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Afghans more confident in national army

For much of Australia’s time in Afghanistan, Australian troops devoted their time to training, advising and mentoring Afghan soldiers and that appears to be paying off.

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Afghans are increasingly confident in the ability of the Afghan National Army, with 57 per cent saying it will help improve security and 63 per cent believing it’s honest and fair.

A survey by international think tank the Asia Foundation found 86.5 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in the ANA and 73.2 per cent in the Afghan National Police.

But more than half (55.7 per cent) think Afghan security forces will still need foreign support to do their job properly.

That’s most pronounced in southern provinces where insurgents have been most active including Oruzgan, where Australian troops operated until the end of last year.

About 400 troops remain in Afghanistan in a variety of advisory and mentoring roles in Kabul and Kandahar.

The poll interviewed more than 9000 Afghans, half men and half women, from the country’s 34 provinces after the June presidential run-off vote.

This national attitude survey has been conducted every year since 2004.

Despite the ongoing insurgency, Afghans are optimistic about the future with more than 75 per cent saying the government is doing a good job.

Thirty-seven per cent say unemployment and the poor economy is the nation’s biggest problem, followed by insecurity (34 per cent) and corruption (28 per cent).

At the local level, unemployment is seen as the biggest problem (33 per cent), followed by electricity (23 per cent), roads (18 per cent) and drinking water (16 per cent.

Continue reading Afghans more confident in national army

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Guns boom to welcome French president Francois Hollande to Sydney

French President Francois Hollande has been welcomed to Sydney with an honour guard and 21-gun salute.

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Mr Hollande became the first French head of state to visit Australia after attending the G20 Summit in Brisbane.

After the G20, Mr Hollande flew to New Caledonia for his first official visit, before touching down in Sydney.

Mr Hollande met with Governor-General Peter Cosgrove and has planned talks with Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Canberra tomorrow, as part of the two day visit.

Diplomatic relations between France and Australia have historically been frosty after French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

New Caledonia, one of Australia鈥檚 closest neighbours, is one of three French dependencies in the Pacific region and President Hollande has signaled France’s intention to maintain a presence there.

French President #Fran莽oisHollande gets a 21 gun salute at Sydney’s Fleet Steps @SBSNews pic.twitter南宁桑拿会所,/u9Njt0hDQv

鈥?Gary Cox (@GCoxsbs) November 18, 2014

His office says the aim of the visit is to “strengthen the historical links and economic relations” between France and Australia.

During a key-note speech later today at the Business Council of Australia, President Hollande is expected to make growing economic relations with Australia a priority.

He travelled with a large business delegation and will tour a joint French- Australian defence research facility.

France and Australia signed a Strategic Partnership agreement in 2012 as a as a sign of improving relations between the two nations.

In 2012-13, bilateral trade between Australia and France stood at $5.4 billion.

Continue reading Guns boom to welcome French president Francois Hollande to Sydney

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Pilgrims flock to ‘Sex Mountain’ in search of fortune

Married men, cheating housewives, government officials and prostitutes revelling in a mass ritual of adultery and sex.

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This is what happens on Gunung Kemukus in Indonesia, otherwise known as Sex Mountain.

鈥淚 come here to seek good fortune,鈥?regular visitor Mardiyah told me as I follow her journey on tonight鈥檚 Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.  

She is one of thousands of pilgrims who journey to a mysterious hilltop in Java to perform this ancient ritual. Most of those who take part in the ritual consider themselves devout Muslims.

There are several versions of the mythic tale that date back to the 16th century. Legend has it a young Indonesian Prince Pangeran Samodro had an affair with his stepmother.

They ran away and hid on Gunung Kemukus. One day, while mid-coitus, they were caught, killed and buried atop the mountain. It’s now an Islamic shrine where this sex ritual takes place.

The story goes: pilgrims must copulate on the mountain every 35 days for seven consecutive times and blessings and wealth should come their way.

But for the magic to work and the money to flow, it鈥檚 believed their sex partner for the ritual should not be their spouse.

I meet Gepeng, who like many others has travelled hundreds of kilometres from across the archipelago to get to sex mountain.

鈥淵ou go there to look for a different partner, not the one you have at home. Historically that’s how it works,” he said.

