Thursday, July 29, 2010

Heavy rains delay salvage of crashed Pakistan plane

Wreckage ... rescue workers look for survivors at the site of the crash in the densely wooded Margalla Hills yesterday. At least 150 people were on board the plane.

Wreckage ... rescue workers look for survivors at the site of the crash in the densely wooded Margalla Hills yesterday. At least 150 people were on board the plane.

Heavy monsoon rains in Islamabad on Thursday hampered recovery efforts at the site of a Pakistani plane crash that killed all 152 people on board a day earlier, a senior police officer said.

The Airbus 321, belonging to private airline AirBlue, crashed on Wednesday into a steep and heavily-wooded hillside in Islamabad shortly before it was due to land after a flight from the southern port city of Karachi.

Thick fog and rainy weather are considered the most likely reasons for the worst aviation accident on Pakistani soil.

Bin Yameen, deputy inspector-general with the Islamabad police, told Reuters the operation to recover the remains of victims could not be resumed due to the heavy rain. Difficulty in accessing the site was also complicating salvage efforts.

"We are waiting for the rain to stop. In such weather, neither helicopters can fly nor rescue workers move up easily.

"We may give it a try but it seems very difficult to carry out such operation in difficult terrain," he said.

Investigators were looking into causes of the crash, said senior Civil Aviation Administration officer Ayaz Jadoon.

"They're going through records and documents, though they couldn't go up because of bad weather," he said, adding the plane's flight data recorder has yet to be recovered.


The control tower at the airport was sealed off, and radio traffic between the plane and the tower was being examined.

The torrential rain may also damage, or wash away, evidence at the site.

"Time is very precious," the investigation team's head, Khawaja Abdul Majeed, told Dawn News television after arriving in Islamabad late Wednesday from Karachi.

"We have to collect evidence as soon as possible, so we don't have much time."

While Wednesday's crash is the worst aviation accident inside Pakistan, the state-owned airline PIA has had worse disasters. In 1979 and 1992, PIA jets crashed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Kathmandu, Nepal, killing 156 and 167 people, respectively.

Within Pakistan, the last major aviation accident was in 2006 when a PIA plane crashed near the central city of Multan killing 45 people.

The federal information minister said late on Wednesday rescue workers had been able to recover 115 bodies during a day-long operation at the hard-to-access site.

Some relatives gathered at the city's main Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital to identify bodies.

A hospital official, Tahir Nadeem, said 59 bodies had been identified and taken away by their relatives while the remaining bodies -- mostly in pieces -- have been sent to the morgue.

The government declared a day of mourning on Thursday for the victims.

"My heart and mind are not ready to believe that he has died. I'm still hoping he might call me anytime," civil engineer Nadeem Ahmed told Reuters, as he searched among the bodies at the hospital for his brother. Ahmed did not find his brother's body.

Sarfraz Chaudhry, a retired soldier, was hoping to find body of his sister, Gulzar Bibi, who was one of eight family members on the ill-fated plane.

"She was coming here to attend a funeral of a 90-year-old relative, but nobody knew that she and others would have their last day," he said.

"We have identified six of our dead relatives, but of my sister and one other, we are still searching and hope that we find them."


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WikiLeaks: We don't know source of leaked data

Taliban fighters in a Madrassa compound near the northern city of Kundoz in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters in the a madrasa near the northern city of Kundoz, Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks' chief claims his organization doesn't know who sent it some 91,000 secret U.S. military documents, telling journalists that the website is set up to hide the source of its data from those who receive it.

Editor-in-chief Julian Assange says the added layer of secrecy helps protect the site's sources from spy agencies and hostile corporations. He acknowledged that the site's anonymous submissions raised concerns about the authenticity of the material, but said the site has not yet been fooled by a bogus document.

Assange made the claim in a lengthy hour talk before London's Frontline Club late Tuesday, in which he outlined the workings of WikiLeaks and defended its mission.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

EU toughens sanctions on Iran as Tehran offers talks

Iran said on Monday it was ready to return to talks on a nuclear fuel swap, a surprise that came shortly after the European Union agreed tougher sanctions, including a block on oil and gas investment.

EU foreign ministers approved a range of extra restrictions on Iran that went well beyond U.N. sanctions agreed last month and included a ban on dealing with Iranian banks and insurance companies and steps to prevent investment in Tehran's lucrative oil and gas sector, including refining.

Shortly afterwards, Iran said it was prepared to return to negotiations on a nuclear fuel swap "without conditions," according to the official IRNA news agency.

Talking of a letter that Iran handed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran's envoy to the U.N. agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said: "The clear message of this letter was Iran's complete readiness to hold negotiations over the fuel for the Tehran reactor without any conditions."

