Sicily’s Mafia in plot to murder Justice Minister, court told

Hit would have been one of Cosa Nostra’s most audacious in decades

The Sicilian Mafia laid plans to assassinate Italy’s Justice Minister in 2010, a court has been told. Had it succeeded, the hit would have been one of the Cosa Nostra crime organisation’s most audacious in decades.

Twenty-two years after Cosa Nostra gangsters killed two leading anti-Mafia judges in bomb blasts that convulsed Italy and led to a fierce backlash against the crime syndicate, its bosses were once again planning to reach such heights of notoriety, according to a leading mob informant giving evidence in a separate case this week.

Their aim was to launch a bombing campaign against Silvio Berlusconi’s then Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano, who has since held the post of Deputy Prime Minister and is tipped for higher office.

Responding to prosecutor’s questions, a Mafia informant, Luigi Rizza, told the court in Catanzaro, Calabria, that Cosa Nostra bosses from various clans held a meeting in 2009 at which they hatched a plan to kill Mr Alfano and several Sicilian magistrates.

Mr Alfano, now the Interior Minister in Matteo Renzi’s coalition government, earned Cosa Nostra’s wrath by seeking to toughen conditions for prisoners held under the “41-bis” law, designed to keep senior underworld bosses in solitary confinement.

Rizza said Matteo Messina Denaro, the most senior Cosa Nostra figure to evade capture and Italy’s most-wanted criminal, was at the meeting, in which it was decided to reach out to jailed Mafia figures to consult on the plan. However, during this consultation process, bombs designed to intimidate Salvatore Di Landro, the chief prosecutor of the Reggio Calabria region, exploded outside his offices and his home. The territory belonged to ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian crime organisation.

Rizza said that the authorities’ fierce reaction to these bombings, which saw security forces pour into Calabria, deterred Cosa Nostra mobsters in Sicily from carrying out the plan to kill Mr Alfano and magistrates.

It was the hated 41-bis measures and the famous “maxi-trial” process that saw hundreds of its mobsters caged in a single swoop, that prompted Cosa Nostra’s murderous campaign in 1992 and 1993. Police, politicians, the public and the anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were all killed within months of each other.

The resulting backlash and a crackdown by police saw Cosa Nostra lose ground to rival crime syndicates in Calabria and Naples in the decades that followed. Mafia experts say the Sicilian Mafia regrouped by keeping a lower profile and by moving into finance and the “grey economy”.

In the past six months, however, signs of old-school Cosa Nostra behaviour have emerged, with death threats made against prosecutors in Sicily’s capital, Palermo, including Nino di Matteo. In December, sources said “the explosives are ready”, suggesting a bomb attack against Mr Di Matteo was imminent, and his security was stepped up.

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North, South Korea trade fire across sea border

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North and South Korea fired artillery shells into each other’s waters Monday, a flare-up of animosity between the rivals that forced residents of five front-line South Korean islands to evacuate to shelters, South Korean officials said.

The South Korean artillery fire came after shells from a North Korean live-fire drill fell south of the Koreas’ disputed western sea boundary, an official with South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. No shells from either side were fired at any land or military installations, said the official, who provided no other details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules.

The exchange of fire followed Pyongyang’s earlier, unusual announcement that it would conduct live-fire drills in seven areas north of the poorly marked Yellow Sea boundary between the countries. North Korea routinely test-fires artillery and missiles into the ocean, but it’s rare for the country to disclose such training plans in advance. The announcement was seen as an expression of Pyongyang’s frustration at making little progress in its recent push to win outside aid.

In addition to sending residents of five front-line South Korean islands to shelters, Lee Han-seok, an official with Ongjin county, which governs the islands, also said that ferry service linking the islands to the mainland was stopped.

Kang Myeong-sung, speaking from a shelter on Yeonpyeong island, which is in sight of North Korean territory, said he hadn’t seen any fighter jets but heard the boom of artillery fire. In 2010, North Korean artillery killed four South Koreans on Yeonpyeong. Pyongyang said it was responding to earlier South Korean drills in disputed waters.

