Move over Dracula, tourists flock to see Bulgarian 'vampire'

Vampire

The discovery last week of a 700-year-old skeleton with metal stakes where his heart had been has stirred a bout of vampire-mania in Europe and attracted flocks of tourists to the churchyard grave site in Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Sozopol.

So keen is the interest, the Bulgarian newspaper Standart reported Thursday, that Bulgarian authorities have moved the disinterred remains to a special display case at the Bulgarian Natural History Museum in Sofia.

At least 100 graves have been discovered during modern-day archaeological excavations in which the remains appeared to have been pinned down with iron rods or stakes, the newspaper said.

As recently as a century ago, Balkan peoples held to the belief that staking down the corpses of people who they regarded a evil would prevent them from rising from the dead and continuing to torment the living, archaeologist and museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov told journalists in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

"A group of brave men would reopen their graves and pierce the corpses with iron or wooden rods. Iron rod was used for the richer vampires," Dimitrov told journalists gathered around the skeleton, which he said was probably that of a notorious Black Sea pirate known as Krivich, or "Crooked."

Historically, vampire lore has spread from Transylvania in neighboring Romania, where a brutal 15th century ruler known as Vlad the Impaler dealt with his enemies by skewering them on stakes and posting them to suffer their gruesome deaths in public. Vlad the Impaler was believed to be the real-life inspiration for novelist Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, Dracula.

Bulgarian media have reported the discoveries of two other staked skeletons this month, both 700 to 800 years old -- more than a century before Vlad the Impaler's reign.

The global tourism news site eTN reported that travel agencies have been hit with a surge of interest in "vampire vacations." A photo accompanying the Standart story from the Bulfoto agency showed tourists in shorts and sun hats strolling through ruins of the nearby Black Sea town of Nessebar, noting that many have been asking to see the grave where the pirate's remains were found.

Agencies said interest from Britain and Germany was especially high, but they had also received enquiries from Russia and the United States, eTN reported.

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Photo: Bulgarian National History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov, right, unveiled remains believed to be those of a 14th century pirate found in a churchyard gravesite with metal stakes through the chest. Balkan pagans believed that evil people turned into vampires after they died and staking them to their coffins kept them from rising up to torment the living, Dimitrov said. Credit: Valentina Petrova / Associated Press


African adoptions raise alarm about safeguards

As Guatemala, China and other adoption hubs have pulled back on foreign adoptions or stopped them altogether, Africa has become the new frontier for adoptions, bolstered by the sight of stars such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie bringing African children into their families.

But the rapidly advancing trend has raised concern that many African countries lack protections to prevent local families from being misled or pressured into giving up children -- the same kind of problem that led other countries, such as Guatemala and Romania, to clamp down on adoptions by foreigners.

Foreign adoptions of African children increased more than fivefold in seven years, even as international adoptions declined worldwide, a new report from the African Child Policy Forum says. Ethiopia is now second only to China in foreign adoptions, according to the most recent available data.

Child-protection groups are alarmed that most of the increase was in African countries that have not signed the Hague Convention, a 1993 agreement meant to prevent children from being abducted or trafficked by setting rules and procedures for cross-border adoptions.

Most African countries lack even basic rules to protect families, a vacuum in which “adoption can become a vast, profit-driven industry with children as the commodity” instead of turning to out-of-country adoption as a last resort for children in need, the report warns.

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Ireland votes on treaty aimed at controlling Europe's deficits

Irish voters went to the polls in a referendum on a treaty aimed at controlling the runaway deficits of European Union countries
LONDON -- Irish voters went to the polls Thursday in a referendum on a treaty aimed at controlling the runaway deficits of European Union countries.

The voting is being watched throughout Europe. Ireland is the only country to put to the EU plan, instigated by Germany early this year, to a public vote. Irish constitutional law requires public approval on major reforms.

The treaty calls on member states to limit spending and stick to budgetary targets. It aims to coordinate EU fiscal and budget policies and hold annual structural deficits within 0.5% of gross domestic product, with bailout funds from the European Stability Mechanism available to those who ratify.

Fines are to be imposed on those who fail to comply with debt targets.

Of the 27 EU nations, Britain and the Czech Republic have opted out of the treaty, which must be ratified by 12 of the 17 Eurozone states by next March. So far, Romania, Slovenia, Portugal and Greece have approved it. 