The announcement appeared to be an Iranian signal of willingness to negotiate as a net of U.N., EU and U.S. sanctions tightens around it, but it was not clear that the quick offer of fuel swap talks would be enough to placate world powers.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed Iran's offer of a return to negotiations but said she wanted to see the details before commenting further.

Turkey and Brazil agreed a nuclear fuel swap deal with Tehran days before the U.N. agreed more sanctions in mid-June, but this did not stop the major powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- from pushing ahead with a stringent, fourth round of restrictions on Iran.

The European Union said on Monday that the aim of its latest sanctions was to get Iran to return to negotiations over its uranium enrichment program, possibly by the end of the year.

Ashton and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, have exchanged several letters in the past month and EU diplomats say they could hold talks as soon as September.

Iran last negotiated with the West over its nuclear program in October 2009 but there was no breakthrough.

The question is whether Iran will agree that new talks can look at the possibility of stopping its enrichment program -- which Western powers believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons -- or whether it will try to focus them on a fuel swap, without any commitment to halting uranium enrichment.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, with medical and energy applications, not for weapons.


The EU restrictions, expected legally to come into force on Tuesday, focus on preventing oil and gas investment, stopping dealings with Iranian banks and insurance companies, and stemming financial transfers.

"The longer (Iran) refuses to talk ... about its nuclear program, the greater the pressure and isolation Iran will bring on itself," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

"But Iran does have a choice: Britain and the international community stand ready to engage, and still believe that the way forward on this issue is multilateral negotiation."

Perhaps the hardest-hitting element of the sanctions is the move to prohibit new investment in and technical assistance to Iran's refining, liquefaction and liquefied natural gas sectors which are a mainstay of its energy-based economy.

There is a broad clampdown on the "supply, sale or transfer of items, materials, equipment, goods and technology" that could have "dual-use" purposes, including software, and restrictions on financial transfers and bond sales or purchases.


The broadened sanctions are intended to put financial pressure on Iran, which is the world's fifth largest crude oil exporter but has little refining capacity and has to import about 40 percent of its gasoline needs for domestic consumption.

Traders said this month Iran was depending more on friendly countries for fuel supplies to sidestep sanctions intended to hinder its fuel imports, and was buying about half of its July gasoline imports from Turkey and the rest from Chinese sellers.

Only three cargoes of gasoline have so far reached Iran this month, according to shipping documents seen by Reuters, a sign that sanctions are biting. Because Iran subsidizes fuel for consumers, pump prices will not be affected.

While China, Turkey, Malaysia and others may now step in to furnish Iran with goods it will no longer be able to get from the European Union, analysts said the EU sanctions were well-enough designed to ensure they would be effective.

"Most of the sectors that have been targeted in the EU sanctions are ones over which Europeans have a substantial leverage," Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters.

"Not so many other countries can provide the kind of financial services that will be cut off. Few other countries supply technology for liquefied natural gas, nobody else does re-insurance ... The European Union has very wisely found areas over which it has real leverage and cannot be supplanted."


Monday, July 26, 2010

Tributes paid to music festival victim

Love Parade in Duisburg where mass stampede caused fatalities

A Facebook page has been set up in memory of Clancie Ridley, the Sydney woman who died during a stampede at a German music festival on Saturday.

The 27-year-old from Georges Hall, in the city's southwest, died at the Love Parade music event in Duisburg.

"She was everyone's little ray of sunshine. She was giving and loving and very, very social," one person wrote on the tribute page.

"You will be in our hearts for ever," another said.

Ms Ridley was one of 19 people killed in the tragedy.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is expected to confirm later on Monday that Ms Ridley was the only Australian killed.

Officials in Germany say revellers from Italy, Netherlands, China, Bosnia and Spain also died.

More than 340 people were injured.

The deaths occurred after revellers were crushed in a narrow tunnel which served as an entrance to the event.

Television pictures showed lifeless bodies being passed over the heads of those frantically trying to escape.

Fairfax reported Ms Ridley had just quit her job in health insurance and planned to spend three months travelling in Europe.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nepal election stalemate, a setback for Maoists

Nepal's failure to elect a Prime Minister on Wednesday is being seen as a setback to the Maoists, who had paralyzed the country earlier this year by organizing strikes and blockades to force the resignation of former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal.

UCPN-Maoist party's Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, Nepali Congress party's Ram Chandra Poudel nor Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist)'s Jhalanath Khanal -the three major candidates - won the necessary majority vote from the parliamentary members in the 601-member Constituent Assembly.

