Saturday, January 31, 2009


By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Tajikistan

A nurse attends to a baby
Abandoned babies become the responsibility of hospital staff

Fifty-year-old Mahbuba has four sons, but she always wanted to have a daughter.

Faced with a complex adoption procedure, she decided to take the easier option - to buy a baby.

"The moment I heard that a woman in a maternity hospital was selling her newborn daughter, I rushed there," Mahbuba said.

"The woman told me she already had five children and she could not afford having another baby. I paid her $100 [£67]."

Her purchase was made 10 years ago. But buying and selling babies is still common in Tajikistan - and it all begins in maternity hospitals.

Some mothers abandon their babies just days after giving birth, leaving the fate of the children in the hands of medical staff.

A young Tajik nurse described how she witnessed doctors helping a woman whose child died at birth to obtain a newborn from a different hospital.

A midwife accused of selling a baby cries
If only I knew... They did give me money but I didn't ask for it
Accused midwife

She was not sure whether money was involved in this swap.

"They just wanted to help," said the nurse.

But in Tajikistan, such goodwill could be punished with up to eight years in prison.

In 2008, there were 13 such cases but the number of those involved in trafficking is believed to be much higher.

Some 60km (37 miles) west of Dushanbe in Tursunzoda district, I met two midwives accused of selling a baby boy for $200.

They are currently on a suspended two-year sentence.

Both in their late 40s, they have been working in a maternity hospital for over 20 years.

"If only I knew," said one of them, wiping tears from her eyes. "I fed that child and was looking after him for one month. They did give me money but I didn't ask for it. They slipped the money to my pocket," she said.

"Trafficking in minors is a problem and it still exists," said Azimjon Ibragimov, who heads the Interior Ministry's department on human trafficking.

Azimjon Ibragimov, who heads the Tajik interior ministry's department on human trafficking
Trafficking chief Ibragimov says few are aware of legal implications

"Those who buy are usually childless couples. And since the legal procedure of adopting a child is complicated people find it much easier to buy a baby," he said.

"But most of them don't know what the legal implications of this crime are," he added.

Even those aware of the risks often feel they have no choice but to get rid of unwanted children.

Many such cases involve young mothers of illegitimate children.

In conservative Tajikistan, having a child out of wedlock can bring shame on a family.

But increasingly older women with existing families are also selling their children.

In the poorest nation in Central Asia, fathers often work abroad, and the burden of child-care rests with the women.

Some simply cannot afford to feed any extra mouths.

"The main problem which makes our women suffer is that their husbands are gone for work," said Muhabbat Pirnazarova, who heads the centre for civil society.

"They leave their families behind. Some men do send money back home but there are also those who abandon their families altogether," she said.

Cash for babies is a fact of life in Tajikistan.

This is a society where the economic conditions leave some mothers with little choice.

Others who have illegitimate children face social pressure to give them up.

And where the adoption procedure is complicated and lengthy, childless couples will do what they can to obtain a baby.



30th January 2009

Dear Friends,

Today's the day! This thirtieth day of January 2009 the National Executive of the MDC will decide whether or not to join the so-called Government of National Unity under Robert Mugabe's presidency. ‘Political analysts' have been very vocal on the subject all week. I've never quite understood what qualifies someone to be called or to describe him/herself as a ‘political analyst' but they certainly have an awful lot to say for themselves! They are ready to air their opinions on every aspect of the subject; supported by unnamed sources these political analysts seek to sway public opinion one way or the other depending on their own political affiliations no doubt.

Like many others in the diaspora – anxious about the future of our country - I too have spent the week trying to analyse the decision that has to be made by the MDC. Armed with a pencil and notepad I have attempted to use my own knowledge and understanding of the situation to list what considerations should be taken into account before making this crucial decision for Zimbabwe's future. Before one can even start the process there are certain facts that have to be acknowledged. In the eleven or so months that have elapsed since the March elections Zimbabwe and the world have changed. Cholera has killed over 3000 people in Zimbabwe, 94% of the population is unemployed and on Zanu PF's own admission the country can no longer feed its own people. " We cannot eat what we do not have" said the Acting Minister of Finance in his Budget speech And in an acknowledgement that the Zimbabwean currency is now worthless, Chinamasa announced that price controls will be abandoned and the Zimbabwe dollar will "operate alongside the US dollar and the SA rand. How that will actually work is not at all clear but what is clear is that Zimbabwe is teetering on the edge of complete collapse. That is the reality that the decision makers have to face. In the wider world too the economic collapse means that the so-called developed world will look very carefully at economic help for poorer nations, let alone those that have collapsed through gross mismanagement. Those people who thought that a GNU would bring immediate western aid for Zimbabwe now have to think very carefully in the light of the changed situation before they make their decision today.

For me there are two internal considerations that take absolute priority. One, is it the right decision for the mass of the people, now and for the foreseeable future? No one in their right mind can believe that joining the government will bring about an immediate change in the desperate plight of the people but maybe, just maybe, the presence of the MDC will moderate some of the more extreme policies of Mugabe's government. Two, the release of the activists rotting in gaol is non-negotiable. Jestina Mukoko and all the other activists must be brought to court immediately and either tried in open court or released. There can be no just settlement while fellow Zimbabweans are unjustly detained. Those as I see it are absolute priorities before the MDC can enter into this alliance with the Mugabe regime.

Making decisions is never easy but I have found it useful to list the arguments For and Against and then decide which side carries more weight. In addition to reasoned argument, there is the emotional aspect which cannot be ignored. More than anything else, Zimbabweans need to feel hope for themselves and for their children's futures. So, why should the MDC enter this ‘unholy alliance' The first point in its favour is that the people appear to want it, presumably because they believe that their lives will be improved once there is a settlement. By joining a GNU the MDC will gain experience in government and finally this is the much vaunted ‘African solution'. Whatever we may think of SADC and the AU there is no doubt that failure to join will bring down Africa's wrath on Tsvangirai's head and give further weight to the notion that he and his party are no more than puppets of the west.

