Strict battle guidelines hampering British troops in Afghanistan

4 Platoon's Trooper Nicholas Cooper, 20, from Winsford, Cheshire searching a compound where an RPG warhead was found (in the room next to the guy crouching). A 105mm warhead was found outside the compound

Soldiers from 4 Platoon searching a compound where a rocket-propelled grenade was found. British troops have run into pockets of resistance after many Taliban leaders fled or were killed in the offensive

As they fight a severely weakened network of insurgents in the largest military operation in Helmand since 2001, they have expressed frustration at the Taliban’s ability to manipulate their rules of engagement.

Caveats imposed to minimise the risk of killing civilians have forced British commanders to adopt new tactics to hunt and kill the small groups of insurgents who have begun to seep back into northern Nad-e-Ali, where last week about 4,000 British troops seized a small pocket of land once occupied by the Taliban.

Strict new guidelines brought in last year by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, have forced soldiers to rely less and less on airstrikes to kill insurgents, although Nato still dominates the skies above Helmand with drones.

Days into the intense assault of Operation Moshtarak it became clear to commanders that the Taliban’s leaders had either been killed in targeted raids launched ahead of the main air attack or had fled in the face of overwhelming British force.

But, as the week progressed, soldiers from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) stumbled into isolated pockets of resistance.

A group of Taliban gunmen, numbering no more than five, opened fire on a BRF patrol as it trudged back to base through the boggy fields, sending four poorly aimed rounds cracking above the soldiers’ heads.

As the British soldiers tried to determine where the shots had been fired from, men from 3 Platoon sprinted towards the firing point.

“I’ve a bad feeling about this,” said Lieutenant George Mackay-Lewis as he watched the scene unfold. Bursting into a mud compound believed to house Taliban militants, 3 Platoon threw a flash grenade in first before firing a few rounds into the walls to stun the insurgents and minimise the risk of wounding or killing civilians.

By the time the soldiers reached the western edge of the compound, the fighters had fled. “It would have been the perfect time to fire a warning shot but we can’t do that because it has caused civilian casualties in the past. We could’ve got them to stop as they fled, though,” said Mackay-Lewis, infuriated that the first insurgents seen since the start of the operation had got away.

As the soldiers again trudged back through the marshy fields, the Taliban sent a final salvo their way, launching a rocket-propelled grenade. But dusk was fast approaching. The soldiers noted the firing point and continued back to base.

“Today we got feathers and a little bit of chicken. But it wasn’t enough for a full meal,” the officer commanding the BRF, who cannot be named, told his men as they huddled around him, listening to the day’s debriefing in the darkness of a small mud room. “The honeymoon’s over, guys. They are going to fight.”

The next day, a single gunshot fired at 4 Platoon triggered a similar pursuit. As the BRF sprinted towards the firing point, a Reaper drone circling above spotted insurgents running into a compound.

The fire support team at a nearby makeshift base watched the shaky image from the drone’s cameras on a computer screen.

Two insurgents were seen knocking a “murder hole” through a wall, of the kind used by the Taliban to fire at British soldiers. The insurgents darted between firing positions, peering through fresh murder holes and cracks in the walls.

One appeared to be carrying something wrapped in cloth, possibly a weapon. The airspace above the compound was cleared of helicopters and jets, creating room for the drone to fire a Hellfire missile.

Mackay-Lewis told his men: “Command wants to make sure they are insurgents inside and not civilians.”

The Taliban’s radio spluttered and crackled into life. “We can see the soldiers standing by a wall,” said one of the insurgents. “Be prepared to fire when they approach us.”

The advance paused as the BRF commander decided whether to launch the drone’s missile. He gave the order to engage and then immediately retracted it as he began to doubt that the men were insurgents.

“We decided that there was no imminent threat, so we held back. It’s called courageous restraint and we try to exercise it whenever we can,” said Captain James Boutle.

The commander desperately needed the insurgents to open fire or to reveal themselves in the open, away from the compound, to permit him to call in an airstrike with confidence.

