Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A South African flag flying in Trafalgar Square

South Africa's highest court has upheld a decision to allow expatriates to vote in the country's upcoming general election. Are you planning to cast your ballot abroad?

In March the Constitutional Court ruled that South Africans who had already registered to vote would be able to do so on 15 April.

The decision came after a case brought by the Afrikaner nationalist Freedom Front Plus party on behalf of a South African teacher living in the UK.

South African rugby fans in London
It's estimated about 60,000 South Africans live in London alone

The British capital is home to the largest diaspora of expatriates abroad, with an estimated 60,000 South Africans living in London.

Analysts say the court's ruling could give some boost to opposition parties but isn't expected to dent the ANC's share of the vote.

Voters in South Africa go to the polls on 22 April in the country's third general election since becoming a democracy.

South Africans in the UK who are registered to vote will be able to do so at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square.

BBC News is looking to speak to South Africans who are planning to vote abroad on 15 April.

Are you in London, registered to vote and are going to do so? Are you living away from London but planning to travel to the capital to cast your ballot? Where else in the world are you and can you vote?

Please send us your comments using the form below and be sure to include your phone number.

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Red Cross Youth Volunteers vigil for ICRC hostages, Manila 25 Feb 09
Filipinos have held vigils for the kidnapped Red Cross workers

A state of emergency has been imposed on a southern Philippine island where militants holding three aid workers have threatened to kill one of them.

The declaration puts all security forces on alert on Jolo island and curtails the movement of people.

The Abu Sayyaf rebels had threatened to behead one of the three Red Cross hostages by 1400 (0600 GMT) if security troops did not pull back.

But there has so far been no word on the fate of the hostages.

Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba were seized on 15 January, and have since been held in the jungles of Jolo.

The three aid workers were abducted after a visit to a local prison, where the International Committee of the Red Cross is funding a water project.


The head of the Philippine Red Cross has made a last-minute appeal to the militants to spare the hostages' lives.

"The whole family of the Red Cross prays for you and I'm proud of the way you've comported yourself," said Senator Richard Gordon in a tearful televised address.

"I'm sorry I should be stronger than you because I'm not in midst of the ordeal you're in now," he said.

At least 800 soldiers out of 1,000 have pulled back on Jolo island.

However the government says it cannot complete a full withdrawal as that would leave the island's civilian population exposed to militant attacks.

The Abu Sayyaf has a history of beheading captives.

In 2001, American Guillermo Sobero was killed after the government turned down attempts by the rebels to negotiate for hostages on the nearby island of Basilan.




Claudia Lawrence was last seen leaving work on 18 March.
A TV appeal for information about missing chef Claudia Lawrence has led to some interesting calls about her previous relationships, police said.
Miss Lawrence, 35, was last seen on 18 March leaving the University of York's Goodricke College, where she worked.
Det Supt Ray Galloway said an appeal on BBC One's Crimewatch programme had so far generated 83 calls from the public.
"We have received some interesting calls, particularly about previous relationships," he said.
'Unhealthy interest'
Mr Galloway, who is leading the investigation by North Yorkshire Police, said: "What we also want to know is about more recent relationships and anyone who has shown an interest in Claudia lately.
"Who was Claudia going out with? Who was she seeing? Who was her boyfriend? Who was showing her maybe some unhealthy interest?"
He added that anyone who came forward would have their information treated in "absolute confidence".
The programme was told how the inquiry was the biggest police investigation in North Yorkshire for five years.

Copies of her mobile phone and bag were shown on the programme.
Copies of Miss Lawrence's rucksack and mobile phone, which are both also missing, were shown on the show.
One caller reported a possible sighting of Miss Lawrence's rucksack, and names were given of people who could know her whereabouts.
On Monday, police advised members of the public not to make donations to the Claudia Lawrence Appeal website.
Detectives said it was not connected in any way to North Yorkshire Police or Miss Lawrence's family.
On Tuesday police said the website had been shut down.
A spokesman said: "Inquiries are ongoing to see if any offences have been committed. At this time no arrests have been made."
Miss Lawrence disappeared without taking any money, bank cards, or her passport, police said.
Friends and family have described her disappearance as "totally out of character".
She is described as white, 5ft 6ins, slim with brown hair and brown eyes.
She was last seen wearing a white T-shirt, blue skinny jeans and white trainers.



France will walk away from this week's G20 summit if its demands for stricter financial regulation are not met, the finance minister has told the BBC.
Christine Lagarde told HardTalk that President Nicolas Sarkozy would not sign any agreement if he felt "the deliverables are not there".
Strengthening financial regulation will be one of the key issues at the G20.
France wants a stronger global financial regulator than the US and the UK would like.
If France were to leave the summit, it would be a blow to both UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President Barack Obama.
Both men have spoken of their high hopes for the meeting to stimulate international recovery.
"Leaders meeting in London must supply the oxygen of confidence to today's global economy and give people in all of our countries renewed hope for the future," Mr Brown said.
However, splits among other world leaders on how to tackle the economic crisis have also begun to emerge in other areas.

World leaders will meet later this week in London to discuss measures to tackle the downturn. See our in-depth guide to the G20 summit.

The G20 countries are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK, the US and the EU.
European countries, in particular, are resisting calls to commit to spending more this year and next.
President Obama is due to arrive in London for the summit later. It will be his first visit to Europe since he became president.
President Sarkozy has previously spoken out against "Anglo-Saxon" economies, as has the prime minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.
"This crisis started in the United States. The Anglo-Saxon world has always refused to add the dose of regulation which financial markets, the international financial system needed," Mr Juncker said last week.
However, there have also been expressions of optimism.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have said that chances were high that agreements - for example, to regulate hedge funds - would be reached.



Millions of Russian workers have been laid off or sacked recently amid the global economic downturn, and the government in Moscow is already facing angry protests by ordinary people.

The BBC's Richard Galpin has been to a northern Russian industrial town to investigate the political threat of mass protests.

Aluminium factory in Pikalevo
All three factories in Pikalevo now stand idle

Once visited, the grim town of Pikalevo is best forgotten.