On the other side, Against joining is the undeniable fact that Mugabe is not to be trusted. Bitter experience has shown us that his word means nothing. It is a power-sharing agreement with no real power for the MDC; even in the matter of ministerial appointments we have absolutely no guarantee that Robert Mugabe will play fair. To join such a government will severely damage the MDC's image. Up until now they have held the moral high ground, how will the world and the west in particular respond to an illegitimate government that now contains those very same people they once believed were on the side of democracy? If the MDC decides to join, it will be seen to be an endorsement of Mugabe's policies. It will take the pressure off his regime, leaving him unpunished for the destruction he has wreaked on the country. Even the MDC's majority in the House cannot be relied on, knowing how Zanu PF operates. There is a very real danger that the MDC will become no better than puppets of the regime unable to exercise any autonomy. Mugabe is after all the man who has blatantly ignored the will of the people as expressed in the March elections. Can he now be trusted to abide by the rules? Will not Morgan Tsvangirai and this party be swallowed up in just the same way as the late Joshua Nkomo?

These questions and so many others must be going through the minds of every thinking person as the MDC considers the options. What will happen if the deal collapses in a few months, what might that mean for Zimbabwe? For me, as a Zimbabwean in the UK diaspora and longing to go home, all I can do is hope that their decisions are guided by what is best for the people, all the people, and not by their own dreams of power, big motorcars, handsome salaries and lucrative perks. Having considered the arguments For and Against and although I can clearly see the latter is the stronger side, I have very reluctantly come to the conclusion that the MDC must go along with this flawed Agreement. There are some small signs that their presence in government may well find sympathisers even within the ranks of Zanu PF. The truth is that Mugabe needs the MDC as much as they need to be part of government. It requires, in the words of the BBC correspondent, nothing less than a leap of faith on the part of the MDC. I believe they will make that leap.

Yours in the (continuing) struggle, PH.






10 things we didn't know this time last week

Snippets from the week's news, sliced, diced and processed for your convenience.

1. The record score in rugby union is 350-0, made when one team was protesting against suspensions.
More details

2. Naked rambling is legal in Switzerland.
More details

3. Members of the House of Lords cannot be expelled or suspended.
More details

4. There is an Apostrophe Protection Society.
More details

5. Cows who are given names produce more milk.
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6. Poland pays 94% of the funding for the Auschwitz Museum.
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7. Thinking too much makes your golf worse.
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8. The brain chemical serotonin causes locusts to swarm.
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9. Cricket at altitude is potentially dangerous.
More details

10. Putting nuclear reactors near areas prone to earthquakes was banned in the UK. Now it's not.
More details


Friday, January 30, 2009


Home believed to be that of octuplets family
TV crews have descended on a house in Whittier, near Los Angeles

A Californian woman who gave birth to octuplets earlier this week already has six children, US media have reported.

The eight babies were delivered nine weeks early by Caesarean section in a hospital near Los Angeles on Monday.

The mother has not been named, but US media are quoting family members as saying she already has six other children, including twins.

Doctors say the eight babies are making good progress and are expected to stay in hospital for several more weeks.

Although the babies' mother asked doctors to keep her details confidential, a family acquaintance gave clues to her identity to the American CBS channel.

Shortly afterwards, media camped outside a house in Whittier, near Los Angeles.'

The Associated Press news agency spoke to a man identified as the babies' grandfather, who was with two children. The children said they were excited to have eight new siblings, AP reported.

The Los Angeles Times later carried an interview with a woman identified as the babies' grandmother, who said her daughter already had six young children and never expected the fertility treatment she had received would result in eight more babies.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center team
A huge team was needed to deliver the babies successfully

She said that doctors had given her daughter the option of reducing the number of embryos, but she had declined.

"What do you suggest she should have done? She refused to have them killed. That is a very painful thing," she said.

She added that her daughter expected a big challenge raising 14 children. The woman's husband is expected to return to Iraq where he works as a contractor, the LA Times reported.

Dr Karen Maples: 'She has been able to visit her eight newborns'

Officials at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, near Los Angeles, said the woman was already 12 weeks pregnant when she came to them. Despite media questioning, the hospital has declined to say whether the mother became pregnant through fertility treatments.

The eight babies were delivered by a team of 46 doctors, nurses and assistants in the space of five minutes.

The mother is the second person recorded in the US to have delivered a set of living octuplets.

The last octuplets known to have survived birth in the US were born in Houston in 1998. One of the babies died one week later.



Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said his party will join a unity government with President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF next month.

The deal, proposed by Southern African leaders, would see Mr Tsvangirai sworn in as prime minister on 11 February.

A power-sharing accord between his MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and Zanu-PF was signed last September, but got mired in ever more bitter disputes.

Zimbabwe is enduring rampant inflation and an escalating food crisis.

Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) says an outbreak of cholera, fuelled by the collapse of infrastructure, has now infected 60,000 people and killed more than 3,000.

Donors have said they would only provide aid once a unity government is in place.

The new timetable was proposed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

"We are unequivocal, we will go into this government," Mr Tsvangirai was quoted by French news agency AFP as saying.

"The SADC has decided and we are bound by that decision."

He added that Zanu-PF had made "significant concessions", saying that the MDC would continue the struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe in a new arena.

Mr Mugabe's supporters welcomed the decision.

"We are obviously happy as Zimbabweans that we are now able to focus on reconstructing our country and move away from politicking all the time," Information Minister Paul Mangwana told the BBC.

"This is a glorious opportunity for Zimbabweans to work together and show the whole world that we are able to solve our problems on our own."

A statement by South Africa's foreign ministry, quoted by AFP, welcomed the move, saying it would "help lay the foundation for the people of Zimbabwe to begin to address current challenges facing their country".

