Friday, November 28, 2008

World Economy Cartoon

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Shots fired at Toys R Us in Palm Desert; 2 dead

Shots rang out today inside a Toys R Us store in Palm Desert, killing two and causing shoppers at the busy store to scramble for cover.

Palm Desert Councilman Bob Spiegel told The Times that based on early reports, two rival groups shopping at the store had some kind of argument and then shots were fired. Two men were killed in the exchange of gunfire, he said.

Sara Frahm, 25, of La Quinta was shopping for electronic toys at the time of the shooting. She told The Times she heard two women fighting and swearing in an aisle next to her. She said employees went to break up the fight and that all of the sudden a number of people yelled, "He has a gun!" She said she heard six or seven shots.

Mike Stitt of Yucca Valley was shopping with his wife and two children when he saw two women fighting and calling each other names. Both were with men. One of the men pulled out a gun and shot it in the air, then shot the other man in the back, Stitt told The Times.

In a statement, Toys R Us stressed that the shooting appeared to stem from a "personal dispute."

"We are outraged by the act of violence that occurred this afternoon in Palm Desert, CA, and by the fact that anyone would compromise the safety and security of our customers and employees," the statement said. "Our understanding is that this act seems to have been the result of a personal dispute between the individuals involved. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday."

Riverside County sheriff and fire officials responded to a report of the shooting at 11:32 a.m. at the toy store in the Desert Crossing Shopping Center at 72314 Highway 111, said Cheri Patterson, information officer for the Riverside County Fire Department and Cal Fire, based in Perris.

Dennis Gutierrez of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department confirmed the fatalities but said detectives were still trying to figure out what happened. He said no arrests have been made and no weapons have been recovered.

"This was an incident between these two individuals," he said.

Details about the shooting were still spotty, but witnesses said the scene at the store and nearby businesses was chaotic.

"We had a bunch of people who came in around noon," Jeff Valare, manager at the World Gym across the street from the Toys R Us, told The Times. "They looked distressed. One woman had an infant in her arms and was crying. They were telling us they heard five or six gunshots. They were inside the Toys R Us and fled out the back."

Glenn Splain, another worker at the gym, told the Associated Press that some Toys R Us customers "were crying, tearing and shaking. ... Some people got into a fight. ... One of the guys here thought it was over a toy, but it got louder and louder and then there were gunshots."

Saul Diaz, who works as an assistant manager at the Jiffy Lube next door to the Toys R Us, said he was speaking with a customer when a stampede of 45 people ran in. Some looked distraught, some were crying.

"They were running fast, straight into the car bays. There was a couple of ladies with little kids, about 3 years [old]. They were all pale. The kids were shouting, 'Mom, I'm scared.' We immediately closed the store," Diaz told The Times. His staff locked the front doors and closed the car bays. "We took everyone into a basement bay, where we keep inventory," he said.

The Desert Sun quoted a Palm Desert city official as saying the shooting might have been caused by bad blood between two groups of shoppers. "There were two groups inside that had issue with each other," said Assistant City Manager Sheila Gilligan. "And the two men inside pulled their weapons and shot each other."

Daniel Watson told KPSP-TV that his wife was shopping at the store and called him on her cellphone about the time the shooting began. "She was scared, you know, and she told me to tell the kids that she loved them," Watson said. He told the station that his wife hid under a clothes rack.

-- Michelle Maltais, Richard Winton, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Andrew Blankstein

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Dutch ban on "magic" mushrooms to take effect

By Catherine Hornby

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands will ban the sale and cultivation of all hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms from next week, the latest target of a country seeking to shed its "anything goes" image.

The Dutch government proposed the ban in April, citing the dangerous behavioral effects of magic mushrooms following the death of a French teenager who jumped from an Amsterdam bridge in 2007 after consuming the hallucinogenic fungus.

"The use of magic mushrooms has hallucinogenic effects. It is proven that this can lead to unpredictable and therefore risky behavior," the Dutch Health Ministry said in a statement.

A challenge to the ban was rejected by a court in the Hague on Friday. From December 1 the production or sale of fresh magic mushrooms could lead to a maximum jail sentence of four years, a spokesman for the Dutch Justice Ministry said on Friday.

"We are targeting the growers and the shops who are selling the mushrooms," the spokesman said.

The active ingredient in magic mushrooms is psilocybin. Effects last up to about six hours and can include nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness and drowsiness in the early stages after consumption.