Built 50 years ago in the remote, forested plains east of Russia's second largest city, St Petersburg, it stands as a monument to the fundamental flaws of the Soviet Union's command economy.

Its population of 21,000 people lives or dies by the complex of aluminium, cement and potash factories which are the town's only raison d'etre.

But now all three factories stand idle, forced by the economic crisis to close their gates.

Their workers either sit at home or throng the small unemployment office tucked behind the main street.

The rattle and hum of machinery in Pikalevo has been replaced by the cold silence of austerity and hardship.

While most Russians would rather forget Pikalevo's existence, it won't be so easy for President Dmitry Medvedev to banish it from his thoughts as he travels to London to attend a G20 summit on the world economic crisis.


That's because he knows there are hundreds of other so-called "mono-towns" in Russia which, just like Pikalevo, depend on a single industry.

And in Pikalevo, something unusual for modern Russia is happening: the people are taking a stand against the government and its economic policies, blaming them as much as the factory-owners for their plight.

The opening salvo was fired in mid-February, when thousands took to the streets holding black balloons as a sign of mourning for the jobs they have lost.

Some carried placards accusing the government of being "impotent".

The people of this bleak town have reason to be fearful.

Already almost half the workforce has either been sacked or laid off and another round of redundancies is expected in May.

And if the aluminium factory closes for good, then most of the town's heating and electricity supplies will also be lost because everything here is inter-connected, Soviet style.

Nikolai Tsigankov and his wife
Nikolai says he will join expected protests next month

The waste product of the aluminium plant provides the raw material for the other two factories, while the power plant for the industrial complex also keeps people's homes warm and bright.

"The destruction of this plant is criminal," says Kostia, who was laid off three weeks ago.

"The town only exists because of this plant. So if it goes under, then the town will be lost and there will be looting and fighting in the streets."

The local trade union, under the dynamic leadership of Svetlana Antropova, has been effective in channelling this public anger.

In a particularly troubling sign for the government, she is also a member of the ruling United Russia party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Most people don't have enough to eat. Some are starving," she said. "People here don't understand why the government is supporting the oligarchs and banks instead of supporting individual workers directly."

A short drive from Svetlana's office is a particularly drab apartment block, where Nikolai Tsigankov and his family live.

He has seven children, a disabled wife and now no job.

He was sacked after more than 30 years' service at the cement factory, where he said he had never missed a day's work. His pay cheques stopped in February.

"Now I don't know how my family will survive or whether I will survive. It might lead you to poison or hang yourself," he said. "I won't, but I can't live like this. How can I, if the government spits on me?"

He went on to tell me he would be among the first on the streets if the trade union organises more demonstrations next month as expected.

It is hard to see how there can be any good outcome to the crisis in Pikalevo.

The company which owns the aluminium factory insists it is an inefficient relic of the Soviet Union and cannot be saved in the current economic climate.

Women selling food and drinks in Pikalevo
Some Pikalevo residents say they are in a desperate situation

"It's losing money all the time," said senior company manager Yevgeny Ivanov.

"It must be converted into a cement factory by May.

"If not, the business will run out of money, there will be no money for wages or heating and the factory will close down for good."

But both the trade union and the regional governor insist this is nonsense and that the aluminium plant can be saved, if necessary by a change of ownership (assuming anyone can be persuaded to buy it).

The authorities also say they have offered millions of dollars in loans to the factory, as well as free re-training and education programmes for those who have already lost their jobs.

But so far, all to no avail.

The fear of serious unrest is growing as the May deadline imposed by the company approaches.

And the big fear for the government is that the example set by Pikalevo could be copied by the hundreds of other "mono-towns" across the country, which are also fighting for their survival.




Eric Joyce
Mr Joyce has pledged to make more use of rail services

Eric Joyce has again been dubbed Britain's most expensive MP, after claiming allowances for 2007/08 of more than £187,000.

The Falkirk Labour MP's travel costs alone came to £40,637, including £21,000 on airfares.

He has pledged to use the train more and publish a regular travel diary.

Two years ago Mr Joyce promised to halve his travel expenses after being dubbed Scotland's highest spending politician.

On that occasion he claimed allowances of £174,000, including £45,000 on travel.

Mr Joyce has been unavailable for comment on the day the details of MPs' allowances and expenses were revealed, although his voicemail directed journalists to the micro-blogging site Twitter.

There, his response stated: "Travel down (7% price rises) but still not the cheapest fly-drive deal in village. So, will publish monthly travel diary, use train more."

Linlithgow and East Falkirk Labour MP Michael Connarty, whose constituency is next to Mr Joyce's, claimed £183,466 in total, including a maximum of £23,083 to help pay for living costs in London, away from his main home.

In addition Mr Connarty claimed £27,259 on travel costs, including £13,384 on airfares.

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael - whose Orkney and Shetland seat is one of the country's most remote constituencies - claimed £176, 190, which included £40,841 on airfares.

The total amount claimed by MPs was £93m - up by £5m.

Meanwhile, Downing Street announced a pay freeze for UK government ministers, but MPs' pay is to rise by 2.3%.




George Galloway
Mr Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003

A judge has upheld the Canadian government's decision to ban British MP George Galloway from entering the country to conduct a speaking tour.

Mr Galloway instead addressed a Toronto audience by video message and said he will complete his tour in the same way.

Officials had barred the Respect party leader, claiming he spoke of providing financial support to Palestinian group Hamas, which is banned in Canada.

The MP said he had given aid to people in Gaza and was not a security threat.

The Canadian government ruled otherwise on the basis that he donated cash to Hamas.

Mr Galloway, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in London, described the ban as "idiotic" and vowed to challenge the decision.

But Federal Court judge Luc Martineau ruled there were insufficient grounds to overrule the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

"A proper factual record and the benefit of full legal argument" were lacking to warrant overturning the CBSA decision, the judge said.

Mr Galloway delivered a speech to a reported 600-strong audience in a Toronto church from a studio in New York.

In it he denied any suggestion that he supported terrorism.

