Daily Archives: February 16, 2015

Long-term meditation tied to less brain loss

(Reuters Health) – Meditation over many years is tied to smaller age-related decreases in brain volume, according to a new study.

People who reported meditating for an average of 20 years had higher brain volumes than the average person, researchers report in Frontiers in Psychology.

While it’s known that the volume of a brain’s gray matter decreases as a person ages, the study’s senior author told Reuters Health that the team of researchers expected to see more gray matter in certain regions of the brain among long-term meditators.

“But we see that this effect is really widespread throughout the brain,” said Dr. Florian Kurth, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles Brain Mapping Center.

Kurth and his colleagues write that they can’t say meditation caused its practitioners to lose less brain volume, however. Other habits of long-term meditators may also influence brain volume.

Nearly 18 million adults and 1 million children practiced meditation in the U.S. in 2012, according to a survey on complementary medicine from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though meditative techniques have roots in Eastern religious and spiritual traditions, Americans today often meditate outside of religious settings, according to the survey.

Prior studies found that meditation can improve attention, memory, verbal fluency, executive function and creativity, Kurth and his colleagues write.

For the new study, the researchers compared the brain scans of 50 long-term meditators to those of 50 men and women from the general population. The participants ranged in age from 24 to 77 years. The meditators reported being involved in the practice for four to 46 years.

Overall, the volume of gray matter shown on the brain scans decreased as the age of the participants increased. But the meditators’ brains appeared better preserved than average people of the same age.

Moreover, the researchers were surprised to find less age-related gray matter loss throughout the brains of meditators.

Los Angeles singer-songwriter Julianna Raye, who began meditating 20 years ago, was amazed at what she saw when she looked at her brain scan compared to a scan of another 48-year-old woman from the general population.

“The difference was definitely discernible,” she said. “It made me think of flossing your teeth so you don’t get gingivitis. You exercise your brain, and you can see the results.”

The study prompted Kurth to want to return to his own abandoned meditation practice.

“This study says it’s basically worthwhile to think about meditation,” he said.

Dr. Madhav Goyal told Reuters Health that the new study failed to convince him that he could prescribe meditation as an elixir to prevent brain loss.

“There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done,” said Goyal, who practices meditation and studies it as a professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

The UCLA researchers found insignificant results when they performed the most conservative statistical analysis on their findings, he said.

Goyal would have liked the study to compare skill levels between meditators and non-meditators. He also questioned what kind of meditation, and whether it was indeed meditation, the meditators were doing.

“Meditation programs differ in how rigorously they teach the activity, a few hours over a few weeks versus 100 hours in a weeklong training,” Goyal said.

The new study “adds a little bit more evidence to the idea that the brain has plasticity, and by practicing certain mental activities, such as meditation, we can see structural changes in the brain as a result,” he said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/16N3VaJ

Front Psychol 2015.


Source: Newsjyoti Health

Focusing on fiber may work for weight loss

Reuters Health – People who only focused on eating 30 grams of fiber per day lost almost as much weight as those who followed a more complicated diet, according to a new year-long study.

A “permissive” dietary plan, like focusing on increasing fiber, may produce more beneficial effects than a “restrictive” plan, like reducing saturated fat, said lead author Dr. Yunsheng Ma of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

“We chose dietary fiber because it exerts clinical benefits on several components of metabolic syndrome, including waist circumference, glucose and lipid homeostasis, and insulin control, in addition to body weight and regulation of certain inflammatory markers,” Ma wrote in an email to Reuters Health.

For the new study, Ma and his coauthors divided 240 obese adults with metabolic syndrome into two groups. One group followed the American Heart Association (AHA) diet plan and the other aimed to eat at least 30 grams of fiber per day.

About 25% of adults worldwide have metabolic syndrome, which includes symptoms like a large waistline, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low levels of HDL cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The American Heart Association Eating Plan recommends that adults consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily from foods, such as vegetables, legumes or whole grains, although the average American only eats about 15 grams per day.

The AHA diet calls for increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grain or high fiber foods and lean proteins, minimizing sugar, sodium, alcohol, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol, and eating fish twice weekly. People on the AHA diet were given individualized calorie and saturated fat goals.

After one year, people in both groups had lost weight and improved their blood pressure, dietary quality, and insulin resistance, according to the results online February 16 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

But the high-fiber group had lost an average of about four and a half pounds, compared to nearly six pounds in the AHA diet group. Also, seven people in the fiber group developed diabetes over the year-long study, compared to only one in the AHA group.

