a meeting in Vienna
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the Palais Coburg in Vienna Nov. 23, 2014. Leonhard Foeger—Reuters

An accord with world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program could ease the way for foreign investment and free up the country’s assets frozen abroad, something that many hope could help lift its economy out of the doldrums. But others warn against overstating the potential economic impact of any deal

With the deadline for the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers set to expire on Monday, opinion in the country remains divided on what economic benefits might flow for the oil-rich nation if the two sides eventually reach an accord.

Iranian officials have been promoting the upsides of a potential deal, with foreign minister Javad Zarif saying an agreement would be a national victory, although it remains unclear whether an accord will be reached in time for the Nov. 24 deadline or if the talks, which are being held in Vienna, might be extended.

For foreign businesses, an agreement between Iran on one side and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on the other could open up a lucrative new market, as Western sanctions are lifted. The removal of sanctions would also free up Iranian assets frozen abroad.

“A deal… would be great, it would create a hope for the future among Iranians, it would lower their stress levels. It would also be a sort of détente with the US, which is an important step for building possible future relations,” says Amir Mohebbian, a Tehran-based political analyst considered close to influential conservative circles. “But more importantly it will allow new foreign capital to be invested inside Iran.”

This could help the country grow again, says Rocky Ansari, a leading financial and business advisor for foreign firms looking to invest and trade with Iran. Though rich in oil, Iran’s economy has suffered in recent years, with the country falling into recession, while unemployment and inflation both remain high.

“The impact of lifting sanctions will make a significant contribution to helping the economy come out of recession more rapidly, the freeing of Iran’s assets will help the government expedite the recovery of the economy,” says Ansari. “It will boost confidence in the government and the future and allow it to plan more substantially for the coming years. We would see a reflection of that in the Tehran Stock Exchange. People will be able to commit themselves to long term projects and investment.”

He concedes, however, that such changes will take time. “It will obviously take some time to implement policies. But even ahead of that the business community, the economy will be very pleased to hear that the sanctions will be gradually lifted, trade will be made easier and that financial transactions with the international banking system would take place more easily and at much lower cost, so this will be all very good news,” says Ansari.

Not everyone in the country is as optimistic. Hossein Ghasemzadeh, a merchant at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, the Iranian capital’s sprawling centuries-old trading center, says the recent economic slump has been toughest he’s ever experienced. “I’ve been working for 42 years in this Bazaar, but never have I experienced such hard and stressful times as the last six years. Even the revolution and the war period were better than now. Customers are few, and the profit margin is too low for comfort with the unstable economy today,” he explains.

But Ghasemzadeh, who sells home and kitchen appliances, doesn’t blame the sanctions imposed by foreign powers. “The main cause of the unstable economy, the reason we have so much problems is not the sanctions but the incompetence of the officials,” says.

Another merchant, Mohammad Arjmand, who sells clothes, agrees. “Of course no sanction is better than sanctions but it’s not going to change much because most of the country’s economic problems have nothing to do with sanctions,” he says. “The economy, the country, everything has been getting worse every year, the main problem is bad management and incompetence by the government. That’s why the lifting of sanctions won’t change anything for us.”

The merchants’ skepticism is shared by Saeed Laylaz, an economist and professor at the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. He says that while removing sanctions will have long term benefits for the Iranian economy, it won’t by itself fix everything. “The main cause of Iran’s economic woes, and I’ve always said this, is corruption, mismanagement and bad policies by the government, especially during the tenure of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he says. “The effect of sanctions on Iranian economy has been exaggerated and the belief that the lifting of sanctions will jump start the economy and miraculously solve all of Iran’s economic troubles is also disproportionate.”

Ultimately, what impact a deal in Vienna—if there is one—might have on the Iranian economy will likely depend on how the government responds to any easing of the sanctions regime. New policies will have to be formulated, as the economy, isolated for so long from the international markets, opens up. And it’s in this area, says Mohebbian, that the government needs to tread with care.

“What will really happen when all of the blocked assets and foreign investment capital starts to arrive inside Iran?” asks Mohebbian. “The government has no economic scenarios for the day after the deal.”

