Global News Blog
It's a new role for Russia, which endured months of accusations that it was blocking a solution for strife-torn Syria after it vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions in the past several months calling for the removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
But last month, Moscow threw its weight behind Mr. Annan's plan to end the year-long uprising, which has killed more than 9,000 people by UN estimates. It called for a withdrawal of all government forces from Syrian towns and cities, followed by a shaky cease-fire that went into effect last Thursday and appears to be just barely holding despite multiple violations alleged on both sides.
Speaking in televised remarks today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov implied that the shoe is on the other foot now, with Moscow strongly backing the UN peace plan for Syria and willing to hold both Mr. Assad and his opponents to task but, he alleged, the effort is being undermined by unnamed Western and Arab countries.
"There are those who want Kofi Annan's plan to fail," Mr. Lavrov insisted. "Today, those who from the beginning foretold the failure of Annan's plan are doing a lot to see to it that this prophecy comes true… They are doing this by delivering arms to the Syrian opposition and stimulating the activity of rebels who continue to attack both government facilities and civilian facilities on a daily basis."
The cease-fire remains "quite fragile" because of the reluctance of those outside forces to fully back the Annan plan, Lavrov suggested, although he added that Assad bears a share of blame for the continuing uncertainty. "Of course, government forces are also taking measures to react to such provocations, and as a result it is not all going very smoothly yet," he said.
Analysts say that Lavrov is making the most of Moscow's recent shift away from months of single-minded support for the Assad regime and its apparently sincere embrace of the Annan plan.
"This is an unaccustomed place for Lavrov to find himself, unambiguously on the side of peace and reason in Syria," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Stategic Assessments in Moscow.
"But, in fact, he's got a point. The Annan plan needs to be supported, if only because it is the only plan out there. If other forces aren't getting on board, and are indeed covertly fanning the flames of civil war as Lavrov alleges, then they and their backers will be to blame if the whole thing collapses. After months of being accused of obstructionism, this looks much better for Russia," Mr. Konovalov adds.
Lavrov received a cautious vote of support from visiting members of the Syrian opposition today, who praised Russia for distancing itself from the Assad regime but urged it to do more to promote genuine democratic reforms in Syria.
"The representatives of the Russian government aren't inclined to support the idea of preservation of the dictatorial regime," Haytham Manna, spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, told a Moscow press conference today. "They are talking about the need for continuing democratic changes, and that's very important for us… Russia has all the necessary levers to apply pressure on Assad's government and help Annan's mission."
Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir, head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, which opposes armed insurrection, agreed that Moscow's stance on Syria has been changing rapidly over recent weeks.
"[The Annan plan] is the last chance to end the fratricidal massacre and create preconditions for the transfer to a democratic form of government," he told the press conference.
Some Russian experts say that changing conditions in Syria, where Assad's military forces have gained the upper hand in recent weeks, are the main reason that Moscow's diplomatic hand appears to be strengthening.
"Until last week the West's preference was for a victory of the rebels at any price, but now there's a lot less enthusiasm for that," says Dmitry Babich, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti agency in Moscow. "This happened mainly because the rebels failed to seize any big cities and because of Assad's military success. So if the tables have turned, it hasn't been done by Russia.
"Actually, Russia's position hasn't changed much," Mr. Babich adds. "Moscow was never a passionate fan of Assad, and wasn't ready to do anything to save him, but it was alarmed at the idea of any more precedents that would license massive outside interference into the affairs of a sovereign country."
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For decades the family name of “Brambilla” has been by far the most common in Milan – to the point that throughout Italy, where family names were originally strongly associated with geography, people still jokingly refer to Milan folks as “Mister Brambillas” or “Sciur Brambilla” (“sciur” being the world for “Sir” in Milanese dialect).
So when the local council published a list of the most common names in the city last week, many were surprised to find out that Milan has many more residents known as “Mister Hu” than “Mister Brambilla.”
