South African court sentences rhino horn smuggler to 40 years

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.

Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.

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Laos to begin building hotly debated Xayaburi dam this week


Laos plans to start building a dam on the Mekong River this week, a step that neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam fear could imperil fish and cripple rice fields.

The Xayaburi dam is expected to reap profits for Laos by generating hydropower to sell to Thailand. The $3-billion-plus project would be the first major dam on the lower part of the Mekong, a massive waterway that provides food and jobs to millions of people in Southeast Asia.

Building the dam marks the latest push toward development for Laos, a growing economy seeking to shed its “least developed country” label. The communist country has opened up its economy over the last few decades and was recently accepted into the World Trade Organization.

“Hydropower is a big natural advantage for Laos,” Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining Viraphonh Viravong told Bloomberg on Monday.

But Vietnam and Cambodia worry dams could endanger fish that families eat and hurt crops in the Mekong Delta, the “rice bowl” of the region. Environmental experts warn if fish dwindle and croplands are lost, damming the river could cost more than it brings in. A Portland State University study last year estimated losses could run as high as $274 billion if a passel of planned dams are built.

A regional report recommended waiting for more studies to assess the dangers, but Laos has pressed ahead.

“They are playing roulette with the Mekong River,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers. “There are serious risks for the river and the people who depend on it.”

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Storm Son-Tinh batters Asia; more than 30 reported dead

While Americans on the East Coast struggle to recover from onetime Hurricane Sandy, stretches of Asia have been battered by a typhoon that has cost more than 30 lives since it first struck last week.

In China, one person was reported dead, five were still missing and roughly 126,000 had been relocated in Hainan province due to Typhoon Son-Tinh, state media reported Monday. Powerful floods have reportedly destroyed hundreds of homes across the area. In the southern region of Guangxi Zhuang, scores of boats on a river bordering China and Vietnam went missing during the downpour.

In Vietnam, the storm had already claimed at least three lives and injured 29 people before moving on to China, the Vietnamese national news agency reported. Homes and bridges were destroyed, fields of crops ruined and electrical and telephone lines downed, the agency said. More than 86,000 people were evacuated to avoid the storm, while national authorities distributed hundreds of life vests and thousands of water purification tablets, a United Nations coordinator in Vietnam reported.

Before wreaking havoc in Vietnam and China, the typhoon had lashed the Philippines, killing at least 27 people, injuring 19 and leaving nine missing, its national disaster agency reportedTuesday, updating its earlier, lower death tolls. More than 109,000 Filipinos were affected by the storm as it hit the Philippines last week, where it was known as Ofel.

The tempest has weakened, but its damages in the three countries have been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. In the Vietnamese province of Nam Dinh alone, local media estimated the damages ran as high as $45 million, with farms swamped and electricity damaged, the U.N. reported.


Arab citizens in Israel bemoan lack of policing

14 kidnapped Central American migrants found in Mexico

Chinese officials back down on chemical plant in face of protests

-- Emily Alpert in Tadanoumi, Japan

Photo: A resident walks past fallen trees after the passage of Typhoon Son-Tinh in the northern city of Nam Dinh, Vietnam, on Monday. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Under economic pressure, Vietnam apologizes

Vietnam leaders

Mired in economic malaise, attacked by bloggers and riven by infighting within the ruling Communist Party, Vietnam took an unusual step last week -- it apologized.

In a widely broadcast speech, Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong acknowledged that the government had failed to curb corruption in its top ranks. The statement was widely read as an indictment of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has come under fire from his party and the public in recent weeks.

The government statement spared Dung from any stiffer action. But experts say the apology is not the end of the saga but rather just the latest result of a host of greater problems that have put pressure on the Vietnamese government as competing factions fight for control.

“It’s half time and the score is still zero to zero,” said David Koh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “The ones seeking to bring [Dung] down are still in power.”

The Communist Party in Vietnam has been divided between hard-liners and those who back the opening of its market, said Michael Buehler, a Northern Illinois University professor and Southeast Asia expert with the Asia Society. Dung falls into the second camp.

The prime minister has faced corruption scandals in state-owned enterprises as the country liberalizes its markets. In August, one of his allies was arrested for conducting “illegal business.” At the same time, economic woes in once-booming Vietnam have worked against Dung.