The high fiber diet still showed positive results and was easy to follow, which often leads to more successful diet compliance, according to Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic who works closely with the department of preventive cardiology.

High fiber intake is one of the most important aspects of the AHA diet, she wrote in an email to Reuters Health.

“Fiber fills you up, expands in your stomach, fiber also keeps you fuller longer,” said Zumpano, was not part of the new study. But it may need to be limited for people with any kind of bowel issues or a history of diarrhea, she noted, and the other aspects of the AHA diet do have benefits as well.

Americans in general have a lot of room for improvement with fiber intake, Ma said. Legumes, barley and other whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are all fiber sources.

“However, we ask not to rely on fiber supplements or any one food to increase daily fiber, but rather to obtain fiber from a variety of foods in their diet as suited to individual tastes and preferences,” he said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/19pmtQ9

Ann Intern Med 2015.


Source: Newsjyoti Health

Athletic tape may have limited benefit for pain

Reuters Health – Therapeutic tape reduces chronic muscle pain better than no treatment at all but isn’t better than other methods, according to a new analysis.

The tape, which often goes by the name Kinesio, can sometimes be seen on the skin of high-profile athletes, and is purported to reduce pain and promote healing by improving circulation to the tissues underneath, write the researchers in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

After reviewing published studies, the researchers found the tape may help in the reduction of pain, at least in the short term, compared to sham therapy or when it’s used in addition to standard treatment, wrote Edwin Choon Wyn Lim, the study’s co-author, in an email to Reuters Health.

“But there is insufficient evidence to suggest that Kinesio taping is better at reducing pain when compared to other treatment approaches,” said Lim, a physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital.

The authors combined the data from 17 previous clinical trials that examined the use of Kinesio tape for chronic pain lasting more than four weeks. The analysis included 416 patients who received the tape treatments and 406 patients who did not.

The study team found that using the tape improved pain relief, compared to no taping, sham taping and other minimal care techniques. There was no improvement in disability, however.

Additionally, the researchers found that taping did not reduce pain or disability, compared to any standard treatments, such as physical therapy and exercise.

The researchers caution that there are limitations to their study, such as the use of different taping techniques and the number of treatments.

The review also couldn’t determine whether certain conditions respond better to the tape than others. For example, Lim said it could be that taping may work better for pain conditions with swelling.

Lim added that anyone with musculoskeletal injuries should seek medical attention first, “then, if taping is indicated, always insist on a certified taping practitioner to do the job.”

More research is needed to clarify the mechanism behind any possible effect, he said.

“The authors had the intention to show the real results and conclusions discussing it, and show that there are some effects in some trials in pain, small but they are there,” said Thiago Vilela Lemos, a physical therapist at the State University of Goias in Brazil.

Future researchers should consider that the tape is usually used with another therapy, Lemos wrote in an email to Reuters Health. He was not involved with the new study.

Kenzo Kase, who developed the Kinesio Taping Method in the 1970s, told Reuters Health in an email that the tape works by producing a negative pressure on the skin’s surface, creating space for blood and lymphatic flow.

“It is useful for addressing swelling and bruising in the early stages of recovery from injury or surgery, and for stability and muscle support during rehabilitation and to increase the speed of recovery,” said Kase, who is a chiropractor from Japan. He was not involved in the study.

Kase said the tape can be used alone but sometimes it is appropriate to use it with other therapies.

SOURCE: bmj.co/1uYQhwV

Br J Sports Med 2015.


Source: Newsjyoti Health

Racial gaps in diabetes not tied to social, economic status

Reuters Health – Social and economic status does not explain the racial gaps in the care and outcomes of kids with type 1 diabetes, according to a new study.

The finding suggests researchers look to other factors that may explain the racial gap in type 1 diabetes care, such as the perceptions of doctors and families, write the researchers in the journal Pediatrics February 16.

Previous studies done in much smaller populations have had somewhat similar findings, wrote lead author Dr. Steven Willi of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in an email to Reuters Health.

More than 29 million Americans have diabetes, 5% of who have type 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Willi and his coauthors used data from more than 10,000 kids under age 18 in a type 1 diabetes registry, following them for at least a year. The majority of the kids were white, but 11% were Hispanic and 7% were black.

The researchers say children who were black tended to have worse control over their diabetes, compared to white and Hispanic children.

