World Watch

9 minute read
ROBIN BANERJI

BRITAIN Firemen Strike, Brits Shrug
If the compositions of Bach and Mozart send some listeners into raptures, they also send some folks packing. Danish railway authorities used high-volume broadcasts of Bach’s organ music and Mozart’s doom-laden opera Don Giovanni to clear Copenhagen’s main station of drunks and junkies. If things get really bad, they can always play The Ketchup Song.There was no al-Qaeda dirty bomb, no chemical plant disaster, no towering inferno. None of the worst-case scenarios imagined by tabloid journalists and military planners ahead of the U.K.’s first fire-services strike in 25 years came to pass. But as the 48-hour shutdown ended, there was no collective sigh of relief either. With the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) planning an eight-day walkout starting Nov. 22 — and two more of equal duration in the run-up to Christmas — there will be plenty of opportunities for those scenarios to play out.

Ironically, the absence of a major disaster last week may have reduced the chances of a deal on the firemen’s pay demands. A calamity would have focused both sides’ minds on the urgency of compromise. Instead, the government and the fbu both hardened their positions. Emboldened by the success of emergency measures — using over 18,000 troops and 827 50-year-old firetrucks known as Green Goddesses — the government said the union must take or leave its final offer: an 11% hike over two years that would take the average fireman’s annual salary to €37,500. The FBU is asking for 40%, but hinted it would accept 16%. Determined to forestall a wider public services walkout, ministers warned that future FBU strikes might be outlawed. “We have bent over backward to be fair,” Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told the House of Commons. “We have been met with action that is wrong … and puts lives at risk.”

But the very people whose lives were at risk seemed largely unperturbed. Although seven people were killed in fires — about average for any 48-hour period — almost nobody was blaming the firemen. Instant T.V. opinion polls showed about half of all Britons sided with the strikers. (It helped that few people were seriously inconvenienced; tube and train lines remained open.) Across the country, motorists driving past picket lines honked in solidarity. Public sympathy strengthened FBU leader Andy Gilchrist’s resolve to hold out for a bigger pay rise. “We now have a window of opportunity before the next strike to seek a resolution before any more lives are put at risk,” he said at the conclusion of the first strike.

Gilchrist, 41, emerged as the dispute’s early winner. One of the so-called New Radical unionists, he is telegenic and articulate, and seems the antithesis of the scruffy British union leaders who earned public revulsion in the strike-torn 1970s. As he barnstormed across the country to rally his members, Gilchrist made sure to commend those who abandoned their picket lines to help put out fires and to salute the soldiers who manned the ancient Green Goddess trucks. When the government said that in the event of a second strike, it would order soldiers to break through picket lines and seize new red fire engines, Gilchrist’s response was brilliant p.r.: Take ’em, they’re yours. “He was conciliatory, smart and seemed reasonable compared with the government’s tough-talking line,” says John Kelly, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics. But the real test of Gilchrist’s political smarts will be whether he knows how to quit when he’s ahead. Public sympathy is not an inexhaustible reserve; post-strike polls showed most people were opposed to another walkout. — By Aparisim Ghosh. With reporting by Amanda Bower and Hugh Porter/London

CHECHNYA

A Guerrilla’s Last Stand
They slipped into Chechnya last week, a group of Russian commandos from the secretive Alpha antiterrorist unit, the same lite troops that stormed the Moscow theater last month. Their number is not known, but their mission is: to kill Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla “emir” who approved and probably thought up the Chechen hostage-taking operation. Basayev’s recent statements seem to be challenging Moscow to come and get him, and some Chechens believe he would welcome a last stand where he would take as many Russians as possible with him.

After the theater siege, in which at least 128 hostages were killed by Russian knockout gas, Basayev declared himself to be the commander of the Chechen “martyrs” who will carry out more attacks. There is no reason to doubt him. He became infamous for the seizure of over 1,000 hostages in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk in 1995 — a raid from which he did not expect to return, though he did manage to escape with most of his men and a human shield of 100-odd hostages who were later released.

