Tag Archives: world news

Judge Thomas Griesa also ordered that settlement must be reached between the south American country and ‘vulture funds’

A US judge chastised Argentina for telling “half-truths” about meeting its debt obligations after the country sought to rebuff assertions it had defaulted for the second time in just over a decade. Judge Thomas Griesa also ordered that talks to hammer out a settlement must continue between Argentina and a small group of its bondholders that Argentina’s president, Cristina Fern ndez de Kirchner, below, calls “vulture funds”.

Argentina slipped into default this week after it failed to reach a deal with the US hedge funds in time to make a repayment deadline to the rest of its creditors, which form the vast majority.

Continue reading…

Wildfire which has charred 223,000 acres is now the fourth largest in California’s recorded history

Firefighters battling a colossal California wildfire that has eaten away at the Yosemite national park backcountry have managed to largely stem the spread of the flames, authorities said on Sunday.

But the fire has still grown to become the fourth largest in modern state history, officials said on Sunday.

The Rim fire had charred nearly 223,000 acres (89,000 hectares) by Sunday, mostly in the Stanislaus national forest that spreads out from Yosemite’s western edge. The blaze has blackened about 6% of Yosemite’s wilder backcountry.

It edged past the 1932 Matilija wildfire in Ventura County to become the fourth-largest California wildfire on record, according to figures from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Five of the state’s seven largest recorded fires have occurred since 2007, according to those figures.

The fire sent heavy smoke on Saturday into the Yosemite valley, an area famed for towering granite rock formations, waterfalls and pine forests, obscuring views of popular landmarks on a holiday weekend at the end of the summer tourist season.

Despite footage from cameras posted on the park’s website showing continued smoky conditions in the park, no further road closures within Yosemite were reported, and containment lines held steady at 40%.

“We have been able to hold the line. It’s just trying to figure out how to wrap this thing up and put a bow around it,” said fire incident spokeswoman Leslie Auriemmo, adding that there were no fresh closures in the park.

The Yosemite valley has been open to visitors since the fire broke out two weeks ago, but smoke began spreading to the area on Friday ahead of the Labor Day holiday weekend that in the past years has seen the park fill with visitors.

The fire’s footprint now exceeds the area of Dallas, fire managers said.

Some 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, most going during the peak months of June through August. Some 620,000 normally visit the park in August alone, but due to the fire, attendance has dropped.

Close to 5,000 people are working to put out the fire, including firefighters from agencies across California and nearly 700 specially trained California prison inmates.

Among the landmarks potentially in the path of the blaze are two groves of the park’s famed sequoia trees.

“We are working very hard to protect that. All the lines are in place so it doesn’t go into those groves,” Auriemmo said.

Firefighters have carried out controlled burns around the groves to clear away debris that could otherwise fuel a fire to such an intensity that it dangerously licks at the trees’ crowns.

Lower-intensity fires, on the other hand, play a vital role in the reproductive cycle of the tough-barked sequoia, many of which bear the scars of past wildfires, by releasing the seeds from their cones and clearing the soil in which they germinate.

The blaze has edged out the 1932 Matilija wildfire in Ventura County to become the fourth-largest California wildfire on record, according to figures from the California department of forestry and fire protection.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Members of Congress attend classified presentation of evidence after John Kerry mounts defence of plan for military action vote

The Obama administration has begun the tough task of persuading sceptical members of Congress that they should authorise military action against Syria, as secretary of state John Kerry claimed the US had evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack outside Damascus last month that killed 1,400 people.

A classified briefing was held on Capitol Hill on Sunday a few hours after Kerry made the rounds of all five Sunday talk shows in the US, mounting a strong defence of President Obama’s unexpected plan to allow Congress a vote on military action against the Syrian government.

Presented with the awkward scenario that Congress would not back Obama, Kerry stressed that the president had the power to act anyway. But Kerry said he was confident of a yes vote. “We don’t contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no,” Kerry told CNN.

As members of Congress emerged from the briefing, it was clear that the Obama administration could not be sure of the outcome of the president’s high-risk strategy. In particular, Obama could not count on his own party to deliver the votes. “I don’t know if every member of Congress is there yet,” said Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat who said she would vote no on authorising a military strike. “The room was sceptical,” said Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat.

The briefing took place after Kerry conducted a back-to-back round of television interviews to press home the case for military strikes. Kerry, one of the leading advocates of a military assault on the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, outlined new evidence he said the administration had obtained about the chemical attacks outside Damascus in August. He said blood and hair samples from first responders who helped victims of the attacks had tested positive for indicators of the nerve agent sarin.

Kerry said the evidence had come through a “secure chain of custody”, but not from United Nations weapons inspectors. He did not give any further details of the source for the samples, nor where or when they had been tested. The new evidence bolstered the case for action, Kerry said. “Each day that goes by this case is even stronger,” he told CNN.

