Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Tomorrow I am setting off for Kenya on holiday.
See you when I get back.....


Wu Shu-chen, 10 Feb 09, Taiwan court appearance
The Chen family corruption case has gripped public attention for months

A former Taiwanese first lady has pleaded guilty to money-laundering and forgery but denied embezzlement charges in a high-profile corruption case.

Wu Shu-chen said she had accepted a $2.2m (£1.5m) political donation in connection with a land purchase deal - not a bribe as alleged by prosecutors.

She admitted charges of forging documents in a separate case but denied using the money for personal gain.

Mrs Wu is the wife of ex-president Chen Shui-bian, who was in office 2000-2008.

It was the first time Mrs Wu had appeared in court for two years. She was indicted in 2006 for allegedly embezzling 14.8m Taiwan dollars ($440,000) in public funds.

But Mrs Wu collapsed at the start of her trial later that year and has been excused from attending court sessions on health grounds.

Mr Chen, her husband, is currently in jail awaiting trial on the same charges. He has denied the accusations, saying they are politically motivated.

Last month Chen Chih-chung, the Chens' son, pleaded guilty to money laundering as did Chen's daughter-in-law and Mrs Wu's brother.

The case has hurt the image of the Democratic Progressive Party, which backed Mr Chen during his time in office from 2000 to 2008.

Mr Chen has maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, insisting his political opponents are mounting a "witch-hunt" against him, and accusing the new administration of making him "a sacrifice to appease China".

He has been a vocal and persistent critic of the new government's China policies since he left office.

His accusations have been denied by both the Chinese government and Taiwan's current President Ma Ying-jeou, of the Nationalist Kuomingtang party (KMT).

Taiwan has been ruled separately from China since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan to create a self-governing entity.

But Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province which should be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.







Mexican troops swoop on police HQ

Scene of general's murder near Cancun, 3 February 2009
Drugs cartels are blamed for General Tello's murder last week

Mexican troops have detained the police chief and 36 other officers in the resort of Cancun in connection with the murder last week of an ex-army general.

Soldiers swooped on the police HQ and took police chief Francisco Velasco to Mexico City for questioning.

Former general Mauro Enrique Tello, who had just taken command of an elite squad to tackle in Cancun, was tortured and shot by suspected traffickers.

Some 5,400 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in 2008.

In a surprise operation, dozens of heavily armed soldiers swarmed on the police station in the municipality of Benito Juarez, which includes Cancun.

Soldiers stripped the police chief and his officers of their weapons to check the registration of the guns.

Chief Velasco was flown to the capital for questioning in connection with Gen Tello's murder.

Gen Tello, who retired from the army earlier this year, had been sent to Cancun to lead a new force intended to break up the influence of drugs cartels.

He and two other men with him were abducted on a local main road, then driven to a remote location where they were tortured and then shot.

The BBC correspondent in Mexico, Stephen Gibbs, says the general's death, the day after he arrived to take up his new job, is being blamed squarely on corrupt police and drugs cartels.

Drug-related violence in Mexico is soaring, as criminal gangs fight both each other for control of the trafficking routes from Colombia to the US, and fight federal forces deployed against them.

Some 40,000 soldiers and police have been deployed since December 2006 against the cartels.

Much of the violence to date has been concentrated in Mexico's northern border cities, while Cancun, which attracts millions of tourists every year, has largely been spared.

Our correspondent says the general's killing is another sign that Mexico's drug war has no boundaries.



Zimbabwe deal: Key points

Arthur Mutambara, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and Thabo Mbeki shake hands in Harare (15 September 2008)

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the opposition leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, have signed a power-sharing deal, aimed at resolving the country's political and economic crisis.

Here are the main points of the agreement detailed in the 30 pages of the 80-page deal that have so far been made public:


The parties hereby declare and agree to work together to create a genuine, viable, permanent, sustainable and nationally acceptable solution to the Zimbabwe situation and in particular to implement the following agreement with the aims of resolving once and for all the current political and economic situations and charting a new political direction for the country.


The parties agree... to give priority to the restoration of economic stability and growth in Zimbabwe. The government will lead the process of developing and implementing an economic recovery strategy and plan.


The parties note the present economic and political isolation of Zimbabwe by the United Kingdom, European Union, United States of America and other sections of the international community over and around issues of disputed elections, governance and differences over the land reform programme.

Recognising the consequent contribution of this isolation to the further decline of the economy... the Parties hereby agree:

(b) that all forms of measures and sanctions against Zimbabwe be lifted in order to facilitate a sustainable solution to the challenges that are currently facing Zimbabwe;

(c) commit themselves to working together in re-engaging the international community with a view to bringing to an end the country's international isolation.


Recognising that colonial racist land ownership patterns established during the colonial conquest of Zimbabwe and largely maintained in the post independence period were not only unsustainable, but against the national interest, equity and justice.

Accepting the irreversibility of the said land acquisitions and redistribution.

Noting that in the current constitution of Zimbabwe and further in the draft constitution agreed to by the parties the primary obligation of compensating former land owners for land acquired rests on the former colonial power.

The parties hereby agree to:

(a) conduct a comprehensive, transparent and non-partisan land audit, during the tenure of the seventh parliament of Zimbabwe, for the purpose of establishing accountability and eliminating multiple farm ownerships;

(d) call upon the United Kingdom government to accept the primary responsibility to pay compensation for land acquired from former land owners for resettlement.


