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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What´s really happening in Israel

Guangdong Communist Party Issues New Restrictions Against Broadcasting in Cantonese

The new regulations take effect March 1, 2012, and seem to resume a plan that was issued--then abandoned--slightly more than a year ago. That proposal, focused on prime-time TV programming, sparked mass protests by Cantonese speakers which led to the plan's quiet retraction.

Yet the current regulation will go much farther, requiring specific permits for all media to broadcast in Cantonese. Some local media are expressing doubt that existing programs will be affected, while speculating that Party authorities' real goal is to supply an additional means of keeping track of and potentially shutting down new media organizations.

Some locals are already speaking out, as did one freelance writer in Guangdong who spoke with NTD.

[Tian Li, Freelance Writer]:
"We can speak Mandarin outside, but will certainly speak Cantonese locally.
Their requirements are against people 's will, and simply unpopular. They will collapse faster this way."


US commander visits Israel to finalize missile drill

Israel is moving forward with plans to hold the largest-ever missile defense exercise in its history this spring amid Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.

Last week, Lt.-Gen. Frank Gorenc, commander of the US’s Third Air Force based in Germany, visited Israel to finalize plans for the upcoming drill, expected to see the deployment of several thousand American soldiers in Israel.

The drill, which is unprecedented in its size, will include the establishment of US command posts in Israel and IDF command posts at EUCOM headquarters in Germany – with the ultimate goal of establishing joint task forces in the event of a large-scale conflict in the Middle East.

The US will also bring its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and shipbased Aegis ballistic missile defense systems to Israel to simulate the interception of missile salvos against Israel.

The American systems will work in conjunction with Israel’s missile defense systems – the Arrow, Patriot and Iron Dome.

Gorenc came to Israel for talks with Brig.-Gen. Doron Gavish, commander of the Air Force’s Air Defense Division.

He toured one of the Iron Dome batteries in the South and the Israel Test Bed lab in Holon where the IAF holds its interception simulation exercises.

The IAF is planning to deploy a fourth battery of the Iron Dome counter-rocket system in the coming months and is mulling the possibility of stationing it in Haifa to protect oil refineries located there.

The Defense Ministry has allocated a budget to manufacture an additional three Iron Dome batteries by the end of 2012. IAF operational requirements call for the deployment of about a dozen batteries along Israel’s northern and southern borders.

The IAF is also moving forward with plans to deploy Rafael’s David’s Sling missile defense system, which is designed to defend against medium-range rockets and cruise missiles. Rafael recently completed a series of successful navigation and flight tests of the David’s Sling’s interceptor and plans to hold the first interception test by mid-2012.

Jerusalem Post

Dieting 'could keep brain young'

Restricting the number of calories you eat activates genes linked to longevity and keeps the brain functioning properly for longer, according to research on mice.

Low calorie diets have previously been shown by several animal studies to extend life, reduce the risk of dementia and disease and boost the memory but experts were unsure exactly how this happened.

Now a team of Italian scientists claims that eating fewer calories triggers a protein called CREB1, which turns on genes which are linked to a longer and healthier life.

The researchers, from the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Rome, said their discovery could lead to new drugs which could keep the brain in a healthy, youthful state without the need for a restrictive diet.

Mice which are only permitted 70 per cent of the calories they would normally eat typically live a third longer than normal and demonstrate better memory and mental function.

They are also less likely to suffer from obesity or diabetes, slower to develop dementia and show less aggression.

In contrast having too rich a diet is thought to bring forward the brain ageing process and raise the risk of age-related diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

According to the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, eating fewer calories stimulates activates the CREB1 protein which in turn switches on sirtuins, molecules which are associated with longevity.

The finding backs up previous studies on CREB1, which is known to play a key role in a variety of processes in the brain including memory and learning.

Because CREB1 is weakened as we grow older, triggering it by eating less could help slow down the mental ageing process, scientists believe.

Researchers demonstrated that by limiting the amount of calories mice were able to eat, they could significantly boost the activity of CREB1 in the brain and reduce signs of ageing in the brain.