Another man travelling with him explained: 鈥淚 don鈥檛 tell my wife. There鈥檚 no way my wife will find out.鈥?/p>

Pilgrims first pray and make offerings at the grave. They then must wash themselves at sacred springs nearby and once that’s been completed, they have sex.

This ritual isn’t seen anywhere else in Indonesia or the rest of the Muslim world. It鈥檚 a very Javanese blend of religious ideals with Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist influences.

Professor Keontjoro Soeparno, a social psychologist from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, has been studying the ritual for more than 30 years.

鈥淚t鈥檚 a strange thing. A paradox: there鈥檚 a mosque, shrine – but outside 鈥?there鈥檚 a place for having illicit sex,鈥?he said. “The fact is – it’s hypocritical.”

It’s impossible to ignore that the ritual is riddled with contradictions. Islam views adultery as a sin, so the ‘out of wedlock’ sex clearly goes against the mainstream law of the religion.

Karaoke bars and 鈥榮ex shacks鈥?line the hillside. Some are privately owned, others built and funded by the local government. But they鈥檙e loathe to publicly admit there is any sex going on at Gunung Kemukus.

“Pilgrims should come here with pure hearts and clean bodies,鈥?a gatekeeper employed to look after the mountain shrine said.

“We鈥檝e never said the sex is a condition of the pilgrimage. It鈥檚 what they want to do.”

The territory has become prime real estate for commercial sex workers. Professor Keontjoro estimates about half of the women who show up now are prostitutes.

鈥淭he government facilitated the rise of prostitution. The Islamic religion forbids all this, but the government would rather not know about that. Because they鈥檙e more interested in profit 鈥?they leave their religion behind,” he said.

Some say if you pay for sex the ritual doesn’t work. The reality is the local government makes a sizeable profit from sex mountain. They charge the stalls to set up shop and the pilgrims pay a toll to enter the site.

With up to 8,000 pilgrims arriving on the busiest nights and an entry fee of around 5000 rupiah, or 50 cents, a time, it’s big business in Indonesia.

So it鈥檚 not surprising officials and religious leaders turn a blind eye.

 

The question remains though 鈥?how do we know this ancient tradition actually works. Does sex with a stranger really boost your bank account?

Mardiyah genuinely believes it does, attributing sex mountain and its spiritual powers to her recent success.

鈥淧raise be to God, after coming here, even though I have a few debts, my business is making a bit of a profit. Even though it鈥檚 small, I still give thanks that I鈥檝e received blessings from here,鈥?she said to me.

I don鈥檛 know how willing I am to believe in the legacy of Prince Samodro and his stepmother lover, but I can understand the attachment to the myth.

See the full story on Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.

Continue reading Pilgrims flock to ‘Sex Mountain’ in search of fortune

US envoy to visit Mideast as fragile truce holds

Both Obama and United Nations officials also called on Israel to open Gaza border crossings.

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“As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza\’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce,” Obama said, during his first visit to the State Department as president.

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said the borders must be opened to allow reconstruction of the enclave.

“You have to have cement and construction materials and pipes and spare parts,” he said at a UN-run school hit by an Israeli missile in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

Since Israel began its 22-day offensive on December 27, the army said it had allowed 2,284 truckloads of humanitarian supplies into Gaza where the 1.5 million population relies on the border crossings for virtually everything.

Obama said his administration would “actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours.”

The president confirmed George Mitchell, a veteran diplomat renowned for negotiating the 1998 Good Friday agreement that helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, as his Middle East envoy.

He said he would be sending the former senator “to the region as soon as possible to help the parties ensure that the ceasefire that has been achieved is made durable and sustainable.”

In a call to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also vowed to work for a “durable and just peace as quickly as possible,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

Israel pounded the Gaza Strip for 22 days to reduce the threat from the Islamist group Hamas, before ceasefires on both sides came into effect this week.

But the Jewish state warned it would attack the territory again if Hamasuses smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border to rearm.

“Things must be clear — Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.

Her ministry said Livni told Clinton in a phone conversation that peace talks with the Palestinians should resume as soon as possible.

Livni stressed the necessity for a resumption of negotiations with Abbas, omitting Hamas.

A senior aide to Abbas, whose forces were booted out of Gaza by Hamas in May 2007, said that the Islamists would not be allowed to turn Gaza into a separate entity in the wake of the war.