Mindful of the need to ensure that the new constitution deepens our democratic values and principles and the protection of the equality of all citizens, particularly the enhancement of full citizenship and equality of women.

The parties hereby agree:

(a) that they shall set up a select committee of parliament composed of representatives of the parties whose terms of reference shall be as follows:

(b) that the draft constitution recommended by the select committee shall be submitted to a referendum;

(c) that, in implementing the above, the following time frames shall apply:

(i) the select committee shall be set up within two months of inception of a new government;

(ii) the convening of the first all stakeholders conference shall be within three months of the date of the appointment of the select committee.


The parties hereby agree:-

(a) that the responsibility of effecting change of government in Zimbabwe vests exclusively on and is the sole prerogative of the people of Zimbabwe through peaceful, democratic and constitutional means;

(b) to reject any unlawful, violent, undemocratic and unconstitutional means of changing governments;

(c) that no outsiders have a right to call or campaign for regime change in Zimbabwe.


Recognising that the right to canvass and freely mobilise for political support is the cornerstone of any multi-party democratic system, the Parties have agreed that there should be free political activity throughout Zimbabwe within the ambit of the law in which all political parties are able to propagate their views and canvass for support, free of harassment and intimidation.


The parties have agreed:

(a) to work together in a manner which guarantees the full implementation and realisation of the right to freedom of association and assembly; and

(b) that the government shall undertake training programmes, workshops and meetings for the police and other enforcement agencies directed at the appreciation of the right of freedom of assembly and association and the proper interpretation, understanding and application of the provisions of security legislation.


State organs and institutions do not belong to any political party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties.


The parties hereby agree:

(a) that in the fulfilment of its obligations… the government and all state institutions and quasi-state institutions shall render humanitarian and food assistance without discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity gender, political affiliation or religion;

(c) that all displaced persons shall be entitled to humanitarian and food assistance to enable them to return and settle in their original homes and that social welfare organisations shall be allowed to render such assistance as might be required;

(d) that all NGOs [Non-Governmental Organisations] rendering humanitarian and food assistance must operate within the confines of the laws of Zimbabwe.


The parties hereby agree:

(a) to promote the values and practices of tolerance, respect, non-violence and dialogue as means of resolving political differences;

(b) to renounce and desist from the promotion and use of violence, under whatever name called, as a means of attaining political ends;

(c) that the government shall apply the laws of the country fully and impartially in bringing all perpetrators of politically motivated violence to book;

(h) to work together to ensure the safety of any displaced persons, their safe return home and their enjoyment of the full protection of the law.


The parties hereby agree:-

(a) that the government shall ensure the immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applications for re-registration and registration in terms of both the Broadcasting Services Act as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act;

(d) that steps be taken to ensure that the public media provides balanced and fair coverage to all political parties for their legitimate political activities.

  • There shall be a president, which office shall continue to be occupied by President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
  • There shall be two vice-presidents, who will be nominated by the president and/or ZANU-PF.
  • There shall be a prime minister, which office shall be occupied by Morgan Tsvangirai.
  • There shall be two deputy prime ministers [from each faction of the Movement for Democratic Change], one from MDC-Tsvangirai and one from MDC-Mutambara.
  • There shall be 31 ministers, with 15 nominated by the Zanu-PF, 13 by the MDC-T and three by the MDC-M. Of the 31 ministers, three (one per party), may be appointed from outside the members of parliament. The three ministers so appointed shall become members of the House of Assembly and shall have the right to sit, speak and debate in parliament, but shall not be entitled to vote.
  • There shall be 15 deputy ministers, with eight nominated by the Zanu-PF, six by the MDC-T and one by the MDC-M
  • Ministers and deputy ministers may be relieved of their duties only after consultation among the leaders of all the political parties participating in the inclusive government.

  • The executive authority of the inclusive government shall vest in, and be shared among the president, the prime minister and the cabinet, as provided for in this constitution and legislation.
  • The president of the republic shall exercise executive authority subject to the constitution and the law.
  • The prime minister of the republic shall exercise executive authority subject to the Constitution and the law.
  • In the exercise of executive authority, the president, vice-president, the prime minister, deputy prime minister, minister and deputy ministers must have regard to the principles and spirit underlying the formation of the inclusive government and accordingly act in a manner that seeks to promote cohesion both inside and outside government.

  • Chairs cabinet;
  • Exercises executive authority;
  • Can, subject to the constitution, proclaim and terminate martial law;
  • Chairs National Security Council [commonly called the Joint Operations Command (Joc) which includes army, police, and secret services];
  • After consultation with the vice-presidents, the prime minister and deputy prime ministers, allocates ministerial portfolios in accordance with this agreement;
  • Exercises executive authority;
  • May, acting in consultation with the prime minister, dissolve parliament
  • Must be kept fully informed by the prime minister on the general conduct of the government business and;
  • Shall be furnished with such information as he/she may request in respect of any particular matter relating to the government, and may advise the prime minister and the cabinet in this regard.

  • Chairs the Council of Ministers and is the deputy chairperson of cabinet;
  • Exercises executive authority;
  • Shall oversee the formulation of government policies by the cabinet;
  • Shall be a member of the National Security Council;
  • Shall report regularly to the president and parliament.

Infographic showing power-sharing deal

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Video grab of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 10/2/2009
Mr Ahmadinejad said change from the US must be fundamental, not tactical

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he would welcome talks with the US as long as they were based on "mutual respect".

Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran, he said Iran would welcome change from the US as long as it was "fundamental".

