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Somali pirates slaughter sailers
Friday 25 February 2011, 01:38AM
  Somali pirates on Tuesday killed four Americans including a retired couple who had spent several months in Phuket, when efforts to end a hostage drama exploded into violence, the US military said. Four Somali pirates also died, two of them killed by US Special Forces, in one of the deadliest endings to a raft of hostage-takings off the coast of Somalia over the past six years. Jean and Scott Adam, a California couple, had been sailing the world on their yacht, Quest for more than seven years and were on their way from Phuket to the Mediterranean on their latest trip. Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, a couple from Seattle who joined the Adams, were also killed by the band of 19 pirates who commandeered the yacht in waters southeast of Oman, US officials said. Four US warships including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise had been tracking the Quest since it was hijacked, US officials said. The US military brought two of the pirates aboard the USS Sterett on Monday to conduct negotiations to free the hostages, said Vice Admiral Mark Fox, head of the US Naval Forces Central Command based in Bahrain. Then early Tuesday morning, with “absolutely no warning”, the pirates launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett, Adm Fox said, leading US Special Forces to race to the yacht where they heard gunfire. By the time they boarded, all four Americans had been shot. The US Special Forces soon took control of the yacht, stabbing to death one pirate and shooting dead another, Adm Fox said. Two more Somali pirates were found dead inside the vessel, the circumstances of their deaths unclear but possibly the result of an earlier fight among the hijackers. The Adams, who had been circumnavigating the globe for years in their 58-foot pilothouse sloop, spent several months in Phuket, waiting for the right weather conditions, before heading across the Indian Ocean, taking friends Ms Mackay and Mr Riggle with them. They joined the Blue Water Rally (BWR), which organises groups of yachts to sail together; there is safety in numbers. Together the yachts sailed to Sri Lanka, a tough crossing with strong westerly winds followed by a flat calm. They called in at Galle in Sri Lanka, where they rested before sailing around the southern tip of India and up to Cochin and Mumbai. From Mumbai, Jean Adam emailed friends. “We stayed off the coast a bit more than the little boats. We’re anchored happily in Bombay harbour. We can see the Gateway of India [an arch built by the British in colonial times. Ed.] on shore right next to the Taj Mahal Hotel … We are getting fuel and water and a few other essentials and will be leaving for Salalah in Oman, soon.” They never made it; 275 miles off the coast of Oman they were captured by the pirates. Four days later they were dead. According to the BWR organizers, the Adams had decided to make their own passage across the Arabian Sea. In a statement posted on its site on Saturday, BWR said, “The Blue Water Rally is very distressed to learn of the hijacking of SV Quest on 18th February. Scott and Jean Adam joined the … rally just before Christmas and had been sailing with the rally from Phuket as far as Mumbai. “Quest had taken on board two well-known rally participants: Phyllis Mackay and Bob Riggle. “However, Quest chose to take an independent route from Mumbai to Salalah, leaving the Rally on 15 February. All information is now being handled by the US Central Command and their spokesman in Dubai.” Just why the Adams decided to leave the rally at this, potentially the most dangerous point, is not clear. The Somali piracy problem, which surged in 2005, has so far proven intractable. Somali pirates have hijacked vessels large and small over a huge area of the western Arabian Sea; from almost as far west as the coast of India and as far south as the Seychelles and Mombasa. In most cases, abductees have been released unharmed after payment of a ransom. According to piracy expert, Sharon Gill, Somali pirates amassed US$238 million in ransoms last year. – Phuket News, AFP
More than 1,000 dead in Libya: former Kadhafi aide
Thursday 24 February 2011, 10:36PM
 The uprising in Libya has left more than 1,000 people dead, 600 in the capital alone, Moamer Kadhafi's former protocol chief Nouri el-Mismari told AFP Wednesday. Mismari, who came to France late last year for health reasons, said the insurrection had so far left "more than 1,000 people dead in all of Libya" but did not say what information his estimate was based on. On Tuesday, Libya's regime said 300 people had been killed in the protests, but the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) said on Wednesday that at least 640 had died. "It's very very serious. Libyans won't stop", to end his 41-year rule, Mismari said. "This is the end of Moamer Kadhafi." "Moamer Kadhafi does not even have five percent of the country behind him," he said. Members of his clan were "not fighting for him but for themselves". Mismari whom Tripoli wants extradited said that "mercenaries" were killing masses of people. "They are shooting blindly" while the air force will not shoot at the people, he added. Kadhafi "would be lucky to get killed", he said, "if not people will want to put him on trial like Saddam Hussein". Kadhafi's regime has lost vast swathes of Libya's east to the insurrection, it emerged Wednesday, as the West prepared for a mass exodus from a "bloodbath" in the north African country. He said Kadhafi had been wearing a bulletproof vest under his clothes and protection "under his turban" during Tuesday's rambling television speech in which he ordered his forces to crush the uprising, warning armed protesters they would be executed and vowing to fight to the end. The speech was the "speech of a loser", he said. Mismari is suspected by Tripoli of embezzling public funds, a claim which he denies. He was arrested in France on November 29 pending his extradition but was freed on December 15.
