Morning Report: February 20, 2006

VOA: Rumors of Philippines coup. Voice of America: 'Rumors of coup plots are circulating in the Philippines as the nation gets ready to mark the 20th anniversary of the "People Power" revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. A trash can on the grounds of the Presidential Palace exploded Monday, adding to the tension, but authorities blamed the blast on chemicals and a lit cigarette.' (VOA)

Nigerian militants strike oil targets, threaten more attacks. The Intelligence Summit cites Reuters: 'Nigerian militants said they blew up a military houseboat and an oil pipeline on Monday, extending a campaign of sabotage in the world's eighth largest exporter which has already cut supplies by a fifth. The militants, who are holding nine foreign hostages, vowed to prevent Royal Dutch Shell from using the damaged Forcados tanker loading platform, which accounts for 15 percent of Nigerian output, and threatened an even more devastating series of attacks on the whole region. "Patrol units ... carried out attacks on one houseboat belonging to the Nigerian army and the Shell Ughelli Odidi-Escravos manifold. Both were destroyed with explosives," the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said by email. ... It was not immediately possible to confirm the information independently, but the militants have provided accurate details of their attacks in the past. Shell said it had suspended 455,000 barrels a day of oil production, 19 percent of the OPEC member's output, after a string of pre-dawn raids on installations in Delta state, on the western side of the vast wetlands region, on Saturday.' The incident sent the price of North Sea Brent crude oil over $60/bbl. AllAfrica adds: The militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Forcados Oil Export Terminal on Saturday, yesterday issued another seven-day ultimatum, for oil companies to vacate the region or face more attacks. ... The militant group, however, said the attacks on the oil facilities were in retaliation for the military air raids on the Ijaw community of Okerenkoko last week. In an e-mail sent to media houses, MEND said it would keep the nine expatriate oil workers until the Federal Government met their demands including withdrawal of troops from the Niger Delta and allowing the communities control of their oil resources. MEND also threatened to fire rockects at international oil tankers and attack any person or group of persons found in any oil company in the region after seven days of releasing the statement.' More details at the AllAfrica article. (Reuters, AllAfrica)

A Jew is tortured and murdered in France, but it's not anti-Semitism. Ha'Aretz reports: 'The French police arrested late Thursday night most of the members of the gang that abducted, tortured and murdered Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jew from Paris. Hundreds of SWAT officers raided apartments in Bagneux and arrested 12 people. Another suspect was arrested in Belgium. "They acted with indescribable cruelty," the judiciary police chief leading the investigation said. "They kept him naked and tied up for weeks. They cut him and in the end poured flammable liquid on him and set him alight." ... Halimi was abducted on January 21 after a woman came into the mobile phone store where he worked and charmed him into a dinner date. The woman had been sent by the gang, which calls itself "The Barbarians." A police source said the gang is a group of childhood friends who grew up in Bagneux, a suburb south of Paris. The gang includes Muslims of North African descent and is headed by Youssef Fofana, who has escaped police capture so far. According to Marin, the gang had made six similar abduction attempts in the past. After overpowering Halimi, the gang brought him to an apartment in a high-rise in Bagneux. They contacted Halimi's family and over the next three weeks demanded ransoms ranging from 300,000 to 500,000 euros. According to reports, at one point they agreed upon a deal and set a meeting place but the kidnappers backed out and eventually ended contact.' Family members point to elements in the kidnapping that suggest anti-Semitism: '"First, because the killers tried to kidnap at least two other Jews, and second, because of what they said on the phone," Rafi Halimi added. "When we said we didn't have 500,000 euros to give them they told us to go to the synagogue and get it," Rafi said. "They also recited verses from the Koran." ... A source in the Jewish community said the gang's behavior suggested that the motive behind the kidnapping was violence for its own sake, particularly against Jews. "Why didn't they release him when the realized the family couldn't pay ransom?" asked Sami Gazlan, who is responsible for security in the Jewish community.' But Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin sees it differently, telling a Jewish radio station that "no element of the current investigation could link this murder to an anti-Semitic declaration or action." Allison Kaplan Sommer has more: 'More details in the story, including the fact that French daily Le Monde revealed that one of the people arrested told police that the gang had chosen “Jewish targets.”' (Ha'Aretz, Allison Kaplan Sommer)

Gay rights coalition forms in Washington State to protect civil rights. Timbre of a TimeFree Mind cites the Seattle PI: 'Gay rights activists and supporters have formed a coalition to fight a campaign aimed at overturning a new gay civil rights law that bans discrimination in housing, employment and insurance. Washington Won't Discriminate formed in response to two ballot measures seeking to challenge the new law, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire last month. Its Web site went live this week, and organizers said they are starting to mobilize support across the state.' The article adds that 'The measure passed by the Legislature and signed by Gregoire adds "sexual orientation" to a state law that bans discrimination in housing, employment, insurance and credit. The fight to turn the bill into law spanned nearly 30 years. Washington is the 17th state to adopt such laws covering gays and lesbians, and the seventh to protect transgender people.' (Seattle PI via TOATFM)