He said: "The Iranian nation is ready to hold talks... in a fair atmosphere."

The two nations cut ties in 1979 after the revolution, when the US embassy in Tehran was occupied for 444 days.

"The new US administration has announced that they want to produce change and pursue the course of dialogue," Mr Ahmadinejad said at a rally attended by thousands of people. "It is quite clear that real change must be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear the Iranian nation welcomes real changes and is ready for dialogue in a climate of equality and mutual respect."

Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks come a day after US President Barack Obama said he was "looking at places where we can have constructive dialogue" with Iran.

The US severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the US-backed Shah was overthrown in 1979 and the US embassy in Tehran was occupied by students for more than a year, with dozens of diplomats and staff held hostage.

Relations have worsened further in recent years as the US has led efforts to prevent Iran from further developing its nuclear programme, which some Western nations fear will lead to nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its nuclear programme is for civilian, energy-generating purposes only.

On Monday Mr Obama said that his administration was looking for "openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face-to-face".

It was the latest in a series of positive remarks he has made about the possibility of direct US-Iranian talks.

"I think there's the possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress," Mr Obama said, but "it's time now for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently."

Mr Obama's predecessor, George Bush, famously included Iran in what he called "Axis of Evil", along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.



snowboarder at Glenshee
The freezing conditions provided a boost for Scotland's ski centres

Temperatures in parts of the Highlands have plunged as low as -18C overnight as much of Scotland had its coldest night of the winter.

Aviemore recorded the coldest February temperature since 1986 (-18C), Altnaharra in the Highlands was down to -15C and Aberdeen was -12C.

The Met Office warned of freezing temperatures leading to the risk of widespread ice on untreated roads.

Temperatures in Glasgow and Edinburgh were about -1C despite snow falls.

There was more snow over much of southern and central Scotland overnight.

Drivers were being advised to take extra care.

No major routes were closed but in Dumfries and Galloway the M74 was down to two lanes at Beattock Summit.

About 80 Aberdeenshire schools and six schools and a nursery in the Highlands were closed or partially closed as cold weather continued to cause problems.

The freezing conditions provided a boost for Scotland's ski centres over the weekend.

Much of Scotland had its coldest night of the winter

Skiers flocked to the slopes to make the most of the weather.

At Glenshee Ski Centre the car park was full by 1000 GMT, with 1,500 cars parked.

However, some people were reporting that their cars were getting stuck in the snow and Grampian Police was forced to close the snow gates on the incoming roads in an attempt to persuade new arrivals to go elsewhere.

The centre's website said that conditions were "nearly perfect".

At Nevis Range ski centre near Fort William there were about 800 people already on the slopes by 1030 GMT.

The icy conditions made driving difficult in some areas on Sunday and in Grampian the B974 Banchory to Fettercairn road and the B976 Crathie to Gairnsheil roads were closed due to ice and snow, while some roads in the Highlands were also closed.




Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is baseball's highest paid player

American baseball has been thrown into disarray after its highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, admitted using performance-enhancing drugs.

The 33-year-old, known as A-Rod by fans, said he took steroids for several years - but he denies using them now.

"I did take a banned substance," said Rodriguez in an interview with American sports network ESPN.

"For that, I'm very sorry and deeply regretful. I was stupid for three years. I was very, very stupid."

Rodriguez tested positive for steroids while playing for the Texas Rangers in 2003 - before Major League Baseball introduced a stringent anti-drugs regime.

The tests were carried out to determine whether the League needed to take a tougher stance on the issue.

According to Sports Illustrated magazine, Rodriguez was one of 104 players who tests proved positive. MLB maintains that list should have remained confidential.

Rodriguez said: "When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform at a high level every day. I started experimenting with things that, today, are not legal, that today are not accepted. "Back then, it was a different culture [surrounding drugs]. It was very loose. I was young and naive. I am sorry for my Texas years. I apologise to the fans of Texas."

Rodriguez joined the New York Yankees in 2004, and signed a new 10-year contract just over a year ago for a reported $275m (£185m).

He insisted: "All my years in New York have been clean."

In modern baseball, they do not get bigger than A-Rod.

As well as being the sport's highest-paid player, he has been romantically linked to Madonna, although both say they are simply good friends.

He is an American superstar and, until recently, was seen as the great hope for baseball after its image was tarnished by a series of drug use revelations.

His admission about steroid use in 2003 is depressing for those in the US who regard baseball as the quintessential American pastime and expect more of its stars.

Even US president Barack Obama has expressed his disappointment, saying: "I think it's depressing news on top of what's been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to Major League Baseball.

"If you're a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era, to some degree. It's unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ballplayers who played it straight."



A poster of the underwear campaign
The group has already attracted more than 5,000 members

Indians outraged at an attack on women for drinking in a bar have gathered together to send a provocative gift of underwear to right-wing activists.

More than 5,000 people, including men, have joined the Facebook group, which calls itself the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women.

The group says it will give the pink underwear to Sri Ram Sena (Army of Lord Ram) on Valentine's Day on Saturday.

It was blamed for the bar attack in the southern city of Mangalore last month.

Pramod Mutalik, who heads the little known Ram Sena and is now on bail after he was held following the attack, has said it is "not acceptable" for women to go to bars in India.

He has also said his men will protest against Valentine's Day on Saturday.

The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, which was formed on Facebook last Thursday, has also exhorted women to "walk to the nearest pub and buy a drink" on Valentine's Day.

