Syrian rebels report advances in Aleppo amid clashes

Syria rebels flash victory signs near Aleppo

BEIRUT -- Fierce fighting was reported in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday as rebels said their forces were pushing toward the center of the nation’s business and financial hub.

As the embattled government has exerted renewed control of the capital, Damascus — site of almost a week of recent battles — the focus of fighting in Syria has shifted to the historic northern city, home to about 2 million people.

For months, Syria's two principal cities had been relatively insulated from the fighting raging in strife-ridden provinces. In the last 10 days, however, rebel forces have mounted concerted attacks in both cities.

With dusk nearing Tuesday, there were reports that government forces in Aleppo had used warplanes to fire rockets at rebel positions in the insurgent-controlled districts of Sakhoor and Tareeq al Bab.

The use of fixed-wing aircraft, if confirmed, would represent a significant escalation in the government’s efforts to put down the more than 16-month rebellion against President Bashar Assad.

Although security forces have often employed helicopter gunships, there had been no confirmed use to date of the military’s substantial fleet of fix-wing aircraft, capable of bombing and strafing runs.

Opposition activists said fighting was nearing Aleppo's historic old city, and that the government was using artillery and helicopters, as well as fixed-wing aircraft. There were reports of dozens of injured people in field hospitals including civilians caught up in the fighting.

The opposition also reported that authorities had put down a revolt at a prison in Aleppo, leaving more than a dozen people dead.

It was impossible to confirm the extent of the fighting amid conflicting and fragmentary reports from the two sides.

The official Syrian state news service said authorities in Aleppo had inflicted “heavy losses” on “terrorists,” the official label for the armed opposition. Many rebels gave up and surrendered their weapons to government forces, the news agency said.

Aleppo, more than 200 miles north of Damascus, sits relatively close to the Turkish border, an area where rebels have gained control of wide swaths of territory and several border crossings. The border area of Turkey has also become an important logistics and supply zone for the Syrian opposition. Rebel strategists say supply lines into Aleppo are more reliable than those into heavily defended Damascus.

Rebel commanders say their intent is to seize the city and consolidate control of much of northern Syrian as a “liberated” area.  But whether taking Aleppo was a realistic goal remained unclear. The armed opposition has called on units in the region to join the offensive.

The government has fought tenaciously to ensure that the opposition does not exert long-term control of urban zones. Authorities have been determined to deny the rebels a haven from which to operate.

Government forces  enjoy a tremendous advantage in firepower, including armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and aircraft. That edge has allowed the military to oust rebels from other contested zones, including the central cities of Homs and Hama. On some occasions, government forces have withdrawn from rebel-held districts and resorted to pounding them with artillery and tank shells, forcing insurgents out. Whether a similar scenario would unfold in Aleppo was unclear.

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Photo: Syrian rebels flash victory signs on a tank near Aleppo on Tuesday. Credit: Sinan Gul / European Pressphoto Agency


Japan, Norway and allies vote down South Atlantic whale sanctuary

Whale near Argentina

An idea raised by several South American countries to create a haven for whales in the South Atlantic was shot down Monday at the International Whaling Commission.

Though little whaling takes place in the zone, the plan was rejected by Japan, China, Norway, Russia and Iceland, plus several smaller countries that environmentalists accuse of pandering to Japan to keep aid.

"You can't really believe that Nauru or Tuvalu has an interest or has studied the sanctuary. They are voting because Japan tells them to," Jose Truda Palazzo, who spearheaded the proposal and now works at the Cetacean Conservation Center in Brazil, told the Agence France-Presse.

Japan and its allies contended that the move was simply unnecessary. The protected zone would have spanned the waters between South America and Africa south of the equator, touching the edges of an existing sanctuary in the Antarctic. If approved, it would have been the third active sanctuary created by the international commission since its founding, covering breeding grounds for all large whales in the South Atlantic. Activists argued that it would create a seamless safe zone for migrating whales.

The South Atlantic sanctuary was first suggested in 1999 but has been repeatedly blocked by whaling countries. Japan led other countries in a walkout over the proposed sanctuary last year, leaving the International Whaling Commission short of the quorum needed to even hold a vote.

Under commission rules, three-fourths of the countries represented in it had to agree to create the sanctuary. Thirty-nine voted in favor, but 21 votes against and two abstained. 

The commission vote, taken at its annual meeting in Panama City, frustrated environmental groups.

“We are extremely disappointed that the whaling bloc has harpooned the sanctuary proposal despite support of a clear majority,” said Patrick Ramage, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Global Whale Program. He blamed “opposition led by Japan -- a country not even in this region.”

Japan argued that with an existing global moratorium on commercial whaling, creating a new sanctuary was like "building a roof on top of a roof." It has insisted that whaling is a culturally important practice and has continued to kill whales in Antarctic sanctuary waters using a loophole for research. Its objections were echoed by Norway and Iceland, which said the proposal wasn't scientifically justified.

