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TAIPEI: Police in Taiwan arrested 45 suspects in the island’s biggest ever crackdown on child pornography, officials said yesterday.

The clampdown last week targeted more than 50 locations as part of efforts to break up an international child pornography ring, in an operation codenamed “Angel Action”, the Criminal Investigation Bureau said.

All the suspects were released after initial interrogation but would face further questioning by prosecutors, Yang Yuan-ming, deputy commissioner of the bureau, told reporters. Anyone found guilty of distributing child pornography in Taiwan faces up to three years in jail and a fine of up to Tw$5 million ($165,000).

The Taiwan chapter of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography & Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT) hailed the operation as “a big success”.

The crackdown came after ECPAT Taiwan last year tipped off US authorities about two pornographic websites set up in the United States. The websites have carried child pornography since 2007, with each attracting at least one million paid members, Lee Li-feng, secretary-general of ECPAT Taiwan, said.—AFP

BEIRUT: People in Damascus stocked up on supplies yesterday and some left homes close to potential targets as US officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days. United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.

But as UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar Al-Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.

Syria’s government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”. Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its Al- Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad’s foes – but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas.

Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the UN Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians – a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China. The United States and its allies say a UN veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.

Washington has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order. A senior US official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We’re talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the administration official said yesterday.

Western armies are expected to wait until the UN experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Secretary-General Ban said they need four days work. A second US official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future.

Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defenses and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah. With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high. World stock markets were hit by jitters over where the international escalation of Syria’s civil war might lead – however much Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission.

Neighboring Turkey, a NATO member, put its forces on alert. Israel mobilized some army reservists and bolstered its defenses against missile strikes from either Syria or Lebanon. Syria’s envoy to the United Nations said he had asked Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups. People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes.

In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighborhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it: “Every street, every neighborhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city centre. “Where do we hide?” At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.

Numerous factors, including weather and assessments of Syrian air defenses, may affect the timing of strikes. Analysts expect cruise missiles to be launched from US ships in the Mediterranean. Aircraft could also play a role, as may forces from other NATO powers, notably Britain and France. Obama is waiting for a US intelligence report, though its findings are in little doubt. US officials have already blamed Assad for the attacks on Aug 21.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament to debate the Syria crisis today. He should be able to secure cautious support, despite widespread misgivings among Western voters about new entanglements in the Muslim world. But British action is unlikely before lawmakers have had their say. The prospect of a Group of Twenty summit in St Petersburg today may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes.

Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states. “The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted yesterday. Western leaders in the G20 may prefer to have any strikes on Syria completed before the summit starts.

As diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States met at the United Nations, Moscow said Britain was “premature” in seeking a Security Council resolution for “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia and China might veto the move but added: “It’s time the UN Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.”

A senior Western diplomat said: “Of course there will be a Russian veto, but that’s part of the objective – to show that we tried everything and the Russians left us no choice. “The Americans want to go quickly.” China’s official newspaper also criticized yesterday what it saw as a push for illegal, Iraq-style “regime change” – despite US denials that Obama aims to overthrow Assad.

The US-led NATO alliance said evidence pointed to Assad’s forces having used gas, calling it a threat to global security. Ban’s special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said “international law is clear” in requiring Council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders say precedents, including NATO’s bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war, allow them to protect civilians.

There was tension between the United Nations and Western governments. One UN official said: “The UN is annoyed and feels the Western powers haven’t shared data or evidence with them, which is a problem. It kind of undercuts UN authority.” Rebel fighters and opposition activists showed the inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week’s gas release.

The experts also tested and interviewed survivors in hospital, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack. Amateur video showed the convoy of white UN jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.

Syria’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011 and driven millions from their homes, many crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. It has heightened tensions between Assad’s sponsor Iran and Israel, which bombed Syria this year, and has fuelled sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon and in Iraq, where bombs killed more than 70 people yesterday alone. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that US action would be “a disaster for the region”.- Reuters

Were chemical weapons deployed in suburban Damascus a week ago, leading to the deaths of at least 355 civilians? And, if so, who used them, the regime of embattled leader Bashar al-Assad? Or one of the several rebel groups trying to topple him, perhaps to try to draw the West into the Syrian conflict?

The U.S. and most Western countries, notably Britain and France, are pointing the finger at Assad for the attack, while the Syrian government and its main international ally, Russia, blame the rebels.

At this point, except for those responsible, no one knows for sure who was behind the attack, or even what kind of chemicals might have been used.

UN weapons inspectors are now on the scene trying to determine whether chemical weapons were, indeed, used.

The international group Doctors without Borders, the source for the casualty figures, says, it "can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack."

Its information comes from three hospitals in Damascus that "received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms" on the morning of Aug. 21. MSF staff were not at the facilities themselves.

