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Thursday 24 February 2011, 09:08AM
Saudi King Abdullah arrived in his homeland yeseterday after three months abroad, boosting social benefits for his people as he returned to a Middle East rocked by anti-regime uprisings. As the king's plane touched down at King Khaled bin Abdul Aziz Airport, men in white garb performed a traditional Ardha dance while well-wishers including women, most in black niqab, waited to see their ruler. Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz and Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa were among a string of officials and royals who turned out to greet the 86-year-old monarch, who was seated in a black chair set up just outside the plane's door. Saudi Arabia has declared Saturday a public holiday to mark King Abdullah's safe return home, following back surgery in New York and a recuperation period in Morocco. Hours before his arrival, the king boosted social benefits for civil servants, the official Saudi Press Agency said. He ordered the implementation of a 15 percent pay rise for state employees as well as an increase in the cash available for Saudi housing loans. King Abdullah also granted pardon to some prisoners indicted in financial crimes and announced plans to tackle unemployment. Streets and buildings in the capital, Riyadh, were decorated with national flags and large banners welcoming the monarch back to the oil-rich kingdom, whose neighbours Bahrain and Yemen are witnessing popular revolts. The front pages of all Saudi newspapers on Wednesday were dedicated to news of the king's return, as editorials linked its timing to the "unrest" sweeping the Arab world. "The king is the only pillar of stability in the region now," said the English-language daily Arab News. "The king returns today at a time when the Arab world is experiencing frightening developments to what he had left not only stable... but an oasis of peace and security full of love and loyalty," said the Arabic-language daily Okaz. Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak -- a close ally of King Abdullah -- was forced out of power under massive popular pressure on February 11. Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia's Red Sea city of Jeddah in mid-January after protests toppled his regime. Tunisian authorities have formally asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi. Tension is also gripping Yemen as well as Libya and Bahrain, home to a large Shiite community which is demanding reform in the Sunni-ruled country. The Saudi's oil-rich Eastern Province, which abuts Bahrain, is home to most of the estimated two million Saudi Shiites. The unrest in the Arab world has pushed oil prices higher on fear of disruption in supplies, but Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter, has said it has the capacity to meet any shortage. King Abdullah flew to New York on November 22 and underwent surgery two days later for a debilitating herniated disc complicated by a haematoma. The monarch's advanced age combined with health problems have raised concerns about the future of Saudi Arabia, which has been ruled by the Al-Saud family since 1932. Abdullah's half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan, who has held the post of defence minister since 1962, is 83 and is believed to have cancer. Little seen at home for the previous two years, Sultan himself flew back from Morocco on November 21 to take over the running of the government in Abdullah's absence. Interior Minister Prince Nayef, 77, is third in line to the Saudi throne and was appointed second deputy prime minister in March 2009. King Abdullah is expected to carry out a cabinet reshuffle after the terms of several ministers expired on February 19 and were not extended.
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Thursday 24 February 2011, 08:18AM
  New Zealand's Christchurch weathered a 7.1 earthquake on September 4, but a smaller 6.3 aftershock toppled buildings and killed scores, largely because it was a ``bullseye’’ direct hit, scientists said. Tuesday's cataclysmic tremor, which has left 75 dead and nearly 300 people missing and the city centre in ruins, was so close to the city of 390,000 and so shallow that major damage was inevitable, they said. “This quake was pretty much a bullseye,’’ said Professor John Wilson, deputy dean of engineering at Australia's Swinburne University of Technology. “It was quite a large 6.3-magnitude event and so close to Christchurch that we weren't surprised to see significant damage. At that close range, the level of shaking is quite severe.’’ The September quake damaged 100,000 buildings and left a major repair bill, but caused no deaths, after striking at 4.35am, when most people were safely in bed. But this week's tremor hit at the worst possible time, at lunch on a weekday, when offices were open and streets were busy with shoppers who were vulnerable to falling masonry. Its epicentre was only five kilometres (three miles) from the city at a depth of just four kilometres below the land's surface, meaning there was little ground to absorb the blow. Some of the worst-hit buildings, including Christchurch's landmark cathedral - which lost its spire. Newer office blocks such as the CTV and Pyne Gould buildings collapsed, while the towering Grand Chancellor Hotel was tottering dangerously. Australian Seismological Centre director Kevin McCue also said the tremor could increase pressure on plate boundaries across New Zealand, increasing the likelihood of a tremor elsewhere, particularly in the capital Wellington. "If you have one [quake] it ups the hazard," he told the New Zealand Herald. "This quake has the potential to load up the plate boundary, increasing the likelihood of a quake at Wellington." "Wellington has always been considered much more at risk because it straddles the plate boundary. New Zealand has been relatively quiet since the 1930s - maybe [it's] about to catch up." New Zealand sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", a vast zone of seismic and volcanic activity stretching from Chile on one side to Japan and Indonesia on the other. Tuesday's quake is the most deadly to hit New Zealand since a 7.8-magnitude tremor killed 256 people in the Hawke's Bay region in 1931.  
