John Lewis in party mood as 150th anniversary nears

Posted by MereNews On April - 19 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

In many ways the two businesses are similar: both are household names in retail, selling everything from food to fridges to insurance; both have been in business since the 19th century and now have a turnover of more than £10bn a year – and neither answers to shareholders because they are owned by either their staff or members.

But that is where the similarities end. While the Co-op has just unveiled an annual loss of £2.5bn and is facing the biggest crisis in its 170 years, John Lewis last month announced a profit of £376m, paid out a bonus equal to eight weeks’ pay to every member of staff and is now gearing up to celebrate its 150th anniversary in some style.

“People say the co-owned model finds it difficult to move with the times but we have,” says Andy Street, chief executive of the John Lewis department store chain. “Just as one example of a mutual is finding life difficult, we are proving those naysayers wrong. We have learned and adapted over the years to new environments. We are able to adapt and surprise people and demonstrate our relevance.”

Street reckons there are two key differences between the two retailers that explain the contrasting fortunes of the Co-op and John Lewis – the way the boardrooms are run and the way each has chosen to expand. While the Co-op waded into the market to take over the Somerfield supermarket chain and the Britannia building society – deals that imported huge problems – John Lewis has pursued its own growth.

“We have elected directors, [independent] non-executive directors and [full-time] executives. That is similar to the model Lord Myners has suggested for the Co-op.

“The management of John Lewis has the ability to be decisive, quick and effective. We are accountable to our members, but it is the executives who take the decisions. We have also stuck to our core job. We haven’t gone for acquisitions. Our mission has always been not to be distracted.”

So while the debt-laden Co-op’s future remains far from certain, and its interim boss is warning that it needs wholesale change at the top to survive, John Lewis is planning a party and hoping to cash in on its anniversary celebrations.

The festivities range from turning the roof of its central London store into a public garden to a multi-media promotional effort that will attempt to build on the success of the store’s Christmas bear and hare advertising campaign. The cute cartoon characters were viewed 10m times on YouTube, created a buzz online and were high profile in-store. The retailer is aiming to put some of the same techniques into action to boost sales this spring and summer. “We will be deploying all those lessons,” says Street.

The planned events will kick off with a 90-second TV ad on May Day bank holiday, which will celebrate British history alongside that of John Lewis.

The historical theme will continue at the Oxford Street store in central London, which will host a re-creation of the single drapery shop on the same spot that launched the business in 1864.

Shops around the country will also celebrate historical periods and all will sell specially created products that revive some of the best designs from different eras.

John Lewis’s attempt to stir up a party mood is part of a wider trend among retailers try to make the most of shopping “occasions” amid evidence that shoppers are more willing to splash out around such events. While Christmas and Easter have long been red letter days, retailers have begun to make more of other dates on the calender such as Mother’s Day, and to develop their own events such as Black Friday, the US-born pre-Christmas bargain day which caused a stir in the UK for the first time last year.

Street says: “Of course we are trying to create an occasion. But it is much deeper than that. It’s about how our ownership structure has given us an advantage at a time when retail is changing. It’s about John Lewis’s contribution to the big national picture.”

He added: “This has been a very different business model for a long time. Just the longevity is a surprise and I think customers have some understanding of that, but not that deep. This is a great opportunity for us to draw attention to our history and to how we’ve been successful.”

Prosperous partners: how socialism made for high street success

John Lewis may have founded the company that bears his name, but it was his visionary son Spedan, who turned it into a staff-owned business.

The partnership started, Spedan Lewis said, “with an idea for a better way of managing business, so that instead of the many being exploited by the few, there will be genuine partnership for managers and the managed alike, all pulling together for their common advantage”.

It was John Lewis’s son Spedan, above, who turned the company into a staff-owned business. Photograph: John Lewis/PA

Influenced by the ideas of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and the artist and designer William Morris, who founded the Socialist League in 1884, Lewis began to set up democratic staff councils in 1919 and first experimented with sharing profits at the Peter Jones store in 1920.

In 1928 he published a constitution with missives on everything from how to treat shoppers in lifts to the “never knowingly undersold” principle, which remains a key part of John Lewis’s business today.

The firm finally converted to a partnership and began sharing profits in 1929 after a decade of slow evolution – much of which was carried out without the knowledge of Lewis’s father, who ultimately controlled the business until his death in 1928.