If that attack a week ago can be confirmed as a deliberate use of chemical weapons on civilians, it would go down in history as only the second such large-scale incident against civilians in modern times. (Though there have been allegations of at least five other uses of chemical weapons that have affected civilians in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, the first in March of this year.)

 

The first incident, a quarter century ago, is now nearly forgotten, but in both its similarities and its stark contrasts with the current situation, it helps with understanding the dilemma the world faces today.

The date was March 16, 1988, in a Kurdish town in Iraq, 14 kilometres from the border with Iran. The bloody Iran-Iraq war was in its eighth and final year.

One day earlier, the townspeople had liberated Halabja. Iraqi forces were abandoning the area and Iranian troops, guided by allied Kurdish guerillas, had briefly entered the town.

On March 16, according to eye-witness accounts and Iraqi pilots years later, poison gas was dropped from aircraft, killing several thousand civilians in the town, with the precise death toll unknown.

1988 poison gas attack killed thousands

Iran and Kurdish leaders, especially Jalal Talabani, now Iraq's president, alerted the outside world. Iran flew in journalists, whose images of streets littered with corpses were shown on newscasts. However, no independent investigators visited the area.

 

Claims by Iran and the Iraqi Kurds that Saddam Hussein's forces had carried out the gas attack were initially accepted. But on March 23, U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that "Iran may also have used chemical artillery shells in this fighting."

Other unnamed U.S. government officials, speaking to journalists off the record, also suggested that Iran, America's primary Middle East antagonist at the time, was responsible, at least in part.

 

The book is the definitive account of what happened, and Hiltermann concluded it was Iraq, and only Iraq, that used chemical weapons against the people of Halabja.

It would take two years for the dominant, U.S. government view to shift from publicly blaming Iran to blaming Iraq, and that was only after Saddam hinted at undertaking a chemical gas attack against Israel. His ill-conceived invasion of Kuwait a few months later sealed the deal.

U.S. blocks response to attack

In 1988, the U.S. was allied with Iraq, and was providing order of battle data about Iranian forces to the Iraqis, while turning a blind eye to what it knew were chemical attacks against Iranian troops, a serious and flagrant violation of international law.

"It was the only slightly better of two bad choices: stop helping the Iraqis and the Iranians would likely win the war, or continue to work with a country now using nerve agents on the battlefield," writes Rick Francona this week on his blog. Francona was U.S. military liaison officer to the Iraqi forces in 1988.

Francona claims that the U.S. didn't yet know that Saddam had ordered the chemical attack on Halabja, but he is now adamant that it was Iraq that perpetrated that atrocity.

 

However, there are still many people who believe the old U.S. argument, and the debate continues in some circles about what exactly killed, sickened and maimed the townspeople of Halabja.

Fast forward 25 years, and the conflicting accounts from the Russians, Americans, Europeans as well as the Assad regime and the rebels, not to mention the lack of evidence to date, suggests it may take time to find out what really happened in Syria.

Halabja 'similar' to attack in Damascus

Stephen Pelletiere was with the CIA until 1988, before going on to teach at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, retiring in 2000 as a senior professor. He has written six books on Iraq and is working on another one about Halabja.

Pelletiere has been and continues to be one of the leading voices for the narrative that blames Iran for that chemical gas attack.

But he was also a high-level skeptic about the rationale for going to war with Iraq in 2003, and sees something similar taking place with regard to Syria today.

"If you look at the events surrounding not just Halabja but the whole fuss in the U.S. over going to war with Iraq [in 2003], and then you look at what's going on now in Syria, it follows an almost exact same pattern."

As he told CBC News, in 1988 there was every reason in the world why the Iraqi commander might have used gas but in the case of Syria, there's no reason at all."

For Pelletiere, it's illogical for Assad to resort to poison gas when UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus and when his forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the war. "The logic is all on the side of a provocation," he argues.

Science needed

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't know what Assad's logic might be in a situation like this, with rebel forces almost literally on his Damascus doorstep. But there is the possibility, at least, that chemistry might help sort the situation out.

Mathew Meselson, who heads the Harvard University program on chemical and biological weapons, looks at the science of these situations and notes we haven't seen any yet in the case of Syria.

"It's essential that any head of state or government official who's making momentous decisions on the basis of chemical analysis must talk not just with other political figures or subordinates, but with individuals who are deeply knowledgeable about the science itself," he told Bloomberg News.

 

He cited the case of U.S. allegations against the former Soviet Union in 1981, that it had supplied chemical agents to communist forces in Vietnam and Laos that turned out to be honeybee droppings.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems convinced that chemical weapons were used last week, was blunt yesterday: "All peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again."

It's a far cry from 1988 when people like Hiltermann were critical of the world for doing nothing about Halabja and of the UN for bowing to American pressure to not hold Iraq responsible for being the first country to use poison gas against civilians, despite the realized threat of proliferation.

