Thursday, July 16, 2009

'The myth of the chemical cure'

Taking a pill to treat depression is widely believed to work by reversing a chemical imbalance.

Medication is a mainstay of mental health therapy

But in this week's Scrubbing Up health column, Dr Joanna Moncrieff, of the department of mental health sciences at University College London, says they actually put people into "drug-induced states".

If you've seen a doctor about emotional problems some time over the past 20 years, you may have been told that you had a chemical imbalance, and that you needed tablets to correct it.

It's not just doctors that think this way, either.

Magazines, newspapers, patients' organisations and internet sites have all publicised the idea that conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be treated by drugs that help to rectify an underlying brain problem.

People with schizophrenia and other conditions are frequently told that they need to take psychiatric medication for the rest of their lives to stabilise their brain chemicals, just like a diabetic needs to take insulin.

The trouble is there is little justification for this view of psychiatric drugs.

Altered states

First, although ideas like the serotonin theory of depression have been widely publicised, scientific research has not detected any reliable abnormalities of the serotonin system in people who are depressed.

Second, it is often said the fact that drug treatment "works" proves there's an underlying biological deficiency.

Psychoactive drugs make people feel different
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But there is another explanation for how psychiatric drugs affect people with emotional problems.

It is frequently overlooked that drugs used in psychiatry are psychoactive drugs, like alcohol and cannabis.

Psychoactive drugs make people feel different; they put people into an altered mental and physical state.

They affect everyone, regardless of whether they have a mental disorder or not.

Therefore, an alternative way of understanding how psychiatric drugs affect people is to look at the psychoactive effects they produce.

Drugs referred to as antipsychotics, for example, dampen down thoughts and emotions, which may be helpful in someone with psychosis.

Drugs like Valium produce a state of relaxation and a pleasant drowsiness, which may reduce anxiety and agitation.

Drugs labelled as "anti-depressants" come from many different chemical classes and produce a variety of effects.

Prior to the 1950s, the drugs that were used for mental health problems were thought of as psychoactive drugs, which produced mainly sedative effects.

'Informed choice'

Views about psychiatric drugs changed over the course of the 1950s and 1960s.

They gradually came to be seen as being specific treatments for specific diseases, or "magic bullets", and their psychoactive effects were forgotten.

However, this transformation was not based on any compelling evidence.

In my view it remains more plausible that they "work" by producing drug-induced states which suppress or mask emotional problems.

If we gave people a clearer picture drug treatment might not always be so appealing

This doesn't mean psychiatric drugs can't be useful, sometimes.

But, people need to be aware of what they do and the sorts of effects they produce.

At the moment people are being encouraged to believe that taking a pill will make them feel better by reversing some defective brain process.

That sounds good. If your brain is not functioning properly, and a drug can make it work better, then it makes sense to take the pill.

If, on the other hand, we gave people a clearer picture, drug treatment might not always be so appealing.

If you told people that we have no idea what is going on in their brain, but that they could take a drug that would make them feel different and might help to suppress their thoughts and feelings, then many people might choose to avoid taking drugs if they could.

On the other hand, people who are severely disturbed or distressed might welcome these effects, at least for a time.

People need to make up their own minds about whether taking psychoactive drugs is a useful way to manage emotional problems.

To do this responsibly, however, doctors and patients need much more information about the nature of psychiatric drugs and the effects they produce.

Will history repeat itself in Afghanistan?

British military intervention in Afghanistan has a chequered history, making it easy to conclude that British forces will fail again. But such a conclusion is a mistake and does a disservice both to troops fighting there and to history itself, writes military historian Dr Huw Davies.

General comparisons of Britain's first three wars in Afghanistan and the current conflict, are difficult and fraught with pitfalls and traps. However, if one compares the specific experiences of soldiers and officers, there is much to learn from Britain's history in Afghanistan.

Many know that the British tried three times between 1839 and 1919 to subjugate Afghanistan, and each time they failed.

But when dealing with the history of British military involvement in Afghanistan, and in the difficult business of looking for parallels between then and now, it is necessary to separate the general from the specific.

The reasons for the wars in the 19th Century were somewhat different and incomparable with the reasons for the war now. If general comparisons of the conflicts are made, without looking at the specifics, it might be easy to conclude that there is little hope for success in Afghanistan.

The First Anglo-Afghan War broke out when Britain invaded Afghanistan because she feared Russian encroachment into Central Asia. The British were eventually routed and the 16,000 strong army forced to flee Kabul in the winter of 1841. Only one man survived the retreat.

Britain invaded Afghanistan again in 1878 for largely the same reasons. Despite a terrible defeat at Maiwand on 27 July 1880, the British were surprisingly successful elsewhere on the battlefield.

Unlike today, the Afghans showed an inability to adapt their tactics and the British dominated in several battles. Yet the British failed to achieve a political settlement and, as they were unable to occupy the country, chose instead to isolate it, while retaining influence in Afghan foreign affairs.

The third war broke out when Afghanistan declared independence from this quasi-British rule in 1919. However, for Britain, the Bolshevik Revolution had reduced the Russian threat and, with military spending crippled in the wake of the World War I, interest in Afghanistan gradually waned.

General comparisons, then, suggest that Britain has neither the military capability, nor the political will, to complete or attain victory in a conflict in Afghanistan.

Much has changed since 1919, though. The British Army has fought innumerable counter-insurgency campaigns elsewhere, the lessons of which are proving useful now. Technological advancements have also allowed swifter and more reliable analysis of intelligence, a critical aspect of any counter-insurgency campaign.

The Cultural Dimension

It appears that there is also a renewed focus on the importance of understanding the culture, traditions and customs of the Afghan population. It is here that the specific experiences of British officers and soldiers in 19th Century Afghanistan can prove useful.

During the First Anglo-Afghan War, for example, certain British officers spent much of their time learning about the culture of the local populations. In doing so, political, economic and social solutions to violent problems were unearthed.

In 1839, the British military had the difficult task of convincing the Afghan population to accept the new ruler, Shah Shuja, as he was from a different tribe to that of the deposed ruler, Dost Mohammed.

Shah Shuja's ascension to the throne in Kabul inevitably caused a shift in the balance of power, and those who had enjoyed political power under Dost Mohammed were cast aside and replaced with their rivals. This in turn caused widespread political disenfranchisement that manifested itself in violent rebellion.

Why, then, did the British fail in Afghanistan in 1841, and will the same thing happen today?

The instinctive reaction of the British then, as now, was to meet violence with violence. But then, as now, commanders quickly recognised that violence was not necessarily the solution.

Instead, the granting of some reasonable demands might buy off the support of those that were politically disenfranchised. Then, as now, the difficulty for the British lay in identifying and separating those who were die-hard supporters of the rebellion against British authority, from those who simply felt oppressed and whose loyalty could be bought.

Cultural understanding proved critical for the British in reaching these conclusions.

Inevitably, then, as now, there were those whose resistance to and hatred of the West could never be defeated without recourse to violence.

Why, then, did the British fail in Afghanistan in 1841, and will the same thing happen today? In 1841, those in political charge in Afghanistan and British India did not perceive this "cultural solution" as being worthy of any merit. Despite the efforts of a minority of officers and soldiers, the preferred British method was retaliatory violence.

For most, the "cold, hard steel of the bayonet" enforced the authority of the British Empire. Ultimately, this almost indiscriminate use of violence alienated that segment of the population that might otherwise have supported Britain and Shah Shuja.

The difference now is that much more attention is being devoted to understanding the culture of Afghanistan and to finding solutions that do not necessarily involve military action. Efforts are being made, with some success, to incorporate cultural understanding in all military activities, from fighting to reconstruction.

But with a resurgent Taliban, apparently committed to an extremist vision of Islam and harbouring terrorists, it will also be necessary and unavoidable to use military force. Awareness of the cultural dimension will not necessarily guarantee victory, but ignorance of it, history shows us, will guarantee defeat.