“I’m warning the government that they shouldn’t think they will have an easy job in the economy after a deal,” he says. “Iran had by trial and error learnt how to deal with the sanctions, but if a sudden influx of capital is not properly managed and controlled, if instead of infrastructure, creating jobs and medical care it is spent on consumerism, than it will magnify the wealth gap significantly. If that happens, and I fear that the government has no plans in place to prevent it, than instead of improving social welfare, the nuclear deal could ultimately cause social unrest.”

TIME Kenya

Somalia’s Al-Shabab Kills 28 Non-Muslims in Kenya

Kenya Attack
Kenyan security forces and others gather around the scene on an attack on a bus about 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside the town of Mandera, near the Somali border in northeastern Kenya, Nov. 22, 2014. AP

(NAIROBI, Kenya) — One gunman shot from the right, one from the left, each killing the non-Muslims lying in a line on the ground, growing closer and closer to Douglas Ochwodho, who was in the middle.

And then the shooting stopped. Apparently each gunman thought the other shot Ochwodho. He lay perfectly still until the 20 Islamic extremists left, and he appears to be the only survivor of those who had been selected for death.

Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels, Al-Shabab, attacked a bus in northern Kenya at dawn Saturday, singling out and killing 28 passengers who could not recite an Islamic creed and were assumed to be non-Muslims, Kenyan police said.

Those who could not say the Shahada, a tenet of the Muslim faith, were shot at close range, Ochwodho told The Associated Press.

Nineteen men and nine women were killed in the bus attack, said Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo.

Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the killings through its radio station in Somalia saying it was in retaliation for raids by Kenyan security forces carried out earlier this week on four mosques at the Kenyan coast.

Kenya’s military said it responded to the killings with airstrikes later Saturday that destroyed the attackers’ camp in Somalia and killed 45 rebels.

The bus traveling to the capital Nairobi with 60 passengers was hijacked about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the town of Mandera near Kenya’s border with Somalia, said two police officers who insisted on anonymity because they were ordered not to speak to the press.

The attackers first tried to wave the bus down but it didn’t stop so the gunmen sprayed it with bullets, said the police. When that didn’t work they shot a rocket propelled grenade at it, the officers said.

The gunmen took control of the vehicle and forced it off the road where they ordered all the passengers out of the vehicle and separated those who appeared to be non-Muslims— mostly non-Somalis— from the rest.

The survivor, Douglas Ochwodho, a non-Muslim head teacher of a private primary school in Mandera, said was travelling home for the Christmas vacation since school had closed.

Ochwodho told AP that the passengers who did not look Somali were separated from the others. The non-Somali passengers were then asked to recite the Shahada, an Islamic creed declaring oneness with God. Those who couldn’t recite the creed were ordered to lie down. Ochwodho was among those who had to lie on the ground.

Two gunmen started shooting those on the ground; one gunman started from the left and other from the right, Ochwodho said. When they reached him they were confused on whether either had shot him, he said.

Ochwodho lay still until the gunmen left, he said. He then ran back to the road and got a lift from a pick-up truck back to Mandera. He spoke from a hospital bed where he was being treated for shock.

Seventeen of the 28 dead were teachers, according to the police commander in Mandera County.

A shortage of personnel and lack of equipment led to a slow response by police when the information was received, said two police officers who insisted on anonymity because they were ordered not to speak to the press. They said the attackers have more sophisticated weaponry than the police who waited for military reinforcements before responding.

Kenya has been hit by a series of gun and bomb attacks blamed on al-Shabab, who are linked to al-Qaida, since it sent troops into Somalia in October 2011. Authorities say there have been at least 135 attacks by al-Shabab since then, including the assault on Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall in September 2013 in which 67 people were killed. Al-Shabab said it was responsible for other attacks on Kenya’s coast earlier this year which killed at least 90 people.

Al-Shabab is becoming “more entrenched and a graver threat to Kenya,” warned the International Crisis Group in a September report to mark the first anniversary of the Westgate attack. The report said that the Islamic extremists are taking advantage of longstanding grievances of Kenya’s Muslim community, such as official discrimination and marginalization.

Kenya has been struggling to contain growing extremism in the country. Earlier this week the authorities shut down four mosques at the Kenyan coast after police alleged they found explosives and a gun when they raided the places of worship.

Some Muslims believe the police planted the weapons to justify closing the mosques, Kheled Khalifa, a human rights official said Friday warning that methods being used to tackle extremism by government will increase support for radicals.