A spokeswoman for the group, Nisha Susan, told the BBC it was gifting chaddis (Hindi colloquial for underwear) as they alluded to a prominent Hindu right-wing group whose khaki-shorts-wearing cadres were often derisively called "chaddi wallahs" (chaddi wearers).

Indian television crews caught the attack on film

"We chose the colour pink because it is a frivolous colour," she said.

Ms Susan said the group expected to collect at least 500 pieces of pink underwear from all over the country and send them to Mr Mutalik's office in the southern city of Hubli.

"It's a choice between ignoring a group like Ram Sena or respond to its activities. We have decided to give it attention, but it is attention which it will not like," she said.

The group has asked people to mail or drop underwear at "collection points" across the country.

The Ram Sena has not yet commented on the group's moves.

Last month's attack in Mangalore, which was filmed and then broadcast on national television, shocked many Indians.

Pramod Mutalik
Mr Mutalik has said his men will protest against Valentine's Day celebrations
Television pictures showed the men chasing and beating up the panicking women. Some of the women, who tripped and fell, were kicked by the men.

Around 30 people, including Mr Mutalik, were arrested following the attack.

Women's groups strongly condemned the attack which was described by the country's Women's Minister Renuka Chaudhury as an attempt to impose Taleban-style values.

The Hindu nationalist BJP government in Karnataka state distanced itself from the attack. It said that it had nothing to do with Sri Ram Sena.

But our correspondent says that right-wing Hindu vigilante groups loosely linked to the BJP are active in many parts of India and have in the past targeted Muslim and Christian minorities as well as events such as Valentine's Day.



Monday, February 09, 2009


Flowers outside a burnt-out property
Flowers at the gate of a burnt-out property in Bendigo, Australia
The shock and horror felt in Australia at the scale of the devastation caused by the wildfires is reflected across the media.

The national reaction is underlined by the headline on the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper: "A Tragedy Beyond Belief".

In an editorial headline, Melbourne's The Age describes: "A state swept by flames, united by suffering."

The newspaper highlights the case of one victim. It says: "Whatever the final figure may be, however, the reality of what has happened will still be the same for the man who arrived at a farm near Kinglake with his infant daughter.

"The man and the child were both badly burned, and his news was that his wife and other child were dead. 'Look, I've lost my wife, I've lost my other kid,' he said, 'I just need you to save (my daughter)'."

The editorial concludes: "The bonds forged by death and devastation are never willingly sought, but sometimes they are the bonds that sustain us most."

ABC News has been hearing how the bushfires are continuing to wreak havoc in Kinglake, north-east of Melbourne.

One survivor, Christopher Harvey, who fears he has lost nearly all his neighbours, told the broadcaster: "There was no chance of fighting or taking care of this fire.

"Everybody's gone. Everybody's gone. Everybody. Their houses are gone. This is our house, this is it. They're all dead in the houses there. Everybody's dead."

The Age focuses on the town of Strathewen, north of Melbourne.

The paper says on Saturday afternoon, there were 200 people living in the rural town. By the end of that night, it is believed about 15% of the population, or about 30 people, had perished.

The paper spoke to firefighter and farmer David McGahy, who is the divisional commander of that section of the fires.

Fighting back tears, he said: "I've had a fair bit of criticism from people saying why didn't you help me, but I couldn't help them. I couldn't do anything."

The Sydney Morning Herald highlights the story of another firefighter, Drew Adamson, in Dixons Creek. The paper tells how he stood and watched his home burn while he saved someone else's.

In the past two days, he had seen a body tumble from a smashed car and charred remains in the blackened shells of other vehicles, it adds.

He tried to help a woman find her sister's children, only to discover they had burned in a house in the Kinglake fires.

The ruins of Kinglake, Australia
Rescuers search through rubble in Kinglake, one of the worst-hit areas

Doctors treating burn victims say the situation is worse than the Bali bombings, according to ABC News.

At Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, staff were treating 21 victims with burns to at least 30% of their bodies, the broadcaster says.

Many news organisations also reflect on the emotion shown by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a sombre two-hour sitting of parliament and her description of Saturday as "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history".

But not everyone sympathises with the politicians.

This comment from Ben in Westmead was sent to 2GB Radio in Sydney: "Kevin Rudd and the Australian government, hang your head in shame.

"I personally think it's disgusting that we, the tax payers, are giving banks a A$70bn bail-out, to only give the bushfire victims A$10m.

"For me, give the bush the A$70bn to sort [out] lives and infrastructure and let the greedy banks go bust.

"Finally, seeing the PM hugging people in front of news cameras doesn't rebuild shattered lives or homes."

Blogger Darryl Mason at The Orstrahyun described the wildfires as "like a tragedy from another century".

Burnt out vehicle in Bendigo
Police officers examine the remains of a burnt out vehicle in Bendigo
"The visuals that haunt and linger now are of all those cars, reduced to grey and black metal husks, some all alone on charred roads, others rammed into each other in piles of six, seven, eight vehicles outside of towns with names that are literally scorched into our national consciousness," he wrote.

"How did this appalling horror become reality, here? In this age? With all our technology?"

At least three groups have been created on Facebook in the wake of the wildfires.

The biggest group is called: "Applaud the CFA (Country Fire Authority) heroes & empathise with the victims of the 09 Vic bushfires".

It reads: "May the arsons [sic] who felt the need to destroy people's lives truly be punished!"

The Herald Sun in Melbourne, meanwhile, is one newspaper with appeals from readers worried about loved ones.