The psychological consequences of psilocybin use include hallucinations and an inability to discern fantasy from reality. Panic reactions and psychosis also may occur, particularly if a user ingests a large dose, according to the U.S. Justice Dept's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Some proponents of magic mushrooms say that their use aids in spiritual awareness, gaining personal insight and meditation.

Selling dried magic mushrooms is already illegal in the Netherlands and carries a maximum jail sentence of eight years, the justice ministry spokesman said, but from next week a new ban will apply to fresh mushrooms which have been previously sold in so-called "smart shops."

Staff in the stores, which stock mushrooms or "paddos" ranging from Thai to Hawaiian varieties for about 15 euros (about $20) a pack, said the ban will put users at greater risk.

"People will just go picking in the forest, and that can be dangerous. Or they will go to street dealers, and get mixed up with hard drugs," said David Henriks from the Tatanka shop.

Posters in shops outlined the effects of different types of mushrooms, such as strong visual experiences or feelings described as "body highs." They also suggested dos and don'ts of consumption, and rated the mushrooms for their intensity.

"It's always safer to have the information before taking drugs," said Roy Williams of the Innerspace shop, adding that in the past few weeks people had increasingly been buying "grow your own" mushroom kits in the lead-up to the ban.

The Dutch association of smart shops (VLOS) had tried to reassure authorities by promising tighter self-regulation and noted that most mushroom-related incidents involved young tourists mixing mushrooms with alcohol and cannabis.

On Friday the VLOS said it was highly disappointed with the court's decision to reject the challenge to the ban.

"Under this government we have had a whole series of bans, and people have had enough of this," said Paul van Oyen from the VLOS, adding that he would advise the board of the association to launch an appeal.

He said some of the 180 or so smart shops in the Netherlands would likely have to close because of falling turnover, and he expected to see a huge discount sale over the weekend as shops tried to get rid of supplies.

Figures from the Amsterdam emergency services show there were 55 call-outs for mushroom-related incidents in 2004, a figure which had more than doubled by 2006 to 128, with the majority of youngsters involved coming from Britain.

In recent years the Netherlands has dropped some previously tolerant policies and has tightened laws on drug use and prostitution.

Several brothels and sex clubs were shut down in 2008, city councils are planning to close marijuana-selling coffee shops near schools, while tobacco smoking and alcohol consumption in coffee shops have also been forbidden.

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Carter: Cholera-, inflation-ridden Zimbabwe 'a basket case'

By Eliott C. McLaughlin

(CNN) -- Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai said Wednesday that Zimbabwe is in shambles and warned that deaths from starvation and a cholera outbreak threaten to surge with the rainy season approaching.

A man carries a relative in a wheelbarrow to a cholera clinic in Harare on Tuesday.

A man carries a relative in a wheelbarrow to a cholera clinic in Harare on Tuesday.

Bemoaning Zimbabwe's decline is a familiar refrain for the embattled head of the Movement for Democratic Change. His most recent remarks, however, were backed by former President Carter, who returned from a five-day trip to neighboring South Africa this week and declared Zimbabwe "a basket case."

Tsvangirai also expressed frustration with attempts to form a unity government between his group and the ruling Zanu-PF party. He said he has asked that South African ex-President Thabo Mbeki recuse himself as mediator between the two parties.

The Zimbabwean government quickly countered Tsvangirai's allegations that President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF were responsible for the problems gripping the country.

"The government is very committed to ensure that the humanitarian crisis is addressed. It would be wrong for the MDC to blame it on the government," Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said.

Addressing Tsvangirai's allegations that cholera deaths could soon top 50 a day and that the Mugabe-led government seems intent on covering it up, Mumbengegwi noted that Zimbabwe is not the only country where cholera is a problem.

"No government would want its people to suffer. Cholera is not peculiar to Zimbabwe," he said. "We hear it is now in South Africa, too, but we cannot relax because of that. We have to fight it as Zimbabweans."

A report in the state-run Herald newspaper Wednesday said the government has kicked off an information campaign to inform citizens of "the do's and don'ts to combat the disease."

The government is also drilling boreholes to find clean, subterranean water that can be pumped to the surface for drinking and bathing, the Herald reported.

The World Health Organization said last week that almost 300 people have died of cholera since August and more than 6,000 cases have been reported.