In demanding Madhav Kumar's resignation, the Maoists had insisted that a government led by Prachanda, the Maoist prime minister from August 2008 to May 2009, would inject momentum into the process in the Himalayan nation.

Some analysts believe that the election's outcome was the result of infighting between the Maoists.

"The days leading to the election also exposed fissures in the Maoist party with several senior Maoist leaders openly saying that as Prachanda is unacceptable to rival parties as prime ministerial candidate, his more popular deputy Baburam Bhattarai should be nominated as candidate," The Christian Science Monitor quoted Kiran Nepal, editor of Himalkhabarpatrika, a fortnightly newsmagazine, as saying.

"In the eyes of the public, the Maoist party is no longer a solidly unified party. This is another area where the Maoists have lost," he added.

A runoff between Prachanda and Paudel is now set for Friday, as Khanal withdrew from the voting process after he failed to secure support of two-thirds of the Parliament. (ANI)


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

French minister's wife quizzed by cops

Police have questioned the wife of France's embattled labour minister Eric Woerth as part of the investigation into the financial scandals dogging President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Florence Woerth once worked for the company managing the family wealth of Liliane Bettencourt, L'Oreal heiress and France's richest woman, at a time when Woerth was both budget minister and Sarkozy's chief party fundraiser.

The government has been hit by allegations that Woerth had a conflict of interest as the minister in charge of fighting tax evasion at a time when his wife was helping manage Bettencourt's fortune and he was seeking donations.

A former Bettencourt accountant has alleged that Woerth received 150,000 euros ($A218,860) in cash from the heiress during Sarkozy's 2007 election campaign, a charge he firmly denies.

Leaked recordings of private conversations between Bettencourt and Florence Woerth's boss at the wealth management firm Clymene suggest the 87-year-old heiress was seeking to avoid tax and saw Woerth as a possible ally.

Florence Woerth's lawyer, Antoine Beauquier, confirmed he had accompanied his client to a police station in Paris for questioning on Wednesday, and said she was treated as a witness, not a suspect, and was neither detained nor charged.

"I'm pleased that Mrs Woerth can at last put her side of the story after she has been victim of so many stories in recent weeks," he said.

Sarkozy's cabinet was to meet later on Wednesday and was expected to give permission for their colleague Woerth to be questioned by prosecutors looking into the various scandals surrounding Bettencourt's vast fortune.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Christians shot dead outside Pak court

In an incident which highlights the total collapse of security and the rule of law in Pakistan, two Christian brothers, who were accused of distributing 'blasphemous' pamphlets, were shot dead outside a court in Faisalabad on Tuesday.

According to reports, two unidentified gunmen shot dead Pastor Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajjad, and also left their police escort critically wounded, as they were leaving the court after a hearing .

"Both brothers were rushed to hospital where they were pronounced dead," The Daily Times quoted a local official, as saying.

Both Emmanuel and Rashid were arrested earlier this month along with some others on charges of igniting religious hatred by distributing sacrilegious pamphlets.

A senior church official in Faisalabad, James Aftab, said that the men had been "implicated in a fake case."

Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti blamed the local mosques in Faislabad for the attack on the two brothers.

"I personally don't think that anyone who wrote blasphemous things would put their names on the bottom," Bhatti said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has taken serious note of the incident and directed Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to take all steps to ensure the safety of minorities in Faislabad and maintain law and order in the city.


Monday, July 19, 2010

2 bodies found in flooded China mine that traps 11

Rescuers found two bodies in a flooded coal shaft in northwestern China and 11 miners remained trapped Monday — a reminder of the dangers of an industry that claimed the lives of 40 others in recent days.

More than 100 rescuers pumped water out of the mine shaft in Jinta, a county in Gansu province, which was under construction at the time, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Three miners were lifted to safety after water gushed into the mine Sunday.

Calls to the local government rang unanswered Monday.

Separately, an explosion late Sunday at a coal mine in northeastern Liaoning province killed four workers and injured 13 others, who were in stable condition, Xinhua said.

On Saturday, 28 miners were killed when an electrical cable caught fire inside a coal shaft in northern Shaanxi province. There were no survivors. The fire happened at the privately owned Xiaonangou coal mine in Sangshuping town.

The coal mine's owner, Guo Yungang, was detained by police, Xinhua said. His company, Xinxin Mining Co. Ltd., tried to expand the mine in order to increase output from 30,000 tons to 90,000 tons. Rescuers retrieved the bodies of at least five miners and an investigation was under way.

In another accident Saturday, eight workers died when a blaze engulfed a coal mine in central Henan province, Xinhua reported. The incident at a mine operated by the Zhengzhou Coal Industry Group was also being investigated.

Although safety conditions have improved in recent years, China's mining industry is by far the world's deadliest, with accidents and blasts killing more than 2,600 coal miners last year.