Genetically engineered mice in whom the molecule had been permanently deactivated did not get the same benefit from dieting, however.

Dr Giovambattista Pani, who led the research, said: "This discovery has important implications to develop future therapies to keep our brain young and prevent brain degeneration and the ageing process.

"Our hope is to find a way to activate CREB1, for example through new drugs, so to keep the brain young without the need of a strict diet."

The Telegraph

Russia to build 100-ton ICBM to penetrate US missile defenses

Russia will develop a new liquid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile to overcome the U.S.’s prospective missile defense system, Strategic Missile Forces chief Lt. Gen. Sergei Karakayev said on Friday.

A decision has been made to create a new silo-launched heavy missile that will have “enhanced capability to breach a hypothetical US missile defense system,” he said.

The new missile will replace the Voyevoda R-36M2 Satan ICBM.

Russia’s solid-propellant ICBMs may be unable to penetrate missile defenses, the general said.

He also said the Strategic Missile Forces will test launch 11 ICBMs next year.

The United States is building a missile defense system in Europe to protect against possible attack from ‘rogue states’ such as Iran.

Karakayev said Iran has neither technology nor industrial potential to build ballistic missiles.

There have been media reports about test launches of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles but the SMF doubts these missiles will have the effective range to reach Europe, he said.


Top US general: Iran's dangerous game could draw Mid East and US into conflict

Just 24 hours after US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS that Iran could build a nuclear bomb in a year or less, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff issued a warning: "Iran is playing a dangerous game that could ensnare the Middle East, the Middle East and others into conflict and a renewed arms race." During a stop in Afghanistan, the general spoke to CNN of concerns about Iran's ambitions from Iraq to Afghanistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
He was described as quietly leading the ongoing military planning for an attack against Iran's nuclear weapons if the president gives the order to do so. "We are examining a range of options," said the US general. "Don't push it," he warned Iran.

DEBKAfile's military and Washington sources say it should be noted that in the space of 24 hours, America's two top security figures have referred to war with Iran as a realistic and imminent possibility. This is a big step from the customary US references to a military option as being on the table as a last resort for halting Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb still calculated to be some years in the distant future.

Gen. Dempsey went on to say: "My biggest worry is they (the Iranians) will miscalculate our resolve. Any miscalculation could mean that we are drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world."

There is no guarantee that Israel will give the United States warning if it decides to attack Iran, he said, "But America is sharing intelligence with Israel. We are trying to establish some confidence on the part of the Israelis that we recognize their concerns and are collaborating with them on addressing them," the US general said.
Gen. Dempsey clarified another controversial point when he said the loss of the drone is not the end of US efforts to figure out what Iran is doing. America is gathering intelligence against Iran in a variety of means. "It would be rather imprudent of us not to try to understand what a nation who has declared itself to be an adversary of the United States is doing."


Fearing cyber attacks, Iran moves websites

TEHRAN - Iran has moved most of its government websites from foreign-based hosting companies to new computer facilities inside the country, to protect them against cyber attacks, a senior official said on Tuesday.

The new security arrangements were announced a year after a Iran said a powerfulcomputer virus known as Stuxnet attacked computers at its Bushehr nuclear reactor.

"The location of the hosts of more than 90 percent of Iran's governmental internet sites has been transferred inside the country," Ali Hakim Javadi, Iran's deputy minister for communications and information technology, told the official IRNA news agency.

"This was a vital move for protecting governmental information," he added.

Javadi said more than 30,000 Iranian websites belonging to ministries and other government bodies had until recently been hosted by companies in North America and other countries.

"The data could have been exposed to constant danger at any moment," he said.

A computer expert who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said the measure would have only limited impact.

"It can't be a very effective measure since the sites can be hacked from any corner of the world. However, it can restrict physical accessibility to the computers that store the data."

Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor was hit by "cyber-weapon" Stuxnet in what Tehran said was an attack by Israel and the United States.

