DDMA Headline Animator

Monday, January 25, 2016

Yemen peace talks underway as fighters ignore cease-fire

December 15, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — U.N.-brokered peace talks between Yemen's internationally recognized government and Shiite rebels opened Tuesday in Switzerland with expectations for a deal low as fighters on both sides failed to honor a weeklong cease-fire in some parts of the country.

The truce, scheduled to start at noon on Tuesday, was meant to give the warring factions a chance to find a solution to the conflict that has engulfed the Arab world's poorest country. Security officials said rebel shelling and ground clashes continued in southwestern Taiz province and a Saudi-led coalition struck back with airstrikes several times throughout the day.

Yemen has been torn by fighting pitting the rebels, known as Houthis, and army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against forces of the internationally recognized government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition and supported by the United States, as well as southern separatists, religious extremists and other militants.

According to U.N. figures, the war in Yemen has killed at least 5,884 people since March, when the fighting escalated after the Saudi-led coalition began launching airstrikes targeting the rebels. In a statement, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, emphasized the urgency of the talks in Switzerland — the latest in a series of negotiations and cease-fires that have so far failed to end the fighting.

"The people of Yemen are daily, indeed hourly, anticipating the outcome of these discussions. This meeting is their only glimmer of hope and must not be extinguished," the envoy said. "The tongues of fire, the scenes of destruction, the reverberation of bombs and the soaring prices have turned their daily lives into a series of ongoing tragedies."

Previous efforts to end the violence have ended in failure, as the government insisted the Houthis comply with a U.N. resolution that requires them to hand over weapons and withdraw from territory they captured over the past year, including the capital, Sanaa. The Houthis have demanded the country's political future be decided through negotiations.

In the past, the rebels have said they are willing to honor the U.N. resolution but did not specify to whom they would hand over weapons and territory. Yemen's civil war has divided the armed forces, which have units loyal to ousted president Saleh, a Houthi ally, and others who answer to the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Negotiations were taking place at the Swiss Olympic House in the village of Macolin, a training center for elite athletes. On Tuesday, police armed with automatic weapons were on patrol outside the facility, which was cordoned off with metal barriers requiring journalists to keep about 50 yards (meters) away.

The talks, which could go on for days, were shrouded in secrecy. Ahmed Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman in Geneva, said the participants signed a "non-disclosure" agreement pledging not to speak to the media until the negotiations were over. However, he said in a text message to the AP late Tuesday that the cease-fire violations had not impacted the talks.

Just hours before Tuesday's scheduled start of the cease-fire, the Saudi-led coalition and pro-government forces seized the Red Sea island of Zuqar from the rebels. Yemeni security officials, who have remained neutral in the conflict, said both sides had intensified the fighting to solidify their positions ahead of the truce. There was no immediate word on casualties and the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

The two sides had initially agreed to halt fire at midnight Monday but the coalition delayed the truce to midday Tuesday, without elaborating. During the cease-fire, both sides have agreed to allow the "unconditional movement of aid supplies, personnel and teams to all parts of the country," the World Health Organization's mission chief for Yemen, Dr. Ahmed Shadoul, told reporters in Geneva.

International aid groups have been sounding the alarm about roads blockaded by armed groups and rebels preventing the delivery of essential aid to the civilian population for months. Even if the talks succeed in brokering a peace deal, there are grave security challenges facing any unity government that might emerge in the country's east and south, where the local affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have exploited the chaos to grab land and exercise influence.

The Islamic State group has claimed attacks that killed at least 174 people in the war-torn country this year, according to an AP count, including a bombing last week in the port city of Aden that killed its governor. Aden has also witnessed a recent uptick in assassinations of government officials and senior military officers bearing the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

The internationally recognized government seized the strategic port city from the rebels earlier this year and made it a base for its operation. Once exiled in neighboring Saudi Arabia along with his Cabinet, Hadi returned to Aden in recent weeks.

Yemen's al-Qaida branch has long been seen by Washington as the most potent affiliate of the extremist network and has been linked to a number of attempted attacks on the U.S. Al-Qaida fighters have captured much of Yemen's sprawling Hadramawt province and its capital, Mukalla, as well as the capital of southern Abyan province, Zinjibar and the town of Jaar. In the areas they control, al-Qaida has publicly killed and flogged residents accused of "witchcraft," drinking alcohol and swearing, among other things, residents there told the AP.

Al-Haj reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Associated Press writers Nour Youssef in Cairo and Boris Heger in Macolin, Switzerland, contributed to this report.

Sudan prepares for returning refugees

Oct. 10, 2011

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Sudan is making necessary preparations that would allow displaced refugees to return to their homes in Darfur, a government official said.

Amin Hassan Omar Abdullah, Sudan's minster of state for culture, said during multilateral talks in Khartoum that his government had discussed arrangements for displaced refugees to return.

He told the official Sudan News Agency that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said a technical committee was set up to document a trilateral agreement between Chad, the UNHCR and Sudan for refugees.

The refugee issue from Darfur follows orders submitted by the breakaway Sudan Liberation Army's Historical Leadership that prohibit the use of child soldiers within its regional ranks.

Usman Musa, the group's leader, in August issued orders to his soldiers to end "all behavior" that leads to the abuse of children and banned "recruiting and using children in the ranks of the movement."

Other armed movements in Darfur are moving toward similar action, said the U.N. mission there.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1593 in 2005 referred Sudan to the International Criminal Court after evidence emerged of serious rights violations in Darfur.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Khartoum isn't party to the Rome Statute that created the international court.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2011/10/10/Sudan-prepares-for-returning-refugees/UPI-76261318263304/.

Russia and China: Green light to kill Syrians

Global Arab Network - In January 2007 Russia and China vetoed a resolution against the Burmese military junta in Myanmar. In July 2008 both Russia and China rejected sanctions against the Robert Mugabe's odious regime in Zimbabwe. I was not surprised that Russia and China have vetoed a European-backed UN Security Council Resolution that threatened sanctions against the Syrian regime if it did not immediately halt its military crackdown against civilians. The resolution would have been the first such legally binding move adopted by the Security Council since the Syrian Regime began using its military machine against protesters in mid-March in the town of Deraa.