“We can’t move in too soon, in case we spook them and they leg it. We need to surround the compound first,” said Mackay-Lewis. “The plan is to send 3 Platoon forward to draw fire and then we can fire a Hellfire missile or mortars. This way we can be sure they are insurgents.”

But as the minutes ticked by, the insurgents fled. The Reaper drone lost the men momentarily as they passed behind a wall. When they were next spotted, they were standing among a group of civilians, making it impossible for the drone to positively identify them.

Frustration mounted as the soldiers felt any chance of capturing or killing the insurgents slowly slip away.

Crouching in the gap between two mud walls, the platoon’s sharpshooter, Lance-Corporal Steven “Recce” Simmons, was ordered to watch for insurgents fleeing the area.

Simmons spotted a man walking on the far side of the field, but he carried no weapon and was allowed to amble off. Another suspect fled across a field and 3 Platoon chased him. An Afghan soldier attached to the brigade fired two shots before the man stopped and walked back towards the platoon, covered in mud.

He was taken into custody and brought back to the base, where he was blindfolded and fed before being flown by helicopter to Camp Bastion.

“This is where we want [the Taliban] in a year’s time,” said Mackay-Lewis. “Where they are not fighting us or attacking us, where we are controlling the plays. For now, though, it is incredibly frustrating.”

Back at their base, with the benefit of hindsight, most of the soldiers agreed with the decision to refrain from firing the Hellfire. The group of fighters had been routed without a single shot being fired: a success, they said.

But the BRF commander regretted the decision. “I should have given the order,” he admitted later. “We had them.”

British forces are operating under a series of intricate regulations that dictate when soldiers can fire at the Taliban. Where there is a risk of killing civilians or damaging compounds with indirect fire from a drone, the order cannot normally be given by commanders on the ground.

“I think some ground commanders think they are better placed to make the decision. I think some feel the process could be speeded up,” said Boutle, who is responsible for co-ordinating the drones, attack helicopters and mortars used to support the BRF’s soldiers on the ground.

“But they sometimes miss the bigger picture. I can sit in the operations room with my cup of coffee and make clinical decisions without letting the fog of war cloud them. The point of this operation is not to kill insurgents; it is to protect the people.”

• Holland’s coalition government collapsed yesterday after failing to agree whether to extend the deployment of its 1,600 soldiers in Afghanistan.


Obama’s ‘Chicago mafia’ blamed for paralysis at the top

Rahm Emanuel

WHEN President Barack Obama’s secret service codename was revealed as Renegade and his wife Michelle’s as Renaissance, the names seemed perfect for a first couple who had come to Washington to shake things up.

More than a year into the Obama administration, with healthcare yet to be reformed, Wall Street banks continuing to pay huge bonuses and Guantanamo Bay prison still open, that mood of hope has turned to disillusion. Obama’s policy of engagement has yielded no progress in the Middle East or Iran; the war in Afghanistan continues to exact a big toll in lives and dollars; while the heaviest snow in Washington for 90 years seems to have stymied any hope of climate change legislation.

The president and his team now find themselves under fire for mishandling Congress from everyone from senior Democrats to social columnists. Critics say that by failing to move on from the “us versus them” feeling of the Obama election campaign, they have united an opposition that was in disarray. The result is legislative paralysis despite the biggest Democratic majority in 30 years.

Last week a prominent Democratic senator resigned after criticising both government and Congress. Evan Bayh from Indiana, who had never lost a race and was expected to be re-elected in November, complained that the party’s recent loss of the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy should have been seen as a wake-up call.

“Moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren’t buying our message,” he said.

“They don’t believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems.”

Even society writers are disenchanted. “The Obama White House has closed ranks. They were completely overwhelmed by the new office,” said Karen Sommer Shalett, editor-in-chief of DC magazine. “I haven’t heard of them going to any house parties or Georgetown row houses to be entertained.

“That’s important because if you’re social with someone over canapés and you know their wife and you know their children, you talk business in a friendlier way.”