Among the ten most common family names in Milan, three were of Chinese origin, pointing out how ethnically diverse this city in northern Italy has become. On the list, “Rossi," a name common in Italy but not closely associated with the North, comes first, while Hu, of Chinese origin, is a close second. They are followed by five other typically Italian (but not typical specifically of Milan) names. In eighth is another Chinese name, Chen, while uber-Milanese “Brambilla” comes only ninth, followed by yet another Chinese name, Zhou.
In the last three decades, a growing numbers of migrants, both from the rest of Italy and from abroad, have settled in Milan, mostly drawn by job prospects in the most business-oriented region of the country. Today one in every five Milan residents is either a foreign national or a descendant of migrant workers.
The Chinese community is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to the first wave of the immigration in the early 1900s. While some other nationalities, particularly from Eastern Europe and North Africa, are more numerous, Chinese names are predominant because there is less variety among last names.
“To us this whole comes as no surprise,” Luigi Sun, a representative of Milan's Chinese community of Milan, told the daily newspaper Republica. “We have known for a long time Hu is one of the most common names in the city. We have more serous stuff to think about.”
The most common names in Milan:
- Rossi (Italy's most common name)
- Hu (Chinese)
- Colombo (most common in northern Italy, but not necessarily associated with Milan; the famous explorer Cristoforo Colombo, known in English as Christopher Columbus, was from Genoa)
- Ferrari (associated both with central and northern Italy)
- Bianchi (another very common name throughout the country)
- Russo (a variant of Rossi)
- Villa (a typical Milan name)
- Chen (Chinese)
- Brambilla (once thought to be Milan's most common name)
- Zhou (Chinese)
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Venetians have been coping with tidal flooding, or “acqua alta,” for centuries. A recent study suggests the problem may be worsening faster than previously believed.
But a multibillion-dollar system to be implemented starting next year could help prevent major flooding, according to two engineers who presented the project yesterday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass.
According to scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Miami, and Tele-Rilevamento Europa, an Italian company specializing in ground deformation measurement, the lagoon city is sinking, and won’t stop any time soon.
The team, who published their findings in the March issue of Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, combined GPS and space-borne radar information on the lagoon over the past 10 years and came to the conclusion that the city is sinking about two millimeters (0.08 inches) per year. This contradicts previous studies, according to which Venice’s land subsidence, the scientific term that refers to its slow sinking into the waters, had stopped after the city discontinued groundwater pumping in the 1990s, as reported by the Italian newspaper Il Gazzettino.
“It’s a small effect, but it’s important,” lead author Yehuda Bock said in a press release.
In 20 years, the study says, 80 millimeters (3.2 inches) of the lagoon will be taken over by the sea. But that is not the only thing Venetians should be worried about: The city is also tilting eastward, a problem the authors of the research say wasn’t detected in other studies.
So, is Venice doomed? Perhaps not. First of all, some question the study’s methodological approach. Pierpaolo Campostrini, director of Corila, a Venice-based research center that studies the lagoon, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that subsidence may not be constant. “It could accelerate or slow down,” he said.
Then there is Mose, a complex 5 billion euro ($6.5 billion) flood-prevention system part of which will be operational in 2013 – 10 years after the project, one of Italy's largest public works, first began. Mose engineers Maria Teresa Brotto and Giovanni Cecconi were at MIT yesterday to present the project, which MIT faculty helped to develop. Mose’s four barriers, placed in the water at the lagoon’s inlets, are designed to rise with the water level, thus protecting the lagoon from flooding.
The goal, Mr. Cecconi said, is “to keep the water level under 100 centimeters [3.28 feet]” in the city. Critics of the project, however, are concerned about its environmental impact and its maintenance costs, which Ms. Brotto said will amount to 15 to 20 million euros per year.
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Yosmel De Armas is a Cuban soccer player who has defected in order to seek asylum in the United States. While in Nashville, Tennessee last month for an Olympic qualifying soccer tournament, the Cuban midfielder was absent from his national team's final game against Canada, although he played on Saturday’s 4-0 loss to El Salvador.
When asked why the player skipped the game, the Cuban national coach said De Armas was sick and remained at the team's hotel. However, when the team left Nashville, the promising soccer player did not accompany his teammates on their return trip to the island nation.
Although US officials refused to comment about the player’s whereabouts, it was reported that De Armas was last seen in Miami.