The industry is also rife with corruption and illegal practices, sometimes triggering violence. On Sunday, more than 100 villagers and 70 miners attacked each other with bricks and stones at a coal mine in Shaanxi province, Xinhua said.

The clash, set off by a dispute over the mine's ownership, injured 87 people in Yulin city, Xinhua said. Villagers also smashed gates and other facilities in an attempt to force a halt in production at the mine, which employs 200 people, it said.

Authorities in Yulin detained eight people suspected of "masterminding" the clash, Xinhua said. Calls to the Yulin city government rang unanswered Monday.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Death toll for Iran mosque bombing rises to 27

Revolutionary Guards
Members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards were among those killed by the bomb

The death toll for twin bombings outside a mosque in southeast Iran rose to 27, Iranian media reported Friday, making it one of the deadliest attacks in years.

Iranian Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastagerdi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that another 270 were injured, including 11 in serious condition and the death toll in the Zahedan blasts could still rise.

The Jundallah insurgency, a Sunni group that has killed scores in recent years, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on their website saying it had killed more than a 100 members of the elite Revolutionary Guard in revenge for the execution of their leader last month.

The group struck another mosque in Zahedan in May 2009, killing 25 people.

According to authorities, the first blast caused minimal damage, but it prompted people to rush to the site where they were caught by a second explosion. Similar tactics have been used by Sunni insurgents in Iraq to maximize civilian casualties.

The governor of the Sistan-Baluchistan province told state TV that "investigations on finding the responsible party will continue despite one group already claiming responsibility." He did not name the group.

Reports said some members of the powerful Revolutionary Guard were among victims of the explosions who had gathered at the mosque to celebrate the birthday of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of the Revolutionary Guard, told worshippers during Tehran Friday prayers that the victims "were martyred by hands of mercenaries of the U.S. and U.K."

He was echoed by influential lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi who said "America should be answerable for the terrorist incident in Zahedan."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the bombing on Thursday in the "strongest possible terms" and called for those responsible to be held accountable.

"The United States extends its sympathy to the families and loved ones of those injured and killed," she said.

Jundallah says it is fighting for the rights of the Sunni Baluch minority, and accuses Iran's Shiite-dominated government of persecution. Tehran says Jundallah is behind an insurgency in its southeast that has destabilized the border region with Pakistan.

In June, Iran hanged the group's leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, in Zahedan after he was found guilty of carrying out attacks against civilians, armed robbery, and engaging in a disinformation campaign against Iran.

His younger brother, Abdulhamid, was executed in May in Iran after being captured in Pakistan in 2008 and extradited to Iran.

The group gained attention six years ago after it launched a campaign of sporadic kidnappings and bombings that killed dozens. The group claims minority Sunni tribes in southeastern Iran suffer discrimination at the hands of Iran's Shiite leadership.

Iran has accused the U.S. and Britain of supporting Jundallah in an effort to weaken the Iranian government, a charge they deny. Iran also claims the group is linked to al-Qaida, but experts say no evidence of such a link has been found.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nifty consolidates; SAIL, HUL, Axis Bank, IDFC top gainers

At 14:28 hours IST, the benchmark Nifty was consolidating at current levels. FMCG and technology companies' shares were supporting the markets. SAIL, Reliance Industries, Tata Steel, IDFC, Tata Motors, Tata Power, PNB, Idea Cellular, Siemens, ACC, Reliance Infrastructure and Jaiprakash Associates were also supportive.

Axis Bank rose 1.65% post its better-than-expected Q1FY11 numbers. It reported a net profit of Rs 742 crore, a growth of 32.03% and net interest income rose 44.7% to Rs 1,513 crore from Rs 1,045.6 crore on YoY basis.

However, financial, telecom (barring Idea), auto (except Tata Motors), realty and PSU oil & gas companies' shares continued to see selling pressure.

BPCL was the top loser on the Nifty; lost 6%. GAIL and ONGC lost 2% & 1%, respectively. HPCL was down 6% and IOC was down 3.5%.

The Sensex was trading at 17941, up 3 points and the Nifty was at 5388, up 2 points. The Nifty July future was trading at 10 points premium. European markets also recovered after iniitial sell-off and were flat in trade.

BF Utilities, Dr Reddys Labs, Tata Steel, HPCL, LIC Housing Finance, Axis Bank, BPCL and HPCL were the most active shares on the exchanges.

In the midcap space, BF Utilities, Indian Metals, S Kumars Nationwide, LIC Housing Finance and Mcleod Russel gained 5-8% while Polaris was down 8% (post numbers). Infotech Enterprise, Ruchi Soya, Apollo Tyres and Nagarjuna Construction fell 3%.