“We will not allow the creation of a separatist entity, no matter what the price,” Yasser Abed Rabbo told a press conference. “The plot aiming to separate Gaza from the West Bank will not pass.”

Two women, two children and an elderly man were wounded on Thursday by fire from Israeli navy boats patrolling the Mediterranean, medics said. The army said it fired warning shots at a fishing boat.

Four Palestinians were injured when two tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border collapsed, an Egyptian security official said on Thursday.

On Thursday morning a tunnel caved in, injuring Palestinian Sharif al-Shaer, in his 20s, who was hospitalised with broken bones and respiratory problems, he said.

Earlier the security official said another tunnel had collapsed on Wednesday and that three Palestinians were hospitalised in Egypt for respiratory problems.

During its offensive on Hamas, Israel bombed hundreds of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border, destroying 150, according to Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

Israel declared a ceasefire on Sunday after guarantees from Cairo and Washington to secure the enclave\’s porous border with Egypt.

In a final casualty toll, Gaza medics said the Israeli offensive had killed 1,330 people, at least half of them civilians, including 437 children. Another 5,450 were wounded, including 1,890 children.

A prominent Al-Qaeda figure, Abu Yahya al-Libi, on Thursday urged Islamist militants to launch attacks in the West, naming the United States and Britain, to avenge Israel\’s onslaught on Gaza, according to a translation by SITE monitoring group of his video clip posted on the Internet.

Continue reading US envoy to visit Mideast as fragile truce holds

Profile: George Mitchell, veteran diplomat and negotiator

George Mitchell, who has been named as the US\’s special envoy to the Middle East, is an experienced negotiator who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

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Barack Obama is to send Mitchell to the troubled region as soon as possible, in the hopes of shoring up a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants.

“It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours,” Obama said on Thursday.

Mitchell faces a tough task, with emotions running high in the wake of a three-week-long Israeli offensive which left more than 1,330 Gazans and 13 Israelis dead.

The former senator and CEO of the Disney Corporation insisted he “did not underestimate the difficulty” of his assignment, and pledged his “full effort to the search for peace and stability in the Middle East”.

Mitchell said his aim was to help secure a two state solution to the continuing conflict, with people from both countries “living side by side in peace and security”.

“[Our efforts] must be determined, perservering and patient; it must be backed up by political capital, economic reseources, and focused attention at the highest levels of our government.

\’Shared vision of peace\’

“And it must be firmly rooted in a shared vision of a peaceful future by the people who live in the region.”

Mitchell, 75, is a Maronite Catholic, whose mother was Lebanese, and whose father was of Irish descent.

He grew up in Maine, training as a lawyer before serving as the northeastern state\’s senator for 15 years, from 1980 to 1995.

During that time he served as Senate Majority Leader for six years.

After leaving US politics, he was appointed as the nation\’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, tasked with bringing together the leaders of Northern Ireland\’s warring religious communities.

His work in helping to broker the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 earned him a reputation as a safe pair of hands and a shrewd negotiator.

Following his success in Belfast, he turned his attention to baseball, heading the investigation into the use of steroids in Major League Baseball.

Continue reading Profile: George Mitchell, veteran diplomat and negotiator

\’Mr Darcy\’ portrait sells for $25,000

It\’s an image that made generations of women swoon – and Colin Firth is still attracting the ladies with his portrayal of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

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A portrait of the British actor as Darcy has fetched STG12,000 ($A25,000) at auction, twice the expected price.

Auction house Bonhams said the portrait, used in the hit 1995 BBC television adaptation of Jane Austen\’s 1813 novel, was bought by a woman bidder who wished to remain anonymous at its Gentleman\’s Library sale.

Firth\’s rise to fame

The pre-sale estimate for the painting had been STG5,000-6,000 ($A10,500-12,600).

Firth rose to fame after his role in the six-part series, not least for the iconic scene where Darcy emerges from the lake at his Pemberley estate dripping wet in a white linen shirt to face an awkward encounter with fellow protagonist Elizabeth Bennet.

A signed letter by Firth accompanied the portrait.

“Looking at him now I would say he has weathered better than most of us,” Firth wrote.