One person was killed during the raid on two of the mosques on Monday. Police said they shot dead a young man trying to hurl a grenade at them.

The government had previously said the four mosques were recruitment centers for al-Shabab.

TIME United Kingdom

UK’s First ‘Poo Bus’ Rides on Human Waste Fuel

Wessex Water/GENeco

It runs from Bristol Airport to Bath City Center

Talk about a gas guzzler: a new bus in Britain runs on biomethane fuel produced by humans sewage and food waste.

The Bio-Bus—or as it’s more affectionately known, “the poo bus”—can travel up to 186 miles on one tank of gas, which takes the annual waste of about five people to produce, the BBC reports. A single passenger’s annual food and sewage waste can fuel the Bio-Bus for 37 miles.

The bus, which emits up to 30% less carbon dioxide than conventional diesel vehicles, will shuttle people between Bristol Airport and Bath.

GENeco general manager Mohammed Saddiq said, “Gas-powered vehicles have an important role to play in improving air quality in UK cities but the Bio-Bus goes further than that and is actually powered by people living in the local area, including quite possibly those on the bus itself.”

[BBC]

TIME Spain

Thousands Take Part in Spanish Anti-Abortion Rally

Anti-Abortion Rally In Madrid
Protesters carry crosses during a pro-life rally against abortion under the slogan 'Every life matters' on Nov. 22, 2014 in Madrid. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images

(MADRID) — Tens of thousands of people have taken part in a demonstration in Madrid to protest against the conservative government’s decision to scrap plans to restrict the availability of abortion.

The march Saturday took place under the slogan “Every Life Matters.” Some 500 buses brought people from all over the country to take part.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in September ditched a promise by his Popular Party to restrict abortion to only cases of rape or serious health risks, saying there was no consensus for change.

The proposal had stirred much opposition in Spain, where abortion is allowed without restrictions in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Demonstrators urged supporters to not vote for the Popular Party in elections next year if the government doesn’t change the current law.

TIME Japan

Strong Quake Strikes Central Japan’s Nagano City

(TOKYO) — A strong earthquake struck central Japan on Saturday night, causing at least one building to collapse and injuring several people, according to Japanese media reports. No tsunami warning was issued.

The magnitude-6.8 earthquake hit parts of Nagano city and surrounding areas the hardest, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the quake’s magnitude at 6.2.

The earthquake struck at 10:08 p.m. Japan time (1308 GMT) at a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles), but since it occurred inland, there was no possibility of a tsunami. An apparent aftershock with a magnitude of 4.3 followed about 30 minutes later.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing fire officials, said several people reported injuries, and at least one building collapsed. It wasn’t clear whether the injured were at the building.

National broadcaster NHK reported that a landslide blocked a road after the quake struck. NHK also said 200 homes were without power, and that Shinkansen bullet train service in the area was temporarily suspended.

TIME Bizarre

Monty Python Song is the Brits’ Funeral Favorite

Baby Boomers in the UK play “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” more than any other track

Correction appended Nov. 22.

Who gets the last laugh? The British, it seems, after a study out Friday revealed that Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is the most-played song at funerals in the United Kingdom.

The relentlessly optimistic song was written by Eric Idle and first appeared in Monty Python’s biblical satire Life of Brian in 1979. The song tickled the funny bone of a generation with the juxtaposition of its lyrics—“If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing”—and the characters singing it in the comedy classic, a chorus of people being crucified on a hillside.

The findings come from a survey of more than 30,000 funerals in the UK by The Co-operative Funeralcare.

The irreverent track pushed out more traditional songs for the No. 1 spot, including “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Abide with Me.”

The song lyrics do strike a particularly comforting note for a funeral.

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain
with a bow
Forget about your sin – give the
audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance
anyhow.

So always look on the bright side… of death.

Other hit classics to make the Top 10 Most-Played list in the humor category include “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash, “Bat Out of Hell,” by Meat Loaf, and The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno”—“Buuuurn baby burn!”

Well played, Britain. Well played.