The North in recent weeks has increased threatening rhetoric and conducted a series of rocket and ballistic missile launches that are considered acts of protest against annual ongoing springtime military exercises by Seoul and Washington. The North calls the South Korea-U.S. drills a rehearsal for invasion; the allies say they’re routine and defensive.

Pyongyang threatened Sunday to conduct a fourth nuclear test at some point, though Seoul says there are no signs of an imminent detonation. Wee Yong-sub, a deputy spokesman at the South Korean Defense Ministry, said the North Korean warning about the live-fire drills Monday was a “hostile” attempt to heighten tension on the Korean Peninsula.

A woman who runs a lodging facility on another front-line island, Baengnyeong, said from a shelter that she was still hearing the sounds of artillery fire about 90 minutes after the North began its live-fire drills.

The western sea boundary has been the scene of several bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas in recent years, including the 2010 artillery attack by the North.

Last spring, tension spiked after a near-daily barrage of North Korean threats, including warnings of nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington, following international criticism of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February of last year. The North has since gradually dialed down its threats and sought improved ties with South Korea in what foreign analysts say is an attempt to lure international investment and aid. There has been no major breakthrough in the North’s reported push to win outside aid, however, with Washington and Seoul calling on the North to first take disarmament steps to prove its sincerity about improving ties, analysts say.

The North Korean live-fire drills and the country’s hints at a nuclear test are meant to express anger and frustration over what the North sees as little improvement in progress in its ties with South Korea and the U.S., said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. Lim said the North might conduct a fourth nuclear test and launch other provocations to try to wrest the outside concessions it wants.

The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea.

China Seizes An Insane $14.5 Billion Worth Of Assets From Family Of Former Security Official

Former China's Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attends the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 14, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Former China’s Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attends the closing ceremony of the NPC in Beijing

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese authorities have seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) from family members and associates of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, who is at the center of China’s biggest corruption scandal in more than six decades, two sources said.

More than 300 of Zhou’s relatives, political allies, proteges and staff have also been taken into custody or questioned in the past four months, the sources, who have been briefed on the investigation, told Reuters.

The sheer size of the asset seizures and the scale of the investigations into the people around Zhou – both unreported until now – make the corruption probe unprecedented in modern China and would appear to show that President Xi Jinping is tackling graft at the highest levels.

But it may also be driven partly by political payback after Zhou angered leaders such as Xi by opposing the ouster of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power.

Zhou, 71, has been under virtual house arrest since authorities began formally investigating him late last year. He is the most senior Chinese politician to be ensnared in a corruption investigation since the Communist Party swept to power in 1949.

“It’s the ugliest in the history of the New China,” said one of the sources, who has ties to the leadership, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to the foreign media about elite politics.

The government has yet to make any official statement about Zhou or the case against him and it has not been possible to contact Zhou, his family, associates or staff for comment. It is not clear if any of them have lawyers.

The party’s anti-corruption watchdog and the prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. In the secretive world of China’s Communist Party, targets of its investigations usually disappear, often for months or even years, until an official announcement is made.

Xi ordered a task force formed in late November or early December to look into accusations against Zhou, sources have previously told Reuters. They have not said what the allegations were except that they were related to violating party discipline, official jargon for corruption.

A third source with ties to the leadership said Zhou had refused to cooperate with investigators, insisting he was the victim of a power struggle.

“Zhou Yongkang is tough and claims its political persecution,” the source said.

Zhou rose through the ranks of China’s oil and gas sector before joining the elite Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, where as domestic security chief his budget exceeded defense spending. He retired in 2012 and was last seen at an alumni event at the China University of Petroleum on October 1.

BONDS, VILLAS, CARS, LIQUOR, GOLD

The first two sources said prosecutors and the party’s anti-corruption watchdog had frozen bank accounts with deposits totaling 37 billion yuan and seized domestic and overseas bonds with a combined value of 51 billion yuan after raiding homes in Beijing, Shanghai and five provinces.