“Whatever you think of him today, you can consider yourselves fortunate to have been spared his earliest incarnation.

“Mr Darcy mark 1 came across as a shabby, insubstantial, derelict looking actor. The likeness was supernatural. I disliked him intensely … as did everyone else.

“A very talented production designer managed to take him on a transformative journey into something bearable … and eventually into someone who could actually pass the audition.”

\’Lake episode\’ featured

The painting features in the fourth episode of the series, which is also the “lake” episode.

Elizabeth visits Pemberley and is shown gazing admiringly at the portrait in the estate\’s great hall.

Darcy, meanwhile, decides to refresh himself after his unannounced arrival at Pemberley by diving into the lake. He then bumps into Elizabeth.

Proceeds from the sale of the portrait will be shared between Oxfam and the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group.

Continue reading \’Mr Darcy\’ portrait sells for $25,000

Stocks battered as resources fall

The Australian share market closed down by just over four cent to a near five-year low as bank and resource stocks were weighted down by continuing concern about the health of the global economy.

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At the 1615 AEDT close, the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was down 144.1 points, or 4.13 per cent, at 3,3342.7 – its lowest close since February 2004 when the index finished at 3,333.7.

The broader All Ordinaries index fell 131.6 points, or 3.83 per cent, to 3,300.3 – its lowest close since late January 2004 when the index closed at 3283.6.

On the Sydney Futures Exchange, the March share price index futures contract was 141 points lower at 3,353 on a volume of 14,180 contracts, according to preliminary calculations.

Overseas banks affecting Australia

Analysts said continuing unease over the health of overseas banks weighed on local banks and the resources sector was hit heavily by concerns over the slowdown in Australia\’s major export partners – Japan, China and South Korea as well as lower base metal prices.

CMC Markets analyst David Taylor said local trading started poorly on Friday following a negative lead from United States markets and more bad news on the US economy.

“Again, the economic numbers out of the US last night – housing figures and jobless figures – were all disappointing,” Mr Taylor said.

“We\’ve got more bad news out of their banking sector. The banks were sold off last night, and that\’s flowed on to our market.

“Base metals prices were down.

Everything that could be down, down\’

“Just about everything that could have been down was down, in terms of what effects our market.”

Mr Taylor said disappointing news from investment firm Babcock & Brown may also have added to the general pessimism in the local financial sector.

In the resources sector, global miner BHP Billiton fell $1.69, or 5.8 per cent, to $27.45 while rival Rio Tinto dumped 74 cents to $38.06.

Oil and gas producer Santos was off 60 cents to $13.40 as it said it would either match or fall short of last year\’s total production, in 2009.

WAmong the major banks, Commonwealth Bank of Australia was $1.53, or 5.98 per cent, lower at $24.07 as the bank suffered an acceleration of outflows in its funds under management during the December quarter.

On Wall Street overnight, the Dow Jones Industrial Average index feel 105.3 points, or 1.28 per cent, to 8,122.8.

Continue reading Stocks battered as resources fall

Britain officially in recession

Britain is in recession for the first time since 1991 after its economy shrank during the final two quarters of last year as a global financial crisis raged, official data showed on Friday.

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The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that gross domestic product (GDP) had shrunk by 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the previous three-month period, when it contracted by 0.6 percent.

The generally-used technical definition of a recession is two quarters running of negative economic growth.

The figure for the final quarter of 2008 showed the biggest fall in GDP since 1980.

Brown stresses cooperation

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said before the announcement Friday he was using “every weapon at our disposal” to fight the economic crisis.

Brown stressed international co-operation was vital to tackle the financial crisis, describing the current circumstances as “completely different” to previous British recessions.

The British economy grew by 0.7 percent in 2008, the slowest annual rate since 1992, the ONS said on Friday.

Britain joins the United States, the eurozone and Japan in recession as the global economy struggles to recover from the credit crisis fallout.

Germany on Wednesday said it would suffer its worst recession since World War II this year, with half a million more people in Europe\’s biggest economy expected to lose their jobs.

UK unemployment up

In Britain, the unemployment rate has jumped to a decade-high 6.1 percent with nearly two million out of work, according to official figures published this week.