In the smallcap space, Twilight Litaka surged 16.5%. ZF Steering Gea, Rico Auto, ILandFS and Bhagwati Banquet rose 7-10%. However, Ankur Drugs, Pennar Inds, Timex Group Ind, Reliance World and Nitesh Estates lost 3.7-5.5%.

Top percentage gainers - 20 Microns, Punj Alkalies and Shree Ajit Pulp rallied 20% each.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Deadly typhoon hits Philippines

At least four people have been killed and 19 fishermen are missing, after Typhoon Conson hit the central Philippines causing widespread damage in and around the capital, Manila.

The category one storm packing gusts of up to 120kmh struck late on Tuesday, destroying several shanty towns on the coast near Manila, and cutting power on the main island of Luzon.

Officials are concerned the death toll may rise and are still trying to determine the full extent of the damage with many communications systems brought down by the storm.

In Manila the city's overhead railway system was also shut down due to the power outage that brought much of the city to a standstill.

"The wind howled like a child screaming... it was so strong, our houseboat nearly got flipped over," said Rigor Sambol, 52, who lives in a coastal shanty area near Manila.

"I had to take the children one by one to a nearby gym where they spent the evening on the cold floor," he told the AFP news agency.

Typhoon belt

"I nearly lost my three-year-old when he fell into the water because he got knocked down by the strong winds."

Shanty towns around the capital were badly damaged [AFP]

By Wednesday morning the storm had blown past Luzon and into the South China Sea, but some international flights in and out of Manila were still cancelled while others were delayed.

Classes at many schools were suspended.

The Philippines lies in the so-called typhoon belt of the western Pacific and is swept by up to 20 cyclones a year, killing hundreds of people.

Conson was the first of the storm of the 2010 season, and its ferocity took the 12 million residents of Manila by surprise.

On Wednesday the country's newly-installed president, Benigno Aquino, criticised the state weather service for not giving adequate warning to Manila residents that Conson would hit the city.

"This is not acceptable," Aquino told red-faced weather service officials at an emergency meeting of rescue agencies.

"We rely on you to tell us where the potential problems are."

Many Manila residents had apparently been assured by forecasters' bulletins that Conson would hit the northern provinces instead of Manila.

However, the weather service failed to mention that the typhoon had a wide radius of 300km.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

US expects India to enforce UN sanctions against Iran

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) chairs a session of the presidential council on the development of information technologies in Russia in the city of Tver, some 170 km (106 miles) northwest of Moscow, July 8, 2010. REUTERS/Sergei Chirikov/Pool
The US says its expects India to enforce UN sanctions against Iran but left it to that country to decide on steps to "convince" the Persian Gulf state to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The Obama Administration also said Iran's controversial atomic programme cannot be a situation of "business as usual" since it is about the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which will have its implications outside the Middle East including India.

"From our standpoint and what we have made clear in our conversations with many countries, is that this (Iran pursuing the path of nuclear weapons programme) cannot be a situation of business as usual," State Department spokesman P J Crowley told reporters.

"This is about the future of the world. This is about the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which will affect countries outside of the region, including India.

So everyone has a responsibility to do what each country can to convince Iran to change its present course," the State Department spokesman P J Crowley said.

When asked about the recently held India-Iran Joint Commission in New Delhi last week, "I'll leave it to India to describe what steps it is going to take."

To a query on specific comments made by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao about the latest round of US sanctions against Iran, Crowley said he is not familiar with those particular comments. Rao had said such "unilateral sanctions" can have "a direct and adverse impact" on India's energy security.

But Crowley said, "Every country obviously pursues its own self-interest of its citizens. We understand that. By the same token, all countries have international obligations to fully respect and to heed the sanctions that were passed by the Security Council last month."

"We are taking our own steps to fully implement those sanctions and to take additional steps within our own laws. And we would expect all countries to respect and commit themselves to undertake and to enforce the sanctions that have been passed by the UN Security Council," Crowley said.

"We have ongoing concerns about the nature of Iran's nuclear programme. There are many questions that we have that have gone unanswered.

"You even have today concerns expressed by (Russian) President (Dmitry) Medvedev, which we share, about Iran continuing to move closer to having a breakout nuclear capability.

It is up to Iran to come forward and engage the IAEA and the international community constructively. Iran has failed to do that," he said.

The State Department spokesman said US is moving forward both to implement international sanctions and to evaluate how they can take additional national measures that puts pressure on the Iranian Government to come forward and engage constructively.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Kampala bombings leave 64 people dead

Two bombs in the Ugandan capital, Kampala have killed at least 64 people and injured another 70.