"I am not a supporter of Hamas but I am a supporter of democracy," he said.

He is expected to deliver video speeches to audiences Mississauga, Ontario, Montreal and Ottawa this week.

The MP was expelled by Labour in 2003 because of his outspoken comments on the Iraq war, which party chairman Ian McCartney said "incited foreign forces to rise up against British troops".

In 2006, he was detained "on grounds of national security" at Cairo airport, Egypt, after trying to attend a "mock trial" of then PM Tony Blair and then US President George Bush.



Monday, March 30, 2009


A number of vehicles have been hijacked and set alight across Belfast

First Minister Peter Robinson said those behind a series of security alerts in Belfast on Monday were "beneath contempt".

The Hillview Road in the Oldpark area of the city and the M1 city-bound at Lurgan are still closed.

Alerts near police stations at Tennant Street, North Queen Street, Kingsway and Blacks Road were all hoaxes.

"Those who would try to destabilise and destroy Northern Ireland will fail. We won't be going back," said Mr Robinson.

The Upper Springfield Road in Belfast is now passable after a fire in a hijacked lorry was put out.

Alerts on the Andersonstown Road and at the Stormont Hotel on the Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast were also declared hoaxes.

A van which was burnt out close to Holy Cross church on the Crumlin Road in the city also caused disruption, the police said.

There are reports that two cars have been hijacked in the Kilwilkie area of Lurgan, which police have advised motorists to avoid.

Peter Robinson said those responsible would not succeed in "dragging Northern Ireland backwards".

"The criminal terrorists responsible for the series of bomb scares and hijackings have no support whatsoever in the community," he said.

Sinn Féin MLA for North Belfast, Carál Ní Chuilín, said they had "no strategy".

"These actions are wrong and counterproductive to anything that our communities want," she added. "I would like the spokespeople of those behind these alerts to come forward and explain how this will in any way achieve a united Ireland."

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said the disruption was caused by "republican elements who are determined to pursue their warped campaign regardless of the cost".

"As this is yet another test for our community, I appeal again for people to remain calm and not under any circumstances to retaliate."

East Belfast Alliance MLA Naomi Long said the hoax alerts were "despicable".

"These micro groups can not and will not be allowed to de-rail the progress made in recent years," she said. "I would urge anybody with any information about any of these security alerts to contact the police."

SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell MP said those responsible were "enemies of peace and progress".

"The hijackings and alerts are intent in wrecking the new agreed Ireland, we have worked so hard to achieve," he added.




Lech Walesa (18/03/2009)
Lech Walesa led the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity

Polish anti-communist leader Lech Walesa has threatened to leave Poland after a second book accused him of being a communist spy as a young man.

The former president and Solidarity leader said he was tired of defending himself against claims he collaborated with the secret police in the 1970s.

He also demanded greater support from the democratic institutions of the state he fought for in the 1980s.

Mr Walesa was cleared of earlier spying allegations by a special court in 2000.

Judges concluded that former SB security service agents had forged documents in his file in a bid to prevent him receiving the Nobel Peace prize in 1983.

Mr Walesa led the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, Solidarity, which emerged to challenge Poland's communist government during strikes in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980, and eventually helped overthrow it nine years later.

In 1990, he was swept to power as the country's first post-communist president.

The latest book on Mr Walesa's life, which was published earlier this month, repeated a claim that he spied on his colleagues in the Gdansk shipyards in the 1970s. It also alleges he fathered an illegitimate child.

It was published by historians at Poland's Institute for National Remembrance (IPN), which investigates communist-era crimes.

On Monday, Mr Walesa threatened to leave Poland and hand back his Nobel Prize if the law and the courts failed to protect him from the "unpunished attacks" on his life story.

"Fascists and communists killed but they murdered their enemies," he said. "Here, friends and patriots are being murdered, and for what price? A historian must decide whether this serves Poland, and not just repeat unlikely nonsense."

Some critics and Prime Minister Donald Tusk have voiced support for Mr Walesa, saying that the books are politically motivated.

"We need Lech Walesa in Poland as an important authority figure," said Mr Tusk, himself a former Solidarity activist.

The BBC's Adam Easton in Warsaw says the accusations are unlikely to do too much damage to Mr Walesa's reputation.

According to surveys, many Poles say even if he did err as a young man, he is still a hero for what he achieved in the fight for freedom and democracy in the 1980s, our correspondent says.




An imitation Kalashnikov rifle and fireworks have been seized by police investigating alleged terrorism in connection with the G20 summit.

Three men aged 25, 19 and 16 and two women of 20, from the Plymouth area in Devon, were held after the 25 year old was seen allegedly spraying graffiti.

A number of imitation weapons were seized in searches of several premises.

Assistant Chief Constable Paul Netherton said the weapons were "not major" and "probably not even lethal".

The arrests were an "isolated incident" and local people were not at risk. The arrested people have not been linked to any religious group.

ACC Netherton said the weapons included imitation handguns and a Kalashnikov, as well as fireworks. No ammunition for the guns was found.

Detectives are investigating the possibility those arrested were planning to mount protests in London against the G20 summit of world leaders.

All five people are being held under the Terrorism Act.

The arrests were made after the 25-year-old man was arrested in Plymouth on the evening of 27 March for allegedly spraying graffiti on a wall.

ACC Netherton said: "He was arrested and then the officer went back to this man's house and carried out a search.

"When he was searching the house he came across imitation firearms and also some devices which had basically been made from fireworks. "And also he found some politically sensitive material and things like that."

He said the operation has no connection to failed suicide bomber Nicky Reilly, 22, who was jailed for 18 years earlier this year.

The Muslim convert, who lived with his mother in Plymouth, attempted a nail bomb attack on a restaurant in Exeter.








Madonna has faced criticism in the past for adopting from Malawi

Madonna has left a Malawian court after a hearing to begin the adoption of a second child from the African country.

Her application to adopt Chifundo James has been adjourned until Friday, according to a Lilongwe court official.

