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Daily Archives: November 26, 2008

Polish WWII leader to be exhumed in murder probe

by Jonathan Fowler*

Poland's World War II leader General Wladyslaw Sikorski was to be exhumed and autopsied yesterday in an unprecedented probe into rumours that his 1943 air-crash death was a result of foul play, possibly by Moscow.
Sikorski's embalmed corpse will be removed from a tomb in this southern city, and laid to rest again today.
"The aim is to verify the different versions of his death," forensic scientist Malgorzata Klys of Krakow's Jagiellonian University said.
"We want to try to determine if he died in an accident or was assassinated," said Klys, who will lead tests as prosecutors look on.
Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which investigates crimes from the World War II Nazi German occupation and the post-war communist era, launched the probe in September.
Available documents, and the tense wartime context, lend an element of credibility to the theory that Sikorski's assassination was ordered by the Soviets, the institute said.
Earlier this month, the institute's director Janusz Kurtyka said the aim was to end 65 years of speculation.
Some historians question that, however.
"Exhumation is unlikely to reveal any new answers, or to put an end to the conspiracy theories," said Richard Butterwick of London University.
Even Sikorski's great-niece Ewa Wojtasik, who has given DNA samples to compare with his remains, has doubts.
"If we discover that he was murdered it will tell us a lot, but it still won't tell us who did it. I think the case will end up being dropped," she said.
Sikorski, often compared to France's wartime General Charles de Gaulle, led a London-based Polish government-in-exile set up after Nazi German and Soviet invasion of 1939.
He died aged 62 on July 4, 1943 when a British Royal Air Force plane plunged into the sea seconds after take-off from Gibraltar, a territory governed by London.
A Czech pilot, the sole survivor of 17 people aboard, testified his controls had jammed.
The Britain-bound aircraft had already flown without a hitch from the Middle East, where Sikorski had inspected Polish troops.
At an RAF inquiry days later, a forensics officer said the victims' bodies "showed head injuries and multiple injuries" suggesting they had died in the crash.
The inquiry ruled that the plane became "uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established," public records show.
Conspiracy theories were fuelled by the presence of a Soviet diplomatic aircraft in Gibraltar on July 4, two previous mysterious incidents involving planes carrying Sikorski, and the fact that many wartime British archives remain classified.
"The general was killed," said Warsaw University historian Pawel Wieczorkiewicz.
"The order was given in Moscow," he alleged, adding that Britain turned a blind eye.
After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Poland had found itself on the same side as Moscow.
But Sikorski refused to let Moscow off the hook over the 1940 "Katyn" massacre of 22,000 Poles captured by the Soviets in 1939.
The Nazis uncovered the Poles' bodies in 1943. Moscow blamed Germany for the massacre — sticking to that until 1990 — but Sikorski demanded a Red Cross probe.
Moscow broke ties with his government and pressed Britain and the United States to back a Polish communist administration, which the Soviets installed in 1944 as they rolled back the Nazis.
Some historians, however, reject the idea that Sikorski was a thorn in the allied camp. In 1941, for example, he negotiated the Soviet release of hundreds of thousands of Polish POWs into Poland's exile army, and was not generally seen as a hardliner.
"I don't think there is any convincing evidence that what happened at Gibraltar was anything other than an accident," said Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University in the United States.
"People like conspiracy theories. But these things happened during the war. Accidents do happen. It's difficult for people to accept," he said.
Sikorski's death robbed the government-in-exile of authority, making it easier for London and Washington in November 1943 to recognise the Soviet seizure of pre-war Polish territory.
Sikorski was buried in Britain. Even dead, he was a pariah in communist-era Poland, and his body was only moved to Krakow's Wawel Castle crypt in 1993, four years after the regime collapsed.