When the Obamas do go to someone’s house for dinner, almost invariably it is to the home of Valerie Jarrett, their old friend from Chicago who serves as a political adviser.

The Wednesday evening White House cocktail parties which were launched with great fanfare as a way to reach out to Republicans, fizzled out last spring. The two parties seem more hostile than ever.

“This administration has managed to divide its friends and unite its enemies,” said Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Programme at the New America Foundation.

He and others lay the blame on the Chicago team, advisers from Obama’s adopted city. “Obama’s West Wing is filled with people who are in their jobs because of their Chicago connections or because they signed on early during his presidential campaign,” complained Doug Wilder, who in 1990s Virginia was America’s first elected black governor and was an early backer of Obama. “One problem is they do not have sufficient experience at governing at the executive branch level. The deeper problem is that they are not listening to the people.”

Obama relies on five people, four of whom are Chicagoans. They are Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, David Axelrod and Jarrett, his political advisers, and Michelle, while the fifth kitchen cabinet member is Robert Gibbs, his chief spokesman, who comes from Alabama.

The president consults them on everything. Military commanders were astounded when they participated in Afghanistan war councils and referred to them as the “Chicago mafia”. It was this group that inserted into Obama’s Afghan surge speech the deadline of July 2011 as a date to start withdrawing.

With Democrats fearing big losses in the mid-term elections in November, the knives are out for Emanuel, whose abrasive manner and use of profanities have won him few friends. Although his job is to deflect criticism from his boss, Rahmbo, as he is known, seems to have gone over the top.

The Wall Street Journal reported him losing his temper at a strategy session in August and referring to liberals as “f***ing retarded”. He is said to have sent dead fish to a pollster whose numbers he did not like.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, called on Obama to remove Emanuel, arguing that he needs someone who knows how to navigate Washington or will end up being no more than a speechmaker.

“No one I’ve talked to believes he [Emanuel] has the management skills and discipline to run the White House,” he wrote in The Daily Beast.

Among those touted as possible replacements are David Gergen, a political consultant brought in by President Bill Clinton, or John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff who now heads the Center for American Progress, a left-wing pressure group.

Emanuel would be unlikely to go without a fight. “Obama needs Emanuel at the top,” argued Dana Milbank in yesterday’s Washington Post, writing that the chief of staff was being unfairly blamed for the healthcare debacle.

“Where the president is airy and idealistic, Rahm is earthy and calculating. One thinks big; the other, a former House Democratic caucus chair, understands the congressional mind, in which small stuff counts for more than broad strokes.”

In Milbank’s view, Obama’s real problem is his other confidants, Jarrett, Gibbs and Axelrod, whom he describes as “part of the cult of Obama”, believing he is “a transformational figure who needn’t dirty his hands in politics”.

While Obama may have campaigned on a slogan of change, he has shown himself reluctant to sack people.

The problem may go deeper. Douglas Schoen, former pollster for Bill Clinton, believes the Obama team misinterpreted victory as an endorsement of his liberal agenda when it was really a reaction against George W Bush and the credit crisis. “They need to recognise there is only one fundamental issue in America: jobs,” he said.

What no one disputes is that Obama is extremely clever. Were it not for losing the Kennedy seat and with it the Democrats’ 60-seat super-majority in the Senate, Obama would probably have signed healthcare into law by now.

The president has not given up on the reform. He is expected to publish a revised bill today or Monday, just before a televised White House summit on Thursday with congressional Republicans. But they are calling on Democrats to start all over again with a far less sweeping proposal.

The biggest hurdle may be Obama’s own ambition combined with lack of experience. A leading Democratic supporter described his administration as “unfocused”, adding that he had counted 137 items on Obama’s agenda.

“He needs to realise that he’s running a huge operation and has to sequence priorities,” said Clemons. “He’s not thinking like the chief executive of a complex organisation.”


Meir Dagan: the mastermind behind Mossad's secret war

Israel's Mossad spy agency chief Meir Dagan

IN early January two black Audi A6 limousines drove up to the main gate of a building on a small hill in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv: the headquarters of Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence agency, known as the “midrasha”.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, stepped out of his car and was greeted by Meir Dagan, the 64-year-old head of the agency. Dagan, who has walked with a stick since he was injured in action as a young man, led Netanyahu and a general to a briefing room.