Polls indicate that the treaty will pass, but Ireland has a quixotic record on EU treaties.  Two previous referendums -- on EU enlargement in 2001 and a more streamlined EU administration in 2008 -- were rejected by Irish voters, then accepted in a second vote after amendments. This time there will be no second vote for Ireland.

But Irish voters are expected to reluctantly favor more austerity and continued access to EU rescue funding. Ireland has already been saved by a massive European bailout of $108 billion in 2010.

Although one poll shows the treaty passing with 60% support, there is also the specter of low turnout. 

In a last appeal before the balloting, Prime Minister Enda Kenny urged Ireland's 3.1 million voters to "vote yes on Thursday, yes to stability, yes to investment," and give greater credibility to Ireland when it takes over the EU presidency in January.

Fierce criticism of the measure has come from the Sinn Fein opposition party, once the political arm of the outlawed IRA revolutionaries of Northern Ireland but now a legitimate and popular left-wing force in Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. Party leader Gerry Adams told voters not to give up their say over Irish economic policy and "not to write austerity into the Constitution."

Results of the vote are expected to be known by Friday.

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Photo: Posters for and against the EU fiscal treaty are seen outside government buildings in Dublin, Ireland. Credit: Peter Morrison / Associated Press


Romanian government is latest victim of EU austerity

Romania
Romania's government fell after a no-confidence vote and the leadership of the Czech Republic narrowly survived a similar challenge Friday in the latest challenges to European efforts to heal the Continent's debt crisis with tough spending cuts and higher taxes.

Jobless rates also rose this week in Spain and France, where austerity measures are angering citizens and undermining faith in the government officials trying to balance budgets and shore up the euro common currency.

The governments of Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland already have fallen as the European Union struggles to restore economic stability to its 27 member states. Now, the  Romanian parliament by a narrow margin has declared no confidence in the 2-month-old leadership of Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu.

Romanian opposition to belt-tightening swelled to an intensity not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy revolution as the government boosted a sales tax to 24% and cut the salaries of government workers. The spending constraints are an attempt to satisfy conditions imposed after a 2009 bailout by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

President Traian Basescu later nominated opposition leader Victor Ponta to succeed Ungureanu, the national news agency Agerpres reported. Ponta, 39, had been a critic of government actions that have hit Romanian civil servants with major pay cuts and raised the cost of living for many others. He will have to submit his own proposal to parliament for meeting the country's bailout obligations.

In Prague, where the Czech Republic's three-party coalition collapsed earlier this week, Prime Minister Petr Necas won grudging endorsement to continue his program of tax hikes and spending cuts on services including higher education, pensions and healthcare. Necas won 105 votes from 198 deputies after a nine-hour debate dominated by critics demanding his resignation and early elections, the CTK news agency reported.

Some lawmakers who defected last week nonetheless stood by Necas, heeding the warnings of respected economists that essential austerity measures will only be more painful if postponed.

More than 100,000 people protested the cuts at a rally in Prague a week ago, one of the largest outpourings of discontent since the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule 22 years ago. 

Hungary's economy is also hobbled by a credit crunch, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban urged the IMF on Friday to swiftly negotiate an emergency borrowing option for Budapest in case of turmoil in the European bond market.

The Netherlands was at risk of missing the EU's budget-deficit target for a fifth year before the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte cut a deal with the opposition this week that will keep austerity measures in place until new elections in September. 

Both Greece and France are in the throes of heated election campaigns in which opposition candidates are gaining traction because of hardships brought about by budget-balancing measures.

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Photo: Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu at the parliament session in Bucharest Friday that ousted his government with a no-confidence vote. Credit: Vadim Ghirda / Associated Press


Australia to mostly end Afghan mission next year

Gillardafghanistan

As the U.S. and its allies refine plans to reduce their troop levels in Afghanistan and turn combat operations over to Afghans, Australia has announced that it will pull most of its forces out next year.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the move Tuesday, under which most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are likely to be back home by the end of 2013.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to finish the transfer to Afghan control by the end of 2014. U.S. officials announced in February that Afghans would take over the lead combat role next year, and that American troops would shift their focus to training and advising the Afghans.

