International Periscope

Earlier this month a group of 23 suspected terrorists dug their way to freedom from a basement compound beneath the Political Security Office (PSO), Yemen's main intelligence service, in the capital of Sana. Leading them out was one Jamal Ahmed al-Badawi, the mastermind of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors. Not all the details of the escape are yet clear, but it appears unlikely it could have happened without help from members of the Yemeni government, which has been a U.S. ally in the war on terror. On Friday, a U.S. Embassy cable sent from Sana, described to NEWSWEEK by a U.S. official who did not want to be identified, noted "the lack of obvious security measures on the streets" after the escape and concluded: "One thing is certain: PSO insiders must have been involved."

U.S. investigators and intel officials say the escape could have been orchestrated for a number of reasons, including shakedown money. Badawi escaped once before, in 2003. After he was recaptured, some Yemeni officials tried unsuccessfully to claim a multimillion-dollar U.S. award, suggesting a scam. The State Department cable also cited Yemeni sources who suggested alternative theories, including "that elements of the government liberated the prisoners to engage them in covert operations." Yet another theory, the cable speculated, is they were freed to be used as assassination squads prior to December elections.

Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff Serbia: Going Through the Motions, Yet Again To hear Serbian officials tell it, you'd think Gen. Ratko Mladic's 11 years as a war-crimes fugitive were about to end. "The action to arrest Mladic has never been more serious," says Rasim Ljajic, Serbia and Montenegro's minister in charge of cooperation with the U.N. war-crimes tribunal. On Feb. 8, Belgrade media quoted Serbian officials as having told U.N. prosecutor Carla del Ponte that Mladic would be in The Hague by Feb. 21, just in time for a European Union meeting on Serbia's application for EU membership. And according to Serbia and Montenegro's Defense minister, Zoran Stankovic, who recently disclosed details of a confidential report naming 50 officials who have sheltered Mladic in Serbia, everything possible is being done "to secure the arrest of The Hague indictees."

That's news to the war-crimes tribunal. "Blah, blah, blah," says spokesperson Florence Hartmann. "The ones you are quoting have been denied by other ones; there is no accuracy in anything they are saying. It's clear they can arrest him at any time if they feel the pressure," she says. So far that pressure hasn't been strong enough, despite the fact that Serbs of all persuasions very much want to join the EU, whose leaders have made cooperation with the tribunal a precondition for further talks. The Feb. 21 EU meeting is likely to suspend or even cancel those accession talks. Only an actual arrest is likely to make any difference now.

Zoran Cirjakovic and Rod Nordland

It was, by almost any measure, the best show the Italians had put on in half a century--which happens to be the last time they hosted the Winter Olympics. The Italian squad was dressed in Armani, Sophia Loren grasped a tuft of the Olympic flag alongside Susan Sarandon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, and Luciano Pavarotti belted out one of his best performances in recent memory. And every one of the 15 heads of state and countless dignitaries in attendance was shown under spotlight, gushing with national pride as their athletes entered the arena.

Except one: Italy's own Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Why did the publicity-hungry P.M. become the first leader in the history of the modern Games to miss the opening ceremonies in his own country? Take your pick of reasons: Berlusconi's budget cuts during the last five years left the Torino planning committee facing a $96 million shortfall, making him unwelcome in the host city. With an election campaign underway, Berlusconi also faces increasing opposition in the industrialist north; his low profile may have been meant to divert attention from a string of fresh conflicts, namely a defamation charge filed against him on the eve of the Olympics by a business cooperative linked to the opposition. And to add insult to injury, Berlusconi's company Mediaset does not own the rights to broadcast the Games.

Barbie Nadeau

Avian Flu: Spreading Dread Until recently, the spread of avian flu has been limited by countries with strong central governments that were quick to take action. But as new cases were confirmed last week in Italy and Greece, officials were grappling with two more-troublesome developments: a 5,000-kilometer leap from the Mediterranean to Nigeria, where chickens are dying, and a backtrack from Turkey into Iraq, where people are, too. Both present special problems. Consider Nigeria: not only will mass culls be difficult to enforce in impoverished regions, but with a population already ravaged by diseases like malaria and AIDS, human health is particularly at risk. The spread to neighboring countries by trade in poultry is a worry, too. "It would be naive to think it's only in Nigeria," says Christianne Bruschke, a veterinarian with the World Organization for Animal Health.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, health officials suspect that at least three people have died from bird flu since late January. In addition to security concerns, authorities have had trouble getting such basics as dry ice to preserve tissue samples. U.S and Iraqi officials are also concerned about the disease spreading to Al-Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency would make efforts to control it extremely difficult.