Investigators had also confiscated about 300 apartments and villas worth around 1.7 billion yuan, antiques and contemporary paintings with a market value of 1 billion yuan and more than 60 vehicles, the sources added. Other items seized included expensive liquor, gold, silver and cash in local and foreign currencies.

The seized assets belonged to those in custody, the sources said, without saying how many people in total had been detained compared to just questioned. Most of the assets were not in Zhou’s name, they added.

According to the sources, the seized assets had a combined value of at least 90 billion yuan, although it was unclear what share of that total was ill-gotten and would be turned over to the state.

The amount eventually made public could be smaller to avoid embarrassing the party and angering ordinary Chinese, the sources said.

Such asset seizures, while large, are not uncommon in China, where excess has often been revealed from graft probes in recent years. In January, the respected Chinese magazine Caixin said authorities had seized a solid gold statue of Mao Zedong among other things from the mansion of a senior military officer who has been under investigation since he was sacked in 2012.

LONG LIST

The first two sources added that more than 10 of Zhou’s relatives had been detained. They included Zhou’s one-time television reporter wife Jia Xiaoye, his eldest son from a previous marriage Zhou Bin, Zhou Bin’s in-laws and Zhou Yongkang’s brother.

About 10 officials who held a rank equivalent to at least vice minister were also under investigation, the sources said.

Among them were Jiang Jiemin, former chairman of both state energy giant PetroChina and its parent China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), former Vice Minister of Public Security Li Dongsheng and Ji Wenlin, ex-vice governor of the southernmost island province of Hainan.

Chinese state media has announced that all three were being investigated for serious violations of discipline. They were either proteges or aides to Zhou.

Reuters has been unable to contact the three men. It’s unclear if they have lawyers.

More than 20 of Zhou’s bodyguards, secretaries and drivers had also been detained, the sources said. Many other family members and associates had been questioned.

THE BIGGEST TIGER?

Since becoming head of the party in late 2012 and then president a year ago, Xi has vowed to go after both powerful “tigers” and lowly “flies” in an effort to crack down on the corruption he says threatens the party’s very existence.

But Xi is in a dilemma over whether to put Zhou on trial lest it further undermine public faith in the party, the three sources said, referring to the growing disillusionment in China over rampant graft and abuse of power.

Xi would also risk alienating other party elders who fear that they and their families could be next, political analysts say.

Putting someone as powerful as Zhou in the dock would be a political decision that only Xi could make after getting the consensus of senior party members, Xi’s predecessors and other retired top officials, they say.

In ordering the investigation, Xi broke with an unwritten rule that incumbent and retired members of the Standing Committee were immune from prosecution.

As a member of the Standing Committee, the apex of power in China, and a former domestic security chief, Zhou would have intimate knowledge of the skeletons in the party’s closet.

It is still unclear exactly why Zhou has been targeted, though an early sign that he might have overstepped was when he retired and the position of domestic security chief was dropped from the Standing Committee.

Sources have also said Zhou angered Xi and other leaders over Bo Xilai, whose career was ended in 2012 by a murder scandal in which his wife was eventually convicted of poisoning a British businessman who had been a family friend.

Before Bo’s downfall, Zhou had recommended that Bo succeed him as domestic security chief, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the matter have said.

(Editing by Dean Yates)

Ukraine crisis: Old constraints spike Kremlin’s firepower

From armour and kit to structure and logistics, the Kremlin has for six years been on a mission to transform Russia’s military from a clunking Soviet-era relic into a modern, flexible fighting force.

Given the surgical ease with which Russian troops secured Crimea, wrongfooting Kiev and blindsiding Nato, it would be tempting to judge the reforms as having worked.