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Clinton draws criticism from Chinese ahead of talks


BEIJING — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew into a storm of criticism in Beijing on Tuesday in the midst of a six-nation tour perceived by China as aimed at curbing its influence in Asia.

“Many Chinese people dislike Hillary Clinton,” the often-acerbic Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper stated in an editorial. “She has brought new and extremely profound mutual distrust between the mainstream societies of the two countries."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was more polite, saying at a briefing in advance of Clinton’s arrival late Tuesday, “We hope the U.S. side will keep its commitment and make efforts that help, rather than harm, regional peace and stability.”

High on the agenda in Beijing are the myriad of disputes between China and neighbors — Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia — over uninhabited islets and fishing waters.

Clinton has proposed a code of conduct to be used as a mechanism to resolve such disputes through the Assn. of South East Asian Nations. Such a code would “literally calm the waters,” Clinton said in Jakarta, Indonesia, ahead of her flight to China.

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U.S. to begin cleaning up Agent Orange at tainted Vietnamese site

More than half a century after the United States began dousing Vietnam with Agent Orange, it is about to begin cleaning up one of the most contaminated spots left over from the war

More than half a century after the United States began dousing Vietnam with the defoliant Agent Orange in a bid to clear the jungle that provided cover for Viet Cong fighters, it is about to begin cleaning up one of the most contaminated spots left over from the war.

The cleanup is expected to take four years and cost more than $43 million. It is the first time that the U.S. has joined with Vietnam to completely cleanse a site tainted with Agent Orange, which has been linked to birth defects, cancer and other ailments.

"This is huge, considering that for many years the U.S. and Vietnam could not see eye to eye at all about this issue," said Susan Hammond, director of the War Legacies Project, a Vermont-based nonprofit group. "It was one of the last unresolved war legacies between the U.S. and Vietnam."

The problem of Agent Orange had long divided the two nations, which still disagree over the health effects caused by the toxin. The chemical spray contains dioxin, which clings to bits of soil and can be ingested by fish and birds, pulling it into the human food chain. The Red Cross estimates that 3 million Vietnamese have been affected, including at least 150,000 children born with birth defects.

Near the Da Nang site, Vo Duoc fought tears as he told the Associated Press that he and other family members, who have suffered diabetes, breast cancer and miscarriages, had tested high for dioxin. Now he fears his grandchildren could be exposed as well.

"They had nothing to do with the war," Duoc told the AP. "But I live in fear that they'll test positive like me."

The U.S. has chipped in for programs to help Vietnamese youth with disabilities but has shied away from saying their problems are specifically linked to the chemical. Vietnam has bristled at that resistance, pointing out that the U.S. has paid billions of dollars in disability payments to American veterans suffering illnesses linked to Agent Orange.

It wasn't until 2006 that the two countries were able to start progressing toward concrete action, as economic and strategic ties grew firmer. President George W. Bush visited six years ago; growing U.S. engagement with Vietnam to offset the rise of China has bolstered the relationship since.

"Many people in Vietnam had given up hope that anything would ever be done about it," said Charles Bailey, director of the Agent Orange in Vietnam Program at the Aspen Institute. "Instead, we find that the U.S. is stepping up to the plate."

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U.S. warns China against further moves in South China Sea

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday warned China against further moves to tighten control over a disputed section of the South China Sea, as tensions rose in the flashpoint region.

In a statement, the State Department cautioned China about its addition of a military garrison and civilian officials near the contested Scarborough Reef and its use of barriers to deny access to foreign ships.

These moves “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” said the statement, issued early Friday morning and attributed to Patrick Ventrell, the acting deputy spokesman.

Six countries have complex competing claims to the region's water and islands, which are rich in fish, oil and gas and other resources.

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China creates city on disputed island, angering neighbors [Video]

China has declared a tiny island its newest city, angering Vietnam and the Philippines, which have sparred with Beijing over its claim that it controls nearly all of the South China Sea.

About 1,000 people inhabit the newly christened city of Sansha on the island of Yongxing, also known as Woody Island, which relies on ships from the mainland for fresh water and medicine. Billing the new city as a bulwark for Chinese sovereignty, China has announced that the island city will host troops and serve as the administrative center for nearby islands claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and neighboring nations.