Western leaders suspect Iran's nuclear program is a disguised effort to develop nuclear bombs, while Tehran maintains it is designed to produce electricity.

The existence of Stuxnet became public knowledge around the time that Iran began loading fuel into Bushehr, its first nuclear reactor, last August.

Iran downplayed the impact of the virus and said in September that staff computers at Bushehr had been hit but that the plant itself was unharmed.

Bushehr have missed several start-up deadlines. This has prompted speculation that Stuxnet damaged the plant, something Iran denies.

Iranian officials have said the virus could have posed a major risk had it not been discovered and dealt with before any major damage was done.

Jerusalem Post

German scientists grow artificial skin using cells from babies'

German scientists have created a machine that manufactures human skin using cells from a baby boy’s foreskin.

The scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute hope the skin they’ve been able to produce will provide a humane alternative to using animals in testing of cosmetics and other products, a German news service, the Deutsche Presse Agentur, reported.

The machine has been dubbed the “Skin Factory.” It is about 22 feet long, 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It fosters the growth of skin samples from cells extracted from foreskins of boys 4 years-old or younger who are circumcised.

Before a child’s foreskin was contributed to the project, their parents provided the scientists with permission, according to Germany’s Suedkurier newspaper.

Foreskins were not used by the scientists merely because they were a source of excess human skin cells.

“The older one gets, the worse the cells function,” engineer Andreas Traube told the DPA.

“It's also important that the cells come from as uniform a source as possible, in order to avoid abnormalities in the production of new skin.”

The scientists are also looking into using stem cells as a source for skin production.

After the cells from the foreskins have multiplied inside the machine, they’re injected into a gel that forces them to grow into a sheet that simulates the epidermis — the outermost layer of human skin. To create a model that simulates human skin, three of these layers are fused together, according to the Suedkurier.

The process of growing new skin takes about six weeks. At present, the Fraunhofer Institute is producing about 5,000 new samples per month, the DPA reported.

For their next project, the scientists are working on reproducing the human cornea.

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/german-scientists-grow-artificial-skin-cells-baby-foreskins-article-1.994464#ixzz1hB0SiAoP

Goldman Sachs Warns Of Risks Of $1.3T In U.S. Assets Held By Euro Banks

European banks hold about $1.8 trillion in U.S. dollar-denominated assets, which, as deleveraging continues in the Old Continent, will tighten lending conditions in the U.S. and become a drag on economic growth, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, Jan Hatzius, wrote in a note.

The sovereign debt crisis that has flailed Europe has taken a particular beating on the Eurozone’s financial sector. Banks like Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Dexia, and even Deutsche Bank have seen their stock prices drop as tightening funding conditions and exposure to peripheral debt fed shareholder anxiety.

Banks have been forced into a deleveraging cycle as regulators revamp scrutiny in order to root-out insolvency. In order to reach core tier 1 capital ratios of 9% by June 2012, Euro-area banks could shed up to €3 trillion ($3.9 trillion) in assets, according toBarclays; these banks would also reduce lending and take on less risk.

Here’s where the direct effect on the U.S. economy becomes visible. Noting that non-US banks hold almost $10 trillion in dollar-denominated assets ($1.8 trillion held by Eurozone banks) Goldman’s Hatzius cites Hyun Song Shin of Princeton who wrote “it is as if an offshore banking sector of comparable size to the US commercial banking sector is intermediating US dollar claims and obligations.” As this offshore banking sector shrinks in the face of the Eurozone crisis, credit conditions in the U.S. will tighten and economic growth will slow down, explained Hatzius.

Breaking down the numbers, the $1.8 trillion held by Eurozone banks constitutes 3.3% of total U.S. debt outstanding (which hit $53.3 trillion in the first quarter of 2011). If these banks were to shrink their claims on U.S. counterparties at a similar rate as in the peak 2008-9 period, they would shed assets at a pace of about 25%.