Meanwhile UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the new government would be judged on its actions.

"The international community will be looking for the government to demonstrate, through its actions, a clear commitment to reform," he said.

The BBC's Southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles says that agreeing to the deal requires a leap of faith for the MDC, which has no trust in Mr Mugabe.

But the decision to commit itself was the only realistic option short of abandoning plans for a unity government, he says.

The disagreements centred on how the most powerful cabinet posts were to be shared out, and on the MDC's insistence that attacks on its members should stop.

Observers say the MDC now appears to have adopted a strategy proposed by SADC leaders that it should first enter the government and then resolve outstanding issues.

The wrangling over power-sharing has paralysed Zimbabwe's government for months.

5 Feb: Zimbabwe to pass power-sharing constitutional amendment
11 Feb: PM-designate Tsvangirai and his deputies to be sworn in
13 Feb: Remaining ministers and their deputies to take office
Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF and the MDC have also started setting up a joint committee to monitor the power-sharing pact.

The body is the first structure to be formed as a result of political agreement, according to South African mediator Sydney Mufamadi.

The committee would deal with any breaches in the power-sharing deal and could also address concerns the MDC may have about the arrest of party members and activists.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, who chaired an emergency summit this week to get a deal, said the MDC was committed to a timeline agreed by the parties.

"...[Mr Tsvangirai] is going to be chairing cabinet and also sitting in the national security council...," he said.

"We believe that this is a transitional authority essentially and its primary task is to achieve stability and the economic recovery of that country."




South Korean soldier by a railway station sign near the demilitarised zone of Panmunjom
The border area between the two countries remains heavily fortified

Communist North Korea has said it is scrapping all military and political agreements signed with the South, accusing Seoul of hostile intent.

South Korea's government had pushed relations "to the brink of a war", the North's cross-border relations body said on state media.

South Korea expressed regret at the announcement and called for dialogue.

Relations have deteriorated since South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak took a harder line approach to the North.

One agreement the North said it was to scrap covers the maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

The two countries' navies fought bloody skirmishes in the area of the de facto border in 2002 and 1999.

"All the agreed points concerning the issue of putting an end to the political and military confrontation between the North and the South will be nullified," the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said.

It said that the situation on the Korean peninsula had reached a point where there was "neither way to improve [relations] nor hope to bring them on track".

The North has stepped up rhetorical attacks on the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has promised to stop the free flow of aid to the North unless it moves to end its nuclear weapons programme.

Earlier this week, North Korea criticised the appointment of a new South Korean unification minister, describing the choice of Hyun In-taek as evidence that the South wanted to intensify confrontation between the two Korean states.

The BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul says some analysts believe that Pyongyang is trying to build up tensions with the South in order to give itself more negotiating power with the new US administration.

A more pessimistic analysis suggests that the rising tension does raise the possibility of small-scale military clashes, says our correspondent.

"Our government expresses deep regret," said Kim Ho-Nyoun, spokesman for South Korea's unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs.

"We urge North Korea to accept our call for dialogue as soon as possible," he said.

The two states are still technically at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

The peninsula remains divided by a heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone, with thousands of troops stationed on both sides of the border.

Relations improved in the past decade, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il meeting with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in a historic summit in 2000.

But tensions have been high since Mr Lee took office in Seoul nearly a year ago pledging to get tough with Pyongyang.

He began rolling back his predecessors' "sunshine policy" of unconditional aid to the North.

The North responded by cutting off talks, suspending key joint projects and stepping up criticism of Mr Lee who it calls a "traitor".

"Never to be condoned are the crimes the Lee group has committed against the nation and reunification by bedevilling overnight the inter-Korean relations that had favourably developed amidst the support and encouragement of all the Koreans and ruthlessly scrapping the inter-Korean agreements," the North said on Friday.



Onlookers and emergency workers flee after a loud blast is heard from inside the burning supermarket in Nairobi on 28/1/08
A loud blast from the burning supermarket causes people to flee

Thirty-nine people are missing and one person is dead after a fire destroyed a crowded supermarket in Nairobi, Kenya's Red Cross says.

The man died from his injuries after jumping from an upstairs window to escape the flames, officials said.

The fire broke out in the busy Nakumatt store in central Nairobi on Wednesday afternoon.

Witnesses reported seeing people trapped inside as firefighters fought for hours to control the blaze.

The operation to put out the fire was still going on 24 hours after it began, the Daily Nation newspaper reports.

Red Cross spokesman Titus Mung'ou told Reuters news agency "thirty-nine people are unaccounted for".

"One man died from injuries when he jumped from the second floor of the building," he said.

Emergency teams were counselling distraught relatives at a trauma centre set up near the burned-out store.

Women and children and five of the store's 103 staff were reportedly among the missing.

Kenyan media described scenes of chaos as the supermarket became consumed by fire.

Some survivors said they escaped by leaping from upstairs windows.

People said they had received desperate calls from relatives saying they were trapped inside and unable to escape.

Nakumatt insisted the store had been in compliance with safety regulations.

"We also wish to confirm that the building was fully fire-safety compliant and had been installed with advanced fire/smoke detectors," it said.

Experts from the army, police and fire brigade were reported to be on site as an investigation into the fire gets under way.


Thursday, January 29, 2009


50 billion dollar Zimbabwean bank note
The Zimbabwe dollar is virtually worthless

Zimbabweans will be allowed to conduct business in other currencies, alongside the Zimbabwe dollar, in an effort to stem the country's runaway inflation.

The announcement was made by acting Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa.

BBC southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles says the Zimbabwean dollar has become a laughing stock. A Z$100 trillion note was recently introduced.

Until now only licensed businesses could accept foreign currencies, although it was common practice.

The country is also facing an deepening humanitarian crisis as well.