The partnership structure kept the company strong during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the difficult 1940s. It continued to invest, expanding into new areas, which even included a zoo at the Peter Jones branch in Sloane Square, London, at one point.

Lewis also bought up the grocery chain Waitrose in 1937 and a string of regional department stores from his rival retail entrepreneur Gordon Selfridge just after the second world war broke out. Those deals helped the business survive when the key store in Oxford Street was bombed in 1940, putting it almost completely out of operation for eight years.

Over the ensuing decades the partnership had its ups and downs and was widely viewed as being outdated and out of touch by the early years of the 21st century as profits shrank. But the company began to modernise, rebranding regional stores under the John Lewis name, accepting credit cards and opening on Sundays. Today the company is seen as one of the British high street’s biggest success stories.

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The former Belfast commander of the hardline anti-peace process paramilitary group, the Continuity IRA, has been shot dead in the city.

Tommy Crossan, 44, was killed near the Peter Pan light industrial complex on Springfield Road in Belfast at around 4.45pm on Friday.

The murdered man, who comes from the west of the city, served six years in Maghaberry top security prison a decade ago for a CIRA gun attack on a police station in Belfast.

Local nationalist SDLP councillor Colin Keenan, who lives near the scene of the shooting, condemned those behind the murder.

“I was on the scene shortly after this tragic event and I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the victim’s family. We have long hoped that the shadow of death had been lifted from west Belfast. Today’s event is a terrible, tragic reminder of the violent conflict of the past,” Keenan said.

Details about the murder are still sketchy but it comes at a time of rising tensions among dissident republicans who are embroiled in a violent internal power struggle.

Last week a former CIRA killer, Declan “Fat Deccy” Smith, was buried in his native Belfast after being assassinated outside a Dublin creche at the end of March.

Smith had been blamed for the double killing of two rival republican dissidents, Eddie Burns and Joseph Jones, who were murdered in 2007 in Belfast. Jones had been tortured and beaten to death with a spade over a dispute about the seizure of weapons and the control over the republican faction.

In a statement from the Continuity IRA’s leadership on Friday, the terror group singled out a number of former members whom they accused of “criminal activity perpetrated in the name of the republican movement”.

Referring to an attempted coup four years ago against the CIRA command, the organisation said: “The treachery of 2010 was a carefully planned attempt to arrest and destroy the republican movement as it exists today in the continuing defence of the Irish Republic proclaimed at the GPO Dublin in 1916. These people have failed and the criminal conspirators they have left in their wake shall dissipate.”

And in a warning to its rivals, the paramilitary organisation added: “There will be other attempts to raise issues of contention ranging across diverse matters, for example principles, structures, authority, democracy, discipline and many others into the future. That said nobody is going to put the republican movement in their pocket and walk away to self-serve, for in doing so they will be turning away from the principles which sustain this movement and which are the ultimate guarantee of our success.”

In 2000 Crossan was serving 10 years for conspiracy to murder RUC officers following a gun attack on a police station in west Belfast in 1998. He led a prison protest for political status in Maghaberry and at one stage spent 23 hours a day locked in his cell as punishment for refusing to do prison work.

In an interview Crossan was defiant about “armed struggle” continuing despite rising support for Sinn Féin and the peace process.

He said: “I am confident that the armed struggle will go on outside here and that, sadly, will mean more of my comrades being jailed and sent into this place. The bigger we get, the harder it will be for the authorities to treat us as criminals.”

The CIRA was formed after splits in Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) in 1986. However, it was mainstream Sinn Féin’s decision to sign up to non-violence principles during all-party talks in the run up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that finally prompted Crossan to leave the Provisional IRA.

In a bitter attack on Sinn Féin, Crossan told the Observer: “Bobby Sands [the IRA hunger striker and MP] is one of my great heroes … I was 10 when he died, that’s when I became interested in republicanism but everything he fought for has been sold out. Prisoners like him died for political status, and now it’s being taken away from republicans at a time Sinn Féin are doing something they vowed they would never do – sit in a Stormont government.”

There are at least two factions within the CIRA: the mainstream organisation loyal to its Dublin leadership, whose main base remains around North Armagh, and a rival faction started by disgruntled republicans from Limerick with a few members in Belfast which has been in violent dispute with the main group.

The CIRA is the most hardline of the armed groups opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. It was responsible for the 2009 murder of Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon. He was the first officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to be killed by republican paramilitaries.