The blasts hit a rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant where football fans had gathered to watch the World Cup final.

Police suggest that Somali militants could be to blame.

They have previously threatened to target Kampala because of the presence of Ugandan peacekeepers in Mogadishu to protect the fragile government against Islamic insurgents.

The BBC's Kampala correspondent Joshua Mmali spoke to Network Africa's Audrey Brown.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sarkozy election funding probe opens

French prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that the country's richest woman secretly funded President Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign, a judicial official said Wednesday.

Sarkozy has denied claims that his 2007 campaign received the equivalent of roughly $199,000 Cdn in secret cash from 87-year-old L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and called the reports an effort to smear him.

A mushrooming scandal surrounding Bettencourt's fortune, including suggestions of large-scale tax evasion, has destabilized Sarkozy's conservative government and inched closer in recent days to the president himself.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor's office in the Paris suburb of Nanterre opened a new preliminary investigation into statements by a former accountant for Bettencourt, Claire Thibout, the judicial official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named because the investigation is ongoing.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth leaves the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris on Wednesday.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth leaves the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris on Wednesday. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

Thibout told investigators that Bettencourt's chief financial adviser gave 150,000 euros in cash to Eric Woerth, treasurer of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, in March 2007. Sarkozy was elected two months later.

Woerth's wife until recently worked as an investment adviser to the L'Oreal heiress. Woerth is now Sarkozy's labour minister and in charge of an unpopular pension reform set to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Opposition politicians are demanding that Woerth resign amid the Bettencourt scandal.

Sarkozy has vigorously defended Woerth. On Tuesday, Sarkozy denounced the allegations as "libel that aims only to smear, without the slightest basis in reality."

Woerth, who has been treasurer for Sarkozy's conservative party for eight years, said Tuesday he was "outraged" by the claim and said he has "never received the slightest euro that wasn't legal."

Bettencourt is No. 17 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people worldwide.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Baghdad suicide attack and bombs kill 39: officials

Shi'ite pilgrims pray at the Shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district.
Shi'ite pilgrims pray at the Shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district

A suicide bomber wearing an explosives-filled belt targeted Shiite pilgrims and murdered 28 people in Baghdad on Wednesday while 11 more were killed in bomb attacks, security officials told AFP.

The suicide attack occurred in Adhamiyah, a Sunni district across the Tigris river from Kadhimiyah, an area named after Musa Kadhim, the seventh of 12 revered imams in Shiite Islam, whom the pilgrims are honouring.

An interior ministry official said 28 were killed and 81 wounded. Many of the victims were passing through Adhamiyah en route to the imam's mausoleum.

Eleven more pilgrims were killed and 63 injured by bombs in three other sections of Baghdad, police said.

Tens of thousands of Shiite worshippers streamed into the Iraqi capital earlier in the day amid heavy security for the pilgrimage, a day after six of them were killed in mortar and bomb attacks as they travelled to the mausoleum.

Hundreds of tents have been erected to feed people as they pour into the city for the event, which reaches a climax on Wednesday night and early Thursday. The mausoleum has previously been targeted by bombers.

Traffic was banned on Tuesday on several bridges spanning the Tigris River, increasing already bad congestion in the capital, where traffic control is already complicated by hundreds of security checkpoints.

Major General Qassim Atta, a Baghdad security forces spokesman, told AFP special safety measures, including road closures, were in place to protect worshippers.

"We continue to organise transport for pilgrims and air surveillance for their benefit," he said.

"The movement of motorcycles, bicycles and carts is banned throughout the city until further notice," Atta added, to reduce the risk of vehicle-borne attacks.

The Shiite majority in Iraq have been a main target of Sunni Arab armed groups since the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled now executed dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

The shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim has not been spared. In April 2009, two female suicide bombers detonated their payloads near the shrine, killing 65 people, including 20 Iranian pilgrims, and wounding 120 others.

The threat of violence did not dent the enthusiasm of worshippers, some of whom were planning to pray for a breakthrough in the political deadlock that has blocked a new government taking office after March 7 elections.

"I will pray at the mausoleum for (Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki and (former premier Iyad) Allawi to find an agreement so that our situation gets better," said Umm Amir, 40, who was wearing a black abaya and had travelled from Mahmudiyah, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Baghdad.

"Because our lives are very difficult," she added, accompanied by her neighbour Umm Sajjad on the journey and carrying a plastic bag filled with water bottles and a single orange for sustenance.

Hamid Taleb, 47, an unemployed man travelling with friends and relatives from Babil, a majority Shiite province south of Baghdad, said nothing would stop him from making the annual journey.

"Even in the time of Saddam, I came across the fields despite it being forbidden to travel to attend," he said.

