15 arrested in anti-terror sweep across Europe

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Updated 17 January 2015

15 arrested in anti-terror sweep across Europe

BRUSSELS: More than two dozen suspects have been arrested in Belgium, France and Germany in continuing searches for suspected terrorists, authorities said Friday.
Thirteen people were detained in Belgium and two arrested in France in an anti-terror sweep following a firefight in which two suspected terrorists were killed, and more suspects are being sought, Belgian authorities said.
French and German authorities arrested at least 14 other people Friday suspected of links to the Islamic State group, and a Paris train station was evacuated, with Europe on alert for new potential terrorist attacks.
On Thursday, Belgian police moved in on a suspected terrorist hideout in the eastern city of Verviers, killing two suspects and wounding and arresting a third.
Eric Van der Sypt, a Belgian federal magistrate, said Friday the terrorists were within hours of implementing a plan to kill police on the street or in their offices.
More than a dozen searches had led to the discovery of four military-style weapons including Kalashnikov assault rifles, Van der Sypt told a news conference.
“I cannot confirm that we arrested everyone in this group,” he addeid.
Visiting a scarred Paris on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry met French President Francois Hollande and visited the sites of the city’s worst terrorist bloodshed in decades. Twenty people, including the three gunmen, were killed last week in attacks on a kosher supermarket and the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and on police.
Hollande thanked Kerry for offering France support, saying, “You’ve been victims yourself of an exceptional terrorist attack on Sept. 11. You know what it means for a country. ... We must find together appropriate responses.”
Paris is at its highest terrorism alert level, and police evacuated the Gare de l’Est train station Friday after a bomb threat. The station, one of several main stations in Paris, serves cities in eastern Paris and countries to the east.
The Paris prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, said at least 12 people were arrested in anti-terrorism raids in the region, targeting people linked to one of the French gunmen, Amedy Coulibaly, who claimed ties to the Islamic State group. Police officials earlier told The Associated Press that they were seeking up to eight to 10 potential accomplices.
In Berlin, police arrested two men Friday morning on suspicion of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria.
Across Europe, anxiety has grown as the hunt continues for potential accomplices of the three Paris terrorists, and as authorities try to prevent attacks by the thousands of European extremists who have joined Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Hollande said France is “waging war” against terrorism and will not back down from international military operations against Islamic extremists despite recent deadly attacks.
“It is not a war against religion, it’s a war against hate,” Hollande said in a speech to leading diplomats.
The Belgian raid on a former bakery was another palpable sign that terror had seeped deep into Europe’s heartland as security forces struck against militants some of who may be returnees from holy war in Syria.
After the gun smoke lifted, police continued with searches in Verviers and the greater Brussels area, seeking more clues in a weeks-long investigation that started well before the terrorism rampage in France last week. The Belgian operations had no apparent link to the attacks in France.
And, unlike the Paris terrorists, the suspects in Belgium were reportedly aiming at hard targets: police installations.
“They were on the verge of committing important terror attacks,” federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt told a news conference in Brussels.
Belgian authorities had moved swiftly in the rustbelt town of Verviers Thursday to pre-empt what they called a major attack by as little as hours.
“As soon as I opened the window, you could smell the gunpowder,” said neighbor Alexandre Massaux following a minutes-long firefight with automatic weapons and Kalashnikovs that was also punctuated by explosions.
“As soon as they thought special forces were there, they opened fire,” federal magistrate Van der Sypt said.
“It shows we have to be extremely careful,” Van der Sypt said. The Verviers suspects “were extremely well-armed men” equipped with automatic weapons, he said. Some of the individuals “were in Syria and had come back,” he added.
Authorities have previously said 300 Belgian residents have gone to fight with extremist Islamic formations in Syria; it is unclear how many have returned. Thousands of European extremists have also fought in Syria.
Belgian authorities had said earlier that they were looking into possible links between a man they arrested in the southern city of Charleroi for illegal trade in weapons and Coulibaly, who killed four people in a Paris kosher market last week.
Several other countries are also involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the other gunmen in the French attacks, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi.
The Kouachi brothers claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Coulibaly to the Islamic State group.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press on Friday that Iraqi intelligence warned French intelligence about two months ago that a group linked to Khorasan in Syria was plotting an attack in Paris. The official spoke anonymously as he is not authorized to brief media. It was impossible to verify how serious or advanced the claims of a plot were. Iraq’s prime minister also warned in September of possible attacks in New York and Paris.
France’s Parliament voted this week to extend airstrikes against Islamic State extremists in Iraq.
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Casert reported from Brussels. Associates Press writers David Rising in Berlin, John-Thor Dahlburg, Greg Keller, Jamey Keaten, Angela Charlton, Sylvie Corbet, Lori Hinnant, Matthew Lee and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Paris and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.


