Nigerian troops surround French family’s kidnappers: source

Tansa Musa and Ibrahim Mshelizza| REUTERS | Thu Feb 21, 2013

French Minister for Veteran Affairs Kader Arif (C) speaks to members of a French military field hospital at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, December 25, 2012. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji (JORDAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3BWBZ

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji.French Minister for Veteran Affairs Kader Arif (C) speaks to members of a French military field hospital at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, December 25, 2012.

Nigerian security forces surrounded the kidnappers of a French family in northeast Borno state on Thursday in an operation to rescue the hostages, a Nigerian military source said.

French, Nigerian and Cameroonian officials earlier denied French media reports that the family, who were seized in Cameroon and taken over the border, had been freed.

The Nigerian military located the hostages and kidnappers between Dikwa and Ngala in the far northeast, the military source in Borno said, asking not to be identified.

Dikwa is less than 80 km (50 miles) from the border with Cameroon where the three adults and four children were taken hostage on Tuesday.

A senior Cameroonian military official declined to comment saying the matter was too sensitive.

Citing a Cameroon army officer, French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria.

“This is a crazy rumor that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from,” Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary told Reuters by telephone from the capital Yaounde.

“What is certain is that the French tourists who were abducted are no longer on our territory. However, we are in touch with the Government of Nigeria to intensify measures to continue the search for them along our common border,” he said.

French gendarmes backed by special forces arrived in northern Cameroon on Wednesday to help locate the family, a local governor and French defense ministry official said.

Nigerian military spokesman Sagir Musa earlier also said the report on France’s BFM television of the hostages being released was “not true,” while Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry’s crisis center, said the information was “baseless.”

The abduction was the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.

But the region – like others in West and North Africa with porous borders – is considered within the operational sphere of Boko Haram and fellow Nigerian Islamist militants Ansaru.

On Sunday, seven foreigners were snatched from the compound of Lebanese construction company Setraco in northern Nigeria’s Bauchi state, and Ansaru took responsibility.

Northern Nigeria is increasingly afflicted by attacks and kidnappings by Islamist militants. Ansaru, which rose to prominence only in recent months, has claimed the abduction in December of a French national who is still missing.

Three foreigners were killed in two failed rescue attempts last year after being kidnapped in northern Nigeria and Ansaru, blamed for those kidnaps, warned this could happen again.

The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to Mali to oust al Qaeda-linked Islamists who controlled the country’s north.

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.


North Korea’s new neighbor in the Blue House


 Clare Richardson.REUTERS. February 21, 2013

She’s been called principled, tough-minded, competent, and a dictator’s daughter. Park Guen-hye, a career politician and child of South Korea’s deceased military ruler Park Chung-hee, is a conservative known for her steadfast leadership. And when South Korea inaugurates its first-ever female president in a ceremony on Monday, Park’s reputation could hinge on her ability to handle her troublesome neighbor to the north.

PHOTO: South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun-hye (C), from the ruling New Frontier Party, shouts her name with members of her election camp during a ceremony to disband the camp at the party headquarters in Seoul, December 20, 2012.  REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool

North Korea exasperated world powers this month with its third nuclear test. Yet media reports and Park’s campaign pledges suggest her administration will seek a softer approach toward Pyongyang than that of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Although her campaign offered few specifics, her criticism of Lee’s foreign policy indicates she could walk a middle line between his administration’s hardline approach and the peaceful “Sunshine Policy” of engagement and economic assistance her opponent and human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in hoped to reintroduce.


James Schoff, a senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the Department of Defense, expects the president-elect to adopt something of a “Goldilocks strategy” toward North Korea. ”Not too hard and not too soft.”

“The outgoing government took a hardline vis-à-vis North Korea,” Schoff said. “They were not in any mood to be conciliatory.” According to Schoff, Park’s approach is likely to include “much more flexibility in terms of looking for opportunities to develop a new relationship with the North.”

The Lee Administration put a lid on conciliation with North Korea, blocking trade and cutting humanitarian aid. Yet this policy frayed relations on the Korean Peninsula and failed to deter North Korea from carrying out nuclear tests. Critics argue such intransigence provided an excuse for North Korea to justify its aggression.