According to sources with knowledge of Mossad, inside the briefing room were some members of a hit squad. As the man who gives final authorisation for such operations, Netanyahu was briefed on plans to kill Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a member of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza.

Mossad had received intelligence that Mabhouh was planning a trip to Dubai and they were preparing an operation to assassinate him there, off-guard in a luxury hotel. The team had already rehearsed, using a hotel in Tel Aviv as a training ground without alerting its owners.

The mission was not regarded as unduly complicated or risky, and Netanyahu gave his authorisation, in effect signing Mabhouh’s death warrant.

Typically on such occasions, the prime minister intones: “The people of Israel trust you. Good luck.”

Days later on January 19, Emirates flight EK912 took off from the Syrian capital Damascus at 10.05am. On board, as Mossad had anticipated, was Mabhouh, who was also known by the nom de guerre of Abu al-Abd. The Israelis suspected he planned to travel from Dubai to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to arrange for an arms shipment to Gaza.

As the Airbus A330 rose into the wintry sky and headed south, Mabhouh, an athletic 49-year-old, could see the minarets of the ancient city — his home since he had been deported from Gaza by Israel more than 20 years before.

He had made the trip to Dubai several times before on Hamas business and had little reason to think that in less than 12 hours he would be dead.

From a highway below a Mossad agent watched the departure of EK912. Knowing from an informant at the airport that Mabhouh, who was travelling under an assumed name, had boarded the flight, the agent sent a message — believed to be to a pre-paid Austrian mobile phone — to the team in Dubai. Their target was on his way.

A few hours later, as the world now knows, Mabhouh was murdered in his hotel room — and the Israeli spy agency nearly got clean away. For days the death appeared to be from natural causes.

When suspicions did arise, it was only because of Dubai’s extensive system of CCTV cameras that the work of the assassination team was revealed.

The cameras recorded the hit-team’s movements, from the moment its members landed in Dubai to the moment they left. Last week their photographs were released by the Dubai police and splashed across the world’s newspapers and television screens.

Mossad is now deeply embarrassed. Its use of the identities of British, French, German and Irish nationals as cover for agents to carry out the hit has angered western governments. In the ensuing diplomatic fall-out, sources close to Mossad said yesterday that it had suspended similar operations in the Middle East, mainly because of fear that heightened security would put its agents at greater risk. Dagan’s job is also on the line.

Howver. few believe that Mossad will give up the secret war it has long waged against Israel’s enemies.

Mossad has had a reputation for ruthlessness since it hunted down the Black September terrorists who massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Time and again its vengeful arm has reached out across the Arab world and into Europe, too, smiting enemies.

Under Dagan’s leadership, such operations have increased. Dagan differs markedly from his predecessor, the London-born Ephraim Halevy, a nephew of the late writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Halevy was dubbed the “cocktail man” for his long chats with foreign diplomats. He shrank from brutal covert operations. Eventually the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, removed him and appointed Dagan in his place.

The new chief soon began to restore Mossad’s reputation for lethal operations. The tone of his directorship is set by a photograph on the wall of his modest office in the Tel Aviv headquarters. It shows an old Jew standing on the edge of a trench. An SS officer is aiming his rifle at the old man’s head.

“This old Jew was my grandfather,” Dagan tells visitors. The picture reflects in a nutshell his philosophy of Jewish self-defence for survival. “We should be strong, use our brain, and defend ourselves so that the Holocaust will never be repeated,” he once said.

One hit he masterminded was in Damascus two years ago against Imad Mughniyeh, a founder of Hezbollah and one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. Mughniyeh was decapitated when the headrest of his car seat exploded — close to the headquarters of Syrian intelligence.

Six months later, Mossad, in co-operation with special forces, struck again at the heart of the Syrian establishment. General Mohammed Suleiman, Syria’s liaison to North Korea’s nuclear programme, was relaxing in the back garden of his villa on the Mediterranean shore.