This, on its message board, is typical: "Looking for my Mum who lives in Marysville. Very worried. Haven't heard anything from her since 6.45 p.m. last night."




A three-year-old child was caught with a gang of children who were vandalising a building in Dundee, it has emerged.

A freedom of information request revealed the child had been the youngest member of the group.

BBC Scotland has learned that the children had been throwing paint at a house which was due for demolition in the Fintry district of Dundee.

The age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is eight, but crimes committed by younger children are recorded.

The child was caught as part of a police operation targeting vandalism in the city.

It identified eight youngsters who were each responsible for more than 10 acts of vandalism, some causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

The incident involving the three-year-old took place last May.



One of the newly-discovered mummies (Image: Supreme Council of Antiquities)
One of the mummies found in a sarcophagus at the Saqqara site

Egyptian archaeologists have found more than 20 mummies in a burial chamber dating back at least 2,600 years.

Eight wooden and stone sarcophagi were also discovered during the excavations at the Saqqara site, said Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist.

One limestone sarcophagus sealed with plaster is thought to be more than 4,000 years old.

Despite decades of excavations at the Saqqara necropolis south of Cairo, new finds are frequently made.

Correspondents say it is rare for such an intact burial site to be unearthed.

The mummies, 22 of which were found in niches along a wall, were in a tomb dating to 640BC, Mr Hawass said.

One wooden sarcophagus had not been opened since ancient times, though one official said ancient grave robbers had probably reached it first, according to a government statement.

A mummy was found in the only sarcophagus to have been opened so far, and archaeologists said they were expecting to find more mummies in the others.

Mr Hawass has said that some 70% of Egypt's ancient monuments remain buried.




A Rohingya migrant in a police van in Thailand, 31/01
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma

The US has called on Burma to stop persecuting its Rohingya Muslim minority, who have fled the country in their hundreds of thousands.

On a visit to neighbouring Bangladesh, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the Rohingya's treatment was "a matter of concern" to the US.

Hundreds of Rohingya recently fled to Thailand in boats, but were cast adrift by the Thai authorities and many died.

Burma's military rulers do not recognise the Rohingya as Burmese.

And refugees who have been arriving in Thailand and Indonesia have told how the military authorities there have beaten and abused them.

Many have shown scars on their bodies they claimed were caused by Burmese soldiers whipping them as a warning not to return to Burma.

"The US was aware of the fleeing of Rohingyas from Myanmar [Burma] for persecution and economic reasons," Mr Boucher told a news conference in Dhaka.

"It's a matter of concern and the US wants that Myanmar stops the persecution of Rohingyas."

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) some 230,000 Rohingya now live in Bangladesh, having fled decades of abuse by Burma's military rulers.



Nissan car
Nissan's job cuts come as the firm has seen sales slump

Nissan is to cut 20,000 jobs worldwide, 8.5% of its workforce, over the next year because of a sharp fall in sales.

The Japanese carmaker made the announcement as it said it expected to make a loss of 265bn yen ($2.9bn; £2bn) for its current financial year.

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn said the the firm's "worst assumptions on the state of the global economy have been met or exceeded".

"The global auto industry is in turmoil. Nissan is no exception."

Nissan said the 20,000 job cuts would be made between March 2009 and March 2010.

Carlos Ghosn
Mr Ghosn has painted a bleak picture

The reduction will see the size of its global workforce fall to 215,000 from 235,000, although Nissan has yet to say which plants will be affected, and by how much.

It added that it would also be talking to unions about cutting working hours.

The company had already announced job cuts last month, including 1,200 at its UK plant in Sunderland.

Nissan also said on Monday that it sold 731,000 vehicles worldwide between October and December, down 18.6% from a year before.

This resulted in a net loss of 83.2bn yen, compared with a 132.2bn profit a year earlier.

Car industry analyst Mamoru Katou said the job losses would make Nissan unpopular in its home country.

"The job cuts will hurt Japanese parts-makers, too, and in the long run diminish the Nissan brand value in Japan," he said.

Most of the world's other main carmakers have also seen sales and profits slump as a result of the global economic slowdown.

As a result, there is a growing trend of cutting production and jobs.

Since the start of the year, Honda has announced 3,100 redundancies, while General Motors is reducing its workforce by 2,000.

Other car firms, such as Toyota, Porsche, Honda and BMW, have announced reductions in output as fewer people buy new cars.



Sunday, February 08, 2009





Eluana Englaro, in an undated image released by her family
Ms Englaro is said to have opposed being kept alive artificially

A political standoff has developed in Italy over the right of a woman who has been in a coma for 17 years to die, despite a court ruling in her favour.

Italy's PM drafted an emergency decree to prevent feeding tubes being removed, but the president refused to sign it.

Doctors quoted by local media said they had begun withholding food on Friday and a lawyer said her family would continue moves to allow her to die.

Eluana Englaro, now 38, has been in a coma since a car crash in 1992.

The case has provoked fierce debate in the country.

Euthanasia is illegal in Italy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's position is supported by the Roman Catholic Church.

Last Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the debate about euthanasia, calling it a "false solution" to the tragedy of suffering.

Italy's President, Giorgio Napolitano, said Mr Berlusconi had acted unconstitutionally when he issued an emergency decree to prevent the woman's life-support machine from being disconnected.

He accused Mr Berlusconi of over-ruling a previous court decision to allow Ms Englaro to die.

Mr Berlusconi, who has a parliamentary majority, said an emergency session of parliament would enact a new law barring doctors halting nutrition to patients in a coma.