At the same time, the ONS said Britain\’s public finances worsened last month to show a record deficit of 44.2 billion pounds (48 billion euros, 61 billion dollars) after the state bailout of Royal Bank of Scotland.

In a bid to stave off a deep recession, the Bank of England (BoE) has slashed British interest rates to an all-time low of 1.5 percent.

However tumbling borrowing costs have deterred foreign investment, severely hurting the British pound, which this week struck an all-time low against the yen and has reached multi-year troughs versus the dollar. Sterling also recently fell to near-parity against the euro.

BoE policymakers earlier this month voted 8-1 to cut interest rates by half a percentage point to the lowest level since the central bank\’s formation in 1694, according to minutes of their last meeting released on Wednesday.

One policymaker, David Blanchflower, voted in favour of cutting rates by 100 basis points, arguing that it was “becoming increasingly probable that there would be a deep and prolonged recession.”

The BoE\’s main task is to keep inflation at a government-set target of 2.0 percent.

Inflation down

British 12-month inflation dived in December owing to a tax cut on goods and services, falling energy prices and heavy pre-Christmas discounting, official data showed Tuesday.

The Consumer Prices Index (CPI) annual inflation rate sank to 3.1 percent in December, the lowest level since April 2008, from 4.1 percent in November.

The BoE is meanwhile considering increasing money supply to ensure growth at all costs does not slow so much that inflation falls below target.

BoE governor Mervyn King told businessmen late Tuesday that the bank was considering the “unconventional measures” that the government placed at its disposal as part of a new rescue package for banks unveiled this week.

Credit flow \’a priority\’

King stressed the priority was to get banks lending again to help cash-starved businesses and individuals, and said new measures announced this week would help.

The government on Monday unveiled a second multi-billion-pound bank rescue package aimed at kick-starting its stalled economy but financial shares plummeted amid growing fears of deepening recession.

Press reports suggest the latest bailout — which may boost an ailing housing market — is worth some 200 billion pounds.

The news came as Royal Bank of Scotland on Monday forecast an annual loss of up to 28 billion pounds — a record in British corporate history — owing to the credit crisis and its part in a costly takeover of Dutch lender ABN Amro in

2007.

Continue reading Britain officially in recession

Rudd cans trip to focus on domestic issues

The prime minister\’s planned trip to Papua New Guinea, India and Switzerland next week has been cancelled, with Kevin Rudd instead staying at home to work on the government\’s response to the snowballing global financial crisis.

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The PM decided not to attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland next Friday “following developments in the global economy in recent days”, a spokesman said.

The trips to PNG and Indian earlier in the week were canned due to circumstances beyond Mr Rudd\’s control.

Mr Rudd\’s spokesman said the prime minister decided not to attend the economic forum “to continue working on Australia\’s response to the global financial crisis”.

Jobs the PM\’s focus

“The prime minister will spend the next week in meetings with advisers, officials and business and industry leaders formulating the next steps in the government\’s decisive and comprehensive program to support Australian jobs and strengthen the Australian economy,” he said in a statement.

The government believes the slowing Chinese economy could blow $5 billion in export revenue to China.

Official figures released on Thursday revealed China\’s economy grew at just 6.8 per cent in the December quarter, down from nine per cent.

While the PM will not be in Switzerland, Australia will still be represented with Treasurer Wayne Swan expected to fly out on Tuesday to attend the meeting of 40 world leaders who will discuss the key challenges facing the global economy in 2009.

Singh to have bypass surgery

Mr Rudd\’s trips to India and PNG were “deferred due to events in India and the postponement of the special Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Port Moresby”, his spokesman said.

The prime minister was due to meet his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on Wednesday, but the Indian leader must have heart bypass surgery after doctors found blocked arteries.

The 76-year-old – who has a history of heart problems – is due to have the surgery in a New Delhi hospital on Saturday.

The PIF leaders\’ meeting, scheduled for Tuesday to discuss the fate of Fiji\’s membership of the regional body, has been postponed after Fiji\’s self-appointed leader, Frank Bainimarama, said he would not attend.

Commodore Bainimarama said he needed to lead relief work after recent devastating floods that killed at least 11 people.

The PIF meeting has been rescheduled for February 10 so the Fijian leader can attend, PNG\’s Prime Minister Michael Somare said.