Tsvangirai said Wednesday that conditions would worsen this month as the rainy season brings steamy downpours to much of Zimbabwe, especially the eastern mountain forests.

Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, wife of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela -- all of whom belong to a group of world leaders called the Elders -- had hoped to visit Zimbabwe on their recent trip to the region but were denied visas, according to Tsvangirai and a statement from the Carter Center.

"Mr. Mugabe would prefer that the suffering that he and Zanu-PF have caused, and continue to cause, remains in the dark," Tsvangirai said in a statement, adding that because the Movement for Democratic Change and Zanu-PF cannot form a partnership after months of wrangling, "the MDC must instead work with those Zimbabwean organizations, groups and individuals to address the humanitarian crisis."

The humanitarian problems illustrate the political quagmire in Zimbabwe, where a power-sharing agreement that Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed in September has yet to take effect.

Carter issued a statement Tuesday condemning what he said was Harare's decision to renege on an agreement to allow him, Annan and Machel into the country. He also offered a damning assessment of the Mugabe regime.

"After almost three decades of governmental corruption, mismanagement and oppression, Zimbabwe has become a basket case, an embarrassment to the region and a focus of international concern and condemnation," he said.

Denied passage to Zimbabwe, Carter, Annan and Machel were left to consult with regional leaders -- including Tsvangirai, Botswana President Ian Khama and South Africa President Kgalema Motlanthe -- as well as United Nations officials, nongovernmental organizations and Zimbabwe's civil leaders.

"We had a complete and balanced agenda and more frank discussions than would have been possible in the oppressive and restrained environment of Harare," Carter said in his statement.

Carter said he learned of conditions in which the official inflation rate has soared to about 231 million percent while thousands of Zimbabweans stand in line for their daily allowance of about 2 cents a day -- from their own bank accounts. The allowance does not afford them a half loaf of bread, he said.

Teachers, who earn about a dollar a month, report a student-textbook ratio of about 20-to-1, and school attendance has dropped to about 20 percent in the past three months, the former president reported. The few students still attending classes are generally doing so in the hopes of being fed, he said.

"Meanwhile, top government officials and other privileged people can exchange Zim money at a favorable rate that is several thousand times more than the official rate available to other citizens," Carter said. "They profit greatly from these monetary transactions and shop in special stores."

The nation's four major hospitals have shut down, as roughly 3,500 AIDS victims are dying each week. Unchecked sewage and filthy water have compounded the cholera problem, and Zimbabwe's death rate from the disease is 10 times greater than rates in areas where treatment is available, Carter said.

The former president said 19,000 Zimbabweans are fleeing the country each month, mostly to South Africa and Botswana. He estimated that 4 million people have fled the nation.

"The middle class is departing, leaving behind the extremely poor and the small elite group around Mugabe who are profiting from the economic disaster," he said.

Comparing Zimbabwe to Somalia, a failed African state that has had no functional government since 1991, Carter cast blame on African leaders who fail "to confront Robert Mugabe and force him to accept the result of the March election and more recently to comply with negotiated political agreements to share governmental authority with Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition party."

Tsvangirai snared more votes than Mugabe in March's election but not a majority. Tsvangirai dropped out of a subsequent runoff, citing widespread violence against MDC supporters.

Carter's call for African leaders to step up pressure on Mugabe came a day before Tsvangirai asked South Africa's Mbeki to bow out as mediator between the MDC and Zanu-PF.

"Sadly, the negotiations have also been hampered by the attitude and position of the facilitator, Mr. Thabo Mbeki. He does not appear to understand how desperate the problem in Zimbabwe is, and the solutions he proposes are too small," Tsvangirai said in his statement.

"He is not serving to bring the parties together because he does not understand what needs to be done. In addition, his partisan support of Zanu-PF, to the detriment of genuine dialogue, has made it impossible for the MDC to continue negotiating under his facilitation."

Asked for the Zimbabwe government's reaction to the MDC asking Mbeki to recuse himself, Foreign Minister Mumbengegwi said, "We have no right to tell them who to complain about. It is their decision in the MDC."

Unless African leaders can find a way to mitigate the political impasse in Zimbabwe, the United Nations or the African Union might need to enter the fray, because, Carter said, "the poisonous effects" of the Mugabe regime, including the cholera outbreak, are spilling into other African nations.