The European sponsors of the resolution had tried to avoid a veto by watering down the language on sanctions three times, to the point where the word "sanctions" was deleted. India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon abstained. The four abstainers have some explaining to do.

According to the London Guardian "Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the council after the vote that his country did not support the Assad regime or the violence but opposed the resolution because it was based on a philosophy of confrontation, contained an ultimatum of sanctions and was against a peaceful settlement.

China's ambassador, Li Bandong, said his country was concerned about the violence and wanted reforms but opposed the resolution because sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, do not help the situation in Syria but rather complicates the situation".

Of course such justifications are feeble lies. Russia and China feel confident that Bashar al-Assad will survive, cling to power and continue to be a good friend with both powers.

What message does this double action give to the people of Syria? What does it tell the Arab Street about Russia and China?

My reading of the Arab Press, Social Media and the Television broadcasts, I can say that the Syrian people are seething with anger at the Russian and Chinese blocking of the UN Security Council Resolution. The Arab Street is equally furious. The veto has been an abuse of power and is a Public Relation Disaster for Moscow and Beijing. William Hague the British Foreign Secretary described the decision as "deeply mistaken and regrettable".

The people of the Middle East see it like this; both Russia and China are giving the green light to the butchers of Damascus to carry on killing pro-democracy demonstrators. Russia and China stand with the tyrant against the people. Let us not forget that neither of the two so-called super powers gives a fig about freedom, democracy or human rights.

By their actions Russia and China will have no place in a new democratic Middle East. Their action has debunked the myth that only the USA and Western Europe are propping up the dictators of the Middle East.

Russia and China have lost Libya because they supported Muammar Gaddafi until the last minute then switched their support to the National Transitional Council when they realized that their man was doomed.

Russia and China are playing a dangerous game by backing the tyrannical regime of Syria. It escaped the notice of these two world giants that Bashar al Assad's regime is waging a brutal war against his own people. Since mid March over 3200 protesters have been killed by the Syrian security forces. Thousands have been detained, beaten and tortured to death. Hundreds of injured were snatched from their hospital beds to be murdered by the much feared security thugs also known as Shabbiha.

The Arab Street has been disillusioned. Russian and Chinese flags have been burnt in various Syrian towns.

The Libyan and Syrian people have now discovered who their real friends are. In the final analysis Russia and China are the real losers because of their short-sighted policies of defending the killers of Damascus.

You will be forgiven if you think that China and Russia have learnt their lesson from the Libyan experience. No, they have not. They are repeating the same catastrophic errors with Syria. The Syrian regime is going to fall sooner or later. It has lost the support of its people and most of the Arab Street. Russia and China have decided to stand against the Arab Spring Tsunami and stop the clock. I wonder whether Moscow and Beijing have competent geo-political specialists to advise them and warn them against being on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the future.

In an article in the Huffington Post (Shame on China and Russia for supporting the Butchers of Syria September 15th) I urged Hu Jinato the Chinese President and his Foreign Minister Yang Jechi to reconsider and think of the long term damage to China in the region if they vetoed a resolution calling for the protection of the Syrian people I also appealed to Dmitry Anatolyenvich Medvedev, the Russian President, his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to think again and refrain from blocking a future UN Security Council Resolution calling for the protection of the Syrian people. All I got for my effort was a number of negative comments from Chinese and Russian readers.

The American President Barack Obama, the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy have acted absolutely correctly on this particular issue and put principles and morality above business and trade. I recognize that neither China nor Russia are champions of democracy and human rights, but common sense and simple PR rules, demand that they take into account the Arab world's public opinion and their own image in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims everywhere.

Russia and China have decided to shoot themselves in the foot instead.

Source: Global Arab Network.
Link: http://www.english.globalarabnetwork.com/2011100812152/Opinion/russia-and-china-green-light-to-kill-syrians.html.

Morocco on track: Developing high-speed rail network

Global Arab Network
Amina Murtada
Friday, 07 October 2011

Global Arab Network - As rail passenger numbers continue to multiply, the construction of Morocco’s planned high-speed rail network, set to enter service in 2015, is picking up speed. The project, which is being developed along with plans to upgrade and increase the capacity of the standard-gauge rail network, is attracting major institutional financing, Global Arab Network reports according to OBG.

The number of Moroccan rail passengers increased to 31m in 2010, up by 4.7% on 2009 figures. Passenger numbers have risen every year since 2004, increasing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 9%. The distance passengers are traveling has been growing even faster, rising by 5% to 4.4bn km in 2010, with a CAGR of approximately 10% since 2004.

Rail freight has had a tougher ride, with both tonnes transported and freight tonne kilometers (FTK) having fallen during the global downturn in 2008 and 2009. However, both rebounded strongly in 2010, with tonnes transported growing by 44% on 2009 figures to 36m tonnes in 2010, while FTK jumped by 36% in the same period.

The upward trajectory looks poised to continue through 2011, with rail passenger numbers in the first half of the year growing by 13% on the same period in 2010 to 17m. An additional 3.6m people used the train network in July for a total average of 120,000 customers per day, compared with an average of around 84,000 in 2010.

In line with this growth in demand, the Moroccan government is investing heavily in both rolling stock and track. The largest investment project by far is the country’s planned high-speed rail line, which will run between the economic capital Casablanca and the major north-eastern port city of Tangier. The project will cost an estimated Dh20bn (€1.78bn) and is set to begin service in December 2015. It is expected to reduce the travel time between the two cities from five hours, 45 minutes to two hours, 10 minutes, with a maximum speed of 320 km per hour along a 200-km stretch of the line. The authorities predict that 6m passengers will travel on the high-speed network annually.

In late July Mohamed Smouni, the director of development for the National Office for Railways of Morocco (Office National des Chemins de Fer du Maroc, ONCF), told press that the project was proceeding on schedule, assuring that the ONCF and its partners were in the process of wrapping up preparatory works and were moving towards commencing work on the civil engineering phase of the project.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy in early September indicated that he would travel to Tangier at the end of month to attend the beginning of construction works on the line, a reflection of the fact that French companies are heavily involved in the project. French national railway company SNCF will be in charge of designing, building and operating the rolling stock and maintaining the track.