The Miami-based lawyer, who described his client as "nervous," said De Armas is "alone here" and that he was on his way to Miami at the time of the game, contrary to the coach's allegations.
A rising number of Cuban athlete defections are explained by several factors: the continuous financial hardship the populace faces in Cuba, the plethora of defection precedents that make the process look easy, and the luring prospects of a better life, all coalesce to urge young athletes to follow this path.
"This is another case of a Cuban sportsman trying to get a decent life, to try to take control of his own career," Omar Lopez told Reuters. Lopez is general director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based organization of Cuban exiles who seek political change on the island.
Four years ago, seven members of the Cuban under-23 national soccer team also sought political asylum after competing against its US counterpart in Tampa, Florida.
"Of course, my heart will be in Cuba with my family, but I want to have the freedom to better my life, to play professional soccer, to be the best I can be, and for that we had to make this sacrifice," Yenier Bermudez told the Miami Herald, according to ESPN.
Since the 2002 CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football) tournament in Los Angeles, a total of 15 Cuban soccer players abandoned their teams and requested political asylum in the United States.
But in China, Google vies with the local, government-approved search engine Baidu – which means 100 degrees – and lags South Korea’s local brand Naver. It competes head on against fellow American company Yahoo for searches in Taiwan, splitting traffic roughly 50-50. Yahoo has also held a historic grip on Japan.
So this week, the 14-year-old Google announced that by the end of next year, it would open a data center in Taiwan to improve search speeds and reliability around the region.
SEE ALSO: 20 essential Android tips and tricks
Google has already started building data centers in Hong Kong and Singapore. But the larger one in Taiwan comes with government incentives and will boast a specific geographic advantage. That is, Taiwan gets Net traffic easily from the United States, home to Google and the source of numerous Internet search results, as it sits at the ends of undersea cables that extend directly here from North America before branching off to other parts of Asia.
Google will spend a combined $700 million on the three centers, which generally house computers and storage systems that help speed connections and keep them secure.
“More new Internet users are coming online everyday here in Asia than anywhere else in the world,” Google’s Asia Pacific President Daniel Alegre said at a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday at the coastal facility in Taiwan. “That is why we are building data centers in Asia – to ensure that our users here have the fastest, most reliable access possible to all of our services, so they can continue putting them to work.”
Google’s Taiwan data center will speed up searches particularly in China, which is just 160 kilometers (100 miles) away but has sought to censor Web searches. Baidu now controls about 75 percent of the searches in China.
“That’s a key, to serve China,” says Marvin Ma, software and services analyst with the market research firm IDC in Taipei. “China will notice a clear improvement. And this way Google can avoid the censorship problem.”
In 2010, Google shut down its locally based Chinese search engine after a dispute with the communist government over censorship and cyber-attacks, a row that prompted harsh words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Google won’t give market shares for Asia or estimate the overall number of users in the region. In South Korea, Naver still handles about two-thirds of the Internet searches, analysts estimate. But two years ago, Google and Yahoo signed a search-engine technology deal that has muffled the rivalry in Japan.
Google is also catching up in Taiwan as the ever popular Yahoo retrenches, with reports of layoffs in the pipeline, says Jamie Lin, founding partner with Taipei-based tech investor appWorks Ventures. “If they don’t make any mistakes, Google is going to be the dominant player in a couple of years,” he says.
The banning of a Thai cinema adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' is causing a stir in Thailand. The censors ruled that the movie “has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation."
In a country where the royal family is protected from criticism by possibly the world's strictest lese-majeste laws (designed to prevent public criticism or ridicule of royals), any drama featuring regicide might be deemed taboo. But Shakespeare Must Die seems also to have touched a raw nerve with its depiction of Shakespeare's ambitious but guilt-ridden usurper blended in with scenes of protest and violence redolent of Thailand's recent past.
The country has been beset by on again, off again street protests since 2005. To some, the Macbeth character in the movie is reminiscent of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose apparent vaulting ambition prompted royalist suspicions that he had a real-life anti-monarchy agenda.
Thailand's Culture Ministry told director Samanrat Kanjanavanit that she could only proceed with a bowdlerized version of the government-funded movie, but the filmmakers held their ground.