During her campaign, Park criticized Lee’s failed policies and promised to improve relations with North Korea, creating a “trust-based” relationship. South Korean daily newspaper The Hankyoreh writes that Park “tried to contrast her own platform with Lee’s failed policies without signing on for the engagement approach favored by Roh, and by Kim Dae-jung before him.”

According to the New York Times, Park has said she would “decouple humanitarian aid from politics” and even attempt to meet with Kim Jong-un, with the caveat that “any large-scale investments be conditional on progress in ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”

North Korea’s young leader won’t exactly be breaking out the Jello molds.  The hermit kingdom’s Feb. 12 nuclear test put western powers on edge and dispelled hopes that Kim Jong-un might be a more tempered leader than his father. And on Tuesday, North Korea angered participants at a U.N. conference with disturbing remarks about South Korea’s “final destruction,” one of daily warnings aimed at the South. Although it has been sixty years since the Korean War ended in a truce, South Korea is still technically at war with the North.

For Park, it’s personal. At age 22, she witnessed her mother’s assassination by a man who was aiming for her father and “acting under orders from North Korea,” Geoffrey Cain writes for Foreign Policy.

“National partition is a sorrow that touches all Koreans,” Park said before her election, according to the Washington Post, “but for me it is brought to the fore by unimaginable personal suffering.”

The New York Times illustrates her reputation for toughness with her reaction to the news of her father’s death, to which she reportedly responded, “Is everything all right along the border with North Korea?”

While serving as a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, Park wrote in a 2011 essay for Foreign Affairs magazine of her goal to adopt a policy of “trustpolitik,” or “mutually binding expectations,” on the Korean Peninsula. Park noted the failures of previous administrations’ efforts engage and deter North Korea. “The ones that have emphasized accommodation and inter-Korean solidarity have placed inordinate hope in the idea that if the South provided sustained assistance to the North, the North would abandon its bellicose strategy toward the South. But after years of such attempts, no fundamental change has come.” Governments that have pressured North Korea, however, “have not been able to influence its behavior in a meaningful way, either.”

Instead, Park advocated an “alignment policy” that would include a “tough line” some of the time and a “flexible policy open to negotiations” at others.

These measures, Time notes, include “renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.”

Park’s history suggests that we can expect to see something between the current regime’s hardline approach and his predecessor’s open policy.

Reader’s Digest Files for Bankruptcy as Iconic Magazine Falters

 Dawn McCarty.Bloomberg. February 18, 2013

RDA Holding Co., publisher of the 91-year-old Reader’s Digest magazine, has filed for bankruptcy to cut $465 million in debt and focus on North American operations as consumers shift from print to electronic media.

The company is the latest in a line of iconic businesses to have recently sought court protection from creditors, after Hostess Brands Inc., maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, and Eastman Kodak, inventor of Kodachrome and the Instamatic camera.

Reader’s Digest, founded by DeWitt and Lila Wallace, went public in 1990. An investor group led by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings bought it in 2007 for $1.6 billion and the assumption of about $800 million in debt. The company also filed for bankruptcy in August 2009, citing a drop in advertising spending and the debt load incurred in its acquisition.

 The company listed assets and debt of more than $1 billion each in Chapter 11 documents filed Sunday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y. Under a restructuring agreement supported by Wells Fargo & Co., $465 million of remaining senior notes will all convert to equity. The company expects to have about $100 million in debt when it exits Chapter 11, about an 80 percent reduction.

Among the company’s largest unsecured creditors listed in court papers were Luxor Capital Group of New York, listed as administrative agent for a $10 million loan, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, with an $8 million claim.

“We have had an ongoing process to simplify and rationalize our international business by licensing our local markets to third parties, to other publishers, to other investors and that has been a big part of our effort to streamline the company and bring in proceeds to bring down debt,” Robert Guth, Reader’s Digest’s chief executive officer, said Sunday in an interview.

The company’s flagship print magazine is read by more than 25 million people, according to its website. The company publishes 75 magazines globally including 49 editions of Reader’s Digest, Taste of Home, the Family Handyman and Birds & Blooms. Reader’s Digest “sold more digital editions in December than we did newsstand editions,” Guth said.

The company had some success in the sale of “but frankly haven’t had enough success on that front,” Guth said. Last year Reader’s Digest sold Allrecipes and Every Day with Rachel Ray to Meredith Corp. for $175 million.