A cholera outbreak has killed over 3,000 people according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

And the World Food Programme (WFP) has revised up the number of people it says need food aid.

It now says seven million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid, up from 5.1 million in June.WFP regional spokesman Richard Lee said the situation had deteriorated rapidly.

"The economic situation has worsened more dramatically than we had anticipated," he told AFP. "The agency is being forced to halve the cereal rations given to hungry Zimbabweans so that all the people in need can receive aid."

Mr Chinamasa made the announcement as he delivered the annual budget to parliament. "In line with the prevailing practices by the general public, [the] government is therefore allowing the use of multiple foreign currencies for business transactions alongside the Zimbabwean dollar," he said.

The country is in the grip of world-record hyperinflation which has left the Zimbabwean dollar virtually worthless - 231m% in July 2008, the most recent figure released.

Teachers, doctors and civil servants have gone on strike complaining that their salaries - which equal trillions of Zimbabwean dollars - are not even enough to catch the bus to work each day.

A 40-year-old Zimbabwean primary school teacher from the capital Harare, told the BBC news website earlier this week it cost nearly US$2 a day to travel to work, but inflation had reduced the average teacher's wage to the equivalent of US$1 a month.

He said he now made a living reselling maize to families in high density areas, as it made more money than teaching.

Before the announcement, shops in Zimbabwe were increasingly demanding payment in US dollars - a reality acknowledged by Mr Chinamasa.

"In the hyper-inflationary environment characterising the economy, our people are now using multiple currencies alongside the Zimbabwean dollar. These include the [South African] rand, US dollar, Botswana pula, euro and British pound among others."

A Harare resident said even street vendors were refusing to accept Zimbabwean notes.

Last year, the Central Bank was forced to slash 10 zeros from the local unit in an effort to make the currency more manageable.

Correspondents say that although the local currency will still be printed, all prices will be set in US dollars, making the Zimbabwe dollar irrelevant.

The country's economy is now on the brink of collapse - a situation worsened by the political crisis that resulted from last year's disputed presidential elections.




By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking in Kermanshah, Iran, 28 January
The Iranian president's speech was broadcast live on Iranian TV

Nobody was expecting a long and warm honeymoon but the vitriol in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remarks to the new US administration was remarkable.

President Barack Obama, in his first foreign interview earlier this week, offered what he called the hand of friendship if Iran "unclenched its fist"

In response, Mr Ahmadinejad jumped back in the boxing ring and resumed a verbal volley of punches.

First he wished former US President George W Bush on his way: "God willing, he has gone to hell."

Then Mr Ahmadinejad laid before his audience the ever-growing list of grievances Iran holds against the US:

  • American support for the coup that unseated a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953
  • American backing for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war
  • Support for the "Zionist regime" [Israel]
  • Launching the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under the pretext of 9/11 - an incident as questionable as the Holocaust, he suggested.

Americans had kept Iran away from scientific progress and injected the country with poverty, ignorance and illiteracy, he said. They had turned their embassy in Tehran into a "nest of spies", Mr Ahmadinejad continued.

The US needed to stop talking down to the rest of the world, to change its language and act respectfully, he went on. All American troops should return home. And Washington should apologise for its crimes against Iran.

It was an exceptionally long and angry tirade, even by the standards of Mr Ahmadinejad.

It was tempered only by a few slightly more encouraging words. If there really was a fundamental change in American policy, said Mr Ahmadinejad, then Iran would welcome it.

Tough talk indeed from the man who sent an unprecedented message of congratulations to the new American president after Mr Obama's election victory in November.

So have the hardliners won the policy battle in Tehran? Or is this Mr Ahmadinejad's eccentric way of opening a diplomatic dialogue?

Most observers in Iran believed Mr Ahmadinejad wanted some moves towards reconciliation with Washington, in order to help his bid for re-election in June.

But with a long silence from Tehran on policy towards Mr Obama, it was already clear that a fierce battle was going on behind the scenes.

In theory, it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is in charge of foreign policy, though in practice decisions seem to emerge from among a small group of senior officials, military officers and clergy.

When there are differences over policy, the default is always to return to the old certainties: "Death to Israel! Death to America!"

For Washington, this sort of hostility at least helps resolve one dilemma: the administration must be in two minds whether to launch a diplomatic initiative towards Iran before the Iranian presidential election in five months' time.

Why do anything now, when someone else might soon be in power ? After all, dealing with Mr Ahmadinejad was always going to be a high-risk policy.

One of Mr Obama's consistent calls, in his election campaign, was for negotiations with Iran without precondition. For any new dialogue, this was not a promising start.



Leg shackles at Guantanamo Bay, 21 January 2009
The treatment of inmates at the prison has outraged human rights groups

A military judge at the Guanatanamo Bay detention facility has rejected a request by US President Barack Obama to suspend the trial of a detainee.

Correspondents say this could be a setback to Mr Obama's plans to close the facility.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi citizen, is accused of planning the USS Cole attack of October 2000.

Judge James Pohl said the request to halt the trial to allow a review by the new administration was "unpersuasive".

Judge Pohl said that the trial of Mr Nashiri would go ahead.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (archive image)
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri has said he was tortured into confessing

In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed prosecutors to ask for the trials of 21 detainees who had been charged to be delayed by 120 days.

In some cases, the request was quickly granted.

The attack on the USS Cole while it was moored off Yemen left 17 US service personnel dead and 50 injured.

Mr Nashiri was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 and eventually transferred to Guantanamo.

He allegedly conspired to help two Islamic militants who steered an explosives-laden barge alongside the ship.

The new administration will now have to decide how to proceed, correspondents say.

Mr Obama ordered the review of military trials for terrorism suspects last week. He also ordered the closure, within one year, of the Guantanamo detention centre.

He said the US would continue to fight terrorism but would maintain its "values and ideals" as well.

Some 250 inmates accused of having links to terrorism remain in the facility.