His bodyguards were monitoring the front of the villa. Out to sea a yacht sailed slowly by. No noise was heard, but suddenly the general fell, a bullet through his head.

One of Dagan’s most recent concerns has been the rise of the Iranian threat to Israel, both directly and through its links with Hamas. It is in that context that the operation to eliminate Mabhouh should be understood.

Preparations appear to have been in train for months. When Mabhouh landed in Dubai, Mossad agents were waiting for him. They had flown in from Paris, Frankfurt, Rome and Zurich in advance using their forged passports, some based on the details of British nationals living in Israel who were unaware their identities had been stolen. The agents had also obtained credit cards in the name of the identities they had stolen.

Yesterday Dhahi Khalfan, the Dubai police chief, said investigators had found that some of the passports had been used in Dubai before. About three months ago it appears Mossad agents using the stolen identities followed Mabhouh when he travelled to Dubai and then on to China. About two months ago they followed him on another visit to Dubai.

In January, after he had landed and collected his luggage Mabhouh headed for the exit and a taxi for the short ride to the nearby Al-Bustan Rutana hotel. A European-looking woman in her early thirties waiting outside saw him leave and sent a message to the head of the team.

Dubai is a hub of international commerce and intrigue. Scores of Iranian agents are active there and its hotels are often used as meeting places for spies and covert deals. The main concern of the Mossad squad was to corner Mabhouh, alone if possible.

They divided into several teams, some for surveillance of the target and others to keep a look-out, and one for the hit. Some changed their identities as they moved about the city, putting on wigs and switching clothes.

When Mabhouh checked in to the hotel, at least one Mossad agent stood close to him at the front desk trying to overhear his room number. Then two others, dressed in tennis clothes, followed him into the lift to confirm which room he was going to.

According to an Israeli report yesterday he specifically asked for a room with no balcony, presumably for security reasons. The Mossad team booked the room opposite.

Mabhouh left the hotel in early evening, tailed by two of the Mossad team. Hamas also knows where he went and whom he met, but is not saying.

The Dubai police have not released CCTV footage showing exactly what happened next in the hotel, but the available evidence and sources point to two possibilities.

One is that while Mabhouh was out, the hit team entered his room and lay in wait. To do this they would have needed a pass key or would have had to tamper with the lock. It is known that while Mabhouh was out someone had tried to reprogramme the electronic lock on the door to his room.

However, they may have failed to gain entry. If so, the second possibility is that one of the team lured Mabhouh into opening the door after he had returned to his room. Perhaps a woman agent, pictured in CCTV footage in the hotel wearing a black wig, knocked on the door posing as a member of the hotel staff, allowing the hit team to force their way in.

Exactly how Mabhouh was killed remains unclear. The Dubai police said he was suffocated; other sources say he was injected with a drug. But at first sight there was no evidence of foul play.

When the killers left they relocked the door and left a “Please do not disturb” sign on it. Within hours the Mossad agents were flying out of the emirate to different destinations, including Paris, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nobody suspected anything was wrong until the following day when Mabhouh’s wife called Hamas officials to ask about her husband. He wasn’t answering his mobile phone, she told them. The hotel management was alerted and the room entered.

THERE were no signs of struggle or any violence to Mabhouh, who appeared to be asleep. When he couldn’t be woken, a doctor was summoned from a nearby hospital.

In the room some medicine for high-blood pressure was found — planted by Mossad, say Israeli sources — and the doctor decided that the Palestinian had died of natural causes, possibly from a heart attack. In Gaza and Damascus 40 days of mourning began.

Mossad appeared to have got away with it, though some in Hamas had their suspicions that Mabhouh had been poisoned. They well-remembered a previous Mossad plot in 1997 in which an Israeli agent blew poison into the ear of one of its leaders on a visit to Jordan — an operation authorised by Netanyahu during a previous term as prime minister. The Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, survived only because two agents were caught — and Jordan demanded that an antidote be handed over.