Mean hemoglobin A1c should be below 7.5% among children younger than 19 years with type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

That measure was 9.6% among black children. That compared to 8.4% among white kids and 8.7% among Hispanic kids.

Black children also had more complications from type 1 diabetes, compared to white and Hispanic children, the researchers found.

The racial gap in diabetes management remained even after the researchers adjusted for factors that may influence diabetes management, including the social and economic status of the children’s families.

The researchers also found that black children were less likely to have insulin pumps, compared to white and Hispanic children after adjusting for their families’ social and economic status.

Willi said other possible explanations for the racial disparity in diabetes care and outcomes include cultural differences in acceptance of insulin pumps, the interaction between black diabetes patients and their primarily white healthcare providers, or in fact that providers have a racial bias in the diabetes care relationship.

“I do not feel that diabetes care providers are overtly racist in any way,” Willi stressed. “However, I do have lingering concerns that subliminal racial bias still exists in this country, and the medical community is not immune to this.”

There may be another explanation, according to Dr. Stuart Chalew of Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, who wrote an editorial accompanying the results.

“What is hemoglobin A1c?” Chalew said. “Doctors will say it’s the mean blood glucose,” but that’s a simplified way to look at it, he said. In previous studies, even when black and white patients have the same blood sugar levels, they can have higher A1c, which may be due to genetic differences, he said.

That issue wasn’t really assessed in the new paper, although the results are still valuable since the sample of kids was so large, he told Reuters Health by phone.

A1c measurements may be overestimating blood sugar for black patients, leading them to take more insulin and inadvertently push their blood sugar too low, which would explain the higher rate of complications, he said.

Closing the racial gap among people with type 1 diabetes will hinge on uncovering the root cause.

“Of course, healthcare providers should continue to strive for cultural sensitivity in their practice,” Willi said. “Finally, if this gap is due, in part, to subliminal racial bias, it will be helpful to recognize that this bias exists, and actively work toward its eradication.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/17igU4f and bit.ly/17igYkG

Pediatrics 2015.


Source: Newsjyoti Health

Defiant Danes march after gunman attacks Copenhagen

People hold candles during a memorial service held for those killed on Saturday by a 22-year-old gunman, in Copenhagen February 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke


(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Danes gathered at torch-lit memorials around the country on Monday, commemorating victims of deadly attacks on a synagogue and an event promoting free speech that shocked a nation proud of its record of safety and openness.

Singing John Lennon’s Imagine, defiant Danes promised to uphold their trademark open society and showed solidarity with the country’s Muslim minority after reports the gunman was a Dane with Palestinian roots and a passion for Islamist issues.

The 22-year-old gunman opened fire on a cafe in hosting a free speech debate on Saturday, killing one, and attacked a synagogue, killing a guard. He was later killed in a shootout with police in his neighborhood of Norrebro, a largely immigrant part of the city with a reputation for gang violence.

Police, which have not publicly the identified the gunman, arrested two people on suspicion of aiding the attacks but said there was no indication the shooter was part of a cell or had traveled to Syria or Iraq.

“We have now experienced the fear that terrorism seeks to spread,” Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told reporters. “The Danish democracy is strong, the Danish nation is strong, and we will not accept any attempt to threaten or intimidate our liberties and our rights.”

Jewish leaders also called for calm and tolerance as some Muslims feared a backlash.

“We fight together with them (Muslims) for religious rights. We are moderates. We fight together against extremism and radicalism,” Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, chairman of the Danish Jewish Community, told a press conference.

Thousands of Danes left flowers at the synagogue, walking in a quiet, solemn procession, with many also leaving both Danish and Israeli flags. A march by PEGIDA, the anti-Islam movement born in Germany, however, attracted only around 50 people.

Saturday’s cafe event was attended by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has received death threats for drawings of the Prophet Mohammad, and by French ambassador Francois Zimeray, who likened the attacks to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Vilks and Zimeray were both unharmed.

The killings shocked Danes who pride themselves on a welcoming and safe society, and fed into a national debate about the role of immigrants, especially Muslims. The populist Danish People’s Party, which campaigned against the building of a mosque here, has strong support in the polls.

Denmark became a target of Islamists 10 years ago after the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, images that led to sometimes violent protests in the Muslim world.

FIGHTER, GOOD STUDENT

The gunman, named by Danish media as Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, was well known to police for violence, weapons violations and his membership in a gang. Reuters could not confirm his identity and police declined to comment.