"I would make the pilgrimage whatever the situation is."


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Diplomatic rift won’t last long, says liberal Turkish editor

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul June 22, 2010. REUTERS/ Osman Orsal/Files
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul June 22, 2010
Turkey and Israel will manage to patch up relations, and sooner rather than later, the managing editor of a leading liberal Turkish newspaper predicted during a visit to Israel this week.

The rare upbeat assessment was issued by Cinar Oskay, of the Milliyet daily, hours after Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had been quoted in Turkish media on Monday warning that Ankara would sever ties with Israel altogether if no Israeli apology was forthcoming for last month’s fatal flotilla raid, or if Israel did not accept the findings of an international investigation into the incident.

Turkish officials subsequently claimed the minister had been misrepresented, telling Reuters that he had not threatened to sever ties, but had said relations would not improve unless Turkey’s demands were met.

“Our two countries will definitely be reconciled,” Oskay said, “because it is in both countries’ interests to make up… There is no risk that the rift will be continued for a long time.”

He described Turkey’s demands of Israel over the flotilla as “symbolic” and “not an obstacle that can’t be overcome.

“I don’t think it will get worse,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party were ultimately “pragmatic” and predicting that Israel would “soften a little” to help alleviate the crisis in relations.

Oskay, making a first visit to Israel, took pains to stress that “a lot of people” in Turkey are as troubled by Erdogan’s positions as Israel is, and that “Turkey is not homogeneous...”

He noted, incidentally, that he had been struck by “how many religious people there are” in Jerusalem – by which he meant haredi Jerusalemites – and said there was “nowhere” like that in Turkey.

“I want people to understand: Turkey is not Erdogan,” he said.

Oskay’s Milliyet, indeed, is part of the pro-secularist Dogan media group, whose newspapers have been among the Erdogan government’s fiercest critics.


Monday, July 5, 2010

ANALYSIS / On Netanyahu's map of concerns there is no room for neighbors

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog was quoted in these pages over three months ago as saying: "The diplomatic issue is the main thing keeping us in the government, because we have a genuine wish to reach a breakthrough with the Palestinians and the Syrians." ("What is the Labor Party still doing in a right-wing government?" March 22 ). "And we see the possibility of ending this partnership if there is no change of direction in the coming months," Herzog, one of the top members of the Labor Party, added assertively during that interview given to Aluf Benn.


Even his father, the late president Chaim Herzog, who was one of Israel's most articulate spokesmen, would have found it difficult to depict the government's policy - on the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit with U.S. President Barack Obama - as signifying a "change in direction."

The change (if it can be defined as a "change" ) is the government's position on borders. Instead of depicting the 1967 borders, which the Palestinians are presenting as the basis for negotiations, as "Auschwitz borders" (a formulation attributed to Abba Eban, Isaac Herzog's uncle ) - Netanyahu is inviting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate on "security borders." Instead of warm sentiments about certain regions within our homeland and the tombs of our patriarchs, the leader of the Likud is "making do" with cold "security arrangements" to ensure that the withdrawal from territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River will not bring terror to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. His concern for the security of Israel's citizens, of course, knows no bounds.

On Netanyahu's map of concerns there is no room for concern about our neighbors. The prime minister has a consistent theory about where borders and security meet. Back during his first term he presented the government with the map of "Israel's vital interests." Col. (res. ) Shaul Arieli, who at that time was the deputy military secretary to the prime minister and defense minister, says Netanyahu's security borders leave more than 40 percent of the West Bank in Israel's hands.

In terms of the second Oslo agreement, which was signed by former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, this map enables the transformation of Area B (Israeli military control and PA civil control ) into Area A (full Palestinian control ), along with the addition of nearly 20 percent of Area C (full Israeli control ).

The fundamentals of Netanyahu's "vital interests" map - according to his collected statements - have not changed. This map does not take the Palestinians' essential interests into account; it cuts off Palestine from the Jordan Valley and north of the Dead Sea, on the way to the Allon Road and the "step" that controls it from the west.

Israel is perpetuating, of course, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages, including the "Jerusalem envelope," in accordance with the triangle drawn by Yigal Allon - from Modi'in Elite to Mishor Adumim and back to the Etzion Bloc. And that's not all. Equally vital is the "western security expanse" from the school of Ariel Sharon, which the government of Menachem Begin approved in 1977 and which eventually became known as "the seam line area."