A welfare officer speaking anonymously, said the child was now four and that her 18-year-old mother had died shortly after giving birth.

Madonna has said it is "amazing" to be back in the country where she adopted David Banda in 2006.

The girl at the centre of the case, whose name translates into English as Mercy, is in the same orphanage that was home to David, who is now three years old.

Madonna, dressed in a black and white skirt and carrying a straw hat, entered the court of Judge Esme Chombo through a back door and the case will be heard in private.

The singer has come in for criticism over her plans. David Nutt, spokesman for the Save the Children charity, urged Madonna to think again.

"We don't want to pick on one individual - any time, any set of circumstances can change," he said.

Madonna in Malawi in 2007
Madonna's adoption of David Banda was finalised last year

"But the problem is, very often this is the wrong thing to do, and Madonna tends to make it seem like it's the answer to everything and all problems, and it just isn't."

But Steven Whitehead from the charity Oasis, which represents families who adopt from abroad, said foreign adoption was a good idea in many cases.

He said: "There are a number of children for whom inter-country adoption represents their only chance of having a family, and the human convention on the right of the child gives every child the right to a family.

"And it's much better for them be in a family, wherever it may happen to be, than be in institutional care. The damaging effect of institutional care on children is so well recognised that, you know, it's just not an issue of debate."

Madonna's spokeswomen, Liz Rosenberg and Barbara Charone, and her lawyer in Malawi, Alan Chinula, have not commented.

Writing in response to e-mailed questions from Nation readers last week, Madonna said: "Many people - especially our Malawian friends - say that David should have a Malawian brother or sister.

"It's something I have been considering."

In 2006, critics accused the Malawian government of sidestepping laws banning foreign adoptions in order to allow the celebrity to take David home with her.

Madonna's adoption of David Banda was confirmed last year.

After the adoption was legalised, Madonna said the difficulties had arisen because "this adoption essentially was the beginning of the creation of adoption laws in Malawi".

Madonna and daughter Lourdes were seen walking through the village of Chinkhota.

She hoped it would make it easier for others to adopt from the country and explained: "I am the template or the role model, so to speak, for future adoptions."

The star also has two biological children - Rocco, her son with former husband Guy Ritchie, and Lourdes, whose father is Carlos Leon.

Film director Ritchie and Madonna's divorce was finalised in November.

Malawi does not, as a rule, approve adoptions for single or divorced people, but the official at the country's welfare department said that each case was considered on merit.

Madonna has also established a charity, Raising Malawi, which aims to provide accommodation, food, education and other support to orphans in the country.




At least 11 people have been killed at a police academy near the Pakistani city of Lahore where an armed group are currently holed up.

Aamir Shazad, who runs a construction site close to the police training academy, was at the scene when the attackers entered and opened fire. He told the BBC what he saw as the attacks unfolded.

TV grab from NDTV of soldier with a gun (30 march)
I saw a white pick-up van and I saw four or five men with large hiking bags leaving the pick-up, which moved away immediately.

They did not enter through the main gate. They jumped over the wall and then I heard firing and fighting and blasts - they must have taken arms out of their bags .

It took just three or four minutes before I heard all that.

I was in the front of the main gate. I stopped and watched. I realised the situation was very critical and I called the police just a few minutes later.

They said to me: "We know it, we know it."

I also told the police about the van. I could not chase that van. I was on my motorbike but when that happened I was on foot.

My exact location was that I was on the GT [Grand Trunk] road going to my construction site in front of the main entrance of the academy. I didn't see anything that happened inside the compound.

I saw how they were dressed. They were wearing shalwar kameez, public dress. But one was in a blue track suit and another other was in a white shalwar kameez. They looked no different from the public.

Their hair was like the hair of a youngster with a short hair cut. They looked young and in good health to me. I would say that they looked Punjabi to me.

They were just entering the place commando-style. They did not enter from the main gate. The wall is not so high. So they jumped from one side.

I was there for one or two hours so I heard a lot. It was very dangerous. But the firing was not coming towards us at that time. Many people were standing there outside the academy without any fear. So I also was without any fear.

I was only on one side, I only saw what was happening from the main entrance. I was standing there observing the whole scenario. But in my opinion, the attack could have happened from three sides.

I know that building very well. At the back it is very easy to enter. There is not so much security - only four or five policemen on the front gate. But from the one side there are some houses and at the back there is a village. They could have entered on other sides too. I just saw this side.

The security forces came but they were very late. The rest of the police came about 30 minutes later. They were too late. I was there at 0720 [local time, 0220GMT] and that was when the firing started.

It was really terrible. It felt like a Hollywood film, because I heard three or four blasts. I know the area really well and between 0700 and 0800 the cadres have their parade.

After the firing, many training cadres left the school immediately. They were running away from the premises.

I am now close to home. I left the area and there was a curfew imposed.




Rick Wagoner
Mr Wagoner has headed GM since 2000

The chief executive of struggling US car company General Motors has been ordered to step down by President Barack Obama.

Rick Wagoner will leave immediately, a government official confirmed.

Mr Obama is preparing to outline terms for offering more help to GM and fellow car giant Chrysler.

The two firms have already received $17.4bn (£14.4bn) in bail-outs. Chrysler has requested a further $5bn while GM says it needs $16.7bn more.

Reports have suggested that a frustrated Mr Obama will reject GM and Chrysler's turnaround plans as unrealistic, raising the risk of the carmakers' bankruptcy.

Obama: Car industry 'must do more'. Courtesy of CBS 'Face the Nation'

The auto task force appointed by Mr Obama released two reports on Monday on the financial health of both carmakers, saying that Chrysler was "not viable" in its current form.

It demanded a merger with Italy's Fiat or another carmaker if Chrysler was to survive and said the Obama administration would only provide the company working capital for the next 30 days.

It also said that it would pledge to fund GM's operations for the next 60 days only, requiring the carmaker to come up with another plan detailing further restructuring.

"While Chrysler and GM are different companies with different paths forward, both have unsustainable liabilities and both need a fresh start," the task force said.

"Their best chance at success may well require utilising the bankruptcy code in a quick and surgical way."