Police records show a man named El-Hussein was convicted of stabbing a man in the leg on a Copenhagen train in 2013 and Danish media said he was released from prison in January.

“He was ‘normal’ religious, nothing unusual, he didn’t go to mosque any more than the average Muslim,” El-Hussein’s father told TV2.

He was an avid kick boxer in his younger years and was often known by the nickname “Captain Hussein” but members of his club said he has not been there for years.

“He was a good student,” Peter Zinckernagel, El-Hussein’s principal at the VUC Hvidovre school near Copenhagen told Reuters. El-Hussein attended the school until the end of 2013, when he was arrested for the train stabbing.

National news broadcaster TV2 said El-Hussein’s parents were Palestinian refugees who came to Denmark after living in a Jordanian refugee camp for several years.

TV2 obtained a psychiatric assessment of El-Hussein conducted in connection with the assault case for which he was imprisoned in which he told psychologists he had a happy childhood and good relations with his parents and a younger brother. However, he did not graduate from school, was unable to get into a university and later was homeless.

Citing two unnamed friends, Politiken daily newspaper said the man was passionate in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had a short fuse. They expressed shock that he should launch such attacks, however.

Norrebro, where the gunman lived, mixes housing estates and seedy bars with bicycle paths and gardens. However, as house prices in Copenhagen risen, many young professionals have also made the area their home and it now hosts trendy music venues and at least one Michelin-starred restaurant.

The attacks raised questions about whether Denmark should tighten security measures. Even before the attacks, parliament debated whether to pass a law that would allow authorities to confiscate the passports of radicalised youths wanting to travel to the Middle East.

(Writing by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Giles Elgood)


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Under Xi, China's defence budget seen defying economic slowdown

BEIJING Tue Feb 17, 2015 2:19am IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping waits to welcome French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

Chinese President Xi Jinping waits to welcome French Prime Minister Manuel Valls at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing January 30, 2015.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Dufour/Pool

BEIJING (Reuters) – President Xi Jinping is expected to authorise robust defence spending for this year despite China’s slowing economy, determined to strengthen the country’s armed capabilities amid growing unease in Beijing at Washington’s renewed focus on Asia.

While China keeps the details of its military spending secret, experts said additional funding would likely go toward beefing up the navy with anti-submarine ships and developing more aircraft carriers beyond the sole vessel in operation.

The military budget will be announced at the start of the annual meeting of China’s parliament on March 5. Last year, defence spending rose 12.2 percent to $130 billion, second only to the United States.

That continued a nearly unbroken two-decade run of double-digit budget increases, although many experts think China’s real defence outlays are much larger.

China’s leaders have routinely sought to justify the country’s military modernisation by linking defence spending to rapid GDP growth. But growth of 7.4 percent last year was the slowest in 24 years, and a further slowdown to around 7 percent is expected in 2015.

Other factors would now keep defence spending high, from the U.S. military and diplomatic “rebalancing” to Asia to Xi’s crackdown on corruption in the People’s Liberation Army, which has caused some disquiet in the ranks, military experts said.

“Xi has put a premium on the ‘dream of a strong military’ as part of his grand strategy for China’s rise, perhaps more than any other modern (Chinese) leader,” said Zhang Baohui, a security specialist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.

“This greater emphasis on the military is very significant.”

Indeed, troops are rehearsing for a major parade in September where the PLA is expected to unveil new homegrown weapons in the first of a series of public displays of military might planned during Xi’s tenure, sources have told Reuters.

U.S. ALLIANCES RANKLE

At the forefront of the minds of China’s strategic military planners is the U.S. rebalancing, which among other things calls for 60 percent of U.S. warships to be based in the Asia Pacific by 2020, up from about 50 percent.

“The adjustment in the U.S. strategy towards the Asia Pacific has brought enormous external pressures to bear on China,” said a recent commentary by the Study Times paper, published by the Central Party School, which trains rising officials.

It pointed in particular to U.S. efforts to bolster alliances with countries such as Japan and the Philippines.

China is involved in bitter disputes over sea boundaries with both nations, as well as Vietnam, which has sought to strengthen ties with Washington.

“Higher Chinese spending, coupled with increasingly aggressive actions and assertive language, is likely to further push countries into the U.S. nominal embrace,” said Richard Bitzinger, a military analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Many Asian countries are also getting out their chequebooks.