The French firm Alstom in December last year signed a €400m deal with the ONCF to provide 14 high-speed double-decker trains that are to be assembled in Morocco, each able to carry at least 533 passengers. In June Alstom also signed an agreement with French cable manufacturer Nexans to create a joint venture firm that will produce cables and other equipment to be used in this project, as well as in the Casablanca urban tram network project, in which Alstom is also involved.

France, along with a number of other European countries, is also channeling loans and grants to the Moroccan project, worth some Dh2bn (€177m). Financing has come from further abroad as well, and in July the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development agreed to provide a loan of Dh712m (€63m) towards the high-speed network.

Other segments of the country’s rail system are also attracting financing. In March the African Development Bank finalized an agreement to lend Morocco €300m towards a planned Dh5.1bn (€453m) project to increase the capacity of the Marrakech-Tangier line as a whole. The line accounted for 16m passengers in 2010, just over half of all Moroccan rail traffic. The capacity expansion project is part of a wider Dh12.8bn (€1.14bn) railway investment program to be carried out between 2010 and 2015. (OBG)

Source: Global Arab Network.
Link: http://www.english.globalarabnetwork.com/2011100712142/Economics/morocco-on-track-developing-high-speed-rail-network.html.

Portugal's new president demands financial discipline

January 25, 2016

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A center-right candidate scored a resounding victory in Portugal's presidential election Sunday, warning he would use the largely ceremonial post to prevent the center-left anti-austerity government from worsening the debt-heavy country's financial health.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a veteran moderate politician and law professor, collected more than half the votes against nine rivals. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Rebelo de Sousa won 52 percent while his nearest rival came in with less than half of that.

Rebelo de Sousa will move into the head of state's riverside pink palace in Lisbon in March, replacing Anibal Cavaco Silva, who has served the maximum of two five-year terms. The president has no executive power, and is largely a figurehead, but can be an influential voice and in a crisis has the power to dissolve Parliament if he feels the country is going off track.

A Socialist minority government runs Portugal with the backing of the Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc. The government is trying to pull off a balancing act by ending austerity measures while pledging to continue the financial prudence adopted after Portugal's 78 billion-euro ($84 billion) bailout in 2011 amid a eurozone financial crisis.

The government's critics say that is a risky policy in Portugal whose economy is struggling to gain momentum and where the jobless rate is over 11 percent. Rebelo de Sousa said in his victory speech he expected the government to generate more economic growth "without compromising financial stability."

At the same time he promised to be impartial and encourage consensus between political parties, "healing the wounds" of the recent crisis. Prime Minister Antonio Costa vowed his "full cooperation" with the president.

Rebelo de Sousa, 67, has had a long career in the public eye, working as a newspaper editor, a popular media pundit, a junior member of governments since the 1970s, and a former member of the European Parliament.

Turnout was low Sunday at 52 percent after a dull two-week campaign.

Portugal picks center-right president for center-left govt

January 24, 2016

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — A center-right candidate recorded an emphatic victory in Portugal's presidential election on Sunday, collecting more than half of the votes against nine rivals as the Portuguese chose a counterweight to the country's center-left Socialist government.

With 98 percent of the votes counted, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a veteran politician and law professor, had 52.4 percent to capture the mostly ceremonial post. His nearest rival had less than half of that total, and his opponents conceded quickly.

Rebelo de Sousa will move into the head of state's riverside pink palace in Lisbon in March, replacing Anibal Cavaco Silva, who has served the maximum of two five-year terms. The president has no executive power, and is largely a figurehead, but can be an influential voice and in a crisis has the power to dissolve Parliament.

A Socialist minority government runs Portugal with the backing of the Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc. The government is trying to pull off a balancing act by ending austerity measures while sticking to the financial prudence adopted after Portugal's 78 billion-euro ($84 billion) bailout in 2011 amid a eurozone financial crisis.

The government's critics say that is a risky policy in debt-heavy Portugal whose economy is struggling to gain momentum. Rebelo de Sousa says he won't rock the boat. "The president has to be a factor of stability, not instability," he said during the campaign.

Rebelo de Sousa, 67, has had a long career in the public eye, working as a newspaper editor, a popular media pundit, a junior member of governments since the 1970s, and a former member of the European Parliament.

Turnout was low Sunday at 52 percent after a dull two-week campaign.

Center-right candidate favored as Portugal's next president

January 24, 2016

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portuguese voters are electing a new president Sunday, with a veteran center-right politician who became a popular television personality strongly favored to capture the mostly ceremonial post.

Opinion polls have suggested Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will collect more than 50 percent of the vote against nine rivals, some of whom are splitting the left-of-center vote. His strong poll lead in recent weeks and the head of state's mostly ceremonial role has meant the election has largely failed to capture the public's imagination.

Executive power is held by a Socialist minority government which, with the backing of the Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc, is scrapping austerity measures introduced after a recent financial crisis. The government's critics say that is a risky policy in debt-heavy Portugal whose economy is struggling to gain momentum.

Rebelo de Sousa is a moderate who says he wants to build bridges between political parties and won't rock the boat. His two closest rivals in the race are Antonio Sampaio da Novoa, a former university dean, and former Socialist health minister Maria de Belem. Both of them are close to the government, and polls suggested they each would get fewer than half the votes of the favorite.

The most recent poll was published Friday in newspaper Publico and suggested Rebelo de Sousa will collect 52 percent of the vote. The poll by Intercampus was conducted Jan. 14-20, with 1,043 people interviewed in person and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Previous polls showed similar results.

The winner will take over from Anibal Cavaco Silva, who has served the maximum of two five-year terms.

Poles fearing attack on democracy by government join protest

January 23, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles across the country marched Saturday in freezing temperatures to protest a slew of measures by the country's new right-wing government that they say are anti-democratic.