Some Palestinians also suspect that Yasser Arafat, the long-standing leader who died in 2004, was poisoned, though there has never been any evidence to prove it.

When results of Mabhouh’s post-mortem came through, they were still inconclusive. Yesterday one source claimed that burns from a stun gun were found on his body and that there were traces of a nosebleed, possibly from being smothered. However, no firm evidence of exactly how Mabhouh died, either from natural causes or foul play, emerged.

The uncertainty alone was enough for Hamas to declare that Israel had killed their man. The police investigated, CCTV images were gathered and and the affair began to unravel.

One well-informed Israeli source said: “The operative teams were very much aware of the CCTV in Dubai, but they have been astonished at the ability of the Dubai police to reconstruct and assemble all the images into one account.”

For Israel, the fallout has been considerable and the reverberations continue. The real owners of the stolen or forged passports, several of them Britons living in Israel, have complained that they were innocent victims of a murder plot.

The Mossad agents who used their names have been put on Interpol’s wanted list, and the real individuals are worried that they will now always be associated with the murder of a Hamas official.

Dubai can no longer avoid being embroiled in the Arab- Israeli conflict. It is calling for an international arrest warrant to be issued against Dagan and says it will release more information confirming that this was a Mossad killing.

In Britain there were initial suspicions that the government had been tipped off about the operation, or had even quietly condoned it. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, demanded to know when the Foreign Office had first found out that British passport holders were involved in the affair.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office insisted there was no mystery or cover-up. “Suggestions that the government had prior warning or was in some way complicit in this affair are baseless,” he said.

“The Dubai authorities told us of the role of British passports on February 15 and we were able to tell them the passports in question were fraudulent the very next day.” This account was backed up by a statement from Dubai’s police chief.

However, the broader question of Britain’s response to Israel’s activities remains unresolved.

Gordon Brown has announced an investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency into the identity theft, and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, is expected to address the House of Commons on the issue tomorrow.

Israel is a key ally for Britain in the Middle East and an even closer ally of the Americans. Brown and Miliband will hope that the affair will fade away, though the pro-Arab lobby will try to ensure the matter is not easily buried.

Hugo Swire, MP and chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, said: “These allegations against the Israeli government need to be answered. This is not something that can just be swept under the carpet. You cannot conduct foreign policy at this extremely sensitive time by this sort of illegal behaviour.”

In Israel the reaction is mixed. Few shed tears over the death of one of Hamas’s top men, but there is dismay that Mossad may have damaged the country’s reputation abroad. Though in time the furore will no doubt blow over, critics of Dagan have renewed their demands for him to go.

The mastermind of Mossad may yet find himself a casualty of his own secret war.


Britons 'missing' after worst weather in Madeira for 17 years

A man escaping a mudslide in Funchal

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is investigating reports that a 50-year-old woman and 15-year-old girl, both from Britain, are missing after the worst floods to hit Madeira in 17 years.

Authorities on the Portuguese island said that the death toll after flash flooding and mudslides now stands at 40 with over 70 injured. They warned that this number was likely to rise.

Reports said that the unnamed woman was one of four British tourists travelling in a car which was caught in the foods. The Foreign Office says a “small number” of Britons are being treated in hospital but is understood to be fewer than five.

An unknown number of British tourists are currently staying on the island.

Flooding in Funchal, Madeira

Portuguese naval ships with helicopters and medical supplies were on their way to the holiday island today, where violent rainstorms and floods have destroyed bridges and homes and cut off phone and electricity. The storms are the worst since October 1993.

Seventeen of the dead were found in the island’s capital, Funchal. Its mayor, Miguel Albuquerque, told reporters: “It is very probable that we will find more bodies."

Flooding in Madeira

Regional government Social Affairs Secretary, Francisco Ramos, said: “We are going to continue to search for bodies, we are waiting for the teams which are due to arrive... in order to continue working on the ground."

Around 250 people have been left homeless, the Civil Protection authorities said on their website. The new death toll replaced that which said 38 people had lost their lives, with 68 injured.