The legal process for these prisoners has been widely criticised because the US military acts as jailer, judge and jury.

A judge has already suspended for 120 days the trial of five men accused over the 9/11 attacks.

These include alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who opposed the suspension, saying he wanted to confess to his role in the attacks.




Huge crowds have taken to the streets in France to protest over the handling of the economic crisis, causing disruption to rail and air services.

The head of France's biggest union said a million workers had rallied to demand action to protect jobs and wages.

But despite the show of public support, the strike appeared to be falling short of the paralysis forecast by unions.

Regional trains and those in and around Paris were hit, and a third of flights from Orly airport were cancelled.

Forty per cent of regional services were running, train operator SNCF said, and 60% of high-speed TGV services. Three-quarters of metro trains were running in Paris.

Paris's second airport was heavily hit by the strike, but flights out of the larger Charles de Gaulle hub were experiencing only short delays, AFP news agency said.

Strikers march in Lyon on 29 January 2009

Schools, banks, hospitals, post offices and courts were also hit as workers stayed at home. Officials said just over a third of teachers and a quarter of postal and power company workers were on strike.

Overall, some 23% of the country's public sector workers are thought to have joined the action, which was called by eight major French unions.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, told AFP more than a million workers had taken part in the strike, making it impossible for French President Nicolas Sarkozy to ignore their concerns.

In Paris, police said some 65,000 protesters had joined a march from the Place de la Bastille towards the centre of the city.

Earlier, some 25,000 to 30,000 people rallied in the city of Lyon, according to organisers and police.

In Marseille, organisers and the authorities disagreed, with the former putting the number of demonstrators at 300,000 but the police estimating 20,000 had taken part.

The protests are against the worsening economic climate in France and at what people believe to be the government's poor handling of the crisis.

Opposition Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, said people were out in the streets "to express what worries them: the fact that they work and yet cannot make ends meet, retired people who just can't make it [financially], the fear of redundancies, and a president of the Republic and a government that just don't want to change policy".

According to a 25 January poll by CSA-Opinion for Le Parisien, 69% of the French public backs the strike.

"I'm tired and frozen after waiting half-an-hour on the platform," commuter Sandrine Dermont told AFP as she arrived by train in Paris" But I'm prepared to accept that when it's a movement to defend our spending power and jobs. I'll join the street protests during my lunch break," she said.

Last summer, Mr Sarkozy boasted that these days when there is a strike in France, nobody notices, says the BBC's Emma-Jane Kirby in Paris. But this time, our correspondent adds, the strike will hit hard.

Many people are angry French banks were given a multi-billion euro bail-out while floundering industries and businesses were offered far less help.

With unemployment looking likely to hit 10% by next year, the French are now looking for assurances from their president that he will drop his programme of cost cutting reforms and instead turn his attention to relaunching the ailing economy, our correspondent says.

"We want to show how the people are dissatisfied with the situation at the moment," Thierry Dedieu of the CFDT general workers' union told the BBC.

People had the feeling they were paying for a crisis they were not responsible for, he added.

But earlier in the week, French Finance Minister Eric Woerth condemned the strike organisers, accusing them of scare-mongering during a time of economic uncertainty.

"There are other ways to make oneself heard than striking," he said. "Blocking a country, preventing transport from working, bothering people when they are still extraordinarily worried and fearful of the future, is adding fear on top of fear, worry on top of worry."




A police officer stands guard in Lhasa, Tibet, 20/06
Lhasa has been under heavy security since the violent riots last year

The Tibetan government-in-exile has appealed to the international community to intervene in a Chinese security crackdown in Tibet's capital.

Eighty-one people have been detained and nearly 6,000 questioned in the past 11 days, Chinese state media reported.

The Tibetan Daily said the campaign in Lhasa was targeting criminals.

But the leaders-in-exile say they are concerned that China's "hardline policies" may lead to a repeat of last year's deadly anti-Chinese riots.

The centre of Lhasa has been under heavy security since last March, after peaceful protests turned violent following a military crackdown.

China said at least 18 people were killed during the unrest. Independent rights groups say about 200 people were killed and at least 1,000 are still missing.

Tibet independence campaigners say China's anti-crime operation appears to be aimed at intimidating Tibetans two months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule, which led to the Dalai Lama's flight into exile.

In a statement, Tibet's government-in-exile appealed "governments and individuals around the world to actively intervene" so that "March 2008 may not be repeated again".

It also urged China to call off its crackdown, saying it had created a "heightened sense of fear and intimidation" in Lhasa and in other areas of Tibet.

It warned that the campaign would "only create an atmosphere of further political unrest" but appealed to Tibetans to remain calm despite the "harsh repression".

A burning car in the Tibetan capital Lhasa after protests (March 2008)
Tibet's leaders-in-exile fear a repeat of last year's deadly riots

The security operation - the latest to be entitled Strike Hard - began on 18 January, with raids on residential areas as well as hotels, bars and cafes, the state-run Tibetan Daily said.

Officers detained people for robbery, prostitution, theft and having "reactionary music" on their phones, it reported.

It did not say whether those detained were Tibetan, Han Chinese or of other ethnicity.

China has ruled Tibet since 1951 and views it as an integral part of Chinese sovereign territory.

It believes that the Chinese Communist Party liberated the Tibetan people from the oppressive feudal rule of Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, following the 1959 uprising.

For Tibetan groups in exile, the events of March 1959 and the exile of the Dalai Lama were a tragedy.

The Dalai Lama has said he does not want independence for Tibet, only meaningful autonomy.



"Say not that you know another entirely,
until you have divided an inheritance with him" !



The East German flag
The Soviet bloc state of East Germany existed for about 40 years

A flat apparently untouched since before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has been discovered in the German city of Leipzig, German media report.

An architect who renovates buildings in eastern Germany unlocked the door last week and was shocked to find himself in a veritable East German time warp.