Here’s a video of the folks from Monty Python singing this very song for one of their own.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the movie in which the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” first appeared and the year it was released. It was Life of Brian in 1979.
TIME Colombia

Colombian General’s Capture Puts FARC Rebels on the Defensive

Members of the Colombian Army patrol the sites of Las Mercedes towship, Choco Department, west of Colombia, on Nov. 18, 2014.
Members of the Colombian Army patrol the sites of Las Mercedes towship, Choco Department, west of Colombia, on Nov. 18, 2014. Luis Eduardo Noriega—EPA

President Juan Manuel Santos's decision to suspended negotiations with the Marxist rebels after they detained a senior military officer has forced the FARC to backtrack, with the group promising to release its high-profile captive

It seemed like the tactical error of a raw recruit, not a Colombian army general who is a former top commander of the military’s anti-kidnapping unit. As he met with villagers in rebel-infested territory on Nov. 16, Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate was dressed in Bermuda shorts, unarmed and without bodyguards. Marxist guerrillas pounced and hauled the general into the jungle.

The consequences of Alzate’s Gomer Pyle-like blunder were immediate. Accusing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, of kidnapping the general as well as two of his aides, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a halt to peace talks with the rebels to end Colombia’s 50-year-old war. “The negotiations are suspended,” an angry Santos declared after learning of Alzate’s capture.

The timing was terrible. The peace talks, which began in Havana, Cuba, two years ago have resulted in far more progress than three previous efforts to disarm the FARC. The two sides have reached agreements on land reform, political participation for disarmed rebels, and on ending drug trafficking. The momentum led to predictions that a final accord could be signed next year.

General Ruben Dario Alzate, who heads the Titan task force in the western department of Choco, in an undated handout photo released Nov. 17, 2014.
General Ruben Dario Alzate. Reuters

But Alzate’s capture brought the process to a halt. Part of the blame lies with the President, who rejected rebel calls for a bilateral ceasefire. He opposed a temporary truce because in the past the FARC has used such time-outs to recruit and train rebel foot soldiers. As a result, even as the two sides met in Cuba, the war in Colombia continued unabated. Since the peace talks began, more than 1,000 army troops and guerrillas have been killed and thousands more have been injured, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry.

Santos’s excuse for suspending the talks also rang hollow. He cried foul because, at his government’s insistence, the FARC in 2012 promised to stop kidnappings as a pre-condition for launching the negotiations. In fact, the FARC pledged to stop abducting civilians for ransom—but the rebel group considers army personnel fair game and calls Alzate a prisoner of war.

“It makes no sense for the government to declare a war without quarter and then insist that [the FARC] must not lay a hand on its soldiers and officers,” FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez told reporters in Havana after Alzate’s capture.

But the real loser from the whole episode seems to be the FARC. While Alzate was an unexpected war trophy—the rebels had never before captured such a high-ranking military officer—the operation proved to be a grave political mistake. Most Colombians despise the FARC, which has long funded its war through drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion and has been blacklisted by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group. Grabbing the general, who at the time was discussing community development projects for jungle villages, seemed to many like another slap in the face to the cause of peace.

“It strengthened the government’s hand,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The repudiation for the kidnapping was so widespread that it put the FARC on the defensive.”

So much so that the FARC is apparently reversing course.

On Wednesday, Rodolfo Benitez, a representative of the government of Cuba, which along with Chile, Norway, and Venezuela, is acting as a facilitator for the peace talks, announced that the FARC had agreed to free Alzate, his two aides, and two other recently captured soldiers. Santos, in turn, has vowed to re-start the negotiations upon their release which is expected to take place within a few days.

For all its drama, the Alzate incident shows that the FARC, which has been severely weakened by a long-running military offensive, is serious about demobilizing, says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO. “They could either keep Alzate or keep the negotiations going – but not both,” Isacson said. “This shows how much the FARC cares about the peace talks.”

TIME Iran

Iranian Officials Seem Cautiously Optimistic About the Nuclear Talks

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014. AP

Releases in Iran's state-controlled media seem to indicate the country is preparing for a deal at the nuclear talks in Vienna

There’s no shortage of pessimism about whether Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive deal on the country’s nuclear program by Nov. 24, the self-imposed deadline. Time is short, and as a senior U.S. official said before leaving for Vienna, where the talks began, “we have some very serious gaps to close.” But those looking for optimism need search no further then Tehran’s official media. Tightly controlled by the regime that is the ultimate authority on any pact, the country’s media may be preparing the Iranian public for an agreement.