Food, medicine and monetary donations should be sent immediately to humanitarian agencies such as CARE, World Vision and Save the Children, Carter said, advising that it is unwise to send cash directly to people in Zimbabwe.

"It is counterproductive to contribute money that can be confiscated by the Zimbabwe government," he said.

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Russia seeks new missiles due to U.S. shield plans

By Conor Sweeney

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's military said on Friday it had intensified efforts to develop new ballistic missiles in response to U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile system in Europe and Russia's navy test fired a new generation rocket.

The decision by the United States to deploy interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic has angered Moscow, which says Russia's national security will be compromised by the U.S. anti-missile system.

Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov, Commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, was quoted by Interfax as saying that Russia had bolstered its efforts to develop new missiles.

"At the present time, work has been intensified to create the research and technical foundation for new missile systems, which will be needed after 2020," Solovtsov said.

A few hours later, the Dmitry Donskoy nuclear submarine launched a Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile from the White Sea, a navy spokesman said. The missile hit the Kura testing site on the Kamchatka peninsula in the Pacific.

Russia's RIA news agency quoted an unidentified source in the Defense Ministry as saying it was the most successful test of the Bulava to date, after a string of failures and delays.

The previous test of the Bulava on September 18 was pronounced a success by the navy. Several launches of the Bulava, which is designed for Russia's new generation of Borei class nuclear submarines, have failed however.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on November 5 that Moscow would install Iskander short-range missile systems near the Polish border if Washington proceeds with its missile plans.

Medvedev also said Russia would try to electronically jam the U.S. system.

Russia's relations with Washington this year hit their lowest ebb since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union after a row over the war against U.S. ally Georgia and Moscow's recognition of two Georgian rebel regions as independent states.

Kremlin officials say the U.S. has failed to listen to their concerns about the missile shield, which Washington says is needed to protect against "rogue states" such as Iran.

Russia's missile forces commander said the first of a new generation of Russian RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles would enter service in December 2009, Interfax reported.

Russia test fired one of the RS-24 missiles on November 26, the third such test in two years.

Russian generals say the RS-24 can pierce any anti-missile system. It can be armed with up to 10 different warheads and is intended to replace Russia's earlier generation intercontinental missiles such as the RS-18 and RS-20.

Solovtsov said the global financial crisis probably would impose some limits on funding, although Russia would test 13 missiles next year, almost double the seven tests this year, Interfax reported.

"Due to the world financial crisis, certain resource restrictions will be applied but still the (missile) force should be able to fulfill its duties," he was quoted as saying.

Civilian personnel in Russia's military forces also will be cut by 150,000 to 600,000 as part of ongoing reforms to defense structures, Interfax separately reported, quoting a source in the Defense Ministry.

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GM Asks U.S. FAA to Bar Public Tracking of Leased Corporate Jet

By John Hughes and Elliot Blair Smith

Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- General Motors Corp., criticized by U.S. lawmakers for its use of corporate jets, asked aviation regulators to block the public’s ability to track a plane it uses.

“We availed ourselves of the option as others do to have the aircraft removed” from a Federal Aviation Administration tracking service, a GM spokesman, Greg Martin, said yesterday in an interview. He declined to discuss why GM made the request.

Flight data show that the leased Gulfstream Aerospace G-IV jet flew Nov. 18 from Detroit to Washington, where Chief Executive Officer Richard Wagoner Jr. spoke to a Senate committee that day and a House panel the next day on behalf of a $25 billion auto-industry rescue plan.

Representatives at the Nov. 19 House hearing including Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York faulted Wagoner, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally and Chrysler LLC CEO Robert Nardelli for taking private jets to Washington to plead their case.

“Couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class?” Ackerman said.

Symbol for Critics

Critics of a federal aid package for GM, Ford and Chrysler spotlighted the exchange to attack the money-losing companies as undeserving of a bailout. GM, the biggest U.S. automaker, has said it may run out of operating cash by year’s end without government loans.

The Gulfstream jet was leased from GE Capital Solutions in Danbury, Connecticut, a unit of General Electric Co. After the plane’s latest flight to Washington on Nov. 25, and from there to Dallas, its movements could no longer be tracked.

An FAA spokeswoman, Laura Brown, said she couldn’t immediately determine whether her agency had granted GM’s flight-privacy request. “We do this routinely” for aircraft owners, she said yesterday. “They don’t have to have a reason” for requesting the block, she said.