The motto of the marches, the most recent of several that have taken place since the nationalist, right-wing Law and Justice party took power in November, was "in defense of your freedom." Protesters are furious about government steps that they fear limit checks and balances on the party, which has a majority in parliament and also controls the presidency. Soon after taking power, Law and Justice took steps to curb the power of the Constitutional Tribunal, increased government control over state media and widened the scope for police surveillance.

In Warsaw, an estimated 10,000 people gathered before Prime Minister Beata Szydlo's office before marching Saturday to the palace of President Andrzej Duda. Protesters shouted "Democracy!" and many carried Polish and European Union flags.

"We want to keep our democracy and freedom," Mateusz Kijowski, leader of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, told the crowd in Warsaw. "In Poland, we now have one center of power. There is no possibility of control, of verification, and this threatens our freedom."

The European Union recently opened a preliminary assessment of whether Poland's new laws on the constitutional court and media violate the bloc's fundamental principle of the rule of law. That could ultimately lead to suspending Polish voting rights in the 28-nation bloc.

One Warsaw protester held up a sign "Happy New Year 1984," saying she fears life in Poland could begin to resemble the authoritarian state depicted in George Orwell's novel "1984." Adam Mazanik, 40, carried an EU flag as his protest against Szydlo, who has removed EU flags from Polish press briefings. He said he believes the EU flag represents the very best values in Europe, including equality and freedom.

"We are afraid that things could get that bad if we don't protest now," said Anna Straszewska, a 42-year-old art historian. "I remember communism. When democracy came I thought we would be part of the West forever. Now I am even afraid this could end up in us leaving the EU."

15,000 protest in Moldova to demand an early election

January 24, 2016

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — More than 15,000 people held an anti-government protest Sunday in the Moldovan capital to demand an early election in the impoverished Eastern European nation.

Protesters in Chisinau shouted "We want the country back!" and "Unity, citizens!" in Romanian and Russian and blocked a main road out of the capital as temperatures fell to -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit). The rally was organized by two pro-Russian parties and the civic group Dignity and Truth.

Protesters earlier marched toward the Constitutional Court and the leader of the Socialists' Party, Igor Dodon, urged them to block one of the main entrances to the city of one million. Dignity and Truth leader Andrei Nastase called on the government to announce by Jan. 28 that it would hold an early election or face acts of civil disobedience.

The demonstrators are angry about falling living standards that have left the average monthly salary is just 220 euros ($240). They say pro-European parties, which have been in power since 2009, have failed to carry out reforms and want Parliament dissolved and an early election held. They are also calling for a full inquiry into the disappearance of up to $1.5 billion from three banks in Moldova prior to the country's parliamentary election in 2014.

Sunday's protest came after demonstrators stormed Parliament last week as lawmakers approved a new pro-European government. Thousands held anti-government demonstrations for three straight days. New Prime Minister Pavel Filip will visit Bucharest on Jan. 26, his office said Sunday. Romania is Moldova's closest ally.

Anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker gains support amid migrant crisis

January 23, 2016

SPIJKENISSE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch debate on asylum-seekers has come to this: Firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders handing out self-defense sprays to women fearful of what he describes as "Islamic testosterone bombs" in the wake of the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

Wilders, surrounded by bodyguards and police, visited a market Saturday in the largely blue-collar town of Spijkenisse to hand out the sprays, which contained red paint. Amid stalls selling vegetables, fish, flowers and bicycle parts, Wilders got a rock-star welcome from dozens of supporters, while others protested his visit, waving placards including one that read, "Refugees are welcome, racism is not."

The publicity stunt fits into Wilders' uncompromising anti-immigrant, anti-Islam rhetoric that has propelled him to the top of Dutch opinion polls, just over a year away from the parliamentary election.

In between shaking hands and posing for selfies with supporters, the Freedom Party leader said that, if elected, he would, "close the borders immediately and have no more asylum-seekers. We just cannot afford to have more. The Dutch people in a big majority don't want it and we cannot afford it and it makes our people and women only more unsafe."

His message is gaining traction here amid a surge of refugees to Europe and following deadly attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris last year. It echoes Republican front-runner Donald Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and is similar to other populist, nationalist groups in Europe like Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.

"The tendencies across Europe are very similar," said University of Amsterdam political science professor Wouter van der Brug. "Across Europe, right-wing populist parties are picking up support as a result of the asylum crisis that we're facing now, and also as a result of terrorist attacks."

Leontine Maris was one of the first women to get a spray from Wilders. The 53-year-old said she votes for him though she disagrees with some of his more extreme comments. She said she was afraid not just of migrants, but also Dutch men.

"The whole society is going down the drain," she said. As Wilders' popularity soars on the back of such disenchantment, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's two-party coalition is in a slump, losing ground mainly to Wilders.

"Wilders is getting support across different layers of society," Van der Brug said. Whether Wilders is able to parlay his current popularity into parliamentary seats next year and a tilt at power in the splintered Dutch parliament remains to be seen. He propped up Rutte's first administration, a minority coalition of the Liberal Party and Christian Democrats, from 2010-2012, but walked out amid drawn-out negotiations over austerity measures. Two days later, the government collapsed.

That decision could yet come back to haunt Wilders. "The only logical coalition he could form would be with the same parties again. And I think it's quite unlikely they will do this again with him," Van der Brug said. "They don't really trust him."

Even if Wilders' party wins the next election, he would struggle to become prime minister without the support of other parties in this country where the electoral system all but guarantees coalition governments.

Rutte has ruled out cooperating with Wilders unless the Freedom Party leader takes back comments made in 2014 that he would see to it that there were fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. Those same comments also landed Wilders in trouble with Dutch prosecutors, who plan to put him on trial on charges of discrimination.

That kind of criticism is not new to Wilders, who has made his name with inflammatory anti-Islam rhetoric. He was acquitted in 2011 on hate speech charges for comments including likening Islam to fascism and calling for a ban on the Quran.

Wilders' party currently holds 12 seats in the 150-member lower house, but a poll by Ipsos on Thursday suggested the Freedom Party would win 32 seats now. Rutte's Liberals were second with 26 seats, down from its current tally of 40. The online survey of 1,061 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. Other polls have Wilders even further ahead.