Miracle needed for quake survivors
Thursday 24 February 2011, 10:15PM
 New Zealand said Thursday that only a "miracle" could save possibly hundreds of people trapped in the rubble after a devastating earthquake that has killed at least 76. Two days after the 6.3-magnitude tremor laid waste to central Christchurch and some of its suburbs, police grimly reported there had been no communication with anyone caught in the wreckage for 24 hours. "We are hopeful that we might find survivors, but as time passes hopes fade," superintendent Russell Gibson told TV3. Prime Minister John Key said an estimate of 300 missing could prove to be "wildly inaccurate either way", and urged people to be realistic about finding more survivors in New Zealand's worst natural disaster in 80 years. "That does not mean that there can't and won't be people trapped in buildings," said Key, adding that names and nationalities of some of the dead would be released later. "All over the world when we see disasters like this, we see miracle stories of people being pulled out, days and in some cases weeks after the event," he told TV3. "We can't give up hope, but we also need to be realistic." An English language school based in the six-storey Canterbury Television (CTV) building, which was razed to the ground, said 48 students and staff were missing, including 10 members of a Japanese study group. Five of the students, who included citizens from a range of Asian countries, were on just their second day at King's Education college, which was on the building's third floor. Up to 100 people may be missing in the building. Japanese search and rescue experts were on the scene and were combing the CTV site in the shadow of the listing, 26-storey Grand Chancellor Hotel, Christchurch's tallest building, which is at risk of collapse. Australian, British, American, Taiwanese and Singaporean teams are also helping about 500 New Zealand rescuers comb several sites in the cordoned-off centre of the nation's second-biggest city. Emergency workers will fan out to devastated suburbs on Thursday. Up to 30 people were rescued on the first night but only a handful emerged from the wreckage on Wednesday, including one woman who spent 26 hours under her desk in the mangled Pyne Gould building. Brief hopes were raised by a report of signs of life in the Holy Cross Chapel. But rescuers scrambling to the site were unable to find any survivors. Rescue efforts are now entering their final stage, with New Zealand's emergency chief saying most trapped people will only be able to survive for two to three days. Pyne Gould Corporation said rescue efforts at its four-storey block, which folded like a concertina, had now turned to recovering bodies rather than rescuing survivors. It said 14 people were believed to be in the building. Condolence messages have been sent from Queen Elizabeth -- New Zealand's head of state -- as well as US President Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama. 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. Christchurch was rocked by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in September, which damaged 100,000 buildings but did not cause any deaths. New Zealand has not suffered such large loss of life since 256 people died in a 1931 quake. Prime Minister Key on Tuesday announced New Zealand's first ever national state of emergency, allowing the country's resources to be directed towards the quake effort.
Saudi King returns home amid sweeping Arab unrest
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.
Christchurch hit by 6.3 earthquake
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.  
UN calls for end of Libyan bloodshed
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
Indonesia jails terrorists
Tuesday 22 February 2011, 07:09AM
Australian publisher arrested in Burma
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
Clapton has odd fans in high places
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
Putin linked to mystery palace on Black Sea
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