Continue reading Rudd cans trip to focus on domestic issues

Vatican launches Pope YouTube channel

Pope Benedict XVI joined US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II on Friday by launching his own YouTube channel, the latest Vatican effort to reach out to the digital generation.

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The Vatican said it was launching the channel to broaden Benedict\’s audience while also giving the Holy See better control over the papal image online.

In his inaugural foray, Benedict welcomed viewers to this “great family that knows no borders” and said he hoped they would “feel involved in this great dialogue of truth.”

The site, 南宁夜网.youtube广西桑拿,/vaticanit, was launched the same day the pontiff praised as a “gift to humanity” the benefits of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace in forging friendships and understanding.

But Benedict also warned that virtual socialising had its risks, saying “obsessive” online networking could isolate people from real social interaction and broaden the digital divide by further marginalising people.

And in his message for the World Day of Communications, he urged producers of new media to ensure that the content respected human dignity and the “goodness and intimacy of human sexuality.”

The 81-year-old pope has been extremely wary of new media and their effect on society, warning about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media, in particular, to trivialise sex and promote violence.

But Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, who heads the Vatican\’s social communications office, said the pope fully approved of the Vatican YouTube channel, saying Benedict was “a man of dialogue” who wanted to engage with people wherever they were.

“It\’s true that not all of humanity is found on YouTube, but millions of people meet on YouTube,” Celli told reporters.

Benedict is joining the White House, which launched its own YouTube channel after Obama\’s inauguration day, as well as Queen Elizabeth II, who went online with her royal YouTube channel in December 2007.

Celli likened the Vatican channel to the pontiff\’s pilgrimages around the world, in which he meets with millions of the faithful. The internet and YouTube, Celli said, allowed for a more intimate interaction during which the user “enters in a personal dialogue with the pope.”

Celli said the Vatican was launching the channel in part to have some control over the pontiff\’s image, which he said already was being used on sites respectful of the papacy and not.

“It\’s undeniable that certain images are already circulating,” Celli said. While there is little the Vatican can do legally to shut down blasphemous or pornographic sites that use the papal or other Church images, he said it can at least control the content of what it puts up on its own channel.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican hoped that YouTube owner Google, Inc., would help the Holy See determine where Vatican images are being used so that it can better protect its own images.

He said no money exchanged hands to launch the channel and that the Vatican wouldn\’t earn anything with publicity. “We didn\’t pay a cent to Google,” he said, adding that the channel was the Vatican\’s “offer” to the world.

The Vatican plans to update the YouTube site daily with the most important papal news items that are produced by the Vatican\’s television station, CTV. The messages are available in Italian, German, English and Spanish.

Google\’s managing director for media solutions, Henrique de Castro, said Google was working out details to ensure the site was available in China, where authorities occasionally block foreign news sites. The Vatican and China have no diplomatic relations, and Church authorities have accused Beijing in the past of blocking the faithful\’s access to the pontiff\’s messages.

Celli said the YouTube channel was the next logical step after the Vatican entered the digital age on Christmas Day in 1995, launching its web site, 南宁夜网.vatican.va, with Pope John Paul II\’s traditional Urbi et Orbi message.

The site has been expanded over the years and now includes virtual tours of the Vatican Museums, audio feeds from Vatican Radio, as well as the Vatican\’s daily news bulletin and key Church documents.

Continue reading Vatican launches Pope YouTube channel

Violent attack on Belgian creche

Ten children and two staff were wounded, some seriously, in the attack in the town of Dendermonde near Brussels, prosecutor Christian Du Four said as anxious parents gathered to identify the victims and injured.

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The man, who had his face painted white with black around his eyes, rang the doorbell at the The Country of Fables day-care centre at about 10:00 am.

After staff opened the door, he barged in with a 30-centimetre (12-inch) long knife and ran amok slashing at some of the children as they lay in beds, officials said.

Captured and detained

The suspect escaped on a bicycle but was detained nearby. He will likely face murder charges, Du Four said.

“The guy just went crazy,” Theo Janssens, the Dendermonde deputy mayor for social affairs, told AFP with tears in his eyes. “There was blood everywhere, it was unbelievable, real carnage.”

“He went straight for the babies and attacked them,” Janssens said. “The smallest ones were in their beds, they were probably asleep.”