In an interview with US broadcaster CBS, President Obama said the firms must do more to justify further aid, saying "they're not there yet".

"We think we can have a successful US auto industry," the president said.

"But it's got to be one that's realistically designed to weather this storm and to emerge - at the other end - much more lean, mean, and competitive than it currently is."

GM plans to axe 47,000 jobs and Chrysler 3,000, as well as shedding a number of car models.

The job cuts would take place by the end of 2009 and are the largest work-force reduction announced by a US firm in the current downturn.

Mr Wagoner, 56, has headed GM since 2000, after first joining the company in 1977.

Fritz Henderson, the GM president and chief operating officer, will replace Mr Wagoner.

The news comes as France's biggest carmaker, Peugeot Citroen, sacked its chairman Christian Streiff, citing "extraordinary difficulties" in the automotive industry.

In December, GM had said it would cut the number of plants from 47 in 2008 to 38 by 2012, but now plans to close a further five factories, which would leave it with 33 facilities.

GM cars at showroom
GM has seen sales fall sharply in the US

The carmaker's brands would also be reduced from eight to four - Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC.

GM and Chrysler received their first bail-outs at the end of last year, warning that without the support they risked financial ruin.

Ford, the third of the "Big Three" US carmakers, has yet to require any bail-outs, but says it may need funds in the future.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have all seen sales fall sharply in their home market.




By Alasdair Cross
Producer, Medicalisation of Normality

Charcot demonstrating hysteria
Hysteria once preoccupied medical science

Restless leg syndrome, social anxiety disorder, female sexual dysfunction, celebrity worship syndrome - it seems that a new illness is invented every week, covering every potential quirk in human behaviour.

Is the human condition becoming a medical condition?

Ten per cent of British children are regarded as having a clinically recognisable mental disorder, 34 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were written in the UK in 2007, while it is estimated that 10% of US children take Ritalin to combat behaviour problems.

Dr Tim Kendall, Joint Director of the National Collaboration Centre for Mental Health and a key government adviser is deeply concerned at what he sees as a medicalisation of a vast swathe of society.

He said: "I think there is an inherent danger from increasingly classifying people.

"If you look at the American Psychiatric Association 'bible', you'll see almost every piece of human behaviour can be classified as being in some way aberrant."

Dr Kendall sees dangers in a "tendency for new categories to be invented, often at the behest of drug companies looking for a new drug".

Medical historian, Dr Louise Foxcroft agrees, pointing to ill-defined conditions such as female sexual dysfunction and to the erectile hardness scale promoted by the producers of Viagra which she claims "is a creation of fear and anxiety".

It is certainly not a new phenomenon.

Dr Foxcroft, author of 'Hot Flushes, Cold Science', has shelves of old medical textbooks stuffed with long-forgotten ailments.

Among them is hysteria, the symptoms of which could range from excessive masturbation to excessive novel reading and a tendency to wander.

Common treatments for hysterical women, and they were invariably women, included opium, the removal of the clitoris and incarceration.

Later, neurasthenia became the fashionable mental affliction, suffered by the likes of novelist, George Eliot and philosopher Immanuel Kant.

These over-worked intellectuals were offered the more convivial option of Priory-style rehab retreats to help ease their troubled minds.

Such ailments and the chance of treatment were once confined to the upper classes but that has changed in the past 20 years.

In 1997 the US fully legalised the advertising of prescription medicines.

Since then television ad breaks and popular magazines have been packed with explicit claims for the effectiveness of anti-depressants, behaviour modifying drugs and pre-menstrual tension treatments.

Prescriptions for the most heavily-advertised drugs have risen significantly.

Could we see a similar effect in the UK?

Dr Kendall is concerned by current European Commission proposals that could loosen the blanket ban on the advertisement of prescription medicines to European consumers.

Do not expect Prozac ads before Coronation Street or a Ritalin sponsored X-Factor.

However, the proposed shift would allow adverts on medical websites and in relevant magazines.

Dr Richard Tiner of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says that his members are completely opposed to 'direct to consumer advertising' on the American model.

Dr Kendall, an adviser to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, said: "It's far better that independent bodies like NICE provide the evidence, turned into plain English for patients.

"I'd far rather that's what patients got than so-called information provided by a pharmaceutical company."

If the proposals become law then, as in the US, we can expect to see even more new conditions and new drugs to treat them, new ways not to be 'normal'.

'The Medicalisation of Normality' is broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 2100 BST on Monday 30 March and repeated on Wednesday 1 April at 1630 BST.




The little white lie that grew


Caught out in a fib to get out of a speeding ticket, do you put your hands up - or dig yourself deeper into a hole of your own making, asks Clive James.

Car passing speed camera
It wasn't me at the wheel, honest

In a case which has deep resonance for Britain and the entire civilized world, the whole of Australia has been glued to the media in recent weeks, following the story of an eminent judge who has ruined his reputation because he tried to lie his way out of a speeding fine that would have cost him about £36.

At the age of 70, he is about to go to jail for a minimum of two years because he failed to cough up 36 quid at the right moment.

On the face of it, you can't call his disaster a tragedy. A tragedy, according to classical principles, is a fall from high degree because of some great flaw.

Marcus Einfeld, the judge in question, was certainly of high enough degree - none higher. Queens Counsel since 1977, Australian Living Treasure 1997, United Nations Peace Award 2002, the list goes on. He retired a few years ago but has continually been brought back to judge important cases about refugees because the Australian legal system can't do without his experience and prestige.

The judge harangues the Australia federal government over its mandatory detention policy
Einfeld, here protesting against mandatory detention, faces jail

Or anyway it couldn't. In 2006 a speed camera in Sydney caught his silver Lexus doing 6mph over the limit. At this point we have to forget about the dizzy speed of the car and try to slow down the thought processes going on in his head. There he is, at the top of his profession, with a national, indeed international, reputation for wisdom.

This is the man who was the founding president of Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. In 1987 he headed the Commission's enquiry into the living conditions of aborigines in the border area of New South Wales and Queensland, and he wept openly at evidence that a young aboriginal boy who had been denied a proper rugby ball had played instead with an old shoe.