While hardliners in Tehran grump about the talks, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has clearly aligned himself with the negotiators—even posting an interview with one of the diplomats, deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi, on his personal website this week

“Araqchi basically said ‘We’re winning this, we’re not giving in,’” says Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian studies department at Stanford University. Milani was astonished by the post. Never before had Khamenei’s office made the site a forum for another official, even one understood, as Araqchi is, to be serving as the Leader’s personal representative. It signaled a full embrace of the talks by the man who, as his title makes clear, holds ultimate power in the Islamic Republic.

“The headline was that the leader has had oversight of the entire negotiating process,” says Milani. “It’s clear to me this was an attempt to make a claim for victory and dissuade the idea that [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is doing this on his own and will get all the credit.”

On the same day as that post, the man Khamenei named to lead Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was widely quoted on government outlets as saying that a nuclear deal was consistent with the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which remains the litmus test for all government endeavors.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander, also appeared to prepare the public for elements of a deal that may not look like a win for Iran. “If it appears that there are aspects of this where we’re accepted humiliation, first of all it’s not true — we are winning,” Jafari insisted. “But those perceptions of humiliation are because of the clumsy management and inexperience of some of our negotiators.”

The goal, the commander said, was the removal of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington and other world powers. “God willing, this goal will be reached,” Jafari said.

There was more. Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, which is dominated by conservatives, spoke of “our spirit of resistance” taught by Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei as “the reason or our success, and why in spite of all efforts by the enemy they could not stop our progress on the nuclear front.”

“It is possible to have a deal,” Larijani added. “It’s just important for the U.S. not to ask for new conditions.”

Some in Iran complained that new conditions are just what the U.S. has indeed demanded. One hardline member of the parliament, or majlis, claimed to have seen the contents of an eight-page proposal Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly showed Iranian negotiators in Oman the previous week, and compared it to the Treaty of Turkmenchy, the 1828 capitulation to Russia that Iranians consider the epitome of humiliation, losing not only territory in the Caucasus but even the right to navigate on the Caspian Sea, which forms Iran’s northern border.

But to Iran watchers, what’s truly significant is that such grumbling is only background noise in what appears to be a concerted effort by Iran’s top echelon to set the foundation for a deal—if not on Monday, then if the talks are extended, as they may well be. There may be more riding on it than just escape from economically ruinous sanctions. The New York Times on Thursday quoted Amir Mohebbian, a conservative adviser long tied to the Leader’s office, predicting a nuclear deal as a harbinger of a strategic change in Iran’s entire political orientation.

“If there is a deal, and if it is good, the entire system will go along with it,” Mohebbian said in Tehran. “There will be a huge political shift after the deal. It is my conviction that those who make decisions within the system want it to be alive and supported. For survival, we need to change.”

It’s just such a change that President Obama has repeatedly said a nuclear deal might herald, opening the way for Iran to end its pariah status and return to “the community of nations.” So it’s possible Mohebbian is saying no more than what the administration wants to hear. But the expectations of a deal are running high in Iran, and the government appears to be doing much less than it might to discourage them.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protest Sites Slammed By ‘Largest Cyberattack Ever’

Pro-democracy activists join arms as they face off with police outside the Legislative Council building on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists join arms as they face off with police outside the Legislative Council building on Nov. 19, 2014, in Hong Kong. Chris McGrath—Getty Images

The company that protects the independent media outlets said the attacks are unprecedented in scale

Media websites connected to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement have been slammed in recent months with what has been described as one of the largest cyberattacks the Internet has ever seen.

The attacks have been leveled against websites for Apple Daily and PopVote, which held a mock-vote for Hong Kong chief executive. One of the protestors’ key demands is a free and open election for chief executive of the onetime British enclave.

The content delivery network Cloudfare, which services the sites, says the Denial of Service—or DDoS—attacks are the largest in the history of the Internet, by far. An attack in Europe brought 400 Gbps in attack traffic against an unidentified victim—the Hong Kong attacks are 500 Gbps in scale, Forbes reports. “[It’s] larger than any attack we’ve ever seen, and we’ve seen some of the biggest attacks the Internet has seen,” Cloudshare CEO Matthew Prince said.

“It’s safe to say the attackers are not sympathetic with the Hong Kong democracy movement,” Prince told Forbes, “but I don’t think we can necessarily say it’s the Chinese government. It could very well be an individual, or someone trying to make the Chinese government look bad.”

[Forbes]

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