THE INDEX — April 9, 2009

A U.S.-flagged container ship, the Maersk Alabama, carrying supplies for the United Nations World Food Program was boarded and seized by pirates on Wednesday as it sailed towards the port of Mombasa in Kenya. The ship’s captain and its crew of 20 Americans were shortly held hostage, along with its cargo of foodstuffs that was headed for Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya. According to Peter Smerdon, the World Food Program spokesman in Nairobi, the container ship’s cargo “would feed hundreds of thousands of people for a month.” Reportedly, the U.S. crew “overpowered” the pirates soon after they boarded the ship, but in their retreat the pirates captured the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, and shoved off in a lifeboat. No one seems to know what the pirates are demanding as ransom for the release of Phillips, but negotiations are apparently underway. The last hijacking of an American-flagged ship, it should be noted, was in 1804.    

Moldova, still reeling from its waves of popular and spontaneous protest, has laid some of the blame for the unrest at the feet of its EU neighbor, Romania. Vladimir Voronin, Moldova’s yet-to-be-replaced president, expelled Romania’s ambassador from the country, and declared “a new visa regime” for Romanians. Voronin is also looking to close the border with Romania (a NATO member); Bucharest, of course, sees all this as a “provocation.” The latest accusations from Moldova could complicate an upcoming meeting in Prague next month between the EU, Moldova, and five other ex-Soviet Republics. The riots—dubbed “the Twitter revolution” due to the use of online, social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook—have seen significant injuries and the torching of the parliament building and the president’s office. Over 10,000 students are reported to have taken part in the protest. Voronin has vowed to “vigorously punish” the organizers of he protests, but is especially fumed over the raising of the Romanian flag over state buildings.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set once again to boast about his country’s nuclear ambitions. After insisting that Iran had no intention of building an atomic bomb, Ahmadinejad is expected to announce today “a new generation of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility as well as the inauguration of a fuel manufacturing plant”—all of which are set to mark the country’s “national nuclear day.” As new international concerns arise about Iran’s intentions, six global powers—led by Washington—invited Iran to direct talks regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. A top adviser to Ahmadinejad said that Tehran would study the “constructive proposal” put forth by the six countries. Yet, to date, Iran has defied five UN Security Council resolutions calling for a halt in its enrichment activities, three of which have resulted in sanctions.     

The anti-government protests in Thailand are gathering momentum: Bangkok taxi drivers have entered into the fray and are blocking roads and causing (even more) traffic gridlock across the notoriously jammed city. The protestors are demonstating in support of the ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and asking for the resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current prime minister. The protestors are also looking to disrupt an Asian summit that is to begin on Friday in Pattaya, a resort town just south of Bangkok. While the protests have been peaceful so far, the Thai economy has taken a hit due to the political uncertainty that has gripped the country. Protesters considers Abhisit a pawn for the royalist, military, and economic elite, while many of poor and rural citizens (who make up the majority of the Thaksin’s supporters) have benefited from the ousted prime minister’s populist policies.

The peace talks in Pakistan’s Swat Valley have broken down. Sufi Muhammad, the religious leader who negotiated the agreement that ended the fighting between the Taliban and the security forces there, has said that he is withdrawing from the talks. He blames the Pakistani government for taking too long to introduce sharia (Islamic law) in the region. Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has said that he will sign an order bringing sharia into the region only when peace is fully established. This fallout comes at a time when, reportedly, the Swat Taliban is gaining power and influence over a larger swathe of territory. In addition, according to Al Jazeera reports, Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Nezaar announced today in an online audio message that his group “is just days away from marching on [Islamabad].”

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