The Chinese flag was hoisted over the new city on Tuesday to the strains of the national anthem, the official New China News Agency reported. The fledgling city now has its first mayor.

Vietnam, which also claims the Paracel islands where Sansha is located, argued the move violates international law, calling on China to “immediately stop and cancel its wrongful activities.” The Philippines has contested the establishment of the city as well.

“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” President Benigno Aquino argued Monday in an annual address, insisting his country would not back down from its island claims.

Disputes involving the South China Sea have grown increasingly tense and confrontational this year as China and its neighbors expand their military reach and hard-liners have gained political power, the International Crisis Group wrote in a new report released Tuesday, warning of a growing risk of skirmishes at sea.

"While the likelihood of major conflict remains low, all of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing," the research group wrote.

Creating Sansha is the latest of those troubling trends. The idea is not new: The Hainan provincial government has repeatedly tried to establish a governing body over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the past. Its plan to create Sansha made headlines five years ago, triggering protests in Vietnam.

Beijing suspended the plan at that time. The fact that it has blessed Sansha this time around is a sign of worsening relations with Vietnam, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. Vietnam, in turn, issued a law declaring the islands under its jurisdiction.

"These moves have been planned for years -- but both sides had held back," Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.

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Panetta works to repair U.S.-Vietnam ties during historic visit

Leon Panetta, on a nine-day visit to Asia, is in Vietnam for talks with government officials on deepening military ties as the Obama administration is reasserting the U.S. role as a Pacific power after a decade of war elsewhere
This post has been updated. See the note below.

HANOI -- When Army Sgt. Steve Flaherty was killed in action in South Vietnam in 1969, his letters home fell into the hands of the enemy, which quoted his private thoughts about the war in propaganda broadcasts.

On Monday, in the first high-level exchange of its kind since the war, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam's defense minister, handed the three yellowing letters to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, a gesture aimed at healing some of the personal wounds that remain over a war that ended nearly 40 years ago.

Panetta, for his part, handed over a small maroon diary, found by a U.S. Marine, of a Vietnamese soldier named Vu Dinh Doan, who was killed in a machine-gun pit during a fierce battle near the coastal town of Quang Ngai.

The Pentagon already has been in touch with Flaherty's family members about handing over the letters to them, a U.S. official said, and Panetta voiced hope that the diary could be returned to Vu Dinh Doan’s family.

Vietnamese officials also informed Panetta that they would allow excavations at three sites that have been kept off limits to investigators searching for the remains of U.S. service members killed in the war, according to U.S. officials.

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Pentagon seeks return to long-abandoned military port in Vietnam

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visits in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam -- Forty-five years ago, American cargo ships filled this vast harbor, unloading supplies day after day for U.S. troops fighting the Viet Cong.

Today, the bay’s azure waters are largely empty, except for local fishing boats. The once-bustling U.S. airbase here, formerly home to fighter squadrons and a combat hospital, is abandoned, a reminder of the U.S. military’s exit from most of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.

But the Pentagon is plotting a return.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta flew in to Cam Ranh Bay, the first Pentagon chief to come to this deep-water port 200 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City since the war. He recalled “the great deal of blood that was spilled in this war on all sides — by Americans and by Vietnamese.”

He also made clear that the U.S. is hoping that hard history will not stand in the way of a U.S. return to the sheltered anchorage off the strategically-important South China Sea.

“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component” of the U.S. relationship with Vietnam, “and we see the tremendous potential here,” Panetta told reporters, standing on the stern of a gray-hulled U.S. Navy supply ship anchored near the bay entrance, undergoing maintenance.

The vessel is one of only a handful of U.S. ships that the Vietnamese have allowed back to Cam Ranh Bay since diplomatic ties were reestablished in 1995. But it is unarmed and sails with a largely civilian crew, a requirement imposed by the Vietnamese government that has prohibited military ships from docking since 2002, when Russia closed the base it had there after the U.S. departure.

U.S. warships have called regularly at other Vietnamese ports since the guided missile frigate Vandergrift made a port call in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2003.

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