JAPAN: Residents in a southern Japanese city were busy washing ash off the streets Monday after a nearby volcano spewed a record-high smoke plume into the sky.

Ash wafted as high as five kilometres above the Sakurajima volcano in the southern city of Kagoshima on Sunday afternoon, forming its highest plume since the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) started keeping records in 2006. Lava flowed about one kilometre from the fissure, and several huge volcanic rocks rolled down the mountainside.

Though the eruption was more massive than usual, residents of the city of about 600,000 are used to hearing from their 1,117-metre (3,664-foot) neighbour. Kagoshima officials said in a statement that this was Sakurajima's 500th eruption this year alone.

Residents wore masks and raincoats and used umbrellas to shield themselves from the falling ash. Drivers turned on their headlights in the dull evening gloom, and railway service in the city was halted temporarily so ash could be removed from the tracks.

Officials said no injuries or damage was reported from the volcano, which is about 10 kilometres east of the city.

By Monday morning, the air was clearer as masked residents sprinkled water and swept up the ash. The city was mobilizing garbage trucks and water sprinklers to clean up.

"The smoke was a bit dramatic, but we are kind of used to it," said a city official who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

JMA says there are no signs of a larger eruption but similar activity may continue. It was maintaining an earlier warning that people not venture near the volcano itself.

Japan is on the "Ring of Fire," the seismic faults encircling the Pacific Ocean, and has frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.

IRAQ: A wave of bomb attacks has hit Iraq as people celebrated the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of Ramadan, with more than 60 reported dead.

Eleven bombs targeted both Shia and Sunni areas of the capital, Baghdad, hitting cafes, markets and restaurants in at least nine different districts.

A bomb also killed at least 10 people in Tuz Khurmato, north of the capital.

This Ramadan in Iraq is thought to have been one of the deadliest in years, with more than 670 people killed.

Most of the violence in the past six months has involved Sunni Islamist militant groups targeting Shia Muslim districts.

More than 4,000 people have died in such attacks this year. A further 9,865 have been injured, with Baghdad province the worst hit.

Maliki vow

More than 170 people were reported injured in the latest wave of violence.

The capital's deadliest car bomb attack on Saturday struck in the evening near an outdoor market in the south-eastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, police said, killing seven people and injuring 20.

 

Correspondents say the areas struck in the capital were both Shia and Sunni districts.

Among the areas struck were Amil, Abu Dashir, Khazimiya, Baiyaa, Shaab, Husseiniya and Dora.

Saif Mousa, the owner of a shoe store in the mainly Shia New Baghdad, said he was sitting in his shop when he heard an explosion outside.

He told the Associated Press news agency: "My shop's windows were smashed and smoke filled the whole area. I went outside of the shop and I could hardly see because of the smoke. We had a terrible day that was supposed to be nice."

At least another 10 people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack in Tuz Khurmato, 170km (105 miles) north of Baghdad.

Other attacks were reported in the Shia holy city of Karbala, 80km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, and Nasiriya, 375km (230 miles) south of the capital.

Another went off near a Shia mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Last week Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to continue operations against militants, saying: "We will not leave our children to these murderers and those standing behind them and supporting both inside and outside."

Many Sunnis accuse Mr Maliki's Shia-led government of marginalising them.

The tensions this year were fuelled in April when Iraqi security forces broke up an anti-government Sunni protest in the city of Hawija, killing and wounding dozens of protesters.

Then last month, hundreds of inmates escaped after gunmen stormed two jails near Baghdad - Abu Ghraib to the west of the capital and Taji to the north.

The spike in violence in Iraq has raised fears of a return to the levels of sectarian killing seen following the US invasion 10 years ago, and has led commentators to discuss once again the prospect of partition along community lines.

The Iraqi government has also faced widespread criticism over corruption and the provision of basic services.

The conflict in neighbouring Syria, itself increasingly taking the form of a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, is further straining community relations in Iraq.

EAST HAVEN: A small plane crashed into a residential neighborhood a few blocks from an airport while trying to land, setting fire to two houses and likely killing up to six people, authorities said. Just before noon Friday, the multi-engine, propeller-driven plane struck two small homes near Tweed New Haven Airport. The aircraft’s left wing lodged in one house and its right wing in the other.

Late Friday, officials from a number of agencies were still at the scene trying to determine how many people had been killed. Officials said the total was between four and six. The victims of the crash have not been identified. “We haven’t recovered anybody at this point, and we presume there is going to be a very bad outcome,” East Haven fire Chief Douglas Jackson said Friday. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Robert Gretz said at a news conference Friday night there were casualty reports of two or three people in the plane and two or three people in one of the homes.