Japan approved a record $42 billion military budget last month. India boosted defence spending by 12 percent for 2014-15 to $38.35 billion and military expenditure is seen rising to $40 billion in Southeast Asia in 2016.

While Chinese leaders would be aware of the regional optics of announcing a big budget for the 2.3-million strong PLA at a time of lower projected fiscal revenue growth, diplomats said they believed Xi wants to also placate military leaders and ordinary soldiers feeling the heat from an anti-graft campaign.

China’s top military decision-making body, the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs, has investigated several generals as part of a scandal into the selling of PLA positions.

It has also targeted the second artillery corps, which controls China’s nuclear missiles, as well as the navy and the air force.

“It is inconceivable Xi could make cuts now given the enemies he’s got internally,” one Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

MONEY FOR ANTI-SUB SHIPS, DRONES

Despite the massive sums spent over the past two decades, a recent report by the U.S.-based RAND Corp think tank said the PLA suffered from potentially serious weaknesses that could limit its ability to win future wars.

The report, commissioned by a U.S. Congressional committee, said China faced shortcomings stemming from outdated command structures, quality of personnel and corruption, as well as weakness in combat capabilities such as anti-submarine warfare.

Aware of some of these gaps, experts said the PLA would continue strengthening its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, a region dominated by the United States and its allies, and through which four-fifths of China’s oil imports pass.

“The navy is still seriously lagging behind in anti-submarine capabilities,” said a military expert at a Chinese government think tank who declined to be identified.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said he expected more funding for military drones and maritime surveillance aircraft.

“Pro-defence spending actors within China can easily say China is expanding its global role to justify spending on submarines, amphibious ships and aircraft carriers,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard, and Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Editing by Dean Yates)

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Egypt bombs Islamic State targets in Libya after 21 Egyptians beheaded

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) are marched by armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media on February 15, 2015. REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV


(Reuters) – Egyptian jets bombed Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday, a day after the group there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, drawing Cairo directly into the conflict across its border.

Egypt said the pre-dawn strike hit militant camps, training sites and weapons storage areas in the neighbouring oil-producing country, where factional fighting has unleashed virtual anarchy and created havens for jihadi Islamists.

While Cairo is believed to have provided clandestine support to a Libyan general fighting a rogue government in Tripoli, the 21 decapitations pushed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into open action, expanding his battle against Islamist militancy.

“And let those near and far know that the Egyptians have a shield that protects and preserves the security of the country, and a sword that eradicates terrorism,” the Egyptian military said in a statement.

Egyptian state television aired footage of fighter planes leaving a hangar with “Long live Egypt” emblazoned on their tails, followed by night-vision aerial footage showing bomb explosions and the aircraft returning in early daylight.

Libya’s air force also participated in Monday’s attack, which targeted Derna, an eastern coastal city regarded as a base for fighters of the ultra-radical Islamic State.

“There are losses among individuals, ammunition and the (Islamic State) communication centres,” Libyan air force commander Saqer al-Joroushi told Egyptian state television, adding that dozens had been killed.

Joroushi, who is loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government, which set up camp in the city of Tobruk after losing control of the capital Tripoli, said there would be more strikes on Tuesday.

The rival Tripoli-based parliament, which is supported by some Islamist groups, said the air raids were an assault on Libya’s sovereignty. Omar al-Hassi, premier of the self-appointed Tripoli government, said three children, two elderly men and a 21-year-old woman were killed in the attack.

It was not possible to confirm either faction’s accounts of the number or nature of the casualties.

CHRISTIAN ANGER

Cairo called on the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to broaden the scope of their operations to include Libya, highlighting how the insurgent group has expanded its reach around the Arab world.

Since the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a number of Islamist movements have taken hold in Libya. Recently, some have declared ties to Islamic State and claimed high-profile attacks in what appears to be an intensifying campaign.

The U.S. military estimated in December that only around 200 Islamic State fighters were operating in the country.

Egypt is not the only Arab nation sucked into confrontation with the group by the gruesome killings of its citizens.

Jordan has taken a leading role in conducting air strikes against the group in Syria and Iraq this month after the militants released a video showing a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

The 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were marched to a beach, forced to kneel and then beheaded on video, which was broadcast via a website that supports Islamic State.

The victims were among thousands of unemployed Egyptians desperately seeking work in Libya, despite the risks. Egypt’s foreign ministry said it was banning travel to Libya and had set up a crisis centre to bring home Egyptians.