This means U.S. credit growth would fall by about 0.8 percentage points. Hatzius estimates that in isolation this would shave off 0.33% of real GDP growth in the short-run and about 0.47% in the long-run, as lending standards tighten in the U.S. But the impact could be even greater, Hatzius explained:

Overall, our discussion suggests that a reduction in the lending of foreign banks to US counterparties could have a meaningful impact on US growth. While the numbers are not huge, it is important to note that the overall effect could be significantly larger if there are spillovers from the behavior of foreign banks to the behavior of domestic US banks.

If asset sales by Euro area banks depress prices and thereby hurt the balance sheets of domestic US banks, additional changes in credit supply would probably follow. Moreover, at least the analysis based on the loan officers’ survey only offers a snapshot of the hit implied by the tightening seen to date [with foreign banks goin from a 22.7% easing in lending standards in Q2 to an 18.2% tightening in Q4]; additional tightening of lending standards in the future would imply a larger impact.


Doubts increase over usefulness of new fiscal treaty

BRUSSELS - Just a few days into the making of a new intergovernmental treaty on fiscal discipline, serious questions are being raised about whether the slight draft offered to date is either useful or necessary.

Following the first day of negotiation on the proposed 14-article treaty, first circulated at the end of last week, the three MEPs at the table noted that virtually all the provisions could be done using the current EU treaties.

"It is for political, symbolic reasons that they want to do this agreement," said Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian liberal MEP, while his Socialist counterpart Italian MEP Roberto Gualtieri noted that "most, if not everything, could have been done through secondary legislation."

Both MEPs, briefing colleagues on Tuesday evening (20 December,) noted that the legal services could give no answer when specifically asked what in the draft pact could not be achieved under current EU law.

The idea for an intergovernmental agreement came about after a spat at a European summit earlier this month which saw 26 member states opt for an economic governance pact, outside EU law, after Britain refused to allow a full change of the EU treaties.

Since then there have been political and legal misgivings about the nature of such an agreement, especially the extent to which EU institutions can be involved and how its contents should be enforced.

Meanwhile, the draft treaty is remarkably similar to, or at times is in conflict with, six pieces of legislation, in force since 13 December, that dramatically increase budgetary surveillance at the EU level.

"If you read the draft treaty, then many of the demands contained there are actually asking for less than what the six-pack contains," said German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok.

Gualtieri spoke about "overlapping rules and competences" pointing out that specific percentage targets also differ between the draft new treaty and the fresh legislation involving economic convergence.

How the new treaty will be enforced is also a matter of concern.

There are legal doubts about whether an article in the EU treaty which suggests that if member states are in dispute over points of EU law the European Court of Justice can adjudicate, can be used as a model for the intergovernmental pact.

But the political barrier is possibly higher. Verhofstadt pointed out that there has never been an incidence of member states fighting over application of EU law to the stage that it goes before court.

Meanwhile, a suggestion in the draft pact that member states should police each others efforts to enforce the rules - for example Belgium bringing Germany to court for breaking the deficit rules - was similarly criticised.

The current such article in the normal EU treaty has been used just six times in the last 60 years. By contrast the European Commission has brought legal cases for breach of EU law over 2000 times in the same period.

As a general goal, the European Parliament is keen to see that it has democratic oversight and that such intergovernmental pacts do not becoming the norm for rule-making in this area.
A higher threshold for ratification

While throwing up lots of questions about the relevance of the treaty, Tuesday's meeting at the same time showcased the determination of Berlin to get its contents agreed.

According to one source, Berlin is insisting on linking approval of the permanent bailout fund (ESM), supposed to be ratified next year, with all euro countries agreeing to put a debt brake into national constitutions.

Berlin would also be in favour of raising the minimum number of countries needed for the treaty to go into force (currently nine of the 17 euro currency states) to make sure all of the southern, and troubled, single currency countries are on board.

The first meeting saw negotiators get no further than Article one. "This is going to be a slightly longer exercise than expected by those who suggested it," said Gualtieri.

Under the proposed plan, the final draft is expected to be ready by 20 January with signature by member states to follow in March. The next meeting of the 'working group' of national diplomats, MEPs and other EU officials is scheduled for the first week of January.