While Wilders is riding high, Rutte and his coalition partner are hoping to survive the next year and reap the electoral rewards of tough economic reforms that are beginning to bear fruit. The government has slashed spending and driven through an austerity package that has revived the ailing Dutch economy and is beginning to cut into unemployment. The number of Dutch workers without jobs last month was 588,000 in a nation of around 17 million, down from 700,000 early in 2014.

Wilders' opponents are hoping that popular opinion shifts before the national vote. "It is hard to talk about a tipping point, because we have seen this phenomenon in the polls before," Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher, a Labor Party member, told reporters recently. "Geert Wilders has lost the last three elections. That is something we tend to forget."

Protests at Greek border after more migrants drown in Aegean

January 23, 2016

ALEXANDROUPOLIS, Greece (AP) — A day after 46 migrants drowned in a choppy Aegean Sea, protesters demonstrated Saturday at a Greek border town to demand that Greece ease transit restrictions at its heavily militarized border with Turkey.

Most of the 200-kilometer (124-mile) land border between Greece and Turkey is separated by the Evros River — known as the Meric River in Turkey. But a 12.5-kilometer (nearly 8-mile) stretch of land separating the two countries was previously lined with minefields and is now separated by a fence.

The area is guarded with police and military patrols on land and on the river, a network of cameras and a few officers from the European border protection agency, Frontex. Wearing life vests and foil blankets, the demonstrators chanted "This fence means refugees drown!" as they kicked off two days of protests in the area. They are planning a march Sunday toward the border fence.

"It's vital that the fence is removed. It's because of the fence that refugee families are forced to travel across the Aegean, and people are drowning on a daily basis," said protester Michalis Sopatzoglou, who travelled from the Greek island of Lesbos to join Saturday's rally.

At least 60 people have died in Greek waters this month while trying to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands in poor weather, using unseaworthy boats provided by Turkish smuggling gangs. High winds on Saturday disrupted plans by Greek Coast Guard divers to search for bodies off the island of Kalymnos, where most of the people in Friday's accidents died.

Marie Elisabeth Ingres, Greek mission chief for the charity Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said creating a "safe point of passage" at the Greek-Turkish border should be a priority. "Since the beginning of this crisis, MSF has been calling for legal and safe reception to be made available at the land border between Turkey and Greece," she told The Associated Press. "At present ... people are effectively blocked from crossing it and have no other option but to turn to illegal means to reach the continent, risking their lives and often the lives of their families at sea."

More than 850,000 asylum-seekers traveled to Greek islands in 2015 on their journey to central and northern Europe, in the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War II. Only 3,600 crossed the Greek-Turkish land border in the previous 12 months.

A transit camp for refugees near the Greek border town of Orestiada, visited by The Associated Press, currently has just 40 occupants. Those conditions contrast sharply with overcrowded refugee facilities on Lesbos and other Greek islands, where arrivals averaged 2,300 people a day last year and peaked at around 7,000.

Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas said has said it was "impossible under present conditions" to allow mass screening at the land border. "In the 12.5-kilometer area of the land border, the problem has been solved. The number of crossings is zero," said Police Col. Paschalis Siritoudis, head of the Orestiada police department.

Siritoudis heads a police campaign launched four years ago that dramatically slowed the number of migrants crossing the land border from Turkey to Greece. Groups of migrants are typically spotted using night-vision surveillance cameras and deterred from crossing the Evros River.

"Some people are of the opinion that the fence should go. We are carrying out the orders of the (police) and political leadership," Siritoudis said. "The fence is there. It is supported by cameras and patrols and we continue to operate this way until the orders change."

French president in India to strengthen strategic ties

January 24, 2016

NEW DELHI (AP) — French President Francois Hollande began a three-day visit to India on Sunday that could push a multibillion-dollar deal for combat airplanes and closer cooperation on counterterrorism and clean energy.

Hollande landed in the northern city of Chandigarh where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined him at official engagements and lauded France's decision to invest $1 billion every year in India in various sectors.

Chandigarh was designed in the 1950s by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and is one of three places France has pledged to help develop as so-called "smart cities" — with clean water supplies, efficient sewage disposal and public transportation.

Hollande and French business leaders met with Indian counterparts to boost bilateral trade, which in 2014 was $8.6 billion. New Delhi is also trying to encourage French companies to tap into India's economic boom.

Modi in his speech said India was looking forward to French expertise in defense production, developing railways and waterways and fighting global warming and terrorism. Hollande is accompanied by the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, economy and culture and dozens of top corporate leaders.

Later in New Delhi, he will hold talks with Indian leaders on Monday and be a guest of honor on Tuesday at India's Republic Day parade, celebrating 66 years since the country adopted its constitution.

High on the agenda is India's desire to purchase 36 Rafale combat planes for its air force, which Modi had announced during a visit to Paris in April, touching off several rounds of negotiations over pricing, offsets and servicing.

In an interview with the Press Trust of India news agency, Hollande hinted it might take some more time to sign the deal. "Agreeing on the technicalities of this arrangement obviously takes time, but we are on the right track," PTI quoted Hollande as saying.

France has also promised support for India's clean-energy quest, including a solar energy alliance launched last month during the global climate talks held in Paris. "Our bilateral relationship with France is very comprehensive. It covers number of sectors such as defense, civil nuclear cooperation, railways, smart cities, science and research, space and culture. In all these areas we expect some forward progress during the French president's visit," said Vikas Swarup, India's External Affairs Ministry spokesman, last week.

The two sides are also expected to touch on anti-terrorism efforts including speeding up extradition requests and cracking down on money laundering used to fund militant activities. Swarup noted that both countries had been hit by militants recently, with 130 people killed across Paris on Nov. 13 and a four-day siege against the north Indian air force base of Pathankot this month in which seven Indian soldiers were killed.

Anti-immigrant vigilante patrols cause concern in Finland

January 22, 2016

HELSINKI (AP) — In the snowy streets of Finland's cities, black-clad vigilantes are on patrol, to the alarm of the police and many residents. They say they're there to keep Finnish people safe from what they say is a new and clear threat — the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers.