“The key message here is that we have a lot of confidence in the future of the business based upon the success of the ongoing operational transformation, but we haven’t had as much success with the balance sheet side of it and we need this process to help accelerate that,” Guth said.

“The much more modest debt level puts us in a position to continue to really execute these plans and push these brands forward well into the future, so it’s a very good new lease on life,” he said.

The company said it reached a pre-petition accord with its secured lender and more than 70 percent of its secured note holders. The bankruptcy was filed to implement the pre-arranged restructuring.

“The Chapter 11 process, which will facilitate a significant debt reduction, will enable us to continue to redefine our business by focusing our resources on our strong North American publishing brands, which have shown a new vitality as a result of our transformation efforts, particularly in the digital arena,” Guth said in a company statement.

Hostess, previously known as Interstate Bakeries Corp., left an earlier bankruptcy in 2009 under the control of Ripplewood and lenders. The company, based in Irving, Texas, entered bankruptcy again in January 2012 after changes in American diets curbed sales as ingredient costs and labor expenses climbed.

Kodak, based in Rochester, New York, filed for bankruptcy in January 2012, and CEO Antonio Perez has been selling businesses to shrink the company and fund its shift into commercial printing and packaging.

RDA’s international operations, including Canada, are not part of the filing

By Juan Forero.The Washington Post.Feb 18, 2013

Supporters of Venezuelan President Chavez hold pictures of him, as they wait to write messages on a

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday after 70 days recuperating in Cuba following cancer surgery, a long absence that had generated suspicion about who had been running the government.

“We have arrived back in the Venezuelan fatherland,” Chavez announced via Twitter after arriving in Caracas. “Thank you, my God! Thank you, my beloved people!”

President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela early Monday after more than two months of treatment in Cuba following cancer surgery, triggering street celebrations by supporters who welcomed him home while he remained out of sight.

President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela early Monday after more than two months of treatment in Cuba following cancer surgery, triggering street celebrations by supporters who welcomed him home while he remained out of sight.

Chavez flew in from Havana at 2:30 a.m. and was transported to the Carlos Arevalo Military Hospital, Vice President Nicolas Maduro told Venezuelans on state television. The president was accompanied on his flight back home by Maduro, his daughter Rosa Virginia, his brother Adan and the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.

The president’s surprise arrival appeared designed to staunch rising indignation by opposition leaders critical of the secrecy surrounding Chavez’s health and doubtful that he was running the day-to-day affairs of state, as his ministers insisted.

The president has undergone four surgeries in Cuba since June 2011, but the government has yet to say what kind of cancer he has had or detail his prognosis.

The outsize role that Cuba and its communist government have played in the long saga, with Fidel Castro even delivering news about Chavez’s condition to Venezuelans, had led to a spirited protest in recent days by university students outside Cuba’s embassy in Caracas.

But on Monday, the president’s arrival led to fireworks in Caracas and prompted the president’s die-hard supporters to gather in the city’s main square, the Plaza Bolivar.

“Viva Chavez! Viva the Revolution! Viva the people of Venezuela!” yelled Tania Diaz, an anchor on state television, as she and other crew members celebrated on air.

The president’s return means that he can at last be sworn in for the fourth term he won in the October presidential election.

After that victory, Chavez started to drop out of the public eye, and on Dec. 10 he flew to Cuba for a surgery that took place a day later.

For 67 days, he was not seen or heard from, as his ministers delivered a mix of vague news about his condition. Chavez missed his Jan. 10 inauguration, though the Supreme Court had ruled that he could be sworn in at a later, unspecified date. The president did not issue any messages via his Twitter account, nor did the government release any photos or video of him while he was in Cuba.

Then, on Friday, the first photographs were released, showing Chavez lying in a hospital bed, flanked by two of his daughters and holding up a copy of Granma, the Cuban state newspaper.

Chavez was using a tracheal tube, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reported, but he was “conscious, with his intellectual functions intact.”

Villegas also hinted that Chavez would overcome his “delicate circumstances sooner rather than later to accompany his people on the path toward new victories.”

With Chavez’s arrival in Caracas, Villegas said, “there can be no doubt about the democratic institutions working in Venezuela.”