Thousands of traumatized mourners gathered at the Coptic church in al-Our village, where 13 of the 21 victims came from, struggling to come to terms with the fate of compatriots who paid a gruesome price for simply seeking work.

Before the videoed killings, one of the militants stood with a knife in his hand and said: “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for.” Afterwards, he says: “And we will conquer Rome, by the will of Allah.”

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, condemned the beheadings. “They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians,” he said at the Vatican.

Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope was one of the public figures who backed Sisi when he, as army chief, ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against him.

The killings put pressure on Sisi to show he is in control of national security, even as he makes progress against Islamist militant insurgents in the Sinai, some of whom have recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

“It’s swift and decisive, it’s not about strategy, it’s about containing anger within Egypt,” said Hassan Hassan, co-author of a book on Islamic State.

“Just like in Jordan, it’s more about saving face, saying: ‘You can’t mess with us’. …. It’s likely to evolve into a sustained strategy of helping in the fight against ISIS (Islamic State) in neighbouring countries.”

Fears the crisis in Libya could spill across the border had already prompted Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, to upgrade its military hardware.

Egypt signed a 5.2 billion-euro deal to buy French weaponry on Monday, Egyptian media said, including 24 Rafale combat jets made by Dassault Aviation, a multi-mission naval frigate, and air-to-air missiles.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba, Omar Fahmy, Shadi Bushra in Cairo, Ulf Laessing, Patrick Markey and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy, Crispian Balmer and Mark Heinrich)


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Greek debt talks with euro zone break down, way forward uncertain

Protesters hold a giant Greek national flag during an anti-austerity and pro-government demonstration in front of the parliament in Athens February 15, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis


(Reuters) – Talks between Greece and euro zone finance ministers over the country’s debt broke down on Monday when Athens rejected a proposal to request a six-month extension of its international bailout as “unacceptable”.

The unexpectedly rapid collapse raised doubts about Greece’s future in the single currency area after a new leftist-led government vowed to scrap the 240 billion euro bailout, reverse austerity policies and end cooperation with EU/IMF inspectors.

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chaired the meeting, said Athens had until Friday to request an extension, otherwise the bailout would expire at the end of the month.

How long Greece can keep itself afloat without international support is uncertain. The European Central Bank will decide on Wednesday whether to maintain emergency lending to Greek banks that are bleeding deposits at an estimated rate of 2 billion euros a week.

“The general feeling in the Eurogroup is still that the best way forward would be for the Greek authorities to seek an extension of the programme,” Dijsselbloem told a news conference.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis hit back, complaining that Dijsselbloem had refused to discuss a proposal from the executive European Commission that would have given Athens a four-month breathing space in return for the new government holding off on major policy changes.

He sought to play down the setback as a temporary hitch rather than an impasse.

“I have no doubt that within the next 48 hours Europe is going to come together and we shall find the phrasing that is necessary so that we can submit it and move on to do the real work that is necessary,” Varoufakis told a news conference.

Varoufakis said he rebuffed a draft statement put to him by Dijsselbloem as the meeting got under way. In comments that appeared aimed at playing on divisions among European officials, he said he would have signed a text put to him before the meeting by Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economics commissioner.

The talks, which had been expected to last late into the night, collapsed in less than four hours.

Both sides showed signs of fraying patience, with several ministers complaining of disappoinment and fearing disaster. Dijsselbloem spoke of a need to rebuild trust and Greek officials grumbled that Varoufakis was presented with an unacceptable text as soon as he walked into the room.

Dijsselbloem pleaded with the Greeks to buy themselves time to discuss the way forward calmly by requesting an extension.

But he also said: “Would a new programme look very different? I don’t think so. The rules and regulations talk about strict conditionalities. It would still be about fiscal sustainability.”

Germany, the euro zone’s main paymaster and Greece’s biggest creditor, stuck to its hard line.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said before the talks that Greece had lived beyond its means for a long time and there was no appetite in Europe for giving it any more money without guarantees it was getting its finances in order.

As the meeting in Brusssels broke up, a senior Greek banker said Greece’s stance boded ill for the markets and the banks.

“It is a very negative development for the economy and the banks. The outflows will continue. We are losing 400-500 million every day and that means about 2 billion every week. We will have pressure on stocks and bond yields tomorrow,” he said.

Varoufakis earlier spelled out in a combative New York Times article Greece’s refusal to be treated as a “debt colony” subjected to “the greatest austerity for the most depressed economy”.