Thai rice farmers shun ‘big agribusiness’ and fight climate change

Updated 12 December 2019

Thai rice farmers shun ‘big agribusiness’ and fight climate change

  • Traditional Thai rice farmers earn around 3,000 baht a month ($100)
  • Rice is a staple in the diet of around three billion people globally

MAE RIM, Thailand: Battling drought, debt and ailments blamed on pesticides, rice farmers in northern Thailand have turned to eco-friendly growing methods despite powerful agribusiness interests in a country that is one of the top exporters of the grain in the world.

Walking through a sea of green waist-high stalks, farmer Sunnan Somjak said his fields were “exhausted” by chemicals, his family regularly felt ill, and his profits were too low to make ends meet.

But that changed when he joined a pilot agricultural project for the SRI method, which aims to boost yields while shunning pesticides and using less water.

“Chemicals can destroy everything,” the 58-year-old said, adding that the harvest in his village in Chiang Mai province has jumped 40 percent since employing the new method.

There have been health benefits too. “It’s definitely better, we don’t get sick any more,” he added.

SRI was invented in the 1980s in Madagascar by a French Jesuit priest, and the technique has spread globally.

It works by planting crops wider apart — thus drawing in more nutrients and light — and limiting the amount of water that gets into fields, which helps micro-organisms flourish to act as natural fertilizers.

In a plus for debt-laden farmers, it also uses fewer seeds, and they are encouraged to use plants and ginger roots that naturally deter insects rather than chemical alternatives — meaning fewer expenses.

Traditional Thai rice farmers earn around 3,000 baht a month ($100) but Sunnan was able to increase his income by 20 percent after adopting the SRI method.
“I’ve finally got rid of my debts,” he told AFP.

Rice is a staple in the diet of around three billion people globally. But agricultural workers are locked in a vicious cycle: beset by drought and floods brought on by climate change, the farmers contribute to the disruption as their fields release methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases.

With SRI, paddy fields are not permanently flooded, which reduces methane emissions by 60 percent, according to Tristan Lecomte, founder of Pur Projet, a French company supporting the technique.

The project also helped Sunnan plant trees around his crops to reinforce the water table.

According to Lecomte, rice yields can jump from 20 percent to more than 100 compared to the traditional method.

Southeast Asia, where agriculture supports millions, is slowly embracing SRI.

The US-based Cornell University created a center specializing in the technique in 2010 and more than two million farmers in the region — especially from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — have been trained.

In Bac Giang province in northern Vietnam, net profits for farmers were as much as 226 percent higher after adopting the SRI method than when using traditional ones, according to Abha Mishra, who led a large project on behalf of the Asian Institute of Technology.

The Philippines, which grows rice but is also one of the world’s leading importers, is also interested in this method and the Ministry of Agriculture has started training farmers.

The method is also used in parts of India, China, and Africa. But, while there is support from NGOs, as well as some scientists and authorities, it still has a long way to go before widespread adoption.

It faces resistance domestically from agribusiness as there is no new hybrid seed or fertilizer to sell.

Industry lobbies are very active in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, one of the largest users of pesticides in the world.

And they recently won a big battle over chemical use in agriculture.

Thai authorities, who had committed to ban controversial glyphosate, backtracked at the end of November, deciding that “limited” use would eventually be allowed.

The use of two other herbicides has also been extended. Lecomte says the other challenge potentially impacting the rate of adoption is the SRI method is quite complex to learn and it is labor intensive.

“You have to plant one by one and closely control the amount water,” he explained, adding that the extra manual effort required means some farmers don’t want to try the method, and others give up early on.

Sunnan admits that his workload is heavier but the financial and health benefits make it worth it in the end. He added: “It is safe for our body, and the environment.”