It appears the inhabitant of the humble flat fled in a hurry and shrivelled bread rolls still lay in a string bag.

Grocery brands from the Socialist state filled the kitchen.

"When we opened the door we felt like Howard Carter when he found the grave of Tutankhamun," Mark Aretz told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

"Everything was a mess but it was like a historic treasure trove, a portal into an age long gone."

A wall calendar showed August 1988 and an empty bottle of Vita Cola, Marella margarine, Juwel cigarettes and a bottle of Kristall vodka were in the kitchen.

Plastic crockery and aluminium cutlery completed the picture of a bygone state.

The only foreign product to be found was a West German bottle of deodorant.

A zinc bath stood upright against a wardrobe. There was no toilet in the flat - the occupant had to use a communal one on the landing.

According to Mr Aretz, documents and letters in the flat suggest the occupant was a man aged 24 who was in trouble with the East German authorities, and who left in a hurry some time before the Wall came down in November 1989.




Britain's Queen Elizabeth ll in Sydney, Australia, on Commonwealth Day, 15 March 2006

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Perth

As the United States celebrates its first African-American president, the people of another former British colony, Australia, are wondering whether they will ever have their own home-grown head of state.

The issue of a republic is brewing again amid mounting pressure on the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to say when Australians can vote on constitutional reform.

The idea that Britain's Queen Elizabeth should be replaced by an Australian president was enthusiastically endorsed by delegates at Mr Rudd's recent 2020 Summit, which invited 1,000 of the nation's brightest minds to Canberra to debate pressing public concerns.

The prime minister is expected to respond within weeks to their suggestions and those agitating for change believe that the Labor leader must set out a timetable for a referendum.

"It's really about identity and dignity," explained Grant Jordan, Western Australian convenor of the Australian Republican Movement.

Steve Amphlett
I love the Queen, I love what she stands for
Steve Amphlett
"It is a bit debasing when you have a situation where a British child born into a particular family can one day become the head of state of your country yet no Australian child can ever become head of state of Australia no matter what he or she achieves in life."

Australia is a constitutional monarchy and it is a decade since the country rejected wholesale reform at the last referendum, thanks in large part to the type of republic on offer, which would have seen a president appointed by parliament and not by the people.

Republicans believe that up to six different models should be put to the popular vote in a plebiscite, with the most favoured then subjected to a referendum.

On a sweltering evening in the northern Perth suburb of Joondalup, home to legions of British migrants, opinion on the issue at the local soccer club was as fierce as some of the tackles at the start of pre-season training.

Alan Vest
It's nice she's a titular head of state but I'm not so sure in today's world it's really necessary
Alan Vest
"I love the Queen, I love what she stands for," declared club president Steve Amphlett, a salesman originally from Stoke-on-Trent. "I don't see Australia as a republic."

Neither did John Higgins, a bricklayer from Birmingham who emigrated to Perth 18 years ago.

"The monarchy should stay in Australia," he told the BBC. "If you speak to the majority of the English here, they really want it to stay as it is."

Joondalup's soccer coach, Alan Vest, a Yorkshire-born former New Zealand international - whose name may be familiar to older supporters of Barnsley and Rochdale - believes though that constitutional change in Australia is inevitable.

"My mother's a monarchist. She's mad about the Queen. It's nice she's a titular head of state but I'm not so sure in today's world it's really necessary."

Republicans have estimated that up to 85% of Australians support their cause, among them both the Prime Minister and leader of the conservative opposition.

Licence plate in Joondalup soccer club
The driver of this Perth car makes his royal allegiance clear
Joondalup club veteran Adrian Kenny, 46, who moved from Stafford when he was seven, said that although his adopted home should treasure its rich British history, it was time to move on.

"I think the Queen's for England," he told BBC News. "I just think Australia is an old enough country to be the master of its own destiny. We are becoming more Asian-orientated and there are more Asian people in Australia and they have no affiliation with the UK."

The republic debate in Australia is always passionate and both sides are promising a forceful campaign when the next referendum eventually comes around.

Neil Gilmore, the Australian Monarchists League representative in Western Australia, remains adamant that voters will favour the status quo.

"The notable thing about Mr Rudd's enthusiasm for a republic is the fact that the people of Australia don't share it," he insisted. "We don't want a republic. We've had stability and prosperity. Everything that we could want we get from our wonderful system of government."


Wednesday, January 28, 2009


By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Tom Carew
"Tom Carew" left a BBC interview in 2001 after being exposed as a fraud

A body discovered in Belgium is believed to be that of a man who falsely claimed to be a member of the British SAS and wrote a best-selling novel based on his fake exploits. So is this the end of the story?

When a body was found last year in a rented garage north of Antwerp, it was difficult to identify who it was.

But documents later found beside the human remains suggested they were those of Philip Sessarego, who once penned a book about his time in the Special Air Service (SAS) under the name of Tom Carew.

Belgian police are now to take DNA from relatives in the UK of Mr Sessarego, otherwise known as Philip Stevenson, to finally confirm the body is his.

Spokeswoman Dominique Reyniers told the BBC News website prosecutors were "99%" sure it was Mr Stevenson, but she added: "In the very near future an exchange of DNA material is planned."

His daughter Claire told a UK newspaper the police had told her they would not believe it was him until they had the DNA.

In his best-selling book Jihad!: The Secret War in Afghanistan, Tom Carew described when he joined the 22nd Special Air Sservice Regiment (22 SAS):

"At the end of the course, there were just a handful of us left who'd passed, together with a couple of guys who hadn't quite made the grade but were near enough misses to merit being kept on with the regiment until they could retake the tests they'd failed."

He also described in detail how he had trained the Mujahideen to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.

He wrote about his time in Afghanistan: "It was 1979 and the Afghans were fighting a superpower with tactics they had used against the British before the First World War."

