Somalia: New president raises peace hopes

War and crisis may be easing somewhat in Somalia. The U.S.-backed Ethiopian army withdrew recently. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, called by Al Jazeera an impediment to peace, resigned as president. In February, a Djibouti-convened parliament named the charismatic Islamic cleric Sheikh Sharif Ahmed to replace him. Ahmed’s naming of Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke of the Puntland region as prime minister was a step toward defusing separatist agitation there.

However, violent insurgencies left over from the ousted Islamic Courts government still control much of Somalia’s south including parts of Mogadishu. Confrontations last week between al-Shabab-led forces and African Union troops left 48 dead in Mogadishu. Observers raise the possibility that a resumed civil war could bring back Ethiopian troops.

China: Mine disaster highlights safety breaches

An explosion at the state-owned coal mine in Shanxi, Feb. 22, killed 74 workers. The accident shows that risk for Chinese miners is not confined, as often assumed, to private, unlicensed mines. The China Labor Bulletin notes that state-owned mines often use private subcontractors.

In 2005, explosions killed 214 miners and 19 miners respectively, at state-owned coal mines in Sunjiawan and Xinzhou. Observers say short-term work agreements foster profiteering and cost-cutting and discourage long-term planning.

Coal mine deaths in China fell 15 percent last year. Yet mines there remain the most dangerous in the world. Work safety authorities announced recently that 1,000 small coal mines would soon close for safety reasons and to eliminate “obsolete capacity.”

Ireland: Public workers say no deductions

A government plan for salary deductions aimed at easing pension payments brought 100,000 public employees into Dublin streets Feb. 21. Over 350,000 workers could suffer annual pay losses of $1,920 to $2,300.

Labor organizers cited by the BBC charged it is unfair to force workers to pay for a crisis they did not cause. “Our priority is about ensuring that the interests of people are looked after, not the interests of big business or the wealthy,” said Sally-Anne Kinahan, Irish Congress of Trade Unions secretary general.

January unemployment reached the highest monthly level since records began in 1967. The union federation is calling for labor participation in national economic planning. A nationwide strike is set for March 30.

Guatemala: At last, a price for anti-women violence

Official figures show that 2,887 Guatemalan women died violently between 2000 and 2006. Almost half are victims of feminicide, defined by a landmark law passed last April as murder “within the framework of unequal power relations between men and women.”

Until now, 98 percent of perpetrators suffered no penalties. Last month a 37-year-old defendant received a five-year jail term, becoming the first man sentenced under the law for beating his spouse, who survived.

The legislation provides for homes for victims, special prosecutors and courts, and maximum jail sentences of 50 years. Activist Rosalinda Hernández Alarcón, quoted on, asserted that statistics on women’s violent deaths are flawed, also that “reporters still disregard facts suggestive of feminicide.”

Iraq: Refugees live precarious existence

Syria, which hosts 1.1 million Iraqi refugees requiring almost $2 billion in support each year, asked Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo March 3 for help in dealing with a burden it sees as disproportionate. Budget-constrained UN assistance has been inadequate and support from the United States and Britain, almost non-existent, according to Azzaman news.

Police recently rounded up hundreds of the 5,000 Iraqi refugees in Sweden, placing them handcuffed on planes to Baghdad, in the process allegedly separating parents from children.

Some 2.6 million Iraqis remain internally displaced and a million more live in countries other than Syria. Some 80 percent of returning refugees no longer have access to abandoned property, according to a Huffington Post report.

Cuba: France pushes U.S. rapprochement

Jack Lang, special envoy of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, conferred Feb. 25 with Cuban President Raul Castro.

The former culture minister under socialist President Francois Mitterrand spent six days in Cuba. He was there in part to initiate Sarkozy’s project of repairing French-Cuban relations, distant since 2003 when Cuba jailed 75 so-called dissidents, most of them in reality U.S. agents.

Sanctions imposed then by the European Union were dropped last June in response to urging from Spain. Lang told reporters of another purpose for his visit: “France wants to facilitate a dialogue between Cuba and the United States … it wants to be an engine for that dialogue.”

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr. (