Though Japan succeeded in batting away this plan, its whaling industry has suffered this year, falling short of its quotas. Last month, Japanese news media reported that three-fourths of whale meat offered for sale in Japan had gone unsold at auction, which activists say shows the Japanese appetite is shrinking.

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Photo: A Franca Austral whale is spotted in the New Gulf near Puerto Piramides in Argentina in 2006. Credit: Juan Mabromata / Agence France-Presse


Euro crisis imperils recovering global economy, OECD warns

Angel Gurria of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Most major economies are enjoying growth and recovery after four years of turmoil but the improvements are uneven and the Eurozone crisis could spill outside Europe "with very serious consequences for the global economy," the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned Tuesday.

The report by the chief economist for the bloc of developed nations urged its member countries that use the euro currency to consolidate lending and spread the pain of tight and expensive credit in nations like Greece, where austerity measures have forced deep cuts in jobs and government services and tapped out banks.

"The crisis in the euro area has become more serious recently, and it remains the most important source of risk to the global economy," wrote chief economist Pier Carlo Padoan. He noted the elections earlier this month that brought anti-austerity President Francois Hollande to power in France and toppled a Greek government committed to staying in the Eurozone but did not leave an alternative in place.

At a news conference in Paris, OECD chief Angel Gurria laid out a hopeful forecast for the United States and Japan, whose economies are predicted to grow by 2.4% and 2%, respectively, while the Eurozone,  the 17 nations that use the euro, expects a 0.1% contraction.

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Colombian police announce the surrender of top narco to the DEA

Javier Antonio Calle Serna2BOGOTA, Colombia -- Authorities on Monday announced the surrender of one of Colombia's most wanted drug traffickers and leader of the notorious Rastrojos criminal band that allegedly funnels Colombian cocaine to Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Javier Antonio Calle Serna, a member of a clan known as the Combas, or warriors, surrendered to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Aruba on Friday and then was flown to New York City, where he faces a federal indictment on drug trafficking charges, Colombian police said.

Calle Serna had been negotiating terms of his surrender for weeks, sources told The Times. The U.S. State Department had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the 43-year-old’s arrest, alleging that he and his associates had shipped 30 tons of cocaine into Mexico bound for the United States. Calle Serna was once a member of the leftist rebel group FARC.

The Rastrojos are thought to be among the most powerful of half a dozen Colombian cocaine cartels known as bacrims, which is Spanish shorthand for criminal bands. The gangs filled the vacuum created by the demobilization of paramilitary militias, which along with the FARC were thought to have controlled the bulk of the illicit drug trade here.

At a news conference in Bogota, Colombian National Police Gen. Roberto Leon Riaño said the agreement leading to Calle Serna’s surrender was the end product of Colombian authorities’ “relentless pursuit” of the fugitive. A months-long operation that involved 3,000 wiretaps and the seizure of 15 tons of cocaine led to his arrest, he said.

As part of the same operation, Calle Serna’s brother Juan Carlos was arrested in Quito, Ecuador, in March by police who had been tipped to his presence there.

According to an indictment filed by prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York in 2009, Calle Serna  was responsible for various aspects of transporting loads of cocaine to Central America and Mexico via so called go-fast outboard motor boats and semi-submersible submarines.

The Calle Serna clan was part of the North Valley drug cartel until a falling out led to a bitter and bloody power struggle. At the news conference Monday, Riaño said Calle Serna was responsible for the 2008 murder in Venezuela of Wilber Varela, a former North Valley capo turned sworn enemy.

According to the State Department, the Rastrojos also conduct extortion of businesses and individuals in several areas of Colombia. Calle Serna has been linked to kidnappings, tortures and assassinations in Colombia, Venezuela and Panama.

Riaño issued a public ultimatum to Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, perhaps the nation’s most powerful drug trafficker still at large -- and Calle-Serna’s associate in the Rastrojos -- to surrender. Giving himself up, Riaño said, is the “only way out for narco traffickers and terrorists.”

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Photo: Javier Antonio Calle Serna in an undated photo. Credit: Colombian police


Dementia cases expected to triple as world population ages

Dementia

Global strides in healthcare are allowing people to live longer, resulting in more elderly people around the world. But an aging world is also expected to result in soaring numbers of people suffering from dementia, with the number of cases, estimated at 35.6 million today, projected to triple by 2050.

The dementia numbers are a paradox for medical progress. “The better we do, the more we expect to have problems with dementia and we need to be prepared for that,” Dr. Shekhar Saxena, the head of the World Health Organization's mental health division told the Associated Press.

The predicted proliferation of dementia will put new pressure on public health systems to improve care, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and Alzheimer's Disease International. Only eight countries have national programs to address dementia, including Australia, Denmark, France and Japan. The United States is not among them. Diagnosis is faulty and stigma has persisted.

Dementia degrades memory, thinking, behavior and everyday skills, often putting a heavy burden on families to care for loved ones suffering from the syndrome. Families and friends shoulder most of the estimated $604-billion cost of caring for people with dementia, including their own loss of income.

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