Members of the security forces have been on high alert for attacks by various extremist factions who have also killed two soldiers and a prison officer.

In recent weeks they have stepped up efforts to kill police officers, with several attacks on the force in west Belfast.

After the murder of prison officer David Black on the M1 motorway in November 2012, police mounted an unprecedented surveillance operation against various factions as well making significant arrests.

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Teachers to vote on strike motion

Posted by MereNews On April - 19 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Parents are facing the prospect of another round of national strikes closing schools, as the country’s two largest teaching unions meet this weekend to consider industrial action during the summer term.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) annual conference in Brighton will vote on Saturday on a motion that includes possible strikes after 23 June if it remains unhappy with the progress being made in talks over pay, pensions and working conditions taking place with the Department for Education.

Meanwhile the NASUWT, the other leading teaching union, will debate a motion on further industrial action on Sunday at its annual meeting taking place in Birmingham.

In the past the two unions have staged combined strike action but in March the NUT held its own national strike after the NASUWT declined to take part.

“Clearly it would be in our interest to be taking joint action,” Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said.

The moves come as the NUT released a YouGov poll it commissioned, showing that parents are divided over the issues behind the strike action. The poll of 1,500 parents found that 49% said the teaching unions “were right in most of their concerns about education policy,” while 23% agreed that teaching unions “are an obstacle to necessary reforms”.

But the poll, taken shortly after the NUT’s one day strike on 26 March, also found that 65% of parents agreed that teachers had a democratic right to strike action. Blower defended the possible second national strike within just three months as necessary, given what she said was the government’s failure to make “significant progress” in negotiations.

“Of course parents will say this is inconvenient. It’s in the nature of industrial action that you do it because you want to cause inconvenience because you’re trying to bring your grievances to people’s attention,” Blower said.

The NUT motion includes other efforts, including a lobby of parliament on 10 June and a national demonstration in London on 21 June, two days before possible strike action.

“We don’t want to have strike action. We want to engage with [education secretary] Michael Gove, and there are ways to avoid this,” said Kevin Courtney, the NUT’s deputy general secretary, who outlined a plan to lobby MPs in marginal seats in the run-up to next year’s general election.While the window for strikes was timed to avoid the GCSE and A level exams in May and June, exam boards had scheduled papers for the first half of the week beginning 23 June.

“Strike action will not disrupt exams. If necessary exemptions can be given for staff who are needed to supervise an exam,” Blower said.

The YouGov survey also found that 50% of parents said the coalition government had a negative impact on education since it came to power in May 2010, while 25% said it had no impact. Some 38% said they had some level of trust in Gove,while more than 90% said they had trust in teachers and headteachers. The NUT and the NASUWT released surveys on the costs and financial pressures on students attending state schools, especially those from disadvantaged and low income households.

An NASUWT survey of its members in schools found that 27% of teachers said they had brought in food for hungry pupils themselves, while 53% said they had witnessed pupils missing out on important educational activities due to lack of money to pay for them.

“These are shocking, shameful and heartbreaking statistics. The lives of children and young people are being degraded by poverty and homelessness,” said Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT.

The NUT survey of children, conducted alongside the Child Poverty Action Group and others, found that 55% of children from low income households said they went hungry at school because they could not afford to eat.

Responding to the NUT motion, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Ministers have met frequently with the NUT and other unions and will continue to do so. Further strike action will only disrupt parents’ lives, hold back children’s education and damage the reputation of the profession.”

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Reckless company directors may have to compensate victims of their failed business dealings under new measures being brought forward by Vince Cable, the business secretary.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said Cable was “taking aim at dodgy directors” by bringing in tougher penalties, with some of the worst offences recently seen in scam wine investment, landbanking and carbon credit schemes that targeted elderly people.

Under the new measures, there would be greater freedom for courts to ban those with fraud convictions overseas from setting up in Britain, which could have prevented the Italian businessman Massimo Cellino from becoming a director of Leeds United Football Club.

Courts would also have the power to force directors to compensate those who have lost out because of misconduct or serious failures in a business.

The government would be able to intervene and request such action against a miscreant director but the final decision would be with a judge.

Judges in such cases would also have a duty to take past misdemeanours into account when deciding whether to disqualify a director, including previous business failures, the nature of any losses, overseas conduct and breaches of specific laws.

However, the government appears to have watered down its plans from original proposals to make sure directors were automatically disqualified after overseeing a certain number of failed businesses in a “three strikes and you’re out” system.