A red-clad Grim Reaper in the movie was deemed too evocative of the red-shirt demonstrators who took to Bangkok's streets in 2010, in protests that turned violent with more than 90 killed. Another scene inspired by a gruesome massacre of student demonstrators in 1976 was also deemed unacceptable.
Director Samanrat, better known as Ing K., says the censorship makes little sense. "Why do they (the censors) find a 400-year-dead poet so threatening?,” she told the Monitor. The original Macbeth was penned during a fractious period in English history, probably shortly after the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot," when Catholics aggrieved at religious discrimination sought to assassinate England's King James I, a Scot.
Now, four centuries later, Thailand's volatile politics could hold the key to the censors' anxiety over a now-archetypal tale about how power corrupts man. Mr. Thaksin was ousted from office in a 2006 coup backed by royalist street protestors and faces jail on corruption charges. But his sister Yingluck is the country's prime minister, after her Peua Thai party routed the royalist-leaning Democrats in a 2011 election.
Thailand's 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-sitting monarch and remains popular, drawing vast crowds onto Bangkok's streets last December for his birthday celebrations. But the combination of color-coded antagonism ("red-shirts" for pro-Thaksin demonstrators, "yellow-shirts" for royalists) and the King's age makes for nervy bureaucrats, and the censors' actions on the movie come after several recent high-profile jailings for lese-majeste.
While Ms. Yingluck's government has sparked renewed royalist ire by hinting that Thaksin could return to Thailand without having to do jail time, her administration simultaneously pledged not to amend Thailand's lese-majeste laws and to tighten censorship of websites containing allegedly offensive content.
Now it seems even The Bard of Avon is caught up in Thailand's censorship dragnet. Southeast Asia-based documentary filmmaker Bradley Cox saw his Who Killed Chea Vichea? – about a Cambodian trade unionist who was murdered in 2004 – banned in Cambodia. Discussing Shakespeare Must Die, Mr. Cox told the Monitor that “it makes one think that the censors must not think that highly of the Thai people, if they feel that they cannot handle the imagery and messages contained in this movie.”
For Ing K., the censors' reaction to the movie says a lot about Thailand, where the government and the opposition are at odds over a reconciliation proposal that, to some, could mean impunity for those involved in recent political violence. “We don't want to look at ourselves," she lamented, “we want to forget about painful events in our history."
The trailer for "Shakespeare Must Die:"
In one of his most graphic paintings, the rabble-rousing Renaissance artist Caravaggio depicted his tortured face on the head of Goliath, slain and decapitated by the boy warrior David.
An Italian historian thinks that Caravaggio may have met just such a grisly end – at the hands of the Knights of St. John of Malta, the chivalric order founded during the Crusades.
Vincenzo Pacelli, a Caravaggio expert from the University of Naples, has unearthed documents from the Vatican Secret Archives and state archives in Rome that suggest the Knights ordered the artist to be assassinated in revenge for him attacking and wounding on one of their members during a brawl.
They then dumped his body in the sea at Palo, north of Rome, which would explain why there are no documents recording his death.
Until now, conventional wisdom said Caravaggio died either from an illness or lead poisoning from the oil paints he used.
The murder was “commissioned and organized” by the Knights of Malta and carried out with the complicity of the Vatican, Mr. Pacelli says in his forthcoming book, "Caravaggio – Between Art and Science."
The historian found strange discrepancies in correspondence between Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a powerful Vatican secretary of state, and Deodato Gentile, a papal ambassador, in which the painter’s place of death was cited as the island of Procida near Naples, “a place that Caravaggio had nothing to do with,” according to Pacelli.
A document written by Caravaggio’s doctor and first biographer claimed that the painter died at the age of 38 north of Rome, but the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by the name of a town in Tuscany. Pacelli also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio’s death in which an Italian archivist wrote that the artist had been “assassinated.”
He believes it all adds up to evidence of an assassination plot by the Knights of Malta which was then covered up.
Not all experts are convinced by the new theory. John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is skeptical of the idea that the painter was murdered on the Knights' orders.