Those were famous tears, and there is every reason to think that they were sincerely felt.

As a judge of great matters of justice, Marcus Einfeld had deservedly been revered for many years. He had a right to think of himself as the very incarnation of the law. Now here he was, with a speeding ticket in his hand, facing a fine of a paltry £36 for having exceeded the speed limit by a lousy 6mph.

And right there, the fatal error begins to take form. It wasn't so much the £36 fine. He could afford that. It was that the penalty points would bring him closer to losing his licence. Somehow the top judge and national treasure didn't see himself in a position where he was not allowed to drive.

Clive James

If he had said he lent the car to a secret agent whom he could not name without rendering him vulnerable to attack, Marcus Einfeld might still be enjoying his place at the top of the heap

Unusual, that. Many 70-year-old men of his exalted rank are very content to be driven, rather than having to do the driving. They have a man with a cap to drive them, so they can say from the back seat: watch out for the speed cameras, Bruce.

Perhaps Marcus Einfeld is one of those strange men - there are thousands of them in every country and they are nearly always men - who need to have a driving licence just so that they can get points on it, who think that the whole purpose of driving is to drive as far over the limit as they can and still get away with it, and still keep going for as long as the licence lasts even if they don't get away with it.

But the judge was only 6mph over the limit, which scarcely made him a boy racer. He must have thought the prospect of getting yet more points on an already point-scarred licence was an awful lot of inconvenience for practically nothing, and he must also have thought - and here the other half of the fateful mental pattern comes into play - he must also have thought of how easy it would be to get out of it.

All he had to do was say that someone else was driving the silver Lexus that day. So he said he had lent the car to an American friend, Professor Theresa Brennan. Satisfied, the magistrate dismissed the case, and the judge walked free. In just such a way, King Oedipus believed himself to be in the clear when he left Corinth.

If he - I mean the judge, not King Oedipus - had said that he had lent the car to an Australian government secret agent whom he could not name without rendering him vulnerable to attack by terrorists, Marcus Einfeld might still be enjoying his place at the top of the heap, admired by all.

But Professor Theresa Brennan was an actual figure, who could be traced. When a newspaper did trace her, it turned out that she was no longer in existence. At the time of the speeding incident she had already been dead for three years.

Marcus Einfeld, acting for wrongfully deported Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez
The judge is a respected defender of the displaced and downtrodden

It was probably already too late for Marcus Einfeld to save his career. Yet he might conceivably have climbed relatively unbesmirched out of the hole he was occupying, and even drawn some sympathy for the depth to which he had dug himself in by telling one of those little fibs that almost everyone tells over small matters.

But like President Nixon in the Watergate scandal, the judge, although trying to cover up an infinitely smaller crime - dodging a £36 fine instead of okaying acts of black-bag espionage against a rival party in clear defiance of the Constitution of the United States - the judge chose to go on digging himself further towards the centre of the earth.

He said he didn't mean that Theresa Brennan. He meant another Theresa Brennan. A Greek chorus at this point might have said that the judge was anything but a natural liar, because he lied so very badly, just like most of us.

Further proofs of his amateur status followed in quick succession.

Finally, in a skein of inventions that we needn't bother to unravel, he managed to implicate his own mother, aged 94, when he claimed to have been using her Toyota Corolla that day, so he couldn't have been at the wheel of his silver Lexus.

Alas, there was security camera footage to prove that his mother's Toyota Corolla had not emerged from the garage of her apartment block between daylight and dusk. We were left with the thought picture of a team of trained investigators examining a whole day's worth of CCTV footage to establish that a Toyota Corolla had remained stationary throughout. With that thought picture, and with the thought picture of a man of true stature with his life in ruins.

Did any of this really matter? Well, obviously the original offence didn't matter much. At 6mph over the limit, the judge wasn't going to hurt anyone.

Workman in new Sydney traffic tunnel
Six mph he won't ever forget

And the first lie shouldn't have mattered much either. People really do lie all the time. Often they lie to protect themselves, sometimes they lie to protect their loved ones, and there is even such a thing as a saving lie, a lie that wards off the dreadful consequences of the truth.

Ibsen wrote a play about that, called The Wild Duck. None of this means that lying is a virtue. Almost always, it's a vice to be avoided. But it's a universal vice, and its prevalence is the very reason why any properly functioning legal system has a harsh law against perjury, because a court is where the lies have to stop, or there can be no justice.

And what the judge did was knowingly to put himself on the road to perjury. He was on the road at only 6mph over the limit and he could have stopped himself by coughing up 36 quid, but there was an inner momentum.

Just why that should have been so is a question he'll be occupying himself with for the next two years at least. Everyone else will be thinking about it too, but his will be easily the finest mind concerned with the subject. He doesn't need me or anyone else to tell him that a judge who commits perjury, over no matter how trivial a matter, has sinned against the spirit of his profession.

That's why his case really is a tragedy, and not just a farce. It's a tragedy because he not only fell from high degree, there really was a tragic flaw: a capacity to forget, at the critical moment, the central ethical precept of the calling to which he had given his life.

Suddenly, belatedly, and for almost no reason, he put himself in the position of a doctor who is arraigned for selling body parts, and, because he was selling only fingernails, defends himself by saying it hadn't been him that sold the fingernails, it was Professor Theresa Brennan, or another Theresa Brennan, or his mother at the wheel of a Toyota Corolla. The doctor wasn't supposed to be selling anything, so he should have owned up.

But the judge doesn't need to hear that from me, or from any other of the thousands of Australian experts - editorial writers, television commentators and philosophers of all descriptions - who are now picking this matter over.

The judge is already hearing about it from himself. He's hearing about the fatal road that led from the speed camera to the truly tragic climax, which wasn't the moment when one of his fellow judges had to send him down for three years, two of them without parole.

The tragic climax came when the distinguished Judge Marcus Einfeld found himself on the telephone to his mother saying: "Mum, remember how you lent me your Toyota that day?" and she said "Marcus, what have you got yourself into?"