One child and a 54-year-old female employee died at the scene while a second child later died from the wounds. Eighteen children, none more than three years old were in the creche at the time, officials said.

Ten children, including the two most seriously injured, and two adults underwent surgery and were out of danger, a doctor, Ignace De Meyer, told reporters.

Anxious wait for parents

Parents gathered in the Dendermonde town hall and, with psychologists in support, identified the victims using photographs.

Du Four said the suspect entered the building by saying that “he had a question he needed to ask somebody.”

“He quickly pulled out a knife and started using it on the children,” the prosecutor added.

“He then went up to another floor and started doing the same thing again” e said. The man\’s face was smeared with white and his eyes were blackened, the prosecutor said.

Failed intervention

Six women members of staff tried to put themselves between the attacker and the children. One was hacked to death and two others were wounded in the legs or shoulders, officials said.

The suspect quickly fled but was picked up by police a few kilometres (miles) away, officials said.

“He didn\’t panic, yes, he was calm,” a man who lived next to the crèche told RTL-TVI television, describing the suspect as extremely thin and tall.

Du Four denied rumours that the suspect had escaped from a psychiatric ward or was high on drugs or alcohol.

Suspect’s identity unknown

The prosecutor refused to identify him except to say he was a 20-year-old Belgian from the region. He said the man has not spoken about the attack.

“There is enough incriminating evidence to bring him before the investigative magistrate and get an arrest warrant,” Du Four said, adding that the murder weapon was found.

A woman at the day-care centre said that the man was not known to staff.

“We are horrified by the events. Our thoughts go out to the families and staff of the creche. Many parents are in a state of shock,” Interior Minister Guido De Padt told the press conference.

Earlier attacks on schools

The tragedy is one of a number of deadly attacks at schools or child care centres in Europe in recent years.

Belgium is still in shock over the case of a woman who cut the throats of her five children and a series of paedophile scandals.

“The country is in shock and sorrow at this horrible act of violence committed in a society that strives to live in harmony and peace with everyone,” said Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy in a statement.

Continue reading Violent attack on Belgian creche

Suspected US missiles kill 15 in Pakistan

Missiles fired from suspected US drones on Friday slammed into presumed militant dens in Pakistan killing 15 people, including three children and at least four civilians, officials said.

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The strikes, which pulverised two houses in the northwest tribal belt, were the first since US President Barack Obama took office and one day after he appointed a brand new special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Dozens of similar strikes since August have sparked government criticism of the United States, a close ally fighting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and believed to be firing the missiles from unmanned CIA aircraft.

Two separate incidents

Eight people died when missiles fired from an unmanned surveillance plane slammed into a fortress-like militant compound near Mir Ali, a notorious Al-Qaeda hub in Pakistan\’s North Waziristan, security officials said.

Hours later another suspected US drone fired two missiles into a house in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, killing seven people.

A senior security official told AFP three children were among the dead.

Local officials said 45-year-old tribesman Din Faraz, who owned the house, a two-year-old and two other children of school age, a cousin and another relative of Faraz were killed when the house was reduced to rubble.

“All those killed were ordinary tribesmen and not involved in militancy,” the officials said in Wana, not far from the Afghan border.

The town, a known Taliban and Al Qaeda hub, is also the main stomping ground of Maulvi Nazir, a key Taliban commander accused by the United States of recruiting and sending fighters to Afghanistan to attack US and NATO forces.

Soon after the blast, electricity went down and the area was plunged into darkness, as Taliban militants sealed off the attack site, officials said.

The first missile strike killed five foreign militants just outside Mir Ali, in North Waziristan at 5:10 pm (1210 GMT), a security official told AFP.

“A militant den was successfully destroyed. At least five foreign Al-Qaeda militants were killed and three locals but there was no immediate confirmation of any high value target,” a security official said.

The house belonged to tribesman and Taliban sympathiser Khalil Dawar. The identities of the three dead locals were not immediately known.

The strikes came after Obama said extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where US troops are fighting the Taliban, posed a grave threat that his administration would tackle as a single problem under a wider strategy.

Drone strikes denied

Pakistan has repeatedly protested to Washington that drone strikes violate its territorial sovereignty and deepen resentment among the 160 million people of the nuclear-armed Islamic nation.

