The Global Note: Italy Quakes…Tremors At the Vatican…After Syria’s Massacre…The “Flame” Virus

By Tom Nagorski

May 29, 2012 9:57am

A PAIR OF BIG QUAKES HIT NORTHERN ITALY

In Northern Italy - including areas hit by a 6.0 quake just eight days ago – the earth keeps shaking. Two big ones today: First – an early-morning 5.8 quake that killed at least eight; then – early afternoon local time – another quake, measuring 5.6, and not clear yet what the toll may be in this one. Phoebe NATANSON reports from Rome that these latest quakes caused more buildings to collapse and schools to be evacuated – and now a rescue effort is underway in some farm and factory buildings near the zone. Seismologists report 60 quakes across the zone today; three over 5.0 magnitude. Beyond the death and the damage, the steady spate of aftershocks is certainly having an impact. As Phoebe writes, “obviously the people living in the area are exasperated and scared as they have had a over a week of continuous aftershocks since May 20th…” May 20 was the date of last week’s quake which killed seven and destroyed hundreds of buildings. Thousands are still suffering the effects of that quake – sleeping outdoors in tents – a good place to be, actually, when the earth shook this morning.

ITALY OTHER TREMOR: POPE’S BUTLER THE ‘FALL GUY’

Pope Benedict XVI’s butler has said he will cooperate in the expanding probe of leaked Vatican documents that threatens to implicate Cardinals – and has focused global attention on intrigue and allegations of financial mismanagement within the Catholic Church. Paolo Gabriele, 46, caught red-handed with stolen papal paperwork last week, will assist investigators fully, one of his lawyers, Carlo Fusco, said. As Jeffrey KOFMAN reported, leading Italian newspapers carried interviews yesterday with an anonymous Vatican insider who said Gabriele is a fall guy for a wider group of whistleblowers. “The real brains behind it are cardinals, then there are monsignors, secretaries, small fry,” the insider was quoted as saying. KOFMAN reports: “The Vatican in serious damage control…The Pope’s spokesman aggressively denying suggestions that it is a Cardinal who is orchestrating the incriminating leaks that detail dirty dealings and dirty money. Newspapers here report a Vatican in Chaos with one faction leaking to discredit the Pope the other to protect him. One newspaper quotes a deep throat inside the Vatican: ‘It’s war and you no longer know which side anyone is on.’”

SYRIA CRISIS: AFTER THE MASSACRE

-U.N.’S ANNAN HOLDS “FRANK” TALKS WITH ASSAD…U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is holding what his office calls “frank” talks with Syria‘s president, as international pressure grows to end the violence. The meeting between Annan and Bashar al-Assad comes after new images emerged purporting to show civilians in the town of Houla coming under fire from heavy artillery Friday. At least 108 people – mostly women and children – were killed in the bombardment, apparently conducted by Syria’s state security and regime-aligned militia. Many were shot at point-blank range. The U.N. human rights office says its investigators have concluded that children were among those summarily executed.

-SYRIAN DIPLOMATS EXPELLED…France has expelled Syria’s Ambassador – and Australia expelled two Syrian diplomats including the chief of mission Tuesday. Australian officials say they expect other countries to take similar action as part of an international response to the killings.

-RAPE AS WEAPON OF WAR?…Security forces in Syria are using rape against both men and women to spread fear among the opposition, victims and human rights groups have told the  Daily Telegraph. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie will highlight the issue today at a meeting at the Foreign Office.

NATO KILLS SENIOR AL-QAEDA LEADER IN AFGHANISTAN

Muhammad LILA reports: NATO forces have killed al-Qaeda’s second-highest ranking leader in Afghanistan in an airstrike. The U.S.-led coalition says the attack that killed Sakhr al-Taifi and another al-Qaeda militant took place Sunday in eastern Kunar province. NATO said Tuesday that al-Taifi, also known as Musthaq and Nasim, frequently traveled between Afghanistan and Pakistan, carrying out commands from senior al-Qaida leadership. 

DANISH POLICE ARREST BROTHERS IN TERROR PLOT

Two Danish brothers originally from Somalia were arrested late Monday on suspicion of plotting a terror attack, Denmark’s security service said Tuesday. The two brothers, ages 18 and 23, were suspected of “being in the process of preparing an act of terror” after they were overheard talking about methods, targets and different weapons types, PET said in a statement. One of them had been to a training camp in Somalia run by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, the agency said. The suspects are “Danish citizens of Somali origin” who have lived in Denmark for 16 years, PET said. 

MOST POWERFUL COMPUTER VIRUS?

Researchers have identified a sophisticated new computer virus 20 times the size of Stuxnet, the malicious software that disabled centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear plant. But unlike Stuxnet, this appears to be used solely for espionage. It’s being called Flame, Skywiper and Flamer – and it’s the largest and possibly most complex piece of malware ever discovered. “Flame” is loaded with functions, but so far none appear to be destructive. From Alex MARQUARDT: Kapersky Labs, which discovered the virus, tweeted out its analysis of the virus, saying it “is destined to leave an indelible mark on the cyber weapons’ landscape.” Not only could it get the data on computers, it could take screenshots, turn on computers’ mics to record conversations and use computers’ Bluetooth to connect with other devices in the immediate vicinity. There’s a general consensus that this is far too complex for a group of hackers, that it is likely state-orchestrated. And this morning, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister indicated Israel may have had a role. “Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a serious threat would be likely to take different steps, including these, in order to hurt them,” said Moshe Yaalon in an interview with Army Radio. “Israel is blessed to be a nation possessing superior technology.” Iran, Israel and a number of Arab countries were the worst hit; at least two ABCers in Jerusalem were infected by the virus. 