And suddenly he was a little boy again, as all men are when the truth they must face is about a mess of their own making.




An armed group is holed up in a police academy in eastern Pakistan after attacking it with grenades and rifles.

Officials say at least 11 people have been killed and dozens injured at the academy, on the outskirts of Lahore.

Firing was continuing more than five hours after it began as troops laid siege to the academy. It is unclear how many people are trapped inside.

The attack comes less than a month after gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

In that attack, six policemen were killed, while up to 14 gunmen escaped.

I saw a man firing a Kalashnikov running towards us
Police official

Pakistani officials say it is too early to say who is responsible for Monday's assault in Lahore.

Escalating militant violence in Pakistan has been concentrated in the country's north-west near the border with Afghanistan.

But insurgents have increasingly targeted big cities in recent months.

The Lahore academy has been named by local media as the Manawan police training school. It is on the outskirts of the city, on a road to the border with India.

One official said the gunmen had attacked from four sides. Another said they had thrown grenades before starting to fire.

Several hundred trainees were there when they struck, local TV reports said.

Map of Pakistan

Some 10-12 gunmen carried out the attack, officials said.

Troops were called in and secured the area around the academy.

"Our elite squad has surrounded the area," said senior police official Mushtaq Sukhera.

"God willing, now we will get into the building."

The BBC's Jill McGivering, in Lahore, said that after hours of shooting, several hostages were seen coming out.

She said helicopters were sweeping low over the compound, apparently trying to move the battle into a final, critical stage.

The scene is chaotic, our correspondent says, with roads around the site clogged with vehicles and people.

Officials and witnesses said the gunmen had entered the academy dressed in police uniform, adding to the confusion.

A police constable who witnessed the attack told reporters: "We were exercising in the training ground inside the compound when we heard a blast.

"A great cloud of dust blew over us and I felt something hit my face," he said.

"When I touched my face there was blood all over. Then I saw a man firing a Kalashnikov running towards us.

"He had a beard and his face was partially covered by a bandanna. Three of my colleagues fell down in the burst of firing. I just turned and ran."

TV footage showed several police officers lying motionless on the ground inside the school.

Reports gave varying death tolls.

Police official Ali Nawaz told The Associated Press that at least 11 people had died, while 40-45 were being treated for injuries.



Sunday, March 29, 2009


By Faraj Balafkan - BBC Persian Service.

As Iran celebrates their New Year festival, Nowrouz, some Iranians turn increasingly to drugs and liquor to get them in the party mood.
Nowrouz lasts for two weeks and many people travel to the lush jungles and seaside villas of northern Iran to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
But where ever they go imported and home produced alcohol, from vodka to Saki, are imbibed along with kebabs.
During the month building up to Nowrouz police statistics show that on average more than 25,000 cans of alcoholic drinks and some 135,000 litres of home-made liquor are hauled across Iran. This is despite the country-wide ban on alcohol imposed under Sharia law.
And, of course, strong homemade alcohol can be particularly dangerous. The AFP news agency recently reported police saying that 10 people had died from drinking poisonous homemade alcohol in a northern Iranian province.
But most of the domestic thirst for spirits is quenched with booze smuggled from Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.
It is transferred to Kurdish towns such as Erbil in northern Iraq and then carried over the border into Iran.
Once over the border, the final price varies according to how easy it was to negotiate the treacherous terrain of western Iran while avoiding police patrols.
In total, some 14 million litres of liquor are distributed in Iran each year, according to the special anti-smuggling task force which is supervised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This is despite the severe punishment for those caught committing offences related to alcohol.
An Iranian convicted of drinking on three separate occasions could face death by hanging. There is little chance of a pardon.
Turning to drugs However the punishment for drug possession and abuse is not as harsh. Only convicted drug traffickers and wholesale sellers are usually hanged.
This has encouraged many heavy drinkers to turn to drug abuse, with the new derivatives such as crack (a solid form of cocaine that can be smoked), acid (lysergic acid diethylamide) and ice (Methamphetamine) becoming increasingly popular according to some experts.
During the last Iranian year, over 100 kg of ice was smuggled into Tehran, according to the city police; a rise of 250% on the previous year.

34% of addicts in Iran use opium
26.6% use crack
19.2% use heroin
But this forms a small part of the total.
Anti-trafficking officials say that each year 2,500 tons of illicit drugs are smuggled into Iran from neighbouring Afghanistan.
In addition over 1,100 tons comes from European and Persian Gulf countries.
Opium has traditionally been the favourite drug among Iranian users according to official figures.
According to officials, Iran has 1.2 million addicts and 800,000 'recreational' users.
But NGOs say that the total number of drug users in Iran is as high as 5 million.
In recent years some NGOs have set up private clinics to treat addicts.
They charge anywhere between $500(£340) and $3,000 (£2,050) for treatment.
The government has its own drug rehabilitation camps, but some reports claim these have turned into key drugs distribution centres.
One drug user told the BBC Persian Service that many addicts have set up 'kitchens' or makeshift drug labs to independently produce acid-based drugs and these kitchens produce more drugs during Nowrouz. Prices also rise during the festive season.
Of course, many Iranian drinkers and drug takers feel they have a right to escape from their woes, at least momentarily and that Nowrouz provides the time to do so.
The police however have a different idea and say they are determined to combat illegal drug taking and drinking during the new year.