Rod Nordland and Michael Hastings

The author Dave Eggers and his pal Brent Hoff, an editor for Eggers's humor journal McSweeney's, are big fans of short films. Alas, says Hoff, "they're too short to show on TV, and they don't play in theaters because they'd rather show some great trivia about Adam Sandler." The two men had an idea: what if they launched a DVD "magazine," in which each new "issue" was a disc of short films? The concept became a new quarterly called Wholphin. That's "whale" crossed with "dolphin." Don't ask why. Focus instead on the first issue, which features a potent Iraq-war documentary by David O. Russell ("Three Kings") and a hilarious short starring John C. Reilly, plus goofy stuff like "a dude singing 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards. It's awesome," says Hoff. He's right. It is. But the jewel is a 1999 documentary about Al Gore by director Spike Jonze. Screened publicly only once--on a lazy afternoon at the 2000 Democratic convention--the film shows a hidden side of Gore: funny, warm and relaxed. "I don't know if the film would've changed anything, but he was clearly misunderstood," Jonze says. "I wish more people saw it." They can now.

Sometimes a short abbreviation can be a big deal. Last week shareholders of Allianz AG, Europe's largest insurer, voted to become the first major German company to drop the AG, which stands (roughly) for "incorporated in Germany." Instead, they'll be an SE, or Societas Europaea, a new European designation giving companies greater freedom to operate in the 25-member EU. By fusing dozens of separately incorporated subsidiaries all over Europe, says Allianz spokeswoman Petra Krull, SE status will allow Allianz to cut intracorporate red tape worth "well into the three-digit millions" of euros a year.

More ominously, changing to SE status would make it easier for Allianz to move without the expense of liquidating at home, reincorporating abroad and paying a lot of taxes in between. Management can also shed some of the union influence mandated by the German corporate code. The board of directors will be cut from 20 to 12 members, and the number of directors from German unions will fall from 10 to just three. No wonder it's mostly German com-panies that are considering the move to SE. According to analysts and shareholder activists, candidates include DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and steelmaker ThyssenKrupp.

Stefan Theil

Fads: Friends for Five Minutes or Forever? If you thought speed-dating was the wackiest Ameri-can fad yet, guess again. Speed Friending (speedfriend, a service to help grown-ups make new friends, was launched last March in New York, and is now expanding to other cities like Boston and San Francisco. It works much like speed dating, except without the pickup lines. You and a bunch of your pals-to-be gather in a room, sit across from each other in pairs and chatter. Every five minutes, a bell rings--code for move on and meet someone new. Of course, not everyone is best-friends-forever material. "One guy was, like, 48," says Rebecca Taylor, a 24-year-old accountant and Speed Friender. "He was almost my dad's age." But she did make two new girlfriends. Thankfully, users can sort out the freaks at home, and message the people worth keeping around. Each event costs $20--a small price to pay for a drink and a lifelong comrade.

Hilary Shenfeld

Interview: Oscar Nomination for Amazing Animation Tim burton has made some intriguing movies in his time. Among them: "Edward Scissorhands" (starring Johnny Depp), "Ed Wood" (also with Depp), "Sleepy Hollow" (Depp again) and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." (Depp? You guessed it.) Burton's latest, the stop-motion film "Corpse Bride," has now received an Oscar nomination for best animated feature. (Johnny Depp isn't in it--but he did lend his voice to the lead character.) Burton chatted with Nicki Gostin:

Thank you. I don't hear it that often.

No, I don't, really. Maybe I just don't get out that much.

I guess one in three.

[ Laughs ] Well, I always look depressed anyway.

Well, you know there's still time for us to come out of the closet.

He doesn't talk yet. I don't know if it's because he's afraid of his parents. "Corpse Bride" is based on a folk tale?

Fairy tales are basically horror stories. I always felt the purpose was to prepare children for the abstract of life--the things that are unknown. They give some kids nightmares.

Yeah, but I re-member waking up and crying at the sight of certain relatives. I had one aunt who had huge red lips and wore an incredible amount of perfume. It was like this strange alien coming at you.

Maybe once a month. When it starts to get really matted and I see little insects fly out of it.

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