“The problem with the theory is that the Knights had ample opportunities to kill him sooner – either when he was living in Malta, or when he then went to Sicily, which is very close,” says Mr. Spike. “Why did they wait so long?”
The academic sparring will continue, but more than four centuries after his death in 1610, the true fate of Caravaggio remains an enigma.
Rome has given the centurions a deadline to clear out. The solders in question aren't from the ranks of an ancient legion, but are modern-day performers who pose for tourist photos at the Colosseum.
Men and women decked out in chest plates and helmets eke out a tax-free living at Rome’s most popular attraction, posing for photos with foreign visitors for 5 or 10 euros. Disoriented, jet lagged, or simply scared, tourists have been known to pay up to 50 euros ($67). Some have been roughed up when they refuse.
Arrests were made last summer in an undercover operation with police in tunics and sandals handcuffing centurions and gladiators for ripping off tourists. A recent Italian media report cited a policeman as saying the centurions are all ex-convicts, “every last one of them.”
Now the city government says “basta!” and wants them to pack up their swords, shields, and ensigns and clear out by April 6.
“This will end badly. We’ll wage a revolution. We’ll burn down the Coliseum rather than move from here,” a 21st-century centurion recently told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Along with the fake ancient Roman soldiers, the city aims to rid itself of the vast illegal industry of food and souvenir vendors that feeds off the 6 million people who every year visit the site where Russell Crowe avenged his family’s murder in the 2000 sword-and-sandal blockbuster "Gladiator."
City and national officials say they are defending Rome-the-living-museum from an image akin to theme parks where visitors feast on fast food and ham it up for the camera with fairytale characters.
But the Italian economy is in recession and its prisons overcrowded so government bureaucrats should be vigilant for unrest in the legionary ranks. They might want to reconsider a plan that puts ex-cons out of work.
• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
Haroon Hamdard edged toward a suspected explosive device lying in a field in western Afghanistan. His job as a demining worker was to identify such devices and figure out how to render them harmless. But the young worker stumbled. His foot hit a rock that tumbled forward and detonated a small bomb. Mr. Hamdard was left in critical condition, and lost his right arm. He was fitted with a barely functioning prosthetic arm. The married father of one was unemployed for the next six years. Hamdard finally got a job at Spark, a workshop in Kabul funded by a US nonprofit where people who have been disabled by land mines make demining equipment. Sale of the equipment funds rehabilitation clinics, one of which will finally outfit Hamdard with a better prosthetic arm.
After three decades of war, Afghanistan is littered with land mines. Insurgents have been increasingly conflating foreign aid with foreign occupation and demining organizations feel the brunt of this. The majority of nongovernmental workers detained by armed groups in 2011 were deminers – the Taliban tend not to appreciate those who try to remove their bombs. Many Afghans continue to be injured by land mines, but the level of care Hamdard received is rarely available outside Kabul.
• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.
Amid the new tower blocks that are changing this city’s skyline rises a newly restored symbol of Beirut’s multireligious society.
The Magen Abraham synagogue is the last Jewish place of worship to survive in Beirut, a lone reminder that a few decades ago a thriving Jewish community lived in the city center.
The Jewish faith is one of the 18 officially recognized sects that exist in Lebanon. When the synagogue was built in 1920 there were some 12,000 Jews in Lebanon. But the Arab-Israeli conflict and Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war spurred Jews to emigrate, and today there are only around 150 left here.
The last rabbi departed in 1975, and the synagogue fell into disrepair. Much of the structural damage was inflicted, ironically, by shelling from Israeli gunboats in 1982.
Restoration began two years ago and was funded by donations from Lebanese Jews both in Lebanon and overseas. The interior has been restored to its original décor with sky-blue walls, arched windows, and whitewashed columns with small brown painted streaks that mimic the fossilized shells in the original limestone columns. Work is expected to be completed by summer, and the first rabbi in nearly four decades is expected to arrive soon.
“Once the rabbi is here, we will be able to hold weddings again,” says a Jewish Council member in Lebanon who oversaw the restoration. He declines to allow his name to be quoted, illustrating that Lebanese Jews still prefer to maintain a low profile.