'Hezbollah arms cache' blows up

Reports from southern Lebanon say there have been a number of explosions at a weapons depot belonging to the Hezbollah movement.

The reports say the depot was housed in an abandoned building near the village of Khirbet Silim in the Dabsheh area. There were no reports of casualties.

Hezbollah denied any link with the blasts and attributed them to the detonation of unexploded ordnance.

Lebanese troops cordoned off the area and restricted access to the site.

No-one was injured in the explosions but they caused panic among local residents who reportedly mistook them for an Israeli air raid.

Israel and the mainly Shia Muslim militant and political movement Hezbollah fought a fierce 34-day conflict in 2006 and the area is littered with cluster munitions dropped during the Israeli bombardment.

Fighting ended under the terms of a United Nations ceasefire which banned Hezbollah from conducting any military action between the border and the Litani River to the north.

Mexicans in US face cashback crisis

For centuries, workers from many parts of the globe have been coming to the US to find work and support themselves.

Many migrant workers have families back in their native countries who depend on them for remittances.

But for some, a difficult economic climate, triggered by a collapse in the housing market, is causing the dream to evaporate.

The worst US recession in decades has eliminated job opportunities for many immigrants, slowing the flow of money back home down to a trickle.

That's especially true of the traditionally high-paying construction industry, often manned by Mexican workers.

Tepeyac, a Hispanic community centre, has its offices on West 14th Street in Manhattan.

Director Joel Magallan says people coming from Mexico usually make their way there.

They ask for help finding work, shelter and healthcare. But lately, that hasn't been happening.

"All this year, I haven't heard anybody coming to our office, saying, 'I'm new, I'm arriving in New York now,'" he says.

"I don't think that everybody comes to our office, but it's kind of a signal that not many people are coming."

Holding on

Mr Magallan has seen many workers struggling to find low-paid work in the restaurant and hotel industries.

But these are also hard hit, now that here are fewer tourists occupying hotel rooms and eating out.

Across the hall from the director's office, Maclovio Arellano is attending a basic computer class.

He would like to move beyond his part-time job in housekeeping, at a hotel. He knows he is lucky to have this job, even though his hours have been cut back.

But now he is unable to send as much money to his two sisters in a village in Southern Mexico, who rely on him.

"I used to send a little bit for each of them. I don't send that much as before," he says.

Joel Magallan says there are signs that fewer Mexicans are coming to the US

He used to send $500 to $600 a month. "Now, I try to send just $300 or $350."

Mr Arellano plans to stay on, for now, thinking he can help his family best by working at least part-time in the US, rather than returning to his small farming community in Mexico.

It has become such a struggle, though, that he is telling friends and family not to emigrate: "When we call, we tell them not to come, because it's worse here. "

Going nowhere

Further east, in Jackson Heights, the Delgado Travel agency nestles in a neighbourhood settled by waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and lately, Mexico and Central America.

There are almost no customers, apart from the men gathered around a large, flat-screen TV, watching football with the sound off.

Owner Hector Delgado, who came from Ecuador nearly 40 years ago, says demand is down across the board - for not just for plane tickets, but especially for money transfers.

"If I used to send $200, I now send $100, $150. As for people that used to send $50, we have a lot of $20s now. And we didn't have people sending just $20 before."

Down the street at La Casa del Internet, Nataly Hernandez also says traffic has fallen off. When asked if people are sending home lower sums of money, she replies, "Less money, less often - both of them.

"Mexican people, they're not sending that much money anymore. They're mostly the same people that sent money before, and now it's slowing down."

Ms Hernandez says she has heard that some other firms are receiving reverse remittances, or money sent back to the US from abroad.

That seems upside down to her: "Over there it's supposed to be bad, and here, better. But now it's the other way."

Cash crunch

Dilip Ratha, an economist with the World Bank in Washington, studies the flow of money sent by immigrant workers to their home countries.

He estimates that remittances could fall as much as 8% this year, for a total worldwide of $290bn.

He has noticed the reverse flow, too, but cautions that it is relatively small.

"The numbers we've seen are more in the range of $1bn, so compare that with remittance flows of $50-60bn that go to Latin America on a yearly basis, from the US," he says.

Mr Ratha warns that a prolonged US downturn could reduce the number of migrant workers.

However, many of those already in the US, like Maclovio Arellano, plan to make do with smaller pay packets, in the hope that the world's largest economy rebounds sooner rather than later.

Crude oil's rollercoaster prices

The oil market is volatile at the best of times. But the last year has been extraordinary even by those standards.

A year ago the price came close to $150 a barrel. At that price even many oil producers thought the commodity overpriced.

And yet, some analysts were forecasting $200 a barrel before long and oil producers were under international political pressure to do something.

Producers, however, had such little spare capacity that there was not very much they could do.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, hosted a conference in Jeddah in June to discuss the problem.

He needn't have worried, at least not about high prices.

In the event, a recession undermined demand for energy and sent the price diving. Since then it has dipped below $40 and is now back to about $70.

Oil's impact

Oil prices have been a factor, sometimes the most important one, in several recessions over the last few decades.

But was oil the reason for the recession this time?

While the oil price was high it added to business costs and left consumers with less to spend on other items, including perhaps mortgage repayments.

So the price of oil might have contributed to the financial crisis, or at least exacerbated it.

Price rebound

The subsequent partial recovery in the price reflects several developments.

Recent news suggests the economic situation might have stabilised (or at least is deteriorating more slowly), which suggests demand for oil might do so too.

The BBC is Taking the Pulse of the Global Economy, looking at a range of subjects this summer
Food prices - which remain a concern particularly in many developing economies
Highly volatile energy prices - which have been a major issue in the past year
The plight of migrant workers - as the global recession takes hold in many economies
Housing markets - which have turned from boom to bust in many countries
Rising unemployment levels - as firms cut back because of falling orders

Taking the pulse explained

Central banks policies to expand the money supply and heavy government borrowing have begun to raise concerns about future inflation.

Buying oil and other commodities could provide some protection against that for investors.

Opec, the oil cartel, has recently cut production and member countries - unusually - implemented many of those cuts.

Member states are often tempted to produce more than their allocation to get the extra cash.

The relatively high compliance by Opec this time round probably reflects the alarm they felt as the price dropped rapidly.

"It's amazing what a good dose of fear can do," says analyst Julian Lee, at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.

Reason why

There is also a view that the wild swings in prices are due to speculation in the commodities markets.
Oil pipelines
Some believe that the wild swings in prices are due to speculation

It is a perennial complaint from Opec.

This may be partly a position intended to deflect attention from Opec at times when prices are rising, whose line is "don't blame us it's those speculators."

But it is not just Opec. Some analysts think there is something to it, others says the price swings largely reflect what they call fundamentals.

However it is certainly true to say that there is speculation in the oil market. But does speculation really explain the big price swings? Opinion is divided.

Where next?

Opec's Secretary General Abdallah Salem el Badri said recently that $70 was a price that didn't damage the economy, but did allow Opec members to invest and get a reasonable income from their oil.

But many analysts think that some countries need a higher price - $80 or more - for the government spending they want to implement.

There is also a question of whether a lower price provides sufficient incentive for investment in exploration and exploitation of new oil fields.

Forecasting the oil price is a risky business.

But it is reasonably safe to say that one of the key factors will be when and how strong is the global economic recovery. Opec's actions will also be important.

Iranian nuclear chief steps down

The long-serving head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, has resigned, Iranian media and officials have said.

The nuclear chief had submitted a letter of resignation to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nearly three weeks ago, the Isna news agency said.

It was not immediately clear what triggered the resignation.

Iran says its nuclear programme is for civilian power, denying Western claims that it wants a nuclear bomb.

Mr Aghazadeh also stepped down as the country's vice-president, Isna reported.

The agency said it had spoken to Mr Aghazadeh, who gave no explanation for his move but told them that Mr Ahmadinejad had accepted the resignation.

A spokesman for Iran's atomic energy department and the official Irna news agency confirmed the news.