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Thursday 24 February 2011, 12:31AM
The UN Security Council on February 21 condemned attacks by Moamer Kadhafi's forces against Libyan protesters and demanded an immediate end to violence in which hundreds have been killed. The 15-nation council - the Western powers along with China, India and Russia - made a pointed call for action against those responsible for the attacks. The council "condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians." Libyan authorities have acknowledged at least 300 dead in the past week, but rights groups say the toll could be as high as 400. Council members "underscored the need to hold to account those responsible for attacks, including by forces under their control, on civilians," said a statement released after protracted negotiations. "They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate concerns of the population." Kadhafi was not named in the statement, but it made clear that the strongman who has ruled the North African nation for more than four decades was the target. The council said the Libyan government must "protect its population," allow access to international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies, as well as ensure the safety of foreigners and help those who want to leave. Libyan diplomats who have broken with Kadhafi called on the Security Council to hold the meeting and requested a UN no-fly zone over the country as well as humanitarian action. But diplomats said these plans were not discussed. "People have seen many planes overhead, they have seen helicopters overhead, they have seen tanks, they have seen some firing going on on the ground, they have seen some snipers," Pascoe said. Kadhafi ordered his forces to crush the uprising against his rule, warning armed protesters they will be executed and vowing to fight to the end. The Arab world's longest-serving ruler said he would die as a martyr rather than give up power. -AFP
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Tuesday 22 February 2011, 07:16AM
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Tuesday 22 February 2011, 07:09AM
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Tuesday 22 February 2011, 04:05AM
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Saturday 19 February 2011, 12:05AM
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Friday 18 February 2011, 03:18AM
  Australian newspaper publisher Ross Dunkley has been arrested by Burmese authorities and locked up in the infamous Insein Prison in Yangon. Dunkley was at one time reported to be interested in buying a weekly English-language newspaper in Phuket. Officially he has been detained for immigration breaches, but it is understood his arrest may have stemmed from a business conflict with his Burmese partner, Dr Tin Htun Oo, relating to the ownership of the Myanmar Times. Originally from Perth, Dunkley founded the Burmese paper in 2000 with backing from Bill Clough, an Australian mining, oil and gas entrepreneur. David Armstrong, Dunkley’s business partner in the Phnom Penh Post, said Dunkley was due in court on February 24. He is charged with overstaying a visa which carries a maximum jail term of two years, or a fine, or both. Dr Oo, the company’s Burmese majority owner, was appointed chief executive and editor-in-chief of the Burmese-language edition of the Myanmar Times after a meeting on Sunday. Clough was appointed acting managing director and editor-in-chief of the English-language edition. Dr Oo and his wife own 51 per cent of the shares in the company, and Mr Clough owns 49 per cent in partnership with his father, Harold, and Mr Dunkley. When he launched the paper in 2000 Mr Dunkley and his partners owned 49% but had to have a majority local owner. Initially it was Sonny Swe, the son of Brig Gen Thein Swe, a former attaché to the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. Gen Swe was one of the key figures in the Burmese junta which has now handed over to a supposed democratic government made up almost entirely of former junta military officers. Although Mr Dunkley launched the newspaper as Burma’s first truly independent newspaper, its content had to go through military censors who often deleted stories the regime didn’t approve of. However, the Myanmar Times was granted special dispensation to cover sensitive domestic issues such as a status of revered figure Aung San Suu Kyi and UN officials. But in 2004 things changed when junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe purged his entire intelligence service and Thein Swe was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. His son Sonny, who was deputy chief executive office of the Myanmar Times was convicted of committing economic crimes and sentenced to 14 years in jail. The regime then hand-picked Dr Tin Htun Oo, who was closely associated with junta leaders, as Dunkley’s new business partner and handed him Sonny Swe’s 51% interest in the newspaper. Dr Oo was a candidate in the November general elections but lost his bid for the Yangon constituency. It is believed military authorities had taken a dislike to Mr Dunkley and that he was in conflict with Dr Oo over ownership. Mr Dunkley is a well-known figure in Myanmar and also co-owns the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. He also launched Vietnam’s first English language weekly in the early 1990s. Bob Dietz, Asia co-ordinator of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists said Mr Dunkley’s arrest “should dispel any illusions that Burma is on a new path”. It is believed that 13 journalists are in prison in Burma, making it one of the worst countries in the world for jailing journalists.     – AFP
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Friday 18 February 2011, 12:05AM