The new measures are likely to be brought forward as draft legislation as part of the Queen’s speech next month, which sets out the government’s legislative programme for the next session of parliament.

“Some people have suffered unnecessary losses as a result of rogue behaviour,” said Cable. “These measures will protect the British economy and our reputation as a good and fair place to do business by banning directors who have already been convicted of offences overseas from running British companies.

“Rogue directors can cause a huge amount of harm in terms of large financial losses, unnecessary redundancies and lifelong investments going down the drain. It is only right that we should put the toughest possible sanctions in place, make sure we stamp out unfair practices and deter those who are looking to act dishonestly.”

The new measures were broadly welcomed by the Institute of Directors, which said: “The buck stops with the board, and the public rightly expects directors to maintain the highest standards.”

Roger Barker, director of corporate governance at the business group, said: “Most directors take their role extremely seriously and will not be affected by the measures announced by the government today. However, the growing extent of directors’ responsibilities and potential liabilities highlights the need for proper induction and training for those that are assuming significant board roles.”

Matthew Fell, director for competitive markets at the CBI, said: “These new rules will help ensure that the UK’s world-leading company law regime continues to underpin its attractiveness as a place to do business.

“Tackling the damaging behaviour of a small minority of individuals will help to reinforce confidence in the majority of directors who run their businesses well and create jobs and growth throughout the UK.”

The business department said the new laws could have stopped Cellino becoming a director of Leeds United after he won a battle for ownership of the club after successfully appealing against the Football League’s decision to block his takeover.

Cellino initially failed the league’s owners and directors test after being convicted of tax evasion last month in a Sardinian court, but the decision was overturned.

He also has two fraud convictions, nearly 13 and 18 years old, which are considered spent in English law.

A spokesman for the business department said of the government’s proposals: “Someone like Cellino would be unable to be a director of a company – regardless of the Football League.”

The number of company director disqualifications in 2010 stood at 1,437 and fell to 1,151 in 2011 and 1,031 in 2012 before an increase to 1,053 in the first three quarters of 2013, figures from the department show.

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SES volunteers the eagle eyes of the MH370 search

Posted by MereNews On April - 19 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

On the frontline of the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, one brief second can make all the difference.

“You might have a second or a second and a half between seeing something and it disappearing from your view,” said Jim Maclean, one of the searchers who has been with the Perth state emergency service (SES) for 32 years.

“So you’ve got to look at it, identify it and decide whether it warrants being called in before it disappears out the side of your view. It’s quite intense, you’ve got to be really concentrating all the time,” he said.

But the group of people doing perhaps the most important job in the search are taking on the task without payment. The SES air search observers are ordinary Australians and they are all volunteers. There are now more than 200 involved in the search from across the country, who have put in more than 2,000 hours of flight time searching for the missing plane.

Maclean, who moved to Australia from Scotland, says he is “ostensibly retired”, which has given him more time to work with the SES when volunteers are needed. “Although my wife doesn’t like it much,” he says with a bark of laughter.

The immense task of finding the missing plane, which the SES observers have been involved in since 22 March, is daunting. But Lyn Bryant, another volunteer who has been with the SES for more than 15 years, says it’s a task they will gladly take on to help give the families of those on board the flight closure.

“We’re just up there trying to find evidence that this plane went down here in the ocean to give the relatives and friends something to grasp,” she said.

The SES observers are tasked to fly on the civil aircraft involved in the search. The days are long, typically lasting about 15 hours. Maclean says he’s up at 5.30am to get to Perth airport in time for wheels-up at 7.30.

The searchers usually spend three hours heading out to sea and three hours heading back, leaving about three or four hours of actual search time.

While a series of pings believed to be from the black box have narrowed the air search area slightly, it still spans many thousands of kilometres. Searches are divided into “legs”, flying in a straight line for about 30 to 40 minutes. Those periods require intense concentration, and are no easy task.

“If you only move your eyes then you go to sleep. So you’ve got to move your head in stages of foreground, middleground, foreground, we do that all the time and we just keep moving our heads and talking to each other,” Maclean says. “We don’t stop searching, but we talk to each other and it just keeps the concentration going.”

Searchers are taught to observe rather than see. It may seem like semantics, but the precision involved in observing needs pinpoint accuracy and attention to detail.