'Limited impact'

Mr Aghazadeh is a veteran official who served in the 1980s as a deputy to Mir Hossein Mousavi - the defeated candidate in Iran's disputed presidential elections last month.

In 1985 he began a 12-year stint as oil minister, staying in the post during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

He then moved to his job at the head of the atomic agency in 1997 under the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami.

He continued in the post when Mr Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005.

It was not clear whether Mr Aghazadeh's resignation was linked to Iran's 12 June disputed presidential elections, in which Mr Ahmadinejad claimed victory.

Mr Aghazadeh has made no public comment on the turmoil that followed the vote.

Correspondents say that although Mr Aghazadeh has long supervised Iran's nuclear programme, his resignation may have a limited impact on negotiations with Western powers, which are headed by Iranian nuclear envoy Saeed Jalili.

Control over Iran's foreign and nuclear policies ultimately lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The news of Mr Aghazadeh's resignation came a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran that the US would not extend its offer of engagement indefinitely.

President Barack Obama has talked of engagement with Iran but has not made clear how that might take place.

Orthodox strife grips Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have clashed with police in protest at what they see as interference by the Israeli authorities in their community.

Police said at least 28 people were arrested after protesters threw stones at officers and burned rubbish bins.

Hundreds of police have been deployed - 10 were reported to have been injured.

The incidents followed the arrest of an ultra-orthodox woman for allegedly starving her three-year-old son deliberately. The child is in hospital.

The protests are taking place in two ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, Mea Shearim and Bar-Ilan.

There were later reports of unrest in Beit Shemesh, a few miles outside Jerusalem, where police broke up a group of about 100 protesters attempting to block a road into the town.

It is time someone woke up because the violence threatens to cause victims
Police chief Aaron Franco

There were also reports of stone-throwing attacks on municipal workers.

"Thousands of ultra-orthodox from the Mea Shearim district tried to close a main road to traffic, obliging law enforcement to intervene with water cannons," said police spokesman Shmuel Rubi.

"Some police officers were hurt when stones were thrown" and police questioned dozens of people, he told the AFP news agency.

On Thursday, police used horses and water cannon to disperse the black-garbed Haredim.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the violence was "something that was not expected".

Meanwhile the city's police chief, Aaron Franco, has said ultra-orthodox rabbis are not doing enough to denounce the violence.

"It is time someone woke up because the violence threatens to cause victims," he said.

An ultra-orthodox Jewish man is led away by police in Jerusalem (16 July 2009)
The Haredim say the authorities are intruding on their way of life

Jerusalem is home to large Orthodox communities whose strict adherence to Jewish law sometimes puts them at odds with more the majority secular Jews.

Anger is high at what has been seen as the "unjust" arrest of the mother, who is said to be suffering from a mental disorder.

A hospital spokeswoman, Yael Bossem-Levy, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the woman had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a condition in which one person mimics or induces illness in another.

Another current Haredi grievance has been the Sabbath opening of a private car park near the religiously sensitive Old City area, when Orthodox Jews abstain from work.

Breaking silence on Gaza abuses

A human rights group founded by Israeli veterans has collected what it says are damning testimonies from soldiers who took part in the offensive in January against Hamas fighters in Gaza. BBC correspondent Paul Wood looks at the anonymous claims presented by Breaking the Silence.

Standing by the ruins of his home in Gaza, Majdi Abed Rabbo explained how Israeli troops had used him as a human shield.

"The Israeli soldiers handcuffed me and pointed the gun at my neck," he said. "They controlled every step."

In this manner, Mr Abed Rabbo said, he was forced to go in ahead of Israeli soldiers as they cleared houses containing Palestinian gunmen.

This same incident was described by one of the Israeli soldiers who spoke to Breaking the Silence.

Majdi Abed Rabbo
Israel's military is now looking into Majdi Abed Rabbo's claims

"A Palestinian neighbour is brought in," he says. "It was procedure. The soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian's shoulder."

If true, that was a clear breach of the international laws of war - which say soldiers have a duty of care to non-combatants - and of Israeli law.

The Israeli Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "neighbour policy", of using Palestinians to shield advancing troops, in 2005.

Until now, the Israeli army always had a ready answer to allegations that war crimes were committed during its offensive in Gaza.

Such claims were, they said, Palestinian propaganda.

Now, though, the accusations of abuse are being made by Israeli soldiers.

Testimonies collected

The common thread in the almost 30 testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence is that orders were given to prevent Israeli casualties, whatever the cost in Palestinian lives.

Writing the report's introduction, the Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard says: "All the witnesses agreed that they received a particular order repeatedly, in a way that did not leave much room for doubt, to do everything, everything, so that they - the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) soldiers - would not be harmed.

"The soldiers tell in their testimonies how this unwritten message, which came from brigade, battalion, and company commanders in morale-building conversations before entering Gaza, translated into zero patience for the life of enemy civilians."

Israel denies its soldiers broke the laws of war

The lawyer adds: "Violations of the laws of war are liable to be war crimes."

Here are just a few quotes which give a flavour of the soldiers' testimony. The accumulation of detail is convincing and, in the eyes of Israel's critics, damning.

"Things are happening in his battalion of which he (the commander) has no idea. There are people who deserve to go to jail...

"When your company commander and battalion commander tell you, 'Go on, fire!' the soldiers will not hold back. They are waiting for this day, the fun of shooting and feeling all that power in your hands...

"Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don't see a terrorist there? Fire at the window. In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."

Breaking the Silence report on Operation Cast Lead[469KB]
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Israeli military spokeswoman Lt Col Avital Leibovich dismissed the testimonies as anonymous hearsay, designed to embarrass the army rather than lead to serious investigations.

She questioned why Breaking the Silence had not handed over its findings earlier, before the media were informed.

"We are investigating many of the requests from NGOs and other groups," she said. "But when you have a report that is based on hearsay, with no facts whatsoever, we can't do anything with it."

In the past, says the Israeli military, some allegations of wrong-doing in Gaza have turned out to be second or third-hand accounts, the result of soldiers recycling rumours in the battalion rather than describing what they themselves witnessed.

Credible record

But Breaking the Silence has a long - and to many, credible - record of getting soldiers to talk about experiences which might not reflect well on the Army.

The group is funded by the British, Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as the EU.

It says the testimony is anonymous because of orders to Israeli soldiers not to speak out publicly.

Some of the collected testimony is highly specific.

In the case of Majdi Abed Rabbo, the Israeli military police have now opened an investigation, lending at least some credibility to the soldier who said the "neighbour policy" was in widespread use.

The military maintains it went to extraordinary lengths to ensure civilians were not harmed in Gaza.

The soldiers' testimony does describe in detail how leaflets were distributed in areas they were about to enter - warning people to leave.

But it is what happened after that, says Breaking the Silence, which calls into question the morality of the Israeli army's actions.

Israel's military message to Iran

Earlier this week, two Israeli Sa'ar Five class warships - the corvettes Hanit and the Eilat, two of the most sophisticated vessels in Israel's small navy - passed through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea.

Late last month, an Israeli Dolphin class submarine, possibly also accompanied by other vessels, passed through the canal for a brief deployment in the Red Sea before returning the way it had come.

These are all very public deployments and for good reason.

These Israeli naval movements are intended as a clear warning to Iran that Israel retains military options should Tehran fail to halt its uranium enrichment programme.

Future attack

An Israeli official is quoted in The Times newspaper as saying that the movement of the two missile boats should be seen as being linked to a future attack on Iran.

"Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran," says the official. "These manoeuvres are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats."

Clearly any attack on Iran would in large part be carried out by the Israeli air force.
An Egyptian patrol boat passes through the Suez Canal, November 2008
The Suez Canal is a vital waterway for cargo and military shipping

But the navy could play a part too. Israel's Dolphin-class submarines were designed to fire relatively short-range Harpoon missiles.

But they also have a number of larger-diameter torpedo tubes from which a much longer-range weapon might be fired.