These "security" zones are home to about 85 percent of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank (including the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ). The settlers residing in the remaining 60 percent of the territory, who are concentrated in the area of the mountain ridge, are small in number (about 50,00 souls ) but strong in their faith. These settlements are home to the hard core of the Gush Emunim settler movement - the ones who raised the ruckus about the government's suspension of construction in the settlements and are leading the fight against its renewal. It isn't hard to guess how they will react when Netanyahu presents Obama with a map that places them outside the State of Israel's essential interests.

Ironically, Abbas is the one saving the settlers from having to deal with this problem, by refusing to enter into direct negotiations before Israel agrees to the most vital Palestinian interest of all: the establishment of an independent state based on the June 4, 1967 borders. Nor does Obama have at this time - four months before the U.S. congressional elections - an essential interest in squabbling with Netanyahu or getting in hot water with the Jewish lobby. And so the prime minister can return home in peace, or rather without peace.

Moment of truth?

It's strange how Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who back when he was prime minister proposed giving up more than 90 percent of the territories, now swallows his tongue when Netanyahu announces that Israel can't live without the Jordan Valley and of course the settlement blocs. Still, when it comes to Barak, it once again turns out anything is possible. He can both hold Netanyahu's hand and cook up a dovish peace plan (a variation on an old idea of President Shimon Peres ) - whereby Israel will agree in advance to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders - but the withdrawal will be carried out in stages, concurrently with the implementation of security arrangements and progress in negotiations on other issues of a permanent-status agreement.

Barak can both be dependent on Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, one of the strongest men in the party, and also quarrel with him (because of his refusal to appoint Ben-Eliezer as his substitute when he is out of the country, last week the government decided to take the authority to appoint substitutes for ministers upon itself ). The defense minister has even succeeded in turning one of his last supporters in the Labor Party, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, against him.

Barak does not "count" his ministerial colleagues. He didn't rush out to get a place in line at the unemployment bureau when Herzog, in that interview with Haaretz, said "We see the possibility of ending this partnership if there is no change of direction in the coming months. The approaching moment of truth, when we have to ask ourselves if we can continue with this partnership, will undoubtedly be in September, at the end of the construction freeze."

The really intriguing question is what will happen to Israel's vital interest in its partnership with the U.S. administration if the Labor Party cabinet ministers continue to content themselves with merely barking.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Interim Polish leader Komorowski leads in presidential exit polls

Interim Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski appeared to have held off a last-minute surge from the identical twin brother of the late president, who died in an April plane crash that shocked the country and forced Sunday's early election.

Exit polls showed Komorowski with a slight edge over Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who essentially conceded defeat in the presidential runoff by declaring before supporters, "I congratulate the winner." Exit polls have a small margin of error, and official results are not expected until Monday.

Komorowski addressed a jubilant crowd of party members in Warsaw. He didn't formally claim victory, noting that the votes were still being counted, but expressed optimism that he would be the next president.

Both presidential candidates are former anti-communist activists with conservative, Roman Catholic upbringings. Yet they differ sharply on key issues, primarily the role of the state in the economy.

Komorowski would be expected to smooth the way for the government to continue privatizing state-run firms and trim welfare benefits; Kaczynski would probably block such moves.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Taliban attacks compound in northern Afghanistan

Newly appointed U.S. and NATO forces commander in Afghanistan U.S. Army General David Petraeus speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, July 1, 2010.
U.S. and Afghan security forces battled Taliban suicide attackers Friday after the militants stormed a building in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, police and witnesses said.

Gen. Abdul Razaq Yacoobi, chief of police in Kunduz, said five of six insurgents who entered the building have been killed. He described the building as an international guest house.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the attack began when a suicide car bomber detonated a vehicle at the gate of the compound where the building is located. Six Taliban gunmen wearing suicide vests then attacked what Mujahid said was a U.S. Special Operations base. According to Mujahid, nearly all of the 52 foreigners at the compound have been killed.

Journalists at the scene told CNN that the building under attack is a USAID facility -- an American agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance. Several dead and wounded have been removed from the compound, they said.

The fighting came as Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, was due to arrive in Afghanistan Friday.


Petraeus briefs NATO on Afghan mission

General David Petraeus has been confirmed as President Obama's choice to take control of forces in Afghanistan. Photo: AP
AP General David Petraeus has been confirmed as President Obama's choice to take control of forces in Afghanistan.
Gen. David Petraeus, NATO's newly appointed commander of the Afghanistan war, is briefing alliance officials about his plans for the escalating conflict.

Officials say Petraeus is meeting with Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and will address the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's top decision-making body, on Thursday.

He will likely try to smooth ruffled feathers among European allies contributing troops to the 122,000-strong international force. Diplomats say member governments were not consulted about the changeover in command after President Barack Obama's sudden dismissal of Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

U.S. troops account for most of the 122,000-strong international force in Afghanistan. European and other allies make up about a third of the force.