He continued: "Before leaving Britain, everyone said, 'Be careful; they are barbaric, they'll chop you up'.

"My boss at MI6 gave me a Flashman novel about Muslim brutality - his idea of a joke."

He was later interviewed many times in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as a former member of the SAS with expert knowledge on the difficulties of fighting the Taleban.

The trouble was that he had never served in the SAS and much of his book was subsequently dismissed as a work of fiction.

It was an investigation by the BBC programme Newsnight eight years ago that uncovered the truth about his service history.

He had served in the Royal Artillery, before trying to be selected for 22 SAS in the 1970s.

But he failed to make the grade. He was allowed to remain in Hereford - the SAS base - in what was known as the Demonstration Troop, a group of ordinary soldiers who undertook jobs for the SAS, like pretending to be the enemy on exercises.

He later tried to join the Reserve or R Squadron of the SAS - part of the Territorial Army - but he failed that selection too and was discharged on 31 December 1975, on his 23rd birthday.

He had made grand claims about how he had fought with the SAS in Oman and helped set up its Northern Ireland cell.

But Newsnight discovered Mr Carew's real name was Philip Sessarego. He had not served in the SAS in the 1970s, had not taken part in combat operations in Oman, and had not rejoined the SAS in the 1980s as he claimed.

After his book was exposed as little more than fiction he moved to Belgium, where he is said to have been known as Philip Stevenson.

He is also thought to have attempted to fake his own death in Bosnia in the 1990s.

As to the discovery of the body in the garage in Belgium, the Ministry of Defence said it would not comment on the death of someone who was not currently serving.

Journalist Joris Van der Aa, of the Antwerp newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, said: "When the body was found it was in such a state that it could not be identified."

But he said the body was believed to be that of the ex-soldier - who would have turned 55 in 2008 - and there were not thought to be any suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

The man who had once claimed to be an SAS hero seemed to have been living in reduced circumstances in a garage fitted out with a bed and kitchen.

"The owner of the garage had gone there as the rent was not being paid," he said.

Mrs Reyniers said this was not being treated as a murder investigation.

"His death is in no way suspicious," she said.

She said she could confirm that the cause of death was most probably "a monoxide poisoning".

But given that this is a man who is thought to have previously faked his own death it may only be when the DNA tests have been completed that he can finally be laid to rest.



Brighton Beach in Melbourne at sunset
Many people are heading to the beach to cool down

Residents of south-eastern Australia are being warned to expect the worst heatwave in a century.

Emergency services are on high alert and, in the state of Victoria, locals are being urged to prepare bush fire plans in case they need to flee.

Temperatures went up to 45.5C (114F) in Adelaide, its hottest day in 70 years.

In Melbourne, two people died in the searing heat, including a 75-year-old man who collapsed while walking to his car, the AFP news agency said.

Some train and tram services were cancelled as rail lines buckled in the heat. There were also power outages, as people turned on their air-conditioning units to cool down.

Spectators at the Australian Open
Spectators have also been feeling the heat at the Australian Open
The heat wave in Victoria is expected to last several days and be the region's worst since 1908, according to AFP. The average temperature in Melbourne at this time of year is 25.8C (78F).

Play at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne was interrupted as temperatures reached 41C (106F) and organisers for the first time enacted their "extreme heat policy".

The women's singles quarter-final between Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova was halted for about 45 minutes as the roof on the Rod Laver Arena was closed, allowing the temperature on court to be lowered.

Williams said: "I was in like an out-of-body experience. I kept trying to tell myself that it's not hot, you know... But it got hotter."

Meanwhile in the state of South Australia, officials cancelled a horse race meeting in the town of Gawler because of the extreme weather conditions.




Iran's president has welcomed the possibility of a change in US foreign policy but demanded an apology for past US "crimes" committed against Iran.

The US "stood against the Iranian people in the past 60 years," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during an address in the western region of Khermenshah.

"Those who speak of change must apologise to the Iranian people and try to repair their past crimes," he said.

The White House has offered to extend a hand if Iran "unclenched its fist".

President Barack Obama discussed the possibility of a softening of US policy towards Iran in an interview recorded with a Saudi-owned Arabic TV network on Monday.

"When they say 'we want to make changes', change can happen in two ways," Mr Ahmadinejad said.

"First is a fundamental and effective change... The second ... is a change of tactics. It is very clear that, if the meaning of change is the second one, this will soon be revealed," he said.



Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Joe Galliott
Joe Galliott said the whisky kept him going

A man who became trapped beneath his sofa for two days said he survived by sipping from a bottle of whisky.

Joe Galliott, 65, lost his bearings during a power cut at his home in Yeovil, Somerset, and fell against the three-seater which toppled onto him.

Because of back problems, he was unable to free his 19-stone frame and remained stuck for 60 hours until a neighbour spotted him through the curtains.

He said a bottle of whisky, which had rolled within reach, kept him going.

"The whole settee tipped over catching me like a rat in a trap," he said

"I took a sip of [the whisky] and thought, well this isn't too bad."

But after several hours without food or water, he admits, he became quite worried.

"It felt like a lifetime, you think you're there forever," he said.

The alarm was raised by a neighbour who had peered through the window, after becoming concerned that Mr Galliott's curtains had not been drawn for two days.

He spent five days recovering in hospital after his ordeal earlier this month.

Mr Galliott said he was keeping another bottle of whisky by the sofa "just in case."




Royal Bank of Scotland's London office
The UK government now owns almost 70% of R

A US hedge fund has made a profit of at least £90m ($127m) by correctly betting that shares in struggling Royal Bank of Scotland would go down in value.

Paulson and Co's giant profit has been revealed because investors have had to disclose any planned short selling in UK banks since 13 June.

Short selling involves borrowing and selling shares in a firm in the hope of subsequently buying them back for less.

The hedge fund, or any other investor, then makes a profit on the difference.