Still, unlike Chavez’s previous triumphant returns from Venezuela during his ordeal with cancer, this one did not come with video or photographs of the president. The president, though, did offer a series of messages via Twitter.

“I am clinging to Christ and trusting my doctors and nurses,” he president wrote. “Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!”

The president also thanked Cuban President Raul Castro, his older brother, Fidel, and the Cuban people for the care he received in Havana.

Fidel Castro, whom Chavez has called a father figure to him, wrote a letter that was released by the Cuban government Monday, saying he was pleased Chavez had been able to return to the “soil you love so much.”

“You have learned a lot about life, Hugo,” the letter said.“Now that we don’t have the privilege of receiving news about you every day we will go back to the correspondence that we had used for years.”

Castro also praised Chavez’s anti-imperialist stance, saying that after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to “sink in blood the Cuban revolution.”

“Venezuela, a relatively small country in a divided America, was capable of impeding it,” Castro wrote, referring to Venezuelan assistance to Cuba.

French and Malian troops secure a stronghold in Bourem

Faine Greenwood. GLOBAL POST.February 18, 2013

Bourem, 50 miles north of Gao, was considered by French and Malian troops to be a stronghold for Islamist insurgents.

Mali Bourem

Credit:PASCAL GUYOT   AFP/Getty Images

A Malian carries on a cart the corpse of a suicide bomber who blew himself up near a group of Malian soldiers Feb. 8, 2013, in the northern city of Gao, where Islamist rebels driven from the town have resorted to guerilla attacks. Joint Malian and French troops recaptured the northern Mali town of Bourem from Islamist rebels on February 17th, 2013.

Joint French and Islamist troops secured the Islamist rebel stronghold of Bourem on February 17th, as the fifth week of the French intervention in the former colony continues.

“Bourem is a bastion of Islamists,” a military official from AFISMA said to Reuters of the northern Malian town, which is located roughly 50 miles north of Gao.

The official added that “All the current problems in Gao come from Bourem” while speaking to Reuter, a threat that the joint troops hope to have neutralized.

The successful takeover comes after two suicide attacks on the road from Bourem to Gao, leading to fears of an increasingly violent insurgency in Mali, writes the Associated Press, which adds that “about 1,000” troops are currently in Bourem.

Rebels also conducted a surprise raid on Gao last week, killing three Islamists raiders and wounding some Malian soldiers in the street-fighting, wrote Reuters.

Modernized S-300 Missiles in Air Defense Exercise

RIA Novosti.Feb 18,2013

S-300 surface-to-air missiles

Modernized S-300 surface-to-air missiles will shoot down “enemy” fighters in an exercise in Russia’s Western Military District, the district’s press service said on Monday.

The joint tactical exercise involving aviation, antiaircraft and radiotechnical forces, encompasses an area from Russia’s westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to central Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod and from Murmansk in the north to Belgorod in the south, the Western Military District said.

The S-300-P surface-to-air missile system

It did not say when the exercise began or will end.

Radar crews will track several targets simultaneously amid heavy jamming and issue target designation data to S-300 missile crews in real time, the Western Military District said.

A group of Su-27 Flanker and MiG-31 Foxhound fighters will pose as “enemy” warplanes.

Ukraine to Deliver 110 Battle Tank Engines to Pakistan

RIA Novosti.Feb 18,2013

Pakistan's Al-Khalid main battle tank

uk  © AFP 2013/ Asif HASSAN

Ukraine will deliver 110 tank power plants – engines and related parts – to Pakistan under a $50 million contract, state-run arms exporter Ukrspetsstroi said on Monday.

The power plants will be manufactured at the Kharkov-based Malyshev Plant, a state-run enterprise specializing in armored vehicles and their components, under a four-year contract that was signed “several days ago,” Ukrspetsstroi said in a statement on its website.

It did not provide any technical specifications.

Ukraine previously delivered more than 300 power plants to Pakistan for its al-Khalid main battle tank, Ukrspetsstroi’s acting deputy general director Vadim Kozhevnikov said, adding that Ukraine also supplies tank engines to China.

The statement cited Kozhevnikov as saying he believed Ukraine is in a good position to compete with the world’s leading tank power plant manufacturers, in particular Germany.

“We are direct competitors of German engine manufacturers. Our models are every bit as good as theirs in terms of technical characteristics but are significantly cheaper,” Kozhevnikov said.