Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Virgin Sues Over Hudson Crash Prank

Virgin America is suing a company that allegedly created a phony ad, making it look like Virgin was trying to profit from the US Airways crash.

According to the suit, filed yesterday in Federal court, Virgin claims Adrants Publishing posted an ad on its website,, showing a photo of the jet planted in the Hudson River, with the caption, "The Hudson Crash: Just One More Reason to Fly Virgin."

The suit claims a honcho at Adrants said, "We've seen Virgin turn ugly situations to its advantage before, making it [the fake advertisement] very much in keeping with the Virgin brand persona. The only thing saving the tribute from being in terrifically bad taste is the fact that no one lost his or her life in the crash. So woot! -- slather your big reds all over those news shots, V."

Virgin says the ad damages its good name and is suing for, among other things, defamation.

Adrants maintains it was all just a spoof.

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'Mini-Madoff' Accused of $400M Ponzi Scheme Surrenders

HICKSVILLE, New York — The FBI says the owner of a Long Island investment firm has turned himself in to face accusations he cheated clients out of more than $100 million.

FBI spokesman Jim Margolin says Nicholas Cosmo surrendered on Monday night.

Cosmo runs Agape World Inc. in Hauppauge. He's accused of taking in $300 million from investors and cheating them out of about $140 million.

A letter hanging in Cosmo's office window denies there was any pyramid scheme, the type of fraud Bernard Madoff is accused of committing. A Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme promises unusually high returns and pays early investors with money from later investors.

Cosmo is expected to appear in court Tuesday.

Defense attorneys at the Herrick Feinstein law firm haven't returned telephone calls seeking comment.

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US to have 'vigorous' Iran talks

Susan Rice on 'direct diplomacy' with Iran

The new US envoy to the United Nations says Barack Obama's administration will make Iran's nuclear plans a diplomatic priority and pursue direct talks.

Susan Rice told reporters she looked forward to "vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran".

Under George W Bush, there were no direct US nuclear talks with Iran.

The UN has urged Tehran to halt uranium enrichment, amid fears it could be used for military purposes. Iran says its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful.

In the run-up to his inauguration last week, Mr Obama promised a "new approach" in the dispute.

Last month he called for "tough but direct diplomacy", offering Iran economic incentives to end its nuclear programme or face tougher sanctions.

Iran dismissed the move as "unacceptable".

Ms Rice was speaking after presenting her credentials to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

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"TEL AVIV, Israel – Danny Mahlouf, a 70-year-old Israeli plasterer from Ashkelon, has a message for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and it’s personal. "Tell Ismail Haniyeh to lose the beard, and stop making trouble!"

They go way back. In the late ‘80s, Haniyeh worked for five years as a plasterer in Ashkelon and Mahlouf was his boss. "We were close friends but we lost contact," Mahlouf said. "Then one day my son was watching TV and suddenly he shouted, Dad, come quickly, Ismail’s on TV. He’s prime minister!"

Image: Ismail Haniyeh
Hatem Moussa / AP file
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh waves to supporters in Gaza City, Dec. 8.

Their story tells much about the ties between Jews and Arabs that have been lost in the violence. The relationships between Israelis and Palestinians weren’t always full of the tension and hatred that often characterize them today, and that raises the possibility that one day, somehow, it could go back to the more peaceful days.

Old friends
I met Mahlouf in a café in Ashkelon, while waiting for Grad rockets to fall, fired by Haniyeh’s men in Gaza. My new friends in the café, where I went every day during the recent three-week war, told me Mahlouf’s story and said I must meet him. Then one day he came in, and we talked for an hour.

He’s a tough old guy who still works a six-day week. He stood up, blew out his chest, patted his firm stomach and boomed, "Guess how old I am! Ismail would recognize me right away!"

I won’t get in the way of his words, for they tumbled out. But it’s Mahlouf’s explanation of why he believes Ismail Haniyeh changed from a humble worker to an Islamic militant, and what his old friend thinks about him:

"He was a good worker, he worked for me for five years on a salary. He went with my son to Netanya, all over, he came to my house and I went to his in Gaza.

"There was no border post then, we all just came and went. We went to him, I went to Jabaliya like going to my own home, we ate fish there, we lived together, no difference between Jews and Arabs. We ate together, they went to Tel Aviv in their cars, I went to his house, his old house, not the new one now! Gaza was like Tel Aviv for me.

"Weddings, funerals, we were friends. He came with his wife and two children to my daughter’s wedding. But one day his brother was killed and from that very day he became a Hamasnik."

On May 20, 1990, an Israeli, Ami Popper, who had been dishonorably discharged from the army, lined up Arab workers in the road in Rishon-le-Zion, and killed seven. One of them was Haniyeh’s brother. Popper was sentenced to seven life terms for murder, one for each of the seven Palestinians he killed, but he could be paroled by 2023.

Palestinian women fight to fill gas canisters in Gaza
SLIDESHOW: Gaza's road to recovery

‘I’ll never come to Israel again’
"I went to Ismail’s house for the funeral," Mahlouf continued. "There were four men in masks. I thought, walla! I’m finished. I’m a dead man. Then one took off his mask and it was Ismail. He said, ‘I told you not to come. I’m finished. I’ll never come to Israel again.’ He came with me to the Erez border to make sure I was safe, and he never came back to work. I never saw him again.

"He wasn’t religious – only later when his brother died. Then I didn’t see him again till [I saw him on] TV, and he’s prime minister! But today, let him stay in the bunker.

"That day at the funeral, I told him, get better, you can’t kill the Jews, we are one state, you are many, you won’t beat us.

"What’s to talk about? They ate with us, worked with us, lived like kings. What happened? They want to get rid of us, what? Tough, we have our state, that’s it. Nothing they can do about it. There they kill each other, what did they get out of it?