“We teach them about the search patterns they’re flying and safety around aircraft and tarmacs,” says the Australian Maritime Safety authority’s Peter Buckley.

The method used for the search is called “saccading”. The searchers will move their heads in fixed positions to scan down and back to ensure the greatest possible area of vision is taken in.

“When you look you poise as you go up and you poise as you go down. So you’re basically covering the whole of the area that you need to cover, but as you’re moving. Your peripheral vision comes into play as well,” Bryant says.

It requires immense concentration. The sun beats down relentlessly on the ocean surface, making it even harder for the searchers to spot potential debris. The windows of the jets are small, narrowing the field of vision.

Each plane usually carries five observers so that one can rest while four continue, and they rotate sides “so that we don’t get a crick in our necks”, Maclean says. But when something is spotted a ripple of excitement goes through the plane.

But sightings of objects have become much more sporadic since the early days of the search and none has been confirmed as being linked with the plane.

The Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and the joint agency centre overseeing the search have indicated they may need to reassess the approach to the search in coming weeks if they gain no further leads.

For Bryant and Maclean, it’s a job they will gladly keep doing. For as long as the air search continues, they will keep putting up their hands to volunteer.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested he is unable to bless same-sex marriages because taking such a step would endanger the global unity of Anglicanism by alienating members in developing countries who found the issue “impossible” to deal with.

While the Church of England is preparing to initiate a consultation on the possible introduction of informal blessing-like services, the spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans spoke of the dilemma he believes he faces and warned that a swift change in doctrine risked alienating followers abroad, principally in Africa.

“We are struggling with the reality that there are different groups around the place that the church can do – or has done – great harm to,” Welby said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which he also sought to express sympathy for calls for the church to bless gay marriages.

“You look at some of the gay, lesbian, LGBT groups in this country and around the world – Africa included, actually – and their experience of abuse, hatred, all kinds of things. We must both respond to what we’ve done in the past and listen to those voices extremely carefully. Listen with love and compassion and sorrow. And do what is possible to be done, which is not always a huge amount.”

But he added: “At the same time, there are other groups in many parts of the world who are the victims of oppression and poverty, who we also have to listen to, and who find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with. How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all? And not only by one group that you prefer and that is easier to deal with? That’s not acceptable.”

Tensions within the Anglicanism over same-sex marriage were once again brought into focus earlier this month when a Church of England chaplain became the first clergyman to enter a gay marriage.

The church’s house of bishops’ guidance, issued in February, explicitly bars such unions for clergy on the grounds they undermine traditional teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. It also bars them from conducting gay marriages and from blessing them in church.

Nevertheless, Welby emphasised that he was placing his faith in the church’s consultations, saying: “How you do something has to be thought through very carefully. That’s why we get into the conversations, the thinking, which is what we are doing at the moment and which I don’t want to pre-empt.”

Welby spoke in the same interview about the very moving experience of being present earlier this year in a South Sudanese town in the aftermath of the massacre of Christians, where he was asked to consecrate the ground before the bodies of murdered clergy and others were placed into a mass grave. Despite facing such dangers, church leaders there were still eager to know what would happen in relation to clergy being asked to bless same-sex marriages in the wake of parliament’s move last year to legalise gay marriage.

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The arrested captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized with 476 people on board said on Saturday he had delayed evacuating the ship because of the sea conditions and the absence of rescue ships.

Lee Joon-seok and two of his crew were taken into police custody in the early hours of the morning, charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law.

During his police arraignment, during which he stood, head bowed, in a hooded raincoat, Lee was asked by TV reporters why passengers had been ordered to remain in their seats and cabins for more than 40 minutes after the ferry first sent a distress signal just before 9am local time on Wednesday.

“At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around there for rescues or other ships to help,” Lee said.

“The currents were very strong and water was cold at that time in the area.

“I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly without wearing lifejackets.

“It would have been the same even if they did wear lifejackets,” he said.

Furious relatives of the hundreds of passengers still missing – most of them schoolchildren –believe many more would have escaped if they had moved to evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.

Twenty-nine people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, with 273 still missing.

As the arrests were being made, dive teams who had spent two days vainly battling powerful currents and near zero visibility finally penetrated the passenger decks of the Sewol.

“Civilian divers spotted three bodies through a window,” said Choi Sang-Hwan, deputy director of the national coastguard.