While North Koreans "celebrated" the 69th birthday of "Dear father" Kim Jong-Il, in freezing weather, one of his sons was rather warmer, bopping at a concert in Singapore by British guitarist Eric Clapton, a South Korean intelligence official said this week. The official, who declined to be identified, confirmed news reports in Seoul of the visit by Kim Jong-Chol, second son of the leader of the hardline communist state. Jong-Chol, wearing black pants and a T-shirt, was seen cheering and swaying among fans at Monday’s performance in the Singapore Indoor Stadium, Chosun Ilbo newspaper said. TV video footage showed a man resembling Jong-Chol entering the stadium, accompanied by some 20 people including bodyguards and women carrying bouquets. He took pictures in front of the stage and chatted with a female companion. Jong-Chol and his entourage arrived in Singapore early this month and checked into a smart hotel, Chosun said. Sporting ear piercings, he toured a Universal Studios theme park and Underwater World and bought expensive jewellery, it said, adding that he flew home via Beijing after attending the concert and buying T-shirts. Jong-Chol, 30, has been passed over as leader-in-waiting in favour of his younger brother Jong-Un. Their father considered Jong-Chol too effeminate, according to a report by a former sushi chef to the leader. He reportedly last attended Clapton concerts in 2006 when he followed the British star’s performances in four German cities, accompanied by his apparent girlfriend or wife – and North Korean bodyguards. – AFP
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Friday 18 February 2011, 12:00AM
 A mysterious palatial complex that has appeared on Russia’s southern Black Sea has sparked controversy after several documents linked it with a government body that had previously denied any involvement. The complex of several buildings is dominated by a large Italianate palace on an extensive seaside plot near the village of Praskoveyevka in the Krasnodar region. In December whistle-blower businessman Sergei Kolesnikov described the palace and its buildings in a public letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He alleged that it was being built “for private use” by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Office of Presidential Affairs (OPA), which manages government property used by senior officials, including existing residences used by the president and prime minister in Moscow region and Sochi, denied any involvement. The head of the OPA, Vladimir Kozhin, categorically told Interfax earlier this month that his office “did not, does not, and is not planning to oversee any construction there”. But a decree by the Ministry of Economic Development sanctioned a transfer of a 10-per-cent stake in the project to a state enterprise called Tuapse Resort, which belongs to the OPA. The 2008 decree, available through a public database of official documents, lists various properties in the project. These include a section of a publicly built road, a helicopter pad, a “service building” for 56 people and a “main building” with an area of 14,598 square meters. The opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper on Monday made public another document which showed the OPA was behind the original investment agreement to build the massive residence. The 2005 agreement, now posted on the Internet, stated that the OPA was to have a 30-per-cent stake in the project and that the Tuapse State Resort had the rights to use the land. The state resort’s director, Bolat Zakaryanov, is also director of an obscure firm called Indokopas, which Sergey Kolesnikov said owns the entire complex. Indokopas, according to the public register, is controlled by Nikolay Shamalov, a friend of Putin, who Kolesnikov said invited him to join the original project. Kolesnikov, who left Russia last September and communicated with AFP via Skype, said he is hoping that more government documents will be unearthed to prove his claims. “Unlike a sale of shares, building a palace is a process involving hundreds of people,” he said. “You can be a tsar, but even a tsarist decree for such a project has to be substantiated by documents from local officials.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier told journalists that Putin “did not and does not have anything to do with this building”. But a regional environmental group that made a daring visit to the property last week said the project appears to involve very high officials, who have sway over such secretive security structures as the federal protection service. A car with activists from the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) managed to drive right up to the palace, which Kolesnikov has confirmed was the one described in his public letter. Having passed two checkpoints, where the security bar was up, activists took pictures and videos on the property before they were held up by Federal Protection Service (FPS) employees, the group said. “The presence of FPS officers on property belonging to private individual Nikolay Shamalov only serves as additional proof that Vladimir Putin is planning to use it,” said EWNC activist Suren Gazaryan. Gazaryan spent six hours near the residence after federal officers blocked his car and demanded that the group hands over all video and photo material. “Officers told us that we were trespassing on private property, and that they were told to be there by their authorities,” he said. Meanwhile security guards employed by a private firm told the activists that the residence was a secret government building. “But that would make the presence of many foreign nationals quite strange,” Gazaryan said. The video shows a pony-tailed Italian called Guiseppe approaching the camera to demand why the visitors are filming the palace. At the end of the clip, a security guard attacks Gazaryan, taking his stills camera, while another grabs the video camera. The group also lost their documents, three other cameras, a mobile phone, a GPS navigator, a modem, and several bank cards, Gazaryan said. “Later, we received our documents from the police, who told us they found them in the forest,” he said. – Maria Antonova, AFP
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