European banks borrow record €489bn from ECB

The ECB said it gave the loans to 523 banks, demonstrating that many of Europe's lenders expect to find it tough to borrow from other banks and money markets in 2012.

The demand for €489bn of three-year loans was well above the €310bn expected by traders polled by Reuters in the run-up to the operation.

The euro rose to a one-week high versus the dollar and European shares rose as the strong take-up boosted investors' appetite for risk.

The three-year loans, the longest maturity ever offered by the ECB, are the eurozone central bank's latest attempt to ease the region's debt crisis.

The ECB hopes the limit-free, ultra-cheap and ultra-long funding will bolster confidence in banks, ease the threat of a credit crunch and encourage banks to buy Italian and Spanish government debt, thereby pushing down the countries' borrowing costs.

“While this doesn’t fix the long-term structural issues in the EU, it may ensure a rally for risky assets into the new year,” said Jeremy Cook, chief economist at foreign exchange firm World First.

"It looks like Christmas has come early for the European banking sector - however, in the place of Santa Claus, with his big white beard and jolly smile, the benefactor looked a lot like Mario Draghi."

Rather than a simple flat rate, the three-year loans were offered at an interest rate which will be the average of ECB's main interest rate over the next three years.

That benchmark rate is, after a rate cut earlier this month, currently at a record low of 1pc.

For some banks, the money could be more than 3 percentage points cheaper than they can get on the open market.

As part of the deal, they can switch money borrowed from the ECB in October into three-year funding and will also be able to pay it back after just a year if they wish.

Today, banks switched €45.7bn out of one-year loans taken from the ECB.

The impact on overall liquidity levels was also softened after banks scaled down their three-month borrowing from the ECB to €30bn from €140bn and almost halved their intake of one-week loans this week.

Europe's banks are now more reliant than ever on central bank funds.

French banks have almost quadrupled their intake of ECB money since June to €150bn, while banks in Italy and Spain are each taking more than €100bn.

Earlier this week, the ECB said in its semi-annual Financial Stability Review that this dependency could be difficult to cure.

However ECB President Mario Draghi has been pressing banks to take the money since announcing the plans earlier this month.

He warned of a chance of a credit crunch on Monday and said that eurozone bond market pressure could rise to unprecedented levels early next year.

The Telegraph

Britain's credit rating could be cut, Moody's warns

Moody’s, one of the world’s largest rating firms, said in its annual credit report that, although the AAA rating was currently secure, it was based on the economy not deteriorating further or the Government being forced to bail out the banks again.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, has repeatedly stressed the importance of retaining the rating, which determines the rate at which Britain can borrow money on the international financial markets.

France is currently facing a downgrading and last week senior French politicians demanded that Britain’s rating should also be reviewed.

In a statement, Moody’s Investors Service said: “The currently stable outlook on the UK government’s AAA rating depends in part on the assumption that the government will stay on track with its fiscal consolidation programme.

“However, any additional weakening in the macro-economic outlook or a need to support the banking system could temporarily set back the government’s fiscal consolidation efforts. As a result, the outlook on the rating is likely to be sensitive to future developments in the euro area’s debt crisis, even though the UK is not a member of the monetary union.”

Moody’s recently said it would “revisit” its analysis of ratings across the eurozone as a result of the recent turmoil.

Last night, it said: “Although non-euro area sovereigns within the EU — like the UK — can be expected to be somewhat cushioned from both the euro area sovereign debt crisis and its rating consequences, Moody’s says that no EU sovereign rating can be considered immune to this crisis.”

Although Moody’s said that Britain faced “formidable and rising challenges”, it praised the Government’s approach to cutting debts and the competitive nature of this country’s economy.

The warning came after the head of France’s financial regulator admitted yesterday that it would be “a miracle” if France kept its triple-A credit rating.

“Keeping it would need a miracle, but I want to believe it can happen,” Jean-Pierre Jouyet said.

