The week at a glance ... International
Swindler returns: The man who bilked millions of Russians out of their life savings is touting a new pyramid scheme. Sergei Mavrodi created the notorious MMM investment group, which collapsed in the 1990s, losing some $1.5 billion. He was arrested in 2003 and spent four and a half years in jail for money laundering. This week he announced on his blog the opening of MMM-2011, a “structured financial social network” that he said could yield returns of 20 percent, depending on increasing numbers of participants. While freely admitting that no investments will be made with the money, Mavrodi said, “The system is absolutely invincible, unsinkable, indestructible.” Russian authorities said the scheme was not illegal, but they discouraged Russians from investing with Mavrodi.
Pyongyang, North Korea
ICBM in five years: North Korea could have a missile capable of reaching the U.S. within five years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week. Because of its “continuing development of nuclear weapons” and its work on an intercontinental ballistic missile, he said, “North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States, and we have to take that into account.” Gates urged North Korea to proceed “down the track of negotiations and engagement,” saying that if it declared a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, the U.S. would restart talks.
Stealth jet: China’s military tested a prototype of its first stealth fighter jet this week. The J-20, bigger than the U.S. F-22, is thought to be less adept at avoiding radar detection and won’t be operational for at least eight years. Still, it is “good enough for what China wants to do with it,” said Gary Li of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Experts said China’s ongoing modernization of its military—which includes building an aircraft carrier—appears to be aimed more at projecting power in Asia than at challenging the U.S. The test flight occurred as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao. The timing could be seen as provocative, but U.S. officials said the military had apparently not informed Hu ahead of time—suggesting that the Chinese military may have been out to snub the Chinese civilian leadership.
Israeli spies: Iran said it had broken up a “vast network” of Israeli spies it accuses of killing one of its nuclear physicists by car bomb last year. State TV showed what appeared to be a coerced confession by an Iranian who said he was trained by the Mossad in Israel. Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said authorities had arrested at least 10 other “terrorist spies” working for Israel after Iranian intelligence penetrated Israeli communications. Experts on Iran are dubious. The alleged breakthrough was announced on the anniversary of the scientist’s murder, and authorities have been under pressure to find the killers. “People in Iran are criticizing the regime, how they pretend to be able to monitor a fly in the sky and are not capable to find the assassins,” said Canadian political scientist Houchang Hassan-Yari.
Inland tsunami: Queensland’s catastrophic flooding continued this week as a wall of water hit the city of Toowoomba, washing away cars and houses and killing 12 people. The scene was reminiscent of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with dozens of people stranded on rooftops, waiting to be rescued by helicopter. Next to be inundated was Brisbane, the state’s capital and Australia’s third-largest city, but there most residents heeded official warnings and evacuated before the streets disappeared under more than 12 feet of water. “We are facing one of our toughest ever tests,” said Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. “Now is not a time for panic, it is a time for us to stick together.”
South votes on split: Southern Sudanese lined up at dawn this week to vote for independence in a referendum expected to split Africa’s largest country in two. The weeklong referendum was the outcome of the 2005 peace agreement that ended the 20-year civil war between the Arab north and the black African south. Most of the voting proceeded peacefully, but about 40 people were killed in clashes between southern Sudanese troops and Arab militias in a disputed border region. Nearly 4 million people are registered to vote in the south, and 20 percent of them voted on the day polls opened. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes stemming from a separate conflict in western Darfur, has pledged to accept the results and allow a peaceful secession.
Frenchmen killed: Suspected al Qaida militants killed two French hostages this week while French soldiers were trying to rescue them. The two men were dining last week at a French-owned restaurant in Niger’s capital when militants believed to be from al Qaida’s North African branch burst in and kidnapped them. Their bodies were found across the border in Mali. French Defense Minister Alain Juppé said the soldiers were not to blame for the failed rescue, during which “many terrorists were killed” and several captured. The leader of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, has warned France that more French nationals will be killed if it does not withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, where France has some 4,000 troops.