On Saturday he said he was "amazed that doctors who have vowed to save human lives can take part in the act that will surely lead to death, even cruelly by depriving the organism of food," AFP news agency reported.

On Tuesday Ms Englaro was transferred to a private geriatric clinic in the northern city of Udine, where doctors had agreed to disconnect her feeding tubes.

A lawyer for the Englaro family, Giuseppe Campeis, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera: "We are continuing with our (medical) procedure aimed at ensuring a 'gentle death'.

According to medical experts quoted by the paper, the process should become irreversible within three to five days.

Another report said it could take Ms Englaro about two weeks to die.

Last year Ms Englaro's father won a court battle allowing her to die. He said that before the accident, she had expressed a wish not be kept alive artificially.




Heathrow Terminal 5
Similar schemes run in the US, Spain and Canada

The government is compiling a database to track and store the international travel records of millions of Britons.

Computerised records of all 250 million journeys made by individuals in and out of the UK each year will be kept for up to 10 years.

The government says the database is essential in the fight against crime, illegal immigration and terrorism.

But opposition MPs and privacy campaigners fear it is a significant step towards a surveillance society.

The intelligence centre will store names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat reservations, travel itineraries and credit card details of travellers.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "The government seems to be building databases to track more and more of our lives.

"The justification is always about security or personal protection. But the truth is that we have a government that just can't be trusted over these highly sensitive issues. We must not allow ourselves to become a Big Brother society."

A spokesman for campaign group NO2ID said: "When your travel plans, who you are travelling with, where you are going to and when are being recorded you have to ask yourself just how free is this country?"

The e-Borders scheme covers flights, ferries and rail journeys and the Home Office says similar schemes run in other countries including the US, Canada, Spain and Australia.

Minister of State for borders and immigration Phil Woolas said the government was determined to ensure the UK's border remained one of the toughest in the world.

"Our hi-tech electronic borders system will allow us to count all passengers in and out of the UK and [it] targets those who aren't willing to play by our rules," he said.

"Already e-Borders has screened over 75 million passengers against immigration, customs and police watch-lists, leading to over 2,700 arrests for crimes such as murder, rape and assault."




Tihani Abed Rabbu
Tihani Abed Rabbu revisits the scene of a family tragedy during Israel's offensive

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Gaza City

Standing with the support of relatives on a street in Jabalia, in northern Gaza, Tihani Abed Rabbu is distraught.

She is revisiting the spot outside a grocery store to which she ran a few weeks ago, after hearing Israeli shelling.

Then, amidst the smoke and the blood, she found six bodies. They included her teenage son, Mustafa, as well as her brother and her closest friend.

Tihani breaks down as she tells me she had left them just moments earlier as they bought food during what they thought was a lull in the bombing.

"Why don't people feel our suffering?" she cries. "My heart is on fire, I miss Mustafa with every breath.

"There were no fighters around here, and they were not terrorists, so why did they die?"

She suddenly raises her voice. "But even our own politicians, sitting in their big chairs, don't care. They don't feel what we feel. If they cared, they'd be united.

"The only thing that will help my heart is if our so-called leaders stopped fighting and joined hands in the face of our enemy."

Ahmed Youssef
If we don't have national reconcilation, rebuilding Gaza will be very difficult
Ahmed Youssef, Hamas
Politicians from the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, all claim that unity is exactly what they want.

Dr Faisal Abu Shahla, a Fatah member of parliament in Gaza City, says the recent Israeli offensive did unite Palestinians.

"They were all together suffering," he says. "There was no discrimination between Hamas and Fatah people, civilians. Everybody was facing the Israelis, and the Israelis were killing anyone. All together, it was a message from the Palestinians that they want unity."

Hamas politicians too, like Ahmed Youssef, talk of the time being right for unity.

"We understand that if we don't have national reconciliation, developing Gaza, or re-building Gaza, will be very difficult to achieve," he says.

But both Fatah and Hamas have been talking of unity for a long time. Still, Gaza is run by Hamas, the West Bank by Fatah, and there is little contact between the two.

This has been the case for 18 months when inter-factional fighting reached its peak and the 2006 parliamentary election winners Hamas ousted the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and its security forces from Gaza.

Since then every Palestinian politician I have spoken to, from whatever party, has said he or she recognises the harm the political split is doing to the Palestinian cause. They will insist that reconciliation is their priority.

But talk a little longer, and the bitterness and the same old accusations soon surface. Even at a time like this.

Faisal Abu Shahla
The Israelis think they are dealing with Gaza alone, not all Palestinians. This is the weak point
Faisal Abu Shahla, Fatah
"There are people who are inside Fatah who are serving the Zionist and American agenda," Ahmed Youssef, of Hamas, tells me.

"They don't want to see the Palestinians united and are weakening the social fabric of the Palestinians."

Hamas is reasserting its control on the streets of Gaza. It admits to having carried out punishment beatings and even shootings of rival Fatah supporters that it claims spied for Israel.

Fatah says Hamas is unfit to govern and has brought untold problems - including the Israeli attacks - to the Palestinians.

"The division which Hamas created allowed this to happen," says Dr Fasial Abu Shahla of Fatah. "What it did in Gaza and what it has done since, made the Israelis think they are dealing with Gaza alone, not all Palestinians. This is the weak point.

"What Hamas is practising on the ground makes the division bigger."

The word on every politician's lips here may be "reconciliation," but even after an Israeli offensive which wrought so much death and devastation, they still point fingers of blame at each other.