The rise of the Soldiers of Odin, which claims 500 members, has sparked both concern and ridicule in the Nordic country. Opponents dressed as clowns recently to accompany the ominous-looking men on their patrols.

But the Soldiers of Odin, who derive their name from a Norse god, insist their patrols are needed to protect the peace in the sparsely populated nation of 5.5 million, which wasn't a major destination for migrants until 32,500 people applied for asylum last year. Most came from Iraq but also from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

"It's chaotic and getting out of hand," Mika Ranta, a 29-year-old truck driver who founded the group, told The Associated Press. "We should be more careful about who we let into the country." The Soldiers of Odin say they are unarmed, though Ranta acknowledged he carries pepper spray, which is legal in Finland. They wear black jackets bearing their logo on the back -- a mustachioed man wearing a Viking helmet and Finnish flag as a neckerchief.

Speaking by phone from the northern city of Kemi, Ranta said the posse isn't racist, but considers the newcomers a threat because "they are Muslims." "Islam has never adapted anywhere and only brings problems with it. They don't tolerate anyone else apart from believers in Islam," Ranta said.

He said police are overworked and need help to deal with the migration situation — a claim rejected by Finland's top police official. National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen said the tenfold increase in asylum requests in 2015 has greatly increased the workload for police officers, including the need to fingerprint applicants, keep order at reception centers and protect them from arson attacks, mostly by drunk Finnish men — not always successfully.

"But we categorically don't accept any street patrols that have been set up solely against immigrants or asylum-seekers. It's the duty of the police to keep law and order," he added. Formed in October when the flow of migrants peaked, the Soldiers of Odin raised their profile on social media following reports that Finnish women were harassed on New Year's Eve in incidents that resembled a string of attacks in Cologne, Germany, that were blamed largely on foreigners.

Police are investigating 15 reported cases of sexual assault, including rape, attempted rape and groping in downtown Helsinki during New Year's celebrations, with many of the suspected perpetrators having foreign backgrounds, including some asylum-seekers.

So far, the Soldiers' patrols have been uneventful — they haven't had any encounters either with asylum-seekers or with the police. But they have created debates on social media, radio and TV shows and worried officials. They have also sparked counter-movements.

Last week, a group calling itself the Sisters of Kyllikki, named after a mythological Finnish female figure, began street patrols of their own "to spread love and caring" in the southeastern town of Joensuu, where a week earlier the Soldiers of Odin held an anti-immigrant demonstration.

That group's fame has spread on Facebook, with patrols planned in at least four other towns. A troupe of clowns calling themselves the LOLdiers of Odin, in apparent reference to the text messaging abbreviation, LOL, for "laughing out loud," has gone even further.

Dressed in crazy clothes, including Viking helmets, tin hats, and long flowing gowns, they taunted and mocked the vigilantes on one of their patrols last week in the southern city of Tampere. The clowns sang children's songs, threw cartwheels and slid down piles of snow along the black-clad men's route.

Ranta said one of the clowns poured water on a patrol member when the temperature outside was as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 14 Fahrenheit). "They just tried to provoke us," he said. "If they poured water down my back I'd throw pepper spray in their face."

Unlike the clowns, some take the vigilantes seriously, including Prosecutor General Matti Nissinen, who described them as sending "a racist and threatening" message. "If we go back in history, we see that nothing good has ever come out of street patrols by this kind of uniformed group," Nissinen said.

The patrols have also caused consternation at government level. While Prime Minister Juha Sipila initially appeared to dither about taking a stand, Finance Minister Alexander Stubb quickly condemned the groups, saying the government would seek ways to ban them. Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who leads the anti-immigration Finns party, said he condemns racism but didn't take a clear stand on the patrols.

Ranta's group claims offshoots in Britain, Germany, the U.S. and Estonia as well as neighboring Sweden and Norway. It hasn't got a foothold in the Helsinki region, where people are used to foreigners and are generally welcoming toward them.

"We're not there yet, but it's just a question of time," Ranta says. "Those New Year attacks are a clear sign we are needed."

International community appeals for dialogue, calm in Haiti

January 24, 2016

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The international community appealed for dialogue and calm in Haiti on Saturday after a presidential and legislative runoff was put on hold indefinitely.

The United Nations, international election observers and foreign governments urged the volatile Caribbean country's feuding political actors to negotiate a solution to an electoral impasse that threatens to soon become a constitutional crisis.

Haiti's charter requires a new government to take power Feb. 7, but election authorities say there is now no chance the country will meet that deadline to pick the next president. It is unclear whether an interim government will be set up, or another solution may be reached.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Haitians to work toward "peaceful completion of the electoral process without delay." Government officials have not addressed the impasse publicly since Friday afternoon, when the Provisional Electoral Council postponed the runoff a second time without naming a new date for the vote.

The splintering council cited what it called a "deteriorating security environment" to explain its decision, but there has also been widespread opposition to the vote on the part of civil society. The opposition presidential candidate had promised to boycott the runoff.

A day after protesters set fires and smashed windows, a few thousand anti-government demonstrators again took to the streets of Port-au-Prince on Saturday. Young men threw rocks and lit tire barricades on fire downtown, sending black smoke billowing into the air. Many called for new elections and the immediate removal of President Michel Martelly.

"He cannot stay a second longer," said Frantzo Nepha, an unemployed 24-year-old. Ruling party candidate Jovenel Moise said he was mystified that electoral authorities would again postpone the runoff without immediately providing a new date. The vote was originally supposed to be held Dec. 27.

Moise, whose top finish in the first round prompted allegations of vote-rigging, told reporters he believes he is the people's choice and called for the runoff to be held soon and peacefully. "Our generation has a responsibility to show other countries in the world that we are a civilized nation," he said.

Many Haitians are exasperated by the political infighting and disruptive protests. "It seems like politicians want to drag the Haitian people backward," said Karine Fenelon, as she picked out oranges at a roadside fruit stall.

Some blame the election mess on the international community and especially Washington, which they believe is far too involved in Haitian affairs. "All of these so-called friends of Haiti are stopping us from moving forward," mechanic Patrick Augustin said. "Martelly's government is always taking dictation from the U.S."