Television pictures showed torrents of muddy water pouring through the streets of Funchal, flooding roads, overturning cars and bringing down trees.

Stones and floodwaters in Funchal, Madeira

Winds exceeding 60 mph (100 km/h), high seas and blocked roads hampered rescue efforts on the island, which is located around 560 miles (900 km) off the southwest coast of Portugal.

British holidaymaker Cathy Sayers told the BBC that Funchal was like a ghost town. She said the infrastructure had been wrecked.

"The drains just cannot cope with the water that's coming down from the mountains - they are just overfilled with sludge," said Ms Sayers.


Absent Roman Polanski wins Best Director at Berlin Film Festival

Roman Polanski

The best director was also the absent director. Roman Polanski was the ghost at the feast at the Berlin film festival at the weekend where he won his first major award since being arrested on a three-decade-old charge of having sex with a minor.

Instead of picking up his 'Silver Bear' award for directing The Ghost Writer, Polanski was languishing in his Swiss chalet with an electronic foot-cuff ensuring that he can get no further than his garden.

The 76 year old, who made his name with films such asRosemary's Baby andChinatown was, said his producer Alain Sarde, "very happy" about winning the prize for the film which is about a writer hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister.

Based on the novel, The Ghost, by Robert Harris, the viewers are left in little doubt that the Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan) is modelled on Tony Blair.

Mr Polanski made plain, through his producer, that he was disenchanted by film festivals.

"When I was lamenting with Roman that he cannot be with us," said Mr Sarde, "he said to me,'even if I could I wouldn't because the last time I went to a festival to get a prize I ended up in jail."

The director was arrested by the Swiss authorities last September on his way to receive a prize. A Los Angeles court has demanded his extradition to the US face charges, dating back to 1977, of having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Since fleeing California in order to avoid conviction, Polanski has been officially ranked as a fugitive and has avoided the US.

He has lived primarily in Paris, but has a chalet in the Swiss resort of Gstaad - which has become his prison until a decision is made on his extradition.

The role of absent director is thus not completely new to Polanski, who was born in Poland. In 2002 he won the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, a gruelling account of survival in the Warsaw ghetto - but could not travel to Hollywood to pick up the coveted statuette.

Although much of the action of The Ghost Writer takes place in Martha's Vineyard in coastal Massachussetts, there was no question of being able to shoot on location.

Rather, the beach scenes were filmed on the German island of Sylt, in the North Sea.

London - from where Polanski could also have been extradited - was replicated in a Berlin street. By the time he was arrested in Switzerland the film was almost complete and he was able to complete much of the post-production work in his Gstaad chalet, which has a film-viewing room in the basement.

The film has been praised by Berlin critics for its use of claustrophobic settings - an echo of Polanski's early works in Communist Poland - which underline how trapped the former Prime Minister has become, as he is under investigation for war crimes.

The ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor, sent in to pep up the memoirs, uncovers dark secrets. But the parallels between the politician-at-bay and Polanski's own situation - both trapped in their holiday compounds - are striking and, one assumes, deliberate.

"I think it must have been the similarities between life and fiction that subconsciously drew him to the story in the first place," said Robert Harris after the film had its premiere in Berlin.


Sailing students spend 40 hours in life boats after ship sinks

Training ship Concordia which sank off the coast of Brazil

Dozens of sailing students were forced to spend over 40 hours in life rafts being battered by huge seas, after their training ship sank off the coast of Brazil last Wednesday.

The three-masted SV Concordia was part way through a five month voyage around the world when a sudden, vertical blast of wind knocked the 188-foot-long ship on its side, forcing the 48 students and 16 training staff to scramble for the life boats before it sank.

All 64 people aboard were rescued by Brazilian navy early on Friday. After docking at Rio de Janeiro, the exhausted survivors described their ordeal which had left many wondering if they would die before rescue arrived.

The ship's captain William Curry said the Concordia's crew had prepared a day beforehand for what they anticipated would be rough but not unusual weather. He was below deck when the ship suddenly keeled, which was not unusual. But when it immediately keeled a second time Mr Curry said he knew instantly the vessel was in great danger.