Those Palestinians who hope unity will come out of the carnage could still have a long wait.



Jennifer Figge
Figge swam for up to eight hours at a stretch

A 56-year-old American athlete has become the first woman on record to swim the Atlantic.

Jennifer Figge took 24 days to swim from the Cape Verde islands off Africa to Trinidad. The exact distance she covered has yet to be calculated.

She swam inside a cage to protect her from sharks.

Figge, who had originally planned to make landfall in the Bahamas, now plans to finish by swimming from Trinidad to the British Virgin Islands.

She first dreamed of swimming across the Atlantic Ocean as a little girl.

Jennifer Figge
Looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way
Jennifer Figge
The swimmer finally moved nearer her goal when she left Cape Verde Islands on 12 January, facing waves of up to 9m (30 ft).

Each day she would spend up to eight hours in the water at a stretch before returning to her support boat.

Crew members would throw the athlete energy drinks as she swam along, if it was too stormy divers would deliver them in person.

She saw pilot whales, turtles, dolphins, Portuguese men-of-war, but no sharks.

"I was never scared," she told the Associated Press news agency.

"Looking back, I wouldn't have it any other way. I can always swim in a pool."

Jennifer Figge's journey comes 10 years after a French swimmer, Benoit Lecomte, made the first known solo trans-Atlantic swim covering 6,400km (4,000 miles) in 73 days.

Figge had planned to swim 3,380km (2,100 miles), but she was blown off course and reached Trinidad rather than the Bahamas.




One person died and scores of others were rescued after being trapped on a big slab of ice that broke off from the shore of Lake Erie, US officials say.

Boats and helicopters were sent to help people off the ice floe which floated away from the Ohio shoreline.

Media reports put the number of those rescued - thought to be mostly fishermen - at between 100 and 145.

Fishermen say ice on Lake Erie has been particularly thick this winter, luring more people on than usual.

Ice in western parts of the lake is up to 2ft (60 cm) thick, according to Bill Randel of the National Weather Service.

The ice started to crack when temperatures rose above freezing this weekend and strong gusts of wind pushed on the ice, he told AP.

It is thought the anglers had used wooden pallets to make a temporary bridge across a crack to get further out on the lake, leaving them stranded when the ice shifted and the planks fell in the water.

The slab of ice that broke off and floated away was about eight miles (13 km) wide, the Coast Guard said.




A classic Bugatti car, which gathered dust in a Tyneside garage for half a century, has been sold for 3.4m euros (£3m) at an auction in Paris.

Bonhams had listed lot 17403 as a "motoring icon" with an engine that has not been fired up for 50 years.

Relatives of reclusive Newcastle doctor Harold Carr found the 1937 Type 57S Atalante in a garage after he died.

It was originally owned by Earl Howe - first president of the British Racing Drivers' Club. Just 17 were built.

Bonhams tempted bidders by writing in its sales description: "The new owner will have the pleasure of firing up [engine] 26S and hearing that turbine-like sound that so excited Earl Howe when he collected this car from Sorel in 1937.

Bugatti Type 57S
The 1937 Bugatti gathered dust in a garage for 47 years. Pic Bonhams

"Once again [chassis] 57502, a true supercar with impeccable credentials, emerges to take its place on the world stage."

Earl Howe took delivery of the sporty two-seat Atalante after it was completed in 1937 and kept the car for eight years.

After Earl Howe sold it, it changed hands a couple of times before Dr Carr bought the car in 1955 from Lord Ridley, a member of the Northumberland gentry.

Dr Carr drove it until 1960 when he parked it in his garage - to be discovered after he died in 2007.

The car has a remarkably low mileage with an odometer reading of just 26,284. It eventually sold for 3,417,500 euros (£2,989,495).

The Bugatti 57S is a highly coveted car by collectors, with at least four thought to belong to the Musee Nationale de L'Automobile in Mulhouse, France.

Others remain in the hands of private collectors.



By Greg Wood
BBC North America Business Correspondent, Cranston, Rhode Island

A job center in Cranston
The Cranston job center is deluged with people looking for work

"If it wasn't for my parents I'd be on the streets with my two kids. It's rough at the moment."

Those words, from mother-of-two Mary Hallam, sum up the plight of many people in the town of Cranston, Rhode Island.

This tiny state has the highest unemployment rate in the US after Michigan. One in ten of the workforce here is without a job.

Mary lost her job as a cashier in a seafood restaurant last October. She and the children get by on $465 (£314) a month in food stamps.

She can't afford her own place, so they have to live with her parents, both of whom are also unemployed.

"My Dad worked at the same company for 25 years", she says, "He paid his taxes. Now he can't even get help from the state to pay for medical care. It's very sad."

Rhode Island, known as the Ocean State, is a mixed bag. Parts of it are very prosperous. The town of Newport is famous for its jazz festival and the mansions built by 19th century barons of industry.

But away from the tourist centres on the coast the story is very different. Rhode Island has been losing manufacturing jobs for years.

Now the financial crisis has caused major shut downs in many other areas of the local economy, from construction to financial services to retailing.

Despite the thick snow on the sidewalks, the labour and training centre in West Warwick, just a few miles from Cranston, is packed with job seekers - at computer screens, in one-on-one interviews, in big groups doing tests.

A closed down store
Many stores have closed down in the area

There used to be pages of job adverts in the local newspaper. Now they're down to a single page, if that. There are four vacancies at a firm which needs jewellery polishers, but not much else.