That February announcement came just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would remove all of his country’s combat troops next year, a year earlier than planned. Sarkozy’s leading challenger in his reelection bid, Francois Hollande, has pledged to pull troops out even faster.

U.S. officials downplayed the significance of Australia’s actions. But public support for the war is falling in many countries, and in recent months U.S. officials have sought ways of heading off a push by allies to go home.    

Australia has far fewer troops on the ground than other powers  -- the U.S. has about 90,000 and Britain about 9,500. But experts say its action could threaten the political cover that has allowed countries to commit troops to an increasingly unpopular mission.

“Every little crack in this dike creates a danger of the whole thing bursting,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If individual nations start defecting, the public in all these countries are going to say, ‘If these guys can do it, we can too.’”

Fifty countries are involved in the coalition in Afghanistan, though some have only a handful of soldiers and others have pulled out combat forces completely. Canada bowed out last summer. Dutch troops left in 2010. Britain is under domestic pressure to reduce its troop presence. Even Ireland, with only seven soldiers there, has faced calls to get out.

Germany, which has the third-largest force among the allies, has suggested it may take more time, not less, to finish the job. During a trip to Afghanistan last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wasn’t sure whether Germany would be able to pull out by 2014, implying that it might take longer.

Several other countries still have sizable forces on the ground: Nearly 4,000 Italian troops and roughly 2,500 Polish forces were committed to the Afghan mission as of January, according to the International Security Assistance Force. Close behind are Romania and Turkey, each with more than 1,800.

Poland, whose president has complained about the costs of the Afghan mission in the past, has pledged to keep forces there through 2014, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported last month. Romanian media recently reported forces would stay through the first half of 2013 before handing off responsibility to Afghans.

The number of U.S. troops, which peaked at about 100,000, will drop to 68,000 this year. Though President Obama has insisted that a “robust” U.S. force will remain through the end of the year, what happens in 2013 and beyond is unclear. U.S. officials say some American troops are likely to remain beyond 2014, targeting Al Qaeda and its allies.

Next month, NATO will meet in Chicago to discuss how to proceed in Afghanistan. 

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Photo: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets members of the 1st Mentoring Task Force during her October 2010 visit to the multinational base at Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan. Credit: Raymond Vance / AFP/Getty Images

 


Romanian government collapses amid public outrage over austerity

Romania

The Romanian government collapsed Monday after weeks of protests over biting cuts meant to keep outside funding flowing to the troubled nation.

Prime Minister Emil Boc said he and his Cabinet were resigning “to defuse political and social tension,” the Associated Press reported.

Opposition leaders are calling on President Traian Basescu to step down as well. Crin Antonescu, who heads the opposition Liberal Party, called it “the most corrupt, incompetent and lying government” since the 1989 revolt against communism, the report said.

Austerity has become the watchword in Europe, where governments have been cutting back and trying to rein in debt to help restore faith in the battered euro currency. Spain, for example, crafted a nearly $20-billion package of cuts and tax increases and even cut back on puentes, an extra vacation day slipped in when holidays fall on a Tuesday or Thursday to make a long weekend, Lauren Frayer reported for The Times.

Such austerity cuts are often a tit-for-tat for strapped nations' financial survival: Romania made sweeping cuts to secure a $26-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank to keep paying salaries as its economy shrank. Sales taxes were hiked from 19% to 24%. Government workers took a 25% pay cut. 

But in Romania and elsewhere, such deep cuts are deeply unpopular. Italy was racked with strikes in December before its lawmakers hiked taxes and put off pension payments. In Greece, workers clad in black are holding marches almost daily, Anthee Carassava has reported for The Times. Greeks argue that the austerity measures just aren’t fixing its tottering economy:

"One minute we're being told to do one thing; then, they tell us something else. Then, they modify that with something different, and in the end, it's scrapped and replaced with something even more brutal," said Nikos Tassos, a carpet salesman in Marathon.

"It's nerve-racking," he said. "Does anyone really know where this is all heading?"

To get a sense of the anger over the cuts in Romania, take a look at this video, shared several weeks ago by the Associated Press, of the protests rocking the country:

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Photo: Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc, left, is escorted by a bodyguard as he leaves Democrat-Liberal Party headquarters shortly after he resigned in Bucharest, Romania, on Monday. Credit: Robert Ghement / European Pressphoto Agency


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