It also emerged last night that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has left for a fortnight-long holiday, leaving little prospect for the euro crisis to be resolved this year.

The German leader does not have any further public engagements for more than two weeks and her staff said yesterday that she was now on a winter break.

Last year, Mrs Merkel went cross-country skiing in the Swiss Alps but her aides refused to disclose details of her plans for this year.

Earlier this week, European leaders announced they would provide an additional €150 billion (£125 billion) to the International Monetary Fund – less than the €200 billion they had hoped to raise.

Britain has refused to provide additional funding for a eurozone bail-out. But negotiations over the possibility of extra IMF funds are now expected to continue among world leaders and finance ministers at meetings in Mexico in the new year.

A spokesman for the French government said yesterday they were confident that Britain would take part in IMF action co-ordinated by the G20 group of the world’s wealthiest nations.

In a speech in Nigeria yesterday, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF said the eurozone needed “special attention”.

A Treasury spokesman said: “We welcome Moody’s assessment that the UK’s AAA rating is on stable outlook.”

He added: “The crisis is having a chilling effect across Europe and it is important that the euro area continues to take decisive action to fix their problems.”

The Telegraph

Greek debt talks hit snag

ATHENS/LONDON – Talks over restructuring part of Greece’s massive public debt ran into trouble on Tuesday as one fund walked away from negotiations, fuelling growing doubts about whether a deal that is crucial to a new bailout agreement can be reached this year.

Vega Asset Management, a Madrid-based fund, resigned from the steering committee representing private creditors negotiating a voluntary restructuring of Greek government bonds, two sources familiar with the situation said.

They said the disagreement stemmed from differences over how to proceed with a voluntary bond swap, although there were no more precise details. Vega, the only fund represented on the steering committee, declined to comment.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos put a brave face on the tense discussions, saying he was confident that negotiators were close to an agreement, but there was much less optimism from bankers who have been following the talks.

“I can’t see any deal this year,” said one senior banker with knowledge of the discussions.

Banks and funds have been negotiating with the government for weeks over the terms of an agreement under which they would accept a nominal 50% discount on their holdings of Greek bonds in return for a mix of cash and new bonds.

The arrangement is intended to cut Greece’s debt by 100-billion euros, allowing it to bring its debt from 160% of gross domestic product to a still huge but more manageable 120% by 2020.

But discussions have been snagged over a series of conditions that will determine the actual cost to be imposed on the banks, including the coupon of the new bond, its maturity and the conditions of any guarantees.

Behind the arcane details, the issue is a pivotal element in a bailout deal that officials hope can prevent Greece from defaulting on its debt and triggering a wider emergency that could spill out of control, potentially threatening the entire euro zone.

One major deadline looms in March when Greece faces a 14.5-billion euro bond redemption and it will need new financing if it is to pay out on the bonds when they mature.


With time pressing, the International Institute of Finance, the lobby group which is coordinating discussions for the banks, has been pushing for a quick agreement.

“The IIF wants to have a deal as soon as possible, they don’t want negotiations to drag on for many weeks. But the Greek state is not ready yet to have substantial discussions about the rate and the maturities,” said one banker, who is close to the discussions.

Among issues which remain to be sorted out are the interest coupon and the debt maturity, which will be key to determining the assets’ Net Present Value (NPV), a measure that estimates the current value of the bonds’ future cash flow.

Banks have complained that Greece wants to impose conditions that would produce a final net present value of 25%, which they say is far too low an offer.

Sources close to the talks say Athens has proposed a four percent coupon and a maturity of 30 years on new bonds that would be exchanged as part of a debt swap, while banks are pressing for an eight percent coupon and a maturity of 20 years.

However, while the NPV issue remains blocked, banking sources said that there had been progress on other issues, including whether guarantees for private sector creditors would be treated equally (or “pari passu”) with creditors from the public sector.

The source also said it had been agreed that the new bond would be regulated not under Greek law but under English law, which provides for so-called collective action clauses allowing the terms of the bond to be changed after issuance.