Basayev may feel this is a good time for martyrdom. He lost a leg in early 2000, leading his men through a minefield, and many of his family and most of his comrades are dead. Alpha will now hunt Basayev on his home turf, the districts of Nozhai-Yurt and particularly Vedeno, about 50 km southeast of Grozny, the base for resistance to the Russians for nearly two centuries. Basayev reportedly moves between the two areas, but usually keeps close to Vedeno, his home village. The village still has the remains of a fort built by another Shamil, the great rebel of the 19th century Caucasus. That Shamil eventually surrendered, was exiled in comfort to the Russian provinces and died peacefully 12 years later. This Shamil is unlikely to be offered such a choice. — By Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow

IRAN

Revolution returns
Thousands of university students demonstrated in campuses across Iran, demanding political reform and the release of the jailed academic Hashem Aghajari. The history professor was sentenced to death this month for insulting the Prophet and questioning the clergy’s interpretation of Islam. But the students believe Aghajari is really being punished for his outspoken views on reform. Iran’s hard-line Islamic judiciary has frequently wielded its legal power to crack down on the reform movement. President Mohammed Khatami, himself a reformist, sought to defuse the latest crisis by declaring the sentence “inappropriate” and suggesting the matter could be resolved by throwing out the case. But Aghajari, a popular figure who lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq War, refused to appeal his sentence, challenging the judiciary to execute him. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, warned he would unleash “popular forces” — widely assumed to mean the vigilante Basij militia — if reformers and conservatives failed to end their political sparring. The threat was also thought to be directed at the students, but they remained defiant.

CYPRUS

Annan’s Plan
The United Nations gave Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders a peace plan aimed at reuniting the island, which has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops prevented union with Greece by invading the north of the island. The document, written by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan with the help of U.S. and British diplomats, includes territorial trade-offs and a power-sharing scheme modeled on the Swiss confederation. Greek and Turkish leaders will rotate in the presidency every 10 months. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders greeted the plan coolly but suggested it could serve as a basis for negotiations. A final deal will be put to a vote in two separate referendums in March. A settlement is vital for Cyprus to join the European Union by 2003.

SPAIN

Crisis Coast
An oil tanker carrying 77,000 tons of fuel began to leak in rough seas 50 km off Galicia. As the Prestige drifted to within 5 km of the coast, 24 crew members were airlifted to safety. The captain, who stayed on board with two officers, reportedly refused to allow tugboats to tow the stalled ship. He was arrested for disobeying official orders and endangering the environment. Tugs eventually tried to tow the tanker 200 km out into the Atlantic as authorities used barriers to keep a 37-km-long oil slick from the ecologically sensitive coast.

BRITAIN

Cyanide Plot Foiled
Police charged three North African Muslims with terrorist offences. The London Times reported that they were plotting to release cyanide gas in the London Underground. The plot was foiled by intelligence agents who infiltrated a terrorist group said to have links to the al-Qaeda network. The paper said MI5 had been tracking the group for six months.

MIDDLE EAST

Sabbath Attack
Twelve Israelis died as gunmen from the Islamic Jihad ambushed a group of Jews leaving Sabbath prayers in the West Bank town of Hebron. The militants said the attack avenged the killing of a Jihad commander by Israel two weeks ago. Israeli soldiers struck back, killing two gunmen after pursuing them from house to house in a four-hour battle. Parts of Hebron were shelled by Israeli tanks.

JORDAN

Crackdown
Security forces arrested two of their most wanted Islamic radicals, Khamis Abu Darwish and his brother, Asri, in the southern city of Maan. The arrests came during a virtual siege of the city, in which four people were killed and 50 arrested, including eight foreigners. Soldiers found a large quantity of guns and grenades as well as a basement bomb factory. The operation seems to have been an attempt to head off violent protests that may be sparked by a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

INDONESIA

Smiling Villain
The chief suspect in the Bali bombing said he was “delighted” by the attack, according to Indonesia’s police chief. General Da’i Bachtiar interrogated the laughing suspect, a 40-year-old car mechanic called Amrozi, in front of journalists — but behind glass doors. Amrozi admitted owning the van used to carry the bomb and to visiting a shop in the city of Surabaya to buy the chemicals used in the bomb. His brother, Ali Imron, is also implicated in the bombing.

MEANWHILE

Bach Pain
If the compositions of Bach and Mozart send some listeners into raptures, they also send some folks packing. Danish railway authorities used high-volume broadcasts of Bach’s organ music and Mozart’s doom-laden opera Don Giovanni to clear Copenhagen’s main station of drunks and junkies. If things get really bad, they can always play The Ketchup Song.

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