“They attempted to get in and retrieve them by cracking the window, but it was too difficult,” he said in a briefing to relatives of the missing.

Many of the more than 500 divers working on the rescue teams are civilian volunteers.

Nets would be placed around the submerged ferry to prevent any bodies drifting away during the eventual recovery process, Choi said, adding that the rescue teams had not given up hope of finding survivors trapped in air pockets.

Lee, 69, confirmed statements by investigative prosecutors on Friday that he was not at the helm of the ferry when it first ran into trouble.

“It happened as I was coming back after a quick visit to the bedroom for personal reasons,” he said, denying any suggestion that he had been intoxicated.

“I did not drink,” he said.

His comments offered no fresh insight into the chain of events that caused the 6,825-ton Sewol to sink.

Tracking data from the maritime ministry showed the vessel made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.

Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged heavy cargo – including more than 150 vehicles –and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.

But others suggested the turn might have been caused by a collision with a rock or other submerged object.

Investigators said the third officer was steering when the accident happened.

Lee acknowledged the charges brought against him and apologised to the victims of the disaster and their relatives.

“I sincerely apologise to people and the bereaved families for stirring up trouble,” he said.

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Twenty-four more Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Islamic extremists have escaped but 85 are still missing, an education official said on Friday.

Some of the 129 young women who were abducted jumped off the back of a truck when they were kidnapped before dawn on Tuesday from a high school in the extreme north-east of Nigeria.

Others escaped into the Sambisa Forest, which bordered their school in Chibok town and was a known hideout of militants of the Boko Haram terrorist network.

The Borno state education commissioner, Musa Inuwo Kubo, said on Friday night some of the latest escapees were found on Wednesday nearly 50km from their school.

Extremists had attacked schools and slaughtered hundreds of students in the past year. In recent months they began kidnapping students, who they used as cooks, sex slaves and porters.

But this week’s mass abduction was unprecedented. The attackers also burned down many houses in the town.

A bomb in a busy bus station killed at least 75 people in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Monday. Twenty others were killed in attacks on two villages. And a soldier and police officer guarding the school in Chibok also were killed.

More than 1,500 people had been killed in the Islamic uprising this year. The attacks undermined claims by the Nigerian government and military that they were containing the insurgency.

Boko Haram believed Western influences were corrupting and wanted to install an Islamic state in Nigeria.

Nigeria’s military remained inexplicably absent from Chibok, Kubo said, and he described residents’ “displeasure” that no security forces had come to the area since the attack.

Angry parents and men from the town went into the Sambisa Forest to try to find the students, despite the dangers of confronting extremists.

The defense ministry spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade, claimed on Wednesday that all but eight of the 129 abducted students had been freed by security forces.

He retracted that statement on Thursday.

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A father whose 18-year-old son died on a Syrian battlefield has described him as a martyr, revealing that he only learned that his child had been killed when he read it on Facebook.

Abdullah Deghayes, from Brighton, arrived in Syria in February in defiance of his father. He was accompanied by his 16-year-old brother Jaffer, as they travelled to join their older brother Amer, 20, who was shot in the stomach when his brother was killed. It is not clear when the shooting incident occurred.

Jaffer is the youngest named Briton fighting in Syria and his brother Abdullah was the ninth to die out of an estimated 400 Britons fighting in Syria.

Speaking outside the family’s home in Saltdean, Brighton, on Friday, Abdullah’s father, Abubakr Deghayes, said: “As far as I know, he went to Syria, without my consent and without the consent of his mother, to fight against the dictator Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

“He was killed in a battle with soldiers. His brother Amer, who was also there, I know is injured. He was shot in the stomach in the same battle.”

Deghayes, who worked for the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign, said he found out about his son’s death from Facebook on Monday. “I never encouraged my sons to go but I believe there was a cause that they strongly believed in which drove them to go.

“We are very sad for the loss of Abdullah but I can at least take some comfort from the fact that he went for a just cause to protect those that are killed or dying and need help,” he said.

A photo circulating among former school friends, which appears to show Abdullah dead and laid out on the ground, has been seen by the Guardian.

The photograph, which seems to have been taken at night with a flash, shows him from the chest up lying on a patch of ground scattered with leaves and foliage. The 18-year-old is dressed in combat fatigues and his eyes are closed, but he can be clearly identified. There is no obvious sign of injury.