Mr Curry blamed the wreck on a 'microburst,' a sudden, vertical downdraft of wind. When the boat keeled, the entire surface area of the sails was exposed to the powerful wind, and within 15 seconds, the boat went from sailing normally, upright, to lying on its side and beginning to sink. Thirty minutes later it was completely underwater, Mr Curry said.

"The ship had gone from sailing upright to being on her side in the water in about 15 or 20 seconds," Mr Curry said. "I knew, of course, that the blow to the ship was fatal and that she was not going to right."

Lauren Unsworth, a 16-year-old Dutch-Canadian who lives in Amsterdam, said; "The boat started keeling a lot. It came back up, keeled again, was basically lying on its side and all the windows began to break. That's when we knew it was time to flee."

Although the Concordia's radio equipment was underwater and unusable, making it imposible for the crew to call for help, the boat's emergency beacon was automatically released into the water.

However the crew spent more than a day adrift in the Atlantic before spotting the first signs of rescuers.

"We had been in the life raft for about 30 hours when we saw a search plane for the first time," Ms Unsworth said. "That's when we knew we were not alone and that help was on the way."

Keaton Farwell, 17, of Toronto, said students panicked as they grew increasingly concerned their signal had not been heard.

"My biggest fear was that nobody knew we had sunk," said Mr Farwell. "We thought our signal had failed and nobody knew and it could be weeks before we were saved. The worst life-and-death thoughts were going through our heads, and everybody was panicking."

After 30 hours in life rafts 300 miles (480 km) off Brazil, a Brazilian air force jet spotted the rafts. The navy said the distress signal was picked up about 5 pm. on Thursday, and an air force plane later spotted life rafts in the ocean.

"When we saw the plane, we were crying because of happiness. We knew somebody was coming for us, we knew we weren't going to die in a life raft," Mr Farwell said.

Forty-two of the students on board were from Canada, while others came from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe and the West Indies, said Kate Knight, head of West Island College International of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which operates the Class Afloat program. The course allows students in their last year of school and first year of university to study while learning how to sail.

Mr Curry said the Concordia's crew had begun preparing 24 hours in advance after getting a forecast of rough weather and high seas, but had not expected anything out of the ordinary.

"Those conditions are not at all extreme. It's kind of just another day at sea," he said. "It was an extraordinary event — just bad luck to be in that tiny patch of ocean at that time."

It was sheer luck that noone had been seriously hurt when the boat went over, he said. This was partly due to timing - the storm hit in the early afternoon at a time when most of the students were studying in protected structures on deck, which made it easier for them to scramble to life rafts.

Two rafts got tangled in the rigging but the ship's cook, who was still clutching a kitchen knife as she rushed up on deck, used it to slice through the ropes and free the rafts.

Mr Curry also said the school that operates the ship outfitted it with twice as many life rafts as needed for 64 people, so there was plenty of room for everyone even though all the rafts on one side were under water.

However questions remain over why it tok so long for the signal from the emergency beacon to be heard. Nigel McCarthy, president and CEO of the school, said a London-based maritime agency would conduct an investigation to determine the reason.

"I'm concerned," Mr McCarthy said. "Obviously we don't know the reality of what's happened at every stage of this process, and we're just thankful to the Brazilian navy for having gone and got them."

Edgardo Ybranez, captain of the Philippine flagged Hokuetsu Delight cargo ship which rescued 44 people, said everyone from the Concordia was unhurt except for the doctor, who suffered an injury before the rescue.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement thanking the Brazilian navy and the merchant ships for their 'swift and heroic response."

The ship had visited Europe and Africa since leaving Canada in September. It had been scheduled to dock on Tuesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, then visit several islands in the Atlantic as well as southern Africa and the Caribbean before returning to Canada.

West Island College International's Web site says Concordia was built in 1992 and "meets all of the international requirements for safety." It carries up to 66 passengers and crew and also can operate under motor power.


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