Marissa Stewart-White is a single mother with a nine-year-old daughter. She lost her job working for a government contractor just before Christmas.

"I have a degree in economics and computer science. I've been working since I was fifteen. However, these are really hard times right now."

The Labour Department here can't cope with the avalanche of new claims for unemployment benefit. In a bitter irony, it's bringing back retired workers and advertising for forty new call centre staff to deal with the backlog.

"We absolutely have a backlog of claims" says Labour Department manager Laura Hart. "We have about 10,000 internet claims and they go back to the beginning of January. We hope to make a dent in it this week".

So, on top of the shock of losing their jobs, many of the people here are having to wait more than a month before they receive their first benefit payment. The system is struggling to cope with the human tide of unemployment.



Saturday, February 07, 2009


By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Mexico City

Pro-death penalty poster
The Green Party is planning on keeping the posters up for months

Billboards can reveal a lot about a country.

They tend to show what advertising executives and politicians think are the desires and fears of the people they target.

The skyline of Mexico City is a case in point.

It is dominated by the usual alluring, aspirational adverts for products like Bacardi rum, cheaply financed cars and lipstick.

But scattered among them are huge black posters calling for the reintroduction of capital punishment.

"Because we care about your life - death penalty for murderers and kidnappers," they demand in bold yellow letters.

The campaign, somewhat incongruously, is paid for by Mexico's Green Party. The organisation's mascot, a large toucan against a green backdrop, appears prominently on each poster.

The contrasting messages on the city's billboards highlight one of the idiosyncrasies of this country.

While its GDP puts it among the richest 15 countries in the world, its official kidnapping rate tops that of Iraq.

Moreover, murders linked to organised crime - in particular the drugs trade - are soaring with almost 6,000 people killed last year, double the number for 2007.

Gloria Lavara
Children are being murdered and kidnapped, the current policy is not working
Gloria Lavara
Mexican Green Party

It is against this background that Mexico's tiny Green Party has decided to campaign for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

It has been almost 50 years since anyone was executed in Mexico. A soldier was the last person to face a firing squad in 1961 for insubordination and murder.

In 2005, Congress abolished the death penalty and removed all references to it from the constitution.

Antonio Garcia, a senator campaigning against capital punishment at the time, called it "the most cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, and a violation of the right to life".

However, Gloria Lavara, the Green Party deputy who is coordinating the pro-capital punishment campaign, makes no apology for shifting the main focus of her party from protecting the environment to endorsing a policy which the Green movement worldwide rejects.

"We are expressing the voice of the people," she says.

"Children are being murdered and kidnapped, the current policy is not working."

But according to Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a lawyer who represents Mexico United - a non-governmental organisation campaigning against crime - there is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to criminals.

"I believe the Green Party is promoting a media campaign simply to obtain political dividends," he says.

But a random straw poll of people in a Mexico City shopping centre seems to lend some support to Ms Lavara's views.

Everyone I spoke to favoured the reintroduction of the death penalty.

"If people do not respect the lives of others, then they too have lost the right to life," said one middle-aged woman who gave her name only as Elvia.

Another woman said she had her own reasons for strongly believing that kidnappers should be executed.

"I was kidnapped for two hours," she said. "They hit me, and molested me. They even threatened to rape me."

Alejandro Marti, whose son was kidnapped and murdered, on crime in Mexico

Nevertheless, the chances of capital punishment actually being reinstated in Mexico are extremely remote.

President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (Pan) and the leftist PRD both oppose it, as does the Roman Catholic Church.

The PRI, the party which held power in Mexico continuously for more than 70 years until 2000 supports public debate on the issue.

Late last month, Congress voted to consult on the issue.

It promised to host forums, bringing together opinion from all sides of the debate. The outcome will not be legally binding.

The Green Party posters are expected to remain in place for months - a daily reminder of the violence which millions of Mexicans dread, and simply want to end.



At least 14 people have been killed by wildfires in southern Australia, the deadliest in the country for decades.

The deaths occurred at four towns in Victoria state, state deputy police commissioner Kieran Walsh said. Police fear as many as 40 may have perished.

Firefighters are battling dozens of fires in parks and bush land, amid a heatwave, with temperatures set to reach 47 C (117F) this weekend.

Aircraft are dropping water bombs and thousands of firemen are on standby.

More than 100 homes have been destroyed in nine major blazes in Victoria.

Officials say they are battling against the worst fire conditions in the state's history.

Six people have been killed in the township of Kinglake, four at Wandong, three at Strathewen and one at Clonbinane - all in Victoria state.

In Kinglake, north-west of Melbourne, one resident said the whole township was pretty much ablaze and that the fire front came through in a matter of minutes.

It's just going to be, probably by a long way, the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds
John Brumby, Victoria premier

He said that some 200 residents had taken refuge in a local pub and that no fire engines could get into the town.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are trying to contain blazes in two further states - New South Wales and South Australia - but blazes there were largely contained or burning away from residential areas.

However if winds pick up, the authorities fear that the fires could spread.

The fire service is using water-bombing aircraft to contain fires. Thousands of volunteers are using water hoses.

"It's just going to be, probably by a long way, the worst day ever in the history of the state in terms of temperatures and winds," Victoria Premier John Brumby said.

"It is extremely dry. We do have some concern about the winds winds picking up and having an impact on the fire," a spokesman for Victoria state's Country Fire Authority told Reuters.

In 1983, a wildfire killed 75 people, on a day known as Ash Wednesday.

Map of fire-affected areas