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A Colombian man has appeared in court accused of imprisoning his daughter and fathering 11 children with her.
Arcedio Alvarez is said to have abused his daughter, now in her 30s, since she was nine years old.
The case has shocked Colombia, and the 59-year-old needed police and army protection for his court appearance.
Mr Alvarez, who the press have dubbed the "monster of Mariquita" after the area he comes from, denies incest and rape, saying his daughter was adopted.
"We agreed to have a romantic relationship because we really loved each other. But she was not my own child," he told the court in the central Tolima province.
Sometimes I would ask him [why we were doing it] and he would say it was God's will
Arcedio Alvarez's daughter
It is not clear whether his claim is true, or whether it would affect the charges he faces, but the woman says she always saw him as her father.
"I always respected him as my father and he is my father," she said.
"He never spoke about [incest], about why we were doing it. Sometimes I would ask him and he would say it was God's will."
The woman told police how her mother died when she was five years old, leaving her in the care of Mr Alvarez.
She says she was raped repeatedly and had 11 children - three of whom died.
The woman and her children are now under state protection.
Child welfare campaigners have called for a life sentence if he is convicted, saying there are hundreds of thousands of child sexual abuse cases in Colombia not being prosecuted.
The case has also prompted a movement to change Colombian law, says the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Colombia, to ensure that those found guilty of raping children go to prison for life.



Saturday, March 28, 2009



The Philippines have relaxed a security cordon around Abu Sayyaf rebels who have threatened to behead one of three Red Cross hostages seized in January.

At least 800 soldiers have pulled back on the southern island of Jolo.

"We are giving them a breathing space where they feel they're safe to negotiate," said Philippine Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno.

The rebels said they would kill one of the hostages if the cordon around them was not fully removed by 31 March.

In rare public appeal, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Jakob Kellenberger asked Philippine officials to consider the demands made by the Islamist militants.

He also called on the kidnappers not to harm the hostages - Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba - who were seized on 15 January.

Red Cross Youth Volunteers vigil for ICRC hostages, Manila 25 Feb 09

Mr Kellenberger said Red Cross staff were in the Philippines to do humanitarian work, and that nothing whatsoever could be achieved by hurting them.

The Abu Sayyaf has a history of beheading captives.

In 2001, American Guillermo Sobero was killed after the government turned down attempts by the rebels to negotiate for hostages on the nearby island of Basilan.





A man in the US state of Pennsylvania accused of a robbery at a narcotics police convention has been described as probably the state's dumbest criminal.

Retired police chief John Comparetto was attending the meeting of 300 officers when he was allegedly held up at gunpoint in the men's toilets.

He handed over money and a phone but then he and some colleagues gave chase as the suspect tried to flee in a taxi.

They arrested a 19-year-old man over the incident near Harrisburg.

Mr Comparetto described the suspect as "probably the dumbest criminal in Pennsylvania".

The Associated Press news agency reported that when a journalist asked the suspect for comment as he was led from court, he said: "I'm smooth."




10pots_203jpg.jpgSnippets from the week's news, sliced, diced and processed for your convenience.

1. Tits are also known as bumbarrels.
More details

2. The Daily Sport website is banned in the House of Commons.
More details

3. Teenagers don't like pink light.
More details

4. Crabs feel pain.
More details

5. Britons spend six months of their lives queueing.
More details (Telegraph)

6. A broken heart is known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and it can be cured.
More details

7. Britney Spears's family comes from Tottenham in north London.
More details

8. People like their tea to have a temperature of 56-60C.
More details

9. Hyenas have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom.
More details (Metro)

10. Charles Darwin loved eating vegetables.
More details






Millions of people worldwide are being urged to switch off lights for an hour, in what is described as the biggest climate change protest ever attempted.
The initiative, Earth Hour, was begun in Sydney two years ago by green campaigners keen to cut energy use.
Correspondents say the aim is to create a huge wave of public pressure to influence a meeting in Copenhagen later this year to seek a new climate treaty.
Critics describe the event as a symbolic and meaningless gesture.
The switch-off is expected to take place in more than 3,400 towns and cities across 88 countries, at 2030 in each local time zone.
Earth Hour was launched in 2007 as a solo event in Sydney, Australia, with more than two million people involved. Last year's event claimed the participation of 370 cities.
Locations taking part this time include Sydney's Opera House, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing and the Egyptian Pyramids.
Fast-food giant MacDonald's has pledged to dim its "golden arches" at 500 locations, while celebrities such as actress Cate Blanchett and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have promised support.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon backed the initiative in a video posted this month on the event's YouTube channel.
"Earth Hour is a way for the citizens of the world to send a clear message," he said. "They want action on climate change."
People are invited to provide blogs and short video clips on how they spend their time.


Friday, March 27, 2009


Greenbird wind powered vehicle
Wind powered Greenbird reached speeds of 126.1 mph

A British engineer from Hampshire has broken the world land speed record for a wind powered vehicle.

Richard Jenkins reached 126.1 mph (202.9 kmh) in his car Greenbird on the dry plains of Ivanpah Lake in Nevada.

Mr Jenkins told the BBC that it had taken him 10 years of "hard work" to break the record and that, on the day, "things couldn't have been better".

American Bob Schumacher set the previous record of 116 mph in 1999, driving his Iron Duck vehicle.

"It's great, it's one of those things that you spend so long trying to do and when it actually happens, it's almost too easy," Mr Jenkins told the BBC.

The Greenbird is a carbon fibre composite vehicle that uses wind (and nothing else) for power. The only metalwork used is for the wing bearings and the wheel unit.

The designers describe it as a "very high performance sailboat" but one that uses a solid wing, rather than a sail, to generate movement.

Mr Jenkins, from Lymington, spent 10 years designing the vehicle, with Greenbird the fifth vehicle he has built to try and break the record.

Richard Jenkins
Richard Jenkins spent 10 years trying to break the record

Due to the shape of the craft, especially at such high speeds, the wings also provide lift; a useful trait for an aircraft, but very hazardous for a car. To compensate for this, the designers have added small wings to "stick" the car to the ground, in the same way Formula 1 cars do.

"Greenbird weighs 600kg when its standing still," said Mr Jenkins. "But at speed, the effect of the wings make her weigh just over a tonne."

Richard Jenkins spent much of his childhood sailing on the south coast and from the age of 10 was designing what he calls "radical contraptions".

He has also built a wind powered craft that travels on ice, rather than land.

"Now that we've broken the record, I'm going back onto the ice craft. There's still some debate as to whether travelling on ice or land will be faster," he said

"But I think we've got some time. 126.1 mph was a good margin to beat the record and I think it will be some time before anyone else breaks it."