“The lines that we have presented as red will not be crossed,” he said.

MONEY FLEEING

An opinion poll showed 68 percent of Greeks want a “fair” compromise with euro zone partners while 30 percent said the government should stand tough even if it means reverting to the drachma currency. The poll found 81 percent want to stay in the euro.

Deposit outflows in Greece have picked up. JP Morgan bank said that at the current pace Greek banks had only 14 weeks before they run out of collateral to obtain funds from the central bank. [ID:nL5N0VQ3E6]

The ECB has allowed the Greek central bank to provide emergency lending to the banks, but a failure of the debt talks could mean the imposition of capital controls.

Euro zone member Cyprus was forced to close its banks for two weeks and introduce capital controls during a 2013 crisis. Such controls would need to be imposed when banks are closed. Greek banks are closed next Monday for a holiday.

Leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had requested a bridge programme for a few months while a new debt relief deal is agreed to replace the existing bailout, which has already forced drastic cutbacks onto ordinary Greeks.

The current programme expires at the end of the month. Some of the problem is semantic. The Greeks will not countenance anything that smacks of an “extension” to the old bailout or a continued role for the supervisory “troika” of international lenders.

($1 = 0.8785 euros)

(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou, Michael Nienaber, Andrew Callus, Ingrid Melander, Alastair Macdonald, Adrian Croft, Foo Yun Chee, Robin Emmott, Tom Koerkemeier and Francesca Landini; Writing by Jeremy Gaunt, Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)


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Russian researchers expose breakthrough U.S. spying program

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 kms) south of Salt Lake  City, Utah, December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart


(Reuters) – The U.S. National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.

That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.

Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said. (reut.rs/1L5knm0)

The firm declined to publicly name the country behind the spying campaign, but said it was closely linked to Stuxnet, the NSA-led cyberweapon that was used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. The NSA is the agency responsible for gathering electronic intelligence on behalf of the United States.

A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines declined to comment.

Kaspersky published the technical details of its research on Monday, which should help infected institutions detect the spying programs, some of which trace back as far as 2001. (bit.ly/17bPUUe)

The disclosure could further hurt the NSA’s surveillance abilities, already damaged by massive leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations have hurt the United States’ relations with some allies and slowed the sales of U.S. technology products abroad.

The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.

TECHNOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH

According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on.

Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up.

“The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,” lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.

Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.

Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital Corp, Seagate Technology Plc, Toshiba Corp, IBM, Micron Technology Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.

Western Digital, Seagate and Micron said they had no knowledge of these spying programs. Toshiba and Samsung declined to comment. IBM did not respond to requests for comment.

GETTING THE SOURCE CODE

Raiu said the authors of the spying programs must have had access to the proprietary source code that directs the actions of the hard drives. That code can serve as a roadmap to vulnerabilities, allowing those who study it to launch attacks much more easily.

“There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information,” Raiu said.

Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other U.S. companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big U.S. tech and defense companies.

It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.

Seagate spokesman Clive Over said it has “secure measures to prevent tampering or reverse engineering of its firmware and other technologies.” Micron spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company took the security of its products seriously and “we are not aware of any instances of foreign code.”

According to former intelligence operatives, the NSA has multiple ways of obtaining source code from tech companies, including asking directly and posing as a software developer. If a company wants to sell products to the Pentagon or another sensitive U.S. agency, the government can request a security audit to make sure the source code is safe.

“They don’t admit it, but they do say, ‘We’re going to do an evaluation, we need the source code,'” said Vincent Liu, a partner at security consulting firm Bishop Fox and former NSA analyst. “It’s usually the NSA doing the evaluation, and it’s a pretty small leap to say they’re going to keep that source code.”

Kaspersky called the authors of the spying program “the Equation group,” named after their embrace of complex encryption formulas.

The group used a variety of means to spread other spying programs, such as by compromising jihadist websites, infecting USB sticks and CDs, and developing a self-spreading computer worm called Fanny, Kasperky said.

Fanny was like Stuxnet in that it exploited two of the same undisclosed software flaws, known as “zero days,” which strongly suggested collaboration by the authors, Raiu said. He added that it was “quite possible” that the Equation group used Fanny to scout out targets for Stuxnet in Iran and spread the virus.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Tiffany Wu)


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Battle rages for town where Ukraine rebels reject ceasefire

VUHLEHIRSK, Ukraine Tue Feb 17, 2015 1:35am IST

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine February 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine February 16, 2015.