The FAA tracking data don’t identify who is aboard the flights.

GM also has seven planes in its own fleet. All were grounded yesterday, said a spokesman, Tom Wilkinson. Two are for sale and two are in the process of being listed for sale, while Detroit-based GM plans to keep three, he said.

The leased Gulfstream has made 10 trips to Washington this year, including three since October, according to data compiled by Houston-based flight-tracking service

GM said it often sub-leases the airplane to other users. GM officials said company employees weren’t aboard the jet on the final Nov. 25 flights before its movements ceased being tracked.

To contact the reporters on this story: John Hughes in Washington at jhughes5@bloomberg.netElliot Blair Smith in Washington at

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Tory shadow minister Damian Green arrested after obtaining leaked documents

By Robert Winnett and James Kirkup

Damian Green: Conservative MP for Ashford, Tenterden and shadow minister for immigration: Mr Green has been arrested after obtaining leaked Whitehall documents.
Police searched Mr Green's family home and his office in the House of Commons. Photo: Jeff Gilbert

Mr Green, who is the shadow immigration minister, was arrested at his home in Kent by counter-terrorism police officers.

The arrest follows a series of leaks to the Conservatives about Government policy, including a sensitive memorandum from the Home Office's most senior official on crime figures earlier this month.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is said to be "extremely angry" about the arrest and has privately accused the Government of "Stalinesque" behaviour.

Mr Green is understood to have been arrested at lunchtime today and is still in custody. He has not been charged.

Green has been arrested after obtaining leaked Whitehall documents. Police searched his family home and his office in the House of Commons.

He was arrested for "aiding and abetting misconduct in public office".

It is claimed that nine counter-terrorism officers were involved in the arrest.

Mr Cameron has pledged his full support for the shadow immigration minister. In a statement he said: "Disclosure of this information was manifestly in the public interest. Mr Green denies any wrongdoing and stands by his action."

However, the arrest of such a senior Conservative figure who hopes to become a Home Office minister will embarrass the opposition. He is now likely to face pressure to resign from the Tory front bench.

Government sources also believe that sensitive information from the Treasury, including confidential announcements in the pre-Budget report, was leaked to the Conservatives.

In February this year, Mr Green criticised the Government over leaked documents at the Home Office.

He said: "Ministers like to talk tough about cracking down on employers but it is clear that the system is failing in our most sensitive buildings. What makes this even worse is that ministers' first instinct was to cover it up."

An alleged "whistleblower", thought to be a male Home Office official was arrested 10 days ago.

It is understood that the inquiry is focusing on four Home Office documents allegedly obtained by the Conservatives. Last November, documents from the private office of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, were leaked to the opposition.

They showed that ministers had known for four months that thousands of illegal immigrants had been cleared to work as security guards but had not told Parliament.

Other documents included information about an illegal immigrant working at House of Commons and a list of Labour MPs preparing to vote against the Government's anti-terrorism measures.

Tory sources angrily pointed out that the police move came after Parliament rose for a five-day holiday.

Had the Commons been sitting, they said, MPs could have immediately raised the matter with the Speaker.

The police search of Mr Green's office had to be authorised by the Serjeant at Arms, who answers to the Speaker.

Mr Green’s constituency office was also searched.

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U.S. war on drugs has failed, report says

By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Mexico City -- The United States' war on drugs has failed and will continue to do so as long as it emphasizes law enforcement and neglects the problem of consumption, a Washington think tank says in a report co-chaired by a former president of Mexico.

The former president, Ernesto Zedillo, in an interview, called for a major rethinking of U.S. policy, which he said has been "asymmetrical" in demanding that countries such as Mexico stanch the flow of drugs northward, without successful efforts to stop the flow of guns south. In addition to disrupting drug-smuggling routes, eradicating crops and prosecuting dealers, the U.S. must confront the public health issue that large-scale consumption poses, he said.

"If we insist only on a strategy of the criminal pursuit of those who traffic in drugs," Zedillo said, "the problem will never be resolved."

The indictment of Washington's counter-narcotics campaign comes in a report released this week by the Brookings Institution that advocates closer engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. influence in the region has slipped dramatically during the eight years of the Bush administration, and the report suggests an incoming Democratic government led by Barack Obama can open opportunities for better ties and communication.