Such a clause could be vital to securing an agreement that would bind all creditors to any new payment terms.

Despite the pessimism expressed by bankers, officials in Athens expressed confidence that a deal will be reached with one saying that the initial terms of the so-called Private Sector Involvement (PSI) were likely to be finalized by early January.

Speaking at a conference in the Greek capital, Venizelos also said a deal could be reached in time. “We are close to an agreement, I believe that,” he said.

Financial Post

Assad losing control as 10,000 soldiers desert Syrian military

More than 10,000 soldiers have deserted the Syrian army, sources say, with as many as half the conscripts not reporting in the last three call-ups.

According to Western intelligence agencies, even though the top brass is still loyal to President Bashar Assad, lower-level officers are deserting in large numbers, and in some cases, whole units have deserted en masse.

The army is considered the main factor safeguarding Assad's regime, after mass protests began in the south in March and spread throughout the country, inspired by the demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world.

On Tuesday, at least 73 people were killed in Syria in clashes between the army and opposition, most of them in Homs in the west and Idlib in the northwest. The 73 dead added to the 100 who were killed on Monday, among them 14 soldiers ambushed by opposition forces, human rights groups said.

The groups added that Assad's forces were transferring wounded opposition activists from hospitals to army bases to prevent them from testifying to Arab League observers expected to arrive under a deal struck on Monday.

The observers would ensure that the army and opposition adhere to a cease-fire and end the violence.

A new law imposes the death penalty on anyone "smuggling arms to be used in terrorist activity."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted this month that the Syrian regime would collapse within weeks. Barak said it was impossible to know who would rule Syria in the future, but in any case it would be a blow to the alliance between Iran and Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah.

Another sign of the Syrian regime's frailty is Hamas' decision to move its headquarters from Damascus, as the Palestinian group that runs the Gaza Strip prepares for a possible post-Assad era.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the unrest in Syria, most of them anti-Assad activists; in recent days dozens have been killed every day, on average. Still, the army has suffered many losses, mainly from ambushes by opposition forces and ex-soldiers. In some remote districts the opposition groups are getting stronger and the army is having problems operating.

The opposition is still weak in the two large cities, Damascus in the south and Aleppo in the north. The Syrian Republican Guard, concentrated mostly in Damascus, is well armed and considered loyal to Assad, making it more difficult to organize demonstrations in the capital.

Still, even in Damascus, rockets have been launched at army vehicles.

One of the main worries in the West is the fate of the army's rocket and missiles caches, as well as its chemical weapons. According to several media reports, Hezbollah has transferred several long-range missiles from Syria to Lebanon.

In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel.

At this stage there is no proof that Hezbollah has transferred chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are not easy to maintain and handle, and as far as is known, Hezbollah does not have such expertise.

Israeli Military Intelligence recently presented the government with a report stating that unrest in Arab states will continue into next year. Military Intelligence says the unrest might topple the regimes in Syria and Yemen; in Yemen, outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh still has not relinquished all his powers despite the uprising in that Arabian Peninsula country.


Chinese protesters clash with riot police

Thousands of people besieged a government office in a southern Chinese town yesterday and blocked a highway to demand a halt to a planned coal-fired power plant because of concerns about pollution, protesters said.

Riot police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the protesters at the highway in the town of Haimen in Guangdong province, and the demonstrators hurled rocks, water bottles and bricks in return, said one of the protesters, a 27-year-old man surnamed Chen.

It is the second major protest in two weeks in a corner of coastal southern China that has seen periodic unrest over the past few years, primarily over land disputes. In much of Guangdong province, conflicts have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.

In Wukan, a village to the southwest of Haimen, protesters drove local authorities from the area nearly two weeks ago over a land dispute. Wukan protesters reached by phone yesterday said plans for a large march on a nearby government office today would go ahead.

In Haimen, some protesters clashed with police, leaving dozens hurt. "We don't have weapons, only mineral water bottles and we threw them at the police but they used batons to beat people up," Chen said.

The Independent