Madagascar’s perilous mining gamble

by Lucie Peytermann*

Madagascar is throwing its all into the mining sector to vanquish poverty but the environmental and social risks are high and the guarantee of returns is doubtful.
The Indian Ocean island is one of the world's poorest countries yet its subsoil is riven with mineral riches and holds some of the world's largest deposits of sapphire, nickel, bauxite and ilmenite, among others.
Mining accounts for only four percent of Madagascar's gross domestic product and its vast unexploited reserves have become attractive to many foreign companies since the commodities markets soared.
British-Australian firm Rio Tinto and Canada's Sherritt, respectively building the world's largest ilmenite and nickel mines, are only some of the mining giants converging on the "Great Red Island".
Modern-day Klondikes are sprouting all over Madagascar, turning a very traditional society upside down and threatening to disfigure an island whose biodiversity earned it the name of the "Noah's Ark of the Indian Ocean".
In Moramanga, in the east of the island, a 20-metre-wide scar slashes right through the primary forest.
Bulldozers are busy establishing Sherritt's four-billion-dollar nickel mine — one of the world's five largest mining projects — and building a pipeline, ripping through the shrivelling natural habitat of the endangered indri lemur.
"This is the heart of the primary forest, very close to the future protected area decreed by the government," said Leon Rajaobelina, vice chairman of Conservation International's Madagascar branch.
Yet in 2006, the government approved Sherritt's Ambatovy project, which will is also to exploit cobalt and ammonium sulphate from 2010 for 27 years.
According to a survey, between 1,300 and 1,700 hectares of primary forest sheltering 1,378 flower species will be sacrificed to the mine. No fewer than 47 species are found only there.
"This flora in Ambatovy was among the most endangered in Madagascar's wet forests," said Rainer Dolch, of the Madagascan environmentalist organisation Mitsinjo.
The government insists that a suitable balance has been found between the preservation of biodiversity — also the island's main tourism asset — and the aggressive development of the mining industry.
"Considering the extent of deforestation, conservation will be better ensured with those mining projects," director general of mining Gerard Rakototafika said.
Sherritt turned down interview requests but says on its website that it is committed to preserving biodiversity and ensuring that the mine generates a positive impact on the environment.
Amid question marks over the impact that unbridled mining can have on the island's environment and increasingly crucial tourism sector, some residents are also expressing doubts over the viability of this new economy.
Until recently, Fort-Dauphin, a lobster fishing port on the island's southernmost tip, was a sleepy and picturesque town flanked by three bays of bright blue water and abutting a spectacular mountain.
The idyllic landscape was shattered in 2005 when Rio Tinto started building a massive floating mining plant to extract ilmenite — a mineral used in pigment production, mainly for paper and paints — from the sands.
The sheer size of the 850-million-dollar project has knocked the town sideways. The population has doubled in three years to reach 70,000 and flashy new hotels now cosy up to the old colonial-style buildings.
The project is managed by the QMM corporation, 80 percent of which is owned by Rio Tinto to the Madagascan government's 20 percent.
"QMM undeniably brings with it a lot of opportunities but only part of the population can benefit," said Jean-Philippe Jarry, local coordinator of the aid organisation CARE.
"Fort-Dauphin was a fishing village and simply wasn't ready for all this."
Such a huge investment in one of the country's poorest regions has generated immense hope among the population.
"Before QMM arrived, this town was dormant, in a state of economic coma," said chamber of commerce chief executive Liva Randriamilamina, citing the development of transport networks, urban maintenance and the hotel industry the mine has brought to Fort-Dauphin.
But some have expressed doubts as to whether many of the small businesses will survive the upcoming completion of the initial construction phase and also argue that the mining boom has attracted many expatriate workers and inflated the cost of living.
"For the moment, the project does not generate wealth nor does it allow people to improve their living conditions," said opposition MP Josuah Randrianantenaina.
Coplan Andrianarijaona, a cook in Fort-Dauphin, said the prices of rice, meat and vegetables have shot up by 40 percent and her rent increased threefold in two years.
Leading the chorus of protests against the colossal project are the fishermen who have seen their subsistence destroyed by the floating mine.
"Life was acceptable before. Over there, we used to be able to fish all week, there were lots of fish and shells," said Christophe Mbola. "Now we only go out twice a week."
Some fishermen like Mbola were given compensation packages but they insist their income has shrunk.
"Let them keep their millions and allow us to fish in peace because at least we know the sea will always be there," said Marcel, another fisherman in the coastal village of Ambinanibe, 10 kilometres from Fort-Dauphin.
The risks are also there for the government, which granted the foreign mining companies conditions that few other nations would offer.
The contracts signed with Rio Tinto and Sherritt do not stipulate any percentage to be paid to the government and the companies' profits are tax free during the first five years of commercial activity.
"We're being criticised for being too lenient and maybe it's true, looking back from the current global context in which many countries are renegotiating their old contracts," mining chief Gerard Rakototafika said.
But he pointed out that the deal with Rio Tinto was sealed in 1998.
"Madagascar had nothing to offer back then in terms of infrastructure and we could not afford to ask for too much."