There has been considerable speculation that Israel has designed a long-range cruise missile capable of being fired from the Dolphin boats, and that this might even have the option of being equipped with a nuclear warhead.

Tactical options

Israel's growing interest in Red Sea operations is not solely linked to the perceived threat from Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel is also increasingly concerned about arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.

Analysts believe that much of the weaponry travels by sea from Iran to Sudan and then on to Egypt.

Last March there were unconfirmed reports that Israeli warplanes had attacked an arms convoy in Sudan.

All in all the Red Sea is fast becoming a more important area of operations for Israel's armed forces.

Nonetheless, Tehran remains Israel's central strategic concern.

A huge variety of preparations are underway for a potential attack against Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

There have been long-range large-scale air exercises over the Mediterranean. There are the recent naval deployments.

And the revelations concerning Syria's alleged nuclear reactor - with pictures of the installation taken on site - gave a tantalising hint of Israel's intelligence capabilities.

Academic and military experts have produced a torrent of reports about just how such an operation might be carried out.

But it is clear that Israel may have some surprises up its sleeve, and that its commanders intend to maximise their tactical options whether an attack comes from the air or from the sea.

Child study finds big divisions

The first report on the well-being of children in 21 western states shows marked divisions in education, health and sexual behaviour and drug-taking.

The Netherlands topped the well-being table compiled by the UN children's agency Unicef, with Scandinavian nations also performing well.

However the United Kingdom and United States fare much worse, taking the bottom two places in the table.

The report shows no strong link between child well-being and per capita GDP.

Unicef says the report, titled Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, is the first study of childhood across 21 of the world's industrialised nations.

The Netherlands comes out top in terms of overall child well-being, and finishes in the top 10 for all six areas covered by the report.

No one country features in the top third of the table for all six areas studied, though the Netherlands and Sweden come close.

The report's authors say no single area of well-being can stand alone as a sign of overall well-being, and point out that several countries have widely differing rankings for the various aspects of well-being.

They say that the wealth of a nation is no indicator of how well a child feels.

The Czech Republic, for example, comes higher up the table for overall well-being than several other much richer countries, such as Austria or the US.

But fewer than 50% of Czech children say their peers are "kind and helpful", compared to 80% or more in Portugal.


The UK is on the brink of social meltdown. I really believe that there are serious problems ahead
Christopher Jones, Bristol

Send us your comments
Nor does the wealth of a nation guarantee its children a good education. Norway and Denmark are to be found in the 18th and 19th places for educational well-being.

The country that comes out worst overall is the UK.

In the behaviours and risk category, about 35% of British children say they have used cannabis, compared to 5% of Greek children.

And almost 40% of British 15 year olds say they have had sexual intercourse, though the US and Russia have the most teen pregnancies.

1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom
Source: Unicef

Key points at-a-glance
Happy Netherlands

One of the report's authors told the BBC that under-investment and a "dog eat dog" attitude in society were to blame for Britain's poor performance.

The British government says its policies have helped to improve child welfare.

Unicef UK executive director David Bull said all the countries had weaknesses that needed to be addressed.

"By comparing the performance of countries we see what is possible with a commitment to supporting every child to fulfil his or her full potential," he said.

Most of the figures in the report come from 2000-2003, which the authors say was the most up-to-date information availab

German children blighted by poverty

Twelve-year-old Jasmin Thiel and her twin brother Florian do not look poor.

They have a DVD player and a colour TV. Jasmin is clutching a mobile phone.

But they are among the millions in Germany caught in a growing pool of poverty.

Much of what this Berlin family owns, from their furniture to their clothes, has been handed out by local charities.

The mother Andrea has no partner, no job, and receives a welfare cheque which barely covers the bills.

"Once I've paid for rent and for electricity," Ms Thiel explains, "I only have about 200 euros [£172] left a month."

"I've got to buy all our food with that, plus all the things the kids need for school. We usually run out of money before the month's over."

Single mothers

Jasmin and Florian go to a local soup kitchen for their lunch.

It is in a children's centre called Die Arche (The Arc), which keeps poor children fed and off the streets.

One girl, nine-year-old Anne-Marie, is rummaging in a basket of second-hand clothes.

"The shoes I'm wearing now I found here," she tells me. "I got some trousers here, too, and a pullover."

Anne-Marie is part of an astonishing statistic; in Berlin 36% of children are considered poor.

"Most of the children in Berlin live in families like you can find here in Die Arche," says the centre's spokesman, Wolfgang Boescher.

"The typical family is a mother without a husband. She has two or three children from different men, and she has no job, she is not able to work," he adds.

Shrinking economy

Across Germany, one in six children live in "relative poverty", which means in families whose monthly income is 60% or less of the national average.

Among the causes of poverty here are the growing number of single mothers, many of whom struggle to find work; the higher birth rate in lower income families; and, some maintain, the controversial welfare reforms pushed through by the previous government.

It was not the global downturn which pushed these children into poverty, but with Germany's economy expected to shrink by up to 6% this year, there is concern that the recession is now placing even more youngsters at risk of hardship.

"I think we will have an increase in child poverty around 2-3% this year," predicts Professor Hans Bertram, one of Germany's leading researchers into child poverty.

"Of course, if people are out of work they have a lot of problems to run a family."

'Wrong priorities'

The German Society for the Protection of Children is even more worried.

It warns of a "massive" increase in child poverty, once the full effects of the recession kick in.

Germany is not alone. Governments around the world appear to be losing the battle against child poverty.

In the UK, ministers have admitted it will now be "very difficult" to meet their target of halving child poverty by 2010.

In the US, which already has one of the worst child poverty rates among industrialised nations, three million more children are expected to slip below the poverty line.

Charities have been criticising the German government for not doing enough to tackle the problem.

"If we have problems with our banks, or with our car producers, the politicians come together to find a solution very quickly. They give money and credits," says Michael Kruse of Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk.

"But when I tell them we have three million children who have no future and no money, nobody comes together to help the children. I think it's the wrong priority of our society."

Back in their flat, the Thiel family sits watching TV. It is one of the few family activities they can afford.

Even more debilitating than their lack of money is their lack of hope.

"I don't have any job prospects at my age, I'm nearly 49," says Ms Thiel. "Most employers don't want to hire people as old as me."

"As for my daughter Jasmin, she's given up at school because of the financial crisis. She asks why she should study when she'll end up without a job anyway."

Love beats the recession in Japan

Japan's love hotels are attracting interest from more than just couples looking for a place to spend a few private hours.

Investors are also interested; this vast market seems to be proving more resilient to the recession than luxury business hotels.

There are about 25,000 love hotels in Japan which are visited an estimated 500 million times a year.

Clustered around train stations, they are doing a brisk business despite the worst recession in living memory.

Flamboyantly designed and exotically named - Hotel For You, Sunpalace, Asian P-Door - they offer rooms by the hour, euphemistically marketed as a short rest or a longer stay.

Contact with staff is kept to a minimum. This is a business that runs on discretion.

Some have underground car parks and entrances, while others provide screens to shield visitors' number plates.

Plenty of customers are using love hotels to indulge in affairs or to meet prostitutes, although many are couples looking to escape the narrow confines of Japanese apartment living.

Crowded country

At many hotels the reception desk has been replaced by a touch screen of pictures of the rooms, brightly lit if available, dimmed out if already occupied.

Love hotels offer time alone in a crowded country where privacy is rare.

Yuichi Ito and Kyoko Shio are typical of Japanese in their twenties, still living with their parents.

My family is my Dad and my Mom, and I have two younger brothers," says Yuichi Ito. "But we only have four rooms, so it is a very crowded house."

He adds that he and his girlfriend, who met while they were studying in the United States, visit love hotels to find somewhere to be alone.

Providing privacy is big business in Japan. The love hotel industry is huge, estimated to turn over about £25bn ($40bn) a year.

And hotel owners claim they have been barely touched by the recession.