On Sunday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, asked chemical weapons inspectors to speed up their investigation because of the “horrendous magnitude” of the attack in Syria.

Ban spoke by phone with the head of the team, Ake Sellstr m, the Swedish scientist who returned from Syria to The Hague on Saturday. The UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, briefing reporters at UN headquarters in New York, said Ban had asked for the process of analysing samples taken from the sites of the 21 August attack to be conducted as quickly as possible in keeping with the requirements of scientific stringency.

“The whole process will be done strictly adhering to the highest established standards of verification recognised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Nesirky said.

The samples are scheduled to be sent to laboratories in Finland and Sweden on Monday. On Friday, the UN estimated the process would take about two weeks but the findings now seem to likely to be delivered before that.

At an emergency meeting in Cairo, the Arab League called on the United Nations and the international community to take “deterrent” measures under international law to stop the Syrian regime’s crimes, but could not agree on whether to back US military action. In their closing statement, Arab foreign ministers held the Assad regime responsible for the “heinous” chemical attack, saying the perpetrators should be tried before an international court “like other war criminals”.

In Syria, Assad poured scorn on Obama, saying in comments carried by state media that Damascus was “capable of confronting any external aggression.”

Opposition figures reacted with exasperation to what they perceive as Obama’s delay in striking against Assad. While the Obama administration insists that the exclusive purpose of any such military attack would be to punish the chemical weapons attack and deter future use, the fractious and diverse opposition hopes the anticipated US strike will finally tip the military balance in their favour, something they have not managed decisively in a two-and-a-half year civil war that has killed nearly 100,000 people.

Samir Nishar of the opposition Syrian National Coalition called Obama a “weak president”, according to CNN.

Kerry reacted to the Syrian opposition’s evident disappointment by suggesting that Obama will not limit US involvement in the foreign civil war to cruise missile strikes tethered to chemical weapons. The administration “may even be able to provide greater support to the opposition”, Kerry said. Obama authorised the provision of weapons to Syrian rebels after determining earlier this year that Assad had carried out a smaller-scale chemical attack.

Deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war has prompted reluctance within the US military to bless even a one-off military strike. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a multi-tour veteran of Iraq, has voiced such fears for more than two years.

But Congressional hawks say Obama has not gone far enough. Senator John McCain, one of the most interventionist Republicans, said the administration needed to have a more decisive plan to topple the Assad regime. He warned against the possibility of Congress defying the president. “The consequences of a Congress of the United States over-riding a decision of the president of the United States on this magnitude are really very serious,” he told Face the Nation on CBS.

McCain and his fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham said earlier this weekend that they wanted any military campaign to “achieve the president’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict”. Kerry, responding to McCain and Graham, said he was confident the two senators would become convinced that “there will be additional pressure” on Assad.

“A strategy is in place in order to help the opposition and change the dynamics of what is happening in Syria,” Kerry told ABC News, while simultaneously denying the US would get sucked into the mire of the civil war.

Before Sunday’s classified briefing, some leading legislators predicted that Obama would win a vote of the kind that his UK counterpart, Prime Minister David Cameron, unexpectedly lost last week. “At the end of the day, Congress will rise to the occasion,” Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN. “This is a national security issue.”

Others were less sure. Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican, put the chances of an authorisation vote in the House of Representatives at 50-50. “I think the Senate will rubber stamp what he wants but the House will be a much closer vote,” he told NBC.

Legislators estimated that between 100 and 150 members of Congress attended Sunday’s classified briefing in the basement of the US Capitol, representing approximately a fifth of the Senate and House. Deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken was scheduled to be joined in the basement auditorium by four colleagues from the state department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, the military’s joint staff and the Pentagon’s policy directorate.

Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, praised Obama for going to Congress, even as Rigell said he would not vote for the resolution. “What I wrestle with, and of course I am continuing to wrestle with this, is how do we define success and our objective, and a full understanding and consideration of the ramifications,” Rigell said.

He said he was troubled by the likelihood that “the Assad regime is still there” after a strike.

Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he would support a strike, declaring himself persuaded that the Assad regime had crossed “a red line that began to be drawn a hundred years ago”.

Asked how US involvement in Syria ends – with the strikes being a one-off affair or a prelude to deeper US military engagement – Levin said, “I don’t think anybody’s quite sure, but I think we know where we need to start.”

Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said he left the briefing with questions about US strategy toward Syria, but also with questions about whether Assad would be strengthened if Congress voted against a strike, as the British parliament did last week.

Cummings said the draft authorisation for a military strike that Obama sent to Congress was “very, very broad,” giving him pause. “I want to know exactly what the game plan is after this,” Cummings said. “How will this strike lead, as the resolution says, to a diplomatic resolution of this issue?”