Among its recommendations, the report urges a fresh approach to Cuba, including loosening the long-standing U.S. embargo, overhauling immigration policies, and enhancing "hemispheric integration" on the economic and energy fronts.

The report, which is the work of Brookings' Partnership for the Americas Commission, offers especially pointed criticism of the way the drug war has been waged.

Contrary to government claims, the use of heroin and cocaine in the U.S. has not declined significantly, the report says, and the use of methamphetamine is spreading. Falling street prices suggest that the supply of narcotics has not declined noticeably, and U.S. prevention and treatment programs are woefully underfunded, the study says.

"Current U.S. counter- narcotics policies are failing by most objective standards," the report says. "The only long-run solution to the problem of illegal narcotics is to reduce the demand for drugs in the major consuming countries, including the United States."

Zedillo cited skyrocketing violence in his own country as an example of the damage done by these policies. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Mexico this year in drug-related warfare between government troops and traffickers, and among rival drug gangs. Many of the weapons confiscated in raids and shootouts came from the U.S.

Zedillo, who served as Mexican president from 1994 to 2000, spoke by telephone from Yale University, where he is an economics professor and director of the school's Center for the Study of Globalization. He is co-chairman of the Partnership for the Americas Commission with Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.S. undersecretary of State.

Where the U.S. has had success, as in the reduction of coca production in some areas of Colombia, the gains are not sustainable, Zedillo said, because cultivation merely moves to other zones.

"And that way, the fight goes nowhere," he said.

The report urges the U.S. to take responsibility for stemming the transport of an estimated 2,000 guns a day across the border; to expand drug prevention programs in schools and redirect anti-drug messages to younger people by emphasizing cosmetic damage as well as health risks; and to greatly enhance drug courts, a system that incorporates treatment into prosecution.

John P. Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, recently defended U.S. efforts. In Mexico to discuss a pending anti-drug aid package, Walters said a decline in positive drug tests at American workplaces indicated consumption was down, and he said authorities were taking steps to curtail gun shipments.

But a report this month from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), now the vice president-elect, said the government's most ambitious counter-narcotics program, the $5-billion Plan Colombia, failed to meet several goals. Interdiction halved opium and heroin production in Colombia from 2000 to 2006, but coca and cocaine production continued to grow, it said.

Wilkinson is a Times staff writer.

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Mumbai attacks: Terrorists 'copied al-Qaeda blueprint'

Terrorists behind co-ordinated terrorist attacks on a series of high-profile targets in Mumbai, India, followed a "blueprint" created by al-Qaeda, according to one terrorism expert.

Livedraw cartoon interpretation of perpetrators behind attacks on the Indian city. ;

George Kassimeris, an expert in conflict and terrorism, said attacks on transport links, hotels and bars in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) were "original" and "absolutely shocking".

He said the Islamic extremist group created the "modus operandi" of attacking vulnerable civilian targets with no warning, long-term plans or demands.

Witness accounts that gunmen were looking for US and British nationals suggest they want to grab international attention, he added.

Dr Kassimeris said: "Al Qaida set the blueprint for terrorist operations and now we see different people, different groups in different parts of the world, copying it.

"The underlying theme is to cause as much havoc as possible and this is exactly what has happened in India.

"There is no specific operational or logistical plan, they just want to inflict as much damage and injury as possible.

"The fact they have gone for western targets confirms initial fears these people are out to inflict as much damage as possible."

India has endured a series of terrorist attacks in recent years undertaken by disparate Islamic militants, many based in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A relatively new extremist group known as Indian Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks in Mumbai in the past 12 months.

Dr Kassimeris, a senior research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton, said those responsible were likely to be Islamic religious extremists.

"It could be any one of them and it would be foolish to speculate so soon, but I am 99.9 per cent sure there is a religious element to this," he said.

A message explaining the attacks will probably be published via email or on an extremist website in the near future, the academic said.

He said: "Do not forget the fact that they are attacking high-profile targets means they will get high-profile publicity.

"This is the underlying reason they went for this kind of targets instead of just setting off a bomb in a far-flung suburb of Mumbai.

Dr Kassimeris said the terrorists might have chosen to use guns and grenades because some bomb plots have failed.

He said: "You need expertise to put bombs together. These people went for the straightforward style of terrorist activity. It is very easy and it works - unfortunately."

Another expert compared the attacks to the deadly bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital Islamabad on September 20.