"Of course some hotels did [suffer], but not love hotels," says Joichiro Mochizuki, an executive with a company which runs a number of love hotels, including the Asian P-Door in Tokyo.

"Not like city hotels, not like business hotels - for this love hotel we had a 3-4% drop but otherwise we have kept a 400% occupancy rate."

That means each room is, on average, used four times a day.

The sheer variety on offer for couples is huge. There are mock castles, perched by motorway intersections.

One love hotel is decorated on a theme that combines soft toys and bondage. In others, visitors can dress up as doctors and nurses.

Some rooms look like school classrooms or train carriages.

There's even a love hotel for fans of the film Titanic, shaped like a cruise liner with life-size statues of Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett on the prow.

With 25,000 across Japan, there is one to suit every fantasy.

Seedy reputation

British businessman Steve Mansfield sees great potential in the industry which has traditionally been shunned by big Japanese corporations put off by its seedy reputation.

The rooms in his hotels are rather straightforward. He says he aims to create the ideal living area which people would have at home if money was no object.

There is a bed, of course, a flat screen television and a projector, a karaoke machine and an outdoor bathroom in the more expensive suites.

There are also payment machines by every door in case guests want to leave unseen.

Mr Mansfield's company, Japan Leisure Hotels, listed on London's AIM market, already runs six hotels, and he would like many more.

"When we looked at it and saw the fragmentation - 90% of owners have five or fewer hotels - we thought this is interesting," he says. "Here is a massive industry that has no market leader and there is a great opportunity here for consolidation."

Steve Mansfield does not like the phrase love hotels. He prefers "leisure hotels", pointing out that what goes on in his premises happens in every other hotel in the world.

Whatever they are called, Japan's short stay hotels remain busy with customers.

The Japanese may have cut back on many things in the downturn - but not on a few hours to spend alone with a loved one.

Ethnic tensions taboo in China

Among the Uighurs who have settled in south-eastern China, it is hard to find anyone prepared to talk openly about life in the Han-majority country.

In Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, even people running restaurants that advertise Xinjiang food, have pictures of mosques on the wall, and employ staff wearing headscarves, insist they are not Uighur.

"We are from another minority," said a restaurateur, refusing to say which one.

On 26 June Han and Uighurs at a toy factory in the Guangdong town of Shaoguan fought each other for hours, leaving at least two dead and 118 injured.

It was over this violence that Uighurs in Urumqi, in the north-western Xinjiang province, rallied on Sunday, leading to much more deadly clashes.

Keeping heads down

The restaurateur in Guangzhou did admit to discomfort when watching state television images of recent deadly unrest in Urumqi, but discussing ethnic tensions remains taboo.

The teenage son of another restaurateur, further along San Yuan Li Road in Guangzhou, was even more reticent.

"We don't have time to watch the news," he said.

Prospering in their new life, it seemed the last thing his family wanted was to be associated with rioting back in Xinjiang.

Around Guangzhou's old railway station, what was once a lively and extensive Muslim community has shrunk.

Those left seem determined to keep their heads down in times such as these.

Xinyue Muslim Restaurant in the Xinjiang Mansion - an official home to the representative office of the Uighur Autonomous Region's provincial government - offers nightly floor-shows by Uighur dancing girls.

But before a question about how the unrest in Xinjiang was affecting business could be completed, a waitress interjected.

"This is a very safe place - you don't need to worry," she said.

Factory repaired

Guangzhou newspapers have followed the government line, reporting that the trouble in Xinjiang could only have happened because of outside manipulation.

Coverage has focused on the injuries suffered by the Han.

The Guangzhou Daily recently reported that in Shaoguan, repairs to the assembly line, dormitories and canteen needed after the 26 June fighting at the toy factory had already been completed.

Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 22:47 UK
E-mail this to a friend Printable version
Ethnic tensions taboo in China

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Guangzhou

Picture in Guangzhou Daily of smiling factory workers
A paper showed workers smiling at a toy factory where there was unrest

Among the Uighurs who have settled in south-eastern China, it is hard to find anyone prepared to talk openly about life in the Han-majority country.

In Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, even people running restaurants that advertise Xinjiang food, have pictures of mosques on the wall, and employ staff wearing headscarves, insist they are not Uighur.

"We are from another minority," said a restaurateur, refusing to say which one.

On 26 June Han and Uighurs at a toy factory in the Guangdong town of Shaoguan fought each other for hours, leaving at least two dead and 118 injured.

It was over this violence that Uighurs in Urumqi, in the north-western Xinjiang province, rallied on Sunday, leading to much more deadly clashes.

Keeping heads down

The restaurateur in Guangzhou did admit to discomfort when watching state television images of recent deadly unrest in Urumqi, but discussing ethnic tensions remains taboo.

Map of China
Main ethnic division: 45% Uighur, 40% Han Chinese
26 June: Mass factory brawl after dispute between Han and Uighurs in Guangdong, southern China, leaves two dead
5 July: Uighur protest in Urumqi over the dispute turns violent, leaving 156 dead and more than 1,000 hurt
7 July: Uighur women protest at arrests of men-folk. Han Chinese make armed counter-march
8 July: President Hu Jintao returns from G8 summit to tackle crisis

Q&A: China and the Uighurs
Accounts of Xinjiang violence
In pictures: Xinjiang troops
Chinese media bullish over riots
Assessing the role of Uighur exiles

The teenage son of another restaurateur, further along San Yuan Li Road in Guangzhou, was even more reticent.

"We don't have time to watch the news," he said.

Prospering in their new life, it seemed the last thing his family wanted was to be associated with rioting back in Xinjiang.

Around Guangzhou's old railway station, what was once a lively and extensive Muslim community has shrunk.

Those left seem determined to keep their heads down in times such as these.

Xinyue Muslim Restaurant in the Xinjiang Mansion - an official home to the representative office of the Uighur Autonomous Region's provincial government - offers nightly floor-shows by Uighur dancing girls.

But before a question about how the unrest in Xinjiang was affecting business could be completed, a waitress interjected.

"This is a very safe place - you don't need to worry," she said.

Factory repaired

Guangzhou newspapers have followed the government line, reporting that the trouble in Xinjiang could only have happened because of outside manipulation.

Coverage has focused on the injuries suffered by the Han.

The Guangzhou Daily recently reported that in Shaoguan, repairs to the assembly line, dormitories and canteen needed after the 26 June fighting at the toy factory had already been completed.

Amateur footage of toy factory riots

"More than 700 Xinjiang migrant workers could resume their work thanks to the Xinjiang and Guangdong relevant departments' officials' endeavours," it said.

Alongside were pictures of happy, smiling Uighur women, back at work at long tables in the toy factory.

Censored TV

Two people in Guangzhou who were prepared to speak were Han taxi drivers, one of whom turned up his radio when the news came on to hear updates from Xinjiang.

Another went so far as to give his surname, Huang, and confide that he watched TV reports from Hong Kong channels, just across the border, to get a clearer picture of events.

"Any time there's anything sensitive, they interrupt the signal and throw in another advertisement or jumble up the pictures," he said.

His views on the unrest in Xinjiang were firm.

"The government treats the Uighur so nicely, yet the Uighurs don't feel satisfied," he said.

"They just create so much trouble. They should be satisfied with what they have."

He agreed with the crackdown now under way by Chinese security forces in Urumqi.

"The Communist Party has already done so much for the Uighurs," he said.

His views are common in commercial centres where Uighurs have thrived.

The communities were included in former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping's plans for economic reform from the early 1980s, and have been resident in south China since then.

But as in other parts of the world, problems between different ethnic groups have endured.

The difference in China is that people are reluctant to discuss the issue, and the tensions are hard to measure.

China demands Turkish retraction

China has demanded that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan retract his accusation that Beijing practised genocide against ethnic Uighurs.

Mr Erdogan made the comments after riots in the Muslim Uighur heartland of Xinjiang in which 184 people died.

Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, is under heavy police and military control.