He left the briefing unsure if Obama would abide by the final vote on the Syria authorisation, which could come as early as next week, when Congress returns from summer recess. “I don’t know,” Cummings said. “I’m pretty sure they will, but I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

Federal grand jury indictment alleges that SAC maintained elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999

A federal grand jury has indicted SAC Capital, the embattled hedge fund that has been pursued by financial authorities for years, for insider trading after regulators failed to charge its powerful founder, Steven A Cohen.

The US attorney who brought the charges, Preet Bharara, also hit the firm with civil money-laundering charges that would require the firm to forfeit potentially billions of dollars in assets.

A 41-page indictment alleges that SAC, founded in 1992, maintained an elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999.

SAC is also alleged to have hired portfolio managers specifically for their insider contact in the industries in which they traded, and failed to raise red flags when insider information was suggested as the basis for a trade.

The indictment marks the culmination of a six-year investigation by Bharara. The government pursued an investigation against Cohen but apparently dropped its attempt to bring charges last month.

“SAC became, over time, a veritable magnet for market cheaters,” Bharara said at a news conference in Manhattan. “That’s why the institution, and not individuals, stand accused of insider trading.” He said that the charges were “a predictable product of pervasive institutional failure”, and added: “A company reaps what it sows. SAC seeded itself with corrupt traders.”

Cohen was not mentioned by name in the indictment but referred to obliquely as “the SAC owner” and an “individual residing in Greenwich, Connecticut.”

“The SAC owner failed to question candidates who implied that their ‘edge’ was based on sources of inside information,” the indictment says. Later, it notes: “The SAC owner fostered a culture that focused on not discussing inside information too openly, rather than not seeking or trading on such information in the first place.”

The government’s case centers on SAC’s culture. It alleges that employees at SAC “engaged in a pattern of obtaining inside information from dozens of publicly-traded companies across multiple industry sectors. Employees …traded on inside information themselves and, at times, recommended trades to the SAC owner based on inside information.”

Under US securities laws, fund managers may only trade on company information that has been publicly disclosed.

The indictment mentions several other SAC employees as well as employees of affiliate investment firms. One portfolio manager for Cohen-controlled Sigma Capital, Wes Wang, is cited in connection with insider trading in eight technology stocks including Taiwan Semiconductor, Cisco, and eBay. In 2012, Wang pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

Other alleged insider trading by SAC Capital mentioned in the indictment includes some of the biggest North American companies, such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, BlackBerry maker RIM, and Yahoo.

SAC denied the allegations. It said in a statement: “SAC has never encouraged, promoted or tolerated insider trading and takes its compliance and management obligations seriously. The handful of men who admit they broke the law does not reflect the honesty, integrity and character of the thousands of men and women who have worked at SAC over the past 21 years. SAC will continue to operate as we work through these matters.”

The chief target of the US attorney’s legal strategy, according to experts, is to foil Cohen himself by attacking his deputies and the trading culture of the firm he created. Cohen controls 60% of the money in SAC Capital and has a net worth of roughly $9bn, according to Bloomberg.

The indictment holds that SAC’s trading culture was heavily centralized, with dozens of portfolio managers answering directly to Cohen without knowledge of what their peers in the firm were doing.

Cohen, until his legal troubles, was a towering figure on Wall Street, a billionaire unknown to much of the public but famous in the finance community for his enviable investment profits and casual style. While maintaining an intense work regimen – working at over seven computer screens in his office – he was habitually seen around the firm’s Connecticut trading floor in a blue fleece vest that became almost iconic.

He was known for quirks such as his disdain of ringing phones, which created a silent trading floor, and maintaining the firm’s temperature at a breezy 69F so traders would not be too comfortable.

For investors, he held a notable mystique: SAC was so sought-after by clients that they paid the firm a fee of 3% of the money under management and allowed the firm to take up to 50% of their investment profits, according to the indictment.

SAC seemed to have a green thumb for stocks, watching them gain up to 10% in value in a single day after buying shares, and up to 15% in a month, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis in March.

The swirl of legal issues around insider trading have already temporarily claimed the careers of two of Cohen’s top lieutenants, Michael Steinberg and Mathew Martoma, both of whom were arrested at their homes and subsequently indicted. The government’s case against Martoma accuses him of making a profit of $276m by trading on nonpublic information related to healthcare companies Wyeth and Elan.

Martoma has maintained his innocence. His trial is set for November.

The indictment is the latest in a series of investigations of SAC by regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as federal prosecutors.

Most recently, last week the SEC filed civil administrative charges against Cohen, arguing that he “failed reasonably to supervise” Steinberg and Martoma.

In response to the SEC’s charges, Cohen’s lawyers argued, in 46-page white paper to staff, that he was too busy to read his email, and estimated he opened only 11% of his messages. As a result, they held, he could not have acted on insider tips contained in those emails.

Previously, SAC and its affiliates paid a $617.5m fine to settle SEC charges on insider trading, even though a judge grew irritated that the firm would be able to pay money to absolve itself of charges without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.

With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.

In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.

Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.

“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”