Indeed, to many in Europe, Russia is proving itself a militarily resurgent power, adroitly, if aggressively, wielding its newfound heft. Russia’s defence budget is forecast to rise to just under 2.5tn roubles ($70bn) this year compared with 1.8tn roubles in 2012.

But this perception belies the real state of Russia’s armed forces, which contains 850,000 active service personnel and 2m reservists. Although much changed since the country’s last major campaign, against Georgia in 2008, Russia’s military remains ill-organised and largely underprepared.

Despite its success in Crimea, military experts believe Russia would be foolish to attempt any further deployment of its military in Ukraine.

At the core of Russia’s military overhaul – which began under Anatoly Serdyukov, former defence minister, and was continued by his successor Sergei Shoigu – is an attempt to break forces down into a more flexible series of brigades, rather than fewer, large divisions.

Progress has been “mixed”, according to James Hackett, senior fellow for defence and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

He said: “In some ways, the Russians are still trying to decide on the optimum organisations to deliver the capabilities they have and are planning.

“This is particularly the case for the army and air force, which have seen ‘test-and-adjust’ type movements where formations and organisations have been created and, if they have not worked, changed.”

One area Russia has tried to develop is the “pre-positioning” of materiel, echoing US doctrine, where armaments are pre-deployed at depots in areas where conflict is likely to break out.

Troops can then be rapidly deployed to those areas from anywhere in Russia.

However, in recent military exercises, that doctrine has been shown to be failing. In the 2010 “Vostok” exercises, the battalions that were deployed ended up with the wrong equipment, for example. A 2013 rerun of the exercise involved mechanised brigades reverting to type and transporting their own equipment.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the reforms have already taken apart the old logistical planning directorate, said Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

Given that the vast bulk of Russia’s land forces are still made up of armour and mechanised infantry brigades – the country has 2,550 tanks and 7,360 armoured infantry fighting vehicles, according to IISS estimates – the failure to become more flexible means much of these forces cannot be deployed rapidly into action.

Some experts also believe it is informative that Russia did not deploy armour or mechanised infantry in Crimea and instead resorted to a mixture of troops it had on the ground, rapid reaction paratroopers and its existing special forces spetsnaz brigades.

While Russia began redeploying armour from around Moscow several weeks ago, according to one military insider, it is unclear where these forces are now – or if they could be brought to bear easily in any extension of the conflict into eastern Ukraine.

Mr Sutyagin said: “Crimea is practically an island. It is connected to the mainland with a 7km strip of land. You can defend it and very easily establish order.

“It is impossible, by any rational calculation, for Russia to imagine successfully invading eastern Ukraine. It is just steppe – there are no natural limits or boundaries to defend. It would be like going in to Afghanistan.

“Russia has the potential to use serious military strength but it is suffering from serious early stage problems. It is not ready for a long, or serious, campaign.”

Russian industry is not fully prepared to provision the armed forces with what they need– Igor Sutyagin, Royal United Services Institute

An even more intractable problem for Russia’s forces on Ukraine’s border is manpower itself.

“The desire to move away from the full-conscription model [has been] hindered by Russia’s demographic situation,” Mr Hackett said, with “reduced numbers of satisfactory conscripts and a failure to recruit enough contract personnel”.

Of the troops stationed near Ukraine’s border, for example, 20-30 per cent are shortly due to be rotated out and replaced with fresh conscripts in the spring draft. The move will be a significant operational hindrance.

“The longer the crisis continues, the more damaging to morale it will be if conscripts are not retired. And if they are, the new, inexperienced troops will be a serious blow for combat readiness,” Mr Sutyagin said.

There have been other improvements. The soldier of 2008 wore fatigues weighing about 38lb. The Russian army of 2014, on paper at least, has kit starting at 4lb, scaling up to 21lb for different conditions.

In the final assessment, the biggest limit to Russia’s military capabilities may well end up being money.

“The state of the Russian economy just does not allow the continuation of these reforms,” Mr Sutyagin said. “It is very expensive, and Russian industry is not fully prepared to provision the armed forces with what they need.”