Professor Richard Bonney, the author of Jihad: From Qu'ran To Bin Laden, said the difference was that in Mumbai there were co-ordinated attacks and Westerners were singled out as hostages.

He said: "This attack looks more dangerous and better planned, though not directed against possible government targets but economic ones and of course the 'Western allies'."

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Latitude 4.595N, longitude 48.085E: We find the hijacked Sirius Star

Sam Jones

IKONOS satellite image of the Saudi supertanker Sirius StarView larger picture

An IKONOS satellite image of the pirated Saudi supertanker Sirius Star. Click on the magnifying glass to enlarge image. Photograph: GeoEye

From a vantage point 423 miles above the Earth, the lawless waters of the Gulf of Aden appear tranquil and the 330-metre-long ship sitting low under a £68m cargo looks like a tiny green cigar floating on an inky ocean.

These pictures, taken by a satellite commissioned by the Guardian and hurtling over Africa at four miles a second, show the Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker which 12 days ago became the biggest prize ever seized by the Somali pirates who have claimed the Gulf of Aden as their hunting ground.

The images also reveal a triangle of ships, three of the 40 vessels to have been hijacked in Somali waters this year. Although not as vast as the Sirius Star, the Stolt Strength, the African Sanderling and the Yasa Neslihan are together home to 64 seafarers, two-thirds of them from the Philippines.

With the taking of the Sirius Star and its 25-strong crew a little before 9am on November 15, the number of international seafarers floating in hijack limbo off the coast of Somalia rose to almost 300 and the issue of piracy surged to the top of news bulletins around the world.

The multinational composition of the crew - 19 Filipinos, two Britons, two Poles, one Croat and one Saudi Arabian - may have guaranteed global coverage, but the Sirius's sheer size and huge, precious cargo proved equally arresting.

The ship, very nearly a third of a kilometre long from bow to stern, was carrying 2m barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia to the US, almost a quarter of the kingdom's daily oil production.

And although the pirates who swarmed up the side of the supertanker may have halved their original ransom demand to $15m (£9.8m), the situation is no closer to a resolution.

The Guardian's satellite pictures, which were shot a week ago, showed the Sirius Star five miles off the coast at a latitude of 4.595N and a longitude of 48.085E. But on Sunday, the hijackers moved the ship further offshore, apparently after receiving threats from Islamic militants in Somalia who were angry that a Muslim-owned ship had been targeted.

Two days ago the BBC spoke to a pirate on board the Sirius Star who said a ransom had not yet been set, adding that his men had not been contacted by the supertanker's owner.

The pirate, who identified himself as Daybad, said the crew were being treated as "prisoners of war". He added: "We captured the ship for ransom, of course, but we don't have anybody reliable to talk to directly about it."

The families of the seafarers aboard the other ships are still waiting for updates. Dr Fehmi Ulgener, a lawyer for the Turkish shipping company that owns the Yasa Neslihan, said the ship's 20 Turkish crew members were in good spirits.

"They have no health problems but they are bored, although that is to be expected. The company's personnel department is dealing with the crew's families and we are giving them information. At the moment, they are completely calm and are waiting for the good news," he said.

Ulgener said the pirates who attacked the ship, which was laden with 77,000 tonnes of iron ore, had "popped up out of the blue" at midday on October 29. Like many others, he had no idea how long the hijacking would go on. "Our only source is the other examples, and so [the situation] could last for between 60 and 70 days," he said.

The Panamanian company that took delivery of the African Sanderling just five months ago could not be reached yesterday. But a spokesman for Stolt-Nielsen, the Norwegian-Luxembourgeois company that charters the Stolt Strength, said he believed the ship's 23-strong Filipino crew were well despite their 17-day ordeal. "If there's any silver lining, it's that these pirates don't seem to be out to harm the crew," said Martin Baxendale. "It's purely a financial thing, but it's extremely distressing for the families of the crew. And although they're not setting out to hurt the crew, accidents do happen."

The company is all too familiar with Somalia's hijacking problem: 12 days ago, the crew of another of its ships, the Stolt Valor, was released after a hijacking that lasted more than two months. "In humanitarian terms, it's very unpleasant," Baxendale added. "The sooner we get them out the better."

Two Western journalists, believed to be a Briton and a Spaniard, were kidnapped en route to the airport in the port city of Bosasso on Somalia's northern coast yesterday.

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