He said the reports were unconfirmed and that local and state authorities were at the scene looking for victims. Shortly after the crash, officials had said at least three people were missing: the pilot and two children, ages 1 and 13, in one of the houses. Later, Gov Dannel P Malloy said the plane also may have been carrying two passengers. However, officials were still trying to verify whether that was true. Less than two hours later, Malloy said rescuers had spotted two bodies, including one of an adult, but hadn’t recovered them.

The plane’s fuselage had entered one of the houses, and the recovery effort was focusing on the home’s basement, he said. Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr said later that the houses were still unstable and crews had not completed a full search. The 10-seater plane, a Rockwell International Turbo Commander 690B, flew out of Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and crashed at 11:25 am, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Tweed’s airport manager, Lori Hoffman-Soares, said the pilot had been in communication with air traffic control and hadn’t issued any distress calls.

“All we know is that it missed the approach and continued on,” she said. A neighbor, David Esposito, said he heard a loud noise and then a thump: “No engine noise, nothing.” “A woman was screaming her kids were in there,” he said. Esposito, a retired teacher, said he ran into the upstairs of the house, where the woman believed her children were, but couldn’t find them after frantically searching a crib and closets. He returned downstairs to search some more, but he dragged the woman out when the flames became too strong. Wilson Idrovo said he was working on a house nearby when his son said: “Daddy, the airplane is falling down.”

Idrovo said he went into the house but couldn’t get into a room where the plane had crashed. Angela Wordie was on her deck taking in towels when she noticed a plane making a strange sound. “It kind of was gliding,” she said. “The next thing I know it hit the house.” Maturo, the mayor, said a priest was with the woman whose children were feared dead, and he offered sympathy to the family. “It’s total devastation in the back of the home,” he said. Neighbors said the woman moved into the neighborhood recently. A vigil is planned at Margaret Tucker Park. – AP

PARIS: Researchers yesterday pointed to the Arabian camel as a possible host of the deadly human MERS virus plaguing the Middle East. The exact origins of the virus is a riddle scientists have been working hard to solve in a bid to halt its spread, especially in the lead-up to the annual haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in October.

Now an international team says blood tests were positive for antibodies in camels from Oman, meaning they had at some point been infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), or a closely-related virus. The findings suggest that Arabian or dromedary camels “may be one reservoir of the virus that is causing MERS in humans,” said a statement that accompanied the study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

MERS has killed 46 of the 94 people confirmed infected since September last year, according to the World Health Organization. Concerns about the virus, for which there is no vaccine, have led Saudi Arabia to restrict visas for the 2013 hajj, which sees millions of Muslims flock to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina every year. Scientists had long suspected that like its cousin virus SARS, which killed hundreds of people in Asia 10 years ago, MERS may originate in bats.

It is unlikely, however, that these shy, nocturnal creatures are passing the virus on to humans, and the involvement of an intermediary “reservoir” animal is suspected-with anecdotal evidence of patients having been in contact with camels or goats. The virus is not very adept at jumping from person to person, though there have been isolated cases. For the study, the team took blood from 50 camels from across Oman and another 105 in the Canary Islands, as well as llamas, alpacas, Bactrian camels, cattle, goats and sheep from the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. They found MERS-like antibodies in all of the Omani camels and lower levels in 15 of those from the Canary Islands.

“What it means is that these camels some time ago have come across a virus that is very similar to MERS-CoV,” the paper’s senior author Marion Koopmans of the Netherlands’ National Institute of Public Health and the Environment, said. According to the study, the Oman samples came from various locations in the country, “suggesting that MERS-CoV, or a very similar virus, is circulating widely in dromedary camels in the region.” But the team could not say when the animals had been exposed, or whether it was the exact same virus.

“For that, studies are needed that collect the right samples from camels while they are infected,” said Koopmans. Other animals from the Middle East, like goats, must also be tested. Dromedary camels are popular animals in the Middle East and North Africa, used for transport, meat and milk, as well as racing. There are an estimated 13 million of them in the world today-all but a few domesticated. A respiratory virus that causes fever and pneumonia, MERS has claimed lives in Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and Tunisia.

All people who had fallen ill outside the Arabian peninsula had either visited one of the Middle Eastern countries or had been infected by a person thought to have come from there. “This looks like the big break that public health workers needed in the fight against the spread of MERS,” University of Reading microbiologist Benjamin Neuman said of the study. “This is the first hard evidence that camels may be the missing link in the chain of transmission.” The next step, he said, would be to look for the virus itself in camels and find out whether it is mutating in a way that makes it easier to infect humans.

Koopmans said the findings had by no means solved the puzzle, but was an important pointer for further research. “Camels indeed are very important for the region, an important source of food, transportation and fun (racing), and we should certainly not jump to conclusions,” she said. “We need to find the virus first, and we need to know in more detail how people get infected. Only when that is clear, it may be possible to draw up some specific control measures.” – AFP

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