FBI Probes FEMA After Allegations of Flood Map Fixing

FBI Probes FEMA After Allegations of Flood Map FixingThe Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in hot water with the FBI after an investigative report by NBC News uncovered hundreds of instances where FEMA workers assigned a lower flood risk to high-risk properties, allowing the owners to save “as much as 97 percent” on their flood insurance premiums.

According to NBC, the agency has been conducting interviews with FEMA employees for the past 10 days to get to the bottom of the fixed flood maps.

FBI Probes FEMA After Allegations of Flood Map Fixing

The NBC investigation published in February shows that 533 properties in Alaska, Hawaii, and across coastal areas of the continental United States were removed from high-risk flood zones under questionable circumstances, including these luxury beachfront condominiums in hurricane-prone Alabama.

On a single day -– Oct. 25, 2012, as agency officials were closely monitoring Hurricane Sandy as it barreled toward the Atlantic Coast — FEMA remapped more than a mile of the oceanfront in Gulf Shores [Alabama], including condos on the spot where a Holiday Inn and a McDonald’s were destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The document that made that change, issued by a FEMA manager, redrew the lines to exclude 25 condo buildings from the highest-risk flood zone, and was one of just 533 cases found nationwide by NBC News.

NBC illustrated all 533 cases of questionable changes to flood risk on a map hosted by GIS software company Esri.

FEMA’s flood maps are crucial for property owners and insurance companies alike, as they assess the risk for flooding at a particular location in the United States based on information such as proximity to a body of water, elevation, and climatological risk for hazards like hurricanes or major river flooding. Flood insurance premiums are heavily dependent on a property’s FEMA-analyzed flood risk, with the highest-risk properties costing the most to insure per year.

FloodSmart.gov serves as “the official site of the National Flood Insurance Program,” providing homeowners with information regarding both flood risk and flood insurance.

[Images via AP and NBC]

US Intelligence Report Warns Of ‘More Probable’ Likelihood Of Russian Invasion Of Eastern Ukraine

russia

Details of a classified intelligence assessment viewed by CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr show a “more probable” likelihood that Russia could move into eastern Ukraine.

With Russian military forces currently staging training exercises in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova, the House Armed Services Committee notes that Moscow may “invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdinestria and also seek land grabs in the Baltics.”

“There is absolutely sufficient (Russian) force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove told Reuters on Saturday.

Among new details about Russia’s possible intentions in the report:

  • Russian troops on the border of eastern Ukraine — now more than 30,000 — number “significantly more” than what is needed for what Russia is calling a training exercise.
  • These troops include a large number of motorized units, which have the ability to deploy quickly. There also appears to be a higher level of activity among special forces, airborne, and air transport troops inside Russia.
  • Additional intelligence shows more Russian forces “reinforcing” the border region.

Despite receiving assurances from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russia would not invade, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that “they [the Russians] continue to build up their forces” — noting that troops had moved closer to the border in recent days, Radio Free Europe reports.

Writing in Politico on Tuesday, John Schindler, a former NSA counterintelligence officer, sees moves from Russia as the beginning of “Cold War 2.0.”

“Since the annexation of Crimea, Russian intelligence has reportedly been employing its playbook in eastern and southern Ukraine, using spies and operatives to stir up trouble among ethnic Russians and lay the groundwork for a future invasion by ‘self-defense militias’ backed by Russian troops,” he wrote. “It’s not yet clear that these techniques will get Putin what he wants, but there is always the option of overt invasion by the Russian military, which must be judged a serious possibility.”

What A Bank Run In China Looks Like: Hundreds Rush To Banks Following Solvency Rumors

Curious what the real, and not pre-spun for public consumption, sentiment on the ground is in a China (where the housing bubble has already popped and the severe contraction in credit is forcing the ultra wealthy to luxury real estate in places like Hong Kong) from the perspective of the common man? The photo below, which shows hundreds of people rushing today to withdraw money from branches of two small Chinese banks after rumors spread about solvency at one of them, are sufficiently informative about just how jittery ordinary Chinese have become in recent days, and reflect the growing anxiety among investors as regulators signal greater tolerance for credit defaults.