President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani were quoted as telling top US General David Petraeus in Islamabad on Tuesday, that they hoped the Obama administration would take their concerns into consideration.

The US military as a rule does not confirm drone attacks but it and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy drones in the region.

“As you know I am not going to comment on those matters,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters despite being repeatedly pressed to discuss the reports.

US and Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of not doing enough to crack down on militants, who cross the border to attack US and NATO troops.

Pakistan rejects those accusations and more than 1,500 Pakistani troops have been killed at the hands of Islamist extremists since 2002, after the government joined the so-called war on terror.

Continue reading Suspected US missiles kill 15 in Pakistan

Congo\’s arrested rebel leader faces extradition

In a startling reversal of fortune, Nkunda was captured late Thursday after he fled to Rwanda to escape a joint operation by ethnic Tutsi Rwandan troops and Congolese army forces, officials from both countries said.

南宁桑拿

UN peacekeeping force MONUC urged Nkunda\’s remaining rebels to give themselves up, saying his arrest “offers new opportunities to take part in the process of reintegration” into the formal armed forces.

Top commanders who broke with Nkunda last month have already surrendered, and his rebellion appears to have collapsed completely amid the whirlwind of events of the past few days.

Rwanda was expected to hand over the captured Congolese rebel leader to local authorities in the eastern Congolese city of Goma on Friday, diplomatic and military sources said.

“For me, it\’s a done deal. He\’ll be taken straight away to Kinshasa,” a diplomatic source told AFP in the capital Kinshasa.

Communications Minister Lambert Mende said the government wanted Rwanda to hand Nkunda over to face war crimes charges, saying he had “caused a lot of bloodshed in our eastern provinces, especially in Nord- and Sud-Kivu”.

Hopes for peace bolstered

Nkunda is accused of war crimes committed in the town of Bukavu, capital of Sud-Kivu, which his forces briefly captured in June 2004.

“He systematically undermined all efforts to bring non-violent peace and tried to ridicule the president (Joseph Kabila) and all our institutions,” said Mende.

The developments prompted UN-led mediators to postpone talks between the main protagonists in the DR Congo crisis, which had been due to resume on Monday.

The United States hailed his arrest as “a welcome step on the road to peace”.

“He has caused nothing but havoc for the people of Congo and, frankly, for the people of the region. He has been causing havoc for far too long,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

Nkunda was arrested during a surprise joint operation by Rwandan and Congolese government troops mounted Tuesday, ostensibly to flush out Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels.

The joint force has yet to move in on the rebels, the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who took refuge in eastern Congo after participating in Rwanda\’s 1994 genocide.

A Rwandan official, however, said a group of FDLR rebels were on Friday in the Rwandan capital for talks on surrendering.

The official said 160 surrendered on Thursday and delegated 15 of their number to travel to Kigali on an “exploratory mission”.

The claim was denied by FDLR chairman Ignace Murwanashyaka, speaking from Germany, who called the so-called surrender “trademark Kigali propaganda”.

The FDLR have thrived in a poisoned diplomatic environment where rebel groups in eastern Congo have effectively been the proxies of Rwanda and DR Congo.

Rwanda had consistently denied abetting Nkunda\’s rebellion and in turn accused Kinshasa of actively sheltering and backing the FDLR, which includes some of the main perpetrators of the 1994 Hutu genocide against the Tutsis.

Both Kinshasa and Kigali want to finish off the FDLR, which took refuge in Congo after participating in the genocide, which saw the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Rwandan forces are deeply unpopular in the region where atrocities committed during the 1988-2002 war caused lasting resentment in the local population.

Four year warrant fulfilled

Nkunda, who walked away from a post of general in the Congolese army to lead the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), has been the subject of a Congolese arrest warrant since 2005.

A January 2008 peace accord between the Kinshasa government and Nkunda\’s CNDP broke down on August 28, sparking a new humanitarian crisis as more than 115,000 people were forced to flee fighting.

By late 2008, after a series of victories, Nkunda had forced Kabila to the negotiating table and received former presidents as United Nations envoys at his base in the east of the country.

But his position was fatally weakened after he lost the support of top commanders who switched allegiance to the government earlier this month.

Continue reading Congo\’s arrested rebel leader faces extradition