"That’s it, if you see him, best wishes to Haniyeh. I say to him, Ismail, get better, stop making problems, it’s over. That’s my message to Ismail. And lose the beard. Tell him your boss, Danny the plasterer, Rachel’s husband, sends his best wishes and stop making all those problems. We all want peace."

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'Dark day' as Zimbabwe talks fail

Mr Tsvangirai said it was "probably the darkest day of our lives" for his MDC party

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have failed in their latest attempt to form a unity government.

After 12 hours of talks, Mr Tsvangirai said it was "probably the darkest day of our lives" for his party.

The MDC remained committed to a power-sharing pact but only if it had control of home affairs and finance, he said.

Mr Mugabe said he intended talks with the MDC to continue ahead of a regional summit on Zimbabwe's crisis next week.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Johannesburg says Zimbabwe's parliament is due to re-open on Tuesday, but without an effective government, the country remains paralysed and the suffering of millions of Zimbabweans goes on.

Parliament must change the constitution to create the post of prime minister for Mr Tsvangirai before the power-sharing deal can take effect.

'No progress'

Mr Mugabe said Monday's Harare talks, which broke up at around midnight, "didn't go well".

He accused Mr Tsvangirai of presenting new conditions.

But negotiations would go on, he said, before next Monday's Southern African Development Community summit, set for either in South Africa or Botswana.

"We will continue with discussions here at home," the 84-year-old told reporters.

On the eve of the negotiations, both sides had depicted it as a make-or-break moment for the power-sharing agreement struck in September.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader said: "Unfortunately, there's been no progress because the very same outstanding issues on the agenda... are the same issues that are creating this impasse.

"For us as the MDC this is probably the darkest day of our lives, for the whole nation is waiting."

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, his predecessor Thabo Mbeki and Mozambican leader Armando Emilio Guebuza mediated at the talks.

Under the deal, Mr Tsvangirai is supposed to become prime minister while Mr Mugabe stays president.

Arthur Mutambara, the head of an MDC breakaway faction who is supposed to become deputy prime minister under the pact, also joined the meeting.

The deal first faltered after the MDC accused Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF of trying to hive off the most powerful cabinet posts.

The MDC has also demanded an end to the abduction of opposition and human rights activists by state security agents.

The political deadlock has exacerbated the problems facing Zimbabweans, from a cholera epidemic and an economic meltdown to food shortages and the collapse of basic services such as health and education.

Mr Tsvangirai, who arrived back in Zimbabwe on Saturday after an absence of more than two months, gained the most votes in elections last March but not enough for outright victory.

He pulled out of a run-off in June against Mr Mugabe, citing a campaign of violence against opposition supporters.

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Obama: U.S. not your enemy

President Barack Obama presented a humble and conciliatory face of America to the Islamic world Monday in the first formal interview since he assumed office, stressing his own Muslim ties and hopes for a Palestinian state, and avoiding a belligerent tone — even when asked if America could "live with" an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya Network was a dramatic piece of public diplomacy aimed at capitalizing on the new American president's international popularity, though it balanced America's traditional commitment to Israel, whose security Obama called "paramount.'

"I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries," Obama said, according to a White House transcript. "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."

The Al Arabiya interview, directed squarely at Muslims around the world, revived a vision of personal, symbolic international change that was in the air when Obama - with his far-flung family members, and complicated story - launched his campaign. It was a vision, and an aspect of his story, that the candidate buried when, in 2007, was forced to combat whispering campaigns about his own faith.

But by giving his first interview to the Arabic network, Obama signaled his continuing belief in his personal power as a symbol of America against the temptations of Islamic militancy. He even dismissed "bankrupt" ideas and policies that don't improve children's health care, jabbing at "nervous" Al Qaeda leaders in language that echoed his campaign against George W. Bush.

The occasion for this interview was the departure of Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, to the Middle East, and a more aggressive and optimistic approach to that conflict than some argued that the circumstances dictated. The president offered no timeline for peace, but a firm view that a Palestinian state remains within reach.

"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don't always know all the factors that are involved," Obama said. "What we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs."

Obama's interview was marked by attempts to sympathize with the concerns of ordinary Muslims, particularly on the question of living conditions in the West Bank. But he sought a conciliatory tone throughout the interview, at one point avoiding even restating American policy, and his own platform, than an Iranian nuclear weapon is plainly unacceptable.

"Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?" asked the interviewer, Al Arabiya Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melhem.

Obama responded only generally, expressing disapproval of an Iranian bomb but not the flat condemnation that is standard from American officials.

"You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran," he said. "Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful."

During the campaign and transition periods, Obama's condemnations of an Iranian nuclear weapon were more direct: "[T]heir development of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable," Obama said on Meet the Press on December 7.

A senior Obama aide said Monday night that Obama had not changed his views on Iran.

Obama also signaled a move away from President Bush's confrontational, generalizing language. Melhem noted to Obama that "President Bush framed the war on terror conceptually in a way that was very broad, 'war on terror,' and used sometimes certain terminology that the many people -- Islamic fascism. You've always framed it in a different way, specifically against one group called al Qaeda and their collaborators."

"I think that you're making a very important point. And that is that the language we use matters," Obama replied. "[W]hat we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith in the past -- that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.

"And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda -- that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it -- and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop," he said. "We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down."

Obama's shift Monday was one of tone, not of policy, and he also affirmed America's support for Israel.

"Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount," he said. "But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."

Obama's interview plan was made public only Monday afternoon, and the interview, which concluded just after 6:00 p.m., was distributed to reporters in the evening and embargoed for release at 11:00 p.m.

Asked why Al Arabiya had been granted the president's first interview, and aide said: "We want to communicate directly to the entire world America's new foreign policy."

Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.

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