Credit: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

VUHLEHIRSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Pro-Russian rebels pounded encircled Ukrainian government forces on Monday and Kiev said it would not pull back heavy guns while a truce was being violated, leaving a European-brokered peace deal on the verge of collapse.

The European Union kept pressure on Russia and the rebels by announcing a new list of separatists and Russians targeted with sanctions, to which Moscow promised an “adequate” response.

Fighting subsided in many parts of eastern Ukraine under a ceasefire that came into force on Sunday, under the deal reached last week in marathon talks involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

But the truce appears to have been stillborn in the town of Debaltseve where the most intensive fighting has taken place in recent weeks.

“The situation is fragile,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the driving force behind the deal reached on Thursday after all-night talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

“It was always clear that much remains to be done. And I have always said that there are no guarantees that what we are trying to do succeeds. It will be an extremely difficult path,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Merkel, along with the leaders of France and Ukraine, expressed concern about continued fighting in Debaltseve and said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe must have “free access” for their work in eastern Ukraine.

Rebels said soon after it came into effect that they had no intention of observing the ceasefire at Debaltseve, where they have been advancing since January and now have a Ukrainian unit all but encircled.

Washington says the rebel operation around the town, which sits on a strategic railway hub, is being assisted by the Russian armed forces, which Moscow denies.

Reuters reporters near the front said Debaltseve was being relentlessly bombarded with artillery. At least six tanks as well as armoured personnel carriers and artillery could be seen in woods near Vuhlehirsk, 10 km (six miles) west of Debaltseve, which the rebels captured a week ago.

Military trucks headed along the main road in the direction of the town to regular bursts of shelling and the firing of Grad rockets and machine guns.

“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said a rebel fighter with a black ski mask who gave his name as Scorpion, his nom de guerre, and blamed the fighting on Kiev’s forces. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”

STALEMATE OVER WITHDRAWAL OF BIG GUNS

A rebel commander, Eduard Basurin, said Ukrainian troops had violated the ceasefire 27 times in the past 24 hours.

Kiev said its forces had been shelled more than 100 times in eastern Ukraine since the truce took effect, five of its servicemen had been killed and 25 wounded, and that it could not carry out an agreement to pull back big guns in such conditions.

“The pre-condition for withdrawal of heavy weapons is fulfilling Point One of the Minsk agreements – the ceasefire. One hundred and twelve attacks are not an indicator of a ceasefire,” said a Kiev military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko.

A rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, responded by saying his forces were “only ready for a mutual withdrawal of equipment”.

In another complication likely to set back hopes of peace, he and another separatist leader said the rebels would pull out of the Minsk agreements if Kiev made any further moves to abandon Ukraine’s neutral status — also a red line for Moscow, which fears Ukraine might seek to join the NATO alliance.

The separatists offered the Ukrainian forces a safe corridor out of Debaltseve if they gave up their weapons but a military spokesman for Kiev, Vladislav Seleznyov, ruled this out.

“There are the Minsk agreements, according to which Debaltseve is ours. We will not leave,” he said.

ONLY A GLIMMER OF HOPE

Fighting began in east Ukraine after the overthrow of a Moscow-backed president in Ukraine last February and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula a month later.

The West says Putin, who has called parts of Ukraine “New Russia”, has sent troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denies this and accuses the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine to seek “regime change” in Russia.

Hopes that Thursday’s deal will end a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people have been dampened by the collapse of an earlier truce when rebels advanced last month.

Western countries say they reserve the option of expanding economic sanctions on Moscow over the crisis, hoping a growing financial crisis in Russia will persuade Putin to use his influence with the rebels to stop the fighting. But some fear he wants the conflict to fester for years so that Kiev cannot control east Ukraine and Russia can retain influence there.

The EU’s new list of 19 people and nine organisations hit by asset freezes and travel bans was dominated by Ukrainian separatists but also targeted popular Russian singer Iosif Kobzon, sometimes dubbed Russia’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra, and two Russian deputy defence ministers.

“One thing is clear — the decision, which will be followed by an adequate response, runs contrary to common sense and will not help efforts to find a solution to the inter-Ukrainian conflict,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Alessandra Prentice in Kiev, Adrian Croft in Brussels, Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia and Michael Nienaber in Berlin; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood)

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