The photograph of Abdullah’s body was posted on Friday on the Facebook page of Nora Sy, from Hama in Syria. In the posting, she claimed that Abdullah had killed a large number of “the enemy” before he had been shot and that his body was left on the battlefield for five days as it was too dangerous to approach because of enemy snipers.

Deghayes told of how he travelled to Turkey when he understood that his two younger sons planned to join their elder brother’s armed group. A fourth brother, Abdullah’s twin, is thought to have remained at home.

“I found out that they left for Syria. I met them in Turkey and tried to convince them not to go into Syria – or to just go and give aid, not to fight, as Syrians are in need of help and medicine. But I could not persuade them and they still went to fight,” he said.

The teenager is the nephew of Omar Deghayes, who was held by the US as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo Bay between 2002 and 2007 after he was arrested in Pakistan.

Speaking from Tripoli, Omar Degahyes said Abdullah had been a young man full of life. “He had a bright future ahead, he was just like any 18-year-old, but his heart was different. He couldn’t sit still watching the news of the gross injustice taking place in Syria. He felt he needed to do more. He packed and flew without consulting the family.”

He said that Abdullah’s twin brother, Abdur-Rahman, was particularly hard hit by the news of the death.

The Foreign Office and Sussex police said they were making inquiries about the death. On Friday, the foreign secretary, William Hague, warned of the extreme dangers faced by Britons in Syria and said fighters returning to Britain were perceived as an “increasing threat to our own national security”.

“I want anybody who is contemplating going to Syria for any reason to hear that advice very clearly from the British government: do not travel to Syria,” said Hague. He added that action could be taken to stop would-be fighters travelling to Syria, including taking away their passports, but only if the authorities were aware of their intentions.

“We will take measures whenever we can but in most cases we don’t know who is planning to go to Syria; they don’t go directly from the UK to Syria, they go through other countries,” the foreign secretary told Sky News.

Deghayes said that Amer first travelled to Syria to deliver aid but then decided to fight, and his two brothers followed the same path. He insisted his sons were motivated by humanitarian concerns and had no involvement with radical groups in the UK.

“I think Abdullah and his brothers are not terrorists because terrorism is the targeting and killing of civilians for any particular reason. I believe that he wanted to defend those in threat and those who were in need of protection or support,” said Deghayes.

Friends of Abdullah and his activity on social media reveal an apparently average British teenager who appeared to pay little attention to religion or school but was popular and respected.

Pictures of Abdullah on Facebook show him with male and female friends. In one photograph from last year he posed with what appears to be a girlfriend in the street.

Abdullah’s close friend Louise Tierney, 17, said: “We were in a really tight group of friends together and we all went to a carvery a while back as we knew he was going away.

“We thought it was to Libya, where he often went to see friends, like a little holiday. He never mentioned Syria before – never. He was a lovely guy and he’d do anything for anyone. He was like a big brother in the group. He was so caring and looked out for each of us.”

Another friend, who only wanted to be identified as Sarah, was also friendly with Abdullah’s twin.

“They were always together. You’d never see one without the other. When they came to school, they didn’t really go to any lessons or anything. They’d just sit on the field and bunk the lessons.”

Sarah, 18, who is studying for A-levels in Brighton, said there were few Muslims at Longhill high school and the twins had received some abuse because of their religion and ethnicity.

Shiraz Maher, from King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalism (ICSR), said that it had not surprised him that three brothers had gone out together and that the youngest was 16.

“We’ve seen brothers go before. Two brothers from north London who were Eritrean went out. And we’ve been told in the past from reliable sources in the UK and abroad, by foreign fighters themselves, that 16-year-olds have gone to Syria,” he said.

Maher, who was the co-author of a recent report on how western jihadists are radicalised through social media, said Abdullah’s father’s assertion that his sons had been influenced via Facebook chimed with what the ICSR had found.

“This is the most socially mediated conflict in history. It is a conflict that is being largely sustained by social media,” said the academic.

Article source: http://feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663828/s/39850300/sc/8/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A140Capr0C180Cbrighton0Eteenager0Eabdullah0Edeghayes0Ekilled0Esyria/story01.htm

Link to video: Pro-Russian separatists defiant in Slavyansk, east Ukraine

International attempts to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine were floundering on Friday as separatist groups in the east declared that they had no intention of leaving occupied buildings and accused Kiev of violating an agreement reached in Geneva on Thursday.

Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the United States struck a diplomatic deal in the Swiss city, following seven hours of talks, that was supposed to see illegal groups withdraw from municipal buildings and hand in their weapons.

Twenty-four hours later there were no signs that any of the anti-government groups were preparing to budge. Instead, protest leaders said they would continue their occupations until their demands were met. A rebel militia seized an administration building in Seversk, a small town outside the regional capital Donetsk.

At a press conference on Friday Denis Pushilin, the self-styled leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, said his supporters would stay put until a referendum on the region’s future status was held. He dismissed the current pro-western government in Kiev as illegitimate. “We will continue our activity,” he declared.

Link to video: Ukraine’s foreign minister: ‘I don’t know Russia’s intentions’

Pushilin said no meaningful de-escalation was possible while Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and president Olexsandr Turchynov were still in their jobs. “We understand that everyone has to leave buildings or nobody does. Yatsenyuk and Turchynov should vacate theirs first,” he said.

Moscow’s envoy to the European Union reiterated this position, telling Russian state television that authorities in Kiev had “incorrectly interpreted” the Geneva deal. He said Ukraine’s new leadership mistakenly believed that the deal “only applies to the eastern and southern provinces” when it also applied to “the ongoing occupation of Maidan [Independence Square in Kiev]“.

Pro-Russian separatists grabbed a string of public buildings across eastern Ukraine a week ago. The militia units – some of them similar to the armed “little green men” who appeared in Crimea in February – have occupied them ever since. Nato says the separatists include professionally trained undercover Russian soldiers. Moscow denies this.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia said the next few days would demonstrate whether Russia actually intended to implement the Geneva deal, signed by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “I don’t know Russia’s intentions. But minister Lavrov did promise that they want to de-escalate. So we will see in a few days if it was [a] sincere promise and sincere participation.”

The separatists, however, seem in little mood to give ground. Pushilin said Kiev had already violated the Geneva accord by refusing to pull its military units from the east of Ukraine. “They have not withdrawn their forces out from Slavyansk,” he said. Beleaguered Ukrainian troops occupy a rustic aerodrome close to Slavyansk, north of Donetsk, and neighbouring Kramatorsk. On Wednesday they suffered the ultimate humiliation when armed separatists, seemingly led by Russian officers, seized six armoured vehicles from them and drove off.

Pushilin delivered his anti-Kiev message to Russian state television, which had turned up to interview him. He was speaking from the 11th-floor of Donetsk’s regional administration building, now a sprawling camp of anti-government and anti-western protest.

Pushilin describes himself as the “people’s governor”. He appeared to be reading from a carefully-drafted script. Several media advisers sat nearby. He told Russian television that Kiev was denying the local population access to insulin and withholding desperately needed medical supplies. He asked ordinary Russians to donate money to a numbered account with Russia’s Sberbank to help the cause.

A local businessman, Pushilin and other deputies from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” are entirely self-appointed. Their key demand is a referendum on federalisation by 11 May, two weeks before presidential elections. It is unclear what questions might be included.

Their goal is to create an autonomous eastern republic separate from Kiev. After that most want the new republic to join the Russian Federation, in imitation of Crimea annexed by Moscow last month. Kiev says Pushilin and other separatist leaders are under the control of Russia’s spy agencies.

Visiting Donetsk on Friday, Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko denounced Russian interference and said that Russia’s special forces had been highly active across the east of the country. She said she was in Donetsk to negotiate with pro-Russian protesters, conceding that Ukrainian and Russian speakers now had to make “compromises” if a solution to the crisis was to be found. She said this compromise could be achieved if Russia withdrew its agents from eastern Ukraine but warned of violence if it did not.

Tymoshenko – whose pro-western party dominates the new government – said that she was creating a “resistance movement” militia to fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This would be an armed force made up of volunteers with military experience, she said: “We will do everything to restore harmony and peace in our country and to stop aggression. But if it doesn’t happen we are ready to defend ourselves … with weapons in hand.”

Tymoshenko ruled out holding a regional referendum, saying that it didn’t match constitutional requirements, and adding that Kiev “can’t recognise it”. “We don’t want anyone to demand that Ukrainians vote in a referendum under the barrels of Russian weapons,” she said.

Article source: http://feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663828/s/3982794c/sc/1/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A140Capr0C180Cpro0Erussian0Egroups0Eoccupations0Eeastern0Eukraine0Ekiev0Egeneva0Edeal/story01.htm

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