IRAN URGES WEST TO DROP ‘ILLOGICAL’ URANIUM DEMAND

Meanwhile, in Tehran: Iranian officials say the West should withdraw its “illogical” demand that Iran halt production of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters today that Iran has a right to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes.

ISRAEL, IRAN + CAVIAR

And here’s another “weapon” in the struggle with Iran. MARQUARDT reports again: In Israel’s ongoing conflict with Iran, Israel has found a new weapon: caviar. With massive economic sanctions on Iran and a ban on the highly endangered sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, the storied Iranian caviar is not an option these days. So a small kibbutz north of the Sea of Galilee is helping fill that void with premium, world-class caviar that sells for almost $500 for just 50 grams. And this year, they’re planning to sell four tons. That’s almost $40 million. “The Israeli caviar is the best there is today on the market,” says Eric Ripert, chef of New York’s three Michelin starred “Le Bernardin.” The kibbutz’s secret? Purebread sturgeon combined with the water from the local Dan springs. The kibbutz has been producing caviar for almost 15 years and has gave us access to the “triage,” sorting the males from females. By the way, the kicker is they can’t sell in Israel. It’s not kosher.

EGYPT: FURY OVER THE VOTE

More from Alex MARQUARDT: Eight people have been arrested for the fire at Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s Cairo headquarters last night. Protesters filled Tahrir Square last night, chanting against both Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi – the two candidates in Egypt’s runoff vote for the Presidency in mid-June.

COMPANIES RESPOND TO EUROPE’S CRISIS WITH CHEAPER PRODUCTS

As companies are faced with financially-strapped European customers, the Wall Street Journal reports those companies are repackaging successful products into less-costly, smaller versions. Nestle is selling cheaper, single versions of their tea and coffee. Unilever is producing lower-price containers of shampoo and other household staples. Tesco has even introduced a new line, called Everyday Value, with new, low-cost offerings. 

US PLANS TO ARM ITALY’S DRONES

The Obama administration plans to arm Italy’s fleet of Reaper drone aircraft, a move that could open the door for sales of advanced hunter-killer drone technology to other allies, according to lawmakers and others familiar with the matter. The sale would make Italy the first foreign country besides Britain to fly U.S. drones armed with missiles and laser-guided bombs. U.S. officials said Italy intends initially to deploy the armed drones in Afghanistan. 

TRIPLETS AMONG CHILDREN KILLED IN DOHA BLAZE

Three triplets from New Zealand were among the 13 children killed when fire swept through a shopping center in Doha, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has revealed. Key said the triplets, Lillie, Jackson and Willsher Weekes, believed to be two-year-olds, were in a nursery in the Villagio mall in the Qatari capital when the fire broke out. Altogether 19 people died in the blaze. The child victims – seven girls and six boys – were aged one to three. All were foreign and included Europeans and Japanese. One Spanish family is also said to have lost three children. 

AUNG SAN SUU KYI LEAVES MYANMAR FOR FIRST TIME IN 24 YEARS

Aung San Suu Kyi travels to Thailand late Tuesday night to visit a refugee camp for people from Myanmar in Tak province on Wednesday. She will then attend and deliver a speech at the World Economic Forum being held in Bangkok on Thursday and Friday. 

NORTH KOREA SUFFERING SERIOUS DROUGHT

North Korea is reporting a serious drought that could worsen already critical food shortages, but help is unlikely to come from the United States and South Korea following Pyongyang’s widely criticized rocket launch. The Guardian reports North Korea has had little rain since April 27, with the country’s western coastal areas particularly hard hit, according to a government weather agency in Pyongyang. The dry spell threatened to damage crops, officials said, as the country enters a critical planting season and as food supplies from the last harvest dwindle. North Korea has suffered chronic food shortages for the past two decades because of economic and agricultural mismanagement as well as natural disasters. A famine in the 1990s killed an estimated hundreds of thousands of people. 

CHINESE DESPAIR AT ENDLESS FOOD-SAFETY SCARES

USA Today reports that  TV viewers across China have been enjoying a documentary series on the nation’s world-famous cuisine. From the lotus and rib soup of Hubei to the mountain mushrooms of Tibet, China on the Tip of the Tongue is so tantalizing that many fans responded online, “I want to lick the screen.” But another reaction to the top-rated food show has been disgust at its failure to highlight one of the most pressing concerns of China’s citizens: the daily danger of fake and adulterated foodstuffs. Even the state-run Xinhua News Agency despaired this month over food safety, noting formaldehyde-sprayed cabbage — done to retain freshness — “sparked public anger and prolonged the seemingly unending discussion on what, if anything, is safe to eat.” 

JAPANESE FIRM BUILDS MOBILE PHONE THAT CAN DETECT RADIATION

ITV News reports a Japanese mobile phone operator has cashed in on residual fears from the Fukushima nuclear accident by designing a smartphone with a built-in radiation detector. Softbank Corp claims the phones are more compact and user-friendly than conventional geiger counters, which have become a familiar sight in some parts of the country. The company announced today that it would begin selling the phones this summer at an “affordable price”. Although there is an exclusion zone around the nuclear plant and all residents have been evacuated, there are still concerns about nuclear hotspots along Japan’s eastern coast. 

RARE MARTIAN PINK DIAMOND AT AUCTION IN HONG KONG

A rare pink diamond is expected to fetch at least $8million when it goes under the hammer at Christies in Hong Kong. The Martian Pink diamond is about 12 carats in size. Pink diamonds as large as this are extremely rare. The gem was named by famed American jeweler Ronald Winston in 1976, the same year the US sent a satellite to Mars. The most famous pink diamond in the world belongs to Queen Elizabeth II.

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