Paulson and Co was able to make such a large profit since Royal Bank of Scotland's (RBS) shares - like most in the UK banking sector - have fallen heavily since last summer.

Investor borrows and sells shares in a firm
Aims to subsequently buy them back at a lower price
Makes a profit on the difference

The declines came after many of the lenders were forced to reveal multi-billion pound bad debts linked to the collapse in the US housing market.

RBS subsequently had to be bailed out by the UK government, which now has an almost 70% stake in the company.

The bank also said earlier this month that it expects to report a 2008 loss before write-downs of between £7bn and £8bn.

A spokesman for the UK's financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, explained that the high profile ban on short selling in financial stocks from 19 September last year to 16 January 2009 only prohibited newly taken short positions or contracts.

They confirmed that it did not apply to any short selling deals already in place.

The revelation of Paulson and Co's profit came as a number of senior hedge fund managers were questioned by MPs on the Treasury Committee.

After being questioned specifically on the Paulson & Co case, Andrew Baker, of the hedge fund trade association, Alternative Investment Managers Association, said he believed "very strongly" that the global industry would be in favour of a single worldwide rule on short selling, with some kind of restrictions and a disclosure regime.

Fellow boss, Stephen Zimmerman of NewSmith Capital Partners, said it was wrong to blame short selling for the woes in the banking sector.

"You can see the huge destruction of wealth that has taken place in these companies and I do not believe that it's down to short selling of their shares," he said.




Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson was not involved with the current UK stage show

Pop star Michael Jackson is to help develop a US stage musical based on the video to his hit song Thriller, it has been announced.

Producer James Nederlander, whose company owns nine Broadway theatres, said the star would "participate in every aspect of the creative process".

Jackson's spokesman said the singer and Mr Nederlander "represent live theatre and musical excellence".

Jackson was not involved in current West End production Thriller - Live.

The show, which is being staged at London's Lyric Theatre, opened earlier this month, and its premiere was attended by Jackson's brother Tito.

Mr Nederlander's organisation said the Broadway production "will be the exclusive Michael Jackson authorised version of Thriller."

Michael Jackson's Thriller video
The Thriller video became an early staple of MTV

The show is expected to be based around the video for Thriller, which was first shown in 1983 and starred Jackson as a werewolf and featured dancing zombies.

No details of the musical have yet been revealed, but it is thought the stage show will also feature songs from Jackson's 1979 album Off The Wall.

In November, Jackson reached an out of court settlement with an Arab sheikh who claimed the singer had reneged on an entertainment contract worth £4.7m 2005.

Bahraini royal Sheikh Abdulla Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa told London's High Court that he had planned to revive the star's career with productions including albums and a stage play.

He said that no project had ever been finalised.



Morgan Tsvangirai in Pretoria, South Africa, on 26 January 2009
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is supposed to become prime minister

Zimbabwe's opposition says it does not accept the outcome of a regional summit which said it should join a unity government next month.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the meeting's conclusions "fell far short" of their expectations.

Zimbabwe's deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told the BBC there would be no more power-sharing talks.

As the arguments continue, more than 100 new cholera deaths have been reported in the past day.

Almost 3,000 people have died in the epidemic since August and more than 56,000 have been infected, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

'Pushing their luck'

Mr Matonga told the BBC: "There's not going to be any negotiations, I think that process has been done, it's concluded and the president [Robert Mugabe] will form a new cabinet.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in Pretoria, South Africa, on 26 January 2009
5 Feb: Zimbabwe to pass power-sharing constitutional amendment
11 Feb: PM-designate Tsvangirai and his deputies to be sworn in
13 Feb: Remaining ministers and their deputies to take office

"If they [the MDC] think they can hold Zimbabwe to ransom it will be very unfortunate. I don't think the people of Zimbabwe will allow that to happen. They [the MDC] are pushing their luck."

President Robert Mugabe agreed to share power with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai last September but they have not been able to agree on how to allocate key government jobs.

After 14 hours of negotiations in Pretoria, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) said the MDC had agreed to a timeline to form a unity government with Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF.

According to the timeline, a constitutional amendment would be passed to create the post of prime minister on 5 February, with Mr Tsvangirai being sworn in six days later.

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe said: "All the parties expressed confidence in the process and committed to implementing the agreement."

SADC leaders concluded that the contentious home affairs ministry, which runs the police, should be run jointly and reviewed six months after the new government was inaugurated.

Control over home affairs has been a key sticking point, with the MDC insisting it should run the ministry if Zanu-PF is to administer the defence and national security departments.

Hot on the heels of the SADC communique, an MDC statement said the party had not agreed to the deal, although it stopped short of rejecting the summit's conclusions outright.

Children collect stagnant water for use at home in Glen View, Harare, in December 2008
Five million people - almost half population - need food aid
Central bank introduced Z$100tr note, worth about US$30 (£20)
Unemployment more than 80%
Nearly 3,000 people dead in cholera outbreak
Many teachers, doctors and nurses not working

It added that the party's national council would meet this weekend to define its position.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told the BBC: "Unfortunately our expectations were not met, our case was not received, in fact there was no objective understanding and assessment of the situation."

It was the fourth such meeting since the inconclusive elections last March.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Pretoria says SADC looks powerless and has shown no willingness to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe.

The country's state schools were supposed to open for a new term on Tuesday but the teachers' union said its members did not have the resources to get to work.

One teacher told the BBC that his monthly salary was only enough for a one-way trip to work, so he is selling maize meal instead.

The cholera outbreak has been fuelled by the collapse of the water, sanitation and health systems.

Nurses and doctors are also refusing to turn up for work.

Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai failed to resolve their differences during a meeting in Harare last week.

The MDC, along with Western nations, accuses Mr Mugabe of not being sincere about power-sharing, pointing to a spate of abductions of opposition officials and human rights activists.