UK-based analysts say al-Qaeda-linked militants in Algeria have called for reprisals against Chinese workers in the wake of the violence.

China's rejection of Mr Erdogan's remarks came in an editorial headlined "Don't twist facts" in the English-language newspaper China Daily.

It said the fact that 137 of the 184 victims of the 5 July unrest were Han Chinese "speaks volumes for the nature of the event".

The newspaper urged Mr Erdogan to "take back his remarks... which constitute interference in China's internal affairs", describing his comments as "irresponsible and groundless".

Mr Erdogan made the controversial comments last Friday, telling NTV television: "The incidents in China are, simply put, a genocide. There's no point in interpreting this otherwise."

He called on Chinese authorities to intervene to prevent more deaths.

Turkey is secular but the population is predominantly Muslim and it shares linguistic and religious links with the Uighurs.

Militant threat

In a report, a UK-based global security intelligence firm said that events in Xinjiang had triggered a call from an Algerian-based al-Qaeda affiliate for reprisals against Chinese workers.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQM) had promised to target Chinese workers in Algeria and north-west Africa, Stirling Assynt said.

AQM appeared to be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to officially state that it would target Chinese interests, the group said, warning that others could follow suit.

A foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said China would work with relevant countries "to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of overseas Chinese institutions and people".

He appealed for understanding within the Muslim world.

"If they have a clear idea about true nature of the incident, they would understand China's policies concerning religion and religious issues and understand the measures we have taken," Mr Qin said.

Economist plea

Separately, more than 100 Chinese writers and intellectuals have signed a letter calling for the release of Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uighur economist.

Mr Tohti disappeared from his Beijing home last week and has apparently been detained.

"Professor Ilham Tohti is a Uighur intellectual who devoted himself to friendship between ethnic groups and eradicating conflicts between them. He should not be taken as a criminal," said the intellectuals' letter.

It was posted online on Monday, and demands information about his case.

"If they've started legal proceedings toward Ilham Tohti, [the authorities] must gain trust from the people through transparency, and especially gain trust from the Uighur people," the letter said.

It also said that Mr Tohti's website,, was an important site for dialogue between Han Chinese and Uighurs.

In a televised speech on 6 July, Xinjiang governor Nur Bekri accused the site of helping "to orchestrate the incitement and spread propaganda".

The letter also urged the Chinese government to reflect on whether its own mistakes caused the unrest in Xinjiang and the anti-government riots last year in and around Tibet.

The violence in Xinjiang began during a protest by Uighurs over an ethnic brawl in southern China in late June in which two people were killed.

China issues alert in Algeria

China has urged its citizens in Algeria to take extra care, after reports that a militant group might take revenge for the recent deaths of Muslim Uighurs.

On Tuesday a UK-based security firm reported that an al-Qaeda-linked group had threatened to target Chinese workers in north Africa.

The Chinese foreign minister recently appealed for understanding within the Muslim world in the wake of the unrest.

Officials say 137 Han Chinese and 46 Uighurs died in the riots, in Urumqi.

Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, is currently under heavy police and military control.

Safety precautions

On Tuesday the London-based risk firm Stirling Assynt reported that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had threatened to target Chinese workers in north Africa.

In response to the report, the Chinese embassy in Algiers has urged all 50,000 Chinese who live and work in Algeria to be more aware of safety precautions.

It told residents to strengthen security measures "in consideration of the situation after the 5 July incident in Urumqi".

Exiled Uighur organisations have said they oppose all forms of violence and condemn the alleged al-Qaeda threat.

One nation which has seen a particularly strong anti-China reaction in the wake of the Urumqi violence is Turkey.

Demonstrations have been held across the country to protest against the Chinese government's handling of the incident, and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Chinese of "genocide".

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking people and share linguistic and cultural bonds with Turks.

Turkish news agency Anatolia reported on Wednesday that a Chinese diplomat, Song Aiguo, was in Ankara for talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Mr Song, a former ambassador to Ankara, said the Chinese government felt sorrow over the Xinjiang incidents, adding that he was in Ankara to avoid possible damage to Sino-Turkish ties.

Can China's frugal savers help the economy?

The Chinese government is asking its people to spend a little more and save a little less to help get the country through the global economic downturn.

The Chinese are prolific savers, putting away at least 30% of their disposable income each month.

For many Chinese it's a form of "self-insurance". The money is saved in case it is needed to meet medical bills, the costs of education or in case someone in the family loses their job.

China does not have the same kind of welfare systems you see in the US, or in Europe or Japan, so there is not much of a "safety net" if the family falls on hard times.

How difficult then is it going to be to persuade Chinese people to break the savings habit?

'Face thing'

Colin Yu is a freelance language teacher in Shanghai. He is 28 and earns about $700 (£425) each month.

That makes him the major breadwinner in his family. His parents earn less than $10 a day between them. His mother works in a factory, his father is a security guard in a food market.

Colin has to save more than 50% of his earnings because he has to send money back to his parents in their village about 200km (124 miles) from Shanghai.

"My mother makes very little money, neither does my father," he says. "Their jobs are not very stable. The problem is my job isn't stable either."

The cost of the bus fare home to Yuyao, the village where they live, means that Colin can not afford to make the journey too often.

On a recent trip home, though, he showed me the new house they had built.

From the outside it looks impressive, two stories high, each storey with three rooms, but inside it is unfinished, even though it was completed three years ago. There is barely any furniture.

"We borrowed a lot of money to build it, from friends, from neighbours and other villagers," he says. "The problem is at the moment we have run out of money."

Colin has reached the age that most Chinese believe is most suitable for marriage, so the family decided they needed to put what meagre savings they had into the construction of a new house.

"If we had kept on living in a shabby house, people would have said 'they are not a very good family'," he explains. "So it's kind of a face thing, we had to build it so others would respect us."

In China, there are far more boys born each year than girls because cheaper ultrasound scans available in private clinics have made it easier to choose the sex of your baby.

That sex imbalance means the odds are stacked against someone like Colin when it comes to finding a wife.

His family, like many others, needs to save as much as it can so he can compete with others when looking for a partner.

Agonising choice

Over dinner Colin's mother explains that she and her husband spend half their income on food.

The rest goes on other necessities like clothing or utility bills. What little is left over they save.

The government has introduced schemes to subsidise the cost of buying household appliances by 13%. There are other schemes that cut the purchase tax on cars.

Consumers in the countryside were the first to benefit from these promotions that are designed to boost domestic demand, to help the country get through the downturn.

For the Yu family though, they do not work as an incentive to spend because they just do not have the money.

"The first thing I would like to buy is a washing machine," says Colin. "It's very hard to do the laundry in the winter. My mother always has blisters when it's cold. Later on I would buy my parents a fridge and some air conditioning units, but we just don't have any spare cash."

The idea that poorer families in rural areas like the Yu's can be persuaded to spend more cash to help China survive the global downturn is problematic.

Their priority at the moment, having recently paid off their relatives and friends for their house loans, is to build up their savings again.

They need to save a lump sum to pay to the government so that Colin's mother and father get a pension when they retire.

They need to save for future medical bills too.

The family made the agonising decision a few months ago not to borrow money to pay for an operation after Colin's grandmother fell and broke both her hips.

The doctor said it would be hard for her to endure an operation and she would probably suffer a lot. She died a month later.

"It's hard to watch your close relatives when they're in trouble and you can't really help them much," Colin says.

The fear that one day they too might have to make that kind of difficult choice, is probably what drives most Chinese to save such a high proportion of their disposable income.

An illness can rob you of your ability to earn, and cripple you and your family with medical bills.

If China's leaders want families to spend more, they need to help them to worry less.

Discount schemes on home appliances or cars are persuading some to head for the shops.

Real and substantial changes to the country's welfare system would make much more of a difference but that is much more expensive and much much harder to get right.

Fiji freemasons held for sorcery

A group of freemasons have had to spend a night in jail in Fiji, after local villagers complained they were practising witchcraft.