Haiti delays presidential runoff again in electoral dispute

January 23, 2016

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A presidential runoff that had already been delayed once and faced deep public skepticism was put on hold indefinitely Friday, as Haiti's leaders sought to negotiate a resolution to what threatens to become a constitutional crisis.

The Provisional Electoral Council decided to postpone Sunday's vote because there is "too much violence throughout the country," council president Pierre-Louis Opont said at a news conference. In recent days, a number of election offices across the impoverished nation have been burned and the capital has been rocked by violent opposition protests calling for a halt to the runoff.

The council did not set a new date for the vote. It also did not say whether an interim government would take power after Feb. 7, when President Michel Martelly is required to leave office under the Constitution, or if he would remain until a replacement is elected.

Martelly had been expected to address the issue in a speech to the nation Friday evening, but he canceled his address as thousands of protesters erected flaming barricades, smashed car windows and hurled rocks at police in Port-au-Prince. Instead an extraordinary council of ministers was convened to discuss public order and security.

Government opponents have insisted that the first round of presidential balloting Oct. 25 was marred by massive fraud in favor of the president's hand-picked successor, businessman Jovenel Moise. The runoff was originally supposed to be held Dec. 27, then rescheduled for Sunday.

Jude Celestin, also a businessman and the other candidate in the runoff, said he would boycott the vote, though his name remained on the ballot. Neither candidate immediately returned phone messages seeking response to the electoral council's decision. In a statement, Celestin's "Group of Eight" opposition alliance welcomed the "fighting spirit of the Haitian people."

Protests have grown increasingly violent in recent days, prompting the council to conclude it was too risky to try to hold the vote. Haiti has only a shaky handle on security even with the assistance of troops and police from a U.N. peacekeeping force that has been in the country since a 2004 uprising ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Schools that serve as election centers and voting stations in various towns have been attacked and set on fire in recent days, and election materials in a border town were hijacked by gunmen, Opont said.

Recent opposition-stoked protests in Port-au-Prince have ramped up the tension with rock-throwing partisans and burning street barricades. Thousands of demonstrators cheered in celebration Friday after hearing the vote would be postponed. Groups of mostly young men then proceeded to Petionville, a hillside district that is home to some of Haiti's wealthiest citizens, where they smashed windows, set vehicles alight and threw rocks at riot police. Security guards fired into the air.

In the evening, the smoldering remnants of scores of flaming barricades could be seen in downtown Port-au-Prince. Motorists were forced to swerve around burnt tires, shattered glass and piles of rocks, but roadside eateries began to reopen.

There has been growing concern that a flawed runoff might push the perennially volatile country of 10 million people to the edge of tumult, rolling back a decade of relative political stability and putting the brakes on foreign investment.

Elections are always a struggle in Haiti. It saw its first genuinely democratic election in 1990, closely followed by a coup d'etat. While there have been no shortage of opposition boycotts since, this is the first time that a presidential candidate is boycotting a runoff after qualifying for it.

Celestin recently told The Associated Press that Haiti was "moving toward a selection, not an election." He said the U.S. and other foreign governments that monitor Haiti were complicit for supporting flawed elections.

Haiti's Senate and various religious, business and civil-society groups had called for a halt to Sunday's runoff due to public suspicion of fraud and concerns about instability. Martelly had said the runoff would go on as scheduled and accused the opposition of trying to derail the vote with bogus accusations so a transitional government they would dominate could be set up.

Vietnam PM makes last-minute comeback in leadership battle

January 25, 2016

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam's pro-business prime minister, who last week appeared to have lost a power struggle in the ruling Communist Party, has made a last-minute comeback and will know Monday if he can re-enter the contest for the top job in the country.

Using a loophole in party rules, supporters of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on Sunday proposed that his name be added to the list of candidates who can contest for membership to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment.

If Dung makes it, he will stand a good chance to be elected to the committee, and then would be in a position to challenge his rival, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, for his job. The party general secretary is the de facto No. 1 leader in the collective leadership that governs Vietnam.

"Dung is a skilled and determined infighter and most people agreed there was still a remote chance that he would try to mount some sort of comeback," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Trong has for years been trying unsuccessfully to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well before the party congress, which take place once every five years to choose new leaders.

This year, the rivalry between Dung and Trong has gone down to the wire into the party congress that began last Thursday and will end this Thursday. But regardless of who wins, the fundamental makeup of the government or its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.

Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms, and being bold enough to confront China in its territorial aggression in the South China Sea. But even if Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, manages to sideline Dung eventually, it doesn't mean the economic reforms would stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese maritime aggression in Vietnamese waters, according to observers.

"Ideologically, there isn't a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted," Hiebert told The Associated Press.

For now, the road to the top is paved with hurdles for Dung. He faces the first one later Monday on the floor of the Communist Party congress that is being attended by 1,510 delegates behind closed doors.

The delegates will pick 234 candidates for an election to the 180-member Central Committee. Of these, 199 people endorsed by the outgoing committee are guaranteed to be picked. The remaining 35 will be chosen from the 62 politicians proposed by some of the delegates, which includes Dung's name.

If he does get chosen, he will still need to win an endorsement from the floor to make it to the final 180 in an election on Tuesday. After that, they will elect at least 16 members to the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day to day governance of Vietnam. It is possible that the Politburo will be expanded to 18 members this year.

Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen the general secretary, the country's top leader. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority: the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the national assembly.

Dung, who has risen through the ranks of the party and has held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. This means he can't be the prime minster for a third term, leaving only the general-secretary's post as a viable option.

His economic reforms in the country have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years. Trong's camp accuses him of economic mismanagement, a prime example of which was the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin, failing to control massive public debt, allowing corruption and for failing to deal with non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.

Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in quasi-free market economy alongside a strictly controlled society that places several restrictions on its 93 million people.

Minh Van Tran in Hanoi and Grant Peck and Vijay Joshi in Bangkok, contributed to this report.

Advanced Civilizations Could Thrive in Chaotic Star Clusters

Moscow (Sputnik)
Jan 22, 2016

In the search for alien civilizations, scientists have largely ruled out regions of space known as globular clusters, deemed too chaotic to sustain life. According to a new study, these may, in fact, be the best places to look.