Domestic media reported, and a local official confirmed, that ordinary depositors swarmed a branch of Jiangsu Sheyang Rural Commercial Bank in Yancheng in economically troubled Jiangsu province on Monday. The semi-official China News Service quoted the bank’s chairman, Zang Zhengzhi, as saying it would ensure payments to all the depositors. The report did not say how the rumour originated.

Chen Dequn, a resident in Yandong, just outside Yancheng, said she saw a crowd of about 70 to 80 people gathering in a branch of Sheyang Rural Commercial Bank in her town on Tuesday.

“At the moment there are about 70 or 80 people in there. Normally there’d only be about 10,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Officials at another small bank, Rural Commercial Bank of Huanghai, said they had faced similar rushes by depositors, triggered by rumours of insolvency at Sheyang. “We will be holding an emergency meeting tonight,” an official at the bank’s administration office told Reuters, but declined to comment further.

Why Yancheng investors suddenly lost confidence in the security of their bank deposits is not clear, given that the Sheyang bank is subject to formal reserve requirements, loan-to-deposit ratios and other rules to ensure it keeps sufficient cash on hand to meet demand.

Why the jitteriness? Because until now, bank failures in China have been unknown, as Chinese banks are considered to operate under an implicit guarantee from the government. That is changing. Which is why the rumor mill is on overdrive:

“It’s true that these rumours exist, but actually (the bank going bankrupt) is impossible. It’s a completely different situation from the problem with the cooperatives,” said Zhang Chaoyang, an official at the propaganda department of the Communist Party committee in Tinghu district, where the bank branch is located.

And Bear Stearns is fine…

Zhang was referring to an incident that rattled depositors in Yancheng in January, when some rural cooperatives — which are not subject to the supervision of the bank regulator — ran out of cash and locked their doors. Local officials say several co-op bosses fled after committing fraud.

China’s central bank governor said this month that deposit rates are likely to liberalised in one to two years – the most explicit timeframe to date for what would be the final step in freeing up banks to set their own interest rates.

It is widely expected to introduce a deposit insurance scheme before freeing up deposit rates, to protect savers in case a liberalised market puts major strains on smaller banks and alarms the public. Analysts also expect the controls on deposit rates to be lifted gradually. Is China’s debt nightmare a province called Jiangsu?

Why are bank runs like these only set to accelerate? Simple – unlike the US China has zero deposit insurance. Reuters expplains:

The case highlights the urgency of plans to put in place a deposit insurance system to protect investors against bank insolvency, as Chinese grow increasingly nervous about the impact of slowing economic growth on financial institutions.

Regulators have said they will roll out deposit insurance as soon as possible, without giving a firm deadline.

In the meantime, there are always helpful investor relations people willing to explain calmly just what is going on:

When contacted by Reuters by phone on Tuesday, an official at the Jiangsu Sheyang Rural Commercial Bank branch hung up, saying she was busy.

Others were even more helpful:

An official at the administrative office at Jiangsu Sheyang Rural Commercial Bank said the bank would publish a statement shortly. On its website, the bank says it is capitalised at 525 million yuan and had total deposits of 12 billion yuan as of end-February,

Officials at the Jiangsu branch offices of the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) declined to comment. The Yancheng branch of CBRC and the propaganda offices in Yancheng city and Sheyang county did not answer calls seeking comment.

Busy or not, for now, the banks may have survived following yet more capital infusions from the local government, but what happens when the default wave that has claimed solar, coal, and real estate developers finally impacts a deposit-holding institution? How will China – which has far more total deposits within its banking system than in the US (since the US banks fund themselves mostly using ultra-short term, overnight shadow funding) – survive a nationwide bank run we wonder?