The 14 men, including eight Australians and a New Zealander, had been holding a night-time meeting on Denerau island.

The New Zealand man told reporters he had spent a "wretched" time in jail, and blamed the mix-up on the actions of "dopey village people".

Police also seized wands, compasses and a skull from the freemasons' lodge.

Freemasonry is a centuries-old club that practises secret rituals and has more than five million members worldwide.

'Nothing sinister'

The New Zealander, who did not want to give his name, told the New Zealand Herald that Tuesday night's meeting was "interrupted by a banging on the door, and there were these village people and the police demanding to be let in".

Nothing sinister was going on, he claimed, but "such is the nature of life in Fiji" they were taken to a nearby police station.

The freemasons insist they had a permit for the meeting and were released after spending an uncomfortable night there.

Police director of operations Waisea Tabakau told Legend FM News in Fiji that the group was being investigated for "allegedly practising sorcery", the Fiji Village website reported.

The New Zealand man said that when they were freed the following morning, they were told their release was on the orders of the prime minister's office.

Emergency regulations imposed by Fiji's military regime allow police to detain people for up to 48 hours without charge.

China grows faster amid worries

China's economy grew at an annual rate of 7.9% between April and June, up from 6.1% in the first quarter, thanks to the government's big stimulus package.

The country's quickening economic expansion comes as most nations in the West continue to experience recession.

Beijing now expects China to achieve 8% growth for 2009 as a whole, which compares with a predicted contraction of between 1% and 1.5% in the US.

However, the Chinese government warned that some economic challenges remain.

'Numerous challenges'

The BBC's correspondent in Shanghai, Chris Hogg, said China's latest economic growth was largely due to the government's 4 trillion yuan ($585bn, £390bn) economic stimulus plan unveiled last November.

Compare China's economic growth with the UK and US

Yet Chinese officials said the increased economic expansion between April and June could not obscure continuing problems

"The difficulties and challenges in the current economic development are still numerous," said National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) spokesman Li Xiaochao at a news conference.

"The basis of the rebound of the people's economy is not stable," he said.

In a statement distributed ahead of a news conference, the NBS said: "The base for recovery is still weak. Growth momentum is unstable. The recovery pattern is unbalanced and thus there are still uncertain and volatile factors in the recovery process."

It said that urban per capita incomes were up 11.2% from a year earlier, and that real rural per capita incomes were up 8.1%.

Meanwhile, China's consumer price index fell 1.7% in June compared with the same month a year earlier, the fifth consecutive monthly decline.

Last week, the government said that exports in June were down 21.4% compared with a year earlier.

Public private progress

Our correspondent said that while the public sector was leading the speed up in the rate of economic expansion, the private sector was also doing its part.
China's state controlled banks have lent huge amounts of money to the country's state owned and private sector businesses.

Companies have used the cash to try to avoid shedding jobs and to invest in new equipment.

The BBC's Chris Hogg on the strength of China's recovery

Meanwhile, the many new government infrastructure projects have provided employment for many of the migrant workers who have been laid off - mainly in the export sector, our correspondent added.

Analysts broadly welcomed China's latest economic data.

"It's very encouraging: the 8% growth target [for the year] is in sight," said Daniel Soh, an economist at Forecast in Singapore.

"It's by now clear that the fiscal stimulus package has offset the contraction in export activity."

However, Wang Tao, head of China economic research at bank UBS, told the BBC that the increase in the country's economic growth rate "may or may not be sustainable".

She pointed to the fact that exports remained weak due to the global recession.

Ms Wang added that despite China's continuing fast economic growth, it could not be relied upon to pull the whole world out of recession. She said this was because other than raw materials, China was not a major importer.

Growing factory output

Industrial output - a measure of activity in the nation's factories and workshops - grew by more than 10% year on year in June.

Urban fixed asset investment - a measure of government spending on infrastructure - rose by more than 35% over the same period.

China's economic growth in the first quarter of 6.1%, had been the weakest growth since quarterly records began in 1992.

The country experienced double-digit growth from 2003 to 2007, and recorded 9% growth in 2008.

'Extinct' tiny shrew rediscovered in Mexico'

A tiny species of shrew has been rediscovered in the wild, more than a century after first being described.

In 1894, a handful of specimens of the Nelson's small-eared shrew were collected in southern Mexico.

But the shrew was never seen again, and was considered by many experts to already be extinct.

That was until two researchers found three shrews in a small patch of forest, a find that is reported in the journal Mammalian Biology.

The Nelson's small-eared shrew (Cryptotis nelsoni) is named after the man who first discovered it.

In 1894, Edward Nelson and Edward Goldman collected 12 specimens some 4,800 feet up the slopes of the San Martín Tuxtla volcano in Veracruz, Mexico.

A year later, the creature was formally described for science, and the specimens were stored away in the drawers of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, US.

That was the last time the shrew was seen alive for 109 years.

The biology of the shrew has remained a mystery. It was even believed to have become extinct because it had gone unrecorded so so long.

That changed when two mammalogists based in Mexico decided to look for it.

Fernando Cervantes of the National Autonomous University of Mexico teamed up with Lazaro Guevara of the University of Veracruz in Mexico.

In 2004, they set off for the forest slopes of the San Martín Tuxtla volcano to search for the long-lost shrew.

Setting 100 pitfall traps a night for four nights, they eventually caught three shrews - one adult male, one juvenile male and an adult female.

Since then, the researchers have been validating their find.

"We have reviewed [all the] papers about Cryptotis. We visited several biological collections and museums," says Guevara.

"A recent study on the mammalian diversity of Sierra de Santa Martha, Veracruz, did not record the presence of C. nelsoni. Therefore, we believe that no more specimens exist."

The shrews are tiny, measuring less than 10cm from nose to tail. They have sooty brown fur, which is darker than a related shrew species C. mexicana. It also has a larger and heavier, but flatter skull than its relative.

The researchers found the animals scurrying around a patch of cloud forest, that local people know as "dwarf forest" due to its small trees.

"We know very little about its behaviour," says Guevara.

He says that after 100 years or more, it was acceptable to think that the Nelson's small-eared shrew had gone extinct, especially as shrews tend to be overlooked by many scientists.

The surviving shrews are still so scarce that they must be considered critically endangered, say the researchers.

The volcano upon which they live erupted in 1793, destroying all the vegetation around the crater. Despite this eruption, the shrew managed to survive.

But so few now exist that any small change to their habitat could prove disastrous, says Guevara.

"A small habitat alteration may cause changes in the population that may lead to their extinction," he says.

Subsistence crops and livestock are reared in the region, "and any conservation plan needs to involve communities, government and schools to promote the dissemination of the importance of this species," says Guevara.

"In Mexico, the shrews are very poorly known, even by the people who coexist with these beautiful animals."

Guevara explains that, when they started their search they knew that the last record of the species was from 1894. "We thought it was very important research," he says. "We thought that was risky but high value for wildlife conservation. So, we travelled to find it. When we found it, we (were) very pleased."

Trump defamation suit dismissed

A US judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by Donald Trump against an author who said Mr Trump was a millionaire not a billionaire.

Mr Trump sued Timothy O'Brien in 2006 after his book "Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald" placed Mr Trump's wealth at $150m-$250m.

Mr Trump - who said he would appeal against the decision - had argued his wealth was in the billions.

The judge said there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to trial.

Mr O'Brien based his estimate of Mr Trump's wealth on three confidential sources.

The judge said Mr Trump had failed to prove that Mr O'Brien knew that the information from the sources was false.

"O'Brien reasonably believed they were accurate," Judge Michele Fox said.

Mr Trump, who did not appear in court, claimed that his business and reputation had been hurt by the book.

How to dismantle a nuclear bomb

The nuclear weapon is carefully lifted out of a large container and moved onto the floor.

Two engineers use an electric screwdriver to open up a side compartment and remove the "physics package" containing the sensitive parts of the bomb.

A scientist with a radiation detector beckons me forward as he points his machine towards the box.