One of the most mind-boggling aspects of space is the vast emptiness of the void. Mercury may seem unbearably close to our Sun, but there remain nearly 36 million miles between our star and its nearest planet. Our nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is so far away that it will take five billion years for it to crash into the Milky Way - even though the enormous celestial object is rushing toward us at some 670,000 miles per hour.

This cosmic emptiness, however, is not uniform across the known universe. Huddled in the galactic outskirts are tightly-packed collections of stars known as globular clusters. Some, like Messier 80, contain hundreds of thousands of stars packed within a relatively small amount of space.

Globular clusters have largely been ruled out by scientists looking for signs of extraterrestrial life, as being inhospitable for the evolution of an intelligent civilization. But a new study led by Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics finds that these crowded patches of the cosmos may offer the best chance for the birth of life.

"Globular clusters may indeed contain very old, advanced civilizations," De Stefano said during an American Astronomical Society conference earlier this month.

Stars within clusters are considerably older than those like our sun. That age makes them unlikely to harbor the heavy elements necessary to build orbiting planets. Many scientists doubt that clusters could produce planetary bodies at all, thereby making it highly unlikely for life to evolve.

But Di Stefano and another colleague, Alak Ray of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, doubt this assumption.

"It's premature to say there are no planets in globular clusters," Ray said during the conference, pointing out that a number of rocky exoplanets similar to Earth have been found orbiting stars with comparatively few heavy elements.

Still, for most skeptics, it is the crowded, chaotic nature of clusters that make them unlikely to harbor life. Our Sun's nearest neighbor is four light-years away, giving it - and Earth - plenty of breathing room. In globular clusters, however, stars can be 20 times closer, making it more likely that a rival star could sweep through any given solar system and disrupt a planet's orbit.

But according to the study, that density could actually be beneficial to a thriving civilization.

Given the age of the stars within globular clusters, they are also considerably dimmer than our own sun, having already burned off much of their fuel. Any planet capable of harboring life would have to orbit a dwarf star much closer to be warm enough to sustain life.

That proximity could protect planets from being disrupted by the gravity of other passing stars.

The density of globular clusters also raises another interesting possibility.

"Interstellar travel would take less time too," Di Stefano said. "The Voyager probes are 10 billion miles from Earth, or one-tenth as far as it would take to reach the closest star if we lived in a globular cluster. That means sending an interstellar probe is something a civilization at our technological level could do in a globular cluster."

Closer solar systems mean greater opportunities for exploration and, ultimately, colonization.

Globular clusters may not only be our best shot at finding an extraterrestrial civilization. They could potentially host transplanetary empires.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Advanced_Civilizations_Could_Thrive_in_Chaotic_Star_Clusters_999.html.

Predicting planets: The highs and lows

Paris (AFP)
Jan 21, 2016

In the mid-19th century, astronomers hypothesized an extra planet in our solar system, orbiting between the Sun and Mercury.

Without ever seeing it, they calculated its orbit and named it Vulcan -- the only explanation, they thought, for small deviations in Mercury's own orbit.

But decades of searching yielded no proof, and finally in 1915, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity made sense of Mercury's strange behavior in a way which obviated the need for Vulcan.

The search was abandoned.

Vulcan is only one of many planets wrongly predicted to exist in our solar system over the decades.

Nibiru, Tyche, and various versions of a "Planet X" beyond Neptune's orbit, excited the public imagination before fizzling out.

But in one very well-known case, mathematical modelling turned out to be right.

The existence of Neptune -- the eighth and furthest known planet from the Sun -- was deduced from a pull observed on the orbit of Uranus.

Scientists launched a telescope search, and the planet was detected within days.

On Wednesday, a duo of astronomers in the US said they hope to have found a another planet beyond Neptune's orbit -- a giant with about ten times the mass of Earth.

Dubbed Planet Nine, it would perfectly explain the peculiar, clustered motion of a small group of comet-like bodies in the outer reaches of our solar system.

The idea of adding a planet to the solar system's arsenal caused great excitement, but experts cautioned on Thursday that the theory remains just that for now. And it may take years to prove.

"The work they've done is impressive. They've got a lot of information, they've been very careful. But really, this is just step number one," Edward Bloomer of the Royal Observatory Greenwich told AFP.

"Lots of other people around the world will be looking at this information... Even the team themselves will be re-running things, they'll be making little tweaks to see if this holds up."

- Needle in a haystack -

Astronomers use modelling all the time to predict the existence, nature, and behavior of things they cannot actually see.

Black holes, for example, are "observed" purely from their influence on surrounding stars.

"Nothing based on modelling is ever certain," said Francois Forget of the LMD research institute in Paris. "It's the nature of science."

Take Pluto.

It was discovered in 1930, by accident, by astronomers looking for a ninth planet to explain orbital anomalies of Neptune and Uranus.

At first Pluto fit the model perfectly. But it later turned out to be much too small to be a real planet, and Pluto was reclassified a dwarf planet in 2006.

Evidence for the latest hypothesized planet, was "more convincing" than some other recent proposals, said Morgan Hollis of the Royal Astronomical Society.

But then again, "this study is just showing that a planet is a possible solution... It could also be something else."

For Alessandro Morbidelli of the JL Lagrange planetary research institute Nice, southern France, it is now "open season" for planet hunters with telescopes.

But he warned it won't be easy. The planet, if it existed, was very, very far away, where little of the Sun's light could reach it.

"We have no idea where on its orbit the planet is," said Morbidelli. "It will be like finding a needle in a haystack."

While modelling remains an inexact science, Bloomer said "wild claims" of new planetary discoveries are dwindling as technology advances.

"The analysis becomes ever more sophisticated, and people are a lot more careful... Things are double-checked," said Bloomer.

For now, "I wouldn't put any money on it myself," he said of Planet Nine.

"Not because I think it's unlikely, but just because I know that at this stage, even though it's a very compelling idea and although they've done lots of good work, it's just step number one."

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Predicting_planets_The_highs_and_lows_999.html.