It begins to emit an accelerating beeping noise. "The measurement is approximately a hundred times normal background radiation," he tells me.

"But it is not dangerous, I promise," he adds with a smile.

The lack of danger is because the bomb is not real. To inject an element of realism into this experiment, a weak radioactive material - Cobalt 60 - is used.

The dismantlement experiment is a joint exercise between the UK and Norway - the first of its kind - and was held a few miles from Oslo.

The five-day exercise has been keenly anticipated internationally as a way of building trust between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.

It is designed to see if one country can verify the disarmament of another country's nuclear weapon, but without any sensitive information about national security and weapon design being compromised.

In a role reversal, the Norwegians play a nuclear weapons state (called Torland) and the UK team play inspectors from Luvania, a non-nuclear weapons state.

The 10 inspectors from UK/Luvania remain in character as soon as they enter the gates of the nuclear facility. During meal breaks they are kept separate from both the Norwegian/Torland team and the joint planning group.

A huge amount of work goes in to making the exercise as realistic as possible.

A large, white binder contains briefing packs with fake Torland letters inviting the team to verify dismantlement of one of their Odin gravity bombs.

Stamped "secret", the Torland brief states that all details about the size, shape, composition, etc, "must be kept outside the knowledge of inspectors at all costs".

To complicate matters, inspectors are given a printout from a fake website which features what is alleged to be leaked pictures of the weapon.

"The aim is to develop methodologies we could use in inspections of a real nuclear facility but in an environment in which can do trial and error," explains Andreas Persbo of Vertic, which helped organise the event.

It is not an exercise in which the nuclear state is trying to clandestinely divert nuclear material or the inspecting side search for a covert facility.

Paintball guards

The main aim instead is to try to look for practical lessons and solutions to build confidence between the haves and have-nots in the nuclear world.

Even so, the British/Luvania team push the boundaries during the long negotiating sessions that begin and end each day, at one point submitting 15 questions, some of which the Norway/Torland team refuse to answer.

There is even an early disagreement over the question of what type of warning - if any - the guards would give before firing their weapons.

The guards, who follow the inspectors everywhere, are real Norwegian soldiers but armed with non-lethal weapons, similar to paintball guns.

The key task for the inspectors is to establish a chain of custody and ensure that at no point is any sensitive material diverted.

But this has to be done without ever actually seeing the sensitive material itself.

Initially, a truck takes a container carrying the device to the disarmament facility.

From the start inspectors watch, photograph, seal and tag key items. They cover entry and exit points to the disarmament chamber, sweeping all those going in and out to ensure no radioactive material is smuggled away.

"It is a very choreographed process, almost like a ballet," says Mr Persbo. "Timings are very precise."

The amount of fissile material in a nuclear bomb is itself classified, so a number of techniques have to be employed by the inspectors to ensure nothing is diverted when they are not able to measure it in detail themselves.

Each country's scientists have separately designed and built their own prototype devices known as "information barriers", which can confirm that an agreed amount of radioactive material is present in any container.

The machines provide a green light if the contents match the last reading but the actual contents are not revealed.

There is genuine relief from the scientists when both come out with an agreed result of what is inside the container.

The other means for assuring the chain of custody are tags and seals.

Tags and seals

A tag is any form of identifying label, while a seal is used to ensure a room or box is not tampered with during times inspectors are not physically watching it.

These are surprisingly low-tech. A purple strip of adhesive goes across a door hinge. If it is moved then the colour changes and a warning appears on it.

Additionally, the seal has a blob of glue with multi-coloured glitter inside. This is photographed close-up by the inspectors once it is in place and then again when inspectors return.

The unique pattern would be almost impossible to replicate perfectly in a relatively short space of time. More high-tech variants are available involving fibre-optics and the next stage of the project may involve looking at ways of designing the most effective seals.

After the "physics package" is removed from the bomb and placed in a container, the inspectors are allowed to return into the room and watch it being placed in a storage room for the night.

The next morning, in the pouring rain, inspectors follow the container as it is moved by a cart to another part of the facility where the radioactive material is - at least notionally - removed in a hot cell using robotics arms.

Finally it is moved to a storage site.

"This is about having an understanding of what it means to take some material from A to B without really knowing what it is," explains Norwegian official Ole Reistad.

"Under other verification arrangements, it might be special types of fuel, it might be commercial secrets or it might be other security interests that you have to protect in some way."

Dress rehearsal

In practice no nuclear weapons state has ever allowed a non-nuclear weapons state to verify disarmament. But if there was to be multilateral disarmament in the future, it may well be important to provide such states with confidence over its actions.

Officials on both sides hope that this and any future events will lead to better understanding between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states and more collaborations, allowing trust and confidence to be increased.

"Norway is very much committed on the disarmament agenda," explains Gry Larsen, Norway's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

"This project in a way shows our commitment to try and find good practical ways of making sure we have nuclear disarmament."

UK inspectors and observers say they learnt about the challenges of being a non-nuclear weapons state and providing confidence, as well as ways of ensuring their own sensitive material is protected.

The Norwegians say they garnered a first-hand perspective of the sensitivities of nuclear states in protecting classified information.

The UK has talked of acting as a "disarmament laboratory" and being part of the process allows the UK to say that it is living up to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty for disarmament, although the emphasis is on developing the technical aspects of verification.

"It was lots of hard work but there's opportunity for more progress in the future," said one UK Ministry of Defence official.

Other countries are also said to have shown interest in the work, including the US, Canada, Russia, Australia and Japan.

Turkmenistan to create desert sea

The lake will be filled with drainage water from the country's cotton fields.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said the "Golden Age Lake" plan showed his country was preserving nature and improving the environment.

But critics say the water will be full of fertiliser and insecticides, and will evaporate quickly.

The project is one of the biggest and most ambitious in the world, and could cost up to $20bn (£12bn).

President Berdymukhamedov, wielding a spade, opened up the first tributary to bring water to a natural depression in the Karakum Desert. The desert covers more than 80% of Turkmenistan.

He told the crowd that the lake would make the desert bloom.

President Berdymukhamedov on horseback after the ceremony
The president has approved other huge construction projects in Ashkhabad

"Our initiatives to provide water and environmental security... demonstrate that Turkmenistan is making huge efforts to contribute to common work on preserving the nature and improving the environment," he said.

The water from the canals, he said, would attract wildlife and open up new land for agriculture.

Village elders in traditional clothing helped the water flow into the new channel.

After the opening ceremony, Mr Berdymukhamedov mounted a bejewelled horse to ride back to the helicopter which brought him in from the capital, Ashkhabad.

'Dead sea' fears

The Turkmen government, on its website, said the project "would go down in history of the epoch of New Revival as one of its brightest pages".

Work on the project began in 2000, with the construction of two canals which bisect the country.

Thousands of smaller feeder channels will funnel the water from Turkmenistan's irrigated cotton fields to the new lake. Treatment plants are planned to clean the water.

It could take many years to fill the lake - in the Karashor depression - but it will eventually cover 2,000 sq km (770 sq miles).

Environmentalists say a lot of the water will simply disappear into the desert's permeable soil. Large amounts, they say, will also evaporate in the high temperatures, leaving the soil extremely salty.

They predict that the Golden Age Lake will simply become a new "Dead Sea".

Analysts also fear that Turkmenistan might be tempted to help fill the new lake with fresh water from the Amu Darya, a river on the Uzbek border, which Uzbekistan relies on for irrigation. This, they say, could start a war.

Water is a precious resource in Central Asia. Drought and overuse have caused ecological disasters like that of the Aral Sea to the north, which has shrunk by 90% in recent decades.

Under the rule of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was renowned for its huge, Soviet-style construction projects. Mr Niyazov, who died in 2006, initiated the Golden Age Lake project.

Mr Berdymukhamedov came to power vowing to break with the past. But he has already approved $1bn projects for Ashkhabad, including a new five-star hotel, government buildings, a new stadium and a "Palace of Happiness" for weddings.